People interaction drives my travels. After traveling Europe in 2014, I wanted to focus on Asia, where my heart is closer to in 2015.
The only knowledge I had about Sri Lanka was what I learned from my social studies lessons. I knew that the country went through civil war but it ended in 2009, so I was curious about how the country is like now– the people and environment.
When the plane landed at Colombo airport, I was surprised at how established the airport was. It was clean and pretty big. We were welcomed by a skinny dancing Santa as it was close to Christmas. The smiley immigration officer was surprised that we were on our own. Be careful, he said. We cleared immigration and exited the airport. As we walked, I glanced around the area and finally spotted him holding a placard with my name. “Wait ok? We want to change our money to SL rupees.” We spoke with elaborated hand gestures, which we later realised it was unnecessary. “Okok” he smiled and waited patiently for us. Honestly, we did not see any Chinese looking Asians around and it did feel quite strange. Again, the money changer also asked us to be careful.
We received lots of friendly stares while we were waiting for our driver to take us to our first Airbnb house. We arrived at our host’s place close to midnight and Dijen greeted us with a lovely room in a quaint-looking big house. “Here is the mosquito repellent. It’s the season for mosquitos, I think you girls should use it and put up this mosquito net.” Yes, he was really thoughtful. The mosquitos were so powerful I got bitten within minutes!
We woke up early next morning because we had to rush to the railway station to get the train tickets to Ella, our next destination. Initially, we wanted to enjoy a bit of luxury and take the first class cabin of the privately-run ExpoRail and Rajadhani carriages. Well we ended up not doing so because it was crazily difficult to book them online. We have no idea how the tickets ran out so quickly!
The scheduled train was supposed to be 9.45 am (a little research was needed here). We arrived at 8.30 am and went to the ticket counter. Tickets to Ella was about 3700 rupees for 2nd class cabin, and around 1000 rupees lesser for 3rd class cabin. What happened to us after that was complete chaos. It was only 8.40 am and people were telling us that the train on the platform was our train. It was so packed and the idea of standing for 10 hours really scared me. We hustled through the crowd and a kind man with better English confirmed that there was another one at 9.45 am. Phew! We started chatting with some locals and playing with their kids while we waited faithfully for the right train.
At this moment, this man appeared to ask for my ticket. He could not speak and he used hand gestures to affirm me that he was going to help us. He asked me to wait at where we were and disappeared. Shortly after, he came back and frantically asked us to follow him. We could not understand what was happening. At the platform, a train came and he jumped into it. What followed after was chaos again, he signalled for us to get up the train quickly. People were pushing and shuffling into the train. With our Singaporean spirit, we quickly made our way to meet him at the seats that he got for us. He was deaf and mute, but that did not stop him from being kind to other people. His kind act was incredible and honestly, I have never experienced something like that in my life. Everything happened so quickly, we did not even get to know his name.
In the train, I started to realise 1) 2nd or 3rd class train tickets did not really matter much, nobody checked the tickets 2) getting a train ticket doesn’t mean that you actually have a seat. I was so silly but we learn as we experience, yes?
It was a 10 hours train ride, but it did not feel long and dreary at all, except the fact that we did not prepare any food on board. The food factor almost killed me. As the train chugs down the metal track from Colombo Fort Railway station and slowly up to Ella, the scenery changed from rural houses to misty mountains.
I’ve read somewhere that the train ride is the world’s most beautiful train journey. Let me explain why, on top of the scenic view outside the window, the warmth in the train cabin made the train ride extraordinary. A big family seated near us was constantly smiling at us for almost 9 hours. They even shared their food with us. The kids were shy but they wanted to interact with us. I shared my packet of Ribena sweets with them and they shared their local sweets with us. The train was packed and a woman was leading onto me for a couple of hours but I felt completely at ease. In a sweaty and dirty but enjoyable 10 hours ride, we made many friends, simple people who are keen to know more about us and share their culture with us.
We panicked a little because the train schedule was not the same as what we found online, there were extra stops and we were afraid that we would miss Ella. Fears aside, we reached Ella and got a funky tuk-tuk to our next Airbnb place, Ella Mount View Guesthouse. Buddhika was the no.1 Airbnb host in Ella I think, he is also 2015 Tripadvisor’s winner! No doubt because his place has an amazing view for sunrise, his mother made amazing Sri Lankan breakfast and he was so patient in answering our questions.
What to do when you have 1 full day in Ella?
- Mini Adam’s Peak
It was really easy to get to Mini Adam’s Peak, Buddhika estimated that we would take at most 1.5 hours to get there and back from the main road, Passara Road. It was a fairly easy hike, both Wini and I rated it 1% as compared to Mount Batur and Mount Ophir. The peak oversees Ella from above and also several tea plantations. At the peak, a Sri Lankan father carried his little son to give me a hi-5, I thought that was sweet, until he gave me a kiss! 😛 Thereafter, his family came long and we became Mini Adam’s Peak celebrities for a while with people taking photographs of us and with us. It was a funny experience!
- 98 Acres Resort
Halfway down the peak, we went to 98 Acres Resort. The view was stunning! I was a weirdo that drank ginger tea in that weather but I have to say their tea leaves are truly amazing. The food was not fantastic, but we got our view and break before we proceeded to Demodara Nine Arch Bridge.
