Sri Lanka 2018

19th January 2018 - To Sri Lanka

So less than two weeks after arriving back from Bali (two days of which I spent in hospital and the rest totally wiped out I'm off again. My first time in Southern Asia, it's Sri Lanka. An easy 3 hour flight from Bangkok and the airport was a breeze. I'd got my ETA in advance straight through immigration, a bit of a weight for the bags, changed some money, got myself a SIM card and was into a taxi to the hotel. Everything so easy as everyone seems to speak fantastic English

I'm in Sri Lanka for two weeks on an Intrepid tour. Not always my favorite way to travel but it is a great way to see a lot in a short time. This evening met up with the group and it is the usual Intrepid age range. We have one 20 year old German girl another woman in her late 30s then the others probably 10+ years older than me. But they all seem pretty fit (unlike some people on previous trips) and fun so I have high hopes.

20th January 2018 - To Anuradhapura

Today we all jumped in the minibus and headed north to Anuradhapura with a few stops along the way. Plenty of room on the bus so it's going to be a comfortable journey. First up we stopped a few miles up the coast to look at the fishing catamarans (oruwa) both on the beach and out to sea. These are the traditional boats used by Negombo’s fisherman and is the sort of seen you expect in the Indian Ocean.

Next up a coconut plantation. Coconuts are a big crop in Sri Lanka, they even have one of their 225 government ministers as the Minister for Coconuts. We were talked through the uses of the coconut from coconut water through coconut milk to coconut cream. The leaves used for building houses, the wood for something or other. The interesting part for me was the coconut flower which they tap and collect the sap it produces. Each day a guy climbs the trees and drains the sap then walks across the coconut rope to the next tree to tap the flower on that one.

The sap collected is toddy which can be drunk immediately and is more alcoholic than beer. It has been harvested for generations to make the local alcoholic drink, but also if left to fermented further vinegar. It can also be dried to produce coconut syrup and palm sugar. The toddy tasted OK, but I'll stick to cider.

The next stop was at a gaudy modern Hindu Temple. It really was a spectacle. I don't get religion at the best of times, but this ... We weren't allowed to take photos inside but this one from outside gives you an idea of how it looked.

Sri Lanka has lots of wild elephants around 10% of all Asian elephants at around 6,000 and numbers are increasing. The elephants migrate from park to park and there are elephant corridors which are clearly marked to warn drivers as the elephants usually travel at night.

Lunch was a typical rice and curry buffet. A spicy fish curry which was very tasty in a fairly dry tomato and chili paste. The chicken curry was not quite as spicy but still very tasty. Roll on more Sri Lankan food tonight.

Mid-afternoon we arrive in Anuradhapura and ancient capital of Sri Lanka. We've been promised a huge complex of temples which we will cycle around tomorrow. Today I walked into town for a walk around. It looks a very ordinary town. In fact Sri Lanka so far has appeared fairly ordinary but I don't mean that in a bad way. I cam expecting a mini-India but the place is very civilised. Fairly empty roads, very little beeping of horns. Far more open space and peace. The British influence is everywhere. Everyone learns English from a young age and seems to speak it very well. Everyone on a motorbike is wearing a helmet. I'm liking Sri Lanka.

In the evening we headed out to a local cafe, the sort of place you probably wouldn't head into without someone in the know. On this trip we have a local guide Asanga and it seems he's going to be very hands on so I think this will be the first of many trips out to see real local food where local people eat it.

This place had a few specialties, hoppers which are crispy little fermented batter bowls, egg rotis and kottu. Kottu is a delicious dish made of chopped roti, vegetables, egg, meat and lots of spices. Being mainly bread it was fairly heavy and I didn't eat half of it but it was delicious. Wikipedia says kottu is so popular it is considered the hamburger of Sri Lanka, I see it as a perfect food after a night on the beer so maybe more of a kebab.

21st January 2018 - Anuradhapura

Woke up to blue skies with some fluffy white clouds, nice and cool, a perfect day to cycle around the ruins of 2000 year old ancient capitals of Sri Lanka. So we set off at 7:30, hook up with the bikes and we're off. First up the fully restored Ruvanvelisaya Dagoda and its big white stupa.

Being a Sunday the place was busy. This is an active place of worship with thousands of locals dressed in white praying, giving offerings and generally appearing quite devoted to the cause. Asanga specialises in ancient history and spent some of his degree on digs on the Anuradhapura site so we got quite a lot of the history of the place. It became the capital in 380BC and was the capital when Buddhism arrived from India a couple of hundred years BC. The city became huge, stuppas were built. Kings change capitals come into and out of fashion and eventually everyone moved south to Colombo and the jungle grew over the whole area. It was only re-found when the British were building roads in the 1800s and came across it.

