Sri Lanka – a market, a museum and a farewell drink – 28th -30th January 2018

Exploring markets comes high on Nick’s list of pleasurable activities and so he was delighted to learn that he could see the weekly Hikkadua market before leaving on Sunday.

Jackfruits being used in all the different ways – the outer part for cooking and the inner for eating raw.

A selection of lethal hand made knives

Dried Fish varieties

And what better for Maggie on a rainy day in Colombo than to visit the National Museum with its fine archaeological and historical collections?  Opened in 1877, it now houses material from Anamadahpura and other ancient Sri Lankan sites, the royal regalia and throne of the last Kings of Kandy, Colonial material and much else.

A ninth century Buddha

The God Surya from AmanadhapuraBodhisativa sandals, bronze, 9th c AD

Throne of the last Kings of Kandy

Of great interest is a worn, not very exciting looking, but unusual trilingual inscription in Chinese, Tamil and Persian.  This was erected at Galle in 1409 during the third visit to the city of the early Ming dynasty Admiral Zheng He, and commemorated his second visit there, when at a mountain temple he made offerings of gold, silver, embroidered silk, incense burners, scented oils and other luxury items.  He also invoked the blessings of various deities for a peaceful world based on trade. The stela was found in 1911.

Time was limited during our traffic clogged drive to the museum, but nevertheless we were able to take in some landmarks, including the Neo-Classical Presidential Secretariat, now almost dwarfed by a nearby structure; the clock tower, which was originally a lighthouse; the Colonial period President’s house and other government offices as well as several faded but still ornate heritage buildings, among them the 1906 Cargills Main Store.

Colombo is a city rapidly changing with much new building, now cheek by jowl with old buildings that will doubtless soon be replaced.  However, here, as everywhere else in the country, there were Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and Christian churches all functioning, all given equal status and several flower decked corner shrines, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian.  At a time when many countries are in the grip of sectarian violence, the Sri Lankan people set an example of real tolerance.

We said ‘au revoir’ to this extremely interesting country over a light lunch and drinks at the country’s oldest hostelry, the Galle Face Hotel, a visit which Nick had been promising himself ever since we had landed in Sri Lanka….

Hikkaduwa and Return to Galle -23rd -27th January 2018

We are now back on the beautiful south west coast which seems to be almost one long continuous palm fringed beach with golden sand, pounding waves, lagoons, rivers, jungle and small towns dotted along the extremely busy road running between Colombo and Galle.  We are here to see Nick’s sister and her husband, who have kindly made all the arrangements for us as they come here every year and know it well.  In the 70’s the village attracted many hippies and it gradually became well known, so that now the coral reef and the diving bring many winter holiday makers, particularly from northern Europe, to what  has become a bustling tourist destination.

We have breakfast overlooking the sea and after a day of lounging in the sun, swimming, snorkelling, walking, talking, reading, it is suddenly evening.  A great red sun drops quickly down to the sea, bleaching the light, dazzling the eyes and then changing the colours of sky and water as it descends, and as suddenly, pinpoints of light from fishing boats line the horizon.  Drinks are downed and it is time for another curry or some seafood.

Yesterday we returned to Galle to see more of the historic buildings and travelled by train, an interesting journey whch brought us to the centre of the New Town near the bus station.  Walking to the old Fort town we passed the 100 year old cricket ground and went through the main gate built by the British in 1873.  After some light shopping we found the old Dutch Hospital which has now been restored and has a good selection of cafes and restaurants.  Drinking iced cinammon tea we watched the waves, caught the breezes and imagined being a patient suffering from malaria, yellowfever or other tropical disease in this large colonnaded 18th century hospital.

Walking past the busy law courts’ area we came to the maritime and marine archaeology museums.  In the latter, thoughtfully selected exhibits, such as a full sized model of a fishing boat with outrigger,  illustrate the importance of fishing to the island, while copies of local 19th century illustrations show how the colonial people were perceived.  There is also a good exposition of underwater archaeology, highlighting the wreck of the Avondster (Evening Star) formerly a British vessel, captured by the Dutch, that subsequently made over 70 voyages between Holland, the Cape of Good Hope, Galle and Batavia, before sinking in Galle Harbour in the mid-18th century. The excavated contents in the galleries give a good insight into the cargo of such a ship and the lives of the crew.

At the Amangalla Hotel, formerly the New Oriental Hotel, now restored to its former glory and where generations of travellers were catered for in colonial times, we enjoyed an excellent lunch.  Finally, we examined the elaborately gabled Dutch Reformed Church with its impressive pulpit carved from Malaysian calamander wood.  In true Calvinistic spirit the gravestones set into the floor and brought here from graveyards and an earlier church, had graphic images of mortality and decay as well as the names of the deceased.




