Day fourteen: Visit the capital city of Colombo
After breakfast you’ll visit the capital city of Colombo, which has an interesting history, running back to the fifth century. Even in the ancient times, this was an important port city in the East-West sea trade. Nowadays it has become a bustling modern city with a unique atmosphere, The glitzy hotel, restaurants, and modern shopping malls attract hordes of locals and tourists alike. In Colombo you have the opportunity to do some last-minute shopping or an optional city tour to visit the most highlighted places.
Our last day! As we drive along the bone-shattering goat-track toward the main road, I glance at the much revered, but almost tattered itinerary and almost laugh out loud:
'This wonderful dazzling discovery tour will showcase all the highlights of Sri Lanka with stays in some of the best hotels in the country where you will be treated with warm Sri Lankan hospitality that comes from the heart. There is time on the tour to relax and enjoy the cosy facilities of the accommodation. Travel around in comfort exploring from the exotic streets of Negombo to Rock Cave Temple of Dambulla, home to an impressive golden Buddha; discover the rich tea culture of Sri Lanka in the hillside plantation of Nuwara Eliya; spend a night in spiritual Kandy, home of the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic; visit the Dutch colonial city of Galle and enjoy free time at famous Sri Lankan beaches. The tour has been created, so be relaxed and enjoy the amazing round trip with the guidance of your expert tour leader. You will meet fascinating people as well as see incredible sites and sceneries that will give you a lifetime of memories to make it an amazing and fulfilling holiday.'
It would be simple to forget our ‘Arrive as a tourist, leave as an ambassador’ mantra today because it’s easier to dwell on the little annoyances, such as spending two weeks with a non-compliant driver in a tiny car, without taking into consideration the things we have gained over the period of time; like patience. I didn’t realise I had the capacity to be as patient as I have been during this journey.
We may be suffering from ‘Cabin Fever’ and I may also be temporarily insane. However, all jokes aside, we have been able to gain a small insight into Sri Lanka and its people over the past couple of weeks, and I’m certainly happy with our holiday choice.
Sri Lanka, a country the size of Tasmania with the population of Australia, is still emerging from a thirty-year civil war. There has been government corruption, and the recent election of the two brothers to President and Prime Minister status has given the country an air of excitement for a stable future. I mean everyone who we’ve spoken to has a positive outlook for Sri Lanka under these two dynamic leaders. They have a more confident view of a peaceful and stable future, especially following the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings of Catholic Churches, which occurred in Colombo and on the east coast. Last year, Mahinda Rajapaksa, using similar words to India’s Prime Minister, Modi, and before being elected Prime Minister said,
‘We are first and foremost one. One nation, under one flag and we are free to allow our diversity to be the uniting factor of our people.’
This statement has been turned into the nation’s rhetoric; is seen on bumper stickers and T-shirts, and it may well have been the statement that elevated this man to leader of the country. But Sri Lanka is not really united. The people don’t call themselves Sri Lankans. They refer to themselves by their ethnicity then their religion. It’s common to hear them say,
‘I’m a Sinhalese Buddhist or Hindu or Christian,’ or ‘I’m a Tamil Christian or Hindu or Muslim.’ To the visitor like me, they are all Sri Lankan, and although it’s not blatant, there probably is a type of caste system deeply ingrained within the psyche of the people. It may take generations to believe that they are all equal under one flag and I truly hope that the Prime Minister and his brother, the President, make an effort to combat corruption and to lead with honesty and integrity. We can only wait to see what the future holds and whether Wikipedia’s information is accurate.
Our itinerary is overloaded, to say the least. Last July, I had joined a tour that would take me from San Francisco to Las Vegas over a period of six days. Sadly, I didn’t check the distances we had to travel each day or the language spoken by the guide. What I ended up with was a Chinese tour with 55 people on the bus. Our day started around 6:30 am (earlier on a couple of days) and ended around 9 pm each night. Some days we travelled 600 kilometres with half-hour stops at some attractions. I swore I would not get caught again. But I did. When I had researched the distances for each day, they are not huge. However, with the condition of the roads, the traffic snarls, and the security road blocks, we could have easily been in the car for extended periods each day. But we had opted to miss some attractions to give us a more relaxed tour across the country. If I had looked further into the itinerary, I would have skipped the eastern beaches altogether. Apart from seeing some sea turtle tracks in the sand, this is a waste of almost three days. We should have stayed an extra day in Anuradhapura and driven directly to Sigiriya Rock to provide us with a better overview of the ancient cities and the religious culture. It would also have provided us with an extra day in Ella, and if we skipped the whole wasted trip to Yala, driving directly to Galle instead, we would have been able to absorb more of the Portuguese/Dutch/British history. But if we hadn't taken this route, we would always wonder what we missed. This way we know for the 'next time'.
