Half way to Germany, might as well celebrate with a German beer.
Half way to Germany, might as well celebrate with a German beer.
Black Rhino
Black Rhino
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train

As you can tell from the recent blog posts, the trains were one of my favorite things about Sri Lanka. At the very end of our stay we finally managed to score some tickets for the ’1st class observation’ car that I had heard people rave about. They have a special car at the end of the car with huge glass windows that face down the tracks. The $7 fare for the all-day journey makes this a very attractive option for tourists and locals alike. As an added bonus the fare includes assigned seats – yes, assigned seats on a form of Sri Lankan public transport!

Starting from Ella the route crosses through some of the very best scenery that the hill country has to offer. Tons of tea plantations, the occasional temple, some forests and many many tunnels. The weather was constantly on the change. Sunny one moment, dense fog the next moment with maybe with a little drizzle and then even more sun. The observation car was about half full that day so we were able to rotate seats with the others to have some time in the ‘front row’ near the windows. Such a great way to travel.

We spent our last full day exploring Colombo. The city isn’t exactly the crown jewel in the Sri Lankan tourist circuit but it does have a few worthwhile diversions. We dropped by the National History Museum for a couple of hours and got a nice recap of places we had visited while we sweated like crazy (the museum could use a few more fans, I know AC is asking too much). After that we found one of Sri Lanka’s highest end shopping malls (Odel) and mooched some of their air conditioning while perusing a bookstore. The mall is tiny but it is built into what looks to be an old colonial-era building. Pretty nicely executed if you ask me.

The National Museum
The National Museum

Back in the heat, we stopped by the Gangaramaya Temple on our way to Galle Face Green – a lively park right along the coast. The well-known Galle Face Hotel is just at the south end of the green so we popped in for some drinks at sunset. Our perfectly timed arrival got us seats at the front just before the place the place filled up! I don’t remember exactly what was in our cocktails but mine was nicely executed with some of the local spices (like real cinnamon!) and, of course, gin.

After happy hour, we bussed it back towards the Kollupitiya neighborhood where we were staying. One big turn-off about Colombo is the lack of budget accommodations in the center – there is next to nothing! The few budget options we could find were fully-booked and we ended up spending an astronomical $96 for our one night stay. In retrospect, it would have been much better to drop $140 to stay at the Galle Face Hotel. At least that hotel has a nice pool and quirky colonial architecture.

Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel

Despite our splurge on accommodations on the last night, Sri Lanka was exceptionally friendly to our budget. When it was all said and done, we spent about $25 per person per day over the course of our 25-day visit. This included a few splurges (like our elephant safari and the visit to Pigeon Island) as well. If we had visited more of the national parks we would have ended up a little higher but all in all, it is a very cheap destination.

So that’s that. What an incredible country and I am very glad we devoted almost a month to it. I am sure it will stand out as being one of the highlights of our RTW trip and I would gladly come back for another visit. In closing, Amy and I thought it would be good to list out some of the best parts of our Sri Lanka experience.

  • Elephant House brand ginger beer: burn-your-nostrils refreshing
  • Rice and curry: it’s not as simple as it sounds
  • Train travel (also hanging out of over-crowded trains)
  • Tuskers!
  • Fun interactions with the many English-speaking locals
  • Finally learning to eat with our hands
  • Clothes drying racks in just about every hotel room
  • Leftover British formalities (“Would the madame like some more ginger beer?”)
  • The rolling green hills of the tea plantations
Train to Colombo
We finally managed to buy some first class tickets!
We finally managed to buy some first class tickets!
Black-hooded Oriole
Black-hooded Oriole
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
1st Class Observation car is at the back of the train
Some locals were keen to have their photos taken with Amy
Some locals were keen to have their photos taken with Amy
The National Museum
The National Museum
Galle Face Promenade in Colombo
Galle Face Promenade in Colombo
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
Drinks at the Galle Face Hotel
A nice Indian thali to close out our Sri Lanka food adventures
A nice Indian thali to close out our Sri Lanka food adventures
One final bus ride in our favorite seats - last row!
One final bus ride in our favorite seats – last row!
Kuwait, Male, Sharjah and London are some of the fun destinations from CMB
Kuwait, Male, Sharjah and London are some of the fun destinations from CMB

Here is a little something I typed up after a much-needed haircut in Ella:

Well I just got back to the guesthouse after a lengthy absence.  I left about two hours ago on a mission to get my hair cut here in the tiny village of Ella and it turned out to be a bit of an adventure.  You see, I happened to pick September 4th for my haircut which just so happens to be the last day of school holidays.  Business was brisk that day according to the barber but my 400 rupee (US$ 4) bid, over 4X the price locals pay, rapidly secured me a seat in the chair.

