Kathie's 2007 Adventures in Sri lanka

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Nov 25th, 2007, 09:25 AM
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Kathie's 2007 Adventures in Sri lanka

Planning: Sri Lanka has long been on our list of places we�d like to visit. This year, we decided to go. We used some of the reports posted here (such as ccc�s experience) and we bought two guide books: The Lonely Planet and the Insight Compact Guide to Sri Lanka. I found that there were so many places I wanted to visit in Sri Lanka, I had to draw up my list then eliminate half of the destinations. In particular, I wanted to visit and stay in the rainforest. However, given our time constraints (12 days) we chose to concentrate on the Ancient cities/cultural triangle area plus some relaxation time in the tea country. We also did not have the time to visit any of the beaches in Sri Lanka.

We also kept up with the current news in Sri Lanka, mostly relying on the New York Times, BBC and Reuters. Since the conflict in Sri Lanka continues, endlessly, it seems, we wanted to be aware of the issues and of what areas were safe and which were not safe. At no time during our year of planning did we feel we should cancel our trip because of the conflict.

I also asked questions on this board. I appreciated the input I received from fellow Fodorites. In particular, I�d like to acknowledge the assistance from Mohammed in Colombo and the usefulness of sharing information with Craig who is also planning a trip to Sri Lanka.

While I rarely use travel agents to book trips, the experience of ccc with Boutique Sri Lanka and my own experience with trying to book hotels in Sri Lanka on my own made me decide to use www.boutiquesrilanka.com to book our hotels and car and driver.

Getting to Sri Lanka: We already had roundtrip tickets between Seattle and Bangkok, as we typically use Bangkok as our entry point to Asia on our annual trips. So I only had the flights between Bangkok and Colombo to book. I used Eddie at the AmEx office in Bangkok to book our Thai Air tickets, as I usually do, [email protected] Note that most flights into Sri Lanka arrive after midnight and the return flights leave Sri Lanka in the very early morning hours (ours left at 1:20 am). This is true for Thai Air, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Air.

Itinerary:

Arrive Sri Lanka just after midnight and overnight at the Villa Araliya near the airport in Negombo.

Drive to Dambulla and stay 4 nights at the Kandalama while visiting much of the ancient cities area.

Drive to Kandy and stay 2 nights at the Kandy House while visiting the Temple of the Tooth and the city of Kandy

Drive to Dickoya in the tea country to stay 4 nights at Ceylon Tea Trails

Drive to Negombo and fly back to Bangkok after midnight
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Nov 25th, 2007, 09:26 AM
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Logistics in Sri Lanka: Hiring a car and driver is the most efficient way to get around. While the distances are not great, the road conditions (often one and a half lane roads, twisting mountain roads, bus drivers who think they are driving sports cars, poor road conditions in many areas) are such that getting from place to place takes some time. We chose to hire a driver through Boutique Sri Lanka. Typically, when you hire a driver not tnrough an agency, they would like to book your hotels for you (as they get commissions), but few drivers have relationships with these high-end hotels. By booking through Boutique Sri Lanka, this was not an issue.

You have your choice of car types, and without thinking much about it, I booked a standard car. When we arrived, they upgraded us to a semi-luxury car a large Nissan model not available in the US, but comparable to a Maxima, with good leg room and trunk room and nice leather seats. Were I to do it again, Id book the semi-luxury car. I should have remembered from my Morocco trip many years ago how important it was to have a comfortable car!

We were fortunate to have an excellent driver, Aslam, who was enormously helpful to us, as well as being an excellent driver (a necessary skill on these roads!). We greatly appreciated his knowledge and his connections. He got us excellent guides at the various historic sites, he knew the people at the hotels, and he knew of activities we might enjoy in various places. He was our resource in Sri Lanka. He was also willing to talk with us about the political issues in Sri Lanka and was able to give us insight into many cultural issues we were curious about. I also note that not only did we think he was an excellent driver, but the manager of our bungalow at Tea Trails commented to us that Aslam was such a good driver. He has worked for Boutique Sri Lanka for years and knows all of the high end properties and the staff at those properties. He has also developed a reputation of being someone they can call on in an emergency, and the manager recounted a story of a guest who needed to get to a hospital (quite a distance away) and how Aslam took her there in the middle of the night.

