Thursday July 2, 2015 (Asia, Sri Lanka)
Sri Lanka is a country that lends itself very well to exploration with a car. We had initially intended upon training and busing around the country, but we were waylaid by travel agent whilst attempting to buy a train ticket and convinced that the best course of action was to hire a driver to take us around the country. We’re often highly supportive of ideas that allow us to put less thought into transportation and accommodation while still enjoying our surroundings. We signed up. We caught an early morning tuk-tuk to get us to the train station. 5:45am tuk-tuk, to be exact. God, I hate early mornings. After arriving at the train station, we caught the train to Kandy. From everything that had been described to me, I imagined the "observation car” to be something like a perfectly transparent hamster ball. Alas, there are just normal windows like any other train, but one end of the train has big windows looking out instead of just being a wall. So that’s kind of fun, but overall a let down from the magic I had imagined.
We met our driver Lal on the platform in Kandy. He’s a tall guy with a John Waters moustache. The first order of business was to check in at our hotel, which went well. We relaxed for a bit, then Lal took us on a little tour of the city. First up to a viewpoint overlooking the city and its lake (Kandy Lake!), and then to the Temple of the Tooth. Sounds like Indiana Jones, right?
Before we even got near the entrance, we were treated to a parade. Lal told us that the parade was in honour of somebody becoming a priest? Regardless, there were tons of people in traditional dress and a set of elephants all asplendoured. I made that word up, I think. Very entertaining parade, though!
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic houses the tooth of Buddha. It consists of a whole bunch of buildings and museums. We had to pay the equivalent of 10 CAD each to get in to the temple. Does anybody else think that seems a bit steep for a religious site? Regardless, it was a lovely temple and we enjoyed our time there.
Next up was a dance show. A dance show! We dropped into the Red Cross building at 5pm and (for another 10 CAD each), were admitted entrance. I was actually quite impressed with the dancing. I was expecting some nice costumes and boring dancing. But the moves themselves were super-impressive! Acrobatics! Spinning baskets! And… fire walking! Two crazy dudes rubbed fire all over their bodies and proceeded to walk across burning coals. I was duly impressed. After a pleasant morning stroll around Kandy Lake for water monitor spotting (we saw two of ‘em fighting – crazy!), we began the 68km drive to Nuwara Eliya in the highlands.
Nuwara Eliya is the highest area of Sri Lanka and home to many of the country’s tea plantations. We stopped into the Glenloch tea factory to take a peek. The views are incredible from the area, and we got a fun look at the process that tea takes to make its way into your morning cup. We were even treated to a cup of “Golden Flush”, considered (by Glenloch, of course) “maybe the best tea in the world”. Could be. We took a picture of it. It was… a nice cup of tea.
We had the chance to take a quick wander around the town of Nuwara Eliya. Unlike last night when we were scammed/forced into eating incredibly overpriced food at our hotel, today we grabbed some grub before getting to our accommodation. We dropped into a local Indian food joint and had a meal of dhal for two. It cost us 80 rupees, or about 80 cents Canadian. Yes: we did a lot better today on our spending than yesterday. Three cheers!
Our place for the night is called Gregory Bungalow in Nuwara Eliya, but we don’t have much time to enjoy it – it’s early to bed tonight as we awake at 5:00am to head out on a hike to “The End of the World”. Oooh! Scarrryyy! It was a reasonably windy and uphill drive to get from our hotel to the starting point of the "End of the World” hike in Horton Plains. The weather was fairly overcast and we were worried about rain hampering the trek, but everything turned out just fine. One important item of note: this park is EXPENSIVE. Locals pay 60 LKR (about 60 cents) for admission into the park. Foreigners pay over 2000 LKR (twenty dollars) plus a “service charge” of over 1000 LKR (ten bucks). In total, the two of us had to pay around 60 CAD to walk around in this park. It’s nice, but definitely not THAT nice. If we had one complaint about Sri Lanka it would definitely be that they charge ridiculous amounts for admission into their big tourist attractions. But only for foreigners, of course.
The views on the hike were very impressive. We had a fork in the road almost as soon as the hike began, and we chose to go right. Although we didn’t know it, this turned out to be a great choice as the big payoff views were toward the end of the hike as a result. It took us about two hours to complete the hike at a casual pace. After returning to the car we took a quick bathroom pitstop. One of the park employees pointed to the washrooms (which we’d already used before). Once we each emerged, he pointed us to the sink (which we were also familiar with). For this great service, he expected a tip. We politely informed him that we just paid 60 bucks to get into this park: surely you can provide us with a toilet at no extra charge.
After the hike we returned to the hotel for a lengthy nap. We awoke, packed our bags, and hopped in the car to be dropped off at a nearby train station to experience the train ride to Ella. We were treated to another set of stunning views that rivalled if not exceeded the trains of Norway. And as a bonus, the trains here in Sri Lanka are completely open so you can hang out the side doors and feel the wind in your face. We made sure to take video. It’s a lot of fun.
