Friday, July 27, 2012

And we're off! Anuradhapura.

I was up before the alarm went off at 5:30a. I quickly got out of bed and got ready for the day. I was so keen to get going that I rustled my brother awake the second I was out of the bathroom :-) He grumbled about being woken up so far ahead of time. What?? We only have a half hour to get going and he's wanting to linger in bed. No time for that. He can sleep in the car :-) I pushed him to get going and we were ready a few minutes before 6a.

I opened the door and saw both Marcus and Chandana chatting. I was glad to see that Chandana had arrived on time.

Chandana introduced us to our driver, Chami. He piled our luggage into the back of the mini van. Yes, it's just the two of us and the two of them and we're traveling in a mini van. I thought to myself that seems like overkill but maybe that's how they tour here. My brother and I got into the back seat and we got underway. Finally! The road trip begins!

Chami turned down the main road, in the same direction that we had walked in yesterday. I didn't follow all the turns that he took but as we drove along, I quickly realized that what we thought was Negombo town center was actually the outskirts of town. Soon, we passed through Negombo. It was early morning and the commercial establishments were not yet opened. Even so, I could imagine how lively (i.e., congested) the place would be once the day got going.


Top: Angel Inn.  Our room is the one with door open.  Lower right: Marcus in the
blue t-shirt chatting with Chandana. Chami is also in a blue t-shirt but he has black pants on.



Along the way, we caught another glimpse of the Dutch canals that run through town. They've definitely seen better days.

 Last night, Chandana had mentioned that he would take us by the famous Negombo fish market. I love a good market!

Chami pulled off the main road on to a large parking lot. We were at the harbor. I expected a lot of hustle and bustle but there was none. Just several men and a woman hauling small tuna, that had been split at the belly, from a nearby container and plopping them on the gravel ground to dry. It was the start of the process of drying the fish. All I could think of was the Maldive fish that I learned about in my Sri Lankan cooking class taught by Skiz Fernando. I have plans to bring some home with me :-)


 

Back in the car, we continued down the road. Negombo is looking pretty much like every other city I've seen in developing countries like Sri Lanka- reminds me of many a place I passed through on my recent trip through Kerala, India.

Not long, we left cityscape behind and were in countryside with the occasional small town along the way. The countryside reminded both my brother and I of Malaysia as we knew it when we were kids. Same trees and vegetation. Even the buildings looked familiar.










Even the roadside fruit vendor stalls looked familiar. Somewhere along the way, we spotted rambutan for sale and we came to a screeching halt. Chandana got out and bought a small bunch. The fruit didn't look impressive but the flesh was sweet.













Next stop was a place to get breakfast. Chami pulled over to a small roadside restaurant. In my communications with Chandana, I had told him that I was only interested in eating at small, local restaurants and this was the first.







Chandana, Chami and my brother at the table.

Out front, a man was rolling out balls of dough between his hands and then flattening them. I watched as he placed the flattened pieces on a griddle top to cook. He was making roti, Sri Lankan style. On the griddle there were already several cooked pieces of roti to which he cracked an egg on top. Before the egg could fully cook, he folded up the edges of the roti over the egg, making a square envelope of sorts. I asked Chandana if this is what we were having for breakfast and he replied, "Yes". Happy camper I am because this is the egg roti that is what Sri Lankans often have for breakfast.



Piece of roti with the egg rolled up inside.

We sat down at a table and the waiter deposited a small tin plate, with several pieces of egg roti on it, and a small tin bowl's worth of curry gravy. Chandana showed us the way to eat the roti. You basically rip off pieces and place them on the plate. You then ladle over the curry. A bit messy but very tasty. It was also our first reminder that Sri Lankans eat with their hands - no utensils. We also learned that they don't use napkins here. You basically wash up after you eat. Note to self. Make sure to bring along the plastic utensils and wet wipes until we learn to eat like locals :-)



Chandana checking out a stranger's wood apple tree!



Back in van, we were barely down the road when Chandana had Chami pull over to the side of the road. Chandana got out as did my brother. Apparently, he had spotted a woodapple tree in someone's yard and wanted to check it out. From a distance, I could see the light brown colored fruit, about the size of a small navel orange, hanging from the tree branches.
 













