The flight to Colombo was good except we had a couple of different technical problems at Heathrow before we took off and then we seemed to spend an eternity driving around Heathrow looking for the runway.
Arrived to a glorious 31 degrees and took a cab with a driver called Mohan. Mohan had the art of gliding through Colombo’s overcrowded streets down to a fine art and even though we were often dangerously close to hitting other vehicles or even on the wrong side of the road Mohan never gave them impression that it was anything other than a relaxing drive in the country. He even found time to honk at every pretty girl we passed.
On the hour drive to the hotel we passed through several military checkpoints and three of them flagged us down to for a random inspection and Mohan had to show his licences. Even though the war has been won, security is still taken pretty seriously here.
Once I was showered I took a walk near my hotel to see some of the local attractions. It took a few attempts as several of the directions I took were blocked by armed police and soldiers because they were near to government buildings. Eventually I made it to a bustling market where dozens of traders wanted to know where I was from :)
The guy who brought the iron up to my room offered me the services of a nightclub hostess for 7000 rupees. When I said no he took that to mean the price was too high and started to negotiate. I carefully explained my price was NO and shooed him out of my room.
Later I hooked up with the other guests for the wedding next week and we went to an all you can eat traditional Sri Lankan buffet restaurant at a nice hotel, Followed by a night of dancing and vodka redbulls at a club where we hogged the dance floor because we were the biggest and the drunkest :)
At dinner it was mentioned that Sri Lanka has an election coming up. The current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa looks a lot like famous Maori comedian Billy T James. He must be bloody loaded because his poster are up EVERYWHERE in SL. Usually looking happy, with babies or pointing at things showing what a well balanced chap who gets things done he is. The other guy running in the election is the leader of the military who have just defeated the Tamil Tiger’s after 26 years of war. The good general has about seven posters. A local friend surprised me when she said that elections here are usually preceded by large bouts of assassinations as candidates try to get a permanent edge on each other. She suggested that was because that was all they knew after decades of war.
Travel weirdness: Sri Lanka seems to have crows instead of seagulls. If you ever thought seagulls made an annoying sound, Trust me when I say a crow with a bee in its bonnet is just as bad.
After Colombo I met a group of people who are going to the wedding who I will travel around central SL for a few days.
KANDY KANDY KANDY I CAN’T LET YOU GO
Our first drive took us through rural central Sri Lanka to the city of Kandy.
We woke up in the morning to see ginger monkeys called Edwards Monkeys climbing all over the balconies on the front of the multi story hotel.
Kandy Tourist Tip: If you get up first thing in the morning to watch the monkeys on your balcony don’t do it naked because the people on the balcony above you can see into your room.
Later in the day we drove to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage.
On the way there we stopped at a place where you could ride elephants. I had never done this before so I thought why not but once I was on the back of a big elephant started to feel pretty uncomfortable. Having seen elephants in the wild I know they are pretty raucous independent minded animals. Despite their size these ones were incredibly docile and almost looked depressed. Maybe that had something to do with the chains they wore or guides with sharp sticks. The second reason I felt uncomfortable was because the moment I got on the back of the elephant I realised that my legs don’t stretch that far apart. And to make matters worse once our elephant started walking it’s massive shoulder blades stretched my legs even further apart. Ouch.
The Pinnawala elephant orphanage has a large number of elephants who were displaced because of the war or other reasons. One of the saddest things I have seen in a long time is an elephant that had had one of it’s feet blown off by a landmine. It’s healed now and it could still just manage to hobble around but it’s enormous weight meant that it was very slow and it’s spine was visible and twisted. It’s can’t have been a happy animal.
Later we stopped by a tea plantation which I mostly ignored as tea is a sickly abomination that is to coffee what methadone is to heroin.
