What a summer it has been! I kicked it off in November with an amazing three weeks, backpacking through Sri Lanka with Jon. We saw wild elephants, ate amazing curries and lazed about on beautiful beaches. After an incredible few weeks, it was back on a plane and home for Christmas. On December 28th, the extended family and myself then jetted of to Fiji for two weeks. I feel so lucky to have been able to see two beautiful countries with loved ones. Exploring, soaking up the sunshine, hiking, swimming, drinking, dancing and all round relaxing, have been some of the highlights. Here is a further run down of my summer adventures.
The summer started with Sri Lanka (Lanka), a country only really beginning to blossom for the tourism industry and I am glad I saw it this way. The country is laced with tea fields, national parks, wildlife, awesome food and beautiful people. It took a bit of getting used to the pace of Lanka and of course a few days to get back into the travel mode, but we had a total blast. Night one was spent in a very hot hostel, next to the airport. We spent $10 to get there in a car and it was to be the only car ride of the entire trip. We had to wake the night attendant, who obviously had grown used to the loud noise and heat. We made it to the room with a fan, threw our bags off and hopped in to bed. I was so tired I didn’t care about the humidity at midnight or the noise. As you may have seen in my previous posts about travels, travelling from point a to point b, is never as glamorous as the Instagram account may seem.
Day two and we jumped in my very first Tuk-Tuk to an ATM and supermarket for water. The honking, weaving out of the lines and the overtaking is insane, but somehow in the madness of it all, it works. We then enjoyed bananas and coconut pancakes (Pani Pol) for breakfast, showered and jumped on a city bus to Colombo. The bus costs 140 rupees for the both of us, about AU$1.40. As you can see from the price of the taxi, this is why we never got in a car in Lanka again. The bus was open to the elements, doors, windows, everything. People were singing and playing music, and there was a TV in the front of the bus playing karaoke the entire way. We arrived at the Colombo fort railway station and begun the haggling for our next Tuk-Tuk. Thank goodness Jon had some experience with the haggling before, as it is intense. For us we are arguing over a few dollars, but for the drivers, it is the difference between getting the average weekly earning in a day or not, so it is serious business. The first guy tells us 800 rupee, the second, 400 rupee. The drastic drop excites us, so we take it. When we arrive at the hostel however, he informs us, it should have been 200 rupee. It takes a few goes of getting ripped off, before you can work out the fair prices. We then extended our visas at the immigration office, had an awesome lunch of rice and curry and walk back to the hostel in the sunset.
Day three, we made our way on foot to the Commonwealth city cemetery. Through the thousands of headstones, I finally started to concentrate on reading them and Jon’s Great Uncle’s was the first I read. Jon’s great uncle Ivan Knight was on his way home from the war when he came down with pneumonia and unfortunately passed away in Colombo. We left a feather and a rock from home on the headstone as well as flowers. We then walked back through the streets to a shopping mall to pick up a SIM card AU$14 for the month. We then had more rice and curry; I had the vegetarian and Jon, the fish. Basically what the dish is is a large portion of rice in the centre, then about 5 different types of curry around it, with poppadum’s and chutney on the side. We definitely deserved a lunch break after the 24km of walking that day. After lunch, I undertook my first haggling experience and nailed it! I had the game face and the exact change, it couldn’t have gone any better. We went to the station to book our seat on the train to Kandy. You usually have to pre-book first and second-class seats. If you rock up on the day of travel, you might be lucky, or you might have to travel third class. Which just means no seats. Second class is split into two, reserved and unreserved, these carriages include seats but with the windows open. Finally there is First class, which is reserved seats and air-conditioning. We generally travelled second class because the train is so slow that with the windows open it is better for sightseeing and photos. However on that first train ride to Kandy, First class was “apparently” all that was left. You could be travelling anywhere, sitting on the comfy seat, air-conditioning and movie screens. Those tickets were AU$10, so it did not bother me, but from that point on we always tried for second class.
