CONTINUES FROM ITINERARY PART 1
DAY 8 – KANDY to ELLA
Our next stop on the itinerary was Ella where – unfortunately – we could only spend one night due to a series of unlucky coincidences (particularly the Navam Poya festival that made impossible to book any train on our selected date). I would strongly recommend at least a couple of nights in Ella, to explore a bit more the surrounding area and get into the backpack vibe.
The train journey from Kandy to Ella is undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip in Sri Lanka. It’s a long journey (generally it takes almost 7 hours but delays are not uncommon) but you will soon forget you are on a train. Without going in too much detail of all the issues we encountered in booking 2 tickets due to the bank holiday, I will only say that at the end the only available tickets were on a 1st class train at 12.31 from Peradeniya to Ella – there were also 3rd class tickets on a morning train but since we needed a full morning in Kandy to see the Temple of Tooth it couldn’t work for us. The 1st option wasn’t my favourite simply because, as I read on plenty of travel blogs, in this carriage you couldn’t open the windows; so I was a bit restless (rather painful) thinking that I was about to do a once in a lifetime train journey with the windows fully shut. 😦
The train pulled in at Peradeniya train station (which is a few km from Kandy downtown) and we all got on. We found our seats and with extreme sadness and frustration we realized that the windows (that could not be opened) were so dirty that it would have been impossible to look outside and see anything, let alone take any pictures. On top of that, from the 1st class carriage you couldn’t reach the other carriages (where the windows could be opened!) so you felt sort of trapped. The train left the station and I was in such an “agony” inside that I went straight to have a (quiet) word with the young chap working in the carriage. I think he must have seen my distress since once I told him the problem he said “Wait a while and then once the train goes up the hills and slows down I can open the door and you can sit there”. My face brightened up, my eyes sparkled and my smile returned…and even wider when he said “Anyway, there is a surprise…we will open the windows soon but shhh.” I went back to my seat and I was the happiest person ever! Our windows DO open!!
Happiness quickly spread around the carriage (couldn’t keep quiet) and after a while the carriage staff opened all the windows, letting the hill country breeze flowing in and making the trip a whole different experience. Why I didn’t find any mention of it on any blog, I don’t know…but I promise, it was a big big relief! I spent half of the journey leaning outside the window and the other half sitting on the train steps, watching the green and lush Sri Lankan hills flying under my flip flops. What a great feeling!
Words can’t really describe the stunning scenery that the train goes through…I suppose in these cases pictures do it more justice. Make sure to keep your eyes open throughout the whole journey, too stunning to have a snooze!
We arrived at Ella train station after over 7 hours journey, a bit of delay (which apparently is quite normal and it’s the first time ever I didn’t mind it on such an amazing journey) due to a fire on the rail track – being a single rail track you just have to patiently wait.
From the train station we walked to our accommodation (Ella Okreech Cottages), a steep walk up the main road in Ella, just a few minutes walk in the pitch black and with the sound of frogs. Massive clean room with a wide balcony overlooking the road (you can’t really see the road since the cottages are quite a way up shaded by the trees). We had a quick shower and we went out for a bite to eat, our 2nd official dinner out with a proper menu in Sri Lanka since up to that moment we had always eaten where we slept – except Colombo. We ate at the Chill Cafe’ which has a great backpack atmosphere, reminiscent of those wonderful 6 months in South East Asia. The place was packed, we had to wait a while for a table (while making friends with the local stray dogs) but in the end got a good table overlooking the road, perfect for people watching. Food was absolutely delicious, we chose the 10 curries dish which as you can see was quite an enormous portion and the banana leaf curry which was spicy and tasty. You will not leave hungry!
Had a couple of mojitos too and then back to the room since the next day we had planned a relatively early start (no surprise) to climb Little Adam’s Peak first thing in the morning. We also had to arrange our onward travel to Kataragama, and that needed a bit of work.
