Archive for the ‘Sri Lanka’ Category

Bikelele 2015 – Sri Lanka

4 September 2015

We and our bikes are off to Sri Lanka 7-28 September 2015! This will give us a chance to escape from the last weeks of the cold Adelaide winter and indulge in some wonderful culture, food and landscape.

Getting to Negombo

8 September 2015

Our departure from cold Adelaide yesterday morning was marred by the realisation that Australian Immigration is now the unpleasantly re-named Australian Border Force. Everything has been rebranded from the queue tapes to the uniforms. They didn’t hesitate in getting that done!

Bikes in the newly acquired bike bags were easier to manage than the boxes we have previously used. So off to Singapore with air quality deteriorating noticeably over Java and becoming worse as we arrived. I can report that Changi airport shops are quite adequately meeting the needs of anyone who requires a new handbag. If you are sky training from Terminal 3 to 2, look out for the topiary plane – it’s a nice touch!

We arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport at midnight, collected our luggage and found our friendly pre-booked driver who brought us to the Windmill Beach Hotel at Negombo, a beachy touristy town about 30km north of Colombo, but quite close to the airport. Driving through the dark streets we saw many illuminated roadside shrines to Christian saints, each announced by an elevated red neon cross.

Already our priorities for today had been determined by our failure to pack a bike pump or sun screen. Our early morning perambulation in the cool took us to the beach, only one block away, where fishing boats were out in large number. We were warmly greeted by a fisherman who had not yet gone out on his boat.

Negombo Beach

Searching for breakfast we were obvious game for tuk tuk drivers who wanted to meet all our touristic needs. However, we fended them off until string hoppers with dhal and fish curry had been consumed, accompanied by Liptons tea and Nescafe – very nice. Sitting on the breakfast terrace allowed observation of the passing traffic – many people cycling on clapped out classic bikes with varied loads including crates of fish with scales (the weighing kind) hanging off the back, kids being dinked to school by parents and siblings, school buses, scooters, tuk tuks, busy but not manic.

We have now explored Negombo town, a place with interesting sights everywhere. Sri Lankan business owners are completely customer focussed and will help you with anything in the hope of establishing your continued loyalty. They assisted us to change money, buy sim cards, visit the beach side fish market (lots of sardines, squid, fat tuna, a huge marlin and acres of fish drying on coir mats on the sand) and buy a $2 Chinese bike pump that turned out to be useless. Our hotel proprietors are also keen to be sole providers of all services and have warned us off anyone from outside who approaches!

Negombo Fish Market

Bicycle assembly on the hotel terrace had some frustrations and a return trip with the bike wheels to Cycle Bazaar was needed to enable us to get the tyres pumped and to purchase a pump that works. Transport to Anuradhapura tomorrow proved more difficult to organise than anticipated and unfortunately the train appears not to be a viable option. We are taking a bus instead to cover this longish leg to the Cultural Triangle.

Plan A gives way to Plan B

9 September 2015

We didn’t end up taking the bus as it looked like a risky option that might imperil the new mudguards that Ian laboured over yesterday afternoon. We would have been obliged to remove the wheels, be ready at the roadside to toss the bikes into a small luggage compartment (actual size unknown), board the bus with the 4 wheels and our panniers, then negotiate extra costs with the conductor. It seemed dodgy and destined to go wrong, so we had second breakfast and decided to cycle instead. This was a good decision.

We took the coast road to Chilaw, at first along a major road that carried reasonably heavy but not fast moving traffic so we felt safe enough. There was a lot of interesting roadside commerce including wood fired tile factories, a butchery, knife and chopping blade stalls and lots of fruit and vegetables. After we had crossed a major river we were able to leave the highway and take the minor coast road all the way to Chilaw. This road goes beside the sea through many kilometres of small scale fishing communities. The morning’s catch is on sale by the roadside with vendors every few metres with their individual pile of sardines, other small fish, prawns, manta rays, shark, tuna, with no ice or refrigeration and often in full sun. There’s a fair bit of buying going on, but we are not sure what happens to the unsold fish. It is also hard to imagine how the supply keeps up with the daily demand. Low food miles though! This appears to be a strongly Catholic area with many shrines to various saints and the Virgin Mary.


Fish market on the coast road to Chilaw

In Chilaw we stopped for tea and a visit to the local market which had a impressive display of produce. Ian bought some savoury fried dumplings that were provided in a paper bag made from a recycled primary school worksheet on New Zealand volcanoes. We crossed the river, checked out the large church, then set out to cover more ground. The next 40km along the A3 then the B45 were pleasant with low traffic volumes and easy terrain. It was pretty hot though and we had several longish rests. We have discovered EGB – Elephant Ginger Beer – excellent if you can get it icy cold! We saw our first Buddhist shrines and stupas, thousands of coconut trees, dairy cows, rural schools, roadside metal workers working on the ground in bare feet. Ian said he saw the remains of a funeral pyre.


