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Whale Watching at Trinco

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Going out on a whale watch is like visiting a casino. You hope to hit the jackpot, but you’re prepared for the likelihood of ending up empty-handed. Along with Mirissa on the southern coast, Trinco offers the best odds on actually spotting whales, so we put our chips on “blue” and “sperm” (and, just for fun, a long-shot dollar on “killer”), and spun the wheel.

Whale Watching in Trincomalee

For the first hour of our trip, no dice. We ventured far out into the ocean, and only spotted other humans in other boats on the same fruitless search. But then… over thar! Where?! Thar! Come on, say it with me…


Yes, I shouted this. No, we weren’t alone in the boat. No, the other passengers didn’t find me funny. No, I can’t understand it either.

Over the next hour, we saw four whales, two of them within about fifteen meters. It was exciting! One stayed above water for half a minute, allowing us to fully appreciate its size. And then it blew water. I repeated my joke. Still no laughter. We stayed out for a couple hours, saw some bottle-nosed dolphins, and went back home.

The tour cost us 4500 Rupees and, fine, it wasn’t the forty whale extravaganza which the organizer had breathlessly promised. But it was more than I expected. If you can walk away from the casino with a little cash still in your pocket, you’ve done well enough. And that’s exactly how I felt about our whale watching experience.

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April 5, 2012 at 1:04 pm Comments (3)

The Deadly Snakes of Sri Lanka

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An unavoidable prelude to any journey is convincing my mother that the destination is safe and that I won’t suffer an agonizing death in a foreign land, far from those who love me. In this respect, Sri Lanka presented more of a challenge than usual.

Oh, did I pick and choose the statistics which I casually revealed to my mom! “Huh, would you look at that? Sri Lankans have one of longest average life-spans in Asia.” Or: “Wow! Who’d have thought that Sri Lanka’s literacy rate would be so high? Isn’t that amazing, Mom?” And: “It’s so nice that the Civil War is over and done with, completely, and there’s nothing more to worry about on that front, at all, since it’s finished now, and peace and love reign supreme in this magical place that I think I’ve heard some people call The World’s Very Most Safest Island.”

But my trickery was for naught. “Michael. Come over here.” Oh no, she’s opened up the internet! She’s gone straight to Google and keyed in Sri Lanka Danger Death. (Though it’s doomed me in this case, I remain silently proud of her web smarts). “Michael Ross Powell! It says here that Sri Lanka has the highest per capita rate of snakebite deaths in the world“.

Busted! Fine, mother, it’s true. In no other country are you more likely to drop dead of a snake bite than in Sri Lanka. It’s the world leader. Tropical, verdant Sri Lanka is a snake paradise; a fertile breeding ground of evil. 96 species of snakes have been recorded here, more than half endemic to the island. 32 of them are venomous, and twenty of these are deadly: seven land snakes and thirteen sea serpents.

Cobras are the most famous of Sri Lanka’s snakes. They’re found all over the island, except for a small zone in the highlands. This hooded killer is both feared and venerated here; statues of cobras are perhaps only second to Buddhas in places of worship. They’re also popular with snake charmers, who can be found hanging around any large tourist site. We had the chance to meet one during our time in Colombo (Mom, you may want to avert your eyes, now):

Scared of Cobras

The common krait is another of Sri Lanka’s deadly snakes. This fellow can grow over five feet in length and delivers a powerful neurotoxin that results in paralysis and eventual death by suffocation. They’re nocturnal, so encounters with humans are rare. But during the rainy season, they often seek evening shelter inside of a house and are a danger to sleepers. The bite isn’t very painful, akin to a mosquito or spider, so there’s a good chance that you wouldn’t even wake up. Until you’re choking on your own tongue.

The good news about the saw-scaled viper is that it’s mostly confined to the Jaffna peninsula. The bad news? We had ten days planned there!! Its toxin causes massive kidney failure and something called hematemesis (not sure what that is, maybe I should Wikipedia it… [reading] … oh god oh god oh god).

Cobras are perhaps the most terrifying, but they’re not the most deadly of Sri Lanka’s snakes. No, that distinction goes to the god awful Russell’s Viper. These large snakes are common in populated areas, where they hunt the rodents that live among humans. They’re mostly nocturnal and often found on roads at night. If bitten by one, you’re in trouble. They can deliver over 250mg of venom, and it takes only 40 to 70mg to kill a man. Nothing like making extra-sure, eh, you stupid snake? The bite will immediately swell up, and you’ll start bleeding. From your gums. In your urine. You’ll be in severe pain for up to two weeks, after which you might die of kidney failure.

