Monday, February 27, 2017

Sri Lanka: Part 2 (The Hill Country)

I'm afraid the clock just keeps tickin' while work and play keeps me busy. That means 'Part 2' of our Sri Lanka honeymoon will be fairly abbreviated, even by my standards. We last left off in central Sri Lanka, at the famous Sigiriya Rock. This chapter sees us travel south into the hill country of Sri Lanka, and eventually up to some of the highest plateaus where misty mountains are cloaked in tea plantations and the odd bit of native bush with a bird or two.

After meeting our new driver, 'Sasi,' (Who turned out to be an awesome guy--wish he could have been with us for the entire trip!), we headed SW to the nearby city of Dambulla. Here, as you can see, is the famous 'Golden Temple.' This Buddha is massive (See the guy at the bottom of the stairs) as are the fake lotus flowers that line the building. Tacky or not, it is a spectacle, but it's not even the most famous landmark here! Up on the ridge to the right, after a sweaty climb, are a series of ancient cave temples with some incredible artwork and... yep more Buddhas!

After a lunch break, Sasi took us to this lovely temple--Nalanda Gedige (I've cropped out all the construction signs) which is surrounded by a lake. This structure was built in the 8th century by in the Dravidian style by Hindus but was later used (and still is) as a Buddhist temple. In this part of Sri Lanka it is actually quite common for the 4 main faiths (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity) to share buildings or Holy sites, and the locals seem quite proud of this diversity and tolerance. Many foreigners, myself included, would find this surprising given the decades of violence between Hindu Tamils in the north and the ruling (mostly Buddhist) Sinhalese. Fun fact though, there are actually more Muslims in Sri Lanka than Hindus. Anyway, back to this lovely place of tranquility, its other claim to fame is that it has the only example of Tantric art in Sri Lanka (You know... Kama Sutra-type stuff). Before you get excited though, the rock carvings are so old and weathered it's pretty hard to tell what is going on. 
Birds were doing their thing around the temple. Our only Green Warblers of the trip were here; Black-hooded Orioles were conspicuous, and this Yellow-billed Babbler popped up for the camera.

There were 3 species of kingfisher in this tree: Stork-billed, Common, and this White-throated.

We rolled into Kandy in the afternoon. Known as Sri Lanka's "Second City" or "Cultural Capital" it was, for a time, the political capital of a short-lived kingdom that, among other things, tried unsuccessfully to resit British Imperialism. This is Kandy Lake, with the King's old boat house toward the right, and in behind this, is the famous "Temple of the Tooth"--one of the most sacred Buddhist locations in the world, as it allegedly houses one of Buddha's teeth. We happened to be visiting during a full moon festival, so the temple grounds were packed with white-dressed worshipers... and awkward tourists like us. 
A good profile comparison of Sri Lanka's two crow species: Large-billed (left) and House (right). According to the field guide, House Crow is only found on the coast, but there were easily over 1,000 roosting at Kandy Lake each evening so I think that needs updating!

A pair of crows inspect a row of 'tuk-tuks' (The main mode of transport in Sri Lanka). This is also a good example of the British colonial era buildings that can be found in most Sri Lankan cities.

Lisa walking toward the Temple of the Tooth. As Kandy is a little higher in elevation, the heat and humidity is a little more bearable than it was at Sigiriya and Dambulla. Another tidbit: To enter these holy sites, one must be covered on the shoulders and down toward the ankles (And when you get close to remove hats and shoes). Apparently my sarong-tying skills needed work as I was felt up many times by armed policemen, before being shown how to re-wrap. 

Looking back through the entrance of the Temple of the Tooth. How are we allowed in here during a Buddhist ceremony?

Somewhere within that golden door is a Russian-nesting doll-style set of chests, within lies one of Buddha's teeth. Flower offerings cloak the table in the foreground.

It is hard not to feel like you shouldn't be hear with so many devout Buddhists carrying out rituals such as meditation and prayer while you stride around in the same forum taking pictures. Here a loud guide speaks in Italian to her tour group while a number of East Asian pilgrims pray in what I like to call, "the golden elephant room."

