20:16 Monday, February 02 2018

Sri Lanka (2/2)

This post is part 2 of the "sri-lanka-2018" series:

  1. Sri Lanka (1/2)
  2. Sri Lanka (2/2)

I've recently returned from a 3 week trip to Sri Lanka (ending with 24 hours in Singapore). I had a great time, eating a ton of delicious food, seeing tons of wildlife, and exploring much of the country. Other than coping with extreme heat & humidity, the trip went quite well.

I slept poorly, with indigestion for much of the night. Thankfully, i feel fine now. Before breakfast, i walked down the block to purchase some food for lunch on the train today. It was overcast and seemed like it would rain at any second. I got 5 different doughy things that are filled with different stuff. Breakfast was a fruit plate (but it had mango and some mystery fruit which had a thick deep purple skin, yet a tart yellow jelly like filling with tons of small black seeds), toast and an omelette.

I checked out of the hotel, and it was raining. Not hard but enough to make everything wet. I walked to the train station, and found my platform easily enough. It was the one with a few hundred western tourists standing about. As i waited for the train, the rain picked up into a huge tropical downpour. Thankfully, the platform was covered, but the humidity was awful. At one point, i went to use the "foreigner only" bathroom. As i walked in this French guy stumbled out muttering in the strongest accent possible "eees horreeebull". Sure enough, the toilet had been clogged for sometime, and it was truly awful. The train arrived nearly 40 minutes late but the storm started to clear by then. it was sheer chaos, as the third class cars are not reserved seating, and they were all overbooked. Everyone was scrambling to carve out a space to stand for the 6 hour trip. I ended up standing at the far end of a train car, somehow managing to find space for my 2 bags on the overhead racks. After the first hour an old man got off, and someone standing beside me took his window seat. About 40 minutes later a woman sitting beside me got off, and i grabbed her seat. Eventually the train climbed up into the hills, and there were super green tea plantations everywhere. Then the seat across from me started cycling different mothers with 1 or more lap children, who were uniformly poorly behaved. They were kicking, grabbing stuff, making a mess with food. Also the storm clouds started to roll back in. Eventually we were passing through dense forests, and the temperature outside dropped enough to be comfortable. It was no longer tropical at all, and instead there were conifers, ferns & eucalyptus. The train pulled into Haputale 45 minutes late. It was cloudy, humid, windy, and a bit chilly.

I found tuk tuk to drive me to the hotel, which took about 5 minutes. Along the way the driver was quizzing me about what i was doing tomorrow, and we hashed out a deal. I planned to do the "world's end" hike in Horton Plains National park. The big deal for the hike is that it leads to this cliff where you can see nearly 100 miles away. However the hike has to be done in early morning, as fog typically moves in by mid day, blocking the view. As a result most people do the hike at sunrise. So i'm meeting the driver at 5am, to get me to the park around 6-6:30am. The hike should take 3-4 hours, then he'll drive me back to the hotel. As i was climbing out of the tuk tuk, he asked where i was from, and without prompting he stated "i hate your president, Obama was good". I told him that i agreed, and that i'd see him at 5am, and he drove off. Surprisingly, this was the first time on the trip that Trump came up in discussion.

I didn't sleep all that well, as i was either too warm or chilly, depending on how much of the blanket i had on me. My alarm went off at 4:30am, and when i attempted to shower there was no hot water. It got semi less cold after 2 minutes, and i sucked it up and did my best. I packed stuff up, and by the time i headed outside, the tuk tuk driver was already waiting. i was wearing a t-shirt, and the driver had a hat, and a winter coat on, and asked me 3 times if i needed a jacket. It was 62f.

The 35km drive to Horton Plains National Park was something like Mr. Toad's Wild ride. The road was mountainous, curvy, and in poor condition. Also, it was super foggy, which made all of the switchbacks extra crazy. By the time we got to the park entrance, just after 6am, it was starting to get light outside. There were already several other vehicles lined up. I paid the entry fee, then we drove another 5km to the trailhead. It was still quite foggy, with a breeze, but not raining.

