Sri Lanka; a little bit of everything…

Being a huge fan of travelling the subcontinent of India, Sri Lanka was an obvious destination for my next trip. Expectations were quite high with the prospects of beautiful scenery, great beaches, interesting people, wildlife, nice train rides and some delicious spicy curries, but could these expectations be met?

The plan was to start in Negombo since this town is close to the airport which makes a 3 am arrival slightly less awkward. After a short acclimatization I would continue to Colombo followed by some train rides along the coast with a stop in Galle. Next on the agenda was Yala National Park, famous for its leopard population. Through the town of Ella I would arrive in Kandy, home for two weeks of volunteering at an orphanage. The final stop would be Anuradhapura and its surroundings before flying back to Europe. This was just a plan though and things might change along the way…

A warning before you decide to continue, this trip report is rather long… 🙂

Even though the airport is referred to as Colombo International Airport, the town of Negombo is closer to the airport than Colombo itself. After arrival and handling all the formalities I went outside the airport around 2:30 am. I skipped all the taxis and buses and, even though it was in the middle of the night, at the main road a tuktuk driver was waiting to drive me to my homestay. After a short negotiation he would take me ‘home’ for 500 rupees. Unfortunately there seemed to be two areas with the same name (of which the driver was obviously aware…) and an extra 300 rupees were needed before going to bed. Welcome to the subcontinent of India…

a boat waiting for its next fishing trip in Negombo…

Negombo itself doesn’t have that much to offer besides being a relatively convenient town to start or finish your trip. After a day of exploring the beaches I moved on to the capital, Colombo. One thing I noticed is that many people who travel to Sri Lanka wonder about the differences between this tropical island and its big brother India. A big difference is the dirtyness, something I noticed immediately at the railway station. Where you’d probably see monkeys and rats walking and crawling through the trash in India (at least in the north), the station in Negombo was pretty clean. Even though it’s most certainly still a tough one for people with a fear of stains, the difference with India is significant. About 1,5 hours later I arrived in the largest city of the country, with 5.6 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area, definitely the most chaotic place on the island.

man at work at the Pettah vegetable market

A tuktuk took me to an area outside the city center where my next homestay was located. On old lonely man had seen his children move to the US and when his wife passed away he decided to rent two bedrooms in order to get some company. The man didn’t seem happy at all but was friendly and helpful. Colombo is skipped by many travellers. I guess many of the surfers and tourists who come to Sri Lanka for the beaches are not into chaotic cities. For me a big city has always something to offer. Local habits and culture are everywhere. I decided to take a local bus back to the main railway station since a big market is located in its direct vicinity. The Pettah vegetable market was my favourite. Only local people trading their fruits offers some nice Kodak moments. Afterwards I visited a Buddha temple and went for a stroll in Galle Face, a five hectare ocean-side urban park. The next day I continued my journey by train to Galle…

Galle is a coastal town famous for its fort built by the Dutch in 1663. While ‘we’ built it back then for our own purposes, it served as a great wall of protection in 2004 against the tsunami too. Nowadays the area within the fort is declared a Unesco World Heritage Site (you wonder which place isn’t…) with a wonderful collection of Dutch colonial buildings. As a regular church visitor (not really…) I had to check out the Dutch reformed church. A rather nice building from the outside, the inside is not worth mentioning…

the Dutch reformed church, evidence of colonial times…

Besides some nice colonial buildings and views from the surrounding walls, the fort mainly contains restaurants, hotels and tourists. So, a few hours were more than enough for me and I took a bike to explore the nearby beach town of Unawatuna.

Only a few kilometers from the fort one will find beautiful beaches and very warm and calm waters. Unfortunately daddy forgot to bring his swimming short so I walked around and just explored the area. Because of the beautiful and calm waters many tourists spend their days here. A few more minutes on the bike and you’ll find more luxury accommodation along the coast. I was already settled at my homestay but nevertheless, a break at one of these resorts in order to enjoy a fruit juice and the views didn’t seem a bad idea…

the beach of Unawatuna

Talking about differences with Sri Lanka’s big brother, something I noticed is that the Sri Lankan people seem to be more liberal. In India for example, men and women are often separated in public transportation. In a local bus the women sit in the front and sitting next to one of them is not appreciated. This is not the case in Sri Lanka. I’m not sure but Sri Lanka being more liberal might have something to do with the religious views in both countries. In India roughly 80% of the population is Hindu, where the caste system and arranged marriages still play an important role in society nowadays, whereas the Sri Lankan population is mainly Buddhist (70%) and has a wider variety of religions. Another explanation could be the economical situation of the country which is simply in a better place than the one from India. Historically seen, the small island depends on international trade resulting in a melting pot with many influences from all over the world. I’m not entirely sure but an explanation of the more liberal feel on the island must be somewhere in there…

