In the past 8 days I have spent about 36 hours in either trains, cars, jeeps, tuk tuks or on a bike. Yes, that’s one and a half days …. we’ve been traveling (‚we‘, that’s me and my friend Lucie who is joining me in the first month of my trip). After our time surfing on the coast, we wanted to go exploring, discover what else this country has to offer – and that’s a lot, I can tell you already. So we packed our backpacks, pulled our shoe laces tighter, made a plan (kind of) and slowly made our way through Sri Lanka’s inland. And by ’slowly‘ I really mean slowly…. it feels like this country wants to teach you how to be patient, that’s if you are not in a taxi, if so, it wants to teach you how to trust, I guess. And that’s how our journey started off. Since there is no train from the south coast to Ella (where we wanted to go first) and we didn’t want to skip the morning surf to jump on a bus, we decided to treat ourselves to a driver. Worst – decision – ever! Four hours spent in hell. I am not exaggerating, I really thought we were gonna die. Traffic in Sri Lanka is crazy anyway, if you are used to driving on the streets of Europe, but our driver always felt like it was a good idea to overtake busses on curvy and steep and narrow mountain roads when a truck would come towards us….. let me just put it that way: we survived, but we did go for afternoon drinks after. Which brings me to my first recommendation in Ella: Café Chill. It’s a very stylish and cozy place on the main street that serves good food and has fast wifi. In case you have bad luck with the weather (like we did), it’s a super nice place to linger around for a while.
Ella is originally a small mountain village but has now turned into a quite busy backpacker destination, there are a lot of hostels, hotels and homestays. We stayed in a homestay with just two rooms (Restful Homestay) in a jungle garden and were served the best breakfast ever, plus it was already close to the entry to our hiking route – we wanted to climb the ‚Little Adams Peak‘. And so we did, and even though you will sweat a lot (even if you climb up before the midday heat) it’s so worth it, the view is very impressive. I like being up on a mountain top a lot. Seeing everything from above, seeing the bigger picture, somehow brings things back in perspective for me. It shows me that I am just a small (yet important) part of the whole and I don’t have to take myself so seriously. Watching the birds glide in between the peaks nearly makes me feel like I could just push myself from the ground and fly with them, be free with them. I just like being up on a mountain, it makes me feel light.
Afterwards, if you need a little refreshment as much as we did, you can treat yourself to an iced coffee at Artcafé UmbrElla – yummy!
From Ella we travelled onwards by train, which is super easy and cheap. You can either make a reservation for the second class or just buy a ticket in the morning, I would even say that you could go on the third class if the train isn’t too crowded. We also found out you can make a reservation for any train at any station (we booked our ticket from Haputale to Kandy in Ella, for example, or the one from Polonnaruwa to Colombo in Kandy), which is maybe helpful if you want to plan ahead. Anyway, our next stop was Haputale, just 1 hour away from Ella. Unlike Ella, Haputale is still more original, not so many tourists, not so many hotels, no real restaurants, we liked it very much. We stayed at a guesthouse with a very kind and helpful host family (Bawa Guesthouse) and an amazing view from the balcony, unfortunately we were surrounded by fog… we literally felt like we were sitting in the clouds while we had our welcome tea and when it started pouring down rain we knew our plan to hike to the Lipton’s Seat was drowning right there. If we had researched a little bit better we would have known that it’s best to do it early in the morning, oh well, we just took a ‚day off‘ instead, walked to the city, looked around a bit, bought some chocolate and watched a movie after. In Haputale, there are several Hindu temples, Buddhist ones, mosques and a church, some of them right next to each other. In a world where people fight wars in the name of religion, this small town in the mountains of Sri Lanka gave me a little bit of hope…
After this rainy day, we set our alarms to 5.45am to at least be able to watch the sun rise – so beautiful – and then we jumped on the first train to Kandy, and yes, the train route from Ella to Kandy (or the other way around) is just as stunning as they say. You can really see and sense how the landscape and the climate changes on the way – from majestic mountain tops through tea plantations and more dry and rocky areas with waterfalls, back to tropical air and palm trees and then, when you exit the station in Kandy, suddenly a loud and hot city – Sri Lanka is such a diverse country. Trying to save some money for all the high entry prices, we had booked a hostel close to the Kandy Lake (Hipster’s Hideout). What can I say? I tried it out for you, don’t bother trying it, too, it’s really not good. But Kandy itself is worth a visit. On the first afternoon we went to the temple of the holy tooth. It costs 1500 Rupies entry (10 USD) and I found it peaceful and very pretty and interesting. On the day we were there we were surrounded by hundreds of school kids who went to the temple to pray for their big exam on the following Monday. I hope they all did well.
On our second day in Kandy we went to the market hall, which was a bit of a dissapointment, it’s very small and you can just walk through it within 10 minutes – only the batique shop had some good stuff (but then I’m a hippie and of course I love everything about batique). Afterwards we had lunch at the Empire Café (right next to the temple) – super nice Café, if you need a break from the city trouble, take it there! Next to it is a nice fair trade store with local products, which I also liked.
In the afternoon we went to the Royal Botanical Garden, the entry also costs 1500 Rupies and it’s worth it. It’s like an oasis in the city, even though Kandy isn’t very big, it’s still the third biggest city in Sri Lanka and that’s what it feels like. In the botanical garden you feel like you can breathe and all the plants and trees give you so much energy back. It also looks like it’s some sort of hideout for local young couples, a quiet place to talk and spend some time together. I think this is very sweet, even though it reflects how conservative this culture still is – but it changes slowly, at least that’s what we hear from people we’ve talked to. Hopefully the next generation will be allowed to show love and affection in public.
