Sri Lanka – how to survive
Sri Lanka is still being toted by travel agents as a distant, untouched paradise. I’m telling you now. That’s not true.
If I were a promo writer or a travel agent, this is where I’d stop. South Sri Lankan paradise. But like I said at the beginning of this article, that’s not the whole truth.
With so many waves, The Gem Of The Indian Ocean is becoming a hotbed for surf tourists. Added to the already thriving general tourism, it’s getting busier by the day.
I realised as much as we walked through the airport behind an organised group of retirees chirruping excitedly to one another about spa retreats. The arrivals lounge was well set up for moneyed, western tourists: easy food, exchange bureaus and taxi ranks.
Instead of wandering lazily from the airport we were herded like celebrities through the crowd. We chased our bags, hauled by name-tagged airport staff in floral shirts, onto a coach. The coach spat us out into a crazy market where we were cajoled into a tuk tuk, sped through traffic and unloaded into a crowd. The faces we recognised from the airport were long gone by the time we got to the train station. The train journey itself was a crash course in Sri Lankan travel – jam packed, archaic and hot. The handful of surfers on-board cast wary glances to one another and their precious fibreglass cargos buried underneath suitcases and rucksacks. Fans cranked in ancient patterns, the flimsiest shield against the heat. I couldn’t help imagining the troop of retirees humming along in their air conditioned bus…
So here’s the deal
Firstly, it wasn’t quite as quaint as I imagined. Along with the small villages and communities were big, frantic cities. They had their own certain charm. There was a lot of noise, heaving crowds and a world of stuff to explore, but there was stark disparity too. Electronics, sports and fashion brands jostled for billboard space above cobblers and hand-drawn food carts. Shining, air conditioned car imports rolled inches away from beggars on the curbside.
Then there was the handful of challenges that come with any tropical, developing country. There was an obvious problem with litter and waste. Tap water wasn’t safe to drink. The nights were sweltering and the days were hotter. We had to get wrapped up in a mozzy net every night. There were stray dogs everywhere, and they loved to bash out a region-wide chorus in the early hours. Transport, especially from the out-of-town airport to our first base, was an undertaking – even more so with a board.
Having travelled my fair share, I took most of that in my stride. What really surprised me was the level of touristic development going on along the coast. I get that it’s my own expectation that was being challenged here, but man did it come as a surprise.
Speaking on the South specifically, the country is far from unexplored. It’s not quite mainstream, you can still get lost in a crowd, but for better or worse, the tracks have been laid to start chugging Sri Lanka towards package holiday destination.
A few of the beaches were packed with gaudy tourist restaurant-come-nightclubs, serving Western food in the day on plastic garden furniture and pumping out music into the early hours. One town in particular, Unawatuna, had fallen completely foul of the tourist hordes. Sunburned bodies scrambled for space on a crappy beach, the front bristled with restaurant-bars and trinket shops, hawkers called out to the masses.
One thing I deeply regret was joining a whale watching tour. It turned out to be dozens of petrol-spewing tourist boats, charging like some kind of grotesque mechanical wolf pack against one, likely terrified, humpback.
Put short, we could see the stress lines forming into cracks. The palm borders around the beaches were losing to concrete shells of super hotels. The quiet of backcountry Sri Lanka was fading away before our eyes.
It’s one thing to see a developed or even developing country, but it’s another thing when you’re at the very start of that road. It makes you keenly aware that you’re part of the problem, slotting money into the tourism machine.
Our initial reaction was hypocrisy. We tutted along with our fellow travellers, judging developers for building massive ugly buildings, then searching online for the “nicest” places to stay within our budget. I’ve got no doubt that if the building work had been finished, we’d have snapped up a bargain apartment.
We didn’t notice at the time, but one simple moment would challenge us to do something. Nothing drastic mind you, but a fundamental, crucial change of mind-set.
We were looking for a ride. The roads were alive with their usual chaotic harmony. Scooters, cars and mini trucks whirred along, hovering cautiously around the massive marauding 4×4 buses like cleaner fish to a shark, horns tooting.
Weaving around them all were the fearless tuk tuks – essentially three wheeled motorbikes with flimsy roofs, enough room for two people in the back, some bags and a surfboard or two strapped on the top. These things were everywhere, some carrying tourists or entire families, others jam
packed with crates and boxes. Sri Lanka’s all purpose vehicle, their answer to the black cab, the yellow taxi, the man with a van.
We heffed our bags up and gratefully slid into the back of a tuk tuk. The driver, a young Sri Lankan dude with finger length dreads and an easy smile, handed us his phone number on a slip of paper. If we like the drive, he says, we can call him again. We did.
