Capitulation in Colombo

Trip Start Oct 29, 2003
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Monday, December 22, 2003

Tuesday December 16th

I thought I'd tell you a bit about the history of Sri Lanka, how the Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonize it in 1505, followed by the Dutch 153 years later, and finally by the British in 1796 when it became a crown colony and renamed Ceylon, until 1948 when we granted its independence (aren't we kind!). So I just copied that bit out of the Lonely Planet, and now you know. Since the 1970s there has been civil unrest in Sri Lanka, mainly by Tamil Tiger separatists in the north wanting their own independent country (Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist and 15% are Hindu Tamils). Terrorist bombings used to be a frequent occurence, but thankfully there has been a ceasefire for the last few years.
The British influence is still apparent, from the driving on the left (mostly), to the tea estates, to the wide use of the English language and, of course, to cricket (one thing I don't think we gave them was the head wobble). But I now have a few days off between Tests, so it was time for a bit of culture.
Kandy itself was once a kingdom, and is an important cultural site in it's own right. The centre of the city is dominated by a lake, and on the north shore is where you'll find the Temple of the Tooth. Legend has it that in the 4th century the Buddha's tooth was smuggled into the country where it is now on display - well, sort of. In 1998 the Tamil Tigers decided it would be a good idea if they blew up the temple and destroy the tooth, but despite much damage to the building the tooth survived. Now Buddhists and tourists alike can get frisked at several security checkpoints whilst queuing to see a casket that contains a box that contains another box that may or may not contain a mouldy molar. I didn't bother, mainly because I was wearing shorts and wouldn't have been allowed in anyway.
Instead I took a trip to the rock fortress and palace of Sigiriya and the cave temples at Dambulla. I hired a driver for the day for about GBP20 for the 2.5 hour drive north, through the hills and dusty towns of central Sri Lanka. Rising abruptly out of the surrounding jungle, Sigiriya is a 200m high lump of rock upon which a palace was built in 491 AD. It really is impressive, but at US$15 to get in it's a bit expensive. You do, however, get to climb it. Apparently there are 1,200 steps to the top (or closer to 1,500 if you drop your water bottle and have to embarrassingly climb down to get it). Fortuntately there are now iron steps bolted on to the side of the near-vertical rockface, but it's not for those with a fear of heights - especially when you can see the ground far below through the holes in the rusted steps. Ancient graffiti and frescoes can still be seen, but only the foundations of the palace at the summit remain.
After telling a few guides that I didn't want them, one persistent little git was a bit harder to get rid of. Despite telling him to bugger off, he kept following and talking to me. I just ignored him but then he 'offered' to carry my water bottle (ie he snatched it)and began to lead me all over the place, before taking me back down after about 5 minutes. For this he wanted payment, and I was in desperate need of water, so I grabbed the bottle off him before pushing him over the edge onto the rocks far below. From then on nobody else bothered me.
It was hard work getting to the top (and getting down again), but the views over the jungle and countryside were spectacular. Next stop was the cave temples at Dambulla which, not surprisingly, are temples built in caves in the town of Dambulla. Impressive, but after seeing so many temples already on this trip I don't mind if they are the last ones I see for a while.
Sri Lanka is also famous for its spices, apparently. This means that you have to stop at some spice gardens if you come here, even if, like me, you couldn't give a monkeys about sodding spice gardens. Your driver will take you anyway 'just to look' as they get a commission from anything you buy. I told him I didn't want to go, so when he pulled into one I refused to get out the car. Very annoying and a total waste of time, so I was thankful to finally get back to the guesthouse.

Wednesday December 17th

For 200 rupees (just over one pound) I booked a first class train ticket in the observation car of the train down to Colombo. It left at 6:30am which made for a pleasant dawn journey through the hill country and valleys down to the capital. The first railways were laid by the British in the late 1800s, and I don't think that they have been maintained since (kind of like Britain itself in that regard). Whilst not quite as bad as the roads in Cambodia, the train journey was so bumpy I thought that on a couple of occasions we had been derailed. That's why they only have a top speed of about 25mph.
Upon arrival 3 hours later in Colombo I checked into my hotel (yes: a hotel! With such luxuries as a phone and TV and a/c!) in the Fort area of the city. If I had read my Lonely Planet properly, I would have known that many of the streets in the area are barricaded and closed at night due to terrorist bombings in the past. Not a pretty part of town.
I went for a very long walk along the beach into the sprawling city to the Singhalese Sports Club, venue for the next cricket match. Once again watched the teams practice, and got a picture of a pissed-off looking Nasser Hussain, probably because he had read the reports that he might be dropped for the agame, and therefore possibly ending his international career. Had a late lunch in the Pagoda Tea Room, which was, believe it or not, where Duran Duran filmed their video for Hungry Like the Wolf. God knows why, as it was pretty drab.

Thursday December 18th - Sunday December 21st
Sri Lanka vs England, Third Test Match

The quick ones amongst you will note from the dates above that the game only lasted four days instead of the usual five. This is because England were absolutely and thoroughly annihilated by Sri Lanka, handing us our heaviest defeat since 1973.
I have to admit that at the end of Day 3 I had enough Lion lagers in me to join in with the Barmy Army for a good old 45 minute singsong. Of course, I was the best singer amongst them and they wanted me to lead them in more chanting, but I declined due to severe sunstroke.
Despite the game, it was great to sit in the sun, relax, and have beer brought to you by boys with Lion beer tanks strapped to their chest (there were no Sri Lankan women working in the stadium, and very very few watching). I met some interesting people, including a bloke who has seen either a one-day international or Test match at every venue in the world in the last year and a day, including Bangladesh and Darwin in Australia. (Why didn't I think of that? He is now writing a book about it.) I also got talking to an older cricket fan who, when people started to come up to him and shake his hand, turned out to be former Cyrstal Palace football manager Alan Smith. Then there was a Dutch couple who didn't really know what was happening but they 'enjoy the singing, the beer is cold and it's more fun than going to the beach.' Can't argue with that. I also spent half a session near some serious stattos - they were doing ball-by-ball scoring and had 'hilarious' stories of that time in Pakistan when they scored a bye as a leg-bye. I soon moved on.
Whilst we didn't deserve to win the previous two games we battled and fought to hang on for draws, but this time we gave up quicker than those French cheese-eating surrender monkeys. It was such a disappointing end to the tour, but it was still a lot of fun to be there. What made it worse is that some little Lankan git stole my flag - and others as it turned out - from the fence (sorry Fletch). I offered the groundstaff a few rupees for its return, but to no avail.
Next winter is a five Test series down in South Africa, which is very tempting. Anyone else?

Monday December 22nd

Seeing as there is no cricket today and I have to check out my hotel at noon, it seems like a good idea to sit in an airconditioned shopping centre and update the TP. So that's it for Sri Lanka, and this mini-leg of the trip. I won't miss the clouds of exhaust coming from every vehicle I've seen in the last two months (except Singapore, of course) and I certainly won't miss the mentalist tuk-tuk drivers dodging in and out of traffic and generally threatening the lives of their passengers.
Tonight I leave for Australia which, whilst much further in distance, will seem much closer to home. It only leaves me to wish you all a wonderful, safe and happy Christmas! I'll hopefully be spending it on the beach in Perth, as long as I survive one last tuk-tuk journey and make sure I don't have any spent bullets in my carry-on.
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