Our time in Sri Lanka during our first foray into the ancient island nation was interesting and eye opening. We had slow travelled for most of the first month and spent the majority of the time in the northwest part of the country. Our one room rental was not luxury but allowed us to slow down and meet local people and enjoy what the area had to offer.
Our second stop back in Sri Lanka was going to be a bit different. We knew that we wanted to see some of the well travelled tourist spots in the south of the country, as they are popular for a reason, and not just sit still. So, with the images of the impossibly blue and turquoise waters of the Maldives still fresh in our minds we flew the giant bird back to Sri Lanka – back into the chaos!
Headed south, we took the fastest road in Sri Lanka. It was a toll highway that stretched from near Colombo to the south coast. Finally a road without cows, dogs, bikes, tuk-tuks and all sorts of other interlopers interrupting the flow of movement. We arrived in record time, for Sri Lanka anyway, and found our guest house in the old fort area of Galle.
Galle is a town set in and around an old Dutch trading fort. It was a nice setting for the views and sunset, but definitely was no longer what it once was. It is now filled with restaurants, bars, guesthouses, and souvenir shops. Each one trying to attract tourists with their increasingly elaborate signs and offers. Galle was the first place in Sri Lanka where we saw the local population seeiming outnumbered by tourists. It was strange, as we had spent most of the past 2 months in areas with few tourists, but now we were back in the belly of the beast – the tourist trail! (Dun-dun-dunnnn).
Our guest house was smack in the middle of the touristy area of Galle Fort, but you wouldn’t have known it was a guest house. It looked like an old mansion, well past its prime, potentially abandoned, but with lots of character, sitting in between shops. It wasn’t clear that it was anything at first – but once inside you could see it was a family home, one that had been there for a long time!
The owners were very kind and the patriarch of the family enjoyed talking the ear off of anyone that would listen. He was also very inquisitive and knowledgeable about a multitude of topics. He happily listened to everything we had to say, seemingly increasing his already vast knowledge of the world. Also, luckily here the girls also met a couple other little girls and had playmates for a couple evenings. Our room upstairs was in the back of the structure, a room that was best described as spartan, but livable. The old tiled roof was on its last legs and each morning greeted us with a fresh pile of its mortar on the floor next to the door. A balcony that might have once looked out over the ocean and the sunrise to the east, now stared directly into the adjacent buildings, and the garden below, that is if you dared to venture out on it. A fan that had 2 functioning settings, take-off and couldn’t push over a butterfly, was our only source of cooling during the stifling nights. Luckily a mostly functional mosquito net kept us from the abundant night time intruders doing their best to separate us from our blood, one small bit at a time!
Despite the obvious state of the house, the owners had an extreme amount of pride in their home. It had been in the man’s family for generations, built by one of his relatives long ago, and continued to serve as the centre for the current family. Renovations are badly needed, as the sky is clearly visible through the roof in places, and half of the upstairs isn’t even usable anymore – but that might be the future for another generation of the family – one that has a pride running deep for the area, and their home. While many of the other stately homes in the area have been sold to outside investors, looking for a base to get a piece of the tourist dollar in Galle, this home has, and will continue to stay in the family; at least that is their current plan.
The rest of our time in Galle was mellow. We ate some good food, toured the Japanese Peace Pagoda high above the hills opposite Galle Fort and even stopped in a turtle rescue centre / hatchery. The centre was a big hit for the girls, as who doesn’t love turtles! The guide gave us his best rendition of a tour, one that certainly had been given before, and we were able to see living examples of each species found in Sri Lanka. The organization is one of a few that are important for the turtles of Sri Lanka, so we hoped that our meager contribution would go to continue the efforts to help them. Another nearby attraction worth mentioning is the famous stilt fishermen. We were pretty underwhelmed and disappointed to see that the fishermen really only seemed to be there to pose for the tourists and to push tourists’ butts up the stilts to get their photos taken with rods (no line!), for money of course. We get this is how they make money now and, really, it’s probably better for the state of the fisheries but we just couldn’t…
After Galle, we headed along the coast to Mirissa, another stop on the tourist trek along the south coast. Here we stayed at a quaint little guest house with an extremely friendly family. Yeshin Guest house was the perfect location for heading to any of the area’s beaches and just relaxing. Our girls were lucky to have a little friend to play with in the host family’s son and many a day was spent by the three of them chasing and playing in their yard.
Welligama Bay, near Mirissa, was also the location where both our little adventurers learned to surf. Maëlle started the drive for finding the perfect wave and her little sister wasn’t far behind. Two days of lessons and more waves were caught than missed by these two super girls! It was amazing watching them show off their prowess on the boards. A balance that was acquired through gymnastics and dance came into use as the waves were no match for these little surfers! We think they might be hooked, as I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see these two on surf boards.
