Saturday, 5 March 2016

Backpacking Sri Lanka

I arrived early afternoon at Colombo International airport, after a comfortable Emirates flight from Birmingham, via Dubai. I was expecting a long wait to get through immigration, as all I had was an email confirming I had been granted an E-Visa, but no, straight through with a new stamp added to my passport!


I changed over some money at the Exchange counters at the entrance to the airport, not a bad rate, but I only changed over £100 to see me through the first few days. It was then out into the hot sun of Colombo. Just outside the airport grounds I found the buses. A bus was there waiting to depart in 40 minutes to Colombo city. \the transfer took about 1 hour and only cost 450 Rupees. I was dropped off at the main bus station in Colombo and then caught a Tuk Tuk to my Air BnB about 10km away.

It was now late afternoon, and It was extremely hot and sticky up in the high 30's. I found the place ok, and checked in. All was fine apart from one thing I had overlooked, there was no air conditioning.! The ceiling fan just moved around the hot air and it looked like we were in for a HOT night.

after a cold shower I headed out to the local shops and restaurants to get some dinner and have a look around. It was a very local area, with no tourists around. I found a decent place and got stuck into a Biriyani and Roti.

We arranged a Tuk Tuk with the owner to show us a few local sights and then take us back into the city centre afterwards. we picked up some breakfast on the way, comprising of a variety of Samosas and fried fish parcels. Very filling, HOT and cheap! All this came to about 300 Rupees.

We went to a nearby Monastry just outside Colombo called Tapovanaya Centre. It was a really tranquil and peaceful place set in forest and jungle. There was a meditation and training centre, several temples dedicated to both Buddhism and Hinduism and some incredible Gold statues of Buddha. The guide who showed us around was a really friendly chap, who wouldn't accept any money of us for his time. He also took us to a boy's Orphanage that was part of the complex. There was a bunch of young boys singing with their teacher. They were full of smiles and looked pleased to see us. We made a donation in the office, and were glad we had the opportunity to visit.

Our driver took us onto Colombo city centre, and dropped us off near to the train station. We bought our tickets for our onward journey tomorrow to Kandy.
We had a wander around but were approached by a Tuk Tuk driver who offered to take us around some of the main sites of Colombo for 1 hour at a cost of 1000 Rupees. It was hot and we were both tired from our flights so we decided to go ahead. The guy turned out to be really annoying, he wouldn't keep quiet and it was difficult to understand what he was saying. He took us to a few temples and churches, but it was all very rushed. When it came to an hour he said "no problem - I carry on". This was his cue to try and take us to a Gem shop. I'd had previous experiences like this in India, so i told him to carry on.  His mood changed, and when he dropped us off he tried to charge us 1500 Rupees, as the time was now over an hour. I told him to forget it, and left 1000 rupees on the seat and walked off. I could tell he was pissed off, but the guy was a real pain, and tried to get us in to a gem shop for his commission.
I'm glad he only got his 1000 rupees, and was definately glad to see the back of him!

Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque

Viharamahadevi Park
After the poor tour we stopped off at a huge park and joined the locals in a picnic, finishing off the other half of our huge breakfast that was left over. All was good again. We retraced our steps to visit some of the temples that we glimpsed earlier. 

Gangaramaya Temple

Seema Malakaya Meditation Centre

The temples were really beautiful and worth spending more time visiting. We carried on our walk by some interesting local areas near Union place, where kids were playing street cricket, a sight we would be getting used to over the next few weeks!

We finally arrived at Galle Face Green. This was a long stretch of grass that was faced a narrow beach of the Indian Ocean. It was a busy meeting place with hundreds of kites in the skies. Families were meeting and kids were playing. There were Food vendors selling street food all along the promenade, selling a variety of fried food. It was all cheap and tasty, although there wasn't much selection as after 4 stalls, the food was simply repeated. There was a pier jutting out into the Ocean, with couples cuddling as the sun set into the water. It was a brilliant location, and definitely worth a visit.
Galle Face


Amongst the food stalls theer were a few outdoor restaurants that were all offering very similar menus. We finally chose one to top up the street food we had earlier. We had a few dishes including Kottu. kottu is a Sri Lankan speciality that comprises of chopped up Roti, that is then fried with chicken, spices and vegetable. It would become our staple dish for the rest of our trip!

