Sri Lanka

September 2012

It was really by chance that I stumbled upon Sri Lanka. I had wanted to fly straight into Bangkok, but the city often’s floods during September (monsoon season). So I decided to detour around Sri Lanka for 15 days then start in North Vietnam (beginning of their cool season) and work my way south to Ho Chin Min city (Saigon). Cutting across Cambodia to arrive in Thailand for a sunny November. Worked a treat.

So on a whim of good reviews and a tight deadline, my flights were booked. Now 6 weeks later I’m standing at the airport with little to no idea of what to expect. Time to buy a lonely planet and form some sort of plan.

Trip

Route of Sri Lanka

First north for some kitesurfing (b), east to tour the ancient cities (c, d) and Sigiriya (e), south into the hill country for some white water rafting (g) and tea plantations. Finishing with a safari (j), beach(k) and day in the capital (l).

As I only had 15 days I often slept in a new town every night. Traveling mainly by public bus which was dirt cheap and a great way to meet the locals.

Having come from India I was initially cautious of locals and had my guard up. But it didn’t take long to realise that this trip would be completely different.

Sri Lanka is an incredible country with a proud honest people that go out of their way to welcome you.

This was a big relief and made traveling super easy.

Colombo

The capital is busy and a little dirty by Sri Lankan standards and not particularly special. While waiting for a my bus I met a local reggae promoter who I treated to lunch. 2 delicious curry’s and cokes for 200 Rupes. A mear £1. Bargain!

I was proudly given the best seat in the front of the bus next to the driver. But this was short lived as within 2 minutes of leaving the bus had crashed. Luckily no one was hurt. Bus drivers was too busy texting as we sat in traffic. Hadn’t noticed the SUV in front stop and we rolled straight into the back of it. Cracking our windscreen and ruining their rear end.

I jumped off and had to wait an hour for the next one. Which thankfully made it without incident.

In a tiny village on route between local buses I met two friendly locals. The first buys me tea and a snack and the second brings me to meet his family. I sit down in their modest home and the whole family crowd in to hear my story. I’m the only one served tea, in their finest china. A real honour.

I later realise that this is Tami land. An area off limits during the 26 year civil war.

Kitesurfing

Just south of Kalpitiya there is a small lagoon for kitesurfing. It’s a fun spot but was particularly shallow this year from a unusually dry wet-season. Punishing on those bad landing.

I rented gear for 3 days from a guy called Mike. Who in typical kitesurfing fashion told me that it’s always windy here. Got 2 days out of 3 days of wind, so not bad but they ideally needed some bigger kites. An idea he scoffed at. I was riding 9-12m North gear.

Bit of a secret spot so, hush hush

Unfortunately there’s not much budget accommodation in the area. With a lot of places charging more than they should, rustic should read basic.

One evening I popped into Kalpitiya, bus ignored me. So hitch hiked and a tuk tuk gave me a free ride, now that’s a first!!

Locals are all very interested in talking and it makes the trip so much more rewarding. In India I had the strange feeling that locals look up to westerns too much, which is a little uncomfortable. Here in Sri Lanka the locals are proud of their own culture, often wearing local sarongs (a long cloth that men wrap around their waist) and speaking with you as equals.

Ancient cities

Next I head to Anuaradhapura the first of two accident cities. It takes a couple of local buses and 4 hours later I’m there. Check into hotel and go exploring. First stop’s a 2,000 year tree. Cant see the base of the tree, but it certainly doesn’t look any older than 200 years. But hey, the praying monks look convinced.

Meet two Londoners and tag along for some sight seeing in their car. In the evening we visit the drivers friend. Again the finest china comes out and only for guests.

Unfortunately the tickets for the ancient cities and Sigiriya are ridiculously overpriced, at $30 a pop. So the next day I agree to an illegal entry where the tuk tuk driver avoids the ticket people.

Now the lonely planet makes a big deal out of this place as some must see tourist attraction. In reality the ruins are over 2,000 years old and there is often very little left to see beside a few old bricks scattered around. Lots of Dhoba temples that aren’t so old, though big and impressive they kinda of all look the same after a while. Often shown Buddhist mediation spots, which given the nature of mediation, are pretty boring to look at.

I recommend skipping Anuaradhapura altogether and heading straight to Polonnaruwa.

That afternoon I jump on another local bus, this time playing reggae music and head to Polonnaruwa. Check into a room without a celling but at ó a night who cares!

Polonnaruwa is “only” 1000 years old, so is much more intact and visually impressive. It’s a relatively compact site and ideal for renting a bike and cycling around. No Angkor Wat but well worth a visit.

Sigiriya and Kandy

Jump on another local bus and head to Sigiriya. Famous for it’s rock you can hike.