This celtic cross appears out of place in bustling Kandy. A closer look reveals that it commemorates Sri Lanka's (Then British Ceylon) contributions in WWI. All of the names appeared English and Scottish--likely the sons of tea plantation owners.

This photo doesn't really do the place justice, but we really enjoyed visiting Udawatta Kele sanctuary in Kandy. This forest park covers a ridge directly behind the temple of the tooth, and though it is in the heart of the city, the only sounds you hear are from birds and monkeys, and the odd deer skittering away through dry leaves. This forest was originally a plantation to feed the kings elephants, then as the forest matured it became a favourite place for the royal family to stroll and bathe. Apparently Lord Horton (An early British Governor) had a wife who enjoyed taking the car out for a spit on bush tracks like this one. Birdlife encountered on our morning walk included seeing the endemic Layard's Parakeet, the Sri Lankan ssp. of Square-tailed (Black) Bulbul, great looks at White-rumped Shama and Brown-capped Babbler, as well as our first Pale-billed Flowerpecker.

In the afternoon on our second day in Kandy, we took a tuk-tuk out to the botanical gardens. This massive complex is well-worth the visit, though the only photos I took were of the resident flying-foxes. Apparently 24,000+ roost in the gardens daily!

I'm really speeding ahead here, but after a great 3 days in Kandy, we were tired of the exhaust fumes of the city--it was time to hit the real hills! Fortunately Sasi had agreed to take us to Nuwara Eliya where we would catch a train through the tea country to the small tourist town of Ella. Along the way he stopped to show us some large porcupine quills. Apparently Kandy has some very large porcupines that come out at night to chew on coconuts. 

Out first view of Sri Lanka's iconic tea! (And powerlines)

We arrived in Nuwara Eliya (Spelling always changes in Sri Lanka it seems) just before lunch. It was a cool day (Felt like under 10 degrees with the wind!) and not surprising as this is Sri Lanka's highest town. 

The post office, looking rather British. This was a favourite place for British tea workers to escape the Sri Lankan heat for a bit. The place is known for its misty hills, regular rain, AND it has a golf course and horse track (Rarities in this country). For birders it is famous for some Himalayan breeders that spend the winter at the local 'Victoria Park'--particularly Kashmir Flycatcher and Pied Thrush. Would we get them with only 1 hour to spare before the train?

Not a Kashmir Flycatcher, but still new for me--a Brown-breasted Flycatcher.

This is a juvenile Brown Shrike (Showing greyer cap and back) is of the 'Philippine' subspecies, which misleadingly breeds in NE China and Korea.

Aha! Male Pied Thrush (A member of the 'Turdus' genus, like American Robin and European Blackbird).

Another new one: This is a Sri Lankan White-eye. Sadly we dipped on the Kashmir Flycatcher but I did get my lifer Forest Wagtails which was majorly cool!

Wow, I'm skipping ahead. We ended up missing the first train, having a dodgy noodle lunch at a place called "The Muslin Hotel" which was basically a hole in the wall with food scraps and flies covering the floor, waited around for a bit, then eventually got on the next train for Ella. Wahoo! 

The Kandy--Ella train route is world-famous among train lovers. It's certainly scenic and because it lacks the safety measures of Canadian/NZ trains, you can hang out doorways and windows to your heart's content (If that's what you're into). Make sure you're on the faster blue trains though, as we found out--the red ones stop for 30-40 minutes at each station to wait for the other trains to pass. 

'Little Adams Peak' in the distance as we approach Ella. Tea tea everywhere

Ella turned out to be quite touristy indeed, sort of a mini Banff (or Queenstown for my NZ readers). But a bit of Western food for a change was kind of nice. The following morning we made the mandatory pilgrimage of 'Little Adams Peak' (a fake name for a local hill, referencing Sri Pada--or Adam's Peak--which is where some believe Adam first came down from the Garden of Eden. It's also a major Buddhist site as the Buddha himself stayed there for a time). Anyway, this place is still pretty cool as it offers 360 views of the surrounding tea country. Oh ya--and we had some great birds including the stonking Red-backed Flameback (As opposed to its coastal cousin that sports a golden back).

