India 1: Chennai

I flew from Colombo airport in Sri Lanka to Chennai in India, but not without stress; I had a 6 month visa for India with multiple entry but Sri Lankan airlines refused to check me in as I had no proof of leaving India. They advise I book something – anything – that shows I am leaving the country but with my credit cards already registered to India for that day every single transaction I attempt to make is declined. So there I am, knelt on the floor of Colombo airport surrounded by all my belongings, facetiming my mum and sister for their help. Half an hour later the manager comes over to me, handing me my boarding pass – as he has now somehow managed to check me in – and a piece of paper with a dummy ticket back to Sri Lanka for a week later. But I was now anxious – having the fear put into me – so I stress ate coffee cake, a chocolate donut and a mocachino all before boarding my flight. Of course I then arrive in India to breeze through passport control, security not even asking me how long I planned to stay let alone asking for proof of departure.

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I paid 500 Indian Rupees (£6) for a pre-paid taxi to my hostel, Zostel Chennai, nearby the area of Mylapore, where I paid 500 rupees a night for 3 nights to stay in a spacious, comfortable and air-conditioned dorm room with a personal light, power socket and locker; worlds away from the hostels in Sri Lanka. The two Indians running the place were so kind, welcoming and helpful and, with a decent common area, it is a great place to meet fellow Backpackers.

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Chennai is one of the four biggest cities in India, previously known as Madras before India’s independence from Britain in 1947. I had read Chennai might be a good place to start in India – less crazy and overwhelming than the north and the locals are enthusiastic about their city, which was evident in the way I felt fairly free to wonder the streets without being overly hassled and without feeling any sense of vulnerability or danger. You would still be offered a Tuk Tuk ride but “no thank you” was accepted, and while stall owners would greet you and ask if they could help you they also seemed happy to leave you to your own devices and not feel the need to stare at you like a hawk or follow you around their shop. It’s a busy city and a noisy city, with a lot of people and street vendors, but I didn’t feel pressurised here in any way.

 

I basically fell in love with India within my first 24 hours in the country. I passed by women hanging up their washing around the outside walls of their homes, a local ironing business where an Indian man was ironing on a table outside, a group of locals sat on the pavement making flower head and hair decorations, a banana leaf stall where an Indian man was sat on top of the leaves on a table and wrapping them into bundles to sell, and numerous cows and Tuk Tuks; the two most common sites on the streets of India.

My highlight of the day – of Chennai – was walking down a side street with local homes decorated with washing and locals hanging outside, chatting or eating or even dancing. I walked past two girls dancing to music on the radio and when I stopped to watch they invited me to join.

All of a sudden we were surrounded by all the residents of the street, clapping along and laughing and taking photos of a white woman dancing with Indian girls. I even got a special dance with one of the mothers, dressed in a beautiful red sari. We danced and laughed together for about half an hour, with me eventually leaving – feeling sweaty and utterly elated – and shaking the hand of every single local. Amazing.

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Chennai is in the state of Tamil Nadu where Tamil is the local language and the religion a mixture of Hindu, Christian and Buddhist. While I was in Chennai the Hindus were celebrating the birth of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, so the streets were particularly busy – especially at night – with decorative statues on the top of small trucks being paraded around the city, music playing and flames bursting. Marina Beach was also filled with food stalls, carousel rides and families playing on the sand.

I spent one day exploring the sites of Chennai, stopping by the Kapaleeshwarar Hindu temple, dedicated to Shivah, which was packed with locals coming to pray. As a non-Hindu I wasn’t allowed inside the temple itself, but I spent some time wandering around and observing the dedication of the followers. As I was walking around I was approached by a Tuk Tuk driver who offered to take me to the local sites for 300 rupees (£3.60). I genuinely wanted to walk and take local buses so I insisted I was fine, multiple times, but when he offered it for only 100 rupees (£1.25) I thought why not and hopped in.

He took my to Fort St George, built in the 1600s by the British East India Company and home to the Fort Museum. I paid 200 rupees (£2.50) to enter whereas locals only pay 15 rupees, but I was really glad I did. Aside from the military memorabilia and information on when the Fort was built and how it was used, there was a really interesting art gallery illustrating the British and Indian VIPs where I learnt a lot about the British contribution to the culture.

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My favourite room, however, would be the one on India’s independence in 1947 and the development of the Indian flag, feeling totally moved by their fight for independence and their view of future India as epitomised by their flag; White for the striving of truth, green for the relationship to earth, Orange for their dedication to their work and indifference to material gains, and the wheel representing the law of Dharma where virtue prevails. This denotes motion; a dedication to peaceful change.

Afterwards my Tuk Tuk driver took me to the war memorial – honouring the lives lost in the First World War, Second World War, the war with Pakistan and a war in the north of India. He then drove me to Parthasarathy, the Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. He told me about the different gods and I wandered around the inside of this old temple, feeling a bit like I was in the way of locals wanting to pray and make offerings to their God.

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My Tuk Tuk driver was lovely and only charged me 100 rupees for the whole journey, but he did then insist on taking me to Emporiums. When I said no – a few times – he kept on asking, saying that if he took me to these emporiums selling souvenirs and handicrafts, and I spent 10 minutes or so in each, he would get a free uniform. I was so hungry and just wanted to finish, not being interested in walking around empty emporiums and feeling pressured into buying expensive and huge “gifts” that I in no way could fit into my backpack (“it’s ok, madam, we can ship this carpet to your address, and this 200kg wooden elephant”) but he basically begged me so I begrudgingly agreed, not liking the emotional blackmail but not having the heart to refuse.

My first meal in India was amazing – on my first night in Chennai, Dwarek suggested I go to BayLeaf restaurant for the Paneer Butter Masala, which I had with a garlic rotti and a Chennai Cooler (ginger and lime juice) for 380 rupees (£4.80) and it was absolutely delicious. I also had a Mutton Roll from Koti Rolls for 120 rupees (£1.50), a Roll basically being like a rotti wrap that is baked on a griddle and is a typical Chennai/Tamil Nadu dish. And on my last night in Chennai I ordered a Chicken Biriyani for 130 rupees (£1.63) from a takeaway, wing delighted to find my chicken was on the bone and the biriyani was made with long, thin rice.

Oh and one of the wonderful things about India is that you can buy tea on the street, served into a small paper cup out of a giant urn of tea, which they mix with milk by pouring it to and fro between your cup and their own metal cup. All the locals drink tea in this way, either taking it away in paper cup or drinking it on the street in a glass (which I loved to watch), and I found tea for as little as 6 rupees (7p); it is sweet and creamy but delicious.

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You can also have coffee this way, plus another popular drink – which you can have hot or cold – is Badam Milk, which is milk mixed with cardamom (check), again being very sweet and creamy and therefore exactly my kind of thing! So, my very first stop in India and I’d had a wonderful introduction to the country. Next stop; Mahabalipuram.

LS

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Reflections on Sri Lanka

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.

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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.

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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.

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My guesthouse owner in Tissa BOUGHT A BRAND NEW BIKE for me to use when he ran out of his rentals.

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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!)

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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).

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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!

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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??

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My Sri Lankan coffee, said it was served to me

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

LS.

Sri Lanka 13: Uppuveli, Trincomalee

I woke up at around 7am in Polonnaruwa so quickly packed my bags and checked out before heading to the nearest bus stop. I caught a bus going past Habarana (41 or 48) and then hopped off in Habarana to catch a bus going to Trincomalee. After paying 112 rupees (less than 60p) we arrived in Trincomalee just before 10:30am; not even 3 hours after I left my guesthouse in Polonnaruwa. My accommodation – Trinco Water Sports – was in Uppuveli and you can get local buses from Trinco, but I needed cash out and none of the ATMs in the near vicinity accepted foreign cards so I paid 300 rupees (£1.50) to take a Tuk Tuk to my hostel, stopping at an ATM on the way. So I spent double the amount of rupees on my last 4km than I had on my 150km+ bus journey.

At my hostel by 11 and greeted by the friendly, kind owner Lalith, I eventually set out to the beach which is literally a 5 minute walk away (2 if you take the shortcut through Aqua hotel and the associated Fernando’s bar (ridiculously popular for tourists, both the accommodation and the bar itself, which serves a variety of western food).

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Fernando’s Bar

I plonked myself on a sunbed (free to use – I love Sri Lanka!) and spent the next few hours lying in the sun, swimming in the sea, and having a dog burrow underneath my sunbed to escape the heat.

I ducked into Fernando’s when the heat became unbearable to cool off on the swing seats around the wooden bar and inhale a mixed fruit Lassi, having the local women selling skirts and sarongs – the garments draped over their arms – come over to show me their selection.

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Back at my hostel for a shower and to hand-wash my clothes (one of my favourite things about backpacking is going back to basics and hand-washing the items that I can) before walking as far as the outdoor restaurant next door – Tuna – to have dinner. I opted for the catch of the day, which was grilled tuna steak with fried potatoes (basically like chips, but proper fresh home made potatoes fries) and sautéed vegetables, with a glass of papaya juice for a total of 850 rupees (£4.25). It was gorgeous and a change from the traditional Sri Lankan food, still with a local feel – especially when a cow came charging through the gates and pelted round the entire restaurant outside. Back at the hostel I joined Lalith and Didire, the French guy from my dorm, for some apple arrack with sprite.

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I woke early the next morning to head to the beach for my Pigeon Island tour with Lalith’s company. Pigeon Island – 1km offshore from Nilaveli, which is the beach area north of Uppuveli – is now a marine national park and is most popular for snorkelling due to its coral reef. You have to pay to enter Pigeon Island as well as pay for your boat tour there and back, plus any costs of hiring snorkelling equipment, but with Lalith we all paid 3,000 rupees each (£15) to cover the cost of everything, them buying the tickets for us. We set out from Uppuveli beach at around 9am, 7 of us inside the boat, and arrived onto Pigeon Island at 9:40am.

After being given our snorkelling equipment and briefs on the two sides of the island that you can snorkel on, told to reconvene at midday, we got geared up and headed out. I started on the south side, known for its coral and the possible sighting of sharks and sea turtles, being surprised at how choppy the water was and how difficult this made it to actually snorkel. Once you get past the water near the shore – where all the families and kids seem to gather and hover – you start to see far more sea life and much better coral, some gorgeous blues shimmering beneath me. I was then lucky enough – once I was far out enough – to spot a sea turtle burrowing into the sea bed. I floated on the surface of the water, face down and watching it go about its daily tasks before it suddenly swam up towards the surface and poked its head out of the water. Totally cute.

