Sri Lanka hadn’t originally been part of my travelling plans. I knew I wanted to go to India and, after having spent a few months back at home following my year of backpacking and feeling a bit out of the travelling flow, looked into where else I might potentially visit nearby, coming up with Sri Lanka and Nepal and reading that Sri Lanka was a good way to ease into the culture shock that can be India. Less than a week into my month in Sri Lanka and suddenly I was terrified by this statement; India would be WORSE than this?
To be fair, on the whole, my experience was a positive one, but when negative things happen – and in the form they took, and so early on – it can taint your perspective and tarnish your overall view of a place. And I would probably say that the “negative” revolved very much around me being a white woman on her own and came only from Sri Lankan men. Aside from the blatant leering, gawping, staring at hollering from groups of men, aside from the stock conversation of hello-where-are-you-from-do-you-have-a-boyfriend by individual men whom would suddenly just join instep beside me, and aside from walking through a market alley to have every single male head turn to stare at me as a passed in an almost satirical fashion, I had much more inappropriate behaviour.
I had a man pass by me down the street and graze my leg with the palm of his hand; I had my boat driver “accidentally” fondle my breast; I had a Tuk Tuk driver drive alongside me slowly as I walked at night, telling me he liked me and asking if I “wanted him to show me his thing” as he put one hand to his trouser buttons, his other hand on the steering wheel; and I had my Tuk Tuk driver unashamedly put one arm behind him while the other was still driving to grab my legs, put his hand on my, grab my hand to kiss it and then rub it against his face as he told me I was sexy and offered me sex (“for free”, the gent), despite me repeatedly pushing his hand away and firmly telling him no, desperately trying to remain calm and get out of the situation as safely as possible. He basically groped – no, assaulted – me.
And it makes me so so angry – that we still live in a world where men think it is acceptable to freely grope and assault women, where they abuse the power they have to make you feel violated and abused just because they can, where women feel afraid and instead of fighting back they focus on trying to safely get themselves out of the situation, where women wait until it gets “really bad” or “serious enough” to justify “making a scene” and to be taken seriously. I felt completely helpless, which made me feel equally furious and emotional. And at the same time I say I want to visit these countries and experience their culture, and this is part of it. It’s a cultural nuance I don’t agree with and struggle with and want to fight against with every ounce of my being, but it is part of their culture. Of OUR culture. Where men believe the have free reign over women’s bodies because they are sexually or physically confident. An assumption about Western women, maybe. And it makes me angry that I then have to pretend I have a husband in order to be left alone – that it isn’t ok just to be a strong, independent, single female and I have to fall back into the western ideal of being in a partnership in order to stay safe.
But at the same time I had some of the loveliest, kindest, warmest and most genuine interactions with locals – including men – and I do not want to tarnish all Sri Lankan males with this brush (he’ll, I know from personal experience it is not limited to men in Sri Lanka). I also received a lot of intrigue, interest and curiosity from locals, simply at my presence. They were amused to have this token white girl amongst a whole hoard of Sri Lankans in a local cafe trying to decipher the menu with one million questions, on a local bus heading to a remote area, at the cafe stopover point late at night in the middle of a long 12 hour bus journey. Teenage girls would come up to me, giggling, and ask for a selfie. Shop keepers – male and female – would ask where I was from and why I was in Sri Lanka. And this time of thing I would happily oblige with.
I had many strangers – and they were mainly men – help me find the right bus (or get off the wrong bus!), communicate in Sinhalese or Tamil what I was trying to ask to an employee whom didn’t speak great English, or tell me to zip up my bumbag when I had accidentally left it open. I had a free ride on the back of a motorbike to the entrance to Pidurangala Rock, 2km away, because the guy was going in that direction and a free ride on the back of another motorbike to my hostel on Tissa as the guy knew the owner, despite him usually making money out of it as his business was to transport people. My guesthouse owner in Jaffna picked me up on the back of his moped from the railway station for free at 6am and cooked dinner for he both of us with fish he bought from the side of the road.
