About a year ago I had an idea. An idea to expand my family’s holiday horizons beyond Europe and to let my children experience a little more of the world.
During our holiday in France last year, I was unwell and confined to my (sun)bed, which was a perfect time to research locations for our 2017 holiday. I wanted to go somewhere that was different and exotic, but had enough familiar-ness to make it an easy first step into this sort of travel for the children.
Sri Lanka seemed to tick all the boxes. It was a British colony until the mid 20th Century and as such many people speak and understand English, indeed it is one of the three national languages. The island is small enough to explore over a short holiday but diverse enough to provide lots of experiences for us all. With two vegetarian children, and a third who is extremely fussy, the fact that they all happily eat ‘Indian’ food was also a large selling point. Finally, there was surfing which pleased my Husband, in fact I doubt we’ll ever go on (another) holiday without surfing being available.
So this is how we came to be leaving home on a chilly Thursday afternoon to catch the train to the airport. Our lovely neighbour gave us a lift and so our journey began!.
We took off at 2145 on Thursday 6th April, and arrived in Colombo at 1645 on Friday 7th. The time difference is 5.5 hours, so we travelled for 13 and a half hours, including a 2 hour stop over in Dubai.
I had booked our flights 8 months in advance, from Gatwick (our local airport) to Colombo via Dubai with Emirates. Cheaper and more direct flights were on offer from Heathrow but the effort of getting there would have been tedious, especially on our return. Emirates fly the A380 on the first leg to Dubai which was awesome. Great legroom and a fantastic entertainment system. Perfect to keep everyone from whining on a 7+ hour flight.
We were met at the airport by our driver who helped us with getting local SIM cards for our phones and getting cash exchanged. You can’t get Sri Lankan Rupees outside Sri Lanka, so you need to change money when you get there. He was able to point out the ones with the best exchange rate/shortest queues.
Then we drove about 3 hours south to Ahangama, which is near the bottom of Sri Lanka. Sri lanka is Tear drop shaped, with Colombo (the capital) about half way down on the left hand side. We were staying on the curved left hand edge of the island.
The Guest house we were booked into was clean, and well run. We had a double room for Paul and I, and a triple room for the children, which was the way we booked accommodation for the whole trip.
The thing that immediately struck me (after the maniacal driving in Sri Lanka) was how humid and hot it was. By the coast the temperature didn’t fall below 28 degrees at night, and humidity was 70+%. The guest house was set back from the coast road down a driveway and was really peaceful. Just across the road was Ahangama beach. One of those long, white sand, palm fringed beaches you see in holiday brochures. The sea was as warm as the air, which meant swimming felt a bit like getting into a warm bath.
We spent 5 nights here while Paul did a surfing course. Paul has surfed for several decades but wanted some refresher tips on correcting some bad habits he’s fallen into. Sri Lanka has reasonably consistent surf all year round, although the east coast has world class surfing beaches it is much harder to get to and so we didn’t venture to that coast at all.
We spent most of our days swimming in the sea, lounging around and playing on the beach, but on the Sunday morning myself and the children got a taxi to Mirissa harbour and went on a whale watching trip.
This was a four hour trip out to sea, which was about 3 hours longer than my stomach could handle. We saw three whales, from a distance, we saw their tails as they dived and then saw them blowing out water. We also saw several large pods of Dolphins that swam close to the boat. Obviously we took tons of photos, none of which do it justice.
We travelled to a few local restaurants each evening, letting the children enjoy riding in the local transport – tuk tuks, or as Lucy called them ‘death traps’. Three wheels, driven at speed, usually into oncoming traffic, with no seat belts, or indeed sides to the vehicle. They are truly an interesting experience. After a lifetime of telling my children to never travel in a car without a seat belt, we now actively forced them to do so. Parenting at its best, eh!
On Wednesday lunchtime we left Ahangama and drove inland to Deniyaya. This was on the edge of the Sinharaja Rain Forest. It was about a 2 hour drive away. About an hour into the journey an enormous rain storm started: I’m not sure I actually expected there to be this amount of rain in the rain forest, but oh boy did it come down!
