Welcome to the island nation known as the Pearl of the Orient. The tiny but fierce island will challenge you to explore its rich history, its modern side, its seemingly endless beaches, and even more endless twisty roads. You will be immersed into a culture that on the surface resembles that of India, but has its own indelible history that will separate it, in your mind and heart, from the rest of the world. Food will be a pervasive theme on your voyage to find your reason d’etre in Sri Lanka. You will find few of the island delicacies pass your pallet with a whimper as they either excite or surprise you, but rarely disappoint. Vegetarians and vegans can delight in the variety of fruits and vegetables available at even the humblest of stands in the remote corners of the country. Eating your way around Sri Lanka is certainly one way to explore this country of ten thousand temples.
Sri Lanka, a place that has been known by many names, Ceylon, Serendip, Eelan, does not do anything quietly. It may be a small player on the world stage, but the 20+ million inhabitants of this island all have their part to play in the chaos and symphony of this nation – and certainly their influence on us travellers allows them to reach much further than their own shores.
We aim only to give a high level view of our travels of Sri Lanka, as we spent 6 weeks (during 2 visits) exploring and living in the communities around the island, as we could not do justice to a full post on the entire nation without writing a novel few of you would read! The M’s had many adventures in Sri Lanka, from safaris (yes we did 2!), to beaches, to markets, to hikes to scenic vistas, to just sitting back and talking with people who were from there. We experienced a lot of what Sri Lanka had to offer, but there was so much more. Six weeks in Sri Lanka is probably only akin to listening to the first track on a box LP set – but it was a start for us and gave us a great taste of life in the Indian Ocean.
The First Week
Our arrival in Sri Lanka was as the sun was setting and the evening ritual for the animal and human inhabitants of the island began. The cacophony of birds echoed around the airport tarmack as airplane door opened and the jungle surrounding us made it seem like we landed back in time. A blast of heat after exiting the over chilled air plane left us with lungs gasping ever so slightly for breath, but eyes and minds already filled with wonder and anticipation. Naively we were descending into the heart of the empire, the centre of the island nation’s chaos – Colombo, with nary an idea of what to expect.
The exit from the airport was smooth, but not quick. The customs agents, as per the usual, seemed to relish in watching the masses languish in lines snaking along the smooth tiled corridor. They moved with the urgency of a snake digesting its latest dinner, knowing that the line was never ending; always replenished by plane load after plane load of wide eyed foreigners in search of their self or, at the least, a few dozen Instagram worthy photos to make their friends or mates back home jealous.
After being spit out into the arrivals hall after collecting our baggage, we did the usual dance of avoiding the taxi touts and money exchange booths, searching for the required ATM to dispense to us our saved up cash for the highly anticipated visit. An hour or so later, cash and new mobile sim card in hand, we negotiated our way into a taxi to our guesthouse. The guesthouse was on the south side of Colombo, near the other airport, while the airport we just arrived into was on the north side. A seasoned veteran of Sri Lankan travel would have probably avoided this situation, but alas, we were but a new born into the world of Ceylon, and knew not of what awaited. Our previous journeys in India had prepared us for the potentials – but we had been assured that this would not be the same. We hoped, and then jumped in and waited to see what would happen. The first hour of our voyage of approximately 45 km to the guesthouse was spent mostly staring at the dark and watching as pedestrians passed our barely moving van. Hour two was spent mostly doing the same – with the youngest of our daughters finally succumbing to her requirement for sleep, and passing out gently in the backseat of the overheated, slightly dilapidated (ok, who am I kidding – barely roadworthy) taxi van. The constant hum of the motor at idle and the harmonious and incessant sounding of the car horns were more than she could handle after a long day of flying. Luckily we only flew for 4.5 hours from Dubai to get to Sri Lanka, but it was too much for a 4 year old to handle without much sleep. Hour three – will we even get there? I think I saw the same man with a cane who was walking back near the airport pass us. Hour four – yes, seriously, we finally arrive. A 45 km ride taking almost 4 hours was not an anomaly, but a foreshadow of our road adventures to come.
