An elephant spotted on a road trip.
Photo: Shaun Spykerman
“I think your mother hates sleep.”
That’s my fiance’s immediate response after I text him the itinerary for our trip to Sri Lanka. I can’t say I disagree. My family is about to go on our first road trip together in years, and we’ve let my mother (the person who eschews sleeping in on weekends because she wants her time to be used more “productively”) plan it. As a consequence, we’ll be crossing a large swathe of the country (we’re talking hundreds of kilometres) in just six days, and staying in (wait for it) five different hotels.
The last time my entire family took a trip together was in 2010, when we packed ourselves off to Tokyo and Osaka for 10 days of good food, great shopping, and leisurely ganders around tourist sites. So it’s unsurprising that there are horrified protests all round at the Sri Lanka itinerary. All these protests are swiftly dismissed by my mother. “We’ve only got six days there. Don’t you want to see as much as possible?” she asks. “Besides, if you’re tired, you can just sleep during the bus rides.”
So that’s that. A week later, seven of us stand outside the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo at 1am, bleary-eyed after a short flight to the capital, waiting for our ride to the hotel. That night, at around 3am, I finally drift into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
The wake-up call comes at 8am. I’ve slept barely four hours. This morning’s exhausting start is only an indication of what’s to come.
You gotta work for that shot
Just 1,200 of the 3,000 the writer climbed in a single day at Lion Rock.
Photo: Shaun Spykerman
Sleep-deprived or not, in Sri Lanka, getting some of the best sights requires a serious workout.
Case in point – on one day, we climb more than 3,000 steps. The first 1,200 are taken at Sigiriya, or Lion Rock – a former palace-turned-monastery built in the fifth century on a 200m-tall rock column – about three hours’ drive from Colombo. It’s believed that the head of a lion (hewn from the rock) once stood guard to the entrance to the palace, and visitors would enter via a stairway that led right into its mouth. All that’s left today are its two massive paws.
On the way up, we stop in one of the caves – and are blown away by the intricate and brightly coloured frescos of bare-chested women, each cupping a different flower in her hands. “These were the King’s concubines,” our guide says. “He had more than 500 of them – from Cambodia, India, and even Africa. The flowers tell you which countries they’re from.”
Later, there are hundreds more steps to be conquered to get to the Dambulla Cave Temple – the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It has five caves covered in murals and crammed with close to 160 Buddhist statues that are thousands of years old. By the end of the day, I can barely feel my legs.
Nine Arches Bridge in Sri Lanka's hill country
Photo: Shaun Spykerman
Another day’s hike yields postcard-pretty sights like Ramboda Falls – one of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls – while yet another climb down rocky hill terrain gives us a stunning view overlooking the iconic Nine Arches Bridge, surrounded by verdant greenery and shrouded in mist. The bridge, built in 1921 when Sri Lanka was still a British colony, calls to mind part of the route of the fictional Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. As there is a train strike the day we’re there, we walk along the tracks, snapping pictures and drinking in the view.
The only person who resolutely refuses to engage in physical exertion is my dad – who, on hearing that there are stairs to be climbed and difficult terrain to be navigated, excuses himself by announcing that he’s going in search of souvenirs. But never before handing over his iPhone for a snap of him to be taken as proof of his visit – regardless of the fact that the main attraction is so far in the background, it can barely be seen in its full glory.
On the road
Family portrait of the Spykermans.
Photo: Sabrina Jabbar
You’d think you already know everything there is to know about your family. Road trips (which force you into a confined space for many hours at a stretch) tell you otherwise.
Just a couple of days in, my mother’s penchant for teenybopper hits makes itself known. We are winding through Sri Lanka’s lush hill country, an area known for its tea plantations (Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth largest producer of tea), idyllic landscapes, and quaint colonial towns. The bus is quiet, save for Camila Cabello, One Direction, and then Justin Bieber blasting from my mother’s Spotify playlist. My brother snickers. “OMG Mum, why are you forcing us to listen to Justin Bieber?” he asks. My mother tries to defend herself. “It’s a nice song,” she says, refusing to skip the track.
No further judgment is passed. Then, Despacito (the big summer hit of 2017, with its catchy beat and less-than innocent lyrics about getting it on) begins playing, my mother starts singing along, and my brother’s horror is complete.
“Stop it, Mum, do you even know what the lyrics are about?” he asks in exasperation.
“I don’t care,” she says, and turns the music up even louder.
You’ve got to admire the woman’s gumption. Or thick skin.
