A trip back to the British Colonial era
By Mathew Court
"Do you mean yes or no," I asked. The immaculately dressed taxi organizer shook his head from side to side. "My train leaves at 3.30, can you get me there in time?" I urgently enquired again.
"Where are you from," he asked. "I'm from England, now please can you help me, I'm very late?" He answered, "Oh English, Nasser Hussein, very good batsman." I didn't get anywhere near the train station but who cares? I was in amazing Sri Lanka – tropical island of ancient history, beautiful beaches, stunning temples and fanatical cricket lovers.
After England's most depressing year of weather in living history it was my sunny day when a flight to Sri Lanka came up for only $270 roundtrip. So desperate to feel a warm deep-sighing sun's ray on my milky skin I kept travelling and travelling until I finally dove into the Indian Ocean from a golden sandy beach.
Unawatuna beach is a six-hour cab ride from the airport and is located at the bottom of Sri Lanka. Twenty-two hours of non-stop travel was all worth it when I stripped off and cut into the lively blue ocean. Sweet joy.
Unawatuna faces west so at sunset you can sit above the beach at the Buddhist temple and watch the sun melt into the horizon and light the sky with amazing colors. By the time you descend back to the beach it will have transformed into a sandy boulevard of eateries. There are a host of restaurants to choose from and with the menu similar in all of them its not where you eat, only what you eat.
And that must be fresh fish or big lobster. There are plenty of inexpensive beach houses and small hotels to choose from. It's a great place to start off your holiday and the next couple of days you can spend wallowing in the warm sea, snorkelling with the multicoloured seafood, playing beach, foot and volley ball, reading in a deckchair or drinking delicious coconut cocktails.
Hiring a Cab
After a few lazy days on the beach the stunning Hill Country of Sri Lanka's tea plantations beckoned. The five-hour 250-kilometre cab ride to Ella might sound arduous and expensive ($38) but Sri Lanka's taxis are the best way of getting around and the rates are more than fair. The road heads east along the south coast and passes through lots of interesting towns, villages and beaches. Eerie sticks jut from the sea that are the stilt fisherman's office. The advantage of hiring a taxi is being able to stop anywhere and explore without waiting for another packed local bus.
After 90 kilometres of beautiful coastal road it turns directly north through Bundala National Park, home to leopards, elephants, turtles, giant squirrels, sloth's, flamingos and 148 other bird varieties. The further north you get the greener and lusher the land is. As you wind up the steep mountains to Ella you'll pass Rawana falls, reputedly the wildest waterfall in the country but not a patch on the view that awaits you in the 1100 metre high town.
Ella gap has a view through the hills that drop 1000 metres and stretch to the coastal plain from where you've just travelled. Considering much of the day was spent in a taxi, it's a rewarding and exhilarating end to it as you watch the sun slip away for the night past one of the Hill Country's most breathtaking views.
For the next two days I travelled back in time to the Victorian era, a time when Sri Lanka was part of the British Empire and governed by no-nonsense Colonials. Waiting for the train at Ella I felt like an extra in some period drama. The station is kept exactly as it was when built, right down to the station masters office, the old style clunking ticket machines, the junction levers and the staff uniforms.
You'll know it's authentic Victorian when you start lustfully glancing at the shapely table legs.
The steam train takes nearly four hours for the 80-kilometre rumble to Nuwara Eliya. That might seem slow by our own shoddy standards but time flies by in what is commonly recognised as the most spectacular train journey in the world.
And it is. Passing over the highland valleys, ravines and gorges, through rolling hills and magnificent mountains, and by busy tea plantations. Whether you hang out of the carriage or stare from the window at the amazing views, it's truly a train journey where sleep worth missing.
Continuing this trip into a bygone age, I went to visit the unmissable 122-year old colonial bastion that is The Hill Club. Set up in 1878 by three British ex-pats it has the feel of splendour and colonial tradition. Shortly after arriving the club secretary suggested I take tea in the reading room.
How very British. As you sit in a huge leather armchair surrounded by stuffed and mounted game trophies to the accompaniment of an ancient grandfather clock you begin to feel the part. And you need to for what the evening has in store. Dinner is something else and is quite an experience. The five-course set menu is served promptly at eight o'clock and men must wear a jacket, collar and tie (they have an amusing collection from which to borrow).
The atmosphere is a throwback as Beethoven booms from a gramophone and silver cutlery clinks on the bone china. The first course was tinned soup that asted as old as the club, and is served by proud white-gloved waiters carrying silver trays. The main course has a choice though not, of pork or lamb chop with gravy.