When found this stupa just looked like a big hill. It is really just one big pile of bricks, 93 million bricks! It is one big solid structure with only one small room inside to contain the Buddha relics. As well as the thousands of people milling about there were also processions of white clad people carrying and long wide ribbon above their heads. We were told they parade to the stupa and then wrapped the ribbon all the 300m+ right around the base. Quite a spectacle.

After this great site we toured around the Heritage Site. So many ruins covering a huge area. Next up was an ancient tree supposedly grown from a cutting from the tree Buddha meditated under. It claims to be the oldest continuously documented tree in the world! It was basically just a tree on a small mound with some other trees and a small temple built around it. But many people were there praying and leaving their wishes written on pieces of material.

We saw a few more stupa like the one above. I liked this one better, I much prefer the natural brick to the painted plaster. At each of the religious sites we have to take off our shoes to enter and walk around. This religious lark is hard work, walking around bare feet on hard and a little rough stone really does try the feet after a while. In fact to was a relief to enter the small temple to see this Buddha. The marble floor felt like walking on a carpet compared to the hard stone outside.

The whole city complex is said to have housed over a million people. We passed many ruins that were purely foundations, many columns which used to support wooden housing and many man made 'lakes'. This in the 'Twin Ponds' which they think may have been part of the palace due to the ornate carving. Asanga keeps regaling us with the wonders of the ancient engineering. Here the ceramic pipes which brought the water in and the filtration system which removed most of the silt.

The great thing about today is how authentic and in modern use the area is. It does not feel like a tourist site in the same way Angkor or Ayathaya do. In fact we saw very few tourists. In fact we didn't see many monks. It seemed to be local people dressed in white coming and praying amongst the ruins, the beautiful green surroundings and the many monkeys.

Above is the 'Moon Stone'. A well preserved, beautifully carved stone at the entrance to a ruined school for monks. It's nice enough and meant to be from the 9th century but it is the surroundings which made it special. From there a few more ruins, Buddha etc. and then a picnic rice and curry lunch by the 'Elephant Pond' so called because of its size rather than any association with elephants. This is another beautiful ancient reservoir surrounded by trees, monkeys playing, cormorants and egrets wandering around and fish and turtles in the water. From there it was a stop off at an old refectory for the monks. This was interesting, you could see the remains of the kitchens and dining rooms and two huge stone troughs, one they would fill with rice and the other curry. An interesting very real image to finish the tour on.

I wonder what we'll have for dinner, how about some rice and curry? But tonight we also had coconut rotis, string hoppers (rice flour noodles pressed out in circles to form a string wicker mat and then steamed) and a rice floor based gritty type thing that's supposed to take a long time to prepare which I must get the name of. As with almost every meal we had some curry, some daal and coconut sambal and onion and tomato sambal to spice things up. Was a good meal but as with all meals so far it would've been much better if it had a minute or so in a microwave to get it hot.

22nd January 2018 - Polonnaruwa

Up early again this time to move on to our next stop, Polonnaruwa which I think is a slightly later capital of ancient Sri Lanka. Today Intrepid has decided we need to see how locals travel so we are on a public bus. The air conditioned mini-bus will also make the same journey but just taking our bags onto the next hotel. Not sure what it really adds to the trip but they have to give some hint towards their past when their trips were Intrepid in more than name. It was a bus journey in a battered old bus, stopping for people every mile or so and even when it got going hardly broke 40. Interesting I suppose but didn't add much to the trip except time and a bit of inconvenience.

We got to the hotel around 12pm and it's another beauty, huge rooms, nice pool, lovely setting but again in a battered old functional looking town. Had a lovely titled Hot Chicken Kick for lunch. Sounded interesting thought I'd give it a go. It was delicious. Lots of lightly battered chicken in a slightly sweet sauce with dried chilis, pieces of garlic and onions and peppers. My kinda meal.

The capital moved from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruva in 982AD. The Southern Indian King who ruled Sri Lanka became weak and so a another King from Southern India invaded and took over. He decided the capital was too easy to take and so moved it. Being 1000 years more recent the temples here are much better preserved. First up we visited the Royal Palace Group. 3m thick walls which used to support a seven story structure. 50 rooms supported by 30 columns. About all I've got, it's some pretty ruins in a pretty setting.

