Jan
12
2013

Sri Lanka – The Hill Country

Leaving Tangalle felt like a good idea as it had just rained for two days on and off and although this didn’t stop me playing in the sea, there really was more of the Island to explore.

The route from Tangalle to Katragama was fairly straightforward and consisted of three buses. Not being able to speak the local lingo let alone pronouncing the names of the places we needed to get busses too wasn’t a problem. The locals just loved to help us. I think they might have actually taken pity on us more than loved to help us.

The 2nd and 3rd buses we took had uneventful journeys but I am surprised Abby wanted to get on a bus at all after the 1st one. It is fair to say this was the most terrified I have ever been on a journey before. The bus was packed and I mean packed! My head was in about 3 different people’s armpits at the same time (none of which were pleasant), you had people pushing to get to the front or back as their stop was coming up. The bus driver was incapable of driving less than what felt like 105mph and every time we went around a corner the two options you had were, to either swing from the roof bars like a meat carcass, or just fall onto the person that was lucky enough to have a seat.

There was nothing and I mean nothing that overtook us and I swear he didn’t stop at a few bus stops just because it would have been more dangerous to break and stop. The crunch came when a bus pulled out in front of him about 30 meters ahead and then stopped. The brakes were slammed on, most people fell over, I got more than a mouthful of armpit again but we only just stopped before running a guy over.

This guy was not impressed and within seconds there was a massive screaming match going on between him, what appeared to be some of his friends and the bus driver. I think they would have probably jumped on the bus if it wasn’t for the 2000+ people that were already occupying the space between me and the front door. He resorted to throwing some liquid (a drink of some kind) through the driver’s window which made the driver get out. I was waiting for the punches to start flying but after 5 minutes of severe screaming from both parties, we were on our way again. You might have thought this would make him slow down a bit… nope!

 

Katragama

This was a strange, small pilgrimage town in the middle of the jungle that is home to Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya (a shrine) which attracts Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim’s from all over. It was all very interesting to see, didn’t really know what was going on other than they have 3 worshiping sessions a day (4:00am, 12:30 and 18:30) and it gets packed. Everyone was carrying fruit, flower petals and other colourful things to leave as tokens to their gods I suppose. We got a couple of strange looks so we bought some flowery things for about 25p and left them on the temple.

Around the grounds were some monkeys playing so got a couple of snaps of them too. Not sure what that one is trying to do to that dog though?

We only stayed here for one night as it really was a small town so the next morning we jumped on a 4 hour bus to Ella which is right up in the mountains.

 

Ella

You’ll be happy to know that the bus journey to Ella was great. Quiet, peaceful with lovely scenery.  Some quite steep drops to scare Abby to death but other than that, nothing to complain about.

We arrived in Ella to be amazed by how many tourists there were, nearly as many white people as locals, which was definitely a first. It is a big tourist destination though as it is situated high up in the hills/mountains with masses of farmland around and lots going for it even though it is a small sleepy town. Lots of beans and tea are grown here and the tea fields seemed to go on forever. Quite a few cafes and restaurants too with some western food being served which was a nice little change.

We had booked a homestay with a local family who were very nice and welcoming. They also ran a Sri Lankan cookery course most nights which is originally how we found they had some rooms to book as well.

The cookery course was run by the family’s son and daughter. Chandika (the son) spoke really good English (better than mine) and knew a lot about his native cooking heritage. The course started by a walk around their spice garden and a lesson/explanation of what spices Sri Lankans use, why they use various ones with various things etc. It was good to see and I was a bit envious as my herb bed back home was nothing compared to this.

The course was good and lasted for 3 hours in which we made 4 traditional Sri Lankan dishes and then sat down to eat them together with the 4 others that were on the course besides Abby and I.

The next day we decided to go and do a popular local hike up to Ella’s Rock. The walk up took about 1.5 hours along the railway track at which point you take a left and head up through tea plantations for some stunning views before a steep climb for about 30 minutes up to the peak. The views from the top definitely made it worthwhile.

On the way back down we got half way along the railway tracks before the heavens opened and I mean opened! You know when you hear on the news that’s its rained 12 inches or so in 1 hour in some faraway place and you think, ‘Yeah whatever’! I shall never doubt those headlines again! Abby had her trusty umbrella so she was only 40% wet, I on the other hand, well words don’t describe how wet I was. I would have been less wet if I had gone swimming for 30 minutes fully clothed!

 

Kandy

The day after the wettest day of my life, we had planned to get the 09:47 train to Kandy where we would spend our remaining few days in Sri Lanka before heading back to Colombo and the airport. Because the rain had been so severe, the 06:30 train had been cancelled due to mud slides on the track.

