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Sri Lanka

SRI LANKA | Sunday, 16 May 2010 | Views [1110]

Nine hours flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur is smooth despite we fly over the equator and dense stormy clouds prevent any views from our window. Staying in Tune Hotel just 500m from the terminal tonight, we leave early tomorrow morning. Truly tropical steamy and hot weather here feels like a little preview of what is ahead of us soon. At 3:30 wake up buzz, then short ride by shuttle bus to terminal and by 6am we are on the way to Sri Lanka … what is going to be like?

Bit confused after arrival we finally locate airport shuttle bus assuming this bus would go to Colombo, some 35km away. Instead we are soon dropped off at some local village not sure how to continue further. Suddenly one bus driver leans out of a window making hand signals we should board his bus, and we do. An hour drive to Colombo is somewhat unusual – locals seem to be very curious about us and we constantly feel their poking eyes in our direction… when our eyes meet they open into a big smile. We feel very comfortable and welcome right from the first moments. Bus terminates at a place looking like major bus-stop and we have no idea which part of Colombo we are in. Not having Lonely Planet or any other travel guide we rely on tuk-tuk driver’s advice where to find cheap and clean accommodation. We had seen many large Asian cities and Colombo is not an exception – busy, cluttered at times and very noisy with drivers honking at every possible occasion. Crossing road with our 20kg bags is tricky but does not seem to be risky as all sorts of cars from tuk-tuks to buses somehow manage to avoid any problems or collisions. We are taken to Nipon Hotel where we decide to stay for a couple of days; room  is simple, reasonably clean but the main plus is an air-conditioning which may be quite useful in this scorching heat. Exploring Colombo on foot is not the best fun and by mid afternoon we are very tired – sweat dripping from temples irritate my eyes so we decide to go back to hotel and rest until heat drops. Afternoon storm cools the air a little and we are back on streets, this time looking for some typical local food. Surprisingly many locals can speak some English so we have no major problem to get around with even one local guy navigating us to a small eatery near supermarket Arsico. What a nice introduction to Sri Lankan curry! Really yummy. Not being fond of large cities we feel compelled to leave Colombo soon with aim to explore more authentic places along south coast and central hills region. On Tuesday 6 April we leave from the central train station at 9am having final destination set to Hikkaduwa, only 60km south of capital city… and what a train this was! Track was built just meters from the beach and sometimes there are only few boulders between the train and breaking surf. Amazing! Kids on train show urgency to test whether we are made of meat and bones … no, we are not aliens! We are just like you. I take many pictures and while few may be shy others quickly look at my camera with big open smile. This feels almost unreal and we ask ourselves: “Why are all people so nice and seem happy?” Hotels suitable for our budget are located some 3km out of Hikkaduwa and we trust local tuk-tuk driver to pick one for us. He did good job – we stay in the first one … white Mediterranean style guesthouse right on the beach and all for $20 per night. Pleasantly warm waters and endless golden beach lined up with straw umbrellas of restaurants come close to definition of paradise – we may have to stay here for few days. Having cold beer in one these bamboo huts we meet a young couple from Slovakia, immediately we find the same tune and more beers keep coming. Together we visit tsunami memorial just few km north of Hikkaduwa beach where we learn about tragedy of Christmas 2004 disaster. Chatting to locals only ads depth of sorrow and helplessness these people went through. The same train track we came by from Colombo was ripped out and twisted by the enormous force of water turning the train into instant graveyard. Next morning we say good bye to our Slovak friends heading off further south to see more beaches. Unawatuna famous and talked about for its beautiful golden bay is our next stop and less then one hour on a local bus is needed to get there. Again we trust local tuk-tuk driver for his recommendation and soon we relax on a balcony in company of monkeys swinging on mango trees. Short walk to bar-lined beach reveals sad reality – the most of sand was washed away by tsunami rip and from 100m wide beach only few narrow strips of sand is left in parts of the bay. Popular spot for reef diving is no longer visited by underwater enthusiasts as the reef was completely destroyed. Waves break against foundations of buildings and one wonders how much longer this can last. Powerful swell rocks the veranda where we are having dinner – no need for extra salt, water almost splashes into our plates. Next morning we leave Unawatuna as there is nothing