This post describes a Sri Lankan holiday I enjoyed with my wife (Danielle) and young son (Matthew) in July and August 2011. It has turned into a bit of an epic, so I have included a section of highlights, as well as a photo gallery and the full text.

Highlights

1. Safari – proof positive that we have not completely destroyed our natural heritage, and hopefully an reminder to all who visit of what we stand to lose if we are not careful. A natural abundance of leopards, elephants, birds, plants and reptiles, probably the single best place we visited, all under the expert care of Sajith from Leopard Safaris.

2. Sri Lankans – probably the warmest, most relaxed and welcoming people I have had the pleasure to stay with. This is especially obvious out in the country away from the cities. Whether it was at Serendib Guest House, The Mudhouse, Dias Rest, The Green Rooms, Leopard Safaris or just out and about, we were made to feel welcomed by almost everyone.

3. Tea Country – I cannot imagine humans finding a way to produce a more beautiful landscape than this, it is like a garden on a mammoth scale.

4. Shan – also known as Prishantha our awesome driver, who proved to be safe, diligent, protective, informative and open minded. Although we only used his services for the first half of the trip, he set us off on the right foot, teaching us enough to get us going.

5. Surfing – admittedly I idolize surfing, as it represents much that is missing from my every day life: immersion in nature, physical challenge, the rush and the chilled vibe. That said, The Green Rooms in Welligama is a great spot for novices like me or anyone looking to take it easy and catch a wave.

6. Food & Drink – rice and curry, brinjals, kottu, sombol, elavalu roti, Lion Stout and Lager, arrack, huge servings, cabbage and mustard seed, curried beans, herbal porridge, fresh fruit, spices, herbs, tea…I loved it all except for the curd and the papaya.

Photos

The Full Story

Despite being only 5 hours flying time, Sri Lanka feels a world away from Hong Kong. This is in part due to the cost-cutting 16-hour journey we took, but mostly because life here seems slower and almost everyone takes time to smile. Our three-week trip is a chance for us to tour the country before attending the wedding of an old school friend, Damith.

We left HK just after lunchtime on 15th of July, and after a short flight enjoyed a 6-hour stopover in Singapore’s hugely entertaining Changi Airport. Due to a lack of planning we were unable to enjoy the gym, shower, swimming pool, mega slide, nap facilities, butterfly world and free city tour, but we will certainly use some of these on way way home. We did, however, enjoy the sky train, orchid garden, koi carp pond and wood block art jam, all of which were free and kept our 2-year old son (Matthew) contentedly distracted.

Alas, eventually, we had to leave Changi and continue on our way. Arriving in Sri Lanka in the early hours of the morning of the 16th we were astounded to find an airport combining transport hub and home appliance shopping Mecca. In amoungst the midnight fridge buying madness we immediately noticed the friendly disposition of the people around us, and were grateful to discover that this extended to the roads, which seemed sedate and peaceful in comparison to many other countries.

We spent the first two nights at the Serendib Guest House, located a few kilometers up the coast from Negombo City, itself just up the coast from the capital Colombo. Hidden in suburban back lanes a short walk from the beach, the Serendib is memorable for its owners (Hilary and Buddika) who made us feel at home, sharing generously of food, drink (Arrak) and conversation. Buddika’s giant, generous breakfasts set us up to face the day ahead, and on the whole reflect the establishment’s excellent value. For us Negombo was always just a place to get our bearings and rest our heads, and really the options for entertainment there are limited to a long but dirty beach and a small strip of restaurants and bars.

After two restful nights we arose early to discover that our driver had been in a car accident whilst on his way to collect us. This did not bode well, either for him or for us. After some searching and calling (thanks Buddika) we located a driver with a baby seat, agreed a price for our preplanned itinerary (lovingly drawn up by my wife Danielle over the preceding months) and arranged for him to pick us up asap. Two hours and several u-turns later the man in question (Shan) arrived, and whilst his car looked good, the baby seat was a mite too small for our substantial son. After some discussion, and much ill advised effort at forcing large boy into small seat, we headed off to negotiate the vending of a larger device. Shan displayed much patience during the hunt, but I detected some wondering on his behalf as to why these strange foreigners needed a contraption to keep baby safe in car, when Sri Lankan babies are carried, from birth, on motorbikes. As it turns out the seat’s value was made clear to Shan, when, within two hours on the road, Matthew filled it twice in succession with prodigious amounts of vomit.

In amongst the vomiting, Shan, Dan and I fell into a comfortable pattern of get-to-know-you conversation during which we rapidly increased our knowledge of Sri Lanka. Shan proved to us what we had already started to suspect, which is that almost all Sri Lankans seem to be fluent in English. Whilst this was taking place we managed to get lost on the very first leg of our journey north, which fortunately we managed to rectify before we had driven too far. Of course this only occurred because I ignored Dan’s sage advice to confirm our destination with Shan before we actually start driving towards it.

