Oh Sri Lanka, that’s interesting. So,why did you go there? A lot of people ask me this question when I tell them I went to Sri Lanka. It’s unfortunate because it’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. Maybe the fact that no one sees any particular reason to go there is why it’s still so awesome and not overrun with neon tank-topped backpackers. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no better than anyone else, I didn’t really have any intentions of going there either. When I was booking my flight to the Maldives (more later), everything transferred through Colombo so I thought, oh what the hell, I’ll spend a couple days there and see what it’s all about.
Since I had such a short amount of time (only 2 full days) I splurged and booked a private tour so that I could maximize my time. And when I say splurge, I mean I spent $300 for a veteran, fluent English speaking guide/driver, 3 nights in a hotel, food, and all transportation.
Things got off to a bit of a rocky start when I arrived at the airport in Bangkok and Sri Lankan airlines told me that my 7:30 PM flight (which I was confirmed on and checked in to) was full, sorry, but they could put me on a flight at 11AM the next day. Um, what? That wasn’t going to work at all since Raveen was supposed to pick me up at the airport at 10:00PM that night and drive an hour to the beach town, Negombo. Basically, Sri Lankan decided to change to a smaller plane and as a result 20+ people got bumped. I put away my recently acquired Thai sensibilities and went American on them. I stole so many faces at the airport. But, long story short, I got on a 10PM flight that night, which still disrupted my plans, but only by a few hours. A pregnant lady wasn’t allowed to fly and I’m convinced that since I made the biggest scene at the airport, they gave me her seat because they probably just wanted to get me the F outta there.
I arrived in Colombo without any other problems and Raveen picked me up. He was a 50ish year old, smiling Sri Lankan guy and he was really friendly. Since it was just going to be the two of us for 2 days, the 14 passenger van that the tour company provided us seemed like a good, economical transportation choice.
The next morning we got an early start. We had a long trip ahead of us to Dambulla, a town in the middle of the country. The long drive was cool, I got a chance to see a lot of stuff. The whole 7 hour trip was on a 2 lane road; about 30% of the time we were in the correct lane. There are also more tuk-tuks in this country than I have ever seen anywhere. For a developing country, Sri Lankans have an amazing appreciation for nature, unlike I’ve seen anywhere else. Everything was so green and lush. We drove past textile factories, brick factories, rubber plantations, and small towns and there was no scarcity of trees. It was also a holiday and every 10 miles or so, there was a group of people with flags and whistles giving out free food and drinks.
We got to the hotel around 2:00 and Raveen told me to meet him at 4:00 and we would go see elephants. I totally forgot what my itinerary was for the trip and when he told me this, honestly I was kind of like, oh great, this is going to be one of those “let’s take the white person to see some elephants chained to trees and feed them bananas” situations. I decided to get an Ayurvedic massage during my 2 hour break and it was relaxing and not painful which was a nice change from Thai massage.
At 4:00 I headed to “see the elephants” and I was not excited. That sounds very spoiled of me, but I have already done the elephant thing in Thailand like half a dozen times, and while it is cool to see them up close, I didn’t come all the way to Sri Lanka to do the same thing I could do 2 hours from Bangkok.
Wow, I was totally wrong. This was a safari. We drove through a national park for several hours on dirt paths and I saw probably close to 100 wild elephants. Despite still being endangered, Sri Lanka has the only growing elephant population in the world. They were in big herds in open fields hanging out and eating grass and making funny noises. I saw some tromping through the forest ripping off tree branches and just chowing down. They eat a lot. I also saw peacocks, water buffalo, monkeys, a not that exotic tree squirrel, lots of birds, and I ate some kind of delicious tree nut that a Sri Lankan guy gave me. So unexpectedly awesome.
On the way back to the hotel, I wanted to drink one of the ubiquitous orange coconuts that are for sale everywhere. They are aptly calle King Coconuts, and they are appropriately huge and golden. I had to pee about 10 minutes later. One of the things I will miss most about the tropics is the ability to buy a coconut for 50 cents, get it hacked open horror movie style with a butcher’s knife and drink it on the street, as opposed to going to Whole Foods to buy an 8 oz. bottle for $5.
