Sri Lanka

Avoiding tourists in Kandy and Ella

It was calming and relaxing on the beach at Nilaveli, but after just an hour of snoozing in the sun, Pete piped up that he ‘was bored’ haha. I think this was a slight exaggeration, but it motivated me to look at the next leg of the trip and make a final decision about which direction to take next.

I had read a lot about the central highlands and South/West coast of Sri Lanka and how they can sometimes get a little commercial and busy during March which is the high season. But we’re up for diversity and it’s hard to remember sometimes that we are also tourists contributing to the traffic through the country… Tourism is a fine line I believe. It can have such positive impacts on peoples lives, improving the economy, forging international relationships, driving ecological protection and sharing of knowledge. It’s also great to be part of; seeing and learning about the different places, landmarks and cultures. On the other hand, it can be damaging to the environment, make places unbearably busy for the locals and alter culture.

Fortunately, for me at least, it felt like Sri Lanka is still on the right side of the line, with local people and governments striving to protect their environment and culture, whilst also reaping the economic benefits of tourism.

Anyway, long story short, we decided to take the famous Kandy-Ella train after a quick night in Kandy and a few nights in Ella. We got our last tuk tuk driver in Nilaveli to organise a taxi South to Kandy and he arrived the next morning in a rented car. A lot of people we had met so far were travelling Sri Lanka with a private driver and car. Its relatively cheap, the journey from Nilaveli to Kandy for example was 4.5 hours and cost £65 with a snack stop along the way and very difficult roads to traverse. It was a nice change after the bus/train/tuktuks and mopeds we had so far, but I don’t think I’d like to get a car everywhere. For me, part of travelling is taking the local transport!

We checked into our hotel for the night in Kandy, Sky Pavillion. We treated ourselves to a fancy hotel after I found out I had been paid my bonus from work! The hotel views were amazing and we spent the evening relaxing on the balcony and showering (honestly, the shower was incredible!).

 

We got up slowly, enjoying the views again in the morning before heading over to Kandy station to get our tickets for the train. This journey is often dubbed as one of the best train rides in the world, so I think our expectations were definitely set high… The queue at the station for first and second class tickets was long and full our tourists, so I grabbed a couple of third class ones and some train snacks of veggie curry roti, vadai and coconut roti. But when the queue went down at the ticket desk, Pete suggested grabbing some second class tickets too, just in case the third had no seats. It was only an extra £4, so I did…

We got a seat on the station, we were there super early, so thought our chances of a seat might be good… Nope. The train arrived and we boarded and spent about the first 20 minutes walking up and down the tight train aisles trying to find a space (even just to stand) for both us and our bags. The train was JAMMED! We eventually found a bit of space to stand in the cafe carriage next to a window. The 2nd class was actually far worse than 3rd class!

 

Once settled and cool, we finally started to enjoy the views, it was beautiful… but not as spectacular as I had expected. I have been on more beautiful journeys through Asia, which had less crowds and were easier to enjoy. This journey felt so commercial and not very ‘special’ although it was good. After about 3 hours of standing, we reached Hatton, where a lot of people got off the train, we finally had seats and it was mildly more enjoyable. We saw a lot of tourists on this train who had no luggage, and it seemed that even those travelling Sri Lanka by car and driver had succumbed to the hype and taken the train for this section of the journey…

In total, the journey took us about 7 hours (after some technical issues with the train in front of us), at the end of which, we were tired, hot and very hungry having eaten all our snacks and the cafe running out of snacks 😦

 

Having been stuck on a train for such a long time, we decided to stretch our legs and walk to the hotel I had booked down the sloped road into Ella. It would have been great had the google maps location been accurate and we hadn’t walked completely the wrong way… A tuk tuk driver helped us and we eventually made it to our homestay.

Our first impressions walking through Ella was a bit of a culture shock. Not like any other place we had visited in Sri Lanka so far, and we had stayed at what I thought were busy places. Bright lights lit up bars and burger shops, some stating a 24 hour opening and 200 LKR cocktails. Before this we found tourist cafes/shops interspersed with grocery stores, homes and local cafes, but here, everything was aimed at tourists.

Our homestay was very modest, not really what I was expecting from the pictures and previous reviews. It was down a very steep, quite treacherous path right on the outskirts of Ella. The homestay was an extension of 2 ensuite bedrooms attached to the families home, which was a typical small village house. There was an angry dog chained to the front door which made Pete a little sad, but all in all, the family was lovely. The father was a tuk tuk driver and the mother was an excellent cook. They had 3 boys of varying ages, one of which, still a baby, was so inquisitive of us! We stayed here 2 nights and on the second, the rain was so bad we ate in the families home, a kind gesture, but quite humbling to see how a family like this lives.

