Ancient cities, tea plantations and Ella...

Trip Start Sep 25, 2003
Trip End Apr 23, 2005

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Tuesday, February 8, 2005

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During 30 years of work at the tea plantation we visited, our guide been involved in production enough tea for evert person in the UK to have 100 cups of tea!

Leaving holy cows, filth, smells & people behind, we left wonderful India for Sri Lanka, spending a few days in the capital Colombo before heading to Kandy in the foothills of the hill country and a whistlestop tour of SLs cultural triangle before resting up in the gorgeously scenic and quite village of Ella in the hill country before returning to Colombo to tie up all the loose ends before hitting East Africa.

Nitty Gritty:
The airport was pretty much deserted when we arrived, the only reminders of the Tsunami tragedy being the arrival of a french contingent of sappeur pompiers (firemen) to join the relief efforts and a small sign indicating us to contact an airport official if we were a foreign journalist...

Duty free Colombo style was unlike any other we've come across - in addition to a small shop selling liquor and perfumes were three or four selling washing machines, aircon units and other large electrical equipment like TVs. We can only assume that those who purchase and there were several we saw with washing machines loaded onto their luggage trollies, slip the customs officers a few rupies to let them through.

We had inadvertently arrived on a four day public holiday long weekend and consequently the tourist info desk at the airport was closed, so we were on our own. It sounds strange, but it is a little disconcerting to arrive by plane as we are now so used to crossing land borders that it takes a few minutes to adjust. The temp was about the same as in Chennai, but more humid and we were pleased to track down an a/c minibus to take us into Colombo some 30km away.

After encountering a rickshaw driver who thought we were born yesterday, we arrived in the leafy suburb where the YWCA is situated and checked in, this being the first time that we've stayed in christian accommodation. The room we had was great value and furnished with fabulous 1930's decor and the women that ran the place was very officient, if you know what we mean, and G & R were on their best behaviour!.

Dinner on our first night was in the food court of a nearby shopping mall and was our first dabble with Sri Lankan curries and R had to admit defeat with hers as it was too hot to eat, even after employing the tactic of stuffing alot into your mouth at once to reduce the number of throat burning episodes.

The YWCA was wonderfully quiet and we managed to sleep well even with the humidity and were rudely awoken by the alarm at the antisocial hour (for us travellers) of 7am, as breakfast was between 7-8am sharp. We followed a string of pretty Sri Lankan girls to the dining hall where they tucked into hunks of bread with curry and where we were served a feast on a tray. A pot of tea each served in china, fruit, omlettes and toast. It was the kind of experience where you felt obliged to clear away your tray and hand it to the kitchen staff. Needless to say, G was the only male at b'fast.

We had landed on our feet in terms of location, as we were in one of the posh parts and close to the CBD and park. The Colombo tourist info centre was very close.....but very closed. The guard did help us learn the etique of flagging down a CBD bound bus though.

We'd arrived in the late afternoon yesterday, and in the middle of a torrential downpour, so we were keen to get some brollies and whilst doing so discovered king coconuts which are the local soft drink and piles of them line the streets. We bought one from a very animated character who wealded his machette in a flourish to open it up and once we'd polished off the juice, he expertly opened it up for us to eat the flesh, using the tip of his huge knife to tease the flesh loose. An immediate winner.

We missed India....Colombo had no holy cows holding up the traffic and stealing vegetables, no filth, smell, litter, or people, in comparison and dare it be said, the city had litter bins. The place was spotless. we guess all things are relative though and if you'd stepped off a flight from Europe you might not have shared our thoughts.

Being a public holiday, the CBD was empty, but we did manage to eat lunch at a great little place for rice and curry, the staple Sri Lankan meal. For those of you old enough to remember, Duran Duran apparatntly filmed one of there videos there...The food was cheap and tasty and not quite as hot as last night. The city had a great feel to it, except for the crooks along the sea front who tried various ways to extract money from us and thankfully failed at each attempt - the closest we've come to having a bag snatched. Courting couples sat huddled on park benches under umbrellas to protect their privacy and to shade them from the sun - another change from India where it is not the done thing to outwardly show affection - we discovered inland Sri Lanka to be more conservative.

