I have to admit that sometimes I’m a little jealous of how other people make their travel plans. I envision them sitting in their living rooms, with a cup of coffee in their hands, pouring over glossy travel brochures with pretty pictures of all the places they have dreamt about. They have arranged dates with their boss, perhaps 6 or 8 months in advance, agreeing on the best time for themselves and their employer to take that much needed 2 weeks.
They are well over their previous holiday, having had enough time to reflect on and properly relive the magic moments of their preceding exotic experience. They are rested and ready to begin planning. Enough time has passed since the last excursion that the struggles, difficulties and regrets of travel have all faded and the desire to conquer new destinations overrule any trepidations they may have.
They have plenty of time to prepare a detailed itinerary of all the things they want to see and do. Time to pick the most comfortable flights, find the best entertainment and select the best accommodations their budget affords them. Time to prepare an appropriate wardrobe of fashionable accessories, book tickets and acquire the latest gadgets and guidebooks to make their future adventures as fulfilling as possible.
We were sitting in a relaxing chair on the spacious lawn of our hotel in Jaipur with checkout looming the next morning, briefly basking in our highly successful month-long stay in India when the feeling of impending doom overcame us. We literally had no ideas and no plans past the next 12 hours. The bliss of the sunny afternoon quickly faded and panic began to set in. The easiest option, of course, would have been to continue our trip in India. We didn’t want to ruin our wonderful month in India by overstaying our visit. We were too late to rent an apartment in Europe, especially for a month. The blinding heat of South East Asia sounded unpleasant, at best.
A quick search of flights brought our focus to Sri Lanka. We found an affordable flight from Jaipur to Colombo with a quick stop in Bengaluru and with no more thought, booked it. Neither one of us knew anything about Sri Lanka. We had heard of Kandy, with its Temple of the Tooth, but that was it. We found a hotel in Colombo near the Fort train and bus station and booked it for 2 nights, hoping that would give us enough time to conjure an itinerary from there. Being near the transportation hub, we thought would be convenient for onward travel. We literally took 45 minutes to plan our next country to visit. Not really the best decision, but hopefully it would work out for the best.
We had a bit of a panic when we read later in the day that a visa was needed for entry. Visa on arrival was possible but was not always granted. It was highly advised to apply ahead of time. Yikes. We found the paperwork online, filled it out, and hoped it would be approved by the time we arrived the next evening.
We arrived at the Jaipur airport the next day after checking out of the hotel and found out immediately that our Indigo Airlines flight was delayed by 3 hours. Irritating but not really that bad except that we only had a 4-hour layover in Bengaluru. When we were told we would have to change terminals in Bengaluru and get another boarding pass the tension increased. Indian airports have elaborate security and it is difficult to enter the terminal quickly. We didn’t see any way we could exit one terminal and pass through security of another in just one hour. Our poorly made plans were already falling apart and we hadn’t even left India yet.
After a mad dash and several jumped lines, we made our flight with minutes to spare and arrived an hour later in Colombo. Our visa had been approved and we caught a taxi to our hotel near the train station. The hotel was archaic and dilapidated and the internet was worse than dialup. At least it was clean and had a hot shower.
Without the internet, onward plans were impossible. The hotel was surrounded by auto parts stores and no place that had internet access. We decided to catch a tuk-tuk to the train station. The trains in Sri Lanka are famous for beautiful scenery and we thought that would be our best bet. We found that every train was booked for the next month. They have standing room only open cars for walk-ups, but with heavy bags, we thought it would be impossible to get a spot the next morning. Although Kandy, our chosen first destination, was only 120 kilometers away, the bus ride was over 4 hours in a no-AC bus. With no other options, we decided to hire a driver. Way over budget but at least we would be comfortable.
We found a nice guest house in a perfectly restored historic house built in 1912. The room was modern and comfortable and the family that ran the place were very pleasant. We had booked for 2 nights but ended up staying for 4, mostly just for planning and a little rest. Exhausted from India and 3 days of frustrating travel we needed time to make plans, do laundry and just rest.
I had visions of Kandy being a small town, high in the mountains with clean air and quiet streets. It turned out to be anything but what I imagined. While higher than Colombo and slightly cooler, the days were hot. Centered around a pretty central lake, the city has grown to fill the surrounding valleys with shoddily built houses and congested roads.
Sri Dalada Maligawa, more commonly called “The Temple of the Tooth” is a Buddhist Temple located adjacent to the lake. The tooth is a relic from Buddha and legend has it that whoever possesses the tooth controls the country. We toured the temple grounds but hoards of package tourists deterred us from entering. The tooth on display is apparently a copy which also made the admission cost prohibitive.
