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Trip Report Sri Lanka - Tea, floods, cricket and curry

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We thought long and hard before deciding upon a visit to Sri Lanka and considered India, Nepal and a return to South America. I suppose what tipped the balance in favour of Sri Lanka was my family history. My grandparents were tea planters there in colonial days and I can recall as a child being fascinated by the old photographs of his life in the tea country, the collection of mounted butterflies which were dotted all around his house. Unfortunately there was no way of finding out exactly where they lived but we thought we would take a look around the country anyway.

We normally travel completely independently and generally make things up as we go along but as this trip was planned at virtually the last minute, we engaged the services of a tour operator, in this case Reddot Tours (more of which later). We asked Reddot to fix our accommodation for our first 3 nights in Columbo plus a car, driver and accommodation for a couple of weeks around the Cultural Triangle and the Hill Country before dropping us off at Tanagalla when we would spend the last 10 days or so working our way the beaches of the south coast to Galle.

We flew from the UK with Emirates via Dubai – OK but Economy seemed cramped compared with other airlines but online booking facilities were excellent (we booked direct on their website and got a pretty good fare). Unfortunately the outbound flight was delayed by 3 hours and we only just made our connection.

We arrived in Columbo airport and were met by a driver from Reddot and taken directly to our guesthouse in Columbo, the Lake View Lodge – the drive from the airport took around a hour (plus a further 30mins as our driver had not a clue as to the location of the guesthouse. Eventually we found it and were checked in by the manager who clearly found us to be a bit of a disruption to his working day!

Anyway the guesthouse seemed very nice if a little minimalist. Lots of polished concrete, very trendy but there was really too much. The walls, floors, bed, dressing table, bedside tables were all concrete after three days we felt a little like prisoners in Cell Block H. After a little siesta to get over the jet lag we head out to explore the local area. A bit far from the centre of town, 20-30 mins walk and not many restaurants nearby but not a bad location in a quiet residential area.

We arrive on a public holiday (independence day) so every where seems really quiet and the banks are closed so we try to change some cash with the manager reception desk. He is very happy to assist but offer us a rate 25% BELOW the actual rate. He says that it is a bank holiday so what do we expect? We wander around for a while in search of an ATM and find ourselves on the sea front at Galle Face Green. We have a look at the food stalls along the seafront and, although great fans of street food, decide that the pre-cooked prawns and crabs sweltering in the heat on the street stalls probably are not the best idea for our first day!

We head back to the hotel for an early dinner of the ubiquitous “rice & curry”. This basically consists of a large plate of rice and small curry of meat or fish and anywhere between 5 and 15 vegetable curries and sambals, papadums etc. Ours arrived with a couple of side dishes only. A quick look at the menu description and a word with the waiter and, realizing their oversight, the rest arrive after a bit of a wait. Not a bad meal although the curries lack any real spice so we note to ask for spicy food the next time.
Back to the room for a nice hot shower – no hot water! OK we will watch TV instead. Despite a nice LCD TV and satellite box, no TV reception. I go to reception and try to get thing fixed. They do not seem particularly interested but say that they will fix both. Unfortunately during our 3 days at this place it would prove impossible to fix either! The manager blamed the rain for the lack of TV and the lack of sunshine for the hot water??? Another guest was at reception at the same time and pointed out to the manager that he had been a regular guest every month for the last year and during the at time the TV had not worked once. Needless to say, I would not recommend a stay at this establishment

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    "lack of sunshine for the hot water" - that may well be true. A lot of places use solar water heaters. Fine when the sun shines, but otherwise... Sometimes it pays to shower in the evening, although I much prefer to shower in the morning. BTW, the place I stayed in Negombo also went in for concrete everything - must be some kind of Sri Lankan fad.

    Looking forward to the rest of this!

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    Good to hear about your trip. Three Fodorites doing quite different trips in the same country, at the same time. We're looking for tips and inspiration for our next visit to Sri Lanka.

    Solar powered hot water, we have come across before!! Most notably in Spain. Yes...it's a pain!!

    Bland curry.....very much our experience too, but asking for spicey, did the trick for us.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your experirnces.

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    Great start. Love the different points of view from those of us there at the same time. I also noticed polished concrete to be very popular. Easy to care for I guess.

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    Thanks guys - I fully intended to post on the road but being a realtively new BlackBerry user i didn't appreciate how difficult it is to type anything more than a few lines at a time (particualrly as I seem to suffer from "fat finger syndrome"!)
    Leigh and femi. I have been reading your posts with interest. as you say it is great to get different perceptions on a country.

    A COUPLE OF DAYS IN COLUMBO
    Our first full day in the capital and we retrace our steps to the Galle Road up to Galle Face Green and pop into the Galle Face Hotel, apparently one of the oldest hotels in Asia, it is a very elegant, colonial hotel overlooking the green. They have a list of VIP guests engraved on a large granite slab in the lounge. The list is both long and impressive including such famous figures as Churchill, Wilde, Coward and the Marahreshi Yogi. The sun is shining so we take a walk along the green to explore the central area of the city.
    A lot of the centre of Columbo is under heavy guard as this is where the president’s palace is situated and the area around the place in the Fort region is completely blocked off so we head off to the World trade centre and the Dialog phone shop to buy a Sim card for our BlackBerry. Dialog is apparently the only operator in SL who provides Data and Phone cards which will allow us mobile web access. It costs us 200 Rps for the card and we load up the min of 2000Rps (which, as both local and international calls are really cheap proves to be twice as much as we will need for our month here!).
    As we wander around the city the first thing we notice is the extraordinary number of touts on the streets in the first hour we are offered tuk tuks, tours, gem shops etc. literally every minute. We start off by declining offers politely but after a while become a little more “direct”. Ignoring the touts had little effect but relying in Spanish really seemed to put them off their game. It is an approach which was to prove very effective over the next month (I knew those lessons we had in Argentina would come in useful eventually!).
    There are some beautiful old colonial buildings in the city, sadly few are in a good state of repair and the emphasis seems to be now on building new glass/steel buildings. We stumble across the Cargill’s department store near the harbor a bit of an institution in the city; internally and externally it hasn’t really changed since the 1930s. Searching for somewhere to eat lunch we choose Harbour 365 a rice & curry place on the harbor. A large buffet type restaurant, basic, but clean. A waiter explains the dishes on offer at the buffet – a fish curry, a mutton curry and loads of different veggie curries, sambals, papadums and pickles. We help our self to rice and then are served a small portion of fish/mutton curry and are then told to help ourselves to the rest. We find a table and then realize we have no cutlery. Looking around at our fellow diners we see everyone is eating with their hands. Oh well, when in Rome… Excellent tasty and filling food and at last some spice – all for 375 Rps for two (1$ = 110Rps).

    After lunch we decide to head off to The Pettah, the very large Tamil market area of the city. We love visiting markets and have spent many a happy hours visiting markets all around the world. Almost invariably they provide a good insight into the culture and food of a country as well as some of the best food. The Pettah, being the wholesale area for the entire country, is by far the most manic market area we have ever visited. It sells not only food, but seems to offer also every product/raw material imaginable from brightly coloured sari materials to, cheap plastic goods from Taiwan to heaps of exotic spices. We are particularly interested in the spices as we are both keen cooks and are keen to take copious supplies back home – they are amazingly cheap here but as this is just the beginning of our trip so our purchases will have to wait for now. The Pettah is very colourful, a bit smelly and extremely busy. A great place to spend an hour or two but you really do have to keep your wits about you when walking around as the locals make no concessions as they whizz around transporting goods by tuk tuk, car, and lorry and, in one case bullock cart, through the very narrow streets and alleys.

    We leave the market areas and head to the Fort Railway station with the idea of buying tickets for tomorrow for a train ride out along the Kelani Valley into the rural outskirts of Columbo. Unfortunately we arrive in the rush hour and the station is heaving with commuters so we just buy some fruit and head back to our hotel.

