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Good Night, Sri Lanka

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From the taxi’s windows, we watched the Colombo night blur by. The few cars which remained on the highway had none of the breakneck urgency which normally characterizes Sri Lankan traffic. And though the unbroken chain of shops and restaurants still had their neon lights blazing, there weren’t many people on the sidewalks. It was 10pm, and we’d rarely seen the island in a deeper state of rest. We were headed to the airport, and putting Colombo to sleep.

Goodbye Sri Lanka

Upon arriving three months ago, we had driven into a Colombo that was just waking up. It was 7am, and kids dressed in white uniforms were reluctantly making their way to school, shopkeepers were rolling up their metal gates, and tuk-tuk drivers were already engaged with buses in their never-ending battle for dominance of the road. We had arrived in Sri Lanka with the start of a busy new day, and it seemed appropriate to be saying goodbye as another one drew to a close.

Just as every day here is bursting at the seams with commerce and activity, our whirlwind tour through Sri Lanka couldn’t have been any more action-packed or intense. From the first moments of our arrival, when we dove into the capital city and its disparate neighborhoods, through the final languorous, rainy week in Galle, we explored the island as thoroughly as possible.

You can’t do justice to an entire country in just three months, but it was fun to try. We met some wonderful people, learned how to head-bobble, ate rice and curry with our hands in dingy dives, held cobras, hugged elephants, played with monkeys, explored ancient forest monasteries, taught ourselves some Sinhala, read up on legends and then visited the very places they played out. We ventured into mosques, temples and kovils, chewed betel, drank coconuts and played cricket. And that’s just a fraction of our Ceylonese adventures!

I’ll confess that by the time our departure date rolled around, we were ready to leave. Jumping around a country for three months, living out of hotels and guesthouses, eating out every night… it’s tiring. And there are aspects of Sri Lankan life we’re happy to put behind us, as well. The constant annoyance of touts and scammers. The unbearable pro-government propaganda of the media. The discriminatory tourist prices at parks and attractions. The corruption which permeates every level of society. The surprisingly durable tinge of colonialism, making you cringe a little every time your driver rushes to open the door for you, or calls you “sir”.

But when we look back on our time in Sri Lanka, I seriously doubt that something like the entrance price to Sigiriya will sour the amazing experience we had on the rock itself. Dealing with the touts at Pinnawela will be soon be forgotten, but I’ll always remember watching a hundred elephants bathe. And, yes, some of the bus rides were unbelievably hellish. But I would endure them again, in order to visit places like Jaffna and Trinco.

So, another 91 days has drawn to a close. Next, we’re off to Busan: South Korea’s second biggest city and a metropolis of over three million. Make sure to follow us on Twitter or Facebook to keep up with our move until we get the new version of the site launched. Busan is going to offer a massively different experience… and will have to be something truly special to impress us half as much as Sri Lanka did.

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May 1, 2012 at 10:01 am Comments (9)

Tap that Toddy

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Coconut Water

We had seen toddy tappers at work a few times, high up in the palm trees around Jaffna and Trincomalee, collecting the liquid of coconut flowers into plastic jugs. The toddy can later can be distilled into arrack, but is one of the country’s favorite drinks even in its unprocessed state. And for nearly three months, we had traveled throughout Sri Lanka without ever trying it. We were being derelict!

Toddy

The toddy is non-alcoholic when first tapped, but ferments quickly and must be drunk on the same day (and is at its best in the morning). Plus, you can only find it in local “toddy taverns”. All of this makes landing a bottle a tricky prospect for tourists. We ended up having to talk a local into hunting some down for us.

Our toddy had been poured into an old water bottle, looked like cloudy urine and tasted like cider, but somehow yeasty. Or cheesy. Yes, it tasted like liquidy, yeasty cheese cider. It’s a common sensation to feel the still-active toddy fermenting inside your belly. I’m not sure whether that’s what was happening to me, but I definitely felt something going on down there, hours after we had stopped drinking.

Apparently, the best toddy comes from the north, where it’s culled from the spiky Palmyra palm trees. Maybe that would have been better, but I can’t imagine that any toddy is going to find its way into my list of favorite drinks. It was still fun to try, but anyone with a sensitive stomach will want to stay far away.

