Hey adventurers! I hope everyone had a fantastic July. Mine was certainly eventful- here’s what I got up to this month.
Where in the world am I? I just landed back in the USA at the end of July after nearly four months in India and Sri Lanka. I am currently gorging myself on all the American fast food I’ve missed (I love you, Steak N Shake) and gearing up for two months of road tripping around the country.
Items checked off the bucket list this month: #542- explore ancient temples in Sri Lanka. This was a three month project! Check out some of the amazing temples I’ve been exploring:
#365- Deep fried hot dogs at Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey
Highlight of the month: Climbing the ancient rock monastery of Sigiriya! I was really nervous about this, guys. I’m not in the best shape and my health has been kind of sketchy on this trip as you know. But I made it to the top! And not without considerable effort. Apart from the sheer physical exhaustion, I was also contending with potential swarms of wasps and huge wind gusts that could easily blow a person (or at least their camera) off the rock. At one point I was down on my hands and knees crawling up some steps because the wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t stand up. But the important thing is, I made it! Even if coming down did take twice as long because my knees were absolute Jell-O.
Did you accomplish something awesome in July? Comment below and let me know so I can celebrate with you!
Lowlight of the month: Getting stuck with the absolute worst driver on the planet while moving from Kandy to Habarana, Sri Lanka. Proof that, even when you do your research and use a reputable tour company, you can still be stuck with a complete nincompoop. Read all about it here.
Best meal: Pan fried dumplings at Momo’s by Ruvi in Colombo. These things were amazing. If you’ve never had a momo, you should go get some immediately. Actually just get on a plane and come to Sri Lanka because I have to assume these are the best on the planet.
Sri Lankan road construction crews have no problem whatsoever using a jackhammer at 3 a.m. Never travel without earplugs.
The train is never on time. Like, ever.
Jaffna, Sri Lanka is home to some of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen…and they’re rapidly crumbling into ruin. Can someone please do something about this?
Arrack (the local coconut flower liquor) and ginger beer is amazing.
Sri Lankan desserts are so sweet they’ll make your teeth hurt. Proceed with caution.
There are spas in Europe where you soak in a tub full of beer. This right here is why Europe is always going to lead the rest of the world into the future.
There’s a donut shop in Los Angeles selling donuts filled with ice cream. Maybe Europe has a little competition.
Upgrading to Emirates business class is worth every penny.
The sprayer hose next to all of the toilets here makes for a handy weapon if you encounter a large insect while getting into the shower. Welcome to the tropics.
What I read:
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman- this book tore my heart out, flattened it, folded it into an origami swan, and then set it on fire. But it also made me laugh, hard. I only read it because someone recommended it to me, and I’m so glad they did. Put this one way, way at the top of your reading list.
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai- yes, I’m way behind in reading this book, but I’m so glad I finally did. I love to surround myself with positive people and inspirational stories (because who needs more negative crap, seriously?) and this book gave me wings.
What’s next? I’m spending the month of August driving the entire length of I-80 from New York City to San Francisco, and seeing lots of cool stuff along the way. Including a giant butter cow at the Iowa State Fair. Tune in next month to find out if I was able to get close enough to lick it.
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Wait, didn’t I just get here? How can it possibly be time to leave Sri Lanka already?
I’m killing an afternoon in a Colombo coffee shop until my taxi arrives to take me to the airport. I’d love to take another stroll around the neighborhood, but as I’m going to be stuck in these clothes for about 45 hours, I’m trying to stay as sweat-free as possible. You’re welcome, fellow passengers.
I have left pieces of my heart all over this gorgeous little island- mostly with the hundreds of sad-eyed street dogs who trusted me enough to approach me for a bit of food, and love.
When I first told friends and coworkers that I was quitting my job to travel full time, starting with a brief stint in India and three months in Sri Lanka, many of them said I was crazy. Well, obviously. But who wants to be normal? Normal is boring, and no one is handing out prizes for being a martyr and giving up on your dreams.
If what I’m doing is crazy, the way I’m doing it is downright insane. Who lets a random computer algorithm determine where they go and how they spend their life? Well, I do, and it’s a terrific amount of fun, actually.
I’m only in Sri Lanka today because my Random Bucket List Picker chose it from my massive list after I completed a train ride across Canada. I was only on that train because the RBLP decided that’s where I should go after visiting the Scottish highlands, after exploring ancient Buddhist temples in Indonesia, etc., etc.
I wonder how normal people do things.
The last three months have flown by in an absolute blur of ancient temples, gorgeous beaches, breathtaking train rides, amazing food, and approximately 175 gallons of Lion beer. You have to admit, there are worse ways to spend a summer. I will miss this quirky little island paradise (and street cart samosas) but the next adventure awaits.
As always, the next adventure has been randomly chosen for me by the Random Bucket List Picker: driving the entire length of Interstate 80 from New York to California. With my favorite canine copilot by my side, naturally.
As a bonus, there are quite a few other bucket list entries I’ll be able to cross off along the way. No, I’m not going to tell you ahead of time what they are- what fun would that be? I have to make sure you keep checking back for more stories.
I have set aside six weeks for this adventure, which should be plenty of time to get myself into all kinds of predicaments. I hope you will follow along with me!
