Backpacking Sri Lanka


For the largest part of February I was backpacking in Sri Lanka together with Valerie. Before going there I didn’t know much about the country and didn’t have much of an idea what to expect — always a very good prerequisite for travelling, I think. Sri Lanka is a small Island just below South India and has a lot of similarities to India; in my opinion the term India Light is surprisingly fitting. Everything is similar, but just less of everything: less hectic, less people, less over the top. The food is very similar to Indian cuisine as well and there is especially a lot of influence from South India (there are a lot of South Indian restaurants too). As in India the food was outstanding, very rich in flavor, spicy and hearty, yet still light. A lot of curries, vegetables and fruits; very easy to come by as a vegetarian.

It feels as if tourism is catching a lot more traction in Sri Lanka in recent years, this is mostly because a civil war occupied the country until nine years ago and the tsunami catastrophe in 2004 put a recession to tourism. This “non-touristic” thing was the main theme of our journey and we mostly stayed in small, local guesthouses or homestays. The most touristic places are mostly on the south coast and we tried to avoid them. We only went to Tangalle, which is probably one the most non-touristic places on the south coast, and that was already too much for me — long beach promenades with exclusively western food, english music, etc.. But a lot of other places in the country are not touristic at all, especially during the off season.

Especially in the east it often felt like experiencing the beginnings of tourism (especially in Nilaveli). The few improvised restaurants there were essentially people who put a few tables in their backyard and call it a restaurant. I have experienced the people as very ambitious and in many places you can really feel how much they are willing to get out of poverty. That was really great, to see these beginnings. I’m sure that in ten years time the country will be much more touristic. Even now we often read blog posts by people who visited a certain village a year before us and wrote stuff like “very secluded, only one guesthouse”; when we arrived there were already some guesthouses, restaurants, etc.. Still, in a lot of places we very often were the only tourists in the bus or the area. You can feel quite alien being the only foreigner far and wide, but it’s interesting to experience this from time to time. We also had the case of waiters in restaurants making a scene when we enter, taking photos, bringing us all kinds of food to try.

Funnily, I often had the impression that the country is still shocked by the increase in tourism and has not yet adapted. We often had the case that we negotiated for a price and actually got the local, native people price. Or we arrived at a place, got out of the bus and were packing things into the backpacks with tuk-tuk drives already surrounding us, but not yet interrupting us and waiting patiently until we were finished with packing before making offers to take us somewhere. This experience is totally different in e.g. India or South America.

I would even say that I have never met a culture this friendly in any other country which I visited so far. People were immensely friendly to us and it happened a lot of times that children would wave at us, that people would approach us and talk to us, or that we were e.g. offered food on a long bus ride. All of this has happened in other countries too, just not as often as in Sri Lanka.


Our means of travelling were mostly local buses. This is very easy in Sri Lanka and enormously cheap, buses drive all the time everywhere. It was a nice experience to see the country this way; it’s always a bumpy, loud, and raving ride, but a very authentic possibility to experience the local culture, see small villages which you would otherwise not pass through and observe the way how locals interact with each other. We often observed the friendly way how natives who didn’t know each other before the ride interacted during a couple hours of common bus ride — sharing food, chatting, making music, etc.. In many many local bus rides we encountered other tourists only very seldom; only on two occasions there were other tourists in the same bus for a short time, on most rides it was approximately sixty locals and we two :-).

The local buses are enormously slow compared to e.g. taxis, the main reason for this is that everybody can stop a bus anywhere. So besides the usual bus stops, buses get stopped at arbitrary places all the time. For example, a bus might stop at a bus stop, then 500 meters later somebody will wave the bus to stop, then another 500 meters later some other person does the same again :-).

The question we were most often asked by locals was about our jobs in Germany ‒ for me it’s always easy because most people have some rough idea what a software developer does, but for Valerie (a psychologist) it’s next to impossible to explain an occupation which is practically non-existent in Sri Lanka to a native.


One thing that I found very calming: Sri Lanka is very small and wherever you are you can always, very easily, pay someone to drive you to some other part of the island in a couple of hours. Nothing is ever far away. If your train would be cancelled you could still e.g. pay a tuk-tuk or a taxi to drive you to the airport for a very affordable price. To me it was just a reassuring feeling to know that if I’m ever stuck in a place that I dislike it’s very easy to just carry-on.

