Colombo coastline facing Gulf of Mannar, west of the country. This is just a block's walk from Ottery Inn, my 2nd guesthouse!
Gangaramaya Temple at Beira Lake, Colombo.
Sri New Kathirvelautha Swami Kovin Hindu Temple, Galle Road, Colombo.
Colombo House - my first guesthouse in Colombo, and a Lonely Planet thumbs-upper. A stately family-run guesthouse in the heart of the city. This is located opposite the official residence of the Ambassador of UAE, and is owned by a Sri Lankan lawyer and a Dutch lady.
As things happened, I ended visiting not just Colombo, but some 10 other towns. In fact, Colombo became a sideshow to my travels around this small country which is just the size of Ireland! With a population of barely 25 million, Colombo is relatively puny compared to its more powerful neighbor India (population: 1.15 billion) or Bangladesh (population: 156 million).
How small is Sri Lanka? Hmmm.
It’s like this: Colombo, the capital, is located at the western coast in the middle of the country’s landmass. From Colombo, if you travel to the northernmost town of Jaffna, it will just take you 12 hours! If you head to Galle (pronounced “Gaul”) – the southernmost city, it will take you 3 hours! Finally, if you travel from western Colombo to the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee, it will take you 8 hours! It is THAT small! To get from north to south, 15 hours is a picnic! Compare this to a rapid train travel from India’s Delhi to Chennai which took me from 8PM on a Monday to 10 AM on a Wednesday! India is vast. In the Philippines, it may probably take several days to travel by land (and sea ferries) from the northern province of Cagayan in Luzon down to General Santos City in southern Mindanao.
To cap my whole journey, here are general observations that characterized my trip. From a set of some 3,000 photos, it was difficult to choose just 30 photos.
The people in Sri Lanka are more relaxed than their Indian counterparts. Ubiquitous drivers are still there to fleece you every penny off your pockets. But you can mostly let your guards down anywhere in the country. Most people seem to understand Basic English phrases, and they are slowly adapting to the fact that in the next few years, more and more tourists will flock to this lovely country.
ACCOMMODATIONS AND MAKING RESERVATIONS IN COLOMBO
Accommodations in Colombo are relatively more expensive compared to India or Laos, Vietnam and Bangkok. In fact, even the guesthouses would advertise a basic fee then add up a “tax” of 10-15% that would make your budget stay almost similar to getting a room at a 3-star hotel. So – consider staying in a hotel instead of a guesthouse! Experience also taught me that (in Colombo, at least) it is better to reserve for a room prior to your arrival. I got my first hotel – Lonely Planet’s “Colombo House” out of chance.
A traveling couple left a day ahead of schedule. Had I known how much I was gonna pay for this family-run guesthouse, I’d have gone to a real hotel. Make no mistake, I loved Colombo House. I felt like a king there, but it was a house subbing as a guesthouse and I paid 4,100 rupees for my overnight stay. When they offered to buy me a coke, it was 100 rupees, instead of the street price of 40 to 70 rupees! A walk back to Colombo House from the nearby McDonald's after dinner at 8PM was an uneasy experience on dimly lit alleys.
The eye-popping Hotel Juliana right along bustling Galle Road (their Edsa) has standard rooms at just 3,500 rupees! The second time I got to Colombo, I could not find a hotel – for 4 hours! It wasn’t a pleasant experience walking with all your luggage along dark Galle Road at 10 PM with no accommodations. Colombo streets sleep early and even the main streets get disturbingly sinister and eerie. Moreover, there were AK47-toting soldiers at every darn block of the road! They were harmless, but there was a sinking feeling they’d catch up with you soon!
Since most of Colombo is coastal, going to the beach is just a few walks away. The sights of the capital are a bit limited though. I hired a three-wheeler (their term for a tuktuk or bajaj) to take me around the city. I gave Tanggaraja, my driver, an enumerated list whiich he religiously and patiently went through with me. Except for a couple of churches and mosques, I was able to tick them off my list. He would even take me to places that weren’t on my list, but he thought I'd be interested in! In some places, he would accompany me so I had a bodyguard, an interpreter, a photographer and a friend!
UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES
Seven properties of Sri Lanka have been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage, namely, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa (1982), the ancient city of Sigiriya (1982), the Golden Temple of Dambulla (1991), the old town of Galle and its fortifications (1988), the sacred city of Anuradhapura (1982), the sacred city of Kandy (1988) and the Sinharaja Forest Reserve (1988). This list was my target. Except for Sinharaja Forest (I knew I didn’t have enough time to explore a forest), all of them were on my list. I ended up cancelling Galle which I wanted to visit because of its old Portuguese Fort.(The Dutch, the Portuguese and the British were among their colonizers.) It was also a tsunami-ravage town that seemed to have this end-of-the-world feel to it! But I went to the other beachside town of Negombo instead, a decision I didn’t regret!
LOCAL BUS TO ANURADHAPURA
I specifically chose the non-AC bus (Bus #15) to go to Anuradhapura at just 200 rupees. I got a seat closest to the door, just as LP suggested. It had double the leg room from the other seats at the back and I had front row seats to this fascinating country. During the 5 ½ hour ride (nope, not 3 hours), I had a variety of seatmates: a guy who would doze off and slide his weight against me (I can’t remember how many times I must have nudged my shoulder to wake him up), a very sweaty mother with a toddler, a vegetable merchant who’s carrying his stuff from one town to the next, and a serious lady who wouldn’t move a muscle all the way through her journey. When the bus conductor offered me 6 pieces of plastic-wrapped candies, I knew I had to accept as this was solely offered to me. Yup, “never accept food from strangers”, but something in me knew it was alright. I took one piece but he thrusted all 6 pieces to me. I replied with a wild grin and gave one of the candies to the stiff lady beside me. She looked at me and smiled. Not long after, we were both muscling our way through the candy wrappings. Don’t you just love the kindness of strangers?
A novice walks the 1,800+ steps of the holy site of Mihintale. I was the very first tourist at around 7:30 AM.
Anuradhapura was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka in the 4th century and it boasts of a wide-spread structural development at that time. The ruins are spread all over and you’d need a car (or a bike – but it is just too hot and unhealthy to bike around) to visit every relic. This set of ruins reminded me of the temples of Bagan in Myanmar and the Angkor Wat Temples in Cambodia. I couldn't help but relive those experiences in Anuradhapura. My driver took me to the Temple of Kali which wasn't mentioned in LP. Among my favorites is the Kuttam Pokuna (Twin Ponds) and Jetavanarama's unfinished stupa - the king who ordered its construction suddenly died and they couldn't find the design that completes its construction. It was interesting!
MY HEAD-STRONG DRIVER RAJU AND LOSING IT
My tuktuk driver in Anuradhapura was a head-strong guy named Raju who had agendas of his own. I had to remind him several times that, hey, I was the paying tourist so I called the shots! When I was looking for a Chinese restaurant for a very delayed meal, he insisted on taking me to a Sri Lankan restaurant! I testily reminded him, “I do NOT experiment with food! That is one adventure I do not do!” Guess what? He still took me to the Sri Lankan Restaurant and told me, “If you don’t like, there’s a Chinese restaurant next door!” Haha. Well, I didn’t exactly fancy what I ate (see photo below), but it wasn’t bad! People can eat anything after missing breakfast and lunch at it's already almost 2 PM! After all, gastric emptying time is 3 to 4 hours, and mine has been empty for 12 hours! I was famished!
Later that night, I got so exasperated because he made me wait inside the tuktuk for 15 minutes after he excused himself to buy a cigarette. It wouldn't have mattered if I was at a restaurant or somewhere where there is life, but no, the tuktuk was parked beside a dark corner of a bushy nowhere. Mosquitoes were feasting on me! Could he be smoking? I found him sweet talking some Caucasians who planned on hiring his services the next day! It was rude to make me wait, and I was really so tired after a full day that started at 5AM! Sure, these Caucasians could wave their Euros to him, but as per experience, most of these guys are on a very meager budget, and my measly Philippine Peso competes well with their budgets in most instances! This is simply because they do protracted travels that last for several months, while my travels are short-term visits. I am mostly mild mannered and painfully patient, but something in me ticked. I only curse in blogs and letters, never in public. But I gave him a dressing down. As far as I know, I was paying him to wait for me and not the other way around! And I was very tired to be waiting for someone. All day, during the temple visits, I would wait for him to finish a call. He was always late. As a conciliatory move, he later knocked on my door and offered me “tea” – minus the poison? Haha. I graciously declined. I was sincerely spent.