We stayed in a home stay/guest house, high in the hills above the rain forest. The view of the hills and trees and low hanging clouds were amazing. The family whose house we stayed in made us a Sri Lankan dinner and introduced us to Curd and Kittel for dessert – a bit like Greek yogurt and honey, but made from Buffalo milk and liquid Jaggery from a Kittul tree. It’s a lot nicer than it sounds.
The next morning our driver took us to meet our guide who was to take us on a trek through the rainforest. We had to take tuk tuks to the entrance to the national park as the roads weren’t passable for larger vehicles. On arrival at the reserve we had to dip our feet in a pool of water then get them covered in copious amounts of salt to ward off the leeches that feast on unsuspecting tourists walking through.
Let me tell you first off that it didn’t work, and that leech bites don’t hurt at all. In fact the first you notice that you’ve got one is when your child screams that you’ve left a trail of blood along the path where the vampirical slug has fallen off fully fed and left enough of the anticoagulant in your foot to mean that it took several hours to stop it bleeding!
Oliver also got a little leech nip, but due to his awesome Leech Dance, managed to shake it off. The ‘Oliver Leech Dance’ will go down in family history as one of the funniest things we have ever seen. Imagine a cross between a frog leaping, but hovering for several seconds (or so it appeared) in the air, before rebounding up again, all the time squealing like a stuck pig. That, my friends, is the leech dance. It is a thing of mystical beauty.
Anyway, we walked for about 5km, and saw snakes, lizards, geckos, spiders, snails, millipedes and various other creatures that were photographed and if deemed safe, we were allowed to hold. The kids found this amazing.
At the furthest point of our trek we had to cross a wide river by leaping from boulder to boulder. Anyone who knows me knows that I am NOT built for leaping. But I managed it, and after a short trek on the other side of the river we found a pool with a waterfall plunging into it. We stopped here for about an hour while we all jumped in and swam in the cool (ish) water. The waterfall was about 20 metres high, and the current meant you couldn’t swim too close to it as it was pushing you away to the shallower, safer bit. So it was perfect for un-confident swimmers like me!.
The return trek was by the same route, but we didn’t stop that much, just enough for the guide to point out anything new that we didn’t see on our way there.
As we left, the rainstorm that had been threatening us all day appeared and the 2 hour drive to Udawalawe became a 3 hour + adventure, involving fallen trees, flooded roads and hairpin bends with low visibility through the rain. When we reached Udawalawe it was late and we were all a little grumpy, so we decided a quick dinner and an early night were in order.
Friday morning involved a 5.30am start, when we were met by an open topped Safari Jeep, and driven (at speed) to the gate of Udawalawe Elephant reserve
Our jeep jostled for position with many others containing bleary eyed tourists, ready to venture forth when the park gates opened at 7am. Despite the amount of vehicles, each driver seemed to take a different route, and within a few minutes there was not another car in sight.
We spotted, birds, peacocks, wildebeest and crocodiles, until at last we turned a corner and there on the side of the ‘road’ was an elephant enjoying breakfast by destroying a large tree. We stopped close by, and watched for 20- minutes, all the while the elephant slowly munched its way nearer, until it was no more than a metre or two from the side of the jeep. It was beautiful!
We saw more Elephants, both close up, and some babies a little further away, as well as numerous other animals during our 3 hour drive. As it was Sinhalese new year (there were a LOT of fireworks and singing in the neighbouring house the night before!), we went back to our guides house where we enjoyed traditional new year foods, such as coconut rice and lots of coconut and jaggery sweets.
From there we went back to the hotel to shower and pack and started off on our next drive to Tissamaharama.
We arrived at our accommodation for the night which was in the middle of nowhere – our driver warned us not to go out on the road after dark for fear of wild elephants! Our ‘room’ was actually 3 double beds, outdoors with only mosquito nets, and a rain guard for protection. We also had an indoor air conditioned bedroom and bathroom to escape to if we needed, but it was exciting sleeping outdoors with the sounds of the insects and bats flying round! Not so exciting was making sure the insects stayed on the right side of the mosquito net. Putting my hand under my pillow as I went to sleep, only to disturb a cricket, was not ideal!
