Pearl of the East......Sri Lanka

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 14, 2010

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Pearl of the East.....Sri Lanka

"What about Sri Lanka? That might be a neat place to visit."  That was the conversation one night in Greece and that was about all it took to change some plans around to make this destination happen.  So, who not better to turn to than my friend, work colleague and native Sri Lankan, Sunil Ranasinghe.  Within a few days, we had received multiple emails detailing places to visit, best ways to get to them, some local foods to try and a few things to be aware of.  His first email ended with “enjoy the Pearl of the East” and over the 12 days of travelling, we could see why.  What an awesome place to travel to! Thanks Sunil.

We got to Colombo after a little excitement at the Dubai airport.  For starters, we were a bit late (we know, it's really hard to believe, but it’s true....haha!) and that didn’t help but the starchy Qatar airways agent wasn’t going to let us on the plane without a paper copy of our next flight to India.  We had an electronic version and a booking reference # to give her but that couldn’t get the starch out of her shorts.  Then she wanted to see our Indian visas (which we didn’t have as we were planning on getting them in Sri Lanka) and we couldn’t figure out why she needed those in Dubai.  It took over 15 minutes to check our booking reference and convince her that we did not need Indian visas to show up in Sri Lanka.  We were the last ones on the plane to Doha, which is where we caught our connecting flight to Colombo.  Any guesses where Doha is?

What a difference a 5 hour flight can make.  From the sands and deserts of U.A.E. to the coconut trees, humidity and rain clouds of Sri Lanka.  Looking down at some of the ponds and lakes, we were thinking that we might have to grease ourselves up in mosquito spray but it really wasn’t that bad.  Colombo was a busy, bustling city, with many people, moto-taxis, vehicles and lots of horns.  Normally, we would get out quite quickly of such a place but we had to stick around for a few days to apply for our India and China visas.  We just wanted to get these done so we bit the bullet and stuck around the city for three days.  On the third evening, we took a minibus to the southern town of Unawatuna (what a cool name!) known for its nice beaches.  Public transportation in Sri Lanka can get quite crowded and our 5 hour ride was no exception.  Even though all the seats were taken, they kept picking people up along the way and those poor souls had to stand.  Luckily we had seats but had to endure some nearby elbows and armpits but it was all worthwhile in the end.  Kim was seated next to a young local man who, at the end of the bus ride, invited us to his house for a traditional Sri Lankan lunch.  He also arranged a nice guesthouse and a taxi pickup at the bus stop for us along the way.  His name was Dinar and he was heading home to visit his family, from his job north of Colombo.  So a couple of days later, we headed a short ways down the highway to another town, Weligama to meet Dinar and his family at their home for lunch.  The food and hospitality was awesome and will be a special Sri Lankan memory for us.  Dinar’s mother cooked up items like red rice (that is not a typo!), spicy coconut sambol (grated coconut mixed with red chillies and lime juice), fried fish, fish curry, fried aubergine (eggplant) and onions, dahl (a spicy chick pea curry), salad and papadams (deep fried pieces of thin dough that look like nacho chips with bubbles).  Deelish!

For desert we had fresh papaya covered in lime juice and green bananas.  Yup, green ones.  Not like the ones back home that need to ripen and turn yellow.  They are eaten green and are quite sweet.  There are around 18 varieties of bananas that are grown in Sri Lanka.  Yellow, green and red are the main colors and there is one yellow variety that grows around a foot long.  Neat!!

During our lunch, we got a first-hand description of the 2004 tsunami that killed over 35,000 people.  Dinar explained to us how he and his family were in their house when the first wall of water came through.  Luckily for them, their house was a couple of hundred meters away from the beach and the waves had lost a lot of their momentum when they reached his house.  No one was killed but they still had 5-6 feet of water come into the house which caused a lot of damage and forced them to rebuild some walls and do many repairs.  Many friends and relatives were lost.  There was another major earthquake in Indonesia in May of 2010 that caused panic in Sri Lanka as well.  Many people feared another tsunami which caused a few traffic accidents as people scurried to get to the safety of the hills.

We also visited a local Buddhist temple to get a tour and met a monk who was Dinar’s Buddhist teacher.  He was a really nice man who talked to us for a short bit and gave us a blessing for good health and safe travels as he chanted a prayer and tied a white thread around our wrist.  That was the end of our great day with a local family.

