Tyronne offered to redeem his forgetfulness at not picking us up the previous night by driving us out to the bus station the next morning, via a couple of places he had to pop into on the way. Following a mammoth-sized Roti breakfast, we were dropped off at the Hindu temple that had been mentioned in the guidebook, and spent half an hour wandering around the odd spectacle of the empty concrete shell that seemed to have been built from the top down, with the riotous jumble of not-yet painted deities and figures perched all the way up the two impossibly steep pyramids on top. Beneath them the echoing warehouse-like interior was bare, save for a fat woman in a Sari hosing down a collection of exactly the same bronze statue in various different sizes, while her naked child played in the dirty puddle she had created.
On the way out of town, we stopped at the other site we were assured was must-see for Matale (I didn’t actually know Matale had a ‘must-see’ list, but Tyronne was adamant we’d like it); a small monastery and religious site perched amongst a set of curious, house-sized boulders on a hillside just outside town. An old monk had undertaken a series of cave-paintings in the small living quarters that had sprung up, depicting hell and all the fun that could be had there. Imagine ‘Where the Wild Things are’ meets a Jake and Dinos Chapman sculpture with added monkey-factor.
We were dropped off by Tyronne at the junction just to the north of Matale, where we caught an already-packed bus that was headed straight past our next destination. The key, it seems, to getting a bus anywhere in this part of the world is to catch it from its origin. So many instances in this trip would find me sat at a bus station amongst a large crowd of people all hoping to grab themselves a seat, preferably by the window, preferably not at the back and certainly not the special seat reserved for the conductor (as my prematurely-smug self found out several times). Like a dash for the H+M January sales, the very first peep of the bus causes a mass mobilization all around, and there is nothing to do but get down with the locals and use your elbows; I’ve never seen the likes of Sri Lankan women and old men who had previously been fanning themselves and looking faint move so fast. Of course, the cities are crowded, the roads are crowded and the whole bloody continent is crowded, so you can guess what the busses are like. Just make sure you’re not stood in the aisle with the ceiling four inches shorter than you and no-where to stash your twenty-kilo pack except on your back. This time, though, we were lucky, standing at the very front of the bus next to the driver and the open door, the road whizzing by two feet below us.
Dambulla Cave Temples sounded amazing in the guidebook- a set of rooms and caverns forged out of the hillside 2,000 years ago by the various monks and monarchs that had made house there. During this period, it had grown from a small Buddhist monastery buried inside the hill to a UNESCO World Heritage site with over 2000 square meters of murals and 160 statues of various sorts. The creative input that it has received over the centuries has contributed to its eclecticism and, far from having someone come along and ruin the vibe, it contains a number of period styles and Hindu deities that have ensured that it is not only a revered and valued cultural asset, but it has received continued restorative efforts throughout its history. It’s now in very good shape for exactly that reason.
The ten-pound entry fee, lack of stash-locations for our heavy packs, steep climb up the hill in 33-degree heat and stubborn peddlers threatened to de-rail the experience before it had even begun. Once inside, however, it is a very special place. The surrounding area is wooded and scenic, the actual site is very unspoiled (beyond the garish visitor centre, which is another story) and the caves themselves were cool, dry, dark and peaceful. Most noticeable of all, it’s quiet. You feel in a cave like there should naturally be echoes and noise and drip-drip-dripping wherever you go. But there isn’t. The statues soak up much of the noise, there weren’t any other visitors and there’s even this nifty little drip guard-type lip on the outer edge of the whole larger hillside that (naturally or otherwise) prevents any water getting in that would be the end of all of the paintings and probably the site as a whole. The warm earthy tones of the dye that they used aren’t far off the natural dirty grayish brown of the rocks either, and the murals that cover the entire ceiling of some of the chambers were applied directly onto the bare rock, so that the whole place feels as if it’s now become a part of the hill- an ancient tattoo of paisley patterns, tessellating shapes and Bayeux-style narratives etched across its bow.
Back down the hill in the noisy, strip-town of Dambulla, we managed to be the first ones at the bus stop to Sigiriya, where a bed for the night awaited us. Positioning ourselves comfortably by the window, we watched with growing amusement as this minibus took on more and more and more people, all crammed into this sixteen-seat vehicle; it was probably the most packed bus I have ever, or will ever have the amusement of riding on. It was the most hilarious sight watching the various wincing, grimacing faces as more and more people tried to squeeze on, plus the ‘OOooohh’s and ‘Aaaaaa-AAAHHH!’s as elbows jabbed ribs and shoulders squished faces. The last handful of suckers to arrive had to make do with clinging on outside the door as the rain began to pour down outside. The worst deal, it seemed, was reserved for the fare-collector, a little kid not a day older than twelve. Needing to be first off and last on, he had to not only cram his way through the entire sardine-squish of bodies to collect fares, he got the bum deal with seating and had to hang out of the door, stretched over the other people who were also clinging onto the bus; with one hand, he clung to the roof rack while the other clutched the dirty bundle of notes he used as change. I had a perfect view through my rain-soaked window as his squinting, screwed-up face took the full force of the horizontal, monsoon downpour as we drove north.