Soaking up the view on top of Ella Rock in Ella, Sri Lanka.
Soaking up the view on top of Ella Rock in Ella, Sri Lanka. SHAYLA BULLOCH

You'll be surprised in Sri Lanka

Packed shoulder to shoulder in a train had never felt so good. What made it even odder was that I had boarded the train without being sure where it was headed.

But, with a view of the Sri Lankan tropics passing by and the friendly waves of locals, it wasn't hard to let the subtle anxiety of solo travel drip away and become eager for the three weeks ahead.

Fresh off the plane into Colombo and now on the way to Galle, I was glad to soak up the salt air as I hung out the carriage door - possibly a little too far for my travel insurer's liking.

The three-hour standing trip from the commercial capital consisted of more body contact than I've had in my life, but with the railway line running directly along the coast, it was worth bursting the personal space bubble.

One of the most beautiful train rides in the world didn't disappoint. In fact, the entire south coast didn't.

Dotted along the south I found an array of simple and sleepy beach towns where locals thrived on fishing and surfing and insisted you join in on a glass of arak.

 

Impressive views await you around every corner including this one in Ella I couldn't miss.
Impressive views await you around every corner including this one in Ella I couldn't miss. SHAYLA BULLOCH

Visiting in June meant low season for the south as the threat of rain loomed but never really arrived. We had the usually vibrant beach town of Unawatuna all to ourselves, with most travellers scared away by the weather forecast.

Empty hostels meant more local secrets shared and guided tours you don't often get the chance to experience, including swimming with giant sea turtles on a deserted beach as the sun set over the Indian Ocean.

The next beach town was calling so I braved the local bus system which was unsurprisingly much the same as the train. Cramped, hot, but the view is worth every erratic driver you think may crash into oncoming traffic.

Weligama is "sandy village" in Sinhalese and it oozed untouched culture. Colourful fishing charters perched on the sand waiting for the full moon.

The fishing culture is everywhere and if you're lucky, you'll see the professionals at work on the stilt fishing poles. Despite its charm, I was surfed and yoga'd out by day two and craving the jungle.

So I traded waves for winding roads towards Ella and the beauty she had to deliver in her canopies.

 

The Nine Arch Bridge in Ella, Sri Lanka.
The Nine Arch Bridge in Ella, Sri Lanka. SHAYLA BULLOCH

The four-hour bus trip north was easily the toughest. Motion sickness kicked in and not even science podcasts helped ease the discomfort. If you aren't into roughing it, take a cab.

Soon enough you feel the crisp air touch your skin. Your breath becomes thicker and you're 1041m up in the charming town of Ella - with a striking resemblance to a French snow village by night, chateaus nestle into the tree-blanketed mountains among the clouds.

By day, she takes your breath away. I only planned to stay three nights in the mountains, but I was hooked. I stayed a week.

There must be something in the air, or in the encompassing nature, the warm locals picking tea in their colourful dresses, the delicious home-cooked meals or the majestic wildlife.

Hiking to Ella's highest peak, Ella Rock is a 15km pilgrimage worth taking through winding tea fields to the summit, with a stunning view through the valleys and beyond the town. It isn't uncommon to see a sneaky monkey dangling above and mocking as you suffer.

Despite my aching feet, I got up next morning for my next adventure to Diyaluma Falls, Sri Lanka's second-highest waterfall.

 

Cooling off after the long hike in one of the upper pools of Diyaluma Falls, enjoying the view of Wellawaya.
Sri Lanka is full of surprises. SHAYLA BULLOCH

The two-hour scooter ride and one-hour hike to the upper falls proved what awaited was only for those willing to make the effort - an absolute haven.

Several rock pools are scattered along the long stretch before the main drop of 220m. I spent three hours exploring the pools, scaling rocks and stressing about small leeches a local guy promised were harmless.

Tearing myself away from the fresh water, I made the trip back down the mountain to have dinner at a roadside hut - the best jackfruit curry of my life.

After eating the town out of vegetable roti, I dragged my sore feet and full belly to Arugam Bay for some sun and the county's best breaks.

The vibe is palpable immediately in the moon-shaped bay as surfers dart through traffic with their boards and happy hour signs line the streets. I didn't feel cool enough.

Endless beach bars faced off the wild ocean where you gambled your reputation if your entry through the dumping waves wasn't timed correctly.

For a small country, the vast difference in weather shocked me - high season in the east began as my trip wound down.

On my long car trip back to Colombo I thought about my relationship with Sri Lanka as a misfit backpacker drowning in the unexpected culture of this ancient country and the quiet moments you rarely get when you travel.

That is a gift, I thought - as a wild elephant strolled across in front of our car.