Bicycle Vacation Sri Lanka
The rainy season is not just wet; it's also lush green
A bicycle vacation in lush green Sri Lanka, where not just the plants are watered every day: lakes are filled to the brim, rivers roar, waterfalls splash and reservoirs spill over. There is more than natural beauty: wooden fishing boats, fishing nets that are pulled from the sea by hand, ruins of temples and palaces dating from before the Christian era en forts that remind you of Dutch and Portuguese colonialism.
Travelogue & photos: Gerrie & Aart Dijkzeul
We find out pretty soon that "rainy season" is not just a name. No drizzling here, but real downpour. Even with raincoats we get wet through and through. But fortunately, it gets dry again soon.
Modern fishing boats next to traditional catamarans
We are dropped with our bikes in Negombo, a town close to Bandaranaike International Airport. This airport services Colomba, forty kilometers south on the West coast. Colombo is the largest city of Sri Lanka, but no longer its capital.
Sri Jayewardenapura Kotte is the capital since 1982, just like it was before the Portuguese invasion in the sixteenth century. Kotte is actually a suburb of Colombo.
We are the only guests in the beautiful hotel in Negombo; yep, rainy season. The staff outnumbers us five to one. There are two cleaning ladies, someone who mowes the grass, a cook, a bartender, a waiter, a guard at the gate, a bookkeeper, someone who checks and signs the bills and of course a manager.
The southern part of Negombo is one big fishing port. Every empty space on the 35 square kilometers of the Negombo Lagoon with its mangrove woods and abundance of water birds is covered with modern polyester fishing boats, type small smack, and traditional wooden catamarans.
The fish market is, despite the sad fate of the fish, a lively spectacle. Sea creatures in varying colors, shapes and sizes change hands and are chopped into tranches on request. We see among other kinds, huge stingrays.
When the sun breaks the clouds for a while, we take a swim in the sea, but soon it's just as wet above the water as in it. We get our bags and clothes and run to the nearest beach pavilion, where waiters are mopping up water that enters the building.
Our question if we can order coffee is answered with exuberant and happy head shakes. Fortunately we remember from our trip to India that head movements have different meanings here than what we are used to. And that is not limited to 'yes' and 'no' head shakes.
Sometimes the head makes an unclear movement that looks like a combination of 'yes' en 'no', as if the head is mounted on a rubber neck.
From the sea, via the paddies to the land of the lakes
Our four first legs take us to Anuradhapura in the Northern Central Province of Sri Lanka. During the first part of the day we take a road north which follows the coastline closely. Just before we reach Chilaw we see forty men pull a dragnet on the beach, which takes them an hour. It's a tug of war with the sea and the fish. Towards the end, the beach fills with Sri Lankans with plastic bags and baskets who buy their fish fresh from the net.
After Puttalam we ride to the east. Nature is varied and lush green. Brightly colored birds, among which peacocks and beautiful flowers we usually only see in flower shops, like gloriosa.
There is water everywhere: in the paddies with just sown rice, in the lakes and ponds with lotus flowers and waders; and not to forget: in the potholes in the unpaved road on which we are bicycling.
Our feelings about the beauty of the surroundings vary and have an inverse relation with our need to avoid the potholes.
The third leg ends at the Wilpattu National Park. We spend the night there in a beautifully located villa. We hear screeching peacocks and see many other colorful birds. It's just like paradise.
The only strange bird is the owner. His day activity seems to be leaning on the balustrade of his house, pondering the world and giving instructions to his wife. But, to do him justice: he serves the meals. When he has done that, he stays and watches us eat.
Unfortunately, we can't visit the National Park by bike. So we go by jeep. Willu-pattu means 'land of the lakes' and is named for the natural lakes in the inland of Sri Lanka.
We bump from pothole to puddle from 6 AM to 11 AM and see a beautiful, varied area with lots of birds and small game. The touted elephants and leopards are no shows. Except for their large heaps of poop and paw prints in the sand.
After the safari we bicycle to Anurashapura in the bright sunshine. We will stay there for a few days.
The ancient capital of the Ceylonese kings
A local guide in Anuradhapura brings us up to speed with the history of Sri Lanka. We make a tour of temple and palace ruins by bike. Some are over 2,000 years old.
Anuradhapura is on the Unesco World Heritage List and is also a sacred city for Buddhists, because of the Sri Maha Bodhi. This fig tree is supposed to be a sapling from the original tree under which Sidhartha (later: Buddha) sat when he found enlightenment after 49 days of meditation.
The Bodhi tree sapling was brought to Sri Lanka in the third century BC, during the introduction of Buddhism by monks from India. Sri Maha Bodhi is heavily guarded, out of fear for a repetition of the bomb attack by the Tamil Tigers in 2013.
Our walk over and between the ruins of the Abhayagiri Monastery Compound is a wet adventure. Wading through ankle-deep water we go from Aaahhh! to Ooohh! The upside is that there are no other tourists and we have the whole area to ourselves.
We finish our visit with a short meditation in a temple rock; in this spot the first Buddhist monks meditated 2,300 years ago.
