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The Mulkirigala Rock Temple

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Hotels in Tangalle

Twenty kilometers north of Tangalla lies the large rock of Mulkirigala, reminiscent in shape to Sigiriya. The rock houses an impressive series of cave temples dating from the third century, similar to those of Dambulla. A mix between Sri Lanka’s two most famous sites, Mulkirigala sounded like a winner.

Day Trip Tangalle

It was the sleepy Sunday following the Sri Lankan New Year festivities, and public transport was impossible, so we hired a tuk-tuk to reach the temple. After a flat landscape of fields, forests and ponds, the sudden appearance of Mulkirigala Rock, sticking 200 meters into the air, came as a surprise. We paid our entrance fees, removed our shoes and steeled ourselves for what looked like a long hike to the top. But a lot of Sinhalese families were there, taking advantage of the holiday, and where 70-year-old barefoot grannies can go, so can we!

Mercifully, there were a few interludes during the climb — terraces which held small temples, sleeping Buddhas, pools of water, and sweeping views over the surrounding countryside. On the biggest terrace was a set of caves which included the Raja Mahavihara, notable for its Dutch tiles and antique wooden chest. It was here that a British archaeologist discovered the ancient manuscripts of the Mahavamsa: the great chronicle of ancient Sri Lanka.

At the top of the hill, our otherwise pleasant day trip was ruined by two kids who were determined to pester us. We were the only foreigners on the rock, and they would not leave us alone, tugging at our arms and following us everywhere, despite (perhaps because of) our increasing frustration. I am slow to anger, but eventually lost my cool and yelled at them. It didn’t help. “Money? Rupee? Ten Rupee! Bon-Bon!” They continued to follow, grabbing us and pleading for things. When we gave up and decided to leave, they followed us down the stairs! I scolded them, like you would a stubborn dog following you home. “No! Go away! Bad! Bad children!” Nothing worked, not even appealing to other Sri Lankans who were bemusedly watching the drama.

Even though it was a tough ending, we had a good time at Mulkirigala. The site isn’t nearly as impressive as either Sigiriya or Dambulla, but that’s unfair. We don’t compare every movie against Citizen Kane and say, “Not as good, so not gonna watch it!” Mulkirigala is no Sigiriya, but it’s still worth a visit.

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Budget Rooms in Tangalle

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April 23, 2012 at 9:30 am Comments (0)

Tangalla Days

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Dream Beaches

We arrived in Tangalla with mixed emotions. Now on the southern coast, we were undeniably in the final stretch of our tour through Sri Lanka. There was still a lot to see — the attractions of the country’s southern extreme are considerable — but our journey’s approaching end was tangible for the first time. Still, we’d only have a few days in Tangalla, a small town which occupies some of the island’s most beautiful coastline and offers a number of memorable excursions. No time for moping.

Peacock-Rock
Peacocks like to preen atop big rocks. Showoffs.

After unpacking, we set right out into the city. The majority of Tangalla’s hotels and guesthouses are found outside town, toward the east. Which is fine. The town itself isn’t going to win any awards for beauty. A single strip runs through Tangalla, with the usual array of Sri Lankan shops and noisy activity. After our initial exploration, we would venture into town only in search of cheap eats and to get to the bus station.

Tangalla’s harbor is probably the only in-town attraction worth a look. An outrageous number of colorful boats clog the port, all of which were unloading stinking fish when we arrived. The fishermen were boisterous sorts, encouraging us to come aboard their ships (doubtless in search of a few extra bucks).

But though the town is forgettable, our time in Tangalla was anything but. Amazing nature, fascinating culture and interesting day trips are within easy reach. Plus, the beaches are beautiful… if difficult to swim at. Perhaps it was the time of year (early April), but the waters were stormy, and attempting to bathe in the powerful waves was terrifying. I mean, exhilarating. No, wait — actually, I do mean terrifying. Our favorite beach-side game became guessing which tourists might brave the sea, placing bets on whether they would survive, and then debating whether we’d jump in to help save them.

Location of Tangalla on our Map
Great Places to Stay in Tangalle (we chose Nugasewana Eden)

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April 21, 2012 at 6:22 am Comments (4)

Become A Lazy Photographer in Ella

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Hostels in Sri Lanka

View-From-Ambiente

In some places, you have to work hard, catch a lucky break or be extra creative to get great pictures. And then there’s Ella. I didn’t even have to move from our porch. Or look at what I was taking pictures of. Or hold the camera. That would have required putting my drink down! Nope, from our incredible veranda overlooking Ella Gap, I was able to place the camera on a table and once in while press the shutter button. Violà instant magic! Chameleons, sudden storms, atmospheric moon rises, amazing nature. This is a kind of photography I could get used to.