It was great to be able to walk around the city on pavements not clogged with all manner of humanity / machinery / animal life and we covered a lot of distance on that first day. The park was full of kids playing with their families, fruit bats arguing with each other in the trees and a working elephant with long tusks that was a bit of a tourist attraction.

We discovered a really busy local eatery called the curry pot where the food was great and cheap so we ended up eating several dinners and lunches there before leaving town. Before leaving Colombo and after another 7.30am sharp b'fast, we shopped till we dropped. G's luck was in as Sri Lanka manufactures some great mens clothing and shirts (the womens stuff is pretty trashy though).Van Hausen trousers for 13 pounds, Kenzo shirts - sadly the wrong size - and for R...some lacy knickers!

The umbrella purchased the day before broke, so what better place to have it fixed than at the road side umbrella wallah and a return to our abode via a bus driven by the Sri Lankan equivalent of Sterling Moss, thus indicating the etique of 'stick ones arm out anywhere and the bus will screech to a halt for you' but try to get off and it will only stop where the driver wants to, so with a bus full of laughing locals and a grin on the drivers face, we stettled in for a long walk home!

The 7am train to Kandy, about 2.5 hours inland from Colombo and in the foothills of the hill country, left on time and we were delighted to find we had the best tickets for the observation car at the back of the train. The journey is particularly picturesque (or so R is told - she slept the entire journey, under the influence of travel sickness pills and lack of sleep),and so first class tickets are in an observation car with panoramic windows, but the seats face backwards and the carriage jumped around all over the place. What R did see was lush and green vegetation after all the rains SL has had after the Tsunami.

Found a great guesthouse with a fab room in a new building and a friendly owner who made us feel right at home in her house. Kandy has a fabulous botanic garden which was not only scenic, but very enjoyable as many SL from Colombo were in town for another long weekend (this one for poya - full moon) and kept stopping us to chat. Everyone in SL seems to have a spice garden for you to visit followed by pressure to buy their spices at hugely elevated prices and it was great to come across spice trees in the bot gardens without all that. Cinnamon trees really do have bark and leaves that when crushed or rubbed smell of cinnamon. Our bus back to Kandy had a very novel bell - a bicyle bell with a long string leading down the bus, with the familiar ringing sound emitted when anyone wanted to get off.

Kandy's Temple of the Tooth by the ornamental lake reminded us we were in a Buddhist country and on the evening we visited, there was a small procession of men and women dressed in white holding buddha statues and flowers. There was also a 'famous' monk preaching in the grounds. Inside the temple, flower garlands were suspended from the roof in such proliferation that you had to part them in order to walk around and the atmosphere was heady with the scent of lillies and jasmine and the voices of pilgrims awaiting the tooth viewing. The Temple claims to contain in a casket a tooth relic of the Lord Buddha and twice a day the door containing the relic is opened and streams of pilgrims and tourists file past.

Close to Kandy is an elephant orphanage where we saw the herd, including some real littlies, bathing in the river before returning to the sanctuary to roll around in the dirt and be photographed by the tourists (mainly SL). As there are only 4 orphans at the moment, a little one was included in the feeding time exhibition where they are fed milk from a bottle - all very cute, but not good value considering the hugely elevated price we paid for the privilage....a factor to be repeated for the rest of our trip.

As it was full moon, a poya day, all poya days are public holidays in SL) we sat drinking beer on the balcony of our guest house with some other travellers and regretted it the following morning when we had to get up to catch a bus to the 'cultural triangle' town of Anuradhapura. The good thing was that we left most of our gear in Kandy so were travelling light, the bad thing was that we opted for an a/c minibus for the journey and were relieved when the vehicle got a puncture and we had to stop as the windy roads, speed and lack of view due to curtains had made us both feel really sick.

