Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon is an island nation of around 22 million people where 70% of its people practice Buddhism. A 30 year civil war ended here in 2009 and travellers have steadily been returning ever since to this beautifully green, mesmerising land.
The airport bus pulled up in The Fort Area of Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. We stepped down onto the dusty street and the mayhem began. A barrage of street sellers, tuk tuk drivers and traffic greeted us. This is always a common occurrence when arriving in a large, undeveloped city which can leave you feeling overwhelmed. For me, the best thing to do is completely relax and have a little stroll away from the madness…breathe and gather your thoughts.
Two days in Colombo, which is a big city with sprawling suburbs was enough. Apart from some interesting colonial buildings and a pretty nice outdoor food market with a sunset on the beach, there isn’t an awful lot to do. In fact, we decided to entertain ourselves by walking into any tall hotels or fancy offices (the world trade centre being one of them), and asking if they would let us go to the top of the building to see the view. We eventually succeeded, being blown away by the view from the top of The Hilton. We also got scammed into buying a guy a beer who declared his love for England and told us tales of his career in The Navy.
I have a fascination with train travel which started when riding the steam train at Llangollen in North Wales many years ago. Miz and I have travelled on some epic train journeys in lots of countries. Favourites including the Indian Pacific coast to coast route in Australia going from Sydney to Perth taking 4 days!, the night train up to Sapa in the central highlands of Vietnam, Delhi to Varanasi along the river Ganges in India and Tangiers to Fez in Morocco, a journey my best mate Tom Boulton and I did for the first time 15 years ago.
As we boarded the British built train at Colombo Fort Station, we couldn’t wait to sit back and enjoy the ride. It was extremely rickety, with open windows and really cheap (560 rupees for a 3 hour journey for us both, £2.57!!). It is a special experience, I sound like a right train spotter, haha!
A tuk tuk driver approached…”Are you Myriam from England?”. Great, we were on our way to River Valley Residence, 4kms from the city of Kandy, and as the name suggests on a beautiful, peaceful river. A real gem of a homestay owned by a family who go that extra mile to make you feel at home.
The next day we explored Kandy with a local tuk tuk driver named Gayan. A lovely guy who we had a great day singing Michael Jackson songs with…Oh and he let me drive his tuk tuk unsuccessfully!
Kandy was lovely with a scenic lake, botanical gardens, view points, a handful of good bakeries and cafes and we could have a morning jog right along the river where we were staying. It was sad to leave our new friends at the homestay, especially the daughter who showed us her amazing wildlife photo collection and we watched an episode of Blue Planet with her which was great.
We travelled to Sigirya, a small village 3 hours north of Kandy to visit the famous Lion Rock and Baudulla National Park which is home to a few hundred wild Indian elephants. Our afternoon jeep safari through the vast national park was a memorable experience and an extremely bumpy ride. It seemed our jeep’s suspension was last changed over 100 years ago! The driver, who smiled now and again but never spoke, pointed at various animals and birds including a huge crocodile, monkeys and some huge water buffalo. As we clattered across the wild terrain, a herd of elephants appeared in the distance. We stopped several times to witness the beauty of these huge creatures in their natural environment. Every now and again, they would follow one another down to a sparkling lake to cool themselves from the afternoon heat. The population of elephants in Sri Lanka is around 7000. They are protected by the authorities and are doing pretty well. We won’t forget this experience any time soon!
We trekked up Pidurangala Rock the next morning at 5 am to witness a breathtaking sunrise over the more famous Sigirya (Lion Rock). It was a steep climb to the summit and we were rewarded with a rain storm, no sunrise, non-existent views of the rock except for a ten second break in the clouds and a couple of tourists sitting on a HUGE blow up cushion, very strange! Oh well, I guess it doesn’t always go to plan, if only we had used the BBC weather app!
Back to Kandy on the bus for the night before we attempt to get a spot on one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world, between Kandy and the mountain village of Ella.
We had done our research, the day had come to try and get a seat on the route between Kandy and Ella. A train lover’s pilgrimage through a landscape of endless mountains, tea plantations, eucalyptus forests and sleepy Sri Lankan villages. We decided to take a tuk tuk to the station before Kandy to buy our 2nd class, unreserved tickets and attempt to get seats this way, before stopping at the main station, Kandy, where hundreds of tourists and locals (who must think were crazy!) surge through the doors all fighting for a seat. Our plan had worked, thanks to Miz who had come up with this ingenious idea we grabbed a couple of seats right at the front of the carriage next to a huge open window. The Chinese built train was packed to the rafters with hundreds of people standing in the aisle for this seven hour journey. We were so happy to have seats until we saw a small sign above us which read, ‘Reserved for Clergy’. We spent the next seven hours wondering if we were going to get moved!
