Two years after moving our lives over to Dubai, it was time to travel east and start exploring more of Asia. With Sri Lanka only being a short 4 hour hop from Dubai, it was an easy choice. This trip was planned for months, my parents were flying in from the UK to join my girlfriend and I for the week-long tour of the allegedly beautiful country. Stay tuned to the end of this blog to see the video I created showing our time there.
Day 1 wasn’t really a day… We had an evening flight from DXB - CMB and it would be our first time with Fly Dubai (and what would turn out to be our last). We got to our hotel in Colombo at about midnight local time and headed straight to bed ready to really start the trip the following day.
“Stopping for the occasional roadside coconut…”
After a good sleep and breakfast, our driver arrived and we started what would become a pretty long day of driving from the capital up to Dambulla. We figured out pretty quickly that the Google maps based estimates provided by our driver were woefully inadequate and when he said 3 hours, to expect 5.
Regardless, we had a good time, stopping for the occasional road-side coconut and our lunch break bought along the first taste of local curries and Lion Beer (which at around $1.50 a time, I grew to enjoy quite a bit!). Arriving in Dambulla, our only real plan was to visit the Cave Temple before retiring to our hotel ahead of a bigger second day. This meant that the afternoon consisted of climbing steep stairs, dodging monkeys and wandering round in amazement, looking at these ridiculously huge Buddha statues in impossibly small caves. With all of that said, my biggest take-away from this stop was the view from the top. It gave me the first real glimpse of what I could expect from the Sri Lankan landscape, which was incredibly dense forests made up of more palm trees than I ever thought existed. As the sun started its descent towards the horizon, we hopped back down the mountain and our driver whisked us to our hotel for the night where we retired to the swim-up bar and proceeded to act like a buffet for the local mosquitoes.
We met our driver at the hotel at 6am for the short drive to Sigiriya (Lion Rock) for what would be a morning of climbing up what turned out to be a never-ending mountain of stairs. Never the less, the view from the top shortly after sunrise was incredible and well worth the effort. Coming from Dubai’s roughly 20 degree winter, we were struggling with the 35 degree heat and humidity of Central Sri Lanka and a change of clothes was needed before we started our drive to Kandy.
We arrived mid-afternoon to heavy rain which prevented us from visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth and instead saw us being stereo-typically British and heading for the Ceylon Tea Museum. Shortly after, we checked into our guesthouse for the evening and arranged a trip into town for dinner. So far in the trip, we’d seen the millions of Tuk-Tuks from the safety of our minibus, but tonight would be our first time actually stepping into one. It’s safe to say that when you combine a Tuk-Tuk with the mountainous terrain of Sri Lanka, it’s a pretty exhilarating experience. Our drivers managed to get us to dinner in one piece and back and before we knew it, another day was done.
The day we’d all been waiting for, the train from Kandy to Ella. 7 hours of travel through the heart of the country and its tea plantations. We were on the 7:30am train, so it was another early start but yet again it was worth it. The journey started with some incredibly rough track, shaking us from side-to-side but this soon smoothed out once we got out of the city. For anyone visiting Sri Lanka, I cannot recommend this journey enough. We travelled in First Class, but spent most of our time standing by the open door at the head of our car hanging out taking pictures of the scenery as it trickled by and making the odd trip back to our seats to cool off in the air conditioned carriage.
The climb takes you up beyond 1600m above sea-level and some of the drops felt like they might be all the way back down. The scenery around the train tracks is simply mind blowing and just seems to keep progressing as you crest each hill.
Our initial worry was that being on a train for 7 hours would really drag but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The train made very few stops along the route, but when it did, the catering car was replenished with a fresh delivery of Vegetable Samosas which went down a treat.
Upon arrival in Ella we were greeted by our driver who took us into town so we could grab a bite to eat. We didn't have all that long in Ella, so we visited the insta-famous Nine Arch Bridge and decided to risk our lives with our first off road Tuk-Tuk journey.
It turned out that our lack of time in Ella wasn't the worst problem as about 95% of people in the town were gap year travelers insistent on bringing a touch of Magaluf into town. I guess this is what happens when the incredible scenery draws in the crowds.
