While the beaches and coastline are undeniably incredible, Sri Lanka also has a huge amount to offer inland – from the famous Sigiriya Rock to a multitude of national parks. Being from Africa and growing up around similar animals I wasn’t particularly interested in the wildlife parks, but my friend Anna and I did spend a week exploring Ella, Kandy and Sigiriya.
We travelled to Ella from Hikkaduwa via a train, bus and tuk-tuk, starting with the 20 rupees (10p) train from Hikkaduwa to Matara, which is the end of the line. From there we took a short tuk-tuk to the bus station, but if you really want to save it’s a walkable 1km. There is no direct bus to Ella but we quickly found a bus to nearby Waliwaya for 120 rupees (60p) and soon we were off on a crazy 5-hour bus ride through winding mountain roads. Buses in Sri Lanka are not for the faint-hearted, but despite the speed and traffic, I think the drivers know what they’re doing and it’s relatively safe.
At Weliwaya we had the option to wait an hour for another cheap bus that then takes a further 2.5 hours to Ella, but instead opted for a much faster 2000 rupee (£10) tuk-tuk as we had had enough of buses for the day. If you really want to save money you could do the entire trip for about £1.
Ella is a small but surprisingly beautiful mountain village that’s very popular with travellers. Despite being very small it has quite a few bars, coffee shops and western restaurants. It has many cheap guesthouses and few hostels, including the centrally-located Hangover Hostel, and Tomorrowland – which is a bit out of town but is a popular party hostel with an alternative hippy/trance vibe to it and some communal mattresses to crash on if you stay too late.
On our first day, we headed off on a walk along the train tracks to Ella Rock. This I can’t recommend highly enough! The trains only run very seldom so it’s fairly safe and if one did come we knew we would hear it with more than enough time to avoid it. With each corner that we took, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of the stunning Ella Valley. After crossing a rickety iron bridge, we eventually reached a big Boa tree and a small tea hut where we had been instructed to take a left turn off the tracks and follow a small path to a beautiful waterfall.
After the waterfall, there is an option to continue up to Ella Rock viewpoint, but we were told not to accept an offer of a guide from one of the locals, or they will try stiff you for 1000 rupees at the end of it! Sure enough, a local emerged from the forest and offered to show us the way. When I said I had no money, he quickly disappeared again. We didn’t go all the way to the top but managed to find a nice place to relax and watch the steam train chugging along across the valley.
Nine Arches Bridge
After that we went back to the station and caught the 3:15 pm train to Demodera which crosses the famous Nine Arches Bridge – I would suggest doing this rather than going to the bridge on foot as most people do (or possibly do both if you have time). It’s a really beautiful bridge with great photo opportunities and it gives that extra special feeling to be on the train. On the way back we stopped at a really cool bar called One Love and had a few beers with a nice couple from India and Switzerland, while listening to psy-trance and building a small bonfire.
Kandy was up next and I would suggest going there just for the beautiful train ride alone because Kandy itself is actually a big, noisy city and neither of us enjoyed it much. The train is only about 100 rupees and takes about 5 hours but is a never-ending stream of beautiful mountainous scenery the entire way. We spent a night in Kandy and had a fairly nice time at the Victoria hotel bar chatting to a group of Danish travellers, but from my impression, Kandy is mostly over-priced and there is very little to see or do. We decided to skip the popular botanical gardens, which is fortunate because a friend of mine said it’s not really worthwhile.
We headed north to Dambulla first thing in the morning on a local bus that was a few rupees and took about two hours. It’s also quite a nice drive except for the incessant hooting, so when travelling by bus always bring some in-ear headphones to block it out with music.
Anna had decided she wanted to splash out on a fancy place with a pool for one night, so we stayed in Rangiri Dambulla Resort which is just outside of town and close to the Dambulla Cave Temple. It has some proper glamping tent accomodation with air-con and satellite TV, but unfortunately doesn’t have an alcohol licence. Luckily they can organise delivery from the town wine store at a decent price.
That evening we went to the cave temple, which turned out to be 1500 rupee entrance! Between us, we didn’t even have enough for one person but luckily they took pity on us and let us both in anyway. I’m glad because if I’m honest I don’t think it’s worth that much – if you’ve never been to a buddhist cave temple before it might be interesting, but the one’s I saw in Thailand and Vietnam are a bit better and cheaper. Afterwards, a nice Dutch guy who had rented a tuk-tuk gave us a free lift to town so we could draw more cash, and then we grabbed dinner at a place in Dambulla called Mango which does great fried chicken!
Sigiriya was our next port of call and is home to arguably Sri Lanka’s most popular tourist attraction, the ancient Sigiriya Rock fortress, which dates back thousands of years. It’s very impressive but for $25 entrance and a huge queue of people to climb up it, we decided against going in. Fortunately, there is a much cheaper rock nearby called Pidurangala which has just as good views and is only 500 rupees, but is fairly difficult to climb – the last bit requires a certain amount of fitness and bouldering skills!
We hired bicycles the next day for 300 rupees (£1.50) and cycled into the wilderness around Sigiriya, along beautiful dirt roads and pathways that winded off in various directions and got smaller and smaller until they were just single tracks going through thick jungle with no people or buildings in sight. We eventually reached a stunning lake with a view of Sigiriya and Pidurangala rocks in the distance, reflecting off the still water with an eerie dead tree in the middle populated by white long-necked storks. On the way back we were stopped by three local girls, the youngest of which offered Anna a small bouquet of flowers she had picked from the surrounding nature.
We almost felt bad accepting them with nothing to offer in return, but I think they had picked them especially for us as a gift because they had seen us come past and knew we would have to return that way. We finished off the day relaxing by the pool at our accommodation, Flower Garden Eco Village, and drinking our own cocktail invention the “Pinacolanka” – local coconut rum (Arrack) with fresh pineapple juice.
If you are visiting Sri Lanka I highly suggest not missing out on Ella and Sigiriya – they were definitely in my top 3 favourite things of the country, and even if you only have a week you’ll have enough time to see them and get a bit of beach time. From Colombo, there are buses direct to Sigiriya and trains to Kandy, where you can change and go to Ella by train or Sigiriya by bus.
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