Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is an island country off the southern coast of India. It’s history is thousands of years old and the scenery is beautiful. For the last 30 years there was a terrible civil war, but the war ended in 2009 and the country is readily rebuilding the economy. The country is mostly Buddhist. There’s a lot more to say but I’ll let Wikipedia take care of that.

Our trip to Sri Lanka lasted from April 20 to May 1. In that time we traveled from Colombo in the southwest through most of the Golden Triangle in the center of the country to Trincomalee in the northeast, then took a sleeper train back to Colombo to catch our flight to Tamil Nadu, India. We stayed with Couchsurfers and in guesthouses, climbed mountains with pilgrims, rode packed trains with commuters and cooked food with locals. Backpacking Sri Lanka was by turns interesting, stimulating, trying and tiring and although we both enjoyed many parts of it we reacted to the rest in different ways. My patience eventually eroded away by the grating, often dishonest relentlessness of tourism industry tauts and my health and happiness took an unwanted respite while I danced the Tinco two-step. Kristof took a more stoic approach and explored several unique but ultimately unfruitful techniques at resisting some of the frustrations of the journey.

But first let me show a few interesting things we saw everywhere. The sarong is very common in Sri Lanka, especially with the older generations. Boys wear shorts and young men wear pants but as the age gets higher, so does the probability they wear a sarong. I wanted to get one to wear around but I never quite pulled it off.




Another interesting thing we noticed many times in public places is that Sri Lankans love cheesy posters. “It doesn’t rain roses all the time that you want it to” with a picture of a rose. “Though you might still have tomorrow, enjoy what is yours today” with a picture of an unsmiling baby. This one, which I don’t think makes any sense at all – “If you do not understand my silence you will not understand my words” above a group of kittens.




Trains

After a few nights in Colombo we took a train to the central part of country, more train rides through the Golden Triangle, a ride out to the northeast coast and one last one back to Colombo.




The trains in Sri Lanka are a fascinating experience because of how old and bumpy they are and how many people get stuffed into them. Every square foot is fair game; private space is not sacred. After our pilgrimage to the top of Sri Prada we were dog-tired and Kristof tried to get some rest on the train to our next destination. I honestly don’t know what he was thinking other than “I am so tired I really don’t care that this can’t possibly be restful.”




On the 12 hour train ride back to Colombo we booked a sleeper berth for about twelve dollars. The room was very simple, tiny, and bearably dirty (albeit with too many mosquitos) with a private hole in the floor behind a swinging door. At some point the power went out and our fan died, leaving us to swelter in the 95 degree heat. Kristof got creative and constructed a sail to catch the wind and bring it into our room. Unfortunately it didn’t work very well but after only 45 minutes the power came back on and we were able to kind of sleep for the rest of the night.



Tea

One of my favorite things about Sri Lanka is the tea. Ceylon tea is some of the best regarded tea in the world, comprising over 20% of the world’s tea consumption, and it is Sri Lanka’s biggest export. Over a million people are employed in the tea industry here. Men drink it constantly and it is sold at every street corner. Here is something you may not have known about the tea.




We visited the tea museum in Kandi and after the tour browsed the shop. You can pick any kind they have and get any quantity of loose tea. Some of the names sounded surprisingly familiar, I think I have had some of these Ceylon teas back home. In the airport I picked up a package of “Number 1,” the BOPF.



Guesthouse? I think you mean Funhouse

As in southeast Asia the large majority of guesthouse rooms in Sri Lanka have one double bed, and this is always the cheapest option for two travelers. One of the nights we stayed in a guesthouse we had just checked in and decided to move the bed away from the wall so we could both get in and out of bed on our own sides. As we moved the bed one leg dragged across the ground, pulling up the thin linoleum floor. It mostly still covered the ground but within minutes the walls were covered in ants headed in all directions. Pulling up the floor for a better look we found a writhing mass of small black ants – directly under our bed was a large ant colony that was now in the process of moving the entire colony, larvae and all, away from the exposed area. We covered it back up and got a room change to the only other available room, a double bed room next door. After fifteen minutes we noticed the new room’s walls had gone from clean to ant-covered. We lifted up the floor and sure enough they were moving the colony into our room. We decided to let it slide.




Sri Lanka was the first country on our Asian tour where we consistently felt the need to set up mosquito nets before bed. Another night in another guesthouse a large mosquito net with several small holes was provided and dangled from the ceiling about the bed. We set it up and went to sleep. At about 3:30am we woke up from all the bites. I had less than a dozen but Kristof was getting annihilated. In a determined, half-asleep zombie mode Kris wrapped himself up first in his bedsheet, then in his own mosquito net and fell asleep where he thought they’d never get him, at the desk. Eventually we set up the second net inside the first and made it through the rest of the night.




Especially since I was painfully sick for the last few days, for some time after leaving Sri Lanka I had very mixed feelings about the overall experience. Even though the less enjoyable experiences seem pretty funny in hindsight the question I found myself wondering was is backpacking Sri Lanka worthwhile? It definitely can be, but it’s not for the inexperienced or under-prepared traveler and you should be willing to endure some uncomfortable situations, unless you just pay more for the higher end accommodation and transportation and skip all the hassle. To some extent we also ran kind of unlucky with regards to our interactions with tauts who really bent over backwards to squeeze every dollar out of us and with tuk-tuk drivers who would do things like agree to one fare and location and then take us somewhere else and try to charge more. I think ultimately it was worth going to Sri Lanka for the cultural exchange we particapted in and I’ll elaborate more in the next couple posts about that and the other experiences I most enjoyed.