05 Nov 2017 17:30 IST

Pocket-sized pleasures

Most cities in Sri Lanka are small enough to be carried home as souvenirs

How many countries in the world can you cover in less than a week on a pocket-friendly budget with sublime grub and extraordinary sights guaranteed?

There’s a local saying in Sri Lanka that goes something like ‘even a one-legged chicken can jump all the way to Colombo’. Most cities (except Colombo) are almost small enough to stuff into one’s pocket and carry home as souvenirs, while zipping between them by road takes no time at all.

I’m on a tour of the ‘cultural triangle’ which takes me to, among many other things, the World Heritage monument Sigiriya, the ‘Lion Mountain’ at the approximate centre of the island. A distinctly phallic pleasure palace created way back by a king who saw the 600-ft cliff’s potential to become the world’s first luxury penthouse apartment; it’s a Xanadu up in the air.

Much of the awe-inspiring edifice is in ruins, but during the climb I pass cave paintings depicting buxom celestial maidens dated to the year 500 CE or so, in a gallery where the king’s guests, after having admired the artwork, signed a guestbook — carved into the rock. But that’s not the best of it, for up on the summit (or glans if we continue the anatomical analogy) there’s an antique infinity pool with a 360°-panorama of the jungles below. Then there’s the garden with fountains that the king built at the foot of the rock, which are still functional (at least during monsoon).

Apart from the grandeur, a reason why a king would prefer to live like this is that nobody could have attacked him. The climb is so steep that even the German tourists — known for their gung-ho sightseeing style — clutch the rickety railings, faces red, fierce winds pulling at their clothes. I’m told that about a year before my visit a drunk German was blown off the rock and it took four days to locate the corpse in the jungle.

It is said that the ‘cultural triangle’ is a Bermuda Triangle but in reverse: here marvellous castles such as Sigiriya (or Germans) disappear in the jungle and then suddenly pop up again, once found by archaeologists (or rescue workers). The area is full of souvenir stalls. A shopkeeper chats me up and adds, enigmatically, “Your face has a very Asian shape. You must have been a Sri Lankan in a previous life.”

He’s a Buddhist, so he should know about reincarnation. Though Lanka is the proud home to lots of other World Heritage Sites, if you want to see just one, go for Polonnaruwa — the unbelievably impressive ancient Lankan capital with its many temple ruins. But I realised too late that it would have been smarter to visit it in the morning, when the light from the east hit the east-facing Buddhas, while Sigiriya should be seen in the afternoon for best light on the rock paintings. The bottom line is, never trust your guide: he may know nothing about the best lighting conditions for photography. My pictures sucked.

On the other hand, my driver-cum-guide has good judgement when it comes to travel snacking. He routinely stops at roadside vendors who offer the weird-looking red-haired rambutan fruits stacked into pyramids or bright orange king coconuts that are huge — and hugely refreshing. We share meals at roadside canteens: local lunches, for which I typically pay the equivalent of ₹250 or so (for the two of us), feature bowls of fish curry, beef curry, jackfruit curry, breadfruit curry, banana flower curry, eggplant curry… and mountains of rice. The guide, a widower, sighs, “This is as good as my wife’s cooking used to be.”

He then suggests we visit a gem store so I can buy something for my wife. Splendid, I think, until we’re sitting before trays of sapphires, rubies and topazes and I notice that the cheapest stone, according to the price tag, is $600.

“Don’t mind the rates,” the trader says. “In the West, you’d pay 65 per cent more. Normally we offer 7.5 per cent discount, but you’ll get…” His fingertips drum out Lankan folk songs on the calculator keys. “A very special offer: $200 less.” “I’ll sleep on it,” I retort. The offer sounded cheap until my brain did the conversion to rupees and I figured the semi-unreliable guide would probably get a cut large enough to take a month’s holiday after dropping me off at the airport.

We end the tour in Kandy where I find a government-run shop and for the same amount I’d have paid for one gemstone in the scam shop, I buy 15 here. Kandy is a compact old town that holds sights such as a tea museum, a temple enshrining one of Buddha’s teeth, and botanical gardens where parts of the Academy Award-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) were shot. But not many know that the novelist DH Lawrence stayed in Kandy in 1922, while fleeing England where he’d been accused of obscenity over Women in Love. He hated the climate and the food, and barely managed to write anything — except for one poem, ‘Elephant’ — so when his pocket watch stopped working due to the heat, he apparently chucked it into the lake at the centre of town. I try to spot it, as I think how great a souvenir it would be, but only see massive lizards lounging on the rocks. Maybe they ate it?

(Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; zacnet@email.com. The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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