Journeying into Sri Lanka

Relaxing at a Buddhist temple

The journey from Bandaranaike International Airport to downtown Colombo is by itself an introduction to Sri Lanka. That is if you don’t take one of the ridiculously expensive luxury cabs (think western brands) or one of the still rather costly local cabs. There is also a selection of different buses available. We took the local one, searching for it felt like our adventure had started. Riding it downtown confirmed that feeling. Colorful, rickety, loud, humid, stuffed full of people – Sri Lanka, here we come.

Colombo city life

Lanka, as locals affectionately call it, declared independence from under British rule after the 2nd World War. The British referred to it as the crown colony of British Ceylon. It was also the Brits who made the trade port of Colombo the capital of the island. We spent little time in the city, as it is not really a destination for tourism. Colorful, rickety, loud, humid, stuffed full of people, as I mentioned before. But there are also small pockets in the city that felt like modern districts of any western capital. Those were almost empty of people though, as the prices followed the style. Only the expensive polished spotless SUVs and luxury cars of the rich could be found visiting these locations that didn’t fit in with the rest.…

Kandy, with a K

Best alternative to a train – the tuktuk

But trains do give a good view of the countryside

The Brits were not the first westerners to establish a foothold on the island, but they were the first to conquer all of it. The Dutch had come before the British, and before them the Portugese, but neither had been able to conquer the inland areas of the island. When the Portugese first arrived in 1505 the island was split into 7 warring kingdoms. Following their armed invasion only one independent kingdom remained, the hill kingdom of Kandy. Kandy remained independent until the British finally overran it in 1815, despite repeated attempts by the Portugese and the Dutch to bend the entire island to their will. Kandy was our destination that morning.

Getting tickets at the train station went without a hitch and helpful mute staff of the station assisted us in finding the correct train and seats. The train quickly filled up and the long journey began. Trains are without a doubt the best way to travel in Lanka. You avoid the traffic and potholes and are get to enjoy the sights while experiencing some local culture on the way, from the loud conversations of people to the smells of train food and the incessant “VadeVadeVadeVadeVadeeeee!” shouting of the snacks vendor walking up and down the isle.…

Going into a rock

On the road again… to Dambulla

the moment he takes his eyes off the bag….

After a lovely breakfast on the hotel balcony, our journey took us north to Dambulla. For those interested in travelling by bus in Lanka, make sure to swap your legs out for shorter ones beforehand. Buses there do not have leg space and if you’re thinking you’ll just stretch them out into the isle you’ll be surely surprised to find that the concept of isle doesn’t exist there either, that’s only more room for people and luggage. Not to mention that sitting by the window at least offers the promise of a cooling breeze, if you’re lucky to be sitting on the shaded side. This is not to say that bus rides in Sri Lanka are horrible, not at all. It’s just that trains are so much more of a fun experience, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Dambulla is a waystation, a small town on the road from Kandy to Anuradhapura, with a bus stop, a gas station and rows of houses lining the main road. We’d been hoping to find a hotel there, but in the end were glad to fail. So we had to take our backpacks with us, which is not much of an issue when you’re travelling light.…

… and on top of another

Lion Gate – it looks like something right out of Tolkien’s books

Sigiriya from afar

Sigiriya. If you ever wondered about how the villains in Bond movies all had their own island or cave or mountain for a palace and whether people like that exist in real life. Well this guy, King Kashyapa, did it already 1500 years ago. After usurping the throne from his half-brother Mugalan in year 477, he moved the capital and his residence from Anuradhapura, its traditional location, to the rock of Sigiriya and turned it into a palace, a citadel, a fortress. A more safe location in case the rightful heir would return. It didn’t help though, in 495 Mugalan returned and defeated Kashyapa. The capital was thereafter moved back to Anuradhapura and Sigiriya was effectively abandoned, completing the Bond-moviesque plot.

Wandering around the gardens

Having been abandoned fortunately means that many parts of the old citadel still remain today. Approaching the rock from the west you first have to cross the wide moat surrounding the citadel grounds. The gate here, the royal entrance, has crumbled long ago. Entering here you find yourself at the mouth of royal gardens and the start of a long pathway leading directly to the rock, now looming high ahead.…

Kingdoms gone

Lakeside real-estate was a luxury even back then

The pool’s run dry though….

Long before the Portugese arrived, the seat of Sinhalese kings stood in Anuradhapura. It was the capital of Sri Lanka for over thousand years, from around 300 BC until 1017 AD when Lanka was once again invaded by one of India’s numerous kingdoms and the city once again sacked in the process. When Sri Lankans overthrew their northern masters a generation later, the new capital was moved to the city of Polonnaruwa. From there they governed the island on and off for 300 years until the fragmentation of power and civil wars became the new norm. And then 700 years later we arrived. In a tuk-tuk.

