Tucked to the southeast of India is the fantastic island of Sri Lanka. This place has over 2,500 years of written history documenting the kings and kingdoms that built incredible monuments, temples, and a rather unique civilization. Lacking other closer and untraveled alternatives, I was excited to check out somewhere a bit under the radar. I was also enthused to be embarking on this adventure with Soeng. Taiwan had gone pretty well, after all.
The first day had us waking up at a very unfortunate 4am so that we could catch the early bus to the airport. We ran into some of our friends also making their way overseas for the holidays and soon we were all asleep on the bus. After filling up on some glorious McDonald’s, we departed for Kuala Lumpur. They were all transferring onward, while Soeng and I had to spend the night in Malaysia before heading Colombo the next day. We split a cab with some acquaintances we shared the flight with over to Chinatown.
The hostel I booked took us some time to track down, but once sorted we joined up with the two from before to get some street food and partake of their truly awful beers. For whatever reason, Malaysia imports some really absurd brews that can hardly be called beer. Bear Beer, Class Royale, and Skol Super Beer were some personal ‘favorites’, though the real evening highlight was the delicious street food. The night ended with a little shisha before Soeng and I succumbed to exhaustion and called it a night.
The next morning we took a train over to the airport, which meant the real vacation was about to kick off. The flight was a welcome relief from the LCCrap flights that had become our norm, and after a couple hours in the air we landed in Colombo. One observation from the approach was that there seemed to be few houses and all were buried in an ocean of palm trees. The amount of verdant green was incredible. We were met at the airport by a friend of our couchsurfing host in Kandy. This driver was just the beginning of our trip’s dark spot.
We crept along through the jungle in his miniature car, rarely hitting speeds greater than 50 kph. Even with my body pressed into the door, he would still whack my leg every time he shifted into first. It was slow going, but we did stop along the way at a decent restaurant. Here we were able to get our first taste of spicy Sri Lankan food. It was hot and humid outside, and when combined with the heat the seasoning, sweat began to gush. We were both sated and when the bill came, he assumed our charity by thanking us for the food before the bill even came. We were a bit annoyed, but he at least had been hospitable and was driving us a couple hours to the city of Kandy. Not to be petty, we paid the few hundred rupees and carried on.
The jungle kept thick, but the flat terrain steadily gave way to hills, and then to mountains on the way to our destination. At one point we were slammed with an intense bout of rain that lasted only a few minutes. A few minutes down the road and there was no sign of rainfall at all. The driver said that such spot precipitation was common in the late afternoon, which proved to be true. We wound up a large mountain, through a fairly large university campus and at last to our residence for the night. One of few happenings along the way was a flat tire, not surprising given the state of the roads and quality of his car.
Not surprising in the slightest
For our first day of this Sri Lankan adventure, I had set us up to stay with a guy who had a lot of clout and rave reviews on couchsurfing. When we arrived at the house we were pretty pleased and excited about this chance to see the life of a [fairly affluent] local. We met the family and were shown to our room. They had a spacious house, clearly built in stages. We started with some tea and small talk before breaking to take some very necessary, though cold showers.
The sitting room
Feeling so much better than our filthy former selves, we walked down the road with the father to get some food for dinner. We brought a little money along to the general store his online profile stated that we would need to cover the costs of our own food. Fair enough, the number of people staying there would set them back otherwise. We brought something equivalent to about 10 USD, which would have easily covered us at a restaurant and would surely be enough for a home cooked meal in the developing world. Once we had amassed groceries and household goods that went well beyond the needs of our dinner, he looked at us and pointed to the bill, as if to say ‘pay up’. Actually, that was exactly what he meant, and he seemed upset when we told him we didn’t even have half that sum. In the end he just threw it on some tab and we paid him at the house, not wanting to be rude. They were cooking for us an authentic meal, which did wind up tasting delicious, but the way things happened left us feeling like they were running a scam operation where we were covering all their expenses. I’m confident that is what was happening. But again, not to be petty, we though it best not sour things if we were planning on spending some more time here. What is 20 dollars really worth anyway?
