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Sri Lanka : The Hill Country

A train journey to Bandarawela

sunny 30 °C

Next leg: car to Kandy to catch a train to Colombo. That could proven an adventure as they are not able to book the train ticket from here. I was ready to leave the Kandalama .. which is very nice but a bit too isolated ; it was beginning to feel like Detention in Luxury, but detention. When I went to check the Internet after breakfast I saw my driver friend Lucky (who took me from Kandy to Anuradhapura). We tried to work out a deal so he could take me to Kandy instead of the hotel appointed driver (the hotel could still pocket a fee) but they were not having any. The young driver who took me was a nice careful driver and the car was posh and cool, so it worked out.

Things went pear shaped when I got to Kandy.. no 1st or 2nd class tickets to Colombo ; they had been sold out for a week, this being a Sunday. Luckily, a driver on hand agree to take me for 6,000 Rupees (they driver from the hotel wanted 12,000 in addition to the money I'd already paid). This local driver, Shanta, proved to be a slight nut case. Driving was good, but he prattled on at length about religion and became a bit of a bore. Turns out he thought we were going to a hotel near the airport and he did not know where the Grand Oriental in central Colombo was ... but we finally got there.

The word Security takes on new meaning in central Colombo ; lots of streets totally closed off, frequent police and army check points. Grand Oriental is OK .. rooms small but clean and quiet. Sure it is quiet, you can't drive past this place and when I went out for a stroll at 6pm the streets were dead ..Los Angeles syndrome? The Harbour Room overlooks the harbour alright, but this is not Dubrovnik or even Dover ... container ships and cargo vessels.

The history of the hotel is interesting ; it was built in 1837 as a barracks for officers under reign of King William IV, so it is one of the oldest buildings in central Colombo.

Cheap and cheerful Sri Lanka dinner and an early evening .. I was exhausted since the driving here is hectic and nerve wracking. Really beginning to get to me, the difficulty of travel in this country. A good breakfast got me off to a good start so even the harbour looked a bit more interesting today. Big signs all around the restaurant .. no photography. They are really security conscious here.

Real hassle to walk around this area because of road blocks but I got to the Railway Station and managed to get tickets to Bandarawela. This was a relief because I was getting so tired of this $60 to $80 a trip for a hired car. If I could not go by train I was just going to cancel the trip and stay here in Colombo until my flight back to England. Train reservations are recorded in longhand in large ledgers (no computers here), but at 580 Rupees each way First Class (that is £2.55 or $5.25 ) it was worth any hassle of finding out how and where to get a ticket. I walked out to the Galle Face Hotel for lunch.. very posh indeed and promenade leading to hotel (right along Indian Ocean) is great for walking.

Mad old Victorian department stores --- Millers and Cargills just along from the hotel and also a Government Handicraft Shop, so I added a little bit to the local economy. The Grand Oriental was OK, but the security hassle around there is tiresome (although it may be necessary Note; subsequent events proved it is necessary and perhaps inadequate) One time I was within 100 yards of the hotel but the police would not allow me to walk across an empty street (blocked to traffic) so I had to retrace my steps and walk an additional 3 blocks (crossing the major road twice). Not amused.

Today’s newspaper reports that a major national park in the southeast of the country (Yala National Park) was closed following Tamil Tigers attacks. First they killed 6 government troops when they overran a military camp and stole weapons. They then killed several local farm workers. This area was frequented by tourists because of wildlife, so this is not good news for the tourist industry.

Tuesday 29 November
0930 train ( a decent hour). There was no help forthcoming from railway staff and my self appointed 'helper' was not satisfied with 100 Rupees and started in the story of his sick mother, etc. etc. I gave him 200 Rupees. I now know the system - located the departure board within the station which gives Platform destination information in English as well as Sinhalese.

Rail journey to Bandarawela is 192 kms (119 miles) and the train goes from sea level to a Summit peak of 6226 feet near Pattippok. Bandarawela is 1230 Metres (4036 feet). Because of the gradient, the sinuous route up and through the mountains and the poor state of the track and equipment, the journey takes 8 hours, but the scenery is beautiful and I had a comfortable seat with good view. Weird though, because the Observation Car is at the rear of train and seats point backward .. so you see what you might have photographed if you were looking the other way and had adequate notice. Lots of mountains (distinctive profiles of Bible Rock and Adam's Peak in the distance) as the train moved through rice paddies, then jungle, next tea plantations and finally cloud forest as we got near Bandarawela

The whole Hill country area proved to be more dramatic and beautiful than I expected. Tea is grown in at least three settings .. traditional terraces with highly uniform rows which look like a maze from a distance as they wrap around hills ; some lower level beds cut into chevron shapes and finally, random plants interspersed with trees. In addition to irrigation channels there are small streams coming down from the mountains, often over smooth rock with small waterfalls - this is a striking place.

The sight I enjoyed the most was the tulip tree in the midst of tea plants .. this is the African tree which grows to great heights here. Its hot orange red flowers stand out against the dark green tea plants ; hard to photograph from moving train.

After Haputale, the train leaves the tea area and goes up a mountain ridge to the cloud forest before dropping down into the valley at Bandarawela.

Bandarawela Hotel is a real throw back to colonial times. It was founded in 1893 as a club for plantation owners. In 1938 there was a refurbishment and extension of the place to its present size of 32 rooms. It is essentially this 1938 look and feel that you see today. Beds are steel framed (adjustable like a hospital bed) ; lighting and baths all old style. Everything gleams .. a buffer is used on the lino floors so the whole place shines. Perhaps the best feature is that the service is efficient but relaxed .. this is not a cloying atmosphere .. it's almost as if they do not know that it is 2007 out there somewhere.

