Traveling around Sri Lanka

Day 0

The flight was relaxing and I watched the movie Finding Dory. The main character’s memory loss was unsettling to me. My first impression of the Colombo airport and the highway was positive. The Colombo Airport sells air conditioners and washing machines for workers returning from the Gulf States to bring home to their families. I easily got a sim card with mobile internet and used Google Maps to help the driver find my hostel. The ride took an hour and led along a very nice highway. Having nice transportation infrastructure is a big indicator of development. The highway reminded me of all the other new highways spouting up in other developing countries. A quick drive through the city showed that Colombo was mostly crampt concrete and cement.

Colombo’s concrete was similar to District 10 in Saigon. I think that Colombo is on the same ( or slightly behind) infrastructural development phase as Saigon. The city is along a beach and so in the morning, I will see its beauty. Driving into the city it was 80/27 degrees at night which means it is going to be rather warm tomorrow. Also, there are statues of Buddha everywhere, although Thailand is the world’s most Buddhist country by population, Lanka is much more showy. Thailand has statues and photos of the late king everywhere and Lanka seems to just have the Buddha. My hostel is extremely nice and modern. Likely the most modern I have been to.


Day 1

So far everything is going well. I woke up and was very dry and tired from the cold air conditioning and all the traveling. I walked to the beach area. I soon realized that the beach is a semi-slum. When I noticed a bunch of young men walking on the beach, I decided I didn’t want to stay on this beach for too long. So I hired a rickshaw driver to drive me around the city for a few hours. So he is taking me from place to place.

Right now I’m having tea and breakfast. Colombo is a nice city; about 1 million people it’s not too crowded. Things are very new, things are technologically advanced, many people use Uber and everyone is using a smartphone. Things seem safe and nice. Everyone is smiling and talking to me. And I’m smiling and talking to everyone. Colombo is totally in the Christmas mood.

I’m lucky that I already remember how to manage myself in India, so this place is manageable. This could be the nicest place in deep southern India. Its similar to Goa or Kerela, which are wealthy sparsely populated parts of southern India. While walking on the street an old man said to me, “Hello sir, cobra?” and he opened a basket with a cobra that popped its head out. Then he said, “Many tourist people take photo with cobra… very super”. I agree very super.

The second part of my day, I took a brief walk around Fort Colombo. This is the area where the British colonizers lived. There are still some colonial buildings, some are left to decay and some have been restored into shopping malls. The juxtaposition of these two styles of building maintenance reminds me of other former colonial cities. Mostly Saigon, because that is the former colonial city that I spent the most time in. I was happy to see that one of the malls in Colombo advertises the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. Goal number 4 “On Quality Education” is the mandate of UNESCO and UNESCO Bangkok is the main office for that mission. So I’m going to send these pictures to my coworkers.

In Fort Colombo, I saw what I call the Chinese investment class, these are Chinese investors and real estate managers. Many of the large buildings under construction in Colombo are Chinese investments. This is different from India, where Chinese investment is present, but held in suspicion. Also, I saw many of the decaying cement apartment buildings that the regular people live in. There is mold growing on the cement and it’s clear that that building is uncomfortable.

Anyway, then the driver took me to a jewelry store. This is a normal practice where the jewelry store owner will pay the driver if I enter the store. I knew the driver would get money, and I wanted to help him so I walked into the store for exactly 4 minutes. And waited until the store owner gave him one dollar. The driver then took me to a bookstore where I bought a small magnetic chess board, chess is how I make friends with strangers, and I got a small book about Sri Lanka. Then my driver spent his one dollar on an English book for his three-year-old daughter. He showed me a picture of her too. I had bought a map of the world written in Tamil and Sinhalese and I decided I didn’t want to carry it and I gave it to the driver to give to his daughter.

Then I went home, I sat down, I wrote this on my iPhone. I can say that everyone here is very well-dressed. I made this useless conclusion while driving past a mosque where many people were well dressed for Friday prayer. Sri Lanka is a totally Buddhist dominant country. But minorities like Hindus, Muslims, Catholics all have a public showing. Many places are decorated for Christmas, and there are many Hindu temples and mosques around the city. But without a doubt, Buddha is everywhere. I think it’s very nice that a Buddhist dominated country, can be so multicultural. However, multicultural sensitivity is something that was likely burned into this post-conflict society. Blah blah blah.

