Serendipity- Sri Lanka 2018
Updated: Jan 4
One month in Paradise.
I always wanted to travel to Sri Lanka. Almost made the great overland trip in 1978 from Istanbul to bali but got cold feet. We finally made in 2018. Here’s what happened.
“I like travelling except the travelling part.”
In ’78, the Greek Isles- Santorini to be exact- those were great times for independent travel. Imagine no internet, faxes, smart phones. International calls horribly expensive.
I met two Aussies on Crete- they were headed overland to India sporting a first edition of “Across Asia on the Cheap.” This little novel by Tony and Maureen Wheeler was the handbook to help navigate the hippy trail. In those days, it was still possible to travel from Europe through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, into India. I believe at the time the total cost was under $100 including transport, lodging food and combustible substances.
The two Aussies and I hiked the Samaria Gorge in Crete; it was magnificent. We were dropped on the side of the road and made our way down into the gorge. We slept in a ghost town at the bottom on a full moon night. We sat up talking about the overland Asian trail, how many Aussies were doing it as part of the “gap yea,” -at least one year or longer away from the rock, eventually landing in King’s Cross in London to work for a time.
Later in Santorini. I met a Swiss couple who in the Swiss fashion were highly prepared for the overland trip to India. The fabled destinations included the famous K’s: Kalcutta, Kathmandu, Koh Sahn Road, and Kuta Goa. Should I stay or shoukd I go?
I watched the Swiss couple leave Santorini thinking I should be going with them. A case of cold feet, fretting over everything could go wrong. In short, never made in to Sri Lanka that time.
In 2016, we landed at Colombo Airport for a layover but we were headed to Dubai and Europe, Sri Lanka into our plans.
We were headed to Europe from Bali, and felt it was time to visit Sri Lanka. January is not the best month to visit Bali; the rain was incessant. Mount Ugung, which popped its top that November, threatened to blow again, but things remained stable and quiet during our time. We never caught a clear view of the volcano as clouds settled over it.
Off to the airport after 25 days in Bali. Our good friend and cheery driver Putu piloted through Bali's miserable traffic to the airport. Time to re-enter the security bubble, Asian airports seems to be much more efficient at moving people through security and immigration than N America.
Hanging in the pleasant Bali airport lounge, which makes airport travel tolerable. Snacking. Boarding in the pouring rain. A very rough take off, lots of shaking and then more rough weather as we gained altitude. Bouncing Betty.
In KL. on the ground for six hour layover, which could not be avoided without a steep upgrade in fees. Hurry up and wait. It is just exhausting despite having to do anything. The lounge in KL was jammed packed, noisy, the joy of listening to people talk in their loud voice on their phones.
Eventually on board, which at this late hour is a rather calm flight to Sri Lanka, despite delays as four people fail to board; their bags need to be located from the hold and removed. We fly discount carriers in Asia and consider these product miles ahead of N. American major carriers: we are served by young handsome staff and astonishingly cheap rates. Example- we flew over four hours Bangkok to Bali on Air Asia for $200- an empty seat between us, meals and checked bags.
Landing in Sri Lanka at 11:30 pm which is 2:30 am our body time. A long line at immigration then told to turn around and fill out an entry card which was not handed out on the flight. Card filled, instead of re-cueing we jump back to the front. When in Rome…
Our hotel driver awaits and we are whisked down winding empty roads and emerge at our beautiful resort, through lush gardens along a magically lit pathway to our massive suite, and eventually pass out from exhaustion.
Ain’t travel glamorous?
“I like travelling except the travelling part,” said Lucien.
Day 1- Sri Lanka
I awoke early due to jet lag - only a mild case as we only flew about 8 hours, three time zones and total travel of 16 hours. No problemo.
Chinese tourists yacking at the top of their lungs outside our room as their voices echo down the halls of this colonial-style manor.
I sneak out as Elaine sleeps and note the manicured grounds and the Olympic size pool. I take advantage of an invigorating early morning swim, my mood improved and am filled with a sense of gratitude; we are here in the tropics. The Chinese have departed, no guests in sight, the way I like it. Very quiet excepting birds chirping from the surrounding jungle and the occasional jet jumping- we stayed very near the airport.
Elaine awakens and after a swim we enjoy the included breakfast of fresh juice, fruit and eggs, and the delicious Sri Lankan tea. Chat with a couple from Ireland who are wrapping up a month in Sri Lanka., he a musician who has scored numerous commercial soundtracks, she an artist and DJ. Nice folks, we yak for a bit. Get some travel tips.
