Exploring Hidden Trails of the Mid-Eastern Region
Expedition: “The Lankan Trail Troop” – Exploring hidden trails of the mid-Eastern region
Expedition members: Akitha, Nuran, Suranga, Tharuka, Ushani and Donovan.
While the world around us shifts and adapts, a challenge was set in motion to keep ourselves inspired and optimistic. A reminder that travel is all about seeking experiences, making memories, self-healing, learning and sharing knowledge from the people and places we visit.
During these trying times, it’s become even more important to look beyond the familiar comforts to keep our interests alive and motivated. Thus began the journey of searching for undiscovered treasures of the island. An entire week away from the hubbub of the metropolitan to go exploring the unknown. Sure enough, the thought of it was intimidating but exciting at the same time! It was the perfect recipe for an impromptu trip!
There’s a saying “He who would travel happily must travel light” and we couldn’t have agreed more! With enough essentials loaded in our backpacks, we only travelled using public transportation. At times when we couldn’t count on it, tuk-tuks and private jeep hires came to our aid. There were also a few occasions when we couldn’t find a decent mode of transport, hitch-hiking was the only way we could reach our next destination. Undoubtedly, the whole experience taught us about resilience, hope, humility and emotion. An excellent seeding ground to build character.
Most parts of this small island have been explored repeatedly over hundreds of years of the country’s rich and vibrant history. Spanning back as far as 993 AD, when the armies of the Chola Kingdom arrived in Sri Lanka, through the colonization at the hands of the Portuguese, (1505-1658) the Dutch (1664-1795) & the British, (1815-1948) and coming up to present day with the boom in local and international tourism, almost every nook and cranny of the island has been visited by both local and foreign travellers. Since the end of the 30-year Civil war in 2009, it is safe to say that we now know where all birds and the bees flock together. Or do we?
In the light of mass tourism, yes, but one could say that there are still quite a few areas in Sri Lanka which are yet to be ‘discovered’. The main reasons for this could be that some areas may not fit into an itinerary logistically (and fortunately so), or that the area in question is not infrastructurally equipped to cater to tourists, or may not have many things to do for tourists. Whatever the reasons, believe that some of these hidden riches have tremendous cultural, historical and religious value but are only waiting to be discovered.
It took us about 30 days to do our fair share of research before dive in headfirst. With hopes of finding the hidden gems on the roads less travelled, starting in the Ancient Kingdom of Polonnaruwa in the North Central Province, we would work our way down to the central highlands and end in the Tea country.
July 02nd: Night mail Train to Polonnaruwa
To get an early start from Polonnaruwa on the morning of Day 01, we chose to take the night mail train which leaves from Colombo at 7.00pm on the previous evening, scheduled to arrive in Polonnaruwa by around 1.30am. We met at the Colombo Fort Railway Station at around 6.30pm – Old iconic station built in 1877 under the British Ceylon similar to the Manchester Victoria station.
Reading a comment in “Trip advisor” on Colombo Fort Railway station ….
Important advice – get here with plenty of time to spare! There are people everywhere, trains coming and going, bewildered tourists wandering around, locals cramming on top carriages and no signs or announcements which platform your train departs from. You need to find someone official looking in a uniform and ask which platform your train leaves from and then probably get a second opinion! As I said, a great travel experience.
What’s said above couldn’t be anymore true, after a while and worthy effort, we were finally seated in the correct train & ready to embark on our much-awaited journey.
The train took off at 7.00pm as scheduled and started making its way towards the North Central Province, passing through hustling towns and suburbs. Train was packed to capacity with locals going for weekend breaks to the East coast while some were visiting friends & family. We arrived at the Polonnaruwa Railway Station at around 2.00am, 20 minutes later than scheduled. We later found out that the delay had been due to a passenger who had got off the train a few stops earlier, leaving their bag on the train mistakenly. Oh well!
Our guesthouse for the night was a 10-minute walk from the Polonnaruwa Railway Station. A little tired after the long journey, we continued walking down the street when all of a sudden we got a rousing welcome from a friendly pack of stray dogs (in double digits!!) in the area waking up the entire neighborhood at 2.30am. This was a good enough signal for our guest house owner to greet us at the entrance. He knew we were approaching the guest house upon hearing the dogs bark!!!
After a quick round of introductions, we walked towards our respective rooms to freshen up quickly and have a couple of hours of rest before heading out.
July 03rd: Pedals, Landscapes and Jumbos
After 3 hours of sleep, we hit the road as early as 6.30am – our first day of adventure. Our host Luxman was gracious and welcoming, and greeted us with a strong cup of ‘black’ tea while sneaking a sleepy smile. We apologized for not letting him get proper sleep but he insisted that it was no trouble at all with such sincerity, so we had no choice but to believe him.
Raja – our longtime friend from the area, picked us up at 7.30am from our guest house and after a short ride on the back of his truck, we arrived at the banks of the picturesque “Parakrama Samudraya” manmade lake by most revered King Parakrambahu.