DAY 9 – ELLA to KATARAGAMA
After a quick early breakfast in one of the few restaurants on the main road open at 7 AM, we tried to arrange a taxi ride to Kataragama, our next stop. All the drivers parked on the main road display a so called “Taxi price list” and the journey to Kataragama was listed at 8000 rps; it took a bit of persuasion, walk off and all the theatre that comes with barter but in the end we managed to arrange Rs 6000 for a private car (which was a sort of mini-van) leaving at 1.30 PM. We wanted to make sure we were able to get to Kataragama on time for visiting the temple and attend the evening puja (it took us around 2 hours). This cost can obviously be halved/saved either by sharing the car (we couldn’t find anyone interested in leaving in the early afternoon) or by taking public transport but, as I said, with only 1 night in Ella we had to factor in this extra cost if we wanted to spend more time in the area. Posting on a Trip Advisor forum can be a good option to find some fellow travelers willing to share the car. Be careful that some driver was asking us Rs 8.000 EACH. The listed price is, of course, for the whole car so the more people you find to share, the less you pay.
After arranging the taxi, we started our ascend to Little Adam’s Peak, which is easily reachable from the main junction in town, going uphill. Great sunny day and lovely walk amidst the tea plantation. Not a difficult hike that gets rewarded by great views!
On the way back, we stopped to visit Newburgh Green Tea plantation; being Sri Lanka the land of tea, I felt it was a sort of must do and I have to say that, despite my initial skepticism, for someone that didn’t have an idea of how tea was produced, stored etc it was quite informative. Just over an hour, small tour of the plant in a small group and tasting of the green tea that they produce on site. What you obviously won’t see are the conditions of the tea harvesters (or tea pickers), mostly young Tamil women (paid just a couple of dollars a day), with no land rights and living on the tea plantations in crammed shacks without the minimum sanitation requirements. To learn more about this topic, have a look at thepriceoftea, an interesting document from srilankacampaign.org, a non profit organization which is also an excellent source of information on the situation in Sri Lanka.
On the way out, our path crossed with a Tamil Festival that was the true essence (at least in my mind) of Sri Lanka: vibrant colours, music, chants, flowers. Their beautiful and colourful saris shone amidst the green of the tea plantation were the great majority of them would work.
We walked back to Ella town in 40 minutes, had a quick shower and got picked up by our driver. Next stop: Kataragama.
The choice of Kataragama over Tissimaharama was due, once again, to the desire to get a bit off of the beaten track. Tissimaharama is the base that almost everyone we met (or read on travel blogs) uses for Yala National Park and I am sure it has got its positive sides but to me Kataragama seemed more interesting particularly for a couple of important temples that make it one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka. On the way to Kataragama we had the most amazing encounter…a massive elephant trying to cross the road right in front of us!
At that point I was not sure we “needed” to go to Yala! We had booked a night at Heina Nature Resort, which I recommend, next to Goyagala Lake. Accommodation is in 2 massive cottages, with plenty of beds inside, far too big for only 2 people like us (perfect solution if you are travelling in a group). Next to your cottage you will find your private outdoor bathroom which is a great experience with tiny frogs hiding in the loo roll and a nice open air shower.
The grounds are particularly nice and you are located just a couple of minutes walk to a beautiful lake.
Definitely worth going out and explore if you have a bit of time. With just a couple of hours stroll, we saw plenty of amazing birds (bee-eaters, king fishers, green parrots, peacocks, horn-bills), a crocodile and the views on the surrounding countryside were stunning and truly peaceful.
As far as staff, they score five stars. The manager is a young guy, really helpful and smiley that speaks good English and he is really keen to show you the area in which they live. With him work a young woman and a lad, in charge of the cooking, cleaning and garden maintenance. Though they don’t speak English, we had a good laugh together with the manager as a translator 🙂 Food was great (lots of fresh river prawns), freshly prepared and eaten outdoor.
Before dinner the manager drove us to the Kataragama Temple and it was definitely one of our highlights of this stop. If you choose to visit, you will definitely be a minority there and it will be hard to not feel emotionally affected by the whole ceremony; the evening puja is quite striking and definitely worth experiencing. Take into account at least a couple of hours to explore the grounds and stay for the ceremony.
