Category Archives: Sri Lanka

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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Sri Lanka: From Meh to Yeah

Yapahuwa sunset
Yapahuwa sunset

Our time in Sri Lanka got off to a rough start but improved dramatically.  We landed late at night on Sunday December 8.  If you forgot to pack a refrigerator or other large appliance, don’t worry you can buy it at the airport.  Our itinerary was: Negombo – Pinnawala – Yapahuwa – Anuradhapura – Sigiriya – Kandy – Adam’s Peak – Mirissa then departing for Kochi, India on Monday December 16.  With a long wish list of places to visit on this Asia leg, we decided to keep our time here to 7.5 days and that made it challenging to sort the right itinerary.  There are so many places we left out, like much of the hill country and tea plantations, national parks, some ancient sites, lots of beach areas, etc.  In general, I think the west and south of the country (where we were) are more oft-visited and the north probably has a very non-touristy vibe while the east probably has some lovely, isolated beaches.  Perhaps another time…

Anuradhapura
Anuradhapura

In my quest to strike a nice balance between being informative but not reading too much like a guidebook (which are not THAT fun to read unless you’re a real travel geek), I am going to try using a “Practical Info” section at the bottom to cover some nuts and bolts and more details on accommodations etc.

Highlights of the trip were Adam’s Peak, Mirissa and Yapahuwa.  Lowlights were Pinnawala, Anuradhapura and our first driver.

Sri Lanka’s long civil war ended (controversially, as you may have heard in the news as recently as the Commonwealth Summit last month) in 2009, and its tourist star is on the rise.  This is a fantastically colorful island with a rich Buddhist heritage, historical sites, spice and tea plantations, beautiful hill country, wildlife parks, nice tropical beaches and smiling locals.  I remember nothing from my 1981 visit and was excited to return at long last.

Tea plantations
Tea plantations

My eyes were opened to Sri Lanka’s peculiarities and at the same time I was reminded of many characteristics shared by developing nations.  The way so many more interactions and services take place in plain sight.  You might see a guy repairing his engine on the side of the road instead of enclosed in some workshop set back from the street.  And there is just so much more activity on the road with tuk-tuks, mopeds, bikes, buses, cars, dogs and pedestrians.  The way five minutes often means 30 and there is time aplenty for sitting and chatting, but on the road a wasted second is worse than a sharp stick in the eye.  Yet at the same time I never saw even a hint of road rage.  You over-extended yourself on a pass and will crash horribly if I don’t let you back in to the lane?  No problem, I will come to a virtual stop and not even honk.  On a related note, as we were leaving Kandy a moped rammed into and dented a van and the reaction of the owner and everyone around was so calm.  It was heart-warming to see such poise and respect.  Nobody seemed perturbed in the slightest when we took pictures of them.

I was reminded how the manual transmission redline is treated as 3k RPM and not 6k, with upshifts often taking place below 2k RPM so someone is driving less than 10 miles per hour in third gear.

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And I thought a lot about how often we equate GDP with comfort and happiness.  Sri Lanka has GDP per capita of less than $3k vs. the US at about $50k.  But we saw so little evident poverty or discontent.  If you live in a village with tropical fruit, fresh fish, a cohesive family and lack of conflict, is GDP that big a determinant of your well-being?

One of my favorite peculiarities (though in India they do this, too, so maybe it is more common) is how a question is often answered in the affirmative by the responder shaking his head “no” in a figure eight motion.  You need to get used to this, because you will think you have been denied when it fact the response approximates “no problem, that’s fine.”

Mirissa
Mirissa

We were told that neither drinking nor smoking is permitted in public, and I was pleased at how few cigarettes we observed.  The consistent response to our question of a local’s favorite place in Sri Lanka was “the hill country, where there is less heat.”

Did I mention how colorful Sri Lanka is?  That was probably what struck me most about this island.  It is green everywhere and we saw countless rice fields, palm trees and tea plantations.  Between the tuk-tuks, saris, buses, boats, signs, doors, shacks and fruits the colors were just so tremendously vibrant.  About the only white we saw was the clothing worn by Buddhist worshippers and white sheets hanging across the road to signify a funeral.

Negombo

The first night we stayed at Amaya Chalet which is about 20 minutes from the airport and not near much.  Note that the airport is a good bit outside Colombo, so depending on what direction you are headed, you would be well-advised to do some research on your hotel’s location…lest you find out you booked an hour each way in the wrong direction.

On Monday we did a quick little tour of Negombo before heading inland.  The Negombo Lagoon area had a lot of colorful small fishing boats.  We briefly perused the fish market which had some large specimens like mahi and what appeared to be a baby hammerhead shark.   On the sand were guys drying out fish on mats.  The Dutch built a lot of canals in and around Negombo, and there are many Christians in the area.  While on that topic, Sri Lanka is mainly Buddhist but Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are significant.  There seems to be general religious harmony here.

