Sri Lanka not Bangladesh, 2014

Some of you may remember we had an ambitious itinerary, Bangladesh, Bangkok, Burma, Bali and Malaysia. We were calling it the tour of the B's, conveniently forgetting KL and Penang. Let just say things were not looking great in Bangladesh the week before we arrived, the elections was scheduled for the week we arrived, violence was escalating and the country was in a rolling shutdown or hartel. 

I must confess we are not know for our caution. Ok, I can hear my family groaning, ok that may be a gross understatement. We were in Syria in March of 2011 right before the war and went to Iran just after the first disastrous incursion into Iraq. However, in both of these situations we never felt threatened. Though perhaps we should have done in Lebanon when some cyclists we passed on the road were kidnapped the same day in Hezbollah territory, but that's another story. Anyway, the situation in Bangladesh didn't look good, the whole point of the trip was to move about the country which didnt seem feasible when a major political shutdown was targeting those who were seen to be breaking the general strike by traveling.  

Bangladesh is a place where you have to be prepared for travel to be complicated, but this was perhaps a complication too far. I was ready to deal with things breaking down or being delayed but I didn't fancy going somewhere during a major political crisis and being stuck in the hotel. i think the Dhaka hotel saying they would send a mini bus to the airport for the transfer with armed guards was the final straw.

I should mention I'm a procrastinator (or perhaps you know that because this TR has taken so long. Well, our delayed decision making meant we that a we decided not to go to Bangladesh when we were already on our way. We left Dublin and decided to go as far as Abu Dhabi where we were meant to be overnight . Brilliant planning I know! So there we were at the Sofite in Abu Dhabi with tickets to Dhaka for a flight we had decided not to get on and with no good ideas where to go. Yes, it was time to book a second night at the hotel, though I didn't fancy two weeks in the Emirates

For years I had harbored a romantic notion of turning up at and airport and just picking form one of the destinations on the board. Lets just say it isn't quite so liberating in person! We spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone to the airlines, where could we go tomorrow was the general question.

Here were our criteria, we needed...
- an available flight (preferably on miles and ideally tomorrow) 
- a destination where it would be easy to fly on to Bangkok (again on miles)
- somewhere that didn't require a visa (there goes the India option) 
- somewhere cheap because we are on a four month trip and have just blown a load of cash on a trip we are not going to take.

It was a long 24 hours but at the end of it we were in Colonbo, Sri Lanka collecting our visas at the airport. We had no idea where we were going, what we were going to see or where to stay. For a serious planner this was a whole new way of doing things. My partner D. was thrilled, finally freedom!

It's stressful to plan a trip on the road, when you don't have a travel guide and the choices seem endless but Sri Lanka was a great idea. We'd started off with the tour of the Bs, then the whole thing just became Plan B but along the way the most significant B became Buddhism. Sri Lanka was a great place to pair with Bangkok and Burma because you are following the spread of the religious philosophy and architecture, starting at some of the ancient sites in Sri Lanka and spreading through Burma and Thailand.

We really like SL and will definitely go back. It's a small, manageable and incredibly diverse country with a fairly well developed tourist infrastructure and so much on offer. You'll find great food, varied countryside, historical monuments, interesting religious expression, beautiful beaches and National parks

LOGISTICS I won't dwell on the logistics, lets just say we took a car and driver for a week and then made our way back from Galle to the airport.I made good use of which was good for last minute rates. It was easy to get sim cards at the airport as you can shop around amongst the companies in the arrivals hall. I think we spent $7 for D's iPhone and $3 for data on my iPad, what a deal! 

I'm going to link to another post with pictures and some more verbiage - I mean fascinating details! To start here's all I didn't know about SL, lets just say it's embarrassing to go to a place with little or no preparation...

Our first stop was a place I'd really recommend a lovely organic retreat called Jim's Farm run by a Brit. We needed somewhere to relax from the chaos and this was a wonderful place. If you are looking for affordable luxury and good food this is a wonderful destination, as long as your driver has less difficulty finding it than ours did!

From here we made our way through the cultural triangle focusing on Dambulla, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. 