As the airport is quite a distance from Colombo, savvy travellers opt to layover in Negombo. A bit of a hospitality industry has sprung up to serve this segment. An option for us is take the AC express bus into Colombo but we opt for a little more adventure as our entry into Sri Lanka: a 40 cent third class commuter train. Staff at the hotel insist we take the bus but we are adamant: the train is it for us.
We opt instead for a Tuk Tuk ride down to the tiny train station in Negombo. Once there, we await our carriage in the sweltering heat; we’ve experienced sizzling days in Bangkok and Bali but it feels warmer here. The train pulls into the station, more cattle car, we grab a seat long benches that run the length of the car, facing inward as the train surges toward Colombo, filled with locals.
With room for perhaps a small child between me and my neighbour, a friendly local squeezes beside me and begins with the 87 questions. The people are friendly in the extreme; the supposed one hour train takes nearly two and by the time we hit Colombo Fort Station, we are exhausted from the heat and cramped train. I nearly leave my treasured Mexican hat in the overhead rack and rush back to retrieve it.
Haggle with the tuktuk drivers to transport us to our hotel. I gauge by Google Maps the elegant-sounding Grand Oriental Hotel is nearby but of course we end up overpaying but it is still only $2 even though the locals pay 50 cents. As if we had much choice in the broiling afternoon heat. We were expecting much chaos and madness at the train station but things appear relatively calm. Memories of train travel in India in 1987- now that was a special kind of chaos! Sri Lanka is much calmer- hence its moniker “India Light.”
We are staying in the former commercial center of town, once part of three separate ruling empires: Portuguese, Dutch and British. This part of town has fallen into disrepair through the 30 year war. The Grande Oriental is a Raj Relic, its earliest section built in the mid 1800s. In its heyday, P&O ships docked in Colombo Harbour, disgorging passengers who only needed to stroll across the street to the GOH as it is still called, to be surrounded by excesses of the empire (only 21 days from Holland to Djakarta with many stops along the way!)
The GOH has seen better days but we liked the stories its wall could tell. Staff were attentive and friendly, bedecked in burgundy and black uniforms – we assumed local wages must be very low. We spent the next two days exploring Colombo, which most tourists eschew.
Dateline Colombo: Day 2 - 3
We spent the afternoon doing what sensible people should: taking a siesta away from the sweltering sky. Near sunset we walked toward the Galle Green, a famous park along the coast, a gathering place for locals to enjoy a cool breeze, some local food, picnic and fly kites. We enjoyed the remnants of the old colonial commercial district including the empty Cargill Department store. Other buildings were being rehabbed while massive commercial projects reach for the sky in all directions. Colombo is a city on the move with massive construction projects, much like Saigon.
Out on the sea, a huge barge was gunning a stream of sand from a canon in a massive reclaimed land development. Seems to be funded by the Chinese whose sinister Belt and Road initiative continues to spread throughout the entire Asia basin.
We consider ourselves savvy travellers who rarely get scammed by hustlers and touts. Normally I raise my arm and say: “Talk to the hand!”
As we made our way to Galle Green, a well-dressed man approached us and engaged in conversation. While somewhat difficult to understand the gist of it was that there was a huge festival taking place for Chinese New Year and that we should go. We had our doubts be he insisted; he hailed a TukTuk and we sped away from Galle Green headed south.
Some distance later we pulled into a gem store with eager salesmen excited to see us. We refused to disembark, finally figured out the scam- there wasn’t any Chinese Festival at all. We’d been down this road before many times. The driver said he’d get a free tank of gas if only we’d take a look look. I was softening my stance but Elaine was adamant: take us back to the Green.
Eventually we were transported back although we later heard horror stories where the drivers took people to isolated places and extort money. So I guess we were fortunate but our attitude left little doubt that we were not going to play in that sandbox.
We made it back to Galle Face as the sun was setting; it was delightful to walk along the boardwalk. We dined al fresco at one of the numerous restaurants: spicy Kuttuh which was delicious. We clocked a long walk back to the Grand Oriental and were packed it in for the night.
In the morning we were up early. The morning was fresh, the streets deserted which surprised us. We dined at a local restaurant (called Hotels in Sri Lanka!) on a delicious breakfast with the locals: curry, rice, chapatis, washed down with local tea, coffee and milo. Total cost under $5.
On to the train station to inquire about heading south to ancient Galle Fort. The most agreeable and helpful staff informed us it was be best to book the 6:55am train, and it was possible to reserve air con seats for under $7 each for the three hour journey. There was also a special tourist office where we quickly and easily secured two tickets. Our agenda for the day was already complete!