Pinnawala

From Negombo we drove a long way on bumpy back roads to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage, stopping nearby for some roadside juice and flesh of the ubiquitous, orange king coconut.

King coconut
King coconut

I had read mixed reviews of the orphanage but we thought it was on the way (not so much given the roads) and seeing lots of elephants seemed like a good idea.

Pinnawala
Pinnawala

Unless this is your only chance to see elephants or perhaps you have small children, I would skip it.  They charge Rs 2500 (nearly US$20) for admission, which seemed steep for this part of the world, and then aggressively try to up-sell you on everything inside.  Want to feed an elephant?  Extra Rs 200, please.

What is worse, though, is that it was impossible to tell who worked there and was offering a legitimate extra and who was just trying to scam you.  And the workers were generally not warm.  Most of the elephants are in chains, and who knows but one looked sort of drugged to us.  The vibe was angry and depressing, just the opposite of what I wanted.  It was exciting to feed an elephant, though.  You just put fruit in its mouth, like a banana with its peel or pineapple with its skin, and when it breathed on me it felt like walking past one of those industrial vents on a New York sidewalk.

Lunch at Hotel Elephant Park was quite good and we had a front-row table to view the 2 pm bathing of the elephants in the wide, mild rapid river below.  This was our first proper meal and it is quite a spread.  Sri Lanka is famous for rice and curry, so I ordered fish and Jenni prawn.  They brought a huge plate of rice and we each got a small bowl of our respective protein curry, but they also brought several more bowls with things like dhal, mango chutney, wonton shaped crisps and roasted pumpkin.

At dinner that night Jenni made an astute observation.  If you order one meal to split, you get almost the same meal as if you order two…just without one curry bowl and for half the price.  In general I thought the food in Sri Lanka was quite good, and I was shocked at how mild it was.  There was spice, but nowhere near the level I expected.  Our waiter misunderstood and thought  we said the food was too spicy instead of not enough.  I think they assume white foreigners have no tolerance for spice.  Perhaps Americans in general like spice more because we normally eat ethnic food like Mexican or Indian, whereas say if you are Russian or French then you do not normally eat spicy food?

After lunch by the elephants we had our first of two little spice garden tours.  Sri Lanka is rich in fruits and spices and we saw clove, vanilla, citronella, a peculiar pineapple variety, ginger, turmeric and more.

Yapahuwa

We continued north to Yapahuwa, which was awesome.  It was briefly the capital several hundred years ago and at one time home to the Sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.  At 5 pm we were the only ones there aside from a worker or two and a couple monks.  The stone steps ascending the face were steep and narrow, followed by a trail going up and to the side and then rocky ground towards the top.

There were many toque macaques (reddish-brown monkeys with hilarious hairdos that Jenni dubbed the bad toupee monkeys) and splendid views over the plains below with rice fields, palm trees, smoke stacks and mountainous outcrops.  It was near sunset when we descended and got a five-minute private tour of the cave temple with some paintings and a bronze buddha from several hundred years ago.

Oh, and by smoke stacks I mean not the hideous industrial type but the little plumes of smoke rising from the waste fires that are so common in the tropics.  It cost Rs 1000 and came with a bottle of water.

Anuradhapura

Monday night we stayed at Milano Tourist Rest in Anuradhapura.  Dinner was fine but not as good as Lonely Planet hyped it, and thankfully we did not get hit by any of the mangos falling from trees in the charming front courtyard.  By the way, Lonely Planet was surprisingly wrong on several matters which partly caused us to miss seeing a dance in Kandy.  To punish them we went with the Rough Guide for India.

Tuesday we got more cheap breakfast pastries at Family Baker, and I am definitely digging the $1 for two person tasty breakfasts.

My seeni sambol had a nice little kick to it.  These bakery shops are very popular with locals.  And next door at Family Grocer, a 5L jug of water was only Rs 150!  I love my water and at times whispered sweet nothings to this new stout comrade.

We were somewhat severely underwhelmed by the ancient Anuradhapura sites.  Perhaps our expectations were off, or we are spoiled from Angkor Wat and lots of other magnificent sites.  There is much historical significance to the area which was the first capital and birthplace of Buddhism in this country, but we did not find it all that beautiful or interesting.

It cost Rs 3250 to enter and with that you do not get any sort of map or explanation how to tackle the spread out ruins, museums and dagobas.  There were monkeys, though, and monkeys make everything better.  If you are really into Buddhism and/or history then you might find this a worthwhile visit, but we would skip it.

It was funny, though, to see Jenni in her pink neon shirt while most of the visitors wore all white, and the first place we stopped was the famous Sri Maha Bodhi but due to our sub-optimal driver/guide we did not know this until we had left.  The Sri Maha Bodhi is considered the oldest historically documented tree in the world.

