Sri Lanka

Exploring the Hill Country

On our first trip to Sri Lanka, Ollie and I spent three weeks exploring the hill country and southern beaches. In this post I will look back on our time in the hill country, which, unfortunately for us, was unseasonably wet!

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View over Kandy from Arthur’s Seat

Kandy

Our first stop in Sri Lanka, after arriving at Colombo international airport, was Kandy, the cultural heart of the island. We took a taxi from the airport to Fort railway station in the early hours of the morning, where we waited around until it was time for our train to depart. Needless to say, by the time we arrived at our guesthouse in Kandy we were both very tired, having been awake all night travelling from India!

In Kandy we stayed at Bridgette’s Homestay 2km from the city centre. The homestay has a very peaceful garden setting and the hosts are lovely, serving up a delicious feast for dinner every night! It is, however, a bit of a walk into town, which we wouldn’t have minded had it not been so wet!

Kandy is located in the centre of Sri Lanka and is surrounded by lush mountains and tea plantations. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is the largest and most popular temple to visit in the city; it is also one of Sri Lanka’s most holy shrines. Scenic Kandy Lake is also very photogenic and functions as the centre-piece of the city.

For more on the sights of Kandy, check out our post: Top Sights in Kandy: The Cultural Heart of Sri Lanka!

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The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

Adam’s Peak

From Kandy Ollie and I journeyed to the small town of Dalhousie, the base for the pilgrimage trek to the summit of Adam’s Peak. Despite the bad weather that had been with us since our arrival on the island, we decided to push ahead with our plans. Although we will always be glad to say that we made it to the top of Adam’s Peak, the actual hike and the days afterwards were painful to say the least.

In Dalhousie we spent one night at a very small, basic guesthouse right at the start of the hiking trail. After a home cooked dinner with some fellow travellers we retired to bed early, conscious that we had to be up at 2am the following morning to start the grueling climb. It is necessary to start so early in order to make it to the summit in time to see the sunrise.

We woke, dressed in our many layers and began the ascent in pitch darkness; the early morning was cold and there was a persistent drizzle that accompanied us all the way to the top.

The ascent up the mountain begins as a path, which quickly turns into 5200 uneven steps, which become progressively steeper the higher you climb. In pilgrimage season, the entire pathway is lit from the base to the summit, a sight which looks especially beautiful in the predawn darkness.

Seeing the entire ascent stretched out before us like that, however, was rather daunting, especially as we never seemed to be getting any closer to the top! The climb was extremely tough, made worse by the coldness and the drizzle. We wanted to give up many times but, resolutely, continued our slow progress.

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The Stepped Path to Adam’s Peak

By the time we made it to the summit, just as dawn was breaking, our leg muscles were exhausted; I was practically on my hands and knees crawling up the last 200 steps! Having ascended 1400m, there was a dramatic temperature difference at the top, which was only exacerbated by the wind. Before taking a look around, we quickly piled our layers back on and had an obligatory overpriced cup of hot chai!

As the sky lightened, the views from 2243m were pretty amazing, despite the cloud cover and drizzle, which had now turned into light rain. As a result, the sunrise wasn’t spectacular but we were overjoyed to have made it to the summit!

Because it was so cold and blustery we didn’t hang around too long; we did, however, check out the reason why the mountain is so auspicious – a rock formation that is considered to be a footprint of Buddha (for Buddhists), Shiva (for Hindus) or Adam (for Muslims and Christians). In this way, Adam’s peak appeals to pilgrims from a multitude of different belief systems.

All too soon it was time for us to make the long journey back down all those horrible steps. The descent was even worse than the ascent; my overtired legs struggled more than they ever had before. The repetition of all those stairs going up had done something to my knees, so that doing the same movement going down, I could barely walk.

It was a laborious process; as we neared the bottom Ollie was almost carrying me. In fact, when we reached the stone steps leading up to our guesthouse he did, in fact, have to carry me up!

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Dagoba near the Base of Adam’s Peak

It was to take about a week for me to recover; in that time I had to go up and down stairs sideways and could not walk without pain. My knees and legs were incredibly stiff and painful, which I think was made worse by the continual cold and damp. There were times that I wondered if I would ever be the same again and if I had done some serious damage!

