So one night several months ago I was in Seoul, South Korea with two close friends enjoying a traditional Korean BBQ dinner.
Tristan: Boys do you want to head out on a tuk tuk race around Sri Lanka?
Nick and TJ: What? Really? …YES!
A few weeks later we were booked and ready to roll with the basics. And I do mean basics, passport, international drivers licence, visa sorted and tour fees paid. Other than that, we were the most disorganised bunch of idiots. One more was added to our crew and with Liam on board (more affectionately known as Sticks) we were on our way.
I should probably let you know exactly what this trip entailed. Over a period of 10 days we would be travelling over 1000km around the northern region of Sri Lanka. This trip is organised by a tour group Large Minority and we would have to do without our smart phones and GPS, just an old nokia brick for emergencies, a map and reliance on directions from locals. Along the way we would complete challenges like cooking a meal with a Sri Lankan family, selling fish in the markets, singing the Sri Lankan national anthem with locals, making our own roti, shot-putting elephant dung to name a few. This in addition to navigating some pretty rough roads on tuk tuks, machines we quickly found out could take a beating!
We arrived in Colombo the day before our training day on the tuk tuks. That night we met a few of the people we would be spending the next 10 days with, enjoyed a few drinks and then headed to our rooms for some shut eye.
The next morning the fun really began. We got behind the “steering wheel” of our tuk tuks and began to familiarise ourselves with our transportation. Some people took to it better than others. Signs were good for the four of us, however others had a tougher time of it. Having said that, one totalled tuk tuk out of 12 was not the end of the world.
And they’re off!
We took off up the west coast with a plan to arrive in Jaffna in the north of the country in a few days. We would then come down the east coast, through Kandy and back to Colombo.
Before we left the hotel we had a lot of media taking photos and asking us questions. After 30 years of civil war ending in 2009 tourism is taking off. The south is more tourist friendly so we were pretty pumped to see a very authentic Sri Lanka in the north.
One of our first stops was the fish market in Negombo (or as we like to call it NEEEEEGGOOOOMMMMBOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!). After selling fish in the market (see the video) and getting to know the locals we headed north. Something I didn’t mention is that we all pimped our tuk tuks out in one way or another. Us being the disorganised bunch that we were, we didn’t have anything in mind before we arrived in Sri Lanka but settled on tying large furry animals to the roof our our tuk tuks. Tuk tuk 1 had a panda and cub on the roof while tuk tuk 2 had a bunny eating a carrot. We also had Raoul, a large bear as a passenger in the second tuk tuk. Every now and then he would lean out of tuk tuk and wave at passers by! Good on you Raoul!
Unfortunately, these furry animals were implicated in an unfortunate event while leaving the fish market. A man riding a motorbike with a woman on the back was thoroughly enjoying the novelty of seeing these animals on the road only to forget to look directly in front of him and at the van that had stopped ahead. It wasn’t a high speed collision however, his head did go through the rear windscreen of the van, shattered the glass and ensured that it wasn’t one of his best days. Ultimately he was fine but it was an eye opener for us very early on. Sri Lankan roads can be treacherous!
Having unusual tuk tuk’s drew plenty of attention from the people we drove by. We would get waves from kids, smiles from their parents and confused looks from grandparents. The police would pull us over every now and then looking for official documentation (which we had provided to us from our tour organisers) and then they would send us on our way with helpful directions.
Along our travels the accommodation was incredible. We stayed on beautiful beaches and in some amazing hotels. One night of camping was fun to “rough it” a little. It would have been better if we had listened to instructions and brought a pack with a change of clothes for that night but hey, wearing the same clothes for two days in over 30 degree heat never hurt anyone…
We saw some amazing sights along the way including a place known as ‘World’s end’, Wilpattu national park (the largest national park in Sir Lanka), a multitude of temples and towns as we were driving, and just the coast in general was superb.
