The classic train to Kandy, classic Kandy itself, on to Lion Rock at Sigiriya, the most famous attraction in all of Sri Lanka, then back down to the coast to spend our last couple days on yet another beach (Negombo). This is the story of our last week in Sri Lanka:
The old train between Kandy and Ella is one of the iconic things to do in Sri Lanka and in my last post I described the short leg we took between Ella and Haputale. After our rain-drenched time in the Highlands we picked up the train where we left off, settling in for the 5-hour journey to Kandy. It is good to do your research ahead of time so you know exactly how to take the train between Kandy and Ella. Fairly typically for Sri Lanka, however, the train was not at all on time, as heavy rain led to a landslide (actually a great many landslides, but apparently only one that is relevant to this story) that blocked the tracks and meant the train from Ella wouldn’t be making it through. Ultimately, we only left an hour late, but on a much older, crappier train than the one originally scheduled. It also lacked the requisite staying power to make the entire journey so we had to change trains in a place called Hatton, a confusing and chaotic transfer that we managed mainly by following the crowds of locals and occasionally looking baffled and clueless (no great stretch) in the vicinity of anyone in a uniform so they would help us out by pointing in random directions. Eventually we ended up on one of the nicer trains as originally planned, an easy transition for our smaller trainful, but a swap that looked much more confusing and disheartening for the much larger number of tourists who suddenly, and without much explanation, were forced to squeeze into our abandoned old ride.
Finally we were able to enjoy the reserved 2nd class seats we had gone to so much effort to book way back in Galle, which offered the dual benefits of a bigger, open window and seats facing forward (I always find it somewhat disconcerting and somehow unfair when I have to sit facing backwards on a train). Despite the general confusion and occasional delays – all part of the Sri Lankan experience – the overall trip turned out to be just as scenic, social and memorable as advertised. Some random thoughts:
Every time we went through a dark tunnel, which was quite often, most of the kids would start yelling and screaming with glee, like road tripping kids in North America signalling truckers to honk their horn.
Considering we were riding on a very large, very heavy, very metal train running on tracks, the whole thing seemed to do a lot more bouncing than I had expected.
Considering the toilet was simply a hole emptying out onto the tracks below (standard train plumbing), the bathroom emanated a pretty strong smell of urine. Maybe it was all the bouncing.
Snack sellers went up and down the aisles at each stop, leading to the exciting acquisition of a paper bag full of popcorn for 50 rupees (about 30 cents).
We had just one night in historic Kandy, the former capital known mainly for its photogenic man-made lake and “Temple of the Tooth”, a hugely popular Buddhist temple that draws tour buses from all over the country to pay handsomely for a brief glimpse of what is supposed to literally be one of Buddha’s teeth. Ew. On all counts. Hard pass.
We did, however, hike up to the giant Buddha statue overlooking the city. Good views, a flattering but potentially unnecessarily segregated toilet, and Laynni gets surprisingly irate about the gate blocking us from climbing to the top for a close-up glimpse of Buddha’s sacred shoulder. An hour well spent.
The central market was a pleasant surprise after we stumbled across it on our way back down for Ye Olde Giant Buddha, and we spent some time wandering its mazy corridors and colourful fruit markets. Laynni was briefly energized by a potential “monks in the market” photo opportunity but, alas, her stealthy stalking only resulted in a “monks looking for a public urinal” shot instead, one which probably isn’t appropriate to use.
We stayed in a simple, friendly and quiet little guesthouse called Don’s Lounge and Villa which was right in the heart of the action (such as it is), featured a huge room with a/c, private bath, good wifi and breakfast for just $US24. When we asked about a key for the front door we were happily assured that we could “come and go when you please, it is like your home”. Eventually we got our point across, however, that having a key was also a crucial part of it feeling like home.
Also known as “Lion Rock”, the 1,500-year old sacred fortress built on top is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the top landmark in Sri Lanka (except for maybe the Instagram swing in Dalawella). Not only is it an impressive historical site, with the remains of an ancient palace perched atop this 200-metre rock, and a large complex of additional ruins spreading out from the base, but it also looks purty good in photos from afar. Our first night we climbed nearby Pidurangala Rock and spent a couple relaxed hours enjoying the sunset (torrential rain free!), the amazing views of Lion Rock and some Wheel of Time audiobooks (a great way to nerd up any scenario). The next morning we ventured to Lion Rock itself… but turned around because it was starting to rain, and because there were a lot of tour buses arriving at that particular moment. Then after lunch the skies looked promising so we walked the kilometre to the entrance again where… it started raining again, plus, it looked like every tourist in Sri Lanka was now already there, so we turned around again (and saw a lizard, so it wasn’t a total loss). Luckily, the following sunrise panned out, which was good, since it was our last shot before heading back down to the coast, and not only did we manage to beat the tour groups but we actually made it to the top just behind a German guy and just ahead of a French couple. The 5 of us had the place all to ourselves for at least 15 minutes before more heads began appearing at the top of the steep stairs, and then the sun (rather shy and reclusive in these parts) even joined us for roughly 10 minutes, forcing us to frantically retrace our steps in order to capture vastly improved versions of all the photos we had just taken.
