Scribblings from the hard shoulder of the Information Superhighway

2019 – Sri Lanka

August 2019 saw a slightly different trip, back to Sri Lanka with Gaz, but instead of going ‘All Inclusive’ in May we decided to go for August and to rent a villa in the hills above Hikkaduwa.

My journey was a trifle complicated, as I was flying out via Stansted and back into Gatwick, so no driving to Stansted and leaving the car. Fortunately Firstbus run an ‘express’ service from Basildon that stops at Wickford, so Tom’s wife – Linda – took me and my large (and heavy) suitcase to Wickford.

The bus was on time, at 5:22pm, it reached Chelmsford by 5:50pm and dropped me at Stansted at 6:30pm. The Emirates baggage drop was painfully slow, taking forty minutes, but having travelled through Stansted a few times recently, I’d paid extra for ‘express’ security, and for lounge access. I was ensconced in the lounge with a Bloody Mary by 6:22, exactly two hours after boarding the bus at Wickford.

The flight to Dubai was uneventful, and while their in-flight entertainment was excellent, I felt the overall level of service was down on my previous experiences. I guess that’s the same across the industry and that Emirates are probably still the best, just not quite as good as they have been.

I had a three hour layover in Dubai, which is never a hardship, and I (mostly) resisted the lure of Duty Free.

The flight down to Colombo was much as the first flight, both were packed, it being Eid week. It took a full half hour to get off the flight and another half hour to get through immigration and Duty Free – arriving locals were going gangbusters for chocolate.

Gaz’s flight was scheduled to arrive before mine, but in the event arrived shortly afterwards, we hooked up at the baggage carousel, got some cash out of an ATM and met Raj, our driver at about five PM.

The drive to Sigiriya was pretty hairy, Sri Lankan driving is random, yet somehow vehicles manage to avoid each other. It’s much scarier in the dark, but we arrived at our Air BnB guest house at about nine thirty, dropped our bags and drove out to find something for dinner.

We found a restaurant at the fourth attempt, most were closed, I enjoyed a Chicken Biryani while Gaz had a ‘mixed’ Omelette, washed down with several beers.

Back at the B&B, Gaz had the ‘tree house’ room which would have made a romantic venue, had his girlfriend managed to get a visa, my room was a combination tent/corrugated shack.

My en-suite bathroom could be described as both daunting and interesting, being a few steps down from the main room with a family of frogs living in the toilet. I’m sure there’s a ‘Frogs in the bog’ children’s story in there somewhere.

I slept well, despite being eaten alive during the night and the best efforts of an enthusiastic rooster at sunrise. I decided not to risk the shower, but did my best with what was available. Breakfast was some rice noodles with Sambal and a cup of ‘plantation fresh’ tea.

Our driver, Raj, arrived on time at nine, I paid for the breakfasts – less than a quid each – and we dropped Gaz at Sigiriya by nine thirty. Raj then dropped me at a local hotel to wait, I wasn’t allowed to wait with the drivers.

They reappeared at about eleven, Gaz had a beer and availed himself of the free WiFi and we hit the road at midday, we were on the expressway at three thirty and in Hikkaduwa by five thirty. We called into the supermarket opposite the Citrus hotel to stock up on beers and were at the Villa by six.

The villa exceeded my expectations, which were pretty darn high, I grabbed the master bedroom but both rooms on the first floor are spacious.

There’s no air conditioning in the main house – beyond the two main bedrooms, it’s kept cool by a generous flow of air through the building. Outside there’s a couple of patios, a lawn area with sun beds and the pool.

There’s also a house dog, one of the long legged, short haired strays that seem to be everywhere in Sri Lanka; presumably they live on local wildlife.

We’d arranged to meet up with Phill & Anne for dinner at ‘Asian Dreams’ – literally two minutes walk from our villa. We’ve been there before, and enjoyed a really good meal before returning for a nightcap and a relatively early night.

Sunday morning dawned with a heavy shower, we mooched around the villa until lunchtime before I whizzed into town with Phill to sort some tailoring out. Gaz joined us shortly afterwards and we enjoyed lunch at JLH, which Phill informed us he’d been frequenting since his first arrival in 1983. I ordered the crab & prawn curry which was simply exceptional, with a whole, portioned, crab and a generous handful of what we would call ‘King Prawns’ chucked into a spicy local curry sauce.

From there Gaz and I mooched the shops, many remain closed,  the shopkeepers that are open are desperate.

It’s very quiet for what should be ‘high season’ but the weather is also unseasonably wet and windy.

I digress, we found a jeweller who had some nice Sapphire earrings for Gaz’s new lady and, after some discussion, agreed to return on Monday morning when he would have a matching nose stud.

