On Saturday, November 24th, I finally arrived to Sri Lanka. I had been looking forward to coming here for a long time and I would not be disappointed by this amazing country!
My flight was 3 hours late, but fortunately I had good company: I had met Eva from Germany and she was a very nice girl. The plane wasn’t full, so we managed to change seats and sit next to each other. This way, the delay and the flight weren’t so bad after all. Unfortunately, Eva and her sister – who was already in Colombo – had booked a different hostel quite far away from mine and we couldn’t change hostels anymore to spend more time together…
When I arrived to my hostel, a friend of mine from India send me a message that, by chance, he was in Colombo for the night and he asked me to join him for a drink. So he picked me up and we went to join his friends in the Bellagio Casino. The only time before I have been to a casino, was a small town casino in Belgium, so this was my first real experience in a casino. Lots of people losing lots of money in a short time and not giving a shit, free drinks and food for anybody who plays (or people who accompany someone who plays, like me), many old and ugly hookers and – to my disappointment – almost only Indians. My friend was playing roulette and his friend was playing poker (he is one of the top 100 players in the world); I was just watching, fascinated by how someone can gamble with money that would be sufficient for a whole year of backpacking around the world… At some point, my friend and I left the casino and went to an R’n’B Club where the music was absolutely awesome: 80’s and 90’s R’n’B. We danced a lot and had a few cocktails. It was a very nice first night until I got too tired and just wanted to go to bed (around 3AM).
The next morning, I was super tired, but couldn’t sleep anymore because there was too much light in the room and all the other people were getting up to leave. I asked in the hostel to get my laundry done, but they said they would need 2 to 3 days and that was just too long. In addition to that, the wifi wasn’t working and that day, the only thing I wanted was to stay in bed and watch series or movies. So I was pretty annoyed and decided to change hostels. I found a nice hostel next to the beach, the Colombo Lavinia Beach Hostel. To my misfortune (and my fault), I selected the wrong «beach hostel» on Uber and got to the wrong hostel… First I didn’t realize it, but after checking in, I saw that it looked nothing like the hostel in the pictures of Hostelworld and when I told them that, they simply said that it wasn’t the same hostel. So I checked out again and walked to the right hostel. 😄 Unfortunately, they had given me the wrong directions (maybe on purpose?), so I had to walk a long time before reaching the hostel, not knowing that there was a much easier and much faster way… Anyway, it didn’t matter at that time because I didn’t know about the shorter alternative and this allowed me to meet my new friend Amy from Canada. She was staying the same hostel as me and helped me find it; there were signs all along the road, but outside the hostel itself there wasn’t any… Amy is a very interesting and loverly person! In the end we didn’t spend much time together, but the time we had, I enjoyed a lot.
I didn’t do much for the rest of the day, except getting some rest and walking along the beach. Amy was still very jetlagged because she had only arrived that same morning from Canada – after a 30h flight where she didn’t get any sleep and with 12h time difference -, so she went to take a nap at 3PM but didn’t wake up until the next morning, so I spent the rest of the day alone.
The Colombo Lavinia Beach Hostel also didn’t have a well working wifi, but it was such a lovely green place with a wonderful host and I had a whole part of the house – 2 rooms + kitchen + bathroom – to myself, so I decided to stay there, even though it was pretty far away from everything.
The next days, I spent discovering Colombo; not many people actually do any sightseeing here, but I liked it a lot. I also did some necessary things like shopping in every backpacker’s favorite place: Decathlon, and getting my visa extended.
When I started sightseeing Colombo, I was stopped by a tuk tuk driver who offered to take me around the city’s most important buildings as a driver and as a guide for only 500R per hour (= +/- 2.5€). That seemed fair to me, but I didn’t know that the tour would take almost 3 hours; I thought it was just 1h… Still, the monuments we visited were very beautiful and he was the perfect guide for me: going inside, explaining in a few short words what it is, showing me around and going to the next place; no unnecessary information I would forget again anyway. 😄 At the end of the tour, I was a bit annoyed though, because he made me go into 2 jewellery shops and 1 tourist shop to look around because then – supposedly – he got his petrol for free and in the end still insisted on the price we had agreed on and even wanted 1000R more than agreed (which I didn’t give him, of course). So the sightseeing had been amazing, but the end was disappointing…
After my sightseeing tour, I went to the immigration office to get my visa extended, but they told me it was already too late and I should come back in the morning, so I just went back to the hostel.
