Route: Colombo - Wilpattu National Park - Dambulla - Kandy - Ella - Yala National Park - Mirissa - Colombo
Following our stop over in Bangkok, Thailand, we continued our Asian journey with a flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were in Sri Lanka for a month and aimed to explore as much of it as possible. Our route went clockwise around the country, starting and finishing at Colombo airport.
Our arrival in Sri Lanka was very early in the morning (1am) and we're pleased at how quickly we were able to clear immigration and collect our bags. A short taxi ride got us to our accommodation for the rest of the night, a private hotel run by very friendly and helpful hosts.
After a good nights sleep, even if a bit short, and a hearty breakfast we were on our way to our first destination. What followed was a fascinating four hour drive, first through urban then rural Sri Lanka, to reach the Wilpattu Tree Houses, our accommodation for the next three days. As the name suggests our accommodation was best described as a cabin on stilts, about 10 meters off the ground and with great views of the lower tree canopy that was all around us. The level of comfort was actually a bit better than we might have expected. The one room cabin had its own bathroom, air-conditioning and a quite comfortable bed.
Our room is on the top floor
Our Tree House
A monsoon shower had greeted our arrival at the Tree Houses, so sheltering from the rain was the first order of the day. The rain continued into the afternoon which meant we couldn’t do much other than organise our activities for the following day.
Fortunately by the next day the storm had cleared and the weather was good for our half day safari into the Wilpattu National Park. Soon after dawn we were in the park scouting for some of its iconic wildlife. It has a good population of Asian Elephant, Leopard and Sloth Bear, but unfortunately all eluded us, but on the plus side it's a beautiful park and saw lots of other wildlife. The next day was more of the same and equally enjoyable.
White throated kingfisher
Water monitor lizard
Bird of Prey
Peacock in a tree
Jungle fowl, Sri Lanka National Bird
Land Monitor Lizard
Wilpattu National Park
The afternoons were hot and humid. We had an early start each day, so after the safari we generally relaxed in the tree house. Excursions out onto our elevated deck to watch the bird life, and some mad Palm Squirrels, together with a short walk to a nearby lake were our only other activities.
From Wilpattu we had a scenic taxi ride south east, through the central lowlands, to the town of Dambulla. Our hotel was modern and comfortable and we seemed to be the only guests. The reason for our visit to this part of the country was to see two of Sri Lanka’s famous ancient monument.
The first was the Cave Temples of Dambulla. Only a few kilometres from our hotel we decided to make our own way there. A short walk to the main road followed by a 5 minute Tuk-Tuk ride got us to the entrance of the temple complex. Easy so far, but that wasn’t the case when it came to finding the ticket office. There were no signs that we could see and the directions we were given by different people didn’t seem to help. Finally we came across a monk who was much more helpful and we eventually found the ticket office. By now we had been wondering around for about 30 minutes, up and down slopes and in and out of the complex. But this hadn’t dulled our determination and we climbed up even more steps to the top of as massive bolder where the temples were located. In the end it was well worth the effort, the temples were not only amazing they were quite unique. Built between the surface of the bolder and an enormous rock overhang they numbered five with each being a bit different. The floor, ceiling and some inner walls are all the natural rock of the bolder, with only the outer and some dividing walls manmade. Dating back over 2000 years they were originally the hiding place of the exiled King Vattagamini. Who, when he regained his throne, had the temples constructed as an act of gratitude for the shelter the rock had offered him. Hundreds of statues of Buddha and other important figures fill the temples together with detailed artwork on the walls and ceiling. Although a lot has been repaired and renovated over the years the core is original and quite spectacular to behold.
Snake encounter on the steps to the Cave Temples
Cave Temples, Dambulla
Painting on the rock of cave temple
Cave temple of Dambulla
Cave temple of Dambulla
Golden Temple of Dambulla
Our second visit was to Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited attractions in Sri Lanka. We left our hotel early to avoid the heat and the crowds and the plan worked well.
