Originally, I planned to spend fall 2017 doing a “Euro-Tour”. I had left my job, and as of end October I was footloose and free to visit all those cities which had come to be my favourite over the last five years. And I did – I started with Berlin. . . continued to Barcelona (and here), hopped over to Amsterdam (and here), headed to England for some tea and scones, and went to Riga, the newest member of the list.
By this time, it was end of November, the days were getting mighty short, and German Christmas markets, as lovely as they are, were wearing thin. I was ready to take off my parka and get a little sun.
As it happened, that evening, Oman Air had a sale – a really good one. Why not head to Sri Lanka for a couple weeks? I booked a flight, then had a small panic attack upon realizing I needed a visa and an additional immunization (in case you didn’t know, Typhoid vaccines are only valid for 10 years.) I got both within a few days and I was off. Frankfurt to Muscat, and Muscat to Colombo.
Scrambling with last minute trip planning and aware I had limited days to see a whole country, I picked and chose to go to Kandy, Ella, then head south to the beaches. This would give me a good combination of culture, high tea country and hiking, and some R&R at the water. Leaving Colombo airport, the humidity hit me like a freight train. After months of hunched shoulders, cold winds, and boots, it felt wonderful.
I drove directly to Kandy, the second largest city in the country and home to the famous temple Sri Dalada Maligawa and one of the largest Buddha statues in Sri Lanka. I check in at Café Aroma Inn, a small boutique hotel in the heart of the city, with marble floors and welcome air conditioning. After a quick turn around I head over to Kandy Lake, an oases in the centre of the bustling city.
That evening I get my first taste of traditional Sri Lankan dishes – always based around rice, and generally with several different curries and chutneys as accompaniments. In this case, it was a fried chicken leg, a fried egg, deep fried tiny fish, peanuts, onion relish, and a coconut and chili chutney which I discovered is always served alongside meals here. Lovely, delicious, and filling.
Café Aroma Inn serves a lovely breakfast included in the room rate, and I’m quickly learning Sri Lankans love carbs – in the form of rice, fruit, and bread. The multi-course meal is the fuel I need to take me through a long train journey for the day.
You can’t go to Sri Lanka without taking the train. The famous route, which almost everybody does if you have the time, is to take the train from Ella to Kandy, or the reverse. Second class and third class tickets are the way to go – the first class carriage is closed in and you don’t get any of the views.
In high season, it’s highly advisable to buy tickets in advance – they sell out quickly. Unfortunately for me, given the last minute trip, I hadn’t, so I went to the station early that day and bought a second class ticket, but all the seat reservations were sold out. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to stand for seven hours, but lucky for me, Sri Lanka is the kind of place you can bargain. The local “train runners” stand on the platform and target tourists just like me – for a small fee (around 3 euro) they will literally run onto the train while it’s still pulling into the station and block an unreserved seat for you – before the hoards of train riders can board with all their luggage and get seats of their own. It worked like a charm and I got a window seat in an open carriage – prime viewing for the high tea country we would be driving through.
The train is slow, sputtering, and ancient. It was the most magical vehicle ride I’ve ever taken. Impossibly green hills, terraced and planted with tea bushes, surround the tracks.
Tall spindly trees soar above, and houses with patched-together roofs whiz past as we progress upwards through tea country. Every turn looks like a better photo op than the last, and I’m taking hundreds of snaps, trying to capture the mystical magic of the landscape. But it’s not something a photo can capture – the air, thick with humidity, the breeze from the open windows, the green. . . and every single face, tourist and local alike, turned the same way, staring for hours at the passing beauty.
At each stop (and there are MANY) vendors hop on and off the train, offering fried samosas, fresh mango, juice, and sweets. Thank goodness, as the train, slow as it was, takes longer than the scheduled seven hours. I arrive in Ella with a rapidly darkening sky, and as promised, my smiling host was waiting for me. He eagerly heaved my suitcase onto a rickety tuk-tuk, the preferred mode of transport in Ella, and we careened up steep soggy pathways to what seemed like the top of a mountain, narrowing avoiding getting stuck in the mud several times. My “chalet” was a little wooden hut set on the side of a mountain – simple but perfect. A bed with mosquito netting, a dresser, and a bathroom.
I wake up to light streaming through the curtains from the balcony. The hosts had asked when I wanted breakfast and I chose the latest possible time (which was, for them, 8 am. No sleeping in here). Set out for me was a feast – fresh fruit, coconut roti, thick chewy pancakes, dal, butter, jam, eggs, and strong black tea. The view – well, safe to say I don’t think I could have done better.
The day was hot and humid, and I set out to climb Ella Rock – one of the two famous hikes from Ella. The trail starts along the train tracks and quickly becomes convoluted through the forest.
Ending with a steep climb on rocky terrain, I was rewarded with amazing views down the valley.
After a hot sweaty climb down, a nap and a shower, I headed to town for some shopping and dinner. The next day brought yet another hike and more sunshine . But that’s for Sri Lanka part II.