We landed in Colombo to a wave of heat. Thailand was 30-35 degrees but now I know when the locals refer to everything as "Sri Lankan hot" - they’re referring to spice AND the weather.
Once we left the airport gates we hit a hard wall of tuk-tuk drivers asking us the most common question we hear in Asia, “hello, where you going?" I feel like I’m in middle school and these drivers are my mother always wanting to know my exact plan. We played hard to get in the haggling game, so much so, that we haggled ourselves out of any tuk-tuks wanting to drive us! When they heard our first offer, they would all just laugh and wave us away, never to speak to us again...oops. So we walked a little further away from the airport gates and finally caught a nice cab driver who agreed on our price of 1200 Sri Lankan rupees (LKR) to get us to Mount Lavinia. Everyone else wanted to charge us 5000! ($1 CAD = 120LKR) Luckily Carter did some research and knew we were only 12kms out of the city center so we were so positive that paying that much would have been a classic scam, a ridiculous tourist price. Turns out the airport we flew into was a different one than we realized, so we were actually 50kms outside of Colombo and Mount Lavinia was ANOTHER 12kms away from that. Stupid Carter! Ultimately it worked out in our favour and we got a price you would call "cheap cheap!"
Be reminded, that we have just got off of an overnight flight, trying to sleep on the floor of an airport, and then catching a secondary early morning flight, straight to this 2 hour cab ride. So naturally, as anyone would be, I am exhausted and trying my best to keep my eyes open to take in the first glimpses of this new country... and, of course, Carter is wide eyed and bushy tailed ready to talk this guys ear off. And so, in the first five minutes Carter gets all this information from our cab driver: he is only 20 years old, his name is Shan, he's good at English because he was taught in school from a young age, his parents live in the next town over and he still lives with them, ardour ultimate connection is that he has a sister living in Toronto. Now that we’re so well acquainted, Shan asks if we’ve ate yet because he’s hungry and he’d like to bring us to his favourite lunch restaurant (which they call hotels here, I have yet to figure out the correlation or bad translation for that).
Shan-sies, (I can call him nicknames because he is now our friend) pulls up to his favourite hotel and we get out to head in for a table at the lunch time rush. After walking in, we get our first feeling of what we heard it's like being a foreigner in a country like Sri Lanka or India...All. Eyes. On. Us. As if we walked in naked or something... it is a strange feeling initially but then you just come to accept all the eyes and it makes you laugh. Shan orders for us, all vegetarian food because “that is what makes us healthy and not have to go to the doctors or dentist”. Shortly after, all the juicy curry dishes and no utensils arrive. We find out from Shan that Sri Lankans eat with their hands. As first timers, it’s messy, it’s uncomfortable and all my mind goes to is “where have my hands been, what have I touched, how am I going to get this curry out of my finger nails? Are people watching me? Am I doing it right? Should I be messier or more neat? Where’s the napkins!?” But it went well, and yes everyone was still watching us indulge. Now Carter is a finger-food eatin’ pro, he has taken on a few more rice & curry dishes, whereas I tend to stick to Kottu and Rotty which are drier/compacted meals, although equally as delicious as curry.
After lunch with Shan, we were driven the rest of the way to Mount Lavinia and dropped off at Evergreen Hostel.
When we arrived, people warmly greeted us but told us they didn’t work there... *question mark/confused emoji*. The guy who managed the hostel was at the beach... another *question mark/confused emoji*. But these nice Samaritans showed us to a room and we got ourselves settled. When we came back to the lobby, Carter introduced himself to a different guy who was now sitting at the front desk and his reaction back to Carter was very enthusiastic and excited. I thought this was strange since we didn’t know each other; I honestly thought he just really liked the name Carter...? Again, another *question mark/ confused emoji*. I also assumed this was now the hostel manager back from his beach break. Nope, this new guy was Wietse, not the manager of the hostel, but someone who worked in another part of the building he explained. Wietse introduced himself to me, "you pronounce my name like pizza with a w" (I already liked him because of this). He then immediately walked us outside to the driveway and asked me to sit in the driver's seat of one of the tuk-tuks sitting there. Now I am just down right confused. The confused emoji has escalated to the WTF face. Who is this guy? Why am in a tuk-tuk? And where’s the beach our hostel manager is at because that sounds much better than sitting in a tuk-tuk!