Due to our disappointment with Anuradhapura and desire to reduce drive time and enjoy our splurge at Hotel Sigiriya, we bagged Polonnaruwa.  This is considered one of the top Cultural Triangle attractions and perhaps we would have enjoyed it more.  Alternatively we could have tried a jungle safari at Kaudulla or Minneriya National Parks, but we needed a little rest.

The woman running the roadside stand where we got mangoes was cute.  She was excited to have her picture taken with us and then wanted to see it, so she grabbed the camera by the lens to admire it.

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Needing a bit more sustenance and seeking an authentic and spicy lunch, we dined at a roadside spot where there was a little buffet.  Jenni was the only female and I ate with my hands, like the locals do.  Not so easy to eat rice soaked in dhal with no utensils.  One of the dishes was spicy but only because there were lots of chopped green peppers in there.  To me it doesn’t really count if I can pick out the spice.  I could serve a magret de canard avec beaucoup de chili peppers on the plate but that doesn’t make it spicy food.

Sigiriya

Arriving at Hotel Sigiriya we were greeted with cold towels and fresh wood apple juice.  The lobby offers wonderful views over the nice pool to the rock of Sigiriya, considered the premier site of the Cultural Triangle.

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Hotel Sigiriya

It was pretty hot and humid everywhere but Adam’s Peak so a dip in the pool was mighty refreshing.  And this huge lizard walking by the rooms looked like a baby Komodo dragon.

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On Wednesday morning it took half an hour for us to walk from our hotel and grab tickets (Rs 3900, cash only as with most places) to Sigiriya.  There are dogs everywhere in Sri Lanka.  They hang out all along the streets and even lie down in the road.  It is remarkable how rarely they seem to get hit by cars because they do not even move quickly to get out of the way.  On this walk Jenni held the first puppy of what I am sure will be many.

At Sigiriya the activity is a climb to the top on narrow stairways, with a brief diversion on the way to see ancient cave paintings.  It was neat and we enjoyed the views from the top.  Plus we saw a couple snakes, some weird squirrel looking creature, a dog with a litter of puppies and tons of monkeys.

Our whole time here we did not encounter any aggressive or scary monkeys, which was refreshing.  Unlike, say, Cambodia or Bali where a monkey might jump on you or try to steal your bag.

It took less than two hours to ascend and return with plenty of time to enjoy the views.  While Sigiriya was very nice, I was generally disappointed with the prices charged to visit the cultural sites and the value received.  I felt as though the government is looking to take advantage of tourists rather than build a lasting relationship.  With the cost of living what it is, paying US$60 for two to enter Sigiriya and getting no information or maps is somewhat offensive.  I am not saying this is apples to apples, but I am writing from India and in Kochi it cost the two of us about 16 cents to enter some sites.

After Sigiriya we drove to Kandy and stopped on the way at the wholesale fruit market which was very cool to see, and then snapped a few shots of the huge (modern) Buddha at Dambulla.  We also visited the Ranweli Spice Garden in Matale for a tour with pressure to buy product.  The prices were absurd but the tour was neat.  They are very into Ayurvedic medicine in Sri Lanka, and I imagine there are some great benefits.

Kandy

We arrived in Kandy at 4:45 and soon reached the nadir of our relationship with our driver.  I won’t bore you with all the details because I know that nobody wants to listen to someone traveling the world whine, but basically we really wanted to see the famous nightly Kandyan dance performance and missed it because of our driver.  So instead we drove around a little and did see some nice nighttime views of the lake and city from the hills above it.

Thursday morning I decided to pull the trigger and cancel our driver mid-trip.  He and his boss reacted admirably well and we struck a fair deal.  While I was nervous this could cause a confrontation, it was absolutely the right move and our trip got so much better with the albatross released.  I am reading The 4-Hour Workweek and Tim has a theory that success can be measured in the number of uncomfortable conversations you’re willing to have.  I hope he is right.

The fish and meat market in Kandy merits 5-10 minutes, and when we stopped into the Queen’s Hotel to inquire about a new driver we were fortunate to witness a Sri Lankan wedding and at least got to see a brief display of some Kandyan dancing and music.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth is undoubtedly the most famous attraction in Kandy.  While you don’t actually get to see the tooth, there are some lovely buildings and museums and I found it far more interesting than the historic sites because of the glimpse it offers into present day life.  There were hundreds of Sri Lankans and everyone is herded like cattle up some stairs for a 10-15 second glimpse through an opening into a room where allegedly the Buddha’s tooth is hiding behind protection.

At many places long shorts seemed fine, but here pants are required.  And security is pretty tight after an attack several years ago.

We enjoyed our lunch at Devon Cafe which had an extensive menu and really cheap prices.  Jenni’s vegetable curry with rice cost $1.  The attached bakery was packed.

