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Published: October 30th 2012
It was always going to be a long slog, but getting to Colombo (Sri Lanka) from Yangon (Myanmar) via KL (Malaysia) proved exhausting. It would have been somewhat less tiring if security at KLCC hadn’t kept prodding us with sticks throughout the night and telling us that we couldn’t sleep in that part of the terminal. We noticed – too late – that the staff at the all-night McDonalds were obviously rather more tolerant and various early morning fliers were crashed out over their tables.
This was to be our first visit to Sri Lanka and we’d been warned that it was going to be moderately stressful in terms of hassle from touts and tourist price elevations, something like a diluted India. But, initially, all proceeded well: a free shuttle service from Colombo airport to the bus terminal and then a super-cheap local bus into town were both completed without fuss or irritation.
Finding reasonably priced accommodation in Colombo was not as straight forward. Hell, after a sweaty hour of trudging through the humanity-packed, rickshaw-choked, winding back streets of the Fort and Pettah areas, having not slept in almost two days or eaten for almost as long, we were
a tadge pissed. The cheapest places (lodges; seems hotel – bizarrely - often refers to eateries) we could find were either uninterested in our custom or were filthy holes. We booked into one of the latter and immediately complained that our room evidently hadn’t seen housekeeping in a long time: stray pubes on dirty bedclothes and even a condom on the toilet floor. We’d normally pay something like $4 for the pleasure of a room with such extras, not over 10. The Swiss cheese of a foam mattress, though not blood-spattered, screamed bed-bugs. Ali announced “I hate this place”.
Lonely Planet’s Sri Lanka book (11th
ed.) merits a whole tirade later (although the latest edition is just as bad, and why on earth are they now copying Rough Guide’s inferior format), but it was right about one thing – the YMCA is about as close as you’ll get to a decent budget room in Colombo (this was their sole entry for the Fort area) and the next day we moved on in: sacrificing our disgusting personal bathroom for shared, marginally less grubby efforts, but gaining a clean airy room with giant
shuttered windows and door opening out onto our own substantial balcony (“A” floor rooms are the ones you want). In the lobby stands a lectern displaying a huge bible opened to today’s lesson of choice; choral music wafts in from somewhere; and British paper-based bureaucracy lives on, with room receipts needing to be stamped at a second, pointless, reception desk. There are also signs stating absolutely no alcohol on the premises - with a balcony, dream-on – and that women may only stay when accompanied by a male. On top of your room rate is a very nominal membership fee (there are billiards, table tennis, newspapers in the library and other facilities) and in the morning you are required to don the leather chaps provided and assemble in the quad for a hearty aerobic rendition of….
Within minutes of checking in Ali had completed a batch of hand-washing, it was hung out to dry on the balcony (later to be retrieved by a room boy – for a well-deserved tip - from the precarious perches it had flown to) and we went to investigate next door: the “Sri Lanka Ex-servicemen’s Institute”. Lonely Planet describes this as a
drinking hole frequented by salty sea-dogs and warns that it is no place for women. Admittedly it does resemble a cow shed and lacks a lady’s loo (no call for one), but we were warmly welcomed and Ali’s initial hostility to Colombo began to thaw (she’s a sucker for a classy boozer). The beer (good old Lion Lager; the locals invariably opt for the 8.8% strong version) is cheap and arrack (local coconut spirit) can be bought in volumes from tots through to bottles (we liked the green apple variety); the place has burly waiters (bouncers) maintaining the peace; the clientele are actually more likely to be bank clerks than sailors and, regardless, were charming (somehow the masses always knew to wait – and did - when Ali disappeared to use the Gents); and the place does a nice line in snacks (gram – chick peas with charred red chilies; salaya – crispy whole fried fish; fries coated with a sprinkling of paprika).
The Fort area of the city is a real religious mix with Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques (including one sporting jaunty pink and white candy-stripes) and churches in apparently equal number. It also houses the white-washed
train station where buying or pre-booking tickets is simplicity itself (watch out for the crafty but harmless touts who may well, coincidentally, just be heading your way) and at prices to rival India’s wondrous rail system. Wine shops: fortified (as in behind bars – which I always find adds a certain, quite alluring, derring-do aura to buying a beer) liquor shops sell a full alcoholic array (with the notable exception of wine) and clearly list prices. Food is good, spicy and cheap in local eateries, whilst there are some tempting posh places (Ministry of Crab in the converted grounds of the old Dutch hospital – owned, I’m told, by ex-international cricketers – is demanding a last night treat). Even bottled water is sold according to stamped retail recommended price. Having expected a certain discrepancy between local and tourist rates, we were being sorely disappointed; this is not battle-hardening us ready for India. The ticket office for collecting Twenty20 cricket tickets was a model of efficiency. The bus conductors even give change when you weren’t expecting any. Indeed, having found somewhere reasonable to stay, the only stress Colombo could throw at us came from the Indians: their visa processing
office (on-line applications but hard copy hand-in, 5 working days for processing and a double visit necessary after this period for finally submitting your passport and receiving it back ).
