Joined for breakfast by probably a Cambodian Striped Squirrel but in Sri Lanka a Palm Squirrel, who likes papaya. Bad coffee but on the beach, angry sea, fishing catamarans with out-riggers and a strong breeze streaming the palm fronds.

Essentials, (Amba was dry); wine, duty free on arrival and beer in a liquor shop as we left the Negombo hotel. Stop start behind tuktuks, little lorries in densely populated villages merging into each other for four hours. We finally left the shadow of Colombo behind as we drove through Ratanapura and started to climb. Soksan counted 203 dogs, 18 cows, 2 cats and 7 Toque Macaques. We passed the highest point at 1500 meters in the clouds, remerging to stunning views of mountains, not the rolling downs I had in mind.

The Ella Highlands (view from Mini Adams Peak)

Mountains that were covered in forest until the British came and cleared the trees to plant tea. Forest that maintained the climate and rainfall, prevented soil erosion and filtered the air, provided a protein larder and a medicine cabinet with  biodiversity. 


Amba, drive to our cottage

The estate where we are staying grows tea, coffee, vanilla & cinnamon. It’s genuinely organic so they use acacia trees to fix nitrogen instead of fertilizer, plants to control insects and the pickers get paid a salary not piece meal.

John and Simon, a couple for 29 years, together with 2 other directors set up Amba with the aim of providing environmentally sustainable alternative livelihoods for the people who work there and the environment where they work.

Birds new and old, a Magpie Robin known from Cambodia and fat Yellow-billed Babbler new.

Grey Langur


Illegal teas made from stolen leaves, tea dust from the floor for tea bags. Magic tea that turns blue when you squeeze in a lemon. It also makes it taste like lemon so I couldn’t see what the point was. Laughing tea which got up my nose and was irritating rather than funny and much besides. The tea by the time you’d sniffed and swirled from a dozen pots, became a slightly bitter brown brew that only a little milk (unthinkable!) made drinkable.

The Factory and River Pool Loop Walk

A lovely abandoned factory building beside a fast flowing river and pools of clear cool swimming water before climbing up through the scrub back to our cottage.

The Forest and Cave Walk 

Kamikaze monkeys, Grey Langurs, launching themselves off branches above our heads in the afternoon gloom as the clouds rolled in. Past the ruined rooms where the tea was processed and the giant mango where an old man sat and sold milk to those climbing the 1500-meter peaks. We headed for a crack in the cliff, through a bat shit cave to a stone viewing platform looking out over the valley.

Eagle Rock

Soksan on Eagle Rock @ Amba

This morning a Black Eagle hunted below the rock searching the hillside with laser precision sight. On top of the world. 

Mini Adams Peak, down to Ella

Nashanti’s 3 wheeled tuktuk had 2 wheels on the road and 1 in the air as we went round the corners, or so it felt. A clear cool path beneath telegraph pole eucalypt trees, dreadful for biodiversity but lovely to talk under. To Ella Rock on Mini-Adam’s Peak, Ella Town 1 ½ km below. Ella a slightly nicer version of Kao San Road / Pub St but one beer was enough.

It was sad to leave Amba after only three nights. It’s a gentle place, bucolic Dominic the professional bird watcher said, Simon and John felt like friends.


The view from Monkey Mountain is looking out on a landscape largely lost from this world as we hurtle to self-destruction, lucky for me I’m getting off this train though as it turned out not as soon as I was expecting.


It’s all about elephants, lurking behind trees, waiting to gore you except only 10% of Sri Lankan elephants have got tusks. They’ve been hiding in wait and came trampling through the property last night.

It’s hot after the delicious Amba cool but a nice drive to get here. The lodge is dominated by Monkey Mountain rising 750 meter above, off-set by the swimming pool below.

Anuradha our guide knows his birds, about 50% same as Cambodia so I know he’s not talking milky adjutants (don’t exist).  Attractive brown eyes with a twinkle but you can’t see much hidden by dreadlocks and beard. Arak the lodge dog accompanied us on our bird watching adventures when she could be bothered. 

Giant Squirrel above & Nightjar below

A gentle bird-walk when we got there around a small reservoir yielded 14 species including 2 endemics. A Land Monitor Lizard wandered up the garden path and a Giant Squirrel picked curry fruit.

