If you’ve had enough of the beach, then start heading north and in land from the southern east coast to the national parks and tea plantations. Within hours you will feel like you are in yet another country as the paddies turn into mountains and the lush green of the tea stations fill the vista.
As you head further around the south the landscape totally changes. Rice paddies and flat plains engulf you and a decent bit or road makes the driving much easier. A huge stupa fills up most of Tissa (as many call it), which is a lake based town flooded with lily pads and bathing water buffalo. Unable to get accommodation in the town, we ended up staying in a tree house within the national park, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Only hosting a maximum of 2 groups, the two tree houses are maintained by the young Amila. His emails prior to arrival by no means showed him off in his best light, but upon arrival we were met with the friendliest, smiliest, most adorable young Sri Lankan I had ever met. He showed us to our room in the dark, which was of a really high standard and then we spent the night hanging out with him and his team in the kitchen while they prepared a delicious meal served with beers in the middle of nowhere. Sunrise in the morning allowed us to fully appreciate the natural setting of this special place as pink skies shed their light over the vast stretch of trees around us. The presence of the cutest boy and his family in the neighbouring tree house made the stay all the better.
Yala National Park
This place is well worth a visit. It’s no African safari destination, but the amount of wildlife that is in abundance in the country makes this a great trip to take at sunset or sunrise. The ever elusive leopards may well make an appearance but you can pretty much be guaranteed to see elephants, water buffalo, monkeys and some stunning birds. I thoroughly enjoyed our trip around the park, not only for the animals, but the stunning natural setting. Prices vary so make sure you haggle with your trip organiser, who should be able to give you a good price, although are constrained by park fees.
Further up the road and heading further inland is the famous Kataragama; a religious hot spot used as a place of worksip for Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike. We were lucky enough to be there on a public holiday, and arrived in time for Puja, which takes place around two/three times a day and is when offerings and prayers are made to the Hindu gods. It was a hive of activity and there were very few tourists, which added to the whole experience. Although we were seriously overheating; walking around in the sun, we maintained a relaxed pace – soaking up the wonderous calm that surrounded the site. We moved to the Buddhist stupa, where we lucky enough to meet and get speaking to a female monk. Here we had a magical encounter with a Sri Lankan family who handed us some money for us to make an offering, such an honour to think that those with so little could be so generous. It was a wonderful change of circumstance and we both took a moment to truly soak up the fantastic nature of those around us.
One of the most untouched yet fantastic areas of Sri Lanka is the up and coming tea region of Ella. Nuwara Eliya seems to get all the tourists, but I would avoid it and head for Ella instead. The countryside around is stunning and filled with mountains and waterfalls, while the town itself is home to a few quaint cafes and bars as well as one of the best Kotu Roti shops I have ever eaten in. We unfortunately were met with a closed tea plantation when we visited as it was a public holiday and were instead taken off to the green tea factory. The small mount of Baby Adam’s Peak is based in Ella and although it is not really much of a hike compared to it’s big brother, it does allow some fantastic views of the spectacular scenery. One of the most amazing places in Ella that we stumbled upon was the 98 Acres Resort. A small walk from the peak, we were met with the most stunning decking area which we were able to sit at and enjoy some well needed beers and lunch. Andy and I returned here for sundowners on another occasion and he also fell in love with it’s setting…who couldn’t? There really is no better place to sit and soak up nature.
Adam’s Peak is one of the most important pilgrimage sights for Sri Lankan’s, again being a place of worship for all the main religions. Most people begin the climb from Dalhousie but it is also possible to start from Ratnapura. Andy and I actually travelled overnight from Colombo to make it for the recommended 2am start for the ascent. As Sri Lanka’s highest mountain this was no easy hike. Half asleep we began the climb up the 5200 steps; not normal steps, but HUGE steps that required a lot of effort for a shorty like me! We passed many families and Sri Lankan’s of all ages making the journey in slip on sandals or even bare foot.
Whilst it was pretty magical, it was extremely tiresome and very busy towards the top of the mountain. A barage of travellers pushed and shoved us on their way to the top in a bid to be the first to make it for sunrise. The views were absolutely stunning, once the sun made an appearance, however the famed viewing spot, from where you can see a shadow cast on the mountains around, was ruined by the crowds and it was almost impossible to get a decent photo due to a huge, bright light erected in view of the shot. We were slightly disappointed, and more importantly freezing, but soaked up the atmosphere of the local families for as long as we could bear. The walk down was a horrific experience for the knees and the amount of rubbish littering the path was shocking; what a shame such a beautiful and scared place is covered in so much plastic and waste.
It was definitely a worthwhile experience but I am not going to lie, my legs were killing for a couple of days!
From Ella you can join the epic and stunning train journey to Kandy. It is recommended to set off at dawn to get the best of the views through the tea plantations before arriving into Kandy. We booked into first class, as the viewing carriage was fully booked. In all honesty I would say 2nd class is just as good as at least you have the option of opening the windows to take photos. Whilst it was nice to have air conditioning, I was a little too cold and spent most of my time hanging out of the door of the coach being held on to tightly by the conductor!
Kandy is seen as the cultural capital, and whilst it has a beautiful lake and fantastic Botanical Garden, for some reason I don’t really like it. This was my second visit and although I enjoyed catching the local buses and shopping in local markets for fruit, I just don’t see much of the charm. The Cultural Dance show that is held at the Cutural centre is very amateur and to be honest I think they could learn a lot from the Year 6 pupils I have worked with on productions. The Tooth Temple, where Buddha’s tooth is reportedly kept and brought out on display once a year, was just a bit strange and went against everything that I believe Buddhism to stand for. Perhaps it was just me and the busyness of the place compared to the chilled out Ella. One thing Kandy is great for is as great stop over on route to the cultural sights in the North; which will form another blog entry on the North of Sri Lanka.