It wasn’t what we had planned to do, but it was how it played out, and was an amusing experience, to say the least. Back in 2015, we decided to spend a couple of weeks crossing Sri Lanka from coast to coast, from Colombo to Trincomalee on the eastern shore. It wasn’t a backpacking trip as such, we had backpacks but we’d booked the accommodation ahead, however we’d kept the spirit of adventure alive by making no plans for transport in between.
Colombo is an incredibly difficult place to hit after an overnight long haul flight, it’s a massively humid and unbelievably loud city, and as chaotic as any Indian city we’ve visited since. The driver of the airport bus had abandoned his task in gridlocked traffic, leaving us hot and tired and loaded with backpacks in a crazy chaotic market with no idea where our hotel was. Harsh introduction to an unforgiving city.
Actually the first leg of the trip wasn’t on the road, as we took the famous rail journey from Colombo to Kandy, an enormously enjoyable trip it was, too. Our short stay in Kandy coincided with the Perahera festival, a wonderfully exciting and colourful fiesta where the regally adorned elephants take centre stage. We stayed in a family hotel, the Natashiya, just up the hill and overlooking Kandy’s famous town centre lake, and began talking to the guys there about how to get to our next destination, Sigiriya, knowing that the railway could only take us to within twenty miles or so. It was the brothers at Natashiya who suggested we take their friend’s tuk-tuk, so with backpacks stored vertically behind us we crammed in the back and set off on the 56-mile journey.
Of course, our driver stopped at his cousin’s spice farm and a couple of other places where no doubt he was on an earner, but we rattled through the 56 miles with a smile on our face, and trundled up to the lobby at Hotel Sigiriya, a rather decent hotel, none the worse for our amusing journey.
Whilst in the wonderful little town of Sigiriya, we befriended a local tuk-tuk driver, Mangala, who had been introduced to us on our first morning there as the only driver with any English. Mangala ferried us around throughout our stay in Sigiriya, and so of course it was to him we turned for advice on the best way to get to Trincomalee.
Given that this journey is even longer, at 64 miles, we were a bit sceptical when Mangala suggested he takes us on his rickety tuk-tuk , but he was such a nice guy that we couldn’t say no. In truth, Mangala made it a great experience, stopping for chai, king coconuts, and a tasty lunch en route, and taking time to stop at points of interest.
One such stop was at Lake Kantale, also called Kantale Tank, where Mangala took time to talk about the Sri Lankan Civil War. The Sinhal and the Tamils fought fiercely for over two decades from 1983 to 2009, so at the time of our visit memories were still raw. He recounted how the Tamils had breached the dam at Kantale, flooding the valleys and villages below and killing large numbers of innocent women and children. He couldn’t hide his emotion and tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke.
We bid our fond farewells to Mangala outside the Trinco Beach Hotel, the staff once again amused by our unorthodox arrival.
So over the two journeys, we’d travelled over 120 miles on the back of a tuk-tuk, never mind the large number of rides at the various locations in between, and in Trincomalee afterwards. We enjoyed every minute, and love having the story to tell. And saw that part of Sri Lanka up close.