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Trip Report Of People & Places: Robbie's 18 day Ramble thru Sri Lanka

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Back story: Why Sri Lanka
Ceylon sounded mysterious, intriguing, so we read and read. I liked the idea of one small island (without the hassle of third world airports and planes) offering such a diversity of experiences. Where else could we visit 2000 year old ruins, go on a game safari in a national park, enjoy a fortified city and relax at a fine beach? Sri Lanka weather is at its most pleasant during December as well. I am attracted to Buddhism and in the predominantly Buddhist countries I’ve visited I’ve found the locals to be exceptionally friendly and hospitable and exuding an inner contentment. I plead poetic license for this (over)generalization. Craig, Dogster, Kathie and others who have shared their experiences of and enthusiasm for SL had stimulated my interest and greatly helped me with planning. Finally, our Sri Lankan neighbors have been encouraging us for some time to visit their native land.

By way of introduction to some of you, my husband and I are mature (chronologically that is) travelers who have traveled widely in Europe, Africa and North and South America. Five or six years ago we went to Southern India over the Christmas holidays and have since adopted the rewarding habit of going somewhere in Asia during Christmas season. And work wise, its the easiest (and financially best) time for us to take three weeks off.

So we knew in advance that Christmas time was high, high season which meant we had to book nine months in advance and expect to pay a 20% premium (beyond the high season rate) in several places. By the time I had learned from Kathie that I had sought quotes incorrectly with Boutique SL and SL in Style, I had committed to transportation arrangements with Journeys Lanka.

I did most of the bookings directly with the hotels since I like to block specific rooms and sometimes tour operators don’t attend to these requests in my experience. In one case I booked through I-Escape, who provided great efficiency and follow through via internet. Journeys Lanka booked Villa Araliya and Vil Uyana, the former because I was unable to contact them directly and the latter because JL got us a much better than rack rate.

Getting to Sri Lanka
LAX was deserted on the cold  (38 degrees) and rainy night we departed in mid December. I was amazed that from arrival at the international building to arrival in the Cathay Pacific Lounge took less than 30 minutes, unheard of in my LAX experiences. In a double decker plane I prefer the upper deck so that's where we were seated. The plane was a 777-300 with flat beds and angled rows. The ergonomics of the seat/bed were wonderful: an attached soft silky pillow, a shelf by the foot of the bed that became an extension of the flat bed when the bed was fully prone so tall people could stretch out. The tv screen swiveled so I could watch whiling lying flat; plenty of entertainment choices. I can't comment on the dinner, it was served after 1 AM and I went out like a cheap watch. Breakfast was adequate. Service was very good.

Due to very heavy head winds we had to make a 45 minutes stop in Taipei. The captain and crew couldn't apologize enough. The passengers who were missing connections due to this delay seemed less impressed with the polite apologies. This wasn't the first time we've had to make an unscheduled stop. Last year in flying to Bangkok, the airline switched to a smaller plane necessitating refueling en route. So give yourself plenty of flex time between flights.

My first time in Hong Kong Airport; very sleek , very big. I checked out some shops and then took a shower in the lounge. Because of the delay we had only a five hour layover, not quite enough time to get outside the airport and see any of HK. Then we flew on to Singapore with a 2 hours layover in Singapore and finally, finally Singapore to Colombo; some thirty hours in all. But then free business class seats on Cathay Pacific (using American ff miles) was a great financial boon and no small feat at holiday time.

Our arrival at the airport was smooth and easy. Luggage arrived quickly and in tact; no visas necessary, plenty of luggage trolleys available. Our Journeys Lanka rep greeted us at the airport and in about a half hour we were settling in at Villa Araliya in the beach town of Negembo. The hotel is about 2-3 blocks from the beach.

It was a fine place for crashing overnight, clean spacious room, firm bed. Our superior, upstairs room with balcony and breakfast was about $68. Too bad I couldn’t sleep a wink. My body clock would not cooperate, no matter what sleeping concoction I took. The air conditioning in the room was on very high and I was freezing. I couldn’t find the controls and didn’t want to disturb DH’s much needed sleep. So i put on my upcountry flannels and wool socks and spent the night thinking pleasant, warm thoughts.

Next morning we had breakfast outside on the restaurant’s patio, a sweet setting by the gardens. The staff was very friendly and welcoming. If I’d had any energy, I would have wanted an hour in the morning to walk around town and by the water’s edge before we decamped.

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    Cultural Triangle
    By 9:30 in the morning we were on our way, traveling northeast to the region of the Ancient Cities, also called the Cultural Triangle. The car that showed up was not the van we’d ordered and I got a vague, muddled explanation (OK madam?) and I was too muddled from jet lag to register the serious implications of my passive assent. Once we’d traveled on the local roads for 3 1/2 hours with no way to stretch our legs (think back seat of small taxi), I realized that a comfortable van was essential and notified Journeys Lanka that afternoon.

    For the first few miles we passed tile factories and roadside produce vendors and further on rice paddies. Most of the small dwellings are quite close to the road. Behind many homes are beautifully laid out rice paddies. At this time, only the scarecrows were working the fields.

    As we went further in to the country’s interior the foliage became more dense and lush. Soon we were engulfed by jungle with small houses and huts peeking through. Homes were set back from the road no more than 100 feet and behind the homes was impenetrable jungle. Every now and then there was a large, stately home hidden in the thicket. It must be a never ending chore to keep the jungle growth from intruding on to the dwellings.

