Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka 15 - 16 Jan 2014

Labookellie Tea Plantation
It was 2 hours bus ride to Nuwara Eliya, this was the only direct bus from Ella. On the way we pass several big town, plenty of tea plantation and vegetables farms. We are moving high up on the mountain at an altitude of 1,868 m. The mean annual temperature is 16 °C. We arrived during a downpour. It was cold and wet! When the town gets bigger, it get's more confusing. We didn't know where to go to look for guesthouse, so we find a coffee shop to have our lunch. We loved the string Hoppers and curry. The tea tasted better too. Finally we decided to put on our raincoat and go look for guesthouse.

It was still the Tamil new year, the President house is open for public, many locals are flocking toward the President house. We asked some traffic police standing at every junction about any guesthouse recommendation, they don't seems to know. A tuk tuk driver stop us, he offered to bring us to a guesthouse little bit out of town by the lake side, "Free no charge!" we told him no thanks and continue with our search. We have lost any trust to any tuk tuk driver. 

Wattles Inn
Our ancient room
Old light switch
In town, there were just shops after shops. We tried to walk toward housing area, found a Hotel but the guy told us it was full and he brought us opposite to a monastery. The lady showed us a hostel style room with lots of bed and demanded for 1500rp each. It didn't look like it's worth the price. We continue our search. It was really getting frustrated after half an hour of search in the rain with our bags. I decided to ask someone again. This man walking out from a house told us yes there is a hotel he is working with so we followed him. He brought us to a really old colonial house, the keeper told us it is more than 100 years old. I believe him because everything in the house were so old. The furniture, the key, the old light switch, the painting, there is even a chimney in our room. We find the place attractive and decided to take it. The guy told us that the Labookellie Tea Factory is open. Yeah!! We can finally visit a Tea factory. :-)

Mackwoods Tea Plantation
We left to the Tea factory, it was quite easy to get there as there is a direct minibus to the factory from the main bus station. On the way the scenic view of tea plantation was stunning. We arrived at Mackwoods Tea Factory at the last stop. Mackwoods was established in 1841 with currently 27,000 acres of tea. There was a huge 4 story building, a tea house and a tea shop. As this was the only tea factory that was open during this long holiday period, it was packed with tourist. We wanted to get a tour but there were no guide available, so we wandered off ourselves into the factory which they called it museum now. The working area is isolated from the museum, so we could see some of the machine displayed in the museum. The entire process was clearly explain on the TV and the sample of tea was on displayed as well. We didn't have this brand of tea in Malaysia. I don't remember BOH having those tea named the way Mackwoods does. 

Type of Tea
There are 5 different types of teas, below copied from Mackwood website :-
BOP - Broken Orange Pekoe -Well made, neat leaf of medium size without stalk or fibre.
BOPF - Broken Orange Pekoe Fanning -Fairly clean, neat leaf, grainy but smaller than BOP grade
OP - Orange Pekoe -Long well twisted wiry leaf.
PEKOE - Pekoe -Shotty, even, well made grade.
OP 'A' - Orange Pekoe 'A' -Similar in size to OP but loosely twisted and inferior to OP in appearance.
FBOP - Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe -This Medium leaf and tippy.

Weighing Machine
Drying Machine
We stop at the tea house to sip a cup of tea and a cake like an English. It was only S$0.60. :-) I find this a nice gesture so the customer will spend their money buying tea from the shop instead of a getting rip off for a cup of tea and scone like in Cameron Highland, Malaysia. After the rain subside, we went for a stroll to the Mackwoods tea plantation. It was endless. We finished our visit with some shopping, my brother bought 2 boxes of tea.

The cobbler
There is still a lot to do here but we are running out of time. Next day we left early to Kandy. This time we are determined to take the train because we have read that the train route to Kandy is breathtaking. We have pre-book a seat the day before with the help of the guy in the Inn. We had another great breakfast, Anthony found a cobbler to fix his running shoe but the old man was taking too much time. At the end, we had no choice but to get a tuk tuk. I hated bargaining with them. We were quoted 800rp at the bus station. The distance to Nanu Oya Train Station is just 6km. We walked away and stay by the road to flag one down, another one quoted 1000rp. Arrg! Then one of them bargain with us till we agreed to 600rp. Off we go, he told us the road is bad. We didn't expect it to be an adventure getting there. The road was muddy and full of potholes. The poor tuk tuk is bumping left and right avoiding potholes here and there. We finally got to the train station unfortunately the train has left! least we are here early for the next train at noon. :-) 

Nanu Oya Village
Nanu Oya Train Station
So we now have time to kill, we went for a stroll at the nearby village and found a tea factory up on top of the hill. The kids were so welcoming when we pass the village, they surround us and said "Hello, good morning" even the adults were really friendly too. The Edinburgh Tea Factory is locally owned, it was built in 1934. It wasn't open for public touring, but they didn't kick us out. We took some photos and chat with some workers. They said they are in a process of setting up the factory for tour. That will be good for the company and local community, sharing the info and bringing in more tourist to purchase tea directly from the factory. One thing I realized is that there isn't any souvenir shops where we have been, in a touristic places like anywhere in South East Asia, you will find store after store of t-shirts, key chain, fridge magnet, hat, etc. Not here though!