Whilst the food is totally forgettable the experience will not be. I had to have several large scotches to wash away the taste in the wood panelled gentlemen only bar (yep, rules are still rules). In the middle of your scruffy backpacking tour you can experience the lifestyle, taste and etiquette of a stuffy forgotten era in a surrounding that is a Victorian hotel and dining room. Beach bum thug to colonial humbug.
The end of the world is nigh. That's what it felt like the next morning having to get up at 5am, but if you want a clear view of the spectacular Worlds End it's essential to start your walk early as it completely mists over after dawn. The view has a stunning 700m drop alongside two of Sri Lanka's second and third highest mountains, Kirigalpotta 2387m & Totapola 2361m. World's End is part of
Horton Plains, a strange, silent national park where monkeys, leopards and eagles can be spotted.
The walk is about 6km and includes forests, bogs, wild bush and a waterfall. With so much achieved so early in the day you can take your time going through the beautiful hill country's winding roads to the country's second biggest city, Kandy.
Kandy is known as the relaxing and easy-going capital of the hill country and you can understand why as soon as you arrive. It has lots of no-hassle shops, great accommodation, Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic, The Temple of the Tooth, the beautiful man-made lake, and is a great place from which to travel to many other attractions.
For pure opulence I stayed at the hotel Suisse for a night. It's expensive and plush but I still managed to barter a good price ($68) for a huge marbled paradise room. The room and giant balcony overlook Kandy's picturesque lake and the hotel also has a large swimming pool. Take a walk round the lake to The Temple of the Tooth and hire a guide, there's too much too miss if you don't. The fascinating history of Buddhism is explained throughout the temple's buildings and Monks still live and worship here.
The next day was following the real tourist trail but that shouldn't put you off. The Botanical Gardens just outside Kandy are en route to the Elephant Orphanage and show not just Sri Lanka's interesting plant life.
Kissing and Cuddling
This is about the only place where couples can get any privacy. On every bench, tree-stump and patch of grass couples sit kissing and cuddling each other, so it's a relief to have the gardens to look at. There's even a police park patrol unit that arrests those getting too intimate. A further 20 kilometres away is the orphanage. There are 63 elephants here of all age and size and you can go as
close as you want to them. You can even try hugging one. The bathing and feeding times are fun spectacles and the whole place has a relaxing and enjoyable atmosphere to it. The cubs are especially cute.
One hundred twenty-five kilometres north of Kandy is the ancient city of Sigiriya, the most stunning of Sri Lanka's attractions. Built 1500 years ago in 500 AD it is akin to visiting a small Ayres Rock with a palace on top. This spectacular fortress was built for King Kasyapa, a man who possessed a passionate pastime – women.
And over the 200 metre high rock nothing was more apparent. On every wall that the route to his palace took, the walls were adorned with naked nubile beauties. His beauties. With a concubine of over 500 women at his pleasured disposal it's the sort of place Paul Raymond, Hugh Heffner and Peter Stringfellow would wish to purchase. His palace has a swimming pool, a dance hall from whence he'd select his women for the night and a huge bedchamber (but of course). The murals are the first non-religious erotic paintings ever created that still exist.
But only just. After Kasyapa had ridiculously lost the impregnable fort to his brother, it fell into the hands of Buddhist monks who smashed all but one of the seductive paintings. As Kings go Kasyapa certainly did, but what an incredible monument he left to celebrate it.
On to Colombo
In Colombo, the capital's one million plus population City you can begin journeys to anywhere in the country. One of Sri Lanka's favorite hobbies apart from their number one sport, cricket, is their love of gambling. I wandered into a Colombo turf accountant's (bookies) and was amazed to see the locals shouting at the TV screen showing a Catford dog race. Next on the card was racing from Southwell and greyhounds in Sunderland. Cloth cap and roll-up in Tropicana. If you've only a short time in Sri Lanka you're probably best to move straight on.
A train trip to the southern most point of Sri Lanka at Matara takes only four hours. Once again you'll find a superb choice of beaches to choose from. I went to Mirissa where the first words heard upon arriving were "surfs up dude". What I thought was a subdued millpond bay resort full of package holidaymakers was in fact a lively beach with huge waves and every kind of relaxed traveller. With the first train out from the coast back to Colombo that connects with afternoon flights, you can have an extra night on your chosen paradise beach. Bliss.
Two weeks, nine different modes of transport, over 14,000 kilometres travelled, 80 hours in transit, six amazing temples, a dozen curries and all for under $905. Sri Lanka's great. At the airport a group of Tuk Tuk drivers asked me, "Do you think England will beat Sri Lanka?" I just wobbled my head and they all understood.
Mathew Court is a freelance writer living in England.