A decent tasting dinner from the mother
We were pretty tired, so after the late dinner we went right ahead to bed. In the morning we had some coconut rotti, which is like a thick tortilla with the nut shavings in it. We spread some woodapple jam on it, added some spice, and then devoured. Sri Lankans use coconut in a lot of their cooking, and this thick bready rotti is a staple as well. Fortunately this meal was gratis. In the morning, we met a Spanish girl who was also staying at their ‘hotel’ and we decided to explore together. It was strongly recommended that we take a stroll though the Royal Botanical Gardens, located just 10 minutes from where we were staying. These gardens have origins that go all the way back to 1371, when King Wickramabahu III used the area for his court. It began taking its current form from around 1821 during the British colonial rule of Ceylon.
Only half of the lawn grasses
We were told that we would need about two hours to see it all, which I was a bit skeptical of since they were after all just plants. The spacious grounds gave us plenty to take in though. The massive gardens had plants from all over the the world and some of the specimens were impressive in terms of size and diversity. We first took a walk along a path lined with double coconuts, notable for bearing the largest seed of any flora. There were a couple of palm species that I had never seen before too, and their Jurassic size suggested that they came from an era long past. We continued walking and saw some impressive collections of bamboo and lawn grass. The bright blue sky was a plus.
As we walked around, we talked with our Spanish companion who romanticized about Spain, and added a few points to an already substantial list of reasons to go there. I told her that though I’ve yet to make it to Europe, Spain (plus neighboring Andorra and Gibraltar) sit high on that list of places I’ve yet to go. As we walked along, we came across a few screeching trees. The source of the sounds was revealed to be massive bats, hanging from the upper branches. They occasionally took flight and showed off some enormous translucent wings. We sat for a bit under the shade of a tree before heading over to an orchid house where we saw tons of these tropical flowers.
After two hours or so, our host pulled up in a Tuk Tuk to take us into the city. We stopped along the way to grab our bags from his house. Our plans evolved and meant that we would no longer be needing to stay with him another night. We also were ready to get out of their household. We stopped to stash our bags and then go to lunch. Benjamin was at the bag drop, and suggested grabbing some curry for lunch. I asked how much it would cost and he said about 200 per person, which wasn’t too bad. But when we were riding along, and started to see signs advertising half that price, we asked the driver to just drop us so that we could get what we wanted. Eating with our hands, the food was wonderful and well worth the deviation.
I’m doing it wrong here, eating with my left hand
The next stop was the Temple of the Tooth. This temple is one of the most famous in all of Buddhism because it possesses a tooth relic belonging to the Buddha. We didn’t really have any reason to go inside it though, since the relic can’t actually be seen. It was interesting to see all of the pilgrims coming to pay their respects though. Beyond this, and the nice lake, there were not a whole lot of things to see and do in the town. Kandy was the last kingdom to fall to the British and has been entered on the UNESCO World Heritage list, but there were not a whole lot of castles, forts or ruins to see. It was a nice day to spend a bit of time there, but we were very pleased not to be spending another day as originally planned. The rest of the afternoon was spent eating baked goods, checking out the markets and burning time until we had planned to reunite with Benjamin.
The Temple of the Tooth
He arranged for us to go to a culture show that would feature a number of the dances of Sri Lanka. I was pretty interested in this since every one of their currency notes has one of the dances depicted on the back. There were a number of foreigners who arrived, though our reserved seats placed us right in the front of the room. My camera was no good at capturing their movement under the low lights, but it was really nice to sit back and enjoy. They each featured some drums that hung horizontally and also a super annoying flute. The dances themselves were quite lively and diverse and made for a good cultural experience. For the grand finale, some of the dancers demonstrated fire walking. This practice of walking barefoot through red hot coals seems to have its origins here in Sri Lanka and was pretty impressive. We were sitting in the front row, so I can confirm that what they were walking through was indeed really hot.
At the end of the show, I made friends with a duck with the soul of a dog, and then we waited for our driver to show up.
