2017 - Sri Lanka Road Trip

24 February 2017    Mirissa to Kandy, Sri Lanka
Suranga, our tuk-tuk driver, arrived at 08:00 and whisked us off to Matara.  There was a slight delay when he was pulled over for speeding and had to pay a fine, which I think was about 1,500 rupees (£7.50) – a lot less than the UK fine of £100 plus three penalty points.  At Matara, we boarded a very nice air-conditioned bus to Colombo, which cost 510 Rupees each - the trip took 2½ hours.

The bus dropped us off at the bus station in Colombo, where we boarded a local bus going to Kandy.  This was a bone-rattler and was jam packed for most of the trip – Glenys ended up sitting on a lift-up seat in the corridor.  The bus was so full that we were passing money and tickets between the conductor and the passengers behind us.  We were relieved to arrive in the bus station in Kandy after three hours.

Jam packed Sri Lankan bus

We caught a tuk-tuk up to the Royal Tourist Lodge, which has four rooms and is run by an elderly couple who were very friendly.  The room was good with air-conditioning and a TV, so we collapsed and chilled for a couple of hours, before walking down the hill to have a look around the town. 

As we were walking past the lake, we were joined by an elderly gentleman, dressed all in white, who struck up a conversation with me. He told me that he was a school teacher and was going to see the Kandy Dancing show because today was a Hindu holiday called Maha Shivaratri, which was why he, and lots of other people, were dressed all in white.  

Sri Lanka is notorious for scams, with people constantly trying to extract money from tourists, so I was a little wary, but he seemed like a nice guy and I couldn’t see any downside.  We walked along with him and, thinking that the Kandy Dancing show would be a special event because of Maha Shivaratri, we went along with him. 

However, it was just the normal tourist show; my “friend” no doubt received a commission on our tickets; and he also asked for a small donation “for the children”.  I gave him 100 rupees (£0.50) because he’d been entertaining.  The Kandy Dancing Show was okay, with some good costumes and lots of loud drumming and Indian Flute wailing, but I wouldn’t go again.

Back at the Guest House, we had our first home cooked Sri Lankan meal - Rice and Curry with a chicken curry and four vegetable curries. It was nice, but a bit bland.  We had to ask for chili paste to tart it up.  They obviously produce bland food for the tourists - from now on we’ll be asking for our meal to be spicy.  

25 February 2017    Kandy, Sri Lanka
The Guest House prepared us a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast, which consisted of spicy grated coconut, boiled egg in a yellow curry and some coconut roti bread. It was accompanied by a nice pot of Sri Lankan tea.  The owner of the guest house used to be a Manager of a tea plantation and gave us a blend of Broken Pekoe grade Sri Lanka tea.

Wood Carver

Glenys had a master plan to go for a morning hike to visit three temples and then have lunch back in Kandy.  Unfortunately, it took us 20 minutes to walk into town; then 30 minutes to find a bus to take us to the village of Embekka; then the bus didn’t leave for 50 minutes; and then then bus journey took one hour and 10 minutes; so it was just before midday before we stepped off the bus. 

However, it was an interesting morning of watching local Sri Lankan life.  The bus station was absolutely manic with hundreds of buses going to and fro, with horns blaring and conductors shouting.  We’d been told that we needed to catch a No.643 bus, but there was no logic to the bus stands - the numbers along each platform seemed to be random. Nonetheless, everyone was very friendly and we were slowly directed closer and closer to our bus.

It was a little depressing to have to sit on the cramped local bus for 50 minutes, waiting for it to leave, but after our lengthy search for the bus, we dared not leave our seats.  By the time that the bus left, there were a dozen people standing in the aisle.  The bus seats are obviously designed for Sri Lankans, who have a smaller stature than us Europeans, so it was a cramped, bouncy journey up narrow, winding roads, but the scenery was magnificent.

It was a short walk to the first temple, and halfway we came across a small wood carving workshop, where we chatted to the owner and (of course) were invited into his small shop to have a look around.  He had a good line of patter, so Glenys was eventually persuaded to buy a small Wooden Plate with a strange carving of a lion with an elephant’s trunk, which is a mythical creature called Gaja Sinha.  It’s a bit weird, but Glenys liked it and it only cost £7.50 (negotiated down from £10 – we’re so soft.)  

Glenys checking out a Stupa

Five minutes later, we finally made it to the Embekka Devalaya temple, which was built in the 14th century.  This Buddhist temple is dedicated to the worship of King Mahasen, who was proclaimed a deity in 300 a.d.  (I don’t quite understand this because Buddhists don’t have gods, but who am I to question…) The main attraction is the Drummers' Hall, which has dozens of wood carvings on its ornate pillars.  I’m afraid that we’ve seen too many wonderful temples in other places in Asia, so it seemed a little unexciting to me. 

We turned left out of the main gate of the temple and walked up the steep hill, past an impressively large mosque for such a small village, so I think that this area must be a Muslim enclave.  On the bus out of Kandy, I was surprised to see relatively large number of Muslim women - some of the ladies were wearing full length, black Burqas, complete with net veils and black gloves, which seems a little extreme in a place where Islam is a minority religion.  I believe that 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with 12% Hindu, 9% Christian and only 10% Muslim.   

It took us 20 minutes to walk to the Lankatilaka Vihara temple, where we were faced with a very steep set of steps, cut out of the rock, up to the temple on top of the hill.  This is another Buddhist temple built in the 14th Century, which is an impressive building. There are some interesting architectural features, plus the Buddha & Wall Paintings inside the temple are good.

We walked through the temple complex and onto the main access road, turning left and heading towards the road between Embekka and Pilimathawala which was a pleasant walk where foreigners are unusual.  The land was mostly rice paddy fields with odd patches of taro and other crops.  We strolled past small stores selling a plethora of goods with everyone staring at us, but giving a beaming smile when we said hello.  It’s nice not being asked for money all the time.  