It was raining very heavily when we arrived at Sigiriya which was a pity but it is a dramatic site. The museum was worth checking out, particularly to wait out the rain and the walk to the top of the fortress is good exercise. I was rather astonished to find the entrance was $25 (per person at each site) as they seem to have done away with the joint ticket for the entire cultural triangle. But we paid our money and made our way around. For more details and photos see this post.

While we liked the rock temples at Dambulla and the fortress at Sigiriya we were astonished by Polonnaruwa. This is such an extraordinary site, because we knew so little about SL we had very limited expectations and we were blown away. Our driver suggested we get a guide and it was excellent advice. We spent hours and could easily have spent another day or two here. There's a longer appreciation and photos in this blogpost.

One of the key problems with getting round to your TR so long after the events is that you forget the names and other pertinent details, so you'll just have to believe me that we stopped at all sorts of small temples and markets along the way including the largest wholesale vegetable market in Dambulla and a large south Indian temple. Overall I really enjoyed the time driving between places. The scenery throughout SL was lovely and several times we saw Elephants either from, or on, the road.

We stayed for a couple of days at the Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana and it was a very good value. This isn't the type of place we normally stay, it's quite big and reminded me of a resort style place you might find in Hawaii, pool, outdoor areas and large rooms with small porches. It was surprisingly reasonable with a good breakfast buffet and well located for our day trips. It would be a good place if you have kids or if you are looking for somewhere. It was the most generic of the places we stayed but it helped us meet the budget and was more than adequate. 

After Polonnaruwa we headed down to Kandy. I kept looking at places to stay in Kandy and reading about the town and for some reason we couldn't summon any enthusiasm. Eventualy we found a place to stay on the other side of town and we opted to drive into town, take a short visit and then move on. We took a walk around the lake which was very atmospheric but overall we were please we opted not to stay. We passed on the tooth relic temple and went for a dosa lunch at a small very grimy place nearby. The dosa was great and the whole thing a real experience with the chap bringing around the dal in a bucket with a ladle, refilling your plate as demanded. D. said it reminded him of his trip to southern India.

After luck we headed south stopping at the Botanical Gardens. I'm a keen garden type and I enjoyed it. After strolling around for a while we headed back to the car and drove south to Gampola where we were staying at Elptiya Walauwa. What an experience. This reminded us so much of some of the smaller heritage hotels we've stayed in in rural Rajasthan, magical. AS a say on the blog, "slightly worn but completely authentic." I really think this place should be somewhere Fodorites consider. It's run by a very charming woman whose grandfather built the property and who was an important local administrator during the colonial period. She presented a bouquet of flowers to the Queen during her visit in 1953, its that kind of place.

But to give you a real sense of their hospitality I first have to confess my own stupidity. I'd booked the hotel on Agoda the night before and when we drew nearby the driver asked for directions. We found ourselves driving up a steep driveway only to find we had several things wrong. We were at the owner's private home, not the heritage property she runs and she was not expecting us till the next day! I had booked the room after midnight for the next day rather than that evening, rookie mistake for those accustomed to doing things at the last minute!

They couldn't have been more accommodating. With no hassle she sent her man to open up the property and cook us dinner! Amazing. Within an hour we were drinking gin and tonics! We ate whatever she was having for dinner which was fantastic and the driver said it was the best dal of the trip! This is a great place to break your journey and a great opportunity to meet the owner who was fascinating.

You'll get a flavor for the atmosphere, quirky charm, antique furniture and fab food in this post.

From here we opted to take the train Gampola to Ella while the driver drove to meet us! madness perhaps but fun never the less! We couldn't book 1st class at Gampola Station and there's no way to buy the ticket on the train so we were in 2nd class with all the backpackers, looking rather strage with no luggage. We were certainly the only ones met at Ella with a driver we knew! "Miss Angela this way" he said when he saw us!

We enjoyed the scenery which was spectacular, tea estates and lovely vistas and we ate lots of snacks from the various vendors who came onboard. Fried fritters of various kinds and nuts etc. It is a very long ride and by the end I was happy to get off. 

In Ella we stayed in two different places as things were booked up over the weekend. If i'd planned this trip in advance we would have been staying at the 98 Degrees which was very lovely and where we enjoyed lunch overlooking the incredible view. But this was a different kind of trip and we stayed the first night at a small new place a little out of town owner by a German guy and his Sri Lankan wife. WE had a small bungalow with a lovely view and the food was good but it was a little characterless though brand new and clean.