The 9km hike was truly great. It reminded me a lot of hiking up in Marin, with all the mossy trees & ferns everywhere. Very early in the hike i saw a huge elk with massive antlers. Much of the first half of the hike was through the forest. However once I reached the World's End viewpoint the terrain opened up, and there was even some sun. The view was incredible. Fog kept blowing by, then sun would come back. Much of the return hike (it was a loop) was across the open plain, with a river meandering in the distance. Although when it re-entered the forest, there was really nice waterfall (Baker's Falls) too. At this point the trail was getting crowded with people who started much later, and took the loop in the opposite direction. Lots of Chinese, Russians, and French. I finished the hike in about 2.5 hours. When i went to find my driver, i found his tuk tuk, but not him. I asked a group of other drivers, and they couldn't find him either. After about 20 minutes they located him napping on the back seat of a taxi. The drive back to the hotel was better if only because it was no longer foggy or dark. I checked out of the hotel, and took my time walking into town. I ended up having lunch in a cafe, where i tried kottu, which is basically chopped up roti fried with other stuff (mine had chicken, onions, carrots and corn). It was pretty good.

I walked down the road to the train station, and waited for the train to arrive. Unsurprisingly, about 5 minutes before its arrival an employee announced that the train was running "a little late". Thankfully it was only 10 minutes late, and when it pulled in, there was the mad scramble by everyone to find a space on the train. I ended up standing in this group of British seniors. When the train pulled into Ella, it seemed like most of the train got off, and many of then just stood around on the platform blocking others. It took a few minutes to push through the crowd, to exit the station. When i looked at the map, the guesthouse seemed to be an easy 1km walk from the station. What i failed to consider was that most of it was up hill. The walk felt like a death march, and by the time i got there, i was drenched in sweat. However, it is absolutely gorgeous here. The guesthouse is on a hill side at the end of a valley, and from my room, i can see for miles. Also when i arrived, they asked if i wanted anything to drink, and when they offered pineapple juice, i assumed i'd get something from a container, or bottle. Nope, they threw a fresh pineapple into a blender, so i ended up with this amazing smoothie.

I woke at 5:30am. I slept ok for the most part. When i woke, the sky was clear and the weather was nice (more on this below). Breakfast here was quite nice. I had the standard fruit plate, milk tea, papaya juice, 5 rolled pancakes with coconut/honey inside, and 2 egg hoppers.

After breakfast i grabbed a few thing in my backpack (water, camera), and headed out. My plan was to hike out/up to this viewpoint at the far end of the valley known as Ella Rock. The first third of the hike was along the railroad tracks. Since the trains don't run frequently, and they aren't fast, its basically how everyone walks places. The tracks are basically safer than walking along the side of a road, where there's not even a shoulder. The walk along the tracks was quite pleasant, with a steady stream of random locals and tourists. Once i got off the tracks, the remainder of the hike was very strenuous. First i was following narrow dirt tracks through 6ft tall weeds. Then i was walking up a steep hillside with tea bushes growing everywhere. Then i entered a forest, and it was steep switchbacks. And the entire time, its 110% humidity, and around 80f, so i was sweating like mad. Eventually i made it to the top, and the views were quite impressive. At this point all of me was drenched in sweat, and i felt disgusting. This hike back was better, only because i wasn't climbing any more. I stopped back at the guesthouse to attempt to clean myself up a bit. Since there's no AC it was mostly standing in front of fan and towelling my self off.

Once i felt less icky, i headed back into town to find lunch. At this point i noticed that it was starting to get s bit cloudy. While i was eating, the sky opened up, and there was a massive tropical downpour. I finished eating and then waited out the storm before heading back outside. My plan was to hike up to the 9 arch railway bridge, which was about 4km north east of town. Its basically a curved, stone railroad bridge, with 9 huge arches supporting the tracks. As i was walking it started raining again. I think this might be the first time in years that i used my umbrella. While it did protect the upper third of me, the rest got soaked. I did eventually get to the bridge, and it did look really nifty. By the time i made it back to the guesthouse, i was sweaty, and wet, and sticky, and just felt crappy. I was looking forward to stripping off my wet clothes, and standing in front of the fan to dry off. But nope, the power was out.