With the various cancellations, delays, diversions and deviations it was late afternoon before we arrived at our destination just outside of Anamaduwa. Set in a tract of flat, scrubby land, The Mudhouse offers a small number of visitors a chance to stay in rustic comfort away from the chaos of the modern world. As I type this post, I am sitting in a large, mud-floored, open-sided hut under a hand woven roof. The oil lanterns cast a gentle glow over the net-covered beds where my wife and son sleep, and the insects and birds are keeping me company with their gentle symphony. A path out the back leads to a dunny with a porcelain seat, and another to my left meanders to a shower cunningly hidden in a tree. My Lion beer, almost all drunk, sits between me and the hammock I passed much of the afternoon in. Whilst not 5-star, this is undoubtedly the most comfortable I have ever been when sleeping outside of the typical four-walled dwelling we all seem to prefer. When you take into account the three amazing, generous, rustic meals included each day, the free trips to kayak and picnic at the lake, the abundant wildlife, and the overwhelming feeling of isolation, freedom and peace it is easily worth the USD $120 per adult per night. Add in the amazing staff (thanks Douglas, Penny and friends) who make everything so easy, and it seems like paradise is not far off.

But with paradise so close, it was bound not to last. Danielle was feeling sick during dinner, and was vomiting before bed. Shortly after calling it a night I found myself on the toilet, bucket in lap, producing much liquid from each end of my digestive tract. After a sleepless night, we packed up our belongings and prepared to head off. Shan arrived to great us, grinning broadly after evidently enjoying 36 hours away from us, work and whatever else worries a man. We bode farewell to our hosts, and hit the road, heading inland towards Sigiriya.

The drive to Sigiriya proved relatively uneventful, but did reinforce my earlier opinions of Sri Lankan roads. In general all participants move well under the speed limit, which, given the combination of cars, people, bikes, tuktuks, dogs, lorries and buses, is a very good thing. Overtaking occurs regularly, but never seems an alarming prospect, with everyone willing to make way or ease off as needed. Road rage in such a place would be somewhat akin to a scuffle in an old folks home: unexpected and mostly harmless.

On the way we learned more about Sri Lankan culture, economics, politics and geography. One spectacle really struck a chord with Dan and I, which was watching a man, stripped to the waist, using a small hand axe to cut lengths of 2×4 from a coconut tree. The man, who can only be described as an artisan, marks a felled tree, and then standing astride in, walks slowly down it’s length chopping furiously along his line. This is repeated a few times, until a perfect strip of 2×4 emerges, at which point the tree is rotated and the process begun again. Each tree will yield 6 lengths of hard outer wood, leaving the soft heart of the tree for some other use. Apparently machines cannot give as good a result, and so older methods have prevailed. Watching this man at his work, dark skin glistening with sweat, muscles liquid in motion, filled me with both amazement at his skills and melancholy at seeing such toil for meager recompense.

After passing through Dambulla and checking in to the Sigiriya Cottage mid afternoon, we lay down to rest our weary heads in it’s cheap and somewhat remote beds. Located down a long and incomplete road, it provides a good launching point for climbing Sigiriya Rock and for learning about the local arts of wood carving (fascinating and relatively good value for money) and silk weaving (fascinating and very over priced). Leaving these experience for the following morning, we used the evening to head back up the road to Dambulla, where we purchased milk for the ever thirsty Matthew and a multiadapter for the power-hungry iPad. Dinner consisted of a relatively cheap and uninspiring meal at a Dambulla hotel recommended by Shan: at this point it’s overwhelming blandness was appreciated by our stomachs as they attempted to recover their composure. In truth Shan’s complimentary driver’s meal, taken in the company of other tour guides seemed much more interesting.

Rising moderately early the following morning we packed up our possessions, ate a hearty breakfast and left the Cottage in the dust of our Nissan Sunny. First stop was the wood carving factory Oak Ray, where we saw a demonstration of wood carving. Using only hand tools, artisans create a range of intricate items such as bowls, masks, elephants, toys and penis-shaped bottle openers. Such culture! Part of the demonstration includes seeing how traditional dies are made using saw dust from the rainbow tree: by adding a range of chemicals, such as lime, iron oxide, chalk, as well as hot water, a range of colors can be created. When applied to an absorbent wood, these can be used for decorative purposes, and produce a matte finish that is much more delicate than modern paints. Being good tourists we left with a mask (similar in style to those found in Bali) and some coconut wood bowls. Next stop was a silk “factory”, which was really a combined fabric and tailor shop, where the only concession to manufacturing was an old lady operating an incredibly complex and old hand loom. Amazing to watch, but no compensation for the very high prices charged for everything. We escaped with only one purchase: a sarong for Matthew to wear to Damith’s wedding.

