Sri Lanka: Pimp my ride and feed me like a local

By Cathrin Schaer

Cathrin Schaer finds a flash, chauffeur-driven way to go wining, dining and singing with the locals in Sri Lanka’s capital.
TukTuk drivers The Wizard, Captain Pumba and Bob Marley.
TukTuk drivers The Wizard, Captain Pumba and Bob Marley.

The average tuk-tuk - also known as a three-wheeler taxi, or an auto rickshaw - is a many splendoured thing. When you ride in one, you are no longer just another tourist behind glass, in an air-conditioned car. You are down with the locals, breathing in the traffic fumes, sweating in the humid breeze, feeling every bump on the road and gasping apprehensively as the driver swerves to miss pedestrians and vehicles. Vegetable sellers, sari-makers and boys pushing leaky carts loaded with dog-sized chunks of ice are close enough to touch as you pass by, at slightly faster than a speeding bicycle's pace. All of which is why the tuk-tuk that arrived to take us on a tour of the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, was an even more splendoured thing.

The blue and yellow three-wheelers belonging to this relatively new local business, Tuk Tuk Safaris, have been modified to suit and it feels that the Australian founders have made their mark. Mick - "call me Barra" - Morehead and Tim - "call him Squid" - Graham, originally from Cairns but now living in Colombo and Singapore, say they spent six months building the prototype before launching the tours about 10 months ago with Sri Lankan friends.

"The only real challenge that we faced was establishing what was actually legal in terms of tuk-tuk modifications," Morehead says. "Not even our lawyers could find anything that suggested it was illegal - or legal - to do what we wanted to do."

So now there's a cooler in the back for drinks - yes, you can bring your own beers - and a stereo into which you can plug your own iPod, as well as a phone charger so you never miss a selfie. When it gets dark, these three-wheelers even have blue neon underbody lighting, just like some petrolhead's souped-up Toyota. Additionally, the middle section of the canvas roof can be folded back so passengers can travel, convertible style and even stand up if they want to.

In fact, as soon as that pimped-out tuk-tuk pulls up outside your lodgings, it's clear this is going to be a different kind of tour. Tuk Tuk Safaris offer a number of different outings - including a city safari that offers a broader look at Colombo and includes historic monuments, malls, Hindu temples and Buddhist shrines - but we've decided on the latest addition to their tourist portfolio, a food safari.

Tuk Tuk Safari Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Tuk Tuk Safari Colombo, Sri Lanka.

It had become increasingly clear that a lot of hotels and tourist destinations adapt the levels of spice, and probably the dirt and grit too, to suit the average tourist's palate. Our accommodation serves a mean, clean veggie pizza but their curries are a far cry from fiery. Sri Lankan cuisine is the result of geography - lots of fish, coconut and curry - and colonialism, with various European and neighbouring nations all leaving something on the menu. So we were desperately hoping our tuk-tuk drivers would take us to the "numerous super-authentic (local favourite) food stops" their website boasts about.

Our drivers this evening are nicknamed The Wizard, Captain Pumba and Bob Marley. We never found out why. Dressed in magnificent white livery with gold braid - a nod to Sri Lanka's colonial past - they open the side door of the gold and blue tuk-tuk as courteously as though it was a horse-drawn carriage, before offering us a cooled, damp white facecloth, a floral garland and fresh, chilled coconut juice, in the original coconut.

First stop: A tea shop. But not just any tea shop. Sri Lanka is well known for its tea plantations; the British first brought tea plants here in the 19th century and the country is now the world's biggest tea exporter, with its tea industry worth an annual $NZ2.25 billion.

"But most tea buyers go to auctions and buy from different estates and then combine their purchases for export," explains one of the helpful young men at the Tea Triumph tea room, after he has explained the difference between silver tea, white tea and golden tea. We are listening politely in a small, dusty store with a view of the Indian ocean on one side and shelves of tidily stacked canisters on the other. "But not us," he boasts. "We only sell our tea on our estate and at this outlet."

In other words, the four different kinds of tea we're about to sip out of delicate white porcelain is what you might call "single estate", in this case from the Embilmeegama estate in northern Sri Lanka.

Food stop on Tuk Tuk Safaris, Sri Lanka.
Food stop on Tuk Tuk Safaris, Sri Lanka.