That night I ate lots of Sri Lankan food at the dinner buffet. The chefs were all surprised at me because A: I was a woman travelling alone, and B: because I passed by the big vats of Macaroni and Cheese and went for the small pots of delicious, spicy Sri Lankan foods. I couldn’t believe how many foreigners just ate pasta and Chicken Piccata and bread. What the hell is the point of coming here?? Whatever, more for me.
The next day was kind of a mish mash of different activities. We were generally centered around Kandy, which is an important religious city in the center of the island. The “Temple of the Tooth” is located here which is supposed to house one of Buddha’s teeth. Apparently the monks at the temple have been corrupted and charge lots of money now to enter the complex, so I was ok skipping that.
We went to a spice garden first. The central part of the country is like a Garden of Eden for spices. The gardens are all regulated by the government and you drive down the road and they are all numbered. Like they just have a big sign in front that says “16”. Raveen was surprisingly open about the fact that anything I buy here, he gets a kick back for. It’s something that is always assumed by the saavy tourist, but there was something refreshing about him telling me straight up instead of pretending like he didn’t. They grew so many things: nutmeg, rubber, jack fruit, cinnamon, peppercorn, rose something, something else, another thing, and cocaine but they said they don’t produce enough to make it illegal. Then I got another massage, this one for free, with a special Red Oil. After the tour, I’ll just say that Raveen’s honesty with me from the beginning paid off for him, pun intended.
The next stop was really cool. Many people know that there are huge textile factories in Sri Lanka. When a company like Polo has shirts made, they produce roughly 110% of what is required so that if there are defects, it’s like an insurance policy. However, if the order is perfect, that extra 10% gets offloaded into the local market basically at cost. So we skipped over some of the touristy stuff on our itinerary to go to Raveen’s buddy’s house to shop, both of us. We took the massive van down a way too small back alley and wedged it in between a rock wall and a tree and went shopping. I got like $500 worth of clothes (at retail) for like $25. It almost beats the Nantucket Dump prices.
I wanted to see a Batik factory so we went there next. Batiks are cloth paintings made with wax. They paint with hot wax, then dye the cloth, peel the wax, paint again, dye the cloth again, peel the wax etc. I remember doing something similar when I was like 7, but the stuff these women were making was amazing, way better than an elementary school student from Connecticut. Sometimes they stitch gold thread into them when they are done.
After the Batiks, it was lunch time. We drove into downtown Kandy and wandered around for a little while before going to a tourist trap restaurant just outside the city. Despite not being local at all, I got a really awesome meal of 9 different bowls of Sri Lankan food so that I could try everything. I loved almost all of it except for the sardine paste.
You may be thinking, wow, it seems like this trip went so smoothly except for the flight issue in Bangkok… After lunch our trusty van wouldn’t start. I am no mechanic, but I have spent enough time in the developing world that I know everyone around me inherently has more knowledge about how an engine works than 95% of mechanics in America, so I wasn’t too concerned. I learned something new that day. On a standard car, if you push it and pop the clutch it will start. So 10 guys and a dog showed up out of nowhere, literally, we were in the forest on the top of a mountain, and pushed the car through the dirt parking lot while I helpfully stood and watched. Well, that didn’t work. So I learned something else new that day. If you push a large van down a mountain and pop the clutch, it will start. Voila, we were back in business and on our way to a tea plantation.
The Geragama Estate produces what is known worldwide as Ceylon Tea and has done so for over 100 years. They grow the tea, ferment it, and package it at this estate in the mountains outside of Kandy. I took a walk around and then sat and drank tea in a colonial-esque wooden room. The tea was flavored with 19th century British imperialism with undertones of Portugese occupation. There are several different types of tea that range in quality. In this particular area, they grow mostly black tea. By the way, the van was on the whole time, sitting outside of the factory. We asked a local guy to make sure no one stole it or any of the stuff inside. Thanks bro.
That was pretty much the end of my whirlwind tour. My only regret is that I didn’t have more time. I know that I only saw a fraction of all the amazing things this small country has to offer. It has everything that a mega tourism destination requires, minus the tourists, so go while you can, before the neon tank tops get there.