Festive seasons are always my favourite, least to mention Christmas. However big family gatherings, scrumptiously good food, friends get-together, all the earmarks of my previous festive season celebrations were, for once, missing in the picture this time- this time it is only the two of us, with our backpacks armed with our hearts to explore. Sri Lanka it is. What a way to end 2015 on a satisfactory note.
Highlights of the trip follow the chronological order of our travel.
Bandaranaike International Airport
That is the main international airport serving Sri Lanka, it is located in Colombo. We, however did not do Colombo at all, we headed out of Colombo the next morning (via train) after we arrived. It was night time as we arrived, around 10:00pm Sri Lanka time, immigrations as usual (and we seemed to be like the only girls adorned in slippers and shorts, how Singaporean), we headed to exchange for Sri Lanka Rupees then got our SIM card, which they only have "one package" for tourists/ visitors, which includes quite a fair bit of mobile data, if I am not wrong it should be around 3GB, 100 minutes free call, and some other stuff, which for 5 days of our trip is way more than enough.
We contacted our host, Digen, previously on our arrival time and he sent a guy to the airport to receive us. He is speedy in replies, which is a really safe bet when you're in a foreign land.
Charming room in central colombo 4
Some points to take note at this point:
- Currency for Sri Lanka is Sri Lanka Rupees, the exchange rate is roughly 1 SGD : 108 SL Rupees, we constantly used 1: 100 as a guide, you ain't got no time to constantly divide by 108. Speed in problem solving is a key in traveling too.
Changi Airport (Singapore) doesn't have Sri Lanka Rupees. What we did was to change it to USD and then change it at Bandaranaike International Airport (at Colombo Area), once you pass immigration there're a few money exchange counters.
In Sri Lanka, drink only bottled water.
Insect repellents are a must if you do not want fully bitten arms & legs.
The Train Ride
(Colombort Fort Rail Way Station to Ella Station)
Some say the train ride from Kandy to Ella is one of the most beautiful train rides in South Asia and I concur. Though we did not do the whole journey from Kandy to Ella, we went past pretty much the same route. We started from Colombo Fort Railway Station (the main train station in Colombo) and ended our ride in Ella. The 10 hour train ride did not started as pleasantly as planned, but thankfully it mapped out with the help of some locals. We had to squeeze our way into the train, to secure ourselves the seats that will last us through the journey. As it was the weekend, the locals travelled with their families (getting out of Colombo), the families are big. What a crazy experience I must say. Interestingly we managed to make friends with Ana and her family too. Ana and her sisters were, in my memory the sweetest girls. Throughout the train ride, her sisters (about the age of 6 or 7), were intrinsically staring at our electronic gadgets, go-pro, DSLR, iPhone (Yes, iPhone)- they have never seen any before.
Besides the interactions with the locals, I clearly remember what was going through my mind during the train ride- in that 10 hour ride, the train ride presented many scenes. Families who live miles away from from the main capitol of Colombo- I recalled seeing rundown huts, tea-pickers on hillside, mountains and mountains of terrains, and the cold fogs as we approach the mountain area in Ella. As short as those scenes pass my eye, they created a memorable flow of imageries in my heart. I stood by the doors of the train (they're actually no doors, just an opening), as the stream of people thinned out through the ride, about 5 hours later- the locals went down the stairs but I didn't dare to, I am happy enough standing there having the wind come slapping on my face- I haven't felt so care-free in the longest time. I admit- I am a pathetic city girl, all too comfortable with my ignorance of the facts- every experience in Sri Lanka is as mind-blowing as you never imagined.
Information about train rides in Sri Lanka:
- Government-run train ride tickets can be bought online: http://www.exporail.lk but they usually only open the slots 2 weeks in advance and they get fully booked really quickly- they cost between USD13 - USD19 depending on the route you choose.
- We end up doing a last-minute purchase of train tickets at Colombo Fort Railway Station, the ticket from Colombo Fort Railway Station costs us 3700 rupees (around SGD3.70) for what was known to us as 2nd-class train tickets. However we soon realised that there is no difference between a 2nd class or 3rd class train ticket, and no one really checks which class are you at as everyone were just squeezing up the train. We were even told by the locals that in any case we can't get a ticket, just squeeze up the train and give the conductor some bucks if he ever asked, but we saw no conductors at all. Maybe it was just our train.
