Sri Lanka travel tips – adapting to customs and climate

I am travelling round Sri Lanka learning a lot about the country’s customs, countryside and food. As I travel I find I am adapting my perceptions about what is important in life and learning a lot about my own capabilities.

My next stop was The Weir House in Ulapane, perched up on a mountainside, jutting out of the hillside overlooking and within sight of the Raja Ela river.  You have to climb a steep and long flight of steps to get to the house itself, so I am afraid that for wheelchair people this is not a place to stay, I struggled with my dodgy legs.

The first thing you notice upon arrival is that the temperature is a good 10c less than the flatter areas.  Think of a pleasant summers day in the UK at about 25c and that is the atmosphere here with the evenings and mornings being nicely chilly but not unbearably so.  It is one the few places where I had to dig out my British cardigan from the suitcase for the mornings.

Sri Lanka travel tips- perceptions of comfort

Once again, I am the only guest here in a boutique hotel that has 3 double rooms and 1 family room, so I have the run of the place.  The building itself has a faint colonial meets Swiss chalet feel about it.  Apparently, it has been cited as one of the top 20 boutique hotels to stay in the world which may be true for their location and the main living area.  However, I think they may be getting outstripped for creature comforts in the guest rooms now by some of the newer places coming into existence. However, it’s clean, comfortable if a little basic in this one area.

I was met and shown around by the manager Lucien who then introduced me to the 2 houseboys Yogeshi and Jero with Lesley the chef being the people I would interact with on a daily basis (there are 2 maintenance men but they keep themselves out of the way and have this clever way of walking past you without ever making eye contact).  As I am the sole guest Lucien gave me the pick of the rooms and I picked one at the very end of the building which was large, roomy and spacious.

A Sri Lanka travel tip here: The Weir House does not have a licence to serve alcohol so if coming to stay stop off in Gampala and buy your favourite tipple.

Only discovering the no alcohol fact upon my arrival at aperitif time Lucien kindly shot off to Gampala on his motorbike to buy me some vodka and tonic for my stay.  How’s that for service!

Dinner was served, and I was aghast to find it was chefs take on what he thought westerners might like i.e. Carrot/ginger soup, chicken breast in a tomato sauce and lemon sponge pudding.  Having dutifully munched my way through some of it I then asked if he wouldn’t mind only giving me Sri Lankan food from there on in.  He looked relieved.

More Sri Lanka travel tips- making the most of your stay

Actually, while I am thinking about Sri Lanka travel tips here are a few others I’ve learnt:

*Do wear insect repellent all the time. Though Sri Lanka is mainly free of malaria the mozzies here seem to like western blood and are small, so you don’t see or hear them coming.

*Don’t bother bringing perfume/aftershave with you – you’re going to smell of Deet all the time.

*Do bring dry hand wash and use frequently. Most peoples stomach upsets are caused from putting their hands too close to their face after handling money etc.

*Don’t bring our health and hygiene attitude with you.  They do their best but in places its often not quite up to our standards.  Anyway, a bit of dirt never hurt anyone, and food is cooked so well it will kill off anything nasty.

*Do accept any kind offer of a drink and nibble if you stop to rest anywhere. If it is really too bad for you to contemplate eating/drinking, then find a way to dispose of discretely so as not to cause offence.

*Do check with the place you are staying as to how they treat their water.  The places I have been to so far have had their own water source and clean/filter it thoroughly so bottled water is not imperative.  In fact, the Weir House water is probably purer than bottled water as it comes straight from the hillside and is then filtered.

*If, like me you have a short spiky hair style give up.  The humidity here is such that your hair flops after 5 mins.  Go for the flatter look and you’re going to be wearing a hat when in the sun anyway.

*Do change your showering habits. I’ve found there is no point showering in the morning as you are just going to get hot, sticky and dirty during the day.  Wash in the morning and save your full shower for the evening.

*Do learn a few words in Sinhalese. They love you for it and it’s a great icebreaker.

Here’s a few which I’ll spell as you would say it:

‘aybowen’ (hello and wishing them a long life – always do while placing your palms together in front of your chest, fingers up towards chin),

‘istuti’ (thank you),

‘nah’ (no – useful with beggars),

‘suber ratriack waver’ (good night) and

‘wanecum et perdie sugum’ (hello, how are you).

