From the Beach to the Hills via a Brothel

Trip Start Nov 28, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2005

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Friday, December 17, 2004

Sri Lanka lies just off the south east coast tip of India, and is a pretty big island by anyone's standards. Marco Polo thought Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was once called, was the finest island of its size in the world. Even Sinbad the Sailor visited here twice. Sri Lanka has an endless array of rich green foliage, and exotic fauna to go with it. It's not uncommon to come across wild elephants crossing the road at dusk, or a troupe of toupee macaque monkeys stealing some fruit from a morning market. Everywhere you look, you see the luxuriant swirls of the Sinhalese alphabet, the multicoloured Buddhist prayer flags, and a vast variety of richly coloured saris, fruits, jewellery and spices, spices so pungent you'll need a hard pallet to tackle. Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist country, with small pockets of Roman Catholic and Christian. Tea is this islands major export, and everywhere your eyes take you in the hill country, tea plantations are spread out as patchwork quilts far as you can see. Sri Lanka is steeped in history, from the ancient rule of the Sinhalese kingdom of Anuradhapura, through the ages to Portuguese rule between 12th and 14th centuries then right up until the recent British occupancy until 1948 when Sri Lanka finally received its independence. It has also up until very recently had a lot of trouble with violent civil war, however the people of Sri Lanka are now putting these wounds behind them and smiling their way into the future.

So, after saying goodbye to a very nice and plump Italian man I sat next to on the flight from London to Bahrain, who talked about pasta and Italian wine the whole way (by the time the food was served on the plane I was ready to eat my right arm) I jumped on my connecting flight and landed at Colombo airport in the early hours of a Monday morning. Pretty excited and exhausted with a slight tinge of sleep deprivation madness, I did the usual wait an hour for the bags to turn up on the carousel then walked outside into the welcome morning twilight. The one thing I remember about walking outside the airport on that morning a couple of weeks ago was the familiar enveloping smell of heavy tropical air, wafting out a mix of incense, decaying rubbish, and tuk tuk fumes. Christ it felt good to be back in the tropics again.

All I wanted to do after getting off that plane was to head straight for the nearest beach and soak up some much needed sun for a few days before contemplating where to head to next. I felt like a kid in an amusement park with a pocket full of ride vouchers. I could go anywhere I wanted to from here! This island was my playground! I had just burst through the revolving entry gate.

I chose a place about 15kms to the north of the airport called Negombo to base myself for a few days. It's an old resort area once visited by western tourists, but now the tourists have moved off and found more idyllic beaches further south and left Negombo to the locals. I checked into a hotel with a beach front for its restaurant, threw my backpack down on the bed and went for a long walk along the beach and checked out the early morning scene. A few cows lay to my right on the sand looking undernourished but chewing contently on rubbish, and a pack of mangy looking dogs played chasings and flirted with each other to my left. All this scene needed was a lost tumbleweed rolling on by and a Wild West theme tune playing in the background. All eyes were on me, cows, dogs, locals, crabs. But the eyes weren't unfriendly, in fact since I landed in Sri Lanka, all I've received are warm smiles and big hellos. Even the stray dogs had an odd friendly quality about them as they also smiled at me. At first all these smiles were too much since coming from London, but after a day or so I started smiling back at everyone, and it really works! People return the favour every time, and most of the time they beat you to it. So, pasty white and jet lagged I retreated back to my hotel and watched the coconut trees swaying above the restaurant as I fell into a trance on a lounge bed in the garden. Later that day I took another walk further up the beach and past a small shanty fishing village. Most of the villagers here base their living on fishing, and I was lucky enough to watch a couple of dozen fishing boats come in with the days catch. Huge brown sails were hoisted in and nets were dragged onto the beach with hundreds and hundreds of small fish. They might have been mackerel, but I asked one of the fisherman and he just looked at me with one of those I-have-no-fucking-idea-what-the-hell-you-just-said looks you get so used to. I was invited into one of the fisherman's homes for tea and barricades of questions were flung my way by a 10 year old boy who translated everyone's questions into English. 'Where are you from?....Australia....ahh, Aus-tra-lia (I was still pretty jetlagged)...AAAAHHHH, Australia!! You like Shane Warne? Yeah he's a good spin bowler, but a naughty man (laughs from all the locals as my English was translated to Sinhalese) What about Steve Waugh and Mark Waugh? Brett Lee? After going through the whole Australian cricket team for analysis I was given pardon to leave my celebrity position in front of about 60 locals that had gathered around me in the house by now. I was C3PO in Return of The Jedi and those Ewoks were gruelling me. The boy who I first met then asked me to play a quick game of cricket. I tried a gangly fast ball at one of the fisherman and instead of hitting the wicket, it went wide and hit a dog in the ribs. Laughs from everyone erupted and I realised that I had made some new friends. I decided it was time to let them get on with cleaning the days catch and folding up the nets.