When we got back to our stuff, the plan was to hop in the car with the guy who picked us up at the airport and go for a drive up north. He was however running late, and when he finally did arrive, we were saddened to see that he was unable to fix either his sputtering car or the flat tire. Soeng had a flight that she absolutely had to be on, and after insisting that were his car to fail us, we would not pay him and instead take a taxi back to the city. At this he called a friend and was able to get a much nicer and also roomier car, so off we rode into the night. We had to spend about three hours of driving through the jungle before reaching our hotel, and there were a couple of times where we had to pause for the wild elephants that would emerge from the brush.
We stayed at a Holiday Inn, though I doubt there was any association with the chain of much nicer hotels. We were at least satisfied to have hot water and soap provided and we had certainly stayed in much worse places than this. We left early in the morning so that we could get to Polonnaruwa, an ancient city that was abandoned and now littered with ruins and monuments. This is like a lesser version of Ankor Wat, though still remarkable and also a World Heritage site. We arrived too early to buy our tickets, so we detoured to some free ruins that included the statue of King Parakramabahu. I recognized it from one of their currency notes so it had to be important, I guess.
By now we could buy our tickets and work our way though the complex. The first place we strode through was once a palace, and said to have had over 1000 rooms. Judging by the foundations and remaining walls, most of these were the size of closets. The structure wasn’t nearly intact, but it was photogenic and cool to see. Not really knowing what other ruins were waiting for us, we took far too many photos here.
Not the above mentioned ruins, something else
The next stop just down the road was an area known as the Sacred Quadrangle. The stone buildings standing here were very impressive. One of the most interesting things to me was how the ruined temples were still treated with respect. Signs mandated that we remove our hats and footwear when stepping in, and also instructed us to never turn our backs to the stone deities. I’ve never seen a flavor of Buddhism where they worry about turning our backs to the statues, so that was probably the most interesting aspect.
We carried on to the massive Rankoth Vehera Stupa where we were able to get our first shot as a couple. I was most impressed with this dome thing, simply because of the size. We had to go barefoot on the hot rock, but we walked around it hoping to find a passageway inside. No dice. They then took us past a couple more spots before ending our tour at the Viharaya. Here, some massive Buddhist statues were carved right out of the ‘virgin rock’. I’ve seen plenty of statues in my life, and these were marginally more impressive. Our driver explained that he hadn’t been here in a long time, and seemed genuinely excited to see it himself.
The guy clinging to the side of it is picking weeds
From there we left the ancient monuments of Polonnaruwa and drove over towards Sigiriya. a massive rock fortress from well over a thousand years ago. We had to drive another hour to get there, but other travelers that we met went on about how great it was. They basically labeled it as a Sri Lankan must on the merits of uniqueness and beauty. This incredible monument was also inscribed on UNESCO’s list. We cruised along the jungle road and we began to see it rise out of the horizon. This 340 meter rock dominated an uncontested skyline by the time of our arrival, we were both excited to mount it. We had to shell out big bucks for some tickets, but such is negligible when such an experience can not be replicated.
Making our approach
Soon we were passing though the gardens and climbing the stairs. The gardens were remarkable, not in their beauty, but for being Asia’s first. The climb began and in no time at all was I drenched, along with my linen shirt. There were some larger individuals very much struggling against the grade which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, since it was not fat folk friendly. At least I was fit enough to ascend it comfortably.
Along the way, one of the stops was an alcove with age old frescoes of buxom women. No one truly knows who is depicted in the images, but they were originals and very well preserved.
We continued on until we arrived at the Lion’s Gate. There was once a massive lion that would have awed any stonemason, but today all that remains are the paws and part of the staircase. We steadied our gasping lungs before starting up the stairs, which turned into some rather concerning scaffolding for the rest of the way.
I imagine that the full lion was incredible
We arrived at last, myself drenched in proof of the effort. From the very top, we could see for miles and miles, and there was absolutely nothing to obstruct the view. This rock was the only thing with any elevation to it, and surrounding it was nothing but jungle. The unspoiled view makes it one of the nicest I have ever seen.
