Solo in Sri Lanka; Kandy to Dambulla

So after just over a week of taking in the cultural sights and ‘must-see’ landscaped treasures of Sri Lanka, paying altogether a hell of a lot more money for absolutely everything than I have been for the past month in India, I have arrived in Arugam Bay (aka probably the hottest and most touristic place I’ve ever been). Even in Uganda, I don’t remember it being this sweltering, although admittedly the lifestyle and everyday activities differed quite a bit, yoga and surfing being the order of the day here coupled with a sickening amount of loved up couples and families intent on spending every moment browsing for elephant pants and drinking cocktails on the beach. Not a bad life, in fairness. But far more expensive than what I’ve become accustomed to.

After a night at First Hostel in Negombo, I travelled East to Kandy in the hopes of witnessing the infamous Esala Perahera festival – a yearly occurrence which as a happy accident fell during my stay in Sri Lanka this year. I was excited, to say the least, with the promise of a traditional Buddhist elephantine ceremonial festival, the kind with lights and music and costumes the likes of which I’ve only ever seen on tv (and let’s face it, Instagram too)!

I won’t go into it too much, but suffice it to say that as a spectacle the Perahera amazes and does what you’d hope it to after crowds beginning to gather along the streets from 2 in the afternoon to wait hours in their spot until sunset. It’s fascinating and mesmerizing to watch the never-ending troupes of dancers, drummers and fire acrobats proceed up the street interspersed with extravangently dressed and decorated elephants. The feet of these elephants are chained so tightly they can only take tiny steps of about one foot a time, while their eyes somehow see out through slits in heavy, embroidered material draped over them from trunk to toe and making them resemble giant blundering tea cosies. Very beautiful giant blundering tea cosies. But let’s not forget that these are extremely intelligent, graceful, and powerful animals. Moreso than humans, when in their natural habitat.

How would you feel being forced to wear a tea cosy draped with Christmas lights and made walk up and down streets to be photographed night after night??
This, combined with the inherent whipping of the ground which signalled the beginning of the procession and more than likely served as a means of terrifying the elephants into complying, was distressing to witness and I instantly disconnected from the whole experience, festival atmosphere dwindling as each depressed and gloomy looking elephant blindly lumbered past. As I said, the spectacle of the parade was great, and the lights and costumes enough to warrant the fame and draw of the Perahera. I just couldn’t see past the chains.

From Kandy I took a public bus to Dambulla for only 100 Sri Lankan Rupees (less than a euro) which was fine considering the trip was only 3 hours long and I actually managed to get a seat. The journey back was a different story. More on that later.
Robert’s Inn in Dambulla proved a welcoming and entertaining guesthouse stay, with tours and excursions to the surrounding area available at the mere mention of a temple (Robert is very enthusiastic), and a very hospitable family in general. The town of Dambulla itself is fairly downbeat and local, but there are hundreds of tiny guesthouses and homestays tucked away down dust roads such as the one I stayed, nearly all of which offer independent guided tours and jeep excursions to the things to see in the area, which are all quite spread out and make jeep and tuk-tuk rides an unfortunate necessity. They’re not all that bad though, and considering I saw some wild elephants and climbed a pretty cool rock I wasn’t altogether bothered to have to fork out some extra rupees on transport.

