Day 2 ended with a lovely dinner with a colleague of my dad’s and his lovely family. We dined at an Indian restaurant in Colombo called Amrit, the entrance of which boasted an aquarium with a lucky fish which rather resembled a sullen miserly old man. But then again, who would be happy pacing their life away in an aquarium.
Dinner was dal tadka, prawn, some form of fish, bhindi and a veggie biryani. If we had been anywhere near home, I would have been tempted to try more than the solitary piece of okra and smattering of dal and rice strategically scattered around my plate to give the appearance of having eaten a lot more than I actually did. I mostly nibbled on the naan, fearing the return of the IBS tummy, and had a wonderful time listening to the stories of my dad’s colleague’s wife recounting her adventures of child-rearing. It was a lovely dinner all thanks to the great company.
So Day 3 started early as usual and by 8.15am we were all packed and loaded into the van that we had hired from Lespri Enterprises to drive us around the country. There were only 4 of us, but we had booked a 12 seater van, not just because the rates are much lower per kilometer but also because on 4 hour drives, everyone gets greedy for leg room. We had our first stopover before we even left Colombo and went to Keel’s Super to stock up on some basic supplies (read snacks for the road and the life saving tissue box). We opted out of visiting the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage on the way to Dambulla as our guide helped us map out a better route and put it in our itinerary to visit on the way back to Colombo on our last day. We decided to forego the highway and instead took the longer but more scenic route to Dambulla through the cities and villages. There are really no words to describe the beauty of nature in Sri Lanka. The land is green as far as the eye can see and even further. The buildings are notable in that most have red tiled roofs and are brightly painted hues of blue, orange, red, pink, green and yellow. Taking a road trip through Sri Lanka seems futile in that there are next to no places to really pull over and enjoy the scenery. At the same time, while Sri Lanka is the ultimate photographer and nature lover’s paradise, if you attempt to trek through the country you’ll probably need a couple of lifetimes to reach your destination because there’s no shortage of breath-taking scenery at every step.
We decided to be adventurous and sample some fresh fruit along the way. We tried some pineapple from the roadside stalls (which they were nice enough to cut) and let’s just say it’s been a while since I’ve had pineapple so sweet. Some time into our road trip, my dad’s colleague rang us up and asked our driver to take us to a rest house along the way, compatible to our over-hygienic sensibilities. It was the most beautiful rest-house you could hope to find disguised behind an unassuming facade. From within, you could see a stream flowing through a forest of trees, including one with extra large jackfruit hanging off the trunk. The parents took tea and we all took an extravagant amount of pictures before moving on.
What was fascinating was that every stretch of the road is flanked with tiny stores. Some areas of the country are famous for pineapples, so you can find everyone selling fresh pineapples. Other areas famous for their cashew nuts, sold only cashews all along the stretch of the road. We tried some cashews before sampling some freshly boiled corn from a stall inside a large man-made forest, where we also came across, for the first time in 3 days, someone begging. What is an every-minute occurrence in Karachi suddenly seemed so out of place in Sri Lanka.
The two-way two-lane only road wound higher and higher and the driver’s overtaking skills grew bolder and bolder. It’s best not to be looking at oncoming traffic at this point. We passed Ethagala, also known as the Elephant Rock, named so because the massive rocky mountain is naturally shaped rather like an elephant. Sitting atop Elephant Rock is a white statue of Buddha.
Passing through the towns, our last stop before reaching the hotel at Dambulla, was a beautiful man-made lake where you can see a solitary rain tree. The rain tree, as per our driver, is not a native species of Sri Lanka, being brought over by the British to provide shelter against the torrential monsoon rains.
The driver seemed rather surprised at our choice of hotel but led us nonetheless to Eden Gardens. While the setting was picturesque and the entrance and staff welcoming, we were completely unprepared for the rooms we for. Spacious though they were, there was a single lonely split A/C, a non-functioning ceiling fan and an open-air bathroom which could have used a thorough scrubbing down. We tried to wait it out and see if the room would get cooler, but eventually had to throw in the towel, despite the free Wifi, for the sake of everyone’s health. The concierge (a single young girl and two elderly gentlemen whose designations were unclear made up the concierge at the time) was flustered, our driver not surprised, when we announced that we’d have to change hotels.
After quick conferring, while sweating it out, we decided to take our driver and my friend’s mum’s suggestion and head to Hotel Kandalama, a pricier option situated in the middle of a forest. A wise decision, though the pocket felt pinched. We were truly grateful to the customary Sri Lankan hotel welcome of flowers, cold drinks and cold towels after our long drive. The hotel being a 5 star hotel is pricey, and we found ourselves missing Cinnamon Lakeside but it was all worth it, if only for the unbelievable view the hotel offers. We checked in and our balconies had signs asking to please keep the doors shut and locked to keep out the monkeys. I don’t know if the signs were there to keep the monkeys out, or us in… probably both.
All the driving around meant we were barely in time to order lunch, which for me was veggie spring rolls with fries and burgers for the rest of the family, since again all meat served at the hotel is Halal (Kandalama has subscribed to the Crescent Rating Certification). With sated tummies, we flopped down in our air-conditioned rooms to relax, do some money maths and decided we’d spend the rest of the day exploring the hotel. The hotel is truly a jewel, with its main pool, the infinity pool, at the same level as the lake, an unbroken stretch of water leading up to the tree-lined horizon.
While wandering around, we had a go at outdoor table-tennis and headed back to the room at sunset. Dinner was a buffet where we finally sampled the king coconut before heading back to our rooms which were at the other end of this kilometre-or-so long hotel. Night-time wandering in the hotel corridors was spooky because the hotel is a part of the natural landscape with no glass barriers to keep you from the monkeys you can see sitting in the trees. To avoid freaking out in the middle of the night in case of any monkey business, we closed the curtains and dozed off hoping to get an early start to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa on Day 4.