While having lunch in Dambulla, I'd overheard this European (Dutch?) woman sternly tell her Sri Lankan guide that she wanted to travel by train at some point, but that she didn't want to travel between Nuwara Eliya and Ella as she'd heard it was far too touristy and she didn't want to subject her family to anything touristy. The guide kept insisting that the stretch was the most scenic (and therefore of the most appeal to, you know, tourists) but she wouldn't have it -- and instead I overheard as he booked the family tickets on the train between Galle and Colombo.
I learned quickly that they were both right -- the train ride was pretty scenic, but doing it with all of China's tourists pretty much soured the experience. For starters, the platform was crowded with travellers (not just the Chinese families but all the Dutch, Belgian, French and German families, too) and when the train pulled into the station, commotion began as everyone tried to figure out where the first and second class carriages would end up. Commotion is perhaps too gentle a word -- stampede was more like it. You know how you read about those crazy stampedes at concerts or demonstrations where the crowd panics and people wind up trampeled under foot? That is an apt description of the train platform in Nuwara Eliya, as the Chinese tourists literally lost their collective mind when the train pulled up and began pushing and elbowing everyone out of their way (a little like the debacle I encountered when I went kayaking in Krabi, a story I have yet to write about). I was elbowed in the rib, had my foot properly squashed, and basically feared for my life. There was so much pushing and shoving, the local Sri Lankan people could barely get off the train, which just added to the general unpleasantness of the situation.
The rest of the train ride was spent enduring all the Chinese kids sitting in the seats all around me as their parents all sat in the back of the train, being the lone adult to supervise them shouting, kicking their foot rests up and down up and down up and down, putting their tray tables up and down up and down up and down, and generally behaving as obnoxiously as humanly possible. Finally they calmed down when they got iPads and phones in their hands so they could watch videos and play games with the sound on.
So, as you might imagine, I was not in the greatest of moods when I arrived in Ella. I'd looked at a map and it didn't look like the guesthouse I'd booked was too far away, so I trudged up a hill for a while (turned out to be quite a long while) and finally made it. The temperature of Ella was a lot warmer than Nuwara Eliya had been, so I arrived in classic SE Asia style: dripping in sweat.
When the guesthouse owner appeared, she informed me casually that the guesthouse was fully booked that night. I pointed to my booking.com reservation. "Yeah sorry, someone wanted to stay another night," she said. Not my problem? I have a reservation? Finally I got booking.com involved and they came to my rescue -- which meant the guesthouse owner asked her neighbor if I could stay in their spare room.
Oh, the joys of travel. There should be a whole Instagram of 'real travel' moments, the frustrated look on someone's face when they're told the place doesn't have their booking or when they find the bathroom wall is covered in ants or when they're being elbowed in the rib during a stampede on a train platform. I walked in the room -- very simple, although at least clean -- and shut the door and began to cry. Why does it have to be hard? Why can't things just go right? Why is there a slug crawling from under the bathroom door?
I got up and threw the slug out on to the patio and got back to my pity party. Whyyyyy meeeeeeeeee? I sobbed into the thin, cheap pillowcase covered with tacky brown flowers. Whhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyy mmeeeeeeeeeeeeeee? I looked up and saw that the curtains had been made from fabric that alternated between illustrations of a teddy bear and a pot of honey and the words "Good luck." Good luck. Ha! I wondered who had designed the fabric and if they knew what the phrase meant or if they just liked the way it looked. Why would you put "Good luck" on fabric? Why would you make curtains covered with the words "Good luck"? The whole thing struck me as absurd and I started to laugh. It seemed like a heavy handed detail from a horror movie, except that it would be too obvious to even be in a horror movie. Maybe in a very bad horror movie, but not one that anyone could taken seriously. Maybe the neighbors had it up there as a message for any guest in the room as a caveat. "Good luck ... with the slugs."
I pulled myself together and headed back to town to see what the village had to offer. Ella is teeny tiny and mostly just restaurants and cafés geared at tourists. It occurred to me I hadn't eaten since 9 am, and perhaps my emotional state could be attributed to being a little cranky as it was now past 4:30 pm. I walked back up to a nice looking restaurant I'd seen with a pasta menu and indulged in a huge bowl of bolognese.
