My eyes snapped open to the sound of my phone alarm and for a split second I had no idea where I was. High ceilings, industrial lighting, a thicket of stacked furniture surrounding me…. Ah, yes I remember now. I was in my airport foxhole behind a wall of discarded furniture that I burrowed into on the employee floor of the Colombo Airport to catch a nap before my flight. It may not look like much to the untrained eye but I felt as cozy as Br’er Rabbit in the ol’ briar patch. Sri Lankan airport employees went about their business none the wiser that a backpacker was snoozing just feet from where they strolled along their main corridor. Pawing around sleepily, I turned off my alarm which was buzzing urgently next to my head to make sure I didn’t miss my flight to Myanmar.
I’ve practically made finding the best napping spots in airports into a sport. My carry-on go bag is never without an inflatable sleeping pad, pillow, and ear plugs. As soon as I arrive at the airport where I have my layover I do a sweep of the place to try to identify any nooks or suitable hidden spots that I can stretch out in. The more secluded the better. One time I couldn’t find a good spot for the life of me but there was a storefront that was under construction. I spotted a small tear in the industrial plastic sheeting facade that declared “coming soon." The part was just big enough for me to wriggle in. Leaving the bustle of the hectic terminal behind me I slipped into a peaceful slumber for several hours in my very own, cavernous, soon-to-be store before army crawling out the way I came in to catch my connecting flight.
In hopes of catching a bit of sleep and a shower in Yangon, Myanmar before my night bus to Bagan, I got a bed in a hostel dorm room. After a much needed shower and a failed napping attempt, I decided to go explore a bit. Maybe a relaxing massage would provide the restorative qualities of a good nap, I thought. I popped into a massage parlor and decided to give the traditional Burmese massage a try. When in Rome, right? Big mistake. The dim lighting and calming spa music are all a ruse. The little masseuse could easily have taken her moves to the WWE. Everything she did was painful to the point of being almost humorous. She did every submission hold known to mankind. Why was I paying this person to put me in an arm-bar? If she had theatrically tapped her elbow before dropping onto me from a ladder or hit me with a collapsible metal chair, it would have adhered to the general theme of the massage. After an excruciating hour that seemed like an eternity, my traditional Burmese ass-whooping came to an end and I made my getaway.
Limping back towards my hostel mumbling to myself about what a proper massage should and should not entail, I decided to grab some local street food. Much to my amusement, most of the street food vendors had set up outdoor seating using tiny plastic chairs and tables that were unquestionably intended for children. In Myanmar, there are always cups on the table to pour loose leaf tea . I felt like I was being invited to a kid’s tea party. However, instead of stuffed animals and dolls on the chairs surrounding the miniature tables there were adults having dinner. Smiling to myself at the novelty of it all, I eased down onto one of the chairs to slowly test its ability to support my weight. It was surprisingly sturdy but I decided not to lean back and tempt fate. Dinner was a delicious naan and lentil situation along with an avocado that I grabbed from a produce cart. I ran up a tab that put me close to $1.50 before I decided to throw in the towel.
The eight-hour night bus from Yangon to Bagan ended at 5am and spilled its disconcerted passengers out onto a small bus depot in the crisp morning air. This was now the second night in a row that I had been traveling and hadn’t slept in a bed. Feeling sleep deprived and not up to dealing with cab drivers, I was relieved to share a taxi with two Germans and an Iraqi who had been on the same bus. Even as tired as I was I couldn’t help but speak German and Arabic to my bewildered companions. “How many languages do you speak?!”, they asked surprised to meet an American that spoke any additional languages let alone both of theirs. It’s not often that I happen to be in the company of multiple foreigners whose languages I speak so I had to take the opportunity to showboat a little. “Ah, just German and Arabic. Got lucky with you guys," I admitted.
