Monthly Archives: February 2013

Cultural triangle extended: Panduvasnuwara.


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A fine day and the above photographs epitomise the beauty of Sri Lanka as a country of clear lakes (tanks) and wonderful vegetation.
My ride out to the West coast took an interesting turn when I unexpectedly happened on some ancient ruins by the road side.

A little further and there was another another ancient site next to a fairly unassuming museum. Two curators were keen to show me around.  Panduvasnuwara was the site of a huge 12th century palace created by king Parakramabahu and rivalled the one at Anuradhapura. Looking around the museum and the ruins of the palace I was surprised by the extent of it all. It compared well to the more popular and higher profile archeological remains at Anuradhapura and yet did not figure much in guidebooks.

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Joyful Diversion


Because of the flooding in Wilpaththu national park I was unable to push through to Putallum Lagoon as planned. No wild camping in one of Sri Lanka’s greatest parks for me. To a certain degree my thoughts were now focussed on my return to Colombo and a scheduled flight to India. I enjoyed an amazing lunch of egg hoppers at Bogaswewa junction. I was joined by an elderly well spoken Buddhist monk. He invited me to his place for dinner the next day but I explained I was on a schedule and had to keep moving. The restaurant at the junction sold excellent food and the staff were very friendly. Not surprisingly it was a very popular place to eat.

It was pitch black when I arrived back in Anuradhapura. The great Buddhist stupas or domes were lit up against the sky. This time I needed to find accommodation. Lonely Planet recommends Hotel Milano. It was a little on the expensive side for me but a welcome treat after a fairly gruelling cycle ride. In real terms Hotel Milano provides a quality stay for a reasonable price. Good people too.

One particularly handy thing was that I was able to take my bike into the ground floor room. Somewhat guiltily I took it into the shower room and gave it a good scrub and clean. It took some time and well into the early hours of the morning. With maintenance and oiling my bike was like new again.

Refreshed I set off the next day South along the A28. The sun was shining once again. I spotted an artist creating Buddhas in his studio and saw wonderful roadside fruit stalls. Sri Lankan pineapples are the best! I stopped briefly at a beauty spot visited by children on a school outing. I then happened on a Buddhist shrine discreetly tucked away off the beaten path.

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IMG_1696 IMG_1698 IMG_1699I met a monk descending the path and he encouraged me to visit and take my bicycle to the small religious enclave at the base of high rocks which provided a commanding view in every direction. At the buildings a younger monk placed oil on my forehead and showed me a small deer that lived with them. I climbed the rocks high above a huge statue of Buddha and enjoyed the view.

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The day ended with a beautiful sunset and with few choices and unable to camp I took a room in yet another seedy hotel.


Mannar Island




Once I had crossed the Jaffna Lagoon I was presented with a track made from mud, sand and water. I hoped that it would be a short stretch but it turned out to be the exact opposite. This was to become a road over the next three years. Meanwhile the coast road linking Jaffna with Putallam is, in practical terms, unusable.
It was a Herculean task and one which rivals the most arduous times in cycling I have ever experienced. My struggle against a gale along a North Jutland beach will stay with me forever.
I waded through deep puddles of water and worried that the contents of my panniers would get wet. I continued with the hope that it would get better. It didn’t. It rained. I felt like a bicycle messenger at the Somme.
Finally and as darkness fell the mud became a concrete road leading to the bridge connecting with Mannar island.
Lights from the town glittered in a seductive row ahead and as I finally cycled in towards the main junction I felt like I had fought some savage beast. Just a bit of mud and rain really.. but about 45 miles of it.
I asked a jolly policeman at the town junction about finding a room and he set me off down the right road.
The hotel I found had thick well made Dutch windows and doors. With bakelite electrical fittings and overhead fan it felt a little anachronistic. It was wonderful to get cleaned up and recover from my day. The Dutch  had also imported Catholicism and donkeys to the island.

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The next morning I set off with the intention of cycling to the other end of the peninsular to view Adams Bridge; the rocks connecting Sri Lanka with India. However and given the extra distance I had second thoughts and simply completed a wide circle of the town stopping to have breakfast along the way.
Mannar Island was a LTTE stronghold during the war and suffered like Jaffna from much deprivation and lack of transport links. Adams Bridge provided an escape route for refugees to reach India. However the town itself remained fairly intact and still reflects its Dutch colonial heritage. The Dutch fort is in excellent condition and undergoing work to preserve and convert for visitors. I wandered in and was given a tour by the resident archaeologist.