We enjoyed coffee in the Queen’s Hotel across the street. A classic, old school British Hotel, it offered whirring fans and a nice ambiance for relaxing in the afternoon heat. We walked around the lake area. Too many cars, tuk-tuks and smoke-belching buses deterred us from an exploration of the downtown area, which was mostly filled with small stores and rice and curry restaurants.
We made our way up the hill to the towering Buddha statue that is visible from everywhere in the center. At 88 feet tall the giant white temple/statue has good views of the city and surrounding area. Another day we visited the very nice botanical gardens. Massive palm trees and vast lawns are lined with tropical plants and flowers from all over the world. Of particular interest to us were the thousands of giant bats (flying foxes) that inhabited many of the trees in one corner of the garden. Part intriguing and part frightening they were interesting to observe for half an hour.
We caught an AC bus the next morning at the hectic Kandy bus station. We headed north to our next destination of Sigiriya, the fortress/city of the ancient Sri Lanka rulers. Located on a stark mountaintop in the middle of a vast jungle plain, the little that remains of the fortress is enough to indicate that it must have been amazing in its time.
The bus dropped us in the small town of Dambulla, where we caught a tuk-tuk to our hotel in the jungle at the foot of the fortress. The jungle lodge was located down some bumpy dirt roads and offered perfect views of both Sigiriya (Lion Rock) and the neighboring Pidurangala Rock. Our room was simple but comfortable and we enjoyed conversations with fellow travelers on the wraparound porch.
As we were only booked for 2 nights and it looked like a potentially good sunset, we made the decision to climb Pidurangala Rock and attempt to capture a nice picture of Lion Rock. Most visitors brave the steep stairs and massive crowds to climb to the Lion Rock itself, but we were told it was much better views and less crowded to ascend the neighboring mountain. The path to the hill passed through a small Buddhist temple and then up 400 steps to the finishing scramble across the large boulders close to the summit. It was breathtaking, both from exertion and the wonderful view from the top. The sunset wasn’t as good as we hoped but the views were memorable. The knee shattering walk down the hill made sleep in the quiet jungle lodge easy that night.
Sri Lanka is famous for its large population of wild Asian elephants. Located in several parts of the country, herds can be found in different parks at different times of the year. We found a very inexpensive nearby park and book a safari for the next afternoon.
Our driver, a friend of the lodge owner, was described as a bit of an “elephant whisperer” who had a unique ability to find the elephants when other drivers couldn’t. It sounded encouraging and he arrived on time in his slightly worn safari jeep. We made a stop at a roadside temple where he made a small donation and said a quick prayer to Ganesha, which seemed appropriate.
Upon arrival at the park, we found we were not alone on our safari. More than fifty other jeeps were in the parking lot, all loaded with camera ready, safari dressed tourists ready for their jungle experience. Our elephant whisperers main plan to find the hidden beasts seemed to be to get behind another vehicle and ride along the dusty roads until he came upon the large pack of vehicles who had already found elephants.
For the next 3 1/2 hours, we bounced around on the poorly maintained roads, never far from another jeep. While it was nice to see animals in the wild, I actually felt sorry for them as they would inevitably be found surrounded by long lens packing visitors excitedly attempting selfies with elephants in the picture. Our driver never seemed to park anywhere except behind other vehicles or bushes which made good photos difficult. As the day progressed, the heat and dust became overwhelming and the constant chatter of bored tourists made thoughts of any kind of pleasant nature experience impossible.
Exhausted from 2 days in Sigiriya, we got up early the next morning to catch our bus onward.
We passed back through Kandy bus station and quickly caught a connecting non-AC bus into the hills. The road wound endlessly up into the green hills. The temperature dropped noticeably. As the houses thinned, we passed many of the tea plantations Sri Lanka is famed for. The neatly spaced rows endlessly covered the hills and combined with the cooler temperatures made the windy trip somewhat enjoyable. The views of valleys and hills were beautiful and for the first time we relaxed and began to enjoy ourselves.
Nuwara Eliya itself is a nice enough town. It shows some of the British influence from colonial days with a cute Post Office and golf course in the center. Our guest house was located behind the Grand Hotel and, while slightly worn, was comfortable enough.
We wandered the center and found a few decent places to eat. Sri Lankan food was a bit of a disappointment after the feasts we enjoyed in India and we found a couple of western style places with just enough local ambiance to make them enjoyable for lunches and light dinners.
We decided that we should visit a tea plantation and asked a tuk-tuk driver if he knew where it was. He said yes and after 20 minutes of a 5-minute trip we realized he didn’t know where it was. He ended up taking us almost 30 minutes back toward Kandy, which while expensive, in a way gave us a chance to see some of the countryside.
We toured the tea factory and learned about how tea is processed. The tour was interesting enough and the views around the property were nice. Our 4 days in Nuwara Eliya seemed long and we were anxious to move on.