Not having lazed on a beach in several months we headed south to the backpacker’s choice, Hikkaduwa. Third class on the train was orderly, clean and I’m sure was pretty comfortable for those with a seat. Well, we’d bought a ticket to Hikkaduwa but were collared by a bloke who ran a guesthouse (more a homestay really as he only had one room for rent) in Akurala, just shy of our intended destination. This tiny town was hit hard by the tsunami (300 lost their lives) and little has been rebuilt, with the shells of former houses and restaurants dotted forlornly along the coast road. It does however have a couple of great, safe, reef-bordered swimming holes - the sea on the southern coast is treacherous at this time of year. There is also a cheap locals’ bar, but little else. Anyway, following his desperate offer of a room that slid rapidly from 1500 to 500 rp (less than $4) we alighted early with him. Spent
a couple of pleasant days wandering the coast, eating well at the hands of his wife and then assembling with his pals in the evening for arrack, gossip, political discussions and cigarette/cheroot donations (the local men are not shy in asking for a cigarette and given their price it’s not surprising). It has to be said that a more chilled time would have been enjoyed with less pressure being applied on us to invest in finishing the re-building of his new house (we’d have holiday rooms for life). Nevertheless, we did have a great laugh with (though at his expense) our solitary neighbour: a young Aussie named Cameron who was staying next door with our host’s brother. Whatever we were paying for a service he seemed to be paying double – with the exception of his room for which he was paying treble.
Walked the 8km down the coast into Hikkaduwa and trawled the narrow beach front (post-tsunami many guesthouses have rebuilt right to the surf’s edge) for a place to stay. Even now, at the still deserted end of low season, few were prepared to bargain and nearly all were expensive. Then we happened upon a little gem
- Sunny’s Rest - with a sea-sprayed room staring, uninterrupted, out to sea; we even managed to knock the price down to 900 rp with the promise of a minimum stay of three nights.
On arrival the next day we discovered that our sister room was now also occupied - by a pair of atypical Japanese. Tak and Yuta are both arty types, into some excellent world music (have a list of new D-Js to track down) and up for pretty much anything. So, for the next three days the four of us took over the place with our i-pods thumping out from the sound system: drinking, smoking, lazing in the sun, or hiding from the last vestiges of monsoon rain around the card table (taught them Shithead and Chinese whist, whilst they taught us rich-man poor-man – sickeningly, Ali won constantly). Our last breakfast was greeted with the bizarre spectacle of two JCBs rolling along the sloping narrow corridor between breaking waves and guesthouse-front sea defenses. A crowd of locals followed their progress resignedly and a dozen police lolled in the background just in case. Seems the government had decided that the over-encroachment onto the beach
has to be reversed and the diggers were busy ripping up sea walls, bamboo platforms and concrete verandas that they deemed too close to the sea. We even lost the staircase up to our rooms. This pretty much affected every building across a swathe of several hundred yards and in their wake the JCBs left great piles of chewed concrete and ravaged, truncated dwellings. High season starts in a month; the locals said it might take a year to clear the rubble…
Regardless, we had to dash back to Colombo to – hopefully - pick-up our Indian visas. Although we’ve had eight or so of these in the past we were a tadge nervous as almost half our application entries were half-truths or guesses (“List numbers and dates of all previously issued visas…. Dates of all previous visits to India…”), plus they’d taken rather a keen interest in the American visas in Ali’s passport. Having finally submitted our passports we now had nine hours to kill while someone gathered the strength to stick the visas in, or not as the case may be. Strolling along the coastal Galle road back up towards Fort we passed through Galle Face Green,
a grassy open space where children fly kites, families buy ice cream, oldies promenade, young couples sit canoodling in semi-privacy below umbrellas and burka-clad women play football (we honestly witnessed this, although how they identified their team mates was beyond us).
Later we tramped the same walk in reverse to collect our passports, went through the same rigmarole of body searches and had to place the day pack in a barely monitored rack for storage. The wait dragged on so I nipped out for a fag, was re-searched and the cigarettes (not the lighter) were this time deemed a threat to security and had to join the day pack. In this process the security officer enquired if he could have a cigarette? – Of course. However, he then decided that he’d wait until we left and in I went once more. Eventually passports, with visas, were returned and we collected our things. I immediately went for a cigarette only to find them gone. I searched the bag thoroughly; no, they really had gone. Surely the now absent guard hadn’t helped himself? He must have done; the cheek of it. I stormed back into reception and announced that I wanted
to report a theft and that I had a prime suspect. All hell broke loose. The guard was found and denied having gone anywhere near the bag. Amidst the assembled jostling crowd I indignantly emptied the contents of the pack and, from a pocket I never normally use, out they tumbled. I was mortified. Whilst spewing apologies and trying to give him the offending articles I found myself hugging him which I’m pretty sure was not the bodily contact foremost in his mind. It was awful and I feel a renewed rush of shame as I type this. Plus, I am now reminded that this isn’t the first time that I’ve jumped to such rash conclusions. Many years ago whilst living in Japan, and awaking in a horrendously hung-over condition, we were convinced that the house had been robbed. We told a neighbour of our suspicions, suspicions mind, yet in minutes the place was swarming with police; forensics were dusting windows and sills, as a man walked the streets with a megaphone asking for witnesses and denigrating the community for having stood idly by whilst a villain stole from the esteemed foreign guests within their midst. For days people would
turn up on the doorstep with offerings of food and humble apologies that such a thing could have happened. And then I discovered that the huge wad of money was actually in the back pocket of the trousers I’d been wearing that night and – completely inexplicably or beyond any recall – had, in my drunken state, hung up in the wardrobe.
