Sri Lanka: The verdict

Negombo, 29 August

Time spent: 29 days. Places visited: 14. Distance covered on land: approx. 1300km.

We’ve arrived at our final hotel in Sri Lanka, conveniently close to the airport to catch our flight to India at 9.00 AM tomorrow, and thought it would be nice to summarize our first month away for you.

As we’re from Scotland where else to start than with the price of a pint! We’ve had two different Sri Lankan beers: Lion and Three Coins. They’re both lagers from the same brewery and are priced the same. Three Coins is the better tasting one, but most places only have Lion aka the “best beer in Sri Lanka”. A bottle (625ml) is sold for as little as 80p in shops, and between £1.40-2.80 in restaurants. Then there’s Lion Strong, 8.8% ABV, which gets you drunk pretty quick (can’t remember the price, just the hangover). So much for the important stuff.

Now here’s the final scores as awarded by Lauren.

The people score 8/10. Very friendly and helpful, but a couple creeps let the team down here, preventing a perfect score. On the other hand, we’ve never been greeted as much by strangers on the streets as we have here. Very nice people.

The food scores 7/10. It’s been fragrant and not too spicy (except for the breakfast pastries which are little tiny balls of fire), but not very diverse. It’s curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Personal favourites are curried potatoes, savoury onions doughnuts and the pumpkin curry. Plus we’ve had kottu, which is actually amazing and cheese roti. After a few mediocre curries you can really do with a change.

The transport scores 9/10. The buses get top marks, they’ve been frequent, quick, and never dull. The trains are the dissonant here: slow, late and crowded.

In short, Sri Lanka earns itself the official Lauren’s certificate of excellence. Well deserved, Sri Lanka!

Safari in Wilpattu

Wilpattu National Park, 27-28 August

The bus from Anuradhapura drops us off at Wilpattu Junction in under an hour. Today’s bus is decorated with pictures of Christ, which means we have a complete set: We rode on Buddhist, Hinduist, Islamic and Christian themed buses!

We’re in a homestay with an amazing garden, and the owner is the nicest we’ve met so far. He’s fully arranged our safari for the next day, including breakfast at 5.30 AM and packed lunches to bring along with us. We end up staying up a bit too late that night and wake up excited but knackered the next morning.

Wilpattu is the largest and oldest wildlife park in Sri Lanka, and world-renowned for its Leopard population. Because of its dense vegetation however it’s not very easy to spot the animals, and therefore the park is not crowded with tourists either.

Compared with our visit to Kenya, today is total luxury: Instead of being crammed into an old Nissan van with 5 other people, it’s just the two of us in a comfortable Jeep! Over the next 8 hours we see water buffalo, deer, mugger crocodiles, mongoose, monitor lizards, a huge amount of birds such as painted storks, serpent eagles, a spoonbill and the Sri Lankan junglefowl.

The big highlights of the park however are its elephants, sloth bears and most importantly its leopards. Visitor access is limited to only 25% of the park, as the remainder is dense forest, so unfortunately we don’t see elephants, but in the end we manage to track down a leopard. Our personal favourite however is a close encounter with the endangered sloth bear we find walking on the road to a pond, giving its fuzzy big heed a good wash, then crossing beneath the road by our vehicle.

So this concludes our sightseeing in Sri Lanka! Tomorrow we’ll be travelling back to the airport in Negombo, where we’ll spend one final night before boarding a plane to Cochin in Kerala, India the day after. Watch this space for more updates on our adventures!

Into the Sacred Heart of Buddhism

Anuradhapura, 25-26 August

It’s just over 100km on the bus from Trincomalee to Anuradhapura, and it marks the start of our journey back to Negombo international airport on the west coast, where we’ll be catching our flight to India at the end of the month.

The Sacred City of Anuradhapura, a world heritage site, is famous for its well-preserved ruins of an ancient Sinhala civilization. It is considered sacred to Buddhists and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The ancient city covers an area of about 40 square km, so we plan to visit some of its major sites by bicycle the next day. For now all we need to do is procure food after skipping breakfast earlier in the day.

