In Defence Of Backpacking In Sri Lanka

05/12/2016 11:45 GMT | Updated 05/12/2016 11:45 GMT

Sri Lanka is a dangerous country, according to people with (unused) passports.

I stepped foot in the city of Colombo earlier this year, April 2016 - with a backpack in tow and a clueless approach. I can confirm that the country's capital is chaotic.

Upon arrival my female friend and I were offered 'ice'. But I now believe that was a minor misunderstanding between fun-loving foreigners and a lucrative local.

In the wee hours of the morning, we were dropped off City Beds - The Regent. The owner spoke excellent English and he conveniently helped us plan our trip. After a quick round of questioning, I'd learned the country's history, politics and (future) policies - including his own too.

I wanted to see it all.

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The struggle started with train tickets. We were met with an endless queue of locals and a board that read: SOLD OUT. After asking a series of largely unanswered questions, I found myself being ushered into a side room, plonked on a half-bitten wooden chair and educated on the current train timetable and its capabilities (or lack of) - but we got our tickets, in the end.

Tale be (re)told: Keep things simple and ask your hotel to book tickets for you before you've even set foot on Sri Lankan soil.

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Then it happened: The Scam. He didn't work for the Hilton Hotel, nor was he planning on actually taking us to the big, bustling festival that (wasn't) happening in the city that we just 'had to see for ourselves'. He was in fact a persuasive friendly fraudster - they're in any, and every country. According to a local businessman (who stepped in to stop it) we were targeted because we were two young foreign women. Apparently, had we gotten into the tuk-tuk, they'll parade us, intimidate us, and take our money (and dignity?). Welcome to the daily struggle of life as a woman in 2016 - in any, and every country. But it didn't sour our story, and it didn't overly scare us, but it sure did leave us feeling silly.

We ploughed on like all wandering women must - with fearlessness.

With limited time to spare in the capital, we headed to the Ministry of Crab. It appears to have a heavier footfall than New York's Grand Central Station - so book before you take flight. Coming from someone on an unforgiving backpacker's budget it's a meal worthy of its price tag.

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All aboard an on-schedule 7AM departure from Colombo Fort, we sat in second-class - open windows, open views - and headed for the city of Kandy. The class system on the trains appears to be non-existent for when the train (cast in beautiful blue) rolled up it was a scrambling free-for-all. Trust me: Take the train. For a whole two and half hours we witnessed an undulating landscape, painted with colourful characteristics.

We nestled into The Views, a house built and owned by a local family. It was littered with family photos, memorabilia and home cooking. But, best of all, it captured the city below from a near bird's eye view.

We set off to go see the Temple of the Tooth. Even the swarms of tourists couldn't extinguish the peace it projected. Monks in bright orange robes roamed. But the surrounding suburbs spoke of severe poverty. In the past, the people and place have been scarred by a long civil war. Arising from ethic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the northeast, but it was brought to an end in May 2009. You can feel its aftermath; you can see the scarring etched on their faces. Even then, it's easy to forget you're in a third world country.

Later on, we mingled with other guests - from America, England and Germany - over some authentic Sri Lankan food.

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The next morning we reached for our backpacks once again. Travelling around Sri Lanka can be slightly problematic, so we were advised to hire a driver to take us to the next train station to head south to Ella. On the way, we stopped off at a tea plantation. Built by the British over 120 years ago it was like taking a step back in time - everything was rusty, creaking, expired. And yet, it worked - all day, every day. We reached the station by 12pm and hopped on the 12:45pm train - the platform was buzzing with tourists all making the same tracks. We crossed paths with two other well-travelled and lovely British girls - also travelling as a duo - they were armed with backpacks and heading for the southern sun.

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The train rolled through the mountains, ever climbing, as people swung with ease from the corroding carriages.

Upon reaching Ella, I realised it was (and forever will be) the most incredible 4-hour train journey of my life. Bugs, monkeys and birds encircled our home for the night like curious creatures. We were in Ella River Front; we were in the jungle. We deliberately woke early, grabbing the once-in-a-lifetime citrus-drenched sunrise. After climbing Ella Rock and immersing ourselves in its envious view, we walked the railway tracks like Teddy Duchamp and Gordie Lachance from Stephen King's Stand By Me. It turns out you can have friends like you did when you were 12.

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We continued on, with the coastline in our sights. The four of us rented a driver to take us all to Tangalle (it's the only way to get there from Ella). He was young, cool and running a few of his own businesses. He spoke of his mum, working as a maid in Kuwait, and allegedly her passport had been taken off her - she was trapped. It weighed heavily on him. He also later confided in us that he'd kept a few hidden Sri Lankan spots a secret - no tourists, no spoilt soil. I nodded with agreement, and I still nod now. If I could offer you one piece of advice: Don't ride an elephant. There's politics, poor treatment and bad people involved in this tourist-fuelled business. Travel with a conscience.

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After two idle days of devouring Dhal curries and coconut rotis, along with lying lazily in the sun, a driver took us to Mirissa.

The sun beats strongly down in the south.

We checked into Hangover Hostel. It goes against the grain: it's clean, comfortable, cheap and offers castle-like amenities. Run by two friendly Westerners, it's super safe with 24-hour security, and the beach on its doorstep.

Helpful hints: Don't miss out on a great meal and enchanting atmosphere at Zephyr Restaurant and Bar and be aware of the sea's currents - they're strong, sudden.

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Then we took to the train tracks once more and headed north to catch a flight. The staff at City Beds - The Regent kindly allowed us to freshen up before our flight - even calling a taxi for us and waving us off with a gentle smile.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, according to people with used passports.

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