Friday, January 27, 2012

The South Coast: Tangalle, Unawatuna, Galle

The Sri Lankan coastline is endowed with miles of glorious sandy beaches fringed with palm trees and aquamarine sea. We spent the last five days of our trip being lazy beach bums, soaking up the equatorial sunshine and reading under the cabana. The South Coast reminded us a lot of Kerala, India with its old historic fort, brackish backwaters, coconut-infused cooking, balmy climate, and golden beaches. In fact, Keenan finally got the chance to read the 1997 Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, a novel about fraternal twins in their native Kerala. I ended up reading a Candace Bushnell novel because it was the only book I could find in English in the book exchange library. Let's just say it was an entertaining read. 


We divided our time between Tangalle, a secluded little beach town with maybe a handful of thatched beach bungalows, and Unawatuna, Sri Lanka's most popular beach.  Tangalle is very sleepy so this beach is perfect for those seeking peace and quiet as the golden sands remain relatively untrodden, but you'll have to share the beach with the occasional stray dogs. While the beaches are tranquil, the ocean is anything but. The undercurrents are extremely strong --  it is not ideal for swimming or other water sports. We stayed at the Patini Bungalows for two nights, which had a superb location right on Medilla Beach with a lovely private deck for afternoon tea or a sun downer. I should also note that Tangalle is an unassuming town with very little tourist infrastructure so eating is very limited to a few guesthouses such as the Ibis and Ganesh Gardens. We liked Tangalle for its peaceful surroundings but it was a bit too quiet for us.

Moving up the coast, we made our way to Unawatuna. Unlike Tangalle, Unawatuna was packed with holiday-makers from frigid Europe. Protected by a sweep of palm trees with crystal clear water lapping the pristine white sand, this crescent-shaped bay with an intimate beach is as picturesque as it gets.  It is a lively beach town with a nice laid-back vibe. By day, people are busy jogging, swimming, padding, and sunbathing; and by night, it's quite relaxed with people mellowing out with a glass of chilled beers and eating fresh seafood alfresco on the beach. There were some all-night trance parties along the beach but for the most part Unawatuna had a good mix of relaxation and liveliness. There is no shortage of restaurants in Unawatuna, many serving up the Sri Lankan staples of rice and curry and there's plenty of shops to pick up souvenirs. 


I signed up for a half-day Sri Lankan cooking class at Karuna's kitchen -- and it was so much fun! We first took a tour of the vegetable and spice markets in Galle to pick up fresh produce (spice, pumpkin, carrots, green beans) for our meal. The class is limited to 8 people so you can get really hands-on in the prepping and cooking. Karuna, who has this high-pitched infectious laugh, is a great teacher and she makes you take down notes rather than giving you a handout of the recipes. We made five different curries: pumpkin, carrots & green beans, deviled potato, fish curry, and yellow dhaal; and a coconut-based dessert. After spending three hours cooking and inhaling all the aromatic spices, it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Keenan joined us for our late lunch after spending the day shopping for his masks and sunbathing on the beach. Bon Apetite!

We also made a trip to visit the historic fort in Galle. It's an easy-going town teeming with commercial activities from gem shops to Ceylon teashops to textile shops. The old fort was first built by the Portuguese before the Dutch took over, building themselves the Dutch Reform Church, warehouses, and several bastions around the fortified wall. The fort was then handed over to the British in 1796 and several modifications were made to the old fort including building a tower to commemorate Queen Victoria's jubilee. You are welcome to walk along the old rampart and admire the various architectural styles of the Dutch, British, and Portuguese. There also some lovely cafes inside the fort. My favorite was Pedler's Inn Cafe, opt for a seat in the patio and order a coffee or a light lunch.

With heavy hearts, it was a time to say goodbye to Sri Lanka. Istuti for the beautiful memories! If you are interested on current political issues in post-civil war Sri Lanka, please read Keenan's recent blog titled "What Lies Beneath: Truth and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka." Ayubowan!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Safari in Yala National Park

Upon reading about Sri Lanka's famous Yala National Park in one of my favorite travel magazines, I knew we had to incorporate a mini safari adventure into our two-week itinerary. From Ella we hopped on a bus heading south to Tissamaharama (Tissa) where we based ourselves at My Village for a few nights. 

