So Long, Sri Lanka! What’s Next?

Wait, didn’t I just get here? How can it possibly be time to leave Sri Lanka already?

I’m killing an afternoon in a Colombo coffee shop until my taxi arrives to take me to the airport. I’d love to take another stroll around the neighborhood, but as I’m going to be stuck in these clothes for about 45 hours, I’m trying to stay as sweat-free as possible. You’re welcome, fellow passengers.

The last three months have been a fantastic adventure, and I’ve made some memories that will last forever. Like being the only visitor to sit and watch a family of elephants just after sunrise in Udawalawe National Park. Or being run out of a guesthouse on suspicion of being a witch.

I have left pieces of my heart all over this gorgeous little island- mostly with the hundreds of sad-eyed street dogs who trusted me enough to approach me for a bit of food, and love.

So Long Sri Lanka MyAdventureBucket.com

When I first told friends and coworkers that I was quitting my job to travel full time, starting with a brief stint in India and three months in Sri Lanka, many of them said I was crazy. Well, obviously. But who wants to be normal? Normal is boring, and no one is handing out prizes for being a martyr and giving up on your dreams.

If what I’m doing is crazy, the way I’m doing it is downright insane. Who lets a random computer algorithm determine where they go and how they spend their life? Well, I do, and it’s a terrific amount of fun, actually.

I’m only in Sri Lanka today because my Random Bucket List Picker chose it from my massive list after I completed a train ride across Canada. I was only on that train because the RBLP decided that’s where I should go after visiting the Scottish highlands, after exploring ancient Buddhist temples in Indonesia, etc., etc.

I wonder how normal people do things.

The last three months have flown by in an absolute blur of ancient temples, gorgeous beaches, breathtaking train rides, amazing food, and approximately 175 gallons of Lion beer. You have to admit, there are worse ways to spend a summer. I will miss this quirky little island paradise (and street cart samosas) but the next adventure awaits.

So Long Sri Lanka MyAdventureBucket.com

As always, the next adventure has been randomly chosen for me by the Random Bucket List Picker: driving the entire length of Interstate 80 from New York to California. With my favorite canine copilot by my side, naturally.

So Long Sri Lanka MyAdventureBucket.com
She’s cute, but she’s absolutely useless with directions.

As a bonus, there are quite a few other bucket list entries I’ll be able to cross off along the way. No, I’m not going to tell you ahead of time what they are- what fun would that be? I have to make sure you keep checking back for more stories.

I have set aside six weeks for this adventure, which should be plenty of time to get myself into all kinds of predicaments. I hope you will follow along with me!

Don’t miss any of the adventure- follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, too.

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Highlights of Kandy, Sri Lanka

I don’t think anyone comes to Sri Lanka without a stop in Kandy, and for good reason. This busy hill country town is known as the country’s cultural capital, and has plenty to keep you occupied for several days- longer if you make it your base for exploring the area. And explore it you should; the hill country was one of my absolute favorite parts of my 3 months here in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

If you don’t think Sri Lanka is the vacation destination for you because you’re not a fan of beaches and tropical climates, this is why you should come. Misty mountains, cool air, fantastic hiking, and Buddhist history like you’ve never seen anywhere else.

Here are some of my Kandy highlights:

 

Attractions

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

You can’t skip this; this temple is the main reason people visit Kandy. It’s also one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples I’ve ever visited, and that’s saying rather a lot. The holiest site in Sri Lankan Buddhism, this temple houses a tooth reportedly taken from the Buddha’s funeral pyre. It’s kind of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Mecca; everyone is supposed to make at least one pilgrimage here in their lifetime. It’s so revered, you even see rowdy groups of teenage boys stopping on the sidewalk across the street to bow in prayer before walking on. Worshipers inside are frequently overcome with emotion, so if you’re visiting as a tourist, please be respectful and unobtrusive. As with all temples, you’ll have to cover up- no exposed knees or shoulders.

One of the most popular attractions on the temple grounds is Rajah the Tusker, a moldering old taxidermy elephant with crumbling ears. This small building is always packed with loud children and selfie-stick-wielding tourists, inexplicably needing a photo of themselves with the remains of this poor creature behind a wall of smudged glass. Suffice to say I think you can skip this spectacle.

Other tips for visiting:

  • Wear slip-on shoes as you’ll have to leave them at the shoe minder’s counter next to where you pay the admission fee. There’s no charge for leaving your shoes, but they’ll ask for a tip when you pick them up.
  • The entry fee for foreigners is 1500 rupees ($10 USD). Do try to have exact change as they’re loathe to break 5000 rupee notes and may tell you that they can’t give you all of your change back. Don’t fall for this; someone is just trying to get a 500 rupee tip.
  • Never pose with a Buddha statue for a photo or selfie. This is basically the most offensive thing you could possibly do.
  • Go as early as you can. The place is overrun with schoolkids by midday.

