Farewell to Sri Lanka

Thursday/Friday 04/05 April 2013- Colombo.

Again I was in no real rush this morning, all I have to do is make it the few kilometres to the train station in Galle for the 1:15pm train to Colombo. I wasn’t planning on doing anything else with the day so did not get down to the restaurant for breakie until almost 8:30 and then I took over an hour to consume it. While I was eating the sky just opened up and poured with rain for quite a while. I was hoping it would clear the skies and the air and we would have a clear day with much reduced humidity – it was a forlorn hope. It seemed even worse!

The roof in my room leaked while I was at breakfast, fortunately not onto, or into my open pack, but near enough for me to organise everything into a pile on my bed while I lazed about for an hour or so before checking out at the last possible minute.

I took a tuk-tuk to Galle train station just after checking out at 11:00 and was surprised to find there was no 1:15 train, there was a 2:45 train. This meant over three hours in Galle station, oh well. I bought my ticket and settled down on a step to do emails to kill some time. I was, of course, an immediate target for a variety of touts and beggars and finally got sick of it and threw my pack on back and walked off to find somewhere less public to sit.

I found an unlikely home for a couple of hours – Galle KFC. I have not been into a KFC in decades- McDonalds and BK, yes – but not KFC! I ordered a coffee and a vege burger and took a seat in quiet and uninterrupted air conditioned luxury. It was a good choice!

I sent a text to Benne to say farewell and it turned out he was already on the train I was catching Having got on at an earlier stop in Matara. Small world, I found him when I got in but we did not get to sit together on the journey as the train was quite full

I hung out a door for a while before the rain started to come down Once the conductor came round checking tickets and kicked the non class 2 passengers out I managed to get a seat for the rest of the three hour ride. Sadly it was on the wrong side of the train and I did not have a window seat.

P1010469

P1010473

The train track from Galle to Colombo runs pretty much directly up the coast, often times only metres away from the beach, so the views were great, though with rain and other passengers there was little opportunity to take photos.

P1010472

We arrived in Colombo Fort station just before 6:00, I said a farewell to Benne and we agreed to try and catch in England or Germany at some stage. I enjoyed travelling with him, thanks Benne !

P1010478

Before I got a tuk-tuk to Trudi’s place I picked up a couple of rotis to eat on the way, my last ones in Sri Lanka. Most of the time the take-away food comes wrapped in newspaper or whatever paper comes to hand, often it is stapled together to make bag. This was the first time I have had some school book, maths or accounting I guess. I am not sure on the hygiene of it all, but what the heck – it is what it is!

P1010479

Trudi was away back in Australia but had a friend, Colleen, staying in the apartment and minding her daughter, so I had someone to let me in when I arrived. It was great to have a good hot shower and even better to have a glass of red or two. I spent a very pleasant evening chatting to Colleen before making my 11:00pm Skype appointment with El. Maybe the last one for a while as I am not sure what internet access I will have on the boat. As always, lovely to see her again.

Friday morning was not too much of an early start and I got to eat toast and Vegemite for breakfast which was just absolute magic – sometimes it is the little things that are missed the most. I got all my washing done and dried, even my month old sleeping bag liner, which was a relief – probably to all. I was going to post a box of stuff back to NZ and asked Colleen about getting to the post office. She volunteered to take it and post it to my mum as she was off to Auckland next week, that was very cool and I off loaded a bunch of stuff I was not going to need on the boat.

We went for lunch to the Barefoot Cafe, a very popular local hang out, the food was great as were the couple of bottles of Shiraz we made disappear as well. I had a great afternoon, and then it was time to pack up and head off to the airport for the flight to Singapore.

I really liked Sri Lanka, if I ever chose to come back to a country again I would put it on the list, the Sri Lankans are very friendly and hospitable and with the exception of some tuk-tuk drivers and guest house operators are honest as trustworthy as well. The country is mostly beautiful and clean and has a great mix of things to do from the spiritual to the profane, from the active to the restful. The best thing is the food is delicious, plentiful and cheap.

