If you Google Image search "Sri Lanka", many of the first results will be pictures of a candy-blue train weaving through mountainous terrain, every inch covered in neon green tea plants. The train from Kandy to Ella is known as "the most beautiful train ride in the world" and, despite being a famous Instagram spot, it is truly a good way to experience the changing landscape from central Kandy up into the mountains to the cloud forests, tea plantations, waterfalls and jungles surrounding Ella.
Day 1: Kandy to Ella
We headed to the Kandy train station in a tuk tuk, picked up some snacks for the four-hour train ride and boarded our second class, assigned seats. We tried to purchase first class, air-conditioned seats online, but at the holiday season, everything sells out quickly. Second class felt a bit like a school bus, with rows of dual seat benches and big windows alongside the train. Once we got started, the conductors opened all the train doors to allow fresh air in, and we moved from our seats to the doorways, letting our legs dangle off the train as we moved through towns, along rivers, and up into the mountains.
Due to the internet fame of the scenic train, we spent the first hour or so changing places with other tourists eager to get the perfect shot of the train and scenery while dangerously teetering outside the moving car. Once everyone was satisfied with their shots, the vibe in the train chilled out a bit, and we all put in headphones and jammed to our personal soundtracks while taking in the totally epic scenery. A man came through the train selling spicy vegetarian samosas for about 20 cents each. We purchased a few and the warm, flaky dumplings were so tasty, we went search of "samosa man" to buy some more treats just a few minutes later.
Upon arriving in Ella, we walked to our Alipine-like guesthouse and rented a scooter from the property. When Dave was conversing with the guesthouse manager on the specifics of the bike, a bird let loose on his back, setting off a now comical but then frustrating series of events ending with us returning a barely functioning bike just after paying the full rental fee. Despite that minor setback, we had a great first evening in Ella, having a feast just down the hill from our hotel at Matey Hut - spicy lentils, Erin's favorite pumpkin curry, dal roti and coconut sambal, washed down with homemade juices.
Day 2: Sunrise Christmas Hike
We woke up before sunrise Christmas morning and drove our scooter in the pitch black down hills and through rocky unpaved trails to the base of Little Adam's Peak. Keen to not miss one bit of the sunrise, Erin all but ran up the mountain, using her phone as a headlamp. Along the way, we heard monks chanting in the distance. Just as the sunlight started to illuminate our surroundings, we realized we could see past our mountain surroundings to plains in the distance dotted with lakes and to the other side the town of Ella, situated in a valley surrounded by jagged peaks.
98 Acres Christmas Breakfast
We sat on a rocky outcrop with a few other adventurers, two of whom dressed in santa outfits for the occasion, and watched a neon orange, pink and purple sunrise. We explored the peak, finding the highest point topped with gold and silver Buddha statues and prayer flags, giving the feeling that we'd summited a mountain in Nepal. Once we got our fill, we headed down to 98 Acres, a luxury eco-resort set among an organic tea plantation, for a Christmas breakfast feast of homemade pastries, Sri Lankan pancakes, curries, fresh tropical fruits, smoothies, eggs and local tea.
To cool off our bodies and burn off the breakfast, we scooted over to Ravana Falls, where Dave swam with the locals, some of whom were showering under the waterfall with bars of soap. All the other Westerners who showed up turned away because they thought the water was too cold.
Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery
Next, we took a long drive, winding up switchbacks to a bright white mountain-top temple still under construction, and took in the epic views. On our ride home, we followed behind a family of 4 on a tiny scooter, the baby girl in the back blowing bubbles that floated past us as we rode through the magical surroundings. We felt like we were in a movie.
Nine Arch Bridge Guesthouse
By the afternoon, we checked out of our mountain lodge guesthouse into what would be our home for the next 3 days - a private suite set atop a cliff on stilts overlooking the famous Nine Arch Bridge, built in the 1920s to transport tea to Colombo.
We dropped our bags in our simple accommodation and took in our majestic surroundings for a while and then headed to Hela Osu Suwapiyasa for a three hour treatment of massage, sauna and Shirodhara, an ayurvedic treatment where warm oil is slowly dripped onto the third eye area and massaged into the head and scalp. Tired from our day and relaxed from the first part of the massage, Erin lots track of space and time and during the portion of the massage where she was meant to turn from her back to her stomach, slipped on the massage oil and slip and slided head-first into the glass wall next to her. The poor Sri Lankan masseuses were horrified, and though Erin had a sore head and next day, the hilarious memory will live on forever.