Boutique Sri Lanka furnished us with the number of their local agent should any problems arise. The agent also called us after several days to make sure things were going well. Also, the agency that furnishes the Boutique Sri Lanka drivers gave us a number should we have any problems or need any assistance.

Arrival in Sri Lanka:

The plane to Sri Lanka was packed. A friend of ours in Bangkok said the flights always run full. We were glad we opted for Business Class.

Sri Lanka is 1.5 hours earlier than Bangkok time.

Sri Lanka has waived visa requirements for many nationalities, and we simply filled out an arrival card and were given a visa-free stay of up to 30 days. Immigration was quick and efficient. There was an ATM in the area where we picked up our baggage, but it had a hardware problem and we were unable to get cash there. As we left customs, our driver was holding a sign with my name on it. We met him and the manager of the company was there as well. Both were very nice an were very clear that they wanted us to be happy and would do everything they could to make our visit smooth and enjoyable. They took us to the car, which was a Toyota Corolla, and I overheard them talking about getting us a bigger car. When the driver got in, he told us wed be in a different car in the morning. I told them of the ATM problem, and they said there were other ATMs in the airport. They actually drove us to another batch of ATMs in the airport complex and we were both able to withdraw Sri Lankan rupees. The driver and his manager accompanied us to our guest house and made sure we got checked in and settled, and we set a time to meet in the morning.

Villa Araliya is a boutique guesthouse located relatively near the airport. It was quite inexpensive, about US $65++ per night. The Villa Araliya is lovely, beautifully designed, very pleasant. Our only complaint there is that the bath towels are hard and rough, there are no hand towels and no wash cloths. There is no shampoo, etc, though I always bring my own, so I did't care. The place is very clean, the beds comfortable, the atmosphere nice. Breakfast (cooked to your order) is included in the room price. Note that they do not take credit cards, you need to settle your bill in cash. For the price, its a real deal. And since we were just spending the night, we felt there was no reason to go to the best hotel in Negombo, The Beach for US$200 a night.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 09:39 AM
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Welcome home Kathie. Looking forward to hearing more...
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Nov 25th, 2007, 10:28 AM
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One other note about the Villa, the owners are animal lovers and there are 10 cats and 10 dogs on the property. They are clearly loved and well cared for. I also noted there was a poster in the office encouraging visitors not to eat meat, arguing that since Sri Lankans are Buddhist, they are all vegetarian and meat animals are raised under terrible conditions and are fed only to tourists. I was a vegetarian for a number of years, so I certainly dont object to encouraging vegetarianism, I do object to providing false information to bolster ones arguments. Of course, not all Sri Lankans are Buddhist (about 60% are) and most Buddhists are not vegetarian. About 15-20% of Sri Lankans are Hindu, and thus do not eat many meats. About 15% of Sri Lankans are Muslim, and 5% are Christian.

