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Personal thoughts on Sri Lanka

Returning from my short visit to Sri Lanka, I’ve been asked on numerous occasions my perceptions and thoughts of the country. I find this relatively difficult to respond, as every observer notices different things. Even though Claire and I travelled together, I’d bet my last euro that what she thinks of the trip would be quite different from mine, plus some common points of course.

Buddhism
While knowing the fact that Buddhism is practiced by the majority of Sri Lankans, until my arrival, I simply had not realised just how significant its presence is. Everywhere we went, we would come across a Bo tree which under sat a statue of Buddha, or a simple shrine at the edge of a road, or a large temple overlooking the turn of a bend, or magnificent (and historic) complexes attended by many for prayers and ceremonies.

It also served to remind me that the root of Buddhism lies in South Asia, despite the main practising strongholds of Buddhism and its related/linked religions being East and South-East Asia. The iconographic representations of Buddha are noticeably rather distinct here from those of other parts of Asia. It also highlights how prayers are conducted quite differently from these fractions of Buddhism, yet at the same time hold through the practice of calm meditations. I find them all quite fascinating, but to discuss them in details would merit long articles in their own rights.

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Rice and curry et al

After much delays in getting my posts up, I thought, finally, I’m done with Sri Lankan travel series. Until I realised that I have not. What about the food? That’s something very important and shockingly, I haven’t mentioned anything about them up until now. Abnormal for a girl who eats a lot and likes to, as much, talk about food.

When I travel, I like to eat what the locals mostly eat. In Sri Lanka, that means many meals of rice and curry. Some were absolutely delicious, some a tad more pedestrian, and most times the portion size was just downright scary. At least I wasn’t overpaying for “foreign” meals. I’ve seen the price of a plate of spaghetti bolognese easily being equal or higher than a meal of rice and curry that could generously serve two.

Rice and curry sounded so simple, but often it had more elements and ingredients than a typical Western home cook would encounter in a week! Rice was, well, rice. Often times they were plain boiled/steamed rice. But the curry! It wasn’t a single curry dish that I would cook at home by throwing 3-4 types of vegetables and/or meat in with some curry paste and coconut milk. We’re talking of typically 3-6 different curry-base dishes to go with the rice. Not unlike the concept of thali in India, or nasi lemak in Malaysia. And oh how good they often were too.

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Roadtrip ended in Colombo

This is it. The final stretch of our journey in Sri Lanka, from Galle to Colombo, with a distance of about 120km along the south-western coastline between the two cities. A memorable roadtrip, that’s for sure, with plenty of adventures and misadventures as you’ve read through the series of this blog entries. (And thank you for sticking out with me despite the delays in getting the entries out!)

Even our drive to Colombo was not without its own drama. A few days earlier, we had encountered some problem with the air-conditioning system as we were arriving in Ella. It was supposed to be fixed but not even half way through the drive (right after Balapitiya), the system failed again. This time, we didn’t have the benefit of the cooler temperature of higher altitude and the heat in the van as we approached late morning/midday was becoming more and more unbearable.

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The old fort of Galle

Galle was the penultimate destination of our journey, and after a week of moving from city to city, we were looking forward to getting to Colombo where we would stay for a good few days. There’s nothing like a new bed every night (and not knowing where you’d sleep the next day) to make us appreciate the comfort that would await us in Colombo – our luxury hotel in Colombo was the only that we’ve booked well in advance and which we agreed to splurge on. More on that in the next post.

Prior to arrival, we have booked to stay in the New Old Dutch House within the fort city through the phone, of which I had a verbal price confirmation, that it was inclusive of taxes etc and ensured that accommodation and food would also be provided to our driver. On checking in, we found ourselves enchanted by the distinct colonial feel to it but soon felt we’ve been had – Nilan was being accommodated elsewhere at an additional charge to us (we were later told the room provided was with poor facilities and even trickier to find a place to park the van we were travelling in) and without food, and they even tried to add taxes to the price of our room.