For the next 35 Km’s we were riding cycles through very rural roads, from dreamy rice fields to sprawling lush plantations, rural villages to nature preserves teeming with wildlife, the range of Sri Lanka’s geographical and cultural treasures is astounding—and there’s no better way to see it all than on two wheels.
We continued on the trail passing the reservoir, along rural roads which were lined with lush green farm lands, grasslands and waterways which originate from the Parakrama Samudraya. The landscapes were breathtaking, and there was always a light breeze to keep our bodies cool and energized. Thanks to the nearby waterways.
Our first stop on route was beside the lush paddy fields for Breakfast, with local favorites such as bread, dhal curry, Coconut Sambol and ‘Lawariya’, a local sweetmeat consisting of flour, coconut and treacle.
We mounted back on our bicycles and continued through a stunning road that runs between borders of two national parks (Wasgamuwa and Angamadilla). As we were passing through the quaint local villages, one of the most memorable things we encountered was the beautiful smiles of the village children who didn’t miss waving at every single one of us. Making sure that we are greeted with their innocent courtesy every step of the way. After enjoying a refreshing King Coconut from the roadside vendors, we reached the end of our journey by bidding farewell to our friend and our new friend Wasantha, who accompanied us on a bicycle to ensure that we were safe and hydrated.
Our onward Journey to Wasgamuwa was a couple of crowded public bus rides through the sleepy village of Hettipola – For most of us living in the capital, using public transport, local buses is not a common choice. Yet, this is the only budget friendly alternative to travelling by any other means. Despite Sri Lanka’s hot climate, buses don’t get too warm as the windows let in plenty of air to keep to a comfortable temperature – meaning you won’t need to pay extra for air conditioning!!
By this time it was evident that the villagers aren’t accustomed to seeing many tourists in this area. For this reason, we attracted quite a bit of attention to ourselves. With hearty smiles and curious eyefuls, many of the villagers offered us vacant seats to sit on. The bus conductor too was very helpful and accommodating, and even offered to hold the bus for us for a few minutes while we questioned about timings of the return buses (so that we could plan out our next day). The bus driver was kind enough to drop us off right in front of the access road to our guesthouse for the night.
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say Sri Lanka, being a dozen times its size compared to other countries, is blessed with so many wonderful qualities. The people, especially in interiors, possess a warm and friendly nature reflected in their smiling faces. Outside the big cities, this quality is better-defined. Villagers are known to be very accommodating and friendly, they would even invite a total stranger to their homes to have a hot cup of tea or a meal. However modest our lifestyle is, this is a quality all Sri Lankans take credit for.
We arrived at our guesthouse for the night and dropped off our bags quickly before walking down to a small stream nearby where we enjoyed a refreshing dip in the cool waters to recover from our travels. At the stream, we were joined by none other than our last bus driver and bus conductor who are actually from the area and wasted no time in plucking a fresh ‘Wela Waraka’ (a ripe version of Jack Fruit which is found in rural areas) for us to taste. Needless to say, the fruit was super fresh and delicious. Here we were also joined by two children from the village who frequent this stream in the afternoons to douse themselves in the cooling water. The experience was truly heartwarming. After drying ourselves, we returned to the guesthouse where a simple but delicious rice and curry lunch awaited us.
An afternoon well spent, next in line was a game drive on our schedule. We were greeted by our safari jeep driver who took us on a short drive to the entrance of the Wasgamuwa National Park. This National Park is less frequented by tourists as opposed to the other parks in the area, so is home to many herds of wild Elephants who sometimes are known to be territorial and aggressive as they are not accustomed to many visitors. Though we didn’t see much during the first half of the safari ,as evening approached, we spotted our first Elephant and it quickly became multiple sightings of herds and the occasional Serpent Eagle. The Elephants did not seem too different from ones we have spotted in other parks at first, but we could soon sense a more defensive and territorial behavior from them as we heard a few trumpets – something that some of us have never had a chance to hear before. Our jeep driver then took us to the banks of the Mahaweli River, the longest in the country, where we could enjoy uninterrupted views of the river. Sadly, we left for the park about an hour later than the recommended time. Somewhat a disappointment considering the park is said to have good animal sightings towards the latter part of the afternoon. Another time then!
Upon returning to the guest house, we could see the sleeping arrangements for the night were laid out quite interestingly. With beds arranged in an open area without walls, laid out in the dormitory style along with individual mosquito nets hanging overhead, we knew it was going to be rustic yet an authentic experience . In the evening, we were treated to a delicious ‘string hopper’ dinner accompanied by a green chili & coconut sambol and a spicy chicken curry – a dinner not to be forgotten.