From there we wandered into “Mamma’s”, a bar we’d enjoyed on previous visits, we’d been warned that the manager had moved on, but were devastated by how much it had changed, the soul seems to have been ripped from the place. We sat down, ordered two beers and asked for the WiFi password; this seems to be the new protocol and so far each bar had happily complied. The waitress refused, claiming no WiFi – I could see the network on my phone – so we upped and left.

We arrived at the “Tigris” bar, a bit further along the drag, ordered beers, obtained the WiFi code and settled in, phoning Lakshan a bit later for a ride back to the villa. Then it was a quick shower and change of clothes before Lakshan collected us to take us to ‘Mambo’, a new restaurant on us. Phill and Anne were already there, with Don and Andrea. We’d met Andrea last year and her husband, Don, is a pilot for Qatar airways.

Anne had cautioned us that service could be erratic, and we were further cautioned by the waiter who advised that they’d just taken a ‘large order’ – from the only other table, of four diners – so our food would probably take an hour or so.

It did, and while my Chicken Kebab was a little disappointing, particularly after the successes of recent meals, everyone else seemed to enjoy their food.

I was awoken on Monday morning by another storm blowing through, thunder rumbling through the distant hills. I wandered downstairs, made myself a coffee and caught up with the news.

Strangely, the house dog had changed gender, Monday’s was younger with soulful eyes, large floppy ears and an enthusiastically waggy tail. He was later joined by yesterday’s dog and they snoozed on the patio as I read a Lee Child paperback, listening to the wind in the palms.

Lakshan called for us at ten thirty and we headed back to JLH for an ‘English Breakfast’. From there we headed back to the jeweller to pick up the aforementioned sapphire studs, then wandered until we found “Sam’s Bar” which had been closed on our previous visits. It’s a huge bar with pool tables, TV, pump clips of English beers (including Crouch Vale ‘Essex Boys’ – brewed half a mile from my house) and (drumroll) incredibly fast internet! Seriously, I tested it wand we were getting 50Mb/s which is as fast as I get at home. Okay, so the beers are top dollar, at 500 Rupees (a tad over two quid) for a large bottle of Lion lager. In other bars it’s 350 or 400, but it’s a small price to pay for a blistering fast connection.

By now the sun had come out, so we called Lakshan and returned to the villa to chill in the sunshine.

In the evening we joined Phill and Anne for a drink in ‘Funky de Bar’ it’s seen a lick of paint since last year, now looking smarter, and Phill informed us that it’s alleged to host more nefarious activities later in the evening, but it was a nice place for early evening drinks.

From there we went to ‘Differente’, an Italian restaurant on the main drag. Anne ordered a starter, so I ordered Minestrone, before I realised that she was having the starter as her main. No matter, the Minestrone was rich and tasty, although a bit lacking in tomato. I followed that with a “Really Hot” pizza, which was pleasantly spicy. Both Gaz and I only managed half the pizza so took the rest home for breakfast.

It was so peaceful at the Villa that I could hear the trains over a mile away, large lumbering diesels that Tavel from Colombo to Galle. I could also hear the 5am Muzzein call to prayer, and so it was that I was awake early on Tuesday morning. I opened the windows and listened to the birdsong, then padded downstairs for a coffee and cold pizza breakfast.

We were due to meet Phill for lunch – he does a monthly lunch with grumpy old men while Anne meets ‘ladies that lunch’ – but he cried off. We thought about heading down to Galle but the heavens opened. We thought about Sam’s Bar for the WiFi but they were closed so we ended up back at JLH where, coincidentally, Anne and her ladies were lunching.

We planned on a walk, but the heavens opened again, so we snuck in ‘The Citrus’ for a couple; some of the bar staff recognised us from 2017 and 2018, which was nice – although, to be fair, we drank them out of draught beer, twice!

Then back to the Villa, beers from the fridge and music on Gaz’s Bluetooth speaker.

Lakshan texted me that “Sam’s Bar” was open, so we headed down.

We were the only people in, but we availed ourselves of their lightning fast WiFi. Then over the road to ‘Buddes” bar – where we were meant to have met Phill for lunch – for a bite to eat. The curry was very good, but not quite up to the crab curry a few days ago in JLH. Then back to the villa where we quickly learned that we had a houseful of new neighbours, who were outside playing music until three in the morning.

The Muzzein then started chanting at four, it was Eid so the chanting continued for hours, so I did not get a good night’s sleep. I finally got up at about seven thirty, but fired up the Bluetooth speaker at nine to get some revenge on the new neighbours.

Lakshan arrived at ten to take us to Galle, the first time we’d made the journey in the dry. We called in to a jeweller to order a chain for Jennifer, Gaz’s new lady, and we’re then dropped at the Heritage Café for a cuppa. We spent a couple of hours exploring the fort and headed over to the ‘Old Dutch Hospital’ for lunch. ‘The Taproom’, a Bar we’d enjoyed on previous visits, was no more so we ended up in the ‘Hammock Bar’.