A key thing about this trip was how we would just stumble into things. One was seeing a soccer game in Jaffna and being part of 5000 people in the stadium for a local match. Just awesome. Another, brilliant turn of events that I have to mention is when we were completely lost and came across a volleyball game in the middle of the jungle. We asked for directions but the guys were more interested in getting us involved in the game. It was incredible!
My favourite challenge that was officially part of the trip was one involving us gathering ingredients to make a traditional dish called curry rice with a family in their home. I loved this because it was so far from anything that we would do back home. It shocked me how easy it was to find a family to take us in and teach us how to cook this dish. The hospitality of the Sri Lankan people is special.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. We went through the national park on a road that was more suitable to a 4WD vehicle not a 3 wheel tuk tuk. We had never been more excited to see tarmac in our lives than when we exited the national park.
Probably our most epic story involved running out of petrol in the mountains outside of Kandy. After driving into the mountains we not only ran out of petrol we also had our brakes fail. Possibly due to the driving style of a particular tuk tuk pilot. We pulled over to the side of the road and I walked into the front garden of the nearest house. I spoke to two brothers who ran inside to get their father. Through a conversation of broken English, he understood that we needed petrol (brakes were an issue for another time) and walked over to his motorbike. I thought he was going to syphon petrol out of the bike into a bottle to put in our tuk tuk. I was mistaken…
He jumped on the bike, beckoned for me to get on the back and we went for a ride through the mountain roads to his friend’s shop to fill up an empty 2L Sprite bottle. No protective gear was worn on this trip. I also saw that the speedometer didn’t work on this bike either.
After adding the two litres to the tuk tuk we managed to get to the closest town with a petrol station only to run out of gas 100m from the pump. When we stopped in the middle of this intersection who do you think just happened to show up on the side of the road…none other than our Sri Lankan saviour! With the help of our petrol provider and 6 other Sri Lankans we managed to drive to the petrol station fill up and head towards Kandy. By this time, it was well and truly dark.
Driving into the traffic of Kandy is not something I would recommend. I also wouldn’t recommend it at night, in a tuk tuk, without functioning brakes and a Panda on the roof. We had to use the gears pretty extensively to make sure we controlled our speed. When a lorry blocked the road ahead and I managed to find neutral rather than first gear it was a pretty scary experience.
At 10pm we arrived at our hotel to a hero’s welcome from our fellow competitors. Sorry mum, but it was one of the best days of my life!
The responsible travel stuff…
As part of the trip we also stopped at a couple of schools that the organisers, support. It was a truly humbling experience to meet the kids in these schools, play games with them, see their choirs perform and hear their teachers speak with passion about their students and education in Sri Lanka. The kids also came to school to perform for us during their school holidays, something that I doubt would happen in the western world.
The reflective stuff…
You probably didn’t pick this up in the video but during this experience I have to say I was often out of my comfort zone. Never have I done many of the things that I did in the space of a week on the road in Sri Lanka. It really got me questioning the way that we live in the western world. Don’t get me wrong, there are huge issues in the country however there were a lot of people we met who although they didn’t have much, were so generous with their time for us.
Recently I saw something about the mistake that we often make as humans where we treat happiness and fun as the same thing. If we are not having fun, then we are not happy, and we are not happy, unless we are having fun. While spending time with the locals I experienced this happy contentedness that existed as a result of their strong connection with their families and neighbours. It was a privilege to see and something that I think we can all learn from. I am now more conscious of the way that I connect with those around me and now have no option but to take in a stranger to cook a meal at my place in Sydney if they needed a hand!
So where did we place?
In the end, we came second out of 12 due to all the challenge points we had accumulated. Not bad for really flying by the seat of our pants each day!
After a heap of selfies and talking about cricket with the locals, broken down tuk tuks which received better service from local Sri Lankans than traditional roadside assistance could ever provide, a LOT of roti and curry, it was time for the trip to come to an end. Thank you Sri Lanka and Julian and Rachel from Large Minority, so damn good!