Sri Lanka- "Resplendent Land". We found out, it truly is, a beautiful place. Beautiful people and nature, abundance of fruit, vegetables, spices and flora and fauna, concentrated on a 430 km long island, about the size of West Virginia. This year's January respite was a choice between hiking the Kumano Kodo in Japan (it was going to be wet/cold, not super cold, but cold enough that I would probably be miserable), Thailand (Ivan, has been) and Sri Lanka. Day after Christmas I sat down and started charting our journey. January through March, west and south are ideal places to visit. But in a perfect world I would've loved a month to traverse north (which is still very quiet and not often visited) , middle and east.
Our trip was 10 days on the ground (plus 2 days of travel) Colombo-Kandy-Knuckles Range mountain- Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Udawalawe, Tangalle (east of) and a short last day pit stop in Galle.
We landed in Colombo after 24 hours of travel, took a shower and stepped out onto the Galle Face Green which is a large green park on the coast of the town. It was already dark, but it was a friday night and kids were out playing soccer, some were singing and some were listening to pop music and dancing shyly. Indian Ocean was lapping gently and provided a perfect soundtrack for observing. Sri Lanka has not seen many tourists since Easter of 2019. The ISIS related bombings made the place unsafe, followed by Covid shutdowns and just a few months ago there was an uprising against the current government. But, it does not feel unsafe in any way and people were excited to see our faces, and to engage with us. Additionally, not a lot of Americans make their way to Sri Lanka since it's quite far and most opt to visit India.
A video medley about the journey here for those of you who love visuals and dont' want to read:)
Considering we live in a giant city, we usually immediately leave for nature and simpler living. Colombo probably has its fair share of good food and history to explore. But early next day we boarded the train at the Fort Train station and took a three hour train ride to Kandy. Right off the bat in our 2nd class compartment we met a lovely man who was taking his family to the mountains for a long weekend. They offered us cookies they packed for the trip, and that reminded me of my train rides I took as a kid between Zagreb and Mostar. Generosity, warmth and curiosity are attributes of Sri Lankan people- my kind of place!
Train ride was so lovely. It's a lush country, 10 minutes into the ride you are passing rice fields, jungle, small towns. Train is divided into 1st, 2nd and 3rd class. We opted for the 2nd class so we can have open windows, reserved seats and a chance to stare outside.
Shortly after taking off, I saw large groups of people hanging and holding onto the outside bars in 3rd class. The train cars were packed inside and outside. Some rode the train on the outside well into the mountains and passages were sometimes super tight next to boulders, tunnels and trees. I spoke to the conductor and he said that they have accidents and he apparently provides details as to how and when you should crouch and how to hold onto the train for safety. Train is not super fast, but it wasn't really a slow poke either- I kept staring out the window to see if everyone was in tact.
We got to Kandy, the last standing Sinhalese kingdom that fought off the Portuguese, the Dutch and the Brits for a bit, but it finally fell to the colonial hands in 1815. It's a bustling town, with lots of tuk tuks, and buses and cars. It's known for the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth Relic that sits on the lake in the center of town. We stayed at a small inn SWP Lodge overlooking the lake, but just slightly above the noise and pollution. There are no enforced rules about emissions, so sadly like most countries we visited Nepal, Vietnam, Egypt air pollution is at its peak heights. There is no organized garbage pick up and most people burn their trash next to their homes. But Sri Lanka, unlike some of its surrounding countries is a clean country. People take care of the areas around their homes. There are also a lot of stray dogs. For people coming from the western world, this is a hard pill to swallow, but these dogs are part of the country and they have found ways to exist. There are a lot of malnourished animals, dogs covered in mange but there are a lot of dogs that have made themselves part of an establishment and there is a mutual respect between people and the animals. We were told not to engage too much, especially when we were out in the wild because Sri Lanka's hospitals are not equipped with medicine for any kind of animal transferred diseases. This was not checked information, but we followed suit for the most part, until I started taking parts of my meals and sharing it with whatever dog was around. They hang by the roads because people throw them food sometimes, and it's nerve racking to be driving on the roads, literally dodging the dogs every few feet.
