Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 6 – Vavuniya

Leaving Trinco on a bus, and facing the prospect of a five hour or more journey across the island to my next major stop in Mannar was just too much to handle. So, book in hand, I elected to stop at more or less the mid point on the way, Vavuniya. Vavuniya is famous for… well, just about nothing, actually. But the Lonely Planet guide assured me it would be a perfectly interesting place to put myself for a couple days. And so it proved.

Boarding the bus at the beginning was a great move. There were rows of free seats and I found myself a comfy one by a window, not far from the front and managed even to put my smaller rucksack on the almost empty overhead. In no time, we were on the road. We retraced the route I had taken in to Trinco to Habarana at first and then, soon after our path turned a little more northerly and the humidity in the coastal air gave way to a dustier area. It was all very sparse and under populated.

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Pleasingly, the bus never really filled up and I managed the whole trip in relative comfort, without incident and arrived at the stop in Vavuniya by late morning. I descended from the bus and quickly consulted the map to ensure I was headed in the right direction. The right direction was for the Nelly Star hotel. The book described it as a place with a good balance between price and quality. It even boasted a swimming pool which, at 1500 rupees a night, was a bargain. I arrived at reception and asked for a room for two nights, before my onward journey to Mannar. The receptionist looked flustered. He searched this clipboard and that, before finally telling me that I could stay in one room that night and a different one the night after. I was infinitely less flustered at this prospect. I went to my room and grabbed a quick – hot(!) – shower to get all the dust off, from the journey. After that, I decided to take a walk. The Nelly Star is on one of the East-West arterial roads of Vavuniya. It’s a tiny place and there’s not a huge amount to see, but this meant that I was one of… well… one western tourists in the city at this point. I was pleased, as it meant that hassle was less and certainly less pushy. The first thing I had to do was get some lunch. I walked down the main shopping street, past countless trucks making deliveries, an unfortunately named alcohol store, and then a somewhat odd looking Catholic Church, before finally settling in to a café for a portion of the day’s rice and curry set menu.

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“Bubees” – seriously?

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I started tucking in to my food right away, of course, and it was a fair few minutes before I realised that the day’s rice and curry was, in fact vegetarian. I hadn’t thought about it before, but this was the first place I’d been where there was a Hindu majority. Nevertheless, the food was excellent and spicy. I drank the last of my ginger beer and walked across the road to find a baker’s. The place was awash with pleasantly decorated little cakes, the first such things I’d seen since Colombo, and probably the first I’d seen at all in non-tourist-oriented establishments. Feeling my sweet tooth, after the hot lunch, I went inside and ordered a milky tea and an iced slice.

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As I sat to eat my colourful little cake, a young man of about 20 who was doing something with the deliveries came in and sat opposite me. He first asked if he could join me and then where I was from, if I was married before – a new question – was I a Christian. I told him that I was, in fact, an atheist and he looked not so much upset as worried. He asked me if I’d seen the mosque, which I had and then proceeded to tell me that he wished no ill will to me and that, rather, he hoped that I might find the right girl and, if god finds me, that I might find religion. This was a jolly polite approach and one that seemed more concerned about what he felt was best for me, rather than any god smiting anger or revenge, which I hear from religious people of many backgrounds these days. I decided to make the best of this opportunity and ask him for some information about the mosque and whether I could see it. He told me that I could, outside of prayer times and gave me a piece of paper with his phone number, in case I should need anything while in the town. What a nice fellow.

After this, I decided to walk back across town and, with the heat beating down, I thought I might get myself a haircut and a shave. Just ahead, at the end of the road, I spotted ‘The New Barber Saloon’ – with air conditioning, no less. It seemed like a good bet. I took a seat in the waiting area alongside two guys in their late teens while the two barbers worked on their current customers. One of the men waiting started talking to me and told me that they were in fact Norwegians of Sri Lankan descent on their first visit to their ancestral homeland and so we had a good chat while we waited. They also told the barber what I wanted before they left. This resulted in a nice haircut, an extremely close shave and then an ‘exfoliation and massage’ which seemed a lot like a really severe beating to the head, but did leave both my skin and my joints feeling a lot better, so I suppose he must have known what he was doing.

