Monday, 21 December 2015

Sri Lanka November/December 2015 Part 4 Kandy and Ella by train

The one thing we still had to do before leaving Waikkal was to arrange some railway tickets for the onward journey and we had decided to combine a day out in Colombo as we had never been before. Owner of Villa Suriyagaha , Helen , has only been on the island for a few months since joining her parents and hadn't as yet had the opportunity to explore. We suggested she come with us not only for a day in Colombo but for the trip to Kandy too if she fancied it.  She did so the three of us set off first to Colombo via a TukTuk to the local railway station, just 2 kms away. The cost of the TukTuk 300 Rupees. Three 3rd class railway tickets to Colombo, 50kms and a 2 hour journey each way cost 290 rupees....RETURN!!!! That's a mere 42p in English money.
Sri Lanka   3rd Class travel
In actual fact 3rd class travel is not too bad, a bit like an older London tube carriage if memory serves me well. At peak times the carriage is packed like sardines but if you have a seat it's not too bad, however, if you have lots of luggage it presents more of a problem. We did so it was essential we avoided it when we travelled onwards!
Our first port of call was the ticket office to book both tickets to Kandy and then for two of us, the onward tickets to Ella. We had left it to just a couple of days before we were due to travel and that was immediately obvious a mistake. I doubt it would have made a difference had we gone a week earlier though because the notice board informed us that all reserved seating on all carriages was fully booked several weeks ahead. Disaster!
We were taken through to a separate office that had the title of train tours, or something similar and a lovely man there came to our rescue. There are obviously some tickets kept back in reserve, and in this case a whole luxury carriage was available to those who booked a tour of some description, i.e. tourists! Having Helen with us had two major benefits. a) she was now in the travel business and could provide more customers in the future b) She agreed to take a package of tickets and a day trip. We were saved.
The three of us had 1st Class tickets to Kandy.
1st Class Travel
Air conditioned luxury with even a Bollywood movie on the TV and better still, Claire and I had tickets in the special Viceroy class carriage from Kandy to Ella. There was just one snag. It only ran on alternate days. We had to make a decision to change our travel plans there on the spot. Instead of 2 nights in Kandy and 2 in Ella we now had only 1 night in Kandy. It was unavoidable but it meant that my birding opportunities in Kandy would be limited.
Celebrating our success we wandered out of the ticket office and were immediately accosted by a TukTuk driver offering an hour's tour of Colombo for 10 euros, a large amount for Sri Lanka but hey, ho. I was up for it. He took us to one temple after another. An hour and a half passed and I was thinking it's not bad value after all. 2 hours and I smell a Rat! When I said I'd had enough of temple tours and we would like to return to the station to find somewhere for a drink he took us first to a park where he said there was a nice place for refreshments, when that suggestion failed we were introduced to someone who offered to show me Fruit Bats up a tree . This was definitely delaying tactics. I politely said no and requested a return to the station. On arrival back we were told that the bill was 6800 rupees. Thats about 40 euros for a 2 and a half hour trip. I gave him 5000 which was still way too much and despite his pleas for more he seemed happy he'd stung us for enough when he accepted my final offer. This wasn't to be our last experience of a travel rip off however, but not all was like that. Not at all.
Come the day we left Waikkal by taxi and headed to Gampaha, a station on the route from Colombo to Kandy which cut out an hours travel despite having paid for tickets all the way. The 30km journey by taxi was 6000 rupees.The journey to Kandy from there alone was still 100kms and the cost of the  1st class tickets ( from Colombo) a mere 500 rupees each.Make your own judgement on value!We could have caught the train from Waikkal but it would have added at least two hours to the journey and we had all that luggage to consider too.
Gampaha Station   Sri Lanka
Luggage stowed away we settled in to our 1st class seats, our worries over, just the stunning scenery to enjoy.
Unfortunately not! 
The train seemed to be stopped at one particular station for longer than normal and the message eventually got through that's as far as we were going. A wildcat strike had been called as a result of an incident the previous day when a passenger had abused/assaulted a train driver. Everyone piled off the train and straight on to two buses that were waiting at the station. Apparently we were not too far short of Kandy but there was no way I could get on a bus full of sardines with our luggage. I searched for a taxi but there weren't any. The only option was the bus it seemed and with us the only ones left at least when one arrived there was plenty of room.

