I’ve been wanting to ride a motorcycle around Sri Lanka for quite some time now. So while on a work trip to Colombo, an opportunity presented itself and I grabbed it with both hands. I decided to rent a Honda NX650 Dominator from Club Sha Lanka and ride from Negombo on the west coast to the hill station of Ella, spend the night there and ride back to Negombo the next day.
My business meeting ended early the previous evening and I decided to do the paperwork at Club Sha Lanka and pick up the motorcycle so that I could head out early the next day after breakfast. The motorcycle cost me $35 a day and I paid the rental company another $35 for getting my International Drivers Permit endorsed by the Sri Lanka transport department before I even got into the country. Otherwise I would need to do it myself when I got to Sri Lanka and would probably waste a day.
The Dominator was quite an old horse and it seemed it had seen its fair share of fun. The needles of the odometer and tachometer moved only when I jumped over a speed bump. Otherwise they sat quietly minding their own business. The rear brake wasn’t in the pink of health and I had to literally stand on it coax it to make a difference. The front brake was functional, but not sharp enough to make up for the weak rear brake. I knew that it wouldn’t be safe for me to speed on this motorcycle. I had no intention to anyways. I was asked to use the choke in the morning and made a mental note of it. I was also alerted to the fact that the motorcycle stored the engine oil in its frame tubes.
I cranked up the 650 cc engine and it started idling for a while. Then it spat, farted and died an unceremonious death with a loud bang! “It’s nothing. Just some back firing“, said the guy from the motorcycle rental. And that’s the precise moment when I decided to call the motorcycle Spitfire.
The Sri Lankan government has put restrictions on the import of large capacity motorcycles, which is why Spitfire was registered as a 250 cc motorcycle. I was asked to stick to this story if I was ever stopped and questioned by a cop while riding through the country. I made a mental note of this lie as I set out towards my hotel. Since I had some time, I decided to go for a short ride along the coastline and watch the sun set.
I found that I needed to keep the throttle twisted a little if I had the clutch pulled in. Otherwise, the engine would first spit, then fart and die with a loud band, in that precise order. This was normally followed by people turning their heads to see who had opened fire on them. I figured riding Spitfire around Sri Lanka was going to be interesting.
The next morning, I had an early breakfast and set out from my hotel at 7:30 am.
I pointed Spitfire’s headlight towards the town of Kurunagela and followed the directions on my GPS, passing through one village after another. I rode through winding roads which parted plantations of coconut trees. The weather was nice and pleasant without a hint of rain in the sky. I rode for an hour and stopped for a cup of tea at a road side dhaba. Not sure what they call them here in Sri Lanka.
I noticed a large number of traffic police along the way, standing next to their motorcycle, stopping vehicles. Wearing a crash helmet is compulsory in Sri Lanka, even for pillion riders, and everyone was following the rule, including me. I had brought along my riding gear from India and had requested the rental company to provide a helmet. I had asked for a full face helmet. But none would fit my huge coconut. So I ended up using a half face one without a visor to shield me from the rain.
I rode for another hour, crossed the town of Ridigama and stopped by the side of the road for rest.
I was quite surprised to find 3G data wherever I stopped in Sri Lanka. Unlike in India where I’m lucky to have 3G connectivity in cities and any data connectivity at all on highways and rural areas.
I continued riding. After crossing the village of Keppetigalla the road turned into a steep uphill climb and started weaving around a mountain. Then suddenly, the road turned into gravel and I started having some real fun with Spitfire.
After a while the gravel ended and the road turned into a proper construction zone. Turns out the ghat road was being widened and heavy machinery was all over place.
This went on for a few kilometers and my experience of riding my Triumph Tiger 800 XRx on trails back in India paid off well. The Dominator is about as tall as the Tiger but much lighter making it a nice dual sport package. Spitfire had a new set of dual sport tires which were doing a great job in the dirt and rubble.