Again we had an early start, 5am this time! and we packed all our stuff and brought along a yummy packed breakfast from the guest house to eat on our way. This morning was another safari, this time to Yala national park which is home to both Leopards and sloth bears. This time we weren’t as lucky as the previous day, and after 3 hours of driving we had seen mongoose, lots of crocodiles and water buffalo as well as more elephants, but no Leopard or Sloth Bears. So a little disappointing, but that’s the nature of safari’s I guess!
We left Yala about 11am, and drove north into the hills towards the town of Ella. Ella isn’t actually that big. But is often visited as it is the crossroads between the Hill country, the beaches, the east coast and safari country. I have to say that the scenery in Ella – amazingly high tree covered mountains and deep valleys, was the most spectacular we saw in the whole of Sri Lanka.
Our guest house was uphill from Ella, about a mile out of town. We had huge glass windows on our rooms, which were air conditioned and had HOT WATER in the showers! Bliss! The view from our balcony were amazing. You could see farms, and tea plantations and mountains, just beautiful.
We continued our epic parenting by taking the children on the short cut into town for the evening, which involved walking along the railway track for half a mile. Thankfully this is a regular thoroughfare for locals and the trains are infrequent, slow and loud so it should be pretty easy to avoid them.
Ella itself consists mostly of two perpendicular streets with restaurants and tourist shops on them – probably the only place we saw tourist shops during our whole trip. Prices in Ella were more expensive than many of the other places we visited, partly I think because of its captive audience and the amount of through visitors it sees. We had a great meal, which although pricey by local standards was very reasonable by UK ones.
Then we grabbed a tuk tuk back to the hotel, as the thought of walking along train tracks at night was too much!
One thing that completely confounded me was the fact that it gets dark at 6.30, and light at 6.30 every day. I’m so used to long summer evenings in the UK when it’s warm, that having an early dusk in a hot country really threw me!
Sunday Morning saw us waiting at Ella station for our train to Nuwara Eliya. The station was like stepping back into the 1940’s. We had reserved seats in the 2nd class carriage, 1st class has air conditioning, but 2nd class has huge windows that open, allowing for a better view.
We set off on our 3-hour train journey which skirted around the edges of mountains and valleys, past enormous forests and through the eastern edge of Horton Plains national park – which is extremely mountainous. The train goes relatively slowly as it zig zags through the countryside, with only the occasional tunnel through the more difficult to manoeuvre hills. The journey had wonderful scenery, and we arrived on time into Nuwara Eliya.
Nuwara Eliya is known as ‘little England’ on account of the style of houses built during the colonial times by the British tea plantation owners and managers. Plus, the climate in Nuwara Eliya, being at a very high altitude, and in the centre of the country, means that it was just like being in the middle of a rather nice English summer. The effect is completed by the pretty gardens with familiar flowers, that were obviously shipped to the UK from Ceylon during the Victorian times. In all it was a picturesque and charming place.
It was also exceedingly busy. The amount of families taking a new-year holiday in the cooler climate meant that every hotel was full. We were staying in a Hostel, which sounds worse than the reality. We had two lovely rooms, with ensuite bathrooms and the fact we could use the kitchen whenever we wanted was glorious. It had a beautiful lawn and garden furniture, and it was really nice to meet some of the other travellers who were staying there.
In the afternoon Lucy, Jess and I went for an Ayurvedic massage. This included a full body massage (and I mean full), a head massage with dripping oil, and then a sauna contraption which was a cross between a coffin and one of those magic boxes they use to saw people in half. But with a small fire under it and a bucket of water.
I loved my massage, however when I went into the next-door room to see how the girls got on, they both looked partly relieved it was over and ever so slightly traumatised by the whole experience. I was a little shocked by the bits they chose to massage, and in hindsight this was probably a little further than a teenager would want for their first massage experience. Oh well. Yet another parenting fail!
