Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sri Lanka 2013: Yet another place that could benefit from temporary recolonisation by the Brits (hopefully this doesn't earn me a spot on someone's death list)

For our second annual vacation of '13, Sri Lanka formerly known as Ceylon, ended up being chosen by process of elimination. Australia was out of the question on account of having been to Sydney and Perth already, New Zealand was kicked out of contention due to the distance, Europe simply too far, China in the grip of Summer (at time of writing), and radiation fears ruled out Japan- a pity, though I myself wasn't keen on going there during Summer. Funnily enough the rest of South East Asia was not considered, but Sri Lanka was probably foreign enough to be worth taking the time to fly to, I guess. I'll do a speed run for this one- hopefully I can cover it all in one sitting.

Day 0. After work, I headed home to pack and laze around. The rest of the group arrived sometime after midnight, and we drove off to the airport. At the hotel (Sama-Sama) we were told that we had been given an upgrade to the VIP floor- granting us the right to a special 'American' breakfast- which we passed on to join the other peons in a buffet/gorgefest. A flight stewardess- ah, I suppose the politically correct term is fligt attendant (?)- stepped out of the lift headed up. I took a sniff as I entered and thought "I'll be damned, but this lift smells fantastic". I did a quick double take and realised that it was probably the lingering scent of her perfume. In retrospect if it was damnation I was after I should probably have just followed her instead.

I'd intended to spend an hour or so in the sauna (open 24 hours like most McDonald's), but given the time (2am) I decided to just do some simple stretching and calisthenics under a hot shower instead. Too lazy to change into pajamas, I took to bed severely under-dressed, which, in an air-conditioned room was probably not one of my more sensible ideas.

Day 1. I woke up with a slight flu- what a surprise. I left some muffins which I'd bought the previous day at the check-in counter by accident- not a single person had the heart to let me know. I wonder if they called in the bomb squad for it. We flew by SriLankan Airlines- I later found out that dad, who went over two days earlier, had received a free upgrade to first class, in an effort to fill up the plane- in other words, a minute sacrifice for financial gain. In simpler terms, the services given in first class do not justify the price tag.

In any case, I was quite delighted with the USB port next to the in-flight entertainment device which I didn't bother with- perfect to charge my phone. I say this should be a must on all planes. As I busied themselves with my music, the stewardesses bussed around in their peacock coloured saris-unlike most other airlines, these stewardesses were rather senior and portly- their saris did not help one bit. A brief pause is necessary here, I think.

What does this say about SriLankan Airlines? Are they practicing true meritocracy, in that experienced people are given the job regardless of physical appearance and age, compared to the svelte young targets of male lust and desire present on other airlines? Is Kuala Lumpur-Colombo an insignificant route for them, or do they simply, as a whole, not give a hoot about looks? I'd like to say that it was the former reason in operation, but given how oddly written their in-flight menu was, this hypothesis is suspect. Ah well.

Upon landing I filled up our immigration cards and got myself a tourist SIM card- mainly for the 500MB worth of 'free' data. It's total BS in how they describe it as 'free' and add an asterisk. On the back of the immigration card, where it has an advertisement, it appears that there is no cost, but you'll actually have to pay 1600 rupees (Rm39) for the thing. So much for being free*. In 4 days I used up about 160MB, mostly on Maps and Foursquare, and barely touched the free* SMS and free* international calls. In any case, it's a much better deal than that recommended by my own carrier back home, who suggested that I sign up for a ridiculous international data plan costing Rm38 per day.

Dad was waiting outside the airport, and our hired driver showed up a few minutes later. The driver, a young chap called Raj, turned out to be a stereotypical doofus Asian- saying yes when he really meant "I've no idea what you're saying". He had a habit of saying 'yes' multiple times, and the more yeses he gave the more worried I became. His English was rather off, though at least his accent was not as bad as that of Indians. Another problem with him (and his other countrymen) was that he shared a similar trait with the Indians in that he practices a head-roll that's neither an affirmative or a negative. I wonder if they teach that move in school. Whether it comes about through cultural education or genetics, this is really one habit that should be drummed out through corporeal punishment. The thought of Jojo (Joseph Joestar from Jojo's Bizarre Adventures) grabbing hold of Raj's head with both hands when he attempts a head-roll, headbutting him, and teaching him how to nod and shake properly helped to relief much of the irritation I had felt when he took us to the hotel dad had checked out earlier today, despite giving him explicit instructions multiple times to go to a different hotel.

