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Tuk-Tuking around Sri Lanka

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“Why didn’t we think of that?!” “Our lives would be so much easier.” “It would be so much fun.” “Man, I’m so jealous!” These are among the sentences which found their way into our conversations, after we had met Marc and Carina at our guesthouse in Polonnaruwa. The Belgian couple earned our everlasting respect after revealing that they had rented a tuk-tuk for their three month journey around Sri Lanka.

Tuk-Tuk-Travels

Over dinner, Marc and Carina shared their experiences in the tuk-tuk. With the freedom of their own transport, they were able to see a lot more than us and have interacted with locals in a more authentic way — puttering around in their tuk-tuk won them instant respect. And they’ve even taken passengers, packing schoolkids into the back for a free ride home. It would have been perfect for Jürgen and I, who were schlepping around a lot of luggage, and constantly on the road.

Who are you?
Marc de Kyusscher (52 years) and Carina (50 years), both Belgian, with one happily married son. Our favorite hobby has always been traveling, but because of work, we’ve always had to stick to short trips. Now that we’re semi-retired, we’re finally able to see the world without any time pressure…

When and why did you start travelling?
Our journey began on June 5th, 2011 — also our 30th anniversary. We’ve always dreamed of doing a trip around the world. Our son is 27 years old and we always said that when he marries, we’ll begin our dream. Last year, it happened! We sold our house, got our son’s blessing, and took off. We have worked our whole lives for the chance to do this, and finally are able to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We’re renting an apartment back home, so that we have a place to go when our journeys are over.

From Belgium, we took bicycles to Cappadocia, in Turkey. After a quick interlude back home, we explored India for three months on an “Enfield Bullet” motorcycle. And now, Sri Lanka…

Why Sri Lanka?
We arrived in Sri Lanka on February 27th, and planned to stay until May 27th [Due to a death in the family, Marc and Carina had to return home at the end of April]. Why so long? Well, because we read everywhere that the country has it all: mountains, nature, national parks, the sea, beaches, hospitality and various religions that live together. We were also extremely interested in seeing how the North of Sri Lanka is recovering after the war, which just ended in 2009.

And why with tuk-tuk?
We always want to travel independently, and not rely on bus or train. So we always search for our own transportation method. A scooter wouldn’t work here, since we have too much luggage, and we weren’t able to find a car. We tried to think of a vehicle that would keep us connected with the environment and the people… and that’s when we had the idea to rent a tuk-tuk! Turns out, there aren’t many places where it’s possible to do so, but we found one in Negombo called “Alma Tours”, at Lewis Place 217.

How much did it cost? And were there any formalities?
The price is unbelievable: 1200 Rupees (about €7) a day. You need an international driver’s license and a permit from the “Automobile Association” in Colombo, which costs just 1500 Rupees a year. We also took out a fully comprehensive insurance for €30.

Tuk-Tuk-Map

Is it dangerous driving?
Outside of the cities, it’s wonderful to drive — quiet and very little traffic. But the buses and trucks clearly feel that they’re “masters of the street” and blast right past you. We always give them a ton of room… they never have patience, and drive like crazy!

There are plenty of gas stations, and in every small town you can find shops where you can get “bottles” of petrol. But only do so in an emergency! It’s common to find cheap and dirty gas, and you pay more. We always took an extra five-liter canister with us. You never know! Five liters can take you about 140km. And in the tuk-tuk, parking is never a problem.

Have you had any problems?
Once, the tuk-tuk began to putter, and then wouldn’t go back on. The problem? Dirty benzine and/or air in the petrol line. A policeman helped us right away to air out the line, which took care of the problem.

Another time, a screw popped free and fell into the motor, between the valves — probably during our bumpy tour through Wipattu Park. The path was so bad and full with mud after the rain, that the screw must have been “shaken” free. In a workshop, they took the entire motor apart, which took around five hours. We also did an oil change at the same time — the cost for everything was 2700 Rs (€16).

Worst moments in the tuk-tuk?
Flat tires and awful streets.

Best moments?
With the tuk-tuk, it was always wonderful! It’s incredible, and the best way of traveling!

