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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)

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

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April 28, 2012 at 5:52 am Comments (3)

Elephants in Habarana’s Eco-Park

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Cuddle Elephants

The two well-known national parks near Habarana are Kaudulla and Minneriya. So we were more than a little skeptical while listening to this guy pitch the Hurulu Eco-Park: a little-known reserve that didn’t even appear in our guidebook. “Don’t worry!” he cried, “All the elephants are in Eco-Park!” Sure they are, buddy. But what were we going to do, claim that we knew better?

“I just know that this is a rip-off, Jürgen. We’re not going to see any elephants.”

Panik Elephants

Wrong! That guy knew what he was talking about. We saw so many elephants, I wasn’t even able to count them all. At around fifty, I gave up… and then another herd sauntered into view. It was amazing. These were gorgeous, wild and occasionally angry elephants; nothing like the friendly, damaged characters we’d met at Pinnawela.

For the first 45 minutes of our tour through the Eco-Park, I had felt my worst fears coming true. We had only seen an eagle, and a green beater bird (rare, according to our driver, who I wasn’t yet inclined to trust). But just as I was getting depressed, Jürgen spotted something big and gray in the woods. Our driver backed up, and there: a young male elephant eating a lonely meal of leaves.

Soon after that, tipped off by another jeep, we drove into the brush and interrupted the dinner of an entire family. Four large elephants, a couple adolescents and two very young babies. Although visibly annoyed by our presence, they continued their meal. Our driver felt we were too close, and turned the jeep around “in case they attack”. This happens a lot, as we would later witness.

The best part of the day came towards the end, when we arrived at a field where an incredible number of elephants were grazing. A few other jeeps were there, too, but the park wasn’t anywhere near as over-crowded as we’ve heard Yala can get. We parked and watched the elephants eat and play for almost an hour, keeping a respectful distance. Another jeep got too close, provoking an ill-tempered youngster to charge. Exciting, and to be honest, I was kind of rooting for the elephant. It wasn’t our jeep (or lives). But they sped away unscathed.

We had a great time at the Eco-Park and paid a lot less than what we would have coughed up at Yala or other National Reserves. Make sure to consider it as an option if you’re looking for something to do around Habarana.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
Cheap Flights To Sri Lanka

Jeep Safari Sri Lanka
Hunting For Elephants
Green Beater
Elephant Cuddle
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Elephant Tails
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April 12, 2012 at 3:55 am Comments (2)

The Enigmatic Stupas of Kadurugoda

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A collection of small stupas found a mile east of Chunnakam, Kadurugoda is a rare island of Buddhism in the Hindu-dominated peninsula of Jaffna. We hired a tuk-tuk to the site, shortly after visiting the Keerimalai water temple.

Stupas-of-Kadurugoda

Around twenty mini-stupas made of coral are scattered about Kadurugoda. They’re thought to have been built around 2000 years ago, and were rediscovered and excavated by an English judge in 1917. Valuables buried around the site, and protected inside the stupas, included coins from pre-Christian Rome and early Indian kingdoms, indicating Jaffna’s status as an international maritime port way back in the day.

Unsurprisingly for a Buddhist site in the heart of Hindu-land, there’s a lot of contention surrounding the purpose and meaning of the stupas, and everyone seems to have a different theory. The most likely explanation we heard is that the stupas, which originally numbered 61, are the burial sites of 61 holy men who had died in a plague. And the presence of Buddhist architecture in the north of Sri Lanka is no real shocker — back then, the religions intermingled more liberally, borrowing ideas and even gods from each other. It’s likely that Hindus even used this site to worship.

Regardless of their meaning, the stupas of Kadurugoda are an amazing relic of the past, and well worth the short trip to Chunnakam, just ten kilometers north of Jaffna.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
Budget Accommodation in Sri Lanka

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March 31, 2012 at 12:02 pm Comments (2)

Jaffna Causeway and Chatty Beach

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Places To stay in Jaffna

A string of small islands stretch out to the west of Jaffna, pointing the way to India, mostly connected to the mainland by roads built up out of the shallow water. One day, we rented rickety old bikes and rode out on the causeway which begins near the fort to the first of the islands.

Chatty Beach

The road to Kayts is a lot longer than it first appears, but the scenery is so gorgeous that we didn’t mind too much. Along the way, fishermen worked on their nets in the shallow waters and graceful white storks provided constant company.

Once we arrived at Kayts, we began asking about Chatty Beach. “Oh, not far” the soldiers stationed along the road would say (the islands, like the rest of Jaffna, maintain a heavy military presence). “Just keep straight”. So straight, we went. And went, and went. Eight kilometers later, we finally saw a sign, and soon afterward came upon a beautiful beach facing the south sea. We were the only people around, and had the beach to ourselves. The water, we had to share with an unsettling number of jellyfish.

So, thirteen kilometers to reach a lovely, secluded beach. Not bad; nothing to complain about… But on the ride back, we had to push against an unbelievable headwind. Suddenly, the rickety charm of our bikes wasn’t so charming at all. By the time we finally made it back to Jaffna, we were exhausted, sunburned and dehydrated, and any sort of relaxation we’d stored up at the beach was long gone.

Location of Chatty Beach on our Map
Sri Lanka Travel Insurance

Biking in Jaffna
Bus Bridge
Jaffna Causeway
Raven String
Nets Sri Lanka
Crab Trap
Checking Nets
Fishing in Sri Lanka
Drying Nets
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March 28, 2012 at 8:02 am Comment (1)

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.
Hiking Books Sri Lanka
Tourist Trap Sri Lanka
Me and My Hiking Boots
National Park Sri Lanka
Hiking Path
Pine Drops
Perfect Picnic Spot
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World's End Waterfall Sri Lanka
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Expensive View Sri Lanka

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March 5, 2012 at 10:55 am Comments (3)

The Multi-Cultural Chaos of Colombo

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Cheap Flights To Sri Lanka

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
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Main Street Sri Lanka
Old City Hall Colombo
White Church of Sri Lanka
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Buddhism in Sri Lanka
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February 7, 2012 at 11:16 am Comment (1)
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.
For 91 Days