Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sri Lanka

So much to say. Sri Lanka is a great country. Perfect as a short holliday destination. It has so much to offer. Beaches, ancient ruins, hill towns with great views and tea plantations, very friendly people, it's relatively clean and quiet, and it's easy to see all this in a short time with very little moving around involved. Unfortunately for us, this country markets itself to short-term tourists which means that it's something of a cross between India and Thailand but at 3X the price so those on a round the world trip could skip it and not miss anything. The people here just can't seem to comprehend the concept of long-term budget travel as the country doesn't see many of us. They can call things the biggest, oldest, most beautiful, most important, etc. thing in their country and charge way too high an admission price than is justified. As a little country its "best" just isn't up to much actually, certainly much worse than what you could find elsewhere for even cheaper. For example, their ancient ruined cities in the north have Angkor Wat prices for not much to see really when Cambodia is otherwise of a similar price for everything else.
The majority of people visiting Sri Lanka hire a car and driver to take them around the country as it is not a bad deal if you are on a short vacation. It is quite expensive in reality though, especially when their local transport is maybe the cheapest I've ever seen over short distances at about $1 for 3-4 hrs on the bus or train (which is easily enough time to get between all the major cities). We took the local transport everywhere we went. The guest houses tend to bill themselves as "resorts", have their own restaurants, try to rent out their own cars and put a 10% service charge on everything. We spent about $10/night for the 4 of us in a big room which isn't bad but food has jumped up to $2-3 dollars for the simple meals that normally cost 50 cents in India. I've actually been living on 25 cent street food snacks, pineapple and coconut for most of the trip as there seems to be a lack of local restaurants as well. Internet has also been the most expensive of the trip so far as well, which explains the long wait for our latest update (we've just arrived in India today).
Anyway, now that I've set a somewhat negative mood, I'll do an about face and start over. Once we realized that this country was not worth seeing for it's attractions and adjusted our plan a little we began to totally enjoy it. We mostly focused then on relaxing, enjoying the views and talking to the locals. We'd spend mornings sleeping in, have a leisurely breakfast of toast and tea, then wander down to the bus station for a 3-4 hr ride to the next town and finish the day playing cards in our new abode. The truth is we are getting lazy but we're calling it "saving our strength" for the next section of India. The most enjoyable things I did in Sri Lanka were looking out the window (or hanging out the door) and enjoying the view from the train as it slowly wound its way around the hills and tea plantations in the center of the country, and helping pull in the fish nets with the local fishermen down on the coast.
Of our 3 weeks in the country we spent about 1 week in Kandy and the northern ancient cities area (Polonnaruwa, Dimbulagala and Dambulla), 1 week in the hill country with the tea plantations (Haputale, Ella) and 1 week down on the south coast for the beach (Tengalle, Galle). My overall impression is that this country is small. The beds are, surprisingly for the 1st time, consistently too short and uncomfortable for me, the trains are short, slow moving things, the people are small (very noticeable when I'm standing in the bus and everyone comes up to my shoulders), distances are short, cities are small (somehow Sri Lanka has one of the highest population densities in Asia with 21 million people but it doesn't seem like it at all as everyone is so spread out). Everything is just, well, small, making it kind of cute, if a counrty can be cute in that sense.
For the first time on this trip rain and mosquitoes have been an issue as we had more days with rain than without and we've been eaten alive by mosquitoes (and mostly sandflies as well). There are still problems with the tamil tigers in the North and parts of the east but it was a non-issue for us, except for the fact that the local papers here have been saying that there are lots of Tamils in Canada doing a lot of successful fundraising thereby putting us in an weird position in some conversations. This only came to light because of the election being called at home.
As to the tsunami, well, yeah, when you get down to the coast you can definately tell. Everyone has some story to tell, there is still lots of rubble and damaged buildings everywhere and people are still very actively rebuilding. The hotel we were at right on the Tangalle beach had only been open for a month and only had the upper rooms facing the water open. All the rest are still gutted and awaiting repairs (Bre even did a little bit of painting for them). But it seems that the people have accepted it and moved on as well as they could as the attitudes of the people were still quite positive despite all their losses and the work still left to be done. It is however, very obvious that the aid money is not getting down to the "little people" as they have received no help at all and many have stories of scamming NGOs that suddenly appeared and disappeared shortly after the tsunami.
I will relate one more thing which I found very amusing. Throughout the country there are tons of rather large bats. In many towns it's possible to see fried or shredded bats hanging from the powerlines. The wires are not insulated and they obviously keep landing and electrocuting themselves to death and then get stuck clinging to the wires and then slowly disintigrate over time. I wonder if these guys are related to all the flickering lights in the evenings in these towns......


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