Clock tower, Anamaduwa

We arrived in Anamaduwa late in the afternoon to find that this is not a common tourist destination and is therefore not well served with accommodation. We came close to accepting a low standard ‘gest house’ before finding a better option, the Gem Light Hotel. Thank you internet! So we are now fed and clean and will continue to Anuradhapura tomorrow.

Our route:

Made it to Anuradhapura!

10 September 2015

Setting out from Anamaduwa at 6.30am we saw the local Buddhist temple, passed the Catholic church and heard the Muslim call to prayer. Early morning is the best time of day for riding before it gets really hot. School children were waiting for buses, travelling by bike, scooter and tuk tuk, all in bright white uniforms, the girls with long plaits tied with ribbons.

Sri Lankan school girls

We rode along major and secondary roads today and found conditions to be favourable – the quantity and speed of traffic is moderate, road surface good and shoulder generous. This is a rice growing area with dry padi fields at present after the recent crop has been harvested.

We breakfasted on tiny bananas in a small town and then stopped in Galgamuwa for a cup of tea. Here we were the recipient of the assiduous attentions of four staff members who brought strong tea, warm milk and hot water and rushed to bring top ups when the tea ran low.

We are enthusiastically greeted along the way by the people we pass. Our mode of travel is pretty hard for Sri Lankan people to understand and we have had several suggestions regarding more sensible alternatives.

While resting in the shade we were befriended by a group of Buddhist monks who were travelling south in a van. They had stopped for lunch and offered us a couple of the corn cobs they had bought from a nearby stall. One of the monks who had studied in Melbourne invited us to visit their centre in Polgahawela, between Kandy and Colombo.

The Buddhist monks share their lunch

It was hot by the time we arrived in Anuradhapura – cloud cover and shade were in short supply. Our accommodation is quiet and cool. Tomorrow we will attempt to absorb culture and history.

Our route:

The stupas of Anuradhapura

11 September 2015

Today we took a tour of the ancient city of Anuradhapura by tuk tuk. The history of Anuradhapura dates back to around 450 BC and there was a lot going on! This was a huge centre of Buddhism with large monasteries and other necessary infrastructure such as reservoirs (called tanks) built to accommodate and service thousands of monks. The ruins of the monasteries are extensive and have interesting features such as the stone troughs that were filled with food to feed the monks in a refectory style set up.

Mahapali Refectory

The most astounding sights here are the stupas, also called dagobas. There are many of them, several monumental in size. Our guide assisted us to purchase the necessary tickets and gave us useful explanations of the different sites. The Abaygiri Dagoba, built in red brick, was neglected for many years and became covered in vegetation before being renovated. The Ruwanwelisiya Dagoba is immense with a huge bright white dome and gold topped spire and an elephant frieze on the surrounding walls.

Ruwanwelisiya Dagoba

With a plentiful quantity of stupas you would think that there are enough here, but no, there is a new one under construction, the Victory Stupa. According to the Defence Department ‘The government has planned to erect nine monumental stupas, one in each province of the country, in appreciation of the noble service rendered by the armed forces and Police to defeat terrorism and bring lasting peace to the country.’

We spoke to a couple of similar vintage to ourselves with loaded touring bikes. They are from Arnhem in The Netherlands and are spending 4 weeks cycling here. Our tour ended with a delicious lunch of red rice, various fish and vegetable curries and coconut sambal, total $3.60.

On another topic: animals. There are many (too many) dogs in Sri Lanka. They all look like undernourished dingoes and choose to sleep or stand on the roadway, apparently oblivious to traffic. Only a couple have bothered to chase us. In Negombo we saw tiny palm squirrels scampering up the walls, and here in Anuradhapura our hosts at Villu Villa have one as a pet. It visited us this morning at breakfast and climbed over Ian’s back and shoulders in a friendly way. We have seen what appear to be mongooses running across the road, but not sure what they are. Chirping geckoes are common. We have seen our first monkeys here. So far no elephants.

The pet palm squirrel

Food glorious food

11 September 2015

Enough with the multi-millennial archaeology. Let’s talk about food.

Our tuk tuk driver recommended an unprepossessing establishment for lunch today. We couldn’t find it even after being directed to the building! With further assistance, we mounted the stairs to a rather dingy dining room with a food counter where we selected on appearance (tending towards vegetarian after spotting some butcher shops in the last couple of days): fried rice, red rice, dhal, potato curry, egg-plant curry (really an excuse for the caramelised onions) and coconut sambal.

