Sri Lanka: The highlands

Here’s a confession: somewhere along the way, in Kandy, we committed a moral transgression of the highest order.  How bad is it, you ask?

We ate Pizza Hut for dinner.

Twice.

We had by then begun to tire of Sri Lankan fare and were ready to devour anything that wasn’t roti, rice or noodles. So when I spotted a Pizza Hut from a tuk-tuk, I yelled “STOP!” and – when the vehicle screeched to a halt – dove out onto the sidewalk like a legit stuntwoman.

It was the most unsanitary-looking Pizza Hut in the world, where the floors were perpetually grimy and crumbs littered empty tables. Worst of all, they played Mr. Bean cartoons on an endless loop.

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Hands down the most depressing meal on vacation, ever.

We were here for the food, I constantly reminded myself. My kids were happy. The pizzas didn’t set their tongues ablaze. This is good.

And it was.

We went for a stroll after our meal. A light breeze was blowing. Traffic and noise has all but vanished by 9pm, transforming this grotesquely polluted town – which is strategically built around an artificial lake and surrounded by mountains – into a haven for walkers. A few shops were still open, and I was in such a good mood that I even blew some cash on some lousy souvenirs.

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Donning a sari in the market.

As soon as a new day dawns however, the city reverts to its former manic self, and you start wondering if the night before was just a dream.

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Kandy from above.

 

But no. We braved the urban mess to get to the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, which is the most obvious starting point for any first-time trip to Kandy. It is here, among towering bamboo forests and thousands of screeching fruit bats, that visitors can acclimatize themselves to this town without losing their marbles.

We met an unsolicited guide, well-turned out in a suit and tie, who regaled us with interesting facts about our pretty surroundings. But things got a bit awkward when we told him we were from Malaysia.

“Oh, your Prime Minister was just here for a tree-planting ceremony,” he said.

“We hate him,” snapped my husband, abandoning the poor confused fellow to muse on his wrongdoing.

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I still feel bad till today.

In the evening, we went to the Kandyan Arts Association to get last-minute tickets for a cultural show. Unfortunately, most of the plastic seats in the threadbare hall were already reserved by tour companies.

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I don’t mind as long as I get to snuggle.

Despite our rubbish seats, our kids still enjoyed the show, which – unlike the hall we were in – was better than your average high school production and featured balancing acts, fair maidens, drummers and, for the encore, a fire-eating and walking demonstration.

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We left before the kids get any ideas.

There was a footpath that ran all around the lake, but walking it seemed like madness, especially with vehicles tooting and belching exhaust just a few inches away. From here, the sprawling whitewashed buildings of the country’s most important religious shrine, Temple of The Tooth, is visible. Buddha’s tooth is said to have arrived in Sri Lanka in the 16th century and has been kept in a highly guarded chamber here ever since, taken out only once a year, during the Esala Perahera festival.

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Trying to bribe my way into heaven.

The 6.30pm puja gave us a little glimpse into how busy and grand it must be like during festival days. Lit by the glow of the setting sun, the temple was abuzz with tourists and lotus-bearing worshippers. The air was charged with anticipation. Sounds of drumming could be heard echoing from the lavish main shrine and we squeezed in only to find ourselves face-to-face with not Buddha’s tooth, but a big golden casket where the tooth was kept.

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No tooth in sight.

Anyway, travelers who have seen the tooth have voiced doubts on its authenticity. Some claimed it came from a buffalo. The real tooth is said to have been destroyed by the Portuguese in Goa in the 16th century – pounded into dust and cast into the sea.

Or maybe I’m just trying to quell my disappointment.

But the believers do not care, of course. A sea of white, they now swamped these halls and shuffled, barefoot and heads bowed in reverence, to get their blessings.

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The next day, we headed for Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s own little England – with equally depressing weather – nestled amid the misty, rolling hills of central Sri Lanka. Along the way, we stopped along several tea estates, including Labookelie, which was set in a most Instagram-worthy spot, though you need to beware of nearby villagers posing as tea pickers in exchange for some rupees.

 

The factory itself, though old and decrepit-looking, still worked okay, judging from the magnificent smells that drifted from the processing machines. I’m not a fan, but I was still slobbering by the end of it.

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#swag in the mountains.

We arrived in our hotel, Ferncliif, where a uniformed butler served us some tea and cookies. Our room in this creaky colonial bungalow was damp and spacious, with a four-poster bed, a working fireplace and a door that opened out to a well-tended lawn. The only thing that was missing was a round of croquet, though there was Cluedo and Monopoly to occupy oneself with in the evenings.

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Perhaps the only place they serve bangers and mash in Sri Lanka.

Apart from resting those weary bones, gazing at colonial buildings from the 1800s and feasting on traditional pub grub (which is also, incidentally, spicy), there’s not much else to do in Nuwara Eliya, which isn’t as scenic or as pristine as pictures might have led you to believe. Miraculously, it wasn’t raining so we went for a walk in Victoria Park, where a stern guard – who obviously had no kids of her own – confiscated Ari’s ball at the entrance, but she reluctantly surrendered it to us after Ari began shrieking and bawling.

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No #PDA, but snatching toys away from babies is ok.

