Sri Lanka - a come down from the Maldives

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Asia » Sri Lanka
October 13th 2006
Published: November 22nd 2006
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We arrived in Sri Lanka on Friday the 13th of October quite late in the evening with no hotel room booked. This was a new experience for us and way out of our comfort zone. Within seconds of emerging from the terminal we were swamped by touts trying to set us up at a hotel or B&B. Faced with so much choice and not knowing who to trust we decided to splash out a few bob and stay at the 5 star Continental in Colombo which was a 30 minute hair raising dash by taxi driven by an Alonso wannabe, it didn't take us long to discover that all Sri Lankans have some form of motor racing aspirations! The 5 star rating that the hotel claimed must have been somewhat out of date, but it was clean and comfortable which is more than we can say for the rest of our stay in the country. Phil braved the curry buffet for breakfast - another first. He has now developed a taste for string hoppers - basically a burger patty shaped pile of vermiccelli noodles which you then cover in a curry sauce of your choice - yummy!

Our first impressions of Sri Lanka were that it is dirty, smelly, noisy and in an advanced state of disrepair. We spent a week travelling around trying to disabuse ourselves of this impression but alas we were unsuccessful. The country is lush and green, but the pollution and litter is horrific. There doesn't seem to be much national pride, and littering seems to be second nature.

Wherever we went we were constantly harrassed by the locals to take a Tuk-tuk, buy a tacky souvenir or a tour. A common conversation would be along the lines of: Hello. Where you from? How long you stay? You want tour? No-one ever greeted us just to say hello, there was always an ulterior motive, which can get quite taxing when you have the same conversation every 50 yards.

We only spent one night in Colombo before catching a Train to Kandy in the hill country. What an experience! We purchased 2nd class tickets as there was no 1st class and ended up packed into the the carriage like sardines. There were people hanging out the doors and windows, it was absolute mayhem. It was a 4 hour train trip and as the passengers thinned out, the vendors started their selling up and down the carriages shouting what sounded like wadi wadi wadi. All sorts was on sale - coconuts, pineapples and a variety of deep-fried snacks giving off numerous smells. Our tickets cost 114 Rupees each so we couldn't really complain.

We were befriended by Rodney on the station and he was able to send 2 youngsters onto the train to reserve seats for us. We worked out that his MO was to befriend foreigners on the station and then try and convince them to stay at his B&B in Kandy. We had already booked a room in Kandy but weren't too impressed with it so we thought we'd try Rodney's. It was a close call as to which was worse, needless to say we ended up sleeping in our sleeping bags for the rest of our stay. He did provide us with free lifts to and from town which was very helpful.

The driving was an education, here are the rules of the road in Sri Lanka as we understand them:
1. No matter what the circumstances, if there is a vehicle in front of you, you must attempt to overtake it.
2. If there is more than one vehicle in front of you, you should attempt to overtake them all in the same manouvre.
3. One hoot = crazy manoevre imminent
4. Two hoots = crazy manoevre in progress (or very rarely, thank you)
5. Lights flash = I'm suicidal, get out of my way or die
6. Two lights flash = bring it on (at this point the challenge for passengers is to refrain from covering your eyes with both hands - we didn't always succeed!)

On our first night in Kandy we decided to take a walk into town, but were sent running for shelter when the heavens opened up. We stood on the verandah of the local police station for 1.5 hours before it let up enough for us to make it into town - we were still soaked by the time we sat down for dinner. On the second day we were headed out the door to do a bit of sight-seeing, when one of the locals told us to make sure we saw all we needed to before 14:00, as that's when it would start raining. Sure as nuts, the rain started at 14:00 on the dot, and did so every day we were in Kandy - you could set your watch by it!

Life in Sri Lanka seems to be in a permanent state of fast forward and you have to have your wits about you when you're out and about. The pavements have been comandeered for hawker's stalls and you can buy just about anything you can think of, Phil bought some very realistic looking Polo shirts.

