Mission 19: Stunning Sri Lanka

Where: Negombo → Adam’s Peak → Colombo → Kandy → Ella → Udawalawe → Talalla → Mirissa → Anuradhapura → Bentota → Weligama

When: November 2017 to January 2018

What: mountain climbing, riding the train, meeting family, seeing elephants, downpours at the beach, extending our visas, workaway, Christmas and surfing

Negombo, Adam’s Peak, Colombo

It’s true what they say about Sri Lanka, it’s like a really chilled out version of India, and you notice as soon as you arrive at the airport, less chaos, less people, and less noise.

While myself and the boys headed to Negombo, Jess made his way (on several buses) to Adam’s Peak. We didn’t think it was worth dragging the boys there, so Jess climbed it and we got to see the photos. It was a pretty long journey for a very brief visit, he arrived at 9pm, got up at 2am, and was at the top before sunrise. It was out of season, so there were no lights on the path, and far fewer people than there would be a month or so later, when apparently it can get so busy that there is a queue to reach the top. But he met some pretty cool people. Once he reached the bottom, he made his way back to Colombo, and up to Negombo to meet us.

Meanwhile, myself and the boys were relaxing at the pool at our guest house in the north of Negombo. We visited the beach, only to watch the fishermen bringing in their catch, as the water isn’t suitable for children to swim, due to the strong current.

We spent one more day in Negombo when the wanderer returned, before heading down to spend a few days in Colombo, where we stayed at a beautiful guest house in the south of the city. The following day we explored Colombo a little, starting of course with a playground. In the evening we went to Galle Face Green to watch the sunset and try some delicious street food.

Grandma arrived at the guest house the next afternoon, and to celebrate, we drove out to a restaurant in Mount Lavinia we’d found online, and it was closed, so the driver recommended another, on the beach, we had to cross the train track to get there. Once we were in we realised how close we were to the track when the first train sped by, it was so loud! We had a lovely meal, and very carefully crossed back over the track, after waiting for another noisy high speed train to pass.

Kandy, Ella, Udawalawe

The next morning we woke early to get the train from Colombo to Kandy, we’d already bought tickets, in 2nd class, and we all got seats together, something we would later realise we took for granted. The journey was around 3 hours long, the views were spectacular, and we were very lucky to have a group of young men in the seats opposite who were playing very chilled guitar, drums and singing the whole journey. The boys loved the mango sellers on the train “sweeet mango mango mango mango mango”. We all had a go at sitting in the open doorway, and it was a really enjoyable journey. In fact, on every journey we had on Sri Lankan railways, Dylan was always more keen to sit in the doorway than he was to sit on a seat.

We arrived in Kandy and found our guest house, which was down the steepest gravelly hill, we were very grateful not to be there in the rainy season. We were welcomed by a very enthusiastic owner, who couldn’t do enough to help us.

The following day we walked around Kandy and didn’t do too much as the boys were really tired. We found a lovely café (Café Secret Alley) and chilled there while Arto slept on the wooden table. In the evening we saw some very impressive performances at the Kandy Cultural show.

We had to get up really early the next morning, as the advanced train tickets for Ella were sold out, so we arrived at the station at 6am to buy unreserved seating, and waited at the station for a few hours for the train to come, as more and more people arrived at the station, we saw our chances of getting a seat diminish, so we discussed our tactics of how we would get a seat when the train arrived. The train pulled in, and our plan of Jess jumping through the window to nab a seat went out of the window when we saw the train was already packed, and the windows were half closed! So Jess and I bundled onto the train and found us all a tiny bit of walkway to stand in, while the boys sat on the bags, constantly moving to get out of the way of the hawkers. An hour or two into the 6 hour journey we all found a seat, and the journey was much more relaxing from there. The views were amazing again, even more so than the journey from Colombo to Kandy, as we were now in the mountains.

We got another great guest house in Ella, which was such good value, the breakfast was amazing, and we ate on the terrace overlooking the tea fields. We discovered Kotthu Roti at dinner that evening; roti bread is chopped very loudly on a board with massive knives, and stir fried with vegetables, eggs and meat, we, including the boys, couldn’t get enough of it for the rest of the trip. We were very glad the boys were into kottu, as otherwise it wasn’t that easy to feed the kids in Sri Lanka, everything is spicy or incredibly sweet, even really young children eat surprisingly spicy foods.

