Sigiriya Sri Lanka, Spice Garden and Sri Lanka Gem Mining

Preparing to leave Villa Rosa in Kandy (see previous article) for Sigiriya I was surprised to find that it had been raining overnight. It was to remain a rainy day all day. Not that I minded, unlike the UK the temperature stayed lovely and warm and the rain would come down like a curtain of water in episodes and then stop for long pauses.  Apart from the sky being overcast it didn’t dampen the day at all.

On the way the country opened up again, as before, with paddy fields, coconut trees, stalls and villages punctuated by busy towns and mountains looming on the far horizon. The route followed the Mahaweli river which is Sri Lanka’s longest river (slightly shorter than our Thames) and falls from the Mountain of Adams Peak standing at 2,243m above sea level. The river itself has been ingeniously harnessed with canals running off it to help with irrigation and several hydro electrical projects to generate the country’s power needs.

Sigiriya Sri Lanka The Spice Gardens

Passing on the way through Matale I stopped off at one of the many herb gardens. I don’t know if you are anything like me but I use herbs and spices all the time when cooking but the majority come from bottles and packets.  I wouldn’t know what their plants might look like or how they grow but that was about to change.

The Royal 100 Spice Garden has got it down to a fine art.  In a small compound you circle around most of the plants and their staff  tell you all about the spices/herbs and what they can be used for which is a lot more than just cooking.  Of course, some I did know like the chilli plants, ginger, turmeric and coriander but I hadn’t seen the cocoa plant before which we get chocolate from, the curry leaf plant, red pineapple, cinnamon bark, pepper and cloves. Nor did I realise that cardamom grows from a tiny, delicate flower that is found at the very base of its plant.  It must take ages or a lot of plants to gather enough considering how much the spice is used.  The garden has a large complex behind it where the plants are grown on a commercial scale and most of what they produce is used in Ayurvedic medicine though they did show off with a bit of cooking over a traditional stove – the Dahl they produced was delicious and I greedily ate the lot.

Sri Lanka Gem Mining

Another stop I have forgotten to mention was to see how Sri Lanka mines for precious stones, one of their biggest exports.  There are several areas in Sri Lanka where gems can be found and the one that is most prized is the Ceylon Sapphire (Princess Diana had one in her engagement ring).  It wasn’t the gemstones that interested me, it was the process by which they extract them from the gravel (Illam).  None of your commercial heavy machinery here, they still do it by hand with the only machinery being the pumps to pump out the water that collects at the bottom as it seeps from the walls.

First the miners pick a spot and then manually dig a small pit shaft that goes down to the Illam layers.  They shore it up with logs as they go down and pack the sides with a type of grass that makes the walls more or less waterproof whilst pumping out the water at the bottom.  They can’t go too far down as there is no ventilation.  Using a traditional pick, they then scrabble out the gravel and send it back up to the surface in baskets which get hauled up by a wooden pulley.  At the top experienced sifters use water and woven baskets to ‘pan’ the gravel and pick out the gem stones.  Though a laborious and dangerous occupation this has proved one of the most efficient types of mining in the long run.  As one Sri Lankan put it ‘slow and steady’. Gemstone mining in this way, as well as the river bed sifting, has been done this way since 500BC.  Another example of the wonderful Sri Lankan attitude of ‘if ain’t broke why fix it’.

Sigiriya Sri Lanka, Arrival at the hotel

Eventually we arrived in Sigiriya and bumped our way down the pink dirt track which had indeed turned to mud from the days rain.  My thoughts did turn to Bodhi as he takes pride in his car van which would now be filthy and require him to clean it in the evening.  As we pulled into the entrance of the hotel Sigiriya Jungle (www.sigiriyajungle.com) my heart sank.

It was a fairly large hotel complex, still with individual guest bungalows, but it had 60 of them and was definitely not the boutique hotel I prefer.  I later noticed that a lot of these larger hotels are adding boutique to their name when they are not in keeping with the true definition of the word ie. small.  I think they really mean to use the term ‘exclusive’ as they are quite lovely with all the amenities but, to me, feel much like the conference hotels I am booked to work in.  Their prices for extras such as drinks and laundry were also a lot higher than I have been used to here when staying in smaller establishments.  Add to this, soon after my arrival, 2 coach loads of rather noisy French tourists turned up to dinner and you can imagine I wasn’t best pleased.  They were so loud I couldn’t think, let alone speak to anyone and it sent me scurrying away from my evening meal before finishing.  Upon enquiring with the staff, I discovered that they were going to be staying for the duration of my stay too.  Because the hotel is set so far from the main road, along the dirt track that would be too dangerous to walk on foot at night, there was no escape either.

Once I had got over my initial annoyance I then thought ‘I can’t change things at this late stage, I’ll just have to be smart about how I handle this.’  I had so much planned to do in and around the area that daytime was not going to be a problem as I would be out of the hotel. I also worked out that by having breakfast late and dinner early I could avoid the French crowd almost entirely.  I made friends with the restaurant managers Bandula and Ajhit who then found me places to sit away from potential interruption.  And then, to my surprise, the general manager Cyril Perera turned up at the door to my room.  He was genuinely concerned as he had heard I wasn’t happy (I had flung a Grrr email at my travel agent) though he thought I didn’t like the food (I did, I love Sri Lankan food, wires must have been crossed via agent to hotel).  I reassured him and explained my preference for smaller establishments to which he beamed and said, “so do I when I’m on vacation”.  I told him of my plans to deal with the crowd and after this conversation Cyril kept popping up for the rest of my stay checking I was still OK and coping.  The rest of the staff seemed to also be aware of my predicament and I cannot praise Bandula, Ajhit and Avin highly enough for the care and concern they showed me.  Even the chefs went to pains to check if my food was to my liking and one even went as far to make a separate dish of prawn curry as I mentioned it was my favourite one night.

If you are someone who doesn’t mind the larger hotels, lots of other people and that particular ambience then I would recommend Sigiriya Jungle as they definitely care about their guests.  It was just not my cup of tea.

However, I was looking forward to exploring Sigiriya and especially excited about meeting…Sri Lankan elephants; more on that in my next article!

If you have missed any of my travel logs on Sri Lanka, you can catch up here:

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Perseverance and bruises

Finding answers – within yourself

Travel Tips

Sri Lanka Tea

Kandy, Sri Lanka