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I crossed the bridge to the mainland and searched for the road but once again found a trail of despair. Quite simply the road does not exist except as an extensive mud bath.

I lost a day on that route. My plan to skirt (and camp) along the coast South via Wilpaththu national park (B403) came to nothing. Just inside the park I was turned back on the good advice of a navy post. The ‘road’ ahead was flooded. I backtracked and instead had to camp at a deserted Sri Lankan army fortification with high mud walls. A storm raged during the night. Once again it felt like being in a First World War trench with bombs exploding all around. I packed up my wet tent and once again tackled the mud. I slowly backtracked North. I stopped to view the ruins of the first Governor of Ceylon; Frederick North’s residence which is badly eroded by the wind and slowly bit by bit, falling into the Indian ocean.



By lunch time I was back on the road. A real road and one which would lead me back to Anuradhapura.




Bastion’s hostel close to at Chundkuli Junction in Jaffna provided an excellent room and base while I had a good look around the city. There remains a huge military presence all over the city. Every junction or significant landmark was manned by armed soldiers. It seemed nesomewhat incongruent. The war is over. The LTTE are long gone. It seemed like the military were clinging on to their salaries in the name of ‘security’. It is overkill and which causes resentment amongst the residents. On the upside the military help prop up the local economy with their spending. In time tourism will fill the economic vacuum the departing forces will leave behind. Meanwhile it feels like martial law. When I took a photo of an armed patrol I was told to delete the picture off my phone.
Jaffna itself remains an important city and trade centre albeit cut off by air and rail. Once the ‘rehabilitation’ is complete the city will regain its place as a major player in the Sri Lankan business world. The Dutch fort on the seafront has massive walls but sadly there is little else left as it was heavily shelled by both sides during the war. It remains currently occupied by the military. I visited the railway station which had been home to many displaced families and now evicted prior to work starting on a new station.

IMG_1478 IMG_1484Riding up Temple Road I went past the back of the Nasar Kandasamy temple and saw a large congregation at a meeting hall. I was invited in to view the wedding taking place. I was taken aback by the hospitality afforded to me and introduced to a number of VIPs. I was offered food and drink and told to get as close as I wished to the stage to take photos. I was somewhat embarrassed by such generosity but snatched a few pictures with as little imposition as possible.

IMG_1500 IMG_1506 IMG_1510I particularly enjoyed my visit to Jaffna and met some great, very warm hearted people. Incredible when one realises the suffering endured by people during the war. At one point when the LTTE knew that the city would fall to government troops they forcibly marched all of the citizens out. The Sri Lankan army then occupied an empty city. I spoke with one man when visiting a temple whose younger brother, a high school student, disappeared. There remains a large number of people who are unaccounted for.
Jaffna retains an South India vibe. It has much in common with Kerala and has a majority Tamil, Hindu population.
For my part I discovered beautiful Hindu temples and excellent food. I revisited the Nathan Food Center in Temple Road for some wonderful tea, roti, buns and sweets. The best!

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I met a pair of German touring cyclists and advised them to stay at Bastion’s. they looked quite dishevelled and exhausted. Their bikes were caked in mud. We compared notes and they advised that the Western coast road that ran South of Jaffna Lagoon was in a bad way and practically nonexistent. I told them of the military zone to the North and which radically altered their planned route.
I set off from Bastion’s and waved goodbye to the owner. After a slight mistake as I rounded the coast I found a brand new road that crossed the Lagoon via a good bridge. Once on the other side my problems started. There was no road…

