Thursday, January 5, 2017


We have paused for these few very relaxing days in Bentota, a strip of soft sand a few hours south of Colombo. Seriously very little of interest here, this is a tourist area, where the food is good but not spectacular, the longshore drift and shore breeze really kick up in the afternoon, and the days are mostly spent waiting for the sunset. Finally a relaxing part of the vacation, and we are both starting to think a lot more about work awaiting us when we get home. It's time.

Going through my photos, I noticed a few signs of interest, so apropos of nothing:
The relaxed nature of this warning made me smile. Totally out of nature with the nature of the threat. "Going about" also seems such an innocuous thing for a crocodile to do.
This, however, makes the threat a little too real. Look at the size of those (diagrammatic) wasps! And why would you designate a specific area for this type of activity?
It's not the age of the latrine, it's the quality of the maintenance.
I'm feeling like we are should probably write a few of these down. It appears walking, touching, and leading a parade are off-bounds, but sliding down stairs is OK. And what's with the cuffs?
Live Better, indeed.
The first thing I think of when I think about my Smak - is it natural?
And this may be my favourite. Only because in a traffic-choked city like Colombo, there is an area dedicated to etching your kids to ride a bike. That it is right in front of a temple celebrating Independance for Sri Lankans seems apropriate.






Monday, January 2, 2017


A quick glance at a world map shows the south tip of Sri Lanka is a pretty important spot if you are the type that likes to carry consumer goods from "the Orient" to the colony of your birth via sailing ship, as was a popular activity in the Indian Ocean for several hundred years. The Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British all spent a bit of time using the south of Sri Lanka for this purpose, but it was the Dutch who really started the infrastructure-building part of colonialism, and it was they who built a fort at Galle.

Galle is located just around the west side of the southern tip of the island, protected a bit from eastern monsoons, with a pretty solid (if small) neutral harbour. Around 1665 the Dutch began building a fort that ended up being 36 hectares within the walls, and a few years later was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the walls is a very pleasant little city (dwarfed by The "New Town", only a cricket ground away).

There are a great number of colonial buildings from the 17th and 18th century, some very well restored, others in complete ruin. And as you might expect in a place that spent 400 years as a crossroads of the world, there are plenty of churches, mosques, and temples.

This is a serious tourist area. They sold beer on Sunday and took credit cards for payment, where we have been operating on a cash-only basis up to now. However, I suppose no-one is going to bring a stack of Sri Lanka Rupee to buy a Tag Heuer. Which raises a question I ask honestly, and with a bit of snark: who the hell travels to Galle, Sri Lanka to buy a Tag Heuer? What is the economics of a Cartier store in Galle?

This was the middle stop on our beach tour. We spent a few days (including New Year's Eve) in Tangalle, a beach town about 60km to the east. The beach was a little less tame here than ideal, but the sand was soft and the water warm.

Tangalle itself had a colorful fishing port, and not much else. The 2004 Tsunami hit this area pretty hard, noted by both the occasional cairn 5 or 6 meters above the current sea showing the wave height, and by the significant number of semi-demolished buildings interspersed between the new builds and restored structures, even 12 years later. A stark reminder that more then 40,000 people in Sri Lanka were killed by the Boxing Day Tsunami.

We travelled up the beach in an other spectacularly decorated bus driven by the ghost of Andrea de Cesaris, with what appeared to be the pelt of the Cookie Monster covering the dash. Wildest $3 carnival ride of my life.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Lion, and other fluids.

No beach and sun vacation is complete without beer, much to the chagrin of my one Twitter troll (who spends half his time advocating for freer pot rules, and the other half critcizing me for even mentioning the existence of beer).

In Sri Lanka, beer means Lion. Lion makes a ubiquitous lager, and the occasional stout, apparently. You can get a Tiger from Singapore or licensed big-name brews from Europe, but if you walk into a place that sells beer, and ask for a beer, you are generally given a Lion Lager.

It isn't a bad beer, as far as tropically-brewed big-market lagers go. Clean, malty, a trace of hops, clearly corn in there somewhere. Best served and enjoyed very cold on a very hot day, with a bit of sand between your toes, which is generally how we enjoyed it.