In the morning, Aslam picked us up at the Villa Araliya and we drove 3 hours to the Kandalama near Dambulla. He asked us whether we wanted to eat lunch at the hotel or in town. Since we figured wed have ample opportunity to eat at the Kandalama, we opted to eat lunch in town at a resthouse, the Gimhala. There are a number of these resthouses run under government supervision, which are oriented to offering safe food for tourists. They offered a lunch buffet, but we ordered from the a la carte menu. We wanted Sri Lankan food, and they offered a number of interesting choices. I asked the waiter if the item I chose was spicy. He replied, no madam, not hot. I asked if he could make it spicy for me, and he was surprised you want it hot? and said they would make it spicy for me. As we were eating, we noted that the staff was watching us, apparently waiting to see if the food was too hot. The food was very good, with nice spice and not too hot. We paid about US$14 for our lunch. As we were leaving, we noted that we were the only westerners who ordered Sri Lankan food! There were a couple of tables of Sri Lankans or Indians who were eating the Sri Lankan food. Aslam told us the staff thought it was very odd that we wanted our food spicy!
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Nov 25th, 2007, 10:29 AM
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The drive to the Kandalama was mostly on dirt roads through a very rural area. The long driveway to the hotel is really lovely a tunnel of green trees above the red dirt road. The Kandalama was designed by Geoeffry Rawa, and was the first building designated as a green building. Its a wonderfully designed place, with the lines between indoors and outdoors beautifully blurred: boulders comprising parts of walls, a mix of open-air and enclosed space, and windows making up the whole outer wall of the hotel. While it has about 150 rooms, it feels spacious and uncrowded, hot at all like a large hotel. For check-in we were escorted to a table in the lovely open air bar and offered a variety of juices. Aslam prompted us to order the avocado juice. It was exceptional unlike anything Ive had before. They upgraded us from a luxury room to a deluxe room. As far as I can tell, the difference is that you get a huge jetted tub in the deluxe room. The rooms are really lovely, with a full view from both the bedroom and the bath down to the tank (reservoir) where you can see herds of animals drinking. There is a balcony with a table and two chairs. The décor is Rawas signature Asian minimalist. The bed is very comfortable, the towels thick and soft. The hotel recycles, and has a basket in the room for paper and plastic water bottles. The room cost was $228++ per night, and includes both breakfast and dinner. Both are huge, lavish buffets. You can opt for the a la carte restaurant for dinner and receive 20% off the menu prices instead. I am not one who likes buffets, but these were very nice. There are always items freshly made for you (eggs, waffles or French toast at breakfast; dinner might have a grill where you chose what you want grilled for yourself, or a station making Ceasar salads, for instance). There was always a wide choice of foods, both Sri Lankan and Western. Lots of fresh, local fruit was available at every meal.

Aslam picked us up at 3:30 to visit the Dambulla cave temples. He wisely recommended that we go either early in the morning or in the late afternoon. There are lots of steps to climb and it is very hot. Admission to the caves is US$10 per person, payable in either US dollars or Sri Lankan rupees. We noted that admission to many of the sites was priced in US$, and I was glad I happened to have some along.

You can choose whether to have a guide for the caves (and other historic sites). Many of you may remember that I am one who opted not to have a guide at Angkor. I had been reading about Angkor for many years, and felt I had enough information to appreciate the temples. For me, having a guide makes the visit a more intellectual experience, not having a guide makes it a more spiritual experience. While we had read everything in the guidebooks about the caves, we felt we really wanted more background. We found that there is just not that much available about the Sri Lankan historic sites in print in the US. We let Aslam know that we were very interested in Buddhism, and he arranged guides for us who were very well informed and able to answer questions as well as give us more standard information.

Aslam recommended a guide he felt he was the best there. Indeed, the guide was very good, and gave us lots of information about Sri Lankan Buddhism as well as specifically about the caves. He spent about an hour with us in the caves. The caves were enlarged and decorated with paintings and sculpture over a period of over 2000 years. The caves are beautiful, and very well preserved. Aslam suggested $5 for the guide, and we gave him an extra $1.

By the time we were finished in the caves, the sun was setting. The walk down the stairs was much easier and much cooler. Next trip, Id opt to go first thing in the morning. And Id opt not to use a guide as we now have lots of background information, so the next visit could be a more spiritual experience.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 10:29 AM
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Thanks, Craig! This will be a long and detailed report.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 11:06 AM
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Great report-love all the details. Sri Lanka has always been on my "list."
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Nov 25th, 2007, 11:26 AM
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We recently simply took the first guide at Dambulla who presented himself (our journey in Sri Lanka seemed to follow Kathies's pretty closely)

He was by far the best guide we've ever encountered anywhere, except for - just possibly - one of the volunteers at Winchester cathedral.