Despite Negombo's grubby appearance and Wild West feel, it did have an honest charm, and I had a lot of fun over the week I stayed there. I was introduced to so many locals, and by the end of the week I knew every tuk tuk driver and fisherman on Negombo beach. Good thing was, none of them ever wanted anything out of me. I made good mates with Tiron, a tuk tuk driver who had a crazy stereo system rigged in his three wheeled hotrod. The only thing lacking was some booty in the back seat. One night Tiron, and Michael, another tuk tuk driver, invited me to Tiron's sisters wedding reception. I turned up with Paul, another local who I befriended who worked at my hotel, and as we approached the reception hall I could hear singing in Sinhalese and the booming sound of bongos. As we entered the hall wild calls rang out, whistling and a turn up in the volume as everyone sang louder to the sound of a second bongo now beating in the background by one of Michaels friends. I was passed a glass of Arrack, Sri Lanka's coconut whiskey, and downed that and joined in with the dancing, mumbling the words to the songs and feeling a bit too sober to be jumping around with dozens and dozens of locals all loved up on Arrack and the local weed. I caught the eye of another sober blonde English girl, she smiled sheepishly my way. We were the only westerners there. The festivities went well on into the night, everyone danced and sang, even the English girl had her dancing shoes on after we were given more and more Arrack. I don't remember getting back to the hotel, but I do remember waking up to a filthy hangover, and the sting of a thousand mozzie bites. I must have tried with the mosquito net and given up because when I woke up it was wrapped around both my legs. I tried to get up and piss during the night, but the wet patch below the bed indicated that that had been an unsuccesful attempt. Mosquitoes take their wings off so they can fit through the holes in the netting and suck your blood, so I shouldn't have bothered with the net.

Now I was planning to leave Negombo the next day, but feeling the way I did I could barely manage to walk down to the coconut guy in the hotel laneway and get him to chop me up a fresh one, let alone deal with getting a train to Kandy. So I stayed another night. I promised myself I'd leave the next day. That night we got on it again on a second wind, and as it was Friday night, the local nightclub, Lords, was apparently worth checking out. What the hell. So it turned into another night of debauchery, dancing to cheesy dance with the DJ's sud spray gunner churning out clouds of bubbles over the dance floor. The odds of meeting my future Swedish travel babe were very much against me - 10 guys to 1 gal. Disappointing. I did meet two geezas from Essex though, Darren and Lee, who had arrived that morning from London and as good old boys go, were not ones to knock back a few beers and a laugh. Darren's a big bloke, a gentle giant, but that doesn't stop him from diving and taking on any challenge we've thrown at him. Lee on the other hand is a small bloke, stocky and has a great sense of humour. Anyway, We got talking on the first night we met and it just so happened that they would be in Kerala, India at the same time that I'm going to be there, to do a backwater cruise. So, after chugging a few more Lions we made a pact to meet up in India. I love the fact that when you travel alone, you're never really alone.

I've now been traveling with Darren and Lee for the past week and a half. They're a good laugh, we get along well and we've kind of bonded into a trio. I'm not with them at the moment, as I left them in Colombo, the capital, while they wait for a couple of their mates to fly in from London and India, but they should be here tomorrow or the day after.

Right, back to it. So the two boys talked me into changing my plans and heading off with them down the west coast to a surfer/travelers hangout called Hikkaduwa. After we spent a morning by the pool after that all nighter at Lords, I ended up chasing a squirrel around the hotel pool next door to mine as the sun came up, trying to feed it Bombay mix while the two poms looked on in bewilderment. They branded me the crazy Aussie. It was time to move on. The train ride down to Hikkaduwa was pretty cool, we hung out the windows and watched life go by as people went about their business, passed shanty towns stacked together tightly, using the train line as their front yard, through lush tropical vegetation with the Indian ocean spread out to our right washing up onto beautiful sandy coves in amongst the many coconut trees. I tried climbing on the roof, but was discouraged by some of the locals in our carriage. Maybe I'd have to wait for India to try that stunt. We arrived on sunset and were greeted at Hikkaduwa train station by a handful of sinister good-for-nothing touts. We had to listen to the usual crap about the guesthouse that we had in mind to stay at was no good, and that they knew of a much nicer one...after we checked out three rooms at a place right on the beach, we got rid of the tout that had taken us there and made our way down to the many cafes, bars and restaurants lining the beach front. Paradise! This is what I had imagined Sri Lankas beaches to be like and just what I'd been looking for since arriving. I liked Hikkaduwa immediately, and could see ourselves getting stuck here for too long. A far cry from the derelict beach front of Negombo. Negombo had a different charm, it just wasn't its beach!