We had been trying to get a hold of the people at a place called The Planter's Bungalow and we couldn't get a reply either on the phone or by email. A lot of places we booked up and it wasn't far away so we decided to drive by on the off chance that it was available.

What a fabulous place. WE paid a very reasonable $85 for a lovely large in credibly stylish room and we loved the owner. What a character. I've spent a lot of my life abroad and occasionally you meet people who have lived in a variety of different places and have reinvented themselves multiple times over. I can still remember the seventy year old Norweigen I met in Zimababwe who had sailed his boat to Mombassa and them made his way through Southern Africa over the next two decades changing careers as he went. But I digress, John is a host in a very old school way, charming, helpful and witty. We felt so lucky to have found the place. I should also say the food was some of the very best we had on the entire trip, though his stories alone were worth the price of admission.

The Bungalow was about 10 km south of town so it was useful to have the driver. WE walked the small but lovely Little Adams Peak trail which is lovely. The whole area has lovely vistas, we enjoyed the walk and I have lots more pictures here. This place (Ninety Eight Degrees rest) was booked up but I'd love to try it another time

From here we went south, we hadn't intended to go to Yala but met a Welsh woman in Ella who had seen four leopards on one drive which inspired us. Of course we should have known this meant we wouldn't see any. For some reason I found the online info about Ella confusing and it sounded like it would be complicated to arrange. We had been in Ranthambore in India where we had to book our jeeps through the govt department in advance and I thought it might be similar, but she assured us we could sort it out on arrival.

Our budget didn't stretch to the camps right by the park and frankly I wanted to be on the beach which is only 40 minutes away. WE've been on safari many times in southern Africa and I knew this wouldn't be the same thing in terms of the quality of the camps/ number of other vehicles etc. It was much closer to the experiences we'd had in India, either in Ranthambore or Assam where www saw rhino. Anyway, we opt end for an afternoon drive and though we missed out on the leopards we very much enjoyed the game we did see including LOTS of elephants, many at close quarters, deer of various kinds, wild boar, buffalo and lots of exotic bird!

Our hotel arranged the whole thing and it was very reasonable, I think it was about $80. We stayed at an eco place right on the coast called the Kirinda Beach Lodge. It's very hard to describe this place. The beach is truly incredible, deserted and punctuated with huge boulders that are incredibly dramatic. It's a simple place with limited electricity and very eco but then there's a tv in the room, not sure I got that. there's a swimming pool on top of one of the boulders which has to be sen to be believed! I liked it more than my husband who was very distressed by the stray dogs which we saw frequently in Sri Lanka, particularly on the beaches.

The town closest to Yalla was very busy dry and dusty and not somewhere I'd want to stay so if you're looking to see the National Park but don't want to cost of a safari lodge, Kirinda is a good option. 
From Kirinda we drove west along the coast stopping in Mirissa for lunch, see above. The southern coast is highly developed and there are lots of places to stay and eat at any price point. This is a very popular "winter sun" destination for Europeans of all ages and pocketbooks. We drove on to Galle where our driver dropped us off.

If you are looking for a small hotel in Galle I can recommend the Mango House where they were extremely helpful. It's stylish and overall I thought it was good value for money, they gave us a very late checkout which was generous of them. 

I found the cultural diversity in Galle fascinating with a blend of Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Budhists. people were very friendly and we enjoyed walking the ramparts in the evening and exploring the fort.For me Galle is a good location for a night or two and I enjoyed it though I don't think I'd want to stay for much longer.

In terms of logistics the new toll road from Galle to Colombo has been opened and it makes the journey MUCH easier. It was around an hour and a half instead of four hours - apparently. We took the bus which dropped us off before we went all the way into Colombo and we'd arranged to meet a taxi from a radio taxi (Kangaroo Cabs) At first we were a bit dubious but the guy found us after a short wait and it was a much cheaper option.

Overall we loved the trip and plan to go back to do some walking and perhaps see the north and the east of the country.
If you need more inspiration have a look at this post on food, so delicious!