White knuckle rides and Blue Whales in Sri Lanka

White knuckle rides and Blue Whales in Sri Lanka

by Iain McGill
article from Tuesday 23, June, 2015

I WAS SITTING in Koh Tao, a little diver's paradise of an island in the Gulf of Thailand, trying to find a place on an Air Aisa route that neither my friend nor I had been to before, and that we could fly to that day.

Bahrain, South Korea and Sri Lanka where the three options that we had, so buying the cheapest ticket on offer we hit the road to Colombo, Sri Lanka knowing not a lot about it. When I say hit the road I mean jump the ferry from Koh Tao to Chumphon, the bus from Chumphon to Bangkok, then a flight from Bangkok to Colombo.

Getting into Sri Lanka was quick and easy, buy a visa on arrival for a small fee and you're very welcome. Unless you have any drugs on you. Big signs at the airport make it very clear that the only thing you're welcome to if you're carrying drugs is the death penalty. Nice.

A Sri Lankan friend picked us up at the airport (thanks Nic) and after a tour of the city took us to the Mount Lavinia Hotel. A bit fancier than I'm used to, but he had friends there and seemed to have negotiated us a decent discount. The hotel is fantastic, set high up on the beach, built in 1806 by a British Governor known as "King Tom" and comes complete with a tunnel he had installed to smuggle the mestizo dancer, Lovina Aponsuwa, whom he had fallen for, in to see him. I'm not quite sure I can get my head around the fact that this love affair was so scandalous that it required a tunnel built to keep it secret, but he carried on and named the house he built after her... 

Much more impressive, to me at least, was the fact that the hotel played it's part in the Bridge Over the River Kwai, as the hospital. Filmed in Sri Lanka, it was an unexpected bonus. We tried our first Lion Beer – a fairly strong lager that has the market cornered in Sri Lanka, but am unsurprised that it's not conquered the global beer market yet – and Arrack, the Sri Lankan whiskey, made from coconuts. It's worth a try, and very affordable, but again I don't see a threat to our own whiskies global domination.

The hotel was well placed with a string of beach bars and restaurants, a turtle sanctuary full of three-legged turtles and a train station where the train ran to town for the princely sum of 5p. Also very clear were houses wrecked in the tsunami - the first of many we were to see. Local fishermen on the beach were keen to tell us stories of the families who lived in them "This house was built by an Australian man, he married a local girl. They had not long finished the house when..." 

Anyhow, back to this 5p train - there are 4 classes of ticket available on the trains. 1st - 3rd are all inside and official. 4th class is unofficial and outside. No problems with air conditioning in the heat, there are no doors on the trains so plenty of air circulating. I'm pretty sure it's not just our cold, wet weather that see's our trains have doors on them, but on a hot day in Sri Lanka I can recommend hanging out the door of a moving train enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and breeze in Sri Lanka.

Colombo is a growing city, massive hotels going up everywhere, Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, Kebabishs all available, after 30 years of troubles and a natural disaster the economy only has one way to go and investment is obvious everywhere. Casinos are big business in Colombo, they're a bit different to a lot of casinos I've been to though as the bar closes before the tables do. That doesnae happen in Edinburgh, never mind Vegas or Macau...

The nightlife in the capital could do with developing. It's all based around the big international hotels, and whilst there are some decent ones – I recommend Cheers at the Cinnamon Grand – not least for their civilized division of the pub into an old fashioned English pub were you can prop up the bar and have a pint and a smoke, sports lounge were it's smoke free and they've a decent pool table and a kids club were you can park your youngsters to be entertained by games, crafts & Frozen. Imagine pubs being able to offer a choice of smoking areas or smoke free...

I am always curious as to what's permitted in a country and what's not. We flew Bangkok to Colombo, two neighboring predominately Buddhist countries, and the traffic on that line appears to be Sri Lankans going to Bangkok for the pleasures of the flesh that they are denied in Sri Lanka, and Thais going to Colombo for the pleasures of a game of cards, or the spin of a roulette wheel that they are denied in their home country.