SLs cultural triangle consists of the ruins of several ancient cities to the north of the hill country, dating from the golden age of Sinhalese civilization, with intricate irrigation systems and dams. In the interest of time, we opted for a tuk tuk tour of Anuradhapura which consited of the driver whizzing us from place to place without us really knowing where we were - would have been better on a bike. A became a city in 380BC and was rulled over for some 1000years. The starting point for sightseeing is the Sacred Bodhi tree, supposedly the oldest authenticated tree in the world.The remaining sights included ruined palaces where all that remains are the foundations and pillars that would have held up the roof and other levels, and huge stupa dating around the 8C, but whitewashed so that they appear more recent, a semicircular moonstone at the base of some stairs which is intricately carved with animals including ducks and lions, and a rock temple that had a nice image of an elephant spraying itself with water carved in a huge rock.Our guesthouse served the tastiest rice and curry. When you order rice and curry, you get a huge bowl of rice, 3 veggie curries, papadums, coconut sambal, dhal and on this occassion fish, cooked in curry leaves, chillies and lime juice - yummy!

SL is not a particularly cheap place for budget travellers to visit, as the government charges extortionate amounts for foreigners to visit the national parks and other attractions. For example the day ticket price for the national parks is more than the Serengeti in Tanzania and the ancient city sites cost as much as for the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia ($20 for the day)and to be honest they aren't a patch on what is there. We opted for a circular ticket of the ancient sites which was $80 for the two of us and covered the the 3 major sights and 4 lesser ones in the cultural triangle....greedy springs to mind.

This really was a whistle stop tour of the ancient cities and the following day we were on a bus to Pollonoruwa which was set beside a huge lake. The journey had been fast, lush and green and after a lunch of r & c, this time with hot pineapple relish, we set off on bikes to explore the sites. The museum was great, but you really needed a half day to appreciate all the exhibits explaining the history of the many ruines buildings on the site. There were some great 8-10C Hindu delicate bronze sculptures which were fabulous - photos were not allowed because of the attached bookshop - that had no postcards, and no books on the museum or its contents - grrhhh.

Next we headed for the ruins, opting to go to the furthest most temple first and work our way back to the village - guards stamped us in at 13.30 and out of the part for which our $80 ticket was required for at 13.40 as we'd merely cycled past. What we did managed to see was some 5C frescos, and some lovely buddhas carved into a huge wall of rock. What we didn't get to see was the 'major' sites as when we went back in the morning to finish off, we were barred entry as conterary to the ticket which states 'valid for 14 days' you are only allowed to visit once and our ten minutes the day before constituted a visit. We pleaded with the project manager who said 'rules are rules' despite the fact that there are no signs anywhere or instructions on the ticket....he expected us to pay $20 for a day ticket so we told him to get on his bike and will be writing an acid letter to the Minister for Tourism - this had soured our opinion of SL.

The final place visited on our whirlwind tour of the ancient cities was the impressive rock fortress of Sigiriya where we stayed with a great family, enjoyed some tasty food, always a salve, and cycled in the countryside accompanied by one of the village dogs, who turned her nose up at ginger snaps when oferred.

We saved the climb of the huge rock until 7am when we were the only visitors apart from our doggy companion and enjoyed misty views of the surrounding countryside from the ruins on top of the rock. The way up was via iron stairs and platforms, not for the faint hearted, and our doggy companion opted out at this point. From the top we could see the remains of water gardens leading up to the rock with tanks of water full due to the recent rains. The main staircase commenced from between huge carved lions claws. 5C frescos of saucy women are painted in a gallery under an overhang and for a few rupies the caretaker showed us some of the oldest ones kept from public viewing as we were the only visitors at that time. We were adopted by another dog on the descent and this one liked ginger snaps....