The most interesting thing about beer in Sri Lanka is that it isn't advertised. You drive through towns with numerous signs advertising milk products, internet service, and re-bar (there is an incredible abundance of re-bar advertising), but you *never* see a beer advertisement.

It is only remarkable in it absence, when you come from a society like North America where beer ads are perhaps (to my troll's point) overwhelming.

Our host in Kandy mentioned the reducing alcoholism is one of his 4 priorities for the new President's term (along with kidney health, food security, and environmental protection), although I cannot pretend to know how much of the current booze culture is a recent reflection of this, or a reflection of larger cultural attitudes.

For example, we realized early on when we were in Colombo that there isn't really a locals restaurant/bar/coffee shop culture. We had read in guide books that Sri Lankans eat at mostly home, not a restaurants, but didn't appreciate the impact on the street of that. In Singapore, we were always surrounded by stalls, restaurants, coffee shops where people were sitting near or on the street eating food or drinking coffee. Some of our most memorable moments on other trips (Trinidad in Cuba, or Bangkok pop to mind instantly) is just sitting in a bar or a restaurant next to a busy street watching the world go by.

Out side of the areas of Sri Lanka where tourists from Europe fill the seats, that just doesn't seem to exist. So restaurants are few and relatively far between, and "pubs" the way we may think of them in Canada simply do not exist.

Beer is also not sold in most restaurants on Sunday, or the full moon ("poya"). The only place to buy beer retail is at a Wine Store. These are not government run, but are clearly very prescriptive in their operation. The sign is always green with white text, and again, no advertising aside from their apparently government-issue sign.

Here booze is behind a steel bar wall, and there is (aside from the sign) rarely any sign of wine. Beer and the local distilled-from-palms spirit ("arrack") are the main products. Of course, they are closed on Sunday and poya, and the few times we actually popped by one to buy a bottle of Lion, we discovered they are pretty exclusively a male domane.

So we aren't drinking much beer, and the coffee has been pretty terrible outside of pure tourist spots. We have been drinking a lot of tea (although I cannot get into the heavy-cream heavy-sugar Sri Lankan style), and the occasional bottle of Cola to keep our caffeine addiction slated. Ginger beer is a common throw-back to the colonial Sri Lanka, and we found it sharply flavored and not too sweet.

Finally, fruit juices are everywhere. Lime is great for cutting the heat when enjoying curry, but for the most part, a meal is completed with some fresh-squeezed mixed fruit cocktail. If it has yoghurt, it's a Lasse, if not it usually has some banana for texture. Super refreshing, and probably the only real fiber we are getting in our diet.

I could write an essay on Sri Lankan breakfasts, but I'm just going to sit here and enjoy it.



Thursday, December 29, 2016

Road to the beach

We are headed to the south coast. We have seen the jungle, the busy cities, a bit of the history and more than a few temples, it is time to get some R&R, sun & sand. But the south coast where we are headed is 150km as the crow flies, or 300km by road, from where we are, which is probably 12 hours travel by bus. More like buses. We will do this in two phases.

*note, all the tourist guides will tell you the proper way to get from Kandy to Ella is the train, as it is the better way to enjoy spectacular tea country. Therefore, tickets for that train are neigh impossible to attain. We tried for three days, stood in lines in various train stations, several other people even tried on our behalf. Not going to happen. That said, our trip by bus through yet same mountains was cloudy and rainy, so who knows if we missed anything?*

Day 1 we went 140km from Kandy to Ella, about 5.5 hours traveling time, plus an hour waiting for a bus change at Badulla.

We were riding regional buses for this leg of the trip. The entire 2-leg 140km trip cost 214 rupee each, about $2.50 Canadian (not including the 200r we paid for samosas, vadai, and paratha for a snack). What they lacked in creature comfort they made up for in decoration and character. And horn volume.

The roads were generally good, and definitely improved in the second half where it seems they graded prior to paving, not an effort they took for the first half. The countryside was spectacular, even in shifting clouds and rain. The roads twisted up and over hills and along deep valleys. We were surrounded by tea plantations, rice paddies, even the occasional cornfield. The bus only occasionally stopped to let locals on and off in the varying villages and road stops along the way. This was a Super Express, after all.