    After Kurunegala, we took the A6 to Dambulla town, where we lunched at Gimanhala Hotel restaurant. The garden setting was soothing and the food good. The a la carte menu had a wide selection; entrees about $6 to $7. The guests were a mix of SLankan families on holiday break and European tourists.

    Now refreshed, we backtracked a few miles to visit the famous Dambulla caves. To reduce our walking time in the heat, our driver, Rohitha, drove us up a side road a few blocks south of the modern Golden Temple on the main road (turn right just before Heally’s Tourist Inn). From our drop off point it was only a short walk. We found that taking the path was much gentler on our knees than climbing the stairs.

    Since Lonely Planet Guide and recent reporters Craig and Kathie have described so well the ancient sites, I will only add a few impressions. At the Dambulla Royal Rock Temple I so enjoyed the peace and majesty in the Temple of the Great King (Cave 2) that I came back to it several times during our visit. The reclining Buddha in Cave 3 was an awe inspiring visual.

    Some of you on this board may recall my excruciating debate about whether to stay at Kandalama (well recommended by Kathie and Craig, my ace SL consultants) or Vil Uyana. I never got to tour Kandalama but I was very happy with Vil Uyana. Since no one has reported on this property (only 3 years old), I will provide details.

    Owned and operated by Jetwing, its a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World and won the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s Gold Award in 2007. The property has 25 dwellings within four different habitats: forest, paddy fields, marsh lands and water, within VU’s 24 acres. Designed by Sunela Jayawardena, according to Jetwings, “one of Sri Lanka’s foremost environmental architects”, the compound has introduced a wetland system to fallow agricultural land. Areas are being reforested using species native to the dry zone. Paddy fields are being re-grown using traditional and organic harvesting methods.

    Jetwings really walks its talk about corporate social responsibility toward the environment and the local people. They grow many of their own vegetables and do not serve meat from endangered species. They use environmentally friendly resources, recycling, and waste, water and air quality management. (Good thing DH didn’t read about all this or he might have nixed the place; he swore that the eco resort we stayed at in the Ecuadorian Amazon a few years ago would be his last eco anything). They have put time and effort in to teaching the local youth English and then employ many of them.

    A golf cart drove us to the lobby to check in. The staff offered friendly greetings and the usual cold towel and refreshing juice. The main public area features an open air library on stilts, an infinity pool and an upstairs dining room with a view of Sigiria rock. This whole area was surrounded by water, presided over by a really cute little crocodile.

    We chose a paddy field unit; $380 including breakfast net per night. Forest and water units had much more space and cost than suited us and marsh dwelling sounded like a invitation to be “bugged” by every endemic insect species, ergo a paddy field chalet.

    Built on stilts with thatched roofs, the paddy fields are directly behind the chalet with a forest of mango trees behind the fields. The very long wall of glass that separates the interior from the balcony affords views of the paddy fields from most indoor vantage points and close up views from the generous deck outside the wall of glass. At the entry to the unit is a plunge pool with a small table and chairs.

    The units are not fussy or fancy; their elegance is in the amount of space (guessing interior space around 1000 sf with 28 foot ceilings). The space and light bring the outdoor beauty in, creating a harmonious melding of outdoor and indoor environments.

    Aside from poor lighting (a condition I found most places in SL) the room was extremely comfortable. I loved the amount of counter space in the living room area (6 steps down from the bedroom level and closer to the deck and fields), bedroom, closet area and bathroom. The floors are teak, walls bamboo, furnishings rustic chic. The gigantic bathtub is in an area adjacent to but separate from the bathroom. The rooms have all the expected amenities of a high end property.

    The paddy field rooms are connected by elevated wooden walkways and there are appealing walking and hiking paths throughout the property. I liked the road signs on the paths showing the various resident dragonflies, snakes, flora and fauna. Breakfasts were from their extensive a la carte menu. Ditto dinners. I found the food adequate but nothing memorable. It’s also possible my taste buds were still jet lagged too.

    I enjoyed the spa environment and the massage. The facility is simple yet luxuriant in the way it brings the natural environment in. People in the spa were well trained and friendly. After my massage I sat sipping tea and soaking up the landscape from their strategically located indoor/outdoor relaxation area.

    To be continued as time permits.

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    Excellent start, I'm all ears. Looking forward to these stories...

    How about those guys, sending you the wrong [and cheapest] car? I just stand my ground and say 'No.' That's always fun to see.

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    You know I've been awaiting your report!

    We drove by the Vil Uyana - it looked very interesting. Our driver said there were lots of mosquitos - were there?

    I'm looking forward to more!

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    Second day in the Ancient Cities region we visited Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. Sigiriya is only a couple of miles from Vil Uyana so we could get an early start without getting up at the crack of dawn. We were on site by 9 am and successfully avoided the heat and crowds. The water gardens and terraced gardens were beautiful and serene, and reminded me of Thailand’s ancient capitols.
    The 22 extant frescoes of the original 500 or so (depicting an important female Tantric bodhisattva) I found stunning. I didn’t just see their beauty and power, I felt them. By the time we climbed to the final landing before ascending through the lions’ paws entryway to the top, we stopped. Taking Kathie’s lead, we too decided to end our climb and enjoy the panoramic view from where we were.