Cheap Flights To Sri Lanka

Toddy
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April 30, 2012 at 9:41 am Comments (2)

The Rocky Southern Coast of Sri Lanka

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Luxury Hotels in Sri Lanka

An unbroken string of tiny towns and hotels stretches out to the east of Galle. The busy road which hugs the coastline passes through Unawatuna, Dalawela, Thalpe, Habaraduwa, Midigama, one right after the other; each offering tourists an insane number of places to stay and things to do.

Sri Lanka Island

We were on this road constantly, en route to places like Alanthgama, where we hoped to see stilt fishermen, or Weligama. This village is set up around a gorgeous circular bay, with a lushly forested mini-island as its centerpiece named Trapobane (also the name Arthur C. Clarke lent Sri Lanka in The Fountains of Paradise). You can rent the villa on Trapobane by the day for an obscene amount of money; it even comes with a full set of personal servants to help you indulge your tackiest private-island fantasies.

Taprobane-Island

We spotted a couple other islands up and down the coast. One just past Midigama, where there’s supposed to be great surfing, and another in the bustling town of Matara, where we switched buses once. Matara’s island is just across from the bus station, and occupied by the picturesque Parey Duwa Buddhist temple.

Matar Temple Island

Most of the coast is rocky, but every so often you’ll spy a bit of golden sand that’s good for a dip. The waters here are rougher and rockier than on the beaches of Trinco, for example, but that makes for more dramatic scenery. Although the coastline itself is heavily developed, it stretches out for so long that finding a small bit of private sand isn’t impossible.

Daytime Turtle Watching

Our best day along the coast was spent at the Wijaya Beach Club, in Dalawela. Pizzas which could almost compete with those of Palermo (almost), and a tiny but excellent beach. While we ate, we watched the waves where six sea turtles were struggling to swim back out into the ocean. Every once in awhile, their heads would poke above the water. They kept getting swept toward the rocky shore, but eventually made their escape. Nobody else in the restaurant had seen them, and they all must have thought we were crazy, staring out into the ocean and randomly cheering.

Location of Trapobane on our Map
Location of Wijaya Beach Club
For 91 Days in the Newspapers

Chill Beach Sri Lanka
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Best Beach Blog
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Wild Beach
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Baby Beach
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Strong Current warning
Lonely Stilts
Hand Out Sri Lanka
Human Catch
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April 28, 2012 at 5:52 am Comments (3)

Unawatuna

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Hotels in Unawatuna

On our way to the beach village of Unawatuna, just a few kilometers up the coast from Galle, we saw a sign that read “Unawatuna: Tourist Paradise!” Which just goes to prove what we’ve been saying all along — Sri Lankans have a hilarious and darkly ironic sense of humor! Unawatuna, paradise for tourists. Ha! That’s a good one.

Unwatuna-Beach

Maybe it’s us. Had we visited Unawatuna during our first week in Sri Lanka, as opposed to our last, we’d almost definitely have had a different opinion. The same thing always happens at the end of our 91-day stays: once we get familiar with a country, the shine of novelty wears off and we’re less forgiving of flaws. From our fatigued and slightly jaded perspectives, Unawatuna was about the worst kind of beach town imaginable.

If you want a trashy resort filled with stores selling overpriced junk and awful restaurants with cutesy names like The Pink Turtle, go to Cancun or Benidorm! Why come all the way to Sri Lanka? But hey, if you want to blow a ton of money on a flight, and be harassed every other minute by another necklace-seller or skeezy masseuse then, certainly: Unawatuna is for you. Enjoy.

I wish I were exaggerating about being bugged “every other minute” by people selling junk, but I’m not. That is unfortunately — unbelievably — accurate. It was non-stop.

The locals weren’t even all that nice; usually a dependable trademark of Sri Lankans! Maybe they were discouraged by the fact that nobody was buying their junk. That must get frustrating. The rich, sunburned Europeans flatly refusing to even look at their junk must make an attractive target for scorn. I’m sorry I don’t want your traditional mask, but please don’t mock me under your breath as you stomp away! Or do. I guess I don’t care.

