Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Further Adventures of LIttle Missy in Sri Lanka - Down South

Although not as famous as its counterpart, the much bigger South Africa, Sri Lanka has also quite a number of national parks and wildlife safaris for tourists!  Scattered in various parts of the country, each national park is particularly known for seeing certain types of animals.  My mission was LEOPARDS and one of the most popular national park is Yala National Park southwest of Sri Lanka.  Of course, there being only 20-25 leopards in the entire national park, the chance of seeing one is 1 in a million à possibly impossible maybe.  But you never know if you don’t try! 
The journey from Colombo to Yala (or Tissa which is the base for most people) is a long one, however made easier and more comfortable with the new expressway which opened early 2014!  Yes, you can still choose the traditional way of going direct from Colombo to Tissa with the semi-luxury bus (Note, it is NOT luxury at all – no air con, and just a normal public bus that stops along the way).  But with the new expressway, it connects Colombo to Matara non-stop and within 1-1.5H you are at Matara (which is south of Sri Lanka costs LKR500).  From there take a public bus (those semi-luxury costs 150LKR) to Tissa which is 3H away! Total travel time maximum 5H compared to the traditional 8H! And the best part, for the first 1.5H you get the comfort of AC cushioned bus! Although the bus station (Kudewala) is not as central as Peeta bus station, it is not hard to get to.  You could get a bus down in 40min or grab a tuk tuk down.  I was told construction is underway to connect Matara all the way to Tissa with the expressway, that would mean getting down to Tissa in 3H!!!!

Matara Bus Station

The off island temple

At the stop in Matara, there’s a small temple island that’s connected to mainland with a hanging bridge.  When I was there, the waves were really strong and wind was blowing so hard that even walking along the bridge, I felt like I was gonna be blown away anytime! And I’m like 50kg with a 3kg pack on my bag.  I probably wouldn’t recommend anyone below 45kg to attempt that walk unless you have supervision J That temple is nothing to shut about and the fact that donation is enforced made me uncomfortable.  Donation should be voluntary, but upon entering, the guy will hold out his hand to make you donate.  I said later and when I got up top to the Buddha statue, another guy was standing there and pointing to the box to get me to donate.  Then there is another “tollgate” at the top where another guy again blatantly asked me to donate and when I said I already did, he gave me a face…  When I went down to exit, that same guy asked me to donate again and when I told him I did at the top already, he gave me a face too! What’s up with these spiritually people!!! Pissed me off a little. 
Anyway, onto my bus ride to Tissa, was quite uneventful but I was damn lucky.  Met a local guy (seriously forgot his name) who sold his safari and guesthouse to me at a good price!  He was trying to sell me La Safari Hotel for 1500LKR per night (which is a really good price) but when we arrived there, that room was already sold out.  So he took me looking and searching for other GH at the same price! Talk about service!  Finally found one at Mihisara for that price which included WIFI and hot shower which was adequate enough.  The safari I got for 5000 LKR (exclude breakfast).  My tip – to exclude breakfast from any safari tour cos with breakfast the price was like 5800-6000! And what breakfast you get?? Sandwich with cheese and egg + water. Like that will cost me 1000LKR!!!
Anyway the local guy brought me out to dinner at a local place where we had curry + rice.  Was really good and it is buffet style and very local, but when paying up, the local guy told me the owner wanted to charge me foreigner price (350LKR) instead of local price (150LKR) Talk about discrimination!
Most people base themselves in Tissa for Yala trip, it is a cheaper town and not far from Yala.  Of course you could join Yala Safari tours where you stay overnight in Yala itself, but that cost a bomb!  Tissa town is nothing to shut about, really small and nothing much happening there.
Next morning, the safari starts real early with a 5am pickup and arriving at Yala at 6am.  FYI, it is 3000LKR for entry into the safari which is always included in the safari tour package.  Entering Yala, you are surrounded with sand and drying/dying trees.  Everything was bone dry!!! It was afterall the dry season.  In the jeep with 7 of us, we raced through the roads in search of bears and leopards.  Well we saw a beer (there are only 10-15 bears), but leopards were hiding from us.  The usual suspects like deers, buffalos, birds, crocodiles!  And elephants too!  The highlight of the trip was witnessing crocodiles hunting a poor little deer right in front of our eyes! AWESOME!  The safari ended at 11am and by the time I got back was dead tired.  But another day is ahead of me.  This day, I arranged with the local guy to bring me around Kataragama and the temples.  He got his cousin DIM to take me around for free! Well I paid for his fuel for the motorbike but basically I paid nothing and got a free guide!


The dusty road ahead

The best location in the whole Yala Park!

Stop over at the beach halfway

We rode to Kataragama and visited the famous temples there – Dewalaya and Kiri, Hindu and Buddhist.  Tips to others: Wear socks!  Entering into the temple vicinity requires you to take off your shoes! Which means walking around on hot scorching sand/marble in your bare foot.  Which was the equivalent of walking on hot stones!  Man, my sole hurt so much!!!!  When I went, the celebration just ended the week before.  When the celebration was held, there would be parades and dancing every night at the temples and people would come from all over Sri Lanka and crowd the temples.  Sounds amazing.

