I recently got back from the trip of a lifetime to Sri Lanka. I booked the trip through a company who kept popping up on my Facebook feed. They are called The Flashpack and they specialise in adventure for solo travellers in their 30s and 40s. Their trips take you all over the world, but I opted for Sri Lanka. Why? I’m still not quite sure what initially drew me to the country. I had never travelled to Asia before and I had heard nothing but rave reviews from friends who had been, so after a little bit of research, and clarification the political tensions had ceased I thought ‘why the hell not?’.
I won’t lie. The cost of the trip wasn’t cheap but what you get for your money is adventure by the bucket load, off the beaten track experiences which I don’t think other tour operators could even come close to replicating. That coupled with the joy of peace of mind you get when booking an organised tour that everything has been arranged out for you and you will be looked after by a super-friendly local. Oh, and the hotels are a touch of luxury, too. All I needed to do was turn up on the right day and soak it all up. So, without further ado – here’s my memoir of, simply put, Stunning Sri Lanka
Day -1: LONDON TO COLOMBO
I flew out of London with Emirates via Dubai and touched down in Colombo mid-afternoon. First and foremost your flights are not included in the cost of the tour; so if you might be looking to book with this tour provider, consider that in your overall budget. On arrival, I was greeted by our tour guide who presented me with a lei made of purple and white orchids. The two other Flashpackers I had touched-down with were picked up in, what I will henceforth refer to as the trusty Battle Bus. A 16-seater Toyota minibus, air-conditioned, with the most kitsch white crochet headrest covers you’ve ever seen.
We were driven to the hotel for the night; the Jetwing Lagoon Resort. I was instantly blown away by the choice of the hotel here. Fact: the hotel is home to one of the longest swimming pools in Sri Lanka – at 100m you only need to do 2 lengths to work off breakfast! My room was huge, spotless and I’ve never seen a bathroom like it. I can only describe it as like having a bath in the midst of a tropical botanic garden. In the evening we were taken to a place called “Sasha’s” in downtown Negombo. We were told that it was the sort of place ‘locals’ would go to but if I was completely honest, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the choice. It was on the side of a road and felt too commercial and not very ‘traditional’. I would have preferred to have gone to the more ‘touristy’ boho area near the beach and eaten in a small shack and then be allowed to wander around the night-time market before going back to the hotel to sleep off the pesky jet lag. Nevertheless, with food in our bellies, we headed back to our very comfortable beds and geared up for the adventure which lay ahead.
Day 1: NEGOMBO FISH MARKET TO SIGIRIYA ROCK FORTRESS
After breakfast at the hotel, we headed to the beachside fish market in Negombo. Nothing on earth could prepare your senses for the attack which this fish market delivered. ‘Pungent’ springs to mind. Or should I say ‘repugnant’?
Donald, our tour guide walked us around and talked to us about how they dry the fish on the beach with salt. We carefully tippy-toed around the edges of the netting, trying so hard not to tread on any of the dried and decomposing anchovies and other variety of fish which were laid out across the land in long strips for as long as the eye could see. We followed the beach for a short while, watching as men carried huge barrels of fish, harnessed to logs of wood.
As we neared the market stalls it became apparent to me that my flip flops and, inevitably, parts of my exposed feet were fast becoming acquainted with fish guts, fish juice and lord above knows what other rancid combination of detritus. It certainly was an experience I’m not in a hurry to repeat. But when you’re faced with such situations you just have to get on with it. I have yet to develop some putrid skin condition and my toes have yet to grow scales so I think I had a lucky escape! As we meandered around the stalls Donald would stop and ask vendors what wares they were selling in order to help us identify the more unfamiliar fish, spices, and vegetables. Some stall holders had the sense to light and burn incense sticks to ward off the smells. Smelly fish aside, Negombo was the first and only place I’ve ever spotted a green orange! Who knew such things grew? It was also very eye-opening to see how other people lived. Lived such very simple lives on very little money.
Afterward, we hit the road and headed to Dambulla where we checked into our lakeside hotel – Amaya. Here we had a welcoming party of three local ladies banging a tightly pulled sheath which had a fire lit below. Certainly not a type of drum I had seen before. I’ve also never alighted a bus to a welcoming party and quite frankly it was fantastic. Taking into account the style of driving in Sri Lanka, I think welcoming parties should become standard after each and every road journey – a small celebration to mark that you have arrived, unscathed! Hurrah! The rooms of the Hotel Amaya are laid out like bungalow-chalets, tucked away in gardens, nestled between vegetable patches where native birds roam. It is so serene and blissful. We checked in and had time to eat and change quickly before the short drive to one of Sri Lanka’s most famous attractions – the 5th century Sigiriya Rock Fortress.
The attraction boasts water gardens, a mirror wall, ancient graffiti (which judging by the ratio of waist size to breast size were clearly drawn by men), and panoramic views of the surrounding landscape from the top. Just make sure you’ve got a defibrillator on standby is all I can say! I never made it to the panoramic views as I nearly collapsed and died about a third of the way up. We started the ascent at the hottest time of the day. Big mistake, and in close to what felt like 100% humidity. The air was so thick I could not catch my breath and had to duck out – with my inhaler in my hand, I declared my intention to turn around and retreat to the safety of the Battle Bus.
I started recounting my steps and eventually got down to the gardens where I was stopped by a porter. I was quite adamant I was going to go back the way we had come in. He was quite adamant I was not permitted to go that way. He told me I needed to re-climb the steps which had moments before, nearly killed me. I point blank refused to ascend another step. He informed me if I didn’t go the way he insisted on that I would have to walk 3km around the base of the rock to get to where he said our Battle Bus would be. At that moment I was more enthused about embarking on a 3km flat trek than I was climbing rocky steps. Eventually, he persuaded me to follow him. He kindly guided me, holding my hand where I needed to be steadied and stopping as often as I needed to catch my breath. Eventually, we came down to where the bus was actually waiting.
