Sri Lanka 2010

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Sri Lanka just became my favorite Christmas holiday destination. The combination of scenery, wildlife, climate, and the warmest, friendliest people imaginable explains why so many tourists come back year after year once they discover this country. Still recovering from the civil war and the 2004 tsunami, life is difficult for the locals, but this doesn't stop them from having time to talk to strangers and make them feel at home with their huge and easy smiles.

We arranged our trip through Omni Travel, an agency run by a Sri Lankan in Uppsala, Sweden, and despite approaching them very late and thus missing some of their favorite hotels, they still did an excellent job of tailoring the trip to our personalities. They got us the last seats on Qatar Airways, which meant flying on fancy new planes with friendly staff and very good food, with just a brief change in Doha. Flying time from Stockholm was 6 hrs + 4.5 hrs, leaving at lunchtime and arriving breakfast time, which was way better than the alternative options. Then we had an excellent chauffeur for a week of travelling, before a week based in a beach resort. Everything worked smoothly, resulting in one of our best holidays ever, and I can strongly recommend both Omni Travel and Sri Lanka. The whole trip cost us about twice what we normally pay for a one-week package to Spain, but the experience was way more interesting and luxurious, and way better value for money.


Monday 13 Dec 2010 : Picked up at the airport by our driver Gnjano in an air conditioned Toyota sedan, and was rapidly introduced to Sri Lankan driving, which is like nothing I have ever seen before. It has the chaos of France or Italy, but none of the aggression. Cars, buses, lorries, motorised rickshaws (tuk-tuks), motorbikes, cycles, people and cows all use both sides of the road as they feel fit, overtaking into oncoming traffic, and sometimes there are four vehicles astride on a two-lane road, yet amazingly none of the vehicles have a scratch on them. Everyone cooperates, and knows exactly what to do, and in our two weeks we saw only two minor accidents. Horns are used a lot, but only to draw attention to their presence, or to thank for giving way, not in anger. This attitude seemed to reflect the essence of Sri Lanka, that everything seems to be chaotic, but in fact everyone is cooperating and working hard behind the scenes to make things work, without visible stress or aggression. Sri Lankans seem to have a great respect for each other.

We now had two nights in beach resort of Negombo to recover from the sleepless flight and to acclimatise to the Sri Lankan culture, which involves a lot more human contact than we are used to. Everyone wanted to talk to us - often to get our business, but also just because that's how they are. And even the touts were so charming and sounded so genuine that it was hard to get annoyed with them when they got to the hard sell. Telephone salesmen back home could learn a lot from these guys. I really enjoyed this social side of the country, but it still took time to shed the personal bubble that I've developed living in Sweden, and sometimes it was worth a dollar to enlist a 'guide' who would simply walk and chat with us for a few hundred meters, during which time we wouldn't be bothered by other touts.

We were staying at the Paradise Beach Hotel, which is a typical package tour hotel, with a very nice swimming pool and direct access to the beach. Nothing too special but perfectly OK for the first stop.

Tue 14 : Still tired and disoriented, we took a gentle trip on an old fishing catamaran out to the coral reef. Due to light winds this took 4 hours instead of the planned 2, but that was fine as there was no better place for our wobbly old brains than on a simple old boat drifting gently on the Indian Ocean. The sun was veiled by thin clouds, which was also good for our still pale skin, and the crew were friendly, so despite language difficulties they still tried to swap life stories with us, and produced a succulent papya for lunch.

The reef was in poor shape, probably damaged by the tsunami, but there were still plenty of colourful fish to snorkel with. The trip cost $60 (USD), and although there were others offering lower prices, we chose this one because we liked the guy who approached us.

In the evening we ate at Ammehula with Lampton, a pleasant little place with interesting decor, excellent shark, and a warm chatty owner. It was here that I realised that the correct response to the greeting "Are you born ?" is not "England", as I had been replying, assuming I had just missed the "where". In fact they were saying "Ayubowan", which means "I wish you long life".