Leslie’s Rules for Traveling, Part One: always begin and end every trip with a spa ritual. I figured this out on my first trip to Greece and I’ve tried to stick to it as much as possible ever since. Apart from just being a big fan of pampering the heck out of myself at every opportunity, I really do think this helps to keep jet lag at bay. Not to mention that awful post-vacation “Ugh I’m so exhausted I should have just stayed home” feeling. Since my three months in Sri Lanka are drawing to a close, I decided to visit the Amber Spa at Colombo Courtyard for a relaxing massage to get me in full trip wind-down mode.
This was a very good idea. I opted for the Signature Amber Massage, which is a traditional deep tissue massage, and the therapist was outstanding. She used just the right amount of pressure (lots) and beat all of my tension into submission. (But she did ask a few times if the pressure was OK, so don’t be alarmed if you like a lighter touch.)
I have to add a note for my fellow modest girls who might not have experienced a massage in Asia before: it’s common here for the therapist to uncover you to the waist in order to massage your stomach and collarbone areas, but if you’re not comfortable with that, it’s no big deal. Just mention to your therapist that you’d like your chest to stay covered the whole time. (Or forget, like I did, and then squeal and yank the sheet back up and cause your therapist to apologize profusely. Either way.)
The spa itself is located off the pool area in the middle of Colombo Courtyard, and is accessed by walking across an elegant stone bridge over the pool. Even though the hotel is located right on busy Duplication Road in the heart of Colombo, the treatment rooms are completely serene and they manage to block out all of the traffic noise with thick walls and tranquil music.
Amber Spa also wins my award for the most gorgeous robes I’ve ever seen in a spa, goldenrod yellow with a beautiful floral print.
The whole atmosphere of the inner courtyard and spa area is full of fountains, koi ponds, ornate lanterns, and soft seating arrangements. It has a clean, Morocco-meets-Miami Beach look.
When I left the spa an hour later, all of the usual pain in my back and hips is gone, at least for a while. I also smelled like a frosted spice cake, thanks to the scented massage oil and the spice-filled pillow that covered my eyes during the second half of the treatment. The smell reminded me of some of the solid perfumes I’ve gotten from Egypt in the past, and I surreptitiously sniffed my arm several times while walking down the street. I hope no one noticed.
Amber Spa is located inside the Colombo Courtyard Hotel. Find more information, including a full menu of spa treatments here.
Hey adventurers! It’s time to introduce you to the latest awesome solo female traveler in the series. Charlotte from The Global Shuffle took the time to answer my questions and give some awesome solo travel advice. Don’t tell Charlotte, but I’m super jealous of her for living in Vancouver, one of my favorite cities anywhere.
Where are you from, and where are you currently residing?
Sydney, Australia, but I’m living in Vancouver, Canada.
Where is your next destination?
Next destination outside Canada is the US in October! Heading to Texas and I’ve never been to the States before and I’m so excited about it.
How long have you been traveling?
I moved from Australia to Canada in March 2017, but I travelled intermittently before that. I’ve travel a lot around my home country because it’s just so big and there’s so much to see, and I spent five months travelling solo around Europe in 2016, and backpacked around India, Nepal and SE Asia for a few months in 2014, so travel for me is always an ongoing thing.
What’s on your bucket list?
I would love to go to South America, specifically Argentina and Peru. Now that I’m in the Northern Hemisphere, it feels a lot more likely that I’ll go.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you while traveling?
There have been a few…
My whole month driving around Iceland was a crazy trip – the sun never set and I was camping, I picked up hitchhikers, drove around with a girl I met on the internet, and battled blizzards somewhere in the fjords (read about that here).
And the time I had to accidentally hitchhiked in Bulgaria… I couldn’t speak Bulgarian or read the Cyrillic alphabet, realised I was in the wrong place when I got off the bus, and had to approach a group of guys in a pub and try and communicate using the only Bulgarian word I knew – Melnik, the name of the place I was going (you can read the whole story here).
What’s your favorite place in the world and why is it so great?
I think Bulgaria is one of my favourite places in Europe – I never planned on going there, but I was so surprised at how much I loved it. I went there in summer, and realised it’s just a beautiful and very historic part of the world that I never really knew much about – so full of music and life, cobbled streets, flowers, wonderful people, great food, and amazing beer and wine. Plus, it’s really affordable.
What lessons have you learned from travel?
I learnt that everyone is the same. The fears, anxieties, and self-doubts I had about travelling solo were widely shared among the greater community, and figuring that out was eye-opening, and kind of liberating. I felt as though that knowledge gave me the freedom to approach people, start conversations, and make friends because there were so many people who were really anxious about doing it as well. If I can empower people to do anything through my website, it would be to give them the courage to travel solo. Without sounding cheesy, it’s a life-altering experience and I think everyone should do it.
How do you combat loneliness when traveling solo?
I used the ‘hangout’ feature on the Couchsurfing app, swing by traveller bars, or talk to people at my hostel – things I would never have done before my trip around Europe. I was really worried about being lonely when travelling alone because I’m pretty socially-awkward, but I’ve actually never felt less alone – when I wanted to hang out with people, they were always around, and I made some really good friends.
What advice would you give a woman who wants to start traveling but is struggling with doubts and uncertainties?
