I’ve written up some helpful tips and suggestions for tripping around the southern part of the magic isle of Sri Lanka. It includes transport options, such as train times, places to eat, sleep, shop and activities to keep you occupied in between along with prices as at November 2017.
It covers in order: Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Yala National Park, Unawatuna, Galle Fort and Colombo.
Having been three years since I’d last seen my Mum and with both of us being travel lovers we decided to meet up in Sri Lanka for a first, twelve-day glimpse of the southern part of the island.
Online visas in hand we arrived in a non-bustling airport at 9.30 in the morning. Try the Sri Lanka Electronic Travel Authorisation site to obtain visas, ours were approved within a minute via an email which a screenshot of was enough to satisfy the immigration guy.
Whenever possible, I chose train travel pretty simply, because I love it. But in this case, the train times to Kandy from Colombo didn’t fit in with our arrival time at the airport. And based on research, the local buses seem to be a cheap option but are also time taxing so instead, I had arranged a driver to pick us up at the airport.
I used the Sri Lanka Car and Driver site to get a few quotes and based my choice on price coupled with reviews from other guests available on the site. The site makes per kilometer price suggestions so you can get a ballpark figure and it also provides what the additional cost for one way trips is. I found the site secure and reliable. As an example of cost; from Colombo to Kandy we got quotes between $50 – $100.
We only stayed one night in Kandy and on arriving headed straight to the train station (by asking the helpful locals the way) in an attempt to get reserved seats in 2nd class, as “the word on the street” is that 2nd class is better for photos than 1st class because you’re not encased in glass. We had no luck reserving a 2nd class or for that matter any seat on any of our Sri Lanka train trips. It is possible through an agent for approximately 10 x the price. Train schedule from Kandy.
We used up the remainder of the daylight walking around the man-made Lake and then went for a chill-out in the Slightly Chilled Bar, which is up on a hill and gives you a nice view over Kandy and the lake.
The next day we turned up half an hour early and got tickets, not as I said for seats but more for what could best be described as a piece of space on the train. Yes, the tickets are very cheap but it makes for a lot of stress and angst as people fight each other to get onto the train and then fight each other over seats. Our experience was to keep calm, stand at ease and eventually, you’ll get a seat as people get off at various stops.
Or you can take your photo opportunities while sitting in the open doorways. It is a little risky, not to mention nerve-wracking for one’s Mum as you hang out over the ground hurtling below you and towards various foliage rushing towards you.
Plus you have to jump up out of the way whenever people need to get on or off, and as was in my case, get completely soaked if it rains. But otherwise, it’s a fun way to travel and a way to feel closer to the landscape you’re barreling through at a “whopping” 15-20 km p/h.
There are overhead rails to place luggage, which is very high and takes some amount of strength to lift weighty luggage up onto. I’m pleased to report that there are gentlemen in Sri Lanka willing to rescue luggage-hefting damsels in distress, out.
The closest station to Nuwara Eliya is 8 km’s away at Nanu Oya Station where we had to struggle with people trying to push their way onto the train while we were trying to get off with luggage. In Mum’s case, thankfully a helpful guy standing on the platform reached in an arm and helped her out with her suitcase. We ended up taking his offered form of transport, minibus to our accommodation which was very close to Pedro Estate and Lovers Leap.
The elements provided us with a whole gamut of different experiences over the two nights and one day we spent there; driving rain, chilliness, steaming heat, bright sunshine, and morning mists.
Advice: Always carry a jacket/jumper/umbrella and a sun hat to make sure you’re prepared for anything Mother Nature chooses to throw at you.
We packed quite a bit into our one day.
We walked the 10 minutes to the tea plantation and paid 200 rupees to be taken on a 15-minute tour of the facility. You’re shown around the working part of the factory so as well as explanations through the many steps in the production of tea into its various forms; strength, flavors and specific times of day for best consumption, you also get a sight of the workers in action. You’re provided a cup of the delicious goodness when you finish up the tour in the café which looks out over the sloping fields of greenness.
Lovers Leap Waterfall
From Pedro Estate you go across the road towards a Pedro Estate sign which has Lovers Leap labeled on it and head up the hill beside the sign. It’s a 5km round trip through tea plantations and lovely views of the market gardens in the valley, not too far, below. It’s a gentle climb along a dirt track with lots of leveled off areas for catching one’s breath – not a hard walk even for those on the not so young side of aging gracefully.
