There are a few things you should understand before you go on our Sri Lanka trip with us, first, we are both type A nut-balls and second, this was our FIRST EVER backpacking trip.
These two truths are unfortunately incredibly contrasting. To mitigate the unknown, you better believe Zach and I built a full-fledged six page excel file, calculating each hotel, admission fee, taxi fee, bus fee, meal cost and free spending cash…not to mention a ten percent contingency to cover us if things went wrong. This along with a slew of maps, addresses and phone numbers. You don’t have to tell me, I already know, we are super weird and we should know by now that nothing ever goes as planned.. and that the magic happens in the unplanned. All that I can say is that as overly-planned as we are, our trip was full of mishap and magic.
If you promise not to laugh, below is our day by day (hour by hour) schedule for our “spontaneous” trip.
As far as traveling to different countries goes, we have always been a bit spoiled, going with planned tour groups and all-inclusive resorts. This would be our very first week-long self-guided complete exploration kind of trip.
The first stop in our country-wide tour is the second largest town located right in the heart of Sri Lanka, Kandy.
It was an altogether new feeling for us to get off of the plane and instead of walking off to find a driver with a “Snavely” sign, we cautiously walked outside all on our own and were left to figure out how in the world to get where we were going. Our “itinerary” said take the bus but outside there were no buses. AND no English speakers as far as we could tell. It was at this moment that I realized just what we had gotten ourselves into. We walked past many of our fellow plane riders as they lined up behind various tour guides and as we ventured out into the new country.
Hello SRI LANKA!
Getting to Kandy
Eventually, we found the bus (that we hoped would take us to the train station). The driver refused our money as we stepped on so puzzled and bewildered, we scurried to the very last row of the bus to lay out our planner and figure out our next move. It wasn’t long before we stuffed our life-line back into our bags because the bus FILLED with local people taking their daily commute home.
Zach struck up a conversation with a young local boy next to him who just so happened to speak English AND just so happened to pass the train station on his walk home. Seriously, HOW LUCKY COULD WE GET!? I realized that seven fold when we followed him off the bus a few stops before the bus station and started following him down winding roads through busy markets.
He clearly knew what he was doing as be bounded through the streets and gracefully wove his way through the crowd.
It was food for the eyes rushing through a town full of vibrant colors and interesting people. I was literally shocked to see people carrying things around the city on their heads, it felt like a clash between city and village.
I was having so much fun soaking it all in that before I was ready, we had already made it to the train station.
We thanked our new friend, and went in. Excited and hopeful, we stepped up to the train station ticket stand, new currency for a first class ticket (a whopping $3.50) perfectly calculated in hand when we saw this:
YOU MUST BE KIDDING. TODAY ALL FULL?!!!
What was the world coming to! What about our hotel reservations?! WHAT ABOUT ALL OF OUR PLANS?!
Then, in a moment of divine intervention (ha) I remembered reading similar stories online, I asked again for the NEXT train and the clerk responded with some form of Sri Lankan English saying “oh, why didn’t you say so, here are two tickets for first class!”.
I wish that I could have personally made them a new sign so that no future travelers have to feel the same panic as we did!
We had a bit of time to spare before our departure so we ventured back out to into the city to grab some lunch, see the town and (hopefully) find a restroom before our 3 hour train ride.
(They always use glass coke bottles in Sri Lanka then ALWAYS recycle the bottles after, so cool!)
Lunch was certainly local. As local as local can be.
Which was really what we wanted for our first real meal.
The language barrier had us playing a guessing game with the servers. We would point to an item on the menu and they would say no, this one? No This one? No.
Eventually they wound up leading us to the back where we saw multiple old plastic bins full of different kinds of slop—OH! I mean curry.
We chose one and sat (turned out to be Dhal or lentil curry). I gave myself an internal pep-talk that I could handle it (regardless of the cleanliness, the wet plates we would eat off of and the overall unfamiliar environment) then dug in. It was actually pretty good, not to mention they had tons of huge bottled water jugs (see picture above), phew!
