A Travellerspoint blog

A prince for one night

View Urban Reverie 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Sunday, 18 February 2019

Call me un-Australian, but I do not like the beach very much. After that admission, I now expect Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to strip me of my Australian citizenship. But I will say it again: I do not like the beach. I simply don't get it. To me, "the beach" means my skin burning to a crisp after five minutes, saltwater stinging my eyes, ears and nasal mucous membranes, being dumped head first into the sand by a rogue wave, the moronic tribalism of surf gangs, the posturing narcissism of bikini-clad bimbos and their equally vacuous male counterparts, and sand stuck for days in bodily orifices hitherto unknown to medical science.

I don't care if you think I am not a real Australian, but beaches to me are torture. I think I have only swum at an ocean beach twice as an adult while visiting family on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales. Both times were thoroughly unpleasant.

I have also never stayed in a luxury beach resort. It would be an odd choice of accommodation for someone who does not like beaches. But I will try anything once. Well, maybe not incest. And definitely not folk dancing. But a luxury beach resort? Why not.

But I had to get there first. Thanks to the rumbling of the wheels and the blaring whistle of the up intercity express departing Anuradhapura for Colombo at twenty to seven, I woke up before my alarm went off. The good news is that my sweating fever had stopped and that I had gotten about eight hours of solid, restful sleep. The bad news is that my stomach still felt like I had been punched in the guts by Mike Tyson.

I showered and dressed and went gingerly downstairs, Purmina and her family were having breakfast. She could instantly see that I was not well. I told her what happened at the restauarant, and how stupid I was to assume that water put on tables for paying customers was safe to drink. She told me that it was common knowledge among Sri Lankans that water provided free of charge in jugs at restaurants is never safe. This still raises the question - why would any human being knowingly offer unsafe tap water to other human beings? And why would restaurant owners willingly do something that would deter customers coming back to spend even more money? If this happened in Australia the restaurateurs would be slapped with a massive fine, have their restaurant closed down by the state Department of Health, and perhaps even receive a prison sentence if intent or criminal negligence could be proven.

Purmina made me a Sri Lankan folk remedy for food and water poisoning, strong black coffee with the grounds in the cup mixed with lime juice. The concotion tasted disgusting but it actually worked, the stomach cramps became a bit more bearable. I just had some white toast with margarine and a few chunks of watermelon for breakfast, I had no appetite for anything more.

I packed my things, said a heartfelt goodbye to Purmina, a truly amazing and intelligent and kind-hearted host, and her two-year-old daughter. I got into a tuk-tuk Purmina had called and rode a kilometre to Anuradhapura station. The current station was built in 1959, a bright white building with neoclassical columns and modernist angles. It was an attractive, airy station.

While I was waiting for my train, another train came from the south. The engine was carrying a banner on its front with the Buddhist dhammachakra wheel symbol. This very long train of ancient red carriages stopped and hundreds, maybe thousands, of schoolchildren all dressed in identical white uniforms got off the train. They were obviously headed to the Sacred City of Anuradhapura on some sort of school excursion.

I sat down on the platform benches. They were rows of moulded plastic seats bolted to a metal frame like what you see at many stadiums. I sat down and almost fell on my back. The seats were so loosely screwed onto the frame that they rocked back at a great angle when the slightest force was applied. I got up and decided to stand instead. A Dutch middle-aged couple sat down on the same row of seats and they almost landed on their backs too.

"I think there's something wrong with these seats, the same thing happened to me," I observed.

"Yes, indeed," the wife said. "And the seats are especially unsafe for you, with your weight problem," she added while pointing at my belly. I love the Netherlands but sometimes I do wish that Dutch people would learn to shut their big fat stupid mouths.

My train, the up Uttara Devi (Queen of the North), a daily intercity express that connects the far north to Colombo, arrived shortly after nine. It was a very un-Sri Lankan train. It was brand new, very sleek, clean, undamaged and didn't look like it belonged in a museum. This was a Class S13 diesel multiple unit, introduced into service in late 2018. I found my seat in the reserved third-class car. First class and second class were booked out, this was a long weekend. Tomorrow is a Poya day, the Buddhist full moon festival that is always a public holiday in Sri Lanka, so public transport across the country was crowded.

The train left on time at a quarter past nine. It might have been new but it was certainly not comfortable. The rigid, straight-backed bench seats, three on one side of the aisle and two on the other, were designed for midgets with scoliosis. At five foot seven I was far too tall. I am sure I would have found it comfortable when I was seven years old. Every window and door was open but there was no breeze save that feeble wisp of air coming from electric fans swivelling on the ceiling far above. The maximum height the windows would open was far below the height of the bench seats. This meant that there was no airflow coming through the carriage, the seats blocked the breeze. Still, my ticket cost me only four hundred rupees. To travel halfway across a country for only A$3.20 ought to give me little room to complain.

