Sri Lanka Summary – go now before it gets busy again!

When I set off for Sri Lanka, lots of my friends were surprised at my “bravery” to continue my trip despite the constant headlines about fuel shortages and riots.  But my decision to go was based not on blind courage but instead on sound information from traveller websites like Tripadvisor. Everyone actually in Sri Lanka advised that travel was a bit more complicated, but still possible, and there was no reason to cancel.

Hunting for fuel was the only downside to visiting at this time

My own experience was very positive. Finding fuel took up, on average, maybe 15 minutes each day, but apart from that, travelling was very easy. I had many more difficulties getting back home when my plane arrived back in Europe than I ever had travelling around Sri Lanka. I also felt safer and less hassled than in many other Asian countries. The people were wonderful, there were no tourist crowds, and the food excellent (and food hygiene was also good – not a single stomach problem in three weeks).

Excellent food all the way through the trip

Most of all though, I liked the variety of things to do and see. Sri Lanka may not have any must-do, “bucket list” sights like the Taj Mahal or Niagara Falls, but instead it crams ancient ruins, busy temples, beaches, mountains and nature reserves into a relatively small area. It never took more than a few hours to get from one interesting place to another – unlike the big distances you might have to cover in larger countries.  I had the added bonus of having many of these wonderful places almost entirely to myself.

Here are my most memorable experiences of the trip:

The unexpected Hindu/Buddhist procession at Kataragama

Safaris in Bundala and Kaudulla National Parks

Ruin hunting by bicycle in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa

Staying at the Hill Club

The view from my guest house in Ella and the “tea train” to Nuwara Eliya

Breakfast with an armed guard to scare off monkeys at Polonnaruwa

The Buddhas of the cave temples of Dambulla

Puja (service) at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy

And here is a “best of” list:

Best Hotels (there were a lot!): Heaven Upon Rice Fields, Anuradhapura; Ekho Lake House, Polonnaruwa; Paraiso Guest House, Ella; The Hill Club, Nuwara Eliya; Thaulle Resort, Tissa; Radh Hotel, Kandy; Le Jardin Du Fort, Galle

Best Food: Seafood in Nilaveli; Indian Hut, Galle; Take away Dosas, Kandy; Curry feast at the Radha Tourist home; Dinner at the Hill Club.

Best Beach: Nilaveli

Best City: Galle

Best National Park: Bundala

Overall, as of today (August 2022), my advice is go now. Plan carefully and you should have a brilliant time without crowds. Your travel budget will really help the hotels, restaurants and guides you spend it with. Yes, there is a risk that the political situation gets bad again, so check popular traveller websites regularly to see what is really happening on the ground – not the sensationalist western newspaper headlines. Currently, I evaluate this risk as very low, and it has to considered in the context of a country that is otherwise very safe for travel (low crime, good roads and high driving standards for Asia, excellent food hygiene, no malaria). The Sri Lankans are wonderful people and deserve your help, and their country is one of my favourites!

That’s all for this trip. Please sign up to follow my blog and get automatic email notifications the next time I hit the road. If you would like to ask a question, type it in the section for “thoughts” at the bottom of the page and I will get back to you.

I leave the very last word to one of my fellow animal friends….

Bundala, the National Park at the End of the World

Today I had booked another safari – but this time leaving in the afternoon. Two very early starts in the last few days were as much as I could take, no matter how many animals I might miss. My destination was Bundala National Park, which is also very near Tissa, but which receives a fraction of the visitors that crowded Yala does.

I spent the morning relaxing by the pool and admiring the lake, where a man was fishing, and some women were washing clothes. They seemed unconcerned by the sight of small crocodile sunning itself on a nearby rock – I would have been worried that it might have larger and hungrier parents.

View from my hotel over the lake

My safari jeep arrived, and we set off at two o’clock. Unlike the modern road to Yala, the road to Bundala was in poor repair. I sensed that very few people went this way. The park entrance also looked uncared for and dilapidated.  A few dogs came up to inspect us, but there were no humans around to ask us to pay the entrance fee, and my guide had to open the gates himself.  We were clearly the only visitors.

Typical Bundala scenery

Bundala is a wetland park formed out of many lakes lying just in from the coast, and a sign at the entrance announced that was ranked 287th in UNESCO’s list of wetland areas deserving protection. I had never heard of this list, and thought it was maybe better not to publicise appearing in 287th place. The first animals I saw were water buffalo. Unlike Yala, where multiple jeeps would descend on a solitary leopard, here the buffalo queued up to check out the unusual sight of a visitor.

