Sri Lanka in 9 days – a family trip from 19th Dec 2017 – 27th Dec 2017
Sri Lanka had been on my bucket list for a very long time. However, the country being so closeby fell under the category of “we can do it anytime”. This year end was the right time! The planning for the trip started a month and a half back. Dates got selected based on Anubhav’s availability. Air Tickets ( Sri Lankan Airlines) booked, Itinerary decided ( after a lot of family discussions on what necessarily needed to be covered), hotels booked ( via Booking.com), Car booked ( visitinlanka.com), we were all set! We arrive at Bandarenayake Airport in Colombo on 19th Dec 2017 early morning and headed out straight to Anuradhapura
Day 1 – 19 Dec – Anuradhapura
We reached Sri Lanka at 5:00 AM and were done with immigration and baggage by 5:30 AM We were met by the driver from Tour in Lanka at the airport. The company had lived up to their promise with respect to assignment of the vehicle. It was a Toyota Axon– a 2016 model hybrid Sedan. Since we had some time to reach Anuradhapura, we decided to take a diversion to Dambadeniya.
This is one of the temples where Buddha’s tooth was preserved for many years before it’s current place in Kandy. If you have time in hand it is worthwhile to do a stopover at Dambedenia. The temple complex still has a lot of religious importance and is visited by a number of locals. The archaeological sight is a couple of km away. Since it required a couple of hours at least, we decided to skip it.
We stopped at a family run place called “Garden Café, Dambedenia”. for breakfast. It was a fabulous vegetarian breakfast put together by the host who served it with a smile. The property is beautiful too. We got a good introduction to Sri Lankan food which was going to be our breakfast through the whole trip. It was string hoppers ( steamed white or red rice noodles), milk rice cake ( I did not taste it, but as per Kannan it was rice cooked in milk with some sweet, set in a tray and cut into 4”X4”) pieces, dosai ( which is much smaller and thicker than our dosa, and pronounced as tosai – perhaps has some wheat flour also mixed) served with sambal ( coarse ground coconut and red chillies), red chutney ( which had tomatoes, onions, lots of chillies and coconut) parippu ( Toor daal with something like sambar powder but very few vegetables) and kiri hodi( coconut milk with onions, chillies and curry leaves). There also was a sweet roll of coconut plus roasted banana with honey filled in idli like dough and steam cooked. The breakfast was served with a juice and tea or coffee). I liked the tea served here and then continued to have tea through out the trip. Happy with the breakfast we were back on the road to Anuradhapura. We reached the hotel by 11:00 AM.
However, the hotel guys were not ready for a check in. We learnt from the driver that this is by and large the case with all the big hotels. So, after this experience at Heritage hotel Anuradhapura, we checked only after the stated check-in time. We decided to go ahead with the sight seeing. Anuradhapura is a goldmine for folks with interest in archaeology and Buddhist history. It has multiple large stupas, the oldest and the largest stupa – all well maintained. The first stop was Wessa Giriya, which has caves that were inhabited once upon a time. The driver was concerned about us visiting a site without the tickets so next, we went to the ticket counter.
The museum is situated right behind the counter in an old court building. It had stared raining so, getting into the museum was the best option! It exhibits antiques found in various parts of Sri Lanka, so a good introduction before starting the tour of Sri Lanka. We started our tour of Anuradhapura with Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba. It was drizzling a bit but we decided to carry on since the plan was to check in at 2:00 PM after seeing what we could by then. Ruwanwelisaya Stupa is one of the world’s tallest monuments, standing at 103 m and with a circumference of 290 m. This stupa was renovated in the early 20th century. We decided to do the parikrama of the temple which gave us a good opportunity to witness the offerings, prayers being done by people. We also realized that the locals wear all white to the temples. There are Buddha statues on 4 sides of the stupa. One side had a lot of flags much like the flags in Sikkim. We were quite wet by the time we completed the parikrama and started walking towards Lovamahapaya.
It is about one km from the Dagoba. On the way we came across pillared structures and stone structures which look like bath tub. Some of these boat shaped and the others rectangular. The entry to Lovamahapaya is not permitted. So we had to peek from the gate. It is highly guarded by monkeys. There were a number of young babies so we had fun watching them play and jump around. We continued our walk to Maha Viharaya or Maha Bodhi Tree temple.
The temple holds high religious significance and the place was full of devotees waiting for the temple to open. The moonstones are beautiful. It started raining heavily so we waited in the complex for some time and then retraced our path back to the Dagoba where we had left the shoes and then to the car. We still had some time before we could check in, so our next stop was Isurumuniya temple situated near Tissa Tank. The complex has a temple, a pond, and a museum. The name comes from the carving of Isurumuniya Lovers and Royal family which can be seen in the museum. While the temple is dated 300-200 BC, the carvings are from 6th to 8th century AD. The Elephant carvings are on the rock facing the pond. There is a huge reclining Buddha inside the temple. There is a cave like structure before the entrance to the temple and museum which is full of bats
We went back to the hotel at 2:30 PM and checked in. After an hour’s rest we started back. In about a couple of km from the hotel the car got hit by a motorcycle when the driver braked suddenly to save a lamb on the road, which resulted in us loosing over 45 minutes of precious time. We reached the world’s tallest stupa – Jetavanaramaya at about 4:30 PM. The stupa is located in the ruins of Jetavana. The stupa built around 200-300 AD is 122 m high and is on a base area of 233000 sqm. Approximately 93.3 million baked bricks were used in its construction. So, in some sense it is an engineering marvel. The complex also has a number of ruins of old buildings.
