Unique, raw landscapes and rich, vibrant culture.
Poppi Kuropatoff | AUSTRALIA
It was mid-afternoon, hot and humid, the feeling of a storm lingering behind the horizon.
Rachy and I had just pulled into Midigama on the south coast of Sri Lanka and were desperate to wash away a few days in transit. We picked up some surfboards and didn’t care the wind was blowing onshore, there was no one out. We paddled out and into surf that was way better than it looked from the beach. We had that first surf in a new country excitement as we traded waves. As the afternoon wore on the wind died and the surf continued to improve. We couldn’t believe our luck. We watched as the sun began to set into the ocean and the sky turned a swirl of tangerine and pink. I remember Rachy paddling back out after a wave, the colours reflecting off the water onto her face like some sort of surrealist painting and just shaking her head in amazement. From somewhere the distance we could hear the faint sound of chanting and drums floating towards us. I scanned the shoreline for the source.
I made out a congregation of about 30 people walking along the shore. They were all dressed in white, meandering to the beat of drums and chanting. I immediately wondered why the group had their back to setting sun. This was until I noticed the moon rising up through the mountains. It was glowing and perfectly full, being called out of its daily hibernation to the beat of the drums and chants. We sat in the water amongst the last light until the colours, the fisherman on their famous stilts and the worshippers faded into the darkness and the first stars began to shine.
These first few hours set the tone of the trip. Relaxing yet invigorating days spent exploring the more natural parts the country had to offer. Everywhere we went there was an intense beauty of intertwining nature, people and culture.
The plan initially was to go to India and into the mountains. Our connecting flight in Kuala Lumpur was cancelled due to a cyclone ravaging Chennai. On top of the cancelled flight, India was in the midst of an economic upheaval. The Prime Minister deciding to take out of circulation the most commonly used bank notes in a fight against black market currency trading. The events left us wondering if it maybe wasn’t our time to go to India. After two days in Kuala Lumpur and the airport in Chennai still not open we jumped on a plane headed for the little island nation south of India.
The country, much like Australia and a lot of places in the world, is heavily developed along the coastal fringes. But there are pockets of empty pristine beaches and jungle dotted along the coast and they were surprisingly easy to find.
The first week was all about relaxing, and thanks to consistent swell, a lot of surfing! We based ourselves out of Midigama and rented a motorbike to explore the southern coastline.
Days were spent finding the least crowded waves we could and soaking up all the coastal towns had on offer.
Indulging at roadside stores along the way. Laughing at each other’s red sweaty faces while our heads got blown off by some tasty little street side morsels. Meals were usually followed by a few head wobbles from the locals. – It took us a while to understand the head wobble. Many a question asked was answered with a big smile, head wobble and utter confusion as to what it actually meant. We concluded they were a term of endearment, for the most part, meaning yes, no, maybe, hello, goodbye and any number of other combinations. In the end, it didn’t really matter we were always just so happy to receive one.
After a week or so on the coast and the swell dropping off, we left our homestay and ventured north. Excited to see the interior of the country.
Uda Walawe National Park was first and I was losing my mind at the thought of seeing elephants and possibly a sneaky leopard in the wild for the first time. The park is one of the best places to see wild elephants in the world according to our guide. We went full safari mode and weren’t disappointed. We found leopard prints and tracked it to no avail but with the elephants, there was no such problem. There were so many scattered throughout the park going about their daily lives. Rachy unrelentingly telling me we weren’t leaving here without one of the baby elephants in tow. The park’s vegetation had an African savannah type vibe and was filled with a vast amount of birds, water buffalos, monkeys, elephants, deer, boars, crocodiles and many other species.
From there we continued north (minus the baby elephant much to Rachy’s dismay) climbing into the mountains and into tea country. We stayed at an incredible little homestay in Ella with tea on tap and the best home-made curries of our lives. We loved the feel of this little town and even better the hikes out to the surrounding mountains. It was a nice contrast to the coastal heat, with misty mornings making way for cool nights spent feasting on at least five different curries.
Leaving at the last minute (book ahead if you want a seat) we were crammed into a doorway with 7 other Singhalese. Hanging out the door for six hours we wound our way through the spectacular rolling hills watching as tea workers picked leaves in the plantations. Although so squished it redefined my concept of personal space, it was a super fun trip hanging out with the locals. I had a great chat nose to nose with Aatheesh, a union rep for Tamil tea workers. Hours upon hours of Sri Lankan history, covering the injustices some of the Tamil tea workers face and how he helps them, the civil war and of course cricket. The time flew as we chatted away sharing some food, stories and an abundance of head wobbles.