I hate to admit it, but he was right. The bus driver, his helper, and the apprentice Flash Pack tour guide all greeted me with smiles. I was relieved of the weight of my backpack and this was exchanged for a blissfully cool flannel. I thanked my ‘rock porter’ but because my bag had been whisked away and was in the process of being locked on the bus, I could not tip him, which I felt terrible about. Before I could even being to think about how much his kindness was worth in rupees (in reality, it was priceless) he had waved, turned and was heading back to attend to other tourists on the brink of pulmonary and/or cardiac arrest! Suresh and I sat for about ninety minutes waiting while the rest of the group ascended and descended the rock. The sun was setting and we chatted about all sorts. It was all rather lovely. While I regret not being able to say I reached the summit, in hindsight I’m glad I bowed out – the staircases which run vertically up the side of this natural fortress are precariously fixed to the rock and, according to my fellow Flashpackers, leave a lot to be desired regarding what would pass under health and safety regulations back home. Really, unless you can keep up with the pace of the guide and regulate your body temperature to counter the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya is a beast of a struggle.
The evening was spent negotiating the buffet dinner at the hotel and sitting around drinking with my fellow Flashpackers. We were approached by a ‘magician’ in the evening and told that we must go and see his pool-side ‘magic show’. So, a few of us rolled up and Josh, one of the American guys on the tour, was picked out of the crowd to “assist”. Unaware of his impending sexual assault, he gladly obliged to be the assistant in ‘The Case of the Missing Egg’. Nothing had prepared us for the full-on belly-laughs which would ensue. In this magic show, displaying a willingness to assist meant a willingness to be physically manhandled. Fondled. Groped. Whatever you want to call it, after patting down Josh like one might be frisked at the airport, the magician went about strategically placing a black velvet pouch over Josh’s *ahem* “manhood” and with gay-abandon went about jiggling his junk into the bag – obviously, we were to assume that the egg had somehow magically re-appeared in Josh’s pants! Where did the disappearing egg eventually re-appear from? Well, I can’t actually remember, I was too busy laughing at poor Josh’s expense. I caught the whole thing on film and, needless to say, it was the source of much amusement for the group for the rest of the trip.
Day 2: TEMPLE HOPPING THROUGH POLONNARUWA BY BIKE
“Saddle up this morning for a leisurely bike ride around the medieval city of Polonnaruwa” – that’s what the brochure says, alongside photographs of happy Flashpackers on what I would describe as reasonably ‘new’ [read: ‘safe’] looking bikes complete with helmets. The reality was not quite so…leisurely!
Here we cycled on rusty old bikes which came with rather questionable breaking abilities. Peddling through the city’s ancient wonders, we cruised past the temples of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, stopping off every so often to explore more on foot. This was another super hot and humid day. And like the saying goes; ‘only mad-dogs and Englishmen’ play in the midday sun.
We took a well-needed timeout for a King Coconut break but even that wasn’t enough to stave off dehydration! Nothing had prepared our rear-ends for the pummeling they were going to take, either. By the end, I’d seen my fill of enough ancient ruins and was rather non-plussed about differentiating one Buddha statue from another. Everyone’s butt hurt considerably. I had a bike with a saddle which wouldn’t stay in place, so by the end of the ride, I was going around with my knees practically brushing my earlobes. I was hot. I was sweaty. I was hangry. Following this ‘leisurely’ bike ride, we stop by a local farmer’s house for a much-needed lunch. The setting was rustic but beautiful, overlooking the rice paddy fields. Donald showed us how to make Coconut Sambol and we were treated to a buffet of epic proportions and even more epic flavours.
Come evening, we were spoilt with another authentic meal at a nearby village. Nothing could have prepared me for how breathtaking and memorable that evening would be. We boarded the Battle Bus which drove us a few kilometers down the road and stopped rather suddenly in a remote location with not much else around. Certainly, nothing which would even remotely pass for a restaurant. Like I said, there wasn’t much around except for a couple of odd looking agricultural vehicles parked up. They had their engines rumbling away close-by. We were all very surprised when we were asked to pile into the back of “the tractors”.
Ther term ‘tractor’ is used loosely. I will endeavor to describe this odd-looking motorised contraption. Think of a wheel-barrow. Well, this ‘agricultural vehicle’ had one wheel at the front, like a wheel-barrow. Now think of the wheel-barrows…um, barrow? The bucket section of the wheel-barrow, you know, the bit you’d climb into as a kid and demand to be be pushed around in by an older sibling or grandparent. Well in this case, that part was missing, absent. Instead that space was filled with a big old rattly engine. Now think of the handles on a wheel-barrow. But extend them. Long handles at a disproportionally wide angle, a bit like those you see on a chopper bike or Harley Davidson motorbike. So this motorised end of the tractor hooks to a wooden cart. The driver sits on a wooden ledge at the front of the cart, holding onto his ‘chopper’ handles and he tows his goods behind him. These ‘tractors’ ususally haul around large quantities of rice, fruit, vegetables or livestock. On this occassion its payload was a bunch of pasle, Western tourists! We were transported rather unelegantly down a bumpy single-track dirt road, in complete darkness into the middle of nowhere. We could have been being sent off like lambs to the slaughter for all we knew! Bats flew overhead and as the track got ever more narrower, the tall grasses which lined the road would brush against my back, giving me quite the fright! I might have let out a couple of girly screams.
This place was remote. Like, completely off the map. And eventually, we arrived at a setting which just took my breath away. Firey lanterns lit the way to a boldly colourful mat laid on the floor. The mat was scattered with ‘cushions’ that were actually just bags of rice (surprisingly comfortable, might I add). Strings of lanterns were hung up between trees and a bonfire was lit nearby. This was our only source of light; that and the light of the stars and the moon.