The power at the guesthouse came back on last night just before dinner. I had dinner at the guesthouse too, and it was served family style with 6 other guests all sitting at one long table. The food was really good. There was random chicken parts in a brown curry sauce, rice, kombucha squash in a yellow sauce, beets, a shredded carrot salad, a cucumber, tomato pineapple salad,, yellow lentil dhal, and, and this delicious super spicy sambal. Of the guests at the table, 2 of them were an older french couple, who didn't seem to speak any english. Another 2 were from Reunion Island, but were originally from France, and they spoke some english. Another 2 were from Montreal. Which meant that i was the only person who spoke no french. Thankfully, the Canadiens and the Reunioners (which they kept pronouncing as if it was 'iran') made an effort to switch to english, or i would have had no clue what anyone else was saying. The french canadien woman was actually an AirCanada flight attendant. The canadiens were super excited when i told them were i worked. The Reunion couple didn't care, and said "we don't watch tv". The canadiens hadn't travelled all that much (she only works domestic flights), and were super impressed at all the places that i've been. The Reunion'ers actually have seen a lot of africa, since its a relatively short flight for them. It was a nice dinner.

I slept ok for the most part. The ride down to Udawalewe was fine, although it felt much hotter than the past few days. As we were driving the tuk tuk driver pulled over without explanation in front of a small Buddhist shrine. He hopped out, threw some money into an offering box, prayed for a few seconds, and then resumed driving again.

The truck from the camp where i'm staying showed up on time, and we drove about 45 minutes through the park. Along the way we saw several elephants, including a 3 week old baby. The camp itself had one of those huge walk-in canvas tents, which had a small table, and a cot for me to sleep on. There was also a small toilet tent and a shower tent. They served me a super huge, elaborate rice & curry lunch. It even had tuna in a curry sauce, which was quite good. it was a crazy amount of food which could have easily fee 2 people. After lunch i had about 90 minutes to relax, before we started the afternoon safari drive at 3:30pm.

This park is quite different from the one that i was in last week. There's not much open space, its mostly thick forest vegetation, with a few lakes. As we were driving the guide spotted an elephant in the forest, and we watched it for a while. Then it started making weird sounds, and the guide said that it was a mating call. Then a female elephant wandered over, and they started mating. Except the male really hated having watching, and he started to get angry. He was lifting his trunk and making loud snorting noises, and then started to charged at us. The driver pulled away, and the elephant turned back into the forest. At other times during the drive we saw tons of different birds, crocodiles, water buffalo, deer, monkeys, and this huge chunky lizard called a land monitor. I didn't see any other people the entire time. We returned to the camp just before sunset.

The guide asked if i wanted tea or coffee, and then they setup this fancy tea service, with cookies, cake and bananas. Again it was enough food for multiple people. Then a bit later they asked if i wanted beer. Instead of bringing a single sized serving, they brought out a 750ml bottle. Then came dinner, which was another huge amount of food although it wasn't that good. They started with vegetable soup (which was about the last thing i wanted in tropical heat), then this massive plate of BBQ chicken, prawns and sausages (hotdogs), fried rice, and sautéed vegetables. when they noticed that i finally finished the beer, they brought out yet another, which i politely declined, but they tried to convince me to drink it anyway. Desert was pineapple with honey. After all that, i went to my tent to relax. I hope they ate all the food that i couldn't finish. Obviously, there was no electricity (or wifi) out here. Once the sun set, all i heard were random birds, insects, and a river rushing by the campsite.

Sleeping in the tent was not the best experience. It trapped all of the heat, and it was always very humid. I woke up just before 6am to the sound of a thousand crazy birds. I got a cold shower, and had breakfast.

The morning safari was nice. We saw tons of elephants, including a few babies. At one point i saw 2 elephants fighting, and making loud shrieking sounds. Apparently today is the full moon Buddhist holiday, so there were lots of vehicles packed with locals inside the park. I exited the park around 11am.

