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Sri lanka through the eyes of a South African – Beverly Malan

Beverly Malan is a South African woman who spent more than 5 years living and teaching English in Sri Lanka. She shares with us her passion for the country and personal experiences. She also offers some sound travel advice from one who knows the place well. 

Sri Lanka

ODE TO AN ISLAND:

The tropical pearl of Asia is seductive, voluptuous in anticipation and intoxicating with an average temperature of 30 degrees by mid-morning. Her omnipotent shimmering presence, initially unsolicited, sheaths the seeker in a chi that renounces whimsical notions of past and future. The eternal now impregnates the mind laying one down beside bedlam tuk-tuks, colluding with the divergence of 2 200 year-old carved Buddhist cave temples whilst majestic giants follow centuries old time-trodden paths where neither wire nor man impede their mammalian wanderings.
Sri Lanka

This pearl shaped isle shaved off the South Coast of India is as wholly unique as it is mysterious. Lanka means ‘island’, and appropriately baptised ‘Serendip’ or ‘Serendib’ by the Persians which roughly translates into an ‘accidental fortunate discovery’. The tiny azure turquoise isle is as culturally opulent as she is with her sumptuous array of culinary cuisine and teas. Yet, being only an hour’s flight from the Maldives, has still managed to elude travellers.
Sri Lanka

Having passed through Dutch, Portuguese and British hands Ceylon birthed her Independence in 1948, but not without complications. On the contrary, the Independent Republic of Sri Lanka resurfaced in 2009 to greet the world after a 26 year period of civil unrest between the minority Tamil speaking Hindus and the majority Sinhala speaking Buddhists.

Sri Lanka

As Buddhist (about 70% of Lanka’s populace), Catholic Christian, Hindu and Muslim communities cluster in coconut lined villages, it is hard to tell where one ethnic group begins and the other ends.

What I can tell you is that I have witnessed the distinct lack of concern regarding boundaries, or prejudice. There literally are no fences. What few stray dogs and cats there are, are communal pets and each household takes turns in putting out meals for them. Furthermore, with a 92% literacy rate, Sri Lankans are fanatical about education, and I mean the real deal, not bumped up figures to facilitate disadvantaged groups.

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My serendipitous love affair with the tea capital of the world began in 2012 when I moved to the port hub of Colombo to teach English. It is my happy place, and I will return again and again to my isle of joy.

Sri Lanka

Distinctly connected communities based upon the precept of oneness and respect for all beings, allowed me the rare opportunity to be immersed in the grace of unlimited tolerance, unconditional love and acceptance. There will always be few bad apples in every cart, deploy your noggin and travel wisely. In general, loving kindness is a way of life, as is the law of non-attachment.

An arduous 13 hour flight from King Shaka International (via Dubai) will deposit you at Bandaranaike International Airport, 40 minutes from Colombo, where a giant meditative Buddha welcomes you. Prearrange your visa online to sail through customs and avoid the additional queues. Collect a tourist SIM pack upon exiting the airport and get connected immediately with prepaid airtime already loaded. Dialog is tops, and cheap. Don’t bother with exorbitant roaming fees.

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Arriving back in Colombo in December, the city welcomed me with a dazzling array of trendy nightspots, exquisite culinary feasts and royal retail therapy. Colombo works best as a two-pronged approach. Plan your flight so that you arrive early in the morning, avoid the big hotel chains and book into the fabulous Casa Colombo boutique Hotel or go self-catering, the Lotus building in Wellawatte has a top floor apartment with a spacious entertainment area upstairs that leads onto an outdoor balcony and outdoor shower area with magnificent sea views. Conveniently central and situated a block away from the railway station, it has all the modern necessities that you require, including air conditioning.

Catch a train from Colombo, either from Bambalapitiya or Wellawatte station to Mount Lavinia. Ignore the haggling tuk-tuk drivers, the Mount Lavinia Hotel is only a 5 minute walk from the station and completely safe, turn left upon exiting – it’s impossible to miss the 200 year old white colonial edifice perched on the hill top. To avoid the crowds depart after 8.30am and return no later than 2.30pm. Lounge by the palm fringed pool or beach areas and be waited on hand and foot to renew energy levels.

Find a monk and ask for a blessing! Then blaze a decadent trail of sundowners in the evening while feasting on juicy seafood. Avoid: Bubar (even though it’s still being punted on travel websites, the beach has been almost completely eroded), Galle Face Hotel (it’s been closed for renovations for the past 6 months and isn’t likely to reopen anytime soon) and the Cinnamon Grand (overrated and touristy).

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Catch sundowners at Ozo for the view, pop down to Barricuda (Dehiwala district) for a seafood grill on the beach and then head to (and my personal favourite) 41 Sugar lounge bar and restaurant. If you plan on heading into the midnight hour, book a taxi. If you choose to live on the edge, pop into a Pillawoos ‘Hotel’ (café) for hangover food: kottu (chopped roti served with vegetables/chicken/cheese – stick with the vegetarian) or string hoppers (an egg in a pastry bowl). Day one, done.

