Anuradhapura: the intrepid travelling commences

Having made it from the UK to Canada to Colombo with relative ease, we finally kicked off the full backpackers’ experience with a train journey to Anuradhapura.

This was a bit of the shock to the system; buying the train tickets alone required some serious commitment (and patience!). Nonetheless, we managed to secure ourselves seats in the coveted and grandly titled observation carriage. This, it turns out, is nothing more than a standard train carriage with large viewing windows at one end that only benefit those in seats 1, 2, 23, or 24. Despite not falling into that category, we were perfectly happy with the second perk seats in this carriage afford: air conditioning. When travelling in almost 40°C heat, this was quite a draw. However, it appears that Sri Lankans have a rather lose definition of the term air conditioning; in this instance, it described rusty electric desk fans that had ingeniously been affixed to the train’s ceiling, though had clearly never been cleaned and were thus working to varying degrees of efficacy, spluttering dust and grime over unsuspecting travellers.The observation carriage - high tech aircon!

By now you’ve probably ascertained that we had been brought abruptly down to earth. What we may not have conveyed is how joyfully happy this made us. This was the reason we had packed up our lives and said goodbye to London’s mod-cons and easy living: to experience something so different to our daily reality, to see the world and to really appreciate the journey.

For the next few hours we trundled through the ever-expanding suburbs of Colombo, numerous small towns whose residents live within spitting distance of the tracks, and stunning scenery. At times, the train was going so slowly that people could walk along the tracks without any fear of losing a limb, only hopping off momentarily to let the train pass before continuing with their journey. The seats were anything but comfortable; in fact, the suspension was so jolty that our mobile phones thought we had reached our physical activity target for the day a mere two hours into the journey!

Given that we were undertaking such an intense workout, we decided that we deserved to sample some of the delicious food that vendors who were walking the tracks would intermittently bring on board. These included: delicious savoury doughnuts scattered with fried chillies, fresh curry leaf and chickpea pakoras, buns stuffed with sautéed and spiced vegetables, and sesame jaggery balls. Rather comically, each time a vendor boarded the train our two beautifully dressed Sri Lankan neighbours would look over at us expectantly and then burst out laughing as we purchased yet another snack. If they had been playing a drinking game, they would have been completely sozzled by the time they arrived in Anuradhapura.

You might be concerned that all this al fresco dining would have repercussions, but we figured that the turnover of food must be so fast that there would be little chance of the food sitting around long enough to fester. And, as long as we didn’t think about how the food might have been prepared, we were confident our tummies could handle these delights. We’re pleased to report that we were not proved wrong.

Our journey was not drama free however. In wonderfully Sri Lankan style, there were absolutely no announcements throughout the entire journey. As such, one has to estimate roughly when one might arrive at one’s desired location and be saddled up and ready to leap off should the situation arise. Needless to say, we were not prepared for such eventualities and managed to miss our stop (Anuradhapura New Town). Thankfully, Anuradhapura has two stations and a few minutes later we arrived at our destination.

We were very excited to alight at this ancient city. At its height, was the spiritual centre of Sri Lanka and housed tens of thousands of monks. Although badly destroyed by Indian invaders in 993, it was rediscovered by the British in the 19th century and is now one of Sri Lanka’s top tourist sites. Pilgrims paying their respects

The next day, we declined the offer of hiring bicycles from our guesthouse and instead hopped aboard a tuk-tuk we had secured for the morning’s sightseeing (LKR 2000/-). This was a very smart move as by 10am it was already 40°C – if cycling is your thing then make sure you start around 7am so that you miss the worst of the heat.

We started off at Ruwanwelisaya dagoba, which is said to contain remains of Buddha and is thus the most revered edifice in the city. We then headed to the Sri Maha Bodhi complex that, legend has it, houses numerous trees grown from one single cutting taken from the bodhi tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India. As the original bodhi tree of Bodhgaya no longer exists, this site in incredibly important for Buddhists the world over.

Next on our whistle stop tour of the key sites was the ancient Thuparama temple. Its stupa is said to contain Buddha’s collarbone – a gift from Ashok (the then Buddhist emperor of India) to King Devanampiya Tissa – and is considered to be the first built in Sri Lanka following the introduction of Buddhism to the island. Thuparama stupa

We also took in Jetvana dagoba, an impressive brick structure whose stupa once stood at 120m. Fun fact: at the time of its construction it was the third tallest building in the world, beaten only by the Pyramids of Giza. Despite no longer being as tall (time has taken its toll!), it remains the largest brick built structure in the world and is, in our opinion, the most beautiful site in Anuradhapura. Jetvana dagoba

In addition to these mega sites, we visited numerous other small stupas and ruins. We particularly enjoyed the Royal Gardens that house two very advanced bathing complexes used by the then royals. Despite being a little grossed out and affronted by the gender imbalance of it all, Ali was super impressed with the engineering that saw clean water piped from a nearby natural source into the King’s bath, then onto the Queen’s bath (quite why she needed to bathe in the King’s dirty water we’re unsure), and finally off to a separate repository.

