11 January 2012

Sri Lankan sojourn

I could only get a few day off to go home to St Louis for Christmas, because we had some stuff at work that was supposed to get finished by the end of the year (it didn’t get done anyway, oh well…).
Anyway, by December 30, a Friday, I was ready to go somewhere warm and sunny for a little while, so a few months ago I bought tickets to Sri Lanka and made, with some difficulty, arrangments to rent a motorcycle while I was there.  I didn’t really know anything about the place other than that it was (i) warm, (ii) sunny, (iii) visa-free, (iv) somewhere where they rented motorcycles.  That checked enough boxes, so I was ready to go!
DECEMBER 31, 2011
I had an overnight flight and arrived on the morning of December 31.  The motorcycle guy picked me up at the airport, took me to his place, and I picked the bike that I liked (a 250 Suzuki Djebel, not a bad bike at all).  I had made reservations in Unawatuna, a beach town on the south coast, because I didn’t want to be scrounging for a place on New Year’s Eve after riding all day.
So I set off from Negombo, north of Colombo, which is where the bike rental place was.  I had to navigate through Colombo; the traffic was horrible and I got completely lost.  Finally, after many wrong turns, I at last found the ocean (usually not hard on an island!) and turned left.  At last I was on the right road! Then I rode for a couple of hundred kilometers along the coastal road.  It was pretty miserable riding—tons of busses and trucks, all going very slow and yet difficult to pass because of all of the other busses and trucks coming in the other direction.
Finally I got to Unawatuna and found the hotel pretty quickly; it was nice enough, and had a yard where I could park the bike.  I quicly took a shower and headed down to the beach to get dinner.  The beach was rather underwhelming—about 10 meters from the restaurant to the surf; apparently Unawatuna had a real beach, but the tsunami in 2003 (?) washed it away, so now it is a beach town without a beach.  Here are my first pix from Sri Lanka, enjoying a beer at a beachfront bar/restaurant:


