Day 9 (3 of 4).
After the morning walk to the Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arches Bridge, we returned to Zion View Ella Green Retreat for a quick breakfast. The car came to Zion View Ella Green Retreat to pick us up right at 10:30. We bid farewell to the two German shepherds and hopped on the car. We left Ella behind and slowly descended from the hills. Our next destination was Udawalawe, a small town between the hill country and the southern beaches. The two hour drive from Ella to Udawalawe brought us from tea plantations and green hills to grasslands, marshes and forests, the home of diverse wildlife. After world heritage historical sites and hills of tea plantations, our focus shifted once again to the natural treasure of Udawalawe National Park.
Established in 1972 as a sanctuary for wildlife displaced by the construction of Udawalawe Reservoir, the 30,821 hectares national park has become the third most visited park in the nation. With an annual rainfall of 1,500mm, the park lies at the boundary between Sri Lanka’s wet and dry zones. Within the park, there are marshes, grasslands and forests. Udawalawe is famous for its 250 or so Sri Lanka elephants. Other mammal species found in the park include Sri Lankan leopard, rusty-spotted cat, sloth bear, Sri Lanka sambar deer, Sri Lankan axis deer, wild boar, water buffalo, jackal, civet, monkey, mongoose, etc. The park is also a good venue for bird watching, and so as reptiles including lizards, crocodiles, and snakes.
Passing the Rawana Ella Falls on the Wellawaya Ella Kumbalwela Highway signified our departure from Ella.
The more we get closer to Udawalawe, the higher the chance we might see wildlife along the highway.
Domestic water buffalo are kept for their milk (curd and ghee) and rice cultivation.
Sri Lankan elephant is undoubtedly the superstar in Udawalawe, and can often be seen along the road.
Elephants are highly intelligent animals. According to our driver, some of the curious males have learnt to approach the highway fence regularly to greet tourists in exchange for easy treats like bananas.
Roadside stores near Udawalawe offer visitors a convenient stop for fruits, and perhaps have indirectly encouraged the unnatural habit of the highway approaching elephants.
Despite the popularity of the national park, the town of Udawalawe is relatively tourist-free. There is hardly any tourist souvenir shops along the main road.
Bakery tuk tuk is quite common across the country. As soon as we heard the music of Beethoven’s Fur Elise, we knew one of these mobile bread vendors must be nearby.
Our guesthouse Green View Safari Resort was at a side street across the road from R/Emb/Udawalawa Primary School.
Hidden from the dusty main road, our guesthouse for the night Green View Safari Resort was a simple little retreat.
Facility was clean and simple. The guesthouse owners arranged both the afternoon and morning safari for us.
Dinner and breakfast were included in our one-night stay at Green View Safari Resort.
To reach the national park from Udawalawe, our jeep would pass by Udawalawe Reservoir, a place of potential wildlife sighting before reaching the park entrance.
Locals came to the dam to catch the sunset.
The Udawalawe Dam separates the lush green forest on one side and the peaceful reservoir on the other.
The Udawalawe Dam provides a high ground to watch the distant scenery.
The lush green forest revealed what the area might have look like before the construction of the reservoir.
Local wildlife has adapted to the man-made environment of Udawalawe Reservoir. The water has even attracted wildlife including birds and elephants.
Beyond the reservoir, we finally arrived at the ticket office of Udawalawe National Park.
We chose Udawalawe National Park over Yala National Park was an attempt to avoid overcrowding. During our first safari visit, the entry route into the park was loaded with tourist 4×4 vehicles. Luckily, as we ventured deeper into the park, we would have the park pretty much by ourselves.
Day 9 (2 of 4).
Also called the Bridge in the Sky, the Nine Arches Bridge in Demodara near Ella is the most well known colonial railway viaduct in Sri Lanka. The 300 ft long viaduct was built in 1921 by a Ceylonese builder with consultation from British engineers. Rumours said that steel was not available during construction because of the broke out of World War One. As a result, the construction was completed using only solid stone and cement. Today, the Nine Arches Bridge has become a popular tourist attraction thanks to its dramatic setting and its proximity to Ella.