The train joined the Main Line at Polgahawela. The line to Colombo from here is double track all the way and the maximum speed increased from 75 km/h to 100 km/h. This must be the Sri Lankan version of the French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen.

The Uttara Devi called at all the larger towns and as it neared Colombo it became ever more crowded. I was glad to have reserved a seat even in third class, though I couldn't want to leave the train. I had booked my seat all the way through to Colombo Fort but my connection to the next train on the Puttalam Line was very tight. The Uttara Devi was scheduled to arrive at Colombo Fort station at 12:55 and the Puttalam Line train was to leave at 13:10. The Uttara Devi was running about seven minutes late. You cannot book through tickets for journeys involving multiple trains in Sri Lanka, you must buy a separate ticket for each leg of the journey at each interchange station. I know just how glacial the ticket queues are at Colombo Fort so I almost certainly would have missed my next train.

So I made the impromptu decision to get off one station before at Maradana a couple of kilometers east of Fort. This gave me a few more minutes of wriggle room. I ran up the stairs, found no queue at the ticket counter for the Puttalam Line, bought my little date-stamped cardboard chip that entitled me to one-way third-class travel to Kattuwa and waited about ten minutes for my train.

Maradana is an interesting station. It is Colombo's version of Redfern station in Sydney and even looks and feels similar. It is a very large interchange station with multiple island platforms only one stop from the central station. The platforms are connected by an overhead concourse and ticket hall on a footbridge located at one end of the station. Nearby are the Sri Lanka Railways' largest yard, depot and workshops as well as the network control centre.

I only had about ten minutes until my Puttalam Line train arrived, a crusty old S8 diesel multiple unit, its exterior panels peeling away with rust, its airless interiors coated in dirt and diesel grime. I have read on the internet that these sooty, mouldy, sweaty rustbuckets have their admirers. It is unfathomable. Those people need to be given a compulsory mental health treatment order.

My train to Kattuwa was crowded when it arrived at Maradana. The Puttalam Line is a reasonably busy line served only by Colombo Commuter services, with a train roughly once an hour in each direction. I finally got a seat at Ja-Ela - not that the seat was anything great, the S8 trains have just a row of hard orange moulded plastic benches running along each side of the carriage - and ninety minutes and thirty kilometres later I disembarked at Kattuwa, one kilometre from my beach hotel in Negombo.

I waved goodbye to my last Sri Lankan train on this magnificent little railway adventure, I wished that my last train could have been something a bit less grotty. I felt very sad. Sri Lanka Railways are like a railway museum on the scale of an entire country. They feature operational practices long abandoned everywhere else perfectly preserved in nineteenth-century aspic. The trains are charmingly antiquated, the staff dress like admirals with starched white uniforms, the stations feature lovingly tended gardens and fish tanks and newspaper reading desks and little libraries.

Sri Lanka's railways desperately need modernisation. No country should be forced to put up with trains that are not safe, not fit for purpose. The over-staffing and inefficiency must be brought under control. What I and other passengers went through at Bandarawela where the train was delayed for six and a half hours without any reliable information being given to the passengers by railway employees who were lying through their teeth should not happen to anyone.

But when Sri Lanka finally modernises its railways, as they inevitably must, I hope they do it in a way that retains that charm, that beauty, that feeling that this is how a railway ought to be - not some sterile glass-and-steel factory silently swallowing passengers at one end and spitting them out at the other like Deutsche Bahn or the Singapore MRT, but a railway that promises adventure, new friendships, an unfamiliar sight at every station, stimulation, camaraderie, character.

I rode a tuk-tuk to the Heritance Negombo, a five-storey resort hotel with two long wings stretching north and south along the beach. The tuk-tuk dropped me off under the portico and a purple-liveried doorman opened the door for me. I was led into the lobby, a glass atrium with beach views, and the solicitous reception manager sat me down on a comfortable ottoman couch while Erik Satie-like piano compositions tinkled on the speakers. It was certainly a big difference from the very basic guest houses I stayed in until now.

I pride myself on my frugality. I have very modest tastes, I am disciplined with my money, the only luxuries I afford myself in my daily life are eating out two or three times a week and drinking expensive craft beer. Normally I would be aghast at the idea of spending three hundred Australian dollars on one night in a hotel.