Whilst loosely on the subject of cigarettes: smoking is far less prevalent here than almost anywhere else in Asia. This may result from the prohibitive pricing, although it could simply be less visible since the public ban was introduced in 2007 that has – apparently - seen a 90% compliance rate. In rural areas the beedi (a small hand-rolled tobacco leaf, stuffed with tobacco fragments and tied with cotton: 14 for 25 rp) is the only affordable option for most, although even the wealthier tend to buy cigarettes individually (25 rp each) and then only really in social settings. The Sri Lankan Gold Leaf brand is only marginally cheaper than Dunhill. Such a situation in neighbouring countries is usually reflected in an abundance of betal chewers, but not here. This social responsibility (the skeptic might
say fear of prosecution) is also evident in the streets which are spotless. Indeed, Colombo recently won an award for its cleanliness. On the deterrent front it has to be said that police are everywhere, as are the army in sensitive areas – no doubt a throwback to recent troubled times. Nevertheless, the khaki-uniformed and peak-capped officers tend to be jolly rotund types (like cheerful Asian Captain Mainwairings) and unlike India they don’t carry the dreaded lathi, nor for that matter are they armed. Policewomen are in sensible-length skirts and it is apparent that leg shaving has yet to become the vogue.
Anyway, I digress…. We now had a seven day window before yet another enforced return to Colombo, this time for the England vs. India Twenty20 match. Not yet beached-out we decided to head north-east to the town of Uppaveli, near Trincomalee (Trinco). Apparently, just three years ago, the only westerners in this neck of the woods were NGOs and boat trips / diving were banned due to the risk that the boat might be an LTTE suicide bomber and any diver busy planting mines. Today things are very different and Trinco is obviously a popular
destination out of Colombo as the train was almost fully booked. There was, however, a cancellation in first class. Never before had we ridden in first class, not even in India, and yet the price really was reasonable at 750 rp each for our own cabin on a nine hour overnight journey – equivalent to a night in the YMCA. We took and we liked.
In the middle of the night the lack of violent lateral jolting caused us to stir. And so we sat, motionless, for five hours; well, the train sat - we lay sprawled in our crisp white sheets. Once finally under way again, rumours began to circulate as to the cause of the delay: the train ahead had purportedly hit an elephant and derailed. Sadly, an hour or so later this was confirmed when we passed the carcass of an elephant track-side.
Uppaveli, just 5 km up the road from Trinco (unusual in having wild antlered deer wandering the streets), consists of a single un-spoilt high-street: the eateries and shops all targeted to the locals. Narrow sandy lanes run perpendicular to the road. Those heading away from the beach are lined with
residents’ housing whilst those running towards the beach lead to guesthouses and resorts. We dismounted the bus at the far end of town, found the beach and walked its developed stretch. The beach is wide and flat, with perfect, powder white sand. It is rubbish-free (just the odd roaming cow and accompanying pats), devoid of lounger ranks and there’s not a hawker in sight. The sea, a stark contrast to down south, was a mill pond; the high-tide mark dotted with working fishing boats and nets stacked ready for the following morning. It’s idyllic. On top of this there were almost no tourists. Here, on the north-east coast, it is the end of high season.
So, we reasoned, there should be plenty of room for price negotiations then? - Apparently not. It is expensive and places were happier to remain empty than compromise on price. We were disgruntled bunnies and seriously considering catching the next bus further up the coast. Then, as we sat on our packs under the shade of a coconut palm (not recommended: have since met two people in Sri Lanka who have lost children to falling nuts) contemplating our next move, we were approached by
yet another Forrest Whitaker. This particular incarnation was in the shape of a local lady who works at Regish French Garden. Ali hadn’t enquired here (it was part of her investigative sector), believing it to be part of the seemingly common plot shared with French Garden. At 1000 rp our lady-with-a-squint’s offer was half of anything else on the beach (including its almost identical neighbour).