Another day, I went to a health care center to get checked. When you travel for such a long time – it was a bit over 9 months then -, it’s always good to sometimes get a thorough blood test done, especially after having been to Africa and India…
On my last day, Thursday, I went back to the Immigration office and got my visa extended. I had prepared some arguments why I wanted an extension so soon after arriving to the country, but they didn’t give a shit; they just took my passport and the form I had filled out (only basic information), asked how many months more I wanted and 1h later I had the extension. Super easy and only 20$.
From there I went back to Decathlon a second time to get new shoes and sunglasses. I had already been there to buy other things a few days earlier, but I didn’t have the shoes on I wanted to buy on me – I had already a pair but they were absolutely worn out – and I could’t figure out my size without the old ones…
In the afternoon, I took an Uber from downtown up to the North of Colombo, Ja-Ela, where I had an appointment at Dimmu Fernando Tattoo Art Studio to get a new tattoo. I had been thinking about getting a new tattoo for a couple of weeks, maybe longer, and I found out that in Colombo the tattoo artists are pretty good and tattoos are relatively cheap. So I had googled a bit around and I had found this tattoo studio with good reviews. They made me wait for 3 hours which sucked, but in end I was very satisfied with the result. It’s far from the quality of the one I got in Colombia, but it’s still pretty good and I like it. While I waited, I met this couple with their baby and I was joking around, asking when the baby would get its first tattoo and it turned out that the 1 year old girl already had a big tattoo on her belly; incredible! I was shocked, this should be forbidden…
My evenings in Colombo had also been quite busy. As you already know, the first night I went out with this friend from India. On Monday night, I was invited out for dinner by Isfahini, a former World President of the Junior Chamber International from Sri Lanka. He is a very lovely man and I had a wonderful evening with him, eating the most delicious fish I probably ever had! We went to the famous Mount Lavinia Hotel – the chef in the restaurant is apparently world famous – where you can select on a frozen buffet the fish you would like the have and the way you want it to be cooked. Isfahini selected squid, prawns and seer fish and I can’t begin to tell you how good it was! Also the wine and, of course, the company were very fantastic!
On Wednesday, I was invited out for drinks by my friend Fahad. I had met him a few years earlier during a world congress of the Junior Chamber International where he was the trainer for a workshop I attended. We had stayed in touch after meeting again at the next world congress in Canada and I had told him I was coming to Sri Lanka. It was good to see him again and we had a really fun evening, drinking 2 bottles of wine, eating some tasty tapas and playing “turn the bottle”; they had interactive tables in this fantastic roof top bar with a gorgeous view over the city and we challenged each other to mess with the other people in the bar. 😄
So you see, even though I had only wanted to relax in Colombo during that week, finally I had been busy all the time and I had only been to the beach 2 afternoons…
Colombo is a very nice city. Many people don’t like it, but after having been to India, I found it fantastic! For a capital, it’s pretty clean, it doesn’t smell bad, people are super friendly and there are lots of things to do. Not only Colombo, but Sri Lanka in general, is a bit more expensive than I had thought, more expensive than India for sure. But it’s still all right, compared to other places.
Many people complain about the tuk tuk drivers in the capital – and in general -, but I liked them. In Colombo, I always booked tuk tuks via Uber and sometimes when I just wanted to walk the few hundred meters from the hostel to the main road, a tuk tuk driver would stop and say : “no problem, I have to go there anyway, just hop in!” and I could go for free. I really had no problems with tuk tuk drivers and I found them, compared to those in India, absolutely not aggressive. You say : “no, thank you, I like to walk” and they leave you alone.