Sri Lankan kids love cricket

Cricket is a popular activity with the kids and we were invited to join in with a couple of games, but politely refused – I’m rubbish at batting and didn’t want to shame the God-like status of English Cricket.  We had a little incident at one game.  After declining to join in, the next ball was smacked resoundingly in our direction. I had my camera in my right hand, but just managed to get my left hand to the ball.  Unfortunately, I didn’t expect it to be a tennis ball and it bounced out of my grip.  The players cheered anyway, impressed that I nearly caught it.  Phew! English honour barely intact, we ran away.

During the day, we had to pay 300 rupees (£1.50) for each person at each temple, so we decided that we didn’t want to pay to see another small 14th century Buddhist temple and gave the Gadaladeniya Viharaya temple a miss. Apparently the central temple building is unique being built entirely of sculptured granite and houses a Buddha, which is significantly different from others from the same period. (Yawn!)

We walked down to the main road and quickly caught a bus back to Kandy.   After a quick shower we walked to town, where we went to the White House restaurant.  It was very clean and westernised, but they didn’t sell beer and the food was very mediocre, too salty and bland – give it a miss. 

26 February 2017    Kandy to Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
We were at the bus station just before 09:00 and within one minute a ticket tout had persuaded us onto a small air-conditioned bus heading for Dambulla.  It was only 200 Rupees (£1) each and was reasonably comfortable although again, they don’t half pack ‘em in.

Dambulla Cave Temple

They dropped us off at the Golden Buddha temple and within seconds, we had a helpful tuk-tuk driver showing us a small shop where we could leave our big rucksacks – no price was agreed, just a “small donation” when we pick them up.  It was quite a walk up the steps and then down the other side to the ticket office where we had to fork out 1500 Rupees (£7.50) each.  From the ticket office, we trudged up the stone steps to the Danbulla Cave Temple .

I liked this series of five caves, which are jam packed with Buddha statues and wall paintings:

Dambulla Cave Temple is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka - there are more than 80 documented caves in the surrounding area.  The major attractions are spread over five caves, which contain a total of 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of Hindu gods and goddesses - including Vishnu and the Ganesha. The murals cover an area of 2,100 square metres.  Depictions on the walls of the caves include the temptation by the demon Mara, and Buddha's first sermon.

There are always Macaque Monkeys at temples and this was no exception.  They were on all the paths, begging for food - they look so desperate and endearing that it's hard not to feed them.  I'm always amused by their antics.  There are litter bins around the temple, which have lids, but these are obviously not Monkey Proof .  We also watched one monkey systematically test each of the windows on a tourist coach - goodness knows what chaos it would have caused if it had forced its way in. 

We walked down to the huge Golden Buddha , skipped the museum, which was an extra payment and carried on down to the road.  Our earlier friendly tuk-tuk driver was waiting and pounced on us.  After a little friendly negotiation, starting at his 1,500 Rupees, we agree 1,200 Rupees (£6) for the 15 kilometres ride to Sigiriya.  I donated 100 rupees to the lady in the shop who had looked after our luggage and we headed off.  Our first stop was to pick up the driver’s daughter, who we dropped off at her private tuition class before carrying on to Sigiriya.  Private tuition?  Perhaps I should haggle harder with these poor tuk-tuk drivers…

Despite the slight detour, we arrived at the Sigiriya Paradise Inn at 13:30.  It’s a very nice place (although the sign outside says “Paradies Inn”, which if you change one “a” to an “o” makes it a mockery of an inn).  Having arrived early, we were able to book a Safari at the nearby Kaudulla National Park in the afternoon.

Wild Indian Elephants

Our rugged looking safari jeep arrived at two o’clock and we sat in one of the four comfy seats in the back, while the driver drove at breakneck speeds along the narrow lanes for 50 minutes. At the park entrance, the driver bought the entry tickets, removed the overhead rain-proof cover and we were able to stand up between the roll bars.

We saw two herds of Indian Elephants - one herd containing over 40 elephants with some cute little babies.  Unfortunately, the number of safari jeeps exceeded the number of elephants, but it was great to see elephants in the wild.  

There were some water buffalo, but not much else apart from some lovely birds, so occupied myself taking photographs of them.  I must admit to a penchant for knowing the names of birds and have a leaning towards becoming an ornithologist.  I took nice photos of a White-bellied Sea Eagle on its nest, a Blue-tailed Bee Eater and a Painted Stork.

Glenys is now worried that I’m going to buy a camouflaged jacket covered in pockets and start dreaming about long telephoto lenses.

The trip cost £65 for the two of us, which was expensive, but we had an enjoyable 5 hours. Back at the Guest house, they prepared dinner for us - rice noodles with vegetables and a chicken curry – very nice because we asked for it to be spicy. 

27 February 2017    Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
The alarm went off at 06:15 and after a short delay waiting for our packed breakfast, we walked to the entrance for Lion Rock, which took about fifteen minutes along a dusty road.  We arrived there at 07:05, just after it opened, then marched through the outer gardens, past the scores of tourists already there, heading directly for the steps ascending the huge rock.  

Sigiriya (also known as Lion Rock) is an ancient fortress located on a massive column of rock nearly 200 metres high. According to the ancient Sri Lankan records, this site was selected by King Kasyapa in 480 AD for his new capital.  He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes.  Beneath the rock, he constructed elaborate gardens with ponds and fountains and halfway up on a small plateau, he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion - the name of the place is derived from this structure. 

Lion Rock, Sigiriya

The area around Sigiriya has been inhabited since prehistoric times. There is clear evidence that the many rock shelters and caves in the vicinity were occupied by Buddhist monks from as early as the 3rd century BC. The earliest evidence of human habitation at Sigiriya is the Aligala rock shelter to the east of Sigiriya rock, indicating that the area was occupied nearly five thousand years ago.

The whole face of the hill appears to have been a gigantic picture gallery (mostly of bare-breasted ladies).  The plastered wall would have covered most of the western face of the rock, an area 140 metres long and 40 metres high. There are references to 500 ladies in these paintings. However, most have been lost forever. The true identity of the ladies in these paintings is unknown, but some believe that they are the wives and concubines of King Kasyapa while others think that they are women taking part in religious ceremonies. 

