Saturday, 5 December 2015

A Grand Tour of Sri Lanka

As I sit here in our beautiful suite in Casa Colombo waiting for the torrential rain that hammers the windows to ease so that we can set out and explore Colombo on our final day of holiday I thought I would take the chance to bring you up to speed on all that we have done. The post-holiday blues are already setting in as we begin to plan our next big trip - the Taj Mahal in February calls its siren song.

We landed at Colombo airport and as we exited it was good to see that we could buy any number of white goods in duty free. Who hasn't returned from holiday thinking we must pick up a new fridge freezer?  We managed to find someone offering to give us a ride to our hotel (Cinnamon Lakeside) for 2,500 rupees. As we were driven by Sri Lanka's answer to Lewis Hamilton he began to demand extra sums for quicker routes and the toll roads, which led to a standoff that we won by threatening to get out (although query where we would have gone given we were already on the motorway). Following that his driving became even more erratic if that was possible. He was by far the most demanding and keenest to exploit tourists of all the Sri Lankans we have met who, save for him, have been nothing but hospitable and charming.

We checked into our hotel and immediately set off for the train station to buy our tickets for the next day's 9 hour journey to Ella only to find that first and second class tickets were sold out on all three trains! We had tried to book tickets weeks in advance online, by calling the train station and by asking our hotel to book for us. All to no avail. Clearly we were not meant to go by train. As they say, no plan survives the first contact with the enemy.  Cue a hasty return to the hotel and its wifi as we researched alternative routes to Ella. Our first impressions of Colombo were of a fairly ordinary city, heavily trafficked and polluted with little charm save for the people.

That evening we ate at Colombo's top restaurant - Ministry of Crab co-owned by two of Sri Lanka's top cricketers. It is set in the old Dutch Hospital and its high ceiling, exposed beams and old world colonial charm certainly make for an impressive setting. The meal was the price of a good meal in England but was by far and away the most expensive meal we were to eat during our time in Sri Lanka. Indeed the beer was the price of a delicious meal we would have later in Kandy that included food and drink for us both (more on that later). The crab was good - I had it cooked in the traditional pepper style and G had it Sri Lankan curry style. In spite of how good it was, I cannot help but think that crab is far too much effort for too little meat.

We hopped in a tuktuk for the short journey back to the hotel. On the way we asked our driver how we should get to Ella and he told us that his friend had a car with air conditioning and would take us for half the price we had been quoted by the hotel. We were to meet him outside the hotel at 10.

The next day we went down for a buffet breakfast that had a huge western style section that we avoided and a wonderful selection of traditional Sri Lankan style food.

At 10 we stepped out of our hotel to see last night's tuktuk driver stood with another man next to a Toyota Prius. Our driver for the day was Sampath and he drove us the 6 hours to Ella. He had recently been married and, when he clocked G taking photos, stopped the car at a viewing platform out over the mountains we had driven up to allow her to take a shot of the stunning landscape. As it happened, while we were there a troop of monkeys climbed out of the trees and played on the ground for minutes before scampering down the mountain out of sight.

Sampath also passed us his wedding photo album he had picked up that morning so that we could see a traditional Sri Lankan wedding. We stopped high in the mountains for a lunch at a roadside shack. It was delicious; the pumpkin curry was particularly good.

We arrived in Ella shortly after 4. Our hotel was high up the mountainside with a stunning view out over the valley.

 We sat out on our balcony watching the sunset and took a short walk to a local hotel for a delicious meal of beef and chicken curry with pumpkin curry and cabbage.

On the way we saw hundreds of fireflies dancing brilliantly in the sky.

We woke the next morning (initially at 5 so that G could get photos of the sunrise and again at 730 properly) for a breakfast out on the terrace enjoying the views over the valley with tendrils of mist wrapped around the base of the mountains.