We left off for Kandy on Day four, Jon tried the train food that came past. He tried prawns in a deep fried dough ball, also a falafel-tasting ball. It was delicious and salty, however I steered clear of the prawns. You point to what you would like, they wrap it a newspaper sleeve for you and then say how much you owe them. When we arrived , we had Tuk-Tuk drivers left, right and centre asking us to come with them. Jon had told me that its best to walk away from the station for a bit to get out of the craziness, and also get a better price. A guy followed us however and was very friendly. We went with him and he tried to sell a deal for the next day to us for 4000 rupee. The hostel told us it should be 2000 when we arrived. We met an Aussie guy and a Swedish girl at the hostel and went for lunch together. It was the best little café, making traditional Sri Lankan dishes. We then walked around the beautiful lake before heading back for a swim in the hostel pool.
Day five, Jon and I caught a Tuk-Tuk to the Royal Botanical Gardens Peradeniya, this driver also tried to sell us a tour deal. They all want to be your driver for the day taking you to the several attractions around Kandy, including monasteries, and elephant orphanages. This wasn’t for us, so we decided to spend our day strolling through the gardens. Entry to the park was 1000 rupees. It had the most incredible orchid flowers and bamboo forests. You could also wander past families of monkeys cleaning each other. We caught a Tuk-Tuk back to the same café as yesterday (Garden Café), where I smashed four vegetable roti, my new favourite food. The afternoon was spent lazing in the sun by the pool and then we walked back down to garden café for more potato curry and roti. We went with this Hawaiian man, who was a travel writer and talked the entire time. He was very interesting and had a lot of stories to tell. We then drank beer and then tea on the rooftop of the hostel. The weather was perfect even though we were now up in the mountains.
Day six begins hilariously with an insane monkey attack on the rooftop at breakfast. We were sitting with an Australian couple admiring the monkeys saying how cute they were when we realised it was after our food. It jumps on the table, fangs and all, grabbing the jam bowl with its hands. The old Sri Lankan man gets a boat oar, who knows were from and starts chasing it. Meanwhile 15 hostel guest are laughing and squealing in a huddle. The monkey just hisses at the man and jumps on the two Dutch girls table, stealing the crackers. It finally then leaps off into the trees and we all slowly pull our shit together sitting back down and composing ourselves. It then makes it way back to the table finding the jam again, throwing its little devil hands into the jar. By this stage we were all in the kitchen, which is an enclosed glass box and we are watching the whole thing go down. The old man and the oar, the manager and the broom and this little shit of a monkey with the jam jar. He jumps on the roof and drops the jar, which smashes everywhere. He then runs off on power lines. It was seriously the most hilarious breakfast. The food when we did eat finally was amazing. It was coconut rice and chilli paste and we drunk fresh passion fruit juice and Ceylon tea. We then said goodbye and headed for the train station, running into mister tour guide from day 1 in Kandy. He asked us why we didn’t go with him, we told him we didn’t take a tour at all, he smiled and wished us safe travels. We hopped on a bus to Dambulla. The station was absolutely nuts! Jumped on the bus with our bags, which was a tad dramatic, as the driver wanted to put the bags underneath the bus, we insisted, as it was all of our stuff that we kept it with us. By the end of the travels, we didn’t care about where our bags were, but for the first time, we were just testing the waters. From Dambulla we jumped on another bus to Sigiriya. This bus was so hot and everyone stands up for foreigners to sit, which made us feel awful. Jon stood and let a women and a baby sit, who stood for us. The sitting system, from what I could make of it, seemed to be first for the Buddhist Monks, then tourists, then females, then males. The driver was nice enough to ask our guesthouse, and made a special stop for us on the road. We walked into Liyon Rest Guesthouse and it felt like we were on safari. The little huts out in the field, surrounded by trees and kingfisher birds flying around. It was sunset and truly beautiful. We had the welcome tea and then went for a walk up the road to an archeological ruin. We ate a home cooked dinner from the managers ‘mama’ $6 each and it was amazing. The mosquito zapper that night did not work, so Jon and I were getting slammed, even with spray on us. Blood spots were everywhere after the 3am killing spree.