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The southern coast

Travelling across the southern coastline of Sri Lanka took us from Tissa to Galle (pronounced as Gaul), our next main destination. We took our time though, completing this journey of about 150 kilometres over 4-5 hours time. We had short stops along the way so we can indulged in spots of photography, plus we also visited a blowhole and a 2004 tsunami memorial site.

The initial part of the road to Galle saw us exiting Tissa but passing by vast open fields and notable turn offs to get to Bundala National Park. Not long thereafter, we began to sight the coastline and stayed driving pretty much along this scenic route. And like everywhere else in the country, we soon also spotted a number of Buddhas along the route, but more notably, we began to notice Buddha in standing position and in different poses. Up until now, those which we have noted tend to be of sitting or sleeping positions.

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Tissa, Yala and safari

After our good and scenic rest at Ella, we took off further south to Tissamaharama – Tissa in short – our base for exploring Yala National Park. A former capital of Sinhalese Kingdom of Ruhuna, today it is a town running close along the man-made lake Tissa Wewa (which dated back to the time when the kingdom was present), with businesses lining the main street and otherwise surrounded by (burnt) paddy fields.

We have opted for a late afternoon/early evening safari at Yala National Park but considering we arrived at Tissa quite early, Claire and I decided to explore the main street by foot after we checked in to a hotel at the edge of the town. As we walked, we were reminded that we were no longer in the hill countries. We definitely felt the heat of the late morning sun.

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A room with a view in Ella

Ella was meant to be our short reprieve from the packed roadtrip schedule, well placed half way through the week. Given the number of posts written for this trip so far, it may seems like it has been a lot longer but we’re actually only four days in! It ended up being a break needed by our driver too. Now, now, no jumping to (wrong) conclusion that we’ve put him behind wheels excessively; rather something has gone wrong with the air-conditioning system.

We were about half an hour from Ella when we spotted smoke streaming out the unit (uh oh) – and it was definitely something that required immediate attention. Luckily the noon temperature in the hill country was relatively cool so the short trip to our hotel without air-conditioning came about uneventfully. The one concern Nilan had though, was that it was poya and he wasn’t sure if he could find a garage that would be open to look into the fault. Hmmm…

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Morning hike at Horton Plains

For most part of our ascend by van to Horton Plains from Nuwara Eliya, we were shrouded in blankets of fog and visibility pretty much stayed within the range of a few meters ahead of us. Light drizzle also accompanied us on this early morning as Nilan drove up small and windy road of… well, I don’t really know, since I could hardly see much. Instinctively, I believe, if we ever slipped up, we would be rolling down the side of a pretty high hill.

However the task was not at all daunting for Nilan. The distance we were to cover was just over 30km but it’d take approximately 2 hours. He was busy as ever chatting on his mobile phone (hands free, in an unconventional manner – don’t ask) while Claire and I silently wished he would not be too distracted when he shouldn’t be. Honestly, we had no idea who he’d be talking to at six in the morning. If anyone ring me at that time, unless it’s an emergency, I’d hang up right away. Secretly though, Claire and I were impressed at the strength of mobile phone reception in this country. Even high up at a remote national park was no barrier to mobile telecommunication here!

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We sort of saw Nuwara Eliya…

Names of places in Sri Lanka had been straight forward so far into our roadtrip, until we told Nilan that we wanted to go to Nuwara Eliya after Kandy/Pinnawala. He looked at us and reconfirmed “Nur’Eliya?” to which we puzzly replied, “no, we want to go to Nuwara Eliya.” Oh the confusion – because apparently one doesn’t pronounced this particular name syllable per syllable as written. Nur’Eliya it was!

To get on with our itinerary, we needed to first drive back towards Kandy, passing the Colombo-Kandy road once again. It was a rather picturesque stretch of road, with views of rolling hills on one side of the road. However, as we were in a hurry in the morning to be at the sanctuary by opening time, we didn’t really appreciate what we saw as we should. This time, we took the opportunity to actually slow down and enjoy the views.

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Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary

As Claire and I have been busy from the word go, jetlag never really got a chance to hit us. Day three and we were up for another early morning adventure. Destination: Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary. Situated some 20-odd kilometres away from Kandy on the Colombo-Kandy Road, we made it there in time for the door to open for the day at 8.30am so we could participate in the morning (9.15am) feeding and to also not lose further time from our schedule. At this stage, we had a pretty good idea how the remainder of the week would roll but subject to plenty of flexibility.