Our next driver arrived at 10 to drive us to Uda Walawe. The drive lasted 5 hours and whilst G slept, I saw the landscape change from mountains to flat fertile lands being intensively farmed by the locals. I even saw one farmer burning his field following the harvest. We arrived at Gayan's Hotel an incredibly basic room with little to recommend it on paper save for the warmth of the welcome from Gayan, the quality of food and the proximity to Uda Walawe national park (a mere minute's drive away).

After a delicious lunch of fish curry, our 4x4 arrived to take us on a safari. We got to the park entrance and a spotter joined us in the back. He must have been at least 60 and his eyes certainly appeared clouded with cataracts but his ability to spot the wildlife was incredible, we saw a veritable Noah's ark of animals. On driving into the park we saw a sea eagle on a branch eating a chameleon, a hawk eagle, hundreds of peacocks and peahens, water buffalo, lizards, crocodiles, storks, pelicans, hornbills, about 50 elephants, mongooses, foxes, deer, bee eaters, herons, kingfishers and monkeys.

We were lucky enough to see a family of elephants with a 6-month old calf. As we approached the old bull male trumpeted and the adults instinctively surrounded the calf.

After assessing our presence and determining that we posed no threat they resumed eating and we sat there for a long while. We later saw a group of males fighting in the distance. We later came across the male that had been ousted and he was understandably anxious - he started to charge the jeep.

G's favourite moment came after the heavy rain that split our safari in two had abated. As the jeep pulled forward over a bump the water that had accumulated on the canvas roof emptied all over me leaving me drenched. The spotter proceeded to dry me off with a towel. We set off again over a bump in the road. More water was emptied over me. I was once again dried off and took the prudent step of switching seats. We set off again. Another bump in the road. More water emptied over me. Please note, neither the spotter nor G were dampened in anyway during this, but G still saw fit to laugh at me. Mean!

As we drove back to the hotel, I saw Gayan sharing a bottle of Arrack (the local whisky like drink) with the driver. Not sure about the drink driving rules in the park, but no harm done.

Dinner was another delicious curry. In the morning Gayan had prepared us a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast. He drove us to Kandy, our next stop, which was 6 hours away once again up a mountain overlooking the town.

Our next stop was Theva Residency a beautiful boutique hotel in the mountains. Kandy is the second capital of Sri Lanka and has an arguably deeper cultural history when compared with Colombo. The views were amazing - not as good as Ella, but not bad!  After a quick swim in the infinity pool, G and I relaxed on the loungers with a pot of local tea and some biscuits (not having eaten anything since the morning) to tide us over until dinner.

We had showers and then went up to the bar to enjoy sundowners out on the terrace.

The meal that evening was the most disappointing we ate in Sri Lanka. A terrible attempt at fusion with an emphasis on Western style food.

The next day we ate breakfast out on the terrace and enjoyed the beautiful crisp blue sky and watched two eagles soaring overhead.

After a few hours down by the pool we packed a bag and set off on the 45 minute walk down the hill into Kandy proper.

We were treated to a magical moment as an eagle soared out from behind a cover of trees no more than 15 feet away. We watched as it rode the thermal current far away.

Kandy had a hustle and bustle charm to it. G managed to get some good photos of the local market.

We walked to the lake in the centre of the town and then on to the key Buddhist temple of Sri Lanka - the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (supposedly home to one of Buddha's teeth). I went to go in but was told I had to have trousers to rather than shorts. An opportunist local was selling shawls and trousers nearby. After some haggling I bought a wonderful pair of his largest trousers. A purple pair with an elephant motif. He assured me that I could change discreetly behind his van and he would hold up a shawl to preserve my modesty. No sooner had I derobed, than a family filed past to get into their jeep and all had a good look.

Another of G's favourite memories. They may have been his biggest pair but they were skin tight on me and made climbing the stairs of the temple something of a hazard - I had to jump up most rather than step to ensure that I didn't rip them completely along the crotch.

Inside the temple we saw a buddhist monk leading a prayer ceremony with the locals. The grounds of the temple were so peaceful after the noise of Kandy.