Join female travel groups on Facebook, download the Couchsurfing app, don’t overthink it, and book a ticket. I had so many doubts before and after I booked my trip, but I really didn’t need to put so much energy into feeling that way – once I got there, it was all great. It’s difficult to let all your anxieties go, but my advice would be not to let those feelings control you – you’re a capable adult, and relying on your own sense of judgement and your ability to look after yourself on the road gives you a sense of independence I’m not sure you get doing anything else.
So there you have it! Isn’t she awesome? How many of you want to book a ticket to Bulgaria now? (Me!!)
Thanks, Charlotte! Have a fantastic time in Texas!
Here’s all the places you can follow Charlotte and her adventures:
After my disastrous/awesome adventure to the Dambulla cave temples, I checked into The Other Corner to recuperate, and I’m so glad I did. You can tell as soon as you arrive that this is not going to be like any other hotel, unless you’re accustomed to having to cross a swinging rope bridge to get to your accommodation.
Most writers live in their own heads, you know? We spend so much time sequestered in our own thoughts, spinning words and worlds out of the ether, that it’s no surprise most of us feel more at home there than in the “real” world. I’m no different, and I instantly fall in love with any place that lets me live in my imagination instead of being confronted with a dreary reality full of other people and traffic and blaring televisions, and…did I mention other people? Nothing against other humans in general, but there are so many of you, and sometimes you pack together in large groups and make excessive amounts of noise and it’s just sort of the worst. It’s not your fault, of course, but it’s really hard to imagine that I’m Indiana Jones or a fierce fighter pilot or (my personal favorite) an animal-whispering fairy princess when I’m breathing in clouds of exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke and listening to your baby scream while you play YouTube videos on your phone without headphones.
I only mention all of that because I’m sort of in paradise right now. I’m working on my laptop by the pool, and it is exactly the kind of blissfully secluded dream world that makes me feel at home. The resort is completely empty today, so I have the pool to myself. This greatly helps me to imagine that the resort is my private jungle palace, obviously. There’s a gnarled, vine-choked tree dominating the pool area, and it’s covered with great clouds of butterflies like something out of a Disney movie. There’s also a small brass bell hanging from the tree, with a room service menu. In case you get so worn out from swimming and sunning yourself that you need to be revived with a beer and a cheeseburger, obviously. (I did say it was paradise, didn’t I?)
The only sounds are the wind rustling the leaves of the surrounding trees, the songs of dozens of exotic birds, and the bubbling water from the spa behind me. (I later get my very first fish pedicure in that spa, and laugh-squeal loud enough to startle several passing monkeys. You should definitely try this if you get the chance.)
The silence is briefly broken by a small family of monkeys who swing down and take a quick drink out of the pool before scampering back up to the treetops and continuing on their way. Once they’ve gone, two gorgeous bright red dragonflies swoop down and skim across the surface of the pool. A pair of jewel-colored birds alight on a branch above my head for a just a moment, before the distant trumpeting of an elephant startles them away.
An hour or so later, drama erupts as a gang of monkeys descends on a nearby mango tree and makes off with fistfuls of fruit before a groundskeeper chases them away with a rake. They are gleefully unrepentant as they huddle together near the spa and enjoy their stolen treat. (Monkeys are such jerks, aren’t they?)
I spent three nights at The Other Corner, and it was the perfect spot for lounging by the pool as well as an amazing base for climbing the famous rock monastery of Sigiriya. I’ll write about that awesome experience in another post, but for now, just know that you should 100% visit Sigiriya if you’re in the neighborhood. The Other Corner can also arrange tours to Minneriya National Park, the Dambulla cave temples, Ritigala Forest Monastery, and all the other cool stuff there is to do here in the Cultural Triangle area.
I also took a nature walk with the resident naturalist, and he was an absolute fountain of local knowledge. If you go, ask him to do some of his amazing bird calls for you. The area around the resort is absolutely gorgeous, and you can even see Sigiriya if you walk along the lake bordering the property.
The three nights I spent at The Other Corner were like being at summer camp for grownups. You stay in a really adorable cabin and there’s nature hikes and tree houses… but there’s also a nice beer and wine selection. I suppose you can bring the kids, if you want to share the tree houses.
As you explore the grounds, you’ll see a sign pointing to the hotel’s organic garden. One of the best things about staying at an eco resort is knowing that all the produce in your meals was grown right there on the property.
You might also see some of the other local residents lounging about:
The Other Corner is located in Laksirigama, Habarana, Sri Lanka, right on the edge of Habarana Lake. Find more information or book your own stay here.
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This has been a sponsored conversation with The Other Corner, and as always, all words, photos, and opinions are mine.
I don’t think anyone comes to Sri Lanka without a stop in Kandy, and for good reason. This busy hill country town is known as the country’s cultural capital, and has plenty to keep you occupied for several days- longer if you make it your base for exploring the area. And explore it you should; the hill country was one of my absolute favorite parts of my 3 months here in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.
If you don’t think Sri Lanka is the vacation destination for you because you’re not a fan of beaches and tropical climates, this is why you should come. Misty mountains, cool air, fantastic hiking, and Buddhist history like you’ve never seen anywhere else.