We’re staying a bit away from the town, and not wanting to push my luck any further with Lauren today since I have already made us climb over a barbwire fence en route to the hotel, we’re looking for a restaurant on the nearby main road. The first one we find sports a promising sign that reads “beer garden and Chinese restaurant”. It’s eerily quiet when we sit down on plastic chairs in the middle of a gravel stone clearing, barren but for a gigantic, disused water feature in the corner, which tells us this must be the beer garden (of the type where dreams go to die). A man appears from the nearby building, clearly shocked to see visitors. After some hesitation he serves one kind of beer, Carlsberg. When we ask about food, he simply replies: Food?? You want rice? Or noodles? We’re too stumped to respond right away, and he comes back with a menu, which contains about 800 options, but only two are available, you got it, rice and noodles. We’re happy to accept a Carlsberg, but the whole place is a bit too odd to hazard a meal here. Naturally, the next restaurant along is even worse, it’s the filthiest looking all-you-can-eat buffet on the planet. At this point I’m hungry enough to start filling up a plate with curry and flies, but for Lauren to talk some sense into me, bless her heart. Being the brains of the operation, she instead finds a Pizza Hut that delivers not bad pizzas.

The next morning we set out by bike in good spirit. The steering wheel comes with a phone slot for hands free navigation and I have done my homework presetting the sights we’ll want to visit. We grab a quick lunch from a bakery and off we pedal to the ancient town.

Dome-shaped structures called Stupas are one of the hallmarks of Sri Lankan Buddhism and pop up everywhere on the island, and the ones in the Sacred City are the most impressive.

Jetavanaramaya was the tallest Stupa in the ancient world standing at 400ft, and was built during the 3rd century. It is believed that part of Buddha’s belt is enshrined here.

Ruwanwelisaya is said to contain the largest of Buddha relics anywhere in the world (shame you can’t go inside, no matter how much Lauren searches for a secret door). This one was built around 140 B.C. The kings architects designed the dome to resemble a bubble of milk (though looking at a stupa’s general shape perhaps the female form may have been of some inspiration too?)

Finally we trace back the Buddha’s Tooth relic to its original custodian, the Abhayagiri Stupa, which does beg the question how the tooth was extracted from the enclosed dome to end up in Kandy. Again, no secret doors found.

Other major sights we visit include the Bodhi tree, grown from a sapling of the very tree beneath which Buddha found enlightenment in India and the oldest planted tree in the world. Its grandeur is measured more by the size of the crowd than the tree itself.

The massive Elephant Pond was used as a bath for the 5,000 priests of the Abhayagiri Monastery. Water is supplied by a tank through underground canals which to this day are still in working order. The Twin Ponds are a smaller, but more intricately designed version of ancient Sinhalese pool.

The ancient town covers a huge area and new excavations are still in progress. Perhaps the best part of our visit is where we go out and explore the ruins of lesser buildings, overgrown by plants and a favourite hangout spot for stray dogs and different kinds of monkeys.

We’ve had a great time in Anuradhapura, we’ve not fell of our bikes once (maybe once), and our visit to Sri Lanka is beginning to draw to a close. There’s just one final stop at Wilpattu National Park where we hope to see Leopards and Sloth Bears on safari!

Chillin’ in Trinco

Trincomalee, 20-24 August

The bus from Habarana takes us straight to the east coast beaches of Trincomalee for five days of doing absolutely nothing but eating, drinking, swimming and relaxing. Every bus seems to have its own little theme going. Some play loud music videos, some are dressed up like a religious shrine, and this one’s showing a Bollywood action movie! Pretty much your typical moustache-sporting cop fights everyone situation and the action scenes are an awesome mixture of obscure kung fu and Hollywood blockbuster. Suffice to say we’re at the beach before we know it, ready to kick some ass!

Our first stop here is Nilaveli beach. We’re staying just 100m from a mostly empty stretch of golden sand and instantly ease into the island mentality. Sure, you may get served an hour after ordering food even though you’re the only customer, but it’s all good see, we are here to relax! I think the most excitement we have in two days is when a cow gets into the garden because I forget to lock the gate and I have to chase it away because it’s eating the plants.

On the 22nd we make our way slightly more back to Trincomalee town where the scene is a bit more lively. We stay near Uppuveli beach, the hotel also has air conditioning which is an actual godsend since it’s 35 degrees outside! We start off our mornings with real coffee at the cafe around the corner, where we run into a fellow traveller we’ve met before in Mirissa. Our days are spent playing around in the Indian Ocean and sunbathing, such a hard life right? Lauren gets mauled by a wave and has a bruised shoulder. We tan (me) and burn (Lauren) in the sun, and even manage to slip in a bit of sightseeing at the local Fort Fredrick.

