My plans for Sri Lanka were pretty flexible when I arrived, my itinerary was an open slate in fact, I didn’t even have a flight out booked yet. Everyone I met asked me what I was going to do and where I’d be going, but I wasn’t quite sure. The one thing I did know though is that I’d be visiting Ella, a city I heard a lot about and after seeing various pictures, knew that I’d have to visit. After a facing Colombo, walking the walls of Galle Fort and almost getting stuck in Mirissa it was time for me to head north.
Friends always ask how I afford my travels and one of easiest answers I can give is to become a local; go, see and eat as they do. Usually that means bus over taxi, markets for shopping and hole in the wall restaurants for dining. The internet is filled with naysayers who claim it’s very difficult to travel north from the beaches, but I didn’t believe them, how do the locals do it? Blogs and message boards advise travelers to hire a car as it’s “not that expensive” but that word “expensive” is all relative, isn’t it? I guess if you’re comparing prices to your home country, $50 doesn’t sound so bad, but when you compare it to the local bus fare of $2 it’s a bit outrageous.
From my guesthouse in Mirissa I had to walk about 50 m to the bus stop, wait 10 minutes, wave my hand when I saw a bus approaching, jump on and pay 60 rupees. Thirty minutes later I was dropped at the Matara bus station where I could easily find a bus to Ella, no hassles, scams or problems along the way. Even the tuk tuk driver at my first bus stop explained the buses, instead of trying to get me to ride with him, it really is true that Sri Lankans are friendly people.
The bus terminals in Sri Lanka appear chaotic from a distance, so many buses, people and noise, but they’re surprisingly seamless to navigate. The most essential thing is that you know what bus you need to take then look for that platform, or more likely a local will ask where you’re going and point you in the right direction. I spotted the Badulla sign as our bus drove up and when I approached the platform they all knew, “Ella? This bus, come!”. To be fair, Ella is on the “tourist route” so these guys saw a white girl and knew where to point me, I suppose if you’re going to a less popular destination you may have to actually ask around a bit.
The buses are fancy, but not in terms of comfort, what I mean is they’re usually colorful, shiny and full of music. I was one of the first to board so I chose one of the empty rows, shoved my bag under the bench and hoped it wouldn’t fill up. I had the row to myself for a few minutes, until we stopped for more passengers and I was soon squished between the window and the guy next to me, no wiggle room, and it was hot. For the next hour I cycled between hating the strong wind whipping my face, and loving it for cooling me off.
We made multiple stops, both at stations and alongside the road and while this could have slowed us down, time was made up by the drivers speed. We were continuously on the wrong side of the road, passing slower motorists. At the stations various men would board the bus, trying to sell food, drinks. I’ve made it a habit to try and buy something from some of these guys, their days must be long and I’m sure they appreciate the sale.
About three hours into our trip, just as I began to wonder if we’d be stopping for a bathroom break, we pulled into a roadside rest stop. Rest stops throughout Asia are pretty similar, smoking area to the left, a small restaurant with snacks for sale in the front, and toilets in the back. This one had one added feature, a rope swing hanging from a gigantic tree. As I spotted it I could already feel the breeze on my face, so I jumped on, which issued stares and smiles from everyone surrounding me.
When I first boarded the bus the driver mumbled something about this bus Wellawaya and Ella, but I didn’t quite catch what he meant. I figured it out though when we pulled into a bus terminal and I kept hearing “Hey, hey you, Ella change here!”. I wasn’t ready for the abrupt departure so quickly had to throw my things back in my bag, grab my backpack from under the seat and get off. I was walked and directed to the bus I should be taking, and as soon as I neared it the driver there called me over “Ella, here!” - again so easy
Opposite from the last ride I was one of the last to board so had to join a group of boys in the back row, which made for an interesting ride. Although this was the shortest leg of my journey it was easily the most eventful. The road to Ella is a steep, narrow, winding route up the mountain, not ideal for big buses, but our driver managed to fly around all the corners. We only had two break crushing moments, first to avoid a head on collision with a large truck and the second being sideswiped by another bus.
When we finally arrived in Ella, approximately five hours after the adventure began I was happy to be getting off the bus, but really could have been in worse shape. I’m not sure why people insisted that this method of travel was hard because it was quite the opposite. Sure it took more time than hiring a private car, but where’s the fun in that?
To be quite honest I have no idea where my desire to travel to this country originated, but it festered and grew for nearly 3 years. In a sense it's a cleaner, safer, smaller India and having always had that country on my radar it seemed like the perfect test drive.