While using the public transportation and while exploring the many beaches you’ll notice this more liberal way of living. Once my stay in Galle had come to an end, I continued my journey towards Yala National Park. First I took another train to the town of Matara, the final stop of the railway system in Sri Lanka. From there I continued by local bus to the beautiful beaches of Tangalle where I had lunch at the Roti Hut. Tangalle is a place I had to stay at least for a night. On arrival I immediately felt the relaxed atmosphere. Remote beaches and a rough ocean meet at this town at the Southern coast. However, I was on a mission called ‘leopard Thursday’, and, because it was already Wednesday, only a couple of hours were left to enjoy the beaches of Tangalle before moving on towards my final destination of the day…

buffaloes and crocodiles can share a lake in Yala National Park

Tissamaharama, or Tissa in short, is actually a town not really worth mentioning. So why did I go there, you might ask. Within 30 kilometers or so, one can find Yala National Park, home of roughly 25 leopards. Any kind of cat, let alone a leopard, gets me interested so I simply couldn’t resist. The park comprises an area of 979 squared kilometers. Varied landscapes are home to elephants, crocodiles, deer, buffaloes, warthog and leopards to name a few. The park is quite popular and especially during a morning safari you’ll notice the amount of jeeps while lining up at the entrance to get in at 6 am…

During the morning safari I got a good impression of Yala National Park. I saw quite a few animals and we covered a large portion of the park. However, I didn’t get to see a leopard unfortunately. And, since it was ‘leopard Thursday’ I had to go on an afternoon safari too to give myself another chance to see the elusive cat. Together with a German couple from the hotel, I started the mission. In the middle of the day temperatures are generally too high for the cats to be active. Around 4:30 pm though, things became interesting. The driver slash guide was on the phone and started driving like a madman. We drove past all sorts of animals including elephants and that meant only one thing; we were on our way to a leopard! When we saw another 50 jeeps (no lie unfortunately…) we knew we had arrived. Since there were so many jeeps, we couldn’t see the big cat all at the same time so every jeep had its private minute one at the time. When our time had finally come, the leopard turned out to be quite far away and we couldn’t see the face while he or she was sleeping on the branch of a tree. But, leopard Thursday truly turned out to be leopard Thursday!

Will the next episode of Big Cat diary be recorded in Sri Lanka?

The next destination was Ella. So many travellers were raving about this little town that I had to check it out myself. There was a bus stop in front of the hotel in Tissa where a direct bus to Ella would depart. How easy does it get? Well, once the bus arrived, it turned out to be completely full. Well, full in my opinion but not according to the local standards. The conductor (yes, they have conductors on buses here…) took my bags, put them in the back and I had to somehow get in or on the bus. The seats were taken, the gangway was fully taken, the door opening was taken so there was only one option left if I wanted to follow my bags: go on the stairs and hang on to the bus on the OUTSIDE! This felt way to dangerous and luckily for me people left the bus after roughly 5 minutes, creating some space inside. Still having sweaty hands from the escapades earlier, I arrived in Ella, a town full of Westerners…

Being located in the mountains, the climate was much more comfortable; warm during the day and chilly at night. Ella is a small town taken over by tourists in order to explore the surrounding waterfalls, temples, tea factories and hikes. Most of the towns popular by tourists are very small. That way a huge part of the people on the street are Westerners making the experience completely different than walking around in large cities where the same amount of tourists are present but the percentage being much lower. Another big difference with travelling in India since Sri Lanka doesn’t have many large cities…

enjoying the view from the top of Little Adam’s Peak in Ella

The climate results in some funny sights on the street. While most people were walking around in shorts and t-shirts (and some crazy people in shirts to cover their heavily sunburnt arms and neck…), some others were wearing hats, and I’m not talking about those lame hipsters who wear a hat as a pathetic fashion statement, no I’m talking about people who are genuinely cold in 24 degrees Celcius… Well, to put things into perspective, they probably think it’s funny to see Westerners walking around in shorts in these alarmingly low temperatures…

One of the popular things to do in Ella is to go up to Little Adam’s Peak. I can hardly call it a hike since it’s so easy, but, nevertheless, it’s still a rewarding walk. On the way you can have a good view of the Nine Arches Bridge in Demodara. I timed it right since one of the three trains passed by shortly after my arrival. Less than an hour later I was enjoying the view from Little Adam’s Peak together with Simon, a man from Canada I had met during the hike.