Wietse starts speaking with dramatic hand motions like he’s setting up a scene on a broadway stage. “Imagine. You and this tuk-tuk, cruising the open road...*hand motion*... seeing Sri Lanka the way YOU *hand motion* want to see it.... now. What do you think?”
Wietse : *grinning*
Wietse: well, I’m happy to say you’re driving this tuk-tuk across Sri Lanka!
I stare at Carter, who’s still laughing and now Wietse has joined in.
Apparently, what has happened is that my "lovely, adventurous, thrill seeking, speed demon" boyfriend had contacted Wietse prior to arriving in the country and rented us our very own tuk-tuk to drive around Sri Lanka for the next two weeks! In fact, the building attached to the hostel is where Wietse and a gentleman named Tom were operating a tuk-tuk rental company and that’s why we were even at that specific hostel in the first place! *WTF face* AGAIN. Only this time, it’s not just what I am thinking, it’s probably splattered all across my face.
To make matters worse, I am going to back track slightly, amongst all the chitchatting that Carter and Shan did for the two hour ride to our hostel, one of the only real fun facts about Sri Lanka that I retained through my grogginess was when Shan said tuk-tuks are dangerous because 4-5 people die in tuk-tuk related accidents daily. DAILY. Great. Now I am supposed to be in one for the next two weeks, I started doing quick math in my head to figure out what the probability is that 2 Canadians turn into a couple statistics over the two week span!
Fast forward a quick 15 minutes, the shock has warn off, Wietse and Carter have both now convinced me this is an opportunity of a lifetime (I mean, on top of already travelling the world). Tom started this tuk-tuk rental company (www.tuktukrental.com) and has been operating in Sri Lanka for 4 years and Wietse has lived in Sri Lanka for over 13 years, so he knows the routes we should take, the attractions to stop at, and most importantly, where to go to get off the beaten tourist track. It all sounded so impressive, we actually extended our trip before even starting it! We pushed back our flights to be able to cruise around what sounded like an amazing country for a full 21 days - there was just too much to do and see in a mere two weeks!
That day, Carter hands in his information to get his temporary “Sri Lankan” drivers license and the next, he got a driving lesson from the owner of our tuk-tuk. This company is pretty amazing, as to not take away economical opportunities of the locals by purchasing their own tuk-tuks, Tom & Wietse rent from local owners. They do a proper inspection of the entire three-wheeler, make sure it’s not older than a certain year, and give you an entire bible of know how’s and to dos, before you set off.
But back to Carters driving lesson. It was quite hilarious. A tuk-tuk is almost the exact mix of a motorcycle and manual car to drive. Three wheels, clutch, break, gears, throttle, everything you can name, is all in a tuk-tuk and all in the most inconvenient places to get to. Carters knees jammed right up against his chest and the “dashboard”, the break is in such a place he needs to hover his entire leg above it without resting his heel anywhere, and he’s too tall so he’s slouched over like Quasimodo just to see out the front window. Just picture an old wicked witch of the west driving a munchkin's bicycle furiously after Dorothy and her little dog too. I was replaying “dudundundunnnnndaaaa” in my head watching Carter try and drive this thing.
After a few failed attempts and a couple of stalls, Carter got the hang of it and was whipping down side streets like he was a pro. After a week on the back of a motorcycle on the crazy Vietnam roads, I trusted Carter's driving (plus, at least a tuk-tuk has walls for some "protection")
Monday, January 15th, Carter's license was approved and we were off! Actually not exactly. We took off and made a wrong turn right out of the gate. And then we recorrected ourselves to the proper road only to realize we left our power pack charging in the lobby. Then we were off! But first, we stopped for gas to make sure we were filled up... and then we needed oil. And then we stopped again for a water. Needless to say, it took us awhile to really get going and out of Colombo to our first destination of Kerbaula.
We rolled into town late at night, to be welcomed by a familiar bright red friendly hat... Pizza Hut. After driving all day, collecting dust on our bodies, faces and lips and having dirty hands, we didn’t feel like tackling rice & curry tonight. We DID, however, feel like tackling some butter chicken pizza. It was the BEST pizza, certainly that we’ve ever had from Pizza Hut (it's the small things we've learned to appreciate - like a good ole' North American style deep dish.)
The next morning, we drove up to the Big Buddha, said hi, got scared of the super active monkeys, so we left and made our way to our next destination, Sigiriya.
