Sigiriya and St. John’s Bungalow, part 8
This morning we get to sleep in as our alarm doesn’t ring until 5:45 a.m.:). Paul and I are out the door by 6:15, and when we arrive at the main building a few minutes later, Raj is waiting for us with the car. The management hands over two paper bags containing our breakfast, which we will eat at Sigiriya.
We arrive at Sigiriya before the gates open, which gives us time to eat breakfast. I’m not hungry so I just eat a banana. I step out of the car while Paul finishes eating, but immediately two flea-bitten dogs appear at my feet, so I get back into the vehicle. Raj has gone to buy our tickets and on his return, he hands the slips of paper to us. Raj gives us instructions that when we leave the site, we must find the exit that leads to the car park, where he will be waiting for us.
There are a few tourists here at this hour, but if what Paul has researched on Trip Advisor is true; the tour buses will arrive at 9 a.m. and begin disgorging loads of people. We intend to be off Lion Rock (another name for Sigiriya) by then! We climb the first of many steps we will encounter this morning, and arrive at the water gardens. Looking over the sprawling ruins of these gardens, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how spectacular they would have been in their day.
We climb more steps to reach the boulder gardens. It’s not hard to see where this name comes from as there are big boulders laying over this part of the park. It is in the boulder garden where we take the steps that begin our climb to the top of Sigiriya. Huffing and puffing, we come to an enclosed, metal, spiral staircase that leads to a small cave. On the walls of this cave are the paintings of twenty- one, voluptuous, bare-breasted, women. The paintings were created in the 5th century so the fact that the art is so well-preserved is amazing. Most experts of ancient art have concluded that these women depict celestial goddesses. Or it could be an ancient version of Playboy:).
As we are starting to go back down the spiral stairs, a Sri Lankan man tries to hand me a bunch of keys, and says something I don’t understand. I shake my head and walk on, but then he hands the keys to Paul and points to a man standing at the bottom of the spiral staircase. Oh, the light goes on, he wants us to deliver the keys to his buddy. Paul takes them and when we reach the bottom of the stairs, Paul hands the keys to the worker, who thanks Paul. Paul holds his hand out to the man and says “tip please”, which makes the fellow erupt in laughter (as do I). As we walk away we can still hear the guy chuckling at Paul’s joke.
Here is a quick version of the two theories about Sigiriya. One story revolves around a power struggle for the kingdom. The King hands his throne to one of two sons. The rejected son kills his father, and overthrows his brother. The traitorous son builds a fortress on top of this mountain because he knows his brother will come to try to take his rightful place on the throne. His brother comes back to regain his inheritance, and when it appears that the bad son’s forces are losing the war, he commits suicide. So the rightful heir wins in the end. The other theory is that this place has been a Buddhist monastery since the 3rd century and was always a peaceful, serene place. I like the second theory better!
A walkway with a gradual incline, winds along the cliff face and leads us to the carved Lions feet, which is where the name Lion Mountain or Rock came from. Here the staircases are bolted to the rock, which is actually a volcanic magna plug. These stairs lead to the top of Sigiriya. Paul and I take a few photos before we begin the ascent to the flat-topped mountain. Basically, we are just walking on the side of this volcanic rock, but since there are sides and rails to hang on to, it doesn’t bother me. Paul, who is afraid of heights, seems to be doing fine too. Paul and I both take advantage of the small rest platforms that are placed randomly along the way, so we can catch our breath. Whew, it is steep, but what a view!
When we reach the top of Sigiriya, Paul and I are surprised to see that the surface area is smaller than we imagined. Still, the view up here is stunning, plus the audacity of people building on the top of this volcanic rock sure have my respect! There is hardly anything left of the palace that was constructed atop the high point of Sigiriya. Below the palace area is a beautiful bathing pool still full of water. I halfway expect to see the ancient dwellers of this enchanting place to appear and wade into the greenish water. There are other terraced areas that I assume were used to grow food along the perimeter of Sigiriya.
Far below us, Paul and I can see the main path of the water garden, and it is becoming clogged with humans. When we walked that path two hours ago there might have been a dozen tourists. It is time to make our way back down this mountain! It takes us a while to figure out that we must go back down on the same stairs we came up. There is a short stretch where there is an up and a down stairway, but soon climbers and descenders are using the same stairs. I manage to get down to the Lions Feet without meeting too many people thank goodness, as there really isn’t room for double occupancy. Paul must wait on one of the rest platforms for one large, slow group to get by him. Still, it could have been worse as the crowd on the grounds below is growing larger. Another smart move in arriving early is that it is barely mid-morning, and the temperature is rising rapidly, making us sweat profusely.
Again, Paul and I are at a loss on how we exit the plateau where the lion’s feet are. There is a guide with two clients who are heading down, so we just follow them. It is a good thing we did, as there was no sign pointing out the path back to the boulder gardens. When we get to the boulder garden, we see a sign that says “to car park”, but the arrow seems to be ambivalent as to where the path is. We ask the guide we have been shadowing for directions, and he advises us to follow his group again. The path makes several twists and turns before we finally see the parking lot we are seeking. Paul tries to give the kindly guide a tip for leading us out of Sigiriya but he refuses to take it, insisting that it was his pleasure to help us. How nice was that!
Another interesting thing we saw in leaving Sigiriya, were the young girls raking leaves and debris that had accumulated overnight. These lovely girls are wearing dresses, for crying out loud, while they rake debris off the ground but they also are raking up anything that is laying on the numerous rocks and ledges. The cute girl who posed for my photo has bad luck minutes later, when a darned macaque monkey rips open her lunch sack and steals part of her food. Rotten monkeys.