Along the way, Sim was attracting rather a lot of intrigued stares. We couldn’t for the life of us work out why. She was not dressed inappropriately, nor was jumping around like a jester, so what could it be? Usually it is the blanca walking alongside her who elicits such attention. A rather comical conversation with a police officer somewhat uncovered the mystery. It went a little something like this:

Ali: “I’m too hot for this malarkey” (at the temple’s request to remove our shoes, yet again, and walk across stones warm enough to cause third-degree burns just to see a tree – albeit a very important tree)
Sim: (bravely placing one foot in front of the other and donning a stiff upper lip) “I’ll take one for the team”
Police officer: “Where are you from?”
Ali: “The UK”
Police officer: “What do you do?”
Ali: “I work for a charity”
Police officer: “Who is your friend?”
Ali: “Her name is Simran”
Police officer: “Where is she from?”
Ali: “The UK too”
Police officer: “What does she do?”
Ali: “She’s a researcher at a university”
Police officer: “She looks different to English people”
Ali: “Yes. She’s of Indian origin”
Police officer: (yelping with glee) “Aha!”

At this, the police officer trotted off to fill in the rest of the police force who then burst out laughing while Ali looked on bemused. Some locals passing by wondered what was going on and, duly filled in on the situation, they too erupted into laughter.

So, why all the attention? Well, without wanting to state the obvious, Sim looks very different to Sri Lankans and South Indians. Her ancestors are from the North of India, a region that was invaded and plundered throughout time and that therefore has a very varied gene pool that results in tall, broad, and fair Indians. With very few Indians visiting the island – the two countries have had a very tumultuous political relationship spanning back centuries and, as a local restaurateur put it in a very dead pan manner, Indians have their own magnificent sites so do not tend to bother coming to see Sri Lanka’s – Sim was somewhat of a rarely seen (albeit welcome) giant; think Gulliver just arriving in Lilliput!

Sightseeing and mystery solving over, we retired to our guesthouse to plan the following day’s activities. On the cards was a climb up Mihintale, a mountain revered as the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. However, it rained cats and dogs throughout the night and the thought of climbing up there barefoot was less than inspiring. Ashamedly, we opted for a pool day instead. It did not disappoint.

For those of you interested in visiting, here are a few top tips:

  1. Take a thick pair of socks with you. You have to remove your shoes before entering each and every temple/complex and by 10am the ground is absolutely baking
  2. If you’re looking for a cheap place to rest your head then the Amsterdam Tourist Rest is perfectly comfortable. It was clean, had a powerful air conditioning unit, intermittent WiFi, a helpful owner and was just a 15 minute (LKR 200/-) tuk-tuk ride away from the main station. Give the food a miss though.
  3. If you’re looking for local food then head to Creston Park Hotel for a buffet curry lunch. For LKR 300/- per person you can eat as much delicious food as you like and you’ll likely be the only foreigner. They also do lunch packs if you want to take away.
  4. If you fancy a more high-end (by backpackers’ standards) meal then book a table at Little Paradise. We ate there twice and the owners serve delicious and varied Sri Lankan dishes, many of which we have not come across since (e.g. the cashew, onion and prawn dish).
  5. If you’re in the mood for relaxation, you can’t beat a day by the pool at the Rajarata Hotel. They’ll let you use it for LKR 1000/- per person.

Lastly, there is an ongoing debate on numerous travel websites and blogs as to whether a ticket to see the sites of Anuradhapura is really needed. At $30 a pop, and with the museum currently closed to visitors, we can understand why. Our ticket was not checked once the whole time we were there and, to make matters worse, our tuk-tuk driver helpfully held onto them for us during the day and promptly ran off with them at the end of our time together (presumably to resell to his afternoon guests…). However, as we’ve committed to be as responsible travellers as possible on this trip, we’d urge you to buy tickets. While expensive (especially if you’re on as tight a budget as us – this was two day’s spending for us), the profit apparently all goes towards maintaining and restoring these amazing and historically important sites.