Arriving in Sri Lanka (after a 9 hour stop over in Mumbai Airport!) it was hard to stop comparing the country to Nepal. One of the first differences we noticed was the much better quality of the cars and particularly the roads. Hopefully this would mean no more bumpy bus journeys (how wrong we were!) At first glance the city seemed far more developed than anywhere we had been in Nepal. It was also very hot (almost underably so) and humid in Colombo due to the current monsoon season.
The next morning we met up with Sof's friends from home, Verity and Isobel - who we would be travelling with for the next 3 weeks. We caught a train from Colombo to Anuradhapura, an ancient city in the north. Our first experience of trains in Sri Lanka and we were instantly impressed by the scenery - we passed through lots of rural countryside, plenty of rice paddies! We accidently sat in 3rd class for an hour and struggled to get out once we were there (we had bought 2nd class tickets), it was very friendly in 3rd class but also incredibly packed and hot! We eventually plucked up the courage to move to our seats in 2nd class - squezzing past with our big rucksacks. Much cooler and much more space to enjoy the views!
We spent a day exploring Anuradhapura, visiting the many ancient sites - plenty of temples and ancient religious monuments. It was a swelteringly hot day. Just as all of us were feeling like we might collapse, a lady washing her clothes in a stream next to us, noticed our fatigue (and red sweaty faces!) and insisted we came to her house for some shade and juice. We gladly accepted and she made us the most delicious lime juice - nothing has ever felt more refreshing! Only our third day in Sri Lanka and we were already bowled over by the warmth and open friendliness of the local people.
Our next stop was Sigiriya village, just south of Anuradhapura. It is another historic city, famous for its huge rock (Lion Rock) which an ancient king chose to build his palace upon. We stayed in Lakmini Lodge and were greeted by the owner Chandi - who went above and beyond to look after us. (we liked him and his family so much that we ended up staying 3 nights!) We ended up climbing a smaller rock next to the big one - as it was only 300rupees - whereas the big one was $30 and we were feeling abit cheap! The path up was quite confusing and it wasnt clear how exactly we were supposed to get to the very top. After a lot of scrambling around semi dangerous edges we finally found our way - and wow were we impressed! The view was specactular - overlooking a massive expanse of forest that seemed to stretch forever, it felt like we were on top of the world (and windy enough to alomst blow off!)
In the evenings Chandi's wife cooked us the most delicious range of food - banana curry, mango curry, dhal, spiced chicken, coconut sambol and more. From that moment we knew we were going to love Sri Lankan food!
From Sigiriya, we visited the town of Dambulla - famous for its old cave temples. 5 temples built into caves in the rock which are adorned with paintings and statues depicting the Buddha's life. The temples were supposedly built by a King after he sought refuge in the caves - as a thanks for keeping him safe! The painting of the ceilings and walls were most impressive, intricate and colourful and still largely intact.
We finally left Sigiriya and Lakmini Lodge and headed for Kandy - the second largest city in Sri Lanka and located right in the middle of the country. We stayed in a small family guest house called 'The Pink House'. We were welcomed in by about 6 women, who were all very friendly and entertaining! We spent an evening visiting The Temple of the Tooth - where the Buddha's sacred left tooth is kept. We were there for Puja (evening prayer) so it made for an atmospheric experience.
We are also beginning to feel that we have been on a bit of a Buddhist pilgrimage without meaning to! - having visited the most important sites in both Nepal and Sri Lanka! (we are now suffering from temple fatigue)
The following day we visited Kandy's Botantical Gardens. They were incredibly beautiful, and if it wasn't for the sun and exotic palm groves we felt like we could easily have been strolling through some stately national trust gardens in England - (of course they were developed by the British during the colonnial era in the mid 1800's...) In the evening we visited Helga's Folly - an intriguing hotel we had heard about that was run by an old eccentric english woman - Helga De Silva, who grew up in Sri Lanka. The place was completely mad! Decorated in a random and eclectic mix of fantastical, tropical artwork, sometimes bright and sometimes very gothic. This was thrown in with rich mahogony furniture and mounted stag heads. It is impossible to properly describe the place!
The ladies at the pink house served us yet more delicious curries - jack fruit, pumpkin, mango and bean.
From Kandy we took a train to Nuwara Eliya. An unforgettable train journey on rickety wooden tracks that wound through the hills and tea plantations. Really breathtaking scenery! In Nurwara Eliya we visited a large tea estate (1200 acres) employing 600 women tea pickers - mostly Tamil. We had a tour of the factory and 'tea making' process finished off with a really tasty cup of Ceylon B.O.P (Broken Orange Pekoe) tea! We stayed in Shantipura - 15minutes out of Nuwara Eliya and apparently the tallest village in Sri Lanka. it was certainly much cooler there - so cool that we wore jeans in the evening and slept under two fleece blankets at night. A world away from the humid heat of Colombo!
Our next stop was Horton Plains national park, famed for its wealth of fauna and flora. With plenty of green open plains, rivers and an impressive waterfall. We walked to an area called World's End - where on a clear day you can see the vast hilly landscape and all the way to sea... it was sadly not a clear day when we visited..! Instead we were sitting on clouds/in a cloud, perhaps an experience in itself!
From Horton Plains we caught a train to Haputale, where we were told the train would go no further as there had been a landslide accross the track due to the heavy monsoon rain. After searching for a bus and getting completely drenched we all piled in to a Tuk Tuk, whose driver convinced us he could take us the 45minute journey to Ella - all 4 of us and 4 big rucksacks in the pouring rain. Somehow we managed and made it to Ella in one piece, albeit pretty damp!
The Hill country in Sri Lanka has without a doubt been some of the most beautiful and spectactular scenery either of us have ever seen!