After the fascinated stares and requests for ‘selfie, selfie’ in the north, Anuradhapura felt like a tourist town, and we disliked it almost immediately. The tuk tuk drivers urged us to stay at their own hotels, our guest house attempted to overcharge us, and overall it was clear that we were seen as little more than a potential source of income. We were, however, grateful for the wifi and air conditioning, and squeezed in some Culture Points at a couple of temples the next day.
The highlight of the place was the abundance of monkeys. They wander the pavements and bounce from tree to tree just above the citydwellers’ heads, and are met with little more than a nonchalant glance. Giggling and filming a large posse of them as they bungee-jumped from a flagpole onto a springy bush and back again, we stood out like a sore thumb.
Next up was Trincomalee, one of the main beach towns of the east coast. We actually stayed in Uppuveli, a smaller town just a few kilometres away, in a sandy, white-washed inn on the beach, but popped back to Trinco one day for a bask on the sunkissed Dutch Bay and a disappointing veggie curry (not the last time Lonely Planet would let us down).
Our hotel was practically deserted, but a little way down the beach we found verandas, restaurants and – big shock – lots of tourists, sprawled across the sand. On the first day, we rented kayaks from one of the hotels and attempted to be graceful paddlers; needless to say that didn’t go to plan. Abbie had some trouble with her lefts and rights, and having capsized loudly in the shallows for the whole beach to see, we decided to stick to organised sports and booked a guided snorkelling trip for the next day.
Pigeon Island National Park was the destination; black-tipped reef sharks were the challenge. We received some pretty mixed messages about how dangerous they are beforehand (note to self: don’t google that stuff again. You hate sharks). Ultimately, when I saw the first ribbed fin cutting through the shoals of orange and silver fish, I took some deeps breaths through my snorkel and told myself that they can smell fear. You’re not the chosen one. Just don’t make any sudden movements.
The trip itself (including the sharks) was pretty great, and I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who’s visiting nearby. The speedboat over the glittering water on the way there and back is half the fun. Also, I sliced my finger on some dead coral and it looks like I’m going to get a very cool scar, so if anyone asks, it was one of the sharks.
A hop, skip and jolting train ride later, we arrived in Dambulla and caught the bus to Sigiriya with several other sweaty, expectant tourists. This town has an undeniable jungle feel, and riding bikes through the late afternoon sun we spotted Lion Rock, a majestic coppery beacon rising from the foliage.
We didn’t climb it though (please!). True backpackers take one look at the price of one of Sri Lanka’s main attractions and pay 4000 rupees fewer for the quieter, slightly crappier rock. I would actually recommend the latter (Pidurangala Rock), and can speak with some authority as I climbed Lion Rock seven years ago with my family. At dawn, Pidurangala is almost empty, and a challenging climb pays off tenfold when you watch the grapefruit sun peek over the hills and light up the miles of lush greenery on every side. Plus, you get an unbeatable view of the big rock.
Next stop: Kandy.