    We lunched at Polonnaruwa Village Resort and had a decent meal. So far we’d successfully avoided buffets. When we arrived at Polonnaruwa, we asked Rohitha, our driver, to take us to the Archeological Museum first. He said the ruins were getting crowded (true) and we’d see the museum later. Rohitha, according to Journeys Lanka, was also a guide so we were getting a “twofer”, both driving and guiding services. His “guiding” was, sorry to say, pathetic. As we came to a group of ruins (there are five separate groups) he would point and make illuminating elaborations like “royal palace” , “audience hall”. I referred to my LP guide.

    It was a Sunday and by midday the sites were overflowing with Sri Lankan families. Lots of Indian families also touring during holiday break. The throng became so thick, it was difficult to maneuver in some smaller spaces. We only spent one and a half hours touring two groups of sites.

    A serious student of archeology would spend months; a serious tourist, one to two half days. I was prepared to be captivated by these ruins...but I wasn’t. Sadly, I was underwhelmed, to say nothing of the heat, the crowds, and Rohitha’s erudition. So we skipped the museum and repaired to Vil Uyana for lunch and relaxation. We learned we would not meet up with our van until Kandy, two days out.

    We decided to skip Anuradhapura even though there were no security issues to stop us. DH did not want to drive several hours to and fro in a knee tuck. And Lonely Planet called Polonnaruwa “more accessible” and in better condition than Anuradhapura. Given our reaction to Polonnaruwa, we thought we’d do some local exploring on our third and last day in this area.

    Next morning I consulted the resident naturalist at Vil Uyana about places of local interest. There was a village about 5 km from the hotel that sounded like a good place to wander around. When Rohitha picked us up we handed him the map and exact directions to get to the village provided by the naturalist; he nodded comprehension and were on our way. After a few minutes, it felt like we’d already gone 5 km but then on rough roads, distances are hard to judge. Rohitha stopped a tuk tuk driver and showed him the map, then we turned onto a small road and immediately in to a ditch. Rohitha said we’d have to walk since the overnight rain made the dirt road unsuitable for his little car.

    He suggested we begin walking on the road and he’d catch up with us as soon as the car was exhumed and safely parked. It was a glorious walk, the sky was clear, the birds were in full song, the temperature was mild (felt like mid 70s). There were streams and flowers and snakes to delight our eyes. Now and then a local bicycled past. After we’d been walking about forty minutes, I asked Rohitha how much further to the village. He pointed up ahead and I was getting excited by the prospect of a village so remote and deep in jungle.

    Then Rohitha guided us off the road/path to a stream. We stood by the stream enjoying the quiet for a bit. Very nice, now let’s move on to the village. What village? This was the name that was written on the paper from the naturalist, says Rohitha. After a brief , somewhat heated exchange, it was clear he was clueless and further dialogue senseless. When we got back to Vil Uyana and I e-mailed Journeys Lanka with my complaints. After a good lunch and walk on some of the paths at Vil Uyana, we lounged on the raised deck and read when we could take our eyes away from the idyllic rice paddies. Later I had my massage and tried to dissolve the tonic feelings about Rohitha that were gathering internally.

    On to Kandy
    Next morning we bade farewell to Vil Uyana. I really appreciated the layout, natural environment and atmosphere of this property and the peace and quiet abiding there.

    Before setting out for Kandy, I showed Rohitha my typed out notes about stopping at the woodworking factory/shop and Heritage Center in Matale, both recommended by Craig en route to Kandy. He acknowledged yes, yes, we can stop. Is he sure he knows where these are? Nod, nod. When the signs said we were in Matale, I asked again about these two places. Ah madam, when he said yes, yes, he was making a general acknowdgement that we could make stops, how should he know where these particular places are? So I dug my heels in and said he needed to find the Heritage Center. He had to make several inquiring and did manage to bring us to it. The batiks were lovely and the hilltop views wonderful. Should I hold the driver accountable for the murderous thoughts I was having of him? I settled for an internal lecture on cultural relativism and my ethnocentrism. And I called JL.

    We arrived at Kandy House in time for a very tasty lunch by the pool. Its a lovely 200 year old manor house with only 9 bedrooms suites, set in the hills a few minutes outside of Kandy town. We got a wonderfully warm greeting from Tania Brassey, the manager, and a notable figure in SL. At age 13 she escaped Ceylon to avoid an arranged marriage and returned forty four years later. She is the author of the Insight Guide to Sri Lanka and her novel Lily White and Brown All Over is yet to be published. I would have enjoyed spending time with her but she had a full house

    That afternoon we did the expected things in Kandy, like visiting the Temple of the Tooth and seeing a dance performance. At the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic we watched the faithful make their reverential pilgrimage to glimpse the shrine room. After a stroll along the lake, a spin around town and a beverage stop at the Queen’s Hotel, we asked to go to the Cultural Arts Center for their dance performance. Rohitha nodded; we expected he was on his best behavior.

    On arrival we asked if this was the Cultural Arts Center since there was no visible sign, just tourists buying tickets. When Rohitha brought us the tickets he had purchased for us, the ticket stub showed the name of a different dance location and organizer than the Cultural Arts Center. We didn’t have enough time to get across town to the Cultural Arts Center for their performance so we settled in to our seats while I did a slow burn.

    The dancing was colorful and entertaining, what the dancers lacked in ability and professionalism (which was considerable) they tried to make up for with enthusiasm. Later we told Rohitha firmly that we were disappointed and unhappy that he was not following our requests and instructions. He might wish to show us what he believes we’d like but we want our requests to be followed. Since the arrival of our van had been delayed by a day, I e-mailed JL that we required a change in driver as well as a change in vehicle and in the morning.

    The next morning we took a walk after a delicious breakfast of hoppers (think crepes shaped like a big rice bowl) and eggs out on our verandah. We turned left out of the gate fronting Kandy House and enjoyed watching the activity along the road. I heard some singing and persuaded DH to take a right turn down a small lane. A smiling man greeted us a block from the main road. He was a teacher and invited us to please come to his school where the children were doing a rehearsal for the Christmas performance to be held the next day. We were escorted to a covered outdoor area adjacent to the school and introduced as honored guests.

    The head of this school, The is a full time teacher in Polonnaruwa and comes to this village on weekends and Christmas holidays to teach the 70 to 80 children English. although the children come from various faiths and ethnicities, they are mostly from poor families that could not afford a private school that includes English instruction.

    What a treat we had. The show was already in progress; students were seated on three sides of the covered arena with the “stage” occupying the fourth side. One teacher, the master of ceremonies, introduced each class group and requested the audience’s applause as they took the stage. We saw second graders sing and dance a spirited rendition of the Hokey Pokey, the third graders sang Home on the Range, among other favorites, as their proud parents stood behind the seated children looked on. An ensemble did a dance drama of Found A Peanut. Some talented students read their poetry, rather impresive. A student gave a speech on the importance and benefits of being able to speak English in Sri Lanka. A dance troupe did a beautifully executed traditional Sri Lankan dance to a Celine Dion number.

    The program also featured a play by a group of 14 to 16 year old thespians. The plot was that a father has required his son to get a job and earn money. The son thinks this is a poor idea but must comply. He works washing dishes at the home of a wealthy family with micromanagement by the lady of the house. The young man complains bitterly about the hardship of his efforts washing dishes. When dismay or consternation were the emotions called for in the play, the actor often said “Oh, my gawd” several times. He is paid and brings home money to his father. The father is pleased and proud of him. The morality play ends reinforcing the value of work and the need to earn income. The children were laughing, having lots of fun and were speaking a very fine colloquial English with just a hint of the British lilt.

    After about an hour or more we gave our heartfelt thanks and made our exit. So this activity took the place of our planned visit to the Perdeniya Botanical Gardens, worthwhile substitution we felt.

    Upon our return to Kandy House Rohitha took us to an ATM and then Aruna’s Antiques, recommended by Tania. The shop was fun to browse and did have some quality pieces but the quality/price ratio was way out of whack I thought. We told our driver we wanted to go to Helga’s Folly for lunch. I had read about this eccentric place and wanted to experience it.

    Rohitha said the food was bad, service slow (which we knew) and other arguments to persuade us to follow his suggestion of another lunch spot. DH was now sufficiently irritated to step in boldly (and I was tired of being the demanding, exasperated one) and say that he was to take us to Helga’s Folly forthwith.

    Designed in the 1930’s by Esme (wife of Frederick de Silva , ambassador to Paris in the 60’s) De Silva Blow Perera, it has to be seen to be believed. Some would call it kitschy, some whimsical, some cluttered and way, way over decorated. It is all of that and would probably incur heavy fines from ASID.

    The three course lunch was delicious. While waiting for the food (we were warned by Tania that service is slow and done to order), I asked to see a room or two. I personally would not stay here. Only the suites were decent size and every room, including the public rooms, smelled musty. We learned their bookings were very low this Christmas, many people were canceling at the last minute. We were the only people in the dining room for most of our meal. The three course lunch was delicious. I would definitely try it at dinnertime. We had planned and booked Christmas dinner at Kandy House. This is why we had lunch rather than dinner at Helga’s and why we didn’t postpone the dance performance from last night.

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    Robbie, great report so far. Sorry your driver was a loser. Rammuni had contacted me in late December asking about you - I explained that you were uncomfortable with his ability to communicate with you regularly - maybe I should have tried harder to persuade you to go with him. It seems that on account of Rohitha you missed out on a lot of things. However, I would not trade anything for your experience at the school - priceless, for sure...

    Keep it coming.

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    well, I'm looking forward to the next episode. This is not good, very similar to my first trip to S.L. - I was as confused and angry as you. Now I've learnt. It looks like you are dead centre of your learning curve, trapped with your Bongo in Sri Lanka.

    I'll wait for your conclusions before I give you mine - but, sorry to say, Day One, when the wrong car turned up, is where I think you should have made a stand...

    And yup, you ain't the only person to find Polonawurra boring as bat pooh. Anuradhapura, from my brief, Bongo spoiled visit, was worse. You really do need to know arcane Sri Lankan history to appreciate them.

    Looking forward to the next installment. I hope you send this to Journeys Lanka.

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    >>>In a double decker plane I prefer the upper deck so that's where we were seated. The plane was a 777-300<<<

    ... oh my, 'robbie', I compliment you on flying 'upstairs' on a B777 ... (and I thought it was fine, flying 'up', via SQ 2/1 via those 'megatops' (B747s), SIN-HKG-SFO for work ... (and yes, row 17, thank you very much) ...

    ... (and those 'megas' shall be missed on my monthly trans-pacs) ... (but all is not lost, possums: SQ's sensational 'new' B777s (love that 1-2-1 business class configuration) are slowly taking over SIN-HKG-SFO) ...

    ... [and Yes, new colours for certain Girls and their sarong kebayas!!! ... ('more to come')] ...

    ... well, back to you, robbie: so glad you enjoyed 'traitor air' (Cathay Pacific) ... (as one of numerous pre-conditions for agreeing to marry me, I had to promise my semi-Singaporean sweetie, that I would never, ever fly CX on routes flown by SQ ... well, I short-circuited that agreement a few months back, flying CX First, HKG-SIN, experiencing those CX F HKG lounges, a certain CX FA who reminded me of Gong Li, and ...

    ... (and man, did I ever eventually catch hell from the better half. ... (She monitors my SIA PPS statements 'like a hawk') ... (vaguely recall not getting any 'action' that evening) ...

    ... keep up the good work robbie, and in future, do kindly consider: SQ - thank you ...

    macintosh (robert)

    ... "Traitor!" ...

    (our loving Singaporean home)

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    Oh, Robbie, I'm so sorry about your driver/guide experience! I'm thanking my lucky stars that Boutique Sri Lanka gave us a larger car than what we'd negligently requested and that our driver was a gem who found us the best guides.

    Polonnaruwa was a real highlight. We had a fabulous guide and what a difference that makes! If we hadn't had the guide telling us the stories about the various buildings and carvings... well, our experience would have been more like yours.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the Kandy House and Tania.

    I'm looking forward to more!

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    Great read, sorry you had less than very good driver/guide and hope they changed him and the car. The story of the school visit is a wonderful highlight, always nice to see people interested in real interaction with local peoples and cultures, that is one of the big positives of Sri Lanka - the very freindly people. I will love to read the rest of your report as you write and post.

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    A few remarks before my next installment. Yes, our first several days were much compromised by an impossible driver and poor vehicle, I don't mean to convey that we were miserable 24/7.

    I'm heartened that Dogster shares my take on Polonnaruwa; if we had had Kathie's guide I can see how the place would have come alive.

    Dogster is absolutely right that I should have refused the car on day one. And would have been well served by Craig's recommendation. I also know that given the number of stellar trips we've taken (Burma and Bhutan) in the last couple of years, not every trip can be a 10. And this one improves greatly as we go on.

    Yes, i would have liked to fly SQ but they are not generous with the number of frequent flyer seats they dole out.

    Mohammed, experiences with local people is always a highlight of travel for me. The wonderful school visit (btw, the school is Chathura English Institute in Amunugama, Gunnepana) was followed by several other encounters with warm hearted, gentle, Sri Lankans to be described in due course.

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    My attitude toward Rohitha has not been ameliorated by massage, meditation or gin and tonic. Was I not accepting my upset (and reproaches for being so upset) or his deficiencies and hence my suffering? The Buddhist Publishing Society bookstore was our next stop anyway. I enjoyed browsing their extensive collection; some titles I’d only seen before in Bangkok. When we returned to Kandy House we bid goodbye/good riddance to Rohitha (new van and driver due in the morning) and doubly enjoyed Christmas dinner overlooking the rear lawns and gardens. Temperature wise in Kandy area, it never felt above 82 during the day or below 72 at night, perfect travel weather in my book.

    In retrospect, I would have enjoyed another full day in and around Kandy and more time to soak up the gracious ambiance at Kandy House. There is so much to see and do beyond the obligatory tourist stops. And the pace in Sri Lanka is slow. It just doesn’t work to be the ugly American who runs up to the guard at the Louvre saying: “where’s the Mona Lisa, I’m double parked?”.

    Next morning, hello to Chandra, our new driver and hello to a large, comfortable van. We were off to tea country. Our plan was to take the train from Kandy to Hattan and have Chandra meet us in Hattan and drive us another 40 minutes to our bungalow at Tea Trails. I had read how wonderfully scenic this train ride was and it sounded like great fun. Journeys Lanka could only get us tickets in the second class car, all seats in the observation car were given to or purchased by rail employees for Christmas day travel.

    When we got to the train station in Kandy, Chandra spoke to the station master about possibly getting observation car seats. Seats? What seats? All seats on the train coming in from Colombo were already occupied. The prospect of standing up, being jostled about for three hours dashed my romantic notions. I liked how Chandra was looking out for us, anticipating situations. He was polite and cheerful and that led me to recognize how brooding and depressed Rohitha was.

    So we drove to tea country, like normal tourists do.
    Driving distances in Sri Lanka are deceptive. The distances posted on internet sites obviously, can only give averages. But on the day you drive, will conditions be anywhere near average? Will the road be in desperate need of repair after the last monsoon tore it apart or just recently repaved? Will the driver take a shortcut that adds an hour? Will a military order require a detour? Are the average times based on a SL driver driving his family or a SL professional driver engaged to drive (not drive away) tourists? This last differentiation can easily add 25% to any time estimate.

    Tea Country and Ceylon Tea Trails
    It took 3 3/4 hours to drive to our specific lodging in tea country. Comfortably stretched out in our van, I could absorb the beauty of the rolling hills covered with row after row of tea bushes set against a clear blue sky. As we got our first glimpse of Castlereigh Tank (lake) my excitement mounted. The lake (actually a reservoir) forms the valley floor with hills of tea fields all around.

