Sri Lanka – Christmas adventures and ridiculous driving

Before we go any further, I have to say that I haven’t found travelling in Sri Lanka to be the most rewarding experience of the trip. I’ve found it lacking in culture, history and identity, and the food is generally rubbish. I think that the whole country is overly expensive, and that it has all of the bad bits of India (dirt, pollution, ridiculous driving behaviour, over-crowding, and a general unwillingness to clean the toilets) with none of the positives (life being lived on the streets, religion, the general “off the scale” pace and excitement of just being in the moment). It could be that as we’ve hired a car and have been moving around so quickly in our rush to get to a beach for Christmas, we’ve prevented ourselves from really having to engage with the country and the people. I don’t feel like we’ve got to know anyone here.  We’ve not made any friends and we’ve not had a single conversation what wasn’t related to accommodation, food or simply paying the bill. We could have spent the last four weeks anywhere – there’s nothing that we can point to that is distinctly and uniquely Sri Lankan. I also think that we’ve been suffering from homesickness over Christmas and New Year.  We didn’t realise it at the time, but being away from family and friends was much harder than we expected, and looking back it certainly had a significant effect on our moods and how we approached the daily challenges and opportunities that travelling presents.  But, that’s got to be our fault and not Sri Lanka’s, so let’s leave all of that negativity aside and get on with the good stuff…

We arrived in Sri Lanka from India and were immediately taken aback when there was no queue for immigration (I’m looking at you Indira Gandhi International Airport!).  The immigration officer smiled and chatted to the kids whilst quickly and efficiently stamping our passports.  He then handed over a sim card with some actual credit on it so that we could make some phone calls and arrange hotels etc. from the comfort of the large air conditioned and tout free arrivals hall.  We did have quite a lot of faff finding a place to stay but this was mostly caused by the absolutely enormous price difference between India and Sri Lanka.  You’ve got no chance of finding a decent place in Colombo (or the rest of the country for that matter) for much less than £50 a night.  It wasn’t just the airport that was different.  Evan’s nose was put out of joint by our first tuk tuk drive, as he was no longer allowed to sit on the driver’s seat as he’d routinely done in Nepal and India.  He was then told off as his knees weren’t properly tidied away inside the vehicle!  It’s health and safety gone mad, and as I’ll point out later, adds not one jot of difference as everyone on the road is an idiot.

Once we got out of stinky and over-crowded Colombo and hit the road in “Fenny”, our super cool Daihatsu Terios, we have actually seen some bloody amazing things in some outstanding scenery. The caves at Dambulla (which are rammed full of statues of Buddha and have the feeling of being genuinely magical when you discover them) and the ancient ruins at the top of the 200m tall volcanic plug that is Siguriya (which can easily be compared to Macchu Picchu or Angkor Wat) were certainly the historical and cultural highlights of our whistle-stop tour of the island. I’m genuinely surprised that these two UNESCO World Heritage Sites are almost completely anonymous and never appear in any of the the “Top 10 places to see before you die” type lists that are found in most general travel guides. Both places are utterly enchanting and were well worth the long drive to get to them. The entrance fee to each of them was pretty steep, with Siguriya alone costing more than our daily travel allowance, but I’d say that it was completely worth the money. Despite us carelessly arriving on a Saturday, the place wasn’t crowded and from the top we had breathtaking views of the surrounding jungles and mountains. The air was so clear at the top of Sigiriya that we could easily see the twenty metre high golden buddha statue at the caves at Dambulla, 20 km away.

Ella is a small town in the hill country, surrounded by mountains, forests and tea plantations.  We spent a magical three days here, relaxing and trekking.  The walk up to Ella Rock took us along train lines and up steep paths and the view was spectacular at the top.  The view from our balcony was constantly changing and we somehow got a room with a beer fridge – which always makes everything better.  Even being attacked by leeches on the way back from dinner turned into a comedy hour trying to get rid of the feckers.  We loved it here.