Another popular attraction in Mirissa is blue whale watching. While all four of us are adamant ocean creature lovers and never want to pass up a trip to see the majestic creatures of the sea, we just couldn’t make ourselves go for it. It wasn’t the cost, nor the time commitment, nor the boats being used (although really that should have been taken into account), but the methods used by the companies to ‘whale watch’. More than one account of the trip found on any number of traveller or review sites indicated that the whale watch was more of a whale harassment hunt, and the majority of the trip was spent chasing or surrounding the whales (when they found them), often well within the recommended safety zones around the whales. Nothing about that appealed to us, so we let it slide – the chance to see the blue whales was worth passing up if we could be part of the group that showed the tour operators that their procedures were not acceptable by the only way they would notice, by not getting our money.
Our last adventure around Mirissa involved getting train tickets for Sri Lanka’s most famous train ride; the Ella-Kandy route. We knew about this train and had wanted to see it for ourselves since we had planned on coming through this part of the country. Getting tickets wasn’t easy however, as it involved finding a train station that sold advance tickets. Not everywhere did that – so luckily a station near by Mirissa did, and we headed off to get some tickets. We picked out the route and the date and even added another train route to our itinerary, Kandy to Colombo, thus avoiding another horrendous car ride through the twisty roads near Kandy. Four tickets on both train rides, both in first class (with A/C), came to less than one car ride on one of those routes, so it was an easy choice! Unfortunately, the total had to be paid in cash – and we were about 150 Rupees short (around $1.10 CDN). Seriously eh? We had come all this way, figured out how to book tickets and still had to get back, but were just that much short of getting our tickets, and of course to fit with the cliché, the ticket booth was closing in a few minutes! So… we either we had to give up the tickets or change classes on one of the routes. Luckily we were able to go down to 2nd class on the Kandy-Colombo route and save some money, while still getting where we needed to go! We had concerns that the second class trains in Sri Lanka would resemble those of the lower class trains in India we had ridden years before, and thinking ahead we definitely were apprehensive about having those tickets. Luckily, those fears were never requited and the trains turned out to be just fine, if not in need of a good deep cleaning.
Soon our time in Mirissa was over and we were off to Udawalawe and the national park for another safari. We had considered going to Yala National Park and visiting the most popular of Sri Lanka’s National Parks, but the distance, the pending car rides to and from, the cost, and the hoards of tourists that would certainly be waiting made us reconsider and turn north to Udawalawe.
Udawalawe is a small hamlet in the middle of south central Sri Lanka. It is well positioned for guest houses to serve as the starting point for the visit to the near by National Park of the same name. We found a basic and non-remarkable place to stay to base out of and arrived after our trip from Mirissa. In hind sight we should have booked the evening safari the day of our arrival, or booked it out of town immediately after our safari the next morning, but we hung on in the little town for 2 nights – a place with very little to do.
Our safari to Udawalawe started out slowly, after an early morning start, with more waiting than animal watching. We ended up entering the park well after sunrise, in a traffic jam/stampede of jeeps carrying scores of tourists. Immediately however we were pleased to spot elephants near the entrance gate. Sauntering along to their own beat they slowly moved off into the brush to forage for their breakfast. The rest of the tour however, save for the other encounter for elephants, was less remarkable than expected. Perhaps our previous experience with a safari in Wilpattu had set the bar high, but the Udawalawe experience just didn’t quite meet our expectations. A driver than spent more time on his facebook account that looking out for things for us to see was only part of it. His crocodile spotting was on point, but seeing other things was a bit hit or miss. He spotted at least 3 crocs from a distance and made us spend a much longer time than needed staring at them, while he checked to see what had happened in the social media world since his last check 4 minutes ago. His timing was also perfect for taking off just as I had lined up a nice shot of a bird or animal. My camera has an over abundance of half blurred images caused from a lurching jeep and an underwhelming number of actual animal photos.
Luckily, just before the end of our drive through the jungle, we found a herd of elephants in the brush. While most of the drive around the park was watching the jeep drivers act just like they do on the main roads (rushing to a pinch point in the road, neither letting up an inch, and then spending the next 10 minutes inching by each other to get through – where a 5 second delay at the start, by either driver, would have allowed the other to pass easily and then it would have been over… but nope, that never happened), occasionally we were alone on one of the paths around the park. It was here that I saw the slimmest glimpse of grey in a patch of green and brown; one that the driver missed, likely during one of his frequent checks into who liked his most recent selfie! I yelled out for the driver to stop and back up and just emerging from the brush was a herd of elephants – a mother and baby and a number of juveniles. We sat quietly and alone as they fed and wandered around us. We were alone with the herd for at least 10 minutes before another jeep arrived, allowing us to watch the magnificent pachyderms get within about 5 m or less from us. It was incredible and a memorable experience.