I walked back up the hill to the guesthouse/neighbor's house, passing a Buddhist ceremony just getting underway in front of one of the neighbor's houses along the way. The temperature outside was lovely though, so I got my book (The White Tiger) and read the last few chapters until I'd finished it, listening to the sounds of the Buddhist chanting in the distance and the crickets chirping all around me.
One of the neighbors came home, an older Sri Lankan man, and we chatted for a bit. (Aside from the blasé attitude of the guesthouse owner in Ella, all the Sri Lanka people I met were just incredibly nice people, very friendly and kind.) We said good night and I headed back into my room to get ready for bed.
As I opened the door, I felt something graze my foot. Oh no, it's a mouse! Panicked, I grabbed my flashlight and shone it under the bed and there, sitting perfectly still was a frog about the size of a cappucino cup. It blinked at me stoically. I laughed. "Good luck!" I said to the frog. Then I got the owner and we chased it out of the room with a broom. The first thing he did was assure me over and over that it wasn't a poisonous frog, which was not reassuring because the thought that a frog could be poisonous hadn't crossed my mind. Wait, are there a lot of poisonous frogs in Sri Lanka? Do I want to know?
I said good night to the owner before we talked anymore about poisonous frogs and just as I was shutting the bedroom door noticed another slug crawling out from under the bathroom door. So I took care of that, then figured I'd take a shower. What to do about the giant ant population? I turned the shower on as hot as it would go and sprayed the nozzle around the top of the tile around the room, slaughtering the vast majority of the ants, which stayed glued to the wall.
As soon as I finished showering I saw something move out of the corner of my eye across the wall. Another frog! This one was about the size of a postage stamp and yellow. It just seemed content to stay put blinking and it was really cute, so I decided it could spend the night in my room/aquarium. I also decided that the mosquito net was a really good idea.
I got into bed, tucking the mosquito net firmly under the mattress. The Buddhist ceremony was picking up and a giant gong had been introduced to the chanting. It went like this: sonorous chanting for twenty seconds, a big gong sound, then ten second of silence, repeat. Sometimes drums kicked in, every 5 gongs or so. This went on until 7 am, when the Buddhist chanting stopped and was replaced by a neighbor playing his music so loud, the bass could be heard through the ear plugs I'd finally put in around 2 am. I tried to sleep through the bass but it was too much and I dragged myself out of bed and went for breakfast.
What you're supposed to do in Ella is go hiking but I was so exhausted from my lack of sleep the night before that I opted for the easier of the hikes and did a walk to the top of Little Adam's Peak. It takes you through tea plantations and up a steep hill at the end and was a nice couple hours and mostly gentle walk (minus the last twenty minutes or so). The area surrounding Ella is absolutely gorgeous and despite being sleep-deprived, I was glad to have a minute to soak in the rugged mountains and hillside cultivated with tea plants. After, I headed into the village for a late lunch, then went back to the guesthouse and took a much-needed nap.
The next day I headed out of town on the bus to Uda Walawe in the hopes of doing a safari. It took four hours and two buses to get there, but we got to watch the scenery change from mountains to rolling, arid countryside drove right past the National Park on our way into town. I made my way to the guesthouse and was informed right as I arrived that two other guests were leaving on a safari in 30 minutes and I could join if I wanted!
I'd been nervous about the costs of doing a safari but by joining the two Dutch guys staying at my guesthouse, we got a group discount (so 2,800 rupees per person instead of 3,000) and could share the costs of the safari driver (3,000 total). It meant the whole outing was a lot more affordable for me and I could leave early the next day for Galle, yay!
