Sayonara Sri Lanka

Often in travels, a few extra days someplace are a joy. You get to relax in more familiar digs, discover that cool new neighborhood, ride a bus to a local village, find the local restaurant you missed, or maybe meet more locals or travelers.

Happiness is a bike and a breeze. It was about 7km to the heart of modern Anuradhapura from our hotel along the banks of Nuwara Wewa
Macaques “guard” a lot of the popular sites in Sri Lanka….did they menace the bathing monks here in the 3rd century BC?
Beautiful lotus flowers and other offerings for Buddha were for sale all over the living temple complex that is part of the ancient City complex of Anuradhapura.

But sometimes you stay a bit too long or are just eager to move on. Sometimes it’s real discomfort, sometimes a bit of boredom, and sometimes just the way your travel brain is programmed…knowing exciting new places are on the horizon. We’ve got some pretty rewired travel brains after 19 months of vagabonding.

A much needed break from cycling around the vast temple and archeological sites of Anuradhapura
Cheryl has mastered cycling with a sun umbrella
We were never tired of the friendly smiles
Carved moonstones adorn the entrances to various sacred buildings.

We underestimated how homogenous Sri Lanka would be from a tourist perspective. Challenging governance, intermittent civil unrest, an ongoing economic crisis, limited imports, and an influx of Russian tourists(?!), all add up to an odd dynamic as visitor. There is huge demand for tourism money here, but still relatively few foreign tourists. It’s tough to see and you want to help everyone.

Very tan (dirty!?) sandal feet and a temporary sarong to pass temple dress code…it was too hot to cycle in trousers!

We loved Sri Lanka, had some amazing experiences, and are very glad we choose to visit now. But we did run out of steam the last week for many of these reasons. Heat, humidity, limited transport, and an excessive amount of interactions as tourists going about our business. It wears you down.

Cheryl happily sweating out the late day sun in Anuradhapura
Our bike parking at the Cargill Food City, the largest grocery chain in Sri Lanka

So please come to Sri Lanka. You will love it, but make sure to focus on what you love. The ancient civilizations are fascinating, but you need to dive in deep and do some background reading as the info at the sites leaves a little to be desired. If you really appreciate the natural world, then book safaris and bird watching tours to more remote areas. (There are many we missed) Maybe a long distance trek in the hills such as the nascent Pekoe Trail is your thing. (That may bring us back).

The main Dagoba (Stupa) is the heart of Abhayagiri Vihari; the ancient complex of monastic buildings and a fraternity of Buddhist monks. It’s still an important pilgrimage site.
The more benign Grey Langurs rule at the Abhayagiri Dagoba

Or maybe a few weeks surfing and chilling. Super nice along the lesser developed southeast and east coasts. If you are comfortable on a scooter, then that would give you more freedom….and even a car could get you off the tourist track easier. Just be ready for limited supplies and options if you self cater.

A “cool” sunset ride…it was magical with the Stupas in the distance

So we made the best of our last week. We soaked up a bit more sun, sweat out more toxins, and discovered more about the ancient cultures of Sri Lanka. But we did start to say no to seeing ALL the sights, as it was not bringing us joy.

Parts of Colombo still look a bit abandoned or incomplete, giving it a somewhat forlorn vibe.
Trains are slow and infrequent across Sri Lanka, so the tracks are mostly uncontrolled and easy to cross, even in Colombo.
Long queues for gas and diesel in Colombo is an ongoing sign of the economic struggles.
10 weeks of tropical heat and sunblock and destroyed this Taipei night market purchase…in the bin!!!
We set out our last morning to explore the Pettah district, which is a lively market and commercial area in the gritty heart of Colombo
Mostly men in the trading districts, but women do run a lot of small businesses
Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque in Pettah

So we take away a bit more understanding of the culture and plight of 22 million Sri Lankans. We sincerely hope for a brighter future, and are glad to see there was a recent agreement with the IMF for $3B in bridge loans. We also hope we left some American good will in our wake. Travel is still good, and important even in the Instagram world of 2023.

