Ella, Sri Lanka, and the spa day from hell

Oh, Ella. So much good and so much bad.

We left the jungle where it was almost unbearably hot and humid (and this from a girl from Louisiana…), and in three hours were transported to the mountaintops of central Sri Lanka in Ella. I didn’t pack ANY cold weather clothes, and was shocked to need to layer everything I had, plus James’ Northface jacket, plus a blanket to eat outside!

On the way into town we passed a waterfall that goes down the whole mountain.


The actual town is a small backpacker haven, full of trendy eats and trail maps. We decided to stay in a two room villa about 25 minutes from town, on the actual edge of a mountain. We arrived to the most gorgeous sunset I have ever seen, as our villa overlooked the local tea plantations.

(Our villa is the little white house you see above) Our in-house chef/everything man made us a six course dinner with, to this day, the best curries we have tasted.

The next day we had a lot planned. After breakfast and sunrise at the villa, we hiked to the famous nine arch bridge built by the British. We discovered we had about an hour until the next train, which I needed for photos, so we hid from the rain under a tent in a local’s backyard with another American couple (that live in Belarus) and had tea. We told them of our plans for the day which included a massage at a local spa Shyam (our driver) recommended. They then informed us it “had 78 ‘terrible’ reviews on Tripadvisor, including one that said it should be shut down,” and to try the spa they went to instead which was in central Ella. Poor Shyam was so upset to hear of bad reviews at his place of recommendation that he immediately changed our bookings to the spa the couple recommended. “Get the hot oil forehead drip” they said. “It is so amazing,” they said.

After the train came and we got our photos, we hiked back to our car and went to 98 resort and tea plantation for lunch. The views were epic and the food was outstanding. The weather up in the mountains is fickle, and one second it is pouring and the next the sun is shining, with no warning or reason in between. After lunch we decided to hike small Adam’s Peak, since large Adam’s Peak requires a professional trekking guide, 6 hours round trip, and 5000 steps (NO THANKS). The small peak was no joke, and while the view was nice, the weather changed when we got to the top so we mainly saw clouds. We then raced back in the pouring rain, doing the 90 minute hike in 45.

We were ready for our spa and looking forward to it after the reviews of the others. Shyam brought us into town and dropped us off at the spa, which was across from the place we wanted to do dinner. James and I walked in and realized the spa was all of two rooms, each about 8x10, but since we were the only ones there it seemed ok. The wall was covered in shelves of repurposed Patron bottles full of homemade infused oils, so it seemed like my kind of place. I chose a massage, the indian oil treatment thing, and herbal face packs. James chose a massage, this coffin body baking thing the couple recommended, and the Indian oil treatment.

We were both brought into the massage room which had 4 tables, like wooden plank tables, with towels over them in one small room. It was just us, so ok? They told us to strip but leave panties on. Deal. We were then told which tables to lay on, and as I settled I realized my towel was not a fresh dry towel, but like a used towel with oils from God knows how long. Should have ran then. My “massage” started, with the lights above me in the room still glaring, the curtain over the door to the other room still open, and Australians now in the other room bartering services and peering our way. I was covered in a greasy towel, which my masseuse promptly pulled down past my breasts and began with a full on breast exam. I tried pulling the towel up, she pulled it down, this went on a couple minutes then I gave up and realized by now everyone had seen my tits, so fine, whatever, take action when you can.

My massage then became some version of an attempt at fire starting on my skin. James could hear my massage as she furiously and lightly rubbed her calloused hands over sections of my skin, making a quick and relentless wisping sound. I convinced myself that this was some attempt to use a lymphatic technique to warm me up, but after 25 minutes I was told to roll over and realized all hope was lost. I asked her to press harder, “More pressure,” “stronger,” any version of ACTUALLY MASSAGE ME I could think of, to no avail. I looked over and James was getting a normal, silent, massage, and now the other two tables had topless strangers. Perfect.

The only time the massage slowed was when she was working on my gluts and her hand took a serious detour, UNDER MY THONG, to caress my butthole. There is no other delicate or pretty way of saying that, I have tried. I thought this was accidental but she did it 3 more times. What world am I in right now?

So finally the massage concluded, and I was rolled back over to the bright lights in my eyes, and my herbal face packs were instead an exfoliating facial. Sure, whatever, the massage is over.

