Arriving in Colombo
Our first impressions of Colombo, Sri Lanka were not good – heat, dust, traffic and the usual city mayhem. Furthermore, the city didn’t appear to possess any redeeming features. Mount Lavinia, however, was an oasis situated on the edge of the city and that was where we headed. There we spent the afternoon on the white sandy beach drinking cocktails.
The following day we headed to Kandy. The bus station was chaotic. Our first Sri Lankan bus took us through small towns and tropical scenery, passing fruit stalls that lined the roads.
Taken for a Ride by Unscrupulous Tuk Tuk Drivers
The tuk tuk driver who picked us up in Kandy was the first of many who attempted to rip us off. In fact we were eventually worn down by unscrupulous tuk tuk drivers. Indeed, it was a relief to have a day when we didn’t need to depend on them for their services. Of course, not all of them were rip-off merchants, but too many times we were taken for a ride (and not to where we wanted to go!)
The irony was that generally the Sri Lankan people were the friendliest we had ever met. Passers-by would smile and say hello everywhere we went. On the buses, other passengers would often strike up conversation and go out of their way to help.
Elephants and Monkeys Galore
Kandy is a large bustling city by a lake. Our days were spent visiting the Temple of the Tooth (where the tooth of Buddha is said to be enshrined) and hiking in a nearby forest. We also visited Pinnewala Elephant Sanctuary and explored the downtown area. Our guesthouse was high in the hills overlooking the lake. In our room there was a sign directing us to keep all windows closed so that monkeys would not climb in.
The Ancient Ruins of Polonnaruwa
From Kandy, we headed north to Polonnaruwa, an ancient city where we spent a day cycling between the Buddha’s, ruins and temples. Whilst resting by a lake, we were almost attacked by a swarm of wasps (not for the last time in Sri Lanka!) It was a great day (apart from the wasps).
Disneyland for Buddhists
A short bus ride took us to Dambulla, home of the world-famous Golden Buddha, a kind of Disneyland for Buddhists. The huge Golden Buddha dwarfed a row of brightly coloured plastic monks and beneath it was a Buddhist museum. There was also a cave temple, which we walked up about a thousand steps to visit (well, it felt like a thousand steps!) When we finally got to the top, we were told that we should have bought our tickets at ground level. Unfortunately, we never got to see the Cave Temple!
Sigiriya – A Huge Hunk of Rock
Our main purpose in visiting Dambulla was to use it as a base to get to Sigiriya, which is one of Sri Lanka’s most famous sites. The ancient rock fortress, standing above the landscape, is an impressive hunk of rock. The climb to the top was via a network of metal steps. At the summit we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.
A Slice of Surrey in Sri Lanka
We then retraced our route back to Kandy, where we changed buses. We left the heat of the lowlands and wound our way up into the mountains. After a few hours travelling through the misty, drizzly tea plantations, we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, a former British hill station. Nuwara Eliya was home to a race course, a well -kept park complete with rose garden, a lake and and an array of manicured gardens.
We stayed at a hotel reminiscent of Faulty Towers. We had to order dinner three hours in advance. As we waited in the dining room, there was much clanking of pans and shouting prior to the presentation of a not terribly good dinner. Luckily, I had purchased some brightly coloured Sri Lankan sweet treats at the bazaar earlier in the day. The rainy British-style weather soon drove us out and we set off for Arugam Bay on the south coast.
Getting around in Sri Lanka
Our route was somewhat convoluted and included three buses, an overnight stay in Badulla and a tuk tuk through a National Park. (As a matter of fact, this is not recommended due to possible attacks by wild elephants!)
Sri Lanka is not set up for independent travellers. Most visitors stay in all-inclusive resorts. When travelling on the buses, we were usually the only foreigners and were somewhat of a novelty. Usually, the destinations shown on front of the buses were in Tamil. In a big bus station, it was no easy task finding the right bus. Usually, somebody would help and we did eventually manage to get to where we wanted to go. Some of the buses were like nightclubs – at the front of bus coloured lights flashed around a Buddhist shrine in time to the high decibel music.
