A drive from the sweltering coastal lowlands, gradually leaving behind the rubber plantations and paddy fields, takes you to the cool, green, lush hillsides of the South Central Up Country. Here tea plantations clothe the lower mountain slopes, almost brushing your passing car, and the often mist shrouded mountain tops call you higher, higher, to their craggy tops. Trekking to World’s End and Norton Plains near Nuwara Eliya, or in the Knuckles Range in the Matale – Kandy area, will reveal the splendour of Sri Lanka’s endemic bird population, rare plants, shy animals and reptiles as well as the unrivalled vistas and waterfalls that tumble down to the valleys below.
The royal city of Kandy, nestled on the verdant hills, with its sacred Temple of the Tooth and the charm of the Peredeniya Gardens, is a popular stay on most itineraries. In July/August the town bursts at the seams for the splendour of the sacred Esala Perehera, a ten day celebration of the Holy Tooth relic involving drummers, dancers, fire eaters and elephants lavishly decorated with colourful silks and jewels.
If that’s not enough, Nuwara Eliya, with its head in the moist clouds, is the colonial cool spot featuring charming buildings of yesteryear. The now famous stretch of the train route from Kandy to Badulla, often picked up at Nanu Oya, can drop you off at Ella, a charming village a little lower down the mountains.
The Hill Country is located in the central South part of the island. It encompasses the area from Kegalle in the North West, across to the Knuckles Range in the North East and to the South as far as the Northern boundary of Uda Walawe National Park and across to Sinharaja National Park in the South West.
The climate here in the Hill Country is always mixed, so get out early in the morning before the mist lowers itself from the mountain heights. March is traditionally the driest month with January and February also being on the drier side, while October to December are the wettest.
KANDY has the honour of being the last royal capital in the island, defying the Portuguese and the Dutch who were able to grab control of the coastal regions around the country, before finally succumbing to the British in 1815. The story of how this happened, revealed to me by a still mortified distant relative who lamented that the dastardly act had brought misfortune to the family ever since, was that one of the King’s trusted men betrayed his king and countrymen by showing the British a secret back way into the city. Once there, the British arrested the King, who, when he heard that he had been so betrayed, had the betrayer’s wife and children murdered. The British then massacred many thousand high born citizens, thus destroying the royal line. I’m told that the family name of the betrayer is still regarded with disdain to this day.
Known to Sri Lankans as Nuwara or Maha Nuwara meaning Great City, KANDY is a very sacred city as it is the guardian of the Buddha’s relic. This relic, his left canine tooth was believed to have been pulled from his sandalwood funeral pyre in 543 BCE by one of his disciples. A belief grew that whoever possessed the tooth had a divine right to rule that land so, of course, there was some angst around this possession. Some 800 years later, after a major war over it, the Tooth was brought to Sri Lanka. Here it was kept in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Dambadeniya where new palaces and edifices were built to house it until finally it was brought to Kandy where it is housed today. The daily rituals, offerings and ceremonies are symbolic of the relic’s representation of a living Buddha and are well attended by the devout Buddhists, especially on a Poya Day.
While I avoid the crush of Poya Days, I like to witness the puja ceremonies at the TEMPLE of THE TOOTH – Sri Dalada Maligawa. In the same building you can see the ancient sacred texts behind glass and, if you go at a quiet time, you may even be able to have a conversation with the monk there too. Leave the Temple by the side door and you will come into a courtyard space. Look up at the amazing wood carved eaves with their intricate designs. Beautiful! The next building houses a museum on floors one and two. Here you can see King Rajasinghe’s royal clothes – he wasn’t a big man – jewellery, brass pots and many other interesting artefacts. For me, though, the real gem is on the ground floor where there is a shrine room with the most amazing white ceiling and columns with murals depicting the history of the Tooth, including the effects of the British control.
Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth is near the former Palace grounds, beside an artificial lake made by the last King, Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe. Using forced labour, this unpopular king of Indian heritage had a dam built across a paddy field. When a hundred of his advisors objected it is said that he had their heads impaled on a fence around the bank. Perhaps it was actions such as this that led to his betrayal. Anyway, the lake was originally much bigger. It still has a small island in the centre where his harem was believed to have been housed. Folk lore has it that there was a tunnel under the lake into the palace. The Queen’s bath house is still located on the palace side of the lake.
