Today is Indepence Day. 59 years ago the British handed over the power to the United National Party. We already know the Sri Lankans like to celebrate and we’ll just see what the day brings. The day starts a bit later than planned as Lesley seems to be in a sleeping coma. I get the feeling she didn’t sleep well and just let her sleep. She doesn’t hear the alarm clock, she doesn’t hear me moving around the ‘tent’ and eventually I do give her a little hint, making sure she is still breathing and thinking Rohan is waiting for us :-) She seems to come somewhere from Mars, waking up, and being surprised I’m already up and ready to go. After a quick breakfast we head for Sigiriya, the ancient city high on Lion Rock. It’s a very popular place and as it’s Saturday and a festive day we can expect some crowds. Rohan is not guiding us around here as you have guides here with licenses just for this place, and I also think he’s not looking forward to walking up 1200 steps :-)
Our guide is called Seneh (no idea if it’s spelled right) and he knows the place like the back of his hand. He learned French and English through 25 years of guiding and he is determined to not let the crowds stop us. He’s small, very slim and fast, we can bearly keep up with him on his flip flops. He really doesn’t have patience with the crowds (even pushes away some of the Chinese umbrellas) and litterally pulls us along shortcuts that others aren’t using. We have 1200 steps to go and his technique is to both give us a hand and pull us along. It must be a peculiar sight and it makes me chuckle, but I don’t want to insult him and try to hide my smile. I have many questions about the place, but I find that my questions disturb his order of telling things, so I shut up and listen. It’s a peculiar English, but we manage to understand most of it. I would love to wander around a place like that without the crowds, to fully get a sense of it. It must have been magical.
The citadel rises out of the plains, is surrounded by remains of what must have been glorious gardens. But the centerpiece is the 200 meter high rock with on top of it (the remains of) the royal palace. The king never had to climb to the top, he was carried there ofcourse. There was a queen, but also about 500 concubines. They walked topless and swam and danced, this is what a few ancient rock paintings still show. The city was eventually abandonned in the 12th century. Today there’s a queue up the final steep stairs. The stairs are a torture for people who are afraid of heights, and unfortunately Lesley is one of them. But we make it to the top and get rewarded with a beautiful view. Seneh gives us a little bit of time and then takes us down again, being very concerned we don’t miss a step. Yes, he reaches out his hands again :-) By now the crowds have only grown and I’m glad we came in the morning.
A special point of interest is the Mirror Wall, originally coated in highly polished plaster made from lime, egg white, beeswax and wild honey. And even as early as the 7th century travelers and visitors liked to put graffiti on that wall. Today writing on the wall is strictly forbidden, you can get sent to prison and that’s not where we want to be so we stay behind the line. Walking around this place you apparantly have to be aware of bee attacks as well. There are warning signs, telling you to be quiet and not disturb the bees. But the crowds don’t seem to be that bothered. Local buddhist monks claim that the bee attacks are “divine retribution for the impious behaviour of visiting tourists.” We feel we are well behaving visitors, but we don’t know about the others, so we hope the bees are not upset today.
All the way down again at the bottom of the rock we are in for another surprise though. We come across a snake charmer and before we know it, he puts a cobra around our necks. Well, Lesley is the volunteer to hold the head and have the main part around her neck and I just hold a little piece of the tail. In fact I don’t even really want to hold a snake but he doesn’t listen to my NO.
So there we are, with a cobra, and Seneh takes pictures. Ofcourse the snake charmer expects money. That’s how it works. We say goodbye to Seneh, pay him and thank him for the tour. “Are you happy?” he asks a couple of times. We assure him we are and he returns to his village. No more tours today.
To us it’s just the first part of the day and there’s plenty more to come. We’ve agreed to do a so called village tour, visiting a local community by a lake where a traditional meal will be cooked for us. I hesitate a little bit because I hate ‘tourist traps’ where the local villages aren’t authentic at all. My impression at the start is not so good when they call in an ox and a carriage, one of many we see along the road. A skinny man rides the carriage and urges the ox to move. I feel sorry for the animal. Rohan is with us and half along the way he gets of the carriage and continues on foot so the ox can go faster.