We immediately fell in love with the place and our little lady; our relationship deepening over the next few days as Ali took to sweeping the adjacent verandas as well as our own and we began to poach punters on her behalf: tourists would turn up via rickshaw and blindly head to the expensive French Garden (that no doubt pays commission) - that was until we began our interception/information campaign...
Like the accommodation, the bars on the beach were having a laugh so we asked after a wine shop. One does indeed exist, although few tourists manage to track down its concealed location.
As we meandered down a series of dirt paths we came across a walled compound from which a hubbub of chatter could be
heard. Peering around the corrugated iron door we encountered groups of men crouched in the dirt, with others scrummed around what looked like a large shed. There was a sweet, vaguely familiar scent to the air: a toddy shop. We were immediately ushered in and made our way to the throng of men thrusting empty plastic measuring jugs through the window of “the shop”. A sign painted on the side of the building states “Toddy 1 bottle 90/-“. Inside the hut is a huge plastic vat bearing the coconut-derived toddy (we were later invited to a private tasting of the palmyra-derived equivalent); from this the barman scoops 750ml servings (= 1 bottle) which he pours into the drinker’s measuring jug. Why the drinking vessels are old plastic jugs was never broached. The barman called through to the back of the shed and the boss appeared, chairs materialized and we were told to sit inside – essentially behind the bar.
And so our relationship with the toddy shop and its inhabitants (for many of the drinkers would live there if they could, a fact that is reflected in their jaundiced yellow - yet still somehow unbelievably bloodshot - eyes) began.
Toddy is not strong – maybe 7% - but some of these guys must consume gallons across the day (shop hours are strict 11-2 & 5-8; for take-outs, bring a bottle).
On our first brief visit we shared a bottle (jug) and were kept separate from the intrigued locals who knew better than to cross the threshold into the shop. I handed out some Myanmar cheroots (that are essentially giant beedis) and these soon found their way out into the compound and were being passed among the crowd.
On subsequent visits we were judged capable of handling ourselves and allowed to mingle in the bullring. We got to know most of the regulars (and were subsequently recognized around town – “Hey, English”, or on the beach among the fishermen – “Come pull nets, share toddy”), were warned from within of those not to trust (I suspect this was mainly due to personal grudges), and specifically introduced by the ever generous management to those deemed most reputable (mainly ex-teachers) or plainly too old and frail to be of any serious nuisance. We passed out Sri Lankan beedis (cheroots were a novelty, but not particularly popular; cigarettes are just too
expensive to be overly generous with), received kind offers to visit homes and share meals, enjoyed the skilled drumming on empty barrels, wisely chose not to join the more toddy-inspired in some bizarre (Williamesque – c.f. Sumatran toddy drinkers) dancing and, in turn, escorted a gnarled old South African, a young Japanese and a like-minded Australian into their midst.
The management were particularly keen to emphasise the ethnic mix of workers and punters alike, stressing that neither Tamils nor Sinhalese hold any ill feelings and that all are now friends.
Although the customers were, without exception, welcoming, engaging and friendly – never more than overly exuberant or boisterous, without doubt our presence (particularly Ali’s in this woman-free environment) always threatened to complicate matters for the management and we very much appreciated them letting us infiltrate their domain.
A particularly rewarding aspect to our toddy shop jaunts was being befriended by Mr. Somasundaram, a wonderful bicycle-totting (tottering), wizened and toothless old man – more of him later.
Anyhow, if you make it passed the toddy shop, the wine shop is on the other side of the alley. This also doubles as a drinking hole, but is patronized
by a younger and wealthier, but no less amiable crowd. The clientele here were often less than complimentary of the toddy or its shop, considering it a relic from the past and being skeptical as to the quality/provenance of the brew, whilst viewing its monopoly and Mafiosi-style control with a certain distaste. We observed two sides of this contention: seeing quality control being independently checked – pH taken (for what that’s worth?); but also witnessed severe-looking individuals from higher up within the cartel (so called regional management: introduced as “the bigger boss”) who stopped-by unannounced to check that the shop was being run according to their rules. One of these guys even subjected us to what could only be described as an interview as to our reasons for being present. There is no doubt that there is serious money involved in the toddy business and that serious control is exerted.
Along the road there are several curry/rice restaurants and numerous kotthu roti/hopper joints. Kotthu roti is a moist and spicy (of course) hotplate-assembled concoction of chopped roti bread (with a texture more like flat noodles), vegetables and meat or egg. These places ring out with a metallic chopping beat
and can often be identified by the chef’s own personal rhythm. Hoppers – great for breakfast or a snack – are paper-thin crispy pancakes, shaped in a karahi (spelling?), that are typically lined with an egg and eaten with a spicy onion sambal; the cheese versions are also good.
An unusual first for Kotthu restaurants, and this appears to be country-wide, is the habit of lining the plate with cling-film prior to the addition of the food (our guess is that it makes for easy doggy bag assemblage – you always get tons).
