Pearl of the Indian Ocean – Sri Lanka, Part 1

We have learned a few things after our first 8 days in Sri Lanka:

– Its really, really hot. And none of the budget hostels or guesthouses have AC, so there is no escape.
– Its very colourful – the buildings, the food, the landscape.
– The people are super friendly, and will go out of their way to help you out.
– There are crows everywhere. Never have we seen so many crows.
– Public Transport is outrageously cheap (more on that below)
– Their national animal is the Sri Lankan giant squirrel. But Ontario’s squirrels are much larger.
– The internet access leaves something to be desired, hence the lack of posts so far.

We flew into Colombo from Taipei, with a 5.5 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur. Thankfully immigration decided that our e-visas were in order, and after a long wait for Doug’s bag and now well after midnight, we finally set foot on Sri Lankan soil. Our initial plan for Sri Lanka was to meet up with Emily’s friend Katie, who has just finished teaching for a year in Vietnam and had some time to travel before heading back to Canada.

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A Sri Lankan breakfast – dosa with several curries.  The greeny-yellow one is mint, which is usually either the best or the worst tasting.

 

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Catching the train into Colombo. We actually stayed north of the city, in the area called Negombo.  Its closer to the airport and our flight got in rather late.  An hour train ride for 35 LK (Sri Lankan rupees), or CAD$0.40 each, not bad.

We met up with Katie at the Colombo Fort Train Station. There we also met Dominik, an Austrian who was staying at the same place as Katie the night before and was also going out way. The four of us grabbed an afternoon train from Colombo to Kandy, for the cost of 190 rupees each. So less than $2 each for a 4 hour train ride, not bad. These were called non-reserved tickets, meaning it was first come, first served for seats. It also means they sell as many tickets as possible, regardless of how many seats are on the train. So it was no surprise when the train pulled into the station and a horde of Sri Lankans ran at the doors, elbowing and shoving, trying to get inside first to get seats. We didn’t realize it was our train, so we watched and laughed at the spectacle. But then the conductor told us it was indeed the train to Kandy, and we realized we should have been in that scrum as well. Making our way into the train, we managed to find places in the overhead compartment for our backpacks. The train was getting more and more crowded by the minute.

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Standing room only.  Had to use the cell phone camera since we couldn’t get to our camera bag. You may not be able to tell, that’s Emily’s really sweaty head.
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This guy did some impressive balancing.  The food coming through the train was fantastic and so cheap.  Huge samosa?  Less than $0.40.

We staked out some standing room beside one of the doors, as more people flowed in. By the time the train pulled out of the station, it was shoulder to shoulder standing room only. And the various food vendors were still making their way up and down the aisle selling mangoes, samosas, and other baked goods. We were actually lucky to get spots by the doors, because they were left open all trip giving us a spectacular view as the train climbed into Kandy.

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Being by the open door might actually be the best seat on the train.

Once in Kandy, the thing to do is visit the Sri Dalada Maligawa temple, also known as the Temple of the Tooth.

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Approaching the Temple of the Tooth, it is surrounded by pleasant gardens, and an impressive moat.

Like most Buddhist temples, there are buildings within buildings, creating magnificent courtyards and alleys for more dramatic decoration. There is a second floor above this courtyard, where the actual relic is housed.

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Every day at 6pm a drumming ceremony is performed, and because of the low wooden ceilings, it has interesting and exciting acoustics. It goes on for over an hour, so this was taken when the crowds were much thinner.
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The flowers everywhere as offerings to Buddha make it so fragrant.

The relic this temple is known for is supposedly a tooth of Buddha, and is rumored to give whoever holds it immense power of the country, so kings and regions have fought over this relic. But this is all you get:

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As enticing as a picture of a picture is, this is not what was expected. Katie and Emily stuck out the queue to see the actual tooth (they don’t let you take pictures, but it doesn’t look any different in person, especially as you view it at a run as they as they bodily hurry you past this, and view it through a long and dusty corridor). So 1500 rupees (about CAD $12) seems a little steep for this, but having paid already the rest of the temple was genuinely enjoyed.

Two hours north of Kandy is the town of Dambulla. We stayed just outside town, with a local Sri Lankan family at Mango Tree Homestay. Sheyan, the eldest son, runs the homestay for his family.