The waiter informed us that, as it was Full Moon day they were not allowed to serve alcohol, so Gaz ordered lime juice and me a vanilla milk shake; we both ordered ‘Isso Hodi’ ( a light, prawn curry) for lunch and it was delicious. Then back to the villa, via the aforementioned jeweller to collect the chain Gaz had ordered.

We sat on the patio, back at the Villa, enjoying the sunshine until a torrential downpour hit, the lawn was flooded within minutes and the power went out for a while.

The rain finally subsided in the evening so we strolled over to Asian Dreams for dinner, Gaz ordered a prawn sizzler while I enjoyed a Lamb Rogan Josh; both were exceptional. Thankfully the ‘no alcohol’ memo hadn’t reached the backwoods of Hikkaduwa.

Our noisy neighbours ad clearly moved on, we didn’t hear a peep from next door, it really is peaceful, just birdsong, the occasional chipmunk and the train in the distance, every half hour.

We returned to town on Thursday morning for brunch at JLH, and to do a little shopping.

I bought some spices from the ‘lookie lookie’ man on the beach, I figured he’d eat for a couple of days.

I withdrew some cash from an ATM and managed to leave the card in the machine; back in Blighty you take your card before you’re money, not in Sri Lanka. This necessitated a long call to Santander to cancel and reissue the card, but they confirmed that no further transactions had been attempted.

Then back to the villa for a relaxing afternoon, Gaz crashed out upstairs while I read my book and caught some sunshine, then back round the corner to Asian Dreams for dinner. The food is so good and it’s so convenient, it really would be stupid no to.

One disadvantage of the villa is that the open plan design, while it allows a flow of air, also allows a flow of mozzies. I sleep under a net (actually a four poster bed) but the mozzies attack all evening, and they clearly find me delicious. I’ve always been a target for mozzies, but somehow Gaz has escaped unscathed.

Friday morning dawned bright, but clouded over, there was no sign of Gaz until lunchtime, I think he spent the morning WhatsApping his girlfriend, who had a day off work. We had nothing planned anyway, so no problem, I sat by the pool reading a book and listening to the wildlife.

We headed into town, got a last few bits, had a light brunch, a couple of beers and then back to the villa.

A discussion we’ve been having through the week is the relative merits of the villa over the hotel we’ve used in the past. The villa would be great for a crowd of 4-6 people, particularly if they wanted to cook. Although we’ve been told that the house boy – Ranjit – is an excellent cook. We’ve spent about fifty quid during the week on Tuk Tuks into town (and a trip to Galle), so that would have to be factored in.

But whatever, the current situation regarding visas for Nigerians means it’s unlikely Gaz will be returning any time soon.

I digress, this was our last evening in Hikkaduwa and we’d arranged to meet Phill and Anne at “Spaghetti and co.” An Italian Restaurant we’d enjoyed last year. Gaz had grilled prawns and I enjoyed a spicy Calzone pizza. Then back to the villa to wait for Gaz’s car, which duly arrived at ten and whizzed him off to the airport.

On Saturday morning I pottered round, making sure the villa was tidy, packing my case and so on. It was hot and humid, so I enjoyed a couple of cooling dips in the (unheated) pool.

I also recorded a short ‘walk through’ video of the villa as several people have expressed an interest. If the technology works it should be below.

I met Phill and Anne for my final lunch at Asian Dreams, Anne and I had agreed to ‘do’ their special curry which had to be ordered 24 hours in advance. It was, frankly, stunning, a large bowl of delicately flavoured rice, surrounded by smaller pots containing Dahl, Chicken Curry, Spiced Potatoes, Green Bean Bhaji, Beetroot Bhaji and poppadoms.

From there it was back to the villa for final farewells, collect my baggage and await the taxi, which arrived on time and whizzed me to the airport in a little over two hours. Gaz had messaged me to say that security was extremely tight, but actually it wasn’t too bad and I had to wait for my check in desk to open.

Once checked in I headed to the lounge to chill and charge my phone, which was getting dangerously low on charge, I further charged it in flight, as Emirates have USB ports in the seat backs.

So, overall impressions?

  • The villa was great, as I said earlier, ideal for a larger group.
  • We enjoyed some exceptional food, and drink, my weight loss programme has taken a hit
  • Sri Lankans are hurting. The tourist economy tanked after the Easter terrorist attacks. Tourists were repatriated within days, if not hours of the attacks, and they’re only now starting to return, and in woefully small numbers.
  • I’d be happy to return to Sri Lanka if the opportunity arises, but I’m also conscious that there’s a big old world out there. Next stop, Morocco in January.

The flights back were equally disappointing, by the time they got to me on the first sector they only had fish, so I passed, but had time to get a burger in the Hard Rock in Dubai airport.

The second sector, upstairs on an Airbus 380 was a bit better,I managed to get some sleep.