It all started in 1824 when a single Camellia Sinesis plant was bought to Sri Lanka from China. It was a time when the teardrop-shaped island south of India, known then as Ceylon, was ruled by the British and their biggest export was – of all things – coffee.
Nearly 200 years later and a serious fungus in 1860 wiping out the entire coffee industry, Sri Lanka is now the third biggest tea producer in the world (second by value), exporting around $1.5 billion of tea each year; with tea tourism – that is travellers coming to visit tea plantations in Sri Lanka – becoming one of the fastest growing sectors of the country’s tourism economy.
And I was on my way to visit the tea company that revolutionised tea production in Sri Lanka. A tea company so popular that you probably have a box of their tea in your pantry right now.
Into Sri Lanka’s Hill Country
It doesn’t take long until you’ll notice a change in scenery when you travel by train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, known more commonly as Little England.
The densely packed housing and browns and oranges of city life disappear and lush jungles appear. It’s not just the change in scenery. Kandy, like much of the tropical country, is hot and almost stifling humid; but Nuwara Eliya, one of the biggest cities in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, averages around 15 degrees Celsius lower than Kandy. Yes, you’ll see people wearing beanies and thick down jackets up here!
As you speed towards Nuwara Eliya more and more hills seem to be covered in terraces of lush tea bushes growing in the cool air; many with people – usually women – plucking them.
This is tea country.
Sri Lanka’s tea plantations
Despite the heavy rain, the people at Holyrood Estate were working. Scattered among the field I was in six or seven women were working hard, their hands plucking furiously at the bushes before them.
This is what daily life looks like on the tea plantations in Sri Lanka look like.
One woman looks up from her work as I take photos and I approach her. She smiles. I ask her if she will show me how she does it. I’m unsure if she understands me so I gesture to the bush, trailing my hands along the green leaves.
She pulls off some leaves and shows me. Two leaves and a bud.
She smiles at me again then returns quickly back to work. The basket on her back won’t fill itself and the team has a quota of leaves to pick each day.
The tea picked at Holyrood Estate may even end up on a shelf near you as Sri Lankan tea giant, Dilmah, uses leaves from this plantation and many others across the country to produce their famous blends.
It’s no easy work, picking leaves in the tea fields all day, but the hours aren’t quite what I expected.
They start their day at 8 am and pick until 12:30. After a lunch break, they pluck from 2 pm until around 4:30.
Each person aims to pick 18 kilograms each day. If they pick more, they can earn extra income. While it seems like a great incentive, you have to remember the average wage is between 500 to 1000 Sri Lankan Rupees per day. (Note: I did not ask Holyrood about their current pay rates, but Sri Lanka’s tea workers were protesting for better pay while I was in the country in 2018. You can read about it here.)
Both men and women can be pluckers, but the women do the bulk of the work. Men are often tasked with other tasks like fertilising, pruning and weeding.
Once plucked, the tea leaves are sorted by grade, dried, fermented, rolled, and packaged; this whole process takes less than 24 hours from the moment the tea leaves are plucked.
It’s more than just a place of employment, though. Holyrood Estate, like most plantations, is also a community. There are about 680 workers here but almost 4000 people live on the site nestled between the tea leaves.
“It’s like a village,” the manager of Holyrood Estate says over a cup of tea.
He shares with me that despite being the boss of this plantation, people look up to him If something happens, he is often called to help out 24/7.
“They also don’t treat me as a boss but as a leader. They consider me a leader and that’s different.”
While some workers live in dormitory style accommodation, there are also houses for families. There are preschools and a new primary school.
I was proudly shown the new primary school by the headmistress, just after the final bell has run. She spoke of the 180 children she cares for – two who I got to meet (their mother is one of the teachers) – and how the school was funded by The MJF Foundation.
The MJF Foundation is the charitable arm of the Dilmah tea company, named after the company founder Merrill J. Fernando.
While Dilmah is a business, there seems to be a genuine desire from the company and managers to help provide a good life for those who live on the plantations and the best life possible for the children.
It’s not just the schools. There are medical centers, regular recreational activities, and offers to help fund higher education for the brightest students.