Below the palaces and a parliament building is a well preserved Bathing Pool. Two crocodile- mouth water spouts and layered levels so people can access the water whatever the water level. Again lovely setting.

We passed lots of Hindu as well as Buddhist Temples along the way, the next big site was the Quadrangle. This is a group of buildings in a compact group surrounded by a bounding wall. There are Relic Houses including a Shrine to a Tooth Relic. There are big tablets with well preserved inscriptions describing what was built and why. My favorite building was a spherical building that looks like a mini-colisseum from the outside. It's a Buddhist Temple with some well preserved Buddhas and other carvings. Interesting as it is so dfferent to anything else we've seen.

Not had a decent stupa today so time to fix that. Rankot Vihara. 54m high and more of a doomed shape.

Next the big Monastery Complex. This used to home hundreds of thousands of monks and contained temples, living quarters and everything else required to support a community that big. There was even a court where they tried the monks that had strayed. There area was big and interesting. These were the most imposing buildings, first up a white plastered stupa.

Next a catherderal style building which contained a huge standing Buddha. Again this really stood out as it was so different to the other buildings in the area.

Last up, and I have to say I'm totally templed and archeologyed out, was the Cave Temple. Impressive carvings in the rocks and a group of oriental looking pilgrims walking around in a circle in front chanting and really getting into it. An interesting end to a fun afternoon.

In the evening our rice and curry night today involved 18 different curries. First up we were shown various weird and wonderful vegetables that were in the curries we then went up and had what we wanted with rice. I had some of everything. It was gorgeous. Proper spicy, thee first meal where I didn't have to add some chili. All really flavoursome and spicy but not heavy. I went back for seconds!

23rd January 2018 - Dambulla

A short hop across to Dambulla and straight out to Cave Temple. The Cave Temple is located in a rock which rises out from the surrounding plains of Dambulla. It is home to the most acclaimed Cave complex of Buddha Images and Rock Paintings. It was constructed and painted from around 2nd Century BC with additional parts of the cave being added over time right up until the 18th Century. At the base of the rock is a pretty garish Buddhist Museum with a giant Buddha growing out of the back and a conveyor belt of monks walking into the right-hand side.

The cave runs along the rock face and now has a covered walkway in front. Inside are hundreds of Buddhas in the caves of varying sizes carved straight out of the rock.

The inside of the caves was impressive, lots of Buddha of varying sizes and poses. It was lit in a way which made it look great with the light and shadow.

As well as the Buddha the caves were beautifully painted. Paintings on the walls and the ceilings, all really well preserved by being protected from the light for so long. The colours were really vivid.

In this small cave there were a group of worshippers praying and chanting. In the small cave with their voices echoing around it sounded amazing.

And of course being a huge rock surrounded by lush trees and with tourists providing an endless supply of food there were monkeys, lots of monkeys. I could sit for hours watching them playing, grooming and scheming how they can steal food from the unsuspecting visitors.

This afternoon we went to Kaudulla National Park on the promise of seeing wild elephants. It did not disappoint. Historically Kaudulla was one of the 16 irrigation tanks (reservoirs) built by King Mahasen. Like most of these it fell into disrepair but was reconstructed in 1959. In 2002 it was made into a National Park and attracts a variety of plant and animal life, especially elephants and a wide range of birds.

We jumped into jeeps and set off into the park. The road wasn't great so it was slow going but the scenery was stunning. First wild-life sighting was a crocodile lying on a small island in a lake. Next up monkeys in the trees and a number of wild peacocks wandering around. It is strange to think of peacocks as wild birds. Then after about 45 minutes we saw our first elephants, a family of maybe 10. They were some way off but we waited and the walked to with 30m of us. We then drove on to the main lake and 100 or so elephants came into view.

We parked up and watched them munching around at the grass. There were elephants of all ages. We were told that in the last 10 years numbers in Sri Lanka have risen quite steeply from around 2,300 to 6,000. Since the end of the civil war with the Tamals Sri Lanka has made a big tourism drive and this had led to lots of money being invested in conservation, for the elephants at least it seems to have paid off.

Having two or three herds all together by the water made for great viewing but it did mean all the jeeps were in the same place rather than spread out around the park. There were a lot of jeeps, maybe 50 at any time but probably another 20 or more came or went whilst we were there. It did feel like we were imposing on the elephant's peace and quiet. The odd elephant did make its displeasure known but generally they went about their business slowly getting closer to the jeeps and some to within about 10m. The herd of elephants with the herd of jeeps did make an in interesting scene.

