In daily life where the activities and the needs of the boys often dominate and overshadow other things, it is important to carve out some well-deserved couple time – to spend quality time together, to strengthen our friendship, our relationship and our marriage. Even though each time, it was so hard to leave the boys behind as we miss them so much, we knew this was important for us, and ultimately for our little family.
This year, we chose to explore the exotic country of Sri Lanka, which we discovered to be a land full of treasures, tea and tantalizing tastes!
Day 1: Arrival into Colombo
On arrival into Colombo International Airport, it was already 11.30pm local time (nearly 2am body clock time!). Luckily, at that time of night, the entire process from immigration, baggage pick up to customs was relatively efficient, and we were able to meet up with our guide and be on our way.
Our hotel, Jetwing Beach, was close to the airport in the town of Negombo. However, as we came to learn about the road conditions in Sri Lanka, 13km can still take 30 mins even at after midnight! We were completely exhausted; our heads hit the pillows as soon as we settled in!! Sleep came easy and we needed quality sleep for the long drive early the next morning!
Day 2: Sigiriya – the Lion Rock
The Cultural Triangle is the cultural and historical heart of Sri Lanka and is home to 4 of the country’s 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Eager and excited, we embarked early morning on a 4+ hours’ drive (140km) towards its central hub of Dambulla.
Our first taste of Sri Lanka cuisine was at breakfast where our hotel served traditional local breakfast items. Having curry for breakfast was a bit of an odd concept, but soon we were enjoying the wonderful aromatic flavours of string hoppers* with chicken curry, steamed manioc* coupled with fish curry and egg hoppers with sweet onion seeni sambal. This was the perfect introduction to the country’s national food of curry and rice.
Just as we neared Dambulla, our guide stopped at a restaurant which specialized in serving a curry buffet spread for tourists. We would visit a few of these tourist lunch spots on our trip, where the food was usually okay with a few good surprises and the guides eat free. At 1400 rupees per person (around US$10 including drinks – all the restaurants charge similar prices), they were relatively clean comfortable places to have a break.
After lunch, we checked into Jetwing Vil Uyana for a siesta before we began our adventure at Sigiriya. Sigiriya, as a unique geological rock formation, is as impressive as in the photos. But for King Kasyapa to build his elaborate palace on top of Sigiriya and its surrounding lush water gardens before 500 AD, it was an unbelievable sight to behold. The ingenuity, engineering precision, and sheer madness to demand a palace to be built on the rock (including cisterns and a large hand carved granite swimming pool) are to be wholly revered. The 1,200 steps up were demanding, but we found the descend on uneven rocks and narrow stairs to be tougher on the knees. Regardless, the remarkable sweeping 360C views made it well worth the trip, and one can imagine what being “king of the world” really felt like.
Being named by UNESCO as the 8th wonder of the world, Sigiriya is well deserved in wonderment to be in the league with the other seven. In addition, I would even venture to say that it is more awe-inspiring and breathtaking than the Taj Mahal (and with less tourists!).
*Hoppers are made from rice meal or flour, and string hoppers are a type that are pressed out into noddle form, and shaped into palm-sized circular pieces; Manioc is a root vegetable with a white flesh, similar texture to sweet potatoes but with an undistinguished taste.
Day 3: Polonnaruwa | Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks
Fast forward 500 years into 1070 AD, Polonnaruwa was the capital city of King Vijayabahu I’s kingdom where he reunited the country under a single leader. While Europe was in the Dark Ages, the Sri Lankan kings were building 7 storey high palace out of bricks and mortar, royal bathing pond with water channeled from the nearby river, a large monastery complex, unique religious buildings and Buddha image houses and impressive stupas. The sheer magnitude and spread of the archaeological relic sites and the sophistication and advancement of their engineering and architecture abilities demand respect and awe.
The highlight, and our favourite, was Gal Vilhare – an extremely revered scared site where 4 Buddha statues of different poses were skillfully carved out of the natural granite rock located there.
After a bite to eat, we changed tunes from history to nature. Close to Polonnaruwa, the Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks are famed for the “gathering” of large herds of elephants. At this time of the season, we were told that the elephants have gathered in Kaudulla, so we made our way there to meet with our safari jeep guide.
Unfortunately, everyone else including the loud and obnoxious Chinese mainland tour groups got wind of this as well. At one time, there were at least 10 jeeps all lined up watching a 20-large herd of elephants on the grassy plains. It was hard to tell whether the Chinese were too overtly excited with this elephant safari experience or the elephants were being quietly amused by the circus that just arrived. We asked our safari guide to move on and find another area where we could watch the elephants with a bit more peace and respect for the animals.