On Friday, November 30th, I took a very early train (6AM) from Colombo to Kekirawa where I had planned to do join a volunteering program for a couple of weeks. I actually had wanted to start the volunteering a few days earlier, but the manager of the project had told me if I came on Friday, he could pick me up close to Colombo, so I had waited. In the end, on Wednesday, I managed to call him and he told me he couldn’t come to Colombo and pick me up… Later I learned that for some reason he had lied to me, he had been in Colombo and come back the same day as me but later… So he told me to get what supposedly is the only train to Kekirawa at 6AM. I was super tired, but the train ride was incredible: the view was absolutely gorgeous!
When I got to Kekirawa, a few big surprises awaited me. 1) my host family – just like most people in this small town – didn’t speak any English. 2) There was only one more volunteer, but she had not been informed about my arrival and she was leaving that day, so I would be there all alone, surrounded by people whom I couldn’t talk to because they didn’t understand me. 3) There was nothing to do in this small town and there was no leaving the house after sunset (5PM), because there was a good chance I might get raped. 4) When I went to the school the next day, I learned that I should only do English conversation with 2-3 adults, 1-2 hours a day, and only 3 or 4 days a week. This meant that I would just be bored to death during all of my stay in this place and I really didn’t want that. So, after only 24h there, I decided to leave again; this clearly wasn’t what I wanted and since I had found it on workaway.com and not via SCI, there was absolutely no obligation for me to stay. Also, the food of my host mother really wasn’t good – way too salty and spicy – and the house was quite dirty, especially the toilets were disgusting…
It had still been a nice trip, because it had allowed me to meet Amanda, the Danish volunteer who was super nice and I got to see what life in a small town in Sri Lanka was like: Amanda told me all about it.
Life here is still very traditional. As a girl, you should never run around in shorts or skirts shorter than your knees. Parents decide everything for their children until they get married: what to wear, which school to go to, what to study, whom to marry, etc. Hierarchy here is very important: a man stands above a woman and an older person above a younger one. There is no way around this; as a young woman, you could never give an order or even make suggestions to an older woman, not to think about making a suggestion or giving an order to a man. You can’t have a relationship with anybody unless you’re married and it’s always the parents who decide whom you will marry. Lots of man have problems with alcoholism; they drink too much and come home only to get food and beat or fuck their wifes… It sounds as terrible as it is for a modern European person, but this is how it is in manu villages and in small towns… In the bigger towns and in the cities it isn’t like this anymore, fortunately.
Amanda also told me that, generally, people prefer to tell a quick lie than to explain anything, even if it’s about completely random and stupid things. I experienced this myself with Sampath, the manager of KLC, the school where I was supposed to volunteer. Like I said before, he was supposed to come pick me up in Colombo but then told me he couldn’t come and later I learned he actually had been in Colombo. I’m sure he had a good reason for not picking me up, but instead of explaining to me the reason why, he just gave me a quick lie. Interesting, isn’t it? But I don’t know if that’s a general thing or also something people in small towns and in villages do…
It’s also not easy to be a white woman here: you can’t go out after 5PM without fearing that you might get raped… Wherever you go, men whistle at you and some guys comment on you when you walk by. Amanda told me that she had been pretty shocked by this in the beginning, but having been to Central America and to Africa, to me this seemed quite normal and definitely not too bad or too agressive compared to other places where I had been before…
So this is what I learned from Amanda who had been in this town for 4 months and who had been closely in touch with many locals (she actually had had a boyfriend here but not officially of course).
During the one day I had helped out in the school, I had given a conversation class to 3 women and they also told me some interesting facts about Sri Lanka. Most women in towns and cities are well educated – better than most men – and have full time jobs. English is not a priority in schools and so many people have had English classes but don’t actually speak it. The main activity of most people in Sri Lanka is agriculture; they grow many different vegetables and fruit here, lots of tea and rice. It’s a very fertile and prosperous country and you can have no doubt about that when you travel around.