After much wasted time- going to the wrong hotel, and then giving up on the Dutch Museum due to traffic and time constraints- we headed for the Grand Cinnamon hotel for a buffet lunch. 2 buffets in one day- shocking, but there were no complaints. The cooking was nicely done, but was of an international variety, and not particularly Sri Lankan, which was a bit of a disappointment at the time. Later on, having had a feel of Sri Lankan food in several other restaurants, this point lost its weight. One oddity we noticed was that they do not make water, tea or coffee readily available in pots or automatic dispensers, like in buffets back home (and pretty much everywhere else). We had to ask the waiters to bring our drinks- water arrived reasonably quickly in the form of sealed plastic bottles- perhaps to emphasize that they are not using tap water (which, I presume, is death-inducing?)- but hot drinks took forever to arrive. Whether this is because their staff were simply too busy to attend to us, or because they do not keep any hot water ready but have to gather moisture from the air and boil it over a stone fireplace, I will never know, but what I do know is that after making us wait an eternity, they gave us coffee instead of tea.

The next item on the reshuffled agenda was the Barefoot Gallery on Galle Road, a gallery cum store cum cafe, showcasing traditional... stuff, like batik (which we have here as well and consequently was of zero interest), tea (which we ignored because we would be visiting Kandy in a few days, a short distance from the tea plantations), handicrafts such as elephants made from granite and wooden goddesses with pointy tits. They thumbed around the clothing section while I fiddled around with ladies hats, wondering how much hotter it would get, but we walked out without making a purchase, no doubt to the disappointment of the staff who had probably pegged us a shopaholics from mainland China- wrong on both counts, for what it's worth.

We dumped our bags at our hotel- well, a service apartment, really- Rockwood Residencies before proceeding. It was a nice enough place: 3 large bedrooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms and a spacious living room. Speaking of the living room, the TV, which I had no interest in, was the tubbiest CRT set I've seen in ages- an ancient Sony. My only complaint was about the place was that hot water didn't seem to work, despite there being a switch for it.

Up next was the Gangamaraya temple museum. Entrance cost 100 Rupees per person, and was paid to a monk in a saffron kesa- which sparked off a brief internal debate over how monks are really not supposed to handle money and should have an attendant to handle such worldly matters instead. Dad gave the bonze 1000 Rupees, not having the change- but the monk went and wrote 1000 instead of 500 on the receipt, probably assuming that we meant it as an extra donation. He was promptly corrected, and we took our change, and our shoes off for a brief stroll into the museum grounds, which was filled with statues and sculptures of Buddha and related personages- for some reason this included Chinese traditional deities, and most perplexingly, a figurine of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Ignoring the pressing question of whether Siddhartha was chummy with King Tut, we dusted off our feet and reclaimed our footwear- do you spot the question marks swirling around the illogicality of the order of the italicized statement? If you do, good on you. We headed on to the nearby Simamalaka Shrine on Beira Lake, a simple temple structure on stilts. So that you do not fall into the algae infested green water while jumping aside to avoid incoming crow shit (one lady received an avian imprint on her foot), there are railings around the main platform, adorned by statues of Buddhas with wry smiles (see the photo above). I sat down on the railing, but a coolie yelped at me to get off- apparently you're not allowed to sit on the same level as Buddha. I wasn't offended, but got off anyway to avoid any inconvenience- however the event did jump-start some synapses in my mind, and I worked out the following mathematical conclusion: (1) You are not allowed to share the same level as 'Buddha'- insert any other religious personage. (2) Buddha never said that you're not allowed to sit on the same level as him. (3) Some insignificant individual declares that you cannot sit on the same railing as Buddha. (4) In conclusion, whoever made that decision is imposing his rule on Buddha. (5) Therefore that person is putting himself on a higher level than Buddha.

