For me, Sri Lanka has felt like one long train journey but if there is any country where this is a good thing then it is Sri Lanka. And not just because a 9 hour train journey can cost you as little as £3. The trains rattle along past valleys cushioned with tea plantations, giant white Buddha statues appearing here and there and gazing serenely at the passengers who lean out of the windows and doors for a better look at the view.
This is the first part of my trip where I have been travelling alone and I feel already I have had a taste of the highs and lows of solo travel – though I’m sure there will be more to come. I arrived in Colombo fairly late, eager to get to my hostel, but the universe had other plans. My first mission was to get money out as I’d opted to get money from ATMS when first arriving in a country rather than carrying bits of cash from all the different places I’ll be visiting. I followed the instructions on the screen and pressed ‘accept amount’. Denied. I took a deep breath and tried not to panic. Attempt 2: Denied. I tried a different machine but got the same result. I scrabbled about for wifi so I could check my acccount and tried to call my bank only to be put on hold. Tears were prickling my eyes, this was the last thing I needed after being so nervous about being on my own, but I was determined not to let them fall. I reminded myself that I was carrrying dollars I could exchange or pay with instead to at least get me to the hostel and when a taxi driver approached me and we agreed on a price I decided it was best to get to the hostel and sort it out there.
In the end my card worked the next day and I could start really enjoying my trip, well, that was the plan anyway. Everywhere tells you to get out of Colombo ASAP and originally I planned to leave for Kandy straight away, but the card fiasco made me cautious and I had booked another night in Colombo. This is probably my only regret of the trip as I could have used this time to make another stop on my way back to Colombo at the end, thereby breaking up a long train journey. You live and learn and I definitely learnt that day.
After securing my tickets to Kandy (really easy and really cheap) I decided to walk around and see the few sites that Colombo had to offer, such as the Fort and the Clock Tower. To begin with a friendly Sri Lankan man tagged along with me, offering to show me the sites. I was nervous of him but he seemed harmless and kept saying he didn’t want money, telling me about his daughter who collects stamps and how all he asked was that I send her some from England. I couldn’t find a way to shake him off until he got in a tuk tuk and asked me to join him and, my hackles immediately going up, I refused, walking on. I have no idea where he was leading me but I’m not convinced it was actually anywhere I wanted to go, as stopping to look at my map it didn’t look like I was even heading in the right direction. So I doubled back and wandered around, probably looking like a crazy person as I turned one way and then back the other until I had blisters on my feet. Eventually I gave in and grabbed a tuk tuk who took me to a couple of Hindu temples I wanted to see (at least I think they were – they might have been random ones) but they were closed for their Poya celebrations, a public holiday linked to the full moon and a time when Buddha urged his disciples to deepen their spiritual practice. Feeling dejected I headed back to my hostel.
In the evening I made up my mind that I was going to actually make it somewhere I planned to go. I searched up a good place for dinner in my Lonely Planet guide, wrote down fool-proof instructions and set off. I reached the end of the road. Left? Or right? The one thing I had forgotten to write down. No matter, I had written the name of the first street I should pass instead so I tried left but the first road was called something different. I tried right instead. The name still wasn’t what I expected. I decided to keep going but 20 minutes later I still wasn’t recognising anything from my directions.
The one good thing was that I unexpectedly ran into some Poya celebrations. People dressed as peacocks and monkeys were dancing down the street, fire dancers loomed over the crowds on their stilts and behind them followed a small temple on wheels. All this was cool to see, but it wasn’t food.
I doubled back and then carried on and came to the street I had been looking for just one road on from the wrong one. I sighed and trudged on. And on. And on. The walk was supposed to take 20-30 minutes but I had been walking about 40 minutes and still not recognised anything. I was fed up, tired and starving. I was too nervous, both of germs and of drawing people’s attention as a single white woman, to get any streetfood or try the local places I passed along the way. I settled for a cafe I’d spotted earlier, not too far from my hostel and sat eating reheated pasta feeling like a failure. I was supposed to throw myself into a new culture, find my way around the country and I couldn’t even find a decent place to eat dinner.
Tomorrow was a new day though and at least I knew how to get myself to the station. The train to Kandy offered some beautiful views, though passing the make-shift shacks of the poverty stricken when I was sat in second class with a digital camera on my lap was unsettling. Still, the dense forests that gave way to open fields lifted my mood. The Elephant Shed hostel where I was staying was only a 5-10 minute walk from the station but I still managed to get a bit turned around. A couple of kind locals called the hostel for directions for me and pointed me the right way.