After the king’s death, Sigiriya was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century, when it was abandoned.

We beat most of the other tourists to the long flight of steep stone steps and had a clear passage – it would be a nightmare to be stuck behind a coachload of “Saga” tourists.  The steep stone steps gave way to a steel spiral staircase, which took us to a platform where we looked at the remaining 18 paintings.  They are very intricate and in surprisingly good condition considering that they are 1,500 years old.  It is forbidden to take photographs of the paintings, presumably because of the possible damage by flash photography.

The crowds starting to build

We descended a second spiral staircase and walked along a suspended walkway to the Lion's Gate , where we climbed steep steps to the top of Lion Rock.  The whole of the hill top (150m * 75m) is covered by the foundations of the palace, which must have been an incredible sight. There are numerous water containment ponds still filled with rain water.  There were only a dozen or so people wandering about, so we found a place to sit and eat our breakfast, enjoying the peace and quiet and staring across the surrounding jungle.

After looking about the ruins for 20 minutes, we headed down, shuffling past hundreds of tourists now slowly grinding their way up the steps. We spend a pleasant hour wandering around the landscaped gardens, poking our noses into caves that were once occupied by Buddhist monks and looking at the geometric layout of the formal water gardens. 

We left at 09:30 by which time the place was very crowded and coach loads of tourists were still arriving.  The entrance fee of $30US per person is outrageously high, but Sigiriya is a unique place to visit.

With Lion Rock ticked off the list, we walked around the outer moat and along a dirt road for one kilometre to Pidurangala Rock.  After paying the entrance fee of 500 rupees (£2.50) each, we walked up stone steps to the Pidurangala Cave Temple, which has a Reclining Budhha; a Meditating Buddha; and some Wall Paintings that are very similar to the ones on Lion Rock.  This place was a Buddhist monastery built by King Kasyapa when he kicked the monks off Lion Rock.

We continued up the trail, which was sometimes a rocky mountain path and sometimes stone steps.  Near the top, we came across the remains of some small dwellings, built under overhanging rock - presumably for monks.  Next to the dwellings was a large Reclining Buddha constructed of clay bricks, which was very striking.  Rounding the corner of the hill, we had a short 50 metre scramble through a boulder passage and up to the top of Pidurangala Rock, which has an impressive view across to Lion Rock.  It was little bit more effort than Lion Rock, but very enjoyable. 

After strolling back down, we walked back along the road towards Lion Rock, but turned left at the moat.  We followed the road for a ½ kilometre and then turned right on a footpath which skirts around the Lion Rock complex.  It was very overgrown in places, but passable, although we did check ourselves for leeches at the other end.  

Sri Lankan Transport - Tuk-tuk and Elephant

Turning right, we walked along road and came across an elephant carrying two tourists. I’m still not sure what I think of this exploitation of elephants.  Nobody moans about horses being exploited having to carry a single person, so why shouldn’t an elephant, which is four times the size of a horse, carry 4 people?

Back at the guest house, we chilled out for afternoon.  Milton, the owner, came over and I went for a quick stroll with him to his paddy fields at the end of his garden.  There are lots of birds flying about and Milton is very knowledgeable about them. He identified a Brown-headed Barbet and a White-breasted Kingfisher .

He pointed out a rough Wooden Tree House  in the middle of the paddy fields, which are used by night watchmen, who keep a look out for elephants coming into the rice fields - they chase them away with firecrackers.

In evening, we stepped out for dinner. Glenys had her eye on the Pradeep restaurant, but when we arrived they said that they had cold beer, but they didn’t have license, so they would serve it in a teapot!  The place looked very scruffy, so we walked out and found another place across the road that served beer in real glasses and played good music.

After a couple of beers, we went back to Pradeep restaurant, which looked much better in the dark where we had a fabulous rice and curry.  This is the de-rigour meal for Sri Lanka and consists of rice with a number of small curry dishes.  We had a chicken curry, with five other vegetable curries.  It was really tasty and inexpensive at 400 rupees (£2).  Of course, we had a Teapot of Beer , which was served with two tiny teacups, but tasted fine.  

A Temple in Polonnaruwa

28 February 2017    Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Milton took us to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa in his tuk-tuk.  It’s about an hour’s drive from Sigiriya, but he made it interesting by stopping off in a couple of places on the way and giving us a running commentary as we went along.  At the entrance to the site, we had to pay 3,500 rupees (£17) each.  These Sri Lankans certainly know how to extract money from tourists.  A bit of background:

Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s splendid medieval capital was established in the 11th Century, A.D.  It replaced Anuradhapura, which was plundered by invading armies from South India.

The city reached a dazzling, but brief zenith in the 12th century and though ravaged by invasion in the centuries that followed, much evidence remains of the old grandeur and glory. The ruins of the ancient city stand on the east shore of a large artificial lake, built by King Parakramabahu I (1153-86), whose reign was Polonnaruwa‘s golden age. 

Polonnaruwa was originally enclosed by three concentric walls and filled with parks and gardens. At the heart of the city lies the royal palace complex, while immediately to the north are the city’s most important cluster of religious buildings, the so-called Quadrangle, containing the finest group of remains in the city – and, indeed, Sri Lanka.  Polonnaruwa’s largest monuments are found in the northern part of the city, comprising the buildings of the Menik Vihara, Rankot Vihara, Alahana Pirivena and Jetavana monasteries, including the famous Buddha statues of the Gal Vihara and the soaring Lankatilaka shrine.

Milton dropped us off at various sites which are quite spread out and would be difficult to see without a tuk-tuk driver (hiring a bicycle is another option).  We were hoping that for his fee of 6,500 rupees (£32), he would be acting as a tour guide as well as a driver, but alas not, so we had to fend for ourselves, trying to figure out what it all meant.

Serene Reclining Buddha

There were a lot of ruins – basically the foundations of buildings.  There’s a central palace complex which has various buildings, but we found it mostly uninteresting.  Outside the palace walls there are two large stupas, but the most interesting temple was a small Hindu Temple called Shiva Devale, which inside has a stone-carved lingam or phallus - a symbol of the Hindu God Shiva. The temple was built in the 10th century and  is still used for worship - the tiny forecourt was packed with a dozen people making offerings when we visited.

