Sri Lanka is an island nation of 21 million very diverse people. It’s a mix of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Hindus who speak Sinhalese and Tamil (as well as quite a bit of English). A violent conflict smouldered and flared between the Tamils and the government from the 1980s up until 2009, making parts of the island quite dangerous to visit. Thankfully, the country seems to have put that struggle behind itself and is now a safe and very culturally rich place to visit.
What better way to see it than by bicycle! I’d thought of doing a cycle tour for some time, inspired by my friend Marti who plans next summer to cycle 10,000 km solo along the Iron Curtain that once divided the Soviet and capitalist worlds. Wow! That’s a big adventure. Joining a trip organized by well respected cycle tour company SpiceRoads seemed to me like a good place to start. Nine of us cycled ~500 km through some of the richest scenery in Sri Lanka, joined by a cycling guide and a culture guide. Here are some highlights from the trip.
Two cyclists brought their own bikes and the rest of us used rentals. We were happy (and relieved!) that they were good quality bikes. The first day we cycled out of town along a picturesque coastal road. I’d worried about the rain and sure enough, not much more than half an hour into our day the sky started to look threatening. At first it was just a light rain then it became heavy, driven by strong winds coming off the sea, soaking us all. The weather is so warm in Sri Lanka, though, that I really didn’t mind. We stopped frequently to see how locals harvest coconuts or to drink tea at one of the ubiquitous shops that you find on even the quietest roads. After cycling about 50 km, we got picked up by the support vehicle and headed to the Dambulla Golden Temple, a 2nd century Buddhist cave with brightly painted walls and ceilings and more than 150 Buddha statues.
The next day we cycled along quiet country roads, some good quality pavement, most bumpy and broken and others muddy red dirt roads. We passed orchards by paddy fields and happy kids who waved excitedly and ran to the roadside to give us high-fives. This is where being on a bike really is a great way to travel. We moved quickly enough to see lots but slowly enough to really see everything and to interact with locals.
In the afternoon we visited Sigiriya, a massive 5th century rock fortress that towers above the surrounding jungle. Mist drifted by as we climbed the 300m of steep stairs leading to top. I can only imagine how elite the rulers who once commanded from this strategic post must have felt. They even built a large swimming pool at the top, replete with ornate statues and, no doubt, many servants.
Our next day was one of my favourites. We visited Polonnaruwa, the 10th Century capital and best preserved of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. I love ancient ruins hidden by the jungle for centuries, only to be rediscovered by intrepid explorers many years later. Imagine stumbling upon an entire city that was once at the heart of the powerful Rajarata Kingdom, abandoned and forgotten since the 13th Century.
The next day we visited remote Wasgomuwa National Park and got caught in a huge thunderstorm! Sri Lanka has some amazing wildlife and Wasgomuwa is a particularly good place to spot animals as they’re unaccustomed to humans – you see them in their natural habitat and natural behaviours.
I think everyone was a little apprehensive about our next day. Our goal was to climb ~1500 vertical meters to the top of Laggala Pass in the central mountains of Sri Lanka. Our cycling guide told us we’d start with a “warm-up climb”. That warm-up turned out to be the steepest road I’ve ever cycled, with heavy truck traffic no less. Fortunately, the traffic died out after a short while but the intense steepness continued. About half way, after a tea break, I called it a day, not wanting to aggravate my knee that had been bugging me. Only three of our group made it all the way to the top.
We had a day off cycling when we got to Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second largest city. Our guides, Nishantha and Kasun, took us to visit the Sacred Kandy temple that protects one of Buddhism’s most treasured artifacts, one of Buddha’s teeth. I was a bit surprised that an entire temple would be devoted to one little tooth, since I know that Buddhists shun material possessions, but it’s certainly a beautiful temple and the devotion of the thousands of followers who come here is touching.
Another big climb followed our day off, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery on the entire trip. Carefully manicured tea plantations mix with cloud forest and massive towering trees as brooks and waterfalls cascade down dark boulders.
After a week of cycling through the interior of the country, we finally made it back to the sea where we had a chance to see (and help!) fishermen pull in a huge net loaded with the day’s catch. It felt great to reach the Indian Ocean and to dip my feet into the water, giving a sense of completion to the journey.
I really enjoyed exploring Sri Lanka by bike. Nishantha and Kasun were a great guides (send me a message if you’d like Nish’s contact information – he also guides less physically challenging culture-focused trips) and SpiceRoads did a solid job of organizing the tour. I can see myself exploring more countries with them.
Thanks to fellow cyclist Vlad for many of the great photos in this post.