“No balls in the park, please!” is perhaps the oddest phrase I’ve heard in a long time, especially in a park that allows entry to snake charmers and their irate cobras. Enchanted as the crowd of onlookers were, they scattered the moment the cobra slid out of its basket to hiss menacingly at a random man.

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Cobras for the win.

Yes, I suppose a child’s inflatable ball is infinitely more dangerous than an aggressive and poisonous serpent. #logic-fail

The Victoria Park isn’t really known for its plants, but it did have a massive, badly rusted playground with its own choo-choo train. The kids had a ton of fun there, even though the threat of tetanus is very real.

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Park on steroids.

We also went to Gregory Lake, a dull, grey body of water surrounded by low hills. Forget about deriving any peace here – Sri Lankans obviously detest any form of calmness and tranquility and do their best to disrupt it with roaring jet skis and motorboats.

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Getting their money’s worth.

On the shores of the lake, a mini funfair – complete with ugly mascots and rides that looked salvaged from the USSR – blasted techno music. For a few rupees, you can even ride on an emaciated pony, with ribs sticking out like it just swallowed a xylophone. Litter was everywhere.

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It ain’t no Disneyland, that’s for sure.

We were somewhat glad to leave for Ella the next day, though not on a train as was originally planned because tickets were sold out but on a car down a winding road interspersed with waterfalls.

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Yay, waterfall.

Ella, they said, is a backpacker’s paradise, a Koh Lipe in the mountains. All I saw were bars selling moonshine and lots of rastafarian souvenirs.

Marvellous Inn (no, it really is spelled this way) is a little homestay perched on a side of an undulating hill, in a remote location only accessible via tuk-tuk. We took an immediate liking to Ari, the affable owner, not just because he shared the same name as my younger son but also because he came to our rescue, loading our oversized luggages and the four of us into his tiny three-wheeler, before speeding up the steep terrain like a champ while I prayed we don’t tip over like a sack o’ potatoes. In the evenings, our son played Uno with the Danish family next door and we feasted on a home cooked meal whipped up by Ari’s wife on the shared balcony.

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Peace at last, and the sound of chirping crickets.

By now, the mountain woman in me was aching to go for a hike and so, the next day, we walked to the top of Little Adam’s Peak, stopping by a village filled with music and the shouting of kids playing cricket. The kids got over their shyness and started to mingle, their bubble wands now a source of amusement for all.

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After a short scramble up a rocky pathway littered with plastics, we were at the peak. The view was of the distant mist-shrouded hills and a porcelain Buddha.

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We made it!

We – or rather I – also braved a slippery, leech-infested jungle for a short hike to Demodara Nine Arch Bridge, which is exactly what it sounds like: a bridge. This one, however, was built for trains, and supposedly one of the best examples of British railway constructions although you would need a encyclopedic knowledge on train tracks to be able to verify that.

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#badparenting

We joined the hordes of reckless backpackers for our death-defying pose on the bridge, but soon heard the train, which meant that we had to vacate ASAP. A few backpackers obviously had suicidal tendencies because they refused to get out of the way, much to the chagrin of the others because if we were keen on gore and painful endings, we would’ve stayed home and watched Faces of Death instead.

These kids – fortunately or unfortunately – leapt out of the way just as the train came rushing by, tooting its whistle while everyone clapped and cheered as if it’s the greatest damn show on earth.

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Or maybe they were on moonshine.

 

STAY

Ferncliff, Nuwara Eliya Those seeking a quintessentially English experience will do no better than staying at this small, family-run boutique hotel in a historical property. Room sizes seem to vary but all are extremely comfortable for a short stay. Facilities are limited here but you can curl up beside a working fireplace with the hotel’s many board games. Butlers also thoughtfully heat your beds up with hot water bottles on chilly evenings. $$$

Marvellous Inn, Ella May not offer much in the way of privacy because of its shared balconies, but it’s an affordable homestay in a lovely, remote location that’s great for those who want to mingle with other likeminded travelers. Rooms are basic and location is a distance from town, but the owner, Ari, will be happy to pick you up in his tuk-tuk and get his wife to prepare a fantastic homecooked dinner. $

 

TIPS

  • You’d need at least one full day here to appreciate what Kandy has to offer. The town also has several markets, making it the prime place to shop for cheap souvenirs.
  • There are many cultural shows in Kandy, which offer more or less a similar experience. If you don’t book your seats through an agent, arrive early to reserve a seat that has not already been reserved. Good luck!
  • The train ride between Nuwara Eliya and Ella has been touted as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world, but because of its popularity with tourists, calling ahead to book is essential.
  • Be aware that, if you do make the drive between Nuwara Eliya and Ella, the journey will take longer than what is stated on Google Maps and made on a narrow, winding road. Steer clear of big meals prior to your journey and be prepared for motion sickness.
  • Walkers and outdoor lovers should factor at least 3 nights in the highlands (1 night in Nuwara Eliya, 2 in Ella or Haputale), but if you’re not any of those, or are saddled with very young children, a night in each town, while rushed, would suffice.
  • Out of the many hikes in Ella, the walk up to Little Adam’s Peak is the most manageable with children. If you’re keen on doing the nine-arch bridge, plan on hiking too. A tuk-tuk ride is not feasible as the ride to the bridge is extremely long and bumpy.

 

 

 

 

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