2015 was the year of Ceylon in my calendar. That year I went to Sri Lanka on two different occasions. The first trip was inspired by my new hobby: natural colour gemstones. This new passion led me to spend a rainy July in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle, where I immersed in a 10-day-long lapidary course (sapphire cutting and polishing) in Ratnapura (a.k.a. City of Gems). The second time I went with Kai and we undertook a sightseeing journey along the geographical belt of Sri Lanka. We hopscotched the island using all available means of transportation — trains, buses, tuk-tuks and even on bicycles — as we sampled local culinary specialties, enjoyed the natural environment and explored noteworthy sites.
The start of the trip was hectic and frenetic. We had a real close call leaving Dubai and barely made it to the airport in time for our departure. Indeed, our preparations were extremely last minute and consisted on tossing clothes into our backpacks and catching an expensive private taxi (on account of a dearth of standard taxis to be found on the street) to the Terminal 2 at DXB. We made it to the airport, but not without much anxiety and a lot of sweat dripping from our foreheads as our route to the airport was hindered by traffic and knowing that discount carriers are not so forgiving in missing flights.
Luckily, our arrival in Sri Lanka, in the airport town of Negombo, was more relaxed. Indeed, in anticipation of 2 weeks of backpacking we secured a comfy hotel on our first night. The beachfront abode was quite scenic and we had a chance for a late-night stroll on a moonlight-bathed beach before embarking on our backpack-style vacation.
Day 1: We woke up to the sunrise and got our first proper view of the sea, which that morning was filled with black sails of traditional fisherman boats. I also encountered my first culinary disappointment: no Sri Lankan breakfast without advance order. (Not even a small dish of curry? No egg hoppers? Not even one roti or chilli paste? Nope! Toast and jam for you white lady!) We were not so easy to give in to the mild discomfort caused by lack of curry dishes for breakfast and headed down the road in search of local cuisine. We succeeded in finding a pit stop for a seafood lunch and cold beer. After couple hours of lounging on hammocks we caught an express bus (~2hrs) to the capital city, Colombo. The streets of Colombo around the bus station were lively and chaotic, but we still managed to find our way to the hostel that we had booked near the city’s central train station. After checking in and freshening up we made a mini night tour of the area highlighted by dinner at a street food stall along the coast.
Day 2: From Colombo we caught a train to Kandy. While it lacked a dining car, the ride was nonetheless comfortable and offered great views. Upon arrival at our destination, we booked a basic room in a hillside school dormitory turned guesthouse for the summer months. The steep hike to our dorm was followed by a Sri Lankan lunch at a nearby hotel with a panoramic view of the region. After the sun had set we decided to visit the city’s main cultural site: a Buddha statue atop the city heights. The weather did not cooperate with us that night, as it rained hard, but luckily our tuk-tuk driver was helpful in getting us to the statue and to the city centre and kept us relatively dry. In the city centre we at a popular local cafeteria followed by drinks at a terrace bar in a colonial-style building. The night was so fun that even stepping in a nasty dog poo (YUCK!) with my flip-flops did not spoil the night. (It might have even enhanced the night for Kai’s amusement.)
Day 3: We ate breakfast (egg hoppers with chilli paste) in the back streets of Kandy as our own dorm offered only “toast and jam” — we would find this to be a common theme at all the places we stayed. (I blame all the soft Europeans with bland taste buds for creating this situation — everywhere we went the locals thought they were doing us a favour by skipping on the local (and especially spicy) food instead offering us the ubiquitours “toast and jam”.) Our destinations for the day were Dambulla and Sigiriya. The former is famous for its ancient holy site (caves with Buddhist statues and artworks); the latter was where we had booked a night at a tree house. From Dambulla we we rode on a tuk-tuk in heavy rain to the tree house lodge (near Sigiriya), only to discover that our night in the trees was for not on account of the unrelenting rain. Instead, we were offered a “boulder house”, a wooden bungalow built seamlessly into a gigantic rock. The wet weather kept us mostly indoors and we whiled the night away playing cards and drinking the local beer.