Swearing never to buy another tourist trinket again, we drove to Sigiriya rock. This vast tower of rock offers, after crossing a moat and climbing 1,000 steps, a great view of the surrounding countryside. It is also home to an ancient palace cum fortress, built to impose greatness upon visiting dignitaries. At least this is what we have read about it, as, sadly, a combination of illness and pregnancy prevented us from climbing it. It did look pretty amazing from ground level though, and we have pledged to return in the future to conquer it’s historic heights.

The road to Kandy sees a transition in climate and terrain from low, dry and hot to high, cool and wet. Much of the way the road is surrounded by spice gardens, which act as retail and education centers for larger, behind-the-scenes plantations. Needing little encouragement, we stopped at the Royal 100 Spice Garden, and received a tour from an elderly gent with a long gait and a rapid toungue. He showed us the various plants, and explained how the spices were prepared and what they were used for. We learned, to our surprise, the black, white, green and red pepper (cayenne) all come from the same plant, and are simply the result of different processing. We saw lush green vanilla beans hanging in trees, growing alongside cocoa, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and a host of others. Citronella is an extract from lemongrass, the leaves of which emit an intoxicatingly sweet aroma. Our guide showed us the process of crushing curry powder from a range of spices, at which point our mouths were watering. Ending the tour, we sampled exquisite vanilla and spice tea whilst receiving brief head massages and moisturizing rubs. The proffered cure for a headache, massage with nutmeg balm, did exactly as advertised. The cost of all this was the chance to purchase some produce at a slightly higher than market rate, which to us seemed fair enough, especially as it was followed by a very cheap lunch which was both supremely tasty and seemingly never ending.

With all of our senses seemingly overwhelmed we slipped into an easy sleep for much of the remainder of the drive to Kandy. The portions of the journey I managed to glimpse through heavy eye lids were comprised of steep and winding roads leading up into the mountains. Arriving in Kandy we found what once must have been a sleepy mountain town, blessed with a large lake and a wonderful climate. Whilst some of it’s colonial charm remains, it is in many ways now a busy, somewhat run down, commercial and tourist hub. Certainly the character of the people, whilst still mostly friendly and curious, seems to have been hardened around the edges, where shudders linger waiting for tourists to cheat.

The Hotel Casamara provided us with a central location from which to stroll the town, and a place to retreat for rest and continued recovery from our previous digestive troubles. Whilst generally comfortable and clean, the rooms leave no doubt that a bustling road lies directly below it’s tired, 1970s style facade. One distinct asset is the rooftop bar, which offers views of the town, as well as a brood selection of local beers. I can well recommend Lion Stout, which at 8.8%, served in large bottles, left me extremely and unexpectedly merry. So much so that a brief supermarket trip later that night led me to rhapsodize with alarming enthusiasm about the wondrous improvement in the lives of travelers permitted by the development and sale of solid dish washing detergent. This left my wife somewhat bemused, and not much impressed. I believe I may have pledged to stick to lager for the remainder of the trip but I can’t believe that I really meant it.

Strolling around Kandy’s lake (surely it’s best feature) we passed some of the day watching cormorants dive for fish, spending up to a minute at a time under water before resurfacing. Whilst not normally interested in bird watching, Sri Lanka certainly makes it hard not to appreciate the splendour of our fine feathered friends. With a little help from Shan and Douglas, as well as a brief look at The Mudhouse’s book of birds, we have already been able to spot peacocks, herons, eagles, kingfishers, cormorants, horn bills, pelicans and black robins. The horn bill, which I saw swooping to land in a tree, was particularly impressive. The best thing is that all of these were spontaneous sightings, none of which required hides, binoculars, camouflage or mating calls. As the Pythons might have said: beautiful plumage!

After a day and a half in Kandy we felt that we had been there for a day too long, and so, it was with some relief that we stumbled into The Pub. This bar restaurant, housed in an old colonial building, features a long veranda, excellent draft Lion beer and huge servings (no surprise there) of excellent international cuisine. Dan and I both enjoyed the spicy, tangy, succulent chicken kebabs, whilst Matthew made light work of a portion of fish and chips. I left feeling as if I had ingested a cow, whole, but that it had been a great meal nonetheless.

We left candy early the next morning, blithely unaware of the long day’s driving ahead of us. Of the road out of Kandy I can say little, as the memory has been obliterated by what follows. Rising up towards Nuwara Eliya the road passes through some of the finest landscape I have ever encountered. Lined either side by vast tea plantations, the roads meanders slowly upwards to 6000 feet. In all directions tea plants are arrayed in neat rows, faithfully hugging the contours of the mountain. Each bush is a veritable island of lush, verdant greenery sitting upon a stalk thrust from the orange , clay soil. Viewed from most any angle these islands merge into an undulating sea of sheer visual pleasure. Reaching a precipice or gully, the trees abruptly halt, permitting a brief view into their weed free nether regions. At intervals grow slender trees, topped with feathered plumes but otherwise bare. The whole gives the appearance of the most massive, well tended garden paradise imaginable, whose fresh air quickly dislodged the smell left behind by Kandy.