There are basically no foreigners working in Sri Lanka, working visas are practically unheard of. One consequence is that you won’t find emigrated people who e.g. run foreign restaurants. So the western dropout hippie cafes which are very common in India/Mexico/etc. are nowhere to be found, only locals operate restaurants/shops/cafes.

For me, a highlight of our trip was the train ride from Ella to Kandy. Most tourists do the route the other way around (Kandy to Ella), which is why the train is always very packed in that direction. A good tip is to do it the other way around, our train was much less crowded and it’s the same track.
The British built the railway in Sri Lanka to transport tea leaves from the plantations to the coast. Today this makes for a very idyllic train ride, as the train winds its way through the hills. Often there are tea plantations along the way and the hot air and the strong sun result in a nice scent of the plants when driving through a plantation. The train is very slow and bumpy, so the journey is always quite long (7 hours compared to ~2 hours via car), but it’s a beautiful landscape and there are a lot of things to see. Since the railway is quite old there’s also a unique system of physical tokens — whenever a part of the track can only be passed by one train at a time a large physical ring is carried by the train which passes the track. This token then gets passed to the next train which ensures that there is only ever one train on this particular track.


I have highlighted a lot of positive aspects of our journey in this post so far, but shortly want to describe one negative aspect as well. Let me prefix this by saying that experiences like the following are important to me when travelling as it broadens ones view on the world. The topic is of sexism — discrimination based on gender, typically against women.

I already wrote about this topic and the way we as a couple were treated in South America here, but the experience in Sri Lanka was much more intense. Women are often treated as people of a lower class compared to males there and this has become sadly apparent to me in the way how Valerie was often treated. I have talked to some other travelers and my impression is that this mostly comes to light when travelling as a couple of male/female (compared to e.g. two femals travelling together).

Some examples: We eat breakfast, I get asked ten times overly politely if everything is truly absolutely fine, she gets asked (or even looked at) zero times. She asks for the bill, I get it. She pays, I get the change. She asks for an info, I get handed a paper with the info. People talk about her in the third person, even though she stands right besides me (“she can wait here”). We talk to somebody and the person has solely me as a reference person, with the body completely oriented towards me. When we are approached, people always only talk to me. When we enter e.g. a store for textiles and it’s completely obvious that she is searching for something and that I’m just passively waiting around, it’s still me who gets asked what we search for.
This is immensely frustrating, not only for the female. We usually try to counteract this kind of behavior in such countries — Valerie always orders bills, pays for stuff, asks for info, etc.. This didn’t help much this time though.

I want to highlight that this negative insertion should not be put too much in the foreground of our overall journey and similar things can be expected in South America or India. Not everyone acted this way, there were also a lot of people who treated us both the same way. We still perceived the people there as enormously friendly, eager to help, and welcoming. I just hope that this changes in the next years and hope that tourism by western female travelers encourages women there to demand more rights.


Some things that I quickly want to mention last:

  • As always, buying a local SIM card was one of the best decisions of our trip. This is just immensely useful for maps.
  • A funny thing that I know from Mexico: in a restaurant we order two ginger beer (because they are on the menu). The waiter takes the order, goes to his motorcycle, drives away for twenty minutes and comes back with…guess it…one ginger beer! 😀
  • Coconut Sambol: the Sri Lankan food is very good and eating vegetarian is very easy. Coconut Sambol is the specialty that I liked most and have also prepared at home now several times. Basically it’s freshly grated coconut with shallots, tomatoes, salt, chilli, and lime. This recipe is quite good and contains some more details (and pictures).
  • I often fall for this: showing locals or tuk-tuk drivers a map when asking for something and after a couple minutes of pointless discussion I finally get it: they can’t read neither text nor maps, but don’t want to admit it and instead talk around it. Whenever this happens I’m once again reminded of how many elementary things we take for granted in Europe.
  • We asked a local (who was 25 years old) to take a photo of us. Since we only had analog cameras with us, I handed him a small one. He took a photo and asked us to check if it’s fine. I told him that there’s no way, because it’s an analog camera. He didn’t understand what I meant and asked where the display was :-). That’s really interesting: he didn’t know at all about analog photography and probably never saw one of the old cameras or photo prints. I’m pretty sure that for him the age of photography starts with digital cameras and smartphones.

In total our three-week journey cost us pretty much exactly 520 Euro each with an additional cost of ~600 Euro each for the flight. We could probably have gotten the flight cheaper, but unfortunately Air Berlin filed for insolvency at the time when we booked, so many flights got a lot more expensive for some time.


Short Trip to Portugal


Went there with Valerie for just a bit over a week in May. We stayed in Lisbon for some days, which I perceived as quite a nice city with a unique vibe and architecture. I liked that people were so calm and relaxed. We met up with Marina in Lisbon and spent a nice time with her.

I was surprised that Portuguese is actually a very different language from Spanish. I found it remarkable that words are different when a woman says them opposed to when a man uses them. For example, the version of “thank you” which females use is “obrigada”, opposed to the male version “obrigado”. The expression “thank you” is of course so ubiquitous that it is used in all kinds of contexts: advertisements, door signs, websites, etc.. But I only ever saw the male version “obrigado” in these contexts, which makes me implicitly mentally read and associate this with a masculine voice. It’s crazy how deep gender segregation runs here – it is even deeply manifested and reflected in the language. I think this will make it very hard for the culture to detach from gender stereotypes and to adapt e.g. trans-/crossgender ideas.

After Lisbon we spent some days in Porto. I didn’t get that enthusiastic with the city, a bit too many tourists, too much stress and too much noise. Lisbon on the other hand was more chilled out. Still, it was a nice time and I perceived the Portuguese as very friendly. We had a nice time trying the different fabulous vegetarian restaurants there. The prices usually are a bit cheaper than in Germany, so for 14-16 Euro per meal you get an extraordinary restaurant where you will be served with white gloves and stuff, comparable to a high-class, top-notch German restaurant.

For one day we went to a smaller city called Aveiro and visited Marina there. Quite a nice city, nice conversations, nice time.

Even though it was just a bit more than a week, it was still nice to travel for a bit. Especially since I haven’t been to Portugal before. There is always stuff to discover and we had a lot of fun trying various famous Portuguese pastries. One evening we were in a Cafe late in the evening reading some books. They had some cake left, which they didn’t want to spare till the next day. So they surprised us with it :-). Stuff like this is nice and somehow tends to happen more often to me when travelling. And I always enjoy the feeling of coming home, getting a hot shower and putting on some completely fresh clothes (and not the ones which have been in the backpack for days). I think that’s probably in my Top 3 things about travelling: Coming home again :-).


Backpacking Israel


For two weeks of March I was backpacking in Israel. I flew there from Berlin and met up with some friends in Tel Aviv. I think this is the shortest vacation I had since a couple of years, but my work life constraints me in these terms now. Still, it was nice to travel again. Being able to float around, staying here and there, talking to people, taking photos, reading books, thinking about stuff.

Israel has been on my travel wishlist since a while now. Such a unique country; I’m never really sure how to grasp the whole Jewish culture. It seems like some mix of culture, religion, country, tribe. And the political situation makes for a very unique mindset of the people and their view on e.g. airport security, life, their country, etc.. If you have the time just read the Wiki article on the Six-Day War, it seems like a story straight out of Hollywood.

One of the things I enjoy most when travelling is to get up early in the morning, walk around in a city, sit down somewhere, get a coffee and breakfast, not doing much, just watching the city wake up for hours and hours, ordering another coffee, maybe read a bit, observe some more…chilling away the entire morning.
In Jerusalem I couldn’t sleep well and woke up very early in the mornings all the time. So I just walked around in the empty old city by myself. On the last day I ended up in the Jewish district at some kind of plaza and stayed there for a while, just watching the city wake up. In Jerusalem the unique thing is that on early mornings many orthodox Jews go to the Western Wall, return home and then go to work. It was somehow nice and calming to just sit there and observe this scenery.

There were some memorable conversations which stand out. One was with a woman of about my age. She studied at about the same time I did. I talked with her about the way the Israeli war with Gaza in 2014 affected her studies at university. The war had a major effect since her exams were always postponed due to attacks and she always started learning anew. That was quite a unique perspective.

The other conversation was with an 18-year old girl at a hippie gathering. She was very, very much full of life. I think I now understand why people tend to age slower when surrounded by young people. When I asked her about what makes up her mind she got quite emotional and talked about making art in order to feel like being alive. The things she said subsequently and that whole manner of having the immediate, very pressing urgency of creating something was a character trait which reminded me a lot of myself a couple of years ago. In the subsequent days I thought a lot about this conversation.