It started off a bit shaky.  I did my best to convey that it had been nearly two months since my last cut and that the barber shouldn’t be bashful about letting those sheers rip.  ”Short, even shorter, please.” I pleaded over and over.  Eventually he figured it out and removed an appropriate amount of hair.

After the haircut he put a bunch of oil in my hair and went to town with a head massage.  I learned that this is a common part of your standard haircut in Sri Lanka and to say it was intense would be an understatement.  More than a few times I was certain that I was soon to hear the cracking of my skull.

Once the massage was over, my barber/masseuse excused himself and darted out the door of the ramshackle shop.  He returned a short while later with nice frosty mango smoothie on a platter.  Maybe he was feeling guilty about charging me so much over the local rate and he decided to give a little back?

So that was my cheap afternoon of entertainment on our last day in Ella.  Definitely a  good use of $4!  For those keeping track, this was the fourth haircut of the trip:

  1. Random hole-in-the-wall – Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  2. Peluqueria Chino Veloz (great name, isn’t it?!) – Rurrenabaque, Bolivia
  3. Steve’s Barbershop – Helena, Montana, U.S.A.
  4. Janaka Saloon (yep, double-o is how they spell there!) – Ella, Uva Province, Sri Lanka

Ella is just about at the end of the line. It’s a small village in the middle of tea country almost at the end of Sri Lanka’s hill country train line. It is very popular among tourists and has a good variety of accommodations, restaurants and activities but without being too developed. It just has a nice laid-back feel about it.

Drongo
Drongo

After all of our dashing around the country we decided to camp out in Ella for a full four days at the end of our time in Sri Lanka. It was the perfect place to unwind for a few days, catch up on postcards and generally enjoy Sri Lanka at its best.

On our first full day we rose early and completed the Little Adam’s Peak hike. It’s not much of a hike, two hours round trip, but the final push to the summit is a steep slog up some makeshift concrete steps. The views from the top are magnificent. In one direction you can see all the way to the ocean (provided it is clear enough!) and in the other direction its mountains and tea plantations.

The vista from Little Adam's Peak
The vista from Little Adam’s Peak

Following the advice of a friend, we booked the Sun Top Inn for a long stop in Ella. The family that run Sun Top were very kind and the food was excellent. One of our favorite things about Sun Top was the breakfast that was included with the room. There was a choice between western and Sri Lankan and we always went with the latter. Hoppers, roti, coconut rice, string hoppers, fresh fruit, you name it – they would make it.

String hoppers for breakfast
String hoppers for breakfast

Since we were going on short hikes just about every day of our stay in Ella, we fell into a routine of rising early, going for a walk, then returning for a late breakfast/brunch. This way we avoided the heat and landed a massive tide-us-over-til-dinner brunch each day. Did I mention the food was excellent?

Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks

On day two we climbed Ella Rock, a much more substantial hike than the day prior. Starting off at 6:30 we had to walk a few kilometers down the railroad tracks then hunted for the trailhead. Eventually I asked a local man and after some pointing he took off at fast pace across the fields and rice patties. Amy and I did our best to keep up with him in hopes that he would show us the real trail. In the end, he took us all the way to the top of Ella Rock without saying a word. Once again, great views from the top.

The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock

He led us back down the mountain along a different trail that wound its way through a maze of 10ft high grass. It would have required some trial and error to make it through this part on our own! We stopped at Rawana Falls which is apparently much more impressive during the wet season but it was nice enough. After that he took us to the tracks, tipped him a few bucks and then made it back to town to gorge ourselves on brunch.

Day three was another walk along the railroad tracks. This time we headed the opposite direction of Ella Rock to a village called Demodara. The plan was the walk there in time to catch the morning trail back to Ella. Along the way we crossed the Demodara Nine Arches Bridge which is a pretty famous engineering feat in Sri Lanka.

Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)

Another highlight of the walk is train tracks just beyond Demodara. Because of the steep descent through the mountains, the tracks actually trace out a circular path around the valley and then tunnel back under themselves on the way to Badulla. I wanted to see this part of the track but we were running late. Just as we rounded the corner and could see Demodara station, the train was blowing its horn and pulling out. We took off running and soon one of the engineers was waving us up into the locomotive. They stopped the train, we hopped in the locomotive and off we went.

Both the engineers were real nice guys and they answered all the questions we had about the trains. The particular locomotive we were in was a diesel-electric from Germany that was about 30 years old and, aside from the two passenger carriages at the end, the main cargo was fuel. When we got to the Nine Arches bridge they even slowed the train so that we could get some more pictures. Quite a fun experience in the real first class on a Sri Lankan train!

Day four was another visit to a tea factory. The owner of Sun Top gave us a lift to the Halpewaththa Tea Factory and we took a short thirty minute tour. Unfortunately, we struck out again as the day prior was a holiday so the factory wasn’t running. They wouldn’t let us take photos in the factory and the best part of the excursion was the walk back to Ella. We took a shortcut that led us through small farms and tea plantations.

We layed low on the last day. I spotted a number giant squirrels and birds from Sun Top as I filled out some postcards. In the afternoon we made one last trip to the local bakery to get the short eats when they were still oven-hot. The sugary breads were my favorite whereas Amy preferred the curry rolls which were decidedly of the burn-your-face-off variety. Late in the day I went into town to visit the post office and get a haircut. More on the haircut adventure in the next post.

Hill Country Part 2 (Ella)
One of the region's many tea factories
One of the region’s many tea factories
The vista from Little Adam's Peak
The vista from Little Adam’s Peak
Some welcome shade at the top of Little Adam's Peak
Some welcome shade at the top of Little Adam’s Peak
Sri Lankan breakfast: coconut rice, roti and a variety of curries
Sri Lankan breakfast: coconut rice, roti and a variety of curries
Afternoon snack of short eats
Afternoon snack of short eats
Ella Rock just after sunrise
Ella Rock just after sunrise
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
Dogs make much better time than I do on the tracks
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
The man who led us to the top of Ella Rock
Drongo
Drongo
The view from our room.
The view from our room.
Hoppers with curry for breakfast
Hoppers with curry for breakfast
Small palm squirrels, like this one, make an incredibly shrill chirp.
Small palm squirrels, like this one, make an incredibly shrill chirp.
Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura)
Giant Squirrel (Ratufa macroura)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
Demodara Nine Arch Bridge (also featured on the 50 rupee note)
169.75 miles from Colombo, in the hill country
169.75 miles from Colombo, in the hill country
The engineer slowed the train so that we could get a better photo.
The engineer slowed the train so that we could get a better photo.
A big plate of kottu roti after the hike
A big plate of kottu roti after the hike
String hoppers for breakfast
String hoppers for breakfast
Another visit to a tea factory where photos aren't allowed inside - sorry!
Another visit to a tea factory where photos aren’t allowed inside – sorry!
Wood for the leaf drying ovens
Wood for the leaf drying ovens
Tea pluckers
Tea pluckers
A huge spread of curries tonight - out favorite was the garlic curry with whole cloves
A huge spread of curries tonight – out favorite was the garlic curry with whole cloves

The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill

With our big train adventure behind us, Amy and I were keen to relax a bit in the hill country. Hot weather was one of the bigger annoyances we faced over the past few weeks and we left that behind on the crazy train ride the day before. Generally speaking, the weather is much cooler in the hill country as compared to the flat lands of the north.

Nuwara Eliya, one of the larger cities in the Hill Country was our first stop. The town has a decidedly British flair about it and the centerpiece is probably Victoria Park which runs right down the center of town. We were particularly entertained by the signs that were scattered around the park.

There are a variety of hikes that start from Nuwara Eliya and we opted to hike to the top of Single Tree Hill after visiting Victoria Park. A small dirt road leads from the valley up through tea plantations all the way to the summit.

The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.

In the afternoon we jumped on a local bus that took us to the Pedro Tea Plantation. We had hoped to see the tea factory in operation but it was closed for some major overhauls. We still took the tour but none of the machines were operating and on top of that we still weren’t allowed to take photos. In the final stockroom we saw floor-to-ceiling stacks of 55kg (121 lbs) bags of tea. I bet I won’t drink one of those in my lifespan!

