Having a whale of a time in Sri Lanka

Anne and I had an early start to Christmas Day, leaving our homestay at around 8am on our way to Sri Lanka. After a long car ride, a flight, a bus ride between terminals, another flight and a long taxi ride, we finally arrived at our hotel in a wet Colombo at around 23:00, feeling a little weary and not at all Chrismassy. Unfortunately we had to leave again at 05:00 the next morning to catch our train to Nuwara Eliya in the highlands, so we didn’t get much rest. After being dropped off at the station in the dark, we went to collect our pre-booked tickets, only to be told that the train had been cancelled! The guy suggested we try getting a bus from the station down the road, so we headed off in the rain to try find something. It turned out that Sri Lanka had been having three weeks of nearly solid (and unseasonable) rain and part of the railway line had been washed away in one of the many landslides affecting transport around the country. It was quite easy to find one of the local buses heading to Nuwara Eliya, and after a short wait for the bus to fill up, we were on our way. It was a pity to miss out on the train as we had heard it was a lovely trip, with really spectacular scenery along the way. We were lucky to get sitting space on the bus, as it rapidly filled up, with many people standing for the whole 7.5 hour journey (including a detour as a result of a large landslide that had just happened). A consequence of so many standing people is that you invariably end up with someone’s crotch or rear resting on your shoulder. The seats were also quite cramped as there was no place to store our bags, so we were very relieved to finally get off at Nuwara Eliya.

The long local bus to Nuwara Eliya
One of the many landslides on the road

Some quick views on Sri Lanka: I hadn’t really heard much about Sri Lanka, and was expecting it to be a slightly less crowded version of south India. Although there are some similarities with India, it is actually much closer to a typical South East Asian country in many respects. Many of the things that make India quite unique (and for many people, quite trying) are absent – traffic is much quieter, with very little hooting, fairly responsible driving and even a few large highways where you can get to 100km/h; actual traffic policing; it is much less crowded, with population density being about one third of India’s; there appears to be much less abject poverty; the Internet is fairly fast and reliable; people seem to less conservative in the way they dress and in their attitudes to alcohol and meat; and you hardly get hassled by touts or people trying to sell you things. Accommodation costs are more expensive than India, with not much in the way of backpacker type options, but food costs are similar, although Sri Lankan food does not have the variety of of Indian food, it is delicious. Tourism also seems to be geared towards western tourists, compared to India which has a huge domestic market.

Nuwara Eliya is one of Sri Lanka’s main tea growing areas, set amongst the hills in the southern highlands of Sri Lanka. The town itself is quite small and is used mainly as a base for exploring the tea plantations and for hikes in the surrounding hills and mountains. It is a fairly touristy town, with quite a large choice of different hotels. We also had our first taste of rice and curry, the standard Sri Lankan meal. It consists of a large plate of rice together with up to six small dishes of different curries and vegetables. It’s a great way to try different dishes but be warned – it is a lot of food. Unfortunately the rain was still carrying on which limited what we could see or do, but we did manage to head to the nearby Horton Plains for half-day during a brief lull in the rain. Horton Plains is a large national park set on a plateau east of Nuwara Eliya. It is home to several animals and birds, and there is a very nice short 9km hike you can do which include the spectacular Worlds End, a 800m cliff on the edge of the plateau. Well worth a visit if you are in the area.

Horton Plains
More views of Horton Plains
Trying to stay out of the mud
Anne at World’s End
Looking out over World’s End
Rice and curry, served local style on a cling wrapped plate (to make cleaning up easier)

After a couple of nights at Nuwara Eliya we headed to Kandy to meet up with our Irish friend Louise, who was joining us for the rest of the trip. After a bit of confusion we managed to find her, and then headed off to a very wet and muddy Sigiriya in the centre of the country. Sigiriya is a spectacular hill fortress (formerly a Bhuddist temple) dating from 11AD when it was the capital of Sri Lanka, and was one of the highlights of our trip. The fortress is mostly situated on top of a 130m high sandstone rock that dominates the landscape which you climb up using a series of steps and stairways. There are also nice gardens and temples at the foot of the fortress as well as a small but interesting museum on the history of Sigiriya. I recommend getting there early as it gets very busy later in the day when the tour busses from Dambulla start to arrive, with long queues to get up the mountain. Once you seen Sigiriya it is worth heading to the neighbouring mountain about 1.5km to the north called Pidurangala (an easy walk). Pidurangala is a Buddhist monastery with a reclining Buddha near the top of the mountain up a slightly tricky set of stairs and paths. However the real highlight is when you continue past the Buddha and climb up through the boulders to a large rock that give a great view of Sigiriya and the surrounding forest. There is a small charge to climb up (around 300 Rupees) but it is definitely worth it, in particular because hardly anyone else goes up.

Me and Louise heading up the mountain
It got a bit busy on the way up
Some useful advice
Some nearly 1000 year old rock art halfway up
The Lion Gate entrance to the final steps to the top
One of the many monkeys at the top
View from near the top


The beautiful gardens at the foot of the mountain
That’s Sigiriya in the background
Having fun in the mud and rain
On the way to the top of Pidurangala
The top of Pidurangala, with Sigiriya in the background

Another highlight of Sigiriya was the homestay we slept at, Lal homestay. Lal is a great host and the homestay is conveniently located a 20 minute walk from Sigiriya. Best of all is the home style Sri Lankan food that Lal serves, including string hoppers, coconut honey pancakes, pol sambola, wambatu moju and Sri Lanka dhal. Definitely the best food we had in Sri Lanka, and which resulted in Anne trying (and generally failing) to find string hoppers in the rest of Sri Lanka. We also got the experience the local rice spirit, arrack, and set the record for the most number of beers consumed at the homestay.

