From Yala up through Hill Country

We had been in Sri Lanka for exactly one month, and it was time to move inland and see a bit more of the country other than beautiful beaches, though we will return to them later!

Our rough plan was to spend around 2 weeks exploring the Hill Country, which gave us plenty of time as most tourists/backpackers do it in a few days or a week maximum, and consists of 3 or 4 stops, which conveniently run along the railway line from Kandy – Ella which is a must do on this beautiful island.

However before that, our next stop was at a small town called Tissamaharama, which is one of the main places to stay for a visit to Yala National Park where we planned to do a safari. Yala is one of the best places in Sri Lanka to see Leopards in the wild, so along with that opportunity and also chances to see Sloth Bears and Elephants plus lots of other wildlife.

So, with a taxi booked to take us to our next hotel, we had also arranged to visit Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara on the way there, which is an ancient temple nestled in the cliffs of a 600ft rock and dates back to the 3rd century. As you can imagine, it is a lot of steps up to the various levels where there are individual temples and a great view from the top.

So, after climbing all these steps and nearly having a heart attack, we were glad to be back down out of the mid-day sun and into the air-con taxi to our hotel which was on the outskirts of Tissamaharama. Luckily, we had booked this place knowing it had a pool, and it was not long after arriving that we both got into it to cool down!

We were booked in for 3 nights there, which gives us two full days to explore, with one being set aside for the all-day safari. That first evening we took a walk into town for dinner, which was further than we had thought, and it was nearly an hour before we got to a lovely 24hr BBQ place and thoroughly enjoyed a feast of Red Special Fried Rice, BBQ Chicken & Chips, Salad, Coleslaw & BBQ Jumbo Sausage… yup probably over-ordered again but it’s so cheap and tasty it’s hard not to.

The following day we were going to go on a tuk-tuk tour to another temple, but with the heat and a tuk-tuk driver who wanted paid more than we were willing to, we had another lazy day at the hotel and ate there that evening as we had an early start the next morning for the safari.

Whilst in Unawatuna, we were given the contact details of a local driver called Nelson who was highly recommended for our safari, and after comparing costs with our hotel and another operator, we booked Nelson to get us at 05:00 in order to get us into the park for the gates opening at 06:00.
Most people just book a half day safari, normally in the morning and you are done for 11am, but as we had the time, we booked a full day which included a couple of hours rest for lunch. The pricing for the safaris is very confusing as you have lots of competition, but also different ways of being given the total. Without going into it in great detail, you basically hire the jeep, driver, pay entrance fees, tax and then it can also depend on how many people are in the jeep and even the jeep type!
Anyway, we paid around 25k Rs (around £90) for us both, for the full day which is competitive and with one of the best drivers around, he has been doing this for 26 years, we set off in the dark to drive the 45-minute trip to the park entrance.

Obviously due to the pandemic, tourist numbers are lower than usual, so instead of 400+ jeeps, there was around 40+… yes you read that right!

Whilst we are grateful for the opportunity to go and try see some wildlife, a part of me does not agree with the numbers of people allowed in at any point. Don’t get me wrong, this is a huge park and with it being split into sections, and us going to the most popular one, we knew it was going to be a bit of a scramble initially, but then drivers would take off down little tracks and you would get a little bit of peace.

Well, that is until one of the big attractions have been spotted, the Elephants, Leopards and Sloth Bears. We are pretty sure the drivers/guides all work together, well at least in small teams and they are constantly on their phones, checking messages etc then you would see the jeeps all race off in one direction.
But before we had even got a chance to try find a comfortable spot on the seat as we bounced around the dirt track (we had the whole jeep to ourselves too which was fantastic), just as we turned off the main drag through the park, Sadie spotted a Sloth Bear just casually walking across the road... We quickly changed direction and we had a great view of him just wandering through and digging for food under a tree great start to the day with one of the most elusive in the park being in front of us!

It wasn’t much longer till we seen a solitary Elephant too just in the trees off the road, but no longer as we got our phones out to video it, we suddenly sped off down the track along with another few jeeps nearby. Yes, the shout had went out, a Leopard had been spotted and was on the move near us.
We arrived in that area, but already at least 20 jeeps were moving around and trying to get into the best position, which made me feel uncomfortable to be honest, but end of day that’s what we knew it would be like and the prize was an amazing creature crossing the road and carrying on through the jungle... unphased by it all as they are obviously used to it!

So, with all three of the big ones spotted within the first couple of hours, now was time for Nelson to deviate off the tracks and get into more open spaces. He was a tremendous spotter, considering there is usually a driver and a spotter, he managed to see things and point them out to us that we would never have noticed.
The next few hours before and after our amazing curry lunch cooked by his wife, had us see over thirty-five species of wildlife, which was fantastic. We did see another leopard up a tree, and quite a few more elephants too, but no more sloth bears... they are the trickiest and feel so privileged to have seen one.

