Travel in Sri Lanka: Tuk-Tuks, Buses & Trains, Oh MY!

1 01 2017

 

Life is about cherishing the good times and overcoming the bad. Every bad experience leaves us with perspective, and perhaps new knowledge or insights related to ourselves or those around us. Without fail, my experiences have shown that HOW you get somewhere is often equally memorable as where you are heading.

 

thailandOn my first trip to Asia, I learned to embrace the art of unplanned travel. While it was uncomfortable at first, it was my gift to myself, to liberate my need to know every next step, in order to embrace the unknown paths that would undoubtedly find me. So, after researching everything about Sri Lanka, I again chose to only book the bare minimum, leaving the rest up to destiny. As it turns out, that might not have been the best idea.

 

mirissa-xmasDespite being a predominantly Buddhist country, the week of Christmas is a huge holiday for Sri Lankans. Although they celebrate Christmas in a strictly secular sense, many richer Sri Lankans in the big city work for international companies, who give employees this week off to be with family. So, the families head to the central mountains and the southern beaches to enjoy the winter break. This means that all the train seats available to reserve in advance are sold out… which means we were left in Kandy with no clue how we were going to get to our next destination.

 

The Train to Hatton

While my conference was wrapping up, my wife had a day to research our options. She figured out how to take the local bus into town to the train station, where they confirmed that there were no tickets left for purchase. The only choice we had left was to simply show up the morning of, and hope to get lucky, or to pay exorbitantly more money to hire a private driver to take us one way into the mountains. So, we loaded our packs onto our backs, hitched a tuk-tuk to the train station an hour early, and crossed our fingers.

 

15589830_10211698209520971_3362054281497370108_nAmazingly, we got the last two tickets remaining in 3rd Class! We were ecstatic, though we didn’t exactly know what to expect. Our train ride to Kandy 4 days earlier had been booked in advance, which means first class, reserved seats, A/C, & wifi! They even served us snacks and hot tea. (Try drinking tea on a Sri Lankan train… it’s like sipping coffee while horseback riding).

 

img_2808We braced ourselves for the worst case scenario, we planned our locations strategically so that at least one of us could rush onto the closest rail car and attempt to secure a seat. If we failed to do so, we could at least sit atop our backpacks on the floor for the duration, right? The train pulled up, and people began to cluster for the doorways. We couldn’t figure out how to tell which cars were 3rd class, and had to thrust our piece of paper towards an official in order to get a finger point in the right direction. We climbed on board, and it wasn’t too bad… people were sitting calmly in seats, there were even a few open here and there. We started to ask if they were free, when someone asked us what our seat numbers were on our ticket. Seat numbers?? Bethany looked more closely at the faded monotone print, and, sure enough, it said, “9 & 10.” As it turns out, what we had purchased IS 3rd class, but it’s 3rd class RESERVE, which means that we had guaranteed seats!! We were thrilled to enjoy a comfortable ride, making friends with strangers, and listening to the drumming and singing flowing from passengers packed into the unreserved car directly behind us.

 

Hatton to Dalhousie

15541932_1393960027353284_5754440423933363127_nFrom Hatton, we had to take a bus or hire a driver to finish the journey through the mountains to the tea village of Dalhousie (pronounced ‘Del-house’). This is where the steep pilgrimage climb to Adam’s Peak begins. It looked fairly close on paper, just about 40 km or so, and we knew that a bus would be much cheaper, so we set off from the train station to figure out where to catch the bus. We crossed the tracks to what looked like a main road lined with shops, and walked into the town, assuming the bus station wouldn’t be far. Hatton is a small city, bustling with people and traffic, with mostly Sinhali signage. We originally thought we would stop someplace for lunch, but only saw ‘short eats’, or street food vendors. While we enjoy the fried samosas, dosas, and rotis greatly, we were really hoping for an actual restaurant to set our packs down and get our bearings. After a few blocks, we grew flustered, and I tried to ask someone for directions. Most small town Sri Lankans can understand some English, but cannot speak it, so my question was answered with a simple gesture- an outreached arm with a finger pointing in the direction we were heading. I looked at Bethany, we shrugged our shoulders, and kept going. A few more blocks down, I asked someone else. I got the same response. Finally, at the opposite end of town, the neverending facade of open air shops peeled back to reveal an enclave of tired buses, churning and groaning as they maneuvered around each other like coy in an overpopulated pond.