I was pretty tired by this point – having been pummelled by the choppy waters – so decided to make my way back to the island, to then be delighted to have a shark swim directly underneath me. It was quite a chubby looking thing – less defined in shape and colour than the one I saw while snorkelling in the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia – and barely resembled the menacing demeanour of the huge sharks we fear, but it was really cool to have it just casually glide past me.

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I then made my way to the other side of the island, which was far busier (especially with locals) and didn’t have any coral to really speak of, but the waters were calmer and there was much more tropical fish to spot here. I am terrible with names of fish or identifying them, but the colours I saw – bright purples, oranges and blues – were spectacular. We made our way back onto the boat just before midday and were back on Uppuveli beach at 12:30. I really enjoyed snorkelling again and it was good to go for a “swim”, but compared to Koh Tao, the Great Barrier Reef and the Perhentian Islands, it was lacking in terms of scale and beauty for me.

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I decided to head into Trinco for the afternoon as I wanted to post my Sri Lanka guide book home (you know, for keepsake) and visit the Fort as well as wander round the shops. So at around 2pm I walked to the main road to catch a bus, but after waiting for 15 minutes and eventually have a Tuk Tuk driver pull over – with two local women already inside – and say that there are no buses. He probably wasn’t telling the truth but he only charged 50 rupees (25p) to take me into Trinco rather than the usually 300 rupees (£1.50), but I assumed this was because he already had other people in there also paying. I said I wanted to be dropped but off at the post office and, after the two local women had got out, he started asking me the usual questions about where I am from and whether or not I am married. I was truthful, but then he seemed a bit too flirty so I said I had a boyfriend.

He then reached behind him and took my hand in his then started kissing my hand and rubbing it against his face. I pulled my hand away for him to then make comments about me being very sexy and starting to grab my leg with his hand. I pushed his hand away and said no, quite firmly, but he kept putting his hand on my leg and even put it on my chest. I kept saying no and pushing his hand away, telling him how inappropriate he was being, and I then realised he was taking me down back streets and away from the post office. The Tuk Tuk was moving so I didn’t dare jump out, and part of me had no way idea what he might do or where he might try to take me if I really fought or screamed, so I tried to stay calm and told him to take me to the post office. He kept on trying to touch me, telling me I was sexy and offering me sex – for free, because he’s that kind of gent and I should be privileged to have such an offer. We eventually made it to the post office and I jumped out immediately, throwing the 50 rupees at him and saying “definitely not” when he asked if he should wait for me.

I have replayed the moment in my head, being angry at myself for not screaming out for help or making more of a scene – even if people had ignored me or done nothing once I explained, just to make him panic – if even for a second, if even a fraction of the panic I felt – would have felt like a small piece of justice. But at the time I didn’t know what danger that might put me in and I was focused on the best way to get myself out of that situation as quickly as possible. But 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 that 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.

I headed straight into the post office to try to focus on something else and it was then, when they quoted me 600 rupees (£3) to post the book home to then charge me 1,000 rupees (£5) after I had bought the envelope and sealed the package – that the tears came. They had miscalculated the price and were apologetic – finding their mistake amusing more than anything – so I think they were a bit alarmed to have a white girl stood in front of them crying over post. I muttered something about having a bad day and they were really kind to me in taking me through the steps to post the book, their warmth making me feel even more emotional, but by then I just wanted to be outside smoking a cigarette.

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Afterwards I decided to walk to Fort Frederick; a Fort constructed by the Portuguese in the 1600s that juts out into the sea next to Dutch Bay (which was dotted with locals and fishing boats). I began walking along the main road leading through the Fort and quickly fell behind hoard of locals making the uphill walk to Koneswaram Kovil (a Shavite temple) all dressed in white. I stuck out like a sore thumb and this was highlighted by the number of amused stares I received.

The temple sits at the top of Swami Rock, which is the name of the clifftop and near to the top you are gifted with gorgeous views of the ocean. The trees surrounding the temple were littered with what I imagine were prayer flags, or similar such decorations of ribbon, and this was the most beautiful aspect for me (despite the temple itself being very colourful and artistic); the many colours against he backdrop of the bright blue ocean and bright sky.

I walked back down the main road, picking up my Sri Lanka fridge magnet and a ring from the array of stalls lining the approach to the temple, and then made my way west into town, passing by local fish market shops and a local boy playing with deer on the way. I ducked into a couple of clothes shops down Central Road, eventually finishing a gorgeous wrap around skirt (that can also be turned into a dress; a maroon material covered with gold elephants. I then decided to get a Tuk Tuk back to my hostel rather than go back to the bus station and wait, this Tuk Tuk driver making up for the last one by being so genuine and kind, hunting down a shop that sold tonic water so I had something to go with my gin later.

After a disappointing dinner I went back to the hostel and sat on the bench to drink with the other guests, for the bench – built by Lalith – to collapse underneath us, 6 of us falling to the ground in a side-swooping motion. Poor Lalith. The next morning I went straight for the beach, having a pot of coffee with Didire at the top of Fernando’s before spending a couple of hours on the beach, swimming and sunbathing. Didire and I then walked to a local place for rice and curry, paying 450 rupees (£2.25) for a delicious and enormous chicken rice and curry that could have easily served two people, chatting away to Mark and Bronica whom we met the night before as they booked the snorkelling tour with Lalith.

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The collapsed bench
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Fixing the bench

The following morning I checked out of Trinco Water Sports to spend one night – my last night in Trinco – at The Backpacker Caves, part of Aqua and Fernando’s. You basically sleep on a mattress in a tunnel inside this small cave in front of the beach, with a circular door and mosquito net for access. It was pretty cool to stay in but also stuffy, but I soon went out to have an Ayurvedic massage, with Uppuveli having many to choose from.

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I went by recommendation to a Sri Lankan man named Christie working in association with Restaurant Gaga, paying 3,000 rupees (£15) for a one 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, finishing the massage with me sat on a chair and him pouring oil on my forehead to give me a very heavy-handed head massage. Some parts of the full body massage were strange and some more relaxing than pressured, 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 did. In my cave. (After having an amazing Avocado Lassi for 250 rupees at Be Cool Juice Bar).

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That evening, despite having moved accommodation, I went back to Trinco Water Sports to have dinner with Lalith, Didire and Ewa. I had bought two mackerels for 100 rupees (50p) and one squid for 200 rupees (£1) earlier in the day, Lalith had got blue tuna that morning and Didire had bought vegetables for 400 rupees (£2), so Lalith cooked us a feast of fish, potato and vegetables, which we washed down with Arrack (with tonic, lime and sugar – it was pretty good!) followed by the 8.8% Apple Beer I had bought for 380 rupees each (£1.90) on an alcohol run Ewa and I went on in a Tuk Tuk earlier that evening, paying 200 rupees (£1) for the ride. It was a delicious meal and a lovely evening.

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After dinner, at 11pm, Ewa, Didire and I walked over to Fernando’s as they had a DJ and dancing on the beach. We had a couple of cocktails and danced in the sand for a few songs, but it wasn’t the best music, most of it unrecognisable and not that exciting. So we ended up paddling in the sea and sitting on the sun loungers watching the waves crash into the shore until around 1am.

Feeling fragile I checked out of my cave at 10am and spent my last day swimming, sunbathing and eating, taking a Tuk Tuk for 300 rupees to the train station and paying 540 rupees (£2.70) for a 2nd class “sleeper” seat to Colombo, arriving into Colombo Fort at 4am before later getting the local bus to the airport for 130 rupees (65p) for my flight to India.

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Sri Lanka has been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions for me, struggling with the aggressive or predatory treatment to me as a solo female from some locals – not feeling in imminent danger but feeling violated and uncomfortable – yet also being totally humbled by the kindness, generosity and warmth from others.

I haven’t felt in danger, but I have felt uncomfortable While tourism is still relatively new and therefore in the experimental, teething stage, the colourful history, landscape and food are captivating and there is a predominant feeling of joy amongst the locals – despite the recent civil war. It would be interesting to see how this all develops over the next 5 years.

LS.

Sri Lanka 12: Polonnaruwa

It’s a good job I anticipated the journey from Unawatuna to Polonnaruwa being a painful one. I decided to take the train instead of the bus to Galle as the train station was closer and the train cheaper (by 10 rupees, but still) and the 11:10am from Unawatuna to Galle gave me time to pack, check out and eat breakfast before I left. But the 11:10 didn’t arrive until 11:40, so I wasn’t on a bus to Colombo until around midday. There is the express highway bus that apparently only takes an hour but it stops outside of the centre so you have to get a connecting bus or a Tuk Tuk. I decided to get a local bus instead, paying only 152 rupees (75p) but the journey taking almost 4 hours as we made our way into the centre of Colombo on a Friday afternoon.

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I also hadn’t taken this into account for my bus from Colombo to Polonnaruwa, getting on one heading for Batticaloa at 4:30pm for 280 rupees (£1.40) but us not managing to even get out of the centre of Colombo until 5:30pm. And then the rain started and the roads became busy, us passing by a collision between a car and a motorbike and later a bus that had ploughed into a tree. At stupidly-late o clock we stopped at a service cafe to stretch our legs (my feet had swollen to twice their size and my bum had gone numb from how long I had been sat down) and I began laughing to myself like a crazy person as I realised I was the only white person there – the only foreigner there – amongst hoards of locals whom seemed to find my presence either surprising or amusing.

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My feet were trodden on for most of the journey as other passengers got on and off (I had the unfortunate aisle seat right by the door) and after being advised by the Sri Lankan next to me heading to Batticaloa that I would be in Polonnaruwa by 8:30pm, 7 hours and 276 rupees (£1.37) later I finally arrived. I then had further issues as I couldn’t get into my accommodation – Dilshan Guest – with the doors locked, lights out and owner apparently asleep. The Sri Lankan waiting by the bus stop with his Tuk Tuk said he knew the guy and was kind enough to walk round the building with his torch, calling out to him and eventually rousing him at midnight. Absolutely exhausted I headed straight to bed – and naturally updated my Spotify playlist rather than go to sleep, as would be sensible.

I woke up the following morning feeling horrendously groggy but dragged myself out of bed to spend the day exploring the ancient, ruined city of Polonnaruwa, part of the island’s cultural triangle. The medieval ruins can be explored in one day and by bicycle, so I paid 300 rupees (£1.50) to rent one from my hostel and cycled round to the Museum where you purchase your ticket; 3,850 rupees (£19.25). I spent some time wandering around the museum itself for an insight on the ancient city before visiting it, but after seeing the scale model of the ancient city and feeling hot and stressed as I weaved around other visitors, I returned to my bicycle and grabbed a typically gritty and typically sloppily served Sri Lankan coffee and then rode to the entrance of the old city.