Our next stop was the Twin Baths (Kuttam Pokuna). As we were going around the Baths, a huge group of tourists arrived on bicycles, taking away the opportunity to take pictures in isolation. The baths are lined with shops selling all kinds of Sri Lankan artefacts. Stay away from them if you are short of time like we were. We next went to the Samadhi Buddha statue. Besides, the statue I was also very impressed with the design of the various lamp stands – designed in different shapes. Right after, we went to see the original moonstone carved from stone, one of the two important ones in Sri Lanka. We spent some more time going around the other ruins nearby. The carving of the guard stone caught our attention.
It was getting late and we rushed to Lankarama Stupa, so that we could get some time there before the sun set. Lankarama stupa was built by King Valagamba Abhaya – 89- 77 BC. The Stupa as it stands today has been renovated. The rows of stone pillars around the stupa show that there was a house built around to cover the stupa (vatadage) The courtyard of the stupa is 3m above the ground. The diameter of the stupa is 14m. The courtyard is circular in shape and the diameter is 406 m. We went around the stupa. There are multiple statues and small temples which are live in which people pray. The temple looked beautiful in the setting sun. Few men in white clothes were sitting on the stone pillars on one side of the temple and chanting prayers. We sat for a while and listened to them.
As we walked out of the temple to head back to the car we could see the lit up Ruwanwelisaya Stupa at a distance and decided to walk up and take some pictures. On the way we also noticed another stupa lit up at a distance. The reflection looked beautiful. We decided to drive around the stupas to enjoy the lighting and then headed for good dinner at the Mango restaurant, before returning to the hotel.
Day 2 – 20 Dec : Mihintale and Polannaruwa
We had an early breakfast and checked out at 8:00 AM. The breakfast was not as good as we expected. We had sufficient vegetarian items but the preparations were average. Our first stop was to buy umbrellas. We had all got wet in Anuradhapura due to intermittent drizzle and did not want to risk falling sick. Anubhav also pulled out a rain coat. The weather was good. Mild showers were predicted..so we were sure of being safe from the heat Mihintale is just a 30-40 minute ride from Anuradhapura. The car dropped us at the bottom of the hill. There are countless ( later I read 1840) steps to the top of the hill. The ticket counter is somewhere in the middle. The person at the counter told us that the car could come up to that point and guided the driver to get it up there so that we did not have to climb all those steps down!! While I was upset with the driver for making me walk the 1000 plus steps up which impacted my knees…but I did enjoy the climb up and it gave a good sense of achievements. We met only a couple of other people and a lot of monkeys on this stretch. After the ticket counter there are again multiple stretches of steps to be covered but there is much to see at every level so you do not feel the strain.
As we were ascending the final set of steps it started raining heavily. There is a huge Buddha statue on a hillock that you start with. It is a lovely statue. Normally people climb the rock after the statue. We decided to skip the rock and climb the hillock for the stupa instead. This is a massive Stupa. The view from the top is breath taking. There is a temple with a beautiful reclining Buddha in it. As we were exiting the complex, we came across this huge group of young monks cleaning the complex. They were from the monastery linked with the Mihintale complex. Mihintale is a nice peaceful temple complex. Not too many tourists go there perhaps because of the number of steps involved. I am glad that we decided to cover it. The climb is interesting, the location is phenomenal. You are on top of the hill and the view from the Dagoba is breath taking. You can see the big Buddha as well as the Rock from here. We were at the car by about 11:30 AM and started for Polonnaruwa. On the way we stopped at “Gunner’s Cafe” for some snacks.
We were at the ticket counter cum museum in Polonnaruwa by 2:30 PM. Polonnaruwa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was the country’s medieval capital from the 11th – 13th Century. It was raining heavily so we decided to spend some time in the museum which turned out to be a good choice since it gave us a great overview to help plan the places to visit there after. The first stop was Nissanka malla palace. Only few ruined walls of the palace still stand there. The boundary walls though give an idea of the huge size of the overall palace. The King’s council chamber stands in better shape. It is worthwhile taking time to walk around these ruins. Many of the carvings are still fairly well preserved.
We next visited the Parakrambahu Palace, also called Weijantha Prasada. This is fairly small complex. Perhaps more important from a historical point of view. Most of the other monuments in Polonnaruwa are close to each other and one can walk between them. We saw people cycling between monuments, which I believe can be rented easily. There are multiple Stupas in this archaeological site of different shapes and sizes. Pabalu Vihara, Rankot Vihara and stupas near Alhana Parivena were significant It was drizzling when we entered the main Polonnaruwa complex. This complex is home to a number of important archaeological sites.