Eating locally you cannot afford to be tardy as eateries and indeed all shops close early, rarely later than 8 pm. Early to bed in Uppaveli could have a lot to do with the communal practice of Seine/gill-netting (Seine technique, but with peripheral sections of the net designed to trap fish by their operculum as in gill-netting). We were never to see these laid – their great arcs extend hundreds of yards out to sea – but by early morning the slow and labour-intensive process of hauling them ashore has begun. Two gangs of maybe 6-8 people stand several hundred yards apart at each extremity
of the net. The men line-up sea-ward as though partaking in a tug-of-war with the ocean and “hook-on” (the free end of a thick chord of material tied around their waist is wrapped around the rope), they then lean back and with a chant-synchronized swagger walk the net to the shore. Every 50 or so paces the man once closest to the sea is now highest up the beach, he un-clips and walks back to the surf, and so a constant cycling of bodies reels the net in. It is exhausting and without the aid of a waist thong the nylon ropes soon make a mess of the hands. As the net nears the shore the two gangs begin to converge and finally the net is lifted. On a good day the catch may weigh 50 kg; most are small fingerlings, although there is always a smattering of sizeable fish (skipjack tuna) and squid. The bounty is then divvied out according to net ownership and landing effort. Between Uppaveli and Trinco three such nets are typically laid in a day and if you wander the length of the beach you will inevitably become involved with at least one haul.
One day Mr. Somasundaram was taking no more excuses and he insisted that we and Ryo (the young Japanese lad) come to his family’s (daughter’s) house for lunch. Actually, he and his wife live in a small, very basic dwelling whilst his daughter and her family (husband and four children) live in the more substantial building next door (given to them by Mr. S. as a dowry). Not sure of what to take as a suitable gift (toddy was a no-no: his daughter disapproves) we settled on food stuffs they would never normally buy for themselves. A kilo of huge grapes and a boxed cake proved to be excellent choices – the children were certainly won over. The youngest are twin two-year-old girls and both were suffering with heavy colds. At one stage Mr. S was carrying a twin and bowed his head as though to kiss her, however – astonishing to us – he placed his mouth over her nose, sucked and then spat: a novel approach to nasal decongestion. Lunch itself was prepared by his daughter with Ali helping out (Als was quick to tell us that she’d grated the coconut, using a wonderful grinding tool that would
look fabulous in any western kitchen as it sat there gathering dust): a feast of curries and fried fish that she cooked on a single charcoal-fuelled crucible, and that were truly delicious.
This brings me to the departure of Ryo, the arrival of Australian Bob and a rant. Robert, like us, is of a certain age with plenty of backpacking miles under his belt; he is also one of the growing band of travellers we are meeting (typically older) who are becoming increasingly disenfranchised from Lonely Planet. Over the years well in excess of 100 LP guidebooks must have passed through our hands (we have a collection of at least five Indian editions alone – Joe Cummings was a god); we’ve never used any other and although we often have the odd niggle about an inaccurate map or a glaring omission, they have always been the only real option for the backpacker. Shit, they were once bloody good. The brand established by the Wheelers was targeted at the backpacker, it was all about travelling on a budget, getting down and dirty with your destination. This is patently no longer the case (even with
their South East Asia on a Shoestring). The books now attempt to cater to the entire spectrum of long-haul traveller with more attention on “mid-range” options than “budget” and even great swathes of space wasted on “top-end” accommodation, the users of which would almost certainly be on some organized package. Detailed information on local buses is now often discarded as the authors consider a walk to a bus stop (or flagging one down) or a wait for a bus too extreme for current users and instead we are told that you might as well take a rickshaw/taxi. Hell, there are numerous instances where we are informed that services are infrequent so why not organize private transport.
The reason I chose this particular blog to vent my spleen is that the last two Sri Lankan editions demonstrate more of this disregard for the backpacker than most. How about this for a direct quote about budget accommodation in Colombo (from 11th
ed.): “Most of the cheapies are family-run guesthouses that are hidden down narrow lanes and unsigned. Despite their lack of promotion these guest houses are fairly easy to find provided you have the address”. And these addresses are?
Why waste three lines of text on non-information? Well, thanks Mr Kohn (he apparently researched this section). Really, these volumes are a failure; they have sold-out; they epitomize the peevishly shoddy treatment now afforded to the people who made Lonely Planet. There is still a true backpacking market out there and its needs are no longer being met; the old-timers remember better service and the young – when shown – will also appreciate it. Any pro-active people out there, particularly those with web-construction skills, please feel free to contact us to discuss further.
Back in Colombo we opted to try couchsurfing – a first for us. Not surprisingly, for the man is a Sri Lankan, the hospitality shown to us was exemplary. How on earth have I reached my advanced years without ever hearing of the particular generosity and kindness of Sri Lankans? Many thanks again to “V” – I’m not going to mention his name as his family home already resembles a backpacker carousel. What I will say is that waffles with pol (coconut) sambal and
dal make a very fine breakfast.
