The Cultural Triangle
Trip Start Apr 10, 2006
55Trip End ??? ??, 2007
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Our tour itinerary was a lightning speed romp around the highlights of the hill country and the'cultural triangle' to the north.
Route: Tissa-Ella-Kandy-Sigiriya-Polenaruwa-Kandy-Pnewalla Elephant Orphanage-Adam's Peak.
To anyone who's thinking of hiring a car and driver in Sri Lanka, my advice would be; don't bother, but if you really want to make sure you know exactly where you want to go and what you want to do. We hadn't done any research into where we wanted to go, so ended up just going along with whatever Nilanga suggested, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't
We made it to Ella in good time, but only stopped for a pot of tea before getting on the tediously slow moving roads to Kandy. After a tedious journey and much ado over trying to find a guesthouse with accommodation for our drivers, we crashed for the night, planning to get up early to go to the Temple of the Tooth, (the most important Buddist temple in Sri Lanka, supposedly it houses an actual tooth of Buddah).
The Temple and the Law...
Its only when i reach the front of the bag and body search queue, and am being padded down by an armed guard, that i remember the knife and drugs in my possession. You used to be able to walk in the grounds with whatever you wanted, but since a terrorist bombing by the Tigers of the LTTE in 1998 these searches have been introduced. Now, at a time just after the most important Biddist holiday of the year, and with peace talks with the Tamils in the north all but broken down, security is at an al time high. You would have to be a complete moron to try to get in with any kind of narcotics or weaponry, yet here i am, being padded down, with a five inch flick knife in my bag and about 1/8th of grass in my pocket
The knife turned out not to be a problem, because the drugs were found first. "Where are you from?" asks the guard; i get the feeling that the answer to this question might determine my punishment. I'm fairly sure that being British affords you a certain amount of leniency when it comes to drug charges in former colonial states. If i had been a local, or from India, or maybe even Eastern European, it would have been jail for sure. "England, London", i replied in the most authoritative yet non-threatening accent i could muster.
At this, Nilanga, who had not yet realised what was happening, was called over. There was a lot of discussion in Sinhalese, and back patting from Nilanga, and soon we were following one of the temple guides back out of the grounds. What's happening? i thought, is it ok? Has the guard decided to let me off? Or are we going outside for a beating? For the first time i saw Nilanga look something other than super cool. He wasn't in a panic as such but he kept muttering to himself "Shit, shit", and saying to me, "Why didn't you tell me? I would have put it in my shoe"
The guide and Nilanga gave me a quick rundown of how these things work over here. If things are done by the book, then any drug offence has to go to court. The courts are busy, so the hearing wouldn't be until the next day, so that's a guaranteed one night in prison. At the hearing, for the amount i was carrying, the most likely outcome was a jail term of anything up to fourteen days. As i was with a Sri Lankan driver, and it's much easier to pin crimes on locals, this jail term would possibly have to be served by Nilanga, but it could be me, or even both of us. If it was him, i would have to pay a large sum in bail to get him out anyway, so it wasn't looking good.
However, we were actually on our way to a tea shop, where the police officer was going to meet us, which suggested that things were not going to be done by the book. We were all going to sit down and calmly discuss how to deal with the situation over a pot of tea. My immediate translation of this was that i as going to buy everyone some tea while the police officer told me how much cash he would accept as a bribe, as my only alternative to at least one, possibly up to fourteen, nights in a Sri Lankan prison cell
We arrived at the tea house, while the temple guide told us to wait while he went to get the police officer. Nilanga, who was growing increasingly agitated, stood around biting his nails while i was trying to come to terms with how stupid i had been to effectively walk up to a Sri Lankan police station and say, "Hello, i'm a tourist carrying illegal drugs". Stacey, my girlfriend, who had remained remarkably calm so far, suddenly came out with, "Can't we just leave?". The officer who confiscated the grass had taken no details, presumably because he wanted no record of his findings as he was preparing to make off with a hefty illegal bribe. The guide who brought us to the tea house had never met any of us before and didn't even know our names, so running was looking like a good option.
