22 February - Muscat, Oman – Colombo, Sri Lanka
I arrived in Colombo in the early hours of the morning, drew a few rupees, bought a new SIM card and discovered that Sri Lanka Air had lost my bag. My bike, however, was there and after a lengthy process I left the airport, minus my bag, and caught a taxi into town.
I instantly knew that I was going to like Sri Lanka. I had a big smile on my face as the taxi headed into town and I realized I was firmly in the land of tuk-tuks, paan, Buddhas and monks. It was hot, it was humid, it was green, and it was all slightly chaotic.
23 February - Colombo
I received a phone call from the airline saying that they found my bag. Later that day it was delivered to the Clock Inn hostel where I stayed, and although open, only my Swiss army knife was gone. It could have been far worse.
At last I could reassemble the bike and go for a cycle around the old part of town. I also cycled to the market area, but it was quite impossible to cycle there so I just pushed the bike around the narrow lanes. Later that evening I hailed a tuk-tuk to the beachfront to watch the sun set. The sunset was unspectacular and to my surprise I spotted a snake charmer. I did not even know they still existed.
24 February - Colombo – Bentota - 80km
I was in no hurry and first had breakfast at the hostel, then loaded the bike and headed south in the direction of Galle. I found cycling in Sri Lanka exhilarating, frustrating, nerve-racking, adrenalin pumping, jaw-droppingly beautiful, and sometimes pure madness.
I kept my hands on the brakes and did not take my eyes off the road as I weaved through the traffic, avoiding tuk-tuks, buses, cars, trucks, ox carts and, from time to time, a holy cow. I passed a multitude of temples, food stands and fruit juice stalls. I felt like I never cleared the city limits and the traffic never eased.
Just after midday I reached Bentota. It had plenty of places to stay, loads of food stalls and a lovely location on the river/coast. It looked like my kind of place so I found a room, did my laundry and then took a walk into the village. I found food as well as an adaptor for the strange plugs in my room. No sooner was I back when the rain came bucketing down like it can only do in the tropics. I smiled, put my feet up and opened a beer while watching the rain come down. What a life.
25 February -Bentota – Galle - 70 km
Sri Lanka is a fascinating country with many religions. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians all seem to mix well and most villages will have a church, a Buddhist stupa, a mosque, as well as a Hindu temple. My personal favourite must be the very ornate Hindu temples and I can hardly cycle past one without taking a pic, and I love the Buddhist monks with their very bright robes.
I ambled along until I reached the town of Galle, famous for its Old Dutch ford. I found more of a citadel than a fort and today it is a bustling town within the old walls. Needless to say, staying in the old part proved a bit on the expensive side and I was lucky to find myself a room for 2 000 rupees. Food was equally expensive so I took a walk to the main gate and found some local snacks outside the walls for 10 rupees a piece.
26 February -Galle – Unawatuna - 7 km
Stacks of yellow coconuts are fixtures on the side of the road, ready to be hacked open with a machete. I normally stop and after drinking the water, hand it back to the vendor, who will crack it open and craft a spoon from the side so I can scrape the coconut meat within.
No sooner had I left or I reached the old hippie town of Unawatuna. I turned in to have a look and liked it so much that I found a room and stayed there for the rest of the day. Again, I found things on the expensive side and the fact that one is always ripped off can be tiresome. It was, however, a pleasant place with the usual stalls selling clothes and jewellery.
27 February - Unawatuna – Tangalle - 80 km
I was moving rather slowly as every now and again there were something interesting to look at, from Buddha statues to old forts and temples. I stopped at most of these.
In Tangalle, I spotted a paradise-like bay with cheap-looking accommodation on the beach and knew straightaway that it was going to be my spot for the night. The New Beach House was everything but new, but at $10 a night I did not complain and parked myself down with a beer in hand.
28 February - Tangalle - Bundala National Park, Lagoon Inn - 00 km
It was an awfully short day, but I thought it would be nice to explore the less visited Bundala National Park. I found a room at the Lagoon Inn which was situated in a lush garden and run by a very friendly couple. Nothing much came of the visit to the park as I found that I could not cycle into the park but had to take a jeep. The jeep ride for just one person turned out to be a bit pricey, so I had to make do with cycling along the short entrance road.