Dating back to the 5th century and built by the kings Dhatusena and Kassapa, the citadel covers a vast site with its huge rock outcrop its focal point. You enter over a moat into a water garden and can immediately see how grand it must have been from the structures that remain. Following the central path we arrived at the rock crop and the start of a long steep climb to the city on the top, 200 meters above our heads. The stairs climb up the rock face past thrones and sacred caves until you arrive at the mirror wall. Here the rock face was once so polished it reflected the kings image as he passed by. Further up in a sheltered cave you arrive at the Sigiriya Damsels, Sri Lanka’s most famous frescoes. These busty beauties were also painted in the 5th century and once covered the whole 140 meter length of the cave but now only 21 remain, but very impressive even so. The climb then continues to the ruined city on the top where the foundations of palaces, bathes and other building can be clearly seen, the view is also incredible. One question that is constantly on your mind as you climb the rock, is why build your city up here. The answer to that question is that Kassapa was in constant fear that his brother would invade the kingdom to take his throne, so he reasoned that building up here would aid his defence.
Sigiriya and its moat
Starting the climb up to the top, going through gate made of boulders
The mirror wall of Sigiriya
Top of Sigiriya Rock
We spent our last day in Dambulla doing a bit of travel admin and looking around the town. Sometimes the most enjoyable and memorable times during travelling are not the visits to the country’s major attractions, but getting immersed in the local life going on all around you. Our day Dambulla was one of those occasions. Our goal was to go to an ATM and the Post Office, but the enjoyment was watching people go about their daily business, and there was plenty to see. Dambulla is a busy little town with most of the action going on around the wholesale market. Here all modes of transport were arriving stacked with fruit and veg and an equal number leaving with their purchases. Unsurprisingly, a major traffic jam was the result outside the market gates.
Wholesale fruit & Vegetable market in Dambulla
From Dambulla we travelled into the country’s central highlands and to the town of Kandy. Our hotel in Dambulla had arranged our transport and as it was voting day for the country’s presidential election we departed quite early. However, as our driver had already voted by the time he picked us up, he suggested stopping at a few attractions on route. This sounded interesting so we agreed.
Our first stop was at the Nalanda Gedige Temple. Not on the usual tourist route so we had the site almost to ourselves. It’s a mixed religion temple, both Hindu and Buddhist, and dates from the 8th century. The approach path must have been quite grand at one time as there were the ruins of ornately carved pillars laying on either side. The temple is at the end of the path and sits on a piece of land protruding out in to a lake. Its a very peaceful spot and an ideal location for it. After more than 1000 years time has taken its toll, but you can still see some of the details in its stone work, buddha heads and hindu gods are still visible.
Centre of Sri Lanka
Gate to Gedige temple
Continuing our surprise tour our next stop was a herb and spice garden. Here a guide showed us the plants and explained their medicinal use. Then came the surprise, at the end of the tour we were offered a massage (I say offered but there wasn’t really anyway we could decline) using the plant oils we had just been shown. To be honest the massage was quite pleasant even if it did take place in the garden on a wooden table. There was no fee for the whole experience just a donation. So once we had handed over a suitable sum and bought some of the herbs that were on sale, we were on our way again.
Herb & Spice garden
Green Pepper in herb garden
With the weather now turning against us we were only to make one more brief stop. This was at the Sri Muthumariamman Thevasthanam, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest Hindu temples. Very colourful and very ornate, we only had time for a quick photograph of the outside before the rain started and we continued our journey.
Finally we arrived at our accommodation in Kandy, a beautiful guesthouse run by a lovely family. It was located up in the hills above the town in a peaceful area with not much more than the sound of birds for company. We had a great room with a balcony and were very comfortable throughout our stay. We chilled out for the rest of the day, recovering from our busy morning activities.
The following day we hired a tuk-tuk and went exploring Kandy.
The first stop was the “Temple of the Tooth” which houses the “Buddha’s Tooth”. Legend has it that when Buddha died one of his teeth was saved and it eventually ended up in Sri Lanka. Because of the importance of the relic a whole temple was constructed within the grounds of Kandy Palace, just to house it. The temple was interesting enough but what made the visit special was that we were there for the “Puja”. The “Puja” is a ceremony to allow the public to see the tooth relic. It is preceded by a lot of drumming and flute playing, then a door is opened and everyone in turn can get a glimpse of the tooth. However, seeing the tooth is rather stretching the truth, what you see is an ornate casket that has multiple caskets inside the last of which contains the tooth. Still, an interesting experience all the same.