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Once past the checkpoint in turned right into the citadel, which newly-restored walls house the ruins of the Royal Baths, Council Chambers and the impressive 7 storey Royal Palace, although only 3 storeys have remained. Nevertheless the Royal Palace was one of my favourite buildings, the holes for windows still intact and the castle-feel still visible. The red, ruined brick surrounded by bright green trees was inviting and picturesque.

I then left the citadel and cycled up towards Shiva Devale no.1, one of the many temples in Polonnaruwa but undoubtedly my favourite. There was something about the construction of the smooth, slate stones that appear to have been casually, but with intent, placed one on top of the other like Jenga, chalk markings inscribed on seemingly-random stones as though someone were trying to count them all. Plus this temple in particular was surrounded by monkeys, climbing on the stones, nursing their babies or hunting for food. I don’t know, it just felt like the ruins of the past merging with life of the present and it felt very…Sri Lankan.

From here I walked over to the Quadrangle, or the Dalada Maluwa (“Terrace of the Tooth Relic”) as the famous tooth relic was kept in various shrines here during its time in Polonnaruwa, this enclosure being the religious heart of the city. The focal point of the Quadrangle is the circular relic house of the Vatadage, with sets of steps leading up to the raised terrace with a Buddha at the top of each. I was most impressed by the semi-circle stone carvings at the base of the steps and the map-like structure of the ruined walls.

Other ruins that stuck out for me were the pillar remains Hatadage, the zig-zag structure of the Satmahal Prasada and the Gal Pota, the 9m granite “Book of Stone”.

I walked back to my bicycle and then rode to the entrance to Rankot Vihara – a huge red brick dagoba that has 3 similar ones built in imitation in Anuradhapura. Personally I wasn’t as blown away by this one, maybe because I have seen others like it or maybe because it was still in tact and I was more fascinated by the ruins.

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I then cycled on to the remains of the Alahana Pirivena monastery, which houses the Kiri Vihara; a white dagoba that looked like it had been covered using white icing paste. There is also the Lankatilaka, a beautiful monument with exquisite stone carvings on the outside and a huge – albeit now headless – Buddha. This place felt particularly spiritual and full of wonder to me.

Finally it has the Buddha Seema Pasada, the monastery’s chapter House and one of my other favourite ruins. Dotted with pillars and large, low windows, I spent some time just wandering around and sitting on the inside of the window ledges just taking in the medieval feel, with barely anyone else around.

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Finally, I cycled to Gal Vihara, a granite rock which has carvings of four different Buddhas, with the standing Buddha being my favourite (despite the reckoning Buddha being the most famous of the statue carvings). The wonder is sadly softened by the shelters put in place to protect it from nature, making the statues permanently dimly lit.

I was then, hot and exhausted, finished with my exploration of the ancient city, really pleased that I came here and paid the 25 USD despite already seeing some of the ancient city of Anuradhapura – I managed to mainly get round the free sites and not pay the 25 USD there and I was glad, as for me Polonnaruwa had more beauty and more of an historical feel to it; more ruins and more of a glimpse into the past. If you were to just pick one out of the two, I would recommend Polonnaruwa.

I spent the rest of the afternoon cycling around Polonnaruwa and into Kaduruwela to find out about buses to Trincomalee, stopping by a clothes market on the side of the road to peruse the garments and popping into various bakeries and fruit stalls to pick up some mod-afternoon snacks of egg Pattie, lemon mango and Sri Lankan sweets. At around 5pm I cycled to Parakrama Samudra – the giant artificial lake in a Polonnaruwa – to cycle some of the periphery as the sun was setting; although the clouds got in the way of most of it so I spent the majority of the time watching the locals cool off in the lake or gaze out at the landscape.

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The following morning I set out early for Trincomalee, hoping for a less intense bus journey to my previous one.

LS.

Sri Lanka 11: Unawatuna

To get from Tissa to Unawatuna I first had to get a bus to Matara – you can get on a bus going to Colombo and get off at Unawatuna on the way but I think these buses are every hour (or maybe even less) and I’d have to wait 55 minutes so I decided to take 2 buses instead and hopefully arrive sooner. So my bus to Matara left at around 1:30pm, costing me around 157 rupees (80p) and arrived at around 4:45pm where I then immediately managed to get on a bus going from Matara to Galle, paying 69 rupees (35p) and arriving at the stop I wanted in Unawatuna at around 6pm. I then walked for about 20 minutes to my hostel, Camp Kush, where I arrived to this gloriously green location where I would be sleeping in a tipi for the next few nights.

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Considering you still sleep on a mattress inside the cute, rustic tipis, considering there is a fan inside and I got the whole tipi to myself as it is low season and considering breakfast is included in the rate, 800 rupees per night (£4) is an absolute bargain. Sure, it is a little out the way from the main beach (about a half hour walk) and not really near any restaurants (just a few shop holes nearby) but you can eat at the hostel, Unawatuna train station is only a 10 minute walk and the bus stop is about 15. Plus, the hostel itself backs right onto the mangroves (but more on that later). The only thing I struggled with was the toilets being a bit of a walk from the tipi I stayed in, and I go at lot during the night!

I was offered a cup of tea on arrival, then splitting a portion of chicken wings and a plate of fried rice with a fellow traveler, paying 350 rupees (£1.75) each. Breakfast the following morning was, disappointingly for me, two pieces of toast with jam and an omelette; I prefer not to have western food, especially for breakfast, and I generally just don’t like omelettes. You can’t win them all, hey?

Anyway, I eventually set off for the beach and arrived around midday, surprised to find that the sun loungers were free and even more surprised to not find it busier than it was. I settled down for the next few hours and at one point had literally no one else around me (well, other than the wandering beach vendors trying to sell me insanely-overpriced coconuts) so I managed to drift off.

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It sadly wasn’t the season for swimming, the sea being tempestuous and more suitable for cool-off-at-the-shore moments, but I had such a relaxing afternoon and at around 3pm ducked into me of the beach restaurants to sit and update my blog while having a papaya lassie followed by a coffee and then followed by a lion beer. The sun slowly began to set and the temperatures cooled around me as I actually felt a bit like I was on holiday (not a common feeling as a backpacker, when most days are far from relaxing and peace is a short-lived experience on the road).

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I left the beach after 6:30pm and walked back along beach road, popping into dress shops along my way and eventually stopping at a cafe that had a vegetarian rice and curry buffet for 350 rupees (£1.75). I wasn’t even that hungry and buffets are dangerous for me – the girl who doesn’t know how to tell when she is full and it is seriously time to stop eating PUT THE FORK DOWN – but I was feeling lazy. Having to walk back on myself before eventually walking back to Camp Kush because there was only one ATM nearby was obviously my punishment for lack of self-control.

Breakfast the next morning was a much more satisfying Sri Lankan style breakfast of string hoppers, Dahl and coconut curry, which I used as fuel to then go for a morning kayak along the mangroves.

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Sri Lanka is the first nation to protect all its mangroves – shrubs and trees that live along shores, rivers and estuaries. The river literally runs alongside the camp site and they have a boat and kayak you can use for free, so at around 10:15am I set out for a morning paddle, surprising myself at how easily I could actually manage the navigation and how much I enjoyed it. There was literally no one else around and, with the sun beating down on my back and the calm waters around me, I felt completely at peace.

It did get pretty hot, though, so by midday I had made my way back to he hostel just for some respite from the sun, but it was such a lovely way to spend the morning. Back at the hostel I spent the next couple of hours lying around in one of the hammocks and updating my blog – getting used to being lazy – before deciding to head out to Galle for the afternoon as I wanted to buy Reserved 1st class sleeper tickets for Colombo to Trincomalee and you could only do this at some of the bigger train stations.

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Train ride from Unawatuna to Galle

So I walked to Unawatuna train station and paid 10 rupees (5p) for a 3rd class seat on the 3:10pm train to Colombo and hopped off 15 minutes later at Galle. I managed to completely forget about the tickets I was supposed to be buying from there and instead headed straight to Galle Fort, which is the old Dutch quarter in the port city of Galle. It’s different from other Forts around Sri Lanka as it houses its own little colonial town inside the Fort walls, protecting it from modernisation and retaining the colonial feel.

 

It was a pretty damn hot afternoon and there was little shade on offer, so after popping into the church, passing by the library and checking out the inside of the post office I made my way over to the Dutch Hospital. Words are funny things, aren’t they, for ‘hospital’ actually seems to mean small building filled with cafes and cute shops. Go figure. But I loved walking around the little souvenir shops (come on, they have air con) and the views out over the ocean were pretty impressive.

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My energy levels were low so I walked down the quaint streets to Crepe-ology where I paid a steep 500 rupees (£2.50) by Sri Lankan prices for a mango and passionfruit ice shake, but it was pretty big and pretty delicious and the rooftop was a nice place to relax for a bit out of the sun, so I wasn’t complaining.

Afterwards I made my way back to the Dutch Hospital and starting walking along the ramparts, passing the Aurora Bastion and Point Utrecht Bastion before stopping at Flag Rock to snap some photos of the Fort and the ocean, checking out the spot where “Fort Jumpers” leap from (no one was doing it when I was there).

With the sun starting to make its descent I made my way over to Triton Bastion for some pre-sunset pics before stopping nearby Clippenberg Bastion as the grassland adjacent was dotted with school boys playing cricket, families devouring picnics and kids flying their kites. It was a really warm and humbling image. After my brief stint at people-watching I took a seat to watch the sun set.

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It was actually a really impressive sunset, the clouds causing the orange rays to burst and separate in linear form, and it was refreshing to feel the winds from the ocean after such a hot day. Around 6:30pm I made my walk back towards the train station, picking up a delicious egg hopper for 30 rupees (15p) along the way, with the intent of buying my overnight ticket. Of course this wasn’t possible, as apparently the reservations desk closes at 5pm, so I had to make plans to return the following day and hopped on a bus back to Unawatuna.

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On my last full day I woke to have another local breakfast of Dahl, fried potatoes and a fried egg (really, really good) before walking to the bus stop to catch a bus back to Galle.