The most important thing in the case of any snake bite is to immediately seek treatment. Even in the case of the Russell’s Viper, you’re very likely to survive if you get to a hospital right away. Sri Lankan clinics, predictably, are well-equipped to handle snake bites. Also, try and identify the type of snake which bit you, and you’ll save a lot of time once you arrive. Our plan (yes, we have a plan) is to take a picture of the snake, and then get to a hospital.

See mom? Nothing to worry about. Hospitals are prepared and we have a fail-proof survival plan! Now, log off Google and WebMD and YouTube, and relax. We’re as safe as can be.

Taiming Snakes
Sri Lankan Cobras
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March 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm Comments (13)

Horton Plains and World’s End

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Twenty miles south of Nuwara Elyia is the Horton Plains National Park, which is most well-known for its amazing viewpoint called World’s End. The relatively cool temperatures of the park, steady precipitation, high altitude, and the convergence of three rivers create a rare and fragile ecosystem in which a unique biosystem flourishes. Some of the birds found in Horton Plains are only found here.

Das Ende Der Welt

Clouds and haze are a constant presence at Horton Plains, and the only window of opportunity for a clear view at World’s End is in the early morning. So we climbed into a van leaving Nuwara Eliya at 5:30am. This was our first encounter with Sri Lanka’s national park system, and we were shocked at the fees levied on foreign visitors. Between the transport, the entrance, a “vehicle fee”, a ticket for our driver, taxes, and an undefined “service charge”, our excursion cost around $50 apiece. Perhaps at a later date, we’ll get into the shameless chicanery of Sri Lanka’s tourism efforts, but for now suffice to say that we started our adventure at Horton Plains in sour spirits.

The optimal hour for arriving at Horton Plains is no secret and, upon leaving the van, we found ourselves in an long line of hikers. Luckily, the loop walk through the park is long and we could eventually space ourselves out from others. Besides, the nature is strange and beautiful, and we soon forgot about the human presence. While walking, we saw a jungle fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka, and herds of sambar deer grazing on the plains — one of these confident, hulking beasts would approach our van window on the way out.

Sri Lanka Deer

Baker’s Falls was the first stop during our three-hour walk around Horton Plains. Fed by the Belihul Oya river, this wide waterfall drops about 20 meters. A bit further up the path, we arrived at the World’s End, one of the most famous sights in all Sri Lanka. The highlands come to an abrupt end here, as though God suddenly ran out of “mountain”. The land plummets straight down for nearly a kilometer, and standing on the cliff looking down on the land below, I felt like I was in an airplane. Amazing.

Small World’s End, another twenty-minutes up the path, might have a smaller vertical drop but boasts the lovelier view (and actually, neither could compare to the view of Mini World’s End at Knuckles).

World's End Sri Lanka

The rest of the track, through cloud forest, was beautiful if unmemorable, and we were done with Horton Plains at around 10am. It’s a big park, and there are other trails to be explored, but that would have required more coordination with our driver (read: “$$”) and we couldn’t justify spending another cent. Overall, it was a cool day trip, but not worth the price. Regardless of how filthy rich you are, I can’t imagine a viewpoint which is worth $50 to peer over.

Location of World’s End on our Map
Spices From Sri Lanka

Here’s one scheme to look out for, which might be specific to Nuwara Eliya. Our van fit six people, and we had found another couple to split the journey with us. We would have saved on transport, and various charges at the park. But, outrageously, our driver demanded twice the amount for four people as for two. Later, a guy would tell us that at his hotel, three separate vans came to pick up three separate groups of two tourists. It’s all a swindle, coordinated to line the pockets of as many locals as possible, and the hotels are in on it too. Unfortunately, there’s very little you can do, except play along or refuse to go.
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Me and My Hiking Boots
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March 5, 2012 at 10:55 am Comments (3)

The Udawattakele Sanctuary

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The small, densely-forested Udawattakele Sanctuary is home to a huge variety of plants and animals, and offers a number of long, secluded paths for exploration. During the morning we spent there, we felt completely alone, almost frighteningly so. Amazing, considering the fact that Uduwattakele is basically in the middle of Kandy.

Cave Buddhist

The Sanctuary’s entrance is just a couple hundred meters past the Temple of the Tooth. Tickets cost around $6 for foreigners, but there’s a lot to see and you could spend hours on the various tracks. We chose a path which would bring us past cave temples and deep into the jungle.

