It feels strange to think we’ve been in Sri Lanka just two weeks, it feels so much longer. For Susie and myself it’s been just the tonic (with gin, of course) we needed. A new culture, friendly people and wonderful sights all within short distances of each other. In fact it wouldn’t be wrong to say we took one look, smiled with glee and ran at it, arms waving madly. Tuk-tuks – bring it on; mad local buses – we’ll try them; spicy food – we’ll eat it.
Sri Lanka is often referred to as a gentle version of India and we think that’s an apt description. Except when it comes to the driving. Our tuk-tuk driver, Saranga, took us into the old fort at Galle and demonstrated why Ferrari should seriously consider Sri Lanka as a place to source F1 drivers to help improve their ailing results. There’s definitely a pecking order on the road here. Tuk-tuk drivers are bottom of the ladder and to survive they need fast reflexes. Buses and vans will happily mow them down but they duck and dive here and there finding gaps, dodging pedestrians and dogs. Next up the pecking order are vans and cars. Probably the most comfortable form of travel, they have to keep their eyes on the tuk-tuks and bigger buses. Buses rule, they are bigger and faster and they know it. Through the mountainous interior they tear along, throwing themselves around corners, seemingly determined to run man, dog, stray monkey and tuk-tuk down. A town centre doesn’t mean they slow down; they keep going, it’s a brave man who sits in the front of the bus looking out. Yet we always felt safe and it made us smile and chuckle as we hurtled and bounced along.
The old Dutch fort town of Galle is on the up with buildings being tastefully restored, locals walk along the magnificent walls, a cricket game here and there, we enjoyed it. Back in Mirissa we packed our backpacks, locked Adina up and headed for the interior.
First stop, Kataragama, a name we repeatedly failed to pronounce, and a chance to watch an evening Puja at a temple unique in that it is a place where both Buddhists and Hindus worship. Masses arrive at sunset wearing sparkling white clothes as a sign of respect, scented incense drifts into the air accompanied by the sound of slowly beaten drums and chants. Silently watching it all, Susie was handed a bunch of incense sticks to hold. It caught fire! Locals quickly beat it out but that left Susie keeping a beady eye on the rest of the sticks.
Next on to Yala National Park where with an excellent guide we ticked off elephant, leopard, deer, water buffalo, lots of crocodiles, wild boar, mongoose and more birds than you can call cuckoo at. We’ve always said we’ll know we are getting old when we start identifying birds but the variety and volume was like nothing we’d seen before – that’s our excuse anyway. Our guide would get chairs and table out for our breaks and serve us – it felt frightfully colonial. A stand out moment was when we bizarrely spotted some domestic animals and our guide piped up as he had been doing for more rare animals, “Madam. Cows!”
Sri Lanka is the third largest producer of tea in the world and we headed up into the highlands to see wonderfully green tea plantations scattered here, there and everywhere. Some lovely hiking, and only in Sri Lanka can you walk along a railway, cross a railway bridge and step aside to let a train pass. An obligatory trip to a tea factory and we are now a little wiser on how it’s made – wilting, rolling, drying, sorting away all for the sake of an enjoyable cuppa. And we learnt only the heathen English drink it dark and strong!
A train ride in stunning scenery took us up to a place called Nuwara Eliya (another tongue twister) with its old English buildings still propped up and more hiking in the lovely Horton’s Plain National Park. Here we stayed with a local family in a so called homestay which essentially means you stay in a room in their house. We’d been keen to learn some Sri Lankan recipes and the mother of the house was all too happy to show us. Sri Lankan curries take a long time in preparation and the reason quickly becomes obvious. Rice and curry (not curry and rice) always consists of three to five curries (and sometimes ten on special occasions) whereas in most countries it’s just one curry. The curry amounts are smaller but three to five curries takes a lot of preparation. Susie and I took notes and tasted as we went along. One vital ingredient cropped up, “Delshie”, “Delshie?”, “Yes, Delshie”. Blank looks from us. The daughter was duly called in and all was revealed – dill seeds. Even then we had to google Sri Lanka dill seeds as they are ground differently to those back home.
Back on the train and another insane local bus ride, our next stop Dalhousie. Positively a one horse town, it serves as the base for Adam’s Peak upon which sits a Buddha footprint and is a pilgrimage site for Sri Lankans. It’s a mere 5500 steps to the top and it was a pilgrimage weekend – planning gone awry! We tried to get some sleep before setting off at 1.30am. What’s most impressive about the pilgrimage is that the entire Sri Lankan family comes along, and we mean the entire family. Junior, the teenagers, boyfriend, Mum, Dad, Aunty Flo, Uncle Bob and the grandparents too! We saw little ones less than five years old and old ones well into their eighties. What starts off as a fun family outing slowly but surely turns into a battle. Young ones are carried, boyfriends drag up girlfriends fast flagging and poor old granny is heaved up by two members of the family. That said, there were a couple of old girls who determinedly pushed their way up and down, and it was a good tactic to snake in behind them as they burrowed through the crowds. The one snag is that the families occupy the whole pathway and to get past on steps rapidly increasing in steepness is no easy effort. The whole way up is lit with lights and tea shops that get progressively more expensive. We marched on and got to the point where there are in theory only 1500 steps to go. The path was jam packed five people wide and wasn’t moving. Fortunately to the side was another path and we saw a few younger locals slipping down it. We had downloaded google maps beforehand that confirmed this was a mud path to the other side of the mountain and linked up with another approach. It was a longer way up but we realised we had no choice if we wanted to summit. Off we went and linked up with the other approach, still crowded but moving, albeit slowly. We got to a platform and ground to a halt but heard someone say, “We’ve made it!” We jostled our way up to the temple and finally found a nice spot to see the famed sunrise. Walking down we could still see long queues waiting to reach the top. And lots of casualties slowly going down. We went as fast as we could, fired up by the thought of roti, banana and honey waiting for us at the bottom!
No two ways about it, we’ve taken to Sri Lanka in a big way. We love the people and their kindness. It’s so easy to get around, there’s lots to see and even the tasty curries are happily tamed down to save our stomachs. Best of all, we’ve got more to go. Up to Kandy, Dambulla and Anuradhapura before finally making our way back to the friendly town of Mirissa to rejoin Adina.
For the old fashioned here’s a link to a popular social media website for more pictures – click here