I wander down to a lake and watch wild Elephants drinking. Edging my way closer for a photograph but then they are suddenly spooked by a “Safari” elephant in the distance and bolt in the opposite direction. God knows why tourists ride on these “Safari” elephants. You can hear the clinking of every step, from the chains around their feet. With the handler’s occasionally poking it with a large spear. Kinda sad to think that these highly intelligent creatures spend the majority of their 70 years in captivity.

In the evening I meet a French guy called Eric. We swap stories on India, he has by far the worst tale I’ve heard. Upon landing in Delhi he got a cab from the airport, driver jumped the red lights and crashed. Sending his driver through the windscreen. Where he died in the middle of the road.

Anyhow’s, the next day I cough $30 to hike up Sigiriya rock. Although it’s overpriced it’s good fun and has some ancient paintings in small caves.

In the evening I head to Kandy. Meet Simon a cool Swedish guy who loves to hitch hike his way around . As we’re in a city it’s now legal to drinks so we head out to some local bars. Though this turns out to be a bizarre experience with a lot of unhappy drunks.

Our first encounter is with a drunk local who follows us into a bar and tries to order a drink on us. We refuse, he gets aggressive so we head to a different bar. He tries to follow but thankfully looses interest. We chat for a while but the pub has a bad vibe. Some locals are way too drunk. One repeatedly hits on the wall why shouting randomly. The drinks are relatively expensive and we’re pestered with locals wanting a free beer. Even a drunk police office tries his luck.

The next day I head to a small village called Kitulgala for some white water rafting. Was good fun but only grade 3 so a little tame. Eager to try some harder rapids in new Zealand.

Do some exploring around the jungle like terrain and stumble upon the bridge used in the classic movie “The bridge over the river Kwai”.

The following day I head into hill country. Tea plantations scatter the stunning countryside as I travel to a small town nick named little England. It’s cold, wet and strangely similar to west country with quaint cottages, grand colonial buildings, red phone boxes and traditionally British root vegetables being sold. But with a slightly surreal twist as tuk tuk flies past.

Sri Lanka is world famous for it’s “British” tea. Lipton anyone? Most expensive in the world, though somewhat surprisingly most of it is exported to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Visit a tea plantation and catch a steam train west to Ella.

Lonely planet recommends Ella, no idea why. Northing here.
Make friends with an awesome (just encase their reading) Portuguese couple. Their heading south for a safari trip and invite me along. Love traveling with such loose plans as it allows ultimate flexibility in changing and making the most of last minute opportunity’s.

They’re flashpacking in style with a hired car and driver, covering twice the distance I can on public buses. We’re soon at Yale national park, where we see more elephants, eagles, crocodiles and the infamous spotted leopard!

Luckily our driver has a keen eye, as we’re all rubbish at spotting anything other than bushes and trees.
Later we notice a tree with 10 jeeps parked up, bingo! The jeeps jostle for positions, and we finally spot the spotted leopard!

Difficult to get that perfect shot, leopard is lying down after devouring half of Bambi. Jeep gets a better position closer to this incredible beast. Finally catch a glimpse of it’s face but the camera shutter is a moment too late, obscured by foliage.

Feel pillaged to have spotted the leopard, as it’s an endangered species with sightings in only 1 in 5 trips.

That evening I have one of my best meals in Sri Lanka, pumpkin curry, incredible.

On my way back I’m walking down a dark alley way and see large group of guys drinking. Cautiously walk past, expecting some sort of hassle but far from it. Invited to join them for food and shots. Have to excuse myself after my 5th or 6th shot and stumble back. Clambering over the 8ft security fence into the hotel complex and into my room. KO.

Leopard

Look closely

South beach coast

Next day we spend on the beach, first of my trip. Portuguese have been great company for last 3 days, made me want to visit Portugal. Another one for the list.
Also been refreshing to get past the usual “Where you from? / been? / going?” questions that you get when traveling.

Verdict

Countryside in Sri Lanka is as beautiful as it is diverse. You can travel from mosquito jungle to hill country to savannah like safari to white sanded beaches in only a few hundred kilometres. The country is not plagued with rubbish like India, much more respectful culture in more ways than one.

It is the people of Sri Lanka that make this country so incredible. They are extremely proud to welcome you to their country and enthusiastic to chat and help you out. Large areas were closed to tourists during the civil war that raged for 27 years. And it maybe due to this, that the locals have yet to be corrupted by the high prices they could extort from tourists.

Although this is a relatively small country it has a lot to offer and I strongly recommended going. From Kitesurfing, surfing, blue whale watching (one of the few in the world), safari’s, beautiful beaches and some of the friendliest people I have met. This country is seriously underrated!

I’m 9 countries into my tour and I’m torn between Sri Lanka and Vietnam, both fantastic.

Especially recommend Sri Lanka if your considering North India (excluding the Himalayas, of course!).