The main subject in many schools is Buddhism, because most people in this country are buddhist, even though I have met lots of Muslims as well. People go once a month with all their family to a temple to pray and they have to wear all white clothes. Except maybe for in Colombo, most young people are brought up – and keep being – very religious.
For work, most women have to wear their traditional sarees, but at home they wear quite western clothes.
So, this is about all I have learned in Kekirawa about Sri Lanka; not bad for 24h, right!? 😄
After my experience in Kekirawa, I took a bus to Dambulla, only 30 minutes away, where I was going to stay at the Bed Station Hostel. This small, family-run hostel was very sweet and placed in a nice location. There was only 1 other guest there, a woman from the North of England who was a stereotypical tourist, traveling only for 2 weeks. Please don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against tourist, i.e. people who travel for less than 3 months, but often they are just very different from backpackers… She was not prepared at all for Sri Lanka; she had no clue about the culture here and she didn’t adapt at all. She only wore super short dresses that she really shouldn’t wear with her body and that are totally inappropriate in this country. I would not even wear something like that while visiting a city in Europe! She was nice though and it was lovely having someone to talk to.
In the afternoon, I walked to the famous Dambulla Cave Temples. It was a 20 minutes walk to the Golden Temple – a very kitsch and new temple that also functions as a museum – and from there I took a tuk tuk to the ticket office. As a Sri Lankan, you can walk from the Golden Temple directly up to the Cave Temples, but as a foreigner, you have to make a huge detour to the ticket office that was a bit far away. I thought I was a bit short on time, so I took a tuk tuk, but when I got up to the caves, it turned out that you only need about 20 to 30 minutes to see the cave temples… It was interesting, these cave temples are supposed to be really really old, but if you have seen the cave temples in Aurangabad (India), it’s absolutely nothing spectacular. I’m not sure if I would pay again 1500R to get in … Still, just the view from up there was worth going. The landscape all around was gorgeous.
For dinner, they had really good local food for us and I enjoyed it a lot. That day, the English woman had done a safari with the owner of the hostel, but I think she paid way too much: 12.000R (=60€) to just see 3 families of elephants. That’s when I decided that I would not do a safari here in Sri Lanka; I had seen all the animals you can see here – mainly elephants – already in Kenya and it would not be worth the money.
The next morning, we got up at 4AM to do the sunrise hike up the Pidurangala mountain. Shan – the owner – had asked a friend to pick me up, because we were going by motorbike. However, his stupid friend didn’t turn up… So Shan left with the English woman (I can’t remember her name) and I waited. Finally, at 5:15AM, Shan called and offered me a free night in the hostel, saying he would go see the sunrise with me the next day. I was very annoyed and about to go back to bed when his friend actually did show up. He was like: “Are you angry?” and I could only answer in a frosty tone: “Well, I’m definitely not happy right now!” and I wasn’t; what an idiot. I ignored him for the rest of the day and it was Shan who drove me back to the hostel later while his friend took the English woman back. This guy was speeding like crazy to get to the mountain in time and then we basically had to run up all the way to get to the summit just when the sun was rising. I was very angry with this guy, but I did my best to still enjoy the sunrise and the amazing view from up there. There were quite a lot of tourists and I was surprised, since our hostel had been so empty. Maybe I just had made the wrong choice in the hostel…
On our way back, Shan showed me 2 lakes and it really was a beautiful ride back. Still, at the end, I told him I wasn’t going to pay the full price for this tour, considering his friend had shown up 1h late, speeding on the road like an idiot and I had basically had to run up the mountain, still missing half the sunrise. Shan was very sorry and agreed. He and his family really are lovely and I would still recommend this hostel; it wasn’t his fault that his friend was late.
After coming back from the sunrise tour, I took a bus to Sigiriya. I had booked the Fresco Lion Villa Hostel before knowing that it was not actually in Sigiriya and that Dambulla was a much better place to do sightseeing from… After half an hour in a fully packed and super hot public bus and 5 minutes walking, I finally got to this hostel and first I was a bit sceptic, thinking probably I should have stayed in Dambulla. Then it turned out that this really is a super relaxed, beautiful place, far away from any street noise.Every night, this hostel was completely full (10 people) and the owner, Roy, is super nice. He gave me some tips for my further travels in Sri Lanka and after a short time, I decided to stay here for another night. Now that I was not doing the volunteering, I had a lot of time, so why not just relax here for a day, enjoy the nice quiet atmosphere and write my blog?