Dambulla rock temple was the next stop before returning to Kandy (another pricey visit). The stairs to the caves were to the side of a huge seated buddha painted gold and from the temple there were nice views of the countryside. The temple complex contained many buddha statues, but to be honest we'd seen similar sights in Myanmar. The monkies in the courtyard were funny though..they looked like they were wearing toupes.

We were very tired when we returned to Kandy and didn't help matters by sitting up until midnight chatting to other guests and convincing ourselves not to head off to the hill country tomorrow.

We didn't bother with the observation car for the trip to the hill country as R didn't fancy 8 hours of clickety clacking backwards through the countryside. 2nd class tickets are not reservable, so we were really pleased to have the train carriage practically to ourselves - this delight turned to dismay though when we reached the next station and a helpful women told us to change to the train on the opposite platform. This train was absolutely packed and we ended up sitting on our packs in the aisle. The carriage was full of pilgrims on their way to climb Adam's Peak, a sacred mountain. They were in jubilant mood and sang, danced and drummed their way to their station - it was all very atmospheric. Interestingly, SLs seem to travel with little or no luggage and unlike the Indians and us, would stand for an entire journey if no seats are available, rather than find somewhere to crouch.

The train journey to Ella in the hill country was wonderful as we made our way through tea plantations clinging to hill sides. As we gained altitude it got cooler, which was a welcome relief from the humidity and by the time the train reached 1880m we were clickety clacking through clouds, the temperature had plumited and the locals had donned coats and hats. Dressed in sandals and shirts, we weren't prepared for this and were grateful when the train started to descend and it got warmer. At one point we passed through a steep cut away and the banks were covered in pale pink spikes of orchids.

The son of the owner of the guesthouse we had booked over the phone happened to be on the train and led us to the front door of a villa tucked away in a shady garden, that would be our home for the next 9 days. That night we sampled madames fabulous rice and curry made with the very freshest veggies and different on each of the nights we were there. What was really bliss was that the place was silent by 9.30pm, so by the end of our 9 nights here we will have our batteries recharged for Africa. We had intended to stay in Ella only a few nights, but 2 became 4 and 4 became 7 and we decided to stay until we return to Colombo for our flight to Nairobi.

Days in the sleepy village have consisted of nothing initially except for a walk down the long drive to the village for lunch, to hiking up to the top of the highest mountain in the area for terrific views down Ella Gap from where you have a good, if hazy, view of the plains below. We have discovered the local delicacy of curd and honey, SL breakfasts of string hoppers (little cakes of cold noodles) served with coconut sambal and watery dhal - to die for, got to know the locals and their dogs.

At one point we discovered we had insufficient cash to remain in Ella, so we hopped on the bus to the local town 12km away to use the ATM - we were so relieved to return to the quiet of the village that it made us realise that we must move somewhere quieter when we get back to the UK. Ella is surrounded by tea plantations and as they are not as geared up to tourism as some elsewhere in SL, we stopped by one that welcomed visitors - not to bore you with the statistics, but it was really tea is made from the same tea leaves as black tea, but the manufacturing process is different; it takes 150kg of tea leaves to produce 30kg of black tea; a tea plucker picks 18kg of tea leaves per day and gets paid 200rp = just over 1 pound UK - please start buying fair trade tea & coffee; all tea e.g. pekoe comes from the same tea leaves, the name representing the grade, colour etc of the tea, rather than a particular variety of tea plant.

We were very sad to leave Ella for our return trip to Colombo and were even more upset to hear that the YWCA would not honour our prior booking as 'the people in your room want to stay longer', but the alternative we found is great, and cheaper! Travelpod up to date, photos backed up on CD, shopping posted home, and we will be Nairobi bound tomorrow...

Appendum, Nightmare last day, the beurocracy one has to go through to get travellers cheques in Colombo!!!! don't do it, 4 hours it took, and involved at its zeneth, an interview in the central bank of Sri Lanka.... wow! (and a visit to 5 seperate buildings!!!)
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