A small group of local men played traditional instruments and sang for the duration of our dinner. We sat on our bags of rice, serenaded under the stars and was fed some truly delicious food; it just kept coming and coming. We drank Tiger Beer and a bottle of Arrack was passed around the circle. It’s safe to say we all had a fantastic night. When it was time to go, one member of the musical clan got up and started a rather out-of-the-blue acapella rendition of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ – he knew each and every word. We had an impromptu sing-song. It was one of those truly unforgettable experiences that was so magical it simply cannot be put into words. After that, the singer cracked out an acapella rendition of ‘La Bamba’ and after lots of mildly inebriated clapping and a decent smattering of made-up Spanish gibberish (there’s nothing quite like making up your own Spanish-y sounding lyrics to the tune of a song!), it was time to board our tractors and head back to the Battle Bus.
On the way home, one of the girls, Hayley, was so desperate for a wee that we had to stop the bus. She got off, and with absolutely no regard whatsoever for her personal safety she joyfully ‘dropped troo’ and proceeded to relieve her bladder of its contents: copious amounts of arrack and Tiger beer. It did not even occur to her until after the act voiding her bladder what slithery, potentially poisonous wildlife might be lurking in the long grass above which her bare lady-bits vulnerably squatted. It doesn’t even bear thinking about.
Day 3: THE ‘SACRED’ SIGHTS OF KANDY
On day three, the itinerary promised that we would “head to Kandy, with a spicy stopover at a Spice Garden in Matale to learn the secrets of Sri Lankan cuisine”. We did indeed head to Kandy, and we did indeed stop off at a Spice Garden. But did we learn the secrets of Sri Lankan cuisine? No. Instead, did I get an understanding of what a Sri Lankan Avon Party might feel like? Abso-friggin-lutely!
The Spice Garden was beautiful, no doubt about it, and as Matale is located en route to the cooler mountain-climes, when we alighted the Battle Bus it was a relief for the air to feel noticeably less hot. We walked through paths which swept through these gardens, paths that were lined with coconut shells, shaded by tall palm trees. It really was rather pretty. Spice after spice, we stopped and examined how it grew…pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, cumin, cocoa, wild asparagus (OK, so not a spice but interesting to see nonetheless).
With each spice-stop, we were informed of its ‘medicinal’ properties and its use in traditional Sri Lankan herbal remedies (so much for the traditional cuisine). Rather conveniently, samples of products had been left next to where each spice was growing so that we could get a taste or experience of what was being talked about – be it a herbal balm, citronella mosquito spray or a swig out of a coconut. At one point, cups of black tea flavoured delicately with vanilla and cinnamon, had appeared out of nowhere, carried on trays by ladies in beautiful saris. I have to admit, the tea was delicious.
Once we’d covered all the ground of the Spice Garden, we were led to this little hut, or the ‘Learning Lodge’ as I called it. We had yet to “learn the secrets of Sri Lankan cuisine”. Maybe this was where they would teach us about mixing spices and put on a cookery demonstration? Sadly, it was not to be. The reality of the situation was that we were about to sit through a hard sell of each and every product they manufactured and stocked along with handy ‘refresher facts’ about the specific active ingredient of each product. Facts we had been told about only moments before our bums had been permitted to perch on the seats of the hut.
Our Head Spice Honcho had specially trained male masseuses on stand-by to massage away our stresses using his hero product; some kind of ‘red oil’ mixed with a herbal paste… to be fair, this was one of the best massages I’d ever received but I think that was more to do with the skill of the person delivering the message rather than the product being used on the skin. By the end of our ‘lesson’, 80% of the group had been on the receiving end of these guys strong healing hands, and we all smelt… rather spicy! Red oil, for all it’s ‘healing properties’ had many spicy ingredients. I’m pretty certain this miracle ‘red oil’ had everything in it to make a chicken tikka masala so needless to say, following our massages we were left to marinate pleasantly and left the spice gardens in a blissful state smelling, well…spicy!
If only we could leave. Naturally, in these touristy traps, the exit is through the gift shop. Now, just allow me to quickly rewind back to when we were leisurely strolling through this ‘jungle of spice’ under a cool and shaded canopy of palm trees. Along our merry way, we had stopped near some pineapples. More specifically red pineapples. Who knew such exotic delights existed? Here we were reliably informed of their superior, nay, magical powers as “slimming aids”. Fast-forward to me standing in the gift shop and our ‘guide’/Spicy Avon Representative, otherwise known as Ravi, shouting across the shop “You! You, Madam…you need this!”. He was holding up a packet of some red pineapple syrup shrink-wrapped alongside a bottle of some miracle ‘slimming pills’ (containing yet more red pineapple and lord above knows what else). He was waving them at me. I didn’t quite know how to react to this. His brazen sales strategy knew no bounds. He had the audacity to approach me and chuck three lots of Slimming Aids in my basket! THREE! For a split second, I contemplated buying these, after all, I do need to lose a few pounds and had joked earlier that “I needed some of that stuff!”. When I looked at the price I recoiled in horror! There was no way I was spending that amount on slimming pills*. Furthermore, there was no way I was purchasing pills made for all I know, in someone’s shed, of which I have absolutely no idea what ingredients had gone into them or what the process was for making them. I swiftly and discreetly removed said items from my basket.
Despite being massively offended, I did want to make a purchase so I was grateful when a fellow Flashpacker had asked which product claimed to alleviate insomnia. I picked up some of that delicious black tea we had drunk, the one with cinnamon and vanilla, it came in a pretty pink and natural weaved caddy, some cinnamon sticks which I thought would at least look good in my kitchen, some Sri Lankan curry powder and a small pot of this herbal balm which you rub on your temples if you’re feeling a bit stressed. Even if it doesn’t actually do anything, I found the smell very soothing, in the same way one might find Vics vapo-rub soothing, and it came in a pretty pot so I was sold! I think I walked out about £35 lighter, not including the 500 rupee tip I’d given the man with the strong healing hands. So just be warned, if you’re ever on a tour which promises a visit to a Spice Garden, be prepared for an array of herbalist ointments, pastes, questionable pills and a hard sell at inflated prices to come your way.