Wed 15 Dec : Picked up by Gnjano for a chaotic 3 hour drive to Kitulgala, impressed again by the locals' driving skills and Gnjano's cool. Ugly suburbs gave way to working rubber and tree plantations and around lunchtime we arrived at Paradise Farm, which lives up to its name by a good margin. Isolated at the top of a barely drivable track, it's surrounded by lush forest, beautiful flowers, and spectacular views across the valley. Eagles circle overhead, and apparently sometimes drop down to the hotel to borrow a chicken.

There are only 3 rooms, and during our stay the others were unoccupied. Our bungalow was by far the best place to be, pointed away from the main building with breathtaking views beyond the private swimming pool. Despite such luxury, the feeling of the place is rustic, and for example the pools are not treated in any way, but refilled from a mountain stream for each new guest.

On arrival we took a quick walk on the paths through the plantations, and were then treated to a huge and delicious lunch, much of which came from the farm. Being British, I obviously don't know anything about food, but I do know what I like, and Sri Lankan food is delicious. Their traditionally super-hot chillis are tamed a little for tourists, but they are still extremely tasty. I also got addicted to buffalo curd with kitul syrup. And then there is all the fresh fruit ! I have never tasted such succulent and sweet pineapples in Europe.

The lodge manager, Sunil, later lead us to a nearby waterfall where we swam in the cool pool showered by the 20m fall above. Who needs a spa ? Back at the lodge we drank tea on the veranda in true colonial style, while the sun set, and fireflies, flying foxes, and tree frogs became active. As I sat there I wondered how I got a large papaya juice stain on my trousers, and wondered even more as I saw that it was growing spontaneously. Soon I discovered that it was actually my sweat mixed with blood released by a leech that I must have picked up on the path to the waterfall. Trousers in socks for walks in vegetation after that.

Thur 16 : We never closed the enormous patio doors of the room, and were woken early by the unfamiliar array of birdsong and the bubbling of mountain streams. This really was paradise !

A short stroll before breakfast became a major hike as Sunil took us to meet the rubber and tea workers out in the field, all of whom were as warm and friendly as everyone else we met. 'Samson', the local kitul toddy maker, produced a bottle of the mildly alcoholic drink, and we downed this on the porch of one of the worker's shacks. An interesting start to the day. On the way back we came across a beautiful green snake that Sunil assured us was harmless.

The rest of the day we pottered about enjoying the quiet and beautiful surroundings, occasionally dropping into the pool to cool off. The water temperature was about 25 C and the air around 30 C, and not so humid, so quite comfortable except when hiking uphill with a heavy bag. There were also surprisingly few flying bugs to bother us. In fact on the whole trip we just got a few bites from the mosquitos, which are faster, quieter and less painful when biting than the ones at home, so it's hard to stop them if they have decided that you are dinner.

Lunch surprised us with new and mysterious fruits, including jackfruit, which I hadn't met before, but immediately got a taste for. After this Sunil took us up another track to show us their best view, which extends all the way to Adam's peak, 2.5 hours drive away, but heavy rain rather spoiled the experience. Despite being very warm rain, it still felt good to get back to dry clothes and tea on the veranda.

Fri 17 : A quick morning walk in the plantation before breakfast, and then a tour of the small green-tea factory on the farm, which was stoutly traditional with everything done by manpower and machines from colonial times.

After this we drove 2.5 hours to Dalhousie, a scruffy little village at the foot of Adam's Peak. The surroundings were beautiful, but the village and hotel were rather disappointing after the beautiful drive up, and being spoiled at Paradise Farm. We had no real complaints about the hotel Punsissi Rest, but it was dark and dirty, the toilet leaked, and the staff were less friendly than we had become used to. But still, we were only there briefly for Lotta to make the over-night hike up the mountain, a traditional pilgrimage for Buddhists, Muslims and Christians alike, since they all believe that the footprint-shaped indentation in the rock is made by one of their own. Our room overlooked the market, which was being built for the upcoming Poya day holiday, so hammering and barking dogs kept us awake until 2am when Lotta had to get up for the 6 hour trip up and down 4500 steps. For once I was rather grateful for my dodgy knees that were my excuse for not joining her on the trip.