Here are some of my Kandy highlights:
The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic
You can’t skip this; this temple is the main reason people visit Kandy. It’s also one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples I’ve ever visited, and that’s saying rather a lot. The holiest site in Sri Lankan Buddhism, this temple houses a tooth reportedly taken from the Buddha’s funeral pyre. It’s kind of the Sri Lankan Buddhist Mecca; everyone is supposed to make at least one pilgrimage here in their lifetime. It’s so revered, you even see rowdy groups of teenage boys stopping on the sidewalk across the street to bow in prayer before walking on. Worshipers inside are frequently overcome with emotion, so if you’re visiting as a tourist, please be respectful and unobtrusive. As with all temples, you’ll have to cover up- no exposed knees or shoulders.
One of the most popular attractions on the temple grounds is Rajah the Tusker, a moldering old taxidermy elephant with crumbling ears. This small building is always packed with loud children and selfie-stick-wielding tourists, inexplicably needing a photo of themselves with the remains of this poor creature behind a wall of smudged glass. Suffice to say I think you can skip this spectacle.
Other tips for visiting:
Wear slip-on shoes as you’ll have to leave them at the shoe minder’s counter next to where you pay the admission fee. There’s no charge for leaving your shoes, but they’ll ask for a tip when you pick them up.
The entry fee for foreigners is 1500 rupees ($10 USD). Do try to have exact change as they’re loathe to break 5000 rupee notes and may tell you that they can’t give you all of your change back. Don’t fall for this; someone is just trying to get a 500 rupee tip.
Never pose with a Buddha statue for a photo or selfie. This is basically the most offensive thing you could possibly do.
Go as early as you can. The place is overrun with schoolkids by midday.
World Buddhist Museum
This was my favorite museum in all of Sri Lanka, and it’s conveniently located on the same property as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. They charge 500 rupees ($3.25 USD) for foreigners, which is a steal. The museum walks you through the spread of Buddhism throughout the world, and it’s fascinating to see how the story of the Buddha is interpreted country by country. I had a great time reminiscing over some of the other famous Buddhist sites I’ve visited, like Shwedagon Paya in Burma and Borobudur in Indonesia. The lighting and signage in this museum is good…by Sri Lankan standards. It’s not the Smithsonian, but nothing here is. I was really bummed that you can’t take photos inside, because there are some really lovely exhibits. There’s a small gift shop to the left of the staircase down which you exit.
Kandy Garrison Cemetery
When you’re done with the World Buddhist Museum, exit left and head up the little hill past the National Museum (toward the public restrooms, incidentally, if you need to stop.) There are signs at the bottom of the hill pointing the way to the cemetery. Once you get to the top of the hill behind the public facilities you might think you’re actually on someone’s driveway, but keep going. There will be a small maintenance shed on the left and then you’ll round the corner to the cemetery. It’s small, and many of the inscriptions are worn, but it’s a really neat piece of Kandy history. The young caretaker is an absolute fountain of knowledge; he knows every name, inscription, and cause of death by heart. Let him tell you all about the extremely large man who died of sunstroke while running from an elephant or the baby who died of a snakebite despite the best efforts of the village medicine man.
St. Paul’s Church
This red brick church dates to the 1840s and is currently undergoing renovations, but is well worth poking around for a few minutes. There are some neat funerary markers for deceased parishioners lining the walls and a gorgeous stained glass window behind the altar. Watch for frolicking monkeys outside.
Royal Botanic Gardens
This 147 acre park on the outskirts of Kandy is a really great place to escape the noise and pollution of the city for a few hours. There’s a gorgeous orchid house and some really nice walking trails through the wooded areas. If you’re a botany nerd, welcome to paradise. There are more than 4000 plant species here, and they’ve done a really nice job with signage.
Other tips for visiting:
Go on a weekday! 2.2 million people visit the gardens annually and every single one of them showed up on the same Saturday morning I visited. Weekdays are much quieter.
Look up! Thousands of huge flying foxes roost in the trees and fly around during the day. If you take the path to the right of Royal Palm Avenue you’ll most likely have it to yourself to appreciate these beauties. (And, if you’re me, imagine that you’re in Jurassic Park and they’re actually huge screeching pterodactyls. Don’t judge.)
I partnered with this gorgeous hilltop hotel for a review, and absolutely loved it. My only minor quibble was the somewhat unreliable Wi-Fi, but the views and the amazing chicken curry more than made up for my inability to upload all of my photos. Wi-Fi was a bit of an issue throughout the hill country for me, so plan your Internet needs accordingly. If you just want to check email and Facebook a few times a day you’ll be fine, but business travelers might have difficulties.
Far and away the best mode of transportation anywhere in the hill country is the train. These creaky, lumbering old locomotives trundle through some of the most beautiful scenery on the island, and nothing beats leaning out the open doors for a blast of cool mountain air in your face. And train travel in Sri Lanka is CHEAP. Check the timetables here and try to coordinate your schedule for a ride in one of the first class observation cars. It won’t cost more than $8 US even for the longest, all-day journeys. There are tour companies who will reserve your tickets for you (for two to three times the going rate) but as I traveled in the off season I never bothered. Turning up at the station an hour before the train was scheduled to depart was always plenty of time to get a first class ticket. Pack some snacks or wait for a man with a big plastic tub of fresh samosas to make his way through the train.