We visited a number of cities, with Tel Aviv standing out to me. What a vibrant city! Full of life! Seems quite similar to Berlin in the summer. Restaurants and bars halfway on the streets with loud non-mainstream music, many young people, alternative vibe, interesting people.

Israel is such a small country and travelling around in the Bus is cheap and easy. Wherever you go, it’s never far. We at most had bus rides of 2-3 hours. We also hitchhiked for a bit, which was really easy (even easier than in Germany). I was surprised by the Sabbath, which is taken quite seriously. Each week, on early Friday afternoon, most shops, restaurants, supermarkets, transportation facilities, etc. close down until Saturday after sundown.

Other stuff which stood out to me was the West Bank. We went to Bethlehem and I was surprised by the height of the wall, it is much higher than the Berlin wall was. And sadly it’s not just a relic of the past there, but rather an active part of everyday life there.

Besides those bigger cities we were also in smaller ones — Clil was a small, laid back town in the North with a focus on sustainable living. The houses there are off the grid and you can buy fresh homegrown vegetables directly from gardens. We did some hiking there and cooked each evening.

We were also in a town near the Sea of Galilee. A guy in the hostel there approached a friend and me, he said we looked like “fresh out of India” and that there was a hippie gathering at a river somewhere nearby. Of course we went there :-). In the past I have been to similar events in Mexico and Guatemala. It was very nice to attend something like this again. Music, families with children, vegan food, community kitchen, nice conversations, easy to talk to people, a place where you can take some time off from the real world out there.

The co-existence of two different cultures in one country is interesting to observe. It is a bit sad though. There seems to be little assimilation or effort to bring the Arab and Jewish culture closer together. In the majority of cases even schools are separated. It seems obvious that it’s hard for adults in both cultures to live peacefully together when they grow up separately from childhood on.

Another city which we visited was Jisr az-Zarqa, a 100% Arab village at the coast (the last Arab village at the Israeli coast). This felt a lot like being back in Morocco. Jisr has one of the highest (if not the highest) school dropout rates in the country (the criminality rate is similarly bad). We stayed in a hostel there and the host had to calculate 5% discount for us. He took a calculator and did this in a very complicated manner with a lot of intermediate results (instead of calculating “price * 0.95”). I guess it’s hard to see the value of education if most of the people you know don’t see it as well. There are few role models with a good education. Timo currently does his Ph.D. in a niche area of realtime systems on the intersection of computer science and electrical engineering. It’s already hard to describe his research to many people in Germany, but to explain what he does to people with such an early school dropout rate would be so alien to their view on the world that I can’t possibly imagine how they could form any understanding of the subject. I think education is really important to enable these people economic independence and reduce criminality and even though there are now a myriad of tools (Wikipedia, Khan Academy, Duolingo, Coursera, etc.) available, the bigger and more underlying problem here might be that people just haven’t learned to see the value of it.


One Bag Israel


If you’re a bit into travel blogs, minimalism, one bag philosophy, vagabonds, or digital nomads you will soon stumble upon one of those packaging lists where people elaborate on the stuff they take with them when travelling. I like to read those lists, considerations, and reflections. In this post I have compiled one such list for a short, two week backpacking trip to Israel.

In similar lists and reviews I have sometimes read stuff like this (original quotes):

Comment on an extensive packaging list for a trip to Asia:
Thanks for sharing! If you were to look back, would you have taken less?
Actually built this over the last year, but haven’t gone on the big trip yet…

I don’t understand how you can compile a list of tips for stuff to take with you or review a product without having actually used it? So, well I have written this post only *after* I actually went to Israel. I have included some names of products in the post, though I did so hesitantly and only for stuff which I found worth mentioning.

  • Map with documents.
    Copy of health insurance, list with addresses of family/friends, copy of vaccination records, biometric photos, international drivers license, address and telephone number of German embassy, pen + some plain sheets of paper, blood donor card (it contains information about the blood group).
    The vaccination records are required by some countries to let you immigrate and even if they don’t require them, it’s still a good idea to have them with you in case of emergencies. Biometric photos can be required for all kinds of things (in India for a lot of stuff, e.g. to buy a SIM card).
  • 30 USD.
    Since a while I always carry 30 USD as immediate cash for emergencies when travelling (e.g. when I can’t find a working ATM). In all foreign countries where I have been to it was always extremely easy to exchange USD to a native currency. I usually also have some Euros in cash with me.
  • A small, watersealed bag with various small items.
    Rope (to make a clothes line), clothes peg, gaffa tape, Sugru (formable glue), power converter, Smartphone + charger, lighter, pocket knife, lock, flashlight (Fenix LD12), backup battery for flashlight, small mirror, case to store glasses, ear plugs, flexible strap (to e.g. attach stuff to the backpack).