Our newly marinated and tenderised bodies re-boarded the bus and we drove onwards to Kandy. After stopping at a rooftop Chinese restaurant for lunch (when in Sri Lanka, why not dabble in some dim-sum?) we finally arrived at our hotel for the night, the Hotel Suisse. Thank the lord it was only for one night. My room was right next to the elevator shaft, the corridors were all old wooden floored so footsteps could be heard from the other end of the hotel and, as we were in the heart of the city, there was a lot of road noise. It was too noisy. I walked into my room to find the bed had been stripped down to the duvet and pillows but it had yet to be made up. When a room-boy walked in, he was taken aback by my presence. A rather awkward exchange followed whereby he made my bed up as quickly as he could while I just…stood and watched? My bad.
We had time for a quick dip in the pool before getting ready to take a tour of Kandy on foot. We were, some might say, led at pace through market-places, along streets with tuk-tuks whizzing by, an orchestra of beeps from cars, buses and scooters sounded out from all around us. After a brief detour to a Sri Lankan supermarket for some of the Flashpackers to stock up on snacks and cigarettes, we stopped next to a small a flower stall on a narrow street, standing opposite a free-range chicken. Literally, there was a chicken on the other side of the road pecking away at the asphalt. We were headed to The Temple of Tooth, a sacred Buddhist temple, and Donald had purposefully stopped here to buy ‘offerings’.
We were each handed a square of cardboard and on it sat vibrant purple lotus flowers and delicate white petals of jasmine. These were our offerings to give to the monks in the temple. We prepared to enter the temple by either donning scarves around our shoulders or tying them around our waists (depending on which part of your anatomy you were flashing) and after parting with our shoes at the shoe counter (would I ever see my Negombo fish-market fishy-flops again?) we entered through white-curtained doors. There were two entrances, one for men and one for women. They took the business of being suitably attired in a place of worship very seriously. I was beginning to imagine in my mind’s eye what the inside of a sacred Buddhist temple might look and feel like. My imagination transported me to a place of calm and tranquility. Silent. Perhaps the silence might be peppered by the sound of running water from a nearby water feature, or by the sound of bare soles slowly and carefully treading against a stone floor as people quietly go about their worship. I could not have been more wrong.
As we neared the inner sanctum of the temple the banging of drums and the loud squark of some very obnoxious sounding instrument became louder, and louder and louder. After a bit of online research, I have deduced that the source of this awful noise came from an instrument called a Horanawa; otherwise known as a ‘temple clarinet’. It sounds like the sort of thing someone would use to charm a snake. I have no idea as to whether the player of this ‘instrument’ had any prior musical training. Judging by the sound I would hazard a guess he was a novice. I have no idea if the melody (if you can call it that) he was playing had been cast to memory from some ancient musical transcript and the sound which was emanating from this device of aural torture was played as intended all those years ago. Or, I have no idea if he was just being cool, cutting loose and treating us to some ‘improv’. I just wanted it to stop.
The temple was rammed. Bulging with both tourists, back-packers and pilgrims who had come for a once in a lifetime opportunity to worship here. Thankfully we had Donald who knew just what to do, where to go and more importantly, how to queue. Secretly, I think he must have some British gene in him, after all, he did not take too kindly to some people attempting to jump ahead of us in the queue. They were shot down by the sharpness of his tongue. We waited for what seemed like an eternity in this hot building, in a line which snaked up the stairs of the temple. Throngs of people pushing past, tourists looking lost and confused. Sri Lankan families all dressed in crisp white cotton. Children helping their elders up the stairs and babies asleep on their mother’s shoulders. I had no idea exactly where in the temple we were stood, or what significance this particular room held. But eventually, the queue narrowed down to a single file, I turned a corner and could see a monk dressed in vibrant orange robes ahead of me. The process of giving this offering was not at all how I imagined it to be.
My exposure to religious ceremonies is only really limited to the few times I’ve attended a CoE church. My reasons for attending church are entirely limited to school concerts, hatches, marriages, and despatches or the occasional Christmas or Easter service either my Mum or Nan had invited me to attend. I was never very good at saying ‘no’ to them. Which, I guess, is why I naively thought that the experience of the offering at The Temple of Tooth might be akin to when you walk up to the altar to receive communion. I had pictured myself walking up, in silence, kneeling before a giant gold Buddha statue with the lotus flower raised up in between the palms of my hands, head bent down while a monk comes and take this from me, placing a hand on my head, uttering Buddhist blessing in a language unbeknownst to me and at that moment, time would slow down and I would hear nothing except the gentle trickle of water from a nearby fountain and the faint hum of monks chanting in the distance. Everything would be spiritual, peaceful and meaningful and maybe, just maybe, I would feel a tiny bit enlightened. I was in for such a letdown.
Enlightenment was not on my agenda for today. By the time we had got into single file things sped up. Fast. Like a conveyor belt, one after the other. Next…next…next. Until soon enough I stepped forward, the robe-clad monk whipped the lotus flower offering out of my hand and rather unceremoniously – there is no other way to say it – lobbed it through a hatch onto an ever-growing pile of other people’s limp lotus flower offerings (it was hot, the flowers don’t stay fresh for long). The guy looked like he did not want to be there. He looked as though he did not want to receive another flower from another tourist who had no appreciation for his belief system. He also looked like he may have wanted to ram that Horonawa somewhere the sun did not shine (I know I did). And just like that, it was over. Well not quite, we still needed to get out of the place and reunite ourselves with our footwear!
Throughout the bum-fight that ensued to actually get out of the temple, that same monk was, can you believe, still blowing with gusto into his Horanawa. Gastly! Three other bare-chested monks were still banging their drums. Loudly. It was evident that ‘syncopation’ was not a word they were familiar with. And at that moment I wish I had my pot of the magical herbal balm on me to liberally apply to my temples and soothe me of the stresses of my temple surroundings! When we escaped the clutches of the Temple of Tooth, the sun already had set and it was dark. Donald gave literally zero-figs about the requirement to queue to collect our shoes (despite earlier tearing into someone who tried to jump in front of us for the lotus flower debacle). D-Man successfully pushed his way to the front of the “tourist shoe counter” and when I called out that “mine are the black flip flops!” I was not hopeful for a reunion. I looked around and just about every other person was grappling with a pair of black flip-flops. Suffice to say, I have never been so happy to see my newly christened “fishy-flops” in all my life.