exciting about this part of coast. Today we’d like to arrive to Mirissa, being only one hour away I think that should not be a major problem. Bus stop is only 100m from the beach and choice of guesthouses is pretty generous. Sorry tuk-tuk drivers, this time we just walk! Ten minutes later we enjoy nice views from balcony and cannot resist love feelings for this place. Next three days we spend in low stress mode… home-beach-restaurant-beach-home. With its Bob Marley style laid back atmosphere Mirissa offers clean beach, great curry, cheap beer and excellent roti (we try four varieties - cheese, vege, banana + chocolate = mnam). We could easily spend the rest of time here but that is not real reason why we came to Sri Lanka so on Monday 12.april we are on the road again to Tissamaharama with a short stop at Matara. Leaving beautiful beaches behind, from now on our journey will continue in-land and our first adventure will be Yala N.P, safari tour. As soon as we step off the bus at Tissa, couple of local guys with jeep offer their help with accommodation and visit to safari  … since we have not been let down so far, we accept. Not knowing at that time, this was to be an unforgettable experience in Sri Lanka…. We check in to Kadapul guesthouse and before we could sort out our plans we sit at back of jeep to safari, apparently animals seek water holes in late afternoon and that increases our chances to see wildlife. Paying $120 (incl. entry fee) for four hours sounds little steep but we really want to see wild animals in their natural habitat. Definitely money well spent… seeing many elephants, wild bores, deer, crocodiles, mongus, cobra and many exotic birds from very close distance is thrilling. Two leopards playing on distant rock is just extra bonus. By sunset the park will be closed, it is time to make to the entrance and we see even more animals on the way out. Sweaty and covered in red dust we need good shower before trying local restaurant … wow, did I say restaurant? .. we found one shonky pub with no beer (sounds familiar?) but with millions of mosquitoes instead. Serving only one type of fried rice is actually better then none so we go for it. It is impossible to tolerate mossies any more and quickly we are out of there to spend rest of evening with family of the guesthouse. Our plan to leave Tissa tomorrow is abandoned when owner Damith tells us about Singhalese New Year happening in next two days – no buses will operate and all businesses will be closed .. hmm, what are we going to do? Answers come next morning at breakfast when Damith and his wife Sumana invite us to participate in celebration of the New Year by their family and relatives. We are the only guests in two storey guesthouse, Damith closed the door for all new tourists …”No problem with money”  he answers our questions as to why he closed the guesthouse. Soon we get very friendly with their 19-year old son Janith and 17-year old daughter Dilki. It is difficult not to feel be part of their family, especially when Damith insists that we ceremonially open the New Year breakfast tomorrow at 9:07 (exactly). With big smile Damith says we are first foreigners ever invited for this most important family event. We are truly honoured and we gladly will stay next few days with this lovely family. Mid-afternoon walk around wetlands proved to be exhausting (heat and humidity kills us) but very rewarding. Reminding documentaries from Discovery channel wildlife here is abundant with many exotic birds showing off their smooth glide when landing amongst pink lotus flowers… and when we think it can not get any better there is a surprise … large flowering trees full of monkeys! Several families seem to establish their homes here with young daring teenagers come close to us while small babies cling tightly to their mothers. Such big curiosity to us is a nuisance to locals as monkeys very effectively destroy fruit trees, such as bananas and mangoes. Indeed, we often see many unripe mangoes on ground with only 1-2 bites… now we understand. On the way back home through town, trying to buy some food is almost impossible ... it is public holiday today and Damith was right! We are tired and hungry. “No problem” Damith offers to cook fish curry tonight but before the dinner is ready we’d like to visit nearby hospital where Sumana works as midwife. After seeing all wards from labour room to emergency and adult ward we have mixed feelings. Considering limited resources Sri Lanka has this was probably not bad hospital … we silently look at each other with no need to discuss this any further. Interesting experience. Sumana stays in hospital for overnight duty and we walk back home still with images of some patients in our minds. Well, curry is ready! Seven smaller dishes filled with sauces and vegetables are served together with steamed rice and always present papadams. Mildly spiced meal is absolutely delicious! Many crackers go off everywhere in town but New Year celebrations will really start tomorrow. We are anxious about what is going to be like … just before we go to bed Dilki smiles: “Do not be late for breakfast. It starts at 9:07”.  