"Show me the way to go Ommmm" Maxus's Profile

Sri Lanka and Stuff

Welcome to my Virtual Tourist homepage which is almost entirely about Sri Lanka, for some other places: Click here for Morecambe, here for Heysham and here to take the ferry to Holland

Sri Lanka, is it safe?
In short, yes, there is an update on the conflict on my Sri Lanka page, for that and for travellers tips on things to do (and not to do) and some places to see in Sri Lanka please click here

A Rambling Introduction to Sri Lanka

The word serendipity was apparently invented to describe Sri Lanka and is a perfect description of my own experience. In December 1999 I was looking for a last minute escape from Christmas, I needed some sunshine, I wanted a beach and I thought Sri Lanka, which is 70% Buddhist, would be relatively Christmas free and so it came to pass that me and my Mancunian mate Ray watched the sun come up on a new millennium from the beach at Bentota, I was entirely bewitched, that was twenty visits ago.

It's not all been plain sailing, I have had close encounters with snakes, bombs, a derailed train and some very dodgy curry but I lived to tell the tale. I was on the coast when the Tsunami came on Boxing Day of 2004, I stayed on and did what I could but I do not intend to dwell on the Tsunami here except to say that even the tragedy was mostly met with a blend of fortitude and resignation, people are incredibly resilient.

A brief word of warning, the culture is indeed fascinating but in Sri Lanka there are some good people and there are some bad people and like anywhere else most people stand somewhere in between. People are not envious of western culture but some of them will go to great lengths to relieve you of a little of your comparative wealth. Helping your friends is one thing but being ripped off is never nice and some people have deception down to a fine art. Every second person has a younger sister or brother in dire need of expensive surgery but it can be much more sophisticated than that, whole real or invented families can be in on the act, you are seen as a resource and you really need to be on your guard where money is concerned. Click here for info more on touts and scams.

As a teacher I was able to take comparatively long holidays on the Island and increasingly I have spent my time with Sinhalese people. When I am not on the road I tend to stay in the homes of my Sinhalese friends and I have learned a little of their language. My most interesting visit yet followed the LTTE attack on the International Airport, most tourists had left and it I felt like I had the place almost to myself. During the civil war the atmosphere was often electric but the people were as charming as ever and appeared grateful that you had stayed on. The Sinhalese majority sometimes regard their culture as under siege and to see any culture at war is perhaps to see it at its most vibrant. Wrapped up in the basic tenets of Buddhism, Sinhalese culture has survived thousands of years of migration, invasion and war but remains very strong indeed. Click here for info on Buddhism and other cultural info.

Some people are persuaded not to visit Sri Lanka because of the civil war which has been raging on and off since 1983. The war has had an obvious effect on the way things are here and when there is no cease-fire the north is pretty much a no-go area (there are parts of the east which are best avoided too) but do not let this put you off. To-date westerners have never been a direct target and Sri Lanka has always been a relatively safe place to visit.

I don't pretend to really understand Sinhalese society, I am still a “Sudda" (or white westerner) I'll never know half of what there is to know about the place so what I have to say here should at best be regarded as an interpretation. If you are the type of traveler who has done darkest Peru on a dollar a day and who knows the best yak butter beer in Katmandu, then you might not find anything of interest here and if I have insulted your intelligence I apologise. Nothing I have written is set in stone, I would welcome your comments and criticism and I am more than happy to answer questions about anything I have written

Getting Around

Sri Lanka is the ideal destination for people new to independent travel, but while getting around by public transport is not difficult, with over crowding and poor roads it can be rather uncomfortable. If you are sick, lame or lazy, or simply pushed for time then hiring a van and a driver is a convenient alternative but if you want a taste of Sri Lankan life then public transport is cheap, reasonably safe and always something of an adventure. Click here for tips on getting around in Sri Lanka.

Journeys by rail can take a little longer than by road and you are more likely to be delayed but the train is generally more comfortable and more of an event than an over-crowded bus. Train windows are usually kept wide open and as the train pulls into your station it is acceptable to reserve your seat by throwing your bag through the window before you board (I've seen passengers enter the same way). Once aboard blokes will come along selling everything from chick peas to pineapple, I have survived for days on this fodder without a hitch. Carry more bottled water than you think you will need. Incidentally, trains do have toilets but you really do not want to use them.

