After months of agonising stressing, planning, preparing, cancelling and rebooking, my partner Scott and I were finally on a flight to Negombo, Sri lanka via Kuala Lumpur. We stepped out of the airport and embraced what would be our first impression of Sri Lanka, the smell of fresh rain on earth mixed with a distinctive spicy flavour, streaming lights of eccentrically decorative tuk-tuks taxis weaving through traffic as Indi-pop distorts their speakers.
I had pre-arranged the airport pick up with the hotel we were staying at, it arrived, wheels squealing around the bend, hands stuck permanently to the hooter. “ Eh you Ms Cool? Golden Star? Ms Cool? “…Yup that’s me, Ms Cool. We raced through the haphazard, kaleidoscopic streets of Negombo, dodging several packs of street hounds, puddles and other kamikaze vehicles to the “Tourist Area” which took about 20 -35 minutes in the early hours of the morning to the hotel.
I am quite a simple soul when it comes to hotels, pool or beach (check), good coffee (check) and air-con (check), done. Our heads crashed on the pillow. We stayed at the Goldi Sands Hotel, a 3 star hotel which I choose for beach front location, swimming pool and outdoor bar, the rooms are clean practical and well…pretty standard. As I had a couple of days to kill before my mom, sister and Illy arrived in Sri Lanka, I found some irresistibly priced return flights to Male, Maldives with Korean Air. Little did I know, that would be the first and last cheap deal from here on out. We made our way back to Negombo airport and boarded a pretty swanky Korean airline flight connecting from Seoul to Male. The flight was only 45 minutes and we were soon walking out of the Hulehule terminal towards the harbour deck to board our water transfer to the island of Kurumba. Our “water transfer” was a one of the most opulent forms of local transport I have ever placed my toes on, we even had other travellers taking selfies with “our” double decked luxury speed boat! One of things to bear in mind when booking the Maldives is the proximity of the airport to the resort. Most speedboat transfers will only travel maximum an hour or so (AUD $60-80 per person one way) during 9am -5 pm, anything longer or later, one would have to take a seaplane ( AUD $200-260 per person one way) or overnight in Male town. The resorts don’t automatically include the transfers so it’s always something to double check.
In about 10 minutes, we were across the channel and arrived at what was the very first accommodation resort in the Maldives and according to some, the island nations economic saviour, Kurumba. http://www.kurumba.com/ We were greeted on arrival with fragrant and refreshing coconut sorbet and coconut scented face towels, before being ushered to our garden beach bungalow, charmingly placed between immaculate tropical plants and a private stretch of beach, with our very own outdoor bathroom. The major draw of coming to the Maldives was the opportunity to dive at some of the words best atolls, however 3 days of tropical storms quickly erased that possibility, so most of our time was spent snorkelling along the house reef which is actually breathtaking beautiful and very much alive. One of things we loved about this island was the frequent visitation of baby black-tipped reef sharks who used the islands lagoon as a protective nursery, it was very James Bondish, sipping on a whiskey old-fashions, watching the sunset, luxury speed boats in the backgrounds whilst sharks circle beneath your feet!
The redeeming factor of the Maldives trip was the one ocean dive we did manage to scramble onto last minute. Despite visibility being slightly poor and cloudy at stages we still managed to see three hawksbill turtles, a reef shark, moray-eel, shoals of tropical fish and a bejewelled reef landscape.
Another swanky Korean airline flight took us back to Negombo, where I met up with my family. When I did finally see them there were no hysterical tears but just this deep soul satisfying relief of being around people who love you unconditionally and know you Inside out. Like old friends, we just picked up where we left off.
The next morning hit the road to start our 7 day road trip through the island nation. We got as far as the nearest hotel to advertise “Nescafe” coffee, which we leisurely sipped with glee and a quick ATM stop before setting off again.
Dambulla Cave temple Complex and hindu temple
After a long day driving (150 km from Colombo) through the intermittent monsoon downpours, past rice paddies, temples and chaotic streets we stopped at the Dambulla Cave Temple, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most well persevered cave complex containing paintings, murals and statues dedicated to Buddas life. A 1500 LKR US $10 entry fee gets you in and you can pay abit more for a local guide to enlighten you. At the entrance you also have to take your shoes off and then give the “shoe keeper” a donation. For the sake of convenience we stayed at a hotel near the caves, it wasn’t the greatest but clean and good food.