As bedtime approached and we were gradually getting ready to rest from our long and very memorable day, a distraction came in the form of a phone call with the trekking guide who was due to guide us through our hiking the next day. In order to be able to complete everything we had planned out for the next day, we needed to start our trek at around 7.30am. However, our trekking guide cautioned us against it, as he had heard reports of wild Elephants being around the trekking path during the early hours of the morning. Therefore, he asked if we could start at 10.00am instead, which would delay our arrival at the next guesthouse by at least 2.5 hours meaning around 9.30pm. After frantically looking around for some other options and not being able to make any changes at such short notice, we had no choice but to grudgingly confirm to the trekking guide that we will start at 10.00am, and head to bed, to be refreshed for the next day of adventure into the unknown.
July 04th: A long day of trekking and travel
We had a late start this morning after last night’s events where we had to push back the start time of our trekking. Though we weren’t thrilled about it, at least we had an extra bit of sleep. After packing up and having a nice ‘Pol Roti’ (a local flat bread made with coconut) breakfast, we set off once again with a feeling at the back of our minds that this would be a long day.
We reached the place where we were set to meet with our trekking guide by around 9.30am, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Though we had agreed to meet at 10.00am, we thought of calling the trekking guide’s home, just to check that he had left home and was on his way to meet us. All trekking guides live in the village of Meemure itself, so he would have had to leave home around 03 hours beforehand so that he can come across the path along the river to meet us. The trekking guide’s wife answers the phone, and says, to our immense shock, that the guide has not yet left home to come meet us! We did not know why he had not yet left home, we did not even ask, because we knew at that point – we had only two choices left to us: find someone else to guide us through the trek, or cancel the trek altogether and pursuer some other trekking options which we had researched and found in the area. We weighed our options quickly. On the one hand, we were in a place that none of us had been before and therefore knew nobody in the area to help us find a new and reliable guide. On the other hand, this was one of the most anticipated treks of the whole trip and we were all really looking forward to it. And so, we decided to try go ahead with the trek with a new guide, failing which we would go with the other options we had planned as an ‘Option B’.
There was a local tea shack where we were, with a few locals in patronage. We spoke to the tea-maker, asking if he knew of any locals on this side of the trekking path who would be willing to guide travelers to the village of Meemure along the river path. He put us in touch with two tuk-tuk drivers from the village nearby who offered to take us to the village and try to find a local who was willing to take us over to the other side. As this was our best chance to do this trek at the moment, we agreed to go with them. After a 10 minute tuk-tuk ride through winding hills and rocky roads, we arrived at the village, which, coincidentally, is also the starting point of the trek. The tuk tuk drivers started looking for a villager who could accompany us on the trek. The village is very small and therefore very close knit, so everyone knew everyone. After close to 20 minutes of looking, we found a young villager who said he had no other plans for the day. He had gone on the river path before, but said he would not be able to go alone since he would have to walk back to this side of the path in the evening, after dropping us off at the other end. In a few more minutes, the tuk-tuk drivers spotted a villager who was sitting outside a house nearby, and although he had not been on the river path before, he was kind enough to agree to accompany us as well! So after a few more minutes during which our two new and unexpected trekking guides got some supplies together to carry on the trek with them, we were off on the river path.
‘Meemure’ is a somewhat isolated village with a very small population of just 400 or so, situated here in the Central Province of the country. In 2004, Meemure was the film location for a very popular Sri Lankan movie which featured some of the beautiful mountain ranges and rivers and waterfalls situated around the village and since then, it has become a very popular holiday attraction for locals from around the country. However, the route we were taking is still very rarely used, as it is a very small walking path winding along the river that runs through the village flowing East, and is only used by villagers who walk across on occasion. As we trekked along the path, we could hear the sound of the stream though we could not always see it, occasionally meeting the stream at openings which were breathtaking to see.
Our new trekking guides soon became our new friends, as we made our way along the path and started getting to know each other in conversation. Ranjith, the younger of the two, is 24 and works in Colombo as a laborer. As the country went on lockdown a few months ago due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Ranjith could not find work, and therefore decided to return to his village until things come back to normal. Nowadays, he engages in odd jobs and agriculture along with the other villagers. Lal, the older of the two, is a father of two and engages in farming. Since of late however, he says that farming too has become problematic to the villagers in the area, due to changes in weather patterns as well as adverse effects from the fertilizers and pesticides which are available at the local markets. The more we spoke, the happier and happier we felt that our original trekking guide had not showed up, because now we were able to meet Lal and Ranjith, and learn about the real life situations faced by rural villagers, and support them. Ranjith and Lal were ever so helpful to all of us along the way, and even helped carry some of our bags, when it became a little tough. As we got closer to the end, our stocks of drinking water ran out, so we had to drink from the stream, which thankfully has safe drinking water. Lal even ran down to the stream with our empty bottles of water and refilled them for us, which really showed us how hospitable the villagers in Sri Lanka can be.