    Also I always have some fresh waste bags with me. They can be used for all kinds of stuff: to wrap liquid stuff and prevent it from leaking, wrapping flip flops before putting them inside the bag, as a way to collect clothes from the washing machine, or — of course — as a waste bag.

    Since a while I always have foldable coat hangers with me, they are quite small and it’s easy to hang stuff to dry or just to let clothes gain some fresh air.

  • Large Microfiber Towel.
    Lightweight, dries fast.
  • Something to eat.
    Nuts or a muesli bar (a Cliff Bar usually). Something which can survive heat and being buried in the backpack. I found it calming to always know: I have something to eat with me. For example, if there are no shops open when arriving somewhere I will still have something with me. For long bus rides it’s also comforting to have something small as a backup.
  • Analog camera + 5 films + throwaway camera as backup.
    I separate the used from the fresh films by storing them in two different, small, labelled vacuum bags (Noaks Bags). The films should always go in your hand luggage (see this site of Kodak on why).
  • One long trouser (which I wore), one short one (which it was too cold for), one swimming trunk (which it was also too cold for). Some shirts, sleeves, underwear, a normal jacket, and a lightweight, foldable rain jacket.

    I usually don’t take thick pullovers and instead go for a layered approach of wearing multiple layers when it gets cold. This way I need to carry less stuff. I usually have some Icebreaker merino shirts with me, they are very comfortable in hot and cold climate and they dry fast. Also: wherever I go, I always take long thermal underwear with me. And I always carry a scarf and a hat. Even when it is hot, bus rides or train rides might still be windy. Carrying a hat is easy, it doesn’t have a lot of weight or take a lot of space — but if you’re cold a hat can already help a lot, since your body evaporates a lot of heat via the head.
    I always have two vacuum bags with me (by Nordisk), in which I store all clothing: one for clean clothes and one for dirty ones. The vacuum bags keep them properly separated.

  • Flip Flops.
  • Kindle.
    An eBook reader has an immense value to me when travelling. Sure, books have their pros, the feeling of reading a worn-down, color faded paperback is of course nice. But books also take up a lot of space. In previous journeys I often went through 2-4 books and they were often taking up way too much space. One time I had a book with me and realized after a couple of pages that it wasn’t working for me, I then put it away and went on the sad search for an appealing alternative in Thailand’s outback. The Kindle solves all these issues and I think the pros outweigh the cons.
  • Foldable, lightweight backpack.
    For walking around in the city and not having to carry the bigger backpack everywhere. I use one by North Face (the Flyweight) which has a clever feature: The pouch (in which it is kept in the packed state) is integrated in the backpack in a nice way when it is expanded; it then functions as a theft protection pouch, since it isn’t easily accessible when someone unzips the backpack.
  • Foldable, lightweight blanket.
    I used it for picnics and sitting at the beach.
  • Some medical stuff, band-aid, rubber gloves, something against insect bites.
    I store these things in one vacuum bag as well.
  • Ethnotek 46l backpack + rain cover for it.
  • Bag with toiletries, handkernchiefs, and sun protection.
  • Wallet.
    Two credit cards of different providers. Organ donor card.
  • Passport.
    The most important thing last :-).

That’s it. Not that spectacular, but that’s how it should be. Minimalistic. I quite enjoy that it takes me maybe 5-10 minutes to pack everything up when leaving the hostel. I have reflected over each item and thought about why I take it with me.

And now the list of all the things I should have taken ;-):
I didn’t take my hiking shoes with me, but I should have. It would probably have been best to solely take them with me, but I don’t really like the style of them when walking around in cities or going out in the evenings.

About Me

I am a 32 year old techno-creative enthusiast who lives and works in Berlin. In a previous life I studied computer science (more specifically Media Informatics) at the Ulm University in Germany.

I care about exploring ideas and developing new things. I like creating great stuff that I am passionate about.


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