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Krash Into Kandy

We awoke with plenty of time to buy our tickets back at the train station and do a little exploring on the streets of Colombo. We breakfasted on a kind of Koththu-house variant across the street from the Hotel Nippon and attempted to consume coffee, but were only successful in being served hot sweetened milk and aptly named “rock” style cookie.

Still badly in need of caffeine, we headed for the clogged snarl of traffic that marked the entrance to Colombo station. We managed to buy the last two tickets in the Observation Saloon on the 3:35 train to Kandy and a couple of sticky white plastic cups full of Nescafe. With that were set free to wheel.

We decided to wheel south in search of a leather goods retailer, which Anu had mentioned the night before. You see, dear reader, our humble Mr. Norton’s shoes had reached the point of reeking tatters and he was badly in need of new footwear. However, as the sun beat down, we wheeled on in search of the place to no avail. Scott has the mixed fortune of a size 13 foot, which makes shoe shopping on some parts of Asiawheeling rather difficult. Finally, we started stopping at random shoe stores, and requesting giant shoes, and after a few failures were rewarded with a choice between two styles. The final selection was a pair of smart-looking Greco-Roman sandals, which you may see handsomely modeled below.

The old tattered shoes were promptly jettisoned in the shoe shop rubbish bin.

Back on the road, it was time to eat again, and we quite randomly made our way to a Sri Lankan fried rice place, where we purchased a half chicken and a large pile of rice, filled with freshly chopped vegetables. It was delightful, but not cheap. As we were quickly learning, food in Sri Lanka was significantly more expensive than in India. Also, here too we would from time to time find ourselves paying the “foreigner tax,” an inflation in the price of the meal by a few times to account for our apparent wealth and ethnicity.

After the meal was done, we wiped our hands with newsprint provided in lieu of napkins on the table.

Stomachs full, we wheeled back to the Hotel Nippon, and we were greeted warmly by the staff and the owners of nearby businesses. So warmly in fact, that we were not able to leave for the train station without letting a local electronics merchant take a quick ride on a Speed TR.

He gave us his  two cell phones as collateral and grabbed the bike for a joyride.

At the train station, when we attempted to wheel the speed TRs onto the platform, it had the unintended consequence of creating quite a bit of ruckus. A group of fellows, in varying levels of official looking garb were motioning us into the baggage room, but we were resistant. We wanted to keep those cycles as close to us as possible, and the thought of kissing them goodbye in some dark boxcar at the other end of the train was none too palatable. Instead of going into the luggage room, as the many fellows around us seemed to be motioning for us to do, we decided to entrance them all with a demonstration of the folding action. As we had hoped, the act of watching the two majestic steeds collapse into neat little folded metal shapes left the luggage attendants, station officials, and a great many passers-by quite docile and grinning. We thanked everyone for their attention, and moved on down the platform.

As we walked, we found ourselves accompanied by a fellow advertising hotels in Kandy to us. We did our very best to politely ignore him, but he was vehement, and soon was joined by another fellow who introduced himself as Rodney. We were not sure where our platform was, and these two fellows were quite kind in showing us the way. As we walked, Rodney and his lackey explained to us that they ran a very affordable and beautiful guest house, and began showing us a book full of comments from other travelers, pointing in particular to a letter written by two Swedish tourists claiming “this fellow is not a tout, he really does run a beautiful guest house. Thanks Rodney!”Hmm, I thought, a bit inconclusive.

We were still feeling a little dubious of these two chaps when the train arrived. And, with it, we had to focus on other issues. Fitting the bikes into the Observation Saloon would be tough. It was packed with people, lacked air conditioning or active fans, and was so sticky and hot that breathing inside took considerable effort. Rodney came into the car like superman burst from a telephone booth and began bustling around, making noises that might be confused with assistance, but really just continuing to work on making a sale. We did our best to explain that this was a bad time to discuss lodging, as we were quickly asphyxiating in the Observation Saloon, with our belongings piled in our seats, leaving us nowhere to seek shelter from the torrent of nervous sweaty tourists becoming militantly overheated and pacing the aisles of the observation car in frustration.

Rodney, in an attempt to help us out, motioned to the back of the car, where there was, in fact, a large and empty room behind us marked “luggage.” He even ventured as far as to go back there and converse for a bit with the guards who were lazing and smoking cigarettes therein. Unfortunately, after this conversation, he  returned with mumbled apologies, informing us that we could not use that space.Why? We were not sure. It was part of the Observation Saloon, and marked “luggage.” Rodney just kept apologizing, interspersing some key facts about the superiority of his guest house.

