My Sri Lankan adventure
@ mafi moya's Sri Lanka Travel Page
My Sri Lankan adventure is now over for the time being unfortunately, although I still hope to get back there some day soon. I lived in 'the resplendent isle' (as the guidebooks call it) for about 18 months and had a great time. But, like most places I suppose, I only realised how much I liked it now I'm not there anymore!
I miss the impossibly bright colours - of everything from the scenery to the sarongs. I miss the smell of freshly cooked lamprais and the constant chop-chop sound of the man cooking kotthu (if you've been to Sri Lanka you'll know what I mean!) I miss the glorious sunsets over the Indian ocean and that you can stare out over the sea knowing that the next piece of land is Antarctica! I miss 'wasting' whole days sat on Wellawatta beach with some friends and a bottle (ok several bottles!) of arrack, and the fact that Sri Lanka has the most public holidays in the entire world! Hey I even miss suicidal late night tuk-tuk racing through Colombo!
It's a wonderful country - unbelievably beautiful scenery, fascinating recent and ancient history, friendly people, great climate, and an intriguing blend of religions and cultures. As every guidebook ever written about Sri Lanka will tell you, the great explorer Marco Polo once described the island as the best of its size anywhere in the world. Arab traders referred to it as Serendip - an unexpected delight. For such a little country it's sure got a lot going for it!
The best thing about Sri Lanka is its variety. It's only a small island yet within a few hours of each other are splendid golden beaches, the famous hill country, the northern dry zone, lush rice paddies, and herds of wild elephants rampaging through the forests. There are Muslims, Christians, Hindus and of course Buddhists. Dutch, Portuguese and British colonialists have all been in control at some point - leaving a unique mix of influences.
Books to read
It's always good to read about a place before going and Sri Lanka has some good literature. Here are some of my personal opinions:
Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje is an excellent chilling tale set against the war. Romesh Gunesekera's Monkfish Moon (a book of short stories) and Reef are other interesting reads on modern Sri Lanka. Carl Muller's books about the upper class Burger society are highly acclaimed and sexually explicit but personally I'm not a fan.
Only Man is Vile, by William McGowan is a fascinating account of the 'troubles' by a foreign journalist, as is Island of Blood by Anita Pratap. An Historical Relation of Ceylon, by Robert Knox, an Englishman held captive by the King of Kandy, is considered the best outside account of the Sinhalese people and culture, even though it was written several hundred years ago. Sri Lanka's most famous foreign resident is probably Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001: A Space Odyssey) who has written lots on his experiences here.
Weather to go
If you're after a suntan Sri Lanka is a good place to come. Temperatures in most of the country are pretty much constant throughout the year - nice and hot. The obvious exception is right up in the hill country where nights can sometimes get quite cool, although even there the days stay hot.
However, it does rain a lot at particular times of year and it's obviously best to plan a trip around this. I always remember staying at Kalutara one time and seeing the miserable faces of a tour group just off the plane as it rained non-stop for their first 3 days. Personally I didn't mind as it was only half an hour from my house, but if you've come half way round the world it might matter a bit more!
And when it rains it really rains, and you certainly won't want to go out much! Often the downpours only last an hour or so but in that time I've seen the road outside my house (a busy main street) flood a couple of feet deep - the only way through is to wade!
So how can you plan a holiday where you don't have to swim to get to your hotel?
Fortunately, the wonderful diversity of tiny Sri Lanka is also reflected in the weather. When one coast is getting pounded by monsoons, the other side of the island is baking hot. Then it changes round. So each area has its own ideal time for holidays.
In the north and east the best (hot and dry) time to visit is June to October. In the beaches of the southwest however, those months are the time of the monsoon. Conversely the north and east are wettest from October to December - while the south and west are at their driest! The hills in the middle are much cooler and can get wet during both monsoon periods - no wonder they call it Little England!
