Published: August 8th 2007April 25th 2007
In front of the Cathay Pacific check in counter, we were told that the flight was a day later. For a moment there, it was a confusion of 'did we get it wrong... again?'. Shortly it became clear that it was not our fault.... *phew*. The flight leg from Bangkok to Colombo had been cancelled due to a terrorist bomb just outside of Colombo. After establishing it was not our fault, we had the luxury of being put up, courtesy of Cathay, in the airport hotel that was the faceless business hotel setup you get anywhere in the world today. But as backpackers, who are we to complain? Instead, we sauntered in with our loads and partaked with big smiles the spread of the complimentary buffet, oysters, sushi and all. Well rested and washed up, we made it one day later to Colombo. Flight cancellations could not have been any better! Colombo
was the same old bustling city that Rich remembered from his visit in 1998 with little changed. Our arrival was only a week before Singalese and Hindi New Year (14th/15th April) and this spelt problems in two ways: 1. The roads were more packed and polluted than usual,
2. and more importantly, the Indian Embassy was the representative of world Chaos with cues of up to 1000 people outside waiting to apply for visas.
The saga started with arriving the next day (Thursday afternoon) to collect a form with no hint of the morning mayhem. Next day, we got there innocently at 9.30am and waited in line only to find out that the last people allowed in that day had been there since before 7am!!! (Closing time was 11am). Monday Morning Visa Quest Report
0630 hrs: We arrived to join the queue. Discovered some had queued since 4am to gaurantee their application submission!! Hearts sank a little knowing that with the New Year holidays looming, to fly out from Colombo on the 17th with the Indian visa at hand would be optimistic.
0830 hrs: Crowd grows from 200 to 500. Discover some in line are paid by applicants to stand there for them. Some have families with them so we get pushed further back into the 400 person or so mark.
0900 hrs: Richy managed to get our online booked flights changed to the 25th without a problem. *Small Victory*
0915 hrs: People are begining to
be let in.
1030 hrs: some cretins who never queued try to sneek into the line and those around us form a bond with the driving principle of 'no queue, no friend'
1050 hrs: We are right in front of the queue and an officer comes out to say that that was the last for today. *Small hopes all crushed*. Richy quickly jumps in and mentions our pridicament with our flight (the one before it was changed). The half truth works! We are shoved through the front doors!
The 300 other people behind us had to return and do it all over again the next day! 1100 hrs: Very relieved to be inside but saga continues. Met second queue inside and processing takes a break for lunch between 1200 hrs and 1300hrs.
1300 hrs: Queing resumes.
1530 hrs: finally got up the stairs to make payment of 40USD, submit our passports and receive the all important visa manna from Embassy heaven: the visa collection slip!
Although the whole day was a mission and a half we had some great experiences - chatting with local Sri Lankans in the queue and hearing their stories, collectively persecuting queue jumpers, joking with officials....
its so easy to bond with others in the same situation!
With our unplanned weekend in Colombo, we filled it with visiting a list of different temples, restaurants (Siam House on Melbourne Avenue, the little chinese Takeaway called Cherry Blossom opposite the road from Shruberry and Greenlands next to our guest house are clear favourites. Barefoot cafe on Sunday with their Jazz is a treat!) and checking out the local shopping scene. We spent 7 nights in Colombo in all - half at hotel Sansui (an overpriced, down market hotel we had found on our 2am drive into colombo from the airport after not being able to contact the unreliable AAA Accomodation
and half at a slightly more central location at Sunshine guest house
on Shrubberry Garden road - off Galle Rd.
The time between visa application and collection (over the New Year) we spent in Kandy
and its surroundings. The very ricketty old train journey took three and a half hours and cost a whopping 114 Rupees (= 1USD). Unfortunately Rich's friend Aine who had been living in Kandy for the past 10 years left on 25th March. We spent our time marvelling
at the mayhem in Kandy the two days before new year and revelled in the quietness of the place during.
The botanical gardens is the evergreen winner of places to visit in Kandy. Travelling there, we got to know Laxman, the 3 wheelie driver (Tel: 0777192349) which set us up towards a unique tour to a mountain called Bible Rock
the next day. After a very bumpy ride through rural Sri Lankan hill country we arrived at a hill farmers house and looked around for an old man (Uncle) who would guide us. Into his 80's, we began the climb with a few doubts, 1. Whether the weather beaten Uncle in his sarong and little parang would make it alive and 2. Whether he really knew his way as we began to walk vertically up a steep overgrown slope at first with no clear path.