1 March - Bundala National Park to Kataragama - 40 km
Early in the day I arrived in Kataragama, the holiest of towns in Sri Lanka. It is a holy place for Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus alike. Right in the centre of town is a large park along the banks of the Menik Ganga. The river is used by all for bathing, a quick wash before continuing onto the shrines, laundry and the washing of the occasional elephant. The park is home to the Maha Devale shrine with two large boulders outside where pilgrims smash coconuts while muttering a prayer. It is all very fascinating.
Theravada Buddhism is the religion of about 70% of the population of Sri Lanka. At these temples the scent of frangipanis and incense hang thick in the air. Daily, one can see families bringing symbolic offerings of flowers and fruit to their preferred deities. What a colourful and fascinating world.
2 March - Kataragama – Monaragala - 65 km
I took the “jungle road” and had a few strange looks from the locals asking me if I was not scared. I was not quite sure what I was supposed to be scared of, the people or the animals. It was, however, an uneventful ride and, although keeping an eye out, I did not even see an elephant, let alone any other dangerous animals.
It was boiling hot but, thankfully, there were plenty of stalls where I could get water along the way. The coast was about 135 km away and I had no intention of going all the way there in one go, so when I spotted a cheap-looking room along the way, I offloaded my stuff and enjoyed the relative cool of a room.
3 March - Monaragala - Arugam Bay - 80 km
It was already boiling hot before I even left and it was maybe not a good idea to eat the leftover spicy fried rice from the previous night. It gave me serious heartburn - I never seem to learn.
Just before reaching Arugam Bay, I stopped at the Magul Maha Vihara Ruins, a 5th-century BC ruin, set about 1 km off the road in a densely forested area. Built by King Dhatusena (473– 453 BC), it is said that the site was probably part of a royal compound.
I love street food and I’m in my element in Sri Lanka (or just Lanka as they call it here). Here I can just drop into any of the roadside stalls and I’m sure to get a taste of the best prawn Vadai that the streets of Lanka have to offer. At best, it must be devoured soon after it is taken out of the boiling hot pan of oil in its crunchy state and eaten with a dip that could range from a green sambol, chutney or curd.
Then there is the famous Koththu. At night, a plethora of street side restaurants dish up Koththu, made from what is called Godamba roti. The Godamba roti (envision a softer version of a pita bread) is sliced into pieces and placed on a massive heated metal tray onto which are added meat and an assortment of vegetables. Out comes two metal blades, and the cook becomes the most uncanny percussionist imaginable. The result? A delicious compilation of chopped edibles on a plate that could comprise of anything, from roast chicken, seafood, sausages, egg, onion rings, veggies, a selection of unidentifiable sauces and of course, plenty of chilies and spices.
My very favourite must be the spiced chickpeas with chili, coconut and curry leaves (known as kadala). It is not too spicy but a wonderful snack that can be nibbled as you go along.
I stayed another day in Arugam Bay as it was a swing-another-day-in-a-hammock kind of place. I had a swim in the lukewarm waters of the Indian Ocean and basically ate my way through the day.
5 & 6 March - Arugam Bay – Batticaloa - 115 km
It was a long, hot day on the road and I was happy to reach Batticaloa where I found a room. The room only had a fan and it seemed of little help to try and cool the room. I took a walk across the bridge to the more central part of Battialoa to find some food and an ATM. I found both and it was after dark by the time I came back. The next morning I was lazy to get going so I stayed another day and took a walk to the beach, the Old Dutch Fort and had a look at some of the other older places in town. There was not much of interest and, as it was boiling hot, I headed back to my (not so very cool) room.
7 March - Batticaloa – Mutur - 115 km
The road hugged the coast through rice paddies and a rather sparsely populated area. I felt like the piped piper, cycling through these villages with each and every kid on a bicycle in tow. I stopped at a few Hindu temples along the way, and as always they were very colourful and so were the people around it. Again, it was a hot and humid day and by the time I reached Mutur, I decided to stay there as it was another 30 km to the next town.
It was a strange, hotel type of place where I’m sure they never had a foreign tourist before. It felt like the other occupants came to have a look and even the owner rocked up later checking if everything was ok. He sent his house boy, as he called him, to get me some fried rice from the local restaurant which I was grateful for.
8/9 March - Mutur – Uppuveli - 38 km
The next town was Trincomalee or just Trinco as they call it here. The road was flat and followed the coast past China Bay with all its fishing boats and then through the town of Trinco. There was nothing in Trino I wanted to see so I pushed on another 6km’s or so to the beachy village of Uppuveli.
