Less than 50 hours in Sri Lanka

I guess if one follows a travel agent, one might see the best of Sri Lanka among other advantages.  I don’t like that mainly because I don’t want to deal with companions (having to talk and discuss what to do next etc.) all the time.  Just like I like having lunch alone, I like travelling alone.  Another major reason is that I like to make my own choices to the greatest extent possible.  We’ve got so much limitation in this mortal world already (eg. I can’t travel faster than the speed of light, I can’t make people I don’t like disappear or I don’t have infinite resources to use etc.).  Probably just like people fighting to have the most genuine election possible, I’d like to exercise my free will as much as possible and I don’t want anybody to make the main plan and offer me a few hours of stupid “free activities” here or there.  Before I left for Asia, I did ask my Sri Lankan colleague (a postdoc in a US university) some practical questions.  But I have even (somewhat “brutally”) prevented him from giving me suggestions about where to go.  Nevertheless, after I came back to US, I did talk with him and gave him some genuine (and often negative) views of mine.  It’s interesting to listen to him a bit how he “defends” his home country.  In writing the following, I’ve probably absorbed a little bit of what he has said and this may have helped make the following not sheer nonsense or completely idiotic 🙂

My flight CX 611 landed in Colombo around 11:15 pm on Nov. 26 and CX 610 left Colombo before or around 01:00 (after midnight) on Nov. 29.  So, my stay in Sri Lanka was really not more than 50 hours.  I’ve stayed in the historical Grand Oriental Hotel where some world politicians and royals have stayed in the past.  Unfortunately, any glory there was probably in the past tense and it’s now not comparable to the newer 5-star hotels.  Its lower rate was a main reason that I have chosen to stay there.  It’s described as one of the tourist spots in some tourist guides but my (“Kangaroo”) taxi driver have had to ask like ten policemen / drivers / shopkeepers / pedestrians before we could find this hotel.

1127140922bIt’s said that many tourists don’t stay (long) in Colombo.  In the US public libraries around me, Sri Lanka travel guides seem to be quite unpopular and if so Colombo may have probably provided a clue 😦  After a night’s sleep, I started walking towards the area of Pettah (the market) very early in the morning, one could see how the locals live their normal lives.  The dirty streets and sewage looked very unappealing to me but that’s probably what colorful realism is.  The most disappointing part was probably the couple so-called museums such as the Railway Museum and the Municipal Museum (Old Town Hall).  They supposedly have entrance fees of 500 Sri Lanka Rupees (US$1 ~ 131 Rupees) but nobody bothered to collect it.  It seems to me that the govt. staff probably have little incentive to do their jobs (as obviously the entrance fees wouldn’t become their salaries).  The above photo has shown almost all the real rail components and trains that the Railway Museum had to offer.  As a result, due to the lack of funding, the museum conditions have deteriorated.

1127140930The nicest spot near the Pettah area was the floating market on Beira Lake in Bastian Mawatha, which was a new green project.  The lake seemed extraordinarily green and clean, especially compared to the rest of the areas nearby.  This is about the only major nice spot that I have found that has not been mentioned in the travel guides.

The Dutch Museum is probably the only museum that is worth going around the Pettah area.  There were two floors with quite some rooms and quite a lot of historical antiques to see, mostly about the Dutch colonial days (the Dutch ended the Portuguese control and took over for ~ 138 years before they ceded their possessions in Ceylon to the British in 1796).  Each item might not be shiny or spectacular but at least the quantity was there.  There they did collect the 500 Rupee entrance fee 🙂 Here, the economic correlation is even obvious to a physicist.