DAY 10 – YALA NATIONAL PARK to REKAWA BEACH
Kataragama is – with Tissimaharama – one of the preferred bases you can choose to visit Yala National Park, arranging a safari. Yala is worldwide renowned for having a good number of leopards that, if you are lucky enough, you could spot in the park. The problem is that plenty of drivers drive around like nutters just to try to get a glimpse of a leopard and sometimes missing out on other animals. After reading plenty of reviews and blogs and asking a few quotes to some operators, I gave up: there are so many tour operators, hotels and private jeep drivers that offer and arrange safari tours (morning, afternoon or all day) that it’s really hard to know what to choose, if not impossible! So in the end we chose to book a morning safari (5:30 AM to 11 AM) directly through our Resort in Kataragama, which offered more or less the same price of other tour operators (around $60 per person/half day) and an English speaking driver. Though it turned out that the driver’s English was as good as my boyfriend’s Italian (almost nonexistent) and although it rained for a good hour during the safari making it hard to see any animals at some point, it was a great experience: we managed to see plenty of wild water buffalos, deers, a couple of beautiful elephants just a few meters from our jeep, monkeys, wild boars and an amazing amount of birds, including horn-bill, peacock, black stork, black crested bulbul and Sri Lankan junglefowl (national bird). We didn’t see the leopard (I haven’t met anyone that has actually confirmed to have seen one!) but that’s the reason why this is a National Park and not a zoo. Overall happy with the experience but I would recommend to find a tour operator with an English speaking driver since you can surely get a lot more information during the drive. A way to save a bit of money is also to book your jeep directly in Tissimaharama the night before you want to do the safari; we were staying in Kataragama so we didn’t do it, but it could be an option. Have a look also at Yala National Park website for full information and advices on how to arrange your visit to the park.
After the safari, we went back at Heina Nature Resort, got our backpacks and the manager very kindly dropped us at Kataragama bus station where we boarded the local bus 32 that goes all the way up to Colombo on the beautiful coastal road.
After less than 2 hours of crazy local bus drive, we arrived at Ranna village on the A2 that was where we had to stop to get a tuk tuk (Rs 300) to our next place, Lanka Beach Bungalows: a bit over our budget but absolutely worth it, even though for just one night. The choice to stay here was due to the fact that we were hoping to be able to see the turtle hatching on the beach and the area is supposed to be one of the best spots to do it. Though it didn’t really go as planned, it was a lovely stay.
As far as accommodation goes, at the time of our visit Lanka Beach Bungalows had just opened, owned and run by a German couple (they still haven’t got a website but you can easily book through Booking.com). The rooms are very nice, with a massive half open bathroom with walk in shower and a big balcony with outdoor seating area. All their rooms overlook the ocean (ask for a top floor, to get the better view); our room was one of the furthest one and still we enjoyed a great view. I suspect that once its position is more consolidated in the market and they get more reviews (once we booked there weren’t any) their prices will rise, in line with the other hotels on this stretch of beach (some well over $100/night). Unfortunately when we arrived the weather was all but good: rainy and windy but, as it often happens anywhere near the Tropics, it completely turned in less than an hour and we went straight to the beach for a long walk enjoying a stunning sunset. We didn’t want to eat at our hotel ( I admit I like the comfort of good beds – who doesn’t!? – but I much more prefer the local atmosphere) and my boyfriend had found somewhere on a back road near the beach that sounded interesting and worth looking at. Leaving the hotel behind you, walk on the beach towards the right and you will see a board advertising “SUN SHINE CAFE'”. Don’t expect a restaurant as such: no website, just a reggae-loving dude and his wife cooking homely and freshly prepared Sri Lankan food. Can’t beat it! If you plan on eating here, go a few hours before in the afternoon, choose what you would like for dinner and agree an hour so they have got enough time to prepare everything from scratch. We had a delicious tuna fish curry with plenty of vegetable curries (massive portions) and as always tons of poppadoms. Their pineapple daiquiris are worth a try 😉 and you might end up the evening sharing a whiskey with the owner!
Just a side note: if you choose to reach this place and want to do the internal road path, make sure you have a good torch with you since it’s absolutely pitch black and there are no lights to be seen for a while. The beach – especially during full moon – is probably a better choice.
After dinner around 9.30 PM, we ventured out on the beach: we were truly hoping to see turtles hatching so we kept walking up and down keeping an eye open on the shore. Since just a couple of nights before it had been full moon the beach was basically naturally lit up so we almost didn’t need our torches. Despite not seeing any turtle, the walk itself was unforgettable: this stretch of beach is – luckily – very little developed (after 2004 Tsunami plenty of business closed and didn’t reopen) so you can walk a long time before seen any light or actually meeting anyone. I am sure the place is absolutely safe but I would probably not have walked so far during the night without my boyfriend.
