A long weekend in Sri Lanka: Kandy, Adam’s Peak and Negombo.
When I found out I had a 4-day weekend in September, I must admit I thought about Bali, the Philippines, and Myanmar. Then another option unexpectedly presented itself with the promise of a hassle and visa-free vacation spent between pristine beaches, misty mountains, and tea plantations. I’d never really considered Sri Lanka, but now that I thought about it … tea terraces weaving through the mountains, thick forests with luxurious foliage, colorful sarongs and leather bags, spicy food, and masks!! I didn’t take much convincing. I bought my flight ticket on a whim and – I guess ol’ Ceylon it is then.
Fresh out of the plane after an 11-hour journey from Vietnam through Kuala Lumpur, I’m awake, alert and curious about everything that surrounds me. In a nutshell:
- Went to a clothes factory and saw how they dye scarves and clothes. Very hard working people dying and making scarves, sarongs, paintings, scarves and all sorts of shawls decorated with dancing Shiva, elephant designs, and women dancers. Bought a green elephant scarf.
- Very thick jungle everywhere with many palm trees and orange coconuts (60 rupees for one). Chaos on the road like in Vietnam, just outside of Colombo International Airport cars overtaking other cars but less honking than in Vietnam.
- Ruwan, our friendly driver, expertly passes queues of lazy tuk tuks while commenting on everything we see, and patiently answering all of our questions.
- Big bikes everywhere, not little the shabby little scooters and mopeds we see in Vietnam.
- Red, blue and green tuk tuks on the road from the airport to Kandy with funny words of wisdom on the back window like Life is not a bed of roses or Onl;y one sunshine for all.
- Sri Lankans are not as pushy as Indians. They’re nice and friendly but not intrusive and they speak good English. They’ll cast their “Hello, where from?” or “Tuk tuk madam?” around but won’t ask again 5 times, you know, just to make sure the answer is still the no.
- Stopped for a nice scenic picture in the mountains, where tourists and monkeys enjoyed gorgeous views of the forest. Or was it a jungle? Bought sweet peanut candy for my students (that’s if there’s some left when I get home), and corn on a cob to snack (40 rupees).
- Went to a spice garden and had a quick tour of the garden by a friendly guide who showed us all the plants, trees and herbs. Delicious tea (vanilla, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg). Bought some roasted curry powder.
- Now we’re close to Kandy and it’s raining. In Kandy we went straight to the Kandian Cultural Centre to watch a show of traditional dancing, singing, and walking on fire. They all had absolutely lovely and creative outfits. Martial dance and mask dance. We then checked-in the hotel, which is to say we dropped our bags and went straight up to the rooftop for a drink with a view.
- Ruwan then took us to a place in town that had good food but nothing typically from Sri Lanka. No matter, I had mattar paneer with naan.
- We all went for a walk in the streets of Kandy, around the lake and to an old colonial hotel that remained as it was at the time of the British Empire. Kandy really is a quiet and charming little town at night. The air is fresh and a bit cooler at night. We could hear birds happily tweeting about in the trees even after dark. Lovely stroll around the man-made lake.
- Ruwan took us to Slightly Chilled, a British owned rooftop bar with a great atmosphere. A two-man band was playing some popular tunes and when they stopped they played some chilled music. Lots of expats and some locals too, a pool table in the back. The owner sat and chatted with us for a while, gave us some tips about climbing Adam’s Peak and possibly attending a cricket game on Sunday. We went home around 11pm beat, but happy.
Kandy turned out to be very crowded even at 9am, with many cars and traffic jams around the lake. At the Temple of the Tooth we had to cover our legs and arms and make our way through a crowd of local people dressed in white, who were carrying trays of jasmine flowers, and other colorful flowers and offerings.
The smell of burning incense and the sound of flutes celebrating a ritual in a temple nearby surrounded us like a warm summer day. We took our shoes off and walked barefoot on the hot pavement, standing out in the crowd. The light and flowery smell of jasmine and frangipane floated in the air.
We went to a handicraft store where we were explained the different kinds of wood, and the meaning of the Rashka masks, which are used in ceremonies and processions. We can usually see them hanging inside or outside houses to ward off evil. For example, Mayura Raksha, the Peacock Devil, means peace and harmony. The Cobra Devil, Naga Raksha, protection. The Dragon Devil, Gini Raksha, represents good health and long life. And there’s also Gara Raksha, the King of Demons, and Gurulu Raksha, the Mask of the Bird.