The first few hours, I was alone here, but then more people arrived: Sonia and Anja from Manchester, Eddy from Lebanon, Elisa from the Netherlands, Lieven from Belgium and Terrance from South Africa. They were all super nice and we went with Roy to a small lake quite close to this place. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to swim with my new tattoo, but Anja and Sonia weren’t swimming either, so I was in good company. The landscape here is so beautiful, so green and mountains everywhere, I absolutely love this place! When we came back to the hostel, Ankit from London had arrived as well and shortly before dinner, Peter from Australia and a girl from Kanada joined us. We were a very nice group and we had a really good time, enjoying an incredibly delicious dinner and then playing cards and drinking some beer.
The next day, people slowly left the hostel, except for me, but I agreed meet up with Eddy again a few days later in Trincomalee to travel North. Later, new people arrived and the hostel was almost full again. Those people were very nice as well, but it wasn’t the same bonding we had had with the people the night before. That was mostly due to the fact that I joined them late when they were playing cards and it’s difficult to talk when everybody’s kept in an intense game. Still, we did have a good night, had some beers and played some drinking games. Roy really knows who to get a crowd going! The people I really met that night were Thomas from Nantes in France and Flavio from Zurich. They were super nice and Thomas was very interesting; he was traveling all over the world on his bike. He showed me some pictures from his 6-months bike trip across the West of the US, amazing – and maybe a bit crazy.
The next day, at lunch, Roy gave us a cooking class and showed us how to make 3 different types of curry. Afterwards we had a small dish with this curry for lunch and it was really good. I’ll definitely try that at home!
At 2PM, the other guys went for a safari and they dropped me off at the bus station in Habanara from where I took a bus to Polonnaruva. I had booked a bed in the Living Inn Guesthouse – there are no hostels in this city – and in their confirmation email they said they could come and pick you up at the bus station. So I sent them a message on Whatsapp, but it took several messages and calls until they finally answered… It took them 30 minutes to pick me up and, guess what, when I got my bill the next day, the pick-up service was charged 300R. I’m pretty sure if I had just taken a normal tuk tuk in the street, I could have gotten it cheaper… That was a bit annoying. Also, they were not super welcoming. Yes, I got a welcome juice, but they were like, “you can drink it in your own room if you want”, kind of “please, go your room and don’t bother us”. I had ordered dinner with them and they asked me what time I wanted it, so I said 7:30PM. When I got there, all the food was cold! Another family had had dinner much earlier, so they had cooked for everyone and had not warmed it up for me. If they had just told me they would cook earlier, I would have had dinner earlier… The next morning, I only got some fruit for breakfast and some weird pancakes. It was only after 10 minutes when the owner showed up that I also was asked if I want coffee or tea and some omlet…. Finally, the bike they had told me I could take for the day was charged (they never mentionned “renting” it) and the transport back to the bus station was charged 500R. I really didn’t like this guesthouse, way too expensive for what it was.
Still, I’m very glad I went to Polonnaruva. The ruins there are amazing! It’s a huge place; it took me (by bike) 4 hours to explore it and if I had had more time, I could have stayed even longer. Many monuments are quite well preserved and there are explanations to most of them. Polonnaruva was a very big city where several kings reigned over the centuries. Most of it was built around the 12th century. In my eyes, this is much more worth visiting than the Lion Rock in Sigiriya – that nobody visits because it’s too expensive – or the cave temples in Dambulla – which are nice, but way too expensive for what it is. So, if you’re in the area, don’t miss this!
So, these were my first 10 days in Sri Lanka and I’m already absolutely in love with this country. It’s super green, there are lakes and mountains everywhere, people are super friendly and don’t harass you and the food is delicious!