Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi
Kudzu Cake with Cod Milt, Salmon Roe and Dashi
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)

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!

Most advice for travelers visiting Sri Lanka starts as follows: “Get out of Colombo.” To be fair, we do plan to visit the city briefly later in our trip but apparently it has little to detain tourists. We stayed in the town of Negombo near Colombo’s airport while we got our bearings in the new country.

We made a break for Kandy early on our second day. The proprietor of our guesthouse wanted to send us to a nearby town on the Kandy rail line but he wanted a somewhat outrageous sum of 1500 rupees (US$14) for the transfer. We followed our budget instincts and hired a tuktuk to drive us down to Negombo’s bus station. Now “bus station” is a bit misleading. What I actually am referring to is a nondescript vacant bare-dirt lot where buses are in a continuous state near-collision with each other. We were soon to get our first lesson on public transport, Sri Lankan style.

Negombo's bus station
Negombo’s bus station

One of the joys of traveling in Sri Lanka is that most locals have at least some command of English. A quick check with a few of the locals taught us that a vague area in the center of the dirt lot was where the Kandy-bound bus would magically materialize at 7:30AM. We had quite a few false alarms but eventually one of the local guys yelled “Kandy bus! Kandy bus!” and pointed to the adjacent road.

There she was. The typical Sri Lankan bus engaged in its boarding sequence: a well-used Indian-made TATA bus, dust-and-white in color and absolutely mobbed by people at both the front and back doors. We soon learned that locals are hyper-aggressive about securing seats on their transport. Throwing random belongings through the window on to open seats seemed to be a popular technique. Pushing and shoving is also a much-loved tactic. At the same time, however, they are often quite kind about relinquishing seats for foreigners.

We made it on to the bus and managed to get ourselves some seats. Strangely, buses here lack luggage compartments and one of the great mysteries in life seems to be how Sri Lankans travel with little to no luggage! Eventually we learned that you can stack your stuff next to the driver on top of the engine cover – just make sure it doesn’t fall over on to him or the gear shift!

The Tooth Relic Temple
The Tooth Relic Temple

The ride up to Kandy took something like 4 hours and covered some miserably short distance (around 60 miles). Land transport in Sri Lanka is slow and often uncomfortable but is also quite fun not to mention very cheap. This will no doubt be a reoccurring theme here on the blog over the next few posts.

The city of Kandy sits at about 500m and the noticeably cooler temperatures were immediately appreciated. A man-made lake sits at the center of the city and a stroll around it proved to be a nice afternoon diversion. There was a surprising amount of wildlife considering we were in the middle of one of the country’s biggest cities!

Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple

On our second day in Kandy we visited the Tooth Relic Temple which contains one of the most sacred artifacts in the Buddhist religion – a tooth of the Buddha. It is not possible to see the actual tooth but at certain times of day you can briefly glimpse the gold casket in which it is contained. In one of the other buildings in the complex we saw Raja, the most famous of Sri Lankan tuskers (elephants). He was the lead elephant in Kandy’s annual Esala Perahera festival for something like 50 years. He died in 1988 and was stuffed in order to be admired for years to come. The Sri Lankan’s definitely love their tuskers!

Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.

After Kandy most tourists head south for the Hill Country but we had other plans. We first wanted to go north and visit the “cultural triangle” before finishing our tour in the cool hills to the south.

A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
Kandy
Negombo's bus station
Negombo’s bus station
Empty buses and moving buses are mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka.
Empty buses and moving buses are mutually exclusive in Sri Lanka.
Last row, middle of the bench: first class on a Sri Lankan bus for tall people like me.
Last row, middle of the bench: first class on a Sri Lankan bus for tall people like me.
A bus with a United 747 painted on the side!  I wonder if my 1K card would get me special seats?
A bus with a United 747 painted on the side! I wonder if my 1K card would get me special seats?
Fruit bats hanging out.
Fruit bats hanging out.
Bad monkeys!
Bad monkeys!
A rather stately looking kingfisher
A rather stately looking kingfisher
Sun bathing water monitor and lizard.  Not a care in the world!
Sun bathing water monitor and lizard. Not a care in the world!
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
A very determined turtle crawls over a huge water monitor to get to the sun.
The Tooth Relic Temple
The Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple
Tooth Relic Temple
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Raja the most famous tusker in Sri Lanka.
Tusker costumes!
Tusker costumes!
I definitely need to watch my head in this part of the world.
I definitely need to watch my head in this part of the world.
Coconut palms and mountains, a very very Sri Lankan scene
Coconut palms and mountains, a very very Sri Lankan scene
One of the first of countless rice and curries to come.
One of the first of countless rice and curries to come.

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