On route, in our open jeep, we spotted other wildlife like water buffalos, wild cows, and a variety of bird life including pelicans, painted storks, eagles and peacocks. But the main show truly was the elephants. Unlike Africa where we saw lone bull elephant and small herds headed by its matriarch, at Kaudulla, there were more than 150 elephants grazing out in the marshy grassy plains in close proximity with each other! The most memorable was two boy elephants being too engrossed with jostling each other to concentrate on grazing. Ahhh…sounds a bit like 2 boys we know back home!
Day 4: Dambulla Cave Temple | Kandy | Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic | Cultural Performance
Today was the most hectic day of our trip. Before we bid farewell to the Cultural Triangle, we stopped by the Dambulla Cave Temple to see the best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. Access to the five impressive caves is a 10-15 mins uphill climb to the Dambulla Rock.
We were lucky to have arrived early before the large bus tours allowing us time to admire the ancient paintings and statues, and to respect the holiness of the temple in serenity.
Between Dambulla and Kandy, our guide made several stops that weren’t on our initial itinerary – a local spice and herbal garden, a woodwork workshop and a gem atelier. Whilst I had intentions to add blue sapphires (mined locally by hand) to my jewelry collection, the tourist prices at the gem atelier was nothing short of a rip off. The most interesting was the Heritage Spice and Herbal garden at Madawala which was like a Hogwarts herbology class teaching us about the magical (medicinal) properties of all the plants and what they are used for. With all these side detours, we only arrived into Kandy in the afternoon.
The Temple of the Tooth Relic is located in the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy and houses the relic of Buddha’s tooth. The tooth relic is venerated and is regarded as a symbolic representation of the living Buddha. It has been housed in many temples including ones in Polonnaruwa and now permanently rests in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The tooth itself is placed in a golden casket and housed behind the closed door of the gold gilded room which is only opened during prayer times. I loved how the chosen flower to bring as an offering is usually the beautiful purple lotus flower and devotees bring coconut oil to light the wells of the oil lamps (it smells divine!).
As we exited the Temple, it was time to head over to the see the Kandyan cultural performance show, which conveniently was within walking distance. We were led into the old run down Red Cross Community Hall where our seats were tattered plastic chairs, the struggling ceiling fans were the only form of ventilation and the large holes in the theatre curtains cannot conceal backstage activities. The performance was no Broadway or West End production but was interesting and engaging enough.
The highlight was the anticipated fire show where we, along with the crowd, gathered around the long large flaming hot plate of coal and watched two brave men walk across it bare footed while putting fire torches into their mouths! Crazy! It certainly was not an act as we could feel the intense heat radiated from the hot coal and they walked across it multiple times!
Finally, after a very full day, we checked in at the boutique Elephant Stables for our dinner and overnight stay.
Day 5: Royal Botanical Garden | Train Ride into Tea Country | Ceylon Tea Trails
As we were scheduled to board the train and head into Tea Country at 12.30pm, we had some time in the morning to visit the Royal Botanical Garden at Peradeniya, just 5.5km outside of Kandy. With 173 years of history, this Royal Botanical Garden boasts more than 4000 species of plants across 147 acres.
After our hectic schedule yesterday, it was a nice change of pace as we took a leisurely stroll around the Garden. The Garden showcased many exotic species – we especially liked the umbrella canopy of the Javan Fig Tree, the impressive giant Burmese Bamboos and the odd looking Cannonball Tree. Foreign dignitaries over the years have planted trees in the Garden to mark their visit and it was fascinating to see who they were and how the trees have flourished whilst their planters have since passed on!
At the train station, I didn’t have much expectation, but was still pleasantly surprised when our train arrived and departed on time. The train had several carriages for different ticket classes, and our guide took us to our reserved seats in first class. The reclining seats were relatively comfortable, the carriage was air-conditioned and the magnificent scenic views of the countryside were well worth the rocky sway of the train slowing ascending into the mountains.
Mid-ride, an attendant opened our window allowing us to stick our heads out and capture more of the beautiful scenic countryside. It was the first time ever we have been able to do that on a train and it made the ride even more exhilarating!
We arrived into Hatton Station after 2.5 hours, just as our driver arrived by car! He then brought us to the Summerville Bungalow of the Ceylon Tea Trails where we were met with our Butler who told us we were just in time for afternoon tea! The perfect start to our stay in Tea Country.
