Driving – Not for the faint hearted, the traffic is murder and all rules are optional. Honking is liberally applied and it can mean a great many things; “Look out, I’m passing you!”, “I want to pass dammit!”, “You are driving on the wrong side of the road, dumbass!” (in Sri Lanka you drive on the left…), “Thanks, for scooching to the side and letting me pass!” and so on and so forth. To rent a car you need to present an international driver’s licence, but that’s not all, you also need to get a stamp of approval from the traffic department in Colombo. Luckily the rental company provided me with a driver to get there and back for $15. If you don’t want to attempt driving they also give you the option to have a private driver for as little as $15 a day! Gas is also really cheap (compared to Swedish standards), about 7.50 sek/l. Pro tip: Turn signals are not actually used to signal the intent to turn, rather it signals that the driver wants to pass the car in front. If you want to signal a turn, you stick your arm out the window…
Navigating – We used Google Maps for navigation, and it turns out that they’re not entirely reliable. There were quite few times where Google claimed that there should be roads where there simply weren’t. You also cannot trust the width of the road on the map as an indication of quality, case in point being the A4 vs. the A17 which are shown to be equal on the map. In reality the A4 is a wide, well maintained, smooth ride, permitting for speeds up to 70 km/h (only problem being the plentiful turns). The A17 on the other hand is a small single lane road with potholes aplenty, snaking through the forest, hardly permitting you to go faster than 30 km/h at any point. Another issue seems to be that Google and the Sri Lankans don’t seem to agree on how to transcribe names of roads and areas. This means that you may find yourself putting in an address that you’ve received from a hotel and Google won’t find it. You might try typing just the first few letters and see if Google suggests something similar or if you know where the area in question is you can just zoom in and start looking for something that has a similar spelling. Another thing Google misses are the many one-way streets, particularly in Kandy. Makes for some unpleasant surprises.
Negombo – Not a very exciting place, good food though and very close to the airport makes it a good stepping stone for the rest of the island. Hot tips include the Devilled chicken/fish/whatever and fresh pineapple juice. I tried to go diving, but here you need to go as far out as 10 km and the weather wouldn’t permit it, also rather expensive at 66 euros for one dive.
Dambulla and Sigirya – Dambulla is the home of the cave temple and a huge golden Buddha statue. The Buddha statue is really rather tacky and very recently built to boot, the cave temple is rather impressive though. Carved into the rock face you have a bunch of caves littered with Buddha statues and paintings, the view is also rather nice but all in all, if you’re pressed for time, give this one a miss and go for Sigirya Lion Rock instead which has more of the same and is much more impressive.
When we arrived at Sigirya Rock Fortress the rain was pouring down and we bought an umbrella from a guy at an exorbitant price. The entrance is a ways off from the actual rock and takes you through a palace garden at first. The water really came streaming down the path at this point and we quickly gave up on keeping our feet dry. As we came upon the actual stairs going up the rock the stream had turned into a veritable river and with water up over our ancles we clambered up the stairs. About halfway up the rock face are a series of caves carved out with exquisite paintings featuring shading techniques really uncommon for this time period according to history teacher Jen. After climbing back down the terrifyingly rusty spiral staircase you walk along the mirror wall that contains graffiti dating back to the construction of the fort, very cool! The final climb takes you past the tiger claws and up to the palace/fortress up top were a very impressive view is to be had, along with some really interesting architecture with water tanks for fresh water and other such inventions necessary at a place like this.
Moving on to Polonnaruwa we took a side road which turned out to be a stroke of luck. On the way we saw everything from a strikingly blue Kingfisher, Peacocks (both male and female), Monkeys, Monitors, smaller lizards and some sort of bird of prey.