We visited the Ravana Waterfall, which is beautiful, but we were disappointed to hear you can’t swim in it. The other waterfalls were quite a long drive away, and since the boys had had a few long travel days, we didn’t want to push it. That afternoon, after a rest, we all climbed Little Adam’s Peak. It was quite hard work, but a few welcome drops of rain made it easier. The boys really enjoyed it and it was a great alternative to the real thing. We found a restaurant that evening that did pizza AND kottu AND beer, and had live music. So everyone was happy.

The next day we got a taxi to our next stop, Udawalawe. We could have got two buses, but we heard they get ridiculously overcrowded and the drivers aren’t keen on taking backpacks, so we decided to treat outselves to a bit of luxury, and got a taxi. As we passed Udawalawe Park we saw an elephant right on the edge of the park, so we stopped to say hello.

We arrived in Udawalele to yet another amazing guest house, and so cheap. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot else going on in the town, so we had dinner at the guest house, and it was a real feast of Sri Lankan curries. And the boys were really excited to have plain boiled vegetables and plain rice, no really, they love it!

Our safari jeep picked us up before sunrise and we headed into Udawalawe Park. It wasn’t long before we saw one elephant, then another, then another, then a family of elephants with a tiny baby. It was really amazing to see so many elephants, and some so close up.

Talalla, Mirissa

The next day we had to get another taxi to our next stop, because of sickness and pouring rain. We arrived at Talalla, to the only reasonably priced guest house we could find, it was up on the hill at one end of the beach, and it was perfect. The lady running the place, who was only 18, was very sweet, she couldn’t leave the boys alone, she really just wanted someone to play with. The beach here is great for kids; it’s in a bay, so the water is very calm and shallow, and the sand is lovely and soft. We spent as much time on the beach as possible, in between downpours. It’s really quiet at Talalla, and a great place to spend a few days, but after that we wanted a bit more variety, so we headed to Mirissa.

After booking a guest house that sounded great on booking.com but turned out to be very disappointing in real life, we found a lovely place on the beach  in our budget. Auntie Maryam booked a very last minute trip to see us, and she arrived the next day, having already done the Colombo to Kandy train ride, and then caught the train down to the south.

It rained while we were in Mirissa, A LOT! And although we didn’t let it stop us from going in the sea, it wasn’t exactly fun playing on the beach. So we did a few day trips, one to Galle, it was raining there too, but very beautiful nonetheless.

After a few more wet days in Mirissa, a few more Kottu, and many more Lion beer, it was time to leave Mirissa, we headed back to Colombo, while Grandma and Maryam made their way back to London.

We were due to travel to Anuradhapura to start our workaway the next day, but we’d decided to extend our visa and spend a little longer exploring Sri Lanka, and we had to do it while in Colombo. So we spent the morning at the immigration office, luckily we got given a priority ticket because of the kids, otherwise we would have spent the afternoon there too, it was so busy.

Ralapanawa, Wilpattu, Anuradhapura

After a long journey we arrived at our workaway late in the evening. Our host family had prepared dinner and were waiting for us. The house seemed really nice, though it was difficult to tell in the dark. There were hundreds and hundreds of tiny beetles in the house, our host family weren’t bothered, so we pretended not to be as well, apparently they’re just here following the heavy rain, so after about a week they were all gone.

Our job at this workaway was to teach English to the local children. We had thought it would be in a school, but it was actually going to be in the front of our house, and we were going to be doing it alone. So the following afternoon 20 children arrived, between the ages of 5 and 11, and we were supposed to teach them English, some already knew a few words, but not a lot. Although it was a bit daunting at first, since neither of us had any experience in teaching, we soon made a plan, it went really well and we all really enjoyed it. Nanda, who is running the academy is really passionate about teaching and providing opportunity to the children living in the villages.

We had several visits to the hospital and Dr while we were here, for various non serious reasons, the Drs and nurses were great, but quite keen to overmedicate, we got prescribed so many different medicines. Dylan was prescribed piriton one evening and it instantly made him act like he was completely hammered, i’m sure they must have got the dosage wrong.

