Arriving in Sri Lanka we had an exciting, independent itinerary of whale watching, island hopping and cinnamon farms. A fun packed 4 days on the Sri Lanka south coast. Problem is there is always an element of unpredictability with eco-tourism. Expectations of nature to behave. On this occasion it was unwilling to do so as a tsunami warning on the south coast forced our planned itinerary inland with no more than 3 dots on the map for direction. Finding independent travel and eco-tourism make a fickle pairing. In 4 days we travel 600km through cities, coastlines, mountains and rainforests on our impromptu South Sri Lanka tour Here is our new route; Colombo – Galle – Ella – Kandy:
Minibus from Colombo Airport to Galle
Our South Sri Lanka Tour starts at Colombo. The simple part of the journey. We arrive to an airport which resembles a flea market, hired a minivan driver to take us south and quickly left Colombo. From what little we saw of the city it was different than expected. The city has a proper island feel to i; roads lined with banana and coconut stalls, cricketers on billboards, tattered yet colourful buildings. Also was also surprised to see less moustaches than expected. Sri Lankans are better shaved than their Indian neighbours.
Tsunami Warning at Ahangama (South Coast)
After three hours on shiny new motorways we arrive at our beachside hotel in Ahangama located on the south coast of Sri Lanka (3km from Galle). Within the hour tsunami warnings sounded across the region as an 8.6 magnitude quake rocked the Indian Ocean. We reluctantly abandon our shots of local ‘arrack’ liquor and follow terrified waiters to the roadside. The organisation was shambolic. We expect to be evacuated by hotel staff but it was soon obvious this would not happen as the hotel manager disappeared in a passing vehicle. The only escape offered from two remaining staff was to ‘climb the pole’. As pole climbing was no less than insane we opted to blag seats on a fleeing tour bus (Gecko’s Tours).
The bus joins crowds of deserting locals pushing north into Sri Lanka’s rainforests. Roughly two miles inland the driver pulls up and a betel chewing villager greets us with tea and shares his TV for tsunami updates. Nice fella. We then wait. Tsunamis are too unpredictable to feel safe and people start to put faith in speculation as rumours of possible looting force a tour guide back to protect the hotel. His plan to climb the pole at first sign of a wave.
When it seems things are safe there was a further newsflash of an 8.2 magnitude aftershock hitting the Indian Ocean. The warning continued. The tour guide arrives back with treats of Pepsi and Lemon Puffs. I spent my hours exploring surrounding gardens and rainforest poking at fruit, spices and wildlife.
It was four hours before we return to the coast. Now dark and for us to pack and leave would be dangerous. Arrack cocktails and Lion Lager failed to ease tensions with fear of tsunamis and aftershocks at back of mind. Anxiety continuing through the night as waves crashed and palms rattle round our beachfront guestrooms. This was how our South Sri Lanka tour began. Whale watching and island hopping plans cancelled as we join the tourist exodus of Sri Lanka’s South Coast the following morning. While a return to Colombo would have been the smart choice it certainly wasn’t the most exciting. We decide to go the long way back. Via tea mountains in Ella and Sri Lanka’s cultural capital of Kandy. The South Sri Lanka tour begins.
Galle to Ella (via Matara, Wellawaya)
This journey was by far the most authentic of our South Sri Lanka Tour. The route taking us 6 hours of travel. Instead of paying extortionate tourist prices for minivan rental we decided on independent travel. Local buses at tiny prices. The first destination was Matara Bus station, half an hour east of Ahangama on the South Coast. At the hotel front we haggle tuk-tuk’s to bring us along Sri Lanka’s south coast a route passing the whale watching port of Mirissa and the surfer paradise of Unawatuna. Beautifully scenic. Rich in culture and authentic local life. Coconut palms, beaches, fish markets, fishing ports, colourful boats, banana stalls. After 40 minutes we arrive at Matara bus station.
