“Hmm, that black speck moving across the horizon is much bigger than the other specks” we thought to ourselves, lazily gazing out at the animals moving around the giant, man-made lake sitting outside the Sri Lankan town of Polonnaruwa. The small specks were unmistakably cows, aimlessly grazing on the tall grass surrounding the lake, but what was the big one? Its movements, unlike the cows, were purposeful as it strode out of the surrounding forest and towards the lake. Slowly, the word popped into our heads, “Elephant!” Distracted by the familiarity of lakes and cows, we forgot that we were in a place where you could look out at any point and see a wild elephant wandering across the landscape. For us, this was Sri Lanka, never quite what we expected it to be, but always surprising us in the best of ways.
If we were to describe to you a town surrounded by fields, filled with friendly, English-speaking locals, with a couple of local diners on its main street along with one good grocery store, you could be mistaken for picturing a small, midwestern town in the U.S.A. If we added in a bit about a local guesthouse owner, upon our arrival, giving us directions to one of those diners by saying, “Take a right, then another right and when you get to the clock tower, keep going and you’ll find some restaurants past there,” you may be sure of your suspicion. It wouldn’t be until we got to the part about roaming wild elephants, troops of monkeys, locals bathing in rivers, and UNESCO-recognized ancient ruins sitting within the town limits that you would begin to think otherwise. So was the allure of Polonnaruwa, with all of the charm you could want from a small town and all of the experiences you could expect from a world-renowned tourist destination.
Following the directions given to us by our guesthouse owner, we peddled into the town, past fields so green they appeared artificial as they swayed in the gentle breeze pushing in off the lake. Fruit vendors dotted the side of the road, their stalls decorated by a colorful arrangement of tropical fruits, some of which we had never seen before. Slowly along the route, guesthouses and hotels started becoming more frequent sights and finally the clock tower came into view. Heeding the advice given to us, we rode past it and pulled our bikes off to the side of the road, continuing our search for lunch on foot. There was no need to lock our bikes, we were told, as no one in the town would bother to steal them, a theory that held true for the entirety of our time there. In fact, on one occasion we returned to our bikes to find that someone had even moved them off the side of the road to a shady patch under the awning of a convenience store. We were never at a loss to find examples of the warmness of locals in Polonnaruwa.
The first shop we passed resembling a restaurant was what looked like an oversized closet with pictures of fruit smoothies plastering its exterior. Having had nothing to eat that day besides the variety of treats paraded down the aisle on our train from Colombo to Polonnaruwa that were fried to a degree suitable for a state fair, our bodies were craving nutrients and a place advertising fresh fruit smoothies seemed like a good place to start. As we entered the shop though, we found that smoothies were the only thing on the menu and the owner, aware that we were looking for a bit more than a glass of fruit juice, pointed us to a restaurant across the street that his friend owned.
If ever there was place that truly embodied the phrase hole-in-the-wall restaurant, the establishment that we were crossing the street and walking towards would certainly have been it. The roof consisted of several crooked sheets of rusted tin, the outside walls were faded and tattered, and the interior a collection of old and worn furniture that lined the stained and peeling walls. As we sat down, the owner pointed us in the direction of a large bowl of rice and four earthen pots sitting buffet style on a table near the entrance. We filled our plates with the rice along with the lentil curry, minced jackfruit, and a couple of other things we couldn’t identify that filled the bowls along with a handful of baked pita bread crisps. An ice cold Pepsi served in an opaque and chipped glass waited for us back at our table.
While on vacation, the little voice in the back of our head meant to warn us against the possibility of food poisoning at sketchy-looking restaurants always gets a bit louder, as if our mind has given it a higher pedestal to shout from just to be safe. In this instance though, the voice was silent. Despite the less than ideal conditions for a place preparing our food, we had an overwhelming feeling that the restaurant was well-taken care of, a feeling that was justified by our meal, which was one of the best we would have during our time in the country. As we left the restaurant, a man in shabby business clothes took a momentary break from eating his lunch with his fingers, as most in the country do, to look up at us and, in a delightful but fleeting way, say in perfect English, “Best buffet in town!” before returning to his meal. As we said, always being surprised in the best of ways.
After leaving the restaurant, and with little time left in the day, our agenda for the afternoon was limited to a bike ride through the town to familiarize ourselves with its layout before the next day’s more thorough exploration. Our ride took us to the entrance of the ancient city, past the lake where we saw the elephant emerge from the forest in pursuit of an early-evening bath, and to a small outpost of ruins that were aptly named as there wasn’t much left of them apart from crumbling heaps of brick, crooked columns whose ceilings had long since disappeared, and one pristinely preserved statue carved out of a rockface.
Arriving back at our guesthouse at dusk and with time to spare before dinner, we went on a short walk towards the last remnants of the day’s sunset, an orange glow emanating from the distant mountains. As we watched the glow become slowly overtaken by the veil of night, we could see what looked to be a flock of birds steadily flowing out of the horizon. Their methodical movements across the sky left us hypnotized, a state that was only broken when one flew overhead. Its size astounded us. In the distance, the flying creatures had appeared like small dots but overhead, they were more the size of a hawk. “Surely, they can’t be hawks though,” we thought to ourselves as there were hundreds of them streaming across the sky. We watched as another darted by, then another, then another until finally one flew by slow enough for us to notice that it had webbed wings, after which we made the horrifying but exciting connection that these weren’t birds at all, rather bats! We watched, entranced by their graceful flock, for as long as we could until the night grew to a degree that made the mammals nearly invisible to the eye. As we entered back into the gate of our guesthouse, we were told that dinner was ready, a delicious home-cooked affair prepared by the owner and his mother that we unashamedly devoured before retiring to our room for the night.