Udawattakele is full of life. Huge trees block out the sun almost entirely, and are entwined by giant creeping vines. With over 80 types of birds, including endemic and threatened species, the park is famous as a bird-watcher’s paradise. Most of the mammals which inhabit the woods are nocturnal; fine by us, since I wasn’t eager to run into a wild boar or greater bandicoot rat. We did, however, see monkeys and a snake.

We had followed a path down the side of a hill overgrown with jungle shrubbery and spiderwebs to a cave sanctuary hollowed out of the stone. A quiet sense of evil pervaded the place, made worse by a creepy collection of art — the legs of a reclining Buddha posing without the rest of the body, an elephant molded into the wall peering out with one great white eye, and a disturbing sculpture of a starved human corpse abandoned half-done on the ground. A curtain hung over the entrance to the sanctuary and, after calling out to see if anyone was home, I steeled my nerves and swung it open. The only thing I saw was a small serpent retreating into the blackness.

Udawattakele isn’t just a sanctuary for nature, but also for the religious. A number of hermitages dot the grounds, and the cave sanctuary we found was built for crazy enlightened people who’ve decided to live on their own in the woods. I’m not sure anyone lives there now, but it’s certainly possible. We hurriedly got back onto the main path, before the monk could return home and invite us in for a cup of rice and snake meat.

If the noise and congestion of Kandy are getting to you, Udawattakele is a great place to escape and let your mind unwind. The fact that an area of such wild, pristine nature exists within the country’s second-biggest city is incredible.

Location on our Kandy Map
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February 29, 2012 at 8:05 am Comments (0)

Kandy’s Three Temple Loop

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Conveniently, three of the most ancient and interesting temples in the central highlands are within easy walking distance of one another, southwest of Kandy. Even if the temples themselves weren’t fascinating, and they are, the seven-kilometer path which connects Embekke, Lankathilake and Gadaladeniya leads past rice fields and through small towns, and would be worth walking in its own right. Judging by the enthusiastic manner in which locals greeted us, I don’t think a lot of tourists pass this way.

Embekke Devale

A twenty-minute bus ride from Kandy brought us to the village of Embekke (or Ambekke, or Embekka; as often happens in Sri Lanka, English spelling is fluid), and after a kilometer’s walk, we found the Devale. A ceremony was getting underway and we watched as about 50 Sri Lankans dressed in white came to pay their respects to Buddha. I’m still trying to get a handle on Buddhism; the worshipers here didn’t do much besides stand around, listen to the drums and watch the main temple dude first carry plates back and forth, then spend five minutes ringing the paint off a bell.

All of the temples we’d see today were built in the 14th century, before the Kandyan Kingdom was fully established. Embekke is famous for the intricately carved wooden pillars of its digge, or drum hall. These were incredible; each pillar had a different pattern carved into each of its four sides. Wrestlers, stick dancers, warriors, elephants, lions, peacocks and flowers. My favorite was a strange hybrid of a bull and an elephant.

Location on our Map

3 Temple Loop Kandy

The most beautiful stretch of our walk was between Embekke and Lankathikale. As we rounded a curve in the road and descended a hill, an extensive paddy field spread out in the distance, and atop a massive stone outcrop was the temple. We both spotted it at the same time, and simultaneously stopped walking, so gorgeous was the scene laid out in front of us.

This ancient temple was our favorite of the day. Tall and looming on top of its rocky perch, with nothing in sight except pristine nature, it was the most lovely place we had yet visited in Sri Lanka. Inside, the temple was high-ceilinged and dark, with a massive Buddha as its centerpiece. A little Buddhist monk, no older than twelve, was there to greet us and remind us to keep the flash off. Outside the shrine, a roped-off section in the stone protected a 14th-century engraving recording the construction of the temple.

Location on our Map


The road to Gadaladeniya was the most wearisome stretch, along a dusty road through an endless town of identical shops, none of which had cold water. I entertained myself, and annoyed Jürgen, by repeating the name of the upcoming temple over and over. God-Allah-Denny-Ah! Gotta-lot-a-NEE-ya! Although Gadaladeniya turned out to be the least interesting of the three temples, it has by far the most delightful name.

This temple was unfortunately under construction when we visited, though we were able to take a look around inside. The best feature of was a large dagoba surrounded by four mini-dagobas, each of which you could enter. We gave short shrift to Gadaladeniya, because of the construction, because of the piping hot stone on bare feet, and because we were templed-out, but it was still an amazing place.

Location on our Map

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February 27, 2012 at 6:23 am Comments (3)

The Millennium Elephant Foundation

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Awwwww! Baby Elephants!