AsiaWheeling was ready to suspend ourselves from the ceiling by our feet, hanging like bats, keeping one eye open to ensure that our bags and bikes stayed safe when it occurred to Scott that another, more personal, request to the luggage attendants might solicit a more favorable response, and as the train was whistling its imminent departure, he headed back to begin negotiations. He reappeared shortly, all smiles, despite his soaking shirt and red face. We would be able to store the cycles in the luggage room, but we needed to hurry. The train would leave any moment. And so we hustled down the platform, handing the cycles up to the guard, and climbing in after them just as the train started moving. We locked them to a bench and shook hands with the guards. We made our way back into the Observation Saloon just in time to see the many tiny fans which hung from the ceiling spin to life, sending a blessed wind throughout the compartment.

We bounced on very springy chairs as the sun began to sink toward the horizon. We climbed out of Colombo and into the sweltering mountainous jungles of Sri Lanka, past terraced rice fields and tiny villages. We wiled away the train ride, watching the scenery go by, working on correspondence for you, dear reader, and chatting with our fellow passengers. One was an American, who had so furious a case of the traveler’s nerves, that he quite effectively transmitted them to me. He had been living abroad for many years, working in Indonesia, India, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Sri Lanka. He was a government contractor for the U.S. (or The Empire, as he called it), working with SMEs, as he referred to them. His outlook was one of the most pessimistic and jaded I have yet encountered. I found myself, as we spoke with him, beginning to fear that AsiaWheeling was one big mistake. As he explained to me how he refused to reveal his nationality to the locals for fear of violence, I began to question my own representation of myself. I felt a cold ball of fear growing in my stomach as he went on about how the people one meets while one travels may seem friendly, but many of them want to kill you.

Of course this is malarkey, dear reader, but perhaps you might be willing to forgive me for exiting the train in Kandy in somewhat of a nervous state. The sun had just fallen behind the tea plantation-covered mountains, and we found  ourselves face to face once again with Rodney, who was kicking his pitch into overdrive. He was offering us free transport to his place, and I was beginning to have visions of makeshift operating tables, organs preserved on ice, and rusty IVs snaking their way into coconuts. Scott, on the other hand, had taken a look at the brochure, haggled a little over the price and was ready to climb in the car. I explained to Scott that he would need to handle this, and that I could not be trusted. So despite my nerves, we climbed into a very tightly packed sedan. It seemed Rodney had wanted to accompany us in the car, but it was all we could do to fit the cycles, our packs, Scott, the driver, and I into the car. So Rodney took a cab, and we made our way to his hotel.

To Rodney’s credit, the place was quite nice, his driver a great chap, and the price quite affordable. To his discredit, his marketing was way too intense, and the place was a decent ride (uphill) from the town of Kandy. An uphill ride that was just fine for two strapping young AsiaWheelers, but certainly not an accommodation to recommend to the very old or very fat. To reach the place, we needed to drive around a great lake, which partially surrounded the central attraction in Kandy, the so-called “Temple of the Tooth.” The temple of the tooth is a large Buddhist temple that houses what is purported to be a tooth of Buddha himself. It unfortunately, had been a target of the Liberation Tamil Tiger’s of Elam during the insurgency, so the main road which ran alongside it had been closed indefinitely, open only to pedestrians and official traffic. All other traffic had to snake around the lake. This, it seemed, had been a boon for the many businesses that had spring up along the far side of the lake. While not as many as in Colombo, here too, we saw many, many heavily armed soldiers and military checkpoints dotting the roadside.

Our room at Rodney’s Viewpoint was clean and fresh, with a nice balcony that promised a truly stunning view come sunup. It’s also true that the walls were made of thin sheets of corrugated plastic, that the toilet emitted onto the floor a little squirt of foul and reeking water each time you flushed it, and that the door to the balcony was designed to lock one outside, but we were overall quite impressed. This little hotel perched on a hill overlooking Kandy would be a nice place to stay for a few days.

We were introduced to the staff, who engaged in some very hard selling of startlingly expensive dinners in the restaurant upstairs, which we were finally able to politely decline.  To top it all off, the sign on the door of our room, was like a piece of psychedelic, non sequitur contemporary art, especially when photographed in low light.  It reads (when viewed from within the room) “Please lock the door,  you are not in the room.”

We paid them for the next few nights and hopped on the cycles. The ride down into the city was invigorating and decidedly downhill. Traffic was light, and we took the opportunity to really let the speed TRs eat some road. The city of Kandy spread out below us like handful of glittering gems nestled in a jungle valley. It was high time for some more Koththu.

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  1. Freelance Feminist | April 3rd, 2010 | 11:40 am

    Hi you strapping young AsiaWheelers! It’s been some time, and I’m glad to hear more of your adventures. You’re seeing a very different side of Sri Lanka from my own, although you’re visiting the same towns… I remember just how heavy the military presence in Colombo was 10 years ago, when I was last in the country (soon after some suicide bombings that targeted the then President and her mother). But the island’s just beautiful, isn’t it? And the food’s spicy as hell! Never tried Koththu before and am looking forward to that.

    Thanks guys!

  2. Mark/Dad | April 10th, 2010 | 6:09 pm

    Nice tunnel ending to the video.

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