We made Kandy our base for next three days while we embarked on an epic hike through the Knuckles Range.
We have done some strenuous hiking, around USA and also in Nepal, but hiking in this area was amazing and awe inspiring as well as physically and mentally challenging. We did about 16 km each day with steep descends and ascends through the jungle and mountains and through the thick covering of fast moving LEECHES! Yes- I read about them and was prepared, but not until you have small slimy bastards crawl up your legs and lodge themselves quickly onto your skin, do you realize what you got yourself into. By the time day one finished we were broken on all fronts. But we arrived to a permanent camp that's kept by Uncle Shiva (and of course his doggo:) He welcomed us and our sweat covered bodies with tea and a big smile:)
What we really wanted was a beer and luckily for us a couple from Colombo was at the campsite and shared their last beer with us and a cigarette for me- because you know I need vices to offset what I put myself through. We stared at the mountains, listened to the birds (there are hundreds of birds just in this area) listened to the quiet. I became hyper aware of what drives my trips and how I structure them. I seek out nature in our travels because it gives space for just being. You are walking, paying attention, observing, getting to know what specific place has in abundance. You pass through small villages, make people smile, because you're different to them. We share meals, and cohabitate for that short moment in time. We are different but the same. We sleep in simple dwellings and get our basic needs met shelter, food and company. It's really grand in all that simplicity.
Ivan and I discussed our (mine is a bit more pronounced) longing for a simpler life. We go to these "developing" countries and we marvel and enjoy the simplicity of everyday life. We are reminded that technology has progressed, but we haven't. Government of this amazing land is also keeping most people around the poverty threshold. Yet they are lucky that when they walk outside of their simple home they can find avocado, jackfruit, bananas of every kind, citrus, pepper, cinnamon, pineapple, passionfruit, curry leaves, lemongrass, tea plants, star fruit, mangoes, papaya, coconuts of all kinds to name just a few. This small island could be a slice of heaven on earth- for everyone. Regardless of their financial status, people of Sri Lanka are generous, welcoming and kind.
The following day we hiked through rice fields and observed people working. Apparently a lot of youth just like in most places are opting to leave for big cities and white collar jobs. For a bit there Sri Lanka was importing rice!!!
Their president is colloquially called Mr. 10%... As we walked the hills and tree plantations we spoke to Dinesh about the country and he was one of many that shared grievances about the people in power and general decline of this marvelous country. As we walked through thick jungle we saw peacocks, all kinds of monkeys and he mentioned how there are leopards in the area as well as elephants. He said, if we are in bad luck we will see an elephant- and I realized as much as I would love to see these animals in the wild, this encounter would not bode well for our party:) We chose Knuckles Range mountain because we wanted off the beaten path areas. We want our dollars to go to places that are less traveled and where we can make however small impact. We were the only people on the mountains period, though!! Not something I thought about until after the fact. Most people choose to hike Horton Plains, Adam's Peak, Ella's Rock to name few in this region. However hard and challenging it was, hiking through that range was my favorite part of the trip (well tied to another part below:) because it was quiet, beautiful and we were really in tune with our surroundings.
Back in noisy Kandy we woke up the following morning at 4:30am to go to the Temple for the morning prayer. It was lovely to stand there and observe the procession, the offerings, the color, the drumbeats, the praying. We felt welcome wherever we went.