When travelling long distances you can not always count on getting to your destination on time, so be prepared to jump ship along the route and do an overnight in a local rest house, leave a little space in your schedule if you can. Try not to end up in Colombo last thing at night, not a nice place at the best of times. If your train is late coming down from the hill country try the town of Polgahawela as a bolt hole, foreign tourists are rare here but there is a good hotel just across the road from the station (go back across level crossing and straight ahead up the little hill) there is a rest house too (which has a bar) and a bank where you can change money, the first time I changed money here it was so unusual that I was called into the office for tea with the branch manager

Places to Stay and village life

Finding somewhere to stay in Sri Lanka is rarely a problem, there are rest houses and hotels just about everywhere, standards however can vary and I have never worked out the pricing system. One day you might find a real gem of a place for a few hundred rupees and the next day asked to fork out 20 quid for a mosquito invested dive, it really can be something of a lottery.

On arrival you could use the Sri Lanka Tourism Office at the airport or you can book a guest house on-line before you leave home, most can arrange to have you picked up at the airport, which is ideal if you are arriving out of hours and/or if you are tired from a long flight. Negombo is near the airport and so convenient on your first and last few nights, other than that I would not recommend it.

When you are on the road the Lonely Planet Guide is useful (although you can normally double the prices they quote) and has telephone numbers so you can book ahead. You can also ask local people advice on the nearest rest house, then just go along and check it out. In tourist areas try to avoid touts, which is easier said than done, but if you are really stuck a local three-wheeler driver will usually know where to stay. Trains and buses can be delayed so plan a few hours in advance, try not to arrive anywhere late at night and be prepared to be let down (a room you have booked in advance could be given away if the owner gets a better offer) so have an alternative plan.

Sri Lankan beaches, scenery and the ruins of its turbulent past alone make it a worthwhile place to visit and there are some sights you really do need to see (the harbour at Trinco, the rock fortress of Sigiriya and Sri Pada to name but three). However there is much more to Sri Lanka than the stuff in the guidebook and the real magic lays just off the beaten track.

Colombo is as ghastly as most capital cities but village side Sri Lanka is another way of life altogether and you should stay in a village if you really want to meet the Sinhalese, it can be a fantastic experience. People are very hospitable but might not readily invite you to stay in their homes, this might not be because they do not like you, more likely they wonder how you will manage in their environment, however, once they get to know you, your Sinhalese friends may invite you to stay at their house. This can be a bit of a culture shock at first but play it by ear and you will be fine and don't miss out on the experience, the Sinhalese are fabulous hosts.

The culture is generally polite and reserved and you will be made to feel like the best thing since sliced bread, do not take this as unquestioning admiration, it is simply a blend of hospitality, politeness and unashamed curiosity. When you stay in a Sinhalese home you will be in bed relatively early and may well be up and about before dawn. The Sri Lankan night can seem like a journey is often very noisy. All manner of weird and wonderful creatures make the most dreadful din and it is the heavy silence which comes with the dawn can be deafening. The silence is usually broken by a cock crowing, maybe followed by some Buddhist chant from the dodgy loud speaker at the village temple. Then comes the sound of the house being swept out.

My first night as a guest in a Sinhalese house was magical. When the evening begins to fall a low mist creeps through the village, mingles with smoke from the cooking fires and catches the smell of the spices from the cooking. When it gets dark the animals take over, first the fire flies and then the animals you don’t see but who make all the noise. To a western city dweller the night in Sri Lanka can have an almost primeval feel.

I was woken late one night by the village dogs who had set off on some serious howling. I climbing out from under my net into the silvery moonlight I saw my main man, Nirosh Kumara, stood in the doorway waiting for me to wake. Without speaking we both moved to the glassless window and peered out into the darkness. Nirosh glanced at me and whispered, Mister Mark, is leopard coming

Home and Family

Village life can appear relatively simple but the Sinhalese are by no means simple people, the literacy rate is amongst the highest in Asia and there is a keen interest in current affairs. If you are a political animal you are in for a real treat, there always seems to be something going on and elections are exciting affairs. Plastic bunting hanging from the trees will tell you which party is supported by the village, if its red you should detect an intense political undercurrent and once you are trusted, conversation can be fascinating. The other parties are blue or green, if the bunting is white someone has died.