The PEREDENIYA BOTANIC GARDENS, less than six kilometres from Kandy, are a lovely place to spend a couple of hours, especially if you are interested in tropical plants. A visit to the orchid house, with over five hundred varieties of orchids, is a feast of colour and wonder at the amazing designs nature has painted on these delicate flowers.
As far back as the fourteenth century, these gardens were enjoyed by the Kings of Kandy. Today, the gardens are a popular place for young couples enjoying a leisurely walk, local families and with wedding parties taking advantage of the meticulously manicured lawns, colourful garden beds, the stately palm avenue and sparkling lake for their wedding photographs. The bridge over the Mahaweli River makes a pretty picture while providing access to the University on the opposite side. Children and adults alike are also fascinated by the upside down hanging mammals – the bats – which roost in the trees during the daytime.
The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, less than an hour’s drive from Kandy and thirteen kilometres from Kegalle, has been a popular tourist attraction since the 1980s. Originally founded to provide a refuge for orphaned babies found in the National Parks and Nature Reserves, it has now become a zoo with a herd of about a hundred – the largest captive herd in the world. These numbers are as a result of the breeding program embarked on in 1982 which has resulted in three generations of elephants now in residence. Their home, which was formerly a coconut estate, has little food for them to access so, while chained in stalls, they are fed coconut, tamarind, grass, jackfruit and the like as well as a mixture of rice bran and maize. Some of the baby elephants are selected to be bottle fed – a popular activity with tourists. During the day the females and babies range freely while the males are chained, each one guarded by his mahout who will expect a handsome tip for each photograph you take. Twice daily the elephants are taken to the nearby Ma Oya to drink and bathe, providing you with the best spot to see them enjoying the best part of their day.
Most people pass through MATALE thirty kilometres north of Kandy, enroute to the Cultural Triangle without noticing anything other than the many tourist orientated spice gardens. That’s a shame because the Sri Muthumariamman Thevasthanam temple with its large tower carved with hundreds of sculptures of divine beings, is right on the main road and is something really worth seeing. [It’s open between 6am – 1pm and again 4pm – 8pm] Muthumariamman, the name meaning esteemed mother with rain, was a fertility goddess in India. Here, in Matale, during the month long Ther festival from February to March, babies and young children are brought from all over the country to receive blessings. This is an exciting time with twice daily long pujas taking place – 6am – 12 noon and again from 6pm to midnight. During the day, sculptures of the temple gods, including Lord Murgan, Godess Pattini, Ganeshan are carefully placed on beautifully decorated chariots and pulled through the streets of Matale by both Hindu and Buddhist devotees. Another blurring of the two religions! This important festival attracts half a million devotees from all over Sri Lanka and Southern India.
Twenty kilometres north of the town, is the special rock cave temple, ALUVIHARA MONASTRY. This temple is famous as the place where, in the third century BC, the Buddhist doctrines were first transcribed on palm leaves. [You can see similar texts behind glass in the library at the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy.] This huge task was undertaken by a team of five hundred monks in response to fears that the constant invasions by South Indian kings would result in Buddhism being threatened. Until that time the verses and sermons had been memorised and recited. It took many years of work by this team of learned monks, using a metal stylus on strips of papyrus, to record these sacred verses, in Pali, in book form. In 1848 Matale was the scene of a rebellion against the British when rebels led by the still famous Weerapuran Appu and Gongalegoda Banda kept their garrison under siege. During the ensuing fight, the old library at Aluvihare was destroyed and along with it these important documents. It has been a slow and painstaking task to again record and agree on transcriptions of these important verses.
The temple is a series of caves formed by fallen boulders and it is thought that King Devanampiyatissa built the dagaba and planted the Bo tree here after Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka during his reign from 307BC to 267 BC. In the caves there are murals depicting aspects of Buddhism, including graphic depictions of Hell, Buddha statues and religous icons. This important temple is visited by up to a hundred thousand people during the Wesak and Poson poyas.