We ended up at a bar just at the start of Galle Face called Inn of the Green. A nice western style pub, with live music and a Happy hour. It was a good end to a brilliant first day in Sri Lanka!

We had to get up fairly early the next day to catch the 08.30 train to Kandy. We arrived at the station  with nearly an hour to spare, and it was very similar to my experiences of the Indian rail network. Hundreds of people packed the platforms and local commuter trains arrived and departed full to the brim. There was time to grab a coffee and a few snacks for our 2.5 hour onward journey.

2nd class reserved 

The train in 2nd class reserved was comfortable and best of all with open windows and doors so we could get a good view of the passing countryside. The view was incredible as we climbed up higher into the hills that led to Kandy. It was great to be able to sit at the entrance of an open door of the train as it rattled along the tracks, and it only cost 280 Rupees!!


After a great journey we arrived on time in Kandy. We tried to get an onward ticket for our next journey in 3 days time, but were told that all reserved tickets had been sold and we would have to chance it in 2nd class unreserved! Oh well, that's what travelling is all about! 
We took a Tuk Tuk (cost 300 Rupees) from the station up to our Hotel in the hills overlooking Kandy.
We were booked into the brilliant Satyoda Educational Training Centre. The view over Kandy was fabulous and our room was basic but clean and comfortable. I was glad we were here for the next 3 nights. 

View of Kandy from our balcony
We were soon back down the hill to Kandy, eager to explore. After buying a local SIM card, next on the agenda was food! There was plenty of Bake Houses selling Samosas etc but for a change we opted for a Veggie place that specialised in Dosa. We ordered 2 lots of Masala Dosa and Hot drinks. It was incredibly cheap, coming to 400 Rupees for 2 huge portions and our coffee. Tasty too.

Kandy Market

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

We walked around for several hours to Hindu temples, Buddhist temples and passed by groups of Muslim girls, a truly Multi-cultural country! Kandy Lake dominates the town and is a pleasant place to stroll under the shade of blossom filled trees. We made it around the lake and found the aptly named Slightly Chilled bar, on the top floor of a Hotel. It was indeed a good place to chillout with a few beers and watch the sunset.

We took a Tuk Tuk back into the centre after it got dark and had a nice meal at the Kandy Muslim Hotel. Good service and cheap local dishes, including Kottu!

Next day we were up bright and early as we had arranged with our hotel to hire a scooter for the day to explore the area surrounding Kandy. Our most expensive Scooter of the trip at 2000 Rupees for the day. More than double the price that we were to pay over the rest of our holiday. We started off around the lake and saw some huge Monitor Lizards, Turtles and plenty of exotic birds

We called into the city and exchanged some more money over. We had been told that the best rates could be found at Gold Merchants and Gem stores. The rate was indeed a bit better than the rates we found around town.

We didn't really ride anywhere specifically but managed to clock up 100km riding around the area, taking in the atmoshphere and street life. The roads were busy but not too bad to navigate around and I felt fairly safe.
We dropped the scooter back at Dusk and walked back into the city for dinner. We opted for  a decent Indian meal, thankfully in an air-conditioned restaurant. It was really hot and humid outside, and it was nice to cool off.
We went back to our hotel and had an early night as we were to be picked up at 5.00 Am for a tour we had arranged.

Our Tuk Tuk driver was there waiting for us at 5.00AM and we off for a 2.5 hour drive to Sigiriya. It was a nice drive and we were able to stop off at various points for photos, including this place for a beautiful sunrise over the misty hills and plantations.