The Polonnaruwa Vatadage stand out right in the front. One can spend an hour just looking at this monument from below, from top and going all around. The ancient moonstone – Sandakada Pahana can be seen here. Interestingly some if the stone carvings are perfectly well preserved while the others have eroded over time. Adjacent to the vatadage there is a chamber with interesting shapes of pillars which was apparently used by the king to listed to the chanting of prayers from the temple. The Siva devalaya is also fairly well preserved. Sathmahal Prasada, a seven story building can only be seen from the outside. In front of this building is the big book of stone – GalPotha. There is a Gaja-Lakshmi carving on the side of the stone which is well preserved. Overall, in this complex, there is a lot of integration of Buddhist and Hindu God The other important structure in this complex is Lankathilaka Image House. At the center of the temple is a huge standing statue of Buddha. It is flanked on the side by a few other Buddha statues. The carvings on the entrance as well as the external walls of the Lankathilaka temple are well preserved. On a clear day one can spend a lot of time taking pictures of this monument. We went around the structure and found it tough to leave. There was a feeling that one must have missed seeing some more good carvings! We spent some time looking at all the other structures like Hatadage, Rankot Vihara etc. One can walk across to Gal Vihara from here. However, since our car was outside we took the same.
Gal Vihara has four images of Buddha carved on a single large granite rock face. These were commissioned by king Parakrambahu in the 12th century. Gal Vihara is the main archaeological site to visit in Polonnaruwa. The 3 status in the pictures are well preserved where as the fourth one of sitting Buddha – much smaller in a cave has been covered by glass for conservation. From Gal Vihar a we drove to the Lotus Pond. It is just a few minutes away and worth spending a few minutes.
The last place we visited is Thivanka image house. There are well preserved murals and paintings inside the building. A lot of the exterior is also well preserved and the restoration work is ongoing. We reached a little after closing time but the guard opened and showed us the place. While photography is not allowed, one should not miss this place especially if you are looking out for the paintings/murals.
We then drove back to Habarana and checked into Cinnamon Lodge. The hotel is excellent. Great location, lovely cottages and excellent food. Basically a chilled out place where one should spend at least a couple of days to truly able to enjoy the facilities.
Day 3 – 21 Dec : Sigiriya and Dambula Caves
Cinnamon Lodge property is built adjacent to a wetlands lake and is a great place for bird watching. We were up early and after a cup of coffee out for a walk before sun rise. They even have a “machaan” for you to get up on and sit for bird watching. A few young couples too were out to take pictures in the lovely light. After an hour of simply soaking up the environment we were back in the room for a quick bath and breakfast. The weather was expected to be good – cloudy and mild showers expected. So, we decided to have a leisurely breakfast before starting for Sigiriya at 9:30 AM. The spread was very lavish – even for vegans! Thoroughly enjoyed this place. Would recommend it highly if you plan to stay in Habarana/Sigiriya area.
The “Siha giri” or Lion’s rock is a massive column of rock which juts out from the green tropical forest. It reaches 660 feet tall and features frescoes, graffiti, and landscaped gardens. It was established as the stronghold of a rogue king Kashyapa, over 1,500 years ago, and today the Sigiriya complex stands as one of the earliest preserved examples of ancient urban planning. To enjoy the place better, do read about the history of Sigiriya () before you get there. Given my knee condition, I was not sure about climbing the Lion’s rock. The blogs on the climb rated it tough. However, I was very keen to take a look at the murals. Kannan and Anubhav encouraged that I could do it. So, picked up the walking stick and hit the ticket counter at about 11:30 AM. Our driver promised to pick us up on the other side of the rock once we were done with the climb. The first thing that we saw is the museum. A small museum. Still, worth spending a few minutes. It has the pictures of the rock, murals and the gardens.
The landscaped gardens below the rock are excellently well preserved. The symmetric garden is built leveraging the natural slant of the rock. the various water bodies are interconnected and as per a guide still functional! There was a monitor lizard standing still in the midst of the garden, as if waiting for our arrival. The climb to the summit has about 750 steps. The boulder caves at the start are indicative of clever design by the architect The steps are not uniform and hence it is a tough climb. There is a steep spiral staircase which takes you to the murals. The paintings are well preserved. The face and body structure reminded me of the paintings in Ajanta Ellora caves in India. The mirror wall – well is a fine piece of smooth plastered stucco. At the bottom of the Lion’s rock the stair case is flanked by huge Lion paws.
The path to the top after this is fairly narrow. Once we reached the top the cool breeze and the view on the rock as well as surrounding areas makes the climb worthwhile. The palace structure has the water body, the gardens and structures of other buildings indicating that there was virtually a mini city up there. Wonder how they carried up the construction material! After spending sometime at the top we started the descend. This is usually a slow process for me. Kannan and Anubhav kept the pattern of one ahead and one behind all through the trek up and down, lending a helping hand whenever required. There is more to see. The audience hall, the Asana hall, there are caves with seats made of stone. Very happy, though completely exhausted we made our way to the car. It took us nearly 3 hours to complete from start to finish We stopped for lunch at Pizza Brothers. It was the slowest service ever!!
