It’s an unforgettable train ride through tea country from Kandy to Ella. Seven hours travelling at minimal speed certainly didn’t feel like a drag. With so much beautiful scenery to take in, we were glued to the open windows as the train made its way through the rolling tea plantations. There was plenty happening on board too, with men selling hot samosas and fresh fruit.
I was a little disappointed about the number of other tourists in our carriage and the organisation of official food sellers. It certainly wasn’t a truly local experience but I had a feeling it wouldn’t be, being labelled as one of Asia’s best tourist attractions. This iconic rail journey is certainly a day well spent. Get second class seats for open windows and cooling fans. Guess who’s fan was the only broken one? OURS! For a more authentic experience but potentially less comfortable, choose third class.
We arrived in Ella rather hungry having only munched on train snacks the entire day. I had read about a streetside joint called Ella Rock Pot serving quick and inexpensive food, so we sat down next to the road and ordered two hoppers. We must have waited 45 minutes for this man to make our hoppers, which are a relatively quick snack to make. Marco’s arrived after 20 minutes and then it took another half an hour for the man to make mine. My hopper arrived in a big lumpy mess on the plate. We tried not to laugh. This was the most pathetic attempt at a hopper and we agreed these were probably the first hoppers this man had ever made. It looked terrible and tasted terrible too.
It was a mad dash to find our homestay (Ella Jungle Villa), dump our bags and walk up to Little Adam’s Peak before sunset, but we made it. The views were beautiful and this short hike is suitable for anyone with moderate fitness. We walked along to the furthest peak where it was less busy and some stray dogs were basking in the sun. As soon as the sun hit the horizon it suddenly got very cold so we started to make our way home.
That evening the main street in Ella was bustling with tourists. It certainly had a real backpacker vibe, not something I was expecting to find in Sri Lanka. We went to Cafe Chill for dinner as some backpackers we spoke to on a passing train the day before had recommended it. It was incredibly busy out and we had to wait a while for a table but it was worth it as the food was delicious!
We enjoyed a drink at Cafe UFO whilst listening to live music and headed to Cafe One Love which is a large rooftop reggae/party bar. Although initially busy, everyone seemed to disappear around 10pm and by midnight we were one of the only people left in the bar. After speaking to a few of the staff and other travellers we learnt that we were in shoulder season and come December, huge parties would go on through the entire night.
We woke to an incredible breakfast laid out for us by our hosts. The hoppers were cooked to perfection! After breakfast, we took a walk to nine-arch bridge which was packed full of tourists, but beautiful nonetheless. We walked a different route home which, in hindsight, probably wasn’t the best idea.
All of a sudden Marco called out “be careful” in a really calm voice. I looked down and saw a huge black snake heading into the bushes. It was a cobra. I joked at the way he warned me, my reaction wouldn’t have been half as relaxed and would have included a few swear words! My heart was beating a hundred miles an hour. I needed a stiff drink! Unfortunately, it was only 11am so I opted for a fruit juice at the stunning 5* 94 acres hotel. This incredible tea country resort is worth visiting for a drink with a view!
Back in town, we had lunch at Matey Hut which was insanely good! A curry that rich and spicy didn’t prepare me well for the long hike ahead. It was incredibly hot as we set off along the railway track on the path to Ella Rock. A couple of kilometres along the track a local man pointed to a path coming off the railway and said “Ella Rock” so we took his advice and followed it. After a while, we found ourselves very lost and no longer on a path at all. I saw an old man up ahead with a traditional sarong around his waist. As we got closer he didn’t look too happy to see us.
From here on, what happened was really quite bizarre. The man told us “my farm” in broken English. We apologised for trespassing on his land and explained that we were lost and going to Ella Rock. He signalled for us to follow him and so we did. For 30 minutes we walked through thick bush with the man leading the way with his long stick. All of a sudden he stopped and signalled for us to hurry past. “What is it?” I asked. “Cobra home,” he said, pointing to a sandy hole. He wasn’t having us on, this really was where cobra’s lived – I’ve seen these nests before in India. For the second time that day, my heart was beating a hundred miles per hour.
Every once in a while we would hurry past a cobra’s home. The man explained to us that cobras are more dangerous in the heat of the midday sun as their venom is stronger when their temperature is high. I had also heard that the shadow we make by walking past their house is enough to make them come out and defend it. The man told us that he was bitten on the face and had to have 28 injections to survive. At that point I was incredibly hesitant of the situation we were in; not because there were king cobras close by but because I couldn’t understand how this guy knew enough English to tell us this story but not enough to engage in any other conversation. Something didn’t feel right and I was adamant we were being scammed.
We reached what seemed to be his friend’s shop (typical I thought, we were going to be forced to spend money) and he showed us the path leading up to Ella Rock. He didn’t mention anything about his friend’s shop or ask for money for our safe return to the path. We gave him 150rps which was the equivalent to 75p. He thanked us and on we went. I’m still baffled by the situation. Did the man at the start of our walk signal for us to come off the main path because he knew we’d run into cobra man – splitting the money between then? How come cobra man only knew English when telling his story? I’m still baffled to this day.
As soon as we left cobra man we were joined by a stray dog who walked in front of us, leading the way. We decided to follow him as he looked like he knew where he was going. Each time we stopped for water he would stop too and wait for us to catch up. Sure enough, he led us to the top of Ella Rock and in return we thanked him for his services (we didn’t give money this time).
The views from Ella Rock were better than those at Little Adam’s Peak but there is no denying the walk up is a lot more strenuous. We visited both viewpoints and purchased an overpriced coconut from coconut lady. Ella Rock wasn’t crowded like Little Adam’s Peak, with only three others up there with us. Instead of taking the main path down, we opted for another route which should have taken us back down to the railway. Of course, we got lost AGAIN and ended up off-path, descending down incredibly steep woodland. It was so steep we needed sticks to stop us from falling! Marco wasn’t best pleased, all our adventures seem to end up like this.
By the time we reached level ground, it was dark. We now had another few km’s to walk along the railway track to town. We had no torches so we just had to guess the spaces between the tracks. All of a sudden I heard a low rumbling sound and told Maro to get over. A train was coming. Its big bright lights blinded us as we hurried off the track and placed our bodies as far to the side as we could. Thankfully it passed safely and we were soon back on our way into town. My stomach was still weird from the rich lunchtime curry and hot sweaty adventures we endeavoured that afternoon, so we shared dinner that night before retreating to the land of nod.
We woke at 3:30am to the sound of our host cooking breakfast. As we stepped outside the door at 4am, she was there with a packed breakfast for us – how kind! A small amount of egg and lashings of spread between white bread, I wasn’t overly impressed but my God that breakfast saved us and it was actually rather delicious! We jumped into our taxi and off we went for another incredible adventure.
Ella was no doubt the most memorable place on our trip. A cool backpacker vibe, beautiful scenery and a whole lot of adventure!