Three Weeks Travel
05.10.2014 29 °C
Nothing special as a city, Colombo was our stop because of the airport and Indian Visa Centre.
We arrive to from Male to Colombo on Korean airlines (100$), a cheaper alternative to Sri Lankan Airlines, and way less stingy compared to long haul Condor flight in terms of amount of movies available.
As we exit the airport we are for the first time overwhelmed with the amount of people offering us a taxi. We do, however, find AC bus to Colombo Bus Station for just 1$. We then try to get our first tuk tuk driver not to rip us off too much. Obviously fear of unknown world shows on our faces and we fail almost completely, with hindsight. Back then 100 rupees down seemed like an achievement.
The first ride was scary, but we got used to it later.
We were pleasantly surprised with the quality of our hostel (Clock Inn,12$). Clean rooms, well equipped lounge area, friendly staff, and loads of antique clocks made the stay rather memorable.
Next day we head out on a mission to submit our India Visa applications, but fail immediately. It is EID holiday, yes, still the same EID that caused us to splash out on a speedboat in Maldives. Apparently, Sri Lankans have days off on the holidays of all local religions, and there is 3 here. We must watch out.
We do, however, manage to procure some binoculars for our future safaris, and even by a Sri Lankan phone card, which, used on a smartphone, allows us to search online for all information on further destinations, attractions and accommodation. 3G signal reaches everywhere (That's right, UK). Don't know where we would be without it. No tourist information is available otherwise.
Later, we catch a local bus to Mount Lavigna beach nearby. The beach is right behind the railway, which is cool, but frankly, it was the most littered beach we saw so far. After walking past many atmosphere deprived cafes, we find a perfect spot to spend the afternoon. Aqua Marina beach cafe huts furnished with palm leaves, beer, chatty waiter and the most fragrant vegetable rice with develled cuttlefish made our day.
Indian Visa office in Colombo was heaven compared to Male. We quickly got our applications filled in by the little office nearby that specialises in this subject and submitted our applications (3$ application service,50$ Visa)
We then check out the famous Pettah market. What was expected to be a bustling semi-open air marker, was actually more wholesale streets of shops where everyone stared at Olga. After wandering for way too long, we got to the fruit and clothes market though.
Train tickets to Kandy can be difficult. We had to book for the next day, and only the first class was available for 4$. It was a scenic 2.5h ride through the jungle. Our Couchsurfing host, Rochan, picked us up and drove straight to the elephant village, where we got our first elephant shower. 20 minutes for mere 20$ each. Nice business. The ride was exciting though and we got it out of our system. Unless we can trek on elephants through the jungle somewhere.
On the way to our temporary home we stopped by to try some exotic fruit including mangoustine, dragon fruit and red banana. Mangoustine is my favourite by far. Dragon fruit could have a less bland taste for such an exotic appearance and intense colour. Red banana, is just a really tasty banana, which is supposed to give one lots of vitamins and energy.
After settling in the school house that was to be our home, we visited our host's friends spice garden, where he showed how the Ayurvedic medicinal plans grow (cardamon, cinnamon, sandalwood, nutmeg, cocoa…), Vaidas got his leg depilated with a herb cream. We were offered to buy oils at "local price", but being wiser from online reviews, waited for the local market instead.
The long day culminated with ayurvedic oily massage from our host and his student.
In the morning we took a slow bus ride to royal botanical gardens, that had some really cool trees. Wall tree, massive bamboo bushes, mindfuck trees, Avatar tree…and orchid flowers with little people inside
We exited the park only to find a massive traffic jam to town. We walked for a mile until it loosened up somewhat and then took a most aggressive and fast driver in Kandy, who fought his way to the Tooth Temple in record time. At the entrance, Olga's prepared clothing did not fit strict temple standards to her great dismay, so new clothes were shopped for. When decently clothed, we were led to buy Kandyan dance tickets by a person in the shop. Normally, one would expect a commission for bringing tourists to his friends establishment. Fortunately, we arrived to a genuine Kandyan Culture centre where we watched a colourful traditional dance show with beautiful costumes and amateurish fire eating and walking.