Kiri Verda (Buddhist temple)

Entrance to Dewalaya

Lotus for the buddha
Visiting the temples you can get a feel of how religious the Sri Lankans are and how much they respect their religion.  There were tons of people there, praying and buying fruits as a form of offering to the gods. And everyone was wearing white! I’m guessing it’s a sign of purity in the eyes of the god.  Also, now I understand why everyone was telling me to visit in the mornings or evenings (although I couldn’t quite understand why not afternoon) because the ground/floor will be super hot from the sun in the afternoon!
After Kataragama temples, we went to Wadasiti Kanda, which is 2km away from the temples.  You could take a tuk tuk there or walk (it’ll be a long walk though).  I was told that it’s just a walk up the mountains to the temple, but lo and behold it was a climb! And I told myself I’m not gonna take another hike again after Adam’s peak! It was 4km uphill all the way and steps all the way up!  When I said about how devoted they are, it was also apparent by the fact that they all, young, old, able-bodied or crooked knees, would willingly take that hike up to pay their respects!  I saw old ladies possibly 50-60 years old, climbing without aid up, although with a bit of trouble, but still went up!  I’m not saying it’s easy climb or hard, but 4km all up the stairs, not something that is to be taken lightly.  And you see little kids do the same! And most of them did the climb barefooted! Just walking on the rough steps and stones like it was nothing!  And also beware of those terrible monkeys waiting to attack!  One monkey attacked a little girl and scratched her head!
The steps on wadasiti

So it was 1 h later we reached the top.  The temple is nothing to marvel about and yes, you have to take off your shoes and walk barefoot in the vicinity.  But the view up there is pretty amazing! You can see the entire Yala National Park from up top!  It was super hot in the late afternoon and yes almost impossible to walk barefoot so I guess that was why I was told to go in the morning not afternoon…
After the climb we had a little snack of prata with sambal!  Their prata is made of coconut + breadcrumbs, very interesting combination! And you can really taste the shredded coconut in it! And the sambal reminds me of how we used to eat prata with sambal as well!  Nice!  And of cos in Sri Lanka EGB (Elephant Ginger Beer) is a must try!  The ads are everywhere – No ECG No Food! So of course I had to try and I must say it really tasted like beer with real ginger in it!  The ginger taste is very strong, which I like, and the combination is very refreshing!
That night, I basically concussed till the next morning.
Sithulpawa temple – Had no idea that temple existed and had no plans when I initially wanted to go Yala, but a talk with my counterpart in Colombo office revealed this beautiful temple set in a beautiful environment!  And I just had to visit!  With DIM, we travelled the 34km from Tissa (took almost 1H).  The road started off smooth and easy as we passed through Yala National Park (looking and trying to spot leopards Haha), then it was dirt road all the way for half the journey.  The dirt road is not bumpy but just dusty with bumps cutting the smooth road every 3minutes.  Along the way, we stopped at a temple with a nice view for some photo taking.

The lake at Sithulpawa temple - there are crocodiles in it


At Sithulpawa temple, there are 2 temples.  The temples are built on top of 2 separate hills and ladies, you are required to cover up your torso (at least the legs).  Short sleeves are ok, but no sleeveless.  I was wearing bermudas to my knees but was deemed indecent, so had to wrap myself up with a white cloth (FOC, Dim had to deposit his ID as collateral).  But seriously, I don’t think that white cloth helped.  The wind was so strong it was blowing it apart anyways.
It’s a hill, so it was a short walk up the first temple, and yes barefoot please!  The view up there is really amazing!  You have a huge lake down at the bottom and all the jungles around.  The opposite temple is a little higher up and the trek up is alittle longer but nice!  And from up there, the wind is really really strong that you have to be careful not to lose your footing!
I jump
The area is not so big, you’ll be done in about 1H, and then it’s time to go.  Passing through Yala National Park again, we saw groups of deers running around and hiding from us. 
Then it was time to travel back and leave the country.  The bus from Tissa to Matara comes very frequently (every 5-10 minutes) so no worries about the schedule.  Upon arriving back in Colombo at Kaduwela bus station, I was told initially to take a bus to somewhere close to my hotel in Colombo so I don’t have to spend much on taxi/tuk tuk.  Who knew that bus was not running to that destination anymore when I arrived at 6pm.  After some confirmation, a couple of local bus driver took me onto their bus to drop me off somewhere else to catch another bus that was supposed to take me to where I was heading.  Who knew that bus was NOT going there and I was caught in a situation where the conductor spoke NO English.  Luckily, a local guy spoke pretty good English and after finding out where I wanted to go, told me where to get off and got off with me to catch the other bus to the city center for me.  That was very nice of him to help me in that way!  He caught me the bus to near Hilton Colombo (I think it was bus 190 or something) which was just a 5min walk to my hotel!  That was pretty cool! 
It was a long and tiring day, also having to wait for the red-eye flight at the airport with nothing much to do and no WIFI.
Overall impression of Sri Lanka – Nope, it is not the cheapest place for tourism.  Local buses are cheap, and street food is pretty inexpensive.  But tourism in terms of visiting attractions and guesthouses are not the cheapest (You pay much less in Thailand for accommodation of backpackers’ standards).  A trip to safari alone costs at least 5000 LKR (almost SGD50) and my trip to Adam’s Peak cost me a bomb! Food can be pretty inexpensive for snacks, but a proper curry and rice meal I paid SGD3.50 for (yes it is buffet style but how much can you really eat) which is not exactly very cheap.  Of course, the locals eat for SGD1.50, now that is cheap!  But the people are in general really nice and helpful (except for those scammers in Colombo who always try to get you to visit the Gem exhibition which seems to be forever ongoing and forever “last 3 days” and forever elephants parade at Gangarama Temple).  Otherwise, I met really nice and helpful people along the way (some people said that was because I was a female travelling alone).  The place is clean and not cluttered, nothing like what India is about.  Sure, infrastructure could do with some improvements to cut down the travelling time between places and that is on the way.  If you don’t take local buses, private cars are expensive and yes it also reduces travelling time but really expensive.  I was told you have to obtain some kind of permit in order to self-drive and how long that takes is a mystery.  Worth a visit!  Will I be back? I don’t know, there are so many other places and countries to visit!