A class above first class

Wednesday 13 March 2013 – Colombo – Anuradhapura.

I had a far better sleep, but still felt shattered when I woke. I was up earlier than the day before but faffed for a bit in the morning, got some washing done and semi-packed for my departure in the afternoon, basically I did sod all.

I took a tuk-tuk back to the Pettah market area and this time declined the day tour. My first stop was the Colombo Fort train station, this is the main station for Colombo.

P1000233

I collected the ticket I had booked on line for this afternoon’s journey to Anuradhupara as I didn’t want to put pressure on myself trying to organise ticket collection while carrying my pack and day bag – especially in this heat. I then walked around Pettah for an hour or so, but really didn’t see much that was photo worthy, or that I felt comfortable shooting. I have seen lots of Asian market places selling shoes, bags, cheap clothes, cell phones and plastic stuff so a wee bit jaded by it all. I did like this section, which I have dubbed ‘speaker corner’.

P1000234

I decided to do the stupid thing given it was hot and sunny, and walk the five or so km’s back to the apartment. I could do with the exercise, it has been too long and I am getting way too saggy… I had made it out of town and was walking along Galle Face when I was approached by a man who told me he was teacher in the monastery I visited yesterday. He had very good English so we chatted amiably as we walked, before taking a tuk-tuk back to the monastery where I had a better look around and was shown a Buddha in a tree which I do really like. Of course I had to give him a tip, and only had the equivalent of $10NZD so left feeling a bit ripped off. A lesson learned – keep small bills at all times. Which is harder said than done !

P1000235

I mooched over lunch back at Trudy’s and had a wee doze before getting another tuk-tuk back to the station for my train. I was quite early so I picked up a sim card and some mobile data before I boarded.

P1000240

I have gone with Expo-rail, which I think is a private company that tack their own carriage on the end of the main train. It is about double the price of first class, but still ridiculously cheap and I thought that for my first train ride in Sri Lanka I would travel in style.

Once on board the stewards provided us passengers with warm towels, mints and water as we departed Colombo Fort Station on time. I made an attempt to write some blog as we went through some of the flat farm land on the edge of the city but the train was rocking and rolling all over the place and it proved to be too difficult, and really I should be looking out the window anyway ! The carriage is facing backwards though which is a real shame, it is supposed to be safer that way, but I always like to see what is coming up!

I met a German guy, Benne on the platform and we chatted for a part of the way to Anuradhapura, he is staying in a different place to me and we tentatively arranged to meet up tomorrow. The journey was quite bouncy and there was not a whole load of interesting things to look at outside, the windows were too grubby to photograph through, which was expected, yet disappointing. It rained really heavily at dusk and by 6:30pm it was too dark to see much outside so I tried to doze for a bit before dinner was served. I had requested a vegetarian meal but ended up with rice and beef, oh well. I ate some of it but was not particularly hungry anyway, though it was most adequate. We finally arrived thirty minutes late at 8:45pm. After crossing under the tracks to exit the station I grabbed a taxi to my hostel, had a beer and posted a blog and went to bed – tired…

P1000243

I am glad to be back on the road again, interested to see how it will all go, today was a good day though and at least I know there are other tourists in town !

A tuk-tuk tour of Colombo

Tuesday 12 March 2013 – Colombo.

Damn it, I knew this would happen! The night before last I managed to get about three days worth of sleep in one go, so I had to make up for it last night by having none, not a second. So frustrating as I am back to being tired all over again. As well as my body clock suffering from the jet lag of being five half hours out of whack with London it was also a warm and very noisy night. Though they are not supposed to be working at night, there was concrete drilling going on at the construction site next door at 1:30 am and then grinding at 3:00. I was not a happy chappy when I did get up.