In this park the animals queued to watch tourists

Bundala is most famous for its birdlife and sure enough there were birds everywhere – large groups of peacocks, brightly coloured kingfishers, bee-eaters, egrets, herons, and eagles hunting for fish.  There were also some species I had never seen before, like the purple swamp hen and the spoonbill. They all seemed more nervous of our jeep than the birds in Yala, and the peacocks would run away from us at great speed.

The purple swamp hen
Test – spot the eagle

Bundala’s other speciality was crocodiles. I saw so many that after a while, I only paid attention to the very biggest ones. The reptiles often lay on the road directly in front of us and would only get out of the way when they were sure we were heading in their direction. Then they would scramble into the water and disappear, leaving only a train of bubbles.

Camouflaged Crocodiles – how many can you see?
Too big to bother to hide

Although I made fewer sightings of larger mammals at Bundala than I had at Yala, the experience of driving around a deserted nature reserve was much more rewarding.

Giant lizard on a termite nest

The sense of being all alone increased when we reached a cliff overlooking the sea. Large waves rolled in and broke over the boulders below me. Ahead of me, the sea stretched to the horizon – looking south, the next land would be Antarctica, thousands of miles away. It felt like the end of the world – and in some ways, it was.

The end of the Indian sub-continent

The afternoon was drawing on, and as the sun approached the horizon its light reflected off the myriad of small lakes that make up the park. A strong breeze from the sea kept me pleasantly cool. The park was quiet, except for the murmur of our jeep’s engine and the rustle of leaves in the wind.  

More typical Bundala scenery

I was rather sorry when the park gates appeared in front of us again, meaning the safari was over. This time, a park ranger was on duty. My guide gestured to ask whether we should sign our vehicle in and out again, but the ranger silently replied with a shake of the head to say that could go without any formalities. Words seemed unnecessary. I said a fond goodbye to Bundala, one of Sri Lanka’s least visited, but in my view best, national parks.

Wet, Wet, Wet

Today I had booked a tour to the Horton Plains, a national park located on a high plateau, where there is a famous view called World’s End – a sheer cliff, with all of western Sri Lanka stretching away into the distance.  My guide advised leaving very early, since the view is usually covered with mist from the mid-morning.

The weather forecast for the day was bad, but suggested it might not rain early in the morning. When we left at half past five there was only a light drizzle, which soon stopped. At around six, it got light, and I could watch the passing tea plantations and small villages. At half past six we reached the park, and I started my walk. The landscape and plants at this relatively high altitude were completely different to anything I had seen before in Sri Lanka – or anywhere else for that matter.

Landscapes in the Horton Plains

The path first arrived at “Little World’s End” – a smaller cliff, also with a view. I was relieved that it was still not raining and that despite the clouds the famous view was partially visible.

“Little World’s End”
Another helpful Sri Lankan warning sign – the end of the world is nigh!

I hurried on, but after a few more minutes the inevitable happened – it started to rain heavily. I pulled on a waterproof top, but had to accept my legs and paws getting soaking wet. The path turned into a small stream.

Path or stream?

Arriving at World’s End, all there was to see was a big bank of thick cloud.

The name feels appropriate…

I carried on along the path, and the rain continued to fall steadily. Although it was unpleasant to have wet fur all down my legs, after a while I got used to it. The rain was even pleasantly cool, and the scenery was interesting.

The land is green for a good reason!

The next highlight of the walk was Baker’s Falls, a powerful waterfall swollen by the recent rains.

Baker’s Falls

After the falls, the path became easier and less like a small river. There were more lonely, windswept landscapes to admire until suddenly I was back at the park entrance.

Another lonely landscape in the rain

Back at the van, I changed my trousers and took off my soaking shoes. The one-hour trip back felt very long – I hadn’t had enough sleep, my fur was still wet, and the windows of the van steamed up to obscure any interesting views.  I reached the Hill Club at around noon, with a sense of relief. It was now raining heavily, so I went straight to bed for a well-needed nap.  I awoke an hour later to the find water streaming down from the ceiling of my room – the strong winds must have damaged the roof, creating a big leak.  I changed rooms and set out about hanging up my wet things in the hope that they might dry.

