Recently I stayed in a hotel very close to Colombo’s airport, the Otha Shy Airport Hotel. The Sri Lankan capital is some distance away, and as I had a late arrival followed by a morning onward flight, I was more focused on location than quality. I took a cursory look at some reviews but didn’t bother with much more. The price was reasonable, it looked clean and I wasn’t going to have to spend an hour in traffic worrying whether I’d miss my flight.
On arrival, at nearly midnight following a delayed flight, the person manning reception was pleasant and efficient. He gave me a complimentary bottle of water and a working WiFi code. The room was spotless and I had a comfortable night’s sleep. I woke reasonably early and half an hour or so later I became aware of some persistent hammering from the floor above. I wasn’t too worried, as I was about to check out anyway.
On check out, the reason became apparent: the ground floor was complete but the first floor was a scaffolding-clad building site. Never mind: the owner was still charm personified and despite his late night, gave me a free lift to the airport about ten minutes up the road.
Curious, I checked the reviews. Most were very positive. Here’s what Trip Advisor has to say: https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Hotel_Review-g2550421-d8656795-Reviews-Otha_Shy_Airport_Hotel-Katunayaka_Western_Province.html#review_361396695 and here are the reviews on Booking.com: http://www.booking.com/hotel/lk/otha-shy-airport.en-gb.html#tab-reviews.
The owner was very enthusiastic about his expansion plans and convinced that the building work would be completed this month (April 2016). He was the kind of man you want to root for; he had a dream and was determined to realise it. What’s nice is that the lack of poor reviews means that the people that have stayed there while construction is underway get that. I can’t imagine there being much leeway in his budget, so he’d need bookings for his ground floor rooms despite the noise or disruption. A few bad reviews could scupper his dreams.
I’m not in the habit of destroying someone’s chances to improve themselves. Mr Nalaka, I wish you every success with your business and if I return to Sri Lanka, I’ll be booking my old room.
One of the unquestionable highlights of touring Sri Lanka is a journey by rail. The network is extensive and links many of the country’s must-see destinations. There are many tour companies who offer itineraries based around train travel, but these can be expensive and prescriptive. If you prefer to go it alone, here’s my guide to getting around by train.
Planning is everything
Although trains link many of the country’s cities and towns, there are gaps. I planned a circular route beginning at Colombo Fort station, heading inland to Kandy, then up into the highlands to Nanu Oya (for Nuwara Eliya) and then on to Ella. Separately, I rode the stretch of track from Weligama to Galle from where you can catch a train back up to Colombo.
Arranging a driver for the gaps
To visit the lofty palace at Sigiriya, I hired a car and driver for the day, stopping off on the way back at an elephant sanctuary. There’s no rail link between Ella and the south coast either, so again, I hired a car and driver. This time I stopped off half way to take an elephant safari at Uda Walawe. Although I could have picked up a train at Matara, I chose to book the driver to Galle so I wouldn’t have to clock watch all day. Drivers were arranged as I went along, either through the hotel or via a taxi driver at a station. Costs aren’t excessive by UK standards. To travel from Galle to the airport via the fast expressway costs around 11000 rupees including tolls (about £55).
To book or not to book?
Some trains can be reserved online and you may wish to book these trains for the beginning and end of your trip if you want to be sure of making connections. Depending on how long you allow at each stop, you should be fine to just purchase your other tickets as you go along, unless you’re travelling in a large group or at a holiday time.
Where did I get my tickets?
I caught the Rajhadani Express from Colombo Fort to Kandy; a reserved seat in air-conditioned first class cost 1100 rupees (less than £6). It was straightforward to book online. Seats become available two weeks prior to departure and you just need to make a note of your reservation number. On arrival at Colombo airport, as you exit into the tour and taxi desk hall, you’ll see a Mobitel counter right by the door. They will print your ticket for you on production of your reservation number and passport. Alternatively, you can do this when you get to the station.
It wasn’t what you’d call luxury by European standards but the fat leather seats and padded arm rests were comfortable. The train lurches around a lot so whichever carriage you opt for it’s not going to be a relaxing ride, however. Expo Rail bookings work in a similar way to the Rajhadani Express with their own dedicated website. However, departures with these two companies are limited and may not fit in with your plans. You can check the online schedule on the Sri Lanka Railways website for a full list of trains operating on the days you wish to travel.