We did not have much time in Kandy but other activities nearby include the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, Kandy Garrison Cemetery, trekking in the Knuckles Range and Udawattakelle Sanctuary.

Adam’s Peak

Traffic getting out of Kandy was brutal but we made it to Adam’s Peak in about three hours, not so bad.  The last 37 km are on narrow, bumpy mountain roads with two-way traffic.  It is quite impressive that public buses pass each other on these roads.  We saw a few monkeys on the drive but no more during our brief stay in hill country.  As we neared our hotel we could see Adam’s Peak and its steep, triangular top is quite imposing.

After seeing how beautiful the hill country is with its tea plantations, red soil, rivers and waterfalls, I wished we had spent a little more time here.  The weather was cool, there were pine forests and eucalyptus groves, green trees bursting with red flowers, and women carrying baskets full of tea leaves with straps on their heads.  I did not research accommodation beyond where we stayed, but when driving away I noticed Bogawantalawa was a lovely area.

Hiking Adam’s Peak was perhaps my favorite activity in Sri Lanka.  Pretty much everyone wakes up in the middle of night to summit for sunrise.  I believe the “season” runs from December full moon until May full moon, so we just missed it by a few days.  In-season there are lots of religious pilgrims, all the tea houses lining the path to the top are open and I think the whole path is lit.

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We spent Thursday night at the Slightly Chilled Guest House which is a 10-minute walk from the trailhead.  I liked this place a lot.  After many dubious time estimates over the preceding several days, we decided to wake at 1:40 am and leave the hotel with our guide at 2 am.  Since it is pitch black there is not much reason to stop along the way except for exhaustion.

The trail ascends gradually for a while with and without steps, passing a few open tea houses where one could buy water and snacks.  Then the steep stairs begin, and end only at the top.  I had a hard time finding accurate stats, but I think the trail is a little more than 3 miles and ascends more than 3k vertical feet.  It is fairly grueling but we were mentally prepared for worse.

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We summited at 4:30 am and hung out with lots of other foreigners shivering in the cold wind until sunrise around 5:45 am!  The dogs helped entertain us and for the last 15-20 minutes we waited inside a shelter around the corner.  A couple nights later I commented that we had not seen so many Americans on the trip, and Jenni said “yeah, except those three at the top of Adam’s Peak who talked about farting for 15 minutes.”

The sunrise views were wonderful with other mountains in the distance, a lake below and a cliffside waterfall.  The Buddhist temple at the top opened around 6 am (I think you only get to see Buddha’s footprint in-season).

We paid Rs 2000 for the guide.  You do not need a guide, and I think in-season this is especially so given the lights and traffic.  But we felt it was money well spent since it removed any additional stress beyond hearing our alarm at 1:35 am, and he led us to an uncrowded and better vantage point for sunrise.  (From the top, descend the Hatton trail perhaps 10-20 steps and then climb up on the ledge on the left hand side.)  If you do this hike, bring a headlamp and layers for the top, and some salty food or electrolyte tablets because you will sweat a lot.

The way down was faster but with quivering quads and quaking calves (it took us 2 hours 15 minutes to ascend and 1 hour 35 minutes to descend the trail).  I really liked how we got to experience the trail in the dark as well as the light.  And while we may have missed out in some ways by doing this hike off-season, the upside is that it was not crowded at all.  Near the end Jenni made friends with Vindu, we met a nice Aussie couple at breakfast back at the hotel and then we were on our way to the beach!

Mirissa

There are lots of beach towns in Sri Lanka, and after a little research we chose Mirissa.  It is maybe 45-60 minutes from Galle Fort, a top attraction that we missed.  It is also near Unawatuna, a more popular beach town that we read had become just a bit too developed.  Approaching from the road, glimpses of the ocean are rare and the area is uninspiring.  But after passing through the gate of Palm Villa, our worries disappeared and stresses melted away.  Ah, our first of many tropical beaches to visit on this voyage.

We loved this place.  The first evening near sunset there were a bunch of Sri Lankan boys playing cricket on the beach.  For about US$60 we had an oceanfront room.  Our hotel was small and charming with a welcoming owner.  It is perched a handful of feet above the sand and its location means that very few non-guests cross in front, thus giving the feel of a private beach with larger bays on either side.  The water was warm yet still refreshing.

Mirissa is a popular whale watching spot, but after moving around so much and hiking Adam’s Peak we did little but relax.  There were quite a few surfers, and the bay immediately west had several beachfront restaurants and bars, usually playing reggae.  We had lunch one day at a place that seemed to be called Surf Bar, near the western end of this bay.

This guy didn't care much about my allergy
This guy didn’t care much about my allergy

Some of the places have parties on specific nights, but we be acting all old on this trip for the most part.  Active where possible, but minimal drinking and partying.  I know my mom will be elated to read this.