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With my beard and hair trimmed and the temperature now sitting around 42⁰C, enough was enough and I decided to go for a beer. Except that Vavuniya isn’t a tourist town. So you can only buy beer in the supermarket, or the shady-looking Bubees, seen above. So I decided to head to Cargill’s. It was here that I realised that beer is really quite the taboo thing in Sri Lanka. Speaking to some locals over the remaining weeks of my trip, it seems that this is because of a perceived problem with alcoholism in the country. Anyway, the process for buying alcohol from the supermarket is that you pay for your regular goods at the normal till, before going to a very small window and ordering your alcohol, while a security guard stands near you, giving you looks of shame. I was buying one beer, so I didn’t really feel any shame, but the bloke still tried his best. It was all terribly strange. Most importantly, I found the shelter of my room and got my beer. This time Lion stout, a really nice dark lager, but beware – it’s 8.1% by volume! Very strong stuff!

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In what seemed like no time, the sun had set and I had the glamorous task of handwashing some underwear and socks to occupy my evening.

Waking up the next day, I found my washing all but dry in the early morning heat, which was already pushing the mercury up to the heights of 38 degrees at 8:15 am. All apart from the t-shirt that had blown off the balcony and was now lost on the wall of a half collapsed building across the street. A three euro Primark t-shirt was not going to reduce me to tears though, and neither was it going to lead me to climb a barbed wire fence into a collapsed house to retrieve it. I walked downstairs to enquire about breakfast. The receptionist was waiting for me. First, he told me that breakfast was not included, though I’d been told the day before that it would be. Then he told me that I would not need to change rooms today, but in fact to move to their other hotel, which was of the same standard and was on the parallel street. I was a bit disappointed, but I went upstairs to pack my things, regardless. When I came back down, the porter was waiting for me and he told me he would show me to the new hotel, but that he didn’t have time to walk. So, rather, I would have to pay for us to take a tuk tuk. When we arrived at the hotel, it was the same price, but the standard was much lower. There was a hole in my wall to the corridor, my door didn’t lock, and the water was cold. I protested, but there were no other rooms available and more or less no other hotels in Vavuniya. I would strongly recommend against staying here for anyone that visits. There was no breakfast here either, so I decided to go to the café next door to the new hovel hotel.

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With the Sri Lankan equivalent of two paninis (stuffed with vegetable curry, obviously) in my belly, I was feeling a lot more optimistic about the day, which was to start at the mosque. With its blue poster paint walls and minarets and its onion-shaped golden domes, it’s a beautiful sight, that you notice the moment you turn into the street.

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I decided to see if I could get inside to have a look around. I went to the door and asked some men who were just putting their shoes back on after praying. They called a young boy of about 12, as he spoke English quite well and he offered to show me around. He showed me all the chambers and translated some of the inscriptions into English for me, even introducing me to some pilgrims who were visiting from another city and showing me the kitchen where food was prepared for people, to be eaten after midday prayers. I was offered some food, which I declined and, when I tried to give the boy a small tip for showing me around, he refused, telling me it was an honour to show an outsider their temple. I was pretty surprised. Now it was on to the most famous Hindu temple in the city.

To reach the Hindu temple, you have to walk down the side of the railway tracks. When I arrived at the track, there was a stray cow wandering about. It had big enough horns that I wanted to keep my distance from it. Finally, I reached the tracks, checked there was no train approaching and dashed across.

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Inside the temple, no photos were allowed, but there was a group of women singing a Hindu hymn, and I circumambulated (in the right direction!)  looking at the many shrines of the different gods worshipped in this temple and the offerings left by worshippers. Leaving the temple, I took the longer road back into town, which took me past a different Hindu temple, which I hadn’t been aware of, with an incredible thatched structure. A puja was taking place at the time and, though I couldn’t take photos, the priests welcomed me inside to witness the ceremony.

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Further down the road, past the mosque again, I came to the lake on which the city was built. It had a pleasingly small amount of rubbish and pollution, by Sri Lankan standards.

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It was getting on for time to eat, and I’d been strongly recommended to go past the lake, near to the church and to try the Royal Garden restaurant. So I thought I’d give it a go. The restaurant is made up of a banqueting hall which is extremely lavish and is used for weddings or, as on the evening when I was there, a university or school occasion of some kind. The area I was looking for was behind the hall, in an open garden area, and had the appearance of an upmarket fast food restaurant. I looked at the menu and thought I would try one of the vegetarian dishes, and in the end I plumped for “devilled paneer”. The food took a while to arrive, so I befriended a cat (naturally) in the meantime. When it arrived though, it was one probably the best meals I’d eaten on my trip to date.

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With dinner done with (washed down with Elephant ginger beer, of course), it was time for bed before the next leg of the journey the next morning, on to Mannar, the sandy peninsula of the north west.

Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can buy your copy here:

SriLanka

Adventures in Sri Lanka – Part 5 – Trincomalee

When preparing for my trip to Sri Lanka, one of the things that cropped up, not only in my guide book, but also in every internet resource I could find, anywhere, was the mention of countless long, white stretches of beach, with the warm Indian ocean waters lapping at the sand. That sounded pretty good to me and, after lots of historical and cultural tourism, now seemed like a very good time to check it out.

After my excellent host from Polonnaruwa had left me on the bus to Habarana, I had a fairly comfy seat for an hour. The only other passengers, in fact, were a group of nuns. As you might imagine, they were not terribly noisy. The bus was also relatively new, by Sri Lankan standards so, somewhat surreally, this was almost what I’d call a pleasant bus journey. Without incident, I was off the bus at Habarana and went in to a local shop to ask where the bus to Trincomalee went from and to buy some water. The owner cheerfully gestured down the road and so I took a walk of about 500m, crossed the road and waited with a fairly large group of people.

The bus arrived after, perhaps half an hour and I immediately realised why the other bus had been so empty. It was to prepare me for the squash of my life. The driver saw my bag and motioned for the money collector to go to the back of the bus and open the luggage compartment. I didn’t even know these buses had one. It was just behind the engine, and so was radiating heat like crazy. I stuffed my rucksack in and jumped onto the bus, standing next the driver, holding a piece of leather hanging from above my head for dear life, while the bus swung around corners, the door – as always – wide open. This was going to be a fun two hours.

Then my luck changed. At some seriously insignificant looking hamlet, a whole host of people jumped off and then some eastern European looking people jumped on and asked, in broken English, for tickets to Trincomalee. By this stage of my journey, I was no longer bothering to book accommodation ahead, so I asked them where they were from. They were a couple from Kiev, in Ukraine and they’d been to Trincomalee at the beginning of their break and had a recommendation for a hotel. We spent the remaining hour of the journey talking about what we’d seen in Sri Lanka thus far, and then we found ourselves on the water’s edge entering the city.

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Trincomalee is an east-facing city, spread out along the Indian Ocean coast. It has a harbour in the south, where there is still a large fishing community and then stretches north, through tourist areas littered with beautiful beaches and hotels and, finally, a nature reserve which is mainly made up of mangroves. The harbour area, as we arrived, was quite polluted but, generally speaking, it’s a very beautiful place. We hopped out of the bus and the ticket inspector swung open the luggage compartment for me to fetch my rucksack. As he did so, he took a huge chunk of flesh out of my arm. I was immediately bleeding all over the place. For now, I covered it up with some antiseptic gel and tissues and followed the Ukranian couple to a tuk tuk. 15 minutes and 600 rupees later, we were at a buddhist community centre hostel, part of the Sarvodaya group who have been doing some excellent work to provide relief to those affected by the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. It was not the most attractive place I stayed in, but it was located right next to the Uppaveli beach and the prices were very reasonable. We found our rooms, signed the paperwork and then we decided to hit the beach for a swim. I didn’t have my camera with me, but here’s a picture of the beach from Wikipedia:

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It’s so beautiful as to be almost unrealistic. The water is also so warm, it’s like stepping in to a bath. The tide here is quite strong, and it was great fun to lie back and be battered by the waves and occasionally completely sucked in by one. As the high season had not yet started, there were perhaps only fifty people on this two kilometre stretch of white sand, a mixture of westerners and Sri Lankans. After an hour splashing around, I got out and dried off in the heat of the setting sun. After a while, the Ukrainian couple also dragged themselves out of the water and invited me to join them for dinner at a restaurant on the beach. I accepted and we went and sat. I ate devilled cuttlefish with rice, which was terrific, and had a delicious spicy zing to it. Sadly though, as dinner progressed, I heard more and more casual racism from them, talking about how it was good to come here, but they didn’t like having to get too close to brown people. Having lived in Poland I was disappointed by this, but not overly surprised, so I retired to my room after dinner and decided it might be best not to spend to much time with them thereafter.

Not to be put off by my bad experience of the night before, I woke up and jumped into the shower, having missed the VERY early breakfast slot of 7:00 – 8:30. While showering myself in the not-especially-clean communal bathrooms, I noticed that my wound from the previous day’s bus had gone quite bright yellow. This probably wasn’t a good sign. Dying of an infection or septicaemia was really low on my to do list, so I vowed to keep an eye on it. Unperturbed, I got dressed, daubed myself in sun block as it was already 38 degrees, at just before 9am, and left the hostel complex. I approached the first tuk tuk I could find, on the other side of the road and asked him how much it would be to go to Swami rock. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. So we rode down the main road and then into a small residential neighbourhood, where he found an older fella who spoke immaculate English and sorted out the whole confusion. We agreed a very reasonable price of 350 rupees and were on our way.