But such beauty demands a high price, and in this case it is the tea pluckers who pay it. These women are required to pluck each bush every 6 days in order to ensure a constant supply of the most succulent buds. Working a split shift in the early morning and after lunch, they seek stalks containing two leaves and a bud. These they deftly pluck and toss into a bag slung across their foreheads and down their backs. On top of a low monthly salary they earn 15 rupees per kilo harvested, and for most of them to make ends meet they spend their time between shifts tending their own vegetable plots. A visit to a tea plantation processing plant provides a fascinating look at how a single crop is turned into a range of teas to serve the domestic and export markets. Interestingly, orange pekoe is not a flavor, as I long believed, but rather refers to tea leaves that have been dried and broken down to a particular level.

And just as soon as these incredible sights have come, one crests the hill and they are gone. Beyond, someway down the mountain, lies Nuwara Eliya, also known as Little England: with a surprisingly chill and damp climate, and a range of colonial buildings it is easy to see why. Standing outside the imposing, stone and mortar clubhouse of the Hill Club, I suddenly thought I was back in the north east of England, studying for my undergraduate degree. A scary prospect indeed! Although some tea is grown on this side of the mountain, much has been displaced by “English” vegetables such as leeks, cabbage and carrots. These are grown for national consumption, as they are not well suited to the hotter, dryer conditions fond a lower elevations. The effect is ramshackle, holding none of the appeal of the drive up.

Nearing Horton Plains, we made a turn towards Haputale, our final destination for the day. As if to place the splendours of the high country into vivid resource, we passed through a lowland of small holdings, seemingly trapped in the long forgotten past. Both Dan and I felt a strong sense of foreboding creep in with the afternoon shadows, as we passed, on narrow, winding roads, tiny settlements seemingly ready to be washed away by the next serious rain. As the afternoon drew to a close we once again ascended, finding ourselves back in tea paradise. From our new vantage point we watched mountain ridges fall down to the lush valleys below, and worked to soak in as much of the vibrant freshness as possible.

Eventually, with darkness drawing nearer we arrived in the small mountain side village of Haputale. Small, and with much of the cold, hard brutality one would expect from a Himalayan village, we were happy to be passing through, looking for our pre-booked accommodation a few miles beyond. Reaching the 3 kilometer mark on the road out of Haputale we spotted a small sign beside a narrow track, which on first inspection lead nowhere. Getting out of the car, Shan and I followed the track downhill until reaching a flight of stone stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, located below a rocky outcrop on a sheer cliff, lay Dias Rest: our home for the next three nights.

The following two days included a train ride through hill country to the village of Ella, in which we spent most of our time waiting for our loco to shunt various freight cars into and out of the line at each stop. Amusingly, after a 70 minute wait for a late train, we proceeded 100 meters forward before stopping and moving 150 meters back. We then waited a further 10 minutes before proceeding on our way. As we were only going one way (Shan was collecting us from Ella), these delays were more amusing than annoying. They also gave us a chance to get to know our fellow travelers, most of whom seemed to be Sri Lankans out for a weekend trip. The scenery surrounding the train track was spectacular, and lacking many of the eyesore buildings that sprout around the road network. As we proceeded, we spotted Shan in a few locations, lurking near the track to make sure we were still safe and sound and had not alighted at the wrong station.

The next day saw us making a trip to Sri Lanka’s second highest waterfall. We were led by Dias’s eldest son, Pramod, and joined by four fellow travelers (Matt & Sally, Hinny & Sigirt) who were also staying at Dias Rest. We squeezed one traveler in our car, and the other 4 somehow managed to squeeze into the back of a tuk tuk: this was especially unfortunate for them, as the ride took over an hour on narrow, winding mountain roads. To reach the area above the falls, where it is safe to swim, we had only to make a short walk. This would have been uneventful, other than the fact that we had to crawl, clutching Matthew under a barbwire fence. The sighting of wild elephant droppings also alarmed Danielle, but fortunately for her, that was as close as we got to them. Whilst at the falls, Matt and Sally introduced me to elavalu roti, which consists of a vegetable and egg filling wrapped in roti and deep-fried. This was the start if a love affair for me, although Danielle was not quite so tank with them, possibly due to her being pregnant.

Despite all of these experiences, my overriding memory of our time in Haputale will be the extraordinary hospitality we received courtesy of Mr. Dias, his wife and their 5 children. Despite the beautiful views, the Dias family clearly live in a harsh location, making ends meet with income from the three rooms in their guesthouse. They have no land for cultivation, and Haputale seems to offer little in the way of work. Yet, in spite of this, we were greeted at every turn by 7 beaming smiles, the lion’s share of their food and children willing to play for hours on end with our own son. When, after three days, we left, it was as if we were leaving behind family. Our stay was improved further by the company of fellow travelers, which was something that was, in retrospect, missing from the previous legs of our trip.