This is especially true since you kind of belong to the locals, many of whom also drive tuk-tuks. When they see a tourist driving one, they always laugh and try to help out. When we stop, they immediately ask if there’s some way they can assist. It’s the BEST! We’d love to take the tuk-tuk with us back to Belgium! As long as you’re a little adventurous, it’s a wonderful way to travel.

Check out photos from their journey: Cycle2gether

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April 25, 2012 at 2:03 pm Comments (8)

Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil

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An enormous, 100-foot golden tower announces the presence of the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, on the northern end of Jaffna. This is the largest and most important place of worship on the peninsula, and holds multiple daily ceremonies. Jürgen and I removed our shoes and shirts (oh quiet down, all you squealing tweens!), and stepped inside for an afternoon observance.

Best Editorial Photo 2012

The original Nallur Kandaswamy was built in the 1400s, and destroyed when the city was conquered by the Portuguese, who rather rudely constructed a Catholic Church on the site. The current temple dates from the early 17th century, during the occupation of the more religiously-tolerant Dutch, and it’s been the center of Hindu religious life in Jaffna ever since.

The temple has an odd design. The massive golden tower faces south, and isn’t anywhere near the entrance, which is around to the east. In order to enter the temple, you have to walk around the building, painted in circus-like red and white stripes. This provides the opportunity to appreciate its size. Inside, there’s even room for a large pool.

Once inside, we joined a group of locals watching the ceremony. I won’t pretend to have any idea what was going on — it involved incense, fire and ear-splitting music produced by a horn. We followed the horn player and a drummer on a long, clockwise lap, stopping at each of the many shrines set around the temple (to Ganesh, Subrahmanyan and others).

Every year in August, Nallur Kandaswamy is home to a 25-day long festival, whose importance to the people of Jaffna is underlined by the fact that it was even held during the years of war. The biggest event is the Chariot Festival, when thousands of people converge to help pull a giant temple car around. A shame we wouldn’t make it to that, but we still had an interesting time at Nallur Kandaswamy.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
Hotels in Jaffna

Jaffna Guide
Fixing Kovil
Monster Stare
Nallur-Kandaswamy-Kovil
Kovil Kaste
Kovil Detail
Walking To the Kovil
Kovil Reflection
Biking in Jaffna
Kovil Entrance Jaffna
Kovil Entrance
Kovil Cow
Secret Kovil
Sri Lanka Photos
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March 29, 2012 at 8:03 am Comment (1)

After One Month in Sri Lanka

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Our first month in Sri Lanka is already done?! It seems just yesterday that we were taking our first tuk tuk ride through Colombo’s busy streets. But when I think about all the things we’ve seen and done, it’s amazing that we’ve only been here a month. Sri Lanka is the kind of place where amazing experiences come fast and furious. Here are our impressions of life in Sri Lanka, after one month.

Most Memorable

Mike: The baby elephant approached and then held its trunk towards me. He squeezed my hand, then pulled me close to his body, apparently wanting a hug. I was happy to comply, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.

Jürgen: Waking up the first morning in Kandy and our house being surrounded by over 30 monkeys. I was in heaven.
Favorite Food

Mike: Sri Lanka so far hasn’t offered a lot of culinary variety, but I don’t ever see myself getting sick of kottu: a piece of roti bread, chopped up and mixed together with spices, vegetables, egg and meat. Best eaten with the hand, of course!

Jürgen: I also would say kottu but you can’t beat the fresh juice of a king coconut. Delicious, and better than any energy drink. And you can eat the coconut flesh, afterwards.
Most Surprising

Mike: I had read that only 10% of the population here speaks English, so imagine my surprise (and relief) to discover that the number is much, much higher. It may not always be fluent, but the great majority of people we’ve met speak enough to carry on a conversation.

Jürgen: How friendly people are here, and how much attention I draw. At times I feel like a superstar. People are genuinely curious and they always want to know where you’re from, and where you’re going.
Most Disappointing

Mike: The unending touts. You can’t go two minutes without some other schemer trying to trick you out of your money. It’s all very easy to see through, so it’s not like we’re in constant danger of being fooled, but their tenacity and frequency are unbearable. And it makes you sometimes react with frustration towards normal Sri Lankans who perhaps really do just want to chat.