The inherent intelligence of the Sinhalese is maybe most apparent in their sense of humour, which is dry and subtle. A sense of humour is vital and losing your temper in Sri Lanka will gain you nothing but derision, even your friends will simply be bemused.

The books will tell you to say ayubohwan instead of hello and estoothy for thank you but these civilities are hugely formal and rarely used. While everyday vocabulary is uncluttered with social niceties, non-verbal communication (eye contact, facial expression and movement of the head etc) more than makes up for this. So you need not worry too much about language barriers, initial social intercourse is largely non-verbal. A waggle of the head means OK, you will soon get used to this and if you are not careful you will find yourself doing it when you get home.

People are naturally inquisitive and will be interested in who you are and what you do but you should not mistake this for envy or admiration. The Sinhalese are intensely proud of their culture and enjoy their way of life. They can be ambitious and like the rest of us they would not mind being a little better off, but otherwise they like things pretty much as they are.

Family life is central to the Sinhalese and families are much extended. As a guest in a Sinhalese home you will be introduced to numerous cousins, uncles, aunties etc who may have travelled miles to meet you. Within the family there is a distinct hierarchy based on age and gender and there is real respect. When you invite a Sinhalese friend to visit you or even accompany you on a journey expect them to bring along a friend or relative or two, people do not really do lonely here.

On your first visit you will be shown the family photographs, the young man in uniform in the largest photograph may well have lost his life in the civil war so tread carefully, establish the situation and appreciate the loss with your eyes. As you will probably have a camera with you why not take lots of photos and send copies to the family when you get home, they will be much appreciated. Any photographs you have of your family and your life at home will be regarded with genuine interest but be careful, you may lose them (and find them on display in pride of place on your next visit).

It's good manners to take your shoes off before entering a house and I'm sure there's lots of other stuff that you should and should not do but you just have to pick it up as you go along because your hosts are far too polite to mention any minor faux pas. However, despite living in close proximity, in some respects Sinhalese people are very reserved so avoid over familiarity particularly with members of the opposite sex, respect is the name of the game.

When visiting a Sinhalese house it is polite to take a small gift, a box of biscuits or cake will do for casual acquaintances. On later visits perfume, jewellery or a sari might be appreciated by the lady of the house while men like good quality shirts, hats, sun glasses or even aftershave, male vanity is no sin here. For the children take toys, sweets or something for school. Do not insult your friends by offering money directly but remember you are rich here so at the very least pay your way. Any gift you give will be whisked away rather than inspected because it's considered rude to examine a gift in front of the giver

Rice, Curry and Lion Lager.

On arrival at a Sinhalese home you are likely to be offered either tea, coffee or a coconut to drink. Sri Lankan coffee is best avoided and the tea can be unusual too so the coconut is maybe the best option. Incidentally, the water from a tambolee or king coconut can settle a mildly dickey stomach, it is cheap, widely available and is an ideal drink if you are off the beaten track and your water is running low. If you do choose tea or coffee tell you host that you do not want sugar or it will come too sweet to drink. If your visit lasts more than an hour or two you will probably be fed 'rice and curry' which the Sinhalese eat to the extent that pandas eat bamboo, if you are not a fan of curry you are probably in the wrong country. In a Buddhist household the food may well be vegetarian, but most people will eat chicken particularly when there are guests. A particular treat is curried chicken hearts and it may be worth pointing out early in any relationship that you do not like curried chicken hearts, because believe me you do not.

If someone presents you with a glass of water on a tray it means the meal is ready, you do not need to drink the water, simply touch the tray with your fingers and follow the bearer to the table. Tradition can dictate who eats with who and the family might not even sit at the table, let alone begin eating until you have taken your share. You will be joined by the man of the house and some of the other male adults present. The women probably won't eat at the table at all, this does not apply to western women guests but best not try and persuade the women of the family to join you because it might cause embarrassment.