We’re actually out of the Hill Country now however this intriguing site is not far up the road from Aluvihara. Just twenty kilometres further north and one kilometre off the main road you can find NALANDA GEDIGE. This image house is thought to have been constructed at the time when the South Indian Kings were taking advantage of weak Sinhalese kings in this area – around the 7th – 10th centuries AD. Previously situated in paddy fields surrounded by woody scrub, this ancient stone temple was by saved from ruin in 1975 by being carefully removed from its original position and repositioned in a beautiful setting on the banks of the recently created Bowatenne Tank,
A great deal of intrigue surrounds ancient image house because it is designed like a Hindu temple with an entrance hall and the holy centre allowing for devotees to worship while walking around the holy statues and icons. The richly decorated façade with the god Kubera – a uniquely Sri Lankan feature – on the south side is particularly striking. Some learned scholars have identified elements of the structure as from the tantric influenced Mahayana school of Buddhism. Named after an important Buddhist University in India and in a lovely location, Nalanda Gedige is a fascinating fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism. It’s well worth a visit by anyone interested in historic religious architecture.
The hotels and guesthouses high on the hill behind the Temple of the Tooth have lovely views of a range of distant, blue, misty mountains resembling closed knuckles – the KNUCKLES MOUNTAIN RANGE. The local name for this unspoilt area is Dambara Kanduvetiya, which means “mist laden”. Even though it is a mere 40 km from Kandy, this beautiful area is only now becoming known by adventure seekers and naturalists. Covering 155 sq km with five mountain peaks reaching over 1,820m and another thirty over 900m, it’s an unmissable place for the reasonably fit adventurer. Here, you can trek through terraced paddy fields, tea plantations and dense forests, pass through traditional villages, follow along rivers, enjoy the flowing waterfalls and crystal clear streams and wonder at the ancient rock formations.
While the panoramic views and the lushness of this extremely rugged wilderness area may be enough to thrill you, there’s more! Some common animals here are the wild buffalo, wild boar, black lipped hare, toque macaque and leaf monkey while others such as elephants, a leopard or two, mouse deer and fishing cat have also been seen. Then there’s the abundant bird life. With over 130 species plus ten migrant species, this is the place for bird watchers and nature photographers. Look out for the colourful Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl, Wood Pigeon, Green Pigeon, Hanging Parrot, Layard’s Parakeets, White Eye, Wood Shrike, Dull Blue Flycatcher, Crimson Backed Woodpecker and Bush Warbler. The migrant birds include the Asian Paradise Flycatcher and the endangered Kashmir Flycatcher. The reptiles you may see range from the common small geckoes and skinks to huge monitor lizards and long pythons.
As it is such a rugged area and with a high rainfall making the tracks sometimes sticky, you do need a guide – even for a one day hike. There are a few ecotourism companies which can provide multi day camping treks where all you need to provide is extra leech repellent socks or blockers. The best times to visit are either from March to April and June to August.
KITULGALA is famous for two things – white water rafting and as the location of the 1950s filming of the Bridge Over the River Kwai. While the memory of the film is fading, white water rafting on a tributary of the mighty Kelani is flourishing. To capture the thrill of cruising and crashing down the ravines atop seething water, you really need to be there early in the morning to enjoy the best time. If you are not up to rafting then it’s very pleasant to relax riverside while enjoying lunch at one of the small guesthouses and hotels. The narrow bridge marking the film spot offers a fun time if you have a little nerve to enjoy the swaying as you cross to the other side. The forest reserve nearby is a great place to capture photos of Sri Lanka’s colourful birds.
When the water is low there are places to enjoy a river bathe. Last time I did that I found I had a bathing elephant for company!
Kitulgala, in the lower Hill Country, is easily reached from Kandy, Colombo or the airport. There are several eco rafting tour companies to be found along the main road.
A TRAIN ride upcountry from KANDY to NUWARA ELIYA or, most often, further to ELLA, through breathtakingly beautiful tea clad hills is on many a traveller’s itinerary. To enjoy the awesome panoramas in daylight the best train to take is the Podi Menike which currently leaves Kandy just before 9am daily.
When I am hosting friends I drive to NANU OYA, near Nuwara Eliya, and pick up the train from there to ELLA – the most scenic part of the trip. The drive is quite adventurous with many U bends, fabulous views and allows for a stop at a tea factory for refreshments and photo opportunities of waterfalls and tea plantations.