We’d been told by our driver that it wasn’t the most impressive waterfall of the many in Nuwara Eliya but it was the only one we visited and for us an enjoyable sight and photo opportunity coupled with a pleasant walk. I’d suggest checking out the others if you have the time.
Afternoon tea on the lawn or in our case because it was raining in the open-aired café, starts at 3.30pm and goes until 6 pm. You receive an endless flow of tea or coffee served by exceptionally polite and well-trained staff dressed in the traditional white jacket and floor length sarongs.
Also served is a three-tiered smorgasbord of miniature delicacies of both the sweet and savory variety. Everything’s fresh, dainty and delicious especially washed down with the excellent coffee or tea. We whiled away a lovely relaxed hour of supping, sipping and consumption.
The hotel itself is worth a wander around inside, for its well-maintained historic charm which includes a gun room, baby grand piano and a bathroom with a vast array of mirrors, including within the toilet stall.
We needed to burn off some of the recently ingested calories and fill in some time so we went for a viewing of the flowers, trees, and shrubs at Victoria Park. We got there at 5 pm (opening hours are 7 am to 7 pm) and fortunately, the rain kept off. Mum’s the gardener and although I don’t have much of an interest in botany, it was still an enjoyable meander along various different pathways amongst the interesting and varied foliage.
We got chatting to a gardener who had worked at the gardens for 16 years and who proudly plucked a flower for us to smell telling us it’s a flower only found in Sri Lanka and just so happens to smell like a banana. For those of you who have young ones to entertain there’s a children’s playground at the far end of the park. The cost of entrance to the park is 300 rupees as at November 2017.
We walked from Victoria Park to the Hill Club, back up the road past the Grand Hotel. It’s about a 15/20 minute walk which this time we had to do in the rain. We were greeted at the entrance by nicely suited up gentlemen to whom we paid the 200 rupees “temporary membership” fee. We were then escorted on a tour around the club by a lovely gentleman who has been working at the club for 30 years.
Unlike the hunting trophies that adorn the walls of the billiards room, the lovely gentleman has aged well. Some of the poor creatures, not only have lost their lives to a human sport they’re now being subjected to their ears being chewed off by some unidentified wee beasties.
In fact, the whole club appears not to be aging altogether too gracefully. There’s a definite feel like it needs a touch of sprucing up. That said it still provides a great representation of a bygone area. There are lots of comfy couches to sink into in front of the huge fireplace for a pre-dinner tipple while you discuss the day’s hunt. Your heels will clomp across the wooden-floored dining room where you’ll sit on wicker chairs under candle-lit tables. The white-gloved staff with a natural dedication to unfaltering service are always at hand but not intrusive.
You can go with the set menu priced at $25 USD for entrée, main and dessert with tea or coffee. Or as we did, order an entrée and main. Although the food would never make it through to the final of Master Chef, it was still an enjoyable meal nicely surrounded by old world charm.
The beginning of this train journey was a little more hell-raising than the last due to its timing with the final day of a long weekend coupled with a load of tourists. But for less than $1 for two of us who can really complain at the lack of a seat. We plonked our bags in an alcove surrounding an external door which eventually we opened so I could sit on the edge to take photos. It was great for a while until it began to rain and eventually, the photo session was over and we had to shut the door.
Mum eventually got offered a seat, and I sat on my flip-flops on the floor with my back against a wall which I eventually came to realize was the outer toilet wall as the stench began to build. A few station stops later along with a few disembarkations, I too got to take up a seat while a lovely fellow traveler and his son kept an eye on our bags which were still sitting in the doorway.
The journey is the scenery. Neat as a pin tea plantations interlaced with foliage rugged enough not to let the consistent passage of trains whip them into submission. Mountain ranges, deep valley’s and sheer cliff face where it feels like you’re falling off the edge. We were introduced to a Sri Lankan tradition on train journeys in the form of whistling and the whoo, whoo, whoo noise like American Indians used to make when inside a tunnel. Everyone gets involved, the louder the better in both noise and laughter; so much fun to enter a tunnel and wait for the build-up and the feeling of a Mexican wave as the noise travels from one carriage to the next.
Accommodation – Ella
We stayed in a great AirBnB property only 10-15 minutes’ walk along the train tracks into the main street of Ella. The drive to get to the location in a tuktuk is quite another experience altogether. Really steep and in parts broken asphalt have you feeling like the tuktuk—laden with luggage may topple over at any moment or run out of horsepower half-way up. It’s only a 5-10 minute tuktuk ride from the train station but worth every one of the 300 rupees for the driver’s skills alone.
