Elana overlooking Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Tripping: Sri Lanka – A Biodiverse Wonder

I’m not sure what initially drew me to Sri Lanka? Perhaps it was the mix of culture with beaches? I did originally begin toying with the idea after reading articles on the surf there and the laid back attitude of the locals. But my wife’s travels to Asia had piqued my interest in the culture as well. A combination of the two is to blame, I guess. In any case, it was the perfect place to reinforce keeping an open mind and being willing to experience things in a different way to what I am used to. And I can’t forget being scared for our lives on a couple of occasions either.

And open my mind it did. Among many others, we were tested in patience, openness, compassion and problem solving—travelling with a surfboard around areas of a country whose people have seldom seen anything like it can throw some sporadic curve balls in your direction.

We began referring to the often travelled route as ‘the circuit’. It can be done in either direction but we went from Colombo/Negombo, inland to Sigirya, south to Kandy. From Kandy we boarded the ever popular train—among locals and tourists, as we found—headed for Ella. We jump off in Nanuoya, the train station for Nuwara Eliya (no one tells you that!). From there we made our way to Ella, then down to Udawalawa National Park before arriving on the coast in Midigama, where we would base ourselves for the remainder of our trip.

Below is a selection of images from our travels. Some key points, like the train journey from Kandy/Perideniya were missed thanks to being completely unable to do anything but try not to get pushed off! My biggest test in patience to date.

Negombo to Sigiriya via The Dambulla Cave Temples

En route to Sigiriya. We organized a taxi from our Negombo accommodation at Henderson Airport Residence and got our first real taste of how traffic functions in Sri Lanka. Side note: Our breakfast in Negombo was the best of the trip, and there were a lot of good ones. The coconut sambol was to, die, for.
Our driver for this stretch was in hindsight one of the more relaxed we had. He still got pulled over for breaking the loose road rules enforced here.
Stopping for fresh coconuts while the wild sounds of horns and speeding buses wiz by. This is in a farming area away from major cities.
The Dambulla Cave Temple (aka Golden Temple of Dambulla) was built into the rock 160m above the surrounding plains. This temple dates back to first century BCE. Each cave—or room if you prefer—is filled with an assortment of paintings and statues.
Dambulla Cave Temple Buddhist statues
Buddhist statues at the Dambulla Cave Temple in Sri LankaThe Dambulla Cave Monestary is still active. Shrines and statues clearly showed this.
Everything was in relatively good condition—surprising given the age of the structures.
The details in the stone carvings boggle the mind.
We were warned to wear socks because the rock gets incredibly hot. It turned out to be just bearable for our bare feet.
Elana hiding in the shade. She’s not cold… Covering skin is expected at temples and respecting their religious beliefs is encouraged.
A short walk down the hill that the temple sits on is one of the largest buddhist statues in the world. To get an idea of size, that black speck to the left of the head is a bird.

Sigiriya & Polonnaruwa

Our digs in Sigiriya: Sigiri Saman Home Stay. The best place we stayed our entire trip. The family were amazing, the location was quiet and peaceful, yet close enough to walk into town and the Lion or Pidurangala Rock hikes.
Reaping the rewards of waking up at 5am.
We opted not to do Lion Rock in favour of Pidurangala. We weren’t disappointed.
This little guy joined us for most of the hike up. The black and brown dog randomly showed while we were waiting for the sun to rise. They sat and watched for a bit before thinking better of a nap in the cool, fresh air.
Listening to the forest come to life as the sun casts its glow.
Lion Rock in the early morning glow.
We weren’t alone, but it didn’t matter. It was still an incredible morning.
We both really appreciated this squirrel catcher.
Getting down in daylight was mildly challenging, coming up in the dark was something else.
And it didn’t get easier right away.
Elana at the bottom. But there’s more…
After some manoeuvers to get through this small opening, Elana finally makes it to more casual hiking.
A sleeping giant basks in the (hot) morning sun.
Off-road tuk-tuks (part I).
Polonnaruwa: The palace of Chola King Rajaraja I. The Chola ruled the area and this was their capital in the 10th Century.
The kings palace is hardly recognizable as a building today.
Down the road from the palace is the Sacred Quadrangle. It features heaps of culturally significant ruins.
Inside the Vatadage.
History watching the constant flow of tourists.
The Shiva Devale No. 2. It’s considered to be the oldest building in Polonnaruwa yet remains in good condition centuries after it was built thanks to the stone used.
Cheeky locals call the Shiva Devale home and local Hindi people still practice here.
A Hindu pijari services the shrine. He welcomed us in and gave us his blessings (for a small fee).
The size of the Buddha statue at Lankatilaka is incredible.
The walls are 17m high.
Away from the tourists (down a bumpier dirt road) stood the most amazing building in Polonnaruwa. Unfortunately we can’t remember the name and because not as many people know of it, finding information online has proven difficult.
No photos were allowed inside but the outside is where the beauty lay anyway.
The detail still intact was incredible. A large steel roof now overshadows the structure, keeping the carvings from completely decaying.
Being hundreds of years old, some of the carvings are a little worse for wear.
I reckon every one of these carvings—which surrounded the entire perimeter of the building—had a different expression.

