You know those moments that are so surreal, you don’t know whether to believe they’re actually happening?
This is one of those moments.
I’m writing this sitting in the back of a tuk tuk. I’ve got Tom on one side, who is falling asleep in the most uncomfortable-looking position. At my feet, behind my head and on my other side are our two massive backpacks, two smaller (but equally heavy) rucksacks, our rather hefty camera and the packed breakfast that our hotel all the way back in Tissa insisted on making us. Oh and there’s also Ramas- our tuk tuk driver’s 8(ish) year old son who has come along for the six hour ride and is perched on my backpack on the floor.
Why, you might ask, are we making the 6-hour journey from Newark Eliya in central Sri Lanka, to the capital of Colombo, which is on the Western Coast a good 200 kilometres away, in the back of a bloody tuk tuk.
Now there’s a story.
Tonight is our last night in Sri Lanka before catching a flight to Bangkok tomorrow evening. We need to get to Colombo today because that’s where the airport is. Except it’s not exactly going to plan…
We had a lovely couple of days in Tissamaharema after leaving our beach paradise in Unawatuna. Tissa is the doorway to Yala National Park in the Southeast of the country. It’s famous for its leopard population, as well as elephants, buffalo and deer. Not to mention the crocodiles that lurk just below the water.
On Saturday afternoon we set of in an open jeep with a personal driver. He took us on a brilliant safari tour around Yala. Being huge animal lovers, Tom and I were so excited and had a great time spotting the animals – although I was gutted that we didn’t get to see a leopard. It relies so much on being in the right place at the right time, and unfortunately, luck just wasn’t on our side.
Still it was a great way to spend the afternoon. Especially as we got right up close to the most ginormous elephant which was actually blocking the roads on the way to Yala. Experience of a lifetime.
The guesthouse where we were staying was very quiet and relaxing after the hustle and bustle of Unawatuna. We had a morning just lounging by the pool before being treated to a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast. Which turned out to be lentil curry and noodles. Very delicious but equally strange to be eating at 10 o-clock in the morning.
The Ella – Kandy Train Route
Early on Sunday we packed our bags and took a taxi to Ella, which is a couple of hours north of Tissa. From what we could make of the online timetables, there was a train at 9.24 which would take us from Ella, to Kandy and then on to Colombo in around 10 hours.
If you’ve done any research at all into travelling Sri Lanka, you’ll have heard of the Ella-Kandy train route. It’s supposedly one of the most scenic in the world. It takes you high up through the tea-country and offers spectacular views of mountains, valleys and waterfalls.
The thing is, Sunday is apparently THE day to travel in Sri Lanka. Even some of the locals said that they’d never experienced the train THAT busy. It was impossible to reserve a seat and there was no first class option to speak of. We made do with a second class ticket and hoped for the best. Which we quickly realised was not going to happen. Having pushed our way onto the train (and Tom physically had to push me due to the fact that I was carrying my whole bodyweight on my back) we took two steps and simply couldn’t go any further.
There must have been well over 100 people altogether in that one carriage. Along with about 20-30 other people, we were crammed into the doorway section, unable to take a step in any direction, let alone sit down.
Imagine London rush hour times by a billion. Where your face is smushed into someone’s armpit and people’s rucksacks keep hitting you on the back of the head. I had a little old Sri Lankan lady genuinely sitting ON me at one point and I was so grateful that I wore my hiking boots because I wouldn’t have any toes left to speak of otherwise.
As the train rolled through the stunning scenery metres above the ground, all I could see was an arm here, a backpack there and the denim on Tom’s shirt that I was being further and further pushed into.
I honestly wish that I was writing about a more pleasant experience right now. Telling about the waterfalls we went past and the great experience we had hanging out the doorways and taking photos.
But full disclosure, it wasn’t like that at all, and I couldn’t hack it. It’s one thing at rush hour where you only have to survive a few stops. But there was no way I was going to be able to stay like that for no less than 9 hours. Absolutely not. No way. I’d rather climb back up Adam’s Peak.
I felt less guilty when the woman next to us, a seasoned backpacker who had spent 9 months going around South America, Asia, India and Sri Lanka, said that she was going to get off at the next stop and book a different mode of transport. If she couldn’t cope, then I’m not ashamed that we couldn’t either!
About two hours in, without a word, Tom and I decided to cut our losses (the train tickets had set us back a grand total of £3) and escape. Asap.
So that’s how we ended up in a small town just outside of Nuwara Eliya. And when I say small town I mean mud paths and a few huts. And the singular tuk-tuk driver, who, (after checking with his wife that it was ok) agreed to take us all the way to the capital for about 8000 rupees (30 odd quid).
A few hours later, after stopping only a couple of times for pee breaks, we arrived in Colombo. With numb bottoms and very hungry. But safe, and dry. And happy.
Even having a shower in our lovely hotel in Colombo felt like a luxury after the day’s events. And we learned a lesson – never go by train in Sri Lanka on a Sunday. You’re welcome.
This was probably our first ” hardcore backpacker” experience and it certainly won’t be the last. But we made it to Colombo in time to rest, and toast to our bad decisions, before the journey continues in Thailand.
Have you had any holiday mishaps or backpacker fails? Or is everything all it’s cracked up to be? I’d love to hear in the comments!