Sri Lanka: Hill Country and the Beach

On the drive into hill country I found myself thinking thoughts like “wouldn’t a toot toot be in order here?” while we passed corners our driver didn’t deem treacherous enough to warrant to heads up honk. The roads here are paved wide enough for one vehicle, and wrap around steep hills where passing, though a necessity, feels like an adventure sport that my basic insurance shouldn’t cover. This driver was far more aggressive than Siril had been, which was great in that it took 3 hours to get to our hotel at Adam’s Peak (despite some serious traffic exiting the city of Kandy), versus Siril’s promised 6. It was, however, a bit of a harrowing experience and definitely white knuckle at points. This is not to say it wasn’t beautiful. You drive through lush hills and quickly become surrounded by green – green tea plantations covering the hills – green trees covering the mountains – even a green bus or two. You even spot the occasional monkey chilling on the power lines.

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It’s much cooler in hill country, to the extent that our hotel even provided us with a cover sheet AND a thin blanket! Our hotel was great, it had a wonderful view of Adam’s Peak (including from our own private balcony!), and for $50 a night we were also provided a delicious dinner and a feast of a breakfast post-hike. I was weirdly super nervous for the hike, especially looking at the peak from our window and wondering how is it possible we make it up there in time for sunrise. I think part of it was that it’s very difficult to get information on just how steep and difficult the climb is. It’s primarily steps (concrete and stone, at various points) and we’d heard ranges from 4800 of those steps to “10 or 15 thousand.” The latter guy was clearly quite off. Even 4800 sounds like a lot in retrospect, but who knows, it is a LOT of stairs. Likewise with respect to time, we’d heard it would take a range of 2 hours to closer to 5 hours to complete it. Those who know me are aware of my intense fear of being late, so intent to not miss that sunrise after climbing 4800 stairs and with sunrise supposedly coming at 5:50am we left at 2:15 in the morning. Well, it took about 2 and a quarter hours to get up there, which meant that we sat at the top freezing our tuckusses off for over an hour. While it gets fairly warm during the day, in the dark and on top of a 7400-foot windy mountain while you’re dripping with sweat, it gets COLD.

::looks tough, no?::
::looks tough, no?::

We sat up there with the slowly growing crowd of international tourists waiting for that famed sunrise and it was interesting to listen to the varying accents and conversations of those among us. Of course, the first Americans we’d seen on our trip were having a 15-minute conversation about farts while they waited for the sunrise. Go Amurica.

While it was quite crowded at the top, it was never difficult to pass on the trail itself. I presume this is because we hiked in the off season, and that it would be much more crowded had we waited the three or so days for the December full moon which kicks off their peak season. I was sad to not get the full experience, passing locals on their pilgrimage and seeing all the teahouses open and running as we made our way up, but I think the trade-off for a non-crowded hike was likely worth it. And it was still a phenomenal experience. The trail is lit, though not all the lights are on during the off-season, and so we traveled with headlamps and our guide carried a flashlight.  While the teahouses were mostly empty there were still a handful open and serving tea and sodas and snacks. The highlight for me (big surprise) was that the dogs follow you up the whole way. I think this was the only thing keeping me going, that a pup would run by every now and then and I could reach down to pet him for moral support. They hang out at the top with you too, mostly begging for snacks, but I liked to pet them and let them help keep me warm.

The temple up top doesn’t even open until 6am, so we basically just waited around, hung out with dogs, and snuggled each other for warmth. Then, we watched the magic happen. It was a glorious sunrise, where suddenly the mysterious terrain around us illuminated and into view came a stunning lush and hilly landscape. Our guide hooked us up too with a great vantage point we’d otherwise have missed out on. By the way, we did hire a guide which was entirely unnecessary though I think worth it. It cost about $15 and it took out any fear of not being able to find our way from the hotel to the path (about a 10 minute walk and mind you it’s pitch black out while you do this), and even coming back afterwards (you’ve walked it already but nothing looks familiar on the way down because, again, it was pitch black when you climbed it). After soaking up this view and snapping a few (hundred) photos, we went into the temple. Like most temples, we had to remove our shoes, which is much less pleasant when you’re cold and wearing hiking boots, but ah well. Part of the experience, as they say. There is supposedly Buddha’s footprint up at the top, but it’s closed during the off-season.

What goes up must come down, and it is a LONG way down. I thought it would never end. Thank god you do the uphill when you’re half delirious from sleep deprivation. That said, I think it took less than an hour and a half to fly back down all those stairs. And I did get to meet this little guy, Vindu, on way down:

Having been up since 1:45am and eaten only a handful of nuts basically before 9am we feasted on the hotel breakfast, and then got in a car for the long drive (6 bumpy, windy hours!) down to the beach in Mirissa. The drive was beautiful. It took a while to get out of hill country, during which we passed many tea gardens and watched the women picking tea leaves in the fields with baskets hanging on their backs and secured by their foreheads. The landscape was primarily green, but there also lots of these gorgeous May trees that look like they’re full of bouquets of red flowers. The landscape eventually becomes forested and covered in eucalyptus trees.