Matara Bus Station to Wellawaya (local bus)
We are the only foreign folk sweltering at the Matara bus station. After muddling through conversations with locals we find the closest destination for Ella to be Wellawaya. With time to spare before bus departure we venture to surrounding markets in search of snacks for our 4 hour bus journey. We then board the bus with our egg filled curry puffs and a bag of grapes. Some local hard sell from on-board hawkers topped up our snack supply with peanuts and mandarin oranges. The South Sri Lanka tour continues.
As expected local buses have no air-conditioning which was worrying having brought sweet, old mum along for the journey (I’ve brought her on worse). They are also cramped so I pay 200rp ($1.50) for extra seats. We then kick back like arrogant tourists as locals squeeze shoulder to shoulder standing in the walkway. So we were fleeing the south coast to feel safe and were now more terrified than ever. While erratic driving of Sri Lanka was not new to us buses proved to be on a whole new level of crazy. The buses tourist authorities advise against. We hold tight to our seats as the hefty bus speeds through narrow coastline, accelerating into corners horn held tight. The bus with complete contempt for stopping distances forces small cars and auto rickshaws scrambling for their lives at nearby roadsides. The excitement is heightened by high-tempo, Hindi techno which blares from speakers above.
We follow the coastline for close to an hour before redirecting North at Hambantota. The route inland takes us past rice fields and national parks with an occasional stop to offload at small villages. One stop we stretch legs, pick up choc ices and corn puffs. After 4 hours we arrive in Wellawaya the entrance point to the Ella; our next destination on the South Sri Lanka tour.
Wellawaya to Ella (Auto-Rickshaw)
We easily find tuk-tuk’s and within minutes are rattling up mountainsides in search of Ella. Heavy rains greet us and forces a battle between tuk-tuks and water down-flows from the hills above. We rise up to the clouds, above the clouds, 1000m and still climbing, pass the Ravana waterfall and arrive to Ella.
The Teahills of Ella
My favourite destination on the South Sri Lanka Tour. We arrive mid-afternoon to Ella and find a hotel close to town (Tea Garden Holiday Inn) with guestroom balconies overlooking a neverending valley. We agree a tour with local tuk-tuk drivers and buy train tickets to Kandy for the following morning. Finally we can relax. We order our first authentic Sri Lankan meal of curry and biryani rice. With 1 hour preparation time we kick back and sip local Ceylon tea (Lion beer for me).
Finally it was curry time. Sri Lanka chicken curry laced with fresh chunks of local cinnamon. In Sri Lanka curry never comes alone and multiple side dishes (condiments) arrive. Bean curry, cabbage curry, dhal curry, brinjol mojue (eggplant curry), Kesel Muwa (banana flower curry), coconut sambal, onion sambal and popadoms. All flavoured with cinnamon, curry leaves and other local spices. After stuffing out faces we stagger back to our hotel rooms and watched fireflies dance in the trees above.
Sinhalese New Year in Ella (Aluth Aurudu) 15th April
At 5am we crawl from under the mosquito net, a quick cold shower and I step onto the balcony for some of the most beautiful scenes I’ve witnessed. Unobstructed views of the valleys, cracks of distant fireworks and the echo of Buddhist chants sounding through the hills. Sounds to celebrate the New Year. The crashing of distant waterfalls, the whoop of nearby monkeys and the echo of the passing of the 6am train. We gather our bags, put down a quick breakfast and pack into the waiting Tuk-Tuks for our 7am Ella tour.
For 2 hours we speed through Ella’s hills, passing tea factories, stopping at tea plantation and a quick stop at Ella’s most scenic viewpoint which splits the valley at the Ambience hotel. With time to spare we search for the distant chants visiting a local Buddhist temple before hurrying back to the Ella train station for our 09.20 train.
This railway was originally designed for carrying loads of tea from Ella’s plantations. Now it offers two passenger trains each morning (06.20, 09.20). It passes the next destination on our South Sri Lanka tour – Kandy. Ella’s train station is the easily the cutest I’ve come across. The feel of a timeless British Colonial period.