Everything was delicious! Cost? $3.60 including maybe 60c for a bottle of Elephant brand Ginger Beer.

Crazy cheap. Crazy good!

Last night we broke Bill Bryson’s golden rule of not eating-in in hotels and will do so again tonight. (Sorry Bill.) We had to order our meals before 5pm so that the mother of the household (or maybe some other locals) had time to cook our selection. The hotel rules warned guests that it can take up to two hours to cook a Sri Lankan curry. Fair enough and time very well spent from our perspective after eating the rice and curries, fruit salad and curd with treacle (the bottle said ‘coconut tricle’). Yummo again! Last night’s bespoke meal was maybe 10 times as expensive as lunch today very still very cheap.

We don’t seem very good at spotting eateries partly because no-one thinks much of outdoor dining unless they’re too destitute to have an alternative. Resolution: In future we’ll ask a tuk tuk driver maybe even catch a tuk tuk for that very purpose.

Is it dinner time yet?

Maradankadawalla and the bike pump

12 September 2015

Our Villu Villa hosts were up at 6am to farewell us with a packed breakfast of sandwiches and fruit. We were determined to make the most of the cool early morning hours.

The problem of the bike pump re-emerged as it transpired that the one we bought in Negombo cannot inflate our tyres, and Ian’s rear tyre needed some air. Aaargh! A lycra-clad Sri Lankan racing cyclist came past, but he had no pump.

We rode past lakes with fishing boats and distant cloud covered hills. We breakfasted under an umbrella to avoid a light shower of rain. Then we arrived in the town of Maradankadawalla and got the pump problem solved. From the depths of a hardware shop, narrow and dark and packed with stock, emerged a pump with the required adaptor and several Sri Lankan men ready to help. We bought their pump ($3.50) and donated ours.

New bike pump

The small towns we see are lively with many small shops selling fruit and vegetables, rice, clothing, mobile phone services, bicycles, motor bikes and many other things. We have discovered that ‘hotel’ can also mean a small food shop selling drinks and snacks. There are no supermarkets nor fast food outlets.


Along the roadside between towns there are many stalls and little shops selling fruit, vegetables, coconuts and drinks. Tea is served with warm milk. Everything is very cheap.

We have seen stupas, Hindu shrines and small mosques today. We passed our first mountain, Ritigala, a 766m forested peak with exposed granite sheets and the ruins of an ancient monastery.

We are now in Inamaluwa, near Sigiriya Rock, a major tourist attraction. There is a huge amount of accommodation, restaurants, tours, tuk tuk drivers, jeep tours for elephant viewing in nearby national parks and, of course, more tourists than we have encountered elsewhere. We have now seen two elephants, both in less than ideal circumstances of captivity. Apparently there are wild elephants around here so we are advised not to go out on the road at night.

Our route:

Sigiriya and Dambulla

13 September 2015

We slept under a mosquito net for the first time last night – quite pleasant, not claustrophobic and we haven’t developed any symptoms of mosquito-borne diseases yet.

We were up bright and early and spun our way unladen and unbreakfasted to Sigiriya to climb the rock. We met our guide Samantha (a man) as arranged after a chance meeting last night and waited for the park to open at 7am. We had splendid views but it would be great to be on top with the sun even lower in the sky.

In traditional tourist mode

Sigiriya (lion’s throat according to Samantha) is a large and ancient archaeological site with moats, water gardens, cave palace, etc built by King Kasyapa in about 450 CE. The eponymous, giant lion’s head entrance half way up has long-since crumbled away but two beautifully-carved feet remain on either side of the grand staircase.

King K seemed to lead a lusty high life with his wife, 500 concubines, saucy frescoes, dance halls and enough slaves to keep the water flowing and the place swinging. As you might expect, in true Shakespearean/Mahabharata tradition, the story doesn’t end well but it was fun (for a few) while it lasted.

We climbed countless steps, saw many cave-palace ruins, vertiginous stairs and some soft-core frescoes beautifully and finely-drawn. Breast fetishism was clearly all the rage and either the artists were guilty of wishful thinking or the advanced technology of the era stretched to breast implants.

Fresco featuring concubines of King K

The scale and engineering of Sigiriya may not have rivalled Anuradhapura but they are nevertheless astounding. Clearly, Sri Lanka was a fabulously wealthy country in those times.

Our plans for breakfast were curtailed by a local power outage that lasted all day. We enjoyed a shady siesta before taking a tuk tuk to Dambulla where we enjoyed a sumptuous lunch in a swank restaurant that wasn’t as good or cheap as in Anuradhapura but still tasty and good value.

