Arriving at the Bandaranaike International Airport around 9 pm, I was a bit nervous as I walked towards immigration. The airport was grubby; reminiscent of the Mumbai International Airport from the 1990s, but less crowded. I removed the print-outs of my hotel accommodation and my return-flight confirmation from my NewFeel Backenger and waited my turn. I had applied for an e-visa online only 48 hours earlier, which took all about 10 seconds to be issued and printed. Despite this smooth virtual experience, my recent Schengen Tourist Visa rejections had kept me on edge.
Ziiiip. 30 seconds later, I was on the other side. No questions asked, the officer had printed out a QR code with a 30-day visa, applied it on my passport and handed it back to me. I was in Sri Lanka!
On my way out, I topped up the free sim card provided on arrival. Yes, that's right. Sri Lanka offers all tourists a FREE 30-day Dialog sim card that includes free local SMS, talk time as well as WiFi/data! You can also top it up to a higher data quota for about $10. I heard later that one of the reasons the current Prime Minister got elected was because he promised everyone free internet. Smart.
The capital city of Colombo is approximately 45 minutes away from the international airport and my hotel had arranged for a driver to pick me up. He spoke good English and I chatted with him during the ride. Incidentally, he had visited Goa (my hometown) a few years ago with friends. He was genuinely surprised that I would want to stay in Sri Lanka for a month. While checking in to the hotel, the receptionist voiced the same opinion. Why? What did they know that I didn't?
The next morning, I walked a few blocks down to Whight & Company a large 2-storey cafe overlooking the Laccadive Sea. I ordered the Sri Lankan breakfast - string hoppers and spicy chicken curry. Yummy! I noticed a couple of other foreigners at the cafe working on their laptops, yet they seemed like regulars. Traveling freelancers like myself?
Later in the evening, I checked out the TripAdvisor AND Lonely Planet "highly-recommended" Pilawoos Restaurant that I highly do not recommend. After a plate of their Kottu that can only be described as a mix of stale roti, leftover vegetables and noone-knows-what-else-is-in-this-dish, I spent the following day in the hotel bathroom telling myself what doesn't kill me only makes me stronger.
With my insides adjusted to Sri Lankan "food", I decided to venture out again. At the Gallery Cafe, I tried the pan-seared modha fish (a type of Sri Lankan seabass) which was simply lip-smacking! At another popular restaurant Upali's by Nawaloka, I enjoyed a humongous yet inexpensive Sri Lankan lunch. It was also refreshing to find a smartphone app called YAMU which offered local expert-reviewed restaurant recommendations.
After only 5 days in Colombo, I was ready to leave. I began to understand what the driver and receptionist were talking about. Honestly, the city is quite polluted. No doubt because of the numerous "tuk-tuks" (similar to the Indian "rickshaw") and motorbikes running on diesel. Why don't they introduce CNG (compressed natural gas) tanks like the tuk-tuks in Mumbai and Delhi? It's a cleaner fuel and offers better mileage.
There was only one obvious destination to go to next: Kandy-land.
Also known as "hill country", Kandy is THE best reason to visit Sri Lanka. The air is cleaner, the food is tastier, and the grass is actually greener! Trains run everyday from Colombo, some featuring special privately-owned coaches that run on select schedules. The trip can take anywhere from 3-4 hours with occasional delays from rain/mudslides.
I booked tickets in the observation deck - the last coach of the train with a huge window facing the train tracks. At first, I was quite excited that I got the last row seats with the best view, until I realized that these seats were empty for a reason. They are also the most bumpiest seats in the whole train. I'm positive that I achieved a hang-time of 3.4 seconds on one of the turns (for the Physics nerds, hang-time here is defined as the time that I spent in the air between when my bottom was on the seat at time T1 and again at time T2)
Once in Kandy, I was picked up by my AirBNB host in a 4WD. We drove up a steep hill for about 30 minutes, and then some more. I began to doubt my choice of accommodation as the jeep struggled to complete the final stretch of a steep, dimly-lit dirt road but I was quickly reassured when we finally pulled up to a bright white mansion. A couple of friendly Dalmatians and a German Shepherd greeted us along with the rest of the staff, as we walked over to the wooden chalet beside a private swimming pool, overlooking a breathtaking valley. Up on this random hilltop that was to be my home for the next 7 days, it felt like paradise.
AirBNB is a big business in Sri Lankan hill country. Since good restaurants are few and far-spread, the hosts take advantage of this opportunity to offer home-cooked meals for an additional price (usually, under $5 a meal). Portions are HUGE with fresh, organic ingredients and sometimes exotic - like "mangosteen" - a fruit that I had never heard of before. Even the breakfast "rotis" were quite distinct from the Indian rotis, with the Sri Lankan variety made from coconut. I didn't need to get out of the mansion at all, as breakfast/lunch/dinner was prepared and served by the staff throughout the day. Every meal felt like a 3-course meal and the days seemed to pass by slowly as I paid attention to the smaller things in life, like the flowers and butterflies. And occasionally, the bigger things in life - like Max, the adorable German Shepherd.
Payment had to be made in cash however, which I found a bit silly since I had to go all the way down the hill to the city to an ATM to withdraw cash, only to see the host go back to the city a few days later to deposit this same cash, probably into the same bank. I imagine that the owners of the surrounding home-stays had to do the same thing with their guests as well. For Sri Lankan entrepreneurs, here's an idea. Deploy a localized crypto-currency application that allows seamless payments over smartphones. Combine this with a credit-card reader that plugs in to the headphone jack to accept payments via debit/credit cards, similar to the Square, PayPal and Amazon card readers available in the United States.
