Sri Lanka! Yep, another new country! I’ve been here less than 10 days now so I’ll try to give some of my first impressions. These photos are from the first week.
I had been considering this trip to Sri Lanka for a few months, but with covid I only bought my ticket less than a week before I left. Also because of covid, I still haven’t bought my return ticket. It seems very difficult to plan anything with constantly changing travel restrictions.
I thought I had all my ducks in order for traveling. I flew Antalya to İstanbul with Turkish Airlines but had to check-in again in İstanbul because I had two separate itineraries. The check-in with flydubai took about an hour because of my bicycle. It was rather confusing. As for covid, well, that was skimmed over. Yes, I have a vaccination certificate, I mentioned at some point.
The health authorities at the Colombo airport were quite surprised when I arrived without a PCR test result. flydubai apparently paid a fine for letting me on the flight without it. These constantly changing restrictions, different for every country, must be a huge nightmare for the airport staff.
A nurse came to the airport, and I got my first ever PCR test (for 8590 lkr). I couldn’t leave until the results arrived about three hours later. I managed to find it more amusing than annoying, and I ate a good dinner at the airport. So it was about 26 hours from home in Antalya to my hotel in Negombo. Off to a good start.
Ideally my route would head north from the airport, then loop around and visit Colombo (or not) at the end of the trip. However, Colombo is the only place in the country to extend the 30 day visa I had (I applied online a couple days before buying my plane ticket). So the next day I headed by bicycle south all day to get to Colombo.
I found small roads with no traffic and messy big roads with lots of traffic, and I even found some rural areas here in the most densely populated part of the country.
Of course I saw Buddhist temples, but I was surprised to see so many churches. I learned later that the most Christian part of Sri Lanka is the area around Negombo where I started my riding.
Now ought to be high tourist season. The hotel where I stayed in Colombo had about 60 guests/night in December 2019. I was the only guest for the four nights I stayed.
Four nights in Colombo? Why? Few tourists like it. Well, I arrived Friday afternoon, and the visa extension folks are only open mornings, Monday through Friday. This is great news for you, the reader, as I’ll show you enough photos that you never have to visit this urban mess of over 5 million people.
The building I was most excited to see in Colombo was the Jami Ul Alfar, aka the Red Mosque.
The inside is supposed to be quite interesting, but because of covid this is as close as I could get.
Here’s another mosque that I also found unusual.
Architecturally what was most interesting to me were the colonial buildings, mostly left over from the British (the Portuguese and Dutch were here as well).
If you liked those buildings, then you need to check out this blog which has much better photos and better explanation than you’ll find here.
houses the National Museum of Colombo which among other things had some fancy toilets.
I learned about Sri Lanka’s important historical periods.
- Anuradhapura (5th century BCE to 1055 CE)
- Polonnaruva (1055 – 1235)
- transitional period with at least six different kingdoms (1232 – 1340)
- Kandy (1469 – 1815)
That was interesting since I plan on visiting Kandy, Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruva (in that order). The British came next, followed by independence in 1948.
Next door was the National Museum of Natural History with this elephant skeleton. It’s so big I mistook it for a mammoth or something before I read the caption.
Elephants are very important for Sri Lankans. I’ve seen many statues on buildings and temples.
Independence Square is a super pleasant part of the city.
I think what most tourists do in Colombo is visit temples. Isipathanarama had a very pleasant garden.
Sima Malaka Meditation Centre is more centrally located with a great setting on a lake.
Around the corner is Gangaramaya Temple with colorful statues.
In addition to Buddhist temples, churches, and mosques, there are also Hindu temples.
Nice enough, I guess, but let’s the get the hell out of Colombo.
The visa extension was easy taking only about two hours Monday morning. For US$100 I can now stay an additional 60 days, extendable once more for an additional 90 days for free, I believe. Note that this varies by nationality. I’m talking about a US passport.
I had ridden over 150km in the sprawling Colombo metropolitan area (that’s in, out, and around over four days) by the time I finally left the city. I must admit the noise, exhaust, and heavy traffic wasn’t giving me a lot of optimism for good riding.
How wrong I was! From the edge of the city to stuff like this:
And then I stumbled upon things like the Mahanevwana Buddhist Monastery where I chatted with Amila from London. He’s studying there, contemplating becoming a monk.
Both in the city and in the rural areas I have been surprised how reserved the Sri Lankans are. In that sense it’s much more similar to Japan or Thailand than Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Sulawesi, or even Turkey. Few people approach me. Few people say anything at all.
Another thing that bicycle tourers think about a lot (or is it just me?) is food. So far, so good. I’m still trying to figure out what to order. A popular breakfast is string hoppers, a type of noodles:
The orange-red stuff is a coconut thing, the most common condiment.
Rice and curry is common. Here’s an example (note the coconut thing again at the back):
The curries most closely resemble Kerala curries, but Sri Lankan cooks seem to use a wider variety of spices and balance them really well.
The national dish is kottu which has bread (roti, I believe) instead of rice or noodles. The roti is chopped thinly (think of how the tortillas are chopped for chilaquiles) and put in a wok with veggies, sauce, and, if you want, egg or chicken or fish. Beef and pork are occasionally available, but I haven’t tried them yet. I’ve been warned about the quality. Also I’ve been trying to take it easy a bit while my stomach gets used to Sri Lanka. That said, I’ve been drinking tap water with no problem (for about 10 days now).
Coconuts are, well, everywhere. One day resting under a coconut tree, I got scared when I heard lots of noise in the trees above me. I remember some crazy high number of people killed every year by falling coconuts. Turned out to be monkeys swinging from tree to tree.
Fruit juices/shakes are a bit trickier to find. Here’s avocado with ice cream. Very tasty.
I’ve tried one beer — Lion, a standard pilsner.
And I’ve tried one coconut toddy, a low alcohol (6-7%), non-distilled coconut drink. It was slightly sweet. I liked it.
Language difficulties have been more than I expected. A Sinhala phrasebook (for this region; Tamil is spoken farther north) would be helpful. For example, this woman served me a fine breakfast and then wrote a note inviting me back to her place. She could write a little English but spoken communication was difficult.
So, well, rural roads with little traffic through beautiful scenery, excellent easy-to-find food, and unassuming people. It’s going well so far. Let’s see what the tourist sites are like. First one, Kandy (next post).
Shortly before Kandy a man recommended I make the 2.5km (one way) detour to mountaintop Nelligala International Buddhist Center, a 200m climb. It got me up to 800m, the highest I’ve been so far in Sri Lanka.