This brings me on to my next point – Sigiriya Rock. Don’t do it. Several travellers I met in India had warned me about it and the expenses of Sri Lankan tourist attractions as a whole, but like anything else, the full extent and expense of the place was lost on me until I had spent a few days here and experienced it for myself. Sigiriya Rock is one of the most recognised attractions in Sri Lanka, and is part of the ‘cultural triangle’, of which I only completed one acute angle, as expenses convinced me otherwise. Because of this (as is the case with a lot of India) the entrance fees and add-on taxes for foreign guests have become extortionate in recent years. In order to dodge this in Dambulla, myself and some friendly Slovenians opted to climb Pidurangala Rock – directly opposite Sigiriya and substantially less swamped with slow-paced tourists with deep pockets and thoroughly unsuitable footwear.
This thirty-minute climb – steep steps for the first ten, and thereafter a curious toddler’s dream on hands and knees up through rocks and crevices in an unclear direction,is ultimately completely worth the uncertainty as soon as the peak is reached, the rocks disperse, and all of a sudden you can see across the plains to Sigiriya Rock and beyond to the ends of the earth (or so it seems). I couldn’t help but be awestruck. Smugness materialized then as my eyes adjusted and I spotted clearly the winding line of tourists meandering the way to the summit of the overcrowded sister rock to the one I’d just conquered. The handful of likeminded climbers who had also chosen Pidurangala took turns holding each others cameras and attempting to capture the beauty and isolating freedom of the place – which proved difficult!
The descent was much quicker, and we were back down on the dust track road by 11am.

 That afternoon our host also took us out (for a fee, of course) to Minneriya National Park, a great place to spot elephants in their natural habitat, no chains or silly costumes or lights attached and a terrain that reminded me of Jurassic Park from the get-go. We were lucky to catch huge groups of them grazing peacefully and cutting across the dust paths ahead of our open-topped jeep, in search of more grass and pretty much doing whatever the hell they liked. In the wild!

We also saw herds of wild buffalo, deer, and hundreds of different species of colourful birds and dragonflies, which flitted through the open sides and top of the jeep as we trailed home through the dust. It was pretty magical!
After a night spent fulfilling necessary maintanence work like washing my clothes and budgeting for the unexpected new expenses I’d encountered, I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable day of uncomfortable cross-country travel that lay ahead….

 

What Happens in Singapore…Stays in Singapore

….until I blog about it.

There’s something I haven’t yet admitted to anyone ever about my ‘trip’ to Singapore. Something I’ve kind of just neglected to include in the recounting of the time I spent there. It’s nothing bad, nothing you wouldn’t expect from an easily distracted and excitable first-time solo-traveller…but it’s just a little bit embarassing.

To give us context, I’ll make it clear that I visited the city as part of a tour group which left from Changi airport (the most amazing airport known to man) during a ridiculous 20-hour stopover, promising to have us back in time to make each person’s individual connecting flight, regardless of which of the 3 massive and maze-like terminals they were departing from.

Beginning to see any flaws in the plan yet?

I hopped on the bus all the same, excited at the extra stamp in my passport and at the prospect of seeing a city which had not been on my original itinerary at all. I spent most of the traffic jam on the way to the main highway (look at me using fancy words for a big road!) deep in conversation with the mother and daughter of a delightful Chinese family, on holiday from Beijing and, like me, passing time on their stopover as they headed towards Kuala Lumpur.

Singapore’s orderly and functional traffic, rules of the road, basic rights of way and cleanliness were immediately obvious and an absolute blessing to experience after the madness of Cambodia and Vietnam. I gasped in wonder as a line of cars ACTUALLY STOPPED when a traffic light turned red, and flat-out gawped as a traffic warden, no less, was heeded as he stood bravely in the middle of the junction a little further on, hi-vis jacket almost rendered unecessary as the vehicles slotted in forwards and backwards and around him with their Sim-like precision and politness.

In fact, Sim-like is exactly how I’d describe Singapore. Sim-like and HOT. Swelteringly, stiflingly, breath-catching-in-your-throat kind of hot that no degree of near-nakedness can relieve. I’d gone from shivering uncomfortably in my flimsy white kafkan shirt and tiny denim short-shorts through several air-conditioned airports, to continuosly fanning myself and exhaling with puffed-out cheeks like a pregnant or menopausal lady caught mid-contraction or hot-flush – kind of ironic how those two things work in comparison to one another. Either way, one degree away from the equator is not where I’d expected to find myself spending the evening, nevermind in a city so vastly populated with sparkly lights and high-rise buildings shaped like Star Wars battleships.

It’s no wonder I got distracted.

