Brenda and Brent - Trip Diary

Sri Lanka - Nov 5 to Nov 26, 2003.

The Sri Lanka diary consists of this page of pictures and Brenda's diary.

Our flights from South Africa to Sri Lanka went off without a hitch. The only problem was that we started in Capetown from Jan's house at 6:30 in the morning and arrived in Sri Lanka at 12:50 am two days later (minus a 4 hour time change) right on schedule. It seems that most airline activity in Sri Lanka takes place within a couple of hours of midnight. We leave Sri Lanka at 2:50 am on Nov 26!

The Sri Lanka map now shows our route. The map does not show all the roads we actually used, but in the main we stuck to national roads - the A class roads. The Sri Lankans call these carpet roads - suggesting a very smooth ride. There is considerable variation along a given road - only in a very few places did they seem like carpets to me. Brenda calls them shag rugs!

Our route was counterclockwise from the airport.

The yellow line shows the sections we actually cycled - about 550Km in total. Much less distance than in Spain, but cycling in Sri Lanka is more difficult. First, the roads and traffic are pretty weird. Second, it is very hot much of the time - we were often cycling at temperatures between 35 and 40 degrees centigrade. Third, in most places it is very humid. There were times when our clothes would not dry out - they just seemed to get wetter and wetter as the days passed. Books changed shape. We are dried out now and it is a very nice change.

The long green line a van ride we took to avoid retracing our route too much.

The short green line in the middle is a van ride we took to avoid a 900 metre climb in the rain at 4pm.

We had visited Sri Lanka for 1 day on our cruise - back before the world was going to end with Y2K and all - and really enjoyed it. However, we only saw a small area around Colombo. This time we are going to see some of the Ancient Cities - the palaces and temples built between 1500 and 1000 years ago, as well as the tea country in the Highlands.

First though, a few general observations about Sri Lanka. Brenda has written up her diary for most of the Sri Lanka part of the trip.


We felt like spacemen for the first few days. As we approached an isolated house or small town, often people would come running out to the front door of their house to watch us, to wave to us, to shout Hello.

We must have said hello a hundred times the first day cycling, probably more. We waved to more babies and small children than Brian Mulroney. We got more beaming smiles in return than imaginable. For small children especially, seeing a foreigner cycling by seemed to be quite a big deal.

It turns out that appearance is important in Sri Lanka - perhaps more so than in Canada. A wealthy important person (since we are foreigners we must be wealthy and hence important) would no more be seen on a bicycle than in flagrante delecto.

So, what exactly are these people doing cycling along in their weird clothes (he is wearing this bright red shirt, she is wearing shorts!!) through their small town?

It was a mystery to them. Sometimes, it was a bit of a mystery to me. One day a Sri Lankan on a motorcycle pulled up beside me and asked me why we were cycling. We drove along together for 5 minutes discussing the Sri Lankan attitude to physical exercise (adults don't do it) compared to the Canadian attitude. It struck me as an attitude that would have been very common when I was a child - its ok for kids to cycle around, but adults would never do it. Perhaps in 50 years adult Sri Lankans will be cycling their own country (perhaps even Canada) for recreation.

The other side of saying hello to people is the people who want to sell you something, or ask for something.

Shop owners often would shout a big Hello, then say "Come Come Come" inviting us into their shop to look at what they had for sale. This was not too bad.

Some children would say hello, then ask for money, or for a pen, or, in a final try, for a candy. This must work sometimes, or they would not do it. I am not sure yet what is going on here, but I don't think I like it.

Later on, in some towns, the older boys - the street wise school boys - had a bit more in mind than wanting to greet foreigners. I have no idea what, but they often followed up their hello with a snide sort of laughter and something in Sinhalese. It turned us both off the being open to people, when perhaps it should not have.

Your attitude has a big effect on their attitude. If we cycled along and did not look at people and smile at them, there were no smiles and hellos. If we looked at them and smiled, they were ready to give us their biggest smile in return.

In any case, cycling through a small village or just past a few houses along the road certainly gives you a far different view of life in Sri Lanka than from the inside of a tour bus. This could be the big value in cycling to see a country like Sri Lanka - something we would not expect in New Zealand.


We both had some trouble dealing with the people who offer services to tourists. Often they would approach us (obvious marks) and start up a conversation. Eventually it would turn out they had a service to offer. Salt of the earth, doing this for international good will, etc.