The next stop was Dambulla Cave temples or the Golden Temple ( named after a huge golden Buddha statue that adorns the front side of the temple). If not interested in this statue, the car can be directly taken to the entrance gate of the gates. There is still a 150 m climb to reach to the caves. The temple has 5 very large cave temples with murals along the curve and ceiling of the rocks in all the caves. This is the largest cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. After taking tons of pictures and enjoying the surrounding areas we started for Kandy where we were booked to stay for the night. Overall, we covered a lot today. Wish we had a few more days in hand and could do this at a slower pace. In Sigiriya, it would be nice to trek the Pidurangala rock also as the view of the Lion’s rock is supposed to be excellent from the peak.
We reached Kandy at 7:30 PM and checked into the heritage hotel from the British era – Queen’s Hotel in the heart of the city. As we entered the porch, I was reminded of Cannaught Place in Delhi. The same old world charm and the new age hustle and bustle. It was a well deliberated decision to stay in the heart of the city both to get a feel of the city life as well as to do some shopping. One of Anubhav’s friend from the community was in town with her cousin. So he went off for dinner with them. Kannan and I were tired and decided to call it a day after having some snacks in the room itself.
Day 4 – 22 Dec: Kandy – Botanical Garden, Shopping and Tooth Temple
Queen’s Hotel is a 160 year old British Colonial style hotel located in the center of the city. Rooms on the 3rd floor are nice and less noisy. As such, the Queen’s Hotel is right across the Tooth Temple in Kandy. We were woken up by the chanting of the prayers at 5:30 AM itself.
After breakfast at the hotel we headed out to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya. Considered Sri Lanka’s largest, with 147 acres and over 4000 species of plants. This is one of the best collection of plant, trees and shrubs that I have come across in any botanical garden. The garden is well designed, plant varieties from around the world have been planted together in a cluster. The exotic varieties of palm trees, bamboo trees, ficus, grass, medicinal plants, orchids can all be seen in this beautiful and huge garden. Kandy Lake Among the 10,000 or more trees found in the park, are the Giant Bamboo of Burma, the century old giant Javan fig tree, the Cannonball tree and a range of exotic palms.It takes at least 2-3 hours to do any justice to this beautiful garden. We started at 10:30 AM. An hour earlier would have been better.
On our way back we decided to stop for shopping at the Gamage store which had been highly recommended by many bloggers. After making a couple of rounds of the place by car and not finding it, we decided to let the car go to the hotel and try to find the place on foot. While standing in front of the city hospital, looking for a board, a shop keeper realized that we were looking for something and asked. He guided us to the store for which you have to step down from the road. The place was closed and a guard volunteered to call the owner. After about 5 minutes wait, the owner arrived. The shop is more of a go-down. There are artefacts stored from bottom to top, in boxes and on the wall. We took our time to select the pieces we wanted. The prices in this place were 40-60% lower that the normal stores. He is a whole sale supplier and sells retail at the same rate. The masks were the most attractive and bulky. We bought whatever we felt we could manage to pack! I regret not having bought a lot more. A simple example of a bargain is a magnet we bought in the shop for 50 LKR was 350 LKR in the airport! We went back to the hotel to keep the bags and stepped out for lunch.
We found a vegetarian restaurant within a couple of blocks. After a quick meal, we walked to the Tooth Temple at 3:00 PM. The temple looks exactly like it does in the pictures. As we went through the museum I learnt that the front portion of the temple had been destroyed in a terrorist attack by LTTE in 1998 and had to be re-built. Many of the relics and parts of murals from the original temple are preserved in the museum.
For people interested in the history a visit to the Dalada Museum is a must. The Buddhist Museum in the same complex has contributions from the various countries in which Buddhism has spread. We were very impressed with the photographs and temple replicas from Indonesia. Certainly a must visit place. Photography is not allowed inside the museum In the complex there is also a huge mantap largely made out of wood. There are a number of old carvings that have been aesthetically placed in the complex and one can spend 30-40 minutes just going through this open air museum. There also is a Vishnu temple..which we could not figure out how to enter!
After spending nearly 2.5 hrs in the temple complex we left the place and went for a walk around the lake. The lake in Kandy is very clean and in the evening we could see a lot of birds returning to their nests in the trees around the lake. As we walked around the lake Kannan and Anubhav located various species of birds. The Queen’s Bath is also located adjacent to the lake and was under renovation. By the time we reached the hotel it was night fall. We freshened up quickly and went out for a walk in the city. The shops in all the cities in Sri Lanka shut early. After 7:30 PM one finds only a few brand stores and restaurants open. By 9:30 PM or so the place is all quiet. Kandy view from hotel room Just below the hotel in the same building there is a very nice show room of LUV SL. The have a lot of very well done souvenirs the sale of which support Elephant conservation. The Kandy City Center is also within walking distance. I wanted to checkout a grocery store ( I like to visit a grocery store where ever I go). So we went to the super market in the City Center and bought a variety of local biscuits and few boxes of Tea for home and for gifting. We went back for dinner to Balaji Dosai again after dropping the shopping bags off at the hotel.
