Reasons why Sri Lanka might just be the smiliest friendliest place I’ve ever been

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Asia » Sri Lanka
February 4th 2018
Published: February 4th 2018
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Horton Plains lizard of some sortHorton Plains lizard of some sortHorton Plains lizard of some sort

A bit of googling and I can't identify it.
Pot of tea on arrival at all guesthouses

I like tea. Who doesn’t? Not anyone worth knowing. Therefore, it is delightful to be welcomed at every, and I mean every, guesthouse with a pot, not a cup, but a pot, and a nice china pot at that, of delicious tea. I think on two occasions it was tea bags, thus we only stayed there one night, but every other time it was real actual proper tea. How civilised.


It’s hard not to compare Sri Lanka to India. I know you shouldn’t as Sri Lanka is its own place, but you do. And generally, Sri Lanka compares extremely favourably. Especially in markets. There is the colour and the bustle and cheap prices of India without the stench and the open drains, the staring, the leering at lasses, the hassle, the physical attempts to get you in a shop, etc, etc (I’ll note this is not all India, Ladakh and Kerala for example were a joy to travel in). All we got passing though markets, including in Colombo, were smiles, “hellos”, some bargain clothes (me: a Sri Lanka cricket shirt, Magdalena: some very
Summit of Ella RockSummit of Ella RockSummit of Ella Rock

A shorter easier hike than expected, meaning we could walk to the Seven Arch Bridge after lunch in town.
jazzy patterned trousers) without having to haggle to within an inch of our lives, we had a nice breakfast with a mysterious but delicious massive chunk of fish, and even a passing comment from a shoe stallholder of “Lovely couple”!

Ancient site ticket collectors/guards

At sites like Sigiriya, Dambulla cave temples and Ritigala there is an obvious main entrance where you buy a ticket then go in. Not so for the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura that are distributed throughout and within town. Consequently, while cycling around (which is the recommended way of getting around) you are frequently flagged down at road junctions and gates in order to show your huge postcard-worthy stiff-cardboard ticket (so that’s where the ticket price goes to). Despite the fact that the guards go through this formality umpteen times per day they still have time for a chat generally starting like this: “Welcome, where are you from?” “England” “And Poland” “Aahh, a mix!” As an aside, entrance tickets are only valid for a day which means that, unfortunately, you can’t have, say, your afternoon after arrival pootling around by bicycle followed by the subsequent day of more
Sleepy leopard in Wilpattu National ParkSleepy leopard in Wilpattu National ParkSleepy leopard in Wilpattu National Park

Leopard had just caught a deer bigger than itself that was now lying next to it, thus leopard was understandably knackered.
in-depth ruins exploration. Unless, you buy two tickets of course at $25 a pop. Thus, you have to do it all in a day. We were surprised at Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura when our bike hire people said we would only need three hours to get around the ruins – our maps suggested much more. In fact, on both occasions we spent all day exploring, rushed the latter stages (arriving at one temple as it was closing but the guard reopened it to let us in – of course he did, we were in Sri Lanka), and delivered the bicycles back as it was getting dark. I suppose if you want to just cycle past each site, take a quick photo, then continue, maybe three hours is enough. But after travelling all that way is it not better to move slowly, look for some of the intricate detail of the carvings and paintings on the caves and temples, sit for a while to take it all in, seek out some less visited spots?

Tuk-tuk drivers

Everywhere else in the world tuk-tuk drivers are generally a pack of b**stards, please excuse my language. I am accustomed
Rankoth Vehera, PolonnaruwaRankoth Vehera, PolonnaruwaRankoth Vehera, Polonnaruwa

The biggest stupa in the ancient city.
to being hassled, hounded, harangued, and ripped off by these bunch of swine pretty much everywhere in the world. In Sri Lanka the conversation goes like this: “Hello, you want tuk-tuk?” “No thanks” then they just drive away!? The first few times it happens you’ll think you must be dreaming.