We spent the next week and a half diving, drinking ridiculous amount of coconuts, body surfing the fine breaks just outside our guesthouse, and generally making a name for ourselves at night in Top Secret, Hikkaduwa's most popular shanty bar fronting the beach. I got busted taking a cheeky skinny dip on the second night just near Top Secret, and Lee got branded the local stud after he met this Sri Lankan born Swedish girl on the same night. Darren, well he just ran the bar dry.

After a few days of getting up at midday, going for a surf, checking out the bikini contest that constantly paraded itself right outside our guesthouse everyday and would make Hugh Heffner envious (we really did have the best spot on the beach) we decided to do something constructive, so set out, hired three scooters and sped off into the jungle to see if we could get lost and find something different to amuse us. After an hour of riding into rural country, and almost running over a monkey, we came upon a bird lake (the feathered ones). A local took us in his outrigger canoe and across to the other side of the lake where an outcrop of huge boulders lifted up over the jungle and gave an amazing view of the surrounding area. Apparently the locals go there to relax, roll up a big joint and 'pass the booty to the left hand side'. So we obliged, drank more coconuts that a local fisherman had found for us and did as we were told, except by the time we climbed off the highest boulder my co-ordination had all but gone and I fell ungraciously into an angry nest of ants. I didn't realise what had happened until I looked down at my arm and saw hundreds of the bastards all over me, big ones too. The only thing to do I thought was to run straight for the lake and jump in, so I did, wailing my arms about John Cleese style. The local guys had a great laugh and Lee and Darren appreciated the effort. The funny thing was, not one ant bit me. Same thing happened years ago when I was about three years old and I was out camping with mum and dad. I ended up standing on a huge nest of bull ants while they crawled all over me and again, not one bit me. Strange. We spent a couple of hours inside the boatman's house and met his family and played a table game very similar to pool, except instead of using balls you use disks, and the disks are all racked at the centre of the small table. Darren, being a professional pool player, beat the best local there and made a right upset. After a storm passed, we jumped on our scooters and made our way back slowly to town in the dying headlights of our very dodgy scooters.