We arrived in Badulla train station in Ella. It has been voted Sri Lanka’s best train station, and it’s a super-cute little place. Our accommodation was a place called the Rawana Resort in Ella. It was high up in the hills and had great views over the Ella valley. We weren’t in the room long before the sun went down and we took a wander into town on a beautiful warm night. We found ourselves at a place called the Downtown Rotti Hut. Sandra ate Egg Koththu and fell immediately in love. Ian ordered a 625ml Lion Beer and ate a Chicken Rotti and was also thrilled with the result. What an awesome finish to the day! We had a very welcome late start to the day for a 10am hike up to Ella Rock. We’d read that there are two main hikes that people tend to do in Ella: Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock. The former is a significantly shorter hike that doesn’t require much guidance, whereas the latter has multiple trails leading to it and is recommended to be a guided hike. Our driver Lal recommended a friend named Ryan to take us, and he was fabulous!
The hike started along the railway tracks in Ella. I asked Ryan if we needed to be concerned when we were crossing the bridge. I didn’t want any Stand By Me situations. He assured us that he knew the train timings and we would be fine. We started taking some pictures on the bridge and he casually mentioned that the train would be arriving in about five minutes to it was probably a good time to leave. Uh, yeah!
Ryan was super-informative about all kinds of things. We bounced questions off of him regarding the recent strife in Sri Lanka regarding the LTTE. We also asked about the effects that the tsunami had on the country. It’s really incredible to have a local guide who can fill you in on these kinds of topics from a personal perspective – it brings the stories home.
At one point in the hike, Ryan mentioned that he needed to lead the group because it was possible that we could encounter snakes. "Cobras and vipers”, he says. Yeah, sure. “Every hospital has anti-venom, though, so it’s OK. And we have plants that we can use as well.” Luckily, none of this was necessary.
Just before the summit we found ourselves hiking through a stand of massive eucalyptus trees. At the peak, we were afforded a lovely view over the valley below. Sandra announced: “This is why we travel!”. It really capped things off nicely.
Also at the peak was a Swiss girl named Nicole. We’ve met enough Swiss people to know that they’re awesome. Nicole had had a guide lead her some of the way up to the peak, but then proceed to demand too much money. Instead of giving in, she walked up to the top by herself and decided that she could find her own way down. Instead, we invited her to join our little group to make things easier. We had yet another conversation buddy for the way down! On the descent, Ryan also took us into a local temple that was a cool twelve hundred years old and carved into a solid rock face. Wow!
We returned to the town by lunch, and Sandra and I were famished. Somehow we ended up back at the Downtown Rotti Hut. Oops. Another novelty-sized beer and a chicken rotti for me, please!
On the walk back to the hotel, a small crowed had amassed near a drainage ditch. We wondered what all the fuss was about and decided to check it out. It was nothing. Just a live cobra slitherin’ around in there. Only a deadly snake. Have no fear. Glad we didn’t encounter this fella during our hike!
We took a well-needed rest back at the Rawana Resort and before long it was dinnertime. Destination? Downtown Rotti Hut, of course! Nicole came along for the ride and Sandra got the Koththu she so desperately wanted. Three meals at the same restaurant in two days. That’s a record for us. Sadly, it was time to leave Ella. We headed out with Lal on the road to Dambulla and the Dambulla Golden Temple. We had a small scare during the drive when we almost struck a mongoose running across the road. At least there’s something in this country to battle those pesky cobras.
Lunchtime took place at Lal’s family’s house in Kandy! It was really cool to meet his wife and daughter. We had a lovely meal with them and were quite touched to have been invited into his home. As he’d mentioned that this might be a possibility, Sandra and I brought some loose leaf tea as a gift to thank the family for their hospitality. I guess giving a Sri Lankan family a bunch of tea is a bit like giving a Canadian family maple syrup. It may be commonplace, but they’re definitely going to use it.
The road down from the hill country were incredibly windy, and Ian was having a bit of trouble with both bowel discomfort and nausea – not the most pleasant experience. Things took a turn for the better when we had a pitstop at a “spice garden” in the Dambulla area. A guide walked us around between a whack of local flora and showed us the endless products that could be derived from each. Cocoa, cinnamon, coffee, aloe, cardamom… you name it! Our guide was very bubbly during the tour, but his demeanour cooled immediately when we reached the end and informed him that we wouldn’t be purchasing anything because we don’t want to carry any additional weight. I’m always bothered by those people that somehow except you to buy something from them just by virtue of the fact that you’ve been railroaded into their little spiel.