Unawatuna-Tourists

Maybe it’s understandable. On the western end of Unawatuna, just past a concrete sewage tunnel, is the “locals” section of the beach. The division couldn’t be any more clearly-defined. Europeans over here, Sri Lankans over there in the filth. We’ve seen hotels here that refuse to rent rooms to Sri Lankans. How’s that for enraging? Try to imagine a foreign-owned hotel in your country that refuses you entry. A rich Russian opening a hotel in Miami that strictly prohibits Americans? Inconceivable. Maybe the question shouldn’t be why the Unawatunans were so rude, but how they have the self-composure to remain as civil as they do.

Ugh. We couldn’t leave Unawatuna fast enough. I realize that in this post, I’m completely ignoring the considerable natural beauty of the place. It has some charm — other people we spoke to enjoyed their time there. But I don’t care, we hated it. Plus, it was the start of monsoon season and we had terrible weather. So what, I can’t blame Unawatuna for the monsoon? Well, I do. I blame it for the weather, and I blame it for putting me in a bad mood. Unawatuna, tourist paradise. Heh, well at least that made me laugh.

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strong>Guesthouses in Unawatuna

Why-Unawatuna
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UN Protected
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April 27, 2012 at 10:46 am Comments (7)

A Sea Turtle Excursion at Rekawa Beach

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Snorkel Gear

Sri Lanka has the extraordinary privilege of welcoming five of the world’s seven species of sea turtle to its shores. The turtles, who travel around the world and across entire oceans, somehow know to return to their natal beaches when the time comes to reproduce. At night, they emerge from the ocean and lay their eggs in the sand. At Rekawa Beach, the Turtle Conservation Project keeps a watchful eye over the eggs and provides tourists a rare opportunity to see the giant creatures clamber onto land.

Rekawa-Turtle-Watching

We showed up at 8pm, on April 11th — the same day as the massive 8.6 earthquake in Sumatra which sparked a tsunami warning across Sri Lanka. So we had accepted the possibility that the rough weather and seismic instability might discourage the turtles from braving the shore. But after only a few minutes of waiting in the dark (which afforded us the chance to admire the stars; something we’d missed in bright, densely-packed Sri Lanka), a flashlight down the beach alerted us to the presence of a turtle.

The turtles require a sense of solitude while they make their way out of the water. If they detect a human, they’ll abandon their attempt and return another day. Leaving behind an interesting track that looks like a Monster Truck’s tire, they head towards the shrubbery at end of the beach, and choose a spot for their eggs which is safe from the water and (hopefully) predators. People are allowed to approach only once the turtles have started the process of laying the eggs, which can take over a half-hour and during which they’ll remain absolutely immobile.

We waited patiently while the turtle, barely visible in the dark from about twenty meters away, chose a suitable place for her future babies. Unfortunately, something spooked her, because our guide suddenly urged us to run towards her on the beach, as she was escaping back into the water. A huge and beautiful creature, she could move a lot faster than I would have believed and I felt awful chasing after her, trying to snap pictures.

That was it. The guide brought us back and asked for our 2000 Rupee donation. We were disappointed — the night had just begun, and we didn’t understand why we couldn’t wait for the next turtle. But, he didn’t seem to care; we had seen our turtle, and now he could return to hanging out in the hut with his buddies.

Oh well. We had just seen a wild sea turtle on a deserted beach during a beautifully starry night. In the end, it was hard to complain.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Turtle Tracks
Star Night Sri Lanka
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April 24, 2012 at 3:33 am Comments (5)

The Bizarre Landscape of Ussangoda

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East of Tangalla, a barren landscape sits in the middle of an otherwise heavily forested area. Dark red soil and an utter lack of trees are the hallmarks of Ussangoda, a region thought to have been hit by an ancient meteor. It’s hard to imagine another explanation for this strange anomaly of nature.

