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When we learned that a return flight to Sri Lanka from India was only about $150 it was a no brainer to go for us. Transport we learned was cheap so buses and trains were the obvious choice…until we learned from another traveler about renting and driving a Tuk Tuk (a little three wheeled car motorcycle hybrid) around the island. With that revelation everything changed, and hence here is our story of 1200kms in a Tuk Tuk.
Landing in the capital Colombo we were greeted with a lush green jungle, this quickly giving way to city and very bad traffic jams. Colombo itself was a nice city but didn’t have much draw for us, a few ok colonial buildings, some light houses that were far from the ocean do to reclaimed land and being moved. The temperature was a lot cooler than southern India thankfully, so we enjoyed the relief. We spent two days sorting out the tuk tuk, a license for me, a bit of training (10 mins) on driving it, some sightseeing, having an amazing crab curry at a crowded local joint, and then relaxing.
We picked our tuk tuk up the next morning at 9:00 to be after the morning school rush. A bottle green colour with black accents and its fair share of dents we pilled our bags in, Andrea taking the rear passenger with me up front driving and set out. It was fun to drive, taking aspects from a car and motorcycle, maneuvering was easy it is very nimble, and for the most part I was ok due to experience riding a motorcycle at home. Unfortunately, the first part of our drive was the hardest – Colombo traffic, working out the quirks. Stalling a couple times in traffic, “why won’t you go into neutral now, so I can’t start, I have to push you, finally neutral” as a cacophony of horns played out around us. The double take looks were funny though, and they continued our whole time, as locals had to look twice and smile and wave as we passed.
The roads of Colombo quieted, and the traffic thinned as we entered the back roads. At a max speed limit of 40km/h (an actual speed limit of 65km/h, downhill with an assisting wind) we were not allowed on the motorways, so we stuck to back roads. These wound through the lush green country side, through villages. Sri Lanka is small, but we probably usually did 30km/h what with traffic and getting out of the way of busses, it still took us a while. Taking just over 6 hours to get to our first stop Sigiriya, about 200km north.
Sigiriya is home to the Lion rock, at one time it housed a place on the top with visitors having to climb through a giant lion for entry. Today ruins, two large paws, and the rock itself is all that’s left. We woke to climb early before it got to hot and busy, it was a nice easy climb taking about 45mins. It’s hard to know how to write about it, it was $30 USD to go which puts it on par with the Angkor Temples of Cambodia and more expensive than the Taj Mahal. We only spent 2 hours there and weren’t really impressed to be honest, we came away feeling like it was more a thing that you might as well do since you were here rather than a draw on its own, with its price tag way too high. There is a little hill next to it that you can climb for free, we probably should have done that.
After that we set out to Kandy, bumbling along through villages, fields, jungle, and up mountains. It was a nice drive, we passed wild peacocks and saw farms treehouses where they stay at their fields to help guard against elephants. We also took on the road of the 18 turns, 18 full switch-back turns on a step hill, it was quite the adventure throwing the little vehicle around the tight curves while trying to make sure we didn’t stall. It was getting dark as we pulled into our guest house in Kandy.
Kandy is a beautiful town in the mountains, set on a manmade lake the sloping green hillsides provide a lush back drop wherever you look. We walked around the lake, saw a few monitor lizards looking for food in the lake and enjoyed a finally a really cool day with some rain. We spent two nights here, more just walking and enjoying the place.
It was off to Ella early in the morning, heading south this stretch is also covered by a train which is often hailed as one of the most scenic routes in the world. While I was sorry to miss this our drive was simply incredible. The road wound up and up through the clouds and into the tea fields that the region is famous for. Stretching up and down the slops, tea bushes covered everything for kilometers. Their emerald green leaves on bushes growing in rows and rows, on steep slopes and terraces. The scenery is hard to do justice to, the road passed over ridges with slops sides, up step cliffs next to valleys that stretched out into the distance. It was simply beautiful, and we enjoyed the drive so much. We stopped at the Blue Garden tea factory, an old British era factory still producing tea in the original building with the machinery from the 1800s. Here we learned how all the types of tea (black, green, golden and silver tips, and orange peako) all come from the same bushes they are just different parts of the bushes or processed differently. The smell of tea drying was fantastic even to me who is not really a tea drinker. After a couple teas and a piece of cake we were off again. Then the heavens opened in heavy rainfall, so we buttoned up the canvas sides of our Tuk and continued as torrents of water fell. Around one little rock slide, through large puddles, and down windy roads we slowly pulled in to Ella.
