Note: This journey was done in March 2018.
When I was a kid, I read about “Ceylon” in an encyclopedia I had. The illustration that accompanied that entry was of elephants bathing. In my teen years. I read about the Tamil Tigers in the news. At the time, I didn’t know they were a terrorist organization. I just thought they were a group of rebels fighting fighting the good fight for the people. Plus the name “Tamil Tigers” just sounded so cool. Fast forward into my adult years. I learned about the Ramayana, an epic about mythical heroes fighting evil. In it, they mentioned the Land of Lanka where many epic battles took place. So with that, Sri Lanka always stayed on my mind. When I saw it was only a cheap 3.5 hr plane flight from Malaysia, I decided to go.
Someone I met there put it this way; Sri Lanka is “India Lite”. It had the chaos, the hustle and bustle, the crowds, the traffic, the heat, the food choices like India but at a (much) smaller scale. Maybe it helped that I had spent time in India so I was a “hardened vet” of the region and Sri Lanka felt easy to travel around.
I basically followed a very southern-based itinerary, skipping popular spots like Sigiriya, near Dambulla. (Climbing up giant rocks didn’t interest me that much.) I started in Colombo where there isn’t much to see or do. I then took a train to Kandy, a town whose name sounded “fun”. I expected a colorful city of sorts but that was not the case. In the end, the main interesting site in Kandy is the “Temple of the Tooth Relic”, which supposedly houses a tooth of Buddha, hidden away inside a closed container. Sri Lanka is a largely Buddhist country. Many pilgrims clad in white went to the temple to worship the tooth. I just wish it was exposed behind a glass case or something for all to see.
After Kandy, I took a bus to Nuwara Eliya, famous for its tea plantations. As a kid in Malaysia, I had been to the Cameron Highlands tea plantations so I expected it to be similar and it was. The town itself was small and a good place to grab some milk tea. I took a quick tour of one of the tea plantation factories and it was fascinating to see what kind of machines were used to process the tea. I learned that factories process the leaves into a basic form and then sell in bulk to companies who then put their own labels on them so in the end, labels don’t really matter as much as where the tea comes from.
On the way to Tissahamara for Yala National Park (famous for leopards), an individual hopped onto the bus as we were entering town. He sat down next to me and I didn’t think too much of it. He later started a conversation with me but after a while, he started asking me what I was going to do in Tissa. I told him that I was planning on visiting Yala National Park. He then tells me he is a driver for at tour company. He was asking if I wanted to take a tour from his company and I told him I’d go to his office and see what his tour had to offer. It was then the red flags began to show up of which I continually and mistakenly brushed aside each time in my attempt to “trust people more”.
We get off the bus and he takes me to a 4×4 jeep which had a guy in it, ready for us. He takes over at the wheel and drives us through some remote-ish roads in the countryside nearby, as I was later told, in an attempt to show off his 4×4 driving prowess, to develop trust. He takes me to some nice looking multi-storied guesthouse that didn’t seem to have any guests around (I told myself they were probably out and about). I asked the driver, who went by a name I have since forgotten (let’s call him Mr L, for Liar), possibly on purpose, about how many people have signed up for his tour already. I didn’t want to pay for an entire 4×4 by myself and joining up with a group would lower costs per person significantly. He tells me some Germans staying at that very guesthouse we were at had signed on with him. He then presents me with a laminated sheet of prices. I looked around, saw no signs or indication of any kind that tours were being offered other than this sheet. Most reputable tour companies would have more than just a laminated sheet of prices. They would try to look legit. At the very minimum, I’d expect a booklet with pictures, a logo of the company with an actual company name. This laminated sheet had none of that. Red flag. My gut said to walk away. Something didn’t seem right. I noticed the prices were also much higher than I read online. He told me those were reasonable and then told me he would lower it “just for me” and I couldn’t let the other guests who signed up what I paid. Red flag. A legit tour company doesn’t have to use shady bullshit like that to draw customers in. Prices are set, take it or leave it, because they stand by their products. Yes, even in less-developed countries. Anyway, red flag brushed aside, I continued to tell myself to trust Mr L. I told myself, maybe his company is small and he’s a freelancer and maybe it’ll be good to give a freelancer some business to get his company going because hey, everyone has to start somewhere, right?
I paid his fee.
