Al and I are in our last month, on our last country, on the very last leg of our trip. Our final destination of choice: Sri Lanka.
To be totally honest, I probably would not have been able to tell you where Sri Lanka was without looking at a map just two months ago. After Christie and Dan left us in Vietnam, we knew we were going to use our final few days to book out the remainder of our travel days. We had already decided on Malaysia and Borneo, but felt we needed something special to round out our trip. Our original hope was that we would be able to fly to Australia for our final weeks to visit my sister and brother-in-law, but insane flight costs painfully took that option off the table.
I remember feeling discouraged as I sat staring at my computer in our tiny Phu Quoc hostel room. I was trying to accept that we would have to fly straight to the US from Kuala Lumpur. The thought just didn’t sit right with me, so on a whim I decided to get on Skyscanner. My favorite function of this site is the ability to search cheap flights out of your destination to anywhere in the world by selecting ‘everywhere,’ (which, by the way, may just be the most fun thing ever if you love travel).
Kuala Lumpur is notorious for cheap flights to various places in Asia, and after entering in our dates, multiple destinations instantly popped up. I scrolled through the top 10 destinations, sorted by price, and stopped immediately when my eyes fell upon a $65 flight to Sri Lanka.
Hmm Sri Lanka…where is that again? Why does it sound so familiar?
I quickly consulted Google Maps and realized,
Oh right, the teardrop below India.
I searched my brain for any recognition of the country; I conjured up fuzzy memories of the 2004 Tsunami, along with various headlines of a recent civil war. I decided to do a little research, and as I fell down the rabbit hole of Sri Lanka, my heart started to flutter a bit as I read:
The most concentrated population of wild elephants in all of Asia. The best place in Asia for whale watching. Hiking through mountains, waterfalls, villages and tea plantations. Beautiful train rides across the country. Amazing beaches. Endless vegetarian food options.
That was enough, I was sold.
I said nothing to Al until we took our evening walk to the beach and pitched my new idea. He readily agreed (there was really no need for convincing) and we applied for our Sri Lankan visas an hour later. The next day, we were accepted, and our flights were booked.
And now, here we are, 9 days into Sri Lanka, and 9 days away from getting on a flight back to the US. I already have so much to say about our time here, but as an attempt to keep myself focused, I will start at the beginning, with our first leg.
COLOMBO – KANDY – ELLA
We arrived to the Colombo airport at about 8:30pm, and drove to our hostel in the back of an Uber, with only the moonlight to view our surroundings. I typically love the first few hours of arriving to a country, watching a new place roll by in a blur through my taxi window, so I always feel a sense of disorientation and mystery arriving at night and being forced to wait until morning to see where I actually am.
Right away, I was struck with something that has only grown stronger the longer we have been here: Sri Lankan people are the friendliest people I have ever met. Like, scary nice. It took a bit of adjusting for Al and I to let our guards down without assuming that everyone was trying to take advantage of us. Every single person smiled at us, said hello, asked if they could help us get anywhere or if they could help us find anything. We naturally assumed they wanted money, but it turns out they were just being helpful. It was a hard concept to grasp.
After we shook off the shock of genuine kindness, we settled into our hostel. The next morning, we woke up and the first thing I did was open the shades to orient myself. I was pleasantly surprised to discover we were right by the sea.
We decided to head out in search of our first taste of Sri Lankan food. We left our hostel and began to walk up to the street, and at that moment I wished I had an extra head to take in more of what was around us.
Compact tuk tuks with rounded tops of all different colors whizzed by, and a group of elegant women dressed in gold and emerald saris casually chatted while waiting at a traffic light. A temple made up of hundreds of tiny wooden Buddha carvings rose up in front of us, and on the corner, a wrinkled Sri Lankan man sat bent over with his legs wrapped tightly over each other, quietly weaving prayer necklaces for anyone who stopped by. My nostrils stung with the scents of unfamiliar curries and spices from nearby vendors. Being the only foreigners in our area, nearly everyone stared at us.
I felt myself filling with lightness: Oh my god, we’re not in Southeast Asia, we are in SRI LANKA! The realization washed over me and made me giddy with all of the newness that was surrounding us. I hadn’t realized how easily we had fallen into comfort in Southeast Asia: it was like we had been wearing the same cotton shirt for months, and now all of a sudden someone had handed us a strip of cloth instead, and just said figure it out. It was awkward and uncomfortable and different, and we loved it.
Things only got better once we had our first meal. I wish I could tell you what it was, but I don’t remember. All I know is that we were in flavor heaven the entire time.
After we ate, we wandered for hours around downtown Colombo:
Our time in Colombo was short; used primarily as a stopover to get our bearings before moving on Eastward, to the country’s second biggest city, Kandy. We had read that the best way to get here was by the local train. We did very little research on how the trains work, because everything we were finding turned out to be really confusing or contradictory. This experience deserves its own section.
THE TRAIN RIDE: COLOMBO – KANDY
Traveling by train in Sri Lanka is affordable, scenic, and slow. There are 3 classes: (1st, 2nd and 3rd, obviously) and you can reserve seats in advance for select cars in 1st and 2nd class. Once those sell out, you have to buy unreserved tickets the day of your journey, and seats are not guaranteed. As some journeys can exceed 7 hours and become very crowded, this can lead to an uncomfortable experience.