So there you have it! Some of my favorite parts of my visit to Kandy. Have you been? Drop me a note in the comments and let me know if I missed any of your favorites.
The first thing that hits me when I check into Villa Rosa and start exploring is that this is the perfect location for a romantic retreat.
Between the candlelit dinners, the breathtaking mountain views, and the secluded hilltop setting, I’m really wishing I hadn’t come to Villa Rosa solo. This ridiculously photogenic villa just screams romantic rendezvous. The canoodling couple having dinner two tables away from me would likely agree; they’re currently holding hands and staring out at the river. I can’t say that I blame them- this view belongs on a postcard, or maybe your desktop wallpaper.
This is no business traveler’s hotel- the information binder in my room informs me that the Wi-Fi will be turned off at 10pm and when it’s on it can’t handle streaming a video conference. You might not notice- the cozy second floor library will pull your attention away from work with its large collection of reading material and panoramic views of the river and the mountains.
Back to dinner, though. Villa Rosa is a foodie’s paradise, and they win my award for the absolute best rice and curry I’ve had during my three months in Sri Lanka. That’s a pretty big deal- *everyone* makes rice and curry here, and it’s almost always fantastic. Villa Rosa goes the extra mile, though. The chef visits the local market every morning, and guests are welcome to tag along and see how he chooses the freshest spices and produce. If you’re really keen, you can join him and his team in the kitchen to prepare your own meal while having a lesson in authentic Sri Lankan cooking.
On the off chance that you want to do more than smooch your travel partner all day, Villa Rosa is perfectly positioned for exploring Kandy and the surrounding area. The extremely accommodating staff will happily drop you off in town at no charge, or arrange transportation for more far-flung adventures. While I was here, I explored the impressive botanical gardens, the city of Kandy, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (don’t miss this! Easily the most beautiful Buddhist temple I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen rather a lot) and the Kandy Garrison Cemetery.
The river that you’ll find yourself continually staring out over is the Mahaweli, the longest river in Sri Lanka. Every time I settled down to read or write or work on my laptop, I only lasted a few minutes before I found myself picking up my camera and wandering over to the edge of the property to snap just a few more photos. Sri Lanka is outrageously beautiful in general, but the view here is absolutely mesmerizing. Try to get back from your day of adventuring in Kandy before sunset if you can. There is no better way to start your evening than with a cold beer on the open air balcony while watching the sky go all pink and purple and orange while the flying foxes venture out to their nightly hunt and the chanting of the monks from the city temples down below drifts up on the breeze.
Art lover alert: The owners of Villa Rosa are connoisseurs of fine art, and have decorated the villa in impeccable style. Make sure you take a wander around the entire property to have a look at some of the fabulous pieces in their collection.
Villa Rosa is located at 71/18, Dodanwela Passage, Asgiriya, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Visit Villa Rosa here for more information or to book your own romantic rendezvous.
This has been a sponsored conversation with Villa Rosa. I had the pleasure of being hosted at their beautiful property for the purposes of this review, and as always, all words, photos, and opinions are my own.
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Imagine you’ve gone to pay a visit to your dear British granny…who happens to live in a gorgeous, modern house on a tea estate in in the middle of Sri Lanka, that is. That should give you an idea of what it’s like to visit Ceylon Tea Bungalows.
My first thought when I enter the Windermere Suite is that I’m in an English country house. Blue floral paper on the walls, a large wooden canopy bed, delicate grey silk window treatments. The vases of fresh tropical flowers give away the location, though. Nothing like these wild blooms grow in English cottage gardens.
I’ve arrived late, after dark, and am met by the lovely staff, who immediately inquire about my journey, ask me if I’m hungry, and bring me a cup of tea. Just like visiting Grandma’s house, actually. To enhance the feeling, there is no menu. “Whatever you want” is the mantra. Kumar, the manager, starts listing possibilities from traditional rice and curry to roast chicken. I tell him to surprise me, and this turns out to be an excellent idea.
Thirty minutes later I’m settled at a table under the covered porch, protected from the pouring rain. I have a glass of wine, and all is once again right with the world. Dinner is a delicious cream of vegetable soup and an entree of roasted chicken in a unique sweet and mildly spicy sauce, with mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables. Comfort food through and through, just like Grandma makes. And of course there’s always ice cream for dessert.
I don’t see Ceylon Tea Bungalows in the daylight until I wake up the next morning. Opening the drapes covering the French doors leading onto my private patio, I’m shocked at the absolute riot of flowers outside. The front lawn looks out over green hills as far as the eye can see, and rainbow hued blooms spill out over pots and planters and garden beds everywhere I look. Lounge chairs and intimate seating areas are arranged around the lawn. A classic Morris Eight sits at the end of the walkway, completing the English country house feeling perfectly.
Over breakfast (fried eggs, thick cut bacon, sausages, toast and jam, endless pots of tea… they will try to feed you just as much as your grandmother always did), Kumar suggests I take a tuk tuk to the nearby town of Ella. Having heard that Ella is everyone’s favorite hill country town, I readily agree.
