Negombo - The Rome of Sri Lanka

Trip Start Nov 29, 2013
Trip End Jun 11, 2014

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sri Lanka is the island nation off the southeast coast of India that used to be known as Ceylon, a sort of tropical paradise of beaches, tropical forests, national parks, ruins of ancient cities, hill towns, and tea plantations. With a little over 20 million people, about the same number as some of the largest Indian cities, the country feels less crowded and the pace is much less frenetic than India as well. While the people have similar physical features to those in southern India, the culture is quite different since the majority of people in Sri Lanka are Buddhist rather than Hindu, so there was no official caste system and there are many aspects of culture more similar to Thailand (same version of Buddhism) than India. Although Sri Lanka does not have the clusters of wealth and technology industry to the degree India has, the overall feel is of greater prosperity, less extremes of wealth and destitution, and generally better functioning services and roads. Oh, and also prices are generally higher than India or Nepal.

Although conditions in Sri Lanka were never bad enough to prevent tourists from visiting the country, an armed conflict made parts of the country off limits until about five years ago. The majority of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese Buddhists, but a Tamil Hindus minority dominates the northern part of the country. A group among them, the Tamil Tigers, fought against the government for several decades with much death and destruction. The ceasefire that was signed in 2009 has held, and conflict-free ri Lanka has been one of the world's fastest developing economies since with tourism growth contributing to the boom.

I thought I’d try to take Sri Lanka and the Maldives in during the time I had between my two overland tours with Dragoman since I was already in the South Asia neighborhood more or less. I chose a combined tour of the two countries with Explore, a British budget-oriented travel company quite similar to Imaginative Traveller, the company I worked with as a tour leader in the Middle East in 2004. My two week Sri Lanka tour would take in most of the sights in a broad circle in the country that makes up a quite standard tourist loop.

My overnight flight from Kathmandu to Sri Lanka was via Doha on Qatar Airways. Although considered one of the world’s best airlines, my five hour flight to Doha was absolute hell with a family with a baby shrieking its head off for most of the flight. Yes, some babies cry in the unfamiliar conditions of a flight and stress of the light and sound during hours they’d normally be sleeping, but this baby didn’t just cry – it screamed the whole time like it was demonically possessed. Parents, please sedate your babies if you must take them on airplanes for everyone’s benefit – theirs, yours, and everyone else’s. We arrived late in Doha in the middle of the night in pouring rain and thunder in what’s a place that normally gets almost no rain. The plane parked in the middle of nowhere for passengers to be bussed to their respective terminals, so I got all wet on the tarmac. I was pushed quickly to the front of the security line because I was late for my connecting flight, and I then literally (I don’t use that overused word unless it is literal) ran through the terminal to the gate. Fortunately, they held the plane because there were so many passengers connecting from an even later flight from London. Doha’s airport gate space is apparently inadequate for the vastly growing traffic because the airport’s being neglected. They’re building a newer, more modern, and even more gigantic airport to take its place in anticipation of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, to open in 2015.

Colombo is Sri Lanka’s capital, but the main international airport is about 25 miles north near a coastal town named Negombo. The airport was clean, modern, and thoroughly first world, quite a contrast to the one in Kathmandu which reminds me more of a bus station. I paid for my visa, cleared customs quickly, and grabbed a taxi to the hostel (actually more of a B&B or homestay in someone’s home) I had booked for two nights and crashed for about four hours.

Negombo is a significant beach resort and a fishing port as well as the gateway to the airport. The town is sometimes called sri Lankan Rome because of its mostly Christian population and the fact that many of its people have lived and worked in Italy and can speak Italian. Christians overall make up less than 10% of the country’s population and are concentrated in coastal areas most influenced by Dutch, Portuguese, and British colonization.

I spent two days on my own exploring the area, relaxing on the beach, taking in Sri Lankan cuisine, and finding a barber to rid me of long hair and 7 weeks of beard growth so I’d be able to survive the sweatbox that is Sri Lanka.  I then met my tour group at Hotel J.  Our first morning we visited the town’s busy seaside fish market and then went for a toddy tapping demonstration on our way northwards. Toddy is the sap from palm trees (think of how maple syrup works) that’s harvested up high and then fermented into an adult beverage. I honestly wasn’t too impressed with this palm wine.
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