We finally met an old partially worn trail and the climb got steeper and the tree shade less. Several gallons of sweat and 1 hour 20 mins later (amazingly even San was sweating) we reached the top, red in the face and dripping wet. Uncle was cool as a cucumber! 80 years old!!!!
The rock offered tremendous views of the countryside below and we could hear the celebratory fire crackers and fireworks exploding in all the different villages below in a 5km radius. We visited the resident monk's house, small buddhist shrine and a cave water catchment all of which the old Uncle had help to build. The monk was not there at the time as the first day of New Year is the day children go home and pay respects to their parents. Monks have family too!
We descended via an alternative route and it turned out that we were now part of the old Uncle's New Year house visiting entourage. We visited 5 homes which ranged in activity from watching a recent wedding video, eating local New Year sweets, drinking fresh coconuts and stuffing our faces full of endless offerings of bananas. All a bit of an experience. When we finally arrived back at the Uncle's son's house we were ushered to a party that was going on at the another son's house. We arrived to find the whole (huge) family dancing away in the 6 by 2m living room, boom boxes in both corners and coconut arak flowing.
We danced, chatted, sampled food, drank again, took family photos and drank some more for the next hour. This experience must have been as crazy for them as us but it sure put smiles on everyones faces. We finally dragged ourselves away and headed back to Kandy giving Uncle (all handsome and clean now in brand new shirt and combed back hair aka James Dean) a lift to buy his beetle nut.... ahhhh now that's his secret! We only hope that we can still climb like that when we are 80!
Back in Colombo
to carry out the final leg of the visa application, we whiled some time away in Pettah
the old town centre with a vibrant Tamil and Muslim community. The architecture itself if good enough to make a trip down there. If you head there early enough (which we didn't) you can catch the going-ons of the fish market auctions and distribution. Although we didn't see it, we sure smelt it in the area! Feeling tired after, Richy left San to head off to the National Museum
herself with the aim to meet up for the passport collection in the later part
of the afternoon (not that ideal to visit now as the second floor with all the masks and other displays is closed for a renovation although the 1st floor displays are still very worth it. It should reopen by the end of the 2007). Richy was left on the packed bus on his own... *ominous music begins* unsuspecting little lamd, ripe for the taking! As he got off the bus, he then discovers that his wallet had been lifted out of his front pocket right under his nose. It contained other than about 100USD equivalent in cash (not a disaster), a few cards - you've guessed it the famous NEW ATM card from ABN-Amro bank that we went to great pains to get since September last year! Neadless to say the cards were cancelled and we will now move all monies from ABN account.... they simply don't deserve the custom. Its karma that we are not meant to be customers of that disastrous bank.
With Indian visas now in hand and feeling like a bit of relaxation we headed down the coast to Galle by train (2.5 hrs express train) and took a rickshaw across
to Unawatuna beach
and bagged a room at Navoo's guest House
(opposite Shangri-la) for Rs500 ($4 a night). Nilu runs the place well and keeps it tidy and all earnings go towards the extension by 3 rooms at the back.
This sleepy classical palm swept beach was just the ticket for chilling. Powder white sand, turquoise water, bounded either end by rocky headlands, one with a temple atop, off season with heaps of friendly locals and nice choice of basic food. We had planned to head further East to Tissa and Katagama temple but this quickly fell by the way side as travel fatigue set in and the desire to stay in one place for more than a week took over. We set into our routine of -Walk to the beach-lay down the towels under a tree outside our favourite beach bar-chat to the local sellers-buy a fresh coconut-go for the odd dip- maybe stick in a game of travel scrabble - watch the light fade while sipping a happy hour beer-go back for a shower-back to the beach for a bite-shower-bed.... We both enjoyed Hard Rock for the devilled fish and Upul for the pizza. UBR the resort
carries out buffets for
Rain storm in Kandy
dinner and breakfast and Happy Banana probably has the cheapest drinks during their happy hour.
Numerous times in our 3 weeks, we have individual and shared thoughts about the beauty of this country. Although having been slowly ruined by the dastardly selfish politicians over the last half century, still retains its unyielding spirit. With smiles that come that easily despite the hardship that people have gone through (e.g Tsunami), it is a place worth visiting 10 times over. The next time we come back, we will go to the cultural triangle area north of Kandy and all the other places we missed like Ella, Tissa and Kataragama. We may even slot in the time to visit Uncle and his extended family and Rajith the wood carver in Unawatuna. AND WE HOPE SRI LANKA WINS THE CRICKET WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP!
We finally headed back the way we had come on 24th and headed to the airport morning of the 25th for our flight the short hop across this corner of the Indian ocean to Trivadrum, Kerala.... Here we come INDIA!!!
There are more photos below