We didn't have much time for contemplation of a philosophical nature, so we got up and moved on to Diyawanna Lake. There was absolutely nothing to see there besides some people floating around on sailboats in the strong wind and a film crew recording scenes to some show, so after a short rest we headed on towards Mount Lavinia. The old hotel on top is supposedly the place to view the sunset, though we were a little too late for that, and settled instead for what little natural light remained (not much), and some bikini-clad girls bumbling around in the pool. Oddly enough a glass of red wine (500 Rupees) cost less than fruit juice (600), and I asked the waiter for a sweet cocktail- he recommended the honey mango margarita, which turned out to be a major disappointment, like all my other experiences with cocktails- though it might have been better if there was no sugar coating around the rim of the glass. We had dinner downhill, at 'Gihan's Restaurant'- I checked into Foursquare and found a comment saying that they use recycled oil from Hilton. The waiter didn't advise us well as to how much we should order, and ended up having to pack some home, and gave one pack to the driver.

Note: that's the end of Day 1, and that's it for me. So much for my grand goal of finishing this entire post in one sitting...

Day 2: We left early, around 6.30 or 7am. Had breakfast at a small roadside bakery cum hotel in, ah, Bentota, I think. These little bakeries are everywhere- they make their own bread, so what you get is pretty fresh. Hygiene is questionable though, as I saw flies floating over the bread before someone came around to put it away.

Our main destination for the day- Galle Fort. Before getting there, we spotted several graves along the Galle Road, facing the ocean- I guessed rightly in that these were for people killed by the tsunami back in 2004. The beaches also seemed ridiculously short in some places- probably another side-effect of the big wave. The entire journey to Galle took more than 3 hours, worsened by traffic and Sri Lanka's pathetic idea of a road system: most roads are only two lanes wide. Driving is another form of madness here, with drivers honking constantly, overtaking and squeezing between traffic like ants trying to avoid raindrops. I suppose the police could be considered a threat too- they do help out by conducting traffic (although I do not think they are all trained to do the job, as evidenced by one idiot), but by and large I think they, like traffic police across the messier parts of Asia, are working hard just to collect bribes from rule breakers.

Our first stop in Galle was the 'Peace and Plenty' Inn, for tea, which as usual, took quite long to arrive. I'm told that in some cultures this is because they intend for guests to be able to spend more time engaging in idle banter before the meal, but I think (among other reasons), that once off the roads they lose all sense of urgency and become barnacles. Our driver, Raj, excelled by ordering a drink on our expense without permission- small wonder he was reluctant to accept the coffee we gave him.. Attaboy. After a quick walk around town- mostly hotels and shops selling the same touristy stuff like tea at exorbitant prices, we headed off to walk along the fortifications- nothing much to see, really, and it was getting rather hot. We were closer to the equator than yesterday, come to think of it.

After that, a brief stop at Ariyapala Traditional Masks, a small showroom and shop featuring painted masks and puppets; a walk along a wide river with jet-ski rental companies; and a look through Kalutara Bodhiya temple- though technically I didn't go into the temple proper, due to the requirement to be barefoot, despite the bird shit plastered on almost everything without the benefit of a roof. I just stayed outside and looked after the rest of the group's shoes.

We planned on doing some shopping, and following a long drive through a traffic congested city, and with much help from Google Maps made it to the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct. Raj seemed to have no idea how to find anything with the word 'Dutch' in it. Back on point, the so-called shopping precinct was just a rectangular single story building with a large courtyard in the middle. Despite calling it a precinct, there weren't many shops: just an Odel gift shop, a spa, and a few restaurants- pathetic by Malaysian standards. After a few purchases, we headed over to the opposite World Trade Center, thinking that we would be able to find more shops, but were told that it contained only offices, and a few cafes.

A brief aside. I separated from the group while they ordered ice cream cones, and spotted in a far-off cafe a lovely oriental lass sitting in a corner, most likely having an after-work pick me up by herself. This would have been a perfect root moment of an office romance- had I been alone, I would have ordered a drink and took a seat at the next table and found some random pretense to chat. Of course, I had to hurry back to the group and left the WTC with a raspberry ice cream cone in hand instead- so I'll be tormented forever by the possibilities that could have sprung from that almost meeting. OK. Enough non-existent drama for today...

There wasn't much time left in the day, and as we had to get up early the next day, we headed back to our hotel after dinner at Sulthan Palace, a smallish restaurant with a name far too grand for its stature- although the food was reasonably good- and a brief stroll through a larger Odel 'mall'. I started to wonder if they had any idea how the concept of shopping malls works in the larger world beyond Colombo.

Day 3: We got up around 4.30am to prep for departure- I haven't woke early for as many days in a row since- well, never, really. Our new driver, a 50 something chap whose name I forgot, was there to bring us to our new hotel. The drive was fantastic- our best drive in the country so far, on account of there being so little traffic in the early morning (around 5.30).