Our first sampling of the local hospitality left us with high hopes that our family adventures here in the jewel of Asia were going to be epic. The first host was inviting and thoughtful, as he had prepared a light snack for us on arrival. Of course it was way too spicy for our daughters to even look at, but the thought was there. With a rejuvenated spirit we quickly checked out our accommodations for the first two nights of our stay in Sri Lanka and then headed off to find some additional sustenance to allow us to survive til morning. Luckily a great local place, just across the rail tracks, on the beach was still open and happily serving the hungry locals and tourists alike.
The first two days were calm – beach, food, relax, repeat. Oh, and more food in there somewhere. We tried new and exciting dishes, things we didn’t know existed like kottu roti. The smells and textures had us eager for more; but soon it was off to our next location, one that we booked the night before and that was to be our home for the next month – the eco-house on the northwest coast; a mere 150 km up the coast.
Arrival at the Eco-House
The Uber driver pulled over about 1 km down the dirt road leading to our next destination. The car, a slightly larger Honda Fit than available in North America, couldn’t make it any further. The ruts and pot holes (although that isn’t really a fitting description, as they were more like mini road lakes) were too much for the little Japanese import and its 5 cm of ground clearance when fully loaded with 4 travellers and their bags. The driver had gotten us the 150 km from our last place to here in a non-record setting 5.5 hours. It was a long, long ride. Luckily our last kilometer was a track well known by a local tuk-tuk driver, Ali, who had been coordinated by the home owner to meet us and guide us to the place, as it was not easy to find. Ali, who did his absolute best in trying to communicate with us, often resulting in both sides laughing a bit as we tried to figure out what each meant, did a couple trips to grab us and our bags, ferrying them and us to the house. Our Uber driver seemed slightly less than pleased about our location, but did the normal Sri Lankan thing and slightly nodded his head to the side, then was off, back to Colombo.
The first glimpse of the eco-house was through the open side of the tuk-tuk as it puttered its way into the gated yard. A small concrete structure dotted with what appeared to be plastic bottles embedded in the concrete stood off to one side of a decent sized yard, mostly filled with what seemed like crops, with not much else filling in the gaps around. A large beach dune imposed itself into the horizon 100 m or so to the west, a small line of dense jungle vegetation separating us from that dune. We came to love and hate that dune over the next few weeks, as it signified both a healthy beach environment but an obstacle to conquer each time we ventured forth to enjoy the coast. Our oldest daughter came to name it the ‘dune of doom’ as it was our routine to often voyage over the dune some time during the heat of day – a journey filled with sweat, sand, and mosquitos, and for her, the potential for the encounters with spiders made it that much worse!
The interior of the eco-house was not exactly completely spartan of amenities, I mean it had a bed (yes, one, big enough for 4), a bench, a bookshelf, a huge spider, a fridge, and a huge overhead fan, that did little but move the dust around – as we would, with great despair, find out on our first night, but it most certainly was not luxury. A basic life was to be had here and we were in for it. The sleeping situation became one of a large family style bed – we all shared and sweated equally, passing into the sleep each night after reaching a point of heat exhaustion.
An outdoor kitchen and bathroom rounded out the experience, with a lanai/porch area available for both eating and entertaining. Our adventure began at the eco-house in early December, continued through Christmas and New Years, and included many a day spent traversing the dune of doom to the beach and writing a few of the precursors to this blog. A trip to town here and there, oh and a trip to the hospital were also part of the eco-house experience; as we learned soon after arriving that the no-see-ums certainly do like to bite – and infection sets in easy in the humidity! All is well now, so no worries there! So after this experience we learned that our daily routine required change, so each day we applied a liberal amount of sunscreen and insect repellent before venturing forth out of the house – it was a must! Spending time outside also included the use of a stand up fan and mosquito coils at all times.