We travel in the 1st class observation saloon which trails at the back of the train and has a large glass viewing window. The rickity, wooden wagon sways side-to-side as we journey through hills of rippled tea fields, past religious shrines, rustic villages, waterfalls and lazy monkeys. Kids run to chase the train and locals greet our passing with a waving hand or raised cricket bat. The crack of fireworks continue to sound for the New Year. At stations en route local hawkers peddle refreshments; drinks, yogurts, biscuits and crisps. At one stop we buy 4 pieces of what sounded like “sambal roti?” I then enjoy the perfect nap. After an hour I wake to the splash of water as passengers frantically scramble to close the carriage windows. We were met by heavy rain and outside the scenery had changed from tea hills to deep rainforests. We were closing in on Kandy the final stop of our South Sri Lanka tour.
Kandy (Cultural Capital)
Disembarking at a station near Kandy we are met by tuk-tuk drivers eager to bring us too many of Kandy’s prestigious sounding hotels. However the hotel we chose looked to have its hayday in the 80’s. It was now haggard and dated. Tall rooms with shaky wooden ceiling fan, a single light-bulb, twin beds, bedside bible, built-in table radio, bathroom bidet, broken air-conditioning, musty smells and all to be matched with haphazard service. Think ‘Faulty Towers’. On the plus side we were sitting on the side of Kandy Lake with a scenic walk to find the town centre. In the evening we venture to town under red skies and giant fruit bats. It was surprisingly hard to find a restaurant in town. Due to lack of choice we settled for a weirdly eccentric banquet room (The Whitehouse) where we are greeted with the blank faces of other tourists. I felt like tiptoeing to our table. However the food was good. To note a few, the Kerala curry (hot), tandoori chicken, peanut masala and watalappam a traditional Sri Lankan coconut custard.
We expect New Year celebrations in Kandy but find empty streets and establishments dry. No alcohol on the one day you expect it. Firecrackers continue to sound in the distance. After a quick shop for retro British confectionery (Food City) we return to the hotel. The following morning we wake to eerie crow caws. After hurrying a fish curry and dhal breakfast the 4 of us pack into a tiny car for our Kandy tour. First stop was organising train tickets but contrary to hotel advice the 15.20pm train to Colombo was fully booked. Instead we bargain a deal for our driver to bring us to Colombo later in the day.
For the rest of the day we were tourists. First a disappointing viewpoint where locals hassle us to buy mass produced knickknacks. Hurrying on we point out a tall Buddha statue on the far side hill (Bahirawakanda Vihara). A five minute drive on winding roads and we arrive to beautiful aerial views of Kandy City. We snap a couple shots then return to the city and onto Kandy Central Market. The girls get measured Saris at the upstairs batik shops while I poke through the spice shops below.
Next was the famous Sri Dalada Maligawa aka The Temple of the Sacred Tooth (home to Buddha’s tooth or at least one of them). Having had my fix of temples recently I opted to wait in the gardens outside. I wasted my time chasing bugs and pestering the bonnet monkeys.
From this point on the trip was in the hands of our driver. We then stumble from one tourist trap to the next. A wholesale gift shop, local craft production (and shop), an overpriced river restaurant and Kandyan Spice Grove (Hingula) for a ‘free’ lesson in ayurvedic medicine and 10 minute massage. Every stop ending in a pushy sales pitch. Back on the road it took 2 hours to reach our Colombo Hotel.
We arrive to “River of Babylon” blaring on the reception radio. Again the hotel was British colonial styled and it was booked in advance (Hotel Clarion). By far the best we stayed during our South Sri Lanka tour. Better services, facilities and value for money. Only negative was the drunken Irishman cheering on traditional Sri Lankan music during our final meal of Biryani. The following morning a quick Tuk-Tuk brings us to the airport.
Travel to Sri Lanka
Note, you should organise your visa before travelling to Sri Lanka and the ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) system issues double entry VISAs, valid for 6 months and with a stay of up to 30 days on each entry. If planning to stay longer than 30 days, you can prolong the ETA from Sri Lanka Immigration in Colombo after arrival to Sri Lanka. The other alternative is to apply for a tourist visa from the local Sri Lanka Embassy prior to the trip. For more information, go to srilankavisa.org