A walk in the (Knuckles) park

While in Sri Lanka we organised a three day hiking trip to the Knuckles National Park (two hours north east of Kandy) with a guide called Gamini, whose name I remembered by thinking of a gammy knee. On the first 2015-02-01 11.09.23day, we walked 20km through low bush and scrub with spectacular mountains in the distance. It was an ideal walking day – bright and sunny with not a cloud in sight, yet not too hot.

2015-02-01 12.53.39When we stopped for lunch near a rocky outcrop, Gamini told us that leopards tend to hang around these areas. Numerous leopard droppings confirmed this. Leopards obviously have a very efficient digestive system as all that is left of their prey in their poo is hair and small bones.

2015-02-01 10.10.47We climbed up to a viewpoint where we could see for miles and our only company were a couple of serpent eagles, then we retraced our tracks and walked on a few more kilometres to a permanent camp site for trekking parties. The camp site had a flush toilet, hot showers, a kitchen, an undercover dining / bonfire area, and the tents were pitched under wooden shelters. It was after 6pm and dusk by the time we got there. The rain started shortly after we arrived, softly at first.

There were ten of us at the campsite that night – apart from our contingent of four (our driver joined us), there was a camp master and assistant, and two young guides from another company who were accompanying two Australian university students (who sounded American).

Gamini had told us he was meeting his girlfriend at the camp, and he kept up the pretence until it was time to introduce her to us. His curvaceous girlfriend turned out to be … a bottle of Arak! We’d brought a bottle of wine and between us all we polished the alcohol off during the pre-dinner revelry. The camp master lit a bonfire and the Sri Lankans put on displays of drumming, singing and dancing. Then it was our turn to sing songs from our country. I found it difficult to remember any Australian songs but between the four of us we managed.

After dinner (delicious curries with rice) we went to bed exhausted, but a storm ravaged our tent all night and kept waking us up. I was very grateful the tent was pitched under a shelter as I’m sure it would have blown away if it was in the open. It was still raining heavily in the morning so we didn’t rush to get up.

2015-02-02 14.06.10By the time we’d finished breakfast the rain had eased and Gamini decided to go ahead with the day’s hike, although he had to change the route as the river was too high to cross safely. We only had 12km to walk and most of it was downhill through tea plantations and rice paddies. We passed a few small villages with temples and little shops. On the wildlife side, we spotted a small barking deer and a giant squirrel. We also saw more leopard poo and no stray dogs, giving weight to the theory that leopards are venturing out of the jungle and supplementing their diet with dogs (see my last blog, ‘There be leopards’).

2015-02-02 17.39.26Mid-afternoon our driver met us at a little road side stall and drove us for a couple of hours to a lake. The camp master rowed us across the lake to our next campsite where our tents were set up on flat boats. A water monitor noseying around the boats seemed unperturbed by our presence. This campsite was not as flash as the other one. The drop toilet was situated away from the campsite and there were no showers, but we had a dip in the lake to compensate.

Overnight there was another storm which rocked the boat and blew the tent around, but I was so tired that I slept through it. The next morning we went on an early boat tour around the lake and spotted some night herons. After breakfast we were rowed back across the lake to the car.

2015-02-03 11.40.42It was still raining heavily and too wet to hike so Gamini took us to an Aboriginal village, where an Aboriginal man showed us how to light fires without matches, sang us a traditional lullaby and gave an archery display using handmade bows and arrows. We visited one of the Aboriginal houses which was tiny, very basic and housed six people. Gamini told us that there are a lot of disabilities among the Aboriginal people because of inbreeding, and that three of our host’s six children were disabled.

Our driver drove us back to Kandy in the pouring rain. Several times he had to swerve to avoid heaps of dirt where soil had washed down from above the road. By that evening we were at our guest house in Kandy. It wasn’t flash but had the things we needed most after a few days in the bush – a hot shower, a comfortable bed and a laundry service!

There be leopards

2015-01-30 08.20.04We caught the train from Haputale to Kandy. This route passes through the Houghton Plains National Park and is one of the most scenic railway journeys in Sri Lanka. We treated ourselves and bought first class tickets. The viewing carriages in first class have full glass windows (which you can’t open) and air conditioning, but here’s a tip – you get just as good a view in second class and you can open the windows!

2015-02-04 15.22.50The journey took five and a half hours so by the time we’d arrived in Kandy, done some business in town and got transport to our accommodation in Hanthana it was nearly 6pm. Our tuk tuk driver had told us that Hanthana was a long way out of town, up a big hill and there were no facilities nearby. We thought he was just saying that to get a better fare, but it was indeed a bit of a hike and situated in a residential part of the city.

