An epic journey to the Jewel of the Indian Ocean with Dara from Two Brothers
On the Two Brothers website, Sri Lanka is described as the Jewel of the Indian Ocean. A more evocative name is hard to imagine. It reminds me of a romantic adventure, something like the Jewel of the Nile only with more opulent jewels, regal banquets and charming South East Asian beaches. I wanted to travel to Sri Lanka simply because it sounded magnificent. Sri Lanka’s rich history and poetic stories further sparked my intrigue. According to Hindu legend, Sri Lanka and India were once connected by a long, wooden bridge. Lord Rama crossed the fabled bridge from Dhanushkodi to Sri Lanka to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. He eventually slew the evil Ravana to enjoy purity and marital devotion with his beloved Sita.
During my first visit to Sri Lanka, I discovered the local people were just as proud of their nation’s regal description. Sri Lanka is called Jewel of the Indian Ocean because of the island’s natural wealth. Sri Lanka is rich in history, with records dating back over 3,000 years. It is home to the most exquisite gemstones in the world. Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton with a brilliant blue sapphire from Sri Lanka. Tropical fruits and vegetables flourish in abundance. From bright yellow bananas and prickly sweet pineapples, to the sweetest and greenest avocados you have ever seen. Sri Lanka is land that is also wealthy with pleasure. Whether due to the beautiful beaches or delicious foods, happiness radiates from the faces of the local people and children. Afterall, Sri Lankans claim they invented the smile!
My first trip to Sri Lanka was a wonderful experience however it failed to inspire me with the sense of adventure and awe I had anticipated. Controversially, I put this down to using a driver to plan and organise our trip. I used Two Brothers tour company upon the strong recommendation of a friend. Our driver Dara was an upbeat and informative guide and we covered a lot of ground with him. For USD$650, Dara drove us from Colombo International Airport through Sigiriya, Kandy, down to Ella and ending back up in Negombo. The package included hotels as well as the cost of the car and petrol. It was an ambitious itinerary that was more structured than carefree. I missed not having the luxury to just chill-out and explore the sights and sounds of the cities we passed by. There was no opportunity to discover Sri Lanka for myself because Dara was guiding me every step of the way and usually nudging me (okay let’s be honest, pushing me) towards the more touristy options.
The life of a Sri Lankan driver is challenging. They spend a lot of time living on the road and away from their family. Drivers are in command of their visitor’s itinerary and will assume responsibility for booking everything from hotels and restaurants to cooking classes and train trips. They wouldn’t have it any other way. They usually book accommodation that also offers free lodgings for drivers so they have a place to sleep at no extra cost. Such lodgings would encompass a single, shared room for the drivers to sleep on the floor with access to a communal toilet. Likewise, when it comes to meals the drivers will always recommend the buffet restaurants that provide a free meal for them. Finding authentic, local food in Sri Lanka is challenging to begin with but these buffets are truly the pits. The food is bland and made en masse for the volumes of English, American and Japanese tourists who do not like anything too spicy.
The way we got around the bad buffets was by imploring our Two Brothers driver, Dara to stop at roadside cafes for hot roti and curries. We always offered to pay for his meal as well. We turned a blind eye to the hygiene and enjoyed some exceptional flavours. We also asked Dara to stop at points of interests we passed along the way. At the very beginning of our trip, as we drove from Colombo to Sigiriya which is almost four hours, we couldn’t help but notice the many pineapple plantations by the side of the road. The prickly, oval shapes couched in green shrubbery looked very exotic! An old uncle manning one of the plantations whipped out a large, rusty blade and sliced up some very sweet and juicy pineapple chunks for us to eat.
Later on during our trip, we begged Dara to stop again when we noticed a rustic yet Buddha temple under construction called the Maha Viharaya Padukka. Truth be told, we actually just wanted an excuse to get out of the car and stretch our legs however it turned out to be a real treasure. The temple contained eerie hand-painted tiles reflecting old Buddhist fables. I chanced upon a bored, young monk in the temple gardens who expressed a keen interest in learning English and we quickly added each other as friends on Facebook.
Dara often compelled us to visit sights and shops that we had no interest in seeing. These places were usually run by someone who was his friend and hence could offer us special discounted rates. In Sigirya, he insisted we visit the Ayurveda Villa for a local, restorative massage one evening. Dara explained that Ayurveda treatments are unique to Sri Lanka and are a MUST TRY. We discovered they also cost twice the price of what we would have paid in Singapore for a massage yet the comfort levels and hygiene left a lot to be desired. After this, we became more wary of Dara’s recommendations.
Kandy was another stop on our itinerary that Dara insisted we make. Before my trip, I had received advice from friends that Kandy was a very touristy city that could be skipped in favour of spending more time exploring Ella or the highland tea plantations. After a lot of heated discussion, we eventually gave in to Dara’s insistence and spent a day in Kandy. Dara took us to a spice and herbal garden as well as the Kandy botanical gardens. Both had considerable entrance fees and neither were memorable experiences. However the Kandy Tooth Temple left a greater impression. This tremendous feat of architecture is called the Tooth Temple because it is where the relic of Buddha’s tooth is housed. Buddha’s tooth was smuggled to Sri Lanka from India hundreds of years ago by Princess Hemamali. The temple room holding this treasure also contains an illustrated narrative of how the relic has passed through the hands of many a Sri Lankan monarchs over the years.
We spent a good, few hours exploring the Tooth Temple and gardens before being whisked away by Dara to see a Kandy Cultural Dance. I’m sure every tourist that visits Kandy with a driver gets roped into this experience. Inside the hall was a sea of European and Oriental faces whilst outside, plenty of drivers loitered while waiting for their guests to finish the show. Admittedly the show was entertaining. Some of the dancers were more into it than others, but the traditional costumes were colourful and decorative. One particular male dancer was very overweight and struggled to keep up with the more sophisticated dance moves, which made the audience cheer him on with encouragement. To top it off, male dancers walked over heated coals as part of a grand finale to conclude to show.
