Meandering through Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is defined, really, by one thing: tea. It’s the crop that the British famously brought to Ceylon in the nineteenth century, when the country’s coffee crop failed, and it is probably the thing for which Sri Lanka remains most known for internationally today.

Hill Country’s cooler climate and rolling, rolling hills made it a perfect spot to introduce this non-native crop, and great swathes of the countryside were cleared in order to feed Britain’s insatiable appetite. I knew Sri Lanka had tea, but I guess I did not appreciate quite how extensively the distinctive plants carpet this part of the nation. Tea is everywhere; it dominates and defines the rhythm of local communities and economies. And it is achingly pretty, like a form of topiary on the grandest scale possible.

We made three stops in Hill Country, at places with quite distinct and different profiles: a backpacker favourite, a British colonial outpost, and the last place to fall under colonial rule, and thus a natural centre for pre-colonial Sri Lankan culture.

There are, in fact, loads of other spots that seem to be eminently stoppable. On our trips through the countryside, we saw lots of tourists who seemed to be DIY exploring all over the place, basing themselves wherever a town with accommodation and food options was available.

It is gorgeous countryside, and a really appealing thought to be able to wander amongst it fairly freely (probably sticking close-ish to the train tracks; there’s no real risk of being hit by a train and certainly no one is going to stop you).

Our first stop was backpacker vibes-ville, Ella, which looks at risk of jumping the shark into overdevelopment, but for now sits on the side of charming. Just. A fellow traveller we met in Nuwara Eliya, with Sri Lankan ancestry, laughed when she told us that locals have started going to Ella because they assume there’s something there they’ve missed, since so many foreigners are going there. There isn’t especially; it’s just got a nice feel with a few points of interest in the surrounds. The small town is hemmed in by hills at all angles so it can’t really not be visually appealing.

After resting on the first afternoon, it meant we only had one full day to explore these surrounds. We spent it doing a loop walk that took us through/beside tea plantations, up to Little Adam’s Peak (or peaks), down to the famous Nine Arches Bridge, and finishing with a pleasant stroll along the train tracks back to the very pretty Ella train station.

Lamby mercilessly lampoons tourists and their narcissistic Instagramming…

That’s essentially what Ella is for: strolling (or tuk-tuk-ing, if you must) out from town, into the hills to explore. Undeniably the place charmed us: its relaxed pace, its beauty, its mountain climate respite (we were wearing light jerseys by around 4pm, and it felt great!).

It will also always be the place where my mission to savour Sri Lanka’s culinary masterpiece, lamprais, began.

Our next stop was Nuwara Eliya, most well known as a colonial hill station. To its credit, this reasonably cute wee town has not gone down the road of turning itself into a patiche of Britishness, now that the Empire has well and truly left. I had feared that we might walk into a sea of Union Jacks and cucumber sandwiches.

What this does mean though, is that you need to look a little beyond the obvious symbols, like the old Post Office and other colonial era buildings, for signs of its history as a summer retreat for fancy people. This is very much a functioning town, as opposed to Ella, which centres solely on the tourist economy. So, here, tourists and locals alike are sharing the same space while going about their mutual activities.

On our first afternoon, for example, we strolled out from our guesthouse, turned into what we had been told was some kind of Sunday market fair, still going strong, which then merged into one of the more bustly markets we’ve been to so far. And how I love me a produce market: the piles of resplendent vege, the spices and grains, the noise, the smells, the wax and wane. This then led us out to what is/was obviously the old local part of town, possibly a Muslim quarter, where we found a Cargill’s grocery dating to the mid-1800s.

Wandering back down into the main town is where we collided with tourists, taking in the more picturesque aspects, like the Post Office, Victoria Park gardens and Lake Gregory. Inside the park there is also a little museum, containing a small but fascinating collection of mostly colonial era photographs (me being a huge photography fan, especially historical, I lapped it up).

Because NE acted as the base for our epic adventure up the real Adam’s Peak, and the recovery from, we didn’t do a whole lot else; again just enjoying the hilly ambience. Similar to elsewhere, it is the surrounding hills where points of interest lie (treks, waterfalls, etc.).

We had a couple of great in-house dinners, chatting with fellow travellers from UK, Australia and Germany. We feel much more versed in matters of the EU and Brexit as a result, and are really glad we’re living on the opposite side of the planet. Shit sounds messed up!