After the spa and still covered in ayurvedic oils, we walked down the street and stopped into a convenience store for some basics, only to discover that it doubled as a street food restaurant. We enjoyed our Christmas dinner next to bottles of shampoo and tins of cat food, scarfing down the local vegetarian basics that our waitress recommended before scootering back in a rainstorm down a sketchy pothole-filled steep semi-paved road back to our place.
Hiking Ella Rock
Not giving in to our soreness from our sunrise hike the day before, we again set out at sunrise, this time to hike Ella Rock, the highest spot in Ella. To reach the base of Ella Rock, we had to walk along the train tracks, darting into the brush alongside the tracks when we heard the train coming in the distance. Perhaps due to her head slam the day before, Erin was in a bit of a foul mood, and was terrified of getting run down by the train, so the hike got off to a rocky start. Once we reached the base and started ascending, we were joined by a local dog who showed us the best path up, through local farms and then at the final portion up a rocky scramble. After about an hour of burning up the steep scramble portion, we reached the peak and were rewarded with wide-open views from the shear outcroppings at the top of Ella Rock.
Erin looking like she's waiting for the schoolbus.
We took our time heading down the rock, which Dave did barefoot to connect to the Earth like the locals. We stopped at a hut and grabbed a couple of fresh coconuts, cut for us with a machete, and we guzzled down the natural refreshing tonic as we walked along the tracks back to our starting point. Once we got back to our bike, we hustled back to our hotel for an otherworldly breakfast overlooking Nine Arch Bridge - a stacked fruit plate of pineapple, papaya, mango and watermelon, fresh toasted bread, yogurt, jam, eggs, pancakes and local tea. Since we'd already been up for hours, we enjoyed a lazy late morning brunch as we watched the train go by from our private perch.
We finished off our evening with a cooking class at Ella Spice Garden, owned by a local family who grow their own ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, clove, curry, chili and a variety of other local spices. After the father showed us around his spice garden, the son, in his 20s and very sarcastic and hilarious, helped a group of ten of us prepare authentic Sri Lankan dishes, including a crazy delicious garlic curry. We peeled 120 cloves of garlic, cooked them in a homemade curry, and each ate 10 cloves whole - apparently due to the cost of garlic this is a dish only served on special occasions, and is known to be great for the stomach. I think it was a shock to our systems though because we felt it the next day. To accompany our garlic curry, we also made coconut sambal, lentil curry, potatoes, chilies and papadam - the Indian equivalent of nacho chips. Between fielding funny insults from our teacher (who graded Erin's chopping skills as "poor" and socializing with our fellow students, sharing travel stories from around the world), our three-hour cooking class and dinner flew by, and we finished our night scootering home in an absolute downpour.
Day 3: Waterfall Lounging
We started our last day in Ella with a long scooter ride out of Ella up into the tea plantations, winding through tiny towns and rolling fields of tea, being plucked by women of all ages, dressed in brightly colored clothes for the tough day of work under the winter sun. We rode for nearly an hour in search of Secret Falls, a series of cascades our convenience store restaurant proprietor told us about. We finally managed to find the hidden-away spot and were supper happy to find a series of waterfalls with only a few people, where we could climb up levels of pools and waterfalls with pristine water, finding our own level of falls to ourselves where we lounged in the slow-moving rapids and plunged in the cool pools.
We headed back to our spot for one last late breakfast feast, and walked down from our stilt house to the Nine Arch Bridge, where Dave droned the famous train teetering through the pass, and Erin played with local dogs and indulged in yet another fresh coconut. We were both surprised about the risks people were taking to get the epic shots for Instagram, leaning over the edge of the bridge, with hundreds of feet to the valley floor below. One lady even set her baby on the ledge to get a shot to our horror. As cool as some of the places we see are, we really try not to ever do anything for a photo.
We packed up our bags and felt sad about leaving Ella - the mix of Buddhist temples, mountain hikes, waterfall swims, spas and spicy local foods just about checked all of the boxes for us - this was Dave's favorite part of our entire Sri Lanka trip. But, we were excited to check out the safaris and eco-lodges in the southern grasslands next, which would be Erin's Sri Lanka highlight - next up on Far Out Expat.
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