Two weeks in Sri Lanka was just about enough to get a good taste of what the country has to offer. Here are some of the highlights…
S is for Safari
Sri Lanka is a great place to enjoy nature and see some fun animals. While we were on the East coast, we went to Kumani national park, a lesser known safari spot that used to be part of the large and well-visited Yala national park. Kumani is known particularly for its wetlands and the huge diversity of birds that migrate through here every year.
We took a driver and “guide” through our hostel, which was a huge mistake as we put all our trust in the nice people running the place, but got screwed over with an unsafe truck with old car seats welded onto the truck base, no suspension whatsoever, so by the end we were wobbling around like jelly, and a guide who could do little more than stop the truck and point and say “bird, two mouths”, if he was able to say anything at all.
Despite this set back, we did get to see a lot! We woke up at 4am to get to the park before sunrise, when most of the animals are still about. On the way there, we say a herd of elephants just chilling in the early dawn, right by the road!
We also saw…
Even if we learnt virtually nothing, it was still a fantastic morning out. Hugo thankfully managed to get a discount.
R for rice and curry
Sri Lankan food is consistently delicious. Rice and curry is the classic dish on every menu and usually means lots of different curries like dhal and vegetable curry and maybe some meat if you choose it. They bring it all at once like a big feast! Then there are rotis, like samosas, filled with all sorts of delicious curried vegetables or egg or meat, which were a personal favourite for a snack on the train. They also have these weird things that I think we’re called hoppers that we like little savoury pancakes in the shape of a bowl that you dip into curries, and then string hoppers which were rice noodles made into pancake shapes that you scoop up curry with.
I is for island
Sri Lanka is an island and you can see quite a lot as it is relatively easy to get around if you are patient. We opted for a mixture of train and bus, and both have their pros and cons.
Our first experience of the train was an overnight sleeper up to Trincomalee in the North East. Sri Lanka’s trains were planned by the Brits and parts of the track probably haven’t been changed since colonial times. The result was a clattering, jolting, thundering 15 hours of joy, with the added bonus of a dingy shared toilet. However, the sheet on our bunk was clean and the fan in the room worked, so really, first class was a 5 star experience in comparison to the less fortunate chaps standing in the carriages behind.
Trains have several different classes and you can reserve seats or wing it and hope you get a seat, which is what we did with mixed results; if you have the money, pay to reserve a seat as 4 hours standing on a bumpy train is not so much fun. However, there are literally no health and safety rules so if you are lucky you can get the best seat in the house and sit in the door with your legs hanging out of the carriage and look out over the passing landscape.
The bus is also worth writing home about. Your first ride on the bus is an exciting “cultural” experience to drink in… The insane overcrowding as the whole population of Sri Lanka piles onto the bus, like they are going for a world record, along with strange travelling companions, like one lady who had brought an old wooden rocking horse; the Bollywood style music blaring through the speakers; the roaring of the engine as the bus hits it’s head-spinning top speed of 30mph; the ceaseless screeching of the horn, like the crowing of a cockerel on speed, as the driver tries in vain to get a cow or a dog out of the road.
The first time, it is funny. After 6 hours, the fun wears off. After seeing a bus on its side with a lady clambering out of the window, fun dies. Once you have done this three times for stints of 7 to 8 hours at a time, you don’t remember what fun is.
L is for leaf, tea leaf
The most truncated of my Sri Lankan alphabet, sorry. But I couldn’t not write about our trip through tea country. I drank lots of tea, although most people tried to sell me it with steamed milk, which is unholy in my book.
We stayed in Ella, high up in the hills, and did a hike up Ella rock to look out over the landscape. The trail starts with a walk along the train tracks (! My alter-ego, Captain Safety, felt pretty uncomfortable with this, particularly when a train did actually come, but I repressed her enough to continue on). Stepping from sleeper to sleeper, we walked around the valley and then took a bridge over a little waterfall and then up through the tea plantations, a rubber tree forest and then up a steep rocky front. The view at the top was fantastic: jagged, forested hills disappeared into the mist in every direction. We ate a picnic of rotis at the top, watched closely by a stray dog who had found his way up to the top.
(Side note: there are so many stray dogs in Sri Lanka but particularly in Ella, at night they bark and howl at each other. Hugo likes to joke that they are having serious evening meetings and arguments about their favourite philosophers or books, which I love).
After a couple of days lazing about on the beach at Trincomalee, we took the bus south to Arugam Bay. The destination was worth the bus experience.
