Sri Lanka Part 1: temples, trains and tea plantations…

I often read people’s suggested itineraries and usually they go as follows.. ‘spend one night in this town, then two nights here, followed by one night there’. And each time I let out a sigh. I believe most places are worthy of more than a two night stay. That was, until we visited Sri Lanka. This truely is a country suited to fast paced travel. Except for Ella, a haven in the hills, but I’ll get to that later.

We flew into Colombo and giving it the benefit of the doubt we booked two nights there. As it turns out people were right, one would have sufficed. Better yet, just stay in Negombo. Colombo isn’t an appealing city and there is so much to see outside the capital that staying in Colombo feels like a waste of precious time. Literally, the highlight of our stay was dining at a local restaurant where the staff were beyond delightful and eager to share their food with us. It was here we discovered hoppers, a pancake like mixture made from rice flour, cooked in a small curved pan to form a bowl. They are then served with dahl, curry and coconut sambal. Of course when the bill, including two soft drinks, comes to less than $5, it tastes even better.

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Getting around the island is relatively easy and super affordable. We caught a four hour bus north to Dambulla for less than $2 each. The local buses really aren’t that bad and you soon enough get used to people jumping on board to sell all manner of things, from the standard food and drink to ridiculously long balloons and what we think were get rich quick books. In Dambulla we encountered the amazing Sri Lankan hospitality we had heard about before arriving. Niall likes to compare our guesthouse with a stay at his nans (we were fussed over and offered lots of cups of tea!).

No trip to Asia would be complete without getting caught offguard in a sudden downpour. And that is exactly what happened as we walked out of the Dambulla Cave Temples, which house ancient Buddah statues and paintings. After unsuccessfully trying to take cover under a tree, we made a run for it down the many, many stairs to wait it out in a cave lower down. A half hour later the rain still hadn’t let up so we gave in and walked back in the rain.

The next day we took a 40 minute tuk tuk ride out to Sigiriya, one of our top highlights in Sri Lanka so far. And to think we almost skipped it! I suppose we should really trust that Unesco know what they’re doing by now. To put it simply, Sigiriya is a big rock. A big ass random rock. Scientific speaking, it is a magma plug from an eroded volcano and it’s quite a sight to behold.

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After purchasing our tickets,  which at US$30 each is quite extortionate (unfortunately a trend for attractions in Sri Lanka) we made our way into the grounds. It is believed the complex was inhabited by a king who built a garden and palace atop the rock. Walking past gardens and lilly ponds we weren’t exactly comforted by the signs suggesting that in the case of a hornet attack it is best to stay still and quiet. Ha! Fat chance of that happening. We’d take our chances running, arms flailing, into the moat with potential crocodiles thank you very much. Lucky for us, there was no need to put this into practice.

As it started to rain we joined the line of people climbing to the top. On the way up, we stopped to admire some beautiful artwork. No one knows who the women depicted are but further along there is a mirror wall with ancient graffiti scrawled by people who wanted to express their appreciation for the images. As we reached the top of the rock the rain stopped and the mist cleared to reveal a lovely view of the grounds below and surrounding forest.

Sri Lankans are extremely helpful and some of the friendliest people we’ve come across on our travels. On the way home our lovely tuk tuk driver pulled into a roadside stall to buy us some refreshing king coconuts to drink from and eat using the husk as a spoon.

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The next morning he insisted on dropping us to a bus stop under a mango tree (for free) where we would be able to get on a bus with empty seats before it filled up at the station where we had been planning to jump aboard. He even stayed with us to flag down the bus and made sure we got two seats next to each other. After plenty of insisting he finally accepted our 100 rupees. As predicted, the bus to Kandy was very crowded and Niall spent the two hour journey uncomfortably sandwiched between an older Sri Lankan lady and I.

Kandy is a scenic city in comparison with Colombo, featuring a lake as its centerpiece that is particularly pretty at dusk. Still, one night here is plenty. As well as being a transit hub, most people visit Kandy to view Buddah’s tooth. And by view, I mean view a box which supposedly has the tooth inside. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a devout Buddhist.

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We far preferred the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens which we visited on the recommendation of our guesthouse in Dambulla. At the risk of sounding 60 instead of 28, we had a delightful time looking at exotic plants, watching monkeys play and thousands of bats fly during daylight. In particular we tripped out over a tree (fiscus perhaps?) that appeared to have four separate trunks in the ground at varying locations.

From Kandy we caught another packed bus to Nuwara Eliya to stay in possibly the worst accommodation we’ve ever had the displeasure of gracing our presence with (Victoria Inn for anyone planning a trip). The room was damp and depressing, the toilet didn’t flush, the bed was missing slats and Niall’s rice literally smelt like it had been boiled with sewerage water. Needless to say, we were happy to leave that hell hole at 5.30 am for a day trip to Horton’s Plains National Park.