We paid a bit extra for the driver to take us to an overlook to see the famous Bagan sunrise which is characterized by a horizon silhouetted by thousands of buddhist temples under a glowing orange sky dotted with hot air balloons. When we arrived, much to my chagrin, the famous overlook already had several tour buses parked in the dirt lot below it and Chinese tourists had begun to evenly blanket the little hill. Not wanting to have anything to do with that mess, I poked around behind the souvenir stalls until I found the local spot where the taxi and bus drivers drank tea around a fire on little kid chairs. I quietly joined them and after a few hot teas and a snack, I got a second wind.
Just as the sun was cresting the horizon I had finished climbing to the top of a little brick temple about 10 minutes walk off into the bush from the tourist overlook. Without knowing where it would lead I had struck out, intent on enjoying the sunrise without the throngs of other spectators. I looked around triumphantly. There wasn’t another soul in sight.
I spent a few days settling into a comfortable routine that involved a roof deck breakfast at my home base, Baobabed hostel, exploring the temples on an electric scooter, the gym, street food, and swapping stories with other travelers. The next logical spot to head was Kalaw, the little village where multi-day treks to Inle Lake begin. Only eight hours away. Yay, another night bus.
In an attempt to keep to a backpacker budget, I decided to take a minibus instead of the larger “V.I.P.” bus. This may have saved me $5 at most. In retrospect, this was the wrong place to skimp. When I got on, I noticed the entire back row was empty. Perfect. Time to stretch out and get a solid night’s sleep. I blew up my sleeping pad and pillow and laid down smugly. “Look at all of those people sitting in chairs when all along there was a bed they could have snapped up.”, I thought. Then I realized why everyone was at the front of the little bus. The road was relentlessly bumpy, especially at the back, and I was being launched a few inches off of my sleeping pad on the bigger bumps. My relaxing night’s sleep was going to be more like trying to go to bed in a trampoline park.
After sleeping in to compensate for my bumpy night bus and 4am arrival, I wandered around Kalaw before settling on a trekking company leaving on a 3-day, 60 kilometer journey the following morning. Two nights lodging, food, and a guide cost around $25. My group consisted of a Swiss couple, four French women, and our guide. After the 20 kilometer hike along footpaths through the forest, along dirt roads, and past fields of farmland we arrived at our home-stay in Dong La. It felt like we had just gotten out of a time machine. The village looked like a small agrarian community as it would have been several hundred years ago.
The water buffalo drawn carts and plows were made entirely of wood including the wheels and many of the houses had thatched roofs with woven bamboo walls. Our dinner was prepared over a wood fire by our guide and consisted of vegetables and chickens that we had walked past that day. All organic and free range. Take that Whole Foods.
Needless to say, the outhouse did not have a bum gun and required a bit of courage. Similarly, the shower was a giant tub of frigid well water that requires dumping a bowl over oneself. Get wet, get soapy, rinse, done. No Hollywood showers here. Feeling lighter after an outhouse run and cleaner after my “shower” I joined some local kids playing a game that combines hacky-sack and volleyball. They were down a player so I was a welcome addition. After a few rounds of that, I joined the owner of the home we were staying at that evening to watch the sunset.
The next day brought us past endless fields of hot peppers and through the hills to another home-stay. The ground floor was a barn where the family’s water buffalo slept and the floor between us was nothing more than joists and thin bamboo. I like the smell of barns and was lulled to sleep by the sound of the deep, steady breathing coming from below. On our final day trekking we stopped for tea and I saw a local guy with a homemade water buffalo leather sheath slung around his back. With the help of our guide as a translator, I offered to buy it and his large “Shan knife," a cross between a machete and an ax which is used to do everything including cutting down giant bamboo. He agreed to sell me the sheath since he could make another but needed the knife so he could work. The best gypsy treasures in my opinion are the ones that come directly from the people, not from a store. I gave him his asking price of $3 and decided to find a suitable Shan knife when we arrived at Inle Lake.