But unlike SE Asia where you can set your watch by the daily downpour, Sri Lanka is much more unpredictable and this is all just a guide rather than a guaranteed rule. I've been to the northeast in December, and the southwest in August - both supposed monsoon periods - and not seen a drop of rain. I've been there in their dry periods and got soaked. The monsoon has been particularly unreliable over the past few years - sometimes hardly even coming at all.
At the end of the day this is Sri Lanka and no matter what time of year you come there's a good chance it'll be hot and sunny!
Accomodation catering to all needs
Most towns in Sri Lanka have a reasonable range of accomodation catering to all needs, tastes and budgets. Near the tourist beaches you can get basic rooms for as little as a couple of dollars, but generally accomodation is not as cheap as say India or Thailand. Still, in most Sri Lankan towns you can get somewhere for less than 10 dollars a night.
What you get for this varies tremendously - in some places ice cold water or airless rooms like furnaces, infested with mosquitos; in others charming little rooms, comfy beds and a hearty breakfast. Best bet is to just ask around from other tourists and always ask to see the rooms before you commit. Overall though the standard is pretty decent.
Haggling over room prices is well worth a try - as with many countries there's a number of levels: first they'll try the stupid tourist price, which falls down to the sensible tourist price, then the local price, and then finally the real local price!
At the opposite end of the scale Sri Lanka has some truly excellent top class hotels - a much better selection than most visitors expect. Colombo, Kandy and the big towns are particularly well blessed but there are others near beach resorts such as Bentota (the Bentota Beach) and Kalutara (Royal Palms) that deserve a mention.
As well as standard international chains (like the Hilton) there are some unique colonial style hotels (eg The Galle Face, The Mount Lavinia), and original creations such as those of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka's most famous architect. He designed luxury hotels such as Bentota Beach and the Lighthouse in Galle. There are various other highly original and luxurious places to stay such as Elephant's Corridor and the Tea Factory.
So if you've got plenty of money to burn then the choice is yours! It's worth noting that Sri Lanka's official government policy of charging tourists higher prices also applies to top-end hotels. If you're a Sri Lankan citizen or a foreigner with a residency visa (like myself ha ha) then there are some absolutely amazing bargains to be had. Otherwise things can get quite expensive.
Sri Lankan food
Sri Lankan food is renowned for it's spiciness and hot taste. Throughout the trip you'll be warned by proud Sri Lankans that you'll find the food too hot for your poor sensitive foreign mouths to handle. But in fact I've eaten plenty of hotter curries in Britain, and certainly in southeast Asia. I find most food here is much milder than you're led to expect - particularly if you're staying at tourist hotels which deliberately go easy on the spices, but even when I'm eating with local friends who sometimes put even more in just to prove a point!
To be honest, I've also been a bit disappointed with the quality of the food. I've always thought you can tell the quality of a country's cuisine by the standard of the most basic cheapest street food - if you've been to Singapore or Thailand you'll know this can be fantastic. In Sri Lanka however, much of it is fairly bland and tasteless.
Sri Lankan food can generally be divided into two groups. First, the good stuff. This takes hours to prepare and requires lots of careful attention - some hotels will ask you to choose your evening meal at lunchtime! If it's properly made then Sri Lankan food is delicious - try good hotels or traditional home cooking as the wife usually spends hours slaving away in the kitchen!
But the other group is what you'll probably eat most of the time - pre-cooked lunch packets or takeaways from local shops. Most of this is often pretty uninspiring and dull. If you've got time to hang around then always go for the freshly cooked food, even if it takes a few hours. It'll be worth the wait!
Rice and curry
The national dish of Sri Lanka is rice and curry. At lunchtimes it's sold virtually everywhere - street stalls, restaurants, men selling it in 'lunch packets' from a wooden table at the roadside - and is mostly very cheap but of highly variable quality. At its best it's a wonderfully flavoursome delight, at it's worst its bland and tasteless. The trick is working out where is good and where is bad - unfortunately that's purely down to luck rather than the appearance of a place. If you find a good place, stick with it.
The best place to try rice and curry, apart from quality restaurants, is at a family home. The wife/mother will generally spend hours making it and the longer it cooks for the more flavour it has. You'll also get ridiculously large portions!