At the top of the ghat the road turned into smooth tarmac once again. I was flagged down by a traffic cop as I came around a bend and I stopped. The stern looking cop asked me to produce my license and the papers of the motorcycle. I didn’t want him to sniff deeper and find out that I was riding a shady motorcycle. So I used the good old diversionary tactic of asking about the road condition ahead. The traffic cop was accompanied with a member of the Civil Defense Force. I got talking to him and even ended up taking a selfie with him.
I then asked the stern traffic cop for a selfie and he decided to get rid of me. He handed me back my license and bike papers and wished me safe travels.
I stopped to tank up and then did some math. Turns out Spitfire was giving me a paltry 12 km per liter. Maybe it was all the low gear riding. But I decided to tank up every hundred kms or so. Sri Lanka is quite densely populated and you are never too far from civilization and hence a petrol pump. But I didn’t want to take any chances.
I continued riding towards a place called Dambana, one of the homes of the Vedda people, an indigenous tribe of Sri Lanka. The plan was to go see them and then head to Ella for the night.
It was getting quite hot and my riding jacket was making it even worse. I stopped to rest at the small road side shop selling coconut water and recharged my batteries.
I used sign language to tell the old lady in the shop that I was hungry and wanted something to eat, She handed me some chikki and I munched on a few slabs.
The road started winding up a mountain once again. But this time the road was wide and sported an excellent coat of tarmac.
Apart from the roads which were being worked upon, I had yet to come across a pothole on a road in Sri Lanka. I had also yet to come across a long straight stretch of tarmac. The road always meandered around a village like a water stream running along a path of least resistance. And since the country is densely populated, at least the parts through which I had been riding, this meant that I was hopping from one village to another without vast expanses of barren lands in between. If you add beautiful scenery to good winding roads you get a potent combination which turns out to be a rider’s dream. I found myself stopping to take pictures more often than I had thought I would.
I glanced at my watch. It was nearing 1 pm and I was feeling hungry. I stopped at a restaurant by the side of the road overlooking the valley and enjoyed the view as I sat down to order lunch.
I asked the waiter for the menu and he pointed me to a buffet spread out on the table behind me.
The food was a little spicy and I washed it down with an cup of ice cream. I rested for a while and continued riding towards Dambana. I rode for a few more kilometers and then stopped at the top of the dreaded but gorgeous 18 hair pin bends of the Kandy-Mahiyanganaya road to take a picture.
I had fun with Spitfire negotiating each hair pin bend and at the end of it, I wanted to climb back up and ride down again. The only thing that prevented me from doing it was time and pushed on. I rode on for a few more kilometers and stopped for rest by a lush green field.
After riding some more the GPS finally told me that I had reached my waypoint of Dambana. I now needed to get off the highway and take a dirt track into the jungle. The GPS didn’t have a map of tracks in the jungle and I started riding Spitfire through the jungle on what appeared to be a well traveled path. The Vedda people were a tourist attraction and I assumed were well visited.
I made it a point to keep Spitfire’s throttle twisted while the clutch was pulled in. The last thing I wanted was an poisoned arrow sticking out of my butt shot by some Vedda bloke who thought I was firing at them in their jungle. I reached an open area and one Vedda man walked towards me. He knew some English and I gathered he was their PR person. He introduced himself as Ranjith and let me know that I would need to pay 500 Sri Lankan rupees to see the Vedda museum. Later if I wanted I could visit the tribal village nearby. I parked Spitfire and went in to see the museum.
After exiting the museum I caught up with Ranjith and told him that I wanted to visit the village. I was hoping I could ride Spitfire to the village instead of walking and Ranjith was ok with it. I handed him my backpack and asked him to hop on to Spitfire. We rode deeper into the jungle and ended up at the home of the chief of the village. The chief’s wife was weaving a mat while he stroked his long flowing white beard.
I spoke to the chief for a while with Ranjith being the translator. Turns out Ranjith was the chief’s nephew. There were 375 families in the village and there were a few more such villages spread across Sri Lanka in other districts. The men wore something like a lungi and walked around barefoot. Unlike the earlier Vedda people, the women are now fully clothed. But maybe that’s just for the tourists who come to see their way of life. I saw just four houses around me and the others were deeper into the jungle.