Reunited with our footwear, and back on the Battle Bus, Donald informed us we were heading to a local family home for dinner. Little did we know the journey which lay ahead of us would be quite so…exhilarating. I hadn’t experienced steep mountain roads in a 16-seater Toyota minibus until now, and honestly, I think I’ll be OK if I never have to experience them again. When we got to our final destination after narrowly avoiding death (slight exaggeration) we were greeted by the family and ushered into their home. We sort of invaded their kitchen where Donald stood talking to us about Sri Lankan kitchen utensils and what was on the menu tonight by lifting the lids off of various pots! We sat down under a canopy of vines and were waited on by the family. Food was delicious (I feel like a parrot each time I say that, but I was genuinely impressed with the food on offer). After dinner, we had to endure the mountain of doom one more time and the steepness of the slopes was felt more acutely going down than it had going up. We got into a bit of a pickle where upon turning a corner we were met head-on with a car. Let’s just say this: Battle Bus 1 – 0 Kia Picanto.
*one of my fellow travellers did take the plunge and rather boldly purchased two packets of said magical red pineapple ‘fat cure’. At the time of writing this I felt compelled to contact her to see how’s she’s getting on with them. Her response? “Not taken a single one. I got the fear when I got home that I might have weird side effects! They are next to my kettle though, I look at them every day and contemplate taking them”.
Day 4: ALL ABOARD THE EXPRESS TO LITTLE ENGLAND – CHOO CHOO!
Today was mainly a day of travel; but if you’re going to travel you want to do it in style, right? After finally escaping the Kandy morning rush-hour traffic (which wouldn’t be complete without witnessing at least at least one road traffic collision) we drove further up into the mountains to Nuwara Eliya or ‘Little England’.
This small town is home to one of Sri Lanka’s three 18-hole golf courses and a very grand, colonial hotel. We had a bite to eat and another quick whizz around on foot, past the Post Office and Trading Post and made our way to the train station. Here we would board a train which would take us south towards Ella.
The train station was dilapidated, plaster crumbling away from walls, painted signposts which had faded in the sun, vintage artifacts hung on the wall such as old wooden frames which housed hand-written timetables. Trains which had been taken out of service decades ago sat on lines in the distance. It was like a train graveyard. But it was charming and oddly beautiful. A stray dog lay in the sun on the platform. The strays in Sri Lanka that I encountered had all been so tame and gentle. She looked like she might be pregnant or had recently given birth. She did not mind as I approached, inching closer and closer to take her photo. Her eyes tugged at my heartstrings, so between Donald and I, we fed her three Lemon Puff biscuits and I poured some water on the ground for her to drink. Soon enough though, our train arrived and this huge blue engine whizzed past.
We were to travel in First Class, and I was pleasantly surprised by how big, comfortable and clean the carriage was. On this train journey, we got to do something which, back at home, would never, ever, under any circumstance be permitted. You get to hang out of train doors as it’s travelling. At speed. Did I do this? Not a chance. Just standing in the vestibule with both doors open was enough of a fright for me. All it would take is for the train to change tracks or hit a bumpy bit of track to launch you out of the open doorway and down the side of a mountain. No thank you. I waited until the train had stopped at a station before poking my head out of the doorway and yelling to my fellow Flashpackers in the doorway ahead to quickly take my photo!
We arrived at our station and were met by the Battle Bus, and we then drove through some of the most stunning landscapes I have yet to witness. Up and up and up, we kept ascending. I’m sure we broke through the clouds at one point until we finally made it to our hotel. The Melheim in Haputale. This was probably my most favourite hotel of the trip, mainly because of the views which it allowed. I took a solo swim in the very cool waters of the hotel pool. I literally felt as though I was swimming in the clouds. I was later joined by some of the Flashpack Crew and we shared a few giggles, particularly when Lucas’ butt broke through one of the wooden sun-loungers.
I had a relatively early night, and had set my alarm for just before sunrise.
Day 5: FANCY A CUPPA IN THE ELLA MOUNTAINS?
Sunrise did not fail to disappoint. If I thought this place looked gorgeous when we arrived, it was even more striking as the sun rose to greet another day. A painterly sky of dusty pinks, lilac and sparkling blue. Nature really does take your breath away sometimes. After a relatively easy day having preceded us, the agenda for today was jam-packed. The brochure promised us that we would “visit a tea plantation and factory to watch the process of turning the raw green leaf into the familiar product we so know and love”, that we would “visit Ella and head to the Demodara Nine Arch Bridge arches and walk along the train track”, and if that wasn’t enough we would round off the day with “a short hike to ‘Little Adam’s Peak’ where you can gaze upon the beautiful mountains surrounding Ella”. Sounds good. Bring it on!
We boarded the Battle Bus and drove up to the Halpe Wattle Tea Factory in Bandarawela. The factory was built in 1940 when Sri Lanka was under British rule, and it is located 1,230m above sea level in the Uva region. In 2008, the factory was named the largest tea producer in the region. They are currently capable of processing around 150,000kgs of tea per month, which is powered by a workforce of 300 local men and women and up to 35 lorries which arrive daily to collect and transport the fruits of their labour!
If I thought the night-time journey to the family home in Kandy was “exhilarating”, then this was going to rival it. After winding up narrow u-bends on cliff edges, we arrived at the factory and were told to follow a guide through what felt like a derelict warehouse, up through several floors until we reached the top. Up here was the gift shop, and views out over the rolling hills, with tea growing as far as the eye could see. We were seated in a small room while one of the factory’s Operations Managers gave us a brief education in all things tea. It was actually very informative, so much so, that like the teacher’s pet that I am (or was), I wrote notes! Tea, or if you would like to call it by its Latin name (Genus species) Camellia sinensis, comprises of four elements, on which it is can be categorised as fine, good or poor. Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka is reputed to be some of the best in the world and boasts excellence in:
1. Flavour [obtained from the first extraction, the tips of the leaves]
2. Quality [obtained from the second extraction, next part down on the leaves]
3. Strength [obtained from the third extraction…]
4. Colour […you can fill in the blanks]
If you would like to learn more about the process of tea and how it is manufactured, for example how you get white, green, oolong or black tea from what the same raw product then read this helpful guide from The School of Tea.
