We had called ahead and booked a room at the Hotel Sudu Aralyia (White Frangipani), despite the fact that our guidebook described it thus, ‘it would be the best place in town if it weren’t for the bland rooms and the old furnishings’. It didn’t sound too wonderful, but the descriptions for the other mid-range hotels were even worse. We were getting closer and closer to the eastern coast, one of the major areas of unrest during the long civil war, and I don’t imagine that there have been a lot of foreign tourists coming to visit. It is hard to justify investing a lot of money on updating a hotel when there is not a steady stream of guests.
However, when we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely lobby, a large swimming pool overlooking a beautiful garden that descends to the edge of a large body of water. We were given a room with a balcony, above the garden, in a newer wing of the hotel and the room was better than we expected. Again, it’s all about managing expectations, set them low and you’re bound to be happier.
It had been a long day and after a delicious Sri Lankan buffet dinner, we showered and settled into bed for the night. We planned to stay two nights in order to give us a full day to explore the ancient ruins of this former capital. However, we were awakened in the middle of the night by a thief entering our room through the balcony door. I have written a separate entry to describe the events this brought about. At this point, all I will say is that ‘all’s well that end’s well’ and leave it at that. It was an alarming experience, one I hope never to have repeated, but we have our passports, our health and each other, and in the end, that’s all that really matters.
Despite having been disturbed at 4:00am, we carried on as planned to tour Polonnaruwa’s ruins. Once again, we were so happy to have Manjula and his little van, for like Anuradhapura, the ruins are spread out over a large area, and it would have been daunting to walk or cycle between them in the heat and humidity. We started the day off by visiting the excellent museum. We walked through from one room to the other, each designed with a specific theme and many filled with magnificient sculptures and bronzes.
Again, I had been inspired to visit these ruins by something I had seen earlier in the National Museum in Colombo. There were photographs of huge Buddha statues taken here, and one in particular caught my eye. It’s a statue with the arms of the Buddha crossed over his chest. This is a very unusual pose, and one that I wanted to see for myself. For that reason, I persuaded Anil and Manjula to bypass the other ruins and drive directly to the northern end of the huge enclosure. I didn’t want anything to prevent me from seeing the large Buddha statues, too much sun, too much rain, or too little energy.
In the end, it wasn’t the best strategy as the dirt road that leads through the massive complex has been deeply rutted by huge tour buses and the tiny wheels on our van had difficulty. Poor Manjula had to drive at a snail’s pace. He owns his van (or as he says, half is his, half belongs to the finance company) and he takes very good care of it. We found out too late that we could only leave by the exit gate, not far from the Buddhas, so this meant we had to negotiate the bad road thrice in order to see the ruins near the entrance gate.
As you can see from the photographs I’ve posted, the Buddha statues are magnificent and the ruins scattered throughout the site equally interesting. We had the place to ourselves for the most part and it was easy to take pictures without having hordes of poorly dressed tourists cluttering them up. We were almost through touring around when a huge tour bus arrived and disgorged its passengers. They fanned out over the ruins and were as distracting as the hornets would have been at Sigiriya.
We had seen all we wanted to see, but just as we were leaving, I noticed the family from Australia that had been staying at the Serendip. I knew that they had planned to start off with Polonnaruwa, so I was surprised to see them at all. When we spoke I learned that they had all succumbed to the flu and had been in bed in their hotel for the past four days. I was so relieved that I hadn’t caught the same bug and was already on the mend, back to my old self, ready to take on more of Sri Lanka.
We had seen all we wanted of the ruins, so we headed back to the hotel to rest for the afternoon. We weren’t keen on another huge buffet dinner, so we made plans to meet with Manjula in the early evening in order to drive to the ATM to get some cash to pay for our hotel bill and then have a light meal of veg kotthu rotti (chopped doughy pancake mixed with vegetables). We weren’t too keen to go to an ATM after dark, but it was 4km out of town on the highway to Batticoloa, and we didn’t want to backtrack in the morning.
While we were driving, Manjula suggested that he could loan us the money to pay the hotel bill and we could get the funds on the way out of town the next day. I was surprised to learn that he was carrying so much cash with him, but then again, he had to be able to pay for any unexpected expenses with his car or tires on the long trip we were making. Now, how bad is that; first Raj and I had to borrow money from our driver to pay for tea the morning we rose early to try and photograph the Taj Mahal at sunrise, and now we were borrowing money from our driver to pay for our hotel?
It all worked out in the end, and we didn’t have to take Manjula up on his offer. The thief had stolen our money but we were left with our pride intact. It could have been so very much worse and once again, Anil and I looked at each other and agreed that we had ‘dodged another bullet’ (not literally, thanks to Buddha).