Nilanga didn't need telling twice, his face lit up at the idea, he couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it himself. So we were off, on the run, full speed around the block, weaving our way through the dusty streets of central Kandy, trying to get some distance and some blind corners between us and the tea house before the police officer came back
By this point Nilanga has reached panic and he's shouting in Singalise at the driver who's pulling franticly at the lever by his feet. A crowd starts to build due to the commotion, and our ideas of seamlessly blending in have been shot to shit. I nervously put my head outside the tuk-tuk and look back up the street, half expecting to see a unit of armed police charging towards us, guns blasing.
Eventually the thing starts and we're moving, but we only get a hundred metes or so before we hit a jam, if our vehicle had been spotted we were sitting ducks. There was no option but to risk the last few hundred metes on foot. For Nilanga this was no problem, he's Sri Lankan, everyone else is Sri Lankan, it would have been difficult to find him if you were standing next to him. A six foot four, red headed Englishman, running like a maniac through the middle of a traffic jam however, sticks out like a sore thumb. For a police officer watching from back up the hill it would have been like playing a really easy game of where's Wally; Wally has his bright red stripy jumper and hat on, and he's running round Sri Lanka where everyone else is a foot shorter and dark, with dusty coloured clothes on.
I try to duck down between the lanes of standing traffic until we reach our old, Toyota Hiace, which is now effectively our get away car. The driver's asleep but Nilanga soon puts a stop to that and we're moving in no time, trying to find the fastest way out of the city, which was unfortunately round the on way system and back past the temple. I roll the windows up, change my shirt and put on a big wide brimmed hat in an attempt to avoid being recognised. This is no time for taking risks, if we get caught now, we'll be done for the narcotics charge and avoiding arrest; it'll be jail for sure, and we're about to drive right past the tea house where a presumably furious police officer is searching for the incredibly inconspicuous English guy he was about to bribe for all he was worth.
On the way round the nail bitingly slow one way system, Nilanga decides it's a good time to tell me that he's actually been in prison before, for three months, for being caught with over twenty five kilo's of grass. So here we are, on the lamb through Kandy from a pissed off Sri Lankan police officer with who knows how many of his friends by now, with a known dope fiend who has form for trafficking vast amounts of illegal drugs, and a novice driver who hasn't got a clue where he's going.
After driving in circles for about twenty minutes and ducking down into the seats every time we see a police officer, we finally make it past the city limits, and hopefully we're free.
The rest of the trip...
We spent that night at Sigiriya, arriving in the town with just enough time to climb the rock (the only reason people go there) before sunset. Sigiriya rock is a huge outcrop in the middle of the northern plains, on top of which a 17th Century king decided to build a palace to survey his kingdom from. The well excavated ruins are now one of Sri Lankas' biggest cultural attractions. The sight is well worth seeing, but at US$20 per person, incredibly expensive.
We came down the rock just after dark, to find our car full of six or seven Sri Lankan guys, including Nilanga and our driver, all passing round about three joints at the same time and listening to the latest raga at full volume.
With the money we just paid him, our guide could afford a couple of drinks that night, so we dropped him at the local Arrack den and headed back for some dinner. That evening was pretty uneventfull; ate some passable food, watched the news in Singalese, Nilanga went out for more grass, we went to bed.
The next morning we drove to Polenaruwa, another culture vulture spot; more extensive than Sigiriya, equally expensive and in my opinion less instanlly impressive. It's a former Medieval capital of Sri Lanka, there's a whole small city sized area full of remains of temples etc... great if your into that sort of thing, but if your on a tight budget and and can't take much more than a few days of non stop temples and ruins i wouldn't say it was a must.
We wanted to finish off our cultural tour with a night climb of Adam's peak, to see tha sunrise. Adams peak is one of the tallest mountains in Sri Lanka and an important pilgrimage for Buddists. Supposedly, there is a foot print on top of the mountain created by Buddah on the last of his three visits to Sri Lanka. However, the full moon that had just passed marked the end of te pilgrimage season and the start of the monsoon season. So all the lamps which light the way have been switched off and all the tea shops have shut down, meaning it would be a five hour hike with no light or drinks, and it would probably rain... so we decided against it.
Instead we made our last stop Pinewallla Elephant Orphanage. Pretty much every tourist visits the orphanage, it's not expensive like the cultural sights and its well worth a couple of hours. It wasn't as impressive as the wild elephants on safari, but you can see all seventy or so bathing in the river and the baby elephats being bottle fed.
After the orphanage and an argument with Nilanga about money we managed to convince him to drop us off in Colombo, where we would spend our last two nights in Sri Lanka.