|Decided to head up north by train and bus to the ancient capital and world heritage site of Anuradhapura. The train was slow, stopping at every small town, but the scenery was great (you see so much more of village life from the train as you're able to peek into people's gardens, homes and lives much less invasively - a bit voyeuristic, but highly interesting). After 3+ hours, arrived in Putalam and managed to find the bus stop and a local bus heading to Anuradhapura. Because it was Sunday and people were out visiting family, going to the market and enjoying the day off, the bus was packed. We somehow managed to squeeze on even though we were still outside the bus with at least 15 other hopeful passengers, when the bus started to slowly move away. Someone on the bus kindly grabbed our packs and threw them in the luggage rack and someone behind pushed us all on. For a couple of hours we became very intimate with many of our fellow riders and tried to avoid getting too freaked-out by the insane driving underway (good roads means high speeds are all too possible...)
There's a funny thing happening here in Sri Lanka. When people learn that John's from New Zealand there is a universal acknowledgment of how excellent the dairy cows are. Normally the comments he gets are something about cricket, sheep or beautiful nature. For Sri Lankans, New Zealand is dairy. For whatever reason, most of the dairy cows have been imported from New Zealand and the Anchor brand is a very popular choice for dairy products here. Curious connection.
The next day, we rented a tuk tuk and spent the early morning exploring ancient palaces, monastaries and temples. Anuradhapura is the most important place in Sri Lanka for Buddhists because of the presence of a 2000 year old Bodhi tree (the longest continuously tended tree in recorded history). This tree is a cutting from the original Bodhi tree from Bodhgaya, India where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The story goes that a religiously intolerant Indian Moghul destroyed the original Bodhi tree, but not before a sapling was saved and transported to Sri Lanka. A sapling of the Sri Lankan Bodhi tree has since been returned to Bodhgaya and is flourishing there (we saw it during our visit in October).
The ruins here were very extensive and impressive. We were surprised how few tourists were around (we only saw a few other Westerners during our time here). I suppose it’s only 6 months since the civil war has subsided (at least for now, though given the continued poor treatment of the minority Tamils, it’s likely that they will rise again to demand independence - since they are heavily discriminated against and do not seem to enjoy anything approaching equal rights or representation - though clearly their terrorist methods will never attract much sympathy or outside support).
After returning from our morning explorations, we caught a bus to Dambulla to visit the world heritage Royal Rock Temples there. Sri Lanka has been a lot hotter than India (and the mosquitoes are big enough to carry off small children) so we were very excited that the bus we found to Dambulla was air-conditioned. We know that AC is more taxing on the environment, but a little luxury occasionally is greatly appreciated. After all, we are flash-packers, not back-packers!
We have come to love world heritage sights. These cave temples, dating from the 1st century, were cut into a massive rock outcrop (thankfully not too long of a climb up, though). Beautiful paintings and Buddha statues were contained in 5 caves. The ceiling paintings were so colorful and intricate it looked like fabric had been draped from the ceilings of the caves. Incredibly well-preserved and unlike anything we've seen so far on our travels, this was an amazing place.
As serene and tasteful as the cave temples were, the museum and Buddha statue built at the bottom of the rock by the Japanese was tacky in the extreme (imagine what a Las Vegas temple might look like). Quite a contrast and lapse in otherwise impeccable taste by the Japanese!
Had arranged for a taxi to meet us and take us to our hotel in nearby Sigiriya, so headed there in the late afternoon (thankfully only 20 minutes away).