Our trek ended by a narrow canal where we had lunch before climbing into a long, narrow, wooden boat that took us from the southern to the northern tip of the lake. All of us sat on the bottom of the boat alternating sides we were sitting on to balance it. Unlike a typical outboard motorboat, the engine is inside the boat and a driveshaft runs several feet along a metal bar that the captain can raise and lower manually to deal with the shallower areas or floating obstructions. The lake is 13 miles long and 7 miles wide but only about 6 feet deep, making it ideal for the type of basket and net fishing that is still done there today. I wondered if perhaps without the aid of more modern fishing techniques the fish stocks of the lake were able to sustainably replenish themselves and wouldn’t fall prey to the “tragedy of the commons” over-fishing that has happened elsewhere.
The Baobabed hostel I stayed at in Bagan had just opened a location in Nyaung Shwe, the town on the northern tip of Inle Lake, so I reserved a dorm bed there. When I arrived, I met Kai, one of the owners, and asked if there were any artwork I could do in exchange for lodging. After showing him the mural I had done at the hostel in Sri Lanka he agreed to give me a bed, breakfast, and lunch every day that I worked on a mural for the upstairs roof deck bar. I found a concrete pillar that was visible from three sides and set to work. It took me five days to finish and I recruited some hostel goers to help me color it in. I put the clear coat finish on it with less than two hours to spare before my night bus to Yangon where I would be catching my next flight to an old favorite, Thailand.
I planted my shoulder blades just above the log tied across the bow of the fishing boat with my back facing the water and at the count of three in Sinhalese I dug my heels into the wet sand, extended my legs, and the boat lurched a few feet closer to the rising tide 30 feet away. My Aussie buddy, Simon, and I had decided to get the local fishing experience by hopping onboard one of the handline fishing boats that headed out around 5am. This wasn’t an organized tour by any means. We just pulled up to the docks and asked around until someone agreed to take us along for a few extra dollars.
The two man fishing crew we joined, Sooti and Pootimali, were pushing the log strapped to the stern and although they were a somber duo there was no denying that getting the boat into the water was better with a four man team. They didn’t speak a word of english and it was the owner of the boat, not them, that had agreed, in broken english, to add us to their crew. It’s doubtful that they were thrilled to change their daily routine by adding a few random foreigners to their manifest so I was glad that we had been able to sweat alongside them right off the bat.
We were already plopping in the anchor float, a long wooden pole with concrete on one end, a large styrofoam bobber, and a flag affixed to the top, as the sun broke the horizon line. The next few hours were spent in utter silence as hooks were baited and connected to the main line. It’s hard to know exactly how much primary line we had let out when the end float was connected and tossed into the water. I’d guess at least two kilometers. We motored back to the first float and began to methodically recoil the line and remove each hooked line attached to it. Sooti and Pooti did the finer work but let us do the grunt work of hauling in the handline. After our hands began to form blisters and several Giant Trevally were in the bottom of the boat the fisherman's’ mood became palpably warmer.
After some pointing and pantomiming by Sooti I found a pack of cigarettes that he had stashed away and lit one for him and Pooti which required sticking my head into my shirt to block the wind. He then gestured for me and Simon to have one of his cigarettes as well. I’m not a smoker but this was clearly a sign that our presence had been accepted by our stoic crew so I puffed away, gratefully nodding my feigned enjoyment. The sun was almost directly overhead as the four of us painstakingly inched the boat the 30 feet back from the high tide mark where our morning had begun. After a short but genuine goodbye we accepted a fish for dinner and headed back to our Midigama lodging, Siri Medura Surf Yoga Meditation Guesthouse.
The journey back down to the southern coast had been prompted by New Years plans to celebrate on the beach with throngs of young people dancing barefoot to EDM beats until the morning light. Even the fun-loving owner of the Laughing Leopard Hostel, Ash, had closed his place so that he could take a few days to enjoy the beachy vibes of Mirissa to ring in 2019. However, this time instead of staying in Mirissa at Colours Hostel, a Mirissa gem with its young party vibes and sweet owner Ru, I opted to stay 25 minutes west in the little surf village of Midigama.