1127141202In the afternoon, I walked to the Colombo National Museum in the south near the Vihara Maha Devi Park.  The southern area was more of middle-classed area with better, newer and modern houses and even high-rise buildings.  I was hoping of ~3 km but it’s probably more like 6 km at the end (from my hotel).  This is probably a good time to talk about walking in Sri Lanka.  It’s probably not too different from some other countries in South or Southeast Asia that one needs to venture into the middle of the road to dare stop the coming vehicles in order to cross a road.  But unlike last year in the ancient town of Luang Prabang in Laos of which the roads were generally narrow without too much traffic, many roads in Colombo are big and wide ones with a lot of traffic.  As usual, I’ve just observed how the locals crossed the roads and just tried to learn and follow.   Another peculiar phenomenon was that, though there were traffic lights, they seemed to be turned off or otherwise not working at all ?!  Last but not least, though I am not usually sensitive to air pollution, the smell of exhaust from vehicles in Colombo has been often just unbearable.  After walking past the Old Parliament Building (and took a photo), the female portion of a Caucasian tourist couple informed me that they’d follow me to cross the main and wide road of the Galle Face Centre Road.  After a hundred metres or so, I asked her to help take a photo of me in the Galle Face Green with its beach running next to the Indian Ocean.  In spite of the cloudy weather, the beautiful scenery there was of the largest scale in this trip and was the nicest place in Colombo.   The entrance of the National Museum was bit difficult to locate as it has been changed due to the renovation work going on.  Probably due to the construction, the entrance fee was reduced to 250 Rupees but the two floors and four big rooms have offered even much more space and more neater archaeological artifacts and structures to see than the Dutch Museum.  I considered taking a tuk-tuk taxi back to my hotel but to save a few bucks and for exercise, I’ve chosen to walk back and visited the Galle Face Green for the 2nd time ( — I’ve just needed to argue with myself in this kind of decision making process without worrying any companions’ thoughts or opinions or mood. )  It was probably worth it and I’ve probably trained myself enough such that my hiking a few days later in some Hong Kong mountains didn’t seem that so challenging to me 🙂

Next morning, I checked out of my hotel and caught the 7 am Expo Rail to go to Kandy, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka.  Though I’ve put minimal stuff in my knapsack,  it’s nonetheless probably the first time that I’ve carried everything with me for an entire day and night during a trip.  I have chosen to take the more luxurious Expo Rail to go to Kandy mostly because the ordinary train couldn’t be booked online in advance and one have to either go to the train station or make phone calls to buy the tickets for ordinary seats (even the first class).  The ticket price difference (one way), 1450 Rupees (Expo) vs 340 Rupees (first class), is not big enough for me to take the risk to ruin my tight schedule.  In reality, the Expo Rail didn’t have its own train or locomotive and it’s just an extra carriage at one end of the ordinary train !  This carriage was air-conditioned and they served food and drinks (included in the ticket).  The extra bonus (which I already knew before I got on the train) was the availability of electric socket (to recharge your smartphone etc.) and WIFI (even though the WIFI was not very stable and got broken from time to time).  The luxurious carriage couldn’t avoid the all too often violent vibration of the train which were very loud and sometimes even scary, as it’s all the same train after all.  Kandy (with an elevation of ~465 m) is the beginning of the hill country but I didn’t feel too much of a climb or decline during the train rides.  The scene outside the window was more interesting than the city of Colombo but it was not really breathtaking.  My colleague told me that the view would be much more spectacular when the train continues to climb after Kandy 🙂

The fast intercity train took about 2.5 hours to travel from Colombo to Kandy.  After one left the Kandy train station and walked less than 1 km to find the Kandy Lake, one would know that Kandy is probably a better tourist spot.  The main tourist attraction, the Temple of the Tooth, is just next to the Kandy Lake.  These two are basically everything to me about Kandy.

I’ve been vaguely familiar with the Buddha Tooth relic all over the world and it’s not that big a deal to me.  But to me, this probably is the main difference between Sri Lanka and India, ie. the dominance of Buddhism vs that of Hinduism.  At the entrance of the Temple (entrance fee of 1000 Rupees), though I tried to put my shoes inside my knapsack, a guide or policeman kind of forced me to take them to the dedicated shoe storage (and later the guy there would ask for a tip when I retrieved my shoes … I grudgingly put in 20 Rupees in a glass jar instead of 100 or something).  Apart from the main indoor temples, there were sand and gravels on most floor areas (except those with carpets) and it’s really uncomfortable or even painful occasionally walking with bare feet.  When I arrived, it was not too long after one of their daily puja/offering occasion at 10 am.  Many faithful believers were queuing for a long line (typically with lotus) to try to take turn to worship near the main hall with supposedly the tooth relic behind the door (which I couldn’t see).  There were quite a few other buildings, even including a Raja Tusker Museum to honor their elephant !  I’ve tried to wander everywhere quickly and they didn’t ask for extra fee until I got to the Museum of World Buddhism which had an entrance fee of another 500 Rupees.  That’s the most decorated and sophisticatedly designed museum that I’ve been in Sri Lanka.  Various Buddhist features all over the world were shown in many colorful exhibitions and they were all quite interesting even to non-believers 🙂

1128141330Other places that I have visted in Kandy were just not comparable to the Temple or the Lake.  I was a bit like a scout trying to reach every target (that I have planned) in an exploration exercise.  At the end, I sauntered around the entire Kandy Lake once.  ( In the planning stage, I thought about going to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, 6.5 km from Kandy.  But since I probably wouldn’t have enough time to visit the gigantic garden and I have preferred waters to lands, I had decided to walk around the Kandy Lake which was free compared to the entrance fee of 1000 Rupees for the Botanical Gardens. )  Even without sunshine that day, it’s a pleasant nice walk around the tranquil and clear lake.  On the other side of the lake, I took the chance to visit an important monastery in Kandy, Malwatta Vihara.  But it’s funny that I found almost nobody there, monk or not.  When it was the time that I had to leave the lake and head back to the train station, I really missed the Kandy Lake and wished that I could stay longer around the lake.