We made great friends with our host family, and all the people in the village; we got invited to lunches and dinners, the school show, and were treated like VIPs. Everyone we passed on our moped took a double take, not used to seeing a family of four westerners riding through their village.

We visited Wilpattu National Park with Nanda and some other volunteers. We were hoping to see a leopard, but weren’t lucky enough, but we did see a brown sloth bear, which was amazing, crocodiles, lots of birds, hundreds of butterflies, and elephants. We also stopped at Kudiramalai beach, alongside the park, an incredibly beautiful, almost deserted beach, which was perfect for swimming.

Jaffna & The North

After two weeks it was time to move on and explore the north. We caught the train to Jaffna, we were very lucky that the 7 day train strike came to and end the day before we left. Jaffna and the north are really beautiful, and are less developed in terms of tourism than the rest of the country, due to the Sri Lankan civil war with the Tamil Tigers ending here only 8 years ago.

We found a good guest house when we arrived, breakfast was awesome. And the boys were really pleased to see it had a Christmas tree. We took a full day tuktuk tour of the peninsular on our first day, visiting Point Pedro, Nilavarai bottomless well (they’ve just discovered it’s not bottomless, but 52 metres deep), we were disappointed to find you can’t jump in and swim there, as the photos suggested. We also visited Keerimalai natural springs, which has a good pool for men, and a slightly manky separate pool for women. The boys had a swim, but were being bothered a lot by some young men, so it wasn’t that enjoyable.

The next day we visited Delft island, we got an early tuktuk for one hour along the bumpy roads to get the 8am ferry. The Sri Lankan Navy run ferry was packed and pretty hot, but it was free. We narrowly avoided being puked on by a child on the top deck above us. We took a tuktuk tour of the island with a very young man who spoke little English, he took us to the main sites, the giants footprint (slightly underwhelming!), the Fort, a beautiful almost deserted beach where we had a lovely swim, and to see the beautiful wild horses of Delft island. We thought we’d got a pretty good deal on the tuktuk (cheaper than suggested in Lonely Planet), but a shopkeeper asked us how much we’d paid, and ordered the driver to give us back 500 Rupees, as he thought he was taking the piss! The ferry ride back to the peninsular was pretty awful; they closed the doors, there was no air, and the fan was broken, the sea was pretty rough, the boat was packed, and everyone had sick bags, we were so pleased to get off and get on a local bus at the other end with all the doors and windows open. One thing we love about the local buses, apart from them being really breezy is that they always have really loud music playing. One thing we hate about them is that they drive like maniacs, overtaking everything else on the road, and honking at everything in their path.

We happened upon the Jaffna Christmas food festival, which was hosted by the Sri Lankan Navy, and it was our highlight of our trip to the north, we had the most amazing kottu, booked by the navy chefs, so delicious, and so cheap! We tried to sit and listen to Christmas songs, but the boys got impatient as they were delayed due to too much talking! So we headed to the Wall of Death, the best one we have ever seen. As we waited for it to start, standing on a rickety rackety scaffold, we watched the performers hammering nails into the wooden planks, while praying. Then two guys on motorbikes, followed by one guy on a pushbike, rode the wall of death together, while performing acrobatics, sometimes blind, it was mental!

We knew all the trains were fully booked due to holidays. So we looked at lots of options and reluctantly booked an overnight bus from Jaffna to Colombo. We stupidly booked the back seats, only to find that they were the only seats on the bus that didn’t recline. We let the boys stretch out over 2.5 seats, and were left to squeeze into 1.5 seats between us. The boys slept okay, we didn’t sleep at all. Jess tried to lie down on the floor between the seats and got stuck. The bus seemed to be driving at the speed of light, and we arrived in Colombo over an hour early, at 4am.