We followed a sign and reached a quiet path. A cafe owner came for help and pointed us to a narrow descending path that led to the famous railway bridge.
Before finding our way down to the bridge, we stopped at a lookout for photographs. The rumbling sound from afar and the gathering of tourists near the bridge signified that a train was approaching.
A few times each day, tourists would gather by the bridge to welcome the approaching train.
At one end of the bridge, we found ourselves taking photos from a tea farm among many other tourists.
Obviously the bridge spans over the valley with nine arches.
On top of the Nine Arches Bridge, tourists take pictures from the tracks.
From the other end of the bridge, we walked uphill to reach another lookout and get a nice look of the bend of the bridge.
Everyone to and from Ella would need to walk through a railway tunnel.
Many tourists see walking through the tunnel as a unique experience and a photo opportunity.
Despite there were only a handful of trains passing through each day, we still had a slightly uncomfortable feeling while walking through the tunnel, as if a train could appear suddenly from the other end.
Beyond the tunnel, we continued to walk on the tracks for about half an hour.
Passing by a number of railway signage as we approach Ella.
At last, Ella station was in sight.
After all the track walking, we finally saw the sign that everyone, both locals and tourists, ignored, “Walk on the Railway Line is Prohibed.”
Day 9 (1 of 4).
On our final day in Ella, we get up early as usual. We had a car arranged to leave town at 10:30am. Before leaving Ella, we decided to do a bit more hiking. Our plan was to head east to the summit of Little Adam’s Peak, then descend to the north to visit the iconic Nine Arches Bridge, and walk back to Ella via the railway track. This is a popular tourist route for anyone who has 2-3 hours to spare in Ella.
With a shape resembling the much higher sacred Adam’s Peak (2243m) near Nuwara Eliya, Little Adam’s Peak (1141m) offers a much easier hike for everyone. Climbing Little Adam’s Peak took us no more than an hour from the trailhead. The scenery was pleasant at the top and there were only a family up at the peak when we reached the top. Despite short, the hike was a great activity to start the day.
To ensure we had plenty of time to walk around Ella in our last morning, we got up at dawn.
After we put on our hiking boots and packed our water bottle, we stopped by our hotel terrace to enjoy the sunrise scenery of the Ella Rock.
From the main intersection of Ella, we headed east on Ella Passara Road towards The One Ella guesthouse, where the trailhead of the short walk up to Little Adam’s Peak is located.
On our way to the trailhead, we bumped into three familiar faces: an European couple and their baby boy, the friendly family that we kept on bumping into at different towns and attractions since our first encounter at the Quadrangle of Polonnaruwa.
The short hike began from a small tea plantation.
As soon as we arrived at an open area, Ella Rock immediately dominated the view.
We passed by a tea farm in the first part of the hike.
The last bit of the hike is a set of steps that go all the way to the top.
At the top of Little Adam’s Peak, the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains was breathtaking.
The iconic Ella Rock was right across the valley in front of us.
The highend villas of the 98 Acres Resort seem to blend in perfect harmony with the surrounding natural landscape.
A small Buddha statue marks the summit of the Little Adam’s Peak.
Just below the peak of Little Adam’s Peak, Flying Ravana Mega Zipline established a range of recreational facilities including zipline and archery.
Instead of returning to the trailhead, we continued our walk through a tea farm towards the resort ground of 98 Acres.
The huts of 98 Acres across the valley from Little Adam’s Peak are probably one of the most luxurious accommodation in and around Ella.
Beyond the compound of 98 Acres, we found our way towards the most well known attraction of Ella, the Nine Arches Bridge.
Day 8 (1 of 1).