The ancient Lock-and-block signaling system
Handling over the token
While we were at Nanu Oya train station, we had time to visit the Train Control office. The office looks a bit like a museum, very tidy and neat filled with sets of old furniture left over by the British. Much of the network uses a lock-and-block signaling system. The key is to ensure the safe operation of a railway by allowing only one train to occupy a defined section of track at a time. The officer said it is over 100 years old but still in use. We observed that before a train arrive to a station, the bell will ring with certain code that only the train officer will understand. When a train arrived, one officer will pass the token pouch to the train captain, that ensure the track is lock and block for that one train use only. I couldn't understand exactly how it works but it is interesting. :-)

Wattles Inn Tel : 0770660110 – 2000rp per room/night with attached toilet with hot water.

Local bus from Nuwara Eliya to Labookellie Tea Factory - 35rp pp
Tuk Tuk to Nanu Oya Train Station - 600rp
Train ( from Nanu Oya to Kandy (Class 2 Reserved seat) - 600rp


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ella, Sri Lanka 13 - 15 Jan 2014

Ella Train Station
Ella is a little laid back town on the central highland, temperature was cool at the altitude of 1041m. There isn't a bus station, we got off at the junction of Pasara Road. Any of the local on the bus will tell you, that's how we travel in Sri Lanka. Everyone will offer help even when you didn't ask for it.

It was raining again, we quickly head off to Pasara Road to look for a guesthouse. We were approached by 2 local, the first one came to us when we got off the bus. I usually tell them we will have a look first and walk away. You know when there isn't many tourist around, your choice will be more. Another local chap approached us, told us about this new place and price. We told him our budget was lower but he insisted we have a look. Since it was just 100m away, we went to check it out. The rooms are on 2nd floor, above the owner's house, new and clean with an open area to relax and kitchen to cook. We like it and we bargained for the price we wanted for 2 nights. Since there wasn't much tourist, the owner agreed to it. Wasantha works for the owner to find customer, as he speaks decent English, it is easier for him to approach the foreigner. He is very friendly and helpful, he gave us a map and lots of info. He has friends who can rent out motorbike if we need one and he found out for us that the Tea Plantation will be closed for 2 days due to Tamil Thai Pongal Day. Not so good news for my brother because he was looking forward to it.

Morning market at Pasara Road
Ella town is just the 100m stretch of main street, line up with restaurants, cafe, grocery stores and hotel. We found a small cafe to have a snack. We have been having tea everywhere we go since we arrived in Sri Lanka. I tried the coffee here, best to avoid unless you want your mouth full of coffee dust! The best thing is Milk Tea as they use fresh cow milk warmed up for you. We can't find this anymore back home. We also noticed that most of them use brown sugar here, very healthy! Ella is like Cameron Highland in Malaysia, highland town with lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. During dinner my brother tried to order fried vegetables and plain rice. We have to explain multiple times that we do not want fried vegetable rice, they don't seems to understand why we want the rice to be separated from the vegetables. :-) It was funny!

On the way to Little Adam's Peak

Tea plantation
Kids in the village
Our plan for the next day is to hike Little Adam's Peak. We bought some bread, vegetables and sardin to make sandwich. Travelling with my brother is the best, he always bring along a small kettle so we could always enjoy a cup of tea. We started early at 7am. It was a km walk on Pasara Road till we exit the main road onto the tea plantation. The mist surrounding the mountain and tea plantation make it so surreal. We pass a small village who are celebrating the Tamil Thai Pongal Day. There was no sign indicating where to go, so we just kept heading towards the peak eventually we arrive at the stairs heading up. We got to the peak around 8:30am. It was an easy trek. At the top, we enjoy the view of mountains and beyond with a cup of hot coffee and cookies.

