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Trip summary: Sri Lanka

12 days in Sri Lanka was way too short. The taste of spicy rice & curries and fresh coconut, the smell of burning incense, the sound of the kottu rotti man and the bakery tuk tuk as well as the rhythm of Sri Lankan music on public buses are most welcomed assaults to the senses…

Sri Lankan flag

Ayubowan! (‘Hi’ in Sinhalese)

12 days in Sri Lanka was way too short. The taste of spicy rice & curries and fresh coconut, the smell of burning incense, the sound of the kottu rotti man and the bakery tuk tuk as well as the rhythm of Sri Lankan music on public buses are most welcomed assaults to the senses. The two things I will not miss: the dirty looks from men and annoyance from tuk tuk drivers. My last 12 days were completely foreign to what I lived in other countries thus far, and here’s a summary of it…

Kandy

I landed in the capital city of Colombo at 11pm on 17 November. A night in a local guesthouse and I was on the train the next morning heading to the centre of the country called the Hills district, more precisely to the old capital of Kandy. The scenery from the train throughout the Hills region is beautiful: mountains of tea plantations; small and larger villages with concrete houses and tile or tin roofs; on the rocks heated by the sun next to the train tracks, villagers lay out their washing; people play cricket; the odd cow walks by… Inside the train, snack merchants jump on board at stations to sell their ‘wadi, wadi, wadi’ (lentil patties) and the odd beggar sings a song to make a few coins.

Kandy is a city. It has a nice lake, temples and a forest not recommended for women walking alone… I’ve seen plenty of temples and I’m not so interested by the city life, so I stay there one night and jump on another train the next morning. I was planning on going to Adam’s Peak, an apparently ‘must do’ experience in Sri Lanka where you climb 5,000 steps at night to reach the peak of the highest mountain at sunrise. Unfortunately, I’m a week too early with my trip… The pilgrimage season starts on 27 November and I can’t do the walk out of season. Bummer! :( So instead, I choose to go to Horton Plains National Park, which has a beautiful landscape.

Ohiya & Horton Plains National Park

On the train to Ohiya (the village next to Horton Plains National Park), I meet two Germans travelling together: Martin and Lena. They’re lovely and as the three of us want to go to the national park the next morning, we decide to travel together.

Ohiya is tiny: one shop which also has three bedrooms and serves food. The family is very nice and they cook superb food, but the rooms… the rooms…! Speechless! It was the most disgusting place where I’ve ever slept. It stank, it was mouldy, dirty and all. We didn’t dare having a shower and if I could have slept while standing, it would have been the perfect option. Alas, no other choice! It made for a good laugh between my travel companions and me. We also met there a really nice couple from France and we joined forces (and wallets!) the five of us for our visit to Horton Plains National Park the following morning.

The 9-km walk was beautiful: the early sun shining on the dewy grass, running creeks, misty valleys, a big waterfall… and World’s End! Yes, I’ve been to the end of the world! :) World’s End is a place in the park that gives onto a big cliff with valleys down below and more mountains across. The guesthouse had prepared breakfast packages for us all which we ate when we reached World’s End at 8am. It was so serene and blissful.

Ella

Our Horton Plains walk done, none of us was going to stay one minute longer in Ohiya. Martin was heading back towards Colombo to catch a flight for Australia (see you in February mate!), the couple was pursuing their journey west and as for me, I was heading east. Lena decided to join me and became my travel companion for my whole stay in Sri Lanka. Despite our 10 years difference (I’m older), we got along like a house on fire. She’s such a gorgeous, thoughtful, generous, interesting and fun person to be with (Lena – if you read this… you’re simply awesome – to read with an Australian accent! ;)).

Ella is a peaceful village also in the Hills district of Sri Lanka where we stayed three nights. Our first day was all about relaxation (travelling isn’t all about action… we need to relax at times too!). We met an American guy and an Austrian one travelling together who joined us for meals, walks and the likes. The next day at 6am, we headed to Little Adam’s Peak (if I couldn’t go to the big one, I wouldn’t miss out on Ella’s smaller version of it!). The view was beautiful: tea plantations, sharp mountains, valleys and trees down below which looked like a movie backdrop. Back in town and after breakfast, we went on our second trek of the day to Ella Rock for some more stunning scenery (this one had spooky misty forests of gum trees in addition to the mountains and valleys). Six and a half hours of trekking for the day and feeling great!

For our last morning, Lena and I went to a local tea plantations, Kinellan Tea Estate, to learn how to pluck tea. Those women can work everyday from 8am to 4pm, with a big pouch hanging on their back from a rope that goes around their head. It’s hard work, but you see them go at the tea bushes so energetically and fast, shouting stories across the field and exchanging big red smiles from the betel they chew on. What about men, you ask? They supervise, standing there and doing what seemed to us like nothing! Gender equality hasn’t made it to anywhere in Asia, I can tell you that!

Tissa & Yala National Park

After our tea plucking experience, we jump on the bus to reach Tissa on the east coast of Sri Lanka. Being on a Sri Lankan bus is an experience in itself: the bus barely stops so people run and jump on the step of the back door; there’s loud Sri Lankan music playing; on the front wall is a gold and black frame of Buddha pictures illuminated with red, yellow, blue and green flashing lights; snack, image and book merchants jump on board at various stops to sell their stuff, and of course, they’ll fit as many people in – sitting and standing – as possible.