The chief handed a pink cloth bag to Ranjith and asked him to show me its contents. There was stuff make of ivory, ebony, some beads and medicinal herbs.
I requested the chief to sit on Spitfire and he burst out laughing. I tried to coax him a little more but he wouldn’t budge. So I asked Ranjith and he promptly sprang up to oblige me. I got the feeling he wanted to sit on Spitfire even before I asked him to.
I walked around a bit and the engineer in me started taking notice of the construction of the huts. The walls were made up of straight long branches planted vertically into the foundation with the gaps filled with cakes of mud.
As I got up to leave, I asked Ranjith if the chief would accept money. I didn’t want to do anything that would offend the person who had opened his home to me. Ranjith said that giving money was ok and I handed the chief some, thanked him and his wife and waved them good bye. Ranjith wanted a lift back and we rode back through the jungle again. As I rode Spitfire two up with Ranjith wearing my backpack I was glad that I had chosen a dual sport motorcycle to tour Sri Lanka.
Ranjith asked me to take him further out of the jungle and stop at a shop where his friends were hanging around. I got off as well and had a cup of coffee while chatting with Ranjith’s friends. It seemed like Ranjith was the only person on site who knew any English.
One of Ranjith’s friends showed me some of his ebony carvings which he was getting ready to sell.
They were very interested in Spitfire and I could hear Ranjith boasting in their language that he had sat on the motorcycle. They were particularly interested in my GPS and I tried my best to explain how it worked. I pointed up at the satellites and they all turned their heads up not knowing what they were looking at. I failed miserably and ended up leaving them with the impression that I was into some weird form of sorcery.
I found my way back to the highway and as I picked up speed I noticed the GPS shaking violently as if the Vedda demons had gotten into it. I stopped to see what the problem was and noticed that the mount holding the pouch containing the GPS had given way. As I stood by the highway scratching my head wondering how I was supposed to ride without a GPS mount, I noticed a shop across the road. Turns out they had just the thing I needed – tape. I taped the pouch over the dashboard and hoped it would hold up for the rest of the ride. It did.
I started riding towards Ella and after a few kilometers, the GPS asked me to turn left and go on a small and utterly ravaged road. I found it odd but continued. The road started to get worse and I finally stopped Spitfire to check the GPS closer. I zoomed out and found that this bad road would ultimately join a proper highway a little way ahead.
When riding in third world countries like India and Sri Lanka I always set the routing method of my GPS to fastest time instead of shortest distance. Fastest time ensures that I’ll be taken on proper highways, whereas shortest distance ensures that I will be taken on roads that can range from ravaged to those that quite simply don’t exist. I do exactly the opposite while riding in first world countries like those in Europe. There fastest time takes me on long boring expressways which tend to put me to sleep. whereas shortest distance takes me winding through beautiful village and farms. In Europe, if the GPS says there is a road, there will be a road. But in places like India and Sri Lanka, there is a possibility that a road exists. The condition of the road, if it exists, is anybody’s guess. So that’s why, if I smell something fishy, I make it a point to stop and zoom out to see where exactly the GPS is planning to take me and for how long.
In this case, I had to endure the bad road for just five kilometers after which I started riding along a beautiful canal.
It struck me that this was the first proper straight stretch of road I had seen the entire day and I gave Spitfire’s throttle a proper twist. The engine roared loudly and the motorcycle surged forward and it felt good. The sky was clear and the road ahead couldn’t be better. I was grinning from ear to ear having the time of my life.
The canal flowed into a large lake and I stopped to take a picture.
After the lake the canal resumed again and I rode along the road keeping it company. It again opened into another lake and I again stopped to take another picture.
I stopped to look around me and take it all in. On my left was a beautiful lake extending till the mountains and on my right was a carpet of green extending to the mountains. I was riding a dual sport motorcycle along an amazing road under a gorgeous blue and white sky with the sun getting ready to set in front of me.
I almost cried. I haven’t seen heaven, but I doubt it will be much different than this. And anyways, if they don’t have motorcycles in heaven, I’d rather go to hell. I’m pretty sure they will have loads of them there.