We were due to stay on this wonderful, passionate little island for 30 days – no longer – we rushed out and extended our visas for three months.
England’s first match in the world Twenty20 cricket tournament (incredibly we are the holders) was against the mighty Afghanistan; this hurdle we cleared. In our second and final group match we faced India, a completely different proposition. We donned our Burmese hats adorned with England flags and made our way to the Premadasa stadium in Colombo’s northern outskirts. Here isn’t the place to bemoan cricket’s basest format and its Americana razzmatazz, although, in truth, it’s a bastardised version of a stately, cerebral game. Anyway, England’s bowling was tolerable and the target attainable, but our batting was lamentable. The Indian fans surrounding us were having a jolly old time. With the departure of Swann at 60 for 9 wickets we hid our hats and beat a premature, humiliated exit. At least indignity came at a bargain price: our tickets cost $2, but others could be bought for as little as 50c; top marks to the Sri Lankan cricket association who had assured that
the fervid local fans could afford to attend matches (the polar opposite of the West Indian authorities two years before). Even on the back of this thumping we had still qualified for the Super Eights and, already having tickets (patriotic fools), had another almost certain embarrassment to look forward to seven days’ hence, this time at the hands of the Sri Lankans themselves.
Kandy, once a glorious old English hill station, is now Sri Lanka’s second city and as such does have a bustling centre. Nevertheless, it still exudes charm and feels far more like a town. Its centrepiece lake, complete with bread-hungry tilapia, cranes, cormorants, storks, kingfishers, turtles and resident 6ft monitor lizard, is ringed with wonderful ancient trees, and from it roads spiral upwards to ever more impressive vistas. It is a gem. Atop one hill sits a giant white Buddha and impressive residences punctuate the greenery of other surrounding slopes.
Our first night was spent in the tranquil haven of the Burmese Rest, a spotless but Spartan guesthouse run by monks and with a serious monastery feel. The Rest does however have a strict 10pm curfew and we did
have cricket matches to watch/attend, the second game of the day often not even finishing until past this hour. Although the monk we dealt with did kindly offer to open up for us whatever the hour of our return – simply call him on his mobile… Monks with cell phones… It wasn’t going to be a one-off inconvenience so we sought an alternative room. Just up from the lake we chanced upon The Pink House, a real family-run guesthouse with three generations in residence. Grandma in particular was delightful with a wicked sense of humour and some amazing yarns to tell from her 40-odd years as a guesthouse proprietor – Tony Wheeler stayed here in the early (glory) days when he was still researching for LP.
It was about this time that I began to notice just how demonstrative the Sri Lankans are, even the sober ones. At the end of a chance meeting and chat you may well find the back of your hand – mid-shake – suddenly being pressed to your new friend’s forehead (a respectful Buddhist action) or lips. A lengthier chat, especially over a few beers, often culminates with arms around
shoulders and – not infrequently – big smackers on cheeks. The latter come Ali’s way less often, with exuberance being tempered by respect for her sex. However, she has had her feet kissed and does seem particularly irresistible to drooling ancient toddy-heads, whilst Asian dogs (those in Sri Lanka appear incredibly inbred: uniform rust-coloured, foxlike beasts that mostly run wild, but are generally friendly) continue to seek her out (apparently aware of her new-found canine confidence) and demand attention.
The England/Sri Lanka clash directly followed the New Zealand/West Indies match, both played at the Palakelle stadium some 14km out of Kandy. Due to previous results, if New Zealand won their game it meant that England were likely to qualify for the semi-finals, even if we were to subsequently lose. In a dramatic climax New Zealand and the Windies finished all-square, requiring a “super over” to settle the result: the Windies, with some massive hitting, won. Now England had to win. We didn’t, convincingly. The stadium was a mass of singing and dancing, and the packed buses hurtled joyously back to Kandy with horns blaring. At least our itinerary was now no longer tied to match schedules.
Sri Lanka’s hill country is home to a number of tourist attractions. Adam’s Peak (free) is a serious hill that, during season, is climbed over-night by processions of bare-foot pilgrims bearing flaming torches. Sadly, it is not the season and the magnificent dawn views were likely to be obscured so we gave it a miss. Most of the other “sights” are anything but free (see later) and we didn’t even contemplate these. Nevertheless, there is still a wealth of stunning scenery and elevated little towns to be discovered.
Few people stop at Haputale which is a serious oversight. The pastel-shaded views go on forever; well, until they dissolve into the distant haze. Town sits near the ridge of one vertigous hill and trails through emerald green tea plantations link it to numerous others. Here, Bawa’s guesthouse has quaintly dated cheap rooms and his wife provides magnificent vegetarian meals, the names of which – mango curry, young breadfruit curry, okra curry, leek curry, pineapple curry - in no way convey their subtleties or uniqueness. Dinner would typically comprise three curries and rice in limitless amounts, roasted jackfruit nuts, poppadums, a tomato salad, wood-apple juice (a strange white skinned
fruit that externally really is wood-like) and a pot of tea; the healthiest fare we’d eaten in months. Old Mr. Bawa is not a great listener, but he can certainly talk. One of his pet topics is just how much the British did for Ceylon and how they are sadly missed; not sentiments you usually hear expressed in ex-colonies. I found myself arguing to the contrary about colonial greed and servitude, but he’d not hear of it. Regardless, Sri Lankans, on hearing you are British, invariably state “very good country”.