The reason for our visit to Tissa: one-day safari in the jungle of Yala National Park. It’s 5am and Lena and I jump at the back of the 35-year old Land Rover (the back is wide open, a bit like a ute). Dinesh is our guide for the day, a 27-year old local who’s been going on safaris with his dad since he was a kid and alone for the past 10 years. He absolutely loves it. We drive through the dark streets to arrive at the park entrance at the same time as the sunrise. It’s peaceful and beautiful. We drive past some buffaloes swimming in a hole and a crocodile on the side of a puddle (which other safari guides fail to see and stop for… our guide is ashamed by the poor quality of safari operators!). We stop to look at an eagle when suddenly, Dinesh tells us to sit down as we need to hurry. He then drives like a madman through the dirt roads, with the febrility of a teenager who’s about to see his girlfriend for the first time. We all laugh together and get taken away by the excitement of the moment. Dinesh finally explains that the leopard has been spotted! Aha! The famous leopard every tourist wants to see and every guide wants to find! He is there, Mr Leopard, lying on the rightly named ‘Leopard’s rock’, far enough from the annoyance of tourists, but close enough for us to see his head. He’s a big, impressive, beautiful male. There are about 20 Jeeps packed full of tourists trying to take a peek at it and a photo of the star. After a while, Mr Leopard has had enough and decides to leave behind the rock.

We drive through the dirt tracks of the park the whole day, spotting colourful birds, a range of lizards, two types of deer, wild pigs, wild and domestic buffaloes, monkeys, elephants and other local creatures. We then have our most exciting encounter of the day: a big tusker elephant. We’re the only Jeep about. Mr Elephant starts walking towards us. I turn the video camera on. He keeps walking, and walking. OMG! He’s so close now! WOW! He puts his trunk at the back of the car with us! Aaaah! Our hearts are racing; we’re a tiny little bit scared (he so could mash us to bits… and he’s a wild elephant, remember!), but sooooo excited! Our guide is just as thrilled as us. We’re like kids at Christmas. The elephant starts to leave, but our guide throws bananas at him (ok, he wasn’t allowed to do that!). The whole experience is phenomenal and the whole day is worth these last few minutes. Incredible!

At lunch, cheeky monkeys jump in our Jeep (which we’re out of at this stage) to steal pineapple scraps and rotti leftovers from breakfast. There are probably a dozen of them snacking on the car… such a funny scene!

It’s time to head home… Unfortunately, just to put a damper on the end of the day, we get a flat tyre! We can sense the annoyance of our guide but he’s also so concerned about us he keeps asking if we’re ok. Hey, flat tyres happen… and it’s ok! What annoyed me the most was to see all these cars driving past us without offering any assistance whatsoever to Dinesh. Rude! Anyway, we finally make it home to a quick dinner and bedtime.

Unawatuna

Beach, here we come! We opted for Unawatuna on the south west coast of the country which is meant to be smaller (less touristy) than the other bigger beaches. It’s nice, but the beach is very narrow as a result of the tsunami that badly hit this town in 2004. It is quite touristy, but still a nice place to stay which we do for four nights. The next few days were spent swimming and lying on the beach, walking and running, shopping for souvenirs, visiting neighbouring town Galle (much bigger and with a fort built by the Dutch in the 17th century… it feels as if we were in Europe!), getting a massage, doing a Sri Lankan cooking class and eating! Ooh! Eating… it was pure indulgence! We found our favourite restaurant and visited it probably 6 or 7 times! The cook was so friendly and welcoming and his food (including his sugar-free cakes) divine! Lena and I also had deep and interesting discussions on everything and anything… patience, passion, trust, religion… name it! Our philosophical selves got involved! Every full moon is a public holiday in Sri Lanka and Buddhists celebrate ‘Poya Day’. So on ‘Poya Day’, Lena and I visited a local temple where hundreds of local families gathered to pray, burn candles and bring offerings. It was nice to see so much harmony, yet at the same time kids and teenagers playing and laughing.

On 29 November in the morning, I said a sad goodbye to Lena to jump on a bus towards Negombo, where I stayed for the night before heading to the airport.

The ‘towel mission’

The ‘towel mission’ isn’t a place, but a game Lena and I played. Sitting outside our room in Ella, we had the idea of starting a chain of exchanges to see what we would get at the end of it, hoping for some free food! It all started with Lena’s towel she was travelling with which she was more than happy to give away. We visited a local Ella restaurant, explained our game to the lady and exchanged the towel for a picture/placemat of a tiger. In Tissa, we managed to exchanged our picture and were given nail polish. In Unawatuna, the nail polish became a small bottle of stinky perfume which was then exchanged for rope made of coconut. There was one day left to my trip with Lena, which was meant to mark the completion of our game. So we had one exchange to go… As I was writing in my diary and thinking about the game, I had the idea of making our mission much more fulfilling… of giving it a charitable angle! Rather than trying to get free food for our last item, I said why not give our last item to a person in need, a poorer person. During my whole trip in Sri Lanka I was wondering how I could make a small contribution to this country, how I could make someone smile… But I hadn’t read about, seen or heard of organisations I could help like I did in other countries of Asia. So there I was, creating the opportunity myself! We loved the idea and were so excited to see what our last item would be and who we’d be giving it to! We visited our favourite Unawatuna restaurant for our last exchange and the cook was so happy to help. He seemed also so excited that we thought he must have thought of a very good item for us to give to a person in need. We were a little bit disappointed to see that his item was only a glass…! So we decided to go to the shop and fill up the glass with some soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and chocolate bar. Much better! We then headed to a street where we were told there were poorer people and found this lovely old woman who no doubt was surprised to see two foreign girls giving her a gift. We gave her the glass, showed sign of respect by touching her foot, smiled and said goodbye. She looked at us with her big one-toothed smile, said ‘bohome istuti’ (thank you very much), blessed us and stood there with the glass in her hand as we left. Lena and I had just grown wings… We felt so incredibly happy! The ‘towel mission’ was a success!
That’s it for Sri Lanka. Next destination: Nepal.