Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Circumnavigating Sri Lanka

By the time we found ourselves standing, a little like fish out of water due to our extreme sleep deprivation, by the taxi stands at the front of the airport, we were just about ready to drop. Using our last bit of fight to knock down the price of a ride to 500 rupees from more than double that, we arrived at a room we had previously booked in a nicer than expected airport hotel and fell into bed and immediately to sleep.

All too soon midday and check-out time came around and we got to experience our first real taste of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately it turned out to be a lunch that left a bitter taste as we were taken for more than double what two plates of rice and curry should have cost us because we didn’t ask the price first. Rookie mistake and we had only ourselves to blame. That said, not once since that time in a cafĂ© clearly wise to how much tourists fresh off the plane are worth, has anyone here attempted to overcharge us.

With a lack of any plan, we decided that checking out the kiting was as good a plan as any and made our way to the train station in Negombo. Here we discovered that there were only two trains a day, one at 5am and the next at 6pm and that it would take around three hours to reach Puttalam, from where we would need to catch a bus to take us to Kalpitiya, the kiting mecca of Sri Lanka. With some hours to kill we wandered around the fish market and around the old Dutch fort before buying our 50p tickets for the train to Puttalam.

Arriving in Kalpitya the following morning after a night spent in a cheap, but heavily cockroach infested room next to the train station, we were surprised to find a tiny end-of-the-road town with only a few shops and not much else. I think I’d been expecting a place centered around kiting, full of gear stores and the usual tourist related paraphernalia, but there was none of this. We picked a random ‘kite resort’ on the lagoon that was within our budget and hopped in a tuk tuk.

The term ‘resort’ is used very loosely in Sri Lanka. Resort to me conjures up an all-inclusive style, pristine, family-friendly environment with crystal blue swimming pools encircled by sun bed loungers. Here, resort is included in the name of just about every type of accommodation on offer from larger hotels to the most basic of shacks on the beach. Perhaps misleadingly, but more likely in anticipation of what Kalpitiya will very likely become in the not so distant future. The town has been known as a prominent kiting destination for almost ten years now, but its popularity has only exploded in the last four, causing a flurry of building activity, so far mostly cabana style huts and single storey chalets, but already with one or two large hotel complexes in the mix. 

Kalpitiya has a Hopkins vibe about it, rough dirt roads and basic rooms with little to do except kite. Local kiters talk excitedly about the time when the road will be paved and even more people will come, but I can’t help wincing a little at these high hopes, feeling that, as in Hopkins, such progress changes a place forever and not always for the better.

Interestingly, resort isn’t the only word commonly misused in Sri Lanka. Hotels are in fact restaurants and rarely places offering accommodation, something that has taken a little getting used to when arriving in a town in which we plan to stay but with no room booked.

Surprisingly, the afternoon we arrived the wind was blowing nicely. We settled ourselves into our room and enjoyed a very good dinner of fish and rice and vegetables cooked by our host. Evan talked to a local kite instructor about renting gear and it seemed we were set for a few days relaxing by the beach. Of course, the following morning we awoke to pouring rain and zero wind and a forecast that suggested it wouldn’t be returning anytime soon. 

Given it was only a few days before Christmas at this point we decided to splash out and move to another ‘resort’ nearby that boasted a swimming pool. Upon arrival we found somewhere very similar to where we’d just been, albeit three times the price. We had the ‘resort’ to ourselves. Realising we didn’t want to spend a week sitting there doing nothing, we had to come up with an alternative plan. 

As soon as we arrived we rented a couple of automatic scooters so we could explore the area without the tedious tuk tuk negotiation every time we wanted to move. With no wind there was no point staying in Kalpitiya so we hammered out a deal with the rental guy to swap the scooters for two motorbikes for a couple of weeks. The rental guy was a little vague about what exactly the bikes would be but the following day he showed up with a Bajaj Discover 100M and a Yamaha FZ-S 180. One very underpowered, but solid and comfortable enough, the other with a seat certainly not designed for a human being to sit on for more than an hour at a time. Still, they were to be our steeds for the time being and it gave us a good opportunity to try out different possibilities ahead of potentially buying bikes later in the trip.

And so we set out in the pouring rain towards Kandy, a city almost in the centre of Sri Lanka, surrounded by mountains and beautiful tea plantations. We had left late in the day and now soaked to the skin, we decided to stop short of the city in an odd little guesthouse with an even stranger owner. To start with it wasn’t where google maps claimed it was, but as consistently as ever in this wonderfully friendly country, we had only stopped by the road for a matter of minutes before two local guys had stopped, one calling the hotel for us and the other then leading us to it on his bike. It was something that happened time and time again. Finally we could let down the guard we had built up in Morocco and start talking to people.

The room was about what we expected - grubby, with two inch thick, tired foam mattresses on two single beds pushed together. We stacked the mattresses, noting the three inch thick dust on the floor under the bed and empty condom packets left over from previous occupants, but it was by no means the worst place we’ve ever stayed. Predictably, the owner did not have any change when we attempted to pay the following morning, so Evan rode into town to change some notes at the gas station while I fended off the advances of our host who took Evan’s absence to mean he had free licence to grope me at every opportunity whilst repeatedly asking for selfies and telling me about how his wife left him and took their daughter with her, something he seemed quite pleased about. Thankfully, he was not representative of all of other Sri Lankan men we would meet.