Palm trees, rice paddies, dagobas, jeeps, and a serene man-made lake complete the landscape in Tissa. It was stifling hot and humid. And the entire town is obsessed with Bob Marley, even drivers have built-in subwoofers in the back of the tuk-tuk blasting "No Woman, No Cry." Welcome to Tissa.

The real reason for coming to Tissa was to use it as a base for our safari drives into Yala National Park. Bright and early at 5am, our driver from Sugathe's Yala Safari picked us in his massive canopied green Tata and we were off for a full-day dawn to dusk safari.

Entering the park was a bit chaotic as there are no limit to the number of vehicles inside the park, but the crowds drop significantly after10:30am when the morning only safaris exit the park, leaving the handful reminding jeeps to roam freely about. The park itself is strikingly beautiful and pristine with thick scrubs, stork-clad lakes, dune-covered coastline, and majestic rock formations. Simply stunning.

Our first order of business was to track down the elusive Sri Lankan leopard, Yala's most famous resident. The driver explained to us that these insanely shy creatures are most active in the early mornings and are generally spotted near massive rocks or on large tree branches. We were lucky to see three leopard-sightings throughout the day: 2 in the morning and another in the late afternoon. The first leopard was lying in the shade behind a rock; the second was sleeping peacefully high up on a large shady tree; and the third was also found on a tree but made a quick move to the ground before the other jeeps arrived. I am amazed how well camouflaged these animals are! 


The entire park is teeming with wildlife from herds of buffaloes, wild boar, spotted deers, macaque (red-faced) and langur (black-faced) monkeys, jackals, rabbits, elephants, monitors, crocodiles, and more. In fact we probably saw more animals in one day in Yala than our two days combined in Kruger National Park. If you're into bird-watching, then you'll fall in love with Yala. There are no fewer than 130 different species of bird from the ubiquitous peacock, storks, egrets, kingfishers, herons, ibises to name a few.
Wild Buffaloes:
Spotted Deer
Monitor Lizard
Langur monkey
Wild Boar

Peacock looking for a mate
Pretty bird

During the height of the afternoon heat, we spotted two large groups of female elephants with their young babies on separate ends of the park. In total, we probably saw two dozen elephants inside of Yala including one lonesome male elephant walking on top of a large cliff. These creatures are amazing and huge! As my favorite wild animal, I couldn't help but to take a million pictures of them -- they were just too adorable. We spent some time watching the group of elephants feeding on grass, interacting with each other, and even cross the croc-infested lake. This was definitely one of my favorite safari moments.

It was truly a rewarding day to be fully immersed in nature and taking in the stunning scenery. A full-day safari is exhausting, but is highly recommended if you want to increase your chances of seeing all the wildlife Yala National Park has to offer. It may seem impossibly busy in the morning but I promise it will be more relaxed in the afternoon. Do remember to bring sun block, reading materials, snacks/food, and plenty of water as there are no tourists facilities inside the park.  

Crocodile Island:

The next day, we had a leisurely day of sleeping until noon, followed by an afternoon bicycle ride  through little rice paddies and around Tissa Lake. There is not much to see in terms of sights in Tissa, but the scenery is pleasant enough. Most tourists take a sunset cruise on Lake Tissa but seeing that locals use the lake to bath and wash clothes, we didn't see the appeal of it. In terms of dining, you're better off eating at your B&B and for that I recommend My Village for their excellent Sri Lankan cooking.

Having missed the puja in Kandy, we wanted to attend the evening puja in the temple town of Kataragama, another holy site to Sir Lankan Buddhists and Hindus, located half an hour from Tissa. The main road leading up to the Sacred Precinct was lined with shops selling colourful garlands and fruit baskets used as offerings to the god Kataragama. Inside the atmospheric main complex, there are several temples dedicated to different deities which were built around the a large Bo tree. Pilgrims descend bearing fruit platters, while others break a coconut which is considered the purest form of offering to a god according to Hinduism. It was interesting to quietly observe the pious rituals of the world's oldest religion.