The recently renovated 5-room Summerville Bungalow was a comfortable inviting homestead with tasteful modern furnishings that still kept a distinctive colonial charm. We believe that within this Bungalow are 2 extraordinary treasures: The first being its magnificent location high over the Castlereagh Reservoir with amazing views of the surrounding tea plantations as well as the Dunkeld Estate and Tea Factory right across the waterways. The sense of tranquility from the view is something we won’t get tired of – EVER!
The second treasure was the attentive staff and talented chef who truly “made” our experience. When we needed a break from rice and curry, the chef offered a delicious yet much craved western menu; When it looked like Jeff needed a top up of clotted cream and scones, the staff was there to offer a fresh plate; When we wanted our fireplace lit, it was attended to straight away; When we wanted to try the chef’s Sri Lankan dishes, he created the best Sri Lanka meal we had on our entire trip and surprised us with items that we had previously mentioned we loved; and When we were out on an excursion during the day, the staff packed us a sumptuous picnic lunch to go.
Day 6: Dunkeld Tea Factory | Hiking Tea Plantations
As part of our stay at Tea Trails, we went on an excursion to the Dunkeld Tea Factory on the other side of the Castlereagh Reservoir to learn about the history and the tea manufacturing process. It was a fascinating and educational tour. We didn’t know that Sri Lanka used to be very successful in growing coffee beans, but in the 1870s, the coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease. Shortly after, the Scot, James Taylor, established the tea industry by planting the first tea plantations near Kandy.
We also learnt that the whole process from picking tea leaves to the end tea product packed for the auction houses only takes 24 hours! It really is hard manual work for the pickers, and we couldn’t fathom how they can cover 15,000 plants per hectare (and each estate has so many hectares!) and average at least 18kg of tea leaves a day. And at the end of the process, out of 100kg of tea leaves picked, it only yields 22kg of tea. Now we certainly have a new found appreciation of all the laborious intensive work and effort that is put into an aromatic cup of tea.
In the afternoon, Tea Trails arranged for their inhouse guide to take us on a walk into the Tea Plantations to show us the plantation topography, to visit the picker families’ villages and meet some of them and to learn the difference between the plantations grown by tea seedlings and clones of the tea plants.
The biggest lesson today was that in Tea Country, one cannot just order “tea” – one needs to be much more specific as to the type of tea (black, red, green or herbal), the name of the blend and/or the estate or brand in which the tea is from! It can get so complicated!
Day 7: Nuwara Eliya
48 km from the Summerville Tea Trails, Nuwara Eliya is a quintessential old English colonial town right in the heart of tea country highlands. The road there led us through narrow mountain passes with unending bends, each higher bend revealed more of the magnificent views of the rolling hillside full of tea plantations. As we passed through the Devon and St Clair tea estates, we made brief stops to admire the famed waterfalls the source of which are from the holiest of holy mountains in Sri Lanka – Adam’s Peak.
Nuwara Eliya has elements of a charming English country town. The main road leading into the city is dotted with old English-styled mansions now turned into boutique hotels or beds & breakfast. Large billboards advertised the sale of newly built English stone cottages at the city fringes probably to attract wealthy Sri Lankans looking for a holiday home in the mountains. We drove past the somewhat run down race course – the Turf Club – with locals at the entrance selling pony rides. Our guide explained to us that, unlike the sport of cricket also introduced by the British, horse racing (and betting on horses) hasn’t really taken off quite the same way.
The former Governor’s residence is now the wonderfully preserved Grand Hotel with pompous tea rooms and well-landscaped gardens. Down the road is the old English institution – the Hill Club which is open to members and foreign hotel guests only. We asked and were given permission to visit the grounds and the interior of this historical building (100 rupees each). It truly felt like we stepped into a time capsule – its tennis clay courts looked like Wimbledon back in its yesteryears; the walls of its downstairs rooms still adorned old hunting prints and old photos of the royal family, and its corridor exhibited the original dining set used when Queen Elizabeth II visited and dined at the Club in 1954. The Hill Club’s décor and furniture are dated, but that seemed to be the idea of bringing one’s mind back to the good old colonial days.
The jewel and pride of the town is the 127-year old championship golf course, and at 1890 metres above sea level, it boasts as the highest and most scenic golf course in the world. Unfortunately, the cost of playing on the course precludes most locals from enjoying their famed course. Nevertheless, there is a path that locals may take to walk through the course, but there is a warning sign cautioning that any injury (presumably from a golf ball) is your own!