My last bit of advice is that when you land in a new country you should watch how many local people are buying cigarettes and alcohol in the duty-free shops. Many people were purchasing those things when I landed. Today my driver was railing about how the President’s new taxes increase the price of cigarettes and alcohol. And that’s why he hates him. Then I immediately remembered the long line at duty-free and everything clicked.

In the evening, I went to the hotel where my friend from Penn, Deepa, is staying for a conference. It was cool to see Colombo from the rooftop. Then Deepa and I took a rickshaw to see her friends at a restaurant on the beach. It was nice to see Lankan people dancing to a live band playing American Top 200 music. Dinner was fun, all the people I will travel with are from Pakistan and likely because I send a lot of time with Danya in Bangkok I’ve learned a bunch about Pakistani culture. I connected with them over Pakistani music. We spent the night on the beach and then I went back to my hostel


Colombo Fort Area

Day 2

The next morning I woke up feeling really dry and tried to check out of my hostel early and got in a van with Deepa and her friends. The road down south showed some rural poverty and a got a reality check. The drive led us to Galle Fort and we spent an hour or more walking around it. The fort was cool and from on high I could feel the power projected by the hill top position.We will go to the beach in about an hour.

So we arrived at the beach and had lunch. Lunch was the first meal of the day and I was feeling hangry. After lunch, I went to the water with the Pakistanis, most of them hadn’t seen a beach in a few years. I calmed a few guys’ nerves about getting in the water. We then took a small boat onto into the water to snorkel. The snorkeling was a bit murky and I had trouble breathing plus the waves were choppy, so I got out of the water and had to spend a slow hour gradually correcting my breathing.

This is the second time I’ve had this breathing issue, I cause it by breathing too intensely. I would have to say the snorkeling in Thailand was much more impressive. After the beach, we drove up to a viewpoint to watch the sunset. It was wonderful to be up there.

One thing I observed was naked European kids running on the beach. Something weird about it reminded of the poor children that don’t have clothing, but these kids were just naked. It was strange, cause Europeans always judge “other” people for not clothing their babies and then they let them run on the beach naked.

All good. Tomorrow more beach activities.

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Look out point near Marissa Beach

Day 3

I woke up after a hard night’s sleep. The room had no A/C and the fans were very powerful and didn’t have a lower setting and there were many mosquitos. I woke up with a return of my tropical rash from when I had hand foot and mouth disease. Which was not a very severe disease. I went into the ocean for a bit and then moved to a much nicer room. My friends left and I am now on my own at the beach. Actually, I’m with 10,000 European tourists. I decided to rest for my health and I slept and rested until 5pm. Then I went back to the beach for dinner. I had hot soups, hot tea, and a Tylenol. I feel much better, but I’m going to have a very slow night.

It was fun to observe the Europeans and Australians that are here to surf and all their surfing machismo. There are plenty of white guys with dreads, surfboards, and young kids. There are tons of European kids here too. It surprises to see European children all over the beaches of the developing world. They never appear it people’s rough’n it travel photos, but they are there constantly invalidating any notion of danger or insecurity.  I’m just on a family holiday by myself.  Travel photos always omit the other tourist, but in fact there are tons of them. I should just photograph them- Moms infrequently scolding their kids, Mom’s boyfriend trying to connect with the blasé teens, Russians rolling cigarettes, and fun dads carrying their kids in those backpack contraptions. I really should just photo them.


Saying bye to Deepa

Day 4

Monday was a bit of a wash. I woke up at around 12PM and was not feeling well. So I took myself to a pharmacy and got some medicines. Then I sat on the beach for an hour or so to recover. Around 3pm, I took a surfing lesson for an hour and then I went home and rested again. I had some slow food for dinner and spent the night at my hotel.


Surfing in Marissa

Day 5

This morning, feeling much better I got a coffee and headed to the local bus by rickshaw. I’m now seated between two older Lankan gentlemen for the next five hours as we travel northward in a local non-air conditioned bus. Today’s weather is cool and we are headed into the hills so this warm uncomfortable ride will become bearable. I haven’t traveled cross-country in a local bus since Nepal. I forgot what an uncomfortable adventure it can be. However, let’s see… Once the bus starts moving things will feel better with the breeze.

So the bus ride was ass clenching. Except for the few spots where there is a highway, the five-hour journey was just along a two-lane road. Even up a treacherous mountain. I have bused the gap between train lines and I can ride a train for the rest of the week.