We ate most of our meals at the hotel and the food was solid.  Life is good when your diet is rich in tropical fruit and fresh fish.  Breakfast each day was enormous, with a plate of papaya, mango, pineapple and banana followed by eggs and about six pieces of toast.  Jenni got the traditional breakfast of string hoppers with multiple curries and coconut sambal one morning and it easily could have fed three.  Banana juice or banana lassi was perhaps our most difficult decision here.

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Overall we had some really enjoyable experiences in Sri Lanka though I cannot say I loved it.  It reminded me that it can be difficult to distinguish a destination from one’s experience there.  Sometimes a trip just clicks and you get all the good bounces.  Other times this is not the case.  I think it is helpful to take guidebook recommendations or personal advice with a grain of salt because it is exceedingly challenging, at times nigh impossible, to evaluate something independent of the specific experience you had there.  The kind smile or cold response from a stranger on the street can transform one’s enjoyment.

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Sri Lanka has a lot going for it and my guess is that it will continue to gain in popularity as it recovers from years of war.

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Practical Info

The exchange rate was about 130 Sri Lankan Rupees per 1 US Dollar.

We got visas on arrival for $35 each and it was quick and painless.  It is probably better to use the online system as I think it costs less and the line was growing by the time we finished…and this was 1:30 am so I can imagine it might be bad at busier times.

There are ATMs at the airport and in larger towns and cities.

Communication: At the airport we bought a Rs 1300 SIM card from Dialog.  It did not work on my iPhone 4S but that must be a Verizon/Alan issue because it works fine on Jenni’s AT&T iPhone 4S.  Calls to the US are crystal clear.  That got us Rs 850 of credit and it costs Rs 6/minute to call the US, plus we get 1.5GB of data.  It is amazing how inexpensive mobile usage has become.  Oh, and a good tip: bring something like an SD card case to store your other SIM.  WiFi was widely available.

Transport: We hired a driver, and this seemed like just about the only option given how much we tried to cram into several days.  I suppose we could have taken some public transportation mixed with taxis and local tuk-tuks.  There are loads of buses but they looked real crowded and we have little rolling duffels that would have been tough.  Some trains exist and I think the Colombo/Kandy route is particularly well established.  The roads move quite slowly so it takes longer to get anywhere than you would guess by looking at a map.  Though there is a new highway so getting from Mirissa to the airport took only 2.5 hours (it was a holiday which may have helped).

Sri Lanka has plans to improve its infrastructure and add more fast roads, and the second international airport (Mattala Rajapaska) opened recently on the southeast part of the island.

To find a driver, I requested several quotes from tour agencies or hotels we had booked.  These were typically in the range of $550-600 total for our trip.  We chose Menaka Arangala, who I found on Lonely Planet’s thorntree forum.  Unfortunately, I cannot recommend you do the same.  While his price was noticeably lower than others ($420), he assigned one of his associates and after telling us we would be in a Prius gave us a slow, diesel mini-van.  Mr. Siril turned out to be a real downer.  He was that lovely mix of incompetent and dishonest lacking a side of humility.  If you do hire a driver and you are cost conscious, consider asking if hotels you book offer free driver accommodation because if not you will have to pay your driver more.

We ended up paying our initial driver $200 to take us from the airport through Kandy, and after switching to separate legs we paid Rs 6,500 from Kandy to Adam’s Peak, Rs 14,000 from Adam’s Peak to Mirissa and Rs 10,000 from Mirissa to the airport.  Wasantha Sendanayake from Rainbow Tours drove us to Adam’s Peak and he was very speedy and spoke good English…0094 715 265 238 and the company is info@rainbowtourssrilanka.com

Accommodation: Some brief thoughts and info on the places we stayed, note that for some we may have chosen not to get AC to save money but it might be available at the property…

Negombo – Amaya Chalet, $25; no AC, it was plain but clean and fine to rest after arrival, you could probably find places closer to the beach etc. in Negombo

Anuradhapura – Milano Rest, $27; AC, nice enough, WiFi in room was slow, restaurant setting was nice and food fairly good, a little removed from the main commercial area

Sigiriya – Hotel Sigiriya, $95; AC, great pool and view of Sigiriya from the lobby, room was fine but nothing special, dinner buffet was great as was included breakfast…they offer massages and can arrange safaris and bird watching tours

Kandy – Charlton Kandy, $34.50; no AC, very simple room, kind of loud, the owner was nice (charltonkandyrest@gmail.com and ask for Saman) and location is quite central and courtyard restaurant was pretty good…your most important decision in Kandy re accommodation seems to be whether to stay in the hills or down in town, obviously in the hills you get better views and perhaps peace and quiet while in town you can walk to bars and restaurants and the Temple…the lobby at Queen’s Hotel was nice and this location is great, along with Olde Empire Hotel; Hotel Suisse looked impressive from the outside