Ella was to be our last stop in the hills of Sri Lanka. This is the major destination of backpackers in the country. Most people ride the train from Colombo but since we had not ridden it we decided to take it backwards from everyone else since we could get tickets and the views were supposed to be amazing.
Hiking seems to be the main activity in Ella, along with walking the busy main street of the town. The air was cool and the countryside was pretty, with jungle-covered mountains and scenic valleys.
A popular hike is just out of town to view the 9 Arches Bridge, a stone bridge built in the early 20th century. Everyone times their visit to see one of the arriving trains cross the bridge. The hills are steep but the path was easy to follow. We found a nice thatched shack that served Nescafe and cold drinks and provided a good view of the train crossing the bridge. We laughed at the large population of aggressive selfie-taking narcissists who fought for position as the train crossed, each contorted into some strange pose that must look good on Instagram. Straw hats and polka dot dresses with their back turned to the camera seemed especially popular during our visit.
Another day I hike up Little Adam’s Peak A winding dirt road led through tea plantations to the steep hill that led to the promenade. Nice views were had from the top. The sunset faded at the last moment to the disappointment of the scores of Instagrammers that arrived during the last half hour.
A lot was made of Ella as a perfect Nirvana in the hills. While it was a nice enough place, it is well discovered and the single main street is built up with bars and restaurants to cater to the touristic crowds. We felt it wouldn’t be long before anything that might be nice about the town will be overrun by all the things that ruin these natural paradises once they are discovered.
We finally were able to get train tickets. We booked a reserved 3rd class train from Ella back to Kandy. We planned a quick overnight stay with an early (6 AM) train back to Colombo the next morning. We planned to take the AC Highway bus from Colombo to our next destination of Galle on the southern coast.
The train journey was indeed scenic. Our seats were comfortable but the car was really hot. Excitement filled the car for the first half hour but went noticeably quiet as the heat and slowness of the train took its toll. I looked around the car and most were sleeping before we passed the most scenic areas. The train moves at a glacial 20 km per hour and it gets hotter as it descends its way back to Kandy. A trip of a couple of hundred kilometers took more than 5 hours.
After a quick night in Kandy, we boarded a 1st class observation car for the conclusion of our train adventure. The car was comfortable and scenic but again most of the people slept for the majority of the ride.
We wanted to take the Highway bus from Colombo to Galle. The highway bus utilizes the toll road and takes one hour vs. 4 hours for the local bus. Again our poor planning cost us as we found out once we arrived that the highway bus does not leave from the bus station. After a 40-minute lung choking tuk-tuk ride through the Colombo morning commute we finally reached the bus. Perhaps it was worth it as the bus was comfortable, clean and fast-a first during our stay in Sri Lanka.
We liked Galle from the moment we saw it. The combination of seeing the Indian Ocean and the quaintness of the Dutch Fort where we would make our home for 3 nights combined to make us forget the long drive we had taken from Ella.
Galle is really hot and walking the narrow alleyways inside the fort in the heat of the afternoon is rough. We found that morning and evening were the best times to wander the walls and explore the shops. A bit of a crowd gathers to watch the sunset each night near the lighthouse and we joined them for the nightly excitement.
Our hosts had unfortunately lost a son 12 years ago and they invited many relatives for a memorial service one night. Rhythmic chanting filled the house for more than 3 hours. We were asked to join the ceremony but felt we might be invading on the families privacy.
Our 3 days passed quickly. We enjoyed good food, chats with other travelers and a few opportunities to hear what locals thought about their countries rapid development in the last few years. We never left the fort and although the heat was ominous, we enjoyed our short visit.
Although we stayed in Colombo for a total of 4 days, I know nothing about the city. No one seems to have a good opinion of the city and nearly everyone just uses it for transit. Before our departure, we elected a small jungle resort in the city of Negombo, closer to the airport and popular with transitting travelers. Our resort was located far from the beaches and restaurants and we enjoyed a few days of air conditioning and clean clothes. There was a nice pool outside of our room but we never visited, even opting to have some meals in the room.
Sri Lanka is a developing country that has become popular with European travelers to beat the colds of northern climates. It is a beautiful country, with wildlife, deserted sandy beaches, pretty mountains and a varied climate. The people are friendly and seem like they are anticipating better days ahead. They are happy to be out from under colonial powers but worry about corrupt government and the return of foreign powers. The infrastructure needs some work to handle more visitors and development is rapid and seems haphazardly planned.
We did a poor job of planning this part of our journey and it affected our time in Sri Lanka. There are many things to enjoy here but I felt we did not take proper advantage of them. 3 weeks is plenty of time to tour the country and our lack of preparation hurt us. Hopefully with some time to reflect the struggles will pass and only nice memories will remain.