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There were, naturally, a group of Sri Lankans huddled around the reservations desk when I arrived, all sorts of crazy paperwork going on as apparently they work for the government so can claim free train tickets, and I wasn’t seen until AN HOUR LATER, and that was only because I point blank refused to let other locals push in front of me despite their very best efforts. And when I made it at the front, of course all the reserve spots on the overnight train had been taken. At this point I’d had enough and quite frankly didn’t want to leave empty handed after all of the effort I had gone to so I purchased a random overnight train ticket; 3rd class from Polonnaruwa to Colombo, arriving on the day I was expecting to fly to India. Just for shits and giggles, really.

I quickly got on a bus back to Unawatuna, hopping off one or two stops before my usual stop so I could walk through to Jungle Beach; a sandy cove separated from everything else by a rocky bluff. But I had barely even began the ascent when a Tuk Tuk driver went past and offered me a free lift as he was going that way anyway. So totally kind and, even though I had wanted the exercise and almost went to refuse, once I realised how hot it was and how steep the road was I happily accepted. You have to walk the final part to Jungle Beach anyway as it’s through, well, the jungle, but it was only about 10 minutes to walk downhill until you reached the beach.

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Much narrower and shorter than the main Unawatuna beach, it also has much more of an island feel and probably only had about 30-40 people on it. There is only one cafe that offers fruit juices, cocktails, beers and food, but again the sun loungers (wooden) are free and there’s some shade on offer from the palm trees. I had read you could swim on Jungle Beach but that would be after clambering over the coral (people also come here to snorkel) and braving the waves that knock you off your feet before you even make it properly in, so again I mainly used the ocean to cool down in whilst sunbathing, rather than actual swimming.

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I had a watermelon fruit juice for 400 rupees (£2) while I was there and a free banana when I asked if I could buy one, before setting off just after 3pm to walk back up to the main road and then along to the Peace Pagoda; a white dagoba built by Japanese Buddhists in 2004. The afternoon sun was shimmering on the ocean and it offered wonderful panoramic views.

I then began my walk back along the main road, this time walking down rather than nabbing a free Tuk Tuk ride, enjoying the cooler afternoon temperature and finally getting some exercise before stopping in a Chinese restaurant on my way back to the hostel. I was getting a bit fed up with plain white rice so I went for chicken noodles at 300 rupees (£1.50), fully expecting it to be with vermicelli noodles as they tend not to have udon, or thicker, noodles here, but being surprised at how tasty it was (as we as huge – the meals are pretty big here, especially compared with South East Asia size portions!)

Back at the hostel I enjoyed up joining the owner – Bunchy – and the staff for drinks, me opting for Arrack with ginger beer (adding freshly squeezed lime and sugar to make it like an Arrack Attack cocktail). We sat around for a good few hours drinking, playing music and smoking, with me also having another attempt at the local game of Carrom and failing miserably; I really need to get a better aim, and my flick is too powerful (although a white British female declaring “I have too much power!!” brought me some well-deserved ridicule).

There was some food provided of fish curry, string hoppers (which I actually liked this time) and Dahl, which seems to be getting tastier each time I have it. I went to bed feeling merry and woke up feeling groggy, not looking forward to the long journey ahead to get to Polonnaruwa. A day on public transport would be painful, but at least I could avoid doing anything productive…

LS

Sri Lanka 10: Yala National Park / Tissamaharama (Tissa)

I got to Kandy bus stop at around 9am, surprised at no official bus station for such a popular area and gutted when I realised no buses were therefore starting here so they would be full. And I was right – the bus to Matara arrived just after 9:20am and was so packed I’m surprised they even let me on, my big backpack being relegated to the boot at the back of the bus rather than next to the driver like it normally is (passengers were even sat here). It cost 385 rupees (£1.95) to take the 2 hour journey to Pannegamuway where I then had to get a local bus for the final 6km to Tissa (short for Tissamaharama). I was fortunate enough that when I arrived in Pannegamuway, a local whom know my hostel owner and was driving that way anyway gave me a lift for free on the back of his motorbike. It can be so hard to determine what is genuinely free and what is money-is-still-expected free, so it was lovely to find out it was the former and so grateful that I offered him some money anyway, to which he refused.

I arrived at my hostel – Leopard City Hostel, just down the main road through Tissa – at around midday and was greeted by the kindest owners offering me a cup of tea straight away. My room wasn’t quite ready yet but they said I would be able to check out late – 1pm – the following day after my safari tour so I didn’t mind, plus I had thought I was getting a bed in a dorm room and not a room to myself with 2 beds and an en suite, so the absolute bargain made it all worthwhile anyway. After booking my Safari tour for Yala National Park alongside a couple (Tessa and Yurri) in my hostel, paying 6,000 rupees (£30) for a half-day jeep tour with entry included (which costs around 4,000 rupees anyway), I decided to explore Tissa and asked the hostel owner about rental bikes.

It turns out he had already loaned his 2 available bikes to Tessa and Yurri and had no more left, but half an hour later I am suddenly presented with this BRAND NEW BIKE that the owner had just gone and bought so that I would have something to ride. I was totally amazed. Plus he only charged me 100 rupees (50p) for taking it out for 3 hours. I mean, I know hostel owners want to take care of you and get good feedback but this was in the above-and-beyond bracket!

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I set off on the brand new bike, popping to the various dagobas dotting the city and having the burning sun beating down on me, before reaching Tissa Warra lake. I began cycling around the periphery, passing fishing boats and locals cooling off in the water, amused by the families and groups of friends squealing with delight.

I then passed by Yurri and Tessa, stood on the side of the bund trying to fix one of the bikes that was apparently broken, with two lovely kind locals whom had stopped to help. Honestly, it was proving to be a good day for bicycles and a good day for genuinely nice Sri Lankans.

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I felt like I needed some peace after my hectic and busy bus ride so I decided to cycle down a country road that passed alongside the lake, revelling in the lack of people and the lack of vehicles and enjoying the view around me, which naturally included fields, road-side shops and cows walking along the street. It was good to get the blood pumping round my legs again and to get fresh air in my face.

On my way back to the hostel I picked up some snacks for the safari tour the next morning and decided to grab a takeaway dinner to eat while watching Netflix in my room. My Rough Guides recommended Roots Restaurant for all sorts of food so I got a Sri Lankan style chicken curry with plain rice for 500 rupees (£2.50). I was therefore disappointed that – while the sauce was tasty – the chicken was pretty average and the rice so very bland. It was definitely no comparison to my cooking class meal the night before in Ella!

I woke at 4am the following morning and got my stuff together for the safari, making my way outside the hostel to find a cup of tea waiting for me from the staff. Another couple from our hostel were joining us and, when our jeep turned up at 4:40am, there was an American (Wesley) from another hostel inside, so there were 6 of us in total. It was a refreshingly cool morning ride towards the entrance to Yala National Park, spoilt only once we arrived as another jeep accidentally ran over two dogs playing, killing one and injuring the leg of the other. The yelps of the surviving dog were devastating to hear but I was pissed off when Wesley sarcastically applauded the jeep driver, as if he did it intentionally and as if it needed that kind of attitude.

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ANYWAY, we drove on to the point where you purchase your tickets, which our driver did for us, while we went to the loo and stretched our legs one final time (you’re not allowed out of the jeep once inside the park). He had purchased our tickets any 5:50am so we sped away to the check-point entrance, wanting to get in line for the 6am open as soon as possible; it is almost a race amongst the jeeps, Yala being the most popular and touristy park to visit and everyone wanting to hatch glimpse of the wildlife inside.

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Personally I really enjoyed the ride around the park itself, driving down dessert pathways with dense bush on either side, beautiful rocks, glistening lakes and ponds, and even the ocean nearby.

With the sides of the jeep open you get a constant cool breeze despite the humidity and you really do feel as though you are within a safari. Other than the moments where I flagged and my fatigue kicked in (you do spend a fair amount of time parked up, sitting and waiting) it was amazing and I could have spent ages in there.

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Elephant Rock

We were fortunate to spot many elephants along the way, which were in the forest but not too far way from our pathway, enjoying chomping down on the branches and crashing their way through the trees.

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I have seen quite a number of elephants on my previous travels but not in their “natural” environment, so even though they were slightly hidden by trees and even though I didn’t get great photos, it was wonderful just to watch them being, well, elephants. Not chained up, not dressed up, and not used for any purpose; just going about their daily routine.

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We were also insanely lucky as we managed to spot a leopard, when there are only 20 in the park and they tend to keep themselves fairly hidden. We managed to spot on purely because we were driving down the right path at the right time when a lonely leopard decided to meander across from one side to other, us having to creep up slowly and be careful to not make any sound in case it suddenly legged it. I was surprised that it wasn’t as brightly coloured as I had expected, the orange in my imagination being replaced by a beige-yellow and dark grey combination that was successful camouflage amongst he colours of the national park. But I was also entranced by the way it strolled across the park, with confidence and grace.

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That blurry thing in the distance is a leopard

 

You also spot a lot of water buffaloes on your way around plus the heads of crocodiles in the lakes as they cautiously peep up and out of the water, sometimes managing to catch sight of part of its body protruding out of the water in an uncannily loch-ness monster looping fashion.

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Lochness crocodiles

There are heaps of birds in the park and we spotted a number of kingfisher, plus other creatures including squirrel, deer (peacefully standing by a lake until they are alerted to any sound, wary of the prospect of coming across a leopard), mongooses and wild boar.

We took a short break around 10am at the beach in the park, where we could use the toilet, stretch our legs and devour the watermelon provided to us by our driver and, after one final loop of the park, we were leaving the same way we came in just before 11:30am, arriving back at our hostel at midday.

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We spent over 5 hours in the park itself and – despite what I had read – it wasn’t as packed as I had expected. Sure, when we spotted elephants and were parked by the side of the road, other jeeps would stop as they passed, and at one point there were about 8 jeeps clustered together, all trying to find a way out of the traffic-jam they had created. But most of the time we were driving around on our own and would pass by one or two every now and then, not at all feeling like it was over-crowded or some kind of jeep city. It is the biggest park and therefore the most popular – bringing in the most tourists but also allowing more space in which to escape them.

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I had also read about a lot of scams – drivers taking the money for th tour and for the entrance fee, but then only driving around the periphery of the park and therefore pocketing the entrance fee. I booked with the same tour company that a woman in my hostel had gone with the day before and recommended, then and then paid attention at the beginning when we arrived and purchased our tickets and entered the site. I would suggest you do the same.

I was personally really happy with my first jeep safari tour and, satisfied with my achievements for the day, left my hostel just after 1pm and made my way to my next destination, Unawatuna.