We finished off our day in Kandy with a relaxing stroll around the main lake before escaping from Dara to go to Helga’s Folly Hotel for a drink and a meal. Helga is an eccentric, old Sri Lankan woman who spent a vast amount of time in Europe. Her hotel is charmingly stuffed with numerous relics she has amassed during her very interesting life. When we arrived we were awed by the bizarre paintings on the wall of Helga amid unidentifiable animals. We ordered a bottle of bubbly, which was by no means cheap as alcohol in Sri Lanka is heavily taxed, and with a glass in hand we explored every nook and cranny of the ground floor. I got lost flipping through dusty record albums, old newspaper clippings and faded photographs. We eventually settled into a set of old fashioned armchairs to enjoy the rest of our drink before an obtuse British girl came over and asked if we were enjoying our evening. She went on to explain that Helga was mourning the death of a close family member and wouldn’t be mingling with the guests this evening. This probably killed my night. Not the fact that I wouldn’t meet Helga, but that I had to communicate with a loud Brit. Why does every establishment in South East Asia feel the need to employ a white person to check up on guests? It’s crass. The last thing I want to do is talk about Mother England with a familiar face when I’m exploring the Jewel of the Indian Ocean.
When we finished our drink we headed upstairs to the restaurant at Helga’s Folly. We waited almost an hour for an awful Moroccan-inspired couscous dish to be served. By this time our English host had found some other young, white guests to drink with and talk obnoxiously about the London night scene, which made our bland food taste even worse. We ate quickly and promptly paid the $100 bill to get back to the hotel.
The next morning we asked Dara to take us to the Udawattekele Sanctuary, which is a 90 minute nature walk just outside of Kandy. The Udawattekele Sanctuary is saturated with majestic tall trees and bamboo shoots. Only glimpses of sunlight manage to peek through. There is a small, leaf-strewn walking path for hikers to follow around the sanctuary. During the wetter months the area can have a lot of leeches however we visited in August when the weather was warm and the path was dry. The walk was relatively unadventurous as the scenery remained consistently brown, green and flat, although we did discover one derelict Buddhist shrine along the way. However many naturalists come here with their binoculars to spy rare and beautiful birds in the tree tops. You can hear the birds chirp but even with binoculars they are almost impossible to see.
Another famous landmark that Dara insisted we visit were the Dumbulla Cave Temples. This is a World Heritage Site that is definitely worth a pilgrimage to. Dara dropped us off at the base of the hill. Dressed modestly, we made the steep ascent in the heat of the midday sun to explore the ancient series of cave temples at the summit. Inscriptions on the cave walls suggest this place dates back to as early as 89 BCE. During antiquity, Dumbulla was a popular place for Buddhists to seek refuge. There are a total of five caves containing hundreds of Buddhist statues and wall paintings. My favourite was cave number one, known as Deva Raja Viharaya. It is believed the god Sakka, King of the Gods gave the finishing touches to the principal image of this cave.
Our six day itinerary with Dara encompassed all the main attractions you would expect to see on a first holiday to Sri Lanka. Ella. A picturesque train journey. The Nine Arches Bridge. Tea plantations. A lesson in Sri Lankan cooking. And the famous Sigirya, Lion’s Rock! It was a great taster for our first Sri Lankan adventure and definitely left us wanting to come back for more albeit next time, sans the driver and Two Brothers tour company!
After our packed itinerary through central Sri Lanka, we were left with an incredibly long, five hour drive on the last day to get to our final hotel. The ride was boring and we asked Dara to stop by the Bopath Falls so we could stretch our legs. Legend has it that the Bopath Falls are haunted and we faced a number of hurdles to get there. We needed to deviate from the main road and drive up a dodgy, natural path. When we couldn’t go any further, we parked the car in a villagers driveway and paid some children running around to keep an eye on it. In Sri Lanka, you can never be too careful about leaving your belongings unattended! We then set out on foot to follow the signposts to the Bopath Falls and came across an industrious scene of old, wrinkly men and women carrying hot buckets of asphalt as they attempted to pave a new road through the village.
After a fifteen minute walk we were greeted by a spectacular scene at our final destination. There was a natural lake filled with squealing children from a nearby school, their dark skin beautifully contrasted by their white garments. The water was frosty but we waded out to see the fig-shaped waterfall and enjoyed feeling the cool pebbles between our toes, which was much needed after hours spent sitting in the car.
We spent our last night in Dara’s home town of Negombo, a fishing village less than thirty minutes from Colombo International Airport. We were supposed to fly back to Singapore the next morning however Dara convinced us to wake up at the crack of dawn to enjoy a boat ride around the lagoon. Unsurprisingly, Dara’s friend was the captain of the small fishing boat we boarded. He wore an NHS shirt that had been donated by British volunteers a few years back when Negombo was devastated by flooding. We the captain him a generous fee and he took us on a one hour scenic tour of the surrounding area. As it was so early, we were the only people out on the water. We encountered many Water Monitors, which looked like small crocodiles or large lizards. They are considered a real hazard as they attack the limbs of locals swimming. Dara pointed out all the development occurring in the area. Hotels left, right and centre were being erected. The tourism industry must surely be booming in Sri Lanka.
Our epic adventure through the Jewel of the Indian Ocean was unforgettable. We will never forget our squabbles with Dara and how impressed we were by his popularity – I’ve never met someone with so many friends. We were grateful for our experience with Two Brothers tour company. bBut mostly we enjoyed the tropical climate and exotic beauty of this island nation. We can’t wait until our next trip to Sri Lanka.