Next stop, the Pettah Market, next to the train station. After a bit of confusion, we discovered the fruit and meat section down a narrow lane. Stalls of banana stalks took up an entire section. The locals seemed most happy to encounter two westerners, and were exceedingly friendly as we roamed its laneways and corridors, marvelling at the bounty, a photographer’s paradise. The most colourful market we’d seen since the eighties.
We crossed the busy thoroughfare and explored the commercial Pettah Market, a warren of streets featuring Hindu Temples, Mosques, Buddhist shrines, Catholic Churches amongst shops all laid out by category such as electronics, jewellery, fabric and Ayuverdic medicines. It felt like we roamed the markets for hours but when I checked my phone it was only 10 o’clock. Pettah Market was a veritable time warp.
The day began to sizzle, and it was time to head back to our hotel to cool off -no pool but at least there was air con and a cooling shower. One sobering incident- we stopped at the rather tattered supermarket on the main floor of the Cargill Building to purchase a giant jug of bottled water. After paying for it, I noticed it was dripping - it had obviously been tampered, the seal was broken- flashback to the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when the youngsters are filling empty bottles with tapwater to be resold. Nasty.
That night we walked back to the Galle Green for an uninterrupted sunset walk. We hiked the length of it down to the Galle Face Hotel, the other colonial beauty that has been lavishly renovated, now catering to local nouveau riche and short stay western tourists. Really we only stopped so Elaine could use the modern facilities, and as we look like we fit in no one ever questions us.
Another enchanting meal along the Green at one of the makeshift local diners, this time biryani and glorious local curries. We also discovered the local ginger beer which I am now hooked on. As we had spent the past two days walking many kilometres in the extreme Colombo heat, we opted to take a metered Tuk Tuk back to the GOH- less than $1!
The verdict? We liked Colombo. But two days was enough.
Train Down to Galle
Up at 5:30am in preparation for the 6:55am train south to Galle. This train ride is one of the most famous coastal routes in the world and it didn’t disappoint, especially the first-class carriage! Which of course was a bit of a joke but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Up and checked out of the GOH. The Colombo streets were deserted; there wasn’t even a TukTuk nearby which was unusual. We walked up to the main intersection passed the abandoned ghost buildings of the British Raj. Soon a TukTuk agreed to deposit at the train station which was nearby. Not chaotic in the wee hours of morning. The sun rose over the tracks and platform as our train pulled into the station. All the articles we’d read about the chaos at the train proved to be inaccurate at this junction.
We climbed aboard the first-class car which seemed reserved for westerners. Half the carriage was given over to seats facing a giant picture window- as we were the last car it meant we would be watching the scenery backwards, behind the train. We pulled out of Colombo and headed south away.
Everyone in the car got excited at the first sight of the ocean. This particular route hugs the coast some 100 kms south. Sri Lanka is a pearl shaped island surrounded by beaches. The southern line to galle is also notorious as being obliterated by the 2004 Tsunami when the train was wiped off the tracks. The 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami-rail disaster is the largest single rail disaster in world history by death toll, with probably 1,700 fatalities or more.
It took some time to get everything back on track, but the memories linger.
It was a bright sunny Sunday as we kept a snail’s pace, stopping at many stations along the way. We would only catch brief glimpses of the beach between concrete buildings and dense jungle. It was all so very beautiful. The morning drifted by and at some point we arrived at Galle Fort some three and half hours later. It was deathly hot upon our arrival, seafaring sun pounding us as we emerged from the station. Our driver to the homestay I’d found on booking.com was nowhere in sight.
The very helpful TukTuk drivers- mostly interested in gaining a fare- eventually reached our man who arrived some 45 minutes late. He was an affable character, who proceeded to drive us what seemed a long way out of town. I was desirous of a pool and instead of booking into one of Galle's colonial mansion B&B (sand pool) I picked this Homestay- was likely delirious from all the planning and this one turned out to be a bit of a fiasco.
We were shown to a modern room by our new hosts. The room was a designers nightmare, we were in the middle of nowhere and would have to rely on TukTuks to get to town and back at $5 a pop. The toilet didn’t work in our room but fortunately the one in the room next door was functional. There was a typical unfriendly Chinese couple downstairs but we swore we were the first guests in the upper room.
The owners spoke little English, the wife looked like she was a deer in the headlights. They came into our room as we unpacked, anxious for our reaction. It was very awkward.
This too shall pass…
We hung out in our new digs for the afternoon then our driver Mick shuttled us into Galle Fort so we could watch the sunset. The Portuguese, Dutch, British fort is a very popular tourist draw, the ramparts crawling with people. We walked along the water’s edge, impressed at this massive undertaking that hung over huge rock pointed strategically at the edge of Galle Harbour.