Sigiriya is where Sri Lanka’s famed Lion Rock sits. So naturally, instead of climbing Lion Rock, we climbed the rock formation directly across from it, Pidurangala Rock. Getting to the top was hard, but damn, was it worth it. Probably the most “worth it” climb we’ve ever done, next to the Pitons in St Lucia. Just before you reach the peak, there is a 12 meter reclined Buddha carved in the rock from the 11th century. From there, you rock climb up for another 10 minutes and you reach the most epic view of Sri Lanka and Lion Rock. Even though it may not have been the main tourist attraction, the rock we were on definitely should be as it was absolutely unbelievable. It felt like a planet on top of our planet. The rock face just kept going and going, we could have spent a couple hours up there walking around the entire thing! My absolutely favourite part, and where I just stood silently for thirty minutes, was a single spot on the back side of the rock that had a constant wind speeding up and past you. So, when you are standing there, the strength of the wind could actually pick up my arms somewhat. You’re looking out on the lushest green lands with different animals grazing about, palm tree forests and winding rivers; all you can hear is the wind speeding past your ears, and the smell of the fresh air reminded me of back home. It was so beautiful that I ALMOST teared. Okay fine, one single tear but that was it, I swear.
Carter and I agreed that this experience is probably in our top 3 travel experiences thus far. Also, one of the best parts was that we were almost all alone up there, most tourists climb Lion Rock which can be seen in the distance and is much more busy. Here are some photos we capture to help bring it to life for you:
Next we were onto Polonnaruwa and it’s ancient city. We opted not to go into the main archeological site for 5000LKR so we tuk-tuked around and stopped at all the free sites that are skewed across the city. Below: "The statue of Parakramabahu I was built presumably in the 12th century, during the reign of Parakramabahu I. The statue of Parakramabahu I is one of the best stone sculptures belonging to the Polonnaruwa period.The 11-foot-2-inch-hig hstatue is carved in high relief on a large boulder, with full use being made of its height." Ancient city in deed.
There is also a lake in the middle of Polonnaruwa and it’s absolutely gorgeous. We putted along the embankment... and then quite literally put-putted... and ran out of gas.
Let me tell you, Sri Lankan’s are the MOST helpful people. Almost to a fault. Carter and I could not pull over to enjoy the view, simply take a break, or whatever the reason without 4-6 Sri Lankans pulling over as well to ask if everything was alright. We couldn’t even pop a squat in peace without having to dodge people stopping to see if there was a problem! But of course, when we actually needed to take advantage of the help offered by the friendliest people on earth, no one stopped to check in on us. Until we flagged down another tuk-tuk driver, who immediately knew to play around with some hoses and wiring and voila, a reserve tank was tapped into and Carter and I were back on the road!
Wasgamuwa National Park
This national park was amazing. It was recommended to us by Wietse for the variety of wildlife you are almost guaranteed to see and for the lack of tourists who visit it (in comparison to the ever-popular Yala National Park). We decided to go for a sunset tour as there was more of a chance to see herds of elephants, and possibly, the elusive leopards. We paid for our entrance fee and was paired up with a volunteer guide to accompany us through the park in a jeep. Little did we know at the time, I would earn my new nickname as "Safari Britters" because I was spotting wildlife left, right and centre, before the guide could even see them. Though, thankfully he was there because he gave us the proper names and information on each animal and bird we saw. We learned and saw many of Sri Lanka's national bird, the jungle fowl. We saw a completely new animal to us, the mouse deer; it was literally a deer the size of an overgrown rabbit! The list goes on and on: dancing peacock, barking deer, spotted deer, huge common monitor lizards, eagles, hawks, and I am probably forgetting some of the more common animals that we saw as well. We then came across an elephant by herself. The guide told us when an elephant is solo and has detached themselves from the herd or been exiled/forced away (so sad), they are usually emotionally unstable because of past trauma or injury. This was the case for the elephant pictured below; her trunk had scarring on the end as if it had once been cut off...causing her not to be able to breath properly or use it as nimbly as she should have been able to. Our guide suggested that it was probably due to an interaction with poachers in the past or she could have had her trunk caught in the jaws of a crocodile while river side! So she is untrusting of anyone (animal or human) and that could be why she's alone. This must have been true because as we slowly started to drive away, I happened to look back (to watch the elephant for as long as I could because I absolutely adore them) and noticed that she had moved back into the trees and the trees coming toward us were moving and shaking. I hit guide and asked "is she running?" and not even a millisecond after I ended my question, the guide was on his feet and ran to the back of the jeep and yelled "DOLLIAH!!!" All of a sudden the elephant came back into view, running full-speed down the gravel path directly towards us! She must have felt threatened because she was now in full attack mode. The guide started to bang on the top of the roof to make loud noises and continued to yell "DOLLIAH!" (which means STOP!) Just as the elephant got closer and closer (close enough to ram her trunk right in side our jeep and toss us around) our guide yelled at the top of his lungs "DOLLIAH" one last time and stuck his hand out right in front of the elephants head and she stopped on a dime. She stared at us and let out a loud roar or trumpet type sound of an elephant, backed away slowly and disappeared back into the bushes. Due to the quick action and knowledge of our guide, instead of s******* our pants and being in serious danger, Carter and I had an amazing encounter and experience with the wildest of wildlife! We can never forget the power of these animals, even as fun loving and amazing as elephants are.
