02.01.2012 - 20.01.2012
We decided to visit Sri Lanka at the last minute. After an hour flight, visa processing was delayed due to a new system for 2012. Upon hearing glowing accounts of this up-and-coming destination, we planned to circle the teardrop shaped island north in a clockwise direction, opposite to the popular route of heading south towards the beaches.
The hospitable and forward approach of Sri Lankans saw us invited to a birthday party on our very first night. Our tuktuk driver Sevinda and his family introduced us to delicious local cuisine (we especially enjoyed the spicy fish balls) and we also savoured the local Lion Strong beer (8.5% alc.).
There were no tourists in Chilaw and locals were upfront with their curiosity. Throughout Sri Lanka we always felt welcome and were continually offered assistance. Sevinda went beyond his fare and took us to beautiful religious sites that weren’t in the guidebook, demonstrating his pride for his hometown.
At our next destination Anuradhapura, our driver Janna conscientiously spent the day covering the vast ruins of the old capital, providing explanations and local trivia. In between sites and additional photography stops (we were quite excited to find fanning peacocks and tortoises in the open), he even brought us home to meet his family over morning tea.
During our stay, we made friends who provided useful local insights and protected us from inflated tourist prices. We are forever grateful to Amila and Subash, who spent entire days with us in Dambulla, taking us to local hangouts, sourcing cheap accommodation, recommending beautiful sights to see (Pidurangala was a tourist free alternative to Sigiriya) and even arranging VIP treatment for Adam at the barber.
To further add to the hospitality we received, our guides through the (practically named) Knuckles Mountain Range were also very kind and personally made sure that we enjoyed the three day trek, with the owner joining us on the lake one evening for drinks and a sing-along. This was after a night of live traditional music, specially arranged for us by Raja, owner of the Thilini homestay in Kandy.
It was during this time that we met up with Kylie and Vince. Spending Vince’s 30th birthday in Kandy, we got to know the city well after a few days. One evening Rina even convinced a tuk tuk driver to allow her to take the wheel, much to the horror of the other passengers!
On the trek, we found the first of the 3 days challenging. The ascent of the Knuckles Mountain Range was not without incident, with Vince flattening Adam after losing his footing. We were compensated with spectacular views - our local guide gushing that there had not been a clearer day in recent times. Unfortunately the descent was even more difficult than the climb, with knees suffering the impact of the steep and slippery route to the camp. We were thankful the remaining two days were less taxing, and enjoyed the relaxed pace of the jeep safari, lake camping and waterfall walk. Once again, we were blessed with ideal conditions. There was little traffic at the national park, and we were able to get up close to wild elephants with a newborn.
Afterwards we headed south for the pilgrimage to Adam’s Peak. Supposedly the point where Buddha laid one foot (and the other in India), we journeyed the 4,500 step climb after two long and windy buses and only 2 hours sleep. Beginning at 2.30 am, adrenalin propelled us and we raced to the peak in under 2 hours. It was freezing, and we were also two hours early for sunrise. But the wait was worth it as we found ourselves above the clouds at first light. We also witnessed the perfect triangular shadow that is mysteriously cast by the irregular shaped peak. It is difficult to say which was the highlight of the trip, but this was definitely on the list.
Exhausted after our stint of physical activity, we were ready to hit the beaches. Frustratingly, the logistics of reaching the coast in the southeast involved us returning to the capital in the west before following the coastline. This was one exasperating aspect of travelling in Sri Lanka – for a small island getting anywhere is painfully slow (a bus can take 3 hours to cover just 50 kilometres) and the indirect routes to towns (especially from north to south) seem illogical at times. The train offers a more scenic experience, however services few routes and can be even slower than the bus. We collapsed for the night in South Kalutara, before continuing on to Galle then Mirissa Beach.
Galle is a blissfully quiet fort town whose Dutch heritage has been completely restored. We could have stayed longer, the streets of the small fort area were easily covered by foot and the buildings possess a romantic elegance. Moving an hour east, Mirissa was the ideal place to wind up our stay in Sri Lanka. We indulged in seafood platters and umbrella topped beverages that are necessary on tropical holidays.
We can’t help but compare Sri Lanka to India. It’s much cleaner, there’s less honking, less traffic and less pollution. There seems to be less congestion in general, but as population density is lower the island is perhaps less burdened. Despite the geographic proximity to India, Sri Lanka remains strongly Buddhist, with Hindu influences concentrated in the north where the Tamils of South India introduced it.
Though the sites were spectacular, our stay in Sri Lanka was truly enriched by our engagement with the people. We had seen many temples, beaches and hill landscapes before, but the warmth and openness of the locals allowed us to feel more connected to the land and we were able to learn and experience more of their culture.