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.
We mentioned our tuk-tuk driver Mangala in our last blog. During the few days we spent in Sigiriya, Mangala ferried us around in his tuk-tuk, this gave us such an insight into Sri Lanka and its people which developed into a show of Sri Lankan hospitality and friendship and a plethora of memories which will stay with us always.
Being Buddhist, Mangala has a very gentle and caring nature and so his spiritual roots lead to the same ritual at the start of each journey. Just outside the village he would stop his tuk-tuk next to a roadside shrine, pick a flower from the surrounding vegetation place it at Buddha’s feet and offer a prayer for Buddha to keep us safe, such a touching moment at the start of our day. This whole ritual would then be repeated as we returned to the village, this time offering a thank you for returning us safely, we felt privileged to be in the care of Mangala…. and Buddha.
Apart from our choice of temples and ancient sites, Mangala proudly took us to hidden gems, places not mentioned in our guide book, places where only the locals go, giant temples hidden in the jungle, places so remote, so peaceful, so beautiful. He took the time to tell us the importance and history of these special places, clearly proud of his heritage.
After a couple of days in Sigirya on our return to the village, Mangala said “would you like a beer?” We looked at each other, did we hear right? This village with no bars, no alcohol in the eateries and Mangala is asking if we want beer! Of course we said yes and we set off down a dirt track in the jungle and came to a small clearing in the trees and a rickety shack, a number of tuk-tuks randomly parked outside. We followed Mangala into the shack and to our amazement it was full of locals all with bottles of beer, it appeared to be where the tuk-tuk drivers go at the end of their day before returning home for dinner. We find a table, Phil & Mangala go to the bar to buy the beers, and it is a bar in more ways than one……. the barman is behind bars, keeping the alcohol safe, and hands the bottles of beer through to his customers. The beers opened, a bit of newspaper rammed in the top to keep the flies out, we sit amongst the locals in this strange Jungle bar. The locals are as amused as we are, this is possibly the first time a lady has entered this male dominated drinking den and almost certainly Michaela is the first blonde lady from a distant land to drink beer with them. There is much laughter and Sinhal chatter, no clue what they were saying.
We were so honoured by the next development. Our friendship growing, Mangala invited us to dinner at his home, of course we were delighted by this offer and accepted excitedly. He explained that he had a very poor home but would like us to go there for dinner as we were very nice people and he wanted to thank us, he said that most people didn’t treat him the way that we did. He took us to briefly meet his wife and explained that we would be coming to dinner with them tomorrow. Back at our hotel we couldn’t believe our luck, to be invited into their home, eat their food, learn about life in Sri Lanka, this is going to be a fantastic experience! We went straight on the internet to research what gift we should take for our hosts and the do’s and don’ts, we certainly didn’t want to offend anyone!
And so Mangala collected us from our hotel, he had changed from his western style jeans and t-shirt in favour of a sarong. We trundled through the maze of dusty dirt tracks in the village and arrived at his house, a small single storey dwelling surrounded by lush jungle vegetation. We were beckoned inside. Leaving our shoes outside we entered, the single reception room sparsely furnished, skimmed concrete floor, an occasional picture hanging on the pink walls, a TV and an oversized music system and speakers. Around the room were 4 doorways, just curtains for doors, we later learned that there were 3 bedrooms and a kitchen, no bathroom. We were introduced to the family, a series of greeting, bowing with hands together as if in prayer, Mangala’s wife, his young son & daughter, Mum & Dad and finally Grandma. She was fascinating, sat in a chair at the far end of the room watching and waiting until all the introductions were done, then stood up, she was so tiny, frail and looked a great age, she shuffled over to us smiled and bowed, Michaela held her hands and bowed to her, she turned round and shuffled back to her chair to cast a watchful eye over the evening ahead. We offered our gifts, choice was very limited in the village but the biscuits were well received and the lollipops for the children were a hit. We then experienced probably the most awkward 20 minutes of our lives, Mangala said “I am going to get beer, I won’t be long” and on that he was gone, leaving us with his family who couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak Sinhal, we all stood and stared at each other desperately thinking of how to communicate. We spoke to the children and the word school was understood, Mangala’s son then filled in the time showing us his school books.