They managed to dig our train out and when it eventually rocked up it was gone 11:30. I’m sure I read somewhere that Ella to Kandy on the train was only something like 160km but it normally takes 7-8 hours!

The scenery was beautiful! We climbed up and down mountains, through thick jungle, through tunnels, alongside waterfalls, it really was fantastic! We did have to stop twice so the driver and a few workmen could clear a fairly hefty portion of the mountain side from the tracks so we could pass, but that’s what it’s all about! Leaning out of the doorway, the wind in your hair, the taste of diesel fumes in the back of your throat! Amazing!

Abby was happy reading her kindle while I was in my element sitting with my feet dangling out of the doorway taking in the surroundings. I took the opportunity to catch up on a spot of work as well in hope of some WIFI at the hotel in Kandy! At one point I happened to glance down from my laptop to see that we were on a longish bridge between two mountains. The bridge had no railing on any side and was barely big enough to fit the train tracks on. My legs dangling over an unguarded 80-100ft drop down to the river below. I did think about reaching for the camera to get a pic but thought that I might have dropped my laptop (or myself) if I moved just then.

The Sri Lankan main lines between Colombo and Kandy and Colombo and the south West are generally in pretty good condition. Mostly concrete sleepers and you can tell they have actually used engineering drawings and spirit levels to set the tracks up as they are pretty smooth. This is so not the case in the Hill Country though!

The experience is comparable to that of a ride on Nemeses but without the safety of the harness. As we neared Kandy the driver was obviously aware that he was over 90 minutes late and so he started to wind the speed up past the point I actually think was safe. All it takes is for one of the tracks to be 1-2 inches lower than the other track due to rotten sleepers or boggy ground and this gives one hell of a tilt at the top of the carriage.

I was standing in the doorway of the 2nd class carriage holding on while watching the 3rd class carriage (directly behind the locomotive) being thrown around like it weighed nothing. There was a local guy standing there looking at me and I could tell he was thinking the same, that we were moments away from derailing. I know things are designed to move and centre of gravities etc, but honestly, I could picture the headlines back home, ‘2 Brits killed in Sri Lankan train derailment’! I kid you not, I would happily have taken that bus again than to be going that fast, on those uneven tracks!

The below pictures bring new meanings to the phrases... 'Please mind the gap between the train and the platform!'

'You need to change trains!'

'There is a signalling problem!'

Obviously we made it to Kandy in one piece and we spent a few days there. Nothing much to report from Kandy as we didn’t do much due to it pouring down for 2 days, so we just stayed around the hotel. We did get into the city and had a wander around the markets but didn’t buy anything exciting.

Saw a few thousand fruit bats that fly up the valley for their nightly feed around 18:00 each night. Massive things around 2-3 foot (wing to wing) so the hotel manager was saying. They did look it to be honest but you can’t really tell from the pictures.

We are due to fly to India this morning (05:45) so will be leaving for the airport shortly. Will post again from there.

Jan
4
2013

Sri Lanka – The South West

(Sorry this is a long post but internet in Asia seems to be a thing of the future so blogs are going to have to be longer and less frequent)

First impressions, this place is awesome. The colours are so vibrant, the birds, the plants, the chosen dress of the locals. The heat is just bearable at around 32C each day and not much less than high 20Cs at night. But it’s the smell that does it for me. It’s unfair to say it smells dirty because it’s only dirty relative to what we think dirty is. It just smells like Asia!

It’s fair to say I love this place even more than India (which smells the same), the people are much friendlier and they are less interested in robbing us or even asking for money.

Abby’s been a bit overwhelmed by the poverty we’ve seen so far. She says she has been a bit naive with the whole ‘Asia’ thing but with each day she is getting used to it and enjoying it more and more. Sri Lanka is a lot cleaner than India is, but Abby has started as she means to continue, not eating much (if any) salad or fruit, drinking only bottled water, cleaning her teeth with bottled water, so regimented!

I however have strayed from the guidelines slightly. The only thing I’ve really eaten is salad and fruit to avoid the presence of peanuts. I’ve been drinking both bottled and tap water and bathing in the streams with the locals, but we are both still fine.

We were unsure if we would even be able to come to Sri Lanka as the recent flooding on the news before we left was somewhat off putting. We haven’t seen much evidence of flooding so far as it has been confined to the east and centre of the island so the armbands remain redundant and are just extra weight!

