We hadn’t thought to include Sri Lanka in our plans, but when we realised it was a good place to apply for Indian visas and we could take a cheap flight from Kuala Lumpur and head on to Southern India, whilst hopefully meeting with our friends from Penang who had put us up for 10 days in December. We booked our flight and then discovered our Bali friends were on the same flight too!
The early morning wake up, the sad but quick goodbyes with Oma, and our departure from KL is thankfully appeased by the excitement of seeing the Pearces at the airport and trading seats to be with friends on the plane.
It’s a 3 hour flight to Colombo and the time flies almost as fast as the plane! On arrival, after a comical delay, as Martin gets taken off for questioning when his name pops up on the Interpol list. He`s rather glad to be released pretty quickly and our two families head our separate ways. We meet up again several times during our two weeks stay – it’s so much fun spending time together, the kids always asking ‘Will we see the Pearces today?’
The roads are windy, I have no idea how Ben does not throw up? Or me for that matter! There are plenty of ‘new’ things to notice when you’re not too traumatised by the road conditions or distracted with screens! Like suddenly slowing down (surprising) when a water lizard crosses the road, seeing so many lady road workers and endless ‘showrooms’ selling second-hand car and van seats!!
We arrive to the exceptionally warm welcome of George and his lovely family in their Kandy Guest House. We have two back rooms with balconies overlooking the river and the old but still functioning rail track. Ceylon tea and cake is served for us on the balcony in best china and we start to get a sense of what remains of a colonial British era! They also serve us a wonderful Sri Lankan feast for supper which Martin and I devour although the kids are a little unsure!
Next day, we are served another delicious feast for breakfast. String-hoppers (a kind of steamed noodle) curry and eggs. The beginning of getting used to curry three times a day.
George takes us for a day of exploring – it’s a relief to have a safe driver! We visit the Millennium Elephant Foundation where the kids wash an elephant in the river then hop onto it’s back for a ride! It’s a bit of a overpriced touristy conveyor belt set up and a far cry from our experience in Sumatra but forgivable given that it’s a non profit elephant sanctuary. We stop at a bridge to see the fruit bats and stumble upon a snake charmer.
Lunch is at a great restaurant just outside Kandy at the Tea Fortress. Superb mix of Sri Lankan and English options with exquisite silver service and a shop downstairs selling speciality tea to tour groups passing through! We discover lots of older British holiday groups on Sri Lankan tours.
We spend the afternoon at the impressive botanical gardens before heading to a traditional dance show with the highlight being some impressive firewalking and wrap up a busy day with supper in the Really Chilled Lounge with sunset views over the river and giant Buddha on the hillside.
Over the rest of the weekend we do some admin, school work and prepare the complicated paperwork for our Indian visa applications. The kids play and explore along the river and try to fish.
Monday morning we head into town with Chance, a friendly tuk tuk driver and the next five hours are spent back and forth between the Indian visa office and the photocopy/printing shop , finally getting our visa applications in but will have to wait till 6th of Feb to get them… If we’re lucky! This was longer than we thought and we have just booked flights out to the Maldives for 7th so it’s all going to be a bit touch and go!
Once through that palaver, there’s still time to fit in a visit to the Temple of the Tooth. We have a kindly guide who fills us in on the history of this place which is fascinating!
When The Lord Buddha died in 543BC a canine tooth was retrieved from his funeral pyre by a monk and given to the King where it was kept in city that today is called Puri. A belief grew over time that possession of the tooth gave divine right to rule the land. Wars were fought for its possession and attempts made to destroy it because it was said people stopped believing in God and were worshipping a tooth.
800 years after the Buddha died, in the 4th century, a prince and princess, named Dantha and Hemamala escaped with the relic to Sri Lanka to keep it safe, with it hidden in her hair! There it has remained for 1600 years, moving from place to place until it came to rest in Kandy where the temple was built to house it in the 17th century.
The Lord Buddha had apparently declared that Sri Lanka would be a safe haven for Buddhism for 5000 years. Buddhism is the principle religion in most of Sri Lanka today and making a pilgrimage to the temple at least once in a lifetime is absolutely critical to a Sri Lankan Buddhist.
You can’t actually see the tooth, which somehow makes the visit all the more mysterious and I can`t help think the relic might be rather a let down! It is housed in a golden stupa inside a special shrine, though you can peer through the doorway and lay flower offerings outside. VIPs are occasionally invited inside the shrine for a closer look and our guide tells us about the visit from Prince Charles and Camilla last November. He also explains a lot of the symbolism about Buddhism and shows us the many pictures inside the temple telling the long story of the tooth relic’s 2,500,000 year history! Another building houses the enormous stuffed remains of Raja, the renowned 75 year old Temple Elephant who died in 1988 and fittingly, has one of his giant teeth, separately on show!
After leaving the temple, we visit the big white Buddha on the hillside, climb the stairs behind him and make a little offering at one of the little shrines within his great belly!
I imagined Kandy to be a peaceful cool colonial town, but just before we flew to Sri Lanka, I read another family blog that told us it was big, dusty, manic and grubby and they were massively disappointed. This really reset our expectations and I think it helped us enjoy it all the more. It is a small but sprawling city, it’s cooler than the coast but still fairly hot, definitely dusty and full of traffic, but it has a lovely lake, with the temple of the Tooth and Royal Palace just beside it, and some great views as soon as you get up to higher grounds.
Next day, we hop on the train and enjoy the wonderful winding railway trip into the mountains and through the tea plantations to Nureya Eliya. Well, Martin and I do, the kids enjoy the movie they show in first class!!
An overnight here and a visit to Mackwoods tea estate is really interesting to learn all about tea production and have a taste. The landscape is divine! But we feel chilly for the first time in ages here, we stay in a cheap hotel on the lakeside, perfectly ok for our needs but have to beg for more blankets as we shiver our way through the night in a cold, damp room! This area is known as Little England and I must say it’s fitting from a climate perspective and we see fruit and vegetables not seen for a good while, but I really don’t like feeling this cold!
We board the train again the next afternoon – this time second class where the windows are open and we can see out properly or sit and dangle our legs out in the doorways (the first class choice yesterday was a big mistake!) Luckily this stretch of the journey is the most beautiful.
We head further into the highlands on the lovely old train to spend a few days in the delightlful village of Ella with more lovely hosts at Raveena Guest house where we hike, play and enjoy good food and company as we are joined by the Pearces for a day or two.
Next we head south down to warmer, lower climes and the Uduwalawa National Park, and a night of luxury camping in a posh tent with real beds and en suite bathroom! The safari was a real highlight, spotting many elephant, crocs, buffalo, birds, but not as lucky as the Pearces who chose Yala and spotted leopards too!
From there we enjoyed the southern beaches, were reunited with our friends once again and the kids loved body surfing. The weather seems lovely but the winds make waves rough so whale watching and swimming with local turtles is off the agenda but two days of fun on the beach with their buddies is more than enough consolation for the kids!
In our final days we rush back to Kandy to get those India visas! They keep us hanging on! We have to hand our passports in at 9am and wait till 5pm to see if we’re in luck but enjoy cafes and restaurants in the city as we wait… eventually, Yeehah, success!