Railways and Tea Country
The railway system in Sri Lanka was built by the British in 1864 and has changed little since. The train winds its way up through hill country passing through numerous mountain tunnels, and providing breathtaking views of the forests, plantations, and villages in the area. Catching a ride on these last vestiges of British colonialism is something not to be missed and likely one of the main attractions of Sri Lanka.
We hired a car to take us from Habarana to Nuwara Eliya, which is known as "Little England" due its distinctly charming English countryside feel. It was surprisingly difficult to buy tickets ahead of time in Kandy or while in Habarana, so we headed straight to the nearby train station at Nanu Oya and purchased some coveted seats in the first class carriage. This gave us a little time to grab a tuk-tuk and explore Nuwara Eliya, but also to appease our clamoring stomachs. We grabbed a delicious Indian lunch at the Grand Indian before hurriedly negotiating a tuk-tuk back to the train station. Personally, I enjoyed the thrill of bargaining over a 100 rupees (about $0.70) and turned proudly to Sid, but she looked like she could have cared less.
After a short wait at the charming Nanu Oya station, our train arrived with a typical livery of thick bands of red and blue running horizontally, split with a thin yellow line in the middle. We frantically ran up and down the station a couple of times to determine the location of our cabin, hopped on spiritedly, and thus began our slow, undulating, and scenic train journey through tea country. We stashed our bags away near our seats and headed toward the open air portion of the carriage to take it all in.
We arrived late in the town of Ella, a hill-country village known for its tea plantations and waterfalls. Ella is the backpacking sister hub to Nuwara Eliya, but lacking the latter's colonial charm. There's not much to do in the city besides a hike up to Little Adam's Peak or Ella Rock. Sid had booked us a night at the Ella Jungle Inn and after a long wait with an inept conceirge, we were led to our room—which turned out to be little more than a safari tent on a piece of foundation. By this point of the trip, Sid and I could silently communicate and with some puzzled to concerned eye contact, we both knew we were upgrading at all costs.
After exchanging canvas walls and tent flaps for overpriced "chalet" accommodations, we settled in for the night. The next morning after breakfast, we decided on a quick laundry break, soaping and rinsing our post cultural triangle clothes that had weathered the plains' heat and our sweat. We left the room in a complex array of scattered damp socks, underwear, t-shirts, and shorts arranged throughout the room's furniture, with our plug-in air conditioning machine pointed at it all in hopes expediting this wardrobe refresh. Obviously, there was much discussion about the most optimal angles for airflow and clothing drapage, but I doubt it mattered.
The highlight of our stay in Ella might have been the Kottu we split at Ella Flower Garden Resort after hiking up Little Adam's Peak. It's like everything you wish for in a hangover food—two iron blades dice and mix a stir fry of roti, carrots, chiles, cabbages, tomatoes, egg, ginger, and Sri Lankan spices over an iron skillet or sheet. Commonly sold by street vendors, it's popular, quick, and irresistible.
Frankly, after one unremarkable day hike and some disappointing buffalo curd imitation, we were ready to get away from Ella and head toward true wildlife, with the first of our two national parks coming next. Perhaps we had been spoiled already with the views from the train carriage or the first world reminders of "Little England," but we both readily agreed Ella could have been skipped.