Overlooking the Dutch Bay, the Fort was originally built by the Portuguese from the debris of the famous ancient Hindu Koneswaram temple they wrecked. Today there isn’t a whole lot left of the old battlements (no wonder after all the attacks they’ve endured, see plaque above), but there’s loads of deer, and on the rock behind the Fort at least a new Hindu temple was constructed.

After Trinco we’re fully recharged and excited for our final five days of Sri Lanka. Tomorrow we’re travelling on to the ancient city of Anuradhapura!

Buddha’s faves

Habarana, 18-19 August

We start the day with an easy 100 km bus journey to get to Habarana in the northeast. This sleepy little town is built on crossroads leading to an elephant safari park and several major Unesco sights, two of which we will be visiting. After Kandy, the comfortable homestay in Habarana is a breath of fresh air and the owner is very helpful in arranging our day trips.

Given our recent visits to Ella and Kandy, it’s easy to forget Sri Lanka is still a developing country. In Habarana you can find families doing laundry in the lake in front of a newly built luxury resort and spa. Although the resort looks almost abandoned today, the country has seen a lot of tourism over the last years and rice and tea farmers have become tuk-tuk drivers. There’s over a million registered tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka. A lot of these stand idly by in the centre of town waiting for tourists to return.

But we’re here and we take a tuk-tuk to go climb Pidurangala Rock for its famous view of the nearby ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, which was once the home of an ancient king. After all the hiking in Ella we can do this one with our eyes closed.

The climb starts at an ancient Buddhist temple believed to date back to the second century BC, and then halfway up is a platform with a giant reclining Buddha. And also a giant hornet’s nest.

Other visitors in front us and behind us get stung, but we have the Buddha’s favour today and whistle our way to the top. Ta big man! We creep through a crevice, haul ourselves up and find the view we came looking for.

As usual on our climbs, these little rascals beat us to it!

For our second stop we head to the Golden Temple of Dambulla, Sri Lanka’s largest and best-preserved cave temple complex, towering 160 m over the surrounding plains. Prehistoric Sri Lankans are believed to have lived in these cave complexes before the arrival of Buddhism converted the caves into a temple, which currently holds no less than 153 Buddha statues. Seeing all those Buddhas together makes me think we might actually be inside a giant Buddha statue. Like Inception (or a Russian nesting doll): A Buddha, inside a Buddha, inside a Buddha. Riveting stuff. The murals are very cool though!

So after covering a distance of close to 1000 km so far in Sri Lanka we’re heading to the beach. It’s high season on the northeast coast and we’re looking forward to do absolutely nothing in Trincomalee!

Surviving the Perahera

Kandy, 14-17 August

We’re waking up before dawn to catch the 6.39 train from Ella to Kandy. The 7 hour train ride is described as one of the most beautiful in the world, but today is the final night of the Perahera, or Festival of the Tooth, and everyone is trying to get to Kandy in time for the procession. It turns into a pretty taxing ride as we’re stuck in the aisle for most of it and we’re missing all the pretty scenery. Can it get any worse you say? A group of tone deaf teenagers inside our carriage sing and play bongo throughout the entire journey.. But hey, at least we’re not in work right now and we (eventually) make it to Kandy!

The accommodation has been good so far, so naturally I’m feeling pretty smug. All of that is about to end when we check in to Lodge in 611.. The hotel sign says ‘luxury rooms available’. Well they’re not quite completed yet. As I’m typing this, someone is going mad on a power drill in the unfinished room above us. Our bathroom doubles as a breeding ground for flies and most days we find our resident hotel manager, wearing nothing but a sarong, lurking outside our door. Pretty disturbing stuff, although granted it is tops off weather.. Today is his day off and guess who’s suddenly wearing a shirt!

So much then for the bad stuff, because Kandy really is a nice place to visit. It’s the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka dating back to 500 BC, and home of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world: The Temple of the Tooth.

And of course we’re also here for the Perahera, a historical procession paying homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic (Buddha’s very own denture) which is kept in Kandy. In the afternoon we pass elephants headed towards the temple grounds, a sight that is both amazing and appaling.

When we make it to the temple at 5pm the place is already heaving. In the next three hours waiting for the festivities to start, all our combined experiences dealing with groups of people in Sri Lanka will be severely put to the test. So we’ve mastered local buses with our big gear on, survived a crazy canyon ride, and literally fought our way out of the train in Kandy, yet this is all child’s play next to the Perahera. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on, people are falling over, feet are getting crushed, elbows flying everywhere, pretty much like being in a mosh pit. We’re locking arms with the people standing next to us and at some point I find myself almost pulling the jumper off of the boy to my right to keep us all on our feet, total carnage! About an hour into the procession we finally admit defeat, we’ve been pressed up against people for over ten hours today and our legs have had enough. We survived (some of) the Perahera! (We’ll get a lousy t-shirt later).

The next morning we do feel a bit disappointed not to have seen more of the festivity and then learn there is a Perahera encore, a final day procession and we’re doing it in style this time! Lauren finds us a spot on the balcony of a pub with a perfect view, comfy seats and cold drinks, yas Laur, you wee genius!

Perahera? Nailed it! We spend the rest of our time in Kandy visiting a few more sights. First up is climbing the big Buddha statue overlooking the city. Ever wonder what’s inside a giant Buddha? The answer is lots of smaller Buddhas!

Nearby Udawattakele Forest Park is perfect after the noisy and chaotic streets of Kandy, and has monkeys which is always a win.

We run into the same guy from Dubai twice (the one that looks like a pirate) and together we end up partying our Saturday night away. See ya later Kandy, we’re off to see Habarana!

Ella: a step too far

Ella, 10-13 August

Around midday on the tenth we arrive by train in the heart of the Tea Country. The local weather is influenced by both monsoons that are active on the island, making it cooler, wet and unpredictable like a Scottish summer – within 10 minutes we’re soaked to the bones, welcome to Ella – eat a big bag of dicks.

Described by the guides as a backpacker’s paradise, the tourism industry has completely taken over local life, but that does mean there’s decent coffee and something other than curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner to be had, so happy days!

Ella is the perfect place for hiking, but we’re not exactly in good shape we find, when, just to get to the hotel, there’s 500 concrete steps to scale. Quite literally a buzz kill after a night in town, let me tell you, and amazingly, some of the hotel staff run them up and down. Show offs.. Can’t argue with the views though.

Conquering Ella Rock

It’s Sunday and the day of rest, except for us as we are hiking up Ella Rock today. We begin on the train tracks, then cross a tea plantation and spot some monkeys on the way, before starting the 800 meter rocky climb to the top.

By then the power-walkers are already way ahead of us (seriously, why is everyone so fit) and we catch up with a Sri Lankan family from across generations: mom, dad carrying a newborn and grandma with a walking stick. We beat the latter to the top – suck it grandma!

Nine Arches Bridge

The next day we set out to visit the famous Bridge in the Sky, completed in 1921 for the Ceylon Government Railway. It’s one of the best examples of colonial-era construction in the country and current day favourite of instagrammers attempting to take their picture walking solitary on the bridge. Try though they might, today is the national holiday Id Ul-Alha, honouring Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and the bridge is jam-packed with Sri Lankan visitors. An excellent opportunity to show what you don’t see on the perfect Instagram snap.

We’re sat waiting for a train to pass by for over 2 hours. The buses may run like clockwork, but the trains play it a lot more loose. At this point we ourselves are becoming the attraction for Sri Lankan tourists who unsollicitly take our picture. Finally the moment we’ve all been waiting for:

Ravana Falls

With a bit of time to spare, we top off our Ella visit with a trip to the local waterfalls, a five tier beast best described as the local communal shower: a place to brush your teeth and give yourself a good scrub!

All in all, Ella has been good. We’re feeling fit, our calves are big enough to kick down a tree, and we’re getting up at 5am tomorrow to catch the train to our next destination Kandy!

Following a weegie’s footsteps

Haputale, 9 August

The internet said it couldn’t be done, but we manage to get from the rainforest of Deniyaya to the cloud forests and tea plantations of Haputale by local bus. It takes us just about 8 hours, but we have seats for most of it and the views over the valleys are spectacular.

Haputale is situated at 1431m above sea level and on clear nights from the hotel you can see the lights on the southern beaches a hundred kilometers away.