We reached the end of our trek at around 4.30pm, which was around 5.5 hours in total. Arriving at the banks of the stream at the bottom of the village of Meemure, we bid goodbye to Lal and Ranjith who made us promise to come visit them again, and enjoyed a well-earned cup of tea along with some hot Pol Roti at a little tea shop nearby. After tea, we hopped on to a truck we had arranged to take us to the main road, since there are no public buses from Meemure. After a drive of around 1.5 hours, we arrived at the main road where we could take the bus which leads us to our next destination. Though we waited and waited, no bus showed up, steadily increasing our anxiety as the minutes passed. Finally, a bus showed up, but not the bus we need to get to our guesthouse, but one that takes us around halfway. We decided to take this bus and then try to find another bus from the halfway point. More bad news awaited us at the halfway point, as we were told by all those who asked that there are no other buses, meaning that we would have to wait around an hour further and take the last bus from Kandy which would reach our destination by around 12.15am. At long last, the bus arrived and we finally arrived at our guesthouse for the night by around 12.20am.
Our host at the guesthouse, ‘Indi’, was waiting for us with a hot rice and & curry dinner. We apologized for being so late and for him having to break rest, but Indi simply waved it away with a warm smile and said he was just glad to have us. Indi, it turned out, would end up being one of our most memorable hosts from our whole trip, and is a wealth of knowledge and an excellent host. We told him of our travels of the day while we enjoyed a sumptuous home cooked dinner, and mentioned that two of us had broken our shoes from our trekking. He immediately offered to fix our shoes for us, and took them and started gluing them together. While fixing our shoes, he gave us advice for the adventure we had planned for the next day, and shared his own experiences of the trek. Indi noticed how tired we were, and insisted that we get some rest and that he would have our shoes ready for us in the morning, so we bade him goodnight and retreated to our comfortable rooms. Getting to bed, we could not help but feel enjoy today’s adventures, even though it certainly did not go as planned. When faced with uncertainty, we decided to take the risk and plunge in to the unknown, and we had been rewarded with meeting amazing people like the tuk tuk drivers in the village, Lal and Ranjith, as well as a beautiful and memorable trek to Meemure.
July 5th & 6th: ‘the lonely cave’ – An undiscovered wonder
We woke up this morning, refreshed and ready for two days of true adventure in to the unknown – climbing what we affectionately call the ‘the Lonely Cave’. We were looking forward to these two days the most, but these two days were also the days about which we knew the least, as it wasn’t something many travelers have done before.
The Lonely Cave was said to be the location of a rock fortress planned by King Saddhathissa, brother of King Dutugemunu, one of the most famous olden Kings of Sri Lanka. Historical sources are quite vague about the exact history of King Saddhathissa, but some of the locals believe King Saddhathissa used this rock as his hiding place from his brother. On the other hand, some of the locals believe King Saddhathissa first came to this area as directed by his brother, to cultivate this area for agriculture. Still more theories suggest that this was all built not by King Saddhathissa, but by his son and successor, Lanjathissa. The rock is said to have been the intended site for the palace similar to what we see in Sigiriya, while some speculate the name which they had given in Sinhalese, literally translates to Capital Rock, which probably meant it to be the Capital city of the Kingdom, built on the rock along with the palace. Sadly, the construction was never completed, possibly ending with the death of King Saddhathissa, or his successor. However, ruins of the foundation of construction are still intact. Pathways paved by rocks can still be seen starting at the bottom of the rock, with evidence of drains being cut in to the rock itself visible in places as well, along with a large pond at the top of the rock, and a large cave near the top of the rock, which had been drip-ledged and used as the King’s chamber.
This was the very cave where we hoped to sleep in for the night, and yes, this was what we were most looking forward to. It was not going to be an easy trip though, as the rock is now in the middle of ‘Elephant country’, which means wild Elephants are known to roam the area regularly – not only around the rock but up to the top of the rock itself. In addition to this, we had to think about drinking water, food and other supplies for the overnight stay in the cave as well. To guide us through this adventure and to help us navigate the paths, we had the help of ‘The Chief Aththo’, the leader of a small ‘Veddha’ community in this area, the indigenous group of people in Sri Lanka. There are still a few clans of the Veddha community still in existence in Sri Lanka, most of which are scattered around this general area. After the death of his father a few months ago, Chief Aththo has taken on the role as head of the clan.
After breakfast, we left Indi’s guesthouse and went to the center of town nearby, where we got all the supplies we needed for the climb. Chief Aththo said we could cook over a woodfire in the cave if we liked, but we wanted to keep the cooking to a minimum so decided to take dry food for meals. We got some extra drinking water, some bread and a bottled sprats dry curry for dinner, crackers and cheese wedges for breakfast, and some more drinking water. There are no public buses going towards the Veddha village where the trek begins, so we hired a truck to take us there.
15 minutes later, we arrived at Chief Aththo’s home, where the Veddha chief himself sat outside, waiting for us. He greeted each of us with his hand joined together in prayer-like gesture, as is the traditional Sri Lankan greeting, and gave each of us a home cooked rice & curry lunch pack which we were to have mid-way through our climb. Ready with our backpacks and water bottles, and Chief Aththo with his own sack containing his own bottle of water and some supplies, pouch of betel firmly secured around his waist, and an axe over his shoulder, we set off on the trek which would take us to the top of the rock, approximately 9Km in all. The trek is mainly of two parts: 5Km-6Km of mostly flat land, through fields of cattle and Teak plantations, where we get to the base of the Rock. From here, the climb begins, winding around the rock and reaching up to the summit, where we would reach the cave and the pond.
