Tissamaharama and Yala National Park

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The last leg of our Sri Lankan journey was Tissamaharama, a city in the Southern part of Sri Lanka known for its diverse wildlife.  We went there specifically for the early morning safari tour at Yala National Park, where we hoped to see some exciting animals.

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What we weren’t expecting was to see so many strange creatures wondering around the town like it was no big deal.  On our first day there, we decided to take a walk around the lakes near our hotel, and got our first glimpse of a land monitor.  At first, we thought it might be a baby crocodile (not hard to find in those lakes), but once it got closer, we realized it was a very big lizard.  They are similar to komodo dragons.

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This place gave me some serious nostalgia from my World of Warcraft days.

We woke up at 4:30 the following morning to get ready for our tour, which is really saying something about how excited I was about the safari because I despise mornings.  I had just enough time to chug some hot tea before hopping in the jeep.  I still felt pretty dead inside, but I loved driving under the stars with nobody else on the roads.

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We watched the sun rise and entered the park, eager to spot something special.  Our first sighting?  A bunch of cows hanging out in the water.

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Next, we saw a peacock dancing his ass off, trying to impress a couple of lady peacocks, neither of whom seemed very interested.

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The first few hours passed by pretty uneventfully.  We were starting to worry that we’d made a huge mistake going on the safari and wouldn’t see anything at all.  And then…

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This cute guy burst right through the trees in front of us!

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Sadly, we didn’t spot any leopards.  Our driver said it was most likely due to the heavy rainfall they had been having.

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We did, however, see this adorable family of wild pigs.

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The babies!!!

I wish we would have had a luckier day, but it was still an enjoyable morning.  It will definitely not be our last safari.

Among Mountains in Ella

DSC_0240.JPGI have mentioned recently that I love visiting beaches, oceans, and seas after having spent the majority life without easy access to such places.  Well, I am equally impressed by mountains since in addition to being water-less, Kansas is also literally flatter than a pancake.

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We arrived in Ella after an epic train journey in the middle of the pouring rain.  We could barely see where we were going as we rushed down narrow, rocky stairs to our hotel room, but once we reached shelter and were able to look at our surroundings, we knew we were in for something special. Our room was literally on the edge of a cliff with a crystal clear mountain view.

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That view, ya!

We decided to take things a bit slower in Ella since we had been rushing so much everywhere else in Sri Lanka.  We had a couple of good days with no planes, trains, or buses to catch and we took advantage of them.  The best part of each day there was waking up next to the emerald green mountains and enjoying a leisurely breakfast.

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The town itself is basically built for tourism, but not necessarily in a bad way.  It’s no surprise that such a beautiful place would attract a lot of visitors, and other than the disappointingly bland food designed to cater to the Western palate, guests and locals alike seem to enjoy Ella’s laid back vibes.

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The main item on our Ella agenda was to do some hiking.  We decided to hike Little Adam’s Peak as it seemed the most reasonable given the amount of time we had on our hands. Luck was on our side that day as it was one of the few days it did not rain while we were in Sri Lanka.  As for the hike itself…I’ll let the photos do the talking

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Moving Through Tea Country

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The central highlands of Sri Lanka are mainly famous for one thing: tea.  The frequent rainfall provides the perfect climate for production and the stunning green hills have started to draw the attention of travelers, particularly hikers and backpackers.

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We began our journey through tea country in Kandy.  Our original plan was to take the scenic train ride from Kandy down to Ella, but once we learned it would entail over eight hours on a packed train, we decided to change our plans.  Instead, we hired a driver to take us to Nuwara Eliya and then hopped on the train for the last three hours of the epic train route.

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Though it is more expensive to hire a driver than it is to go by train (about $30 vs. $1), it was well worth the extra cash for us to have a comfortable amount of space and the ability to stop along the way.  Our first stop was at a tea factory, where we were able to sea how all of the different kinds of tea are sorted and processed.  Then, we were able to do a taste testing of the teas, and of course, buy some tea to take home.  Our favorite was the strong brew of the Broken Orange Pekoe (especially with a little milk and sugar!).  We also made several stops to stroll through various tea fields and to see some waterfalls.

DSC_0141.JPGWe arrived at the Nuwara Eliya train station just in time for the 3 PM train; it was everything we’d hoped for.  We lucked out and were able to sit by one of the doorways…certainly not the safest spot, but definitely the most picturesque!  The pictures will never do it justice.  Every curve along the rail revealed a breathtaking new scene.

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When I was first doing my research for this trip, so many people talked up the long Kandy to Ella train.  Personally, I couldn’t imagine myself enjoying something like that for eight or nine hours, unless I’d booked way in advance and gotten a good seat and brought along a healthy supply of books (and snacks!).  If you want to experience the great views, but don’t want to spend all day on a slow, crowded train, definitely consider the Nuwara Eliya to Ella route.

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The Sri Lankan Jungle: Habarana, Sigiriya, and Dambulla

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After a brief night in Colombo, we started our Sri Lankan adventure with a 6 hour bus ride on a packed bus (without air conditioning!) to the tiny city of Habarana.  I was immediately taken aback by how lush and green everything around us was, mostly due to the plentiful rain.

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Exhausted and starving, we immediately asked where we could find food and the hotel owner whipped up a delicious plate of fried rice (with spicy chicken gravy!) and brought us a couple of Sri Lankan Lion beers.  As fate would have it, a Slovakian guy who was also starving joined us at the table, and after chatting over drinks for a few hours, we decided to travel together the following day.

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Habarana is small, but is a very convenient location for several of Sri Lanka’s highlights. There are a ton of day trips that can be done from that area, and out of all the places we traveled to in Sri Lanka, this is where I wish we had budgeted more time.

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One thing that blew me away was how cheap it is to hire a driver for a whole day.  The three of us split a “tuk tuk”- a tiny, three-wheeled vehicle- for less than $10 each.  Our first stop was Sigiriya.

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The crowds were a little crazy, but since we weren’t traveling with a tour group, we blew through the mobs pretty quickly.  The view was incredible, surrounded by jungle, mist, and tons of tiny monkeys.

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It took about an hour to reach the top – and we got there just in time.  Just as we started our descent, we were pelted with a torrential downpour, which somehow blew horizontally and destroyed our umbrella.  I’m normally not a big fan of rain, but it actually made the view even more spectacular, cascading off of the rock into tiny waterfalls.

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When we finally made it back to our tuk tuk soaking wet, it was about time for lunch.  We stopped a little diner and discovered Sri Lankan cutlets; spicy, deep-fried balls of tuna and potato.  I’m going to have to attempt to recreate them in Turkey.  They are delicious.

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Next on our agenda was the Dambulla Temple.  As we climbed up towards the caves, we were once again greeted with the sight of little monkeys scampering along the path.  There were also vendors selling fresh, ripe mangoes spiced with chili pepper…a snack I could not resist.  I had forgotten how much I love mangoes.

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 We finally made it to the entrance, where we dropped off our shoes so we could go into the temple.  I was stunned by how beautiful it was.  The temple – built into the side of a cave circa 4th Century AD- was incredibly intricate.  The ceilings and walls were covered with detailed paintings and the walls were lined with countless golden Buddhas.  Of all the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples I have visited, this one certainly stands out.

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After a good hour of exploring, we decided to go out for a cup of coffee before saying goodbye to our fellow traveler.  On the way home, our tuk tuk driver pulled over to get us some fresh grilled corn…a perfect end to a perfect day, in spite of (and perhaps even because of) the rain.

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