HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tet in Sri Lanka

Some quick self-promotion to start - check out my latest story, which looks at traditional Vietnamese wood furniture producers and their reliance on rare illegal timber species, here.

I spent the just-concluded Tet holiday in Sri Lanka, traveling for 10 days with my friends Alexis and Dana. I hadn't heard much about the country until last year, when several friends went on separate trips and returned with rave reviews. After being forced to stay in Vietnam for last year's holiday thanks to a last-minute change of plans I knew I wanted to go somewhere new, and Sri Lanka fit the bill.

We plotted a route from Colombo, the capital, east into the country's mountainous tea-growing areas (it is the fourth-largest tea producer in the world), then south back to the coast and up to where we began. I wasn't sure what to expect, largely thanks to my own ignorance of Sri Lanka. I knew there had been a brutal 30-year civil war, largely confined to the north, that ended in 2009, and I figured there would be some similarities to India given its proximity. Suffice to say, I absolutely loved the place. The food is delicious (and cheap), the scenery stunning and diverse, the people exceedingly friendly and helpful, and getting around is very easy.

The train ride (as a former British colony, Sri Lanka has a fairly robust rail network) from Colombo up to Nuwara Eliya was spectacular. As we chugged uphill huge vistas of mountains and tea plantations spread to the horizon. The greenness of the countryside was striking, and just what we needed as an escape from the polluted concrete jungle of Saigon. I was reminded of the tea country of southern India.

The town of Nuwara Eliya was pleasant, and we had managed to book a hotel outside of the main tourist area. This meant we were near lots of delicious, cheap local restaurants, including a row of Muslim-run eateries that we quickly became regulars at. (Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist, 13% Hindu, 10% Muslim and 7% Christian.)
We had come to Nuwara Eliya to hike in nearby Horton Plains National Park, which we visited early one morning. Though visiting the park isn't cheap, it is beautiful, and they take extremely good care of it - at the entrance staff went through our bags to make sure we weren't carrying any trash, and they even cut the labels off our water bottles. The country as a whole was very tidy, a stark contrast to nearby India, where garbage is everywhere.

The park itself was representative of Sri Lanka's diversity, as the landscape looked like something out of Scotland, not an island in South Asia.

We moved on to Ella afterwards on another spectacular train ride, though the popularity of the route meant we had to stand in a second-class car for a few hours. The scenery was worth it though.
Ella was our longest stop of the trip, and the pleasant mountain town offered several hiking options, along with amazing food. Unfortunately Alexis had sprained a foot while walking down some steps in Nuwara Eliya, so she was relegated to the hotel while me and Dana went exploring. At least the view from the hotel was nice.
The big draws there are Ella Rock, Little Adam's Peak and the Nine Arch Bridge, a century-old structure on the rail line outside of town. We hit all three over two days of fantastic hiking.
You can hike along the railroad tracks around Ella.
Heading up to Ella Rock.

Atop Ella Rock.

Ella Rock seen from Little Adam's Peak.

The ridge along Little Adam's Peak.

A train trundles across the Nine Arch Bridge.
From Ella it was onwards to Udawalawe National Park, one of the most popular areas for wildlife safaris. Sri Lanka is extremely biodiverse, and we jumped at the chance to see some of its animals. None of us had been on a safari before, and it did not disappoint. The headline species is the Sri Lankan elephant, which we saw about a dozen of, in addition to peacocks, hornbills, eagles, crocodiles, monkeys, deer, water buffalo and many other beautiful types of birds. Sitting in a jeep as wild elephants eat about five feet away was pretty special.

 This was my first trip abroad under the Trump presidency, and I was curious to see whether anyone would comment on the USA's new president. When I traveled during the Obama years the reaction I got when people found out I was American was largely positive - I often heard "Obama number 1!" or "Obama very good." Say what you will about his policies, but that was always a good feeling.

As we left our guesthouse outside of the national park Ruwan, the owner, mentioned Trump since he knew we were American. We made our keen displeasure towards the president clear, and Ruwan asked how he could've won the election when every American he has talked to opposes him. We tried to explain it the best we could, though we're all rather baffled by it as well. Our bus pulled up, and Ruwan offered his take on Trump: "Definitely I think he will destroy everything."

It was now time to head back to the coast, and our first stop was Tangalle, a quiet beach town. The weather in the mountains had been fickle, with sunny days interspersed with rain and overcast. Once we hit the sea, however, we barely saw a cloud over the next four days.
Our last stop was Galle, home to a fort built by the Dutch (the colonial ruler before the Brits took over). The area inside the fort was very touristy, but man was it beautiful. The well-preserved architecture brought to mind Goa in India and Malacca in Malaysia, while tasty (if somewhat overpriced) food was all over the place.
Sunset on the walls of Galle Fort.

Eventually it was time to head back to Colombo for the return flight to Vietnam, and we left Galle kicking and screaming. The train ride directly on the coast back to the capital was a stunner, and we killed a few hours before our flight along Galle Face Green, a waterfront park, and with a couple cocktails at the lovely Galle Face Hotel.

The three of us were in agreement that Sri Lanka was absolutely wonderful. Traveling can leave one jaded at times, but I've been gushing about the place since we got back. Add it to your travel list now. I hope to return someday. Now, back to reality.

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