LS

Sri Lanka 9: Ella

So the train to Ella from Haputale was supposed to arrive into Haputale station at 2:17pm but it was almost an hour late and, having come all the way from Colombo, it was absolute jam packed. I paid 50 rupees (25p) for a 2nd class ticket instead of 30 rupees (15p) for a 3rd class, not that it made any difference in terms of luxury as I had to stand. However, being the last one on board a completely squished train meant I got to stand by the door, offering me fresh air as well as some incredible views; the train journey from Kandy to Ella is famous for its beauty, passing through rolling mountains, waterfalls and tea plantations; it certainly didn’t disappoint.

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We arrived into Ella train station at around 4:20pm, me opting (as usual) to walk to my accommodation rather than take a Tuk Tuk, it taking about 15 minutes to loop round to Freedom Camp and later finding out there was a shortcut across the railway track. I picked freedom camp as it was, as the name suggests, sleeping in a tent with views across Ella and guests raved about the atmosphere, but when I arrived I discovered there was a total of 3 tents with a couple sleeping in one and two friends (whom I never saw) in the other. As a solo traveller wanting to meet people this was far from ideal, especially as I’d been alone in my previous hostel. I was disappointed but made my way into town for some food after unpacking.

Somehow I ended up getting a massage, an Ayurvedic one with lovely-smelling oils that definitely relaxed me but sadly didn’t get rid of any of the knots in my shoulder blades. Half an hour later, 1200 rupees (£6) down and greasy from the oils, I ducked into a restaurant up some steps that had candles for lighting and served my lion beer (400 rupees, or £2) in a teapot with tea cup as it would seem they do not have a liquor licence. Brilliant.

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I ordered a Fish Kottu (or Kothuthu depending on spelling), the Kottu itself being delicious but he Fish being questionably solid; I would advise not to eat fish unless you’re along the coast as it just isn’t fresh otherwise. As I was leaving 2 females travelling together – Abi and Lucy – took my table after we chatted about things to do in Ella.

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I woke up just before 7 the next morning so I decided to tackle Ella Rock; the giant rock that punctuates Ella. Now, my Rough Guides didn’t give much information or direction about getting there and it seems as though there wasn’t a set route, instead a few different routes you could take, none of which were signposted. Locals have also been known to send you the wrong way or insist on taking you there to then demand payment for their “services”, so the whole thing is pretty confusing.

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Ella Rock in the distance

You start by walking along the train tracks, South from Ella, and actually this takes up a decent amount of the journey. I was on it for at least half an hour, passing by locals going in the other direction.

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It was after crossing the black bridge that locals then instructed me to follow a path down on the left-hand side, not offering any further information; you assume this means it is straight forward or there is a clear path, but there isn’t. You quickly cross another small bridge to then have a path to your right and a path to your left; I first went right then had to turn back and take the left pathway (first wrong turning).

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The second bridge

The path weaves through tress before coming out into the open along the side of a hill, which you then have to weave up across the various pathways on offer; I didn’t and continued down into the jungle before going back and taking the path up the side of the hill (second wrong turning).

You then descend down through Tea fields until you see a hut down below – aim for the hut (thankfully I passed local Sri Lankans whom informed me of this. I would like to point out that it is between 8 and 8:30am by this point and absolutely boiling.

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Once you reach the hut (a food and drink shack) you turn left and follow a path to the side of a rocky, well, rock, which you climb up and then turn left to walk towards an open section of rock at the cliff edge; it’s good to take a breather here as it is an insane uphill climb after, plus there are really good views down over Ella hill country and across to Little Adam’s Peak.

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You then climb directly up, clambering up rocks and using tree trunks to haul you up, before reaching an almost missable fork. I was going to go left but a guide just behind me advised I go right, as this weaves around rather than a direct, harsh upward climb. So I went right, but the pathway and route to take after that was not at all clear and it took me ages to get to the top, so I shouldn’t have listened and just gone with my initial instincts (third wrong-turning). I eventually arrived at the top of Ella Rock just over 2 hours after I set off, to find that the view I had was of thick, white mist. I couldn’t see a damn thing. It had been clear earlier that morning (that’s why they advise you go early, some even aiming for sunrise) but now all I could see was disappointment.

The saving grace was that I bumped into Abi and Lucy at the top and, after making our way back down into town, I signed up for the same cooking class as them at Matey Hut for the following day and then we wandered to the Curd Shop to have a classic Sri Lankan dish of Curd and Honey, served in a fancy glass dish like ice cream would and setting me back 250 rupees (£1.25). It was just what I needed.

After spending a couple of hours at my hostel doing absolutely nothing, I decided to venture to Little Adam’s Peak – much smaller in scale than the ultimate pilgrimage summit that is Adam’s Peak (which was sadly out of season for me so I wouldn’t catch any of the incredible views it is also known for). I walked down into town then at the fork (where the bus stands are) took the road on the left. It weaves for a while before reaching the bottom of the pathway up to Adam’s Peak, but first I stopped of at Adam’s Breeze cafe for the most filling and tasty Coconut & Honey Rotti for 400 rupees (£2) – double the price compared to a food stand but totally worth it.

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Coconut and Honey Rotti

I then took the pathway to Little Adam’s Peak, weaving around the mountain and passing tea plantations along the way. You then reach the base of the Peak where you climb stone steps, tough in the humidity but fortunately the clouds had set in.

You then reach the top of the mountain, where you have views out over Ella and of Ella Rock, but you can then continue your hike by scrambling up and down rocks to reach the very end of the Peak, more directly opposite Ella Rock. I made it just before it started pouring with rain, when I then sat under the tiniest tree in the world to try to get at least a little bit of shelter.

The white mist set in to the point where I couldn’t see anything but as the rain subsided and the sun burst through the whiteness, it gradually began to dissipate. Then, the views were out of this world.

Back at my campsite I mentioned to the guy running it (Taro) that I was going to tackle Ella Rock again the following morning, but this time leaving at 5:30am instead of 7:15am. He said I was better off going at 4:30am and making it for sunrise, saying that he would come with me and help me. So we agreed to meet outside at 4:30am, with me getting there at 4:25am and waiting. For a long time. With him clearly not coming I decided to wait a bit longer as it didn’t feel safe me taking the whole route up by myself in the dark, so I left at 5:30am and did the train track section in pitch black but the rest as they sun slowly rose, making it to the top at 5:40am; less than 1.5 hours after I set off.

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View from Ella Rock, second time lucky

And, I finally got my view (although I would personally rate Adam’s Peak of having the better view). At the top I sat and devoured my banana loaf from Dream Cafe, costing 200 rupees (£1) and easily being the best banana bread I have ever had. Seriously, EVER.

At around 10am I decided to walk to Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory, most of which was downhill weaving around tea plantations but the last 1km was a tough uphill slog to the factory. Although I don’t really understand their concept of kilometres; my guide book said it was 7km up but 5km down despite being the same route and distance doesn’t change whether it is uphill or down but time does, and if you ask a local how long something will take they always answer in kms, which actually doesn’t 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. 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.

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View from Uva Halpewatte

Anyway, it costs 450 rupees (£2.25) for a Tea Factory tour, where I learnt about the stages of producing tea from plucking the tea leaves to rolling and then sorting the tea. The most interesting part for me, however, was the eccentric and engaging tour guide. Hats off to him.

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I left the Tea Factory just after midday to find Taro (hostel owner, in case you’ve forgotten) waiting outside to pick me up on his moped; he clearly felt bad for not fulfilling his commitment that morning and took me first to the famous 9 Arch Bridge in Ella before riding me back to the campsite.

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After showering (and washing my hair for the first time in 6 days) I left the campsite to make my cooking class for 4pm. Whilst it was with Matey Hut you don’t actually do the class in the restaurant like at other places, instead taking the 100m walk up a side road and then up some steps to reach their cooking shack that overlooks the mountains. Totally lush.

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Our cooking class was lead by the wife of the guy that runs Matey Hut and, with her 18 months of running cooking classes but 10 years of professional cooking experience, she was absolute brilliant.

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In other classes they show you how to make something and you repeat it, making yourself your own dishes, but with this class (and probably most Sri Lankan classes where their traditional meal of Rice and Curry consists of 6 different dishes) we made everything together, her talking us through the ingredients and the process as we went. It was so impressive that there are only about 6 to 8 ingredients used for all the dishes, the quantity and number varying slightly for each, and that absolutely everything was made from scratch, including the coconut milk using a coconut scraper.

The views were stunning and when it started to tip it down with rain we were protected by the roof and suddenly the warm, hearty Rice and Curry dishes were completely ideal. We had Sambul (like a grated coconut, super fresh salad), Dahl, Mango Curry, Aubergine Curry, pumpkin Curry and Banana Curry, the last two being my absolute faves, and we devoured it at the bench with our wonderful chef joining us.

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It was by far the best Sri Lankan food I have had so far; so fresh and heaps of flavour, and at 2,000 rupees (£10) for a 3 hour cooking class with incredible food it was such a bargain.

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Abi, Lucy and I left at around 7:30pm and headed to a local jaunt where the alcohol is served behind a bar that is actually behind bars (but they let me pop behind to peruse their wine selection) and definitely has a local pub feel, where we went through two bottles of red wine (2,100 rupees each, or £10.50) while we waited for their friend Georgia to arrive, having just flown in from London to join them.

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We left at around 10pm and walked round to One Love Bar, which is open 24/7, where we had 3 Arak Attacks each (Arak, or Arrack, being the local liquor spirit made from coconut, and this cocktail being particularly delicious) at 600 rupees (£3) per cocktail, sitting on the comfy benches around the fire on the rooftop. Ideal end to an ideal evening (where marijuana was definitely NOT had…)

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We left at 1am, me eventually getting into bed at 2am to then be woken up at 7:30am by the sound of music blaring from the sound system right next to my tent, Taro apparently having not slept all night and still drinking. I used this as an opportunity to pack my stuff and leave early to try to get to my next destination, Tissa, at a reasonable to,e to make the most of the day. I will definitely miss Ella, though, as it is easily my favourite place in Sri Lanka so far; I literally could not get enough of the gorgeously green landscape.

