There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 26 January 2015

Through Bandarawela and on to Ella: Part 9 of Sri Lanka, Isle of Serendip

We left Nuwara Eliya heading for Ella which is only 70km away, though in the mountains the drive would take a couple of hours without stops.

But of course there were stops. The first, after less than fifteen minutes, was at a Hindu temple. There are many such temples around Nuwara Eliya serving the large Tamil population, their forebears mostly imported by the British to work on the tea plantations. Sri Batkha Hanuman Temple lies below the road so we had a good view of the roof which, appropriately for a temple dedicated to Hanuman, was covered in monkeys. The epic allegorical poem The Ramayana, traditionally credited to the poet Valmiki in 5114BC, tells of how the demon king Ravana steals Sita, the wife of the Lord Rama, and carries her off to the Isle of Lanka. With the help of Hanuman and his monkey army, Ravana is defeated and Sita and Rama are reunited. Unsurprisingly, Hanuman is a poplar deity among Sri Lankan Hindus.

Monkeys on the Sri Batkha Hanuman Temple, near Nuwara Eliya
Hindu temples are usually brightly coloured but unfortunately only a small part of this one was freshly painted.

Sri Batkha Hanuman Temple, near Nuwara Eliya
From here the road dropped gently and as it did the weather improved. We paused again to look at the view.

Heading South from Nuwara Eliya
After another hour we reached the small town of Bandarwela, the first settlement of any size we had encountered. On the outskirts we stopped at the Mlesna Tea Centre. The Mlesna Company, founded in the 1980s, packs a large number of blends and single estate teas and offers a free cup of tea to passing travellers.

As the waiter delivered our free cuppa he asked where we came from. 'England,' I told him. 'London?' he asked, as everyone does. 'No,’ I said, ‘we live between Manchester and Birmingham,' which happily name checks one place everybody has heard of. 'Manchester United!' is the usual riposte in this ritual conversation, but the waiter said, 'When I worked in Cyprus I became friendly with an English family who went home to live in Stafford.' I told him I knew the town well and used to work there. 'They live in Sandon Road,' he said. It is a long residential street I have driven down on several occasions. Small world.

Southern Sri Lanka
We drove southeast from Nuwara Eliya to Bandarawela, then northwest to Ella (unmarked but south of Badulla)
Later we looked round the shop and, like most visitors, spent more than enough to cover the cost of the freebie.

A little way beyond the town Ravi stopped by the side of the road. 'Dowa Temple,’ he said, ‘with a rock carving of the Buddha.' He pointed to a track dropping into a small ravine.

Following the track we quickly reached a set of concrete steps leading down to a small temple. At the bottom we were met by the smiling guardian wielding a huge key.

Dowa Temple, Bandarawela
He unlocked the door and let us into what turned out to be less of  a building and more of a rock temple, a smaller version of those at Dambulla. There were the inevitable statues, reclining Buddhas and paintings on the walls and rock ceilings which were of variable height. The Rough Guide rather snootily comments that the paintings are of no great merit, but I was impressed by their vigour - and their mere existence in this unlikely spot.

Reclining Buddha under the rock ceiling, Dowa Temple, Bandarawela

There was no entrance fee, but a sign requested donations. We offered a couple of hundred rupees which delighted the already cheerful guardian who insisted on photographing us with his key.

Us with the large key, Dowa Temple, Bandarawela

We had not seen the promised carving, but as we left the guardian pointed us up a rocky slope beside the temple. We had removed our shoes on entry; on the smooth floor it had been no problem, but the ascent of the rough pebble-strewn rock caused some pain. At the top we could see nothing and wondered why we had been sent up there. Disappointed we turned to descend and there was the Buddha, right in front of us.

The cave and the large half-finished carving are traditionally credited to King Walagamba whose reign in 1st century BC Anuradhapura was interrupted by Tamil invasions. He allegedly built the temple whilst hiding out here and was forced to move on before the Buddha could be finished. He is also credited with some of the similar cave temples in Dambulla, but I suspect he was the sort of chap people wanted to connect their cave temples with, regardless of who actually made them. The ancient carving is suffering from the ravages of time and could do with some protection.

Unfinished rock carved Buddha, Dowa Temple, Bandarawela
Our final stop before Ella was at a roadside stall to buy some rambutans, getting eight for our 100 rupees. ‘Two weeks ago,’ Ravi said, ‘they would have given you four, in a couple of weeks, at the height of the season, maybe 20.’ They have a sort of Poundland approach to pricing.

