Sri Lanka is a destination that deserves to be on everyone’s travel bucket list. Especially if you live a mere four hours away in Dubai. Parts of this tiny island were ravaged by civil war, and for the most part came out the other side smiling, and as an emerging hot spot for tourism. Until 2009, the conflict hid Sri Lanka’s charms from the rest of the world, but now a diverse destination is opening up to travellers with a taste for ancient history, natural wonders, wildlife or tropical beach life. Take your pick.
In September this year, those unwilling to pick just one could join in an annual round-the-island tour, but with a difference: whizzing and chuntering around in a tuk tuk. Each year, the Lanka Challenge takes up to 25 teams on a tour of the island, with sightseeing, challenges (such as bagging an invite to a local’s house for lunch) and charitable activities taking place en route.
Set up by Juan Paredes and Julian Carnall, the two founders hit on the idea and launched the first challenge while based in Dubai. Talking to Time Out Dubai from his new base in Miami, co-founder Paredes explains how the project began: ‘We were both working for Emirates in Dubai, in the tourism division. We both love to travel and we worked with lots of Sri Lankans, who were always inviting us to visit their country. We went to Sri Lanka, rented a tuk tuk, and did our own tour. When we came back to Dubai, we started reflecting on what we had done, and thought about organising this as an event for other people to enjoy. Our aim at that time was to showcase and improve the image of Sri Lanka. The civil war was still going on when we started organising the event and it actually just ended before the first trip took place in 2009.’
Getting to grips with a tuk tuk is not as intimidating as it might seem, says Paredes. A cross between a motorbike and a car, once you’ve become accustomed to the unfamiliar (and at times chaotic) roads, the vehicle itself is ‘quite easy’ once you get the hang of it. ‘A tuk tuk is a vehicle of the people, and it is a Sri Lankan’s great pride when they see a foreigner driving their vehicle. A tuk tuk is a vehicle that is very interesting because it allows you to use all your senses. It’s open, so you can smell, you can see what’s going on around you, you can stop easily, for two, three minutes, hop off, have a drink, say hi and interact with people.’
In addition to changing perceptions of Sri Lanka abroad, the founders were eager to contribute positively to the country by creating a social and environmental proponent to the project. For each participant, ten percent of their registration fee is used towards local projects. ‘These change every year, depending on our route, so that they make sense at a local level. We concentrate on high impact projects, where you can see the results in a short-term period, mainly in education. This could be building an English room, building a computer room, donating resources for the science lab, resources for the library. We encourage all of our participants to come, interact and spend time with the children in schools. We normally have a day of tree planting together with the children at those schools, to create environmental awareness. The trees are all indigenous trees, they are also mainly fruit trees, so the children can benefit from fresh fruit. We also encourage participants to raise funds on their own, towards our projects or towards their own projects. Some are sponsored by their company, with their own chosen charity.’
During and immediately after the war, much of Sri Lanka’s north, in the predominantly Tamil Jaffna area, as well as the east of the country, was considered unsafe for travellers. ‘Over the years,’ Paredes continues, ‘we’ve been allowed to travel more and more to areas that were previously off limits before. Which was really cool, because we were able to explore areas of the country that not a lot of people had been able to see. I believe we were actually the first tourists to travel by road to Jaffna and that was about three years ago.’
Since these early days of intrepid tuk tuk touring, the Lanka Challenge routes change slightly each year, but with a repertoire of must-see spots that Paredes and Carnall are reluctant to take off the annual itinerary. ‘The Sigiriya area is where you will find most of the historical sights. We have also discovered our own off-the-beaten-track places. We visit a place called Wasgamuwa, where there are wild elephants. We also go down to Arugam bay, which they call “surfers paradise” in Sri Lanka.’
Having joined each annual Lanka Challenge since the project began six years ago, what have Paredes’ own highlights of the trips been? ‘During the first couple of years, post-war Sri Lanka was very interesting. We were allowed to explore more and more areas, and we were also able to contribute a lot. We donated wheelchairs and crutches for war victims. We saw a lot of devastation, we saw how everything was changing slightly (and how the new government was trying to hide what had happened). In terms of participants, we’ve seen everything: hook-ups, break-ups, honeymoons. It is like watching American Pie. We see all sorts of personalities on the first day, and then we see how the trip changes them, because one of the most life changing experiences is to travel.’
Need to know
The Lanka Challenge takes place from September 4-14 2015. Registration closes 30 days prior to the challenge. Fees for participating are from Dhs9,550 per person (team of two), from Dhs9,183 per person (team of three) and include all accommodation, half board, and use of the tuk tuk throughout the trip. Flights excluded.
Fly Dubai flies direct to Sri Lanka from Dhs1,136 return. www.flydubai.com