We found the restaurant prices shocking to say the least when compared to Colombo, but eventually settled on The Indian Hut where we sat upstairs dining on authentic southern Indian cuisine. Delicious curries.
A walk through the colonial walled city reminded us at times of Hua Hin in Vietnam, Quebec City, and Georgetown, Malaysia.
We spent the next day at the B&B. Our breakfast awaited us a the appointed but everything was cold- again very awkward. We decided to pass the day by the pool and ordered lunch for 1pm. It arrived at 2pm and again was cold but plentiful. We really couldn’t wait to depart the time passed with another evening walking the fort and exploring Galle Town which was wiped out from the Tsunami, rebuilt into a concrete monstrosity.
The next morning we were packed and Mick got us back down to the train station for the early train down the coast to Matara, where we would catch the local bus to Tangalle. The train ride was extremely relaxing as we sat in the empty second class train car ($under $2 for two tickets), passing idyllic beaches, surf pounding. We reached Matara and jumped into a TukTuk to the bus depot (by now routine), and caught the bus as it was leaving.
We had heard the local bus drivers were insane but we were blessed with a mellow ride along the coast along palm fringed beaches and winding roads through the jungle. In Tangalle town we jumped into a TukTuk to our resort, which we thought was right on the beach.
Imagine our surprise when we discovered we were actually across the road from the beach, above the beach. Great view, but noisy highway, roaring honking buses, trucks, TukTuks, and motorcycles. Our second accommodation fail in arrow. At this point we were exhausted from all the planning required by independent travel, the rattled travelers. It happens.
The pool deck was situated high above a stunning bay so after we checked into our mud hut, which wasn’t as posh as we’d been led to believe from the AirBnB reviews, we spent the afternoon lounging and recuperating. We were burnt out from travelling, the bloom was off the rose so to speak.
Nuga Eden, Tangalle, Sri Lanka
We were booked at Nuga Eden for six days. The weather was spectacular, the water was pretty enough. But the south coast of Sri Lanka often features big waves with dangerous undertows. Hence the desire to have a pool for swimming.Sri Lanka is a beach lovers paradise but we prefer beaches with coral reefs for snorkelling which is not the case here.
We explored the region around Tangalle on a motor scooter.
We decided to seek out true ocean front accommodations, so rode the bike to Goyam Bay, where after a few starts and stops located a beautiful resort perched on rocks between two bays set on the ocean. Just didn’t make sense to travel halfway around the world and not be directly on the ocean.
Lucky Star, Tangelle, Sri Lanka
We found Sri Lanka quite more expensive than Thailand, Bali, Cambodia or Vietnam but still good value for money; decent accommodation is often nearly double. While food costs can be quite cheap in the towns once out at the beaches the prices skyrocket.
At Lucky Star, we settled into a hotel very well run by German proprietors; many of the guests were also German. We enjoyed our new digs and the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks; the pool was very sweet.
Udawalawa National Park
We don’t normally take tours anymore- in fact we had to wrack our brain for the last one and we discovered it was in Cambodia at Angkor Wat five years previous! Didn't really get a choice at Angkor as it is a must to hire a driver. Some folks ride bikes but it Angkor Wat is a massive site and the heat is relentless.
When we checked in, Lucky Star manager Lisa said she was putting together a group for a day trip to nearby Udawalawa Park, a wild elephant sanctuary. She indicated her Sri Lankan husband was driving a jeep and would be a much longer tour than normal.
Everything was arranged- 8 of us plus driver would travel by van to the park- only 40kms away but 1.5 hours drive. The van featured air-con and the driver was reasonably cautious which means he only took less insane passing- the driving here has to be lived to be appreciated. There is always the mysterious “middle” lane where passing cars, buses, trucks etc.. move straight at you. It is often necessary to use the shoulder as they fly by at a rapid pace barely missing us.
At some point, we made it to the park. Baby elephants who have been orphaned (there are thousands of elephants in Sri Lanka) are brought here raised by park wardens, four times a day they are marched out in threes to be feed milk in front of gathered farangs and on this day a huge crowd of animated Sri Lankan students.
Eventually it was time to depart and head back to Columbo. We retraced our steps back to Mattara by hired TukTuk instead of the bus which was a gas. We caught the train back to Galle and then Columbo on a fine Sunday. This time we chose Second Class seats with views of the coast all the way to Columbo.
We booked our last night in Sri Lanka at the same resort we stayed the first night to be near the airport. Our train from Columbo ended up stopping at the end of Columbo's runway where I captured this unusual video- not something you see everyday from a train!