I glance out the window of the car and am surprised that rice is grown this close to the coast. All throughout Sri Lanka there are rice paddies in various stages of cultivation. There are two climactic growing zones; Maha or Major, where planting occurs in October and harvested in February and Yala or Minor, where planting occurs in April and harvested in August. The rice fields, which are ready for harvesting, are bright green, their grainy heads sway in the breeze as workers work tirelessly in the fields. Sometimes they work in tandem with white egrets, who clean the fields of grubs and other pests as the farmers prepare for the next planting season.
For much of the past two weeks, the scenery outside the window has changed dramatically. My problem is when I see something interesting, I want to ask questions. Those questions remain unanswered because the spontaneity of getting information as we go is not possible. This is the one real negative aspect of the tour. I am frustrated by this.
We’ve loved using the tuk-tuks here in Sri Lanka. We’ve ridden in them in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and even in India, and we’ve had some nail-biting experiences along the way. However, here in Sri Lanka, in Colombo and in the smaller towns and villages, we’ve not at all found them unsafe. The drivers on the whole have been marvellous although the traffic has been heavy in some areas, we’ve not had any ‘We’re gonna die’ experiences. There are approximately 1.2 million tuk-tuks in Sri Lanka, causing a huge problem with labour shortages in the booming construction industry. All the drivers we encounter across Sri Lanka are young men, who probably should be at university or learning a trade. Instead, the lure of easy money and self-employment has caused a glut of tuk-tuks. There are plans to raise the minimum age for a tuk-tuk driver from 18 to 35 to discourage young people from entering the service industry, whilst at the same time, raise the minimum wage for construction workers. For us, though, the ability to easily hail or call a tuk-tuk and ride to a restaurant, a shopping centre or return to our hotel is a good thing. They certainly have been handy for us, especially on the shocking roads we’ve encountered during our stay.
As we approach Colombo, I’m surprised, or to be honest, shocked to see shanty towns lining the coastline. Tiny shacks built of wooden offcuts and galvanised iron spread along the side of the railway line, just a block from the beach. Timber mills, cabinet-makers, birdcage-builders; their wares are displayed in front of the little hovels. This is the stark reality that since the tsunami of 2004, little has been done to help those who lost everything and probably half their families are still trying to eke out a living amongst the poorest people of Sri Lanka. It doesn’t matter to them that they have enviable ocean views. To them, perhaps, it is a daily reminder of the death and destruction that took place on that terrible, terrible day. The couple of blurry photos I took don’t provide any idea of the number of desperate-looking shacks along the road, but my eyes saw that they stretched for kilometres and kilometres on the Colombo road. It is a sobering end to our tour.
We spend another couple of days in the now-familiar hotel in Colombo and use the time to enjoy coffees and trips to shopping centres and markets. We still have to bat off the touts, but we are far better at it now! The days after the tour serve to provide some relaxation before the trip home via Singapore.
We have seen a lot of security across Sri Lanka over the past fortnight. There are many road blocks on the country roads, and I had been shocked to see the Army locking down a Catholic Church and standing guard whilst worshippers attend Mass. Upon arrival at the airport on our last day, we are now subjected to a level of security that is unprecedented in my experience. Before arriving at the terminal building, a safe distance away, our passports are checked, whilst a mirrored metal detector passed from front to back on the underside of the hotel’s car. Once cleared, our driver takes control of the luggage, placing it on two x-ray machines before we even get to the check-in counter. Once there, all our luggage, including my handbag is sealed with sticky tape across the zippers. We then go through the formal security, which is just as stringent. But Sri Lanka cannot be too careful.
Over coffee, and as we wait for our plane to depart, we reflect upon our experience of this truly remarkable country. As usual, we have been able to appreciate the beauty of Sri Lanka, taste what it has to offer, and absorb the amazing history and culture. We’ve been accepted, and vilified, we’ve been at the mercy of touts, but mostly, we have met some truly beautiful people.
As our plane flies towards our island home of Australia, we are blissfully unaware that in another part of Asia, a virus so big and virulent will destroy any hope of travel in the near future.
TOUR: Across the Best Sites of Sri Lanka - Capital Lanka Tours
ACCOMMODATION: Fairway Colombo, 7 Hospital Street, Colombo 01. https://www.fairwaycolombo.com/ An excellent, clean and brand new hotel in a safe area of Colombo. Highly recommended.