Departing Haputale, we bode farewell to hill country and headed down towards the coast at Yalla, home to the national park, leopards and elephants. July is dry season, and the change from the up country was immediately obvious, both in the arid soil and in the vegetation growing in it. At the gate to the park, we bode farewell to Shan, who, as promised was indeed a very safe driver, as well as a fantastic educator, protector and companion. Setting off with our Leopard Safaris guide Sajith, we had no idea what the next two days held in store for us.

Although I am aware of the importance of biodiversity, and it is something I believe we must preserve, I don’t think I have ever been in an area of real, abundant diversity. Maybe before this safari I would have thought that I had, but now I think I know better. From the moment we entered the park, our senses were assaulted by the sounds, tracks and sightings of leopard, elephant, mongoose, water buffalo, land monitor, crocodile, chipmunk, boar, deer (spotted and sambal), sloth bear, hare, macaque and langur. Most of these we saw on the 20km drove from the park to camp, and the only one we failed to see was the sloth bear, although we did see it’s tracks. On top of these mammals was the incredible array of vibrant and lively bird life, which for us included sightings of peacocks (and hens), fishing eagles, green bee catchers, herons, ibis, painted stalks, pelicans, horn bills, quails, Ceylon junglefowls, Indian minor birds, parakeets and a range of different kingfishers. Of these, the stalk in flight was the most impressive, whilst the green bee catcher at work was the most entertaining and acrobatic. Yet somehow neither of these compare to the sight of a kingfisher flopping out of a tree, splashing down in the river, and emerging with an improbably caught fish.

Arriving in camp we were greeted by a small number of oversize tents, each with a double bed, large camp chairs, coffee table and reading material. Each had it’s own adjacent hand wash, chemical toilet and shower (offering warm water at request). A few steps down from the quarters lay a picturesque beach running parallel to a meandering river: under the canopy of a waterside tree we found a table set for lunch. I certainly felt that I had been transported back in time whilst being simultaneously elevated to a considerably higher social class. This sensation only intensified upon discovering that we were to be the only guests. Luxury!

A pleasant surprise for both Danielle and I was that Sajith took his meals with us. As well as the added company (always a bonus when traveling far from home)it gave us plenty of time to learn more about the park, it’s animals and the people that were helping make this safari possible. Sajith, we learned, had a double major in fashion and biology, and had left his work as a fashion designer to pursue his greater love of nature. That has to be a unique combination. Open, friendly and extremely knowledgeable, he was the perfect host in a perfect setting. Behind the scenes his crew of 3 worked very hard to make his vision of hospitality a reality. Whilst by no means cheap, after taking into consideration the camp (which is moved with the seasons, no mean feat), the staffing levels, the tracking expertise and the delivery of results, it was more than worth the expense.

During our stay we enjoyed 4 separate game drives, as well as the drives to and from the camp. For each, Sajith drove and was accompanied in the cab of our customized Toyota Land Cruiser by his tracker. We sat behind the cab in elevated seating, able to talk with Sajith and take in almost 360 degree views. During the drives our guides would follow their own tracking instincts and knowledge to find the animals we really wanted to see: leopards and elephants. They would be assisted by calls from other trackers, which would set us off on high speed chases across Block 1 (Yalla’s public section).

When not responding to a call, we would take time to scan the bush, with Sajith looking to point out interesting flora and fauna to us. Apparently whilst novices like us spend time fruitlessly looking for shapes in the undergrowth and trees, experts like Sajith simply look for disturbances in the jungle. Although this makes sense, I guess we did not have the time to learn what undisturbed jungle looks like, and so it never paid off for us. However, it did sound like a convincing mix of theory drawn from the Matrix (isn’t that how they explain deja vu?) and the loosing of an arrow in the ancient Japanese art of Zen archery (as described in Zen and the Art of Archery). Looking without looking seemed very Taoist to me.

Whilst many visitors see one or two leopards, we were were embarrassed by a wealth of sightings: 8 individual leopards in all, as well as a great number of elephants. Of these encounters, by far the most thrilling occurred on the second evening whilst driving home. We were somewhat dejected after having a sighting of a cub disturbed by another truck (all part of the game in a busy park). Approaching one of the few remaining large watering holes we spotted a large alpha male leopard (called Hamul) slinking down the side of the road. Filled with awe already, we could not believe it when we spotted a large, tusked male elephant strolling right towards us. These so-called tuskers make up only 5% of the park’s population, the others apparently being more evolved. This large beast, named Thilak, was enough to frighten Hamul out of sight, but we barely had time to wallow, as Thilak marched straight towards us, getting close enough to rest his truck on the bonnet of our truck. As he brush passed us, I took some photos, whilst Danielle desperately tried to keep Matthew quiet, lest he upset the behemoth, causing him to crush us underfoot. As we regained our breath from this closer encounter, we noticed Hamul stalking around behind us, before turning to see a small female elephant drinking and playing in the watering hole. With darkness rapidly closing in, Sajith spotted a female leopard stalking down towards the water. We watched breathless as the female elephant sensed danger and responded by trumpeting, blowing water and stamping her feet. Heeding this warning, the leopard turned away from the water, and took shelter behind a low earthen ridge. Driving back home slowly, we followed her progress as she prowled along the ridge looking for a place to come down to drink. With curfew at 6:30pm, we hurried back to camp full of adrenaline, chattering like a bunch of overstimulated school kids. This was far beyond our every expectation of what a Sri Lankan safari experience might entail.

