Best Kept Secrets of Sri Lanka

So I am heading back to Sri Lanka: my second trip to this country. I first went there in January of last year and loved this country: its people (peaceful and welcoming), food (very flavorful but not over-spicy), plenty of elephants (one of my favorite animals), diverse landscapes (cool hills/mountains with tea plantations in the middle, nice beaches along the coast) and much more.

Some folks think of Sri Lanka as sort of “extension of India.” Wrong. Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist country. Combined with the absence of cast-system this makes local culture very different. There was one more reason to go there last year (and this time as well). One of my old friends from Russia felt in love with this country and moved to live there permanently. Hence, I went there to see Xenia.

Right now, I am at San Francisco airport waiting for first flight to London. And…here comes new interesting experience. It is first time that I see at the airport all genders’/mixed restrooms

I sure went inside to “examine” (and use). It was amazingly spacious and super clean. I stayed there for a few minutes exploring and no other person came in. Anyway, I am in my seat now and plane is leaving.

Five Hours of Praying at Heatrow Airport. London

5 hours between flights at Heatrow airport in London. I was tempted to take a subway (“tube”) and go for a walk to city center, but…it was late afternoon and it would be dark by time I arrive there. Not much fun. So, I stayed at the airport and worked and prayed. Seriously. There is a very nice, spacious and furnished multi-faith prayer room in Terminal 3. So, I positioned myself there with laptop, used free WiFi and accomplished a few things. But I also prayed properly before leaving the room for my flight. Here is suggested prayer which was posted on the wall of the room:

I liked it a lot. Now, off to Colombo flight.

First Day in Sri Lanka

My first stop for couple of nights is Negombo – a very nice town situated north of Colombo. It is very popular among expats (really diverse community with Italians being probably the largest group) and known for its wide sandy beaches. And so, the first “action” in the morning is obvious: the beach.

Water and air temperature are exactly the same: 24 C or 82 F. My major plan for today are consultations in a couple of Ayurvedic clinics – another “specialty” of Sri Lanka.

Best Shopping and Food Experiences in Negombo

A day in Negombo was also a day of “shopping.” Well, I generally hate shopping, but there were three items which I wanted to purchase and bring back for myself and friends. One is the national drink (very delightful) called Arrack which is a distilled strong alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers. A properly distilled and aged Arrack could be as delicious as – say – old Single Malt Scotch. I purchased three bottles of top quality for a total of…6,000 rupees ($33):

The second item were various textiles. Sri Lanka is great place for finding nice 100% natural and very colorful cotton textiles of any kind. And so I got – as presents – several dresses, shawls, table clothes, etc. But the most “usual suspect” when people talk about shopping in Sri Lanka is, of course, tea – the tea of highest possible quality. Go inland, to cooler, lush, hill country of Sri Lanka and you will find abundance of tea plantations there. Here is a picture from my last year trip.

The best areas to visit tea plantations, to learn about variety of teas, and to sample all of them (pretty much like go wine tasting) are around towns of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya Both of them deserve trips on their own. Problem is that being in Negombo, far from these tea producing areas, your choices are much more limited and the price is higher for a lower quality tea. Besides, most teas sold here – quite naturally – are already commercially packed and you cannot check out their flavors and other qualities prior to purchase. Luckily, my local friend, knows a very unpretentious but amazing tea store run by two brothers. Here, in this store in Negombo, you will find highest quality various Pekoe teas sold from the huge cotton sacks by weight. For those who is interested in how Sri Lanka teas are classified by their various qualities, read here:

My personal favorite is BOP which stands for Broken Orange Pekoe

And so, in this amazing shop you can buy as much as you wish and brothers will vacuum pack all packages and put nice labels on each bag. I ended up buying about 3 kg / 6.5 pounds of various teas: hey, at the price of 2,500 rupees per kilo (about 6 dollars per pound) it is a steal!

Moving around in Negombo (or in any sizeable town in Sri Lanka) requires time: tuk-tuks (motor rikshas are cheap, but not fast). And so it was around 5 pm when the mission was accomplished and shopping done. Enough time left for an hour on the beach and then time for dinner. My personal favorite in Negombo is restaurant called La Dolce Vita run by an international couple: he is from Bergamo, Italy and she is local, from Negombo. Accordingly, in La Dolce Vita you cannot get wrong ordering either Italian or Sri Lanka dishes. I was craving a very simple Sri Lanka’s street food called Kottu Roti. The main ingredient is roti (flat bread) which is cut up into small bits. Apart from roti, other ingredients added are usually onions, leek, cabbage, eggs and sometimes chicken, mutton, beef, seafood and the more modern version, with cheese. When properly mixed together and with the right balance of flavors, Kotu Roti are incredibly tasty. And so was Kotu Roti from La Dolce Vita.

