Bentota and/or Aluthgama, Sri Lanka

Since we only work in the morning on Fridays, three other girls and I decided to spend the afternoon in another town called Bentota. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed north. We weren’t 100% sure where the town was or what it looked like but our driver dropped us off on the side of the road between the beach and some buildings a few kilometers after we passed a sign that said Bentota on it. Some locals directed us west toward the ‘city center’ so we walked in that direction, and soon realized we were being followed. An older gentleman in a sarong, button down shirt and flip-flops offered to take us to the temple, which he said was just down the road. 

We were very cautious and hesitant. I thought about it as we walked and decided he was either going to murder us in the woods, or actually take us to the temple and ask for a tip afterwards. We gambled on the latter, and after walking about 30 minutes through the jungle, we did, indeed arrive at a temple, which may or may not be the Galapatha Raja Maha Vihare Buddhist temple. (I couldn’t find anything identifying it in English at the site so I Googled it later.) I could tell the structure was very old but the interior was immaculately maintained and boasted beautiful tile, several colorful murals from floor to ceiling and a ginormous Sleeping Buddha statue with intricately patterned & painted feet. Of course at the end of our tour, we were asked to leave a donation for the temple so we each put 100 rupees through the slot in the wooden box that is intended for that purpose. 

Jungle Temple Entrance

Jungle Temple Entrance

Inside the Temple

Inside the Temple

After that, our guide (who never actually shared his name) led us to the lagoon, where we boarded a traditional flat canoe-type boat which he and one other man rowed for us with long, thin, wooden paddles. We asked the cost up front and he quoted us $1,000 rupees each (about $7.50 USD) which seemed a little steep, but we were kind of a captive audience because we didn’t know how else to get to the city. It ended up being a pretty nice ride that lasted close to an hour. We paddled around mangroves and along the shore of the lagoon, where I noticed the nicest houses I’ve seen yet in Sri Lanka. Our guide told us that many Europeans live here, so that explains the more lavish residences. We saw some snakes and some monitor lizards along the way before being dropped off at a vacant marketplace, which comes alive on Mondays only. 

Simple boats

Simple boats

We paid for the lagoon cruise and walked into what we assumed to be the city center since the street was lined with shops and the streets were full of people and various vehicles. This is where we and our guide parted ways, after he asked for a tip as I had expected. We gave him close to $1,000 rupees total, confident that he also got a cut of fee for the ‘cruise’ for which he had recruited us. He thanked us and claimed to have three children, for which he was going buy for for with said compensation. Who knows if this was true or not, but even though we got a bit taken advantage of as somewhat naive tourists, I think both parties benefitted from the "impromptour." We got see some sights that we had no idea were there and he made some money. Plus, it was super sustainable since we walked the whole time and the boat was people-powered. 

Row, row, row your boat

Row, row, row your boat

We were the only tourists around so everyone was hollering at us to come into their shops. We browsed a few before starting a new mission to find food. Another, younger local that looked to be around our age approached us and promised to take us to the best restaurant in town. We figured ‘what the heck’ and made sure to check the menu before deciding to actually eat at the restaurant, which had a pretty nice view overlooking the river. One girl has seafood and the rest of us reveled in the simple yet satisfying familiarity of our sandwiches and fries. 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

The closest thing to a sunset I've been able to capture because clouds!!! 

We decided to save some money and take a train back to the beach house but had some trouble finding the station. It was getting dark and we gave up on hoofing it finally just found a tuk tuk to take us to the station for about 100 rupee. Turns out, we had missed our turn and walked too far. The train ticket was only $50 rupees each and I am very impressed with their thick, letterpress-style tickets! We were a bit confused, though, because we were at the Aluthgama station, when we were supposed to be in Bentota. When the train finally arrived about half an hour later, the first station we passed was Bentota, so we hypothesized that our driver had intentionally driven us too far in order to benefit his buddy that took us on our tour - but we can’t confirm this theory. 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

Letterpress-ish train ticket 

We got back to the house in time for dinner then went out for ice cream downtown before calling it a night. 

Random Road Trip (Bush Week)

Monday was going to be a laid-back, relaxing day. Until I found out about Bush Week. What is this Bush Week Festival, you ask? Well according to the website, it’s a week long celebration of art, music and lifestyle that happens only once every other year at a camp site in the rainforest in far north Queensland. In reality, it was more of a mud-covered hippie fest. But more about that later. 

I had nothing else planned for my last week in Cairns except a day snorkeling on the GBR (Great Barrier Reef), which was completely flexible. Once I found out about the festival, I decided I had to go. I was kind of annoyed because the site was just above Cape Tribulation, where I had just spent the previous weekend and returned from there on a tour bus just the previous night. 

TRAVEL TIP #2: ALWAYS GOOGLE FESTIVALS AND EVENTS FOR PLACES YOU ARE VISITING BEFORE YOU GET THERE. 