From Anuradhapura, I was supposed to head south to the Sacred City of Kandy, but I decided to pass by Mihintale, a holy city and location of the birth of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. This was where an Anuradhapura King was invited by the son of Indian royalty Ashoka to what would later spread as Buddhism! The holy site sits atop a cliff, you’d have to be fit to just climb through its 1,800+ steps just to get to 3 important sites: a rock temple that needs to be climbed further, a dagoba (a stupa), and a gigantic white Buddha on top of another hill! Though I enjoy visiting these temples, one thing that I don’t look forward during these visits is the practice of taking off your shoes/slippers to roam the whole compound! I have sensitive feet and walking barefoot feels like walking over needles! It just isn’t comfortable! Then to be expected to climb stairless-rock temples would further compound this problem! Let’s not even talk about when the ground is wet and muddy! I usually leave my socks on, but this has resulted into me throwing several pairs of socks at the garbage at the end of a journey! Yup, I've left several pairs in Anuradhapura and elsewhere.
Fruits in season at a roadside stall in Omaragolla, our bus stopover from Colombo to Anuradhapura!
Sri Lankan fastfood at the restaurant called "Family Baker". With coke, this cost me 200 rupees.
Getting to Kandy (in reference to the Kandyan Kings of the past) was a highlight! The only other real city besides Colombo, Kandy is a pretty sight! There is the magnificent Kandy Lake as the center piece, and there are surrounding hills rising above temples and colonial buildings! This is debatably the country’s most popular city – not Colombo.
In fact, from Bandaranaike International Airport, I took a local bus and sat beside another backpacker - a statuesque black beauty named Savannah from London. She had been traveling Asia for the past 4 1/2 months. I was heading towards the capital and she was going straight to Kandy via Colombo. Funny thing was, she just came from Manila – which she “hated”. That was embarrassing, actually!
We had a long chat prior to shaking hands and saying our goodbyes at the Fort Bus Terminal where she was to find her ride to Kandy. She loved Palawan, but hated Manila. She’s had several friendly offers to meet up, but she was wary of meeting them and then be expected to foot the bill during such meetings. “I loved the way everyone would call me, ‘Ma’am’. I’ve never been called ‘ma’am’ in all my life,” she observed of Filipinos! She was also on a very tight budget. Who wouldn't after 4 1/2 months? In fact, she didn't plan on getting a $50 Round ticket or the 1,000-rupee ticket for the Temple of the Tooth Relic. What could she see at the Cultural triangle without buying those tickets, I wonder? I personally adhere to a planned budget myself, but after having met so many fellow backpackers all over Asia, I have realized that, my taste and expenditures are comparatively “ostentatious” for a backpacker. I am not ClubMed caliber, but I don’t scrape the bottom as well. If I were a teenager, I probably wouldn't mind. Fortunately, I am not and have learned some acceptable compromises along the way.
Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy - the country's holiest temple.
Dambulla is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. It is also one of my favorites. The rock towers 160 m over the surrounding plains. Major attractions are spread over 5 caves, which contain statues and paintings related to Lord Buddha. There are a total of 153 Buddha statues, 3 statues of Sri Lankan kings and 4 statues of gods and goddesses. I loved the way a very solid rock was carved into caves, containing Buddha statues of different sizes and shape. Yup, absolutely better than the thrown-away buddhas of Laos’ Buddha Caves near Luang Prabang.
Once again, the hike up the hill was daunting. There are a huge population of monkeys en route to the cave. The harsh sun was always a factor in this journey, so I have to mention that November to January would be a better time to enjoy Sri Lanka as it isn’t as hot! Visits to these places require physical stamina. And most of the time, they’re not for the faint hearted either!