A woman was standing nearby the tree and I could see Chandana talking to her. The guys returned to the van empty handed which did not surprise me. What did astonish me though was what Chandana told us next - that it's okay to actually go and pick the fruit off of a stranger's tree. "Not a problem", he said. There is so much fruit here that no one minds if you take some :-) Okay, but I still don't want to get shot so I will leave it up to Chandana to do the picking.



I had told Chandana that my brother loves fruit and he clearly got that message. Next thing you know, he's bought a bunch of bananas for us....from another roadside vendor. Sri Lanka is the kind of place where you don't have to even leave your car to make a purchase. You just pull up alongside the vendor, roll down the window, ask the price and if it's agreeable to you, pay the vendor and the item gets handed to you. Love it!






We continued our journey, happily stuffing our faces with all the fruit that Chandana bought for us. Soon, rice paddies appeared - beautiful bright green fields. Sri Lankans eat rice, in some form, three times a day so it takes a lot of paddy fields to feed this small island nation!










Sometime after noon, we arrived into Anuradhapura, once a grand city but now mainly ruins. Chami pulled our van into a parking lot which was relatively empty, again a reminder that we're traveling in low season.






Cheeky langurs.
Good to avoid the crowds of tourists. There were a few vendors who approached us but as the guidebooks all say, just a simple shake of the head or a "No, thank you" and they will turn away. On the hand, the grounds around the parking lot were filled with monkeys - mainly gray faced langurs with a macaque or two thrown into the mix. Chandana warned us they could be nasty so I kept my hands inside my pocket; my backpack hung securely against my back.





Before us stood the Mirisawetiya dagoba (stupa).

 
As we would come to find out, you can't enter into any of the stupas so we spent a few minutes to, as Chandana puts it, "make a good picture".As close as we could get was in front of this small little statue of Buddha.










Curious brother of mind is always wondering what kind of tree or plant or flower it is and surprisingly, Chandana knows.  I have a feeling that the two of them are going to be bonding very well on this trip!


















One last look at the cheeky monkeys before piling back into the van.







Slightly squishy on the outside, felt like a slight deflated softball.

Down the road we went and in no time, we had arrived into another parking lot. We headed down a path lined with street vendors and something very unusual looking caught my eye. It was fruit that looked like a purple coconut. Chandana pointed to a palm tree and said it was the fruit of that tree. I had never seen palm fruit this big. I asked him what they do with fruit and he said they made juice from it.
 

It looked like Tang, tasted like gasoline :-(







He offered for us to try it and I'm always up for doing that. I watched the woman retrieve a bottle of orange colored fluid and pour a bit of it into a small glass. She then added a few ice cubes and then topped it off with a splash of water.









I took a sip and to be honest, it tasted like what I imagine gasoline would taste like. There was a slimy after taste to boot. Not tasty in my book. I passed the glass over to my brother and his reaction was pretty much the same as mine. With the glass still pretty much full of the palm juice, we handed it over to Chami who downed it all. Must be an acquired taste because he most certainly seemed to enjoy it. Later on, I learned that the fruit is that of the Palmyra palm also known as the Toddy Palm because it's from the sap of this tree that the fermented drink, by the same, is made from. Here's a picture of what the fruit looks like on the inside - it is orange colored!


Moving on, we entered into what looked like a city park with a few tall trees providing shade. There was a ticket counter and Chandana paid the fee to get us in though I was not sure where we were going. At the counter, we also had to take our shoes off. Okay, now things got a bit uncomfortable as we quickly found ourselves having to walk over hot gravel. Ow, ow, ow.....bits of hot stone poking up at my feet. Not nice.

Luckily it was a short walk and we found ourselves standing before the Samadhi Buddha, sitting atop a brick platform.











I tried my best to gingerly walk over the hot pavement to continue on to the next landmark which turned out to be the Abhayagiriya stupa which is still undergoing renovation. From a distance, I couldn't tell if the entire exterior of the dome was wrapped in a protective cover or if the scrub brush that the done had once been buried under had been removed. Again, we couldn't enter inside so we did a quick photo op of the exterior.