Time to talk birds. As well as the numerous egrets and herons there were storks and a pelican. Lots of colourful birds flying around and some hawks. The most interesting was a white-bellied sea eagle sat next to its huge nest; a magnificent site.

24th January 2018 - Sigiriya - Kandy

Up early to climb Sigiriya before breakfast. Sigiriya is a big rock sitting in a wide flat plain. The sides are almost vertical right up to its flat wide top. Unfortunately today the weather was a little hazy so this was the best photo I got from the bottom. As we were waiting for asanga to get the tickets Pat got out the ginger biscuits and handed them around. After the packet had got back to him he held them down by his side. Next thing I saw was a monkey running up behind him, I shouted but too late, in a flash he'd stolen the biscuits and was back up a nearby tree. They really are fearless in pursuit of food.

First we walked through the water garden an over some defensive walls and moats. The grounds were beautifully laid out and as with everything we've seen over the last few days the lakes and waterways were gorgeous. After the water garden and the boulder garden we start to climb. Some of the climb is up worn stone steps but much of it is modern steel staircases. The climb was talked up but it really wasn't that hard unless you suffered from heights. I think the rock is 300m high so climbing to the top didn't take too long.

The rock was used by a King at the end of the 5th century. After a Shakespearean drama of a family falling out where the old King married his daughter to his brother's son, the son-in-law then convinced the younger son to murder the father and take power. Scared of reprisals he had a palace built on top of the rock which was used by monks. Now there are some impressive brick ruins on the top and temple caves with paintings carved into the walls of the rock.

The summit is 1.6 hectares in area and quite easy to walk around. Quite a lot of the brick remains are still standing and it is easy to imagine how impressive the palace must've been. As the sun rose the air cleared a little and gave nice if still a little hazy views over the surrounding area. As also the Sri Lankans had taken care of the water situation. At the top were a number of deep reservoirs, water channels and ponds.

It was a really pleasant spot even though it was the most touristed thing we've seen so far. The top was big enough to get away from most of the people and enjoy some peace and watch the birds soaring around the rock. After half an hour or so we set off down looking at more of the temple caves and fantastic brick work which had been fitted seamlessly into the rock. Soon it was time to head back to the hotel for a well earned breakfast.

In the afternoon we first stopped off at the wholesale fruit and veg market. The impressive selection is similar to what we have in Bangkok. I'm guessing with all the sun and rain they get in Sri Lanka along with the wide range of altitudes this is a very fertile country where almost anything can be grown.

Next up we stopped off at a spice garden and had a really informative guided walk. The guy was an expert especially in the medical uses of the plants. He was particularly keen on lime oil which is taken from the skin. The had cinnamon, aloe vera, vanilla, cocoa, pineapples, sandalwood, jack fruit, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, coca leaves and many, many more. We were then given a great massage with the various natural oils before sampling their produce in their restaurant. Rice and curry of course.

From there we headed on to our hotel in Kandy. This was the sign stuck on the door to the balcony. After Pat's incident this morning I'll definitely be hanging on tight to my ginger biscuits if I head out there.

This evening we headed to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The temple houses Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic a canine tooth of the Buddha. In the evening they perform some rituals so it was quite busy with tourists and Buddhists. We left our shoes and entered through the newer part of the building and through the drum hall where the traditional drummers drum in front of door to the old part of the temple which contains the relic.

From there headed upstairs where they was a bit of a scrum. The temple officials had opened the door to the room containing the tooth relic. Of course you don't see the tooth itself. You just see the outer of seven caskets all inside each other. It's a golden casket in the shape of a stupa. It looked pretty enough.

The final big room had an alter at one end and the story of the tooth in 21 paintings around the walls. The story started with the Buddha showing him sitting underneath a tree meditating. Then there's his cremation where the tooth was taken from the ashes. They then follow the story of the tooth over the next 2000 years. At one point a king tried to smash it and it somehow became a star which convinced people how special it was. God then recreated the tooth (or something like that) and it was owned by various Indian Kings and was the centre of a few wars between kings. Eventually a king friendly with the Sri Lankan king at the time moved it to Sri Lanka for safe keeping. It then moved with the kings as the capital cities moved ending up in the final royal capital Kandy. The British 'looked after it for a bit' then handed it back to the Buddhists in the middle of the 19th century.