The Fruit and Vegetable Market Hall in Pettah

We did a bit of everything in our 3 1/2 weeks and it was fantastic but we were very ready to be back in on in a more developed economy…so nowhere better on the planet than Japan.

Looking out at the impressive Eth Pokuna or “Elephant Pond” near Lankaramaya. This huge man made water reservoir is part of tbe ancient and amazing water supply network.
We loved exploring Anuradhapura, but I was tired of the touts and “tour guides” badgering us…this guy wouldn’t stop talking to me at the Elephant Pond. We always stayed polite.
Amazing to be immersed in a living museum, not just an ancient civilization
A final rice and curry at our guest house in Anuradhapura…this WAS very tasty, but our taste buds are ready for something new!

After some long flights via Singapore, Japan has delivered us immense joy in the early peak of Cherry Blossom season. We feel like we have just come out of the wilderness after a long backpacking trip. Hungry, dirty, and ready to eat anything. Contrast and appreciation for the new is a wonderful gift of travel.

A few days to recoup and prep for Japan at a full service corporate hotel was just what we needed in Colombo. Gym workouts and a place to relax for a late night airport departure.
Joy of the Sakura season in Tokyo

More on truly amazing Japan soon. Happy travels!

The colorful buses of Sri Lanka.

My first bus photo. On a walk from Jungle Beach, near Galle.

Another thing to file under “Wasn’t expecting that!” The buses of Sri Lanka are eye catching. Very eye catching. Day and night they burst with color and bright decorations and lights.

At the bus station in Galle. After I snapped this photo the driver came out to wave at me.
In Kandy. Rich added for scale. The pink paint job and headlights which look like eyes!
Looking in the front door. That is some operator’s seat.
A side view of the pink bus in Kandy.

Not all the buses were so exuberantly adorned. There are state buses (with staid, some might say boring, paint jobs), and private buses (wow! Not all are wow, but a lot.). The private buses are licensed for a specific number of runs per day, this means they linger a bit at every stop hoping for more passengers.

In Kandy. A Tata bus. Most are Lanka Ashok Leyland, which seems to be a joint venture with the Indian company Ashok Leyland.
Kandy again. An awfully hot walk from the train station took us along bus row.

Did we actually ride the buses? No. We took trains when we could, but on routes with no trains we hired drivers. The buses looked pretty chaotic, and a few tourists with rental cars we spoke to confirmed that the buses are bullies on the road.

My favorite bus photo. Kandy again. This gentleman is ready for the buses of Sri Lanka calendar photo shoot.
In Colombo. She looks fairly straightforward from the front. The tassels along the door hint at what’s inside.
A peek inside the open door.
Come on in, invited the operators. They are a school run bus. They drop the school children off and wait to take them home.
I’m quite certain that no transit agency in California would allow this level of decoration.

In addition to a bus journey taking a long time, it is recommended that you don’t put your luggage down below due to dust and mud, so you must pay for an additional seat and face the wrath of your fellow crowded in passengers. We decided that we didn’t need to experience the buses of Sri Lanka as passengers.

Colombo bus traffic. You can understand how important these buses are to life in Sri Lanka, so many buses.

It’s easy to criticize or second guess a country’s public policy and governance, and Sri Lanka is working through a lot of challenges, but transportation is the lifeblood of any city, and even more important in rural areas. For the sake of the people of Sri Lanka I hope the announcement that a recently announced purchase of 500 new buses shows a commitment for improving transit. Many of the old buses are gross polluters.

This wraps up my bus post. Once a transit geek, always a transit geek.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka – doing what we enjoy most.

Sunset view of the 5th century ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock.

What is it that we love best when traveling? Walking and biking, of course. Sri Lanka has challenged us with the need to do taxi transfers and tuk tuk trips to avoid daytime heat or nighttime elephants, or to get from a hotel or guesthouse to a site.

A pond in the ornamental gardens leading to the Lion Rock. Tiny Rich added for scale.

Our first morning in Sigiriya, we had our guest house owner drop us at the west entrance and Museum to buy our tickets by 6:45 am, so we could explore and climb the rock before it got too hot.

