Letters from Lanka

I often plan my holidays in great detail. And this was my first full fledged holiday with Suraj, so I understand why I may have annoyed him several times leading up to the vacation. While I’m willing to rework the itinerary fairly liberally on the fly, there’s always some respite in knowing how to budget, what you’re really looking forward to doing and what you just may have to give a miss. And it’s a great feeling when people who’ve travelled a place before, longer than you have (or live in it), approve of a travel plan that you’ve chalked out in the best interest of time and finances.

We were picked up at the Bandarnayake Airport late Friday night by our AirBnB host, Isuru, who seemed more than pleased with our itinerary – he said it wasn’t rushed and yet, we we’d managed to make sure we’d checked a bunch of things off our Sri Lanka list.

We had a half day in Colombo on February 27th, 2016 and we spent most part of our morning talking to Prathap – a writer from Bangalore, who we shared our space the previous night with. This was his second visit to Sri Lanka, the first being three weeks long, and this one, another three weeks. That made him the only person I know who has holidayed in Sri Lanka for more than 4 days. When he gave our 8-day itinerary a thumbs up too, I couldn’t help feel a little smug about my skills. I’d have liked to given it a full two weeks, but Suraj, needed to be back in Bangalore for work.

The rest of the morning was spent at the Colombo Fort station, booking and re-booking a few train tickets for the days ahead, strolling around the Old Dutch Hospital, sipping beers and taking buses up and down a picturesque Galle Face Green. We snacked on marinated olives outside the Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque, walked past the telegraph office and a giant old school telephone scultpure and made our way to Anuradhapura.

Manoj, who befriended us as soon as we got out at Anuradhapura ended up driving us around the area and to Kandy over the next two days. We got to Lake Wave Hotel where Upali, the owner, had prepped some vegetable fried rice for us. That and some pol sambol, with (more) Lion Lager made for the simplest, yet most delicious meal I’ve had in many many months.

We started early on Sunday, with ambitious plans to cover Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Mihintale in a day. We managed all three, comfortably, came home to our first rice and curry experience and slept like babies after. Sigiriya is a beautiful walk through well-organized lawns, moats and architecture of yore which then turns into an almost-vertical, grueling climb to a pair of ginormous lion paws, through Buddhist frescoes and to the top of a rock sprinkled with remains of a kingdom that once was.

A drive through endless marshes packed with lotuses and the occasional stork lead you to Polonnaruwa, where we spent a good 2-3 hours walking around stupas (Viharas, as they’re called in Sri Lanka), sprawling sculptures of Buddha, the odd step well, intricate carvings in stone and numerous toque macaques. More than once, we wondered how terribly maintained the few heritage sites we’ve visited in India are. Our lunch was a mix of roadside samoas and stuff from our first sighting of a ‘choon van’  that afternoon – a tuk-tuk converted into a mobile stall that sold all sorts of native sweets made from varying combinations of coconut, jaggery, flour and spices.

A little over an hour away from Polonnaruwa, and closer to Anuradhapura, is Mihintale. We, very conveniently, ended up about halfway up the climb to Mihintale. There’s 1600 steps in all, or so we were told. Gruelling as the climb was (what with the Sigiriya hike and the 3 odd kilometres around Polonnaruwa), watching the sun set atop Mihintale made things better. We skipped climbing up Aradhana Gala, which is just next to the Maha Seya stupa because a bunch of noisy school kids seemed to have conquered it and made it their spot for the evening. Besides, I think we got a little caught up staring at (and subsequently, avoiding) angsty toque macaques who seemed to be making a feast out of lotus blossoms. After a quick stop over at Kaludiya Pokuna, the black water lake just at the foothill and we head back to Anuradhapura. While we didn’t really manage to get any site-seeing done in Anuradhapura, we did spend our last hour before dinner at the Ruwanwelisaya Chedi, among local folk clad in white with lotus-filled plates filled, paying their respects to Buddha.


We got back to Lake Wave dog-tired and Upali welcomed us home with our first curry and rice meal of our holiday. Little did we know that five curries served up with rice was a bare minimum. A lot of places later on in our holiday boasted of 10. The meal ended with us polishing off whatever was left of the rice with some spicy sambol and a pineapple slice each – a surprisingly interesting combination (I’m a pineapple on pizza hater, for the record).

Monday morning started early too, with Manoj driving us to Dambulla. He stopped by the Dambulla wholesale vegetable market because we looked like the kind of idiots who’d be thrilled by that sort of thing. It’s a short, rocky hike up to the cave temple. The monastery feels like some of the cloisters I’ve visited in Europe. Stark buildings, with some greenery and flora. And wide open spaces around. The paintings inside the cave temple and monastery are breath-taking and we spent a good while sitting around atop the Dambulla hill.

We made our way to Kandy from Dambulla. Manoj took a little detour to the Nalanda Gedige temple which, were told, was a Hindu temple built to mark a possible attempt at the fusion of Tamil and Sinhalese cultures. We also stopped at a spice garden enroute to Kandy. There is one every kilometre or so, from Matale, all the way to Kandy. They’re most definitely worth a visit, but the spice mixes and oils at their stores are overpriced and all but a swindle. If you’re lucky, though, they might serve you a decent curry and rice lunch. We got to Kandy late afternoon, where we were put up at an eco-lodge amidst dense greenery. We spent the evening watching a Kandyan dance performance at the YMCA and walking in and around the Temple of the Tooth. More walking around led us right into the very quirky Empire Cafe, where we found everything overpriced and touristy, and we walked right out to Muslim Hotel that the caretaker of our lodge had recommended in broken English. We binged on our first Beef Kotthu, some Lankan-Style Roast Chicken and Beef Samosas (that we paid for by numbers consumed).