the Nine Arches Bridge in Demodara

The next day I took a cooking class, something I wanted to do for quite some time now. Indian and Indonesian food are probably my favourite but I figured preparing a good Sri Lankan dish wouldn’t hurt either. The Spice Garden is a great place for a cooking class. The spices grow in the garden of a lovely family who teach you how to use these spices in order to make a perfect rice and curry, the traditional dish of the island. Most dishes contain only a few spices; half a teaspoon of kurkuma, one teaspoon of curry powder and another teaspoon of chili powder, together with some salt, curry leaves and pandan leaves and they’re ready to go on the fire. Some dishes were prepared with mustard seeds too. This all resulted in delicious rice, dal (lentils curry), cabbage curry, potato curry, green beans curry, papadums, salad and sambal. So yes, a lot of curries, hence the name…

The good thing about the cooking class is that it starts at 5 pm and roughly 1,5 hours later the food is ready and you get to eat it all. Fully satisfied I returned to my hotel and prepared for the adventure of the next day; the famous train ride to Kandy. According to some this is one of the most beautiful train rides in the world!

left: me enjoying a classic Sri Lankan kitchen, right: the result, a delicious rice and curry

This might actually be true but to be honest I can’t really tell you. Without any planning I took the train on a Sunday during a public holiday of four days. In other words, the train was packed with locals and tourists and I had to stand for almost the entire journey of 7 hours. Being taller than the locals I was basically looking at the roof instead of enjoying the views of tea plantations and mountains. Who knows, this might be a beautiful journey. All I can say is that it is an incredibly popular train ride…

My visit to Kandy was in service of volunteering. I signed up for working at an orphanage for two weeks but at the first day I found out there were several orphanages and switching projects every week was no problem. I started at the orphanage for disabled people, a tough but also rewarding project. As soon as you enter the building you enter a different world. The majority of the roughly 60 residents is both physically and mentally disabled and has some form of autism. We (about 10 volunteers, some staff members and nuns) started with prayers before the classes started. Classes with adults ranged from colouring to playing boardgames and from jumping around to making some music, or noise that is…

Next on the agenda was feeding the ones in wheelchairs which wasn’t easy at all. Some could barely eat, meaning most of the food ended up on the floor while others were not keen on eating at all. When the plates were empty, lunchtime had arrived for the volunteers. The afternoon session consisted of folding laundry and playing with the kids. As I mentioned before, this project was both tough and rewarding at the same time. What I found particularly tough, besides seeing these people in extremely rough conditions, was the fact I lack a decent background to cope with these people and communicate in an effective way. Of course I tried whatever I could but to be honest I had no clue whether I did the right thing or not. Let’s assume my efforts had some positive effect…

visiting the Cave Temple in Dambulla is a good idea when the rain is pouring down…

In order to experience different kinds of volunteering I went to Sigiriya the following week. They had advertised this project as being very interactive with the local community. Other than that a variety of activities would be on the agenda and wild elephants would visit the camp every now and then. Well, who can resist that?

After my weekend break to the town of Dambulla, I arrived in Sigiriya. The camp was located in the countryside which was another 30 minutes by tuktuk from the main street. On arrival I met a very heterogenous group of volunteers. Some girls who didn’t seem to be very open minded, a young lady who was very alternative and emotional and was there to change the world and a gay fellow from Venezuela, who was high maintenance and seeked attention on a continuous basis, were some of the key players. And then there was Alex, a 19 year old guy from Wisconsin who was, to use his words, ‘winging it’. Travelling with his hammock, studying calculus during the project and being some sort of an Elon Musk 2.0 in the near future as his objective in life, he turned out to be good company and always up for an interesting conversation.

Alex at work while the monkeys keep an eye out on the roof

After the first day of work, the majority of the group decided to quit with a lack of work due to heavy rain being the main reason. This turned out to be a major improvement of the atmosphere in camp. The next days were filled with some temple renovation and gardening. Work at the temple was hampered by a very stubborn monk who was in charge of the project. He was a little know-it-all who didn’t knew it all if you know what I mean. And he was not thankful at all which is a bit weird for a monk if you’d ask me…

So in the end this project had hardly any interaction with the local community and the elephants never showed up when I was there. Due to the heavy rain (it poured down the entire week!) we were not able to accomplish much besides planting some cinnamon and eggplants, making this project not the most rewarding. I had booked this volunteering through an organization called IVHQ. They focus more on what I would call voluntourism. Hardly any money goes to the projects and their target group seems to be young students who go abroad for the first time. Their parents are not comfortable to let them go independently and therefore they go volunteering. IVHQ is more than happy to organize weekend trips and other trips on top of it to make more money. Their employees seem to make decent money but the actual projects appear to be of secundary importance. So, in the future I would never book volunteering through IVHQ but probably just show up in an area where help is needed and ‘wing it’ as Alex would say!