We paired up with a French couple to get a group ticket which is far cheaper than paying individual admission. They barely spoke English and us no french but they got the jist, if we get questioned they were from Australia too (thankfully we didn’t). Horton’s Plains,  while not spectacular,  is a good day spent bush walking.  The premier sight is World’s End, a 880m sheer cliff that makes a good spot to enjoy a packed breakie.

And this my friends, is why walking and taking selfies at the same time is never a wise idea.

Nuwara Eliya itself is a tea plantation town often referred to as Little England. Certainly, the weather reminded me of London and the cottages were colonial style. The tea plantations are rather pretty but the town itself is nothing all too exciting. Again, the highlights were food related. We ate at Grand Indian twice with a Swiss couple, Jennifer and Patrick, whom we’ve bumped into at each town so far. The thali set and aloo gobi were amazing. We have also been gorging on ‘short eats’ which are essentially snacks (often deep fried) like roti, rolls and samosas, perfect for lunch and our train to Ella.

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The scenery from Nuwara Eliya to Ella was magnificent. Rolling hills of tea plantations and forest that reminded us of home,  spliced with occassional villages. One of the great things about Sri Lanka is that the kids still shout hello and wave as you walk or ride by, the train ride was no exception.

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Walking through Ella from the train station we immediately sensed that this was a place we could potentially fall in love with. Except for the hill leading up to our accommodation, which was not fun with backpacks on. That’ll teach us to book somewhere called Hill Top. But we’re glad we did. The owner was lovely and we spent our afternoons swinging in the hammocks reading or gazing out at the rolling hills of Ella Gap.

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Ella is a tiny town and as such makes a wonderful spot to bump into other backpackers on the street. This is also aided by one smart businessman who created Chill Cafe, where you can share a beer and stories with fellow travellers. This is a rarity in Sri Lanka, away from the beaches anyway, where liqour licenses appear to be few and far between. We even heard of one restaurant serving beer in a teapot. Anyway, it was here we met a fella called Dave who we agreed to walk Little Adams Peak with in the morning.

So at 7am we started our walk out of town and through the tea plantations, with a dog in tow. Props to her, she stayed with us longer than most strays, I think partly because we could protect her while she was on heat and also in the hope of food. Along the path we stumbled upon a gorgeous litter of puppies. Unfortunately, we came back two days later and there were only three left, one of which was dead. After tearing ourselves away from the adorable pups this time we continued our walk, arriving at what we could only assume was Little Adams Peak according to our roughly drawn map. Underwhelmed, we asked a local if this was indeed it and were answered with a yes. Hmmm, ok. Peak was a bit of an exaggeration then.

Later that afternoon we bumped into Jennifer and Patrick who informed us that we’d missed a turn off along the way- woops. Lucky for us, friends from home Jane and Carl were arriving the following day so we had an excuse to try again. Later that afternoon, as we weren’t exactly exhausted from our walk to ‘Little Adams Peak’, we decided to tackle Ella Rock. We walked along the railway tracks chatting away, the boys referencing Stand By Me which went over my head, until we reached our turn off past the metal bridge. Then we hit a fork in the path. Crap. We’d heard the locals were very helpful in providing directions so off Dave went to ask a guy taking  bath in the nearby stream. We were answered with the frustrating head wobble which we took to mean right was the correct path to take. Now, we either misunderstood or this fellow was not impressed with having his bathing time interrupted because we walked through a farm to a very tight path where Dave was skewered by an aloe vera type plant. At this point we realised this probably wasn’t the correct route and as if to confirm to our suspicions the farm owner appeared to tell us with a smile we were ‘very lost’.

He kindly walked with us for 10 minutes to put us back on track. On we went climbing up hill towards Ella Rock. By the last five minutes I was starting to have Salkantay flashbacks. Fortunately, we were pretty much at the top and the view was more than worth the effort. In fact, it was much more impressive than World’s End, and didn’t cost a cent. The sky was clear and the view stretched for miles. After resting and admiring the scenery we walked back into town for a well deserved beer.

The following day we caught a tuk tuk out to Uva Halpewaththa Tea Factory. Before we walked in we were hut with the strong aroma of tea. Following that we were blown away by our tour of the factory. Nievely, we had never given much thought to the process of tea production and had assumed it involved picking and drying. As you might have guessed it is a far more complicated and serious process. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed so all you get is this sexy photo of me in a tea workers get up.

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That evening we met up with Jane and Carl to enjoy the amazing food prepared by Hill Top. A spread of lamprais (flavoured rice wrapped in banana leaf), naan, coconut sambal, chutney, dahl and an assortment of veg curries.

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Then it was time for Little Adam’s Peak take two. How we missed the turn off the first time we don’t know. Maybe, we were still half asleep. This time the walk was a little more challenging and far more rewarding.

That afternoon we ate what is possibly my favourite Sri Lankan dish, Kotthu Roti, Sri Lanka’s answer to phad thai. Made with shredded roti instead of rice noodles.

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And that was the end to our first two weeks in Serendib. Next up, beach!

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