Arriving back in camp, we were on high alert, and for Danielle it was a long evening indeed. First of all we had an elephant in camp, and then, through the night, there were near constant deer and monkey alarm calls to be heard: these usually warn of a nearby leopard, which is somewhat alarming when all that protects you is a thin skin of canvas. Naturally I slept through most of this, and awoke in the morning somewhat surprised to see my wife looking tired and somewhat twitched. The only disturbance to my sleep came from an unwillingness to go to the toilet after lights out, as I was always certain that there was a bloody great leopard just waiting to eat me. Sadly, after one final game drive, we had to pack up, say goodbye, and head of the park gate once more.

Two weeks into our holiday, and with some truly amazing experiences under our belts, I started to have just a little longing for the comforts and familiarity of home. Driving from Yalla to the coast seemed like something of a let down after all we had seen out in the wild. On the flip side, I was sure it would be relaxing to hang by the beach, catch some waves and eat copious quantities of Sri Lankan food.

Arriving in Tangalle, which we had heard was one of the best beach spots in Sri Lanka, we were grossly disappointed to find a small, dirty beach backed by a row of uninspiring guest houses. As this was the only place we had not been able to book accommodation, we cruised the strip feeling as uninspired as the lodging. After some time, Danielle got out her notes, and found the address of the Ganesh Garden Guesthouse, which supposedly very nice, but did not take bookings. A long and bumpy tuktuk ride down a short but rutted side road delivered us to Ganesh, where we found a very nice and reasonably priced wood hut for our accommodation. A distinct bonus was the improvement in the beach, having moved a little distance away from the main settlement of Tangalle: white sand, surf-inclined palm trees and hammocks painted a welcoming picture. We spent two comfortable days eating, sleeping and chasing Matthew on the beach. Whilst the surf was rough, there is a small, partial lagoon where he could play in safety. He alternated between loving and hating the beach, his opinion depending on whether he could outrun the waves, or whether they knocked him over.

Despite some conversations at Yalla about the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, it was only sitting by the beach at Tangalle that I started to have even the remotest inkling of what it must have been like. Despite having seen plenty of video footage of the event, and just as much again from the more recent events in Japan, it has always seemed a very remote event. But sitting in one of the spots so badly effected, I was able to imagine the terror of seeing the ocean recede only to have it come rushing back with such destructive results. Despite a great curiosity, I was never able to bring my self to broach the topic with any of the locals, figuring they would rather not relive the day’s events with every passing guest.

Leaving Ganesh we rode a tuktuk back to town, before boarding a bus for Welligama. In Sri Lanka, buses do not really stop for boarding and alighting. Instead, the driver will look at the passengers wishing to enter and leave the bus and determine the absolute minimum time taken for them to get on and off. To this calculation, which factors in age, gender and attire, he will then remove a certain, unknown percentage, leaving a time slot of between 1 and 3 seconds. At no time will the bus actually cease moving, but rather it will simply slow down for the allotted time, allowing people some chance to leap, grasp and hope that they make it on or off. Given our possession of 3 packs, a stroller and a toddler, as well as my wife’s pregnancy this system never seemed a great idea to us. Instead we settled on beginning and terminating our journey only at bus terminals. Our journey from Tangalle to Welligama was only two hours, and with plenty of space it was not unduly uncomfortable. Sitting at the back of the bus we got the best of the road’s bumps, which drew peels of laughter from Matthew each time he flew out of his seat.

Arriving in Welligama we did that most familiar thing and flagged down a tuktuk to take us to The Green Rooms. Located on the beach, this surf lodge is run by Ajit, whose family used to be fishermen. After the tsunami they were told by the government that they could not rebuild their home, as the beach side had been rezoned for tourist use. Fortunately, with some help from an English partner, they were able to build The Green Rooms, and now live nearby. They continue to fish, and did not seem resentful at such poor treatment, after a massive disaster, by their own government.

