A Holiday in Sri Lanka
Journey to Sri Lanka
We made a brief 7-day visit to the south of Sri Lanka in January 2017.
The main objectives of the trip were to travel along two of the most scenic railway lines in South Asia and to visit some sites associated with tea.
Our itinerary was simple. We would spend 2 nights in Colombo and then make a trip up to Kandy, deep in tea country, via Nuwara and Badulla. After travelling back to Colombo we would make a day trip on the highly scenic coastal railway to Galle.
We travelled out to Sri Lanka on Sri Lankan Airlines from London Heathrow.
Our journey took an unexpected turn as soon as we arrived at Colombo airport. One of the bags we had checked in did not turn up. In the event it turned out that it had been permanently lost.
The next day, on the way back from purchasing replacement clothes, my wife was dragged to the ground and robbed by a tuk tuk driver. A bag containing her credit cards, iphone, ipod and camera was stolen. We spent most of our second evening in Colombo in a police station.
Losing the bag and being robbed within 36 hours of arriving put a bit of a dampener on the holiday. Nevertheless, we carried on with the itinerary regardless.
Colombo Galle Face Hotel
The Galle Face is the grande dame of Colombo’s hotels. Built in 1864, but extensively modernised since, it retains its colonial charm. The coastal location is superb and the hotel boasts its own private mini-beach. We absolutely loved our time here and it ranks amongst the best hotels in Asia that we have stayed at. The hotel has hosted many famous people over the years and features many of them in its own museum. Prince Phillip bought his first ever private car in Colombo in 1940 and it is also on display.
The Sri Lankan Railway system is fascinating. It was built during the British period and retains much of its original equipment. It almost resembles a heritage railway in the UK. Speeds rarely touch more than 40mph and doors and windows are constantly left open. There is something magical and nostalgic about the whole operation.
Whether it was on our 1st Class trip to Badulla, our 3rd class return from Kandy (standing for most of the way) or our 2nd class return to Galle, the train trips were all the more fascinating for the interaction with our fellow passengers.
Colombo – Badulla
Our first journey was from Colombo Fort to Badulla (with a break overnight at Nuwara). We had booked seats in the first class observation car at the rear of the train. They gave us fantastic views back on the track as we left the plains of Colombo and climbed through the tea plantations high into the hills. The total distance was less than 250km, yet it took over 11 hours over two days to complete the journey. The railway often features on the list of great railway journeys of the world and it was a truly memorable experience.
Nuwara Eliya, at almost 2,000m elevation, is famous for the high quality of the tea grown in the surrounding plantations. It was also used as a cool-climate escape for the British pioneers of the tea industry. We broke our Colombo-Badulla rail journey at Nanu-Oya and organised a tuk tuk to take us the winding hill road to Nuwara itself. We stayed in the Tudor-styled Grand Hotel. The hotel is famous for its daily service of authentic English afternoon tea.
We arrived in Kandy on our 4th day. Kandy is Sri Lanka’s second city and sits in a beautiful location surrounded by mountains. It has a picturesque lake at its centre.
The area around Kandy is famous for tea. The tea industry was first brought to Sri Lanka in the mid-18th Century by a Scot named James Taylor. Thomas Lipton, a fellow Scot, expanded and consolidated things later. We visited the fascinating Ceylon Tea Museum on the outskirts of Kandy and my wife purchased a variety of local tea.
Wherever we go in the world we normally head first to the local markets. The sights and smells are highly addictive. The markets in Colombo and Kandy did not disappoint. These photos are from Kandy. We purchased pepper, cinnamon and vanilla to bring home with us.
Kandy’s main attraction is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. It is situated in a complex that also includes the World Buddhism Museum. The museum tells the story of the religion and has artefacts from the main Buddhist countries all around the globe.
The food was another highlight of the trip.
Most Sri Lankan crab is exported but some of it is kept for local consumption. We experienced 3 magnificent crab curries.
Our best meal was in Galle. We had fresh mackerel in a curry sauce.
There were also delicious short eats, things like fish and vegetable cakes, for snacking on.
The breakfast staple was the hopper; a coconut flour basket containing a fried egg.
Lunch was often Curry and Rice (to be eaten with the hands)
or Kottu (a delicious mixture of cheese, vegetables and stale bread fried in spices).
Sambol was the sprinkle for rice made from coconut and other ingredients.
Drinks included Elephant Ginger Beer (EGB) or the excellent local Lion Lager.
On the way back to Colombo we visited the elephant orphanage. The place has been criticised for its treatment of the animals and with its faux signs and shops selling recycled paper made from elephant poo it is clearly a true tourist trap. Yet, the sight of the elephants bathing together in the river is quite spectacular and something that is actually really worth seeing.
For obvious reasons we were not totally enamored by the tuk tuk. Nevertheless there is no denying they are a great way to get around town. We used them mostly in and around Kandy.
In Colombo we became regulars on the local 100 Bus that linked the station at Fort with the Galle Face. The buses were wonderful old Ashok Leyland models and usually had a sound system on board blaring out Sri Lankan pop tunes. The fare was just 10p each way.
Coast Line to Galle
On our last day we made the 240km round trip by train to Galle. The railway line from Colombo hugs the coast for most of the way and the sea views are spectacular. This stretch of railway was the location of the world’s worst ever train accident in 2004. 1,200 people died when the tsunami swept over their train. The track is still being restored in places 13 years later.
Galle is a wonderfully exotic city with fortified walls and a great collection of Dutch colonial buildings. It has a long history as a port and the old Lloyds Agency building is still intact complete with its ship recorder. Remnants of the British period include the lighthouse, tsunami warning bell and red post boxes. The whole fort area is crammed with little shops, cafes and hotels but it also contains Buddhist temples and a mosque for the large Muslim community.
Galle Face is the place to enjoy a glorious sunset. On our penultimate evening we were rewarded with an absolute classic. It started with the flag lowering ceremony and was accompanied by the bag pipes.
Sri Lanka is a land of smiles. Just smile at the people and you will be richly rewarded with some truly wonderful smiles in return.
Despite our misfortunes, it would be difficult not to recommend Sri Lanka as a great destination.
We were unlucky.
We would not hesitate to suggest a visit to this great country.