Vegetarian Kottu Roti

There is an interesting legend about how Kottu Roti came into existence. Once upon a time there was a roti seller on the east coast of Sri Lanka that was closing up his roti stand when a group of tourists arrived asking for some food. The roti seller only had scraps left over from the day, bits of cooked roti, some vegetables and leftover chicken curry. Instead of telling the tourists that he was all out of food, he made a mashup of the leftovers. Tourists loved it and raved about it in their travels. Thus, Kottu Roti was born. True or not, but I highly recommend this dish: either vegetarian version or with meat or seafood. It was a good day…

I am off to Mirissa: Best Beaches in Sri Lanka

I woke up early, at around 6 am. The destination for today is Mirissa. It is a small town on the south coast approximately 150 kilometres (93 mi) south of Colombo. Mirissa’s amazing beach and “mild” social/night life make it a popular tourist destination. But it is also a fishing port and one of the island’s main whale and dolphin watching locations. I will be there for 7 nights. But first, my favorite breakfast – freshly cut watermelon:

The new highway E01, probably the only “real highway” in Sri Lanka, allows to reach Mirissa in just 2,5 hours. My place is called Sofian Garden Villas: I found it via AirBnB. To my surprise, when arrived, I discovered a bunch of bicycles of all possible sizes. It turned out that I share this house (a big one) with Danish family. Father, mother and three children travel all over Sri Lanka by bicycles.

You would ask: where is the picture of the family? Well, you know, they are fairly relaxed in Scandinavia with being naked. And so, half of the family was totally naked. Given air temperature and sunshine this was indeed a very natural thing to do. Sure enough, they asked if I am Ok with this and I responded that this is totally fine. But…taking picture of the family was not an option. The rest of the day? Simple. First, a few hours at Mirissa wonderful beach.

And then, finding a good place for another Kottu Roti. This time made with fish.

The abundance if accompanying sauces was overwhelming, but …I managed nicely. Good night!

Hiking Around Mirissa

One can spend a day on the beach lying under the sun OR one can explore a good portion of coastline without leaving the beach. The latter option was my choice of a day on the beach. The first swim was before 7 am, when the water felt noticeably warmer than the air.

Then breakfast and I took off. First interesting destination: a peninsula or island depending the level of tide.

I swam there, the view from its top was quite beautiful, but, sorry, my camera is not waterproof: hence, no pictures. The next bay – for whatever reason – attracted local fishermen (I did not see them elsewhere).

And then probably the most picturesque spot on the coast within walking distance from Mirissa. It is called Coconut Head. Combination of palm trees and surrounding blue ocean waters make for an exquisite stop to rest.

This place also attracts surfers: the waves are big, but “beginners friendly.”

I spent on Coconut Head most of the day reading and swimming in a small bay downhill. And after day of hiking and swimming, one can afford a powerful dinner.

Vegetable Kottu Roti was served with five homemade sauces “to play the flavors,” locally caught fish was cooked in lemon sauce and freshly pressed papaya juice was divine.

Uwadalawa National Park

No trip to Sri Lanka is complete without visiting and doing “safari” in one of this country’s many national parks. My choice was Udawalawa national park. That is for three reasons. First, geographically it is reasonably close to Mirissa where I stay (about 2.5 hours drive). Second, it is somewhat less visited than other parks – hence, smaller number of people and jeeps competing for the best viewing area. Third, it has – besides other animals – truly abundant elephant population. And I love these animals. The procedure of visiting all national parks in Sri Lanka is fairly the same. First, you need to find a driver who will get you to the entrance (I do not recommend renting a car and driving yourself unless you are super-adventurous). Second, by the entrance to a park you will find many jeeps with guides/drivers waiting for you (you cannot go into park by yourself): you can either have the entire jeep for yourself or split the cost with other people. Finally, after you enter the park by a jeep, you need to buy a ticket. Of course, there is another option. You can find someone where you stay (in my case, these were my hosts in Mirissa) who can arrange the entire package for you. It will not be cheaper, but you will get better/more reliable guides and drivers. Long story short, my entire day of adventure was priced at 19,500 rupees – about $ 110 US. Not bad. Here is my beautiful and very personal jeep.

When we entered park, the first order of business was to locate elephants. Which is not always easy. But we were greeted right away by cheerful monkeys.