From a corporate point of view, looking after the people and families that live on the estate is simply smart business.
“If we don’t look after them, someone else will get their service. We need to have good relationships, otherwise, they will leave our company and go and work somewhere else.”
As you drive around Holyrood Estate you pass dozens of tea plantations and they all need workers to pluck, dry, and process just a small part of the billion-dollar business that are found on the tea plantations in Sri Lanka.
“Enough business talk,” the manager of Holyrood Estate said smiling as he began pouring the amber liquid into my cup, “it’s time for a cup of tea.”
How to visit a tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s Tea Country
While Holyrood Estate is not open to the public; tea tourism to Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly popular and there are quite a few ways for you to explore the tea plantations in Sri Lanka during your trip.
Three tea plantations in near Nuwara Eliya I recommend you visit are:
Pedro Tea Factory – one of the most popular with tourists, the factory was built-in 1885 and provides tea factory tours, tea tastings, and ability to wander through the plantation at leisure.
Mackwoods – you can’t miss the huge ‘Hollywood’-esque ‘Mackwood’ sign from the train (which you can take a photo with!). A visit to Mackwoods will have you visiting the tea museum, including a visit to the factory floor to see how tea is processed.
Uva Halpewatte – while the other factories explain the process, at Uva Halpewatte you get hands-on. They encourage you to touch, taste, and sip different teas as you learn about the tea making process.
How to get to Sri Lanka’s Tea Country
Sri Lanka is an island nation in the Indian Ocean just south-east of India. From Australia, the only non-stop flight to Colombo is with Sri Lankan Airlines departing Melbourne.
If you prefer to have a stopover en-route to Sri Lanka, the best cities would be Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and then connect onto one of the regularly scheduled flights to Colombo with Sri Lankan Airlines. (Read my thoughts on flying economy onboard Sri Lankan Airlines!)
Once you’ve arrived in Sri Lanka, there are two main ways to get to the tea plantations in Sri Lanka: by car and by train.
By far the easiest way to make the journey from Colombo is by train. If coming from Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, there are a number of services each day that will take you to Nuwara Eliya and beyond to Ella. From Kandy, it takes about 2hrs by train to get to Nuwara Eliya.
The train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, or beyond to Ella, is considered one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. There are a few important things to know when booking tickets:
- This is a very busy route and tickets need to be booked in advance. The train station will advise you to book more than two weeks in advance but tickets can only be purchased in person.
I highly recommend considering using 12go – one of my favourite companies to book train and bus tickets through in Asia – who will book your rail tickets in advance to ensure when you land you are ready to go.
Unreserved tickets can just be got on the day, but get there early to ensure there is still one available for you. There is no guarantee, especially during peak season.
- The train is divided into three classes: first, second, and third. Room in the third class cabin is limited as this is the primary ways locals travel, so I would highly recommend first or second so you have more opportunity to spread out and be able to take photos.
To be honest: there isn’t a huge price difference between each class. For around $2 more, book a 2nd Class reserved ticket to ensure you have some extra personal space and the ability to move freely to capture photos.
One thing to note: First Class comes with air conditioning and so many of the windows won’t open and you’ll need to go to the open doors at the end of each carriage to take photos or do so through the glass.
- If the idea of holding on to a rail to look outside makes your stomach churn, make sure you get a window seat on the right-hand side of the carriage when facing the front of the train. You can thank me later! 😉
I recommend not rushing from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya/Ella, and highly recommend spending at least one night in countries second largest city and former capital, Kandy.
I stayed at the Cinnamon Citadel hotel and it is stunning, well-priced, and just a short tuk-tuk ride from the heart of the city! If you want to skip Kandy and limit the number of stunning vistas you’ll see, there is an overnight sleeper service from Colombo to Ella.
You can also drive to Nuraya Eliya or Ella. I highly recommend booking with a local driver as driving in Sri Lanka is a complicated business and the roads are – at times – full of pot-holes.
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I travelled to Sri Lanka as a guest of Cinnamon Hotels and Sri Lankan Airlines,
however, this experience was facilitated by myself, Dilmah Australia and Holyrood Estate.
All thoughts, opinions, and tea drunk are – as always – my own.