Tea pickers

It appears quite back-breaking work, up and down the hills all day with a big basket on your back, bent over picking the leaves (two tips and a bud for the best stuff), for your entire life. When tourists wander past, carefree, laughing, taking photos, often pointing the camera in their direction, I might be quite tempted to tell the tourist to sod off. But no, not in Sri Lanka. They smile, wave, shout good morning. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that you are harvesting the world’s most important crop (fact) that keeps you smiling.

Horton Plains park rangers

In Horton Plains National Park (it’s beautiful, different to anywhere else in Sri Lanka, go there) polythene-type plastic is banned, which is already great. We knew this beforehand but in our excitement to get there – train to
No need for a jack...No need for a jack...No need for a jack...

.. just lean on a tuk-tuk and you can easily remove a punctured wheel.
Pattipola then tuk-tuk up the very steep winding road – we forgot about this rule. Consequently, at the gate to the hikes we had to remove the plastic from our water bottles (the labels need to be peeled off), the plastic that wrapped our sandwiches and then the bag they were in, we had bags of “spicy sir!”, which are some sort of fiery homemade crisps, bananas in polythene bags, passionfruit in polythene bags, plastic packets of rice crackers, etc, etc. It seemed as though we had gone out of our way to bring as much polythene as feasible into the polythene-free place. Rather than chastise and castigate, the rangers found it hilarious as they transferred our great mass of goods (we had a lot of food due to the lengthy hikes planned) into paper bags.

Whale guides, loris guides

If you were a guide who did the same trip most days aiming to see the same type of animal, you could be forgiven if your enthusiasm waned. Not so the guide on the whale-spotting trip from Mirissa nor the guide on the night loris safari near Dambulla. We saw a blue whale! And the guide was more excited than us! We saw two slow loris! (Two slow lorises? Two slow lori?) Again, the guide (different chap) was more excited than we were!

Honorary Yorkshire folk on the train

Sit next to people on the train and you’ll end up having a conversation, and probably a selfie. Then it turns out their son lives in Yorkshire (he went there to play cricket) and they were there a couple of months ago.

Dambulla guesthouse

The guesthouse is in a quiet area far from the town centre. No problem, the guesthouse has its own tuk-tuk, which they’ll send to pick you up from the bus station for free then a few days later it’ll drop you off again. Because the guesthouse is a bit out: “Here’s a motorbike you can borrow for free, use it as much as you want.” We fancied going to Ritigala, a seldom visited bunch of ruins in a forest reserve that seemed tricky to get to on public transport. Fortunately, a brother of the guesthouse owners has a tuk-tuk who would take us, wait for us, and bring
Temple of the Sacred Tooth, KandyTemple of the Sacred Tooth, KandyTemple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy

We never did figure out what the procession was about but it involved drumming, wrapping stupas in orange cloth, and was the highlight of our visit to Kandy.
us back all for a very reasonable fee. Perhaps most importantly, whenever we got back from anywhere and as soon as we woke up in a morning, they brought us a pot of tea.

Colombo-Negombo commuters

The train back to Negombo from Colombo at around 4pm was busy with commuters, as you’d expect. Everyone smiled at us, the only tourists in the carriage, again, as you would expect if you have read the rest of this blog. We were standing, like many others, in between the long bench-like seats that run down either side of the carriage. However, as soon as seats became free elsewhere, people were encouraged to shuffle along so the free seats became the ones next to us. I found this extremely generous considering we were the only ones who hadn’t been working all day but try as we might we couldn’t give the seats to anyone else.