The elephant population in Uda Walawe is meant to rival parts of East Africa and while I've never been to East Africa (hello, bucket list!), seeing the elephants in the wild was just incredible. For the first few hours, we hardly saw any -- the big highlight was a mother and her baby elephant eating in some bushes. Mostly we saw lots of beautiful peacocks and other birds, and some crocodiles and turtles in the lakes, and a lot of cattle. But for the second couple hours, we went to one edge of the lake where they graze in the early morning and end of day and there was just herd after herd eating grass. I realized I'd never really seen an elephant feed itself outside of a zoo, and in the wild it was a whole process of using a foot to kick the grass up from the earth, then use their trunk to get it into their mouth. I don't have some major opposition to zoos, but after seeing elephants just walking around in their natural habitat, it really makes you realize how much these animals deserve to be living their natural lives. Yeah, yeah, I know, there are elephants born in captivity at this point who couldn't survive in the wild, but still, these animals are just incredible to behold in the wild and they deserve to live where they belong. (And seeing this a week before the whole Cecil the Lion debacle ... don't even get me started on hunting endangered animals that live in these habitats. There's a giant fence surrounding the Uda Walawe National Park to try to keep cattle and, more importantly, poachers out, but efforts at protecting the elephants in Sri Lanka haven't been as good as in East Africa.)
I left early the next day for Galle, and it was good I did, as through a combination of getting on local buses (and I think also the wrong buses) it took me 7 hours to reach Galle. Everyone I talked to in Galle and Uda Walawe had said it should take 3, but somehow I ended up on the buses that stopped every few feet to let people on and off. The bus in Sri Lanka is an adventure involving no assigned seating, all the windows open, and loudspeakers blasting Bollywood and Sri Lankan pop music. I actually find it kind of fun; you get to travel "with the people" in a way that going around Sri Lanka by car and driver you just don't get to see. In this case, the last few hours along the coast were quite interesting -- the beaches are absolutely beautiful, but sadly dotting patches of jungle between fancy new hotels and the concrete shells of destroyed buildings now covered in ivy were cemetaries crowded with headstones, most of them marking lives lost in the tsunami in 2004.
Galle, like Malacca, is another settlement in Southeast Asia that was originally claimed by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British. The whole fort is still intact and there's beautiful architecture from the Dutch and British days, much of which has been meticulously restored and is now being used for upscale shops and restaurants. Galle Fort was perhaps the first place I'd been on my trip that had a real luxury-travel vibe; Luang Prabang was really nice (sidewalks!) but still isn't quite on Galle's level. The prices in Galle Fort match the chic vibe, too -- I spent more here on food than anywhere perhaps my whole trip.
What's nice about Galle Fort though is that the sightseeing is quite compact and you can easily see everything in a day. I made my way around the sights of the area, stopping for rice and curry at a place called Mama's Galle Fort, which was arguably the best meal of my entire trip, and thankfully not overpriced like many of the restaurants in Galle, and later at a place called Fortaleza for dinner. I also booked a treatment at the fancy Spa Ceylon, a mini celebration of my trip almost being over, and indulged in a scrub and massage the next morning before leaving on the train back to Colombo.
I took the train back to Colombo and watched the ocean out the left-hand side of the train and the small homes and shanty towns pass by on the other side, most of it surrounded by palm trees and ferns and thick jungle plants, but always filled with life -- children running home from school in their all-white uniforms, the girls with their long black braids running down their backs and the boys with their skinny brown legs coming out of their oversized white shorts, women carrying babies and groceries and holding the hands of toddlers, men on motorbikes, kids playing cricket, women cooking over an open flame -- all these snippets flashed by as the train sped along.
We reached the outskirts of Colombo and highrises began to spring up, along with many unfinished highrises, their cranes dangling precariously in the sky. I enjoyed a leisurely dinner at a Thai restaurant with two Danish girls I'd met at my hostel in Galle before we headed to the airport to catch our very late night flights, the girls back to Denmark and me on to Bangkok,
Sri Lanka turned out to be way more modern than I expected, and in experiencing the country for 10 days, I felt happy and optimistic for the Sri Lankan people -- it's nice to visit a place and get a feeling that despite many years of economic hardship brought on by war (and subsequent natural disaster), that the country is on the mend and welcoming travellers. After all, it's a country with so much to offer -- gorgeous coastline, fascinating ancient history, cooler mountain terrain, incredible wildlife, kind people. And I got to experience it for a wonderful ten days that were some of the best on the trip.
Talk about good luck.