Day 5 – 23 Dec : Ramboda Waterfall and Nuwara Eliya
We checked out of the hotel around 9:00 AM after breakfast. Our first stop was Ramboda Waterfall. Though we had no prior plans to go all the way up, we decided to walk it up once we saw the fall from the road. The trek is steep. I had to use my walking stick and a lot of help from Kannan and Anubhav to reach up. The steps are not uniform and at some places there are no steps. It took me nearly an hour to go up but it was all worth it. Kannan spotted a common green forest lizard on the way up, which was a treat. Not too many tourists take up this trek but would recommend it strongly if you have a couple of hours to spare.
The next stop was the Bluefield Tea Factory. This tea factory was established in 1921. They have a guided tour of the factory followed by a complimentary cup of tea for all the visitors. They also have an outlet for the variety of teas they produce. We of course indulged in buying (more than) a few boxes! It is a good stop to make to get an intro to the tea production process. It was past 2:30 PM when we checked into our hotel.
Nuwara Eliya is a hill station and the roads are narrow, winding and steep. The youngster who was at the reception guided us to Ambaal’s vegetarian hotel. It was past the lunch time so went there without looking for an alternative. The place was very average and the only solace was that it was a pure veg place. It serves the usual south Indian and Sri Lankan food. Nuwara Eliya does not have much to see. We did not want to visit the botanical garden again so decided to skip the Hakgala Botanical Garden. We first went to the Sita Temple which is about 12 km away from the city. Just after we entered the temple, it started raining heavily. We had to stay put in the temple for shelter for some time for the intensity to come down. The temple is on a river. The folk lore is that when Ravana kidnapped Sita, this is the place where he brought her. The temple is not too big. After spending 20 minutes or so we started back and decided to chill around the Gregory Lake.
Due to the long weekend the place was crowded with locals and tourists A number of water sports operators are spread across the bank of the lake and offer you rides in the swan shaped pedal boats or speed boats. as an onlooker the safety measures for the speed boats looked weak. We took a stroll around the lake. Watched hoards of birds come back to their nests for the night. We were tired after the trek at Ramboda falls and walk around the lake. At night fall we decided to return to the hotel to freshen up and go for dinner. Dinner was at Pizza Hut close to the hotel. We had to turn in early as the plan was to leave the hotel at 5:00 AM the following morning. The hotel guys checked with us our preference for breakfast and promised to keep it ready for us early next morning.
Day 6 – 24 Dec : Horton Plains National Forest, Nuware Elia – Ella Train ride
We were up at 4:00 AM. We had tea, took shower and started from the hotel at 5:15 AM. It was dark and there was mist through the journey from hotel to the Horton Plains National Forest. The driver had to drive slow and with a lot of caution. A couple of km before the ticket counter the vehicles had stopped to take pictures of the sun rise. With the clouds below us it was an amazing sight. We also got out and took a few pictures. We were at the ticket counter at 6:00 AM and among the first few to buy our tickets. After getting them stamped, we were back in the car to go to the drop point.
On the way we saw huge fearless Sambar deer that came very close to the car and a couple at a distance. With our breakfast and water in the back pack, jackets on us and my walking stick in my hand we started the trek at 6:20 AM. The trek is around 9 km. After trekking for about 10 minutes, we came across a stone guiding to take either the left or the right route. We chose the path towards the left. This one takes you to the Mini World’s End, World’s End and then Bakers Fall. The path is fairly OK for most part but becomes difficult in a few places. It was good that I carried the stick without which it would have been extremely difficult to walk. The path is also slippery in many places due to flowing streams. In a nutshell – good shoes are a must. Good stamina is required. We took almost 6 hours to complete the full trek since I had to be assisted in many places.
We reached Mini World’s End in about 1 hr. The trek route to this point is very green and has fair amount of tree cover. We took it slow and included bird watching as well and stopped to appreciate the flowers on the way. When we reached the Mini World’s end there were perhaps a dozen more people there. So, we got a good view of the place. The clouds had still not started rising and the view of the valley was absolutely clear. After admiring the place for a while, taking a few pictures we started for the World’s End. Along the way, we could hear the cries of the rare and endangered Sri Lankan purple-faced langurs. We reached World’s End around 8:00 AM. We spent about 15 minutes looking around and then sat down for breakfast. We spotted couple of grey squirrels. The clouds started rising and we sat there watching that amazing phenomenon.
As we walked towards the Baker’s Fall we came across a number of streams and small water bodies. The hills, the plants, the grass, the birds all made a beautiful landscape. For most part it’s a good walk. The path near the fall is not very easy. At many places one has to climb over rocks. The steps are also not very uniform. The waterfall itself is huge. Once we got back up after seeing the waterfall we sat town on the trunk of a fallen tree and rested for a bit. The vegetation here was denser and there was good shade from the trees. Rested, we started the trek back to the entry point. By this time we were quite tired and the way just seemed longer. The number of tourists has increased a lot, the sun was shining bright and we could see lots of people streaming into the park. Most of them were Sri Lankans and were at the Park with families for a day of adventure plus picnic perhaps. We were glad that we were nearly done when the crowds were coming in. We were back at the entrance around 11:00 AM, It had taken us over 4.5 hrs to cover the complete loop.
We were keen to get to the Nanu Oya station now to catch the train to Ella. We had read a lot about the train route and were keen to take it. The train was to leave Nanu Oya station at 1:30 PM. We were sure we had adequate time to get there. Unfortunately, we got into a traffic jam as soon as we hit the road. For the next couple of hours the traffic would just not move. Later, we crossed a bus that had gone off the road and tilted dangerously. We had perhaps already missed the train so we decided to go to the previous station – Radella. There was a recommendation to board the train at this station so that you could get a seat easily. What no one wrote about is that the road to Radella is a single vehicle lane for most part. From Nanu Oya to Radella the road goes through the most beautiful estates, wind through numerous blind turns and for most part is too narrow for another vehicle to pass. Luckily the only other vehicles we came across were tuk-tuks. It was a crazy roller coaster ride that left the driver completely unnerved. Radella station is very small. The ticket counter person had gone for lunch, the only other passenger at the station told us that the ticket counter would open 45 minutes before the next train. So we decided to wait there. Anubhav accompanied the driver and decided to board from Nanu Oya. We could not ask the driver to drive back alone on those roads as we had put him though this tense driving experience. Interestingly, they reached back in just 10 minutes!! Radella is a good choice provided one uses a tuk tuk to get there. The train arrived at 3:15 PM and we got on. Anubhav joined us at Nanu Oya. We got window seats. However, Anubhav decided to travel sitting in the doorway so that he could take pictures. The train route from Nuwara Eliya to Ella is indeed very beautiful. We passed by a number of tea estates, waterfalls, villages, changing landscape and very beautiful train stations. The decision to take up this train journey was well worth the trip.
We reached Ella around 5:30 PM. The car had still not reached Ella so we decided to walk into the city and find the hotel. While the hotel showed up on Google Map, we were not able to locate it. No one seemed to know where it was either. So we waited for the car to arrive. After a bit of asking around we got close to the hotel Rawana’s Den. It is atop a steep hill and the car could not go up the road. Walking up and down that road was a pain. Once in, the hotel is beautiful and the hospitality superb. The house keeper made us the most wonderful tea and coffee and lit a bon fire in front of the room. The Ella rock is right across the hotel. The anger that had built up trying to find the hotel and then climbing the steep hill all vanished within moments. It was Christmas Eve. After freshening up we decided to go to the city for dinner. The dinner took a while but it was nice watching the people. The place was festive and busy. After dinner, we walked around the streets for a while and then went to the hotel.
Day 7 – 25 Dec : Buduruwagala Wellawaya, Mulgirigala Raja Maha Vihara and Mirissa
We had a lazy morning and late breakfast at Rawana’s Den. We had informed the house keeper the previous night that we wanted a vegetarian breakfast at 7:00 AM. The cook had taken the pains to prepare us a complete Sri Lankan breakfast with String Hoppers, Dosai, the accompaniments, Bread, Passion fruit juice and lots of cut fruits which was topped with excellent tea and coffee. I can easily say that this was one of the best breakfast we had in Sri Lanka, after Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana. For the hospitality and taste of food I would rate this hotel very high. Reaching it is of course a great challenge for the not so fit! We dropped the idea of going to Yala National Forest. All of us were fairly exhausted and looking at the dramatic increase in the tourist count we were sure we would come across a lot of tourists waiting for the Safari also. We started from the hotel around 9:00 AM.
Ravana’s fall is just about 8 km south of the hotel. We stopped there for a while. It’s a beautiful fall, though not too big. Further 30 km south is Wellawaya town. One has to take a right turn after the town for Buduruwagala Rock Carvings. We bought the ticket and drove by car another couple of km after which we had to get off since the road was closed for maintenance. The 1 km walk to the rock carvings was more of a nature trail along a lake. We saw a number of birds and a Calote. Kannan and Anubhav walked slowly taking pictures and trailed behind. The Bud uruwagala Rock carvings are huge. The gigantic Buddha status in the middle is 16 m tall and the tallest in Sri Lanka. All the 7 carvings are on the same rock. The figures are from around the 10th century and belong to the Mahayana Buddhist school. Very few tourists get to this place ( though we did come across a large group on bicycles as we were walking towards the temple). As we exited the complex we saw a few tuk-tuks waiting and decided to take the ride back to the car in one.