Spurred by the popularity of the Elephant Orphanage, the area around Pinnawela has become something of a strip mall for elephantine adventures. Up and down the narrow road leading from the highway are signs and shops touting “Elephant Rides!” or “Pet an Elephant!” It’s a little dispiriting, but after our positive experience at the orphanage, we decided to push our luck and visit the Millennium Elephant Foundation before heading back home.

One Happy Elephant

We should have saved our money. The Millennium Elephant Foundation’s aim is to provide a home for old, retired elephants. Sounds noble, but no sooner had we stepped out of the taxi, than we were pounced upon. “Would you like the 30-minute Elephant Ride?” No. “Then the 45-minute Ride, yes my friends, only $40, step this way!” No, we don’t want any elephant ride! (Anyway, what kind of rest-home for retired elephants encourages people to ride on top them?) No, we just want to see the elephants and help wash one. “Oh”, the friendly smiles vanished, “Well, then just it’s $6”.

After being hurried through a small “museum”, we were ushered down to the river, where an enormous elephant was laying on his side. A guy working there showed me how to scrub the big guy with a coconut shell. This was kind of fun. The elephant was totally loving it, and I really had to scrub hard! But it was impossible to fully enjoy, because the scrub-master kept grabbing my arm and asking for money. Literally, every twenty seconds. “Yes, my wallet is on shore, just a moment!” Nothing I could say stopped him from touching me, pushing his cupped hands towards me, or making pitiful “I need money” faces. After a few minutes of this, I threw my coconut in the water, stomped up to shore, and got him his damned bribe money. We were done with this place in like fifteen minutes and left disgusted.

Foreign volunteers can pay to work at the Millennium Foundation, and I spoke with a few of them. They seemed to be positive about the experience they were having, so it must be different when you’re actually spending a lot of time with the elephants and not being constantly hassled. I don’t know, though. If you’re just passing through, I would steer clear of this one.

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February 26, 2012 at 10:20 am Comment (1)

The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage

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Established in 1975, the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage has become one of the most popular touristic destinations in Sri Lanka, for reasons that should be obvious. What, you need it spelled out? Fine: Orphan Elephants. Baby Orphan Elephants. Lots and lots of baby orphan elephants, that want to cuddle with you, and then frolic and play in the water. What kind of person could say “no” to that? Honestly, who could be like, “Nah, that sounds dumb”.

Pinnawela-Elephant-Orphanage Sri Lanka

We had an amazing time during our visit, as we knew we would. The elephants were remarkable. Beautiful, utterly friendly creatures, who’ve been lived their whole lives in the orphanage and are completely comfortable with humans. The day’s only negative was provided by the people working at the park. The “guards” who, from the moment we entered to the moment we left, were looking for money. Tips for petting an elephant. Tips for feeding, tips for pictures. Tips, just ’cause. Their wearisome greediness never abated. If an elephant approached you, a guard would appear like magic, angrily shooing it off with a pointed stick. Then, he would turn to you with a smile. “You like touch elephant?”

But this was a minor annoyance and it was hard to stay angry, surrounded, as we were, by at least sixty elephants. Besides, try as they might, the guards couldn’t keep up with everything. Once, a baby elephant the height of my chest waddled up to Jürgen and I, with its trunk extended. He squeezed my hand, and then pulled me close alongside his body. I figured he wanted a hug, so I gave him one. We had a full minute alone with this little guy, and it was a minute I’ll never forget.

The day’s highlight was bathing time. The elephants were led in a giant procession to the nearby river, where they were allowed to splash and play for two hours. The little ones rolled around in the water, while the adults sprayed water onto each other and cuddled. I could have watched them bathe all day long. So many elephants congregated in one place — I’m sure it’s possible to see something similar in the wild, but this was truly a special experience for us.

So we wholeheartedly recommend a trip to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. The money-grubbing guards are annoying, but as long as you’re prepared to ignore them, you’ll have an unforgettable experience.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
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March of the Elephants
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February 24, 2012 at 11:48 am Comments (15)

Leech Attack at the Knuckles Mountain Range

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About twenty kilometers east of Kandy lies the Knuckles Mountain Range, pronounced by locals as “nuck-less”. This is one of the most infrequently visited corners of Sri Lanka’s hill country, which is surprising, given its beautiful expanses of untouched forest, easy accessibility from Kandy, and softly curved mountaintops which indeed resemble knuckles. By all rights, this park should be one of the region’s touristic highlights.