It took a lot of stair climbing to even get here, the two giant lion paws mark the entrance to the rock fortress. The lion head crumbled some time in the past.
Not for the faint of heart or weak of knees.
The views are amazing on your climb up and down.
Ponds and walls speak to the history of this place.
A pond and the cable trolly used to get conservation materials to the top of the rock.
It reminded us a bit of Machu Picchu, the ability to look down upon the site really gave you a good sense of place.

First a capital for King Kashyapa AD 477–495, and then a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.

Laughing as we realize we still have to go back down all those steps.
Down we go.
Yikes. That’s a catwalk with a view.
Almost out. Knees feeling wobbly.

We were staying close enough to be able to walk back to our guesthouse for a late breakfast, which made us happy. Any time you walk in Sri Lanka you do have to decline a lot of tuk tuk offers, especially at a popular tourist site like Sigiriya Rock. But we press on and enjoy the walk.

The small roads around town made for lovely walking. Sri Lankan people have an eye for design, so many lush gardens and pretty houses.
An afternoon walk to the nearby lake, Kayanwala Wewa. The road crosses an outflow which makes for a refreshing wade.
Relaxing by the lake.

Sri Lanka has no natural lakes. Starting in 300 BC the Kingdom began to construct reservoirs and tanks. The Sinhalese people were among the first to build artificial reservoirs to store water. These irrigation systems of the ancient world are still intact. Sri Lanka has ten thousand man made bodies of water, lakes, reservoirs, tanks, ponds, and stepwells.

As you walk the small roads and greet locals you’ll hear an electronic version of Beethoven’s Für Elise. That signals the bread tuk tuk is near!
A pastry shop on wheels. The ice cream tuk tuks play ‘It’s a Small World’.

With temperatures reaching 90f/32c in the early afternoon, our walk opportunities were limited to mornings and after 4pm. Not only is the heat and humidity oppressive, but the UV levels will burn this pale human in 15 minutes. Sunblock, long sleeves, umbrellas, that’s the only way I can get out and about.

Yes, there is an app for that. My trusty UV Lens app.

Walking the small dirt roads is not without obstacles though. Sri Lanka has so many dogs, some wearing collars and belonging to a specific house, but many many more simply stray street dogs. Most ignore you after a hopeful glance for snacks, but some bark and come rushing towards you. Not fun. We accidentally solved the dog stress problem when I deployed my collapsible umbrella while walking by a dog and it recoiled in horror. Ah ha. Shade giver and dog deterrent – the humble collapsible umbrella.

An artful fruit and veggie stand.
Brooms and more.
Another colorful roadside shop.

Our second full day in Sigiriya we spent visiting the ancient and Sacred City of Pollonnaruwa. We had a car and driver to take us the 45 minutes to the site, and once there we rented bicycles to explore the site and it’s many amazing artifacts. Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries between the 11th to 13th century after the destruction of Anuradhapura Kingdom (which we’ll also visit) in 993.

Rich can rarely find a bike that fits him well. But he looks happy anyway.
The restoration of the buildings and statues is on going.
My first time on a bike since breast reduction surgery in January. I couldn’t stop smiling – cycling in hot weather is much easier than walking.
Our trusty bikes in front of an ancient stupa. Since tourism has not fully rebounded we had many of the sites to ourselves.
The jungle had covered many of the buildings until restoration and conservation. The before and after photos are dramatic.
Exploring Pollannawura by bike.
Ponds are an important part of the site. And beautiful.
Tempting on a hot day. But the signs clearly forbid swimming.
To enter the temple areas you must remove your hat and shoes, and put down your umbrella. As it gets later the sand gets hotter so visitors bring socks to wear.

Riding bikes around this ancient site was such a unique experience, but we did wish for better curation of the experience. Even the museum, which we visited at the end of our ride around, didn’t do a great job of giving you a sense of how people lived in Polonnaruwa. We didn’t hire a guide, which most of the visitors did, so perhaps that was a mistake on our part, but we so much prefer doing things at our own pace and we know we’re happier without a guide. From what we overheard from the guides I don’t think we missed out on much information beyond what we had from our guide book.