The sleepy stretch of surf breaks is far more laid back than Mirissa and life centers around one thing, surfing. If the surf report shows a favorable swell for the following morning you’d be hard pressed to find someone up past 10pm. At 5am the kitchen begins to come to life as people make a light breakfast and coffee before heading to their favorite break, sometimes with the stars still shining.
Siri Medura is a guesthouse which could be likened to the film “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” in that many of the guests are there for months at a time. There is a comfort to familiar faces sitting around on hideous lounge furniture in various states of disrepair discussing that day’s surf that soothes the nerves of the solo traveler. At 2000 Rupees (11USD) per day for a private room and a moped there is very little financial incentive to look elsewhere. If you want a change of scene take a moped day trip somewhere further afield. If not, Ahangama, the nearest village has groceries and a humble gym, Singhe Shakthi Gym, with everything you need and the warmest staff imaginable.
For two blissful weeks I cooked fresh fish, surfed every morning, did a mural on the guesthouse wall, and took the moped up and down the coast. When I craved more social interaction I swung back through Colours hostel to meet new people and say hey to Ru. One such morning at Colours went from coffee in the rooftop common area with two Americans and a Swede to a full on trip up the coast to Dalawella beach. The day was spent mopeding around, swinging on an idyllic palm tree rope swing, and trying our hand at acro yoga. Other days consisted of surfing and then slinging up my Eno hammock in the shade at one of the many sparsely populated beaches to read or nap.
As predicted, I rang in the new year with friends I had met traveling on the Mirissa beach, dancing to electronic music barefoot until the wee morning hours. Although I had enjoyed more than a few adult beverages, I reacted instinctively when I felt a hand slip into my back pocket where my money was folded into a neat rectangle. Before I even saw my would-be thief, I had his slender wrist firmly in my right hand. As I spun around to face him I felt his hand release, leaving my money in my pocket. Now I was face to face with a 5’ 3” Sri Lankan guy in his early 20s who immediately threw his hands up in the universal “I don’t want any trouble” gesture. This is a stellar pickpocket defense. We were the only two people on the whole beach that knew that he’s a pickpocket and I was the intended target. To any onlooker, I look like the aggressor with a significant size advantage. He backed up passively with his hands up and melted into the crowd within seconds. Well played shit-bag. We’ll call this one a draw since I still have my money and you got away.
Back in sleepy Midigama at my favorite surf spot, Sion Surf Camp, there were far more sinister intentions playing out. Sion is a chill beachfront hostel with fast wifi, a wide selection of boards to rent, and a reef break that provides pumping right and left breaks. The bar and restaurant is under an open air wooden pavilion with hammocks slung up and ample seating to watch the sunset and surfers while sipping a Lion Beer. The place is owned by a UK national and staffed by local Sri Lankans. About a kilometer down the road, Cheeky Monkey, a sub-par hostel, bar, and surf shop, is owned by Sri Lankans that are competing for tourism market share. On New Years, shortly after midnight several thugs from Cheeky Monkey came to Sion, beat up a local staff member so badly that he lost an eye and broke a bottle over the owners head from behind as he played a drum around a bonfire. Unfortunately, as tourism grows, the ugly side effects of turf warfare will likely continue to play out behind the scenes.
As for me, I generally try to stay on the right side of the law but sometimes it’s worth it to put a toe over the line. After New Years I decided that I had one illegal activity that I absolutely had to engage in before I left Sri Lanka; swimming with Blue Whales. The largest living animal ever, including dinosaurs, is a rather shy creature. There are whale watching boats that head out in the mornings to view the giants breaching and then there are the illegal small boats that go out after the other boats return that let you hop in the water with them. It’s not cheap. After haggling I got it down to $100USD which is the most expensive activity I’ve done thus far on the trip. Worst of all there is no guarantee you’ll see them and there is no refund. It’s like going to the roulette table and putting $100 on whales.