The whole tourist crowd then flowed to the opening ceremony in the Tooth Temple. Not prepared with action plan, we did not queue for seeing the Tooth relic box from the safety of a doorway for a few seconds. We had a few glimpses over people's heads though. Anyway, much fuss.
On our way to the bus station, we were approached by a guy who claimed to know us from Clock Inn hostel in Colombo, where he works. He then proceeded to explain that tourists mostly overpay for purchases and would lead us to this local market where we can buy herbal oils. He explained that he is only earning his karma and led right to the place. Whether he was on commission or not, we bought oils for a fraction of the price in spice garden. King Coconut oil for the better of one's hair, Citronnella to repel mosquitoes and sandalwood oil- just because its an expensive beauty product in Europe, Sri Lankan breakfast tea, and cotton sarong to cover up.
We took the longest smelliest nauseating bus ride from Roshan's to Kandy, then Kandy to Dambulla, then tuk tuk to arrive to a village of Sigiriya, from where we planned to visit Dambulla Cave Temples, Sigiryia rock, and Minneryia National Park. From the moment we set on a tuk tuk ride it seemed like the area is a lot more airy and relaxed than before. Just the road in the jungle…some guesthouses…nice Of course in such a calm place only naturally they were so laid back as not to have/sell/be open/functioning anything. At first we had a laugh, but by the end of the day, when we did not get our promised beer it accumulated some considerable stress.
We debated whether to enter Sigiriya site for 30$ and decided it was too mean of the government to rip off tourists like that. So we asked around this other rock that people climb on to see Lion rock, and found the name to be Pidurangala - to be done preferably for sunrise. To get there we even hired bicycles, but locals where so terrified that we are going to the jungle roads at night, where the wild elephants may walk, that we got scared too and hired a tuk tuk.
The path started at the temple, after which we missed some steps and got lost in the dark jungle. Luckily 3G Internet was at hand and we googled some pointers on how to walk. Eventually we discovered the passage that looked like a cave in the dark and went up the steps the whole way to the ruined cave temple and lying Buddha with some creative climbing to the very top. We were rewarded by a beautiful view to lion rock which gradually lightened with the sun. Not the most impressive view we've seen, but a great thrill of adventure.
Having started the day early we also did the Dambulla Caves, and Elephant Safari in Kaudulla National Park (apparently that's where the elephants from Minneryia went…)
The price of the safari would usually consist of sharing the jeep and park entry fees. One cannot enter the park without a jeep. We shared ours with this French couple. At the very start were told by our organiser boy that we do not need to take a guide since the driver will talk good English and knows elephants well. It could not be further from that as we were asking for information in the park. He did not understand us, or try to explain anything about the elephants, only when pushed.
On arrival to the park he declared that it would be 9000 for the 4 of us, instead of calculated 6800 (1700x4). We paid as much - 3400, however the French did not get their change. Upon checking with the ticket office, they were told the price is correct, but there was obviously shared profit between them and our "guide". Lesson for next time - always get out of the car and by tickets ourselves.
However, even though started on bitter note, we did see many elephants groups and families, a tusker and two baby tuskers which were fighting with each other! Super cute!
On the other hand, the jeeps would surround the elephants to allow tourists to take pictures thus contributing to a circus like atmosphere in the park. But what can you do, you're not the only one wanting to see the elephants.
After the hard day's work we sat down to drink beer in nearby Rastarant and ended up having a little arack party with the crew. Through conversation we found out that our surfing trip to Arugam bay was no good, due to off-season. We were advised to go to Weligama bay instead, which we did in the end of the trip.
Having changed travel plans we took a bus back to Kandy (we found AC thankfully), and then to a mountainous Nuwara Elyia, which was a beautiful hill ride and brought us to a much chillier region. Our guesthouse was probably on the highest elevation possible, tuk tuk was really struggling, but it was worth it for the views from the room.
After discovering that most of our picked attractions are not available due to military/off season or price, we decided to do a little hike to Single Tree mountain in the morning and visit the tea factory.