I did have a moment of doubt though as I walked down a side street that seemed to be getting more deserted as I turned the corner, but suddenly there it was, this tall wonky building with a brightly coloured sign on the door. Inside was just as quirky, the walls covered in messages from other travellers and the treacherous stairs being little more than ladders. Determined not to make the same mistakes as Colombo and make the most of my short time here, I immediately started packing my day bag and writing EXENSIVE directions down to find The Temple of the Tooth Relic. While I was doing this I got chatting to a girl who was doing the same thing so we decided to go together.
I quickly discovered that getting lost with someone else was much more fun (also having internet on your phone is ideal for someone as directionally challenged as me). Not that we properly got lost but The Temple of the Tooth is not exactly sign posted and once you enter the complex it is still a while before you come to the actual room with the tooth relic in. In fact we kind of stumbled upon the rather low-key room holding the tooth in a golden casket (there are only certain occasions when you can actually see the tooth) and guarded by a golden Buddah statue and rows of elephant tusks. Around the room are paintings with stories about the tooth but otherwise there is no information about what you are seeing, simply because it is a functioning temple. Many locals were there on the day, being so close to Poya, and there was a peaceful air to the whole experience.
I planned to do Sigiriya, also known as the Lion Rock, and possibly some cave temples the next day and when I suggested my new friend, Kristel, join me she was only too happy to go together. In fact the hostel guy rounded up a few other solo travellers interested in going and suddenly there were six of us.
Having other people to chat to, between gasping for breath as we climbed the one million steps (ok I exaggerate but it felt like it) to the top of Sigiriya, made all the difference to the experience. It was especially a relief when, on the way back, our driver offered to drop us at a spice garden for a tour and free massage. We were left in the hands of a gawky man with stained teeth who repeated things often and wanted us to smell every spice at least three times. He was clearly high on something and we were tired from our long day and impatient to get back on the road. When he saw he was losing our attention he lead us to a school room type area where we sat on benches and tried a spice tea, which was surprisingly nice. We heard all about the spices and their many miracles cures AGAIN and I couldn’t help but ask the guide if he used the remedies himself as he wasn’t exactly a walking advert for them.
Next, without much warning, a few more guys appeared and gestured for me and one of the other girls to move to the front bench. With no preamble they starting spreading a thick home made cream onto our faces before massaging it in and then wiping away the excess. The massage was all right but the whole experience was weird. I’m sure they meant well but we just wanted to get away and it was reassuring to have a group of us all thinking the same thing rather than having to suffere through the strange experience alone. The girl next to me suggested it might be time to get back to the mini bus and we were ushered through the gift shop on our way.
Kandy had shown me everything I wanted to see (and a few things I didn’t in the spice garden) so I got on another train away from the dirty city and into hill country and Ella. The train ride from Kandy to Ella is famously impressive and it didn’t disappoint. In fact several tourists left their drivers just to experience the train and got picked up again by them at the other end. I can’t blame them when the views were so good and the tickets so cheap.
I travelled with Brad, one of the guys from our Sigiriya trip and when we arrived in Ella we both agreed we liked it much better than Kandy. Ella has more of a travellers vibe and that night at Chill Bar, which seems to be THE place to go out in Ella, I sipped a passioinfuit mojito from a jar as we met all these different people passing through. Their were two Israeli girls who shared stories about their time in the Israeli army, the group of fiends who used to work on private yachts together and were celebrating a birthday and the family who had lived all over the world, running hotels. This is what travel is supposed to be about right? Meeting interesting characters along the way, the ones who turn your trip into a story. Finally I felt like I was beginning to get what people mean when they say the best part of travel is meeting people.
The next day Brad, Florian (a guy Brad had met earlier in his trip) and I hiked Ella rock. Like with Sigiriya I was reminded how desperately unfit I am as I panted and sweated my way up behind the boys. At the top the slightly misty view rewarded our efforts and later we rewarded ourselves with another drink at Chill bar. As the afternoon stretched into evening we were joined by old friends we had each met along the way, including Kristel, who had just arrived a day after us, and our little table for three suddenly became a table for nine.
The great thing about meeting people while travelling is that you instantly have something in common. We shared stories, swapped tips on where to go and what to see and amazed each other with the unique experiences we’d had along the way. Sitting on the train heading back to Colombo, ready for my flight to India the next day, I couldn’t be more exited to see what the rest of my trip has in store. This first week on my own has taught me to expect the low times and the moments where everything goes wrong but to also have faith that things will right themselves in the end.
I’ve enjoyed my experience of Sri Lanka, as limited as it has been, but feel it is easy to see what you want to see and be done with it. The sites are interesting and worth visiting but for me, it will always be the people that made this leg of my trip so great.
For more please watch my video here.