Beach Bumming at Arugam Bay
We made it to Arugam Bay where we found a cabana to rent on the beach. Not only did it have a porch overlooking the ocean, but three friendly dogs. The Seashore Resort consisted of several cabanas, but we were the only guests there for most of the time. We soon got to know the staff. Jack was English and was working there for a couple of months. He had ridden across Mongolia on horseback and more recently worked in Australia. There were three Sri Lankan guys including the chef who conjured up some delicious fresh fish dishes.
We had been travelling pretty intensely, so it was nice to relax, do some reading, study Spanish and listen to music on the porch. We took walks along the beach, discovered ruins in the sands, swung in the hammock (until it unfortunately collapsed!) and tried the local restaurants.
One of the guys at the Seashore was a smiley character known as Crazy Crab and had lost his father in the tsunami. Of course, many people in Arugam Bay had been badly affected and the town was only just getting back to normal.
We were shocked when Jack came back from his daily swim to tell us that one of the locals had said that following an earthquake in Indonesia, Arugam Bay had received a tsunami warning.
Within minutes, we received a message that the beach was being evacuated. We grabbed our backpacks and a few essentials. Haroom, the manager from the Seashore, loaded us into a tuk tuk, telling the driver where he lived, so that we could take refuge there. Haroom was going to follow on his bicycle. His house was not on higher ground (as we understood it should be when attempting to escape a tsunami!) but further inland. Apparently though, it was safe there when the big tsunami hit, so it was good enough for us.
Sri Lankan Hospitality
We arrived before Haroom, and his family welcomed us in. It was a slightly strange situation as we had never met, but they were very friendly despite a language barrier. There was a lot of nodding and smiling going on! The neighbours all came out to look at us through the windows too. Tea and biscuits appeared immediately, and we sat down to watch the tsunami updates on TV.
Haroom and his wife had two little girls who were very amused by the pictures we took of them on our cameras. We were there for several hours before we got the all clear. Following a delicious meal, we headed back to the still deserted beach. After what had happened in Arugam Bay previously, tsunami warnings had to be taken very seriously.
On our last night, we enjoyed a great meal under the stars, washed down by a glass or two of arak, the local brew. Everyone had been really hospitable and it was a lovely end to our stay in Arugam Bay.
A Convoluted Journey and an Unplanned Destination!
We left on Buddhist New Year (not the wisest choice) and waited by the roadside for a bus that never came. It had been difficult enough to get there on a normal day! We eventually found ourselves in Tangella (not our intended destination!) after two tuk tuks and three buses.
Wildlife Spotting at Yala National Park
Tangella had a few scenic bays, but not enough to keep us there for long, so we made our way to Yala National Park, where we would take a safari. We were lucky enough to see an array of wildlife – elephants, monitor lizards, crocodiles, exotic birds, mongoose, deer, warthogs and a leopard lounging in a tree.
A Crocodile on the Beach!
We followed the south coast road and spent a few days in Matara. While we were there, a thirteen-foot crocodile had somehow found its way to the ocean from the inland river network and was swimming along by the beach! The crocodile catchers arrived and most of the town came out to watch the action. Using some kind of rope and hoop set-up, the crocodile was finally caught and apparently taken to Yala National Park. This exciting news made the Sri Lankan national newspaper the next day.
Galle – A Town within a Fort
A little further along the coast, we hit Galle – a town within a fort by-the-sea. It was an interesting and historical place and pretty unique. Being a fort, it had been well protected from the tsunami and survived intact, unlike most of the Sri Lankan coast. From the walls of the fort, you could see the international cricket ground. From our room, we could watch the ocean lapping against the fort walls and there were great sunset views from the roof terrace.
Our last stop was Negombo, just north of Colombo, where we stayed at a fifties style hotel on the beach. We took a walk along the beach, but the hassle from the vendors was constant, so we returned to our retro abode to enjoy the facilities and watch a movie or two before catching our flight to Nepal.