Beware of elephants
But eventually the real danger comes from our own octopus
Via Dambulla, Giritale and Nalada we ride to Kandy, farther south in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. It is the first (almost) dry leg and moreover, one that has everything that makes a ride great: quiet roads, small villages, paddies where the rice is just budding or where farmers are plowing or smoothing the soil. There are lakes and reservoirs (sometimes hundreds of hectares large) with lotus flowers, big lizards, iguanas, exotic birds and thousands of smiles from passers-by.
The reservoirs are filled to the brim. In several places the water spills over the emergency outlets and flood nearby roads. That makes for pretty pictures of locals and two tourists on bikes, who ride through the tens of centimeters high water.
Just before we arrive at another Nature Reserve, a guy on a moped warns us to beware of elephants. No news for us. Yesterday when we were in Anurashapura we saw the havoc an angry elephant can wreak. The center of town was fenced off, lots of police and army, and two dead. The only elephant we saw so far, was bathing in a lake at a distance of a few hundred meters. And there was also an electric fence between him and us.
As we approach Dambulla it begins to rain. We quickly pull our raincoats from under the octopus and continue on our ride. For a moment. We forgot to secure the octopus. And now it's completely stuck in the gears and sprocket wheel. We take off the bags, turn the bike upside down and then pull, fumble and cut. And all of this while it's pouring. Fortunately there is no damage to the bike itself.
On the way to Nalanda we pause when we see a parade of school children. They march with musical instruments to the schoolyard. Two fancy looking gentlemen raise flags while the national anthem is sung. This expression of patriotism is rudely disturbed when Gerrie, who is on the lawn, filming everything, shrieks. She was bitten in her foot. No snake in sight. But there are red ants... size extra large.
We are invited to join them for the continuation of the ceremony at the temple. After a well-fed monk has chanted and the school principal, who loves to hear himself talk, has done his speech, the children perform traditional dances.
Usually we have relaxed bike rides. We take small, not very busy roads. Often asphalted, but sometimes, when it rains, quite muddy.
On through-roads, which we can't always avoid, it's often busy around big cities. Cars and tuktuks pass one another in ways that would be perfect for a reality show about road hogs.
National bus lines are the worst. They tend to pass us and then stop immediately. And then, when we bicycle around them, they accelerate, honk their horns (which were apparently bought in a ship's store)loudly and force us, in a cloud of stinking exhaust, to hit the brakes.
We always eat lunch in a bakery or other shop where they have delicious sweet rolls or deep-fried dough snacks, with or without savoury filling. And we always get a conversation for free with it.
Lotus flowers as offerings for Buddha statues
The leg to Kandy and the visit there are devoted to spiritual development and deepening. The colorful statues of hundreds of gods and the devotion with which the Hindus perform all kinds of rituals in the Sri Muthu Mariamman Temple in Matale, are impressive.
Men throw themselves on the floor, beat their chests and make incomprehensible gestures. Women and children carry bowls with gifts.
Priests with beautiful robes (we can't decide if they are men or women) mumble chants, apply streaks on foreheads, do something with coconut milk nad receive money, bowls of fruit and flowers from the worshippers.
In terms of rituals, the Buddhists in the Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth) in Kandy hold their own. Sri Lankans, mostly dressed in white, lay lotus flowers and other gifts in front of one of the many Buddha statues.
Ze wait in line patiently to get a look at the shrine that hold a supposed canine of Buddha. The tooth was found in the ashes that remained after Buddha was cremated, centuries before the beginning of our calendar.
Numerous wars were fought about this tooth. When a hammer was about to shatter it, the tooth ascended in a magical way to avoid the fatal blow. This story reminds me of my religious education when I was a kid.
The central highlands
Rainforest, waterfalls and tea plantations
From Kandy we travel farther south through the mountainous Central Province of Sri Lanka, home of the Ceylon tea. Until 1972, Sri Lanka was called Ceylon.
The most difficult leg of our bike trip leads from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya: from 500 to 2,000 meters above sea level, with some ups and downs. All in all we climb over 2,600 meters.
It is a beautiful trip. Everywhere water drips, trickles and flows from the rocks. There are waterfalls left and right; some only a few meters high, others almost a hundred meters.
The paddies make place for tea plantations. Manicured roadsides instead of wilderness.
After every hundred meters of climbing, we take a short break, with lots of water and thumb-ups from passers-by. We pull ourselves to the highest part of Sri Lanka with our bikes and luggage. Nuwara Eliya is near Pidurutalagala, with its 2,524 meters the highest mountain of Sri Lanka.
We stay in an old English mansion where at night the fireplace is lighted. Which isn't a bad idea at this height. We discuss the situation in the world with some Chinese from Shanghai.
The next day we visit a tea plant and a Piaggio tuk-tuk dealer. Gerrie wants a red one, to take her grandchildren to school when they are staying with us.
The leg to Ella is a piece of cake with an 800 meters descent. We are still in the Central Highlands of Sri Lanka but now we are in the province of Uva. On the way we visit the Hindu temple Seetha Amman.
The Seetha Amman is devoted to Sita, godess of fertility in Hindu mythology and wife of Rama. About 5,000 years ago she was supposedly held prisoner here by the satanic king Rawana. There still are deep paw imprints visible in the granite of Rawana's elephant.