Sri Lanka owns one of Buddha’s teeth (a Tooth Relic), which for many centuries has been a symbol of kingship – if you control the Tooth Relic then you are King.  The relic is now in a temple in Kandy, but there are three Tooth Relic Temples in Polonnaruwa built by each of the three kings that reigned there.  

The highlight of the visit for us was the Gal Viharaya, which is a temple with three huge Buddhas carved out of a solid granite cliff – one sitting, one standing and one Reclining Buddha.  The Standing Buddha is 7 metres tall.   The workmanship for the carving is superb and the facial expressions of the Buddhas are the most serene that I’ve seen.

On the way back to Sigiriya, Milton stopped at a restaurant for lunch.  Glenys had told him earlier that we wanted to have lunch in a small local place, so we were surprised to find that we’d been taken to a large buffet restaurant, which was packed with tourists.  

At the entrance, a guy tried to show us to a table, but I wanted to know how much it would cost.  He answered 800 Rupees (£4) each – twice what we’d paid for a meal last night.  I said that I was only expecting to pay 200 Rupees for a small lunch and started to walk out.  We then had a discussion which went something like:

(Whispering) “I do you a special deal for 700 Rupees…”
“No, 200 Rupees each – we only want a small meal.” 
(Whispering) “OK, Milton is my good friend – 600 Rupees”
“No, 200 Rupees.  Milton, we want to go somewhere smaller and more local”
(Milton remains stubbornly silent.  Other tourists now looking at the commotion.)
“Just come and sit down”
“No, I want to know how much it’s going to cost.”
“Just come in, you can eat for free”
“No, I want to pay a fair amount – I’ll pay 300 Rupees”
“OK, pay whatever you want, JUST COME IN AND SIT DOWN.”

We sat down and had a tasty rice and curry lunch.  When we were ready to leave, a lady came over and told us to pay 1,600 rupees.  I told her that I’d agreed to pay 600 rupees.  I got up and walked to the gentleman with whom I’d had the discussion, expecting a shouting match.  I gave him 800 Rupees, which was more than we’d agreed (because the meal was good).  He counted it and to my great surprise, gave me back 100 rupees.  I laughed out loud and thanked him, he laughed and gave me a hug – Sri Lankans might try to overcharge tourists, but they treat it as a game. 

Sri Lankan breakfast

It was four o’clock before we arrived back at the Guest House, so Milton earned his £32 for the day.  In the evening, we went out for another rice and curry, this time at a restaurant that actually served beer in a glass.

1 March 2017  Sigiriya to Kandy, Sri Lanka
We had another huge Sri Lankan breakfast consisting of hoppers with omelette, a spicy roll, toast and a banana.  Hoppers are pancakes made with coconut milk & rice flour and cooked in a special pan similar to a small 5” diameter wok, producing a pancake which is shaped like a bowl.  A fried egg, curry or shredded omelette is placed into the bowl and it is then rolled up and eaten with the fingers.

Milton took us in his tuk-tuk to Danbulla to catch a bus.  We were expecting a bus station, but were dropped off at the side of the road.  Local buses came in a steady stream with the conductor rapidly ululating the name of the destination, which was completely unintelligible.  We didn’t really want to spend three hours on a jam-packed bus with no air-conditioning, so we hung on for half an hour waiting for a smaller “express” bus. 

When it finally arrived, we made sure that we were at the front of the queue, which was a good move as they only had room for four people. The journey wasn’t too bad and two hours later, we were back in Kandy. We jumped into a tuk-tuk, who initially agreed 400 Rupees, but when he realised that our destination was a long way out of town, weaseled 500 rupees out of us. (The landlady told us later that we should only have paid 250 rupees – we’re poor negotiators.)

Cooking Lesson

The Kandy Grand Paradise homestay is lovely.  It’s up in the hills about 5 kilometres out of town and is run by a very nice, enthusiastic lady called Shayamala.  The rooms are clean & spacious and the whole building is built on several levels making it very special.

Having had a welcome cup of tea and settled into our room, we decided to walk to the Kandy Tea Museum, which is four kilometres away. It’s a bit difficult to find along the many winding roads, but Google Maps helped and we managed to find the place.  As we were paying the 600 rupee entrance fee, the heavens opened and torrential rain started, hammering off the corrugated steel roof and walls of the old tea factory.

The small entrance fee includes a guided tour, which was fascinating, showing us the tea manufacturing process and all the old machines.  The museum is housed in an old five story Tea Factory which used to be powered by a series of shafts running through the building, onto which were attached belts to drive each piece of machinery.  Initially the shafts were run by water power and later by a simple diesel engine.

The rain had reduced to a light shower by the time we left and we were soon back at the guest house, where Shayamala spent an hour showing Glenys how to cook four traditional Sri Lankan dishes.  Dinner was a feast of Prawn Curry, Sri Lankan Dhal, Beetroot Curry, Brinjal Salad and a couple of other vegetable curries.

2 March 2017  Kandy to Ohiya, Sri Lanka
Shayamala produced a huge traditional Sri Lankan Breakfast for us with String Hoppers, Dahl, Spicy Coconut, etc.  There was enough food for four people, so Shayamala made us up some lunch boxes to take with us on the train.  We’d only stayed one night, but wished that we’d stayed a week, so it was with a heavy heart that we climbed into a tuk-tuk and went to the railway station.

Train from Kandy to Badulla

There were lots of tourists waiting on the platform for the train from Kandy to Badulla, so we were very glad that we’d had tickets for the Third Class Reserved carriage.  This train journey is supposed to be spectacular and a “must-do” train journey, but I thought that it was just interesting and not much to rave about – perhaps I’ve seen too many mountains and spectacular vistas in my life.

We’d been allocated seat numbers on our ticket, but it was fairly loose with people sitting where they liked - that is until a German couple arrived.  I’m not a great believer racial stereotypes, but these people wanted precision and caused some disruption.  Bizarrely, they could have had window seats, but insisted on having their allocated isle seats and therefore couldn’t see the fantastic view out of the window.