Climbing Sigiriya Rock fortress
The next day we have a pretty early start and headed off to climb Sigiriya rock fortress also known as Lion Rock, famous for its palace ruins of gardens, pools and other structures on top of a 200 m rock. It’s best to climb as early as possible due to the heat of the day and limited shade above. You initially walk through the old botanical gardens and then start ascending steps which zig-zag across the rock face stopping to view only a few painted rock frescoes along the way. It’s not a hard climb but it’s not easy for older people (300 steps one way), my mom struggled abit but mostly from vertigo. Entrance fee was about US$30 per person. After some fresh mango juice sold at the convenient tourist “trap” market at the bottom of the rock, we drove another 50 km through to the city of Polonnaruwa which was once the Royal city of ancient Sri Lanka Kingdoms. We decided to do the tour of the ancient ruins that afternoon, so off we went to view the mammoth statues Gal Vihara (rock temple of Buddha) and King Parakramabahu, painstakingly carved out granite rock. From the main site, you start your walk along the sun dappled paths, passing crumpling temples, strange but intricate structures which housed religious relics and community meeting places, whilst monkeys roam about.
Gal Vihara and the Polonnaruwa Palace ruins and lunch!!
The next day we drove another 5 hours and arrived in the holy city of Kandy, this place was not only beautiful as the city is surrounded a big lake but it had a vibrant and magnetic energy about it. We visited the Temple of the Tooth Relic on Poya (full moon) and the day before Vesak (Buddas Birthday/public holiday in Sri Lanka) so Kandy was buzzing, and the Temple of the Tooth Relic was absolutely packed with tourist, locals, monks and international Buddhist worshippers. We actually go to see about 1 second of the tooth relic as it was hastily revealed to us as we shuffled passed a heavy guarded enclave. You can roam through the inner chambers of the royal palace, audience halls and complex grounds at leisure, a donation of fragrant flowers is offered or a lit candle is recommended.
Side street corn vendor, room with a view of Kandy lake, Temple of the Tooth relic, lotus flower donation
One of the highlights of the trip for me was taking the local train from Kandy to Nano Oya (station stop before Nuwara Eliya). We were unable to get 1st class seats so settled for second, besides the lack of a TV and probably slightly more comfortable chairs, second class was adequate for the trip. Four hours saw us cruising but undulating lush tea plantations, misty mountains, forests and ravines to eventually waterfalls. Each stop at a station along the way brought in food hawkers, selling roasted peanuts, fresh fruit, juices and even curries! We spent the night in Nuwara Eliya, the prominent tea producing town in the region, once the sanctuary for British civil servants. The architecture is very much British colonial, along with a few red telephone booths and old English style lawns and gardens. Quickly moving on the next stop was our favourite ,the eclectic bohemian town of Ella. Dominated by lush valleys, waterfalls and small private farms, there isn’t too much to do here but relax and venture out to some waterfalls on day walks.
Train ride from Kandy to Nano Oya, Waterfall homestay balcony, local shop front and Ravana waterfall.
Our last stop on our road trip before Arugam bay was Tissamaharama (Yala National Park), we stayed in a hotel near the town centre and organised a safari in an open topped jeep for the next morning starting at 5am. The drive to the park took about an hour and after lining up behind numerous vehicles at the gate and racing inside we parked by a nearby lagoon and serenely watched a buffalo swim as the sun rose for the day. Unfortunately we didn’t see any leopards which is what the park is known for but numerous other animals and bird life can be found in the park, water buffalo, warthogs, the jungle fowl (Sri Lankan national bird), deer, small alligators, bee-eaters and Indian elephants just to name a few.
Buffalo in lagoon and in mud pond, crocs and crane at waterhole, Sri Lankan jungle fowl and bee-eater bird
I won’t bore you too much about Arugam bay as we pretty much spent 5 days cruising around on tuk-tuks, from one surf spot to the next. Even if you don’t surf, this is a very charming hippy like colony of expats and locals alike all living together in harmony – the Byron Bay of Sri Lanka. The main beach is quite polluted as the fisherman launch their boats from here so the water has a distinct petrol taste to it, but if you jump on a tuk-tuk and travel 5-10 minutes away, you can find secluded golden beaches, azure calm waters with perhaps elephants and peacocks roaming the bush in the background. I celebrated my birthday in Arugam Bay at a really great lodge/yoga retreat/restaurant/surf centre called Surf and Sun, (although we actually stayed a across the road) we came here regularly to eat, drink and chill out. By far one of the best place to stay in Arugam Bay.
Arugam bay & fishing boats, Whiskey point surfing, tuk-tuk surfari and sunset in Arugam
Before we knew it, we were racing from the east side of the island to the west, one last night in Negombo, a heart wrenching goodbye, hopping on a Malaysian airlines flight to Adelaide to me writing this at my desk, 4 months later with only memories and photos to take me back.