To get from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, we had to board the train in Kandy, transfer in Peradeniya, and then head for Nanu Oya. The trains are amazing and appear to be remnants from when the British controlled Sri Lanka. The trains cars were wooden, with wooden bench seats, and many of the cars did not have windows. Not only were the train cars fascinating to travel in, but they also provided plenty of fresh air, fantastic views, and wonderful photo opportunities. Neither Liz nor I had any clue as to where we were going or what was happening at the transfer in Peradeniya, so we just followed the crowds and everything worked out just fine. On our journey from Paradeniya to Nanu Oya, we sat across from a couple who had hired a local Sri Lankan guide. The guide helped Liz and I plan our trip and told us all sorts of interesting things about Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans. He was also more than willing to discuss politics and once he discovered we were Canadians we got a tongue lashing for supporting terrorists. Wait, what!? Unfortunately, I was not very knowledgeable about the subject at the time so I just told him to blame our government and not us. That seemed to appease him and he started telling us all of the things he hated about his government. Apparently, a universal commonality among people of the world is their dislike of politicians!
After further research, I discovered the reason for the terrorist comment is due to the arrival of a ship called the MV Sun Sea off the coast of Vancouver in 2010. The ship contained around 500 Tamils who were seeking refugee status. A group called the Tamil Tigers fought a bloody war with the Sri Lankan army for over 25 years, trying to create an independent Tamil state in Northern Sri Lanka. The war finally ended in 2009, but many Tamils remain subject to atrocious living conditions and Canada has become a home for many of these Tamil refugees. The problem is that many Sri Lankans believe some of the Tamil ‘refugees’ continue to have ties with the Tamil Tiger terrorist organization and send money and supplies from Canada to support the organization’s continue fight for sovereignty. The arrival of the MV Sun Sea created a huge debate in Canada over refugees, and in my view, the Canadian government was put in a lose-lose situation: accept the people as refugees with the risk of them supporting the Tamil Tiger organization or deny them refugee status and potentially subject innocent Tamil’s to death upon arrival back in Sri Lanka. In the end, Canada decided to accept the refugees and this angered many Sri Lankans. It’s a good thing Sri Lankans are generally such nice people as I only heard a few comments about this event over the course of my trip and was never accused of supporting terrorists again!
The other interesting part of the train ride was seeing a deaf tourist interacting with other travelers and locals. He was the second deaf traveler I’ve met and both times I have thought to myself that if they can travel the world with that type of disability, then anyone can. It also reinforced to me that it’s very possible to go places where no English is spoken given the ability of humans to communicate with gestures and other means.
Given all of these wonderful experiences, not to mention the fantastic views, I must say the train ride was one of the highlights of my trip and something I would highly recommend to anyone visiting Sri Lanka.
From the Nanu Oya train station we managed to get a shuttle to Nuwara Eliya for 200 rials. It was a bit of a shady deal since another couple had booked and paid for the shuttle, but we got a good price and the driver was happy to pocket a few extra rials by taking us to a guesthouse. Something tells me that I wouldn’t have received such a good deal on my own, but traveling with a good looking girl like Liz provides perks from time to time!
We found a good guesthouse for 1500 rials a night that had 2 beds, hot water, and a pretty decent shower. The manager of the guesthouse was a really nice guy who had broken up with his girlfriend in Kandy and moved to Nuwara Eliya for a while to re-group. He also spoke excellent English and had spent time in Toronto so we were instantly able to get along. He told us all sorts of interesting facts about Sri Lanka, Kandy, and Nuwara Eliya, and was a wonderful host overall. Sri Lankans love to talk about their country which is a great benefit for tourists wanting to learn about history and culture.
As we settled into Nuwara Eliya, I quickly realized that that I hadn’t packed very well. Since I hadn’t done any research on Sri Lanka prior to arriving, I expected it to be hot and muggy everywhere. Unfortunately, these dreams were shattered when I found out Nuwara Eliya is at an elevation of nearly 2000 meters and the mean annual temperature is only 16C. The good news is that the city is full of shops and there are plenty of knock-off jackets for sale. Though I had no need for the fancy, but fake, North Face fleeces for sale, I did manage to buy myself a plain fleece jacket for just 600 rials ($5). I also managed to find an incredible Hawaiian print fedora which has become a favourite travel companion of mine. We also managed to quickly find the ‘Public Bar’ in Nuwara Eliya’s Windsor Hotel and were able to try the local Lion Stout and Lion Strong (8.8% ABV!!!) while watching the locals drink, smoke, and watch WWE on tv.
