Negombo is the last stop on my Sri Lanka tour. I chose it because it’s near the beach and closer to the airport than Colombo. My flight is at 04:00, therefore the usual 2 hours before for an international flight. I didn’t fancy a 35km taxi ride at 02:00.
Negombo town is on the Negombo lagoon which provides safe waters for the fishing fleets. Wikipedia has some interesting info on the Muslim, Portuguese and Dutch that have, over the centuries, held sway here. Negombo used to be the centre for a flourishing cinnamon trade.
The area where I am is slightly north of the actual town of Negombo, about 2·3km. The main strip here is typical seaside town. Lots of restaurants and souvenir shops. The prices are what you’d expect in such a place. The two meals I have had in restaurants were the same price as they’d have been in Spain and a bit cheaper than the UK. The sea food is lovely. I’ve eaten red snapper and shark. The souvenir shops sell everything from fridge magnets to large sculptures of Sri Lankan elephants. I’ve no idea how people would get some of these items in their suit cases? Maybe they have them shipped home.
Negombo hostels are almost on the beach
I’m currently staying at the New Negombo Beach Hostel. Booking.com will tell you “book now only a few places left“. I think this is a marketing ploy of theirs. I was the only one here when I arrived and I’m in a dormitory with 7 beds and I’m the only person in there. A few people have come and gone, but effectively the place is empty. The hostel is about 3 minutes walk from the beach.
The beach is a nice sandy yellow but poorly maintained. There is a superficial residue of the ubiquitous plastic bottles, bags, cigarette butts and packets and general rubbish that the unthinking and uncaring just toss on the ground. It’s hard to exclude it from photos. There are also the usual beach sellers and pimps but it’s surprisingly empty of people.
The boats pulled up onto the beach I have been told were once shrimping boats (you can see them in the photos) but now cater to the holidaymaker. They want anywhere between 2000/-Lk and 4000/-Lk per person for a spin (say £12 – £24). I was on the beach for a few hours and only saw one boat go out. I wonder if they’d have more trade if they dropped their prices a tad?
The weather has been overcast and incredibly humid with temperatures of about 33°C, but the sea is refreshing. Being a seaside resort the place is swarming with tourists from all over but I’ve no idea what they do because as mentioned, the beach is pretty deserted.
In all honesty there is little to do here except eat and go to the beach. I took a bus into town (17/-Lk) to have a look around. Aside from the usual shops that you’d expect to find the place is fairly ordinary until you get down to the water’s edge where the canal meets the lagoon. Here you can see all the colourful fishing craft and fishermen fixing nets and preparing for the next outing.
More begging… and anger
I met a young Buddhist yoga teacher (28-32 years old). He claimed to be half Sri Lankan and half Nepalese. He’s apparently back here because he has hepatitis A and is seeking treatment. He offered me Kashmiri hashish, was friendly enough and chatted for about 15 minutes. I was simply waiting for the inevitable request for money. It came. When I declined he showed his anger and simply walked off. It seems that the Sri Lankan beggars think we caucasians have a duty to give them money. It made me wonder why he didn’t sell the hashish to raise the money he needed. It also struck me as odd that if he had the money to buy hash then presumably he has the money to pay for his blood tests. There are more beggars here in Sri Lanka than I’ve seen in India and they are super-pushy.
Train to Nuwara Eliya – the most scenic train ride…
The train ride from Kandy to Ella is supposed to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. Most of the online articles say break the journey at Nuwara Eliya before continuing to Ella. The online articles also say try and stand in an open doorway so that you can take photos. As you go to Nuwara Eliya from Kandy the spectacular side is on the right. There are some lovely views on the left too but you spend most of the time hugging the mountain side. Luckily a Sri Lankan man called me across to the left side to see some beautiful waterfalls.
The train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya was chocker-block full of people. Half locals and half tourists. Barely a chance to see anything for four hours. If it can be, the trains in Sri Lanka are even slower than their Indian counterparts. The general attitude seems to be – keep selling tickets until you can’t squeeze any more people in.
Again the online articles say travel 2nd or 3rd class. The 1st class air-conditioned carriages have glass windows that produce a lot of reflections making nice photos nasty with secondary image reflections. Getting a 1st class ticket is all but impossible unless you book months in advance. 2nd class reservations are the same. So you can be pretty sure that you’ll be standing most of the time unless you are lucky enough to collar the door and sit with your feet on the running board. Apparently there is a “scam” where all the tour guides reserve the seats for the clients that are prepared to pay well over the odds.
One of the first things to know is that the train doesn’t go to Nuwara Eliya, it stops at Nanu Oya. It will cost you 600/- LK to get into the town of Nuwara Eliya (2018 price). Yes the tuktuk driver will try and scam you. My advice is talk to people on the train and share a ride. Get dropped in the centre of town or Victoria Park. The first driver will pile on the cost if he has to make two or three different drops. Find a second tuktuk to your destination.