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The Mango Tree Homestay.

Sheyan works as a cook at a nearby hostel, and learned enough about the hostel business that he convinced his family to start a homestay. His father runs a nearby roadside restaurant, so a homestay was a natural extension for them. They saved and built a second building on their property to act as the guesthouse, as well
as a tree house for those adventurous enough to sleep outside. They just opened a few months back and we were one of the first groups to stay with them. The family couldn’t have been more welcoming, as they cooked us traditional Sri Lankan meals, toured us around local sights, and even picked us up some beer and made a bonfire.

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We are even celebrities on Hostelworld.com.  Sheyan took a photo of us and uploaded it to his homestay’s site, an now everyone can see how much fun we had at the bonfire.
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Our local transport! If you’ve ever wondered about the most exciting time to sit in a plastic deck chair, we can assure you this is it.
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Dominik and Doug at the edge.  Hold on for all turns, accelerations, and decelerations. So always.
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Nearby to Dambulla is Pidurangala Rock, an ancient Buddhist site.  The towering rock behind is Sigiriya, also known as the Lion Rock. Its famous as one of the oldest Buddhist sites in the country.
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The landscape of central Sri Lanka.

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Sri Lanka has plenty of wild elephants, that roam in a number of National Parks and just anywhere they can get space.  Sheyan helped arrange a jeep safari into nearby Minneriya National Park.  Its dry season now, so the elephants group into herds and come to Minneriya because it has a large reservoir that is wet all year.

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The herds have a clear order, with the older females in the front and the babies being surrounded in the middle.
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We saw around 70 wild elephants.
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Heading to the reservoir for the evening.
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This baby may only be a few days old, according to our guide. We aren’t elephant experts, so he could have been totally lying to us. But he seemed trustworthy.

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The park is home to other mysterious and unknown beasts.
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A grey-headed fish eagle.

Dominik, our new Austrian friend, had booked a scuba course in the town of Nilaveli, near the city of Trincomalee on the northeast coast of the island. So we headed there by bus, and then took another bus to the nearby beach town (village, maybe) of Nilaveli. The bus from Trincomalee was only 50 rupees each, and involved cramming every person possible into the seats and aisle. The bus is already completely full, and then it stops on the side of the road and picks up another 5 people. And somehow they all manage to cram on board. All the while, the ticket guy is making his way up and down the aisle selling tickets to the newcomers-they do not ticket you when you are entering the bus, they insist on contortionist acts from everyone. And always in the background, a constant soundtrack of Sri Lanka music blaring in the background from the bus speakers. Its a fun but very tiring way to travel. We were actually stuck in the aisle for this one, so it was chaotic to say the least.

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How many people can a bus hold? There is no answer to this question.
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Nilaveli Beach.

There isn’t much in Nilaveli, except for the fantastic and endless beach. This whole area was hit by the tsumani in 2004, and there are tsunami evacuation route signs all over. The area is completely flat, for miles inland, so its easy to see how the tsunami caused so much destruction. Even now there are not that many structures near the beach.

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We took a scooter into Trincomalee for the day. There aren’t a lot of sights in the town, but just riding through it is a cool experience. The natural deep water harbour has made Trincomalee an important port city for hundreds of years, dating back to Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial times. The city is an interesting mixture of colonial architecture with influences from the local Tamil (Hindu), Muslim, and Sinhalese cultures.  There are plenty of churches too.  Trincomalee is in a predominantly Tamil, and during the long Sri Lankan Civil War that only ended in 2009 this area was inaccessible because of fighting.

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The streets of Trincomalee.
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We went to the old fort thinking it was a tourist attraction.  As it turns out, despite being built in the late 1600s it is still in use as an active military base.  But we could still drive through it with our scooter.
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The water at Dutch Beach off of Trincamolee is spectacular.
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There are spotted dear all over Trincomalee. This one at a Hindu temple was being fed watermelon by the guard.

So there you have it, the first of two or possibly three parts on the feisty island nation of Sri Lanka.  We can’t promise when the next will come, because the internet is hilariously incapable of loading our blogging site.

  • Doug and Emily / July 27, 2017 @ 7:07pm / Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka @ Siam View Bar

 

 

 

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