‘I’m not here,’ said the Indian Nightjar – she wasn’t easy to spot but yes you are, I’ve got a photo. She had a precarious nest on the bare rock with 2 eggs.

Monkey Mountain

Sleep is not the foremost consideration so its tea at 5.30am. Anuradha appeared as casual as if he were walking around his garden. 

Six hundred meters later we were soaring above the universe as the unchanged landscape spread below.

Anuradha, Soksan & Nick on Monkey Mountain the first morning

Ula Hela

Pointed steep mountain, (an ula hela’ve a job to climb) 🙁

38,000 Ha of proposed protected forest to add to the 25,000 Ha of national park. Its secondary forest but still lovely countryside though the canopy rises and the light dims as you enter the core park area. 

At the National Park HQ in a dense patch of undergrowth we just missed a critically endangered Sri Lankan Spur Fowl, ‘an uncommon endemic rarely seen.’ More than made up for as: ‘Grey as a mouse, big as a house’, we saw his bottom disappearing into the forest but a moment later caught a glimpse of his eye as he turned round to watch us. A Grey Langur looked down from the branch above. 

We stopped to see if the elephants would come back but saw instead a family of Painted Deer.

As we slithered our way from pool to pool Anuradha took photos and our breakfast was laid out on a sandy bank beneath trees. The Gal Oya River just before it flows through a pile of boulders into the Gal Oya Lake.

The Garden

Yesterday evening we peered into the undergrowth around the lodge and spied two tiny prinia chicks clinging to a grass stalk while their Grey-breasted Prinia mother flitted back with a beak full of grubs. Today it was a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher sitting proud of a stump tight on her eggs while the male fed her. And after we were back from a ride, Soksan spotted a family of jungle fowl pecking their way across the forest floor.

Two White-breasted Waterhen walked warily across the lawn as we went for breakfast. The swimming pool is used more by the resident birds than the guests, as they go to bathe, fluffing up their feathers and scooping beak-fills of water.


Takes it all in, smiling his way through our adventures. The Sri Lanka staff take him for one of their own and speak in Sinhalese but later charmed by his handsome smile accept him as a guest.

We had a fraught trip to get to Sri Lanka. Aside from the truly awful airline cancelling and rescheduling flights. We crisscrossed Kuala Lumpur Airport for information at the only dedicated desk in the whole AirAsia Terminal, to be told that we needed new tickets to get back to Phnom Penh and that the sales desk was through immigration. We slowly snaked our way into Malaysia and then back again. All the time Soksan un-criticizing, quietly followed carrying my bag so I could leaf through whichever piece of paper was needed at the time. He’s too hot to hold in Gal Oya but still a gentle sleeping companion and great adventure partner.

Butterflies by the Gal Oya River

Gal Oya Lake

Primeval, the land that time forgot, jagged mountains shrouded in mist rising from the forest.

Made even more spectacular by the Gal Oya Reservoir that fills the valley. The photographs say it all. Asian elephants and wild water buffalo roaming the shores, the elephants sometimes swimming to rocky islands that rise above the water level to graze. Flocks of wading birds overseen by White-bellied Sea Eagles and Brahminy Kites. Great Thick-knee’s on the sand, now rare in Cambodia.

An extraordinary experience with a  parting gift of an elephant grazing the grass on the walls of the dam.

On the shores of Gal Oya Lake; elephant, Greater Thick Knee, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Spot-billed Pelican, Wild Buffalo, crocodile & Black-headed Stork.

Back on the Anuradha road show with William Wallace the Indian Jeep driver crunching the gears. Opposite side of the lake to where we’d been with the boat and the boulder strewn river mouth where we’d swam.

Morning bird walk

At the gated entrance to the forest, we picked up the usual guide to guide the guide whose main purpose is to extract a tip. The forest is good at capturing light, inside the gloom was dark but outside so bright it’s black. There are Leopards, Sloth Bears, Fishing Cats, etc. and of course elephants. Spotting these in this tangle of vegetation was nigh impossible though.

Lines of Lime Butterflies catch the souls of the dead, taking them to heaven in a white cloud.

We emerged and clambered over giant rocks (type?). The jagged landscape speaks of violent volcanoes and streaming lines of larva. The elephants we’d seen by boat the day before grazed the far side of the lake.

