As we finished having our jabs at the local GP surgery, massively excited about our impending trip, the nurse turned to us and said, with a serious look, “You both be very careful in Sri Lanka!”. Although the civil war ended nearly 7 years ago, it appears that the images on BBC News are still fresh in the minds of many people. We needn’t worry. Hopefully, as I’ll go on to show you, Sri Lanka should be at the very top of every travellers’ bucket list. If you love Asia already and haven’t been, GO! From trekking through mountains to lazing on the beach, from the generous people to the amazing wildlife, Sri Lanka amazed us at every turn. This is my wee blog too show off Mrs Riley’s patience whilst waiting for me to set up the old tripod and capture the raw beauty on an island looking over the Indian Ocean.
We decided to start our trip in Mirissa in the Southern Province and as our flight landed at 3am we completely went against the backpacker rule and booked a taxi through our Air BnB stay. It was a wee bumpy start as the taxi driver turned up two hours late, but at 5am we were off on the new motorway to the south coast. We arrived a few hours later at the Villa Peacock to be greeted be Charindu. He and his Brother ran the guesthouse and simply went above and beyond to make our stay amazing. When we checked into our room upstairs I couldn’t believe the view – monkeys in the trees, peacocks flying across the sky and tea fields and mountains as a backdrop.
Mirissa is beautiful – one big wide beach with a fair few restaurants and bars. We planned on having a few days chilling by the beach before heading inland. Like a lot of people we like our beach spots to be as quiet as possible but of course prefer a decent number of restaurants to choose from at night. We found Mirissa was spot on. We walked past the main beach where a huge hill jutted out into the ocean and carried on walking. Here we found an awesome spot called Papa Mango which had just a handful of sun beds. The staff were so lovely and chatty and you could chill out all day watching the surfers and sipping a cold Lion beer without huge numbers of people. Like everywhere you stay in the south the seafood was amazing.
You will hear the same thing repeated in this blog, the people of Sri Lanka are amazing, friendly and overall super warm with hearts of gold. Massively sweeping statement but we try really hard to get to know people when we are away and this is what we found, time and time again. If you take anything away from this blog, it should be talk to the guesthouse owners, the taxi/bus drivers, etc and you will be rewarded with bucket loads of invaluable advice and amazing stories. Charindu and his brother simply cared – they wanted to get to know us and share their expert local knowledge to help us make the most of Mirissa. This loveliness went beyond the guesthouse grounds and it was really great to get to know the locals. A classic way to start was by telling people that we were from Manchester, England, boom and we are a go, “ahhhhh Man Utd!”. I had a hard time explaining that we are actually born and bred Yorkshire folk, but with that pride burning strong inside me I would always make an effort to explain that I’m a leeds fan (and Mrs Riley too) and explain about our beautiful part of the world. Luckily this only lasted a few minutes and we would always turn our attention to family, wife, kids etc. It would always be the husband serving us in bars, restaurants, BnB’s and they would nearly always (in the beach towns) be away from their families for months at a time. The people we met seemed so passionate about their families and it was great to hear about their lives.
After a few days of rest and getting acclimatised to Sri Lanka, we headed off to Deniyaya to stay in what I knew would be Mrs Riley’s biggest challenge – an Eco Lodge on the edge of the Rainforest. We stayed in The National Motel and planned on 2 nights with a couple of trips to the forest. Although we have done nothing more than the average joe to protect the planet, we are still aware of our responsibilities and I really wanted to stay here because of the fantastic work the owner, Sydney, was doing to support the protection of Sinharaja Rainforest National Park and the local community.
We checked in to the cabana (the one with two floors) and it didn’t take long for us to feel like we were in the jungle. We don’t mind being honest and Mrs Riley had to toughen up rather quickly when we had the classic line of ants above the bed, windows and doors that didn’t shut and trees growing up the wall. However, this was all in the “brochure”, so we had our moment to hug and talk about leaving. I managed to convince her that it would all be worth it in the end and thankfuly we stayed because it turned out to be amazing. We decided to go straight out for a little Tuk Tuk trip for sunset. Our driver was limited to 4 words of English but was again very friendly, showing us pictures of his family and taking photos with us as well. Our driver made a huge effort to point out animals in the jungle and we stopped off at local waterfalls and temples. It was a great way to start our stay in Deniyaya, even if it decided to pour down and the sunset became shrouded in clouds! We arrived back and went to bed, ready for the morning trek, but not before a top notch rice and curry.