Dambulla & Sigiriya

Leaving Kandy very early in the morning when there was virtually no traffic, one could see how magical a place it had once been and at such a time, still is.

We headed north to see the ancient Buddhist temple complex at Dambulla.  After bypassing mangy dogs, packs of monkeys, the ubiquitous vendors and a vast golden Buddha sited above the ‘Golden Temple’, which looks like something dreamed up by a video game or Hollywoood set designer, a climb of 160m. over boulders and up stairways, brought us to the temple forecourt.

Large numbers of lotus bearing worshippers and tourists like ourselves, crowded into the five caves, some very small, in which about 150 Buddha images have been sculpted.  The first of these was done some 2,000 years ago and decoration of the caves and statues has gone on more or less continuously since then.  There are some very fine pieces but perhaps one needs to be a Buddhist or a specialist in the art of this region, to appreciate fully the work in these crowded temples.

We continued on to Sigiriya, where in the relative cool of the following morning we walked through  landscaped gardens to climb the great rock.  This extraordinay place, first uncovered in the late 19th century and now a UNESCO heritage site, has all the elements of an Indiana Jones epic – jungle, wild animals, huge boulders and at the summit of the great rock, a lost city and and hidden frescoes.  The site seems to have been a royal fortress city in the 5th century AD and subsequently became a Buddhist monastic centre.  Long before either, it was home to early man, with protection offered by the caves and plentiful water.

In the event, we climbed only about halfway as I had a problem with one of my knees and so we slowly descended.  Fortunately there is a good museum on the site, where we were able to see excellent facsimiles of the frescoes.  There is no certainty as to what these beautiful female forms represent or when they were executed.

Kandy: The Garrison Cemetery and National Museum, 20th January, 2018

On this our last day in Kandy, another visit to the Colonial past and to the earlier world of Royal Kandy.  Not far from the old Royal Palace and above the National Museum, is the Garrison Cemetery, resting place of British colonial men, women and children in the nineteenth century.  Many were Scots and many died very young from tropical diseases or were felled by wild animals.

Here too rests Sir John D’Oyly (1774-1824), a fluent Sinhala speaker, who represented the British Government at the 1815 Convention when the Kingdom of Kandy was annexed to the British Crown.  His tomb is on the far left of the image below.

The excellent National Museum which is in a building that once housed the Royal concubines, contains items related to life in the Royal Court of Kandy before the annexation.  On display is a copy of the 1815 agreement declaring the King to have violated ‘the most sacred duties of a sovereign..’   As one would expect of such an elite group, the quality of their possessions was outstanding.

Kandy: The beautiful lakeside – 19th January, 2018

In spite of the congestion and pollution elsewhere, in the vicinity of the lake, which was created by the last king of Kandy, the city is still very beautiful.  Far away on the highest hill a large white statue of Buddha looks down serenely, while nearer to the lake are several fine temples and the remains of the old Royal residence.  On the lake itself there are small floating islands of flowers visited by a variety of birds, while young lovers, pilgrims, tourists, schoolchildren and ourselves stroll along the lakeside.  Here the city has retained elements of how it was before the British conquest in 1815.

At the other end of the lake is the venerable Queen’s Hotel, once the British Governor’s residence before it became an archetypal mid-Victorian Colonial hotel.  Although somewhat battered by time and no longer elegant, it does have the distinction in our view, of serving the only decent food in Kandy – here we had excellent curries and a reasonable Chinese meal, unlike elsewhere.



Kandy: Temple of the Sacred Tooth – 19th January, 2018

Buddhism and the precepts that underpin it are central to Sri Lankan life and this becomes very evident when one sees the large number of people making offerings or ‘puja’ of lotus flowers at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth near the lake of Kandy.  This gold roofed temple is home to a tooth of the Buddha, the most important Buddhist relic in Sri Lanka.  It is kept in a golden casket within a series of caskets in a shrine, which is only open during ‘puja’ (when offerings are made).  It is a large temple complex with several shrines and temples within it.


Sri Lanka: Kandy War Cemetery and Peradeniya Royal Garden – 18th January 2018

This small cemetery, well maintained by Peredeniya gardeners under the aegis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is a poignant reminder of those who died defending Sri Lanka from the Japanese attacks in World War II.   There are 207 graves of British, Indian, Ceylonese, African, Canadian, French and Italian military in a garden that is filled with vibrant tropical plants.  United in death as in war, the inscriptions on their tombs bear witness to their youth and to the co-existence of different religions – Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian.


Once the Royal Garden of Kandy, whose origins go back to the 14th century, the beautiful 60 hectare Peradeniya Garden is a joy to visit.  Bordered by the Mahaweli River, with great lawns and a lake near the centre, it is perfectly laid out for easy walking and viewing of the spectacular plant life here.  It is extremely well cared for and has several specialist collections, including a superb arboretum, an orchid house and garden, a spice garden, palms, bamboos and flower gardens.