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This 25 minute train ride out of Colombo heading south is a real gem worth experiencing because it affords an otherwise missed sneak peak into the lower caste locals as the train weaves its way around the coast line between colourfully erected mishap ‘housing’ structures.

It brought me down to earth seeing the joy on the faces of people going by, and how content they are even though they possess little. Not only would a taxi cost Rs600 as opposed to about Rs50, but it takes 40 minutes in the chaotic view-less traffic which never abates. Opt for the scenic joyride with the cool, ocean breeze passing through wide open windows while being gently lulled by the slow rocking and clickety-clack of the track.

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Once back in Colombo get a metered tuk-tuk, spend the afternoon exploring the Gangarama Vihara temple, be sure to go down a bit further to the pagoda jutting out on a wooden platform on Beira Lake. Refuse to pay twice, one ticket gets you in both places.

Warning: shoulders and knees have to be covered and shoes removed for temples. 

For an authentic Sri Lankan breakfast find the Paradise Vegetarian Food Court located at the new Buddhist Cultural Centre (Sri Sambuddhathwa Jayanthi Mandiraya building, just off Lauries Road near Thummulla Junction) before heading out of Colombo. Just try everything – it’s impossible to go wrong! Indulge in the pre-breakfast health drink, Kola Kaenda, and coconut rice milk – Kiribath, served with Lunumiris (red onion, spices and coconut) it’s utterly scrumptious! It’s pristine in cleanliness.

Eating with your right hand is customary (use your thumb like a grader pushing the food off your fingers towards its destination) – wash your hands before and after you eat.

Research has shown that eating with your hands improves digestion!

Although small, travelling around the island tends to be time consuming once beyond the confines of Colombo due to bad road conditions. Hire a car and driver to avoid undue stress as road rules appear absent and indicators are merely for aesthetic purposes. The South West part of the island I found too touristy and dated, like Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna, with far more scenic

beachscapes on the Eastern coastline. Galle was dull with unsavoury characters hanging around the hotspots. Travelling to the far Northern reaches of Sri Lanka is also unadvisable for safety reasons.

Head for the east coast, skip touristy Trincomalee and crush out on paradisal tropical bliss on Passekudah beach,#postcard #perfect. Maalu Maalu resort is the icing on the cake. Allow yourself to fuse with the tranquility before heading further down the south east coast to Pottuvil and Arugam Bay. Arugam is rated as one of the top 10 surf spots in the world, and local instructor Johnson, honed his talent in Hawaii. Get your own beach garden when staying in the cabana’s at Stardust Hotel.

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The daily fresh fruit cocktails are to die for. Gather your sense of adventure, grab a canoe and set out on the inland lake adjacent to the hotel. A solid hours paddling will land you at the edge of Yala National Park where we had the serendipitous fortune of observing wild ellies at play in the water grass, at a distance of about 50km.

We came across a tuk tuk driver who snuck us into Yala the local way, crossing paths with water oxen and a barefoot family all piled onto an odd motor-like machine collecting wood. The 7 Buduruwagala statues were carved in the 10 century, with the largest standing 16m and a mystifying oil oozing inexplicably from a flame carved shape in the rocks. How these massive carvings came to be is yet another mystery. Pottuvil is a stones throw away with another historical site, the Muhudu Maha Viharaya Ruins that have fallen through time only to stand in danger of being lost completely.

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And so our journey continued, heading towards the central highlands, the shifting landscape of Horton Plains introduced a welcome chill to the air, the perfect accompaniment to hikes in the area investigating waterfalls, ancient alien landing sites and a vertical precipice known as World’s End.

Navigating further up and away into the highlands, rolling mountains covered in tea bushes stretch as far as the eye could see.

Having accidentally gained entry into the Tea Research Institute, and after initially balking at our mishap wonderings, the director gave us a private tour of the facility (closed to the public) where the mystery of flavour marries with centuries old cultivation techniques, and yes I might have dishonestly snuck a seed off one of the revered tea bushes back home. As a hedonistic teetotaller, I am guilty.

We rested our weary souls at the Plains Bungalow which came with a 5 star private chef – brilliant. Situated on a rolling green hill, glass walls all around, stone floors and niche décor, we were met with the best fresh strawberry milkshake that I have ever had in my 39 years of existence. You would be correct in deducing that the eco-bungalow is situated on a strawberry farm.

There are many more words to pour out onto the page when it comes to the pearl of the Indian Ocean, but truly I am sure that by now you are keenly aware that the only truly satisfying solution would be to make your own way there, provided of course that it is your cup of tea!