My guesthouse owner in Tissa BOUGHT A BRAND NEW BIKE for me to use when he ran out of his rentals.
My guesthouse owner in Trincomalee cooked for a few of us using the tuna he caught that morning on our final evening. Oh, and when I was told I couldn’t check into my flight at Colombo airport as I didn’t have proof of exit from India – the country I was heading to – and I couldn’t book anything as my cards were already registered to India for that day and I was sat in a heap on the floor surrounding by all my belongings trying to FaceTime my family and get something sorted so I could board my flight, the manager booked a dummy flight for me back to Colombo so I would at least be allowed into India (hopefully!)
There are a few “quirks” of the Sri Lankan character that I enjoyed. First there is the very common wobble of the head that seems to be a mixture of a nodding a shaking of the head, combining both yes and no – finished off with a slight smile to make it even more indecipherable – but apparently means “OK”. Although I still found it hard to identify if this was a happy-to-oblige ok or a begrudgingly-I-accept ok. More often that not I’d end up more confused and unsure than before I asked my question. Second, vendors – whether that be market stall workers or Tuk Tuk drivers – make this sort of kissing sound where they suck their lips and tongue against their teeth in order to get your attention, which can actually feel quite predatory and sexualised, especially when a male doing it to a female, but they go it to everyone to tout for business. Third, they will be talking to you and, mid-sentence, out comes a satisfying burp for them to then continue talking as though nothing has happened. They don’t even blink. Fourth and final – and my favourite – they eat with their hands, which is something I have always enjoyed, being quite a hands-on, involved eater, and absolutely relished being encouraged to do. I didn’t quite master the bread-crumbling to food together with your fingers and then using your thumb to scoop it from your hand and into your mouth skill they had down, but I was quite happy to just scoop up the food and shove it in my mouth. Everything tastes better with your fingers, and there was something more intimate and therefore strangely engaged about this way of eating which heightened the social aspect of it, too. I loved it.
Speaking of food, Sri Lanka isn’t the most culinary-diverse country, with only a handful of main dishes plus an assortment of snacks and breads and pastries, but the few dishes they have they do really well. I had read about Rice and Curry before going and assumed it was a plate of rice with curry mounded on top; I didn’t realise you would get a bowl or plate of rice and then individual bowls of different vegetable dishes and a main curry dish (either chicken, fish or vegetarian usually).
The common vegetarian dishes would be bean curry (done AMAZINGLY), beetroot curry, Dahl (the staple Sri Lankan dish at both breakfast, lunch and dinner of chickpea curry), a seaweed type concoction, sambol (a shredded coconut and spice dish) and then the main curry dish might be pumpkin or banana curry. And, if done well, which was usually the case, they were delicious and full of flavour. I had the best cooking class of my life, seeing maybe 6 or 7 different spices used for everything, a variation of them for each dish, and each component was made fresh. It was incredible.
I also personally really enjoyed Kottu; a dish of chopped up rotti fried on a griddle with onions and veg, with either egg chicken or fish usually (although sometimes beef) that would be prepared with a massive knife using fast chopping motions that created quite a racket. You would know a Kottu was being cooked.
I also love love loved Egg Hoppers; hoppers being a thin pancake type mixture that is fried in a small wok so it forms a dish shape, with more batter gathered in the bottom to make a doughy centre, although with egg hoppers they fry an egg in the middle then add salt and pepper. Totally delicious but most restaurants don’t make the, until after 4pm and I think they make a perfect breakfast item. Oh and a note to Sri Lankan guesthouse; if you include breakfast in your rate please can you have Sri Lankan option? Part of travelling and experiencing different cultures for me is to eat the local food, like a local; I can have bread with butter and jam anytime I want at home.
Anyway, breakfasts are usually string hoppers (rice flour mooshed and then out thorough a stringer so it takes on a vermicelli form) served with a runny coconut curry, sambol and Dahl. Or you may have Kiribath (milk rice, which I was a fan of) with curry, or you can have a coconut rotti, or you can have dosas (like a big pancake) with chutney and Dahl. I mean, there are a lot of options, but most involved Curry of some kind.