That photo bombing Sigiriya rock again, this time on a morning walk.
Unable to find bikes to rent we headed out on foot for what ended up being almost a 7 mile/11 km walk.
A local fishing at the lake, he had a bike. We were jealous.
The roads were getting smaller, the temperature was getting hotter.

The area around Sigiriya is not only an archeological sanctuary site, but also has elephants and rice farmers. We saw an elephant from the road when being driven back from Pollannaruwa. Our long walk took us alongside many rice fields. We were fascinated to see the methods the farmers use to either keep the elephants out of the fields, or to alert an overnight watcher of the presence of an elephant so an attempt could be made to deter the elephant using loud noises.

Rice fields.
Empty Lion beer cans hung on string at the edge of a rice field. Empty bags and branches- not much of a defense against an elephant.
A night time elephant lookout platform. That looks like a lonely and nerve wracking job.
This canal proved to be a great bird watching area. So many bright blue Kingfishers darting along it kept us distracted from the heat.
A little roadside shop with chairs in the shade was a welcome sight. Two cold lemon sodas perked us up for the last mile.
An umbrella is key for mid day walking, we bought this UV protection umbrella in Taipei.

You never know what you’ll see walking around small rural roads. Local folks were unfailingly friendly and helpful. We reminded ourselves that the small children had possibly never seen tourists, the three years of very little to no tourism meant that their wide eyed stares were not a comment on our hot sweaty state. It can be a bit daunting to wander the back roads, but so rewarding.

Evening bread tuk tuk, with two ever hopeful dogs.
The happy travelers.

Riding trains in Sri Lanka.

Passing through tea fields on the way from Ella to Nanuoya.

Taking trains is a big part of our travel joy. Riding trains with open windows and doors, winding through tropical jungles and tea growing areas, feeling the soft warm air on your face, seeing life as the train winds along – that is magnificent.

The hand off of the token, the loop held by the man in the white shirt. Since much of the line is a single track the token is a safety measure to assure that only one train is traveling a given section of track at any time.
Rich enjoying the open window of the observation car (OBV), at the end of the train.

Our go to train advice site, The Man in Seat 61, recommends sitting in the non AC carriages to take advantage of the open windows.

Dramatic skies made the landscape even more beautiful.
Buying train snacks from a vendor who walks the train, samosas and other goodies.
Train snacks! Yum.
Over a trestle. Obligatory head out the window shot.
The observation car never filled up, but the unreserved carriages were standing room only with locals.

From what we’ve read the trains got much more crowded starting June 2022, when the rising cost of gasoline and bus tickets increased train ridership by 50%. As tourists we are able to buy our way into the comfort of the reserved carriages, but we do wonder why ticket prices for foreigners aren’t higher, as one encounters at museums and archeological sites. There is much need for upgrades to the rail system and new trains and higher tourist prices could help fund that.

As our train waited at a passing track for another train to go by, the local farmers came out to sell vegetables to the passengers. Another reason to ride in a car with windows that open. We bought lettuce.
Following our taxi driver at Nanu-oya for the 17 minute drive to Nuwara Eliya, where we had an apartment for two nights.
Buying vegetables for dinner.
Buying an adapter. Sockets in older buildings are different than those in new buildings so our adapter was incompatible at our next place.
After more than six weeks without an apartment stay it was nice to cook dinner and to have breakfast at our own pace. Typical messy table.
Headed out for a walk in the hills around Nuwara Eliya.
Although there are no marked trails, using Maps Me gets us going, and friendly locals steer us to the correct path when we get confused by the many social trails.
Walking the small roads and pathways is one of our favorite things to do. It can feel awkward to be so off the tourist track, but Sri Lankans have been only friendly and welcoming.
Tidy houses and streets and lovely gardens make the walking so pleasant.
A view across tea fields towards Sri Pada, or Adam’s Peak. 2,243 m/7,359 ft.
Buying samosas and vade to have for lunch with the rest of our vegetables.

We don’t want to sweep the problems Sri Lanka is going through under the rug, and post only fun photos without acknowledging the challenges the country is facing, but in many areas you don’t see the difficulties as a tourist. You can live your tourist life blissfully unaware of the undercurrent of struggle many are still facing. If you pay attention to little things, while in line at the grocery store for example, you recognize the stress on parent’s faces as they watch the register add up, and you hear from men who worked in Dubai but came home during the pandemic and are now working towards getting employment in Japan or Korea.

