Saturday, February 23, 2013
The Monkey at the End of the World
Philosopher Monkey Likes To Philosophize
All photos below - not in order - were taken either on the train between Kandy and Ella, in Ella itself, or on our hike a few hours away from Ella at World's End and Horton Plains National Park. The monkey above is enjoying the view at World's End.
I"m kind of going backwards in my chronicle of our Sri Lanka vacation, but that's just how the desire to write struck.
We left Kandy by train - the Kandy-Ella train being extremely popular among foreigners for its scenic backdrop, and being a nicer train than most in Sri Lanka (we saw some other trains in various stations), most likely because it is so heavily used by foreign tourists. And the views are stunning:
But the train is also the beginning of Foreign Tourist Saturation (which I realize I'm a part of, I don't deny my own culpability). The train has a few locals on it, but the vast majority of passengers are foreigners transiting from Kandy to Ella on this famous rail route. They take so many pictures - as I did - that they're practically taking pictures of each other:
Ella town...well, let's just say I could take or leave the place. I really enjoyed our stay in the mountains but not because of the town. That said, I chose it specifically because if the weather was bad, a tourist-filled mountain town would probably provide other diversions, even if those diversions were drinking tea and souvenir shopping. And the weather was often pretty bad - it rained for a portion of every single day, so it wasn't entirely a poor decision. However:
Go ahead and enlarge that menu and enjoy the "Spagatti Bololesis" and "Frid Rice", and reflect upon a restaurant named, ostensible, for a director of weird and violent movies, printed in a Haunted House font, on a tiki hit painted reggae colors.
We did not try the "Spagatti Bololesis", and I found the local food in Ella - we didn't go all the way to Sri Lanka to eat pasta - to be...meh. There were no good views from the town itself, the weather was crap, and the stores and restaurants were weak-tea backpacker joints. I was not terribly impressed. It reminded me yet again of a reason to love Taiwan (let's say this one is #30):
Not too many tourists. It's getting to be a problem, and to some extent I do wish the rest of the world would cultivate a better appreciation for the charms of Taiwan - its night markets, its seafood, it's stinky tofu, its mountains, its coastline. It feels like the last undiscovered gem in Asia. On the other hand, I wouldn't want Taiwan to be dotted with little Ellas, or little Mirissas (that wouldn't happen: Taiwan doesn't have the beaches. I was not impressed with the beaches at Kending, and that's among the best Taiwan has. You have to go to Penghu to even come close to what's on offer in Sri Lanka, Indonesia or the Philippines).
I wouldn't want the festivals - both temple fairs and aboriginal festivals - to become performances for tourists. I like 'em authentic. I don't mind battling a crowd of local would-be photographers but I would mind battling an even larger crowd of people with no emotional investment in the performance itself. I can accept Old Streets and towns like Lugang cashing in on their heritage by appealing to domestic tourists and the occasional Japanese who wander through, because they are popular with locals. I wouldn't want them to become backpacker hovels where every other old shophouse sells banana pancakes, and the stinky tofu, oyster omelets and brown sugar cake aren't as good because the proprietors figure that foreigners don't know any better.
I like that there is no Khao San Road in Taipei. I want it to stay that way. I like that mountain towns in Taiwan, such as Lishan (my favorite), aren't overrun with tourists and what infrastructure you find there is for locals.
The two things that made Ella wonderful were our hotel, and our hike in Horton Plains National Park. The hotel was outside of town, about a kilometer along what is basically a hiking trail, and built so that most of it was a sheltered outdoor cafe setup with stunning views through Ella Gap:
We'd go out, do some hiking or walking, get stuck in the rain, and come back cold and muddy. Then we'd change into comfortable, dry clothing and sit in the cafe area - the rooms open directly onto it so it's like an extension of one's room - to drink tea and eat coconut sambal sandwiches. It was truly a gem. I could have spent a couple of days just relaxing there and not going out.
We then hired a car and driver to take us to Horton Plains. Hiring a car with driver is not difficult in Sri Lanka, and not terribly expensive. It'll cost slightly less than chartering a taxi in Taiwan (something I've done when I've wanted to visit areas without good public transportation, but as usual was not willing to drive. I do not drive and will not drive in urban Taiwan, which is one reason why I live in Taipei. You might get me behind the wheel in the countryside, though). We shared the car hire with a German couple to cut costs, and they were very pleasant hiking companions.
The trail is at about 2300 meters above sea level - not so high that you'll get sick, but high enough that hiking uphill causes you to become slightly more winded than you might normally feel. Only slightly, though. The land is classic moorland - chilly, foggy, scrubby grassland reminiscent of northern England and parts of Scotland.
It's a circular trail that's approximately 9 kilometers in total, maybe ten. You walk four or five to World's End, where the moorlands just...stop. They go from being rolling plains of grass to being a steep cliff quite literally immediately, with no warning that the landscape is about to change.
The view is stunning if it's not foggy - as you can see, we got something of a view, but we didn't get the full deal. So...instead, enjoy the cute monkey. The "Philosopher Monkey" at the top of the post is also looking out over the cliff, called "World's End", to give you a better idea of the view.
On a clear day you can see straight to the coast. We weren't so lucky.
We were so cold, so wet (it rained pretty hard on our hike back), so muddy and so achy when we got back that I changed into soft, warm pajamas immediately and refused to make the trek into town. We spent the rest of the day in the cafe area of our hotel drinking tea and resting our tired muscles.
Ella had a few other good things, too: a few hikes and walks to temples and scenic spots:
And a couple of good photo opportunities:
I don't regret going, not for a minute.