Aside from photogenic, palm-fringed beaches dotted with stilt fishermen precariously balancing above aquamarine, crystal clear water, Sri Lanka is also famed for its lush, mountainous countryside – where waxy green rows of tea bushes are systematically plucked by arduous women swathed in colourful fabric and heaving huge baskets of leaves on their backs. It’s this image of Sri Lanka that will really stay with me. Lush beaches are found in many countries, but Sri Lanka’s expansive Hill Country is a unique experience, best viewed from the vantage point of a rickety train.
Embarking on a 4-month solo trip around Sri Lanka, India and Nepal is a rather daunting prospect. I was comforted by the fact that my first few days would be in the company of two of my dearest friends, Clare and Tom. By happy coincidence, my newly wed friends booked a last minute trip to Sri Lanka for their honeymoon and as true testimony to our friendship, invited me to tag along for their final few days (and the first few days of my trip). Friends and family looked at me with undisguised horror and disbelief when I told them I was gatecrashing a honeymoon. ‘Two’s company, three’s a crowd’ they explained. ‘You can’t GATECRASH their HONEYMOON’. But I did, and here’s what happened…
After after a lacklustre breakfast at Drift, I took a 15 minute tuk tuk to Fort train station to crash the honeymoon party. There’s something surreal about meeting your friends from London in a busy Sri Lankan train station – they were tanned and grinning from ear to ear after 10 days of beach lounging in the South and regaled me with stories of petting sea turtles and eating the freshest seafood of their lives in the pristine white beaches of Unawatuna and beyond. I was sold – the south was where I was heading next.
There was a short queue for train tickets to Kandy and our only option was 2nd class seats. The train ride is famed as one of the most picturesque in the world, not that we’d know as most of our journey was spent stood in the aisles with our rucksacks between our legs. We’d occasionally stoop down to get a glimpse of the stunning landscape and eventually managed to bags a couple of seats about half an hour before our stop in Kandy.
Experiencing Sri Lankan train travel is a must – even without seats. We were offered an array of enticing snacks, from spiced slices of pear served in the pages of a school exercise book to flavoursome vegetable samosas which kept us going. It’s also ripe for people watching, from smiling monks (clergy have specially reserved seats you might have to give up for them) to school children hurling their bags through the windows before elbowing their way aboard to join their relatives. Sri Lankans are courteous and friendly, flash them a smile and they’ll happily help you store your luggage or move along so you can join your friends.
Kandy Sri Lanka’s 2nd biggest city and a great base for day trips. On our first night we booked into the Clock Inn, which has knowledgable staff and is stylishly decorated, but sadly it’s let down by it’s location on a devilishly busy road. Expect to be woken from 6am by the noisy stream of traffic below. There is more accommodation near the man-made lake, which is the most attractive feature of Kandy’s bustling centre. We wandered down at sunset before watching the cultural show of local dancers and fire walkers / eaters. It’s a touristy affair which most visitors will be encouraged to do. It filled an hour and the troupe do some impressive acrobatics but each routine is a bit same-y. It’s a pretty tourist-geared attraction in a community hall-type setting, so if you haven’t got time, you’re not missing much.
Finding somewhere enticing for dinner in Kandy is a challenge. Our guest house pointed us towards the Muslim Hotel, also recommended by a friend of mine, but on arrival we were nearly put off by the pots of curries which looked like they’d been simmering all day and the scruffy cantina-like appearance of the so-called restaurant. But as we learnt, don’t judge a book by its cover – if you’re not put off by prohibition of alcohol, the food is decivingly tasty – we ordered heaped plates of kottu and the bill came to less than $10 with drinks.
DAY TRIP TO SIGIRIYA
On arrival at Kandy train station, we were lucky to be befriended by Walter, a Kandy native who was quick to show off his visitors’ book of satisfied customers he has ferried about the island over the years. He offered to take us on a day trip to Sigiriya the next day and we decided his rate of 8,000 rupees split 3-ways was a fair price. In the end, he had to send his cousin instead, who had a similarly jovial temperament and enthusiastically told us about the sights as we went. Driving out of Kandy, we made a stop in the ancient city of Matale, home to a breathtaking Hindu temple which was celebrating a holy festival that day. Hoards of colourfully-clad locals in bright sequinned saris and beautifully painted faces queued to offer their sacrifices to the Gods. As with all temples, it’s important to cover up and leave shoes outside.
