The situation changes by the minute. In the last few months a revolution has been brewing in Sri Lanka, peaking in the past week. First the Presidential Palace in Colombo, then the Prime Minister’s residency, then his office were invaded by angry yet also smiling protesters. TV footage showed hundreds of people at the Presidential Palace milling around, taking dips in the pool, lounging on cushy beds, gazing in amazement at the President’s extravagant furnishings, trying out the gym and cooking up a storm in the palatial kitchen. Rather different from the crazed and violent storming of the Capitol in Washington.
Tear gas and water guns
On July 13, 2022, President Rajapaksa hailed his countrymen from somewhere in the Maldives and next day was en route to Singapore with his wife. Today, July 15, his letter of resignation was received and elections slated for a week’s time.
What a turnaround. Rajapaksa’s past is scarred by thousands of deaths during the civil war and the present is a sorry tale of bringing total economic collapse to the country. Sadly the protesters’ positive attitudes weren’t reflected by the temporary government of PM Wickremesinghe – in reality no better than the corrupt Rajapaksa dynasty. Police and army in full riot gear fired tear gas at the flag-waving crowds who had made their way from all over the island. One dead and many injured was the toll – for now. Even the state broadcaster was briefly taken over by enthusiastic young activists – overjoyed to at last speak for their downtrodden countrymen and women. So what happens next in this superficially calm, mainly Buddhist country?
Pros and cons of Sri Lanka in 2022
It was early in March when I was set to return to Sri Lanka after about 20 years. Finalising the paperwork for the trip had been stressful – visa, covid vaccination certificate, special insurance, locator form – & I can’t remember what else. But it was done, with relevant apps on my phone & check-in with Emirates completed. Countdown…
Bizarrely though I wasn’t exactly looking forward to this winter holiday, however far it was from the chilly English winter and its own political histrionics. From a distance I had been observing events on that charmed island – and the situation was not looking rosy: fuel shortages, food shortages and above all widespread dissatisfaction with the corrupt and incompetent Rajapaksa dynasty. Sri Lanka was tipping into bankruptcy. It all sounded rather familiar – and rather scary.
Chopping & changing
Having booked a fabulous looking beach hotel near Trincomanee on the east coast to end my holiday, I started wondering if that was such a good idea. Would I be able to get back across the island to reach the airport, situated just north of Colombo on the west coast? I could easily be stranded. As for the other bucolic-looking guesthouses I’d booked inland, a similar worry started niggling me. Getting from place to place is normally hardly a problem between taxis, tuk-tuks and buses. But the fuel shortage changed all that.
So I started re-jigging my itinerary, simplifying it, adding extra days in each place and making transfers shorter. Finally, much refined, it looked like a working plan. But meanwhile the situation was escalating.
At last – take-off to Sri Lanka
To kick off my journey, I had also to deal with a general transport strike in London on the day of my flight – so no tubes and ensuing traffic chaos. What luck! My partner duly accepted his chauffeur duty and slalomed me through snarling traffic to Paddington to reach the Heathrow Express, the only transport working. Success – but not without stress.
As I settled into my plane seat for the long haul to Dubai, I buried myself in reading Anil’s Ghost, a 2000 book by Michael Ondaatje about the horrors of the 1980-90s civil war, its death squads and many forgotten victims. Hardly holiday reading, but it plunged me deep into Sri Lanka’s dark and relatively recent past. It was an unexpected tale for an ostensibly pacifist Buddhist country, and nor was it just about Hindu Tamils versus Buddhist Sinhalese. There were insurgents too, stirring further struggles and deaths into the mix.
Heading for jungle monasteries
My spirits lifted on arrival in Colombo as I quickly negotiated the bureaucratic hurdles of the airport and changed money at a rate that would rise sharply over the next fortnight. Next morning, as arranged by Whatsapp from the UK, a driver rolled up at my guesthouse in a compact Ford Kia to whisk me up into the lush hills of central Sri Lanka. How on earth did I manage before the internet, before apps, before emails? Very well – somehow.
So there started my journey through the Buddhist heartland, taking in remote (and deserted) jungle monasteries, admiring 8th century ruins, stupas, intricate wall-paintings and huge statues of Buddhas, even indulging in an early morning elephant safari. What a treat that was, so calm, so immersed in the landscape. Birdsong and ripping of plants by the hungry elephant trunks were the only sounds.
Ferrying me around the sights was either my driver or, later, a cheerful tuk-tuk driver. As for the fuel crisis, it was evident in queues of lorries snaking along the road from petrol stations. Luckily for me, at the time (two months ago) petrol was still available. At one point I decided to take a bus but mistakenly boarded the slow service as opposed to the express bus. This turned out to be the schoolgirls’ favourite – on off, on off, stop start. At least the passenger squeezed in next to me for most of the way was a monk.
Most days, after collapsing in the afternoon heat, I would relish in flavoursome Sri Lankan curries, a treat.
My first guest-house in the hills, Mangala Lodge was a charming, simple little place, a one-man band with comfortable though basic rooms, vintage memorabilia from his grandfather, excellent food and an unbeatable price. Nothing special, just a local man doing an honest job – after suffering massively during the pandemic due to lack of clients. And this spelled out the bottom line of Sri Lanka’s disastrous economy – no tourists, no income.
My last hotel, although not the cabanas beach hotel I had initially booked, was at least stylish and on the coast; read about my stay in Negombo here. It certainly made a wonderfully relaxing end to my holiday. In between I kicked back at a guest-house situated between rice-fields, town, jungle and temples. Hard to beat for a strategic location.
Since my return I have sent money to the first guesthouse owner who assured me he had distributed it to ‘needy’ people. And I believe him. This is such a classic case of a country of hard-working people held to ransom by an appalling government. I’m crossing fingers that the promised new regime will be different and that all those charming people I met will be back on track, with food, income and fuel. To that I have to add tourists – as this is their life-blood. And I shall be one of them.