Woke early to go to Fort train station to get a train to Polonnaruwa. It was pretty chaotic at 7:45am. A tout kept following me and telling me where to go to buy tickets – in the hope of getting a monetary reward. The guy I talked to at the 2nd class ticket booth wasn’t helpful at all, but I bought a ticket anyway. The trouble was, the train left at 10:30am. I sat down in a cafe and thought things through, as a mute man tried to make me sign some paper and donate it to an ‘orphanage’. Others had denoted – their names and the amount donated were scrawled down on the paper. The thing was, every name was written in the same handwriting. A scam. It’s always interesting to see the variety of touts and beggars I attract when I sit down. Every 5 minutes, a new weasel-like face shows up. The conversation is always the same: “Hello, sir. From where?” England. “How long been in Sri Lanka?” A few days. “Single or married.” Single, thank God. “Old?” 28. And then comes the pitch – another kid on the way and no money to feed it, need money for an orphanage, no money to eat, no money for an operation etc etc. I give curt, one word responses, if I respond at all. It usually does the trick to show them absolutely no interest whatsoever.
After the mute man left, I’d had enough. I couldn’t sit here for 3 more hours and fend off touts. I walked outside and a tuk-tuk driver came to me. I said I wanted to go to Sanders PI Bus Station. He charged 200Rs. I tried for 150Rs, but he wouldn’t budge. It looked close to Fort train station on the Lonely Planet map! Eventually I agreed to his price, saying I’d give him 300Rs for the return if I didn’t get a bus, so saving me 100Rs. By now I was surrounded by a swarm of moustachioed tuk-tuk drivers, the ‘helpful’ tout, and the mute – who were in league with one another. Time to go.
It took about 10 minutes to reach Sanders. Much further than the stupid Lonely Planet map suggested. I found a bus that was going to Polonnaruwa, so was able to send my tuk-tuk driver away. I threw my big backpack on a seat – for it was only a small bus – and headed off to the toilet and to buy water. When I got back to the bus, only seconds were left before departure, and my bag had just been taken off. I managed to get the bus conductor to throw it on again through the back door, and sat down. We pulled out of the station and began the 6-hour trip.
Getting out of Colombo was tricky – it was busy, and the military presence made everything slow down even more. Once we were out, the bus careered along at a frantic pace, swerving down the roads like a scooter with no brakes, one hand permanently on the brakes. Sri Lankan pop music blasted through the speakers, and the bus stopped whenever someone wanted to get on or off, wherever they were, which happened frequently.
Soon enough, the bus was full. My backpack had been taken and put somewhere I couldn’t see, and I was crushed next to the window. Next to me sat a mother and her child, and next to her an old man with a shiny, conker-coloured pate and crispy white hair. I didn’t mind being up against the open window. It provided air-con, in the form of petrol fumes wafting through.
Usually, I’m the type of person who needs a piss after 2 hours in a vehicle. This time, luckily, I didn’t feel that desperate. It was fortunate indeed, as the only pit stop of the journey came after 5 hours! By now, my neighbour had changed. A young man now sat next to me. At the stop, people smoked, drank tea, and ate samosas. I had a coke and a tube samosa type thing, and stretched my legs. Back on the bus, and last on the bus, I was amazed that everyone was in the same position. Nobody robbed a seat. In a developed nation like Singapore, I wouldn’t have got my seat back. Not so Sri Lanka. The crowd made way for me to go back to my seat. A gesture of politeness that astounded me after living in Singapore, where this kind of behaviour is all too rare.
One hour later, we arrived in the Old Town section of Polonnaruwa. I got a tuk-tuk to take me around several guesthouses, including Samudra, which was forlorn and shabby, Village Polonnaruwa, which was overpriced and too far away, and Polonnaruwa Rest House, which was overpriced at 7,800Rs, but had a splendid location right on the tank (the man made lake – there are a few in the area).
I eventually checked into the cheap and quiet Manel Guest House. Very bland, basic, and not particularly clean, but I liked the feel of the place. I got it for 1,000Rs. I dumped my bag, and headed out with my tuk-tuk driver once more, to the museum information counter, as I wanted to buy a Cultural Triangle round ticket. The round ticket costs $50, and covers most of the main sites in an area called the Ancient Cities, which is where the heart of Sri Lankan civilisation lies. During the golden age of Sinhalese civilisation, it was called Rajanata – Land of the Kings – and it was easy to see why. Polonnaruwa was one of 2 great ancient cities of this time, the other one the more ruinous Anuradhapura, further north. The ruins in Polonnaruwa are 1,000 years old.
After I bought my ticket, we headed to the ruins for some classic guerrilla sightseeing – get in – take the shot- get out. I only had 2 hours before the grounds closed at 6pm. We started at the Royal Palace, which was clearly once a magnificent structure, then onto the Quadrangle. Here lies the most concentrated collection of buildings in the Ancient Cities. At the Vatadage, in the southeast of the quadrangle, a number of monks were praying and chanting, the soft chanting sounds creating a very serene atmosphere. Only one of the 4 Buddhas here had a head – following the pattern of other Buddhist places in Asia where the head is missing. After this highlight of the Quadrangle, we headed to the Rankot Vihara dagoba, the fourth largest in Sri Lanka at 54m. We witnessed Buddha Seema Prarada, and the huge gedige Lankatilha, where the cathedral-like aisle leads to a huge standing headless Buddha. Hordes of monkeys roamed this area, but mainly minded their own business.
After this came the highlight – Gal Vilhara. This group of Buddha images represents the high point of Sinhalese rock-carving. The Gal Vihara has 4 images, all cut from a slab of granite, which give the images the impression that they’ve been carved from wood. the reclining Buddha, 14m long, and the beautiful grain of the stone is a highlight for many. I thought it looked great too, even though loads of monkeys were bounding around trying to spoil it.
After this great tour, I went to Polonnaruwa Rest house and had Devilled chicken and rice, with a coffee at a table outside overlooking the tank. The food was atrocious – all bones. The coffee was crap too. I left and walked back to Manel Guest House very unimpressed. I was exhausted so went to bed early. What a day.