Even though it was early, a small crowd was already waiting by the gate when we arrived. And perhaps precisely for the early hour, we didn’t see too many foreign tourists there either, the most obvious being a group of French tourists who were bantering among themselves (yes, I occasionally eavesdropped shamelessly but some of the things they said were too funny for me to disregard). Nilan made life easier for us by purchasing tickets on our behalf (we gave him the money and stood aside to wait) and with our (foreigner price) entry plus supplementary feeding (Rs 2,000 + Rs 250) tickets we made our way in.

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Cultural evening in Kandy

Our visit to Kandy was far too short to say the least. We arrived in this picturesque city in the early evening – around 4pm – from Dambulla. Our arrival into the city was greeted by some drizzle, but nothing too heavy to hamper our movement. We had booked a room at a budget hotel on Saranankara Road (based on guide books recommendation) but we also ended up checking out a couple of other places just higher up the hill on our driver, Nilan’s advice. We didn’t quite like those so we went back to our first choice, Expeditor Inn.

Reasonably priced, clean and comfortable, we were also pleased to find ourselves with a room with a view – overlooking the Kandy Lake. The receptionist/caretaker was a helpful and friendly lady in her late thirties/early forties (the common room computer was out of order but she let me used her personal laptop – I had to check my emails as I was trying to organise possible meet-up with a friend’s friend but that fell through in the end), and a porter who was thin and lanky was also on hand to assist the move of our luggages from the van to the room. On the fourth floor. By stairs. Ooops… I normally do travel light but this time, with wedding gifts and attires and whats not, the bag was on the heavy side. I felt quite guilty each time someone (well, usually Nilan) had to carry that.

Once everything was settled and we had a little pause, we headed back into town area. More specifically, to try to catch the Kandyan dance performance that was slated for 5.30pm at the Kandyan Arts Association. We got there just in time to purchase our tickets and grabbed a seat pretty much behind most of the other visitors since we were among the last ones in. Nonetheless, this wasn’t one of the busiest nights so the hall remained only half-filled.

The cultural show was very much a tourist-geared event. It was evident when the majority of those seated in the hall were Caucasians, with a handful of South Asian families here and there. However, at 500 LKR per person, the price was a lot more accessible than many many other things that I’ve paid for during the trip. A programme sheet was distributed at the ticketing desk too, so we would have some information on the significance behind each performance. Unfortunately I can’t seem to locate my programme right now (no idea where I’ve stashed them since my recent move) so I can’t exactly match the names of each dance to the photos that I’ve taken… The dancing and drumming performance didn’t just end there – there were also fire-eating and barefeet charcoal-walking to cap the hour of entertainment!

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Cave temples of Dambulla

Buddhism runs deep in Sri Lanka. There are more Buddhist temples on this island than anywhere that I’ve been. Sights of monks in their orange/saffron robes make them stand out from the crowd, even when there’s already a myriad of colours surrounding them. Besides the temples, on street corners and main junctions everywhere, it is not unusual either to see a shrine, sometimes almost unnoticeably small, sometimes magnificent and breathtaking, paying homage to the Buddhas sheltered by a sacred Bo tree nearby.

Day 2 of our trip continued from Sigiriya, which at one point of time in history was also a monastery site, heading towards Dambulla for the famous cave temples before travelling further south to Kandy, home to the country’s most important shrine, the Temple of the Tooth. But let’s not get too far ahead. First, we’ll take a peek at the cave temples.

Dambulla on its own, is a small dusty town. A main street lined with shops, some in relatively modern multi-storey premises, others low wooden huts, and one should not be surprised either to see incompletely constructed buildings already in use – something we noticed no matter where we went.