Nuwara Elyia is nestled into a plain around Lake Gregory with many of the houses on the hillsides around the lake. It’s a pretty town dedicated to tea production for the most part. My first day there I walked around Lake Gregory and climbed up through one of PEDRO’S tea plantations to the top of Single Tree Hill. I did, according to google, 16·2km that day.
There is quite a lot to do in Nuwara Eliya but you’ll pay through the nose for it. I wanted to go to Horton Plains and Adam’s Peak. The first has a spectacular 1.200m drop called World’s End, the second is supposed to be great for the sunrise. I was alerted to Adam’s Peak when someone said that you have to leave at 02:00 to get a good spot. Since then I have talked to people that never made it to the peak for the swarms of tourists. Both are national parks. Both charge about 25€. So by the time you’ve done four things in the area you are 100€ down. This is the same business model as Costa Rica. Pretty soon these two countries will be only for the rich tourist.
The second part of the journey is to Ella. The hostel in which I was staying was full of people that were either going to Ella or had just come back. Most said that it was a quiet town, really expensive, with not much to do except some hiking trails. I decided to give it a miss. Partly because I had no wish to be a sardine again, partly because being in town with the same mob from the hostel didn’t do it for me.
There are hostels and hostels
The hostel that I chose in Nuwara Eliya was called the Hi Lanka. It’s in a beautiful spot with some lovely views and only about 1km from town, so easily walkable. I’d booked through booking.com who told me the two nights would be about 1600/-LK. I arrived and was charged over double. $24 to be exact. I don’t work in dollars, it’s american currency. I’d have preferred the price in € or £. The hostel was shabby. My dorm had no WiFi connectivity, that was only available in the main room or the terrace. Guests arrived with bookings only to find no space. Other guests were moved beds to make space for others and three were delivered to another hostel. That said the breakfasts were big and good. From a hostel point of view, it was one of the worst I have stayed in, only a touch better than Bunk Planet mentioned here and to my mind priced like a cheap hotel not a shared dormitory hostel.
Having decided to miss out Ella, I decided to go back to Colombo and lie by the beach. I’d picked up an infection on the plane that had been sitting on my chest and making me cough and I had a streaming nose. I figured that a bit of sea, wind and lazy time would probably be a better option than standing interminably on trains getting increasingly irritated and feeling rough. So I headed back to Mrs Merle Senanayake’s excellent establishment The Colombo Lavinia Beach Hostel. By far and away the best hostel I’ve stayed in on this entire trip. If the hostel had been in India I’d have asked if I could rent a room on a semi-permanent basis!
I left Hi Lanka fairly early. I wanted to try and get a seat for the 8 hour ride back to Colombo. Luckily there were some free seats in the 1st class carriage. I booked one with relief. Luckily the car wasn’t that full so it enabled me to pop up and down and hang out of the front doors of the carriage to video the spectacular scenery that I’d missed on the way up. I still have to edit it to include on this page.
With great relief I arrived back at Colombo Lavinia Beach to find that the Spanish man, Valentín, I’d been talking to 4 days earlier was still there. He told me he’d been having a great time where he was and felt no need to move on. He stayed a month in total and finally dragged himself off to see Kandy and the scenic train route the day before I left for Galle in the south, where I am currently writing this.
I arrived in Kandy on Sunday the 14th January. It’s as pretty as a picture. It was also the capital when Sri Lanka was under a monarchy. Located in the Kandy plateau, it’s criss-crossed with tropical plantations, many of which are tea. If you want more info on the town go here) The train getting there wasn’t so pretty, it was over subscribed. We, an Aussie and a Somalian and I stood or sat on the floor in the open carriage doorway for I suppose 4 plus hours taking occasional photos. Again, and unlike British Rail, the ticket worked out at 150/- LK. In £ sterling, about 1. Euro slightly more. You don’t seem to mind a bit of discomfort when you haven’t shelled out a mortgage on British Rail prices, but not being able to get a decent view was annoying.
I had pre-booked “Bunk Planet” in Kandy. It looked good on Hostel World but in actual fact was the most disappointing hostel that I’ve stayed in to date. Situated in the basement of a block, the smell was a bit damp and occasionally the toilets took over. The idea was nice though, capsule bunk beds with plenty of space and charging points, fan and “mood” light. Unfortunately there was no common room area nor kitchen with the result that I didn’t get to interact with anyone really. Until the last day.
