After Tissa we traveled for half a day north to relax at the beach town of Unawatuna, just south of Galle. Thirteen dollars landed us a hotel room ten steps from the shore with a balcony overlooking the ocean.
The following day we continued up the coast halfway to Colombo, stopping in Aluthgama, the city in which my father grew up. There we visited a few of my relatives, the unmarked grave of my grandparents, and a boys orphanage that my family has supported over the years.
We made it back to Colombo that evening and spent our last few days seeing all my relatives on my mother’s side one more time, promising everyone we would be back soon, and lamenting how quickly our three weeks in Sri Lanka had passed.
The three leopards were sprawled under the tree, impervious to the gawkers in a cluster of jeeps a hundred yards away. While Yala, SriLanka’s largest national park, has the world’s most dense concentration of wild leopards, sightings of the nocturnal animals remain infrequent. Our guide and driver, Sumudo, assured us we would see them. “I 100% guarantee it!” he had declared. He had reason to be confident: Only 26, he had been leading safaris for the previous eight years, including two years spent with the Discovery Channel tracking elephant herds in nearby UdawalaweNational Park.
Sumudo had picked us up at 5 AM that morning from our hotel in Tissamaharama, Yala’s gateway city. We had arrived there the previous day from Colombo; after our northernSriLankan trip we headed south, first taking a five hour train to Matara then spending three hours on a crowded bus to Tissa.
We got into the back of the open top jeep, facing each other, and drove in the dark to the entrance of the park. There we were joined by a mandatory park ranger, the pavement ended, and we bounced along on a dusty road.
We passed a few buffalo and an elephant but Sumudo didn’t slow down, saying that there would be plenty of time to see them later. Right now we had to find the leopards before they disappeared into the bush to escape the heat of the day.
We drove quickly, making a few turns, and stopped on top of a large rock. Sumudo killed the engine, lit a cigarette and told us that this was a popular crossing spot for leopards. Sure enough, one, two, and then three leopards appeared in the distance. Other jeeps passing by joined us and we all watched and took pictures of them lazing around.
Eventually the leopards walked out of our line of sight. The jeeps separated and we were again on our private safari.
Sumudo drove us around the park pointing out the various animals, taking us off the main road and impressing us with his off roading skills. A few times we approached what I thought was an impassable pothole or break in the road only to have him gun the engine and with a bump we were would be past it and on our way. After an hour we were fully coated with dust and my hair had turned brown.
Several of the animals were right in front of us.
Such as deer,
and wild boars.
Once in a while Sumudo would stop and tell us to look and we would be confused not seeing anything. After pointing and tell us what we were searching for we would see a crocodile or smaller animal hiding in plain sight.
We visited this beach in the park where a monument was built to honor the 40 tourists who had died during the 2004 tsunami. That day Sumudo had been very confused about why there were no animals to bee seen. Apparently they had a sixth sense that something was amiss and had fled far inland. He had driven to this beach after the tsunami struck unaware of what had happened and was shocked to to see the destruction telling us he “thought it was the end of the country.”
We had lunch in a secluded area and then relaxed in the shade. Sarah and I fell asleep in the back of the jeep and woke up to see monkeys in the tree above us. “Aren’t those our crackers?” I asked Sarah. While we were sleeping they had jumped down and grabbed our entire package and were busy eating it. I let them keep it.
The afternoon continued the way we did in the morning and saw a few of the smaller animals including this hare.
and a few peacocks.
Then Sumudo managed to find for us a rare afternoon leopard sighting. This time they were perched in a tree. Again the jeeps congregated around and we all got our fill.
After 13 hours in the jeep we were completely worn out. We left the park, dropping off our ranger on the way. Then, about a mile outside of the park entrance Sumudo stopped the car for the last time. On the side of the road was a lone confused elephant lingering about, having had taken a wrong turn. We spent a minute looking him and him at us before parting ways and heading in opposite directions on the road from Yala.
Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle is home to five of its eight UNESCO world heritage sites, including the rock fortress of Sigiriya, the cave temples of Dambulla, and the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonaruwa. We set out to explore this region over several days. A cousin of mine very generously offered Sarah and me the services of his car and driver allowing us to swap traveling on crowded rickety buses for a chauffeured air conditioned SUV.
On our first day we drove from Kandy to Sigiriya. King Kashyapa I established his fortress at Sigiriya in the year 473 after taking control of the throne by usurping his father and sending his brother Moggallana into exile in India. He built a palace on top of the rock and a city around it. Moggallana did eventually return with an army in 495. During the ensuing battle King Kashyapa’s elephant panicked and fled, leading to a collapse of morale among his troops and his suicide. Moggallana converted Sigiriya into a monastery and it eventually fell into disuse.