Bus travel      Sri Lanka
For a while anyway, before you knew it the bus had picked up all those waiting passengers further down the route who had been unable to get on the full buses. It was very embarrassing to have seats taken with our luggage when others were standing but there wasn't a lot I could do. Getting off the bus in Kandy, I think the fare was 76 rupees each, we needed two TukTuks to get us to our pre booked hotel. The owner was surprised to hear me being told the fare was 500 rupees each, she later told name it should have been a maximum 200. No wonder the drivers were eager to have us book them again the following day. I already had a deep suspicion we had been overcharged and declined their offer of a taxi at 2500 which dropped to 1500 and still I said No.
The moral of the story is of Taxis and TukTuks beware!!!!
Anyway we were safely ensconced in  our hotel a nicely appointed budget hotel called the Sharon Inn, but it was now mid afternoon. We walked in to Kandy town via the lakeside and decided to have a coffee. By pure chance we had chosen the perfect spot because before you knew it a procession of drummers,dancers and highly decorated Elephants went passed our ringside seats on their way from and back to the famous Buddhist "Temple of the Tooth". One of Kandy's tourist highlights.
Elephant festival   Kandy
Sadly we wouldn't have time to visit the other major attraction, the botanical gardens but we had been before. Claire loves visiting gardens and I am happy to go along to see what birds are about. Fortunately we had been on our last visit so it wasn't a big loss. Personally I had wanted to visit a local reserve and nature walk. Two of the stated  possible highlights are Brown Fish Owl and Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. The latter I had declared my No1 target for the whole Sri Lanka trip. Alas, it wasn't to be and I knew that I had virtually no chance anywhere else. Ah well. Such is life.
The following morning we took another walk around Kandy's lake, another major attraction, and in a way I regretted not taking a camera. In the trees that lined the lakeside rather there were all sorts of goodies to photograph. Common and White-throated Kingfisher, Black-crowned Night Heron, Little  Egrets,to name a few. On the lake Cormorants fishing, even a Pelican and all offering close up views. Most disappointing of all was an Eagle.Was it an immature White-bellied Fish Eagle or the much rarer Grey-headed Fish Eagle. Without a photo to check I would never know.
Kandy has a fair few opportunities for those with the time, I was just grateful that there were no new goodies that I had missed by not having my camera with me.
We parted Kandy saying our farewells to Helen who was staying on for another couple of nights. Our taxi to the station which is a distance away from Kandy cost us 1000 rupees in the end but he claimed that he had undercharged us on the quote because he thought he was taking us to the local station. I gave him and extra 200 rupees, the commission he had paid another driver who had passed on the fare.
We were on our own now and heading to Ella. I hadn't given too much thought to the journey but was surprised when I realised it took 7.5 hours to cover 150kms, twice the time by road, but we had the delightful Viceroy class carriage.
Viceroy class  Sri Lanka
All that old fashioned luxury, we had our own porter come barman for just 750 rupees each for the journey. Bargain travel again. The scenery was so magnificent it kept us occupied until it went dark and only then did we pick up something to read for the last hour or so of the journey. We had made half this journey in reverse on our previous visit, then stopping over in Nuwara Eliya. This time, despite the fact it has the famous Victoria Park, a birding hotspot, we had decided to give it a miss. Our last visit had been a huge disappointment as it had rained the whole time we were there. We smiled at our decision as we passed through by train. It was pouring down!
Arriving in Ella it had stopped raining so once checked in to our accommodation we walked the short distance to the one and only street worth a mention and had something to eat and an early night.
We were quite high up in the mountains, not as high as we had been but there might still be a chance of something a bit different to see that wouldn't be down on the coast.
I'd be up early again as usual to check our new surrounds out!

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