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World Buddhist Museum

This was my favorite museum in all of Sri Lanka, and it’s conveniently located on the same property as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. They charge 500 rupees ($3.25 USD) for foreigners, which is a steal. The museum walks you through the spread of Buddhism throughout the world, and it’s fascinating to see how the story of the Buddha is interpreted country by country. I had a great time reminiscing over some of the other famous Buddhist sites I’ve visited, like Shwedagon Paya in Burma and Borobudur in Indonesia. The lighting and signage in this museum is good…by Sri Lankan standards. It’s not the Smithsonian, but nothing here is. I was really bummed that you can’t take photos inside, because there are some really lovely exhibits. There’s a small gift shop to the left of the staircase down which you exit.

 

Kandy Garrison Cemetery

When you’re done with the World Buddhist Museum, exit left and head up the little hill past the National Museum (toward the public restrooms, incidentally, if you need to stop.) There are signs at the bottom of the hill pointing the way to the cemetery. Once you get to the top of the hill behind the public facilities you might think you’re actually on someone’s driveway, but keep going. There will be a small maintenance shed on the left and then you’ll round the corner to the cemetery. It’s small, and many of the inscriptions are worn, but it’s a really neat piece of Kandy history. The young caretaker is an absolute fountain of knowledge; he knows every name, inscription, and cause of death by heart. Let him tell you all about the extremely large man who died of sunstroke while running from an elephant or the baby who died of a snakebite despite the best efforts of the village medicine man.

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St. Paul’s Church

This red brick church dates to the 1840s and is currently undergoing renovations, but is well worth poking around for a few minutes. There are some neat funerary markers for deceased parishioners lining the walls and a gorgeous stained glass window behind the altar. Watch for frolicking monkeys outside. 

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Royal Botanic Gardens

This 147 acre park on the outskirts of Kandy is a really great place to escape the noise and pollution of the city for a few hours. There’s a gorgeous orchid house and some really nice walking trails through the wooded areas. If you’re a botany nerd, welcome to paradise. There are more than 4000 plant species here, and they’ve done a really nice job with signage.

Other tips for visiting:

  • Go on a weekday! 2.2 million people visit the gardens annually and every single one of them showed up on the same Saturday morning I visited. Weekdays are much quieter.
  • Look up! Thousands of huge flying foxes roost in the trees and fly around during the day. If you take the path to the right of Royal Palm Avenue you’ll most likely have it to yourself to appreciate these beauties. (And, if you’re me, imagine that you’re in Jurassic Park and they’re actually huge screeching pterodactyls. Don’t judge.)

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Accommodation

Villa Rosa

I partnered with this gorgeous hilltop hotel for a review, and absolutely loved it. My only minor quibble was the somewhat unreliable Wi-Fi, but the views and the amazing chicken curry more than made up for my inability to upload all of my photos. Wi-Fi was a bit of an issue throughout the hill country for me, so plan your Internet needs accordingly. If you just want to check email and Facebook a few times a day you’ll be fine, but business travelers might have difficulties.

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Transportation

Far and away the best mode of transportation anywhere in the hill country is the train. These creaky, lumbering old locomotives trundle through some of the most beautiful scenery on the island, and nothing beats leaning out the open doors for a blast of cool mountain air in your face. And train travel in Sri Lanka is CHEAP. Check the timetables here and try to coordinate your schedule for a ride in one of the first class observation cars. It won’t cost more than $8 US even for the longest, all-day journeys. There are tour companies who will reserve your tickets for you (for two to three times the going rate) but as I traveled in the off season I never bothered. Turning up at the station an hour before the train was scheduled to depart was always plenty of time to get a first class ticket. Pack some snacks or wait for a man with a big plastic tub of fresh samosas to make his way through the train.

Kandy Sri Lanka myadventurebucket.com
Scenes from the train on my way from Bandarawela to Kandy, in a $6 first class seat.

So there you have it! Some of my favorite parts of my visit to Kandy. Have you been? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know if I missed any of your favorites.

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Sunset over Kandy’s hills like a ball of fire in the sky.

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36 Hours on the Burmese Death Train

March 29, 2009- Welcome to the worst travel experience of my entire life. I have spent the last 36 hours in bed in a room without electricity due to rolling blackouts, consuming nothing but cans of tepid orange Sunkist from the mini fridge. Pretty sure I have malaria, even though I have been on Doxycycline since before leaving the US. I’m lethargic, having cold sweats, and feel like I have a fever. It’ll surely be hours before my driver picks me up to take me to the train station and I remembered passing a wooden shack with a “pharmacy” sign on the way into town, so I gather up all of my strength and make the two mile walk to see if I can buy a thermometer. It costs $1.00 and I tuck it into my green quilted tote bag for safe keeping during the long trudge back to my hotel.

