Oh heck, let’s trek

I could feel my heart beating in my neck, each breath sending cold air down my dry throat. Looking up into the darkness, all I could make out was a twinkling trail of lights that led up into the clouds above. Around me, locals climbed in nothing other than thongs, children sleeping in their arms.

“You can do it,” he gently encouraged.

My legs ached with every step, my cheeks stinging from the cold wind. Fifty steps and then a break. Fifty steps and then a break. Oh another tea stall, let’s take another break.

Adam’s Peak rests at 2224m above sea level, and with almost twenty thousand steps done before 8am, we climbed it for sunrise. Setting out shortly after two in the morning, I must admit, it was a challenge for me. I blame all the curry. But then again, he managed much better than me and he’s had just as much curry.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Deciding to put the camera down and just enjoy the sunrise, it was a pretty special moment. And then we had to go down. With the sun up though, the view of the rolling hills below us was enough to distract me from my shaking knees. If you are thinking of hiking Adam’s Peak, bring a pole. Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

We were welcomed back into town like war heroes. It was eggs or eggs for breakfast, as my body was in need of some radical refueling. Packed and pumped for some time sitting in the car, we set off for Ella, with a few detours of course.

Lunch in Nuwara Eliya, affectionately known as Little England, due to the English-style architecture that is spotted among the tea plantations. We opted against rice and curry for lunch, in order to follow suit of course. Not a whole lot to do there, or at least we didn’t do it, but some very pretty buildings, particularly the Post Office. If you can’t decide on whether to visit Sri Lanka or England, go there.

Next stop was at Pedro Estate Tea Plantation, just out of Nuwara Eliya. For a staggering R200 (less than two bucks), we were taken around the tea processing factory, which has been in operation since the nineteenth century. Each day, eight tonnes of fresh tea is picked and processed in the factory, producing two tonnes of the dried leaves we love.  We know which leaves to pick for black tea, green tea and white tea, and all about fermentation. And finally, we saw how the tea is packed up and sent off to auctions, where the brands we know and love battle over the best brew to put their name and special twist on. Next time you sit down with a cup of the good ol’ green stuff, raise it to those who pull off back-breaking work day in, day out, to get it to you. Absolutely amazing. Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

After some long and winding roads, we ended up in Ella. A buzzing little town, packed with pubs and restaurants, fairy lights and tourist-friendly signs, things were looking good. Exhausted from the climb that felt like an eternity ago, our driver, probably after seeing me fall out of the car too many times, unable to walk, booked us a treatment at a local ayurvedic spa. After checking into our beautiful room at Hotel Mountain Heavens, with sweeping views across the valley to Little Adam’s Peak (bleh, easy!), we headed to Suwamadura Spa. For an hour and a half we, side by side, were lathered from top to toe in ayurvedic oils. I almost felt sorry for making the lovely masseuse touch my feet, but after the herbal sauna and a steam bath, all worries had simply dripped out of me. Literally.

Unfortunately, not getting to spend much time in Ella, we woke early the next morning and headed for the station. Two hours on a train, this time in second-class meaning I could get a “totally candid” photo hanging out the door of the train, and we ended up in Ohiya, the start of our six hour hike to Bambarakanda Falls, the tallest in Sri Lanka. Yep, the day after we hiked up Adam’s Peak, we walked for another six hours through paddy fields, up tea plantations, in and out of thick fog, via local villages, and down to a waterfall. We’re mad, but it was pretty mad too. Mad in a good way. Plus, he only needed to tell me to stop whining about my legs six or seven times. Not bad for me.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

That night, still unable to walk quite right, we stayed at Sri Lanka’s Eco Team Campsite in Beilhuloya. And when I say campsite, I mean glampsite. There were proper beds, pillows, doonas, and some delightful chairs out the front. The bathrooms were all modern concrete and timber, and we were served a four course meal under the light of the flame torches that surrounded us. It was like a scene from Survivor, but with more food. And much much more comfort.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

Earlier in the afternoon, we’d figured it would be a good opportunity to fly the drone he gifted me for Christmas, and after asking permission, we stood in a clearing metres from our tent, with most of the staff looking eagerly over our shoulders, and sent it up. Filming over the tents, trees and down to the glistening lake surrounded by folding mountains, it was breathtaking. The best part, without a doubt though, was that one young staff member was so taken aback by the footage we showed him later, that he asked us to send it to him. He explained, in broken English, that he had lived in the area since he was a small boy. He had hiked all over it, and seen it from every angle. But never from on top.

The standard of service at the camp was absolutely without fault, and so there was no hesitation from us that we would get him the footage. And we did. Watching him stop in his tracks as he walked back to the kitchen, fingers clutching his phone, eyes glued to the screen, was a small but pretty touching moment.