The cave temples are located a couple of kilometres south of centre Dambulla. It would be hard to miss, given that the Golden Temple lies at the bottom of the steps leading to the temples. The Golden Temple boasted a gigantic golden (of course) Buddha, seated cross-legged over a lion’s head (its mouth the entrance to the temple – reminiscent of the idea from Sigiriya?). We did not enter the temple itself but walked around for a quick peek while waiting for the ticket counter to the cave temples to open after the lunch hour.

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Trekking Sigiriya

We had it all coordinated. Claire and I would be arriving in Colombo in the morning, her from Dublin via London and I from Paris via Dubai, with less than 1 hour difference between our arrivals. We would then meet our driver and began our 7-day roadtrip around Sri Lanka before arriving back in Colombo for our friends’ wedding.

However, Fate had it for both of us to be delayed due to technical difficulties. Things got slightly complicated here. Her delay was in London, mine outright in Paris. Having no idea how long each our delays could be, not to mention if I’d be able to catch my original connection flight, our best solution then was to contact each other after landing (while praying that our phones actually worked on roaming!). Whoever got there first would wait for the other – the wait could have been up to 3-4 hours. In the mean time, we had to wake Eve and Pras up in the middle of the night so they could contact and inform the driver in the morning (while we were airborne) that we were not a pair of no-shows, merely late.

Our flights still came in with about an hour difference, although in reverse order. Nonetheless, we had lost approximately 5 hours of time – that was half a day wasted. After withdrawing some money from the ATM (nope, we didn’t have any local currency with us) we bought ourselves a local mobile SIM card to use and tracked down our driver to truly kickstart our tour.

Our first base would be Dambulla, some 130km away from Colombo. While that distance didn’t seem all that far, it still took us about 3.5 hours to get there! By then (about 5.30pm) it has also started to get dark. There was nothing else we could do. We checked in to a hotel, grabbed some dinner at the hotel’s restaurant after a failed exploration walk along the main road near the hotel to find something appetising, and called it a night.

An early start the next morning was on the card. After breakfast, we were on the road for Sigiriya aka the Lion’s Rock, site of an ancient palace and rock fortress. It’s essentially a smaller version of Ayer’s Rock. I won’t bore you with the historical details of this site (here’s the Wiki) but back then, we needed some help. We were introduced to a guide (it’s terrible but I can’t recall his name now) who informed us that there were a couple of thousand steps to climb to get to the top of the rock, but first, we’d need tickets.

As we were not visiting the other two main ancient sites to really benefit from the Cultural Triangle pass, we paid for individual site entry fee. It was a whooping US$25 per person. No such thing as a couple of thousand rupees entry fee for us. This would not be an unique experience since we would encounter this practice one place after another. While we understood the premise of charging foreign visitors a price they could afford (I mean, if you’re going to fly all the way to Sri Lanka, then you are relatively well-off in comparison to most locals), we felt the prices could be made somewhat more reasonable. Afterall, plenty of (young) travellers nowadays would still have to scrimp and save to get there.

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Ceylonese Tales

When Eve announced that she was getting married and the wedding would be held in Sri Lanka, I was all one big ball of excitement. A chance to see a new country, a chance to indulge in Sri Lankan cuisine, a chance to experience traditional Sri Lankan wedding not to mention other cultural gems – what else can a girl ask for? Travel partner? Check – Claire has agreed to go on a roadtrip with me. Oh yes, we were all set.

Errr, let’s paddle back a little.

Honestly, we were not terrible well-prepared. Sure, we coordinated our dates, we roughly planned our route and we booked our flights. That was about it. Even on the day prior to departure, we had not a clue how we were going to get around (there was vague idea to hire a car) nor have we any accommodation booked, save for the few nights in Colombo when the wedding was due to take place. You know at this rate, we were in for an adventure.

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

Luckily, Pras came to our rescue. As we had only about a week on the road before settling in Colombo, our best bet for travelling would not be on the mercy of public transports that might take us forever to get from one place to another. At the same time, driving some place where the rules of the road were unfamiliar to us (well, mostly Claire, since I don’t drive although I could read map!) was not a good idea either. Pras contacted a driver with a van for us, so for our trip, we now have a chauffeured vehicle. Super handy. No slugging bags everywhere, no jumping onto oncoming buses, just freedom to go anywhere we wanted.