Our next stop was a spice garden, which our driver insisted we visit. Unless you have a particularly interest in herbal remedies or enjoy a hard sell from the spice world’s answer to a used car salesman then I’d skip this attraction. Maybe it’s just me but I’m highly sceptical that a dab of cinnamon oil can cure my Dad’s baldness or the regular application of sandalwood cream give me flawless skin! The hot chocolate made of raw cacao was delicious and the tour amusing for its absurdity alone but it’s difficult to politely make your exit without being coerced into buying a sachet of vanilla pods from their shop. We felt bad so bought a sachet of dried chilli flakes.
Next we went to the Golden Temple in Dambulla, the gateway to the magnificent cave temples and probably the most unusual and enchanting buddhist temple I’ve ever visited. A gentle uphill walk will take you past playful baby monkeys, monitor lizards and panoramic views of Sigiriya. But the real pay off is at the top, where you can explore the intricately painted Royal Rock Temple complex, housing enormous sleeping buddhas and shrines. Families bring fresh flowers to offer their Gods and although you must be careful not to take a photo with your back to Buddha (a sign of deep disrespect which can result in arrest), it’s a wondrous place to explore and photograph. Up until last week, it was 1500 rupees to enter but when we visited, the entrance fee had been abolished altogether so unlike most of Sri Lanka’s attractions and sights, this one is completely free – but in all honesty, it’s worth whatever entrance fee they slap on it.
Finally, we arrived mid-afternoon at Sigiriya, one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic landmarks. For $30 you can climb the congested mountain, ambling alongside hoard of other tourists to the top. But like many of the world’s best sights, it’s best viewed from an adjacent vantage point. We went to the smaller Sigiriya rock and took a local guide, Sumith, who proved invaluable not only for his agility and rock-climbing skills but also his great eye for photographs. He was a dab hand with my iPhone and took some brilliant shots on my Canon 6D. The summit offers spectacular views over Sigiriya and at dusk, when we arrived, the dramatic first peek over a rock at the horizon took our breath away.
THE WEIRD WORLD OF NUWARA ELIYA
After an incredible day sight seeing to Sigiriya and back, we had high hopes for our day trip to Nuwara Eliya. Our driver, Walter, was back as our guide, and we had another busy itinerary ahead – tea plantations, waterfalls and of course, a visit to ‘Little England’ as Nuwara Eliya is affectionately known. Most people visit the town as a jump-off point to see Horton Plains but we decided to skip this.
On route, we passed sprawling tea fields and stocked up on loose leaved tea direct from the source. We did a quick factory tour to learn about the drying and cutting process – definitely worth a stop as the tour and your cup of tea are free of charge – although we did tip our guide a few hundred rupees. Nuwara Eliya is a strange but interesting place. From the man-made lake buzzing with erratically driven speed boats and dangerously fast jet skis zig-zagging past swan peddalos to the odd attractions like pony trekking and zip wiring, it wasn’t what we expected. The locals seemed to love it though and flock in their car load – families spread out picnics and bought their kids candy floss whilst watching the crazy watersports on the lake. The theme park-like setting was an odd juxtaposition to the stunning background of tropical trees and mountains. Kind of garish to us but the children there seemed utterly enchanted.
Next we went to Victoria Park with it’s oddly pruned trees resembling fairy tale toadstools. We coffed up the steep 300 rupee entrance fee and strolled around amongst well-heeled Sri Lankans. You’ll see some nice trees and a well manicured but modest garden, but it’s a shame the steep entrance fee doesn’t go towards keeping the place litter-free. We posed for a few obligatory photos with locals before heading off to see what else the town had to offer.
