Sri Lanka: Big Smiles, Honking Horns and Curry!

My first impressions of Sri Lanka?
I’d have to say the big, big smiles.

Big smiles with red-stained teeth, covering the faces of the gorgeous people here. The women in bright, bold patterned outfits, and the men in their traditional skirts. Bicycles – lots of bicycles: sharing the road with trishaws and cars, buses and tractors, chickens, cows, dogs, goats, cats, people, motorbikes and more. The roads are filled with the obligatory Asian hectic traffic, which I seem to be able to best describe as “organised chaos.”
It’s busy here. And it’s hot: really hot – humid and sticky and wonderful.

We flew in to Colombo, Sri Lanka in the early morning, and headed to our accommodation in the beach city of Negombo. Holding on to the handles as our trishaw turned and darted and weaved through the traffic, we had to smile. We’re here – we are finally in Sri Lanka!

A quiet street in Negombo

A quiet street in Negombo

We spent our first day in Negombo, where we walked into the town, through the bustling and lively (and fish smelling) fish market to the city centre. It was exciting, but intimidating. We didn’t see one other tourist, and people everywhere around us were openly staring and laughing at these two very white foreigners. People were leaning out of their passing trishaws to get a better look at us, and the eyes following us were something we are not used to.

Negombo Fish Market

Negombo Fish Market

The hectic sprawl of Negombo city was bustling with life – so much colour and noise, people and traffic!
We spent a while wondering around Negombo looking for a bank that would accept our foreign cards – it took us 8 or 9 different banks before we found one that worked. Relief.
One thing is for sure – we now know that Sri Lanka has a large range of banks, should you wish to open an account.

We spent our first night in a little restaurant near our accommodation, enjoying Sri Lanka’s Lion Beer and traditional rice and curry. Sri Lankan curries are great fun – they come with all these little dishes in separate bowls, making for a real experience as you taste each one, trying to work out what it is.

Lion Beer and Vegetarian Curry

Lion Beer and Curry

On our second day, after sharing a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast with another Melbournian couple (Em was adventurous and ordered banana pancakes) we prepared for a day of travel, as we made our way inland from Negombo to Anuradhapura, an ancient city with sprawling ruins that was once Sri Lanka’s capital.

The bus rides there (two two-and-a-half hour rides) were a very new and, well, let’s say ‘different’ experience.
The first leg of the journey, Negombo to Kurunegala, was pretty standard – a dodgy looking bus that sped over the pot holes and unsealed roads at staggering speeds, dodging whatever was in it’s path. We took over the back seat of the bus so our big packs would fit – luggage storage doesn’t exist here on busses, apparently – and bounced our way into Kurunegala.

Kurunegala bus station is something else – something I can’t even put into words, although, I’ll try my best.
It is a station packed full of, surprise surprise, busses. But not just a few busses – lots, and lots, and then some more – all fighting for space and room to reverse and turn and move in. Horns honk constantly, as people mull everywhere. The smell of petrol fumes was overpowering, but the sights before us were just oh so wonderfully hectic! Finding a bathroom, first off, was an experience, as every person stared us up and down as we walked through the halls. Local touters and restaurant owners tried waving us down, “come lady, sir! Come madame, sit, sit, here, you come!”

To find our bus to Anuradhapura, a little man was kind enough to show us where to go. We waved his hand for us to follow, then marched us right on through and into the centre of the station, in front of and behind moving busses, through small gaps between vehicles, through groups of people and petrol fumes…
Then, when we managed to board the bus alive and take our seats on bus 57 to Anuradhapura, another little  man was kind enough to inform us “no A C.” (air conditioning)… Oh yes, the ride was about to get very interesting – and hot.

Before the bus started rolling, the “music of the station” as I decided to name it, began to ‘play’. As the bus engine hummed and shook, passenger after passenger kept boarding our bus. The humming engine and the footsteps of people provided the hum and pulse of the song. Constant honking of horns around us provided a beat. And the melody came from the many vendors who boarded our already jam packed bus, yelling out their sales pitches in the exact same tones over and over. Pop corn vendors, snack vendors, cold drink vendors, hot food vendors, fried food and short eat vendors… and then the picture book vendor and the gold jewelry vendor moved about, squishing through the bodies and touting their goods. What a sight and sound – we had to smile and laugh.