    Along the way we stop off at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, one of Sri Lanka’s 5* places. We order some drinks from the coffee shop and whilst enjoying these we notice the “Short Eats” on display. The ubiquitous lunchtime snack of Sri Lanka, short eats comprise a variety of small pies, spring rolls, roti, samosas and bread rolls all stuffed with a wide variety of curry, vegetables, eggs and spices. Here they are all labeled but elsewhere on the streets it really is pot luck. We decide to buy a selection for dinner that evening – absolutely delicious and these become our lunchtime snack of choice. The hotel itself is much like any other 5* star hotel but its restaurants are apparently some of the best in Sri Lanka. The world cricket championships are about to start in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan team are here in residence and appear to treated as rock stars. Unfortunately, although I am English the attractions and intricacies of cricket are a mystery to me and I find the game only slightly less tedious than baseball but I suppose I had better start to take an interest as every Sri Lankan we meet wants to discuss the subject.

    Our final day in Sri Lanka and we are a bit concerned that we have not heard from Reddot tours regarding a pick up time for our drive up north tomorrow. I call the number provided several times but cannot get a reply. It is another public holiday so maybe they are on holiday.

    Rather than waste anymore time we head off in the opposite direction down the Galle Road with the aim some window shopping along the way. It is very quiet and only a few places are open but we stop off at the famous Barefoot shop which has an excellent range of goods. Expensive by local standards, but reasonable by international standards and all very high quality. They stock a diverse range of goods from clothes and materials, to table ware and books.
    We continue our walk to Bamballapitya and the South Indian Dosai restaurant, Saraswathe we have been told about. It is very much a local restaurant. No one speaks English and there are no tourists to be seen. We share a table with two young Sri Lankans and, not having a clue what to order, they offer assistance and we choose a “paper” Dosai – the specialty of the house, and a Dosai massalla. Both are delicious and are accompanied by a variety of vegetable curries and sambals. Of particular note are the brinjal (aubergine) and coconut sambals. Another excellent meal for less than 400rps.
    The two guys at our table ask us we are travelling to so we outline our trip to them. They say that it is a good job we are not going to Anuradhapura as the place is severely flooded. But we are! That is where we are supposed to be headed tomorrow morning.

    Back at the hotel we eventually get through to Reddot or at least someone who works for Reddot but it taking calls at home on her mobile. I ask about the arrangements for our tour commencing tomorrow. She promises to get back to me in 30 mins. An hour later and no call back. I call again. I express surprise that it is me that has to make contact and Dinali says that she would have made contact at some point (I later check and find a missed call on our home phone back in the UK!!). It turns out that Reddot sent two drivers to the airport. The one we met was a taxi driver sent by RD but did not work for them and the 2nd was our driver for the tour whom, we later discover waited for us for 3 hours at the airport! We arrange to be picked up at 09.00 in the morning but already warning bells are sounding re Reddot’s efficiency.
    Later that evening, we get an email from Carolyn’s father asking us if we have been caught in the floods which have been on the BBC news back home...

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    We too became a little irritated by the touts and tuk tuk drivers in Colombo. It does become tiresome when it's so constant.
    We stayed at The Galle Face Hotel, and wanted to walk up to the Barefoot store, mainly for some books.
    Walking along that road is really hard work. I've never seen so many holes in the 'footpath' and constantly fighting off the touts, the walk was becoming a nightmare. We came across a bookshop called Makeen's, which had everything we needed, so we abandoned our plan for Barefoot. We turned off the main road and headed for the sea walking back to the hotel that way. It was much less harassment.

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    I really wanted to visit Barefoot, and you've confirmed what I thought, probably my best option for souvenirs in Sri Lanka. Most of the shops I visited did not have the quality I was looking for. Unfortunately Colombo was too far out of the way for a stop on my schedule and I ended up shopping at the airport.

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    Forgot to mention the restaurant at Barefoot. We were there on a sunday and they had live music and what looked like v. good food but it was absolutely paked so I guess one would need to book. Barefoot also have a small store in Galle but it only has a very small selection of goods.

    Leigh. Totally agree with the state of the Galle Road! we to walked back along the sea road and saved ourselves a lot of hassle. We also stumbled across a Japanese restaurant, Sakura, just up one of the side roads. Already eaten by this time but the menui looked good.

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    Great to read your writings, wow you like the spicy stuff - go for it and do stop for some hoppers and sambol on the road closer to sundown, the little boutiques along most rural roads is ,arked by some gren lights - driver should be able to show you some better places - while gerally clean enough and very tasty do beware if you have a weak stomach.

    Fo good star quality Sri Lanka food in Colombo try Paymyrah, Raja Bojun or Curry Leaves at Hilton.

    Pity about the touts - they bother me too even tough I am local, generally they are harmless just a nuisance, torism authorities should educat peple not to bother and harass tourists.

    Barefoot is very nice, much more than books and lovely cafe too.

    The Singapore Chille Crab (BTW most crab in Singapore is made from Sri Lankan Crab) available in most chinese restaurants in Colombo is to die.

    Also recall you asking me about Lobsters ... try the Lucky Tuna restaurant on Unnawatuna Beach. Lovely beach setting with feet in the sand.

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    Another n ice spicy dish you might like to try from the hopper stalls and other typical local roadside resturants is "chicken palandi", usually available at muslim run places. It is a spicy semi dry chicken tossed with a variety of spices onions and egg and is milder than the dynamite chicken masala. There is a good "muslim hotel" just past the junction at Chilaw town and also a couple of similar styled nice eating houses in Anuradhapura town.

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    ONWARDS TO ANURADHAPURA

    Our driver is waiting for us in the courtyard of the guesthouse so we introduce our selves. Our first question is “Is it ok to travel to Anuradhapura given the flood that we have heard tell of? The driver assures us that all is ok and he hasn’t heard anything from Reddot so we set off. Seems like a nice chap although I am finding it a little difficult to understand his English. It is dull and overcast as we leave the city heading north back towards Negombo. Our driver asks if we would like to visit his home as it is on the way so we take a short diversion just north of Negombo.
    We pull up at his home which is in a small village in the forest and are introduced to his extended family of father in law, wife, and mother in law, a cousin and his 1 year old son. We have a cup of tea and the father in law shows us around the gardens pointing out the various fruits and spices growing there – Pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon , papaya, red bananas – it has the lot. We are offered some fresh olives straight off the tree, something we have never tried before. They are delicious, a view shared by the one year old who is wolfing them down and cries like mad when Dad tries to take the dish away!

    We have a long way to go so we head off to our final destination. By this time it has started to drizzle. As we move further north and closer to our destination the rain gets worse and worse until, when we are around 50kms away, it becomes a torrential downpour. It does not stop all the way to Anuradhapura. In fact it just gets worse. This is the dry season and this is known as the “arid region” but the main road we are travelling on is flood and the water extends as far as we can see. The sky is black and it seems dark although by now it is still only 5.00pm.

    This is already one of the poorest areas of Sri Lanka and area dependent upon rice production and other agriculture and clearly, the crops have been devastated. The houses are all flooded out and the b people’s belonging are being move to the safety of any high ground they can find.

    As we reach Anuradhapura and drive into the centre of the town we find it is completely flooded. The water is knee deep (yet people are still trying to get around in cars, on bicycles and motorbikes. Upon reaching the town centre we try 3 or 4 different routes out to our hotel all are flooded and are way too deep for the car. By this time it is dark which adds to the drivers problems but after asking many passersby, he eventually finds a route which looks passable so we head off down the road. A few hundred yards along the road we encounter a bridge, or at least we think it is. The parapets are visible but not the road as the river it crosses has long burst its banks. The water is flowing quite fast and our driver is reluctant to cross but I point out that a number of other similar cars are making it ok so he goes for it and we are across and on our final approach to the Palm Garden Village, apparently the best place in the area.
    Unfortunately, the grounds of the hotel are flooded so after check in we have to paddle and walk along walls to our room. Naturally we are booked into the furthest room from reception so we ask for one closer to the main part of the hotel. Of course none are available. However, upon entry to the room we find, twin beds, a room full of mosquitoes, hot water that is not working and a distinct smell of damp (I would add that although the grounds are flooded, the rooms are not). I kick up a bit of a fuss and miraculously, another room becomes available, much closer to the main block, everything working and a king-size bed).