Polonnaruwa – Definitely worth a visit, this is the old capital from 11th century and the ruins are really awesome. Be sure to get a guide, otherwise it will not be very enlightening. You get to see the old palace a really huge stupa (a solid brick dome, containing some 93 million bricks!) that is said to house some sacred relics of Buddha’s (some collar bone or shit like that). The best thing though are the absolutely fabulous stone Buddhas; there are three of them, all carved out of the same piece of rock, using 11th century technology. Two of them are posed very unusually and one of them actually pictures him dead, something they figured out by certain subtle clues the artisans left in the way he is posed. As per usual, you don’t actually buy tickets at the entrance, you have to go to the museum that is about 500 meters downtown from the entrance to the ruins. Because selling tickets at the actual entrance would just be too easy?
Kandy – Touted as one of the very best places to visit in all Sri Lanka – we didn’t like it one bit. Driving there is a nightmare with one-way streets all over and the usual liberal interpretation of traffic rules. The primary sight is the Temple of the Tooth, which supposedly contains one of Buddha’s teeth. While certainly pretty enough, it’s not anything special if you ask me. You don’t even get to see the goddamned tooth! Instead it’s just throngs upon throngs of pious Buddhists to rub shoulders with.
The one redeeming feature of Kandy is the Udawattekele Forest Reserve, it’s a patch of almost rainforest, preserved as a park in the middle of town! We walked around there several hours and saw a lot of really cool trees and vines, quite a few monkeys and a lot of soldiers who apparently are all over the park, making sure you don’t litter or something. A while into on our walk Jen discovers that her sandal is all sticky and that the foot is actually bleeding. But since it doesn’t hurt or anything she thinks we should just head on. A good while later she reexamine the foot and discover a, by now rather rotund, leech nestled between two of her toes! After removing the smug bastard she discovers yet another one, just in the process of latching on. I’m feeling rather good about my non-sandal shoes at this point, and even better when she later discovers yet another one. Later, back at the car, Jen tends to her wounds while I take pictures of the family of monkeys who decided to hang out next to the car when some soldiers point to my legs. Apparently four of the resourceful gits have clambered up past my shoes and socks to feast on my shins!
We also went to the Royal Botanical Garden which was nice I guess, certainly worth a visit but not something to make a detour for. I’m a bit miffed thought that we managed to miss the spice garden that’s right next to it.
Nuwara Eliya – A cozy, not so little, town up in the highland. Be wary of the fact that even if the road is actually very good and its’ not very far, the drive there still takes a lot of time (whatever you do, don’t trust Google’s estimates!). Getting from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya took us about 2.5 hours I think. If you read the reviews at Tripadvisor and that ilk, you will see a lot of complaining that it’s cold there. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m Swedish and Jennifer is Canadian, but none of us found it very chilly, even though it rained quite a bit during our stay. Be sure not to miss a visit to the Grand Hotel and have some of their excellent buffet dinner. The house band could use some shaping up, but the moment they switched from butchering ABBA, Celine Dion and Roberta Flack to put on their take on Gangnam Style, my heart melted =D
Due to a fortunate planning mishap we found ourselves with an extra day that we hadn’t accounted for and we had to find accommodations in an already packed Nuwara Eliya. Luckily for us, a guy in the reception at the hotel we thought we’d booked for the night (but that we’d actually booked for the following night) had a tip about a place that had a spare room available. The snag? The room was $280, and it was out in Horton Plains, some 20 km outside of town. Well, we didn’t have much alternatives at that point, just to get into the car and start driving, based on the sketchy instructions of the owner over the phone. To make it even more interesting; our road was blocked by a rock slide and we had to take an alternative route taking us far into the patches of the map that usually says “Here be dragons”… Well, after a lot of driving on tiny meandering roads and cryptic phone conversations we finally find ourselves in a very English bungalow, absolutely in the middle of the sticks. The place very much hearkens back to a bygone era with awesomely magnanimous architecture and impossibly sturdy, handmade, furniture. Needless to say we felt rather out of place in our travelling fatigues and unshaven appearance. Nevertheless the staff treated us to a very late three course dinner (11 pm-ish) before we went to bed in the most boisterous bed I’ve ever seen. The shower was equally boisterous but the water heater left us wanting, the hot water ran out after about three minutes of showering, at which point we had to wait for it to heat up some more…
Before leaving we had a look outside and realized that the tiny road we’d been following to get there in the pitch dark and heavy fog was actually precariously hanging on to a cliffside and that a single wide turn around any of the numerous corners would have resulted in us tumbling into the void. I sure am glad I didn’t know that the previous night… Aside from this fact the surroundings are just beautiful with tea plantations, mountains and unusual plants. On the way back to town (the staff say that the rock slide should be cleared now) we visit Hakkagala gardens, yet another botanical garden divided into several biotopes. It was nice enough, but mostly because Jen kept spying little creepy crawlies, including little lizards and a beehive.