We honestly only made it through the weeks in the house because of the help of Sureka. Sureka, a local woman hired to help cook, get food and run errands, and clean around the house was a savior. She helped us figure out how things worked in the area, told us not to expect too much to happen around Poya, and helped us to develop a taste for real Sri Lankan cooking and food. Every breakfast and dinner she made was painstakingly thought out and prepared with care. Curries, dahls, papadams, naan, fish, veggies, rice, chapatti, coconut pancakes, pastas, everything for us and our kids was fresh and ready when we asked. It was a veritable selection of Sri Lankan delicacies that adorned the table each day, with favourites on repeat on request. A favourite of one of us, not to be named, was a dahl that showed up day in and out on the breakfast menu. It was delicious the first few times, but wore its way off the must-have list for the rest of us after a few days; either way, the effort to accommodate us whenever we asked was there, and she was an absolute necessity for staying, and worth every penny we paid to her. She was also lovely and brought her youngest son with her several times. Though he did not speak any English, he really liked playing with the girls and it was fun to watch them run around.
Christmas and New Years (and a birthday!)
A tropical Christmas was a new experience for the girls. They knew little outside of rain and cold at Christmas, except a couple of years ago where the white stuff made a rare appearance at this time of year. We did our best to prepare our daughters for the Christmas away and in the remote location – as it wasn’t going to be the usual present filled experience they have seen so far. We have always emphasized the importance of family time over presents, but we certainly weren’t going to completely eliminate the experience for them this year. Santa made his requisite visit and left a few small toys to delight the kiddos; however, the bigger part of this was spending time making and decorating the few ornaments we hung on a small tropical bush growing in front of the house. Of course we may have now implemented a new Christmas time tradition. The house had a pole on the patio in front which caused many an impromptu pole dancing party. Pole dancing to Christmas music while wearing Christmas hats in the heat will certainly be something we won’t forget.
Christmas day was actually spent at a local resort, a 45 min walk down the beach. Here the girls enjoyed the pool while sampling some rarely found western cuisine. One of us was confined to pants in this heat because of the infected insect bites and was not able to partake in the aquatic Christmas festivities. Another part of our December was the birthday of our eldest daughter. She knew her present, but none-the-less squealed with joy upon receiving her most anticipated gift yet – a mermaid outfit and mermaid fin! She could now swim with the mermaids and other sea creatures, as she clearly was ready to do so! The weather held that day, despite the previous days of rain, and she frolicked away in the waves for much of the afternoon. Rare to see her happier than that day! Made it worth it for all of us.
New Years came and went with little celebration outside of a small tip of the cup with Mr. Gordons and his friend Ms. Tonic. Side note to everyone reading: finding tonic outside of a major grocery store is not easy in the northwest part of Sri Lanka. In fact, it was a difficult beverage to acquire in most areas, so if you have a need for Mr. Gordons, Mr. Bombay, or Ms. Tanqueray to have a companion to mix it up with, stock up when you find it!
Cleaning the Beach
Our oceans are in trouble. Those who doubt that can stop reading this blog right now and google any number of articles on the plastic problem in our ocean and all over the planet. Seriously, stop reading and get educated. Go… then come back!
Our first glimpse of the coast was one of utter shock and then awe. We couldn’t believe that this vast expanse of reddish-brown sand was practically deserted, save for a few fishers, but was absolutely covered in plastic waste. It was an unimaginable sight – to stand on a remote beach, in a relatively sparsely populated area of an island in the Indian Ocean and have to pick your way through plastic to get to the sand on the beach. We were honestly both saddened and motivated to not let this stay as it was.
Marianne organized a clean up, and just after new years, after spending weeks picking at the trash here and there by ourselves, a group of locals joined our cause to clean this section of the beach and adjacent dune. A brief bit of education about plastic along with the physical labour of the clean-up crew (mostly kids) resulted in a 200 m section of beach going mostly plastic free in just over an hour and a half. A great start for this beach, but unfortunately, likely to be one of many efforts required to keep it clean. Turning our back on the problem isn’t our way and Marianne has the drive to get these things going, and hopefully has started the spark in the locals to keep it that way. The owner, though away, helped us organize this initiative and hopes to continue doing regular clean-ups.
Wilpattu National Park
A to do list of Sri Lanka, or a bucket list for those so inclined to enjoy the cliche, must include a safari. The typical safaris are those in the south, Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park, as they have been widely spread over social media, and rightly so for their bountiful and extraordinary wildlife. However, Wilpattu NP is a national park not to be missed! We will compare safaris on a later blog, as we were fortunate to have the chance to do two of the three NPs mentioned above. No spoilers here however, but we will let you know the details!