Though I did make the most of the day and was out the door by 9:00, I was going to get a tuk-tuk into the Fort area of Colombo and then walk up to the Pettah district to look around the markets. As with most tuk-tuk drivers any opportunity to open a conversation is a potential business opportunity and my driver, Lateef took the chance to offer me a two hour tour of Colombo for the princely sum of $30NZD, I found this remarkably funny and we eventually agreed on half that….

P1000162

It was worth it as I did get to see quite a few things I would not have seen on foot, plus he knew a bit about some of the history so that made it all the more worthwhile.

It appears that all developing countries have to have some Bob Marley and Che Guevara stickers and posters around the place !

P1000166

We first visited some of the old and not so old Hindu temples, or kovils in the local Sinhalese language. Both the new Kathiresan and the old Kathiresan Kovil are on the same street. It was enjoyable cruising up these noisy and crowded streets in a tuk-tuk, I am sure I have said it before in what now seem to be posts from so long ago, about how much I enjoy travelling by tuk-tuk.

P1000168

P1000172

P1000173

P1000174

P1000176

Our next stop was this catholic church and for the life of me I cannot remember what it was called, but like the Hindu temples it was busy with worshippers rushing in an out and beggars of all ages, shapes and ailments crowding the footpaths and entranceways.

P1000180

We next visited Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil one of the key temples in Colombo. The temple is unusual in that it is built from granite slabs and is unpainted, inside and out. Inside is wonderful, but no photos were allowed. Blessing with milk is carried out here so there were a number of cows in the grounds as well as two bullocks used for work. As we were in the temple grounds we were barefoot, I really needed to be careful of the puddles.

P1000182

P1000184

P1000187

We next visited Wolvendaal Church built by the Dutch in 1749. It is a large but simple church and I quite liked it. Sadly my camera battery died when I arrived and the spare I recalled was sitting on the floor in my room at Trudy’s place. Damn ! Luckily I could use my phone for a few basic shots.

2013-03-12 10.28

2013-03-12 10.31

I was given a tour of the church by one of the staff, there are five gravestones inside were the bodies of the families of the first five governors were buried. The skull and cross bones mean they died of disease and were not to be dug up.

2013-03-12 10.31

The church is sighted on the highest point of a largely flat Colombo and could be clearly seen from the harbour entrance when ships arrived. After full independence in 1948 a Buddhist stupa was built between it and the harbour entrance so this was the first religious symbol seen by arriving sailors. Sri Lanka is largely Buddhist.

2013-03-12 11.01

We next visited the food market and had a walk through the fruit section, I was given a few of the twenty four banana varieties to sample as we walked through a banana house.

2013-03-12 10.45

2013-03-12 10.49

On the way out we passed the very fresh chicken section – choose your own !

2013-03-12 10.57

That was pretty much the end of the tour so it was back to the apartment for a lie down and some lunch before heading back out for a walk round Victoria Gardens to the National Museum.

P1000206

I really enjoyed the museum, though I didn’t like having to pay an extra camera fee, especially given how poorly lit it was inside, but hopefully the money goes to the museums upkeep so I cannot complain.

I did like some of the Buddhas, especially this sandstone one from the 9th century. If you have followed some of earlier travels through SE Asia you will know how much I love the symbols and statutory of Buddhism.

P1000216

There were some very good carvings of some of the Bodhisattva as well, many well over 1200 years old.

P1000217

P1000219

P1000223

The only time someone asked to see my photo permit was when I took a photo of this 9th century bronze cast of Tara – I found that so amusing…

P1000222

In the museum grounds there was a good example of the vine covered trees that are all over Colombo, many filling round abouts. I really like them and something I miss from SE Asia. My tree photography is somewhat lacking so I have not captured this wonderful living thing as well as it deserves.

P1000209

On the way out of the museum I grabbed a couple of samosas from a street vendor and munched them on the way through Victoria Park, which seems to be completely under construction at the moment. Trudy told me that CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of government meeting) is here in November so the place is getting tarted up – at great expense to a poor nation : (

P1000228

I also passed by this roundabout temple – where devotees have to brave the seemingly constant traffic – except for the second I clicked the shutter !