Then we started to talk to more locals. Not to say we’d been ignoring casual conversations up to that point, but we started making connections. Spending our time (and money) with them. A surf coach, a family offering a homestay, a fisherman. Then everything shifted focus.
In a country at odds with itself, beautiful, serene and untouched on one side, rife with tourism almost to the point of destruction on the other, one thing stayed constant. The people.
With a “two heads is better than one” approach seeming to permeate the society. From city to back-country walkway, every local we met was willing (and happy) to get involved or help when they could. Help with a lost tourist, help with a neighbour’s broken down car, launching a fishing boat. While we’d started our journey like any fresh travellers; slightly guarded, booking our accommodation in advance, knuckling our guidebook, by the end we’d begun to peel back layers of a community. We threw out any planning and ended up living with a local family for the last week. They gave us access to more people and more stories. Friends we should meet, food we should try.
Accidental, surprising moments started to come about. The stuff that suffocates in 3 star accommodation and air conditioned lounges. Idiosyncrasies of a place that can’t exist when you’re a touristy tourist. The stuff that sticks out.
The family we stayed with was made up of parents, grandparents and a toddler who dealt with the heat by being perpetually naked. He didn’t say much except “Awooooo”. In stuttering English the Mum explained that “Awoo” is the first word for almost all kids in the area. There’s a guy who shouts it every morning at first light, selling his wares.
Awooo means “fish”.
I was glad to learn the local name for Mirissa’s peeling point break before it snagged me like one of the dozen or so poor souls we saw propped up on a deck chair for hours, wincing while their friends went to work removing spines. “We call this wave Urchin Feast” winked Madhu, a local surf guide. He hand-drew a map and traced a line with his finger “Go around to the right!”.
Later he took me to his backyard wave and I traded A-frames off a submerged reef with him and one other dude. Turtles passed by.
We found out that the seemingly arrogant behaviour of flagrant littering from train windows, from cars, on the beach, is just cultural fallout; an educational fracture. It used to be that food came in organic packaging and never harmed the environment. Why change the habit of a lifetime?
We learned never to ask for spicy food, unless you want it hot. “If you’ve got a deathwish say you want it Sri Lankan hot and give them a nod.” Not recommended.
Riding a bus costs you by the seat. If you have a massive rucksack and it doesn’t fit on your lap, expect to pay double. If you’re a dude, don’t sit next to local women. “For respect.”
We get taught that the stray dogs don’t respond to “NO”, why would they? If we need to deter one, we’re shown over dinner, it’s a short, sharp “SHHHH!”
There’s fear in the community that their village, just one plotted on the highway that follows the coastline, will soon become like Unawatuna because of tourist money. That their way of life will be a thing of the past unless local business is supported.
By the end of our time we were guilty to have given more money than we should to hotel chains and other ‘outfits’. We chose to live in more comfort, mostly because we were scared of the unknown. The local people we met set us free. Our cynical take on the jam-packed, archaic trains and sketchy buses turned to a certain silent pleasure at getting in amongst it. We’d grin during the calm before the storms in tiny train stations. The journeys were hot and frankly knackering, but the views were worth it.
More than that we learned that we, as surfers, with an ever widening scope of waves around the world, have a duty to protect the places we’re visiting. Starting with the people.
If you would argue that we should have been thinking that way from the start… I’m with you. I’m glad that you’re wired that way already. As Sri Lanka keeps forging on, gaining the recognition for how amazing a place it is, the mindset of travellers giving back to the locals will steer it in an ever positive direction.
Although you can see the cracks starting to form, Sri Lanka remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. And the waves. Oh sweet Jesus the waves!
Buildings will be built, developments will be developed, the tourism industry will crank on.
I suggest you go as soon as you can.
Encouraging more tourism might sound counter-intuitive coming from someone bemoaning the development of the place but, particularly if you’re a surfer, I want you to see it whilst you can.
All the better if you go with your phrase book and an open mind.
*It’s worth stressing that this article is written exclusively about the South coast of Sri Lanka. My research showed that other areas of the country, in particular the North, are a very different story.
My name’s Sam. I’m scratching an itch I’ve had for years and forcing my life through a surf funnel. After quitting my job in London, I’m surfing my way through some of the best-known surf countries in the world and documenting it from the learner’s point of view. Physical tips, practical info, surfy nuance, anxieties, mental challenges and everything else I’m facing along the way. Check in at www.overthedune.com for the raw details of this trip.