The parking lot is packed but we find Raj without wandering around too long. On our way back to Wild Grass resort, Raj stops at a woman’s house and she gives us a demonstration on pounding rice, making rice milk, and grating coconut. We tour the very modest home and I am appalled when we tour the kitchen. It is dark, crowded and primitive; I can’t imagine having to cook in a room like this. The good news is that this family is in the process of building a new home. I wonder if the tip money we and other tourists give the woman for her home tours are helping to build this new home.
Paul and I return to our chalet, where Paul writes reviews on trip advisor and I wash out our sweat soaked shirts. We have a late lunch at Wild Grass of chicken curry, which is delicious. Later we visit the pool, where Paul swims a few laps and I dangle my feet into the cool water.
After we return to the room, we decide to explore the grounds of Wild Grass. As we are exiting our driveway, we meet a young Frenchmen, who asks if we are going on the bird watching tour. We reply that we didn’t know there was one. He informs us that after the bird walk, the guide will take us up on the rock behind Wild Grass to watch the sunset. This sounds great, so we decide to see if we can join in on the fun. The guide from Wild Grass agrees to take us along, and the four of us start off down the road.
Our first stop, at what appears to be an abandoned homestead, shows great promise when the guide points out Sri Lankan green pigeons, rose-ringed parakeets, and a Sri Lankan Grey Hornbill! As we are trying to get a closer look at the Hornbill, a series of what sounds like gunshots, ricochet through the air. My hands fly involuntarily to my chest, and I step behind our guide, like that would do any good. As the birds fly away in a panic, our guide mutters, “This is very bad”. He tells us someone is trying to scare monkeys out of their crops by shooting off firecrackers and this is very bad for bird watching. No kidding, it’s also bad for my heart which is racing.
The rest of our long walk is calm and serene. I am able to add several new birds to my bird list. Our guide will walk into people’s yards to scout for birds and the owners seem to have no problem with our intrusion into their private property. We also wander through gardens, where he shows us different crops people are growing. The tomatoes in particular intrigue me as the plants are growing so close together and the plants are loaded with clusters of tomatoes.
We reach the volcanic rock that we are climbing to watch the sunset. Yikes, the way up is steep and the surface to smooth for my taste. Our guide advises that we should walk sideways instead of straight up this black rock. When we come to one particularly sheer part in our climb, the guide offers me his arm and I gladly take it. The idea of a misstep that could result in a fall down this big boulder doesn’t hold much appeal for me.
When we reach the summit, the 360 degree view proves to be worth the climb. Sigiriya is in the distance, and lakes and mountains can be seen in other directions. After soaking up the scenery, I announce to Paul that I am going back down before the sunset. There is no way I am walking down this black rock in the dark with only a flashlight to guide me. Paul agrees and we start back down, telling the guide and the Frenchman, we will wait for them at the bottom. I must say, short stepping back down that giant boulder was much scarier than going up. Paul seemed to get along fine but there were a couple of times I nearly lost my nerve. In one place I was on all fours, and walked crab-like down a particularly steep area. Sigiriya was a piece of cake compared to this place!
We have to leave Wild Grass Resort this morning and I must say I am sad to go. I really loved this place. After the typical breakfast of eggs, fruit, and toast, we wave goodbye to the staff and Raj prepares to drive us to St. John’s Bungalow.
Our journey to St. Johns takes four hours, but we have some distractions along the way. I notice a native couple that have stopped their motorcycle along the road, and are gazing at the river. When I check the area where they are looking, there is a huge crocodile sunning itself on a sand bar.
We stop in a small village where Paul and Raj buy beer at the liquor store. Paul and I walk to a little cubby hole of a place and buy bread. The woman wraps our purchases in newspaper and places them in a plastic sack. I’m fairly sure with the stares we get that the owners aren’t used to tourists buying food at their store. The fresh-baked bread costs just a few cents and I don’t see how anyone can make a living charging such low prices.
Raj has never been to St. Johns Bungalow and there are no signs pointing the way, so Raj will drive up to a house and honk his horn. If someone is home they will come out and he will ask directions to St. Johns. I find honking outside a stranger’s home, who then seems happy to help you out, quite amazing.
The last part of our drive involves a rough, narrow, and curvy road as we enter the mountain country. I never get motion sickness but today I feel a bit queasy, as we twist and turn on the mountain road. We finally arrive at the old tea plantation house which must have been a show place in its day. The house is nestled near a huge bluff which overlooks a valley. There is a range of mountains in the distance. When we step out of our room, this lovely landscape is our reward.
After we settle into our room, we explore the grounds around the old plantation house. Raj then drives us up the highway a few miles to a country road. We need to walk after that long drive, and we want to explore a bit. When we return to St. Johns we are served high tea on the terrace. There are two black bulls on the lawn that provide us some entertainment while we are sipping tea and eating some excellent cake.
Another couple from Great Britain arrives and joins us for tea. They are quite the travelers and we are entertained with stories about some of their adventures. When we return to our room, there is a big spider on the wall by my suitcase. I call Paul who dispatches the unwelcome guest. As I am taking my shower, I see another spider lurking on the shower wall. Paul comes to my rescue again. I really hate spiders in my rooms so I hope that is the last of the creepy, crawly things.
Next Installment, village tour and Mas Villas