It took 5 days and to reach the shores of Sri Lanka from the Andamans. We had fabulous winds for the journey, flying the spinnaker for some of the time and even hit 12.3 knots. We pulled into the entry to Trincomalee (Trinco to the locals) early in the morning and contacted Port Control to let them know we were heading in but were refused permission to enter the inner harbour. A naval vessel came alongside and told us that we were not expected for a couple of days so could we please contact our agent to get them to organise the paperwork for entry this day. We had no way of contacting them, and told them we had emailed the agent a few days prior to let them know we were arriving earlier than planned, but as they hadn’t got the email they had not informed Port Control. We had to wait for a few hours hovering outside the harbour until the agent was contacted and had organised our paperwork and then we were allowed in. The port of Trincomalee is wonderful, Nelson declared it the best natural harbour in the world and is only second in depth to Sydney harbour. It is really large, very calm and completed protected. We were told to head to the jetty where the agent would meet us. We were expected one solitary man with a clipboard but were met by a group of people, including the customs, agents and the health authority. They all came on board and the stamping of the paperwork started. For the first time we were asked for our health vaccination records and yellow fever certificate. The navy came on board, looked around and shook our hands, the customs came and took various copies of all our paperwork and Ian had to go to immigration which was about 50 mtrs away with our passports to get us checked it. It took about an hour and then we were free to wander the town. Well organised and a simple check-in – having an agent in Sri Lanka is compulsory but it works well.
As we had done 5 nights at sea we were quite tired so just spent our first afternoon getting sim cards, changing money and finding our way round. Trincomalee is very off the tourist track – Tuk Tuks abound, dogs wander around, there are no major shopping complexes, and the people are very friendly towards foreigners.
It is predominantly Tamil and where most of the fighting took place between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, and as a result it has not seen the growth in tourism the rest of Sri Lanka has enjoyed. It remains stuck in a bit of a time warp which adds to its charm. Since the government of Sri Lanka defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2007 the Sinhalese hold all the police and positions of authority leaving the Tamils to do the menial jobs.
Trinco is a fishing port and their fishing boats are all decorated with bright colours. They seem to be kept in better condition that the ones in Indonesia and Thailand too.
We spent a few days here and then decided to set off for the interior. There are three ways to travel – bus, train and taxi. The taxis are exhorbitant and do not seem to arrive any earlier, the trains run at very anti-social times, and the buses leave from just outside the jetty so we opted for the bus. Up at the crack of dawn, got a seat on the bus at 6am and then had the long 6 hour journey to Kandy. Wow – what an experience. They drive like lunatics – hurtling down the middle of the road overtaking on corners, hooting their horns as they go. The bus was packed with people standing all down centre aisle and their belongings scattering in all directions. It was great fun though and we arrived in Kandy safe and sound. Kandy is in the centre of Sri Lanka and because it is higher up it is a bit cooler. We jumped into a tuk-tuk and asked to be taken to the small guest house we had found on-line but the driver had other ideas. He took us to all his friends hotels trying to get us to stay at one of them. Some of them were awful – expensive and dirty so eventually we demanded he take us to the one we had originally chosen. He then tried to charge us for the time he had taken to ‘encourage’ us to stay at his mates place. After haggling down the price to a reasonable amount we sat on the verandah and waited for the owners of our guest house to return. We were very happy we stuck to our guns because this hotel was gorgeous. We enjoyed the next few days in a very clean, modern and well appointed hotel all by ourselves as there were no other guests and the owners lived elsewhere.
Kandy is an older town dominated by a lake in the middle. We walked around it and enjoyed some lovely little restaurants. We visited the Temple of the Tooth which is rumoured to contain one of Buddah’s teeth but as no-one has actually seen the said tooth as it is kept hidden which made it just another temple. We went to a spice garden and learned about the different medicinal benefits of various spices and herbs.
We then visited an amazing hotel called “Helga’s Folly” This hotel has been decorated by a German artist and she has really let her aritstic juices flow. We had been told of this place by a friend who used to live here and we were not disappointed. There was not one inch of undecorated wall or ceiling and it was full of colour. It was crammed with various artifacts including a full size skeleton and Edith Piaf was singing in the background. We had a beer here and just soaked up the atmosphere. I loved it – one lady’s lifetime passion for everyone to share. A must-see place if you ever come to Kandy.
The next stop was Nuwara Eliya – a town built by the English predominantly for tea plantations. It is over 1800 metres high so was actually cold. We had been warned to take jumpers – and even at the bus station they were selling hats and coats! I had known of this town since childhood as my family had started a tea plantation here. It is a small town with not much to see except some beautiful parks. It did have an English feeling but it was the beauty of the surrounding hills that captivated us. It is simply stunning. Most of the available hillsides are covered in tea plantations with waterfalls cascading through them and all along the roadside were small vegetable stalls. The cooler climate enabled them to grow such a variety – strawberries, beetroot, cauliflowers, etc which was a refreshing change from the tropical vegetables we were used to. We visited Mackwoods – the tea estate my family had once owned and spoke to the Manager at the museum there. It was sold in 1956 to a Sri Lankan family and was then on-sold but Mackwoods still produce very fine pure tea (as opposed to blended tea which is the norm) under their name and it is sold all over the world.
It was odd to see portaits of my great great great Grandfather, my great great Grandfather and my great Grandfather hanging in the museum and I had the family tree with me so I was able to show them exactly where I fitted in. I told them my Grandmother had sold the estate back in the 50’s which they knew about and they promised to email the Chairman in Colombo so that we could catch up with we got there.
We wandered around the lanes finding little pharmacies, goldsmiths, tailors, and a plethora of small shops selling everything from sewing machines needles to teapots. This is a major tourist stop but it still seemed light years away from modernity.
We spent a few days here enjoying the cooler weather and then we had the highlight of our trip so far. The train ride from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo via Kandy. This journey is reputed to be one of the best train rides in the world with regards to stunning scenery but there are many different ways to enjoy it. There are 4 different types of train – those with air-con in comfort (for the rich!) There is a train with a glass back wall where you can watch the scenery from the comfort of an inside carraige with an unobstructed view, 2nd class which cost the grand sum of $5 which had no air-con but semi-comfortable seats and 3rd class which cost $2.50 and was just basic hard seats and all the hawkers imaginable coming through selling their wares. We opted for 2nd class which we now realise was by far the best way to see Sri Lanka in all its glory. These trains are really old but still work well. They rattle and shake along but somehow they are not uncomfortable. We were up early as Nuwara Eliya doesn’t have its own station, so we bussed the 30 minutes to the station, got a seat and settled down for the 8 hour journey. We realised very early on that we were in the wrong place. The right place on this train was sitting on the floor with your legs hanging out of the door watching the world go by. No health and safety issues here. To be fair it chugged along quite slowly which enabled us to take lots of photos and we loved it. We felt like teenagers again – and spent most of the journey from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy (3 hours) in this position. Once we reached Kandy the train filled up with locals heading to Colombo so we sat back in our seats and watched out of the windows. It was a thrilling journey and yes – we both agreed it was the best train ride we had ever taken.
Many hours later and with sore bums (not much padding these trains) we arrived in Colombo. We headed straight for our hotel by tuk tuk through the crazy, noisy colourful city and headed straight for the pool. Even though we had done nothing all day but sit on a bus then a train and then a tuk tuk, we were exhausted.