The big board at Nanu-oye station. We’re on the 9:10 to Kandy from platform 1.
Rich in his element. Traveling by train.
Catching glimpses of life.
Still admiring the tea fields.

One of our drivers was taking Japanese classes. He had calculated that five years of work in Japan would be enough for him to come home and start a solid life for himself, his wife, and their two young daughters. As Americans who admire the bravery of immigrants, who come from a country of immigrants, we understand the determination and hope that the hard working people we meet find a way through and forward.

Me in my element, reading on a train.
Still not tired of sticking our heads out the window to watch the train go through a curve.
Our one night in Kandy gave us enough time to visit the Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, which houses the canine tooth of Buddha.
My long Indian dress met the dress code, knees and shoulders covered.
Rich was loaned a sarong at the security checkpoint to cover his knees.
And back to the train station.
The Monday morning crowd at the Kandy train station. This train goes to the capital, Colombo.
Arrived at the Polgahawela Station to wait for our connection.
Faced with a 3 hour wait in 90f/32f temperature, the travel planner wisely called for a Pick Me car to take us to our destination, Sigiriya, a 2 hour drive. Love of trains only goes so far.
The happy travelers at Kandy Lake.

We have a few more places to visit in Sri Lanka, and I’m sure a few more rice and curry meals to eat. We wish we could support every single small business we come across, buy every trinket, and eat at every restaurant, but failing that we will tell you all that Sri Lanka is an amazing place to visit. We’re in Sigiriya now, more on that to come. Happy travels.

Do Elephants Have a Sense of Humor?

The diversity of Sri Lanka blew us away in our second week, as we headed further east and up to the highlands.

A peaceful solitary male elephant in Bundala National Park. He clearly was smiling.

Based in the small town of Tissamahama , we choose to do two separate safaris to Yala and Bundala National Parks. And although the parks are relatively close to each other, our experiences were vastly different.

Waiting at dawn for Yala to open meant a chance to chat with fellow travelers.
Yala National Park’s dramatic contrast of rock, water and coastal forest
Dawn breaks in Yala

Yala is the most popular park and the one nearly every one visits. We chose the “half day” morning safari which leaves at 5 am and ends by noon. The drive in the open sided safari truck in the dark at dawn was refreshing and we saw an elephant and a jungle cat (rare to spot!) before we even got to the park entrance. After admission fees are paid, the Jeeps then queue up outside the gate until the opening bell at 6:15am. Then a somewhat crazy race ensues as 50-100 jeeps head into the park and pan out in Sector 1, one of the areas of Yala that allows visitation and borders the beautiful coast.

Cheryl not on a bike
Safari breakfast safely on the beach
The first leopard sighting traffic jam as we entered the park made us both wonder if we made a big mistake signing up for this on a Sri Lankan holiday weekend! But it got better.

The scenery is arguably more dramatic in Yala with massive rock outcrops and a large river. And Yala has Leopards and sloth bears, which are not usually found in Bundala. But everybody wants to see a Leopard. After seeing a leopard in India, we weren’t as crazed to see one here, but did catch a glimpse over a somewhat comical scrum of gridlocked jeeps on a small side road (all roads are dirt and rough). As the morning pressed on, our guide was as able to find a bit more solitude as we viewed elephants and a vast array of bird life.

Ready to see some wildlife

On our second day we opted for an afternoon tour of the smaller Bundala NP. It’s also along the coast but characterized by large brackish lagoons and coastal forest and scrub.

Brown Fish Owl
Asian land monitor lizard
Mama and child in Yala. Smiling of course.