*Don’t stress about time – things happen here when they happen

*Ladies, do dress conservatively. Though not a Muslim country they are not used to people showing vast amounts of flesh.  In religious or holy places definitely wear long sleeves, trousers or skirts that come below the knee though covering your head is not necessary.  If swimming in a swimsuit or bikini use a sarong or long T-shirt to cover up a bit.

*When in the rural areas do go out at night, ask your hotel to turn the outside lights off and enjoy watching the fire bugs do their dancing display (sadly my iPad is not sensitive enough to take a picture).

*Do look up at night and take in the beauty of the stars and moon shining brightly above the tree canopy without light pollution. It reminds you of how small we are in the whole scheme of things and how beautiful the universe is.

Sri Lanka local animals – a delight

On Tuesday morning I appeared for breakfast on the terrace. Not long after taking my place there was a crashing and thrashing from the trees as a troupe of 25 Toque Macaques arrived.  Anyone who has read my book will know that as a child in Singapore I had a Macaque as a pet, so I have a soft spot for them.  Apparently, they like sitting and sunning themselves on the hotel roof in the morning.  I spent the next hour and a half feeding them my breakfast, coaxing them ever nearer with my fruit platter.  They were adorable and watching them it became clear there was a definite hierarchy at play. The most dominant male got first dibs on any food with the other, younger monkeys sneaking in to grab what they could without him seeing.  Lucien, Jero, Yogeshi and Lesley came to watch – interestingly as soon as the monkey leader saw the men he bared his teeth and didn’t want to come close.  When the men hid themselves behind a door he was fine and seemed to be happy with me there as a female. Obviously, monkeys have good gender choice J  I was as fascinated by the macaques as they were with me, but a cooking class was planned with Lesley that I had to tear myself away for.

Yogeshi and Jero busied themselves with getting tables, a camp stove and various plates out from the kitchen and then appeared Lesley in his full chef regalia.  This was more of a cooking demonstration rather than you having a go yourself but was fascinating all the same.  My mother, coming from an Indian background, had taught me how to cook various curries, dahl, rice and chutneys but most had involved us starting by frying onions and then the spices in ghee or oil.  Lesley showed me how it was possible to make the base of any curry without the use of any oil whatsoever. A revelation. He also used coconut milk/cream in various ways which taught me how flavours could be enhanced with strategic use.  I was quite pleased that I could identify 90% of the ingredients he used though bitter gourd, pandan leaf and their particular blend of curry powder were new to me. He stuck with the birds’ eye chillies I know but said he would normally use ‘snake bite chilli’ so called as it is so hot the locals compare it to getting bitten by a snake. I am so going to have to try some while I am here.

Once they were ready I devoured the finished dishes (hardly surprising as I had given my breakfast to the monkeys) and each one was an explosion of flavour and tastes on my palate. I’ve got the recipes and watch out friends for my next dinner party!  I was so full afterwards there was little more I could do than to climb into the swinging day-bed in the lounge and grab a nap.

Waking from my slumbers I decided I would like to get down to the river Raja Ela.  I asked Yogeshi for directions, but he insisted on showing me (Sri Lankans take the care of their guests very seriously). We followed a gently descending pathway before being faced with a road that inclined upwards at 45 degrees every few metres.  My heart wavered a bit as with my not so good legs and the cracked rib (yes, when I fell off the bike on day 2 I had fractured my rib) it was going to be a struggle.  However, not wanting to miss out I slogged my way upwards, then along a bit, downwards, up again, down and eventually popped out at the rivers’ edge.  It was beautiful, clear and cool so off came my shoes and in for a paddle I went.  Following the course upstream we came across the weir where I sat for a while listening to the therapeutic burbling of the waters flow, gazing down into the hypnotic pools and eddies and watching a brilliantly azure coloured kingfisher flash around fishing for his supper (too quick to photograph despite numerous attempts).

We stayed put until dusk fell and then headed back.  Yogeshi called up to one of the houses as we passed, and the owner came out to greet us.  A Sri Lankan gentleman with pristine English, and a very dapper silver white beard who ran an ornamental fish farm on his property that he insisted I come in and have a look at. I did but to be honest there wasn’t much to look at as the fish were hiding in amongst dense pond weed.

I am finding that Sri Lankan’s are very keen to show you everything and very proud of their achievements, however modest. This pride, generosity of spirit and sharing of their lives is in stark contrast to the more Western insular way of being. Each day in this beautiful country shifts my perception of what is truly important in life.

If you have missed any of my adventures in Sri Lanka you can find my previous articles here:

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Perseverance and bruises

Finding answers – within yourself