    Despite our intentions to eat in mostly local restaurants, there is no way we are going out again. After a shower we head back to the restaurant for the buffet dinner and a couple of beers. They food is pretty good and a wide variety of western and Sri Lankan food, although again the Sri Lankan food lacks any chili whatsoever (we remedy this by requesting a bowl of chili paste – “But westerners do not like chili” the waiter advises us. Oh yes they do!
    After dinner we head off back to the room. But where is the path to our room? Over dinner, the water level has risen from ankle deep to knee deep and the path (and the swimming pool) is now submerged. We paddle a bit and then walk along the top of the walls back to our room which, thankfully is above the level of the water. We settle in for the night wondering what we will find in the morning.

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    ANURADHAPURA
    We awake in our room, thankfully not surrounded by water! I open the curtains and am amazed to see sunshine – and NO water! I switch on the TV and the news channels and see that the floods here have made both the international and local news. Still amazed that my father in law in London found out about the situation before Reddot in Columbo? On the local news a government spokesman proudly announces, not a major relief effort, but an “initiative” to check all the sell by dates on drugs in pharmacies in the areas affected by the floods!! I wait for news of food relief etc. for the people affected but there is no mention of this. I can see why the Sri Lankans we have met are keen to point out the short-comings of their government. Then again, I suppose that is the same the world over.

    Now that the sun is shining we are hopeful of a good day visiting the apparently vast ruins of the city. We head off with our driver and the first stop is the Great Stupa ofRuwanweliseya, the highest (90m) and best known of the cities dagobas. An enormous white dome surrounded by a frieze of elephants which reminded me of a few places in Angkor Wat. We also visited the Sacred Bo tree which is apparently the oldest documented tree in the world and was grown from a sapling from the original Bodhi under which the Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment (or “enlargement” as our driver put it!).
    Off then to the Brazen Palace (great name) which once has a bronze roof, nine floors and was home to 1,000 monks. Only around 1,600 pillars now remain. An interesting aspect of this place were the “squatting plates” which remain from the monks toilets all in a line facing out over the gardens. Still complete with the foot prints showing which way to squat! Whilst photographing these Carolyn nearly jumped out of her skin as she saw a very large snake swimming past in the flood water.
    Our driver then takes us off to view some of the tanks (artificial lakes) around the city and then tells us that we have seen everything which is somewhat at odds with the guide books that tell us that you could easily spend a couple of days here. Are the other sights flooded? Maybe, but we are now seriously beginning to doubt the abilities of our driver, nice though he undoubtedly is.
    A little disappointed with Anurahadpura but really not sure whether this is just the place or a real problem with our driver’s knowledge but we head off for a long drive to Sirgiya.

    I forgot to add that overnight I had telephoned (after many attempts) the Reddot help desk to ask why they had not bothered to let us, or our driver, know about the flood situation in the region. I explained at some length the problems we had had and whilst they apologized profusely, I got the distinct impression that all of Reddot had been on an extended holiday weekend and no one was in charge. They promised to check the flood situation for our next destination of Sirigiya and get back to us. They didn’t and I then called again and was informed that they had been on to the hotel and all was fine. How wrong they were.

    We arrived in Sigiriya and the first problem was that the driver did not have a clue where the hotel was. Nor did he have a telephone number to find out. After asking 4 or 5 different locals and getting 6 or 7 different answers we got totally lost. To add to our problems everytime we got close to the guesthouse the roads were either flooded or we got bogged down in mud (despite the previous assurance from RD). 3 hours of searching and after numerous calls to RD we eventually find our guest house, the appropriately named “Back of Beyond”. Set in the jungle near a temple, it is rustic but with only wire screens and no air-con it is very damp and more than a bit smelly. Even the bedding is damp. I phone RD have a few words about our problems getting here again and, not wishing to get stuck in a guesthouse and have to struggle out every day we insist they switch us for the following 3 nights to a different hotel.

    No alcohol served here so we send out for a couple of beers and order our dinner of rice and curry (extra spicy). Dinner looks good but yet again no spice despite our specific request. I ask for some extra chili paste – no we don’t have any. I insist and they quickly find some.
    One particular benefit of this hotel is that we can see the Lion Rock that we will climb tomorrow close by. Unfortunately, despite being close by, it still takes and our to get there but by this time we are not sure whether it is our drivers sense of direction or the flooding which is the problem – I suspect the former.

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    Enjoying reading your report of a country I hadn't considered visiting until sitting next to a Sri Lankan woman on our flight from Yangon to Kuala Lumpur. She insisted I take her address and # and visit! I appreciate your colorful details.

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    Femi - I lived for some time in Birmingham which is the curry capital of the UK where curry is almost the national dish. Over the years I must have acquired a high chili tolerance!

    Mohamed - we did almost visit Unawatuna during our last days in Sri Lanka but staye longer than expected in Weligama (excellent fish and sea food), We found the lobster to be expensive, in fact higher than at home - maybe we were lookingin the wrong places?

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    Well, you are certainly having an adventure.

    I'm appalled by Red Dot. I contacted them recently as we were thinking of returning to Sri Lanka this year and I never got a real reply from them - after a couple of tries they said they would get back to me in a few days - never happened.

    We also like spicy (but probably not as spicy as you). When we asked for spicy, the waiters always looked duboius, but gave us what we wanted. Our driver told us the whole staff at the restaurant were watching when we were served our spicy food, as they expected we would say it was too spicy.

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    Our experience, in Sri Lanka, was that generally, the curries were bland......unless, you really pushed for spicey. I think we found that in The Maldives too.
    Thai curries can be mega hot, don't know about India.
    Personally.......I like mega hot!!!

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    Kathie - I recall from our previous posts on another thread that you were having problems contacting Reddot. So did I initially but once contact was established they were very responsive in the pre sales process which I couldn't fault. However, unfortunately we experience a number problems with after arrival. To be entirely fair to them, they did resolve most of those problems realtively efficently (although most of them could and should have been avoided in the first place). Communication with them by phone on the ground were always difficult. We would phone the numbers gived and it seemed that whoever was responsible was never there and would "call us right back" which on occasions took a couple of hours. We met other travellers using Reddot on the road. One couple were having some minor problems with their driver and another were very happy with the service. Maybe we were just unlucky..

    SIGIRIYA – LION ROCK

    Our intention was to set out early for the climb to avoid the heat. Unfortunately we had to wait around for Reddot to arrange hotels. After about an hour we depart for the rock but despite it being very close by we seem to take a circuitous route, possibly because of the floods, and arrive at the rock an hour later. On arrival our driver/guide announces that he will not be accompanying us on the climb as apparently he has a bad knee! Oh well there is only one way up and one way down and we have a guide book, how hard can it be?

    The rock is impressive, a 650ft monolith rising directly from the plain. The site is rally in two distinct sections, the rock itself and the gardens surrounding the base. A long straight path leads from the entrance through the water gardens to the boulder and terrace gardens. The water gardens incorporate a number of gravity fed fountains which, once upon a time, formed part of a hydraulic sytem which fed water to the palace on the top of the rock. The boulder and terrace gardens are impressive with a number of cave paintings and frescoes. In the third century BC, this area was the centre of the monastery’s activities, a nice balance of man-made and natural beauty. It must have been quite something in its heyday.

    At the base of the rock the real climb begins as we ascend a metal spiral staircase attached to the side of the rock which leads to Sri lankas most famous frescoes, the Sigiriya Damsels. Painted in the 3rd century, there are 30 or so bare breasted maidens and, as one Sri Lankan guide gleefully pointed out to us, some have 3 nipples!

    Further on we walk along the mirror wall which is covered with centuries of graffiti but signs emphatically point out that no more is allowed! I suppose 1800 years of scrawling on walls is enough for anyone. I have to say that the graffiti of years gone by was a lot more imaginative and artistic than the stuff you see nowadays. Many more steps (1800 in total to the summit) and we arrive at the lion platform. We have a rest for 10 minutes, drink some water (take plenty!) before our final ascent to the summit, This area is alive with monkeys and we see at least one tourist chasing one who has stolen his camera -maybe he wants to take pictures of the tourists for a change?
    The entrance to the final ascent is between a pair of giant lion’s paws through which we enter to we climb the stone steps before the ascent up a precarious metal staircase. Suffering from vertigo, this is a part of the ascent I am not relishing. However,iIt is not as bad as I feared, although I do keep my eyes fixed firmly ahead, ignoring Carolyn’s, continuing suggestions request to look at the fantastic views! At this point I really couldn’t care less about the views! The staircase is badly rusted in parts and will soon need repair but I try not to think about the inevitable consequences if it were to fail.
    Of course it doesn’t fail and finally we reach the Royal Place atop the rock. Now just the ruins of square brick built buildings but it must have been truly breathtaking in its day. Hard to imagine how they actually managed to build such a place in such a location – a perk of being king I guess. Fortunately, this was our first really clear day so the views were fantastic. Well worth the effort of the ascent and for those suffering with a fear of heights, it really is not too bad. A sobering note was that in some directions we could see the true extent of the flooding which was really bad with vast areas covered in water.