Next on the list of fantastic places we visited was Uda Walawe National Park. This is a 119 square mile lump of wilderness which is home to about five hundred wild elephants, countless birds and a handful of leopards. It’s also got a huge lake in the middle which is full of crocodiles. Luckily for us, we arrived just at the end of the monsoon and therefore the lake was brim full of water.  The crocodiles were nowhere to be seen. Come back in a couple of months and the lake will have shrunk to a muddy puddle.  Crocs will be swarming all over the place, looking for a tasty tourist or two to snack on. I must admit that I was expecting elephant spotting in Udawalawe to be as successful as tiger spotting had been in Ramthambhor, and that we’d therefore spend three hours bouncing around in a jeep with the guide telling us that it was crawling with elephants last week.  However, within five minutes of entering the park we’d bumped into our first elephant – a twenty year old male out for an evening stroll. And after that we saw loads of them – solitary males, family groups of females with their babies, and groups of adolescent males just mucking about. And to top it all, the park is surrounded by a huge mountain range, and we were treated to the most amazing sunset as the sun sank below the mountains. It was a magical few hours, which the kids absolutely loved.

I have to say a couple of words about the traffic at this point. Having spent two weeks in a car being driven around Rajasthan, I thought that we’d be hardened to the worst excesses of driving idiocy. Alas not. The Sri Lankans have taken the chaos of Indian roads, slapped on a wafer thin veneer of order and respectability to give the appearance that they know what they’re doing. But then they ignore everything and drive like seven year olds playing a video game. There seem to be two basic rules of the road:

  1. Overtake everything, all of the time. It is imperative that you get in front of the next guy and it doesn’t matter how or where you achieve it. Blind corners, up hills, down single track roads, on pavements are all valid overtaking spots
  2. Heft is best. You only have to consider giving way if you’re going to hit (or be hit) by something bigger than you. Buses are the kings of the road, and have right of way in all situations. If two buses are hurtling towards each other, then I think that the red ones have priority over the blue ones.

It’s a completely infuriating system which inevitably leads to lots of crashes and regularly brings the average speed of a road down to a very pedestrian 15 km/h as everyone bullies their way infront of everyone else.  It started out as being funny but it soon became tiresome.  Having Fenny was great as it gave us the freedom to do things to a schedule that suited us.  It’s a real double edged sword sort of thing though.  If we hadn’t had her then we’d have had to use trains and buses, which would have slowed us down and probably meant that we missed some of the great stuff we’ve seen, but would have meant that we got to see actual Sri Lankan life, which might have helped me have a more positive view of everything. We’ve read blogs from other families that absolutely rave about their time travelleling in Sri Lanka with the kids, and we had such high hopes for the place, but I’d say that Sri Lanka generally failed to live up to most of them.

Right, back to the good stuff…  We spent Christmas living in Mirissa which has a lovely beach and is the perfect location for water based adventures.  The money we would have spent on Christmas presents at home we’ve spent on having pre-Christmas adventures with us going diving, snorkelling, surfing, whale watching, and more diving. And for the first time since we left Portsmouth, we even managed to calm down and spend a day or two doing absolutely nothing. Which has been lovely.

Surprisingly, Santa managed to drop off a couple of presents for us all on the big day. And as an extra special treat, we headed out to the heaving metropolis of Matara to watch the new Star Wars movie. It had a very low key release over here, opening on Christmas day with a single showing. The complete absence of advertising meant that it was pretty easy to get tickets fifteen minutes before the show started, with the cinema only being half full. The film was brilliant, and to finish the day, we had a real taste of home with dinner at Pizza Hut. A very alternative sort of Christmas.

Another place that far exceeded expectations is Galle.  The old town inside the fort is a picture perfect throwback to the time of the Dutch and British colonies.  There’s a perfect blend of fully restored history with enough ramshackle stuff falling down to give a real feel of how the place has evolved.  Sitting on the centuries old walls, with the receding tide breaking over the  rocks, watching the sunset, all whilst enjoying a delicious Italian ice-cream is a perfect end to a day’s exploring.  In fact, we loved it so much in Galle, that we went back, and did it all again.

So, there you have it. Sri Lanka in a nutshell. It’s a brilliant holiday destination, with plenty to see and do for a fun packed fortnight’s escape from the dreary UK weather.  But I don’t think that we’d recommend it as a travelling destination, and having been here for a month, I think that we can safely say that we’ve ticked it off the list.

Next stop Thailand.  Can’t wait.

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