Part of a trip that brought me to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Palau, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands before being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in Fiji.
– visited February 2020 –
Sometimes I tend to squeeze in short visits to countries as I have not enough time to explore but am somewhere near. It is better to get an impression than nothing at all. Usually that works fairly well but, in a country as interesting and varied as Sri Lanka it leads to a painful process of planning.
I have six days and ideas to fil sixty. Sri Lanka is strong on many counts. It offers intriguing cities, temples, historical sights from different eras, mountains, beaches, whale watching and even national parks to get a safari experience. With the Tamil areas in the north, it also offers an interesting post-conflict showcase. I will only see bits of that. Coming from the beach-heavy Maldives, I decide to focus more on the highlands.
Negombo is close to the airport and easy to get to if arriving on an early evening flight. Besides that, it is an interesting place, an old fort, colonial churches, a canal, plenty of fishing boats and the amazing fish market with extensive areas where fish is dried.
Sri Lanka is not a big country but the terrain is mountainous and transportation is slow. The bus to Kandy is of the five-seats-in-a-row variant and fills up quickly. Sri Lanka feels similar to other South Asian countries I have visited. The people look similar, the history is similar (British dominated), the food is similar and the bustle and hustle on the streets is similar. On many indicators though, Sri Lanka, despite the recent civil war in the north (until 2009), scores higher than other South Asian countries. On the Human Development Index, Sri Lanka occupies place 71 (slightly lower than Serbia or Albania but higher than the recently renamed North Macedonia) and thereby 58 places higher than India, 64 higher than Bangladesh and 81 higher than Pakistan.
Kandy is beautifully located; the lake sits at the centre and right next to it is the famous Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The city surrounds the lake and temple and makes its way up the hills. There are some fabulous viewpoints. Around town, you find plenty of tea plantations, I take a rickshaw to the Ceylon Tea Museum. For those who wonder, Ceylon is the colonial name of Sri Lanka.
I speak with the nice lady who owns the guesthouse about the prices for electricity. I have seen a few solar installations around town and I wonder how competitive they are. The electricity bill yields a surprise. Bills are monthly and the price changes according to how many kilowatt-hours you consume. The first 66 are very cheap at 4 Eurocents, the next 33 are 5 Eurocents but after that the price jumps, kWhs 100-132 cost 14 Eurocents, kWhs 133-198 are 16 eurocents and from 199 kWh the price is 23 Eurocents. To that comes a monthly fixed charge which is low for people using less than 100kWh (46 cents) but after that rises to 2,45 Euros and 2,75 Euros. I will later learn that users consuming less than 60 kWh of energy per month pay even lower rates. For me this is interesting from several perspectives: First, poor families operating only their lights and maybe a small cooker pay a very small amount for their electricity. That is good from a social perspective and also from an environmental perspective as it encourages people to use electricity instead of firewood. Second, for heavy users of electricity, solar power in sun-rich Sri Lanka should make sense even without government subsidies.
To head deeper into the Highlands the train is the transportation of choice. The ride is scenic as the train slowly winds its way through the villages and tea plantations. The landscape is marvellous and the views are superb. There are only a few trains each day and the number of seats that can be reserved is way lower than demand. There are three classes, 3rd class has five seats in one row, 2nd has four and 1st class also has four but they are more comfortable. First class is only one car and it is at the end of the train with an observation window to the rear. First class is all reserved and if you do not get your tickets weeks in advance you will have no chance. 2nd and 3rd class have a few reserved cars and only people with tickets can enter these. If you do not get your tickets weeks in advance, you will have little chance to get one. Besides that, there are the unreserved cars (2nd and 3rd), tickets are sold freely and the cars are packed.
On my train ride from Kandy to Ohiya the train comes already well filled from Colombo. Some people get out, but many more scramble in. About half the passengers are tourists. Sri Lankans are really nice; they share seats meant for two people with three to allow other people to sit. Still, all the gangways are full, the snack sellers have to push their way through. I have to stand for the first two hours but I early overhear a group of Sri Lankans so at least I know when I will have my window seat. The doors of the cars are open and people enjoy sitting in them or even leaning out of the doors. A Turkish girl asks me to take some pictures of her doing that.
Ohiya is a small village in the middle of nowhere which I choose solely for its proximity to the Horton Plains National Park. Again, I meet a very friendly host. Sanat has been working as a software engineer but he wanted a more relaxed life, he knows perfectly what his guests want.
Horton Plains is a plateau of montane grassland and cloud forest at an altitude of 2,100 -2,300 metres. It is known for World’s End, a sheer drop in the landscape with a beautiful view. You are supposed to arrive early morning before the clouds roll in. Sanat drives us (two Ukrainian girls totally unsuited to travelling in a poorer country and me) up early in the morning. Before you start the hike, your bags are checked, plastic is not allowed. Together with two German girls I am about the first to reach World’s End. A beautiful viewpoint, nothing more. My hope to see animals is not fulfilled but was probably in vain anyway with hundreds of people walking that trail every morning. Still, I greatly enjoy the walk.
The train to Haputhale is an hour late and ever fuller than the one I arrived on. If you want to get in, you have to search for the least crowded door and just push in. there is no other way to get on the train where we are like sardines in their can. Experiencing a train like this at home, most travellers would call it unbearable but here, with the flavour of the exotic, it is usually considered as a “great experience”. The views are again superb, for long stretches the train follows a ridge but I am not even close to any window.
To get back to the lowlands, I first have to take a local bus to Bandarawela. The bus from there to Mirissa is packed, and I have to stand for the first three out of five hours. Transportation really is not easy in the Sri Lankan Highlands. I came to Mirissa because of the whales. It is a prime spot for whale-watching with a decent chance of seeing blue whales, the biggest creatures this world has to offer. The whale-watching is disappointing, the sea is rough, I am all the time a bit borderline sea-sick, we see only fin whales and contrary to humpback whales who sometimes stage a show these whales only show at the surface for a short time. There are also just too many boats chasing the same whales.
I meet up with two Russian girls that I met on the train before, we make a nice fruit pick-nick at the beach. Mirissa has nice beaches and a rocky outcrop with nice views. There are tourists but not on a level that would really put me off.
I have an afternoon to spare. Galle is the colonial gem in Sri Lankas tourist circuit. Galle Fort is a large collection of colonial houses that has a lot of charm, unfortunately, nowadays nearly every house caters somehow to tourists which makes if feel unnatural.