Tsunamis, tea plantations and Tamil Tigers - that's what comes to mind when you think about Sri Lanka. Fortunately the country is a lot bigger than that.
We flew in in January 2009 - the civil war had ended and the elections were just round the corner, pitting the incumbent Rajapakse with the General Fonseca. Plenty of bad blood between the two, especially consideriing they were pretty chummy during the final push against the Tamil Tigers.
As the military was doing whatever it is that they do, north Sri Lanka was still a sensitive area. We stayed in Negombo, a small coastal town north of Colombo - luckily, that's where the bike rental shop was as well.
We didnt waste much time hanging about - after sorting out the XR250 we were off on Highway 1 towards Kandy. The roads are very good in Sri Lanka - I found out later that China and India have been pouring a lot of aid into the country, and some of them money founds it's way to the Transport Branch.
We made it in good time, and in a slight drizzle as well. We got a room at a local homestay - Sri Lanka is choked-full of homestays and most of them are good value. However they do somewhat overprice their lunches and dinners. To most people Sri Lankan cuisine may be exotic, but to us it's very reminiscent of Indian fare without the spices.
Kandy is a strange town - crowded with small lanes that snake everywhere, people moving quickly, and in it's heart lies the Sacred Tooth Temple. Kids play cricket on the streets, next to the paramilitary who are exoticly attired in blue camouflage. The presence of the military, which takes a bit of getting use to in most of Sri Lanka, goes into overkill in Kandy. There are so many paramilitary police you almost expect something to happen.
After a couple of days it was time to move - we took a short ride to Ella. The roads snakes it's way through countless tea plantations, some of the best in the world (so I'm told - but I'm a bit trailer-thrash when it comes to my tea - I like it strong and milky!) It was a good strong - the XR was easy coming out of the bends even though I'm not use to something so high. It was bit torquey low down, and didnt have much top end, but it was perfect for local roads. It made all those hillclimbs a peach, and overtaking was a joy on the XR.
Ella felt so much open and languid compared to Kandy. Ella is a hilly tea plantation village - calling it a town would be overestimating it. We got a nice place on a hill, by a ridge overlooking the town - and the place was pretty empty, I dont think many people make it this way, plus though the location of the hotel was good, it meant visitors had to find a taxi to make it here.
The XR was in its elements in Ella. We spent a couple of days clambering up narrow hill slopes and dodging tea trees (??), and the XR handled everything brilliantly. Ella was a good base to explore the surrounding villages.
From Ella we made our way to the coast and Galle. After the initial bends through Ella's Gap, the road flattened and was straight as an arrow till we hit the coast. After the cool highlands air, descending to sealevel felt oppressive especially since it was so muggy. We got into the fort at Galle in the late afternoon.
Galle is guite the gem - the fort cocoons you and you can spent several days wandering its narrow streets. There are art gallery, restaurants, comfortable homestays and several hotels. It also houses several government departments and an old dutch church where 300 years old tombstones grace the floors.
Beyond the fort walls Galle is your typical Sri Lankan town - noisy with cabs, bicycles and motorbikes and buses and cars fighting for their space on the road. There is a crescent bay beach next to the fort where the local fisherman cast the long nets and trawl for fish - come late afternoon lines of fishermen heave and ho the lines out and you can watch the spectacle as the nets come jerkign out with a long line of fishes.
Further on north - a short ride away - is the stunning Unawatuna. The beach is dotted with hotels, and the surfs breaks upon the retaurants that are situated on the beach with something fierce. Its only a matter of time before those waves take out restaurants from their foundations.
You're apt to find more placid beaches south of Galle, but nowhere near as pretty as Unawatuna.
Galle is only about 150km or so south of Colombo and it took us half a day to ride from Galle. It was a pretty ride for the first 50km - crescent beaches and the slow pace of village life. But the closer to Colombo it was the hotter and dustier it became.
It was a couple of days from the elections and there was a slew of police and military officers about the capital. There was a some bad blood between the incumbent and the contender, and from my unofficial straw poll of taxi cab drivers in Colombo it seems they were neck to neck. History will show, however that the incumbent won while the contender was placed under arrest. Skullduggery of some sorts were happening behind the scenes - even the cab drivers were resigned to the fact that the contender was never going to win.
Sri Lanka was an extremely short trip. Very often on short trips like these you wish you had more time, but that's always easier with hindsight. But perhaps the most startling thing about Sri Lanka is that it could easily be a motorcycling mecca like Chiang Mai in North Thailand is. The roads are good and the scenery is stunning and there are many places you could lose yourself for days on end. Perhaps the only thing holding it back is the lack of motorcycle rentals, and to a lesser extent the current political situation.
Sri Lanks is a bit a secret now - few know what it can offer, but I feel in years to come it will blossom and there will be more riders jumping into its every nook and cranny.