Our enthusiastic guide, another soul native to Beijing who dubbed himself Mr. T., (‘Call me Mista’ T”!), epitomized the practicality and simple cheerful nature of many of the other Chinese, Malaysian and Singaporean people I had met already and was yet to encounter. His efforts to animate the slightly sterile air-conditioned interior of the unecessarily enormous tour bus genuinely made me laugh and added hugely to my enjoyment of the tour, as he randomly exclaimed things like ‘Oho!!!” and ‘Olé Olé Olé!!” after each description of and proud introduction to the locations we visited – completely out of context to the information he was narrating, and at times entirely sporadic.

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This is what I loved about Asia. There were a lot of things I did not understand, and a lot of what I did understand was so randomly unrelated to the actual context of where I was or what I was doing at the time that it would catch me unawares and throw me completely off-course and away from whatever I was actually focusing your attention on. Like right now. Where was I? Oh yes.

Singapore.

Mr. T’s energy reminded me of a cartoon character, and I found myself the only group-member participating in his guessing games as he posed impossible questions about the city to gage our knowledge of it – or possibly just to recite lines he had learned in ‘tour-guide training’ – it was difficult to tell for sure.
‘Who can tell me what percentage of Singaporeans are property owners?! Anybody? Nobody? Going once…olé! Going twice…olé! Goi-…Yes?”
‘65%?!!”
My random contribution was met with an emotionless stare from a French lady sitting opposite me as I looked to her jokingly for support, and an expressionless Dutch-looking guy with a camera behind cleared his throat awkwardly.
‘Oho!!! ‘berry close, ‘berry close! But, another guess?”
At least Mr. T had my back.
‘90%!?”
This time the smiley mother from the Chinese family chirped up, and gave me a slightly robotic yet jolly high-five when Mr T.’s immediate reaction to her answer made us all jump.
‘Olé olé olé!! We have a winna’!!! Hupp’ah!!’

Ignoring the distinct lack of enthusiasm from every other passenger on board, myself and the Chinese lady laughed and clapped along with him, our delight and amusement at our guides’ ‘acting’ skills and excellent English evidently either not shared or completely lost on our fellow passengers. The lady even gestured over to her husband and daughter, who were sat on the opposite sides of the bus to her in their own individual seats, cameras pressed to the glass of the bus as we passed several impressive looking buildings outside. I turned my attention outwards, as the bus lurched around a corner, and stopped rather suddenly in an orderly queue of traffic.
Comedy on pause, Mr. T suddenly became very serious.
‘Please be kind and do not stand up in the bus. I do not wish to stop at hospital.’
The Chinese father sat down after a few seconds as his wife translated solemnly.

The Singaporean adherence to safety measures and rules of the road became evident then as every slight movement was monitored and commented on in an almost joking manner, yet with an element of seriousness behind it. As we passed several other landmarks and more cameras were unfolded from the depths of hand-luggage, Mr. T was forced to repeat his request that we not move from our seats, and ‘please to be careful as in Singapore we have no insurance over who comes on tour and you must pay yourself if something happens.’ That put me in my place.

 It was getting dark as we neared Gardens By The Bay, visible from a distance as a futuristic mini-city of 50-foot high ‘Supertrees’ laden with multicoloured fairy lights and interspersed with connective bridges akin to something from Lorien, or the world of Avatar. Only a few days previously I’d visited the natural beauty of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, and so this dream-like area of man-made ‘forest’ seemed even more alien to observe. Singapore is so organised it has even orchestrated the construction of its own forest! I thought, half in awe and half dubious at how artificial it all seemed. Still, what I could see from the bus was extremely beautiful and I was itching to escape the chilly air-conditioned interior and get exploring for myself.

gardens

 Before we could do so however, Mr. T. laid out some strict rules of thumb.
‘Follow me to the entrance. At the entrance, I will point you in the direction of the gardens. From there, you will have freetime. Freetime will depend on our time of arrival. I will give time to meet back at the information desk and if you are not there at this time we will leave without you.’
Straight up and honest, I thought. I like this place.
‘In Singapore, we are punctual. We stick to time schedule and do not deviate.’
Fair enough, I thought again. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t a relief to finally have some sort of order and reliable structure after becoming accustomed to the mere arrival of any form of public transport in Vietnam or Cambodia being a luxury – an hour after OR before the ‘expected time’ being almost customary. You just had to go with it.