Knuckles Sir Lanka

Maybe it’s the leeches. We intended to walk the Dothalugala Trail which leads past waterfalls and up to a viewpoint. Sure, we’d been warned that the path was infested with them, but whatever. We’re men, not sniveling sissy-boys who run squealing from harmless pests like leeches. Or so we thought…

Two kilometers into the hike, I noticed movement on the ground. A leech! Huh, the information was accurate after all, and I bent over to examine it. This wasn’t the black, full-bodied leech I’m used to, but a teensy worm-like thing crawling along the dusty ground. Almost cute! And, look, Jürgen, there’s another. And another! And oh my god the ground is covered with them! They are on me! Run!

And run we did. Back down the path, swatting at our legs in terror, every once in awhile pausing to bash leeches off our shoes with a rock, or flick them off our legs with a stick. During the panicked retreat, I knocked at least thirty leeches off me. Two managed to sink their hooks into my flesh, and one succeeded in latching onto Jürgen’s leg. It was like a scene out of the most horrifying terror movie you can imagine, only more horrifying. Once we reached safety back on the paved road, we immediately disrobed down to the undies and examined each other like overgrown monkeys.

Luckily, there was a second, leech-free hike out to a viewpoint known as Mini World’s End. This two-kilometer walk was a breeze, and soon enough we found ourselves at the edge of the mountain, with cliffs that dropped straight down to the plains below. The view was magnificent, stretching for miles in every direction. We sat down to drink some water, which felt blissfully cool against throats bruised raw from terror-squealing, and enjoyed the amazing scenery.

So in the end, it was worth the anguish. We were utterly alone in the Knuckles park, and didn’t see another tourist the entire day. To get there, we just hopped a bus bound for Mahiyangana, got off at Hunasgiriya, and then took a tuk-tuk for eight kilometers to the Conservation Center. Total journey time, one hour each way; round-trip cost, $3 per person. Not bad. If you go yourself, wear leech socks… or just be a little tougher than us. Shouldn’t be that hard.

Location of Knuckles Conservation Center on our Map
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February 22, 2012 at 3:07 am Comments (12)

Monkeyshines with the Toque Macaques

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After a morning marked by clouds and humidity, it finally started to rain yesterday afternoon. We didn’t mind much. A nice shower provides a welcome breath of fresh air here in Kandy, and we were safe under the roof of our porch. But creatures who live out in the open don’t much appreciate the rain. They’re forced to seek shelter, and our veranda seems to be an irresistible refuge. It’s monkey time!

Three brave monkeys were the first explorers. Two youngsters and an older one appeared on the railing and soon approached us, while we were sitting on the balcony chairs. The little ones were skittish, but the large male was almost too bold. These are Toque Macaques, only found in Sri Lanka, and otherwise known as the Temple Monkeys. Indeed, when we visited the Temple of the Tooth, a large number of them were hanging around, listening to the chanting. They’re cultured.

They’re also endangered. Toque Macaques have been dying out at a alarming rate due to human encroachment on their lands. Their biggest predators are dogs. According to the IUCN Redlist, their population has decreased by 50% in just three generations.

But at least in the area immediately surrounding our house, there seem to be plenty of the cute, fluffy-haired guys. Minutes after the courageous explorations of the three conquistadors, a cadre of refuge-seeking monkeys arrived in force. Now a little skittish ourselves, we brought the chairs inside, shut the doors and sat down at the window to enjoy an hour of literal monkey business. These macaques are…

Crazy Cute! – They’d wrestle with and playfully attack each other. One monkey was leaping up to the railing, until another little bastard grabbed his tail, yanked him back down to the ground, and leaped upon him with glee. The babies are super-curious, and would come to the window to stare at us, staring at them.

Kinda Gross! – I’ve never seen so much shit and piss. They seemed to delight in peeing all over our balcony. Or pooping, and then wrestling in it. Nasty freaks!

A Little Creepy! – Eventually, we had about twelve macaques on the veranda, trying to gain entrance to our house. Tapping on the windows, gnawing on the door frame. It was like a cuter version of Night of the Living Dead.

After about an hour of excrement and play, they left. And although mopping up their pigsty wasn’t the funnest task in the world, we are hopeful that they’ll return. Who knows… the next day was supposed to be rainy, too!

Other Cute Monkeys

Monkey Munch
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February 17, 2012 at 3:07 pm Comments (9)

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Whale Watching at Trinco Going out on a whale watch is like visiting a casino. You hope to hit the jackpot, but you're prepared for the likelihood of ending up empty-handed. Along with Mirissa on the southern coast, Trinco offers the best odds on actually spotting whales, so we put our chips on "blue" and "sperm" (and, just for fun, a long-shot dollar on "killer"), and spun the wheel.
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