We got successfully lost in the jungle during the trek and upon finding a dead monkey turned around to go back. We took a wrong road first, and the second time we found a way, but unfortunately the mountain had communication towers all over it. We did eventually find a view point and had lunch there.
Upon descending the hill we got into the cunning claws of tea plantation women who offered us to take a picture with them. All 15 of the jumped into the picture only to demand a "present" afterwords. We gave them 20 rupees, but the faces turned from happy to sour when only one 20 note got out of our purse. "Innocent" ladies carried big sticks and were surrounding us fast. We gathered our courage and sped through them down the hill.
After, we visited a tea factory where they offered a free tea tour, explaining how the tea is made. We then tasted the black tea with cake with a beautiful view on Macwoods tea plantations.
Tissa - Bundala National Park
We travelled to Tissa in order to take a safari to a bird wintering place in Bundala. We were lucky to quickly find partners in the guesthouse and set out for 5.30am tour. We spotted many previously unknown(to us) bird species, black faced monkeys, mongooses, many peacocks showing their tail and crocodiles. A few marabus and pelicans were seen, but unfortunately it must be early in the season so few birds arrived so far, while flamingoes haven't visited for a few years.
The area around the guesthouse offered us more animal spotting opportunities: we saw land monitors, fruit bat colony, and even followed pelican group from the lake to the trees, where these massive birds land on the top. Distracted by the pelicans in the sky Olga nearly stepped on the snake, which was probably not poisonous, but you never know.
Sinharaja - Rainforest trek
Due to changing our plans on the go, after 3 hour local bus journey, we got out in Matara bus station just to face another (apparently 5h) journey up to the rainforest. That we did not want and without even double checking the time, we signed up for a reasonably priced tuk tuk ride(26$ for 70km). We arrived to our compressed mud cabana after dark and had a super spicy fish curry. We also negotiated the price of the package tour to Sinharaja from 6500 to 4120, with the owner. We could have gone by ourselves, but the price seemed fair (although still questioning the tuk tuk price...)
We again thanked ourselves for carrying those hiking boots and long pants, for we needed those against the numerous amounts of leaches trying to get on us, even through the layer of salt powder. Our smiley guide however, only needed filp-flops, some salt, and umbrella, which by the way, was way more effective in the rain than our coats.
The guide was compulsory, but spotting animals without him would have been impossible anyway. We walked slowly, looking into branches next to us, and high above. Close to the ground we saw a few kangaroo geckos, a few lizards similar to iguanas, a few small green pit vipers, and a cool spider. Up in the branches we spotted a couple of purple faced monkeys, but for some unknown reason kept taking pictures of the lizard instead.
Helped by the guide, we found a giant fat squirrel in the thinnest of branches too. Our binoculars were helpful in catching sight of a large black and white butterfly.
Funnily enough, we saw a huge water monitor searching the garbage near the visitor center, rather than near the river, where it belongs.
Overall, the rainforest seemed very quiet, apart form crickets(I thought somebody was felling a tree with a chainsaw) and the river, we did not hear that many birds, or see too many animals (maybe use of mopeds on the rack is the reason).
Weligama Bay-Learning to surf
We arrived to the South cost of Sri Lanka to begin learning surfing in a famous beginner place - Weligama bay. Although the overall impression of the place is spoiled by crappy town, numerous holes into which to fall down, and rubbish between fisherboats on the beach, the surfing place is actually quite good. Apart from some more rubbish in the sea, I mean. Surfing end of the beach has a few eateries to chose from and many surf rent/lesson places. Lesson price including the board - 17$, seems a lot. Board/h - 2.5$ - not so much. One only really needs max 3 lessons.
We both managed to stand up during our first lesson, and had a few good rides up to the beach during the next two sessions. It has been a love/hate relationship so far. Love - 10% of the time when one actually catches the wave and rides it far. Hate - struggling to get back to the starting point and getting hammered/hit on the body/head by the board or just plainly drifting back again. Our right knees became sore from all the climbing on the board, so knee guards had to be bought.
We had a cool little teacher, too bad we could understand just 50% of what he said. On the third day we moved from beginner foamboards to real boards and took it to the deeper waters - lots of paddling to the massive wave with huge speed...
