More than just tea in Sri Lanka

September 08, 2017

For as long as I can remember there has been one bug I’ve never minded catching: the travel bug.

Last year’s trip to New Zealand seemed to renew my desire to venture out of  Australia and see the world and this time I decided I wanted to experience a completely different culture while simultaneously escaping the freezing cold of winter.

I won a $250 travel voucher to go to Sri Lanka at a community event last year and used it as an excuse to escape to my next destination.

The voucher was with Melbourne’s Travel Glen, which was amazing at customising a tour to suit my boyfriend Wade Stephens and I.

They were also great at explaining what we could do in Sri Lanka because my knowledge of the country extended as far as tea.

Okay, maybe it went slightly further than that.

I knew the country grew tea, was south of India and was colonised by the British before managing to gain its freedom and boot out other colonial powers like the Dutch and Portuguese.

But that’s about it. So before I left Australia I found myself Googling Sri Lanka and trying to determine what I could expect once I got there.

We were hit with crippling humidity as soon as we arrived in the country’s capital Colombo. At first I was like, ‘‘Wow, this is awesome! It’s winter in Australia and it’s 34°C with 90 per cent humidity here — what a time to be alive!’’

But then my body politely reminded me it wasn’t used to humidity. It was currently adapted to riding a bike to work in -1°C, so how was it meant to cope with such a quick weather change?

Despite this, I was still excited to be in Sri Lanka.

Once we arrived we met our driver, Anthony, who drove us around the country for two weeks.

Traffic in Sri Lanka is pretty insane and anyone who has been to Asia will know the road rules there very often don’t gel with ours.

People are constantly overtaking tuk tuks and vans and every time this happens there is so much beeping.

That’s why when you go on an organised tour through a travel agent, it’s a good idea to get a driver who knows the roads.

Our first stop on our Sri Lankan adventure was the beach town of Negombo, where we spent our first two nights at Jetwing Blue Hotel and tried to get used to the four-and-a-half-hour time difference.

We failed miserably and continued to wake up about 6am every day.

We stayed at more than one Jetwing hotel in Sri Lanka and it was interesting to see how the staff applied environmentally-friendly and sustainable practices to manage the business.

Staff at Jetwing Blue talked us through how they filtered and bottled their own water for guests, grew their own fruit and vegetables and used cinnamon wood to heat water.

Negombo is very much a place you visit to chill out near a pretty beach and prepare for the next leg of your trip.

Our time there went very quickly and we were soon headed towards Sigiriya. Along the way we visited the Dambulla Cave Temples.

The famous rock temple dates back to the first century B.C. and was used to shelter King Walagamba during his 14-year exile from Anuradhapura.

I guess things can get a bit boring when you’re in exile, because King Walagamba built the most amazing temples. One cave houses a 14m Buddha statue and a second has 150 life-sized statues of Buddha in different poses.

It was pretty amazing to see, but the climb to the temple was a bit of a struggle for pretty much every tourist I spotted.

One guy looked at me and said at least the climb was worth it, and he was right — it really was.

In this part of Sri Lanka we stayed three nights at one of the most stunning hotels I have ever seen. The Amaara Forest Hotel was basically a resort in a jungle.

The hotel was surrounded by lush green trees and had a very earthy vibe to it.

We used this hotel as a base to venture to places like the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Hiriwadunna Village, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.

The Sigiriya Rock Fortress is also known as Lion Rock because of the huge lion that used to stand at the entrance to the palace on top of the 182m rock.

Getting to the top of of Sigiriya involved a fair bit of climbing. The area was a popular tourist destination, so getting to the summit was a bit of a challenge with so many people moving around.

About halfway up was a collection of paintings that had been carefully crafted into the rock.

Because of the age of these paintings we were not allowed to take any photos, which was a bit of a shame but completely understandable.

This part of our tour involved a lot of temples, walking and history and our visit to Anuradhapura even gave us the chance to see the sacred 2250-year-old Bodhi Tree, which is believed to have grown from a branch of the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment.

An important factor to remember with the temples is all visitors must have their shoulders and knees covered. In one case, Wade’s shorts were a fraction too short, so he had to buy a sarong. This made for some great photos, but I really don’t think he’ll get a lot of future wear out of it.

As the trip progressed we set a course to Kandy — the cultural capital of the country.

A quick stop at a spice market along the way saw us learn the devastating truth about cinnamon sticks.