Ella is the first place that feels like a tourist attraction. Lots of white folk and cunning locals who know what to do with them. When we take a walk and a kid walks with us for a while, uninvited, we give him two hundred rupees (about a euro).
That's not enough. A guide gets 700 rupees. We remark that tea pickers earn less, doesn't make any impression. But when we say "take it or leave it," he eventually accepts the money.
Descent to the South coast
The pilgrims town of Kataragama is a colorful chaos
After another day of lazying about and a two hours train ride to a town 24 kilometers farther, we get on our bikes again. During the next three days we bicycle from the mountains via Wellawaya and Tissamaharama to the coastal town of Dikwella. Beautiful routes with lots to see on the way.
The oecumenic pilgrims town of Kataragama, between Wellawaya and Tissamaharama, is home to sanctuaries of different religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Vedda (the indigenous religion of Sri Lanka.
Kataragama is one big colorful chaos of stands with plastic junk, fruit baskets and flower garlands. The first are for the kids in their Sunday clothes. The other two for sacrifice.
It's an enigma where all of those hundreds of fruit baskets go after they have been brought into the sanctuary. There is nowhere to toss them; but there are monkeys who are in some places scared away from the temples with loud bangs.
In the village of Kudabibula people are hanging up orange flags and garlands. We are greeted by the sound of monotonous singing. The sound is coming from the temple compound. When we take a look, we are invited to honor the just deceased head monk. He lies in state in an orange gown; two monks are singing prayers.
A monk takes us to a room where eight middle-aged women try to convince us to have a second breakfast. Eventually we settle for a cup of tea and a photo shoot. People are coming out of the woodwork to be photographed. It's a cosy place.
As far as wildlife is concerned, we don't get to see much. We ride dozens of kilometers through or along game parks where there should be many elephants; we see a lot of beauty, but no elephants. It is made up to us on the last leg, when we watch meters long varanids (iguanas) devour a carcass. They're so ugly, that it's beautiful.
And lots of fun encounters: the banana vendor who treats us to … you can guess. And a guy who stops his truck to have us taste a fruit that looks like a hockey ball. He breaks it open on the road. After one bite we understand why it's not for sale in our supermarket.
In Dikwella we stay in a small guesthouse by the sea. From our terrace we see fishermen in their wooden canoes with 'sidecar' fishing in the Indian Ocean.
We visit the Wewurukannala Raja Maha Viharaya temple with the largest Buddha statue in Sri Lanka: 50 meters high. The rest of the temple is at least as interesting. There are colorful tableaus depicting the life of the Buddha in life-sized images.
There also is a 'horror corridor' with pictures of every possible sin and its consequences for a next life. One of the less shocking images depicts someone being sawed in two for deviating from the path prescribed by the Buddha.
We leave the temple in a blessed state, after we have been sung to by a friendly priest, having received a dot of ashes on our foreheads and being dusted with peacock feathers.
Along the South coast to Unawatuna and Galle
Over the gate in the walls of the fortress you can see the Dutch lion
The route to Unawatuna, farther West on the South coast, is as beautiful as paradise. Low hills alternating with paddies, lakes and rivers. The crocodiles that are supposed to live here, according to signs along the road and locals, are in hiding.
That doesn't apply for the boys and girls who live here. Two of them are approaching us through a wet paddy. When the girl slips on the dam between the paddies, she falls. But that doesn't stop her from having fun.
A twelve years old boy tries to convince Gerrie to treat him to a toffee. She lectures him on the influence of sweets on the teeth. Too late for the man who brings us two chairs when we are looking for a place to eat a watermelon. Only two of his teeth are still white.
In Unawatuna - a serious sea resort - we have a room with a view of the sea. Our happiness about this diminishes when a music group appears on Saturday night right in front of our terrace. Fortunately the weather gods help us. Before the first note is played, it begins to pour and the group moves inside.
The next day we go on an excursion to Galle, a fortress with memories from the time of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. The fort is listed on the World Heritage List and it shows. Everything is clean and shiny. As if we have entered a different world.
It is a special experience to see the Dutch lion and the text VOC 1669 over one of the gates in the kilometers long wall of the fortress. In those days Galle was Sri Lanka's most important port city. The Dutch built and enormous fort to secure their business interests.
Along the West coast
Back to Negombo
The next couple of days we leisurely bicycle towards the start and end location of this bicycle vacation. "Leisurely" is relative, because according to our Garmin GPS those little hills add up to a lot of meters in height. Barking dogs help Gerrie to achieve Olympic results in climbing those hills.
As everywhere during our trip there is a lot to see on the way. Men who are taking a bath in the Kelani River between Colombo and Negombo, a man, around fifty years old, who transports his old mother on the crossbar of his rickety bike (volunteer aid...) and people who eat curry and rice with their hands.
And then we are at the end of this trip. It was a leisurely bike trip in a beautiful country with friendly people. It was fun to bicycle here in November and December, during the rainy season. The lush green and full lakes more than make up for the discomfort of all that moisture.