    The descent was a lot quicker than the ascent but still hard on the knees and we stop off at the boulder gardens for a better look around before heading off to find our driver for the drive to Dambulla town and some well earned lunch. All in all a most enjoyable morning and not as strenuous as the guide books had led us to believe.

    Our driver attempted to take us to a big buffet restaurant on the main street frequented by tour groups but we declined and asked him to drive us to drive us to Samans Rest, a place we had read about in the Rough Guide. The recently published book quoted 300rps for a set lunch which seemed reasonable. However the place was completely empty (never a good sign) and there were no menus or prices and only one dish - rice & curry. How much? I ask of the owner. He ignores me amd rambles on about how fresh his ingredients are, I ask two more times and after a few glances between owner and driver and he tells us it is 700rps. Not a huge amount of money but I do so hate getting ripped off. We head back into the centre of town and stop off at Bentota Bakehouse a canteen type place with very friendly and helpful staff and we order the staple of rice & curry. A massive plate of rice arrives quickly followed by a superb chicken curry, 3 or 4 vegetable curries (including a delicious beetroot curry), sambals and papadums. At last we get some spicy food! The best meal we have had to date, all for 300rps for two. So nice we returned the next day and had a totally different set of curries but equally delicious.

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    Bentota Bake House in Dambulla town - arrgh, my daughters favourite stop for some nice "short eats", great to read about the rice and curry which from your description sounds like a good one so we must try that next time we pass that way. Good decision to avoid the Buffet at the adjoining place called Gimanhalla - its lousy food for a big group in a rush, but they do have nice clean toilets. Unfortunaely most toursits who visit Sri Lanka are not adventourous and willing to try local food and settle for watered down versions at big hotels etc, as a result many people here do not understand your type of visitor who is looking for the "real deal". Most rest houses used to serve great rice and curry lunches but now many of these have converted to buffets which is very sad as it has really taken away from the style and quality of the service and food. Still, there are some places for good local food, one just needs to know these places and how to order the food. Many guest houes and holiday bungalows frequented by locals have in house superb care taker/cooks who will prepare fresh top notch food to your taste. Many of these places one could even bring in some ingredients from the market and have them prepare what one likes and this is what we do on most trips around our little island. Fresh sea food done this way is fantastic. Hope you had the chance to try a real crab curry lunch.

    Sad to read about your experience with Red Dot. I am not a travel agent nor am I in that business in any way, just a passionate traveller and photographer myself and don't like to criticize others who do business but certainly wasting ones valuable prime time for finding a hotel, no specialist guide for Sigiriya, phone calls not returned for several hours, driver guides trying to make a buck on your meal - that is very shoddy.

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    Agree that the Sigiriya climb wasn't as strenuous as I expected - but I did do it on a grey, damp day - started raining as I reached the top. I imagine it would be much harder on a sunny day! (But then the views would be better.)

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    Most of my lunches were mediocre, and I did feel like I was getting ripped off. Rs 1300 for a buffet lunch for 1??!!

    Eventually I decided not to bother with lunch at all, or when I did I had it at the Cinnamon Lodge which provided the best lunch options of my entire trip.

    My driver was frustrated by long waits for responses from Reddot. I guess I'm lucky I never needed to contact them for anything after I arrived in the country.

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    DAMBULLA CAVE TEMPLES

    In the afternoon we headed off to the cave temples. By now it was getting very hot and we were doubting the wisdom of two climbs in one day. The temple complex is fronted by the largest gold Buddha in the world (allegedly!). This was a much shorter climb (350ft) and well worth the effort. We ascend the many steps and rocks and reach the entrance where we have to remove footwear. The bare rock is REALLY hot so we walk very quickly right to the end of the complex and start off with cave number 5. All of the cave are set beneath a gigantic rocky overhang, all are impressive but the least so, are the ones towards the end of the complex. The caves increase in magnificence as you return towards the entrance. Each of the caves are packed full of statues of the Lord Buddha and many of the walls and ceilings are covered with the most beautiful murals. This is a really quiet and peaceful place and the caves provide some welcome relief from the heat of the afternoon.

    We drive on to to our next destination, the NAMAL UYANA CONSERVATION FOREST, famed for its Ironwood forest and its mountain of Rose Quartz.The forest takes a bit of finding as it is some 8kms off of the main Dambulla –Anurhadapura road. Eventually we get there and stop at the park head quarters where we pick up a guide for the 2 km walk through the forest to commence the ascent of yet another mountain! It is a really pleasant walk through the cool of the forest, through several streams before we commence the climb up the bare rock of very pale pink quartz (not the vivid pink that is shown in the travel posters dotted around the area). The climb is pretty steep and harder than we expected but eventually we make it to the top (or so we think) and sit down next to the Buddha statue on the peak. Magnificent views all the way across to Dambulla. By this time my right knee (which I damaged slipping on some ice a few weeks before departure) is getting quite painful. So when the guide announces that we are not there yet and the best view is from the next ridge, I decide to let him and Carolyn get on with it and sit down next to the Buddha statue for a rest.

    The way back down is, once again, very hard on the knees but we decide to take a slight detour to meet the solitary monk in the forest who seems really pleased to see us and has a chat. We leave a donation and head on back to the car.

    To their credit Red Dot have arranged alternative accommodation for us for the next two nights (they are fully booked for the 3rd night so we will have to move on to another hotel Pollonuwara). On our drive back to our new hotel, the Kassapa Lions Rock, we see lots of spice stalls along the road and stop off to buy a large bag of dried chilies which are about 10% of the price we would pay back home. Also along the way the wildlife is out in force as we see a couple of Mongoose, a huge water Monitor, several tortoises and a very, very large snake.

    The floods have now subsided and the weather seems to have changed radically with bright blues skies and sunshine. Perhaps because of this we also begin to notice the standards of driving in the country which seem to be in inverse proportion to the size of the vehicle. Perhaps of necessity, the tuk tuk drivers seem to be adept at defensive driving as they avoid the cars and buses. Whereas the buses seem to be driven by psychotic maniacs hell bent on the total destruction of all before them! It was our intention for the latter part of our trip to use buses to get from town to town as we returned to Columbo, however, having seen the state of the buses (many are literally falling to bits), we quickly reconsider our transport options!

    Finally we arrive at our new hotel, a new and very smart place, a little concerned to see 3 large tour buses parked outside but are shown to our very spacious room complete with all mod cons. A shower, watch TV to catch up on world news and then a power cut! Power is resumed a while later and we head off for dinner in the hotel restaurant, a buffet which commences at 7.30pm. We arrive at 8.00pm and there is virtually no food left! We ask whether the intention is to restock the buffet and it seems not so we order from the a la carte. Note to self: – get to the buffet BEFORE the coach parties from one certain North European country!

    Breakfast the next morning is a repetition of the previous night. We arrive and no food is left. I ask for some to be freshly prepared and the chef proceeds to scrape the left-overs out of the trays and heat them up in a frying pan! Words fail me, and I decide to cut my losses and just have some toast and tea and what is left of the fruit.
    Despite the food problems which continue to beset us, this is a very pleasnt hotel, nice spacious rooms set in the villas in the grounds and an large swimming pool which was completely empty of guests.

