So, how was Anuradhapura? I actually wouldn’t recommend seeing Anuradhapura if you’re on a tight schedule like we were (9-10 days of travel). The travel to & from the city was absolutely exhausting and the town itself is terrible, as are the lodging options. I didn’t feel that the sites were that interesting, and unless you want to have a brush with the law like our little bike gang did, you’ll have to fork over $25 buckaroos. But if you are totally fascinated with the idea of monkey-colonized ruins and big white dagobas, then leave aside one day for the sites. Ignore Lonely Planet; you don’t need more than a day to see everything.
We arrived on the train from Colombo absolutely exhausted: what I thought was going to be a four hour train ride from Colombo actually ended up being a 6+ hour horror that seemed like it would never end.
It was dark when we arrived in….the city–although Anuradhapura could hardly be called a city. It’s definitely the worst of the “tourist towns” we passed through; offering only the scantiest choices for lodging for the travellers who come to see the famous ruins & sacred sites nearby.
I pre-booked at a LP recommended place called Milano Tourist Rest & it was decent, though not nearly as impressive as some of the cheaper places we found in Sri Lanka later on.
The town contains absolutely nothing besides the sites, so we limited our first day’s exploration to the culinary variety, introducing Jordan & Sandra to short eats, friend Sri Lankan savory treats filled with meat & veggies; the ubiquitous rice & curry–and kotthu–which is a strange Sri Lankan take on teppanyaki fried rice–but with strips of roti instead of rice. Great food to wash down with cold Lion (Sri Lankan brew) beer out on a patio: so that’s just what we did.
The next day we rented bikes from Milano (400Rs) and started out on what proved to be a very, very strange day. The area is too large to traverse by foot, so don’t even try: get your ass on a bike, car, or tuktuk; although biking is way superior to the other methods.
The sites are about a 15 minute bike ride from town, and the first one you’ll hit is the Bodhi Tree; which is claimed to be the oldest living tree and has been guarded by a succession of caretakers for over 2000 years. It’s supposedly a cutting from the bodhi tree where Buddha gained enlightenment.
When you approach the entrance to any of the sites, you’ll find vendors selling brightly colored lotus flowers & other offerings for you to take into the sites. I couldn’t resist the beautiful colours!
You’re supposed to pay to get into the Bodhi Tree complex if you’re not a Sri Lankan, but we followed a group of locals in, and thus didn’t get charged.
This proved to be the accidental first payment avoidance in a day that came to be very much characterized by payment avoidance.
Offerings inside the temple in the bodhi tree complex. The bodhi tree itself is—actually not that impressive, since you can’t see it behind the huge fences that encircle it, and anyway, bodhi trees aren’t the most majestic of trees to begin with.
It’s definitely worth visiting, though, as it’s one of the most sacred icons in Buddhism and it’s interesting to observe the pilgrims that make the trek here to give offerings and meditate.
So here started our real adventure in payment avoidance. So basically, you need to pay a whopping $25 USD for a one-day ticket to Anuradhapura. I’m not one to whine about prices & such (actually…) and I understand that Sri Lanka largely draws its economy from tourism now, but $25 USD in a country where you can get decent lodging for $8 USD and a meal for a dollar seems a tad overpriced. The Taipei Zoo costs only like $1.50 to go!
Okay, I understand that they’re holy and ancient sites, unlike the Taipei Zoo. Fine. You can call us a bunch of no-good, cheapass backpackers or indignant tourists being taken advantage of. I’m fine with either, because the end result is the same: I ain’t payin’.
I had read on a blog about the strategy of slipping through the ticket fees. They don’t check tickets at a particular entrance, since the city is composed of many sites. Rather, it’s a booby trap of random checks, with officers in gray uniforms hiding around corners to leap upon unsuspecting tourists with the demand, “ticket, ticket!”
So we rented some bikes & decided to hope for the best. We got through the bodhi tree, as I mentioned above, without paying; but since that requires its own separate ticket apart from the rest of the city, we weren’t ready to celebrate yet. We set off down the road to some of the other main sites. Our path rounded past a gorgeous lake (oh, it was such a beautiful day for biking!)–and all of a sudden, a gray-uniformed man started towards us….“ticket, ticket”!
When they apprehended us for our tickets, I had a little “Wild, wild west” moment & decided to make a run for it, even as Jordan and Sandra immediately stopped their bikes at the bequest of the officer. I pedaled on as fast as I could, pretending I couldn’t hear the increasingly frantic screams of the officer. Just when I thought I’d made a clean escape, I heard the rumble of a motor behind me: they’d send an officer on the motorcycle after me! I was almost proud. I say almost because in that moment, I was just really fuckin’ mad, especially when the officer started chuckling at my stunt. I don’t understand why he would. I mean, it wasn’t childish or anything.
He took me back to Sandra & Jordan and they demanded we pay for the tickets. We refused, and breezily biked the other way.
Our challenge was now to find another way to the sites; as I’d read in the blog that this was the next step in the event of being caught. Our choices were: go back to the bodhi tree & try to weave some way past all the guards there or…bike more than 7km down a random road around a lake. In both cases, we’d maybe get to the other sites, and perhaps there wouldn’t be a guard there checking tickets.
And in both cases, we had about 2 hours to get the hell over there & see the damn things before we had to catch a bus to our next city.
We chose the bodhi tree. Luck shone upon us (or maybe the tree…?) and we somehow weaved a way through a random field and onto a road, where we came upon a woman working in her yard, and after reading “Abhagiri, Abhagiri” (the name of the monastery we were looking for)–we got on our way, and in the end, we visited every single site marked on our map without paying a single cent.
We had some close shaves, but Sandra fended the guards off by saying each time: “No tickets with us! We’re just biking to meet our parents, they have our tickets!”
…As if Sandra and I really could possibly have the same parents.
Though all the sites were spectacular, it did get a bit repetitive and eye-glazing after a while, since we weren’t so in-tune with the history of Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka; we didn’t have a guide (as almost everyone else did), the signage was crappy, and honestly, we were more interested in the cheeky monkeys stealing flowers to eat than BIG WHITE DAGOBA #3483483 BUILT IN THE YEAR XXXX AD BY XXXXX KING WHO PLACED XXXXX HOLY OBJECT IN IT.
However, we thoroughly enjoyed Abhagiri Monastery, if I could do it all again, I would skip all the other sites and come straight here. Set amidst the jungle, it’s the stone ruins of a monastery that once housed hundreds of monks–you can still see their yards and bathing areas crumbling amongst the trees–and though now abandoned, the complex now has new, less devout inhabitants: in the form of hundreds of black and red-faced monkeys, who run and play around the ruins to make you feel like you’re in an Indiana Jones movie. Sometimes you even see baby monkeys. Baby monkeys!!!!!!!!!!
From Anuradhapura, we took a bus to Dambulla (nice, air-conditioned “private buses” for only Rs 180! good for a nap) and then a bus to Sigiriya, our next destination.