We arrived in Ohiya, in grey skies and drizzle.  There’s absolutely nothing at the railway station, which is surrounded by thick pine forest – it seemed more like a nightmare in Transylvania than a tropical island.  There were only two tuk-tuks hanging about and neither seemed very enthusiastic about taking us to the Hill Safari Eco-lodge, but one eventually relented.

The road out of the station is single track, but not too bad and climbs quickly into the forest.  At a junction, we turned left and the road deteriorated with huge pot holes, reducing the tuk-tuk driver’s speed.   The last ¾ kilometre was down a very scary, steep access road – think, tipping over and plunging off the edge, down a 70 degree slope to the valley 200 metres below.  I’m not one to worry, but I was close to saying that we’d walk and he could drop the luggage off at the lodge for us.

Tea Country

The Hill Safari Eco-lodge is in the middle of a tea plantation with nice rooms and fabulous views down the valley.  The sky was clear when we arrived and we could clearly see the lake in Udawalawe National Park, which is 50 kilometres away and a place that we’ll be visiting in a few days.  There was a spectacular sunset and we had a very tasty Rice & Curry for dinner.  They don’t serve alcohol, but we’d had the foresight to buy a few cans of beer before we left Kandy.

3 March 2017  Ohiya, Sri Lanka
After a reasonable breakfast, we set off on a hike to the railway station at Idalgashinna about 5 kilometres away.  We first headed towards a prominent hill overlooking the valley.  The lodge doesn’t have any proper maps, but has a few hand sketched trail guides.  Unfortunately, they are not very detailed and I got us lost a couple of times.

My first mistake was only about 300 metres from the lodge.  The trail guide said that there was a shortcut along a path.  I found a likely looking path and set off along it, but after a couple of hundred metres it was apparent that we were descending, not going up as desired.  However, we were heading in the general direction of the hill, so I kept going.  It was a very nice mountain path and we came across a small house, were we could see a steep path heading up towards a road.

We attempted to ask the house owner if it was okay to cross his land, but he didn’t speak any English, so we just pointed up and signalled walking with our fingers.  He did the Indian head-wobble, which we took as OK, so we strode through his garden and up the path. Once on the road, we could see another road 200 metres above us, so we took a steep set of steps up through the tea bushes towards a Tamil village.

Tamil Tea-pickers

The village contained fifty tightly packed, single-storey shacks, with narrow mud and stone paths between the dwellings. I arrived first and stood in the village waiting for Glenys to catch up.  By the time she’d climbed up, I had several Tamils watching me, as though no European had ever been there before.  We smiled and said hello and a small group of women gathered. 

The ladies were wearing brightly coloured saris and seemed friendly.  A young guy turned up who could speak a little English, so he translated for us.  The ladies of the village are all tea-pickers and the men do the maintenance work on the plantation.  We asked politely if I could take a photo of Glenys with the ladies and they seemed to be happy with that.  I REALLY wanted to take portrait photos of each of the ladies, but we felt that we’d intruded enough and left.

I’ve seen many villages in our travels and this one shocked me.  There was an overall smell of effluent and their homes were in a poor state of repair.  We’d arrived on a non-working day, so I think that they were wearing their Sunday-best clothes, which were threadbare. No-one seemed to have shoes and everyone chews betel-nut, which is a mild narcotic.  These people are the third generation of Tamils that were brought into Sri Lanka to work in the plantations, yet they live in poverty and squalor.

Having left the village, we found our way to the hill, but couldn’t find a clear way to the top, so we walked on paths, circumnavigating the hill.  We had some good views, but the clouds were starting to roll in, so we continued on our way along a single track road heading east.  There was supposed to be some stone steps at the “end of the concrete road”, but the track turned to grass about 400 metres before the steps (where there is a very obvious large stone).

Raining at Idalgashinna Railway Station

At the bottom of the steps/gully, the trail turned into a very pleasant path that weaved through bush, then after passing a small Hindu shrine, became a pine forest.  At the end of the woods, the view opened up to a tea plantation with the railway line cutting through the valley below.  After walking for another kilometres through Eucalyptus woods, we arrived at the Idalgashinna Railway Station – it was close to noon and had taken us three hours including our various diversions.  

There’s nothing at the railway station, so we turned around and headed back.  By this time, the clouds had descended and was raining – a persistent soaking rain, so after 20 minutes we were drenched.  We stopped for lunch at the Hindu shrine, where I took off my boots, poured out the water and wrung out my socks - it’s a very unpleasant feeling putting on wet socks.

It only took us a couple of hours to get back to the Lodge, where we discovered that Glenys had a leech on her foot.  The damn thing had gone through her sock, so half of it was outside her sock and half inside where it had latched onto her flesh.  When she pulled off her sock it slithered through the material.  The landlord went to get some Dettol, which he sprinkled onto the leech causing it to withdraw and drop off.  He then sprinkled more onto the squirming leech to kill it.  I thought Glenys was very brave waiting until I got my camera out to take a photo, but for some reason, she drew the line at me putting the leech back on her foot, so that I could have a photo with the leech and the blood together...  

Leech on Glenys's Foot

We had a hot shower and a nice cup of tea to restore our body temperatures.  There’s no heating anywhere in the lodge, so we had nowhere to dry our soaking clothes apart from hanging them up in our cold, damp room.  I’m glad that we brought long trousers, jumpers and our down gilets which we wore all the time.

Dinner was very good again, but the rain persisted at times heavy with lightning.  During dinner, the dining room was inundated with hundreds of small flying ants that were swarming around the lights.  Foolishly, we’d left on a light in our bedroom, so we also had hundreds of the damn things flying and crawling everywhere in our room.  We resorted to brushing them off our bed and then dropping down the mosquito net. 