On day two in Nuwara Eliya, we decided to walk around the lake and see what there was to see. The lake was beautiful and had a well-maintained park that people were walking and biking through. Liz wanted to travel on a strict budget so we chose not to pay the admission to enter the park, though we got great views of it from the road. After walking the road around the park we came across a hotel on the far-side of the lake and because of the pretty flowers in front, Liz wanted to check it out further. We ventured down to the main reception to find out that no one was actually staying at the hotel, but instead that a delegation from the Department of Tourism was there providing tourist business licenses to local tourism companies. Just our luck! They warmly welcomed us and told us all sorts of interesting facts about Buddhism and Sri Lanka while force feeding us tea, cake and bananas. Amazing hospitality.
From there we stumbled across the Grand Hotel which is a beautiful hotel built in the late 1800’s by the British. Much of the furniture is over a century old and would certainly fetch amazing prices at auction. They even have a pool table they claim to be 125 years old. As soon as we walked into the hotel we were greeted by a manager who offered to show us around. I have a feeling this was less to do with him being friendly and more to do with us looking like scrubby backpackers as he quickly whisked us away from the paying guests in reception to show us the many beautiful bars and restaurants within the hotel. The hotel has 154 rooms and we were told they cost around $270 US / night. Although beyond our budget, the Grand Hotel was beautiful and I’m sure it would make for a romantic wedding or honeymoon location.
After buying delicious samosas from a street vendor and watching local kids play cricket in a field near the lake, we made our way back into Nuwara Eliya for dinner.
For dinner, we decided to check out the Palladium Restaurant / Bar we had seen the night before while wandering the town. When we first arrived, a plight of fear flashed across the waiter’s eyes and I thought we’d stumbled across a local gang hangout and were about to be shot or kidnapped by the locals filling the tables. After surveying the room, I quickly realized the fearful look in the waiter’s eyes was actually due to Liz being the only female in the room and this poor gentleman having no idea how to handle the situation. As I looked across the subdued brown faces filling the room I also realized that this bar had a clientele that worshiped the Holy Bottle more than they worshiped Buddha. I’m not sure if the waiter was worried about the well-being of Liz or that of all the frustrated men in the room, but his tense shoulders relaxed and it was clear he had come up with a solution to his conundrum. He offered us a ‘romantic private table’ upstairs and I thought I’d scored another cheap entrance into the VIP section by traveling with Liz. Unfortunately, the ‘private table’ was actually a family’s kitchen table and the ‘upstairs’ was actually the restaurant owner’s living quarters. Not quite the VIP table I had imagined. As both Liz and I felt as though we were intruding on the family’s living space and were being given a special treatment when we just wanted to enjoy the local vibe, we insisted that we sit downstairs with the locals. This was a fantastic decision as I could never imagine the scene that was to come.
For the next 3 hours, there were 91 eyeballs on Liz. It would have been 92 but one poor fella was cross-eyed from his Lion Strongs. The other 4 eyes in the room belonged to Liz and I and we couldn’t help but watch the situation evolving around us. Apparently, Sri Lanken men don’t see women very often, and Liz’s presence was looked upon as though a Victoria Secret model had entered the room in evening wear. The waiters were funny to watch as they nervously approached us and did their best to chat with Liz in English. Traveling with a woman certainly brings out additional entertainment in people watching sometimes!
The highlight of the night was when a fight broke out in one corner of the bar and half a dozen grown men slapped at each other while wobbling their heads from side to side. I’m convinced they were fighting over which one of them was going to ask for Liz’s hand in marriage, but in the end, they sat down, had another glass of Arak, and got back to staring at Lizaster. After the commotion had settled down I decided Liz was safe enough for me to go to the washroom and make space for another Lion Strong. That’s when, while emptying my bladder in relief, I could hear an awkward laugh emitting from no other than Liz. After a quick shake and near-miss zipper incident, I rushed out to ensure Liz was ok. She appeared to be fine, but a young Sri Lanken man had acquired my chair and was now sitting across from her. As I approached he shot me a nervous glance and apologetically tried to tell me he didn’t know I was sitting there. I chuckled at this, considering every man in the bar had been staring at us for the last 2 hours and my full beer was in front of the chair, but I just pulled up another chair and joined the conversation. I did my best to chat with him in a freindly manner and make him feel welcome at our table, but it quickly became apparent that he was not interesting in chatting with me. I must have crushed his dreams of marrying Liz and starting a family tea plantation with a herd of Sri Lankanadian child labourer. He quietly excused himself to re-join his friends who all had a laugh at his strike-out and Liz and I tried to figure out what the hell exactly happened that evening at the Palladium Restaurant / Bar.
After dinner we walked back to the guesthouse and were followed home by a puppy who wanted to play. Considering how hard it is to have pets while traveling and how much I love dogs, it can be very nice to run across nice, clean, strays that want to be your best friend for the day. Once we returned to the guesthouse the friendly manager decided it was his turn to creep on Liz and invited himself into our room for a smoke. When he offered me a cigarette, and I declined, he called me a woman and made fun of me for not wanting lung cancer while wobbling his head from side to side. I shrugged it off and after half an hour of idle chit chat we managed to send him off so we could rest up for our next day.
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