The driver who brought me to the second safari camp (Camp Leopard) was kinda awful. He came on time, but he didn't seem to speak any english, and drove like an old man. When i first got in the van, he acted like he was doing me this huge favor by turning on the AC. But it was set so low that it really wasn't doing anything at all, and the van was humid & stuffy. After 30 minutes of that i attempted to ask him to turn it up, but he either couldn't understand me, or didn't want to. But the worst part was how ridiculously slow he was driving the entire time. He averaged about 30kph, and was getting passed by literally everything (buses, trucks, tuk tuks, bicycles). Also, the roads in this part of the country seem to be in poor condition, with lots of pot holes. After 2.5 hours of creeping along, we pulled to the side of the road across from a large Buddhist temple. The driver told me that a truck from the camp would arrive in a few minutes to drive me the rest of the way, and then he got out of the van and wandered away without any further explanation. A minute later he returned and offered me a cigarette, which i declined. Then the truck showed up, and we turned down a narrow bumpy dirt road for a few more minutes.

As soon as i arrived at the camp, it looked really nice. They offered me a cool towel and juice, and gave me an overview of everything. I had a really yummy rice and curry lunch, and showed me my 'tent'. This tent has AC, a real bed, actual plumbing. Other than the canvas walls, it seems like a cabin. I enjoyed the luxury for a hour, before heading out on an afternoon safari drive in Yala NP. The park is beautiful, with 2 huge lakes, and tons of forest with tall trees. While i didn't see any elephants, i saw lots of water buffalo, deer, monkeys, tons of colorful birds, and thousands of butterflies. Apparently this is the beginning of the season when they all hatch, so they everywhere. We stayed in the park until it closed at 6pm, and much of the drive back to the camp was in the dark. Not long after leaving the park, we saw an elephant just standing in the middle of the road, as traffic veered around it. It seemed confused, as normally elephants wouldn't stand in the middle of traffic like that. My guide thought that people may have been leaving food out, and its become dependent on humans. The nearest town has a massive hindu temple devoted to Ganesh. Pilgrims come from all over the country to pray and leave offerings. In fact a large chunk of the town is nothing but shops selling stuff for pilgrims, like 'fancy' fruit, silver platters to hold the offering, sweets, etc.

When i got back to camp i had dinner. When i first arrived earlier today, i mentioned that i liked spicy food, and they said they'd keep that in mind for dinner. However, i assumed it was going to be more tourist strength food. But i was wrong. They served me coconut roti, salmon in curry sauce, yellow lentil dhal, and this mouth searing sambal that i think you would have loved. I made roti tacos with all the food, and it was amazing.

I slept well, and was awake at 4:25am to shower. We departed at 5am for a different part of Yala NP. We got to the entrance gate at 5:25am, and had tea and biscuits while waiting for the 6am opening. They had the most amazing ginger snaps ever. A lengthy line of other trucks arrived behind us while we waited. Once we got inside, it was a mad dash to get to the far side of the park, away from as many other trucks as possible. Eventually we spotted 2 leopards, which was really awesome. Later on we ran into this massive elephant with huge tusks. From what the guide was telling me, its believed to be one of the largest in all of Sri Lanka, and is about 50 years old. At one point we got pretty close to the southern coast, and i could see the Indian Ocean off in the distance. I also saw tons of birds, monkeys, boars, and a mongoose. I returned to the camp at 9am to have breakfast, and rested for the remainder of the morning.

Last night i was the only guest at the camp. Just before lunch a Dutch couple arrived. The woman was wearing a bright red lacy dress which looked ridiculous. In the afternoon she changed into an identical green dress. It's so bizarre. We left for the afternoon drive at 3pm. It wasn't that great, as we only saw 2 elephants from a distance, and the same smaller animals as in the morning.

I slept ok, but not enough. This 5am safari thing is kinda annoying, but today is the last of it. As we were driving in the dark towards the park entrance, we saw a leopard crossing the road. Then not much further, an old elephant was wandering along the road. once we entered the park we saw another leopard walking across the road. Then an hour or so later, i spotted a leopard sitting at the top of a tree. It was stalking tons of monkeys who were in the trees.

Once i got back to camp, I had a lovely Sri Lankan traditional breakfast, with this green soup that had buckwheat, a boiled egg in curry sauce, coconut sambal, and string hoppers. After checking out, i met my driver for Galle. This van was new, the AC was great, and the driver wasn't super slow. The route was really interesting. We passed through tiny towns, small cities, rice paddies, and even along the indian ocean for a while. I passed a bunch of beaches where there were lots of people surfing and i saw surf boards for rent too.