Back to Colombo
We took a train from Weligama to Colomombo to retrieve our India visas, which required a few days. We decided to just chill out at Vajira's place. Let us introduce Vajira. He is a couchsurfing enthusiast, who hosts people in Colombo A LOT. Every day someone new would come and experience the unofficial Sri Lanka Tourist office that Mr Vajira is. Too bad we only visited him on our way back from Sri Lanka, otherwise he could have set us up with a cheaper and potentially richer experience. In any case, we are really grateful to have met Vajira and his friends who inspired us with their good traveling attitude and super positive vibe. And in return we cooked them traditional Lithuanian potato pancakes.
Having received our visas, now we are back in Clock Inn, waiting to take on India. It has been three weeks and it seems we only arrived yesterday.
Sri Lanka Summary:
Visa: applied and prepaid online prior to arrival (25$)
Price level: it is way cheaper to spend the holiday in Sri Lanka than in Europe, but more expensive than in the rest of SE Asia, it seems from other traveller accounts.
Trains: are usually crowded on working days, so reservation in advance is needed. We had to go to the Colombo Fort station to book our tickets to Kandy for next day and only managed to get first class tickets(3,5$) , since 2nd class was sold out. Journey was a rather scenic one, comfortable, but slow.
Buses: very cheap, but local buses were our cross to bear, the biggest problem being the heat and smell of the petrol fumes. They are not even that slow, the bus drivers are actually overtaking everyone on the road! One would go for an AC bus, however, they do not run on all routes.
Tuk tuks: being a Westerner, one would always look in need of a tuk tuk. That's what the drivers think, at least "Do you need a tuk tuk? Where are you going?" But sometimes we do need a tuk tuk indeed. Prices are around 0.4$/km, but one will always be quoted more. This is were we improved our bargaining skills the most. Having mostly taken for short journeys, we once took a 70km ride. After a long bus journey, we were told by tuk tuk drivers that another bus to our final destination would take 5 hours. We could not handle that and agreed on a cheap tuk tuk. It was still 3000 rupees instead of 250 though. We should have asked the bus drivers, since we later found out that the bus only takes 3 hours.
Accommodation: Hostels are not popular in Sri Lanka, and we only stayed in one(Colombo) and saw one other(Matara). We stayed in budget guesthouses, where the price ranged 10$-23$. Cheaper rooms are equiped with a fan and cold water, more expensive - AC, hot water, or view. Since the towns in Sri Lanka are an ugly sight, we preferred staying just out of the town, sometimes being rewarded with a great view or wildlife.
Most of the guesthouses would not have laundry facilities.
Food: we tried lots of curries and most of them are delicious. It is also a cheapest way to eat in Sri Lanka, because a huge 1 person portion for 3 - 5$ would feed us both.
Beaches: better in the postcards. We have not seen that many beaches, maybe 4, but litter from the sea and coast really soil the experience in otherwise beautiful places. One also has to look out for unfinished construction near the beach, which probably was not included in the guesthouse pics. So the idea and the reality are often very different stories. And however wrong it sounds, its better to end up on touristic beaches for two reasons: 1. there will be more white people and you won't get stared at by the locals, 2. it will be probably kept nice and tidy so you spend more time and money on it Some say that we arrived to the beaches off season so the were narrow and dirty. while during season time the ocean retreats and takes all the rubbish with it. So maybe we just weren't very lucky.
Cities: ugly, dangerous holes everywhere. Not much time has gone by after war and Tsunami, so maybe we should give them a break.
People: Having mostly met tourist industry representatives, we experienced some greediness and being treated like cash machines, but where they could not make money from us (like public transport, for example), people where very nice and helpful. They would give us directions to buses, hold our stuff on their lap in the crowded bus, and so on.
Cultural attractions: we left most of them out, since we plan to see many temples in India next.
Natural attractions: beautiful, but can be overpriced, especially where safari jeeps are required.
Mistakes: tuk tuk to Sinharaja, Bundala Park, Kaudulla Park - not buying the tickets ourselves.