The meal is overwhelmingly rice, with a little bit of curried meat and gravy (the curry sauce) to flavour it. At shops, you can usually choose from chicken, fish, egg and sometimes just vegetable, and the curry is accompanied with various vegetables and spicy sambols.
Drinking is an important part of Sri Lankan male culture, and a social gathering is usually accompanied by a bottle (or ideally several bottles!) of arrack - spirit distilled from palm toddy or coconut. Sri Lankans like to think of themselves as big drinkers - and much is made of bragging about how much (or little) was drunk in a night (a lot like the UK then!).
In fact I find normal arrack to be fairly mild - certainly not as strong as most Western spirits. It's not really drunk straight, but mixed with anything from ginger ale to Sprite or most usually Coke and is quite drinkable. A common Sunday might involve getting a few bottles from the wine stores easily found around town (look for a barred window and a group of men outside!), grabbing some friends and heading for the beach - have a swim and then the drinking begins. Arrack is nearly always accompanied by 'bites' - snacks of crisps, chilli potato, nuts etc. Public drinking like this is perfectly acceptable but often seen as something only for the lower classes! Classier people go to the bar or drink in the comfort of their own homes.
For the more degenerate alcoholic are the kisippu dens. Kisippu is bootleg liquor containing anything and everything from alcohol to paint stripper (whatever was at hand when they brewed it basically) - extremely strong to the point of deadly, but extremely cheap. Kisippu dens aren't places most tourists go and are usually best avoided - if the liquor doesn't kill you one of the other drinkers might.
Arrack is the drink of choice but lager is also popular and sold at wine stores and bars. The 3 local beers are Carlsberg, Lion and 3 Coins, the latter of which is particularly distinctive and has a love-it-or-hate-it kind of taste. Imported (and expensive) bottled beers are available at top bars/hotels.
Alcohol can't be bought legally anywhere on poya days - although it can be (and definitely is!) drunk.
The bus is probably the cheapest and most common way of getting around Sri Lanka. They are almost unbelievably cheap - an 8 hour ride from Colombo to Trincomalee costs just over a dollar - and that's in the 'luxury' air-con bus. Luxury private buses (minibuses where you're guaranteed a seat - they're not high comfort but quite adequate) are cheap and frequent enough to satisfy the needs of most tourists. If you're going somewhere by a bit of an out-of-the-way route then you might have to get a normal CTB bus - hot, crowded, bigger and slower, but even cheaper. Most buses have their destinations written in English.
It's best to get on the bus at the starting bus stand - you can pick them up mid-route but by then they're usually standing room only. Luxury buses are officially non-stop, but if you tell the driver he'll let you off anywhere along the route - although you'll still have to pay the full fare. There aren't really any timetables - buses leave when they're full, which usually doesn't take long.
An alternative to bus on certain routes is the train. These mainly travel the west and southwest coasts, the hill country and over to Trinco on the east coast. They're a bit slower than buses and not much cheaper but they have more character and train journeys are generally more interesting - both inside the carriage and the scenery outside. Between certain locations you can travel on the overnight sleepers. If the trains are full up they can be hellish journeys, but it's often not too bad and you can sit with your legs hanging out by the open door and watch the world flash by.
Particularly good journeys are Colombo-Galle, winding right along the coastline past beautiful beaches and sleepy fishing villages, and Colombo-Kandy, through the hill country. On both the scenery is better than the bus route. On the latter it's possible to book the observation saloon for an even better view.
Sri Lankans are a very laid back, almost sleepy people. But put a Sri Lankan behind the wheel and they seem to suddenly spring to life and at the same time develop a death wish.
I found the sheer volume and chaos of traffic was greater in Bangladesh, but for complete lunacy and suicidal driving Sri Lankans rule! I haven't seen a computer game yet that can match the Kandy Road at its busiest. Try driving along it and you'll be awestruck at just how insane people can be.