And the sweet treats were usually filled with jaggery so they would be very rich-sweet, such as milk toffee or cinnamon balls or juju she, and you could also get sweet versions of stuffed rotti (coconut and honey was amazing) or curd served with honey is a very popular, local dessert.
The savoury snacks would usually be spicy vegetables or potato inside quite stretchy pastry, making it hot but at times tough to eat, and paratta or rotti are often eaten as snacks as well.
Oh and I absolutely have to mention their amazing Bread Vans. These are basically converted Tuk Tuks that sell bread – loaves, rolls, vegetable-stuffed or sugar-coated buns – and go about their sales like an Ice Cream Van would. Early morning or late afternoon they drive around the streets with a jingle playing; a high-pitched version of Beethoven’s Fur Elise on repeat. You then run out (or, y’know, walk over all casual and relaxed) and stand at the side of the Tuk Tuk to make your order and be passed your treats through the window. Some might find the jingle annoying, but for me it will forever be the sound of Sri Lanka!
Having discussed food I must move on to talk about their tea. Now, I have always ALWAYS been a coffee girl, consuming on average 3 cups a day. I have tea maybe once or twice a year, only curled up on the sofa in my baggy clothes when I’m seeking comfort, and repeatedly receive shocked responses of “but, you’re British!” when I tell fellow travellers I meet that I don’t drink that particular stereotype. But it would seem Sri Lanka is magic as, after 30 years, I have finally been converted to tea.
Yes the coffee in Sri Lanka can be hit and miss – being like filter coffee that hasn’t actually been filtered so it’s quite bitty and bitter – and, yes, I take the tea the Sri Lankan way of ridiculously sweet and insanely milky, but still. It counts right??
For cold drinks, you can get fruit juices or something called a Lassi, which uses their curd and is blended with ice, milk and sometimes fruit.
As a backpacker – or any type of traveller – transport around a country ends up playing quite a significant part of the experience depending on how easy it is to book and/or take, how expensive it is, the mode of transport and how long it takes. There are taxis, which obviously only really work best for short distances where you want a bit of luxury; Tuk Tuks for the shorter distances where a bus won’t take you or you want to go door to door (like most places in Asia you can’t walk down a road without being asked numerous times – sometimes in a long procession – if you want a Tuk Tuk, although you will travel 10 minutes and pay double the amount for the 100 minute bus journey you just took); trains for more scenic journeys that offer various modes of class and at a very reasonable price, or local buses which are fairly cheap (not usually as cheap as the trains though) and go just about anywhere.
The trains are limited to a few lines that don’t reach all parts of the country but they usually get a lot of fresh air from the huge windows, avoid the traffic and fumes of the road, and take some fairly scenic routes along the coast – however the most famous train journey is the ride from Kandy to Ella, which passes through rolling mountains, waterfalls and tea plantations, and is beautifully green and spectacular. But it is a popular and therefore busy train journey, most totally rammed and people squished so far inside they couldn’t see the view anyway – you’re best to get on last so you’re by the open doorway and can see out, or maybe go from Ella towards a Kandy as that direction seemed to be less popular. They do offer the odd night service, from Colombo to Jaffna, Trincomalee or Polonnaruwa/Batticaloa (and vice versa) but if you don’t get a reserved 1st class sleeper seat (which can sell out weeks in advance) then it will be an uncomfortable journey.