Feet are NOT happy!
From here, we back tracked to head back to the ticket counter. I took my time as I struggled to walk quickly over the blisteringly hot gravel. Chandana had no issue but then again, he's used to this walking barefoot thing. He made it look easy. I was the slowest of the three of us but I eventually made it back to the ticket counter. I've never been so happy to see my sandals :-)

With my feet happily back in their comfy shoes, we back tracked to the van where Chami was waiting for us. Back inside to enjoy some air conditioning; the day was turning hot and humid.

Next stop - the Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Baths). They looked EXACTLY like all the images that I had seen of them. The water was even the same shade of algae green!
 






Back in van, we continued our journey *down the road*. We soon arrived at what I would describe as the entrance to Anuradhapura proper. That would be the location where all the street vendors congregate and in the case of Anuradhapura, the vendors sell mainly big bunches of white lotus and purple water hyacinth flowers. Also for sale were fragrant jasmine flowers. Buddhist devotees buy the flowers to leave as offerings at the various temples.



 As we crossed the street to walk towards the ticket counter, Chandana told us that tomorrow is some sort of a Jasmine Flower festival in Anuradhapura and that during the festival, the streets would be covered with white jasmine flowers and there would be a parade. I asked if there would be elephants and Chandana replied that there would be some. In preparation for the festival, we saw large cargo trucks filled with flowers and pilgrims had already taken up their spots along the parade route.









I later learned that the annual festival is called the Maha Pichchamal Pooja (offering of jasmine flowers).

Too bad I didn't know about this earlier or I would have planned another day here so we could experience it :-(













Chandana got us our tickets, which per earlier agreement we have to pay for. At $25 each, it seems pricey given that we're in Sri Lankan, not exactly a major tourist attraction.....yet. But, we have no choice so we forked over the money and in return, we got a pretty fancy ticket - a hard sided booklet that contains a mini DVD which I will play when I get back home.

Back and front covers of the ticket booklet

Inside the covers - the tickets plus DVD

Apparently, neither my brother nor I were really appropriately dressed to enter into our first stop which was the Ruwanwelisaya stupa - that would be THE stupa of Anuradhapura. So, we each got handed a large square of white cotton. I had to wrap it around my shoulders and my brother wore his piece like a sarong.....covering his knees.

Off with our shoes and along we went. More hot gravel to walk over. By now, we had figured out how to basically hop scotch our way along....darting from one shady spot to another and finding bits of grass to walk on wherever we could. Unfortunately, there were large runs between the shady areas not to mention how stupid we looked zig-zagging our way towards the stupa. I think the locals were laughing at us :-)

At one point, Chandana darted up one side of the embankment that flanks the pathway leading to Ruwanwelisaya. There was a small faucet that he opened up to wet his feet. He motioned for us to join him so we could do the same. Nothing like a bit of water to cool off feet that now felt like they were on fire. I have to admit that walking on hot gravel is a painful task!


We continued to dart our way towards the stupa. I thought the worse was over until we got to the front entrance of the stupa and I realized that the entire plaza area fronting the stupa was paved with stone. Arghhh!! If I thought walking on hot gravel was difficult, it was somehow even worse when walking on the flat pavement. It was blisteringly hot and I actually had to take a few minutes to cool off the bottoms of my feet before I could go on.

While I stood in the shade, the two guys headed over to a small altar to check it out.

With his newly acquired *sarong* :-)



As with the other two stupas, there is no going inside Ruwanwelisaya so we left that aside. Adjacent to the stupa though was a small portico that held several stone Buddhas and two elephants. The walls and ceiling of the portico were painted with depictions of the life of Buddha.





Our visit to the portico area was way too short. Before I knew it, it was time to brace up for another run across the hot stone plaza. I was not at all enjoying those moments.....not one bit!

We did a bit of back tracking and then veered off the main path to take a closer look at the building known as the Lovamahapaya which is also known as the Brazen Palace because of the bronze tile covered roof. It is believed that the original building was constructed in 150 BC by King Dutugemunu to house monks. The original structure was a nine story tall building and the presumably the stone pillars that remain today were what held up the second floor.


There was a fence surrounding Lovamahapaya so all we could do was look at it from the exterior.


We moved on, continuing our practice of darting from one shaded spot to another. All along our pathway, one the grassy areas, pilgrims had already claimed their spots for the Jasmine Flower parade. It must be a major event and Chandana mentioned some astronomical number of attendees. I can only imagine what this place would look and feel like fully crammed with people.