LS

Sri Lanka 8: Haputale

So the train ride between Kandy and Ella is supposed to be the most spectacular in Sri Lanka, winding round mountains and waterfalls on the way, Haputale is just before Ella so I planned on taking the 8:47am train from Kandy in the direction of Ella, but apparently that’s what everyone else was planning on, too. I queued for about half an hour – mainly behind tourists – for the guy at the desk to tell me I would be very unlikely to be able to sit for the 5 hour journey, especially because Kandy wasn’t the starting point, so I decided to cut my loses and take the bus instead. I hope I will get to do the train route in reverse, even if it means going back on myself and totally out of my way, but I couldn’t bare to be stood, squished amongst hot and sweaty people, for that long, even though a 3rd class ticket would have cost me 150 rupees (75p) and my bus to Badulla – where I then had to change for Haputale – cost 266 rupees (£1.32).

The journey was hot, cramped, slow and jolty as we made our way round the winding mountain roads and busy city streets, passing by some sort of parade/performance where a man was swinging from a rope that he was connected to with hooks in his back and legs; it didn’t look comfortable but from what I have read they are not supposed to feel the pain and I presume this was to do with it being poya – full moon – day.

We didn’t arrive into Badulla until just before 1pm and it was then an adventure to find out which bus to get on to Haputale. One local offered to “help” me but then took me away from the main bus area to where a minibus was parked; I said no immediately, knowing from experience this would cost more but still be just as cramped and uncomfortable as the normal local buses. I eventually found one that was just about to leave for 86 rupees (43p) sat next to a Sri Lankan girl whom fell asleep on my shoulder for most of the way, but the gorgeous country winding roads made up for the lack of peace.

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I arrived into Haputale bus station at 2:30pm and was met there by Eshan – the guy running my hostel (Cool Mountain Inn). We began our walk along the train track by Haputale station, stepping to one side to allow the train going to Ella (which would have been my train, arriving about half an hour behind schedule and packed to the brim) to pass. I love that it is quicker – and sort of safer – to walk along the Railway line that it is along the main road.

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As we made then made our way uphill, I was entranced by the views across Haputale; misty mountains in the distance, tea fields below and winding train track amongst the bright green. It felt peaceful and restful, and once I was at the guesthouse with a cup of tea in my hand, gazing out at the view, I felt relaxed after a busy and intense couple of days.

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Speaking of tea, I have always ALWAYS been a coffee girl. I have tea maybe once or twice a year and have had shocked responses of “but, you’re British!” when I tell people 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 here is unappealing (it’s like filter coffee that they don’t actually filter, so it’s very bitty) and, yes, I take it the Sri Lankan way of ridiculously sweet and insanely milky, but still. It counts right??

I felt absolutely shattered following Kandy so I spent the rest of the afternoon basically doing absolutely nothing – I like to call it necessary travelling recovery. I had paid just over 1,500 rupees (£7.50) for 2 nights in a room to myself with Two double beds and an en suite, so I was sure as hell making the most of this lounging around time! As the guesthouse is the home of Eshan and his mother – Mangalika – they can cook meals for you and booking.com states on their page that breakfast is 1.30 USD and dinner is 1.50 USD.

I asked him what was for breakfast and dinner and Eshan said it was completely up to me what I had – Kiribath or hoppers for breakfast, rice and curry or macaroni for dinner – so that evening I had chicken rice and curry, as cooked by Mangalika, while sat out on the patio watching the sunset.

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I woke at 5:30am to get ready for my Tuk Tuk arriving at 6am to take me to Horton Plains National Park; the only national park in Sri Lanka that doesn’t permit vehicles and you can therefore walk in. It’s a good 10 miles from Haputale and you have to wind around the mountains in order to reach it, so it took approximately 1.5 hours to reach there by Tuk Tuk. As they Tuk Tuk then waits to take you back it is pretty expensive, costing me 3,500 rupees (£17.50), almost as much as it cost to enter the park itself. You first reach the ticket counter where I paid 4,050 rupees (£20.25) to get my “ticket” that was more like some official document – the prices are advertised as 15 USD but this a excluding service charge and taxes. So I had spent a total of £37.75 before midday, and that was already over my daily budget.

The Tuk Tuk driver then took me through the park to reach the starting point of the 9km trail and from where you can also hike to the top of Kirigalpota – a 22km return to the summit of Sri Lanka’s second highest mountain. As you start the trail you pass another checkpoint where they check your ticket and remove any plastic from water bottles you may be carrying (deadly if wildlife feast on it), then walking down and out into the open grassland and hills.

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You eventually reach a fork in the path where you can take the trail loop from left to right or right to left so I took the latter as less tourists were going this way (but, be warned, it is a popular, touristy route – funny how we look for places with few tourists despite making up the number ourselves).

Rough Guides states Horton Plains has a cool, wet climate but you are also encouraged to go early for views over the cliffs before the most sets in, and at this time of day the sun was low within a clear blue sky and the plains are predominantly flat and open, so it was pretty hot and therefore a tiring walk, especially with the altitude of 2,000 metres making the small and short uphill scrambles an effort. Still it was a beautiful walk through the rolling plains dotted with bushes, lakes and mountains in the distance, with a constant sound of croaking frogs and the peaceful ting of the wildlife – it almost sounded as though something metal was clanging against a surface as you walked, but it was actually just nature!

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As a nice spot of relief you then enter wooded cloudforest, where the air cools and the moisture resides, weaving around tree trunks and ver rocks to reach the downward path to Baker’s Falls – I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls on my travels, from the powerful and impressive Iguassu Falls in South America to the trickling and peaceful waterfalls in South East Asia, but these were actually pretty decent with a perfect balance of rock, water and trees making it a photogenic spot.

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Back up to the top of the path you then continue through the forest before coming back out into the open grassland, weaving around the side of the hills and eventually coming to World’s End. You reach the rocky edge of a cliff that plunges 825m and offers panoramic views of the hill country below and the lake within Uda Walawe National Park. Unsurprisingly it is a busy spot but fortunately they are a few points to view the drop over World’s End, walking 100m to the right to reach another cliff edge.

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You then continue to your left, along rocky terrain that is neither in the forest and neither completely in the open, until you reach Little World’s End; a small scale view of World’s End. I noticed a rocky track leading up into the bush to the right that no one else was taking, so up I clambered, making it to the bush for the path to then continue amongst the trees, weaving around the edge of the cliff, before reaching a rocky cliff edge that offered a wider view of the landscape ahead and had absolutely no one else here. GO HERE.

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I sat down and tucked into my packed breakfast from the guesthouse of Kiribath (milk rice) served with chicken curry. I’m generally not a fan of rice but MILK rice – now, that I could have in bucketloads!

I made it back to the start about 2.5 hours after setting off, having taken a slow pace, and ducked into the museum to learn about continental drift and the impact this had on both Sri Lanka and the Horton Plains. I actually found it really interesting and found myself absorbing the information rather than glazing over it.

I then suddenly realised I should have scheduled in climbing Kirigalpota; at 10:45am the woman advised me it was still possible before sunset as it would take 6-7 hours, and I suddenly had the energy and desire to tackle the 22km return to Sri Lanka’s second highest mountain, but my Tuk Tuk driver was waiting for me and would no doubt charge me more than the agreed 3,500 rupees to wait even longer. Plus I was mindful of my energy levels being low, so I returned to my Tuk Tuk.

Horton Plains is modest when it comes to wildlife, with the elephants removed a long time ago and the 45 leopards being difficult to spot, but on my way in and out of the park I came across a number of sambar deer.

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We made it back to Haputale around 1pm but I asked my Tuk Tuk driver to drop me off into town as I planned to take the bus to Dambatenne. I paid 30 rupees (15p) to be driven around the winding roads around the hills and surrounding tea fields, the wide expanse of bright green filling my vision, and hopped out at Dambatenne bus station. You can also be asked to be dropped off at Dambatenne Tea Factory, which was built by Sir Thomas Lipton and offers tea factory tours, but I had read you can’t sample or even purchase tea at this factory so I had decided to go to one nearby Ella instead.

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So from Dambatenne I set out on the 14km walk to Lipton’s Seat, having a procession of Tuk Tuk drivers offer to drive me and then laugh when I said I wanted to walk ; “but it will take you 2 hours”, they chuckled derisively. Well, it didn’t; it took me 1 hour 15 minutes to make my way to the top of Lipton’s seat, the cooler temperature of the afternoon aiding my ascent, and I got to pass lush tea plantations and watch local woman plucking the tea leaves as I passed.

Lipton’s Seat is a viewpoint named after Sir Thomas Lipton as he came here often to admire the view, supposedly one that rivals the view of World’s End but where you pay only 50 rupees (25p) to enter the grounds rather than 4,000 rupees. But it is advised to come early morning – maybe even for sunrise – as you get the best views before the clouds arrive. So of course I venture mid afternoon when the only view I get is of white mist.

Still, I sat and enjoyed a Liptontea at the Lipton cafe for an overpriced – by Sri Lankan standards – 100 rupees (50p); it was nice to take a rest before taking the walk back down, even though I had been offered a Tuk Tuk ride 5 times – by the SAME MAN – while I had been sat there.

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I started the walk down to be passed by a Sri Lankan couple with their son in a car – they stopped and asked me if I was going back to Haputale and offered me a lift. Knowing I had at least an hour to walk before then caching the bus from Dambatenne into Haputale I immediately accepted, hopping in the back to have the front wheel of the car go into the ditch along the side of the narrow road as it moved to let a Tuk Tuk pass. All of a sudden locals are getting out of their cars and appearing from apparently nowhere to help push the car out the ditch – honestly, locals are so lovely.

I got back to my hostel around 5:40pm and my dinner – of egg macaroni with chicken curry – was served to me at 6:30pm and was delicious. Although slightly unnerving to have Eshan try to take photos of me eating and then literally standing and staring at me as I ate, him then encouraging “eat, girl, eat!” as I nervously took my time, responding with “I am enjoying it, and I’m not a fan of people watching me eat”. He then left to go inside but when I turned around I saw him pull the net curtain away from the window to look at me. He may have just been curious about a guest eating their home made food but it felt a bit unnerving for me.

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I had another evening of doing nothing (I lie – researching hostels and places to visit isn’t doing nothing, nor is it that peaceful) before waking up and checking out of my room before 10am. I asked Eshan if, after checking out, I could stay on the grounds for a bit before getting my train to Ella, which he said was fine but then said if I wanted to use the wifi after 10am I would have to pay. Most places I have stayed in will happily let you sit around after checking out – as long as you have moved from the room – and you can continue using the facilities, but as this was their home I let it go and did without the wifi.

My breakfast was egg hoppers, this time the egg not broken but left inside the hopper like a fried egg and was absolutely perfect, and a few plain hoppers to go with it as well as a banana and a cup of tea. Once I had finished my breakfast he then brought over my bill, where he had charged me double the stated price for each breakfast and dinner (4 in total) and for each tea I had despite saying it was part of the “package” with breakfast and dinner, and separately for the banana that came with my breakfast.