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    RITIGILA NATURE RESERVE
    Our driver has mentioned several times that he will be taking us to Ritigala. We are not entirely sure why unless Reddot have thrown it in as an extra to make up for previous problems. Anyway, off we head and we only get slightly lost this time. We find the visitors centre and after driving 100 yards along the track to the reserve thedriver decides that the car can go no further because of the rough road and the quite deep mud. The car is a a basic saloon and quite low so this is becoming a frequent problem . Again, the driver elects to stay with the car as we head off for a 4 km walk along the track to the entrance proper. It is quite a pleasant walk and along the way we see quite a bit of wildlife, tortoises, mongoose (or is it mongeese?) one or two snakes and loads of butterflies. After a few kilometers, a 4WD drive comes along the track and we hitch a ride with the park wardens for the remaining few hundred yards.

    On arrival at the entrance to the monastery we hand our ticket to the warden who asks whether we would like a guide. Looking around at the dense jungle we decide yes, that would definitely be a good idea. Legend has is that the mountain was created when Hanuman (does this guy get everywhere?) dropped a chunk of the Himalayas on his way back from India hence the diversity of flora in the area. Anyway it is certainly a peaceful and beautiful location with the ruins spread throughout the forest right up the hillside.
    Our guide shows us the way through the forest along what were once paved pathways. Apparently the ruins are being restored but it was difficult to see any evidence of this, although it is nice just to see it in its current state. It is similar in some respects to some of the outlying temples at Angkor. The walk up the hillside takes us I km through pristine forest to the ruined temple at the top. A magical sort of place which would have been really something in its day.

    We descend to the bottom of the hillside and begin the long walk back to our car and see quite a bit of wildlife on the way back (thankfully none of wild elephants that inhabit the area). In all a pleasant morning and Ritigala is well worth the time if in the vicinity.

    It has been a strenuous couple of days so we head back to back to Dambulla for another delicious lunch at Bentota Bakehouse where we also pick up some “short eats” and beers for our dinner this evening (no way are we trying the buffet again!).

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    POLUNNARUWA
    We set off early for the 90 min, drive to Polunnaruwa. We drive through areas still suffering from the floods which, at least in part, have now subsided. There are still large areas of flooding visible from the road but at least the sun is shining and the local population is taking advantage of this by spreading all their clothes and bedding over bushes and trees to dry out. Furniture is piled up on any high ground to dry out. It is heart rending to see at first hand the effects of nature on these already poor people. Along the road we pass through village where the army is setting up food and water distribution centres. Hopefully the weather has finally changed and these people can get back to some semblance of a normal life.

    45 mins into our journey and Carolyn points out that the car is shaking a bit. I say that it is probably just the Sri Lankan roads. The driver seems oblivious to the shaking but after a few minutes I tell him to pull over, I open the rear door to get out and I am greeted by clouds of smokes emanating from the rear wheel! Now what I know about cars you could write on the back of a postage stamp but even I realize that the brakes have seized up. Fortunately we are yards from a “garage” i.e. a wooden shack with bits of car and lorry strewn around.

    The mechanic jacks up the rear wheels and starts to fix the problem. No parts of course but with various grinding, lubricating and freeing up of parts, he manages to fix the problem after an hour or so. Quite impressive really! In the meantime, a soldier pulls up to get his jeep fixed and has a chat. Apparently, he has similar problems but he takes one look at the state of the brakes on our car and says that our need is greater and he will come back later.
    Whilst the problem is probably due to the floodwater, the car is clearly not fit for purpose and we have already lost a significant amount of time on this trip so I call Reddot tell them we need a replacement car. After the usual wait for them to call back. I call again and they confirm that a new car and driver will be with us tomorrow.

    The car is fixed and onwards we go to Polunnaruwa. On arrival we head directly to the ruined city and call in at the visitors centre for a look around at the exhibits there before our driver takes us to the various sites around the city. Any guide book will describe better than I the various sights to see, but suffice to say we were very impressed with this place. Whilst nowhere near as large as Angkor the temple etc is beautiful and relatively uncrowned. Before we came we read the guide book which debated which was better Polunnaruwa or Anurahadpura but for me there is no comparison, Polunnaruwa wins hands down.

    Again our driver was reluctant to come with us to any of the sites to explain anything, preferring instead to sit and wait in the car. Due to a “misunderstanding” we got lost and had to call him to arrange a meeting place (not easy when you don’t have a clue where you are!). By now we are so glad we are getting a replacement driver. After several hours we head off to our hotel SUDU ARALIYA. A bit tired and past its best but this is more than made up for by the staff that is extremely helpful and friendly. A couple of beers in the gardens overlooking the tank (artificial lake) we watch the sun set before a shower and then the buffet dinner.
    Have learnt from previous experiences with buffets in this type of hotel, we arrive early. We are not the first as there are a small group of Japanese men well into their second or third bottle of Sake (very tempted to ask for a glass!). The buffet is really good and the various curries are well spice for a change and make no allowances for western tastes.
    In the morning we say goodbye to Anu our driver and wait around for our new driver who soon turns up and introduces himself. A Much nicer car and a much more enthusiastic driver but more of that later. We go to leave but are stopped by the hotel. We haven’t paid for our room! We point out that Reddot should have paid for the room and after 30 mins or so of phone calls this is eventually resolved and we leave for Kandy.

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    I'm so glad you enjoyed Polonnaruwa! I'm surprised your driver didn't recommend a guide. Each of the sites has licensed guides and they are very inexpensive. The guide we had at Polonnaruwa made the place come alive for us!

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    Polonnaruwa was definitely the highlight of the "cultural triangle". Anurahadpura just didn't compare but I certain the we did not make the most of that palce partly becaus eof the floods and partly our guide/driver. Maybe I misunderstood the role of the driver and expected too much in terms of actual guiding..

    Anyway our trip continues..

    KANDY

    Our new driver Namunu is a huge improvement. Knowledgeable, enthusiastic and great company. Before leaving Polunnaruwa he makes sure that we have seen all of the important sights and explains a few points of interest as we head out of the area.

    En route we stop at on eof the ubiquitous spice gardens. We are shown around by one of the workers. This “spice garden” is in fact just a roadside garden with specimen plants in the grounds. I can see no eveidence of spices being grown on a commercial basis, but the worker has a few interesting things to point out to us as he shows us the various specimen spice plants dotted around the garden. Ineveitably we are shown into the shop. We are keen to takes supplies of spices back home and had already noted the prices of spices for sale in Cargill’s supermarket in Coloumbo. We are not entirely surprised to find that the prices in the shop are at least ten times that of those in the supermarket. We decline to purchase and move on.

    As we drive towards Kandy the countryside changes to something much more like the Sri Lankan scenery we were expecting. As we drive through the spice town of Matale we pull over as a big Hindu festival is going on in the streets around the temple, lots of drums and brightly coloured saris and people being carried around on wooden platforms. Not exactly sure what is going on but it is nice to see a bit of the local culture.

    Eventually we get to Kandy and spend another couple of hours trying to find our guest house Kandy Cottage. Eventually we do and find it along a ravine close to the jungle and a long way from the town and we do try and find somewhere a bit closer to the centre of things but there is no room at any of the inns. We return to the guest house, unpack and return to the town for a walk around the lake. Very pretty and, despite being right in the centre of town we see several very large monitor lizards. We explore the town a little before getting something to eat (at Pizza Hut of all places!).
    We have arranged for dinner that evening back at the guest house so we return there and meet up with another English couple who are also travelling with Reddot, we exchange tales and find that they too have been experiencing one or two problems! The food in the guest house is home cooked by a local lady and is delicious if not very warm.

    The next day we rise at 6.30 and set off at 7.30 on the hour or so drive to Pinnawela Elephant Orphange. It is Sunday but the traffic in Kandy is horrendous and we lose a lot of time getting out of the city. Once outside the city limits Namunu puts his foot down and overtakes all in sight to get to the orphanage in time for the feeding of the elephants. We make it in time, pay the extortionate 2000Rps per person entrance fee and walk up to the feeding ground where 50 or so elephants of varying shapes and sizes are eating there breakfast. Most are young elephants with a few very small babies all are rapidly consuming the piles of tree branches being delivered to them by the handlers. All seem well cared for even the elderly, blind tusker which is being kept separately underneath a corrugated iron shelter. We take a look at the baby elephant feeding enclosure but this is pretty dull so we move on down to the river and take a seat to wait for the elephants to arrive for their morning bath.