Kandy & Nuwara Eliya

Welcome to Kandy. Now imagine the loud islamic call to prayer bellowing from the other side of the ridge. Sunrise had a different feel from here on out.
Looking across Kandy Lake to the downtown. The lake is manmade and was built in 1807.
From town back across to local residences. The lake rest next to the Temple of the Tooth.
A quiet alley. I didn’t dare stop in the busy one for fear of a store owner harassing me until I bought something.
Dropping into the belly…
Out the other side.
Back into the street. There’s a temple like this in Colombo. I wanted to see it but we couldn’t fit it into the end of the trip. So to stumble upon this one in Kandy was a great surprise.
Every designers worst nightmare.
A game of cricket in the chaos.
We were told that every full moon is a celebration in Sri Lanka—public holiday, the works—and it holds significance to the Buddhist religion. Here, rows of monks who’ve travelled from China prepare to walk into the Temple of the Tooth.
The Temple of the Tooth is sacred in Buddhist religion for it’s said to house a tooth from Buddha himself. Listening to prayers and watching the lines of monks enter for the celebration was something I’ll never forget.
A wild sunset over Kandy Lake from the Temple of the Tooth.
The Giant Buddha (Bahiravokanda Vihara Buddha Statue) overlooking Kandy.
Another early morning, this time to get the train from Kandy (Peradeniya) to Ella (stopping in Nuwara Eliya).
The train from Kandy to Ella is one of, if not the most popular tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. Rather than catch it from Kandy, we opted to skip the queue and catch it from Peradeniya, which is a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride in traffic out of Kandy. Little did we realize that the locals use this train as well and on the back of the public holiday… well, it was a recipe for disaster. We made it but there are no images to show because we were packed like sardines for four hours. We won’t forget it.

Nuwara Eliya

Welcome to downtown Nuwara Eliya. After getting off the train ride from hell in nearby Nanuoya, we were greeted by cooler conditions and threatening rain in town.
The view out across town from our room at Nuwara Eliya Hills Rest.
A common sight in town. A colourful fruit stand at one of the markets.
The younger of two managers at our accommodation gave us incredibly helpful information on the town and things to do. When it came to lunch he recommended Hela Bojun. It was a locally run eatery with chefs who specialize in different authentic dishes. He recommended it based on my mild case of TD I’d contracted the previous night in Kandy. Eating with (clean) hands proved challenging with some of the dishes but not this one.
The local post office. Nuwara Eliya is also called Little England because of the early English settlers who set up the tea industry in here in the 1800’s.
The post office was built in 1894, making it one of the oldest in Sri Lanka. Feeling under the weather, we took a seat on the front lawn, looking out over the town’s central bus station.
These red buses in Sri Lanka are the government run buses. The buses in Sri Lanka are renowned for being on the wild side and we later learned that many of the drivers are on drugs, which explains a lot to do with the antics we regularly saw involving them.
Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, trucks and buses—in that order. The road heirarchy in Sri Lanka is the smaller you are, the less others care about you. Horns sound non-stop, people shout, and engines roar. It makes for fantastic spectating.
The rain eventually hit and kept us huddled under the post office’s awning with a group of entertaining elderly American’s and Aussies. It was cold. We actually had to put on long sleeves for the first time.
The following morning we did a sunrise hike up Single Tree Hill. The hike took us through the local tea fields while we listened to the raging Hindi party happening across the valley (left of frame) and the buddhist temple’s call to prayer to our right.
We didn’t make it to the top in time for our first glimpse of the sun but it was still spectacular.
The buddhist temple half way up the hill catches the first rays of sunlight.
More tea than you can shake a stick at…
Looking out towards Edinburgh…
After a couple of hours trancing around through tea fields it was time for a peaceful breakfast back at the hotel.
We hustled a tuk-tuk driver to get out to the Pedro Tea Farm. We were hoping we’d be able to mill around in the fields without a guide and thankfully the staff were more than happy for us to do so…
Elana in deep.
Tea as far as the eye can see (and beyond).
After testing some tea we left to walk out to Lover’s Leap Falls. The tuk-tuk drivers gave us shit after we weren’t satisfied with their rates, trying to tell us it will take too long to walk. It was well worth the walk.
Local digs up in the tea fields. Not a bad location.
Off-road tuk-tuk #2
Farming is massive in Nuwara Eliya, and not just tea. A local takes a break from the trench he’s plowing to admire the view…
Can’t really blame him either.