View from Little Adam's Peak
View on the way to Little Adam's Peak

After the hike we head to the train station to buy our train tickets to Nuwara Eliya. Unfortunately, all tickets were either sold out or pre-booked the next day and the following day. We could either come early at 6am to see if there is any last minute cancellation or take the public bus as a backup plan. In the afternoon, it started to rain again. We chill and rest at the guesthouse. Late afternoon, we decided to head out to Dowa Temple, it is about 6km from town. We decided to try out the tuk-tuk. First one quoted us 700rp for return trip but then we wanted only one way trip. They are stiff with their standard price for tourist. I am sure the local does not pay this much. Finally we agreed to pay 400rp for one way.

Dowa Temple
Dhowa temple is built by King Walagamba in the 1st century, the main attraction here is the 38ft tall Buddha statue carved on a granite rock. A sleeping buddha inside the temple, where the care keeper demanded us to donate a fix amount of money which he scriber on the ticket. We were put away by his request coming from a care taker of this ritual site. My brother donated and told him we wont go in, but he then felt bad and said we could go. I left as I felt that the donation was just a scam for tourist. So unless you have nothing much to do forget about visiting this temple. The bus back to Ella only cost us 20rp per person, we told ourselves never to take a tuk-tuk again.

Local corn
After 4 days in Sri Lanka, my brother missed home cook food. We bought some fresh vegetables, onions, eggs and rice to cook in the guesthouse. That was nice for a change. :-) If not because of my tight schedule, I would have stay here for a few more days to explore the mountain area.

We decided to take a bus to Nuwara Eliya instead of waking up at 5am to try our luck on the train ticket. The bus leaves at 8am from the junction of Pasara Road. No problem to get a seat as there were many people going down at the next few stops. Sri Lankan has the upmost respect for woman, they always start with addressing me "Mam", I like having such privilege and gave them back the same respect in return. My brother was jealous why he didn't hear anyone addressing him "sir". :-)

Little Heaven Homestay, Ella Tel : 0774283386 – 1500rp per room/night with fan, mosquito net, attached toilet with hot water, kitchen, wifi

Tuk tuk to Dawa Temple - 400rp per way
Local bus from Dawa Temple to Ella - 20rp pp
Local bus from Ella to Nuwara Eliya - 120rp pp


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Tissa and Yala National Park, Sri Lanka 12-13 Jan 2014

Matara is the end stop of the southern Sri Lanka rail line. From here we took a local bus to Tissa. Tissa is short for Tissamaharama. A small town south eastern of Sri Lanka. A gateway to Yala National Park. The bus journey was 3 hours but mostly along the coastline and small villages. This time we chose a seat far away from the speaker and at the end of the bus to avoid all the noise. It was much better. We have learnt to pack some food for the journey because you never know how long the journey will take.

SundaLanka Rest
We were approached by a local on the bus who was offering his guesthouse. It was 2km away from town, so we told him we wanted a place near to town. Then he said his brother has a place near town, he will bring us there. It was drizzling when we arrived, the bus station and the town was deserted, I guess everyone is off on Sunday. So we followed him to his brother's guesthouse, no harm anyway, the house is about 200m from town, tuck in the green coconut plantation. Surprisingly it was nice. Big room and close to nature. We like it and took it. Next is to book for our safari, of course he sells the safari package as well. We bargain for an acceptable price and sign up. :-) We are all set!
Tissa Buddhist Stupa

When the rain subsided, we went for a stroll, the town is basically dead. We walked out of town passing some paddy fields and stumble into a Buddhist Stupa. We follow the local and walk clockwise around the stupa, my brother did it 3 times. A monk came to chat with me, he told me he was a headmaster before but he fell sick. Some kind of lung disease, said he has to go Colombo for treatment and it was very expensive. Lastly he get to his point of asking me if I can give him some money. I didn't because first of all real monk do not ask for money. Luckily he wasn't pushy and left.

Yala National Park is the second largest in Sri Lanka but is the most visited. The park covers 979 square kilometres. 44 species of mammals are resident here and it has one of the highest leopard densities in the world and the Sri Lanka elephant. Yala harbours 215 bird species including six endemic species of Sri Lanka. I was very excited to finally get here, I hope I can see a leopard. :-)

The safari started at 5:30am with a pick up from the guesthouse. We were then join with others and swop around jeeps and regroup. We were in a 6 seated jeep with just 4 of us. The jeep is basically converted from Jeepney with 6 seats and a sheltered fixed at the back, both side are open. It took about 45 minutes to get to Yala National Park, the dawn and sunrise in the park was breathtaking. After getting thru the registration at the entrance, off we go. We didn't have a guide from the park nor seen any tickets issued, as written in the travel book. Maybe the driver cut corner but we got in the park anyway.