A large bowl of rice and several smaller bowls of curry will be on the table, the Sinhalese spoon a small amount of curry onto a huge heap of rice. Take it easy with the curry, the amount we eat with our rice feeds four or five here, this is not because they are mean but because it is very hot and goes a long way. Rice helps cool a burning tongue but best of all is yoghurt or curd, water only appears to make things worse. Use the fingers of your right hand to mix, mash and eat your food, like Dhasana is doing in the photograph. Incidentally, the jug of water on the table will probably have come from the well in the garden, well water has never done me any harm but no one will mind if you take your own along with you. If you are staying a day more in a village buy several bottles before you go, it may not be available to buy locally.

If you are a fussy eater the food may not be exactly what you're used to but try to treat it with respect because a lot of work will have gone into its preparation and your hosts will be disappointed if you fail to enjoy your meal. Keeping face generally is very important to the Sinhalese and anyone from the former colonial occupier owes respect to their culture.

In the evening I find the offer of a beer often goes down well, assuming of course your hosts are not Muslim. Ask the man of the house if he drinks beer and gauge the reaction (I have yet to come across a negative response). There will probably not be any beer in the house so ask if there is a beer shop and make it obvious that you intend to pay. Someone else will be sent to buy the beer as the appearance of a white face at the beer shop could put at least a third on the price. You will be given your change back down to the last rupee. Even if there is a local bar it is probably not the sort of place that decent people frequent

Sri Lankan Lion lager is perfectly drinkable and cheap or you can ask if they have Carlsberg which is just a few rupees more. Whatever you choose ask for it cool which may cost a little extra. Expect your host and any other males in the house beyond the age of puberty to drink a bottle or two, beer is cheap for you but is an occasional treat to your hosts so their tolerance is relatively low. A few friends and neighbours may join the party so buy a few bottles more than you think you will need, they will still be there next time you visit

....and more on beer

The Sinhalese tend to drink before they eat but an after dinner drink is also acceptable, snacks (known as bites) will usually appear at some point in the evening. Traditionally the women of the house will not drink alcohol and might make themselves scarce if it turns into a serious drinking session, no one appears to object to a western woman joining the party but males and females should avoid any behaviour that could cause offence and overt displays of sexuality remain a no no whatever the occasion.

Civilised drinking is an international language and I find sharing a few beers can be a good way to break down cultural barriers as long as you do not over do it, contrary to what the guidebooks may suggest, the regular drinking of arrack is not acceptable in Sri Lanka. I am not fond of arrack, it puts me in a bad mood and seems to have a similar effect on lots of Sri Lankan males who are definately not at their best on Arrack.

If you are staying in a local rest house with a bar you can invite your friends to join you there for an evening but do not expect you friends to buy a round, the chances are that they could not afford to do so. Some hotels that accommodate westerners will not allow Sri Lankan people across the door unless they are comparatively rich

End notes, the small print

There is a lot of inward investment going on just now as states such as China look for somewhere to put their new-found wealth and there has been a lot more money about generally since the tsunami (particularly in the south of the island) other areas are benefiting from a rise in the price of rubber, in short most people are considerably better off than they were just a few years ago.

Don't expect every child to be delighted with your sweets and ball point pens in the way that they once were, these days they are likely to have a mobile phone in their pocket.

You will still find most Sinhalese people friendly particularly in the hotels and resorts but the national psyche is changing fast, there has always been something of a love-hate relationship with foreigners and sadly some people seem to regard being aggressively rude to visitors as a good way to demonstrate their newfound economic independence. Even if you don’t leave your hotel, when the rich Sri Lanka people come down from Colombo for the weekend you may suddenly find yourself a second-class citizen.

Tamil people are usually much friendlier with Europeans although in the west tourists rarely get to meet them (even though they nearly all appear to speak English) I have yet to meet a Tamil person in Sri Lanka who I didn't get on with.

Sri Lanka is the latest Asian Tiger, it's increasingly obvious that people don't need, want or like tourists, perhaps being civil to foreingers is a demeaning reminder of less affluent times but the rapid economic growth is no doubt good news for the average Sri Lankan and it would be churlish not to celebrate their success - good luck to them.

  • Intro Updated Oct 12, 2011
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