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Sri Lanka – trains, planes and automobiles

February 7th, 2024

Enroute inland as we drove to Ella, we stopped for ice for our cooler bag and then tried several times to find Diet Coke or Pepsi with no luck.  Oh well, maybe in the touristy town of Ella, it will be easier to find.

The drive was quite windy and we were beginning to see mountains.  It is still super lush and getting photos is hard as there are so many trees!

Before going to our hotel, we wanted to see the main attraction in Ella (there are several outside the town as well that we were not so interested in) and we saw the waterfall as we came up the mountain:

At the Rawena Water falls lookout out there were too many cars so we couldn’t park but we stopped quickly for this shot:

The train journey between Ella and Kandy is deemed “one of the ten best train rides in the world” and we are booked to take it tomorrow.  (If you plan to do this DON’T use Bookaway – we had a bad, confusing and unsatisfying experience with them – book directly with the train and mini bus companies.)

As we approached the town of Ella, on the last switchback, we saw this crazy retaining wall that needs some TLC:

Just outside of town there is a nine arch bridge that we wanted to see.  We passed through the town of Ella (very touristy with plenty of restaurants and the like).  We drove as far as the road would take us, parked and walked the remaining 500 m.  The first part was super steep but it was at least paved.  Then it was just a dirt path before reaching the tracks.

You pass through the train tunnel and then you can see the bridge from both sides.  So we did both sides.

We returned to the car and found our hotel.  We are at 1000 m / 3280 ‘ here in Ella and it is definitely less humid and although the temps are still around 30, it’s feels cooler and does get cooler over night than we’ve been experiencing (not cold though but in the mid to high teens C).  This town is very hilly and has many steep sections so buildings are precariously built on cliff edges and cramped in quite a bit.  Our hotel was up a short steep drive which actually led to three hotels/hostels with a tiny parking area.  Fran had arranged ahead of time that we could leave our car parked here for a second night while we took the train to Kandy, spent the night there and return to Ella via mini bus on Friday.  When we saw the lot (maybe holds 3 cars comfortably, 4 squeezed in) we were surprised he’d allowed this but were grateful as the town is so small, we were not sure where else we could have safely parked overnight.  At least here it’s not in view from the main road and there’s people around.

We were shown to our room, which was of course, up three long steep flights of stairs but it’s quite nice with an amazing view off the little balcony:

We have a king sized bed, a table and two chairs, a fridge, a large bathroom with shower, AC, Wi-Fi and hot water as well as towels.  There is a kettle and lots of kinds of glasses (first time for beer and wine glasses at a hotel for us on this trip) but strangely no free bottled water and they do provide breakfast all for $38.

We got settled and hung around a bit before venturing out.  We called the owner for a tuktuk to take us into town (it’s over a kilometre but all up hill on a narrow road with no sidewalk and little shoulder).  The tuktuk arrived at the bottom of the drive and took us into town in less than 5 minutes.

First, we needed to get some printing down and after some confusion it got done at a little shop that sells all kind of different items (they would not take a USB drive but wanted the documents sent to them via WhatsApp).  We then began the hunt for a souvenir for Sri Lanka.  While there are many of them, and most have elephants on them, naturally, that’s not what WE wanted.  Since this country has the most dense population of leopards, that’s what we wanted.  Other than silly thin magnets or postcards, we were having trouble.  We did some a few larger magnets with small leopards among other things but no way to hang them on a Christmas tree.

As we had breakfast around 10 and no lunch, we decided to do an early dinner and we were tired of rice.  Luckily this town is very touristy (there are lots of us) and has lots of  choices for non local food.  We settled on a bar that does wood fired pizza and had an upper level where we snagged that last unreserved table at the edge with a view.

We ordered drinks and pizza and it was okay.  As this is a Muslim/Hindu country, pork is not readily available so Fran’s Hawaiian Pizza was made with Chicken ham!   It did make it taste different.

We had seen a gelato place as we took the tuktuk into town and so we went over there for dessert.  It was an artisanal type place and it was good but the best we’ve ever had – it satisfied the craving though.  We grabbed a tuktuk to return us to the hotel and we spent a quiet night at Ella Country Home.

Today we passed through two tunnels twice each: one we drove through twice and one we walked through twice.