Temple of the Tooth in Kandy
Punja at Temple of the Tooth
A glimpse into the shrine holding the 7 caskets where the tooth is being kept
Temple of the Tooth
Next stop was the botanical gardens and a much more impressive place than we had expected. Billed as one of the largest and finest in Asia the 150 acres is enclosed in a loop of the Mahaweli River. It is tastefully laid out and contains a large variety of local and foreign flora. There are also a number of greenhouses, although you question the need for them in this heat, including an orchid house and a fern house both of which we visited. We spent close to two hours in the the gardens, enjoying the displays, the quiet and the wildlife. There were lots of different birds amongst the foliage, fruit bats sleeping high up in the canopy, a Rat Snake searching for prey on the lawns and even some native cattle.
Botanical garden, Kandy
Kandy Botanical garden, ladders made of 6 or is it 7 seven ladders tied together
Canon ball tree
Fruit bats in botanical garden
Rat Snake appearance
Rat Snake encounter
As we exited the gardens we felt the first signs of rain so looked for an inside attraction next. That was a woodcraft workshop that carved ornaments by hand from a variety of locally sourced woods. We were given a demonstration then invited to view the shop, finally leaving with a rather nice wooden mask.
All this exploring had made us hungry so it was time for a late lunch. During our time in Asia we have had some very nice local meals but every so often you feel the need for something your taste buds are more use to, so we sought out a recommended pizza place. Following a very tasty pizza we were ready to call an end to our exploring for the day and headed back to our accommodation.
Rested and revived after a good night sleep and a hearty breakfast we were ready to explore more of Kandy. Our main focus was to walk around the lake and to observe what went on around it. This included short conversations with locals and watching the surprisingly plentiful wildlife, in particular a large Monitor Lizard searching for buried eggs on the shoreline. With the lake circled it was time to find an ATM and check out the shops, then another late lunch and a chill out back at the room.
View of the Temple of the Tooth and Queen's temple
Confining our Kandy activities to an extended morning worked well as by mid afternoon the rain would arrive. This weather pattern had been with us for all of our time in northern and central Sri Lanka. Morning would dawn bright and sunny, then the clouds would build up and finally a heavy downpour would arrive by mid to late afternoon.
The next day it was time to leave our comfortable accommodation and to journey further into the central hills. The journey started at Kandy railway station were we caught the 11:10 bound for Ella. We arrived at the station in good time and while waiting were entertained by locals, who had left their arrival a bit late, running and jumping on the train as it was leaving the station. This reminded us of the old days in Europe before health and safety went mad.
Kandy train station
Boarding the train at Kandy station
Our journey to Ella took six and a half hours and once clear of the Kandy suburbs was through rolling hills dissected by rivers, past numerous waterfalls and what seemed like a never ending tea plantation. With a comfortable carriage, we had splashed out £5 each for 1st class with air conditioning and reclining seats, and beautiful scenery it was a pleasant way to travel. The train itself was pretty old rolling stock pulled by a diesel locomotive and rattled along at a stately pace. The slow speed aided in the taking of photographs which were best achieved through the opens doors between the carriages. That was when the space wasn’t blocked by other tourists hanging out taking selfies. You also had to hold on tight as the carriage would shake around constantly whilst the train negotiated the uneven track.
First class carriage
On our way to Ella
Tea plantation from the train
Train to Ella
More tea plantation from the train
Train to Ella
Once in Ella a short taxi ride up into the neighbouring hillside got us to our accommodation. First impressions weren’t good as it appeared that we had arrived at a building site, but once inside things improved greatly. The views from the dining area and our bedroom balcony were stunning and it reminded us why we had booked the place. In addition to the balcony view the room had a chaise longue, comfortable king size bed, en-suite and an unusual wall decoration. The wall was cleverly sculptured with three elephants protruding from it and with foliage both painted and planted on it to make the scene more realistic. Just beneath it there was a small shelf that was plastered to resemble the forest floor and acted as a secure surface for the plant life to grow from.
However, the only downside of the wall display and a forest buffing up against our balcony, was the insect life that wanted to share our room with us. To be honest it wasn’t to difficult accommodate them and it was a trade off for the beautiful location we were in.
We had two days to explore Ella and its surrounding countryside and needed to choose what we wanted to see. We could see “Little Rawana Falls” from our balcony so hiking closer wasn’t necessary and the town of Ella was full of restaurants and curio shops so wasn’t of interest to us. We settled on two excursions, one for each morning as rain was forecast for the afternoon.