We headed back to the hotel and got back around 5pm, so a full but tiring day, so just at in the hotel that evening and had an early night as had a long journey to Ella the following day.

During a walk through Tissamaharama on the first day, we had spoken to a local who asked us if needed transport to Ella as he lived there, and his brother has a taxi. So, after agreeing a price of 6000 Rs (£22) we got picked up the following morning for the 2-hour trip up into the hills to our hotel called Misty Hills, which had the most amazing view of Ella Gap which our new found American friends Josh & Nicky had recommended to us.

With having 4 nights booked here, we had plenty of time again to relax and not have to rush round the ‘must-see’ places of Little Adams Peak, Nine Arch Bridge and do a tea-factory tour.
Ella is a busy small town, with most of it being along one main road with lots of bars and restaurants aimed at the tourists that pass through here.
Of course, we sampled a few of the afore mentioned establishments several times over the following days, but sadly the food was no where near as tasty as we had along the coast, definitely toned the spice down and catered for a more western palate and I had the worse wood oven pizza I have ever eaten… not good!

Little Adams Peak is an early, 5am pick up to go to the base of the peak for an easy 20–30-minute walk up for sunrise, well when I say easy, that is obviously for fit people and not for someone like me with a dodgy heart issue! Anyway, we made it up there and watch a beautiful sunrise with around a dozen others who had made the trip, well worth it though I think at that point I had already decided we were not going to do the proper Adams Peak which Is at least a 4-5 hour hike up 5000+ steps!

The next place we went to tick off the list was Nine Arch Bridge, which is a beautiful location and so often an ‘Instragramable’ moment for a lot of tourists. The best time to get these wonderful shots is of course when a train goes over, and with a sporadic and not running to time schedule, it meant having a couple of hours there to chill out, look at various viewpoints and see where that magic photo would come from.
Whilst it was a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours, it is nothing spectacular but the walk back along the tracks to the town itself was a lovely 45-minute walk in beautiful countryside with tea plantations everywhere, something we would see a lot of over the next week or so.

The next morning we booked our TukTuk driver to pick us up at 08:00 and take us on the 30 minute journey to Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory, one of many of them in this area and the producers of Halpe Tea, a popular brand here in Sri Lanka.
At only 600 Rs each (£2), for a personal guided tour round the factory by someone had worked there for over 50 years, it was well worth it and we both found it way more interesting than we expected and actually learned something… a lot of hard work goes into making that brew from the picking of the leaves by the ladies in the fields, to the men who chop and prune them all, and then the various stages of production which some of it is still done by hand. Fair play to them, makes you appreciate that cuppa even more!

We had a lovely 4 days in Ella despite the food, we enjoyed the sights and the atmosphere, and it is a place we would return too if we came back. But the next morning was another early one as we wanted to get the train to our next destination of Haputale, but to make it more interesting we got a taxi up the trainline a bit to see the Demadora Loop, a fascinating bit of British engineering which sees the track loop round a mound and the go over it to the station [/geekmode] then we went up to the end of the line to a place called Badulla to get our train back down the way again.

The Ella to Kandy train line that we would be following over the next few destinations is renowned for being one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. Glorious mountains, tea plantations as far as you can see, waterfalls, rice paddies and various other delights keep you occupied on the slow-moving train. This part of our journey was 2 hours and when we got to Haputale, it was a small town that had been built of a ridge, with magnificent views either side (well if the mist ever cleared!).

Our main reason for spending a couple of nights here was to go to visit Hortons Plains, a huge national park and also go up Lipton’s Seat, which is a viewpoint that was favoured by the Scottish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton (yes him from Lipton’s Ice Tea fame) whilst he sat there and surveyed his estate.
We decided to skip Hortons Plains, mainly due to cost but also there is a reasonably long walk round of around 3 hours, and not sure am fit enough to be doing that much exercise.
But the early morning rise again to catch sunrise from Lipton’s Seat meant we needed to leave the hotel at 05:00 for the hour drive up the hills to the viewpoint. We got up there just as the sun was about to appear, or it would have if it had not been so misty!
This area is renowned for mist/rain so it’s always a gamble, but at least we only paid a couple of quid to see the mist, if we had gone to Hortons Plains it would have been at least ten times that.

The view was spectacular though and the mist did clear at times, with being around 2000m above sea level again, it was tea plantations as far as they eye could see.
The walk back down through the tea plantations was lovely too and being early morning, we passed lots of workers heading out to the fields for their hard days graft, just the walking up the hills looked like it would end me!
We then got the local bus back to the town and did not really do much else in Haputale as there was not very much to do!