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Jaffna Peninsula


Sadly my plan to stay camped on the beach ran aground. During my enjoyable afternoon on the beach I met two friendly local Tamil people. One was collecting washed up rope to sell. This proves the saying that there is money in old rope. Later in the afternoon a man cycled by but only stopped briefly to spy my tent in the old military compound. Within the hour I was being interrogated by a Sri Lankan army midget dressed in tennis clothing. He had turned up with half a dozen young off duty soldiers to assert themselves at my expense. I was told by the gang leader that it was a dangerous area and that thieves operate there. I insinuated that the most dangerous people likely to steal from me were the kind of people taking an interest in me at that moment. They were acting like adolescent squaddies looking for fun and I was on their ‘turf’. One unzipped my tent so they could all look in. Surrounded by this circle of young men the alarm bells began to ring for me. I wondered if they were going to give me a kicking for fun. I have no doubt that if I had been a local Tamil that I would have been a more suitable target for their entertainment. So I packed up my stuff pretty quickly and hot footed it away from the scene. It was a little frustrating as I was a long way from my next stop in Jaffna and the light was starting to fade. I returned to the main road and thankfully found half decent hotel (JJs) with friendly staff.  I chose to head, once again, to the Northern coast. My ride took me past long minefields marked with red flags either side of the road. Many buildings were in a bad state from war damage.  I visited a busy covered market to buy supplies including a fish for dinner.

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From the A9 I cycled North towards the fishing town of Point Pedro and stopped at a temple and then a local cafe for afternoon tea with some local guys.

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Point Pedro has some significance for Sri Lankans as it is the most Northern point of the island. The jetty is as far as you can go. It is a busy fishing town and like everywhere in the North undergoing some rehabilitation. The coast road is littered with fish drying in the sun. Many are contained within nets to keep insects away. I met a group of fishermen and had a good natured chat.IMG_1427 IMG_1433 IMG_1440 IMG_1441

I was unable to follow the coast road as it was under military control and off limits. Every time I dropped down to another road heading West towards the airport on the North Western peninsular I was turned back at checkpoints. Eventual I had to use a main road to Jaffna. I found another great looking temple which I believe was devoted to the Hindu elephant god Ganesh.


IMG_1448 IMG_1447With the light fading and a fish to cook I pulled in to the ruins of a house to use the kitchen. Back on the road I made one last dash for the city of Jaffna.


Elephant Pass



Following a night at an unremarkable (crappy) hotel I tackled the road North with some enthusiasm. I stopped to see pilgrims descending in the early morning mist from a shrine high on the rocks.

I made good time and despite roadworks and a major military checkpoint (with personal interview) I found my way to the old LTTE (Tamil Tigers) ‘capital’ of Kilinochchi.

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The road is being heavily upgraded and renewed so there were lots of roadworks to negotiate. North Sri Lanka remains a military zone and there are countless army bases and checkpoints. Every significant geographical feature threw up a heavily guarded army post or base. The land became increasingly bleak and the scars of war were everywhere. Buildings are deserted and pockmarked by shellfire.IMG_1372
What initially looked like good ground for camping became a no go area with areas marked out as minefields. Close to the road people in protective armour were working to clear the mines. I stopped to have tea at a transport cafe at Elephant Pass and which joins the Jaffna peninsula with the mainland. Historically it was the place where elephants would travel down from the Indian mainland into Sri Lanka. Now, however, it is known as the scene for two major battles between the LTTE and government. I cycled to the North coast and set up camp at a deserted Sri Lankan army post on the sun drenched beach which stretched like a ribbon of golden sand in each direction.

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Cultural triangle: Anuradhapura



I considered using Dambulla as a base and making day trips out. Kandy and the Tooth Temple was a particularly attractive option. However, and on balance, I felt that it was not practical. Kandy would add several days to my trip on account of the distance and climb. Furthermore Kandy is a bit of a tourist trap and a city in the same manner as Colombo. I decided to stay on track and continue my cycle tour by heading North towards Anuradhapura and ultimately Jaffna.
Once again I was treated to a downward ride. It felt like the right decision.

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I reached Anuradhapura by the early afternoon via the Hospital Road. I took my lunch on the bank of a river either side of which were enclaves for monks. Their saffron and green clothes were strung out on long washing lines.

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I scouted around the site of the ancient city to see what could be viewed without incurring the $30 tourist ticket charge. The sites are over quite a large area so access on my loaded bike was quite good and was able to visit several museums with antiquities displayed outside.

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To be fair I did not give the city the attention it deserves but with the evening fast approaching took the road North out of the ancient capital.