We visited the Commonwealth War Graves at Colombo-Jawatta and Borella Kanattha, they're always a well kept oasis of tranquility no matter how noisy a capital city they're located in. The gardeners do a great job, and take real pride in what they do. A lot of brave young women buried here, WRNSs and nurses mainly. Discovered a young man from Leith buried there, 23yr old WBS Begg killed on Easter Sunday 1942 on HMS Tenedos. Another intersting aspect was the monument to more than 150 Hindus who lost their lives serving in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and who were committed to fire as their religion demands.

We stopped into Tourist Information to find out what they recommended. They clearly misjudged us, as their top tip was visiting Kandy, were we could see Buddahs tooth, see some orchids and buy some tea. Not quite the adventures we were looking for, so we formed alternative plans...

Off to Kitulgala first for a day messing about on the river. A famous river this one, setting of the aforementioned Bridge Over the River Kwai it's now a hot bed of white water rafting, canyoning and the likes. To young British folks like me of course it's one of the most iconic stretches of river in the world, so well worth braving the odd rapid to get to. The foundations of the bridge that they built for the movie all those years ago are still there, it's great fun (even if a bit silly) to be standing there pretending you're in the movie.

We then went hunting for two big things. The first? A bit of decent nightlife. The second? The biggest of the lot. The Blue Whale. We were 50% successful.

Everybody told us the south coast was were the parties were. "Get to Unawantuna. The all night beach parties are massive" we were told, over and over again. They might be in the tourist season, but we were very definitely out of season... We watched the Champions League Final in the busiest beach bar in the busiest party town in the whole of Sri Lanka. Four of us. My mate and I, and two ex marines who now make a living showing their guns to pirates. At least, that's how they described their jobs in maritime security. The pirates pitch up, they show them their guns, the pirates clear off and wait for a boat with no maritime security. Sounds much safer than patrolling Sangin... We had a good time, but a wild beach party it was not. The threatened death sentence for drugs smuggling clearly does not put everyone off as for a quiet beach there was no shortage of locals wandering up and down offering us cheap cigarettes, drugs and ladies. I guess as there were pretty much the only folks on the beach to sell to we did attract the attention.

We did find great success with our quest for the biggest creature ever on Gods earth. Their tongue is the weight of an elephant, their heart the weight of a decent sized car and they're probably more emotionally intelligent than I am! We went whale watching out of Mirissa and spent a couple of hours with several blue whales, and an extremely seasick German...

It was the highlight of the trip for sure, not least for the fact that we actually saw what we hoped to see. We also spent a day at Yala National Park, the 2nd biggest and most visited national park in Sri Lanka. Promised elephants and a good chance of leopards - they boast the highest leopard density in the world - hoping to see sloth bears and a crocodiles as well we spent a day being driven about in the sun and saw... water buffalo, deer, pea hens & a mongoose. We maybe saw an elephant in the very long distance. Maybe. Highlight was being allowed out of our safari jeep to... help push start a tractor that was blocking the track. There was a lot of work being done on the tracks at the entrance to the park. Hard, heavy work with pick axes and shovels being done in the blazing sun by road gangs of brightly dressed women who waved and smiled as we went past. I'm not sure how much womans lib has caught on in Sri Lanka, but we don't see many women labouring on the roads in Scotland. Our driver felt so sorry for us and our lack of wildlife that he diverted to a temple nearby with a tame elephant wandering about it in case we wanted a photo. 

The white water rafting, the leopard hunting, sailing 10 feet away from a giant blue whale all sound exciting enough, but the biggest thrills were found on the roads. The driving's a real adventure, whether it's a tuk tuk, a taxi or a fancy hotel car it's a better white knuckle ride than anything Alton Towers can offer. Great fun. Just don't ask for directions. Or rather, ask for directions, but don't necessarily believe the directions you get. Apparently folks would rather give you the wrong directions than admit they don't know. 

I'm not used to drinking tea with my curries, being much more used to having cold lager or a decent red wine, but then a big curry is usually the last meal of the day for me. I like curry. Handily in Sri Lanka curry is a breakfast dish, a lunch dish and a dinner dish. I'm not even sure what string hoppers are, but they're also very decent with a curry. Sri Lanka is winning in the food stakes, especially if you like curry.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country – rain forests, beaches, street stalls, brightly dressed locals – it's not just us Scotsmen who wear skirts, sarongs being very much in evidence, the iconic stick fishermen trying to eke out an existence either by fishing or posing for photographs, cricket games happening all around, wildlife, friendly people, what are you waiting for?


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