With limited expectations of Dambulla (how, you might think, can anything compare with the Dunhuang caves?) we were gobsmacked both by the caves and by the people there.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 11:53 AM
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Thanks for the detailed info, Kathie - I'm looking forward to the rest.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 12:43 PM
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Great to read the first dose of your report and will look forward to the rest of it. Seems it's going to be culturally uplifting for me too!

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Nov 25th, 2007, 01:40 PM
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i'm loving this....you are paving the road to craig and hopefully for us in the near future....
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Nov 25th, 2007, 01:50 PM
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s/b "road for craig..."
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Nov 25th, 2007, 02:28 PM
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I'm glad you are all enjoying my report!
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Nov 25th, 2007, 02:29 PM
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A note about photography: You may have read that they no longer allow photography in the Dambulla Cave Temples. There was an incident several years ago when a Japanese tourist had her photo taken sitting on the lap of one of the Buddha statues. As a result, they stopped photography for a time, and they re-consecrated and repainted the Buddha statue that was desecrated. They now allow photography (including flash and including using a tripod) but the signs say that you cannot take photos of people, only photos of the paintings and sculpture. I think thats a good guideline in general at religious sites. By the way, the only place we visited that had a fee for photography was the Temple of the tooth. All of the other sites had no fee for photography, and all allowed flash and tripods.

We were very fortunate everywhere we went in that we never ran into the hordes of visitors that the guidebooks warn you about. We were often alone in one of the caves with our guide, in Polonnaruwa. we were often the only visitors at a particular building, etc. Only at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy were there crowds of people.

The next day, Aslam picked us up at 7:30 to go to Polonnaruwa, about a two hour drive from the Kandalama. Aslam had again pre-arranged the best guide, and he was excellent, indeed. He escorted us through the museum, highlighting a number of exceptional items, and giving us a historical overview. Sri Lanka has over 2000 years of recorded history. Thus, as he guided us through the site, he was able to give us incredibly detailed information about what was written in The Chronicles and the confirmation of the written history in the archaeological record as well additional information that the archaeology has provided.

The site reminded me in many ways of some of the best preserved Roman cities, such as Jerash in Jordan. Polonnaruwa was the capital city for some time, but was burned by invaders from Southern India, and was abandoned and left to the jungle for about 800 years. There has been a goodly amount of archaeological work in the area, and the ruins have had toppled columns raised and some restoration work done. The ruins are stunning in that rather than the sterile environment of Roman ruins, these ruins are set in a garden as our guide said. The ruined buildings are surrounded by trees and greenery, making it a very pleasant place to visit. The city covers a large area, and we were driven from one area to another. There are both Buddhist temples as well as Hindu shrines, reflecting an influx of Hindus from Southern India.

There is so much fascinating to tell you about Polonnaruwa, but I will refrain and tell you only a few of the things we really enjoyed. Many of the temples have what are called moonstones at the entrance, a semi-circular carved stone with various animal figures. These were very beautiful, and it was interesting to see how the iconography of the stones changed over time. Many of the temples have inscriptions, but I was most fascinated by how many inscriptions had figures carved into the stone next to them, to convey information to those who could not read. For instance one stone showed a monk, a dog and a bird. The message was If you steal from the monks, you will come back in your next life as a dog or a crow. There was a long speech by one of the kings in an inscription. He was concerned that he was seen as an usurper by the people, as he had come from Southern India. The previous ruling family had come from the farmers caste and they had been seen as the legitimate rulers of the kingdom. So his speech said that farmers should not aspire to be kings, as that is like a worm aspiring to be a snake, etc. And this was again illustrated with figures in the stone. (By the way, that king was eventually assassinated.)