Whilst in Kandy we visited the tooth temple which houses one of the Buddha's teeth. The temple was very busy and we thought it a little tacky, with plastic blow-moulded Buddhas being the main decoration. We also went to see the traditional dancing show which, to be brutally honest, was crap! The only redeeming factors were the plate spinning display and the fire walking, which was impressive to say the least. The front row of the audience nearly got burned alive when the performers decided to chuck a bit of kerosene on the coals just to make it a bit more interesting. There is no such thing as health and safety in this part of the world!

We hired a driver to take us to the botanical gardens and an elephant orphange. The gardens were beautiful and very well kept, and there was a greenhouse full of orchids, Phil's favourite was the one that smelled like chocolate. At one stage we were beckoned over by a mad gardener who then started running around slapping a tree branch on the ground to scare the bats out of the trees. It worked and soon there were hundreds of the biggest bats we'd ever seen swirling around voicing their disapproval at being so rudely awakened. The very proud gardener then opened up a leaf he had in his hand and revealed the biggest scorpion we'd ever seen. It was only after Phil had taken a photo of it that he noticed the tether around one of its pincers running through a hole in the leaf - anything to make a living!

The elephant orphanage was a disappointment and we were left with the feeling that it is more a tourist attraction than an orphanage. The 'baby feeding show' was particularly distressing as they chained the youngsters' feet to the floor before feeding them several bottles of milk whilst hundreds of tourists crowded round for a photo. On the way back to Kandy our driver asked us if we wanted to stop and photograph some porcupines that were chained to a pole, needless to say, we didn't stop.

After much haggling with Rodney, we agreed a price for Dimuthu (the driver) to take us on a day trip to one of the ancient cities - Polonaruwa. It was a long drive there and on the way, Dimuthu casually pointed out the bus station where a Tamil suicide bomber had blown himself and nearly a hundred soldiers up the previous day! The wrecked buses were still there, it was quite a shocking sight.

The site of the ancient city is huge and the day was extremely hot and humid. We didn't last long in the heat and the ruins soon lost their appeal. Dimuthu lives near Polonaruwa and invited us to have lunch with him and his family which was most enjoyable. We had curry with all the traditional Sri Lankan trimmings. Phil tried the Jackfruit curry and the dried fish, which he wouldn't have if he'd known then what he later discovered in Negombo...

We got back to Kandy after dark which added an extra dimension to the stress caused by the local driving, it was a very long day and we had an early start the next morning.

Rodney had booked us 1st class tickets in the observation coach on the train back to Colombo. The tickets were dirt cheap and the coach reflected the cost, at least it was cleaner than 2nd class, but not by much. Once in Colombo we boarded a 3rd class train to Negombo, 3rd class being 2nd class without the seats, just a bench around the edge. We phoned a few hotels on the way and booked the remainder of our nights (3) at the Golden Star Beach Resort, which was a short tuk-tuk ride from the station.

Before checking in, we were invited to have a look at the room first, which we did, entering through the sliding door on the patio. The room seemed clean by Sri Lankan standards so we decided to stay. We were both shattered from the previous day and the morning's train journey so decided to take a nap. This was almost instantly shattered by loud banging, which upon inspection was coming from the corrridor outside, it was in the process of being dug up completely! Too tired to complain or bother finding another hotel we decided to stick it out and strike Sri Lanka off of the list of places to come back to.

Negombo is a very grubby place, it is right on the coast and still needs a lot of work done to it in the wake of the Tsunami - foreign aid doesn't seem to be getting to where it's needed. We spent our last few days lazing around the pool and taking the odd walk around town. The beach is the dirtiest we've ever seen so we didn't venture into the water.

On our walks we bumped into the one person who didn't seem to want anything from us other than an opportunity to practice his English. He followed us around the fish market explaining the proceedings. Phil was particularly intrigued as to how the dried fish was processed, explanation as follows: They buy 3-4 day old fish that is starting to smell and can no longer be sold as fresh. They put the fish in barrels with salt and water for 2 days to kill any nasties and then lay it out on the beach in the sun for 4 days, 2 days on each side. If it rains they cover it with a tarp. Phil survived eating it, but is unlikely to tempt fate a second time. The dried fish is sent to the hill country for consumption - presumably they don't know how it's made either.

Onwards to Thailand...

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