After almost 3 weeks in south India, we decided to visit Sri Lanka. It is so close to south India, the flights were cheap and we had never been so why not?
We flew from Madurai to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka and landed around 1pm but decided to take a bus that same day to Kandy. Kandy is a city of about 100,000 inhabitants and located to the east from of Colombo in an area of Sri Lanka called the Hill Country. During the ride we had some torrential rain and I knew that November is one of the wettest months in most of Sri Lanka, but this was rain I had never seen before. That evening when we arrived in Kandy, however, it was just drizzling a bit. Before taking a tuk tuk to our hostel we had our first Sri Lankan meal: Kothu. This is a chopped up roti (a flatbread that looks a bit like a pancake) mixed with vegetables, cheese, spices, chicken, fish or anything you like. It was delicious and the restaurant we ate, the Muslim Hotel (it’s not a hotel, just a restaurant), is apparently famous for it and I highly recommend eating there.
The next morning we set off exploring Kandy. The weather was rainy but it was still reasonably warm. The center of Kandy is on the edge of an artificial lake, which we walked around in about 2 hours and saw some turtles, all kind of birds and a water monitor! I love it when you can see ‘wildlife’ in a city just like that. We also went up to a big white Buddha on one of the hills in town and despite the mist it was still a nice view, especially of the mountains and hills surrounding Kandy.
The Buddha on the hill in Kandy
Kandy’s main attraction however is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa). It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this temple houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. The temple is a very important one for Buddhist and three times daily you can witness the puja (act of worship/religious ceremony): at dawn, noon and the evening. We witnessed the puja in the evening, which was very special. The tooth relic is kept in a small room that is normally closed, during the puja they open the room and Buddhist would make their offerings and do their prayers. It was very busy but very impressive to see and something you can’t miss while in Kandy despite the high entrance fee for travellers on a budget (2000 Sri Lankan rupees, around 13 EUR which is quite a lot compared to other entrance fees across Asia and Europe).
Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
Lotus flowers being offered during the puja
Hiking in Haputale
The next morning we boarded a train that was heading for Ella, deep in the Hill Country and south east of Kandy. This train ride is world famous and I read somewhere it’s in a list of the world’s most scenic train rides! And while you can make reservations for the trains in Sri Lanka, this specific train is often fully booked as soon as the tickets get released. Luckily you can still buy the tickets on the day of travel about 30 minutes before departure, which is what we did. And even though the train was jam-packed, mainly with tourists, we managed to get seats. For a chance the sky was blue and the next 4 hours we got treated to the most magnificent views of rolling hills with tea plantations, mountains and forests.
Train timetable board in Kandy train station
View of tea plantations from the train
On the train
More beautiful scenery
We got off in Haputale a small town about an hour away from Ella and at an elevation of 1431m above sea level. It was actually quite chilly, 17 degrees, and the blue skies from earlier that day were now grey and it was raining. The town is situated on top of a hill surrounded by tea plantations, which makes that you have great views from pretty much anywhere in the town. In the afternoon we did a great hike along the train tracks (this is completely normal in Sri Lanka) and we met some very friendly tea picking ladies and Harry played cricket with some kids in one of the villages we passed.
Hiking along the train tracks in Haputale
The next morning we took a 30-minute bus to the Dambatenne Tea Factory, built in 1890 by Sir Thomas Lipton (yes, from Lipton tea). The factory does short, but thorough tours, and it was great to learn more about the process of producing tea. From the factory we followed the signs 7km up a narrow, almost traffic less, road through the tea plantations to Lipton’s Seat. This is a viewing point from which Sir Lipton Thomas used to look out over his plantations. We hiked up to Lipton’s Seat but unfortunately there was no view at all, just thick mist and monkeys. However the hike was very pleasant and we got some good views on our way up and down. Tired but with a very good feeling we just relaxed the rest of the day at our excellent guesthouse and enjoyed the views from the balcony.