The next morning, we were due to get the train from Haputale – Nuwara Eliya and had pre-booked our tickets on arriving there. However, there was chat on the Sri Lanka Facebook pages the previous day about the trains being cancelled, ticket offices closed and not being able to travel due to strikes.
It turned out that the station masters were striking, so in effect no tickets were being sold but the trains were still running, therefore lots of people were able to travel for free. This was to continue for a few days, and with the Christmas period approaching, it was a slight concern it would mess up our plans for the next week but thankfully it did not.

We got on our train as planned for the two-hour trip North towards Nuwara Eliya, and again this journey was wonderful and after arriving, we got a taxi to take us the last 15-20 minutes to our hotel.
This was where we were spending the Christmas period, as Nuwara Eliya is known locally as ‘Little England’ for the amount of British who made this there base whilst building their tea empires. It has lovely old colonial hotels, a gorgeous Post Office, and various other nods to being back home, even a little English style pub called the ‘19th Hole’ which we made it into our local for the few days we spent there.

Having booked 3 nights here over Christmas, what else would we do but book ourselves into the two poshest colonial hotels over the next couple of days for Christmas Dinner at the Hill Club and then Afternoon Tea at the Grand Hotel.
Sadie had arranged all this, and it all sounded amazing apart from the Hill Club had a strict dress code, shirt (which I had) and also jacket & tie (which I had not).


Anyway, we went round for 7pm as advised, and of arrival I was whisked off with one of the waiting staff to a cupboard, where he promptly pulled out a jacket and tie that matched my shirt and trousers and I was good to go. We then got taken into a lovely dining room, however we were the only people there and felt uncomfortable just going right in and ordering, so we took a couple of seats next to the open fire and had a couple of drinks and listened to the couple playing the keyboard and saxophone till some other guests arrived.
The food and service was outstanding, from an amuse bouchée then fish course, then main and finally dessert and after dessert chocolate. And it turned out even better than we had expected, as we were told it would be around $45 each for dinner, yet only charged us $25 each... bargain!

The following day we went along to the Grand Hotel for our Afternoon Tea, but sadly the service and quality of food was no where near as on par with the previous evening, so left disappointed and hungry so ended up getting a Pizza Hut delivered to our hotel!

The final part of our journey through the hill country would take us a bit further north again, with a 4-hour journey to Kandy, a large city with some very important cultural and religious sites, where we would spend another couple of days exploring.
We are not huge fans of big cities, but Kandy had something about it that made it an interesting place to be. We found a few right dodgy pubs, some amazing Jain Cuisine and the best Masala Dosai I have tasted.
One bar in a hotel we aimed to get in to at the Victory Hotel but went in what was clearly the wrong entrance from a back poorly lit alleyway was an eyeopener. Full of locals sat around with bottles of arrack and the bar was no more than an off-sale desk am sure.
One of the staff quickly grabbed us, took us out another door and upstairs to what was clearly the tourist bar in their establishment… shame I thought it would have been amusing to sit down there and drink!

Anyway, the main reason people visit Kandy is to see the Temple of the Tooth Relic, which is housed in one of the most popular temples in Sri Lanka and in the Buddhist community as a whole. We went down early morning, mainly to get round it before it got too hot again as Kandy is back down nearer sea level and the heat was back. But it was also to see the morning Pooja, where vast numbers (I am talking thousands) come every day to give offerings to Buddha.
Now am not a religious man at all, but it was a very impressive thing to visit, and despite the high cost of entrance (£8), it certainly wasted a few hours away before we then headed up to a huge Buddha statue on a hill with a great view of the city.

Evenings in Kandy were spent in the handful of local bars we found, however there was one cool place that was worth mentioning and that is Slightly Chilled Café. Ran by an English gentleman called Michael, he’s got a great terrace with a good view of the city, sunset and with live DJs and some excellent food, it’s well worth the 15-20 minute walk out of town to get to and we over ordered yet again lol 

Our last day in Kandy was spent at the Royal Botanical Gardens, well half a day as by the time the midday sun was up, we had had enough and retreated to our air-con room for a few lazy hours, but not before stopping for some amazing ice cream!
However the gardens are beautiful, its about 6km out of town, so a TukTuk or local bus will get you there, and there are at least a few hours wandering around in there, longer if needed and it also costs £8 for a ticket.

Our last evening in Kandy was an early night, as we had a long day of travelling ahead of us the following day. We had been to the railway station earlier in the day to see about booking the train to Galle, as we had read online there was one direct train from Kandy – Galle, which left at 5am. Unfortunately, this train is one you can not reserve tickets for, so they go on sale around 1 hour before the train departs (the strikes had finished after Boxing Day) so that meant if we wanted a seat for the 6-hour journey, we would need to get to the station at 04:00.
So with our lovely host sorting out a middle of the night TukTuk for us, we got to bed early and we were both excited to be heading back down south to the beach for 11 nights to celebrate New Year and my birthday with friends back in Unawatuna.

Links to Photos

Mulkirigala Rock Monastery & Tissamaharama

Yala National Park Safari Photos



Nuwara Eliya



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