The wait at Badulla where we changed buses was pleasantly broken up by a parade. What appeared to be several boys' and girls' schools marching bands marched past playing drums, accordion, and melodica.

As with every other trip we have taken in Sri Lanka, the driver stopped once to make an offering and a prayer at a roadside shrine (in this case, Bhuddist).

We pulled into Ella, and quickly realized we were out of the backwoods and into tourist town. The town is little more than a stretch of tourist services and slightly confused Europeans. It may not have helped that we arrived shortly after the train *that everyone must not miss* arrived, but the bars and restaurants were full of people of varying language. Actually, the fact there was a plethora of bars and restaurants made it somewhat unique.

The setting, however, is spectacular. To give you a sense, this is the view from our guest house.

So we enjoyed a nice dinner, a restful sleep, and a spectacular breakfast before bus journey part 2, to get other actual beach, just as the rain seemed to be settling into Ella.

We caught a stuffed local bus to Wallawya (27km, 1 hour, 60 ruppee). There were no seats but the high volume Sinhalese Pop music was free with the fare. With the twistiness of the road and extreme grades, it was probably good we couldn't always see out the window.

At Wallawaya, we switch to a more stuffed express bus to Tangalle (~120km, 3 hours, 200 ruppee). The land flattened out as we approached the coast, and the temperature steadily rose. We have left the mountains and the rainy forest behind, and entered coastal wetlands where waterbufflo seem most at ease (probably unaware of the ginormous saltwater crocodiles in these parts).

And the wheels of the bus went round and round.

Until at Tangalle, where we found the beach.
Which probably means updates here will become less frequent...


Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Traveling south in the more mountainous interior, we have spent a couple of days in Kandy.

All roads leading to Kandy are curving and swooping (I could see myself coming back here with a road bike and spending a week just riding hills - supercharged by Tuktuk exhaust). The city centre is nestled around a narrow lake, but the rest of the town sprawls across the steep surrounding jungle slopes like a Japanese landscape painting. I can only infer the lake is man-made as the main street leading to the train station and impressive rugby green is *downhill* from the lake.

This is tea country. The hills surrounding Kandy are where the tea that made Ceylon a household name in England is grown and processed. Appropriately enough, we visited a historic tea factory not far from our guest house.

The factory demonstrates how tea was processed in the late 1800s at the peak of the British empire. From winnowing the leaf to grinding, fermenting, drying, sorting and grading, featuring all the cool archaic 1880's machine technology and an actual working 1:100 scale model of the process.

Of course, there was much discussion about how all tea in the world comes from a single species of plant, but the terroir imparts important and distinctive characteristics which can be enhanced or modified with various processing techniques. I am reminded and impressed, once again, the endless human capacity for geeking out about the details of something as simple as boiling leaves in water to make it taste better.

The other claim to fame in Kandy is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This shrine houses what has been interpreted to be a "left tooth" of the Buddah himself. Apparently scavenged from his funeral pyre, this dental totem was spirited off to Sri Lanka 800 years later, and has historically been known to take a somewhat interventionist attitude toward royalty in Sri Lanka, amongst other miracles.

The temple grounds where the tooth is preserved (in a series of protective cases, covered with a gilded roof, behind the opulent curtain above) are an important pilgimage for Sri Lankan Bhuddists, and is located on the picturesque lakeshore in the centre of Kandy.

We also found beer in Kandy (there was no beer to be had in Sigiriya, it being Sunday and Christmas and all) which helped with the humid heat. Memorable meal #3 came from the Moslem Hotel, which was curiously out of most menu items in the middle of the day, but made a killer biryani and spicy samosas, all washed down with a fresh lime juice!

We enjoyed the afternoon just walking around the lake, seeing some of the local wildlife hanging around the trees...

... and enjoyed some of the unique architecture and sights of a pretty little city, completely mired by noisy, stinky traffic. Progress.

Then saw an evening performance of traditional dance and drumming, which is what tourists do. The drummers were excellent, and the dancers were athletic / graceful as per their assigned gender roles. There were some remarkable acrobatics, and even some expert plate spinning. A well-spent hour!