I did manage to make a short trip to some of the nearby Buddhist temples but was disappointed by the fact that tourists couldn't enter any of them unless they paid a "fee". Despite this odd rule, I do recommend visiting the Hindu-Buddhist temple called Lanka Tilaka located on top of a hill. Remember to ask for the English tour which is included in the price of the entrance fee!
My next destination was Ella. Train tickets at the Kandy station were sold out so I decided to hire a private taxi to go to another station Nanu-Oya where tickets were still available. My host suggested that we stop at the Ramboda falls on the way. I'm glad I did! Tucked away among the hills of Kandy, and at a hike of about 400 steps uphill was a peaceful and scenic waterfall that was largely undisturbed (except by a few other other backpackers). I also stopped at the Blue Field Tea plantation nearby, where I learned a bit about how tea is made. Turns out, all teas come from the same plant - Camellia sinensis - this includes white tea, green tea, and black tea. Who knew?
At Nanu-Oya, I boarded one of the private coaches from Expo Rail. These coaches are attached to the government trains and charge a premium over the regular tickets in exchange for "luxury" services such as a clean bathroom, a few drop-down TVs, wifi (quite poor) and stewards (quite professional) to help you with your luggage and serve drinks/meals.
The online travel forums say that the train from Nanu Oya to Ella is the most scenic train route in Sri Lanka. I was unimpressed. Perhaps I was biased after my rich experience at the hilltop AirBNB in Kandy, but the mountains and the endless tea plantations just didn't thrill me anymore. In fact, I slept through most of the train ride. I wish I had slept through my 4-day stay in Ella too, as it was equally disappointing. Ella is an ultra-touristy town that attracts European 20-somethings to dusty roads, fly-swarmed restaurants and a tiny hill called Ella Rock - in search of excitement. Oh, and to Ella Gap which is a tiny gap between two tiny hills. I thought it was an amazing example of how powerful TripAdvisor can be in promoting an otherwise obscure town. Travel Tip: Skip Ella
Luckily for me, there was more excitement coming up. I had booked an AirBNB home-stay at the edge of the Yala National Park in a village called Kataragama. The owner, Sandun, also ran a Safari business and offered me a great deal on an all-day private safari tour with the promise of a leopard sighting! I didn't doubt him - on the "highway" to Kataragama, I had already seen wild elephants and monkeys.
At Kataragama, the safari began at 5 am. We made a short stop at a local tea-stall where a few other safari jeeps had gathered. A cheerful old man and his wife were serving tea and local rotis for breakfast. We took a few extra rotis for the road and head out quickly. Sandun explained that the best time to watch the animals is before noon. Once the sun is out, the animals hide in the shade until later in the evening when its cooler again. The park has boundaries, but it appears that the animals weren't aware of them. Even before we entered the park, one of the first "sightings" was a peacock. Sandun looked a bit disappointed. The safari tour guides believe that if you see a peacock at the beginning of your trip, it means that there wouldn't be too many animal sightings for the day. Bummer!
We continued driving through the park for the next 4-5 hours. Covering 378 sq.miles, Yala National Park is a wildlife sanctuary that claims to have the highest density of leopards in the world and I wasn't going home until I saw one! Every 200 metres or so Sandun would point out an exotic bird in the distance. Just like the peacock predicted, we didn't see as many large mammals as we should have, but we did come across a herd of elephants and wild boar before we settled in for lunch by a river. It took another 2 hours of driving, chatting with other safari jeep owners and some serious off-road driving for Sandun to finally spot a leopard, lazing by a lake in the shade of the trees. Camouflaged perfectly in the shrubs, it took me an entire minute to see it although it was directly ahead of me! Even my iPhone couldn't quite capture the leopard clearly. I needed a better camera.
Happy that I could finally cross off "safari" from my bucket list, I began to make plans for my next destination. After two and a half weeks of living in the hills and the forests, I wanted to return to urban life again with all its luxuries. According to Booking.com, Gloria Grand Hotel at Unawatuna on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, was a good choice.
Unfortunately I had developed a severe toothache over the past few days. I tried to minimize the pain by chewing on cloves (it works!) and swallowing pain killers but it had become unbearable. I spent the next few days visiting dentists in Unawatuna and resting at the hotel. Turns out, I needed a root canal treatment.
For a brief moment of madness, I actually considered getting the treatment done in Sri Lanka. Then I remembered my options again. One dentist had looked into my mouth, hammered away at my teeth to identify the infected tooth and offered to treat me immediately. She said that she didn't require an x-ray to proceed and that she would just keep drilling and removing "stuff" until the pain went away. Interesting, but no thank you! Another dentist (at an apparently well-known private hospital) looked younger than me and had a hip-hop ringtone on his phone playing in the background while he hammered away at my teeth! Clearly, Sri Lanka has a long way to go in terms of offering professional dental treatment. Even dental floss was quite hard to come by - it requires a prescription from a dentist!
I was forced to cut my trip short as I made plans to travel to Istanbul for my root canal treatment. Despite the pain however, I did manage to make the best of my last few days in Sri Lanka. A short tuk-tuk ride away from Unawatuna, is the city of Galle, a beautiful Dutch-Portuguese colonial city with lots of cute cafes and shops. I also went for a swim in the waters at Unawatuna Beach. Next time I visit Sri Lanka, I'm heading back to the south coast directly!