First off, Sri Lanka is beautiful! If you've been debating going- lay the decision to rest and do it. It's very easy to travel the country by train and if you're not picky about where you sit- transportation can be very cheap. We found accommodations to be more expensive than what we are used to but affordable by US standards. We paid about $30 a night- and that was during high season. We prebooked our rooms several days in advance so you can likely get a better deal by arriving and negotiating the price. The only downside is the number and size of the mosquitos- it was a constant battle after 5pm.
We had two weeks on the island, so we decided to see as much as we could in the southern half of the country.
The travel gods smiled down on us as we left India. Sri Lankan Airlines bumped us up to First Class seats! It wasn't until we saw the seats, that I actually believed that we'd be flying first class. Unfortunately, it was only an hour flight but somehow in that short time, we were given hot face cloths, fresh mango juice, and a beautiful meal before landing.
Colombo is quite far from the airport so we had read that it was easier and cheaper to go to Ngombo beach. Our hotel was just a block from the beach so after indulging in the free Sri Lankan Ceylon tea- we set off to visit the beach before the looming storm descended.
Negombo was the least touristy of the beaches that we visited (perhaps for good reason) so the local fishing boats were lining the beach rather than lounge chairs and sunshades.
We started to grow concerned that we'd be pummeled by the approaching storm so we ducked into a little street cafe where we both had amazing meals. From that point on, we began to expect a lot from Sri Lankan food- and were rarely disappointed. The variety of seafood, spices and options were consistently mouthwatering. In fact, I can't recall one meal that I wasn't impressed by. Except I should say that the breakfasts are the weak link- and completely unimaginitive. Every hotel/hostel/guesthouse that includes breakfast in the room cost- serves the same thing- cup of tea/coffee, a gigantic pile of sliced white bread, butter and jam. If you're lucky, you might get a juice, fruit and an egg- cooked to you preference of omelet or fried.
On our second day, after filling up again on the free tea- we took a bus inland to Kandy. We had a room at a guesthouse up on the hill which overlooked the city and the sourounding hills.
From our guesthouse, it was a 20 minute walk down to the city's central lake.
At the lake's edge is the Buddhist Temple Sri Dalada Maligawa, Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Buddha's tooth). According to the Temple's history, the tooth was taken from Buddha's cremation pyre in India and is now housed at this temple. We visited twice while we were there. The first time was in the afternoon when the temple was fairly empty of tourists. Buddha's tooth is kept within a locked chamber with an ornate metal door which is hidden behind an equally ornate red fabric.
Three times a day (dawn, noon and sunset), there is a ceremony that takes place to give offerings to Buddha. We returned again later that day for the evening ritual. In the last photo below, you'll see that the red door covering is pulled aside and that the monks are entering the chamber with their blessings.
There are two cultural centers located near the lake that offer evening performances. From what I read, both were similar in style and cost so we chose the one that was at a good time for us. Generally, I wasn't that impressed with the dancing. The performers and musicians seemed bored with the routine and it showed- but what did get our attention was the final act- fire breathing and walking on hot coals!
From Kandy, we took a train to Nuwara Eliya. We got third class reserved seats and were surprised to see how crowded the train car was (even after India, Sri Lankans get the award for cramming as many people as possible on public transport). We worked our way past a large group of guys who were singing and drumming in the isle. For the next 4-5 hours, we had a live performance just behind our seats, it we wanted it or not :) Scenery of the surrounding tea plantations kept my eyes busy as my ears wondered if the drummer behind us knew any of the songs that he was accompanying.
Nuwara Eliya is a small town with not much to do. We found a pub that served good food and beer at local prices- I think aptly called a The Pub. The next day after the standard toast and butter breakfast, we wandered off in search of the local bus station for a lift to the area's tea plantations. We first went to Blue Field Tea Plantation, where we had a nice lunch followed by a tour of the drying process at the factory. In a quick summary, the women pick an average of 20 kilos (45 lbs) of leaves a day. The leaves are weighed and then laid out on mesh drying racks for 12-16 hours where they are hand turned. They are then dropped into a shredder to chop the leaves into a variety of sizes- course to fine, depending on the final purpose. Black tea is then set aside to ferment (this process only happens to black tea which is what gives the leaves a darker color). Blue Fields then uses wood-fired heat to do the final drying of the leaves. The temperature is kept around 120 degrees F while a woman feeds the leaves through the oven. The leaves are then put in large bags and then shipped to the tea auction in Colombo where the leaves will be tasted and bid on by large tea companies.
After our tour, we didn't really feel the need to take another tour at Mackwoods Tea Factory, so instead sat in their beautiful gardens where we read while drinking pots of their free tea :).