Having marvelled at the tea variations, we're off again. And we soon find out that delicate sipping was not a good indication of what is to come. The next stop, after about 20 minutes in traffic, is a nondescript place that looks like somebody's shabby burger bar. White walls, fluorescent lighting and grubby floors: street food central. But the smell! Oh, the smell.

"They make the best grilled chicken here," Bob Marley confides, with a knowing smile.

Indeed the Big Bite Biryani and BBQ do. My travelling companion tells me it's the best bird she's ever tasted - spicy, tender, crisp - while I tuck into some of the best garlic naan my mouth has ever had an intimate relationship with.

After we eat, however, there's no time to hang about rubbing our stomachs. The food safari must go on.

Another stop, another nameless, nondescript takeaway bar in somebody's backyard, with nary a tourist in sight. This time it's some of the best hoppers in Colombo. Hoppers are a sort of bowl-shaped pancake made from rice flour and coconut batter and have been - accurately I think - described as "the love child of a crepe and a crumpet". Sharing a bench with a local family, we dip our hoppers into a curry gravy that looks like it's been coagulating for days. Delicious.

It's getting dark and the next stop is even more nameless, neighbourly and totally packed. The food safari's motto appears to be something like: it's not always pretty but it tastes amazing.

Approaching the store, there's an almighty noise: It's the sound of the cook wielding his blades to make kottu. This Sri Lankan speciality, made of a special kind of day-old roti bread, is a kind of tasty, all-comers fry up-meets-comfort food, that is only served at night. Kottu apparently literally means "to chop" and the bread strips are blended with meats, a spicy gravy, vegetables and even cheese, on a hot iron using blunt metal blades. We've ordered in so we're sweating in the back of a crowded local cafe but those locals out front stand and stare at the spectacle as the cook wields his special knives like a tribal drummer. It's loud and it's awesome: part dinner, part show.

Then once again, weighted down by the exceedingly gluttonous choice that was cheese kottu, we climb back into the tuk-tuks. By this stage you'll be wishing there was somewhere to lie down back here. It's only a small mercy that traffic in Colombo is quite intense, which gives you a solid break between the five or six meals you're going to eat over these three to five hours.

"So how do you find these places?" I yell in Captain Pumba's ear as he skilfully navigates a somewhat chaotic roundabout in the twilight. "Word of mouth," he replies. The Sri Lankan drivers asked all their friends for recommendations and then they went to try everything themselves, until they settled on a route filled with "personal bests".

By now, it's dark, the blue neon underbody lighting is flashing, a few plastic cups of cheap wine have been consumed and we have overcome any shyness about musical taste (or lack thereof). One of us plugged in an iPod. The speakers behind us are blasting an odd combination of Bollywood hits, Snoop Dogg and Latin dance numbers. One of us is singing along.

The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. There were lots of smiles and waves as we went: Everybody is jealous of, admiring, or curious about, our souped-up, convertible tuk-tuk. As Morehead says of his eight-vehicle fleet, "this concept is so new for the Sri Lankan people and they are so amazed when they see the tuk-tuks for the first time." Or maybe they just liked the singing.

Memorable moments included a brief, barefoot stroll through the Gangaramaya Temple that included Sri Lankan Buddhists in white, watering a mythical Bodhi tree and a chamber of giant fairytale creatures to whom we offered the incredible pink lotus someone had thrust at us as we drove by. There was also a quick perambulation through Colombo's messy, frantic Pettah Market. There was yet another delicious meal down a dark street in the Muslim district, the sort of place we would never have known about, let alone dared to visit. We sat outside like honoured guests and watched barbecuing chickens being basted exuberantly. Then there was a quick drive-by of the ocean. More wine and more carousing followed while we tuk-tuk-ed home, under the stars, the towering palms and flowering trees.

A mere five hours and several meals too many later, stuffed, a little sweaty and back outside our hotel, Pumba and Bob Marley present each of us with a small, chilled ceramic container for desert: a cool disc of buffalo milk curd, complete with a tiny bottle of palm sugar treacle to pour upon it. Then I fell asleep. It was the perfect ending.

FACT BOX

Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Colombo, via Kuala Lumpur, with one-way Economy Class fares starting from $1574.

Visitors can book a safari online at Tuk Tuk Safaris' website. Safaris cost between $US40 and US$60, with the food safari well worth US$50 (around $NZ68); all meals are included in the cost of the tour. There are also plans to expand the trip into southern Sri Lanka.

- Spy.co.nz

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