Sri Lanka Day 2

We packed a lot into half a day in Colombo yesterday and took a car in the afternoon to Kandy. It’s only 140km but the drive took more than three and half hours. The idea was that we spend the night in Kandy and head out this morning for a four day trek through the Knuckles Mountain Range (more on that later).  Five highlights and observations:

Religion: Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist country with over 70% of its population identifying as Buddhist. Hinduism and Islam are close, representing 13% and 10% of the population respectively, and Christians make up the remaining 7%. Buddhism plays a big role in the country’s culture and its importance is visible everywhere – from art to architecture.  We made a trip to the big Buddha temple in Colombo and later visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy and both are spectacular. Still, it was beautiful to see that smaller Buddhist temples are often flanked by a Hindu temple on one side and a mosque on the other. It really feels like Sri Lanka is very tolerant and accepting of all faiths.

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Food: Sri Lankan food is simply glorious and it shocks me that it’s still relatively unknown in the Western World. Rice features heavily, as do spices and coconut, but it’s all a little unique and clever. One of my favourites is the “hopper”. Made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk, hoppers look like small bowls or baskets that you can fill with sambol, eggs, curry – whatever you fancy really. There are also “string hoppers” which look a little like spaghetti, fashioned into round placemats. Simply divine!

 

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Hoppers, string hoppers, dosa and more for breakfast

Seafood is big in Colombo and “kottu”,  a street food comprising chopped up roti, vegetables and often chicken in a kind of stir fry, is a mainstay. I hear kottu is fast popping up on menus in Toronto and New York.

Tropical Fruit: Sri Lanka also does an amazing job with fruit and you’ll see ramshackle stalls selling fresh finds pretty much everywhere you go. Aside from papaya, king coconut and bananas, there’s guava, sour sop, custard apple, wood apple, pineapple, watermelon and star fruit. One of the more interesting things I found was jackfruit and breadfruit. I’ve seen jackfruit in India and never been a fan, but breadfruit – never heard of it! It turns out to be popular as a curry and could pass for potatoes.

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King Coconuts everywhere

Rain: It rains a LOT in the hill country. Not just in terms of frequency (often all day) but in sheer volume. This is not the lame duck rain of the British Isles, it’s the roof battering, window smattering kind of relentless rain that will rouse you from a good night’s sleep. It also means there’s a lot of mist and fog. I’m not complaining because I like rain (but OK maybe I am a bit).

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Ivory: There’s an awful lot of ivory in Sri Lanka. Massive tusks adorn Buddhist temples and flank the entrance to every shrine. Ivory sculptures and figurines litter holy places. I’m sure (I hope) much of this pre-dates the ban on ivory but it’s still disturbing to see something so obviously cruel being celebrated so widely. We talked to one of the guides about this and he said the government has recently cracked down as part of an agreement with SAARC and that there are plans to burn crates of ivory recently confiscated from poachers.

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Sri Lanka Day 1

Hello almost 2016! It’s been a while since I attempted to capture an adventure. We’ve had some amazing weekend getaways in Australia this year but truth be told, this is the first time I’ve left the country for fun since August. 

In any case, we’re spending the next week in Sri Lanka, eating tropical fruit from roadside stalls, trekking through hills and rainforest and soaking up the sun, sand and sea on the coast of Galle. 

We landed in Colombo late last night and already I love it. I have a pesky habit of comparing every developing country to India and, with Sri Lanka being its neighbour and all, this time is no different. Here’s what I noticed on Day 1: 

1. The Roads: Urban Sri Lankan roads are a dream compared to India — wide, clean, well paved and fast. If you’ve spent any time in Mumbai or Delhi, I know you’ll appreciate this as much as I. There’s no gridlock, no incessant horn blowing, no potholes masquerading as speed bumps and you’re not competing for lane space with Sudha, the cow. We saw most of Colombo on foot or by tuk tuk today and it was smooth sailing.

2. King Coconuts: The first time I saw these I was utterly confused. They’re a golden yellow just like a papaya but they’re up in palm trees and look stout and roundish, rather than oval and elongated. Turns out they’re a species of coconut native to Sri Lanka that beat the pants off the regular old green coconut when it comes to coconut water. In fact, they’re harvested solely for their water, and produce no meat. King Coconut water is packed with electrolytes, vitamins and minerals and features prominently in Sri Lankan Ayurvedic remedies. You can buy a fresh King Coconut at just about every roadside shack and have the top cut off and a straw stuck in. The trees themselves are everywhere — there’s literally a King Coconut tree every 15 metres on the drive from Colombo to Kandy. Coming soon to a [fancy grocery chain] near you. 

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3. Wood Apple juice: If you haven’t heard of or tried a wood apple, you’re not alone. This is a small round fruit native to the Indian subcontinent, and better known under the local name “bael” (pronounced “bale” like a hay bale). While it’s smooth and un-intimidating on the outside, it’s quite alien looking on the inside and yields a sweet and sour flavour probably best described as an acquired taste. I’ve never been much of a fan but the juice itself is intriguing. Extremely popular in Sri Lanka and parts of South India, Wood Apple juice is packed with anti-oxidants. Its anti microbial and anti inflammatory properties give it a cooling effect on the body and make it a potent digestif. Super fruit of 2016?
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4. Lush: I’ve been to plenty of tropical countries but when it comes to green vegetation, I think Sri Lanka’s probably hard to beat. Driving through the southern highlands, there are palm trees, banana trees, mango trees and much more as far as the eye can see. The grass is truly green and the hills are wooly with shrubs. Just 5-10 degrees north of the equator, Sri Lanka’s temperatures changes little throughout the year and it gets plenty of rainfall, which no doubt contributes to the gorgeous, verdant landscape.
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5. Population: Colombo looks the way I’d imagine Delhi or Bombay to look 25 years ago, or probably the way they did look 25 years ago. It’s clean, civilised, safe and there’s little poverty to be seen. There are plenty of women out and about and even the roadside shacks look clean and germ free. That’s not to say it’s sparsely populated — quite the contrary. Home to 20 million people, Sri Lanka is like taking all the people in Australia and squeezing them into Tasmania.