Having restored a little order, we went to bed and, after I turned off the light, I noticed a flashing coming from the enclosed light shade - very strange.  Was this some kind of smoke alarm LED flashing?  After watching it for a couple of minutes, I noticed that it varied in brightness and the light actually moved around inside the smoked glass light shade – a damn firefly was trapped in there.  Fortunately, it exhausted itself after ten minutes and turned off. 

4 March 2017  Ohiya to Haputale, Sri Lanka
Glenys’s carefully planned itinerary had us travelling to Haputale today.  There were only two trains one at 11:00 and one at 13:40, so we decided on the later train and headed off for a walk around the beautiful valley.  We started walking towards Horton Plains, but the trail became a steep single track road heading remorselessly up, so we turned around and walked down a road into the valley, where there are two old tea factories and several Tamil Villages.

It was interesting walking down paths made by the locals, which passed between their fields of leeks, cabbages, carrots and potatoes.  The fields are small, but neatly laid out on terraces with raised beds and deep irrigation channels between the beds.  We went through a Tamil village which was no better than the one we saw yesterday and much bigger.  In fact, we got a bit lost in the labyrinth of narrow, muddy streets, with the villagers pointing us the way out of the place.

Tea Plantation Line Houses

I did some reading on the situation of the Tamil Tea-pickers:

The plantation workers were brought from Southern India in the 19th century.  The majority of these were Tamils from the most impoverished regions, where they were predominantly landless and poverty-stricken agricultural workers occupying the lowest position in the caste hierarchy called “Dalit” (or the “Untouchables”).

Having been brought to the plantation, they were bonded in labour, paid poorly, managed by higher caste employees and discriminated against. Even today, they are usually badly educated, have little access to health services and live in 'line-rooms' where a family is allocated one or two rooms in a long building.  Almost without exception, the companies that own the tea estates also own the settlements that the Tamils reside in.

This combination of landlessness and social ostracism effectively ties many workers to their plantation in exchange for a fragile right to housing and a cycle of perpetual poverty. With no chance of a pension, women regularly work well into their 70s to support themselves.

The daily regime is harsh. At dawn, the tea-pickers walk (mostly in bare feet) to the designated picking area and toil into the mid-afternoon.  The women pinch off the top two or three leaves from the tea bush and place them into large sacks carried on their backs.  

Carrying picked tea leaves

When it rains, the women wrap plastic sheeting around their waists and on their heads like a cloak, and carry on picking. The rain brings out leeches, which attach to the pickers' bodies until they have sucked enough blood to be full, before dropping off.  Snakes also live amongst the tea bushes so the women have to be careful not to step on them with their bare feet.

At the end of the working day, once the minimum tea-leaf quotas are met, the women carry the day’s pickings, collected in large sacks, back down the hillside to be weighed before they are transported to a nearby processing factory up at the top of the valley. An average 18-kilo haul brings in around 400 rupees (£2).

Sri Lanka is the third largest tea producer in the world, and tea is the third biggest sector in its economy, yet here in the Hill Country it’s clear that the tea field workers are not sharing in this billion-dollar industry.

Having escaped the village, we stopped off at one of the two tea factories in the valley - they both shut down about ten years ago.  To my surprise, the building was in fairly good condition and the ground floor was packed with the old tea-making machinery .  Another small surprise was to find a family living in the building – perhaps they are caretakers.

We found our way back to the lodge by 11:00 – thankfully we were still dry.  An hour later, a tuk-tuk picked us up and took us to the Ohiya Railway station, which is very old fashioned. There were only six people waiting for the train, but we were not allowed to buy tickets until 10 minutes before the train arrived.  The station master had a very splendid white uniform that he wore when the train was arriving.

Handing over clearance to the next station

A little ceremony takes place when a train pulls onto the platform.  While the train is still moving, the driver hands an 18” diameter wooden hoop to an official on the platform and then the Station Master hands another hoop to the driver.  The hoop has a pouch attached, which contains the official clearance for the train to proceed to the next station.  I guess that they have to check the documents when the train arrives at each station – it’s bureaucracy gone mad.

Glenys bought us 2nd Class tickets for 30 Rupees each (£0.15) on the basis that if we couldn’t find space in 2nd class we could down-grade ourselves to 3rd class.  We managed to squeeze into 2nd class, but only just.  It was heaving with people standing and sitting on every bit of available floor space.  We had a very uncomfortable 50 minute journey, but it was better than walking.

We arrived in Haputale early in the afternoon and quickly grabbed a tuk-tuk which took us a mile out of town to the Leisure Mount View Holiday Inn - it’s a small lodge with about eight rooms and nothing to do with the international hotel chain.  The view out of our room window is fabulous – we’re in a tea plantation looking southwest down to the lake in the Udawalawe National Park.

We had a quiet afternoon and had the buffet dinner at the guest house, which was good, but very mildly spiced for tourists.  I asked for something to make it hotter and they produced a fantastic Chili Sambal, which was the best dish in the whole meal.

5 March 2017  Haputale, Sri Lanka
We had a late start and didn’t get out of the guest house until 08:30. We were worried about the cloud building up at midday again, so instead of catching a bus up to the Lipton Tea Plantation, we hired a tuk-tuk for 700 Rupees (£3.50).  The tuk-tuk dropped us off at the Danbatenne Tea Factory, where we had a 20 minute tour of a working tea factory for the grand price of 250 Rupees each.  This tea plantation was the first purchased by Thomas Lipton in 1890 and is still owned by the Lipton Company.

The tea-pickers pluck about 20 Kilos of tea every day and, with over a thousand pickers on the plantation, the factory processes 20 tonnes of fresh leaves every day.  This yields 4 tonnes of dried black tea.  The process begins by drying the green leaves for 16 hours in huge mesh troughs through which is blown hot air.  This “withering” process removes 50% of the moisture from the leaves.

A large 19th Century Tea Factory

The semi-dry tea is dropped into tea rolling machines which literally roll the leaves into cylinders and at the same time crush them slightly to release enzymes.  The tea then gets chopped into small pieces and is passed through a vibrating sieve. Leaves that don’t make it through the sieve get chopped again.  The chopped tea is laid out on the floor in 6 inch thick mats and left for 4 hours to naturally ferment, which causes the green leaves to turn a coppery colour.