Dambulla seemed busy for a Sunday and the huge wholesale fruit and vegetable market was absolutely rocking – jam-packed with delivery trucks and dealers moving thousands of tons of fresh produce in the sweltering heat.

Dambulla market

After the earthiness of Sigyria we also enjoyed the sacred Buddhist Cave Temples of Dambulla. More steps to climb but hundreds of Buddhas, frescoes, the works.

Reclining Buddha

As on the top of Sigiriya, there were beautiful views and breezes. At ground level Sri Lanka is beautiful but from a high vantage point, especially in Dambulla, it looks like a fabled land – a botanical garden stretching as far as the eye can see and fantastical valleys stretching to distant mountain peaks through the slight tropical haze. The views scarcely seem real.

View to the south from Dambulla Cave Temples

Back to our digs. The power is back on now. Pay up. Pack up. Get ready for an early start for Matale tomorrow.

Inamaluwa to Matale

14 September 2015

We were up at 5.30 and on the road in 20 minutes but the executive considers that we still wasted 20 minutes of daylight so we may be getting up before we go to bed by the end of the trip.

We enjoyed our cool morning ride through Dambulla (the market had cleared all the produce from yesterday) and on south towards Matale. We had sweet pancakes and string hoppers at a roadside stall for breakfast.

Sweet pancakes for breakfast

The riding conditions weren’t so favourable today with heavy traffic, narrow road and no shoulder. Hair-raising overtaking was commonplace but somehow no crashes. Drivers are clearly expecting close shaves and we’re coming to that position also. Fortunately, vehicle speeds are low. It must be quite frustrating driving any distance.

We made the mandatory visit to a spice/herb garden so now we can deflect all the other spice/herb garden touts. It was interesting to see nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, vanilla and many more common spices in their native state. Our guide was didactic and I fear we were poor students, talking amongst ourselves, not waiting for his explanations and ultimately rejecting his recommended therapies. It transpires that these establishments are offering Ayurvedic treatments to cure all our ails. No chemicals and government-endorsed, of course. We got out in the nick of time with only a bald patch on my calf to attest to the effectiveness of their herbal depilatory cream.

Hindu celebration

We had some difficulty finding our hotel, quaintly named Dad’s Holiday Home, at 91/1 IDH Road, Matale – an address that Google Maps struggled with. We found it eventually set on a dirt track, off a side road, in a rustic village on the outskirts of town. It’s very nice in a pleasant quiet location with splendid views to high, cloud-veiled mountains nearby.

We were just in time to enjoy a couple of tropical cloud bursts without getting drenched. The rain freshened the afternoon and with 300m altitude we’re enjoying pleasant conditions.

After a snooze we took a tuk tuk into town looking for action and lunch. We were a bit late (3pm) but the driver found somewhere busy and authentic. The roti maker had quite a distinctive 5/8-time rhythmic tattoo as he double-hand chopped roti with vegetables on his hotplate for a signature dish.

Matale is a bustling town with a well-defined CBD stretching several blocks, a one-way street system and an extensive market.

We visited the Sri Muthamariamman Hindu temple and then made our way back to Dad’s for a beer and dinner.

Hindu temple, Matale

We have enjoyed at a distance the demise of our unpleasant Prime Minister.

Our route:

When cycling to Kandy …

15 September 2015

… make sure your guest house is not at the top of a hill!

It was a short and, as it turned out, easy leg from Matale to Kandy today. We thought we might have had tougher hills but to avoid traffic, we took a back road that followed the railway line that provided gentle grades.

Dad’s Holiday Home had thoughtful staff and an excellent cook who whipped up a delicious dinner for the two of us last night: rice, beetroot curry, bean curry, dhal, a spicy omelette and a spicy salad with tomatoes, onions, cucumber, pineapple (stay with me), green chillies and a vinaigrette dressing – sounds a bit strange but it was irresistible.

We had our best breakfast yet in an unprepossessing eatery in Ukuwela, a small village by a rail crossing. Our first train of the day bucked its way through on dodgy rails while the cafe opened up. The roti man was already in full flap, the day’s batch of dhal had just made its entrance and the milky sweet tea was frothy, strong and piping hot. We ate several curry-stuffed vegetable rotis that were delectable. The vegetable roti required no adornment but the dhal lifted the coconut roti that otherwise were a bit of a dry argument.

Ukuwela breakfast

We then had a few kilometres of muddy roadworks shared with many children making their way to school in neat uniforms. Bright red ribbons were de rigeur for this school and they were very fetching in the girls’ raven hair. Many primary aged kids are apparently perfectly able to walk to school without parents hovering around.