After having my moment I mounted Spitfire and proceeded towards Ella. I passed through one beautiful village after another dotted by lush green fields.
I stopped to take pictures a few times until I realized that I would need to ride more and stop less if I wanted to reach Ella before dark. After riding for an hour or so the road started to climb and the fields gave way to tea plantations. This was getting even better.
The GPS again asked me to take a left on a smaller road and I obeyed. This road ended up winding through some more tea plantations and I again stopped to take a picture. I just couldn’t help myself. As a photographer, riding through a beautiful place like this and not stopping to capture it seemed criminal.
I finally reached my hotel in Ella at 6 pm and checked into what they called a mountain facing room. It had a view of a mountain being playfully caressed by passing clouds.
I ordered a cup of tea and started sipping on it. It was only after I finished drinking the cup of tea that I realized that I was still in my riding gear. I had ridden 300 kms that day and my body was hurting. But the view in front of me completely blew me away and I couldn’t feel a damn thing. To put it in the immortal words of Pink Floyd, I was comfortably numb. So I plugged my earphones into my phone, started playing “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd and sat in the arm chair on the porch of my hotel room doing absolutely nothing other than watching clouds kiss the peak of the mountain in front of me. Maybe this is what heaven looked like at dusk.
I sat there will the mosquitoes started chewing on me and I knew it was time to get into my room and out of my riding gear. I had a hot bath and then plugged in my computer to get some work done.
Later than evening, I walked over to the center of the town for dinner. As I sipped on a glass of Arrack and Coke, I couldn’t help noticing that I was the only colored guest in the entire restaurant. Everyone else was white. Ella could easily be passed off as some hill station in Europe that employed Asian workers.
After a heavy dinner, I walked back to my hotel, crawled into bed and passed out, still grinning from ear to ear.
The next morning I woke up to this.
I just stood there. Speechless. For a long time.
Breakfast wasn’t ready yet and I used that time to pack my stuff back into my backpack and get ready to hit the road once again. Feeling bad that I was up and about before them, the hotel staff put out a table and chair for me in the porch of the hotel and I had my breakfast of a banana pancake and an omlette with the most amazing view I could ever wish for.
I left the hotel, topped up Spitfire’s tank and headed to the beautiful town of Nuwara Eliya. I was riding through a hilly region of Sri Lanka. I climbed down one ghat, rode through a village and then climbed up another ghat. This was repeated a number of times. After doing this for an hour or so I stopped to buy some of the famous Sri Lankan tea at a tea shop. Later I stopped to have tea at a dhaba on one of the ghats. I asked the waiter to take a picture of me.
Then the tea gardens started once again and it was difficult for me to keep my eyes on the winding road.
It felt like riding through Laddakh, the land of high passes. But instead of horrible roads, freezing cold and snow capped mountains, it was gorgeous asphalt, pleasant weather and mountains of tea estates. Way better. This went on for more than an hour.
I eventually reached the town of Nuwara Eliya and it seemed straight out of a picture post card.
I breezed through the town and the gorgeous tea estates resumed. I stopped at a restaurant in one of the tea estates for a cup of tea and learned that they also sold strawberries in ice cream. No prizes for guessing what I chose.
The ghats were dotted with small shops selling an assortment of vegetables.
I stopped quite a few times to take pictures, until I reminded myself that I needed to be back in Negombo before sun down.
After Nuwara Eliya, the mountain road started to descend instead of alternately ascend and descend, and I knew that I was heading closer to sea level. After riding some more I was feeling low on energy and decided to stop at a highway dhaba for a instant sugar rush – a Coke.
I finally rode into the town of Gampola. I crossed the town and the GPS asked me to take a left up a small uneven road. I followed and the road took a turn for the worse. Whats more, the road climbed a side of a hill and didn’t have any barricade to stop you from falling to certain death. Then I saw a bus driving down the road from a distance. There was obviously no place for both of us. I would have to choose whether to go under the wheels of the bus or fly off a cliff, the latter being the more scenic way to die.
