Ceylon, it’s Been Good to Know Ya: 12 Unexpectedly Awesome Things About Sri Lanka

Yeah, no.


I’m a really lazy traveler if left to my own devices. I tend to plunk myself down in a particular town, find myself a particularly pleasing cafe and spend weeks just drinking coffee and watching the world go by. I’m much more suited to actually living in a place than just passing through it. I often feel like I’m missing half the story when I breeze through en route to somewhere else, ticking of a list of sights in a guide book.

I remain fully convinced that a significant proportion of my observations are either false, partially misinterpreted, or absurdly naive. It was only after at least a year and a half in both Turkey and China that I felt even remotely able to write publicly about them. I’m probably still wrong though.

The only reason why I’ve successfully circumnavigated the island of Sri Lanka is thanks to Doug, who is the master planner of all our major journeys. He has the momentum that actually gets me out of bed in the morning before ten.

We’ve seen a lot of this country in just three and a half weeks. What I want to present to you today is a list of the most unexpectedly awesome things that I came across during this whirlwind tour.

In no particular order, typed out carefully using a net cafe keyboard with most of the letters rubbed off, I give you the best of Sri Lanka as determined by someone who has no right to determine such things.

NOTE: I was only able to upload about half of the photos for this post as the internet is painfully slow here. Also, a cockroach just strolled up my pantleg and tried to investigate my knee. And I think someone with exhaust problems is idling outside the open door here and the room is filling with thick smoke. I’ll add the photos at a more amenable time. I think you will understand.

1. Yesterday morning we emerged from our guesthouse to find all of Galle shut firmly, including this internet cafe where I had planned to write a follow up post to my Kandy one.  The shutters were locked tight. Even the corner shops were battened down at their hatches.  Where was everyone? Ah, they were down by the sea shore, flying kites, eating ice cream, going to the Buddhist temple, strolling in large family groups. Why? Because it was the full moon, a.k.a Poya. The full moon is a holiday here! How awesome is that? I’m totally going to petition the Chinese government when we get back to Shanghai to make every full moon a bank holiday.


Everyone and their dog was out on the waterfront


2. When we were in Nuwara Eliya, every morning at 5am we were greeted with a fantastic burst of frenzied drumming somewhere down in the valley, followed by some really quite lovely chanting. This was repeated again around 5 in the evening, in time for tea. After the Buddhist musical interlude we had the Muslim call to prayer. I’m a huge fan of meaningful ambient sounds.


This is what 5am sounds like


3. On a somewhat opposing note, I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle subversion I came across- here in Galle, liquor licenses are apparently very hard to come by so many cafes and guesthouses will, for example,  serve guests a lovely cold beer in a latte mug or do a grocery run for a bottle of Lion that doesn’t directly appear on any bill. After long hours of hiking, it’s a lovely thing.


Ceci n’est pas un Carlsberg


4. I hate monkeys and monkeys hate me. We have a long, uncordial relationship that goes back a half decade to that time in Mumbai when I was mugged for my bottle of water and extends up through that time in Bali when I had a snarling simian wrapped around my leg, fangs bared, all the way to this past February when that monkey in Phnom Penh bit me and I had to go through $1500 worth of rabies shots. When I kept reading in my guidebook about all the different places in Sri Lanka where monkeys could be freely encountered, I decided I really ought to stay in bed.  But no! Sri Lankan monkeys are civilized! They are courteous! They are polite! In Kandy, they walked above me on the power lines and I kept waiting for one to dive bomb me but they never did! In forests and rural roads, they left me alone.  I thank them for their discretion.

5. In a lot of places I’ve visited, you really ought to steer clear of street animals- one of my friends in Shanghai got rabies from an injured street cat she tried to rescue and other people have been chased by rather miffed dogs down rural roads. Here? Pleasantly cordial dogs, usually girl-dogs with swinging nipples and a kind demeanor, trot alongside you and wag their tails amiably. Dignified cats sun themselves in scenic locations and present their ears and chins for petting.  No anger, no insanity.


Shiny, happy canines holding hands!


6. Need a second or third mother while you’re on the road so you can feel loved and comforted while far from home? Make eye contact with any Sri Lankan woman over the age of 40. Or hell, even under the age of 40. You’ll get a sweet smile and a wave and if you happen to spend more time around them, you’ll get hugs and kind words.  I’ve been waved at and smiled at by dozens of old ladies here.

7. The food! Rice with curry and whatever: veggies, chicken, prawns… So much more than a Thali, folks! For a week at one point I was going to bed so stuffed that I could barely breathe because our evening meal had so many different dishes- okra here, aubergine there, a bit of pumpkin, some bitter gourd… If I go back home and discover I’ve gained 20kg, I wouldn’t be surprised. Oh, and Sri Lankan omelets make me very happy. Green chilis and fresh tomato and onion with your breakfast? Okay, thank you!

8. After nearly 3 years in Shanghai, I really appreciate greenery wherever I can find it. And Sri Lanka is green. Very, very green. I swear they must be fighting back the greenery at every turn as it tries to take over the island.  There are big flowers and huge green succulents and trees bigger than they ought to be. The air (when there are no cars around belching rather thick exhaust) is sweet and my skin and lungs are happy.

9. We’ve traveled a lot in the last few years, particularly in Asia where we stand out like a sore thumb in most places (or rather– in all places). It gets exhausting feeling like a target- the staring, the unsolicited sales pitches, the hello-hellos, the following, the stalking, the price gouging, the long stretches of shops dedicated to selling you cheap tourist tat… I feel exhausted just thinking about it.  Here, however, I don’t feel so segregated from the people who actually live here. I’m talked to like a human being most of the time. Only a few people have stalked me, marking me as a dollar bill rather than as a person. I’ve had intelligent conversations. I don’t feel pandered to. It’s a good feeling.

10. I love the fully decorated 3 wheelers. Seriously, I’ve seen some impressively pimped out tuk tuks here- fake flowers, a full stereo system in the back (where my luggage should have gone but obviously couldn’t), big and colourful laminated pictures of Buddha, of Mary, of Ganesh or Krishna, photos of pretty places, photos of loved ones, bells, tinsel…

11. Quite simply, the Sinhalese script. Quite possibly the prettiest writing script I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot. It looks like spiral sea shells lined up in a row.

12. The Sri Lankan internet community. Seriously. This one was a big surprise as I had no idea it was so active until I woke up one morning to find that my Badass post had gone viral.  After that explosion of page views and flurry of comments, I was able to connect with a dozen amazing people all over the country who gave advice and ideas for the rest of our trip.


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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.