After a short flight but really early start we arrived back in Bangkok at daybreak for the last leg of or holiday. Train and taxi saw us back at our old friends at Lampu Treehouse. Although it was early morning they had a room for us and even breakfast. We were knocked out from our sleepless night so a we nap was the order of the day, followed by a stroll and something to eat. The next two days were devoted to shopping, BMK for jeans and tees and Chatachuck Saturday market the following day. We were starting to get the hang of the buses, cheap and nasty but not as scary as Shri Lanka. Days three and four were devoted to eating, first with the floating market tour at Amphawa and the morning food tour in the City of Love. Lots of street and vendor food that we were unlikely to eat off our own bat. Amazing what a little knowledge can do. Our guides explained what was in the food and provided us with little tastes. My favourite was the crunchy crabs, deep fried estuary crabs that you ate, shell, pincers, legs and all. One market was set along the sides of a train track and was rolled out of the way each time a train came through. We also did a bit more sightseeing around Bangkok, and even sorted a new way to get around, utilising the canal boats that we had read about but never found.
Tissamaharama was a good place to launch into the south east, half a days bus ride from Aragam Bay. Less touristy and rural with rice fields, coconut and sugar cane farming, also fishing on stilts! We loved our stay at My Village, a designer guest home and bike riding round the lake. Mirissa was a gorgeous beach, with waving palm trees. It was our last stab at swimming though we were tossed about in the huge waves. Galle was a real treat where we ended up staying longer than planned due to its atmospheric old colonial port of Galle. First Europeans to set up here were the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, then the English, each improved the fortifications with thicker and higher walls. It was interesting to see the way they sited the canons to cover all angles of approach, with star bastions on each corner to protect the wall. We enjoyed stolling around the walls as well as having a beer on our rooftop, especially towards sunset. The locals geared up in the evening, playing cricket and flying kites.
We got energetic on a cycle tour round the villages, lucky to have just the two of us and our guide. It was fantastic to wind round village tracks, visiting the coconut factory, watch the fisherman, see the cloth weaving factory in action and learn more about this fascinating country.
After Ella cool and wet environment we hankered for the sea again. The local bus at 6 am hurtled down the mountain as we gripped the seats like everyone else, the driver determined to overtake his friend in the bus ahead. Thankfully we got down to the plains without incident. Onward buses were scarce so we opted for a tuk tuk for the last 30 KS to Arugm Bay, back on the hot dry east coast of Sri Lanka. The guest house we selected from Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet ticked all the boxes, within minutes we were frolicking in the waves again, thankful to be cool in the 35 degrees heat.
Arugm Bay is the gateway to the eastern side of Yala National Park, a large area of barren scrub, lotus strewn waterholes, granite outcrops and of course wildlife. Birds in abundance, painted storks, ibis, bee eaters, pelicans and iridescent king fishers, plus elephants, deer, wild boar, jackals, buffalo and the elusive leopard, which we were unfortunate not to see. The roads are pretty poor, we were in 4WD jeep with elevated comfy seats and then had to hang for dear life. A side excursion to us to a Buddhist monastery, where monks have lived and meditated for 2000 yrs, amongst an ethereal landscape of massive boulders set in sparse coastal forest.
The Kandy to Ella trip on the railway touted to be a scenic highlight. Passing through beautiful hillcountry: tea plantations, farms and villages, with stunning vistas everywhere. Riding the rails in Sri Lanka is like stepping back into another era. Not much has changed since the 19th century, and the stations are charming. We arrived in Ella to a torrential downpour, not a great first impression but once the clouds disappeared, wow! We loved our easygoing walks along the railway line through tea plantations to Ella Rock and a green tea factory. We were there for perahera, a festival with processions of costumed dancers, drummers, torch bearers, whip crackers, acrobats with a few elephants thrown in.
After the heat and humidity exploring the ancient cities we were gasping to cool off in the Eastern beaches.
The morning we left the only train available was third class. Now Jo was reluctant to say the least as he had read there could be problems if we fell asleep. Julie cajoled and at 10.40 we were off on our 2 hour journey (hardly likely to fall asleep only from eating too much delicious curry for breakfast.) Julie gleefully pointed out that the worse problem was who to talk to as everyone was friendly and security never an issue! We decided to splurge a wee bit and our accommodation was beautiful and right on Kalkudah beach. Impossibly golden sand and turquoise water, deserted apart from our place and a few fishing boats.
Minierya National Park, where elephants congregate on the edge of the lake in the dry season to take advantage of the growth of grass.
Safari jeeps take clients along dirt roads to the edge of the lake. We engaged our local bird naturalist Lal who organised a jeep and driver to go on safari!
The national park headquarters were tall strong structures built to protect staff from elephants, and many of the local villages were fenced with high election fences for protection. We saw the name Gallagher, good ol NZ technology.
Within a few minutes of entering the park we saw our first elephants in the low forest, just a few metres from the road. They took little notice of us as they moved silently through the forest. Further on we saw a group of three cows and two calves, feeding on long grass, again only a few metres. On the way out another young male appeared on the road ahead, our driver frantically reversing to give him room. We saw a few other species, notibly bee eaters and peacocks.
Our guide was disappointed with me for taking so long to get my camera into gear but it was a dramatic sight to see them in the wild and I just couldn't take my eyes of them.
Our tramping boots came in handy again as we set off to climb into the cloud forest of the Knuckles. Through tea plantations we enjoyed great views out on the ranges that resemble a clenched fist. Along the way we were spotting insects, birds and learning from Aravinda about the areas biodiversity which holds flora and fauna that can't be found anywhere else. He is a uni lecturer, freelance guide and expert on elephant behaviour! At the top the cloud rolled in, living up to its name. Meandering descent through the forest bought us to a small catholic tea planation workers village where our white faces and lace up boots drew a large crowd! Stopping for a cuppa drew large crowds and excited chatter. We reached the end just in time to dodge a tropical downpour. Five minutes later and we would have been drowned rats.
The first thing we did after coming out of the airport in Colombo was find a cup of tea. We found ourselves in a seedy canteen where the bus drivers go but whatever. The boss looked at me with disbelief when I asked for no sugar! Welcome to Sri Lanka the land of tea.
Colombo was a bit of a shock with the frenetic pace of tuk tuks, buses, trucks, cars all ducking and diving around blowing out huge blasts of dirty fumes. We didn't last long just one night in an old dutch colonial YWCA, a little faded with huge verandas and cavenous rooms. No telly or frills here, no worries, just need to change gear. Bangkok is traffic unfriendly too but better the devil you know. We travel Bangkok by water ferry if possible and our B & B has beautiful wooden panelling, down a quiet leafy lane.
Next day bravely set off on with hearts in mouths on a tuk tuk with no tickets to the train station bound for Kandy. In 1864 the British introduced rail to Sri Lanka to bring coffee and tea to Colombo Port. Their wonderful legacy has endured. For $2 we purchased 2nd class tickets but when we tried to read seat nos there weren't any. When the train arrived we joined a scrum at the carriage door where we had to fight to secure a seat. It was all on. Ended up with a window seat facing backwards feeling very lucky as others left to stand in the aisle. Off on time with great views along the way and smiles exchanged frequently with families opposite.