Today we jumped on the bus to Sigiriya (Lions Rock). Then a Tuk-Tuk to a smaller rock on the side of Sigiriya fort, which was $5 instead of $45 for Sigiriya. We had it to ourselves, got to take pictures of the site and saw the biggest horizontal brick Buddha. Walking down was a whole lot easier. We turned down a $2 ride and walked in the heat of the day, which was kind of silly and trivial. We then wanted to catch a ride to a resort, to spend the afternoon in their pool and restaurant, which they allow. So we haggled a man from 1200 rupees to 700 as the iPhone said it was 10km. However this was birds eye not road kilometers. So when we arrived I felt bad for the guy, asked his number and asked that if he collected us later that night, I would pay him 1200 and gave him 800 for that ride as it was around 30 minutes. The resort was incredible, it looks like a long lost Jurassic park. The building is completely enclosed in vines and trees and the corridors are open to the wild. We swam in the infinity pool and laid on the sun chairs reading our books until sunset. It was incredible! We got changed into our ‘going out’ attire, and went to the buffet dinner. There were so many options you could not even try everything. We stuffed ourselves silly and bagged a couple of things, called our driver and made our way back to the mosquito hut. Our driver came and we paid him the agreed amount when we arrived back safely. He dodged feral dogs and cows the entire way. I gave him the bananas from the buffet as for some reason I still felt shit. Jon told me we just paid him a quarter of his monthly wage and that made be feel better. The manager of the homestay had fixed our room with a new mosquito zapper and we slept without a single bite.
We enjoyed another beautiful breakfast the next day, paid the bill and jumped on the bus back to Kandy to do our washing, staying at the same hostel as last time. When we arrived we booked our tickets to Hatton. We ate dinner with a Danish girl and Argentinian man, also had great stories to listen to.
Day nine, we caught a Tuk-Tuk to the station, and the driver drove so fast on back roads, laughing the entire way. We were late for the train, but hey… It is Lanka, the train is also late. When the train arrived, we accidentally jumped on Second class unreserved. You are unable to walk through the train, so a huge tour group jammed us in. I was not standing when we had paid for seats, so I pushed through the crowd and Jon followed. When the train arrives, it is so manic with people pushing on and off to get the unreserved seats. We finally find our carriage with help from the guard. The train journey itself was incredible, winding through the tea fields for three hours. We get off at the Hatton station and find a driver with my name on a sign organised by the hotel. We pick up some water and snacks and the drive takes around one and a half hours. He stops along the way allowing us to take pictures and enjoy the magnificent view. The room is very old and basic, but we were leaving for the hike at 2am, so it really didn’t matter. We enjoy rice, curry and beer for dinner and head to bed. Outside is filled with barking dogs and tour groups chatting loudly. I slept for probably 2 hours.
2am we get up, dress warmly and begin the 5800 steps to the summit of Adam’s Peak for sunrise. It is said to be the sacred footprint of Buddha/Adam/Allah. We see a lot of foreigners walking the 7km road to the base. This hike is intense and as it is a pilgrimage, there are people of all ages doing it. There were monks barefoot, from locals carrying things up on their heads, to kids 10 years old. It was the hardest hike I have ever done, and I am glad you do it at nighttime as you can’t see what is ahead of you and it is also cooler. A monk at the start blessed us, and we make a donation. Jon and I quickly ditch the group we started with, as we are not avid hikers, we stopped every few meters to breath, using the power poles every 20 steps as mini goals. The moon is out so you can only see a few steps in front of you and the vague outline of the mountain range. It was off peak season, however you can make stops the entire way at teahouses for bananas, drinks, and roti. The prices increase the higher you get. Arriving at the top felt like the biggest accomplishment. We strip off and hang everything on the railing with the 200 other tourists. We put dry, warm cloths on and find a step to watch as the stars turn to into the sunrise. The mountain range begins to illuminate. A monk then opens the monastery and rings the bells. It is truly magical. Walking down is faster, but very difficult on your already sore legs and knees. Half way down we see men carrying concrete bags on their heads, wearing thongs. Some ask for food and water. I hand over my apples and water. I instantly felt bad for complaining. We arrive back at the room, drink some tea and then our driver arrives to take us to the 11am train. The hotel owner begged for a good review on booking.com. Whilst we didn’t sleep, it is the closest guesthouse to the base. The driver takes us back to Hatton; we stop at a bakery for some donuts and roti. We wait for the train; I use my first stand up toilet. Then we get some street food (pop corn) and Jon pushes me on the unreserved carriage to find seats. We get two seats and buckle down for the painfully slow, rocky ride through the tea fields and mountains. It is said to be the most beautiful train journey in Lanka. That it was, however my legs were so sore it was all I could focus on. We arrive in Ella to a storm of locals selling hotels, guest rooms, drivers and motorbikes. We navigate through them, crossing the road to our 4 star hotel pre-booked. A huge hill to walk up to the hotel, which was so mean on our bodies with our packs, however we are greeted with a cold towel and fresh juice. The room is awesome and I have my first hot shower since home. Washing my hair feels amazing and Jon is glad to not have to walk anymore due to chafe. We watch Harry Potter and order room service. Perfect ending and exactly what we needed. We are definitely flashpackers.