After nearly two hours of searching in vain our hopes had begun to sink. There was no shade, the only snacks were cookies, of which I bored-ate an entire sleeve, and the Tom Hanks “Cast Away” jokes had begun to grow stale. Then our guide spotted one. I didn’t see it at first but when he started shouting to the other boat hand excitedly and accelerated to full speed I looked directly over the bow and there it was, a good 300 meters away.
Blue Whales, depending on their size, only take three or four breaths before diving down for 5-10 minutes while continuing on their general trajectory. The trick to catching a glimpse of them in the water is to hold course and speed along the whales anticipated path so that there is a minimal distance for the boats to close to get swimmers in the water before they dive again. We had weathered several failed attempts when we finally caught a bit of luck and one surfaced only about 70 meters away. We zoomed towards it and once we were in line with it’s path I rolled off the side of the boat while we were still moving and started kicking down into the abyss.
The whale had already begun to descend into the depths when I spotted him directly below me. In retrospect, I could have and should have continued to freedive down to get closer but in all honesty I instinctively froze. Being in the open ocean in the presence of a creature the size of a subway car will do that to you. I was in the kind of awe that is a combination of paralyzing fear and childish fascination. Five hours in the blazing sun, bouncing around in little boat, a hundred bucks poorer all for 8 seconds with a living submarine. Totally worth it.
Although it is not quite as exciting as swimming with whales, there is a bathroom accessory in this part of the world that claims a close second. I have recently become reacquainted with the apparatus known in local parlance as “The Bum Gun.” Although it is not a firearm, it is a water cannon next to the toilet that packs a comparable amount of blasting power. Without an air compressor I’m still unsure how it manages to achieve fire hose intensity. Can a BH shine? Do I have the cleanest BH in the history of BHs? These are questions for the bigger brains to ponder but I do know that power washing after a numero dos makes me confident I could pass the white glove test with flying colors.
Here is some other gear I've been enjoying on my travels.
I could barely see the road through the foggy windshield as we went careening through the darkness towards Horton Plains National Park. The driver didn’t seem to mind the jarring clang of the long expired shocks bottoming out as we bumped along up the mountain pass road, occasionally wiping the glass with his hand and squinting to make sure we didn’t miss one of the hairpin turns. We wound along the serpentine cutbacks higher up into the mountains overlooking the peaks below, silhouetted by a thin reddish-orange glow fading into powder blue and then into the still starry night sky above. I tougued the finely ground Sri Lankan coffee that had lodged itself between my teeth as the caffein started to take effect. Maybe it’s stockholm syndrome but I had begun not to mind the stuff. Beats Nescafe instant coffee.
The hike was a two and a half hour loop through lush rainforests, past waterfalls, and along the cloud forest cliffs of “Worlds End”. The overgrown trail a few feet from the edge occasionally cleared exposing the picturesque valley below. Without any guardrails to protect hikers, a German tourist had met her demise a few months ago taking a selfie. I made a mental note to resist the urge to tempt fate and ask someone else to take a picture with a safe distance between me and the sheer drop to the forest canopy far below.
Along the trail we encountered an Elk that had clearly become accustomed to people and had almost certainly been fed. Pavlovian response in full swing, it came over to us slobbering and licking its lips in anticipation of a snickers bar or some other human food delicacy. Although we heeded the signs and resisted the urge to slip him a snack we did get some great pictures without the fancy cameras since he was anything but shy.
It had been three days since I made the eight hour bus journey from the southern Sri Lankan surf town of Mirissa up to the mountain town of Nuwara Eliya. The buses fill up at the station but I was able to get a seat with my backpack lodged in next to my legs before it was too late. The bus stops along the road for women and children but only slows down for young men who are expected to run and hop into the open backdoor where the bus money collector squares up with riders. Behind the wheel there is invariably a Sri Lankan bus driver with a cheek full of betel nut, the local stimulant, chewing intensely and liberally laying on the horn as he plays chicken with oncoming traffic.