Honestly, Ella is pretty underwhelming. The mountain views are lovely, but mostly blotted out by the endless stream of guesthouses and juice shops that plague most Sri Lankan tourist meccas. Take away the views, and this could be Hikkaduwa, only with more tourists walking around in swimwear, which is bizarre because there aren’t any beaches here. (Also, please don’t do this. It’s really offensive to the locals.) I see more European backpackers than I do locals, and if it weren’t for the occasional Sinhala street sign, I could be in Austria. The views really are magnificent, though.
Next time I’ll arrange to go on a nice day hike instead of hanging with the backpacker crowd. The mountain views are spectacular, and it’s so nice to be out in weather that isn’t miserably hot and sweaty all the time.
Things I loved about Ceylon Tea Bungalows:
Being treated like family. There’s no set menu or mealtimes, and the staff has a genuine desire to please. It doesn’t feel like a hotel at all, but like you’re visiting family.
Big fluffy white robes (not a common amenity in Sri Lanka!)
Spacious rooms and common areas for lounging.
The location, away from tourist hordes, literally in the middle of a tea plantation. You can even go out and help the plantation employees pick tea and see where your favorite afternoon beverage comes from. If you do, you’ll have a new appreciation every time you brew a cup- these ladies work hard.
The most comfortable bed of my entire 3-month trip.
The gorgeous flower gardens.
Attention to detail: all of the art, fresh cut flowers, coffee table books, and bath amenities have been chosen with tremendous care.
Ceylon Tea Bungalows is located at Hilpankandura Estate, Mirahawatte, Bandarawela, Sri Lanka. You can visit their website here for more information or to book your own visit.
Like this? Find more hotel reviews I’ve done here.
This is a sponsored conversation with Ceylon Tea Bungalows. I had the pleasure of being their guest for the purpose of this review, and as always, all photos, words, and opinions are my own.
I’m on my way from Kandy to Habarana, sad to be leaving the cool elevation of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, but excited to visit the ancient cities on my journey north to the rarely-visited Jaffna and the northern islands. I’ve booked a private driver for the day, as there’s no easy train between the two cities and I want to stop at the famous Dambulla Cave Temples on the way. I’m expecting an easy and relaxing day in a nice, air conditioned car, punctuated with a great visit to some marvelous caves filled with gorgeous old Buddha statues.
But you, dear reader, know that what I expect and what actually happens are rarely the same thing.
The Dambulla caves were just as spectacular as I had imagined, but I had the misfortune to be stuck with the worst driver I’ve ever had on any trip anywhere in the world. And I once had a Burmese driver pick up a pregnant woman and wedge her up against me, where she promptly started to go into labor. So when I say this guy was the worst, you know he really put some effort into it.
Not many things will get me out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, but 2000 year old cave temples on top of a mountain are one of them. I’ve arranged my driver through Blue Haven Tours, a company listed in my Lonely Planet and vouched for by the manager of my hotel. Nuwan arrives at 7:00 a.m. on the dot, and we set off for Dambulla in his mildly battered black Suzuki Celario.
As most Sri Lankan taxi drivers do, Nuwan likes to make small talk, and begins asking me questions. Where am I from, why did I come to Sri Lanka, how long am I staying, etc. I rather wish he wouldn’t, as his glances into the rear view mirror are taking his attention away from the narrow, winding roads out of Kandy. But I’m a captive audience, so I answer as blandly as possible, to keep him from getting more distracted from his driving.
His face breaks into a broad leer in the rear view mirror as he says, “United State! And are you happy with your new president?”
Oh, brother. Here we go.
“No, not especially.” Please watch the road, please watch the road, please watch the road.
There is a brief pause as we round a bend and come bumper-to-bumper with a white Toyota. The road isn’t wide enough for two cars (it’s barely wide enough for one, with a steep drop into a drainage ditch on my side and a tall, unruly hedge on the other). After a brief stare-down, Nuwan puts the Suzuki into reverse and backs up a few feet. The Toyota inches forward. Nuwan refuses to back up further and honks the horn. The Toyota doesn’t have enough room to pass, so he honks back. Men emerge from a nearby building and become impromptu traffic conductors. They’re yelling and motioning for Nuwan to back up a little further, to a point where the road widens enough for the Toyota to pass. He refuses. They shout and gesture some more. Finally the Toyota driver lays on his horn until Nuwan relents and backs up enough for him to pass.
As soon as we’re back on the road, Nuwan starts in again. “You should be very happy with your new president. Everyone in Sri Lanka love him!” (This is categorically false, as he is the only person to express this view during my 3 month trip, but anyway…)
“Well, good for you.” The erratic driving is starting to make me nauseous, and I wish I had skipped breakfast. One day, I will be smart enough to lie and say I’m Canadian.
“He defeat Hillary Clinton, who support terrorists!” The way he’s staring at me in the mirror, eyes bulging, is well past creepy and closing in on psychotic.
“Um, no, I’m pretty sure that’s not accurate.”
“Yes it is!” He’s shouting now, and slaps the steering wheel for emphasis. “She give money to dirty Tamil dogs to bomb our Buddhist temples and kill Sri Lankans!”
Cool, so now he’s a gross bigot on top of being delusional. Only 2.5 hours to go. I’m definitely feeling carsick at this point, and breaking out into that pre-vomit cold sweat that signals impending doom.