 


15665546_10211763329908940_9146162320501730702_nBethany found a ticket booth and asked which bus to Dalhousie. The man replied, “No, no one bus to Delhousie!” We tried asking a different way. “No bus! Maskeliya bus!” Finally, we understood that we must take TWO buses to get to Dalhousie, first to Maskeliya, then transfer to Dalhousie. Phew! Another man walked up, listening to our conversation, and tried to guide us to the right bus. This interim town was not at all on our radar, so we had no clue what name we were looking for. We boarded the empty bus, picked seats close to the driver, and waited. We still had no tickets, but this appeared to be okay. More people got on, including several people carrying baskets of baked goods and sweets to sell to weary travelers. After not too long, the driver started up the bus, and the conductor guided him out of his narrow slot, through the bus yard, without hitting any other moving targets. Once we were on the road, the conductor came by to collect our fares… a whopping 150 rupees, or about $1 total!

 

Trick or Tuk-Tuk?

img_2840The path may have looked short, but the mountain roads are anything but straight. The practically single lane roads wind along the edges of lakes and tea plantations, pausing frequently to let trucks and cars squeeze by on hairpin turns. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside, and the topography was simply stunning. It took what felt like an hour to travel 19 km to Maskeliyae waiting to get to the next bus station so we could figure out our transfer, when all the sudden a man boarded the bus and started yelling for us, “Tuk-tuk?” We were thoroughly confused and told him no, but then the conductor appeared, waving at us to get off the bus.Nobody else was getting off here, and I was nervous that something weird was happening. Our big packs had been stored in the back of the bus, so Bethany followed the conductor to go retrieve them, while I waited with one foot on the bus, scared that it would take off with our packs still in the boot! Once I saw that she had them safely on the ground, I disembarked to join her. The next bus was supposed to be just up the road, but this tuk-tuk driver was very adamant about giving us a ride. “Much faster!” he persuaded us with his smile. b-thailandWe asked how much, and, although it was many times more expensive than the bus, it was still only $5, and we were already running much later than we had planned. We negotiated the price a little lower, and gladly accepted his ride the remainder of the way. He promised to stop for photos along the way, and even pulled over to lead me down a hidden path, which revealed a beautiful waterfall known by locals!

 

‘Bad Trees’ en route to Nuwara Eliya

img_2951The Tuk-Tuk driver also gave us a price to drive us back the next day (after we were to climb SriPada overnight- more on that in a future post), though it seemed a bit high. In our exhausted, aching state after hiking from 2am-10am, we opted to skip the unknown of missing a train back in Hatton, and hired a car to drive us all the way to Nuwara Eliya. It was money well spent! For 6,000 rupees (about $40 for both of us), we had a comfortable ride the entire 3 hours, saving at least 2 hours of total travel time with all the transfers required to go by bus. Our driver, Sameer, was very friendly, and although he could not answer many of our questions, he was proud to stop and show us things along the way. At one point, still making our way around the beautiful lakes, he stopped and pointed, “That tree!” Huh? I stared, not understanding and shrugging it off. “Bad Tree!” he insisted. I furrowed my brow and squinted at the trees, trying hard to understand. “BAT Tree!” I looked one last time… OH!!! My gosh! The trees were filled with hanging bats! It was so weird to see bats in daylight, I asked him to wait for me to change to my telephoto lens so I could see them better. There were hundreds of them! It was incredible! Proud that he managed to finally get us to understand, we continued our journey, with a deeper friendship.img_2952