25th January 2018 - Kandy

Kandy sits in the middle of Sri Lanka in the foothills of the highlands. It was the last capital of the ancient kings' era of Sri Lanka. It sits in the middle of the tea growing area and has a real colonial feel. The main feature of Kandy though is the artificial lake in its middle. This was created from the paddy fields in 1807 and gives the city an open feel much in the same way as the lake in Hanoi.

Our first stop today was the Geragama Estate tea factory which dates back to 1903 and much of the insides appeared to be pretty much unchanged since then. In fact some of the old women working there looked like they may have seen the opening.

The whole process from fermenting to rolling to sorting takes place on huge old machinery driven by an old generator and shafts and cogs and chains. It was interesting to see the stages of the 24 hour process from fresh leaf to ready to drink black tea.

After the tour we got to sample some of their tea and it was very good, strong but smooth and very easy to drink without milk or sugar. We also got a piece of butter (madeira?) cake to go with it. I bought some tea in their shop I bet it won't taste half as good at home.

After a stop at a gem museum to see the various gems that occur in Sri Lanka including their famous sapphires we were dropped off in the centre of Kandy and given the rest of the day to ourselves.

I went to the International Buddhist Museum which is housed in the old court house. It had quite an extension collection with a room for each country which has embraced Buddhism detailing its history in the country, major sites and how it is practiced. It was an interesting place to spend an hour.

I spent a few hours wandering around the city and I quite like it. It has a colonial feel but it is also a working city. As with the rest of Sri Lanka everything feel very British and familiar. Late afternoon I walked back up the steep hill to our hotel where I made a big but funny mistake. I had bought thankfully two packets of rice crackers for the train trip tomorrow. I put them down on a table on the hotel veranda for 30 seconds and a monkey stole one of the packets if I hadn't been quick he'd probably have had them both. Then just to rub it in him and all his mates sat on the roofs and trees around the hotel munching on them. Monkeys seemed to come from far and wide and they seemed to go down very well.

26th January 2018 - Train from Kandy to Bandarawela

The Railway system in Sri Lanka was built by the British and started in 1864. The main purpose of the train system was to transport tea from the Hill Country to Colombo for shipping. The route up into the hills was called the Railway to the Moon and today is the highest functioning broad gauge railway in the world. The 6 1/2 hour journey started in Kandy. Not the grand colonial station I was expecting but there were some nice old touches such as the departures board.

We were booked into the reserved seats in 3rd class which sounds like it's going to be solid wooden seats but in fact was surprisingly comfortable. The seats wee pretty upright but nicely padded and I think much better than the air-conditioned first class as we could pull the windows down and get closer to the scenery rolling by. The 'reserved' part was important though. The carriage was locked from the rest of 3rd class and strictly policed. No one allowed in without a ticket so the corridors remained cleared and for all but the top section we had a few spare seats around us.

We started off in Kandy which is at 465m. So we set off amongst bananas and coconuts. The train winded its way through the lush jungle slowly metre by metre up into the highlands. Soon the scenery started to change, less tropical and more like Europe. First wide leaf deciduous trees and soon we were into the fir trees.

Then the tree plantations started to appear. They weren't as orderly or lush as I saw in Malaysia. The bushes seemed to be on quite rocky ground and were cut down low maybe less than two foot tall. Every now and again we'd see old ladies with a sack on their backs moving along the bushes picking the tender new leaves. Hopefully on our hike over the next two days there will be lots of opportunities for photos of the tea pickers.

About 5 hours in we passed the world's highest broad gauge station (Pattipola) and soon after we hit the highest point at 1898m. It was marked by a tiny sign which we sped past.

From there it was a further hour or so to our destination through pine forests and tea plantations, through many tunnels and over many bridges. Often there was a pretty sheer drop to the valley below. Apart from a bit of a numb bum it was a very good, scenic trip.

In the evening we went to a local house used regularly by Intrepid for a cookery lesson which culminated in us eating the fantastic meal we had prepared.

We chopped the veg then in pairs put together the ingredients for each dish. The thing that strikes you is like Indian cooking each dish contained such a wide range of spices. Curry powder, black pepper, tumeric, chili, corriandar seed, mustard seeds, fennel seeds, curry leaves and much, much more.

After a couple of hours everything was finished and we got to taste the product of our labour and it was delicious. Personally I would've spiced it all up a bit but the flavours were so deep and rich. The dishes we prepared were red rice and daal, aubergine pickle, sweet potato curry, a vegetable like green mango curry, chicken curry, snake gourd salad and coconut sambal.