Adam’s Peak – Slightly Chilled Guest House, $50; no AC, up in hills don’t need AC, liked this place a lot, our room #10 was spacious w/ a balcony w/ great views of Adam’s Peak, it included solid breakfast and dinner, they arranged a guide for us…there are other guesthouses nearby that I saw, including Siusi Rest, Adam’s Peak Inn, White House and Achinika Holiday Inn

Mirissa – Palm Villa, $61; no AC, ocean view basically on the beach, loved this place, the room was fine but owner is nice and it was lovely and cozy with a good restaurant and I thought overall good value

December 8-16, 2013 (Sunday-Monday)

Sri Lanka: The Cultural Triangle

It takes a bit to adjust to a new (especially developing) country. For me, it took about a 15-minute drive and my first taste of an egg curry bun. And I was settled. Which is not to say it was all smooth sailing from here, but I was certainly filled with excitement for all this island nation had to offer. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. It’s lush and green nearly throughout the entire island, but especially so in the hill country. The beaches are tropical and serene, tucked away quietly from the hubbub of the bustling streets, the cities vibrant, and the whole country full of color and happy people (except at the elephant orphanage. There will be no fun had at the elephant orphanage. More on that later).

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We flew into Colombo, arriving very early in the morning, and our driver, Siril, picked us up at the airport, dropping us at our $25 a night hotel in Negombo at about 2am. It was here I realized that Sri Lankan hotels aren’t big on sheets and/or blankets. The first place had nothing but a sheet to cover the mattress and two pillows. There was no A/C, but a strong fan, and I wound up sleeping with a towel and a jacket over me. This was probably the cheapest hotel I’d stayed at yet in my life. I was a little bit unsure what to expect, but it was perfectly reasonable. Sure, the little luxuries you come to expect in fancier hotels are missing (a blanket, shampoo and other toiletries, the occasional wall or curtain separating your shower from your toilet, a television or phone) but it’s really all we need, and we “splurged” at most places for the rooms with private bathrooms. Always a good decision in my opinion.

After waking up on HK time and getting ready for what I thought was 9am, I sadly discovered it was only 7:30am local time. Grumpy and exhausted, we hit the road with Siril. We’d hired Siril to drive us everywhere, as we were staying in 5 hotels our first 5 nights (you read that right… oi, what were we thinking??), and did not want to waste time arranging transportation on our quick jaunt through (what we thought were) the highlights of Sri Lanka. I’ll spoil the surprise for you and let you know that Siril got fired before we made it to hotel number 5, but more on that later too.

For breakfast, we picked up our egg curry buns for about 30 cents a piece, at a bakery called Calton. Shout out to Lauren! Your people are making great, cheap pastries in Sri Lanka! We also quickly stopped at the Negombo fish market, which we loved. While it’s supposedly much more lively in the early hours, there were still plenty of market goers buying from the stalls of fresh and dried fish. We even saw some baby hammerhead sharks on sale. I loved the way they lay the fish out to dry on big straw blankets on the sand.

Then it was onto the long, windy, bumpy road to Pinnawala. Parched from the long drive we stopped for some king coconut on the way. About a quarter each got us a large coconut of delicious water, and afterwards you could scrape out the meat from inside. Yum. Food is plentiful in this country, they grow a wide range of fruits of vegetables, spices and rice. For a relatively poor nation, I suppose this is why not many people are starving, and quite a few are actually pretty heavy.

The drives were longer than we’d anticipated, and after a lot of time in the car, we arrived at Pinnawala elephant orphanage. I had high hopes for this, because hello! Baby elephants! It was a strange experience. We were very confused as to who actually worked there, who you actually needed to pay, and who was trying to sell you (unsanctioned) stuff. We were also pretty surprised that in a country where you can buy breakfast for 30 cents, that entry to this place cost about $20 a person. Anyway, we headed in, and while the elephants were adorable and majestic, there was a sad, stern air about the place. All of the workers seemed angry. People constantly tried to get you to give them your camera so they could take your picture touching the elephants and charge you. This is not to say it stopped me from taking the opportunity to (pay extra to) feed an elephant. I hadn’t expected I’d be such a chicken shit, but when I sat down next to a creature that large, with a big ole basket full of delicious looking fruit and that honker of a tusk started wagging in the air, I got a little nervous. I kinda threw the first banana at him because I was so scared. Please enjoy the picture of me in terror below (reminds me of the photo of me from the one time I went scuba diving, that same fear in my eyes). I did manage to feed him some more fruit in a bit more civilized manner. Then I handed the basket over to Alan and let him finish off the pineapple and other fruits. P.S. elephants must have some serious digestive skills – they ate banana, watermelon, and even pineapple skins.