The stuff we get in the supermarkets is actually quite old, which makes a lot of sense because the cinnamon sticks in my pantry certainly don’t have the same vibrant colour as the ones shown to me at the spice gardens in Matale.

I was beginning to learn that Sri Lanka was really known for three things: spices, tea and gems.

After our tour of the spice garden we headed to Kandy, where our driver manoeuvred many narrow and windy roads to get us to Ozo Kandy, where we stayed for a night.

This was Wade’s favourite hotel. He was still talking about how much he loved it several days later.

In Kandy we visited the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha (Dalada Maligawa) and watched a cultural show featuring different types of dances.

It was hard to believe we were already up to day seven of our 13-day tour when we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, also known as Little England.

This was my favourite bit of the trip because not only was it a great deal cooler, with the temperature dipping down to about 20 degrees with 85 per cent humidity, but there were tea plantations everywhere.

I honestly felt like I was in a Dilmah tea advertisement.

The first thing we did when we arrived in tea country was visit the Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Factory and learn about the process of making tea.

Naturally I bought some green tea, which I have been enjoying at my work desk since I arrived back at The News.

We also visited the Hakgala Botanical Gardens, which are some of the most beautiful gardens I have ever seen and offer a wide variety of different plants to admire.

Everything from roses to succulents seemed to be there and it took us a good couple of hours to fully walk around and appreciate the gardens.

A key part of our time in Nuwara Eliya involved completing a 10km hike at Horton Plains National Park to World’s End and Little World’s End.

This hike saw us leave our hotel Araliya Green Hills (the staff of which were nice enough to pack us breakfast) at 5.30am.

World’s End and Little World’s End offer amazing views of the countryside and attract a large number of tourists.

During the hike you can also stop and admire the various animals and insects living in the national park and a stunning waterfall.

After the hike we were pretty exhausted and were happy to get back to Araliya Green Hills.

No sooner had we arrived than we were asked to participate in a hotel documentary which proved to be a bit of fun.

The next day we ventured out to see the Bogoda Wooden Bridge. Built in the 16th century, it is believed to be the oldest surviving wooden bridge in Sri Lanka.

On our way to Yala we stopped and visited Lipton’s Seat, which had amazing views overlooking tea plantations, before heading to Ella and doing the big trek up Little Adam’s Peak.

This was a pretty intense hike and not one that’s easy to do, even when you don’t have a broken finger like I did at the time. But it was well worth it and I was really proud of myself for making it to the top of a very steep hill and then navigating my way back down.

Day nine was probably our longest day of travel as we headed east to Yala, where we stayed at Jetwing Yala, one of the most eco-friendly hotels I’ve ever encountered.

The hotel appeared to be in the middle of a hybrid desert/beach, so it was also a pretty isolated area of Sri Lanka.

Our room was very open and even the adjoining bathroom was slightly outdoors, which sounds a bit strange but worked really well.

We only had one thing to do here and that was visit Yala National Park, where we did a two-hour safari and saw elephants, wild boars, crocodiles, deer and a leopard.

The next few days of our trip flew by. We visited the Dutch Fort in Galle, a moonstone mine in Meetiyagoda, a mask factory in Ambalangoda and the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery.

We stayed two nights at Hikka Tranz by Cinnamon and then made the journey back to Colombo for the last day-and-a-half of our trip.

This was our chance to shop. We visited a variety of shops such as ODEL and Barefoot and ate out at novelty restaurants such as the Cricket Club Cafe, Dilmah Tea Lounge and the Bavarian German Restaurant and Pub.

We were fortunate enough to stay at Cinnamon Red while in Colombo. We were on the second-highest floor and had amazing views of the city.

We were also in a very central location, which made it easy to walk to eateries.

The only drawback of Colombo seemed to be the tuk tuk drivers, who all wanted to take you to different places they received commission from.

It took us hours to find the Dilmah Tea Lounge because people kept telling us it was shut. It turned out it wasn’t shut at all.

Suddenly the adventure was finished and it was time to board a plane to Singapore and then another to Melbourne.

After a total of about 20 minutes’ sleep and safe in the knowledge that I was now more than halfway through season 10 of The Big Bang Theory, we arrived in Melbourne.

Our trip to Sri Lanka certainly involved a lot of activities and there’s a good chance I still have a few travel stories up my sleeve regarding this country. So keep an eye out for future Weekend Lifes detailing my adventures!

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