Sri Lanka: our tuk-tuk roadtrip!
If the best way to visit Vietnam is by bike without any doubt, in Sri Lanka, the best way is by tuk-tuk! But there must be some people who may be wondering “but what is a tuk-tuk?”. They are three wheels vehicles. The first time we hear about the possibility of renting a tuk-tuk is from Ishanka, where we did a workaway. I joined the link to the article about the workaway experience. Like I said in that article, at first we were thinking it was going to be too expensive and just sounded too strange. But as time passed by and the more we were reading, it became more and more appealing.
If you want to live the unique experience of renting a tuk-tuk, I wrote a detailed (hopefully) article on how to proceed here.
To have more information about how to organise your own tour, I am currently translating the French article into English, available here: ICI.
- Before talking about anything, I would like to bring your attention to a robbery attempt and a scam attempt as we were going to Negombo to get the famous tuk-tuk.
While we were riding the bus, we have to leave our bags in front. Fortunately, there is room in the first row. However, the bus gets so busy that all of a sudden we cannot keep an eye on our belongings. I still notice between everyone a guy peeking into Dante’s bag. As I warn him, the guy goes away. He only had the time to steal a bottle-opener: the only thing that was in the waist pocket. As obvious as it may seem, do not put anything valuable in there.
- As for the scam, it happens at Wellawaya, our stopover in between Ella and Negombo. We lived many scams throughout Asia and Sri Lanka, but that one was particularly elaborated so I want to share it.
As we were at the bus station, a man comes to ask where we are going. I answer “Colombo”. To which he replies that the next bus is at 5 pm, but that one is the last one and full. That’s when he starts telling us that he has a great idea. As the next bus is full, we need to spend the night here. And it happens that he is the owner of a guesthouse! Isn’t that a convenient coincidence? He says that he will take us to the station the next day for the first bus. We reply that honestly, whether it’s full or not, we do not mind standing the whole trip if need be, as it is pretty common in the country. Let’s be honest: a full bus in Sri Lanka is not a thing. He insists that standing is very tiring. We already understood what he was trying to do, so we decide to just ignore him. He tells us that we should go ask at the reception if we do not believe him. Indeed, they tell us the same thing. He stays sitting next to us and tries to sell a service every minute, which honestly starts to be as annoying and as funny as it can be. It becomes almost ridiculous when he declares: “or! I can book a private car for you for only 12,200 RPS (about 60 US$)!”. I mean…! Come on! If we are willing to be standing on a bus for some hours, we are not going to take your private car. Suddenly, at about 4:30 pm, he says: “madam, a special bus is here“. Oh! It’s like a Pokemon, a wild bus appears. Not even full. Who would have thought?
Here goes the tuk-tuk!
Sri Lanka is a small country, everywhere is easily accessible and even though a tuk-tuk can reach a maximum speed of 40 km/h (legally, you cannot go further), a lot of people complain about that on internet, but for Dante and I is actually a great way to enjoy the sceneries even more. Locals love to wave at us or make fun at us in a nice way when they see us driving this vehicle and especially when I am driving. People point the fact that I am a woman out. To be honest, I never saw any woman driving a tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka.
Just so you know, driving here is pretty chaotic. To extend on the matter of women, we go to the office to rent our vehicle only taught Dante to drive. His main advice is to always shift to the left whenever a bus or a lorry will try to overtake us. Either way, they will overtake you, so it’s better to shift yourself, so they do not throw us in the ditch. A bit like in Vietnam, but worse.
By the way, that’s also in Sri Lanka that I decided that my hypothesis about people not giving a f*** to die because they believed in reincarnation is true.
I am still trying to figure out how MapHub works. I would like to link each stop on the map with the corresponding paragraph in the article.
For now, the best I could do was to open the paragraph is another window.
The initial handling of our vehicle is a bit complicated, but it comes relatively quickly.
The learning process lasts only 20 minutes. I do not drive so I try to take a peek at how to drive the machine, but like for everything, the ideal is to do it oneself. Which I can do thanks to Dante!
We stop in a brand new hotel in Negombo owned by a young man and his lovely mom, Harry’s inn. At the moment we book it, it is very cheap. We are the very first clients! I am not used to advertising as you probably know but they’ve been so sweet that not advertising them would be an atrocity. I also promised I would do so.
That night we eat with Benoît and Olivia whom we met at Arawe Retreat while on our workaway.