We actually enjoyed the intimacy of Bundala and we had a much better focus on amazing bird species from a fantastic park guide who has worked there for 20 years. And to answer the title question about elephants, “maybe, unless they are in Musth (male heat) when they can be aggressive and grumpy”

Crocodiles were everywhere in the wetland marshes of Yala and Bundala.
Recovering from hot safari days with a rice and curry feast, a staple of Sri Lankan diets and dishes come in many forms and ingredients; but always some spice -:)

So here’s the other revelation of our time in India and Sri Lanka….I think I’m becoming a birder. It started with the enthusiasm of the birders we met in the Western Ghats, but has been building as I read and learn more, as well as using the fantastic apps by the Cornell Lab of Orinthology, Merlin and EBird

Blue-tailed Bee Eater
The magical Painted Stork
A majestic Osprey

We will certainly be picking up binoculars or a monocular in Japan for sure. And birding and bike touring are a natural combination. This can now be added to the list of “things I never had time or patience for while working”….though most people had me pegged for the model train basement type-;)

This guy was in Musth (male heat with 50x testosterone!) and did NOT have a sense of humor. After a few calm viewing moments, he came at our truck fairly quickly, but luckily our guide and driver were faster….
You don’t need to go to a national park to see macaques or langurs, just look up!

We then took a car transfer up to Ella and the southern hill country of Sri Lanka, And although we were only at about 3,500 feet, we immediately appreciated the slightly cooler temps.

Beautiful train signage
The somewhat depressing and loud tourist section of Ella. You just need to get away a bit to enjoy beauty and peace.
Yes, we want a different view!
We loved the tranquility and discoveries along the Pekoe trail. It’s part of the Serendipity Trails Project.

One of our challenges of independent travel and a focus on the trains is the need to be based in more touristed towns with services and connections. Some people choose to rent a car here and that does give you a lot more flexibility, but as we know, it also ties you down in other ways and makes working in the epic train opportunities here difficult. So our strategy is to be based in a convenient place with tourist services, but then try to do different things than the norm, usually via walks and treks.

Starting Stage 16, turn left by GPS into the woods and everyone disappears!

Luckily there is a nascent long distance hiking trail in development across the hill country and mountains. The 300km, 22 stage “Pekoe Trail” has been initially mapped and stages are now available on many trail apps, including AllTrails and Wikiloc.

Picking tea by hand on the Pekoe Trail. It’s tough work, but they are unionized
The way up to Ella Rock, part of Stage 15 of the Pekoe Trail (we did the Stage in reverse)
I thought this little girl was never going to let Cheryl go, off the beaten track near Makulella.

So in Ella, instead of being driven around in a van or tuktuk all day to see 10 random things, we walked two stages of the Pekoe Trail from Ella. They were both great and although touch a few very popular tourist sites in places (by design) we mostly had the trail 100% to ourselves.

Blissful countryside rambling, with proper sun protection of course. UV can often rate “Extreme” midday in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is the overall fourth leading tea producer in the world and number one for “Orthodox” or hand picked, dried and processed tea.
Did I mention the Ceylon Tea?

The trail will be a brilliant addition to tourism options in Sri Lanka, and spread the positive tourist impacts out along many more communities and people than the current concentration on tourist hot spots. Interestingly it’s sponsored partially by a grant from the EU, which has certainly seen the success of long distance trails in Europe, such as all the Camino routes in Spain and Portugal.

Dragonfly (not a bird!) on the Pekoe Trail
Cooling off after the Pekoe Trail
The single rail track is the most direct and level way to walk in the highlands, locals and tourist alike, it also was the best route to town and train station from our guest lodge.

We look forward to tracking the progress of the trail as dedication and signage is scheduled to be installed later this year. The lodge we stayed in Ella didn’t seem to know about it, or diminished it a bit as I think it’s seen as a bit of an existential threat to the tourism status quo, which is tour vans and tuktuks taking people around to the same sights and based in one of ten inland tourist hotspots. The coast is a separate beast and has hundreds of kilometers of beaches and towns, but mostly people focused on a tropical beach holiday.

These patient tourist police are charged with saving people from their own Instagram stupidity on the Nine Arches Bridge in Ella….look it up, you’ll see.
No, not a Brunel work. The construction of the bridge is generally attributed to a local Ceylonese builder, P. K. Appuhami, in consultation with British engineers.

We are continuing our journey in Sri Lanka, and are still awed by the universal friendliness of the people. We’ve had wonderful encounters with locals and some interesting conversations about the current challenges here. And there are still major economic hardships. Not enough jobs and opportunities for talented and motivated people. Not enough food for many who have slipped back into poverty.