That night we got up at 2am Climb Adams Peak to a Buddhist monastery. The climb itself takes about three hours and is well lit and the steps are pretty good. The second half is pretty much vertical and only three of our original party of six made it to the top. It rained lightly most of the way up with occasional heavy downpours. Luckily we were pretty near a shop each time it got really bad.so we could take shelter.
Somewhere near the top I was making a joke about what Elvis would be saying if he were alive today (probably “help help help let me out of here!”) and all of the lights on the whole mountain went out. After a brief conversation about whether anyone though to bring a torch which went something like this
“Does anyone have a torch?”
“No I thought it was lit all the way”
“I don’t have a torch”
“Well mine’s in my pack at the hostel”
So I apologised to Elvis and the lights came back on immediately. At the temple at the top I remembered to ring the bell extra hard to dispel the evil spirits of dead rock legends.
At the top there were loads of local people sleeping over including no small number of very old people who had all made the trek to the top. Did I mention we had three people in their 20s drop out?
Quite strangely a local dog tagged along with us on the way up. At the half way point he disappeared and another dog took over. On the way back down they swapped again at the same place and the first dog came back to handle the last of the journey to the hostel. We paid our ‘guides’ in cookies which the dogs liked but which probably aren’t that good for them.
After Adam’s peak we headed to gorgeous Unawatuna Beach where we rested and relaxed for a couple of days before the wedding. The rest stop was well planned as my legs were sore as f*** for a couple of days. I had thought that commuter cycling would have prepared me for this a little better but it turns out that hill climbing muscle fitness is completely different to cycle muscle fitness.
At Unawatuna we did lots of nothing and not much else. It was awesome. My only exercise was when I got roped into pool aerobic with some 60 year old Dutch women. Lots of fun but you wouldn’t get fit doing it.
After Unawatuna we drove back to Mt Lavinia near Colombo for the stag do and other wedding activities.
DRIVING IN SL
Our driver for the first week was a real jerk. Actually he was also a lovely smiling SL guy who couldn’t do enough for you but once he is behind the wheel of his van he is an aggressive bullying jerk who constantly tailgating and honking at the next vehicle in front of us. Often we overtake people on blind corners or blind hills. Sometimes we have overtaken a vehicle which is already overtaking another vehicle. This double overtake isn’t unique to SL but they do seem to be world class at it. I doubt there are many quicker times from Kandy to Unawatuna on record than the one our driver did.
The only people on the road who are more aggressive than our driver seem to be the drivers of the several ton Lanka Ashok Leyland buses, some of whom seem to have only days to live and don’t want to waste any more time driving the bus than they absolutely have to. The worst of these by a long shot was a bus driver behind us on the after-dark arrival into Unawatuna. No matter how recklessly our jerk driver drove, no matter how many blind overtakes or flat out dangerous manoeuvres he took the bus would always catch up to about half a meter behind us and start sounding its huge bus horn trying to get us to move over. This went on for several kilometres with both vehicles hurtling past trucks, buses, cars, vans, tuk tuks and bicycles. No matter what our jerk-driver tried we could not shake the bus loose. It was like a scene from the Speilberg movie, Duel. What makes this story truly shocking is that the bas had to occasionally stop (well slow a bit while the passengers jumped) to drop off or pick up passengers! Every time it did we thought we might lose it in the heavy traffic but in no time at all there it was, on our bumper jamming it’s horn at us like we were Sunday drivers.
The stag do was awesome but I did see one of the worse things against nature I have ever seen as a tourist. When we finished dinner we were walking along the beach and a turtle crawled out of the ocean to dig a hole in the sand and lay her eggs in front of all of the flashy restaurants and huge booming clubs. Everyone (not me) was so drunk (okay I was drunk but I didn’t go near the turtle) and so excited they rushed the turtle and started taking flash photos from a couple of meters away. The poor turtle took fright and abandoned her hole and waddled back into the ocean. As a human you basically know that we are squeezing the other animals out of the places they have lived for millions of years but this was a particularly poignant example why animals don’t stand a chance. Not unless they develop a taste for vodka redbull and house music.