Our hosts, Lesley and Prabha, were there to welcome us and show us to our room on the top floor of their house. We were the only guests at the time so had the floor to ourselves. The accommodation was fine but I was tired, hungry (as we hadn’t eaten since breakfast), grumpy and didn’t want to stay so far from the city. We told them we’d changed our plans and would only be staying one night, instead of two.

There were no restaurants nearby but our hosts drove us into the city, dropped us off at an Indian café, and then gave us a guided tour of Kandy by night on the way back. Afterwards they gave us a couple of beers for a nightcap. I felt better about our situation after having something to eat and our hosts were very kind. Besides, they had not taken our protestations of only staying one night seriously and had suggested things we could do the next day. Maybe I could handle another night in Hanthana?

The next day, Ian looked at our location on his iPad to work out if there was a shorter route into town by foot (there was). While he was looking, he discovered there was a National Park just a short walk away. Indeed our accommodation was called ‘Jungle View’ and Lesley had told us that they had seen leopards in the vicinity. We decided to make the most of our situation and go to the jungle at dusk to look for the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya).

2015-01-31 18.22.27After spending the day in Kandy, we set off on our leopard spotting trip about 5.30pm. There were no obvious tracks among the trees and we were worried about getting lost, so we stayed near the edge of the jungle. We heard lots of birds but not much else. Eventually, we made our way out and sat by a clearing enjoying the lovely night.

2015-01-31 18.23.20 It was then that I heard it. A blood-curdling, guttural growl. It was terrifying and my flight or fight instinct kicked in. I jumped up expecting to see a leopard emerge from the forest at any moment. Then suddenly all the dogs in the vicinity started to bark and howl. Amazingly, Ian hadn’t heard anything.

2015-01-31 15.22.57We found out later that, as their territory and food source is dwindling, leopards have started to eat dogs. Also, when I played the sound of a leopard growling on the internet it sounded exactly like what I had heard that night. So it is very likely that the dogs … and I … heard a leopard that night, and that we had got rather too close for comfort to one of these magnificent big cats.

Lipton’s seat – a view worth waiting for

While in Sri Lanka we had to 2015-01-28 17.42.35decide whether to go to Haputale or Ella as we didn’t have time to visit both. I read and reread the write ups in our Lonely Planet guide book. Ella sounded more touristy and it was further to travel so we eventually settled on Haputale, a small, nondescript town clinging to a steep hillside.

When we arrived it was raining and the town looked rather foreboding, but our guest house (ABC) was welcoming. Guests share the downstairs living area with the family who run it, which gives it a homely feel.

The next morning it was fine and we caught the 8.30am bus to Dambatenne Tea Factory which leaves from behind the main bus stop. The tea factory is 11km from Haputale along a narrow, very scenic road and takes about half an hour (it costs 28RP each way).2015-01-29 08.47.45

Dambatenne Tea Factory was built in 1890 by the Scottish tea baron Thomas Lipton. Lipton wanted to make tea available to everybody by providing good quality tea at affordable prices. To do this he needed to cut out the middle men and sell his tea directly ‘from the tea garden to the tea pot’. To this end, he began buying tea estates in Sri Lanka and arranging low cost packaging and shipping overseas.

But we weren’t there to see the tea factory; our destination was ‘Lipton’s Seat’, a 7km walk from the tea factory (at 1,970m above sea level). This vantage point with a view said to rival that of nearby World’s End, is where Lipton is said to have sat and contemplated his empire.

By the time we set off from Dambatenne Tea Factory it was 9am. The guide book said to leave earlier as it is often too cloudy to see anything after 10am, but we were optimistic. We walked up a narrow road that zig-zagged uphill between terraced tea plantations so steep we wondered how it was humanely possible to pick the tea, past tea pickers’ villages, schools and temples.

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We chatted to some of the early birds we met coming down who told us about the amazing view at the top. But by the time we got there it was 11am and the guide book was right – the view was completely obscured by cloud. So we did the only thing possible in such circumstances … we had a cup of tea!2015-01-29 11.07.42

A Canadian couple we’d met on the way up had told us that the primitive tea stall near Lipton’s Seat sold very good tea at a very cheap price. We ordered tea, but it was accompanied by a tray of breakfast – samosas, rotis, chick peas, tomato chutney and a couple of plates of sweets. Although we’d had breakfast it looked so delicious we decided to have an early lunch. It tasted as good as it looked but the bill was a bit steep (560RP). However, as we hadn’t asked the price before we ate we couldn’t complain.