In the early morning we requisition a tuktuk to take us up to Lipton’s Seat, a panoramic viewpoint where Glasgow born Sir Thomas Lipton used to survey his tea empire. Lauren gets to drive us up and proves to be a natural at it, we’re still alive at any rate.

After a final climb up on foot, we get an idea of just how massive this weegie’s tea plantation is.

The size of the plantation only becomes more apparent when to save ourselves a gruelling 4 hour walk back to town, we take a straight line down through the tea plantation. This photo is taken just minutes before we manage to get ourselves completely lost.

At a Tamil farm village we’re directed to the main road, and once there seize the opportunity to hitch a ride on a 16 seater autobus just passing by. There’s just enough room to squeeze in and we’re feeling pretty chuffed, when the bus picks up more and more people on the way and the headcount gets to 34 including the driver, who is about the only one of us not pressed into someone’s armpit, while being jabbed in the side by someone’s elbow.

The concept of personal space is definitely different in this part of the world, but people are very considerate. Hard not to be when you’re standing this close to eachother. One guy even offers me to sit down. There’s no space to sit anywhere except for on his lap, which he points at invitingly, and I politely decline, which does not deter him from trying to touch my hand for the rest of the journey. Can’t say they’re not a friendly bunch the Sri Lankans.

Now along the entire road down there’s a hundred meter drop to the side and hardly enough space to pass oncoming traffic, plus we are definitely at maximum capacity, so it’s welcome to see the bus make a stop for the conductor to light a roadside shrine to promote a safe journey. Almost turned religious, we make sure to also thank the driver when we’re back safe in Haputale.

It’s been an intense couple of days so we both look forward to slow down the pace at our next stop: Ella.

From the beaches to the rainforest

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, 7-8 August

The bus from Galle takes us to the tiny town of Deniyaya in roughly 4 hours. The roads seem to consist of only hairpin bends with mostly blind corners (with the occasional stray dog casually napping in the middle of the road) and takes us higher and higher into rapidly changing scenery to the rain forests eco region of Sinharaja AKA Lion’s Kingdom (no lions here though sadly).

Once off the bus I make the decision to walk to the Rainforest Lodge with gear strapped to our backs and fronts, since the air here is a bit cooler, but soon grow to regret it. The sign may say we’re only 1km away but we’re walking for what feels like an eternity. Soon the sounds of local kids greeting us fade away to be replaced by just birds chirping and Lauren cursing me under her breath. But it’s all worth it when we finally get there!

We are the only guests here and in fact appear to be the only travellers in this part of the country. The owner gives us directions to a nearby Buddhist jungle temple built inside a rock, and so we’re off exploring again, minus 25 kilos of luggage though.

Next morning we wake up early and excited for a day of trekking through the reserve. We meet up with our guide Suminda at the gates, are also joined by a local dog which we name Scout and who decides to tag along, and together our merry band sets off into the wild.

Sinharaja is Sri Lanka’s last area of tropical rainforest. It’s home to a treasure trove of endemic species of trees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. And did I mention it also has a shit ton of leeches, which, unlike the mosquitos which bite only Lauren, are attracted only to me.

On our trek we spot amongst others Sri Lanka’s national animal the giant squirrell (bigger than a house cat, though tiny looking next to the giant leaves), the country’s most dangerous snake the pit viper, an endangered purple-faced leaf monkey and a gray langur, besides a whole lot of waterfalls.

We’re home, kinda

Galle, 5-6 August

Yesterday we arrived in Galle, the largest fortress in Asia built by European occupiers, fortified by the Dutch in the 18th century. We’re staying in the old town, in a place appropriately called Old Dutch House. Its shaded courtyard garden is the perfect hideaway from the midday heat and a place where squirrels gather at the dedicated squirrel shrine – can’t run a serious hotel in Sri Lanka without having one of these!

Between being shown pictures of his grandson, we’re given the entire history of Galle by the old jeweller next door. All paid for by the Dutch taxpayer -the man can’t stress enough- his family home survived a tsunami thanks to the town’s fortifications (crazy Dutch just can’t help but build dykes!). We also learn a thing or two, (or possibly everything there is to know) about the local irrigation system.. Tax money well spent I should say as Galle is a picture perfect little town!

 

Esspecially for the fam back home, here’s a picture of the local Nederlands Hervormde Kerk, and now it’s officially a holiday!