We also watched the baby elephants being fed from the bottle, which was more sad than cute, as they were chained so tightly and I felt certain that at least one of the elephants was sedated, given the way he rocked back and forth and the milky look in his eyes.

For lunch Siril took us over to a restaurant on the water, which we feared at first was overly touristy, but we were pleasantly surprised to see that we had a front seat view of the elephants bathing in the river while we ate. (They looked happier here, until one ventured too far and got stick prodded back). We also tried our first of many rice and curry dishes (the Sri Lankan staple). Rather than some rice and some curry, you get a heaping serving of rice, and about 6 other dishes of accompanying sauces, toppings and so on, one of which is the actual curry. One of my favorites was the mango chutney, and I also love the daal. This was our first intro to the surprisingly unspicy nature of the foods here. We’d heard prior that Sri Lanka has the spiciest food in the world, so we’re either totally bad-ass spicy eaters, or it’s not actually that hot. Somewhat interestingly, I’ve been keeping pescatarian while in Sri Lanka. For no particular reason, other than I tend to want to order the veggie or prawn options almost always. It’s so easy to keep vegetarian in this part of the world – so many delicious veggie foods! I swear, by the time we left we’d had every fathomable vegetable or fruit curried (my favorite probably being pineapple, lease being cucumber).

Just before sunset, we made it to Yapahuwa, which was a highlight. We were literally the only people there aside from a handful of monks and a guy collecting entrance fees. The ruins are not terribly impressive, though there is a steep stone staircase with some carvings in it, which takes you to the beginning of a small hike to the top of a hill. Despite being provided no information or having any trail markers (not hard to follow, but confusing as I hadn’t realized we were hiking even), we continued on, and were very pleasantly surprised to share the sunset with a group of monkeys I shall refer to as the bad-toupee monkeys (see pictures below for clarification). On the way out, we also got a quick peek into the cave temple with several hundred-year-old paintings on the walls and ceilings. Not too shabby.

Our second night in Sri Lanka was spent in Anuradhapura. We got another uber-cheap room, which was passable, though we could have done without the rock hard mangoes falling dangerously close around us as we ate dinner at the restaurant. We figured switching tables sounded like a better idea than to risk finding out what Sri Lankan hospitals are like. The dinner was again barely spicy, but the waiter saw me blowing my nose (still sick, wahhh) and asked if it was too spicy for us. They must think us tourists are bona fide pansies. The trend of no blankets continued as we made our may through Sri Lanka, though our last 5 hotels were at least generous in providing a sheet.

In the morning we again grabbed cheap pastries, this time trying sami seemi, which had a nice little heat to it, and an egg rotti, which is basically a crepe with egg very thinly cooked into its folds. Then it was off to begin the famed cultural triangle… Anaradhapura at least was a little womp-womp. The sites were underwhelming at best. This is not to say that if you are terribly interested in history or religion (and Buddhism in particular) that they might be interesting (and definitely more so if you hired a guide I’m sure), but they are not nearly as beautiful or impressive as the ruins you find in Cambodia or India. In addition, they cost a ridiculous sum to get into (think $30 a person in places, in a country where I can get a nice hotel for $25 a night), and you are provided with no information. There are no placards with history, no maps or brochures handed out. In fact, we went to one of the most famous sites – the Sri Bada Bodi tree (I think maybe the oldest tree in the world or something?!), and didn’t even realize what it was until after we’d left!

In light of this experience, we decided to skip Polonnaruwa, another collection of temple ruins and dagobas in the cultural triangle. Instead, we decided to enjoy our splurge (still reasonably priced by American standards) hotel in Sigiriya. Except that I was feeling super sick again and wound up sleeping from 4:30 in the afternoon until the next morning. Womp womp again. That said, we did manage to squeeze in some fresh mango from a roadside stand (delicious, and very different from the mangos we eat in the states), and Alan got in some pool time while I snoozed. We also asked to stop for lunch on the way at a local’s restaurant for rice and curry that’s for real spicy. The curry was still not too spicy, but I did enjoy watching Alan eat with his hands. When in Rome.

The cultural site of Sigiriya at least, piqued our interests more than Anuradhapura. We walked from our hotel over to the temple in the morning, paid the again exorbitant fee, and attacked the little hike to the top of the rock. The views are great, but the highlight for me (as per usual) was the animal life. There were monkeys galore, and puppies. Oh my god, the puppies. I found the scraggliest, crustiest little pup on our walk over, and stopped to pet him and get lots of puppy kisses (crusty pups need love too), saw a whole pack of baby pups near the top of the rock, and another little cluster of adoreableness again at the bottom. I was in heaven. Dogs are everywhere in Sri Lanka, and this brings me immense pleasure. I stop to pet them constantly. We also saw a strange raccoon-like animal being fed by a tourist (shame on them), and some slithery snakes up top. Don’t worry, I protected Alan (when I wasn’t having panic attacks from the heights on those rickety and steep metal staircases – which reminds me! there are guys who try to “help” you up the steep staircase for a tip. I flipped out at one guy with maybe five PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ME’s. Last thing I need is someone touching me when I’m having a fear of heights induced panic on a rusty staircase suspended off the edge of a giant rock).

