Prior to the year end festivities of 2017, we were tossing up between Guang Zhou and Shanghai for the next family holiday before I threw Colombo, Sri Lanka into the mix. I know its a little strange considering how vastly different Colombo is from the other two options. 2017’s annual family holiday was to Boracay in the Philippines where both my father and I fell ill after unintentionally consuming some moonshine at a local eatery (he got it worse than I did). As such, my father wasn’t convinced on having another holiday in a developing nation. Not to mention, Sri Lanka was stuck in a civil war for over 20 years that ended only very recently in 2009.
One of my main motives for visiting Colombo was that I had a good friends from college who lived there and had been meaning to visit them for a while. Thankfully, my father’s friends convinced him that Sri Lanka was worth the visit and also suggested that we head to Nuwara Eliya in the hill countries of central Sri Lanka. So, off to Sri Lanka we went.
Our trip started off at 8pm from Singapore and we arrived at 1am in Colombo. It was well beyond 3am when we finally settled in at Colombo Court Hotel – a little boutique hotel that prides itself as one of the first carbon neutral hotels in the city. We even got upgraded to a suite, an excellent start to the family holiday.
Jacuzzi in Colombo Court Hotel
The hotel is an aesthetically pleasing rustic and cosy abode with very hospitable staff in the middle of Colombo 3 or Kollupitiya, a mere 15 minutes by tuk-tuk to central Colombo. I have never had a three course set breakfast till we were served one during the complimentary breakfast in the morning. I went for the Sri Lankan option (the other options available were Western and Indian) that was pretty heavy and it was honestly, slightly weird to have curry with rice in the morning for someone not used to it. None the less, it was my first taste of Sri Lankan food and I was hooked.
My Sri Lankan breakfast featuring vegetable curry, pol sambol, milk rice cakes, roti and string hoppers
The first thing on our agenda was to purchase return train tickets to Nuwara Eliya from Colombo Fort train station. The station is a humble affair with the train routes, dates and seat availability all listed out on a white board and updated manually. Unfortunately all the trips up to Nuwara Eliya from Colombo were fully booked but we were lucky to snag reserved seats in a third class carriage on the return journey for a mere 1200LKR or 12 SGD for three people (probably the best 12 dollars spent ever). The journey is known to be one of the most scenic train routes in the world, therefore the desperation in getting seats for the ride. I would suggest booking a month or more in advance via a booking agent to spare yourself the anxiety, or worse, disappointment over the train tickets.
Colombo Fort Station
Highland milk bar stands – a common feature across the Sri Lankan urban and suburban landscape.
With the return trip settled, we were left to worry about getting ourselves to Nuwara Eliya. After some scrambling and asking around, we booked a private car through Kangaroo Cabs at the suggestion of my friend (it really helps to know a local). After a simple call, we were booked with a new and comfortable hybrid Toyota Prius with on-board functioning WiFi for a five hour journey through the hills to Nuwara Eliya. Their trip’s prices are based off a meter and it cost us about 12,800 LKR or 128SGD, which is a bargain compared to the 250USD that the hotel had quoted us.
Now that we had our transport issues out of the way, we were able to enjoy exploring the city. The following pictures show the places that we covered in city that are on the many travel guides on Colombo, but I must highlight two others which were recommended by my friend – Upali’s and Barefoot.
Food stands along Galle Green
View from Galle Face Hotel
Upali’s by Nawaloka is an unpretentious restaurant with a view of Victoria or Viharamahadevi park that serves up incredible Sri Lankan food that will require a reservation in advance. We were lucky to have got a table for dinner without one but it was the last unreserved table available and we witnessed a family being turned away shortly after us.
