Sri Lanka: around Ella

View of the valley around Ella from a hike to a near-by waterfall

We woke up bright and early and hit the road for Ella at 8:30 am. It was a long day in the car.

If you look at the Google Maps route from Sigiriya to Ella, it says it should take about 4.5 hours. It’s practically a straight shot east and then south. We suggested this route to our driver and he said the roads weren’t good, and that we should go through Kandy and Nuwara Elia, which would take 6-7 hours. Yuck.

But, we decided we should probably go with what he says, given that he is the paid professional driver and it is literally his job to know the best routes. We were wrong. Turns out those roads are in great shape, he just wasn’t familiar with them. Apparently this is a common problem among drivers because the roads are in a part of the country that the opposition formerly occupied. So most drivers simply don’t even know that the roads are there.

Anyhow, we stuck with the driver’s planned route since, at the time, we didn’t know any better. Plus, we  figured we could break it up with a few stops along the way.

Our first stop was Kandy, where we went to the Temple of the Tooth. One of Buddha’s teeth is in a shrine (which you can’t see) in the temple, so it’s a pretty big deal. I thought it was meh and I was glad we didn’t opt to spend more time in Kandy.

Inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. There are several other temples and some museums also.

The bottom level of the 3-story Temple of the Tooth. Buddha’s tooth is on the second floor.

After visiting the temple we went to a hole-in-the-wall for lunch and I was certain we were going to get food poisoning. Luckily we didn’t.

Then we got back in the car to start the drive to Nuwara Elia. After we got out of Kandy and started driving up through the tea plantations, it was a stunning drive. The scenery was beautiful, with waterfalls and green tea fields stretching as far as the eye could see.

Sri Lanka hill country views during the drive to Nuwara Elia

We reached Nuwara Elia, and the driver asked if we wanted to get out. It was about 60 degrees outside, and Nate and Marlowe were in shorts, I was in capris, and we all had t-shirts on, so we said no. At this point we really just wanted to reach our final destination.

We booked a room inside a cottage at Amba Estate, a tea plantation and organic farm that offers farmstays in the mountains outside of Ella. The drive to Amba took us through some rural areas, up and down a mountain and through a valley. We finally reached Amba around 5:30 pm, and we were pleasantly surprised by our room, which had one of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. The room was spacious and tastefully decorated with a fantastic veranda and even the bathroom had a nice view.

Amba Estate, our favorite part of our trip to Sri Lanka!

Our room on the bottom floor of the Clove Tree Cottage at Amba

The view from our cottage balcony

Once M got out of his carseat the poor kid wouldn’t sit still for the rest of the evening. We tried to take a family photo and, in it, Nate and I are smiling happily while M is in the background running in the other direction.

This path down into the valley through the tea bushes was right outside our room

We loved staying at Amba. The food was vegetarian and absolutely phenomenal, and you can do tea tours and tastings. Also, and this is very rare for Sri Lanka, Amba serves amazing coffee. They grow their own beans on the farm, in addition to tea and all the fruits and vegetables used in the food that they serve.

Amazing curries, plus pasta with butter and cheese for the kids. M was thrilled! Meals are served family style with the other folks staying at Amba.

Coffee beans growing on the farm

They provide laminated cards with directions for a bunch of hikes originating from the estate, and we spent most of our time there out hiking around the valley.

Our first morning we hiked to the top of Rawana Waterfall, and then down a little further to the second level, where Nate went for a swim. I did not because I was too scared of falling over the side of the waterfall.

Green tea, black tea, white tea, and a lemongrass infusion, all grown on the farm

After that we did the tea tour and tasting and ate some lunch, and then around 2:15 we headed out for Ella Rock. The directions said it was a 2.5-3 hour hike; we took 4.5 hours. It was not an easy hikes, especially with a 35 pound pack and baby on your back. The bulk of the ascent was in the first 2/3 of the hike to Ella Rock, which was mostly climbing up overgrown jungle paths. After that there’s a nice stretch going gently up through a eucalyptus forest.

Hiking through the eucalyptus forest. I have no photos of the other part because I was too busy trying to keep breathing and not fall on my ass.

As you approach the top, right after the path forks (go right at the fork), there’s another small fork off to the right that leads down to a beautiful cave shrine with lovely views of the mountains and valley. From here it’s maybe 15 min more to Ella Rock.

A hidden cave shrine along the hike to Ella Rock. The views from this spot were incredible!

View of the valley from Ella Rock

Ella town is on the far side of the valley

The hike down is almost harder than the hike up because it’s so steep and the path is covered in loose rocks. But we made it back by dusk, even with M demanding to be out of his pack and hiking uphill the last kilometer by himself.