Our walk eventually led us to a road. I was hoping we would cross it and not walk along it. Thankfully, it was a crossing. I ran. I probably looked stupid doing so but I didn't care. I was certain my feet were blistered by now and all I wanted to do was find a place to cool them off. In my view, I could see trees. A good sign for my feet.

On the other side of the road was a tree covered plaza. Chandana pointed out the famous Bodhi (simply pronounced as "Bo") that was sprouted from a cutting of the tree that Buddha was supposedly sitting under when he attained enlightenment.


I had a hard time making out the tree until Chandana pointed out a very long and fragile looking limb that was being held up by gold colored metal rods. Hmmm.....all that fuss and it wasn't much to look at.
 
 




In fact, the tree that stood in the center of the plaza seemed far more impressive in size and statue than the supposed Bodhi tree. I think that even the monkeys agreed with me because they were all hanging up and around the plaza tree and not the Bodhi tree. I guess it's not the size that measure. In this case, genealogy trumps size.







After the Bodhi tree, it was back out to the main pathway that runs through Anuradhapura. I was alternating between walking on the pavement and on the grass. The former was smooth but hot to walk on while the latter was cooler to walk on but more painful because of the gravel. It had quickly become a fine balancing act for me :-(









I could swear that in the short time that we had spent at the Bodhi tree, more pilgrims had taken up spots along the pathway.











Along the way, I caught sight of Ruwanwelisaya from a different angle. I have to admit, the large, stark white stupa has a unique beauty to it. I can see why this one building is considered the highlight of Anuradhapura.






Mercifully, before the bottoms of my feet actually blistered, we arrived back at the ticket counter. I thought I was relieved to be back in my sandals after our visit to the Samadhi Buddha but now I was both grateful AND relieved. While all the sights we had just seen were interesting, it was tortuous getting to them! We turned in our pieces of cloth as well - someone else's turn to have them.

I enjoyed my short walk back to the van. Before we got there, we stopped at a truck and Chandana bought us ice cream cones. It was nice to have something to cool off with but I needed water which I had in the van.


Back on the road, we drove by the Jetavanaramaya stupa. Since we couldn't go inside, there was no point stopping to see it so we continued down the road.

Chami pulled into another parking lot and we got out. As we neared the complex, I immediately recognized it from my pre-trip reading - Isurumuniya Temple which is a small temple carved into rock.





We took off our shoes before entering to buy our tickets. Another piece of white cotton for my brother to cover his knees up with and I needed one for my shoulders.


The door to the New Shrine was closed so we took a few photos of the complex.

 

Chandana led us around to the back of temple where there was a nice park like area. There was a set of steps that led up the side of the rock.


 

A bunch of school kids were on our heels so I let them by me before I headed up the steps. At the first level, there was a platform from where I could get a view of the front entrance and pond. Beyond that, I could see one of the stupas of Anuradhapura.










On the platform there was also a small statue of Buddha, laying in the death position - identified by his laying on his right hand. At the base of the statue was a footprint of Buddhapada. I saw several of the school children tossing coins onto the indents of the foot.  Footprints are considered to be an iconic symbol of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

I opted to stay on the 2nd level instead of climbing up the narrow metal staircase to the next level up.










Back down on ground level, we continued our way around the temple complex til we arrived at another Bodhi tree. The only way that I could tell it was a tree was Chandana telling me so. Of course, the gold fencing around the tree should have been a clue.













The pathway led back around to the front of the temple. Along the way, we caught sight of a beautiful tree in bloom with hanging clusters of yellow and white flowers.








By the pool, we took the opportunity for a photo op. Yes, we're the stereotypical tourists posing for the cheesy photo. :-)












Isurumuniya is situated in a beautiful setting. By the side of the temple is a pond. On the rock bordering the pond are stone carvings of a group of bathing elephants at play.












We headed up the steps to the Main Shrine. At the top, Chandana handed me a rupee coin and told me to toss it towards a stone ledge on the temple's wall. If the coin stays on the ledge then you either are lucky or are wealthy, I can't remember which. I carefully aimed my coin and tossed it. It hit the ledge and stayed!! Woohoo!! Then it was my brother's turn. Aim, toss, fail. Ha! I beat him.










