Trains, Tea & Spicy Sambol in Sri Lanka

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Asia » Sri Lanka » Central Province » Ella
September 30th 2019
Published: October 2nd 2019
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I arrived in Colombo for a three week trip around the island of Sri Lanka, an island in the Indian Ocean. I was immediately hit with the humid city air, the intense smell of spices, the sounds of car horns going off in every direction and cows strolling down the roads. I walked down a small street lined with stalls selling many varieties of crunchy spiced nuts and caught a Local bus from Negombo to Colombo. It was hot and sweaty, and we were packed in like sardines, but $3 for a 45 minutes trip, I couldn’t complain! I took a walk along the Beira Lake and went to collect my prepaid train tickets and read my book at the Colombo Fort train station, the epitome of British colonial achievements. There was a small stall where people queued up to get a small cup of sweet, warm milky chai tea and fruit sellers coming round to the waiting passengers offering pomegranates and other delights. After a few changes of the platform, a slight delay and help from a few locals, I was on the right train! From Colombo my train went south, hugging the coastline until I reached Matara. Looking out
the train window, I could see glimpses of the waves from the Indian Ocean peeking through the palm trees.

After 48 hours of travelling, I was relieved to pull up at my hostel for the next three nights. It’s called the Doctors House, owned by two Aussies and is situated on Polhena beach, just outside of Matara town. Essentially it’s a typical backpacker hostel with pumping music, cold beer and lots of friendly people from Europe and Australia all looking for a good time! Within 15 minutes, I had been invited out to another hostel down the road for a ‘Taco Tuesday’ night. I didn’t want to miss out, so I joined everyone and had a great night, I even got to try some BBQ jackfruit as one of the taco fillings!

Someone had left the door open to the hostel room, so a stray dog had come in overnight to shelter from the pummeling rain. We only realised when the booming thunder made the wooden dorm shake and awoke everyone in bed-confined underneath their thin mosquito nets. I sat from the safety of my bunk bed as one of the other guests (a Sri Lankan boy) lifted and pushed the dog out as he gnarled in disappointment about having to go back out in the rain.

The next morning, I caught a short tuk-tuk ride to Marissa beach. Unfortunately, the beach, although nice, was covered in rubbish and debris. However, the sun was out, so I took the opportunity to have a read of my book and a dip in the warm Indian Ocean. The beach was lined with palm trees hung with bunches of orange coloured coconuts called ‘King Coconuts’ rather than the green ones typically found in Asia. Marissa has the infrastructure for many tourists, but unfortunately due to the recent bombings, visitor numbers are down, and the streets and restaurants are mostly empty.

I was determined to try some traditional Sri Lankan food today as I had been avoiding the street stalls in fear of getting food poisoning. I hitched a lift with two Sri Lankan’s stay in my hostel room who were heading in the same direction north to Galle fort. We pulled over at a roadside cafe, and we ordered some Rotti filled with spices and potatoes which we then dipped in a gravy sauce, some spicy shaved coconut called Sambol and marinated onions. I stayed at a small boutique hotel inside the historic Galle fort built by the Portuguese in 1588. The sturdy brick infrastructure managed to survive the Tsunami and remains the most popular place to visit on the West coast. Inside, I visited an old prison, with tiny claustrophobic cells with small holes in the side which looked out to sea. There was also a live court case taking place, and many locals were huddled around eagerly trying to hear the verdict. I walked the circumference of the fort and visited the lighthouse and famous jumping platform and finished off my afternoon with a Masala tea at a small tea cafe called the secret garden.

The next morning, I took a short tuk-tuk ride to Bara beach house in Pitiwella, where I was staying for two nights. Built right on the beach, the waves (that were rather big from the storm) lapped right up to the garden area and almost into the restaurant. It was a rustic, small place built from wooden huts and decorated with graffiti and amusing quotes. That afternoon I met some girls from the hostel and decided to take a trip to a nearby beach Hikkaduwa. We waited patiently at the side of the road for a passing bus to stop, but after 20 mins we had to resort to paying a local to drive us in the back of his truck. We all climbed into the back and off we went down the road, much to the amusement of the hostel workers. It was a public holiday due to the Binara Full Moon, so in Hikkaduwa, the sea was populated with locals splashing and playing in the waves. There were lots of tiny squirrels with white stripes down their backs, scurrying around looking for food in peoples bags! We stayed until sunset and then headed back to the hostel and to the Galle fort hotel for dinner. They served a traditional Sri Lankan curry, with a side of sambal, banana leaves, papadoms and spicy mango chutney as a local guitarist serenaded us with traditional songs about a local fisherman.