The first tout was at the airport when we arrived. He arranged a van and a hotel for us - not bad when you arrive at midnight in a strange land. He told us the rate for the hotel was $30, got us to pay him for two nights, then put us in the van and sent us on our way. When we tried to extend for another night, the desk person said they could not extend at the same rate - $15 a night - they would have to charge us $20 a night.

Now, he helped us when we needed help, but we would probably have felt better about the whole transaction if he had admitted his fees up front. We both grumbled a bit about this.

There were other examples and we both handled them badly. We should not let this sort of thing annoy us - we should blow them off and move on. I expect we will have more of this type of thing in Thailand. Hopefully we will handle it better there.

The Pictures

Enough foreplay, on with the pictures ...

Since we are cycling, we should show you how driving works in Sri Lanka.

The truck on the left is being passed by the white pickup. The guy on the motorcycle has moved over to the far side of the road to let this happen.

This is not anarchy, just a different set of driving rules in which people try to make the narrow roads with no pull offs for buses as efficient as possible.

The person wanting to pass taps his horn to warn the person being passed then pulls out to pass. If a pass is even remotely possible, the passer speeds up and moves into this sort of position. At this point, the person passing appears to have the right of way over all other traffic. If someone is coming, the passed vehicle and the oncoming vehicle must make room either by slowing or moving to the shoulder or both. In this case, the guy on the motorcycle headed for the shoulder.

For a cyclist who does not want to go off the paved part of the road, it is important to take the lane early - don't look like you will go for the shoulder or the person wanting to pass will take that as an offer and make the pass. If you look like you want to stay in the lane, the passer usually backs off and waits.

We operated like this for almost 600km at an average of 15kph, or about 40 hours of cycling. It gets a little tiring after a while. The tension of always hearing the honk of someone starting a pass somewhere, the diesel exhaust (trucks like the one on the left in this picture are the worst), the high heat, and the 100% humidity almost all the time make cycling in Sri Lanka a challenge.

OK, back to the trip.

We spent a couple of days in the busy commercial/tourist town of Negombo.

We took a small 3 wheeler into town to try to locate an ATM and check the place out. As the guide book says, there is not much here outside your hotel.

You can see there are people using bicycles. Some school kids have them, along with people like this man. I think he uses his bicycle in his work, deliverying small packages. On one long ride I was passed by an old man on a bicycle like this (left behind by the British after WW II?) and never caught him.

The green streamers you can see across the street are in fact an expression of the political struggle taking place in Sri Lanka today. They are green (in case your monitor is as bad as the screen on my laptop) the colour of the political party of the Prime Minister. He appears to be the good guy for most Sri Lankans these days. He is pushing pretty hard for a peace settlement with the Tamils, and getting lots of international support - both diplomatic and economic.

While he was away in the U.S., the Sri Lankan president, whose party favours the colour blue, feeling that he was giving away the country to the Tamils, tried to redirect the peace process.

So you put up streamers to support your side in this debate.

So, rested up but out of shape after 4 weeks in an RV, we headed out onto the roads of Sri Lanka, looking for ancient cities.

What we found was flat tires. Like with Brenda's bicycle in Spain, all my flats occurred in the rear tire. We are asking a lot of these tires - we are each carrying 30 to 40 pounds of stuff in our panniers. Guess we should have gotten better tires. We should have at least replace the rear tires - removing a rear wheel to fix a flat is far worse, and far dirtier, than removing a front wheel.

The first flat I fixed in the shade of a tree beside an outdoor truck garage. I was baking, the sweat was pouring off my forehead into my eyes, onto my glasses, and the guys who worked in the garage wandered over to watch me work. The pressure! Rich white guy not only rides a bicycle, but he also fixes his own flats!

A few kilometers down the road and I got another flat. Upended the bicycle beside the road and started to work again when this man, the owner of the plantation, invited us up to his house to work on the bicycle in the shade and have a drink of the water of a king coconut.

Well, as you can see, the heat is still getting to me. That is me in the green South Africa cycling shirt. I may look near death, but I survived.

While we think of cycling as a normal activity, this man was a little surprised. He said that someone of Brenda's rank in government would always have a motorcade in Sri Lanka. I was about ready to take him up on that, but Brenda opted for the simple life.

Our first day cycling here, three flats (I finally replaced the tube and have had no flats since) and then our first downpour while cycling. We stopped under a large tree in front of this home and the young man in the picture invited us in for tea until the rain stopped.

Both he and his sister (beside Brenda in the blue t-shirt which she changed into for the picture) hope to work in a foreign country to make enough money to raise their standard of living in Sri Lanka. She is a graduate engineer, he is just starting engineering.