This ride I was sandwiched between two older men. I was lucky enough to have a seat as many people were standing. During the ride we narrowly missed hitting people, dogs, cows, and other cars. The bumping Sinhalese music was doing its best to calm my nerves. I eventually got comfortable and closed my eyes. Then I left that we had moved on to a highway.

The highway was likely Chinese built, because alongside the Lankan man constructing it was a Chinese man holding open a map like a lost conquistador. Chinese development is big here and thank goodness, I love reliable transport infrastructure. “Bus driver, throw that statue of Buddha out the window, rip those flowers off the front of the bus, stop angrily jousting with the gearbox you don’t need amulets and aggressive posturing to survive we are on a Chinese road! Tra la la”

The Silk Road ended and it was back to bouncing up and down. Bouncing along the side of the road were posters commentating the passing of Fidel Castro. Castro is a popular figure with the rural poor worldwide because of his land reform policies. Land reform is fixing the policies that govern who owns which plot of land. Land policy is a major indicator of modern development phases.

Let me give you an example in the Philippines and Vietnam, the colonial powers set no limit to the amount of land a single person could own. This created a situation where very few people “owned the whole country”. Creating resentment of the government, income inequality, haves and have-nots. In contrast, Thailand (never a colonial possession) did set a limit on the amount of land a single person could own and hence encouraged people to farm the countryside and created a wider farming class. In post-colonial Southeast Asia, communism was the party of land reform and hence very popular with the rural poor. Hence communism was never an existential threat in Thailand, yet it was victorious in Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam and brutally embattled in Indonesia, Philippines. Just food for thought.

I arrived in Ella, a small mountain-valley town and took a walk along the railway tracks to see a nine-arch bridge. Now I’m having dinner and planning to head to bed soon.


Walking along the train tracks in Ella

Day 6

Last night in the mountain town was good. No need for fans or A/C. I slept deeply and woke up at 9ish. Around 1AM thought, a trio of noisy Russians returned to the hostel and talked loudly. I think Russian sounds like the language of dragons. Very low with hard clashing sounds. I recognize the main villain’s stooge in the movie Anastasia is a dragon and my association could be from there.

Hostels are the place where Europeans mix, they all miraculous discover how similar their languages and cultures are. Every time I say in hostel I’m witnessing some European person’s coming-to-terms with all their shared culture with other Europeans. Hostels are like a Bermuda Triangle of European-regional awakenings. The amount of learning I’m doing about Europeans is evidence of how deeply I am in a tourist bubble.

I left my room this morning and went to drink coffee and then I began to climb a nearby hill/rock/mountain. I got lost and a farmer led me back to the trail. I climbed pretty high up the hill and realized I’d been alone for about twenty minutes and I’d lost the trail again. Then I decided I didn’t want to be lost on a hillside alone (maybe this is a mountain?). So I went down the hill and I ran into a few French tourists and their trekking guide. I followed them up to the top. When we got to the top, there were a few dogs hanging out there contemplating their canine incarnations. The dogs lounging everywhere made me realize that this climb was not a major feat of strength, but a pleasant walk.

Then I followed the Frenchies down the hill and back into Ella town. The whole trek took about six hours. One of the major ways to walk through Ella’s hills and valleys is on the railway track. It must make the locals bitter to carry cinder blocks, lumber, and farming tools alongside noisy tourists who are just carrying cameras. While walking on the railway, a twelve-year-old boy pretended to swing a logging ax at me and I pretended to be scared. We both were smiling, but I thought about how super uncool that would be in the USA. The train came by and plowed us off the track. People bathed in outdoor showers and slowly farmed their tea plants.

The Frenchies were not generous when paying their guide. Behind their backs I gave the guide more money. Europeans have a notion of a “fair price” and they stick to it, because of our tipping culture, Americans are more price flexible and sympathetic. It was a beautiful walk, got home, took a warm shower and thought about Khalil Gibran’s “the Prophet”. Off to find food.


Dogs atop Ella Rock

Day 7

This morning I awake unusually early and decided to stay another night in Ella, because tomorrow evening I will rejoin the Pakistani tourists and climb a mountain with them overnight to see the sunrise. There is a Buddhist pilgrimage up this mountain, Adam’s Peak/ Sri Pada, and we will start climbing at 1AM on Friday to reach the top by sunrise Saturday.

But for today, I started off the day in a cafe, opened a chess board and invited people to play with me. This is how I met a Japanese man who is working for JICA, a Japanese development organization. He is doing a project to train the Sri Lankan people in modern beekeeping techniques. Over the following five hours we walked up a hill, visited a green tea factory, and had lunch at a restaurant owned by a Japanese woman married to a Sri Lankan man. Yoshikazu Ushi told me about his work in the Maldives, Algeria, Jordan and now Sri Lanka. We spoke a majority of the time in Japanese. It was cool to make a friend for the day.

