After a long Day 3, we woke up bright and early (6 am is actually later than we normally wake up) to get ready to go to Polonnaruwa, the second ancient capital city of Sri Lanka. Opening the curtains we could see macaques on the trees having a spot of breakfast and animatedly jumping and swinging from tree to tree. Last night some monkeys had actually paid my brother and dad’s room, scratching the windows and were still loitering around in the morning. As we ventured out of our rooms, the corridors where our rooms were located at Kandalama were filled with birds dive-bombing and flying at full speed inside and back out into the lush greenery.
Watching our heads, we headed for breakfast where you could see the monkeys around as well, peering in. We finally set off at 8am. First stop, Sigiriya. The climb up Sigiriya takes roughly an hour and a half or so, so we had to decline because the parents couldn’t make the climb. Instead we admired the Lion’s Rock from afar and learnt more about the Royal Palace and Water Gardens from our driver/guide. He explained to us that the water gardens contained pools fed by the lake below. How they managed such a feat at that time, I can’t imagine. The sight is splendid and another time, I would like to go closer and see the lion’s paws closely and walk up to stroll in the gardens.
We had underestimated the distance to Polonnoruwa but ended up enjoying the drive through the beautiful forest passing Habarana and Minneriya National Park which offers elephant safaris (excursions can be arranged directly from the hotel). We didn’t stop for a safari or tour the park but plunged ahead taking in the beauty around us, forests and giant man-made lakes as well as beautiful cottages and villas dotting the landscape. We finally reached after an almost 2 hour long drive. Entrance tickets cost USD 30 a head, but because we’re from a SAARC country, we got in at half price simply by producing our passports. We secured a tour guide recommended by our driver/guide, who took us around the museum first explaining the historical significance of the sites we were about to go out and see. No pictures are allowed inside the museum blocks and unfortunately I don’t remember the details too well, but as the guide said, “…just remember him as King 2 who was a great king who built many temples.” That said, we moved out of the museum blocks and drove to the sites. First stop was a statue of the king Parakramababu I, holding what looks like a yoke.
We then moved to the remains of what once used to be his splendid 7 storey palatial complex but is now a 2 storey (almost 3 at some places) ruin after having been burnt down by the Tamils. The stone structure remains a charred ruin, indications of hollow shafts where wooden beams once stood. The weather was terribly hot to be roaming around bare-headed, so we took emergency measures early on and got a couple of brimmed hats. When we bought the hats, he asked where we were from and was really happy when he found out we were from Pakistan. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever met so many people who are happy to meet Pakistanis. It was great! He even told us he loved our cricket team (he may soon be the only one the way things are going).
From the palace we went to the swimming pool, adjacent changing rooms as well as the King’s Council Chamber and a beautiful dagabal called the Kiri Vihara, the sheer scale of which was stunning.
We then set off to the sacred quadrangle. The parents by this time were drained by the heat and opted to stay in the car while my brother and I went out to explore the other Buddhist monuments housed in the sacred quadrangle, including 3 temples – one of which took 8 days to build and another which took 60 days to complete. One of the most beautiful structures was a circular temple which housed a statue of Buddha, which I couldn’t enter because it required the doffing of all head garb, hijab included which I couldn’t do, so I admired it from afar. Not knowing much about the history of Sri Lanka, I was surprised to find a lot of Hindu relics and temples as well.
Nearby was a temple that seemed out of place in that it was shaped like a pagoda, the likes of which can be seen in Angor Wat. Opposite the pagoda was an enormous stone slab painstakingly inscribed with religious text.
Back inside the car, the guide promised we were almost done and were heading to the crown jewel- the 3 statues of Buddha carved into stone at Gal Vihara. My parked at a distance and had to walk the rest of the way past monkeys sitting in the trees. Approaching the statues required removing all head gear again, so my mum and I stayed back while my dad and brother went to have a closer look. The first statue is of Buddha sitting in deep meditation, the second of him standing arms crossed over his chest symbolizing his empathy with other people’s suffering and finally the statue of the reclining Buddha. The last statue depicts him lying down on his right side, one hand under his cheek, the other on his side, feet over each other such that one toe is slightly behind the other, symbolizing he was close to death and about to reach Nirvana. There is a temple in between the statues which was under renovation at the time, so there was no chance to look inside. The men then headed to take pictures of the lotus filled lake while avoiding the monkeys, while mum and I waited in the shade of a tree all set to call it a day and head to our next destination – the hotel.
After some refreshing king coconut on the way back, we reach the hotel, freshened up, had lunch and relaxed till 4pm which is when my brother had booked us all for…wait for it… an elephant-back ride! My mum was a bit reluctant at first, but by degrees we managed to convince her to come along for the ride. The elephant’s name was Monica (desi people, please refrain from singing at this point). Monica is a sweetheart of an elephant with pointy brown hair, sticking out of her head like an elephant sporting a punk look. We all walked up a platform from which we would sit on her back. We sat such that my brother and I were on one side and the parents on the other, legs dangling from the basket. She set off at a leisurely pace heading parallel to the lake, which the parents could see, and the forest, which my brother and I could see. The sun hid behind the clouds and a gentle breeze blew across the plain so much so that I had to forego the sun hat lest it fly right off.
Sitting on the back of the elephant, it was hard to get a straight picture because you’re essentially bobbing along to Monica’s shifting shoulders and also for fear that you’ll just drop the camera, or fall off yourself if you don’t hold on to the railing in case she decides to shift gear. We were lucky that one of the men leading the elephant offered to take our camera and take pictures for us and of us. The scenery was beautiful and the weather even more so, that is until she headed straight into the forest. The path was narrow and the foliage dense, which meant we were at the mercy of Monica, trying to thwart unruly branches from scratching our faces and legs. As Monica wound her way into the forest, she came across her favourite food and naturally had to stop for a snack despite calls of “Daha Daha” from her trainer. She wound her trunk around the branches of the tree and yanked with all her might to get her food while we rocked on her unsteady back . Her trainer eventually got her to give up, much to her despair, and move ahead much to my mum’s relief. Her trainer was a nice guy though and as Monica plunged forward, he went back to get some tasty branches for her to munch on the way. We even paused in the forest for a toilet break…not us… Monica. “Monica toilet” as our handy cameraman/trainer put it, sounded very much like cannonballs dropping to the ground and didn’t look much different either.
The forest finally thinned, my mum finally breathed, and we headed to a solitary tree next to the lake where Monica posed for a picture, saluting the camera with her trunk. After her smart pose for the camera, she headed down to the lake for a drink of water and we thought we were going to be heading back to the hotel after her refreshments. We were wrong. Instead, Monica headed right into the lake, quite oblivious of my mum panicking on top of her. Ankle deep water soon turned into knee deep water and a dizzy spell thanks to the combined effect of Monica’s gentle swaying and the watching the ripples on the lake. When it was time for her to head back to land we assumed she’s turn around and go straight back, but again we were mistaken. Instead she seemed to move sideways, right to left, inching her way back to shore in a diagonal where you could see the footprints of her well-trodden track. Before we knew it, we found ourselves disembarking from Flight Monica and taking farewell photos. Thanks to our lovely guide/cameraman, we got some incredible shots of the beautiful landscape and of ourselves.
Safari concluded, we decided it was time to kick back, relax and catch up on some much-needed rest before getting ready to check out early on Day 5 to head to Kandy.