We walked up to the train station hoping to buy reserved seats for the next day’s journey to Kandy. We realized very quickly that this was not going to be an easy task. We got redirected to a different window and were given different information about 10 times before we realized that we were never going to get a straight answer. What we gathered from all the people we talked to was this: the trains were sold out, and we would have to buy tickets the day of; we would have to try our luck and fight it out for seats on an unreserved 3rd class train. We would come to find that getting a seat in this situation is comparable to winning the lottery.
We arrived to the train station the next day at 7:00am with our freshly purchased tickets in hand, completely unsure of what to expect. I mentioned that Sri Lanka has some of the nicest people we’ve ever met. The country is also about 75% Buddhist, which I believe probably contributes to an overall sense of happiness everywhere we went. This has held true nearly everywhere we’ve gone in Sri Lanka, but for whatever reason, all bets are off when it comes to the trains. There is no room for anyone, including Buddha, on a 3rd class unreserved train.
As we walked up to the platform, we could already see an ocean of heads crammed together, clamoring for a spot as close to the tracks as possible. As we tried to weave through the packed crowds, our giant backpacks weighed us down and repeatedly pulled us back, making our efforts to get to an open spot feel like we were trying to sprint underwater.
We managed to mash our way through to a small clearing, when a nice Sri Lankan man introduced himself to us. I think he must’ve sensed that we were train virgins, because he quickly started giving us advice on how to get on the train and score a seat. He told us we had to be aggressive, or we didn’t stand a chance. We told him we actually had seat numbers, hoping this would give us an advantage. He simply laughed saying, That doesn’t matter. Not in this country.
As soon as we heard the whistle of the train pulling into the station, the energy became electric. It was similar to being in the middle of a field while football players desperately clamor over each other for the ball during a fumble, except in this situation there were 600 players all trying to fit into the same tiny doorway before they could actually reach the ball. It was insanity.
Our new Sri Lankan friend looked at us and shouted GO, GO, GO! As he jogged alongside the train, but we could barely comprehend what he was doing before it was too late. The crowd started to sprint at once, with our Sri Lankan friend leading the pack. He grabbed onto the door handle of the still-moving train, and actually shoved several others out of the way to swing himself onto the steps. While he did this, all the other people were pushing and elbowing each other out of the way, fighting for the closest open door onto the train. Al and I somehow became caught in the crosshairs of this entire scene. We were being pushed along with the masses through no effort of our own.
That moment, I was reminded of something I witnessed on the bathroom wall of our hostel in Koh Mak: what seemed like hundreds of little ants converged together to surround and lift a beetle ten times their size in order to move it into a small hole in the wall. The beetle lay helplessly, his tiny legs twitching frantically for some sort of surface that might help him regain control, but he had no hope against the crowd of ants who were all focused on one goal. I was the beetle now, and the Sri Lankans were the ants lifting me into this hole.
Once I got on the train, people were throwing bags everywhere, climbing in through the windows, and trying their best to get to any last remaining seats before they were gone. Through the crowd, I saw our new Sri Lankan friend waving me down, trying to hold a seat for me with his backpack, while everyone in his vicinity attempted to remove his backpack and replace it with theirs. I managed to get to him, and while being pushed in all directions, lifted my giant backpack overhead to stuff it in the overhead compartment, only to watch in horror as it slipped from my hands and tumbled below me, landing directly on the heads of two Sri Lankan women who had managed to secure a seat. I apologized and squeezed my way into the seat, realizing I had somehow lost Al in the process.
I easily spotted his blonde head at the end of the car, bobbing a foot above the others, as he accidentally elbowed a girl in the head while struggling to store his bag while fighting for an inch of standing room. I couldn’t help but laugh at the two of us on this train, fumbling our way through it all like two confused (yet giant) toddlers.
I thanked my new friend repeatedly and told him we would have been completely lost without his guidance and help. As the train began to pull out of the station, I began to relax as he told me all about life in Sri Lanka, and gave me some more advice for our next train experience. After two stops, he stood up and called Al over to take his seat, and disappeared off the train.
After our train angel left, Al and I were free to enjoy the rest of the train ride. In seats.
We scheduled two days in Kandy, which is famous for being home to The Temple of the Tooth, one of the most sacred locales in Buddhist worship circles. It is said to hold the tooth of Buddha – one of Sri Lanka’s most important relics. Since Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, it is a pretty big deal in the country. You can’t actually see the tooth – it is kept in a gold casket within a protected complex, but I guess you’re just supposed to trust that it is there. I couldn’t really get a straight answer out of anyone (or the internet for that matter) on how they know it is actually Buddha’s tooth, but in the end it makes them happy so I guess it doesn’t really matter either way.
We used our time in Kandy to explore, eat the local food, and learn more about Buddha and the role of Buddhism in Sri Lanka (which I’ll spare you from writing about).