Our tour through the factory took us through several floors. The manufacturing process starts at the top and finishes at the bottom, so as we were making our was down from the classroom to the floor beneath, a delivery of fresh tea fell through the ceiling to a lady below who received it and pushed it onto a conveyor belt for sorting. From there it goes on a process of rolling, fermenting, drying and sorting. Each stage tweaked slightly to alter the finished product. The rolling rooms were so noisy, with lots of loud machinery and bulbs flashing across vintage looking control panels. Piles of tightly packed, compressed vibrant green mush laid out on tables. From there you walk into the drying room and my gosh. It was hot. There was no way anyone would be able to work in there for longer than 30 minutes at a time. It was like walking into an oven. And finally, we could walk through to the room where tea is sorted. Stacked high in plastic crates. Green, red, blue, yellow. Boxes and boxes and boxes of tea. Ladies walk around here barefoot, and shovel tea from the floor into sacks as tall as they are [just think about that next time you’re sipping a cup of Ceylon], the sacks are weighed and must weigh as much as they do, and then the tea is collected by the lorry load for the wholesale market.
After our tour of the factory, we were allowed to climb all the floors back to the top and have a tasting of 5 different teas. My two favourite were Pekoe and FBOP. Pekoe apparently refers to the size and positioning of the tea leaf when it is picked. FBOP stands for Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe. They are different grades of tea, each with a unique flavour. I now have both lots of loose tea proudly in canisters on the shelf in my kitchen.
By now we were all tea’ed out, so headed down the mountain and into the town of Ella. I quite liked Ella, it was pretty and had an abundance of boho bars. I didn’t so much like all the backpackers that it attracted. The sort who rely on the bank of Mummy and Daddy to fund their spiritual conquests. The sort who would return home after 18 months of travelling to claim that they cured a previously undiscovered tribe of a rare form of leprosy using some of Ravi’s “red oil” and a handful of red pineapple pills. You know? Yah!
Donald took us to a restaurant where the chef gave us a cookery demonstration of how to make Kottu Rotti. It looked delicious. After lunch, we stocked up on water and set off for our hike down to the Nine Arches Bridge. We got the chance to walk along the train tracks all the way down to the bridge. It was surprisingly hard work, to mind your step and make sure you don’t find your foot stuck between railway sleepers. When we got down onto the bridge we stopped for obligatory photographs and had a tea party! Well, when in the heart of tea-plantations it would be rude not to. After some much-needed refreshment, we continued on our hike, now to Little Adam’s Peak.
Well, if this is Little Adam’s Peak I would not want to know how hard Adam’s Peak is (no innuendo intended!). In the heat and humidity it was a struggle, and unlike Sigiriya, I didn’t have the option to duck out of this. I was down in the gorge of the valley and I needed to hike to get out – whether I turned around and retraced my steps or continued on, I still had one hell of a hill to climb! It was arduous, hot, but my god the views from the top were worth it. After reaching the summit, we circled back around into Ella town and headed to Cafe Chill on Wellawaya Road for drinks and dinner. I some ridiculous ‘hydrating’ drink; water with cucumber, ginger and green tea…followed by about 5 passionfruit cocktails!! For dinner, I had this lush curry made up of ten or so different elements, all with a different flavour, wrapped in a banana leaf. It was yum! The sunset, it was dark, the chill down-tempo beats were pulsating, fairy lights twinkled and in that moment, I could have stayed all night, drinking cocktails. It was then I wished I could share it with my best friends.
Day 6: VALENTINE’S DAY…BEHOLD, A GIANT BUDDHA!
“Relax and enjoy a lie in, you deserve it. We will spend the morning having an al fresco breakfast overlooking the mountains. After a few hours of sunbathing, swimming or potentially trekking to a nearby waterfall” the glossy brochure promised. There was a distinct lack of al fresco dining to breakfast, but it was lovely nonetheless. We hopped on the Battle Bus feeling reinvigorated after yesterday’s busy day and drove for a while before Donald stopped by a waterfall. Notably, Diyaluma Falls is the 361st tallest waterfall in the WORLD. And, standing proudly at 220m high, the second tallest in Sri Lanka.
Today was Valentine’s Day, which apparently is quite a big deal in Sri Lanka and all I can say is that the local wildlife must have known today was the day of luuurrrvvve. When we got to the falls a monkey was up to some real ‘monkey business’ in quite the Dionysian manner. He was at it with whatever female he could get his hands on – quite literally. We witnessed monkey rape. Several times over. From the rushing sounds of the waterfall, our next stop would be the calm and peaceful ancient temple of Buduruwagala.
The name means “Rock of Buddha Statues” and in Singalese derives its name from the words for Buddha (Budu), images (ruva) and stone (gala). At 51 feet (16 m) from head to toe; the 10th-century carving is the largest standing Buddha statue on the island. This was more what I expected from The Temple of Tooth – calmness, serenity, tranquility. It was just us there and Donald demonstrated how a follower of Buddism would worship here, showing how to make the symbol of the Third Eye and delivering a prayer in Sanskrit.
We were able to get to our hotel, the Kithala Resort in Yala at a decent time and hit the infinity pool. It was lovely to actually have a moment or two to relax after a busy few days of hiking and sweating through just about all of my accoutrements. The pool was lush, you could sit in it and just look out to fields. Donald had mentioned that you could walk up the road to the corner of a nearby lake and watch the sunset, so one of the girls, Megan and I decided to do just that. The walk wasn’t very nice. For the first time on the trip I felt a little uneasy and vulnerable – just going to show how much of a difference it made having Donald as our guide. With him and the boys on the trip close by none of us were ever bothered. Now, as two single western females walking down a road, we were a target for groups of local men.