The sun had barely risen on our second day in Polonnaruwa before we were on our bikes and heading towards the ruins of the ancient garden city that drew tourists to the small town by the thousands. Our tickets, large and thick enough to make one expect to find bark on their outer edges, were purchased at the site’s museum which we toured for a brief briefing on the ruins before peddling through the gates and beginning our exploration of the city.
Before going to the ruins, we were told they they were relatively compact, accessible by bike and seeable in an afternoon. While the first two held true, we began to question the authenticity of the latter piece of advice as soon as we pulled up to our first site: the Royal Palace. As we got off our bikes, we found ourselves taking in a scene that looked like it had been plucked from the pages of a storybook. Paths shot off in every direction, running past various ancient buildings and out of sight over the meager hills of the landscape. The trees that filled the grounds had bark that appeared like a collection of bulging veins that wove through each other down the trunk of the tree before slithering menacingly into the ground below. The palace itself, which once stood seven stories high, was now a jagged heap of bricks whose magnificence had long since faded but whose allure was still very much intact. An otherworldly light was cast over the scenery from the sporadic canopy hanging overhead. We wandered around the grounds aimlessly, as no direction seemed like the right one to go in, eventually settling on a nice place to sit and take in all that was laid out before us.
Very aware of the extent of sights that still awaited us, we decided to leave the Royal Palace ruins behind and head to the next main sight in the city: the Quadrangle. Inciting flashbacks to the horrors of elementary geometry, we were relieved to find that the sight had nothing to do with math and everything to do with ancient ruins. The Quadrangle got its name from the four walls surrounding it, whose short and thin nature made us believe that they served more as boundary markers than to hinder anyone from entering. Inside the walls, a trove of religious buildings lay spread across the grounds, each one in a varying state of ruin. What caught our eye the most, apart from the buildings themselves or the statues that filled them, were the semi-circle slabs of stone that sat at the foot of many of the doorways. The name for them, moonstones, was as beautiful as the stones themselves.
Named so because of their semi-circular cut, the moonstones feature various animals chasing each other in a ringed fashion across their borders. While debated, the animals are said to represent the four noble truths of life recognized in Buddhism, which are – prepare yourself – birth, decay, disease and death, which most seem to be antonyms of life, but, when thought about, sadly make sense. Beneath the animals ran a band of leaves said to represent desire, below which a lotus flower sat. It is said that once one can master the four noble truths of life and learn to suppress desire, they can reach Nirvana, represented by the lotus flower. A lot of meaning packed into a stone and a constant reminder of one’s beliefs as they passed over it to enter the Buddhist temples and structures that the moonstones sat outside of.
As we walked around the grounds of the Quadrangle, we began to notice that our ability to tour the temples barefoot was becoming increasingly hindered due to the sun beating down on the bare floors of the roofless structures. Like grabbing a plate that a waiter tells you is very hot only to find that it is indeed very hot, we tested our ability to walk on the scorched stones over and over again, burning our feet as a result and leaving us to dash pathetically towards any shade in sight. Faced with this inability to tour the temples, we decided to leave the Quadrangle, and the rest of Polonnaruwa, for later viewing once the sun was a bit lower on the horizon.
The second half of our day in the ancient city began with us being captivated not by the ruins but rather by the monkeys that called them home. As we pulled up to Gal Vihara, the first sight on our agenda for the afternoon, we noticed a rather large gathering of macaques huddled around a collection of waste bins sitting outside the souvenir shops of the area. We had seen a monkey or two scampering about the grounds earlier, but this was a full-fledged village and well worth a closer look. Inch by inch, we made our way up to the outskirts of their micro-community, watching in wonder as everyday monkey life unfolded before our eyes. There were toddlers testing their limits as they leapt from one branch to another, usually failing to come close to their intended target, adolescents chasing each other around and causing havoc that an irritated adult would sometimes speak up about, and mothers, sitting idly by and watching nervously as their children played, sometimes swooping in to stop a kid they had decided was being too dangerous or inappropriate. We watched on, our unfailing interest in the monkeys being matched only by their complete uninterest in us. Eventually, a voice in the back of our heads reminded us of the plethora of sights awaiting us and we bid farewell to the macaques and began making our way towards Gal Vihara.
While ancient, to call Gal Vihara ruins would be a drastic overstatement. The humble collection of four Buddha statues, etched into the swirling, marbled granite of the site, looked as if they could have been carved yesterday, their features smooth and unblemished as they ran across the stone’s surface. The rules of erosion and time that existed in such perfect unity throughout the rest of Polonnaruwa didn’t seem to apply here.
After leaving Gal Vihara, I would have another encounter with the primates of Polonnaruwa, this time with the resident langur, the macaques less intelligent cousin, which was evident in their blank gaze that was broken only for the occasional itch. Separated from Kate at this point as we had split off to pursue our own interests at the current site we were at, I came across a couple of slouched langurs sitting on a crumbling wall. Mistaking their vacant expression and idle state for a creature unwilling to move, I crept closer as there was was no sign that they were even aware of my presence. After taking several pictures and pulling the camera lens away from my eyes, I was startled to see that the monkey I was snapping a photo of had moved. My surprise quickly turned to pure terror as I realized that the monkey had moved to begin its pursuit of me. No experience in my life has ever quite prepared me for an angry monkey, only a few feet away, sprinting towards me with malintent, so I relied on my primal instincts and ran madly until the monkey gave up its pursuit. I was thankful that the langur had the attention span of, well, a langur and doubly thankful that there were no other people around to witness my desperate dash.
The rest of the day would see us stop off at other various sights within the grounds, each as inspiring as the one that came before it. While walking past half missing statues that towered into the barren sky or past trees as timeless as the buildings that they were crawling over, you couldn’t help but feel small, like an ant crawling over a piece of gold, completely unaware of the true value of it.