The water bottles are so funny in this country, check out the slogan. “American. JUST DRINK IT!” Hahaha
According to my research, we were wildly over charged but when you put it in perspective it is hard to ever really feel that way in Sri Lanka (everything in this country is extremely low priced!). We paid $4.25 for the water and curry.
We also met a new friend, Elliot who we actually flew in on the same plane with. He too had even booked our same train to Kandy and even showed up again much later in our adventures. Here’s to you, Elliot!
As well as all of that went, the restroom did not go nearly as well.
We found our way to the train station seeing as public bathrooms weren’t a thing in this part of town. We found it and Zach went in and about 7 seconds later came out.
“A hole and a bucket” he said, stunned. “Just a hole and a bucket with dirty water and I can’t do it.”
Hahahahahahaha–It was hysterical!!! This was the moment when all of a sudden HE realized what he had gotten himself into with this trip. I begged him to take a photo and he completely refused (probably to your benefit). You can see how pale his face was in this picture, that is a picture of a worried man right there.
He swore that no one else used that bathroom so we sat for a second and watched as one after another person went in and came out no problem—I was dyiinnngg at this point with laughter. Zach I still don’t think believes it was real life.
“The train” he said, “Ill just wait and go on the train, first class so it has got to be good.”
Got on the train, found his way to the back, A HOLE. Hahahaha just a hole in the floor of the train. Hahaha.
Now that is something they don’t talk about on trip advisor!
The train itself was extremely pleasant and we loved getting to relax for a few hours and peer outside into the foreign land.
One of my favorite parts was, and this sounds terrible, the lack of safety features on the train and this pretty much extends throughout our entire trip. The doors outside of each cabin remained open during the trip so you could literally hang out the side of the train and feel the wind in your hair. Heck– you could feel the wind and the smell and the feel of Sri Lanka on your whole body! It was amazing!
You can smell the smells and wave to locals as you pass by, it was SO MUCH FUN. As dangerous as it is, the train really doesn’t go THAT FAST so when passing through you really get a chance to absorb the nature and beauty.
Although a hired driver would have been easier, traveling through Sri Lanka by bus and especially by train added so much value to the trip. When traveling to Sri Lanka, don’t miss this!
Arrival in Kandy
Off of the bus and back into a bustling city! I say the word “city” but man does that word have different meanings when you compare Kandy to our home city, Doha.
When you look out, there are tons of people going every which way, vendors lining the streets with all sorts of treats from fresh fruit to fried bits and in the middle of all of that are some of the strangest looking cars that you have ever seen! Not to mention that there is not a single stop light, stop sign, or any other traffic control system. Oh and did I mention that they drive on the left side of the road? Yeah, chaos.
After building up some courage on the train, we were ready to dive right in. Within three minutes of exiting the train, we had gathered an assortment of snacks and were in a “Tuk Tuk” (or a Sri Lankan taxi) on our way to our hotel.
Bernard was our chosen tuk tuk driver which was a bit of a challenge to select, not because of lack of drivers but quite the opposite. Stepping out of the train station, you are literally swarmed with drivers offering to take you anywhere and even committing themselves to take you around for the entire week.
We chose Bernard, I think because Zach liked a particular sticker on his tuk tuk 😉 After spending some time with him though, we became true friends.
Maps and calculations in hand we attempted to explain our destination. No luck. Fortunately, we had the hotel phone number on hand and after a quick chat between Bernard and the owner, we joined the mixed mass of cars and were on our way.
We knew the hotel was somewhere inside the city but were surprised when the city faded into the background and we started up a mountain. We drove and drove and finally came to the end of the road. Bernard didn’t think twice and fired through right onto a small one lane dirt road which continued zig-zagging up the mountain.
We kept seeing signs for other hotels and time and time again we passed right by them and continued up!
As it turned out, we had chosen the hotel at the (as far as I can tell) highest point in the city! Not to mention, the view would take your breath away. Thus the name of the hotel I suppose, “Kandyan View”.
We agreed with Bernard to have in him come back to get us in about two an a half hours time so that we could chill, shower and snack a bit before heading out to explore the city.