Sarah and I climbed to the top despite high winds and swarming hornets. “Keep still & silence in a wasp attack” the signs warned although I doubted anyone from King Kashyapa’s time to now has been able to do that.
Halfway up are frescoes painted during Sigiriya’s heyday. At one point there were more than 500 paintings of women but today only a few remain.
Just before the top of the rock remain the paws of a lion statue that once stood guard.
After descending and eating a well deserved lunch, we headed south to the see the five cave temples of Dambulla. These caves have served various purposes over the past two thousand years, from refuges to monasteries, before being converted to Buddhist shrines in the 18th century.
Each cave had dozens of statues of Buddha and kings as well as murals covering the walls and ceilings.
We had started our day exploring Sigiriya and Dambulla early because we had reservations that afternoon at the Kandalama Hotel, courtesy of another generous cousin of mine. The five star Kandalama was designed by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s world renowned architect, and is arguably the best accommodation in the country. It’s built into the side of a mountain with corridors open to the outside and views of Sigiriya from our window. We checked in, swam in the infinity pool, enjoyed the amazing food and impeccable service but were prevented from setting foot on our balcony by monkeys staring inside, just daring us to open the door.
The following morning we (sadly) checked out of the Kandalama and drove to Anuradhapura for day two of our cultural triangle tour. Anuradhapura served as Sri Lanka’s capital and center of Buddhism for over a thousand years before being destroyed by Indian invaders in 933. The city has been inhabited intermittently since and currently is a mix of ancient temples in different stages of excavation, renovated buildings used as temples, and a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. The ruins were sprawled over several miles and were lucky to have the services of a driver. We spent the day traveling from site to site observing each one and reading about its significance. There weren’t that many tourists but a few groups of high school kids on field trips.
The Jetavana Stupa was the third tallest building in the world (after the pyramids of Giza) when it was built in the 4th century.
The Ruwanweliseya Stupa is has been has been painted and is currently in use.
The Abayagiriya Stupa is only now being excavated.
The original bodhi tree under which Buddha sat to gain enlightenment once was in India but no longer exists. A branch from that tree was planted at Annuradupura two thousand years ago and has grown into a fully grown tree itself. It stands under heavy guard and we had to pass through metal detectors to get a glimpse.
Sarah was given a flower to present to one of the surrounding Buddhas.
Our third day took us to Polonnaruwa. After Anuradhapura was destroyed, Sri Lankans established their capital further east in the city of Polonnaruwa, where it remained for the next two hundred years. Unlike Anuradhapura, when Polannaruwa fell it was deserted and reclaimed by the jungle.
The Royal Palace here once stood seven stories tall.
The most interesting excavations of the city were the giant Buddha statues. We were asked to not pose for any pictures with our back to the statue.
The Gal Vihara consists of a rock temple consisting of four Buddhas in various poses.
Three days of ancient history took a toll on the both of us and we decided to take a break at the east coast town of Nilaveli (just north of Trincomalee). We sent our driver back home and spent the next few days relaxing on the beach before catching the overnight train back to Colombo.
After our night in Nuwara Eliya we took a three hour bus downhill to Kandy and visited the Pinnewela Elephant Orphanage the next day. The Orphanage is home to 84 elephants unable to survive in the wild for various reasons. These poor guys are now provided with a very busy routine of eating, bathing, eating, bathing, eating and sleeping.
We arrived just in time for the day’s first feeding as a tractor drove in bearing leaves and branches. All of the elephants congregated around to feast.
They were very tame and calm and clearly used to having people around. Among the herd were a few notable elephants including one that lost a leg to a landmine, a rare tusked one (only 5% of Asian elephants have tusks) and a baby born only a week and half earlier.
After feeding they walked back to interact with all the visitors. Spear wielding handlers would yell in Sinhalese at both the elephants and at me when we stepped too close to each other.
Sarah paid a couple of dollars to bottle feed an elephant; not the baby, but a medium size one who downed the milk in about five seconds flat. Another one sensed that I was trying to avoid touching him and proceeded to slobber on me with his trunk.
The herd was then rounded up and marched down the road to the river to cool off.
We lumbered behind them and sat on the balcony of a local restaurant overlooking the riverbank. We sat for a half hour sipping coke and watching them bathe until we had seen enough elephants to last us a while.