Fran had chatted with the owner about getting our laundry done while we we’re gone and we dropped it off with him in the morning when we went down for breakfast at 8.  They brought us breakfast right to our room and it was pretty good (except the bread – the bread here is always white, thin and pretty tasteless).  We’ve bought healthy bread but you cannot seem to get it in restaurants.  There’s always nice fresh cut fruit for breakfast, fresh juice, tea (or coffee), bread, butter and jam and eggs.  Yesterday and today’s breakfast had a sort of round bread called a “roti” as well that was pretty dense but tasted good and seemed healthier than the plain white bread.

We arranged the tuktuk we used yesterday to pick us up at 8:30 but then the owner said he’d drive us to the train so he called the guy and cancelled.

When we bought these tickets, it took a week to get a confirmation that we actually had tickets; the company (Bookaway) claimed the train doesn’t confirm tickets till a few days before – weird.  Anyway, then we get confirmation and are told that they would be delivered to a hotel which was not our hotel!?  Then via WhatsApp, they told Fran we should meet the guy at a café across the street from the station and he’d exchange our voucher for the tickets.  We would be notified the day before who to meet and at what time.  Well, we heard nothing by the afternoon yesterday so Fran called via WhatsApp and was told, we would be called around 8pm to confirm who to get the tickets from at this café.

By morning we had heard nothing still. Doug then got a message that we CAN exchange our voucher for tickets at the train station despite everything in their correspondence with us saying that was not possible!  What a system!

So we arrived at the train station by 8:40 in case we had to meet someone at the café (if they wouldn’t give us tickets at the station) and after each of us waiting in different line ups, we figured out which one we needed to be in and there Doug showed them the WhatsApp message he got this morning and our passports and we got our tickets.

We had booked seats in First Class with reserved seating and air conditioning and the train showed up a bit late which we understand is the  norm for this train.

Upon boarding, we stowed our overnight bags above us (we only brought our backpacks and a small duffel leaving everything else locked in the car which was a good thing as the overhead bins were not that wide) and got seated.

There is no food available on the train so we’d brought some snacks but also at the stations, vendors come on board to sell items but not until nearly the end did someone come selling any drinks and they were warm.  Fran had brought a water bottle and Doug had a Zero which he drank early so our snacks of peanuts, chips and dates went down pretty dry!

The train ride is 157 km / 97 mi and is supposed to take six hours – but when we left a bit late,  the ticket collecting guy advised we should get to Kandy by 4pm (not 3:20 like our ticket said).  We made 27 stops enroute, at almost every station along the tracks.

The scenery is beautiful when it’s not blocked by trees or tall grass – lush green and full of life; farmers fields, little villages, water falls and mountains as well as kilometre after kilometre of tea plantations.  Quite lovely.

On this train, not like many trains in North America, you can go to the doors of the train to look out, hang out and just have fun.  The ticket collector guy has a side hustle where if you go to the second last door of the car, he goes to the last door and will video tape with your phone while you hang out the door and and takes in the scenery for 500 rupees  (about $1.60 USD).  Doug had no change so we gave him 1000 and he did it a few times for us.

We saw the Elgin Waterfalls:

and the St. Clair Waterfalls:

At one point on the ride, we were at over 2200m / 7217’ and at the Pattipola station we were at the highest station in the country at 1897 m / 6,225’.  Even though the first class car is air conditioned, it did feel cooler out when you stood by the doors.

Lots of tea plantations, some with workers:

The reservoir where we crossed over a bridge a Ulapane:

And we passed through 31 tunnels – some of which we stood by the door and yelled as we passed through!

The longest one was Singimale Tunnel aka “pool bank” which is  562m / 1844′ long. The last hour was a little boring as we’d finished up with the tea plantations and were descending into the District of Kandy which the second largest city in Colombo with a larger population and the time between stations was shorter.  We arrived at 4:05.  Fran had arranged with the hotel to get us a tuktuk driver to meet us and then drive us around to a few sites n the city before taking us to the hotel.  The traffic here is terrible; too many cars, motorbikes, cars and buses competing.

We had hoped to be at the hotel before six, but that didn’t happen.  Athula took us to “Arthur’s Seat”.

Arthur’s Seat is a popular lookout point southwest of Kandy Lake that provides a panoramic view across Kandy Lake, Sri Dalada Maligawa (the Temple of the Tooth), the Royal Palace of Kandy and the city centre and the large Buddha on the hill.  According to local folklore there was a bungalow owned by a Mr. Arthur, a British tea planter, situated above the lookout, who used to view Kandy by standing on a stone seat under a tree in front of his bungalow.