We managed to cover quite a good part of the island despite the chronically sluggish driving speed. What distance that could normally be reached within an hour in developped country would take 2-3 times longer here. Not that we were in great hurry, since that gave us a chance to enjoy the view along the route, but it did make time estimation rather tricky. Especially when we were aiming to be in certain city at certain time. We were pretty much always arriving later than we thought we would be.

We toured the southern half of the island, although I wish we had had more time so we could have explored more. Two most notable sites that we couldn’t fit in our schedule are the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. They lie just too far up north for our schedule and time constraint. We also missed Adam’s Peak further south…

In the next few posts, I’ll try my best to relive my Ceylonese Odyssey, the good and the bad. Well, not exactly bad, but definitely a small few misadventures here and there. For now, I leave you with a set of “portraits” I’ve shot during my trip. Have a good weekend y’all!

 

All posts in this series:
Sri Lanka: Ceylonese Tales
Sri Lanka: Trekking Sigiriya | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Cave temples of Dambulla | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Cultural evening in Kandy | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: We sort of saw Nuwara Eliya… | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Morning hike at Horton Plains | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: A room with a view in Ella | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Tissa, Yala and safari | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: The southern coast | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: The old fort of Galle | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Roadtrip ended in Colombo | Flickr Photoset

Day 259: Tuk-tuks, all on board

If there’s one mode of public transport most seen around Sri Lanka, it is the tuk-tuk. Small, colourful (some with personalised decor, both interior and exterior) and nifty vehicle that zips through the city and the rural areas, there is no escaping them. I still marvelled at the fact that I saw them up on high hills after manouvering some tricky and windy stretches little roads.

For such a compact vehicle, I have seen it carried more things than a small car could. 6-7 adults squeezed in at the back? No problem. Buying a double bed mattress? Just haul it overhead. Have a bike to carry? Slot it through. Produce to be brought to the market? Pack as much as you can sell for the day (and then some). As for us, we ordered one to take us on a tour around Colombo, seated comfortably, just two persons peering out the “windows”. My last chance too, to see Colombo, before I fly out this evening.

Day 258: Kandyan Dancing

Wedding ceremony in Sri Lanka is interesting and unlike many others that I have attended. Set by the seafront of Galle Face Hotel, my friends Eve and Pras got married at sunset, surrounded by family and friends, officiated by a priest, and entertained by singers, drummers and Kandyan dancers. It was just beautiful.

Claire and I have also actually seen Kandyan dancing while we were in Kandy. Next to the Temple of the Tooth is the largest dance association in Sri Lanka, for about an hour, the tourists are entertained by traditional cultural dances as well as fire-coal walking. We thoroughly enjoyed our experience that we were glad to get a second go at watching them at the wedding.

Day 257: Tsunami Honganji Vihara

We continued our journey towards Colombo, the last leg of the tour from Galle to Colombo. En route, we passed by Peraliya Village where a tall, 54 feet Buddha statue has been erected in memory of the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsumani, with funding assistance from Honganji Temple of Japan. An estimated 2,000 or so villagers and train passengers of Samudra Devi, that happened to be halted neat the village as water surged, perished that day.

Tsunami Honganji Vihara is built based on the Bamiyan Buddha statues of Afghanistan, which were destroyed about a decade ago by the Talibans. Today, it stands facing the sea that is a mere couple of hundred meters away, on a platform guarded by lions on all corners, surrounded by a pond, and linked to the land by a small bridge. The breezy September wind sent the coconut leaves fluttering lightly against the blue sky, revealing little of the destruction of the past, until one casts his/her eyes to the surrounding and found crumbling huts and houses that have since laid uninhabited.

Day 256: Southern coast

It’s no secret that I don’t swim (I am making some effort at learning though) and looking at the crashing waves along the southern coastline of Sri Lanka, I don’t think I’d dare to swim there even if I could! I never stepped into the waters but from where I stood, I’m sure the height of the waves could easily come up to my waist, if not higher.