The wedding was a couple of days later and was an interesting mix of western and traditional Sri Lankan styles with colourful drummers and dancers. The food was amazing and later on after some beach clubbing until 4am we tried to go for a swim at the beach by the hotel only to be told by security that we weren’t allowed.
The next day I awoke at the crack of mid-afternoon, with a near complete set of memories which isn’t bad all things considered.
The day after the wedding there was some sadness as most of the pre-wedding touring party started to leave for the airport during the day. It’s not all bad though as we are all now firm facebook friends.
The day after that as I left the Mt Lavinia Hotel I counted no less than six weddings (but probably more) having their photos taken at 8am. One of the girls wondered aloud where they found six sets of make-up and hairdressers who were willing to get up at 3am to get everyone ready! Personally I wondered where they could find half a dozen blokes who were prepared to get up at 7.45 on a Sunday and throw a suit on.
Oh yeah and the day we left was the first day I have made breakfast at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Actually it was the first day I was up before midday.
POST WEDDING TOURING PARTY
After the wedding I joined the post wedding touring party which included the grooms parents and some of his mates.
Today I am heading back to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and then to Duwala where we are staying in ultra luxurious Kandalama resort. The resort is on the edge of a man made lake and their web site goes to great pains to say how environmentally friendly they are. Our local friend said there is now way they could have built the resort where they have without massive bribes to the right people in power. That is one of the big advantages of living in a developing country – money really does talk.
Woke to timid black faced monkeys outside my room.
Up early to enjoy a swim in the so-called infinity pool. You can imagine my disappointment when I reached the far end after swimming just a few meters.
SIGIRIYA (LION’S ROCK)
Later we climbed Sigiriya (Lion’s Rock) which was once the home to King Kasyapa and his 500 wives. Incidentally King Kasyapa also killed his dad by walling him in alive and stole the throne from his brother. Eventually his bother defeated him in battle and he took his own life. Wikipedia doesn’t say what happened to the wives but presumably it turned out okay. These days it’s a nice climb to the top of a very big rock with some old ruins on top.
The weather was a bit average (rain again) so didn’t do much else for the rest of the day.
After that I left the group who headed to the southern beaches and am heading out on my own to explore more of the ancient cities in central Sri Lanka. My driver turned up at 11 and turned out to be an agriculture lecturer who had pulled a sicky and was making a few extra bucks driving me around for the day in his personal car. Relishing my first safety belt experience during my time in SL I felt marginally safer as the buses rushed towards me on the wrong side of the road.
Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka for 300 years starting around 1000 years ago. The ruins were really impressive and well maintained with a lot of history and the guide seemed to know his stuff. An excellent ruins visit even thought it rained most of the time I was there.
Travel tip: it’s considered rude in SL to have a photo take with your backside facing Buddha.
Travel tip 2: when visiting Buddhist site wear jandals because you will have to take your footwear off all of the time to go in and out of the temples.
Later I got my driver to take me to Dimbulagala which was basically some painted Buddha scenes in an average temple.
Spent most of the morning driving to Anuradhapura and then looking for a guide. The site was even more impressive than yesterdays with loads of temples, sacred trees, drogbas, tanks (the pool kind), pools and general ruins. My guide was pretty average and spent a lot of the tour trying to sponge my Oakleys off of me.
The roads are covered in dogs here. Today my driver ran over a dog that didn’t move out of the way. Not sure why as it was clear as anything it was in front of the car. Looking back watching the dog trying to stand was pretty yuk. Years ago I saw a similar thing happen to a cat in Egypt. The cats back was clearly broken and a 12 year old kid stepped out of a shop with a spade to put it out of its misery. If I were a better person I would have gone back with a tire iron and finished it off. I’m not though. I prefer my animal cruelty to come in cellophane packages.