Later that evening we had one if our best meals of our entire visit to Sri Lanka. We walked into town and ended up in a decidedly local “hotel” (they use the term to describe restaurants, not places to sleep).  The place was packed so we shared a table with some locals. One guy at our table didn’t seem to speak English, the other did and told us he was a local tour guide for Arab tourists. He was chowing down on some string hoppers, a local dish we hadn’t yet sampled, so we decided to go with the same.

String hoppers are noodle-like things that reminded me of spaghetti. They come in small little piles and you are meant to mix them with curry. The curries are already on the table in big buckets so you just scoop them out as desired. The fun part is eating these things without utensils. Using your right hand you mix, scoop and attempt to place a bite in your mouth without making a huge mess. Locals are very proficient at this but I am decidedly a beginner. Eventually, I made it through all my hoppers and even managed to do so without burning my face off on a spicy curry. The meal was excellent as was the price – dinner for two, including drinks for $2.30.  Unfortunately we forgot to document the experience with photos – too bad because I’m sure we were quite the sight.

A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka

The next day we completed another rough-and-tumble bus ride from Nuwara Eliya to Haputale. Haputale is a much smaller town and while the vistas are great (it is perched on a ridge) the food options were pretty limited. We ended up eating at the guesthouse restaurant both nights – more rice and curry, of course.

Another nice vista near Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale

A walk along the train tracks from the nearby village of Idalgashinna back to Haputale is one of the recommended activities so we caught the morning train made the 5km walk back to town. The views of the surrounding tea plantations were spectacular.

Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale

Late in the day we just relaxed at the guesthouse and enjoyed the nice views from our room. Haputale was nice but there wasn’t much to keep us there for more than a day so early on day 2 we headed for Ella.

The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
Hill Country Part 1
A visit to the post office, one of my favorite errands abroad.
A visit to the post office, one of my favorite errands abroad.
Quality signs in park as well!
Quality signs in park as well!
Victoria Park
Victoria Park
People playing in Victoria Park
People playing in Victoria Park
Tea, tea and more tea
Tea, tea and more tea
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
The view on the hike to Single Tree Hill
Masala dosai is finger-lickin good
Masala dosai is finger-lickin good
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
The only photo we were allowed to take during the tea factory tour.
Splashing out on afternoon tea and coffee at one of the fancy colonial hotels
Splashing out on afternoon tea and coffee at one of the fancy colonial hotels
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
A very typical (chaotic) bus station in Sri Lanka
Haputale sits on a ridge which yields good views north and south
Haputale sits on a ridge which yields good views north and south
The people of Haputale remind you to always eat your carrots!
The people of Haputale remind you to always eat your carrots!
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Spectacular view to the south from our hotel in Haputale
Hike from Idalgashinna to Haputale
Hike from Idalgashinna to Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale
Another nice vista near Haputale
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The fog rolls in to Haputale most evenings.
The crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan
The crescent moon marking the end of Ramadan

Once we had our fill of temples we headed south from Anuradhapura to Kandy and then onward to a town called Nuwara Eliya in Sri Lanka’s Hill country. The distance forced us to overnight in Kandy where we had visited earlier in the trip. The next morning we got to the station early in hopes of snagging some good seats on the 6 hour trip up into the hills. We didn’t know it at the time but we were in for quite an adventure.

Once we had successfully navigated our morning haggling test (for a tuk tuk to the train station) we found the ticket window and waited for them to open. We tried to buy first class tickets – sold out. How about 2nd class reserved? Also sold out. The clerk gladly sold us 2nd class UNreserved seats for about US$1.50 each. Could have gone 3rd class for about $0.80 but we were feeling rich.

Ok, now fast forward 20 minutes. Train pulls into the station and it is jammed full. All seats, all aisle completely exploding with humanity. The vestibules between cars, just as full. People hanging out of the windows and doors, etc. On the plus side, ample space on the roof…pity about the various tunnels on the way though!

Why look, it's another train overflowing with passengers!
Why look, it’s another train overflowing with passengers!

Our initial reaction was to run out of the station screaming, and then look for a bus. Just as we were about to carry out this plan a rail employee pointed us towards the far end of the train.

We went Sri Lankan and pushed and shoved our way into a 3rd class carriage as it seemed to have a little more space than 2nd. Somewhat miraculously, I found an area for our packs on one of the overhead shelves. We spent the next 2-3 hours trying not to step on people’s feet or their bags of turnips and split peas which littered what little floor remained.