So our New Years Day started early, as there was little fan-fare or ball-dropping going on the night before, except a few minutes of fireworks around midnight in sleepy northwest Sri Lanka, and sleeping in with the heat was not really an option. So with a two-hour tuk-tuk ride with Ali planned, we weaved our way through the crowded streets of Puttalam and along the elephant frequented road that led to Wilpattu. This was our first real adventure tourism in Sri Lanka. A single stop for a cold ice cream to break up the tuk-tuk ride was our only respite for that arduous journey. Anyone who has ridden in the back of a tuk-tuk will attest that it is not the most comfortable, nor the coolest ride. This stop also provided us with a highlight from that trip. During the ice cream break, while the 4 Ms were thoroughly enjoying their frozen treat in the 30+ C heat, Ali proclaimed, quite loudly and seemingly out of nowhere, “Bathroom. It’s a go!!” and off he rushed. Sensing an urgency behind his words we assumed that he had proclaimed his intentions to keep us from wondering about his sudden lack of presence. Ten minutes or so later, looking sweaty and disheveled, he emerged from the back of the poorly lit store, wiping his brow furiously with a well used handkerchief, he quietly indicated he was ready to proceed with the journey. That bathroom break nearly did him in and none of us wanted to repeat his bathroom journey for fear of appearing as though we had barely survived that trip to the porcelain throne. The rest of the trip to the park was as the first part, hot, sweaty, and filled with the monotonous hum of the tuk-tuk’s severely under powered 4-stroke engine. We did actually love tuk-tuk rides!
Bright and early the next day, we piled into the modified pick-up truck (aka the jeep) and headed into the park in search of the elusive and majestic leopards, along with the hope of spotting an equally sight-worthy elephant. The guesthouse we stayed at had a reception and dining area lined with spectacularly close-up shots of the many leopards of the adjacent national park, wetting our appetite and filling our dreams with the chance meeting of an apex predator on its own turf. Our safari was a 5 hour ride through the bumpy dirt roads of the park searching for leopards, elephants, iguanas, peacocks and all sorts of other wild creatures. We saw our fair share thanks to our jeep driver / guide with his more than impressive sight, but the elusive leopard, the spotted ninja of the park, was just that, and never showed a hint, outside of a few footprints in the sand, that s/he even existed. No matter, as we knew that was the cherry on the icing to see a leopard, we left fulfilled with our current roster of Sri Lankan wildlife in the memory banks and on the memory cards.
The last week of our first visit
Our next week there was our last of our first visit, and we spent most of it in Kandy. Unfortunately, even the most careful of us can succumb to any number of the germs out to get us, and in Kandy the youngest of our brood spent the better part of 4 days battling a stomach bug that jumped up and got her, and only her, seemingly from out of nowhere. A calm, hotel bound final few days in Sri Lanka went by quickly, and except for our visit to the very entertaining traditional dance / cultural show the majority of Kandy’s culture and temples were left for another visit. Fortunately our little one healed up completely, just in time for another harrowing ride through the narrow, over crowded streets of this tear drop shaped nation – the last before heading to another type of paradise surrounded by turquoise.
So, Sri Lanka… there is so much we didn’t say about you. How could I accurately describe the feeling you give people when they arrive completely unaware of the full-on experience they are going to get. Your tuk-tuk and car rides could be a video game, but with many lives, as getting through unscathed is almost impossible! Your food both assaults and delights your senses, as the spices sneak up on you and overtake the other tastes and linger like a friend that just won’t leave after the party is over. Every bit of the country is alive at seemingly every minute of the day and night, except that one time we rode to the airport at 3 am, and we only saw about 5 people on bikes and 2 people standing randomly staring at the side of the road. All of your beauty and faults come front and center for every local, tourist, and traveller to see – and love them or hate them, they are what make your country unique and a can’t miss place to visit.
This was but our first of two visits, as we came back for more, which will be continued in another blog.
Written by M (sub-inspector of hand cleanliness and teeth brushing)