P1000232

Back at Trudy’s I spent thirty minutes doing laps of the pool to cool down. There was no sun shining on the pool as it is between the two apartment blocks so it was extremely refreshing.

2013-03-12 17.08

It was a good day 🙂

Sleep, sleep and more sleep ! oooo and a visit to a temple

Monday March 11 2013 – Colombo.

OMG – Not a saying I use often, if ever but, OMG – I slept fairly solidly for almost fifteen hours. OK, I will admit to some light dozing towards the end, but fifteen hours !!! I don’t normally sleep that much in three days, let alone one night. I was obviously really tired when I went to bed.

My plan to get up at 6:15 and get outside before the heat of the day was well and truly scuppered by my waking up at 12:30 in the afternoon!

I was really groggy for a while but once I had downed a litre of pure caffeine I was only feeling mildly groggy, but with a caffeine rush going on as well – confusing 🙂

Trudy has a housekeeper, Irene, who comes in most week days to do stuff in the apartment and it took me a while to relax into letting her make me lunch and get coffee, I am not used to having help and mildly uncomfortable with it. Given unemployment, low pay and poverty in Sri Lanka I can see the benefits for this sort of work to Irene and her family. We are all considered wealthy compared to most of the Sri Lankan population, so an opportunity to feed back into the community should be taken, but it doesn’t mean I felt OK with it, different strokes and all that. It is a conversation I can see both sides of I guess, and not a topic for a lightweight travel blog!

After lunch I spent a few hours trying to put together a cohesive plan for the next couple of days. Similar to Laos, I found it hard to get useful and current information from the internet, information that was applicable to me as a traveller spending a month here rather than a week or ten days. My next goal is the ancient cities or ancient triangle and it seems a lot of the folk who have blogged their experience have hired cars for a couple of days and whipped around whole thing. I was sort of thinking of spending a couple of days in each place, maybe I am just fooling myself on how interesting they really are. I am also just starting to get to grips with the cost of entry fees which are frankly, outrageous – though I had been warned !!

After much faffing about I have booked myself a first class train seat to Anuradhapura, about four hours from Colombo. The first class seat plus a meal came to a whopping $14 NZD. I could have gone 2nd class for cheaper, but meh – I want to enjoy it ! It cost me more to go to Dartford from London – a thirty minute ride through the less scenic parts of east London, so this is really worth it. I will have to do one 2nd class journey for the experience though. Once I get there I will work out where to go and what to do next.

With that and some reasonably priced accommodation booked in Anuradhapura for three nights sorted it was time to go outside. I went out to visit the nearby Gangaramaya Temple. The temple is the biggest Buddhist site in Colombo and sprawls all over the place including over the road where I found these relics from a former building.

P1000132

Next to the temple entrance is a small elephant enclosure with a chained up temple elephant, that looks like it has gone as nutty as the polar bears used to be in Auckland Zoo, rocking back and forth. I really felt for the poor beast.

P1000140

The temple was interesting though not informative, it had a vast collection of historical items from Colombo’s as well as its own past, but no information on them. However, I really enjoyed walking around the temple site, I really do like the Buddhist imagery and idealism. Though I do need to get back into the temple viewing groove, it always takes a few days to relax back into visiting Buddhist and Hindu temples and the freedoms we tourists have to look and photograph things without restriction. They are often quite serene.

P1000143

P1000144

P1000145

P1000149

P1000153

P1000154

I liked these trucks on a side street outside.

P1000157

P1000158

I feel like I have taken the first baby steps back in to traveller mode today – and though it was a rocky start, it felt good at the end !

Bring on the adventures !

A new adventure begins !!!