It was a relatively short bus ride to Haputale. Haputale, like Nuwara Eliya, is not a tourist town. It's draw is that it's within an hour of Lipton's Seat view point. We had arranged a tuk tuk to pick us up from our guesthouse the following morning at 7. On our way out the door, the guesthouse handed us a breakfast-to-go to eat at the view point.
Sir Thomas Lipton owned the surrounding tea plantation and his favorite lookout spot is what is now known as Lipton's Seat. It's a beautiful view of the surrounding tea plantations and provinces but only if you get there before the mid-morning clouds impede the view. The tuk tuk dropped us off at the view point where we watched the morning mist roll over the tea plants below. Then, we walked a meandering 6km down through the tea plantation to the Dambatenne Tea Factory before another tour. By the time, we finished the tour- the thick rain clouds had rolled in. We had just enough time to jump on a local bus before the rain began to fall.
We caught the train through more rain on one of it's last legs through the high country. We stayed at a guesthouse that had been recommended to us by some friends that we had met in India. I negotiated down to the rate my friends had paid but hadn't realized that I had negotiated us right out of the included breakfast. Oh well, it was a welcomed excuse to sleep in after all of our early mornings.
The view from the guesthouse overlooked the gap in the mountains ("Ella's Gap") as well as the nearby waterfall. We were interested in getting out for a walk and hopefully getting a closer look of the waterfall.
We were told the way there was easy- just hike up the steep slope to the train tracks and follow them to the left. Walking the tracks is a common practice in Sri Lanka. The trains run incredibly slowly at only 15 km/hr, so there's plenty of time to step out of the way!
The train line ends near Ella and the only way to the coast is by private car or the local bus. Our bus ride to Marissa was one of the most uncomfortable rides of our life. I knew it was going to be bad, but it was so awful that it was more comical than anything else. When we boarded, the bus was already over crowded. I had gotten on first, then Nate and then another traveller. The buses in Sri Lanka all travel with the doors open so that passengers can hop on and off without the bus coming to a full stop. So, as we were all standing in the isle, the guy who got on after Nate was in a precarious position of hanging on for dear life next to an open door. At that point, we begun what could best be described as Mr. Toad's Wild Bus Ride for the next 4 of the 6 hours where we clung to the overhead pole and surrounding seats as we raced around other buses on the blind corners, often having to slam on the breaks causing my feet to lift off the bus as I dangled like an ape from the life saving hand grip. It wasn't long before I took note of how many passengers had their windows open as they got sick. I felt a splash on my face but didn't have a hand free to clean myself until we came to a rolling stop for a weary passenger to exit the wild ride. When we took a mid-ride rest stop, I mentioned the people getting sick and the splash back to Nate. He hadn't noticed the number of sick passengers which is good since we was feeling a bit sick himself. It was then that we looked at the bus, that we saw several green passengers who's heads were still hanging out of the windows getting sick. That's when Nate looked down at his leg, remembering that he had felt something wet hit him there earlier. So, after a solid 4 hours of hairpin turns and fighting for our life, we got a seat that we alternated sitting in for the final two hours. We were feeling pretty bruised and battered, but at a cost of less than $2- I felt it was a lesson in - "you get what you pay for"!
We made it to the coast! I didn't take any pictures here since we spent all of our time in and out of the water- and I didn't want my camera snagged. We were staying at the southern end of the beach where there were fewer restaurants and hotels. Our budget place was right across the street from the beach and a nice hotel with great food. Our first full day on the beach was our one year travel anniversary! We spent the day reading under a sunshade and alternating making runs for beer or snacks. Unfortunately, in the short time that we spent away from the protection of the sun shade, we both got sunburns. It wasn't until we were at a beach restaurant avoiding a rain shower that we realized how red we were. From that point on, we remained fearful of the power of the sky's bright orb.
Unawatuna is just an hour north of Marissa. It's noticably more touristy and expensive but the colors at the beach are stunning. Since we were still nursing our burn, we spent our two days there avoiding the sun- hitting the beach and town only in the evenings.
We spent our last full day in Galle Fort, 6k north of Unawatuna. It was a nice and quick tuk tuk ride there where we checked into our charismatic guesthouse, Travelers Tree, full of colorful art and antiques. It was the same price as getting two hostel beds in a 4-person dorm room- so we were happy.
The fort has a long history but the site itself goes back much further as a trading port, first recorded between 125-150 AD in Plotemy's world map. The Portuguese first claimed the spot in the 16th century. The Dutch claimed it as their own in the 1640 only to lose it a little over a century later to the British.