On our way back to Summerville, our guide recommended that we stop by Mesna’s Tea Castle, a famous local tea brand, for some tea tasting and souvenirs. It’s amazing that from the same tea leaves picked, so many different varieties and flavours of teas have been produced – all catered towards people’s palates and preferences!
Finally, as if the heavens knew that today was our last day in the mountains, the clouds cleared away and we were able to have a glimpse of Adam’s Peak and revere in its majesty as a sign of farewell.
Day 8: Colombo
Well looked after to the very end, our Tea Trails Butler organized a pack lunch for us to bid us on our way. We had a grueling 5 and a half hour drive to Colombo. Our guide has to be commended for his patience and perseverance on the narrow windy roads – it must be so tiring to constantly be overtaking or be overtaken.
We knew we were close to Colombo when the traffic congestion started – one must have much stamina to drive in the midst of crazy tuk tuks, mad bus drivers and long trailer trucks hauling container loads and battling the sea of “beep beeps” (essentially, move out of the way!).
Once inside Colombo, our guide took us on a city driving tour – showing us the Independence Square, the newly built Conference Hall in a modern shape of the lotus flower, the town hall with some resemblance of the White House and other iconic colonial sites. We were then dropped off at the Colombo Museum complex with an hour of free time.
Upon entry into the Museum of National History, we were met with an overzealous museum staff. Not quite sure whether he was a guide, but he took it upon himself to show us the exhibits with heightened enthusiasm and obvious pride of Sri Lankan’s natural heritage. He showed us specimens of turtles, dugong, beetles, venomous snakes endemic to Sri Lanka, and even gave us access to an enclosed area due to open next month which will exhibit pre-historic fossils of dinosaur, hippo and rhino bones. The best part was the film showing a 3D enactment of Sigiriya which gave us context of what the palace on lion’s rock would have looked like 1500 years ago. The exhibits themselves look much more dated than the museum’s 30 year history – however, with our guide’s animated explanations, we managed to spend 45 mins in there! That gave us 15 mins to wander the halls of the National Museum next door (unguided) and catch a glimpse of the golden throne, sceptre and crown of the ancient Kandyan monarchs.
We ended our amazing trip with dinner at the award-winning Ministry of Crab with the famed chef, Dharshan Munidasa at the helm. As a self-proclaimed Queen of Crab, we wanted to try various cooking styles and flavours on offer. That meant ordering 2 medium crabs of around 700g each (one cooked with Garlic Chili and the other Sri Lankan Curry) and a small crab of around 600g in butter sauce!!! The Garlic Chili was by far the very best – the garlic fried with olive oil with the right touch of Sri Lankan chili flakes was the perfect marriage with the meaty sweetness of the crab.
The curry crab was cooked in a clay pot mimicking the traditional Sri Lanka style – the curry was relatively mild but packed with subtle tasty herbal aromas. I would brave to say that these two dishes were much better than the Singaporean Chili Crabs and the Hong Kong Typhoon Fried Chili Crabs!! Jeff promised that he will try and replicate the Garlic Chili dish so we can enjoy it at home!
On our Thursday night visit, they only sold 105 crabs of varying sizes, with the OMG size (up to 1.9kg each) being the most popular. On Fridays and the weekends, the number of crabs sold can go up to 130-140 crabs per night! This place was the perfect finale to our week long adventure!
We have experienced many facets of this incredible country but there is much of this country we have yet to explore – we are sure to be back!
JetWing Beach (Negombo) – 1 night with breakfast; This hotel only served as an overnight stay and was clean, spacious and sufficient enough for such purposes. Sumptuous breakfast!
JetWing Vil Uyana (Cultural Triangle) – 2 nights; half board: The location of this hotel was excellent to explore the Cultural Triangle. Luckily we didn’t pay more to stay at one of the water dwellings as our activities were so packed that we didn’t get a chance to fully enjoy its facilities. We loved our large comfortable bungalow – and the best part was the 2 person bath where we could enjoy a romantic bubble soak after our exhausting hike at Sigiriya. The meal options were set menus made to order, which we appreciated better than buffet style meals.
The most memorable moment was when we visited the Spa and saw the large resident crocodile sunbathing just outside one of the open massage rooms – I would not want to wake up from a massage therapy with the knowledge that a crocodile has been spying on me!