With the two hikes combined, we hiked over 10 miles and climbed the equivalent of over 100 stories. It was quite the day!

The next morning we set off to explore a nearby cave and some old ruined tea processing houses, and then we relaxed in a natural pool in the river. After lunch our driver came and picked us up for our next adventure. At that point we were all ready to sit in the car for a few hours and do nothing! My legs were grateful for the rest.

I’d highly recommend including Ella on your Sri Lanka itinerary. There are so many beautiful places to explore and the temperatures are a little cooler than other parts of the country!

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Sri Lanka: Sigiriya

Lion Rock

We left Trinco at 9:30, and the drive to Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, was only about 2 hours. We checked into our hotel, changed our clothes, and headed straight for Lion Rock.

After you get your ticket, there’s a museum you can explore. We didn’t spend much time there because it wasn’t air-conditioned. The grounds are full of more ruins and interesting places to explore, and there are some vendors selling wooden trinkets and other souvenirs.

The ruins and archeological sites around Lion Rock

The guidebook suggested climbing Sigiriya first thing in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat, or later in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the tourist hordes. The thing is, the climate at Sigiriya was downright comfortable compared with Oman, so we ignored the advice. We arrived around 12:15 and started the climb up around 1 pm. The climb took about an hour, with frequent water stops. It’s about 50 stories up, and it’s basically a continuous climb up lots of stairs.

The one time I was able to actually look at and take a picture of the view during the climb up without my fear of heights getting the better of me

There’s lots to see on the climb up, including cave paintings, a thousand-year old wall of graffiti, huge lion paws carved into the rock (which is why it’s called Lion Rock), and beautiful views, if your fear of heights doesn’t get the best of you on the climb. Mine did, and I reached a point where I just kept my head down and kept going up, rather than enjoying the scenery.

The paws are the only part left of the lion for which Lion Rock is named

Once you reach the top, there’s a bunch of ruins and more even better views. It’s definitely worth the climb!

Ruins on the top of Sigiriya

Stunning views from the top

After Sigiriya we went to Dambulla to see the cave temples. It’s another 25 or so flights of stairs up to see the caves. The cave temples are incredible, and there’s so much to look at. Each cave has a huge resting Buddha in it, and most of them have a bunch of other statues and paintings also, mostly of more Buddhas.

Dambulla cave temples built into the side of the mountain

Lines of Buddhas inside the cave temples

Buddhas everywhere!

A note about clothing: since Sigiriya is archaeological ruins, shorts and tank tops are fine. For Dambulla, you should cover your shoulders and your knees. If you aren’t appropriately dressed for Dambulla, they have sarongs and wraps that you can rent.

We stayed at The Nature Park Villa, which was lovely and very inexpensive. M had a lot of fun running around the hotel grounds, and we all slept very soundly. The breakfast they provided the next morning was delicious and more than enough food!

The sunset through the jungle at our hotel

I would say that climbing Sigiriya is a definite must-do on any trip to Sri Lanka. You really only need to spend one night here, and if the temperatures are too high, go visit the cave temples (only about 20 minutes away) first and then go to Sigirya later in the day. Just make sure you bring plenty of water: you’ll get thirsty on the climb up!

Sri Lanka: Trincomalee

Trincomalee shoreline

Our next stop after Anuradhapura was Trincomalee. We chose to go to Trinco because we wanted to go diving, and supposedly in June the diving is better along the Eastern side of the island. Plus there’s some interesting stuff to do, and we never say “no” to spending time on the beach!

The drive from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee is about two and a half hours. If you explore the Sri Maha Bodi and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba before leaving Anuradhapura, you’ll be able to leave by 11 am, arriving by 1:30 or so. There’s a hot spring you can stop at on the drive over, just outside of Trinco, and it’s an interesting opportunity to stretch your legs.

Very different from the hot spring we have near Muscat, but interesting none-the-less

There were metal pails you could fill up with water. Some people dumped water all over themselves (we did not)

We spent two nights in Trinco. The first day, after we arrived, we tracked down some lunch and checked out the beach, and we visited the Kandasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

The temple is scenic and beautiful, and the views of the ocean are stunning. The history of the area is also quite interesting, as are the tame spotted deer all over the peninsula. The cliff across from the temple is supposedly the best place in the world for whale-spotting, but we didn’t see any. If you are serious about seeing some whales, there are whale watching tours you can go on, or you could bring your binoculars and hope for the best. With a 2-year old in tow we didn’t really feel like doing either.