Cultural triangle: Dambulla



A relatively short hop South from the small sedate town of Sigirya lies the economic centre of Dambulla. It lies on a crossroad that links each part of the country. The town hums with activity.
I cycled around a large food depot off the main road where fresh produce was being transferred from truck to truck.


A little beyond the main town are the famous Golden Temple caves carved in the rock high above the road. Below is a large golden Buddha, round golden stupa and Buddhist radio station (Rangiri Sri Lanka Radio). I had a chat with a security guard on the gate and then went to find accommodation directly opposite the entrance and detailed in the Lonely Planet guide.

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I was surprised to find that I was the only guest at the hostel which is owned by an elderly widower. Her home was excellent with brightly painted walls and basic but very authentic accommodation. Despite the rustic conditions it was very comfortable and an ideal place to stay. Cheap too! I considered staying a few days and using it as a base to explore the wider region.

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The entrance fee to the caves was 1500 SL rupees (@£7). Reasonable I thought. Before entering the cave complex there is a shoe stand to leave shoes for 20 rupees prior to entering the sacred area.
The caves contained an incredible number of Buddha statues including three huge reclining Buddhas. The artwork including wall paintings is superb. Most of the caves had been one large cave but had been separated over time by artificial walls. The caves date back to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Having uncovered the caves the British created a covered wooden walkway during the 1930s between the caves. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and undoubtedly one of the most important and  best preserved buddhist sites in Sri Lanka.

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I found the whole experience very moving. I sat and ate my lunch by the shoe stand as it began to rain.

Cultural triangle: Sigirya


IMG_0920As I left Pollonaruwa it began to rain quite heavily and I joined a scooter driver taking shelter under a building. As happens endlessly I was then subjected to a barrage of questions.
‘Where are you going?’ is the Sri Lankan mantra that everyone asks. “Sigirya’ I replied. He suggested a ‘short cut’. Somewhat foolishly I followed his directions and began skirting a huge expanse of water. On and on I rode. The short cut became hours of  additional cycling as I followed a road that ran alongside a river flowing in the opposite direction. I stopped to pitch my tent before the light faded.
The sun shone the next day and had a delightful breakfast in a village store where men were playing a game of carom outside. Carom is similar to pool; uses counters instead of balls and the playing board has little pockets in the corners.

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I finally found a good road which swung back towards Sigirya and its fabled rock fortress. I stopped to help some chaps push a truck out of a ditch. Apparently the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and wandered off the country lane. A tractor arrived just after we had got it back on the road.

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Talking to a couple of chaps manning a vehicle exit to the fortress revealed the location of a similar rock and shrine a short distance away which was not subject to an outrageous entrance fee. As I pushed my bike I spotted another chap called Loah walking in the same direction. He was an Mexican/US traveller.. and a bit broke. He told me of a secret way onto Sigirya rock used by local archeologists and which he had heard about from the owner of the hostel where he was staying. He had already been to the shrine at the other rock  and was looking to see the rock fortress too. We found a track leading up and I hid my bike whilst Loah hid by a wall. It was fun in a school-boyish manner to sneak in. We soon joined the tourists at the rock to view the huge lions feet hewn out of the rock. Then we ascended the metal walkways leading to the ruins on top of the rock. To be frank the ruins are not a great deal to look at but the view is magnificent. There is a museum but having chanced our arms that far decided that the rock and its surrounding ruins was enough to see. Highlights were an ancient bathing pool, an audition seat and of course the view which revealed Adams Peak in the distance with a little cloud below the top of Sri Lanka’s highest mountain.

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IMG_0991 IMG_0993Loah had suggested a good hostel and which is detailed in Lonely Planet. It looked great with lots of travellers but sadly was full. Alternatives in Sigirya were few. The place was full and a popular destination to visit.
I avoided the touts and set off on the road South towards Dambulla. It was dark and used my bike lights not knowing how long I would be cycling. Bicycles with lights are extremely rare in Sri Lanka.
I found a wonderful hostel and negotiated a decent price for a quality room with en suite and hot water. I was asked not to say how much I was paying to the other guests staying either side of my room and which consisted of a German couple and two French girls. They had paid about a third more but my problem as always is not being able to get single rates. Two to travel is very cheap when sharing. I do claim to be two. It is me and the bike.

A great nights sleep and back on my mechanical horse. To Dambulla!