The flat terrain is picturesque but tiring, thorny and tough in places, especially as we started a bit later than ideal, around 11.00am which meant we were under the scorching sun. Shoes are definitely needed to navigate through this trek so far, and at this point, we were so thankful to our host Indi from the guesthouse, who insisted that we needed shoes and repaired our broken ones for us. The thickets also made it very hard for us to see an Elephant approaching, but Chief Aththo was one step ahead, calling ahead with loud shouts and banging his axe on broken tree trunks, to ensure any Elephants or other wildlife nearby would be alerted of our presence and steered clear. After close to three hours of trekking, we finally were able to get our first glimpse of the Lonely Cave, which was cleverly hidden behind a few other hills and rocky mountains around this area. We could see why this was the place selected by King Saddhathissa to build his rock fortress. It was well guarded by nature itself, who did a good job of hiding it, and the surrounding hills and mountains made it impossible for a large force to mount a surprise attack.
Chief Aththo brought us to a point which is usually used for a pitstop, and we enjoyed our home-cooked lunch packs here and gave our shoulders some rest from carrying our backpacks. He was very keen on getting up to the summit as soon as possible, because Elephants tend to walk around these parts towards late afternoon. So after a quick lunch, we were back on the path, starting the last part of the trek, the climb to the summit. Though the climb is only 1/3 of the total trek, we soon came to learn that this was the toughest part of the trek. The slope is steep, the rocks are uneven and the grass is even taller which makes it very hard to keep track of the walking path unless someone is right in front of you. It was certainly getting tougher and tougher, but the views were also becoming more and more magnificent, seeing the hills and countryside and lakes which were steadily getting lower and lower beneath our feet. We also came across Elephant droppings, almost as regularly as the amount of rocks around here, some of them quite fresh too, a constant reminder that we may not be alone up here.
We finally arrived at the summit, where we had amazing views of the surrounding mountains, forests and lakes. We walked across the summit and were guided by Chief Aththo to a little path which descends slightly to the side of the rock where the cave lies, almost completely hidden from sight when looking up from the ground below. The drip-ledged cave is empty and bare now, but legends say it had brick partitioning, plastered walls and wall paintings in the ages past. Today, it is mostly barren except for a small pool of water retained on the left corner. We finally relieved our shoulders from our backpacks to catch our breath. We had made it! And it was around 5.00pm which was a good time to get here since it was not too warm and therefore the perfect time to check out the famous pool which is said to have been carved in to the rock, with only the wide open skies above it. This thought was distracted by Chief Aththo suddenly exclaiming there was an Elephant down in the fields below us. He tried to direct our eyes to what he could see, but, try as we might, we just could not spot it. Beginning to think the Chief Aththo may just be extra tired, some of us took out our camera and zoomed in to try spot the Elephant, and were amazed to see the Elephant, just as the Chief had said! We could not believe the Chief could spot the Elephant from so far away, but could understand why we had not spotted it – it was only the size of an ant from this high up, and our minds were expecting something bigger. Soon, Chief Aththo had spotted two, three, four more, moving together and feeding on the plains far below.
Soon after this, we made our way up to the summit where we would find the pool. The pool is around 70 feet x 50 feet in all, cut in to the rock itself, and somehow keeps the water from evaporating though it is completely unprotected from the sun which shines fiercely throughout most of the year. We did not plan on taking a bath up here, but, feeling the unexpected coolness of the water and how tired we were feeling, we could not help but have a soothing bath. The cool water energized us instantly, and we could feel the tiredness of our shoulders and legs slowly fade in to the background. Chief Veddha showed us the markings around the back of the pool, which proved there was more widening to be done in the pool but it was indeed unfinished. What an amazing thing to see, if it had been finished. Even as it is right now though, so far above the ground below, overlooking the countryside all around and almost perfectly mirroring the sky above it, the sight is breathtaking, even hundreds and hundreds of years after it was abandoned. Chief Veddha continued upwards to the middle of the summit, where the foundation stones of the palace could be seen. As we made our way towards the foundation stones, the Chief stopped abruptly, exclaiming he could see an Elephant on the very rock we were on, just over 200m away! We’ve been close to wild Elephants before, but never while being on foot. This made our experience all the more exciting, not to mention more scary. Chief Veddha was very calm, probably since he had been in similar situations many times. He called out to the Elephant, “Raja! we mean you no harm, go on your way..” in Sinhalese, and as if the Elephant understood perfectly, he walked away, down along a path to the other side of the summit. It was clear to us in that moment, how much closer the indigenous people are to animals and nature.
