Tuesday, March 31, 2009


When I was a tour guide myself, I led a group to Cuba.  We stayed in fancy hotels were Cubans were allowed to work but not stay – not that they could have afforded them.  One morning, I received a strong complaint from one of my group about the hotel’s inadequacies because they didn’t have English Breakfast tea on the buffet.

I was quite dumbfounded; there was perfectly good local tea available, but because it wasn’t the familiar brand, these people weren’t happy. In amongst all the poverty of rural Cuba, these people wanted their PG Tips.  I thought it was quite a petty complaint as the tour was billed as an exploration of a foreign culture, and if you’re going to explore a foreign culture but then want it to be just like home, what’s the point really?

I tell the story because I have a complaint about the Kandalama; in amongst all this five-star luxury, they serve lousy coffee.  While I have noticed tendencies in that direction, I do hope I am not turning into that petty Englishman abroad – the bane of every travel professional’s life.  In my defence I would point out that at every hotel we’ve visited here, the coffee has been fine and plentiful, so it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation.  The catering otherwise is very good, so I can’t understand why they can’t do decent coffee.  Harumph!

Post-colonial huff aside, the hotel is still impressing me.  I still can’t get over the views.  Everywhere you look there is jungle and wildlife.

Today we were up early to head out to the rock fortress of Sigiriya.  There had been reports of hornet attacks on parties climbing to the top and it was unclear whether it was open or closed, so we drove out there anyway as it was en route to our second destination; the ruins of Polonnaruwa.  At Sigiriya we were told we could go in, but only to the Lion’s Paws (i.e. not to the top) but still had to pay the full price.  We decided to try again tomorrow and drove on.

Polonnaruwa is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka.  The site is spread out and there is a lot to see but there’s an informative museum at the entrance to set you up with background.  In retrospect I wish we had taken a proper guidebook and done it very early in the morning.  Maliq gave a good commentary but sometimes it was hard to put things in context – although perhaps that reflects more on my lack of prior homework than anything.

The sun was baking and within a minute of stepping out of the van at each site, I was soaked with sweat; it was literally dripping off me and leaving a trail in the dust.  We rapidly drank all the water we had brought with us and were grateful to find a shanty rest-stop opposite one of the ruins.  We sat, resolutely declining and then ignoring the hawkers, while Brett supped Coca Cola and I quaffed Elephant Ginger Beer; a great restorative.

It seems that every king who ever ruled felt he had to build his own Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic as there are a number of them among the ruins. Because they are still considered temples, you are obliged to take off your shoes before entering – indeed some other British tourists were scolded by a primary school child for forgetting to do so.  It was a bit of an ordeal under the midday sun; the rocks were hot, really hot!

We certainly missed a number of the ruins, but we did the highpoints and were still in good cheer when it was done.  Lunched at a ‘recommended’ restaurant on the way back and had some tasty local fish and several fruit juices.

On the road back to Dambulla though, Maliq got pulled over by a random policeman standing on a bend for trying to overtake on a blind corner.  He got a ticket and was fuming about it afterwards.  I have some sympathy as he wasn’t doing anything that everyone else here doesn’t do, he was just unlucky enough to be spotted by an ornery policeman.  Our trip back to the hotel was lengthened by a stop at the local Police Headquarters for him to try to sort it out.

Given the heightened security in Sri Lanka, I did wonder how long our van could be parked, engine running but without a driver, on the roadside outside the gates to Police Headquarters before we became a security alert.  “Longer than it was,” turned out to be the answer as the only attention we attracted was another passing JetWing driver who stopped to check that everything was okay.

Back at the hotel I lounged in the jacuzzi for a while to wash off the sweat and grime of the excursion and then blogged some before dinner.

Over cocktails Brett and I were discussing our different reactions to Kandy; he found it overcrowded and overwhelming and felt like a target, whereas I loved the vibrancy and the bustle from the outset.  When he challenged me to say why, I found it hard to come up with anything coherent other than ‘because it’s new and different.’  Genuine curiosity and learning, or just cultural voyeurism?  Couldn’t say.

I guess you can tell I’m feeling a bit ambivalent today! :o)

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