Saturday 12th November
A sweeping 10 day tour of Central and South-West Sri Lanka
Before visiting the ‘amazing’ Lanka, I have to admit I did not know much about it’s culture or landscapes, I simply thought it must be similar to India, but how very wrong I was! Having to do my ‘visa run’ in the middle of my India trip meant arriving here in the low season, when the country has it’s most amount of rainfall. However, I couldn’t have picked a better time; not only are there no tourists around but the rain and cooler weather is so welcome after over a year of being in hot tropical climates. The rain also added such atmosphere to the dramatic and spectacular landscape of this country. Surprisingly unlike India, Sri Lanka feels a lot more developed in comparison; their roads are well maintained, no rubbish or open sewers, no ‘holy’ cows, no where near as much pestering and an air of more established communities. They even dress differently; women wear more muted coloured sari’s (if not normal westernised clothes) which are wrapped very differently to the Indians. You can see why Sri Lanka is a popular holiday destination. It is a beautiful country.
Flying into the international airport Colombo, which is in fact in Negombo (don’t be fooled), it was a matter of waiting in pure excitement for the day until my Aussie man arrived that evening. Un-surprisingly the weather was incredibly dull and I immediately felt a little dismay at choosing to come in the off season. Negombo is a beach side town, with very average beaches and atmosphere, however it had a strange fusion of past colonial influence with Dutch canals and Portugese churches. I also noticed some wonderful shops offering an array of exquisite leather goods, and plenty of Ayurveda’s (natural medicine shops) to waste my time in. It was pleasant to finally feel a more relaxed vibe. With only 8 full days to play around with, it was a matter of jumping straight onto a local bus to Kandy the following morning. The transport appears to be a lot more easily accessible than Indian travel (which is incredibly difficult); local buses boasting upbeat Sri Lankan pop, run regularly all day, with the ability to jump on and off whenever you please, and with incredibly cheap fares. With Sri Lanka not being a large country, we were fortunate to have very short distances to travel from spot to spot, however the one downside to the local buses is the speed they travel at and the frequency in which they stop. Oh well, it can’t be perfect.
Kandy is one of the points of the Sri Lankan cultural triangle in the centre of the country, and home to one of Buddhism’s holiest shrines, ‘The Temple of the Tooth’. Up into the hills, there was a welcome cool as we crawled up the mountainside and into the cloud infested greenery. The fresh moist air felt soothing on my skin. I hadn’t felt this clean for a while. Arriving at lunchtime, we explored the busy city which houses a scenic lake at it’s centre. Although the city is bustling, it is nothing like the electric energy of Indian cities, strangely I missed the staring and the cows and the smells. We had heard not to bother with Kandy if our time was limited, but spending an afternoon here was pleasant, and after finding my first real Ayurveda shop to explore, I felt very satisfied. Already missing the culinary delights of India, I found a local Dosa (south Indian dish) cafe, and exposed Darcy to his first real Indian meal, which he fell in love with (of course). As the sun began to go down we decided to visit the ‘Temple of the Tooth’, which sat on the lakeside at the foot of the cloud covered hills. An eerie setting. I have been to a lot of temples in my time, and a lot of Buddhist temples at that, but this really was special. The complex was vast and home to several museums and shrines which were wonderful to wander through in the eerie dark and rain. It was here that an exquisitely decorated shrine held the Buddha’s tooth, found on his cremation pyre. It was fascinating to read about the wars that all began over this tooth and also answered a lot of my questions about Buddhist traditions; most significantly the shape of Buddhist temples you see across Asia, is the shape of the tooth housing you will find in this temple. It seemed bizarre that they worship such a simple thing, but also a privilege to visit such a highly regarded temple to Buddhists. Having discovered the temple was bombed, Sri Lanka has had a lot of recent national turmoil between the Jaffna’s and what they call the ‘Tamil Tigers’, but you could sense the country was more at peace these days.
The following morning we proceeded to Kandy train station for the infamous train ride to the tea plantations and mountains of Ella. I have read everywhere that this train journey is one of the most picturesque and spectacular trip’s one will ever take, and fortunately it lived up to that. The immaculate carriages weaved up in to the mountainsides and further up into the clouds where we gazed over tea plantation after tea plantation and one of the most lush landscapes I have ever seen, stopping at tiny quaint stations along the way. Taking 7 hours, we were actually grateful for the long journey and the experience of riding through such a beautiful place. The lovely locals ushered us over to the open carriage doorways which we hung out from as we passed over crevasses and gorges. They fed us homemade fudge as they sang to the rhythm of the tracks. Arriving into the cold and quiet town of Ella, we fell in love instantly; there was a strong hippy vibe in the mountains, with cool little cafe’s and a real traveller community. The weather was cold and dull, but it did not matter. The following morning we rose at 5am for a sunrise trek up ‘Little Adam’s Peak’, which sat at the epicentre of the hilltops. Arriving at the peak to watch the sun rise, we munched on our paratha breakfast as a posse of wild dogs had joined the pack also. You experience dogs everywhere you go in Asian countries, however you can tell these ones were treated very well by the locals as I snuggled upto them on the mountainside. Our new best-friend and tuk-tuk driver then took us to the nine arch railway bridge that sat amongst the jungle, we drank traditional Ceylon tea as he told us all about his family. What came after that was one of the highlights of the day. We visited his family home not far from the railway tracks, where he introduced us to his lovely family, and watched his beautiful little granddaughter Tahami dance to traditional music dressed in the most gorgeous outfit. We then went to Halpewatte black tea plantation where we were shown the process of making tea and found out that Sri Lanka is in fact the biggest tea importer in the world. We discovered that the Sri Lankans are such kind and warming people, and felt a lot less hassled than walking the streets of India. After seeing a waterfall which was annoyingly on attentive watch by policemen with whistles, we headed back to make our afternoon journey to Tissamaharama, the home to Yala National Park.