 

For our full day in Ella, I did a bit of research on the sights and things to do. We had little Adam’s peak view point, Ravana falls, nine arch bridge, countless cafes and bars… we’d seen the classic photos. Pete made the point that… “a bridge? There’s a nine arched bridge in bloody Warrington”. I mean, we know it’s different, we’re not so ignorant, but the idea of having to spend the morning watching 20-somethings get the perfect selfie on a bridge didn’t fill us with excitement… “I want to swim in a waterfall” declared Pete. So after a bit of googling I found a few local waterfalls including Diyaluma falls which google said was just over an hour from Ella. We headed out on foot to the town…

20 minutes down the road we got to another guesthouse which had a ‘Scooty Hire’ sign next to an alright looking scooter. Since we didn’t have the legal requirement for actually rent a vehicle properly (you need to have applied for a paper international driving licence counterpart and then get an official stamp from the AA in Colombo), we thought a local person would be better than one of the big rental shops in Ella.

I walked up, said, “Can we have the scooter please?”, he said “2 helmets?”, I said “Yes”. Then we were pretty much on our way… as we were about to drive off I quickly checked how much “1200 Rupees”, that was fine and he quickly asked me “Where are you staying?” and “Do you have a licence?”. A little bit delayed, but we told him. No deposit, no leaving our passport, just genuine trust. Awesome.

With our new found freedom we hit the road for about 2 minutes before stopping for a coffee which cost more than the bike and then set off for-real along the A23.

 

The road to Diyaluma falls was set to take us past Ravana falls, so we thought we’d stop for a quick look and see… Actually the falls were beautiful. I think we initially stopped just as a bus load of people had stopped to take photos, there must have been about 50 people on the bridge snapping away and taking selfies. Off the road and on to the rocks there were probably about 20 people chilling and then over the water onto the other side, maybe only 6. In the water… well at one point it was just Pete. So actually it turned out not to be that busy. We thought the water might be packed with people jostling for position. But it seems not that many really wanted to take the plunge. Most just wanted a selfie… pretty sad if you ask me 😦

 

We relaxed and swam here for a while before deciding to continue on our ride to the other fall. The drive was amazing, such beautiful scenery.

 

At one point our exhaust guard fell off, which Pete fixed with a twig before we found a small garage to fix it properly.

We finally stumbled upon Diyaluma falls, as the second highest waterfall in Sri Lanka, it was hard to miss! We stopped at a small restaurant next to it for the most bland fried rice we’ve ever had…

We thought about walking up to the top, which is apparently a touch but fairly quick hike which ends at another waterfall you can swim in, as there are more falls at the top, with spectacular views, but the journey on the moped had taken us about 2 hours to get there and the weather was starting to change. We didn’t particularly want to drive in the dark and the rain, so we moved on taking a different route back to Ella via Poonagalla tea plantations and village.

With no exaggeration, this stage of the journey was one of the best we’ve ever had. In hindsight it was probably Pete and I’s favourite day in Sri Lanka. We took the moped up and down the narrow single track road flanked by jungle, forest and tea plantations. The views were simply stunning and far better than any we saw on the Kandy-Ella train. The road was not well used and all the local Sri Lankan people we saw were very excited to see us, waving, shouting hello, beaming smiles, even standing at the side of the road to high five us as we drove past. We felt so welcomed by the people of Poonagala. What a friendly and warm village. The drive was long, bumpy and at times very cold due to the elevation, but we were oblivious to it with the spectacular views and people.

My photos do not do the ride justice, waving to everyone, whilst holding on to Pete and actually trying to use my eyes to see (not a lens) meant I hardly too any good ones… Plus a low battery on my phone meant that google maps took priority over photos.

Out of the village and back on main roads the heavens opened and we took shelter under a small bus stop, before continuing the journey back to the homestay.

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What an amazing time in the hill country. It just shows you that with a little bit of freedom and flexibility you can find some hidden beauty anywhere you go. People rave about the Kandy-Ella train, and I really don’t know why, not when every road in the hill country is just as beautiful. You don’t need to take a selfie to enjoy something, and you don’t need a list to tick off. You just need a sense of adventure… (and a Pete to drive you around).

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