The train from Kandy to Ella, in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country area, is renowned for being incredibly beautiful; the train winds through hills and mountains, tea plantations cover the hills like patchwork, and clouds roll in as the train climbs higher and higher.
We spent 6 and a half hours looking out the train window, our mouths wide open in awe of the beauty of the scenery that we passed. The train wound through tiny villages with waving children and adults alike, people working in the fields, and little homes and buildings covered with brightly coloured clothing spread out to dry on the tin roofs.
The mountains seemed to go on forever, until the clouds swallowed them whole, waterfalls gushed and the greenery is endless.
What a journey.
Arriving into Ella, we were greeted by a quaint, sleepy little town full of friendly-faced locals. The one dusty main street is lined with guest houses, little shops and produce stalls, roti huts and restaurants, and of course the obligatory Sri Lankan tuk tuks and their touty drivers. Cafés are quite popular here – but so are tourists, it seems. This is a place you can immediately relax into: no rush, no bustle, not too many honking horns, cows grazing next to the bus stops, lots of good quality Sri Lankan tea, and surrounded by 360 degree views of the most incredible scenery.
The specialty food here, besides the obvious Sri Lankan rice and curry, is surprisingly Buffalo Curd – often served drizzled in ‘kittul’ or treacle (the local menus refer to it as “hunny”). It’s a strangely delicious any-time snack, and the several tiny market stalls sell it in ceramic bowls. Buffalo curd mixed with fresh diced avocado and a pinch of chilli is a real delicacy.
We spent our first evening in Ella enjoying rice and curry on the balcony of our guest house looking out towards incredible Ella Rock, before retiring under our mosquito net where we spent a happy few hours fighting off possibly the world’s biggest cockroach and several mammoth mosquitos who were tricky enough to claw their way through the net. We won that round, but in the nights following, their army was to return…
Ella is home to two very popular climbs; Ella Rock is the big one, and Little Adam’s Peak is the smaller, more popular one. We decided to tackle Little Adam – an hour or so climb each way, and a guide not necessary. We meandered through the tea plantations and smiled at the Tamil tea pluckers who asked us for money with outstretched hands the moment they saw us.
The very top of the peak was the steepest part of the climb, but the 360 degree views from the top were breath-taking; sitting on a little piece of rock at the top of Little Adam’s Peak, we felt as though we were on top of the world.
Back in Ella, we explored the little shops and avoided the over crowded tourist cafes (the ones with free wi-fi, western food, sports on TV, overpriced beer – you know what I’m talking about). Instead we sat at the back of some tiny little ‘eatery’ (I would be more inclined to call it a shack with a tarp roof) that sold everything from roti and dahl to biscuits, sugar, lottery tickets, vanilla essence and baby formula.
These little places seem to have a little bit of everything; it’s entertaining to look at all the things shoved into every crevice of shelving and wall space.
On dodgy plastic chairs we ate 90 rupee coconut roti, chilli sambol and dahl whilst the locals chattered and stared at us relentlessly, something we have almost come to accept as normal.
Passing the local “beauty saloon” ( a wooden shack with a tarp roof), Jake was feeling a bit too beardy; for 200 rupees ($1.70 AUD) a well groomed Sri Lankan man worked with absolute pride and precision to ensure Jake’s beard was perfectly manicured.
The hill country and the areas and towns surrounding Ella are famous for tea – as is Sri Lanka in general. This is like heaven for Jake and I: I could quite easily lay in a pile of tea leaves, cover myself in hot water and milk and be happy forevermore. Unfortunately I can’t quite do that, but here in Ella we got the next best thing – a tea factory tour!
We spent our second full day taking a local bus out of Ella (whilst every passenger on the bus stared at us as if to say “shouldn’t you be in a tuk tuk?”) we clung on for dear life, laughing as the bus swung around corners and darted passed trucks – I think the driver was imagining he was on a race track.
From the bus stop we took a 2km walk up and up and up a winding hill, past rice fields and tomato farms, with a little Sri Lankan girl following us the whole way, requesting that we give her bubble gum and pens. We didn’t have anything to give her, but I made sure I bought a pack of pens to hand out when we got back into town – I can say no to money and candy, but I can not say no to pens for school.
Halpewatte Tea factory is the biggest tea factory in this province (Uva Province), and it was a pretty cool place to visit – even more so because they gave us these awesome forest green “lab-coaty costumes” which we strutted about in until they got too hot and started sticking to our skin. They were then no longer so awesome.
The tea making process is incredibly laborious and fascinating to learn about; the processes and stages that the leaves must go through, and the hard work people must do to ensure tons of tea are processed each day is very impressive. Tasting the different grades of tea at the end of the tour was deliciously interesting.
The evening was spent in the tiny kitchen of a local lady – Sujatha – who taught us how to cook Sri Lankan curries with love and precision – and lots of spices and deliciousness.
Today is our last full day in Ella, and has so far been spent in a similar fashion to the first two days: we found a routine quickly here and it works well for us. It involves a cold Milo (yes, Sri Lankans are Milo-fanatics here and I love them for it!), a fresh bunch of bananas from the smiley man at the tiny Ella Junction produce stall, a lot of cups of tea on the balcony of Sujatha’s little restaurant while we people watch, a bit of hot roti, and a good dose of vitamin C. Dinner will involve some sort of Sri Lankan curry feast, and the rest of the day – who knows.
Ella has been a fabulous stop in our Sri Lankan travels, and so far a real highlight. The slow pace of the town, the big smiley people, men in their traditional skirts and women in their saris, excellent food, a spontaneous street-side market and spectacular scenery has been a winner for us, and we will no doubt miss it when we leave tomorrow on the train for Haputale.