Saturday, February 11, 2017

Sri Lanka: Part 1

Well I've finally found some time to sit down and get a blog organised. It's been a crazy summer, with nothing more amazing then January 7th, when I married my soulmate--the wonderful Lisa Jones (now Cannings)! After spending time with friends and family in NZ, we whisked ourselves away to the jewel of the Indian Ocean--Sri Lanka!

"So why Sri Lanka?" everyone asks. We don't really have an answer. There are so many places we want to visit, but since we only had two weeks, we figured Sri Lanka was a nice manageable size and we had heard it's a fairly laid-back country with an impressive mix of food, culture, nature, and beaches. We were not disappointed! 
A map of Sri Lanka. After flying into Negombo on the west coast, we roughly followed the yellow line into the north-central interior, then zigzagged south to the coast, before looping back up to Negombo. The green spots are roughly where we stayed along the way.

Our flight to Negombo (The main international airport, just north of the capital Colombo) was due in around midnight, so instead of paying for a hotel that we would only be spending a few hours in, we decided to arrange for a driver to meet us and take us inland since we had no desire to spend much time in the big city. As we dosed in the taxi, I caught gilmses of Sri Lanka outside in the darkness. It struck me how many people were out and about at such a late/early hour. We even passed a full-on funeral at 2 in the morning. Stray dogs trotted left and right, apparently unconcerned with the dangers of vehicle traffic (They're generally pretty safe in this largely Buddhist/Hindu country).

As we neared our accommodation in Sigiriya, a rural forested area with open patches of rice paddies and banana plantations, our driver warned us against walking on roads at night due to elephants. "Last week and Australian man tried to take a selfie... bad idea..." He pointed out tall electric fences on some stretches of road. While he seemed genuinely concerned as he navigated the narrower country roads (I suspect he's a bit more of a city guy, as locals do not worry about speeding around blind corners as we would soon discover), the excitement of being in a new and exotic place was really starting to hit me.

It was still indisputably dark when we arrived at our accommodation. Instead of knocking on the door, it seemed our driver was still worried about rogue elephants possibly being about so he instructed us to stay in the car while he contuously honked the car horn. This continued for about a minute or more (I'm sure the patrons appreciated this nocturnal chorus), until a sleepy-faced hotelier stumbled out of his quarters and greeted us. After checking in a supping our first Sri Lankan tea, we were shown to our room where we snoozed for another hour or two until dawn broke and I heard my first chorus of Sri Lankan birds. This is the excitement and frustration of forest birding in a new country--I hear them but what are they?!  Eventually birds like White-rumped Shama, Brown-capped Babbler, Dark-fronted Babbler, White-browed Bulbul, and White-browed Fantail showed themselves, and Sri Lanka Junglefowl (the national bird) and peacocks called from somewhere further back in the woods.

Sigiriya Rock rises from the forest and ancient water gardens below.
After breakfast we caught a ride in a tuktuk to the famous Sigiriya Rock. For some background, I've copied and pasted this from Wikipedia: 

Sigiriya or Sinhagiri (Sinhalese for ‘Lion Rock’, pronounced see-gi-ri-yə) is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale District near the town of Dambulla in the Central Province, Sri Lanka. The name refers to a site of historical and archaeological significance that is dominated by a massive column of rock nearly 200 metres (660 ft) high. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa, this site was selected by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) for his new capital. He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. On a small plateau about halfway up the side of this rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion. The name of this place is derived from this structure —Sīhāgiri, the Lion Rock. The capital and the royal palace was abandoned after the king's death. It was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.
Sigiriya today is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.

The White-throated Kingfisher is probably the most common of its family in Sri Lanka as I think we saw them on every day of the trip. This was my lifer though! It was keeping a watchful eye over the ancient watergardens of Sigiriya.
Toque Macaques... Anyone who has been to Asia knows not to trust these shifty fellows! Even with prior experience from Borneo, one of these guys still stole my samosa. I will get my revenge one day!

Starting the ascent up the north side of Sigiriya rock.
Not for those who are afraid of heights, though imagine how they must have got up before this staircase was put in!

Thankfully, no wasps detected, though apparently noisy Chinese tour groups are attacked multiple times a year according to a local taxi driver. Maybe they should add another language to the sign?

Looking south from the top. Ahh--shade!

Looking back down the front of the lion (Note the paws on either side of the staircase)

Not a great photo but what a great bird!!! Indian Paradise-flycatcher. This all-white version is the Indian subspecies which breeds on the continent and winters in Sri Lanka. An endemic subspecies that nests locally is rufous where this bird is white.