Mangala returned with the beer and we were presented with the next surprise of the evening. The beer was just for the 3 of us, we were lead outside into the garden, the rest of the family excluded as if they were just the staff! We enjoyed a couple of hours talking with Mangala, his garden was the Jungle and he delighted in demonstrating what to do if the elephants come too close to the vegetables tended by his wife, he said “if the dog barks, the elephants are here and I light a firework to scare them” he proceeded to fetch a device which he threw into the trees, it exploded, it was loud enough to wake the dead let alone scare a herd of elephants!
We were then summoned into the house, it’s time for dinner. Through the curtain the kitchen table was covered in newspaper keeping the flies off the meal. The food was revealed and we were told to sit down, it was at this moment that we realised there were only 2 chairs, and this was the next surprise of the evening. We took our seats in front of this banquet with the family all stood in a line along the wall staring at us. Right, what is happening now? We beckon them to join us, Mangala explained that they wouldn’t be eating with us, it’s not the done thing. We were to feast on this food cooked by his wife and Mum and they would eat what is left, this really wasn’t what we were expecting, their custom is worlds apart from ours and it felt just a little uncomfortable. We did however manage to talk Mangala to sit and eat with us, so the rest of the family melted away behind the curtain leaving us to continue our sociable evening with Mangala over dinner. And dinner was delicious, the ladies of the house must have been cooking for hours, so many dishes, chicken curry, vegetable curry, drumsticks (the vegetable) dried fish, boiled eggs, rice, salad and more unknown dishes, a banquet fit for the queen! We tucked in, the flavours unknown and fantastic, so delicious, we had our fill and as Mangala kept offering us more we were only too aware that the rest of the family would only had our leftovers, we politely declined, we certainly didn’t want this family to go hungry. As soon as we had eaten it was made clear that it was time to go, Mangala wrapped up a hand of bananas in newspaper, gave it to us as a gift and said he would take us back to the hotel. We said our goodbyes to the family and came to the end of one fantastic experience.
We felt honoured to have experienced an evening with Mangala and his family, they are such good hearted people. This poor family in a poor region of Sri Lanka, opened their humble abode and shared what little they had, this is Sri Lankan hospitality, this was a truly humbling experience.
It is now 3 years since this experience, we still keep in touch with Mangala, we have sent gifts from England to him and his family, including English books for his son, in Mangala’s words “I have the happiest son in Sri Lanka”. One day we hope to return and we know we will be greeted with open arms.
Having spent time in four very different locations it’s not really appropriate to give blanket opinions, but these notes might help you if this region is on your list…
We’ll start with people. Malays are an extremely polite, well mannered race who seem universally kind and helpful. As we said in the blog, it’s hard to imagine them ever losing their temper; they are calm and content people with impeccable manners, the worst you will encounter is a quiet one. They ooze respect. Singaporeans are similar, though as city dwellers they are, understandably, slightly less engaging, but they have an extra, alluring side. Strict rules abound in Singapore, and it’s hard not to be pleasantly amused by their obedient nature; the metro system is full of messages about polite behaviour and respectful conduct, and everyone obeys. The city is impeccably clean; nobody drops litter, and smokers stand and smoke in designated areas rather than walk along smoking; dropping butts is an offence. It all makes it a rather nice place to be. Our advice is to make sure you are doubly aware of all of the rules, fines for infringement are heavy. The politeness extends to shopkeepers and even stallholders, this is definitely not the hard sell of Morocco or India.
A shawl over the shoulders and covered knees are enough in most temples, though some of the more important ones need a headscarf for the ladies. Away from the temples, shorts are OK everywhere and female vest tops don’t raise eyebrows or cause offence. Even when we stopped at a remote Hindu temple in travelling outfits, we were welcomed into the outer areas without hesitation. Remember though, the people here exude respect and it’s obviously important that visitors follow suit. Be at your most polite.