From Tissa, it was time to move on to the beach for some sun and relaxation.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Hill Country: Ella

The train journey from Hatton to Ella was even more breathtaking than I anticipated. Unlike all our other crowded train rides in Sri Lanka, this journey on the second-class carriage was comfortable and relaxing. Definitely one of my favorite memories of the trip. Coming off a strenuous midnight hike to Adam's Peak, you would think we would fall asleep enroute to our next destination. Trust me, I can fall asleep just about anywhere - cars, planes, trains - doesn't matter, I am a sleeper. We just couldn't peel our eyes off the spectacular scenery as the train made its way up, up, up to the highest town in the hill country, Nuwara Eliya at 6,128 ft, and back down to the little town of Ella. 

The change in vegetation was dramatic, switching from subtropical jungle to woodloods and back again to tropical forest. We saw amazing waterfalls in the distance, rolling hills engulfed by fog, and endless miles of manicured Ceylon tea plantations. No matter what, even if you have a driver in Sri Lanka, make it a point to take the train through the central highlands, preferably from Hatton onwards. We met two Japanese girls who took a seven hour train ride from Kandy to Badulla (the end of the line), then all the way back to Colombo in one day just to enjoy the scenery. It's that beautiful. 

I previously alluded that we spent New Year's Eve in the little town of Ella. We envisaged having a quiet dinner at our B&B, the Waterfall Homestay, a beautifully appointed property facing Little Ella Waterfall, and heading to bed early due to exhaustion from the previous night's hike. Upon arrival to Ella train station that evening, our poor legs were feeling tight so we rang for a tuk tuk even though the guesthouse was within walking distance, albeit up a steep hill. Due to a road closure, the tuk tuk driver took us on a roundabout way up through the hills, parked his three-wheeler, and told us to start walking. Walk? Uh, okay. It was dark. Down the path, we came across some train tracks and hesitated. Train tracks? I don't recall any train tracks. Were we taken for a ride I thought, deliriously tired at this point? Sri Lanka is one of the easiest places to travel through and definitely a lot cleaner than its neighbour India with the benefit of being hassle-free. We rang the guesthouse again to confirm, and with some hesitation, followed the tuk tuk driver down a steep path where we finally had a visual of the stunning property. 

View of Little Ella Waterfall from our B&B

The proprietor, Karen, was back in her native Australia for the holiday season, leaving her manager and the assistant in charge. He invited all the B&B guests to a "New Years BBQ" at his friend's B&B, explaining that his friend was returning the favour since he hosted the Christmas event. What a kind invitation we thought. No, not really. We were probably better off starving and spending the evening by ourselves than wasting our time at this so-called "New Years BBQ" -- it was terrible. However, we were in the company of some eclectic individuals, which made for a very interesting evening: an Indian-based American sculptress who went to Berkeley in the 60s and her visiting-from-Hawaii teenage daughter; an irate and cynical British national and his 11 year old son who he candidly introduces as "a product of an affair with his mother whilst in India;" a solo female traveler from Japan who spoke maybe three words; and a nomadic family with two teenage kids who left behind a life in New York to travel the world a year. 

Waterfall Homestay

After the horrible New Year's Eve dinner, the B&B manager and the assistant eagerly shuffled everyone back to the Waterfall Homestay at 10pm so they can attend to their own new year's event in town, leaving the guests behind the keys to the main house and access to the beer refrigerator. Keenan and I managed to stay up until midnight, shared a toast with our new British friend, and escaped to our room before he went on another angry rant about the New Years BBQ and the fact that "someone" let out the air out in the back tires of his rental car. It was a very interesting New Years Eve to say the least. We were happy to put 2011 behind us and welcome a new year.

Our room at Waterfall Homestay

The next morning we were off for to explore Ella. They call Ella the closest thing to an English village, and rightly so, the town is quaint with a handful of restaurants and bars catering to tourists, and some lovely walks around town. Our plan was to conquer Little Adam's Peak, a relatively easy walk from town passing through gentle hills and the Newbourg Tea Factory with a short climb to the top. The views again were amazing peering across the small cleft known as Ella Gap and Ella Rock which frames the entire town. For the rest of the afternoon we enjoyed the warm sun on our pasty skin and an ayuvedic massage to smooth our aching legs. 


Ella is also a nice base to explore the tea region, and to learn about the production process of the famous Ceylon tea.  The rule of thumb is to pick "two leaves and a bud" for the highest quality. The leaves are then air dried for 16-24 hours before being rolled and crushed to start the fermentation of the tannins. The tea leaves are left to dry for about an hour in a cool, humid-controlled room. Then the tea are placed in a special oven until the leaves are completely dried before being sieved and packaged. 