We arrived at the UNESCO heritage site at Sigiriya at around 8.00AM, the idea being to avoid the heat and large crowds. I was surprised at the entrance fee which was 4200 Rupees each, and this is on top of the cost of getting there, which for us was 6000 Rupees between us, for the full day trip.

 It was still quite busy and we resembled an Ant trail as we ascended the giant rock. The 370 Metre climb involves many steep steps and its definitely a good work out. Once you reach the summit you are rewarded with fabulous views and Archaeological discoveries. The terraced top of the rock is covered with foundations of buildings from over 1500 years ago. Its an impressive (although expensive) site and the most famous site of the cultural triangle.

Sigiriya Water Gardens

Rock Summit

By the time we descended the rock it was nearly 11.00 AM and it was so hot!!! It would be a killer to try and climb back up in this heat. It was a relief to get back into the shade of the Tuk Tuk to get to our next stop on our day trip.

We reached the Cave temples that are on the main road from Sigiriya just outside Dambulla. Its an important Holy place in the Buddhist world, and is worth  checking out. I was even more pleased to learn that the entrance fee had been dropped and it was now free to visit. Its quite a tough climb up the steps to reach the summit, even more so now we were doing it in the midday sun.

Golden Temple - Dambulla
The Golden temple at the foot of the caves is home to a huge 30M high Golden Buddha Image, which dominates the entrance to the caves.

Reclining Buddha - Cave III (Maha Alut Viharaya)

Inside the caves at the top are a series of caves filled with beautiful statues of Buddha, and the ceilings have well preserved paintings that date back to the 19th century. 

On the way back we stopped off for a buffet style lunch at a roadside service stop. we invited our drive to join us, and the meal for the 3 of us came to 600 Rupees. Delicious and spicy and even opted to eat it with my hands Sri Lankan style!

Sri Muthumariamman Thevasthanam Hindu Temple

We called in at a couple more sights on the way back including the colourful Hindu temple Sri Muthumariamman Thevasthanam. 

It had been a great day out and our Tuk Tuk driver had been excellent. We finished off the night with some very hot Kottu at a street side open air restaurant back in Kandy and packed our bags ready for our early check out tomorrow.

We arrive at Kandy station with our fingers crossed hoping to be able to get a seat for our journey onto Haputale. There were still no seats available, but we were able to get unreserved tickets in 2nd class. It would mean we would probably have no seat for the 6 hour journey!

We boarded the train which had started out in Colombo, and it was already packed, so we settled down at the end of the carriage in the hope that a seat would become available.
There was a family who were in good spirits sitting in the seats by us. The men began to sing, clap and play drums and we thought - what the hell, lets join them! We clapped along and quickly made friends with them.  It turns out they were going to a family wedding, hence the party! They were lovely people who shared their seats with us and we were even given a portion of their lunch.

The journey was beautiful through valleys and hills of central Sri Lanka. Probably the most picturesque journey I have ever been on. Added to that we had free entertainment and lunch! The feel good factor was kicking in now!

Nothing like a free lunch!


The six hour journey to Haputale was just brilliant and the time just flew by. Our hotel in Haputale offered free pick ups from the station so we called them to let them know that we had arrived. Within 5 minutes we were in the back of an air con Taxi to our hotel Awinco just on the outskirts of town.

Haputale Train Station

Another hotel, another incredible view. This time over the Tea plantations and hills that surrounded Haputale. Awinco Rest Inn was a brilliant hotel, with clean and comfortable rooms, and an eccentric, helpful owner. Another good choice, and one that i'd recommend without hesitation.

Balcony view - Awinco Rest Inn

Haputale is a mainly Tamil town that sits on a long, narrow ridge with land that falls steeply away at both sides. Its a spectacular location, my favourite place so far of this trip. You can walk from Awinco along the railway track to get back into town. 

A market greets you when you arrive back in Haputale after the 10 minute walk. A very local place and with very little signs of mass tourism. Perfect!




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