The Bandarawela Hotel is owned by Miller & Co, the same company with the huge (now in a sorry state) department store in Colombo, just along from the Grand Oriental Hotel. It had a European Only policy until Sri Lankan independence in 1948. While I was there the clientele seemed to be 50/50 Sri Lankans / foreigners.

I loved the food ; the set menu (960 Rupees £4.25 or $8.70) was Western food but their chef is excellent and the 4 course meal was in sensible portions and Australian Shiraz reasonable at 1900 Rupees a bottle (£8.40 or $17.20).

I like the fact that the hotel is secluded with a nice garden and restricted views of surrounding hills. but you are not stranded. The hotel is up a short hill from the main street of the town. In fact, the Post Office and small supermarket are right at the entrance road to the hotel.

I walked around town and was surprised to find it is all business serving the local farmer plantation community. No souvenir shops, no travel agents (that I could see) no touts (hurrah!). The Internet shop was in the tiny corner of a barber shop ; cramped but connection good enough.

From the hotel's book

' Bandarawela's streets are not thronged with tourists, either domestic or foreign. It is an unhurried, unpretentious place ; an upcoutry town that exists to supply the needs of plantation worker, farmers and the hard working inhabitants. It cares not a fig for tourists and no touts pester visitors as they do in Nurwara Ella.'

I had plans to travel about but this is such a relaxing place that I decided to do just one excursion .. Hakgala Botanic Gardens, 27 kms away. Car and driver 3500 Rupees ( £16 Pounds). Weather good when we set out ; driver Nistanti was careful but English poor and he would not just shut up and drive. Hardly any straight road for 27 kms as we passed through vegetable growing country (leeks, potatoes and strawberries all figure large in the local economy). The field patterns are far more erratic than in the tea plantations and this gives the hills a patchwork look which is pleasant. The small towns had no tourist facilities ; there was the occasional isolated guest house or sign for Rooms. This is not particularly a tourist zone.

The Hakgala Botanic Gardens are built on the lower slope of a mountain dominated by a huge rock. They were established in 1861 to cultivate Cinchona, the tree from which the anti malarial drug quinine is derived.

The rock rises 1500 feet above the gardens and I was disappointed that there was a fence along the top side of the park which prevents you from getting up the mountain for good views of either the rock or surrounding hills. The lower portion of the gardens is a the traditional affair with flower beds, rock garden a 'Japanese Garden’ (don't get me started!!). The real delight of the place is in following the trails which weave their way up the hillside through magnificent trees. in a landscape strewn with lichen covered huge boulders. It really feels like a natural forest through which paths have been cut, but that illusion ends when you get to the top fence and see the dense jungle on the other side which is the true state of affairs.


This is what I would consider a cloud forest .. clouds hover around the peaks above and occasionally drop down bringing mist and moisture. There as actually rain for a short period but I was lucky .. 5 minutes out of a 2 hour visit was good going.

Back to the hotel for lunch by 2pm. Clearly my taking this journey was considered an extravagance by the hotel staff and all enquired with great interest about my journey. Most people staying here have their own guide and or driver and stay just one night, so having a guest stay 4 nights and use the hotel car was a bit unusual.

This trip made me realise that this is a dangerous country as far as driving and made me have second thoughts about organising trips with drivers I meet on the street (such as Vicky .. the Polonnauruwa to Kandalama driver). You pay more when using a hotel car but in the event of breakdown or mishap, at least you have some type of recourse. Oh dear, I think I am really getting cautious in my old age.

If the Tamil Tigers do not get you, the mosquitoes will. I read in today's newspaper that Anuradhapura had an outbreak of Dengue Fever. Must admit that I fear this more than malaria That may not be medically sound, but I met a Swiss doctor in Costa Rica who got Dengue Fever from a beach near the jungle in Manual Antonio and the symptoms and resulting debilitation sounded dreadful You have severe joint pain and become delirious (although telling if I am delirious might not be an easy task).

On reflection, I was probably in equal danger from mosquitoes when in Chicago during their West Nile Fever outbreak in 2006 .. odd how being in the Third World heightens my sense of anxiety.

[West Nile Fever in Chicago (Cook County) ; 215 cases and 10 deaths.]


Holiday reading was Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and George Eliot's Middlemarch. The former is an astonishing first novel .. sort of Gone with the Wind as told by a hillbilly ;.the latter is certainly a novel that stands up to re-reading - significant ideas about human nature and society which are elegantly expressed.

Friday Thanksgiving Day plus 1
In the hotel bar I met Chris, a 30s something German now living in Switzerland, on his first trip to Asia ; we then ate dinner together. He is an IT wizard (made some serious money during dot.com era and now operates a small business while he travels with a laptop. He is an old hand at travel in Central America and Mexico and confirmed that Guatemala is now a dangerous place for travel .. the drug scene there means that they will rob or kidnap quite ordinary tourists in hopes of a few hundred dollars.

He was an odd person .. scruffy looking hippy type but with an uptight attitude. He seemed to worry about everything .. cleanliness (though you would never suspect it by looking at his clothes) ; pollution of sea - hence not eating fish or prawns - but our conversation was good and we shared a lot of our mutual doubts about America's role in the current world.


Posted by MarshallC 12:15 Archived in Sri Lanka

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