Every 5 minutes a vendor of some sort (fried food, fruit, drinks, etc) would push his way down the aisle as he hocked his goods. Keep in mind, this is Asia and “personal space” is an unknown concept to these food vendors. You haven’t experienced Sri Lankan fried lentil patties until you have a gigantic basket of them shoved in your face almost knocking you out of a train.

Eventually, we scored the sacred place next to the door where Amy managed to sit (legs hanging out of the train) and I stood behind her. We were able to get this spot because it started to rain but it still felt like an upgrade to us – at least we had a view.

Always on the lookout for scratchy/thorny bushes along the tracks!
Always on the lookout for scratchy/thorny bushes along the tracks!

At some intermediate station another huge group of people squeezed on…probably added 20% to the souls-on-board count. Incredible! At this point I was literally hanging out of the door while standing on the footboards (the rungs you climb to board the train) right in front of the “Riding on the footboards is prohibited” sign.

The ride climbed from 500m to over 1600m altitude and we wound through lush green tea plantations the whole way. Absolutely spectacular. Despite the discomfort, easily one of the best train rides I’ve ever been on!

Train to Nuwara Eliya
Amy scores a premium seat by the door on our 3rd class ccarriage.
Amy scores a premium seat by the door on our 3rd class ccarriage.
This token has to do with making sure there is only one train on a given section of track at one time.
This token has to do with making sure there is only one train on a given section of track at one time.
Why look, it's another train overflowing with passengers!
Why look, it’s another train overflowing with passengers!
There is a fancy 1st class “observation car” at the end of the train.
There is a fancy 1st class “observation car” at the end of the train.
At some intermediate station, scores more people puled on with their groceries.
At some intermediate station, scores more people puled on with their groceries.
Always on the lookout for scratchy/thorny bushes along the tracks!
Always on the lookout for scratchy/thorny bushes along the tracks!

Anuradhapura was our last stop in Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle and by that time we were both approaching a state of temple overload. Like Polonnaruwa, the city is spread out across many kilometers of lightly forested land which is best explored by tuktuk or bicycle.

Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)

One of the most popular sights in Anuradhapura is the Sri Maha Bodhi or Sacred Bodhi Tree. This is the oldest historically verified tree on the planet and is one of the most sacred Buddhist places in Sri Lanka.

Mirisavatiya Dagoba
Mirisavatiya Dagoba

Anuradhapura also has lots of dagoba waiting to be discovered. The ones we visited had all been restored in modern times so they were much different than the ruinous ones we saw down in Polonnaruwa.

An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa

Like any good ancient city in Sri Lanka, Anuradhapura has some nice tanks that are worth exploring. One evening we took our bikes for spin around one of them and saw some water birds and a few aggressive stray dogs.

These guys are clearly bored by the temples
These guys are clearly bored by the temples

In the end, Anuradhapura wasn’t our favorite of the ancient cities but perhaps that is because it was the last one we visited. Visiting temples and ruins is great and all but eventually you’ve seen enough. I think we reached that point in Anuradhapura!

Anuradhapura
Mirisavatiya Dagoba
Mirisavatiya Dagoba
A door handle at Isurumuniya Vihara
A door handle at Isurumuniya Vihara
Isurumuniya Vihara
Isurumuniya Vihara
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
Sri Maha Bodhi (the sacred bodhi tree)
These guys are clearly bored by the temples
These guys are clearly bored by the temples
Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba
Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa
An evening bike ride along the shores of Nuwara Wewa

 

Nilaveli, one of the better-known beaches along Sri Lanka’s northeast coast is still trying to get back on tourists’ itineraries. The area was ravaged by the tsunami in 2004 and was a hot-spot in the Sri Lankan civil war for many years but things are changing now.

The biggest difficulty we faced in visiting Nilaveli was finding an affordable place to stay. Many of the hotels and resorts were destroyed in the tsunami and were never rebuilt, in fact you can see the decaying remains of many of them along some parts of the beach. There were a limited number of high-end resorts that were still operating but these were largely out of our price range. We were seeing rates of $100 and up per night – crazy expensive by Sri Lanka’s standards!

Amy eventually turned up a midrange option called the Seaview that had availability for our dates. We paid 3,600 rupees (US$34) per night for a fan “garden view” room. The room definitely wasn’t one of our best-value digs in Sri Lanka but it was adequate.

The beach itself was gorgeous. Nice soft sand that went on for miles and miles with hardly a soul. The area directly in front of our guesthouse seemed to be pretty popular with domestic tourists and, much to my surprise, there was even a lifeguard!