Temple of the Sacred Tooth from the viewpoint

From there we went over to the royal palace but really only wanted to see the holy temple as we’ve never been in a Buddhist Temple and this is the most special in this country.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, or Sri Dalada Maligawa, is a Buddhist  located in the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy, which houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Since ancient times, the relic has played an important role in local politics because it is believed that whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country. The relic was historically held by Sinhalese kings. The temple of the tooth is a World Heritage Site mainly due to the temple and the relic.

Monk of two particular chapters, conduct daily worship in the inner chamber of the temple. Rituals are performed three times daily: at dawn, at noon and in the evenings. On Wednesdays, there is a symbolic bathing of the relic with an herbal preparation made from scented water and fragrant flowers called Nanumura Mangallaya; this holy water is believed to contain healing powers and is distributed to those present.

The temple sustained damage from bombings in 1989, and again in 1998, however, it was fully restored each time.

According to the legend, in the early fourth century, the tooth relic was preserved in Kalinga and smuggled to the island of Ceylon by Princess Hemamali and her husband, Prince Dantha on the instructions of her father King Guhasiva. She hid the relic in her hair and handed over the tooth relic. The king enshrined it in Anuradhapura. Safeguarding the relic was the responsibility of the monarch from then, therefore over the years; the custodianship of relic came to symbolize the right to rule the island. Therefore, reigning monarchs built the tooth relic temples quite close to their royal residences. It was brought to Kandy in the fourth century. King Vimaladharmasuriya I built a two-story building to deposit the tooth relic and the building is now gone. In 1603 when the Portuguese kingdom invaded Kandy, it was carried to Dumbara. It was recovered in the time at the end of the 17th century. The present-day temple of the tooth was built in the early 18th century.  Originally it was used by the king for recreational activities and later it was offered to the tooth relic, it now also houses the temple’s library.

It cost us 2000 rupees each to enter and we had to remove our shoes and store them in a sort of cloak room.  We walked around the place taking photos and enjoying the peaceful feeling the place invoked.  We were there on the wrong day to see the big ceremony unfortunately.

Entrance to the grounds with separate male/female entryways:

at the entrance into the main temple building
the relic room is behind this curtain

We exited and picked up our shoes and met Athula outside the area (tuktuks are not allowed on the grounds) and he suggested we go to a spice farm which we declined (we’d done that in Zanzibar) and then suggested a Herb Garden and he said there was a good cheaper family run souvenir shop near it where he thought we could get our souvenir.

Well, we had no idea how far this garden was going to be and it turned out the souvenir shop was an artisan woodworkers shop and when we explained we wanted a Christmas tree ornament souvenir of a leopard, well they couldn’t help us.  It’s quite mind boggling how a country with one of the highest densities of leopards, has NO leopard souvenirs! There is lots and lots and lot of elephant stuff, but no leopards.  We do know that elephants were quite revered here at one time and they are often on temples and buildings.

Anyway, the Herb Garden was not that great and of course, they wanted us to buy products.  Athula then took us to the hotel which was way up, up, up a mountain and turns out the restaurant there is French and when we ordered dinner at 6:30 they said it would be ready at 7:45.

a red pineapple plant
this flower looked plastic

Le Leopard d’Argent is a bit more upscale of a hotel than we’ve been staying ($57) and is run by a Frenchman and his Sri Lankan wife. It’s got a jungle setting and wildlife can often be seen on the property (before leaving Fran saw a large monkey and fox running into the forest).  (Athula said they’ve actually seen leopard there but we’re not sure if that’s true.)  We ordered a beer to share (they are big 688 ml bottles – about a pint and a half), chose our dinner and then got taken to our room to wait for dinner to be prepared.  We returned to our table by 7:45 and were served a small appie but had to wait till 8:15 for the dinner to be served – we were quite hungry (oh, the French!).  We ordered more beer and enjoyed a nice meal although it was beginning to cool off now that the sun had set.  Before leaving we began to chat with the couple at the table next to us, Steven from the UK and his partner, Natalie from Bulgaria.  A very nice couple.

It’s very nice here but as we have to leave by 7am tomorrow to catch our mini bus back to Ella we won’t have much time since we didn’t get here until 6.  We had booked this hotel because if was out of the city but it really was too far.  The owner arranged a tuktuk for us for 7 as we had to be at the train station to meet the minivan tour at 8 and he said traffic is so busy at that hour due to children going to school so we better leave early.  This also meant we’d miss the included breakfast because that is not served until 8 and they do not do the “package” thing.

