Published: May 6th 2012May 2nd 2012
Hello, hope you're well, we're in Kuala Lumpur at the moment awaiting a flight to Indonesia, having spent almost a month on the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. We're over halfway through our trip now and it is just going ridiculously quickly. The past month had been very busy and so will be pretty hard to summarise, but I'll try and keep this as short as I can...
We arrived in Colombo after an easy 45 minute flight from Trivandrum and soon discovered that Colombo is not a great place to stay for backpackers, especially with all the England supporters filling up the rare cheap hostels. We genuinely spent the best part of two days cruising around the city in a tuk-tuk (or more commonly sitting in traffic) trying to find anywhere faintly reasonable. On the plus side, we did get a pretty good tour of Colombo. Conclusion: incredibly congested and not really very interesting.
After initially turning up at the wrong stadium (Premadasa instead of the P Sara Oval), we finally made it to the third day of the second test match between England and Sri Lanka. It was a stiflingly hot day and we found ourselves in the same stand as the Barmy Army - really made me miss the UK (honest)... It was a great day to be at the cricket. With KP hitting some huge sixes on his way to 151, it felt like the England of 2011 again. Even Strauss managed a half century.
With it being a poya (full moon) holiday and with Sri Lankan New Year fast approaching, we were lucky to get a ticket for the train to Kandy the following morning. Kandy is 500m above sea level and, after the heat of Colombo and South India, arriving there felt like coming up for air. Kandy was our gateway to Sri Lanka's beautiful Hill Country, a region vastly different from the rest of the country - emerald green hills shrouded in mist and covered with acres of tea plantations and a climate not far removed from North Wales (i.e. plenty of rain).
Adam's Peak was our next stop. An incredibly popular pilgrimage site for Christians, Buddhists and Hindus alike (the footprint-shaped peak having been made by Adam after being cast out of heaven, the Buddha as he headed to nirvana or Lord Shiva depending on one's belief). Personally, I was there for the scenery... We woke at 2 in the morning to start the steep 7km climb to the summit and arrived two and a half hours later, in plenty of time for the sunrise. It was a pretty tough climb and I did question my sanity more than once, wondering why I was climbing a mountain at such a ridiculous hour. Having said that, the sunrise was definitely worth it.
We had a day of recuperation before catching the train to the small Hill Country town of Haputale. As in India, the railways were built under British rule and it seems as though little has changed since then. If it wasn't for a Tamil playing Sri Lankan rap on his mobile phone, you could easily be back in the 1920s as you wind your way past old tea factories and even older railway stations, on a train that wouldn't look out of place in a museum. I was surprised to hear how fondly the Sri Lankans talk of the colonial period - we were always treated to warm smiles when we said we were from England. In India the Empire seems to be as distant a memory as the Roman rule is to us.
Our stay in Haputale coincided with the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year - an astrologically determined date, this year taking place (oddly enough) at 22:27 on the 13th of April. Firecrackers became part of the background in the week before and after this date, with some going off as early as 6 in the morning (a pleasant wake-up call). The celebrations in our guest house involved the lighting of candles, the traditional boiling of coconut milk on a rudimentary log fire set up in the kitchen (!) and, last but not least, mountains of delicious Sri Lankan food...
We stopped in Ella for one night before deciding that we'd had enough of the rain and headed south to Yala National Park. It may not be the Serengeti, but we had an awesome half-day safari here, seeing countless elephants, a mongoose, monkeys, crocodiles, a monitor lizard, painted storks, wild boar, wild buffalo, dozens of peacocks and, just as we were leaving, a leopard! Sightings of leopards are fairly rare so we were very lucky, even luckier to catch it on camera (probably my favourite photo of all time...).
The next week was spent taking in Sri Lanka's scenic southern beaches. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 absolutely devastated the southern and eastern coastlines, taking 30,000 lives in total. Evidence of the disaster is still visible nearly 8 years later: large boats in back gardens hundreds of metres back from the beach, houses with their second storeys gutted kilometres inland (some families only had enough money to rebuild the ground floor) ans small cemetries scattered along the coast. Pretty sobering.
In Mirissa we got the chance to go blue whale-watching. Despite my first experience of seasickness en route (really nice), we managed to see the gigantic blue whale - an awesome sight. Our final stop on the south coast was Galle - a beautiful city that actually seems more European than Asian with its old Portuguese fort and Mediterranean houses. It's also got the most perfect cricket stadium and I managed to catch the national club semi-final (not a huge event seeing as I was the only spectator...).
By this point the weather was worsening day by day as the monsoon made its way south, so we decided, on a whim, to leave the well-beaten tourist trail and head up north to the coastal town of Trincomalee. A couple of years back, Trinco was a warzone and was referred to as 'Baghdad-on-sea' in our guidebook (probably a slight exaggeration). Today, apart from the heightened presence of soldiers and policemen, it could not be more different, and there was remarkably little evidence to suggest the past troubles (to be honest it's hard to believe there has ever been any conflict in Sri Lanka at all). We also had plans to visit Jaffna but that idea slowly faded away after we set our eyes on Uppuveli beach. We found ourself a little room metres from the beach and the days slowly passed in a haze of snorkelling, frisbee, volleyball and swimming in the pristine blue waters.
Although smaller than Ireland, Sri Lanka is an incredibly diverse country. It actually has everything - mountains, rainforests, idyllic beaches, lively cities and historic sites. The people are very much like the Nepalese in that they are hard-working and disarmingly friendly (it's hard to believe India is so close!). I spent pretty much the whole month with sweaty eyebrows and actually burnt my lips due to the crazily spicy food. So tasty though. One thing I have learnt is that if you want to ask about the corruption of a country's police force, make sure there aren't two policmen at the table. Very awkward.