Despite the Mad Max driving style on the roads, there is a certain organization to the mayhem. For one, horns are actually used to alert fellow drivers to each other's presence during passing and blind turns as opposed to their sole purpose in western culture as an after-the-fact, “fuck you” device. There is also a pecking order with buses at the top of the food chain, followed by trucks, then vans, tuk-tuks, and finally mopeds. So if a bus is coming directly at you in your lane you slow down and steer as far onto the shoulder as possible. Slower vehicles will move further onto the shoulder to allow you to pass after a “I’m here” honk that is not considered rude. It’s all a bit nerve racking but everyone seems to know how the other will react. Predictability makes it a bit safer I suppose.
It was just past dusk as I boarded the third and last bus of my trip up to the mountains. Even in the dark, I could tell that we had gained altitude as I shivered in the board shorts and tank top I had donned that morning. A quick sweep of the bus revealed that I was the only one not wearing long pants and some people were wearing knit caps. Even though I was cold, it was refreshing to be in cool, dry air after the humid, mosquito ridden evenings on the coast.
The bus seats filled up quickly and I saw a man give his spot to a woman that boarded the bus during one of the many roadside stops. The next woman that boarded was young and able bodied but I figured I’d give it a whirl. In Washington, D.C. if I were to offer my seat to a woman that wasn’t pregnant, on crutches, or 179 years old my attempted chivalry might be viewed as perpetuation of dated patriarchal practices or even downright rude. On this Sri Lankan bus however, my gesture was gratefully accepted with a warm smile.
My tuk-tuk from the bus station dropped me on the outskirts of town at the Laughing Leopard Hostel around 8pm. When I rounded the back of the building I walked directly into the consolidated outdoor chill area where I was greeted by about 15 cheery hostel goers sipping Lion beer and puffing away on hand-rolled cigarettes. In the grassy yard to my right a staff member was coaxing a bonfire to life. Nothing like a communal area with good vibes especially considering it was Christmas Eve.
In addition to exploring Horton’s Plains an Australian guy from the hostel and I took a “Dumb and Dumber” style moped trip around the tea plantations, a British colonial hand me down which still thrives today. The following day a group of us hiked up Adam’s Peak for sunrise which entailed a grueling 6,000+ stair climb to a temple at the summit. The temple is known for Sri Pada (the sacred footprint), a 6ft rock formation resembling a footprint that is thought to belong to Budda, Shiva, or Adam depending on if you ask a Buddist, a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Christian. I am none of the above and I think it resembles a rock formation.
We started the hike at around 2:45am and I arrived at the top, drenched with sweat, a bit before 4:15am. I had passed all sorts of people on the way up including sweet little old ladies who were making the religious journey slowly but with steely determination. At the top there were hoards of people who huddled together under blankets trying to get some sleep before sunrise. I found a little ledge of the temple compound that overlooked some of the rituals taking place to climb up onto and lay down. Thankfully I had picked up a light rain jacket and beanie at the markets that day which kept me warm after I shed my wet t-shirt.
As sunrise became imminent the crowds began amassing along the eastern terraces of the temple. People began jockeying for position so I decided to start my decent and enjoy dawn from the empty stairs. I stopped along the way at a tea shack for some of the colonial beverage and a hearty Sri Lankan biscut. The stairs that had been crawling with tourists and pilgrims a few hours before were utterly empty. I hummed happily to myself as I took in the sunrise while bounding down towards the valley. A quick dip in a mountain stream near the path only raised my spirits higher. They were so high I skipped right past the trail that lead back to our chartered van and an additional five kilometers down the mountain to the other side of the park.
Not realizing that there were no direct roads back to Nuwara Eliya I used a tuk-tuk driver’s phone to tell the others not to wait for me. Once I finally picked up reception and took a gander at googlemaps I realized the gravity of the situation. I spent the next 4 hours running like a local to hop into the back of buses and circumnavigate a massive national park to get back to the hostel. That night, to ensure that everyone could share in my suffering, I picked up enough betel nut to share with my new hostel friends. We all chewed, spat, and agreed it is a very unpleasant pasttime. More for the bus drivers I guess. I’ve included a link below to purchase betel nut if curiosity gets the better of you!