Sri Lanka 2: Anuradhapura

I’m reminding myself that, technically, we started things of “easy” yesterday.

Today got a little bit harder.

For reference, biking is supposed to be the best way to get around the ruins and city, and while I can’t knock its merits, it’s hard to state that anything that involves driving on a road in Sri Lanka is the best idea.  People drive a bit crazy here, noticed it yesterday, reconfirmed it today, and while it’s not any different than what you might find in some parts of Central America, you’re not on a pedal bike with suspect brakes beside it.  It’s like the Brazilian cycling team getting busted on the DVP, except nobody busts anybody for anything.

Anyway, on to the city.

Anuradhapura (and by the way, spell check hates Sri Lankan words with a passion) was the original ancient capital of Sri Lanka, and boasts some well preserved and restored ruins, all of which still serve as functional pilgrimage sights to throngs of white-clad Buddhists.  While the detail in the various structures doesn’t match an Angkor Wat, the size of the structures certainly does.

The various Buddhist dagobas around the ancient city can trace their history back to the 1st century BC, making some of these guys “runners-up” to the Great Pyramids in terms of size.  The Jetavanarmaya Dagoba capped out at 120 metres high before its spire was broken years ago, and you just feel dwarfed as you’re walking around it.  It was our first stop after getting stopped to buy sight tickets – there’s not always a formal ticket booth at a particular sight, but security stands ready at various intersections to make sure you pay up.

Jetavanarmaya was our first stop before heading up to the Abhayagiri monastery complex, dating back to the second century, with a dagoba that would have ranked 4th in the world at the time.  It also features a beautifully carved “moonstone”, one of the best looking Buddha statues in Sri Lanka (again, thronged with followers), a massive man-made pond that was aptly named “Elephant Pond”, and ruins of old palaces and temples along the way.

Now, at one point during this spot, we parked our bikes and decided to walk around, and we got far enough that doubling back to get our bikes wouldn’t have made the most sense.  So, this part of the day took a fair bit, but no big deal.  Yet.

After checking out the museum for the monastery and the Lankarama dagoba, we decided it would be time to get some lunch.  I figured air-conditioned and easy, and the Lonely Planet and our guest house both recommended this restaurant named Casserole, so I punched it into the GPS and we were off…

So I’m used to biking at home, using Google Maps to double check where I’m going, either through a handy earpiece or by stopping to check my direction at a stop light.  Well, left the buds at the guest house and, not shockingly, no stop lights in Anuradhapura, so we ended up taking a rather circuitous route that took us by some more great ruins, but with me never being too sure of where we were going without checking the GPS during landmark-less stretches.  Eventually, we did make it to Casserole, whose sign was right next to a closed down restaurant.  Before the hangriness could set in, a lovely Sri Lankan security guard showed us where the restaurant was in the building.  Hangriness averted.

After some not-Sri Lankan food (Casserole specializes in foreigner-friendly fare, as evidenced by the number of foreigners sitting down for a bite to eat in the restaurant), we were back on our bikes to find what (I thought) was the rest of the ancient city.

Now, driving around the sites earlier, we must have made our way around “The Citadel” a few times.  Inside, you’re supposed to find the original Temple of the Tooth (which has now been moved to Kandy), and the walls of the ancient palace, which I referenced on Google images… only to later find out, after driving around aimlessly and almost into somebody’s backyard, that the picture that I found wasn’t actually Anuradhapura, but Pollonaruwa, at which point we said “F it, let’s check out that big white dagoba we skipped earlier.”

Good choice.

The dagoba in question was Ruvanvelisaya, and it was in the midst of a fully-functioning Buddhist prayer ritual.  Giant lengths of cloth were being brought out by worshipers dressed in white, walked around the dagoba in a clockwise fashion, and then handed to the monks, who tightly wound the cloth around the dagoba.  At some point, I’m going to have to check the symbolism of all this, but for right now, I’m content with the spectacle of it all.

At that point, one last run on Google Maps.  In Sri Lanka, a red dirt road counts as a real road, and we finished our trip biking one handed next to some rice paddys.. one handed because I had to check the GPS to see where I was going, because I just plain didn’t believe it half the time.

But, we made it home.

Tomorrow’s itinerary is undecided.  D got nicely faceburnt today, so if that’s not going well, we may do a tuk tuk trip to someplace nearby, but if he’s up to it, we’ll check out the rest of Anuradhapura.  Then, the next day, switch it up.

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