Stepping into Sri Lanka

It hit us like a tuk-tuk driving 100km per hour around a blind corner as we stepped through the doors of Colombo Airport. That smell. The one that took him straight back to the dusty streets of Kathmandu, and me to the back roads of Bangkok. Don’t get me wrong, though; we both love that smell. It was like a hit of adrenaline. We’re back.

With jetlag on our side, we woke early and headed to the beach outside our room at Rani Beach Resort, which had been veiled in darkness when we arrived the night before. Greeted with a game of beach cricket, wooden catamarans covered in colourful sails, and some “very good salesmen” trawling the beach, we already felt accomplished. And it wasn’t even 9am.

Buffet breakfast. Tick. First shower of the day. Tick. Ready for more action. Tick.

After meeting the guide for our World Expeditions tour that would start that afternoon, we headed off to the main fish markets via a tuk-tuk that was nicely haggled down in price by him. Thank god he’s here, I’m hopeless at that stuff.

We could smell it before we arrived. A stark contrast to the fish markets we’d visited in Tokyo; while store owners lined the road, spruiking their offerings, the beach was covered in meters of hessian topped with neatly arranged fish. I wondered how they stopped the birds from eating it until I saw a bird swoop down and score a small fish. The answer to my question: they don’t.

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After a friendly toothless man excitedly told me that I could watch the markets from my television, thanks to a visit from Rick Stein a few years back, we wandered through the fruit and vegetable markets. The only way to describe it was colourful, which coincidentally happens to be a pretty good summation of Sri Lanka overall so far.

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After meeting up with our group, which turned out to be just one other couple who’d traveled all the way from…Sydney, Australia, we headed to the Dutch Canal, spanning a whopping 240km for a boat ride with a bit of wildlife spotting. Monitor lizards, kingfishers, herons, owls and the occasional bit of rubbish. It was as if our guide had arranged a meeting place with each bird, as he was able to spot things our amateur eyes simply couldn’t.

The banks of the canal were littered with tin shacks sheltering small smiling children, next to large concrete complexes containing the very apparent disproportion of wealth. Breaking into more open water, we headed across the lagoon to the Muthurajawela Nature Reserve, a tropical wetland known to home crocodiles, sea eagles, monkeys, and all manner of birds. While we unfortunately (or fortunately?) didn’t see any crocodiles, we did manage to be boarded by some pirates who liked the look of our afternoon tea.

On the ride home across the lagoon, the wind whipping through my hair, I watched on as birds darted in and out of the sunset as if tiptoeing on time.

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Jumping back in the car the next morning, we headed off to the rural mountain town of Salgala, to the monastic complex housing nineteen Buddhist monks. Leaving the comfort of touristed Negombo, we finally got a glimpse of the real Sri Lanka, in all it’s nitty-gritty-ness. Streets littered with dogs, the brightest bunches of bananas hanging from the awnings of crumbling straw huts, colourful buses charging down thin streets, and fields of rice bordered by the tallest coconut trees. As the roads got bumpier, the excitement only grew.

Once we made it to the monastery, an eighty-eight year old gentleman, sari-wrapped and thong clad, with only a few teeth and not a word of English, led us around the complex and up through the forest. He explained to our guide, who translated, that there were eighteen caves in the forest that the monks reside in, but that they were originally built for the King when he fled to the mountains to avoid Indian invasions in the second century. The monks now use the caves for meditation, of which they perform from 1pm each day until the following sunrise. We walked barefoot and admired temples hidden in stone and stupas entangled in vines, but not so much as our utter admiration for the elderly gentleman who led us, using nothing but the end of an old broom as a walking stick to take him all the way up to the lookout at the top, which swept across from Colombo Harbour all the way out to Adam’s Peak and beyond. I was a sweaty mess by the top but I swear I still saw a spring in his step up there. Age is just a number, folks.

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That afternoon we headed to our hotel for the night: Elephant Bay Hotel in Pinnawala. Okay, picture this. With a grand colonial style entrance, we stepped over the sleeping guard dog and through the doors. The view directly across the lobby opened onto a magnificent river, dotted with rocks in a way that the water sparkled as it trickled over its obstacles. If you take a look over the balcony you notice a bright blue infinity pool, overlooking the gushing river. Now look a bit closer and you notice one, no two, no make that a herd of elephants bathing in the river.