With only small rooms, a sand yard, a kitchen and a small outdoor eating area, this is the place for those seeking the simple life. I felt like I could spend hours reading and relaxing whilst Matthew played with the staff and a couple of local kids. Ajit’s guys showed great tolerance and patience as Matthew investigated and rearranged their kitchen (the “yum yum” in his language): every time we removed him, they invited him back in with their big smiles, and in the end we left him be. As in several other places we stopped, everyone loved to call our son “Matthews”, testament to the popularity in Sri Lanka of both cricket and one of its homegrown stars, Angelo Matthews.

In between more gigantic Sri Lankan meals, I took one of Ajit’s rental boards (a lovely, bouyant 7’2″ Norden) and spent as much time in the water as possible enjoying a beach break designed for beginners (shallow enough to walk out when my arms tired, but will enough swell to get up on a not massive board). With 5 sessions over 2 days I managed to severely strain my shoulders and arms, switch from goofy footed to normal, get really sunburnt, attract a jellyfish sting and bang my head on my own board (at least I was in a wave and not on the beach this time). Whilst this was going on, I found my best ever form and managed to get up and stay up on numerous occasion. For one or two of these I was able to steer the board side to side, which must mean I am improving. Maybe one day I will actually be able to surf properly…maybe not. Dan was very supportive, although she seemed bemused at I would wish to torture myself just to fall off a board in the surf. Hard to explain I guess, especially to an Aussie who hates the beach.

On the second night we bought a bottle of arrack: somewhat like whiskey, this golden liquor is distilled from coconut and is great on the rocks. Using this as leverage, we easily convinced the two other couples staying at The Green Rooms to come drink and dine with us. This lead to an evening of easy conversation, and to a very good night’s sleep. By morning I was much too sore to contemplate more surfing, so we packed our bags, paid our bill and organised a tuktuk to take us down the coast to Unawatuna. I was sad to leave, and felt like I could easily spend a month chilling out and hurting myself more in the name of surfing. Danielle, on the other hand, was very much ready to leave a beach with very light sand, which found it’s way into our packs, clothes and even, at times, our food. I guess no where is completely perfect!

With only a short distance between Welligama and Unawatuna, we opted for a tuktuk rather than the bus. Although a bit of a squeeze given our baby paraphernalia, it gave us a chance to see the stilt fishermen who crowd the area’s shallow waters. Sitting atop a horizontal beam tied half way up a vertical pole, these very dark skinned men look extremely elegant and skilled as they cast their lines out and draw in fish. The perfection of the scene was dulled only by people asking us to pay them for the privilege of taking photos of the fishermen: this I could not abide by, as it reeked of opportunism, and so we packed up and left. I always find this a hard balance to strike when traveling: I want to help people, but am also loathe to make people dependent on work that does not really contribute to the local economy, and certain does not help a country’s long term development. This makes me averse to giving money to beggars, as harsh as that might sound, but much less likely to bargain with people trying to earn money in a more productive manner.

When we arrived in Unawatuna we were pleased to find a pleasant beach side strip of guest houses, shops, cafes and restaurants: not quite as vibrant as the area around Kuta Beach in Bali, but more happening that anywhere else we had visited in Sri Lanka. We stayed at the Thaproban, which was somewhat more luxurious that our past few stops. Unfortunately, when this area was rebuilt after the tsunami, permission was given for hotels to be built on the beach…not by the beach, but literally on the sand. As a result, our own hotel had waves breaking against it’s garden dining area, beyond which was the big blue sea. The net effect has been to take what must have been a gloriously long, crescent shaped, palm fringed beach an break it into a view of disappointed potential. Dan and I were both dismayed that this had been allowed, and felt that it has ruined what might have developed into a world class beach destination.

In the end we passed our time in Unawatuna doing what we had done all holiday: eating. In particular we enjoyed Sunil’s, which made excellent iced coffee, super smoothees and some of the best brownies either of us had ever eaten. In between feasting we found time to paddle at on of the remaining segments of beach, and also to spend a morning in the old fort of Galle. Located a few kilometers from Unawatuna, Galle Fort features an amazing collection of colonial era buildings, many of which have been, or are being, converted into boutique hotels and shops. Crammed behind huge stone walls, pressed by the relentless sea and squeezed into numerous small lanes, the fort provides plenty of interest for the wandering visitor. For us the most enjoyable part of the fort trip was shopping at Barefoot, which offers very funky homewares, handmade fabrics and interesting books out of a gorgeous old building. Although we later visited Barefoot’s larger branch in Colombo, we found that the items on offer in the Galle store were nicer and in better condition. Between the two stores, we managed to knock off much of our Christmas shopping, as well as picking up a sarong for me to lounge around the house in.

