What the hell went on in Sri Lanka?

31 03 2013

About two months back, a friend and I spent a couple of weeks exploring Sri Lanka onboard a pair of ageing dirtbikes.

We did a rough clockwise loop from the west coast (Negombo) to Sigiriya in the mid-north, then down through the Hill Country for a few waves on the south coast, covering around 1200km in ten days.

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The Honda Baja 250s were noisy, heavy brutes of things without a single working instrument, but they did the job, proving more or less reliable even when dodging flash-floods and landslides. And dogs. And buses. And tortoises.

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Sri Lanka itself was brilliant. Highly recommended. Friendly, helpful, honest, open people. Delicious, varied, healthy food. Cheap day-to-day costs and accommodation. And a huge variety of landscapes to explore, from steamy surf beaches to mist-shrouded hill-towns to jungles and alpine plains.

I could give you a chronological rundown of our trip but I won’t. So here’s a bunch of random thoughts….

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The Bikes.           My new favourite way to travel. At least in developing nations where I am not required to produce a valid motorcycle licence.

Rhys had an Australian licence, but this won’t save you when 15 tonnes of bus comes careening at you around a blind corner. A quick burst of heel and toe action would often squirt you out of trouble, but every time we did NOT meet a bus on a blind corner was the equivalent of gaining an extra life in a video game. Albeit one that felt all too real.

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Interesting to learn Google Maps does not always know when roads are covered by flooded rivers. We went another way…

The Bajas were four-stroke single-cylinder monsters that came in at around 120kg. A lot of bike. We managed to drop them several times, generally while trying to manoeuvre the cursed things at slow-speed. Each dropped bike meant an hour or two hanging out with a mechanic as the clutch levers inevitably took the brunt of the fall.

They also attracted a lot of attention. The Baja’s distinctive spluttering, farting exhaust noise meant pedestrians heard us coming a long way off. For a day or so, I felt like a bit of celeb, as every male within hearing distance would stop to watch us go past. I soon realised they were not looking at me, but rather the bike – an impossibly exotic, expensive machine to the average Sri Lankan. The bikes were hired from the very helpful Suranga Perera at Sha Lanka:  http://www.negombo-motorcycle-tours.com – highly recommended.

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Equipment for three weeks in the tropics

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Foodstuffs.         After overcoming what might have been caffeine withdrawal on days one and two, we settled into a routine of deliciousness. Single-origin espressos were replaced with several hundred cups of tea and every meal offered some sort of new curried treat. In most cases we skipped the meats and stuck to vege offerings.

Breakfasts normally took place at roadside ‘Hotels’ – small cafes for workers where we would score some sort of baked flatbread, some lentil dahl, a handful of samosas and tea for around $2 each.

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Lunch and dinner inevitably involved curry and rice, or rice and curry, depending on who served us. At buffets we would go heavy on the vege curry with a side of rice. If the staff were dishing it out, we would get a giant plate of rice, with some curry garnish. I can’t remember one bad meal. The food was that good and often, it was outstanding.

Highlights included Tikiri Villa at Mahinganaya where the incredible staff rustled up an outrageous array of fresh curries from their garden – complete with home-grown rice –  for just Rhys and I to enjoy in an enormous deserted dining room. After riding through the rain for six hours, it was well-received.

At Waterfalls Homestay in Ella, Aussie hosts Karen and Martin create nightly curry feasts for guests and patiently explained each dish, showing us all the weird and exotic ingredients they sourced locally.

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Our preferred beachside lunch spot. Wicked.

As someone who now picks travel destinations based on the cuisine he can expect, it’s hard for me to really get across how terrific, fresh and tasty Sri Lankan food was.

Buffalo curd (similar to yoghurt) featured in many memorable breakfasts around the Hill Country and south coast and we also grew fond of what were dubbed ‘beer snacks’ – crunchy chickpeas or fried peanuts mixed with chili and curry leaves and sold everywhere on the side of the road.

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People.               As with any venture, there were a few individuals who really made our trip. Overall, I found the Sri Lankans more open and trusting than say, people in Indo or Thailand, but I suspect that has to do with exposure to tourism.

Suranga, who we hired the bikes from in Negombo was damn helpful. On the first night, we pored over a map and outlined where we wanted to go, while he annotated the highways with places to avoid and advised which routes to take. When the inevitable breakdowns occurred, we got him on the phone to talk various mechanics through the eccentricities of the Hondas.

Beers with Rohan and 'The Night Rider'.

Beers with Rohan and ‘The Night Rider’.

In Mahinganaya, we arrived soaked and grumpy after slogging through six hours of rain and what may have been a flash-flood. Cue hot tea, a spare room to spread out our wet clothes and a fantastic curry dinner. The next day, Rohan – the manager – accompanied us to the mechanic where he translated while we sorted my troublesome bike electrics and then recommended his fave breakfast spot before disappearing off into the rainy mist again. Champ.

Ella, the Hill Country – In need of a sundown beer (again) we waved off the various backpacker cafes in favour of the ‘Local’s Bar’. A dim, seedy den of iniquity. Hopefully. Instead we find ourselves chatting to Rohan, a local who spent two years in Australia in the 1980s on a theatre scholarship. He invited us for lunch at his home the next day, introduced us to his family and explained how he walked a 7km round-trip to work each day so his daughters could learn English at a private school. Wow.

More soon….

Dan did a similar trip on an automatic scooter with limited suspension. Ill-advised? Yes. hardcore? Definitely.

Dan did a similar trip on an automatic scooter with limited suspension. Ill-advised? Yes. hardcore? Definitely.

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