We climbed the steep road to the Hill Top Club, a perfectly preserved colonial relic of a hotel – complete with a billiards room adorned with taxidermy, a smoking room for members only and an immaculate lawn with tables dotted around for guests to take tea. For 100 rupees, non-guests like us can become ‘members’ allowing you to dine and drink at the club. The tour is fascinating, giving an insight into colonial times – with ex-club chairmen lining the walls, many of them white foreigners who would smoke cigars and drink expensively imported spirits in the mahagony bar. Today, it’s an upmarket hotel but worth a visit for the history alone. We ordered some abysmal hot beverages though which were undrinkable and overprived, so if possible – I’d take a tour and order something safer like a bottle of Lion lager.
The day was drawing to a close but we’d read about a traditional hindu festival taking place that weekend and began pestering out driver to take us. It took some cajoling, he first told us it had finished and then that he didn’t know where it was… This is often the case with private drivers, they’re happy to take you to restaurants or attractions where they get a small commission or can eat for free, but they’re reluctant to take you off the well-trodden tourist root. I used my powers of persuasion, explaining that my friends were on their honeymoon and we would tip him well if he managed to take us to see the pink buffalo – brightly painted cows which are decorated to mark this particular Hindu celebration. This seemed to motivate him and we drove to the other side of the lake and stopped to ask a local farmer for directions. The farmer jumped in and minutes later, we’d escaped the strange artifice of Nuruwa Eliya and were in the midst of a busy and colourful tamil community.
Perhaps this was why our Buddhist driver was reluctant to take us here – there’s still a lot of prejudice towards the tamil people and maybe he wasn’t comfortable with driving us into this unfamiliar community. If this was the case, he needn’t have worried. Children ran out to greet us, teenagers put flowers in our hair and village elders quickly ushered us into their homes, insisting we sat in their living room, eat with them and pose for a family portrait. We happily obliged!
It wasn’t what we’d expected – we just wanted to see some pink buffalo – but it was a humbling and really memorable trip which impressed upon us just how warm, open and friendly Sri Lankan people are and how much you will be welcomed in if you smile and show interest in their culture. We eventually got to see our pink cow but the real highlight of the day was spending time with the Tamil people in their homes and taking part in their special celebration.
BACKPACKING IN HEELS TIPS
– Book accommodation you particularly want to stay at in advance in January as popular places sell out. However we found you can negotiate a much better price by just turning up at somewhere you like the sound of and telling them your budget. 2,500 rupees a night will get you a decent twin.
– Take a scarf to cover up at temples and something warm for Nuwara Eliya – it’s pretty chilly.
– Smile and be gracious, pose for photos when requested as it makes people’s day
– Be patient on public transport, you’ll get a seat eventually and can always perch on someone’s arm rest.
– Try the snacks on the train – it’s an experience in itself and will acquaint you with local flavours
– Don’t bother with the touristy spice gardens and don’t devote more than an afternoon to seeing the sights in Nuwara Eliya, it’s not a big place.
– Definitely make the trip to Sigiriya – our highlight so far!
– Venturing off the beaten track is rewarding – our detour to a Tamil community for their Hindu festival will stay with us forever.
– Stock up wherever possible on small denominations of currency – you’ll need lots of 20s and 30s for tips and tuk tuk fares. Big bills are difficult to use.
Green View Boutique is a charming homestay with happened upon by mistake after booking the wrong place. Down a steep path off the main road, the host serves us some of the best Sri Lankan homecooking I had during my trip. Rooms are simple, clean and quiet with steaming hot showers. Best of all is the tranquil location – surrounded by trees and lush forest, the morning view from the terrace over breakfast is spectacular.
King Fern Cottage in Nuwara Eliya is cosy, funky and staff make you feel at home. Good food, an atmospheric bar and a free pool table make this a sociable place to spend the night before moving on to Ella or Adam’s Peak. The room was a little cold and wifi a bit hit and miss but it’s got a lot of character and great communal areas to read and relax.
Green View Boutique is the perfect introduction to a guest house. A family have 2 rooms (perfect for the 3 of us!) and the owner is a fabulous cook. It beats the noisy central location of Clock Inn but you’re unlikely to cross paths with other travellers staying here.