There's something in the Sri Lankan psyche that says "you must overtake" ...even if it's impossible. You'll be overtaken on the outside, the inside, then someone will overtake the person overtaking you, who will then be overtaken by the next car and suddenly you've got 4 cars abreast of the road... and a great big truck coming the other way. Even more bizarre is that once they've risked their lives overtaking they slow right down again until you're right on their bumper - the driving isn't particularly fast, just crazy. You might as well just shut your eyes and hope for the best.
Traffic accidents - hit and run
On a more serious note about driving in Sri Lanka, I have an important tip for anyone planning on driving themselves. I never thought I'd advocate hit-and-run but here it's standard practice. If you hit someone in a built-up area with lots of people around then keep driving. I know it sounds horrible and the first instinct is to stop and help, but stopping could cost you your life. Traffic accidents create mob rule here - if you stop you'll be surrounded and attacked, probably hospitalised or possibly even killed. Obviously if there's few people about and you might be the victim's only chance of survival then it's a different call.
The first time I saw it I was shocked. I was walking along the road and a large car sped through, hit a girl and knocked her about ten feet up in the air. The driver slowed down instinctively then all of a sudden accelerated away. I ran towards the girl cursing the driver and within seconds the fairly quiet road was full of dozens of locals, many of whom knew the girl. They took her off to hospital on a three-wheeler and the driver couldn't really have helped much if he had stopped. But he certainly would have been ripped to pieces by the crowd.
Working in Sri Lanka
Working in Sri Lanka is great - it has the most public holidays of any country in the world! The religious and ethnic mix of the country means that Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian holidays are all celebrated to varying degrees. There's even a monthly day off called poya to celebrate the full moon!
Biggest of all are the major Buddhist festivals, such as Vesak the New Year celebrations, when much of the country just packs work in and goes on holiday. But Ramadan, Christmas and Diwali are all seized upon as chance of a day or more off work - any excuse for a holiday! And besides, in a country with ethnic problems it all adds to the appreciation of other cultures.
The most famous Sri Lankan holiday is the Perahera season, usually in August. The biggest is the Esala Perahera in Kandy - thousands of people, drummers, dancers, stilt-walkers, jugglers, and dozens of decorated elephants march through the night-time streets of Kandy. Other, smaller peraheras are held in Colombo, Kataragama and elsewhere.
The most common holiday is the monthly 'poya day' - one day a month where no-one works and everything is shut in respect of the full moon. Alcohol can't be bought anywhere on poya days - some tourist hotels may have special licences - so stock up in advance if you want a drink. You often see big queues outside wine stores the day before and arguments when all the shops sell out!
I tended to spend most poya days either at the beach or at a party. Both involved lots of alcohol and a very long day. The general attitude is: we should be at work today but we're not so let's celebrate like it's our only day off all year! When poya falls is entirely dependent on the moon so people get extremely annoyed when it falls on a Sunday, which they would normally have off anyway!
Sri Lankans love their music
Sri Lankans love their music and nearly all drinking sessions, long journeys and beach parties end up with guitars or drums being brought out and a good old sing-song getting underway. If there's no instruments then they'll just clap and sing. And everybody sings, no matter how good or bad their voice! Western pop and rock music is increasingly popular to listen to but when the singing starts it's nearly always traditional Sinhalese pop songs.
Now I'm one of the few Westerners who can honestly say they actually like Indian Hindi 'Bollywood' music (which is also very popular in SL), but Sinhalese music has a different rythm and beat and it takes a while to get used to. I can't say I've been entirely converted to it yet.
It's also a genetic fact that all Sri Lankan males think they can sing and dance like gods. They can't. (Neither can I but at least I admit it). But after a few arracks it's all good fun!
Don't mess with monkies
Monkeys - they're really cute and fun little creatures aren't they? Well that's what I thought too until I came to Sri Lanka!
They have to be the messiest and most mischievous animals ever - nothing they like better than ripping rubbish bags to shreds and showering the surrounding area with garbage! When I first moved into my flat just outside Colombo I loved the fact that my back garden led on to a large space of mini-jungle where monkeys leapt across the highest branches of the coconut trees. How exotic, I thought! Of course after a couple of months of them liberally decorating my walls with rubbish and hurling king coconuts through my windows it didn't seem like such a great attraction!