Just up from Bawa’s sit two huge boulders that make perfect sun-warmed viewing platforms for the majestic sunsets. Haputale really is a great place to ramble and chill and, if you happen upon Mrs. Bawa, to put on a few pounds.
Our last night here coincided with the final of the cricket: Sri Lanka vs. West Indies and we dutifully turned-out with much of town to watch on a temporary giant screen. The initial party atmosphere rapidly lost its fizz as the home side batted without their usual poise and were soon in trouble. One almost hysterical man confided that he’d bet 50,000 rp on a
favourable outcome; it wasn’t looking likely. He paced manically reciting his mantras of “It doesn’t matter, life’s more important… It’s not over yet. Do you think it’s over yet?” Before long it was and he had to make his sorry way home to inform his wife of his less than wise gamble. Sadly, he didn’t look like a man who could afford to lose such a sum.
People we were to meet on subsequent days – the few with no interest in cricket – were often to state that they’d known the result immediately on waking the next day: they hadn’t been kept awake all night with firecrackers and car horns. For the rest of us it was a gloomy resolution - we’d all been looking forward to and expecting that victorious afterglow.
The seasons in the hill country, like the rest of Sri Lanka, are in total disarray. There had been no rain here for the last six months and monsoon was well overdue. Mr. Bawa and the Muslim community were busy holding mass prayers to end the drought, with some success as it turned out. The day after we had scaled Lipton’s seat, the
highest point within the Dambatenne tea plantation and from which, on a clear day, the view extends some 60 km south to the ocean, the rains finally arrived. With them came a violent thunderstorm. Tragically, five Koreans climbing Lipton’s seat that day were struck by lightning and two died immediately.
From Haputale we stopped off at Ella, a far more tourist-orientated town. Disappointingly it has lost its authenticity and the high street is lined with expensive western eateries. The walk along the railway tracks and up through a forest to Ella rock is worth doing and there is a friendly locals’ bar/toddy shop, but why Ella is so popular puzzled us. Food at some of the guesthouses is said to be excellent, as well it should be given the prices charged. Still, we bumped into a fun Dutch couple, Joris and Eveline, and spent an enjoyable evening chatting over bottles of lemony “Horse Power” toddy. Indeed, time flew by and before we knew it all (affordable) restaurants had closed, forcing us to dine on 40 vadai (spicy lentil patties).
Once again we headed to the East coast, this time to the surfer’s Mecca of Arugambay. Now,
out of season, the waves are somewhat more docile - yet still mean enough to spit me out 10 yards up the beach with my (now skinless) nose acting as a rudder.
Surfer hang-outs are rarely cheap but in Arugambay there are exceptions. Beach Hut guesthouse (does exactly what it says on the label: reasonably priced, driftwood-enhanced huts on the beach) and Tiffanys (just two basic cabanas) are two of the cheapest in the sand, whilst there are numerous reasonable options set back from the beach. Beach hut also has an associated restaurant with a laid-back vibe (illuminated at night with oil-fueled teapots) and “specials” that are often great value (just remember to add 10%!f(MISSING)or the unstated tax), but Ali restaurant (packed at breakfast with fishermen – great stuffed rotis, and packed in the evening with tourists in the know – fantastic fish curry) is the place to eat. Although, Rivas, who do pancakes stuffed with grated coconut, red lentils and banana bound together with sweet kitul palm syrup and further enhanced with more of the same drizzled nectar, is also well worth a visit.
Amazingly, given that Arugambay is probably the second most popular beach destination in Sri Lanka, it is illegal to sell alcohol – there is a large Muslim population. Obviously this law is not viable, but ever larger bribes are necessary the more blatantly it is flaunted. Of course this unofficial tax gets passed onto the punters, leaving only the police happy with the situation.
We intended to stay for three or four days, but serendipity threw up the Dutch again and then on their departure we met English Matt (The S Man) and German Marie. It was well over a week before we hauled ourselves away.
Arugambay is touristy, but out of season it is hard to resist. Actually, it was our favourite beach-side haunt and we didn’t see that coming.
Heading north to Jaffna we stopped off once again in Uppaveli, primarily to distribute a stack of photos taken of Mr. S and his fellow toddy drinkers. Inexplicably, this time, the beach was far less pristine. We checked-in at Regish and then called at Mr. S’s home for a cuppa with his wife and daughter, handed out some freebies from
the cricket to his grandchildren and then he dragged us off to the toddy shop.