DAY 11/12 – REKAWA BEACH to MARAKOLLIYA BEACH (TANGALLE)
After an early morning walk down the beach, being nosy with the local fishermen and a good breakfast in the sunshine, we decided to spend a few hours by the beach before heading off to our next place. If you are a swimmer, do take into account that swimming in this part of the Indian Ocean can be very dangerous due to unexpected rip currents and whatever guesthouse or hotel you will choose, they will advise you whether it is safe or not to swim in your area. For this reason, a swimming pool can be a good option if you want to have a relaxing swim. 🙂 Do not expect to find the calm and crystal water of some parts of South East Asia since this is the Indian Ocean and its beauty is also in the wilderness of its beaches and rough waters.
We hired a tuk tuk from Rekawa Beach to Marakolliya Beach (Rs 800), a quiet and beautiful stretch of beach at the east of Tangalle. We had chosen Mangrove Chalet and Cabanas and were not disappointed. The accommodation is very good (they offer both chalet/bungalows and cabanas but they sell out pretty quickly) and sits between a lagoon and the sea; big square concrete bungalows built a prudent few metres far away from the water, with outdoor comfy day beds and a very good restaurant offering plenty of food options. It reminded me a lot of Ko Lanta (Thailand): very chilled out atmosphere, good and simple food and beautiful views of the ocean.
We spend 2 nights here but you can easily spend a few days just by laying on the beach reading a book, walking up and down or venturing and exploring the lagoon with the free kayak provided by Mangrove Chalet and Cabanas. It depends what your own idea of relax is, mine is moving. 🙂
One thing that could have been the highlight of our stay here was to see a turtle and in my naive way of thinking I though I could see one – on my own – on Rekawa Beach. It’s not impossible but it is not an easy task. Since we didn’t see one on Rekawa Beach, I decided to give it a try with the Rekawa Turtle Conservation Project – Turtle Watch, a Rs 1300 tuk tuk ride from our accommodation and a Rs 1000 donation fee. No matter how eager you are to see a turtle, before thinking about going read my Trip Advisor review for a full account of the experience. It’s true, I saw a green turtle but I wish I hadn’t seen one! 😦 Not sure how it can be recommended by Lonely Planet, too.
DAY 13 – MARAKOLLIYA BEACH to MIRISSA BEACH
Up to now, my itinerary for Sri Lanka had been a success (let’s forget about the Turtle Conservation Project) and both my boyfriend and I were absolutely delighted with all we had experienced so far. After spending a few hours on Marakolliya Beach and a quick lunch, we got a tuk tuk to our next destination: Mirissa. We may have been a bit lazy by taking the tuk tuk but the truth is that we wanted to enjoy the beach and the seaside as much as we could, before going back to cold and rainy England! Can’t really blame me….but be aware that you can reach all coastal destination by local bus (a lot cheaper, of course but it takes its time).
We got dropped off at the Secret Guesthouse, a family run business a short walk from Mirissa beach. We had booked a fan room ($40/night including breakfast) with a good size bathroom and a nice outdoor veranda overlooking the well looked after garden. It was a peaceful and quite setting and I chose it because it was one the most affordable available in the area. Next to the guesthouse, there is a lovely outdoor spa too with plenty of treatments, in case you want to relax your muscles. Once settled in, we decided to have a look at Mirissa beach. Unfortunately I can only describe it as a Sri Lankan version of the bad part of Costa del Sol, one of the most touristy and spoiled coastline in Spain, packed with thousands of people getting burned, plenty of them getting drunk with cheap booze and almost no space to put your towel down. Not judging but it’s just not my cup of tea. Mirissa beach is small and absolutely packed with sunbeds, loud music and cheap drinks, miles away from the peacefulness of our 2 previous beaches. None of us could hide the disappointment but we decided to get over it, have a walk on the beach, confirm the whale watch tour for the following day (I had already pre-booked our tour via email for the following day, so I just went to check with the tour company if everything was OK) and go back to our place to get ready for an early dinner. Since we wanted to avoid the main beach, we headed to Papa Mango, on the stretch of beach east of the main one. We shared a nice red snapper and then head back for a good rest, ready for the 5 AM start!