It is possible to reserve seats 45 days ahead of your travel day in an airconditioned coach or second class [my preference because open windows allow for better photography]. Second class can be a lot of fun too, sometimes with local youths providing a drumming concert and children screaming through tunnels! Staminia is needed for this and also for boarding if you haven’t got a reservation – seats need to be obtained quite assertively.
Coffee, then TEA
It may come as a surprise to learn that in Sri Lanka coffee was actually a thriving crop well before tea growing was ever thought of! Introduced by the British in the early 1820s and boosted by boom times when the Jamaican coffee industry collapsed due to the abolition of slavery, the coffee industry flourished with virgin mountain forests being cleared and roads being developed, ports built to enable the coffee to be exported to Britain. These boom times came slowly to an end with a rust disease, first noticed in 1869, taking ten years to wipe out the world’s then biggest producer of coffee’s entire industry. So, as they say in Sri Lanka, “What to do?”
The saviour of the economy was a canny Scot, James Taylor. James had seen tea grown in Assam, India, and during the down period when the rust disease was taking control, had begun experimenting with growing tea. By 1886 he had twenty acres planted and had shipped his first small consignment to England. Before he knew it, he had planters from all over the Hill country knocking on his door to find out how they could grow and process this new plant. Today, all around the world, tea means Sri Lanka.
The tea bush or shrub is from the camellia species and thrives on the steep hillsides in the cold climate. Bushes are kept low so that women tea pluckers can move around the shrub carefully plucking the fresh leaves from each bud. These are then tossed over their shoulders into their headband held baskets.
ADAM’S PEAK – SRI PADA
A night time climb up the five plus kilometres to the 2240 metres top of Sri Lanka’s most sacred mountain ends with feelings of exhiliration, happiness and relief as well as with the excitement of drummers signalling the start of the sunrise puja ritual. The stiff, cold breeze has flags flapping noisily, drowning the prayers of the pilgrims seated around the perimeter of the circular wall. Bare toes, now icicles, numb nose. It’s all worth it to be there at this special place for an age old ritual at the top and to see the sun rise, slowly revealing the toy town village below. This is one of life’s most memorable times. If you are lucky to be there on a clear morning, when the sun is about to rise, position yourself on the eastern side to see an amazing spectacle! Watch as the sun appears over the eastern horizon drawing a perfect triangle of a shadow of the mountain spreading over the western backdrop of the mountain. As the sun keeps on rising, the shadow moves towards the base of the mountain, slowly disappearing. What an awesome sight!
Puja over, sun up, most of the pilgrims ring the bell – one strike for each pilgrimage made – and head down the mountain to get out of the cold. Those who pause longer enjoy a 360 degree vista and to savour the experience.
ADAM’S PEAK’S sacred status is shared by all the main religious groups in Sri Lanka. The Buddhists believe that the Buddha visited Sri Lanka and that his foot touched the top of the peak leaving an imprint in a large sapphire rock. One of the kings of Lanka later covered this precious sapphire footprint with a huge granite slab to protect it because worshippers were taking bits of it home with them to treasure. It is now protected by a small temple and is a focus for believers. As Muslim people believe that it was Adam’s footprint, while the Hindus attribute it to Shiva and the Christians to St Thomas you will find yourself making the climb with many pilgrims of all these faiths.
The pilgrimage season starts with the Unduvap Poya in December and ends with Wesak in May. To climb at any other time is regarded as disrespectful of the mountain’s sacred status and dangerous due to lack of lighting and wet conditions on the irregular rock hewn steps.
The most popular route, well lit and with rest places and tea shops starts at the village of Delhousie. Most tourists have an early night in one of the guesthouses here, starting the climb around 1.30am aiming to reach the summit before sunrise. It’s best to wear layers of clothes so you can peel or pile as required.
Feeling the heat of Colombo and the West Coast ? Do what the ruling British colonials did in the early nineteenth century and head for the misty mountains of NUWARA ELIYA where the climate is always temperate and cool. Although the valley was inhabited during the early period of the Kingdom of Kandy, a colonial explorer, Samuel Baker, discovered this heavenly spot that the British began to create their own refuge from the heat, building “Little England.” Today the remaining remnants of colonial past times of horse racing, motor racing, polo and golf are relived by the wealthy Sri Lankans. Enter hotels such as The Grand, St Andrew’s and also the Hill Club and discover a separate world of dress code, billiards, mounted stuffed hunting trophies, huge fireplaces and nostalgic decor while outside tuk tuks scoot around and the liquor of the locals is arrack, not imported brandy or whiskey.