Then we sat under the rotunda at Lipton’s Seat and chatted to some Dutch people while we waited to see if the cloud would clear. After a while a fragment of cloud rolled back to reveal a small section of spectacular scenery. Encouraged, we stayed and watched until, eventually, the cloud completely lifted and we got to see the whole valley. It was definitely a sight worth waiting for.

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On our way back down the tea-covered hillside we contemplated how a nice cup of tea can solve many of life’s little problems; and how lucky we’d been to see the magnificent view that inspired Thomas Lipton without having to get up at the crack of dawn!

Monkey business at the Primate Centre

Polonnaruwa is one of the ancient cities in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle, and was the second capital after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. The archaeological park at Polonnaruwa has hundreds of ancient tombs, temples, statues and stupas. These are the reason most people come to Polonnaruwa, an otherwise unremarkable town.2015-02-08 14.21.32

We weren’t sure whether we wanted to see more ruins, but Polonnaruwa was on our route around Sri Lanka and we had found an interesting place to stay. A place I was very excited about visiting … the Primate Centre Lodge. This is primarily a research centre that has been conducting studies into three types of monkeys around the Polonnaruwa ruins for over 47 years. Their mission statement is to “advance scientific knowledge for conserving wildlife, and for a better understanding of the evolution of primate society and man’s place in nature.”

My degree was in biology and I find monkeys fascinating so I was looking forward to some interesting discussions. As soon as we started walking down the long drive to the Primate Centre we noticed the monkeys lazing around in the trees. I later learnt that the monkeys around the Centre are toque macaques (Macaca sinica) which are indigenous to Sri Lanka.

We were shown to our room, which was was very spacious and one of the cleanest places we stayed, before being served lunch. All meals on site are made by the male cook, Ukka Banda, who has worked at the Centre since 1978 and makes the most amazing vegetarian food. Already, I loved this place!

2015-02-09 10.10.46At about 4.30pm the monkeys came to life and had a mad half hour, racing around the trees, ricocheting across rooves and scampering over cars. I had to bring our washing in as the monkeys were playing with the line and knocking it off. They were very entertaining, especially the baby ones, and we watched them for a while. Later we went for a walk alongside the tank (a massive lake) to watch the sunset and saw lots of wildlife, birds (including a peacock), a tortoise and a big mongoose.

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There were four others at dinner that night, a British couple and two American men. One of the lovely things about the Primate Centre is that everyone eats at the same big table so you get to chat to your fellow guests. Another is that after dinner one of the researchers plays a video about monkeys. The first night we watched a fascinating BBC wildlife film about the ‘Temple Troupe’ of monkeys who hang out at the Polonnaruwa ruins, and the second night we watched another documentary called ‘Clever Monkey’.2015-02-09 14.44.55

You can do a monkey tour of the Polonnaruwa ruins with a researcher from the centre, but it’s fairly expensive (US$30 for the monkey tour plus $25 for entry into the monuments) and as it had given out heavy rain the next day we decided not to do it. Also the Director, Dr Wolfgang Dittus, was away when we visited and the other researchers seemed very shy.

The next day we were woken early by the birds singing in the trees. We ate breakfast with the guests we’d met last night plus a Brazilian couple who had arrived later, then hired bikes from the Primate Centre. We rode beside the lake in the other direction to our walk last night to two nearby free ruins, a monastery and a statue. There were lots more monkeys here, many with babies. Then we cycled on towards the main ruins. By this time, the sky was looking ominous so we ducked into a nearby hotel called the Lake House and ordered a pot of coffee and a pot of tea.

We sat outside under the shelter of a verandah and watched the rain sheeting down into the lake. It was difficult to tell sometimes whether the water was going up or down! It rained heavily for two hours. By this time we’d decided that it wasn’t worth going in to the ruins as we’d only have a few hours and it looked like there was more rain to come. Instead we cycled along the little lanes beside the river, where we saw a big water monitor swimming up river.

2015-02-09 14.17.26The owner of a little roadside shop where we bought some bananas told us there were some ruins about 1.5km further down the road on the other side of the river where the locals went. We took the second bridge over the river, which brought us to a big stupa, but this turned out to be an entrance to the northern group of ruins, for which you need a ticket. A guy on a bike offered to take us in for $50 (the normal price!) but we turned him down and carried on along a little track then across a patch of grass and through a gate.2015-02-09 14.57.42

We weren’t sure where we were, but it 2015-02-09 15.14.30soon became apparent that we had got into the ruins. As we were there we decided to have a look around. My favourite of the ones we saw was the roofless Lankatilaka Temple with 17 metre high walls and a huge headless standing Buddha. But after about an hour there was another downpour.