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April 19, 2012 at 12:53 pm Comments (5)

Little Adam’s Peak at Ella

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Ella Hotels

A hike up the conical Adam’s Peak is one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka. Legions of people complete the hike daily, both pilgrims and travelers. Jürgen and I are always primed for an adventure… as long as it’s convenient. After learning that you must embark for the the summit at 2am, we immediately, instantly scratched Adam’s Peak from our list. Call us lame if you want, I won’t protest. But no way. Besides, we had just read about another hike called Little Adam’s Peak, near Ella. “Close enough!”

Ella Gap

For our ascent up Little Adam’s Peak, we left at 8am. It was a blissfully easy hike — simple directions led outside of Ella, and up through the Newbourg Tea Plantation to a dirt track with signs clearly pointing the way. The path was only slightly uphill, almost as if designed to be as effortless as possible. The other hikers we passed, on their way back down, all had big smiles on their faces. Light exercise in gorgeous nature: it’d be hard to imagine a better way to begin the day.

Little Adam’s Peak lays on the eastern edge of the Ella Gap, straight across from the (much higher) summit at Ella Rock, which we had climbed two mornings prior. The views are similar, but from Little Adam’s Peak you can see the Ruwana Falls, which border the highway headed south.

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Small Adams Peak Sign
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Jürgen shows off his climbing skills.
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April 19, 2012 at 8:43 am Comments (6)

The Train to Haputale and Lipton’s Seat

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On the second of our three days in Ella, we hopped onto the morning train, having decided that we couldn’t pass up a visit to nearby Haputale (ha-POOT-a-lay): a town on the southern extreme of Sri Lanka’s hill country celebrated for its beautiful surroundings and tea plantations.

Best View in Sri Lanka
The finest view in Sri Lanka!

Everyone knows that “getting there is half the fun”, but the train ride to Haputale accounted for at least 80% of this day’s fun. The rusty old machine rumbled slowly through lovely mountain scenery which, after the recent days of rain, was even more lush than usual, and we spent most of the journey hanging out of the open doors.

We didn’t spend much time in Haputale, a busy town with an abnormally large number of liquor shops, and instead immediately sought out a tuk-tuk to take us to Lipton’s Seat: a viewpoint said to be as stunning as World’s End. We had been warned that a late arrival at Lipton’s Seat could mean the mountain would be covered in clouds.

Despite our hurry, we were too late; a thick layer of clouds had arrived by the time we reached the summit, completely obscuring the view. Suck. We ordered tea and lemon puffs from a shop perched on the hilltop, then sat down and, with vibrant imaginations, colorfully described to each other what the view might look like. Or… that’s what we would have done, if we were annoyingly whimsical people who see magic in everything. But really it was us just sitting there, staring dumbly at the fog and stuffing our faces with cookies. Whining about our crappy luck.

At least the walk back down the hill was enjoyable. We cut through the enormous Dambatenne Tea Plantation, founded by Thomas Lipton (oh fine: Sir Thomas Lipton). Around us, small women with red-stained teeth packed bags full of tea leaves, and posed for pictures. Near a tea-pickers’ village, a prominent sign reminded us to “Be Respectful of Others!” Thanks for the tip, Mister Plantation Owner! Meanwhile, in the ramshackle village that can only be described as a slum, your tea pickers live in squalor. But yeah, I’ll remember to respect others.

We attempted to visit the Dambatenne Factory but after fifteen minutes of waiting for someone to attend us, gave up and hopped on a bus back to Haputale. Despite our inability to see the viewpoint or tour the factory, it had been a decent day out in some of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful country.

Location of Haputale on our Sri Lanka Map

Train Spotting
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April 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm Comment (1)

Ella and Its Rock

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Hotels in Ella

With an unbeatable setting high in the hills, tiny Ella has earned a reputation as one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful villages. With its views over the Ella Gap and some incredible nature walks, the town has become one of the most popular destinations in the southern hill country. We spent a few days here, and had a wonderful time.

Ella Gap

The town itself is far more tourist-oriented than most of our other destinations have been. A variety of restaurants offer both Sri Lankan and western cuisine, free and speedy wi-fi (manna!) and cool, comfortable patios you could spend hours at. For a place which caters to foreigners, the accommodation was surprisingly cheap. We stayed at Ambiente, and I don’t think we’ve ever had a room with a more incredible view. Found near the town’s highest point, the hotel looks straight out over the amazing Ella Gap, a steep valley stretching out for miles between Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak.

Ella Rock was the destination of our first hike. We set out early, at 7am, in order to reach the summit before clouds settled in. As is the case across the hill country, afternoons are almost invariably cloudy. Indeed, we had rain every afternoon we were in Ella, and always tried to get our sight-seeing done in the morning.

