6 Essential Experiences In Sri Lanka’s Hill Country
Sri Lanka’s hill country is a romantic meeting of undulating hills, dramatic vistas and never-ending tea plantations peeking out from under a blanket of mist. Add scenic train rides and countless opportunities for highland hiking to the mix and it’s obvious why visitors are drawn to this more temperate region.
Here are six essential experiences you shouldn’t miss on a trip through Sri Lanka’s hill country.
#1 Ride The Train Like A Local
It’s not just the soaring hills and lush tea plantations that make the six-hour train ride from Kandy to Ella (or vice versa) one of the most breathtaking in the world – it’s the mad scramble for seats, the fleeting glimpses into local life lived next to the tracks, the friendly waves encountered as the train rolls past quaint railway stations and the unforgettable experience of hanging out of the side of the train without a care in the world.
Train travel in Sri Lanka is a communal experience (and is also ridiculously cheap) where locals, wide-eyed backpackers and tour groups mingle, sharing food, smiles and good times. Train tickets can be reserved for first-class and second-class carriages or purchased on the day for third-class carriages.
#2 Go On A Pilgrimage
Sri Lanka’s hill country boasts many hiking trails for novices and enthusiasts alike. One of the most popular treks made by locals and visitors is to Adam’s Peak, also known as Sri Pada, which is an impressive mountain towering over the landscape at more than 2200m-tall.
It also happens to be a famous pilgrimage site due to the Sacred Footprint found at the summit. It holds different religious relevance depending on who you talk to, though it’s commonly claimed to be the footprint of Buddha.
Start the ascent in the early hours of the morning to arrive at the peak in time to witness a spectacular sunrise. The climb is arduous, but you’ll be well compensated for your efforts. If you’re short on time, Little Adam’s Peak in Ella is a great alternative.
#3 Visit Sri Lanka’s Most Important Buddhist Relic
Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist site, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, offers a spiritual experience even for those who are not religious. It’s said the temple holds Buddha’s tooth and, on any given day, you’ll find pious white-clad followers dutifully praying and practising their faith.
During puja (daily offerings at 5:30am, 9:30am and 6:30pm), the room housing the tooth is opened to worshippers and tourists, although the tooth is kept inside a gold casket shaped like a dagoba (a stupa, or a dome-shaped place of worship). A prime time to visit is during the Esala Perahera procession in July or August when the sacred tooth relic is paraded through the streets of Kandy in a dizzying display of colour and spectacle.
#4 Drink Tea And Carry On
The image of the colourful sari-clad women working in the verdant tea gardens is one that has become synonymous with Sri Lanka and is a sight commonly seen in the hill country. The British introduced tea production to Sri Lanka in 1867 and, since then, Ceylon tea in its different varieties has become globally renowned.
Visit one of the many tea factories in the region, such as the Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory in Ella or the Dambatenne Tea Factory in Haputale, to learn about the tea-production process, from picking tea leaves to packing the tea into bags to be shipped off to different corners of the world.
#5 Take A Seat, Enjoy The View
When visiting the Dambatenne Tea Factory, which was owned by Sir Thomas Lipton himself, it’s inevitable that you’ll make your way to Lipton’s Seat, a famous scenic viewpoint. The story goes that Sir Lipton used to ride his horse up to the lookout to admire his vast tea empire, and today there is even a bronze bust of the tea magnate at the summit.
Many have compared the view at Lipton’s Seat to that of the neighbouring World’s End in the Horton Plains National Park – although Lipton’s Seat is free, while entering the national park comes at a cost. Head off early in the morning for the best chance of getting an unobscured view, as it tends to get foggy in the afternoon.
#6 Walk The Bridge
Sri Lanka or Scotland? Head to the Nine Arches Bridge in Ella and it becomes harder and harder to make the distinction.
The Nine Arches Bridge is named after its nine arches (surprise, surprise), which are built entirely out of bricks and cement, without any steel. It’s a fine example of the British constructions that remain as a reminder of a bygone era.
Take a photo of the bridge from above and if you’re lucky (or patient) you might very well get the million-dollar shot of one of the blue colonial trains rolling past on the bridge.
(Lead image: Etienne Boulanger)