We left the temple in search of food and found a local bakery where we were able to order vegetable pastries and samosas, dahl and drinks for the same price as a beer at Ministry of Crab (see told you I'd tell you about it). The vegetable pastries were similar to cornish pastys but spiced and I was surprised at the thickness of the pastry for the samosas but it was a sweet pastry and the result was delicious.

We took a tuktuk back up the mountain - which stalled twice under the strain of getting us up the steep incline. As we settled in with our sundowners to watch the vivid sunset we were treated to the sight of hundreds of bats flying out to begin their evening hunt.

I took the opportunity to tell the manager about our disappointment at the previous night's dinner and he apologised that we had not been told about the curry option - 17 different curry dishes - their speciality but oddly not on the menu. Dish after dish arrived: pumpkin, sweet potato, beetroot, cabbage, cashew; all delicious.

The next morning we were driven for four hours to the penultimate stop - Willpatu national park for a two day camp. The camp was luxurious and the tents were spacious and the campsite couldn't have been nicer.

Unfortunately, given the market it is aimed at, and the accompanying price, the final few touches to take it from good to excellent were missing. When we arrived the only other group there was an English family (currently living in Dubai) with a boy aged 10 and a girl aged 8. The game drives were good, but a lot of time was spent getting into the park. Over the four drives we saw two sloth bears (one when we were alone and able to spend about 10 minutes watching it before it ambled off into the forest) crocodiles, water buffalo, spotted deer, sambar deer, emerald pigeons brown fish owls, grey headed fish eagles, hawk eagles, serpent eagles, monitor lizards, foxes, jackals, parakeets, storks, tortoises, nightjars, monkeys, but crucially no leopard.

The highlight was on the second day as we left the park we came across the other jeep from our group. We were told to slow down and approach slowly. A lone bull elephant with tusks (only 7% of male elephants have tusks in Sri Lanka having been hunted so extensively) was hiding in the bushes. Shortly after the other jeep left but we remained. The bull slowly approached the road. Stopping every few steps to assess the situation. There was a palpable sense of an intelligent animal assessing our intentions. He was in season so the strong scent of musk filled the air - apparently when the bulls are at their most aggressive. He shyly stepped out from the protection of the bush and G was able to take some fantastic shots of him before he turned and wandered off along the road. We followed at a snail's pace and saw him scratch his back on a tree before he once again rounded on us to assess our intentions. After a long moment he stepped forward and there was a real sense that he might charge but he turned and resumed eating. As he walked away we let him turn the corner of the road so as to not pressure him, but when we followed he had disappeared without a trace. A really magical experience.

We returned to camp to find that the family of four had been replaced by a group of 12 - two families of old friends with 7 children in total. That evening's meal of prawn (think small lobsters), pork chops (I managed 4) and G&Ts was perfect. The final drive of the day was done in torrential rain - we were determined to give ourselves the best possible chance of seeing a leopard, but by the end of the four hour ride we were left huddling together in the back of the jeep trying to keep warm and soaked through.

The next day we set off for Colombo - another 4 hour ride away. We made it to Casa Colombo, our final hotel of the stay. Wow! An incredible boutique hotel with a huge luxurious bed (especially after two nights of camping) a bath in the room a huge wet room shower set up and just generally a very artsy approach to design.

We took a tuktuk that evening to a restaurant we had been recommended to try - the Gallery Cafe. A beautiful old colonial building that was part restaurant part art gallery and seemingly the hang out for Colombo's intelligentsia. We had a wonderful dinner of traditional Sri Lankan fish head soup (a real pungent hit of fish with a fiery afterburn that had me scraping the bowl clean) followed by black pork curry. 

Unfortunately a man at the table next to us had a fit and fell face forward on to his table and had to be revived and helped out of the restaurant to the waiting ambulance.

His friend later returned to the table and rejoined the party telling his friends and those nearby that he was ok and was resting back at home.

We walked back to our hotel and enjoyed a deep sleep waking to torrential rain that is still hammering the window. That is you brought up to date.  I'm afraid that we are going to have to commit to going out now...

You can see all of the photographs G took here.

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