In the old capital of Kandy, we sat in the train station with a hoard of other tourists waiting for the train.
Our destination was Ella, far away in the mountains among tea covered hills and Ayurvedic spa’s. The train trip from Kandy to Ella is regarded as one of the prettiest train rides in the world, and Ella is one of the most touristy stops in Sri Lanka, so riding this train looked a bit like riding a train in Germany rather than Sri Lanka. When the train arrived, hundreds of us tourists stuffed our way in, many standing. We stood next to the door, and a passing conductor whispered, “There are plenty of seats back in third class…” so we picked up our bags and sat in the back with the locals. For this, we were very grateful. The train would end up taking a good seven hours, and unlike a lot of the tourists in second class, we had a seat for the whole ride. Not only that, but we only spent about US$1.60 for our train ticket.
The train was painfully slow, running at a near walking pace through the mountains. But the view was so nice that I could not complain, and we did nothing else but stare out the window and let smooth mountain air run through our hair.
After the long journey, we arrived in the town of Ella, and when you look at the map you may think, “How was that short distance a seven-hour train ride? Because it’s Sri Lanka, sweet child.
We arrive and like a school bus filled with third graders visiting a chocolate factory, we and dozens of other tourists filed out of the train eager for our little field trip. Dreadlocks abound, and as we walked through the town I began to feel like I was more in Europe at a yoga retreat than Sri Lanka. If not Europe, than a tourist village in Phuket or Bali tailored specifically to Europeans. Chic cafes and yoga shops, little bars and the always packed Cafe Chill line the main street of Ella, and I feel that I am no longer in Sri Lanka, unfortunately. Luckily our homestay is a fair way out of the city, more rural and surrounded by locals and peacocks mewing in the distance. We also have a crushingly beautiful patio view. Sri Lanka is a very couple friendly place to visit, and it feels that a lot of the tourists here are on a honeymoon or couple’s retreat.
But while the tourists do annoy me, the nature of Ella makes the trip worth the long train and the chic cafes. Our first stop was the beautiful 9 arch bridge, which took us for a walk along the train tracks with beautiful views. The trains are so slow here that you can hear them coming from a few miles away, and have plenty of time to wander off the tracks before it arrives.
Walking up the hill from here, we climbed up little Adam’s peak to view the surroundings. There was an ice cream man at the top, along with some complaining tourists. But the views and stray dogs were nice.
We dined on more local foods, making sure to go to the sketchier restaurants in Ella. Cafe Chill is heavily blogged about, but the lines are huge and it seems a bit too over-priced for me. Anyways, I did not come to Sri Lanka to drink a mojito and eat a pizza. I came to eat delicious coconut curry and daal with roti or hoppers in a hole in the wall restaurant. I came to drink gigantic bottles of bubbly Lion Lager in a dark smokey bar with iron grates on the windows. That is the Sri Lanka I can easily fall in love with.
The next day I fell prey to a cold I had been fighting since leaving Hong Kong, and thus the day was spent wandering around the cafes of Ella, drinking juice and tea while reading. It was not a day that would give the nature of Ella justice, but I suppose I needed to settle down a bit for a day.
The next day we hopped on another bus, this one going back to Colombo. While my heart wanted to take the train, the ride would have taken a good part of nine hours to get back to Colombo. So we hopped on an old school bus to Bandarawela to catch a bus to Colombo. We arrived and hopped on an air-conditioned bus to Colombo which left as soon as we sat down. Then the bus caught on fire.
So we got on another bus. One that wasn’t on fire.
When choosing between an air-conditioned and non-air conditioned bus, I would say to go for the non-air conditioned one. The windows are always down, and the drivers drive like lunatics providing the bus with a constant breeze. They’re also a bit cheaper.
The ride took an exhausting sevenish hours, but we finally made it to Colombo and back to our hostel from the first night.