That evening we ventured down into the centre of Nuwara Eliya, where the temperature had dropped enough that we needed to wear jumpers. This meant that every single roadside stall was selling shivering Sri Lankan holiday makers fleece onesies and bobble hats!. It was hysterical! But there was a fair in the centre of the town, and we found a small local restaurant where we had a vegetarian sri lankan feast for dinner. Well four of us did. Oliver fell asleep on the table before the food arrived, and didn’t wake up until we tried to manhandle him into a tuk tuk several hours later, whereupon he asked when his dinner was arriving.
Monday saw us setting off on a drive that was so hilly we didn’t go further than 50 meters before encountering a hair pin bend. Up and down hills, with endless views of tea plantations and waterfalls, passing towns with very British sounding names – Devon, Forsythe, Lipton.
We stopped on the way to take in the view of Devon Falls, and visit a Tea shop. Lucy, Oli and I, along with our driver Sanka, enjoyed a lovely cup of tea. The non tea drinking members of the family sulked and then waited outside. Pah!.
Finally the road levelled out and we found ourselves driving alongside a large river. Here was where we stopped to have a go at White Water rafting!. We all changed into our swimwear, donned our crash helmets and life jackets, and travelled in the back of a flat bed truck to a point where we could set sail.
I definitely didn’t scream hysterically for the whole 30 minute journey down stream, neither did I cry or refuse to get off my hands and knees in the middle of the boat. In hindsight maybe I should have stayed on the shore and taken photos.
As we approached the landing point for the raft, the two guides asked if we wanted to swim in the river. Those who know my deep love of open water swimming will not be surprised to know that I jumped in. Those who know how much I hate swimming will be surprised to know that I not only jumped in, but swam half a mile and actually really enjoyed it! I am not however enjoying the resultant ear infection, but it was a small price to pay.
Our overnight stop was probably the most basic place we stayed during our visit to Sri Lanka. We had rooms in a stilt house, which had a ladder style stair case, and bathrooms that were a few minutes walk away. But the views over the river from the balconies were great.
We had a large barbecue for dinner, and the girls had even more vegetable noodles. Thankfully we found a Ukrainian lady who was able to assist us in eating the large vat of food they gave us. All in all we had a really pleasant evening!.
As we had descended from the hill country, the humidity and mosquitos had also made an unwelcome return.
Tuesday morning saw us driving northwards again, this time to visit Pinnewala where there are two elephant orphanages. One has lots of cute baby elephants, but has a rather grim animal rights record, the other has 7 adult elephants, but is better run. We visited the second place, the Millennium Elephant Foundation.
On arrival we were introduced to the elephants, and were able to go for a short ride around the grounds. Then we got to feed them and finally we took them down to the lake and the children and Paul got to give them a wash. I wisely decided that my water adventures were over and was in charge of the camera. During the washing, the elephants got their own back and sprayed them too.
It was a great place to visit and a once in a life time experience for the children.
From there we headed into Kandy, the old capital of Sri Lanka. Kandy is a large and sprawling city, but the centre is actually quite contained alongside a huge manmade lake, built by an ancient king.
Our hotel, was fab. Modern, air conditioned, clean, and with the best shower I have ever had. I could happily live there. We were also only a 2 minute walk from the cultural part of the city. This meant that we were able to walk to see a show of traditional Sri Lankan dancing. Our guide had bagged us front row seats, which meant I had endless amusement watching Paul try to look interested for the entire hour. The finale of this involved two of the dancers fire walking right in front of us. It was amazing!
We left the show meaning to find a restaurant for dinner, but the kids spied a Pizza hut and were desperate for carbs and cheese. So we bought them take away pizza, and took them back to their hotel room where we left them with unhealthy food and Wi-Fi (and a locked door), whilst Paul and I spent a lovely evening in a hotel bar and then out for a rather fancy dinner. Perfect.
