Our Christmas trip (part one)

(Added January 9th: More photos associated with this post have been uploaded to my Picasa website.)

We had a wonderful Christmas. We decided to take advantage of my break from teaching to spend a week traveling in north central Sri Lanka. We saw the ancient capital cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, we visited the holy site at the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree, we saw and took pictures of elephants, birds, and lizards, we stayed in a five star hotel that we likened to a non-moving cruise ship, and we attended an intimate Sri Lankan Catholic mass on Christmas Eve.

There is so much to relate that I decided that I really needed to break it into pieces, of which this is the first installment:

We had arranged to hire a car and driver to take us north. The driver, NM, was the same driver who took us to see the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage. NM picked us up at 10AM and we were on our way. Kandy is in the central hill country and our first day’s journey took us to the northern end of the hill country, the the southern edge of the “dry zone.” The dry zone constitutes 65% of the area of Sri Lanka and receives less than 1900mm (75 inches) of rainfall each year. As a comparison, Seattle receives 940mm (37 inches) of rain each year, which is the same as Columbus, OH. Of course, distribution of rainfall is all important. Seattle gets it in small doses all the time and so has the reputation it has. Columbus gets it in larger doses in thunderstorms and winter snow, leaving many sunny days in between. Sri Lanka gets it in massive doses in two seasons of monsoons, leaving such long stretches of sunshine that some of the scenery we saw included cacti. (For the record, Kandy is in a region which gets between 1900mm (75 inches) and 2500mm (98 inches) of rainfall each year.)

Our trip on the A9 highway wound through the hill country, green as Ireland. The car was air-conditioned and comfortable. I was amazed that the car was about eight years old as it looked nearly new both on the exterior and the interior. Of course I live where they strew salt on the roads each winter and our driver depends for his business on keeping his car in good condition. We passed through several small towns until, about an hour into our trip, we entered the outskirts of Matale, 26km (17 miles) from Kandy.

Our (or should I say Kris’) first objective was the Noritake factory outlet store in Matale. We had been led to believe that fine china was available in Sri Lanka for the proverbial song. Kris was somewhat disappointed to discover that this was not true. The prices are a bargain compared to prices in the US, but generally not enough cheaper to make up for the high costs of shipping it back to the US. However, we did want to buy something for our landlady and Kris found a very nice tea set. For part of this long, boring, interminable process, I was outside shooting some pictures. Here is one of the leaves of a teak tree in silhouette.

teak leaves

teak leaves

Finally, we dragged Kris out of the outlet store and continued our northern trek. We did not go far, stopping at the Matale Heritage Center. The center employs batik, woodworkers, embroiderers, and brassworkers and sells their products.

Brass Ganesh at Matale Heritage Center

Brass Ganesh at Matale Heritage Center

It was a bit of an adventure getting there as the road to the place was poorly marked and in very bad condition. At one point the car bottomed out so hard that we worried that we were going to be stuck in Matale. The center turned out to be centered on a lovely home with a gorgeous view out over the valley. We could not leave without buying two fairly large, monochrome batiks, one depicting the sun and one depicting the moon. The house was surrounded by one of the most beautiful flower gardens we have seen in Sri Lanka, interspersed with some of the craftsmen’s brass devotional figures.

Forging on, we next stopped at Aluvihara, a Buddhist monastery, just north of Matale. Aluvihara is famous as the origin of books in Sri Lanka. The books are made up of long slender palm leaves, maybe 200mm (12 inches) long and 40mm (1.5 inches) wide, called “ola leaves”. Writing is done by using a sharp iron tool to scribe letters into the leaf. Then, a charcoal-based ink is rubbed into the leaf, filling in and blackening the scribed lines. Finally, an oil  concoction is rubbed on to seal the ink into the grooves, remove the excess ink, and condition the leaf. These leaves are still readable 500 years after their creation.

This method of writing is credited with influencing the evolution of the Sinhala alphabet. The Sinhala alphabet is very curvy. This is said to be due to the fact that straight strokes tended to tear or perforate the ola leaf. After the leaves are inscribed and a hole is made in one end of the leaf, they are bound together between two, usually decorated, wooden or metal covers by running a string through corresponding holes in the covers and the leaves. We had to have one and fortunately they are very reasonably priced. We also visited the rock caves at Aluvihara.

At this point, we were starving. We told NM to stop someplace so we could eat. Here, NM let us down. He delivered us into the hands of a snake oil merchant, and I mean that almost literally.