Malaysia’s roads are of good quality, even across country, and signposting is accurate and easy to follow. One way car hires though are a little scarce due to the limited number of accepted drop off points. Public transport in both KL and Singapore is first class: clean, extensive, cheap and efficient and as easy to use as anywhere we’ve been. In both cities, buy a prepaid card for the best value, then top up as necessary, it’s far better than joining the long queues at ticket booths. Singapore’s streets are badly congested and progress can be slow, particularly on rainy days. Our advice is to use the metro as much as you can and keep taxi use to a minimum. Walking in Singapore is OK, though humid, KL is generally not so pedestrian friendly.
Throughout Malaysia, all of the essentials were cheap: food, soft drinks, fresh juices, tea and coffee, petrol, and car hire, is all considerably cheaper than at home. All of our driving was done on £12 worth of petrol and not on any occasion anywhere did a meal cost over £10 for the two of us, often less. Beer costs more than dinner. Some items such as guided walks and ferry crossings are slightly disproportionate though you still wouldn’t call them expensive. For Singapore, start allowing a multiplier for everything, especially alcohol and anything around the more touristy areas like the Quays. £22 for 2 beers is steep anywhere. Malaysia, even KL, is cheap; Singapore isn’t. ATMs have English text options in both countries and are very straightforward; and a good tip is to change Malaysian money into Singapore dollars at or just before the border crossing, rates are reasonable and you don’t get ripped off (we used a money change bureau at Johor Baru bus station). You will need cash outside of the main conurbations; cards are though expected, let alone accepted, in the cities.
Now this is a tricky one, again due to our disparate locations. Malay food was initially delicious; KL, and Kampung Baru in particular, offers fabulous and authentic street food at great value. The devil seems to be in the detail; a coconut based curry will be an aftertaste rather than dominant, spice combinations are both delicate and exciting at the same time. The dishes can be extremely spicy but remain tasty; we’re not talking the Vindaloo type of curry which destroys your taste buds, these are dishes which get better as you eat them, not worse. Malays love moist chewy textures, like rice pounded with coconut milk until a lovely chewy consistency, then quickly dipped in deep fry to give a crispy coating. Bloody lovely!
However, there then came a big “but”. As we moved to the more remote areas of Taman Negara and Tioman, everything became hugely more repetitive, it’s basically a noodle dish or a rice dish three times a day, with omelettes and pancakes pretty much the only viable alternatives. No matter what you choose, the ingredients stay the same and only the sauce changes, and some of those changes are rather subtle. We were therefore very grateful for the fresh fish on Tioman, as even the outstandingly good dishes like sambal are, at the end of the day, still a rice dish. It’s fair to say we grew a bit sick of “rice or noodles” by the end of it, and the unbelievable choices presented in Singapore came as a welcome relief. But do remember the good comments at the start of this paragraph; it’s good food, it’s just that you can have too much of a good thing, too often.
We’ve covered this in a previous post. Best advice is, make Singapore your last call, you can make up for lost time there!
As ever, we took risks, and this time, unusually, we both had a bout of tummy rot. But then, we were in remote places and ate with the locals as much as we could; we took iced drinks in those remote areas, which we all know is risky, so we probably only have ourselves to blame for that one. The humidity is extreme, hence the concession for iced drinks, and, on Tioman in particular, the biting sand flies were rife. We recommend immodium, very lightweight clothing and the most powerful insect repellent you can find!
It’s been brilliant, and probably the most varied trip we’ve ever done in terms of content. The two city breaks were great, with Singapore an outstanding destination which needs a lot longer than the two days we gave it. We both want to return. The jungle experience was magnificent, quite different from anywhere else we’ve been; and Tioman truly is a paradise island and a beautiful location. It rained a bit too much, but hey. Make sure you avoid the monsoon season, the timing of which differs across the peninsula.