We spent a good amount of time walking along ancient walls, all while our bewilderment at the scenery continued. As this was once a palace and also a monastery it has a couple of extravagancies: the swimming pool was a nice touch and would have been very much appreciated. After a bit, we decided we needed to get going and made our way back down the same way we came. We took a roundabout way back to the car that had us passing though a couple of nice rock gardens and of course an army of touts. We passed by them to meet the drivers, where we were then able to enjoy a bit of food.
I love this photo, wish it were me pictured instead…
Despite our request for something local, we were taken to one of those overpriced restaurants that would never function if not for the tourists that are unwittingly funneled through them. I presume that the free meals our guides get for taking us there is the primary reason for it.. Soeng’s chicken biryani was pretty good, and my fruit with ice cream was nice too.
We had another hour or so of driving ahead of us, but the excitement of knowing that we would soon be rid of these people and by extension the shadow of Benjamin that hung over our time together. After we payed for our services, the guy decided to ask us for some sort of reimbursement for the airport pickup. Having already put a little bit extra in the envelope and paying for that first meal, I just sent him on his way. The two of us were at the railway station in Kurunegala, which seemed as if it had been dropped into the jungle. There was a train to Colombo though, so we waited around until it came. We decided to ‘splurge’ on the 2nd class tickets, which cost and extra 60 cents and also assured us a place to sit. Nothing like Japan, the train was rather late but we were chugging along by twilight.
I was very much looking forward to my first train ride in this part of the world, since I never had the chance to ride any in India. This wasn’t by any means lavish, but this was actually one my best memories from the trip. Sitting by the window, as we lurched and rolled though rural Sri Lanka offered so many unique views. Plowing fields with water buffalo, and other such slow rural life gave me a profound sense of being on the road. Twilight faded and darkness came, but after three hours aboard we arrived into our Colombo station.
We had made reservations at the Clock Inn to stay for two nights where I would explore the city and Soeng would make a day trip to India. A friend had recommended the place, since it was nice, new, and well priced. We checked in to some nice dorms and chatted with our roommates, a Swiss girl, and another from the Netherlands. The Dutch girl was really cool and introduced us to a cricket themed restaurant. We were able to get some nice burgers there, a fantastic deviation from the slog of curry based dishes we had thus far been exposed to. And even better, they had beer from the local Lion Brewery. I went with the stout, which I had had before and knew was good, while Soeng opted for the lager. We were happy people.
The next morning, Soeng left at some horrendous hour to get to the airport. She needed to go and sit a CPA exam in Chennai and then come back. She expected that it would be offered in Sri Lanka this time around, but unfortunately it they adjusted the locations after we booked the trip. While she championed through that day of horrors, I spent the day checking out the city with my new Dutch friend. She was easy to talk to and thought that my pseudo-Dutch background was hilarious. She knew about the Dutch settlements in Michigan, and mentioned that her grandparents were from Borculo. When I mentioned how our Borculo was only a few kilometers from my house, and consisted of little more than an intersection, she couldn’t believe it.
I rose early and walked over to the Green Cabin, a bakery with a variety of good options. I just got an assortment of breads, each packed with a different curry. The girl woke eventually, and we took off together towards a number of the city sites. First was a stop at the Museum of National History. I’m not so sure why she wanted to walk a couple of kilometers through the heat of the sun, but I wasn’t about to look like the weak one. It was also a great chance to work on my tan. The museum building building was massive, and very colonial. What I did not want to see was an assortment of Buddhist statues and relics, and though there were some I was entirely pleased with the other offerings. There was a lot of information about the actual history of the country, various kingdoms, and the explanations of the exhibits were all very informative. I’ll never be able to keep all those kings straight, or even pronounce the names though.
The next stop was at some temple on the lake. We didn’t know anything about it, but since it was labeled on a map and close enough we decided to go check it out. We had to pay to get in and walk around something that wasn’t altogether interesting. The water that it was built over was a putrid green color from the extreme amount of algae floating though it. I shuddered at the thought of falling into. In the end I was able to walk away with a decent picture.