Negombo guesthouse final breakfast

Our final guesthouse offered us a choice of English or Irish breakfast. We obviously were not thrilled given how good a Sri Lankan breakfast always had been. We pointed out we would prefer a local breakfast as it would be our last morning in the country and we had enjoyed them so much. Next morning, we were flabbergasted. Bowls of dhal (lime and lentil curry), another sort of curry, coconut sambol (coconut, chilli, onion chutney stuff), string hoppers (steamed fermented dough extruded into noodles), piles of roti (a thin flat bread) and kottu roti (like a pancake), halapa (rolled up sweet pancakes), savoury donut-like vada, some other triangular spicy pastry things, and the obligatory pot of tea. The quantity was ridiculous, but we were so grateful that we ate the lot, albeit after stuffing some of the pastries in our bag to munch at the airport late in the afternoon (which was when we were next hungry).

Tour guides happy for us to say no thanks

Several times at various places, such as ruins, Negombo lagoon, etc, we were approached by would‑be guides: “You want guide sir madam?” “No thanks” “Ok” an amazing experience similar to the tuk-tuk drivers! Though there was one exception: a bloke at the bottom of Sigiriya as we approached some ancient cave paintings who began explaining them with such relish and at such pace that we didn’t understand a word; we are not even sure he was speaking English.

Nuwara Eliya guesthouse

We got into a habit of getting up very early on this trip; 7am would have been a lie-in and before 6 was more typical. This was mostly due to the early departure of trains, by far the best way to travel around this country. Consequently, as Sri Lanka is not that big (the size of Ireland) and so journeys are not that long, we often arrived pretty early at our next accommodation. Nobody was home at the locked guesthouse when we arrived around 9:30am in Nuwara Eliya. A quick phone call and the young lad who owned/ran the place was immediately on his way from home to let us straight in. We had a quick chat about how to go about getting up Pidurutalagala, or Mount Pedro for the linguistically challenged Brits in colonial times, Sri Lanka’s highest mountain of 2524 m. Unfortunately, Pidurutalagala cannot be hiked as it comprises a military base, thus you need special permission to enter and must drive to the summit where sits a radar station, barracks
Abhayagiri Dagoba, AnuradhapuraAbhayagiri Dagoba, AnuradhapuraAbhayagiri Dagoba, Anuradhapura

Just another 2000 and a bit year old stupa that was 100m high and unmatched for a long time in size by anything other than the pyramids of Giza. Worryingly, those blokes are not attached to the ropes; the rope is just guiding them wear to hack off the weeds.
and cricket pitch. Guesthouse owner/manager offered to drive us up and sort out the permission (really just presenting passports and filling in some forms at the military base gate) – I’ll note we did pay him as it was quite a drive then a series of hairpins to the top. On the way down, we told him we’d had the best dhal, roti and coconut sambol of the trip for breakfast that morning and generally how much we liked Sri Lankan food. He then offered to cook us dinner that night of dhal, roti and coconut sambol, and indeed it was the best yet. And he wouldn’t accept a penny for it. Next day he dropped us off for free at the bus station to continue our trip.

Everyone offering us lift to Pattipola from Horton Plains

Most people get a taxi van to Horton Plains, it waits for you, then takes you back whence you came (which was probably Nuwara Eliya at 5am). We wanted to walk as far and for as long as we felt like, so we just got a one-way tuk-tuk. This meant walking back to Pattipola. On the road
Dambulla Cave TempleDambulla Cave TempleDambulla Cave Temple

Some people just whizzed in and out but it's worth taking your time over. Especially to look up at the paintings as well as at the Buddha statues.
out of the park it was lovely to finally see and hear some birdlife away from all the people. Just before the gate out of the national park is a side trail up Thotupola Khanda, Sri Lanka’s third highest mountain, where we saw not a single other person, unlike the well-walked loop trail that takes in World’s End and Baker’s Falls. On the exit road, few cars passed us, but those that did nearly all offered us a lift home. We declined, enjoying the walk. Once out of the national park there is a steeply descending zig-zagging road with great views, monkeys, nice forest, and more lovely birdlife (a feature of all Sri Lanka). This time the taxi vans and tuk-tuks all stopped to give us a lift. But we refused, though it did seem fun in some of the party buses full of Sri Lankan tourists, it was such a pleasant (35 km!) downhill stroll.