Common sense, really. And I usually take my own advice. That’s how I found out about the Auckland Arts Festival and Pasifika Festival that I experienced in New Zealand a few months ago. Not sure why I didn’t do it this time because I could have planned way better. But I digress. 

I first checked out the bus schedule and there was no easy way to get there. So I ended up renting a car from a place around the corner from my hostel. I talked to a few other friends at Calypso whose eyes lit up and said they were super were interested in going, but when it came time to actually buy the tickets, they flaked out on me. (It was probably for the best though because I ended up sleeping in the backseat of my car for two nights. I have no idea where they would have slept.) I conquered my irrational fear of driving on the left and went to Cairns Central to buy some groceries for the trip. I packed up most of my stuff and set my alarm for 5 AM because I wanted to get an early start the next morning. 

Keep an eye out for the Roos! 

Keep an eye out for the Roos! 

Tuesday was the only time I’ve slept through my alarm so I got a bit of a later start and finally got on the road close to 7 AM. I had printed out directions, but I pretty much only took two and a half roads to get where I was going: Route 1 up to Mareeba and then Route 81 up to Rossville and the rainforest. It took about 300 km (186 miles) and nearly 5 hours to get there. It was raining at first, which made the winding road out of Cairns and through the Tablelands a bit treacherous but once I got on the wide open highways, all I had to worry about was avoiding cows and kangaroos. I could drive for miles without seeing another car on the road. There were caution signs everywhere and I saw about a dozen dead roos and whatever the Aussie equivalent of a possum is on the side of the road, but also saw a couple live kangaroos as well. One was perked up on the side of the road, seemingly waiting to cross once the cars were clear, and another, riskier roo hopped across the road between my car and a truck coming from the opposite direction and made it across just in time.

The roads were smooth and paved the entire way, until the last terrifying 3 km where I was basically off-roading on a wet, muddy and bumpy dirt road. I had to drive over rocks and creeks and avoid fallen limbs and stray rocks in the road and was scared my little Hyundai wouldn’t make it but it did because I was driving as slow as possible. I parked on a grassy spot not to far from the “road” or the entrance which decreased my chances of getting stuck in mud and increased my chances of an easy exit three days later. 

I ate a quick lunch in my car then went out in the rain to make friends. I met a friendly group a few meters away. One of them was painted white and purple and was mumbling about mushrooms. I chatted with the group for a while then followed the signs to a tent where I could get a hair wrap. The girl I met there, Ashley, was a festival regular and a super sweet hippie type with dreads and pixie point bangs. She wrapped a section of my hair in blue yarn and string and I picked a silver Om charm and two small feathers to fasten to the end. She also happily did a French braid which rippled along my crown and cascaded down the right side of my face. 

Ready for a purple party. 

Ready for a purple party. 

It was raining intermittently all day but you could still hear the reggae over the precipitous wind. When it finally let up for a while, I was able to make it back to my car, eat some dinner and go to bed after listening to some music, which had transitioned to dubstep (I think). 

The next day I decided to walk to the waterfall rumored to be in the area. I met another lone traveler along the way and we Hobbit-hiked it (barefoot) to the waterfall, which was a way farther and more arduous journey than I ever expected. It took over an hour to get there, traversing thick mud, slopes, tree branches and slippery rocks so there was no way I wasn’t jumping in for a swim after all that. The water was cold and I was more than a little paranoid about crocs, even though there were no warning signs. I put my clothes and jacket back on which I had stashed under my umbrella to keep dry then we started the same unruly trail back to the camp. It would not stop raining but there was one bright spot when my new friend found a $20 note on the ground, which we used to buy a well-deserved lunch from one of the food tents. 

I hung out with another group for a while which included one of the DJs who would perform that weekend, his petite French wife, a hitchhiker from Canada who did our tarot card readings and a few other characters. They had one of the most spacious and driest spots, with three tarps strewn across some trees and vans. We entertained ourselves there until the rain stopped and we finally saw the sun for the first time in two days, just before it started to set, of course. There was a live Reggae singer on a small stage and people were dancing in the mud. Pretty much everyone, including myself, was barefoot because it was just easier than getting your shoes stuck in the mud. I was a bit surprised to see so many kids there. The older ones were clothed and the younger ones looked feral as they were all running around naked except for the mud splatter that covered them. 

Celebrating that the sun finally made an appearance! 

Celebrating that the sun finally made an appearance! 

I got my feet as clean as I could and curled up in my car for a second night. I left early the next morning and of course the day I leave, everything was bright and sunny. Of course, driving a car by myself was not the most sustainable way to get there and back, but the tree to car ratio along the road was about a bazillion to one so I’m pretty sure most of my CO2 was absorbed. Still, I’ll probably pay to plant an extra tree at the end of my trip.

The main part of the festival took place over the weekend, so I was a bit bummed to have to miss it, but glad to get back to Cairns for a proper, hot shower. I did yoga, enjoyed my long-awaited shower and then visited the night market one last time for some lo mein and a $15 full body massage.