He takes me to town and drops me off at my guesthouse and tells me to wait in front at 4:30 am. I asked for his phone # just in case. He gives it to me. That was the last I saw of Mr L.
Next morning, I was in front of the guesthouse at 4:15 am. Minutes tick by. 4×4 jeeps arrive to pick up several guests at my guesthouse, who coincidentally, also advertised that it arranged Yala tours. Except it was legit and everything pointed to business legitimacy, even an email to me the day before not to trust street touts trying to sell me tours. (Had I read that email before meeting Mr L? Yes. Did I take the warnings seriously? Yes. So why did I follow Mr L? ADVENTURE! Fuck me…)
Anyway, 4:45 am rolls around. Calling Mr L’s phone was fruitless. Of course it was. The proprietor of the guesthouse is standing out front with me. He asked me about my tour. I told him what happened. He shook his head. He knew I was likely scammed. He then tells me if I wanted to join the tour group he just said goodbye to, whose 4×4 left minutes earlier. I told him yes. He gets on his phone to recall the 4×4 to come back to pick me up. It was then when another 4×4 showed up for me. I was relieved. I hope in and we go off.
Long story short, I later learned that what I paid for the tour was approximately $30 (yes, motherfucking $30!) more than what everyone else in that 4×4 paid, thru a legitimate tour company found in Tissa. Apparently, Mr L probably still had a conscience. He didn’t just walk away all of my money. He notified the tour company to come pick me up, paid them part of tour fee and told them to collect the rest from me when they picked me up. He pocketed the rest. I had no choice but to pay the remainder of my fee, even in protest. The driver said it wasn’t his problem I trusted a tout. Upon describing Mr L, the driver knew who it was and even said the owner told Mr L not to pull this kind of shit. Nonetheless, being a business owner, I guess the owner of the tour company wanted to fill an empty seat, even if it was at a foolish tourist’s expense. I am actually glad he accepted the proposal by Mr L because if he had declined “on principle”, Mr L would probably just have kept ALL of my money instead of forking over part of it to “subsidize” my tour.
It took me a few hours but I eventually was able to let it go, chalk it up to another hard life lesson, and try to enjoy my tour. Like any safari, we did a lot of driving around (and competing for space with MANY other 4x4s in the park) to find pockets of moments we got to see anything noteworthy. Near the end of the day, we saw leopards up close and since that was a very rare thing to do and we got VERY lucky, it relieved some of the pain from the scam.
Moving on from the Mr L fiasco, I rounded off my time in Sri Lanka with stops in Tangalle, Galle, Hikkaduwa, and Negombo.
Hikkaduwa provided me with some forgettable scuba diving as a result of mask issue (ALWAYS bring your own mask to any trip, never use a rented one because an improper fit is just asking for it) and lousy marine life that paled in comparison to most other diving spots I’ve been to. There also was a museum near Hikkaduwa which provided graphical insight on the 2004 tsunami that devastated the area. Although the number of lives lost in Hikkaduwa, being on the west coast, was far fewer in comparison to the east coast of Sri Lanka, the pictures shown of dead bodies post-tsunami was shocking and sad. The best part of Hikkaduwa was one of the major highlights of my Sri Lankan travels; getting to see sea turtles crawl onto the beach, lay its eggs, crawl back into the waters. It was a beautiful experience.
There was a moment at night in my Galle guesthouse when the two young Chinese owners (I have no idea why there was a larger than normal Chinese presence in Galle) got into a major argument that resulted in shattered glass. Luckily, I was in my room, trying to sleep, so I wasn’t caught in the crossfires. However, the next morning provided some level of awkwardness because I think they realized I was in one of the rooms and I could easily overhear everything.
I don’t know if my time in Sri Lanka taught me anything other than life is hard for people there, as it is in so many parts of the world. I often read and hear testimonies of tourists saying “The people are so nice! The places are so beautiful!” Sure, I can agree to it but also, let’s point out the fact that no matter where we are in the world, there are nice people, there are beautiful places but there are also assholes, and there is ugliness. They go hand-in-hand.
The food in Sri Lanka? Delicious. My favorite food was simple rice, dhaal curry, some veggies, and some papadum crackers. It is the perfect combination that satisfied my soul multiple times in Sri Lanka.
For a few more pictures of Sri Lanka, click here.