But the bus stopped ahead of me at the place which had some extra room and let me nimbly pass before it continued its way down hill. I wanted to know how much more of this was ahead of me. So I stopped and zoomed out the GPS. Fifteen kilometers. The other alternative was to go back down to Gampola and take the main road to join the Kandy-Colombo highway. The road I was on would take me to the Kandy-Colombo highway earlier which is why the GPS recommended I use it.
I decided to stick to the GPS and continued riding up. At this point Spitfire’s front suspension started making horrendous sounds. I had heard these sounds before when I jumped the motorcycle off speed breakers. But this road was so bumpy, the front suspension was bottoming out every few meters. I wondered if I would eventually break something and be stranded in the middle of nowhere, because that is precisely where I was.
I stopped for rest as my hands had started to hurt. My butt was pretty sore as well. Spitfire had a seat not very different than a plank of wood. This was a big deal for me because I have been spoiled using my air cushion seat pad placed over my well cushioned seats of my motorcycles back in India. Ah! The joys of riding rented motorcycles.
I was glad when the fifteen kilometers ended. My hands and butt couldn’t take it anymore. And I guess Spitfire was getting ready to give up as well.
I hit the Kandy-Colombo highway, topped up the tank once again and proceeded towards Colombo. The road was pretty good but very busy. It was next to impossible to ride more than 40 kmph. And it was hot. Very hot. I was basically slow cooking myself in my riding gear. It was time to stop for lunch. I looked for and found an air-conditioned restaurant along the highway and had a buffet lunch of spicy Sri Lankan food. I decided to wash it down with a chilled banana milk shake and I immediately felt much better.
I waited for a while and then continued my journey towards Colombo. This part of the journey wasn’t enjoyable, especially compared to what I went through that morning and the previous day. I just needed to get back to Club Sha Lanka, drop off the motorcycle and head to a hot bath in my hotel room. As if the weather was reading my mind, it began to pour cats and dogs. I was taken aback actually. I’m from India where people are given ample warning that a downpour is going to happen. But Sri Lanka things are a little different. One moment it is bright and sunny. The next moment a dark cloud springs up from nowhere and then everything that was up falls down.
I screeched to a halt by the side of the road and ran for cover inside the shop of a scrap dealer.
The rain didn’t last for very long and it stopped as abruptly as it started. A mild drizzle continued and I decided to continue riding. My helmet was missing its visor and I had to use my left hand to shield my eyes from the piercing raindrops. I had to be careful and keep safe distance from traffic in front of me. I didn’t trust Spitfire’s brakes when the road was dry. I trusted them even lesser when the roads were wet. After riding for a hour or so I stopped for tea at a roadside stall.
I rode some more and 20 kms before reaching Colombo it started to rain again. I took shelter under and overbridge and waited for the rain to subside. The GPS let me know that from here I had to get off the Kandy-Colombo highway, join the Colombo-Negombo highway and follow it for 40 odd kilometers.
After the rain subsided I continued riding and hit the Colombo-Negombo highway. This was a four lane highway with a median and luckily for me the traffic was on the other side. The GPS asked me to exit the highway after a while and I obeyed. Turned out it was trying to get me on the expressway. I realized that when I saw the toll booth in front of me. I had to turn back because motorcycles and tuk-tuks are not allowed on Sri Lankan expressways. I got back onto the Colombo-Negombo highway.
I made a final stop for rest 20 kms from my destination and massaged my butt in broad daylight. Frankly, I didn’t give a damn how it looked to others. It was my butt and it was hurting pretty bad after getting slapped by a plank of wood for two days straight. Out of habit, I clicked the customary picture of the motorcycle before I mounted it to start riding again.
There was a railway crossing on the Colombo-Negombo highway and I had to stop to let a train pass.
I finally rode Spitfire into Club Sha Lanka at around 7 pm, returned back the motorcycle papers and collected my $200 deposit. As I left the rental, I petted Spitfire one last time and hailed a tuk-tuk to take me back to my hotel.
I spent just a couple of days riding around Sri Lanka and must have seen a mere fraction of it. I’m definitely coming back for more.