- There're usually only 1 or 2 trains for the journey you're taking for the day so do take note, once you missed the 2nd one you probably have to stay where you are for the day.
- No air-condition for 2nd class and 3rd class but we ran over to check out the 1st class since we were too early for our train ride, and they were so packed with people I can hardly imagine how one could enjoy the "air-condition".
- From stations to stations, there would be locals coming up the train to sell you food, but to be honest we dare not try any, and we ended up munching on our sweets and biscuits- bad decision not stocking up some real proper food.
- For more thorough information on how the train station looked, what to look out for & what not, this is a reliable site based on our experience: http://www.seat61.com/SriLanka.htm#.VyXek2NJVg0
Ella Mount View Guesthouse
We reached Ella with the best of our luck- we almost missed the station but were lucky enough to be able to communicate with some locals who could understand us, English is a possible communication tool but we realised most do not understand what we were saying except for the names of the train station. It was pitch dark as we arrived, fear creeped into us as the night falls. Our fear was understandable having it was our first time in such a foreign land. However our host really helped to ease our worries- Buddhika was our host for the Guest House and he's a really amiable guy. He's constantly contactable at all times and helped us with mapping our journey based on what we researched online. So our Ella's activities were highly guided & advised by him. Buddhika's mom makes scrumptious Sri Lanka breakfast- the spiciness in curry could be adjusted based on personal preference, to suit non-locals' tastebuds, now how sweet is that gesture. They run this business together; Buddhika is a star Airbnb host in Ella and also 2015 Tripadvisor’s winner!
The guest house is only a short distance away from Ella Station, (about 5 - 7 minutes) and could be easily transported by Tuk tuks. Here's the surprising element- based on our knowledge and experience with the tuk tuk drivers in Bangkok, the tuk tuk drivers here are not forceful at all, once you express no interest in hopping on their tuk tuks, they will drive away.
After a few travels I am learning to take it slow, to relish the beauty presented upon us. Little Adam's Peak was a fun hike for us, we actually basically strolled up the little peak, it took us about 40 minutes as we were also chatting with Julien and his family from England as we make our way up. Little Adam's Peak is a quick walk of about 15 minutes away from where we stayed, easy to find as signs were basically screaming in our faces everywhere we walked around Ella Town, definitely very family friendly as well- we met families from Malaysia, Taiwan, Canada, Sydney, U.S.A & also England, having similar experiences really connects us instantly- many have made Singapore their home for a period time. The hilarious thing was Melissa and myself instantly became 'celebrities' when we started talking to one Sri Lanka family, with many Sri Lankan families taking turn to take photos with us, oh boy they really cracked me up. Food wise at 98 Acres Resort was at the mid-point of our hike, we came back down and decided we needed food fuel, the view while dining is breath-taking- it is nature at its most primeval and glorious, almost seemed untouched by time or man.
We went ahead to Demodara Nine Arch Bridge, which was well-hidden in a secluded corner of Ella Town. The GSP lady did her best to help but we still got lost, the locals were really helpful but they would ask for a small tip, probably around USD3. Be amazed by the number of short cuts you can take to get to your destination, we made our way out through a forest led by our new friends from Colombo, Sri Lanka and trust me my heart was praying we'd be safe all the time we were in the forest because I see nothing but tons of trees, no other humans in sight is really worrisome. However not, I am really thankful we witnessed the majestic railway architect in full awe, but every beauty comes with a price- it wasn't the easiest route getting there, we skidded a few times, unintentionally down muddy slopes, and we made some mysterious turns within forests, with my mind constantly wondering if this is a safe route to take. I had to dump all of that out of my mind, blindly trusting that we will be led to the right place. The only thing to take note is- trains still pass by but we did our homework well and knew the time the train will make its way here, so we'd be really careful about it.
We had to move on to second home stay due to Bhuddika's overwhelmingly popular requests- but fret not because Chamodya Homestay is only 5 minutes tuktuk ride away and both of the hosts are friends. Ella is actually a really tight and quaint town, almost everyone are friends with each other. Walking around Ella town presents a really heartwarming experience, it is almost like walking through our local markets where we are greeted cheerily by the locals. Backpackers flood the town as well, it is a very comforting sight seeing so many of 'us'.
