Cycling around Sri Lanka

Clare and Chris Stratton were new to cycle touring when they decided to cycle 1,600 km around the coast of Sri Lanka but they quickly fell in love with cycling and developed a deeper connection with the country where Clare had been born.

Clare and Chris were coming back to the UK after 30 years working overseas and they wanted an adventure before they moved back. They decided to cycle around Sri Lanka – where Clare was born and where she still has roots.

As well as enthusiasm, they had the luxury of time – six months to take some time off and explore the island. Some of that time was spent with family and they also took a trip into the Highlands of Sri Lanka. But for about three months, they travelled by bike around the coast, taking it slow and stopping whenever and wherever they wanted.

 

What was the plan?

We had no agenda and no plan. We weren’t cyclists; we didn’t even have bikes. So the first thing was to buy hybrid bikes and panniers in Singapore which we then took to Sri Lanka. We decided to cycle round the coast of Sri Lanka – basically because I don’t do hills. We called it “hugging the coast”. It didn’t matter how long it took. So we started in the north in Jaffna and headed south in a clockwise direction down the east coast.

How did you find cycle touring?

By the time we finished we were very fit. Chris was pretty fit anyway because he is a runner but I wasn’t fit at all. But we got into it so fast. We took the cycling really slowly and would stop for days at a time if we found somewhere we liked. We worked out roughly how long we could cycle in a day and would book accommodation a day in advance. On our cycling days we usually did about 50-60km; the most we ever did was 80km but on some days we would just do 30km.

How was the heat?

On our first day we set off late and hit the heat of the day; so we learned to leave as soon as the sun rose. Sometimes we set off in the dark with our bike lights on. We also had to wear cover-up clothes over our cycling gear to protect our skin from the sun. We probably looked strange – we were covered from head to toe. I wore baggy trousers over my padded shorts that had been made for me locally. We also wore bandannas under our helmets. Dressing like that is actually cooler than having the hot sun on your skin.

Is cycle touring popular in Sri Lanka?

We did meet a few other cyclists but most of them were on supported trips with their stuff being carried in a van. And they were under pressure to get to the next destination every day. So they were on a mission to meet a deadline. It was so different for us. We literally stopped whenever we liked and if we saw an interesting track we’d follow it to see where it went.

What did you take?

Very little. We just had two sets of cycling clothes and something to wear in the evening. Everything we had was lightweight and we could wash and dry everything overnight – thanks to our washing line which I strung up wherever we were staying, often in our bedroom. What we did need a lot of was water – we carried at least two litres all the time, in camel packs and bottles. We also drank a lot of coconut water which you could buy on the road.

How were the roads?

Our friends thought we were bonkers to travel by bike given the state of the roads in Sri Lanka. Admittedly, the traffic in the south was bad and the buses would hurtle along. We learned the difference between a friendly hoot that says “I’m coming” and a hoot that meant “get off the road”. But other parts of the island, particularly the north and the east were really quiet. We had good tyres that could cope with dirt tracks as well as roads and we never had a puncture.

Where did you stay?

We mostly stayed in very basic guest houses but also the occasional nice hotel. There are guest houses all over Sri Lanka that typically have a few rooms and actually they are on booking.com. We used our mobile phones for navigation and to book accommodation a day ahead. We kept our bikes in our room simply because we couldn’t afford to lose them but we never had any trouble and never felt in danger.

How was the food?

The food in Sri Lanka is amazing – fantastic veggie curries and wonderful fruit. You’re never far from a shack or a shop. Apart from fish we stuck to a vegetarian diet. We often set off before breakfast and then picked up something on the way. You could smell the rotis being cooked by the road before you got to them so that was a typical breakfast.

What was the best thing about Sri Lanka?

The people were fantastic, really friendly and we felt safe everywhere we went. Local people always came up and talked to us; and if they were on a motorbike they would drive along beside us to chat. You see so much more and experience much more on a bike than you would in a car. The scenery is spectacular and we had loads of wow views of beaches, mountains and wildlife, especially bird life.

One of the funniest moments happened when we were cycling along and the road just ran out; ahead of us was a lagoon. We managed to get a lift to the other side with some fishermen on their flimsy raft. It was pretty precarious with them, the two of us, two bikes and four panniers.

What did you learn about Sri Lanka?

Because Clare was born here, she has a strong connection to Sri Lanka. We kept discovering family graves and people we met often knew of Clare’s mother’s family. Being in Sri Lanka for six months gave us a deeper appreciation for the country. We were very conscious that the war had ended only ten years earlier. In the North, we saw battlefields and the sites of massacres.

On the trip we read an excellent book by the British journalist John Gimlette called Elephant Complex which taught us a lot about Sri Lanka’s history. We were lucky enough to meet John at a literary festival in Galle. We also met John’s guide and it turned out he was a keen cyclist. We became good friends and he suggested some very special routes in the north east of the island that we would never have discovered on our own.

Has this given you a taste for more cycle touring?

Absolutely – the question is where to go next. We’ll definitely do another trip soon somewhere, probably in Europe. The only concern is the weather!