the views were not too bad in Polonnaruwa during the bike ride

As I have mentioned before, the main religion in Sri Lanka is Buddhism. In the third century BC the first monasteries were established in Anuradhapura. After years of decline, king Vijayabahu I created a revival in the eleventh century AD by repairing the monasteries and restoring the tradition. In Polonnaruwa ruins of this era can be seen. Initially this historically important town was not on the itinerary but, because of some good reviews, I decided to give it a go. On an unexpected sunny day (rain was in the forecast) daddy grabbed a bike and checked out all 26 sights…

Polonnaruwa is spread out and my guest house was somewhere bordering the countryside. In other words, I had to cycle quite a bit in the heat. I started at the museum in order to get a nice overview of everything the ruins have to offer. However, when busloads of Chinese entered the museum I had to move on. With some idea of what all the ruins were about, I visited them one by one. The most interesting ruin was the vatadage, at least in my opinion. I appreciate ruins that are still mostly intact more than just a few rocks were imagination has to do the work. The vatadage is a fine example of such a ruin. This ancient structure, a round building consisting of two platforms decorated with elaborate stone carvings, is built for the protection of a small stupa. The lower platform is entered through a single entrance facing the north, while the second platform can be accessed through four doorways facing the four cardinal points. The upper platform, surrounded by a brick wall, contains the stupa. Four Buddha statues are seated around it, each facing one of the entrances. This is said to be one of the architectural marvels of Polonnaruwa!

the Vatadage in Polonnaruwa is quite a remarkable piece of architecture

The next 20 ruins or so couldn’t match the Vatadage in my opinion but, of course, some of them were still impressive. There were two giant stupas, one of them was in really good state. Interesting to note was the combination of both Buddhism and Hinduism which was visible on some of the buildings. The Buddha statues and stupas obviously refer to Buddhism but the beautiful reliefs on some of the outer walls are signs of influence from Hinduism. Also, there were a few Shiva statues…

At one of the last ruins, when I was completely sunburnt and dehydrated, I met Carla. She had been volunteering too during the week and seemed to be ‘done’ with the ruins just like me, at that point. We decided to quickly bike past the remaining sights before going for a well deserved lunch. The rather comprehensive rice and curry buffet at Priyamali Gedara turned out to be a great way to finish my stay in Polonnaruwa and continue the journey to the north.

Besides the differences between India and Sri Lanka I have already talked about, there are of course many similarities as well. Although the food is not exactly similar, both cuisines are highlighted by their rice, curries and breads. The streets in both countries are filled with tuktuk drivers who target every single tourist. Sometimes it’s handy, other times I found it annoying since you can’t simply walk around without being disturbed. Finally, the locals are not ashamed to ask you whether you’re married or not within 30 seconds. Something I found quite uncomfortable but it happened over and over again in both countries. Apparently it’s very important to them…

“Pssst, Pssst, Hey, Hello sir, Pssst, You need tuktuk?”

When I arrived in Anuradhapura I decided I had had my share of local habits for a while. Even though this city is famous for its ancient sights, I went to a luxurious hotel and watched Federer – Nadal in the final of the Australian Open. This turned out to be the best excursion of the entire trip. Because of superstition I initially wanted to watch the game at the Swiss Garden Hotel but I figured a stronger wifi connection could be vital in order to stream the match and therefore I visited the posh Rajarata hotel instead. For some reason, I had good hope for the maestro to win against all odds. The ups and downs in the match were remarkable and the fact that just Federer came back in the fifth set made the victory even better. The old man is now on 18 and still counting. For some minutes a random Dutchman was cheering and jumping up and down in the lobby of a hotel in Anuradhapura, a place where people know little about soccer and even less about tennis…

Of course, I didn’t come all the way to Anuradhapura just to watch a game of tennis on my laptop. No, the cherry on the cake was a visit to Wilpattu National Park, located roughly 30 kilometers to the west of the city. The manager of the Bevary Holiday Homes, my home for a few days in Anuradhapura, had arranged a jeep for me from the so-called Wilpattu junction. The next morning he gave me a ride on his scooter to the bus station at 5:20 am. Before I knew, I was off to another classic safari with local breakfast (vegetable and chicken roti) and biscuits in my bag. The bus could cover the distance to the junction in less than 30 minutes, especially at that time of the day. However, they decided to pick flowers for the bus and wait for monks every now and then. As a result I arrived 30 minutes late for my safari. Usually I’m a big fan of Buddhism, however, this time I wasn’t…

Hmm… is that a turtle over there? Can I eat that?