Bizarre Beaches

The walk from the main road, where the bus from Galle dropped us off, to the small park took longer than expected, but only because we were detained by a group of Sri Lankans playing cricket. I decided to try out the sport, and picked up a bat. Whiff! The ball sailed right past me and struck one of the wickets… which, judging by the overjoyed reaction of my 8-year-old opponent, I took to be a rather embarrassing failure. Hmph. My next swing made up for it, as I sent the ball far off into the brush. Cricket: mastered. 8-year-old: conquered.

The empty plain of Ussangoda borders the ocean, with lovely cliffs that drop off onto the beach. We clambered down, disturbing the privacy of a few enamored couples, and found an empty patch of sand. I tried swimming for a bit, but the sea was too rough and, after being upended by a monster wave, I retreated for the safety of my towel.

This was a fun and easy excursion from Tangalla into a surreal patch of nature, and definitely worth the pocket change it required to reach. On a calmer day, with a bit of swimming on a largely isolated beach, it would have been perfect.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map

Hotels in Tangalle

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Ways To Sri Lanka
Read Feather
Alice in Wonderland
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April 23, 2012 at 11:15 am Comment (1)

The Ruins of Polonnaruwa, Part II

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Exhausted from a morning spent exploring Polonnaruwa’s massive archaeological site, we sat down for a much-needed break. I leafed through our guide book, and took a big gulp. We had already seen a lot, but weren’t even midway through. And the ruins which remained threatened to be even more amazing.

Sri Lanka Travel Guide

After passing the Rankot Vihara, a large but slightly misshapen stupa just south of the Buddha Seema Pasada, we headed east on a side road to arrive at the Shiva Devale #2. This is the oldest structure in the city, and looks it. Built during a brief period of Indian dominance in Polonnaruwa, the small round temple dedicated to Hindu’s “destroyer of evil” is totally out-of-place in the otherwise Buddhist city. Nearby is the more typical Pabalu Vihara, another brick dagoba tucked away in a pleasant little clearing, built under the order of the Queen.

Shiva

We now skipped to the southern end of the ancient city to visit the citadel, which was King Parakramabahu’s palace. Along with the palace remains were administrative buildings protected by a heavy, meter-thick rampart. A guard told us that the palace itself had been seven stories high, with a thousand rooms — though this was almost certainly a bit of patriotic hyperbole. The royal bath is the most impressive remaining feature.

Citadel Pool

Having saved the best for last, we biked to the raised square platform of the Quadrangle. The most impressive building here is the Vatadage, which is a 12th century circular temple considered by many to be the greatest of Sri Lanka’s ancient artistic treasures. The first of the Vatadage’s round terraces is completely covered in decoration: lions, midgets, lotus leaves, and a long inscription giving credit for the building to the crafty King Nissankamalla (it was actually constructed during Parakramabahu’s reign). A second platform includes beautiful guardstones and stone steps which lead to the remains of a small dagoba.

Gal-Pota-Sri-Lanka

Next the Vatadage, we found the Gal Pota, or stone book, which was another of Nissankamalla’s egotistical tricks. This giant block was brought from Mihintale, polished and inscribed with a breathless catalog of the King’s wondrous achievements (most of them probably false). We also saw the Hatadage, which served as Temple of the Tooth while Polonnaruwa was capital. Then, a strange six-storied temple called the Satmahal Prasada, which doesn’t fit in at all with Sri Lanka’s Buddhist architecture, and is thought to have been the work of Malaysian architects.

Lotus-Mandapa-Polonnaruwa

All that was just on the eastern half of the Quadrangle. By the time we made it to the western half, we were running low on energy and enthusiasm, and paid short shrift to ruins like the Lotus Mandapa with its oddly bent columns. We spent 0.38 seconds admiring a life-size statue of Vijayabahu, and darted in and out of the Thuparama, which is the only image house in Polonnaruwa that still has its original roof.

Take a look at the first part of our exploration of the ancient city, and then tell me that this wasn’t a lot to see in a single outing! We had four full days in Polonnaruwa and would have loved to split up the sight-seeing, but (insanely) the tickets were only valid for one day. It would have cost us another $50 to see the monuments at a more human pace. No way.