As hard a it was to leave the picture postcard beach of Hikkaduwa, it was time to make our next move. Plan was to get the train back up to Colombo, stay there a couple of days while the two boys waited for their mates to get here and to give me a chance to get my India visa sorted out and extend my Sri Lankan visa. We ended up in Colombo for about 3 days ago, and tried every mid range hotel in Lonely Planet. Nothing. All hotels were fully booked. What the hell were we going to do. Our tuk tuk driver knew we were in a pickle, and very kindly suggested a 'good Sri Lankan hotel' after we had shrugged his suggestions off half a dozen times. Fuck it, what else could we do? How much do you want to pay? He asked. No more than 1,000 rupees I said. OK, no problem was his response. What do we have to lose we thought. So off we went, two tuk tuks following each other with the backpacks in one with the big man, and Lee and I in the other. Weaving in amongst the crazy traffic like a bicyclist on speed, our tuk tuk took a hard right turn and drove down a very dark and dingy looking alley to our 'hotel' - the 'Venus Lanka' as it was called. Neon lights ablaze, flashing lights blinking over the entrance I started having my suspicions. The hotel manager greeted us and we got our bags off the tuk tuks. How much, I asked. 1,250 rupees for 24 hours was his reply. 24 hours? Why do you charge by the hour? I asked. That is the way we like to do it for our guests, he said, if you come here at 5pm you can then lave at the same time the next day and you won't worry about checking out in morning. Right, this sounds well dodgy I thought. Fuck it, I'll come straight out with my suspicions. Is this a brothel? I asked. A brothel sir? Yes a brothel I repeated. Darren and Lee looked at me shocked as well as the hotel manager. One awkward moment. 'No, of course not' sir replied the manager, repositioning himself awkwardly over the desk and straitening his cheap pale blue tie. Well why do you charge by the hour I asked again, and don't give me that one about it being for the guests benefit. Anyway, after an uncomfortable silence with Darren and Lee standing there looking at the floor trying to appear innocent, I gave up. We were shown to our rooms and checked in. Some time later, I walked downstairs to buy a bottle of water, ad by this time is was getting on to 8pm. As I walked into the hotel foyer, I heard the doof doof sound of music coming from a closed door to the right of the check in counter. Curiosity got the better of me so I went inside, accompanied by a security guard who was all too happy to show me the 'discothèque'. Dark and seedy, there stood a bar to the left jazzed in neon lights, a pool table in the middle, and a DJ box and dance floor off to the left. Before I could even take a second breath and take it all in, about a dozen prostitutes in various gaudy mini skirts, cheap make up and fake smiles gathered around me meowing and purring over me, Sri Lankan sexy style . I felt my brow furrow. Hello mister, where you from? Australia...ahh, Aus-tra-li-a...AHHHH Australia, giggle giggle and even more attention was now on me. I might as well announce I'm the Sultan of Brunei, I'm sure he's more familiar to them then an Australian with a bogan accent, trying to pronounce 'Australia' in an English accent. After freeing myself from the grip of a dozen Sri Lankan prostitutes, I grabbed my water from the reception desk and bolted up the stairs to our room, swung the door open and looked at Darren and Lee with a scared but I-told-you-so look. We all pissed ourselves laughing at the fact that we had indeed found ourselves sleeping in a brothel, the Venus Lanka Hotel. As the Eagles sang it, you can checkout anytime, but you can never leave...

We spent the night getting chatted up by these prostitutes and when we went to leave in the early hours of the morning to crawl back up to our room, they all came swarming over and all demanded a tip for being friendly to us. Fuck that, I thought. That was it, I had had enough of sleazy brothels and the capital city as well. I had to leave on my own and make a move to Kandy, as the boys were still waiting for their mates to turn up.

So here I am now in Kandy, a quaint British colonial town high in the hills. Since I arrived here yesterday it hasn't stopped raining, not just rain but a torrential downpour. I'm staying at a 150 year old colonial house converted to a hotel owned by the same family for over 100 years. It has so much character and is bursting with charm, mum you would love it. The funny thing is, I don't think it has changed at all over the last century, there's still an old hunting room with ivory tusks and deer heads adorning the walls that's now used as a breakfast room. The huge balcony overlooks beautiful Kandy Lake and the floorboards creek with an age of wisdom.

I've been to Sri Dalada Maligawa temple (or Temple of the Tooth) which supposedly houses a sacred tooth of the Buddha. For centuries the tooth has been passed from pillar to post, the Portuguese in one of their spoilsport moods in the 16th century, decided to take it and burn it with Catholic fervor in Goa, but little did they know that they had been tricked and the sacred tooth was safe and well with the Sinhalese. The tooth shrine was closed when I was there, but the peace and aura of this place really had an effect on me.

After the temple I braved the rain again and caught a tuk tuk up into a rainforest hugging the northern hills of Kandy. There wasn't much wildlife to see, and all the monkeys were down by the park entrance gates raiding the rubbish bin instead of doing what monkeys should be doing and swinging from trees. Every now and then I would stumble upon two young lovers cannoodling under colourful umbrellas. Isn't love grand. 

Well I've crapped on more than long enough now, today I think I'll catch a bus to an elephant orphanage about an hour from here. It's supposed to be well worth it. So I'm off to go hug a baby elephant, go and do some work you lazy bludgers and I'll update you again shortly. Have a great Christmas and enjoy.

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trev on

You give a good account of yourself oz . I am planning my 1st trip to sri lanka and I you have given me a good insight of what to expect. thank you good sir

Danny on

Check out the North of Sri Lanka. Totally different to the south.

bam rit on

spot on paul and a good read, been here 2 months now working on a the construction port just north of colombo, every day i see something that cracks me up

Chris on

Lol dude, you should have made some friends with the sri lankan Burghers, such as myself, I'm of German decent and my family have been living here for a century at least. I laughed so hard at the brothel scenario LMFAO
anyway i love ur way of writing. Hope u write more abt ur experiences here. :D

henry on

Hi Mate, do you think we could promote SriLanka has a great Tourist destination to the Australians ??

my email id :

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