I got to my hotel at 2:30pm, and its awesome. Its located inside the old Dutch fort part of the city, in a restored building that was a part of the fort. My room is at the top of a tower, overlooking the fort wall and the Indian Ocean. Just after i arrived it started raining hard.

I slept really well last night. The combination of a comfy bed and AC was great. I had breakfast, and then found a tuk tuk driver to drive me about 15 minutes to the other side of the city. There is a huge Buddhist temple (donated by the Japanese), and a small beach nearby (known as 'jungle beach'). The Peace temple was nice, overlooking the ocean, with a massive white stupa. Other than having to remove my shoes, it was easy. The road to access jungle beach started just beside the temple. It was steep, and got more and more narrow, and less of a road as i went. Eventually it was a dirt path running along the coast, and eventually ended at the beach. The beach itself was small, and had less than a dozen tourists hanging around. It wasn't much to look at, and no interesting shells, although i did spot one nervous crab scurrying about. The walk back up was about as miserable as could be expected in 90f heat at 10am. Thankfully i didn't have much trouble finding a tuk tuk for the ride back. I had the driver drop me off just outside the fortress wall. Apparently sunday is 'play cricket' day, and i walked past 4 different matches, one of which might have been a pro team. They had an announcer, a band blasting music, and a small group of spectators. I spent the rest of the morning cooling off in my room, before heading out at noon for lunch. I had grilled tuna for lunch, and it was yummy. While i was eating, the sky opened up for about 10 minutes. I think it was somehow more humid afterwards.

After retreating to my room following lunch to cool off a bit, i headed back out to walk the fort wall (perimeter). There were awesome views of the sea, and later the fort's ramparts & turrets. Also some absolutely massive old trees. When i was about half way done, i heard thunder rumbling off to the north, and dark clouds started to move in. I passed several old Dutch churches dating back to the 18th century, plus a huge mosque. I completed my walk in about 2 hours, and returned to my room to cool off, and wait out the incoming storm. Once the storm started it was crazy. Harder rain than i think i've ever experienced, coupled with super loud thunder & lightening. The streets started to flood.

I think i figured out what that yellow jelly fruit was that i had back in Kandy. Its passion fruit.

I woke a bit after 7am. After breakfast, i went for a bit of a walk looking for interesting stuff. I found a few old, abandoned buildings that had a ton of vines growing on them. I returned to my room to cool off just before 10am, and rested there until checkout at 11am.

I got lunch (grilled fish, which was yummy), grabbed my bags from the hotel, and walked to the railway station. At this point it was quite hot, and i was sweating like crazy by the time i got there. My train pulled into the station on time, however the so-called 1st class car was an oven. The AC was broken. Everyone opened the windows, and it cooled off a bit, but the humidity was just awful for the entire trip. We pulled into Colombo Fort station on time. As soon as I exited the station the tuk tuk drivers pounced. I told them that i wanted to go to this 5 star hotel (the cinnamon grand), as i was desperate for AC at this point, and figured that i could get dinner there as well. They started by quoting me 500 rupees for a 10 minute trip which was insane. I countered with 300, and they objected. As i was walking away, they asked for 400, and i countered with 350. They agreed but then mumbled 380. I reiterated 350, and they were giving me dirty looks, but then agreed. As the guy was driving me, he asked what i was doing tomorrow, and i told him that i'm flying out tonight. Immediately he started trying to,convince me to let him drive me to the airport tonight. He quoted me 3000, which was a good deal, as i paid nearly 5000 when i first arrived. I accepted, and told him to meet me at the hotel (after my dinner) at 8pm. Suddenly he was my best friend ever. He dropped me off and didn't even want me to pay for the ride to the hotel.

The hotel was super swank, and had glorious AC. I ate dinner at an asian noodle place. I had a cold tofu dish as an appetizer, Lion stout to drink, and spicy pork belly with rice noodles for the main course. It was decent, but not amazing.