Look at these mountain climbers
Happy family

I was truly touched by this picture of “nature symphony:” water buffalo accompanied by thre small beautiful birds

And, yes, we did find elephants bathing in one of the lakes

Further, it looked like one family would take turn after another “using” this natural bathroom. A new family arrived with cute baby-elephant

Leaving the park, the last nice sight was that of deers in a company of a peacock

I was fairly hungry after full day of adventures and bumpy roads. Hence, the choice for diner: whole grilled fish – local variety called red mullet.

I found a personal paradise…

I liked Mirissa – the place where I stay, but…it feels a bit too commercial. You know what I mean: restaurants and bars on the beach, too loud music, too many people and somewhat “less friendly” locals. And so I was looking for some less spoiled place, something with a nice beach but as “natural as possible.” It was not an easy feat: Southern Sri Lanka is well known for its beaches and it is very popular destination for both domestic and foreign tourists. But…sometimes there is a small piece of “hidden paradise right around the corner.” One of backpackers told me about Madiha beach – only about 10 km from Mirissa. So, I hired tuk-tuk, went there and indeed found a very personal paradise

While on the beach I saw only handful of foreigners: mostly local children and their parents

However, even in Madiha there are a few hostels and guesthouses where one can stay. Most remarkably, there is a place which is called Doctor’s House. It is a complex of funky looking houses which include restaurant, cafeteria, mini-golf, billiard, couple interesting shops: essentially, all what a foreigner in Sri Lanka may need while staying for vacations.

I went there to check it out and find something for lunch. My efforts were rewarded 100%. Sri Lanka’s version of American apple-crisp was banana-crisp topped with fresh passion fruits. It was outstanding.

After full day in “personal paradise” (see previous post), I returned to Mirissa and realized that something is going on. Powerful sounds of drums, crowds of local festively dressed people, children wearing national/folks costumes: the town looked very different compared to what I left in the morning. The center of activities appeared to be local Buddhist temple

This dance/drums/drama performance lasted a few hours. So, what was the whole thing about? It was celebration of Poya Day. Poya is the name given to the Lunar monthly Buddhist holiday of Uposatha in Sri Lanka, where it is a civil and bank holiday. Remarkably, full moon day is normally considered as the poya day in every month. That is, they have all this fun and “no work day” every month. The performance was finished and evolved into night processions and fireworks, but I was exhausted and call it a day. Tomorrow was my last day in Mirissa.

Ayurvedic Medicine Experiences

My last day in Mirissa began from enjoying sunrise on the beach which – rare occasion – was absolutely empty. My hunch was that both locals and tourists were in the process of recovery from the last night’s celebration of Poya (see previous post).

I re-visited for a few hours my “personal paradise” – the Madiha beach.

And then I went for my last treatments to Ama Ayurwedic Medical Center. A lttle bit of self-disclosure. Part of the reason for this trip was the course of procedures – according to Ayurwedic practices – intended to improve quality of sleep and rest during night time. I found Ama last year, but the time was too short for any serious course of treatments. This year, it was six day long ordeal carefully planned by Amali and her husband – the owners of Ama (they are fully licensed medical doctors). Essentially, the course consisted of detoxification, a number of dietary restrictions (most interesting was that you cannot eat/drink anything cold), and, most importantly, procedures called Shirodhara and Shirolepa. Shirodhara is a form of Ayurveda therapy that involves gently pouring special warm oils over the forehead (for about one hour) and can be one of the steps involved in Panchakarma. The name comes from the Sanskritwords shiro (head) and dhara (flow).

Shirodhara has been used to treat a variety of neurological disorders, memory loss, bad sleep.It is also used non-medicinally for its relaxing properties. Studies also report that Ayurvedic Shirodhara is a safe option to improve sleep quality among people who have sleep problems.[2]Shirodhara is also effective in treating mental conditions such as anxiety, and mental stress. Some people say that calming effect produced by Shirodhara is similar to that obtained with meditation

Shirolepa is another form of panchakarma therapy. It is also a type of treatment performed on the scalp, in which p of various herbs and medical powders are made into a paste and applied in the scalp. The scalp is then covered and tied with special kind of leaves which interact well with the scalp. This therapy also useful in rejuvenation therapy. I am not going into details of all procedures. Suffice to say that it was a very powerful, interesting, and positive experience. And so it was time to say both “thank you” and “good bye” to Amali and her husband.

It was late afternoon when I went home to pack things and take a taxi (2 hours, about $60) to Negombo. Wow! A nice surprise was awaiting me. My AirBnB hosts cooked for me a “last supper:” either to enjoy before the ride or to take with. I eat some and took with me some. Beautiful flavor combination: coconut roti, dhal, flavorful fish dish, and steamed vegetables.


Time to say “good bye” to my hosts at Sofian Garden Villas who really made me feel part of their family

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