Not too far into the walk a car had pulled up to the side of the road and stopped. The window in the car went down and a passenger shouted out to me “how many kilograms do you weigh?”. I pretended to ignore it. I can’t deny that it didn’t hurt. I know I’m not skinny and to these men out here, I was clearly something of a spectacle – someone to poke fun at. In hindsight, I wish I had stopped, turned to him and in my most sultry way said “far too many kilograms for you to handle, sweetie” and walked off. Why is it these retorts come to you after the event?! We continued walking up the road and through another group of men loitering around on street corners (bizarrely there were no women in sight, they must have all been back home, in the kitchen, looking after the children). This time the concerned observer had the effrontery to ask if I was bearing a child. No mate, I’m just fat. When we finally reached the corner of the lake to watch the sunset, it soon became apparent that we had some time to wait yet until the daily ritual that is ‘sunset’ was to bestow its beauty on us.
Every other car or tuk-tuk was beeping its horn at us (me), and it made me feel very exposed. Thankfully Megan had the fantastic idea to seek solace in a nearby hotel, ECKO, where we could get a drink and watch the sunset from their pool area, so we did that and it was all very lovely. We decided, in the interest of safety, that given our experiences on the walk to the lake, we would be safer to hail a tuk-tuk to take us back to the hotel rather than risk further abuse or worse now that it was dark.
At that moment, I smiled to myself and remembered a sign I had seen the day before outside a restaurant in Ella. It read “SKINNY PEOPLE ARE EASY TO KIDNAP. STAY SAFE. EAT PIZZA“. No one in their right mind would kidnap me. I’m far too bulky to bundle into the boot of a car! It didn’t take us long to hail a tuk-tuk and he took us back to our hotel, not without trying to offer to take us to our destination for tomorrow. “No Mr Tuk-tuk driver, we do not want to go to that place tonight. We are going there tomorrow. On our bus. With our guide”. It fell on deaf ears. I was pleased to see Donald standing on the side of the road when we fell out of the tuk-tuk! Although not so pleased when he told us we’d paid 4 times the going rate for the length of the journey we’d taken. We’d paid 200 rupees (£1) when it should have only cost us 50 rupees (25p)! Oh well. That tuk-tuk driver could dine out on us that night.
The hotel had gone all-out at putting on Valentine’s Day themed buffet, everything was red, pink or heart-shaped and red balloons were tied somewhat limply, to the chairs. We had a table right next to the infinity pool, and we were taking bets for who was going to fall into the pool. It was placed precariously close to the edge of the water. Most of us had an early night that night, I was tucked up in bed by 9pm as my alarm was set for 4.15am the next day.
Day 7: YALA GONNA LOVE THIS NATIONAL PARK…
I was so excited about today that I practically lept out of bed. 4.15am was no effort at all. We were going on safari! The brochure promised us that Yala would deliver an “adventurous journey to the country’s second-largest park – known for its elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles and wild boar” and that it “also boasts the highest density of leopards in the world”. So there was a good chance of seeing one of the Big Cats.
The safari jeeps were parked out the front of the hotel at 4.45am and by 5am we were on the road, packed lunches in hand. Megan and I struck it lucky and got not only the better (faster) jeep driver, but we had ‘hawk-eye’ Donald up front and ready to spot all sorts of wildlife our ill-equipped eye just would not have seen.
When the tour organisers said an “adventurous journey” they weren’t kidding. The jeeps raced (literally) to Yala. It was like being in a live-action version of Wacky Races. One would overtake another, you’d hear a jeer from the passengers on the jeep which had just edged into pole position and then it would be rescinded when they slipped back into second place. Our driver was more skilled and he kept us ahead of our ‘rivals’ all the way. Yala only allows 400 jeeps per day to enter the park, which is why there is literally a race to get paying passengers there. Plus you are more likely to see the wildlife early in the morning when it is cooler and they’re not seeking solace from the sun.
On entering the park we saw an elephant. A real wild elephant and she was so beautiful. A little while later we saw leopard prints in the sand and further down the track a throng of jeeps ground to a halt. A leopard! One had been spotted. In a tree. I can’t claim to have seen a leopard. I can claim to have seen a leopard’s backside in a tree and its tail dangling from a branch. We saw Bee Catchers (brightly coloured small birds), eagles, peacocks, wild boar, painted stalks, a small number of mongoose, pelicans, cows, lizards, crocodiles, another elephant! The ‘highlight’ was seeing a python on the road. Donald told us he’d done over 100 of these safaris and had only ever seen a python in the middle of the road once before, so it was quite rare. The snake was about 2.5m in length and was in no hurry to move out of our way.
We had our breakfast on the beach. There is a section of Yala Nature Reserve which hugs the coast so we were told to hop off, take our breakfast bags and enjoy the breakfast on the beach with the Indian Ocean lapping at our feet. It was very beautiful. I hadn’t realised quite what our position on the map was, and was quite shocked when Donald told us “don’t go in the water. If you get swept out the next stop is The South Pole and I’m not coming to rescue you!”. He wasn’t kidding…!
The safari experience was great. While we didn’t get to see a leopard up close it was still a fantastic experience to be close to nature – see the world as nature intended; no interference from us horrible humans.
Next stop was Galle. The town is best known for Galle Fort, the fortified old city founded by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century. Stone sea walls, expanded by the Dutch, encircle car-free streets with architecture reflecting Portuguese, Dutch and British rule. Galle is a jewel. A Unesco World Heritage Site, this historic city was a delight to explore on foot, an endlessly exotic old trading port blessed with imposing Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques, churches, grand mansions and museums. Wandering its rambling lanes, for the first time on this trip, I passed stylish cafes, quirky boutiques and impeccably restored hotels owned by local and foreign artists, writers, photographers and designers.
