Jul 9, 2011

Hill Country: Sri Lanka

Tea Plantations form a large part of the landscape in Hill Country
A large part of Sri Lanka’s charm lies in the variety of its landscapes.  While we got a taste of its beaches in Negombo, this past week we headed inland for the “Hill Country”.  Traveling by local bus as well as by train, we spent time in 3 of the more popular destinations, each offering a distinct taste of this part of the country.

Kandy Centre

Our first stop was Kandy, the ancient capital city of Sri Lanka, which is about 3hrs from Negombo and at an elevation of 500m above sea level.  Although it only has a population of approximately 122,000 people, it definitely has the hustle and bustle of a major trade and transportation centre, but without the high-rises or modern icons.  We found quite a few things to do in Kandy which filled our three days there, which also included spending 2 mornings at the Indian Visa Centre, applying for our visa to India (which was a real headache).  We also climbed the mountain to the huge Buddha statue and caught one of the nightly performances at the Art and Cultural Centre of Kandyan dance, which is the national dance.  The rest of the time was filled with wandering the streets and markets of Kandy’s centre, sampling the regional food (which was all spicy despite them reassuring us otherwise), and talking to ‘helpful’ locals who were in fact trying to hustle us!  (Note to selves:  No more talking to ‘helpful’ Sri Lankan men!)  On our last day in Kandy, there was a gathering of about 4,000 Buddhist monks from all over SEA at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic—quite a sight to see them line the street and halt traffic as they queued for their midday meal adjacent to the temple.
See the Buddha we hiked to in the background?

View from the Buddha Statue

One of our 'helpful' friends

At the Indian Visa Processing Centre (VFS Global)

Kandyan Dancers

Fire Walkers, Kandyan Dancer

From Kandy, we again hopped on the rickety Indian-made local bus for the 3hr climb to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s main hill station, and set at an elevation of 1889m.  Although the road was very hilly and winding and the travel slow, the continuous views of lush green tea shrubs carpeting entire mountainsides as far as the eye could see coupled with the occasional waterfall were truly rewarding sights.  According to Lonely Planet, Nuwara Eliya ‘was the favoured cool-climate escape for the hard-working and hard drinking English and Scottish pioneers of Sri Lanka’s tea industry’.  But in fact when we arrived, it wasn’t just ‘cool’, it was downright COLD!  As we ‘alighted from the bus’ (a common term here) dressed in skirts and t-shirts, we frantically dug through our backpacks for jackets for everyone.  It was also drizzling and the wind was somewhat strong with a definite bite to it.  We headed for the nearest restaurant for some warm food and to re-evaluate our plans.  In spite of the cold, the scenery of the town, with its many historic English-style buildings and gardens, convinced us to at least stay the night.  After finding a nice room in a ‘homestay’ in the foothills of Sri Lanka’s highest mountain, Pidurutalagala (2524m), which overlooks the town centre, we set out once again, this time clad in the only cold-weather clothing that we had: leggings (for all the girls), wool socks, and layered in a jumper, light jacket and rain jacket to top it off.  We explored the town’s centre piece, Victoria Park and admired its well manicured green lawns, the beautiful ‘English-style’ flowering gardens featuring roses, snap dragons, and dahlias and the tall   eucalyptus and cypress trees.  There was also a very popular ‘Children’s Park’ here, which was on this day being enjoyed by a group of school children from Kandy despite the lightly falling rain and the cold.  Maddy and Yasmine too joined in on the fun.  After dinner in town, we headed back up the hill via a tuk tuk to our guesthouse.  The next morning, after having an uncomfortable night due to having all four of us in the bed (Maddy’s a bed-hog and Yasmine’s a danger with her flailing arms in her sleep) together with the even lower overnight temperatures, we awoke to a beautiful yet cold morning.  This time, the gorgeous views of the surrounding hills were not enough to keep us from catching the first train out—it was just simply too cold for us here!!

We ended up catching the ‘3rd class-only’ local train to our next destination in the hills, the village of Ella.  The 3.5hr ride, at a cost of $0.60 cents USD/RSs60 each, was indeed a great experience.  The diesel train trundled through 21 tunnels cut through the mountainside and passed a seemingly never ending landscape of tea plantations, many filled with workers of Tamil decent from India, laboriously picking the new leaves to fill their sacks on their backs.  We were told that these women work from 7am to 5pm, with a mid morning and lunch break, earning only $4.50 USD (Rs450) per day and picking about 18kgs of leaves each.  
The guidebook painted Ella as a charming quaint and quiet place which featured breathtaking views.  Although it certainly had great views of ‘Ella’s Gap’, Ella is one of those places which thrives only on tourism.  The main ‘highway’ runs right through the village, and the village itself has more restaurants and hotels than you would think necessary for such a small place.  In our 2.5 days here, we did the touristy things here and visited the 19m high ‘Rawana Ella Falls’ with Jim and the girls even taking a dip in its refreshing waters, along with other Sri Lankan tourists.  We also hiked for an hour with a gradual uphill (4.5km round trip) to ‘Little Adam’s Peak’, passing through a tea plantation on the way, and rewarded with a terrific 360 degree view of Ella, Ella’s Rock and Ella’s Gap at the top.  Although it hadn’t rained here for months, the second and third afternoon we were here it bucketed down; on the first occasion we even lost power for 5hrs.   Luckily our huge room with 4 beds, many card games and the iPod kept us all entertained.  We’ve also had some of the best Sri Lankan food here at our guest house that we’ve had so far—truly delicious and great value too.
Fellow Passengers
Hiking up to Little Adam's Peak
Tea Leaf

View from Little Adam's Peak, down Ella's Gap

That's Ella's Rock behind us (Maddy took the pic)

The hike down

That's 'Little Adam's Peak, just left from centre (with the single tree).

Rawana Ella Falls, 19m high

Although the cooler temperatures here in the ‘Hill Country’ have been a nice respite, those who know us also know that we are not fond of cold, wet weather!  We’re leaving the hills behind, and heading for sea level.  We’re looking forward to experiencing another aspect of the Sri Lankan landscape:  next stop, Tissamaharama and Yala National Park, where we hope to see some wild animals in their natural habitat.

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