The climb up was scary at times, but not terribly difficult and quite quick. It helped that we were fueled by a most delicious breakfast spread. While not as spicy as I’d anticipated, I am very quickly falling in love with Sri Lankan cuisine. The bananas here are ridiculously amazing. I also enjoy the curry, and especially the coconut sambol that you sprinkle on top (shredded coconut, red pepper and red onion… it has a bit of a kick to it, sweet and spicy). I’m also loving the string hoppers, which are little noodley pancake things that you pour curry or other delicious mystery saucy stuff on top of, and of course more coconut sambol. After Sigiriya we enjoyed the pool and some fantastic fresh papaya, watermelon and pineapple fruit juice.

::view from our hotel::
::view from our hotel::

On our way out of town we checked out a wholesale produce market that had an impressive array of, well, bulk produce. People are so friendly, they want to know where you’re from and practice their English by talking to you. The skeptic in me assumes they’re also interested in tips and/or pickpocketing, but who knows.

Next stop was a spice garden tour where our guide rubbed some ayurvedic cream on my nose and forehead to try and help clear up my cold. When that didn’t help he also gave me a couple syrupy substance and a few herby drinks to try. While it was interesting to hear about the natural treatments, we didn’t buy anything, and my sampling of the treatments did not provide much in the way of relief from this now irritatingly stubborn cold.

::in lieu of awkward photos of me having cream applied to my nose, please look at this other temple::
::in lieu of awkward photos of me having cream applied to my nose, please look at this other temple::

We arrived that afternoon in Kandy with plenty of time to enjoy the main attraction – traditional Kandyan dancing. Only thing is, our driver told us he would pick us up at 6 for the show. Well, the shows started at 5 and we missed them all. So we missed our chance to see the dancing on our one night in Kandy. This was pretty much the last straw for Siril. We’d been questioning our choice with him for a while, given the fact that he never knew where he was going (including one stint where he drove 45 minutes in the wrong direction before asking for directions), fought with a hotel manager because he was offering us tips on what to do in the area (presumably because the spots he recommends will not provide kick-backs to Siril), spoke worse English than most other people we met in the country, and so on. We realize we’re not in a modern city and service will not be perfect, but Siril totally sucked. So, Siril was fired. We ended up paying a bit more for car service as we had to arrange the rest of our drives one at a time (and they were long ones!), but all in all we felt it worth the extra cost and headache.

By the way, every source we found had a different time listed for the start of the dance, and all were wrong, including Lonely Planet. Still getting used to this third world planning ish. Guess it’d make a lot more sense to NOT stay only one night each place (which we hopefully never do again) where you can’t count on reliability.

Dinner at our Kandy hotel was spicier than most. We had some delicious deviled prawns. I still can’t quite figure out what “deviled” means here, but it’s a sauce they cook things with that is similar to sweet and sour sauce. After seeing us handle the spice like champs the waiter brought over something he called “cobra sauce” for us to try. It was spicy, but still not that bad. I maintain that food is spicier in India. The hotel manager and owner and their family here was so nice though. I thought I’d lost my bracelet here, and the owner offered to call my old hotel and ask them to look for it for me. Seeing me coughing, he made me an ayurvedic drink that he promised would make me feel better in the morning. The large mug was filled with what looked pretty much like dirty toilet water. It tasted not much better. I managed to choke down about half of the drink, and I did feel slightly better the next morning. Perhaps had I drank the whole glass I would have been cured.

For our quick morning in Kandy we checked out the local market and wandered around the fish, meat, veggie and fruit stalls. Again, the Sri Lankans were super friendly. They all want their picture taken, to speak English with us. We went next to the Temple of the Tooth. Wow is it crowded. The personal space bubble here is non-existent. Expect lots of uninvited touching. That said, it’s a neat experience to see these locals who push and shove and wait in line for just a few seconds to pray at this sacred site. The grounds are quite large too, and you can walk around and explore this temple, which is far more interesting than much of what we’d seen in Anuradhapura.

Before leaving Kandy we ate a great curry lunch at a restaurant called Devon. My whole meal was a buck! I get irrationally excited when my meals cost a dollar (best meal in Cambodia was $1 beef noodles from a street cart). We then accidentally attended a wedding procession while stopping in another hotel to try to arrange a driver.

::wedding procession::
::wedding procession::

On the road again, we head out to Adam’s Peak with a new driver. The trip picked up from here, as the latter half (hill country and the beach) was definitely the best. I’ll cover that in my next post.