Sri Lanka – January 2020
So it started like this…
“I’d really like some winter sun, fed up with the weather this winter” (Me)
“I’ll vote for that”
Much internet activity later we realised that the only place with great weather was the Middle East. I’d been there and Fiona didn’t fancy it so where else?
“But we’re not beach people, so how about something active like we did Vietnam last year.
Much internet activity later…
“What about the far east, cycling?”
We narrowed it down to Thailand or Sri Lanka and the latter won because there was more cycling!?
We may live to regret that choice…
There was just one problem – in the run up to Christmas Mike developed a viral infection (Covid-19?) and he was still taking steroids on the plane! So no cycling preparation – and we had opted for the “more cycling” holiday.
We flew out early to “acclimatise” and spent a night near the capital on the beach then took a taxi to Sigyria – a famous landmark and the start of the cycle tour itself. The beach was fab and Fiona went swimming at 9am. The taxi ride to Sigyria was in a small cheap taxi with a nice friendly driver – but 3+ hours in crazy traffic – but the destination was sublime. A beautiful hotel with the most amazing view of the internationally renowned landmark – Sigyria rock. A Unesco world heritage site of a 5th century fortress on top of an impregnable rock rising several hundred metres above the plain/jungle. We didn’t actually go up it choosing the smaller companion rock to view Sigyria in the setting sun. Spectacular.
It was there we met our new cycling friends, and what a mixed bunch they were – English, Canadians and Aussies – but all friendly. After, for us, two nights there and acclimatisation to the Sri Lankan spices, we set off the next day.
The first ride on our loaned hybrid bikes was back to Dambulla and one of the most famous and holy sites in Sri Lanka with more Buddha statues than you can shake a stick at. But you can’t knock the history and the imagery: and the relevance to the predominately Buddhist population. All respect.
The cycling was more getting used to the bike, the roads and fellow cyclists. Sussing them out if you like! It seemed in those first 60 km that we had some decent cyclists, even if they did not necessarily look it. – never judge a book by it’s cover. And that was good – people you could trust and rely on to be where you expected them to be. What do I mean by that – well here’s some basic rules of cycling:
- Cycle near the kerb if it clear and safe
- Always overtake on the outside (don’t sneak up the inside)
- Point out holes and obstructions
- No sudden changes of direction and speed without signalling (ie braking/stopping!)
- Be nice to Mike!!
But, rather than turn this blog into a day by day account of “We did this; went here; saw that etc” I’d like to highlight the things we enjoyed, tolerated and did not enjoy!
What did we enjoy?
- The people of Sri Lanka – I cannot think of one person we met who was anything but welcoming, happy and helpful. Happy people, most living in poverty, smiling at you genuinely. Yes, we were western tourists with money to spend but we didn’t get the impression we were regarded as easy money targets. And little or no hassle from street/beach hawkers.
- Sigyria – rock and village. We thought at first it was a strange place to start the tour (rather than the capital Colombo where the airport is) but if they were trying to start with a bang they succeeded – what a place, what a trek and what a view, especially at sunset.
- The sound of the jungle – a unique sound, or cacophony depending on the time of day, and one that stirred the imagination. What was out there making that noise? What if whatever it was came out onto the road? The jungle was only a step away from a road, a hotel, a car park so you didn’t have to go far to appreciate the sound. To give you an idea – as I write this we are in UK lockdown and you can hear the birds singing loudly. Well, turn the volume up to 11!
- The company on the organised trip – you have to have a good crowd of like-minded people to make a trip gel. We were lucky enough to have that (not always the case, I would imagine) and as they were from different countries and different age groups there was something for everyone. Some people keep themselves to themselves, others mingle.
- The beaches – especially on the south coast between Merissa and Galle. Swaying palm trees, pristine sands, beautiful golden sunsets. What’s not to like? Though we found they did shelve sharply, so not great for weak swimmers. But sitting on the balcony watching the sun turn as golden as the sands – oh yes, with a “sundowner”!
- Being organised – we did experience that, and comment on it, in our Vietnam trip in 2019 but we can never “like it”. Hence “tolerate” – it’s a means to an end. I would not fancy organising my own trip around Sri Lanka and many other places so you have to pay someone else and that literally comes at the price of a little freedom. It’s horrible when the guide says for the first time “cases in the lobby at 6.30am” but you get used to it.
- Taking the rough with the smooth – you can’t like everything on an itinerary so to get to do the things you do like you have to tolerate some other things
- Other people’s bikes – I mean the ones that come with the package. OK, its not your favourite bikes, its heavy, the gears are crap etc – but it’s the only one you are going to get. Rule 5 (Velominati Rules velominati.com) ; but strangely Rule 4 does not apply in this situation.
- Sri Lankan food – controversial, I know. My jury is out on the food, and I know many people will throw their hands up in horror at that suggestion. I am all for trying the cuisine of the country I am in but the staple meal was “rice and curry”, in that order. Massive amounts of rice (OK) and then small amounts of curry (sort of OK). I didn’t mind all the veggie curries but with all that rice and the gassy beer – well, you can imagine. I did enjoy the freshly cooked snacks though, even if a spicy pakora at breakfast took some getting used to!
Did not enjoy…
- The only thing I did regard as a waste of time was the jeep trip through the Yala National Park – I know it is a tourist hotspot but to me it was 5 hours of being bounced around on jungle roads for an elephant count of: one behind a tree and the backend of another behind another tree. Not great.
- Oh yes – a few too many temples resulting in the expression “templed out”
In conclusion…would I recommend Sri Lanka for a cycling holiday?
- It’s super safe for semi- independent tourists
- It has a great climate, if you like hot and sweaty and if you go in January – April
- It has varied countryside from jungle planes to 2000m high tea plantations
- It has a long and varied history, before and after western influence
- But it is only a year since the terrorist bombings of April 2019 and travel is not really advised in the north and east of the island. The rest of the island has enough to feast on for a few weeks.