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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)

A Death-Defying Journey to Habarana

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During our stay in Polonnaruwa, the owner of our guesthouse had arranged a trip to the Eco-Park of Habarana. We’d heard good things from other travelers, and were anxiously awaiting our afternoon hour of departure. But we ought to have been looking forward to the trip with apprehension, instead of excitement.

Jungle Road Sri Lanka

Here’s a little tip. If someone organizes a driver for you, and a pot-bellied guy pulls up in a brand new, bright yellow jeep, ask for his name. If it’s something like “Manjou”, don’t get into the jeep. If you do, and if you manage to survive the day, you will regret not heeding us!

Strike 1! Manjou drove like a bat out of hell. A brand new Hot Wheels, unwrapped on Christmas morning by a hyperactive child, is treated with more care and dignity than Manjou handles his shiny toy. More than once, I was sure we’d crash. He swerved outrageously in and out of traffic, sending us flying off our seats (no seatbelts, in the back of the jeep). A couple times, he almost lost control.

Strike 2! Manjou wasn’t the most conversational of chaps. He didn’t say a word to us during the whole drive, and then he started to fall asleep while careening down the highway. I caught him nodding off three times. It was like, if there were ten consecutive seconds where he didn’t get the giddy rush of passing someone, it bored him. Nap time. And, believe it or not, this wasn’t his worst offense!

Strike 3! He didn’t even have a valid license! We got pulled over by the cops, a couple kilometers away from Habarana. Manjou sleepily got out of the jeep and had a long conversation with them, which got more and more heated while we watched from the back window. When it was over, one of the cops opened the door of the jeep, and said “Danger”, then walked away. “Danger WHAT!” I yelled after him. He returned. “This man has no license. You are in danger if you ride with him”.

You don’t say!

Confusingly, they let him continue driving and we made it to Habarana in one piece. There, we switched into another jeep for the tour through the Eco-Park, with a different, much better driver. Our enthusiasm for the park had eroded somewhat. Regardless of what we’d see, it would almost certainly not live up to the excitement of the ride there.

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April 11, 2012 at 4:53 am Comment (1)

The Train from Colombo to Kandy

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The slow-moving, three-hour journey from Colombo to Kandy is one of the most spectacular train rides we’ve ever taken. The track leaves the smoggy metropolis quickly behind, and travels inland through regions of increasing beauty and altitude, until arriving at Sri Lanka’s hilltop jewel, Kandy. Throughout the ride, we were captivated by the ever-changing landscape, and spent the trip poking our heads out open windows, or hanging carefree from the doors like the feckless punks we are (or, would like to be).

Kandy Express

In 1864, the British introduced rail to Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as the island was then known. Steady and reliable transport was needed to bring coffee and tea from the central highlands to the port of Colombo, and trains served the purpose nicely. Colombo-Kandy was the original line and, with the progression of decades, the network expanded. Today, you can travel with train around much of the country — the north, and south-east being the two big exceptions.

We had such a great time on the train to Kandy that we promised ourselves to utilize trains whenever possible. Second class tickets cost around 200 rupees apiece (less than $2). First class, also wonderfully cheap, was unfortunately sold out. I don’t know what kind of difference the class-upgrade would have made; our seats were plenty large and comfortable. And the unforgettable views were the same. Upon arriving, we almost felt like staying on the train, and heading straight back to Colombo.

Location of the train station on our Colombo Map
An other fun train ride we took: From Sucre to Potosi

Colombo Train
Arrival in Sri Lanka
Waiting For The Train
Ladies Waiting Room
Train Cat
Track Crosser
First Class Train Sri Lanka
Colombo Fort Train Station
Hidden Kid
Buddha Train Tour
Rice Train
Kids on Train
Sri Lanka Landscapes
Sri Lanka Train Wreck
Steam Engine
Welcome To Kandy
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February 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm Comments (3)

Take a Tuk-Tuk

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The practical, puttering tuk-tuk is one of the classic mainstays of Sri Lankan life. Clogging the streets of every city on the island, and found bumping along even the most remote mountain roads, the motorized rickshaw is an unavoidable, and incredibly fun, method of transportation.

Sri Lanka Tuk Tuk

“Taxi? Taxi, sir? Taxi?!” Ah, the joyous chorus that follows us wherever we go! As we walk down the street, a clamorous line of tuk-tuks follows us, demanding our attention. “Taxi? Taxi, sir? Taxi?!” Regardless of how often we say “no”, or how insistently we wave them off, they’ll not be deterred. The idea that we might prefer walking is positively baffling! And it’s not a reality the tuk-tuk driver is prepared to accept.

Half the time, we let them win. The truth is, there’s no better way to get around in Sri Lanka. We’ve been here a week, and I’ve already lost count of how many tuk-tuk rides we’ve taken. And each one provides an exciting little memory we’ll treasure for years to come. “Remember that time we almost died on Galle Road?” “Oh gosh, right! That bus almost smashed us to pieces, haha”. Once, as we were speeding down a curvy hill in Kandy, our driver confidently remaining in the passing lane while turning around to chat with us, Jürgen observed that the ride was just like a rickety old roller coaster, but, you know, without any rails, seat-belts or safety considerations. This made the driver laugh.

I’m exaggerating a little. Though the adrenaline rush of the average tuk-tuk ride is profound, I’ve never felt really in danger. The drivers are experienced and familiar with the idiosyncratic laws of the Sri Lankan road. And each trip we take makes us more comfortable. We’re getting good at haggling prices down, and are learning the tricks of the trade. You should never get in a rickshaw without first agreeing on the price, and definitely refuse those who offer free trips. And if you’re in Colombo, try and find metered tuk-tuks, which almost always result in a cheaper fare.

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Tuk Tuk Driver
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February 9, 2012 at 8:49 am Comments (5)
Tuk-Tuking around Sri Lanka
For 91 Days