The buses are insane. First, you can literally get anywhere on a bus – sure, you may have to change, but you can practically get to any destination using the local buses, and they are insanely regular. Most are every 20 minutes, some are every 30, and for the longest distances they may be every hour. But I very rarely felt as though I was waiting around for a bus. Plus they are pretty cheap – my longest distance from Unawatuna in the south to Colombo in the west and then onto Polonnaruwa in the east cost me a total of £2.15. However you most certainly are not travelling in luxury – unlike the sleeper pod, air conditioned buses of Vietnam or the air conditioned, reclining soft seats of the South American coaches, this is literally an old, cramped bus with metal seats and no air con, the only “breeze” coming from the humid air through the small hole in the window that only opens halfway, fumes from other vehicles often wafting in your face, the seats small and packed together so you are practically sitting on top of the person next to you. The guy who takes the money – the conductor, if you will – stands at the doorway and continues to fill the bus up even when it is already beyond maximum capacity, so you have your toes trodden on or bags swung in your face or crotches at your eye level. The buses speed through the winding streets, ignoring the lane rules and never reluctant to overtake at bends, suddenly stopping and starting and incessantly – and I mean incessantly – being their horn at deafening pitch. Not to mention the music that often BLARES out of them makes it difficult to relax. It’s literally impossible to get any sleep or even have a peaceful journey. BUT you are with the locals, like a local, and it is so so cheap. And, y’know, part of the “experience”.
Speaking of journeys, I don’t really understand their concept of kilometres. Firstly, if you ever ask a local how long it will take to get somewhere, they answer you in kilometres, which means nothing to me and doesn’t actually tell you anything as it doesn’t factor in the mode of transport taken, whether it is uphill or down, or how busy it is. I’ve had a 100km distance take 3 hours on a bus but a 150km journey take 2. But, weirdly, my guide book said the distance to Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory was 7km there (uphill) but 5km back (downhilll) despite being the same route both ways and distance not actually changing whether it is uphill or down – time does. All very bizarre and I even think the signposts on the way to Uva Halpewatte stating the km left did it more based on time taken.
There is absolutely zero sense of queuing or order amongst locals. I have been stood at a counter in a shop trying to make a purchase to have someone to the side of me slide money onto the counter, mumble something and take their goods before I have managed to finish my sentence. I have waited at a reservations desk at the railway station for an hour to have locals come in at the sides and try to push in, even going as far as sticking their papers in front of my fave towards the desk clerk once I have made it to the front. And, at the airport, passengers in seat numbers 50-67 were told to board first for two thirds of the passengers to then stand and barge to the front. Literally, I have been pushed out of the way. I know I’m British and overly polite, but its dog eat dog in this world; no such thing as first-come first-served.
The history of Sri Lanka, of its civil war between Tamil and Sinhalese and the particular destruction in the north and the east, is still relatively recent, and shapes so much of who the people are today and how the Buddhist and Hindu religions co-exist, but it feels surprisingly at peace and joyful amongst the locals and amongst the different geographical regions. Sri Lankans generally come across as relaxed, happy, sociable people and it’s hard to imagine a time of such conflict, although you can see remnants of it and understand the pride they each feel at being Tamil or Sinhalese, wanting you to know whether it is “s-too-ti” or “Nandri” for thank you.
And the cultural ruins – the size and scale of the temples – and the dedication to their respective religions and the commitment to the festivals is insanely touching.
And the tea plantations in the hill country, how very rich and green, alongside the gorgeous open national parks, the peaks you can climb, the coast you can relax in and the countryside you can cycle in. For a small country it has so much; I had read 2 weeks would be possible and 3 weeks more than enough, but I spent one month in Sri Lanka and still felt I didn’t get to spot everywhere I wanted to and that I could have done so much more. Hiking, swimming, surfing, cycling, site-seeing, market-shopping, history-absorbing; it has it all.
Tourism is still relatively new in Sri Lanka, I believe only opening again in 2012 following the civil war, and this can mean things aren’t quite tourist-friendly. With hostels – which, at least half the time, will be guesthouse or in homes of locals where the only form of air conditioning is a fan that does little to cut through the ice humidity – it could sometimes prove difficult to get the service you might expect; in terms of them ending their conversation with each other to assist you, of you being able to stay in the common area after you have checked out (one owner thought I should be grateful for being able to remain on the grounds until 10:10am despite checkout being at 10am), of them actually providing the facilities they list on booking.com, and of the lack of security and privacy of some of the dorm rooms.