 Singapore, however, is extremely different. Rigid rules, strict instructions, simple, basic guidelines to follow, and the entire city seems to function simply and effectivly. Mr T.’s description of the eco-friendly power-generating systems and recycling features were refreshing; so futuristic and straightforward that I genuinely did feel like I’d landed in Simville and was now a contributing member of a society so organised that stepping a foot out of line would be punishable by incredulous stares and unabashed Asian mutterings. Which it was.

Gardens by the Bay was incredible. As it was nearing Christmas, we got lucky in that the night we attended the park was the night they turned on the Christmas lights and had a special display for visitors. I entered the maze of towering Supertrees, Christmas lights merely adding to the fantastical display of colours and twinkling around me. The Supertrees were akin to giant versions of the dandelions we used to pick as kids to blow away their seeds. Only the seeds were still there. Each seed contributed to the constellations of multicoloured sparkling taking place above my head, and the low murmur of tourists all gazing skywards was interspersed with the first Christmas music I’d heard all year, along with everyone apologising for stepping on one anothers’ toes as we all gawped at the roof of the ‘forest’ above.

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I was taking pictures without looking at what I took. I was closing my eyes as each new song came on, brought back to a childhood where sparkly lights and Christmas music were enough to cure any kind of bad feelings or negative emotions. I was floating amidst the starry darkness, silently balancing upon the platforms of language barriers existing between the multitudes of tourist nationalities standing and wandering blindly around me, all murmuring incomprehensibly, yet focused upwards as one mass of human energy, in awe of pretty lights and the ironic juxtaposition of nature with our own technological advancment. The lights flashed in time to the music playing, and regardless of the artificiality of it, I was completely under the spell of the beauty of the Supertrees. It was like a movie. It was like a dream, even more so when I considered how not one single person was familiar to me here – I was completely alone, wandering through this sea of people and lights and music and life

 It’s no wonder I lost the group.

 I hadn’t seen them since entering the park, that much I knew for sure.
Not to worry, I thought, still in my blissfull, floaty state of contentment; I just have to find the information desk. There’s still loads of time.
So I wandered some more.
I wandered and took pictures and guessed the languages people were speaking, basking in the independence and strength I felt at having taken myself this far. The park was surprisingly large, and even though the lights were everywhere, it was difficult to identify specific buildings, turns, or pathways.
I went back the way I’d come (or thought I had), turned a few corners around trees I thought were familiar, using the battleship-skyscraper as a landmark; followed other tour groups down turns that seemed they’d lead to an exit of sorts but which actually brought us on to further ‘gardens’ and yet more inviting lights and music.
In short, I ended up completely and utterly lost.
At first it didn’t dawn on me just how alone I was – my larger backpack had gone on to Bali, bypassing Singapore completely. Here I was, one small backpack of hand-luggage and a duty-free bag of Cambodian Christmas tree decorations, wandering completely alone through an unfamiliar city, no physical money to speak of save a couple of thousand Vietnamese Dong which was utterly worthless here, and no knowledge of the language around me – no card or bus number of the tour I’d been with, no actual concrete evidence to place me in Singapore at all save a crappy ‘visitors’ visa’ stamp on my passport and my fellow tour mates’ eyewitness accounts…and they didn’t even know my name.

 I slowly began to panic, my brain irrationally jumping to the worst conclusions; picturing the reports of ‘Irish girl missing in Asia, last-known location in a fictional fantasy-land of flashing lights and trees and purpley-green dandelions…’
A few deep breaths calmed me.
No. Everything would be fine. Just find the information desk.
So I did. Wrong one.
Find the other information desk.

