Saturday, 23 May 2015

My top 5 things to do in Mirissa

  1. Go for an early morning swim
  2. Walk to the harbour and watch some early morning fishermen activity
  3. Eat a roti or some kottu at 'The No.1 Dewmini Roti Shop'
  4. Have a tour of the Hundungoda Tea Estate
  5. Walk along the beach in the evening and then find a spot, at one of the many restaurants, and watch the sunset with a happy hour drink in hand
At first glance Mirissa seems like the perfect example of tourism gone horribly wrong.  It was exactly my feelings towards the place.  But I was wrong.  Just wait, be patient, there's a good chance it will grow on you.  It's an acquired taste; a bit like jackfruit.

The Hundungoda Tea Estate

On Sri Lanka's south coast, not far from Koggala, is the tongue-twister tea estate of Hundungoda, famous for it's Virgin White Tea.  This tea, which fetches unbelievable prices internationally (68 euros for 100g), is never touched by human hand, or any hand whatsoever.  The tiny shoots or 'silver tips', at the very top of the plant, are used and the result is a tea that not only tastes good but also has incredibly high anti-oxidant content. 

We caught a tuk-tuk from Mirissa to the estate, not really knowing what to expect or even if they'd be open.  This they were, and amazingly our guide was Malinga Herman Gunaratne, the sole proprietor and someone with more than 45 years in the industry.  We joined a small group (there were 5 of us) and walked around the estate that comprises tea, rubber, cinnamon, pepper and coconut, having a short break, at the plantation bungalow, for 2 cups of (different) teas and a beautiful piece of chocolate cake.  We also visited the tea factory, where fresh tea leaves are transformed into the stuff we are accustomed to.  The tour concluded with a tasting of all of the varieties produced in Sri Lanka and the (completely optional) chance to buy some tea.  The tour was free and it was without doubt one of our highlights of Sri Lanka.               

Hoot when confused - leaving Ella

The road from Ella to Mirissa was a fascinating one for a number of reasons.  I must pause here to talk briefly about the hooligan bus drivers, especially those driving the (red) government buses.  If I was asked to describe their motoring capability in two words they would be 'misplaced confidence'.  Crazy speeds in the worst possible places; reckless beyond belief in an environment of very little anticipation.  The amalgamation of buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians and an abundance of both very fast and very slow moving cars, creates a never-ending story of madness, drama, a bit of love and a lot of humour.   

There are a few absolute rules of the road in Sri Lanka.  It must be remembered that this is not something I have studied extensively, it is purely appreciated through observation. The first is one that is extremely prevalent throughout Asia, stating that on any given road, when one or more vehicles interact, the biggest will always have the right of way.  Something I have never seen before is the accepted behaviour when approaching a busy road or motorway, even if you are doing so on a scooter from a driveway or narrow side-street.  Move cautiously, at nothing more than a snails pace, maintaining this speed as you turn directly into whatever traffic there may be, without even glancing  at what may be hurtling towards you.  Vehicles, often travelling at considerable speed, expect the unexpected at all times, which brings me to the next very important regulation.  If confused, just hoot.  Hoot when approaching any road, parked car, bicycle, pedestrian or animal.  Hoot also if there is a vehicle travelling too slowly in front of you, when you're overtaking any vehicle, if you see your friend or if you're just in the mood to hoot.

Luckily we managed to avoid the odd collision and stopped near Wellawaya to have a look at Buduruwagala's remote location and impressive carved Buddha's.  A while later we witnessed the somewhat bizarre sight of a woman spreading her rice out on the motorway, with the intention of it drying.  According to our driver it was not such a busy motorway which is, I suppose, slightly reassuring.    

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Review of Waterfalls Homestay, Ella

After a fabulous couple of days at Sujatha's, in Kandy, and a spectacular train trip into the hill country, we found ourselves wandering, slightly nervously, down Ella's busy and slightly grubby main street.  We followed my map and took a right turn up and away from the road.  With the noise of tuk-tuks and buses fading behind us (thankfully), we continued on for around 15 minutes and arrived at Waterfalls Homestay.

I had read that it was a peaceful spot, away from the (relative) rush of the town, but this was a serious understatement.  The place is chilled in the extreme and it's impossible not too fall in love with it and everything around it.  The views from the breakfast table, towards the waterfall, but also over farmland and forest, are sublime.  Almost as good as the breakfasts with great coffee, fruit, curd, honey and eggs done exactly the way you want.  Evening meals are also a hit with some of the dishes being better than anything I'd tasted in the country.  Memories of Kemal's sour fish curry (or Ambul Thiyal) brings tears to my eyes for all the right reasons.  Powerful black pepper, sour Gorika fruit and cubes of tuna, a mix that had bubbled away gloriously on a generous base of fresh curry leaves.

Our room, the studio, was on the first floor, with wonderful views and a tree-house sort of feel to it.  The room was spacious, clean, incredibly comfortable and, as an added bonus, had a extensive library of books.  I happened to pick up Across many mountains; putting it down again was extremely difficult.  A brilliant read especially if you have an interest in the Tibetan/China situation disaster.