 

Searching for South

img_2853The rest of the central mountains are known for relaxing holidays, beautiful waterfalls, and some milder hiking destinations. Originally, I wanted to hike Horton Plains to a place enticingly called World’s End. But by the time we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, my aching calves had morphed into full rigor mortis. I was still hopeful that a good walk would benefit our muscles the next day, but we still had to figure out how to get from Nuwara Eliye down south, to our next destination. Despite everything we read, we were still hoping to find a magical train that would slice through the center of Sri Lanka to get us quickly and comfortably to some  much needed relaxation along the beaches. Unfortunately, this invisible train does not exist, so our only options were to take the bus, or hire a driver. This part of the journey is much farther, and a driver can cost upwards of 20,000 rupees ($90-130), which was not in our budget. Luckily, there’s a government bus! Our AirBnB host in Nuwara Eliye kindly helped us to figure out the current bus schedule, which changes frequently, but calling his friend to get the latest details. We could catch one bus the entire way to Mirissa, but it leaves at 8am. That means, no time to explore anything else in this area, unless we want to stay another day. We debated, but our exhaustion kicked in, and we opted for the beach instead of another night in the crisp fall weather of the mountains.

 

The Wheels on the Bus…

The next morning, our host offered to drop us off at the local bus station, just 5 minutes from his house. He previously said he was busy, but- totally unrelated to the fact that his dog had bitten my foot the night before, I’m sure– he suddenly had time to help us out! He not only drove us to the bus station, but dropped us off in front of our bus, then promised to go park his car and come back to make sure we were all set. The conductor helped us load our packs into the boot, and we climbed on board the bus, about 45 minutes early. It was completely full. The few seats that looked open were being saved for family members with bags and coats. I looked at Bethany with horror, as I realized what this could mean. This bus ride is scheduled to take 7 hours. SEVEN. With no seats available, this means that we have no choice but to stand in the aisle, gripping the overhead bars through the winding mountain roads. We started to have a conversation about whether or not we were willing to do this. Is there a later bus? Not a direct one. Should we wait another day? The thought alone exhausted me. Just then, our host popped on board the bus, aware of the situation. “Don’t worry, I’ve spoken with the conductor, and he says that when you get to Elle, there will be two seats for you.” Elle is about 1 ½ hours into the bus ride. Okay, that’s doable, I thought. We thanked our host for his help, as we were literally the only foreigners on the bus, standing out like candles in a chocolate cake.

 

An hour into the ride, we slowed down more than usual, and I leaned over the seat backs to my left to try to catch a glimpse. While normally this vantage point would have me peering into a canyon, since the drive on the left there, I saw a car between us and the edge of the road. There were several, which we were inching past on the right, where oncoming traffic had stopped. Then, I saw the cause of the delay. There was another bus, just like the one we were one, sitting on its side, hanging just barely over the edge of the road. I saw no people standing around, so it had either just happened, or been there a while. It put the fear right back in me, and- I hoped- in our driver too, as we continued past the wreckage, through yet another hairpin turn.

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Six hours later, we were approaching the coastline… still standing. By then, we were quite friendly with our neighbors, with no personal space left to speak of. With each stop, the conductor squeezed through the aisle, pressing us against the seated passengers nearby while we sucked in everything that we could. Every 10-15 minutes, I would switch arms, feeling my biceps burning with each unexpected swing or heave of the bus. I shifted wait frequently from left leg to right, stretching upward onto my toes to give my calves some momentary relief. Just one stop before Mirissa, someone stood up to get off, and we slipped into the empty seats. The immediate relief sent out an audible sigh.
Memorable? Yes. And, believe me, when I got to our next guest house, that bed could not have felt any more well deserved than it did that day. Since we saved so much money riding the bus, we proceeded to spend those hard-earned rupees on drinks ocean-side.

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