    Eventually the elephants arrive in the river and it is quite some sight to see these supposedly wild creatures up close. We sit on the rocks to get some close up photographs and stay there for an hour or so. The mahouts are there to ensure that the elephants and tourists don’t mix too closely but it is possible to get very close. There is something incredibly peaceful and calming about being close to elephants (apart that is, from the bull elephant which charged us in the bush in Tanzania!). Pleasant thought the experience is, I cannot help but wonder how much this place really is an orphanage. Undoubtedly it started out as such but it does now seemed to have morphed into a major money making tourist attraction. Apparently there is now talk of moving Columbo zoo here. Finally we leave the elephants and head on back to Kandy.
    Back in Kandy we visit the WW2 cemetry which must be one of the best kept in the world. We are shown around by the keeper of the cemetery who has some interesting stories to tell of the British and Commonwealth servicemen and women buried here. From here we move on to another cemetery, this time the Kandy Garrison Cemetery whci is close to the National museum. This one was established by the British in 1817 shortly after we seized control of Kandy and was used to bury the British Colonists. Again we are shown around by the cemetery keeper who again has some interesting stories to tell. Few made it past the age of 30 most dying from tropical diseases or in childbirth. A few were dispatched in more exotic ways like the man riding along on his horse, seeing that a tree was about to fall on him, leapt from his horse avoiding the tree but impaling himself on a pointed stake at the side of the road! Another was trampled to death by a wild elephant…

    We stop in the centre of Kandy at an old colonial building for a delicious lunch of short eats. A huge variety of different snacks the normal procedure is just to sit down and the waiter will bring you a selection on a plate. We are keen to try as many different varieties as we can so I go to the counter a make a selection which is then delivered to our table. Mutton curry rolls, fish and egg, curried vegetables all are really delicious and are washed down with a pot of Broken Orange Pekoe tea (which has become my favourite variety).

    Later that evening we return to the centre of town for the evening Puja ceremony at the temple of the tooth, the most important of Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka. The temple is heaving with both pilgrims and tourists. There are four drummers banging away in the lead up to the ceremony. Very loud but great drumming – if Charlie watts ever retires I am sure the Stones could find a replacement here. No one gets to see the actual tooth but you can file past for a glance at the gold casket in which it is contained. We stand in line 15 mins. only to be turned away as we finally approach the casket. apparently we are in the pilgrims only queue – clearly we don’t look like pilgrims!
    All things considered we really like the city of Kandy and could easily of spent an extra day here but tomorrow we leave town by train for the journey to Hatton and the tea country.

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    "we do try and find somewhere a bit closer to the centre of things but there is no room at any of the inns" - did exactly the same thing with exactly the same results, lol.

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    thursdays, I am really glad we decided to book most of our accomodation in advance. our original thought was to arrive and find places as we travelled around which would have been a nightmare.

    ADAMS PEAK
    Our plan is to start the climb at 02.00 in the morning so we take a siesta before dinner at 7.30. The dinner is a substantial buffet and very good although once again the curries lack any real chili heat. We mention this to the manager who instantly provides a bowl of chili paste which spices the food up immediately and he promises us provide with a “special” Sri Lankan curry the following night. I appreciate that not everyone likes spicy food but it is such a shame when an amazing cuisine such as Sri Lanka’s is dumbed down just for foreign tastes.

    As we eat dinner the rain starts, then the lightning and then the thunder. Th storm continues with torrential rain for several hours and as we retire for a few hours sleep we seriously wonder whether we will be able to make the ascent. We arise at 01.00, half wishing that it is still raining but no, it is now a clear moonlit night so we star our ascent. There are lights along the path and steps to the peak. The walk to the top will cover 8 kms (5 miles) and allegedly, 8000 steps. Trying not to think too much about this we start off and we pass through the food market at the base of the mountain where all the stalls are open ready to service the many pilgrims which make the climb. The peak is sacred to moslems and Christians as legend has it that the footprint at the top is where Adam first set foot on earth. The Buddhists believe that the footprint belongs to the lord Buddha, whereas Hindus are convince it is the footprint of Shiva . For the first 2kms it seems that the pilgrims are not about tonight as we see no one else. There are food stalls and toilets every kilometer or so along the path and even some showers for the hardy. Eventually we start to meet some of the pilgrims making their way down the mountain all are very friendly stopping to have a chat with us and telling us how much further we have to go! Eventually, on one of our many rest stops we are caught up by a group of three Sri Lankan guys in there mid twenties. We chat to them and share some sweets and carry on the ascent together. One of them is a soldier whose right arm was badly injured in the civil war but who is otherwise extremely fit and he encourages his friends (and us) if anyone begins to flag. One of his friends is somewhat less than fit and he get some “special” attention from his friend as he really begins to struggle 9although to be fair, for some bizarre reason he is climbing in bare feet! One of the guys is clearly a devout Buddhist and begins to chant as we ascend. The chants are returned by the people coming down the mountain and it all gets very musical and quite hypnotic after a while.

    When we set off it was still very warm but halfway up it starts to get colder and the climb gets increasing steep. It reminds me of other climbs we have done in the Andes and particularly on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. Everyone, even the super fit soldier, is beginning to feel the strain. At about 04.30 we finally reach the summit. The last kilometer is very steep and seems to go on forever. But we are there and are surrounded by sleeping pilgrims. Our new found friends show us around. We touch our foreheads the required three times on the Buddha’s footprint and are blessed by the monk. One of the guys rings the bell at the top three times to signify that this his third ascent. He insists that I do the same. For good measure I also visit the Hindu shrine and am blessed once again and am give a yellow mark on my forehead by the priest (not entirely sure of its significance).

    We hang around the summit for a while. Everyone is trying to get a little sleep but it is very cold and it is made worse by the fact that we are barefoot having removed our shoes when entering the summit area. The sunrise is a must apparently because, as the sun rises, it casts a shadow of the mountain in the shape of a perfect triangle on the clouds below which doesn’t correspond to the actual shape of the peak. After a while, partly because we have seen the sunrise from a mountain top on several occasions and partly because I am suffering from a minor gastro-intestinal issue (and really did not like the look of the toilets on the way up!) we decide to descend down the mount without waiting for dawn,

    We see very few people on the way back. Today is the start of a major 2 day holiday and an influx of pilgrims is expected and apparently the mountain becomes jammed with human traffic. We continue our descent and stop by a bonfire built by a group of pilgrims to get warm and to witness the magnificent sunrise. As anyone who has done this sort of thing will tell you, climbing up is hard enough but the downward trip is often even harder as you use an entirely different set of muscles. For me the problem is exacerbated as I badly twisted my knee slipping on some ice just before leaving the UK. By the time we reach the bottom are legs are really sore and feel like jelly. The last couple of miles seem to go on forever (we passed through this area in the dark on the way up so it is difficult to work out how far we are from the end). We eventually make it back to the guesthouse just as the bus loads of pilgrims star to arrive to commence their climbs.
    A quick shower and then into the dining room for one of the most welcome breakfasts I have eaten. An attempt at sleeping fails miserably so after a couple of hours we get up and go for a gentle saunter around the tea plantations. We meet some school children, very smart in there blue and white uniforms. Are They on their way home who stop for a chat, they tell us, in exceptionally good English, that they attend one of the tea estate schools and that their families all work on the estate. A bit further on we pass some of the women picking tea on the slopes of the estate. It looks like back breaking work. Apparently they work in gangs of around 40, moving around from area to area, picking the very top tips of each bush all for 400 rupees per day ($4). The plan was that this little stroll would ease the stiffness in our legs. Great theory but it does prove somewhat less than effective as we hobble back to the guesthouse.

    All in all, it has been a great day and their is always a sense of achievement gained from a trek like this one. I would strongly recommed it as a diversion for anyone visiting teh hill country.

    A few words about the Slightly Chilled Guesthouse. This is just a basic place but it is in a great location. The rooms are not luxurious but they are clean, comfortable and the views and food are outstanding. But what makes it stand out from other places in we have stayed at in Sri Lanka is that the owners and staff are really enthusiastic and welcoming and do go the extra mile to help guest enjoy their stay. Highly recommended if you are in the area.

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    Many congratulations on making the climb!!! All that merit was definitely earned.