They too wondered why we would cycle if we could afford better.

As well as tea, they gave us a piece of what they call a pear. Brenda appears to be still trying to eat this strange bit of cellulose. She is so well brought up.

Afternoon rain seems a part of life in most areas we travelled. If we started late or tried to cover too much distance, we often ended up under a tree for 10 to 20 minutes waiting out a storm. Later we arranged our days to avoid cycling after 3pm.

Our first day cycling was through the lowlands in the western part of the country - where all available land is devoted to rice paddies.

This is how they plow the paddies! He was moving at a rate of about 5 steps a minute.

Not very efficient, but it means a lot of people have jobs.

Ah, time for lunch and we found a truck stop. Fortunately, one of the other diners spoke a fair amount of English and took control - helping us order lunch.

The standard lunch everywhere is rice and curry. This is a large plate of white rice with 3 or 4 or more little bowls, each with a different curry - usually vegetable curry. There is a picture of a rice and curry meal below.

The meal cost 100 rupees - about $1.40 CDN.

We felt like natives.

At the ocean, they pretend there are no biting insects. You can get air conditioning, but there are no mosquito nets. However, most doors and windows fit so poorly, bugs have no problem making it into the room for a midnight snack.

In the mid-level regions they admit there are mosquitos - you get rooms with air-conditioning and mosquito nets. At higher levels, they omit the A/C but continue with the mosquito nets. At the highest levels, you get neither.

Here we got both. And a hotel with only one other room in use - as far as we could tell. A bit of a surprise for us, but it became something we expected - lots of staff, not many rooms, not many guests. In one place there were two tables for dinner, but four chefs and two waiters, as well as other senior management. (I suspect some criminal organization was running its illegal profits through the hotel/restaurant.)

This hotel, in Dambulla, served this rice and curry meal. The curries include Dahl (lentil), green bean, egg plant, banana, potatoes, a chutney, a spinach, ...

Sri Lanka is a very small country. Most tourists stay at the coast and day trip to the ancient cities. Places like this cater to bus loads of tourists wanting lunch - feed 40 people quickly and send them on to the sites. The rice curry lunch is great for this and many places offer this type of meal only at lunch time.

In fact, this is a buffet - if you finish a dish they refill it unless you ask them to stop.

Disneyland meets ancient cities. Advertised as the largest sitting Buddha. Try not to see where the gold paint has chipped off and not been repaired.

The rock caves at Dambulla are a second rank tourist spot. The locals are doing a lot to make the whole place a little fancier - perhaps in hopes of getting some people to tour out of Dambulla rather than the coast hotels.

The caves are up on the side of this big rock. It looks like they have increased the size of natural caves by shipping away at the rock, then filled the larger cave with buddha figures. You are not supposed to take pictures. I took a few but it is hard to get a sense of the cave from pictures.

Here is a pan, a combination of several pictures taken from the top of the rock at Dambulla. While there are lots of people in this country, none of them are visible from here - no homes, very few farms.

Here is the next ancient city - Sigiriya - as seen from Dambulla, about 20km away.
And here it is up close - a 160 metre (530 feet) tall rock sitting on the plain, with nothing around it.

There is a route up the rock - working from the bottom up the right side, then across the face just above the tree line here (you can see a yellow area across the face that is the route), then up some stairs to the area on the back left. From there it is up a set of steel staircases built into the rock to the top.

This is approximately how the rock was climbed back when it was first turned into a palace and fortress.

The real treat here though is what they built on the top of the rock - a complete living area for the king and a select few of his 500 wives.

This is a picture of a poster - my camera does not include levitation among its features.

All that is left is the foundations, but archeologists have interpreted the functions of the various rooms. The swimming pool is obvious (although not visible in this shot), the rest we have to accept.

The swimming pool was made by chipping a big square hole in the top of the rock - probably 50 feet by 100 feet by 6 or 8 feet deep. It depended entirely on rain, but was probably full for a good portion of the year. The thing is that they had only stone tools - they just banged away with harder rocks on the softer rocks until they had a swimming pool. It is said that the whole thing was built in 7 years!

Climbing this (1032 steps?) was a hoot. The view from the top was pretty nice as well.

The rock is also famous for a large series of frescoes of women - of which this is one of the few remaining examples. The guide claimed this had not been retouched - it was the original paint in plaster painting. The colours were pretty good for 1600 years.

There are few of these remaining. When the king died the rock reverted to being a Buddhist monastery and the monks removed most of the paintings. These few that survived were in a small cave about 40 feet above the normal walking route. Perhaps the stairs to this part were lost and not replaced so removal was not necessary or possible. Now they are reached by two steel spiral staircases.