In 1890, Scottish merchant Thomas Lipton who owned a vast business of grocery stores in Britain, visited British Ceylon and partnered with tea farming pioneer James Taylor to secure supply of Ceylon tea and distributed it throughout Europe and the United States. Lipton’s business plan of providing affordable tea to the mass working class in the West led to the increasing demand of tea and the bloom of tea plantations in Sri Lanka. The plan eventually developed into the business empire of Lipton tea.
Near the hill town of Haputale, about an hour of train ride west of Ella, the enormous Dambatenne Tea Factory and the surrounding tea fields have been immortalized by the legacy of their founder, Thomas Lipton. An 8km uphill hike to the lookout known as Lipton’s Seat remains as one of the best hike through the tea plantations in the hill country. Unlike taking the train or car, hiking in the tea plantations allow visitors to get close to the tea bushes and interact with the tea pickers.
From Haputale railway station, we hopped on a tuk tuk and got dropped off at the entrance of Dambatenne Tea Factory. We had no hurry to tour the factory, and left the factory tour for after the hike.
From the factory, we began to walk uphill into the plantation area along a winding road frequented by tea pickers. Tea terraces extend out in all directions from the road. We passed by all sort of buildings from worker dormitories to school complex, all apparently belong to the community of plantation workers.
Rows after rows of tea plants terraced up the hill slopes. Busy tea pickers dotted on the slope moving slowly horizontally on the slope.
Dramatic shadows were cast on the tea slope in the early part of our hike.
Everywhere was lush green as we walked deeper into the plantation.
Causally zooming into any cluster of tea pickers would create a scenic picture.
For visitors who don’t want to hike uphill may opt for a tuk tuk ride up to the destination. But surely walking would offer much more opportunities to get close to the tea shrubs and tea workers.
Past the first valley, we soon realized that the tea plantation was much larger than we thought. Tea terraces extended out from all directions to as far as our eyes could reach.
Shrines of different religions, including Roman Catholic Christianity, signify the wide range of religious backgrounds of the tea workers.
A tea plantation is much more than just a place for work. It also includes settlement of housing, school, dining places, temples, etc. Many tea workers are Tamils from Southern India, thus settlements with a Hindu shrine are quite common.
Near Lipton’s Seat lookout, we stumbled upon a weighing station where tea pickers offloaded their tea leaves, got them weighed and repacked into large bags for transportation.
Soon we arrived at the lookout of Lipton’s Seat, apart from a sleepy dog and a bronze statue of Sir Thomas Lipton, only fog coming from the other side of the mountain greeted our arrival. Some said this was the spot where Lipton loved to linger when he came to inspect the plantation. With the fog, we had no luck to see the supposedly good view from the lookout.
Soon we realized that great scenery of this hike were basically everywhere, not limited to the final lookout.
Doing the journey on foot allowed us to get close with the tea pickers.
Returning to the first valley where we started the hike, the slope with dramatic shadows was replaced by a foggy scene.
Following a tea picker, we chose a different route to descend the slope towards the factory.
The small path through the tea rows gave us a closer view of the working scenes of tea pickers.
We took our time to walk down and were greeted by several smiling tea pickers.
Close up of working tea pickers.
We leisurely walked back to Dambatenne Tea Factory in the fog. At the factory, we joined a tour to learn more about the tea making process, machinery and traditions.
Day 7 (2 of 2).
In the midst of tea plantations and cloud forests, the town of Ella situates at an elevation of 1000m above sea level and maintains a relatively cooler climate than the surrounding lowlands. Well known for its scenic valley view of Ella Rock at the Ella Gap, and a laid-back backpacker’s atmosphere, there is no surprises that the hill town has developed into the most popular tourist hub in the entire hill country. Almost all businesses in Ella are somewhat related to tourism. Because of its decent guesthouse and restaurant selection, convenience of transportation, and pleasant surrounding scenery, many travellers including us chose Ella as their base to explore the area’s hiking trails and tea plantations.
Since July 1918, Ella railway station has been an important stop on the Main Line, the oldest railway line in Sri Lanka running from coastal Colombo to Badulla in the hill country, via Kandy.