The Train from Nanuoya to Ella

After the greater than anticipated stress of the train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya/Nanuoya we were pleasantly surprised when the station here was considerably quieter. It got busier but even so, this ride was a breeze by comparison.
Apparently some of the locals travel on an open cart behind the rest of the popular blue train…
After not being able to take a deep breathe for fear of losing more space during the first train ride from Kandy, it was a welcome surprise to be able to not only breathe and move about, but to check out the sights while hanging out of the doors.
When you live here the sights aren’t that special, I guess?
It was surprising how many of the people that boarded the train—seemingly in the middle of nowhere—would know others that had been on for a while already. A new passenger suss’n out the cabin.
The young local kids still thought it was interesting and proceeded to hog the entire doorway. Before they arrived travellers traded the space to make sure everyone got a turn.
New passengers deal with the train vendors for snacks while catching up with acquaintances met on the train.
The fashion sense of the mountain locals for this journey was wild. From full-blown pyjama pants to colourful tops and denim jackets. We saw it all. It was also apparent the temperature was cold as the locals were dressed for winter in other parts of the world. Travellers were in shorts and t’s, often with thongs or sandals.
Most of the towns that the train passed through were small. A couple of locals watch from the tech safety gate as the train goes by.

Ella: The Mountain Town

We arrived in Ella after dark, and within minutes of getting our room the power went out —a common occurrence around the country… Our first look at the area from the balcony of our room was breathtaking.
After deciding to leave Nuwara Eliya later than initially planned—to avoid the morning train carnage and see more of the area—we had to cram more into our time in Ella. Nothing was concrete, but we achieved a lot. Everything that follows was in one day and we did it all on our own steam. We were spent but it was worth it. 
The tracks for the train ran about 100m below our accommodation. We thought using them to get around would be a good idea. First we headed out to a waterfall visible from the deck of our hotel.
A gang of locals working on the tracks were the first thing we came across. We weren’t sure how it was going to be because we didn’t know what they thought of travellers using the tracks to walk on. Nobody cared.
The falls weren’t really falls after the long hot dry season. But we’d successfully completed part one of our day.
The extent of the flow. A concrete ledge had been built to direct water to Elana’s left at low levels like seen here.
From the falls we skirted the mountainside via local paths to the farming at the top. This view was a welcome surprise along the way.
Steep hillside and long grasses made the trecking tricky for a moment.
Looking back at our accommodation—the four-story white building just left of centre—from where we’d been staring all morning during sunrise.
Ella truly is the mountain town of Sri Lanka. No valley floor means everything is built into the surrounding mountainsides.
Then we dove into the local farm fields. At times, we weren’t too sure where we were going—nor could we see—but it worked out.
Along the way to Ella Rock a farmer has setup a store selling fresh coconuts, soft drinks and offered shade from the hot sun. But this building is what caught my eye…
Built from the clay soil that his farm is on, it incorporated plastic bottles throughout the walls. Although hot out it was pleasant and cool inside, without a fan or any devices. Just earth and a couple of chairs.
Getting our coconut fix.
The farmer grew tea, vegetables, sugar cane, and apparently hot chilli.
When we first set out in the morning we hadn’t planned on making it as far as Ella Rock. But we kept walking and eventually we found ourselves there…
The view from Ella Rock, looking out over Little Adam’s Peak.
Lunch with a view and a mountain breeze.
From Ella Rock we headed back through the farm fields. I’m not a fan of out-and-back hikes or rides so we made a loop. Some of it worked, some of it didn’t but eventually we arrived back at the tracks.
Tourists on the train caught in the act…
Elana points out where were were at Ella Rock.
Along the rails into downtown Ella we saw our first street art on bridges and this school, which backed onto the tracks.
How close the tracks were to local homes was surprising. Here, a diesel powered train rumbles by, sending vibrations through our bodies and the walls of nearby residences.
Growing up with orb spiders spinning webs around our homes in Australia, I’m pretty comfortable with them. Nevertheless, this was one of the largest I’ve seen. He greeted us at our first look of Sri Lanka’s iconic Nine Arch Bridge.
We went by where we wanted to dive into the bush for lunch at Adam’s Breeze (a great option for a break and some grub). From there we backtracked a bit then dove into the bush. Eventually this was what greeted us.
We waited a long time for the train to come—it was at least 30 minutes late—and saw all sorts of modern-day antics that signal the demise of humanity. Demodara Nine Arch Bridge is a tourist trap so be prepared. 
Nine Arch Bridge is built from stone and cement. Rumour has it the bridge construction began at the same time as World War I and the British steel that was planned for the bridge was relocated for use in the war. The locals eventually moved forward with the materials that it stands on to this day.
The jungle surrounding the bridge is beautiful and thick. There’s also heaps of farming in the area.
Little Adam’s Peak. From the Nine Arches Bridge we hiked a path found on Maps.me that cut through more farmland and shot us over the the resort at the bast of L.A.P.
From the peak are 360-degree panoramic views. Off the backside is lush farmland—tea plantations—and some high-end lodging.
There are three peaks but most only do the first, maybe the second. The third peak requires tackling the steep descent visible here…
From the top of the third peak the path kept going. Had Elana joined me—she was too scared to descend the path leading to the third peak—I would have ventured further. Instead I took it in from the top.
Six hours prior we stood at the top of Ella Rock, directly across the valley. This rock on the second peak was a test for anyone with a fear of heights.
Looking south down the valley out of Ella. Rawana Ella Falls are visible in the mountain.
Looking towards Ella over the farms. It had been threatening rain all afternoon and we got lucky with nothing more than a few drops (we were soaked in Nuwara Eliya two days before). It made for some impressive, moody light as evening approached.
The valley below developed a mood as well.
The cloud danced up the valley and eventually engulfed the massive hotel being developed.
After this display, we walked back through the tea fields and into town for dinner. We were spent. We’d hiked all day, covering more than 20km, up and down mountains. It was great, but we opted for a tuk-tuk ride home for dinner