For those of you commenting about the absence of food, our second dinner was a fireside feast and one to be savoured: chicken, okra/lady finger, potato, soy meat, and watergrass curries + dal (watergrass is a quite dense leafy green).

Epic, epic meal, featuring spicy chicken, leek and cassava curries + dal

Also, immediately before and after the epic climb, we had delectable off-menu curry + rice at a place called Milano Restaurant, which wasn’t so well reviewed online. Thank God we took the waiter’s suggestion – no idea why it was ‘off-menu’ – because it was phenomenal and included, among other dishes, a nicely firey chicken curry, green bean curry (cooked with some kind of oily fish paste) and…..cassava curry. Oh yes. It was like coconut-based dal pureed into a completely smooth curry and then simmered forever with chunks of my beloved thick starchy carb. Heavenly.

There. Food. Otherwise, Instagram folks!

Our final stop was the city of Kandy, an ancient kingdom centre that managed to stave off both the Portuguese and Dutch, but that finally fell to the Brits at the start of the 1800s. It’s still in Hill Country, but is definitely en route back to sea level. Much hotter, although still pretty pleasant at night, the landscape nonetheless noticeably moves away from tea plantations and back to more tropical-looking flora.

It was probably our favourite stop of the three, combining pretty – another lakeside location hemmed in by hills – with a bustling and cosmopolitan feel and some must-see attractions.

We eased our way into this, starting off with a couple of meditative temples, a 175-year old Anglican church, and a stroll up to a giant seated Buddha who oversees the city. Hey gurrl.

We also strolled around the lake, which turned out to be manmade by order of the last Lankan king, and the immaculately maintained British garrison cemetery.

The young gardener showed us around, telling us all sorts of interesting stories about the people buried there: the woman who died of a broken heart, the man trampled by an elephant, the man who died when the roof of the restaurant he was eating in collapsed, the man who died when a cricket ball hit him in the head, the important people buried there – the members of the Cargill empire, the decorated army man who fought in Waterloo – and lots and lots of young people and babies/children. It paints a picture of pretty brutal, short lives in early colonial era Kandy.

On our final day, we hit the big guns. First up, the temple complex containing Buddha’s sacred tooth, which makes this the most venerated spot for Buddhists in the country (and a top pilgrimage spot for all Buddhists). We attended the morning puja (prayer), joining the throngs of locals and tourists.

By virtue of absent-minded line joining, we ended up in the queue to go into the actual shrine where the tooth is kept inside a Russian doll-like series of caskets (of course). By the time we made it to the front, the sheer number of devotees and the curious meant there was no way everyone was going to get inside. Instead, it appears a decision was made to allow everyone to just file passed the open golden door, taking in a glimpse and perhaps making a quick offering to the infamous shrine.

So we ended up spending a lot of time in the temple, but it was fascinating to watch the people coming to make offerings and chant. It was both serene and chaotic at the same time: a heaving mass yet so intensely personal, and very memorable.

Afterwards we explored the rest of the complex: other shrines, an interesting museum, an open-sidded audience hall, a three-level octagon rotunda the last king built to store religious texts and watch parades and processions, and the world’s only taxidermied elephant. Yup. The whole morning was a trip highlight for sure.

In the evening we went to a show of ‘traditional’ music and dance. There was acrobatics, fire walking, plate spinning, rice cultivation dances, and dragons. I suspect some of its content may well be a little more recently invented, rather than historically accurate, but it’s certainly made me interested in learning more, and it was very entertaining.

Foodwise, Kandy was a treat. At the Muslim Hotel, we took in kottu and these wondrous things called kabool, beef and veges freshly stir-fried with egg, fresh and hot and contained within a light as air pastry triangle.

Beef kabool

Day two I reacquainted myself with that South Indian wonder, dosa, and we went air-conditioned, white table cloths for a pork curry and rice feast.

On our final day, we tracked down lamprais recommended and fondly recalled by a Kiwi-Kandyan, and for dinner, I finally broke the Western drought, and lapped up a giant, fluffy sandwich stuffed with egg, cheese and wonderfully spicy onion sambal. We had spied them the day before, stopping in at the Empire Cafe for a chai; I’m glad we returned.

And that’s our Hill Country in a (yes, okay, long-winded) nutshell: a super enjoyable week-long meander through gorgeous surrounds and historic highs. Now onto the Ancient Centre…

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