Wattegama, at about 500m, was the top of the climb and a busy place. We had a quick descent most of the way into Kandy but it was hot and sunny by then so lime juice and watermelon juice from A-One Cool Spot were just the thing.

We poked around Kandy for a while. Saw another chained elephant and then headed for the Kandyan View Holiday Bungalow involving a climb of about 300m to a small, charmless, multistorey building on the top of the mountain next to some transmission towers. We were obliged to walk up a couple of severe grades. We were dripping wet when we arrived but the staff were welcoming and solicitous.

We sat out two brief storms with lashing rain and strong winds during the afternoon and then took our bikes to the station, hopefully to travel ahead of us on the 3am freight train to Nuwara Eliya. We plan to meet them there tomorrow. What could go wrong? For some reason it’s impossible for the bikes to accompany us on the same train. The administration of freight by the SL Railways seems almost Dickensian with hand-written ledgers and labels although the quadruplicate carbon copy forms must be a more recent addition.


Clerk stamping forms in the Kandy Railway Station luggage & parcels office

We ate spicy chick peas as a street snack (a spoon or fork would have been helpful) and drank beer in the pukkah Queens Hotel before observing the evening pujas at Kandy’s Buddhist Tooth Temple. Reputedly, one of Buddha’s teeth is a treasured relic there. Quite a crowd of locals and tourists was present to observe the ceremony with drums and a raucous horanawa (short, double-reed, oboe-like instrument).

Time to sleep now to the sound of rain falling again.

Our route:

Slow train to the highlands

16 September 2015

The Kandyan View Holiday Bungalow provided a European breakfast – it was uninspiring and unsustaining but we had little exertion planned for the day so it didn’t matter too much.

The staff drove us to the station where we were pleased to see that our bikes had been dispatched overnight as planned. But were they sent to the correct destination?

Kandy Railway Station

We ate some dhal wade (rhymes with buddy) from a street vendor, a Sri Lankan version of falafel with a tangy SL spiciness, just the right crustiness and a moist centre.

We thronged the train with the rest of the passengers when it arrived but didn’t secure a seat. We stood at the end of our carriage with excellent views out the open doors on both sides.

The train rattled and rolled its way through the jungle, paddy fields, many towns and over and by large rivers before starting its long slow climb into the highlands.

There were signs reserving seating for clergy, pregnant mothers and differently-abled people. We didn’t qualify but were quick enough to grab a seat after an hour or so. It would have been a long trip standing all the way.

We saw no rail staff on the train but hawkers were continually walking up and down the aisle with large baskets of all sorts of snack foods. There was no junk food, no soft drinks, no sweets but there was fruit (both familiar and unknown to us) and Sri Lankan delicacies: baskets of wade, samosas and savoury doughnuts (ulundhu vadai) – all strewn with large, dried red chillies that made an appetising visual presentation. There were peanuts, popped corn and tea and coffee from large vacuum flasks.

Basket of wade (snacks)

None of this food seemed mass produced nor commercially packaged. Some resourceful Sri Lankans make a living reusing A4 office paper and printed school work sheets by folding and gluing them into bags for hawkers to sell their wares in.

Unfortunately, we blew our last small denomination notes on a couple of coffees and deprived ourselves for most of the trip as we didn’t have the heart to present a R1000 note ($10). Making change is a perennial challenge in SL and we need to get better at managing our cash.

Eventually, a man handed me a samosa. It wasn’t clear whether it was a sample or not but he asked for payment and walked straight into our trap. Out came a R1000 note and we had him. He couldn’t complain and went off on the scrounge for change. We could then indulge ourselves.

The tea plantations started at about 1000m altitude as did the eucalyptus trees which have escaped from plantations. They grow very straight and tall and are considered a pest.

Tea plantations and pest eucalypt

After about 4 hours we left the train at Nanu Oya in the clouds and rain at 1800m surrounded by immaculate tea plantations and market gardens.

Our bikes were there for us. We waited for a pause in the rain and then headed off on a 7km, 300m climb through intermittent gusty rain to Nuwara Eliya. It’s strange to see all the gum trees growing here. At about 2100m Nuwara Eliya is reputed to be the highest town in SL. The weather has packed in today and doesn’t suit our clothes.

Our route:

Tea for two

17 September 2015

This morning we had two breakfasts, both excellent, but neither with the correct kind of tea. Breakfast #1: vegetable roti and dhal. We asked for tea but it never arrived. Breakfast #2 across the road at Sri Ambaal Vegetarian Hotel: vegetable wade and dosa with curry and coconut sambal. We asked for tea and were given hot malted milk. We moved on to another open air cafe where we got the right tea – just a bit too much of it (giant-sized pot) and price to match! So the only thing to do then was go to a tea estate.