We slept early Monday night, and walked from our lodge to the Commonwealth War Cemetery the following morning. And after a sumptuous breakfast at the lodge, we head to the railway station to take a 7 hour rail ride to Ella. Ella surprised me. We arrived around sundown on Tuesday evening, into a tiny town, rife with rastafarian colours and a hippie vibe that was reminiscent of Goa and Manali. A steep climb up to our quaint little room made us realize we weren’t too keen on a bigger plan for the evening, so we head back to town, picked up some Arrack and some Lion Stout and head back to our room to a homely dinner of Chicken Lamprais (lump + rice).

About 20 minutes of an early morning walk from where we stayed at in Kandy, to the World War II Cemetery.

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Moar train video… This one with a cool ring exchange thing at the end.

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Wednesday had us up early and headed towards Haputale to visit the Adhisham monastery, which to our disappointment was not open to public. We decided to walk through the Thangamale Bird Sanctuary to the Idalgashinna train station, from where we could head back to Ella. It was a refreshing 5 km walk, with no birds and great views, with me insisting we walk the last kilometre or so along the railway track (we were told later, it was illegal to do so). Back in Ella, we pigged out on some more curry and rice and then took a most wonderful and educational tour around the Halpe Uva Tea Factory. A train ride to Demodara left us a little confused, when we figured the Demodara Nine Arch Bridge was closer to Ella than it is to Demodara, and we tuk-tuk-ed our way through villages and finally managed to catch the daily train from Kandy to Ella (the same one that brought us to Ella the previous evening). My only dismay, really, was the state of the train carriage that took us back to Colombo from Ella later that evening, from where we were headed down south for the last leg of our holiday.

We arrived in Hikkaduwa later than scheduled and were a little worked up because we had signed up for a deep sea diving trial at 10. The instructors and staff at PADI (Poseidon Adventure and Diving Institute) were considerate and allowed us to start an hour late. All we really managed after an hour of breathing lessons was some scuba diving though, because our instructor didn’t seem confident enough of letting us out beyond the reef. Although disappointed, I did manage to see a 4 foot large turtle swim at arm’s length from me, a sting ray and several varieties of colourful fish straight out of Finding Nemo. Next time I attempt deep sea diving, I’m going to make sure I own a Go-Pro camera that I can use underwater.

We spent the latter half of the day around the area, starting with a visit to the Ambalangoda Mask factory. On our way back to PADI, where we were put up at for a couple of days, we stopped by a turtle farm & hatchery run by a man who lost most of his family in the 2004 tsunami. Knowing full well that only 1 in every 100 baby turtles released into the sea makes it to adulthood, it’d seem strange that the couple of hours that we spent at the hatchery were actually therapeutic. There’s a tsunami museum not far from there, which is worth a quick detour, for an insight into how brutal the devastation was.

We called it a day fairly early. We were done with dinner by 8. More curry and rice on the terrace of a used book store – Bookworm Cafe. They had not more than 4 tables laid out on a terrace lined with passiflora creepers. And the food was as good as Sri Lankan curry and rice can get. I don’t think we’ve eaten as many preparations of pumpkin and eggplant as willingly as we ever have, in Sri Lanka.

Friday morning started before dawn, with a tuk-tuk ride to Mirissa. Yet again, I missed an opportunity at taking a picture or a video of a paan van we saw on our way – tuktuks refurbished into mobile bakeries. The guys at PADI had hooked us up on a whale watching tour. They gave us salami sandwiches for breakfast, so the 5 hour ride out down south in the hope of seeing some whales wasn’t all too bad. Whale watching can be tedious, more so for the cruising mammal than for the spectators, when there’s a half dozen boats that all zoom in towards it. We did get out fair share of tail flips and hump bobs to not complain, though.

Mirissa to Galle was a string of con-stilt-fishermen, sea-breeze, great views of clear waters, all in a short tuk-tuk ride. It was a hot afternoon, and we headed to Old Railway Cafe, in the hope that it’d be a fun place to spend an hour at before we head to Galle Fort. It was an overpriced cafe and boutique. We head to Galle Fort after a fresh lime soda and some coffee. We walked inside and around fort walls a couple of times in the few hours we were there, got ourselves a filling Lankan lunch of curry and string hoppers (they’re more of a breakfast thing, I’m told) and a view of the Galle Cricket Stadium before we head back on a local bus to Hikkaduwa, Arrack and shrimp fried rice for the night.

Our last morning, we were back in Colombo. A quick tuktuk ride from Colombo Fort station brought us to the Gangaramaya Temple, where we spent a little over an hour amidst scores of Buddha idols, vintage cars and worshippers in white around the Bodhi Tree. A tuk-tuk guy gladly drove us around Independence Square and to the Saturday Good Food Market (Colombo’s Nature’s Basket, I’m guessing), where we picked up some stuff for home. We dropped our bags off at The Cricket Club Cafe and popped into Geoffrey Bawa’s house just across the road to ‘soak in’ some art and architecture. The one last thing we needed to get off our checklist was shopping for the family at Odel – so we blew up whatever was left of our holiday budget at an Odel. Lunch at The Cricket Club Cafe was possibly the best way to end our vacation – gorging on the food and geeking out on the ambiance. We took a local AC bus to the airport and were on our way back home. We’re going to do another holiday in Sri Lanka soon – this time a national forest, another coast – Jaffna and the north-west perhaps, or maybe all of the east and a successful diving attempt, I hope.

Oh, and in case this interests you, here is a map of our holiday.

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