We found our hotel in Mirissa, which is on the main road that is busy and noisy like most roads in Sri Lanka. Then, we walked through the door and stepped out the other side into paradise. Suddenly the noise and chaos of the city is gone, and it’s peaceful beach time where you hear (almost) nothing but the waves crashing into the shore. It’s incredible, and hard to believe once you’ve spent a minute on the “other side” that the craziness you just left behind lies just a few meters away from this luxurious little spot.

Our hotel (Palm Villa) was amazing. Not perfect of course (minor things like lots of mosquitos and an ant infested bathroom), but we love love loved it. Our room was a few yards from the ocean, and we could listen to the waves as we fell asleep. There are hammocks and beach chairs laid out for lounging. Kids playing cricket on the beach, and lots of Sri Lankans swimming in the ocean. Great food (and insane portions). Highlights being the spectacular string hoppers for breakfast (along with massive plates of fresh tropical fruits), the cuttlefish curry and the banana juice. I may or may not have ordered a banana juice or lassi with every single meal. And you eat your meals at the tables that are set out on the beach. All this for about $60 a night, including breakfast. We walked the bay (which I think is all of Mirissa beach), and I think we picked the very best spot. That said, a big reason I wanted this hotel was because I saw pictures on the reviews of the white bunnies that hop around the property. When we arrived though, there were no bunnies to be found. When I inquired I discovered that the dogs ate them! Oh well, the house cat and dog (stray, but they are always there) are super sweet and adorable. While I was trying to pet the cat he  jumped onto Alan’s lap. I got a kick out of this (he’s allergic and none too fond of our feline friends).

I was very sad to leave Mirissa, but we did enjoy the conversation with our driver on the way to the airport. He told us how he works two jobs, normally at a tire repair shop, but also as a driver on holidays (our last day was a holiday as it was a full moon), in order to make money to send his kids to classes. He was distraught by the high cost of living, which has been going up in the recent years. He also lost his home in the 2004 tsunami and told us the terrifying story of how he and his wife ran, holding their children’s hands as the tsunami hit, having never even heard of a tsunami before. “It’s my life,” he kept saying as he shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t mind.”

Random Thoughts on Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans

I will never get used to people shaking their heads yes. I remember this also from India.

There is no drinking or smoking in public, and as such we rarely saw people smoke. In fact, I think I only saw tourists smoking and it was only at the beach resorts. We also drank very little in Sri Lanka.

“Five minutes” = 1 hour.

Here I am tall. Also, I ever realized how annoying umbrellas are for tall people. I have a newfound respect for tall Americans on rainy days. (Note also that many Sri Lankans carry umbrellas to block the sun).

While the roads here are often crazy and people pass with reckless abandon (often causing the person they are passing to have to slam on the brakes in order to avoid a three-way collision), there is absolutely no road rage. I am hoping that by osmosis the Sri Lankans will impart the zen-like driving attitude to me. We even saw a guy run his motor bike into the parked van of a shop owner just across the street. There was no fight, the owner just calmly came out to deal with it while people walked by and smiled at the clumsy biker.

The roads are wide enough at times for a van and 2 tuk-tuks. Other places one vehicle will have to back up because the road is only wide enough for one. The quality of the roads varies – some make you feel like you’ve been put through the washing machine, others are quite smooth. Either way, they take a long time to travel on given the quality and the traffic. Sri Lanka built their first highway about a year ago, and they are now working on another. I suspect this will change tourists’ experiences here drastically, for better and worse. The roads can definitely be unpleasant at times – all that jostling around and waiting for a convenient area to pass other vehicles – but it’s part of the experience, and the surface streets allow you to drive through and experience the towns and cities along the way.

There are tons of public buses. It would have been nice to try to use them, but it looked near impossible with our bags as the buses are crammed with people and barely stop. I’ve even seen people jump off moving buses rather than waiting for them to stop.

I am amazed the dogs are not killed my cars/buses/tuk-tuks more often. We didn’t see any road kill while here. Dogs are to Sri Lankan roads as cows are to India’s. Except dogs move quicker, and stupidly run out in front of moving vehicles, so they’re probably a bit more dangerous.

It’s nice to see that so many religions can live in harmony here. The country is predominantly Buddhist, but there are also substantial populations of Hindus, Christians and Muslims.

It’s very easy to get by with English here. Almost everyone we met spoke English quite well, and the signs are almost all in three languages, Sinhalese, Tamil and English.

Overall, I feel that Sri Lanka is a country of much beauty and also much potential. The people are kind and happy (except at the elephant orphanage), there is beautiful scenery, wildlife, nature, history, a collection of religions (now) living in harmony, but the tourist infrastructure has room for improvement. It’s expensive to see the sites, yet there is no information provided unless you hire one of the many people hawking their services as your guide (whom you may or may not be able to trust). Being less than five years removed from war and less than ten from a devastating tsunami, I would imagine Sri Lanka to be a rapidly evolving tourist destination.

And lastly, they have very graphic anti-drunk driving ads. Viewer discretion advised:

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