It was a truly memorable train journey as we clattered our way through countless tunnels and jaw dropping cliff edges. The beauty of it is you can hang your head out of the window or dangle your legs out of the doors with the fresh air cooling you down inside the steamy carriage. This is a journey that requires a full battery on your camera or phone as it’s simply impossible to stop yourself from taking pictures of the magical scenery. Seven hours went by in a flash as we pulled into Ella train station. A 2nd class unreserved ticket (you can only reserve 1st class seats and they book up months in advance!) for this journey costs you the grand total of 230 rupees, just over £1, which is crazy! It truly left me speechless and is without doubt one of the best travel experiences we have ever had. Enjoy the pics!
Our guesthouse was up a sleepy mountain road and the view from the balcony was great looking out across a valley with the steep slopes of Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock as the backdrop.
Ella is a very picturesque village with a laid back pace of life, cool evenings due to the altitude and offers countless hiking opportunities. We chose a couple of walks, Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock to challenge us during our stay. Both of which offered spectacular views walking along railway tracks to reach the ascent reminding us of the movie Stand by Me. The smell of pine trees which covered the landscape was lovely as we reached the summit. Sweating in the midday heat, the view across Sri Lanka’s highlands was definitely worth the hike. Ella’s other highlight is the nine arch bridge, a concrete railway viaduct built by the British in 1921. The locals must think it’s a pretty funny sight witnessing countless tourists walking down the tracks to take a picture of a bridge. But it really is some sight if you can find yourself a bird’s eye view.
We sampled some really tasty food in Ella. Fish curry and rice which included several spicy side dishes. Levariya, which is string hoppers or pancakes filled with a coconut and honey mixture and Vandu, rice flour with coconut and sugar which was a bit like Semolina.
Ella has been a highlight of our Sri Lankan adventures. It was time to head South to see what the beaches had to offer. The bus journey to the coastal town of Tangalle was an experience in itself, four hours of standing up in a packed aisle at break neck speeds, yet again it was a white knuckle ride, this time with no seat! Tangalle has several picturesque beaches. We stayed at a nice little guesthouse just off the main road, it was a treat to have a shower with warm water which offered more power than just a trickle.
Bay beach was our favourite, a small cove perfect for swimming as the reef broke the surf. We spent a couple of days chilling on the beach, reading, swimming and eating fresh devilled fish which is a combination of tomatoes, onions, capsicum and spices. Devilled anything here is truly delicious!
We travelled on to Mirissa, a beach town that had been devastated by the tsunami which hit the coast in 2004 killing thousands of people. The town is busy with travellers and the long horseshoe beach has a whole host of hotels, beach bars and surf and dive shops. We enjoyed a couple of beers and watched the sunset.
One of the ‘things to do’ whilst in Mirissa is a whale watching trip. Apparently it was the right time of year to spot blue whales migrating through the Indian Ocean. I’ve scuba dived with whale sharks in the past which was exciting stuff but my only experience of a whale watching trip was on a family holiday to Tenerife as children. We all got sea sick and the closest we got to a whale was a seagull!
We chose a company called ‘Whale Watching Club’ and for £25 we would head out at the crack of dawn, sail out into the open ocean and witness these amazing creatures. Three local guides with binoculars scanned the vast ocean for signs of the whales, suddenly we were off making a beeline for some spray far off in the distance. As we approached, the boats engine is cut and a pair of 25 metre blue whales appeared on the surface of the water. It was a sight to behold, the sheer size took your breath away. As they came closer to the boat, you could see the twin blow holes before they dived into the abyss. Blue whales dive for up to 30 minutes feeding on krill, of which they eat up to 5 tonnes every day. During the day we spotted seven blue whales, we had been extremely lucky. Poor Miz spent the day filling up sick bags, but lying down on a mattress at the side of the boat, she actually had a pretty good view of the whales, I suppose you can’t have it all!
Last stop along the coast was Galle Fort. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the fortified city has also been ruled by the Dutch and the British. We had booked a homestay 4 km out of town owned by a guy who had worked in a luxury hotel in Colombo for 20 years, he was a lovely guy.
The men running the scoreboard at Galle International Cricket Ground let us sit in the stands to watch an afternoon session. England, Australia and India had all played here in the last three years, it was a lovely setting, making us feel right at home as if we were watching cricket in Birkenhead Park!
Galle was beautiful, lots of old colonial buildings, cafes and art galleries all set within the fort walls which you could walk right along to an old lighthouse. We had a dip in the ocean to cool off as it was over 35 degrees…I think the local school had the same idea as hundreds of pupils flocked to the beach to play in the waves.
Sri Lanka had exceeded our expectations, a country often overlooked by travellers heading across to South East Asia, it truly is a backpackers playground…with its ridiculously cheap public buses, scenic train journeys, tasty and fresh seafood, extra friendly locals, accommodation for all budgets and a whole host of places to visit, it has something for everyone…and we have only scratched the surface!
Get over here quickly, we promise you won’t regret it!
Thank you for reading! Lots of love Mizark xx