My Unforgettable Experience in Sri Lanka
I spent one spring month in Sri Lanka in 2015. With so many things to do on the island, my main aim was to learn how to surf. Apart from it I ate a lot of bananas and mangoes, rode a train on a footboard (don’t ever do this!), made some new friends, walked on hot sand, hid from crocodiles and monkeys. It was one the most memorable moments of my life, and here is how it was!
I love spending time before boarding the plane, resting my forehead against the window and watching aircraft taking off and landing. I didn’t often see planes when I was a kid, so I would probably do the same.
By the time I got off the plane I almost cured my aerophobia. I stopped analyzing crash reports and was barely interested in airport security.
Being a frequent flyer, as well as practicing meditation and yoga on a regular basis allowed me to get over these fears much faster. At the same time having in-flight Internet made my trip indistinguishable from my ordinary working day (I still hate the prices).
I’m usually happy to discover new airports, but after spending some time in Bandaranaike International Airport I felt totally exhausted. Passing through customs took way too much time and involved filling in countless forms. I found the airport to be quite noisy and restless with long ATM lines and annoying taxi drivers. As I was looking for a cheap way to reach my accommodation, some unpleasant guy yelled: “Who is going to Welligama?! Are you going?!” I have reached my boiling point.
The parker in the light-green reflective waistcoat pushed his way through the crowd to help me with finding my seat in the minivan that has seen a lot. The entire ride was more like torture. We were packed like sardines, so I quickly felt motion sickness. Finally, I dozed off and dropped my phone on the floor.
During my stay in Sri Lanka, I have lived in six locations. The entire process of finding one was a bit overwhelming and required constant searching. The first option I stuck to was a private house with no ceiling in the bathroom and a lot of ants in the kitchen.
I packed my backpack the next morning and set off on a trip to Kandy.
Sri Lanka resembles a large drop of water or an avocado slice with a yellow core (that is mountainous part of Sri Lanka) and green edges. The island has a length of 270 miles and breadth of 150 miles and is reminiscent of India. However, I found it to be a bit cozier, cleaner and slightly richer. People in Sri Lanka also eat rice with curry, but you will barely notice any beggars along the roads.
The downside of my stay in Sri Lanka was my fear of Dengue fever. Not being aware of this in advance, I discovered the fever presence in a country while in the mountains. By that time I was bitten by mosquitos several times. I remember myself trying to figure out if the mosquitos were transmitting the virus or it was already me who can infect the mosquitoes!
There were times when I thought it would be a great idea to live in a mountain village in Sri Lanka. It seemed that I could experience a milder climate than near-coastal area. To enjoy the mountains and the views my Airbnb host even offered me a hammock. There is nothing else I could dream about while visiting Kandy.
In fact, it appeared to be quite the opposite. I had to beat the heat in the mountains. Therefore, from 10 a.m. till four in the evening there was no chance for me to leave my dwelling. I spent hours sitting under the fan and enjoying splendid mountains. I called my house near Kandy a mountain prison.
As it was time to move on I couldn’t resist but to visit the University of Peradeniya and its Botanical Gardens. An impressive group of colonial-style buildings with galleries and 1950s interior.
Sri Lanka is typically tropical with the rainy season from May to August. Temperature can reach 35 °C in June at 75% humidity and drop to around 16 °C while in the mountains. But I can barely name the place where you can experience that low digits.
Botanical garden near the University of Peradeniya is another reason to come here. It’s funny to see fancy plants growing in the open air that my mom diligently grows in pots on the windowsill thousands of miles away.
Some random fact about Sri Lanka: almost 100% of electricity is generated using hydropower. During the years of Kandy Empire, Sinhalese people have learned to connect mountain lakes with canals for irrigation purposes. Nowadays, less than half of the houses on the island have access to electricity.
These five days at my mountain house seemed to me like an incarceration at first. But only a few days later I started realizing how great they were in fact! It is where I saw the fireflies for the first time. And I watched them with fascination. I learned about Sri Lankan palm squirrels and even made friends by using Sri Lankan pancakes. I also learned that geckos can make a soft chirping sound, a bit like a chuckle and can poop against the ceiling!
And then five days later I packed my backpack and drove down to the ocean.
Leaving Kandy behind, I drove past Colombo to the town of Bentota. While not a surfer paradise, I was getting closer to it. I was driving down the terrible mountain road at first and then along the highway (it is where I missed my turnoff).
Everything was completely different down here. The salty sea air was everywhere and the ocean was a stone’s throw away. I could hear the ocean as I was getting closer to it. This feeling is indescribable.
I rented a house. My host was a guy with an excellent English. He somehow managed to obtain a superhost Airbnb status and was converting his house into a mini-hotel. As a result, I was squeezed between the lake and the construction site with the constant noise around the clock. The guy showed me his concrete barn, which was actively rebuilding into a decent mansion.
His house located near the lake that was cunningly connected to the ocean. As the water was regularly changing the salt levels, I was lucky enough to stay there when the water was salty. This fact implied that no mosquitoes or crocodiles can be encountered.
But there were monitor lizards. They usually paced sluggishly along the lawn walkways and fought noisily behind the bushes confusing the dogs. One night they tore up our garbage can and devoured everything that was supposed to be thrown away.
My host helped me with getting a motorbike with no security deposit. I had no driving license (don’t ever drive without a license!), meaning in a case being stopped by police I had to pay them off. Luckily, I didn’t have to.
Bentota is the place where I went swimming in Sri Lanka for the first time. After finding a decent beach several miles away, I threw towel and sunblock in the trunk and went for it. At ten in the morning, there were only sleepy coconut sellers and impatient tourists on the beach.
