Sri Lanka is famous for its Ceylon tea that grows in millions of tea bushes in its hill country, from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya.
Tamil tea pickers walk through tea gardens with baskets strapped to their backs and carry their baskets to tea factories where the leaves are processed to high-quality Ceylon tea.
Tea pickers along the Kandy to Nuwara Eliya road
The climate on the top of Sri Lanka is very different from the tropical Indian Ocean coastline, it’s like another country. The weather is cool and humid like European spring or autumn. The hill country is Sri Lanka’s green lungs with its tea gardens, mountains and waterfalls.
Rice terraces and mountains, Sri Lanka’s Hill Country
We took the winding road uphill from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya and on to the south coast. This posts shows you what we saw on the top of the green island of Sri Lanka.
Drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
The map shows our driving itinerary from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. We took the eastern route driving first along Mahaweli River and then uphill to the tea country. There is another road too between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, the Pusselawa-Ramboda road in west.
The eastern route we took is only 100 km, yet driving takes 2,5 hours without any stops. As we knew we will want to stop a lot we reserved more than half a day for the drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya.
We were not driving ourselves, we had a driver. For how to arrange that check out my post What to See in Sri Lanka.
The road has hairpin bends almost all the way. It very much looks like this:
Winding road Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
And in some places the road looks like this:
Road from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
So you can be sure there are curves and bends on the way from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The scenery is rewarding, it’s fantastic, but keep an eye on the road weather you are driving or not – not to get sick in the curves.
The place we started from was Kandy:
Kandy, Sri Lanka
The highland city of Kandy is a very special one. It is surrounded by rainforest hills and has a lake in the middle.
Kandy has a long and imposing history. It is where the last kings ruled and made it the cultural capital of the island. Afterwards Kandy was a British colonial city. Kandy really is a city full of history and a must-see place for all travelers to Sri Lanka.
Temple of the Tooth visitors, Kandy
Why? To get to know a country you have to know about its history and Kandy is the right place for that in Sri Lanka. Other cities where you will get in touch with the island’s history are the other old capitals Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
I am not telling more about Kandy since I have made a separate post on it: Historic Kandy: Temples, Lake and Rainforest Hills. I also made a post on the ancient cities Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa: Touring Sri Lanka’s Ancient Cities.
So this post will show you the drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. What do you see traveling south from Kandy? Green mountains, tea gardens, rivers and waterfalls.
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya: Rivers and Waterfalls
River view, Kandy to Nuwara Eliya road
South of Kandy the road follows Mahaweli Gangga, Mahaweli River for about 25 km. You will have rainforest hills on both sides. They are not high yet but they will be.
River Mahaweli view from the car
Rainforest and river, Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Soon you will see the first waterfall and many more will follow. It’s still very hot in these altitudes but fresh water spray makes you feel good.
A cascading waterfall south of Kandy
Local Life in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country
Washing clothes in a waterfall
Hill Country locals use waterfalls for their household things. They wash their laundry in waterfalls which may be a good idea. But you are not allowed to wash a car in a waterfall. That’s what the sign below tells. I can’t read the text but our driver translated.
Washing cars not allowed
Now and then you will drive on narrow bridges. Mahaweli has a lot of side rivers that bring down mountain water.
Bridge over jungle river, Sri Lanka’s Hill Country
Narrow bridges don’t cause traffic problems in the Hill Country. There is almost no traffic if you compare with the coasts. But buses up here drive the same aggressive way. They don’t keep any distances to other drivers, they use their horns all the time and they overtake in curves.
Bus from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Bus right behind us
Yet hill country locals don’t bother about loud bus horns. They have heard the noise before and keep washing their laundry in rivers almost below the main road. It looked like the day was a general laundry day:
Wash in river, dry on riverbank
Laundry day in the hill country
More washer women
But all locals are not in the river. This woman wanted to show me her brand new tuk tuk. She had decorated it with plastic flowers and was proud of it.
Maybe I would do the same if I was a tuk tuk owner.
Happy tuk tuk owner, Sri Lanka’s Hill Country
Stopping on the roadside in a Sri Lankan village
Hill country is dotted with small shrines
The road winds upward and we will soon be in the tea country. One more mountain river:
The last mountain river before the tea country
Sri Lanka’s Tea Country
As we got high enough we finally saw the first tea bushes. And there was lot of them on both sides of the road. This happens when you reach 600 m that is the lowest altitude where tea grows in Sri Lanka.
Up here the air is cool enough for tea and tea also needs rainfall and mists from mountain clouds. In addition the plants need strong sunshine which they also get here.
Tea grows up to 2000 m but we won’t climb that high. Even here it’s cold enough for us. This feels a bit like our Nordic summer, no wonder that the British felt like home here.
Tea garden in Sri Lankan tea country
Green tea bushes make the grounds look like a huge well kept garden. Yes, everything is so well manicured. The bushes are neatly cut at the top and all of them are the same height. All tea bushes are waist-high.
If they didn’t cut tea bushes they would grow 10 m high which is almost the size of the trees they planted to shade them.
