Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gone diving

Samui is all about beaches and water sports. Tomorrow I'll leave on a dive boat for a few days, seeing various parts of the islands.


Colombo is Sri Lanka's largest city, and it's pretty useless as a tourist destination. Nothing much to see there, just asphalt, heavy traffic, polluted air, highways and train tracks that block most of the feeble ocean beach, and no sights or even restaurants, unless you count KFC and other foreign fast food joints in the various mall food courts.

They do have a decent National Museum with exhibits and good English descriptions of Polonnaruwa and other sites that I had seen, and the Pettah neighborhood is a picturesque grid of streets packed with small shops and frenetic activity. The eastern end is where they sell sacks of onions, potatoes, and other vegetables, and every few meters I was called in to chat and take pictures. Very friendly people.

But perhaps Colombo's nicest attraction is the international departure lounge at the airport, where I am writing this. Chatted with some airforce guys while waiting, and we performed a very Indian ritual: he now has a Berlin ballpoint pen, and I have a Sri Lanka Airforce pen. How's that for a souvenir.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


A dagoba is not,  in fact, Yoda's swamp retirement home. It's a domed shrine, usually holding some Buddhist holy object. Elsewhere they are known as stupas, chedis, chörten, or by other names. The archaeological zone of the town of Anuradhapura has two of the highest, at up to 74m, but other than that it's no match for Polonnaruwa. The ruins here are more of the foundations-with-leaning-pillars kind. You need a lot of imagination to see a palace in something like that. Greek visitors will know what I mean.

Lunch can be an elaborate affair with rice and a selection of different vegetables and curries. The locals mash them together with their fingers; tourists get spoons. They are quite fond of deep-fried chicken pieces. Overall, Sri Lanka's cuisine can't touch India's.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Naked volcano

There was a volcano once at Sirigiya. It eroded away long ago but a 350m tall basalt plug that was the magma chamber still stands. Naturally a Buddhist meditation place was built on top sometime around the 5th century,  and now there's tourists crawling all over it. Fortunately, I was there before the crowds arrived.

There are stairs leading up part of the way; the rest is steel stairs,  walkways, and a pair of spiral staircases that allow a nice view of the sheer rock face below your feet. Halfway up are some amazingly well-preserved paintings, plus ancient and modern graffiti on a wall alongside the paintings. Plus ça change...

The view from the top is stunning.  Much of this part of Sri Lanka is a national park, and there are forests, lakes,  and mountains all around with little evidence of civilization - with the exception of a huge shiny white Buddha in the middle of the forest.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ruins and shrines

Left the mountains to see Sri Lanka's ancient ruins, beginning with Polonnaruwa. There is an extensive site with many large monuments, most dating back 800-1000 years. There are palaces, Buddhist stupas and shrines, but also the foundations of hospitals, monasteries, and even market stalls, giving a good sense of the layout of the ancient city.

It's not as grand as Angkor's big signature temples, but some of the monuments are enormous. Among the biggest are a 54-meter brick stupa, a standing Buddha in a huge temple building, and numerous palaces and shrines. A lot of the brick structures have been repaired in modern times; this is documented in an excellent museum attached to the site.