Sri Ambaal Vegetarian Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

Pedro Estate Tea Factory, a few kilometres out of the town, dates from the late 1880s. It has lovely tea rooms overlooking the plantation and offers regular tours. Dressed in green aprons, our tour group was taken around the factory and the tea processes explained. The equipment and factory setup looks rather historic and huge ledger books are still used to record everything. Tea bushes need to be picked weekly by the delicate hands of ladies. Men apparently need not apply.

Pedro Tea Estate

Low cloud, drizzle and rain have persisted all day so the afternoon was devoted to late lunch in the Grand Hotel, a colonial relic with fake tudor facade that remains a pretty classy establishment.

Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

Nuwara Eliya has a busy main street, covered produce market, golf course occupied by a few dogs and chickens (no golfers in evidence), a closed tourist information office, fine red post office with clock tower, mosque, church, stupa and a race track. Ponies and cows wander around the place freely. We wandered as well to see Gregory Lake, a recreational lake built by the British, but this was an underwhelming sight.

Tomorrow we will cycle to Ella, about 60km away and about 1000m lower than here!

Neither up nor down

18 September 2015

Leaving Nuwara Eliya at 6am we rode through thick fog to begin the long descent. The road was quiet at that early hour. We passed temples, stupas and mosques, some very modest, as well as vegetable fields in this intensely settled and farmed area.

We lost altitude quickly and were soon below the clouds. Breakfast was coconut roti with sambal and sweet milky tea in a roadside cafe with view. Our route was initially along a main road, then along quieter secondary roads.

Although we had an overall descent of about 1000m it was not downhill all the way. There were some long climbs, some with steep grades that were unrideable. The cooler temperature was therefore appreciated. Eucalypt trees completely dominate the hillsides and lantana is also growing as a pest.

Schools are numerous in rural areas and the children call out and wave as we pass. There are many small holdings of tea in contrast to the large plantations we saw yesterday. Milk is collected from small scale producers and delivered to chilling stations.

We went through a large area of military establishments with armed guards at the gates and lots of uniformed personnel.

The final stretch into the small town of Ella gave spectacular views to the east through Ella Gap to the plains. There’s a zig zag road for the last kilometre that’s quite a challenge for the buses to negotiate.

Ella is a backpackers destination with many young travellers from Europe, Australia etc. We are staying at Ella Highest Inn, simple and comfortable, but soon to be the highest no longer. We are still at 1000m elevation and will head for the plains and south coast in the morning.

Our route:

A long short cut and a white elephant

19 September 2015

We left Ella at six and dropped through Ella Gap – a gorge slashing down to the plains. We passed the Rawana Falls and stopped for breakfast in a clean, green breakfast stall hanging off the side of the road. We were a little early for the proprietor and had to wait a while for his first roti of the day. In the meantime the buffet was stocked with various curries. We had the dhal and vegetable, didn’t have room for the capsicum and chilli sambal and gave the liver a wide berth.


Our time here is running out and we needed to get to the coast. This meant a distance of 100km to ride but with a full 1000m of altitude to expend the first 30km would be free of effort. The winding descent and spectacular views made for memorable cycling. Gradually the temperature rose and all too soon we were out on the plains.

Bike with beans

We passed and regrettably didn’t photograph the extraordinary golden Iran-Sri Lanka Friendship Monument near Wellawaya – this image is from Google Earth.

We had several disappointing cups of tea – too weak and too sweet but finally hit on a solution. We will now order two black, unsweetened teas and one white and decant as required.

We ate a pineapple and bananas at a fruit stall. They gave us the bananas as a gift and we gave them an extra R50 for the pineapple so we all felt virtuous and happy.

The stall owners encouraged us to take a ‘shortcut’ along an almost unused Chinese-funded freeway, through wild elephant country and past the almost unused, Chinese-funded Rajapaksa International Airport (this is ex-Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s electorate). We saw many buffalo but no wild elephants and consider the freeway and airport to be white elephants.

These people used the highway to dry and bag up their rice crop

The shortcut was only 15km longer than our intended route and we finally made it to the fishing town Hambantota and enjoyed a swim in the guesthouse pool.

There are few signs of the tsunami and many colourful fishing boats run up the beach within the boat harbour. Outside the harbour the beach looks lethal for swimming with waves breaking against steeply sloping sand.