Ceylon tea leaves
History of Ceylon Tea
Tea growing has a huge impact to Sri Lanka’s economy. Ceylon tea is the country’s main export product and Sri Lanka is one of the main tea exporters in the world. Wonder how it all began?
As the British liked mountain climate they first planted coffee on the hills. But it was a disaster so they tried tea.
Then they tried to bring tea plants from China and tea bushes liked this climate. So after a while tea growing became a huge business. New tea estates sprang up and jungles changed to tea gardens in no time at all.
A Sri Lankan Ceylon tea estate
Driving through the tea country was one of our top experiences in Sri Lanka. Tea bushes make the landscape so different from anything we had seen before.
The tea country is like a another world, yet it is what made the tropical island famous.
Driving through Sri Lanka’s tea country
Tea country public transport
A Sri Lankan bus
We were almost alone on the road but not quite. There were tuk tuks and buses. These blue buses are needed in the tea country. They bring tea pickers to their work and back.
Ceylon Tea Pickers
Tamil women picking tea leaves
So producing Ceylon tea became a big business. The British built tea factories and had people picking tea by hand. That hasn’t changed. The old tea factories still operate and they still pick tea by hand.
And picking by hand needs labor force. Since there was not labor force in the area the British brought Tamil people from the north to work on tea plantations.
Women working on a tea plantation
Still today it’s mainly Tamil women that work on tea plantations. They walk between bushes and pick fresh tea leaves in their baskets, 20 kg a day.
They only take the upper two leaves and the bud from each bush and the week after they return to the same bush. There are new leaves and they pick them.
Picking the upper two tea leaves
Now I see why they keep tea bushes waist high. It’s easier to pick. Yet picking is hard work and like all hard work it’s not well paid.
Tamil woman telling us about her work
Tea pickers with their baskets
Tea pickers take their baskets to tea factories and tea processing starts. In just 24 hours these tea leaves become high-quality Ceylon tea.
Ceylon Tea Factory
Liddesdale, a typical Ceylon tea factory
We wanted to see how tea is made so went to a tea factory. Tea factories are like working farms with tractors coming and going. The tractors are bringing loads of tea leaves to the factory:
Tractor bringing Ceylon tea leaves to factory
Courtyard of tea factory
But before going in we needed a lunch. It was a quick picnic lunch in the supervisor’s office. The only furniture was some Ceylon tea boxes:
Tea factory lunch on tea boxes
Lunch from picnic box
Liddesdale tea factory in Sri Lanka’s tea country
Tea factory window and garden
Tea Production in Factory
The factory we went to was Liddesdale Tea Factory, an old colonial one and one of the hundreds in the tea country.
First they dry the tea leaves on huge trays. They simply blow hot air on them for a while.
Tea leaves on tray
Drying tea leaves
Rules for acceptable Ceylon tea leaves
Trying world-famous Ceylon tea
When the leaves are dry they crush them in pieces and burn them in an oven. Now we can already feel the well known flavor of Ceylon tea.
Ceylon tea leaves in pieces
Working in a tea factory
At the end they sort the tea in quality-based boxes, pack them in sacks and send it all to Colombo and across the globe.
The high-grown sorts (over 1200 m) have the best flavor and the other tea sorts are medium and low-grown. And the dust that remains they put into tea bags and that’s the lowest sort.
Sri Lankan Tea Estates
One of Sri Lanka’s Ceylon tea estates
The Hill Country is full of old tea estates, there must be hundreds of them. The Sri Lankan tea industry employs a million people in all so tea production is a very large industry in the country’s scale.
We can thank two pioneers for developing the world-famous Ceylon tea: James Taylor and Sir Thomas Lipton, two immigrants from Scotland. James Taylor planted the first plants and Lipton made innovations that made Ceylon tea business develop and grow.
More about the Hill Country
Tea pluckers picking firewood
At leisure tea pluckers come back to tea gardens, to collect the firewood they need for heating their houses.
And they also grow vegetables: onions, potatoes, tomatoes, beans and cabbages. Vegetables that don’t grow elsewhere in the tropics grow in the hills.
Women picking firewood in a tea garden
Woman carrying firewood
Tea picker’s home by the road from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Family on onion field
Packing vegetables on the road from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya
Cabbage planters close to Nuwara Eliya
Tamils are mainly Hindus but like other regions in Sri Lanka the tea country has all four main religions present. There are Buddhists, Muslims and of course Christians after European settlers.
Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka’s tea country
Rice Terraces and palms on a hill slope
Homes and gardens near Nuwara Eliya
Lake Gregory and Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya is located on the absolute top of Sri Lanka, at 1900 m. It’s 1400 m higher than Kandy so we came up many curves. And after this it will be down again, all the way to the South Coast.
Nuwara Eliya is close to Sri Lanka’s tallest mountain Mount Pedro, 2500 m and there are more peaks over 2000 m nearby. This mountain city is the place where you can best see the country’s colonial past. Nuwara Eliya is a very British city but it is a typical Asian and Sri Lankan city as well. A strange mixture, I have to say.
The British Nuwara Eliya
A Nuwara Eliya colonial building
Nuwara Eliya is like a little England. The climate is the same and so are the plants.
