The scenic train ride from Colombo to Ella

63 days travelling and we find ourselves train hopping again.

22nd November 2018

Our hotel was right by the station, as originally we had planned to catch an early train to Ella the very next day. However, to our dismay we realised that the trains were completely sold out on the day we wanted to travel – serves us right for not booking them when we had the chance. Not wanting to be left standing, hot and cramped in the unreserved carriage, we had no choice but to stay in Colombo for an extra night and boy was I a right grump about that. On reflection, I’m not entirely sure why. If anything this slight mishap was a blessing in disguise, for my wife at least.

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Deciding to try and make the most of our extra time in Colombo, we set out to find some nice places to eat and see if we could find my wife her elusive dress (you won’t believe how many shops in different countries we’ve scoured on this seemingly impossible mission). We started the day off by heading to the old Dutch hospital, a shopping precinct nearby with a few eateries, although there was some miscommunication between us and the tuk tuk driver – thankfully my wife was forceful enough which meant he pulled over to traffic cop and we got back on track. Here we had a rather petite breakfast at t Lounge by Dilmah, which was made up for by the incredible smoothies and library themed interior.

View of Colombo from our hotel
View of Colombo from our hotel

Then we went to the biggest mall in Sri Lanka, which had only opened 3 months ago, and (much my relief) managed to find a dress in Mango for my wife – I had to hold back an embarrassing victory dance in the middle of the store. I also replaced my flip flops after my current ones finally broke – my wife insists they are the only ones she has ever seen me wear in the five years we have been together. I think she might be right, they were pretty battered and even I was surprised they were still kicking about. To celebrate, we treated ourselves to a couple of mango smoothies. Turns out I really don’t like them when they aren’t sweetened with sugar – who knew?

A lady on our southern India tour who used to live in Sri Lanka recommended we visit Barefoot if we got the chance. It’s a shop that sells local handmade goods with a focus on colourful textiles and children’s toys. We could have bought up half the shop, but unfortunately we don’t have the space or the budget travelling long term. However, we did sneak out to their courtyard cafe for some wedges and a cold refreshing juice before leaving.

Poya Day at the supermarket
Poya Day at the supermarket

That evening we went back to the old Dutch hospital for dinner, this time using the Uber app to organise our tuk tuk. It was so much easier, not to mention cheaper, than hailing down someone on the road. What we hadn’t prepared for was that our extra time in Colombo would fall on a Poya Day, which occurs every full moon. This meant that a lot of businesses were closed and the sale of meat and alcohol was forbidden – just our luck. Everywhere we planned to eat was shut, so we ended up eating the most expensive meal we’ve had to date in a rather mediocre cafe. My wife had her first fish of the trip, which was almost the same price as my nachos. Go figure.

23rd November 2018

The railway booking system in Sri Lanka is still an incredibly outdated and manual process. This means you can’t book tickets online, unless you pay a third party a hefty fee for the privilege (they often need to physically visit the station on your behalf, although you can sometimes get mobile tickets). As you’d imagine, this system is open to abuse and touts often snatch up tickets when they are released and add their own ludicrous markup to the equation.

Observation carriage on Sri Lankan trains
Observation carriage on Sri Lankan trains

Having left it all so late, we had to pay our hotel to buy our tickets for us, as they were unavailable through the agents. As a result, we ended up paying two additional sums of money (our hotels “convenience charge” and the ticket touts “markup”) – lets just say we won’t be making that mistake again. Thankfully it was still cheap by western standards, but a complete rip off compared to what it should have been (a few pounds each at most).

Turns out our hotel manager and his friend were also heading up to Ella and were kind enough to give us a lift to the station. The only seats left for us all were in the observation carriage, which is pulled backwards at the rear of the train so that you can have uninterrupted views – that’s the idea anyway. Turns out that unless you are right as the front (technically back) of the carriage you are pretty much left to looking out your own window and you often miss exciting things along the way, as you have no warning. People rave about it online, but we didn’t see a huge benefit. Sure there is a lot of space and it’s reasonably comfortable, but it’s also ridiculously hot without any sort of AC and the suspension made for a rather comical bouncy ride. I’m glad we did it, but would definitely be sticking to second class reserved in future. Saying that, the absolutely stunning scenery made it all worthwhile.

The incredible views on the train ride
The incredible views on the train ride

The journey itself should have taken around 9 hours without any delays, although ours was nearer to 10. We finally pulled into Ella around 7pm, having hardly eaten (becoming somewhat of running joke now), in the pouring rain and pitch black. The station was barely lit and it almost felt like something out of a horror movie with all the mist around us. We all nervously shuffled along the platform in the wrong direction before trusting a complete stranger, walking the other way and crossing the train tracks to the other side. There we met our host who was kind enough to organise a complimentary tuk tuk to our accommodation – for which we were eternally grateful considering the heavy downpour.