I tried. I really did. I found what I thought was the desk we’d agreed upon. No sign of anyone recognisable. No Mr. T.. No rude Dutch man with his camera larger than my head. No happy Chinese lady with her quiet husband. By now it was five minutes past the time we’d agreed to meet to return to the bus. A whole five minutes.
‘Hey!!!”
A shout came from behind. ‘You! Curly hair!”
It was the rude French lady from the bus. She hurried over to me and grasped my hand, and instead of being relieved to see her, her anxious stance made me actuely aware of how late it was. I could immediately tell she was equally as lost as I had been. She glanced around behind her and I recognised a young Vietnamese girl also from our bus hurriedly following her, looking even more lost than I had just felt and apparantly scared shitless; her English proved just about as advanced as my Vietnamese.
‘She’s lost too.’ Said the French lady in a thick accent. ‘She is very scared. She has never been away from home before’. Not even a ‘Hello! Thank god I found you too!”
Ah God. Okay. Time to sort this.
As I smiled at the girl and asked her name in a friendly manner, her eyes filled with tears as she glanced around the mass of incomprehensible tourists wandering the gardens in the dark. I empathized somewhat, but suddenly the fear of being ‘lost’ was replaced by irritation.
‘We’re only 10 minutes late!” I exclaimed, secretly relieved to no longer be alone, yet really just a bit put out that they’d actually left without us. How could Mr. T. have done this to me!?
‘Maybe we…wait? Maybe they return for us?” the French lady said hopefully.
Even as she said it I raised my eyebrows in disbelief.
“Yeh…yeh maybe.”

So we waited a couple of feet away from the information desk we all agreed was the one we’d separated at.
Ten minutes ticked into fifteen. Twenty. I didn’t want to be the one to point out the obvious, but someone had to.
‘I don’t think they’re coming back for us’.

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I couldn’t help but laugh at the situation, though Vietnamese girl and French lady could not have looked less entertained. How typical of me, I thought. Surprisingly ok with where I found myself, I raised my eyebrows and turned to face the exit.
Sure look, at least I’m not by myself.
‘Have you any money?” I enquired of my two unlikely and mismatched companions, one standing frowning at the world around her, and the other clutching tightly on to a schoolbag laden with badges of the red and yellow Vietnamese flag.
Vietnamese girl smiled awkwardly and shrugged.
‘I’ll take that as a maybe’.
“I have card.”
French lady to the rescue.
“Ok so, I guess we’ll just have to find our way back to the airport. I don’t know what the next stop on the tour was!”

Somehow I found myself the leader of the group, following signs in English out towards the entrance we’d come through only hours previously as part of an ignorant group of tourists. I felt less like a tourist now, and more of a character in a video-game – ‘Find-the-Taxi-rank” being my predominant quest to complete.
The heat was becoming unbearable at this stage, even though night time was well underway. Our proximity to the equator meant that the temperature was not likely to drop below 25 degrees, even in the middle of the night. It was a dead-heat that would be exhausting to experience even in a less-stressful situation. I managed to find a taxi-rank alright, but finding a driver who would take a French bankcard and drop us to three separate airport terminals happily proved another difficult feat.

Eventually after long wait and dealing with a lot of stares at our mismatched group-appeareance, we sat in silence in an organised traffic jam with a Malaysian driver; four completely different nationalies and backgrounds all brought together somehow in this impossible metropolis of lights and bizarrely strict regulations. I actually didn’t mind the French lady too much, who relaxed somewhat as we assured we were safely en route back to the airport and she told me she’d definitely be having a drink on her flight to relieve the tension.
I was merely proud of myself for having resolved the situation without panicking too much, and secretly extremely satisfied when Maria (French lady’s name) refused to take the 5 dollars of expendable currency I had found in my purse from me.
“I’d have been lost without you. Keep it!”
Well, that was nice of her.

As we went our separate ways back at Changi airport, each of us having returned in time to make our flights well in advance, I settled down to spend the remainder of my wait safely in the familiarity of a comfortable Starbucks’ armchair. Some things never change.

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