Part-1 of my trip report can be read here:
The cultural triangle:
I enjoyed isolated sites like Yapahuwa as much as I did bustling Anuradhapura. The often-asked question “should I visit Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa?” – Anuradhapura, filled with worshippers, is in my opinion more evocative than Polonnaruwa, especially if you enjoy observing people or rituals. Though, the latter does have well-preserved monuments and sculptures, my favourites being Vattadage and Gal Vihara. If you have the time, visit both. Sigiriya, despite being packed to the gills, was a great experience. Just the mere audacity of king Kassapa’s idea for a citadel and its scale had me floored. And, despite my fear of heights, I managed to climb all the way to the summit. The cave paintings at Dambulla are unlike anything else I’ve seen. Mihintale’s setting is beautiful. I enjoyed Kandy’s temple of tooth a lot, contrary to what I’d imagined. As an architect and a history buff, every site had something different to offer and I’d be hard-pressed to choose.
We hired guides to show us around Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. If you are interested in history, I’d highly recommend guides for Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa at least; Sigiriya is do-able without one. The quality of guides is quite variable – definitely check their English fluency before you hire them, by asking a few questions. At Anuradhapura, we hired a guide recommended by our guest-house and though I was initially sceptical, he turned out to be a tremendous guide. Mihintale, Yapahuwa and Nalanda Geddige didn’t have guides available at all, so we used our guide-book. We didn’t hire a guide in Kandy and it was fine.
A few tips - If you belong to a SAARC country, you can avail a 50% discount on the entry tickets at Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa & Kandy. Carry your original passport with you; a photocopy is not accepted.
You need to remove your footwear at most places of worship. If visiting after mid-morning, it helps to wear socks, as the stone pathways outside can get scorching hot.
At Polonnaruwa, do not miss the fantastic museum. It shuts at 5 pm, so see it before that.
National parks & Wildlife:
We visited Wilpattu, Sinharaja, Horton Plains and Mirissa (for Whale watching).
Wilpattu - We booked a jeep exclusively for the two of us, and a guide suited to our interest in birds, mammals and flora. We stayed at Anuradhapura and had a vehicle pick us up at 5 am, so that we could reach the park gate at 6 am. The vehicle also dropped us back at night. Though the park is most active in the morning and late afternoon onwards, I’d highly recommend spending the whole day inside the park. Firstly, if you exit the park after the morning safari, you need to purchase the entry ticket again for the evening safari. This doubles your cost. Secondly, Wilpattu is so huge that it makes sense to pause where you are after the morning safari and resume after a break. If you drive all the way back to the gate (more than 20 kms away) to exit, your time in the evening will be spent on the same route as the morning. Staying inside allows you to see more areas of the park. We carried breakfast and a simple, packed lunch with us, to eat at designated break zones in the park. Very basic toilets too are available at these zones. With very few jeeps in the park, and unique landscapes, Wilpattu was an amazing experience.
Sinharaja – We stayed at Kudawa, in Martin’s Lodge. Accommodation is very basic and this is one of the rare places in Sri Lanka without mobile coverage. We stayed for 2 nights, which allowed us to go on 1 half-day trek and 1 full-day trek. We sighted a lot of endemics here and could have easily stayed for many more days. You need to call to make reservations as Martin does not access e-mail. As with Wilpattu, you pay each time you enter the park, so it makes more sense to go on a full-day trek (6 am to 6 pm). Guides are allotted at the park gate, on a rotation system. I’m not sure what you could do if you get a guide not very conversant with English, but I don’t think it should be too much of a problem, as most of them are great at ID-ing, spotting and tracking, and language is never a barrier for that. A few groups had brought their own guides from outside Sinharaja; but, taking a paid guide from the gate is mandatory, irrespective. Wear water-resistant shoes with a good grip, carry a rain poncho / jacket and wear leech socks. Also carry food and water for the entire day.
Horton Plains – Staying at Ohiya turned out to be the best decision, as Horton Plains was just a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride away. We booked a guide beforehand (again, based on our requirements), and he met us at the ticketing office at 6 am. We trekked the 9 kms long trail, which took us through Baker’s falls, World’s End and mini World’s End. We were lucky as we had a clear day with blue skies, and could enjoy the view from World’s End. People on other days weren’t so lucky. Since we stopped a lot along the way to spot birds and walked slowly, we spent 5.5 hours to complete this trail. Though we did see some endemics, the Rhino-horned Lizard eluded us. Parts of the trail are flat, parts uphill, while some parts are rocky. Wear sturdy shoes and warm clothes (for the earlier part of the morning). There is absolutely no food or water available along the trail and most people carry packed breakfast.
