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Sri Lanka Express
Thursday 29 November 2018
Eight Night Express Tour
I recently returned from an 8 night Express Tour of Sri Lanka with GAdventures and Turkish Airlines. Admittedly, Sri Lanka was not a destination I was overly familiar with and therefore I had no expectations before visiting. I learned on our first day that it had just been ranked by Lonely Planet as 'Top Country to visit in 2019' and was keen for my adventure to begin to find out why.
View From Above
Surprisingly, my trip highlights began even before I hit Sri Lankan soil. Our Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul was scheduled to land in the Maldives for about an hour. As we were coming in to land we were treated to the most spectacular view of the islands, you could even pick out the water bungalows, it was incredible! This was my first time to fly with Turkish Airlines and I certainly wouldn't hesitate in flying with them again. Service, food and on board entertainment were all very good.
Chief Experience Officer (CEO)
Our journey continued on to Colombo Airport where, bleary eyed we met with our Gadventures CEO (Chief Experience Officer). Gadventures always use local CEO's, in our case our guide was UD and along with his assistant and our driver, they accompanied us throughout the week. From Colombo Airport we transferred approx. half an hour north to Negombo where we checked into the Jetwing Sea Hotel.
The hotel has a beautiful setting right on the beach. It was at this stage we had a briefing of what we were to expect from our Sri Lankan experience. Since our tour was just towards the tail end of monsoon season, we grew to expect rain and storms to roll in on a nightly basis from around 6pm. That first nights storm was like nothing I've seen or heard before! But worth it for the picture perfect blue sky the next morning. Negombo is a working beach with plenty of fishing boats and nets dotted along the shore. I definitely would have enjoyed another night or two at the Jetwing.
That first morning we boarded our bus for our journey inland towards the city of Kandy, stopping enroute at Mawanella, renowned for its production of spices. Spices are one of the main industries in Sri Lanka. Our tour of the spice garden educated me in the fact that there is in fact a spice to cure every ailment. Call me gullible but who wouldn't want shiny hair, a slim figure, no aches and pains, smooth skin, strong nails and a natural hair removal cream? To my good fortune the tour ended with a visit to the spice plantation shop (phew! or so I thought!). Prices here were not what I was expecting but then again I did want the shiny hair, slim figure etc so I stocked up! All this spending worked up an appetite and our lunch location was the Sthree Craft Centre. GAdventures supports local communities worldwide as part of their Planeterra project. It is non-profit and at Sthree (which translates as ladies), the proceeds go towards funding the local women’s crisis centre. Each of the women working in Sthree had their own individual story for bringing them there. Lunch was delicious!
Temple of the Tooth Relic
We checked into the Hotel Thilanka overlooking Kandy Lake which would be our home for the next two nights. Kandy was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka & is set high in the hills in the centre of the country. It is most famous for the Temple of the Tooth Relic, one of the most sacred places of Buddhist worship, which we visited the next morning. Twice daily, ceremonial offerings and prayers are given at which time visitors queue to file past the golden casket in which the tooth is hidden beneath. It was very busy here I can't imagine what it is like during peak tourist times.
*Remember to cover your shoulders & knees and avoid tight clothing in order to enter the temple*
Off The Beaten Track
During the afternoon we were treated to a massage at the Ayurveda 'Hospital', a major spa and health centre in Sri Lanka. A full body massage here for just over an hour cost just €25. Following this we were given a little free time to spend how we pleased. A couple of us decided to walk into Kandy to get a better feel for the city and the way of life. Getting off the beaten (tour) track leads to my favourite adventures and over the next few hours we mixed with the locals, bartered in the markets, took a spin in a tuk-tuk, chanced crossing the road and learned that the spice plantation charges more than double what the markets do for the exact same products!!
Next morning, we packed up and hit the road for Nuwara Eliya. The hills outside Kandy are home to some of the most famous tea plantations in Sri Lanka. The misty hills and cool climate provide perfect conditions to grow the best varieties of tea. The views were stunning. We visited Glen Lock plantation which is set on 60 acres. The tea picking is done by only women - over 200 of them work 6 days per week with just 5 days off per month in rain or sun. They are expected to handpick and collect at least 20kg of tea leaves per day!!