Pidgeon Island National Park, named for the birds which nest there, is just offshore from Nilaveli. We hired a boat and made a day trip out there for some snorkeling. I saw a black-tip reef shark, some lion fish and quite a few eels. The small harbor where most people snorkel was nice because the bottom drops away rather quickly and much of the coral hasn’t been trampled.

Seeing the sunrise was something we enjoyed each day of our stay. It seemed quite popular with the Sri Lankans as well. One morning while we were out for a sunrise walk a boy who was maybe 12 or 14 struck up a conversation with me. It quickly went from the usual “Where are you from?” to “Can I have you watch?” and I started to wonder if this little brat was going to rob me. Eventually some older folks walked over and I surmised that they were his family and they were all here on vacation on a village near Kandy. He behaved himself after that and the only other thing they asked me for was a group photo.

A family on vacation insisted that I take their photo.
A family on vacation insisted that I take their photo.

In the end we only stayed two nights at Nilaveli. The beach was really nice but food options were quite limited and, honestly, Amy and I aren’t the type to lounge for days on end at the beach. We return to Trinco on our third day and caught a bus back inland to Anuradhapura in the cultural triangle.

Nilaveli Beach
Crows are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
Crows are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
A family on vacation insisted that I take their photo.
A family on vacation insisted that I take their photo.
How about this stylin life jacket?
How about this stylin life jacket?
A dung beetle!  That's nearly a tennis-ball-sized ball of poo.
A dung beetle! That’s nearly a tennis-ball-sized ball of poo.

The first of our train adventures in Sri Lanka was from Polonnaruwa to Trincomalee on the northeast coast. We certainly could have made the trip by bus but I had heard great things about train travel in Sri Lanka.  I was determined to give the trains a try but doing so certainly required some effort.

There are a variety of Sri Lankan train schedules online and in the guidebooks but we determined that there is only one reliable way to figure the system out. You have to go to the station where you want to depart on the day before travel and ask the station master if there will be a train. If you talk to anyone else, or use any website for schedule information and you are almost guaranteed to be disappointed!

We set off from our guesthouse at 8AM by tuktuk to make the 20 minute drive over to Polonnaruwa’s new town where the train station is located. We were to catch the 9:24am train for Colombo, ride it for about an hour and then switch to a Trincomalee-bound train at Galoya Junction for another two hours on the rails. Simple.

Most Sri Lankan trains have 2nd and 3rd class seats and a few feature 1st class. The station master in Polonnaruwa told us that the Trinco trip was only available in 3rd class that day. Seemed OK to us as the total trip including the connection time was only about 5 hours. Total fare was 95 rupees ($0.90) per person, a steal!

3rd class
3rd class

While we waited in the station I had a good look around. The train system in Sri Lanka was built during the British colonial days and it remains much the same today. Taking a train trip in Sri Lanka is a bit like going to a museum and seeing all the old equipment that is still in use today was excellent.

Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time.  Important stuff.
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time. Important stuff.
Carnegie Steel USA
Carnegie Steel USA

The I-beams (discarded train track?) that was supporting the station roof was stamped “Carnegie Steel USA.” I found it pretty shocking to think that at one point in time the best way to get steel in rural Sri Lanka was to order it in from Pittsburgh! Roles are a bit reversed these days.

Once we arrived at Galoya junction we had about an hour to kill. The train to Trinco was already there but we had to wait for a northbound train from Colombo that had connecting passengers. I noticed that our train had one second class car tacked on the end so I asked about an upgrade.

Ticket counter
Ticket counter

A long conversion ensued in Sinhala between the two ticket clerks and the station master. Fare tables were consulted, distance charts were used, calculations were performed and double-checked. Finally, an excess fare form was pulled from a special binder and completed in carbon-copy triplicate. All the complexity stemmed from the fact that they were prorating our 2nd class fare based on the distance we had already traveled in 3rd class. We gladly would have paid for a completely new ticket but it seemed like they enjoyed the challenge. We happily ponied up the 55 rupee ($0.50) fare difference for the 2nd class ticket.

Exploring the station itself was good fun. There were monkeys sitting on the tracks waiting for handouts and a number of stray dogs milling about. The slender station building had all sorts of interesting rooms with signs labeling their purpose: “Carriage Examiner,” “Station Master’s Office,” “2nd Class Gents Waiting Room,” etc. I don’t know about other travelers but I get a great deal of enjoyment out of very orderly things like this when traveling in an otherwise chaotic locale.