- Demodara Nine Arch Bridge
When we got back to Passara Road, we tried to follow the GPS to get to this place but changed our route because some local kids told us about the shortcut. I don’t really know if I loved that shortcut. We had to walk on uneven mud pavements and one wrong step would get you off that cliff. I am totally not exaggerating! It was a well-worth trip to risk my life for anyway. Just a little bit of history as to why this bridge is unique, it was commissioned in 1921 at Gotuwala, between the two railway stations – Ella and Demodara during the British Colonial period. It is also the largest in Sri Lanka, built entirely of solid rocks, bricks and cement without using a single piece of steel!
It was a little scary because the trains are still running on the tracks and only the local people know the time which the train will pass. Yes, we waited for the train to pass although it was one hour late! After we were satisfied with watching a moving train, we tried to leave using another route. The police officers directed us to a forest but we trusted them. There was no way I was going to climb up the route where I came from. With the help from some new friends from Colombo, we got out from another shortcut. The number of shortcuts amaze me, really.
- Chill Ella Café
We moved from one Airbnb to another, Chamodya Homestay. Nimal was a complete sweetheart. After a whole day of walking in the sun, we were so exhausted. He welcomed us by asking if we needed some hot tea. I beamed as that was exactly what I needed! He carried out a tray with tea, coffee and biscuits. You have no idea how happy I was, meeting genuine people like Nimal.
Both Wini and I got the ugliest tan lines from our day hike but we went out to chill anyway. What an apt name! We were really chilling on our beanbags and a little table at the corner of the second floor. Their mojitos and pizzas were great, you’ve got to trust the waiters’ recommendations.
Goodbye Ella, Hello Unawatuna!
The breakfast next morning was wonderful. Nimal whipped up another Sri Lankan dish for us and having breakfast up on the mountain was the peace we both needed.
Instead of out initial plan to get a 7-8 hours bus ride to Unawatuna, we got a taxi instead. A bus ride is about 3 USD but we went for a 13000 rupees taxi ride. The ‘taxi’ actually turned out to be a van meant for 5-6 people. Nevertheless, our driver, Tharindu was damn cool and drove like a F1 driver. At times, he also stopped in the middle of nowhere to say hi to his friends. We arrived almost 6 hours later and skipped the Udawalawe National Park which was on the way because we figured that if we want to see wild life animals, we’d rather go to South Africa. It costs around 30-35 USD for that.
We reached Unawatuna, Srimali’s Guesthouse, and headed to the beach which was just about 8 mins walk. At the beach, we bumped into a group of locals playing football and I joined them! I feel like I am getting bolder as time passes. I’m not good, I just learned some dribbling and kicking from the Chiang Mai kids and they were put to good use. The locals were pretty encouraging, and I learned to hit the ball with my head this time round. Lahiru, one of the player then asked me if I do surfing. I beamed again, I wanted to surf so badly but realised we probably went to the wrong beach, people should go to Mirissa or Hikkaduwa for surfing. He told me that there’s a nice beginner surf spot 5 mins away from Unawatuna beach and we arranged to surf together!!!
Surfing was great fun, and I couldn’t be more thankful for Lahiru, he basically taught us for free. He would usually charge 3000 rupees per hour. There is a surf school there as well, Ahikava Surf School, I think they were awesome because they were nice to us although we did not take any lessons from them.
Both Wini and I managed to stand on the surf board thanks to our great teacher! I’m also glad that I managed to help Lahiru take some self-proclaimed pretty awesome surf shots and videos because nobody has taken for him before! Hail Gopro!
At the end of the day, I looked back and thought about how our days at Unawatuna would be like if we haven’t met Lahiru. We would not know that there is a beginners’ surf beach at Sahana Beach because everyone else said we can’t surf in Unawatuna. We would not become friends with people from Koha Surf Lounge in Unawatuna (it is a super cool and hippie place with awesome Bob Marley’s music). I would not know how tourism changed the beach. I would not know the best spot for fireworks and sunset. The best things in life happen when you least expect them, or plan them. I would never plan every single detail of my trips because pleasant surprises do come along the way.
Oh, we also joined a cooking class, Sonja Cooking School. Karuna taught us 5 different types of curry dishes, chicken curry, lentils curry, pumpkin curry, eggplants curry and long beans curry. We were crazily overloaded with curry but it was a nice experience, visiting the market and cooking with our new friends Julian and Flo. I don’t cook at home, maybe I would like it, but I just don’t do it so I don’t really know why I joined a cooking class again! I joined one previously in Chiangmai too. Maybe I do like to cook!? Thankfully Wini cooks well and she could do all the chopping perfectly. Thankfully I did not make a fool out of myself and I was a good student. The cost of cooking was 25 USD per person, definitely more expensive than the one at Chiangmai. One more thing about Sonja Cooking School, Karuna does not provide recipes, she chants them and you have to copy them down as you cook, how could anyone multitask like that?!
Thank you Winifred for being a spontaneous travel partner! We had a lot of fun learning about the people and we tried to feature all the important ones that made this travel unique to us in our video. We are glad that Sri Lanka showed us its beauty, charm and adventure…we hope that we managed to show them to you as well! 🙂