I guess the most interesting part of the day was the green tea factory. Basically is was a series of drying and leaf shaking machines and then the tea was bagged by hand. The tour forbids photos.

Tea is a curious thing, the British installed Tamil workers in high positions in Lanka. The Tamils, to no fault of their own, in a sense benefitted from the near slave-like conditions enforced on the Sinhalese under the British. The British used the Tamils like the Spanish used Mestizos in the Philippines. When the Raj ended the Tamils had power, tea lands, and preferences, which the newly independent Sinhalese government sought to undo. Again land reform is coming up. The Tamils, with clandestine support from Tamils in India, staged a multi-decade insurgence to not become an oppressed minority. This story is important because most Tamils live in the north, but they also work closely with the tea plantations everywhere in the country.

The tea factory was the first time I saw Tamils, in Lanka, and heard their ancient language. The Tamil language is one of the few ancient languages still spoken today alongside Chinese, Tibetan, Hebrew…

Although tea comes from China, the British used India and Lanka as plantations. The British governed Lanka separately (this is important because they governed Myanmar as a part of India). In extractive colonialism it is always difficult to enslave the locals (because they have high social capital), so the British used the Tamils as a middleman. And as mentioned when the Raj ended “rebalancing” power sparked a conflict that lasted until 2011. It just so happened that 2011 was the year I lived with both a Tamil and a Sinhalese person in Boston. This is when my interest in Sri Lanka started.

A final important connection between tea and politics is that before the world was addicted to sugar cane, yes you are chemically addicted to sugar cane, the US upper class was addicted to tea. The tea dumped into Boston harbor during the Boston Tea Party was likely from Lanka and India.

Finally, a small note as Buddhists, and their Buddhist scriptures came from Thailand, the Sinhalese rarely kill animals. Therefore, minorities are the animal butchers. This way the meat industry is controversially owned by non-Sinhalese. This reminded me on Nepal where the Buddhists couldn’t kill cows, and instead of killing them took them on treacherous hikes along high cliffs and let fate decide the menu.

Lastly, many local people told me they like Donald Trump. As a global celebrity and because he is anti-muslim like them. What a stupid reason to like a stupid person.


Ella’s mountains

Day 8

I woke up totally tired and didn’t feel like myself until the first cup of coffee awoke my soul. Then I was in a time crunch to pack, walk to the station, and eat. I boarded the train with a gaggle of other tourists. The train was a marvelous experience. The scenes from the train were awesome. I spent the ride talking to a 14-year-old boy whose mom pressured him to barnacle up to me. Since I was locked in an obligatory conversation with a kid I decided to just learn as much as possible from the boy about education in Sri Lanka. I learned that they use O levels and A levels just like the UK. To be honest, I have no idea what that means.

Another man on the trained enjoyed talking to me. I had the boy, his mother, the man attentively watching my moves and asking me questions. I really was tired, so I tried to doze off. The train shrieked and scratched its way through the mountains and across the forever tea fields that I conclude must cover most of the country. Really the views were awesome. These days, I’m a bit dehydrated from travelers’ tummy. This may be contributing to my malaise. The journey took about five hours. I’ll let the videos speak for themselves. When I arrived at the station, I soon found myself aboard another ass-clenching local bus winding along the hills. Now I’m at the base of a mountain waiting for my Pakistani travel friends to meet me before we begin climbing around 1am.

This mountain is called Adam’s peak and it is the site of a Buddhist pilgrimage that conveniently intersects with Sri Lankan Christians notion that Adam’s footprint is on the top of the mountain.

Adam’s Peak is lined with 5,500 steps and a few places to stop for tea along the way. I have been warned that the hike is calf burning and the top is very chilly. I got two jackets, 3 t-shirts, two long sleeve shirts, 3 pairs of boxers, and two pairs of pants to warm me. I learned my lesson climbing a mountain in Bangalore and not realizing how cold it gets at night. This time I will be as prepared as possible.

I thought about how the British and the Lankan labors must have built the amazing railroad and that the tea lands are all along the rails so they could easily load the tea and ship it out via Colombo.

