This morning we arrived at Hambantota, a port at the southern end of Sri Lanka. There appeared to be nothing here other than cranes and cars. So, rather than take a tuk tuk into town with Claudio, I decided to go on the ship’s tour to Mulkirigala Temple, one of Sri Lanka’s most important, apparently. Surrounded by forest, the temple, which dates back to 130BC was carved out of caves on a rock 676ft high. Now this might not sound particularly high to you, but for us it presented the daunting task of climbing 550 very uneven steps (sometimes they almost disappeared, and there wasn’t always anything to hang on to) in the blistering heat. Still, I made it by taking it in sections and, once I had caught my breath at the top, beheld an enormous Buddha reclining at the back of one of the caves, in which every inch of the ceiling and walls was covered in wall art, depicting various stages in the life of the Lord Buddha.
These were my first, but by no means last of the Big Buddhas in Sri Lanka. For not only did several more of the caves contain similarly huge statues of the ‘Enlightened One’ but, the next day in Colombo, we discovered that temples in the city also contained huge Buddhas, only upright ones this time (they are all slim, by the way. The fat Buddhas are from China, where rotundity denoted wealth – at least that’s what the guide told us). The first few of these statues drew gasps at their size, and cameras were feverishly whipped out. After a day in the city, where there’s seemingly one at every street corner, we no longer batted an eyelid when we came across them, no matter how big or golden. There are small ones too, like the 50 or so solid gold ones we saw in Gangaramaya Temple museum, or another displayed there, that had been worked in solid jade encrusted with diamonds. All these, plus tons more in varying sizes and postures, had been donated to the temple as gifts. You couldn’t help but feel that such glittering wealth could have been put to more practical use in a country still seriously underdeveloped. But then, you could say that of the Vatican, which has priceless riches, while many Roman Catholics in Latin America live in dire poverty. Coming out of the museum, we came across a young elephant working in a car park to move the trees that had just been chopped down there – elephants are still very much put to working use in this country. Although, to be fair, they also seem to care of them, and one of the ship’s tours was to an elephant orphanage in a 15-acre coconut grove, and those who went said the work being done there was most impressive.
Not, I’m afraid to say, like that of the guide on our tour bus to the caves at Mulkirigala. Unlike the Lord Buddha, this chap seemed particularly unenlightened. He told us all to relax after our lunches – as he obviously planned to do – and as, all sorts of interesting, unfamiliar sights passed without comment, he seemed most irritated by our persistent questioning. We can go into all that on the journey back, he said. But, of course, we never did. Quite what he was there for, I can’t imagine, as he completely disappeared at the temple itself, no doubt too phased by all those steps. Still, we knew what the water buffalo and paddy fields were, and there were lots of interesting roadside stalls selling watermelons and coconuts, and pretty houses with verandahs and carefully tended gardens to look at, the latter which I hadn’t been expecting as I had thought to see much more poverty in the rural areas. There were no beggars in Colombo either, unlike in India where whole families sleep rough in the streets. In fact, even though there are parts of Colombo that are quite rundown, there is no real squalor – or, at least, none that we saw.
Nevertheless, it’s like stepping into another world entirely at the splendid Galle Face Hotel, where we went for cocktails, after a hot and dusty afternoon spent bartering in the rambling central market. This is Colombo’s white pillared and polished wood equivalent of Raffles, with the signed photographs to prove it. The bar overlooks the waves crashing on to the beach below. Now this is the life! We spotted the port speaker there, who was leaving after what had no doubt been a very good lunch. Wonder why he never told us about this little bit of luxury in his port talk?