Whale-watching – We had booked with Raja & the whales, based on reviews on Tripadvisor, and had no cause for complaint. We were picked up from our guesthouse, quickly registered and seated on the boat. The staff is friendly and efficient and offers you beverages, ginger biscuits (said to help with sea sickness) and motion-sickness pills. We’d taken pills an hour before boarding the boat, and that was much more effective than taking it at the last minute. Despite a good day, the water was quite choppy (apparently gets worse in bad weather), and within an hour of departure, people had begun retching. The boat has a toilet on board, but using it while being flung about is an ordeal in itself. I have acute motion sickness problems, but, by not eating or drinking anything, not moving around much, and keeping my eyes firmly on the horizon, I returned without too much trouble. A tip – do not sit on the upper deck, on the mattresses. Choose the chairs on the lower deck. This alleviates nausea. They offer fresh breakfast on board, but I’d advise you to eat only if you can stomach it despite the rocking boat. Our foray into the ocean lasted about 6 hours; unfortunately, we could not spot whales. We did see dolphins, though. They refunded half our money, or offered us a trip the next day – they needn’t have done either as spotting whales is not in their control, but it was a nice gesture.
Beaches & the coast:
After a lot of thought, we decided to spend 2 nights at Mirissa and 2 at Bentota. Our requirements - a longish stretch of beach, water safe for swimming, not too noisy, some eating-out options for the day and evening. Mirissa fit the bill perfectly, despite many old-timers there telling us how the beach has become crowded and noisier. The beach is clean, good for walks, the water is great, and it has certain liveliness to it without being overcrowded. Later, as we drove along the coast, we did see other beaches, but, Mirissa still seemed the best suited to us. Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa were too noisy in comparison. Bentota was a little too quiet – most of the sea stretch is occupied by five-star hotels. The beach is long, but lacks character, in my opinion. It is littered. The water was not as good as Mirissa. And, eating out options are minimal, as most people seem to eat at their hotel. We went to a stretch in South Bentota, near Induruwa, and that was marginally better. From the beaches I’ve seen, I’d pick Mirissa any day.
We spent just half a day in Galle and found it very atmospheric, which left us wishing we’d stayed there for at least a day. What we best enjoyed was walking on the ramparts. Of course, being cricket buffs, a visit to Galle stadium was unquestionable.
East of Mirissa, we drove to Matara and Dondra, and I’d highly recommend climbing the lighthouse at Dondra – the views are breathtaking.
Train ride in the Hill country:
We booked tickets from Ohiya to Ella, at Kandy station, a few days before the ride. We booked on the 3:40 pm train from Ohiya to Ella and booked the 7 pm return from Ella. We didn’t want the observation carriage so we booked the 3rd and 2nd class so that we could open the windows. However, we later found out that they’d charged us for the entire Colombo-Badulla journey (when we checked with a few locals travelling with us). It was 600 LKR per person for the 2nd class and 400 LKR per person for the 3rd class. I’m not sure how the pricing system works.
The onward train was delayed by an hour and we set off only at 4:30 pm. We’d asked for window seats in the 3rd class, while booking, but the seats turned out to be on the wrong side (the mountain side). All views are only on the valley side. Luckily, a few seats were vacant after a while and we could sit there. I looked at the seat numbering system, but there seems to be no way of ensuring that you book a valley side seat. The views were gorgeous, and the difficult terrain makes you wonder how the tracks were laid. After Bandarawela, the terrain flattens out though, so the views from there to Ella are pretty insipid.
The return train at 7 pm was a disaster and I wouldn’t advise anybody to take that. It was a Badulla-Colombo sleeper train, which was rickety, smelly and claustrophobic, as windows wouldn’t open. This train ride made us wish we’d reach our destination soon.
So, on hindsight, I’d probably have booked only from Ohiya to Bandarawela (because of the views), especially since I wasn’t looking to spend any time at Ella. However, if you want to while away time before your return train, Ella is definitely more pleasant. Also, it makes more sense to book on the 1:30 pm train from Ohiya (it leaves Nanu Oya an hour earlier). This way, when the train passes through tea plantations, there is a chance that you may see tea leaves being plucked. Unfortunately, if you want to return the same day, you only have the 7 pm train from Ella, back to Nanu Oya.
We didn’t shop much, but did buy a mask. As recommended everywhere, we stopped at Ambalangoda for that. We found the better-quality masks at Ariyapala & Sons (the one with the museum below). Though it seemed expensive, we purchased one. There are many other shops dotted around town, as well as in other towns on the west coast; the prices in these were definitely cheaper compared to Ariyapala.
I purchased Batiks in Matara, from Jez-look, again recommended by my guide-book. Though the rates are higher than elsewhere, the quality is spectacular and I wasn’t able to find such intricate Batiks anywhere else. Having seen cheap imitations and run-of-the-mill designs in other shops, I feel it was worth buying shopping here.
In Colombo, Barefoot and Luv SL had interesting souveniers, different from clichéd designs. Odel had interesting T-shirts.
The one thing I really enjoyed and craved to bring back was Kitul. I purchased it from the area around Deniyaya, where is it supposed to be the purest and successfully brought back a bottle in my check-in luggage, without in leaking or breaking.
Well, that ends my trip report; this is all I can say for now. If I do write some stories, or process my photos soon, I’ll add a link here. Once again, thanks to everybody on the Sri Lanka forum for their help.