Within our limits clean shaved and clean dressed we are ready for guidance through special breakfast … with all food on table, at 9:07 Iva lights candles, then Damith explains how we exchange little money for luck and prosperity, and finally we feed each other with first mouthful… all facing north for good luck. Dilky mentions my green tea-shirt has lucky colour and we also receive small bracelets. “Eat,eat!” Damith insists with a smile putting more food on our plates. We feel very special. They expect up to hundred visitors (family and friends) to arrive by late afternoon so in mean-time we show Dilki game Ludo … and she is quick learner… in kitchen Damith prepares 20kg of fried rice plus soup for all those visitors with no signs of any stress – “no problem” are his usual words. When first guests arrive we start to understand Sri Lankan mentality and the rest of evening only confirmed their high level of mutual respect, help and strong family bonds. By 7 pm two musicians play modern pop out in garden and to our surprise only boys move … where are all girls? Giggling and running around the guesthouse they show restraint and would not come out to mix with boys. Strange but we are learning. Starting dinner at 8pm eating sessions continue till about 10pm and many guests leave shortly afterward, except all Janith’s male friends, two of us and Damith … bottle of Arrack (40% distillate made from coconut) on table with few extra beers will ensure good party till late. When Dilky joins our outdoor party just before midnight Damith admits that his daughter sees him drinking beer for the very first time. With increased alcohol consumption the party goes little loose, me and Damith try to keep up with young boys swinging in crazy jungle moves. We call it off at 2am to Sumana’s pleasure (at this moment she has been almost 50 hours without sleep) despite Damith’s repated “No problem, no problem”. Our bus leaves in six hours… not much sleep ahead. Saying good bye that morning was difficult for everyone especially after being ‘adopted’ last night by Damith’s as his brother and sister. We wave from tuk-tuk knowing that we’ll miss this warm hearted family … maybe one day we’ll see them again.

With one unexpected stop to change bus at Wellawaya we arrive to Ella shortly after midday. This small village situated about 1000m above sea level is easy to get around, within ten minutes we find a new home at Soorya gust house, following an advice of young traveller we just met at bus stop. Fresh cooler air is a nice change to hot plains of Tissa, apparently Ella Gap valley fills with fog and cloud every afternoon which is promising for good sleep tonight. I get excellent chicken curry for dinner while Iva refused to eat anything, I think she is still a bit tired from last night’s New Year celebration. Few hikes around Ella makes this place very popular but all should be started early morning before clouds set in by lunch. The most strenuous is about four hours return hike to Ella Rock, this morning is glorious so we decide to leave guest house shortly after 8am to conquer the summit. First half of easy walk on railway tracks is followed by steep ascent to Ella Rock. Making the correct turn-off was rather tricky and without help of locals we would not have any chance finding it but the rest of trek was easy to follow. Sweeping views from the top over valley were stunning with mountain range slowly disappearing into distance. It was somewhat surprising that we did not meet any other tourists despite this day must have been one of few perfect days to do this hike. Well, better for us…. and as we have not had enough, after short rest we decide to walk 5km down the road to Rawena waterfalls packed with hundreds of Sri Lankan tourists. Obvious favoured picnic spot for locals, especially during New Year festive month of April. By now our legs are really tired, clouds get darker and heavier, and we resort to boarding very slow and over-crowded bus back to village… 5km in 20 minutes is not exactly fast but at least our legs do not have to walk uphill. Tired, we fall asleep by 9pm … train to Ohiya leaves tomorrow at 7am. We are not late, but train is by almost an hour, and fully packed with people, many hanging out of doors. How possibly can we squeeze in? Somehow we did. On next six to seven train stops more and more people stuff themselves inside and we progressively look more like a can of sardines. I can’t even move my feet few centimetres, Iva leans on slight angle but does not fall as there is nowhere to fall to. Luckily we have only about two hours to go while others will travel like this all the way to Colombo, nothing to envy. Locals must be used to such travel conditions, nobody is upset and many keep smiling. At Ohiya few teenage boys help our bags be taken off to the opposite side of train track as we had no chance exiting train onto the platform…and then pose for few photos. Unbelievable experience! Many people and children keep waving as train slowly leaves the station, standing on