Sometimes it’s about the Journey, not the Destination

It’s widely held that as far as diversity of destinations is concerned, travelling within Sri Lanka is one of the most rewarding experiences. But as we found on the road from Kandy to Mahiyanganaya, the journey can be just as thrilling, if not more so, than the destination. The winding road leading through mountains and valleys, afforded some spectacular views and interesting stops along the way.

While passing by the turnoff to the Victoria Golf Course, the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium and the largest limestone quarry in Sri Lanka was interesting, it wasn’t until we got to the Hunnasgiriya region that I really started enjoying the ride. The highway, cut into the sides of steep mountains, had that sparkling-new look and the drive was smooth and comfortable. We rolled down the windows to let in the fresh, cold air, as we passed by panoramic valleys and mountainsides covered in pine forests.

The refreshing wind in my face reminded me of the road-trips I used to take with my family as a child. It was one of the things I used to look forward to when we would decide to go away for a holiday, so much so that I would reserve the back seat of the family van, the windiest spot in the vehicle. I found a singular exhilaration in losing myself in the roar of the wind, my hair fluttering wildly around my head and the people, shops, paddy fields, tea bushes and muddy puddles hurtling by in one blurry vision after another. We rarely open the windows on road-trips now, perhaps because of the increasing pollution. So it was a pleasantly unexpected flashback to see the world whiz by, as the fresh breeze of Hunnasgiriya roared in my ears.

As impressive as the changing backdrop of peaks were, there was one that stood out conspicuously. Its olive green sides rose to form a dark knoll that was surrounded by clouds. This was Medamahanuwara, on the pinnacle of which the ruins of the Ahas Maligawa, or Sky Palace, are located. Although it is off-limits to visitors, Nishantha, our guide, related the story of the palace. Built around the 17th Century by King Senarath, it was also used as a fortress. Later on, after the British arrived, Sri Lanka’s last king Sri Wikrama Rajasinha used the palace as a hideout. It’s believed that when King Rajasinha was at the Sky Palace, the British had ridden by the mountain in search of him. But as the peak was covered by clouds they hadn’t seen the palace. When they were returning however, the clouds had cleared and they spotted the king’s hiding place, which was then named Ahas Maligawa.

The peak of Medamahanuwara, where the Sky Palace used to be

It’s easy to see why those Brits rode right past! The white Buddha statue on the left is located in Hunnasgiriya town.

When we reached Hunnasgiriya Town, we took a short detour down Loolwatta Road into a tea garden that held stunning views of the surrounding mountains, including Medamahanuwara. While we were up there marvelling at the array of peaks and valleys, a tuk-tuk drove up and a man stepped out with a massive sack. Swinging it onto his back, he hurried between the tea bushes down the steep incline, nimble-footed as a mountain goat. As I gaped at his agility, it occurred to me that his house was probably at the bottom of the hill. This was his daily commute!

The tea garden overlooks a pine forest and purple hills in the distance. The highway winds its way around hills on the right.

More of the spectacular views

We were surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery

Back on the highway, at regular intervals there were little shops with signs inviting travellers to a meal of freshly-made pol rotti. This was another of the joys of driving through Sri Lanka’s countryside: the opportunity to sample some of the mouth-watering local food. It appeared that in this region of Hunnasgiriya it was pol rotti with katta sambola that was popular.

At the shop where we stopped, there was a little breakfast buffet of other distinctly Sri Lankan foods like curried dhal and beans with rice, in addition to the pol rotti and katta sambola. So while we waited for the rotti to be prepared, we helped ourselves to some dhal and pol sambola. The combination was to die for. With steaming mugs of kahata the (black tea) and chunks of hakuru (jaggery) sitting by our plates and a magnificent view of a forest-covered mountain before us, we honestly felt life couldn’t get any better.

Pol rotti and katta sambola

Bellies full of yummy rotti, we headed towards Madugoda and the Daha-ata Wanguwa (Eighteen hair-pin bends). The scenery soon after the first bend was like a dreamscape. From here it seemed we could see the whole of the East. Nishantha stood by and named all the places we could see from our vantage point. Pointing to a wide stretch of lime-green paddy fields, he said it was the longest uninterrupted stretch of paddy in the country; about 50 kilometres from the village of Hasalaka to Wasgamuwa National Park. We saw the Mahiyanganaya Town gleaming in the mid-morning sun. Hasalaka was much smaller in comparison. The Sorabora Weva (lake) was the largest water body in sight. Although in reality it is much larger, the Ulhitiya Weva looked smaller than the Sorabora: possibly because it was further away and much of it had dried up. It was fascinating to be able to see some of our destinations mid-journey. Nishantha also pointed out some of the jungle that we would walk through the next day to visit the Rathna Falls.

The Sorabora Weva is nestled in the heart of the panorama while the clouds and mountains seem to merge on the horizon

A myriad shades of green give way to browns, greys and blues

More greens and blues

A Grey Langur

Can you see us passing by the 18th hair-pin bend?

The urge to make a game of counting the bends as the Daha-ata Wanguwa took us downhill to the borders of the hill country was irresistible. Countless travellers have done it before and countless more will do it after us. By the time we reached Hasalaka, the temperature had risen, but the brilliant green of the paddy fields, blue of the sky and ivory of the clouds were breathtaking: it was the ideal of a beautiful day.