This is a lovely male Indian Robin; a common resident of dry woodlands in Sri Lanka
One of the most common winter migrants to dry forests of Sri Lanka (And much of SE Asia)--this Asian Brown Flycatcher looks a lot like our dull Empidonax flycatchers back in Canada.
After Sigiriya, we walked back to our accommodation and had a nap. In the afternoon we walked around some backroads nearby and discovered that old Buddhist temples are quite common in this area, as we came across several hidden by trees with no one around. We also saw some birds :)

A smart-looking Little Green Beeeater (With a bold bee photo-bombing)

A male Long-billed Sunbird, filling in for the lack of hummingbirds in tropical Asia

A Buddha meditating... does he know there are three king cobras behind him!!!

The following morning we arranged for transportation to another ancient capital--Polonnaruwa--which had its glory days from the 11th and 12th centuries. The ruins are quite extensive with many different quadrangles and temples spread out over a large area. Here are a few snapshots of the place.
Lisa, ticking off another mammal for the trip list. That's one way to keep the ancient city grounds well-groomed.

And let's here from Wikipedia on this impressive stupa: "Rankoth Vehera is structure made entirely of brick, and has a base diameter of 550 feet (170 m) and a height of 108 feet (33 m). However, the original shape of the stupa, particularly its upper portion, has been changed during renovation work carried out by later rulers and it is estimated that the original height of Rankoth Vehera may have been almost 200 feet (61 m).Despite this, it remains the largest stupa in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, and the fourth largest stupa in the country."

I must admit, I had never heard of these "reclining Buddhas" but they're quite popular in Sri Lanka. I believe it has something to do with the moment that he achieved enlightenment. These carvings in the rock are massive (I would probably be the height of the two feet stacked up).

A few birds were spotted around the ruins. Here a Yellow Bittern tries to look green, among some flooded grass.

This was a bird I really wanted to see: Pheasant-tailed Jacana (related to coots)

Sinhalese Buddhists in traditional white dress for prayer. If you look closely the umbrella brand is "BARF"

After a long hot day "temple-ing", we thought--hey why not keep the sweat train rolling and go on a safari? So from Polonnaruwa, we met up with one of our hosts back at Sigiriya who had called up a friend with a jeep. We hopped in the back (These jeeps are set-up for safaris so the front seats are normal but there is a raised platform on the back with seats for 12 or so people). This jeep was just for us so it was great to stop where and when we wanted while visiting Kaudulla National Park--which we were assured had a lot of wild elephants. Since we hadn't seen any of the ones that supposedly roam around near our accommodation, we were keen to get out to a proper wildlife refuge and see what we could see.

First big animal in the park: Marsh Crocodile.

Mixed flock of cormorants taking in the afternoon sun: Mostly Indian but also Little and Great Cormorants.

Asian Openbill, refusing to angle its head so that I could get a good shot of his perpetually open bill.

Elephants! Our guides didn't lie to us. There they were (Over 200). And while there were plenty of other jeeps taking in the scene, the wide open parkland and large number of pretty chilled out saggy-panted giants made for pretty peaceful and pleasurable viewing.

Blue-tailed Beeeater (A migrant from India)

Painted Stork, showing a pink wash in some feathers.


Great Stone-Curlew. According to the guidebook this species isn't supposed to be inland but I was not complaining.
Note: Baby elephant alert (left). Also note that elephant mammary glands are between the front legs (Sort of like humans, and unlike cows, deer, etc--see the 'breasts' on the righthand female). 

Our first glimpse of the elusive national symbol... the Sri Lankan Junglefowl

Peacock going for gold. (Cattle Egret in foreground)

All in all it was a fabulous evening, watching the sun go down over the lake with all these cool animals around. In addition to elephants we also saw jackals, a few leaf-monkeys and close to 100 species of birds. That night we capped things off by seeing a Grey Slender Loris near our hotel! If you have never heard of this big-eyed primate--google it now!!!

On our last morning in the Sigiriya area, we decided to get up and climb Pidurangala, a less famous rock in the area but arguably even better than Sigiriya. Here's why (See below)

For one thing, to get up it, you have to weave your way up through an array of old Buddhist temples and statues, including this gorgeous reclining Buddha that takes in the dawn rays of sun.

But then up pop out on top, with virtually nobody else around, and you get unspoiled views of Sigiriya Rock to the south, surrounded by seemingly endless forest. What a beautiful place to spend a morning!

Nice view.

And thus concludes PART ONE of our honeymoon to Sri Lanka. Join us again soon for Part 2, as we make our way south into the hill country city of Kandy, where we take in some more cultural sites, before heading up into the mountains famous for tea and much more!


  1. Great read Russ, and some wonderful photos. Some good birds too.

  2. That's so amazing I'm so glad you two had a great time and saw so many great things I would be happy enough with the baby elephants!! Lol glad you had a great honeymoon

  3. A really enjoyable read. I wish you both the very best in your travels together.

  4. If you want your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend to come crawling back to you on their knees (no matter why you broke up) you got to watch this video
    right away...

    (VIDEO) Get your ex back with TEXT messages?

  5. Good post about Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a truly amazing place to visit. I came to this blog straight after reading this article.