E x

Kandy is good for you

Let me see, where did I leave this?

We’ve gone a few days with little to no WiFi, and equally little to no downtime to write blogs. It’s nice in a way to disconnect, but after a while makes reconnecting a little exhausting. So let me recap.

On the sixth day, we headed to Kandy, the cultural cooking pot of the country. On the way we stopped off at the Dambulla Cave Temple, following yet another steep winding stairway lined by monkeys to up above the clouds. In five separate caves, a series of sculptures sat forged into the stone, dressed in colourful paint and dust from the two thousand years since their creation. With our wrists wrapped in yet another prayer band from the temple, we stood before the forty-seven foot Buddha statue in absolute awe.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetFor lunch we stopped off at Ranweli Spice Garden where we found all of our favourite spices – vanilla, ginger, turmeric, pineapples, cocoa, lemongrass, sandalwood, and more – hanging from vines or growing in bushes in a neat little demonstration garden. We were then taken through how each is turned into oils for ayurvedic practice…while getting a neck massage. Oh, and lunch was thrown in too. So cool.

Arriving in Kandy that afternoon definitely picked up the pace. Bustling dusty streets, people hanging out of buses, and the constant tune of beeping tuk-tuks playing on repeat. Quickly, we were ushered through the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha by a short, beetle-leaf chewing guide. With another group to see shortly after us, he swiftly picked our jaws up off the ground in front of the elaborately designed temple, and directed us out.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetFor dinner that night we found our first opportunity to venture out alone, into the wilderness that is Kandy, for dinner. After perusing TripAdvisor, to ensure our first handpicked meal was a winner, we settled on the Muslim Hotel. Chicken and cheese paratha fry and chicken kottu (like a stir fry but using cut up roti) to share. Oh, and with a side of mango lassi. All for a whopping $11. A+ from us.

The next morning we took a mosey around the Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, world class throughout Asia, where some of my highlights included the four puppies I found running through the bamboo garden, who I named and sat for a good half an hour thinking about how I could smuggle home; the lawn collection, yes it is exactly what it sounds like; the cactus garden, obviously; and the seventeen couples we saw having their wedding pictures taken, as it was an auspicious day in Sri Lankan culture.

On we went to a gem museum where we saw the incredible traditional process of gem mining, that hasn’t changed since it was first established. I ogled over a Sri Lankan blue sapphire ring resembling Kate Middleton’s, while he claimed to have misplaced his wallet conveniently. While in the frame of mind for learning, we headed to a batik studio and saw a group of ladies, laden in wax-coated aprons, drawing and dying strips of cotton cloth into wicked works of art.

With a rumble in our tummies again, we went rogue and ventured off on our own for lunch. We settled up in the hillside at a place called Slightly Chilled. Sounded like a pretty good sales pitch to us. Run by an British ex-pat, who had two of the most well-fed dogs we’ve seen in Sri Lanka so far, we headed there in hopes of something that didn’t resemble rice and curry. We ended up sharing noodles, clay-pot braised eggplant and a sizzling beef and vegetable plate.

That night we were entertained by a traditional Kandian dance performance, followed by some spiritual fire walking. The dance was a laugh and a half, and the fire walking sent us running for air-con. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetWe dined that night at The Empire Cafe, where we’d enjoyed smoothies earlier that day. Him, a chai and jaggery smoothie and me, a passionfruit and kitul juice; we’d both decided to pick a flavour where we didn’t recognise one ingredient. Both turned out to be different forms of sugar syrup. For dinner we feasted under the colonial arches of the flamboyant pink restaurant on a mezze plate to start and swordfish served with a mango salad to finish. Just what the doctor ordered.

Having spent most of the trip so far in the safety of our tour van, we shook things up a bit the next day with a train trip from Peradeniya Station to Nawalapitya. R25 for a ticket (that’s a whole whooping twenty-five cents) for a one hour train ride, we piled on the loaded carriage, and made friends with the strangers we were sardined against. He even managed to be invited to hang his legs out the door of the train for some fresh air just as the hawker came by spruiking his pungent dried fish delicacies for the third time. Lucky.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetAfter reuniting with our driver at the station (I’m sure he was never so glad to see us), we headed to the Kalani River, which flows from Adam’s Peak to Colomobo, for some white water rafting. The perfect GoPro fodder, we bumped and thumped our way through some pretty decent rapids until we reached relaxed water…where our guide then flipped the boat. All of a sudden I was much happier about the lack of crocodiles I’d managed to spot on the banks of the river.

Waking at 1am the next morning in the sleepy town of Delhousie, we chased the sun up Adam’s Peak, but that’s a story for the next blog.

