Ella: Mountain Views, Tea Fields, and Monk Funeral

After Udawalawe, our driver took us up through the mountains to Ella, a tourist respite for both Buddhist pilgrims and international hikers. The steep, green mountains layer behind each other for incredible views with minimal development and a constant mist that commonly covers the popular peaks such as Ella's Rock, Little Adam's Peak and the quintessential Adam's Peak (where Christians believe Adam was cast out of heaven and Sri Pada aka "Sacred Footprint" for Buddhists where Bhudda stepped as he entered paradise).

Ella is touristy for hikers the way Mirissa is touristy for surfers, but the hikers seem to have more flavor for local cuisine as there are loads of great roti shops along with tea shops and Sri Lankan restaurants.

Ella also has one of the largest tea factories in Sri Lanka, Uva Halpewatte. We took a tour and learned about the six tea regions of Sri Lanka and how they're different due to soil nitrates, sunshine and amount of rain/humidity. We also learned about the five stages of creating tea leaves and saw the equipment used in the enormous factory. Interestingly, the same tea plant is used in all regions for both green and black tea with only the drying and fermenting process being different.

Our first, and only hike, was to Little Adam's Peak - an easy 2.5 hour hike that is easily marked and well maintained. Due to rain, we didn't do our sunrise hike but waited a bit longer and we're pleased we did as the mist began to part just as we arrived. Through the morning we caught incredible moody scenes of fog drifting through the high peaks and green hills. At the top, visibility was limited due to fog (quite common on all peaks) and we returned back down to more beautiful views. A little bit about the other two taller peaks. Adam's Peak is the main attraction, taking about 5 hours, it can get very busy during pilgrimage season where they light the trail for thousands of sunrise Buddhist hikers that take it sometimes yearly. The other is Ella Rock, the second highest peak that takes around 4 hours and is known for its confusing trail where signs and locals deliberately try to misdirect in an effort to obtain you as a customer. After Little Adam's Peak, and realizing A. How unfit we actually were, and B. That you could wake up at sunrise, hike in the dark for 4-5 hours without breakfast, and potentially not see anything due to mist at the top - we opted to stay in a resort with mountain views the last night instead. #noregrets

One night we were privileged enough to witness the procession for a monk's funeral. The whole town had been preparing for days by hanging orange bunting all along the main road and constructing a 15 meter tall orange cloth structure we would later learn was to burn the body within. During the procession, most businesses closed as the monks and gold coffin led the front of the procession followed by a crowd of locals that filled the streets behind them all clothed in white. We didn't attend the actual burning of the body but when we returned after dinner, smelled the heavy aroma of ash and saw what flames and smouldering ashes remained.

Our first place we stayed in was minimal at best and required a hike back behind town as they were building the road by hand. The cement two bedroom guest house was clean with all the necessary amenities - mosquito net included, but we would soon discover it was overwhelmingly damp making drying anything in the wet climate extraordinarily difficult. We would also learn the lazy stray dogs that often sleep on the road or brush up against your legs during the day, turn into demons in the night, howling like monkeys caught in a meat grinder.

We had planned on taking the train from Ella to Kandy as it contains many of the must-see views, however when we made it to the train station to order tickets, all tourist classes were booked through the New Year and only general admission was available 30 minutes before departure. We sat outside and whilst considering, and a young English couple stopped us who had just came from Kandy and warned us about general admission. Apparently general admission included being packed into each car like cattle and unable to move or use the loo for 7 hours. They also said there is a strong likelihood you would not even see the views if you do not obtain a good seat and recommended we take a tuktuk one town earlier as easily 300 people get on the train at Ella station. After careful deliberation, we decided to not take the train and opted instead for an extra night in Ella and another at our final destination, Colombo. This wasn't a decision we regretted until our last day we photographed the train taking off and met the passengers' smiles with smiles of our own, until we realized the train was NOT packed and we could potentially have had s pleasurable trip (that said it still might have been 7 hours without a toilet).

Our extra night in Ella was spent at Ella's Edge Resort, a well-placed hotel that offered drier accommodations and incredible views. The staff was excellent and even ended up Facebook friending me at the end of our stay.

Leaving Ella, we took a taxi to Colombo which was easily the most beautiful car ride of my life. We passed through incredible mountain passes, deep jungle valleys, rubber tree plantations and many bustling towns and cities. If I haven't said it before I say it now - Sri Lankan driving is crazy. Everyone passes everyone around blind corners sometimes within inches of each other (our driver joked there are only two straight roads in Sri Lanka; one to airport and on in Madras). They honk constantly to communicate approach, that they're in process of passing, to berate someone or to thank someone; all of which is communicated through length and number of honking. That said, we've found drivers impressively attentive and will stop or swerve abruptly for any sleepy dog or car that crosses their path (which is impressive as there are SO many strays). The most terrifying vehicle are the red or blue buses that roar like trains down the narrow, winding roads blaring their musical horns obsessively every time they need the attention of other vehicles.

Looking back, Ella is one of the most magical places Vic and I have ever visited together and firmly believe we will return again (perhaps when we're more physically and mentally prepared).