The centre of the country
The next day, after organizing our backpacks in that bright red motor vehicle, I let Dante drives, cause you know, I want to be nice. No, that’s because I still do not know how to drive the loud freedom entity!
You’ve probably heard before about Sigiriya, and if not, maybe of the name Lion’s Rock. Seen from afar, the place is pretty impressive indeed. However, to even set a foot on the rock, you’ll have to detonate the wallet. The entrance fee is about 35 US$. And the right to nature in all of that? What’s making me really crazy about these fees is when I see pollution. It just looks like an organised scam to me. It seems that on top of the rock there is an archeological complex. I did not know it at that moment, we are just thinking that it was another pareidolia fantasy of the locals.
That night, we are sleeping at Rama Kele Guesthouse, another place where we are the first guests, hence we are being served as if we were royalties. Whether for breakfast or dinner, they serve us such a bit amount of food! Even the kids are being very sweet.
We heard about another Rock, Pidurangala Rock. It is not so famous, so we hope we can just hike there. Forget it. 25€ to lay a toe on top. And this time, they built a monastery in the cave. That is something that has always buggered me. A cave has a history in itself, a certain sonority. Concrete everything over will destroy all of this. It is such a sad thing to exploit everything we can. So… There is obviously no way we are going to pay for that.
Jathika Nâmal Uyana
Now is my time to drive towards our next stop: Jathika Nâmal Uyana, also known as pink quartz mountains. And I am already breaking the law… I did not seem like there was a law in the first place (that’s my excuse)! Like, since I am in South East Asia, I am so focused of even staying alive on the road that I don’t even look at the signs or anything. So I am overtaking a truck, the master of the road. When they pull me over, their first surprise is that a non-Sinhalese is driving a tuk-tuk. And then I am a woman! At that point, they soften a lot and for once I can say that I am glad to use sexism (LOL). They ask for my papers and when they see that everything is in order, let me go with a warning. I still did not know why they stopped me. Dante tells me that I overtook the truck on a straight white line. Whoopsy.
The entrance fee of Namal Uyana is 5US$ which is the host endemic tress called “Na”, ironwood trees (which according to wikipedia is a tree which “wood density […] is heavier than water”).
This website is pretty complete for those who want to know more.
We do not meet many tourists in this place, but it seems to be a strolling place for many locals. A lot of people come that day to pray. There are so many people that we think it might be a holiday or something. The forest is really pleasant to walk around. To reach the top you will need to have some hiking skills still, even if to be honest we take another path than the main one, which could explain the difficulty.
As like the rest of country, the place is filled with plastic waste and as I write this article (one year after our visit) and look for reviews about the park, it seems to be a true problem as most reviews mention them.
As I mentioned earlier, we have been told to plan our trip thinking that the South Coast is in the monsoon season, which is not the case for the East Coast. Please note that we travel to Sri Lanka in September for reference.
I do not know if we are very unlucky, or if climate change is at it but every time we reach a place, it starts to rain. It almost becomes a ritual. It happens every single time. And because of the rain, there are A LOT of things we cannot do.
That is the case of Ritigala, where not only we have got a lot of rain but also a fair amount of thunderstorms, as we want to go watch the sunset. That place is a mountain recognised as a natural reserve, where on top we can find a 1st-century ruin of a Buddhist monastery. Pretty disappointing not to be able to go!
Ritigala is pretty close to Anuradhapura, the main city of the North region and also a former capital of the country. Unfortunately, Dante does not want to go there, so I cannot say anything about the place.
Okay, until now you are probably thinking: “you didn’t inform us about anything”. I know, I warned you, I’ve got a pretty complicated relationship with Spices Island.
The East Coast
If you are looking about what to visit in the East, most likely you will hear about Trincomalee. If you are suffering right now from an ecological depression*, skip this part as what will follow is one of the reasons why I suffered myself from one.
(*NB: For those who are not very aware of what is an “eco-depression”, I plan to write an article about that. It took me a long time to put on words on my feelings. To know exactly what was happening within myself helped me to act.)
We arrive in the rain, obviously, and settle down a bit in our hostel room and then go explore the “mesmerising beaches” acclaimed by both locals and tourists.