In all, we spent three hours with our superb guide. Rather than the $5 suggested by Aslam, we paid the guide $10.

We purchased an excellent book entitled The Cultural Triangle published by Unesco at the bookstore at the museum.

We ate lunch at the famed Polonnaruwa Rest House, where the Queen ate when she visited back in the 1950s. They built a lovely dining room just for her visit, and that is where the restaurant is now located. They had an excellent buffet of Sri Lankan food.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 03:28 PM
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Aslam had talked with us on our drive from Negombo to Dambulla about what things we wanted to do in addition to the ruins in the Ancient cities area. He suggested an elephant ride. I wasnt especially interested, but Cheryl wanted to do it, so he said he would arrange it. We also discussed a jeep safari into the national park at Kandulla, and we definitely wanted to so that. He called ahead and pre-arranged these activities for us, just as he called ahead and pre-arranged the guides for us.

So after lunch we drove to Habanera where we did the elephant ride. The ride was an hour long and went into a natural area and even into the water. We saw some lovely birds and some lizards. We enjoyed it, but I thought it was over-priced at $30 per person plus $1 for bananas to feed the elephant, plus tips for the mahout and guide.

As you know, tourism in Sri Lanka has really suffered because of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. As a result, people who work in the tourist industry are really hurting. We tipped generously.

Next on the agenda was our drive into Kandulla National Park. This park has a herd of about 250 wild elephants as well as a number of other large mammals and lots of fabulous birds. This is best done just before sunset. We were in the back of a truck with Aslam and our game-spotter. The game spotter was deaf but he could really spot the animals and birds. He had a bird book, and would turn to the page showing the bird we were seeing. Mostly, we saw elephants lots and lots of elephants. We counted about 150 elephants in all that we saw. It was interesting to observe them up fairly close. There were other jeeps in the area, and at one point, one of the old male elephants thought the jeeps were getting too close and he charged one of the jeeps, trumpeting loudly. We also saw lots of birds, including a spectacular flock of painted storks, a number of the beautiful small green bee eaters, a sea eagle, and wild peacocks. In all, we spent two hours in the park, plus about a half an hour drive each way from Habanera. The cost was US$50 plus tips to our driver and game spotter. I felt this was well worth it.

By the time we got back to the Kandalama, we had been gone for 12 hours a long day but a very interesting and rewarding one.

We had wanted to visit Anuradhapura, the first capital city, but it is farther north and had had a recent attack on the Air Force base there. Aslam thought it was not a good idea to go there (and even posters on Lonely Planet said it was not a good idea). So we had to save that stop for next time we go to Sri Lanka.

This is probably a good place to comment on the conflict in Sri Lanka and the impact it had on us. The biggest impact was that we did not visit Anuradhapura. No tourists have ever been targeted in the conflict. Indeed, most of the targets on both sides have been military targets. While the far north has been off-limits to travelers for quite a while, some places are considered riskier at times, and ok to go to at other times. There are many military checkpoints on the roads, but we were never stopped. Aslam told us that only trucks passing through and buses coming from the north are typically stopped. I noted that we saw lots of military training camps on our drive to Polonnaruwa. A friend told us of lots of checkpoints in Colombo, and Aslam told us that whole streets in Colombo are closed when government officials are present. Indeed, there was a photo in the local paper of the US Ambassador on his way to a meeting with government officials walking though a street jammed with stopped cars when it was closed for seculity. So if you are going to Colombo, it might well have more impact on you. The airport has increased security. When you enter the airport, there is a checkpoint. Aslam said that as foreigners we would not be checked. He simply turned on the dome light in the car and answered where we were from and we were passed through. Friends had told us that our suitcases would be totally unpacked at the security check in the airport, but Aslam said that only happens occasionally. Indeed, our suitcases were x-rayed but we did not have to open them.