Breakfast here was nothing like we ever had- we have the most picturesque view watching us have our meal- Ella Rock is right in from of us, greeting us as we dine. Mornings get a little warm but it gets really chilly at night. Nimal's exceptional hospitality was just an absolute bonus! We were immediately treated some warm tea and snacks the moment we arrived at his homestay.
Down Ella Town, there were many restaurants and eateries but we managed to find the perfect one to take the night slow- Chill Ella Cafe, you gotta trust that is it really chill. Normal cafe sitting arrangement on level 1 & bean bags on level 2, mojitos and pizza for the night summed up the night on a perfect note. The vibe was really, interesting as people from around the world just came together around small tables sharing their stories of traveling. Traveling opens many doors.
We wanted to try the bus (bumpy roads without a/c) but honestly after much contemplation, these two city girls have decided to go with a cab. It costs between USD110 - USD130 per ride from Ella to Unawatuna (7 seater car, so it would better to have more friends if you;d like to split the cost). It was like a 5 - 6 hour ride by car. A bus ride would have just costs around USD5 per person, and the duration would be probably around 8 hours.
So, Unawatuna. They call it a tourist spot, and a tourist spot it is. Surprisingly, we thoroughly enjoyed being surrounded with tourists, unknowingly it made us all feel like one. Unawatuna has beautiful beaches. Celebrations (Christmas count downs, New year count downs, etc.) are especially celebratory at their beaches, you will see a sky full of fireworks, and everyone would dance around to their heart's content. Seafood meals around their beaches is a must (similar to Bali), there actually ain't restaurant we found that stood out, so all is good. If you're looking for a spot to chill with just drinks and bites, you have to check out Koha Surf Lounge. Did I mention it was only like a 10 minutes walk away from where we stayed? OR you can take a tuktuk for about USD2. Tuktuk drivers there are really friendly!
206 / 1 Matara Rd, Unawatuna 80600, Sri Lanka
Did I learn a new skill from the trip? You'd bet! I picked up surfing, and this will not be possible without our new friend made in Sri Lanka- Lahiru! He gave us surfing lessons for free (I honestly cannot count how many times we were lucky on our trip), and we both were hooked! An hour surfing lesson became two and it overlapped to the second day since we have planned nothing around Unawatuna. That's one beauty of traveling (without plans), just go with the flow.
Lahiru suggested that if you'd like to surf you should head to other beaches in Mirissa or Hikkaduwa, which has better waves- we surfed at Sahana Beach, Galle, which was like a 10 minute tuktuk ride away from our accommodation. It was perfect for rookies like us, HUR. We both managed to stand and surf, which was really a break through for us who had zero-experience.
Our tuktuk driver drove us around Galle area and even introduced us to fishnet pulling, what an experience! The water around Galle Fort was crystal clear. I really wished I could plunge right into it. I was BURNT by the end of the trip. Tanned is just, not the word I would use. Please arm yourself with loads of sun block if you're headed to Sri Lanka.
Cooking classes? Absolutely!
Sonja's cooking class
It was like located right in between where we stayed and Unawatuna Beach, which makes it perfectly easy given that they're all located really close to each other. We had such fun classmates from Germany- Julian and Flo, and our teacher, Karuna was a lovely lady. We were taught 5 types of curry- chicken curry, lentils curry, pumpkin curry, eggplants curry and long beans curry, never felt so gratifyingly satisfied with a curry-overload meal. A trip to the market was made before we started on our class, tuktuk ride to the market was included in the overall fee- USD25 per person. Karuna used to provide recipes but unfortunately she does not anymore, thankfully Flo sacrificed his cooking time & helped us all note down the ingredients and recipes as Karuna happily sings them, "20 curry leaves" became our inside joke as it was almost required of all curries we cooked.
Something really interesting about Flo and Julian's relationship which we found out during our chats over curries- they met at a beach party, with both of them being drunk, Julian refused to type her number on Flo's phone and wanted to test if she is really so important to Flo that he remembers it so she only spoke to him (Flo did not type it down), the next morning Flo couldn't remember anything except for her phone number and managed to contact her. They then spent the next 5 years of their lives together. :)
How much did we spend in total for the trip? Most of our activities were free, hiking, surfing etc, we spent an average of about SGD950 each, considering how we tried to save time by traveling via cab instead of the buses. I would also add that traveling in December (holiday season) adds up to it as well in terms of the prices of air tickets. And as usual, enjoy our video and the beauty of Sri Lanka.
Till we meet again.