Here are some pictures of our safari:
Liptons Seat & The Hill Stations
Sri Lanka is the third biggest exporter of tea in the world, coming in behind China and India. So for this relatively small country, it produces hundreds of million kilograms of tea each year and this is why the hill stations of Sri Lanka were so incredibly impressive. Carter and I drove through tea plantations for four entire days!!!! Not only is the entire country covered in tea plantations which makes the scenery so vibrant and beautiful but the leaves are still being hand picked by Sri Lankans as well. Driving through these fields and seeing the colourful dress of women amongst the vibrant green tea leaves... the sight should be made into a painting.
Horton's Plains & World's End
Horton's Plains is yet another national park of Sri Lanka but this one is probably the most unique. Horton's Plains is situated at 2300 metres above sea level, so this was our final destination after climbing up and up switch backs through lush green tea plantations and hill stations for four days. But when you finally get up to the top of the "mountain", you find this grassland plateau that stretches across miles and miles - not at all what you would expect at all from a four day mountain climb.
Not only is the landscape itself very unique, the park also is famed for it's Cloud Forest. This natural occurrence happens every single day at 10am. The first picture is at 9:45am, looking out to the second and third highest peaks of Sri Lanka.
This next picture is at 10:01am, when every single day clouds roll in to create the false feeling of "World's End" - Hortons Plains' main tourist attraction. This view was from another point of view so we could actually capture the clouds coming in like clock work and this saved us from not having pictures of a complete whiteout.
We woke up early and made the journey to Adam’s Peak. Locally, it’s known as Sri Pada and this is a sacred mountain to Sri Lankans. At the very top of the mountain it is said to have Buddha’s footprint imprinted and this marks the site for the religious pilgrimage. Historically, devotees must make it up the mountain before sunrise...(look up why). So, in true tourist takeover fashion, waking up at 2:30am to summit Sri Pada before sunrise is what everyone does. We read and heard that the line to get up to the very tiny platform at the summit can take hours because there are SO many people. So of course, we opted to do things a little differently and hike it for sunset. We started at 3pm with light feet and hopeful minds. After half hour of walking and about 1000 steps in, we asked a local how much further and he replied “the beginning, 1 more kilometre”. WHAT. We weren’t even at the base of the damn mountain yet!! After several breaks, 2 outrageously priced water bottles, 5500 steep steps, 1 drone session, 6 kilometres straight up and 2.5 hours later... we reached the peak. Just as we took off our shoes and I put on my sweater to be respectful of Buddha, an amazing surprise happened, the monks began a sunset ceremony. Other than their chants, the top of this 2235 metre mountain was silent. It was only us, 2 other foreigner groups, 3 local families, a few monks and one big Buddha footprint shrine. After the ceremony, which I can only assume was surrounding the Buddha’s footprint and saying their prayers to him, we were able to go up, give a donation, and pray at the foot of this shrine. We were told to get on our knees and put our forehead on the heel of the imprinted footprint, so we did. We were then guided along to an elephant god statue where another monk was chanting. We waited our turn, walked up to the statue and received a blessing from the monk and a tiny gold dot on our foreheads. As I was getting my blessed dot, bells started to ring... it was a call to the gods, we were to ring the big bell in accordance to the number of times we’ve summited the holy mountain. One local family was ahead of us and rang the bell four times each, Carter walks up (again, I am going back to his height and size because he’s actually massive in Asia compared to locals) and pulls on the bell string and completellllllly misses ringing the bell - he didn’t pull hard enough AT all!!! Then he gives it a quick retry and dings the bell but it’s too late, the local family, a monk and I are all failing at holding back our laughter and the ludicrous that the biggest man on the mountain (literally) couldn’t muster enough strength to ring the bell.