There were never any breaks to the cycle of waves rolling in and out, and yet, somehow, it was mesmerising to look out from the window of the van, watching the sea riding its natural rhythm. During photographic breaks, it felt great just to stand there for a minute and let the wind weaved through my tresses (and perhaps rather unfortunately, also lifting my skirt at rather inopportune moments when I forgot to hold it down). It was also a kind of calm that I have not experienced in a very long time…

Day 255: Yala safari

During our trip, Claire and I try to vary our activities so we can experience the country as much as our limited schedule allows. We have visited both ancient ruins and modern Buddhist shrines, did a couple of hikes to better appreciate the splendour this country has to offer, soaking in the cultural knowledge whenever possible and now, a safari! Yes, with wind in our hair and a coating of red-sand dust all over us.

Now, the safari at Yala National Park is not to be equated to an African-style safari, with herds of animals running along the jeep. However, our hired 4×4 did zip around the ground, in search of the residents of the park including elephants, leopards (they were too far for me to photograph properly though), deers and macaques. We truly enjoyed this little outing, and had we had more time, we would have considered a full day safari, perhaps with an overnight stay in the park too.

Day 254: Misty railway

I may have watched one too many Bollywood movies when I was a child (my greatgrandpa loved watching the drama with all the poms of singing and dancing in the afternoon tv programming), so while we are in Sri Lanka, I have a new minor obsession – photographing railways. Better if there are people walking along it. Just a silly little image that I have in my head, you know, that I’d like to capture digitally, of the interconnectivity between lives and rail transport.

Yet, the rail-related photo that I like most is one of a small, isolated station. On a misty, seven o’clock morning. We were on our way to Horton’s Plains when we crossed this railway. Taking a chance that no train will be heading towards us, I got our driver to take a short pause so I could whipped out the camera for a shot. As you can see, I am very very pleased with the outcome. And the morning got better after that, with an amazing walk at Horton’s Plains and World’s End. Life is good :)

Day 253: Batalegala Rock

When Claire and I decided to start travelling from Colombo to Dambulla, we missed out on travelling along the scenic Colombo-Kandy Road. Luckily though, we did get to see a part of the route, thanks to our trip to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage from Kandy. The spectacular views of hills and valleys entertained us for the duration of the drive (about 90 minutes for 50km or so – yes, traffic moves slooooow here).

One of the most striking sights was the Batalegala Rock, standing solidly at nearly 800m tall, which is not unlike the Sigiriya Rock which we climbed just yesterday. Nicknamed the Bible Rock (something about resemblance to an open book), it was shrouded by thin layer of mist, giving it an aura of mystery and intrigue. I heard it could be scaled by those interested in mountaineering. Well, good luck!

Day 252: Cheeky monkey

I am torn between writing lengthy posts of my trip in Sri Lanka and keeping these daily Project 365 entries short as usual. Perhaps it would be best that I write on the trip fully as separate stand alone travel articles, where I would have more photos to go with the entries too. Sounds like an idea?

There are quite a lot of monkeys running around at the Dambulla Cave Temple complex where Claire and I spent our second afternoon in Sri Lanka. They are constantly on the move, some even involved in play (that looks more like fighting – they don’t play nice), and a few of them constantly checking out new food sources. By that, I mean the flowers offered by the visiting pilgrims. They keep sneaking in and out of the caves, and quickly swiped fresh flowers off the table to take away for a snack. Very cheeky indeed.

Day 251: Ayubowan

First, there was a technical error with our plane. Then I missed my connection flight. By the time I arrived in Colombo, I was about five hours behind the original schedule. My friend Claire flew in from London to meet me there. Luckily (sort of) she had her share of flight delay too. We ended up arriving less than an hour apart, pretty much adhering to our initial plan, except we both arrived in the afternoon instead of the morning.

It hard to believe that I’m in Sri Lanka. Hot and relatively humid weather hit me at once, not unlike the conditions in Malaysia. Eager to get going, we spotted our hired driver for the week and instructed him to start making our way to Dambulla, some 150km away. The journey would be taking us some 4 hours on the road, if not more. That’s just how things are. And we have this little elephant talisman on the van’s dashboard to keep us away from harm.

Let the week-long adventure begins!


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