The rainbow tree particularly caught our attention and fascinated us. They grate the rainbow tree to obtain an orange powder, put it in hot water and ta-daaaaa! – here’s some orange dye to paint the masks. They stuck an iron file in the orange water, twirled it a bit, and the water became purple. They then squeezed in bit of lime and suddenly the water cleared up and turned yellow. The last color was pink when they added some chalk, hence the name if this particular tree – Rainbow Tree. Two colorful masks and a wooden bowl left the handicraft store with me and joined my growing mask collection in Vietnam.
We also checked out Helga’s Folly, a peculiar restaurant and hotel with an impressive collection of antiques and extravagant, random items like fake animal heads on a wall, a lot of Christmassy articles and melted candles. And then we hit the road and got deeper and deeper into Tea Country. From Kandy to Sri Pada, we drove through Hatton and Watawala on a mountainous road passing nutty trees with sharp angles and massive, twisted roots. The tea plantations were all around, surrounding us, between earth and sky; beautiful terraces and gigantic trees with imaginary roots that go from the center of the earth and peak way over the thick forest roof.
White Water Rafting was a lot of fun. We did 5km in one hour (3000RP), took in some very green and wild landscapes, and Ashley swam in the rapids. Every so often our raft captain shouted at us “get down, hold the rope, forward and relax” and like good sailors, we obeyed. We got wet, went up and down a lot, and the weather was lovely on that early September day in the late afternoon. My clothes and shoes were wet, so I changed and returned to the car barefoot. We went back the same way we came and headed for Sri Pada where we were to spend the night in a hotel 300m from the beginning of the Adam’s Peak trail.
The landscape started changing right after we left Kandy and all the way to the rafting place and to Sri Pada we were in Tea Country. We passed more green, lush bushy terraces of tea plantations, more alien trees with gigantic, long bodies, and always those reckless drivers overtaking anyone and anything without any notion of lanes or white lines. Many times we found ourselves driving in the wrong lane facing a truck or a bus coming at us at full speed. A couple of times Ruwan managed to fall back in the right lane a split second before what looked like a very probable crash with incoming traffic. The banks of the man-made lake in Sri Pada are nothing short of spectacular. Hills of tea plantations, misty mountains, grey clouds casting a mysterious shade over the lush forest, it was like a mix between our green European forests and the rice paddies of Vietnam. The colors are dark and bright shades of green, grey and blue and I’m sure that on a sunny day, those postcard perfect views must do justice to what was once called Ceylon. We quickly settled in our dusty hotel room facing a river, had some Kottu at the hotel restaurant and went to bed early to catch a few hours’ sleep before the hike.
1:45am came way too soon and we got ready for the big hike. Sportswear, running shoes, flashlights, water bottles and nuts, and we stepped out into the cold and damp. We were joined on the hike by many other pilgrims who, like us, were hoping to watch the sun rise over the clouds from the summit of Adam’s Peak. The trail went up smoothly through mini villages of shanty stalls and shops, which I assumed would be selling food and water to the hikers in high season. Only a couple were open when we started the hike at 2am and they were still closed when we came back down at 8am. The hike started off smoothly with large steps, then soon turned into nasty flights of steep and high stairs.
All we could see in the quiet, dark night was the dancing beams of the flashlights we all carried pointing towards the misty way ahead. Some were faster, some were slower. I paused many times to stop my lungs from jumping out of my chest and rest my aching legs, but very quickly the chills set in and I had to start again. I also had very conflicting thoughts about making it to the summit at all but somehow, I kept going. The last hour to the top was the hardest with steep, endless stairs winding through the mountainside.
At 5:30am, I knew I must be near as I could see the horizon getting clearer and dawn peaking out from behind a blanket of dark clouds. I snapped a couple of pictures as an excuse to rest for a few minutes then kept going and 10 minutes later I was at the summit of Adam’s Peak. That’s when the clouds rolled up to our level and a drizzle started. I was proud to have made it up there, but my angry body was making me pay for it, and I knew it was only the beginning. I had some warm and sweet tea made and sold by a local man and met up with Ashley who had made it to the top an hour before me. I guess everyone at the summit must’ve had the same thought at that point: are we going to see the sunrise at all? Or shall we head back before we freeze to death up here? We headed back.