The huge Golden Buddha in front of the Dambulla Cave Temples.
Dambulla Cave Temples - This compound has 5 separate caves containing paintings and buddha statues of varying sizes! Entrance is 1,100 rupees.
Isurumuni Rajamaha Viharaya Temple. Belatedly realized that photography was prohibited inside. Ooops!
Anuradhapura Archaeological Museum
The intriguing Kandy Lake - Its construction in 1807 was ordered by the last Kandyan King, Sri Wickrama Rajacintha who ordered the execution of those who refused to work. They were accordingly thrown off this lake!
Street scene in Kandy.
A soldier at one of the hundreds of checkpoints at the Kandy Hill - the street is Rajaphilia Mawatha where my guesthouse (Blinkbonnie Tourist Inn) was. The President was in Kandy when I was there. He wanted to offer prayers at the Temple of the Tooth Relic and he sought guidance from the Head Monk whom I was lucky to have met and conversed with. The 92-year old almost-blind monk even gave me a "protection neck brace" which I have kept with me since.
The ancient city of Polonnaruwa remains one of the best planned Archeological relic sites in the country, standing testimony to the greatness of the Kingdom's first rulers. Remember Duran Duran music video Save a Prayer in 1982? It was filmed here! Polonnaruwa’s kingdom rose after ancient Sinhalese King Vijayabahu I defeated the Cholan regime.
SCARIEST VISIT OF MY LIFE
Finally, my most memorable visit was Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress and palace ruin situated in the central Matale District, surrounded by the remains of an extensive network of gardens, reservoirs, and other structures. Going to Sigiriya, I hired a van and a driver (named Jagath) to take me to this stone fortress. We drove through a lush forest reserve, a jungle where wild elephants roamed! It was fun!
A popular tourist destination, Sigiriya is also renowned for its ancient frescos, which are reminiscent of the Ajanta Caves of India. The vast compound was built during the reign of King Kassapa I and boasts of a harrowing 2,744 steps up an agoraphobic series of stairways. Spiral staircases lead to hanging frescoes painted with buxom ladies – still in stark beautifully-preserved colors to this day. Hanging foot bridges snaked all around this volcanic plug, I had delusions of tripping over and falling off the wide-open hand rails. I saw locals letting their 5 year olds walk on their own when they could have easily slipped through the hand rails and fallen hundreds of feet down the rocky hill! I was petrified!
The view from the top was ultimately rewarding, but I would not wish my experience on anyone. Absolutely one of the scariest experiences I have ever had to experience in my life. I tried hard to keep an unaffected poker face, but I guess it helped that climbing up Sigiriya was physically strenuous! Photos of myself showed me perspiring all over - not scared at all! How pictures lie.
Touch-them-not! Frescoes of buxomy concubines of the king adorn this part of the rock complex. How could artists be able to paint them at such unbelievable altitude prior to the advent of the modern staircases that have been put up for the tourists? The complex was thought to have been placed atop a hill to avoid murderous invaders!
EXPENSES AND THE AIR YOU BREATHE
Expenses in Sri Lanka is an integral matter to consider in planning a Sri Lankan trip. We know how these places go – like India, Bangladesh and Nepal – they are supposed to be dirt cheap, right? If you are a tourist, brace yourself for the harsh realities of South Asian Tourism 101. Visiting these Ancient cities always require a fee – just like when you’re in Myanmar where you pay tourism fees to visit Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake or other towns.