A stroll around Kandy lake
The lake seemed to be the thing to go see with half a day left. I walked round the lake slowly looking at the enormous trees and houses nestled into the hills. Half way round I quite literally nearly stumbled over a huge water Monitor Lizard. I reckon it was about 1·30m in length and its body the size of a springer spaniel’s body. That excitement over I continued the circuit of the lake during which noticed a huge white Buddha on the hill behind the city that I hadn’t spotted before.
As I was just about to complete the circuit of the lake an old man stopped me. He showed me a poisonous water snake in a clump of reeds that he assured me was most venomous. He also showed me all the waterbirds hiding from it. The snake was hard to see and therefore hard to try and identify to include here, and the name the man gave it was obviously local and fairly unpronounceable. We walked on a little and the old fellow pointed out some huge fruit bats, the size of pigeons. That’s when he told me about the performance of Sri Lankan dance, fire-walking and drumming that was going on that night. I think was related to some festival to do with the Temple of the Tooth. It seemed like a good idea, so I went. It was a shame that the light didn’t allow me to get good photos, slow shutter speeds, and I’d left the video behind in the hostel, damn it! It was entertaining, not brilliant, but fun and I do like dancing girls 🙂
Now some food. The street food in Sri Lanka doesn’t compete with Indian street food. And of the Indian food, I prefer the southern food with its coconut and rice. Here, mostly they are vegetable rotis, fish or chicken buns or things loaded with sugar. I did find one guy making lovely chicken fried rice though. But there really is a limit to how much chicken fried rice you can eat. Here it’s the same as southern India, eat with your hands of lose face and ask for a spoon.
The Big White Buddha of Kandy
By the next day I’d googled the huge white Buddha that I’d seen whilst walking round the lake. It wasn’t far. Back-pack and camera. With the aid of google maps I found the place easily. This Buddha is called Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue and there is a legend of the Buddha of Gnome Mountain which you can read about here. Kandy is built on hill sides around the lake. The Buddha sits atop one of the nearest hills looking over Kandy. I took my photos and moved on. Walking into Kandy from the Buddha you enter from the opposite side from the lake. I walked some of the streets in the direction of the lake. Eventually arriving at the Temple of the Tooth land that borders the side of the lake.
I strolled in the grounds of the Temple of the Tooth taking photos. Its grounds are lovely and calming. And I haven’t seen as many caucasians in one place since leaving England. You really get the idea that Sri Lanka’s main industry is tourism. It reminds me of some time I spent in Costa Rica where the tourist industry is monetised to the hilt.
When you arrive at Udaipur bus station you will be flooded with tuk-tuk drivers wanting your custom. They will all try and rip you off, of that you can be sure. The only way I and some other travellers I’ve met have found to counter this mad craze to lose their income is to have Ola or Uber applications open which show you approximately how much the fare will be. Then it’s up to the tuk-tuk driver to turn you away or accept, or you get Ola or Uber. I’ve found it easier to walk to a different street, just away from the station, where you’re more likely to encounter someone more amenable. The first guy at the Udaipur bus station wanted 400/-INR for what amounted to a 120/-INR ride.
Udaipur is very much a tourist town. And it’s easy to see why, it’s beautiful. Nestled between hills and situated on two lakes, Pichola and Fateh Sagar, with its island palaces, temples and a lot of hindu architecture, it’s almost like a step back in time. I spent the first morning walking around and taking photos. The first thing I noticed is that Udaipur is quiet. Hardly any horns! The second is that it was the cleanest city I’ve visited to date. You’ll soon find out it’s where they made the James Bond movie “Octopussy (1983)”. A lot of restaurants will screen the film nightly. I didn’t go. I saw more Europeans here than in any other place I’ve been so far, and from all ages and financial brackets.
On my return to Bunkyard Hostel that I’d booked online from Jodhpur, I bumped into Mustafa, a young architectural student just writing his final thesis for his degree, whom I’d met briefly the night before. We were on the roof terrace taking in the morning view and chatting when we were joined by Rahul. Bunkyard is another good hostel, and the views over Lake Pichola are superb. It’s multi-level hostel with the restaurant at the top. I picked a dorm without aircon and it was bang on. I’d found out the night before that Mustafa was in my dorm and now I found out that Rahul was too.
The Bunkyard staff are really friendly, if a bit slow in the morning. I have to admit that I found a place where I can have 2 breakfasts and 2 chais for the price of a chai in the hostel and I don’t have to wait, so I go there instead. Well the three of us sat in the early morning sun putting the world to rights. We were sitting under the sunshade four hours later. These two young men suffer the same disillusionment with their world as I suffer with mine. It was a gentle day goofing off, and attempting to put the world to rights. The next couple of days were spent exploring backstreets and walking out of the city into the semi jungle at the west end of the lake.
Saturday Mustafa invited me to split the cost of a scooter with him. 400/-INR for the vehicle for the day and a further 200/-INR petrol. Seemed like a good plan. Off we went into the hills to the west of Udaipur. A totally lazy day out looking at temples and lakes.
