Can there ever be too many monks ?

Wednesday 20 March 2013 – Sigiriya.

As I had arranged to see the rock in the afternoon I did not rush around too much in the morning, barely moving at all to be perfectly honest. I had organised with the guest house to join the other guests for a 7:30 breakfast which was as huge as I expected. Though this was the first breakfast where dhal and roti were on the menu, along with a small omelette and toast. I did the Ugandan thing and rolled my omelette up in a piece of roti for a role eggs. Very nice.  It was a great breakfast, even the coffee wasn’t too bad.

I sat around chatting to an America/German couple – there are a lot of German tourists in Sri Lanka, more than any other nationality from my experience so far. We talked for a couple of hours, they have amazing jobs in video journalism and documentaries based out of Bangkok and I was deeply envious of their travel and journalistic opportunities. Just before ten, my young German friend Benne turned up at the guest house to stay the night and we agreed to do the rock together around 3:00. This left the rest of the day for doing not much which was very much alright by me. I got to finish yesterdays blog post, though was unable to post it as the internet sucked. I also managed to get another good load of washing done, staying two nights in each place means I have been able to really keep on top of laundry which means my lack of clothes is not too much of a problem…

So that was two thirds of the day done ! At 3:00 Benne and I walked from the guest house to Sigiriya Rock. The walk to the park was about a kilometre and it was very hot, Bennes thermometer said it was 37.1 degrees. There is a tourist elephant walk in Sigiriya, not something I particularly agree with, but I did enjoy watching this elephant enjoying a soak in the river. When I walked past in the evening people were washing their clothes in the same spot, hmmmm.


From the road there is a further km of walking around the side of the palace moat, I loved this sign warning against bathing, the sign in blue behind advises there are crocodiles….


The ticket for the site is 30USD which is really expensive when you consider 30USD gets you unlimited three days across all the many Angkor sites in Cambodia. This is one day access only and a bit steep in my book.

Out first visit was the museum, semi-interesting, a vast building with a large number of staff that were all sitting around doing nothing, except one got up to point to the no photos sign. We were sort of laughing at the place by the end of it. Sad really – one should not laugh at museums… But they could have housed the collection in something far smaller.

Sigiriya Rock is riddled with caves and overhanging shelters so has long been a feature in Sri Lankan history, possibly back to pre-historic times. Though it is ‘officially’ dated as a home to monks as early as the third century BC. Though the main attraction for tourists and local pilgrims alike is the ruins of the tenth century palaces/monastaries as well as the cave paintings. Much doubt still lingers about the exact purposes of the site either religious or royal !

We were not in a major rush to go through as it was quite warm so we took our time wandering through the various ancient gardens below leading up to the rock – which turned out to be a major mistake !



We also watched a couple of girls doing silly jumps in front of the rock for the camera, so had to do the same.


I took a side trip off the main path to look at some of the ancient and more unloved cave paintings, possibly dating back to the fifth century – there is the top half of a female figure.


While I was doing this the monk march I ran into yesterday started passing us by and there ended my zen like experience of the rock. I got very frustrated with such a huge amount of people, at least five hundred, slowly marching through the single file path ways. It took ages for them to pass. Apparently it is an annual month long march for world peace through Sri Lanka by Buddhists from a variety of nationalities. All it did was piss me off, I was not very peaceful…


Benne waiting paitently…..


I was not so patient – I know, many of you are shocked as I am always so tolerant ! So I wandered around a bit.


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There are two ways up and down to the base of the final section of the climb, though I wanted to see the rock paintings so had to go where the monks were, along a narrow path and up and then down a spiral staircase.



Once the monks had finally passed through the narrow section Benne and I went and climbed the spiral staircase for a look at the wonderfully preserved cave paintings. The latest theory is the images are of Tara a bodhisattva (enlightening being) and an important figure in tantric Buddhism – surprisingly!




From the frescoes cave we walked up to the start of the climb to the top of the rock. The entrance to the final staircase was supposedly through the mouth of a lion though all that remains now are its feet on either side of the staircase. I was really keen to see the feet, but when we arrived there were still too many monks around. So we bashed our way up a narrow metal staircase to the top of the rock.

The views were spectacular from the top and there were a large number of foundations from the buildings that were built here fifteen hundred to one thousand years ago. I would loved to have spent some tome here relaxing, enjoying the views and some peace. However the place was packed with monks, monks and more f*cking monks. One can be cynical about monks when they are using their iPhones to take photos of each other doing the Leonardo De Caprio pose from the Titanic movie on top of the rock.




After a quick “munchee munchee” – which seems to be Benne’s favourite thing – eating, I spotted the monks looking like they were about to leave so we hot footed it over to the exit and we managed to get there quite early in the stream. I got to the bottom and managed to get a quick snap of the lions feet, which I somehow managed to get half out of focus, but they quite cool.


You can see from this photo why I was keen to get down before them, it could have been a long wait otherwise!


I started down the main path to the exit but Benne stayed to take a couple of pictures and we ended up being separated from then on. I got to see the cobra head cave, which was sadly not that interesting.


I stopped and waited for Benne for a while, and tried to get a couple of selfies. Though my camera seemed to be attracting way too much attention from the local strays to be able to get a good one. So I gave up and walked back to the guest house.


I decided to take a bike and ride the ‘1.25kms’ to the beer bar to buy a couple of cans of lager to go with dinner. This turned out to be close to 2km and by the time I had gotten beer it was a pretty dark ride back up a dodgy unlit highway with no lights on the bike. I rode fast – and won’t do it again either. The next day as Benne and I were heading out of town we passed a funeral of someone killed riding a bike on that road…

The beers were welcome though, nice and cold and I was dripping by the time I got back to the guest house, in time for a shower and a brief lie down before dinner. Benne and I were joined by two young Lithuanian brothers who were travelling together, it was an interesting night – I have never met Lithuanians before.