Train-Bridge-Sri-Lanka

The hike was rough (see below for details of our route). After walking along railroad tracks, we found a path which leads up to a tea plantation and then onto the rock. Along the way, we encountered five locals who wanted to guide us up. It’s part of the system here: almost every tourist that goes up Ella Rock will have a local guide attached, who expects a tip at the summit.

They all employ the same trick. During your walk, if a Sri Lankan runs up to you and claims you’re on “the wrong path”, you are almost certainly on the right one. He’ll lead you backwards and then up a different path, and you’ll think, “Oh wow, this guy saved me! I owe him big time!” The truth is, there are about fifteen paths which all lead the same way. As long as you’re headed toward the mountain, you’re fine. We knew this in advance (plus, had one of Ambiente’s house dogs leading us), and were able to avoid the locals. Three separate times, we were told that we were “on the wrong path!” Guess what: we weren’t!

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a guide, of course, or contributing to the local economy. But we felt like being alone. After the tea plantation, the remaining path was well-defined and steep. The final 500 meters is extremely taxing and, even allowing for frequent breaks, we were drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top. The view, though, was worth the effort.

Our Route: Follow the train tracks away from the city for about 1.5 kilometers, until you’ve almost reached a small waterfall. Just before an old bridge, there’s a steep path which leads down to the left. Follow that under the bridge, and walk along a canal until you come to a small footbridge which leads past the waterfall. Now, it becomes confusing — a variety of paths lead upwards. Immediately after the bridge ends, the path forks: continue to the right. As you climb, the path enters the brush, and splits over and over again. You’ll want to tend left, but continue upwards when possible. Hopefully, you’ll emerge on the left-hand side of the tea plantation, where you’ll be able to spot the main path which cuts up through the woods. From here, you’re golden: just go up.

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Cheap Places To Stay in Sri Lanka

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On Top Of A Waterfall
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Hiking Blog Sir Lanka
Hike Ella Rock
Our Guide Ella
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April 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm Comments (3)

Lahugala Forest and the Magul Maha Vihara

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The Lahugala Reserve, occupying a mere six square miles in the jungle east of Arugam Bay, is one of Sri Lanka’s smallest national parks. We combined a short tuk-tuk excursion to the reserve with a visit to the remains of a legendary queen’s palace.

Magul-Maha-Vihara

It may be small in size, but a tremendous variety of animals prowl the grounds of the Lahugala Reserve, including leopards, sloths, barking deer and the rare Rusty-spotted Cat. But we were most likely to see elephants — a herd of up 150 lives in the park.

Our visit was timed to coincide with the elephants’ meal time, but unfortunately also coincided with darkening skies and a late afternoon storm. A solitary elephant had ventured out to the feeding grounds, where there are usually up to fifty (elephants are apparently as lazy as humans when it comes to rain). Oh well. We had recently gotten lucky with the big guys in Habarana, and hadn’t paid anything to visit Lahugala — the highway cuts through the reserve and passes the elephants’ favorite stomping ground, making a ticket to the park’s interior unnecessary.

So Lahugala wasn’t a resounding success but it was only part of the excursion. Our next stop was the ruins of the Magul Maha Vihara, which date to the 5th century AD and are said to have been the palace for one of Sri Lanka’s most famous queens.

According to legend, good King Kelanie-Tissa had been tricked by his wicked brother into murdering an innocent holy man, whose body was then tossed into the ocean. Furious at the injustice, wrathful sea gods unleashed a storm whose waves surged over the land and killed many people. In order to appease the gods, the king was advised to make a terrible sacrifice: that of his only daughter, Devi.

The king was grief-stricken, but the lovely and pious Princess Devi bravely accepted her fate. Content that her death might save countless lives, she allowed herself to be strapped down in a golden ship, then pushed out into the storm. The sea gods were impressed by her courage, and decided to spare the princess, re-routing her ship to the nearby realm of King Kavan-Tissa.

The soldiers of Kavan-Tissa who had been patrolling the shore were astounded by the arrival of the golden ship, but even more so by the beautiful maiden they found unconscious within. They carried her to the royal palace, where Devi finally opened her eyes. Dazzled by the opulence of the King’s court, she assumed that her sacrifice had been accepted, and that she was in heaven. When Kavan-Tissa (who had fallen in love with her at first sight) explained the situation and asked Devi to be his bride, she immediately accepted.

The ruins at Magul Maha Vihara were the palace of this fortunate Queen, who was much beloved by her subjects, and who eventually gave birth to King Duttugemunu: one of the island’s greatest heroes. It was just recently that had I heard the story of the princess, and I had assumed it to be nothing more than a legend. But Princess Devi existed… and here was her palace as proof! So how much of the story was true? Her father’s crime? The floods? The terrible sacrifice? The golden boat? The love-struck king? It’s impossible to say where fiction ends and fact begins.