A little known fact is monkeys appreciation for lipstick and make-up. A girl I visited a hotel with in Polonnuruwa made the mistake of leaving the room window open for a second. She returned a few minutes later to find a couple of huge monkeys turning the place upside down, throwing the furniture about, urinating on the beds, smashing the mirrors and tearing clothes to pieces. They even tore open her makeup bag and plastered themselves with eye-liner and mascara. According to the hotel manager they can't get enough of the stuff!
And so the lesson is: don't mess with a monkey. Even English football fans don't cause that much damage!
A match made in the stars
Sri Lankans of all classes are absolutely obsessed with horoscopes. Your star sign defines your career, your future, your wealth, but more than anything else, who you will marry.
Newspapers are full of personal ads looking for marriage ("Beautiful and intelligent female, 28, looking for marriage to educated professional" and so on) and it's a perfectly socially acceptable way to find a partner. But at the end of each advert will come the words "Bring horoscope." Your daughter could be proposed to by the man of her dreams, an ideal son-in-law - a doctor from a wealthy family with a big house and six figure salary. But if his horoscope doesn't match hers he could just as well be a homeless beggar.
In the UK many people, especially women, have a look at their stars to see what the future might bring. But Sri Lankans take it to a whole other level.
Despite what you might think after seeing what the teenage girls wear in Odel in Colombo at the weekend, Sri Lanka is still a very conservative country when it comes to sex and relationships. It's expected that sex comes after marriage and young couples are often chaperoned by parents and grandparents - holding hands in public is considered quite a commitment, kissing a definite no-no. Of course that's the theory anyway, if not always the reality, and young couples often find it difficult to spend time alone together.
Can you pat your stomach and rub your head at the same time? ok, can you say yes while you're shaking your head from side to side? Well in Sri Lanka you have to.
The head wiggle
Unlike in the West where a nod of the head means yes and a shake means no, here they just wiggle. A slow relaxed wiggle of the head means yes, a quicker harsher wiggle means no. It can be quite disconcerting at first when you're speaking to someone and all you get in response is their head wiggling from side to side as though they're disagreeing with you - all as they're smiling politely.
You soon get used to it. In fact you get used to it so much that you'll find yourself doing it without even noticing. Oh yes you will, I guarantee it! I only realised when I went back to the UK and got lots of very puzzled comments as to what on earth I was doing!
Which is why, sat on rocks by the sea all around the country, you'll see hundreds of couples sat together, usually under cover of a large umbrella. Coming from more liberal countries it's quite a sweet sight (aah the romantic in me is coming out!) Of course most couples are just talking and getting to know each other without the hassles of parental interference - but some take the chance to, ahem how shall I put this, get to know each other on a more intimate level. So just be careful not to stare too much!
Nights are for sleeping!
Sri Lanka isn't generally the liveliest country in the world. If it's 24 hour beach parties you're after or wild hedonistic raves then it's probably not the place to come. But things are changing.
Two decades of war and curfews have meant a generation of Sri Lankans got used to going to bed early and staying at home. But the peace process has meant more people are venturing out at night, and more places are opening for them to go. Colombo obviously has the greatest choice in terms of nightlife and there are now all night casinos, nightclubs open until 6am, even coffee shops on Galle Road open until the early hours of the morning. New bars are opening with increasing regularity, although most nightclubs are still connected to large hotels. It's not exactly the most happening place in Asia but it is getting better.
An integral part of Sri Lankan nightlife, particularly in Colombo, is the casino. Sorry for the stereotype but Asians are generally tremendous gamblers and Sri Lankans are no exception. Rich Sri Lankans anyway, as poor ones won't get past the doormen. The casinos vary wildly from serious high-stakes glitzy halls to cheap, fun dives - some friendly, others a bit intimidating. Overall the casinos, often open 24 hours, are very fun places - somewhere I spent a considerable amount of night time (and money!)
Oh no... karaoke!
