THE WORLD’S MOST SCENIC TRAIN RIDE, Kandy to Ella, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.11
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.
OLD TOWN AND LAKEFRONT, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.10
Day 6 (3 of 3).
Located in the hilly heartland of Sri Lanka, Kandy was the last capital of pre-modern Sri Lanka before the country was colonized by the British in 1815. Kandy was our last stop in the Cultural Triangle, and the first stop into the hill country. The Kindgom of Kandy was established under King Sena Sammatha Wickramabahu (1473 – 1511). In 1592, Kandy became the capital city of the last remaining kingdom in Sri Lanka, while the colonial powers, Portuguese and Dutch had taken over the coastal regions and gradually made their way into the heartland.
Home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic, Kandy is an UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist attraction. Many tourists, including us, stop by Kandy before heading to the villages of the hill country, such as Ella, Nuwara Eliya or Haputale. Today, Kandy remains as the second largest city in Sri Lanka, and a major transportation hub in the region. It also lies in the midst of tea plantations. Known as the Sea of Milk, the artificial Kandy Lake remains as the focal point of the city. The lake was built in 1807 by King Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe right by the Temple of the Tooth Relic. During our 1.5 days in Kandy, apart from the Temple of the Tooth Relic and Royal Botanic Garden in Peradeniya, we had a waterfront stroll at Kandy Lake, made a brief visit to the national museum, had lunch in the old city centre and dined at the historical Empire Cafe. Though a heavy shower in the second afternoon cut short the time we spent in the rather laid-back city.
On our first night on Kandy, we dined at Empire Cafe adjacent to the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
Housed in a beautiful colonial building, Empire Cafe also serves as a hotel.
Under a rather vintage ambience, we had a enjoyable meal at Empire Cafe.
It was pleasant to sit by the window and enjoy the evening streetscape right by the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
Taking the tuk tuk down the steep slope from Villa Rosa was an exciting way to enter the city of Kandy.
Wall paintings could be seen in a number of locations around Kandy.
On the outer wall of a school building, different groups of painters were busy making murals.
Similar to other Sri Lankan cities and towns, tuk tuk is the best way to get around in Kandy.
Like other tourists, we spent most of the time in Kandy near the Temple of the Tooth Relic. The temple entrance plaza was always crowded with visitors.
Around the Temple of the Tooth Relic, vendors were selling all kinds of Buddhist souvenirs, lotus offerings, snacks and king coconuts.
We made a brief visit to the small national museum behind the Temple of the Tooth Relic.
Kandy Lake is the main focal point of the city. The waterfront scenery reminded us of some European cities and towns.
Right by lake embankment, the Ulpange or Queens Bathing Pavilion stands out as a beautiful between the palace and the lake. Built in 1806, the building was used as a bathing chamber in the past. Today, it belongs to the local police.
Kandy Lake is also home to Asian water monitor lizards, one of the largest lizard species in the world.
In the heart of Kandy Lake rises an artificial island planted with palm trees and shrubs.
Known as Walakulu Bamma or Cloud Wall, the ornate wall was built around part of Kandy Lake for aesthetic purpose.
With over 160 years of history, the Queen’s Hotel stands proudly across the street from the entrance of Temple of the Tooth Relic and Kandy Lake.
The elegant colonnade of Queen’s Hotel prominently connects the entrance plaza of the Temple of the Tooth Relic with the old city centre.
We followed the colonnade of Queen’s Hotel towards the old city centre.
The old town centre is a busy hub of shops, banks and restaurants. We had lunch at one of the cafes before an afternoon shower forced us to return to the hotel.
VILLA ROSA, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.10
Day 6 (1of 3).
“Steeply up the hill” was what many tuk tuk drivers referred to when they heard us mentioning the name of our guesthouse. Every time we head back or out of Villa Rosa would be an exciting uphill or downhill tuk tuk journey. High above Mahaweli River, Villa Rosa was more than a tranquil retreat of several spotless rooms with amazing views of the river valley. Sitting on our private terrace looking over the river valley in search of returning flying foxes in early morning, having a fine Sri Lankan dinner at the outdoor patio in a breezy evening, resting in the airy bedroom surrounded by traditional wood furniture, these pleasant moments would live long in our memories.
Greeted by friendly staff and three dogs, we were glad to arrive at the entrance foyer of Villa Rosa after the car journey from Dambulla.
Flanked both sides by guestrooms, the entrance foyer, upper living room, and the courtyard bisects the complex of Villa Rosa.
Accessed from a covered veranda, our room was situated at a corner on the upper level.
At the upper living room, we spent a short period of time flipping through an architecture book on Geoffrey Bawa, one of the most famous architects in Sri Lanka.
Our room was spacious and spotless. The ambience was relaxing and the river views from the terrace was amazing.
Even the bathroom revealed a tropical sense.
Sitting at the terrace to enjoy the river scenery was a delightful morning activity.
After heavy rain at night, a rainbow emerged for a short period of time in the second morning during our stay.
The 335km long Mahaweli River is the longest river in Sri Lanka. It passes by the valley right below Villa Rosa.
The courtyard offered views to the river valley and the dense forest beyond.