Booking regular trains
Whether or not you can book other trains in advance depends on whether the train has any reserved seat carriages or not. Following up on a recommendation from the Man in Seat 61’s excellent website, I booked the Kandy to Nanu Oya leg with Visit Sri Lanka Tours, a UK based travel agent. They were efficient and most importantly, the reservation number they sent me was recognised at Kandy station when I went to collect the ticket. Obviously they charge a premium for this service, but their rates were not exorbitant.
Reserved carriages can be first, second or third class. First class isn’t necessarily air-conditioned but can be. Don’t expect luxury; it’s more about space than quality. Second class usually has four seats per row, overhead fans and windows that fully open, while third class is more crowded with six seats per row.
When I booked the train from Kandy to Nanu Oya second class was full so I bought a first class ticket for 1000 rupees (about £5). I was told that sometimes additional reserved seating is released at the last minute at a premium price. If at first you’re told the train is full, it might therefore be worth asking again the day before. This strategy worked for a London couple I met on the train whose driver procured second class reserved tickets at the last minute.
For at least half the journey I rode by the door as it was more social and I could take better photographs from the open doorway. I tried not to think about health and safety too much, but definitely held on tight. One jolt and I could have been offering myself as extra labour in a trackside tea plantation.
From Nanu Oya to Ella a first-class observation car had been attached to the back of a train mostly hauling freight but with a couple of unreserved passenger cars also. I wouldn’t say the view out of the dirty observation window was much to write home about, for photographers at least, but the windows did open fully making for some fantastic scenic shots from my seat and a welcome breeze too.
On the Weligama to Galle hop, I just bought a ticket on the day as there was no allocated seating on that local train. It cost 60 rupees (about 30p) and I just found a seat when the train pulled in.
As it was a middle of the day departure, it wasn’t crowded, but on some peak time services the advice from the station master was that to get a seat, you may have to fight. I didn’t like the sound of that for the Galle to Colombo leg of my trip which I would have had to make at rush hour with luggage, so I opted to hire a car and driver instead. Had my schedule permitted, I could however have pre-booked an afternoon train with a reserved seat, just not a morning one.
And one last piece of advice…
All tickets are collected on exit so make sure you keep your print out (reserved seating) or little cardboard ticket (regular seating) safe throughout the journey. My ticket was checked en route by an inspector on the Rajhadani Express but not on subsequent trains.
Uda Walawe National Park is home to the largest concentration of elephants in Sri Lanka. It was created in 1972 and centres on the Uda Walawe reservoir. Although in March there was quite dense vegetation on the way in to the park, it thinned by the lake shore and thus made it easier to see wildlife. At first, sightings were limited to a few monitor lizards and birds, neither of which excited me much. But at the lake, a couple of herons were pottering about in the shadows seemingly oblivious to the crocodile skulking behind them. In the middle distance, some water buffalo wallowed.
But I’d come to see the elephants, said to number around six hundred, making it the best place to view them in the country. Easily seen year-round, herds can number over fifty but the largest family group I saw was eleven, still impressive. Our first sighting, a mother with two juveniles, was entertaining. They took a stroll down to the lake where the youngest couldn’t wait to relieve himself in the water. Toilet taken care of, it could bathe happily before the trio wandered back into the bush.
As we drove along the lake shore dirt track, a lone adolescent passed us at close range, near enough to leave us in no doubt that he was a male. Unperturbed by the camera clicking, he ambled past towards the lake.
In the vegetation, the thick leaves can provide excellent camouflage, but the guide was equally skilled in locating the wildlife. This was our closest encounter, though fortunately the creature was very docile and didn’t warn us off.
A herd of eleven including two babies was the highlight of the drive. One infant looked to be just three months old or thereabouts, with the other perhaps six months. It’s always delightful to see how the older members of the family protect the youngest when they’re on the move, keeping the babies close by but placing themselves between infant and safari vehicle just in case.
There are other species to keep the elephants company, and I saw plenty of water buffalo and in the distance, a couple of spotted deer. A family of monkeys swung in the branches of a tree and amongst the birds I recognised were a grey heron and a kingfisher by a lake so full of green algae it was hard to decide which was the most vibrant in colour. Leopards are said to be present in small numbers though I wasn’t lucky enough to encounter one.
While some people stay at one of the nearby hotels or guesthouses, I took a game drive en route from Ella to Galle. The three hour stop was a welcome diversion from sitting in the car. My driver arranged a safari jeep within minutes and it cost about £45 for a private excursion with Wild Safari Service including all entrance fees. Be prepared to haggle.
