This article was first written in 2017.
Sri Lanka is the next big destination – it’s easier than India, cheaper, and less busy. And it’s in Sri Lanka that Airbnb becomes very useful in helping uncover treasures.
A thump of thick, hot air settles over me at the arrivals area. I’m alone in a foreign country that feels daunting despite being just a small droplet-shaped island in the Indian Ocean. Hugging my camera closer, I double-check that my passport is still in my pocket and scan a sea of faces for the one I‘d seen on the website. I soon spot Chamara de Silva, my first Airbnb host in Sri Lanka, and breathe out, letting my shoulders sag a little, relieved to see a familiar face.
We join the old coastal road that heads south from the airport and the country’s capital, Colombo, and it reminds me of the terrifying driving in Mozambique – buses come tearing up the wrong side of the road (they drive on the left as we do in South Africa) and tuk-tuks toot their way in between the big machines with enchanting bravado. Lorries, dogs, and bicycles fearlessly enter the fray. Chamara hums along to Sinhalese songs on the radio. ‘They like to sing romantic songs,’ he says. He then presses some buttons, and Shakira’s voice fills the air. It’s ‘Waka Waka’ from the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
Hikkaduwa is my first stop, and it’s busy, very developed, and the beach is not the idyllic Instagram-worthy image I’d hoped for. I’d imagined palm trees and more of a wild, unspoiled destination, but a strip of hotels and restaurants is blocking the sea. Despite my initial dismay, I’m really chuffed to be here for my first night in Sri Lanka, and I’m so impressed by Chamara, a gracious host and my unofficial guide. I’m staying in a beautiful apartment called The Residence Hikkaduwa next to his home; there’s ‘Welcome’ arranged in petals on my bed, and I’m gifted with a plate of Sri Lankan treats – some delectable ginger sweet I’ve never tasted before, but I’m soon licking its delicious sticky residue off my fingers.
Chamara recommends things to do – one of them is the Tsunami Museum, and it’s a sobering visit. Sri Lanka was hit hard, and the scale of damage is only visible when you walk the same ground you’ve seen in the photographs. It’s overwhelming. The lady sitting at the museum door smiles and asks where I’m from – this is a common greeting, and people are genuinely interested in the answer – I say ‘South Africa’ and she asks if I know Shakira.
The next morning, I awake refreshed and feeling pluckier than I did in the arrivals hall; I’m easing into life in a new place, and my mood is matched by a sensational Sri Lankan breakfast of fresh, crisp fruit, mildly spiced yellow dhal curry, and sticky coconut sambals with a squeeze of lime, all washed down with a cup of locally picked tea that I finish far too quickly.
Chamara has organised a tuk-tuk at a reasonable price to take me to my next stop, a dreamy-looking tree house in Dikwella that I’d booked on Airbnb. Initially, he and the driver are unsure where Dikwella is, and that same sinking feeling wells up in me again with a sense of foreboding ‘I’ve made a horrible mistake, and I’m travelling alone in a foreign country’. But the fact that even locals don’t know Dikwella’s precise location is the blessing I’ve been waiting for.
I finally find my postcard paradise – a secret bay called Hiriketiya Beach with a cluster of small fishing boats tucked around the feet of tall palm trees and only one open restaurant on the beach – leaving the rest as nature intended. Surfers scuttle along the ‘rough’ sea (people here have obviously never seen our side of the Indian Ocean), and the tree house is everything Airbnb promised. A freshly cut king coconut is waiting for my arrival, and I sip its cold, crisp juice – an instant pick-me-up after my two-hour journey.
I’m struck by how similar Sri Lanka is to South Africa – a hornbill sits in the tree, a squirrel dashes by in the garden below, and I even come across an enormous monitor lizard sliding up the embankment near the sea. Later, I hear a striking kingfisher call that’s both familiar and different simultaneously and catch its ash of colour before it settles on an electricity pole. Its bill is unmistakable, but I can’t find one with its colouring in Newman’s bird book. Here the Gondwanaland theory – that all the continents broke away from one large supercontinent – really comes to life, and I try to visualise where on the map Sri Lanka would’ve once sat on the shore of Africa.
There are two tree houses, and my neighbours, Nick and Anna, a lovely Belgian couple, share invaluable advice: tuk-tuks should charge roughly R10/km; travel by bus isn’t as terrifying as it looks (and they play nice music, ‘better than in Vietnam’); and waking up early to visit the tea factories will ensure you see the production in action.
We travel together to see local sights such as the harbour and vendors selling dried fish, which look much like bokkoms. As we walk, a stallholder asks where I am from. ‘South Africa, ’ I say, and he responds, ‘Pretoria?’ Genuinely astonished, I ask how he knows about Pretoria. It turns out he can name the capital of most countries and all of our star cricket players as far back as Hansie Cronje.