I got to the airport just before 9pm. This airport is super retarded. They were insisting on seeing my boarding pass just to let me into the terminal. I talked may way past that nonsense, only to not be permitted into the ticketing area until 3 hours prior to boarding. I will say that this airport has a fascinating array of destinations. Its every major city from the mid east, india, southeast asia and australia. Eventually they permitted my flight to check in, and the ticket agents were super slow for no apparent reason. Then there was the emigration line, where the agent was surprisingly pleasant. Then i had to wait for my gate to open. Then another round of security to get into my gate area. In other words, i had to clear security 3 times.

My flight from Colombo didn't start boarding until 25 minutes before departure, yet still somehow managed to push back 5 minutes early. It likely helped that the flight was 25% empty. The seat beside me was empty, which was nice, as i attempted to sleep for the entire flight. I woke about an hour before we landed. Changi is such a huge airport, that it took me an hour to get out of there. I had to find water. Then i had to fill out the immigration form (for whatever reason the flight crew never passed it put on the flight). The line was long and kinda slow too. Then i needed to find an ATM, and finally i had to walk to the metro station and purchase a tourist pass for unlimited rides. Eventually the metro arrived, and it took about 40 minutes to get to the stop i needed near the hotel. It was nearly 10am by the time i got to the hotel, but that was still too early to check-in, so i dropped off my bags, and headed back out.

I got back on the metro, and went to one of the hawker food markets. Even with seeing all the anthony bourdain singapore food shows, it never quite sunk in how unbelievably amazing it is. its like a mall food court with 20+ places to eat, where every single one of them has 6+ incredible food options. Or like going to one of those food festivals with all the booths, except that every single place is chinese, japanese, thai, malaysian, indonesian, indian, or some other fantastic food culture. Plus its all dirt cheap. Most places are around \$5 for a huge portion. While i was walking to the food market that i planned to visit, i passed 2 others that i didn't even know about before hand. These things are everywhere, and nearly all the individual stalls are run by like 2 people. When i first arrived around 10:30am, about half were not yet open, and there weren't too many customers yet. But i was there for nearly 2 hours, and by the time i left, it was very busy. The only reason that i left when i did was because i simply couldn't eat any more. I only tried maybe 6 or 7 places. I took photos of everything that i ate. Everything was good, but the very first thing that i ate was amazing. It had thick noodles, ground pork, chinese sausage, onions, sprouts, green onion, and that fancy thick extra dark soy sauce. Once i left, i ended up wandering into the first food market that i passed earlier when walking from the metro. I was curious to see how similar it was. Turns out it wasn't that similar. This second one had a lot more non-Chinese food, like Pakistani, indian, and thai. Also there were a bunch of drink & dessert stalls. Also it had crazy long lines for many of the stalls. I was in the downtown part of the city with tons of huge/tall buildings, and it looked like all the office workers were getting lunch. I walked past this juice stall that had passion fruit + soursop, and i couldn't resist. Omg it was sooo good. Very sour, with tons of black passion fruit seeds.

After my lunch orgy, i decided to attempt this hike on the western outskirts of the city. I knew that it would be hot & humid, and it was. I had my water bottle with me, so i was never at risk of dehydration. However, in hindsight i should have skipped it. It was fairly brutal, and maybe only 1/4 was scenic enough to justify the torture to my feet. The majority of the hike was completely urban, walking on the side walk. About half way i passed this small shopping mall, I went inside just to cool off. However when i saw a tea/boba place with iced passion fruit green tea, i couldn't resist. It was cold & sour & refreshing. Clearly I'm fixated on passion fruit now. Also the mall had a Long John Silver's, which was kinda weird. The second half of the hike was across Kent Ridge, which is inside the National University of Singapore's campus. That part was actually pretty, as it was mostly thick jungle. I ended up abandoning the hike after doing about half of the total that i had planned, and heading to the hotel to rest and cool off.

In late afternoon i headed back into the center of the city see the waterfront skyline at dusk, and get dinner. This time i went to the maxwell food center. It was a bit older than the 2 places that i visited this morning, but the food was still quite good. I also had a starfruit sour plum juice with my dinner which was yummy.

Here's the rough route that I travelled:

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Hundreds of other photos from the trip are posted HERE.

This post is part 2 of the "sri-lanka-2018" series:

  1. Sri Lanka (1/2)
  2. Sri Lanka (2/2)