Our train had about a half dozen cars in total and was pulled by a single diesel locomotive. I was pleased to find a plaque on the side of the locomotive that informed me that its name was “Alberta” and that it was a donation from the Canadian government. It performed well and got us to Trinco more or less on time.

We thoroughly enjoyed our first Sri Lankan train trip and aside from the fans not working in our 2nd class car, the ride was flawless. For me, it was infinitely more comfortable than the bumpy and cramped bus rides of days past and getting to experience a colonial relic of days past was icing on the cake.

Train to Trinco
Ticket counter
Ticket counter
Carnegie Steel USA
Carnegie Steel USA
3rd class
3rd class
2nd class
2nd class
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time.  Important stuff.
Equipment used to make sure there is only one train on a track at a time. Important stuff.
Paint reads: Flood Level Dec 1957
Paint reads: Flood Level Dec 1957

Tusker.  That’s what the locals call Sri Lanka’s indigenous pachyderm.  Actually, the term refers only to the male tusk-bearing variety which make up a mere 6% of the population.  We learned that fact and many others on our evening visit to Minneriya National Park.

The park is located about an hour’s drive west of Polonnaruwa and you need 4WD to visit.  By Sri Lankan standards, visiting the park is by no means cheap.  We weren’t able to find any other tourists to accompany us in the jeep so we ended up paying the whole 4,500 rupee (US$41) ourselves.  Upon arrival in the park you are escorted into the visitor center to pay the 2,600 rupee (US$24) entrance fee per person.  Nearly $90 for a three hour tour is pretty expensive for our budget but we are glad we did it.

Sri Lanka’s elephants actually migrate around the island but our visit coincided with the time they spend in Minneriya.  They spend most of their day in the shade of the forest but come evening they move into the nearby grasslands and lakes and this is of course the best time to visit!

A slow and bumpy drive through the bush followed our brief stop at park HQ.  Eventually we broke out of the forest onto a huge open grassland with a small lake.  Off in the distance we could see elephants and lots of them!  Our driver took us pretty close to them but I noticed he always made sure he was ready to make a quick get-away (engine running, vehicle pointed away from the animals).  I suppose you don’t want an elephant to go after your jeep/livelihood!

When we arrived there were perhaps 50 but that number grew to close to 200 as the evening wore on.  Given that they all must eat about 10% of the body weight each day, you really start to get the picture as to how much space and resources these giants need.  The total population of elephants in Sri Lanka is estimated to be around 5,000 individuals and they are listed as an endangered species.  Habitat encroachment by humans in mostly to blame.

Watching them graze was particularly interesting.  They use their trunks, of course, but they don’t simply tear off grass and stuff it in their face.  They seemed to tear it off bit-by-bit and form a small pile of grass on their ground.  They also use their front feet to help break grass free from the ground.  All the while they are rolling around their slowly-growing pile of grass with their trunk.  Maybe they do this to get the dirt and sand out of it?  Our guide/driver’s English was insufficient to find out.

Another highlight was getting to watch the baby elephants.  There were two small ones that might have been twins who were constantly wrestling with each other.

Another even younger baby was keeping himself entertained by pulling the tails, ears and trunks of the adults around him.  He was surprisingly energetic considering his size but eventually he just collapsed and fell asleep.

Getting to see them in a wild setting was an excellent experience.  They are fascinating creatures and it’s a shame that they are such a threatened species.  Hopefully the funds they get from tourists like ourselves helps to keep parks like Minneriya up and running.

Minneriya Park
Rugged late 70's Misubishi jeep
Rugged late 70′s Misubishi jeep
Some bats hanging out in the information center
Some bats hanging out in the information center
Pea fowl
Pea fowl

The next stop for us in Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle was the ancient city of Polonnaruwa. We burned most of a morning on the journey from Sigiriya which involved two of those lovely red public buses. By the time we arrived we were only in the mood to relax in our splurge for the week: a room with AC!

Some buses have meal service.
Some buses have meal service.

Being the ruins of an ancient city, the sites within Polonnaruwa are quite spread out. We rented bikes from our guesthouse the next morning and got off to an early start. The goal was the see most of the major sites before the sweltering heat took hold of the situation.