The following two and a half hours was a bum-numbingly, uncomfortably good time (We’re keeping things positive).
As we bumped and bounced and swayed in our tiny seats, every seat and space in the aisle of the bus was jam packed with passengers – I felt so sorry for the ticket fee collector who had to squeeze and shove his way through the crowd. Jam packed does not even begin to describe it: we were packed in so tightly, at times I wondered how any more people could actually fit in! People were leaning over me, on me, and around me. There is no such thing as personal space when it comes to travelling on a public bus, it would seem. If I didn’t have someone’s crotch rubbing on my shoulder, I had a stomach pressing against me, or someone standing on my feet, or staring at me from a few centimeters away, or breathing heavily on me… But still, it was all an experience – an uncomfortable at times but positive one – and we laughed and smiled our way through it; it was really a lot of fun.

And as the monsoon rain arrived and night closed in, and the bus driver continued to honk his horn and dodge and dive and weave, we looked forward to what we’d find in the ancient city we were about to arrive in: we could not be happier to be here in Sri Lanka.

Travel Planning: Spectacular, spectacular Sri Lanka

Okay, so our trip is getting nearer – 68 days, to be exact! If the count down wasn’t enough, our sore arms – quite reminiscent of pin-cushions after our latest travel immunisations, are another reminder that our big trip is inching closer and closer.
Along with our growing excitement and also some nerves here and there, our ‘to-do’ list is also getting bigger and bulkier by the day. Sure, we just ticked off tetanus and the flu vaccine off our list, but we also added another 100 odd things to it, too!
As per usual, Em’s been scouring through forum after forum, blog after blog, websites, travel magazines, guide books, travel literatures and anything else even slightly related to get ideas, information, and be inspired.
We decided that, although we’re quite laid back travellers; backpackers who want to meet lots of people, go where ever we so choose, follow advice of others, find our own way etc. etc. … we need to have a rough plan.
Planning is something we’re both good at by trade; it’s a big part of our daily work and lives, so – isn’t it funny that we’re actually pretty lazy when it comes to travel. Really, we can’t work out if we’re shit at planning travel in general, or that we just hate to do it becuase we like to leave things to chance, and pre-booked accommodation gets in the way of that.
When it comes to places like mainland Malaysia, Thailand, India (to an extent), Vietnam and Singapore, we have no plans. We will probably at some stage before arrival organise the first night or two of accommodation and leave the rest to chance… However, places like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia Borneo, we’ve read and heard over and over from various sources – you need to have a plan.
So. We might as well start with our first major destination – Sri Lanka. Spectacular, spectacular Sri Lanka. It’s a country that we didn’t really know too much about – instead it lured us in with its beautiful scenery, walking trails, tea plantations, lucious beaches, tantalising food and friendly looking faces.
After reading and hearing from a number of people, it seems as though (and correct us, if we’re wrong) budget accommodation can book up reasonably well in advance in certain areas, leaving the more pricey guesthouses/hotels as the only options. As long-term travellers, we need to be living on the cheap whenever possible, which means we can’t really risk, nor do we want to, have to stay at the Hilton or the likes of, night after night. We’ve read this is also the same sort of situation for Myanmar, and Malaysia Borneo…
Another reason we want to plan some of the places we’re going to, is becuase we have a limited time there and want to make sure we get the most out of it; to get to the places we want to go. This of course can also be done without prior planning, and we fully intend to work this way in some of the other countries we are heading to, but again – we want to book accommodation in advance, and that requires planning the places you’ll go and where, in turn, we will stay.
Sri Lanka, if we wern’t already excited, and didn’t already love it before we started really planning; well, we sure do love it now and we haven’t even touched down! In less than three months we’ll be travelling through Sri Lanka, and we simply can not wipe the smiles off our faces every time we think about it.
Spectacular, spectacular Sri Lanka; we can’t wait to meet you!
What is your travel style? Do you like to plan ahead or see where your journey takes you?