Swami rock is a large peninsula, jutting out from just above Trincomalee’s harbour. It is mainly made up of the expansive Fort Frederick, a fortress first built by the Portuguese in 1624, then occupied by the Dutch, then the British, before finally becoming perhaps the most important combined army and navy base in Sri Lanka. Most of it is fenced off to visitors, but you can still get some impressive views of the colonial era buildings. Before all that though, I wanted to see the temple of Shiva at the very tip of the rock. Just before it, you walk through a market which sells, almost exclusively, cheap and useless tat. It felt seedy and unpleasant and the hawkers here were particularly in your face. I had a really bad feeling about the place but, rounding the last corner, I saw this and all the bad feeling ebbed away:

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I’d always been impressed by the clean lines & tranquillity of the Buddhist complexes I’d seen all over the country to date, but this was my first Hindu temple experience of note. The lurid, technicolour madness of it was a delight. Looking at the photo now, some months later, it all seems a bit over the top, but it all fits perfectly, when you’re there. Before entering, I decided to have a walk around the rock garden to the right of the temple, where many statuettes of deities are stationed. It’s also from here where you can supposedly see sperm and blue whales at almost all times of the year.

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It was an amazing experience, to be inside the temple, with the smell of incense filling the air and a throng of pilgrims circumambulating, leaving offerings at the many shrines and chanting. There were no whales to be seen around Swami Rock, but still, the views were quite marvellous. It was only on leaving the temple that I realised, some 4 hours after waking up, I’d yet to have breakfast. I grabbed a king coconut, to drink as I made my way back down the rock towards Fort Frederick. At the bottom of a hill, I found an army café with my now firm favourite Sri Lankan snack: toasted, spiced vegetable stuffed roti triangles. So I bought two and a cup of milky (and, frustratingly very sugary) tea. It made a good breakfast and set me back a grand total of 80 rupees (about 60 euro cents).

From here, I walked down to the harbour front, where lifeguards were giving kids sea safety lessons on the beach and a large number of fallow deer were tamely relaxing under the shade of whatever trees they could find. The temperature was now in the low to mid forties. I grabbed an ice cream and went to sit by the water for a while.

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Across the road from the water, there was a fairly serious looking game of cricket going on. There were a lot of military vehicles around the makeshift stadium and so I decided to walk in to the Buddhist temple next door instead. As I did so, I discovered that the temple was connected to the Cricket pitch and, in front of me, under a gazebo, a handful of men in uniform were watching the game and cheering. Perhaps foolishly, I decided to approach and see if I could watch the game. One of the men stood up and explained that this was the officer’s area and it was an All Sri Lanka inter-regimental armed forces tournament. He then asked me if I would be their guest in the officer’s area. So, in spite of my slightly muddy shorts, trainers and t-shirt, I joined the men and was told a lot about the best players, the different parts of the country that the regiments were all from and, from my main host, about his family too. The cricket was played ten overs each way, so the batting was frenetic, making for quite high scores and also quick wickets. It was very exciting. The funniest part, though, was the waiter who was there to look after the officers and insisted on bringing me glass after glass of cold orangeade, on a red velvet cushion with gilt edges. He must have been baking hot in his uniform, complete with waistcoat and more!

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After a couple hours, which comprised some 4 games of cricket, I decided to take myself off for some lunch, after thanking the officers for their lovely hospitality. I had read about a restaurant, in the Lonely Planet guide, not far from a smaller Hindu temple, near the railway station which was excellent and decided to check it out, for lunch. It was all vegetarian, but this is a part of the world where I find vegetarian food is king, most of the time. I helped myself to a mustard seed-laden potato curry dosa, a portion of mixed vegetable curry, some kind of doughnut shaped, gram flour based snack and, because I didn’t have five rupees in change, the lady gave me a small chocolate square which, by some miracle, hadn’t melted in the heat of the day. Of course, I also took an Elephant ginger beer. It was delicious and, once again, came in at some ridiculous price, like 160 rupees, or about 1.10 Euros. The temple was also quite attractive, but too crowded, due to an early afternoon puja, so I couldn’t go inside.