What should have been a long and beautiful stroll alongside the seaside up to Fort Frederick is actually, yet again, a downfall into the depths. At first, everything is perfect for pictures: many tourists having fun, swimming in this great scenery. However, I like to go far away from the crowds, and I thought that to go to Fort Frederick, going through the beach would be a good idea. And as ALWAYS I am the guide. I really do not know why people trust me so much. Anyway, the further we walk, the more we begin to see rubbish.
Clearly, the sea rejects a LOT of waste, we see many products that are not from Sri Lanka. But this is not the sole littering. Only during the time of our “walk”, we see two locals throwing their rubbish bags just through their door, directly on the shore. Also, as we see the fishermen coming back with calamari stored in red plastic bags, they dispose of the bags right away. Washed off by the waves.
That being said, the sea is not the only dump station. The streets are equally dirty. Cows and spotted deers seem to find an infinite amount of ””” food ”””…
We do assist in an interesting scene though. Chaos is also present in the sky: an eagle is under attack from a murder of crows trying to steal his new catch, a fish.
If the first part of the walk could depict the descent, the second part is Hell itself. The place is now deprived of tourists to be invaded by stray dogs and crows who eat all this shit, after what was also the fishes’ food… As a result, the dogs are aggressive and believe me, I am usually very trusting with dogs as I can read their emotions pretty well. But in that case, I did not feel safe at all, whether from them, or the rubbish on the ground including syringes. We even decide to wear our shoes!
Finally, I also carry my camera with me, and to be honest, I do not really like the feeling of walking in front of locals that are apparently not really used to seeing people strolling here. They stare at us, whistle at us, point at us.
There is obviously something I am missing. Before going to this place, I read on the internet that one should stay 3 or 4 nights in the town. Never have I read about the insalubrity of the surroundings.
Long story short: do not go through the beach to reach Fort Frederick.
I am wondering a lot of things which makes me very cautious (even more) about what I read on the internet. Anyway, we stay only two nights. We do not partake in any snorkelling or diving whereas it is one of the main attractions of the area. Not only they do not take the environment into consideration but Dante also reads that if we want to see whales (one of my dreams) is always very badly organised, to say the least. There’s no limit to the number of boats that can be gathered at the same spot, which obviously causes a lot of stress for the biosphere and is a big risk for injuries.
To top it all off, we witness a little girl who was throwing rocks at a dog, who was trying to hide under a tuk-tuk. That was an absolutely horrendous view, I could not help to tell her to stop. Unfortunately, we do not understand each other, and I could not explain why it was just wrong to do such a thing. So, she just waited until we are far enough to do it again… So I come back and tell her again. She probably just waited longer.
Anything worthwhile? We see a very pretty lizard and some parakeets.
Pasikudah & Arugam Bay
Even though we stop in the town of Pasikudah, neither Dante nor I remember anything. Most likely it is raining a lot thus we cannot do anything.
Thus, I shall only share some photos we took on the way.
Further south lies the city of Arugam Bay. If you are a well-informed surfer, you might have heard about this place before.
We love our room, where crows and monkeys have different techniques to try and steal food. Our lovely host chases the monkeys with a slingshot. Pretty effective if I may say so myself.
Yet again, we almost get scammed in this place. We ask someone where we can find the closest gas station as we almost run out of it. Who’s best to ask than a tuk-tuk driver? The guy we ask to tells us that there is no station for many kilometres around. However, he does know someone who can sell us some. He tells Dante that they can go together to this place, for a cost as he will drive him. Meanwhile, I go cash out from an ATM aboard our dear tuk-tuk. As I proceed, I get a very strange message. The money never comes but the money on my bank account does get debited.
Dante decides not to trust the man, and as he rightly put it: “How would all these tuk-tuk drivers do?”. Therefore, we agree on a direction we think is logical. And indeed, after only 5 minutes we find a station.
For my previous money problem, fortunately, after a few calls here and there, a few stops at that bank throughout the country, some nails bit later, I get my money back. For your information, if that happens to you, who knows, apparently, at the end of the week (or month, I don’t remember exactly) they count the money and if they realise they have more than what they should have, the money will be refunded to your bank account. That worked for me just fine.
In one of the articles on the internet we read about renting your tuk-tuk, we read that we are going to see PLENTY of wildlife, including plenty of elephants. We are a bit disappointed as we did not see any, even though we saw the big paths they mark with their big toes. However, we do see loads of birds. Sri Lanka is the country where I see one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen in my life: the Indian roller. Such a beauty.
