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Sri Lanka Travel: Elephants, Big Lizards, and The Joy of Leaving a Tourist Area

A story of giant lizards, blaring music, sacrificial flaming coconuts, crowded buses, elephants, and the surprises that manifest out of the Sri Lanka countryside.

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“I want your unique curd
it tastes of honey and smells like jasmine”
What can I do to have the recipe for your unique curd

No one knows the recipe except for my mother
When you bear me a son then you can have the unique curd.

-Imagined lyrics to a Sri Lankan pop song

6.00 am and the music on the Chatura Express bus service was blaring. Our seats in the middle of the bus were directly under the speakers and the decibels seemed to rattle my eyeballs through my skull. I wasn’t sure if the horrible music was to attract new customers or make the current ones happy. At least we all had chosen the bus company with the grooviest tunes. The bus lurched off from its position next to the Bodhi tree in the center of the small town of Potuvil, Sri Lanka. We said goodbye to the surf, sand, tuk-tuk drivers, the drug dealer on the beach, and the European girls in thongs.

After 8 days we were leaving the tourist mecca of Arugum Bay, on the east coast of Sri Lanka. A nice enough place really. For 1000 rupees a night (about 7.5 AUD) you could have a room literally on the beach and read your books and drink your beer while watching the multicolored Sri Lankan fishing boats haul in the day’s catch. Not bad, but being a tourist area the place was swimming with tuk-tuks and more and more well-heeled tourists were coming for a short binge, which in turn was driving up the price of everything.

We were heading up the East Coast to a town called Polonaruwa for the Vesak Poya, a Budddhist festival that is celebrated during the Full Moon. The bus plowed through the deep green fields halting what seemed every 400 meters to add another passenger or to let the ticket collector off to pay homage at one of the brightly colored Ganesha temples sitting alongside the highway. After half an hour I spotted an elephant in a green field near the highway. The music kept blaring and I tried through the cat like wails of the singer to imagine living in a world where seeing an elephant near the road would be a casual thing. A little bit later my wife spotted another one. This elephant closer to the road and swinging its trunk back and forth. Two Muslim ladies in front of us also seemed to notice and pointed and talked excitedly. I was glad to see this amazing beast still provoked a sense of wonder.

elephant in the wild

For spells the bus would move at a good clip, garnering speed and passing traffic, veering from side to side, reminding me of what it must be like to be  a pair of socks in a tumble dryer. Throughout the small towns we would pass the bus would stop seemingly every 100 meters as, slowly, the center aisle of the bus filled up until it seemed as if not even an extra coconut could fit on board. Though invariably, more people would fit on and somehow the ticket conductor would squeeze through and with his handwritten school journal make records and collect everyone’s payment. The music played on.

Depsite feeling we might not get anywhere until next week we made it to Batticiolia at around 9 am and were promptly put on another Chathura express to Polonaruwa. Thankfully, this bus was simply playing a movie at a much quieter volume. Unfortunately, my window would not open properly, and as the heat of the day picked up I was left with the choice of facing the glaring sun on one side or an aisle full of crotches on the other.

The heat grew stronger and now that my eyes weren’t rattling I felt my brain was melting and about to start running out my ears.
After an hour and half of baking I saw a sign that said Polonaruwa and I thought maybe this was our stop. I excitedly asked a local man on the bus if it was Polonaruwa.

“Polonaruwa,” I said and pointed down to indicate this was our stop.

“Polonaruwa,” he replied with confused look on his face.

“Polonaruwa,” I repeated with a stronger version of the same hand gesture I had already made.

“Polonaruwa,” he said looking around for someone to bail him out.

I looked at my wife. Am I saying it wrong? Help me with the pronunciation.

She looked at me and closed her eyes.

The stranger and I looked at each other, there was nothing more language could do for us.

Elephant Sign

Around midday we arrived. The actual town was about 4 km from where were dropped off and we jumped on a local bus to take us the rest of the way. Along the way my wife suddenly jumped up, pointed, and said, “Look at that lizard!”

I turned around and nearly yelped. On the side of the road I thought it must be a Komodo dragon, a massive lizard, by my guess 5 or 6 feet long, that was simply walking in the long grass near the side of the road.

After debating it, we came to the conclusion that it must have been a monitor lizard, but fuck, it was big.

By the end of our journey I ended up with heat stroke and a fever and had to spend most of the afternoon in bed. We did manage to walk around the town a bit at sunset…along with the evening breeze. Next to a lake that sits next to the town we watched women light coconuts on fire in front of a statue of Ganesha. It was a beautiful and serene way to end the day.

As we made our way back to our room we recounted the days events. Seeing a couple of elephants, writing song lyrics, spotting one giant lizard, and getting a fever. It was a pretty good day of travel.


Filed under: Bus Travel, Sri Lanka

About the Author:

Lawrence Hamilton is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian security situations and border disputes. has written 52 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Lawrence Hamilton is currently in: Dunedin, NZMap

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  • Wade | Vagabond Journey May 21, 2014, 8:04 pm

    Man, this story really made me feel that situation: crowded bus, blazing sun on one side, crotches on the other. Why do we do this to ourselves? Oh yeah, this is the stuff that produces stories. Though I have to say that it really made me just want to walk everywhere haha.

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