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The rest of the afternoon was a quiet reading session on the beach, recharging my batteries. At nightfall, I decided that I would commit the sin of going in search of western food. I’d seen a huge billboard for “Trincomalee’s First Pizza Restaurant” in the first tuk tuk on the way to the hostel on the first day. I decided to go up the nilaveli road and find it. When I arrived, I was astonished to see a real stone oven in the corner. The (brand new) door was nearly falling off its hinges and the handle was like a fairly dull blade, but the sight of the oven and the smell of ‘real’ pizza was encouraging. Encouraging enough for me to overlook the inflated prices. The small few tables in the place were all occupied, but the waiter gestured for me to sit with two middle aged gentleman, one of whom looked like an academic on holiday and the other looked like a slightly portly Crocodile Dundee type. He had 4 or 5 teeth and a long, grey pony tail, while he was balding at the front. He was wearing a leather waistcoat, with no t-shirt.

I sat down and said hello. The holidaying academic turned out to be a holidaying academic. A social scientist, to be precise, who was there on holiday after completing a PhD on social integration (or the lack of) in the wake of the Sri Lankan civil war. The other fella was a resident. They had been friends in the anthropology department of a university in the Netherlands and made very interesting dining company. They told me a lot about the war, how Trincomalee had been quite badly affected, with the now local man told me of how he had a number of bullet holes in the wall of his house as a reminder. They also told me about Portuguese and Dutch burghers in Sri Lanka – something which I’d learn more about in Mannar. All importantly, the pizza was excellent. Afterwards, I headed back to the hostel, ready for a trip to Pulmoddai, the next day.

Pulmoddai is a miniscule village in a clearing in the aforementioned giant mangrove forest. Why was I going here you may ask? Certainly every person I encountered in Pulmoddai asked me that. Well, it was mainly because it was accessed by a very picturesque bus route through the mangroves, over rivers and so on and secondly because the guide book told me there were no tourists there, almost ever, so you could have a more authentic experience. So off I went.

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No more than half a kilometre beyond the side by side hotels of upmarket (too upmarket for my budget!) Nilaveli and you cross this bridge over the startlingly blue water, from where pleasure boats go out for snorkelling trips to Pigeon island. After this it’s into the dense forest, with various hamlets appearing and disappearing with increasing speed. The road seems to be poker straight. From nowhere the forest opened and suddenly we were hurtling along through rapidly changing scenery. First pasture, heavily populated with animals, then salt mines, with the occasional lady walking with a parasol to protect her from the sun, then natural harbours with more motorboats moored up and then more mangroves. Then we arrived in Pulmoddai.

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At first glance Pulmoddai is a single crossroads. A single crossroads with heavy roadworks going on at one end when I arrived. This is not ideal. I decide to take a look at Google maps. It showed me a rather intriguing path, through one of the narrower streets, near the road works, to the ocean, so I decided to follow it. I walked past countless carts being pulled by cattle, highly confused children going home from school, and a surprising number of girls in their late teens who seemed compelled to stop and talk to me, probably more in disbelief than anything. At the top of the road, I happened upon a rust coloured, dusty cricket pitch. Before I was anywhere near it, the gathered teenage boys started running towards me, clutching bats and ball. They demanded I play with them, so I dropped my camera and my water in their pavilion and played a few overs with them. Then we got a few snaps.

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We chatted a little about their city, what there was to see, which premier league football team I supported – a surprise in this cricket dominated world – and what I thought about all things Sri Lanka. They were a really nice bunch of lads and they pointed me in the direction of a nice river walk and told me of a great place to grab lunch time rice and curry, near my bus stop.

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It wasn’t until I was on my way back to the main street to get lunch that I realised that the water here didn’t smell. It wasn’t stagnant and there were a lot of fish swimming about. This was a wonderful change from the inland water I’d found in most of the rest of the country. I cheerfully ambled to the inappropriately named City Hotel and asked for a rice and curry lunch. It took a few moments for the proprieter to get over the shock of me being there, but he then offered me the choice of chicken and fish and so, remembering the clean looking water (I hoped) I plumped for fish. When it showed up, it was terrific and came served with drumstick curry, spiced beans, waday – more on that later – and dhal. Everything was wrapped in newspaper, but the owner went out to the kitchen and fetched me a spoon, I suppose psychically knowing that I was utterly useless at eating rice with my fingers!

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I snoozed on the mid afternoon bus back to Upaveli and got an early night ahead of my next stage of my journey. Another normally unvisited place was next, in the shape of Vavuniya. I checked out of the hostel the next morning and stopped off at the unfortunately named City Hotel and Cream House for a bit of breakfast and then waved goodbye to the Indian Ocean, at least for now.

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Throughout my travels in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily upon the Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get your copy, here:

SriLanka