“I’m not going to have this discussion with you. I’m paying for a driver, not some rando to yell at me while swerving all over the road.”
I’ve momentarily shocked him into silence. I’ve noticed that Sri Lankan women tend to be fairly meek, and Sri Lankan men aren’t used to being chastised. He stops talking, but continues to stare at me in the rearview mirror. I’m unsettled and nauseous, and almost want to skip the cave temples altogether. I would open my mouth to say so, but I’m afraid I would be sick.
Two uncomfortable hours later, we arrive at Dambulla. Nuwan drops me at the bottom of the steep rock stairway that leads to the caves, and points to a small parking lot nearby, saying he’ll be waiting there for me when I finish. He seems to have calmed down from his earlier rant.
The silver lining of the day: the Dambulla cave temples are absolutely stunning. It takes a bit of effort to reach them, what with maneuvering the slippery steps and dodging the marauding local monkey population, but once you do, the reward is magnificent.
At the top of the first set of steps you’ll visit the ticket window and pay your $10 USD for admission. Make sure you’ve got plenty of water, spare camera batteries, or whatever else you need before you start slogging your way up. You’re not going to want to turn around and do this twice. Also make sure your shoulders and knees are covered, as you’re not getting past the guards without being properly attired.
Even though you’re on top of a mountain, poking around in some caves, they’re still sacred temples, so you’ll have to leave your shoes outside. As you reach the top of the steps you’ll hand your shoes to the shoe minder in the little kiosk (and pay 25 rupees when you pick them up later). A few touts hang around the shoe drop, selling beaded bracelets and carved wooden boxes. They’re not as numerous or as pushy as most other tourist sites in the Cultural Triangle area, however.
As you enter through the wooden archway, a guard will stamp your ticket. FYI, this is where the quiet zone starts; the guards have no problem pouncing on unruly tourists and demanding they follow proper temple etiquette.
It won’t take long to visit all five temples, as most of them are quite small. The first and smallest cave is my favorite; there’s barely enough room for a handful of visitors at once, and the bulk of the chamber is taken up by an enormous reclining Buddha with a captivatingly serene expression.
Large tour buses do visit Dambulla, and the cave temples can get crowded. They all tend to stick together, though, and as the caves are right in a row it’s easy to avoid the groups and move back and forth to enjoy empty or nearly-empty caves most of the time.
As these are still active temples, you’ll see groups of Buddhist monks moving around from cave to cave to pray. They’re accustomed to being surrounded by tourists all day, of course, but I still think it’s nice to give them some space and vacate a temple while they’re using it. Or you could be like some tourists I saw and shove your camera in their faces while they’re kneeling in prayer. (No, don’t do this, those people were horrible. Seriously, who does this?)
When you’re finished, there are two ways to get back down to the bottom. You can go back down the King’s Way steps that you came up (dodging the same monkeys and slippery steps). You can also exit down the other side of the mountain to the Golden Temple (these steps are new, wider, and with nice sturdy hand rails…but the same monkeys, unfortunately.) Personally I wouldn’t bother with the Golden Temple as it’s a new construction, over-the-top gaudy tourist trap.
I make my way carefully back down the way I came up, head across the dusty road to the car park…and find no little black Suzuki. It’s a tiny parking lot, so it only takes me about 30 seconds to determine that Nuwan is most definitely nowhere to be found.
Not panicking, not panicking, not panicking…
I approach the driver of a bright red tuk tuk parked nearby and ask him if there is another parking lot nearby. He immediately looks concerned. “No, madam. This is the only one.”
I explain that my driver dropped me off and was supposed to wait here for me, but he’s not here, so I’m thinking there has to be another car park nearby. He shakes his head vigorously. “The only other car park is by the Golden Temple, but no driver would drop you off here and pick you up there. He would wait here. He must be here.” He looks back over his shoulder as though Nuwan is going to pop out from the bushes.
“He’s definitely not here. How do I get to this other parking lot?”
Red tuk tuk driver points at the road that brought us into the cave temple complex, and I start walking.
This may be an appropriate time to mention that it’s 92 degrees outside, there’s no shade whatsoever, and I’m wearing long sleeves and long pants because I was visiting temples. So this is nice.
It takes 40 minutes to reach the other parking lot. Remember how, earlier, I reminded you to take your water with you when starting your climb? Yeah, that’s because I didn’t. I didn’t want to carry it and I assumed it would be there waiting for me at the bottom when I finished. I should really not assume things, based on my track record, but I’m a slow learner.
By the time I stumble into the second parking lot, I’m a sweaty, sunburned, half-delirious mess. But the car is there! Hallelujah.
My excitement is short-lived, however, because Nuwan is nowhere to be found. This car park is much larger than the first, with a few shady spots for waiting drivers to pass the time. I walk around the perimeter of the lot, hoping to spot him among the groups of men, but he isn’t there. I return to the car and wait, unwilling to let it out of my sight now that I’ve found it again.
More than half an hour passes with no sign of Nuwan. I’m definitely on the verge of sunstroke at this point, so I stop a passing driver on the way to his car and ask if he has possibly seen the driver of this black Suzuki. He says he hasn’t, but he’s a regular at Dambulla and he knows the car. I confirm it belongs to Blue Haven tours, and he kindly offers to call the owner of the company and get him to track down his errant driver.