Ella is famous for it's big rock, for postcard landscapes, for little Adams Peak and for it's position in amongst some of Sri Lanka's most wonderful tea plantations. For me it is special because of Waterfalls Homestay and hopefully, when I return, that is were I will once again unwind.
The view through Ella Gap

Not a bad spot for breakfast


The view back towards Waterfalls Homestay from 'the' waterfall

Monday, 18 May 2015

The trains of Sri Lanka

Our recent 3 week adventure through Sri Lanka included 3 train journeys; which in my opinion is the best and most affordable way to get around.  The rail network was established by the British (in the 1860's) to facilitate the transport of tea and coffee from the hill country to Colombo.  At that time the natives of the little island referred to these machines as 'Anguru Kaka Wathura Bibi Duwana Yakada Yaka', which means the coal-eating, water-drinking, sprinting metal devils (taken from a very interesting article in the Sri Lankan Daily News, from 2011).  The present-day natives have become a lot more comfortable with these machines and they are now a very popular means of transport.  This makes for highly entertaining travel and although occasionally being overloaded, the open doors and windows, the never-ending scuttle of tea and snack sellers and the jaw-dropping scenery around every corner, make for an absolutely enthralling experience.  As a tourist, if you happen to be on a seat, you will certainly be on it's edge.  These trips, that last hours, fly by in the blink of an eye.  It's the only time I've ever felt sad to get off of a train that I had been on for 3 hours, without ever being able to sit on an actual seat.  I must advise that even though the much prized position of sitting in an open doorway has a million positives, there is one very important negative, or warning.  Make sure your feet don't stick out too far.  The train comes pretty close to station platforms and if you're on an express, that's travelling through at speed, it's a very good way to clip your toenails or something more significant.     

On the way to Ella, through beautiful tea plantations

Mind the gap!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The (most) Royal Botanical Gardens

With around 4000 plant species from around Sri Lanka and the tropical world, these gardens, that are located just west of Kandy City, are a floral masterpiece. Walking through different sections of the 147 acre grounds there is a tangible transition of both mood and character.  You encounter areas that are elegant and highly organised, others that are untamed and overgrown, a few haunting bits with bats and winding, tortured roots that seem to come alive when you look away, and many that give off such a peaceful energy it's very difficult not to find a spot on the grass for a snooze.

I'll let the orchids, pictured below, speak for themselves.

The Giant Bamboo of Burma

Where's Wally?

The old giant Javan fig tree

The local bat hangout

The avenue of palms

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The magic of Kandy

Booking accommodation is always a bit of a lottery, even when you've trawled the Internet and done a good deal of research.  Sometimes you end up in a dump, but every now and then you hit the jackpot, which is exactly what happened to us in Kandy. 

At Sujatha's Homestay, hosts Roney and Sujatha treat you as if you are part of the family, not in the constipated smile when I see you kind of way, but rather with genuine interest and concern, the sort that can't be faked.  I was fortunate enough to have my first (of many) cooking lessons, and dinner, breakfast, tea, and everything else provided was absolute perfection.   

So, with Sujatha's as our little oasis, we set off to discover what the rest of Kandy was all about.  It could well have been that we felt so 'at home' at our accommodation in the calm of the trees, but we felt just as comfortable throughout the city.  The slightly cooler conditions could also have played a part, come to think of it.  We wandered the spectacular Royal Botanical Gardens (next post), hopped, skipped and jumped over leeches at the Udawatta Kele Sanctuary, explored the British Garrison Cemetery, strolled leisurely around the lake and people-watched, with fresh tea and coffee in hand, at the entrance to the Temple of the Tooth.  The place has a real buzz about it and we enjoyed spending time on the buses and joining the lunch-time curry run.

After 3 nights in Kandy we were honestly sad to leave.  Hopefully we'll be back one day to visit our Sri Lankan relatives.

Outside Sujatha's - under the close supervision of one of the 'watchdogs'
The beautiful lake

Udawatta Kele

Dinner for 2 at Sujatha's

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Is it worth spending a bit of time in Sigiriya Village?

The answer is absolutely yes.  Even though the Rock Fortress is more than likely Sri Lanka's number 1 tourist attraction; the village itself remains rustic and the surrounding landscape is worthy of exploration. 

There are quite a few places to stay, like Sigiri Lion Lodge (with Ajith's extreme service with a smile) and Lal's Homestay (with tasty and plentiful evening meals).  There are plenty of places to eat but for me the best are Shenadi (for it's amazing curry and sambols) and Chuti (for roti's from heaven - ask for hot).  They are both very close to the (locals) entrance to the Rock.   

There are jeep safari's that will take you into the countryside, but if you're feeling more energetic get a bicycle and take some of the backroads, to the small rock and on to the 'reservoir' or dam, that is popular with locals and has great views back towards Sigiriya.

Monday, 11 May 2015


The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sigiriya was our first cultural stop in Sri Lanka.  Around 200 metres high, a visit requires a bit of a walk and quite a few vertical stairs, so we decided to get through the gates as they opened at 7am.  We were on top, before the heat, and the onslaught of tour buses, and got the chance to explore in relative calm. 

The site began as a monastery in the 3rd Century (BC) and in the 5th Century (AD), became a King's royal residence, with fairly significant fortifications, moats etc.  The King had been a bad boy and needed a safe crib. 

It's a really interesting place to stroll around, and the views from the top are magnificent.  The frescoes, located in a cave, reached by negotiating a slightly dodgy spiral staircase, are beautiful and the famous mirror wall has poems and inscriptions from the 8th Century AD, and many more recent ones, known nowadays as graffiti.