Our visit to the Royal Botanical Garden also created a nice coincidence for us: we met Lasanthe. Lasanthe is a middle aged man from Kandy who owns a long distance tuk tuk. I’m not joking. His tuk tuk has two very comfy seats in the back and a bigger trunk and he drives people from city to city. We had the impression he was sent to us from a higher power, so we booked him to drive us to Sigiriya the next day and it was the most unusual journey ever, but so fun. Also he drove much better than our taxi driver from the first day. I will never forget this for sure. A taxi journey from hell and one heavenly tuk tuk trip.
In Sigiriya we climbed the Pidurangala Rock, the smaller rock next to the famous Lion Rock. Since the Lion Rock costs 30 USD entry and the Pidurangala Rock only 4, this was more convenient for our budget and we had heard good things – that’s one thing about traveling: you can either trust the guides, pay 30 dollars and follow the masses up the Lion Rock (which is very impressive, I’m sure), or you can trust fellow backpackers and climb up a rock that’s not even mentioned in the guide and have the highlight of your trip.
Most of the time I decide to go left when everybody else is going right.
The way up takes around 30 minutes and there are mainly steps, only in the end you will have to climb over rocks, and you will be concentrating so hard that you won’t realize what’s waiting up there until you are actually there: an absolute epic view. Seriously, it was a revelation. You just stand on this big rock and look at another huge rock, with people making their way up looking like tiny ants, and then you turn around and have a 360 degree view and you feel like you are on top of the world. Then at some point all the people up there gather on one side and watch the sunset. I don’t even have words for it, I just wish I could give you the feeling I had inside my soul when I was up there.
The next day we went to the Kaudulla National Park, after 20 minutes our driver stopped at the side of the streets to offer to Ganesha, the elephant god, and maybe because of that, or maybe just because, we saw wild elephants. First a whole herd and then one single male one…. we had gotten out of the car at a lake and he was just around the corner, still too far to be dangerous, but close enough to feel his energy. Such a magic moment.
In the evening we were dropped of at our hotel in Polonnaruwa, the Thidas Arana Lake. After all the traveling (and the worst matreses ever at Hipster’s Hideout) we wanted to treat ourselves to a nice place by a lake with a pool – a proper hotel for grown ups, so fancy. And I have to say, a small paradise was waiting for us, a stunning view over the lake, a nice room and amazing fresh seafood that the fishermen bring in every day from the lake. The nice hotel also helped us to get over the fact, that our visit to the ruins of Polonnaruwa was actually not as cool as we’d imagined it to be. You know, sometimes you see pictures of something and you think ‚wow, I wanna go there and see it in real life‘ and then your expectations are in the clouds and once you are there you think ‚oh, this is it?!‘ – don’t get me wrong, the ruins of the old king city in Polonnaruwa are impressive, they are UNESCO world culture heritage for a reason. BUT: of course we were not the only people who wanted to see them. And while we rented a bike for the day to get around, other tourists book a round tour by bus through Sri Lanka – fair enough – but then the busses drive into the old city and the tourist groups are big and loud and kind of destroy your own experience a little bit. You know, I like sharing a lot. I just feel like it shouldn’t be allowed to drive into places like that…. all the people would just spread out nicely, it would be quiet and you could really feel the true atmosphere of a place like that. Still we didn’t regret going to Polonnaruwa, because, as I said, we still had our hotel and also super big lake prawns for dinner and a sunset to remember.
So that was the happy end to our round trip and the next morning we took the first train to Colombo and then a connection train back down to the south coast. And as much as I like going by train in Sri Lanka – 11 hours were a little bit too much. I felt like sitting in a sauna with my clothes on for the entire journey, but then, when we got to the coast and I could smell the ocean, I knew, I was at home.
When you choose the ocean as your favorite place on earth and carry everything else you love and need within you, keep your family and friends close to your heart, you have a home everywhere in the world, you have a home whenever you’re by the ocean, because water connects everything.
And back in the water it was the next day, when we arrived at the Drive thru Surfcamp in Madiha – what a great place to spend the rest of my time in Sri Lanka. Set in a nice and calm environment on a big piece of land just a 2 minute walk away from the beach, we again felt like we were exactly where we should be in that moment. Surrounded by nice people, a lovely crew, a big variety of differently shaped surfboards, good food, fresh fruit all day and surf tuk tuks to different spots three times a day, we knew, here we could just be, reflect on the past weeks if our journey, go surfing and soak in the energy of this beautiful country for another couple of days.
I also played an acoustic concert at the cocktail night here and I was so proud I could present my music to fellow travelers and could touch some souls with my lyrics….
For me, traveling is being free, being open, but most of all, being your true authentic self – and Sri Lanka was just the right country for that. It is challenging sometimes, it is loud, it seems to be chaotic, but has it’s own logical order, it’s colorful and a real beauty, but also doesn’t try to hide the damages the big tsunami and the civil war has left – visible or under the surface – you will find help and collect smiles everywhere you go, and if you practice devotion and trust, magic can happen. And most of all, this country is so authentic, you can’t get around diving into every second you spend here.
For me, it was the perfect start to a journey, that will take me around the world and maybe even further….