I found myself a room at the Aqua Hotel, which sounded fancier that what it was. It was, in fact, a real nice backpacker place with a bar, a swimming pool and plenty of tables and chairs right on the beach. It was the kind of place where one could park off for a few days. I had no intention of parking off for a few days, but did stay the following day as well.
There was not really anything to do so I took a walk along the beach into town to buy a few things to nibble on. The Aqua Hotel had a restaurant and although the food was mediocre, it was reasonably priced. The walk along the beach was interesting, past rows and rows of fishing boats and fishermen bringing in their nets. The area was hit hard in wartime and by the 2004 tsunami, and most of the houses looked like they would not withstand strong winds, let alone another tsunami.
I also made use of their internet to check where to go next. I did not really come up with any bright ideas, except for the fact that the best would, most likely, be to go back to Thailand and from there cycle to Myanmar, as I have not been there before. I also understood that Bangkok was the easiest place to get a visa for Myanmar. I hoped it would still be like that by the time I got there.
10 March - Uppuveli – Anuradhapura - 120 km
After an early morning yoga session, I packed up and cycled off. It was already sweltering hot by the time I left. Fortunately, the road was fairly flat with just the slightest of tailwinds. Once in Anuradhapura, I cycled around looking for a room but all the names I had were full.
The fortunate thing is that at touristy places there are always some touts on bicycles looking for a lost tourist to escort to a room. I normally avoid them, but this time they came in handy and showed me to a room in one of the back streets for a reasonable price. At first I was just going to stay the one night but I realized that there were far too many interesting things to see.
I spent the following day in the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Today Anuradhapura is a large, sprawling complex of archaeological wonders and ruins, built during Anuradhapura’s thousand years of rule over Sri Lanka. Anuradhapura first became a capital in 380 BC but rose to importance long before that, around 109 – 303 BC.
I cycled around this vast area and was very impressed with the Jetavanarama Dagoba. Built in the third century by Mahasena, it may have originally topped 120m, but today is about 70m. When it was built, it was almost certainly the third-tallest monument in the world, the first two being the Egyptian pyramids. It is said to consist of more than 90 million bricks. A British guidebook from the early 1900s calculated that Jetavanarama contained enough bricks to make a 3 meter-high wall, stretching from London to Edinburgh.
It is a fascinating area which appeared half overgrown and overrun by monkeys. People, however, still live in the area and the old temples are still in use today. The most famous being the sacred Bodhi tree. The tree is said to have been grown from a cutting brought from the tree under which Buddha sat when he reached enlightenment. This surely makes it the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world. The tree itself was not very impressive, as I expected a large tree with a very thick trunk. Instead, it was a rather scrawny looking tree.
12 March - Anuradhapura – Puttalam - 80 km
It was an uneventful day and I soon reached Puttalam on the West Coast. Just as I wanted to head south on the A3 in the direction of Colombo, I spotted what looked like a cheap room and just there and then decided to stay for the night. I had no reason what so ever to do that, but I did it anyway. I did my laundry, took a walk to the shop, bought some snacks and spent the rest of the day playing on the internet.
13 March - Puttalam – 105 km
I stopped numerous times at colourful fruit stalls along the way, both for a refreshing drink and to seek relief from the sweltering heat. It was fascinating to watch them prepare the drinks. First, the orange or lime was cut in half and the juice squeezed into a glass. Then they added a pinch of salt, water and crushed ice. Then, like world-class cocktail waiters, they mixed the ingredients together using a plastic jug, switching the drink from the glass to the plastic jug. With quick and precise movements, they threw the drink from glass to jug, catching it neatly a good meter away.
Again, I stopped at a few temples along the way, all very colourful. The peafowl is native to South Asia and here, in Sri Lanka, most of the temples are decorated with these brightly coloured birds, which give it quite a festive feel.
It was slightly further than expected, not that it made any difference as I had no intention of going all the way to Colombo. It started raining and I was drenched by the time I found a nice place right on the beach.
14/15 March – Colombo - 50 km
It was a short ride into Colombo but the traffic was heavy and it took all my concentration to stay out of harm’s way. I made it back to the Clock Inn hostel (where I stayed previously) just in time before the rain came down again. I was happy to see that they still had my bike box in the storeroom which saved me going to look for a box in town.
The following day I packed the bicycle back in the box and rearranged my panniers so they all fitted into one bag. Later, I took a walk to the shops and bought a few things - just why I did that, I don’t know as I already didn’t have any space. I also popped into the hairdresser and looked nearly like a normal person again.