Day 11, I can barely walk. My muscles are so, so, so sore, it is insane! We eat a western breakfast, which actually makes me feel sick because I haven’t eaten anything but curry in so long. We jump on the bus and we had a dare devil driver. He was going way too fast down this mountain, every time we came around the corner we were lucky not to find a truck waiting. The back seat actually broke because of his intense breaking. The kids next to us were laughing, but no one else seemed to be worried. Everyone was holding on though. We swap busses halfway when we are out of the mountains and make our way to Tangalle. We saw an elephant walking through the rice paddies on the side of the road which was cool. We then catch a Tuk-Tuk to a reggae hostel I have seen online. We arrive to 5 men, smoking, drinking and playing cards. They are happy and very keen to show us the room. We eat lunch whilst we decide if we are going to stay there and get drinking with them. They organise a nice price of $30 a night and it could not get any closer to the beach. We then swim in the ocean and watch the sunset. Bob Marley is blaring in the background; we then eat dinner with a Swiss girl and American dude. We exchange travel stories and I then slowly make my way up the stairs to the room to sleep.
Day 12, today is my 21st Birthday. We spent the day chilling on the beach, and also ducking into town for ice blocks and a birthday cake. I didn’t want a cake, but Jon insisted. A huge slab cake with decorations and my name cost $6. This also included three cupcakes, one each and one for our driver. Jon said it was the best $6 he had ever spent, I agreed. We then napped and went down stairs for some dinner (fresh fish and chips). The guys from the hostel bring out Arrack (Sri Lankan coconut rum), beers and candles. We sing, cut the cake and then the ‘Sri Lankan family’ starts feeding it to each other, including Jon and I. So everyone has a piece, but you feed it to everyone else. It was hilarious. The staff had even invited friends to join in on the party. They then pull out fireworks, that Jon decided to light. Then we also we lit a bonfire. We dance a little before it begins to rain, so we head to bed.
Day 14, we catch a bus to Tissa, which is a 2 hour journey. We stop at a market for fruit and water. The room had no aircon and was super hot as we were in a rainforest environment. A huge storm came and turned everything into a river! It was insane. We book into our early morning Yala National Park safari and watch YouTube until we sleep.
Day 15, we woke at 4am for the Safari. The jeeps race all the way to the gates to be the first one into the national park when it opens at 6am. The rivers, trees, rocks, wildlife and sunrise were incredible. We saw elephants, monkeys, buffalo, sloths, birds and a lot of peacocks. We unfortunately did not see the star animal, a jaguar. It did not bother me however as we had an awesome day racing through the park. Criticisms of the park would be that jeeps get way to close to animals and scare them away. Also too many jeeps in general, that are half full. We then caught the bus back to Tangalle, staying at a different place, which was silly, as the reggae place was so awesome. Hotel we stayed at was bloody horrible and being renovated, awful decision on my end. We end up finding a cool driver with a pink Tuk-Tuk and he takes us to a really nice place for dinner. He also showed us how to eat traditionally with our hands. He then also taught us a lot about the culture and the country. Finally he dropped us back, also offering to take us further along the coast tomorrow.