There was nothing to do but simply enjoy the old colonial Hill Club. I wandered around, taking more photos…….

Hunting trophies at the club. No bears happily, but even so Trouspinet does not approve!

……and then treated myself to high tea, a wonderful club tradition where you stuff yourself with cakes, savoury snacks and tea in the mid-afternoon.

The solution to a rainy afternoon – High Tea!

After such a huge tea, I sat and wrote my blog in the reading room. In the early evening I tried a game of snooker in one of the club’s two billiard rooms – although the table was so big it was hard work for a small teddy bear.

I dined late and chose Indian Ocean Kingfish, which was a bit like tuna in texture and taste, washed down with a bottle of wine (my first wine since I had arrived in Sri Lanka). It had been a difficult day, but sometimes the life of a traveller is like that. The walk had been very interesting, if wet, and the comforts of the Hill Club more than made up for spending half the day with wet fur.

The Tea Train and the Well-Travelled Trousers

Today, I took the train from Ella back to Nuwara Eliya – a route renowned as one of the most scenic in the world. The train arrived on time – something not guaranteed in Sri Lanka – and I got on to find my reserved seat in second class (someone had told me that second class was better than the air conditioned first class, since you could open the windows). Usually, the reserved seats sell out long in advance to tourists, but with Sri Lanka’s current problems my compartment wasn’t even full.

The train arrives
Reserved Second Class

My guide also got on, but his ticket was for unreserved second class, meaning that he had no guarantee of a seat.  I could see through the rear door of my compartment that this was a completely different travel experience. I hoped he had got a place in the melee of people boarding at Ella. Our driver headed off in the van to be able to meet us at the other end of our trip.

Unreserved Second Class

We set off in bright sunshine, and the views lived up to my expectations. In the area around Ella, the scenery was wild and mountainous.

Scenery near Ella

It was very pleasant leaning out of my window and either watching the scenery go by or observing the frenetic activity at each station as passengers with unreserved tickets fought to get on the train first in the rush for a possible free seat. The train doors are left open for the whole trip, and more adventurous passengers held on to the hand rails and leaned out of the open door for an even better view.

Enjoying the view

As the train progressed, the mountains and forest gave way to nice orderly rows of tea plants and rolling, green hills. It also started to get cloudy – it seems that we had already received our ration of precious blue sky for the day.

Rolling hills covered with tea plantations
The clouds arrive

The train arrived at Nanu Oya, a small town close to the popular tourist destination of Nuwara Eliya.  On arrival, I got a big surprise when my guide informed me that my parcel had arrived. Initially I was puzzled, but then I remembered that I had left some trousers in the hotel at Polonnaruwa. I’d asked the hotel to send them to Kandy, but they had arrived after we had left and I assumed I would never see them again. It turned out that my guide had been in touch with the Kandy hotel to get them redirected here and that they had arrived in the morning. My guide took me to the station master’s office – a wonderful old-fashioned office room – to meet the station manager and collect my well-travelled trousers.

The station master….and my vagabond trousers!

Sure enough, our driver was also there to meet us at the station, and we drove to my lodgings for the night – the Hill Club.

The Hill Club

This wonderful institution is a relic of British Colonial rule, when British men (not women) could join a private club in the hills to get away from the heat of the coast. The club has now been enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of Sri Lankan club members, who have kept most of the old traditions, which include a jacket and tie dress code after 6pm, providing hotel water bottles for the beds, and a daily ceremony raising and saluting the Sri Lankan flag whilst listening to the national anthem.  One less good tradition – a side door for lady guests, who were not allowed to use the main door – had thankfully been scrapped.

The club is popular with its members at weekends but rents out spare rooms to travellers when it is less busy. I arrived on a Sunday and it turned out that I was the only guest. I had the whole of the huge building to myself, including the comfortable reading room……..

The reading room

……bar, two snooker rooms and dining room……..

The dining room

There was even a gym. The manager looked surprised when I said that I wanted to use it and I soon found out why. It had a musty smell, like it had not been used in a long time, and after a few km on the treadmill I was soaking in sweat from the near 100% humidity.  I decided that visiting the bar and ordering a cocktail was a much better idea, and I enjoyed drinking it siting by an open fire in the club’s dining room.

Better than the gym!

I then had a hearty western-style dinner of fish and chips (the menu had many traditional British offerings as well as Sri Lankan food) before retiring for the night and the company of my hot water bottle in my bed.

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