Vegetarian samosas which my father claims is the best he’s ever had in his life
You can witness that claim in this image, he already got to one before I could take a photo. From left to right: bittara beduma (Sri Lankan styled scrambled eggs), themparadu bath (white rice with ghee, onions and curry leaves), hathmaluwa ( vegetable curry made from a 2000 year old recipe)
Upali’s Sri Lankan cuisine taster set for 2
Barefoot Ceylon is a combination of an artisanal craft and book shop, gallery and garden cafe/bar tucked away behind a modest facade along Galle Road in Colombo 3/ Kollupitiya. If there is only one store that you have time for in Colombo, this is it. It has very comprehensive stock of all things Sri Lanka, from their specialty teas to spa products, home-ware, clothes and bags. Food at the cafe is reasonably priced with a good selection and the atmosphere is perfect for lazing the afternoon away with a good friend or book. The gallery is located to the side of the cafe and was holding an exhibition titled Sri Lanka The Island From Above. It featured huge wide format images taken from an aerial viewpoint of the stunning landscapes of Sri Lanka. I reiterate, if there’s time for only one place, it’s Barefoot; food, drinks, shopping and wanderlust fuel all rolled into one.
Garden cafe in the courtyard of Barefoot Ceylon.
Our first taste of the beauteous landscapes that Sri Lanka had to offer was en-route our five hour journey to Nuwara Eliya on our extremely comfortable Kangaroo Cab hybrid car booking. Located in the tea country hills at an altitude of 1800 and famous for its tea plantation terraces, the drive was nothing short of stunning. Sri Lanka produces and supports about a quarter of the world’s tea consumption, so one can only imagine how seemingly endless the terraces of tea bushes are. Though, I must make a note here that the roads up are long and winding, and can take quite the toll on those who are prone to motion sickness.
The backyard of a humble eatery along the route up to Nuwara Eliya
The city of Nuwara Eliya is dotted with numerous colonial references to the period where it was once under the British empire. A quick check on the hotels available in the area will show you that most of the more established ones are converted old colonial buildings intact with their beautifully maintained gardens. With the temperature at a cool 18 degree Celsius in the day that drops to a sub 10 in the evenings and coupled with a polo club in the middle of the city, you can almost imagine that you’re in the UK. The one thing that kept us mentally in Sri Lanka was the copious amount of horse poop littered everywhere.
Suburbs of Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya Polo Club
Lake Gregory at sunset
Araliya Green Hills was our accommodation of choice or rather what we were left with as most of the other hotels were fully booked. It is definitely not a fancy hotel, with satisfactory facilities and rooms, though what made up for it was the fantastic service provided by the staff. Not to mention, the very impressive and vegetarian friendly complimentary breakfast and dinner buffet spread where we had quite literally filled ourselves silly daily.
We took two day trips from Nuwara Eliya, one to the UNESCO World Heritage Site – Horton Plains National Park and the other to Ella, Nuwara Eliya’s more touristy cousin.
Horton Plains National Park
Sitting at an altitude of approximately 2500m at it’s lowest point and an hour’s drive away from the hotel, we had the impression that it would be chilly. However, we soon quickly learnt that high altitude does not translate to cloud covered, windy and cold. It wasn’t warm but it was really sunny and we regretted leaving the hats and sunblock out. Majority of the visitors to the national park would try to reach the start of the 9-10km trail prior to sun rise to catch the gorgeous views before fog and mist sets in at World’s End. It is a check point along the trail that is a sudden 4000 feet steep drop off the plateau into the valley below.
The sight that greets you upon entering Horton Plains National Park
However, being the (lazy) deviants, we set off only at 8am and started the trek only slightly before half past 9. Our hired car and driver booked through the hotel cost us 4500LKR or 45 SGD and the entrance fee for three foreigners to the park was 6700LKR or 67SGD. Locals need to pay only 60LKR to enter the national park.
Rolling hills of Sri Lanka
Nearing the cloud forest
4000 feet drop at World’s End
Baker’s falls (spot the hint of a rainbow)
The trek is a loop that is estimated to take about 3 hours, we took almost 4 due to the numerous little detours we had taken from the main route. It is advised against straying from the beaten path, but some of the most beautiful shots were taken from those detours. Also, it felt amazing to be the completely alone and surrounded by nature. Though I must caution: do take calculated risks when going off the main trek as it is easy to lose your bearings very easily in the plains.
Taken on one of the many detours in Horton Plains National Park
To be continued in: Annual Family Holiday ver. 2018 feat. Sri Lanka (part 2)