After some time we arrived at the Suriya Arana in Negombo, located in a residential district just off Negombo beach. It was still dark out, but the proprietor was up to meet us. The Arana is a home converted into a hotel- apparently registered as one with the Sri Lankan Board of Tourism or whatever- this seemingly unimportant fact will become important later on, mind you. Our arrival happened to coincide with something slightly more grim- the owner's young son (supposedly a genius kid of sorts) had just passed away- though of course we couldn't let that cloud our holiday, of course. Before leaving, he asked us about dinner- we said we'd like to try Sri Lankan cuisine- still being optimistic enough to believe that we'd find something unique. Here's where we got screwed over: he asked us 'would you like us to cook something up for you' or something similar, to the effect that it seemed that he would be treating us to a home-cooked dinner. Only later on when the driver mentioned that 'his restaurant is great' did we start to wonder, and yes, it was all included in the bill- all this without him showing us the menu and pricing. To be fair to him, yes, it is a bloody hotel, despite how it looks. That being said- some clarity would have been appreciated.

Anyway. Another long drive along nasty two lane roads. After breakfast at a nearby bakery, and then tea somewhere else, we finally reached Sigiriya, the 'Lion's Rock'. It's basically a large natural rock, somewhat similar to Uluru in Australia, which was modified in ancient times into a fortress of sorts. There's even a little moat surrounding it, though there are no guardian crocodiles to tease, unfortunately... which is a pity, because that would have done much to justify the ripoff 30 USD entrance fee. Once inside, guides continually harass you to take up their services- they speak in all sorts of languages reasonably well: I noticed one speaking what sounded like passable French, and another speaking Japanese. Unless you firmly shoo them off, they will follow you around while yapping about the place hoping for a tip, and touch you as if you were best buds- shoulders and back only, but even that is too much contact for me. If you don't speak any of the languages they speak, I suggest you bring wear running shoes and bring pepper spray.

Our next destination- Dambulla Rock Temple. There's a 1500 rupee fee to enter the temple proper, and although this time the collection was not handled by a priest, there's still a sinister commercial strategy at work here: Entrance tickets can only be purchased at ground level. After purchasing your ticket, there's a long and tiring walk up the hill/mountain- you may meet monkeys on the way, but that is irrelevant- and when you finally reach the top, you will be greeted by a sign telling you that you cannot wear footwear inside- which is ridiculous because it's still terribly dusty inside the temple grounds and once you step out, your feet will be black. Anyway there's a guy there whom you can pay to take care of your shoes for 25 rupees a pair. There's nothing much to see inside the temple besides a few statues and paintings. My reasoning is that once you make the climb to the top and realise that there's really nothing much to gawk at, you probably wouldn't care enough to purchase a ticket any more, and just want to get back down to a cold drink. Also, to make sure that everyone pays the shoe guard, if you purchased your tickets at once, the entire group has to go in immediately, since you have to show not just the ticket, but the receipt for stamping itself, thus voiding any purpose in the ticket itself. If it isn't obvious yet, though you may have multiple tickets, there is only one receipt.

For the record, I stuck my sandals in my bag, peeked at the statues for a bit, and then parked myself on a stone banister to wait for the rest to finish. Interestingly enough, once you enter the temple walls, there's a small stall selling Buddhist and Hindu paraphernalia. This wouldn't be possible with, say, Christian crosses and Muslim Qurans, but my theory is that Buddha doesn't give a damn, and the Hindu pantheon is too busy arguing amongst themselves to care.

We had lunch at a restaurant a short distance away, and were scammed again, perhaps. The staff were too busy attending to a large American group to take our order, and took forever just to pass us the menus. Never mind that- they didn't even ask for our order, only taking down our request for specific drinks. The food eventually arrived, and it was substandard, and nothing like what was on the menu- no fish, no potatoes, and the chicken was mostly bones. I have a sneaking suspicion that they gave us leftovers. The drink I ordered- ginger beer, was served in a glass bottle, and the area around the mouth had grime on it. The bananas that they gave us at the end (whether they charged us for them too I'll never know) were too ripe to eat comfortably, and come to think of it, they never did clear up the table properly. They're lucky that I didn't remember their name.