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April 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm Comment (1)

The Beach at Nilaveli

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Cheap Places To Stay in Trincomalee

Nilaveli Beach, about fifteen kilometers north of Trinco, was once one of eastern Sri Lanka’s favorite destinations. But then the twin catastrophes of Civil War and tsunami came along. The devastating 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami left 35,000 Sri Lankans dead and displaced a further half million, mostly along the eastern coast. Nilaveli has spent the last few years in recovery mode and, if our short visit was any indication, it’s ready to welcome visitors back.

Dream Beach Sri Lanka

We hopped on a local bus from Trinco to the Nilaveli Beach Hotel: perhaps the most celebrated place to stay in the Eastern Province. Every local knows where it is, and the bus dropped us off right at the entrance. This resort hotel is truly beautiful, with a great restaurant, large, clean pool and a laid-back, almost Caribbean ambiance. But we skipped right through, on our way to the beach.

Two islands sit off the coast of Nilaveli, almost close enough to swim to (although it’s both dangerous and illegal to try): Pigeon Island and, a bit further out, Coral Island. Pigeon Island is known as one of the best spots in the country to snorkel. We considered going out, but learned that authorities have recently started charging foreigners those discriminatory entrance fees that Sri Lanka is so wild about. After talking to a couple who had gone out the day before, we took a pass. $85 for two people to snorkel around a heavily-damaged reef. Eh, there are better ways to spend that money.

Despite its name, the reefs of Coral Island are apparently damaged and bleached beyond all hope.

Spending our day on the sand instead of in the water was a fine consolation. After swimming and chatting with the military stationed around the beach, we went over the hotel and had a couple drinks over lunch. In all, a great day.

Location of Nilaveli Beach Hotel on our Map

Sri Lanka Beach Guide
Spiral Palm
Beach Flowers
Nilaveli
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April 6, 2012 at 10:32 am Comment (1)

Poya Days

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Twelve times a year, and occasionally thirteen, life in Sri Lanka grinds to a halt for the observance of a Poya Day. Sri Lanka’s brand of Buddhism follows a lunar cycle, and full moon days are especially meaningful. These poya days are public holidays, allowing the faithful to visit their favorite temple and take a break from work. It’s forbidden to sell alcohol and, to a lesser extent, meat.

Poya in Sri Lanka

Today’s a Poya Day. April 6th, 2012 is the Bak Poya, commemorating the Buddha’s second visit to Sri Lanka at Nagadeepa (on the Jaffna Peninsula’s Nainativu Island). Each of the year’s full moon days has its own name and significance — here’s a full list. This is the third Poya during our stay in Sri Lanka and, for the third time, we only remembered it after trying to order a beer.

Buddhists in Sri Lanka live by five holy precepts. (1) Don’t kill. (2) Don’t steal. (3) Don’t be a pervert. (4) Don’t lie. (5) Don’t be a drunk. (Exactly two of these holy tenets preclude me from being a Buddhist). And on Poya Days, the pious abide by an extra three rules: (6) No food after midday. (7) No music or perfume. (8) No fancy beds or chairs.

So even on the holiest of days, Buddhists only have eight commandments to obey as opposed to Christianity’s ten. And I don’t see anything on the Buddhist list about “honoring thy parents” or blaspheming against God, which are the two I most routinely break. Goddamn parents should have raised me a Buddhist!

We always enjoy Poya Days, when all Sri Lanka shifts into vacation mode. Temples fill up with white-clad worshipers, and hotels are packed with families on mini-vacations. And the country’s best festivals fall almost exclusively on full moon days. I especially like the fact that Buddhism places so much value on a natural lunar cycle, which lends a beautiful bit of mysticism to the ceremonies.

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April 6, 2012 at 10:14 am Comments (2)

Whale Watching at Trinco

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Reading Suggestion: Moby Dick

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…

THAR SHE BLOWS!

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)

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Good Night, Sri Lanka From the taxi's windows, we watched the Colombo night blur by. The few cars which remained on the highway had none of the breakneck urgency which normally characterizes Sri Lankan traffic. And though the unbroken chain of shops and restaurants still had their neon lights blazing, there weren't many people on the sidewalks. It was 10pm, and we'd rarely seen the island in a deeper state of rest. We were headed to the airport, and putting Colombo to sleep.
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