Elephant Rock at Yala National Park 
We were greeted with peacocks after peacocks, on the tree, on the road, in the bushes, they are everywhere. There were also herd of buffalos, soaking in water holes, resting in the mud or some were crossing the road. The driver was our spotter, every time when he see something he will stop and point to us. We saw fox, crocodiles, bambi, wild boar, and lots of birds - Indian Cormorant, Grey Heron, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Asian Openbill, medium-sized waders, Egrets, Oriental Darter, Lesser Whistling Duck, Crested Serpent Eagle, Asian Paradise-flycatcher, the list is long... 

When a Leopard was discovered
We were not allow to get off the jeep at any point except for the beach stop and river stop. Drivers update each other what they saw when they cross each other on the road. An hour later, after spoken to another driver (in Sinhalese), he immediately reversed his car into a small path. There was a big traffic jam of jeeps behind us, we could not get close. With my binoculars, I saw a fade leopard tail hanging on a big tree. We were forced to move on as we were blocking the other jeeps behind us to pass, our driver has to take a big loop and queue at the end of line. after we finally got to the spot, the leopard has already gone. :-( disappointed!
Toque macaque


Sri Lanka Bambi
Sri Lanka elephant
Sri Lanka Leopard
We continue our safari, hoping to see another one later. At 10:30am, we stop at the beach spot for a break, I counted more than 50 jeeps were there. It was also a long holiday for Sri Lanka, so there were a lot more local tourist in the park. Their jeeps mostly packed up to 12 people in it. Probably they paid lesser. 

We continue our search and finally we saw a Sri Lanka elephant, moving alone in the bush not in a herd though. My first wild elephant, he was huge!! We continue to spot other animals like Sri Lanka Mongoose, Toque macaque, king fishers, etc. As our driver turn into another path, he stop abruptly and cut the engine. Yelled to us "LEOPARD!!" The moment of truth!! We saw a leopard 50m away walked out from the bush on to the path heading towards us, slowly taking his time, we kept our camera clicking, he came as close as 20m away until he disappeared into the bush. We were speechless for a moment with a big smile on our face. We finally saw our first leopard. I was still shock from that moment, could not believe what just happen. He was bigger than I expected. He was very beautiful with those spots on the body. We hung around for another 30 minutes to see if the leopard appear again. We were so lucky!!

Asian Paradise-flycatcher

The half day safari finished at noon, we had lunch, check out and left for Ella. We have to take 3 buses to arrive at Ella. First from Tissa to Thanawalwila, from Thanawalwila to Wilawaya and lastly from Wilawaya to Ella. All 1 hour journey each. The connections were actually smooth, we didn't wait more than 30min for the next bus. Everyone was so helpful and they make sure we got onto the right bus. The journey up to the highland was refreshing and scenic. That made the trip less taxing.

Water buffalo

Sundalanka Rest, Tissa Tel : 071 2244108 – 1500rp per room/night with fan, attached toilet with hot water

Local bus from Matara to Tissa - 150rp pp
Local bus from Tissa to Thanawalwila - 51rp pp
Local bus from Thanawalwila to Wilawaya  - 61rp pp
Local bus from Wilawaya to Ella - 61rp pp

Yala National Park half day safari - 5500rp pp incl park fees

Colombo and Galle, Sri Lanka 10-12 Jan 2014

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is known as "the Pearl of the Indian Ocean" because of its natural beauty. The beauty came from the long history, the culture, the nature, and the people. It has never came across my mind that such beauty exist so close to me. After a quick study and googling, I am all ready to pack my bag.

I was so happy that my brother Anthony is coming with me to Sri Lanka, we had an amazing time travelled together to Cambodia and Laos. I looked forward for another great trip with him. We booked our tickets and I made all the planning. We will spend total of 8 days in Sri Lanka. That is the maximum number of days I can squeeze out of my holidays. :-) Short but we will see what we can manage in that 8 days.

As we will land in Colombo midnight, I made a reservation for accommodation in advanced. I was shocked when I checked the prices online, even a hostel cost $25 per person. Since we didn't plan to stay or sightsee in Colombo, any place cheap and reasonable is ok. It was a house with SPA and rooms available upstairs. We checked in at 1am early Sat, slept, had our breakfast and left. The person who run the place speak very basic English but he managed to help us with what we need. He told us that there are many buses going to Galle, he gave us the bus number to take from the main road to the Main Bus station at Fort. It was easy. We got to the main road the buses were there instantly.Colombo is clean and pretty rustic. The buses are non-aircon and the bus conductor sell us tickets in small sheet of paper. It was surprising cheap! We paid rp35 for 2 person to the main station, that is S$0.17 cents per person. :-)

Local market
We started to realised that everyone was staring at us. With their big eyes you can felt the fierce stare even from far away. I look them back and gave them a smile, then everything change, they didn't look away and gave me a big smile back. Those who dares will start speaking to me, asking me where I am from, how long in Sri Lanka, do I like Sri Lanka etc. I started to realised how friendly Sri Lankan are, I started to like them. :-)

Local Market
Someone showed us where to get off at the Main Station and where to get our bus to Galle, everyone was so helpful. We had time to walk pass a local market before we jump on our bus. The local produce are mangoes, beans, chillies, jackfruits, potatoes, carrots, onions, papaya, pineapple, orange, cabbages, etc. not much different from Malaysia.