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The best Egg Hoppers

I brought up my booking.com confirmation email that stated the price of breakfast and dinner, half of what he was charging, and he said that was for small meals whereas I’d had big ones – I went to explain that he had not once said that, even after I asked many times about what was included in breakfast and dinner and he said whatever I wanted – but he started getting heated and talking over me, waving his arms in my face and saying his brother must have put that online and that was the price for smaller meals whereas I’d had bigger ones so I had to pay more. Especially as he had “let” me stay after the checkout time of 10am as it was now 10:10. Wow, what a gent; he obviously doesn’t know that this is pretty standard in most places of accommodation.

I repeated what I’d said about him never telling me that, despite our conversations, and could he be honest about that, to which he said be honest you knew it would cost more than that, do you not have a brain?!” At this I was shocked and said to never ever speak to me like that – how dare he be so rude to a guest. He said “you tell me what you pay me, it is fine” and I replied with “no it isn’t fine, you cannot speak to me like that.” He kept pushing and I asked him to leave me for a few minutes as I was so angry (my knees were actually shaking) and he eventually came back, apologising and defending himself by saying he was a school teacher and didn’t know about the prices put up as his brother was the manager. Well in that case who was he to argue if he didn’t know, and I feel sorry for his students if his response to them struggling or not understanding is “do you not have a brain?!” I said I appreciated he may not have known but the way he spoke to me and the things he said were completely unacceptable to a h,an, let alone a guest!

He apologised and I paid the stated prices for breakfast and dinner, although still paying no extra for the cups of tea and the banana and 10% service charge on top of all of it; I probably paid around 800 rupees more than I had understood I would have to pay but 800 less than what he wanted. As I went to leave he apologised again and offered to help me with my bags – even to help me buy cigarettes, which was slightly strange – so he obviously knew he had stepped over some line, but while I accepted his apology there was no way I was staying here or giving him a glowing review.

I trundled down the road and picked up cigarettes – plain ones, not even menthol, which I don’t really like – before ducking into Glacé Pastry and Bakery to sit out front, have a cup of tea with a smoke, and type away furiously on my iPad as I looked out over Haputale.

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Papaya Lassi at Glacé Pastry

A bit of a shame to end on that after an otherwise peaceful experience and I was grateful to the mum – Mangalika – for her food and kindness (I think she was trying to reason with him while he shouted at me, but I can’t be sure), and it makes me sad to have negative experiences with locals, but as a solo female traveller I have learnt to stick up for myself and not be taken advantage of or just let things slide purely because of my gender.

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Anyway, as I sit and wait for my train, watching a group of locals working together to repair the train track, I’m hoping for positive experiences in Ella…

LS

Sri Lanka 7: Kandy

The bus left Dambulla at 11:30am and was supposed to take 2 hours to get to Kandy, costing me 100 rupees (50p), however due to the annual Esala Perahera festival that was finishing in 2 days the traffic was increasingly worse the closer we got to Kandy and we didn’t arrive into the bus station until after 2pm. The streets were absolutely packed – with Tuk tuks, with buses and with people. Hoards of people already sitting on the pavement along the Perahera route, having camped out all day with their families in order to get a view of the festival parade.

I couldn’t bare to get back into that traffic again just yet – but my hostel was a 40 minute walk uphill so I wasn’t about to head out in foot either – so I settled into a cafe in the bus station to have a mixed fruit juice for 100 rupees (50p) before wandering around the busy market stalls . I then hailed a Tuk Tuk from outside the bus station, although he seemed to misunderstand me and thought I said Kandy Market when I said Kandy City Monkey – the name of my hostel – so we had a bit of a disagreement when it came to payment, eventually settling on 200 rupees (£1). Whilst this 2km journey cost me double than my trip from Dambulla on the bus, I think this wasn’t a bad price considering the inflation caused by Perahera.

The ladies running the hostel were really sweet and kind but it wasn’t the most efficiently-run place, asking me 3 times which room I was in and what my name was and having a conversation with each other before seeing to me, then charging me for a kilo of laundry even though I only washed 5 items because they didn’t weigh it to begin with. Plus many of the dorm rooms didn’t have a bathroom but there wasn’t a communal one, so people staying in other dorm rooms would wander in and out of ours to use our bathroom, which didn’t feel ideal in terms of security and privacy. At 1,540 rupees (£7.70) for 2 nights including breakfast it was a good price, but I so wish they would serve traditional Sri Lankan breakfasts rather than accommodate the westerners – I’ve come to Sri Lanka to embrace and explore the culture, which includes the food. If I wanted toast and jam for breakfast I could just stay in Europe.

I met a woman called Zuzi from Czech Republic in my dorm and we headed out together, taking the winding road down to the centre and wandering round Kandy Market and the food markets. We both picked up a fresh coconut to drink – I know it is good for you and is r fishing but that taste is really not to my fancy – before stopping outside the local Ayurvedic shop. Ayurveda, from Sanskrit meaning “science of life”, is an ancient and holistic system of healthcare practised in Sri Lanka and India that views illness as a disturbance in the person’s makeup. Solid treatment lasts at least a week and can look at lifestyle changes as well as the herbal treatments used.

I mentioned having a bad back and neck – both crack with little effort and regularly ache or feel tense – so they invited me into their shop and out some fragrant oil called Jeewaka Vata Thailaya onto my back and neck using a pressurised downward rubbing motion. It headed up on my skin and caused a slightly tingling sensation, but more than anything it was relaxing and enjoyable to have it applied and for my back to be slightly massaged. A small bottle of the oil cost 850 rupees (£4.25) and I didn’t have enough cash on me, or sufficient space in my backpack, so I didn’t purchase any, but I did tip the guy who applied the oil, although I am unsure if that is more offensive than complimentary – it’s hard to tell at times.

Zuzi and I then made our way to the Perahera route to try to find a spot. The Esala Perahera is a 10 day festival seen as the most spectacular in Sri Lanka, dating back to the arrival of the Tooth Relic in the fourth century where it was decreed the relic would be carried in procession through the city once a year. It is now a major Buddhist event and draws in Sri Lankan’s from all over, meaning the streets were ridiculously packed. Locals traditionally sit on the pavement along the route, bringing plastic sheets to sit on along with snacks and drinks for the day. Tourists are more susceptible to the actual seats in balconies, windows or shop doorways along the route, paying between 4,000 and 7,000 rupees (£20-35) for the “luxury” of a plastic chair, but Zuzi and I both wanted to do it like the locals – to experience it like the locals do with the locals.

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So we wandered around the route for between 30-60 minutes (I lost track of time as I was entranced by the spectacle) as we searched for a free spot on the ground and were constantly approached by locals wanting to sell balcony tickets or sell us a plastic sheet. We finally found a huge spot on the pavement where a local behind the railing said we were free to go, for another Sri Lankan man nearby to suddenly shuffle up his entire family and say he had 5 or 6 more people coming so we couldn’t go there. It was a shame to have this treatment when we just wanted to absorb their culture and learn more about them, but at the same time I try to respect that the festival means more to them religiously than it does to me.

We continued walking and, just as it was starting to get dark, a Sri Lankan male sat just behind the barriers beckoned us to come sit with him and his family. Completely touched and delighted we ducked under the railing and squished in alongside him (Saman), his wife (Chandonee), his daughter (Karika – pronounced Karisha) and his mother (Vinitha); I apologise now as I have most definitely spelt all their names wrong.

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They proceeded to share their supplies of bottled water,
Kadala (slightly spicy nuts – delicious) and Muruku (slightly spicy and crunchy onion rings) with us, refusing to accept any money for, me when I offered. I was honestly so humbled; it was purely out of the kindness of their hearts and to share their experience with us, with Saman and Vinitha having good English and commentating on the procession as it went round.

We heard the horn signalling the start of the procession at around 6:45pm but the start of it didn’t reach us until around 8:15pm, the last “act” passing by just before 11pm when I could no longer feel my butt cheeks anymore. I was surprised that the locals all remained seating throughout the procession, having expected them to stand but them only doing so when one particular elephant – presumably carrying the tooth relic – adorned in white and gold and with people surrounding it walked past.

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The acts were male-dominated with only the last few being groups of girls, dancing, and the acts were generally alternating between fire spinning (I don’t know the term, but you can see the pictures to get the idea of what I mean), dancing, drumming and flag processions, interspersed with elephants dressed in colourful Sri Lankan fabric.

I respect their religion and their culture and do not know enough about elephants myself, but it was difficult to see their legs chained up – even if it is for their own safety – and I couldn’t help but feel their eyes (dark brown spheres amongst the colourful and sparkling costume) looked sad.

It was an incredibly warm evening, especially with all the fire present, and at one point Karika began convulsing and screaming, her body lashing about as if having an epileptic fit, but the accompanied screams yet calm of those around her made me wonder if it was a religious/spiritual reaction that I am ignorant to and then a monk came over and forced white powder onto her forehead with his thumb. I will need to look into it more as I’d like to understand what it was about, but at the time I wasn’t sure what to do myself other than clear the area and give her space.

It was certainly an interesting evening and fascinating to see how the locals respond to the festival – how important it is that they camp out from 9am, rotating holding the fort within the family – and it was certainly a “spectacle”. I felt absolutely exhausted by the end of the night and didn’t get into bed until midnight, being woken by someone’s alarm at 7am, that I felt horrendously groggy the following day. I eventually ventured out around 10am and made my way to Bahiravakanda Buddha on the hill, just along from my hostel. It cost 250 rupees (£1.25) to enter and they also asked for a donation once inside – which I found a bit bizarre – but the views across the city were decent even if you couldn’t climb all the way to the top of the Buddha.

I then made my way into town and towards the Temple of the Tooth (Dalada Maligawa) which costs 1,500 rupees (£7.50) for tourists to enter and is Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist shrine that houses the Tooth relic. While the tooth relic is no longer taken out on parade during Perahera for security reasons it is put on display in the Temple of the Tooth for a couple of weeks approximately twice a year. What I cannot tell you is whether it was on display while I was there. There were hoards – literally hoards of people – visiting on this poya day (full moon and last day of the Esala Perahera), especially local Sri Lankan’s, so getting around the temple was task enough in itself. Bodies were squished against one another and locals pushed me out the way as we made our way up the stairs and towards the shrine to pray at and give offerings to.