View from the top

After the hike we had breakfast on the third floor of our hotel--a great place to watch Sri Lankan Hanging Parrots feeding.

From Ella, we trained back to the small village of Ohiwa where a tuktuk driver took us over the hill, then down a very steep, switch-backy, very rough, track to the "Hill Safari Eco Lodge." This place is up around 2000m on a high plateau known as the "Horton Plains"--very Sri Lankan-sounding. The weather here is pretty much the same year-round. Cold clear  early mornings, warm sunny late mornings, then a thick fog comes up from the lowlands (as the tropical heat pushes moisture up) and cloaks these hills in thick cloud. When we arrive at Hill Safari (Which is on a large active tea plantation), the fog was so thick that visibility was less than 50 m). As dusk approached, the rain set in, apparently for the first time in 5 months, and dined with some Danes and Germans who lamented about the declining quality of Sri Lankan beer in recent years. The following morning we rose before dawn, and were driven by tuk-tuk (this time we could see how far down the drop was if we went off the road), to the entrance of Horton Plains National Park. This is a beautiful area of high country moorlands and rhododendron forest that is quite unlike the rest of Sri Lanka. As you can see from the photos, it bears a striking resemblance to the beech forests and tussock country of the South Island in NZ. As we approached the start of the park's famous hike "To World's End" we spotted several Sambar Deer, but sadly no leopards. 

As in NZ, this area suffers from invasive plant-species brought by the British--mainly gorse, blackberry, and a bracken fern. Intensive mangagement is starting to pay off though, and the native dwarf bamboo is making a comeback along creeks and small wetlands. There are several endemic birds found only in this small area--including the secretive Sri Lankan Whistling-Thrush (Which we did not see).

A female Pied Bushchat poses on one of the remaining gorse bushes.

This is called "Little World's End" though I thought this was just as impressive a few as "World's End." The clouds stretching out on the horizon hide the Sri Lankan coastline that is just over 100 km away.

A male Pied Bushchat in a rhodo. These birds are not shy. 

Paddyfield Pipit (I think)--and no I did not measure its hindclaw.

One of the better birds we 'found' on the trip. This Pallas's Grasshopper-Warbler is a fairly scarce migrant to Sri Lanka.

After our half-day hike in the park, we returned to the lodge for a relaxing afternoon. Here we see the place for the first time without fog (It covered the lodge about 1 minute after I took this photo). Birding highlight around the lodge was a female Kashmir Flycatcher--nice to get after dipping at Victoria Park. Other common birds in the tea bushes included Blyth's Reed-Warbler, Common Tailorbird, Ashy Prinia, and Pied Bushchat. 

The stunning view from the lodge (before 11am when the fog rolled in). Below you can see a Tamil village. These Tamil Hindus were brought over from India 100+ years ago to pick the tea. They are different to the Tamils in the north that have lived in Sri Lanka just as long as the Buddhist Sinhalese. Therefore you see a lot of Tamils in the central highlands of this country but they had no affiliation with the 'Tamil Tigers' movement.

So that was Part 2! Apologies for it being brief and kind of jumping around everywhere but that's all I have time for I'm afraid. Join me for Part 3 (At some point), for the final chapter where we visit some pristine jungle in Sinharaja to try to catch up on endemic birds and other jungle critters before hitting the coast for our final 4 days of the trip. Still lots of cool birds to come!


  1. Awesome looks like quite the fantastic trip and honeymoon... well maybe not for the being felt up part in a sarong !! Lol!!!

  2. OMG what a cool place to honeymoon. I was in Kandy at the Temple of the Tooth way back in 1974. Such a beautiful country and beaches...hope it hasn't changed too much. - Laure N. Is your anniversary Jan. 7th?

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