The next morning we set off to walk the rainforest, all arranged through the hostel and with an official guide so that we knew the money was going to preserving the jungle. We were a wee sleepy at first considering that jungle mice had a nest on our mud roof and ran up and down all night. However, all in the experience they tell me 🙂
The jungle was everything we had ever imagined and visiting the Rainforest had been a massive dream of mine, ever since I can remember. We started the day by meeting our guide, a friendly young chap who explained that he’d grown up on the edge of the Rainforest. Whilst walking us through farmland to get to the entrance, he started to entertain us by picking out leaves and asking us to smell them. Lime, tea, coffee – it was exciting for two geeks who like this type of stuff! We strolled past a tiny village and i couldn’t help taking a snap of two kids with their dad on his motorbike! I gave the classic thumbs up/down to the dad before taking a photo and they all grinned away, so i snapped away!
The walk started with the guide getting lots of salt and rubbing it over our socks and walking shoes. The Rainforest is full of leeches and luckily we were prepared! The path was fine to walk and as we wandered on our guide continued to speak passionately, all the while chewing local tobacco which turned his mouth red in a slightly sinister way! Every few hundred meters he stopped and stared – sometimes pointing out birds, insects etc and explaining the flora and fauna. It was so interesting to learn about the different layers of Rainforest canopy and well worth the extra money to get our own official guide. Our guide regularly disappeared off the path, shouting us to join him in the shrubbery to point out snakes, lizards and birds. I wasn’t quick enough to capture the giant flying squirrels or monkeys but hey, I can cope with keeping those memories in my head. We finished the walk with a classic dip in the river that you can see in the shots above. Mrs Riley decided this was beyond her comfort zone so I dived in and took a swim with hundreds of river fish, bigger and much more curious than I had expected. Now I’m aware that everyone will be thinking, did I or didn’t I? Well, I didn’t… everyone has heard of the tiny fish that swim up and lodge themselves in places only intended for liquids. I couldn’t care less if the guide said they don’t have them here, I wasn’t taking any chances. Anyways, ten minutes later I was all refreshed and ready to tackle the next challenge.
Mrs Riley had decided to bathe her feet in the water to cool down, whilst sat on a rock next to the river. I heard a scream, uh-oh. A leech had attached itself to her toe! I did the classic modern day British man thing, and was completely useless. I tried grabbing it as Mrs R very calmly (white lies don’t hurt anyone) said “get it off, get it off, please”. It slipped off onto the next toe and by this time the real hero came along (our guide) and grabbed it straight away. Now the next thing I write may well be a joke reserved for people who know Mrs Riley but if you are reading this from afar I hope you can appreciate my next words. He decided for some ungodly reason to show Mrs R the creature that was trying to suck her blood by pushing it up again her nose!! Eeeeekkkk. To my utter surprise, he did not roll back on to the rocks holding his jaw together, no, Mrs R calming smiled and gave me a look to say it was time to leave! Those moments in life when you know someone has grown. Beautiful.
We went back to the hostel for some more fantastic rice and curry and had a great night getting to know the hotel manager and the staff. They were all very keen to show us photos of their family and tell us how much they liked working for Sydney, the owner. I was even offered a local beer from the top shelf, a solid 8.8% “strong man” beer!
The morning after, we set off for a casual 4 hour drive to Ella. My calculations were slightly off when planning our route and it would have been better to go to Ella from Mirissa and then go back to Sinharaja and onwards to Ude Walawe National Park (FYI). However, we made do with what I had planned and enjoyed the trip to Ella. Next week I’ll be finishing our blog with the 2nd instalment and what was my best ever travelling experience, our Safari and hill treks, finished off with a chilled out stay at the beach. Here is a little photo from part 2. See you soon!