Anuradhapura the ancient capital in the Northern Central Province and the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka was probably the biggest mind blower. The UNESCO World Heritage site is undoubtedly best seen on a bike. The ancient city is covered in riding trails linking all the stupas, relics, Buddha statues and all the beauty in between. In between the major sites were endless acres of ruins covered in jungle and ruled by monkeys, unrestricted for us to explore. The sacred stupas towered above the canopy and were easily stumbled upon as we wound our way through the trails and ruins.
We aimed for a giant stupa towering above the jungle. We were both covered in goosebumps on arrival at the Ruwanwelisaya Stupa swarming with people on their holy pilgrimage. We took off our shoes and joined the masses of people laying offerings of lotus flowers, fruit and meditating at the base of the structure.
We walked circling the base of the stupa with thousands of others dressed in white. Dotted amongst the white-clad pilgrims were monks in bright orange robes contrasting the masses.
Neither of us is religious but it was hard not to be swept up in the power and energy of their peaceful devotion.
We walked around trying to figure out what we had stumbled into. As soon as the thought entered our minds we were approached by Bandula. A wise and witty 85-year-old retired university professor. He had apparently noticed our jaws on the floor and asked if he could walk with us. He took us on our own pilgrimage of sorts (cliché I know but life lessons were learnt), explaining to us the Buddhist philosophy and how he lives his life. We circled the Stupa rapid firing questions to each other about our respective cultures and life philosophies.
At some point in the conversation, while cooling down under the shade of a fig tree, Bandula ended up telling us his definition of how to live a happy life. He explained to us in order to live a happy life you need to know these three things:
- “Impermanence – know that this life will end and know that nothing is permanent.”
- “Know yourself – to know who you are will lead to a life of happiness.”
- “Let go – let go of problems, let go of fights and arguments, let go of thoughts that linger too long and you will be happy.”
As much as they are simple and probably common Buddhist philosophies. The whole scene of all the white dressed pilgrims, monks, giant stupa and Bandula getting deep really had a lasting effect on us.
Bandula then wanted to take us to the Bodhi Tree. Said to be the oldest cultivated tree in the world. The tree is a cutting from the Bodhi tree Buddha found enlightenment under in India. The cutting was brought to Sri Lanka 2265 years ago as a gift to the king and was the birth of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
We strolled past some traditional Singhalese dancers and ruins before arriving at the tree held up in gold support props. As we walked up the stairs, monks greeted us and sprinkled water and blessings on us.
He asked if we wanted to meditate with him under the tree. I sat there with my eyes shut more just tripping out on this time spent with him.
After ten minutes or so he called to us. He was hungry and heading off to lunch. We thanked him profusely for taking us under his wing, his patience and insights. Before we could say a proper goodbye he turned and disappeared almost otherworldly into the sea of white pilgrims as quickly as he had appeared.
The trip continued on like this for another couple of weeks. As much as I would love to go on these were a few stories that summed up our experience the best.
Considering we hadn’t even intended on being in Sri Lanka and had no plans, the whole trip unfolded with the dreamiest flow. I guess it’s often the freedom gained from having no expectations on unplanned trips that tend to leave long-lasting impressions.
No doubt there were some insane bus rides, scarily close calls on motorbikes and a little food poisoning. If anything, it just added to the adventure.
From the moment we landed in Sri Lanka the colours and smells instantly kicked our senses into overdrive. While the nature and history of the country were endlessly intriguing it was the people along the way that made it truly special. We continually had these intense connections with the local people in homestays, on public transport or just on the street. It said more about them than us. The fact they were always so welcoming and open-hearted where ever we went really made the whole trip.
Sri Lanka, it was a dream.
A few helpful Tips:
~ Public transport rules. While it was crowded jumping on a bus you could get anywhere fast and for next to nothing. The buses rule the road.
~ The National Parks are insane. Heaps to choose from depending on what type of animals you want to see at what time of year.
~ There are two main monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka. The East, north and ancient cities are wettest from October to January. The west, south and hill country are wettest from May till August. The surf is best in the south from December to March and on the east coast from May till September. It gets wet so definitely take it into consideration.
~ Although it is a small country it is jammed packed so don’t chew off too much. We had a month and only really got to the south and central areas.
Words and photos by Popp Kuropatoff
Byron Bay, Australia.
“I picked up a 1970’s Olympus Trip 35 fixed 40mm off a second-hand site at the last minute before the trip. The pictures are grainy, but in the end, I feel they do a pretty accurate job of capturing the unique vibe that was my experience in Sri Lanka.”