The only problem with this part of the trip is that we simply weren’t permitted enough time to explore. It was the first time on the trip that we were allowed to go off on our own and get lost in the streets. While others wanted to go off and do some shopping, Megan and I decided there was too much to see to spend it shopping so figured out a plan to squeeze in as much as possible in the time we had. with no maps and no idea where we were going, we began our exploration. It was beautifully charming in a very dilapidated way. I loved the age and rust on street signs, old advertising posters on walls, bleached by the sun. School children – I had never seen so many, dressed immaculately in white, walking past us as a junction, each one smiling, waving and saying hello as they passed. We found the fort wall and followed it for a while up towards the lighthouse, where beneath a stray dog played with a flip-flop. We walked through squares where older boys played cricket. We walked into one of the grandest and luxurious hotels for a quick nosey around and then up some ramparts where we spotted a young monk on a smartphone. Past a library and past a KPMG office! Of all places to find a ‘Big 5 consultancy’ firm, Galle was not one of them.
We walked up a street and I spotted a charity shop which raised funds for the Stray Dogs of Sri Lanka. I couldn’t not go in. Thinking of little Fergus back home, and having met all the dogs on the street during my trip I felt that I had to give at least something to them. So we went in and my first ‘souvenir for someone else’ was a ball…for Fergus the dog! I stuck extra in the charity donation pot and for anyone reading this who would like to give something, the link to the charity is here.
As for the ‘no time for any shopping’…well one shop caught my eye and we dived in quickly. There was just about enough time to buy a well-deserved gelato and as if by magic (more Megan’s brilliant sense of direction) we were back at the Battle Bus.
It felt like forever driving in the dark to our final hotel. We arrived late, but what a lovely hotel it was – the Heritance Ahungalla. Check in was painless and cocktails were on the cards. We had nothing to get up early for the next day, so we stayed up as long as our eyelids would allow (seeing as we had been up since 4am) and went to bed that night with the sound of the waves of the Indian Ocean faintly in the distance.
Day 8: I BECAME A TURTLE HERO!
The agenda for today was blissful…nothing. Rise, breakfast, read, swim, king coconut, cocktail, lunch, swim, read, cocktail, swim, read, cocktail. You get the idea. The only thing we had to do was be ready in the evening for our trip to a nearby Sea Turtle Conservation Project.
Day 9: LIFE’S A BEACH…
Today was much more of the same. Read, swim, cocktail, repeat. Although after a little bit too much sun-exposure the day before, today was mainly spent trying to avoid the burning ball of gas in the sky. Tonight was the last night we would spend together as a group. The brochure said that we would “enjoy a delicious beach BBQ next to the Indian Ocean. It’s your last night in Sri Lanka, go crazy!”. And boy did we!
We arrived at another ‘Chill Bar’ owned by some of Donald’s friends and mojitos were ordered right away! The setting was amazing, it was right on the beach, felt very private and was just picture perfect. A table was laid with a rather interesting centrepiece made of wood. Oil lanterns were dotted around us, and a traditional fishing boat was pulled up onto the shoreline. We drank, we laughed and we watched the sunset. We were treated to the most stunningly beautiful purple sunset that night, I’d never seen anything like it. When the sun had set, dinner was served!
My experience of dinner that night is how I expect dining at ‘Dans le Noir’ in London is like. I had no idea what was on my plate. I struggled to locate my plate at one point! Donald reliably informed us we had a platter of sailfish, cuttlefish, and crab. Whatever it was, it was delicious. The sailfish tasted like a cross between chicken and pork, only more tender. I would never have guessed this was a fish as it tasted so meaty. Cuttlefish is like squid or octopus. It was cooked beautifully. My only complaint about this dinner was simple: there wasn’t enough of it! It was so good I wanted more.
Tonight was my unofficial early birthday party. Officially, I’d turn 31 somewhere over international airspace (over Iran) on my journey home. So as a group we had decided to celebrate. There was a beach party not too far from where we were, lights, music, the works! So we kinda ‘gatecrashed’ and danced on the sand. Until you’ve done it, you don’t realise just how hard work raving in the sand is! It’s tough on the legs! So tough, I decided to construct myself a ‘rave pit’ – I’d move the sand with my foot down enough until I got to firm sand that I could flatten and compact down as much as possible and it made dancing that tiny bit easier.
“We Found Love” by Calvin Harris feat Rihanna will now forever have a very special place in my heart. It’s one of my favourite modern dance songs anyway, so when the DJ played it I could not control my excitement. This track will forevermore be my Sri Lanka anthem. Every time I hear it, it will instantly take me back to dancing on the sand, next to the Indian Ocean, under the stars, merrily drunk on mojitos surrounded by some pretty fab people. As far as early birthday parties go, it is definitely up there.
Day 10: GOODBYE, SRI LANKA…
How was it our last day already? How?? We had to meet at the hotel reception at midday for one last journey on the Battle Bus. We had to follow the coast back up to Colombo and would be taken back to the Jetwing Lagoon to kill a few hours by the pool before we needed to head to the airport.
It was only of those horrible days where you find yourself looking at the clock all the time. When there is nothing left to look forward to on the trip you then start to miss your own bed and personal comforts. It wasn’t too long before it was time to get in the taxi, myself and 4 others on the trip were all on the same flight out to Dubai so we travelled together.
I had a ‘situation’ where I was almost denied entry into the airport by a very scary policeman because I was unable to show him my proof of travel! This was by far the most stressful check-in and boarding process I’d ever experienced. As a seasoned traveller, nothing about this airport made sense. There were no signs, all usual international airport conventions were thrown out of the window. I think I’d had all my bags x-rayed 3 times before I even got to the check-in desk! We’d allowed ourselves a good 2.5 hours at the airport to do all the formalities. It was such an awful experience that we checked in and went straight to the gate and within 15 minutes we were boarding. I was gutted that we didn’t even have time to go to duty-free and buy a bottle or two of arrack to bring home with me. Still, we were on the journey home with so many amazing, new memories.