Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Etosha Pan
Etosha Pan
Oct 222011
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

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!

© 2011-2012 RoamingRyan.com Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha