Monthly Archives: March 2013

Cycling in Sri Lanka.

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Air Sri Lanka took good care of my Surly Long Haul Trucker bicycle. They happily included it as part of their 35kg economy fare baggage allowance. I used a large CTC plastic bag supplied by Wiggle. On the outward journey I removed the handlebars and strapped them to the frame. I lowered the seat and removed the pedals. I removed the rear derailleur mechanism, packed in cloth and strapped to the rear stay. I also released the cantilever brake cables and applied polystyrene pipe lagging to various parts of the frame and the Blackburn racks. I kept a few Allen keys and the pedals with my hand luggage having read about the possibility of luggage getting lost or delayed. It would be no use having a bike without the bits to put it back into use. The airline check in staff insisted on tyres being deflated.
It all took a little time and effort but was keen to give my bike as much of a chance to arrive in good condition as I could. It really was overkill with hindsight.
For the second leg I simply turned the handlebars, removed the pedals, wrapped the rear mech. and lowered the seat. Once again the big plastic bag did the final job of wrapping it up.
All credit to Air Sri Lanka. No fuss and the bike always appeared to be personally looked after on arrival and placed by the baggage pickup belts. Phew!
I was warned that the traffic might present a challenge especially in Colombo. I found the opposite to be the case. The traffic moved much slower than in the UK. Drivers and pedestrians are acutely alert of their surroundings and behave with great precision and judgement. People use their horns to warn others ahead. It can be quite annoying since some almost deafen but they really do the job.
The problem with Colombo is twofold. Hit the traffic at rush hour and it is a nightmare with everyone doing their utmost (without success) to get ahead of the next person. The second and more important issue for cyclists is the ‘idiot’ factor. As with every congested city there are a lot of poor drivers on the road. They will kill you in every major city. Colombo is not good in that respect. I found myself cursing people that cut me up and pulled out on me. Lastly it is worth mentioning that cycling in and around Colombo is like chain smoking Gauloise cigarettes. The air is acrid and brings tears to the eyes.
Given all these factors it is worthwhile to take the shorter cycle ride to Negombo for a first stop or to have a taxi deposit you and bike in Colombo. Personally I was good in the traffic and enjoyed the thrill of cycling down into the very heart of the city as an initiation of fire.
Sri Lanka does not really do pavements. Often roads have a white line which separates pedestrians from the traffic. This provides a convenient cycle or scooter lane. Colombo provides the exception with pavements where they exist that are in a dangerous condition for pedestrians except in the showcase areas of the city.
Roads throughout Sri Lanka are as good as they get. Cycling in the East, South, West and central areas made me wonder why the hell I was on 2″ wide Schwalbe XR expedition tyres. They are bomb proof but slow. A nice pair of skinny touring tyres would have saved a lot of time and effort. However
main roads leading to the war torn North are being heavily rebuilt. Many other roads in the area previously occupied by the LTTE are either non existent or in a very bad way. They can be mud, sand or water. Google maps show them as roads. They are not.
All of Sri Lanka has a proliferation of cycle repair shops or rather sheds. However most cycles in use are of the old style with 28″ steel wheels and rod brakes. I saw far more bicycle use in the Eastern and Northern areas of the country. Many look like they have been around for donkeys years.
I did not need to use a spare tube or wheel spokes but certainly recommend having a few in hand given the different wheel size in general use on Sri Lanka.
Water and bottled water is almost everywhere. Roadside shops are so frequent that you could drink your weight in tea quite quickly if you were to stop too much. The same with food. Cheap ‘Short eats’ or snacks are everywhere too as is fruit. Sadly there is far too much fizzy drinks and biscuits for sale at every turn. The place is built on refined sugar and sweets.
Where found ‘lunch packets’ are a great option for cyclists. They provide cooked rice, fish, meat and vegetables in a single good value roadside purchase. They provide enough sustenance for the main meal for the day.
Options for accommodation outside of the main tourist haunts can be limited. Given the widespread density of the population wild camping is difficult. Domestic dogs alarm people to the presence of strangers. The more remote areas provide greater opportunity but it is probably best to create a cycling itinerary that includes pre-booking hostels. There are no backpacking campsites apart from the luxury tourist sites in the wildlife parks. I was able to wild camp on many occasions but involved a great deal of stealth in populated areas and given that I almost have a survival gear set up for more remote areas.
Lastly a big factor for cycling in Sri Lanka is the weather. The country has two different monsoons affecting different areas. The central mountain area has quite variable weather. Sri Lanka has everything from tropical to subtropical, dry and wet to quite cool in the mountains and sweltering heat in the South. Cycling in January was good and did not experience too much rain or heat. However as I left it had become too hot in the West for cycling. Climate is, in my opinion, the biggest factor with regards cycle touring in Sri Lanka and requires good timing.

