A war torn country for 26 years, Sri Lanka has emerged as a cheap and exotic option. The hole in tourism during the war created a lag in commercialization so the places you stay and the people you meet are on an entirely different trip and it’s real cheap The waves are world class if you know where to be and the food is fucked up good. If India and Indonesia had a love child it would be Sri Lanka.
HOW: Well, like most atolls, it’s a mission. You’re looking at about 44 hours of travel, but, hell, that’s part of the fun. Go Singapore Airlines ($1500-2000), it’s like a luxury hotel in the sky (even in economy) and your boards fly free. Capitalize on the free beverages (order a Singapore Sling, then switch to Tiger Beers, then fall asleep watching movies). You will most likely get slammed with a twenty-something hour layover in Singapore so get on the first train of the morning into downtown ($10 round trip). Eat roasted duck for breakfast at the local market for $2 and wander towards Raffles Hotel for an authentic Singapore Sling ($30, and yeah, that’s a lot but you’re sitting in the seat where that thing was created). Back to the hotel, shower (Singapore’s Changhi Airport is one of the nicest hubs in the world, and a 4 dollar shower in a luxury spa is the norm, so grab one, it could be your last one for a long time).
Singapore to Colombo is the last and shortest flight being just under four hours. You will probably land in the middle of the night to a thunderstorm so grab a van cab thirty minutes into downtown Colombo.
LANDING IN SRI LANKA: When you land, get dropped off at the train station and stay up and wait for the 6:30 a.m. train ($7 for 2 stops) to the highlands of Kandy. Spend the ultimate groggy detox therapy on an old Indian train up through those mountains, holding on to the railing balancing one foot on the rickety cart with the other flying in the breeze. Five mesmerizing hours later and you’re at one of the holiest places in the Buddhist world. Grab a tuk-tuk from the train station to the nearest available hotel ($5), drop your stuff off and head out on foot, explore Kandy lake and its surrounding markets and rad cultural vibes. Eat every meal at the Garden Café, solely for the fact that it is the location of the best, most fucking spicy chicken curry you’ll ever eat ($3, served on a plastic bag covered plate). Use the cold climate of Kandy to get some much-needed sleep and catch the first train the next morning to the world’s tea growing capital of Ella (5 hours). For surfers, the train tracks towards the ocean end here so either grab a taxi (3 hours to Arugam Bay at $10 per person) or stay the night and hang out in the cool mountain climate of Ella. Once you are in Arugam Bay you will not need to travel any more. You will find yourself in a weird melting pot oasis filled with hot Israeli girls, right points, reggae nights and bartenders smoking joints on the beach.
WHEN: For surf…East: May- September (crowded with Israeli’s July and August) West: November-March (waves not as good). Go in September.
WHO: Despite tsunami disasters and ongoing civil war politics, the locals are still happy to be in an island paradise. Smiles with a head wobble are commonplace. Do not go to the north however, the Tamil Tigers (see below) are not accepting of outside influences — meaning don’t bring your chick in her bikini. They’ll shoot at you.
Very few to no westerners make it to Sri Lanka, so if you do, chances are they will love you for visiting.
CULTURE: A mainstay of the Buddhist religion since ancient times. The spiritual highland city of Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth, which holds the upper left canine of Lord Buddha himself. One of the holiest shrines in the entire Buddhist world. Hindu yogis are not uncommon and often sprinkle wisdom on visitors.
SURF N’ TURF: Stay at Ram’s Place [$6/night] in Arugam Bay. Ram is a bearded Yoga swami from the North who has traveled the world over. Along with an extensive library at your disposal, he and his wife cook radical veggie curries most nights. The wall of the tree house style room had a painting of a busty woman over the bed with the words “sweet memories never die” on top, and they never will.
–Kottu Roti: Diced veggies, raw beaten egg, chopped wheat roti bread and a heavy amount of curry sauce. All served on a hot griddle while being rabidly stabbed by two bench scrapers. (Drunk munchies on steroids)
–Curries: $3 for giant platter, veggie, chicken or fish. (Best surf fuel possible)
–Pol Sambal: spice filled coconut shavings added to most every dish. (SL’s version of hot sauce) Garden Café in Kandy holds the best chicken curry on Earth.
DRINK: For a night of reckless fun drink Arak. Made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers, it’s a mix between rum and whiskey. The locals drink arak and cokes. Bottle of choice: VSOA: Very Special Old Arak. In order to get a bottle you must go to the bottle shop: a seedy, men only, heavy drinking vibe with steel bars in front of the counter. There are little to no drinking establishments outside Arugam Bay or Hikkaduwa. After a surf though, there is no better tasting beverage than a Lion Lager. It’s the Bintang of Sri Lanka.
DRUGS: Marijuana is very illegal yet highly common on the beach in the South. Rolled up in newspaper and sold with seeds included. Like Mexico, the high only lasts around ten minutes. Moroccan hash, although not common, is available. Don’t get sold Riccola mints in wax paper. And fuck, be careful, we don’t want see you in third world prison.
EXPLORE: Fuck there’s a lot of stuff to see in Sri Lanka. Wait for a swell and rent a safari truck from Arugam Bay to Okanda, widely considered the best wave in the country. The hour-long drive takes you through Yala National Park, which is rabid with elephants, leopards, monkeys and some crazy landscapes.
BOOKS: Serendib by Jim Toner. Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. Buddhist scriptures dating back to 29 B.C.
HISTORY: In 543 B.C. Vijaya, a prince of Bengal, sailed eight ships and 700 people over 800 miles to Sri Lanka. He was the first of 189 monarchs in SL. Buddha statues forty feet in height were built into stone in 5th century AD. The Portuguese landed in 1505 and by 1517 took control over most costal areas. In 1815 the land became part of the British Empire.
MUSIC: Listen to Paranoid Earthling. A blend of experimental rock, grunge, psychedelic and stoner rock. Their lyrics are about day-to-day life as a Sri Lankan youth. Their throwback nineties sound is a mix of Pennywise guitar riffs and Alice In Chains grunge with a third world twist.
ADVENTURE: Forget taking a taxi from the airport to the waves. Head down to the Colombo train station, nudge the guy trying to cut in front of you (India style), and purchase a $7 ticket around the island. Meet local newspaper writers and drink scotch and watch the scenery change as you hang out the side of the cart. Almost miss your connecting train, chuck your bags onto the moving cart and jump in like the movies. See the Sri Lankan countryside, including the tea highlands of Ella, where I saw a guy wearing earmuffs and a down jacket. Basically Sri Lanka’s Machu Pichu.
WAR: From July 23, 1983 until May 18, 2009 Sri Lanka was in civil war. (25 years, 9 months, 3 weeks and 4 days) The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, fought as an independent, heavily militant group to keep their independent states in the north and east of the island. The Tigers are the only militant group to assassinate two world leaders: the president of Sri Lanka and an Indian Prime Minister. 80-100,000 people lost their lives in the lengthy, bloody conflict. The SL military powers won the war but the Tiger’s live on.
NATURAL DISASTER: On December 26, 2004 a 9.2 earthquake hit off the coast of Sumatra, resulting in a massive tsunami across the Indian Ocean. SL was devastated by the wave, it taking over 30,000 lives and breaking apart families near the coast. Almost every person you talk to near the coast lost a family member in the event.
Photos and words: Nate Zoller