At 34, I’m older than most to be making my first trip to Asia. Where better to start for a relatively easy way in than Sri Lanka? The country has been a highly popular destination for several years now and was recommended to me by several of my friends. Here are my impressions after a month’s visit with my girlfriend, conveniently simplified into a list of “highs” and “lows”.
Before setting off, one of my biggest fears about the adventure I was about to embark on was the near certainty of being killed by a snake. I’d read many a forum sharing the ludicrously high figures of snake deaths in the country (proportionally the highest in the world), the number of species that could finish me off, the lack of functional anti-venom with which to treat a bite from a Russell’s Viper etc. As it turns out, I was very excited on the two occasions I actually did see a snake whilst there (within an hour of each other, bizarrely) and didn’t feel at all threatened.
Learning to share our bedroom with a spider the size of my hand was also, believe it or not, a fun experience. Creeping up on crocodiles, hanging out in a little stream, more scared of us than we were of them (even though they outnumbered us 26 to 2) was a thrilling experience to say the least. As for watching wild elephants cross Pottuvil Lagoon at sunset…
The point is, there are animals absolutely everywhere in Sri Lanka. They come in all shapes and sizes and are a source of consant delight. Except, of course, the mosquitos…
To describe Sri Lanka as a beautiful island doesn’t begin to do it justice. Never have I stood on a peak to be presented with quite so much unspoilt green in every direction. It offers a bit of everything (jungle, sandy beaches, pine forests, mountain ranges, deserts, waterfalls…). As advertised, the countryside is simply breathtaking.
I have to give a special mention to the country’s least thought about religious group. We found the warmest welcomes, most sincere offers of help (receiving directions from a tuk-tuk driver who doesn’t even try convincing you to get in would be a strong example), least hassle from touts and perhaps even the best food, in muslim areas of the country. Greeting people with “Salam Alaykum” was met with genuine pleasure everywhere we went. We did have to pretend to be married though, which led more than once to having to justify why we didn’t yet have any children (I suspect my validity as a man was being particularly scrutinised at those times).
A Sri Lankan breakfast is a force to be reckoned with and a delicious one at that! You’re unlikely to need your lunchtime rice and curry if you take advantage of the full spread on offer at many of the homestays. You’re likely to be presented with your daily five portions (and more) of fruit, along with a couple of egg hoppers (Sri Lankan pancakes), a curry, coconut sambol and a selection of sweet pancake coconut and palm treacle wraps.
Children rush out of their houses to wave at you and say “hi” pretty much everywhere you go (unless you’re in a very touristy area, where some of them revert to the less delightful “school pen?” or “10 rupees?”). They are almost always dressed in their school uniforms, no matter what day of the week it is and are nearly always immaculately polite. Their smiles often leave you with the feeling that seeing a Western face has truly made their day.
Hire a scooty (scooter to the rest of us) and hit the back roads! No need to know where you’re going, you will reliably come across luscious vegetation, friendly locals and creatures galore in relative tranquility. What’s more, you will come across…
How very pleasing it is to go to a restaurant where nobody speaks English in a scruffy little town you find along the way on your adventures, eat one of the nicest meals you’ll have during your whole trip and then get charged a shockingly small amount of money for it. People are delighted with your efforts at speaking the 8 words you’ve learnt in Sinhalese/Tamil and you inevitably leave with a smug smile on your face.
It seems every society has its own variation of tasty moist food wrapped in dry portable food. The potato triangle “short eat” is a very high-scoring member of this genre. It’s a spicy potato mix wrapped up in a pancake. We did try a couple of dud ones, but generally they are an excellent way to keep yourself happy on a long (and often terrifying) bus journey, or your energy levels high on a sweaty hike.
We were apprehensive before we arrived in the “surfer resort” of Arugam Bay. We needn’t have been. We went in low-season and found the place nearly deserted. Prices were shockingly low, food was great, the beaches almost empty and there was next to no hassle from touts. We later found a similar situation in Uppaveli (next to Trinco, another highlight). The experience reminded me that touristy places are often celebrated for a reason. In the case of Arugam Bay, it’s a gorgeous beach, surrounded by amazing countryside and quiet roads from which wild elephants can be spotted. I’m sure in high season the place would be unbearable, but catch it when it’s quiet and it’s heavenly.
Many of the places we stayed were staffed by people so warm I thought they (or I) might melt at any moment. One family, who owned the guesthouse we stayed in outside Kandy, couldn’t have done more to make us feel at home short of actually adopting us.
Extortionate Entry Fees at Popular Tourist Sites
As a keen urban explorer, I’m drawn to ruins like a magnet. What better, then, than the dreamlike wonder of Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities? Well… I wouldn’t know. Despite being in the area, we flat-out refused to pay 25 dollars for the privilage of visiting them. The same can be said of all the national parks (where we’d have been presented with the added expense of hiring a jeep and driver) and the country’s biggest draw Sigiriya Rock, which costs 30 dollars per person to climb. (We climbed its neighbour Pidurangala Rock for 700 rupees for both of us, which was wonderful). We spoke to a great number of tourists who’d also avoided all of the above sites for the same reason. In our case, I’m certain we’d have visited several of them if the price was a third of what it was, which would have meant our spending considerably more money than we did. I know we’re not the only ones to think this way, meaning that the country’s losing out as a result of this policy of charging the Earth.
“Where you going”/”Where you from?”