Past meets present
After this temple, we met some local guy who sidled up next to us and started talking. He was a character, and when he mentioned our plans, he sought to correct them. I’ll just jump ahead and say that he and his collusion with the driver succeeded at taking advantage of us, though not nearly as bad as they could have. I mostly blame my companion’s willingness to fork over money under pressure without considering the cost of the transaction. Ahh well, what we did get in return though was one of the most impressive Buddhist temples I had ever seen, as well as some air guitar and karaoke from the guy. The outside of the building wasn’t anything much, but inside seemed similar to the Sistine Chapel, with colorful paintings and statues covering every bit of the walls and ceilings.
The guy wanted to take us to some dumb place where we could shop for cheap, but rather than sensing our disinterest, it took us stating loudly and clearly that we had had no desire before it registered. The duo dropped us at the Clock Inn where we freshened up and then walked over to Barefoot for lunch. This was a nice handicraft store equipped with restaurant where I got a sandwich and refreshing minty drink. After talking a bit, we continued our tourism campaign by heading towards the downtown area. There were not any big ticket items to see but there were a couple of buildings leftover from colonial rule. First was the Old Dutch Hospital, which was had been converted into a number of shops.
Random statue that amused me
After stopping into the station to grab tickets for Soeng and I, the two of us went over to walk along the beach and enjoy the sunset. This was the first sunset I’ve ever seen on the Indian Ocean and it was pretty good. There were a bunch of locals flying kites and enjoying the fiery sky as well, and there were plenty of food stalls too. Back at the hotel I was just waiting around for Soeng’s midnight arrival, but I was also able to take advantage of some much needed relaxation and internet. She arrived after what had to be longest day ever and was simply overjoyed to hear we would be taking a 7am train the following morning.
Unfortunately we needed to wake at around 6am to make our train headed for Galle, on the southern end of the country. We were going to spend about a day and a half in the city, a UNESCO spot itself due to the ramparts and buildings leftover from its Dutch colonial history. We were both pretty excited about the train ride despite the rather unfortunate departure time since we were located in the super deluxe first class cabin. There was AC, wireless internet, and even a proper toilet – all for only 10 dollars each! This is quite an up-charge when compared to the price of a normal fare, but there are times where I don’t mind my being a western tourist. One of the highlights was the view, since the rails went along the ocean for nearly the entire trip. Incredibly though much of the shoreline was occupied by decrepit Hoovervilles rather than resorts and mansions.
We arrived and decided to walk to our hotel despite being accosted constantly by the tuk tuk drivers. Our disinterest in their services seemed to amaze them though. What westerner would choose to walk somewhere when they could simply overpay for an unnecessary service? Soeng was confident she had a handle on getting us to our hotel, and though I rather doubted her sense of direction I went with it. As expected, we did wind up some distance away from the intended destination, but since time was no issue I didn’t mind the stroll.
We did however find some fruit dealers
We checked into the hotel I had booked sight unseen, and it wound up being alright. We being the only guests, and also their electricity being out was a bit unsettling, but the lights and our precious AC returned within the hour. After getting ourselves cleaned up, we set out to check our the fort area. There was a large network of small roads that the Dutch populace once used several hundred years ago, but today it was mostly just restaurants, hotels and shops aimed at tourists. Hungry, we sauntered for a little place to eat and eventually settled on the Dutchman Cafe. I was really hoping for some Dutch cuisine, but was left rather disappointed by the selection. I got the only thing that had ‘Dutch’ in the name, which wound up being only a crappy sandwich. After a little bit it came out, and just as I was about to take a bite, I noticed that it was covered with ants. Soeng insisted that they were just ants and that I should shut up and eat it. Nope. I let the guy know, and he took it back to make a new one. What came out the second time was undoubtedly made from the same ant infested bread, but this time he just made sure to pick them off before placing it before me. I don’t mind eating something that I know had ants on it, but I draw the line at eating something while it has ants on it. In the end it was pretty bad anyway, just a fried egg with some mango chutney. The tricky thing in these parts is that every restaurant puts that TripAdvisor sticker in their window, which really diminishes the reliability of such a designation.
