Sri Lanka is an untamed land: a land covered in jungle yet edged by a picturesque coastline of beaches and a culture of friendly, smiling inhabitants that sure know how to knock-up a tasty curry! Oh, how have I not managed to get to Sri Lanka sooner?
Sri Lanka, the backpacking part of me surmises, would be best done by bus… slowly… taking in the sights, relying on local guidance, immersing yourself completely in the friendly culture… But if you, like us, can’t afford the extra time, are not feeling overly intrepid or are travelling with family, I would recommend you do as we did.
We simply booked with a local tour company (Gihan Tours – would highly recommend) which gave us our transportation, accommodation, driver and tour guide all in one friendly package. Sri Lanka may not be a big country, but the roads are rough, mostly single lane and peppered with heavy trucks, tuk tuks and various animals, all slow moving and unpredictable. The tour we did gave us the ultimate freedom and meant we could get to all the sights in the short time we had.
Our trip to had Sri Lanka developed quickly from a few days on the beach as a stopover on the way to Australia… to our final decision that “we may as well see at least part of the country.” And while I was half expecting a complete disaster (the tour company seemed unsettlingly relaxed though communication with them was always swift), what we ended up with was an exceptionally organised, five day journey around paradise island with Jude, our good-natured, friendly and ever-considerate driver and tour guide.
It feels like the jungle in Sri Lanka is ever-encroaching – palm trees standing tall amongst dense undergrowth, shades of green interspersed by bright pink flowers and bananas. Sure, they’ve carved it out in places to make room for houses, train tracks and tea fields, but it definitely gives you the impression that given more than a few seconds untended, everything would be simply swallowed up.
We pass countless towns, streets lined with long rows of shops propped up against one another, stores draped with swathes of bright cloth, multi-coloured brooms and tropical fruits. Men and women smile invitingly at roadside stalls brandishing giant cleavers ready to plie passers-by with fresh coconut juice, sweet tea or a salty, singed cob of corn.
I expected the driving to be like China or Egypt, the crazy close-your-eyes kind of experience that you have to endure occasionally while travelling. Happily for me this was not the case, and our driver obviously took great pride in his car and the care of his clients, inching over bumps or pot holes as if the load he was carrying was highly breakable. But there was definitely a system, and surprisingly it seemed to work. Honking and flashing of lights was common, but it was rarely unfriendly. It could simply be a, “hello, I’m here, just letting you know” kind of honk, or it could be a, “hey, just letting you know I’m planning to pass you,” kind of honk”. And indicating was also very important: “Hey, I’m going into the right lane, so any oncoming traffic should move over to the left accordingly to let me pass.” So it went on, honk, flash, indicator… but always politely.
The tea plantations were monstrous, affluent and amazingly picturesque, filled with local workers bent over, expertly plucking tea leaves and collecting them in a large sack they wore on their backs. At the tea factory we visited our tour guide told us the minimum daily collection for the field workers was 20kg, though many of them collected up to 40 or 50kg on a good day. Phew!
Our tour (sadly I can’t fit in everything here) was also full to the brim with various curries and kottu roti (a local delicacy of chopped up roti stir frieded with vegetables, egg or meat), fresh coconuts, monkeys, dogs, cows, wild animals, mosquito bites, beaches and temples galore. We spent the final night at a place I could have happily stayed at for weeks, a veritable beach paradise in a forest of palm trees that was almost devoid of people. An afternoon tropical storm made the day even more ideal as we retreated to the front porch of our cabana, lying on what was essentially an outdoor bed and reading while the storm cracked and thrashed around us.
Following our tour we spent five nights at the beachside resort-town of Mirissa, filling in our days with food, sun, swimming and relaxing. Our accommodation was located right on the beach at Sira’s Chalets and we enjoyed breakfast each day on a small table outside our room, listening to the crash of the waves and the happy chirrups of the squirrels.
The main attraction in Mirissa (apart from relaxing) is whale watching, and while it would have been awesome, at that point in the trip we were completely touristed-out and couldn’t stand the thought of cramming ourselves into a boat full of people to catch a fleeting glimpse of one or two blue whales (it wasn’t peak whale season by any means). Instead we scouted out an amazing cooking class and spent our evenings enjoying happy hour cocktails on the beach and choosing whole, fresh fish for our dinner.
All too soon, however, we had to say goodbye to Sri Lanka. With skin slightly browner, tummies slightly fatter and brains less frazzled, we headed onwards to our next destination – Australia.