Sat 18 : Another beautiful drive, 4 hours up to Nuwara Eliya, the highest town in the country. We were recieved at the very british Tea Bush Hotel with tea and sandwiches with the crusts cut off, before walking down to the town. We passed a number of cricket games, from small boys practicing, to a formal competition match. It seems that the Brits left quite an impression when they were here during their extended vacation of the 19th century. At the market we bought very good quality pirated fleeces, and got shirts tailored and delivered to the hotel for approximately nothing.

Sun 19 : An English breakfast in the hotel dining room with its impressive view over the town, listening to 'Santa Claus is coming to town' translated into Sinhalese on the radio. We were the only guests again. After that we were driven Kandy, the old capital, via a black-tea factory, and the enormous and beautiful botanical gardens, where we wandered happily for a couple of hours before being taken to the Topaz Hotel, a rather fancy and modern place. After that we squeezed in a traditional dance show, and a visit to see Buddha's tooth, or rather a brief and distant glimpse of a vessel that may or may not contain it. But the surrounding temple was spectacular, and well worth visiting.

Mon 20 : Yet another delicious breakfast followed by a visit to an Ayurvedic garden, where we were introduced to the herbs and spices used in this traditional asian medicine, and treated to herbal massages. After this we took in a gem factory, where we learned about the tough and primitive conditions gem miners still work under.

Then on to the Elephant orphanage in Pinnewala. There is much discussion of the ethics of these places, especially here where they allow the residents to breed, and give them lots of exposure to people in order to raise money. But whether or not this is better than leaving injured or orphaned animals in the bush, or other alternatives, is hard for me to say. It was anyway great to get so close to such impressive animals, which seemed to be completely comfortable with human contact. A bribe to the mahouts gives even more intimate contact by being allowed over the boundary lines and in amongst the herd.

Another long day in the, for us, stressful traffic left us frayed as we arrived at Tropical Villas in Beruwala on the west cost, but a fruit drink and cold towels in reception followed by the introduction to our extremely nice room, way back from the road, refreshed us no end. We took a quick swim in the dark, had a great dinner, and then bribed a waiter to produce a beer, which is not really allowed on the holy Poya day. But after the busy day with almost no exercise the beer sat very well, and the waiter got a big tip.

21-27 Dec : Woke to find that the hotel in which we would be staying our last week was set around a tropical garden, complete with turtles, tree frogs, monitor lizards, chameleons, and various birds. The notice board also mentioned 'giant squirrels', which sounded scary, but we were comforted by the fact that our door was only 1 metre by 2 metres, so they probably couldn't get into our room. The staff here were excellent, the food unbeatable, and even the residents were quiet and well behaved (which we later learned is due to the hotel's 'couples only' policy). The only downside is that even with our distant room, road noise was quite disturbing at night. I'm always a light sleeper, but even Lotta was bothered here. So we loved the place, as did everyone we talked to, many of whom had stayed there many times before, but it has recently changed hands and there are plans to upgrade it, so I hope it doesn't get spoiled.

During the week it was warm and pleasant weather, but mostly grey, and often with rain later afternoon. Also, the 3 weeks of rain that we had narrowly missed had washed a lot of silt and rubbish down the river, so the sea was not its usual turquoise, but rather a murky brown. Still we are not really bathing people, so we were happy to walk along the kilometer-long beach and visit local interests, like the enormous Buddhas. One of these is 35m high, and the largest sitting Buddha in the world. But even more impressive was the very old temple behind, where we quietly watched the faithful praying and offering gifts. One of the Monks blessed us and gave us string bracelets, which made us feel a little less intrusive in a shrine that didn't seem to be on the normal tourist map.

Another wonderful cultural difference : While Lotta was running on the beach one morning I wandered around with my camera, trying (unsuccessfully) to shoot a horse frolicking in the surf, when a young local running team started alternately training and playing in the water. They looked so happy and carefree that I couldn't resist a few surreptitious shots of them, but they noticed what I was doing. In Europe a middle aged guy caught pointing a telephoto lens at teenage girls in wet athletic gear would probably end up in a lot of trouble, but here all that happened was that one of the girls came over and gave me her address so that I could send copies, and asked me if I could take some more. When Lotta came back they also asked her to join their training, and everyone had a great time. Oh to have experiences like that at home, instead of parents clutching their children a little tighter just because I answer their Hellos.