    "an amazing cuisine such as Sri Lanka’s is dumbed down just for foreign tastes." - it's not just Sri Lanka. I posted a very PO'ed review on TA after a restaurant recommended on Nancy Chandler's Bangkok map served food virtually without any spice at all. I expect to have to insist on spicy food in Thai restaurants in the west, but not in BKK!

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    If the vast majority of a restaurant's clients prefer dumbed down food, it would seem a rational decision to serve exactly that. Perhaps you could have sought out more 'authentic' restaurants to cater to your taste.

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    Believe me Femi we did search out more "authentic" restaurants whenever we could. No doubt the guesthouses are catering to the demand but whether that demand is real or perceived I am not sure. We found the problem with Sri Lanka, unlike other countries in Asia, was that there were comparatively few independent restaurants. Most of the dining seems to be done in the guest houses which naturally enough cater mostly to foreigners.

    Thurdays, I agree with your comment re Bangkok restaurants which have changed immensely during the twenty or so years I have been visiting the city. Whilst it is still possible to get great Thai food the proportion of restaurants serving watered down versions is undoubtedly increasing which is why I mostly head for teh street stalls and hole in the wall type places when I am there.

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    Congrats on completing the climb!

    No matter where I travel, I find that restaurants are glad to comply with a request to make the food spicy, even though some do so with great trepidation.

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    ANOTHER TRAIN JOURNEY (TO HAPUTALE)

    We leave Dalhousie village for the drive back to Hatton station. We arrive early and have a look around town which is hosting some sort of political rally. The place is heaving with soldiers and police. The centre of town seems to have little to offer so we head for the station to wait on the platform for our train.

    There is no first class on this train so we take our reserved seats in our second class compartment. Apart from slightly less leg room there is little difference. As we set off we notice that the carriage next to us was once the buffet car. Now its occupants are a group of Sri Lankan men already off their heads on Arak. As we leave the station they recommence playing their drums and singing and this continues more or less unabated for the next 4 hours! They are harmless enough but this is really the most tuneless drumming and singing I have ever heard. Thank you Steve Jobs your iPod saved my sanity!

    As we climb higher and higher into the high tea country (where the really good stuff is grown!) we pass through countryside which is incredibly beautiful. As the train meanders through the teas estate along ridges and through countless tunnels we see many amazing vistas and gradually the tea estates give way to market gardens growing all manner of vegetables and fruit. There are no doors on this train so as we ascend into the hill country it does get quite cool. We pull into one station and stop. After around 20 mins. we realise that we are still not moving! Eventually, we see some workers standing around pointing at the wheels right below where we are sitting. This goes on wor a while and then the man with the big spanner arrives! The workmen begin taking the undercarriage to bits and after a while we see the brake pads being taken away. They clean these up on the platform and then re install them and then move to the other side of the train to repeat the exercise. We are not too worried as the train barely reaches 10 mph so the chances of an accident are, hopefully, minimal. The scenery in this part of Sri Lanka is really something and, upon reflection, I wish we had spent more time here and less in the “Cultural Triangle” area.
    After a wait of 20 or so minutes our driver, and that of the other couple travelling on the train, catch up with us and pick us up at Haputale station.

    En route to our hotel, Namunu mentions that he has been talking with the other driver and, he has managed to secure a trip for the 4 of us to do the Worlds End trek in the Horton Plains National Park. However, yesterdays hike up Adams Peak combined with sitting on a train for 5 hours have caused our legs to virtually seize up. This, coupled with my recollection of Thursdaysd’s comments on the subject of Worlds End a few weeks previously leads us to decide that we will give Worlds End a miss this time around.

    The train journey has been fascinating and has taken us through some of the most enchanting scenery Sri Lanka has to offer, but it has been a long day and we are glad when we reach our hotel for the night, the Melheim Resort just outside Haputale.

    The hotel is in a stunning location and is a really nice place, all plate glass windows and stone, set on the side of steep valley with superb views of the valley. When we go for dinner that evening the clouds have come down and the mist is swirling through the candlelit restaurant, quite atmospheric really.

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    The tea country is just gorgeous! We had considered this train ride when we went, but just didn't have the time. It's good to hear a first-hand account of it... and the warning to bring our ipods.

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    ONWARDS TO ELLA
    We wake early, eat breakfast and bein the agonizing climb up the steps of the hotel to where our car is parked. The stiffness in our legs has really set in and we are really glad we decided not to rise at 5.00am for the , rather strenuous hike to Worlds End. Instead we set off for Adisham to have a look around the grand, English style mansion which was bought by the Benedictine monastic order and is now a monastery. We have a look around the building ( only part of which is open to the public) and admire the fantastic views out over the valley. The monks are busy selling there famous range of pickles, preserves and cordials made on the premises.

    After a while we leave for Ella and on the way stop at the Mlesna tea centre to taste and buy some teas. After having tasted quite a few we buy a couple of kilos of “Broken Orange Pekoe” which is both delicious and extremely refreshing as well as some smaller bags of other varieties.

    Finally, we arrive in Ella and our guest house, Mountain Heavens in a great location directly overlooking Ella Gap. The guesthouse is built down the side of the hill and our room is the last one with French windows directly on to the garden. A very plain and simple hotel and a bit rough around the edges (Carolyn says it is in dire need of a woman’s touch) but comfortable enough.

    Namunu drives us to “Little Adams Peak”, a hill on the side of the valley. We start off on the ascent, our legs still sore, but halfway up we decide enough is enough and give up, partly because of the legs and partly because of the heat as it is now mid afternoon. On the way back down a man invites us to his coconut stall where we rest awhile and each drink a coconut (very refreshing!) then eat the flesh with a spoon – delicious!

    This is our final evening with Namunu and we will be sad to part as he has been and exceptional driver/guide and great company. We take him for dinner that evening and he tells us a little more of himself. He put himself through college to gain a degree in engineering but only worked briefly at that until he bought himself a car to move into the tourism industry where he mostly works for Jetwing the luxury tour operators, who own some of Sri Lanka’s best hotels. His first love is photography and he told us the story of how he took the “perfect picture” of a leopard in Yala NP and showed it to a friend who then persuaded his company to buy it for great deal of rupees which Namunu then used to purchase a professional Nikon SLR kit to take yet more pictures, Very enterprising and a great guide for keen photographers visiting Sri lanka as he has lots of tips and knowledge to share.

    It was our intention to head down to Tissamarama and visit Yala NP, but try as we may all rooms are taken. In the end Namunu fixes us a place to in Tangalla so the next morning that is where we head driving south out of the hill country down through Uda Walawe NP where we stop along the way to have a look at the wild elephants congregating by the electric fence eagerly awaiting feeding by tourist who by bananas from the many stalls along the road.
    By mid afternoon we arrive in the southern coastal town of Tangalla and head for the hotel Namunu has booked for us. Looks very nice with spacious round cabanas scattered throughout the gardens except that the hotel is overbooked and the manager asks us to wait whilst he prepares our room. Sensing that something is not quite right we ask to look at the room immediately and are shown through the managers private lounge where there are about 8 members of his family sitting around and into his own private bedroom where his wife is busily clearing out all their personal possessions. We ask the price of this extremely dingy room (no mozzie net, no aircon)and find that it is the same as the nice smart cabanas. He won’t negotiate on the rate so we leave and drive on to the next village of Goyambokka and manage to get a room at the Goyambokka Guest house. The rate is half that of the previous place but it doesn’t have aircon or hot water but it is in a great location 50yards from the beach.

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    I've been a lurker for years. This is my first post. I've enjoyed your trip report and am very excited to visit Sri Lanka which I'm doing this May. I know the rainy season. I have a practical question...What kind of foot gear did you wear? With the heavy flooding and the mud, did you need high rubber boots? What would you recommend? Thanks.

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    Welcome to Fordors asia Fourm mmstraveller. I used Keens Newport H2 sandals and have done for years. Extremely comfortable, robust with fantastic grip. The uppers are made of nylon webbing so if you do go wading through water they dry really quickly. Have walked many miles all over the world in these with no complaint.

    Dont bother with rubber boots much too hot.

    I also took a pair of Rohan hiking trainers (if you are American , I think you would call them sneakers???). I think I only used the once when climbing Adams Peak.

    Enjoy your time in Sri Lanka. Where are you planning on visiting?