Although we didn’t have much luck with the elephants, this was a great day trip, easy to arrange with any tuk-tuk driver in Arugam Bay. Definitely worth your time, if you find yourself with a free afternoon.

Location of the Magul Maha Vihara on our Map
Poisonous Snakes

Temple Near Arugam Bay
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April 17, 2012 at 11:10 am Comment (1)

The Danish Villa at Arugam Bay

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The bulk of our stay in Arugam Bay was spent in the comfortable confines of The Danish Villa. Tucked back far off the town’s main road, this small hotel has just five rooms, all with attached bathrooms and most with air conditioning.

Danish-Villa-Arugam-Bay

With capacity for fifteen guests, the place feels more like an aristocrat’s tropical escape than a traditional hotel, and the staff are always accessible, hovering about somewhere, in case you need anything. During our stay, we were the only ones there, apart from the house dog who walked us up to the gates every morning. (Well, there was one night when a loud Sri Lankan family booked three rooms and really got into the spirit of place — by which I mean, they felt like they owned it. At 5am, the father woke up in a boisterous mood and yelled up and down the hall to rouse his slumbering family for their day’s excursion. I opened our door to glare at him, but he either didn’t recognize the hatred burning in my eyes, or didn’t care).

The Villa — which proves its Danish credentials with a website in the “.dk” domain — organizes competitively-priced tours around Arugam Bay. Our trip through the Pottuvil Lagoon was actually cheaper through them than when we asked on the street. The villa doesn’t do dinner, which is something we actually appreciated. Guesthouse meals are usually too expensive, and we were free to bring home take-away kottu from one of the nearby restaurants.

We had a great stay at the Danish Villa. The internet, although over a 3G dongle, was surprisingly fast and our afternoons were largely spent working on the terrace, over a pot of tea. If you’re looking for an agreeable spot to snooze, away from the noise of the town’s main drag, you could definitely do worse.

Location on our Sri Lanka Map
Link: The Danish Villa Arugam Bay

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April 17, 2012 at 4:07 am Comments (0)

A Boat Tour of Pottuvil Lagoon

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Birding For Beginners

There’s more to do in Arugam Bay than just surfing and chilling out in beachside bars. The village is surrounded by some amazing and largely undeveloped nature. One sunny morning, we took a tour of the Pottuvil Lagoon, just to the north, hoping to see the elephants and crocodiles which make their home there.

Bird Paradise

Bright and early at 6am, we piled into a tuk-tuk and set off for Pottuvil, where a boat and its conductor were waiting for us. The vessel looked rather homemade, a wooden pallet tied to two skinny canoes, and if we had been venturing into deeper water, I’d have been nervous. But this water was merely crocodile-infested, so I happily clambered on.

We glided silently out into the water, with the rising sun slowly bringing color to the sleepy scene in front of us. Thick forests of mangroves line the lagoon, their roots providing shelter for fish and their branches for birds. Our guide navigated us around the lagoon, alternating between pushing and rowing, depending on the depth of the water.

Along with diving birds, eagles and water buffaloes, the only other living creatures we saw were fishermen, returning home after a long night of work. They were moving as silently as us, cutting quickly across the surface of the still water, and waved hello instead of shouting. We didn’t see any crocodiles or elephants, but that was fine by us. It was as if everybody — animal, nature and man — had conspired to make this as serene an experience as possible.

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April 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm Comments (0)

Happy New Year!

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Happy New Year Sri Lanka Song

Sri Lankan New Year, that is. The holiday, which brings normal life on the island to a complete stop for two full days, is observed on either the 13th or 14th of April, depending on astrological calculations.

Amazing Clouds Sri Lanka

Unlike the Western holiday, there is no sharp division between the “old” and “new” years — no strike of midnight. Instead, as the sun passes from the house of Pisces to that of Aries, there’s a period of around twelve hours which belong to neither the old, nor the new year. During this unaligned nonagathe, or neutral period, Sri Lankans try and refrain from all activity. It’s believed that any pursuit will be fruitless.

During a long walk we took this afternoon, it seemed that the only one doing any work was Mother Nature. On the edges of a thick cloud layer approaching the sea were wispy, colorful rainbow clouds. The earth’s way of wishing Sri Lanka a happy holiday, perhaps.

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April 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm Comment (1)

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The Mulkirigala Rock Temple Twenty kilometers north of Tangalla lies the large rock of Mulkirigala, reminiscent in shape to Sigiriya. The rock houses an impressive series of cave temples dating from the third century, similar to those of Dambulla. A mix between Sri Lanka's two most famous sites, Mulkirigala sounded like a winner.
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