Kannan had read about Muligirigala cave temples and was keen to visit them. Having given up on the Yala National Forest, Anubhav was keen to hit the beach – ideally a private beach in Tangalle. Since I was the only one who wanted to go to a beach before we started, I agreed to Kannan’s ask. After all the place was just another 100 km south and we would reach the beach by 4:00 PM or so after visiting the temple. The road from Ella to Tangalle is fairly narrow and there are sections of non-cemented roads. As a result we got fairly late by the time we reached Muligirigala. With no lunch, all of us were hungry also. It was very hot so, the climb really looked bad to me. None the less we decided to go for it. This 3rd century temple has been built on a 205 m high natural rock, surrounded with another four rocks known as Benagala, Kondagala, Bisogala and Seelawathiegala. The museum, lower temple and rest house are at the ground level. We decided to go directly to the Lower Vihara which has the information center. The cave temple with the largest reclining Buddha – Paduma Rahath Vihara is also at this level. The paintings in all the caves are excellent. Between the two upper levels there are 6 caves each with a reclining Buddha. There are paintings on the wall and along the curve of the ceiling. Some of these paintings date back to 7th and 8th century. We also saw the rock inscription that date back to 12th century. sunset at Mirissa beach I decided to skip the final climb and wait for Anubhav and Kannan to complete it. Suddenly, out of the blue it started raining heavily. by the time we came down it had rained enough for my shoes to be completely drenched. We next wanted to go to Tangalle beach. Due to some missed turns and communication gap with the driver we directly went to Mirissa beach. The beach was crowded mostly westerners. We waited for sunset, took some pictures and went for dinner. After dinner, it was time to retire early as Anubhav and Kannan had to leave early next morning for whale watching.
Day 8 – 26 Dec Mirissa Whale Watching and Galle
Anubhav and Kannan got up early. They had booked for whale watching and were expecting to be picked up at 6:15 AM by Geeth Whale Watching Company. I decided to take it easy and took a walk on the beach. Mirissa beach is very beautiful. Early in the morning there were very few people on the beach and I enjoyed walking end to end, sitting down now and then, enjoying the sea and the surroundings. It started getting hot after 10:30 AM and the number of tourists increased. It was time to pick up Kannan and Anubhav from the harbor at 11:00 AM. The ship was delayed and reached back at 12:30 PM. They had good sighting and were very happy that they went for the whale watching trip. We had just enough time to head straight back to the hotel, take a shower and check out. For me, it would have been better had we booked the hotel at the beach. I was not comfortable getting into the water all by myself so should have perhaps tagged along with the family for whale watching. After lunch at Dewmini Roti Shop, we started off to Galle.
We reached Galle at 3:30 PM and checked into the hotel. It was a very hot day and all of us were tired. We relaxed till 5:15 PM and started for Galle Dutch Fort area. The driver dropped us off near the church. The Dutch Library is close to the church and then there is this whole town full of buildings which seemed to be well preserved and retained in their original form and shape at least externally.
We started walking in the lanes, stopping by the buildings and shops, taking pictures. From Sri Lanka, we had suddenly been transported to continental Europe. We particularly liked a Vintage Poster Shop – “Stick No Bills”. The shop had a number of posters of early Hollywood and Bollywood movies. Another one was an antique shop that was in a house which was up for sale. From the main entrance to the back of the house there were endless masks, some of them at tall as 6 feet! We had tea in a quaint tea shop and then rushed to the sea side to see if we could catch the sun set. Unfortunately we had lingered too long at the tea shop. As the night fell, many of the buildings lit up. It was beautiful. We spent some more time going around the place and returned to the hotel around 7:40 PM. All of us were exhausted. We skipped dinner and went off to sleep.
Day 9 – 27 Dec Colombo
This was our last day in Sri Lanka and I had a long list to tick off, including some shopping in Colombo! We wanted to spend time in Galle Fort area in the morning. So we left the hotel at 7:30 AM itself. Early in the morning, the Fort area was virtually empty. The occasional tourists were early morning walkers and joggers. Some of the cafe had stared opening. We walked around the wall starting with the clock tower. Later, went in for breakfast in a lane near the dutch hospital. The breakfast was primarily string hoppers and parotas with lots of lovely tea. There is good old world charm around the Galle Dutch Fort area. The exterior has been preserved completely and you forget that you are in Sri Lanka and not some part of old Europe. The cafe and shops are all designed in European style. For those wanting to stay in this part of the city, hotels – houses converted into hotels rent out rooms. On hind site we should have booked a place here.
After breakfast we started off for Colombo by 9:30 AM. We drove along the coast so the scenery outside was lovely. We stopped only for some coconut water and brunch for the driver. It was a very hot day. By lunch time we were at the museum. Colombo Museum is divided in 16 sections. You have to walk quite a bit to complete the two floors that it is spread on. The museum is worth visiting if you have a couple of hours. I found the section with the masks the most interesting and took a ton of pictures. We spend some time in the coffee house just outside. The emporium attached to the museum is good though very expensive. The next item on the agenda was purchase of crockery. I had read a lot about the crockery from Sri Lanka and did not want to leave without buying something. I decided to visit the Noritake store and our driver promptly took us to the City store meant for the tourists. The prices there were all in dollars. So, we looked up their local store “Noritake Lanka porcelain showroom” and went there. This store has two sections. On the first floor you can get crockery meant for the Lankan market. I selected a tea set. If I had more time on hand, I am sure there is a lot more that I would have picked up. It was past 4:00 PM and we decided to head to Gangaramaya Temple.