Ahh…warm train ballast

And it’s been hard not to support EVERYONE we meet as they all have needs and a family to feed (and will often mention this), but we do what we can to be generous on our way. The boom times of tourism here from 2009-2019 were clearly different, but there is a bit of new optimism that things are finally getting better.

Tea worker huts dot the Pekoe Trail. The industry directly employs over 200,000 workers.
No tourists on the Pekoe trail yet, so everyone was a bit surprised to see us, and very agreeable to a photo

We sure hope so, but will also be voting for politicians back in the US that support more generous and compassionate immigration policies. We have an excess of space and opportunities to share still.

Heading onto our next adventure

Happy travels and keep exploring.

Hello Sri Lanka!

Lifeguards at Galle Face Green on a Saturday afternoon in Colombo.

We have a new standard for judging ease of entry into a country. It’s not just how straightforward and easy the visa is, e-visa or otherwise, but also how easy and quick it is to get a local SIM card. Taiwan set the bar high back in January, but Sri Lanka is a very close second. That quick SIM transaction at the airport, and the joy of being able to get a hassle free taxi to our hotel had us nodding to each other – I think we’re going to like this country.

Locals enjoying the afternoon in the face of fast approaching rain clouds.
Strolling the promenade and enjoying snacks. A great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Achcharu – fruit pickled in spices.

It’s easy to assume proximity means similarity, we assumed that with the UK and Ireland and were very wrong. We had heard while traveling in India that Sri Lanka was “India lite”, so again we assumed it would feel familiar and similar to India. Wrong again!

Isso Vade. Prawn topped lentil fritters. When you buy one it gets topped with a spicy sambal.

We’ve been reading about the troubles Sri Lanka has faced since 2019, and the economic crisis which is on going, and we were warned by a few Indians not to come here. So, we expected some issues. The first things we noticed were the things that made our arrival so easy. E-visa. SIM card. Taxi. All straight forward and easy. The drive to our hotel was much quieter than we had become accustomed to in India – here, honking is just not as common. It makes the streets feel so much calmer.

The Galle Green promenade before the rain moved in on our first evening in Colombo.
90% of construction projects in Sri Lanka have come to a standstill due to “shortage of cement, iron and other raw material and its high prices in the economic crisis”.

If you knew nothing of the financial crisis Sri Lanka is facing you could be forgiven for thinking all is well. The unfinished high rises under construction in Colombo, the executive and judicial capital of Sri Lanka (Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, a Colombo suburb, is the legislative capital.), are the first sign we saw that all is not well. There is less car traffic on the streets, based on our reading, due to the high cost of gasoline and diesel. Trains and buses are more crowded than previously. But these are things that as a first time visitor you wouldn’t know.

Chicken Kottu. Kottu translates from Sinhalese as chopped, and this popular Sri Lankan street food consists of chopped up roti (a type of flatbread), stir-fried with chicken, vegetables and egg. Delicious.
Sunday morning iced coffee on our way to a museum. Living the normal tourist life.
Ah, shady sidewalks. Yes, it’s hot and humid in Colombo, but the walking is good.
The National Museum. A good destination on a hot sunny day.
More amazing big trees at the museum. The shade is so welcome.

After only one night in Colombo we headed out by train to Galle, about a 2 hour train ride south. Our first Sri Lankin train! On the easy reservation site Rich booked us two seats in the air conditioned reserved seat (AFC) carriage.

To me a train ride means loads of uninterrupted reading time.

Galle is best known for the 16th century walled fort built by the Portuguese, added on to by the Dutch, and finally occupied by the British. The Fort, as it’s referred to by the locals, has plenty of hotels and guest houses, lovely streets with few cars and scooters, and tourist friendly restaurants for the mostly Russian and French tourists we shared the streets with. We stayed in the new town, at the Brixia Cafe and Guesthouse, which was perfect for us. We could walk to the Fort and enjoy seeing what the new town was like.