The fermented tea is then placed in drying ovens, which stops the fermentation process and finishes the drying process.  The dried tea is passed under electrostatically charged rollers, which pick up the fibrous stalks and leave the dried tea leaves on the conveyor belt. The stalks are used for fertiliser and the tea leaves are put through a series of five vibrating sieves to separate the various grades of tea e.g. Broken, Fannings and Dust. 

Twice a day, the Manager of the plantation tastes the various production batches of the tea.  We were lucky enough to be there as they were preparing the samples for the Manager and watched him taste the tea. The tasting is done using tea after it has been in the drying furnace, but still contains the stalks before grading. 

There’s a strict ritual to the whole process.  Exactly 2.9 g of the tea sample is placed into a brewing pot and infused for 5 minutes in 120 ml. of freshly boiled water.  The liquor is then strained into the tasting bowl and the infused leaf retained on the upturned lid. There were four batches to be tasted and it was all laid out very neatly.

Tea samples ready for the Manager to taste

The Manager swept into the room and after a cursory glance at the colour and consistency of the infused leaf, used a spoon to sample each of the four brews, sucking air in to his mouth as a wine taster would do.  The tea is spat out into a container.  The tasting took a minute; there was a very brief discussion about one of the batches and the Manager swept out.

We were allowed to taste the four batches, but it was difficult to tell any difference – Number 3 was maybe slightly less bitter.  We were told that the tasting and the inspection of the infused tea leaves, is the primary method of quality control and a good tea taster can detect faults in the withering, rolling, fermentation and drying processes.

After being educated on tea production, we walked up the road, through the Danbatenne plantation for seven kilometres to Lipton Seat, which is the tallest hill on the estate and has a great view of the surrounding area.  Apparently, it was a favourite place for Thomas Lipton, but now tourists are charged 50 Rupees each to go up the hill where there is an observation platform and a couple of shacks where they serve a nice cup of tea to visitors.

Unfortunately, it was a Sunday, so the 1000+ tea pickers were not working, so my anticipated photo-shoot of tea pickers in action didn’t happen. However, there were plenty of stunning vistas and the quite a number of the Tamil women were out gathering dead tea-plant branches, which they use for cooking.  They collected huge bundles , which they lifted onto their heads and carried back to their villages, which gave me something to photograph. We passed several large villages and the housing is much better than we saw in Ohiya, so the Lipton’s workers are obviously better off.

We strolled back down to the Tea Factory; caught a local bus back to town and then a tuk-tuk to the guest house, where we chilled out for the afternoon.  Haputale is a very small town and we couldn’t find any decent restaurants, so we ate at the guest house again, which was much better because we asked for the Chili Sambal as soon as we sat down.

Bus to Ella

6 March 2017  Haputale to Ella, Sri Lanka
The guest house laid on a huge breakfast with a combination of western and Sri Lankan food.  After ten days of curry, three times a day, my digestion has been suffering (with sheet lifting effects), so I restrained myself to egg on toast.  

By nine o’clock, we were on the move again, catching two local buses to Ella.  It was a bit of a culture shock arriving in the small town, which is lined with restaurants and bars catering to the hundreds of white tourists wandering about.  It cost us 300 rupees (£1.50) to hire a tuk-tuk to the guest house and there was no way that he was going to budge from his “standard” price – we’re just going to have to accept inflated “tourist” prices.  

The Village View Home Stay is a bit rudimentary.  The entrance is on a single track road and all you can see is concrete steps descending past tin-clad roofs.  The interior of the building is in construction, but the owner has three finished rooms which are basic, but clean.  On the plus side, there is a fabulous view from our balcony towards Ella Rock and Little Adams Peak, which are the two hills where we will be hiking over the next two days.  The room only costs £20 per night, so we can’t complain too much and the owner is very nice and helpful.

At lunch time, we wandered into Ella town, taking a shortcut along the railway line.   Railway line?  Did I not mention that the railway line passes 10 metres below our room?  The passing trains slightly shake the room.  Fortunately, there are only a handful of trains each day.

Hiking along the railway line

There are scores of restaurants in Ella and we chose to continue my western food theme by having toasted chicken sandwiches with french fries for lunch.  We checked out a few evening meal menus; bought some cold bottles of beer and retired to our room for a quiet afternoon, barely making it home before heavy rain started.  

There was a terrific thunderstorm in the late afternoon, but it stopped before we went out for dinner.  We resisted Rice and Curry and opted for pizza and salad at the Dream Café, which was excellent.

7 March 2017  Ella, Sri Lanka
We had a nice breakfast, sitting on the balcony in our room (mostly because there’s nowhere else in the guest house to sit and eat.)  By 08:45, we were walking along the railway track heading for Ella Rock.  I’d taken a photograph of a hand written map that landlord showed me, which said to turn off the railway line at a small shrine.  This led through a small café and onto a foot bridge just above the Kithal Ella Falls.

After that it went badly wrong.  I took a path to the right, then steeply up to the left which put us in a small tea plantation.  Then I got lost.  A teenager was following us and told us we were going in the wrong direction - obviously touting to be paid to guide us.  I was now unsure where to go, but told the guy that we didn’t want to pay him anything.  He left us and I was still lost.  

Another guy appeared and took us to the correct path, then (of course) asked for a donation even though he’d only walked 100 metres.  I politely declined and left him muttering behind us.  It’s very confusing if you get off the main path where there are scores of small paths leading through the tea bushes and the large patches of head-height grass.  There are no signs for the correct path - I guess that’s because the locals remove them, so that they can scam tourists.

Clouds briefly clear on Ella Rock

The path became more defined and we had little trouble until we passed a small café and reached the top of a small hill.  Here (unbeknown to us) the path splits into two – one is a steep grind up the edge of the ridge and the other is a longer, but less arduous route along forest tracks.  Somehow we got onto the less arduous route, which was very pleasant.