Transport to Adam’s Peak

To reach Dalhousie from Kandy, take a train or bus to Hatton and then a bus on from there. Hatton can also be reached from Colombo and other hill country destinations.

  • Hatton – Dalhousie (bus): Rs 75, 1.5 hours, every 10 minutes
  • Hatton – Dalhousie (tuk-tuk): Rs 1000-1500, 1 hour

For the train schedule to various destinations, you can check the Sri Lankan Railways website.

Best Time to Climb Adam’s Peak

The best time to attempt the climb is January-May; avoid days around the full moon, the week of Sri Lankan new year (mid April) and weekends if possible. At these times the trek can be so crowded that you may have to wait 5-10 hours in a line to reach the summit.

Nuwara Eliya

From Dalhousie, that same morning we arrived back from the climb, we somehow travelled on to Nuwara Eliya, where we would spend Christmas. The rain continued throughout our stay.

Nuwara Eliya is also known as ‘Little England’, a somewhat ambitious description for what is a very Sri Lankan town. There are, however, small reminders of England with colonial architecture and even a few red post boxes scattered around. Quaint and pretty, the town is home to Lake Gregory and Victoria Park.

In the surrounding area you can visit Hakgala Gardens (10km southeast of Nuwara Eliya), Pedro Tea Estate (3.5km east of Nuwara Eliya) and Lovers Leap Waterfall (a 5km round-trip hike from Pedro Tea Estate).

The colourful Hindu Seetha Amman Temple lies 7km southeast of Nuwara Eliya and is said to mark the spot where Sita was held captive by the demon king Rawana. Galway’s Land National Park, meanwhile, is one of Sri Lanka’s smallest and newest national parks, a a dense patch of forest located a couple of kilometres east of town.

At Pedro Tea Estate we took a 20-minute guided tour of the factory and wandered through the plantations, afterwards enjoying a free cup of the stuff in the museum/cafe. The factory was originally built in 1885 and still contains 19th Century engineering; taking photos inside the factory is prohibited. Due to the type of tea produced, processing only takes place at night when temperatures are cooler.

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Reminders of England in Nuwara Eliya

In Nuwara Eliya we stayed at King Fern Cottage, which was very cosy and welcoming. Our room being made of wood and set beside a stream, it continually sounded as though it was raining, even during one of the brief periods in which it had stopped.

The attached restaurant was a godsend because it had a log burner, which we spent a lot of time huddled around! After an evening spent in the warmth, it was very difficult to go downstairs to our room, which was ice cold!

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Pedro Tea Estate

Haputale

Our final destination in the hill country was Haputale, which turned out to be our favourite place in Sri Lanka’s hills. We experienced our first dry weather in what seemed like weeks, which made exploring and seeing Haputale’s surrounding countryside so much more enjoyable.

We spent time exploring some of the tea plantations and visited Dambatenne Tea Factory. We also walked to Lipton’s Seat viewpoint, which afforded some incredible views.

The best thing about Haputale is the endless walking that is available just outside town. We especially loved being in the plantations, watching the tea pickers as they worked; the sight of hundreds of them scattered across the hillsides really is a sight to behold.

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Hiking to Lipton’s Seat

Horton Plains National Park

From Haputale we also made a day trip to Horton Plains National Park, where a hike to World’s End viewpoint had been a must-see for our trip. Typically, the day we went it was pouring with rain. So our circular hike to World’s End, as well as to several other viewpoints and a tumbling waterfall, was all completed in a minimum of drizzle and at worst torrential rain.

Underfoot it was incredibly muddy; we could have done with wellies instead of hiking boots! The views that day weren’t spectacular so my photos do not do the place justice. In Haputale we stayed at Bawa Guesthouse; our hosts were very friendly and welcoming and served delicious home cooked meals for breakfast and dinner.

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Horton Plains National Park

From Haputale we headed south to the southern beaches for some warmth and recovery; more on our time there in Sun on the Southern Beaches!

We hope to return to the hill country at some point to experience more of the endless hiking it has to offer; next time we will hopefully be blessed with some drier weather! It is a beautiful part of the country and definitely more ‘us’ than the beaches, which most tourists to Sri Lanka make a beeline for.

UPDATE: We returned to Sri Lanka and the hill country in 2018! For more detailed guides check out: Finding Tea in Ella and Haputale and Top Sights in Kandy: The Cultural Heart of Sri Lanka.

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