Ella is a small town, mostly used for tourism, and there is a wide range of services and restaurants from local to fusion with some truly hipsteresk options. It is in the hills and very green, and it rained most evenings while we were there. We rode the train round trip down the line for an hour each was, it was beautiful through the same scenery we had driven and I’m sure the whole trip is great. We hiked up a hill known as little Adam’s peak (after a large more intense hill a few hundred kms away this is supposed to be beautiful, but we unfortunately had no time for). It opened onto a ridge with a valley surrounding it and stretching out into the planes below. We also visited Nine Arches Bridge, an impressive stone and brick railway bridge spanning a river which is simply picturesque. The jungle seemed to be fighting to retake this feat of man which was apparently built with minimal metal due to war shortages. We even got treated to watching a train cross, which while I love trains and their accoutrements I enjoyed the whole experience, Andrea mostly just humored me as was ready to move on after 5 minutes.
After a couple days in Ella we took off down the mountain, the looming mountains giving way to flat planes. Coming down is where I set a personal best of about 65km/h, that was all our Tuk could manage. We were heading to Udawalawe National Park, so we decided to take a back road through the jungle. The juggle enveloped the road and it narrowed and then became dirt, it was a gorgeous and easy drive until suddenly the road condition deteriorated. The small bumps of the dirt road became deeper and full of water. It was only 8km but took us over an hour and there was sometimes when we were not sure we could make it. But we plowed through it all, including a stream Andrea had to check the depth of, and came out the other side shaken, a little dirty and wet but ok. The tuk tuk was amazingly tough and versatile.
We pulled into our guest house on the edge of the park and started to unload and clean the tuk. Andrea disappeared after taking the first bag in, I found her in the back-yard face to face with a male Asian Elephant (luckily on the other side of an electric face) no more than 5 feet apart. Andrea had the look of a 9-year-old girl who had just got the pony she had be asking for for years. It was adorable, and she just kept saying elephant and couldn’t take her eyes of it. Much to the chagrin of the guest house owner’s young daughter who just really wanted to show Andrea her prized toy truck, after all it was just an elephant, but her truck was new.
We did two Safaris in the park, one at sunset and sunrise. While it doesn’t compare to an African safari it was still lots of fun, and as it was Andrea’s first she was in heaven. We saw peacocks, deer, jackals, mongoose, and of course lots of elephants. The only bad thing was in the beginning of one tour it was a pile up of jeeps around 3 elephants all trying to get a look. The elephants seemed distressed (all huddling with the little one in the middle) and it was just too much, we asked our driver to move on even if we wouldn’t see elephants, but we ended up seeing lots more, many on our own. Unfortunately, the whole safari system there seems unregulated which will hopefully change as popularity increases.
After the morning safari we headed south to the coast. We cruised along the ocean, past beautiful beaches, fishermen perched on poles over the ocean, surfers, and seafood, breathing the salty air excitedly. We stayed at Unawatuna and had a relaxing day on the beach, it was warm, and the ocean was just as warm and lovely to swim in. We did a couple dives here including a night dive, it was kind of the wrong season and the visibility was low, they were nice but nothing amazing. I think in the right season it would be very wonderful.
We then moved down the coast to Mirissa for one reason – it’s a great place to see blue whales. The guides we went with (Raja and the Whale) have a 95% success rate, sometimes spending 8 hours looking for them on the sometimes-rough open water. The day before we went they had no luck, but their luck turned for us – we saw an enormous mother and calf after just over an hour of searching. We found another individual shortly after and spent an hour watching these giants dive and surface, it was fantastic.
Our last day with the tuk tuk we headed up the coast to Colombo. We stopped in at Galle to have a look, it’s a beautiful old colonial town with still an old world small village charm. Then we continued, it was a longer drive, but we got to Colombo and dropped the tuk off. It had been a great trip in our little green friend, we enjoyed the freedom and being able to get of the main route. The interactions with locals had been very funny, most couldn’t believe we were doing it and found us very fun. People shared tips about which way to go, or to get fuel, or where the cops were, all in all they were always friendly. We would highly recommend the experience to anyone.
We stayed in Negombo for our last two nights, did a couple more dives (similar to down south), and then we were back in the air heading back to Chennai, India.
We loved Sri Lanka, it is very high up my list of countries visited. With culture, nature, hiking, beaches, sun, diving, animals, and gorgeous vistas it has something for everyone in a small area wrapped in a pleasant climate and warm ocean. The locals are friendly and helpful creating a genuinely welcoming atmosphere. The only downside (for some) is there isn’t many budget options (it’s still cheap just not shoestring), there are minimal hostels and not really a backpackers culture. This does appear to be slowly changing and probably in the next 10 years it will explode. There are lots of resort options though and hotel options for the midrange vacationer.
At the end of the day, go to Sri Lanka, you will love it.