Sri Lanka

A year ago this week, we needed to leave Indonesia for a routine “visa run”, which required getting our passports stamped somewhere else. We decided to explore the tear-drop island-nation of Sri Lanka, that sits off the southeast shore of India. (Substory: despite their government website claims, copious requested documents provided, many lines waited in, additional forms filled out and money spent, it turns out that Sri Lanka is not the place for a visa run. So afterwords we spent a week or so in Bangkok to get it done). Still, we really liked our travels in Sri Lanka, and I’ve wanted to write about it ever since we got back. But life got in the way at first and then I couldn’t find my notes from our trip -still can’t. So I’ve stopped searching and started typing, and will include a lot of photos to compensate.

Sri Lanka is a relatively new travel destination due to a 30 year civil war which just ended in 2009. A month there might sound like a long time, but it’s not. The island is many times larger than Bali, and much more diverse. Great beaches all around it, and jungly green mountains in the middle, Sri Lanka looked, sounded, smelled, and tasted different than the other countries we know in Southeast Asia, and felt like an adventure. It’s character is most similar to India, and is commonly referred to as “India Light”. Many, many people were very kind to us. But we also encountered too many who expected money for simple or ordinary things.

We flew into (and out of) the capital city of Colombo, located on the western shore. After a few days of getting our bearings we headed to the central hills region and city of Kandy. We went through it 2-3 times as we criss-crossed to and from the cultural sites and remote hills. We took lots of crowded and adventurous buses and trains, taxis, tuk tuks, a motorbike, bicycles, and we walked a lot. Getting to and from distant regions was not easy, though we appreciated just how new tourism is there. Our travels included several steep climbs past serious -and recent- rockslides. Further south we sought out 2 safaris (our first ever), and eventually made it to the southern shoreline of interesting beach towns, fishing villages and the walled city of Fort Galle. We finished off with a lovely coastal train ride back up to Colombo.

Random favorite experiences, among many:

Ocean swimming with the locals. First at Mirissa and later at Galle, we were really touched by how well the Sri Lankan’s play together (men in skivvies, women in long saris). The teenagers, young adults and the elders were gentle and open and happy and playful. Zero alpha energy, just pure fun. With calm waters, stunning dusk scenery around us, and inner-tubes supporting us as we drifted, ebbed and flowed, it was perfect.

Kandy. The central hilly town buzzes all day as tuk tuks circle its beautiful, central lake, past nuptials and snake charmers. The markets came alive in the cooler streets at night. The Temple of the Tooth Relic is a UNESCO sight and the nightly relic ritual is not to be missed. The large arboretum nearby is a spectacular collection of habitats and trees  -and lots of bats, hanging asleep, upside down.

Golden Temple of Dambulla. Way up in the hills behind an enormous golden buddha, is a row of ancient caves carved into the stone hilltop, with dozens of figures of all sizes posed under sloped ceilings painted in exquisite detail. Extraordinary, and worth going out of the way for.

We especially liked hanging out in mountainous Ella, which felt a bit Himalayan. I spent half a day hiking the steep verdant slopes of Adam’s Peak. We enjoyed slow strolls through hills of tea shrubs, and the best / healthiest / tastiest food on the trip. Our remote bungalow clung to the hillside, looking down a long and gorgeous mountain gap.

Fort Galle. This smaller and separate part of the larger city juts out into the sea at the southwest corner. Walled by the Portuguese and Dutch 300 years ago, it’s a maze of narrow streets and nooks and crannies begging to be explored. It’s a relaxing place, but with a vibrant local community, Indian and Muslim influence, beautiful mixed architecture, and the Indian ocean on 3 sides lapping at the wall below, it’s one of the few places we’ve encountered in which we could imagine living for a spell.

My cricket debut. A young man we met in Galle invited me to play with his team the following day. It was all a blur to me. I still don’t have a clue about how the game is played, and I flubbed all 4 of my fielding opps. But the backdrop was fabulous, and I so enjoyed myself.

Seeing the stilt fishermen. Some were tourist posers, but others were legit. It’s a dying skill in Sri Lanka. And the caught fish were stunning in colors of red, blue and brown.

Back-to-back Safaris at Udawalawe and Yala National Park. Jennifer enjoyed these more than I did, as I found the rides waaaaay too bumpy. We never saw any panthers as hoped, but did see many beautiful animals, gorgeous landscapes and interesting habitats up close and personal. A constant highlight throughout Sri Lanka was the beautiful birds, and the varied natural settings.

Chathura and his family. The taxi driver who first picked us up at the airport turned out to be a lovely, thoughtful and special man whom we saw again and again. He went out of his way to help us navigate our visa attempts, and drove us here and there. At the end of our trip, we reunited for a spectacular traditional dinner at his house, where we met his wife, 2 children, and mother. We look forward to seeing them all again.

All this, and we didn’t even visit the northern third and eastern side of the island, nor many key sites that were within our reach. We hope to return.






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