We met Fatima (centre) and friends on an evening walk around Hambantota

Our route:

The A2 to Matara

20 September 2015

Before mentioning anything about today, I have to say that Ian’s critique of yesterday’s woeful shortcut was nowhere near strident enough. Cyclists are suckers for shortcuts, but we should have known better as it was obvious straight away that this was not a good road. It was devoid of shade, human activity, and even traffic as it went where nobody wants to go – that is an international airport where no aviation takes place. It took us through degraded countryside that was dominated by lantana and other exotic weeds. It gave plenty of warnings against wild elephants but no self-respecting elephant would spend any time here! It made for tedious, dispiriting cycling. It was interesting only for the fact that it showed massive investment in vast and expensive infrastructure that is not useful and will probably be impossible to maintain and therefore a complete waste. Enough said on that topic!

The highway out of Matara

This morning we rode the first stretch on a Rajapaksarised highway, then reverted to the A2 for a hot ride punctuated by several downpours. This is a rice growing area with many small towns and continuous activity along the roadside. It has been moderately stressful with fairly heavy traffic. We ride on a narrow shoulder between the vehicles and a 1m deep storm drain. There was a near miss when two buses narrowly avoided collision, an event that, had it occurred, would have been disastrous for both vehicles and probably for us as well. The general approach seems to be that if you want to overtake, give it a go because it will probably turn out OK. Also if you want to enter the roadway it’s fine to drive contraflow on the verge and swerve across when the opportunity arises. Given the number of dogs and cows on the road, there is surprisingly little road kill. There are a few lucky cows who nearly didn’t make it through today!

Give way to cows

We seem to be in a roti-free zone and had to breakfast in a bakery. Sri Lankans are fond of white fluffy bread and there are many bread vans (tuk tuks) that deliver loaves, buns and rolls, announcing themselves with the incessant electronic versions of tunes such as Fur Elise. Fortunately we came across a government sponsored food centre promoting and serving traditional Sri Lankan food and here we had hoppers and wade with sambal and coconut chutney.

Wade with sambal and coconut chutney on banana leaf

Sri Lankan people are extremely friendly and call out and wave to us everywhere. They are always keen to do business and we are often approached by people offering accommodation, souvenirs, drinks and food. However, this is never done in an unpleasant way and a rejection is accepted with a smile.

Once past Tangalle, our route took us close to the sea. We are staying near the town of Matara which has a history of Dutch and Portuguese occupation, with forts, a clock tower and other remnants of colonial times. The sea is rough and turbid.

Gateway to Fort, Matara

Our route:

Lion Lager

20 September 2015

Sri Lankan Lion Lager comes in handy, 625ml bottles. One beer, two glasses works out quite well when travelling with Rosalie.

Lion comes in two strengths. Strong at 8% is too much for us in this climate but was the preferred tipple of the bereaved local who befriended us in a bar in Ella. His father had died that day.

He, the son (Christian, Moral Rearmament supporter), was philosophical about the sudden death of his 85yo, atheist father but was seeking to drown his sorrows.

We were invited to the funeral but had to move on.

Colonial coast

21 September 2015

We stayed in the Turtle Eco Beach resort last night. It was a stylish, self-consciously eco-friendly place about 2m above mean sea level. I don’t know how they cope with king tides and storm surges. We know how they were forced to cope with the tsunami.

The TEB had a tres chic, slate-grey tiled swimming pool and surrounds. The water was just cool enough to be refreshing. In the evening we had a paddle on the sea which was cooler than the pool and cleaner than other beaches we’ve seen. At risk of being parochial, if it’s beaches you’re after you can’t go past Australia.

In the morning we backtracked to Matara before breakfast to explore that town in the cool and calm.

The Redoute van Eck (Star Fort) was erected by the Dutch in 1765 to defend a poorly-sited Portuguese fort built a century earlier. The caretaker was stirring while we were at the gate. He lives in the powder room and for a small consideration showed us around.

The redoubt has massively thick walls, a moat with crocodile (we saw it), a drawbridge and many corners from which to fire on attackers.

The Dutch didn’t occupy this area for very long. I think the Kandyans were tough customers and perhaps commercial deals with the locals made better business sense than occupation. The fort was named after Lubbert Jan Baron van Eck, the Dutch governor at the time.

We saw a squad of about 50 soldiers doing PT on a soccer field. The AK47-armed sentry nearby was probably happy doing his duty instead.

Back to the TEB for breakfast and then off to the A2 and Galle. The road followed the coast but much of the beach has been alienated from public use by high-walled resorts. Occasional glimpses are possible through hotel gateways.