It was then that I watch a peculiar surf lesson. A bit later I called it a colonial surfing. It is when the black instructor pushes the white man’s board because he is too lazy to paddle.
A couple of days later I moved even further south to Hikkaduwa. I stayed in a hut by the lake, in which I spent two more nights. But my stay wasn’t as enjoyable as I planned.
Sri Lankan huts offer quite a distinctive experience. People in Sri Lanka usually share rooms with ants, spiders, and geckos. One day I saw a meter long monitor lizard swimming in the lake near the hut. The next day a local dog came to my favorite couch to get some sleep.
If you want to take a dip in Sri Lanka you shouldn’t have too much trouble. You can find beach everywhere.
If you find yourself in Hikkaduwa, expect to see surfers and kite surfers all over the place. Locals will readily rent you boards, loungers or sell coconuts.
On my first day in Hikkaduwa, I bought some fresh shrimp from local fishermen and fried them for dinner. The garbage with shrimp peelings from the bag was once again scattered all over the yard on the next morning. This fact annoyed me a lot and I moved to a decent hotel nearby.
One of my favorite things to do in Sri Lanka was driving all over the island. Having started in the morning, I could spend hours exploring the rural roads with my camera in the glove compartment until the sun goes down.
With about 21 million people living in Sri Lanka, the population is constantly growing despite the high density. Half a century ago there were three times fewer people in Sri Lanka.
I was amazed by the fact that tuk-tuk drivers adore refilling expensive alcohol bottles with water. I saw them drinking water several times and while weird it also looks fantastic. With one hand they hold the steering wheel while holding Hennessy bottle in another hand!
I love practical and simple things as I think they possess a certain charm. Tuk-tuk taxi perfectly falls into this category of things. They are as simple and cheap as three-wheeled taxis can be. At the same time, you won’t find two identical tuk-tuks, except at the factory. Most drivers add individual traits to his taxi by repainting it, adding trinkets and light bulbs. The most ordinary tuk-tuks would only have silly stickers with bad English.
When I wanted to buy postage stamps I remember myself roaming around the town. It wasn’t that easy. It seemed to me that red British post boxes were only used here for ornaments with an anthill or a lizard nest inside.
After I have moved to the ocean I start searching for a surf school. There are lots of schools, so if you’re looking for the same experience, expect to spend around 18-20 USD for a one-hour lesson. The school I have chosen had a lawn full of surfboards. The ambience of this place was very positive and I could almost hear my inner voice telling me: “Relax and don’t complicate things. Look at the folk on the beach. If they can surf, you can do it too! Shaka Brah!”
I took four surf lessons for about three hours each. And after spending twelve hours of floating in the ocean I can hardly say I know how to surf.
Although it may seem easy, learning how to surf requires a lot of time, patience, and determination. It turned out that surfing is a hard and exhausting work. You are required to paddle a lot, catch waves, be prepared for accidentally swallowing salt water and sunburns. My surf instructor told me that an experienced surfer spends only two minutes standing on the board per hour. The rest of the time surfers either trying to catch waves or paddling.
I started my classes with routine tasks like carrying a surfboard to the beach, pulling my surf shirt on and applying sunscreen to all exposed areas. Then I was installing a surfboard leash to prevent the board from floating away. The first step was meeting the foam waves. It is where I learned some basic surfing techniques. The second step was to venture to the outside to meet the green waves. These waves are much bigger, they can painfully hit the body and wrest the surfboard out of hands. The most difficult part is to get a position in the line-up though.
On the very first day, I got multiple calluses on my knees and palms, while the salty water did the rest of the job.
Riding a train in Sri Lanka is yet another unforgettable experience. After finishing the surf lessons I headed back to Kandy by train. These were the wonderful six hours.
While the trains in Sri Lanka consist of several cars and a locomotive, most of them shake like hell. Thus sleeping aboard is a risky venture. Some of the trains may have an observation car behind that provides a splendid view of the scenery.
I couldn’t resist but to ride a train on a footboard. Yes, I know it is dangerous, but with all these amazing views I couldn’t stay inside. The train was passing through the paddy fields with men and women working there, railway stations and cattle – it was a mind-blowing experience. Sometimes the train went through tunnels and filled the cars with darkness and diesel fumes.
The train ride was totally exciting, but Kandy town didn’t impress me. It is much smaller than Colombo and look more like India. After disembarking the train most tourists head to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – an ancient Buddhist temple, which houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha.
If you’re planning to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic make sure to wear appropriate clothes since no one is allowed to enter it wearing miniskirts or shorts. However, cunning sellers offer white cloaks to wrap up yourself.
I spent two nights in Colombo so I had little chance to learn much about the city. After that, I moved to Negombo to find a decent hotel and relax while doing nothing. Negombo is a suburb of Colombo just a half an hour drive away. Situated on a narrow spit between the ocean and a wide salty lagoon, you can find the airport just on the other side. While Negombo is a multi-religious city, you will find Catholic churches everywhere.
Sri Lanka is a great destination to unwind. If you want to visit India but think it is filthy, Sri Lanka is your best bet. Expect to ride tuk-tuks, meet Buddhist monks, eat curry and maple pancakes (I enjoyed them a lot!).
It is a lovely island to explore. For around a month you can visit all its corners from the south (surfing) to north (discover Tamil culture without hordes of tourists). The island is relatively small, so there is little chance you got lost. Internet signal and coverage are generally good in Sri Lanka.
Traveling in Sri Lanka for one month can make you less productive, however. That is what has happened to me. I felt like I lost a part of myself – work went poorly, I had to put off some issues until later. I realized the importance of getting a convenient accommodation that will allow you to relax and work for as long as you need.