Mystical Train Journey
Our journey to Ella would see us travelling by train on what is known as one of the most scenic rail journeys in the world. Having spoken to a couple of people that previously travelled by train to Ella, they seemed disappointed for me that we didn't get blue skies and clear views, but I have to admit at the time I found the weather conditions brought a mystical feel to the trip. I just loved it!!! Our CEO UD was worried that we might not get seated on the train but he needn't have worried. I spent most of the 3 hour journey hanging out of the train taking photos of the views. There is very little concern for health and safety, I'm pretty sure you wouldn't get away with on Irish Rail.
It was apparent when we arrived in Ella that the small town is quite popular with backpackers who visit to take on one of the many hiking trails in the area. The 8km trek to Ella Rock is the most popular alongside Little Adam's peak which is the 3km hike we opted for. The views are stunning, this part of Sri Lanka is a photographers dream as you are surrounded by rainforests, waterfalls, mountains & tea plantations.
So Far Off The Beaten Track I May Not Have Come Back!
While in Ella, I took a pretty hairy 15 minute tuk-tuk ride out of the town to see The Nine Arch Bridge, but it was nothing compared to the 10 minute walk through the leech infested trail, down to the track. It was a constant mental battle trying to figure out if you should keep going or stop to check your legs for leeches. You don't want to give the little blood sucking parasite gymnasts time to jump onto you! The whole terrifying experience was absolutely worth it to see the incredible panoramic view of this bridge.
Udalwalawe National Park
Every day in Sri Lanka brought a totally new experience. Our next stop was Udawalawe National Park. There are 26 National Parks in Sri Lanka, each with a dominant animal, in Udawalawe it is the Elephant. We hopped into our safari jeep and headed into the park to begin our search. I have never been on safari and really enjoyed the day, excitedly studying all sounds and movements. We were lucky enough to spot a few of the gentle giants.
Big Game Camping
Our home for the night was at Big Game Camping where we stayed in pre-pitched tents and enjoyed 'wilderness dining'. It was a great experience to sit around a campfire for the night with a few beers and have a sing song. The next morning as the campsite was in stillness, the sounds of the birds and animals around us was nothing short of magical.
The last part of our journey brought us 3 hours by road to Galle, located along the southwest coast. The walled city of Galle Fort with its Portuguese and Dutch influences is a beautiful world heritage site. With its narrow streets offering many restaurants and shops, it is the perfect place to spend a few wandering hours getting lost. We spent the afternoon at Unawatuna Beach, a banana shaped beach which is lined with plenty of beach bars. The streets leading to the beach also offer a wide selection of restaurants, shops and cafes.
Next morning, we were offered the opportunity to take a whale watching trip. I've learned that my fear of missing out results in me agreeing to any opportunities offered to us. So at 5.30am, along with my pre-packed breakfast, I made my way to the port for what was suggested to be a 1 1/2 hour boat trip to see the whales. 7 hours later, with a sighting of one whale (3 times!!), we arrived back to dry land. The trip only cost €30 and I realise I would never get a boat trip to see a blue whale anywhere in the world for that sort of money, but had I known in advance the length and results of the trip, I'm not so sure I would have been so quick to agree.
On route to our hotel, we stopped off with the stilt fishermen one of the most iconic traveller pictures from the area. The fishermen do the actual fishing at sunrise and sunset. During the day, they hang about waiting for tourists to stop by and pay them a few Rupees to take photos. When I was offered to give the fishing a go, obviously I didn't say no!
Relaxed and Laid Back Sri Lanka
I thoroughly enjoyed my week in Sri Lanka and would love to return some day. There are other parts of the country I would be really keen on seeing. Sri Lanka is the size of Scotland or Tazmania, and is home to almost 22 million people. Despite how small it is, due to the mountainous narrow roads, getting around takes a lot more time than you would expect. In saying that, I had expected Sri Lanka to be a lot more like India but there is definitely less madness and more structure to driving in Sri Lanka, it also felt a lot more relaxed and laid back. The Sri Lankans are extremely friendly people and you get the sense that they are completely honest in their dealings with you. I can't remember being in an Asian market where when you said, no you weren't interested, that it was respected with no further harassment.
This was not my first adventure group tour, but it was my first with GAdventures and I would have to say the experience was superior to my past tours from the point of view of our guides knowledge & attention to detail and the standard of accommodation that was used. Group sizes with G average at 10-12, with a wide range of ages. I'm already studying the brochure to decide on my next tour!!
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