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Friday, November 04, 2011

Travel Summary: Backpacking in Sri Lanka

I got back yesterday morning after a fabulous 6 day and 6 night backpacking holiday in Sri Lanka. The trip was so great that each day was a highlight. After learning some basic Sinhala words during my last trip, I have progressed to forming small, but broken sentences during the course of this holiday. English is still a prized commodity in Sri Lanka and is limited to the major cities and that too in the tourist circles. Colombo is the only exception to this trend. Tamil is quite well spoken in the central highlands, in the north and in small Muslim communities. The rest of the country is pure Sinhala. But, the people are so welcoming that as a traveller, you hardly feel the difficulty in communication. But, learning a local language helps as always.

My backpacking trip started with staying at a budget hotel on Galle road in Colombo 3. This was followed by a long walk through the heart of Colombo fort, which included the marine drive, Fort Railway Station, Pettah and the five star hotel district. The walk was special in spite of the sultry weather as the wide cobbled paths and zero litter environment are pleasing to anyone coming from the crowded and not so clean roads of India. During this walk, I got myself a local Dialog Sim card, explored the handicraft emporium, the old colonial buildings from the Dutch, Portuguese and British times, tried getting myself a train ticket at the fort railway station and walked the entire marine drive stretch.

The next morning, me and my friends reached the fort railway station, got ourselves first class observation car tickets to Nanu Oya. The rest of the day was spent admiring the changing landscapes as this train chugged its way along the steep slopes to the central highlands of Sri Lanka. A local bus then took us from Nanu Oya to Nuwara Eliya, the tea capital of Sri Lanka. The evening and night was spent exploring the markets of Nuwara Eliya.

Next early morning saw us take a tuk tuk (local three wheeler taxi) to Horton Plains National Park, where we trekked 9.5 kms in light rain and significant mist to Mini World’s End, World’s End and Baker’s Falls. Then we headed to the New Zealand milk farm to see how Cheese is manufactured while enjoying a hot cup of fresh farm milk. The evening saw us struggling to find a bus to our next destination and seeing our plight, a local agreed to drive us down to Thissamaharama for a basic cost. The night was spent in a home stay at Thissamaharama, which is fondly remembered by the group as ‘Princess Castle’ as the beds had pink mosquito nets on them.

The fourth day provided us with a great wildlife experience at Yala National Park. The highlight of this wildlife safari was us seeing 2 different leopards, one in the morning on the tree and the other in the afternoon on the jeep track. We were also treated to the sights of a 14 foot Tusker crossing the jeep track and that too at not more than 10 feet from our jeep. In addition, we saw plenty of bee eaters, land monitor lizards, peacocks, raptors, crocodiles and deer. This safari was a full day safari, which meant that we spent a good 12 hours inside the wildlife sanctuary. Lunch was spent on the Yala beach, which faces the wide open Indian Ocean. The evening was special too as we stayed in a tree house facing the jungle. This place was illuminated only by Kerosene lanterns and had the basic of facilities. The highlight of the evening was us sipping on some Old Arrack, a local coconut brew.

Two buses in the morning took us from Thissamaharama to Matara and then to Unawatuna Beach on the South West coast of Sri Lanka. Here, we decided to go for some luxury and stayed at a beach facing bungalow. This gave us great access to the beach. Rest of the evening was spent swimming in the waters and exploring different corners of the beach. It is here that I spent my 30th birthday.

After a relaxed wake up next morning at 8 AM (every morning, we were up by or before 5 AM), we went to explore the nearby coastal city of Galle. The day was spent exploring the fort, the coastline, the colonial buildings, the churches and the Galle International Test Cricket Stadium. After lunch, me and my friend parted ways and I headed to Colombo in a AC bus, while they returned to Unawatuna Beach.

At Colombo, I met Heminda Jayaweera, my local Sri Lankan friend and fellow trekker and he was kind enough to drop me at ODEL Fashions for some souvenir shopping. I spent close to 3 hours at the ODEL showroom and after spending a lot of money, I came out, had dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant (first Indian food in the last 6 days and nights) and then took the local Bus to Pettah and then the Airport. The return flight was less than 30% full, but much better occupancy considering the fact that only 4 of us passengers were there on my onward flight. Overall, this trip was physically tiring, as we faced variety of weather (rain almost everywhere, chilly nights and mornings in the central highlands and high humidity on the west coast), but then ain’t that the beauty of backpacking trips!!

This trip was much richer than my last one and I have loads of information and tit bits to share. I am sure you are all eager to see the photographs, but please hold onto for some more time as I am travelling today to Tadoba Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra and haven’t yet gotten enough time to process my photos. Do stay tuned to read more on my Sri Lankan experience. I am sure backpackers, vacationers, budget travellers and others will find it helpful.



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