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was just across the road, and a few times a day they walk the elephants across the road, down the small side streets, and into the river for a release from the heat. They eat 300kg of foliage a day, and need 250 litres of water. Needless to say, we watched them all night: from our balcony, our bed, the pool and over the dinner table. That was until we met Malou, at the end of her four-month trip traveling solo from Holland, who showed an interest in our card game. As they say, the rest was history. Remember to come visit, Malou!

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I thought I’d wait a few more days before I wrote my first blog, considering I’m here for two weeks, but there has been too much excitement to write about.

I promise the next one will be shorter.

E x

 

Phnom Penh

All aboard the bus (yet again), this time we’re headed to Phnom Penh. With a driver who I swore should have developed repetitive strain injury from constantly beeping his horn, to the women sitting in front of me eating boiled eggs, to the air conditioning piling, and the horrendous amateur tv show blaring in Cambodian…it was tough. BUT at least we weren’t hungover like our new friends from America – Kyle and Peter – who have “yards” and eat “kebarbs”, and most definitely know how to party. Needless to say, we got on like a house on fire, and they were quickly initiated into our family.

After all hoping off the bus, and having a minor meltdown thinking they’d lost my bag, we all jumped on Tuk Tuks bound for Mad Monkey Hostel – Louis still shirtless at this stage, much to the amusement of the somewhat seedy Tuk Tuk drivers (Mr T in particular).

We checked in with no worries (as advertised), apart for a little hiccup with Louis and Anna who somewhat suddenly needed a private room for the night…hey hey! With good food, cheap grog, and a beer pong table, new friends quickly became best buddies. Kyle and I dominated at beer pong, and Peter and Suzie threw down some sweet dance moves. When it was time for the party to move elsewhere, Hannah was ready to go and Louis and Anna…well they barely made it out! Sharing a slice of Kati Perri’s famous pizza and a glass of Baileys, we welcomed in Christmas in style.

Next morning I woke early, no amount of alcohol will sway my Christmas spirit, and was excited to find Hannah awake in her bed too. After pulling Suzie out of bed, we raced to “mum” and “dads” private room to wake them up in true Christmas style. After opening presents each from our Kris-Kringles, and feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, we stuffed our tummys like Christmas turkeys on all things delicious. A quick trip to some markets, and then to a supermarket (the first we’d seen in a while – Laos and some parts of Cambodia don’t have supermarkets, but rather small corner shops or street vendors).

Back to the hostel, where Louis enjoyed another chicken noodle soup ( it was not uncommon on this trip for him to eat in for breakfast, lunch and dinner). Back to the beer pong, where I flailed without my partner, but Suzie still had her moves, and the legendary hANNAh beer pong team from Prague 2012 made a comeback. A relatively quick trip to the Heart of Darkness club (a must do in Phom Penh) introduced some of us to the thriving gay and ‘ladyboy’ community. For once us girls could dance I. Peace, while Louis (for probably the first time) was seen with his shirt fully buttoned up. We had met a new friend that night, Matti, who had come along for the ride, and who I think was equally confused about the vibes flowing around that strobe-light and smoke machine-filled room. I’m pretty sure Anna had a good night though – getting to relive the whole night again the next day as we had to fill in her memory…

A huge change in the mood for the next day. We visited S-21 and the Killing Fields. While incredibly heavy, it is something I think every traveller through Cambodia needs to see. While I was aware somewhat of the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and read that day. I won’t burden you with details, that’s for you to find on your own, but something I seriously recommend everyone to look into – to truly understand the meaning of the word resilience. To think it happened only thirty or forty years ago, Cambodia is an incredible place, with an incredible history.

A smooth, air conditioned ride to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon), including wi-fi and some quality B-grade movies. We met a couple from Alaska and Louis learnt that Alaska is actually part of America (oops). But the best part of the day was being reunited with our buddies, Kyle and Peter, who were able to show us the ropes of the city. And as for the night, I couldn’t even tell you what happened if I tried…ha!

Seriously ill with the travel bug,

E x