I watched open-mouthed at this human chaos inside the temple, eventually squeezing through and heading inside Alut Maligawa that explained the history of the tooth relic through 21 paintings with annotation, and it was here that a couple of locals were sat on the floor weaving together costumes, presumably for that evenings procession.

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I then walked through the courtyard where monkeys were drinking water from a stone bowl and diving in for a swim – one also attacked the leg of my hareem pants – and, nearby, a glass “room” were locals went with lighted candles to pray and another structure used for burning incense and making offerings.

I then walked towards the back of the site to the Museum of World Buddhism (passing a Chinese tourist being told off by tourist police for taking a photo with her back to the Buddha) which showcases artefacts and beliefs across Asia.

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Finally I wandered back outside to the where the elephants were being kept on an open-area, their feet chained together and chained to a tree as they were fed and bathed before being taken off, presumably in preparation for the procession. Lots of tourists were having photos taken with the elephants but I couldn’t decipher how happy or comfortable the elephants really were – the ones I have previously seen in Asia and had photos with not being chained up – so I decided against it.

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As my last stop for the afternoon I walked up through Royal Palace Park and to the classic viewpoint, Arthur’s Seat. Closer to the artificial lake Kiri Muhuda than the Buddha was you get a different view from here, one that sees the hundreds of locals camping on the pavement dotting the lake side. It was relatively busy here and a tourist was doing some special snap on her fancy camera that seemed to take one hundred clicks a second so I found it hard to properly relax, it it did offer some respite from the insanely busy centre.

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I made it back to my hostel, completely exhausted and sweaty, around 3pm where I stayed for the next 4 hours, reading my book and booking my next stop, before braving it and heading back out to see what I could witness of the final night of the Esala Perahera. On the way I picked up a tub of fruit and nut ice cream (worryingly green in colour – I literally detest mint ice cream – but fruity and creamy in taste) and I finally got to try an egg hopper in a nearby cafe for 50 rupees (25p). Cooked fresh, it was brought over to me warm with some chilli dipping sauce; I really enjoyed it but felt it would be ideal for breakfast, whereas most places only seem to serve it after 4pm.

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I wander down towards the market and to the periphery of the Perahera route, stopping by Kandyan Muslim Hotel to pick up something to eat on my long journey to Haputale the next morning. I settled on a Beef Kabul for 260 rupees (£1.30), which is apparently a dish from Afghanistan that is basically a stuffed naan, but I watched as the chef laid the rolled-out pastry disc on the grill, added oil, out the toppings in the centre and folded it into a square to cook. As I type this, I am sitting on my bus to Haputale happily chewing away on my tasty Kabul.

I was wiped out. Completely and utterly. So I skipped watching the Perahera (which apparently was very similar to the night before) and headed back to my hostel to try to sleep before my long journey the following day. The Perahera festival was so interesting and I’m glad I went to Kandy for that, but otherwise I wouldn’t personally recommend it as one of the places you must visit in Sri Lanka.

LS.

Sri Lanka 6: Sigiriya / Dambulla

The bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla cost 360 rupees (£1.80), which surprised me as the journey took little over an hour and my 3 hour bus from Jaffna to Mannar only cost 200 rupees, but this ride was inside an air-conditioned minivan so maybe I was paying extra for this “luxury”; not necessarily worth it once they had crammed so many people on that it was like a tube in London, one man’s crotch in my face and another practically sat on me. We arrived at Dambulla bus station at around 6:30pm and I walked the 20/30 minute journey to Dambulla City Hostel where I was paying 1,600 rupees (£8) for 2 nights. There were a few power cuts during my time there (twice on my first evening, one of which while I was taking a shower) and the 6 bed dorm I was in was ridiculously stuffy and hot at night, but I met a lot of fellow travellers here (the most I have during my time in Sri Lanka so far), the staff were super helpful and the facilities were really good.

I didn’t venture out on my first evening, feeling lazy and then put off by the power cut, but some really kind Spanish females staying at the hostel offered me two padis they couldn’t manage. I woke at 7am the next morning to get to the bus station for 8am so I could catch the first bus to Sigriya, 15km north of Dambulla, paying 40 rupees (20p) for the half hour journey. Sigiriya rock (Lion Rock) is a world heritage site and rises 200m above the surrounding countryside, being one of the main attractions in Sri Lanka and part of the “cultural triangle”. However the price of the ticket – to enter the surrounding site of museums and gardens as well as climb the rock itself – costs 4,500 rupees (£22.50) for foreigners.

Therefore many tourists now instead pay 500 rupees (£2.50) to visit and climb Pidurangala rock, which lies 2km opposite Sigiriya. While you miss out on the various sites within Sigiriya, with Pidurangala you have to walk round the perimeter of the Sigiriya rock site – providing at least some experience of this heritage site – and you are gifted with views of Sigiriya rock itself from the top. Plus the climb is mostly shaded from the trees and haphazard rock formation, whereas the climb up Sigiriya is straight up the side of the rock, completely exposed to the elements.

The bus stops outside the entrance to Sigiriya/Pidurangala and from here you walk ahead, then turn left to walk around the perimeter of the site to reach the entrance to Sigiriya on the side. Pidurangala is a further 20/30 minute walk from here, continuing around the edge of the Sigiriya site (offering views of the rock from below) before turning left and walking straight to find the entrance to Pidurangala. I hadn’t even made it to the entrance of Sigiriya before a Sri Lankan on a moped stopped beside me and asked if I wanted a ride to Pidurangala. I asked him how much it would cost and he said it was free as he was going in that direction anyway; I hopped on behind him and was taken to the entrance in 5 minutes, feeling humbled and grateful, totally restoring my faith in humanity.

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The moat surrounding Sigiriya

You purchase your tickets at the entrance at the bottom and then have to make sure you are appropriately dressed before ascending the first set of steps that reach Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple, taking off tour shoes before venturing inside. You can then de-clothe as appropriate before taking the route uphill on the right, steps made out of stone ascending up through the trees. I was wearing sports leggings, plimsoles and a baggy shirt but I whipped off the tshirt and climbed in my sports bra; despite being in the shade and being only 9:30am it was ridiculously humid and I needed as much breeze as I could get.

It was a fun climb, following a slightly haphazard route and scrambling up rocks along the way, the last section being the most tricky to navigate and pull yourself up to; I would recommend shoes as opposed to flip flops as it’s better to have a solid grip, and take a backpack or bumbag rather than having anything in your hands.

It took me approximately 15 minutes to climb, making it to the top for panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, punctuated by the view of Sigiriya rock poking up and out of the land below.

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You can even see the zigzag path that is taken to climb the rock, highlighted but they forms of the people taking the uphill ascent in the sun. It is quite windy near the edge of the mountain and even more so if you climb further up the rock just behind you so be careful with your footing, but it was definitely a refreshing welcome.

After stumbling back down, walking to the bus stop, taking the bus back to Dambulla for 35 rupees (18p) and having a below-average Rice and Curry for 200 rupees (£1) in the town, I made my way back to the hostel, arriving back 4.5 hours after I set off. I spent a bit of time chilling at the hostel before heading out with Madeleine, a German female whom had just arrived in my dorm. We wanted to visit Dambulla cave temples, marking Dambulla as another point on the “cultural triangle”. It took us about 30 minutes to walk to the entrance, passing the Temple Lake on the way, where you are greeted by a giant gold Buddha.

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From here, however, you then have to climb up alongside the granite outcrop, before walking back down the other side, turning right and walking a few hundred metres to reach the ticket office. The entrance is 1,500 rupees (£7.50) and you then climb up another set off granite steps to actually reach the cave temples, all sets of steps exposed to elements. Therefore it is recommended to visit either early morning or late afternoon to avoid the intense heat of midday; even at 4pm it was a touch slog in the humidity.

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The cave temples date back to approximately 100 BC when king Vattaganini and had to take refuge in these caves for 14 years to hide from Tamil invaders whom had taken his throne, later having temples constructed here in gratitude. It is recommended to visit the cave temples backwards, starting from 5 and ending on 2 as this is seen as the most magnificent, but Madeleine and I took them in the order they came, struggling to find space in cave 5 due to its size and the number of tourists. In this one I was struck by the artwork on the soles of the laying Buddha’s feet.

Cave 2 was particularly impressive, various Buddha statues and carvings dotting the inside, but I was most drawn to the carvings and decoration on the walls and ceilings of the granite inside the cave, which were colourful and told far more of a story to me.

I was also moved by the flowers and offerings left to the Buddhas, moving out the way as quickly as I could to allow those wanting to pray and make offerings have the space and privacy I could allow in such an environment.

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Frustrated by other tourists taking photos with their backs to the Buddhas (something that you are repeatedly asked not to do as it is disrespectful) pushing you out of the way in order to capture a photo or video, apparently completely unaware that other people were around, I made my way around as incognito as I could.

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Once finished visiting the caves you exit down the other side, but not before we sat on the sloping side of the granite outcrop for views of the surrounding countryside and nor before taking photos on the edge as we made our way down.

We planned to head to Temple Lake for a swim and to watch the sunset but first we popped to the market opposite the base of the cave temples – by the entrance to the Golden Temple – to peruse the sweet snacks.

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We therefore didn’t make it to the lake until around 5:30pm and by this time local men were either washing themselves or their clothes in the lake at all the spots where you could possibly climb in, and they were staring at us in amusement so we didn’t exactly feel tempted to jump in alongside their soapy selves and dirty clothes.

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So instead we took a seat on a rock alongside the lake and chatted as we watched the sun slowly set beside the granite outcrop of the cave temples.

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On our walk back to the hostel we passed a Bread Van on the side of the road; Bread Vans in Sri Lanka are converted Tuk Tuks selling bread and are basically like Ice Cream vans, playing a shrill version of Beethoven’s Fur Elise on loop with the vendors known as Choon Paan – or tune bread – sellers.

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The noise can be sort of annoying if it is parked right by you and the tune is in a continuous loop, but I was absolutely giddy with excitement at this Bread Van, skipping towards it like a kid would to an Ice Cream van, paying 50 rupees (25p) for a flat bread roll topped would vegetables that was spicy and delicious.

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My dinner consisted of a spicy vadais, this vegetable bread roll, a jelly yogurt and plain yogurt I had bought from the shop earlier, and some weird deep-fried twisty sweet thing. I didn’t take photos – I just inhaled it all – so my poor description of the items will just have to do. I had another stuffy, disturbed sleep before checking out of the hostel the following morning to make my way to Kandy, wanting to make it in time for the end of the Esala Perahera festival.

LS