Sri Lanka is a pretty diverse country. We started in the Hindu north with it’s Bollywood music, south Indian food and colourful temples. And in the week that followed we covered forests, ancient buddhist temples and cool highland area’s full with tea fields. This country is quite densely packed with sights, and not just that, it’s easy to get things done.
Being here for a while now, this is one of the differences we really noticed with Africa. In Africa you can usually do one thing a day. You can travel from A to B (no matter how ridiculously close A and B are, count on 1 day), you can visit some sight, you can run some errand… choose one. Here you can suddenly get things done. Which means pace of travel gets a bit higher as well. And it is something to get used to.
Example: when we first arrived to Colombo, we were debating whether to stay 1 or 2 days. We had some errands to run: we wanted to check with the Russian embassy whether we could get a visa, we wanted to check what sending a parcel home would cost and we wanted to buy a SIM card. And we were considering whether 1 day would be enough to accomplish this. Of course we were done before noon and had most of Colombo’s sights ticked off as well by the end of the day.
After Jaffna, we visited Wilpatu national park, a park known for it’s large population of leopards and sloth bears. Being a densely forested area, it’s however difficult to spot these animals and you’ll need some luck, since a lot of people don’t spot any leopards and bears. Well, we were pretty lucky and saw two leopards, one sloth bear, one elephant, and loads of other animals (lots of birds, peacocks, deer, crocodiles, mongoose and more). And the fact that the animals were difficult to spot and you had to be lucky made the sightings all the more special.
Near the park we stayed at some accommodation run by a woman we cooked incredibly large meals for us. The food in Sri Lanka is really nice. The main staple is rice and curry. What this mean, is rice with a whole bunch of dishes. It differs a bit what you get, but it usually involves dhal (lentil curry), a sambol (usually made of coconut, onion, chilis and curry leaves), some papadum, some salad kind of dish, and then anywhere between 1 and 3 other curries. The combination with potato curry is especially good, but often there’s also something like bean curry, pumpkin curry, or jackfruit curry. This woman at Wilpatu took rice and curry to extreme levels, to the extend that we could not even finish half of the food. She kept insisting we should finish all the food though. It was a funny woman.
From there it was on to Dambulla. Here there are some very old cave temples. Some of them were really beautiful.
Here we did notice the first signs of the approaching holidays though. April 13th & 14th apparently is Sinhalese and Tamil new year. And the whole period around it is a holiday period. So there were big groups of schoolchildren. And it would only get busier….
From Dambulla we also visited Sigiriya. Here there is a big rock in an otherwise flat landscape, where some guy built his palace a long time ago. The guy was not supposed to inherit the throne, but he killed his father, chased his older brother away to India, and built a palace on the rock so it would be defendable to the army his older brother would most likely send to him at some point. You could climb the rock and see the ruins of this palace. The climb up was a bit scary at some places, but well worth the effort. On the way you would pass some paintings, ancient graffity of tourists that visited the rock centuries ago, and a wasp attack area, since apparently misbehaving tourists cause divine retribution in the form of wasp attacks, according to some monks. Lucky enough, no wasp attacks were scheduled while we were there.
From Dambulla we went on to Kandy. Kandy is the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. Because of the holidays it was really crowded. It was therefore not our favourite place, but the temple of the tooth, was quite interesting. This temple is said to contain a tooth of Buddha. Three times a day, some door is opened, and people are allowed a quick glance (the line of people has to keep on moving!) into the room where some golden box is located. In that box is the tooth, but the box is closed so you cannot see the tooth. The whole thing was quite interesting, but it was a bit awkward that there were that many tourists that were quite obnoxious, standing in front of praying devotees, claiming the best spots. Sri Lanka is very much on the tourist radar, and with that come, unfortunately, people who can’t behave themselves.
Another interesting sight here was Raja Tusker, a stuffed elephant that used to carry the tooth in ceremonies. The day Raja died was even declared a day of national mourning.
Then we went to Haputale. We took the train. Because of the holiday we couldn’t get a seat reservation, so that meant unreserved. Which means, lot’s of standing people. Lucky for us we could get a spot in the door opening quite soon after departure, so we could sit in the door with our feet outside. A lovely way to see the beautiful scenery on this mountainous area.
Did you know in the mountains, the railway often follows much more direct routes than the road. And that therefore, a lot of people walk along the railway to get from A to B? For example, at some point our accommodation was either 3 kilometers from the city center by road, where you first had to go up a quite steep hill, and then go down again. Or you could walk there within 15 minutes comfortably along the railway. There was even a shop along the railway, storefront directed at the railway.
From Haputale we visited the Horton plains. A beautiful area with a viewpoint called the worlds end. Because here the cliff drops almost a kilometre and you’re left with some great views.
Also we went to another viewpoint with sunrise: Lipton’s seat. Here Lipton (of the tea) used to come to enjoy the view. From there we walked along tea plantations to the Dambetenne tea factory, which used to be the Lipton tea factory and which still supplies about 80% of their tea to Lipton. The walk was beautiful, the tea fields were stunning.
The tour we did of the factory was very interesting. You could see the whole production process of black tea. How it’s dried (on the ground, where people walk around bare footed), rolled, cut (all the leaves that are small enough after the first cut are considered the best quality tea) and fermented. The person guiding us around was surprisingly open about everything. E.g. did you know the tea pickers earn 750 lkr (around 5 euros) a day, and have a target of 20kg of tea a day? During the tour we could just touch all the tea in the various stages of the production process. So if you drink Lipton tea today, you might just drink some tea we touched. The whole tea making process was interesting to watch. Photography was however not allowed.
Haputale itself was an interesting trade center as well, with lot’s of shops and a lot of things going on. Just walking around was a nice activity. Because the Tamils do a lot of tea picking there was a big Tamil population here, so just like in Jaffna: blaring Bollywood music from the stores. Always fun.
Then we went to Ella. Here there were some beautiful mountains as well. We did some walking, visited the famous nine arch railway bridge and enjoyed the great views. Where Haputale was still very quiet with not that many tourist, the area around Ella was very crowded. Still, the area was very beautiful and it was worth it.