"Carter here! OKAY let's get this story straight here! While I was patiently awaiting my turn to ring the sacred bell a Dutch man with what must have been a severe case of small man's syndrome waltzed on up and smashed the bell so hard that Buddha himself probably cringed! To my defence I was trying to avoid rattling the bones of the local people around me and allow this beautifully peaceful ceremony to carry on without anymore hiccups! But yes, I was the laughing stock of Adam's Peak which I will forever cherish!"
After the good laugh, we watched the sun set over the next thirty minutes and braved the thought of going down all 5500 steps again..
For the last two nights we ended up in Hikkaduwa; a beach you can surf and see sea turtles on. We blew the budget at a whopping 5000rupiah a night hotel, that was a small family run place right on the beach with beautiful grass and a room with a view (and AC). We spent our days relaxing, shopping, eating and I caught up on This Is Us while on the beach. How I love 2018 and being able to get wifi almost anywhere!
Anghulla & The Sea Turtle Conservatory
On our way back up to Colombo on the 30th, we stopped by our beach for one last swim with the sea turtles. These were wild turtles, probably over 75 years old, who knew to come to this beach because locals and tourists would spoon feed them kelp. We said our goodbyes to these gentle giants and made our way north up the coast. In a few towns past Hikkaduwa, Carter noticed a turtle hatchery sign and a big cement turtle being constructed so we decided to stop and check it out. This was an unforeseen amazing decision. We are down to our last rupee so we didn’t necessarily want to pay, we just wanted to stick our heads around for a little peak. Before we knew it, Chalana came out to greet us, the project manager of this conservatory. He was a passionate 23 year old Sri Lankan who had turned his uncle's property on the beach into a save the turtles project. There were pools of one day old little turtles, another pool of 10 day olds, a couple months and bigger turtles which were 50years and older than were rescued and being rehabilitated. There was even a baby turtle that was 9 months that was blind; he’ll live in this center forever as he doesn’t have the natural means to survive in the ocean. After speaking with Chalana some more, he asked what we did back in Canada and we explained that I am a fundraiser but we have quit to travel for a year and Carter is a hobby filmmaker. We quickly offered our professional equipment to his cause. He was so excited to receive our help; especially because we had a “fly cam” to help him capture his beach front property in which he does most of his rescuing. He said more times than not, he will have to go out and troll the beaches to pay off fisherman for the eggs they’ve dug up (fisherman will eat the eggs as a delicacy or sell them). Then to our amazement, he comes out with a bucket of 4 small turtles... we were allowed to release them into the ocean!! Talk about a trip highlight. There was one little guy who flapped his flippers top speed right into the sea, and for a moment I was blown away at the inherent nature of turtles to know exactly where to go and how to survive right out of the hatchet egg. And then came Confused Charlie, I laid him on the sand and he just kept turning around and walking backwards, away from the sea. So we thought he wanted his friend to join him, so I released the third turtle and... it didn’t change a thing. In the end, I had to guide him closer to the water and as soon as the wave caught hold of him he was swimming away like a natural! It was incredible to see their little tiny heads popping up in the massive ocean and the waves that were crashing down on the beach.
After this unforgettable experience, we hopped back into our tuktuk, dodged some buses, haggled a few pineapples, and let a lot of old Sri Lankan women cross the street, as we made our way back to Colombo.
Sri Lanka was an absolutely amazing country, small but mighty. We enjoyed ourselves 125% more than we ever thought possible. The Sri Lankan people are incredible, the food is delicious, the variety of landscapes and activities to do from the hill station and mountains, to the coastal beaches, is mind blowing. We would recommend visiting Sri Lanka to anyone looking for a REAL "all inclusive" getaway - this country truly does have it all. Although we may not have included every single detail of our journey across Sri Lanka (as it would have been a days' worth of reading for you), we're including some of our highlights for you to hopefully enjoy as much as we did!
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!