I was totally exhausted after the ride down, so after dinner I decided to head back to the hotel for a little nap.  Luckily I woke up in time for midnight and went back down to the beach for the festivities.  There was a big party on the beach with fireworks, etc., and all of the beach bars were going full blast.  Here are some photos:
JANUARY 1, 2012
I woke up really late the next day and decided to go to Galle, Sri Lanka’s second-biggest city.  It is very close to Unawatuna and has an old Dutch fortress and old town, so I wanted to check it out.  On the way there I stopped to take some pictures of some fishing boats and realized that I’d left the battery for my camera back in Moscow.  Doh!  I was not very happy!!  Anyway, I had another camera, so took some shots of Galle:
Anyway, at the end of the day Galle was pretty sleepy, so after walking around a few minutes, getting some gas and some cash, I went back to Unawatuna.  On the way back I got a few pix of some fishing boats:
Towards evening I went back down to the beach for dinner.  A couple more shots from the beach:
Went to bed early, because I was still exhausted and wanted to leave early the next morning.
JANUARY 2, 2012
This morning I had hope to leave really early so that I could get as far as possible, although I didn’t really know where I wanted to stay.  I thought maybe Nuwara Eliya….  Unfortunately, the bike didn’t cooperate, and refused to start in the morning.  After futzing with it a while, I realized that someone had turned off the fuel petcock overnight—sabotage!  By then I had run down the battery quite a bit and wasn’t sure I’d be able to start it.  I couldn’t get the kickstart to work, but one of the hotel staff was able to get it started on the second try.  So off I went, about an hour later than I’d hoped.
Although I wanted to get to the hill country, I went east at first, along the coast road.  There was some nice scenery, beaches, palm trees, etc. Then at Matara I hung a left off the coast road, towards the hill country.  Pretty soon after I left the coastal road I saw the first bits of really rural Sri Lanka, until then the coast had been pretty heavily populated.  But first I had to slog through a few more towns.  Here is a shot from a store showing how they sell bananas there—too many for the bike!
Here is a typical street in a typical village:
Lots of military statues and monuments around, I guess because of the civil war:
Finally, here is a shot of the funky Sri Lankan writing (the squiggly lines in the pic below); luckily usually they also had English:
But finally I got out into the countryside, here are some shots:
Here is a typical road in the countryside; narrow and lots of blind curves:
And here is a little waterfall along the road:
I also had to take a picture of this road sign, as it was a beauty:
A few words about navigation in Sri Lanka:  I consider myself an above-average navigator, having had lots of practice in the army and my various travels.  That said, Sri Lanka proved more than a match for me…  The place is an incredibly frustrating place to navigate in.  First, the town names are usually very long and unfamiliar, and yet all kind of look alike, so it is hard to keep them straight.  Second, very few of the towns were on the map that I had, which was the best I could find.  Third, the signage was rather confusing:  they would have a standard sign, showing straight ahead to town x, left to town y, and right to town z.  The problem was that none of these towns was on my map, and the turns were not as indicated… Somewhere up ahead, on the left, was a road which would lead to the indicated town (with no sign for the actual turn), and somewhere up ahead (almost certainly different from where the left turn was, would be a road leading to the right, again with no sign.  Also, the directions were all sort of relative, in that straight might actually mean right, with the right turn meaning a sharper turn to the right, and the left turn meaning straight.   I got very lost many times, although luckily the place is small and densely populated enough that you could never to too wrong. Nonetheless, I ended up at various temples, tea plantations, etc. where I didn’t want to go…
So on January 2, I got lost a few times, and even when not lost made very slow time because of the road conditions.  There were buddhas, temples, etc. like this, but my ignorance of Eastern religions is almost total, so I’m not sure what was what:
As dark approached, I decided to try to make it to Ella, a scenic mountain town.  I didn’t get there until after dark, had a hard time finding a rather lousy hotel, and then had a pretty average dinner and beer before going to sleep.  I left in the morning without really seeing much, so my visit to “beautiful” Ella was kind of a waste.  Oh well, sometimes that how it works out.
JANUARY 3, 2012
So today I had big plans to go visit “World’s End”, a massive cliff in a national park where the hill country abruptly ended with a drop off of more than a thousand feet to the plains below.  It sounded pretty cool.  Apparently it is best to get to the cliff early in the morning, because after that the fog rolls in and you can’t see anything, so I got up early to set off for the park.  Looking at the map, I found a “short cut” that looked interesting, and off I went.  I should have guessed after my experience the previous day, but somehow I thought that I had more or less figured out the navigation. 
Wrong, wrong, wrong…  I ended up driving around in the countryside for a few hours, every now and then seeing, and attempting to follow, signs for the park. Very nice ride, beautiful vistas, tea plantations, temples, rice paddies, etc.  Here are some pix:
Finally, after hours of riding around (I had apparently succeeded in riding around the park), I was pretty sure that I was closing in on the park, at last.  Only about 8 more kilometers to go (I think) when it happened: a flat tire, in the middle of no where in Sri Lanka… Great! Here is the exact spot:
This was a less than thrilling prospect.  Of course the bike did not have a tire repair kit, and I was on the top of a mountain in Sri Lanka.  I stood around for a while waiting, and a bus came along.  The driver didn’t speak much English, but he got the idea, indicated that he didn’t have any repair stuff, and pointed down the mountain.
There were a couple of advantages:  at least I was at the top of the mountain heading down, and second, the bike ran, so I could basically walk alongside it with no problem.  So off I went.  After pushing it for a kilometer or two, I came to a little village, where some kid joined me.  He said it was “about a kilometer” down the mountain to a tire repair place, so I kept going.  I think it was more like three kilometers, but whatever, sooner or later I got to the tire repair place on the main road:
Eventually they got the tire off, but their electricity was out, so they could not fill the tire very much, only with a hand-pump, which could not put much air into the tire.  So they told me to fill up in the next town to avoid another flat.
By this time I’d pretty much lost interest in “world’s end” and decided to go straight to Kandy, the biggest city in the hill country.  Kandy was supposedly a nice city, with a big lake in the middle and a temple containing Buddha’s tooth, and apparently had some good hotels, bars, restaurants, etc.  World’s End would have to wait for my next trip to Sri Lanka.
So I set off for Kandy, now on a paved road.  The tire-change guy told me it was only 30 kilometers or something to Kandy, but in fact it was quite a bit further, and it took me a few hours, and I was already exhausted.  Anyway, here are a few pix from along the road (yes, these are various shots of the same lake):
For once I found the place fairly easily (it is after all a big city for Sri Lanka), but once I got in the city I could not figure out where the lake was.  It was really hot, and the traffic was horrible…I just kept driving around until I stumbled upon the lake, and then basically went to the first decent hotel I found, the Hotel Suisse, an old British colonial job, which was Mountbatten’s headquarters during WWII (could he have found a anywhere further removed from his command?!). 
Anyway, the hotel was pretty nice, and while my room didn’t have a balcony, the hotel had a decent garden with tables where I could have a cigar. After relaxing a bit, I went to look around town and was pretty disappointed; Kandy was just not very nice.  Around dinner time I went out to find a restaurant in town, and—unbelievably—the only sit-down restaurants I could find were a KFC and a Pizza Hut!  So, I think maybe for the first time ever, I went back to the hotel for dinner; very disappointing.
JANUARY 4, 2012
Today I decided to just relax and hang around town. The guidebooks mentioned several other bars and restaurants that I had not been able to find yesterday, so I decided to track them down.  Here are a few pictures of the town, or rather the lake:
Not sure if you can tell from the photos, but the lake is pretty meh.  I walked all the way around it, not particularly interesting.  The “Temple of the Tooth” as it is called, is right on the shores of the lake, but I had zero interest in seeing it, so did not go.  I also had to plan my next couple of days in Sri Lanka; I was flying out on the 7th, so had to be in Negombo, a nearby beach town, by the 6th.
I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I spent a very dreary day in Kandy.  I had about decided to go to Adams Peak the next day to hike the pilgrimage to the top of the mountain overnight, but then I found out when I ate dinner that all of the hotels in the town were booked, which was not good.  Oh well, I would figure something out there.
JANUARY 5, 2012
So I woke up kind of late, because it was not very far to Adams Peak.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel well after the crap food I’d been eating in town, and upon inspection, I found that my “fixed” flat tire was still leaking…  Between these two facts and the fact that there might not be any rooms at Adams Peak, I decided to scratch that plan and head straight to Negombo for an extra day on the beach.  I really was not up for getting lost for several hours in the countryside, with an upset stomach, with a leaky tire.  Anyway, an extra day on the beach sounded nice.
So off I went along the bus-and-truck-choked road to the coast.  It was as unpleasant as any road I’ve ever been on, and once I got closer to the coast I decided I would hazard taking another shortcut straight to Negombo rather than down to Colombo and then back up to Negombo.  The usual navigational chaos ensued, and it must have taken me an hour and a half to ride maybe 30 kilometers to the coast. 
When I finally got to Negombo, the first several hotels I stopped at were all full, who’da thunk?  Finally I found a place with one room available and took it. 
I soon realized that Negombo is really nothing special, just an over-developed strip of coast.  The beach was pretty much deserted, everyone seemed to stay at the hotels, most of which were not very nice.  The town has the usual souvenir shops, some jewelry shops, some pretty average restaurants, etc.  My hotel seemed to be full of middle-aged Germans, which is hardly my favorite demographic. 
JANUARY 6, 2012
More of the same; definitely ready to leave Sri Lanka…

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