Taking a cue from the Elephant, we too made our way back down to the cave and settled in for the evening, picking the best spots to lay out our blankets and lay our down bags as makeshift pillows. We had also collected some water from a smaller pool on the summit, and brought it to a boil over a wood fire which the Chief Veddha arranged. He prepared some tea for us, and after a while, we enjoyed our dinner of bread with the dry sprats curry, while learning more about the Chief Veddha and the Veddha community. Most Veddhas believe in ‘Animism’, the belief that objects, places and creatures such as – animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, all possess their own distinct spiritual essence and are alive. Some Veddhas also follow beliefs of Buddhism while still others follow Hindu beliefs. The Chief Veddha’s beliefs seemed to be a combination of all of these, as he started chanting some folksongs of the Veddha People. He told us about his life, and his ancestors before him. As we settled in to our makeshift bedding for the night, it became steadily more windy, and we found ourselves wearing trousers and socks to keep warm, as well as using our towels as makeshift blankets. The Chief Veddha, who was also beginning to feel feeling made a few more chants, pleading with the skies for kind winds. With a stunning view of the surrounding valley illuminated, and the lakes glittering, underneath a full moon, we drifted off into well-deserved sleep.
We woke up a little early the next morning, in time to see the beautiful sunrise from our cave. Chief Veddha was sitting at the edge of the cave, watching the ground below and plotting the course for our return journey. After a hot cup of tea and our breakfast of Crackers & cheese, we took one last sweeping look at the stunning view and made our way back down the rock. Veddha Chief soon spotted more Elephants far below us, but this time, in the path we had used yesterday to get to the base of the rock. We therefore decided to take a different route from the base of the rock. It was slightly longer, but the plains were more open which meant we could see if there were any Elephants close by. This path too was very beautiful, with lovely green landscapes and hills, everywhere you turn. Our descent was much faster, and we reached the village and main road in a little over 3.5 hours. Our last reserves of water had dried up some time back, so we were extremely grateful when some villagers invited us into their garden and offered us some water to drink. They assumed we were coming back from climbing the rock, as they had seen the lights up in the cave the previous evening. After thanking them profusely for the water, we finally arrived at the home of the Veddha Chief. He invited us in to his home while we waited for our truck to come get us, where he showed us pictures of his father, son and other family members. There were two other quick stops we had intended to make before getting to our guesthouse – a famous reservoir nearby, and ruins of ancient granite canals built by King Saddhathissa himself at the same time as the Lonely Cave. Veddha Chief offered to accompany us and tell us more about the history, so we set off from his home in our truck.
The Reservoir is a recent construction, but offers stunning views of the area. We especially wanted to see it since it was one of the reservoirs which we saw from up on the rock. Though the construction is new, it was built close to the old embankment which was used in the ancient times. It was the water from the old embankment which was supposed to be moved through the ancient granite canals which we visited next. Here we could see many rows of ancient granite stones, cut perfectly and in an almost inter-locking style, laid out on the ground, apparently unfinished, just as the Lonely Cave was unfinished by the same king. Though it was not finished, we could not help but be impressed with the level of technology used so long ago, both to cut the rock, as well as to lay them down perfectly, using the interlocking cuts made into the rock. We could only imagine how many workers, even large animals, would have been used to do this work. The reason for the works to be incomplete, remains a mystery, but makes the story all the more intriguing, as we can only use our imagination to fill in the spaces of history.
We thanked the Veddha Chief profusely for guiding us and protecting us as if we were his own, and finally returned to our guesthouse, to find another delicious home cooked rice & curry lunch waiting for us, courtesy our wonderful host. After a well-deserved lunch, we sat down with our host and told him all about our adventures at the Lonely Cave. It had certainly not been easy, but it had been worth every minute of it, and would be a treasured memory for a lifetime to come. One from our group, Tharuka, would leave us today and return to Colombo, as she had to get back home to her family. From here, she bade us goodbye and wished us a safe and enjoyable remainder of the trip, and hopped on to Kandy and then another one to Colombo, while the rest of us rested up for the next day that awaited us.
July 7th: A change of landscape
It was a slightly early start the next morning, as we bade goodbye to our host Indi, and boarded a bus which would take us to our next stop, the first and currently the only dedicated Ayurveda Museum in Sri Lanka.
“‘Ayurveda’ is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing and has its origins in the Vedic culture of India & Sri Lanka. Although suppressed during years and years of foreign occupation, Ayurveda has been enjoying a major resurgence in both its native lands and throughout the world too. Tibetan medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine both have their roots in Ayurveda while early Greek medicine also embraced many concepts originally described in the classical Ayurvedic medical texts dating back thousands of years. More than a mere system of treating illness, experts believe in Ayurveda as a science of life – ‘Ayur’ translates to ‘life’, while ‘Veda’ translates to ‘Knowledge or widsom’ in Sanskrit. Experts say Ayurveda offers a body of wisdom designed to help people stay vital, while realizing their own full human potential. Providing guidelines on ideal daily and seasonal routines, diet, behavior and the proper use of the human senses, Ayurveda reminds us that health is the balanced and dynamic integration between our environment, body, mind, and spirit.” This is the philosophy of ‘Dr. Witha’, the founder of the Museum, whose mission is to share the wonders of Ayurveda with the world.
