To get from Nuwara Eliya to Ella we caught the 9:30 am train from Nanu Oya. We also decided that since we had now mastered Sri Lankan bus riding, we’d take the local bus down to the train station to save a few rupees. All went as planned and we arrived at the train station in time to buy our 185 rupee train tickets. As I mentioned in an earlier post, riding the train is likely the most cost effective entertainment you can find in Sri Lanka. The scenery is incredible and there is always something going on that will pique your curiousity. Then again, it can also be a nightmare….
As we waited at the platform, I noticed a sign that said we were going to be on the slow train. I figured this wasn’t a big deal since the journey was only 60 kilometers. Wow, was I ever wrong!!! It ended up taking 4 hours to travel only 28 kilometers. The train kept stopping to literally repair the tracks we were riding on. One of the cars at the rear of the train was full of labourers and gravel so each time we stopped, the labourers would begin shoveling the gravel on to the sides of the tracks to be later used for repairs. I now understand that ‘slow train’ actually meant ‘track repair train’, oops!
At many of these unscheduled stops, vendors would hop on board our train car to sell salted peanuts, home roasted cereals, or mangos, so at least we weren’t starving to death during the lengthy delays. However, a huge concern was the washrooms. There were no toilets on the train and a four hour train ride is a lot longer than the 1-2 hour journey we expected. Eventually, many of us unseasoned tourists made a mad dash to the washrooms when the train was stopped, with no idea if we were going to make it back in time to catch the unannounced onward departure. Luckily, both Liz and I successfully made our pit stops and made friends with a nice Dutch couple in the process. After 4 hours of traveling at an average rate of 7 kilometers an hour (fast walkers average 8-10 km/hr) we had all given up on the train adventure experience and were just ready to get to Ella. On the plus-side, the scenery during our slow journey was incredible and no one even had the possibility of getting motion sickness!
Eventually, we arrived at a train station next to a road with a sign showing Ella was 25 kilometers further. We were all wondering how it was even possible that we had only traveled 28 kilometers over 4 hours, and since none of us were ready for another 4 hours on the slow train, the Dutch couple and us agreed to try to find tuk-tuks into Ella. We managed to get a couple of tuk-tuks, for 225 rials per person, to take us to Ella. The tuk-tuks proved to be great fun as Liz and I chose a blue one that was pumping Akon. Although the Dutch couple’s red tuk-tuk did not have a stereo, perhaps this was a performance enhancement as the Ferrari Red tuk-tuk driver clearly fancied himself to be the next Michael Schumacher. Our driver was not about to be beat on the mean streets of Sri Lanka so before we knew it, we were engaged in a blue vs. red tuk-tuk race, through traffic on a narrow, winding, two-lane undivided road for the 25 kilometer ride into Ella. It was a great way to revive ourselves after the long train journey and when we weren’t holding on for dear life, we were cheering our drivers on to race faster!
Once we finally arrived in Ella, we trekked up to accommodation on a hill over-looking a waterfall that was recommended in the Dutch couple’s Lonely Planet guide. I personally hate using Lonely Planets for accommodation and our ensuing experience reinforced my opinion on why NOT to use accommodation recommendations from LP guides. All of the accommodation on the hill were now asking 2-4x as much as the prices listed in the LP guide and did not appear to be anywhere near the standards described in the book. In my experience, this is a very common problem with LP recommended accommodation; the owners know they’re going to get customers from the guide book so prices go up while the quality goes down.
After giving up on the accommodations up the hill we wandered into town to see if we could find anything cheaper. I love how easy it is to find accommodation in developing countries because you just need to walk along a busy street for 5 minutes, carrying your luggage and looking like a tourist, before someone offers to show you a great place to stay. They’ll usually either be promoting their own guesthouse or know numerous guesthouse operators of whom they will receive a commission from for referring business. In this case, we asked the local for a budget place that wasn’t too budget and were led to gorgeous log cabins at a place called Folly’s. We met Folly’s owner and he explained that he had just built the 2 log cabins and would cut us a deal on staying there. We negotiated pretty hard and arrived at an excellent price, which I can’t recall for certain, but 2500 rupees per cabin per night is a fair guesstimate. As an added bonus, the fellow who led us to the cabins offered to go get us cold beers while we sat down and rested after our long journey to Ella. We handed him some cash, questioning aloud amongst ourselves whether we’d ever see him again, but as promised, 15 minutes later he showed up with 4 ice cold Lion beers for us. Delicious! We gave him a solid tip for both the beers and leading us to the cabins, and then chatted with the incredibly friendly cabin owner for quite some time. He showed us the various fruits and spices growing around the cabins and told us about his vision for the property in the future. This just reinforced my opinion that Sri Lankans are warm, friendly, honest, and genuine people.
The Dutch couple arranged for an evening at the spa so Lizaster and I figured it was a good chance to find internet and another cold brew. The owner of Folly’s offered to provide us dinner that evening so we decided to meet up with the Dutch later that evening back at the cabins for a home cooked meal. Liz and I found a cool little bar with an outdoor terrace and chatted with other travelers while enjoying the cool mountain air of Ella. A few beers later and it was time to meet up with the Dutch for what proved to be a delcious dinner at Folly’s. The owner cooked the dinner himself and provided delicious rotis and wonderful vegetarian and chicken curries for Liz and myself. It was definitely the most memorable curry I had in Sri Lanka and even though all of the curries I sampled were delicious, there is something special about having one cooked by a local in their home kitchen. After dinner we all sat out on the porch of our log cabins, put on some tunes, drank arak, and told jokes and stories until the wee hours of the night.