Luckily my driver was waiting for me and shortly after arrival at the junction, we were in the jeep mainly looking for leopards and sloth bears. Wilpattu is the largest park of the country with its 1317 squared kilometers and, just like Yala, known for its leopards. Was this day going to be a ‘leopard Tuesday’? Well, soon after our start, this question was answered by a definite YES. The cat was washing itself while laying down on the road. Together with only two other jeeps I enjoyed the sight. When we came closer the cat quickly made its way into the thick forest. Just before we left the park we had another encounter with a leopard (possibly the same one) close to the entrance gate. This time the cat was watching a turtle slowly walking away. The leopard seemed to be slightly confused what to do with it…

During the day, in between breaks, we saw deer, jackals, buffaloes, warthog and I’m pretty sure I saw a toucan but the driver slash guide had no idea what I was talking about. Besides these usual suspects we had a close encounter with another pretty special creature, one I had never seen before. The driver turned out to be a very good spotter and noticed something in the thick forest. Suddenly the trees were shaking and shortly after, a sloth bear showed up. Ok, it’s not a leopard but still an impressive animal to see for the first time!

a sloth bear wandering around looking for food in Wilpattu National Park

Around 6:30 pm I left the park together with a handful of other jeeps. Back at the junction a public bus arrived pretty soon which took me back to Anuradhapura. This time we didn’t stop to pick flowers so I was back in town in only 20 minutes. One more dinner, some souvenir shopping and a train ride back to Colombo were the only things left to do in Sri Lanka. Well, besides a bus ride to the airport that is. Most conductors use a ticket machine and based on the journey you have to pay a particular price. Some dodgy conductors however, don’t use this machine. Their main reason seems to be to rip off foreigners. All the locals pay during the journey and on the final destination usually the foreigners leave the bus and suddenly have to pay a much higher price. Luckily I knew the exact price the locals had to pay for a ride to the airport and I was aware of the tactic used by the conductor. So, when I got to the airport and the conductor asked for a ridiculous 500 rupees (still only € 3 but it’s all about the principle here…) he got angry when I paid him the regular fare of only 50 rupees. After an exchange of some unfriendly words the poor man took his loss and my trip to Sri Lanka had come to a rather unpleasant end.

So, time to wrap things up. I had a rather full agenda in the four weeks on the island. Initially it looked like it could be a bit too much, especially in combination with the volunteering. However, when I look back at the trip the only place I would have liked to spend more time was Tangalle. Other than that, it was a pretty decent trip. I’d say Sri Lanka has a lot to offer. Nothing really stands out in my opinion but the island has many places that are worth checking out. Since the country is pretty small you can easily go around and enjoy a safari one day and a hike, some interesting culture or the beach the other day. All in all most of the expectations were met. The volunteering would be something I’ll use a different approach for next time. The money, time and energy has to go to the local project instead of a large worldwide organization.

During the report I tried to compare Sri Lanka with its big brother. Although Sri Lanka is in many ways a more beautiful country, I probably still prefer India as an experience. Especially the north of India is one big chaos which makes everything an adventure. This attracts a different crowd compared to the tourists you’ll find in Sri Lanka. Also, the food has more variety in India. Rice and curry is nice but after eating more or less the same food for twenty times, I was craving for something else. I guess for an experience India has more to offer but, if you’re looking for a nice holiday, then don’t look any further and go to Sri Lanka. With so many beaches to choose from, you can hardly go wrong!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Sri Lanka!

6 Responses to Sri Lanka; a little bit of everything…

  1. Olaf says:

    Ha Paul! I read your warning about the length of the report but I thought, let’s give it a shot..and I’m glad I did. Really enjoyed reading it (and finished right on time for Legia-Ajax ;)). Especially your adventures with the public transportation…I now have a fun image in my mind with you hanging from a bus haha. I also think I know exactly what your group in the orphanage looked like. Well described ;).
    Nice pictures too! A destination to keep in mind. What’s next? Back to the snow?

    • Paul says:

      Hi Olaf, thanks for reading the post about Sri Lanka! The adventure with the bus was indeed quite something, I can remember hanging onto those rails on the outside of that bus! Sri Lanka is definitely a fun destination that has a lot to offer. Now I’m in Georgia chasing the snow, also a very interesting destination!

  2. Maurice says:

    Leuk stuk Paulus!!! Hopelijk bevalt Georgië net zo goed!! Geniet ervan!!

  3. Jan-Willem says:

    Hey Paul! Thank you for your report and the beautiful pictures. Nice to read. The pictures are really special!

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