Another surprise – that my usually unflappable sister can actually get excited about something. At 20, and like any post-millennial worth her salt, she’s underwhelmed by just about everything. We’re trundling along, somewhere between towns, when our guide points out of the window and into the distance. “Elephants,” he says.
The silence in the bus erupts into a cacophony of shrieks as everyone clambers out of their seats, eager for a glimpse. In the distance, a herd of some 30 elephants has gathered near the water. Calves are among them. It feels almost magical. We stop the bus and get off . It’s the fi rst time I’ve seen my sister so genuinely in awe, clutching her camera (fi lm, not digital – how hipster) and angling for the perfect shot.
A wild ride
The rare sight of a female sloth bear and its two cubs.
Photo: Shaun Spykerman
Sri Lanka is teeming with wildlife. A visit to any of the country’s national parks will give you proof of that.
We choose Yala National Park – the second-largest in Sri Lanka – known for its wide variety of wildlife, including the highest concentration of leopards among all the national parks. Go on safari in a jeep – pick a half-day option (either a 6am or 2pm slot), or an entire day. I’d recommend the latter – there’s no predicting when the animals might show up.
Seeking out wildlife in a roaring jeep is a noisy, mudspattered affair, yet there’s nothing more exhilarating than spotting an elephant, crocodile or sloth bear staring straight at you from an arm’s length away. The big cats prove more elusive – the leads our guide have turn out to be nothing. It takes a second trip to the park the next day before we spot one leopard resting languidly on the bough of a large tree.
Call times at 5.30am on both days? Absolutely worth it.
Sleep is for the weak
The Dewatagaha Mosque in Colombo.
Photo: Fabius Chen
By the time we get to the final day of our trip, we are completely exhausted. Over the past five days, we’ve lived out of our suitcases, rarely bothering to unpack more than the set of clothes we’ll need for that day’s activities, and our toiletries. There’s little need to do more than that – after all, we’re moving hotels practically every day.
Already, my dad has remarked several times over that it’s a pity we don’t get to use the hotels as more than just beds to sleep in for the night, because many of them are perfect for long, leisurely afternoons by the pool, walks along the beach, or indulging in spa treatments.
But if we think we’re tired by this point, the programme for our final day of the trip proves to be a true test of mettle.
It begins at 4.30am when we set off on a two hour drive to Mirissa, a town popular for its whale- and dolphin watching tours. We see boats packed with people leaving the harbour, hopeful for a glimpse of a humpback or blue whale. On the way out to deeper waters, a curious sea turtle surfaces. We take it as a good omen.
Alas, we aren’t so lucky. The only sighting we have is of a Bryde’s whale. We don’t get to see the animal in its full glory either – just a fi n slicing through the water as it circles the area. Each time the whale makes an appearance, everyone rushes to the side of the boat the fin has been spotted on, craning their necks for a glimpse. At one point, the frustrated boat captain yells at everyone to quit doing that, or the boat could tip over onto its side.
We’re a little disappointed that there are no National Geographic-worthy sightings of whales, but spotting several pods of playful dolphins as well as a giant manta ray make up for it.
Later, as we head back to Colombo, we pass a beach in the coastal town of Koggala. A cluster of weather-beaten men perches atop crude structures of wood and twine fashioned in the shape of a cross, their fishing rods in the water.
The stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka.
Photo: Shaun Spykerman
These are the famous stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka. The practice of stilt fishing began in World War II, when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots led to men attempting to fish on the water instead. It’s a traditional method that requires true skills. These days, it’s more common to see such fishermen making a living from posing for photos instead. For about S$25, they let us take as many snaps as we want.
We stop for a quick lunch in the historic, picturesque city of Galle – another Unesco World Heritage Site that boasts some truly sumptuous sights. Well, at least that’s what I can tell from the window of the bus, anyway, as we speed through the town on a quick tour on the way back to Colombo. From what I can see, the place is a heady mix of gorgeous Dutch-inspired colonial buildings, stylish boutiques and cafes, as well as mosques steeped in years of history. As we make our way through the narrow streets, I wish we had a little more time to spend in this quaint seaside city. The next time I come back to Sri Lanka, I tell my fiance, we will spend time at some of Sri Lanka’s coastal towns, frolic at the pristine beaches the country is famed for, and most importantly, enjoy the luxury of doing absolutely nothing.
A few hours later, we’re back in cosmopolitan Colombo. True to the very end, my mother has packed the schedule and made sure we’ve plenty of time to do some shopping.
Because our flight is due to leave only at 1.10am.
I can’t wait to get on this plane and get some sleep.
This article was first published in the February 2018 issue of Her World magazine.