Another thing I thought of was that colonial authority didn’t really touch every corner, but rather was centered in Colombo and diluted as the ripples went further inland. Colonialism can be thought of as business preferences that enforced the lowest prices, best lands, and no distribution of wealth. Initially, extractive colonialism had no intention of altering the native people’s way of life granted they volunteered their labor and lands. Eventually, the British in Africa started a different campaign to civilize the populations and convert them to Christianity. That said the railroad wasn’t built to improve the lot of the local people, but to pull the tea out of the hilly interior.

Colonialism was a long time ago, and my fixation on it is Euro-centric. So I’ll mention that ancient Sri Lanka was governed from the inland city of Kandy and another one with a long name. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks were slightly aware of this place and it appears in Roman books. Portuguese built forts along the coast just to trade, and the Dutch overtook them, the British were the first since the Lankan kings to have control over the whole island and now its independent. Why do I know nothing about this place post-independence?

I going to rest in my room and try to handle my upset tummy.

Video from the Train ride

Day 9

Late last night my travel companions arrived at Adam’s Peak. I slept until 1AM, then dressed in six layers and two hats. Then we all started up the mountain’s 5,500 steps. The trek was slow and we stopped twice for tea. We collected a German girl whose boyfriend had decided to run up the mountain without her so he could play with his drone, men and their toys… jeesh. I was again impressed with how naive Europeans are and how anxious Americanos like myself can be.

We reached the top at 5:30 AM and waited with the crowd to greet the sun and make a wish. A band of monks played drums and a nasal flute to greet the new day. The experience, high above the clouds was special. I made a wish for my Tabaybay (my niece) and then we hung out looking down on the other mountains and clouds. Then we started the four-hour trek downward. It was an exhausting nine-hour trek in total. We stopped for roti bread and omelets before we got into their van and began the seven-plus-hour trip to the beach nearest the airport. So now I am at my final location of the trip. No more transportation, hurray! We are just 15 minutes from the airport.

I talked to our van driver and he worked for 13 years in Dubai to earn enough money to afford his van and now he is turning his van and service skills into a tourism business.

While we talked, waiting in a parking lot, we saw a van load of stocky provincial Chinese dudes pour out and head into a department store, they are Chinese construction workers doing infrastructural work on the roads. Good for them/ and all of us for working on the roads, here the seafaring containers towed by trucks, rickshaws, people, and motorcycles all compete in nature’s hierarchy of the road.

It was great to not be alone, climb Adam’s peak (which I wouldn’t have done alone) and get private transportation across the country. So basically, I have just made on small oval spanning the southern and central parts of the island.

Day 10

I woke up to see my travel companions go. Then I mulled around the hostel lobby and made acquaintances with a Canadian woman who was traveling around. We decided to visit a fish drying location on the beach. Which was smelly and dry. So it was accomplishing its mission. Then we drove a bit more around the city, Negombo, and soon learned it didn’t have much. We sat at a restaurant by the beach and talked a bit.

Eventually, I went back to the hostel to laze around in the A/C. Then I walked down the road to do some souvenir shopping and watch the sunset. I realized that my trip is over a day ahead of schedule, because I was already next to the airport and the city was a bit dusty and simple. So I called Thai Airways and they proponed my flight by one day for free. I packed my bags and prepared to go to the airport.

A Danish guy, Kim, came into my hostel and we got to chatting and we went out for dinner. Great to talk to someone new. I realized I could have stayed another day with him, but I missed my life in Thailand and decided to head back. Kim and I got dinner on the beach and we talked about Japan and ideas for apps. He was clearly a like-minded dork.

I took an Uber to the airport and learned that this driver also worked in the Gulf for eight years to buy a car and run an Uber. I realized that had I been a Buddhist there would have been tons more cultural learning to be had in Sri Lanka.

Finally, while walking with the Canadian woman she commented,” I love walking with a dude, I get harassed so much less” and I thought, “walking with a girl, jeez, we are getting harassed an awful lot.” I realized how much easier it is to travel as a man than a woman. Was that my final learning?

Sri Lanka was a great time. I traveled a bit more health aware than previously. It was all a good, happy to come again and explore more.


Last sunset in Negombo,Sri Lanka

3 thoughts on “Traveling around Sri Lanka

  1. Dear Deren

    I’m both happy and sad that I couldn’t be there with you; happy because I took a mental note every time you said “tourist” or “European”, sad because it looks like a beautiful place and incredibly diverse.

    Enjoy the rest of your Christmas Holidays, for a brief moment we were only 721 km apart. So close, yet so far.

    -Another European

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