Many Sri Lankans are delightfully nice people, who’d I’d love to have a conversation with, Unfortunately, very few of those are the ones that start conversations with you in the street. Rather, those that do are invariably going to try and get you into their tuk-tuk/shop/restaurant/spice garden/animal sanctuary/dance show. In touristy places such as Kandy and Ella we found this to be pretty much unbearable. A nice relaxing walk around Kandy Lake does not exist.
The side with all the traffic is considerably calmer as far as touts go, but then you’ve got the traffic fumes. Next to the Temple of the Tooth we were bombarded with “offers” to visit the local dance show and met with hostility when we declined (“walking, walking, always fucking walking” seethed one previously friendly old man), We’re led to believe that Buddhism teaches us to root ourselves in the present moment, wherever we are and whatever is happening. However, this teaching doesn’t seem to have reached the tuk-tuk drivers, who believe that you couldn’t possibly be happy where you are and that you simply must want to get in their vehicle and be taken somewhere else, where you can alight only to be met with another crowd desperately trying to move you on to yet another destination. One tuk-tuk driver even ran up to the window of the bus we were on shouting “Hello sir! Arugam Bay?”, yep, that’s why we’re on this bus to exactly there…
Perhaps it’s one the lows of my personality that finding it difficult to get hold of a beer caused me stress. I’m happy to accept that it is. That said, I’m sure there’s something worth criticising in Sri Lanka’s relationship with alcohol. If, like me, you would like to have the odd beer of an evening, you’ll find yourself buying it through a cage in a back street surrounded by alcoholics drinking strong liquor straight from the bottle. These poor souls seem to spend all day hovering underneath the green and white signs that mark the possibility of buying some booze. Pushed aside by the rest of society, I’m not surprised they hit the bottle hard. I should say, the richer members of society don’t have the same issue. If you visit a wine shop in an up-market part of one of the bigger cities, you will even be allowed into the shop (!), no cage to be seen, AND you might even find the odd woman there!
This really was a particular annoyance. I have a very attractive girlfriend and am used to men looking at her. But there’s looking and then there’s looking and unfortunately far too much of what goes on in Sri Lanka falls into this second category. Men gawped at women, mostly, but not exclusively, Western women, in a way that makes the stomach churn. Constant calls from passers by on the roads, shameless looking up and down, motorcycle drivers even lifted their visors as they passed to catch a better look. We’re currently in India, which has a worse reputation for this particular short-coming, but after Sri Lanka it seems like a feminist’s paradise! And no… it’s not just a case of covering up. You could go out wearing a sack and fall victim of this unwanted attention. Some places were worse than others, it must be said. As far as I could tell, the East Coast is considerably better on this count. Negombo was the worst…
Oh my word… the driving…
I could make a list of sub-sections of all the horrendous aspects of the driving that would justify an article all to themselves. Only in a country where the vast majority of the population believe in reincarnation could it be possible to drive with such disregard for human life. Clearly though, reincarnation is the only part of Buddhist or Hindu teaching that’s made it onto the road. From what I could tell, no Sri Lankan driver has ever even tried meditation, no matter how many Buddha statues adorn his (I didn’t see a single female driver in a month) vehicle! People are impatient beyond belief. In cities, traffic is slowed down, almost to a halt, by the horizontal game of leap-frog being played. If everyone just stuck to their own lane, things would be considerably faster, but the mentality is, “I don’t care how long this takes, as long as I reach my destination before anyone I can see immediately in front of me does”.
When on the open road you suddenly find that a four by four or bus (the two worst offenders in a very very guilty crowd) is hurtling towards you at an unthinkable speed on your side of the road. People overtake wherever and whenever they please, especially if they’re driving a heavier vehicle and are therefore less likely to be the one that pays the ultimate price for their actions. They will start writing text messages whilst overtaking on a corner, forgetting they’re on the wrong side of the road up until they realise they’re about to be involved in a collision. Making you jump while you ride your “scooty” is considered a thoroughly entertaining pastime. Several people drew up next to us and then shouted in our ears “where you from?” (including an ambulance driver). One man pretended to fall into our path as we passed to force us to swerve to avoid him. A couple of police officers whistled aggressively at us, only to laugh at us and wave when we jumped at the noise. One tuk-tuk driver overtook us, beeping like his life depended on it, only to stop directly in front of us to have a chat with a friend at the side of the road, almost causing us to crash into the back of him. The driving is frankly idiotic. One hour on the road requires a series of positive experiences with friendly people just to reset your opinion of Sri Lankans to something more forgiving.
Where There’s Smoke…
There’s fire, all over the place. And where there’s fire that comes from burning plastic, the smoke it produces is about as horrid as smoke can be! The aforementioned beautiful countryside is blighted by this relentless burning. It makes you want to grab hold of people and shake them, demanding to know how they don’t realise how much nicer their environment would be if they’d only dispose of their rubbish in a cleaner way.
About the writer: Dave Noakes joined the backpacker scene rather later than most. Having spent 13 years in Barcelona, he set off for Asia for the first time at age 34. At this ripe old age you’ll be more likely to find him in a half-moon pose than at a full-moon party. That’s not to say he doesn’t still enjoy a beer or two… Dave studied Jazz at Leeds College of Music. He is still a keen musician, making music that could only be described as “not to all tastes” under the guise of Chopper Dave. He also has a healthy interest in urban exploration. You can follow his photo-adventures on Instagram as Urbex Appeal. In Asia he will be looking for delicious food, abandoned buildings, nature in all its forms and, of course, spiritual enlightenment.