We sheltered under a tree and watched a troupe of Grey Hanoman Langurs for a while, but there was no sign of it stopping so we decided to cycle back in the rain. As we walked back to our bikes we had the ruins to ourselves.

An unplanned visit to Pakse and Don Daeng

It is said that the best travelling experiences are often the unplanned ones. I like to travel with as much flexibility as possible, but sometimes this isn’t possible because of airline rules or peak periods when accommodation may be difficult to find. We had many unplanned experiences on our big trip, especially towards the end, in Laos and Cambodia, when we were getting tired of making arrangements in advance.

From Tha Khaek in Laos we decided to catch a bus to Champasek, stay there a couple of nights then go to Don Khong for a few days. What eventuated was totally different …

In Laos the bus stations seem to be way out of town. When a tourist bus arrives, the tuk tuk drivers all crowd around and demand exorbitant prices for their services. This happened to us in Pakse, where we needed to change buses to get to Champasek. By the time the bus pulled into the northern ‘bus station’ it was dusk. In the fading light, this completely empty square, surrounded by semi-derelict buildings looked like a wasteland – all it needed were tumble weeds blowing through it. Most of the other (Laotian) people stayed on the bus, but me, Ian and a Singaporean man were told to get off. There was one tuk tuk driver waiting … circling his prey.

Champasek was only 28 km away. The tuk tuk driver told us there were no buses running in the evenings, but he would take us there for 300,000 kip (about AU$50, and that was after bartering with him). For comparison, our seven hour bus journey from Tha Khaek had cost us 60,000 kip each. The Singaporean was going to Pakse town centre 7km away (for 30,000 kip) so we decided to overnight there. We found a clean and convenient guest house, had an Indian meal for dinner and organised a boat ride to Champasek the next day. Then we went for a walk along the Mekong. We came across a Buddhist temple where the monks were chanting in rounds and stopped to listen for a while.

2015-02-27 09.38.15The next morning we were picked up at 8am for our boat trip. The journey on the Mekong took about two hours and was a much better way to travel than by tuk tuk in the dark! Our accommodation and the river cruise was the same price as the tuk tuk driver was asking and we got to see a bit of Pakse and a slice of life along the Mekong.

At Champasek the tourist information office was empty so we went to the restaurant next door for brunch and to check our emails. It was 1.30pm by the time we returned to the tourist information office. We discussed our options with the very helpful staff and decided to go to Don Daeng and stay at a homestay overnight then catch a minibus to Don Khong the next morning.2015-02-28 08.02.16

A boatman from Don Daeng was summoned, our accommodation and onward transport were organised, and by 2pm we were on the island. We made our way past a herd of water buffalo wallowing in the river to the community lodge on the northern tip of the island. Here guests sleep in two communal rooms on mattresses on the floor. There were three other mattresses on the floor in our room (we discovered at dinner that these belonged to a woman from the UK and a couple from Austria).

The community lodge is run by the local village and groups of villagers take it in turns to look after the guests. At mealtimes, everyone in the group on duty brings a contribution and they cook the meal together. The lodge is very clean and well run and all the profits go back to the village.

2015-02-27 14.54.16We dropped off our bags and hired bikes to explore the island. By this time it was 2.45pm so we only had a few hours of daylight left to explore. Don Daeng is an island in the middle of the Mekong. It is about 8 km long and has eight villages around its edge and rice fields in the middle. There are no cars on the island; bicycles, motorbikes and the occasional tractor are the only transport. It’s a very friendly place – nearly everyone sang out “Saba dee” to us as we cycled past.2015-02-27 16.55.25

It was hot, even at that time of day, but thankfully most of the track was shaded. We met the English woman from the lodge who was also cycling around the island. She told us the track was indistinct further on and she’d had to cut across fallow paddy fields – or rather, an old man had ridden her bike across for her while she’d sat on the back!

2015-02-27 16.10.50We rode across the dry, cracked rice paddies and finally found a path … which brought us back on our original route, so we took the track leading to the Forest Temple. This is an ancient looking temple with a shelter built around it. From there we decided to carry on across the island and try to get back to the lodge via the path on the other side of the island. By this time it was getting towards dusk and we weren’t sure what state the path would be in so we cycled as fast as we could. This path took us through forested, less populated areas of the island.2015-02-27 17.16.47

We got back about 6pm just as dark was falling and just in time for dinner. We were dirty, sweaty and tired, but happy that events had transpired to allow us to visit Don Daeng.

The bat cave of Battambang

2015-03-08 18.03.49Phnom Sampeou towers over the flat countryside about 12km southwest of Battambang. The name means ‘Ship Mountain’ because the shape of the hill looks a bit like a ship. Although this mountain has a Buddhist temple built on it, it’s recent history is dark. Thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge here. Many were thrown through the roof of one of the caves, now known as the Killing Cave, and left to die in the cold and dark.