We had the pleasure of being met by Dr. Witha himself when we arrived at the Museum, and he guided us through the complex and enlightened us on the history and benefits of following Ayurveda in our day-to-day lives. We learned about the various types of treatments which cover everything from ailments such as certain types of cancer, Diabetes and high Cholesterol, as well as treatments for stress, depression and gastritis which are more and more commonly found in society currently. There are also many artefacts, mainly of ancient instruments used by Ayurveda Doctors in olden times. Bowls and knives used by doctors to collect the required plants and herbs, as well as walking sticks fashioned in the shape of serpents, to distract snakes and move them without having to hurt them to in defense when picking plants and herbs. Over a hot cup of tea, Dr. Witha spoke of his own history with Ayurveda, and how he plans to introduce Ayurveda treatments and products for daily use to not only Sri Lankans, but to the whole world so that they may benefit from the wonders of Ayurveda.
Thanking Dr. Witha for his time and for the very enlightening tour of the Museum, we bade him goodbye and made our way towards our next destination, Badulla, the starting point of the famous ‘Tea Train’ which winds through the picturesque hill country, to Kandy, home of the famous Temple of the Tooth, and continues down to Colombo. 15 minutes before Badulla town, we stopped over to visit the Dunhinda Falls. Dunhinda Falls is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Sri Lanka, and is very popular among locals as well as tourists. The waterfall is situated at the edge of a valley, so there is around a 15 minute walk down and around the valley’s edge, from the main road. All along the path, there are many little shacks selling fresh juices, fruits, sweet drinks and snacks, all run by locals in the area hoping to make a living. At the time which we were walking down however, most of the shops were already closed and the others were packing up for the day, unfortunately, as it would have been nice to have a fresh juice along the way. We made to the viewing point situated overlooking the waterfall, and were delighted to see we were the only ones there! The waterfall is stunning, at 64 metres in height, and gets its name from the smoky dewdrop kind of spray, (‘Dun’ in Sinhalese means mist or smoke) which surrounds the area at the foot of the waterfall. It’s also known to some as the ‘bridal falls’, as the shape of the water falling is similar to a bridal veil. The air around the falls is fresh and cool, and made us feel like we had just taken a dip in the waters of the falls.
Around 20 minutes later, we made our way up to the main road and hopped on the next bus to Badulla, where we got ‘Kotthu Roti’ (a Sri Lankan street food dish made from roti mixed with vegetables, egg and/or meat, and spices in a style similar to fried rice) and made our way to our guesthouse for the night. Our host for the night was Lasa, a construction equipment instructor by profession, but also a gracious and accommodating homestay owner. After a sumptuous dinner, it was time to settle in for the night and be rested and ready for tomorrow’s adventures.
July 8th & 9th: The ‘Tea Train’ and Hatton
Our Guesthouse was situated around 10 minutes away from the Badulla Railway Station on foot. We left our guesthouse by 7.30am, and made our way towards the Railway Station. We stopped at a small bakery on the way, where a local family was selling freshly baked goods. Here, we bought a few items which we could have for breakfast, while on the train. We arrived at the station and purchased our tickets, and made our way to our seats.
The train journey through the Tea country of Sri Lanka is known to be one of the most scenic journeys in the country, and is considered a highlight for any tourists travelling to Sri Lanka. The most popular parts of this journey are mainly between Ella to Hatton, where the track winds around tea covered hills, through tunnels and between hills, passing waterfalls and stunning views of the surrounding hill country due to the high altitude of the hills. One of the other most popular photo highlights of the train journey is the ‘Nine Arch Bridge’, where many tourists and locals come to and stand by the tracks, waiting for the train to pass by for the perfect picture moment. We decided to travel in the Second Class carriage, as we preferred to get a chance to mingle with more locals who also use the train for their daily commute. The tea covered hills were lush and green as we passed by, and the sky a bright blue, making all our pictures almost like they were taken from a postcard. Now we know why this is known as one of the most beautiful train journeys.
After around 4.5 hours, we arrived at Hatton, the final stop in our backpacking adventure. Hatton is one of the biggest towns in the hill country, and is one of the capitals of Tea production in Sri Lanka. Almost half of the population of the town is employed in the surrounding Tea estates in the area. The town is very loud and colorful, everywhere you go. From the shops aligned on either side of the street, to the fruit & vegetable markets, to the street vendors and the bus station, everything was twice as loud and almost three times as colorful as usual. Each shop had their own sound system with everything from music to the day’s news, blaring out in Sinhalese, Tamil and Hindi languages. The entrance to each shop has bright lights, bright electric sign boards, or colorful banners all around it. When you walk towards the markets, more colors await you in the form of many varieties of fresh fruit and vegetables, shoes, clothes, accessories and many other items, everywhere you turn. Compared to some other towns in the hill country where the grey skies sometimes is mirrored in the city below, the Hatton town shines like a beacon in the darkness, a must see if you are in the area.
