Finally, I’m getting back to Sri Lanka. If I could explain to you how much this trip changed my life – and no, not in that clichéd way that you read about or see in movies – in a very real and very understated way. It’s a place that will stay with you forever and the experience I was able to have is something that I am very grateful for. So here is the story, broken down into 4 parts, to make it (slightly) easier reading.
We left for Colombo on the 31 July. Backpacks shrink wrapped and yoga mats at the ready. We flew with Emirates (most definitely my preferred airline company – hence my, ahem, gold status) via Dubai with a long layover in the Business lounge. At 3am we boarded our flight to Colombo and managed to get an upgrade – a little luxury never hurt anyone before hitting the jungle. Giddy with excitement and champagne the 4-hour flight raced past as we watched Spiderman 3… or 4. Or whatever they are on now.
Airport admin done and we find ourselves standing outside with a taxi operator in the pelting rain, humidity and confusion of which taxi belongs to whom. Finally in our designated Hyundai we race off into the sunset. 2 hours later still stuck in traffic and now in darkness, we slowly edge our way towards The Reed Hotel. A small little man welcomes us and unhurriedly checks us in, he then asks about the American breakfast we want in the morning. We assure him that we don’t want anything of the sort and would rather like a Sri Lankan breakfast. He is surprised. Then he asks if we have eaten. We have not and ask if he can recommend a place – he says a Pizza Hut is just around the corner, and we again say we would like something more local so he says that he will go and fetch us food – it takes us a while to explain to him that we want vegetarian – as in NO meat. Not even chicken. After half an hour he returns, soaked to the bone, with two plastic bags in hand – our dinner of rice and hot sauce is tucked away in the folds. After dinner we sit on our balcony floor in the dark drinking Ceylon tea, listening to the rain and watching our neighbours – shirtless men, who endlessly smoke and play tinny music off their phones.
We wake up and have our first Sri Lankan breakfast hoppers (pancakes in the shape of a bowl). After that we are off to the train station to make our way to Kandy on the Rajadhani Express. The journey takes 3 and half hours, it was meant to be 2 hours – if using any train services in Sri Lanka be prepared for delays. The train is a beautiful revamped carriage with air-con, reclining seats and onboard meal service. We snooze as we pass through villages that flash by in a blink of an eye. But as we make our way towards the hill country the scenes turn to majestic green tea plantation valleys with spikes of mountains jutting out everywhere.
Once we arrive in Kandy we rushed off the train into a tuk tuk and wound our way up to Sharon Inn. The owner meets us with a panicked expression and insists we put our bags down immediately and head into town if we don’t want to miss the parade. It’s the second night of the Esala Perahera festival, one of the largest Buddhist festivals in Sri Lanka, where pilgrims flock to – and we don’t have tickets. A bartering game ensues between us, our tuk tuk driver and someone on the other end of the tuk tuk drivers phone. He ensures us that tickets usually range between 10 – 18 thousand rupees but, he will give them to us for 8 500. In the rush of putting our bags down and jumping back into the tuk tuk we have forgotten to pack more cash so we haggle some more and eventually end up paying 2 500 rupees to a stranger, following him down an almost deserted street, through a security check point and onto excessively crowded sidewalks and into a fluorescent hole on the wall that is a flip-flop shop. This is where we will watch the procession from – with a Sri Lankan family behind and in front of us, a French family to the right of us and some smatterings of Americans we watch as whip crackers hail the start of the procession, followed by thousands of traditional dancers, drummers, fire throwers, at least 100 elephant and of course the casket containing the sacred Tooth Relic.
It is a long, but magical experience. After 3 hours of sitting we find ourselves swept up in the very orderly crowd heading to somewhere to get food. With almost everything shut we decide to take a chance and head back to Sharon Inn to see if they can rustle up a dinner for us. And they do – our first proper Sri Lankan meal. A vegetable soup is followed by a plate of 10 different vegetables. I try okra for the first time along with a very meaty and lamb-like jackfruit curry, barbecue eggplant and green beans with banana crisps. While we eat the owner plays Dire Straits on his guitar in the next room. We are stuffed and exhausted and head up to our room, just as it starts to rain, to have a shower and get some sleep.
Breakfast is a quick bowl of fruit salad and some scrambled eggs on toast. We then head to the Temple of the Tooth situated on the Bogambara Lake, navigating the tiny streets littered with dogs, tuk tuks cars and an elephant. The temple is crowded with pilgrims. We buy some lotus flowers as offerings and get carried away in a crowd that only reaches our elbows in height and smiles at us while sneaking in front of us. The temple grounds are really big, filled with adorned buildings and Buddhas. We walk around and just before the skies open up again we head back in time to get our car to Ulpotha.