E x

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Archiving the Ancient Cities

A day exploring the ruins of the ancient cities of Sri Lanka will surely not ruin your day. Okay, now I’ve got that out of my system, I’ll continue.

The history of Sri Lanka is long and winding. With each site we visit, we learn of a new king, a new invasion by South Indians, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British, each meaning a new city, capital, temple or palace. The last few days have been a jungle of information, steep steps, breathtaking buildings and sweat.

Instead of attempting to explain the serpentine story of the two hundred and sixty-something kings and five ancient cities of Sri Lanka, as guide books tend to do a much better job at that than I ever could here, I’ve decided instead to archive some of the most bloggable* facts that lingered with me at the end of each day.

*I’ve also learned that bloggable is actually a word. And I’m lovin’ it.

Anuradhapura
The fortunate thing about having a car for this trip is that we’ve had the opportunity to visit places off the beaten track that many tourist don’t know about or can’t be bothered to journey out to.

Our first stop was to the ancient Buddhist library building in Padeniya Temple; a beautiful wooden temple encased in intricate carvings, from the lion heads guarding the walls to the swirling patterns scored into the doors of the temple. A small complex used by the King when he needed to escape the capital, it was definitely off the tourist-map. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetNext, we ventured on to Yapahuwa. All that remains now is a stairway so steep you have to crawl, that rises out above the clouds and is guarded by monkeys. While seemingly small, this rock fortress became the capital of Sri Lanka for eighteen years from 1272.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetFinally we reached the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the first capital of Sri Lanka and home to the oldest tree on record – the Sacred Bo Tree. Along with our guide, Channa, we bought the most beautiful lotus flowers from the stall surrounding the temple as offerings. Channa explained that the reason we offer flowers is reflective of Buddha’s teachings about life – as the flowers that we offer today will be dead tomorrow, reminding us that we should live in the present and not the past or future.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetNext we moved on to Jethawanarama, or the brown stupa, believed to be the largest brick monument in the world following the pyramids in Egypt. Channa explained that using the ninety-three millions bricks that make up the stupa, you could build eight thousand and four houses. The whopping structure took forty-five years to build, but only seconds to take your breath away.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetThroughout the day we visited the ruins of architecturally astounding ponds used for water meditation (some could remain under water for up to two hours meditating), hospitals, kitchens and toilets, all of which demonstrated an incredible level of irrigation for the fifth century. Even I was impressed. About drains. Yeah.

There were stupas everywhere, some still remained submerged in soil yet to be rediscovered, all with unique quirks and designs. We had king coconuts and roti for lunch, and found many the stray furry friend along the way. One of my highlights, however, was a special place Channa took us, where no tourists go. It was a functioning monastery that had a tree which had built a cathedral with its roots. Pictures cannot do it justice.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset
We ended the day at Mihintale – a hilltop complex heralded as the place where  Buddhism was first introduced into Sri Lanka, plopped atop one thousand, eight hundred and forty-three steps. At the very top you can pull yourself up a sun-drenched rock to an incredible view across the hills and valleys, even making out some of temples we’d seen previously. As the sun began to set, it all felt very Lion King-esque.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetPolonnaruwa
In the eleventh century, Polonnaruwa rose as the capital after many an invasion at Anuradhapura. Apparently, there were also less mosquitoes. Bonus.

After driving through leafy national parks, we met our guide, Rahul, who took us through our paces. The Royal Palace, where the King lived with his five wives…and five hundred concubines. The Quadrangle, where each King built a new temple to house the tooth of Buddha. The lake, which is surrounded by electric fences because on occasion  the water drops low enough for the elephants way across the bay to walk on over. And the Gal Vihara, the most impressive monument we’ve seen yet. Across one granite stone, standing seven metres high and over twenty metres long, four different sculptures of Buddha have been carved. Immense, inspiring, inconceivable. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetSigiriya
Woah, you really don’t realise how much you can achieve in a day until you try to write it down.

That afternoon, we headed for Sigirya. The giant rock that someone once upon a time had the splendid idea of building a kingdom on top of. Surrounded by the ruins of what sounded like an opulent ‘pleasure’ garden with ponds, pools and fountains (‘like a nightclub’ our guide told us), Sigirya was once the epicentre of the kingdom of Kassapa. We climbed rickety staircases that gripped casually to the side of the rock, passed by frescos painted god only knows how, and finally reached the summit. And what a view.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

My legs may be aching but my smile is wide.

E x

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

Stepping into Sri Lanka

It hit us like a tuk-tuk driving 100km per hour around a blind corner as we stepped through the doors of Colombo Airport. That smell. The one that took him straight back to the dusty streets of Kathmandu, and me to the back roads of Bangkok. Don’t get me wrong, though; we both love that smell. It was like a hit of adrenaline. We’re back.