I expected tea picking to be difficult. Working in the sun on scarily steep slopes for eight hours wouldn’t be my choice of job and certainly not for the 600 rupee (£3) daily wage that these industrious women earn.
Learning that the Heritance Tea Factory offered a tea plucking and tasting activity, I jumped at the chance to try my hand. The slopes carpeted with squat tea bushes were relatively gentle compared to those I’d seen from the train on the way in and thickening cloud promised to deal with the heat issue.
The staff at the Heritance kitted out their small but enthusiastic team of volunteers in suitable attire: saris for the women and sarongs for the men. Raising my arms, my dresser tied a string snugly around my waist, into which she tucked a carefully pleated sari. Six metres of fabric is expertly tied to create an elegantly flowing dress, pinned across one shoulder to ensure modesty isn’t neglected.
Elegant, that is, until I moved. Sadly walking in a long dress without tripping had never been a skill I’d mastered and squeezing my way through the tiniest of gaps between tea bushes only compounded my clumsiness. Unhooking me from a stray piece of barbed wire, our guide led me to the plucking area and demonstrated which leaves to pick.
Get it wrong and the tea will be useless.
As I started to pick what I hoped were the softer, greener leaves I wished I’d paid closer attention to those deftly thrown into the basket by the expert. My basket, with an optimistic capacity of 3kg given we were only out here for half an hour, looked pathetically empty, despite the guide’s surreptitious efforts to sneak a few handfuls of her leaves in when my attention was diverted.
The bag attached with a wide canvas strap across my forehead. As I bent over to pick, it swung a little, needing the weight of some leaves to hold it steady. That strap seemed to have a mind of its own, alternating between slipping down onto my glasses and wriggling up to form a Sixties’ style beehive. Eventually, I gave up and balanced the basket on the ground. It wasn’t quite what was expected but at least I could fling in a few more leaves before my shift ended to save face.
It was hard to concentrate given the beauty of the landscape surrounding the hotel – and indeed, it’s own well-tended gardens. The Heritance Tea Factory has a long history. Its original owner was a man called William Flowerdew who bought the land in 1879, only a decade or so after tea bushes were introduced to Sri Lanka by Scot James Taylor.
Flowerdew named his factory Hethersett, producing around half a million kilos of tea each year for decades.
The factory buildings were modernised in 1937 but the factory closed, no longer economic, in 1973. Fortunately, it soon underwent a sympathetic restoration: much of the factory machinery remains in situ to make this what surely must be a unique hotel and, with attentive staff, a delight in which to stay.
The fact that they serve a decent cuppa – well, that’s just a bonus.
Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, has been on my travel radar for over three decades.
In those days, there were no travel magazines littering my desk, nor could I surf the web to take me to exotic destinations over a cuppa. (How did I manage?) What I did have, however, was a passion for Duran Duran and in 1982, the band released the video for Save A Prayer. Watch it here:
It was shot on location in various parts of Sri Lanka, among them Sigiriya, which that same year was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. As the camera panned, I remember watching and wondering how they got up there as the rock face looked impossibly steep.
It is. And unfortunately for me, so too were the steps leading to the top. Slippery stone gives way to spiral metal staircases, the gateway to some impressive frescoes of bare-chested maidens. To my horror, I then had to descend a spiral staircase before climbing again. That’s fifty steps up and the same back just to reach the same height!
Spurred on by teenage dreams, and determined not to be put off by internet-induced nightmares, I made the climb this morning. With several terraces on which to recover my breath, my knees didn’t ache anywhere near as much as I feared.
But despite an early start, I was sweating profusely as the temperatures flung themselves ever higher and the humidity permeated like a warlike invader. By the time I got to the top I was in no state for a selfie, though I promise you the photos you’ll see here are all mine.
This lofty archaeological site is thought to be the ruins of the kingdom of Kassapa dating from the 5th Century. Those topless women could well have been his concubines. At the summit, his palace is all but gone, a few tumbledown walls and a pond full of water are the only surviving remnants of a once grand structure.
But it’s the view that takes your breath away, not the strenuous climb. See for yourself.
I overheard someone near the bottom saying the descent was harder, and this sign at the top didn’t help my confidence. Actually it was fine, and a whole lot less hard work than the ascent.
Looking at the crowds building, it was definitely a good idea to climb early. The site opened at 7am, not 8.30am as stated in my Lonely Planet.