Back at the hotel I slipped into my sarong and went out to purchase some Ambewela milk for Matthew. On the way out, some of the hotel staff stopped my to admire my attire, and I was soon surrounded by several waiters and a couple of tuktuk drivers. After a rapid discussion in Sinhal, it was decided that I did not know how to correctly tie a sarong in the proper Sri Lankan tradition. Before I could protest I was stripped and two brown arms appeared around my waist. Fabric was stretched, twisted, turned and rolled. A little flab was pinched. People peered at my undies. And in next to no time I was sent on my way with murmurs of approval. As i walked away, I could only laugh and shake my head at the willingness to help, complete honesty and humanity I had just had foisted upon me. It seemed like a microcosm of the Sri Lanka spirit which was a had experienced time and again during our trip.

Feeling the draw of home, and not looking forward to spending time in the city of Colombo, we left Unawatuna and boarded an express train from Galle station. Feeling not unlike Michael Palin in India, I hung out of the door of the crowded train as we made our way north along the coast. It was not express in the sense of being rapid, but at least we did not stop at every local station along the way. About half way through a friendly ticket inspector took pity on our family, huddled in a doorway as we were, and helped us into the seats vacated by a couple as they left the train. This allowed Danielle a chance to rest her aching back, which was most appreciated.

Arriving in Colombo there was a little of the touting to be expected in any developing city, but it was certainly far less intense than i have experienced elsewhere in Asia. A tuktuk was duly arranged, and we headed off to the district known as a Colombo 5, in which was a house that Danielle had organized for us to stay in, along with other friends from Hong Kong who were in town for the wedding. Rose Villa turned out to be spacious and comfortable to the point of having a steam room in our bathroom. Our friends had stocked it with extreme quantities of alcohol, and there was even a butler to look after us (alas he wore a sarong and generally bore absolutely no resemblance to P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves).

The following 2 days gave me an excellent chance to spend time with friends, most of whom I went to school with. It seems odd that I so rarely see them at home, and ultimately had to travel a long way to spend time with them, but such is the busy life we all seem to lead. The night before the wedding we all shared a wonderful meal at Damith’s parent’s home. For those involved in the wedding in an official capacity, the following day was spent in traditional dress having photos taken: the girls looked lovely in their saris, whilst the boys looked fantastical in robes, hats and giant mantels. The rest of us spent the day resting and hanging out, before getting dressed up and heading out to sweat through our wool suits and gowns. Matthew was forced into a mini sarong, which somehow managed to stay on all day, and which one him many admiring glances from the many Sri Lankan guests.

The wedding ceremony itself was almost rained off, but when it did go ahead was an exotic mix of drums, chanting, signing and tradition. The bride and groom, flanked by their maids, men and family, were joined in marriage under a canopy of flowers surrounded on three sides by water. Vastly different to any wedding I remember attending, it was mostly incomprehensible to us, but all seemed very impressive. Damith looked regal, and his new wife Surali was stunning. With the traditional ceremony over, it was time for a more international-style banquet, with food from around the world and plenty of champagne and scotch. The speeches were great (and short), and the dancing, at least on my part, was terrible yet strangely enjoyable. The mix of Sri Lankan and Western seemed to reflect the guests, many of whom were educated overseas or work for international companies. This harmonious blend of cultures was something that Dan and I had noticed time and again as we travelled around Sri Lanka. In the end the loud music meant Matthew never got to sleep, and by 10pm had transformed himself into something like a sarong wearing, demon possessed Energizer bunny. We made a hasty exit, hoping to get him away from the fun before he did himself a serious injury (right at the end he was jumping maniacally from the stage onto a flimsy trestle table). Sadly we were unable to congratulate the bride and groom, who were surrounded on the dance floor. Arriving home we all crashed out, having stayed up well beyond our normal, child friendly bedtime.

Our final day in Colombo was spent preparing to go home. In the morning we made last minute visits to Barefoot and Paradise Road looking for homewares for our new house. I can highly recommend eating at the relaxed and sophisticated Paradise Road Cafe, which, as with so much in Sri Lanka offers excellent value. Whilst Matthew slept the afternoon away we packed and got ourselves ready for a late flight followed by a long day of travel. A car collected us at 10pm, and the crazy driving which followed made us thankful once again for the lovely Shan. Our flight to Singapore left at just after 1am, and after a mostly sleepless night we were both glad to have left the burly burly behind and arrived at the calm of Changi Airport.

Sitting now on our flight back to Hong Kong it seems as if we have been away for an eternity. Sri Lanka is so different to our normal existence, and within that small island we explored so much diversity, that it seems we have been there for years rather than weeks. The trip has been an immense pleasure, and at every turn we have enjoyed Sri Lankan warmth and hospitality to an almost overwhelming degree. From North to South, mountain to game reserve to beach, I would highly recommend Sri Lanka to anyone looking for something unique, memorable and enriching. The only area, in my view, not worth visiting: the cities. As always, I am excited and ready to head back home to Hong Kong, a city with whose madness I am well acquainted and gladly tolerate.

Sri Lanka Flag thumbnail by Dhammika Heenpella on Flickr. All other photos copyright Ross Parker. All text available under this site’s Creative Commons license.