We reach a lake and get onto a small boat platform. The local man paddles us to the other side where we see flowers and huts. There are a couple of families living here. Not on a permanent base, they come over for just a period of time to work on the fields. We are welcomed by a young woman and a girl. They only speak Singhalese, so it’s good Rohan can translate for us. In the next half our they prepare a lovely fresh meal for us. Their kitchen looks primitive, but it’s all very clean and definitly fresh. And so many spices! They prepare different vegetable curries, rice, lake fish, ... resulting in about 8 bowls of food. Our plates are palm leaves and oh, forget about forks and knives. This is an introduction to eating with our hands. Rohan shows us how to do that properly and we give it a go. It’s a bit strange at first and it makes me eat slowly, and it’s not polite to refuse a second portion.
The eating takes some time, until a Japanese or Chinese family with two kids arrives (the lady of the house tells Rohan she thinks they are Japanese as they seem quite polite while Chinese tend to break down the house) for the next shift. It’s time for us to say goodbye and return to the main road by tuk tuk. Another vehicle we haven’t tried yet. Lots of new experiences today :-)
We head back to the hotel only for a short break and then we’re on the road again for an Ayurveda massage. The place is called ‘Trimal’ and the owner is a friend of Rohan. A small road leads to a house with a porch. Apparantly you don’t get in here without advance booking. They are doing massages all day and evening. “This is not a spa, we are a medical center,” the owner explains to us. “And I am a doctor”. It’s a bit weird. Both of us have to sit down in turns so they can check our pulse. We are both approved for what’s to come: a full body massage, a herbal steam bath and a shirodhara head oil bath. Yep, we will be in there for a while.
The ‘doctor’ asks if I have any health problems and I tell them they have to go easy on my left arm as I have a frozen shoulder for which I’m getting manual therapy back home. “If you stay for 4 days, we can fix that,” he smiles. I don’t have 4 days and I don’t really believe they can ‘fix’ this in four days. I’m lead into a seperate area where a massage lady is waiting. She doesn’t speak English and I hope someone told her not to pull my left arm. The massage is at times heavenly and at times a bit painful. This is heavy work for the lady, she works from my head to the very tip of my toes and at one point climbs on the table. And yes, she pulls the painful shoulder and arm, but no English is needed to make clear it hurts :-) All the time some very calming music is playing and I find I really loose track of time.
We thought it would take about an hour, but just the massage takes somewhat longer and then I’m lead into the room for the head oil bath. They put a strap of linnen over my eyes to protect them from the warm oil that will drip down onto my forehead for about 20 minutes. Apparantly the Japanese love this treatment. It’s supposed to ease chronic headaches, migraine, insomnia, mental stress and many other diseases. Well, even if it doesn’t do any of these things, it’s relaxing anyway.
Last part of my Ayurveda experience is the herbal steam bath. They put me in an enclosed wooden casket in which steam from boiled herbs and roots vaporize. It’s hot. Very hot. Water is just pouring out of my body. Luckily they keep your head out of the box but at some point they put a piece of cloth over my face, making the hot steam roll over my face. It’s supposed to be good for my lungs, inhaling eucalyptus, but I’m just trying not to get claustrophobic. I’m relieved once the steam bath is finished. I’m all oily and it feels like my blood circulation has never been better J The treatment ends with a hot and spicy cup of tea. We’ve been inside here for more than 2 hours. They advise us not to wash of the oil until the next morning.
With our very greasy look (it looks like I haven’t washed my hair in 10 days) we have a late dinner. On the way to the restaurant our car gets pulled over by the police again and this time Rohan has to hand in his driving license. In Belgium you wouldn’t be allowed to continue driving, but he can hit the road again (fortunately!) and just has to pick up his license again in Dambulla after a week or 2 when he gets notified. Why all the fuss? Apparantly the tires crossed the line in the middle of the road. Unbelievable. I ask him if they pick out tourist cars on purpose. “Maybe”. Well, we tell him that next time the police stops us, we will start crying hysterically so they will just let us go. Rohan laughs, he doesn’t seem too bothered, it’s just one of those things that happen driving around in Sri Lanka.