We stayed at a great little hotel just outside the park gates called The Hungry Lion (again, $US24/nt) Obviously, the location was perfect, breakfast was among our best in Sri Lanka and one day we got to watch an almost certainly insane old man capering around outside our room in just a sarong and, of course, a demon mask. While it was not readily apparent, we eventually figured out that he was trying to scare off a tree-full of monkeys. It didn’t appear to working, mask or not, and despite the ineffectual help of a tiny dog and an equally small stick which he was doing his best to wave menacingly but really just made him look like a musical conductor at an Eyes Wide Shut party. The monkeys seemed to enjoy it, anyway.
I caught not one, not two, but three frogs in our bathroom at various times. No real story, that’s it, I just thought it was kind of weird.
While waiting to be served in a restaurant we were just starting to think no one was around, when suddenly the proprietor emerged from the customer toilet with two naked and freshly bathed children in tow. Our noodles arrived not long after.
Rumour has it that wild elephants roam the area around Sigiriya. While I am sad to report we did not encounter any ourselves, the gargantuan pile of feces on the road felt a lot like proof.
Chairman of Transportation during our time in Sigiriya was a man named Kumara (+94 71 621 7502), a reliable and friendly tuk-tuk driver. I highly recommend giving him a call for all of your “getting here, getting there, getting back from Pidurangala in the dark” needs.
Our rather long, disjointed journey back to the vicinity of the Colombo airport went as well as could be hoped, including a tuk-tuk ride with Kumara (30 min), a small air-conditioned bus to Kurunegala (1 hr) featuring not a religious symbol, some campy dice or a shiny mirror ball dangling from the mirror, but a creepy blue-haired Barbie doll dressed in an elaborate ball gown, and capped the day off with a big, slow, crowded bus (2 hrs).
In Negombo, we had some great pasta, took some leisurely walks on Negombo’s long, wide, flat – somewhat trashy – beach, and mostly just luxuriated in the fact that our trip was winding down and we had no more long bus trips in our immediate future.
We even splurged on a higher-end hotel than normal, immensely enjoying our two nights at Negombo’s Beach Corridor Hotel & Spa ($US50/nt) where we had a two-story room with a/c, balcony with a view, two (!!) couches and yet another excellent breakfast. There was even an infinity pool, even if “infinity” really only spanned as far as the road in this particular instance.
Sunday night on Negombo Beach is clearly “Beach Party” time, as we learned when our sunset walk led us to a few hundred people cavorting in the gathering darkness, gorging on stall foods and anxiously awaiting the eruption of a handful of mediocre fireworks. I also saw some kid running full tilt toward the water stumble and crash face first into the sand, which was, on the whole, pretty cool.
During our time on the beaches we were pleasantly surprised at the absence of begging children (other than the one bold pre-teen who responded to my smiling “hello” by saying “give me your watch” – needless to say, I did not) but, unfortunately, this became a bit more common in the central highlands. Tour bus crowds, in particular, tend to be much more diligent about teaching local children that begging pays better than school and that foreign tourists are a lucrative and gullible source of “sweets”, “rupees” and just plain “money”. On the bright side, they probably got some pretty cool new profile pics.
Sri Lankans absolutely love to know where tourists are from, it is solidly the second-most asked question in the country behind “tuk-tuk?”. Unfortunately, most seem to have only the vaguest idea of what or where Canada is. Through almost 4 weeks and countless “Where are you from?” queries, the most geographic knowledge we encountered was one guy tentatively asking “Toronto?” and another saying “Oh, yes, United States!” Typically, though, the conversation was much simpler:
“Hello! Where are you from?”
Well, that’s a wrap, folks. We are now back home in Saskatchewan for the holidays (story of our busy and fascinating 13-hour layover in Seoul still to come), satisfied that our nearly 4-week Sri Lankan visit was the perfect choice after the rather hectic and, occasionally, freezing journeys earlier on the trip. Now a couple weeks of catching up with friends and family and enjoying the comforts of home, then we’re once again Guatemala-bound. As always, I’ll keep you posted.
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