So back to our room we went and were awake early.  Doug saw that had received a message at 4:21AM from the tour company (Magic Sri Lanka) who the minivan return trip was arranged through.  They were asking us which hotel we were at so they could pick us up!  WTH?  Why didn’t they do this days ago?  Anyway he replied and was told that hotel was “out of range” and we could be picked up at a different location at 8am.  That made no sense as the tour was supposed to start at 8 at the train station so we requested a pick up at 7:30 at the new location and they agreed.  They gave us the contact info for the “chauffer” and we reached out confirming pick up. He said he’d be there at 8 and we advised we had been told he could pick us up at 7:30 to which he finally agreed.

We took the tuktuk that had been arranged for us and gave him the new drop off spot.  As we expected, it was nearly 8 before Seemra showed up, all smiles and a simple apology, nothing else.  He did not speak the greatest English and we finally figured out that HE was the tour guide – no minivan after all and no need to go to the train station.  What a mess – again we had booked this through the same agency as the train, Bookaway, and we’ll never use them again.  Not enough information is provided and the operators of the actual tours wait till the last minute to reach out (at least here in Sri Lanka anyway).  Not impressed.

So off we went in Seemra’s Suzuki Alto (exact same as our rental car but blue).  He spent very little time chatting with us and a lot of time on the phone both while driving and at the sights we stopped at.

There were seven stops on the itinerary we had read.  The first two were basically the same spot:  two levels of the Ramboda Waterfalls.  There is a look out at the bottom to see the lower and middle falls and then you can pay 200 rupees to walk 700 metres to the top – but what they don’t tell you is it’s all stairs!  Anyway, we did it and it was a nice break from the car.

Middle Falls

Lower Falls

The next stop was a tea plantation/factory: Damro Tea (one of 700 tea estates in Sri Lanka) and where we took a short guided tour of the factory.

Here we learned about how tea is “picked to packed” in 24 hours!

Damro Tea is a 150 year old estate (they do not like to use the word “plantation”).  They have 1200 hectares of tea bushes and produce three tons of black tea a day and only ten kg a month of white tea.  A tea bush is good for about 50 years and must be pruned every five years.

The leaves are only picked by women and they pick 2 leaves and 1 bud; the tips are used for white, silver, tip or golden tip and the leaves for black (large leaves) and green tea (from the small leaves).  The bushes are picked daily and about 150 grams worth of leaves or about 15 percent of a bush is taken daily in rotation.  A picker is required to pick 18 kg a day and gets a bonus for more.  The men do the pruning, planting, landscaping and fertilizing.

The pickings are dried overnight by fans, then rolled, oxidized and fermented.  Leaves and stems are separated, and the stems do not get used. Green tea is not dried or fermented.   The tea is packaged into large sacs and sent to auction.  The factories can only keep 15% of their “crop” for resale only in their shops (government regulations).

sorting floor
crushing and bagging down by this machine

We made one last stop (opting out of the final three) at the Red Post Office in Nuwara Eliya – the city at the heart of tea country with quite a British feel.  The Tudor-style two-story red-brick building with a clock spire, was constructed in 1894 by the British.

It is still an operating post office and has a small gift shop inside.

Across the road was a huge seated Buddha:

Then we it was a long slow remaining drive back to Ella. Our driver was super cautious in the traffic and it took longer than it needed to.  We saw a lot more tea estates on this drive too and as everywhere in this country, it is super green.  There were 3 temple stops which we passed on.

We got back to Ella Country House before 2, the owner was not there but one of his employees had our laundry and we repacked the car and were on our way.  We stopped for ice and Fran booked a hotel a cheap hotel about 25 km away.

Upon arriving in the town of Haptule, we found the “rooms” but they had no air conditioning as advertised so we cancelled  The next closet we could find was another 60 km / 40 mi away so off we went.

Panorama Holiday Inn was a simple place for $18 a night with two beds, private bath (but no hot water), AC and a fan.  It worked.

Fran had rebooked the hotel that we’d stayed at the first night near the Colombo airport for Saturday night as we fly out Sunday and as we cannot check in until 2, we’ll stay the morning here and then complete the 140 km  86/ mi midday.

We stopped in Ratnapura for a break outside this ornate Hindi temple:

And we passed a fancy entry into another as well as a huge standing Buddha nearby:

We had time in the afternoon to relax a little so first Doug went for a haircut, put gas in the tank and then joined Fran by the pool for an hour or so where we enjoyed a cold beer.  We had dinner at the hotel restaurant before retiring to our room.