Dambatenne Tea Factory
Endless tea plantation views on the hike up to Lipton’s Seat
Cheeky monkey at Lipton’s Seat
Rainy and very foggy but here I am at Lipton’s Seat
Even though Ella is normally only about an hour from Haputale, the next day we ended up on a very slow and old train that took about 2 hours. It was still great though and more time to take in the views. Ella is a very small town that is very popular especially with backpackers. There are a few hikes you can do around Ella and we hiked up to ‘Little Adam’s Peak’ and tried to enjoy the view of Ella Rock and the valley but again it was very cloudy and misty but a nice hike nevertheless. Many people get ‘stuck’ in Ella and stay for quite some time but as we wanted to see as much as possible in two weeks and also have some time at the beach, we only spent one night in Ella.
Everybody is enjoying the views on the Haputale – Ella train
Udawalawe National Park
The next morning we headed south to Udawalawe National Park for some safari! The quickest way to get to Udawalawe National Park by bus was to take an express bus to Thanamalwila and change there for a direct bus to Udawalawe town. Taking this route we arrived in Udawalawe before lunch and checked in to our guesthouse (Greenwood Safari Resort), which was one of the better accommodations we had in Sri Lanka. And as we arrived quite early, we were still able to do a safari in the afternoon. In Ella we had met a guy from Pakistan and a guy from China and they joined us for the safari.
We were picked up in an open jeep and drove to the park, once inside the park we drove around for about 3 hours and it was spectacular! We saw big groups of elephants so close that we could have touched them, many birds, some crocodiles, monkeys, water buffaloes and a lot of peacocks. If you are very lucky, you can spot a leopard, but we came for the elephants so it was amazing to see so many!
Elephants right near the jeep
More elephants and beautiful views of the park
Beach time in Tangalle
Other than a safari, there isn’t anything to stay for in Udawalawe, so the next morning we took the bus south to the coastal town of Tangalle. All beaches to the east from here are more remote and less touristy and all the beaches to the west from here seem to be more commercial and crowded.
We stayed in a guesthouse right at the beach and the first night we found it hard to sleep as the noise of the crashing waves was so loud. After the first night we got used to it though and it was actually very nice to sleep with the sound of the waves. The beach was lovely and the whole area very relaxed, so we stayed a few days before moving on to Fort Galle.
Sunset in Tangalle
The small port in Tangalle
It took only a few hours by bus to get from Tangalle to (Fort) Galle and the ride was quite scenic along the coast. Galle is probably the best-known city after Colombo and the old part of the city is called Fort Galle and as the name suggests, it’s a fort. Within the fortified walls you find many colonial buildings from when the Portuguese, Dutch and British ruled here. Nowadays it’s a very touristy city but you can’t miss it, Fort Galle is beautiful!
We stayed 2 days and just walked around and enjoyed all the great restaurants and cafes within the Fort. Fort Galle is really pretty and photogenic and has a very interesting history. Harry also did a whale watching tour but even if someone would have paid me to go, I wouldn’t have gone because the boats looked like my biggest nightmare. He saw whales and lots of dolphins so he had a great morning.
Some snaps from Fort Galle
For our last days in Sri Lanka we returned to Colombo as we had skipped it at the start. The train ride from Galle to Colombo is another stunning one and sometimes there are only a few meters between the train and the sea. Unfortunately the sore throat I got on the last night in Fort Galle, turned into a really bad cold in the train and I got fever and flu-like symptoms.
On the train from Galle to Colombo
So close to the beach!
At first we were going to spend one night in Colombo and one night in Negombo (a beach town near the airport) but I didn’t want to move to a different town and just rest in Colombo. We did still see some sights in Colombo and a lot of people say they don’t really like the city, but I thought it was not bad at all. And I think if I didn’t feel ill I would have enjoyed it even more.
After two weeks in beautiful Sri Lanka we flew back to India to continue our travels, but not after a little drama at the airport. We weren’t allowed to board the flight, as we had no proof of travelling out of India… We didn’t have this when we flew from Dubai to India and the airline was fine with this but SriLankan Airlines insisted that we needed this and bought a flight out of India there and then. So we had no choice but to buy an expensive flight (conveniently SriLankan Airlines could sell us the flight), as we didn’t want to miss our flight. So after spending a few hundred Euros and a ticket out of India in hand we were allowed to check-in and board the flight back to India.