View from our bedroom
View from our bedroom balcony
Our first was to visit the Nine Arch Railway Bridge a few kilometres outside town. A tuk-tuk got us to the top of the valley and from there we walked down to the railway line. The track is not electrified so it is quite safe to walk along, provided you stay vigilant for any approaching train. A short walk got us to the bridge and quite a feat of engineering it is. Nine brick arches, of typical victorian design, carry the railway track across a deep ravine. Today it was also doing the same job for quite a few tourist all looking for a photo opportunity. We crossed the bridge, traversed a railway tunnel and started our walk back to town. Walking along the railway track was quite easy going which was handy as there was only thick bush either side. Although we were aware that this might be our only refuge should a train arrive unexpectedly. We had been told the times of the trains and had managed to reach a safe vantage point on another bridge when one passed. It was now just a short stretch of track before reached Ella station and the end of the day’s excursion.
Nine Arch Bridge
Nine Arch Railway Bridge
Scarecrow to ward off Evil
Ella railway station
The second excursion was to summit “Little Adams Peak”. Not as dramatic as it sounds more of a gentle walk up through a tea plantation then some steep steps at the end to reach the top. Well worth it though just for the view.
Little Adams Peaks
View from Little Adams Peak
It was time to move on again so we left the hills and headed to the south eastern coast. Home for the next five nights would be a very comfortable room in the Laya Safari Resort. With a view of the Indian Ocean and the beach only a few steps away our room was quite idyllic.
Our room at Laya
Our room with a view
The plan was to relax, continue our catch-up on travel planning and to visit the Yala National Park, which was only a few kilometres away. In fact our resort was located in the park’s buffer zone, something that became very obvious when on two occasions we had Elephants in the hotel complex. The guests were warned of their presence and we were safely able to observe them strolling past reception, onto the lawns and around the swimming pool. We were told that although there are electric fences around the park the Elephants have learned to place a tree branch on the wires so they can safely step over them.
Elephant entering the hotel complex
Elephant sneaking in
Elephant attempting to enter reception
Going for a dip at the swimming pool?
Palm leafs feast
Trimming the palm tree
What a view
Elephant by the pool
There are fish in there but elephant only interested in the lotus flowers
(The Asian Elephant differs from its African cousin in many ways but the most notable are the tusks, ears and size. The Asian Elephant has much smaller ears, very few have tusks, weighs around 6 tons and has a shoulder height of around 3meters when fully grown. Where as the African Elephant almost always has tusks, can weigh up to 9 tons and have a shoulder height of 4 meters.)
It wasn’t just Elephants that visited the grounds, frequent sightings of Grey Langur Monkeys, Wild Boar and an array of different birds made you wonder whether a visit into the park would be necessary. But we did visit the park, on two occasions, with the main aim of seeing the two iconic animals that had so far eluded us during this Asian trip, the Asian Leopard and the Sloth Bear.
Samba and Spotted deer
Whistling duck in a tree
Oriential Pied Hornbill
Rose Ringed Parakeet
Chestnut Crowned Bee Eater
Male peacock in full display
During those two visits we saw some beautiful wildlife but not a Leopard or Bear. Then just as we were giving up all hope of seeing either our guide got word of a sighting. That word soon spread and before we knew it we were amongst many other jeeps racing through the park to the location where a large male Leopard had been seen sleeping in a tree. We soon knew we were at the correct location when we got into a long queue of vehicles slowly filing past the felines resting place. This number of safari vehicles in one place was a first for us, but it was well managed by the guides and everyone was allowed two minutes to view and photographer the leopard before moving on. The Leopard seemed unconcerned by all the activity going on below him, which again surprised us. The answer we learned was that the park animals had been well protected for a long time and they have come very used to tourist vehicles. It is as though they know that the more tourist there are the lower the risk of poachers being present.
Jeep queue to view the Leopard at Yala National Park
The star of the Show, male Leopard
A beautiful leopard
(The Sri Lankan Leopard is a recognised sub species of the Asian Leopard. Both Asian and African Leopards are around the same size, but a resident of Yala National Park weighed almost 100kg and is believed to be one of the biggest ever recorded.)