YALA NATIONAL PARK, TISSAMAHARAMA
Exhausted from our early start, we arrived in the quiet local town of Tissamaharama on the south-east coast of Sri Lanka. We were fortunate enough to start chatting to a local guy on the bus, who offered us a very cheap guesthouse to stay in and safari tours that could be organised through them also, which was incredibly welcome considering how tired we all were. Having researched all of the national parks in Sri Lanka, I had chosen Yala National Park because it had the reputation of being the most likely to spot a wild leopard, with 35 wild leopards recorded in the area. Another early start (4:30am!), we left our beautiful guesthouse on our safari jeep heading over to the national park. Being the no.1 thing on my list of to do’s in Sri Lanka, I was most excited for this excursion, however it was very different to what you imagine. Not having been on a safari tour before, I was expecting a raw and real experience of teaming wildlife as we wondered off through the jungle in the jeep. However, it felt like we were chasing jeeps rather than wildlife. Our jeep driver would receive a phone call, and then we would bolt off along with another 20 jeeps all trying to spot that one animal that had been sighted. Although I felt it was very touristy and not really the experience I was after, we were lucky enough to spot 3 wild leopards which was a breathtaking moment as they are such stunning creatures. We were even lucky enough that our driver found a leopard snoozing in a tree, with it’s paws splayed either side of the tree trunks. Having taken in this beautiful sight on our own, it wasn’t long until there were about 30 other jeeps all competing for the best viewing spot. Furthermore, we sited wild elephants, water buffalo, crocodiles, peacocks galore, wild boar, eagles, reptiles and herds of pretty deer. A stunning beachside setting with an array of wildlife, but it was hard to fully appreciate the experience when you felt like cattle. Sorry for disturbing your territory guys!
MIRISSA, AHANGAMA and GALLE
For our final leg of the journey, we worked our way across the south coast towards the west to the beautiful seaside town of Mirissa. Having gathered as much advice as possible during my India travels, many people had said that Mirissa was their favourite beach area on the south-west coast. Having explored on our final day, I can confirm that this was definitely the case. Being the low season, the beaches were pleasantly busy with the most tourists we had seen all trip. The beautiful crashing waves and sandy bay was lined with great beach bars and restaurants. We had really struggled to find good food in Sri Lanka during our travels, so it was a pleasant surprise to find some great eats, especially Zephyr beach restaurant! The morning after we arrived, Imogen and I decided to go on a whale watching tour to see the local blue and sperm whales. Like any ‘watching’ wildlife tour, you feel bizarre chasing these wild animals around. Unfortunately I did not enjoy it at all, the boat rocked us around for 4 hours and we spotted a few whale backs. I am spoilt for whale experiences having worked on the Great Barrier Reef for a year. Wildlife should be wild, the experiences are more magical when they are not expected. However, on the way home we did spot a huge pod of humpheaded dolphins, diving next to and around the boat. Being overpriced in the first place, we then returned to find that the return transfer to Mirissa from the port was not included. Having spent 2 days on the beach of Mirissa and watching Darcy surf some waves, we decided that on our final day we would go and explore the old lighthouse fort town of Galle. Galle was a beautiful colonial town with amazing flash shops and restaurants, however we were glad we hadn’t actually stayed here as there was not much more to do beyond roaming the old streets. On the return I stumbled across my old friend Stevo’s new business venture, Camp Poe, a surf and yoga retreat in Ahangama. It was strange to see him in such a setting but he was living such a wonderful life there. We also managed to spot the infamous ‘stilt fishermen’ of Sri Lanka, perched neatly on their stands waiting for a bite.
My fleeting experience of Sri Lanka really showed me the beauty the country has to offer, however as I was told would happen, I felt it was a little underwhelming compared to it’s neighbouring country of India. Although there are some beautiful landscapes, the food was an extremely far cry from the culinary wonders of India and I found myself yearning for that rich vibrant culture. Strangely I missed the electric hectic atmosphere India has to offer. Saying this, it was a wonderful retreat from a very jam-packed trip around India, and the people were beautiful. I suppose with the beauty and vibrance of such a rich culture, also comes the intensity which you undoubtedly need relief from. I will definitely return to Sri Lanka with more time in the future as there is a lot the country has to offer. For now though, get me back to Incredible India!