In the morning Lucy and I left the uncultured heathens in bed and went to visit the Temple of the tooth, which dominated the centre of Kandy. The Temple of the tooth contains the tooth relic which is one of Buddha’s teeth that was smuggled to Sri Lanka in a princess’s hair bun. The temple was busy with worshippers: a mixture of those who had come for a spiritual visit along with locals who stopped in to quickly give an offering on their way to work in the morning. We only got to spend an hour there before we had to meet the others for breakfast in an old colonial hotel.
We could have spent several days in Kandy, along with most of our stops in our whistle stop tour, but Kandy especially deserved a longer visit. Maybe one day.
Wednesday saw us driving further north to see the ancient caves of Dambulla. This involved a literally breath taking climb up a million steps, to reach the cave and temple at the top. The ascent was overseen by troops of monkeys sitting on the walls silently judging your huffing and puffing, and attempting to steal your sunglasses if you weren’t paying attention.
At the summit, you had to cover your legs and shoulders and take off your shoes before you could enter. This was fine in theory, but when the floor has been roasted in 35 degree heat for millennia, it’s a little bit burny on your soles. But once you were inside the caves, the scale of the carving these artists achieved was stunning.
Each of the five caves had multitudes of carved statues. Some reclining Buddha’s were 50 feet in length. You could see where they had originally been covered in gold leaf, and it must have been an awe inspiring sight. The view from the top of the hill showed flat plains with random hill/mountain’s rising sporadically across the landscape.
The thing you notice about Sri Lanka is just how green it is. For a nearly equatorial country, it gets a fair amount of rain, and so the vegetation, even by the coast is really lush. It truly is a beautiful country.
Once we had had our fill of culture we descended the long staircase and drove the 10 minutes to our hotel.
This hotel was glorious. After all our driving and short stays, to have nearly 24 hours in one place with a pool, and swim up bar was joyful. Even the monkeys who peered through the blinds when you showered were a small price to pay for staying here.
Jess and Oliver stayed in the pool until 8pm (about 5 hours!), got out for some food, then went back in again until bedtime.
This however is where travel fatigue finally set in for us. We had planned yet another early start and a drive to see the rock fortress of Sigiriya, which would have involved a 45 minute climb up an iron ladder to reach the top. But, after Dambulla’s killer staircase, and the lure of the pool and WiFi, we regrettably, blew it out. I’m sure it would have been an awesome thing to visit, and everyone says the view from the top is mind-blowing, but by this point in our journey we would all rather just drink mango juice and read a book by the pool.
Besides, if you want to get a good look at the top of Sigiriya, it was also the setting for Duran Duran’s ‘Save a prayer’ video. I’m guessing it’s much the same now, only with less pastel suited pretty boys prancing on the top.
So Thursday lunchtime saw us leaving the pool and taking the long drive back to where we started. Almost. We actually were staying back on the south West coast, but about a mile or so south of Ahangama. This time we were staying in Weligama bay.
The drive took less time than expected as it was expressway almost the whole way. On arrival, we bid farewell to our driver who had been with us for over a week.
Our hotel was right on the beach and a short tuk tuk ride from the centre of town and the best surf breaks.
We spent four nights here, literally just relaxing and eating and relaxing some more. Paul went surfing every morning, and then took the kids surfing every afternoon, but we were all home in time to enjoy a drink on the balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean.
And there we stayed until late afternoon on Monday 24th April, when our driver collected us and drove us to the airport for our 10pm flight.
Again, Emirates were awesome and all our flights were on time, and the Dubai – Gatwick leg was on the super comfy A380. We got back to the UK at 7.30am on Tuesday 25th April, and were a little surprised by the announcement by the captain that the outside temperature was TWO degrees. At this point I was regretting my choice of cotton Elephant trousers and flip flops as my travelling attire.
However the Captain made up for his weather forecasting by letting Olie have an explore of the cockpit of the plane and even let him sit in his seat wearing his hat for a photo call!.
And so we came home. Tired, exhausted and exhilarated by our trip. We’ve had adventures galore, and memories in abundance. Now all that’s left are the photos and a huge pile of washing to be done.