To save up from all these individual fees, it is better to purchase a Cultural Triangle Ticket (aka “Round Ticket”) which is valid for 14 days from the date of first use! This ticket covers entry fees to the ancient cities and stamps to selected museums. These are randomly checked during your actual visit. However, on top of this $50 round ticket, there are several more entrance fees you would have to pay further, like Kandy’s “Temple of the Tooth Relic” and several temples more. Let’s not even mention all those “donation boxes” distributed in every nook and cranny of these temples. In Dambulla alone, there must have been 20 donation boxes among the 5 caves, and you have to separately pay its entrance fee of 1,100 rupees. Shoe rack? 20 rupees! Toilet? 15 rupees! Yes, you’re lucky not being charged for the air you breathe in Sri Lanka! :)
PAYING TO DEATH AND SRI LANKAN HOSPITALITY
Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth Relic is Sri Lanka’s holiest temple. Most locals are supposed to make a pilgrimage to this temple at least once in their lifetime, as it houses a “tooth” of Buddha, taken all the way from India. Its historical narrative is colorful so google for it if you are interested! This temple requires another entrance fee of 1,000 rupees, although you’ve already paid for a Round Ticket that already includes Kandy fee!
You won't be able to see the tooth relic. It is heavily guarded as the relic has always signified not just religious sovereignty but political power as well. And the Sri Lankans guard this relic with manic sobriety. The Peradeniya Gardens, which is an hour from Kandy, has an entrance fee of 600 rupees for foreigners and a measly 30 rupees for the locals. Foreigners are always regarded as money trees. They are visitors so tourists must pay 200% more than the locals. Such practice is prevalent all over the sub-Indian continent. Here's the mathematical equation currently practiced. Tourist = rich! Hospitality in these areas comes with a hefty price! Unfortunately, that is a harsh reality everyone must accept if you are to enjoy your travels here!
GARDENS TO VISIT BEFORE YOU DIE
Before I forget, Anuradhapura and Peradeniya Gardens are listed as among the “1000 Gardens You Must Visit Before You Die”. The Cannonball Tree is of particular interest. It’s supposed to have originated from Guyana (beside Suriname, South America)! It has this huge tree where hundreds of cannonball-looking fruits hang down its bark. It was an amazing sight!
From Kandy, I wasn’t looking forward to going back to Colombo. In fact, I considered staying for 1 more night in Kandy. My guesthouse – the newly renovated Blinkbonnie Tourist Inn (which I highly recommend; it's owner Steven is a friendly fellow who can arrange for vehicles and other travel-related requisites) - is situated on the hill, overlooking the dreamy Kandy Lake. I would leisurely hike down the hill to get to the city down below. The hike back up was, I have to be honest, laborious and far from being leisurely. I would check my emails in the evening and on my way back, I’d take a tuktuk (which always managed to get lost along the way) back! It was too dark and eerie to walk back up the hill alone, and there were stray dogs on the road, not to mention several more checkpoints.
Peradeniya Gardens is in the list of "1000 Gardens To Visit Before You Die". To be honest, It was just okay, not spectacular!
Cannonball Tree! Originally from Guyana (South America), this amazing sight is one of the garden's most popular "residents".
A THOUSAND AND ONE CHECKPOINTS
Checkpoints are a staple sight in Sri Lanka. The government is so caught up protecting its regime that most of its efforts are focused on a defensive stance, while economic programs become second fiddle – thus the whole of Colombo is close to looking like the proverbial war zone! Infrastructure development is obviously hindered by political grandstanding. The beautiful beachside promenade – called Galle Face Green – is riddled with soldiers (very friendly ones) and fortifications. Many areas are closed off to pedestrians and tourists. Every corner has a checkpoint that stops cars and local passersby. They have learned to exclude foreigners from these checks. In fact, I would pass by just inches from these soldiers and checkpoints amidst heavy inspections 5x in an hour and I was never stopped! Except one early morning when my tuktuk took me to the Fort Bus Terminal. Once the soldiers saw me – a foreign-looking visitor – they waved the driver off!
How is security in Sri Lanka? I would say it is relatively safer than India, where I almost experienced the Mumbai bombings just a couple days after I left for Hyderabad! Sri Lanka also has its terrorist scare (c/o of the insurgent group Tamil Tigers) – a bomb exploding in front of the Temple of the Tooth Relic a few years ago – but these are rare occurrences that could happen more regularly in say, the United States, London or Madrid!