Five minutes later, Nuwan comes speed walking around the corner. It would appear that the owner was successful. He immediately starts interrogating me, raising his voice loud enough for a few of the waiting drivers to turn and stare. “Why are you here? You aren’t where you’re supposed to be! You should have gone to the Golden Temple!”
I’ve already started to cry; I’m so weak and exhausted from the climb and the walk and the sun and the lack of water that I can’t even answer. He had asked me before we arrived at Dambulla if I was interested in seeing the Golden Temple, and I had declined, saying I was only interested in the Dambulla cave temples. I don’t have the strength to remind him of this as I practically fall into the car and start chugging water. The driver who called the tour company on my behalf approaches Nuwan’s window and starts speaking to him sternly in Sinhala, frequently gesturing to me and then to the sky, presumably referencing the blazing noontime sun. I don’t have to speak their language to know he’s asking where Nuwan has been and why he left his client out here for so long. Nuwan ignores him and backs out of the parking space as the man is still speaking.
He continues his tirade as we exit the parking lot, but all I can do is sit there, shaking, and wipe my tears on my sleeve. He finally stops as he realizes I’m not going to answer him.
It’s another 30 minutes from Dambulla to my hotel in Habarana, which passes in desperately uncomfortable silence. All I can do for the first four hours after I arrive is lie in the dark, air conditioned room and drink water until I stop shaking. The stress of the day has hit me like a truck and I can feel the onset of the fever and joint pain that signal a bad flare up of my fibromyalgia. It’s going to be a long night.
Once I can type again without shaking uncontrollably, I fire up my laptop and send an email to the tour company to express how upset I am at the behavior of their driver. In. Excruciating. Detail.
A few hours later I get their response: “We are sorry this happened! Please try to forget about it and enjoy the rest of your holiday.”
Now, with all that said, I still think you should definitely visit the Dambulla Cave Temples. They are extraordinary, and Dambulla is situated perfectly for visiting the unmissable ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya. Just, um, don’t let Nuwan drive you there, OK?
Dambulla Cave Temples are a UNESCO World Heritage site located on the Kandy – Jaffna Hwy, Dambulla, Sri Lanka. You can read more about them here.
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Hey Adventurers! I’m back with another awesome solo female traveler to introduce to you! Meet Cali, from Cali O on the Go! I felt like Cali and I were instant besties because she, too, knows what it feels like to be charged by a hippo. If you don’t, you probably want to do your best to keep it that way. Trust me on this.
Where are you from, and where are you currently residing? I am from Boston, Massachusetts and I reside in the area when I am not traveling.
Where is your next destination? Guatemala!
How long have you been traveling? I have always had some level of interest in traveling, but it truly became an obsession about two years ago. I quit my job, sold my belongings, moved back home (from Texas to Massachusetts), and started traveling the world, mostly full-time, mostly solo!
What’s on your bucket list? What is not on my bucket list? One place I really, REALLY want to go is Madagascar. I just love nature and wildlife and Madagascar is home to some very unique species. I also love adventure and adrenaline so I am always on the lookout for unique adrenaline pumping activities to add to my bucket list.
What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you while traveling? I was charged at by a hippo at a campsite in Zambia. Luckily it was a warning charge, which is atypical of hippos as they usually charge to kill. We were separated by an electric fence which was not actually electrified due to planned daily power outages during the dry season in Zambia.
What’s your favorite place in the world and why is it so great? I know you know this is one of the hardest questions you can ask someone! Uzbekistan was a special country for me. It had an amazing balance of history (the Silk Road), culture, delicious food, and the friendliest people.
What lessons have you learned from travel? My favorite lesson I have learned is the recurring theme of generosity. Regardless of where I am in the world, I have been humbled by the generosity of local people. They offer assistance, food, or anything they have, even if it is beyond their means, in order to help improve my experience in their country. It is a lesson I truly try and implement when I am back home.
How do you combat loneliness when traveling solo? I try to turn it into appreciation. For me, when I am traveling solo, I am very rarely alone. Whether that be because I am staying in a busy hostel or I have joined a popular day tour or the locals strike up a conversation with me because I am alone. When I do truly find myself alone or potentially lonely, I force myself to appreciate that moment. Finally, I am by myself. I will likely go for a long walk, or binge eat local delicacies (because that is not my favorite way to make a first impression when I am among new friends), or find a quiet park and read a book. I use it as the time to do things I like to do, but don’t want to do with other people.
What advice would you give a woman who wants to start traveling but is struggling with doubts and uncertainties? I have gone off on my own so many times now and I always psych myself out into a whirlwind of doubts prior to leaving. That feeling is SO normal whether this is your first trip or you are a seasoned traveler. Being at home is easy and comfortable and I don’t have to think. But traveling is an opportunity to see the world, be resourceful, and open your eyes to culture, food, and scenery you’ve never experienced. Don’t let your inhibitions hold you back. All you have to do is take that first step to go. Book that plane ticket, know you can’t back out and your instincts will take care of the rest. You will surprise yourself and you won’t be disappointed.
So there you have it, the world according to Cali! I love what she has to say about experiencing acts of generosity all over the world. I have experienced the same thing, over and over again, and it’s always so humbling.