Elephant Stables (Kandy) – 1 night; half board: A luxury boutique hotel in a colonial style mansion perched on a hill overlooking Kandy’s lush greenery. It offers calm and serene surroundings in the otherwise chaotic Kandy. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and generous breakfast in the back garden of the mansion.
Summerville Tea Trails (Hatton) – 3 nights; full board: Tea Trails comprises of 5 bungalows and ours, Summerville, was handsomely situated overlooking the Castlereagh reservoir and surrounded by working tea estates. Being fully inclusive, we were very well looked after – with all meals taken care of (especially the obligatory afternoon tea – we are in tea country afterall!) as well as snacks, wines and cocktails, laundry and wifi. In addition, Tea Trails offered a range of activities including a free tea factory tour at the Dunkeld facilities and a guide to take us for a hike up to the tea plantations. All in all, with our every whim catered to, it was the best end to an amazing trip.
Agent & Guide/Driver:
We are thankful to our agent, Charlotte Travel, who organized our trip. They picked a great guide for us who drove and travelled with us for 8 days. Our guide, Din, spoke extremely well English and was a wealth of information – he withstood us firing questions at him about Sri Lankan history, culture, food and worldviews. Given the challenging road conditions in Sri Lanka where all drivers seem to be playing a game of overtake, we were grateful that Din was a careful and conscientious driver!!
We learnt that at most of the hotels we stayed, they offered separate accommodation and food for the guides. It was a convenient arrangement as our guide need not venture far out and drive back in the early morning to pick us up.
I had ordered a wifi router from Crazy Egg to be picked up at the airport arrival hall. However, in our excitement, we forgot to pick it up and only realized after we had passed through security and immigration!!! By then, it was not possible to cross back “outside” to pick up our wifi router.
Not to be disheartened, I remembered our travel consultant’s advice that we can buy sim cards at the Sir Lankan airport. Sri Lanka has excellent mobile coverage, and upon arrival, our guide directed us to the Dialog counter. We purchased a sim card which gave us enough data and allowed us to keep our own home phone numbers for Whatsapp and other texting purposes. It was all easy and efficient – cost all but 1300 rupees per sim card (around US$10). So much cheaper than the wifi router – I really should have listened to my travel consultant in the first place!
We brought US dollars with us and exchanged them into Rupees at the airport. There were many foreign exchange booths but the rates and commissions all seemed the same to us. We exchanged USD200 for a 8 day trip; where we budgeted around US$10 per person for daily lunch (all our dinners are included at the hotels), US$10 for our safari guide and the rest as tips, drinks and other things.
We were also advised to budget around US$10 per person per day for our guide for the entire trip – though we were able to pay our guide in USD without exchanging to Rupees.
Tidbits and Tips:
Toilet Paper! The roads in Sri Lanka are chaotic! The 2 lane roads are shared with local buses, trucks, tractors, tuk tuks and other cars together with the wild dogs and the occasional cow. This means that progress is slow, and getting anywhere takes longer than what we would otherwise expect (e.g. Kandy to Colombo’s 110 km takes around 3.5 hours). Accordingly, expect a lot of travel time in a car. Whilst there were toilet breaks, the facilities we have been offered along the way were not that great. I was glad that I brought with me a roll of toilet paper – it had saved me on numerous occasions and brought comfort and reassurance on route.
Cover yourself! As we travelled through the Cultural Triangle, we came across and visited many sacred Buddhist sites. As a sign of respect, we needed to be appropriately dressed. That meant shoulders and knees covered, and shoes off. We brought along a sarong or scarf to wrap around the waist to cover the knees on these occasions – it was a great alternative to long pants and jeans as the weather was so hot and humid. However, at the very scared holy sites, the guards can be quiet strict – they rejected Jeff’s near-knee cargo pants and my thin slightly transparent dark scarf wrapped around my legs as my knees were still “visible”. We ended up returning to the car and change into our jeans!!
Easy shoes! Also, as there were so many occasions of taking our shoes off at holy sacred sites, it would have been much better if I had worn shoes easy for taking on and off!
Hand wipes/sanitizers! Sri Lanka is already much cleaner than India, however, to ensure that our hands were clean or kept clean at all times, it would have been good if we had brought wet napkins and hand sanitizers. We also brushed teeth with bottled water just to be on the safe side. As we were not sure about the effect of the local foods and water on us, we took in 15 drops of concentrated grapefruit extract (very bitter!) in an attempt to avoid digestive disturbances or gestro etc.
Vaccinations! Lastly, we were reminded to take vaccinations before our trip – just to be safe and not having to worry!