The thermometer doesn’t work. I don’t have the time or energy to walk another four miles to take it back. I try to get online to check WebMD for early symptoms of malaria, but the Internet is down again. I try to eat breakfast but can’t keep anything down. I’m definitely dying.

I schlep to the hotel office to see if any of the employees know when my driver is picking me up. The older of the two women behind the counter tell me they expect him at 9:00 a.m. since the train leaves at 10:00. I show her my itinerary from the travel agent which shows the train leaves at 8:00. She shrugs. I panic. “Can you possibly call someone to check? I can’t miss this train.” She shrugs again.

“No phone today. It’ll be OK.”

“No, seriously, I can’t miss this train. If I miss this train I’ll miss my flight home.”

She smiles and nods. She has no idea what I’m saying.

The driver finally comes and delivers me to the train station office. After the ticket agent yells at someone for nearly 20 minutes, he hands me my ticket and says the train now leaves at 11:30. No one seems to know what to do with the strange white girl, so they finally deposit me in the empty stationmaster’s office with my suitcase for the two hour wait. I watch the platform from the grimy window and hope I know what train is mine as they don’t seem to have any numbers on them.

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On the train. Because it has worked so well in the past, I employ the “look small and helpless” technique to encourage someone to help me find my seat. Looking helpless is easy; small, not so much. At 5’4″ tall, I tower over most people in this country. A tiny monk helps me put my suitcase on the overhead shelf. I’ll be on this train for at least 20 hours- my first ever long-distance train ride. And, um, I’m pretty sure I just saw a rat run across the aisle. Suddenly I’m questioning the wisdom of everyone in this country wearing sandals all the time.

At least the windows open so I can take pictures during the day.

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Correction- it was a mouse, not a rat. I know this because he is currently rummaging around in a bag of crackers belonging to the Indian man seated facing me. I point it out to him, but he seems completely unconcerned. I don’t know if that’s because he doesn’t care or he just doesn’t understand what I’m saying. Maybe it’s his mouse.

Now there are two mice. Apparently word is out that the nice Indian man is giving away free crackers. I’m not eating anything on this train.

We haven’t pulled out of the station yet, and Indian Guy’s rodent count is up to three. Now they’re crawling up on his seat with him and he doesn’t seem to mind that, either. I wonder how many more mice can fit in his bag before they start coming over here to stretch their legs.

(Final rodent count = 6)

It’s about 8 hours into the trip that I discover the “bathroom” on this train is a plastic bucket in the corner in full view of everyone else on the train. And that’s in the first class car. I wonder what the people in the cheap seats have to do. Actually I don’t wonder too hard. I’m definitely going to hold it for 20 hours. I’m probably dying anyway.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the train pulls into a station (let’s be clear, they’re not real train stations- just sections of track where people gather to sell things like reused water bottles and fried crickets from baskets on top of their heads) and stops. I’m dozing, not really sleeping, but I notice the stop and wait for the train to start up again as it has at a dozen other stops.

It doesn’t.

After an hour or so of anxious glancing about by the passengers, a short man in wrinkled white shirt speedwalks through the train car, shouting something in Burmese. Everyone gets up and starts grabbing their things. I stay put. The train car begins to empty out. Two young monks seated across the aisle point at me and one asks, “Where you go?”

“Yangon,” I answer.

They laugh. “Yangoooon,” they mimic in unison, mocking my accent. One grabs my suitcase from the overhead shelf while the other beckons me to follow. “Change train!” he calls over his shoulder as they hop out the open door, not waiting for me to follow. They have my stuff, so I do.

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I’m absolutely terrified that I’ve made the wrong move, but I’m also starving, battling either the flu or malaria, and covered in flea (??) bites. Maybe they’re rodent bites, I don’t know. My legs are absolutely covered in little purple marks that weren’t there when I boarded the train. I don’t know what else to do, so I curl up and go to sleep.

Monday, March 30th at 4:30 p.m.- 29 hours into what was supposed to be a 20 hour train ride. My flight from Yangon to Singapore is leaving right now and obviously, I’m not on it. I know the next flight is in two days. I’m not going to cry on the train. I’m not.

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We finally pull into the station in Yangon 16 hours late. I’ve spent 36 hours on this rodent-infested train. I’m dying of thirst because the only water options were dirty, discarded bottles I watched little kids refill from garden hoses at the “stations” along the way. With the only bathroom option being an open bucket in the corner… no. Just no. I’m covered in heat rash and flea bites and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to drink enough water to not be thirsty again.

A driver from my travel agency is waiting for me on the platform. “Hello! You miss your flight!” He’s utterly gleeful. I may kill him.

“Train from up north always very late,” he chirps as he loads my suitcase into the back of his car. “Everybody miss flight all the time.” He’s practically skipping. “No more flights to Singapore for two days- you may be stuck in the airport all that time.” He never stops smiling.