tracks we look around trying to come to terms as to where we are… one train station, one shop and one guest house seems to be all that forms Ohiya, but hang on .. there are few more houses over there! Is this the right place we should have got off the train? Local tuk-tuk driver explains that all we see is all we get and indeed this is the right place to explore Horton Plains N.P. Well, train is gone, what options do we have? Once again we trustfully follow his advice to leave for N.P. as soon as possible, before too many clouds spoil views from The World’s End cliff. We make a quick decision to stay in the only guest house here, besides the deal is too good to refuse – simple but clean room plus dinner plus breakfast for $18 and that is for both of us! Leaving our large bags behind, by 9:30am tuk-tuk starts 11km steep climb to Horton Plains National Park, sooo steep that his engine keeps stalling and I have to walk while Iva is getting a ride. Hurray, we are on top and now only last few km to the entrance, pay hefty fees and by 11:30 we start 9km round walk. So far so good but weather quickly deteriorates and clouds are building up fast. Apparently, the World’s End cliff falls almost 1000 meters down and on clear days we could see beautiful rainforest spreading as far as eyes can see. When we reach The World’s End lookout the dense fog rising from jungle below completely blocks all views, and soon heavy rain starts too. We are little disappointed but still happy. Again, hundreds of Sri Lankan holidaymakers are present everywhere and walking treks get pretty crowded in places. On this not so easy path we admire young families with small children, often being carried by mothers. How determined they all look, barefoot and in clumsy traditional long saris they stumble over boulders and muddy slippery terrain. Our travel umbrellas are useless and within minutes we are completely soaked just like everyone else … and guess what… they still smile. At elevation 2,200m and without any sunshine soon we start to feel cold and the only way to keep warm is to walk fast. We do not mind paddles or streams of water any more, walking straight through them does not make any difference because our shoes are drenched anyway. By 1:30pm we finish at small canteen where only tea and biscuits are available, but that is good … we need some fuel to burn before our tuk-tuk returns at 2pm. Still cold and exhausted we return back to Ohiya, change to dry clothing and wait for dinner – curry. What a day! First squashy on train, then wet and cold on plains! The only joy in this forgotten village is a bunch of few weeks old puppies we can play with. Plentiful mix of traditional and western breakfast, including chapatti and dall curry is just too big to finish, though very delicious. Train is about one hour late which probably means it is filled to the roof … yesterday the train leaving station was forced to stop as people trying to hang on fell off… and today might not be any different. It was the same, if not worse. Having paid for 2nd class we could only squeeze to 3rd anyway so why to bother? Well, at least we are securely inside train and moving! Two hours later a relief comes at our final destination Nanu Oya, suddenly we can freely breathe again and stretch our limbs…then straight to Nuvara Ellia by local bus. Nuvara Ellia is situated at 2,200m above sea level making this place very sought after retreat for locals and tourists as well. Within half an hour we realise coming here was a mistake … the town is absolutely chocked with people, accommodation prices are astronomical and its luna-park atmosphere does not feel comfortable. Making quick choice to leave the town, soon we are back to bus station where thousands of locals try to board buses to all possible directions … this is insane. At the bus stand bound for Haton over 50 people wait and the minibus would not take more then 20, it’s a race and for the first time we witness not so nice behaviour when time gets tough … many elbows are used and only by a miracle we make it inside the second bus after we left the first one to go. From here now on we can relax and enjoy scenery again with tea plantations everywhere. Arriving to Haton brings back our Sri Lanka as we know and like it. Small provincial town has its own calm pace and we quite enjoy afternoon stroll around centre. At very comfy $20 hotel room we’ll regain our mental and physical strength which will be needed for Adam’s Peak climb taken on in next few days. Leaving after lunch on Monday, 19 April we are on the way to Dellhousie, very picturesque two hour bus trip winds through even more tea plantations estates scattered around two beautiful lakes. Dellhousie is a cute small village built on one side of a narrow valley. This is base for a climb to Adam’s Peak, about 1000m conical mountain with a  monastery on the top. We are advised to commence hike at 2am as it may take up to four hours to climb 5000 steps over 7km trek, and we want to see sunrise from the top! Staying at Greenhouse G.H. proves to be advantageous due to its proximity to