The magnificent Pride of Burma, a tropical evergreen tree with stunning red flowers, is often found near Hindu and Buddhist temples.A view from the arboretum to a Palm Avenue, one of three in the garden.

The Royal Palm Avenue along the main central Drive.

A Cannonball Tree.  Sacred to the Hindu deity Shiva because the shape of the pink, highly scented flower has a hood like the head of a cobra.  However, the heavy fruit which resembles a cannonball has a most unpleasant smell.

Display in the Orchid House.


A Nutmeg Tree bearing fruit.   Once dried, the nut in the centre of the fruit produces nutmeg; the red covering of the nut is dried and ground to produce mace.

A Cardamom Plant.



Sri Lanka: Kandy, the Tea Museum – 17th January, 2018

Our guesthouse is up in the hills as we had been warned that there was terrible pollution and traffic congestion in Kandy and so there is.  Nevertheless, having been tempted by the beauty of the lake and the buildings surrounding it, we decided to do some exploring.    After a quick foray into a couple of  streets we made a hasty retreat into the faded splendour of the Queen’s Pantry Shop for a restorative cup of tea as we had now decided to leave the city, head for the hills and learn all about tea.

The Ceylon Tea Museum  is a delightful surprise.  Set in grounds that are landscaped with different varieties of tea, the large retro corrugated iron factory retains the original wooden floors, drying racks and airing rooms along with the old machinery.  It is all very well cared for and there is a guided tour around the machines and the collection of objects relating to tea preparation and consumption.

We learned about the history of tea production and how it had begun in Ceylon as a result of the coffee blight which had destroyed the plantations by 1869, two years after the first experimental tea had been planted. At the end of the tour we had yet another cup of excellent tea.  Finally we bought some packets of tea in the shop.





Sri Lanka: To Kandy and the Elephant Orphanage – 16th January, 2018

The lake was like glass and the monitor lizard, squirrels and house dog welcomed us to an early breakfast before we said goodbye to our friends and departed for Kandy.   After Colombo there was no motorway and the journey became much slower as we climbed the 500 metres to Kandy on a single lane highway.

The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, near Kegalle on the way to Kandy, was originally formed to protect orphaned or abandoned elephants.  This laudable aim has been well accomplished, but as it is now one of Sri Lanka’s most popular attractions, the place has all the accoutrements of mass tourism.  There are  too many tour buses, tour guides, tour groups, clusters of stalls selling hideous ornaments, unwearable hats, plastic windmills and a shop with what must be the largest selection of elephant ephemera on earth – elephant on plates, mugs, ashtrays, hot water bottle covers, placemats, teatowels, T-shirts, clothes with elephants, wooden elephants and for the scatalogically inclined, something called ‘elephant poo paper’.

By the time we had worked out the timing of when the elephants would be where, and how many hundreds of people would be watching the elephants with us, and whether we wanted to watch the elephants going for their daily constitutional or having their lunch or their baths, we realised that we had just missed the chance to do any of these and that we would have to wait a couple of hours or so.  We had lunch to fill in the interval, but during this time so many bells were ringing directing the people ahead of us to the various venues, that we both had developed headaches and decided to leave and investigate one of the other elephant homes along the so-called ‘elephant corridor’.

Ten minutes later we were in a small sanctuary for badly treated elephants and were crossing a rustic bridge in a coconut grove, silent but for birds and the mahouts talking to their charges.  We and a few others watched them eat part of their daily ration of palm leaves and saw them being washed, indeed Nick even helped to clean one of them.  There was no hassle from hustlers and no bells, just elephants.

Sri Lanka: Brief Garden – 13th January, 2018

Brief Garden and the house, so called because the property was bought with the proceeds of a well paid brief by the barrister father of Bevis Bawa, is altogether smaller and more intimate than Lunuganga, the home of his architect brother Geoffrey Bawa.   Here too however one sees an immense creative flair, both in the garden and it’s artefacts and in the paintings, sculpture and ceramics adorning the low, relatively modest house.  Many pieces in both the house and garden were created specifically for the property.  Timeless, charming and domestic, the house draws one in from the garden, which itself can best be described as both intimate and a series of green or wooded rooms that enclose one, until taking the path or steps to the next space, another vista or artefact is revealed.


Among the many pieces made for the house there are works by the Australian artist Donald Friend, who stayed at Brief for five years (1957-62).  These include the large mural depicting local life, which became badly damaged because of the hot and humid climate but has been restored


The creator of Brief, the 6′ 7″ tall Bevis Bawa (1909-1992) whose father died when he was only seventeen, came from a well connected family in Colombo.   Having had to leave school early, he trained as a planter on a family estate.  Later he joined the Ceylon Light Infantry and ultimately became ADC to four Governors General.  He inherited the property in 1949 and then began its transformation.