On the day I was to leave Colombo, I had a chat with a store owner (I tried several varieties of bread for my breakfast coz I couldn’t wait to get to a restaurant). “I don’t like our President. He isn't a good man,” offered the store owner, referring to their President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I didn’t want to get into a political discussion with anyone while I was on the road, but I listened anyway. She told me that Rajapaksa just jailed “a very good man ” who happened to rank prominently in the military. (General Fonseca who once contested the Presidency is considered a national hero for ending the terror reign of the Tamil Tigers.)
Furthermore, the President also shut down operations to a TV company who was “saying good things about this general (Fonseca?)”. Shutting down a TV station to curtail freedom of expression? Hmmm. Sounds familiar! The dreaded and belligerent Tamil Tigers, who have finally surrendered a year or so ago are said to be re-grouping once again. This isn’t good news! Can’t people give peace a chance? But then how can you stop an uprising against a power-hungry regime? The situation is obviously testy, and political affairs are better left to the opinion of the locals who live it! Elections in Sri Lanka are fast approaching – one culminated this April and another in 2011. Sri Lanka's ruling party eventually cruised to victory in the parliamentary elections but fell short of the two-thirds majority that would have allowed President Rajapakse to amend the constitution. Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured 117 seats in the 225-member assembly with another 45 seats left to be declared.
In lieu of a visit to Galle (I realized I didn’t have enough time), I packed my luggage and went instead to Negombo, a beachside town that’s near the airport. Hotel Silver Sands was a surprise! I opted to take a room there instead of the Ocean View, which was recommended by the owner of Blinkbonnie – “Mr. Mark, the owner is my friend”, he said. Silver Sands has this moorish arches which I loved! More importantly, it faces the beach! And food was delicious!
Discontented with missing Galle, I later found myself visiting the Island of Duwa, some 30 minutes from town. A footbridge connects this sleepy island from Negombo. The population is also distinctly Catholic, thus you see churches and chapels, and religious markers at every 2 blocks of the road or so. This fishing village displays sun-dried fish so you smell the stench of these products in most places you go! But the best part of Duwa is its secluded beaches. There are very few souls walking around the island – and I felt really privileged to have been there! Few years ago, I could only daydream of getting to Sri Lanka!
Predominantly Catholic Island of Duwa, just half an hour away from Negombo! This sleepy fishing village has the end-of-the-world feel to it, and it boasts of secluded beaches. In this photo, you see cross markers, religious markers that are scattered in almost every corner of this island. I saw 2 churches here, a legacy brought about by its European colonizers.
Island of Duwa is separated by a footbridge from the beachside town of Negombo.
Moorish arches, painted in white. Impeccably clean and a generally relaxed atmosphere permeate Hotel Silver Sands.
My "dreamy room" in Hotel Silver Sands.
KONISHIWA FOR A FILIPINO TRAVELER
There was a time the Japanese were lording it over world travel. These days, Japanese tourists seem to be getting fewer. The Koreans are taking over. But here's the funny thing - I was always mistaken as Japanese wherever I went in Sri Lanka. It was getting ridiculous. I’d hear them greet me, “Konishiwa” and I’d correct them with “I am from the Philippines!” How can you seriously mistake a fellow Asian for Japanese? I am not even that fair! It was just silly to get taken as a Jap like 50x during my travels – and I am not exaggerating!
At the tourist registry (logbook) of Hotel Silver Sands, I saw the name of a girl, some 5 names above mine. In her nationality, she wrote, “Filipino”! Wow, either she was still there or I missed her by a day! A lone Filipino traveler like myself – and a girl at that! That felt serendipitous! I always feel alone, albeit not lonely, wherever I travelled.
Catholic Church in the Island of Duwa.
Sri Lanka boasts of the world’s very first female Prime Minister, so women are better placed in their society. A majority of the population speaks Sinhalese, the remaining few know Tamil. This is probably due to its northern proximity to India’s Tamil Nadu state. It won’t take long before the backpack community find their wandering feet in Sri Lanka. The great merchant of Venice himself, Marco Polo, once referred to the island as “the finest island of its size” he has laid eyes on. That must have been the case then. I’d say it isn’t a very appropriate description these days, but it is nevertheless enchanting! And you just might end up completely charmed.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Magnificent sun sets over Negombo.