We do not even see the shape of a pachyderm at Elephant Rock, close to Arugam Bay. But again, no regret here as the beach is stunning. The place is also famous for crocodiles’ safaris. We are actually welcomed by a sign warning us to be careful of the crocodiles. Not a sign I am used to. However, seeing a crocodile in the wild has always been one of my dreams. To enjoy the place to its fullest, we decide to depart very early to enjoy the sunrise on top of the rock.
We bargain a short safari with a fisherman. I share with him my enthusiasm for crocodiles. Around the corner, our fresh ‘guide’ talks for a little while with another fisherman. His friend says there is a crocodile nearby. A tad stressed we start to look around, under our small raft. My heart really starts to pounce at the idea of meeting one of those impressive reptiles from so close! That’s when the fisherman points inside his own boat… Where he takes a baby crocodile stuck in a fishing net. To see this small being reduced to nothing trying to escape from the hands of his captor makes me broken-hearted.
Little fauna break: you can find two crocodile species on Spice Island. The mugger (or marsh) crocodile (Crocodylus palustris) and the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). Both species have been heavily poached for their skins and meat (according to this study, some believe it can cure asthma or improve eyesight…kids, the power of traditions right here). Especially in the 70s to make dry meat. Furthermore, like most species on Earth, their habitat is being destroyed for agricultural lands or to build more houses. The crocodile completely disappeared from the North of the country. Moreover, unfortunately, they receive very bad press (according to an old 2001-study) and are thus not protected. As 95% of the people interviewed in the first article I mentioned replied that the crocodiles ‘were not useful’ here is an extract of the same study explaining why they are: Crocodiles are regarded as “keystone species” that maintain ecosystem structure and function through selective predation on fish species, recycling of nutrients and maintenance of wetlands in drought. Thus, it is important that we conserve these reptiles and their natural habitats.
We have no idea what will become of this yearling, I hope he will be released.
Despite this very unfortunate episode, we see a couple of what I believe is white-bellied Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) and other beautiful sea birds.
Before joining our next destination, we think it can be a good idea to stop at Ella to see Anna & Ishanka at Arawe Retreat!
If you know the country, you may have noticed that there is a major stop missing: Nuwara Eliya.
What is interesting there are the beautiful tea plantations. To counterpart this affront, I (I am always the guide, remember) choose to go get ourselves lost in the middle of Ambewela, in a lovely guesthouse. All around us is green and lush and beautiful and wild! We are in a small village where we go to the tiny market and cook our own local food. Everyone in the village is so welcoming! I think this is a good idea to stop for quite some time in the area, but unfortunately, we do not have enough time.
It is about time we start going towards the South.
One of my favourite Sinhalese experiences of this trip is Dante’s gift for my birthday: a safari in the Udawalawe National Park!
We are in a jeep with two Belgian, pretty fun blokes even though they are here for the GREAT game: they want to see elephants and crocodiles mainly! The rest of them is rubbish, but the diversity of birds excites me so much! It is an ornithophile’s dream.
We even see jackals!! Never would have I thought of seeing one and our guide is so happy to see me overjoyed asks the driver to go closer… Unfortunately. I understand why he does this, but we clearly get too close and we actually disturb them… Yet, doing so, in this very unfortunate situation, a Changeable Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus) lands inside trees which allows me to take this picture.
Also, we are happy to see a fascinating young hawk-eagle, heaps of Asian Green Bee-eater (Merops Orientalis ceylonicus), and some Rose-ringed Parakeet (Psittacula krameri).
For everyone’s joy, we have the pleasure to observe elephants and crocodiles! Even though the crocodiles were actually super far away.
That’s a wonderful gift, I am so pleased!
Our last stop is Sinharaja. This is, I would say, my main regret. It could be my favourite place in the country and it might play in a future decision to come back to the island later.
What do I mean by regret? Firstly, it never stops raining the whole time we are in the natural reserve of Sinharaja. Thus we decide to stay even longer just to multiply our chances.
However, everything is so wild, lush, and beautiful! I am pretty positive that it would be amazing flora and fauna-wise.
We try to go to the forest twice, despite the rain, as we prefer to be soaked than not see this mysterious forest.
The first try is not successful mostly because of the leeches which are so numerous because of the rain probable just make the visit impossible. We think that it is wiser to wait until it rains less (if it rains less).