Cocoa pod

Cocoa pod

NM told us we could get something to eat at one of the many “spice gardens” along our route. What he didn’t tell us was that before we got close to the food, we would be subjected to a high pressure sales pitch for products derived from local plants. We are pretty sure that NM gets a kickback for doing this. Our “guide” claimed to be the the descendant of 12 generations of Ayurvedic doctors who cure all ills with potions derived from natural plants.  Ayurvedic medicine is considered essentially co-equal with Western medicine here in Sri Lanka and, to be fair, herbal medicine has been shown in clinical trials to be better than a placebo. But deaths due to snakebite in Sri Lanka dropped dramatically once Western medicine finally figured out how to deal with snakebite and the better results of Western medicine slowly won over more Sri Lankans, at least when it comes to snakebite.

I have become so jaded by bogus sales pitches in Sri Lanka that I doubt very much whether our “guide” was the descendant of even an Ayurvedic nurse-practitioner and I certainly did not believe a word he said about anything except plant identification. However, the spice garden itself was interesting. We delighted in the smell of various fresh leaves crushed under our noses. We enjoyed seeing several spices “in the raw”, so to speak, including the cocoa pod in the picture above. At one point, he got around to some spice that was supposed to be good for nausea. I told him that I was going to need some of that, if he did not get me some food in the next five minutes.

This threat did not get me to lunch within five minutes as I had hoped. Instead, we were shown to a kind of miniature, outdoor auditorium where we were fed a couple of snacky things and our guide determinedly finished his pitch, er educational tour, of the garden. I will say that Sri Lankan salespeople are persistent. Finally, we entered the salesroom where all the products that had been featured were for sale. The salesman was perplexed that I did not purchase the herbal tea that would clear my psoriasis right up. We did buy one packet of a wonderful curry powder and some herbal lotion, maybe five bucks, total.

Violence was averted when we were then fed a pretty good lunch at a reasonable price. I spotted NM across the parking lot with a twinkle in his eye and I shook my finger at him to let him know that I was on to him.

Our next stop was at the cave temples at Dambulla. At this point we were tired. We were miffed that the multi-temple tickets we had purchased in Kandy did not apply to the famous rock caves here. We were appalled at the modern kitsch, a kind of Buddhist Disneyland going in near the road.

Golden Temple, Dambulla

Golden Temple, Dambulla

We were not happy about hiking uphill to see the cave temples. And we were more than a little unhappy that, despite how late it was in the afternoon, they would neither discount the $25/each ticket price or allow us to use the tickets again the next day. So, in our umbrage, we decided to huff ourselves off to our hotel which is several kilometers east of the town of Dambulla and we never did see the rock caves.

Our hotel was the Kandalama Hotel. It is built into a rock cliff on the southern edge of Kandalama Lake, a tank on the very boundary of the dry zone and the hill country. We had chosen the Kandalama as it was designed by Geoffrey Bawa, the same architech we admired so much after our trip to Galle where we stayed at his Lighthouse Hotel.

Our room at the Kandalama Hotel

Our room at the Kandalama Hotel

The hotel was less than fully booked and we were offered a discounted upgrade to a  room with a better view and a jacuzzi. Notice that I said “discounted,” not “inexpensive.” There was nothing inexpensive about this hotel. Once again, we succumbed to temptation, and all in all, the hotel was so good that we ended up deciding it was worth every lahk. (The latter sentence contained a minor joke that only our Sri Lankan friends familiar with American sayings will likely appreciate.) In fact, we decided that this hotel could best be described as essentially a cruise ship at dock on the lake.

I will describe the hotel in more detail in a later posting. As it was, in our umbrage, we were not in the mood to take a kindly view of the hotel when we checked in. We did, however, take a kindly view of the luxurious shower and a very comfortable bed and turned in early.




  1. January 10, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    […] promised in my last posting to describe the hotel in more detail. The photos associated with the last posting contain my photos […]

  2. Kris said,

    January 12, 2009 at 8:17 am

    To fill in the description, without sounding like a tout for the hotel–our room was furnished with beautiful wood, floors and furniture, and simple textile furnishings. The bathroom floor was polished Indian stone, according to the hotel literature, with glass and steel. It was a comfortable and beautiful space. This hotel was Bawa’s last big project. We appreciated the comfortable little love seat and the excellent bed.

  3. May 3, 2009 at 11:21 am

    […] Hotel.  This seems promising as it is an Aitkens Spence property, the same company that owns the Kandalama Hotel. This hotel is relatively old and the prices correspondingly less. I am received in high style. […]

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