Off the beaten track...Sri Lanka
Our second stop on the travel itinerary was Sri Lanka; a country we had added to our wish list of places to visit (that’s as close to an itinerary as we will ever muster) when we began planning the trip.
An old friend of ours had offered us a place to stay in Arugam Bay on the East coast. The surf there is consistent as is the warm weather and it had been an age since we had spent time with him, so we were keen on all counts.
Having flown in to Colombo we were confronted with an interesting list of options on how to get to Arugam Bay. One, take a minivan with a driver all the way (literally) across the country, which tots up to around an 8-9 hour drive (provided you leave in the evening and swerve the daytime traffic). Two, take a bus, which would probably take you a few days if you were lucky. Three, train. I had researched into the train routes throughout Sri Lanka prior to our arrival so I was more than eager to take this option. The countryside was described as idyllic, a must to be seen first hand, or eye, and the pictures I had seen online were simply stunning. So option three was voted for by the whole family.
It is possible to take a train between Colombo (the capital) airport and a town closer to the East coast (trains do not reach as far as Arugam Bay) however we were advised that the initial (four hour) train ride was not particularly interesting or picturesque and so we would be better off making our way first to a town called Kandy and taking the train from there.
We duly did so by booking a taxi to collect us from the airport. I had arranged this online and had to simply hope that it would come to fruition on arrival. It all worked out perfectly well, the driver was not especially friendly or amenable but the van was big and comfy enough for all five of us and our baggage to relax for the four or so hour drive.
Relax I did NOT. Holy-hang-on-to-your-arm-rests and wish you weren't looking out the window without blinking for four hours. The way to drive in Sri Lanka is as follows; hug the bumper in front until there is a ‘gap’(meaning only a few mopeds and tuk-tuks and perhaps one car wide worth of vehicles heading towards you) in the oncoming cacophony of traffic and overtake before the enormous truck coming at you reaches you - it doesn’t really matter if it happens to be on a bend or not, just go for it and see what happens. If you don't quite make it, brake hard and swerve back behind previous bumper until another ‘opportunity’arises. Oh, and don't forget to beep all the while to let everyone know what you might or might not do next. Then once you have completed said overtaking mission, drive as fast as you can until you reach the next bumper up ahead, which will probably take around four seconds. And repeat. For four hours. I may have cried a little bit.
Anyway, we made it through township after village after dusty lane after rows and rows of all the interesting ways and methods of life in little western Sri Lankan towns, and having stopped at a very typical tourist type stop for lunch (as in, not your average Sri Lankan choice) we eventually arrived unscathed in Kandy. Having only really seen small towns and villages thus far it was quite the shock to be confronted with this bustling city set on a lake. We checked into our rooms and went wandering around the lake which was quite beautiful. We spotted monitor lizards cruising about on the banks, plenty of fish, and of course a plethora of monkeys rampaging around. We only had planned one night here and had hoped to take the six hour train ride the following morning to Ella, a small mountain town in the mid-east of the country.
Up bright and early we set off for the station to catch the morning train to Ella. I had read online which tickets we needed to get, however, on arrival at the station, they did not offer me any other ticket than the second class carriage. We were going to opt for first class seeing as it was so cheap and potentially had air-con, but in hindsight I am SO glad we weren't able to as our memories were shaped by the freedom of the open doors and windows in our over-crowded carriage. We all took turns to sit at the edge of the door, dangle our feet out and literally breathe in the landscape outside. It was utterly magical, you wouldn't have thought this would be the reaction on first glance as we had no seats (bit tough on a family of five you say?) or particularly much standing space either once all our luggage had been piled in amongst other backpackers, a few locals and a smattering of Japanese tourists. So, we simply sat on the bags, turning them into couches and ‘beds’as and when they were needed, at times with heads or legs utilising the luggage cubby holes in order to stretch out a little! The rest of the time was spent dangling.
This is an excerpt from my diary written during the train ride:
Train from Kandy - Ella
It is so beautiful to see human life and nature in harmony. The train is surely the best way to see this stunning landscape.
It brought me to tears thinking how simple life can be, and how complicated and righteous civilisation has become. Rights, power, greed are all idiotic notions when you sit amongst towering trees, mountains, jungle, waterfalls and humble folk living alongside.
We were given everything we needed.
It is a beautiful ride, Sri Lanka is abundant and bountiful, the people are kind and soft-spirited.
The food is delicious.
We hopped on in 2nd class, sat in cubby holes, tried local fare from men with baskets who climb on and off at stations or jump between trains; pastries, salty and spicy mango, guava, chai tea, donuts, beans, fried lentils. The doors are open and a fan sweeps the carriage hanging by a thread from the ceiling. You could sit anywhere (except there are no seats free), even hang your legs out the door.
There are mainly backpackers, and a few locals in this carriage, however most will be situated in 3rd. 1st is reservation only - it is only half full but they won’t let you in for love nor money (they are locked in there like posh animals!). But we like our spot with the kind German couples on the floor.
There is tea growing everywhere, literally everywhere…plantation after plantation. There is also pine, more tea, coconut, pampus, papyrus, eucalyptus, bananas, more tea, palm and personal vegetable beds dot the landscape, and that’s just what I can identify.
Local houses/shacks pop up near the railway occasionally and the people tending their land stop to smile and wave.
The clouds are rolling in now, at around hour three of our six hour journey. It didn’t rain.
We saw a few monkeys at the beginning of the journey but from then on just the occasional dog at a station snuffling for scraps.
Just discovered there is actually a toilet on board! It’s a hole in the floor, direct to the tracks…pleasantly (and surprisingly) clean.
Six hours has passed fleetingly, as have many emotions and incredible sights. The rolling hills of tea giving way to huge valleys and waterfalls, crossing tiny bridges over rushing water, and noting the local way of life all contributing to one of the most amazing moments in my life.
Oct 30th 2018.
Needless to say I recommend this train ride to anyone travelling in Sri Lanka.
On arrival in Ella, a super-cute travellers haven stop-off, we scoured the little strip of bars and cafes and hostels for a place to stay. Easily done. We checked in and made a beeline for the most popular place in town - Cafe Chill - good vibes, decent fare and only slightly touristy prices. We took a hike 6km down the road to the big waterfall where we dived right in, well, walked right under the pounding water having seen an elephant (sadly on the back of a truck), a mongoose, a basilisk lizard, a couple of fried bats (stuck to electrical wires) and more monkeys than you could shake a stick at (some we had to in order to shoo them away).
Next day saw the final leg of our trek across Sri Lanka to reach our destination for the next month - Arugam Bay. We took a taxi again, this is an affordable option and you can wisely haggle the price down. This ride only took two and a half hours and was far more peaceful (barely any traffic), as was the driver.
Arriving at Arugam Bay (or ‘A Bay’as the Australians like to call it) was so easy, you could melt right in here without a worry. But that is another story well worth telling…until next time.