Sunday 10 March 2013 – London – Colombo, Sri Lanka

After bidding farewell to El I walked back to the flat to shower and finish (start) packing before saying a thank you and see you later to Kevin. I left him sitting in the lounge with the entire contents of the kitchen stacked around him as a total kitchen renovation had started a couple of days ago, fortunately arranged around my departure date. Thanks Kevin, I really enjoyed staying in the flat and your company.

I left in the late afternoon and walked in a cool drizzle back to London Bridge station and caught the long slow tube out to Heathrow Airport. I was there semi-early and the check-in process was smooth, friendly and pain free – basically the best part of the Sri Lankan Airways experience… Once in the departure lounge I had a couple of glasses of Shiraz in one of the bars, caught up on some last minute emails and FaceBook messages and wondered if I would enjoy a month on my own on the road again.

The last bit of solo travelling I did was back in August in Spain and it was a fairly miserable time, with pretty much all of it spent as the sole English speaking traveller in the small villages I visited in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Hopefully Sri Lanka will have a good pool of travellers to share stories, experiences and the occasional meal with.

I am also a little concerned about the cost of Sri Lanka, from all I have read and heard it sounds like it is not a cheap place to stay – especially as a single traveller – has to be cheaper than London – surely!

P1000104

For a full service flight, albeit a cheap one; the flight to Colombo on Sri Lankan was, as commented in the many unfavourable internet reviews – entirely average. I could not eat the food, the worst type of low quality airline food that I thought went out in the eighties. The service was slow – but with a smile, so credit where it was due. The seat was uncomfortable and I was wedged in next to a rather large young man, who sort of oozed over onto my seat as soon as he sat down. I had screwed up my seat selection and ended up in the middle two seats in the centre block of four, damn airlines inconsistent seat numbering systems !!

P1000105

What good there was to say about it was the ride was smooth all the way to Colombo, and it was a relief to get off. Getting through immigration was a breeze as I had arranged visa on-line before departing London and I was soon in the back of a car that my friend Trudy had booked to take me the thirty kilometres from the airport to her apartment in Colombo’s district 2.

First impressions of Colombo from the back of a car ?
Clean and tidy. As is usual in Asia the horn is the most used piece of the car, even if the roads are not crowded. It ‘feel’s OK, I don’t feel intimated by being in an alien environment like I did the first time, nothing looks really strange. I like knowing that I have grown from my first touch of Asia fourteen months ago, and even the heat wasn’t too bad…

Trudy is an old friend from way back, we travelled Europe together twenty five years ago and though she is Australian and  I have seen her a few times since, most recently in London in June, she has a job that gives her a 10th floor apartment in a 35 story block just outside the ‘centre’ of town in Colombo 2.

P1000131

There is a lot of building work going on in the area as more tower blocks are being built, which is as usual a bit short sighted as there is too much capacity as it is, though I guess no-one knows what the future will bring.

Once I had got myself sorted we went for a walk down towards the waterfront and Galle Face Green. It took about twenty minutes to get to the ocean and we passed this open air laundry on the way.

P1000110

Galle Face Green faces onto the Indian Ocean and is hugely popular at the weekends with people flying kites, bathing and couples courting. It was a lovely evening so the beach was very crowded as we left. I love the modesty of the Sri Lankan people, no bikinis or even swimsuits here. I find it quite endearing.

P1000112

P1000113

P1000115

P1000123

We walked to the far end of the green to the old lighthouse, bizarrely only the side facing the see has been painted, or maybe that just be logically!

P1000119

This is the old parliament building and taking photos of it is prohibited, sorry Sri Lanka I am bad. But it is a lovely old colonial building and there are not that many that can be photographed.

P1000120

We walked back to the Galle Face Hotel for a couple of sun downers

P1000128

before heading back to Trudy’s, in a tuk-tuk. I was knackered, the heat zapped me today. I am sure I wont take long to get used to it though.

I was dropping off through dinner so had an early night, barely making it to 9:00 PM. Sri Lanka is five half hours ahead of London, which is just so out of whack.