But I have been through a lot on this trip. I have encountered vicious street dogs, been harrassed by innumerable tuk-tuk touts and beggars and other scam artists who won't take no for an answer, travelled on buses driven by homicidal psychopaths, nearly gotten killed by being given a bicycle without working brakes, endured a six and a half hour train delay without any idea when we would start moving again, lost my hat and consequently suffered severe sunburn, been shocked by the sight of heartwrenching poverty, spent whole days walking in frightful tropical heat and humidity, been given incorrect directions and advice countless times because the locals are averse to admitting that they don't know the answer and just make crap up out of thin air, and now I was recovering from a bout of water poisoning. I also had a fifteen-hour journey home the next evening incorporating a red-eye flight from Colombo to Singapore, a journey I was looking forward to even less than dental surgery, and I wanted to be well rested and at ease before I departed. After all the challenges and frustrations of three weeks in Sri Lanka, surely I have the right to spend my own hard-earned money on being pampered like a spoilt little prince for just one night? I've been such a good boy.

So unusually I craved luxury. Not the refined, pompous, snobbish, intimidating luxury of the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, but decadent, trashy, self-indulgent luxury. So I made a last-minute booking at the Heritance Negombo and found myself sitting in a frigidly air-conditioned atrium listening to mood music as the ridiculously polite reception staff checked me in.

I was shown to my room on the ground floor in the north wing. It was like any other four- or five-star hotel room - tea and coffee facilities, separate shower and toilet, comfortable king-size bed, flat-screen television with cable channels, minibar fridge - but the main difference was the sliding glass door that gave a great view right out onto the beach. If I so chose, I could step out from my hotel room and be on the sandy beach almost immediately.

I had a very late lunch in the hotel restaurant, Blue Tan, at five o'clock, just a grilled chicken wrap with the tiniest serve of hot chips and garden salad I ever did see. It cost about Rs. 1,600. You'd pay far less in Sydney. I didn't have much of an appetite and even less of a desire to leave the hotel to find some place cheaper. I just wanted to stay in this little bubble, just for one night, insulated from the madness without.

There is a hotel bar on the top floor, the See Lounge, with a nice view looking west over the Indian Ocean. (See? Sea? Get it? Oh, how hilarious.) It was a good place to enjoy watching the sunset and catching up on my blog well into the evening. I had fallen far behind; the exhausting hikes of the past few days had left me too tired to complete my daily writing and last night with my gastric troubles I was in no state to do any task at all let alone marshal my thoughts into several thousand words, do the quickest of proofreads and edits, and then upload them along with a selection of captioned photographs to Traveller's Point.

The See Lounge was a perfect place to enjoy solitude. Throughout most of the evening I was the sole guest. At most there were three other people. I don't know what all the other hotel guests were doing. Presumably watching CNN or The Cartoon Network on the TVs in their rooms.

My stomach slowly got better. Not perfect, but more manageable. I managed to eat a very small tub of Pringles and an equally small pack of peanuts. I tried arrack for the first time. Arrack is Sri Lanka's most famous alcoholic drink, made from fermented coconut palm sap, I believe. It's not very good. I had fifty milliltres on the rocks. It tasted like very rough, cheap whisky, the bargain basement stuff with a brand name you have never heard of that you sometimes find for about thirty dollars a bottle in Australia. Alcohol is not a big part of Sri Lankan culture. It seems that only the most debased dregs of society drink any significant amount of alcohol, others either frown upon drinking or are indifferent to it. Bottle shops do exist, they look like they belong in prisons. They consist of a hole in the wall facing directly onto the street or up the back of a supermarket.. The hole in the wall has prison bars. You can't select your own purchase from the shelves, you have to tell the person behind the bars what you want and they pick it out for you from the shelves behind the bars. These dodgy little shops are surrounded by knots of dodgy little men who look like how I imagine the identikit pictures of criminal suspects would look like on Sri Lanka's Most Wanted. They also look like the sleazy tuk-tuk touts who congregate around bus and railway stations and tell tourists that the hotel they want is closed, their guidebooks and Booking.com are lying, but if only they would get into the tuk-tuk for three thousand rupees, there is a very nice hotel owned by their friend twenty kilometres away ...

Sunset at Negombo Beach from the See Lounge

Sunset at Negombo Beach from the See Lounge

On the S8 train from Maradana to Kattuwa

On the S8 train from Maradana to Kattuwa

S13 train on the Uttara Devi express at Maradana Station

S13 train on the Uttara Devi express at Maradana Station

S8 commuter train at Kattuwa station

S8 commuter train at Kattuwa station

Posted by urbanreverie 02:39 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains beach resort sri_lanka railways negombo anuradhapura

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents

Be the first to comment on this entry.

This blog requires you to be a logged in member of Travellerspoint to place comments.