The temple facade

Vishnu was getting a facelift

Swami Rock, whale-watching central

The peninsula is loaded with tame spotted deer

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to go scuba diving. We used Taprobane Divers, and they were great. All our tanks had over 200 bar, the BCDs much nicer than I’m used to, and our dive guide, Rohan, was very cautious and safety-minded. The dive shop is located in Nilaveli, which is about 30 minutes from Trinco. We dove at Swami Rock, which is right below Kandasamy Kovil, and at Navy Island (not actually an island) which was right off the coast near our hotel. Neither spot was that great, frankly, but all the Hindu statues at the bottom of Swami Rock were pretty interesting. The visibility was so-so and we didn’t see anything particularly exciting, but it’s always cool to dive someplace new.

We spent the rest of the day playing on the beach (Nate and M) and napping (me). The beach is lovely, and the humans, stray dogs, and cows all seem to enjoy it.

Cows along the Trinco beach

We stayed at Dutch Bay Ocean Cottages, and it was… basic. It felt like a throw-back to our Peace Corps days. Granted it had air conditioning and a private bathroom, and luckily we didn’t get bedbugs or anything like that, but we pulled up and I was like “Oh boy.” Thankfully Nate focused on the nice view from the hotel veranda rather than the lack of amenities, and he stayed positive. The hotel provided a babysitter so we could go scuba diving, though, and she took good care of M while we were gone for 6+ hours. So that’s something.

Our hotel didn’t have a kitchen, and we had to venture out a bit for our meals. We ate at a place called Beach Paradise, and the restaurant didn’t look like much, but the food was AMAZING. I had seafood with rice, and Nate had deviled prawns. It took a while to prepare, but it was worth the wait. Our other favorite restaurant was the Green Park Hotel, which is actually not a hotel. We literally ate there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At dinner they set up tables and chairs on the beach, and it’s really lovely.

The view from our hotel

I’m glad we went to Trinco and we enjoyed our time there, but I don’t think we’d come back simply because we’d rather explore new places. We saw all there was see, which was really neat and worth the trip, but there’s definitely no need to spend more than 2 nights here.

Next stop: Sigiriya, or Lion Rock!

Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura

Ruins and guard stones in the Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura

We arrived in Colombo at 4:45 am, breezed through immigration and customs, met our driver, and we were on the road by 6:00 am. We stopped on the road to buy water and a quick bite to eat, and we checked into our hotel by 10:30 am. We were all pretty tired from the red-eye flight, so we took naps and arranged for the driver to pick us up at 2 pm.

Anuradhapura is known primarily for its ancient Buddhist temples and archeological ruins. Have your driver take you immediately to go buy your entrance ticket in order to make the most out of your $25. The museum is supposed to be pretty good, and after that go explore the ruins.

More Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

The moonstone in the Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

Cows roaming around the Abhayagiri Monastery

The following morning, before leaving for Trincomalee, go visit the Sri Maha Bodi, or the Bodhi tree temple, and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, neither of which are included in the $25 ticket. Our driver took us to before we bought the ticket, which gave us about 1.5 hours to explore the entire enormous area that the ticket gives you access to.

The ruins are really cool, and I was reminded a lot of the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It’s definitely not as awe-inspring as Angkor (what is?) but the ruins in the forest with the monkeys, cows and Buddha statues are fun to explore.

When you’re in the Abhayagiri Monastery area, first explore the moonstone and guard stone ruins, then walk over to the Abhayagiri Dagoba. This will give you a chance to explore all the ruins in the wooded area, and it’s a fun spot to walk around. You’ll find the Elephant Pond (no actual elephants, sadly), lots of Buddhas, and some other neat ruins to poke around in.

Visiting the Thuparamaya Dagoba, one of the oldest Buddhist dagobas in Sri Lanka

The Sri Maha Bodi: this tree is had generations of caretakers for the last 2,000 years and is a major pilgrimage spot for buddhists.

One thing to note is that, for most temples and the grounds, you have to take your shoes off before entering. So if you’re wearing sandals, this means you’re walking around on hot rocks, sand, and bricks barefoot. I’d keep a pair of socks in your bag for these occasions. My feet were swollen and bright red after spending a few hours exploring the temples, and it was pretty unpleasant.

The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Elephants lining the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Anuradhapura was a good first stop for our trip. Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, I knew next to nothing about the country, and the history and ruins of the area where a good crash-course.  We were able to explore at our own pace, not feel too rushed, and our hotel had everything we needed.

We stayed at The Lakeside at Nuwarawewa. The room was basic, but the hotel grounds were lovely and the restaurant was amazing. I ordered vegetarian curry and rice for lunch and I got enough food for 2 people for $5.

The pool area at the Lakeside at Nuruwewa

Lunch!