In addition to the accommodation, there it is also fairly common to be scammed by locals. I mean, this is prevalent in many countries I have travelled to but, rather than just the usual charging-through-the-roof or insisting on more money after an agreed price, they almost trick you into giving you money. There is the classic asking for money after they have helped you – pointing you in the direction of somewhere or giving you a “tour” of somewhere and then asking for payment. This happened to me by a fisherman at the fish market.
But some even go out of their way to get you lost, so you then need their help the right way and pay the, for being your “guide” – when I was climbing Ella Rock for the second morning in a row (no views the first time) a local hollered at me and told me I was going the wrong way and started to try to lead me another way, so I told him I knew it was the way I was going as I had already walked it the day before. He quickly scurried off. On my first morning most locals would point you in the direction of Ella Rock, but one local started to lead the way and when we asked if he was going there too he responded with “no, I’m your guide!” Also be aware of a random local offering go with you somewhere and then suggesting you hop into a Tuk Tuk – they will take you all round the houses and then force you to pay an extortionate amount at the end, them getting a free journey and the driver getting far more than he should. It’s hard as you don’t want to not engage with locals or be rude, but clarify what is happening or what payment they want before agreeing to anything or getting into any Tuk Tuk, even if it is with someone else.
The massages I received in Sri Lanka were very different to those I have experienced in South East Asia. Ayurveda, from Sanskrit meaning “science of life”, is an ancient and holistic system of healthcare practised in Sri Lanka (and India). They have oils and balms for literally everything, and if you have a massage then this is conducted with a variety of oils that are applied in a pressured rubbing motion. I had a taster at an Ayurvedic shop in Kandy where a Sri Lankan gave me a 5 minute neck and shoulder massage using Jeewaka Vata Thailaya and applying it in a downward rubbing motion, heating up on my skin and causing a slightly tingling sensation. My first “proper massage” was in Ella where I paid 1,200 rupees (£6) for a half hour neck and back massage where she mainly massaged my bottom, using a side to side rubbing motion that made my butt cheeks smack against one another. The second Ayurvedic massage I had was in Uppuveli, Trincomalee – where they had centres everywhere, probably because people are generally relaxing by the beach anyway – and I paid 3,000 rupees (£15) for an hour full-body massage using about 5 different oils, hot stones, his hands and elbows. He massaged practically every single part of my body (even my bottom, but not the more sexual areas), including a pressurised and plucking massage to my fingers and toes; he slap-chopped each part of my body after massaging, my thighs being surprisingly painful, and he used his elbows on my shoulder blades to get the knots out; he finished the massage with me sat on a chair and him pouring oil on my forehead to give me a very heavy-handed head massage. It was strange at times but afterwards I felt completely rejuvenated but relaxed and heavy – it was literally like he had worked through my entire body and all I wanted to do was sleep – so I would recommend having one but paying more and going on recommendation, which I did this time. I also bought some Ayurveda balm (in a yellow tub) when my glands started to get swollen and I could feel a sore throats coming on – after applying the balm to my neck a couple of times, suddenly it no longer hurt when I swallowed and it seems to have kept it at bay.
Sri Lanka has been a bit of an experience of extremes for me, from the lovely, warm and generous locals to the predatory and violating behaviour of others, and I have found myself at times shutting down from engaging with locals – deliberately not making eye contact or keeping conversation brief if I am exhausted from being hounded or feeling particularly weary following a dodgy situation – and that is not something I like to do. I travel to experience the different cultures, and that includes with the local people. But it is also about safety and self-preservation.
I am fully aware – maybe after chatting to other Backpackers about their experience of Sri Lanka – that travelling in this country will be very different to me – as a solo female – than it would be for a male travelling alone, for a group of females and for a group of men or mixed sexes. I’m also aware this was my personal experience and wouldn’t necessarily be that of even other solo females and, while I felt violated or uncomfortable, I never felt I’m imminent danger. And I wouldn’t say not to go; as tourism IS so new it is an exciting and experimental time to visit – it would be so interesting to see how things chan with regards to tourism over the next 5 years or so – and I was so humbled by the kindness and warmth of many, many people. Overall it was a challenging and eye-opening experience, and for that I will always be grateful.