Most lunchtimes we visited the local bakery, which seemed to have different creations each day and so we bought one of each intriguing-looking item. One pastry was particularly yummy, and I took one of those every day, thinking I was eating some local delicacy, until on the last day I noticed that the cashier's stream of Sinhalese was broken up the words 'Danish pastry'.

One of the days we took a train to Galle, 80 km south of Beruwala. This was a wonderful experience, with very old trains missing most of their doors, hand-written timetables at the station, and as always, cheerful, friendly locals. The villages and countryside we travelled through were fascinating, and on arrival we were guided around by a friend of a Sri Lankan that we know in Sweden, and then invited to lunch to meet his family, where we felt very welcome and immediately comfortable.

Chinthaka walked us around the fort district, where we came across a very bad Indian snake charmer who got his cobra to dance by grabbing its head and twisting. He also took us to see Unawatuna, where we would have been staying if we'd booked in time, but I have to say that we weren't very impressed, and were happy that we were in Beruwala. I understand why it's popular with bright young things who want beach bars and fun, but even though it had its charms, I think we oldies were better suited to where we were. On the way back we stopped to buy king coconuts from a guy who had about 50 of them on the back of his motorbike. He hacked off the top with a machete so that we could drink the juice, and then chopped them in half and gave us the chopped-off top to use as a spoon with which to eat the meat. It was tasty and refreshing, and neither using the unwashed skin as a spoon or anything else we did on the trip ever gave us stomach problems.

I had wondered about asking Chinthaka to show us Kathaluwa with its iconic stilt fishermen, but having heard that nowadays they sit on the beach waiting for a tourist to give them enough money to go and fish from their stilts, I thought that however good an image I got it just wouldn't have the right feeling for me.

On the train home we were befriended by some teenage boys, and also a crazy samosa salesman who insisted on accompanying us to get the best deal for a tuk-tuk when we arrived at the station, and refused to take a tip for his help. A lovely guy who will be soon be getting a postcard of himself with his arm around Lotta.

The driver that had taken us to the station turned out to have very good English, and was an excellent guide, so we used him for a trip to Brief Garden, an impressive place that looks like a terribly overgrown stately home, yet in typical Sri Lankan manner, despite its chaotic growth was actually easy and pleasant to navigate through. Here we were treated to tea and stories of the famous people who had passed through the place in its heyday. After that we visited a turtle sanctuary, where they collected eggs laid on the beach, and nurtured the babies until they were big enough to have a better chance out at sea. This is good work, but they also kept some weak and injured individuals in small concrete pools, the young ones desperately trying the find a way out, and the old ones resigned to sitting in one corner looking miserable. I think if I were such a turtle I'd rather retire into the soup business.

The following day we used our guide again for a boat trip on the river, cruising through the mangrove trees, finding at least a dozen kingfishers, water monitors, parrots, various herons, flying foxes, eagles, and a baby crocodile that a guy in another boat had picked up. And after that our guide invited us home to meet his family.

Mon 27 : Walked to the local harbour to see sharks being gutted and loaded into the trucks. Birds were on the telephone wires just like at home, but here they were birds of paradise and kingfishers. Children in a poor quarter that we went through greeted us with "Hello money". Running out of time, we took a taxi back, but not just any old taxi, rather something that appeared to be a rotorvator towing a trailer. The driver wanted twice as much as a tuk-tuk would have cost, but then his vehicle took twice as long to get us home, so that seemed fair...
Then it was time for the 2.5 hour drive to the airport through Colombo, and the trouble-free trip home with Qatar.


Having previously only experienced self-planned holidays or pure charters, we were a inititally a bit nervous of having someone else plan a trip for us, but Omni listened to all our requirements, and allowed us to see much more of the country in a painless and trouble free way than we could have ever managed by ourselves.
A very successful holiday and a destination that I again recommend.

© Mark Harris 2011

(Sri Lanka photographs)

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