We took a quick peek inside the shrine. There was a glass window separating us from the statues that were on the other side. Inside, there was a large Buddha laying in the death position and as always, Ananda was standing to his right.

After looking at the shrine, we were done with our visit. Back to the ticket counter to return the cotton cloths and retrieve our shoes. So glad to have my sandals back!












 











Just across the street from the ticket counter was a large, natural (?) pond that was filled with blooming lotuses. Of course, my brother had to venture down to the water's edge to take pictures. On our trip to Mexico, he barely took any photos. This trip seems to be different - he's snapping away!




Chami was waiting for us by the van. We were done with sightseeing for the day - time to head to our hotel. But before then, there were more food adventures to be had! First, there was a stop to pick up some guava. Like in other parts of the world, it's served here with a bit of chili and salt sprinkled over it.



Then, we stopped to pick up some watermelon. This time, Chandana sent Chami out to do the buying. For somewhere around 35 cents, we got a small watermelon - naturally organic and very, very sweet. It was the perfect bit of fruit to quench our thirst.


By now it was late afternoon and according to Chandana, time for a snack. It's only our first day and we've already been downing a lot of food. If the rest of the trip is like this, they will have to roll me onto the plane!

It wasn't long before we arrived into the modern town of Dambulla. Chami parked the van outside a restaurant - the Bentota Bake Shop. Inside was a bustling restaurant. On one side was a counter selling baked goods of all sorts. My brother and I took a peek to see what was interesting. Of course, when it's your first time seeing something, everything is interesting :-)

On the other side was a table on which an assortment of "Western" and Sri Lankan munchies had been set out for sale. I skipped the Western stuff (i.e., potato chips, candy bars, etc.) and checked out the Sri Lankan stuff. Small bags of murukku caught my eye. I made a mental note to pick up a couple of bags before leaving the restaurant.

At the back was the restaurant itself. We got seated at a table and before I knew it, a plate of egg hoppers had been set down. My first egg hopper! I had been wanting to have some ever since I watched the video that Mark Weins (migrationology.com) posted on YouTube! It was accompanied by a curry of onions accented by small bits of Maldive fish. I did what the guy did in the video as well - scoop a bit of the onion/fish combo into the middle of the hopper and then rolled the whole thing up. I had no idea if that's how it's suppose to be eaten or not and Chandana didn't say anything (perhaps he was being kind??) so that's what I did. I happily devoured my egg hopper in a few bites. I have to say, it was very tasty. :-)

Before we left the restaurant, my brother and I picked up some pastries from the counter to try out and I did not forget my murukku - bought two bags of those!

It was a very short ride to our hotel. Along the way, we passed by what Chandana said was the largest wholesale vegetable market in the country. We would get to see it before we left town. A short distance after we passed the market, we pulled off the main road onto a gravel driveway. The sign read "Hotel Rhini Village". The place looked like an old mansion rather than a hotel.

Chandana got us our rooms and we quickly settled in to the very basic space with a clean bathroom. There was a small balcony with two plastic chairs that we could sit on later.....when the day cools off. And, the most important element - a working air conditioner!

Chandana had also mentioned that there was a pool on the hotel grounds so we decided to check it out first. We walked around the side of the hotel and found the pool. There was an older gentleman walking around it, using a net to scoop out debris that had fallen into the water. I knelt down and dipped my hand into the water - it was cool and with the hot weather, I knew it would be a great place to relax it. We decided to head back to the room and change into our swim suits. A short while later we were back at the pool and lounging in the water.

By now, it was late afternoon and the sun was making its way below the horizon. We stayed in the water as long as we could before heading back to the room where I took a quick shower. My brother had already done the same in the shower by the pool.

Having just had our egg hoppers a short while back, I was not particularly hungry but my brother wanted a bite to eat so we headed out to the common room which is completely to the outdoors. There, he ordered a plate of fried rice noodles. I took a couple of bites :-) Before we left the dinner table, we ordered breakfast for the following morning - a full meal for my brother and just a cup of tea for me.

Back in our room, we settled down for the night by watching a bit of TV and doing a bit of reading up on Polonnaruwa - our destination tomorrow.

It had been a long but very interesting and activity filled day! Hoping tomorrow will be the same.

Good night from Dambulla!