I practically sprinted down the driveway in the torrential rain and it wasn’t until the next morning that I realised just how steep and lose the rocks were – probably a good thing at the time. Our host was generous enough to make us dinner from scratch that evening and it was a shame we couldn’t have put our order in sooner, as it didn’t get served until gone 9pm. I felt so bad not being able to finish all the delicious food, but it was our first taste of authentic homemade Sri Lankan food and it was wonderful (they have this amazing buffalo curd that is served with palm treacle – check it out).

Buffalo curd and palm treacle
Buffalo curd and palm treacle

24th November 2018

I usually cringe at the name of guest houses, however Ella Secret Paradise really is just that. It’s far enough from town so that your are nestled in amongst the tea plantations and surrounded by the sounds of nature, yet close enough that you can still walk into the hustle and bustle. It’s just the one room for the moment (he has plans to expand to two soon) and it makes for a really intimate and personalised experience. It was probably the cheapest place we’ve stayed at, but by far our most favourite.

Out front of Ella Secret Paradise
Out front of Ella Secret Paradise

After stuffing our faces with a rather generous helping of food and fresh juices for breakfast, we headed out to conquer Little Adam’s Peak. I might be exaggerating there slightly, as it’s more like a gentle stroll followed by a hundred or so steps at the end to reach the peak. Still, we thought we’d add a few more kilometres by walking from our hotel to and from the starting point. My wife and I don’t have the best track record when it comes to mountains and views. Today was no different.

By the time we made it to the top (somewhat embarrassingly covered in sweat I might add – it seems our fitness has gone downhill since Nepal) we found ourselves standing in the middle of a cloud. We tried to wait it out, but finally admitted defeated after nothing changed for a whole two hours. Still, we got a good walk in and could now treat ourselves to some more food. We stopped off at an awesome little place called Cafe Chill, which has a relaxed hippy vibe and seems to be pretty popular with tourists. I have to admit, the 11 types of vegetable curries cooked together in a banana leaf (served with mango chutney that was to die for) was exceptional.

25th November 2018

We were determined to get a decent shot from the top of Little Adam’s Peak before leaving Ella. The night before we had arranged for a tuk tuk to collect us at around 6am in the morning. We thought it would be best to get there before the clouds consumed the valleys late morning and try to avoid the crowds, as it can get really busy at the top – at times it is just a constant flow of tourists and it’s easy to see why (when the visibility is good). Things didn’t seem to be going our way when the driver dropped us off at the midway point and clouds were coming in thick and fast, but thankfully our luck turned around once we got to the peak. We were awarded with some absolutely breathtaking views and the best part was it required minimum effort – that’s a win in my books.

Sharing the views of Little Adam’s Peak with the locals
Sharing the views of Little Adam’s Peak with the locals

Later that morning, as it was still so early, we decided to try and get a shot of the blue train passing over Nine Arches (literally a bridge with.. well nine arches). It was the most scenic and enjoyable tuk tuk ride I think we’ve had to date and we’ve been in them almost daily for three months. Although we did have to get out at one point as it was too steep for the driver to make it up a hill otherwise – I didn’t think we’d manage it on foot to be honest (again, our fitness is not what it should be).

The blue train going over Nine Arches bridge
The blue train going over Nine Arches bridge

Eventually we arrived, after our driver successfully navigate through some pretty deep mud, and ran across the bridge to the other side. A few minutes later and the blue train reared it’s head around the corner and we got the shot. It was a pretty long ride just for a picture and experience that was over in a few seconds, but it was more about the journey. Again, we celebrated by returning to Cafe Chill, where my wife was daring enough to try fish again (we’d generally been off meat and we were in the middle of a jungle – caught from a nearby river hopefully?). The rest of the day was spent relaxing back at our accommodation.

26th November 2018

Today was pretty much spent chilling at our accommodation. We find people don’t quite understand, or can’t grasp, why we don’t want to be out pounding the streets every single day. Simply put, we don’t want to burn out and don’t like doing things just because it’s expected of us – especially when it comes to tourist attractions. We really enjoy just soaking everything in sometimes. With that said, we eventually ventured out for another great Sri Lankan curry and found some real coffee much to my delight (my wife opted for a white chocolate brownie instead, it did look good). That evening we had the final meal at Ella Secret Paradise and got cosy with a book and the hammock out front. We were definitely sad to be leaving Ella, but excited to explore more of Sri Lanka.

The second best Sri Lankan curry I’ve had
The second best Sri Lankan curry I’ve had

Until next time.

P.S. I did not expect to love Sri Lankan food quite as much as I did. We can’t wait to introduce it to friends and family when we get back.

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