For any tea lover who want to pay homage to the tea magnate, Sir Thomas Lipton, you can head to Haputale, about an hour from Ella, and visit the historic Dambatenne Tea Factory from where you can hike up to Lipton's Seat, and I am sure the scenery is just as brilliant as elsewhere in the hill country.


Ella was our last stop on our week long journey across the hill country. Endowed with amazing vistas and picturesque hill towns, we were sad to say good bye, but looked forward to exploring Sri Lanka's South Coast: Tissa & Katagarama (Yala National Park), Tangalla, Unawatuna, and Galle.  

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Pilgrimage to Adam's Peak

Religions collide at Adam's Peak, one of three holiest sites in Sri Lanka along with Kandy and Katagarama. At the top of Adam's Peak, or Sri Pada, there is a sacred footprint in which the island's main faiths  - Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims - each believe it is the footprint of Buddha, Shiva, and Adam, respectively. Neither of us are religious but we do have an appreciation for world religions and cultures, and we love a good adventure, plus we're no strangers to midnight walks having hiked to see the sunrise on Mt. Sinai in 2006 and Machu Picchu in 2007. It is most atmospheric to hike Adam's Peak during the pilgrimage season (December to May) as the main path is illuminated and teashops stay open throughout the night. 

We made our way to the base of Adam's Peak via a 2.5 hr train ride from Kandy to Hatton, followed by a one-hour harrowing bus ride to Dalhousie, which is an extremely modest village comprising of a handful of makeshift shops selling knick-knacks and semi-cold drinks. There are only two tourist-friendly accommodations, Slightly Chilled and Wathsala Inn, neither are luxurious but served its purpose. We chose the former, Slightly Chilled, which received better reviews as it was recently renovated with wonderful views of Adam's Peak.

For $60USD per night inclusive of breakfast and dinner, it wasn't a bad deal. By day, there isn't a lot to do or see in Dalhousie besides several short walks to some nearby tea plantations but you're better off reserving your energy for the hike up Adam's Peak (2243m). We had an early dinner and hit the pillow just shy of 9pm to get a solid 5 hour of sleep.

At precisely 2am, the hotel gave everyone a wake-up call and at 2:30am we were off for our midnight adventure. Depending on your fitness level, it is advisable to allow at least 3 hours to hike up the peak at a moderate pace. We made it up 4,800 steps in 2 hrs and 15 minutes, arriving to the summit at 5:30am where we rang one of two bells to signal a successful ascent. It wasn't an easy hike; our legs felt like jelly towards the end and I couldn't bear to walk up another step. I admire all the families with small children and elderly grandparents who made the pilgrimage; it wasn't an easy feat. 
Joining the crowds of pilgrims and tourists alike, we huddled together in the freezing cold and watched the sunrise above the misty clouds. It was the last sunrise of 2011 and also our first glimpse of this mind-blowing beautiful landscape surrounding this mystical mountain.

On the other side of the temple, the sunrise casts a peculiar shadow: a perfectly triangular shape which appears to be suspended in space. It is a strange phenomena, lasting only 20 minutes and only visible on a clear cloudless day like on New Year's Eve day.  The Buddhists believe it is the physical representation of the Triple Gem. Hiking Adam's Peak was an amazing experience and highly recommend it to anyone visiting Sri Lanka during the pilgrimage season.

On the way down back to Dalhousie, we had the opportunity to mingle with a group of inquisitive high school boys who were eager to practice their English, asking us about cricket, President Obama, America, and among other things like what we thought of their president. Back at the Slightly Chilled Guest House, we were thankful for hot breakfast and shower. Then it was time to say goodbye to Adam's Peak and move on to the beautiful hill town of Ella. 
We opted to take a tuk-tuk back to Hatton in order to enjoy the beautiful scenery of reservoirs and tea plantations. Our tuk tuk driver, Ravi, stopped at all the scenic locations and he even stopped by his house just outside of Hatton to say hello to his wife and baby son. We would then continue our onward journey to Ella via train, but before we boarded the train, we asked Ravi to take us to his favorite local lunch spot where the three of us enjoyed some hot and fiery rice and curry. 
After a short delay, it was on to Ella, my favorite train journey yet.