From Galle we continued east along the southern coast of the island to Tissamaharama, one of the closest towns to the Yala National Park. We stayed at My Village, an unassuming small hotel with garden-style rooms surrounding a quiet courtyard. Our room was basic, but provided good value for money. The only negative was a giant cockroach we found in our bathroom, but we are sure it is from the surrounding jungle and not filth-related. At the risk of getting hate mail from PETA, I will admit that we had to “take care of it” because neither one of us was going to pick it up and release it into the wild, and the thought of it walking on our toothbrushes was too much to handle.
Sujith, who owns and runs My Village, is a very nice guy and always around to help. He arranged our tour to the national park as well, which we appreciated very much. I should also mention that he brews a mean cardamom tea, which we unsuccessfully tried to replicate at home. It’s the best tea we’ve ever had.
After dropping our stuff off at the hotel, we took a walk to visit a famous pagoda nearby. Along the way we came across a lake where some locals were operating tours on small, wooden boats. We took one, and after a ride towards the center, our guide turned the boat towards a cluster of large trees rooted on the lake floor. When we got there our jaws dropped: there were hundreds of (maybe more than a thousand) bats hanging upside down from the branches. The guide clapped his hands loudly several times and the bats started flying around. It was a freaky and amazing sight at the same time. Some other nearby trees were occupied by a colony of pelicans. I had never seen a pelican up close before, let alone one fly, which several of them did once our boat got close. It was fascinating to see them become airborne, unhindered by their giant size.
After the boat ride we visited the pagoda, which made for an emotional experience for my wife because she is into Buddhist philosophy, and then started to search for a ride back to the hotel. Within a few minutes, a black pickup truck with a Bob Marley picture on its side stopped in front of us. The driver was a young rasta with a colorful woven hat. He said hi and asked us if we needed a ride. After a few seconds of assessing risks vs. benefits and telepathically agreeing that it was probably alright, we accepted his offer and got in the truck. He was a nice chatty fellow and when we arrived at the hotel did not even accept any money for the ride. As we were saying goodnight, however (there must always be a catch, right?), he asked us if he might interest us in some marijuana (which he pronounced with an English “j”). We politely declined and asked him if pot was common in the area. Apparently, some locals secretly grow cannabis in the national park, as it is quite hard for the police to detect them there. Thanks to the ideal climate and the relative seclusion of the area, marijuana and the accompanying rasta culture have flourished. I guess as long as one is not bothered by the risk of being trampled by an elephant or eaten by a leopard while growing the stuff, they can enjoy some handsome returns.
The next morning, our tour guide came to pick us up in his off-road vehicle at the crack of dawn, just as he had promised. Within minutes we were off to our excursion at Yala National Park. Ok, we have not been to sub-Saharan Africa or the Amazon yet, but Yala was definitely one of, if not the most impressive place we have ever visited in terms of wildlife diversity. We spotted many species including elephant, deer, wild boar (there was a whole family of them accompanying our truck at the beginning of the excursion), leopard, monitor lizard, water buffalo, wild hare, monkey, peacock, Guinea fowl (“wild chicken”), and heck knows what else. We would recommend the park strongly to anyone who is into wildlife spotting.
After the national park we went for a drive with Lal to visit a nearby Hindu temple. We had to take our shoes off and walk barefoot, which I was grumpy about because I am a bit of a clean freak, but my wife helped me relax by reminding me that we were on vacation and a hot shower would be waiting for us back at the hotel. The compound was full of monkeys, which were only mildly interesting after having already seen them at every corner in our past few days in Sri Lanka. What was interesting and a bit scary though, was the small but apparently highly poisonous snake that slithered in front of us and stopped us dead on our tracks as we were getting ready to enter the main building. Luckily, that was to be our only close call with a poisonous snake in Sri Lanka.
The experience at the temple was unforgettable, not so much because the ceremony was so interesting, but thanks to the woman who started speaking in tongues (or maybe just in Sinhalese but I do think it was trance-induced jibberish) and started rolling on the floor in front of our eyes. The crowd seemed to be impressed, but I just think some people get a little too carried away with their religion.
That night we went to bed early because we were very tired from the past few days’ activity. We were sleeping soundly until we were awakened by someone trying to open the door to our room! We looked at each other in horror and decided to wait for a few seconds to see what would happen. After several minutes of trying the person finally gave up and walked away, allowing us to let out a sigh of relief. Believing it was over, I quickly fell asleep and woke up again with the first rays of sunlight. As soon as I was up, my wife told me she had not slept at all because someone (presumably the same person) kept walking around our room throughout the night and tried to peer inside. She looked for a heavy object in the room to defend us with in case the person ever made it in and was nice enough not to wake me up, because she thought I would be too nervous and it would ruin my sleep. I was thankful but a bit offended to be treated like a sissy at the same time. I am usually a light sleeper so I could not believe I slept through the whole thing. In the morning we told Sujith about what happened, and he let us know it was the lone Korean tourist who had apparently had a bit too much to drink (he had tried to force his way into other rooms, too). Our guess is that he might have had a bit of the local marijuana as well.
After breakfast we left for Beragala, a short-distance journey (around 100 km) that again took the better part of a day due to narrow, winding roads. But I must say the scenery was amazing, especially as we reached higher elevations. We stopped at a lookout point with views of a majestic waterfall on the one side and the vast national park we had left behind on the other. By mid-afternoon we had reached our hotel, the Teutonically named Melheim. The property is completely in sync with the nature around it, with well looked-after lawns, unobtrusive green exteriors and wooden decks in all of its bungalows. One of the staff took us for a short hike in the surrounding woods where we picked fresh peppercorn off a wild tree. In the late afternoon we saw a group of 20-30 monkeys walk across the lawn to cross to the other side of the jungle. One of the cheeky little ones even came to our balcony and we caught him peering inside, ready to come in at the first opportunity. My wife slowly walked out to the balcony and tried to give it a banana (I know, it’s a speciesist stereotype) but it was a timid little creature and quickly ran back out to the lawn. By contrast, we weren’t so shy when we were fed delicious Sri Lankan curries at dinner that night on the restaurant’s lovely terrace.
The last day of the drive was from Beragala back to Negombo through more winding roads. After a very active week, we decided we deserved some luxury and treated ourselves to a night’s stay at the wonderful Wallawwa hotel. After saying our goodbyes to Lal, we dumped our stuff in the room and went straight to the pool. My wife also went to the spa and got a massage, which she said was great. The resort is probably as luxurious as an airport hotel could get. It has lovely jungle-like gardens and an excellent restaurant. The pool was also a great experience because it was set amongst the trees, giving you that “swimming in the jungle” feeling, probably as close as you can (or want to) get to the experience of swimming in a waterhole. My wife even claims she saw a mongoose walk among the trees while she was swimming – I am not so sure if it was a real sighting or just a mirage seen through her Kipling- goggles. In any case, the hotel was pleasant enough even without any mongooses (mongeese?). The only criticism we have is that they used a thick velvet curtain to separate the bathroom from the rest of our room. I know it looks cool and all, but a proper door would have been more helpful.
The next day we took our Emirates flight back to the UAE, bringing our week in paradise to an end. We are certain we will be back one day, probably as tourists again, but maybe even as bed and breakfast operators or retirees, who knows? Or, like Arthur C. Clarke, I can write my magnum opus there one day, once this blog has really taken off.