Riding into Kandy was up there with some of the busiest traffic we’ve had to contend with. Slowly shuffling through a near stationary scrum of cars, trucks, buses, tuk tuk’s and other motorcycles, it took us a very long time to reach the next odd little guesthouse we would stay at. Up in the hills not far from the Royal Botanical Gardens, we found it eventually up several steeply inclined tracks by trial and error and some friendly pointed directions from bemused locals. 

As the place we were staying was somewhat isolated, we rode into town and decided to stay there somewhat later than we normally would that evening in the hope the traffic might die down, so it was a couple of hours after dark that we discovered the Yamaha had no working lights, which made for an interesting ride back home. Upon arrival back at our room our host kindly cut us down a jackfruit, something akin to a durian, and presented us each with a large bowl of this strange fruit, along with a bowl of salted water for dipping the segments in prior to eating them. I’m a bit of a funny one with textures and whist I didn’t dislike the flavour of the fruit itself, the texture was, I imagine, akin to swallowing sweet and salty slugs and after half a dozen pieces I had to quit.

After a visit to the beautiful Botanical Gardens in the morning with their trees packed to the rafters with enormous fruit bats, we rode south through some of the most incredible tea country I’ve ever seen. Despite the concerns of a local pastor I stopped to talk to whilst Evan got something fixed on his bike at the mechanic shop next door, we pressed on further than we had planned and arrived just after dark at the Riverside guesthouse run by a local family in Maskeliya on the edge of the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary. The mother was very excited by our arrival as we were to be the first guests they had hosted in a new part of their house and so we were treated to a brand new sprung mattress for the first time in many nights and a very good home cooked dinner courtesy of our host for just a few pennies. 

The following morning I hiked up through the adjacent tea plantation to admire the views across the lakes to Adam’s Peak. Along the way villagers stopped to practice their English, children politely shook hands and a couple of small boys engaged me in their gun battle, huge smiles on their faces.

I’d never really thought about it before, but Sri Lanka is one of the largest tea producing countries in the world. We rode through tea plantations in Vietnam and Malaysia, but tea country in Sri Lanka is in a league of its own. Winding mountain roads and paths barely wide enough for a four wheeled vehicle provided us with hours of stunning views, increasingly beautiful with every corner that we turned. As we rode along, scanning the horizon for kamikaze buses hurtling towards us, children would shout excitedly and hold out their hands for a high-five as we passed. Tea pickers would stop what they were doing, put down their baskets and wave from the hillsides, clearly delighted to see these odd foreigners on bikes enjoying their world.

From here we headed out to the coast at Panadura, just south of Colombo. Arriving just a few minutes late to witness what had evidently been a stunning sunset, we spent the night in a local tourist hotel right on the beach and fell asleep to the sounds of local lads having their own private beach party, punctuated with the tinny chimes of the ubiquitous bread wagons playing Fur Elise on repeat, making us want to scratch our eyes out.

The south coast was something of a disappointment. It was also where we had our only police stop. From the corner of my eye I saw two cops standing by the road clock Evan as he rode past, before one of them firmly and decisively stepped out in front of me and held up his hand. Usually our tactic with police stops is to ignore them if at all possible and simply ride on, pretending we didn’t realise they were aiming their request at us. This has worked well plenty of times, but there really was no way of avoiding this guy.

I pulled over and he asked to see my licence. He seemed friendly enough so I obliged. It’s a grey area with licencing in Sri Lanka. I have a full UK bike licence and an international driving permit so I wasn’t concerned, but I was also vaguely aware that to legally drive there we were supposed to buy a Sri Lankan licence and this is exactly what the cop explained to me. He said he appreciated that I had stopped and that I had shown him my driving licence, but that I should get the correct paperwork as soon as possible before letting me leave with a cheery smile. No fine, no drama.

We continued along the coast to the uber-touristy town of Galle, taking a room in the very honestly named Lighthouse Inn, where we were greeted by a stony-faced woman who appeared to have just gotten out of bed at 2pm. She ushered us into our room and promptly disappeared. Galle is clearly the Hoi An of Sri Lanka, everything within the fort walls at least three times the price of anywhere else in town. After paying 250 rupees each for iced lemon tea we watched the sunset over the sea before walking over to the city proper to buy a very good dinner for little more than 100 rupees for both of us.

The next morning, our host reappeared as we were about to leave, all sweetness and light, asking us to write her a good review, whining that ‘only the bad people who come here write stuff and my reviews are very bad’. We decided to let it go and not get into explaining to her that her reviewers maybe had a point. Back on the road again we diverted away from the coast a little, north east towards Udawalawa, to spend Christmas with elephants.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow wow wow. This all looks brilliant and your blog is so interesting. Stay safe Caroline and enjoy xx - Jenny - xx