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To Sri Lanka

sunny 32 °C

I spent three weeks in Sri Lanka, going from Galle in the south to Jaffna in the north, with side trips to the hill country and to an east coast beach. To get there from Chiang Mai, I had to transit back through KL and on to Colombo. I had a good plan. I would fly back to KL in the late afternoon, leave early-ish in the morning for Colombo and be there in time for check in at a hotel.

This made staying at a transit hotel in KLIA2 a sensible idea but unfortunately my plan was thwarted by the powers that be deciding to close Colombo airport during the day for a few months so they could upgrade the runways. This work commenced just a day before my arrival, and caused Air Asia to cancel all day time flights and aggregate all passengers on a single flight arriving fairly late at night. I now had a bit over 24 hours to kill in KL, with the airport hotel booked for 10 hours. I hung around in the airport until about 10:00 o'clock before checking in. The hotel I picked was essentially an airport lounge with some attached tiny rooms: I had unlimited free food (not particularly nice) and beer, and while the room was tiny, it was clean and comfortable so it was not a bad place to stay at all. It had the added bonus of being in the shopping mall next to the airport, so I really thought I could occupy myself there all day - it has two food courts and lots of other cafes and places to eat.
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By late morning I was on a bus to Klang, about an hour away, just for something to do: it turns out that Klang is not a nice place to visit - it is an old port town, quite run down, very hot when I was there. It has a couple of pretty much abandoned malls, a nice mosque and a few parades of shops - sadly, no decent coffee to be found. The reason the malls had been abandoned was a shiny new one about 5 km away (where the bus from the airport had actually dropped me), so I went back there, where I could find coffee and a wonderful branch of the Popular Book Shop.

Back at the airport, I was surprised and pleased to find Popeye's Louisiana Chicken - superior to KFC - so I pigged out before going to find my plane. At the other end, I was out of Colombo airport at around 10:30 and decided to walk to my hotel, about a km away. I'm afraid that I lost my temper with the cluster of tuktuk drivers who pestered me as I left the airport who simply would not accept I wanted to walk.

I can't say that Sri Lanka is the best place I have ever been, or that I expect to be back unless there's a good reason to return. There were good things about the place, and my next posts will deal with them - this one is more about the background niggles that made it less than optimal. I'll start with the tuktuk drivers, as they were my first experience. Of course, many passed me by without being a nuisance and many others accepted a "no thanks" when they asked if I wanted a taxi. Too many did not, however, and had a variety of responses - this is the full monty - a couple went through the whole thing, others had a shortened version:

"Taxi, sir?"
"Taxi?"
- "No thanks".
"Where you going?"
"How can I help you?"
"City tour, sir? Cheap. See everything, 2 hours, 2000 rupees."
"Where you staying? I'll come collect you, you can hire me for the whole day."

It didn't seem to matter what I was doing or how unlikely it would be that I'd be wanting a tuktuk - they'd still ask. Most problematic is when I'd be trying to cross the street, spot a small gap in the traffic, be about to leap into it, only to find that a blasted tuktuk had stopped to find out what I wanted to do and how they could help me.

Most of my travels were by train. The rail network was set up by the British and hasn't really had a lot of investment since then. In addition, Sri Lanka has had decades of civil war and a tsunami to contend with - meaning most of the trains are really old, not that comfortable or clean and very slow. I had reserved seats for most trips but some times I couldn't - the unreserved carriages were crowded: I don't like to be in close proximity to people at the best of times, so spending three hours or more standing with no room to move is not that appealing. On the other hand, I had three bus trips and was quite pleased with them.

I particularly enjoyed the Sri Lanka take on chicken curry, but it isn't their way to just serve a bowl of it with some rice. Instead, they'd have rice and curry - a plate of rice, a very small amount of the particular curry I'd ordered and then between four and ten other random curries. Pretty much everywhere had a version of this dish. Some of these were very good, some curried were inedible (one nearly killed me, when some long stringy green vege got stuck half way down my throat) and others were just too odd looking for me to want to try. In the cheaper places, they'd just pile everything together but in the posher places they'd separate them.
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The one dish I had heard about before getting to Sri Lanka was kottu, and I expected to see it everywhere but it was more than a week before I came across it. It is a bit like fried rice, but without the rice - instead, they use a finely chopped roti - it is chopped right on the grill and so making it creates quite a distinctive racket.
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I found these two dishes to be a bit samey after a while, but a lot of the restaurants went for western style dishes, which is not really why I came here. I did find some good Thai food and only resorted to KFC once, just to see what it was like - not much different from home. Most of the places I stayed supplied breakfast - and I had specially chosen to order breakfast when I booked my first hotel, interested in seeing what a Sri Lankan breakfast is. Turns out an omelette with toast and marmalade, some fruit and a Liptons tea bag is pretty standard. Indeed, given that Sri Lanka produces so much tea, it was actually quite hard to get a good cup of tea - even tea shops would supply a tea bag and milk made from powder. There were exceptions, like the Dilmah shop in Colombo.
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Coffee was just not a thing in most places. Although beer was readily available, and most places had several beers listed in their menus, the reality was that Lion lager was often all that was available. Its alright, but having a change is nice. I did try the locally brewed Tiger the one time I found it - awful! I did enjoy the locally brewed ginger beer - not as sweet as Schweppes and with quite a kick. It is made by Elephant, who recognise the power of a TLA, and call it EGB.
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My own planning let me down a little. I found that the hill area was really nice, and as I traveled, I picked up ideas as to where I could have gone to explore it more. I'd had to book the train up there and back about four weeks before I left home, and was under the impression that people went up there mainly for the spectacular train ride. This led me to book to go up one day and, sadly, back the next. Luckily, as I moved north, it became easier to get trains without booking well in advance, so my travels could be somewhat more impromptu.

Posted by NZBarry 20:49 Archived in Sri Lanka

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