It was tough to wake up in the morning after little sleep and a lot of arak, but we had to get our butts in gear to catch our shuttle from Ella to Tangalleas. Originally Liz and I had planned to spend more time in Ella to do some hiking, but since the Dutch were on their way to Tangalle we decided to go to Tangalle with them, split the costs of the shuttle van, and hang out with them a while longer. The shuttle was 70k rupees and though insanely expensive compared to our previous days’ train / tuk-tuk journey, it was well worth it; especially since we were all feeling a little ‘Arak-Attacked’ from the previous night. Although tired, the jovial driver and his excellent .mp3 collection perked us all up and before long the Dutch fellow even broke out in some crazy rap to the beats…in both Dutch and English. Incredible!
The shuttle from Ella to Tangalle had the added benefit of the driver stopping to show us sites along the drive, including a small town’s school to hand out supplies the Dutch had brought, a souvenir shop with impressive carvings, a scenic viewpoint, and a beautiful waterfall.
Once in Tangalle, Liz and I were able to negotiate a room at the same guesthouse our Dutch friends had reserved. The guesthouse was actually full and most of the rooms were more expensive than Liz and I wanted, so in the end, we slept in the staff quarters above their kitchen and the staff slept in the hallway of the guesthouse! Hilarious. The price was right and we enjoyed getting to know the other people staying at the remote beach guesthouse. We chilled out on the beach reading, eating, swimming, and drinking the days and nights away. The hostel dog also became a good buddy of mine and I endearingly named him Pedro after our favourite Sri Lankan tea farm. Each afternoon, we’d watch hundreds of locals gather down on the beach to help the local fisherman pull in their fish filled nets. A couple of times I went to help out as a sort of mid-afternoon workout. The nets were incredibly heavy to drag across the sand and it took me a while to adjust to the heave-ho rhythm they used to pull in the catch, but once I nailed it the locals all seemed to appreciate my help. Once the net was pulled high enough on the beach to be safe from the tide, all of the locals who helped pull in the net then proceed to barter and purchase fish from the catch. It was very cool to experience and certainly a way to guarantee the freshest of fresh fish!
The town of Tangalle was nothing special, but I enjoyed it since it was a lot less touristy than the other places we had been. I walked to the Cargill’s in town every day to pick up snack food. The Cargill’s was amazing and was certainly a favourite shopping destination for the few expats I noticed living in Tangalle. I also discovered the best vegetarian samosas I tried in all of Sri Lanka at a small stand in Tangalle so each day I would buy a dozen to share around the guesthouse. Even though Liz and I thoroughly enjoyed Tangalle, the Dutch were moving on, and Liz and I decided it was time to move from R&R mode to party mode in the town of Unawatuna.
Getting from Tangalle to Unawatuna was no easy task. Despite our best efforts, no one at the Tangalle bus station seemed to know what we were talking about when we said ‘Galle’ or ‘Unawatuna’ even though they are well-known tourist spots. After struggling to find a cheap bus for 30 minutes, I gave up and we started negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers. It was going to be far more expensive in a tuk-tuk, but at least we’d get there!
Once in the tuk-tuk to Unawatuna, our young driver kept hitting on Liz while I sat back and enjoyed the comedy of it all. Sri Lankan men hitting on Liz became a theme of our trip and I’m sure it saved us at least a few rials over the course of the journey. It also got us the ‘premium’ tuk-tuk experience and our driver played tour guide on our way to Unawatuna. He took us to the Dickwella blow hole which apparently sprays water 40 to 50 feet in the air when the swells are right. Unfortunately, the swells weren’t hitting too hard when we were there so we only saw 10-15 foot eruptions; our Dickwella blow hole experience blew a fat Dickwella.
Once in Unawatuna our tuk-tuk driver helped us find cheap accommodation which was a ways off the beach at a local family’s house. They had two spare rooms and although the price was a bit more than we expected, we at least knew we were supporting a local family rather than a large business. On the first night, the mom cooked us dinner while we entertained the kids. They spoke just enough English for us to communicate and after 20 minutes of playing nice with the kids and watching an epic thunderstorm outside we decided we weren’t in Unawatuna to babysit and retired for the night.
The rest of the time in Unawatuna was great fun. Unawatuna’s beach was much busier than Tangalle and there was a lot more going on in the evenings than we had previously experienced. Liz and I explored the town, getting lost on a pier at one point where we were scolded and fined by customs officials who had failed to communicate to us that it was a restricted area. Thankfully the fine was only in rials and we weren’t thrown in jail!
We also hiked up to another Buddhist monument where we enjoyed fresh coconuts and checked out the views from above the beach. We then met some fun Sri Lankan / Australians who were in Sri Lanka visiting family and they properly introduced me to how locals drink Arak liquor. We partied hard all day long. I added a couple of girls from Jersey to our Arak session and the Dutch couple who had just returned from a few days of surfing also found us. We all had a blast. It started pouring rain on us mid-afternoon but rather than let that ruin the party we all embraced it and went for a swim. One of the Jersey girls tried throwing her waterproof camera to her friend, losing it in the water, so we scrambled to get some scuba masks and had a fun-filled afternoon of drunken camera diving. It was quite the adventure and a wonderful way for me to wrap up my trip to Sri Lanka. Liz had a few more days remaining so I just organized a shuttle bus through a hotel and made my way to the Colombo airport in the morning while she stayed and soaked up the sun on Unawatuna’s beach for a few more days.
A great trip full of great people in a great country. Sri Lanka is definitely a destination I would like to return to again one day!
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