With the emergence of the photographs we were enveloped in a scrum and had to take refuge behind the bar from where they were passed out with the toddy, each recipient sporting a huge smile and venturing inside to pump our hands. It was all rather heartwarming. We’d been sitting chatting with the staff over a jug or two when a regional boss appeared, closely followed by a police sergeant and then an inspector, who all disappeared into the rear of the hut with the boss. Shortly afterwards we were invited to join them for what turned into a lock-in with five bottles of arrack, drunk from a single glass in shots. The sergeant’s wife teaches English and he was soon ringing her to chat to his new chums. Ali’s (prompted) comment of “he’s a very fine policeman” merited high-fives all round. At around the third bottle the police inspector was carried back to the long since closed front of the shop for a snooze, only to be replaced by the chief-of-police. We all rose – unsteadily – to show some respect, but we
needn’t have worried overly as he rapidly polished off several shots and then ate the fish bones that were left on my plate. He was soon into his stride and proposed some singing and dancing (really, the rear of the hut is maybe ten feet square and much of that occupied with a bed): did we know any “Boney M”? Our medley of hits pleased him greatly. “I would like to invite you to my house for breakfast, lunch or dinner”. On eventually leaving – now on rather good terms with the local constabulary - we were persuaded to take a rickshaw which was extremely sensible given my unsteady state. For some reason the police were intent on providing us with an escort for the short journey – that was until they realized that they were unable to get on their motorbikes, let alone keep them upright… This reminds me of a recent article in a national newspaper that described new laws making it illegal to drive whilst drunk (at last) and indeed to even be driven if under the influence (bizarre). So, here we had Trincomalee’s finest encouraging us to break the law and then attempting to flaunt it
As you might have gathered, apart from most Muslims and a few weird fish Christians, the Sri Lankan men enjoy the odd bevvy. However, once a month they are faced with the prospect of abstinence: Poya is a Buddhist celebration coinciding with each full moon and on which all alcohol sales are prohibited. Fortunately it is easy to spot (we’ve experienced three) as the queues outside the wine shops on the preceding day are immense. The Sri Lankans take self-flagellation a step further and once a year there is also a “Temperance Day” which speaks for itself (I’m only amazed that such a event is not held in our old stomping ground of Pennsylvania).
Predominantly Tamil Jaffna is the most northerly city in Sri Lanka and was the most fought over land during the civil war. Three years after the cessation of violence, it is a city that is still struggling to recover. Certain streets bear no scars whilst others are literally shell-shocked with bombed-out husks, shrapnel-ravaged and bullet-strafed buildings that can only be ripped down. Does it merit a visit (seven-plus hours in a rickety old bus)? Well, it doesn’t see that many
tourists. The peninsula is benignly picturesque, with fish traps laid out either side of the causeway and some quiet villages lining flooded lowland that are almost reminiscent of the Camarague. There are also several beaches that are becoming increasingly accessible. The locals, that we encountered, particularly in Jaffna, were either delightful or difficult, although always honest. The YMCA was god-bothering purgatory (“But why don’t you have children”); Orient breeze was overseen by a fruitcake; although Royally Rest - typifying what we’d come to expect from Sri Lanka – was wonderful (and slashed their room rate from 2500 to 1000 for us). Possibly our brief three day stop wasn’t long enough to fully grasp its charms – other long-stayers adored the place. On balance we’d say yes, do make the effort, if for no other reason than to witness Jaffna’s lingering physical wounds that are - like those inflicted by the tsunami - a sharp and poignant reminder of Sri Lanka’s recent strife.
As with Myanmar, before arriving in Sri Lanka we had trepidations. This time they were both financial- and interest-based. We had the mistaken impression that Sri Lanka
was a destination for honeymooners and those on package holidays; that it was expensive and lacking in its own unique identity: a low-impact India. How wrong we were. There are, with a little effort (ok, sometimes quite a lot of effort), bargain accommodation options to be found everywhere; travel is cheap and easy; the scenery beautiful; and the people are as kind and hospitable as any you’ll find anywhere. The only fly in the ointment – if you’re on a budget - is if you wish to visit cultural monuments (and I imagine the same is true for National Parks); here the government, much to the locals' chagrin, are shooting themselves in the foot – entry prices are the most expensive anywhere in Asia: The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy (a staid temple where the tooth – Buddha’s - isn’t even on display), $10; the three ancient cities in the hill country, $65 collectively, or $30 individually; World’s End (simply a view point), $35. Consequently we visited none of these and most tourists were either limiting their intake and/or complaining about rip-off prices – not the impression you want people to take away with
them. All here: government, tourist board officials, guesthouse owners and Joe-public alike, recognize that Sri Lanka isn’t selling itself to the best of its abilities. If/when those who can, do, then the place will fill up rapidly. Just like Myanmar, get here soon!
I apologise for the tome, but it has been two months and the Sri Lankans deserve more than most.
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