In today’s blog I will cover three days of my trip. The first day started with me having breakfast and then waiting for my driver to show up. I had sent him a text earlier in the morning to check all arrangements were still in place but was met by a long silence. After an hour, he replied that all was good except that there would be a different driver and vehicle. I was rather annoyed by this but decided to wait to see who and what turned up.
In the event a van arrived similar to the one I had booked, but with two people rather than one – a driver and a guide – and an almost empty fuel tank. I checked the vehicle and accepted it on condition that they install seat belts in the rear seats where I would be sitting.
We set off to a resort on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, but first I deepened my experience of the Sri Lankan ritual of “looking for fuel”. I learnt that there were three types of petrol stations. The first (the most common) were completely deserted – no fuel and no hope of any fuel showing up. The second type were where fuel was expected to arrive in the next few days, and were easily spotted because of the huge queues of vehicles – petrol vehicles on one side of the road, diesel on the other. These queues would often cause traffic jams that blocked main roads for the few vehicles which could move. The third type of station, which was very rare, was one which had received fuel and which was now selling it. These could be spotted by the even larger queues and crowds, but also the presence of police.
The driver spent an hour driving around Anuradhapura looking for a station of the third type. When he finally succeeded, my guide got out and introduced himself to the station owner and the most senior police officer. There is an understanding in Sri Lanka that tourist vehicles get priority and can jump the queue. The station owner asked the guide to open the van door to prove that he was transporting tourists……and got a shock when he saw a teddy bear rather than a human tourist. He scratched his head, but decided that foreign bears also counted as tourists. He asked me to get out of the van to prove to the waiting crowd that priority was indeed being given to a tourist, and not just one of his friends.
Someone unsuccessfully trying to jump the queue at a petrol station
It was a rather uncomfortable experience standing waiting for our vehicle to be filled. I felt sorry for the Sri Lankans who had been queuing for days, and also slightly worried that the large crowd could get angry seeing me being served first. But we got our diesel without any incidents and were soon on our way with a full tank.
We arrived at a place called Nilaveli on the East Coast, where I had booked a hotel. It was a lovely place, and I spent a day and half lazing by the pool, swimming in the warm sea, or strolling up and down the beach.
A small fishing village near to my hotel
I also enjoyed sitting on my balcony, admiring the view and watching the fishing boats pass. Directly in front of my chair was a crow’s nest. The two owners initially made a lot of noise to try to scare me off, but when they had understood I was not a threat, they left me alone to concentrate on chasing off marauding monkeys.
The view from my balcony and my crow friends’ nest
As was to be expected, the restaurant served excellent sea food. On my first night I had a big bowl of sea crabs and on the second I had this fine big fish, straight from the sea.
All for me!
After a day and a half of relaxation, my driver and guide turned up after breakfast on my third day at Nilaveli. The guide told me that the driver had been unable to find seat belts in the area around Nilaveli, so had gone all the way to Colombo, a five hour drive away, to find them. I look nervously at the van’s fuel gauge, but saw that it was still nearly full. The driver had made the trip by bus – he must have spent nearly the entire time travelling whilst I was enjoying the beach.
We set off to see the small east coast city of Trincomalee. It has a huge and strategic harbour, which meant that it had been fought over many times in its history, and occupied by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. On a long peninsula leading from the main town, there is an old fort, built by the Portuguese in 1622, and now a base for the Sri Lankan marines. At the very top of the peninsula is the Hindu temple Sri Thirukoneswaram Kovil, which was my first stop for the day.
The exuberant exterior of the Sri Thirukoneswaram Kovil temple
I was lucky, because I arrived just in time for “Puja” or prayers – a colourful and noisy celebration of life accompanied by drums, bells and some sort of loud wind instrument. Photography was not allowed inside the temple, so unfortunately, I cannot share this experience with you, but instead I wandered around the outside taking pictures and admiring the view of the Indian Ocean. After the visit, I enjoyed some excellent fresh fruit juice in a shop with a view overlooking Trinco’s harbour.
Passion fruit juice with a view of Trincomalee harbour
My other stop in Trinco was another Hindu temple – Kali Kovil, which is noted for its extravagant and bizarre internal carvings. At first, I thought someone had slipped some psychedelic drugs into my fruit juice – there were all kinds of animals and gods, a large squid eating a slightly smaller fish, and strange women (goddesses? demons? witches?) with an extra set of huge lips protruding from their bellies.
Am I dreaming? – the inside of the Kali Kovil temple
After the surreal experience of the temple, we set off again. My guide and driver again set off in pursuit of diesel, even though the tank was ¾ full. The only place supplying fuel was the government bus depot, but this time having a foreigner in the car was not enough – my guide was lacking a special fuel permit issued by the government to tourist drivers. My intended route involved a long detour down the east coast, passing some interesting looking settlements, but my guide begged me instead to go directly to Polonnaruwa, my next destination. He said that the whole area was desperately short of diesel, and that he was afraid of running out. I was annoyed at yet another change of plans. I thought that we had enough fuel for several days, and that guide should have got his government permit before we started the trip. What’s more my detour only added 60km – if we had to be this careful about distances, the whole trip was going to be continually stressful. Still, I didn’t want to run out of fuel either and reluctantly agreed to take the short route, telling my guide that first thing Monday he needed to apply for the government fuel permit.
The direct route – one of the main highways crossing Sri Lanka – turned out to be interesting, passing a huge reservoir where elephants often gather and several times I saw elephant footprints or dung at the side of the road.
Sri Lanka’s roads have unusual hazards
The road went close to the site of a ruined temple complex, and I insisted on a smaller detour (only 30km) to visit it. I was lucky – the site was amazing, with ruins dating from the 7th century and no one there except me, my guide and my driver. I spent over an hour wandering around and filming before setting off on the final short stretch of road to Polonnaruwa, an ancient capital of Sri Lanka and one of the country’s highlights.
The highlight of the day – all alone at a deserted temple
Arriving in the town, the driver insisted on hunting for diesel, and this time we were lucky – we found a station selling fuel almost immediately, and this time having a tourist teddy bear as passenger was enough to get some. I reached my hotel in the early evening, very satisfied with my day – lots of interesting sites and ending up a full tank of diesel. What more could you want?