In Udawalawe we saw about 10 elephants total; not too shabby! However, on our trip from Udawalawe to Ella we probably saw 5-6 elephants along side of the road, just waiting to be fed. A much easier, and cheaper, way to see the symbol of pride of Sri Lanka; and you don’t have to be up at 5 am to do it!
Next stop Ella. Another twisty, tortuous ride through the roads of the highlands and we were in the coldest place we had been in Sri Lanka! In the hills you didn’t even need a/c to feel comfortable at night. It was great! We stayed in a nice little guest house and walked to some of the most famous sites in Sri Lanka. We visited Little Adams Peak – a high point in the area. The girls did amazing on that day, despite the heat (yes it was still hot in the day) and hiked up and down this peak. The going wasn’t too tough, but at one point we saw a woman just above us lose her footing and fall over the side of the path. A flash of an arm, and the woman beside her grabbed her just before she fell head first. I ran to get underneath her, to catch her if needed, and helped push her back up the hill. No one was hurt luckily, but you could see the woman was a little shaken, but happy to have been helped!
Little Adams Peak provided a marvelous view of the surrounding hills and tea plantations, and of course another chance for the ubiquitous instagrammers to get their shot of staring off into the distance while looking over a cliff. They actually line up to do the same pose over and over again – often with a similar wardrobe.
After the peak we hiked over to the Nine Arches Bridge; perhaps Ella’s most famous photo spot. The bridge is a brick/stone nine arched train bridge that spans a ravine. It was built about 100 years ago and has become famous for the amazing views over the bridge and jungle and nearby tea plantations. It is a beautiful area and we ended up visiting twice, including once while the train came through, and once we even walked all the way back into town by the tracks – a long, hot journey, not recommended in the middle of the day.
Ella was even more touristy than Galle and the backpacker crowd clearly decends into this former sleepy grove in the hills en masse at all times in the year. Despite the constant threat of rain while we were there, the restaurants and the trails and the area was filled with crowds of travellers.
We only ended up staying a few days, they hopped onto the highly anticipated train for our trip through the scenic hills to Kandy. The train ride was filled with twists and turns, bridges and vistas, jungle and tea plantations, and finally sunset and then darkness. We ended up being in first class, with an over powered a/c unit, not actually needed for this trip, as the air was cool and fresh in the hills. We watched as this one couple spent at least 80% of the 6 hour (or so) trip hanging out of the door of the train trying to recreate the famous photos from this trip. I am sure they took at least 1000 or more photos, as the entire time they were snapping away. Sure it was beautiful, but I hope they saw it with their eyes and not just through the view finder of their phone.
Our second time in Kandy was more pleasant than the first. No one was sick, and we stayed with a fantastically fabulous family (Dilly and Samantha) just outside the city. They had a very comfortable Airbnb and were superhosts to the max! Totally! They were on top of everything and were extremely thoughtful. It was probably the best Airbnb host experience we had on our trip so far (and we’ve had a few). We decided to go easy on our last couple of days in Sri Lanka and just hung around the Airbnb and visited the terrific botanical gardens. These are not to be missed if you are in Kandy. They are a bit pricey to visit (by Sri Lankan standards) but worth it!
Finally as our time was winding down in Sri Lanka, this time for the last time on this trip, we took the train back to Colombo and stayed one final night near the airport before heading off to our next adventure in Singapore – another pet sit!
Our last day in Sri Lanka also corresponded with our youngest daughter’s birthday. She was going to have a birthday in the air! So we surprised her by ordering a cake to be served on the flight. The flight attendants on Sri Lankan Airlines were awesome. They brought out the cake and even sung happy birthday to her. She was a bit embarrassed, but I am guessing she won’t forget that for a while! The cake was delicious btw!
So with Sri Lanka behind us and a new adventure in South East Asia on the way we looked back at the past couple of months and the thousands of new memories we made. Sri Lanka has a place for everyone. Veteran travellers, neophytes to the world of adventure, and those just looking for the perfect insta shot will have their buckets filled with gorgeous scenery and generous people. We may have left Sri Lanka, but it won’t be leaving us anytime soon, as our memories will have us thinking about the place for years to come.
Another installment of the M4 travels brought to you by M (Managing Director of air travel)