The aural nightmare that is karaoke arrived in Sri Lanka pretty late and it's probably still at the height of it's popularity. There are karaoke bars pretty much everywhere and it's a common destination on a night out. There are two main types of places that I went to:
First up there's the family places where kids and couples and grandparents come, have something to eat, and have a good old family sing-song. If they don't serve alcohol you can usually bring your own but some people do what I never thought was possible - sober karaoke. There's usually a mix of Sinhalese and Western music to sing along to. As the western music is often mostly Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion I'm quite pleased that the Sinhalese stuff is generally most popular!
Then there's the late-night karaoke bars, open till the early hours and often for men-only. Here the singing is usually dominated by one or two drunks as it takes second place to drinking. No actually third place in importance as the bars are also full of beautiful hostesses to make the customers feel welcome. There's no prostitution on the premises but phone numbers are often swapped and arrangements made for later dates. It's also quite common for guys to find proper girlfriends here (girlfriends rather than future wives - there's an important distinction!)
There's no pressure though and it's a good place just for a late night dance and to have a laugh with some of the girls. Watch out though and keep track of what you're paying for - some places (not all) will present you with an astronomical bill at the end of the night.
I can count on one hand the number of people I've met in Sri Lanka who don't like cricket. Male or female, rich or poor, young or old, Tamil or Sinhalese - cricket transcends any boundaries. It's easy to know when there's an international game on - the traffic is even more suicidal than normal as people rush to a TV, and huge crowds of men gather in the street outside the Abans electronics shops to watch the TV in the window. The big match dominates all talk in the office for at least a week in advance - even among the women.
Cricket is more than a sport here. The fact that star bowler Muttiah 'Murali' Muralitharan is a Tamil has done more for race relations than any politician could ever do. When Australia call him a cheat (as they regularly do!) the whole country unites behind him. Elections to the national cricket board generate nearly as much media coverage (and even more conversation and corruption) than the political elections. Ask a tuk tuk driver about 'the match' (doesn't really matter which one!) and you won't be able to shut him up.
I once made the mistake of getting a haircut as the match was starting. The barber turned my chair away from the mirror and faced the TV instead. Every time there was a boundary or a wicket, or anything close to either, he'd jump up and down - usually pulling clumps of my hair out and stabbing me with the scissors at the same time.
International matches are now played in Colombo, Kandy, Galle and Dambulla. Tickets are extremely cheap and even if you don't like cricket then the atmosphere at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo when it's packed full is worth the entrance fee alone. The only time cricket is not popular here is when Sri Lanka are losing. Sri Lankans are quite bad losers and if the team isn't performing then they'd rather not watch.
The British Grand National
gambling is a popular pastime with every red-blooded Sri Lankan male. If you're rich you go the casino, if you're not then don't bother because they won't let you through the door. Instead you go the bookmakers/betting shops found dotted across town. The bookies here are much like the bookies in the UK - a small shop, people behind the counter who take your money, and reports on all the latest horse races. In fact they're almost exactly like those in the UK...
Horse racing is the most popular sport to bet on but races in Sri Lanka are very rare (in fact someone told me they were illegal, although I'm not certain as there is at least one course in Nuwara Eliya). So instead working class Sri Lankan men who can't speak a word of English bet all their money on races taking place in Britain - "I'll have 100 rupees on the 3.15 at Aintree!"
As a Brit, this can lead to rather strange encounters with locals as their entire knowledge of the UK comes from racing. One friend of mine had never heard of big cities like Manchester or Birmingham - he thought the biggest and most important places in Britain were Ascot, York and Chepstow! Another guy spoke no English but could effortlessly reel off the names of every Grand National winner since 1960, the year he was born!
Considering Sri Lanka is a tiny island and much of the country is coastal, it's surprising that many Sri Lankans can't swim very well. However, those that can are extremely good and tend to spend half their life in the water. If you want to swim then the beaches are by far the best place and are generally safe and clean. There are a few swimming clubs in Colombo and other places but are mostly private affairs for members only.[/color]