It is six in the morning on Independence Day and I am on a coach to central Sri Lanka in search of ancient monasteries and rose-quartz mountains
I am off on my travels again, this time to the North-Western Province of Sri Lanka, spending two nights at Habarana to see little known and seldom visited places of interest in the vicinity. We are eighteen on the pink Flamingo bus driving north along the coast. Colombo is relatively quiet and the Lion Flags hoisted in honour of 68 years of independence from Britain, are fluttering in the cool morning breeze.
We took the expressway which runs through the Muthurajawela Marsh to Katunayaka. The marsh is a little-known gem of a wetland at the southern end of Negombo’s lagoon. The area had been a rich rice-growing basin before the Portuguese constructed a canal that ruined the fields with sea water. Over the centuries, Muthurajawela turned into Sri Lanka’s biggest saline wetland, home to some 75 bird species as well as crocodiles, monkeys and even some rarely seen otters. A Department of Wildlife Visitor Centre in the marshes arranges good birding boat trips in the mornings. The canal is a good place to spot Striated and Yellow Bitterns and several of the seven species of Kingfisher found in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s international airport is at Katunayaka. We drove past it and then, inland through the busy Katunayaka industrial zone and took the road towards Kurunegala. There were ripe paddy fields on both sides of the road, brown and ready for harvesting and full of egrets and the occasional black-headed ibis. As we drove further away from the coast, paddy fields gave way to coconut plantations – Kurunegala is a coconut growing area, and herb gardens vines of black pepper twisting up trees. One village we passed had an endless row of smoking brick kilns.
We stopped at the roadside Crown Field Hotel at Narammala for breakfast. As a settlement, Narammala dates from the reign of King Vijayabahu III (1220AD-1236AD). Fleeing invading South-Indian forces with the all important tooth relic of the Buddha, the king is supposed to have stopped at today’s Narammala to offer the sacred relic a golden Naa or Ironwood (Mensua ferrea) flower. Gold is ran and flower is mala in Sinhalese and hence the name Narammala. Today the town is surrounded by paddy fields and coconut plantations and has the world’s first and only betel research lab and institute run by Sri Lanka’s Department of Agriculture.
Breakfast was a buffet with sliced bread, string-hoppers and milk-rice served with dhal, fish curry, potatoes and coconut sambal. Black tea was drunk. A group of Chinese tourists were herded in by their local handler. They inspected and sniffed every dish, sat down and ordered omelettes.
Our next stop was the Hasthi Kuchchi temple complex near Mahagalkadawala. It is one of the oldest Buddhist temple complexes in the country (307–267 BC) and is a fascinating place to visit. We arrived there before the sun got too hot and had an excellent guided tour.
We drove to Kekirawa to have lunch at the Rest House. Gun-totting traffic cops in shades stood by the roadside, waiting like vultures for the days victims. Manic bus drivers drove up the wrong side of the road at speed while the policemen looked on. As they do on most roads in Sri Lanka, women boiled corn on the cob in big black pots on open fires.
There is nothing really to see or do at Kekirawa and the rest house is a pretty dismal place. It has a few terrible bedrooms. Don’t ever think of saying there! The manager/chef however served a pretty good rice & curry lunch using poison free and fresh local ingredients.
Namal Uyana at Dambulla, our next stop, is supposed to be the largest Ironwood forest in Sri Lanka and has the biggest rose-quartz deposits in Asia. Unless you visit the forest in May when the Ironwood trees are in bloom, the walk is of no great interest. The rose quartz mountains are weathered and no longer rose-tinted.
It was already dark when we reached Habarana. Sitting on a major road junction almost equidistant between Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Dambulla (and close to Sigiriya and Ritigala), the large village of Habrana is of little interest in itself but has a decent spread of relatively upmarket accommodation, making it a convenient base from which to visit any of the Cultural Triangle’s major sights. It’s also the handiest point of departure for trips to Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks, which offer some of the island’s best elephant-spotting. The main attraction in Habarana is the fine Habarana Lake, encircled by a small footpath around which it’s possible to walk in 90min or so.
Our base in Habarana was Acme Transit Hotel. It has large, air-conditioned rooms in a new block, a restaurant and a good-sized swimming pool.
We had cakes and tea in the lobby on arrival. Later, I had a shower, changed and walked in to the bar, dying for a cool beer.
“The bar is closed” the manager said. “It is Independence Day!“
There was a large Indian tour group staying at the hotel that night and the buffet dinner was obviously to please them and not us. The cuisine was neither Indian nor Sri Lankan and was frankly disappointing. A much anticipated post-dinner magic show, which was supposed to start at 8.30 pm was delayed until the Indians finally had enough to eat. The young local magician however was competent and entertaining.
Later that evening, I sat on my little balcony overlooking the swimming pool, sipping Scotch and water. The air conditioner spluttered and mosquitoes buzzed around my head. It has been a long day.
I decided to have an early night.
“Thanks Bernard, another very interesting read.” – Richard Fox, Harrogate, 10 February