27th January 2018 - Haputale Tea Walk

Today was the first of two days walking in the highland tea plantations. We met up with our guides and drove up to about 1300m to our starting point. We then set off into the Nayabedde Estate.

The tea bushes were all around us. They weren't as manicured as those I saw in Malaysia but they had a more rugged beauty especially when the sun came out. The landscape was rolling hills as far as we could see. We were mainly climbing with the odd piece of downhill. The paths went from concrete roads to narrow paths between the bushes. After a couple of hours we hit a small village and stopped at a catholic church where we were served with a plate of fruit and cups of tea. We really have been well looked after on this trip.

It was lovely and cool in the hills, maybe 16-18 degrees. When you live in a tropical climate any time you feel a drop in temperature it is something to savour although I hope they have blankets in the hotel because it could be chilly overnight.

The tea plantations are very peaceful all the more so at the weekend we hardly saw a picker all the way around. There was lots of wide-life though. Bees, butterflies, a troupe of monkeys (everyone held on tight to their biscuits) and lots and lots of birds. Black eagles hovering overhead, woodpeckers and lots of smaller birds. Whenever I asked what they were I was told they were some sort of robin like the oriental magpie robin and the black Indian robin. I might look them up to see if they are the real names.

We kept heading upwards the odd patch of mist blew through and at times the sun came out. Towards the top it got noticeably cooler and the tea bushes became more sparse. It is amazing how the scenery changes with each 100m you climb or descend. We topped out at around 1900m and then dropped steeply down big stone steps. After half an hour or so we were at a family house where we had lunch. To our surprise it wasn't rice and curry. Instead it was what they call dosa (which unlike the crispy rolls we have in the UK are more of a rubbery round flat bread), some steamed rice buns, fried lentil balls (a bit like falafel) and daal and vegetable curry.

After lunch we checked into our hotel, had another cup of tea then had a free afternoon. The town is fairly small but felt nicer than others we've stayed in. I saw the sign below on one of the restaurants, it pretty much sums up what we've seen of Sri Lankan food. A local twist on a few Indian staples plus different types of hoppers, kothu (chopped roti stir-fry) and deviled dishes. Tonight we have the evening meal included with the hotel, I'm guessing we'll be having more rice and curry.

28th January 2018 - Haputale Forest Walk

Our second day walking in the highlands. Today we took the train one stop to Idalgashinna at 1615m. From there we climbed for a bit to get above the tea area for a view across the surrounding hills and into the valleys. It was a misty morning so the view wasn't perfect but was still impressive. From there we started to drop down. This area is mainly bio-tea (organic) which is harder to grow but sells for a higher price. We didn't see anyone picking tea today but lots of people weeding.

Every now and again we pass little Hindu alters which are used by workers and walkers to ask for protection during their day. Our guides stopped at one yesterday and another today. They light some incense sticks then light a small candle on a coconut and wave it about a bit. To finish they then smash the coconut into the ground. It smashes open and they pass the coconut around for people to eat. Religion, it always amazes me what people are willing to believe.

Most of today was spent heading downhill. Most of the time down gentle slopes but at times downs series of knee breaking stone steps. We passed through a number of villages with the children running out to say hello. Turns out we weren't on the usual route due to a landslide so the kids rarely see tourists walking through.

We stopped halfway for a cup of tea then continued on down below the tea plantations and into jungle and to our mini-bus. We then drove to Bomburu Ella waterfall where we had local at a local house looking out on the waterfall. Rice and curry with a view. The photo below shows the waterfall in the background. In the foreground is our minibus and our driver and fixer who are travelling around with us as well as Asanga our guide.

29th January 2018 - Highlands to the beach via the Elephant Orphanage

Today was a driving day with a few interesting stops along the way. So we have to say goodbye to the lovely cool highlands as we head down to the much warmer and more humid beach at Marissa. First stop of the day was at a roadside temple for the driver to ask for a safe journey we then set off over the beautiful Ella Pass. We were surrounded by quite sheer tree covered hills and below was a deep valley. On the way down from the hills we made a quick stop at Rawana Falls. The falls were beautiful and dropped down many steps from the top of the cliff. Being dry season there wasn't much water, we were told that in wet season we would've got drenched standing where we were on the bridge.