The amazing Sri Lanka breakfast at Lal
Louise was starting to enjoy Sri Lanka

After Sigiriya we headed to Kandy for a night, with a quick stop at Dambulla to check out the rock monastery (Dambulla’s main tourist attraction). The monastery is a short walk up a small hill and consists of a series of rooms built underneath the large granite rock at the top of the hill, which house several hundred Buddha statues. The statues are nicely lit and interesting to see, but I wouldn’t make a huge effort to see then unless you have an interest in Buddhas. Kandy is a fairly pleasant town, with a a large lake surrounded by many fairly steep hills. There are a few sites to see but as it was still raining we didn’t do too much sightseeing. As for Dambulla, it is quite pleasant but not really worth more than a day.

Some of the Buddhas at Dambulla
More Buddhas, with the natural rock ceiling in the background

Our next stop was Mirissa, a popular seaside town on the southern end of Sri Lanka, where we wanted to relax, drink beer and do very little else. Fortunately the rain had finally cleared and we were treated to warm clear sunny days for the rest of our trip! We arrived on the afternoon of 31 December, so after quickly settling in at our cheap and cheerful hotel, we headed to beach to grab some food and drink, to watch the sunset and to start the New Years celebrations. Mirissa beach is really nice, with good swimming areas and quite a wide beach (although every now and again a large wave creeps high up onto the beach and steals your flip flops). Similar to beaches in India and many other places in Asia there a range of fairly similar restaurants / bars offering loungers and seafood (with shark largely being absent, much to everyone’s approval). New Years was fun, with us starting with three bottles of Champagne at our hotel, followed by many beers along the beach. I think there were fireworks at some stage.

Just a regular day on the beach in Mirissa
Celebrating the sunshine
The quieter end of Mirissa beach
Getting a much needed back rub
A friendly bread man

New Year’s Day was spent relaxing (and recovering) on the beach, and the following morning we headed off at 6am on a boat trip,to try see some blue whales. Sri Lanka is one of the few places where you can see Blue Whales, with Mirissa being a particular hotspot. There a quite a few boats that offer trips and they all spread out until a whale is spotted, after which they all come together. The behaviour of the boats around the whale is fairly strictly policed to reduce the impact on the whales, and generally the boats behave, but there is still a bit of jostling to try get into a good position. We were lucky to spot a lone whale fairly early, and so we spent quite a bit of time with them. They aren’t as entertaining as the humpbacks we see in South African waters (who like to breach and show their tails and fins), and appear on the surface for a few breaths before diving for 10 – 15 minutes if doing a shallow dive, and much longer for a deep dive. It was really nice to finally see them, but you do have to manage your expectations a bit.

See if you can spot the spray from the whale taking a breathe

Our final day in Mirissa was spent at the nearby beach at Weligama, a big hangout to (mainly Russian) backpackers wanting to try out surfing. The structure of the beach is great at providing a gentle and long lasting surf, making it perfect for giving you time to actually get up,on the board. Anne and Louise did a 1 hour surfing lesson and were up on their boards in no time.

Getting some final practice in before hitting the surf
And she’s up!!

We had some really nice Sri Lankan meals at Mirissa, with our favourites being Dimali and Dewmani, and Surf Shack being nice for drinks. As is standard for most of these beach resorts, the food at the restaurants on the beach is adequate but not great (and relatively expensive) and you are generally better off finding some place away from the beach.

After Mirissa we headed a short while up the coast to Galle, a large town which was the site of a former Dutch fort. The fort area is still very well preserved and is the main tourist area, with lots of hotels, shops and restaurants. Unfortunately we were arrived on Full Moon day, a monthly public holiday in Sri Lanka when businesses close and the sale of alcohol is prohibited, so several museums were closed. It was still really nice to wander around the fort ramparts and the streets within the fort, checking out the many well preserved colonial buildings. The following day (our last full day in Sri Lanka) was spent chilling at the nearby Unawatuna beach, which a basically a smaller and slightly more upmarket version of Mirissa. We managed to meet up with our mates Anna and Ryan in the late afternoon for some dinner and drinks – they were in Sri Lanka for a wedding and had just arrived in Unawatuna. Our evening finished with a sad farewell beer and arrack with Louise.

Some young men practicing their chucking
Looking out from the fort ramparts over Galle cricket ground
Unawatuna beach
Us with Anna and Ryan at Unawatuna

Early the next morning Anne and I headed to Colombo for our long trip to Ethiopia via Delhi. We had a 9 hour layover in Delhi, so we decided to use our dual entry Indian visas to head into Old Delhi to try rediscover some of food spots we discovered on the street food tour we did with Reality Tours and Travel. Fortunately our memories were pretty good and we managed to find the jalebi wallah (still by far the best jalebis we had in India), the chicken wallah (amazing) and the sweet shop for a final delicious lassi and gulab jamun.

Delhi fried chicken for the last time….

Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Sri Lanka, and loved seeing Louise again. Sri Lanka is a really nice chilled place with a good variety of places to see, all in a relatively compact and easy to get around area.

Lal homestay, Sigiriya: https://www.homestay.com/sri-lanka/sigiriya/54088-homestay-in-main-road-sigiriya-sigiriya
Thenu Rest, Galle: http://www.thenurest.com


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