With jetlag on our side, we woke early and headed to the beach outside our room at Rani Beach Resort, which had been veiled in darkness when we arrived the night before. Greeted with a game of beach cricket, wooden catamarans covered in colourful sails, and some “very good salesmen” trawling the beach, we already felt accomplished. And it wasn’t even 9am.

Buffet breakfast. Tick. First shower of the day. Tick. Ready for more action. Tick.

After meeting the guide for our World Expeditions tour that would start that afternoon, we headed off to the main fish markets via a tuk-tuk that was nicely haggled down in price by him. Thank god he’s here, I’m hopeless at that stuff.

We could smell it before we arrived. A stark contrast to the fish markets we’d visited in Tokyo; while store owners lined the road, spruiking their offerings, the beach was covered in meters of hessian topped with neatly arranged fish. I wondered how they stopped the birds from eating it until I saw a bird swoop down and score a small fish. The answer to my question: they don’t.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

After a friendly toothless man excitedly told me that I could watch the markets from my television, thanks to a visit from Rick Stein a few years back, we wandered through the fruit and vegetable markets. The only way to describe it was colourful, which coincidentally happens to be a pretty good summation of Sri Lanka overall so far.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

After meeting up with our group, which turned out to be just one other couple who’d traveled all the way from…Sydney, Australia, we headed to the Dutch Canal, spanning a whopping 240km for a boat ride with a bit of wildlife spotting. Monitor lizards, kingfishers, herons, owls and the occasional bit of rubbish. It was as if our guide had arranged a meeting place with each bird, as he was able to spot things our amateur eyes simply couldn’t.

The banks of the canal were littered with tin shacks sheltering small smiling children, next to large concrete complexes containing the very apparent disproportion of wealth. Breaking into more open water, we headed across the lagoon to the Muthurajawela Nature Reserve, a tropical wetland known to home crocodiles, sea eagles, monkeys, and all manner of birds. While we unfortunately (or fortunately?) didn’t see any crocodiles, we did manage to be boarded by some pirates who liked the look of our afternoon tea.

On the ride home across the lagoon, the wind whipping through my hair, I watched on as birds darted in and out of the sunset as if tiptoeing on time.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

Jumping back in the car the next morning, we headed off to the rural mountain town of Salgala, to the monastic complex housing nineteen Buddhist monks. Leaving the comfort of touristed Negombo, we finally got a glimpse of the real Sri Lanka, in all it’s nitty-gritty-ness. Streets littered with dogs, the brightest bunches of bananas hanging from the awnings of crumbling straw huts, colourful buses charging down thin streets, and fields of rice bordered by the tallest coconut trees. As the roads got bumpier, the excitement only grew.

Once we made it to the monastery, an eighty-eight year old gentleman, sari-wrapped and thong clad, with only a few teeth and not a word of English, led us around the complex and up through the forest. He explained to our guide, who translated, that there were eighteen caves in the forest that the monks reside in, but that they were originally built for the King when he fled to the mountains to avoid Indian invasions in the second century. The monks now use the caves for meditation, of which they perform from 1pm each day until the following sunrise. We walked barefoot and admired temples hidden in stone and stupas entangled in vines, but not so much as our utter admiration for the elderly gentleman who led us, using nothing but the end of an old broom as a walking stick to take him all the way up to the lookout at the top, which swept across from Colombo Harbour all the way out to Adam’s Peak and beyond. I was a sweaty mess by the top but I swear I still saw a spring in his step up there. Age is just a number, folks.

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

That afternoon we headed to our hotel for the night: Elephant Bay Hotel in Pinnawala. Okay, picture this. With a grand colonial style entrance, we stepped over the sleeping guard dog and through the doors. The view directly across the lobby opened onto a magnificent river, dotted with rocks in a way that the water sparkled as it trickled over its obstacles. If you take a look over the balcony you notice a bright blue infinity pool, overlooking the gushing river. Now look a bit closer and you notice one, no two, no make that a herd of elephants bathing in the river.

The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage was just across the road, and a few times a day they walk the elephants across the road, down the small side streets, and into the river for a release from the heat. They eat 300kg of foliage a day, and need 250 litres of water. Needless to say, we watched them all night: from our balcony, our bed, the pool and over the dinner table. That was until we met Malou, at the end of her four-month trip traveling solo from Holland, who showed an interest in our card game. As they say, the rest was history. Remember to come visit, Malou!

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

I thought I’d wait a few more days before I wrote my first blog, considering I’m here for two weeks, but there has been too much excitement to write about.

I promise the next one will be shorter.

E x