Traditionally, fishermen perched on the poles to fish. Now they are fishing for tourists only, and tourists can try pole fishing too – for a price

We found our lodgings in Galle without drama. The Green Wood Garden is a homestay in a grand family bungalow owned by husband and wife doctors. High ceilings, fretwork panels over the doors, ceiling fans and an unobtrusive baby with attentive grandmother singing charming Sri Lankan lullabies.

We had a siesta and then rode into town after the worst of the day’s heat had passed. Galle traffic certainly focuses the mind. There’s a lot of it, it’s hectic and keep left is only a suggestion.

We found the legendary Galle International Cricket stadium. It’s well placed between the bustle of the town and the 500 year old Galle Fort. Unfortunately, it’s only a few metres above sea level and was wrecked by the tsunami. One of the stands is still wrecked but the rest seems in reasonable nick and the ground looks like it could be worked up for an international match in pretty short order. It looked better than I expected. I’ve no idea how anybody could play a game of cricket in this climate.

The huge fort guarding the harbour has massive ramparts and contains a hybrid Dutch-Asian town.

We returned to GWG for a dinner cooked specially for us by the household’s domestic servant. We are very fortunate.

Our route:

Architecture all over

22 September 2015

At 6am we cycled through quiet streets to explore the Galle Fort in the cool. On the way we spoke to an aged man of friendly disposition, orange dyed beard and few teeth, a ‘retired person’ as he described himself, formerly an English teacher. People are interested to know our country of origin and our occupations. ‘IT Manager’ is an acceptable response but ‘Librarian’ elicits genuine respect – a real profession. Brief discussions of cricketing matters often follow.

The Fort is a small world of its own. We walked around the ramparts, also a popular activity for Sri Lankan men who want to keep fit. At school time hundreds of school children swarmed in by foot and vehicle causing a traffic jam. We had breakfast of curd and treacle followed by egg hoppers with curry at the New Orient Hotel, a very pukka establishment.

View from western ramparts

Then we took a short ride along the coast to see the Lighthouse Hotel, built by renowned Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa. On the way I spoke to a couple of itinerant knife sharpeners who had whetstones mounted on their bicycles. They needed more customers so I wished them good luck.

Bring out your blunt knives!

The Lighthouse Hotel has a lovely shady terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean and an amazing spiral staircase decorated with sculptures depicting the Portuguese arriving in Galle and subsequent battle with local warriors.

Lighthouse Hotel sculpture by Laki Senanayake

The Cathedral of St Mary is a prominent landmark in Galle so we went to look at it, passing a nearby Hindu temple under construction and still in monochrome.

Post siesta we travelled in the other direction to the Japanese Peace Pagoda, situated on a forested headland overlooking Galle harbour from the east. This involved mixing it with the A2 traffic again and riding up a really steep hill.

Japanese Peace Pagoda, Unawatuna

We are getting pretty good at handling the crazy traffic. The combination of large trucks and buses, cars, vans, motor bikes, bicycles, tuk tuks and pedestrians (no footpaths) makes for a rather exhilarating atmosphere of simultaneous caution and risk taking. It’s kind of fun to be part of it!

The house we are staying in was built 2 years ago, based on the old Dutch style, with 5m high ceilings.


23 September 2015

Taking the train from Galle to Colombo involved another luggage office experience – adjustable date stamp and stamp pad, double carbon paper to produce the triplicate form, flaps torn off cardboard box to create the luggage labels. It all worked perfectly.

Ian making luggage labels using his neatest handwriting

Seats cannot be booked on many trains and getting them is not easy. We managed one between us. The train line follows the coast, sometimes only a few metres from the sea – easy to see how the tsunami caused a terrible disaster with train and passengers.

View from train – Galle to Colombo

After arriving at Colombo Fort we had to find our accommodation. A long ride through crazy traffic ensued until we eventually found it. The back streets are quiet and pleasant but not useful for crossing town.

The search for dinner took us on another adventure by tuk tuk, firstly to the wrong place (major international hotel with poor service), then to traditional Sri Lankan restaurant that didn’t serve beer.

On the way back the traffic was still terrible and our tuk tuk driver alarmed me by driving on the wrong side of the road with oncoming vehicles in preparation for making a RH turn. Yikes!

Our route:

Mad dogs and Englishmen

24 September 2015

The best place to observe a hot, sunny Sri Lankan day is the shady and breezy verandah of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. The GFH is reputed to be the oldest hotel east of Suez.

Other famous people to have sheltered here include Mahatma Gandhi, Noel Coward and Marshall Tito representing the good, the entertaining and the bad respectively.

We have a prized corner table and are spinning out our drinks carefully.

Galle Face Hotel – view from breakfast terrace