DAY 14 – MIRISSA
As for the safari, the choice of the whale watching tour is quite crucial (possibly even more). I chose Raja and the Whales and I can’t recommend them enough: great communication before booking, excellent staff and amazing tour with them, always providing us information and updates on what we were doing. They are a bit more expensive than some other tours (Rs 6500 per person) but worth every single penny. Differently from all the other boats we have seen, they do go a lot further out into the Ocean (we were the last one to get back to the harbour, a lot later than any other boat) and when you get to see the whales you will probably be the only boat around (and they keep a very safe distance in order to not disturb the mammal). I haven’t tried any other tour company of course but we spoke with some western business owners (hotels, restaurants) living in Sri Lanka that had the opportunity to try different companies and they all agreed that Raja were the best. Be mindful and book well in advance since they fill up pretty quickly. Their tours start at 6 AM and go on for at least 5/6 hours but in our case we stayed out for over 7 hours; they do provide full breakfast and lunch and sea sickness tablets which are a MUST taking into account the constant movement of the Indian Ocean (and confirmed by the fact that 95% of our boat was sick and I was struggling to not be in that %!). You just have to bring plenty of sun cream and a good camera if you fancy some nice snaps.
As I said, Mirissa is a must do if you want to experience a whale watching tour; if you want to avoid staying near the main beach chaos, you can choose an accommodation a bit further out or even stay in another town, but in that case factor in an even earlier start to be at the harbour at 6 AM.
Once back from the whale watch tour, we decided to follow the advice of one of the Raja crew members and head to the Secret Beach. This beach proves that you just need to go a bit off the beaten track to be able to find a lovely beach almost unspoiled a few minutes off the chaotic Mirissa town. Almost empty beach, clear water, reggae music, hammock and watermelon shake: HAPPINESS! To reach it, ask for directions from the harbour where you get dropped off by the boat. It’s a steep walk or ride up and then down again but it’s worth it. In case you plan to have a snack here, be aware that the only bar/restaurant on this beach is quite expensive. If you don’t fancy the walk back, they arrange a tuk tuk for you.
We spent a few hours on the beach and then got a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse. We packed our bags, relaxed a bit on the outdoor veranda and then head out for dinner at Zephyr Restaurant, on the main beach. This was going to be our last dinner in Sri Lanka so nothing better then eating some crab and prawn curry with our feet in the sand!
It looks like the restaurant is one of the busiest of all the beach and dinner was a particularly long (but extremely pleasant) one. Booking in advance is recommended.
We ended our day in Mirissa with a pleasant stroll on the beach before going to bed.
DAY 15 – MIRISSA – GALLE – COLOMBO AIRPORT
We got up with the feeling that we had missed doing something….and we soon realized that we had completely forgot to book our transport to Colombo Airport for that very same day!! Not a small thing since we had planned to: 1) have a full body massage in our guesthouse spa (me) before leaving Mirissa and 2) spend a few hours visiting Galle, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the west coast, have lunch there and then head to the airport. Our flight was scheduled at 21:25 so we would have had all the day to head back up. There are plenty of options and combinations to find your way up from the South Coast to the airport: train, local bus, fast bus, private car, shared van etc and if you are planning to hire a private car, the earlier the better since you may find other people interesting in doing your same route. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we left it until the very last minute, we were not able to arrange any shared transport and we ended up paying Rs 10.000 for a brand new minivan to drive to the airport with a 4 hours stop in Galle; not too bad but we might have been able to save a bit by booking in advance.
After an amazing full body massage in the open air spa The Secret Root spa (you get discounts if you are a guest of the Secret Guest House), the driver picked us up around 11.30 and we drove north, following the beautiful coastline and seaside villages (some more developed than others) until reaching Galle (1,5 hour). Depending on what time you are flying out, I personally think that a quick stop in Galle Fort is worth, to get a glimpse of what Sri Lanka is on this side (though extremely touristy). The town, which was seriously damaged during the 2004 Tsunami, is very well kept and pretty compact so you could visit the main sites in a few hours, including a nice stroll on the walls with stunning views of the seaside. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of Luang Prabang (Laos) and in places like this I always struggle a bit thinking that it is all built to cater mainly for tourists: charming cafes and western restaurants dot every corner, upmarket boutique colonial hotels (together with some more affordable guesthouses), expensive shops and foreigners are everywhere (both living and visiting). If you plan to spend a few days here, be prepared to have to pay more money for everything, particularly accommodation.
Our driver dropped us at a guesthouse where we left our luggage and before heading back to Colombo Airport we were able to have a shower, which is always a nice thing before boarding on a long haul flight 🙂
And there we were, driving north to where we first started with a lot of amazing memories to bring back home with us!
Do you need a couple of good reasons to visit Sri Lanka? Have a look at my other post!