We reached Ella in time for our by now traditional late lunch. According to the Rough Guide, 'beautiful Ella the closest thing to an English country village you will find in Sri Lanka.' It is a stretch to describe this motley collection of wooden buildings lining a dusty main street as beautiful, though they do have a certain charm. I can't claim to have seen every country village in England, but I have seen a fair few, and I have never seen one looking remotely like Ella. Whether it is beautiful or not, Ella’s surroundings are undeniably lovely and its climate is delightful, much warmer than chilly, drizzly Nuwara Eliya but cooler than the aggressively hot plains.

Ella, just like an English village?
We ate at the Café Chill which, as its name implies, had a largely youthful clientele – backpackers, for want of a better word. A large, rambling wooden shed with a roof but no external walls, it looked rustic and basic at first glance, but on closer inspection it was a much more sophisticated and slick business than it initially appeared.

We found the only free table and watched the staff, half a dozen young men in smart uniforms and tall cardboard hats, do-si-doing round each other in the small open kitchen.

Lynne ordered an unadventurous chicken sandwich, while I decided to try lamprais. The word is apparently derived from the Dutch lomprijst, and is almost the only reminder that the Dutch* once ruled the island. According to Google Translate lomprijst means 'boorish rice' suggesting that lamprais is merely a variation on the standard rice and curry, and an uncultured one at that.  It is in fact rice and chicken curry with a boiled egg and a slick of dhal, cooked in a folded banana leaf.

The open kitchen allowed us to check the cleanliness of the staff and equipment – they passed with flying colours – but also let us spot the shortcut. One huge lamprais was cooked in a pot and the individual portions were only wrapped in a wilted banana leaf just before serving. The lamprais did not look particularly appetizing when unwrapped, but it smelt good and tasted pleasant enough though it was hardly exciting.

Lamprais, Café Chill, Ella
We drove down Ella's main street and turned right at the end. 'There is only the Ravana falls left for today,' Ravi said. I was busy reading the itinerary. 'There's something called the Ella Gap,' I said. Ravi gave me an odd look and stopped the car. I looked up from what I was reading and there was the Ella Gap right in front of me. Below the village the valley drops dramatically and you can see down almost to the coastal plain. I nearly missed it for reading about it.

The Ella Gap
The Ravana Falls were a few minutes’ drive away. Water cascades down some 25m of the valley side in a series of falls, none of them enormous, but the combined effect is impressive. It is difficult to get far enough away for an effective photograph as we were standing on the same steep valley side.

The Ravana Falls, Ella
When Ravana, the demon king in the Ramayana, carried off Sita to the Isle of Lanka he had to keep her somewhere. 400 steps lead up to what is allegedly the very place, but there is nothing there except a small cavern so we did not bother. Ravi clearly though it unimportant and, as no major shrine has developed, I suspect (though without any other evidence) that this is a late addition to the legend. Whether it is or not, several foot soldiers from the Monkey King’s army were patrolling the area looking for scraps of food, particularly in the pull-off where everybody parks. They can be a nuisance, but less so, according to Ravi, than the hawkers. He warned us they can be clingy, but we had no problem. Apart from the usual trinkets they specialise in pretty stones which may, or may not, be unpolished gemstones; a good way of buying a perfectly ordinary pebble at a 'bargain' price, I thought. They have to work hard though, there is a constant turnover of visitors, but few stay long, once you have seen the falls that is all there is.

A few more minutes down the valley brought us to our stop for the night, the Feelin' Good Guesthouse, where Ravi left us and headed off for his own digs. Despite the appalling name it was very pleasant, a light and airy, modern wooden building owned and run by a bluff German and his Sri Lankan wife.

Our room was comfortable though sparsely furnished with no television or air-con, but the mosquito net over the bed suggested the management understood priorities.

Lynne had a nap while I went down and sat on the terrace, working on this blog (I was probably on episode two at the time) and supping a Lion Lager. I had a chat with the owner. The area, he told me, was poor and food prices were high after the wet season, which had been particularly late and severe this year. Crops had been damaged and there had been landslides, one of which had closed the road to Ella for a while. We had already noticed the hotel further up the valley which had avoided being swept into the depths by only a few metres.

Blogging beneath the German flag, Feelin' Good, Ella
We ate in the guesthouse as there was nowhere else we could have reasonably gone. My rice and curry was one of the better of its ilk and although Lynne had a pop at me - 'haven't you eaten enough rice already today?' - I would back the authenticity of my dining experience against her spaghetti Bolognese. It has come a long way from Bologna, that dish, and changed a tad on the way, but she seemed happy with it.

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