We splashed out and stayed at a “surf camp” where we had a little hut made of wood and woven palm leaves, with a hammock outside, a 1 minute walk from a stunning white sandy beach with massive waves breaking right on the shore. The place had a chilled out family feel about it, you helped yourself to beers from the fridge and one of the owners would make dinner for everyone at night. They also offered surf lessons, which we took them up on, getting up at 4.30am to get in a tuk tuk for nearby Elephant Rock.
…I don’t think surfing is my thing. I’m glad I tried it, and maybe I would again but I just don’t know the sea well enough to feel comfortable in there. The waves were bigger than a timid beginner like myself would have wanted. Six-foot swells rolled towards me as I floundered about trying to straighten my board. The silence as the wave peaked and started to curve over and in on itself was punctured by “fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck” as I knew I was about to get the washing machine treatment. The boom and rush and pull as I was caught in the surf was the price to pay for not trusting the eskimo roll technique. And that was just while I was waiting my turn to actually catch a wave with the instructor. Terrifying. I shall retire early from my surfing career and leave the fun for people who actually like waves.
N is for for “no problem, no problem”
Sri Lankans are generally kind and eager to be helpful. They also hate to loose face. When you ask a question, even if they have no idea what you are saying, they will often just answer “yes” or “no problem, no problem” accompanied by their typical head waggle (watch out for upcoming post on ATW fun facts for more on this!). This can be both good and bad.
Case in point – while getting to our surf spot at Elephant Rock, we had to carry the surfboards around a rocky hill and past a lagoon. The rocks where sharp and steep and the lagoon was shallow. Hugo asked one of the instructors if he could just walk through a corner of the lagoon as it would be easier and quicker and helpfully, one of the instructors said “yes, yes, no problem”. So in goes Hugo’s foot. Another instructor happens to look round and starts shouting “no, no, no, there are crocodiles in there!”. Hugo’s foot comes flying back out.
K is for Kandy
Kandy is Sri Lanka’s cultural heart. More manageable than the sprawling capital of Colombo, Kandy is surrounded by green forested hills and the centre is clustered around a man-made lake.
We stayed at a homestay called the pink house, which would have been a depressing dive if it hadn’t been for the jolly lady who owned it. We’ve stayed in some pretty basic places but I count that in my top 10 worst. You get what you pay for…
We spent a day or two exploring, with an afternoon in the nature reserve and sanctuary in the hills above the lake. We walked round this jungle for a good couple of hours, marvelling at the massive straight trees coved in vines, scaring away monkeys that looked like they wanted our snacks and swinging on vines like Tarzan. It was dark under the canopy of trees and at points it felt like we were under water, staring up through swaying seaweed to the masked sunlight above. Cue loud renditions of “Under the Sea” in my best singing voice.
The biggest reason people come to Kandy is for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. As the name suggests, the temple is allegedly home to the tooth of the Buddha. You don’t actually see the tooth unless you are there for the big party they have once ever four years, but you can go at “offering” time or “puja” to see the casket I which the sacred tooth is kept. This was great fun. You can sit in the temple and watch people bring offerings – mostly beautiful jasmine flowers of all colours. The smell was amazing, mixing with the incense already burning in the temple. Downstairs, under the main shrine, music from drummers and a reedy trumpet plays in the background.
I decided to join the queue to see the casket and made some friends/gave people something to lean on. I am probably about average height in Scotland but here I was massive – not just tall but everything about me, my hands and feet and head, are huge. A lot of the little, older ladies behind me in the queue just decided to use me as a leaning post, mostly hanging on to my bottom. Glad to be of service.
Once the queue started to move, we were able to look through a little window to see the golden casket. It was actually pretty cool. I thought it would just be sitting the in front of you, but it is actually about 5 or 6 meters away, framed through elaborate archways and elephant tusks. Still no stirring of religious fealty though. Sorry Buddha.
A is for advice for ethical travellers
Sri Lanka came out of a 26 year long civil war in 2009 and there are still serious human rights concerns in the country. Anyone planning to travel should check out the Sri Lanka Campaign’s advice for ethical travel and their list of companies linked to historic and current human rights abuse so that you can avoid them.
A good rule of thumb is to go small and local and to be critical of advice you might usually trust. E.g. In Tirncomalee, the top rated beach in the area on Tripadviser is Marble Beach, which is owned by the Sri Lankan Air Force. Why do the Air Force own and run a beach? Do you really want to pay the Air Force to use a beach? Etc.
Just be aware, do a bit of research but don’t be put off from visiting – Sri Lanka is a gem.