Day 16, we take the driver up on the offer and head all the way to Tallala, stopping at a few beaches along the way. The coastline and beaches are all so beautiful. We then bargain for a room for $70 a night with breakfast and dinner included. We spent the three days chilling on the beach, eating drinking and enjoying the sunshine. We build a sandcastle one afternoon and had a huge crowd watching us. We explained that it was Sigiriya (Lions rock fort), which helped to describe what a sand castle was.
Unfortunately, whilst relaxing at Tallala beach, I check my UNI exams results to find I failed one of my examinations. I contact my tutor back in Australia who said that if I didn’t do a repeat exam before christmas, I had to repeat the entire semester. Super unaccommodating, but hey it was me who failed, first time too, so really bad timing. I contacted Singapore Airlines to see how much flights were to change. Jon convinced me that it really was smarter for me to go home and do it; otherwise it would jeopardise my last year of University study. It made me so sad to cut the holiday short and I felt so guilty for cutting short Jon’s trip. He did not seemed too worried, but it really did not sit well with me.
Day 18, a Canadian lady went absolutely crazy at a staff member who shooed a wild dog away from the hotel. She was very overprotective of these dogs, which was very entertaining over breakfast. This was perfect, as service in Lanka is super slow. Takes a half hour for your drink and then an hour for food, and it does not come coordinated with your table guest. They serve me, then a man across the dinning room, then Jon’s drink, then someone else, then my tea, then Jon’s food, then someone else, then my food. I found it hilarious, but at times frustrating when you could see the food in the kitchen sitting there. We ate a seafood lunch, beautiful last day, watching the sunset.
Day 19, we catch a bus to Matara, swapped and then a further bus to Galle. We found a nice room and bargained again. $85 for a really cute room and breakfast included. We walked around the Galle fort, which is set up just for tourists. We brought presents and then had lunch, mango lassi and rice and curry. We then had a nap, before heading to a cute bar for some drinks. We find ourselves a rooftop restaurant for seafood, beers, brownie and ice cream. The bill was expensive for Lanka ($50), but we had fun.
Day 20, we collected some more presents and wandered around the fort. We had a burger for lunch before heading back to the hotel to wait it out for our evening train up to Colombo. A lighting storm had come over just as we were leaving for the station. However our driver is still nice enough to let us stop for roti and water before we get to the station. We get on 2nd class unreserved. Arrived back in Colombo, it was dark. Leave the station for the hotel. Jon uses his iPhone to direct the Tuk-Tuk driver. Checked into a nice room, eat 2-minute noodles for dinner and watched movies.
Day 21, a struggle with the slow service as it finally started to bug us. The toast was always cold and it was killing me. Such a small factor that you think would not matter, but it was frustrating. We did a little more gift shopping and then exchange Jon’s money back to Australian. The driver on the way there was shocked we were not religious and kept asking questions about it. We then walked along the beach, through really nice hotels for air-conditioning. When finally back at the hotel, I hope there is a shower, there isn’t. We walk for roti and wait for 5 hours until we can leave for the airport. We talk to the hotel front desk staff about their University studies, goals and dreams. Also about the countries gender inequality. We then get a Tuk-Tuk to the station where we hop on a bus. I am sitting at the front with three other men, no seat belts and air-conditioning blaring in my face. It was a heck of a journey. Jon is sitting with our bags behind me. We arrived at the airport also hoping for a shower, no luck. So we changed clothes, spend our last rupees at the supermarket and jump on our 1am plane. I had gastro on the plane home so as you can imagine, that was fun. In Changi Airport Singapore, Jon uses our airport vouchers to buy a new perfume; we eat some breakfast and jump on the last leg back to Sydney!
Sri Lanka was an incredible adventure and even though we cut the journey short, we saw everything we wanted to. It was my 20th country to visit and I would love to go back one day. I hope everyone who reads this is convinced to go along for a summertime adventure in Sri Lanka. I will be making another blog post for more pictures in the coming days. Also next week you will be able to read about my Fijian adventure!