We had lunch at a restaurant in town, again with loud music at the entrance, but with a gracious and welcoming team behind the counter. We tucked in to a plate of Roti and Egg Roti with delicious curries and a cup of hot Tea to end this delicious meal. Afterwards, we stopped over at a local salon near the markets, where we tried out a famous local head massage. The massage was great, save for one split second of surprise when the masseuse, unexpectedly and without warning, ‘cracked the neck’. It is not something that hurts and it does relax you, but as we were not expecting it, we did worry for that split second. It is all a part of the experience, right?
We also found a little make-shift stall where a couple of locals were repairing everything from shoes to handbags to umbrellas. As our shoes were really taking a strain from all the trekking, we were delighted when he offered to fix glue and stitch each pair of shoes in a mere 10 minutes! A good stop if you ever break your shoes halfway through your trip. After we got our shoes back almost as good as new, we hopped on a bus which would take us to Dickoya, a small town around 20 minutes away. Our final guesthouse of the trip awaited us here, overlooking the beautiful Castlereagh Reservoir, surrounded by tea covered hills. We arrived at the guesthouse close to evening, done with our travels for the day and looking forward to the next day.
We woke up for our last day of exploration and met for breakfast at the guesthouse, a delicious meal of Coconut Roti and String Hoppers, a local favorite. We set off soon after, travelling to Maskeliya, another Tea country town close by and well known for many waterfalls and streams. Here, we visited the Saman Temple, a shrine dedicated to deity Saman, who is the presiding deity of the Adam’s Peak Mountain. Traditionally, all pilgrims who visit Adam’s Peak for the first time will stop at the Saman Temple first to receive a blessing and to make a vow by tying a blessing thread around a monument there. We continued on to a Tea Estate nearby, from which we had a view of the Maskeliya Reservoir, and of two beautiful waterfalls situated very close to each other, flowed in to the reservoir itself. We trekked up the estate roads and eventually through tea fields, and then boarded tuk tuks to take us to the view point. When we finally reached the view point, we found the entire view of the reservoir and the waterfall shrouded in a thick covering of mist. As the minutes passed, the mist gradually passed and we had a stunning view of the reservoir, and of one of the beautiful waterfalls flowing into the reservoir. The view was especially enjoyable as the whole area seemed untouched by other travelers, and was just amazing to watch, all while we were surrounded by lush tea covered hills.
We made our way back to our guesthouse towards evening, and were waiting for the last bus of the day which would take us to our guesthouse in Dickoya. Though we waited for quite a while, there didn’t seem to be any sign of an approaching bus, Fortunately, there was a van passing by, and, when we asked if we could hitchhike with him up to Dickoya, was kind enough to agree to take us there. How fitting it was, that our last activity of the trip was to experience true Sri Lankan hospitality, as we chatted with the driver of the van, an estate worker in the area who was heading back to his home after a hard day’s work. We were back at our guesthouse soon after, and that was it for us for this trip. After another delicious dinner, we discussed all the highlights of our last week, each of us talking about our favorite moments, and all the lovely people we had met along the way.
Here’s what stood out to us:
Most memorable highlight of the trip: The Capital Rock trek
Most memorable local of the trip: The Veddha Chief
Most hospitable host: Indi from the guesthouse near Capital Rock
Best local meal: Dinner & Lunch at Indi’s guesthouse
Wildest moment: Two-way tie between the Elephant on top of Capital Rock, and the head massage in Hatton town!
Other honorable mentions: Bicycle ride from Polonnaruwa through the villages and countryside, Lal and Ranjith from the Meemure trek.
July 10th: Back to Base
Our last breakfast in Hatton was a delicious one yet again, but we were slightly subdued today as we sat together, reminiscing about our week of travels and realizing that it was suddenly all over now, feeling like the last week just flew by. After breakfast, we were back on the road, heading back to Hatton town where our happy band of travelers would be parting ways. Akitha and Nuran were taking the train back to Colombo with Suranga, who joined them on the train up to Kandy, where he would return home. Ushani and Donovan would take a bus from Hatton which would take them to the suburbs of Colombo where it was close to their homes.
In Hatton town, we found the bus stop where the bus to Hatton stood waiting, and this is where we said goodbye. It was true, we would see each other back at the office again in a few days, but it somehow felt like a sort of farewell for all of us. We had gone through a truly memorable and action-packed week together, and this was really the end of it. If this journey together had taught us anything at all, it was that one can never stop learning, as long as one never stops travelling. And it also taught us that we still have still so much more to discover and learn about Sri Lanka, so our journey is never really over, we are just taking a break. Until next time!
“Travel isn’t Always Pretty – It isn’t always comfortable. Some time it hurts, it even breaks your heart, but that’s ok. The journey changes you: it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your conciseness, on your heart, and on your body.
You take something with you, hopefully you will leave something good behind.”
- ANTHONY BOURDAIN