Another jungle plunge and our picnic spot shaded by trees, joined by a Sambar Deer and her fawn also Spotted Deer. Anuradha opened me a beer while I looked over the lake and Soksan spotted birds better than I can through his one working eye.

Just a glimpse of a Brown Fish Owl but enough for a spot then a Malabar-pied Hornbill perched on a lake flooded tree.

Back at the lodge it was happy honeymooners draped across the furniture, toddlers trying to kill themselves on the stairs excepting us and Dominic the bucolic bird specialist from Amba but he was out dawn to dusk and then owls after dinner.

Around the Lodge

We went to see a lake this morning but there wasn’t any water. A dirt track lead through a village shaded by fruit trees. A man approached offering us jackfruit. The garden was surrounded by beer cans hanging from string to stop elephants eating his vegetables. ‘What does he think about them?’ I asked Anuradha. Several hundred elephants are killed each year as the villagers take the conflict into their own hands.

Ashok Leyland Lanka buses on the morning jungle run picking up boys and girls smartly dressed in white and blue for the younger ones and all white for the older children. Beside neat little bungalows with flower bordered gardens beneath the sheer rock mountains that surround Gal Oya the bus set off into the forest in a cloud of diesel.


Crows had had just about enough of the koels, really cuckoos that push the hosts eggs out of the nest and lay their own instead. A small raptor emerged from the branches, so the crows went after it instead.

The stepping-stone path up the side of the mountain went through rock formations, tangled vines, and dry forest, it could have been Phnom Kulen (A Tale of Two Hills). A 350-meter climb to look at a pile of stones on a bare rock with a Buddhist flagpole stuck in the middle. At least Angkorian piles have a semblance of being a temple. But the further we got in the more there was. A refractory and bath house to start, reminiscent of Roman Britain and about the same time 2ndBC. A square of stone foundations with re-erected pillars that had supported a roof. Linga like shapes carved into the stone. Sanskrit writing inscribed in rock overhung by elephant creeper, redolent with a scent that attracted a breeze of butterflies. A macaque watched and scratched, then a line of macaques’ rope walked along a vine.

Rajagala Refractory

That wasn’t the start of it! Inhabited by the 1st BC and visited by Aralnath Mahinda Thero who bought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. The rock inscriptions we’d seen (apparently) indicate his ashes are enshrined in a stupa on site. 

These are the main sites around a small lake, maybe a reservoir once but the full extent stretches across rock walls and caves rising into the mountain. Monks carved the rock to stop water dripping back into the brick enclosures they built under the overhangs.

Stone basins that collected water from the stone spigot, much like the yoni and linga in Angkorian temples

The Raksha tribe who lived here, worshipped the Rakshasas – demons so the mountain was named Rassa – gala, Demon or Devil Mountain. Tinges of the unknown, a vertiginous moment, looking from where we’d climbed to see Sri Lanka below. Across the void and my head swam, I felt shaky. We tried to find a route through the rocks but came to an end in a chasm. Picnic at Hanging Rock came to mind.

Rassagala was transformed into one of the great monasteries of the kingdom and over time Rassagala became Rajagala or the King’s Rock.

A boulder overhang encloses a cave where monks had lived

I watched the social hierarchy of the Toque Macaques as we waited for Anuradha. The alpha male lifted the tails of the females to check if they were ready for mating. A toddler cowered to a bigger male wanting his patch of foraging.

Balloo Gala

Soksan was shellshocked by an everyday week of adventures so didn’t come with Anuradha and I to a final friendly boulder at the top of the Gal Oya Valley. We looked below to see open forest then patches of evergreen and distant elephant grass on the hills. And my last new bird in Sri Lanka, the Large-cuckoo Shrike.


Seventy-five emails were waiting when we got to Fort Pinters Hotel in Galle, no internet at Gal Oya and I’d used up my Cambodian roaming credit.

I’d sat by the modem for an hour and a half at Amba but not a whisper from Mr E the Sri Lankan surgeon from Haywards Heath. It was there halfway through the inbox, ‘…… therefore there is no reason to operate at the present time.’ I was worried that I’d make it back to Cambodia now – what to think? 

Oh and we’re staying in a historic building in the UNESCO declared 16th c  Portugese fort but the pictures will have to speak for themselves.

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