Later in the afternoon I visited Mihntale which has a small series of temples on a hilltop where the first SL king converted to Buddhism after passing a wisdom test where he was able to correctly identify a mango tree Obviously the wisdom-bar was set slightly lower in ye-olden-times. My guide Bundu was my best guide so far and hardly spent any time at all talking about his poor family. I told him about the dog and he smiled wryly saying only westerners cared about dogs. Locals see them as pests. I guess you have to be pretty rich to give a shit about animals. Poorer people tend to worry about other things like food, electricity and education.
Bundu did make one classic guiding mistake though. The skies had cleared a bit so I could take a photo so he loudly proclaimed I was ‘lucky’. Two minutes later one of the monsoons (they get two here) hit so hard my umbrella ceased to be anything other than a brightly coloured accessory.
After Anuradhapura I headed back to Kandy which we rushed through the first time. Kandy has a temple with one of Buddha’s teeth so is a pretty significant place for Buddhists. They also have loads of really huge ivory tusks so presumably the elephants think it is shit hot as well.
My one way taxi to Kandy from Dambulla costs almost as much as a full day with a driver. When I enquired why a couple of hours driving csot as much as a full day with a driver it turned out I was also paying for the drivers journey from home to the resort and then also his return home after dropping me off in Kandy. Taxis appear to work differently here than in the rest of the world.
The day I left Kandy there are blue skies in every direction. This was a massive improvement on all previous weather I had had in central SL which alternated between: very thick overcast (just peachy for photos), drizzle, light rain, medium rain, heavy rain, very heavy rain, monsoon rain and Auckland rain (the worst of all).
Also due to my complete inability to be charged anything other than foreign millionaire devil price I have decided to catch a bus to my next destination, Bentota, hoping not to get a fully crazed bus driver with no regard for human life.
Despite massive savings being made it is interesting to note that five minute tuk tuk ride to the bus station in Kandy cost more than my three hour ride to Colombo. Although once I had purchased a seat for my trusty Macpac (which wouldn’t fit in the overhead luggage compartment) the longer journey cost more. The long bus ride from Colombo also cost marginally more that the one minute tuk tuk connection at the far end. Totally feel that I am at least partially getting on to the foreign millionaire devil tourist price cash haemorrhage.
At beautiful Bentota beach I caught up with the post wedding touring party for some cocktails and wave surfing.
My last stop after that was a sleepy little beach town with a few nice pubs and restaurants called Negombo. The major selling point of Negombo is that it is close to the airport for tomorrow’s early flight to Male in the Maldives.
SMILING SRI LANKA SUMMARY
Sri Lanka is a beautiful county and I can’t recommend it enough to other travellers. You would never know that a war had just finished a few months earlier because everyone smiles so much. It was not uncommon to be riding in the back of the van to make eye contact with a local person and receive a huge smile. When you smile back (and it’s impossible not to) they smile even more.
My only word of caution to tourists though is about the pricing. Government run tourist attractions charge several times the price for foreign tourists what they do for locals. I can totally see the logic in this as all countries have limited resources and you have to make the most of what you have. The down side is that all other aspects of society have adopted this official policy and almost everything has a local price and a tourist price. At one hotel in Kandy my local friend Sam (the bride) booked my hotel and when I arrived they told me that they rate would jump because they had quoted me the local price and not the tourist price. At one hotel in Bentota Sam lost her room because the hotel was “full” but later in the day after I walked in and got a room it turned out that there were rooms left. My suspicion was that they were trying to get rid of her so they could give her room to a foreigner at a higher price (like me). This kind of skulduggery will always go on when you have one price for one group of people in society and one for another. Basically SL is pretty poor and is trying to make as much from each visitor as possible and this can end up costing you a fair whack at the end of two or three weeks here.
Tourist Tip: Use supermarkets where prices are marked and travel on local transport to keep costs down. Every person who comes to SL should catch a local bus at some point in time for the experience alone ;)