It started raining harder as we went down the same way and shapes took form more clearly in the grey morning. Going back was probably harder than climbing up Adam’s Peak because of the physical fatigue, hunger and aching calves, not to mention the cold and endless rain that would only stop after we’d made it back to the hotel. My ankles and knees hurt at every step, I had to angrily brush off leeches from my ankles while trying not to step in puddles of mud and I was hungry. I tried to make it down as fast as I could while fighting off the pain in my ankles, calves and knees. The last hour back was the worst. Torrential rain poured down on the last of us on the trail and turned it into mini rapids. I was soaked to the bone, cold, tired, hungry and hurting. I seemed to recognize some landmarks from the way up but everything looked so different in the grey morning rain. I hoped our hotel would appear at every turn of the road and when it finally did, I asked for a bag of uncooked rice and stuffed my wet iPhone in it. Hail the Gods of rice again! I wasn’t sure what I wanted most once back at the hotel – breakfast or a shower? But I really had to get out of my wet clothes before I could do anything, so shower it was. I don’t know if it was just unusually hot or if the contrast between the cold rain and the hot water was just too much but I could barely stand in the burning water and that shower had to be cut short. Fast-forward to a long overdue breakfast with a view, probably the most breathtaking view we’d had so far. I packed my wet clothes and shoes and we headed back to the coast.
Note to self for the next big hike: a tough hike, torrential rain, hunger, fatigue and pain makes me cranky. Surely there must be something wrong with me.
Sunday afternoon was left for well deserved R&R in Negombo, a little town on the west coast a mere half hour from Colombo Airport. I checked-in at Beach Walk Hotel and I’m pretty sure I was the only client. The staff took very good care of me and tried to accommodate me, my wet clothes and my soon-to-be forgotten momentary crankiness. I washed my clothes, hung them out to dry but the weather wouldn’t let me and it started raining. Great timing! The fatigue and muscle pain suddenly caught up with me and my new warm sheets felt like the most amazing thing.
That evening I took myself out to the Fish Hut, a lovely local restaurant that I picked at random on the main road. One of the reasons for choosing that one was the benevolent looking owner who greeted me when I approached. I also liked the wooden decor, the menu (did someone say jumbo prawns?) and no tourists in sight. I treated myself to a generous portion of jumbo prawns expertly cooked in butter and garlic sauce – and even desert while reading a book. Again, I was the only customer at the time and so I chatted with the owner and his daughter. I returned to my hotel early, full of good food, tired and positively content.
Sunny Monday morning with breakfast on the beach, what’s not to like? My hotel was maybe smaller and less fancy than its next-door neighbor of the Jetwing chain, but it had a great little backyard with reclining beach beds and some chairs. That’s where I had a lovely fruit salad, eggs and toasts. I took my time, gathered my thoughts and my belongings and went for a walk on the beach then to the small city center of Negombo. If you’re reading this and are hoping to enjoy the beach in Negombo some time soon, you might want to think again. Sadly, the beach was dirty, full of rubbish and stray dogs, and no coconut trees to be found either. #sigh.
All afternoon I hopped from souvenir shop to souvenir shop. I spent my last couple of hours back at the Fish Hut where the owner very generously served me a portion of chicken with noodles to fit my last few hundred rupees. If there’s one thing I’ll remember from this weekend, other than the nightmarish walk down Adam’s Peak in the morning rain, it’s the kindness, spontaneity and generosity of the locals. From the average joe having a beer on a Friday night to the cab driver who took me to the airport, the street corn-on-a-cob vendor, the hotel staff, the restaurant waiter or owner, the desk clerk and the immigration officer at the airport, they all smiled at me welcomingly with a typical little nudge of the head. I didn’t feel any pressure to use their service, or go eat in their restaurant, I didn’t have to repeat “no, thank you” 5 times, and always the smiley, welcoming attitude. The people of Sri Lanka really do their country justice by being themselves.
Ruwan Peiris: 0094771624892