The king had to live downstairs some of the time - in the dry season (or was it the wet season he lived down below?), so he had a set of formal gardens at ground level as well. The area in the top left (not the one with the water in it now, the one above that) is one of 4 large swimming pools, which still fills in the rainy season.

You get an idea of the amount of restoration that has been done from this. On the other side of the path is another swimming pool that has not been restored.

Here we are roughing it in Sri Lanka.

This is the deck at the rest house in Polonnaruwa. That is Brenda trying to cope. What a brave face she puts on.

These rest houses are government owned and run hotels that were once the best places to stay. The manager in a rest house we stayed in much later told us that there was a royal room at this rest house - Queen Elizabeth had stayed there in 1953, shortly after becoming Her Highness.

They have been living off past glories since then. The bathroom in our room leaked during rain storms and things were generally pretty well run down.

Of course, trying to maintain a hotel with only 10 rooms does not work unless people are willing to pay big money for those rooms. Their business model failed 50 years ago, the buildings are almost run down after all that time.

We are here at the end of the dry season, so the reservoir (they call them tanks) is almost empty. When full, the water comes right up to the wall in front. At this time of the year, this is the town ablution area.

Polonnaruwa has an extensive set of ruins, representing hundreds of years of habitation.

As power structures rose and fell, the forest took over and hid many of the buildings. In the late 1800's the British started looking for and restoring many of these sites. I assume they also took most of the better bits back home with them.

However, there are still lots of old pieces of sculpted rock in many interesting styles.

They liked their swimming pools back then - every good ancient city has one.

This pool is about 250 metres from the reservoir. I think it was fed from the reservoir and could be emptied into the neighbouring canal (only about 30 metres away).

This is a formal building of state - the king met in council here.

You have to imagine a few more floors, walls, roofs of different kinds, etc.

In the foreground you can see the remains of a fire brick (clay bricks that had been cured in a fire) wall. This wall surrounded the entire area, is several feet wide and several feet high. It formed a bit of a defense, but not enough to prevent the place from being conquered by invaders from India several times over the years.

Remains of these wall run all around the more imposing ruins, but form a pretty impressive bit of design and work in themselves.

This is a temple - amazing well preserved and restored.
This is another type of temple - buddhist this time.
This is one of four entrances to that temple, with the best preserved Buddha.

The temptation is almost too much.

This is a column from a building in which people sat and listened to religious verses being read. Pretty neat column. Wonder if it helped them concentrate on the readings?
Then some tout came along and talked us into a safari. So much for ruins for that day.

The animals are mostly in the parks, but the parks charge a lot for entry and insist you hire a tracker as well. The result is the locals find back roads into the parks and omit to pay the money the parks charge. If we had any integrity, we would have insisted on going through the front door (says Brent who is currently deep into Principle-centered Leadership, but at the time was just another cheap tourist looking for a way to save a buck).

In any case, we ended up finding lots of elephants - the Indian version. These are smaller and can be domesticated (I don't think African elephants have exactly been domesticated). These are wild, but seem to be indifferent to our presence after the first couple of minutes.

Note that only one elephant has tusks. Finding even one with tusks is pretty good - only 1% have any tusks here. So what environmental force produced this difference from African elephants? Did these elephants lose their tusks or never have them?

This is Brenda, queen of the jungle, who appears to have lost some of her fear of elephants.
This is the bicycle storage area at the rest house - bikes chained up to the column in front of our room.

The gaudily clad man on the left is our tout - Jana - who set up the jungle drive and drove us and our bikes to Kandy the next day.

The waiter, removing the evidence of our before dinner beer, was a pretty nice chap who took good care of us during our stay at the rest house. Often at these places you will see the same waiter at breakfast as at lunch and dinner and after dinner in the bar. Interesting working arrangement.

The person in the black blouse is the same I get nervous around touts person we just saw in her earlier role as queen of the jungle.

Just had to throw in one more Buddha. Caves and temples often have many similar statues.
In Kandy, we spent a day at the fantastic Peradeniya Gardens. A huge area (57 hectares, 150? acres) they have an amazing collection of plants from around the world, specializing in tropical species of course.

The orchid house has mostly native orchids though.

This is one of the formal areas - visually stunning when you come upon it.
They also have a bunch of trees planted by various exalted persons over the years.

The writing on the lower left is Sinhalese - a very different form of writing. That on the right is Tamil - arabic looking.

This is a fig tree.