Next stop- Kandy town. It was Eid, so all the Muslims were out to play. Traffic was worse than before, and our driver showed off his imbecility by driving to our destination (YMBA: Young Men's Buddhist Association), not telling us that that was the place, driving off to the parking area, and only then did he walk us back to the YMBA, telling us that this was the place (for the Kandy dance), thereby wasting a lot of time in the process.

The dance itself lasts about 1 hour, though we only caught about 30 minutes of it- no great loss, as the dance routine was nothing special. The routine was a mixture of jumping around, acrobatics, and balancing acts; the music no more than repetitious drumming. Compared to the dance we saw in Cappadocia, Turkey, this show was nothing. For what it's worth, the Cappadocian girls were prettier too. Once the show is over- shockingly- two female dancers ran to the exit. I thought there was something else in line, but no, they had tip boxes in hand. Tsk. Soon after, another show started outside- a few guys spinning torches around and some fire walking. Nothing spectacular. Like the dancers before them, the fire players guarded the exit with tip boxes at the end of the show. Like before, we breezed past them.

Finally back at our hotel, dinner was served after a short break. Mostly seafood such as large prawns, squid, and fish. Luckily it was pretty good, though more expensive than any other place nearby (not that we knew it at the time, though we did have suspicions that we would be charged for it).

Day 4: Our final day in Sri Lanka. Sometime early in the morning I was awoken by my uncle who'd grabbed my shoulder shouting in his sleep. I struggled free and hissed at him- he'd had some sort of dream, though he couldn't recall what it was about. For what it's worth I had a dream too- I was a girl in a school's swim team- but more of a team mascot, a 'cheer' character, if you will. I didn't get to participate in a competition, but still won a medal for some reason.

Anyhow. Today was our 'free' day, without having to be bused about in a van. We had the benefit of being able to wake up relatively late, and had breakfast in the hotel before leaving for town. A short walk on the beach, tea in a cafe, a walk through a smelly, wet and noisy fish market, a 6km walk back to town for lunch... a pretty low key first half for today. Although there was a slightly hair-raising incident where our driver stopped outside a spice shop along the highway (i.e. tourist trap) to take a leak. Another local came along and stuck his menacing face through the open door of our van. I gave snide, caustic, and blatantly fraudulent answers to all his prying questions- he didn't seem interested in us personally, and really didn't seem happy to have us there- not looking through the shop and buying anything, though he claimed to be a driver and not employed at the shop. Ah well. He buzzed off when our driver came back.

After a short rest at the hotel, we took a short cruise along the Dutch built canals. Surprisingly, no life jackets were provided. The guide pointed out things like large lizards, kingfishers, effects of the tsunami, lizards, a tile factory, lizards (wait did I repeat myself again), a house belonging to a German who stays there for 4 months per year- which had me wondering if he was a Nazi on the run- and a short stop on land to watch and old guy monkey up a coconut tree to harvest juice for toddy.

Back to the hotel for dinner. We ordered more of the 'local' food this time- it wasn't worth it. At the price you pay, you expect to get slightly more than what you'd get outside- I have to say we got less here. Especially the anorexic chicken chunks served in a puddle of curry. At the end of the meal, we were careless and got conned again, when asked if we would like ice cream... without being shown the menu. There was a charge, of course. Before we left, we were also charged for the drinks we'd taken from the refrigerators in our rooms- not entirely shocking, but I was waiting to see what they'd do. There was no label in the room stating that there's a price tag on the drinks. If this isn't a flagrant contravention of the Hotels Act, it should be. If something like this isn't covered in the Hotels Act, it should be added in now... common sense and courtesy just doesn't seem to cut it around here.

Off to the airport. Everything went swimmingly fine, but one final insult snuck in- the duty free stores did not accept rupees, for some unfathomable reason. After reading all that, you might have come off with the impression that I did not enjoy this trip at all. Sri Lanka wasn't particularly interesting for me- it was average, and I don't think I'd bother going back, but who knows. It's only been a few years since the tsunami and the end of the civil war, so I suppose I shouldn't be too harsh. Who knows, maybe they'll be more interesting in a few years, assuming the religious extremists don't go nuts (a Buddhist mob attacked some Muslims a day or so after we left), and their president, Rajapaksa- which interestingly enough means 'King of Forcing' in Malay- doesn't do anything stupid. Until then, you're better off visiting Bali instead.

...I'd go back, but only for the lone lady in the WTC.

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