Ancient site gardeners

Their job is to spend the day out in the sun keeping the grass trimmed by swinging a kind of sharpened hoe, raking up leaves and palm fronds, and generally keeping the ancient
Horton Plains lizard of some sortHorton Plains lizard of some sortHorton Plains lizard of some sort

A bit of googling and I can't identify this either.
(sometimes ruins of) temples, stupas, palaces and fortresses looking lovely. I don’t know if they are paid much, probably not as much per day as the huge sums foreign tourists must pay to enter these sites (Sigiriya is a rather steep $30, whereas Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are $25 – though I am not suggesting for a minute that these prices should prevent you visiting; you just have to suck it up and make the savings elsewhere). Yet these gardeners without fail proffer a hello, a smile, a good morning, and a how are you.

Farmers at Ella

As with the ancient site gardeners and the tea pickers; they were working hard in the fields as the tourists go hiking past, they all smiled and waved and wished us well.

Anuradhapura guesthouse

Quite the loveliest, meekest lady ran this very nice guesthouse amongst the rice paddies on the edge of town. A delicious breakfast was served in the well-kept garden surrounded by pretty birds and a surprisingly unconcerned wild mongoose. She arranged a safari for us in Wilpattu National Park for cheaper than we’d been led to believe it would cost and gave us curds and treacle (our new favourite dessert) every evening.


You might think I’m exaggerating now, but the monkeys are nice as well. We sat in a shady spot to escape the baking heat while cycling around the glorious ancient ruins of Polonnaruwa. A toque macaque came ambling over. We immediately hid our food, zipped up the bag and were on edge. However, macaque just sat casually about 10 metres away, glancing at us occasionally but otherwise showing remarkable poise and indifference. Sri Lanka: where even the monkeys are polite!

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Peacock at Anuradhapura...Peacock at Anuradhapura...
Peacock at Anuradhapura...

... that wouldn't stop flirting with Magdalena.
Kiri Vihara, PolonnaruwaKiri Vihara, Polonnaruwa
Kiri Vihara, Polonnaruwa

Stupa dating back to the 6th century BC.
Hungry elephant in Wilpattu National ParkHungry elephant in Wilpattu National Park
Hungry elephant in Wilpattu National Park

I could have watched elphant for hours, pulling up the stems with its trunk, shaking off the muck, stuffing them in its mouth, repeat indefinitely.
It seemed the only flat place around Pattipola to playIt seemed the only flat place around Pattipola to play
It seemed the only flat place around Pattipola to play

If a car came they just lifted the bottom of the net to let it through.
Pretty deer at Wilpattu National ParkPretty deer at Wilpattu National Park
Pretty deer at Wilpattu National Park

You get quite excited the first time you see them then you realise there are loads. Kind of like impala and gazelle in Africa.
Pedalling amongst the Anuradhapura ruinsPedalling amongst the Anuradhapura ruins
Pedalling amongst the Anuradhapura ruins

Three hours to see it all they said. It took us all day.
Back of the fish market, NegomboBack of the fish market, Negombo
Back of the fish market, Negombo

The beach was covered in vast carpets of drying fish.
Something to do while waiting for the trainSomething to do while waiting for the train
Something to do while waiting for the train

Pattipola: Sri Lanka's highest railway station at 1897.5 m

4th February 2018

Sri Lanka
Loved your post on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has been compared to the larger neighbour for centuries (it's hard not to), and there's always a slight competitiveness that's simmering away just under the surface - not that different to the bristling of a younger sibling I suppose :) Totally agree with you about the polite toque macaques, it was so lovely to see a population of macaques not too displaced by deforestation, and as yet uncorrupted by tourism!
5th February 2018

Feels like I was just there.
It’s always fun to read a blog on a place you've just been. Reliving some of the same experiences and seeing it again through someone else’s eyes. Great pictures too. Thanks for the read.

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