While in Unawatuna, we had some nice beach time and visited a local sea turtle hatchery.  The hatchery had a few species of adults and hatchlings and we were able to pick them up.  They had Green, Hawksbill and Olive Ridley sea turtles.  There was a small nesting area that contained new eggs that the staff would buy or collect from local people.  Once the eggs hatched, the staff would keep them in one of their pools for several  weeks to give the little guys a chance to get a bit bigger and stronger to give them a better chance of survival.  It was a fun place to visit for us and Kim got to release one little Green sea turtle (“Little Edward”) into the ocean.  Don’t know who was happier, Little Edward or Kim!!

After visiting the hatchery, we just had turtles on our minds so we planned out a little adventure to try to see an adult sea turtle digging out a nest and laying some eggs.  We hired a private driver for a couple of days as that was the most comfortable way of travelling as the public buses were simply too crowded and took too long to get anywhere.  We were living it up in style, sprawled out in a minivan all to ourselves, cruising the highway.  Well sort of, cruising in Sri Lanka averages about 30 km/hr!  After a brief visit to the old Dutch fort at Galle, we headed to the southern coast of Sri Lanka to Rekawa beach.  Stacey, a fellow Canadian that we travelled with on our Africa tour, had also been to Sri Lanka a month before us.  She suggested this beach as one of the best places to hopefully see a turtle or two.

So the two of us wildlife nuts headed out along Rekawa beach one night at 11pm, headlamps in hand, in hopes of seeing a sea turtle coming up on shore, digging a nest and laying some eggs.  We had read that you could approach the females and sit right next to them as they are doing their thing as they don’t get bothered.  We walked around 10km that night and got back at 2am but no luck.  We saw a few sets of tracks and a few places where people had dug up the nests from the previous few days.  We also came across a few sign posts that marked where there were current nests and met one volunteer that was also walking along the beach but he too had not seen any turtles.  Oh well, still lots of beaches yet ahead of us so maybe down the road.

From there, we headed up to the mountain town of Ella to get a glimpse of Sri Lanka’s famous tea country and catch a train through the mountains.  What a great little spot on the map.  Beautiful hills covered in tea plants, small vegetable fields scattered throughout the valley and many waterfalls.  We took a tea plantation tour and learned a lot about how tea leaves are picked, dried, rolled, crushed, fermented, dried again then graded and turned into the various teas that are exported.  They showed us the different colors and we sampled the various tastes of tea from the various regions in Sri Lanka as well.  Leaves picked at different elevations and climates produce a totally different taste and color of tea from other areas just 50km apart from each other.  Cool hey?   The train ride was really nice as it slowly meandered through the mountain on our way north to the city of Kandy.  We hired another driver for a couple of days to get us further north to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa and sacred complex/fortress of Sigirya.  Polonnaruwa was an ancient capital of Sri Lanka back in the 12th century and there were many well preserved ruins and lots of monkeys around.  Monkeys just seem to spice things up!  The ruins include a 9m long slab of granite inscribed with the feats of a king, a massive stupa and many intricately carved statues and walls.  Duran Duran filmed their music video, Save A Prayer at this site!

The next morning we visited Sigiriya.  This is a really neat place!   This massive sheer rock rises up over 200m out of the flat forested area.  About half way up, are the giant lion’s paws.  The paws mark the entrance to the top of the rock where the palace complex and bathing pool were located.  The stairways up and down were quite narrow and hang over the side of the cliff which adds a little excitement to the hike but nothing quite like the holes that were carved into the rock for the people to climb up way back when.  We can’t imagine how many people fell to their death over the years trying to get up.  Sigiriya is considered to be one of the oldest tourist attractions in the world with early visitors leaving their impressions as graffiti at the site.

That was it for our short tour of Sri Lanka.  We had such a good time and would really like to come back again for another visit.  On October 1st, we headed north to India, the host of the Commonwealth games that were about to start in a couple of days.  The airport security screening on flights coming into Delhi was nothing like we had ever seen.  We had our carry-on bags and persons searched 4 separate times before we could even get on the plane.  That was just the start of the weird and whacky things that we would see over the next 3 weeks in India!

Take care everyone and a big thanks for all the nice comments that we have received on our blogs.  We enjoy writing them and are really happy that people enjoy reading them!

Meal of the week:  Definitely our home-made meal at Dinar’s home.  Honorable mention: the spicy, curried vegetable stuffed rotis (one kind had boiled egg pieces inside) that we picked up a couple of times at roadside stalls.  Finally, we have to mention the multitude of great cups of tea that we had too.  We really like the Ceylon tea!

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Ordo on

I know I say this everytime, but that was a GREAT blog! Never pictured Sri Lanka to be that beautiful. Great stories and the food looks amazing.....sllurrp!

Pat Wearmouth on

Great description of Sri Lanka Mike. Thanks for that. Looks so different from the view out of my window this morning, what with the snow and cold. Holiday greetings to you.

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