From there we headed south for a couple of hours to the Elephant Transit Camp at Udawalawe to see the orphan elephants. As they are trying to keep human contact to a minimum you can only view them from a viewing platform during feeding time. We were early so I popped across the road to a tea shop. The girls in the shop showed (and let me smell) many of the teas both black and fruit teas. I bought some more leaf tea. When I get home I'm going have to start drinking tea morning noon and night to get through it all.

Feeding times are at 9am, 12pm, 3pm and 6pm. As the time approached the grandstand filled up and they started to let the elephants in from the huge park where they live. The keepers let in two at a time and they would race up to the milk station to get their allowance. Once their bucket had been poured in via a funnel and hose they would be moved on and two more let in. Many of them were reluctant to move on when their turn was up, obviously the milk is much nicer than the leaves they had when they were finished.

The elephants kept coming the bigger ones taking their time, the little ones running as fast as they could to the milk. In all there were about 40 elephants ranging I'm guessing from less than a year old up to about 5 years old. These elephants are either orphaned or have been found in the jungle alone and hungry. The camp takes them in. The camp is on the edge of the national park and open to the park. The idea is to raise the elephants but keep them wild so that when they reach around 5 years old they can be reintroduced to the wild. We were told that herds have come to the camp and taken babies away with them, but usually they take the babies to herds to see if they'll adopt them. If they don't they try another herd until one does. So far they have reintroduced over 100 elephants and some have grown up to have babies of their own.

Of course the cutest were the smallest ones. These two had their own bottles to drink from. They attack them with vigour and when the milk was up they cried like babies wanting more. We watched them for about an hour. When all the elephants had come in and had their milk they were all ushered back out into the park.

For lunch we made a quick stop at a bakery. Sri Lankan bakeries are everywhere and very British. Bread, cakes and most importantly pastries. Pastries, pasties, pies and puffs. Exactly as you'd get back home in Bideford, mainly flakey pastry but today I had what they described as a Chicken Cornish. It was in fact a chicken curry short-crust Devon (crimped on top not to the side); it was delicious. Of course instead of the usual British fillings most of them are filled with curry and all the better for it. From there it was another couple of hours to the very bottom of Sri Lanka and the beach at Mirrisa. It is hot and humid down here but unfortunately it is also overcast and a bit drizzly. Hopefully it'll be nice and bright tomorrow.

30th January 2018 - Mirissa

Today is a free day by beach on a beautiful tropical island, except the weather is overcast and there's intermitant light rain. But it is still warm so I headed out for a walk around the town. First up a wander up and down the beach. It's actually a nice clean beach backed by a few hotels, bars and restaurants but not enough to spoil it.

There was an option this morning to head out whale watching. Off the coast there are many different whales at different times of the year and a year round pod of blue whales. Most of the group did go and I was tempted a blue whale is a big draw. But the 5:30 wake-up and the 4 or 5 hours at sea for a glimpse of the back of a blue whale didn't seem like a good pay-off especially when I read reviews online that told of boats full of people getting very sea-sick. I await news from the group to see if ducking out was a good or bad decision.

After walking the beach I walked down to the harbour, before this was a beach resort it was a working fishing village. There were a mixer of the old fashioned Sri Lankan catamarans and 'normal' fishing boats. There were a hundred or more boats in the harbour and by the smell they are all still working. After a few hours walking around I headed back to the hotel hoping the rain would ease off and the sun come out this afternoon.

It looked like it was brightening up so I headed out to the beach and wandered up and down looking for something I fancied. Pizza or burger, anything but rice and curry. There was plenty of choice and I stopped at a burger shack. Before it arrived the rain had started again and the tree I was sat under wasn't the best cover but it didn't matter the burger was great, just what I wanted. As I was eating my burger I saw the whale watching boats coming back, they'd been out for nearly 8 hours I really hope they saw plenty of whales.

I've not drunk much on this trip, the beer is the used frizzy cr@p so I've been sticking to water and tea. But earlier I saw this sign, a choice of 6 different mojitos all at less than £2 each. Marvelous.

The mojitos did not disappoint. The mango, pineapple and passion fruit were good but you can't beat the original. It was lovely sitting a few yards from the sea sipping mojitos and having a lovely meal. Although if you're in a country that does spicy food, then order something called Devilled then ask for it spicy then it really will be spicy. Devilled Chicken again, spicy sweet and sour, absolutely delicious.

31st January 2018 - Galle

Very late start today, we're told it's because it's a short drive and they don't want to arrive before the check-in time. Today is full moon and in Sri Lanka that means a public holiday. Our first stop was as a local fishing port where being a holiday none of the boats had gone to sea. So being Sri Lanka a game of cricket had broken out on the pier, and they were taking it pretty serious. There was a lot of slogging going on. definitely more T20 than Test Match.