    There are four colonial style bungalows that comprise Ceylon Tea Trails. “Our” bungalow, Castlereigh was built in the late 19th century for the reigning British tea estate manager. It was opened to visitors in 2005 and is the most requested bungalow according to the general manager. After a tour and orientation, we settled in to the Tate room by mid afternoon and then took a hike up in to the tea fields above our bungalow.

    The walk was glorious and the views of the lake and the hills that form the opposite bank, stunning. After our hike we took afternoon high tea to help us “adjust” to the life of a British tea planter. We likewise make a rapid adjustment to the evening ritual of cocktails at 7 in the drawing room and dinner at 8 on the patio, overlooking the lake.

    Next morning I took a before breakfast walk in to the tea hills again. On the path I saw several tea workers all going the same way, so I followed behind. The tea boss in the field was consulting his notebook in order to properly assign the ladies to the correct areas. Tea bushes, to say nothing of the hardships of the tea workers, have a rough go. The tea bush is meant to be a tree so picking the new growth every seven days, keeps this species of camellias thwarted from reaching its proper height and proportions. Every four years the unfulfilled tree gets a severe pruning to keep it from getting uppity (uh-hem).

    While the women were waiting for their assignments I followed the path beyond the tea fields to a group of six or eight houses. The teenage girls too young (under 18) to pluck tea were tending the babies and children. I got down on the dirt and played with a boy of 8 or 9 months. My safari pants got muddy and an older woman (over 55, thus superannuated from plucking) rushed out with a bucket and towel to clean them off. I tried to indicate that she needn’t bother but she insisted and I thanked her for her help.

    I don’t know if it was just happenstance or developmental knowledge that accounted for the spacial arrangement whereby mothers who were plucking were within visual range of their small children playing in front of their houses. The tea pluckers and their husbands who work in the tea factories have a very hard life so they don’t need to generate separation anxiety in the tots and make matters worse.

    By 8:10 in the morning, the women took their places at their assigned bushes, they began plucking and clucking. At eight in the morning they were fresh and spirited and their nonstop chatter sounded like birds chirping. The women were most pleased to be photographed. In fact, when they saw my camera lens pointing in their direction, they struck coquettish poses or smiled broadly. A look from the field boss alerted me that he was unhappy with my presence; the women (ages 18 to 55) were enjoying my attention and productivity was falling off. I switched to my long lens and positioned myself discreetly behind a tree. A while later the boss man came to my station, the tree, and we chatted as best we could. He wrote down his name and address and I promised to send him some photos of the women. We were both pleased with the exchange and I made my way back home
    for another wonderful breakfast and sampling a new tea.

    Now there were momentous decisions to be made. Shall Fred and I read by the pool or under the gazebo? What to do, what to do. I staked out my place on a chaise lounge with the stone rectangular pool immediately in front of me and beyond it in the near distance a full view of the lake. Fred opted for the gazebo as his reading venue. Castlereigh bungalow (and I imagine the other bungalows as well) has lots of interesting books in its living room, drawing room and bedrooms. Fortuitously, on my night stand, was Christopher Ondaatje’s Woolf in Ceylon. So Leonard Woolf (husband of Virginia) and I got acquainted out by the pool.

    The rigor of another scrumptious lunch was too much, so back to the lounges. Later when DH took a nap, I took a late afternoon walk heading north from Castlereigh. Smiling and waving to the kids got me an invitation to come in to a Tamil village compound just off the main road, which is a narrow, switch back dirt track that trucks and tuk tuks navigate with skill. I communicated as best I could with the teenage girls who were tending their younger sibs; it was not yet time for their moms to return from their labor in the fields. Predictably the children and elders squealed with laughter when they saw their images in the viewfinder of my digital camera.

    Around 4:00 PM women began to come down from the fields to the main path. Their baskets, carried on their backs and perfectly balanced by a cloth that wraps around their foreheads, were brimming over with freshly picked tea. I followed them to a weigh station where men were weighing the plucked tea, determining wages and emptying the baskets into sacks that were then loaded on to trucks and transported to that estate’s tea factory for processing. I learned that this was the last (of 4) weighing of the day; the spirited chatter of the morning had, after six or seven hours in the fields, in direct sun at an altitude around 4500 feet, given way to silence and weariness.

    During my days in tea country I asked several people about the actual conditions in the factory provided housing; sometimes small clusters of houses, sometimes large blocks of units. Replies were vague; yes, there was electricity and indoor plumbing and meals. I had my doubts about some of these. They do have medical dispensaries throughout the tea estates, I passed one on one walk.

    Having been to Tamil Nardu (one of the poorest states in India), its a very sad commentary that the life of the average Tamil family is probably much better in Sri Lanka than TN, hence their migration. (Besides, the Sinhalese population refused to work for the British on the tea estates so Tamils from Southern Indians were recruited.) There are several social service NGOs working to improve the lot of these Tamil tea families and we have plans to visit one of them in a few days.

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    I'm so glad you got your new vehicle and driver!

    We, too, would have like more time in Kandy. The Kandy House was simply a delight and we wanted time to wander a bit in town.

    It sounds like you enjoyed Tea Trails as much as we did!

    I'm following your account closely...