“There really wasn’t much going on in this sleepy surf town…”
We had a much more leisurely start to the day before our drive over to the lesser visited East Coast. Arugam Bay was our destination, famous for its Surf and Yoga style vibes, although we were visiting in their low-season. Our original plan was to stay here for one night and then head back to Nuwara Eliya to visit more of the Tea Plantations, but the draw of the beach was too strong and we decided to extend our stay to two nights and head straight to Galle. After checking into our hotel, we spent some time by the pool before we headed for a walk along the beach to find ourselves somewhere for dinner.
There really wasn’t much going on in this sleepy surf town, but what we found was a much more authentic, local experience. The food here was stripped right back to basics and was much better for it.
Our second day started at the crack of dawn (there’s a pattern here!) with the aim of visiting the renowned local nature reserve. Our research led us to believe that there were more Leopard here per square Kilometer than anywhere else in the world, along with a strong chance of seeing a strong local Elephant population. Unfortunately, it seems that our driver arranged just a local guy with the world’s most uncomfortable converted pickup truck to take us around. So despite seeing a lot of fresh Elephant dung and a smattering of Leopard paw prints, the most we saw was a lot of Water Buffalo and Peacocks. Nevermind, it was still incredibly beautiful scenery and an experience I’ll never forget.
The afternoon saw us to try our hand at learning to surf. We found a local guy on the beach and headed back to the hotel to get ourselves ready to try the relatively small waves which were present in the off-season. After the introductory session on the beach, we paddled out with our brand new GoPro on my wrist. I sat back and filmed as my girlfriend started off before I had my first go. The waves were less than ideal, breaking on the steep sandbank very close to the shore and on my first wave I jumped off before the beach and came back up to find that my GoPro had been ripped clean off my wrist. Panic ensued. I hadn't managed to download any of the footage from it so far because for some reason it didn’t want to download over the USB connection and I hadn’t bought a MicroSD adaptor with me on the trip. After nearly an hour of trying to find it in the breaking waves, we eventually admitted defeat and it was never to be seen again. This was more frustrating knowing that there was some great footage on that card and that i’d have to rely on the handheld footage coming from my Sony A7III instead. Lesson learned.
Our last evening led us to find the best meal of the trip. We stumbled across a roadside restaurant where the catch of the day was displayed on ice besides the barbecue it was set to be cooked upon. We saw a huge, fresh Red Snapper and combined that with a local lobster and some fresh water prawns. The chef prepared it all brilliantly, serving it all in a fresh curry paste straight from the barbecue along with his vegetable curries and rice. The whole meal cost $35 and even with my culinary background I was blown away by the brilliant simplicity of what we ate. It was the perfect way to take the sting out of the GoPro loss.
We woke in the morning and followed our previous structure of getting back on the road, this time headed to Galle. It was a long drive, but what we found when we arrived was a town we should have spent more time in. The Colonial charm was incredible and both the Dutch and British influence were incredibly present. We checked into our favorite overnight stop at 18 Faces and proceeded to empty the minibar on the terrace outside our room whilst Monkeys played in the mango trees in the grounds. We found our way into town in Tuk-Tuks and came across an amazing print shop where we purchased a handful of locally influenced illustrated postcards which now take pride of place in our living room. Dinner that evening was taken care of in a very traditionally colonial building’s courtyard where we ate another incredible variety of local seafood on what we knew would be our last full night in this impossibly amazing country.
Insert pictures of Galle
Our last day was somewhat up in the air. My Dad was born and spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong and a childhood friend had since emigrated to Sri Lanka’s South Western coast. Our plan was to work our way up the coast, visiting the Turtle Sanctuaries to satisfy my Girlfriend’s passion for Turtle conservation, but we decided to make a quick diversion for lunch to catch up with Dad’s friend . We’re glad we made the diversion, as we sat overlooking a gentle reef break where Turtles were feeding in the shallows. After lunch we walked the beach and were advised to make a stop off at a local hotel where it was known that Green Turtles would be feeding feet from the shore. We weren't disappointed, we simply walked into the ocean and watched as they fed on the seaweed around our feet. Yet another highlight of the trip.
We made our way back up the coast with a reservation at The Ministry of Crab, excited, knowing that this restaurant was owned by two of Sri Lanka’s most famous former cricketers. Unfortunately this was where the excitement ended. We had a meal which would have been expensive by Central London prices which was hugely disappointing. So, we called our driver and made our way to the airport, once again only making our flight by the skin of our teeth. Luckily we’d be ending our trip with the ever reliable Emirates and we landed back in Dubai knowing that Sri Lanka would certainly be a country we’d be visiting again.