After crossing the Mahaveli River into the Badulla District, it was not long before we reached Mahiyanganaya. I was surprised by how large the town had grown. While it was a flurry of activity, it was still spacious enough to hold all of its occupants, visitors and various buildings without the air of congestion that is typical of rapidly growing towns. As we drove up to a junction complete with clock-tower, I was struck by a large white Buddha statue that entirely filled the space of my vision. While the white clouds that gave way to blue sky in patches made the perfect backdrop for the statue, it was the distinctive expression in the facial features of this Buddha that I found arresting. It was difficult to look at that face and not be moved.

The captivating Buddha statue in Mahiyanganaya Town

Stopping by at the sprawling market of the town we bought a few things needed for a night of camping by a lake and also a gift of dried tobacco leaves, a sheaf of betel leaves, areca nut and limestone for a special person we were on our way to visit.

Discover where and whom in our next couple of posts!

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Rambutang Land

“Look! There’s one over there!”

It’s funny how the sight of a Rambutang tree laden with its furry, red fruits can bring out the bright-eyed, inner child in even the most sombre personality. Generally, I’m far from what you’d call sombre, so no surprises that by the time we’d sighted our first tree I was already bordering on manic enthusiasm.

Turning off the Colombo-Kandy highway towards Malwana, renowned as Rambutang country, we diligently followed the directions of a little old lady we’d met sitting in a tuk-tuk by the side of the road. To see fields of Rambutangs, she said, we’d have to get to Malwana town and take a right turn along a bridge that leads to the more rustic neighbourhoods.

The picturesque locale of Malwana

Every home in this area had a garden, every garden had at least one Rambutang tree and every Rambutang tree was weighed down with ruby-red fruits. Exclamations were rife within the car! But these were only home gardens; we hadn’t even got to the plantations yet.

As we took another turn down Malwana Pidaliyawatta Para, the road narrowed and more and more Rambutang trees began leaning in towards the car reaching out with their heavy branches. Some sections of the road were turned into archways of long, deep green leaves interspersed with the crimson fruits. Eventually, we drove up to a small clearing in the trees and sitting on the ground – mid-morning sunlight streaming down on them through Rambutang branches – were a group of women sorting, breaking off stems and bagging freshly picked Rambutangs. It was truly an idyllic scene and we absolutely had to get a closer look.

The group of women working on the Rambutang plantation

Bag-fulls

Sorting the rambutangs

When we approached the peacefully working group – there were two men up on the trees in addition to the women – their friendly welcome was heart-warming. Their smiles were indulgent when we told them we’d especially come to see Rambutang fields, and they generously asked us to pick as many fruits as we wanted. But not wanting to carry off part of their livelihood, no matter how small a part, we stood by, chatted with them and photographed them as they worked.

The dude on the tree

The Rambutang picker!

Rambutang trees have sturdy trunks that branch out quite close to the ground. On the tree that the group was working at, every branch had great bunches of the fruit. Each time a bunch was cut off, the branch would bounce up in the air indicating the weight of the abundant fruit. The men in the trees would then throw the fruits down to the women, who would stem, sort and bag them. Large piles of Rambutangs were rapidly forming under the tree, some as tall as the toddler walking among the women and occasionally throwing curious glances at our camera.

“A pile of Rambutangs as big as me!”

I decided to stroll through the little plantation and couldn’t help marvelling at the profusion of the fruit. When I came back, one of the women, presumably having noted that we weren’t going to pick any of the fruits, transferred an arm-load of Rambutangs to me. “Please take them,” she smiled at my surprised and grateful face.

Behind the scenes

“There’s nothing like standing under a Rambutang tree and enjoying a freshly picked fruit,” said one of the men.  And taking his advice, we did just that. We found he was right.

Irresistible!

I don’t remember the first Rambutang I’ve ever eaten, but I remember always having loved Rambutangs. It’s one of those childhood memories that you can’t quite pin-point the beginnings of. Whenever the season came along, Colombo’s streets would be lined with piles of the red and yellow fruit – Rambutangs come in two varieties. My favourite recollection of the season was my dad bringing home bag-loads of the fruits and everyone sitting around the table littered with the furry skins, Rambutang juice dripping down arms and chins. Inside the thick outer skin covered with hairy prickles is the juicy, white fruit that glows like a moonstone. The fruit is thought to be best when the sweet, white flesh can be pulled cleanly off without the skin of the stone detaching. I tend to like the slightly woody flavour of the skin of the stone though.

Leaving the group to their work, we sauntered along the road, munching on Rambutangs and enjoying the rural setting. Past many more home gardens full of Rambutang trees, we came to another much larger plantation. We absorbed as much of the Rambutang-filled atmosphere as we could before it was time to leave. There is an easy-going nature about the locals here – yes, we were presented with more gifts! I put it down to living among the Rambutangs.

Rambutangs galore!

At the other plantation

Life amidst the rambutangs

In childhood I’d imagined visiting the fabled Malwana. Yes, fabled – because a place where an abundance of Rambutangs grows must surely be the stuff of legend. As I matured though, these grand visions diminished. How perfectly juvenile to believe that there is a land where as far as the eye can see, every tree would burst with a profusion of yummy Rambutangs! Having finally visited Malwana however, the adult me was proven wrong and the little kid from not too long ago actually got to see the fabled land of Rambutangs.

Eat rambutang and DIE!