A visit to Dambula’s Golden rock

Tuesday 19 March 2013 – Sigiriya.

I had another massive breakfast at the guest house before finally getting myself organised enough to get out the door soon after 9:00. I was going to catch the bus to Sigiriya, my next destination, and had decided there was not much point in competing for space and oxygen on the bus with people going to work, school or about their normal morning business, so later was better – there was no way I was going to do 6:30 AM. The bus station, even for west bound buses is in Kaduruwela, a town six kilometres east of Polonnaruwa. Though the bus goes back, almost past my guest house it is recommended to go to the station to ensure a seat. Either that or it is an excuse to get one last tuk-tuk ride in and pay three times as much for the short ride as the long ride on the bus will cost! In this case I actually believe it is the former reason.

As I was approaching the bus station I was met by a tuk-tuk driver from Sigiriya who was heading back there after dropping some tourists in Polonnaruwa, we negotiated a better price than his original offer. It was probably still seven or eight times the bus;  but relatively cheap and it would get me to Sigiriya quicker and more comfortably as it could go direct. Plus I could snap a few shots on the way and we could stop if I wanted. It was market day in Kaduruwela as we passed through.


A lot of the countryside in this part of Sri Lanka is flat and used for agriculture.


On the edge of Lake Minneriya was this new and very tall Buddha image.


There is a direct road to Sigiriya but the buses do not travel on it, though imagine once the massive road works are finished this will become a more common and faster route for buses to move between towns.


Minneriya National Park borders on the lake and has a good collection of the normal Sri Lanka wildlife; elephants, crocodiles and leopards. I was hoping to pick up some other people in Polonnaruwa who wanted to do a safari and unfortunately I missed a couple who did one from my guest house by just a few minutes on the day I arrived. It is too expensive to do solo. I spent the whole ride through the park looking for elephants, but only saw lots of dung – I did see this peacock in the middle of the road though.


I arrived in Sigiriya late morning and checked into a guest house, the most expensive yet, Sigiriya has a few options and is very popular so a bit more expensive than other places. The room was OK, cleaner than the others, but the shower was hopeless and the power point was strangely about two metres off the ground in the middle of a wall…



The guest house had a tree house out the back that was the central meeting point for most people and it had a great view of ‘the rock’ – the reason why people come to Sigiriya. More on the rock tomorrow.


I had intended to stay here for two nights and then stay in the nearby Dambula for the following night to visit the cave temples. However I met a German couple here who said that accommodation options in Dambula were not that great and it was better to stay here. Apparently it is easier to get a bus to Kandy from here as well, even though it passes through Dambula. Just like in Polonnaruwa, if you get the bus here you will get a seat, from Dambula maybe not. The guest house owner also said to visit ‘the rock’ in the late afternoon rather than in the morning which was my original plan. So I tossed the original plan out the window and decided I would do the cave temples in Dambula this afternoon and the ‘the rock’ tomorrow afternoon. Which was good as I had a call from Benne when I was in Dambula and he was arriving in Sigiriya tomorrow, so we could do ‘the rock’ together – cool!

I mooched in my room till 3:00 and then wandered up the road to the bus stop to catch the Dambula bus. I was talking to a man in the bus stop and he advised I skip the normal bus and catch a special bus with him. It was a private school bus from Dambula that drops kids off in Sigiriya and then picks up paying passengers on the way back,. It was three times as much as the normal bus at one whole dollar for the forty minute ride, but there was three of us and it did not stop. I called it a bargain. For the same amount I got a tuk-tuk from the main street of Dambula to the cave temples 2km away.

The first thing you see at the cave temples is the massive, kitsch and tacky Golden Temple, built in 2000 with funds from the Japanese. In true form there is a sign saying at 30metres, it is the largest Buddha statue in the world, but apparently it is not even the largest in Sri Lanka. Love it ! I also really liked the life size plastic monks queuing to get in, so classy!



The cave temples were 1500 rupees about 15NZD, more than I was lead to believe, but I think it was worth it and I wished I had a bit more time. A morning visit would have been good as the caves faced sort of north westish so trapped the late afternoon sun.

The cave temples sit almost at the top of a 150m rock rising above Dambula and were first used by King Valagamba as a refuge when driven out of Anuradhapura in the 1st century. When he regained the throne he had the caves made into temples. Later kings lined the temples with gilt and it became known as golden rock.

There are five caves, all fronted by a long white washed corridor, it was incredibly humid inside the caves and I was dripping when I was finished. Each cave contains a number of Buddha and other images, each were poorly lit and I was surprised flash photography was allowed inside, though I shot almost all of these without flash as I don’t like it.



Cave one had the longest reclining Buddha and was lit by the doorway. Each cave also contained a number of paintings as well. This was my favourite cave.





Cave two is the biggest cave with the most images. I used the flash for two of them I will say I am really impressed at the high ISO images from my new GX1 compared to the old GF1 I used in SE Asia.





Cave three.


Cave four.


Cave five.



The view from the top was pretty nice as well and it would have been a good place to sit under a shady tree and eat lunch – apart from the dozens of macaques !


I took a tuk-tuk back into Dambula and we passed this massive long march by mainly foreign monks, I have tried to find something about it on the internet, but no luck so far. Having said that, I only have access via the mobile network on my phone so I didn’t spend a lot of time on it.


I caught this bus from the bus station and partly because of the monks procession and that it was rush hour it took a long time to get back to Sigirya.


I had dinner in the tree house with three couples who are staying here, the food was great and of course plentiful ! It was a pleasant evening, but an early night for all.