Although we were not able to see a Sloth Bear we left the park feeling very happy with our Leopard sighting. But before we left completely we visited a memorial site right on the beach. The memorial was to the people that lost their lives when the December 2004 Tsunami hit this part of Sri Lanka. The Tsunami took the lives of 35,000 Sri Lankans across the country, including the occupant (both local and foreigners) of three safari jeeps that happened to be at this spot when it struck. Ironically the death toll amongst the wildlife was much lower, as a mass movement away from the coast was observed just before the wave struck, an observation that has been replicated in other effected areas.
Our journey then continued along the south coast as far as the town of Mirissa. We had secured another lovely accommodation on the quieter side of town. Our room was in a period building with a balcony view of the pool, garden and forest beyond.
Our accommodation in Mirissa
There was a secluded sandy beach just five minutes walk away where a dip in the Indian Ocean was a refreshing relief during the heat of the day.
Our local beach at Mirissa
The town itself was much more touristy than anywhere we had encountered so far which made a change for us. As well as the beach there was a fascinating fishing harbour, which made an interesting morning excursion, and from there we were able to climb a rocky headland to get a panoramic view all along the coast.
Mirissa traditional fishing boat fleet
Traditional fishing boats
Sunset at Mirissa
Although we were quite content hanging out in Mirissa we did have a day in the historic fortified city of Galle. The day started with a one hour Tuk-Tuk ride along the coast, stopping to see the traditional stilt fishing along the way.
Our arrival in Galle coincided with a torrential downpour so the first job was to find shelter, for which the National Museum came to the rescue. The rain was very heavy but didn’t last long and we were soon on our way. Next stop was the Post Office as we had a few more postcards to mail. Our guidebook said that it was still functioning and well worth a look around inside. However, although our guidebook was quite up to date things had changed a lot and what was once the post office is now just a derelict building.
Galle Post office (no longer operating)
Undeterred by our poor start we continued our exploration and spent several enjoyable hours discovering the historic buildings, narrow back streets and walking along the ramparts.
Galle from the ramparts
Our last location was Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo. A drive up from the south coast along the western highway reminded us just how much forest still remains in Sri Lanka. Although suffering deforestation there are still trees covering half the island’s land mass.
Colombo is a sprawling and chaotic city with lots of traffic and lots of noise. Fortunately our accommodation was tucked away and felt like a little bit of calm, although this did mean it was a challenge for taxi’s to find it.
It was almost a one hour Tuk-Tuk ride to get into the city centre, not because of the distance but due to the traffic congestion. There it was equally manic but interesting to look around. However, we were pleased when we got back to the sanctuary of our apartment.
Government building in Colombo where is the president works from
Street of Colombo
Sri Lanka was almost the end of our asian trip as we now headed back to the UK. I say almost because we had a five day stop over in Dubai on the way back.
Personal Observations & Interesting Facts
Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island country in South Asia, located in the Indian Ocean to the southwest of the Bay of Bengal and to the southeast of the Arabian Sea. Its population of 22 million are mostly Sinhalese and the prominent religion is Buddhism. The official languages are Sinhala and Tamil although English is also widely spoken. It is the oldest democracy in Asia and has a free education system resulting in a literacy rate of over 90%.
Sri Lanka Flag
What surprised me at Kandy railway station was the toilets. Not that they were of unusual design or anything but they were restricted to foreign use only. The sign outside stated “For Foreigners Only”.
To visit a temple it is required that you remove your shoes. A perfectly reasonable request and one that we abided by on every occasion. However, for us soft westerners there is an unexpected side effect. On many occasions the temple complex is not all covered and there is a need to walk in open courtyards etc. In these areas, either the sun heats the floor to such an extent you feel like you are walking on hot coals or they are untended and you are walking on gravel. In both instances it’s not very comfortable and even leaving our socks on didn’t help much.
[Photo’s - Any shot showing shoe removal at temples?]
Sri Lanka Bomb & Impact on Tourism
On 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, three churches in Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels in the commercial capital of Colombo were targeted in a series of coordinated terrorist suicide bombings. Later that day, there were smaller explosions at a housing complex in Dematagoda and a guest house in Dehiwala. The casualties were high, with 259 people being killed, including at least 45 foreign nationals and three police officers, and at least 500 were injured. Not only a terrible event but one that has had an adverse impact on Sri Lanka’s main industry, tourism. Where ever we went the tourist numbers were lower than would normally be expected and this is having an adverse effect on the livelihoods of ordinary Sri Lankans. Hopefully the tourist will soon return to this beautiful country.