I woke up early the next morning to walk to the train station to head back to Colombo. Three stray dogs followed me out of the hostel, up the road for half a kilometre until they got bored of me paying them no attention and sidled off into the backroads. After the train didn’t show up, I started to walk down the highway towards the next train station 10km away. A public bus pulled over and offered me a lift, which I was very grateful for as it was starting to heat up in the mid-morning sun. I stood for a while on the train, huddling onto my bags in the crowded, unconditioned 2nd class train. After an hour, I managed to push my way to the middle of the carriage and got a seat off a man getting off at the next stop. I spent the next two nights at the beautiful Cinnamon Lakeside hotel on the Beria Lake 15 Minutes from Colombo fort train station. I met Will at my hotel, and we went a caught the train from Colombo to Kandy in central Sri Lanka. We tried a vegetable Kottu which is spiced Rotti chopped up into squares and mixed with vegetables which were rather spicy! After some strong haggling with the Tuk Tuk driver, we arrived at our hotel. We took our way washing to a small local place and then relaxed on the guesthouse rooftop that has panoramic views of the Kandy mountains.

We started off our day with a Bliss bowl at the trip advisors number 1 voted cafe called the secret alley. Went then spent a few hours strolling the streets of Kandy, passing the famous temple of the tooth where the smell of incense sticks filled the air and small stands sold the pretty flowers offered at prayer. We walked around the lake as far as we could, passing playful monkeys and stopping to chat to an ex tour guide Mohammed. Then the rain accended so went for lunch at the empire cafe and then to a small tea shop to buy some local tea.The next morning we took one of the most scenic seven-hour train journeys in the world between Kandy and Ella. There were no allocated seats, so we strategically pushed our way onto the packed train and lucked out with a window view. The windows were wide open, and the breeze was flowing through the carriage. It was nice to be far away from the pollution on the streets of Kandy from the tuk-tuks and buses. There are were endless food sellers, walking up and down the isles with their assortments of fried food, drinks and chopped fruit. We sat in a booth opposite three small boys, who spent half the journey eating popcorn with their heads out the window and the other half sleeping on each other’s shoulders. Every time we went through a tunnel, there were eery sounds of passengers screaming out the windows for fun and Insta hungry tourists hanging out the door around the bends to catch the ultimate photo!

After a bumpy ride down a long dirt track and a few wrong turns, we arrived at our guest house, which was built amongst the beautiful Ella Tea plantations. As we ate our breakfast of coconut filled pancakes called pani pol we watched peacocks elegantly strolling around the garden and people up early picking the tea leaves before the midday sun became too fierce. We climbed the short cut way from our guesthouse (literally on our hands) up to the railway tracks. We clambered along the wooden slats of the railing from the guesthouse passing trains with piercing horns and waved at the people hanging out of the train windows. We walked for an hour along the track, enjoying a King Coconut along the way until we reached the 9 arch bridge. From there, we hiked through the jungle to the 98 acres resort where we enjoyed some lunch from the spectacular rooftop restaurant before running back along the train track before the monsoon struck! That evening we attended a cooking class with our homestay family. It’s not something they normally do, but they welcomed us into the kitchen and showed us how to make Dhal and rice noodles from scratch using flour, water and a contraption to push the noodles out. We also made coconut milk from scratch shaving the coconut meat from the shell and soaking it in water.

Our next stop was Arugam Bay, a beach town three hours away on the west of Sri Lanka. Here we booked to go on an afternoon Safari in the Kumana national park and drove in an open-air keep an hour south of Arugam Bay. We saw wild boar hiding in the trees, herds of scatty deer bounding the grasslands, water buffalos cooling in the mud pools and crocodiles basking in the sun on the river banks. We drove down the bumpy dirt tracks, passing water holes and vast planes of grass. We also saw birds of prey, the symbolic Sri Lankan bird the Ceylon junglefowl (which looks a bit like a chicken!) and many beautiful peacocks displaying their feathers. The highlight of the Safari was an elephant who we spotted in the distance, walking majestically through the highlands right in front of our Jeep and off into the distance. It was a magical experience, seeing an elephant so close and in its natural habitat.

The So Sri Lanka surf competition was on, so the locals were competing for the 8 wild card places in the main event. We were leaving the first morning of the competition, but we got up early and to go and watch the pros warning up. As we walked down the beach, local fisherman gathered to sell their morning catch on the sand, huddled around piles of fish and haggling with each other to obtain the best prices.

We had gone a full circle from Colombo through Ella, to Arugam Bay and ended up back on the west coast again in Mirissa for the end of our trip. On our final day, we took a bus ride along the south-west coast between Galle and Matara. Along the way were abandoned hotels and restaurants from the Tsunami disaster in 2004. As a result, there has been a significant reduction in tourists, which was further impacted by the 2019 bomb attacks. We hopped off the bus, the driver barely stopping to let us off in his urgency to get to the next destination. The weathered buildings were scattered with broken furniture, rubbish, mould growing on the walls and wood-rotting away from the dampness. There were glimpses of wall art, wooden deck chairs and a hatch where they would have served holidaymakers food and drink with a smile. It was a sad sight to see, now forgotten and lonely.

On my last day, I had a go at surfing and managed to stand up on the board in the small shallow waves. I sat on a wooden beach chair, writing this blog on my last three weeks in Sri Lanka, sheltering from the thunder and lightning and watching as cows ran along the sand also looking for a place to hide. I departed Sri Lanka with some warm memories, new experiences and some horrendous food poisoning, but it was all worth it!


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