Some places have survived better than others

The drive from Sigiriya was a fun one. It convinced me that tuk-tuks are one of the best ways to see the country. You can smell the scenery, learn more about the areas you drive through from your driver and, if you’re lucky to spot a wild elephant bathing, stop to enjoy the view. You also learn the importance of having a bottle of water with you – how else to deal with an overheated engine.…

The “rest day”

A different kind of Sri Lanka, a place for a vacation from the vacation

Going north to Anuradhapura would have taken us even further back in time, but for now our curiosity for historic sites was satisfied so we headed south, to the mountains.

A really cozy getaway

South-Central Sri Lanka is different from the plains and gently rolling hills of other parts. Here the landscape becomes vertical and takes you to higher altitudes. Though there are no snowy peaks in Sri Lanka, its highest point – Pidurutalagala – still reaches a respectable 2500m. This is high enough for visitors to enjoy cooler, fresher air and take a break from the otherwise regular heat and humidity. This was our thinking as well, as we set our course for Ohiya, a tiny mountain with some lovely cottages, nestled on a tea plantation high between two mountain ridges. It took a long day of travelling by bus and train to get there from Polonnaruwa. The very last stretch we covered once again by tuktuk on a rugged mountain road under the cover of chilly darkness. Fresh tea and warm blankets were an amazing end to the day.

Smiling makes heavy work feel lighter

The climate here is exceptionally suitable to the growing of tea.…

Adam’s Peak

Last call! Hop on!

Trains in Sri Lanka are awesome, let me explain.

views just like in the movies

The trains and wagons are old. In some places the signalling technology actually dates back to the British times. Usually when taking the train here you’ll have a choice between 1st, 2nd and 3rd class.  But the key deciding factor on which one to take, is whether your seat is anywhere near a toilet. Train toilets smell something horrible. On our way to Ohiya we abandoned our 2nd class seats for a bench in 3rd to escape the smell – we wanted to arrive with our minds and senses intact. It was that bad. Otherwise the wagons are quite old but not necessarily uncomfortable, especially when compared to buses. There are fans in the aisle which sometimes work, sometimes not. And sometimes they creak and clunk so loud that you wish you were deaf.

Over the hills and far away….

But you can escape all of that, the crammed spaces, loud fans, heat and toilet smells by sitting in the entrance. The wind will cool your face, you’ll never complain of lack of leg space (as they’re dangling ouside) and all of Sri Lanka will be slowly wooshing by as the train swoops and turns through hills and fields and hidden villages.…

Local wildlife

So you want a ride or what?

I was really considering joining him in there

After the unforgettable experience atop Adam’s peak we left the mountains behind and headed further south. Here I really need to praise Sri Lankan public transportation, because despite the cramped buses and old trains, it was never a problem to get from A to B without having booked tickets in advance. This meant it was possible for us to change our plans on the fly – stay longer in places we liked and leave earlier from places we didn’t. Badulla (not to be confused with Dambulla) for example was a surprisingly boring town, where we managed to visit the few unimpressive sites very quickly and move on. Similarly, on our way to the next destination we were not impressed by the place we planned to spend the night at, so we just continued to the next town. Travelling is not a hassle if you yourself are flexible. And our flexibility brought us to Yala national park.

Preparing for a visit to the dentist I see

Yala is the second largest wilderness preserve on the island, known best for its large number of leopards. The only way to visit it is with an official safari vehicle but there are lots of those.…

The Galle of our trip

Leave your weapons outside

After leaving Yala we were on our way home, but had time for one more stop – Galle.

I’d swear I was somewhere in Southern Europe

Before you ask, it is pronounced “Gawl” almost like “goal” and the place is gorgeous because, you see, Galle is a fort. A 400-year-old Dutch citadel, a fortress. A well restored old town sitting at the very top of the peninsula and protected on all sides by massive walls built to withstand and unleash cannon bombardment from sea and land. Walls might even be an understatement, as they’re as thick as a 4-lane road. The place has bastions! It is the largest remaining European fortification in Asia (or at least so they claim) and walking atop the wall by the sea, you can just imagine what it must have looked like here during the time of East India Companies: the traffic of big sailing ships coming into port or sailing out, the guards patrolling the walls, the merchants going about their hustle on the streets, the small shops peddling their wars etc etc. It almost feels like being on the set of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

The District Court of Galle, where pirates go to hang

These images might not be far from the truth.…

Maps and photo gallery

Time for a bath

This circuit around Sri Lanka took us 12 days, starting and finishing in Colombo. We had little to no pre-planning with regards to transportation or accommodation, with the exception of the Hill Safari cottage in Ohiya. At the start we didn’t even have any knowledge about where to go and what to visit. But with flexibility and an open mind, we immensely enjoyed our stay and in the end left Lanka with unforgettable memories. This was the eventual route we travelled :

All pictures posted here were taken by me. These and other photos I took on this trip can be found here in full quality:

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this.

Looking at World\’s End