It’s really strange to be on the other side of the globe and yet almost in Britain. There is an Anglican church and a British cemetery and some hills nearby are called Royal Hills.
There is a race course, a golf club, an international school – and the biggest park of the city is called Victoria Park and the lake Lake Gregory.
Nuwara Eliya post office
Nuwara Eliya was a retreat for the ruling class. To feel at home they built British style colonial villas and half-timbered houses. You can see some samples on these photos.
The Tudor-style red brick house is an old post office and the half-timbered building with flags is the British Grand Hotel.
The half-timbered Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya
Grand Hotel interior, just like in Britain
Just like in Britain: signs telling you how to behave
Victoria Park, the city’s central garden
The British grew vegetables and strawberries in the valley – and they got their tea from their tea gardens.
There were many tea planters cottages around the city some of which have been made guesthouses and hotels. You will see one at the end of this post.
The Asian Nuwara Eliya
A temple statue, Nuwara Eliya
But since we are in Sri Lanka, Asia, Nuwara Eliya has an Asian side too. And despite all British influence that side is much more present in the city as you can see it today.
These photos show a Hindu temple, Seetha Amman Temple a bit south of the city.
The temple is on the site that has importance for the local Hindus. That’s where the Hindu epic Sita was held captured by king Ravana. It’s a beautiful little roadside temple with a lot of prayer ribbons in a tree.
Examining Hindu prayer ribbons
Elephant statue inside Sita temple, Nuwara Eliya
Another Sita temple detail
On the outside this little temple looks like this:
Seetha Amman Temple pagoda, Nuwara Eliya
Seetha Amman Temple Hindu statues
A Busy Sri Lankan City
If you are not inside a temple Nuwara Eliya is a noisy Sri Lankan city with traffic jams and smog from the traffic. Maybe the location makes that there’s more smog than elsewhere.
The city is exotic to look at and nice to visit briefly but not a place I would stay at for a longer time, especially when the weather is so cold. I am getting enough of cold weather in my own country.
This is the only place in Sri Lanka where I have seen warm clothes, hats and gloves filling all shops. There certainly is a market for warm clothing at 1900 m.
Nuwara Eliya city center, Sri Lanka
This is what a typical street corner in the city center looks like, very Asian or what do you think?
Man selling ice cream
Typical Nuwara Eliya townhouse
Roadside garden shop
The absolute core of the city is the big covered market hall on the New Bazaar Street.
What about buying some fresh fruits and vegetables – or maybe you would prefer dried fish, chili or rice? Or something hot and spicy?
Hanging bananas, piled tomatoes and carrots on the covered market
Neatly piled products on Nuwara Eliya Central Market
Fish from the coast, Nuwara Eliya Central Market
Rice sold on Nuwara Eliya Central Market
Fast food car, Nuwara Eliya
We left the city and went to our hotel. We stayed the night in Nuwara Eliya before driving on, not in the city but in the outskirts. And in the outskirts we found a totally different world!
Where to Stay in Nuwara Eliya
Mirage Kings Cottage, Nuwara Eliya
We really found a different world. A peaceful jungle cottage in the hills and it was just like staying in a colonial tea planter’s house.
Our travel agent had booked us in a brand new small hotel outside the city. The house itself is not new though. It used to be a private villa, not British even if it looks that. The villa was built some 100 years ago for the brother of Sri Lanka’s first prime minister. So this cozy cottage definitely has Asian roots.
Mirage King’s Cottage garden
Mirage Kings Cottage has a neat and well-kept tropical garden. It is like a little oasis, a little uphill so you can see the lake and the scenery.
View to tea gardens
And what a scenery, tea gardens and vegetable fields behind the huge pine trees giving shade. So pretty! And in the other direction we had the lake view!
Vegetable fields around the corner
Kings Cottage neighborhood: a local home
Kings Cottage neighborhood: vegetable fields and a home
Tropical flowers in King’s Cottage garden
We liked the stay. The room was good. It was very big with two double beds and we had our own door to the garden. And what was most important we had heating. It was cold at night and we had to put the heating on.
Our room, Mirage Kings Cottage
We liked this little Nuwara Eliya hotel with its colonial charm. If you want to know more about the place here is the hotel’s website: Mirage Kings Cottage Nuwara Eliya
Nuwara Eliya to the South Coast
Most people that come to Nuwara Eliya are driving on to the South Coast. Nuwara Eliya makes a good half way stop on a longer trip. It is a good place to stay the night.
The drive from Nuwara Eliya on will take another 3-4 hours and the distance to the south coast is about 150 km. That section doesn’t have as many tea gardens but there is Ella, a pretty mountain town, waterfalls and rice fields and a couple of national parks worth of visit.
Some photos on Ella Gorge:
Ella Gorge, from Nuwara Eliya to South Coast
Green hills of Ella
See you later on the South Coast! That will be the topic of my next post on our Sri Lanka road trip.
Our Sri Lanka Road Trip
This is the itinerary we made in Sri Lanka, some 1600 km around the island with the small side trips.
To see what else we did on the tropical paradise island check out my other posts on Sri Lanka and the main post What to See in Sri Lanka with the whole route description. The main post also explains you how we arranged our trip.