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    One positive outcome of my postponed trip is being able to read your report and adjust my plans. You're making me think I should spend longer at Tea Trails than I had originally planned (when I eventually get there).

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    Femi, four days was not too much time at Tea Trails especially if you're good at doing little, relaxing a lot and can bear to be waited on hand and foot. Dogster I'm working on my plucking and clucking photos at the same time I'm working on this (seemingly) never ending report. Oh yea, I also have a husband, a job and a life. More soon.

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    Next morning (still at Tea Trails) Chandra showed up while we were eating breakfast. We weren’t expecting to need driver services this morning but were glad to see him and learn he had satisfactory accommodations in the closest town. As we’re sharing tea, Chandra leans toward us conspiratorially and explains that he drove over because his boss is very worried about our prospective stay at Yala and bid him to come speak with us. Our safety is their foremost concern (he repeated several times), a feeling we assuredly shared.

    He advised us that camping in Yala was a very bad idea; we would be sleeping on the floor in tents and there are may poisonous snakes crawling around, after all, its the jungle. There were two people recently killed at Yala he noted. Either Chandra was not aware, or thought we were not aware, that camping has not been allowed inside the park for most of this year.

    He suggested we stay in a safe place outside the park at Yala Village Hotel. The hotel could insure our safety and the hotel was set up for tourists. I’d actually corresponded with that hotel to have a plan B, given uncertain security conditions. JL was quoting a higher room rate than I was quoted by Yala Village Hotel just a month ago. Chandra called one of the owners of Journeys Lanka and handed me the cell phone.

    With restrained urgency, the co-owner implored us to think of our safety and hence Yala Village Hotel. He was not familiar with Leopard Safaris but was duty bound to protect us. Chandra departed and I repaired to my chaise lounge by the pool. A few minutes later the butler brought a phone to me at the pool; Noel, owner of Leopard Safaris, was on the line.

    Noel said he wanted to speak with me directly to clear up any misunderstandings (Journeys Lanka had just called him). He reminded me that we would sleep on a queen size bed imported from South Africa (just as his literature had described). He noted (as well I knew by then) that no one was allowed inside the park at night because there is a military installation and heavy military presence in the park.

    Noel responded to my question about safety and killings by saying the only recent “incidents” he knew of in Yala were the sighting of a mother leopard and her two cubs the day before; killings had occurred but of spotted deer, so several mother leopards could feed their young. I asked him how far his deluxe mobile safari camp site was from the Yala Village Hotel, about 1 kilometer. Fred and I felt safe with our original plan.

    When Chandra picked us up for a lovely drive through tea country in the afternoon, I told him we were satisfied that our lodging would be safe; it didn’t seem likely that the camp area was dangerous and 1 kilometer away it was safe. He nodded and the subject was never raised again. Because Journeys Lanka did not know anything about Leopard Safaris, I don’t think they had a proper picture of what deluxe safari camping can be like. Additionally, had we switched to Yala Village Hotel, JL would get a nice commission.

    I woke before sunrise and watched the sky lighten until the sun peeked over the high tea slopes; this wondrous wake-up call came directly in to the big bay window of our east facing room. After some internet work we had breakfast on the patio, never tiring of the lavish lake views. The small tomatoes that were served with my scrambled eggs were the most flavorful I’ve ever had. They are grown in the main garden at Norwood Bungalow (bungalow being the Anglicized version of the originally Hindi word).

    At 9 am a Tea Trails van collected us, picked up two Aussies who were staying at Summerville Bungalow and away we went to our tea factory tour. Andrew Taylor, the resident Tea Planter is an engaging, enthusiastic fellow who literally walked us around through tea and the tea making process. Standing by a tea bush near the factory, he demonstrated proper plucking technique. The women tea pluckers (who have more nimble fingers than men) ideally try to pluck two leaves and a bud from the new growth. Women are expected to pick 16 kg per day. Every few hours the women carry their full baskets of tea leaves to a weighing station. If a woman’s basket contains too many extra leaves or stems, the quality control guy docks her pay. Those who want to earn extra, work on Sundays. From field to tea auction house in Colombo can take less than a week.

    This tour was vastly more interesting than I’d expected it to be. Inside the factory Andrew showed us withering, rolling, fermenting, drying, sorting and grading of the tea. Andrew tasted several grades of newly processed tea and explained the criteria by which he judged the quality and market value of what he tasted. We then tasted to see if we could discern the mouth feel, off taste and other characteristics he mentioned. Knowledgeable tea tasting has more in common with wine tasting than I’d imagined. After the factory visit our group made a stop at Norwood Bungalow where we enjoyed a refreshing glass of lime juice.

    We returned to Castlereigh just in time to get ready for lunch. The stellar dish at lunch (and there was at least one per meal) was the watercress soup. After our leisurely repast and spirited conversation, Fred and I sat by the pool where I read more of Woolf in Ceylon.

    Time passed both slowly and quickly in this idyllic setting. Soon it was time for me to grab my camera gear and do some photography in warm afternoon light. My mission was to get to the weighing station for the 4:30 weigh in of the freshly picked tea. I was misinformed or misunderstood, afternoon weighing was at 4:00 PM but I did photograph the stragglers who arrived late. The locals I met along the road were friendly people who responded to my hello and a smile with the same.