THE TRAIN RIDE: KANDY – ELLA
Two days after we arrived in Kandy, it was time to face the trains again. Once again, we were unable to get a reserved seat in time, and would have to duke it out against our fellow travelers for a precious spot. I could feel my pre-train anxiety start to set in. This was a high stakes train journey. It was no Colombo-Kandy beginner ride, we were facing a 7 hour journey; our first had only been 2 ½ hours. Getting a seat would be paramount to our experience. Not only that, but we were told that only one side of the train allowed you to see the views, so it was important to get on the right side. I started mentally panicking at the thought of spending 7 hours standing up with zero personal space, unable to see the beauty of world passing only feet from where I stood. We had no choice. We had to get seats.
When we got to the station, it was once again packed; but this time with both western tourists and locals. Al and I had a serious debate about which group would be easier to take down. We landed on going after the western tourists, arguing that they would be more orderly and adhere to the rules of their own countries (waiting for people to get off the trains, respecting common rules of lines) thus easier to overtake. I’m being sarcastic, but not really.
Once we made our decision, we started sizing up our competition; which consisted almost exclusively of white European or North American couples exactly like us. We knew we could take them. We strategized a plan. Al would be responsible for securing the seats and getting on the train first, while I would be in charge of bringing all 4 bags of our luggage on behind him and getting them stowed away. This would allow Al to be more mobile without his 15kg backpack holding him down, thus increasing our chances for success.
This time, when we heard the train whistle blowing, we were prepared. The train rushed into the station, and Al immediately lead the pack and grabbed the handle of the moving train just as he had seen our Sri Lankan friend do in Colombo. Al jogged alongside of the doors, prepared to jump in and grab a seat before the existing passengers had unloaded. My heart pounded as I saw the train slowly come to a stop, as one tall blonde girl aggressively stepped in front of Al, blocking his entry to the train, refusing to move as the passengers trickled out. I heard my brain think, This is no time for politeness, blonde girl! I could already see people pouring on from the other side of the train, grabbing the last precious seats as Al struggled to get on the train in front of the nice blonde tourist.
I decided to act, and ran up to a window with an empty seat, shoving one of our giant backpacks through and onto the seat from the outside of the train in order to save it. I had seen several other Sri Lankans use this method successfully. I had almost gotten my entire bag secured into a seat, when a Sri Lankan man walked right up to my bag from the inside of the train, looked at me straight in the eye, and shoved the entire thing back out of the window and onto the pavement with a thud. I couldn’t even be mad. I understood the ruthless train rules at play. I looked up to see that Al was no longer at the door and had made it on the train, but I still did not know if he had gotten a seat.
I gathered our bags, and got on the train. To my relief, I saw Al smiling and waving at the end of the train car, from a window seat. He had done it. He had taken down blonde tourist girl, 500 other Sri Lankans and travelers, and won us a seat. Success had never tasted sweeter. I asked Al how he managed the impossible task of securing us a seat and he described the ordeal from his end:
“I did everything the man told me to do. I had the best position to get on the train but that blonde girl wedged between me and the door. I saw that she was going to wait until every soul was off that train. Precious seconds were ticking by. I knew I couldn’t let that happen…so I shoved her aside. She resisted at first and said “woah, excuse me, EXCUSE ME!” and as I pushed past her arm I mumbled something like, “I just can’t wait any longer” like she should understand. Whatever. We got seats. I don’t feel bad.”
Proof that all rules are out the window when it comes to the trains of Sri Lanka. Thanks to Al’s perseverance, the next 7 hours were unreal.
It was one of the most fun and freeing experiences of my life (have I said that before?). All of the windows and doors were open to let in the breeze as the train wove through some of the most indescribable scenery I have ever seen. Occasionally, vendors would jump on selling vegetable samosas and fresh mango to whet our appetite. We rotated from the window to sitting out of the open door of the train, our feet hanging freely. So freely in fact, that at one point Al and a group of Sri Lankan men watched as his right sandal flew off of his foot and into the mountains of Sri Lanka, never to be seen again.
There must be something universal about the freedom and simplicity of hanging out of a train, with fresh air blowing and the world in front of you that makes you feel alive with the energy of a child. Every single person on the train, old and young, from every type of background all over the world, had a huge grin on their face and seemed to be locked in their own state of bliss watching Sri Lanka go by on that train.
Before we knew it, the train ride of a lifetime was over and we were in Ella.
Ella was filled with tourists, so prices were a bit higher than everywhere else in Sri Lanka (but still cheap by US standards). The good news is that you really don’t need much when you’re here, because there is so much natural beauty around to entertain you. Ella is famous for its sweeping mountain views, hiking opportunities, and many tea plantations. We had a little house overlooking the mountains, where we could watch farmers plant vegetables, and listen to various birds singing. Our hosts even brought us fresh local tea each morning. After breakfast, we would walk along the train tracks to our chosen hiking destination.
On our last night in Ella, Al and I sat on our balcony as the sun went down, watching the distant train lights wrap around the edge of the nearby mountain, and we both remarked at how amazing it was that we were sitting in the middle of a country that we knew absolutely nothing about just weeks before. I think the possibility that sits in the unknown and our ability to shape where we go and what we do has been one of the greatest joys of this trip. That, and winning the fight for train seats.