Before leaving we also wanted to visit a tea factory to get some souvenir tea and settled on the Heritage tea factory that was about 10 km outside town. That turned out to be somewhat of a mistake since it was actually placed at the top of a hill and took forever and a day to get to, something we really couldn’t afford when we had a very long drive ahead of us to get to our next stop, the Siharaja rain forest. Well, the factory was at least mildly interesting with a guy demoing the various turn-of-the-century factory machines for making tea.
Siharaja Rain Forest Reserve – Even though the road had been all but washed away by the recent rains and our poor planning had us arriving there at almost midnight this turned out to be one of the absolute highlights of the trip. The Rain Forest View lodge we stayed at was really nice and the price included a rain forest guide that took us out for a 4 hour walk that included a bath at a beautiful water fall and shit ton of creepy crawlies. The best ones included an almost 3 dm long centipede that crawled around on both our arms and a very cute little green snake. There were also a lot of spiders, kangaroo lizards, a praying mantis, a huge (like a cat) rain forest squirrel and a bunch of leeches (Jen had seven and I only three this time). If you like flora and fauna a visit to the Siharaja rain forest is highly recommended (I also recommend you bring a bug expert like Jen).
Unawatuna – This was our last stop and we went here mostly for the diving. Unfortunately it turned out to be rather bad, visibility was something like 6 m at best and very little fish and coral. Our first dive was at a wreck of an old wooden ship, the Rangoon. Resting at 30 m, this was rather cool, with large schools of small fish zipping about and some larger ones that I can’t remember the name of lazily swimming about. The highlight was a huge tiger moray hiding in the bow of the ship, easily as thick as my thigh! We also saw a somewhat shy, really big grouper. Second dive was closer to shore and rather shallow, the spot was mostly big rocks with very little life. Apparently a typhoon had wreaked havoc among the coral and nowadays the ocean floor around Unawatuna is mostly dead. Too bad, but what can you do? We decided to skip the two dives we’d planned for the afternoon and just hang out instead. Unfortunately Unawatuna in itself isn’t very interesting a place and neither is Galle, the town right next to it. I really see no reason to recommend this place actually. Our hotel, Milton’s Beach Resort, was exceedingly bad with dirty rooms and doors that hardly would lock. The staff was very friendly though and it’s not like we had a lot of options, the whole of Sri Lanka is booked solid over the Christmas holidays.
On our final day we made our way back to the airport, stopping for a spot at the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. This place is highly recommended, they buy eggs from the locals and make sure they grow into responsible turtles before releasing them into the wild. They are brought up on a solid diet of pizza and are trained in survival skills featuring nunchucks and katanas. Erm, maybe not, but there were a lot of super cute tiny turtles swimming around in little pools that you were allowed to pick up and photograph under the watchful eyes of the staff. The place isn’t very big and easily missed, keep a lookout for the sign!
Naively we thought that 5 hours would be more than enough time to get to the airport and catch my flight, but events conspired against us and an impossibly lazy lunch service set us back over an hour. That in itself wouldn’t be though, the real problem was the insane traffic situation in Colombo. A heartfelt ‘fuck you’ to the city planner is in order and we arrived an hour late to my flight. That meant that I had to take the next flight 24 hours later, which also meant I had to go to Colombo and talk to the people at the Qatar Airways office to set up my new flight and find out how much I should pay for the rebooking. Ah well, shit happens, not the end of the world. This was still one of the best vacations I’ve had in a long time, reaffirming my new year’s resolution that 2012 would be the best year to date!