Jürgen: Sri Lanka’s touristic offerings are really not geared toward the solo traveler. The whole infrastructure is set up to wring money out of giant tour groups on buses. We’d love for our site to help change that!
Funniest / Weirdest

Mike: Everyone we walk past has a comment. Usually, it’s just “Bye!” (which they often use in place of “Hello”), or “Buddy!”, but sometimes the comments are stranger. “Money!” is a favorite among kids (who’ve learned from their government what foreigners are good for). “Can have you phone number?” I was asked the other day, completely randomly, by two girls. And of course, the constant “What is your country?” I’ve been getting progressively more surreal. “Denmark”, “Brazil” and “Japan” are just some of the places I’ve claimed to hail from. (The worrying thing is that these answers are always accepted without question).

Jürgen: This tout in Kandy, he calls himself The Professor. He’s got about three teeth. We walked past him every day, but he always forgot our faces and tried the same scheme over and over. “Today, there’s a special Kandyan Dance! Come with me, I get you seats!” Still, I kind of miss him and wonder how he’s doing.
How Expensive? From 1 (cheap) to 10 (expensive)

Mike: Impossible to judge with one number. 3 for normal life — eating like locals do, taking the bus, all very cheap. But 8 for anything tourism-related — shockingly expensive parks and inflated fees for foreigners; expensive restaurants marketed towards westerners, etc. Advice: live like a local! I guess it averages to a “5”.

Jürgen: I’m shocked how expensive the attractions are for foreigners. These are making a huge dent in our budget for Sri Lanka. Accommodation is over the top as well. But everything else is very cheap. So I give it a 6.
People from Sri Lanka are…

Mike: … always up for a chat. Very open, and willing to have their photos taken. And everyone always seems to have a smile on their face.

Jürgen: … friendly, happy, helpful and curious.
Sri Lanka in Three Words

Mike: Monkeys, Elephants, Cobras

Jürgen: Adventurous, Surprising, Buddhist

Our opinions of Sri Lanka would evolve over the next couple months. We became more comfortable with the heat and local way of life, but also more frustrated with the pushy behavior of touts, and wearied by the food. But one thing remained certain throughout: these three months were among the most exciting of our lives!

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March 3, 2012 at 10:59 am Comments (5)

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
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

Lankathilake
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

Gadaladeniya
Gadaladeniya-Temple

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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More Pics from Embekke Devale
Traces of Hindu
Temple Roof
Buddha Carving
Amazing Wood Carving
Carving  Embekke Devale
Sri Lankan Wrestling
Elephant Attack
Weird Carving
Sri Lanka Wood Carving
Sri Lankan Attitude
Waiting For Puja
Embekke Devale Shrine
Shello Blower
Curtain Holder
Ding Dong Bell
Buddha Faces
Buddha Dragon
Lock Sri Lanka
Hidden Buddha
Sri Lankan Baby Girl
Sri lankan
Eyes Of Sri Lanka
More Pics from Lankatikale
Rice Field
Rice Bus
Rice Mailbox
Birdy Birds
Sri Lankan Eagle
Lankatikale-Stairs
dagoba-Lankatikale
Lankatikale-Temple
White-Elephant
Lankatikale-Soldiers
Lankatikale-Buddha
Little Buddhis
Buddhist Wall Paper
Lankatikale-Bo
Bye Bye Monk
More Pics from Gadaladeniya
Sri Lanka Blog
Daboga-Gadaladeniya
Old Stone Carvings Gadaladeniya
Stone Elephants
Spider Buddhies
Sri Lankan Chipmunks
February 27, 2012 at 6:23 am Comments (3)

The Pettah – Colombo’s Colorful Bazaar

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Walking around Colombo’s Pettah neighborhood, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d landed in Tehran or Cairo. A bazaar with definite Middle Eastern flair, the Pettah is where Sri Lanka’s multi-culturalism is at its most pronounced. The district has long been inhabited by Muslims, but a strong population of Sinhalese and Tamils contribute to an intoxicating mix of ethnicities in Colombo’s most colorful area.

Pettah District

We visited the Pettah on our first full day in Sri Lanka, and were instantly won over. The narrow streets are clogged with tuk-tuks and men pulling heavy carts laden with goods, while a bewildering assortment of shops clamor for business. The Pettah spreads out north from the Fort Railway station, and we walked aimlessly about for a couple hours, snapping photos and absorbing the ambiance.