If you look closely, there are a number of the insects
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the whole fort, which was situated on a peninsula. The view out over the ocean was really nice, and seeing all the locals and fully clothed women at the beach was interesting too. There was quite a lot of coastline to enjoy, and after about an hour we took a break.
Nearby there was a guy with a big python and a cobra in a basket. Well aware of what a tourist I was being, I felt that it would be worth a couple of dollars for a snake picture, and also to see the king cobra ‘dance’. We got a picture with the big ol snake, and then he took the lid off the cobra basket. That thing spring up immediately, even before he started making some annoying sound on his instrument. Clearly the snake was up simply because it was sick of being in a basket, and made no specific response to the music. While I don’t regret it at all, as tourists doing a blatantly touristy thing, I felt like such an idiot whenever the locals looked over at us. When the thing was done, he asked for something like 30 dollars, to which we chortled and passed along a pocketful of change, totaling to a just a fraction of that. I give him credit for trying, but even he has to know that the overhead cost of keeping a snake in a basket and ‘performing’ is just about zero.
A good idea
Once back at the hotel, we took a much needed nap before heading to dinner. This was intended to be our nicer meal for the trip, and it was in fact pretty good. It had good atmosphere and the open air setting gave us a nice breeze. As a bonus, they had hookah which compliments any setting. Everything on the menu was a wrap of sorts, but crepes were their specialty. I went with a burrito option that really hit the spot. After desert and chatter, we returned to the hotel. We still had some lingering exhaustion from the short night of sleep before, so getting a jump start on the next day was great.
The next morning we sought out a place for breakfast. We decided to pass over the Dutchman Cafe this time, in favor of somewhere else. This other place had a really nice morning combo and we also ordered a couple of different flavored teas. Once we were sorted, we got ourselves checked out of the hotel and moved towards the train station. The plan for the day was to walk around a nearby park and temple complex before heading back to the capital city the same way we came. The walking was rather uneventful and the Hindu temple not so much worth recounting. So we can just…
Fast forward to Colombo! Our train showed up just as the sun was setting but we were able to hurry over and enjoy the still-orange-sky. We also feasted on whole crabs, deep fried and slathered with a spicy sauce. From here it was a Tuk Tuk back to the Clock Inn. Once moved back into the same dorm as before, we also decided to revisit the cricket restaurant for some stomach friendly food. I did order a different burger but indeed the Lion Stout made another appearance. After watching some bowlers and wicket runners, we returned to get some sleep.
The next morning we had to get ourselves to the airport to begin the next part of the trip. We split a cab with a nice Pakistani guy, but the driver took there via the stupidest route possible. Not sure why though, since we weren’t paying him for time. We left plenty early, so it never became a problem. The airport check in however became a great problem. The guy at the counter insisted we present the cards used to make the booking. In my case I had it replaced since the booking date the old one no longer exist. Soeng hadn’t brought hers either. We went into a flurry of trying to call our banks and figure out what ”getting our cards approved for e-commerce” meant. Soeng was able to contact her bank, but they had no idea what they were talking about. We then just decided to try and go to a different counter to check in. Of course the card problem still came up, but she was plenty willing to call up top and get us cleared. Had that first guy been willing to do the same we would have been sorted. For once I was glad to have shown up early at an airport.
Y M B A, have a stay at the YMBA!
Though the fiasco was a rather unpleasant way to leave the country, it did have us far more excited to be aboard the plane than we would have been otherwise. Sri Lanka proved to be a wonderful country that was definitely better than either of us expected. To be fair this is likely because we did so little research beforehand, but i thank that only enhanced the mystique and wonderment of what we saw. We were pleased with the food, and I especially so with the amount of currency I could add to my collection. But with that, we were off to…