The first night,  I had dinner on the top (4th) floor at the Grand Oriental Hotel which offered a very good view of the harbor and that is said to lure people to dine.  I had a good meal even though it was probably more of a western dish.  The 2nd after returning to Colombo from Kandy,  I went to Hilton hotel to have my last supper.  I wanted to choose a local dish and I somehow chose Kottu Roti (which turned out to be a bit like flat rice noodle).  I asked it to be not too spicy and the waiter suggested “median” ?  In a split of second, I said “yes” which was a big mistake.  It turned out to be extremely spicy for me and I should have said “not spicy at all”.  I had to drink tea and ate at the same time to dilute the flavor.  At the end, I probably haven’t finished half of the dish.  Too bad !  Another note about food is that by chance I’ve found it very economical to eat pastries as lunches 🙂  In the Tiffin Hut of the Grand Oriental Hotel (lobby), it may be 70 Rupees; whereas in pastry shops in the streets, it may be only 40 Rupees — what I paid for in Kandy anyway — or even lower.

All in all, though I can’t say that it was an exciting and exhilarating experience of my lifetime, after I could get myself safely back to Hong Kong, I could declare that it’s another interesting experience in another South Asian country 🙂  I had considered trying to take a public bus to go back to the airport and just like what I did in Rio de Janeiro, I could try to observe the day before to find the bus station and see how people get on the bus — both of which were non-trivial in Rio.  Though I succeeded in Rio during daytime, this time was at night and from all the information that I could gather (which was far less than Rio or other places), it’s not clear that the bus going to the airport would still operate late at night (as late as like 8 pm).  At the end, I took the “Kangaroo” taxi again, with a cost of 2400 Rupees ( and it was 2500 Rupees when they picked me up from the airport, both using the Negombo Road instead of the new expressway which have cost 300 Rupees more each way ).  This company’s taxis seemed to be Toyota Prius.  I was lucky that the driver did very well until the very end when he arrived at the kerb of the departure hall and the left front wheel of his taxi somehow hit the kerb.  The hubcap came off and the tire was flat.  I couldn’t help smirking.  ( I know, it’s not nice of me ! )  I have paid him and left quickly worrying that he might want to ask me for money to fix his car.  It’s after 9 pm and I hoped he had a spare tire in his trunk.  ( By the way, people drive on the left side of the road, just like in UK. )

One thing that is convenient in Sri Lanka is that though not all people speak fluent English, seemingly all the useful signs have an English version in addition to those of Sinhala and Tamil.  Of course, if locals with very good English trying to talk to me, I’d avoid them, which was one principle that I have picked up when I travelled in India 12 years ago. Because I felt that people with good English taking initiative to talk to me would most likely be people who would want to rip me off or at least try to gain something from me.  It’s like “cuts” in particle physics analyses that any realistic cut would unavoidably lose some signals (that you want to keep) in addition to backgrounds (that you want to get rid of).  This tactic of mine might have probably cost me many interesting experiences but it might be one thing that have kept me alive.  And one reason for my travelling solo is to avoid talking to people anyway.  However, occasionally when I ignored or refused some very insistent tuk-tuk drivers trying to persuade me to take their rides, I did try a few times to ask them for directions.  It seems that they were hurt the most if I kept ignoring them and they said to me that if I told them where I wanted to go, they’d tell me.  Indeed, when I told them, they really gave me the right direction (even I didn’t get on their tuk-tuks).

One last thing to mention was that my air ticket from Hong Kong to Sri Lanka (and back) was more than US$1000 with CX (for ~5 hours).  By comparison, my CX return ticket between New York (JFK) and Hong Kong (also non-stop) was less than US$1000 (for ~15 hours).  Even though I could find cheaper tickets (like half of the price!) between Hong Kong and Sri Lanka, it’d not be non-stop flights like the ones that I’ve taken and would have easily cost me 10 hours more each way.  This time, I’ve cared more about time than money.  See ?! Money is not necessarily the most important factor.  Otherwise, I should just not travel at all (if I want to save money).

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About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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