After visiting the spice garden we were in a bit of a rush to make it to the Golden Temple (also known as the Dambulla Cave Temple). We arrived at about 5:30pm to be informed by our driver that the temple probably closed at 6pm. Thanks dude! We ran in and purchased tickets (30 CAD, jeez!) and started the walk up the steps. On our way to the entrance, an older woman passed Sandra two lotus flowers as an offering to the temple. At first Sandra refused under the assumption that the lady wanted money for them, but she insisted, so Sandra began walking with them. We entered and started climbing the steps. And more steps. And more steps. We were dripping with sweat by the time we reached the top, but we made it inside on time! Right as we approached the temple, the monkey population started to get increasingly more populated and aggressive. We shooed away a couple of the little jerks and sealed off our pockets. We were within sight of the actual temple entrance when a simian neer-do-well snatched Sandra’s flowers from behind. Snuck up and just yanked ‘em. And immediately started to eat them. So much for the holy offering.
The Dambulla cave temple complex consists of five main caves dating to about the 1st century BC. These temples are OLD. They’ve had many statues and paintings both created and restored over the years, but it’s an impressive sight nonetheless. Also impressive was a girl we saw at the temple with flowing black hair down to her calves. She was a tall girl with hair to her CALVES. We both just shake our heads at this, because we recently watched the Chris Rock film Good Hair and we know how much that luxuriant hair is worth in weave form. This lady is just walking around with a fortune strapped to her skull.
Tomorrow it’s off to the land of beaches and sun! Trincomalee, here we come! After an uneventful morning drive, Lal dropped us off on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka in a town called Trincomalee where we’d be staying for two nights. On the way over we stopped by Sigiriya – the most visited historic site in Sri Lanka. It’s essentially a 200m tall rock that a former king wanted to build the capital city on. When he died, the plan was abandoned. It’s also known as Lion Rock due to a large gate carved in the shape of a lion. We learned our driver Lal that the price of admission was steep once again (20-30 CAD per person to walk up on a rock?), and we could see the rock from the road, so we took our pictures and moved on. So much for the biggest tourist attraction in Sri Lanka!
We continued driving and arrived at our destination in Trincomalee. We said a sad goodbye to our driver buddy – we’ve been with him for five days now! But we weren’t TOO sad checking into Anantamaa Resort in Trincomalee. There’s a pool! There’s beach access! Two days of NOTHING! Perfect.
We wandered out in the sweltering heat in search of food. Although the hotel had a restaurant/bar area, it was pretty overpriced. After a short hike, we found a local place that served Koththu – Sandra’s favourite! I picked up a chicken koththu and she nabbed an egg koththu. The combined price was something around three dollars. Ridiculous.
After returning to the hotel, we entered sport mode and swam a bunch of laps in the unoccupied pool. Beautiful! At night we planned to visit the Nature Inn Restaurant which we’d found on TripAdvisor. One of the top-ranked in Trinco! We finally found a dirt road leading to the restaurant only to be stopped by a security guard. “It’s not open tonight.” Why? Because the owner’s not around, apparently. If the owner has to be around for the restaurant to function, that is not good. I learned that from Gordon Ramsay. No worries, we wandered back up the road and to the first place we saw – Gaga Restaurant! Inside, we received a knowing look from two other white folks: “We did exactly the same thing”, they said. We struck up a conversation with lovely Renee and Tim from Florida and they became our buddies! We said our goodnights and vowed to hang out the next day! We ran into Renee and Tim as planned at breakfast time. Then we all hung out by the pool chatting and reading books. Well, to be honest, I was the lame-o reading books. A walk to Fernando’s for some King Coconut with Lime Juice drinks – nice! Then it was into the salty seas for some INTENSE BODY SURFING. You will see video of this later and you will be amazed, I assure you. I really thrashed it out there. I got even more attention because I glow with the power of a thousand suns.
Evening plans included heading back to Nature Inn for a second try. We wandered the same dark road with our headlamps. This time, we made it all the way to the restaurant itself! Only to be told that it was closed. Owner is away. Yes, they told us it would be open. And no, it certainly wasn't (again). You suck, Nature Inn.
We went to a place called White House where we ate koththu made by two shirtless men who doubled as waiters. It was classy and delicious.
Yay for tomorrow being Canada Day. Boo for tomorrow being a nine hour train ride back to Colombo. Not much to say here. Woke up in the dark to get a tuk-tuk to the train station. We were hot, sweaty messes all day. All you do on the train is wait until the oscillating fan graces your face with its precious wind. You bask in that glory until it moves on to the next blessed soul. Your turn will come again.
On a positive note, there was a guy selling Sandra’s now-favourite fruit: the rambutan! It looks like a hairy red testicle but tastes much better. Sandra bought a sack of about fifteen and demolished them in no time. I was allowed a small bite of one. It was good.
Back in Colombo we stayed again at the Lanka Hostel Colombo. We dropped by a local place to grab some more koththu (such great food for such a low price!), and tried to get as much sleep as possible before the 4am wakeup for the flight back to India.
The Sri Lankan Odyssey has come to an end, but we had an absolute blast! We both think that Sri Lanka has been a highlight country on our tour thus far.