In the courtyard, small lily ponds and sculptures are put together in perfect harmony.
The courtyard is a well tended garden for all guests to enjoy.
Another classical sculpture somehow goes well with the surrounding tropical vegetation.
Despite their size, the dogs were pretty friendly. The staff was helpful too. We were especially thankful that they were able to get us two reserved train tickets for from Kandy to Ella, something that had been sold out online 1.5 month prior to our arrival in the country.
One of the dogs has its own resting mat in the foyer.
The dogs play together every morning.
We had two breakfast and one dinner at the patio facing the river valley. Fruits were always served during breakfast in Sri Lanka.
For dinner, we had local prawns as one of the main dishes.
And tuna steaks for the other main dish.
Fine details at the veranda reveal some lovely touches from the owner. Staying at Villa Rosa for two nights was truly a remarkable experience.
TEMPLE OF THE SACRED TOOTH RELIC, Kandy, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.09
Day 5 (3 of 3).
It was about 2.5 hour drive from Dambulla to Kandy. After settling in at our guesthouse, we hopped on a tuk tuk for Sri Dalada Maligawa, or the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. The temple is the most important attraction in Kandy and probably the most sacred Buddhist site in the country. We wanted to visit during the evening puja, the prayer session when the altar door of the gold casket that carries the Buddha’s sacred tooth would be opened for blessing. The tuk tuk dropped us right at the entrance of the temple compound, at a busy section of Kandy Road where it bends upon reaching the waterfront of Kandy Lake. After security check and a pleasant stroll through the forecourt dotted with historical memorials, we stored our shoes at the shoe booth for foreigners. At the temple entrance, we purchased some lotus flowers as offering.
Apart from its religious importance as a relic of the Buddha, the tooth relic has long been considered as the symbol of political power since the ancient times. After a war was fought in India over the possession of the tooth relic 800 years after the Buddha’s death, the tooth relic was eventually brought to Sri Lanka by Princess Hemamali. It was first housed in the Abhayagiri Vihara in Anuradhapura, then to Polonnaruwa and other cities in the nation as the capital city shifted from place to place. In late 16th century, the tooth relic arrived in Kandy. In the 17th century, it was periodically fallen in the hands of the Portuguese invaders. With the aid from the Dutch, King Rajasimha II eventually drove the Portuguese away and recovered the tooth relic. King Vira Narendra Sinha (reigned 1707 – 1739) was responsible for building the current temple that houses the sacred tooth.
We approached the temple after walking through the forecourt. Before entering, we left our shoes at the shoe storing facility.
Paththirippuwa, the octagonal pavilion built in 1802 by Sri Vickrama Rajasingha, was intended for the king to showcase the tooth relic and address the public. Since the British era, Paththirippuwa has been used as a library of the temple.
We entered the temple complex through an arch passageway full of wall paintings.
Time was still early for the puja, so we decided to visit the Royal Palace complex next to the temple first. We ventured out into Maha Maluwa, the Great Terrace dotted with statues and pavilions, as well as Magul Maduwa, the Royal Audience Hall. Looking back to the temple from Maha Maluwa, we could see the golden canopy of the main shrine.
Magul Maduwa or the Royal Audience Hall was where the king met his ministers and facilitated public audience. Built in 1783 by King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, Magul Maduwa is supported by two rows of elegantly carved wooden pillars.
Maybe the time was late, most buildings in the Royal Palace area were closed. Before heading back to the temple, we stopped by a prayer pavilion.
Behind the main shrine we arrived at a prayer hall with a golden statue of the Buddha. The room also houses a series of paintings depicting the legend of the Sacred Tooth.
In front of the Palle Malaya or the lower level of the main shrine lies the Hewisi Mandapaya or the drummer’s platform. Beats from the Hewisi drummers marked the moment of puja, the evening prayer.
Hewisi drummers dressed in traditional costumes perform their rituals twice daily.
Visitors can walk around the richly decorated Palle Malaya (lower floor of the main shrine).
Above the main shrine is the golden canopy built in 1987, while the upper floor of the main shrine, known as Weda Hitana Maligawa, is the venue where the main worship takes place in front of the shrine of the Sacred Tooth.
The upper floor of the main shrine is known as Weda Hitana Maligawa, a beautiful timber pavilion where tourist and local worshipers wait for the opening of Handun Kunama, the main shrine that houses the Sacred Tooth.
On the upper floor, we put down our lotus flower offering on the long table and sat down at a corner to wait for the actual ceremony.
During puja, visitors are allowed to get close to Handun Kunama where the Sacred Tooth is housed.
The Handun Kunama where the Sacred Tooth is housed is covered with golden decorations.
The metal work of Handun Kunama is exquisite.
During the actual ceremony, the window of Handun Kunama was opened, allowing us who queued for quite some time to get a quick peek at the golden casket of the Sacred Tooth. After a quick peek, we left the Weda Hitana Maligawa altogether as it was getting really crowded and a little chaotic.
On the lower level, tourists and worshipers lined up for entering different shrines and display areas.
We left the temple through the same passageway we came in.
It was completely dark when we returned to the forecourt of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
SRI LANKA TRIP: 2019.12.05 – 17
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.