Look who we’ve got, Mr Neil Barnes of Backpacks and Bunkbeds! This fine gent had a rewarding experience volunteering in Sri Lanka and today we find out more about why this country should be on our bucket lists.
1. Could you briefly introduce yourself, your site and your experience travelling in Sri Lanka?
Hi, I’m Neil. I live over at Backpacks and bunkbeds where I write a bit and post lots of photos, and even a few videos now too. I quite like cheese, beer and football (QPR). Needles, pigeons + onions are my nemeses. Although I’ve only been blogging for a year or so I’ve been travelling on and off since 2005. I’ve been involved in quite a lot of volunteer projects, one of which took place in Sri Lanka. Ah Sri Lanka, what a country. I probably didnt visit at the most ideal time as the civil war was still ongoing and our volunteer group could only travel to certain areas, but that said I wouldnt change my time in Sri Lanka for anything.
My volunteer work involved English teaching and football coaching at an amazing little school in a town called Ja Ela, which is about one hour east of Colombo which is Sri Lanka’s capital. I also coached at a couple of mens football clubs in the evenings. We’d work Monday to Friday and then explore the rest of the country on the weekends.
2. How does Sri Lanka compare to the rest of Asia in terms of things to see and do, its food and its culture? Is it very similar to other countries or very different?
Its quite hard to judge this to be honest. When I landed in Sri Lanka, the civil war was still affecting the country and both those who lived there and those visiting. If in Colombo we’d frequently be pulled over by the army and have our passports checked. There were also two small bombs that went off whilst we were in the country, but as a group, we volunteers were well looked after. As you probably know the civil war is now over, so the above should not concern you if you’re thinking about a trip to Sri Lanka, its an amazing place, don’t let a small period of history put you off.
Despite the war, which was mainly based in the north and therefore off limits to us, I found the people amazingly happy and friendly. I was invited to countless dinners, events and even a wedding. The food could be whatever you wanted it to be. Street food was available and amazing, but there were quite a few posh restaurants in Colombo and beach resorts if you wanted to splurge a little.
3. How much money can someone travel around Sri Lanka for? What are the greatest expenses? What things are relatively cheap?
I visited in 2006 so things are probably a tad more expensive now. Its not that easy to judge how cheap it was as most of my accommodation and meals were included in the price of my volunteer project. All my spending went on the luxuries of weekend travel and sampling but I spent something silly like £400 in 6 weeks, it was incredibly cheap. I also didn’t mess around when it came to eating and drinking so I bet you could survive on a lot less than that.
4. What are your favourite destinations in Sri Lanka and why?
I fell in love with a little beach town called Unawatuna which is a tuk tuk ride away from Galle, on the south coast of the island. Its probably the first beach I’ve ever visited and thought ‘this is paradise’. Everything about it was beautiful and I had an amazing weekend there with some new found mates. Whenever the subject of going back to Sri Lanka is bought up, the first thing that springs to my mind is hopping on a train from Colombo and getting to Unawatuna as quick as possible.
5. What cultural activities and events would you suggest everyone seeing or taking part in while travelling in Sri Lanka and why?
If you want culture, just visit the cultural triangle. Made up of Dambulla, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the triangle exhibits a wealth of Sri Lankan history. Hire a guide and they’ll take you around endless temples, museums and caves. If you ask nicely, they may even take you to Sigiriya so that you can climb up to the fortress.
Dambulla – Visit Dambulla’s sacred temple – the Golden Temple – consists of 5 separate caves housing Buddhist statues and many paintings both religious and secular.
Anuradhapura – Visit the site of the oldest know tree in the world, The sacred Bodhi Tree “Sri Maha Bodhi” – a cutting of the tree in India where the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Polonnaruwa – Get a lesson in history by visiting another part of the cultural triangle.
Sigiriya – Get your climbing boots on and scale Lion Rock where the remains of a 5th Century fortress palace sits 600ft above the surrounding countryside. The views from the top are truly stunning!
Events wise, its definitely worth travelling to Kandi in order to see a performance by some of the Kandi dancers. If you like a challenge try climbing the 5000 steps of Adams Peak. Start your ascent at 2am and arrive at the top in time for sunrise. I would also recommend a trip to the Pinnawala elephant sanctuary. Watching bath time is pretty special.
6. What is your favourite thing about travelling this country? What is your least favourite thing?
Man these are tough questions. My favourite would probably be that for an area so small, Sri Lanka had so many different things to offer. I’m not a fan of mega long journies, so to have so many places of interest so close to one another was a major plus for me.
Least favourite, probably the free for all state of mind that exists when queing for tickets or getting a bus. I think that just took me by suprise at first. I’m an English gent dont you know, we queue and let women and children on/off transport first.
7. What things do you focus on most when you blog about this country? Why do you choose these things?
Although I have written about my weekend travels within Sri Lanka, most of my blogs and guest posts on other sites have concentrated on my volunteer project. It obviously took up the majority of my time in Sri Lanka, and I loved that project and working at the school in Ja Ela. I dont think I’d be getting up at 5am for any other job. I met some amazing people through working at the school and even got involved in other clubs because of the people I met. The kids even taught me a bit of the local lingo, they were great. Before I set off I thought the teaching would be really difficult, especially considering the language barrier, but once I got involved everything just seemed to fall into place.
8. What’s one thing you can’t travel around Sri Lanka without?
Malaria tablets and mozzy spray might be an idea, and you’d be foolish not to take sun cream. Personally I would say my camera, but I appreciate that some people see taking loads of pictures as detracting from ‘the moment’ so that might not be everyones choice.
9. If you could have lived anywhere else in the country where would it be and why?
Probably either in Colombo if I was working, but if I was a beach bum i’d head straight for Hikkaduwa. Hikkaduwa is one of the bigger beach areas on the south coast and hoasts some mega backpacker parties. It also has some great shops, bars and waves. It has so much yet still retained its laid back sleepy beach town vibe. Maybe its changed a little since my visit, but @girlintheworld (we met on this volunteer project i’ve been harping on about) is living there at the moment and I believe she’s more than happy there, living the dream. I’m just waiting for my invite to join her.
10. If you could think of one thing you wished someone had told you before you started travelling in Sri Lanka what would it be?
Just how rough my malaria tablets would make me feel? … In truth, absolutely nothing. I loved the element of surprise and not knowing what the next week would hold. I would not have changed a thing about my time there … as cheesy as that sounds its totally true.
Thanks Neil! A great bunch of tips on where to go in Sri Lanka…
If you’d like to be interviewed by us. Click here.