At five on the dot, Bernard was parked right outside to show us his beloved town. We explained our “must see” locations and he assured us that he would make it a great night. He started by dropping us off at a cultural show (definitely nothing we had planned!).
We saw authentic Sri Lankan dress, drumming and even fire walking. It was a beautiful show and was a great introduction into the Sri Lankan culture.
Next was the famous Temple of Tooth which holds a sacred relic of what is said to be Buddha’s actual tooth. But before that, Bernard had something special to show us.
At a high perch (a location that he said was one of his favorites), above the city, we looked down and across at all of the sparking lights below. A stunning sight! He showed us where he lives with his wife and children as well as the location of a few other landmarks then we sat together in awe of the beauty.
Temple of Tooth
Back in the tuk tuk and off to the temple; we just had one problem.
As you might have already know, these sacred temples are very particular about a few different things, one of them being the dress-code on the temple grounds, and Zach’s basketball shorts just didn’t make the cut (I warned him!!) lol (men and women must both wear clothing that covers the shoulders and knees). So like all good wives, I encouraged him to buy and wear a skirt (that I could later add to my wardrobe whoop!) from a nearby stand. Don’t worry, I am not that mean, the temple was full of men having to do the exact same thing. Plus, it was that or patterned pants! Haha! Come on he loved it-or wait maybe that was just me lol . How many times in life do you have a realistic reason to make your husband walk about in public with a skirt on? Hehe Just kidding, but really only some men can still look like a true man in a patterned skirt and by gosh he is one of them!
Off with the shoes and into the temple we went! It was beautifully lit at night and extremely quiet and peaceful inside.
It is a place of pilgrimage for the Buddhist people so we tried to be as out of the way and pleasant as possible. It was actually pretty fun getting to help some families out with their group photos, you could see how special of a time it was for them.
Inside you can find many people carrying various kinds of flowers. These are offerings that they will leave in different parts of the temple. You may notice all of the people wearing white, this is another sign of respect to the sacred temple aaaand we totally missed that memo too apparently #fail
We were not at all sure which room actually housed the tooth (websites had contrasting opinions on this) but we enjoyed just walking through and observing the culture.
Poor Zach, the monks apparently were Bailey sized! 😉
Outside on the terrace was my favorite part, there was a small glass room completely filled with small candles, another offering/pilgrimage symbol. They were beautiful.
We made our way around to the front and soaked in the long walk to the gate. The walkway is lined with trees bearing beautiful small white flowers that flutter around as they fall.
Finally, we joined back up with Bernard and headed for dinner.
He told him that we wanted to go to the main strip to choose our dinner and he dropped us right where we asked then proceeded to walk with us down the street giving us the inside scoop on each restaurant. What-a-guy!
We chose a place called White House.
I am sure that this must have been the nicest restaurant in the whole city because as we went upstairs, the waiters were dressed to the 9’s and metal chandeliers hung from the ceilings. …..We were dressed in t-shirts and shorts… whoops. .. At least at this point Zach had removed his skirt! 😉
This is definitely not going to fit into the budget I thought, but to my surprise, the most expensive item on the entire menu was $8! Wow — we were certainly not in Qatar anymore!!
After the strange curry in the morning Zach went for something he could count on, classic spaghetti with a spicy tomato sauce.
I on the other hand, love curry and just asked for whichever one was the least spicy! Everything turned out to be delicious!!
After we finished, we begged Bernard to let us buy him some dinner/dessert but he adamantly refused and insisted on taking us to one last spot on our way home.
Again, we climbed up, up, up the mountain, turned onto the same dirt road up, up, up, then turned off again onto a literal dirt path, through some waist high grass and shrubs, then he parked and motioned for us to look.
We were at an even higher point than earlier that evening and the lights glowed in the night sky.
As you can tell, my camera (user error) just cannot do the sight justice. It was enough to take your breath away and had us considering spending a few more nights in Kandy just to see it again. What a perfect way to end our adventure in the heart of Sri Lanka.