Bentota

So we started off with 3 nights of luxury in a 5* hotel in Bentota which we booked back in August. Bentota is best known for its amazing beaches and we were truly spoilt here, a place I would certainly come back to again. Amazing food, amazing accommodation, beach just meters away, lovely pools and gardens. Fantastic!

The main Sri Lanka railway line ran right through the property separating the gardens from the beach. At first this sounded a bit weird, dangerous in fact, but it made the place even more beautiful. It’s not like having the west main line with 140mph Virgin trains running through the garden every 5 minutes, the Sri Lanka railway is somewhat more relaxed as we later discovered.

We had New Year’s Eve here on the beach with fireworks and music and amazing Sri Lankan seafood BBQ food. I thought Abby was going to struggle with the food as her general rule of thumb is pretty close to “I don’t eat anything from the sea, unless it’s a battered fish” but she did well. She finished her lobster, prawns, grilled fish and most of the squid and even enjoyed it all (except for the squid). Result!


Galle

Reality really set in when we had to leave the hotel as our backpacking had finally started. So without the safety of a 5* hotel behind us and weighing slight more than when we left the UK (as we nicked a hotel towel and an Asia travel plug adapter) we headed off for the railway station.

Abby was unsure about my chosen route to the railway station which was a 10 minute walk down the railway tracks. I prefer to navigate how the parrot flies were possible. Every beep of a horn or sound of an engine caused her a mini panic attack as she quickly checked for approaching trains. But knowing the rail schedule we were fine.

The trains were everything I imagined! I was just like a kid on them and Abby refers to the experience as “like babysitting and being the most worried she has ever been”. It is illegal to sit on the roofs of trains in Sri Lanka so I will have to wait until India to do that, but all the windows and doors were open as the heat would just be unbearable. As the train was fairly full we opted to stand in the doorway between two carriages. Abby tried to ignore the glaring big gap between the two carriages onto the tracks and just hung on for dear life. I continually hang out of the doorway on the train steps and took photos. Brilliant!

The journey to Galle (an old Dutch fort) took just over an hour and cost only 100 rupees each which is about 50p each.

Galle was a beautiful place and we soon found our accommodation for the night. It was the first time (of probably many to come) we would be sleeping with no linen and no air con but to be honest, with the fan on we both did get some sleep.

We wandered round Galle for the day looking at the fort ruins, churches and shops in what was definitely the hottest day we have had so far. Snow White decided that she needed a hat as her head was burning so we bought a baseball cap which made her a local celebrity. Every local now looks at her with a pleasing smile as she is supporting the Sri Lankan cricket team. I’m guessing we will have to lose this before we get into India or we are likely to be imprisoned! Anyway, it just got hotter as the day went on and the umbrella had to come out as well!

One thing we were amazed at is how many lizards there are running around the place. Not just tiny ones either but some fairly big fellas just crossing the road here and there.

Tangalle

We decided to only stay one night in Galle as we had done everything there was to see so headed back to the train station to get the train to Matara and then a bus to Tangalle (as the railway ends in Matara). This train ride was less exciting as I promised Abby that we would sit down but we will be picking up the train again in a week or so from a place called Ella to Kandy which is supposed to be the most scenic rail route in the world!

When we disembarked the train in Matara we were headed for the bus station when a Tuk Tuk driver offered us a great price to take us to Tangalle. So climbed in and off we went for 40 minutes. The drive was somewhat terrifying in a good way, I don’t know if the bloke was late for something or just trying to set a new Tuk Tuk land speed record but he kept checking his watch about 4-5 times a minute and he didn’t let much over take us. Anything that did over take us he managed to get back in front of on the next blind bend.

We had planned to have a couple of days relaxing in Tangalle on the beaches so found some accommodation right on the beach front. Unfortunately it started to rain just as we got there and although it stopped after a few hours, it remained very grey and hot for the rest of the day. The rain was really warm like having a shower and it didn’t stop me going in the sea.

We woke up on Friday to more rain so just chilled in a bar on the beach and then wandered into the town to have a look around. While sitting in the beach bar we saw a massive lizard, about 3-4 foot long, much bigger than some of the others we saw in Galle. I think it was going for a spot of sunbathing or maybe for a sneaky beer!

We are planning to leave Tangalle tomorrow and get our first bus to Kataramaga to see the sacred city where we will stay for a night. The plan then is to head up into the centre of the island in the forest/jungle (avoiding the floods) and head to Ella and then on to Kandy before returning to Colombo. The train journey around the hill country (Ella/Kandy) is supposed to be breath taking so we will see!

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