    On my way back “home” a man standing at the front of his house on a rise above the road, waved to me. He came down the earthen steps and introduced himself. Victor Anthony identified himself as a Christian and a primary school teacher . He wanted me to visit his home and meet his family; I hesitated but only briefly.

    The tiny living room (maybe 7 x 10) of Victor’s home was not large enough to contain the flow of relatives that began to pour in from neighboring houses up and down the road. Victor has five brothers and one sister and I was introduced to each of them, their spouses and children.

    After sharing the digital images I took of them, they were comfortable with me using my film cameras. Pretty soon the entire clan wanted small group family photos. So I photographed moms and their babies, three generation groups and more. The portrait of the entire family included twenty five people. I think I’ll include it in my photo posting.

    Victor and I discussed how I could get the photos to him. He gave me a stick drive and when I returned to our room I downloaded the photos on to our Mac and then copied the twenty family photos on to his external drive. We agreed I’d come by tomorrow to deliver the photos on a stick. He hugged me and kissed each cheek. It was nearly dusk and I took my leave in hopes of outrunning the mosquitoes that seem to favor me as a tasty appetizer.

    We agreed I’d come by tomorrow to deliver the “photos on a stick”. When Fred and I went to his house with the loaded stick, the images could not be displayed on his computer; he did not have any photo software loaded and there may have been additional complications transferring images from my Mac to his PC .
    So I will print a dozen of the best shots and send them to him and his family.

    Sunday, our last day living the high life of a British planter. And shame be upon me, instead of a “proper” breakfast tea this morning, I tried the Dilmah rose petal tea with vanilla. Delicious, I added four tins of this variety to my expanding order.
    So far the buying of Dilmah (who partly own Ceylon Tea Trails) teas has been my only purchase in Sri Lanka and Fred was beginning to worry about me.

    On our morning amble we passed many Christian families walking to church, baby girls dressed up in frilly pink or white dresses; women holding umbrellas against the hot sun. As we walked, we heard the intermittent beating of drums but could not locate the source nor anyone with enough English to indulge our curiosity about these sounds.

    Chandra picked us up and drove us to Norwood Bungalow for lunch. This turned out to be quite difficult to arrange. Despite the CTT web and room literature encouraging guests to “dine around” at different bungalows, when, at the beginning of our stay, I requested a lunch there one day, our butler advised me that Norwood was too busy. They offered to provide us a quick bite there on our second day; we declined, wishing to wait until they could arrange a full lunch. I had occasion to chat with the GM on our third day and mentioned that I’d e-mailed my request for lunch at Norwood months ago. Later that afternoon we learned that Norwood could accommodate us for lunch on Sunday. I think this situation was anomalous and not likely to affect future guests.

    The lunch difficulty was, I think, fallout from the unprecedented number of cancellations Tea Trails was receiving during the holidays. Last minute bookings were accepted to fill in vacancies. Numerous guests had to switch rooms within a bungalow or switch bungalows in order to stay on this last minute basis. I met one couple who “slept around”; that is, they requested a stay in a different bungalow each night. As for me, once I was comfortably ensconced, I was most content to stay put.

    Our lunch at Norwood was very nice. They set up a table for us on a patio facing an expanse of lawn where children were at play. When the occupants of the room adjoining this patio came out to lounge, I felt like an intruder. Norwood is the largest of the bungalows and as such may be more appealing to families and family groups. After lunch Fred stayed under the umbrella and I explored the grounds. The flower gardens are handsome and the vegetable garden bountiful. I had a book with me and decided to sit by the pool for a few minutes. The tea fields are on a steep hill behind the pool and create a breathtaking setting. My stay at the pool was very brief; the children playing on the lawn splashed in to the pool and played rambunctiously. I came back to our table where Fred was in conversation with a stock broker from Scotland. We were both glad to be back home at Castlereigh.

    Having visited Norwood and Summerville, I came to appreciate all the benefits of Castlereigh: stunning water views from everywhere on the property, beautiful gardens and a feeling of being gently enveloped and cradled by the hills of tea all around. Having a lake view as we did in Tate Room was lovely but the lake view is everywhere around the property. The downside of Tate, and only a minor complaint, is that the gardeners seem to work on the front garden most of the day. So to prance around your room in the all together, you have to draw the drapes, close the shower curtain in the bathroom or just cover up. I was able to take a look at two other rooms in this bungalow. Baker, which has a private garden and no lake view and Palmer, a corner room with lake views from one side and private garden views from the other. Its the largest room in the bungalow.

    Look for more under Part II. I’ll cover Yala, the south coast to Galle, the West coast to Colombo (that is, when I get back from skiing).

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    I think your tour company, guides one and two, and God only know how many others are screwing you stupid on this tour - and I don't think you've noticed. I think you're being fed lies for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    If you can see it, I can't help you. Let's jump to Part Two - hopefully the lies will stop and you can really enjoy yourself.

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    All the problems with your drivers and the tour company - it makes me glad I booked with Boutique Sri Lanka. I'm sorry you had those hassles and so glad you found plenty to enjoy anyway.

    We also spent four days at Tea Trails and it was just the right amount of time for us.

    I'm looking forward to the next chapter!

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    Robbie, I was told that Summerville is the bungalow most frequented by families. It is small enough that they can rent out the whole place. We saw no children during our stay at Norwood - guess we got lucky. Nice to relive Tea Trails through you and Fred...

    More, please...

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