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Sri Lanka, March, 1999

Click here to see what we did in the Maldives

We left the Maldives a day early thinking we might leave ourselves a couple of nights in Sri Lanka. We had last visited there in the late '70s just as the "troubles" were beginning. We had gone at the time of the Perihera in Kandi, the annual event during which a tooth relic from the Buddha is taken from the main temple in Kandi to other temples around town in a parade of caparisoned elephants accompanied by drummers and fire-stuntsmen. It was one of the most memorable attractions I have ever seen while touring.

At that time, we had traveled around the southern half of the island and ended up in Polonoruwa before having had to return to Colombo to take our flight back to Saudi Arabia. Because of time constraints, we had not been able to visit nearby Singhria. So on this trip, we decided to complete our previous journey.

We landed late at midnight in Colombo and despite a single Sri Lankan Tourist Bureau official on duty at that hour who tried to be helpful, ended up in the clutches of slippery private operators just beyond the arrivals hall. These touts tried to hustle us off to Kandy in the wee hours, but we insisted on going to Colombo, and eventually they arranged room and transport for us there. When we arrived at our hotel, we found we'd been booked in a room with 2 beds, and could not legally occupy it with 3 people. After a standoff at 3 in the morning, which I resolved by loudly and argumentatively waking up as many people as it took to let us into the room for the night, we finally got to bed.

We awoke in a pleasant and reasonably quiet hotel within site of the buildings of town, but itself surrounded by gardens and next to a cricket field. During breakfast, a driver approached us at table to propose a trip around the country. He'd obviously been alerted to our circumstances by his mates in the tout mafia at the airport, but his proposal of trip to an elephant orphanage on the way to Kandy plus arrangement of accommodation at a hillside b&b plus cultural show and return to the airport to make our flight the following day sounded fine for the amount of money he wanted. He was low key, and seemed like someone we could spend a couple of days with, and his proposal sounded like the best way for us to utilize our limited time in the country, so within the hour we were heading out to Kandy.

Travel in Sri Lanka these days is actually not all that pleasant. Despite stops for king coconut and cashews, the roads are congested and going is slow and tedious. The weather is hot and muggy, and there are people and their byproducts everywhere. The towns are noisy with diesel spewing trucks and chuk chuks and cinder-block, featureless buildings. The roads are dangerously clogged with everything from slow trucks to bicycles, near misses are the norm with every overtaking vehicle, and sleep is impossible with the driver speeding up here and mashing down the brakes seconds later. Our driver broke the journey with stops at factories which he seemed to think we might be interested in, but which of course turned out to be tourist traps for sale of items, ending in awkward moments as we tried to cut our visits short and exit without buying anything. Once we made it clear that we had no interest in such places, Mahindu, our driver, didn't insist.

The elephant orphanage was interesting. The highlight of the visit was following the elephants down to the river for their bath. Tourists could pet the elephants, or retire to the restaurant higher up the bank and sip cold drinks from the veranda with tables situated to maximize the view.

Kandy second time around, sans perihera, was disappointing. The Golden Temple had been blown up by Tamil separatists and was undergoing restoration. The town was more crowded and noisier than we remembered, the huge reflection pond polluted. The hillside b&b's had pushed so far into the hills that they were no longer in sight of Kandy. The cultural show, while representative of the skill of the musicians and firewalkers in the region, paled in comparison to the pulsating, frenetic carnival atmosphere of the real perihera Without a firelight parade there was nothing more to do at night, and even restaurants closed down early, with few bothering to actually prepare many of the dishes that were listed on the menu. We decided with our driver to head up to Singhria next day rather than spend more time in Kandy, and we departed the city before dawn.

Even Singhria was a little disappointing. For one thing, the Sri Lankan government had decided to charge about $25 or $30 for entry, so considering that the driver added to the fare for the out-of-the-way journey, the trip cost us in excess of $100 plus hours of unpleasant travel through nondescript towns over dangerous highways. Secondly, it wasn't all that spectacular. Singhria is a fortress built on a mountainous rock that rises out of a scenic jungle part of the country. Parts of it are carved from the rock, and it sports a set of famous frescoes depicting the licentious attitudes of its original occupants, but the traces that remain don't seem worth the trouble and expense once one is actually on-site. The truly jaded traveler may be better off minimizing travel around Sri Lanka and relaxing at the beach.

Recommended driver, a reasonable fellow:
Mohindu, No. 40-1, Mahanugasewang, Katukurundu, Moratuwa, Sri Lanka
tel: 642609, fax: 647518

Click here to see what we did in the Maldives

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Last updated: June 4, 1999