Riding a bike in Sri Lanka is a bit scary at first. Actually, being in any vehicle in Sri Lanka is a bit scary. The roads are quite narrow and everyone is trying to overtake each other in seemingly impossible situations. Oh, and throw in the odd elephant or tractor for time to time just for good measure. Riding on the bus I couldn’t help but admire how calm the drivers are through all of this. Nerves of steel.

Rankot Vihara - Polonnaruwa's largest dagoba at 54m
Rankot Vihara – Polonnaruwa’s largest dagoba at 54m

We made a bee line for the remote northern group of ruins when we first entered the park area. When we made it to the first large dagoba, Rankot Vihara, around 7:30AM and we largely had the place to ourselves if you don’t count the monkeys. (Another golden rule of Sri Lanka: all temples have monkeys. Lots and lots of monkeys.) Rankot Vihara is Polonnaruwa’s largest dagoba and, in case you were wondering, the center is filled with dirt and bricks. All in all, quite spectacular considering it is almost 1000 years old!

Lankatilaka
Lankatilaka

The nearby Lankatilaka gedige (a type of temple) was also quite a sight. The ceiling had collapsed but the massive walls (17 meters, the book tells me) still stand in a mostly vertical way. The standing Buddha inside was appropriately massive.

Even further north we came to Gal Vihara, a nice collection of rock carvings that are widely regarded to be some of the finest in all of Sri Lanka. There is a large 14m reclining Buddha and a smaller standing Buddha. Both are covered in an unsightly metal roof (infested with monkeys, I might add) that makes photography a bit difficult.

Lotus pond
Lotus pond

By the time we arrived at the relatively minor attractions (Lotus Pond and Tivanka Image House) in the far north corner of the park we were drenched in sweat. The final stretch of road to these sights was uphill and the sun was getting to be quite high in the sky. We rode back south to an area where there were some drink stalls and I promptly downed a liter and a half of water.

The southern end of the park, including the ‘quadrangle’ were our final stop before lunch. These are the most compact area of ruins in the park and are including on just about any tour of Polonnaruwa. If we were to go back and do Polonnaruwa again, we probably would have come here first thing in the morning as it was very crowded when we visited. Nevertheless, we still enjoyed seeing some very impressive stone carvings (including a 9m long ola book made of stone) and buildings.

After a quick bite to eat at our favorite eatery in town (Darshana Hotel on the main drag) we visited the Archaeological Museum (air conditioned! mostly) to some very interesting models of what many of the ruined buildings used to look like. The museum also had some good narrative in English but photos weren’t allowed.

From the museum we rode along Topa Wewa, the large tank (recall: tank is the Sri Lankan term for artificial lake) that sits west of Polonnaruwa. There is a nice road along the levy and the views of the surrounding countryside are quite picturesque, even in the blaring midday heat. A few kilometers down the lake we arrived at Polonnaruwa’s southern group of ruins. These are much smaller than the ones we saw further to the north and the highlight for us was a 4m-high stone carving of a person. Some believe it is one of the ancient kings.

By the time we finished with the southern group it must have been three or four in the afternoon and we were wiped out. The bikes were definitely a good choice but the heat made it very tiring despite the modest distances covered. The ruins of Polonnaruwa were definitely one of the stand-out attractions of Sri Lanka as were the country’s wild elephants. More on them in the next post.

Polonnaruwa
Some buses have meal service.
Some buses have meal service.
A refreshing Kik Cola en route to Polonaruwa
A refreshing Kik Cola en route to Polonaruwa
Rankot Vihara - Polonnaruwa's largest dagoba at 54m
Rankot Vihara – Polonnaruwa’s largest dagoba at 54m
We took our shoes on and off many times when visiting Polonaruwa.
We took our shoes on and off many times when visiting Polonaruwa.
Kiri Vihara
Kiri Vihara
Lankatilaka
Lankatilaka
Monkeys at the temple
Monkeys at the temple
Lotus pond
Lotus pond
The oldest Hindu structure at Polonaruwa
The oldest Hindu structure at Polonaruwa
Giant stone replica of an ola book.
Giant stone replica of an ola book.
Thuparama Gedige
Thuparama Gedige
Decorative moonstone
Decorative moonstone
The baths
The baths
The tank near Polonaruwa - Topa Wewa
The tank near Polonaruwa – Topa Wewa
Lots of storks keeping an eye on us.
Lots of storks keeping an eye on us.

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