After that I was asked to come into the other room, but not given my clothes, so clung the oily towel to cover my front end as I squeezed past the bare breasted Australians. Into the other room I emerged, where James was starting his coffin treatment. It was a coffin with a hole that his neck and head stuck out off. On the inside, he laid on wooden planks covered in (not fresh) eucalyptus leaves. Then they turned on steam below which filled the coffin and came out the hole to his face. He seemed fine, and I was put on a table next to him to get my hot oil treatment. In theory, you lay below this oil canister that they fill with hot infused oil, dripping it slowly onto your hairline, then give you a killer head massage. In theory.

In actuality, I got cold oil dripped on my hairline that smelled like burnt pizza grease. Then I was asked to get up and placed sitting in a chair, still clinging to my grease towel, while they did the head massage. The head massage was actually wonderful, but I was distracted by James’ whimpering as the coffin apparently went from “a 2 to a 10” and he began to bake. Meanwhile, the girl after me getting her head drip had oil that was too hot (I clearly won on the choice of wrong temperature) and was crying out as her scalp fried. But my head massage was good.

James was released from his coffin and laid on the oil drip table once the other girl fled, and while he had oil that was the correct temperature, they walked off and it dripped onto his nose and in his eyes instead of on his hairline. The place was bumping now, with 8 people crammed awkwardly and with their bodies overexposed in the small two room spa shack.

James and I were offered the sauna, which I turned down but he thought could be a saving grace. I went to the bathroom instead, hoping to shower the pizza oil that now covered my body. Instead there was no water. Like, at all. No toilet water, no sink water, nothing. OF COURSE. So I went out and put on my clothes (I had to step over a stranger getting a treatment and dig under his things…).

I asked to check out and the owner appears and says, “How was your massage?” Since I can hear EVERYTHING in this place, I knew the owner had not asked anyone about any treatment. I also knew my fire starting, breast pressing, butt-hole caressing woman was not a trained masseuse.

“It was terrible,” I said. “Like this,” and I rubbed my hands furiously and lightly over her arm.

“So you satisfy?”

“No, me no satisfy.”

She then tries to convince me to come back tomorrow for a free massage. Um, no thanks. But she makes me pay. Whatever, I want to leave.

It dawns on me I haven’t seen my husband so I ask where the sauna is. She point to a large container standing on end, like one of the old oval dive tanks of yesteryear, that was metal and yellow and had a tiny 6”x6” window at head height. He’s in there? There were a lot of shoes in front of it, so I was in the middle of wondering how many were in there when suddenly there was a loud thump and a hand appeared pressed against the glass. The door then creaked opened, total darkness inside and steam tumbling out, and I squeezed my eyes trying to see into the darkness for my husband, when I heard a very weak and insecure, “Wife??”

James came tumbling and gasping out, looking like he’s making weight for a fight from his dehydration, and terrified.

“I must shower,” he gasped.

“There’s no water,” I informed him, the crushing weight of this reality visually landing on his shoulders.

He tried to get dressed but struggled as he couldn’t stop sweating. We fled the place and made it to Shyam and the car, informed him of our trauma, and had to ask him to drive us 30 minutes back to our villa to shower and then drive another 30 back to town for dinner. We contemplated just going straight to dinner, but James said, “I just can’t eat when I smell this badly of pizza.”

Showers were everything, dinner was fantastic, and Shyam raised such hell when he called (and found out my massage girl was a ‘new hire,’ – bullshit, she was like a fruit slicer from next door) that they offered us two free massages. While Shyam couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t take the offer, I likened it to food poisoning. Even if the restaurant offers you a free meal as compensation—hell, especially if they offer you a free meal—you don’t go back.

So we ate dinner at Chill in town, a European owned restaurant with an open kitchen, live music, and great food, and had the best table on the balcony overlooking the city. Then we went back to our villa, packed our bags, and got ready to head north the next day to Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka.

“No more spas until Thailand,” I said.

“No more spas until they are expensive,” James agreed. There’s a time to search for a deal, but a spa isn’t one of them. To those Americans that insisted we change reservations to that spa, we hate you. 

But hey, Ella was one of the most beautiful places I have seen. So there's that.