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So long Sri Lanka.

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I awoke early to ensure that I got to the airport in good time. I should not have worried and arrived with plenty of time to pack my bike. I posted my parcel at Mount Lavinia post office and headed back into the madness of Colombo past the twin towers of the Bank of Sri Lanka.

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The route I chose was a little better than the one I took when I arrived and followed the canal towards Negombo for a short while. A last ‘plain tea’ and back onto the Colombo road heading North for the International airport. Oddly the airport appeared much larger than when I arrived and much more like Stanstead in the UK than the aerodrome from my first impressions on arrival. The bicycle was repacked in its plastic bag and I had no excess baggage charges to pay. I boarded a plane mostly filled with Indian passengers. There was spare space on this flight and with an empty seat next to me I could stretch out a little. The in flight vegetarian dinner was excellent.

I was quite sad to leave Sri Lanka. It is a beautiful country with a big heart. With so many structural changes following the civil war I wonder how long it will be before it is dragged down to the level of more ‘advanced’ countries. I have a terrible feeling that Sri Lanka’s soul will eventually be traded for the selfish world of modern consumerism.

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Return to Crazy Colombo

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I followed the coast road South with the intention of staying a night in Negombo. I had pre-booked the Colombo homestay from which I had started my tour for the next and final night in Sri Lanka.
Once again the skies were clear and it was very hot. It seemed like a change in the air and wondered if this was the first sign of the hot season. The coast road South was very pleasant and quite different from the chaos of Colombo despite being relatively close. As the road turned in towards Negombo I saw another grand looking Hindu shrine with a large reclining Goddess. I sneaked a few prohibited pictures.. some from a petrol station next door and outside the temple grounds.

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Further along the road and a large Buddha statue sat in a typical Sri Lankan setting.

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Over the bridge into Negombo I negotiated the centre and bus station to find the old Colombo coast road. It is remarkably quiet in comparison to the main road which I had used on arrival.

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I stopped on a beach to eat a ‘lunch packet’ of rice, meat and vegetables. A little further and some ‘plain tea’ at a stall. I then took a little time out to sunbathe on a beach. It occurred to me that it was not so far to Colombo and rang to see if I could book that night to stay too. It was fine. So I no longer had the stress of trying to find yet another place to stay and could get myself well prepared for the flight out of Sri Lanka.

The old road to Colombo follows a canal before finally crossing via a bridge into the crazy world of Colombo

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Once back at the homestay in Mount Lavinia I felt a great sense of relief. I had cycled all over Sri Lanka and it was like arriving home again. I even had the same room. In fact the homestay at Mount Lavinia was the best place I had stayed (4 nights in total) during my entire visit to the island. The next day I cycled into the open market area of central Colombo to buy half a chicken, potatoes, ginger, onions and one last juicy Sri Lankan pineapple. I had tea at the main taxi drivers hang out close to the prison and then got more than a little lost on the way back to the hostel.  I ended up on the Kandy road heading out of the city. Finally I found my way and curved back in towards the city to find myself once again on the old Galle road by the sea. Before cooking dinner I revisited Galle Road to buy a few things to post home to the UK.

Chillout at Chilaw

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On the approach to the outskirts of the Western Coastal town of Chillaw I visited the impressive Hindu shrine at Kuddirupu. It is surrounded by a multitude of stalls selling offerings of flowers, fruits and cheap knick knacks. The temple itself is magnificent. I was treated to some pineapple by one stall holder and a devotee leaving the temple gave out fruit from a large platter and  I  gratefully accepted a pineapple before hopping back on to my bike.

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IMG_1800With great joy I cycled into Chilaw and onto the beach road. The receptionist at an up market hotel put me in the direction of a government rest house. It was set on the beach and a stones throw from the town centre. I was given a superb room looking out onto the beach with easy accessibility for my bicycle via a door leading out onto the hotel driveway. This was great!

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IMG_1825 IMG_1817Following a good nights rest I thanked the staff at the hostel and took a little ride around Chilaw. The East coast has many catholic churches and schools. Christianity, as the dominant religion, has  a major impact on lifestyle in Chilaw. I cycled the block around St Mary’s church as hundreds of students were arriving to start their school day..

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