Sunday morning, Fran arranged with the rental car company to meet us at the hotel  instead of the airport since we are only 3km away and less chance of missing each other. They showed up ten minutes late and then didn’t have the money they owed us, but did have the full cash deposit to return so we had to wait while one of them drove to an ATM for it.

One of the guys then took us to the airport.  We were flying with FitsAir to Dubai – this airline does not offer online check in (?) so we wanted to be there early so as not to get stuck in a huge line since everyone would have to go to the check in counter, not just people dropping off bags.  That was slow but we got checked in (we had paid for and booked seats but assuming the airline got that right we didn’t check – more on that later.

This was our last chance to get a country souvenir as we’d not found what we wanted yet and in the end we had to settle for a souvenir of the train ride we took.

After immigration we expected more security but there was none until the gate.  We took some time trying to find someplace to eat as we knew that this discount airline did not offer meals on this flight even though it’s nearly five hours.  We found a small café and ate something and then went to the gate.  Here is where we discovered that instead of seats 7C and 7D, we now had 15A and B!  No aisle seats at all.  Fran went to complain and said we’d better extra for the privilege of choosing seats but they said they had only one aisle seat available.  So Doug took and Fran went to the 15A seat by the window.  After take-off, Doug asked the guy in 15C to switch with him and that worked and it gave us an empty seat between us.  In the meantime, Fran found proof that at least she had paid for an aisle seat and sent off an email to the airline requesting a refund (only to learn later, seat selection fees are non-refundable!).  There were no entertainment screens or USB ports on this plan either so at one point we rented a power pack for an hour for $5 to charge up our phones. (This is the airline that cancelled our flight from the Maldives to Sri Lanka that we are still awaiting a refund for.)

We did make an observation that we were the only non-Sri Lankans on the plane.

We drove a total of 759 km / 471 mi in Sri Lanka in our rental car – this does not include the tours in the parks, the train trip or the car ride back to Ella.  If you add that all in, it’s comes out closer to 1200 km / 745 mi.

We enjoyed Sri Lanka and would recommend a visit here.  There is more to explore than we saw and you could easily spend two weeks here.  It’s not expensive and it’s always warm!  This is a country we would recommend visiting.

Fun Facts about Sri Lanka:

  1. The world’s first female prime minister was Sri Lankan. in 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the sixth Prime Minister of Ceylon.
  2. In 2016 the World Health Organization declared Sri Lanka malaria-free. Sri Lanka had been among the most malaria-affected countries in the mid-20th century but the country’s anti-malaria campaign successfully changed this around.
  3. Because of its unique shape and position to the south of India, Sri Lanka is known as the “Teardrop of India”.
  4. Lipton Tea was founded in Sri Lanka, In 1890, Glasgow-born grocer Sir Thomas Lipton purchased 5,500 acres of the Dambatenne Tea Plantation in Ceylon’s high country and began exporting it directly to his shops in the UK.
  5. It is home to 123 species of mammals (such as elephants, leopards, and crocodiles), 227 species of birds, 178 species of reptiles, 122 species of amphibians, and many other animal species.
  6. The country is said to have a literacy rate of 92%, making it the highest in South Asia as well as one of the highest in Asia.
  7. In most cultures, one nods one’s head to show consent and says no with the shaking of their head. That is not the case in Sri Lanka. When meaning yes, people of the island nation actually shake their head from side to side.
  8. Volleyball is the national sport of Sri Lanka
  9. The oldest tree planted by the human being rather than by natural seeding is in Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka. It is a sacred fig aged 2,300 years old and called Sri Maha Bodhiya. The tree was planted in 288 BC. Its mother tree is said to be the famous Bodhi tree under which Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment when he was meditating.
  10. 25% of this country is covered in tea plantations.

Sidebar:  during one of our down times in this country, we rethought our plan for after Uganda.  As it stands now, after Uganda we have four more days in Dubai – we have decided we don’t need those days as we’ve already seen what we wanted to see in this country.  Fran got online and changed our return flight to Casablanca from the 4th to the 1st.  So we will get back from Uganda on the night of the 29th and fly out the next day back to Minou.  Even though there were change fees to do this, it’s still cheaper than three more nights in a hotel in Dubai vs the cost of living in Minou.  Plus, we are ready to get “home” to a simpler less hectic lifestyle, no longer living out of a suitcase!