Since we were not going to Anuradhapura, we had a free day at the Kandalama. We thought having a free day after our 12 hour day was a good idea and it was. We enjoyed the hotel and the wild grounds, and enjoyed watching wildlife from our windows. There are lots of monkeys (several different species), which are always fun to watch. We also saw a variety of birds from our room, and saw a herd of water buffalo. We didnt see any of the wild elephants that the sign outside the hotel warns about, but I understand they are mostly present at night. The hotel has three pools, one with a really stunning view. It felt good to relax, as we had been really busy so far. The Kandalama has free wireless internet access, so we both took time to check our email and I wrote some brief comments on the board.

There were mosquitos at all of the places we visited, though they werent awful anywhere. I noticed I got bitten at the Kandalama and on the drive in Kandulla National Park the most, but I did get a few bites at Kandy and at Tea Trails. The Ancient Cities area is considered malarial risk, and we opted to take malarone.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 05:30 PM
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Great report Kathie! Eagerly awaiting more. Welcome home!

Aloha!
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Nov 25th, 2007, 05:45 PM
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I'm loving your report so far Kathy. Sri Lanka may just have moved to the top of my short list for next winter.
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Nov 25th, 2007, 07:38 PM
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The next day we left for Sigiriya at 7 am. Its only a 30 minute drive from the jandalama to Sigiriya. As it is quite a climb, you really want to get there early in the morning to avoid the intense heat. Again, Aslam had contacted an excellent guide for us. When people think of Sigiriya, they think of the rock, but Sigiriya also includes the best preserved city site from the fifth century. You walk through gardens with pools, both ornamental and for swimming, as well foundations of buildings from that time. The rock (actually an ancient magna plug from a volcano along worn away) is over 600 feet high. There are a number of modifications in the structure of the rock made by the people, some mimicking natural features of other parts of the rock such as creating what appear to be natural arches, shaping rock to look like elephants, enhancing natural depressions in the rock into caves, etc. There is a long series of stairs climbing the rock. Mercifully, there are lots of breaks, landings in the more than 1000 steps. Perhaps half way up are the famous frescos of Asparas. They are remarkable, really stunning! And they were faced by a mirror wall to give one the experience of being among the asparas. Unfortunately, the mirror wall is marred by graffiti, some of which is contemporary with the frescos. The comments on the wall from that time have given archaeologists new insights into peoples reaction to the frescos.

There is a plateau perhaps two thirds of the way up the rock. We stopped and rested, and I admit I chose to stay there while Cheryl climbed to the top. The view from the plateau was stunning and from the top, even more so. We went down a slightly different route, allowing us to see the paintings in the boulder garden area as well. There are many areas of the rock that were formerly painted. Indeed, it appears that the rock was originally painted in a band about 140 meters long which includes the still-present asparas. As before, we had an excellent guide who enhanced our experience of the site.

We decided to go to a nearby hotel for lunch but when we got there they had either a buffet that wasnt nearly as extensive as the Kandalamas or a la carte boring western food. So we decided not to stay.

On the way back to the Kandalama, we asked to stop at a batik place. Cheryl had not previously seen the batik process, so she was very interested to see it. While I had seen the process both in Bali and in Java, I noted that much more of the work here was tulis (by hand) and I did not see any stamped batik at this shop. We purchased two batiks of moonstones, one for us, one for a gift. We decided to eat lunch at the Gimhala resthouse where we had eaten lunch when we first arrived in Dambulla. The food again was quite good, and they made it spicy for us.

We returned to the Kandalama mid-afternoon. Cheryl and I both took a long bath in the fabulous jetted tub. It felt good to soak after the long climb up Sigiriya. We relaxed and enjoyed our last evening at the Kandalama. We really enjoyed our stay there its a wonderful hotel. Wed both be glad to return to the Kandalama.

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Nov 25th, 2007, 09:29 PM
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fabulous, simply fabulous!!
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Nov 25th, 2007, 09:34 PM
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Excellent report Kathie! Please share some of your pictures too.
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