Dutch church in the fort under sunny skies.
Anglican Church. Right down the street.
Locals outside the courthouse in the shade of a banyan tree.
Some older buildings still being fixed up.
The street signs are in Sinhala, English, and Tamil. I love the colors of this wall.

You won’t be in Sri Lanka for very long before you notice how friendly people are. And helpful. Smiles and greetings, quick chats to ask where we’re from and how long we’ll be in Sri Lanka. With the troubles they’ve had you would expect folks to be a bit sour on life, but they aren’t. Our guesthouse host spoke openly about the challenges he faced during Covid, separated from his Italian wife for a year and half, and how he’d been lucky to get his building completed before inflation made it impossible, but he had the same positive attitude and warmth we continue to encounter.

A lot of visitors spend only one night in Galle, but with three nights we had time to figure out our favorite walking route to the Fort, through the entrance by the fish market.
Our pre-sunset walk into the Fort went by a cricket match in what had been a parking lot by day, near the court.
Sunset light and the Galle lighthouse behind us.
Jungle Beach, a short auto rickshaw ride away from Galle. Made a teeny bit longer by a driver who didn’t believe we had no interest in visiting the shop of a relative. Never a bad idea to follow along on your route with google maps

It can feel awkward visiting a country going through struggles like Sri Lanka, but we know that tourism was an important part of the economy, visits peaked in 2018 at 2.5 million visitors. By contrast only 400k arrived in 2022. The upsides are fewer crowds, obviously, and an easier time booking accommodations. The downside is an ever present awareness of those missing tourists and their money. Again, you wouldn’t really know how different it is from the locals attitudes towards you. Or, maybe we benefit from the ‘wow, we do miss tourists’ realization. We try to share the love, going to little beach side restaurants and buying juices, beers, and meals and tipping generously.

Fresh juice at the lovely trail side cafe of an entrepreneurial local. He and his family were selling juice, cinnamon, and aloe vera for the sunburned folks coming from Jungle Beach.
On our way to Unawatuna the skies opened up with rain.
So we ducked into a restaurant for lunch- an amazing lunch. Rich had curry rice, a Sri Lankan staple, with four different vegetable curries.
Mine was avocado curry with herbed rice. Absolutely delicious. Wasantha’s Sri Lanka Cuisine. She also offers cooking lessons.
And it was time to leave our fantastic Brixia guest house and Jinendra, our wonderful host.
Walking to the train station- yes, I’m carrying my backpack again. Six weeks post surgery and although I enjoyed having Rich carry my bag, it was time to shoulder my own pack again.
The Galle station. This time we’ll be riding in unreserved 2nd class carriages. Open windows!
Ah. The view out the door of the train. It’s quite nice with the breeze blowing through as the train winds along the coast.
The happy travel planner. Sitting in the open train door.
Traffic at a level crossing.
After a great train ride and short auto rickshaw ride we arrive at our beach stay at Unakuruwa beach at the Aga Surf View hotel. Please note that the king coconuts are cut to look like cute mice.

Our beach stay was three nights, at a lovely beach side hotel where we could have a morning swim before breakfast, and walk out our door to the restaurant for meals and cocktails, and we can walk along the narrow streets and pathways to more family run restaurants. We can see that in the time of 2.5m tourists per year this was a much busier area, with a lot of guesthouses sitting empty right now. Thank goodness for the tourists who are here, from Russia, France, Germany, a few British and even fewer Americans.

Bright hibiscus and bright houses. Makes walking fun.
One of the small beach cafes at Silent Beach. And a couple of the ubiquitous beach dogs.
Lunch in the shade at silent beach. The Sri Lankens are very good at decorating to give you that casual beach vibe.
Plenty of shade gets approval from me.
Another small family restaurant a short walk from our hotel.
Plenty of fishing along this coast.
Fisherman’s break hut?
The beaches here are quite clean. Rich doing his part to help keep them that way.
Roadside fish stands to sell the catch.

We’re headed out to the safari part of our Sri Lanka stay, hopefully the next post will feature elephants. So far we are very happy with our Sri Lanka stay, and we hope for easier times and more stability for the people here. And we hope for our fellow tourists to keep visiting and keep spending.

The happy, if hot and sweaty, travelers.