With the narrow pitch most of the hitting was pretty straight but now and again the ball went into the water. This prompted the batsmen to start running and a fielder to dive into the sea to retrieve the ball. This is one of the most strange places I've seen cricket played.

Next up a staged reality. The fishermen in this area do still fish on stilts but only in the early mornings and the evenings. But they have realised there is a good living to be made sitting on their poles all day and charging for photos. It's an iconic image of Sri Lanka so it had to be done.

Before lunch we arrived in Galle. First stop the Groote Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church). Being a Protestant church it was fairly basic but interesting. The first Dutch Reformed Church was built in 1640, and remodeled between 1752 and 1755. As you can see in the picture the church floor is paved with grave stones from the old Dutch cemetery.

The old part of Galle all lies within the UNESCO recognised Fort area. The fort was first built by the Portuguese in 1588, then further fortified by the Dutch after they defeated the Portuguese in the 17th century. The British took over the fort on 23 February 1796 and remained in British hands until Ceylon became an independent island nation in 1948. The fort is big, 52 hectares (130 acres), the size of a small town and surrounded by big, very thick walls.

From many days listening to TMS I had a picture of the Galle Cricket Ground in my mind with the fort looking down on it. It was less impressive than I imagined. I'm guessing they put up lots of temporary stands for the test matches. As you can see from the fore-ground today every bit of open space has become a cricket ground.

From the Clock Tower I walked around the walls down along the sea to the lighthouse area. The fort area looks well preserved but I read that it fell into dis-repair for many years and a lot of the buildings have quite recently been restored. The fort was pretty busy today with locals. Walking the walls, on the beaches below the walls and swimming in the sea. Gave the place a real buzz.

Below is the Old Dutch Hospital, Galle. This is one of the oldest buildings in Galle. It was built as a hospital by the Dutch, but has been used for many different purposes over the years. It has been barracks, government offices, following independence the building was used as the Galle Town Hall. It has now been converted into a smart shopping and dining area. Restaurants on the top floor have great views out over the fort walls to the sea.

Galle has lots of white washed colonial buildings. This is Court Square in front of the District Court. Again an open space and two separate cricket games were going on. As you can see from the batsmen in the bottom left there wasn't a forward defensive stroke on show here either.

1st February 2018 - Colombo

The last full day in Sri Lanka starts with an early train from Galle to Colombo. We have unreserved seats on what is basically a commuter train. I managed to use my greater size and sharp elbows to get a cheek and a half onto a seat for the two hour journey. The train followed the coast up to Colombo and so was quite scenic but I can't help thinking the minibus which carried our bags to Colombo would've been a better option.

Sunday (4th) is Independence day and preparation is in full swing, it is the 70th anniversary so the celebration will probably be bigger than usual. So we saw lots of military hardware being parked up in the Colombo Fprt area and some road closures which meant our city tour involved quite a bit of sitting in traffic. We saw a few sights through the mini-bus window but the main stops were for shopping including at Barefoot. From their website "Barefoot products are designed in Sri Lanka. Every item is specially designed for Barefoot, and is made either by workers at home or by local artists and craftsmen. There are no factories and no production lines; each worker is responsible for the quality of his or her final product. We teach skills and strive for quality from our hand weavers or stitchers. Our workers are not cheap substitute for machinery. This is why Barefoot products cost a little more, but last much longer."

It was a big shop and they had some nice stuff. Even I made a purchase, although the guys were out the back drinking beer in their cafe well before the women arrived.

I spent the afternoon wandering around the local markets between the bus a train stations. For the first time on this trip I really felt like I was in Southern Asia. Hustle and bustle, sights, sounds and smells, a little bit of chaos the trip had been lacking so far. In the evening we went out for the final group meal. It started quiet but after a few Lion Lager and Lion Stout mixed half and half the night livened up and ended up with the whole group dancing to the band in the restaurant.

2nd February 2018 - Back to Bangkok

And so ends a very enjoyable trip. Weather's been great the company's been great and we saw a lot of what Sri Lanka has to offer. Ancient cities, Buddhist temples, lush jungle and a huge herd of elephants. Colonial cities, huge forts and rice and curry, lots of rice and curry. Below is a map marked with our route day by day in alternate colours. It's a route I would thoroughly recommend to anyone.