Similar shops tend to be grouped together. Hundreds of jewelry stores cling side-by-side on Sea Street, then around the corner you’ll find a collection of shops selling ayurvedic herbs and roots. South of the Old Town Hall, there’s a covered market selling fruits and vegetables, some of them familiar and some less so. Vendors were happy to identify the stranger specimens, and I almost bought a jackfruit — but carrying around the giant, spiky melon-shaped fruit for the rest of the day wouldn’t have been a good idea.

Eager for a break, we ventured into the Old Town Hall. In the midst of such chaos, it was strangely deserted. On the second floor, we found a collection of dummies dressed in official uniforms, seated around a long table. Some sort of recreation of an old town meeting? I don’t know, but it was definitely bizarre. We took a seat in a room full of empty school chairs and recharged.

The Pettah is home to a wide variety of places to worship. We visited the New Katherisan Kovil (Hindu), the gorgeous red and white Jami ul-Aftar (Muslim), and the Wolfendahl Church (Christian). Anyone in the market for a new religion should head straight to the Pettah, for some convenient comparison shopping. Without a doubt, this was the most lively and exciting neighborhood we visited during our short time in Colombo.

Location of The Pettha on our Sri Lanka Map

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Pettah Colombo
Water Transport
Strong Old Man
Street Food Sri Lanka
Chopping Coco Nuts
Sri Lanka Coco Nuts
Sri Lankan Breakfast Drink
Selling in Colombo
Sleeping In Colombo
Sri Lankan Hunk
Bus Market
Pettah Market
Fruit Market Colombo
Banana Republic
Banana Blossoms
Colored Pasta
Fish Market Colombo
Pettah
Sweet Pine Apple
Sweets Sri Lanka
Machete Guy
Market Woman Colombo
Ayuveda Shop
Old Market Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan Oils
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February 8, 2012 at 12:39 pm Comments (7)

The Multi-Cultural Chaos of Colombo

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Although the official capital of Sri Lanka is the nearby satellite city of Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte, Colombo is definitely the island’s top dog. Boasting by far the largest concentration of people, industry and commerce, Colombo is a noisy, dirty, and vibrantly alive city; an ethnic melting pot both invigorating and exhausting.

Colombo 2011

Thanks to its natural harbor, Colombo has been an area of trade ever since ships first sailed the Indian Ocean, but didn’t become a city of any importance until the arrival of the Portuguese. But it’s made up for lost time. With a current metro population of over five million, Colombo is a vast urban sprawl which stretches for miles up and down the coast. The words “Sri Lanka” usually conjure serene images of tea plantations, rain forests and pristine nature, so landing in Colombo is a startling wake-up call to the busy modern life of the island.

We immediately fell into the rhythm of the city. Not difficult, since Colombo is fun. There’s the insane bazaar of the Pettah, the strangely militarized Fort District, the gorgeous temples around Beira Lake and Slave Island, tuk-tuks clamoring for business every two meters, historic hotels, excellent restaurants and a buoyant urban vibe which owes a lot to the city’s fantastic mixing of cultures.

On our first full day in Colombo, we visited a Hindu Temple, a Mosque, a Christian church, and a Buddhist temple. We got into conversations with practitioners of all these various faiths. Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim… it didn’t matter: everyone was eager to talk with us, to find out where we’re from and what we’re doing. And they were especially interested to learn our impressions their country. A fail-proof way to elicit a huge Sri Lankan grin, is to gush about how wonderful Sri Lanka is. They’re very proud of their country… and their hectic capital city.

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Monk Colombo
Mosque in Colombo
Cultures in Colombo
Mosque Sri Lanka
Reading The Koran
Musrlim Sri Lanka
Main Street Sri Lanka
Old City Hall Colombo
White Church of Sri Lanka
Teens in Sri Lanka
Multi Kulty Sri Lanka
Shiva Sri Lanka
Hindu Temple in Sri Lanka
Hindu
Buddhism in Sri Lanka
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February 7, 2012 at 11:16 am Comment (1)
Tuk-Tuking around Sri Lanka
For 91 Days