First we visited a temple on a little pond. I can’t recall the name of the place and neither Mustafa or I have found it on the net. The place was beautiful and serene except for the half finished block-work and cement structure that had been abandoned. It looked to me that once it might have been going to be a hotel or B&B type place, but to my mind it totally spoiled the view and temple, and I was hard put to try and exclude it from photos. We also visited the Lake Badi where I took photos and was tempted to go for a swim. Both Mustafa and I thought that we should have visited the lake in the morning, for the sun’s direction. It was the first lake I’d seen without a scum of plastic wrappers and bottles floating on it. That said, the shoreline was littered with broken beer bottles, crisp packets and the like. It’s such a shame that the young couples and visiting people don’t take their rubbish away with them. Mustafa, Rahul and I had been talking about this inability to take rubbish away and dispose of it in the proper place. It seems that that the younger, educated Indian is aware of this pollution and would like it to change.
We then spent a couple of hours relaxing under a shade tree with an old man and his wife. Mustafa had asked the man we’d spotted if he’d mind if we shared the shade of his tree and in friendly Indian fashion there was no problem. Apparently the language they were talking was a dialect of hindi and Mustafa had to struggle a bit to be understood and understand. They were sweet enough to let me take their photos but the wife nearly made me giggle when she started to say that she didn’t have her fine clothes on. She was lovely the way she was.
By now the evening was beginning to roll in. Our intention was to get up to the Monsoon Palace, Sajjan Garha, in time to see the sunset. Sajjan Garh Palace is called the sunset point and it seemed the right thing to do. It is named Sajjangarh after Maharana Sajjan Singh, who built it in 1884. Originally intended to be a five floor astronomical centre and built to watch the monsoon clouds, but was converted into a hunting lodge and the monsoon palace on the death of Maharana Sajjan.
The road up to the Monsoon Palace is not very obvious and it is all hairpin bends once you pass the pay-in point. Again Indians get in for 10% of the tourist’s price. It cost me 300/-INR. The climb up offers spectacular views over the hillsides around Udaipur. Once at the top though it became a little disappointing. The building, once glorious, is now running to ruin, which is such a shame. And today, we weren’t going to be seeing any sunset. There was a high bank of cloud in the west, behind which the sun was slowly sinking. The clouds were spectacular though, backlight by the sun. The views were immense. But the light was disappearing fast now so we hopped on the scooter and headed back from a splendid day out in the fresh air.
Sunday morning Mustafa and I were sitting in one of the communal areas of Bunkyard discussing what to have for breakfast and whether he should head off back to Ahmedabad in Gujarat that day to write his thesis. Breakfast was decided on and his return was postponed for at least 2 hours. I headed off to put the computer away so we could go and eat. And then it happened. I must have had a blood pressure rush or I fainted, I don’t know. All I remember is that the mural at the top of the stairs rose up to meet me and the next thing that I remember is that Mustafa was pushing me bleeding into a tuk-tuk and he and the driver were rushing me to hospital. The ride was a fragmented dream while my thoughts were beginning to clear, albeit very slowly. The next memory was of lying on an operating table having my head and eyelid stitched. 6 stitches in total, two in the eyelid the remainder in my forehead. According to Mustafa, I’d reached the top of the stairs and then just crumpled and fell, head first, down a flight of 15 stairs. He was so worried and it was his prompt actions and help that pulled me through. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to him and you can be sure that as soon as I get an itinerary that allows me to head west, I’ll be staying with Mustafa for sure.
So to cut a long story short, Mustafa delayed his return to Ahmedabad until later that afternoon while he saw that I was ok. I had concussion and my sense of balance was seriously disturbed. I dozed at about 14:30 and when I awoke my friend had gone. The next few days were spent recovering. I was still seriously dizzy and having an eye that wouldn’t open didn’t help. Monocular vision with no depth of field doesn’t help with head injuries and balance.
The Bunkyard staff were all very sympathetic and helpful, made sure I was ok and generally kept an eye on me. For two days I lurked around the hostel, staggering into the odd table. Mustafa had told me that I’d need to go back down to the hospital on the Tuesday so the tuk-tuk driver that had taken me before agreed to go with me again as he’d been with me most of the time that I was there in the first instance. I was checked over and given some new medication. Mickey from Satya Dhaam was worried and got two young lads known to his wife to check up on me which was nice of him too. All in all I decided to stay for the remainder of the week, allow my eye to recover and for the swelling to go down, and to move on to Kota on Friday, all things being well.
Udaipur is a wonderful city. For anyone visiting India, go there. I’ll be going back for sure, and it is the sort of place in which I could imagine settling down for a while.