At the top, we found 20 or 30 people milling about waiting for the thick cloud to clear, which would happen for a few seconds every ten minutes.  We gave up and headed back down, following the steeper ridge route.  At the bottom of the trail, we finished at a different foot bridge.  If I was doing the walk again, I would continue along the railway line past the Hindu shrine; through a small railway station and, after another 100-200 metres, there’s a well-worn path which doubles back on the left, leading to a small foot bridge.  The main path from there is very obvious.  

Back at the guest house, we had cold, leftover pizza for lunch.  Glenys went out in the afternoon to find us a better hotel for tomorrow night and also managed to find an antique shop where she bought herself a small brass tea caddy for her birthday tomorrow.

8 March 2017  Ella, Sri Lanka
It was Glenys’s 60th birthday today.  The owner of the guest house gave her a Birthday Cake, which was really nice of him and made us feel a little guilty that we were switching hotels.  After breakfast, he ran us down to the town in his tuk-tuk and wouldn’t accept any payment for it, which made us feel even guiltier.

Glenys on her Birthday

We checked in to the White House guest house, which is very nice with tiled floors and a spacious room. Unfortunately the place is in the middle of town and the view is terrible – you can’t have everything.  After settling in, we walked to the top of Little Adam’s Peak, which is an hour’s bumble up a road, a dirt track and then stone steps.  There were lots of people up there, but it’s a great view and there are three peaks that you can walk to making it worthwhile.  The sky was crystal clear and we had a fabulous view across the valley to Ella Rock.

Walking back down the access road, we turned right and walked past a very posh resort, which even has a Helipad. Back on the “main” road, we turned right and then left onto single track road which took us down to a railway line.  We turned left and walked for a ½ mile to Nine Arch Bridge, which is one of the Ella Attractions – it’s (errr!) a bridge with nine arches.  The ”attraction” might not be much, but the walk there is interesting.

We had a drink at a small café on the other side of the bridge and then walked back and took a steep clay path up to a small café overlooking the bridge.  After regaining our breath, we headed off to a single track road and walked back into Ella, where we indulged in a beer and a sandwich at the Café Guru, which was very nice.  

In the evening, we went to the Tea Factory restaurant and had a three course western meal , which was relatively expensive, but it’s a restaurant that wouldn’t seem out of place in London.

9 March 2017  Ella to Udawalawe, Sri Lanka
We had a lazy start to the morning with a good Sri Lankan breakfast of Roti with dahl and spicy coconut and then caught a local bus to Wellawaya.  As we got off at the bus station, the conductor told us to catch the No.98 bus to Udawalawe National Park.  

Bus Stations are confusing

We strolled onto the platform to look for said bus and within seconds we were approached by a young guy asking where we were going.  This was not a great surprise, but we told him the truth, expecting to be pointed to the bus stand.  He said that he’d show us the bus routes on a map and then started an outrageous set of lies.  There was no bus going directly to Udawalewe;  if we catch a bus to Thanamalwila, then it’s a tiny town with only three tuk-tuks;  a tuk-tuk from Thanamalwila will cost 4,000 rupees (if we can find one);  we’d be obviously be better off with him driving us there directly for 6,000 rupees.  (Oh yeah!)

Unfortunately, this steady stream of lies confused us, but I wandered away and rang the owner of the guest house, who told us to get on the No.98 bus, which will drop us off at the National Park entrance and his guest house is only 400 metres from there.   I went back to find the scam-man and had a loud rant at him, pointing my finger in his face.  Fortunately, he didn’t hit me, but looked well pissed off about his public dressing down - serves him right.

There was further confusion, because the No.98 bus goes to Colombo and doesn’t stop at any of the bus platforms, instead it stops alongside a dirt pavement.   Another “helpful” local latched onto us and said that the Columbo bus was very crowded and there might not be space.  We ignored him and waited.  

A No.122 bus turned up and our “helpful” friend told us to get on this one.  But we wanted a No.98? Chaos ensued with our “friend” and the bus conductor telling us to get on board.  But we want a No.98 not a No.122.  Much waving of hands and waggling of heads ensued, before we decided to trust them and got on board.

It was heaving with standing room only, so it was an uncomfortable 2 hour journey.   The bus stopped in the “3-tuk-tuk” town of Thanamalwila, which was bustling and had three tuk-tuks per square metre.  We were dropped off at the entrance the Udawalawe National Park and walked to the safe haven of the Hotel Gayan, which is very nice.

Udawalawe National Park

We were in our room by one o’clock, so we decided to go for an afternoon safari which left at 14:30.  Udawalawe National Park is bigger than the one that we visited in Sigiriya and has more varied wildlife.  The wild Indian Elephants are seen in smaller groups in the bush and around watering holes, so it seems more natural.  We saw Crocodiles , Crested Serpent Eagle , LittleGreenBeeEater and even a Mongoose trotted by.

The guest house prepared a tasty Rice and Pork Curry for our evening meal and actually served cold beer which was a bonus.

10 March 2017  Udawalawe to Mirissa, Sri Lanka
We were up at the unsociable hour of 05:30, so that we could go on a morning safari.  At the entrance to the park, we had to buy tickets and there was a huge queue with about 30 safari jeeps jostling for parking.  We had the same driver (Gunni), who was very knowledgeable about the birds and animals in the park and understood that we’ve seen plenty of elephants, so he took us off the beaten path - we saw only one other jeep in the first 2½ hours. 

Again, we saw lots of Indian Elephants, Malabar Pied Hornbill and a couple of Jackals.  There are Peacocks everywhere and we were lucky to see some of the males strutting their stuff, displaying their fabulous tail feathers to attract the females.   We had another enjoyable 3 hour safari, which cost us only 10,500 Rupees (£53).

After breakfast, Gunni took us in his tuk-tuk to the town of Embilipitiya - it cost us 1,000 Rupees, but saved a couple of bus changes and a lot of time.  From the big bus station, we climbed onto a local, rickety bus.  The three hour journey was uncomfortable, but at least we had seats next to an open window.  Thankfully Saranga met us at the bus station and whisked us back to Alba, which to our relief hadn’t sunk or been damaged on the tiny pontoon.