Just like other railway station in the country, curious dogs were often the first to greet us on the platform, especially when we had breakfast in our hands.
Depending on the time of day, visitors would either get off at Ella from the red or blue train.
We stayed at Zion View Ella Green Retreat for two nights. A number of guest houses, including Zion View, are erected on the valley slope facing the Ella Gap, one of the most scenic spot in town.
Every room in Zion View has a terrace overlooking the Ella Gap.
The terrace was the perfect spot to watch the sunrise over Ella Gap with the silhouette of Ella Rock.
It was also in Ella that we had our first Sri Lankan egg hoppers for breakfast.
The two German Shepherds at Zion View always welcomed us at the hotel entrance.
Walking on the railway tracks is often the the most direct routes to go between attractions. Because only a few trains would pass by Ella daily, both the locals and tourists would use these tracks as footpaths during the rest of the day to reach their destinations.
From our guesthouse we walked half an hour on the tracks to visit Kithal Ella falls. We reached the falls just before nightfall.
Just a few kilometres away from Ella, Halpewatte Tea Factory is a popular tea plantation that offers factory tours for tourists. The factory can easily be reached by tuk tuk.
Halpewatte is one of better known tea plantation in the UVA Ceylon tea region.
Founded in 1971, Halpewatte is a family run business.
Visiting a tea factory is a good way to learn more about the variety of Ceylon tea.
From the factory, we enjoyed a panoramic view of the tea terraces and surrounding scenery.
Among the many restaurants, we picked AK Ristoro in a quiet neighbourhood off the main road for dinner.
We chose to dine at the lovely veranda area at AK Ristoro.
AK Ristoro serves good fusion food with Italian, Japanese and Sri Lankan touches.
We couldn’t resist but to order a can of the local Lion beer to wash down our delicious dinner.
At night, the Main Street of Ella is flanked by lights and signage of restaurants and souvenir stores.
Day 7 (1 of 2).
Established in 1864, the railway system of Sri Lanka was constructed by the British colonial government for tea transportation. While not the fastest way to travel, making intercity journeys by train was a unique way to absorb the history of Sri Lanka, and enjoy the beautiful scenery in a relaxing pace. Some journeys are particularly more popular than the others because the beautiful scenery they offer. The journey from Kandy to Ella is one of the most popular routes, and is often referred to as one of the world’s most scenic train journey.
Getting a reserved ticket (1st class or 2nd class) from Kandy onward to the hill country is a challenge for many tourists, including us. We tried purchasing through online agent 1.5 month prior to our departure, but failed to land on any reserved tickets for our desirable date. We planned to try our luck to buy unreserved tickets and get on at an earlier stop. At worst we might need to stand for a period of time until someone get off during the 7-hour ride. The staff at Villa Rosa heard about our situation, and helped us to obtain two 2nd class tickets with reserved seats from a local agent on the day before our departure. We were grateful for his help.
The wooden timetable board at Kandy Station looks like it has been around since the colonial time.
As the train slowly left the train station, we bid farewell to Kandy and moved on into the hill country.
Soon we arrived into the tea plantation country.
Hindu temples are often erected in tea plantations as many Tamils working in the plantations are Hindus who came from Southern India.
The entire hill country is lush green and dotted with houses of pitched roofs.
Our train passed by one village after another.
On occasions, our train would get close to a sloped tea farm.
It was amazing to see so much land have been converted into tea plantations.
The tea farms seemed never ending.
Some tea farms seemed to receive poorer maintenance.
Since the train was relatively slow, many tourists chose to sit at the doorway with their legs hanging out of the train car.
Tourists took turns to lean out of the doorway of the train to take selfies and enjoy a moment of “flying” over the tea farms.
Many villagers stood near the railroad to watch our train passed by.
Many locals walked on the train tracks.
And so as dogs wandering around the railway stations.
Near the end of the journey, the weather suddenly turned breezy and foggy.
Fog covered much of the area near Ella.