Samitha Darshana Wanigabadu is my tree-house host. He opened his accommodation very recently and hopes the area doesn’t develop too much, ‘otherwise, people won’t come here’. I think back to Hikkaduwa and have the same hope. Samitha has arranged dinner for me – a simple but really impressive buffet of calamari, potato curry, sambals, and coconut rotis. There is buffalo curd with treacle for breakfast because I mentioned wanting to try it after spotting some being sold on the roadside during the journey here. The curd is like yoghurt, creamy with a wilder taste, almost like goat’s cheese.
I would like to spend the rest of my holiday soaking up the blissful island life in Dikwella, but there is still so much of Sri Lanka to see, and Galle Fort, a Unesco Heritage Site (the island has eight – another parallel to home) is next on my list – a well- preserved edifice built by the Portuguese in 1588.
The best way to explore a new place is to walk it, and the fort’s ancient streets succumb to my desire for genuine encounters. A courting couple is sharing an umbrella to shield the sun, families are sitting on the fort walls enjoying their Sunday, and around every corner, there’s a casual cricket game being played.
I see a man in a sarong (most men here wear a collared shirt, a sarong, and sandals) selling freshly squeezed lime juice from a table that looks like a school desk. A traditional press is clamped to it, and he mixes the extract with bottled water. The tart juice is heavenly in the heat and goes perfectly with my spiced green mango and a vetkoek-like savoury pastry called ulundu that’s wrapped up in recycled paper pulled from a notebook. It looks a lot like maths homework, and I love that it echoes the school-desk theme.
My bed for that night is at The Magical Apartment, cocooned in a network of picturesque alleys within the old thick walls that stood against the tsunami. The owners have an indoor terrarium, and the leafy greenery makes it feel like an oasis. I dread to leave because it’s everything I’d hoped for and more – authentic Sri Lanka and wonderful hosts, Ranjit Goonewardena and his wife Moninna, who share tea and biscuits with me in their kitchen downstairs.
I head back north to Colombo and, here too, I see families bonding in the city on an ordinary Tuesday evening; locals swim in the sea below the pier on the Galle Face Green (a five-hectare oceanfront park), and there are too many kites to count. It’s the windy season and perfect weather for this traditional sport. I see children running alongside their parents, flying their kites as high as possible, and eating hot diced roti with spiced fish (my favourite meal of the trip) on the promenade as the sun goes down.
The tuk-tuk driver who takes me to my final stop, the iconic Galle Face Hotel on the seafront – a real beauty with a rich historical past – also asks about Shakira as he ducks and dives between oncoming headlights. Many of the locals I met in Sri Lanka had never encountered a South African. Yet we had so much in common – cricket, wildlife, the size of waves in the Indian Ocean, and Shakira. I know for a fact that they would like to meet more.
Plan your trip to Sri Lanka
Need to know
- South African passport holders need an electronic visa.
- Take dollars to exchange with the Sri Lankan rupee.
- Accommodation and water-based activities are your biggest cost.
- Food, drinks, and transport cost little.
- It’s best to visit in the drier months from November to March (although it can still rain). I went in September – it didn’t rain, but the sea was fairly choppy.
- Use tuk-tuks for short distances – they are affordable and easy. Buses are less comfortable, but cheaper. Private taxis (sedans) can be organised by most accommodation owners, but they are much pricier. Uber operates in Colombo.
- Visit the Tsunami Museum in Hikkaduwa. It’s at AH43, Telwatta (ask your host for directions). Free entry
- Take a tuk-tuk along the coastal road from Galle Fort to Dikwella (about R385). If your driver is kind like mine was, he’ll pull over so you can take pictures and grab a bite to eat. Your host can arrange a tuk-tuk to pick you up
- Walk the fort walls in Galle Fort and explore the cobbled alleys with its boutique shops and vendors along the way.
- Learn to surf at Hiriketiya Beach in Dikwella. There are good waves year-round, and it’s a quiet, sheltered spot.
- The Residence at Hikkaduwa has two enormous rooms with wonderful, clean facilities.
- The Magical Apartment in Galle Fort is spacious, airy, and within the old section of the fort.
- Galle Face Hotel in Colombo looks over the sea and has many places to eat nearby.
- Mamas Galle Fort Roof Café has a view of the fort and excellent curries. Beer is not on the menu but ask for it.
- Nana’s on the Galle Face Green is ideal for watching local life and serves authentic, affordable food.
ALSO READ: 5 awesome game lodges near Gauteng