Colombo Fort Bus Station
From an aircon minibus and a local non aircon bus, we decided on the local bus. We picked the first row, got ourselves seated comfortably and the journey begins, we enjoyed the view of Colombo town as the bus pass thru the city, a lot cleaner than I expected. The bus stops every 100m as the bus conductor hung on the door and call constantly "GalleGalleGalle..." Gave me a flashback of minibus service in Kuala Lumpur. The Indian Pop music was blasting in the bus and we were fortunately sitting right in front of the speaker. :-( The bus driver was cursing using his honk. Colombo city seems endless, after an hour we were still in the city, after 2 hours we were still in the city fighting thru the traffic. We got bore and fell asleep. Finally I think 3 hours later we saw the coconut trees and beaches. Endless shoreline and beautiful beaches. Finally we arrived after 4.5 hours on that 119km route. It was a good start! :-)

Galle Light House
Galle was the main port of the island back in the 16th century. The Galle fort is a world heritage site and is the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers. The bus stop is just outside the Fort, as we arrived at 2pm it was hot but not humid. We went looking for food, got into the first restaurant we saw in the fort. It was nicely decorated with Bob Marley photos. I got my first rice and curry. It was delicious! Not much different from Indian cuisine back in Malaysia except that it was less spicy.

Galle Fort

Galle District Court
After checking into our guesthouse, we went to explore the fort. A walked along the wall, pass the lighthouse, beach, a big mosque, churches, museum, lots of old Dutch buildings, gigantic ankle left over from the old days on display by the road and small little boutique of hotel and shops. Such a pretty little city, lots of photograph opportunities. We stop by a local fishing bay where the local fishing boats were dock. The traditional boat was built with wood, long and narrow body with one outrigger on one side to balance the boat. The other type was the fiberglass flat bottom type.

Traditional Fishing Boat
Fiberglass Fishing Boat
A few of the locals came to chat, they told us the fishing was done at night, they leave after sunset, out the entire night and back at dawn. 2 type of fishing method were used, hand bait and net casting. For net casting a few boat has to work together to circle the net and trap the fishes. One of them actually invited us to join them that night. Ohh..If only we have the time...:-( it's our lost to miss such an opportunity but then again we might not survive the night. 

Kottu and Devile
At night the guesthouse owner recommended us a place to eat, we tried out some local dishes introduced by the guesthouse owner. The Kottu is actually roti canai cut into small pieces and fried with vege and meat of your choice. The Devile is onions and chilies with meat of your choice fried with sweet soya sauce and we ordered an extra plate of vegetables. We love it! Anthony finished 2 plates of rice. :-)

The catch of the day
We left early the next day to Tissa. To get there we have to catch a train to Matara and change to a local bus to Tissa. The guesthouse owner was very friendly, he told us what time is the train and where we could find the fish market in the morning. It was where we pass yesterday, the fishermen came back with Tunas, Trevally, Grouper, Snappers all hand bait. There was one giant grouper just the head was 6kg, I don't know how they pull it out with their hands.

The train ride was nice and comfy, no more traffic jam! We got to Matara in 45mins. When we arrived a tuk tuk driver approach us and asked us where we want to go. We hesitated and told him bus station(we tried to avoid tuk tuk because they always overcharge) he told us it is 2km away 20 mins walk. We told him we will walk. In return he gave us the direction and said good bye. We were shocked by his feedback. Sometime this is what we miss and what made our day when you least expected it. A nice and humble person who just wanted to help.

Galle to Matara

Thusare House & Spa, Colombo – $56 per room/night with aircon, shared toilet, hot shower, wifi. Breakfast - 1000rps
Leynbaan Villa, Galle - 3000rps per room/night with fan, mosquito net, attached toilet with hot water, wifi.

Cathay Pacific SG-Colombo return S$372.80 pp
Visa - $30 pp applied online
Taxi to guesthouse - 2700rp per taxi
Local Bus to Main bus terminal - 17.5rp pp
Local Bus to Galle - 150rp pp
Train from Galle to Matara - 80rps pp