The Sri Lankans view NUWARA ELIYA, the “City of Light” through a romantic and nostalgic filter with many private homes there cherishing their old English style gardens and manicured lawns. It might not be the place to be during the April New Year holiday week when the small town takes on a festive air with local holiday makers filling the hotels and guesthouses – at premium rates. The former colonial fox, deer and elephant hunting are thankfully no longer on the fun list however horse racing, car racing, golf and cricket are much enjoyed by all at this festive time.
For most visitors NUWARA ELIYA is a place to stay when trekking HORTON NATIONAL PARK, just forty five minutes away between Nuwara Eliya and Haputale. If you are making the trek from here be aware that you will need a very early start because by 10am the perpetual mist comes sliding down creating a damp, cool barrier between you and the stunning views. This is particularly so from April to September. HORTON PLAINS is a cool 6,900 – 7,500 feet or 2,100 – 2,300 metres plateau offering awesome hiking, abundant bird life, mammals such as a large herd of sambar deer, the rhino horn lizard, endemic snakes and rainbow trout and carp. The most famous feature is “World’s End” – a sheer escarpment that drops 2,100 feet or 870 metres. People have fallen and died here so be very careful! On a clear day, from the plains the unmistakable Adam’s Peak can be seen. Baker’s Falls 60 feet or 20 metres and Slab Rock Falls are other beautiful and popular attractions.
There’s another mini plains with its entrance just a ten minute drive from Nuwara Eliya called MOON PLAINS. Only authorised jeeps are able to take visitors through The Potato Seed Farm between 7am – 6pm to this almost secret area on the Bomuruella Plains from where a 360 degree view reveals almost all of Sri Lanka’s ten highest mountains. Between the swirling mists rich paddy fields, trees and clusters of houses paint a perfect picture. Animals and birds are plentiful – water buffalo, sambar deer to name a few. If you looking for awesome scenery, this is yet another secret place.
There are many waterfalls, tea plantations and walks to see in NUWARA ELIYA. Here, too, layering clothing allows you to peel or pile as needed. If you intend hiking in HORTON PLAINS, do engage a guide for your own safety and enjoyment.
The train ride between Nanu Oya to ELLA, with the visions of mist shrouded mountain tops, waterfalls, patchworks of terraced rice paddy and vegetable fields, tea plantations is one that those who plan their own trip seldom bypass. [For daylight views do ensure that you ride on the blue train, the Podi Menike, that arrives from Kandy at Nanu Oya at 12.45 and then at ELLA at 3.15.] ELLA, a lovely village nestled on the hillsides is dominated by ELLA ROCK from which the views across the country are totally awesome. The trek up to the top takes four hours return for the 8 km and is very enjoyable. Start at the Ella station and walk along the train tracks, as the locals do, until, near Kithella station, a track leads upwards. As it is a very popular trek, many locals now try to guide you for some exhorbitant tips however it is entirely possible to do this walk yourself, seeking help from the people living along the way when you get lost. An early morning start is recommended for best views at the top and to avoid getting wet in the afternoon rains.
LITTLE ADAM’S PEAK is a pleasant amble to the top of a hill opposite Ella Rock. The start is beside the Flower Garden Restaurant and Guesthouse and follows a path through tea estates until you come to some steps that will soon take you to the top. A far nicer route to the top is to ignore the steps and take the original path to the side from where you have lovely views across to terraced paddy fields and through a gap in the mountains. From the top you can see RAVANA FALLS named after the chronicles of Ravana and Rama. Legend has it that Ravana kidnapped Indian Princess Sita, wife of Rama, and fled with her to Sri Lanka. They landed on the top of nearby Thotupola Mountain with Princess Sita then being hidden in caves at the top of Ravana Falls.
ELLA has developed a lot during the last couple of years with several restaurants, cafes, local bars and theraputic massage options. Of course, as for local people, massage treatment is done in their homes by family members, charges for massages are all at tourist level. If you intend climbing Ella Rock as well as Little Adam’s Peak, three nights are recommended for your stay in lovely Ella. It’s not as cool as Nuwara Eliya however a light jumper is good early morning and evenings.