A land of adventure with conundrum 5 star resorts, a good stir of culinary confessions, vibrant diverse cultures, jasmine, chilli, coconut, curd, queen teas and vivacious colour, brew the perfect concoction for the wanderlusting soul.

Must see places to still traverse would be Adams Peak (watch the weather, it’s not an arrive-and-do sort of thing, it requires planning and possible overnighting on the mountainside – I did try to introduce the concept of helicopter flights but this flew right over the locals sense of logic), the Peradeniya Gardens near Kandy with curling trees and wondrous bats, and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

The second half of the two-pronged approach is returning to Colombo for your final day. Sip on a freshly cut King Coconut (the big yellow ones) if you need a refreshing energy boost.

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The second half of the two-pronged approach is returning to Colombo for your final day. Sip on a freshly cut King Coconut (the big yellow ones) if you need a refreshing energy boost.

I haven’t mentioned ‘small eats’ which are generally snack type meals available in tea houses because hands are generally used for serving and dishing up, and then whatever is not eaten on your plate, gets returned to the counter top serving dishes for the next walk-in daredevil. Ugh. Tummy bugs in Sri Lanka

require antibiotics and will chew up at least 2 days of your holiday, so if you would like to sample samoosas and those odd looking little fried critters – find a place that at least uses tongs, oh – and be a morning customer. In this case the early bird missed the bug!

Colombo is a fabulous re-introduction into civilisation after traversing the Sri Lankan isle, with retail therapy outlets, where trust me, you will shop till you drop, literally. My ultimate retail therapy record amounted to 10 hours – and that was just in one shop. Odel’s is a must, and is always first on my ka-ching list when returning to the island. I know the prices are a bit over the top compared to other outlets, but I don’t care – it’s worth it.

Besides, they have incorporated a beautiful little corner which exports to Paris boutiques, so pieces are high quality, limited and the designs something which one would expect to pick up from Marion and Lindy. Drive by the newly refurbished Arcade centre at dusk when you visit Independent Square, it’s pretty lit up but other than Tommy Hilfiger and Burger King, the shopping is mundane and overpriced.

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House of Fashion is your typical bargain bin and can yield good fashion pieces, hence only being allowed 6 items in the fitting room after which one has to go all the way to the back of the queue.

Bargain hunting is my nemesis, I only go there for the sumptuous underwear and hair accessories. Knock-offs are produced in China, but the sassy island tailors churn out the originals. Google it. For a more authentic experience head out to Pettah market for some traditional bargaining.

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Sri Lanka, well for me at least, was host to a surreal ambience that anything is possible, the thing is – in Sri Lanka, it usually is!

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DARE TO TRAVEL: NITTY GRITTY TIPS

VISA REQUIREMENTS

Issued upon arrival: valid for 30 days; US$35 or apply online US$30. Tip – apply online, my visa was approved in a record time of 2 hours, and it definitely beat standing in yet another queue upon arrival! Go to http://www.eta.gov.lk/

GETTING THERE

Avoid overpriced hotel operators for taxis. Use:

http://www.airport.lk/getting-around/taxi-rates.php

http://www.sonit.lk/contact/

http://www.2588588.com/contact/ (Kangaroo cabs)

While there can be additional charges for pre-arranged taxis when being collected from the airport, it is far more relaxing than having to negotiate fares, especially after a 13 hour flight. A  ‘skin tax’ is charged for most things, which can mean paying up to four times the normal rate for unsuspecting foreigners

GETTING BACK

Bag wrapping is Rs800 Rs1,300 per bag depending on the size. Keep some Sri Lankan Rupees aside for this unless you plan on using your Master/Visa card.  While you can pay in USD, problems arose when I needed change. The airport is chaotic, with uninformative staff, ironically even at the information desk so get there early.

CURRENCY

Sri Lankan Rupee (Rs): R1 = +- Rs11,47

WHEN TO GO 

April September is the best time for the East Coast. It is irrelevant if it rains in Colombo (West Coast) because your time spent there should be minimal there are far too many other mind-blowing wonders to explore elsewhere. The highlands are slightly affected by both monsoons, and are also aptly known as Little England.

BEAR IN MIND

Sri Lanka hallmark is two seasonal monsoon rains, when the West Coast has monsoon, the East is dry and vice versa. In my experience it can rain for a week at a time, with water reaching knee-high level after flash floods which made for an interesting walk home one afternoon! Flooding is understandably an obstacle to travelling, and mud slides are common.

WATCH OUT FOR: 

1. POYA DAYS, Every full moon Places of interest will be closed and alcohol will not generally be on sale, even in hotels

2. Monsoon seasons

3. Drink only bottled or boiled water. Freshly blended fruit juices from tiny road stalls are not only delicious, but nutritious however the most refreshing island gem is King Coconut milk.

4. Avoid food served with hands

 

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