You can see, aside from the amazing root systems, that this area is favoured by couples. One presumes that they have few other opportunities for time alone.

In fact, couples in deep discussion were all over the park. As well, there were many family gatherings. This park gets heavily used by the locals. Although there are lots of tourists in Kandy, we did not see many in the park this day.

We did see a pair of English bird watchers though, kitted our in their standard bird watching clothes with all the pockets for guide books, note pads, binoculars, spotting scopes, ... Felt just like home.

This is a pretty amazing tree, and if you look carefully you can see me out in the middle of the field determining its spread by striding across the field (62 strides if you must know).
From the low or mid-level area of Kandy we cycled and got some help from a van to reach the heights - Nuwara Eliya. There is a remote chance that had it not started to rain we might have cycled the last 25 kilometers and 900 metres of vertical - very remote.

This is a typical tea plantation. The pickers walk down the narrow rows between the tea plants picking off the last two or three leaves of each stem. The entire process is labour intensive and is probably being done today in almost exactly the same was it was done 150 years ago.

Here are the pickers at work. They have canvas bags on their backs (well not actually canvas, the modern synthetic equivalent) hanging from straps around their heads. The pickers are all women and all short - short enough that they can pick the leaves without bending.
In these hilly regions they are able to grow crops other than tea by elaborate terracing. This area appears to be mostly rice paddies, but other areas were used for standard vegetables.
Brenda was pretty happy with the room we got in Nuwara Eliya.
This is the mountain called Adam's Peak.

There is a pilgrim route up this peak, a 7km walk that is done in December and January. Most pilgrims do the climb at night, aiming to be at the buddhist temple at the top at sunrise.

Wiser heads prevailed on this one and we did not climb it. Next time though, the kids will get their way!

From Nuwara Eliya, we took a day trip to an area called Horton Plains. It is a National Park as well as a place with interesting views - weather permitting. We got the views, but the pictures do not tell the story at all.

So, here is another pan - from a hillside looking around the park area. The software that stitches these pictures together had a lot of trouble with this one, so it took manual matching at every seam.

There is a small waterfall in the park, Baker Falls, quite a splendid sight.

We spent another 5 days wending our way back down from the hills to the starting place near the airport. We had some good hotels, and some not so good hotels, but all in all had a lot of fun and mostly good weather. Right now we are back in our original hotel in Negombo, cooling off before dinner.

Tomorrow night we get back on the plane and head off to Bangkok.

The Bottom Line

Sri Lanka is a third world country. You can come here and stay at first world hotels, ride in first world buses, eat in first world restaurants. No problem.

You can come here expecting a third world country, live in local hotels, take local buses, eat in local restaurants. Again, if that is what you want and expect, that is what you will get.

I think we both wanted a bit more first world stuff, while spending time in third world areas. I react badly to any kind of biting insect - something that many people do not even notice. So, I want a hotel that does not have biting insects in the rooms. In many places, there are no such hotels.

In spite of some small annoyances (diesel exhaust, for example) it is a beautiful country, with a lot of very nice, helpful, smiling people. If only a few more of them cycled for fun ...

Hong Kong

We actually spent 12 hours in Hong Kong between South Africa and Sri Lanka. We had already been traveling for 20 hours when we got there, so were a little tired already. We took the very nice train into town and tried to look around to see what was what. Brenda had been here several times on business and loves the city.
However, the city is greatly changed in the last 15 years. This is one of the newest buildings. I don't think it has any occupants yet.

It is right in the heart of the downtown, an area now made up almost entirely of high rise buildings with no street life. Lots of cabs and buses, but no interesting shops. Could be anywhere.

This building right now seems to be little more than a billboard. Interesting technology that lets them build a sign that large they can stick onto the building, but still just a large billboard. Not a good welcome to a city.

We took the cable car to the top of the hill - only to be greeted by a Ripley's - Believe it or Not. Now, I know it is owned by Jimmy Pattison and makes a lot of money, but it is not why I came to Hong Kong.

We ended up taking a harbour cruise, since it was about the only thing to do. What you see, aside from high rise office buildings is high rise apartment buildings, as far as the eye can see. This turns out to not be very far, since there is so much smog (the pilot even warned this as we started the descent into Hong Kong). As the tour boat moved along the harbour, the apartment blocks kept appearing out of the smog.

This is one of the few bits of the old Hong Kong left - the old clock tower.

I have read perhaps 6 paperbacks set in Hong Kong in the years before 1950, sometimes much before. They paint a very different picture of the city.

Back to the main page this way