For basic accommodation but a world class view of a waterfall, Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock in the distance and fantastic local food which includes an impressive breakfast in the cost, this is a great place. Village View Homestay.
We walked from our accommodation to the Nine Arches Bridge the whole way along the railway line. Not strolling or stopping for photos you can do the walk in about 45 minutes. We took an hour and just before the tunnel you have to pass through to get to the Bridge were told by a local lady that the train was coming. Another hair-raising experience—as we run for our lives, adrenalin pumping.
There were loads of people already there so you might want to arrive early to beat the crowds. We saw two trains come through between 10 am and midday.
Mum stayed at the accommodation and watched the monkeys flying between the trees in front of the balcony and/ or the trains going past the next day while I did the two-hour walk up to the summit of Ella’s Rock. Even though it rained heavily the night before I managed the walk in a pair of Converse-All-Star shoes fairly easily. The people I walked with did it in proper hiking boots however and probably enjoyed more comfort than I did.
Looking up towards the peak it looks like it’s going to be a tougher walk than it actually is and the view is definitely worth it. Coming down was probably the harder part of the journey as you continually lobbying for safe footholds. There’s an elderly local man who lives at the top, who’ll make you a cup of tea if you fancy it. I’m not sure what the cost was. And there are also really healthy-looking dogs at the top to keep you company.
Yala National Park—Tissamaharama
To get to Tissamaharama (Tissa) which is the closest town to Yala National Park, (from Ella) we organized a driver from our accommodation in Tissa. You can get local buses which will drop you at a junction and get a tuktuk from there to Tissa. For us lacking in time, a driver that provided a door-to-door service and a short 2-hour drive it was the best option. A bonus was that the driver happily stopped for photos of waterfalls and iguanas en route.
Most accommodation in Tissa will organize safaris for you. We did a full day safari, sharing the jeep with a couple also staying at our accommodation, from the Czech Republic. We left at 5 am and got back about 5.30pm. Breakfast, lunch, water, and park entrance fee were all included in the cost of 7000 rupees ($45) @ November 2017.
November is at the end of the monsoon season and we scored a beautiful, not too hot and not a lick of rain day, for our 12 hours in the park. It’s lovely and lush with foliage this time of day which provides an added benefit for the eyes when they’re not busy being focused on spotting animals. The spotting animals feast for the eyes comes in the form of loads of buffalo, birds, iguanas (land monitors), peacocks, and deer.
I would have quite happily finished the day feeling like I’d had an amazing experiencing if that’s all we got to see in our 12 hours. But let’s face it Leopards are the draw card and what most people want to see, on top of everything else of course.
We got lucky in the afternoon and saw two different Leopards within an hour. Our driver received a call and the next thing it’s like we’re in the middle of a high-speed chase in a movie as he throws the jeep into reverse and we propel backwards for a significant distance until he chops the gears down into first and yanks on the steering wheel until we’re going forward again at speed. Personally, I had a ball just getting to the Leopard.
But what an amazing sight it was though as we joined the swarm of other jeeps watching a Leopard saunter through the shrub to the right of ours and another ten jeeps. The Leopard very hospitably then crossed the road just in front of us placing himself on our side of the road where he allowed a wonderful photo session as he slowly and sedately walked off into the bush. I had found tranquility in my own form of Big Cat heaven.
We had lunch sitting on a beach facing the Indian Ocean which has a monument erected in memory of those lost in the Tsunami of 2004. It was a beautifully tranquil spot to have a two-hour lunch break of Sri Lanka delicacies.
Tissa to Unawatuna
We finished our safari and after a cup of tea from our hosts had their driver, take us straight to Unawatuna, a 2.5/3 hour drive away. The traffic is even a little more hair-raising at night. Trucks can join the buses, cars, tuktuks, bicycles and the odd cow on the roads after 6 pm so there are many perilous overtaking maneuvers completed with only a hairs breath of gap between vehicles as they pull back onto the right side of the road.
We stayed at a lovely free-standing, two levels and two bedroom villa as a treat in Unawatuna. The house is about a 15/20 minute walk from the main Unawatuna Beach Road, is surrounded by trees and lush garden and is very quiet and secure. Jutha, the caretaker of the property is available for cooking scrumptious local dishes and for taking you around the tourist traps for which he receives commission so factor that into the price you’ll be paying for trinkets.
The beach is lined with café’s, bars, gem houses, tea shops and a big array of cheap tourist clothing shops filled with the same elephant print material that you can buy all over Asia. If you’re looking for a break from Sri Lankan food, there are some great cafes we found back off the beach on Yaddehimulla Road (also known as Beach Road).