Day 4: We survived the downpour in our jungle lodge and went back to Sigiriya to explore the “lion mountain”, but were turned off by the high entry fee (for tourists) and the lack of an ATM. Instead, we climbed another nearby mountain (free) that actually offered a beautiful view of the lion mountain. We were not the only clever ones who avoided the fee and got an actual view of the lion mountain — we met several Swiss tourists with the same thought in mind and we ascended together to the top and back down. We parted ways afterward as our next stop was Pollonawura. After a long bus ride we checked into a guest house and rented bicycles to tour the adjacent lake and archaeological sites. On the way back to the guest house the sky filled with a dark cloud of fox bats. Before calling it a night we had dinner at one of the restaurants by the lake. Luckily the restaurant was not far from our guest house as we endured yet again heavy rains.
Day 5: Our goal for the day was to arrive at Arugam Bay (via Batticaloa), a surfer and seafood paradise on the east coast of the island. Our means was by train (to Batticaloa), bus (to Pottuvil) and tuk-tuk (to Arugam Bay), and it was on this journey that had our first sighting of wild elephants. The train ride also proved to us that the world really is small as we met a friendly Sri Lankan family which previously lived in Dubai. It seemed that they had lived the “Dubai dream” working in the Gulf city and saving some for a better life back home. We were even invited by them to join them for a cookout feast at their coastal home, but had to decline as our schedule was tight and had to stick to our plan. We arrived at Arugam Bay at dark, checked into our guest house and then shared our seafood dinner with local cats.
Day 6: We woke up early and were treated to a glorious sun rise. We wandered the beach and took in a tranquil site of dozens of fishing boats and fishermen with their daily catch. Kai found a four-legged friend who seemed eager to show him around the beach. We tried to savour the sweet morning air as much as possible and aped the habit of the locals and chugged down freshly-made sweet porridge. Our goal was to reach Nuwara Eliya that night. Given the distance we had to make an early retreat from Arugam Bay and once again made our trip using a combination of bus (to Badulla), train (Nanu Oya) and tuk-tuk (Nuwara Eliya). We spent the whole day on transport, with only brief intermissions when transferring from one mode of transport to another. The scenery as we approached tea-plantation territory was breathtaking but we also missed a lot as darkness fell early into our train ride. At our final destination we had a blessing in disguise as there was an error (overbooking) in our original hotel reservation. We arrived near midnight without a hotel room, but as luck would have it, the proprietor offered us an alternative location in a tea-plantation lodge.
Day 7: Kai woke up early and toured the tea plantation at sun rise. We then both explored the lush fields. Being in the midst of the tea plants was a scene right out of National Geographic and both of us spent ample time ascending and descending the steep hills. Our guest house was also home to a furry creature and Kai once again found a new friend. We bade farewell to the area after a brief tour of the Nuwara Eliya, which included sampling local spirits at the terrace bar. We left early as we had to make a lot of distance to reach Colombo (via Nanu Oya) by way of the tourist-friendly “expo train”, with the goal of hunting down the out the elusive “Crabzilla” (2+ kg Sri Lankan mud crab) at the Ministry of Crab Restaurant. Sadly the Crabzilla was sold out before we got there, but we still did manage to order lesser massive crabs for our dinner that night.
Day 8: We left Colombo that morning after some shopping in the rain (yes, we picked monsoon season to visit) and made it to Negombo by bus. There we took in a stroll alongside the beach and got an appreciation of the strength of the Indian Ocean. Our final final dinner was once again a seafood affair and we both relished our last taste of the local beer before heading back to our mosquito-infested guest house. Not the best way to finish the trip, but it did make the night memorable.
Day 9: Negombo to Dubai. All good things come to an end, and so it was with our Sri Lank trip. But it was not so much that our trip came to an end, but rather that we took a pause before our next adventure there.
© Natural Born Vagabond, 2016