After a fantastic breakfast we got in a car (bc I didn't book train tix on time) with a lovely man who took us from Kandy to Nuwaraeliya. We drove through beautiful tea plantations, saw dozens of waterfalls (I'm surprised the name of the country is not a waterfall they are everywhere)
The drive is winding and slow but it really affords you the time to look at all that you are passing. We stopped at Damro tea plantation and got a lesson on tea making. We both thought it would be very touristy but we loved it and were happy to have spent an hour there learning about tea making, having a cuppa and a delish cake. Here are main takeaways about tea:
- picked by women- 20 kg per day (they get a bonus for anything over 20kg)
- 24 hours from pick to package
- 5kg yields 1 kg of tea post production
- All of tea comes from one plant- bud only - white tea, baby leaves- green tea, whole plant black tea
- After picking goes to dry 14 hours
- Then it’s crushed and separated. Finer chopped is stronger, larger leaves make weaker tea
- After chopping -3 hours of fermentation for black tea - oxydation is what introduces caffeine
- Green tea doesn’t get fermented
- White tea - the buds get sun dried - also most expensive tea,
- after drying is crushed and packaged
- Post fermentation black tea gets heated again- and then run through the machine that separates the stems from leaves
- All tea is English breakfast tea, flavor is added later
- Orange pekoe- speaks to color of tea and pekoe is the Chinese tea plant brought to Sri Lanka
- Tea is then packaged and sent to auction where it’s sold off to the likes of Lipton…
- most of Sri Lankan tea is imported back into the country- crazy right!
After Nuwaraeliya we took the train to Ella,
which turned out to be a tourist spot and we saw only Aussies, Russians and other Europeans so we didn't stay long. We did stay up in the mountains in a super lovely inn and met a German couple that rented a tuk tuk and are driving around Sri Lanka for 3 weeks. Talking about intrepid! The owner of the inn drove us down from the Hill Country to Udawalawe- our next stop. We stayed here for 2 days and visited the Udawalawe National Park .The Countryside Inn where we stayed booked us a "safari" with Chamara who ended up being the best guide. We stopped at places to look at the birds, insects and he turned off the car so we can revel in silence of nature. It was incredible. Nature smells and sounds so alive. It smells of dirt, flowers, poop, moisture, leaves and it sounds perfect.
They way that our life should sound. It occured to me that this is the first pseudo wild place that I've been to. This park is fenced so animals can be "free" in there yet when I look at the map, the whole area and spreading to south east should be a wildlife place. I was so happy to be there, yet I was disheartened that we have created the boundaries where animals live. Funny enough- the electric fence they set up for the safety of animals and humans, is breached almost daily, as male elephants use wood planks to lower the power lines so they can walk over them in the middle of the night to visit the sugar cane factory. That put a smile on my face, so long as they stay safe.
I became childlike during this excursion and I was happy to be only with Ivan and Chamara so we can take our time and I can observe in awe as an elephant and her young came up on our drive and we had a mutually startling moment. She cautiously eyed us while the baby boy was "hiding" behind a very skinny and tiny tree. It was magical and respectful. She was beautiful and stoic and moved with grace. My heart was bursting with joy.
And during this time we saw birds, crocodiles, buffalos wild and domestic living together, turtles, and a few separate herds of elephants. Males live with their moms until 10 years of age or so and then they traverse solo. Females stay in herds forever and have a hierarchy with an elder female determining the course of movement and action for the whole herd. They are intelligent, emotional and show compassion. It was pure magic to be around them and in their environment however defined it is.
We ended our trip outside of the coastal town of Tangalle at the Seven Turtles resort.
It's a 10 room complex, small, quiet and on a perfect strip of beach. We didn't know that the owners are Ukrainian friends, one got stuck in Sri Lanka when the war started and the other is stuck in Kyiv. He is managing and is grateful to have a business to run to provide for his family during this uncertain time. It was a peaceful and quiet way to end our trip. We swam, took long walks, I woke up to the sunrise as much as I could and we watched the fishermen cast their nets and work couple of times a day. They even caught a turtle which they quickly released back into the water. Indian Ocean was warm and clean.
We like to end our trip in this relaxation mode so we can absorb our experience and finally get to the vacation mode. We often forget that we take trips to also relax and regroup:)
I know it's long, and there was so much more to say- but I hope this entry has piqued your interest about this lovely land. Please feel free to send any questions my way:)