Sri Lanka by Tuktuk, with a Baby

My friend Sudha, her husband Gladson, and 2+ year old Evan, recently had a wonderful and off-beat holiday in Sri Lanka. In Sudha’s words….

Beauteous in grace and love,

Laden with grain and luscious fruit,

And fragrant flowers of radiant hue,

Giver of life and all good things.’

The words from the Sri Lankan national anthem resonated with me, as the train chugged along from Colombo to Hikkaduwa. We had chosen to travel in the A/C coach that was mostly filled with tourists, eagerly looking out the windows as the train chugged along the railway line that runs along the south coast. We passed charming railway stations, such as the one in Bentota, designed by the erstwhile Geoffrey Bawa- heralded as the father of the tropical modernist movement. From time to time, Evan, my two year old son Evan would shriek in excitement at passing trains: ‘Mama looook, Thomas the train’. 

Amidst the beauty of the coastal line, my mind meandered to what was to come. Was renting out a tuktuk – known commonly as three-wheeler in Sri Lanka – a good idea? My husband and I for years have been in the practice of renting out a motorcycle, no matter where in the world we were. But with a toddler in tow, a motorcycle was out of question. The more sensible and economical option was to rent a tuktuk and drive it oneself, which tourists in Sri Lanka are permitted to do.

Having enquired with many rental agencies online, we found a reasonably rated one in Hikkaduwa. The rental was going to cost us USD 10 per day which was a few dollars less than most agencies. We had to pay a deposit and an insurance amount before we took the vehicle for the stipulated period of 10 days.

We arrived in Hikkaduwa, which is one of the more expensive destinations along the south coast. The person-in-charge promised to hand over the tuktuk by 9 a.m. the next morning. 9 a.m. came and went, and he assured to meet us by afternoon. Hours later, we took custody of a blue tuktuk, that had in-built speakers. The exterior was customized with fun stickers and graffiti of the fictional pirate, Jack Sparrow. Having taken a short spin in it, my husband G and I started our journey to Tangalle as planned. Evan approved of the bright blue ‘toooktooook’, and couldn’t contain his excitement at the sight of his father riding it. 

We stopped for a late lunch ‘Dilshan Beachhouse & Cafe’ in Unnawatuna, a quaint beach town 40 minutes away. The scrumptious lunch was cooked by a young couple who have turned their little ancestral property into a beach side café. The husband, Dil, was a hardworking man who had dreamt of starting a cafe of his own ever since he worked in a restaurant washing dishes as a 20 year old. He mastered the art of cooking by simply observing the chef cooking elaborate seafood meals for hungry tourists.

Having eaten a satisfyingly good meal, we boarded the tuktuk and mentally prepared ourselves for the second half of the journey. G however found it impossible to start the tuktuk. Dil came over and lent a helping hand, but to no avail. Noticing the overcast skies, Dil called a few of his friends to help us. They pored over the engine and found nothing noticeably wrong. They then called over a mechanic friend, who found that the gear selector – which allows the vehicle to be put into different gears on a manual transmission – was broken. By this time, it had started to rain heavily. Gauging this was no ordinary situation, Dil’s wife proceeded to give Evan a tall glass of milk. She at first refused to charge us for it, but knowing how expensive milk is in Sri Lanka, we insisted on paying. When we offered to buy tea for the friends who continued examining the engine in the rain, they just refused and carried on with their work. 

Upon the mechanic’s suggestion that it would take an entire day to fix and cost around 10,000SLR (2360 INR), G called the vehicle’s owner. The latter insisted that it was our fault, despite the mechanic taking over the conversation and assuring him that it was a matter of gradual deterioration over weeks and days. The owner finally relented and agreed to bear the entire cost of repairs. But Dil and his friends were sceptical, saying he might go back on his word. G and I contemplated the pros and cons and decided to go ahead and fix the gear selector. My toddler and I proceeded to walk to a nearby guesthouse, run by an elderly woman, fondly called ‘Mama’, where we decided to book a room given the situation. Mama welcomed us and cooked Evan hot rice. In the meantime, G, Dil and the mechanic continued working on liaising with mechanics from nearby towns to get the replacement part. Having finalized the details, Dil dropped G off at the guesthouse way past bedtime. Dil would not agree to take any money for the all the time and effort he had put in to help us, and none of our protestations worked. 

The following morning, we visited Dallawella beach, renowned for the numerous sea turtles found on the shoreline. Our little one had the time of his life, watching the turtles swim and eat algae. ‘Mamaaa, Dadaaa OhMyGod, Looook’ he cried out excitedly, every few minutes.

By evening the tuktuk was in running condition, and true to Dil’s warning, the owner insisted we cover the cost. For years, we have been fully aware of the downside of renting a vehicle in any country as tourists, having heard tales of woe from fellow travellers. We considered ourselves lucky since we never experienced it – until NOW. But it was close to impossible for short term travellers to insist on being repaid since (a) You do not know who the owner of the vehicle rental maybe locally; (b) They have your passport in custody until you handover the vehicle; (c) With a toddler in tow, it probably isn’t prudent to get into fights. We decided to pay for it ourselves and carried on to Tangalle, 76 kms away.

20 minutes before reaching our hotel, the tuktuk abruptly stopped on the side of the highway. Thankfully a group of youngsters came forward to help G push the tuktuk to the side of the highway. Turns out that the mechanic who had assured G that there was enough fuel to reach Tangalle was wrong – rookie mistake. The youngsters immediately called a friend of theirs to take G to the nearby petrol bunk to fetch fuel in a bottle. I initiated a conversation with some of the young boys, and found that they too ran a café nearby. Intrigued, I jotted down the details and told G about it when he returned. We promised we would return to their beachside café the next day and left for the hotel.

The Tuktuk Gods however had one last surprise for us that day. Two cops on a motorcycle flagged us down and came over to tell G that our brake light wasn’t working and we needed to get it fixed. We thanked them for letting us know and promised to fix it. Turned out it was a matter of electrical earthing and didn’t cost us anything.

The following day, as promised we headed to the café run by the youngsters. The Top Surf was a charming café, with great food on an isolated stretch of beach accessible only to guests of an elite hotel. PERFECT! We spent the day snorkelling and unwinding.

The rest of our tuktuk journey was thankfully seamless. We spent idyllic days in beach towns such as Mirissa and Welligama, ate good seafood, snorkelled and spotted turtles. Our little one was smiling throughout the journey and woke up each morning saying, “Let’s GOOO, Mama,  Dada’. The beach road along the south coast of Sri Lanka is magnificent! Winding toll-free roads along the coastline, wild peacocks flying by, and people who are always willing to lend a helping hand. Overall, the journey was peaceful and accomplished what we were looking for – blissful days by the beach. 

Dil’s Cafe: 


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