2015-03-08 17.51.02We didn’t have time to see the Killing Cave as we were delayed at the bamboo train (see my last post) and didn’t get to the mountain till dusk. However, we were just in time to see the emergence of countless Asian wrinkle-lipped bats (Chaeraphon plicatus) from a cave high up on the north side of the cliff face. We watched as thousands, maybe even millions, of bats poured out of the mouth of the cave. It was a mesmerising exhibition; you can watch a short video of it here2015-03-08 17.58.41

The sky around the cave was black as they flew out and took their place in a long column of bats streaming across the countryside. After a while our driver took us back to the main road so we could watch them making formations in the sky, similar to starling murmurations.

Starling murmurations are also aerial displays that can be seen at dusk. Murmurations can be made up of a few hundred to tens of thousands of birds who flock together and seem to move as one. It has recently been discovered that starlings in murmurations co-ordinate their movements with the seven starlings nearest them to create the synchronized movements. When one bird changes speed or direction, all the other birds in the vicinity do the same almost simultaneously. In this way, information spreads across the flock rapidly in an amazing example of collective behavior.

2015-03-08 17.59.29The spectacle at the bat cave lasted over 40 minutes so you can imagine how many bats there were. Our tuk tuk driver told us that they fly to Siem Reap each night eating insects along the way and return to their roost in Phnom Sampeou at dawn. Apparently, you can see the display in reverse at dawn … if you’re up at that hour!

All aboard the bamboo train

2015-03-08 16.53.59Just south of Battambang in Cambodia is a train service with a difference. Here, a bamboo train operates between O Dambong to O Sra Lav, along 7km of old, warped railway tracks left by the French. The train line actually goes all the way to the capital, Phnom Penh, but most of it has been abandoned and fallen into disrepair.

Each bamboo train is called a ‘norry’ and consists of a three metre long frame covered lengthways with bamboo slats. The frame rests on barbell-like ‘bogies’ placed at the front 2015-03-08 16.21.45and back, and the back bogie is connected by a fanbelt to a six horse power engine. Passengers sit on mats and cushions on top of the bamboo and are propelled along the train lines. The train is said to travel at speeds of up to 40km an hour, but the usual speed is about 15km an hour. Even this feels quite fast on the noisy, rickety rails with the wind in your face.

Cambodian people devised these simple, makeshift trains to transport people, livestock, motorbikes, produce – anything really – around the countryside after the Khmer Rouge destroyed the trains in Cambodia, and they’re still in use today. They mainly operate as a tourist attraction, but apparently locals use them too.2015-03-08 16.37.02

There is only one set of tracks so if you meet another bamboo train coming the other way, one of you has to give way. This entails all the passengers getting off and the driver dismantling the train. Then, once the other train has passed, the driver reassembles the norry and continues. Real trains also use the tracks but the bamboo train drivers know their schedules and can hear their horns in plenty of time to clear the norrys off the tracks.

We didn’t meet many other bamboo trains on the outward journey, but on the return trip we met a lot. We didn’t have to get off once and wondered what the etiquette was. We later found out that 2015-03-08 16.58.13passengers on the norry with the least number of people should disembark. There were only two of us on our train so that didn’t happen in our case. I think it was due to our driver’s youthful arrogance and the fact that he was travelling in tandem with another train, driven by another unfriendly young man, so between them they managed to get away with not giving way.

At O Sra Lav, where the train stops and turns around, there are stalls selling cold drinks, clothes and trinkets. Be warned though that the stop may be for more than the promised ‘five minutes’ … we were left there for half an hour. Even after buying a soft drink each and a bracelet we were still hassled by the stall holders. Eventually, our driver resurfaced and took us back to O Dambong where our tuk tuk was waiting, but it meant that I didn’t have time to go to see the nearby Killing Caves.2015-03-08 15.55.37

A return trip on the bamboo train costs US$5 a person for two or more people or $10 for a single person and takes about 20 minutes each way. It operates between 7am and dusk, but there is no shade on the route so I’d avoid doing this ride in the middle of the day in the hot season. We went about 4pm in early March and it was still very hot.

Lonely Planet has dubbed the bamboo train ‘one of the world’s all-time classic rail journeys’. I certainly wouldn’t make a special trip to do it, but it’s a fun thing to do if you happen to be in Battambang. Mind you, there are rumours that the bamboo trains won’t be running much longer, as the railway line to Phnom Penh is going to be upgraded (eventually). So, if this is on your bucket list I’d do it soon.