We stopped around the block for some rice and curry at a local hole in the wall, which seemed pretty amused to have Western customers. They gave us a heaping plate of rice with several delicious vegetarian curries, enough to stick to our ribs for a good few hours, and only for US$0.80. Sri Lankan food has the basic “curry” to it, but every meal I’ve had has left me in a happy tummy mood. Not once did I eat meat, and every meal left me perfectly satisfied and light with a perfect feeling of chili heat in my mouth. Not once did I get sick either, even though we ate at some more sketchy hole in the wall kind of places. My rule of thumb is, if a lot of locals are eating there, it’s probably pretty good. That’s kept me from getting sick in my entire five months of being in Asia and has given me the pleasure of tasting some amazing food. The food in Colombo was all wonderfully cheap and tasty, which is perhaps the best part of Colombo in my opinion.
The rest of Colombo is rather dusty and noisy. Diesel and red dirt fill the air like in every other Sri Lankan city, but to a higher degree. A day is all we needed to see the sights, of which we saw the National Museum and the Pettah Market.
Afterward, we didn’t have many other stops on our list. We wandered out to the sea, which has a train track running alongside it with a moderately faster-paced train. Here we enjoyed the sunset, breaking the heat of seaside city.
This is our last day of Sri Lanka, with a flight at 1:30 am heading out of Asia. I’m happy to be in Asia, but I will be happy to be back in Europe. I feel as though I need to remove myself momentarily from this land of exotic beauty and flavors so that I can enjoy them again anew. I take too much of Asia for granted at this point, and I need to remove myself so I can miss it and want to come back. Likewise, I miss being in Europe for the convenience, comfort, and cold. And, I wish to drink clean tap water again.
Sri Lanka is an amazing country, one deserving much more than the measly week we spent here. Mainly because travel takes so long. At least 2.5 of our 8 days were spent on a train or bus, even though the distances were so close. Along with that, this tiny island is packed full of wonderful colors and sights to see. The people are wonderfully polite and welcoming, and the food is nourishing and delicious. Sri Lanka feels like a perfect introduction to South Asian culture as a whole, and now I feel confident that a longer trip through India or Nepal would be easier with this experience under my belt. We stop in another shady bar for some beers with locals, grab our last heaping plate of rice and daal, and head to the airport for our red-eye to Dubai.
For no explainable reason, I have found Dubai a very interesting city. I think it’s because of the architecture, as I can remember looking at pictures of the Burj Khalifa as a teenager thinking, “Holy shit I need to see this.” With a five hour layover in Dubai, this was finally my chance. We hurriedly get our passports stamped, get in an argument with a taxi driver who frustratedly drops us off at the metro for way too much money, and sit on the metro on the way to the Burj Khalifa metro stop. As the sun rises, we exit the metro and come upon a scene straight out of Star Wars to see the majestically slender building light up under the soft glow of desert light.
Teenage Carter is a very happy little guy. Never have I seen a building so jaw-dropping. We grab a croissant and some juice at a convenience store and stand momentarily with our eyes wide and our mouths open in awe. This entire city is ridiculous in its magnitude, but beautiful in its sheer defiance towards the laws of gravity. Good job Dubai, for breaking through the sky.
And then we were off again, back to get our passports stamped and to sit on another plane. 8 hours later we were in Oslo, then Copenhagen, then by 2:30 am we were asleep in bed at home. It feels as though I have never left, even though I’ve been living out of the same backpack since the end of June when we first hitchhiked around Northern Poland and got lost in the Georgian mountains. I have seen such sights that I can not properly find words to describe, experienced kindness from strangers that I can never properly thank, and seen the world in a way that has only stoked the fire for an addiction to travel that I have been feeding continuously for the past five years. Now that I am back in Europe, my rambles shall continue in countries more familiar yet equally exotic, and ones were I shall continue to explore the limits of myself and the small, majestic world we call home.
Thank you for reading and for joining me through these amazing travels around Asia. While my chapter in that continent has momentarily come to a close, there are many more rambles to come. I hope that you will join me for the next one!