After 6.5 hours, we finally arrived in the area of Ella. We would stay in Ella for two days before moving on to the south.
Our most recent travels have been focused on short trips to Japan and South Asia. These experiences offered us two distinct views of Asia. In Japan, the minimalist beauty in fashion, food, and architecture, the strong sense of community and respect to local traditions in villages and urban centres, and the Shinto attitude on harmonic coexistence with the nature captivated our admiration. On the other hand, the pungent spices, mystic incenses, vivid costumes, bizarre rituals, exquisite temples, majestic landscapes, and mythical folklore of Tibet, India and Myanmar offered us some of the last glimpses of truly unique and centuries-long traditions in our ever-changing world. After an invigorating journey to Hokkaido in early summer, we turned our eyes to the exotic dimensions of South Asia once again. We picked the “tear drop” in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka, as our destination for a 12-day trip.
2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, a devastating conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the rebel force of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or simply known as the Tamil Tigers. The conflict lasted for 26 years. 15 years have also passed since the horrific 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the natural catastrophe that has devastated the coastal area of Sri Lanka and claimed 35,000+ lives. In the past 10 years, tourism has boomed exponentially along with the rapid growing economy. 2019 was on track to become another record breaking year for tourist numbers until Easter Day, when Isis terrorists attacked hotels, churches and residences in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, claiming 259 innocent lives. The incident caused a disastrous blow to the country’s tourism. The government immediately tightened national security, attempting to restore international confidence. Despite of the attack, magazines and newspapers remained affirmative to endorse Sri Lanka as a top destination of 2019. After learning about its diverse attractions, affordability, ease of travel and communication, pristine natural scenery and unique cultural experiences, we were not surprise at all to see why Lonely Planet selected Sri Lanka as their destination of 2019.
As a small country about half the size of England, Sri Lanka has a lot to offer. We planned for a loop journey starting in Negombo on the western coast, then moved north to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya & Dambulla before heading up to the hill region. In the hills, we stopped by the historical capital Kandy, took the “world’s most scenic train ride” to the tea plantations near Ella and Haputale. Leaving behind the hills of Ceylon tea, we ventured into the wilderness of Udawalawa for wildlife safari, and arrived at the beaches of Mirissa and the colonial port of Galle to embrace the Indian Ocean. Before leaving Sri Lanka, we stopped by Colombo for a delicious crab dinner. This trip was filled with lovely moments: joining Buddhist pilgrims at the 2300-year-old Bodhi Tree, hiking through Sir Thomas Lipton’s tea terraces, facing eyes-in-eye with elephants and leopard on safari jeep, spotting whales and dolphins in the open ocean, candlelight dining on the Mirissa Beach, not to mention devouring delicious curry and seafood, meeting the friendly and curious local people, and taking in the laid back atmosphere that we could always smell in the air.
Our journey embarked from the beaches of Negombo.
At Anuradhapura, we circled the 2300-year sacred Bodhi tree,
and visited several ancient Buddhist dagobas (stupas) where pilgrims burned incenses and offered lotus flowers.
At Sigiriya, we climbed up a rock opposite to Sigiriya Rock to watch the best ever sunset.
Visiting the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy offered us a chance to see the century-old rituals that once symbolized the political and religious power of the nation.
At Kandy, we stayed at the magnificent Villa Rosa Guesthouse overlooking the Mahaweli River,
and visited the famous Royal Botanical Garden to check out the large flying foxes.
“The world’s most scenic train ride” took us up to the hills of tea plantations.
In Haputale, we followed Lipton’s footsteps for a half day hike.
In Ella, we were rewarded with the peaceful and lush green scenery.
Onwards to Udawalawa where we had close encounters with Asian elephants.
Reaching the south coast at Mirissa signified the final leg of our journey.
Mirissa offered us moments of relaxation right by the Indian Ocean.
The seaside resort town is also renowned as one of the world’s top spot for whale and dolphin watching.
We enjoyed every moments by the sea at Mirissa and Galle before heading north to Colombo.