On our way back, we hear cries like babies. Intrigued, to say the least, we go towards the sounds. They lead us to a shelter with open walls and half a wooden door, a bit like in a Western movie. We open it and find between 5 or 7 puppies with cardboard next to them. Desperate, I run to the next small shop to buy some dry biscuits. The funny thing is that on our way to the forest, I wondered about the usefulness of this shop as it seems that there is nothing or no one around. Well, now I am happy to find them here. We wet the biscuits with our water. I do not want to leave them alone, the rain penetrates inside the building, and therefore there is little dry space. Yet suddenly, two dogs get inside. A female who’s obviously the mother considering the size of her mammary glands, followed by a male who I like to believe is the father. They are a bit wary of us but go directly to the puppies. We thus decide to leave, reassured.
A small lorry passing nearby tell us to go onboard because the rain is too annoying. A very thoughtful act! The way is very rocky but still fun.
On the way to get there, I take a picture of this magnificent lizard, a Calotes nigrilabris, different from the one I took in Ella, a calotes calotes.
The next day is delayed once again because of the rain. But I will not give up, I want to see this forest. And now I also want to check on those little puppies.
As we are getting close to the entrance, torrential rain hits us very hard. People who ever lived a monsoon rain know what I am talking about.
Fortunately, we are in front of a house. A small old woman tells us with her hand to come inside their house. Thank you, Madam!! She is very curious and so sweet with us. Her seemingly husband cannot move easily, so she brings him many things while he is praying. She prepares a delicious ginger tea along with some biscuits. That moment is so special and heart-warming that I am actually happy the deluge occurred.
After twenty minutes or so, we leave equipped with our umbrellas lent by our hosts. The rain is still pouncing heavily as we are reaching the small boutique. A dog resting here starts to guide us. She would stop when we do. To me, she wants to show us something. She has a decided pace, peeking from time to time behind to make sure we are following. Dante comments on how it’s gonna be an interesting story for my blog. Naively, I enjoy our new companion so much and think how cute it is. But deep inside, I already know where she wants to take us. At one point, Dante is taking too long when she and I reach the house, she turns around and goes for him, often looking at me. As I enter the shelter, she hurries inside.
From now on, people who are sensible, please, scroll fast until this sentence is written: IT IS SAFE FOR YOU TO READ.
Immediately, I give water to the puppies. Meanwhile, Dante notifies me of two wounded puppies. From afar, it looks like they’ve been gashed by the jaws of another animal. Dante tells me they’re actually are larvae. Horrified, we do not know what we can do. The other puppies are escaping those two wounded little babies. But these are looking for warmth. Some of the puppies lick the wounds. I am completely heartbroken in front of this scene.
We try to clean with water but it only results in absolute pain screams from the puppy and at that point, I just break down and want to go talk to the locals, but we think that they already know, and they probably put them here. I am thinking of calling a veterinarian but we cannot speak the language, and the place is so small that it seems hard to find one (those are only excuses now that I think about it).
It is very hard for me to translate this section in 2022 while the story happened in 2019 because I think that we did not do enough to try and save them.
Heading towards the guest house we stay very depressed, we give our umbrellas back. On the way, I see the body of a VERY similar lizard to the one I took in the picture. I am almost sure it is the same one I observed earlier. I feel an immense sadness imagining the little guy I was fascinated with in front of suddenly smashed by a car.
The rain does not exist anymore. Our guide dog is still following us, as to share her own despair. She stays the whole night at the guesthouse.
IT IS SAFE FOR YOU TO READ
That evening, we talk for a fairly long time with the owners. They cook a DELICIOUS meal for us. We talk about politics mostly, which is a subject very dear to me, especially when it comes from the very people that live it.
As we are talking, a wild scorpion suddenly appears. Our guide dog is still curious and tries to attack or play with it… Dangerous idea! Fortunately, nothing happens.
Ten days' time flown so fast!
To conclude, find a small collection of pictures I took on the road here and there.
We reach Negombo to give our sweet tuk-tuk back. At the place, they force us to write a 5-stars review, reading what we write before posting it… But now, we fly towards the new love of my life: Nepal.
No, we did not see any elephant on the road, but to so many colourful and diverse birds and such a rich fauna and flora is a real delight. To be free to travel with our tuk-tuk is truly once in a lifetime experience and this country is perfect for that, due to its size.
We lived many different bad experiences and while initially, I was a bit nonjured towards Sri Lanka, it is now very dear to my heart. I even want to pay another visit, and why not, visit this Sinharaja forest.