Bentota, Weligama

We waited a few hours for the first train to Bentota, at 6:50am. Because we’re too tight/broke to get a taxi or tuktuk! We found a lovely hotel near the beach and got a brilliant bargain. Bentota has a really nice, long beach with calm sea, so we spent a few days relaxing here and doing little else. We took a day trip to Galle, and tried to do some Christmas shopping, with not much success, they either had not very suitable but very expensive toys in the Fort, or really cheaply made toys in the toy shop, we went with the toy shop, and some of the toys were already broken by Boxing Day! 😞

We spent some time deliberating over where to go next and where to spend Christmas, we wanted more beach, but didn’t want to return to Mirissa, as we’d done that, so we opted for Weligama. We treated ourselves to a lovely guest house, which was only slightly over budget, and which had a separate bed for the boys, a real treat these days. It also had the most epic breakfast ever, it just kept coming and coming, about 5 courses, we all needed a lie down afterwards.

Weligama is a surfing beach, but is also great for kids to splash around in the shallows. Jess and I took it in turns to have an hour surf every morning, including On Christmas Day. We spent Christmas Day evening at Mirissa beach, eating delicious seafood and drinking cocktails on the beach. There were a lot of people doing the same, so it was really busy and had a very nice vibe.

A few days later we took a whale watching tour from Mirissa, with Raja and the Whales. Apparently it was not a rough day at sea, so we didn’t take any seasickness tablets in advance, we saw a few other people taking them preventatively, but assumed they were just really prone to seasickness. Less than half an hour in and we were all feeling really sick, we had to pass on the plates of lovely fruit they were handing out. Dylan was the sickest and the boys spent most of the trip asleep, but we still managed to enjoy it. We were so amazed to see blue whales, really close to our boat, spraying water out of their blowholes, and flicking their tails out of the water, and dozens of spinner dolphins following the boat along for miles and jumping out of the water.

We decided we had enough time to take a trip to Yala National Park, we were so disappointed not to have see a leopard in Wilpattu that we thought we’d try our luck here, as it’s the best place to see them in Sri Lanka. It was a long journey, we got picked up in a taxi at 1am, and got to the park entrance at 5 ish, along with all the other tourists on their Christmas holidays, as well as all the Sri Lankan tourists on their holidays, it was so packed. Alas, we didn’t spot a leopard, in fact we didn’t spot much at all, but we did see a few elephants, a few spines from a crocodiles back, some beautiful birds, lots of peacocks, but in conclusion, it wasn’t worth the trip, nor the expense, it wasn’t anything like as good as the other safaris we have been on.

We met up with our friend, Barney a few times as he was staying in nearby Dewatta, a lovely beach, nice and quiet and good for surfing, it was great to catch up with him, the boys loved playing with him and thought he was a really tall child, asking why he didn’t have any toys.

We visited the Tsunami photo museum in Telwatta. It was really heart wrenching, and very difficult to see the photos and read the stories, we took it in turns to go in while the boys played outside. It was really eye opening and we’re very glad we visited, Sri Lanka and this area in particular were hit really hard, with over 36,000 dead or missing. Most of the survivors from Telwatta and surrounding areas have moved inland, because they are now scared of the sea that they once lived right next to. We rode the trains along that stretch of coast many times, and thought a lot about the passengers on the train who were almost all killed, about 1,700 people, as the train was knocked off the track and destroyed by the tsunami, the largest rail disaster in world history.

After 6 weeks in Sri Lanka it was time to leave. We headed to the airport and stayed overnight in an excellent and really good value guest house, run by the most helpful man, who took us to a great restaurant for delicious Sri Lankan curry, it was a lovely way to spend our last evening here. We had a fantastic time in Sri Lanka, it is such a beautiful place, with the most wonderful people and amazing landscapes. Our highlights were the train rides, teaching English to the children, surfing at Christmas, spotting blue whales, spinner dolphins and a sloth bear, seeing friends and family, chocolate roti, and kottu, which we really hope to find again!

Up4amission recommends

  • Wildlife parks: Udawalawe and Wilpattu (both better than Yala)
  • Sri Lankan culture: stay with a Sri Lankan family, either through workaway, or a Home stay, they are the most hospitable, friendly people
  • Kottu roti: chicken, vegetable, egg, cheese, whatever, just eat one
  • Raja and the Whales for whale watching out of Mirissa
  • Catching the train from Colombo to Kandy, and from Kandy to Ella
  • Surfing in Weligama, Lucky’s surf school was our favourite



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