trail starting point and also few other backpackers stay here tonight with whom we chat over dinner. Five hours sleep is enough and at 2am sharp we start walking, all we have taken is water and camera. Torch is not needed as path is well lit all the way up and to our surprise we are not alone. There are hundreds of pilgrims of all ages walking alongside, some already returning from their journey, many looking very tired. This experience is very hard to put in words – many pilgrims mumble prays in synchronised blend of sounds and we are sucked into this spiritual mass as we get closer to the top. Steps get narrower and our progress slows down to one step at the time, all in the presence of this rhythmical prays generated by crowd. It is fascinating. We reach the monastery at about 5:30am with just enough time to find a spot to observe sunrise. There are already hundreds of locals up here waiting for the same, we can hardly count more then dozen of foreigners. Each person reaching the top may ring a bell where number of bell rings indicate number of visits to Adam’s Peak monastery… some people ring many times, quite amazing! Sunrise is spectacular. With amazement we watch huge triangular shaped shade cast by the mountain across the western sky, it does not last long and disappears as sun keeps rising. The show is over and we face those 5000 steps once more, this time in opposite direction. Walking down feels much harder on legs and joints, air warms up very quickly even if my watch shows only 7am. Two hours later we relax at guesthouse having so needed breakfast. By 11am we leave Delhousie on the bus to Kendy with one change at Haton. Endless tea plantations make this journey very scenic so five hours on bus go rather quickly. We follow our friend’s recommendation to stay in Blue Haven G.H and this was good choice. Surrounded by rainforest we indulge views from large terrace, right in front of our room. Tomorrow we take an offer from guesthouse owners to explore Botanical Gardens, elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, spice gardens and tea factory. Quite fulfilling day this was. The Botanical Gardens at Kendy is not only one of the most beautiful we have ever seen but it is also very educational as we can touch and smell many exotic spices such as nutmeg, pimento, cinnamon, curry leaves, cocoa, vanilla beans and many more. Later the elephant orphanage with its more then 80 inhabitants must be the most intensive encounter with these beautiful gentle giants. We are lucky to arrive just in time for baby bottle feeding session… quite funny to watch babies suck milk from 1L bottle in 5 seconds. Around 2pm the whole herd moves to nearby river where they have real fun…bath and play for a couple of hours… but we need to leave them as time is running fast and tea factory will close soon. Short excursion to manufacturing floor gave us an insight on how tea is made… the difference between black and green tea depends on fermenting process, not on type of tea leaves. Back home just for dinner and tired we go sleep. Three days left in Sri Lanka should be plenty for two more sights – Cave Temple and Sigiriya rock fortress near Dambulla, some 2.5 hours north from Kendy. If Kendy was warmer then Ella, then Dambulla feels like open oven. Mid afternoon walk through the Cave Temple was not the smartest thing to do as temperatures soared easily to 40C and after two hours we are completely exhausted. We must have suffered heat stroke to explain why the heck we walk another 3km to town at this unbearable heat…but we want to experience the whole package not just few comfortable parts. Vegetarian pastry samosa is little too hot for Iva but we are hungry … by 6pm we sit at local mini-restaurant to try another local dish ‘kotu’, washed down with not so cold beer (actually the beer was at air temperature which at that time could have been around 30C). Not always everything is perfect… but does it really matter? Now we deserve some rest, tomorrow 5th century Sigiriya ruins to be visited. Tuk-tuk comes just after breakfast at pre-agreed time 6:30am, we still have to cover 25km on road before getting to this famous ancient site. Trying to avoid walking in hot weather we start early; at 7am the sun is already in full power, after all we are almost on the Equator. We seem to be first visitors here today, a definite advantage for unspoiled pictures. Sweating, we climb the Sigiriya rock fortress and what stunning views open in all directions. Two hours passed away quicker then we thought and by 9am we return back to our tuk-tuk waiting at the car park. Afternoon rain is good excuse to be lazy and stay home for the rest of day. On Saturday 9am we catch bus to Negombo where we are going to spend last night before flight to Chennai in India. Once again, tuk-tuk driver helps to find reasonable accommodation close to beach with lots of small restaurants and cafes around. Easy day, good night sleep and local bus to the airport are amongst our last moments in this amazing and wonderful country.

 

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