The Gangaramaya Temple is a mix of multiple type of architecture – Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian and Chinese. It comprises of multiple buildings and has a temple, the Pagoda, Bodhi tree, museum and library. You can see Buddhist relics donated by people from different parts of the world. It is like a treasure trove with every nook and corner filled with these gift items, paintings etc. The rows of Buddha mounted on a slanting roof make for a great display. While most are in straight rows some have been kept at an angle to accommodate them some how. The temple will be best remembered by me for its opulence. We also got a chance to see a baby elephant that was brought into the temple for the monks to feed
Seema Malaka Temple which is an extension of the Gangaramaya temple, is a few meters to the east and built on Beira Lake. The temple was redesigned by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and reconstructed through funding of a muslim business man in the memory of his son, in 1976 after the original temple had got submerged in water. This is a great place to visit at sun set and then stay on till the lights of down town Colombo come up. We were here until about 6:30 PM and then left for dinner to a vegetarian restaurant recommended by the driver. The dinner was not that great. Nothing Indian in Sri Lanka tastes good enough for the India palette. We were at the airport by 9:30 PM. Our flight was scheduled for 1:00 AM.
General Gyan Travel within Sri Lanka.
The roads in Sri Lanka are good and driving is much more simpler and rule based than India. So, it is OK to rent a car if one wants to drive. I am happy we rented a car with a driver because we were traveling a lot and moving to a new place almost every day. It was good to be driven around than drive ourselves. The drivers may not be able to communicate fluently in English, so be patient. The inter city buses seem to be comfortable and can be a way of traveling between towns. Tuk-tuks are available for short distances every where. Cycles and scooters can also be rented locally in towns. The train journey between Kandy and Ella is beautiful as it cuts across the tea estates and villages. Doing a segment on this route by train is highly recommended. We did it from Nanu Oya near Nuwara Eliya to Ella.
Vegetarian food is not as easy to get as in India, but with some homework it is possible to identify restaurants that serve vegan/vegetarian food. Most places serve String hoppers with vegetarian side dishes, vegetable rice and noodles, vegetable kottu and then of course we have the universal pizza, sandwiches and french fries besides fruits and fruit juices. The yellow coconut (locally known as king coconut) makes for a wonderful drink anytime. If you can walk into a grocery store there is a huge variety of local biscuits available. The tea served in Sri Lanka is the best it ever gets. So, we enjoyed a lot of tea, especially after we got to Kandy.
Hotel rates vary across the year based on the tourist season. We did all our booking through Booking.com. While we opted mostly for 3/4 star hotel accommodation, there was no/limited availability on the Christmas weekend and a couple of the places were not per our choice or liking. The quality of the rooms is fairly good across hotels. Being a tourism friendly country, service is also good in most places. Location and food reviews should be done before booking the hotel. I would put Location as the highest selection criteria if you are traveling by car.
Sri Lanka is a warm country so light cotton clothes are best suited. When visiting temples shoulders and legs are also expected to be covered. If you want to merge into the crowd, wear white clothes when visiting the religious places. We did not carry any white clothes though it would have been nice if we did. Do not over pack. We carried a change for each day, reused pants plus a warm jacket each ( for Nuwara Eliya). Umbrellas or rain coats are a must. We landed up buying umbrellas on day 2. Walking shoes are good most days since a lot of walking/climbing is required. In the archaeological / religious sites, chappals or sandals are better since foot wear needs to be removed outside. Be prepared to walk at least 5 KMs a day visiting Buddhist temples.
The rates or similar quality items vary a lot across different type of outlets in Sri Lanka. We were clear about what we wanted to purchase and from where so we spent very little time in shopping but could still get what we had planned. Trip Advisor has some good inputs on where to shop and what to shop. Researching that before starting helps. Variety of tea is available. Special tea from different tea estates can also be bought. If you are a tea lover tea shopping can be very enjoyable.
What to see
Obviously this depend on what you are interested in. We selected the towns we were going to visit based on our interest. Specific to the cities we did a check on Trip Advisor and planned our list of places to see at each location. Ideally, in Sri Lanka, morning and late afternoons should be planned for sight seeing and mid afternoons for travel or relaxation since it is too hot to enjoy the out door. We did get lucky on many days as it was cloudy and rained rather than being sunny.
The entry fee for most of the places is fairly high. It is good to get an idea about these and budget for the same so that you do not hesitate in spending that component. Citizens of SAARC countries get 50% discount in many of the archaeological sites. So make sure to carry your passport all the time for identification. The hotel, food and local transport rates are similar to or cheaper than India in most cases. It is possible to do a comfortable trip on a budget of 7-10K per head per night all inclusive during tourist season and perhaps 20-30% cheaper off holiday season.