Udawalawe National Park

Ready to safari!
We chose to safari in Udawalawe National Park because it was said to be less crowded. During our travels people often hadn’t heard of it at all, which was a positive for us. We also saw heaps of wild elephants despite heading out in the early afternoon rather than the evening like planned (our guide changed the time “because of the weather” but we didn’t see a cloud).
Proper 4×4 required.
Whatever it is, it apparently tastes good.
We watched a family of elephants head for this watering hole. Unfortunately they never took a bath, instead strolling through the bush at the back of this view.
A jackal trying to get some piece and quiet in the shade. It didn’t last long.
Early morning at our homestay; Sulanga Holiday Safari Resort. We never got to see downtown Udawalawe and initially thought that this road was it. Traffic commuting into nearby villages and Uda were constant, even at 530am.
Our host doing his morning clean. His daughter looks after the guests here but the son also is instrumental and has the connections for taxi drivers and other hookups.
No helmet, thongs and driving on the wrong side of the road… No dramas.
Helmet? Check. Correct side of the road? For sure. Footwear? Naaah.
Udawalawe is a big sugar cane farming region. Behind our accommodation is nothing but cane fields as far as we could see. Our host said every property along this road has a large area for growing it.

The South Coast: Midigama, Welligama, Mirissa & Galle/Unawatuna

Midigama is a surf town between Unawatuna and Welligama. There are heaps of great options for waves up and down the coast, all relatively close together. The train station also provides an easy, cheap mode of travel to nearby Galle and most of the other locations along this stretch of coastline.
The Midigama train station is across the road from the beach. We were originally staying just out of frame to the left but it was untidy, loud, and the overall vibe didn’t sit well. We moved after one night to a beautiful place across the road from the ocean for $1 CAD/night more.
Elana soaking. 28 degrees in the water is perfection in my world. Lazy Lefts breaking in the top of frame. The tide was too full and waves small our first day, but every day after saw great waves and some solid swell for a couple too.
I couldn’t get enough of the local bikes. How’s the trail on that fork!?
Train to Galle…
My kind of touristing. Observing the locals and how they live.
Another bike I wish I could have boxed up and brought home.
After a short online search we had a price for what we shouldn’t pay for a tuk-tuk from Galle to Unawatuna. We pissed of one driver but soldiered on. This driver and I had a quick negotiation that we were all happy with. Until he started driving…
Our driver gave zero f*cks about the heirarchy of the road in Sri Lanka, challenging buses on a number of occasions. But for some reason, he didn’t worry me.
Beached as. Travelling is rougher on some…
An afternoon spent checking out Mirissa and the sights around the area. There’s heaps of cool stuff to see but we were glad we didn’t opt to stay here. It’s busy and the surf was average (compared to where we were). It still made for a great afternoon and evening. Elana on Parrot Rock with Mirissa in the background.
Parrot Rock is a popular sight right off the east end of Mirissa Beach. The “bridge” onto the rock is sketchy at best.
The bamboo “bridge” isn’t the most structurally sturdy thing to hang onto. Pass with caution.
The most popular attraction in Mirissa: Coconut Tree Hill (original name, aye). It’s beautiful at sunset but be prepared for crowds. Head here early in the day if getting it alone is important.
Elana sussing out our table for dinner…
Best location in Mirissa for dinner? We think so. Beach dining at Zephyr Restaurant and Bar. The food was great too.