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    Thank you for your welcome and info...besides comfort look for good tread soles and quick drying footwear.
    I envy your itinerary. I'm doing the "amazing race" around Sri Lanka. I'll only be in country for 6 nights. Visiting Sigiriya, Polonnaruw, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.

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    Thanks Craig - here is the next installment:

    GOYAMBOKKA TO WELIGAMA

    After checking in we head off to the beach and are really pleasantly surprised. It is a beautiful sandy cove, maybe 150 yards wide, edged with palm trees and only a handful of people about. We sit down at one of the half a dozen small fish restaurants and order a couple of beers whilst we peruse the menus. We are shown the fish by the owner and eventually settle upon a plate of king prawns and chips which we share – delicious.

    That night at the guesthouse we meet some of our fellow guests over dinner of Sri Lankan curry and rice. We chat with an eccentric Englishman in his seventies who has many interesting tales to tell of the area. He has been coming here for many years to escape the English winter for a few months. I can think of worse places to be!

    Over the next few days we just chill by the beach, visit the market in Tangalla and, having decided that bus travel was not for us, we negotiate a fare with a tuk tuk driver to take us to or next stop along the coast at Weligama.

    We have chosen our tuk tuk driver with great care. He is a rarity in Sri Lanka, a careful driver. We start out at 09.00 before it get to hot and the drive along the coast is really pleasant (if you ignore the psychotic bus drivers overtaking blindly at 60+mph!). We drive through the large town of Martara and the small beach village of Mirissa (which looks so nice we resolve to return in a couple of days) before arriving at our destination of Weligama and our hotel, the Neptune Resort. We check into our cabana which is quite nice but expensive for the area. Our bags have been carried to our room by one of the workers who, even before he has put the bags down, is demanding “tip, tip, tip!” extremely rudely. I ignore him.

    There is a big four poster bed in the room which rocks precariously when we touch it. I return to reception to find the hotel manager to fix the bed and the shower which we have discovered is not working. On the way I am “greeted” by the hotel owner who, rather than welcoming us to her establishment, simply tells me to turn off the light outside of our room! I tell her I will get around to it once all the room problems have been fixed. I resolve to find another place to stay for the remainder of our stay in Weligama. Eventually get everything fixed and head off into Weligama town, about 1km down the road.

    As we walk along the beach we pop into the hotel next to ours and book a room for the next 4 nights – not as flash but much nicer and really friendly and helpful owners. A bit further along the road we notice a terrible smell! There is an open sewer leading from the town and depositing the whole of Weligama town’s human effluent into the sea. No swimming for us from this beach!

    The town itself seems quite unaffected by tourism compared with others we have visited and is very much a normal town with lots of interesting shops. It seems to be predominantly Muslim rather than Buddhist and has a number of interesting restaurants including one juice bar which does a fantastic array of “short eats” – a place which we will frequent regularly for lunch.

    After spending some time in the town we continue along the bay passing the fish market and a few stalls selling fish right on the roadside. Unfortunately, many of the admittedly delicious looking tuna are very small indeed and it seems that fishermen have no appreciation of the concept of conserving fish stocks. We are offered a few fish as we walk along but, apart from the freshest sashimi since Tsjuki, what would we do with it? Very cheap though at 400 rupees per kilo – less than 10% of the price we would pay back home!
    Over the next few days we wander far and wide around the area, there are no particular tourist sites of interest but it is nice just to chill and chat to the locals. Carolyn stops and chats to a couple of ladies who are busy weaving lace outside their shop. The workmanship is exquisite and apparently, the area is famous for its lace production. She buys what seems like yards and yards (for what purpose I am not yet sure!).

    The food in the area naturally enough is mostly based upon fish, mostly grilled, sometimes curry. The quality and freshness is excellent. After speaking to one or two of the cooks and reading up a little before we came we set off for a supermarket around the back of the bus station to purchase some spices to take home. This particular place is like an Aladdin’s cave of spice with an amazing array of spices straight from the sack. We end up buying a total of 6kgs (14lbs) of coriander, cumin, fennel, cloves, dried chili, chili powder, poppy seeds, fenugreek, screwpine and some I had never even heard of but where included in some recipes we had picked up along the way. Our bags will certainly be fragrant by the time we get home!

    Before we move on we take a walk of around 5-6kms along the beach road to Merissa, the next village along the bay. It is a small but very pretty place with a great little beach which has excellent surfing (so we are told!). It is also a major centre for whale watching with many boats offering rides 5 or 6 kms out to sea to find the Sperm and Blue whales who frequent the deep water channels around the south and east coasts of Sri Lanka. However as we have already spent some time up close with the whale in Argentina we elect to give this a miss and head back for our final night in Weligama before heading off in the morning for another tuk tuk ride along the coast to our penultimate stop of Galle.

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    I seem to have missed this section out!

    TRAIN TO THE HILL COUNTRY

    We love train travel and try to incorporate it into our travel plans wherever we may be. The train system in Sri Lanka was built by the British in the 19th century and it seems largely unchanged since then. The station is about 10 miles outside of Kandy and sits at the junction of 3 different lines and as such it is a key rail hub for the whole country. We had been worrying a bit out our tickets as Reddot, despite numerous requests had not confirmed they had the tickets or indeed how we were to collect them. Hover upon arrival at the station we met another English couple who were travelling with Reddot and their driver had a ticket for all four of us. We have a look in the control room which really hasn’t changed since colonial times and se the antiquated switch gear. – each train carries a key to the points on a giant hoops and the guard leans out of the train as it comes into the station (or leaves) and it is grabbed by one of the platform attendants who uses it to change the points.
    We board the train and take up our reserved seats at the rear of the observation car which is right at the end of the train. We are facing backwards and so have a great view all the way to Hatton. Very interesting to see life along the tracks as it winds its way through the countryside and villages ever upwards into the hill country. Once the train has passed by the villagers step back on to the track and use it as a main thoroughfare. We see monks, school children even cows wandering along the track in our wake.
    We climb ever higher at what seems like a very slow speed which is just as well as even at this slow pace the train is rocking from side to side. As we climb higher the landscape increasingly is given over to tea production and it seems that every inch of land, no matter how steep , is covered in tea bushes. This is exactly like the photographs I recall from my grandparent’s house when they were tea planters out here. It is incredible to think that all of this was once covered with jungle. After about 4 hours and millions of tea bushes we arrive at our destination of Hatton. Namunu has driven all the way from Kandy and arrives 5 minutes later.
    We set off on the next leg of the journey to our destination of Dalhousie. It is a spectacular drive through incredibly beautiful scenery of tea plantations dotted with the planters bungalows, dramatic hills and lakes, thankfully set against a backdrop of clear blue skies.
    As we pull over to view a church along the way, I mention to our driver that my grandparents used to live somewhere in the area but I am not sure exactly where but we would like to take a look at one of the bungalows. He seems a little unsure but takes us up along winding roads right into the hills and eventually we arrive at the very imposing main gates of the Norwood Tea Estate. After a brief chat with the guard we are allowed in and are greeted by the reception manager. We had not realized that this was one of the famed “Tea Trails” bungalows but we explain my family connection to the area and the manager is happy to show us around. This really is a superb place to stay (I can see why Kathie was so impressed with her experience of the Tea Trails!). It really is like an English country house , very elegant in every respect. If ever we return to Sri Lanka, this is where we must stay.
    After this, all too brief, diversion we continue on to our home for the next 2 days, the Slightly Chilled guest house. This is a basic but very comfortable and well run guesthouse and the primary reason we chose it is because it is right next to Adam’s Peak which we are planning to climb that night. We are delighted to find that we have been given the best room in the house with an L shaped balcony overlooking both the peak and the tea plantation. Possibly one of the best views from a room of anywhere we have stayed in the world .

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    hi crellston,

    thanks for the report which I found whilst doing some research on Sri Lanka.

    most informative, and I certainly know to give reddot a wide berth, if we decide to go.

    shame that it's become to crowded - we were going to go about 25 years ago but the first of the wars broke out and we decided to go to the Gambia instead. [no regrets, DD was born 9 months later!]

    every time we thought about going, there was another emergency. now everyone is heading there, just like we'd like to.

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