Non-Sri Lankan Eats
One of them was Le Café Francais Bakery that does a comparatively half-decent cup of coffee and provides quality, tasty food. They also have for sale fabrics, cushion covers and bedding made from beautiful designs which I couldn’t resist buying.
Another was a café and small shop at the French Lotus Guest House. They do lovely crepes with homemade jams in a beautifully tranquil setting complete with a pond full of fish and baby turtles sunning themselves on the lotus flower leaves.
Galle Fort, a historic fortress, and UNESCO World Heritage Site is only about a 2km and 400 rupees, ($2.60) tuktuk ride from Unawatuna Beach and is well worth a visit for a touch of Portuguese, Dutch and British history in that historical order. The Portuguese were the first in 1588 and onwards from there, all were involved in the construction or development of the fort to some degree.
You can spend a few hours checking out the admirable architecture and walking on top of the fort’s walls. It’s not a precarious walk the walls are very wide and slop down to the road in some parts. On the other side, you have views of the ocean.
Back on the ground, you can find numerous ways to rid yourself of your hard earned cash if you have such a desire. The selection of eateries, clothing boutiques, gem houses, souvenir shops and quality souvenir shops is boundless. Worth noting is that prices tend to be pricier inside the fort than outside its fortified walls. Meaning that if you may find that elephant statue that you must-just-have you can probably buy it cheaper in another place.
Here’s a couple I tried, liked or found noteworthy:
- EMBARK a dog lover’s delight. Sales from this shop support street dogs and the store in Galle Fort is huge with clothing, sunglasses, bags, knick-knacks the list goes on. You can also sponsor a dog or do volunteer work with them—all in the name of love of the adorable pooch.
- BAREFOOT has toys, linen, fabrics, books, clothes, crafts, spa products and can be found on the corner of Pedlar and Church Street
- ODEL “Luv SL” has Sri Lankan quality souvenirs, clothing, accessories and household items and can also be found on Pedlar Street
There’s a heap of attractive and mouth-watering options but we settled on attempting to have a healthy moment on holiday, at Calorie Counters. They have a great selection and the food was fresh, tasty and well put together.
Although we didn’t eat at, Pedlars Corner Café it’s well worth mentioning for its prime balcony location to view the sun sinking down into the Indian Ocean, with an ice-cold Lion beer or two in your hand all the while a gentle breeze draws away the heat of the day.
The Last Train Ride
The train ride from Galle Fort to Colombo Fort is not one of the train trips that receive much praise but I found it a lovely way to make our last journey in Sri Lanka (that wasn’t to the airport). It’s true, a lot of the view is of backyards but there are also quite a lot of picturesque views of estuaries, palm trees, beaches and the ocean beyond.
We took the 2:45 pm train and with the sun beginning its descent, not only did it provide great lighting for photos, along with the trains lulling rhythm, it provided a soothing, calmness to what can be uncomfortable, boisterous journeys—train travel in Sri Lanka.
I gleaned in the just-over-24, hours we were in Colombo that; it’s not that big a city, it’s an easy place to walk around, Tuktuks are not too expensive or at least not too hard to bargain with.
We managed to fit in these places in Colombo:
Is a cafe, bar and can be found at 12 Flowers Road. Opening hours are from 7.30am until 11.30pm every day
Eating, Drinking, and Shopping
Is the brand name for a series of homeware and knick-knacks shops, restaurants, galleries and hotels.
Even if you’ve “templed” yourself out and feel like you can’t face any more, this one is well worth giving in and saying “alright, just one more.” It’s a veritable feast for tired eyes of the beauty that can be found behind the devotion to a theology.
A good many of the large, bold and beautiful Buddhist statues have been donated to the temple by devotees and supporters from different countries and backgrounds. And then there are some considerably smaller but equally impressive statues which are made out of precious stone and therefore presumably very valuable according to the way they’re kept secure in a glassed enclosure.
- Galle Face Green is a half kilometer long promenade along the seafront with hectares of grass behind it. At the time we saw a lot of uniformed personnel doing fitness training, people kicking round balls and flying kites.
It’s where locals and tourists alike come to take a breather, cool off in the sea breeze and grab a snack from the food carts that line the promenade.
Or you can, like we did sit at the beautiful Galle Face Green Hotel outdoor bar and have an expensive but very much needed, ice-cold beer while the sun disappears before us into the ocean.