The bus careened around yet another sharp corner and I grabbed onto a pole to stop myself tumbling out of my seat and through the open door. All the other passengers looked unperturbed, seemingly desensitised to the driver's erratic motoring skills, and familiar with being crushed against strangers for long periods of time.
Since our departure from the lush greenery of Ella that morning, we'd spent most of our time holding onto our seats and trying to catch the cool breeze that would sporadically bluster through the dilapidated bus.
The peaceful hill country vibes had dissipated as soon as we hit Sri Lanka's fume-heavy roads. Along the route we pulled in at bus stations where shouting vendors would board to sell spicy snacks wrapped in newspaper scraps for just a couple of rupees. A surreal playlist of traditional Sri Lankan music blasting from the speakers formed the soundtrack to our descent towards the balmy south coast.
It was a long six hours!
We'd enjoyed a colourful and action-packed first week in Sri Lanka, initially touching down in the capital of Colombo before travelling on to Kandy by train. After a few days exploring the breathtaking temples and gardens of the sacred city, we'd jumped aboard another locomotive for "the most beautiful train journey in the world" up to the ethereal little village of Ella. Here we'd trekked hard, eaten and drank to excess and luxuriated in the tranquil atmosphere.
But now our second week was beginning, which meant it was time for us to brave the six-hour bus journey down the country and explore the sandy south coast, starting with Mirissa - a small town in the district of Matara.
Mirissa: Palm trees, warm waves and fresh seafood
We jumped off the bus after an uncomfortable six hours, glad to be free of the claustrophobia and heat. Stood by the side of the main road, we were haggling with a tuk-tuk driver for a lift to our hotel when a red three-wheeler van pulled up alongside us. Bizarrely, the tiny vehicle was emitting a jingle reminiscent of ice cream vendors back home. However, on the window, where we expected to see images of frosty treats, there were instead numerous pictures of bread rolls and baguettes.
We arrived at our hotel with our newly purchased bread rolls, and sat in the comfortable reception as the staff brought us juice and a plate of fruit. It was immediately clear that Mirissa was going to reveal a totally different side to Sri Lanka to what we'd seen so far. It was time to relax.
Mirissa is simple to navigate: the main road runs parallel to the idyllic beach and is lined with hotels where you can eat and drink on the sand. There are a couple of turtle sanctuaries and places to hire surf equipment nearby, and the backstreets are home to a good number of shops touting swimwear and souvenirs.
We spent the first two days swimming in the hotel pool, glad to have some respite from the intense heat of the subcontinent. On the third day, we moved to modest beach-side accommodation in search of a more authentic experience, and swapped the pool for the warm, frothy sea.
From the beach, Mirissa's scenery is paradisical. Tall palms overhang the sands, casting large shadows that offer some respite from the midday sun, and golden rock formations jut out from the turquoise waves. In the late afternoon, you can watch local men venture out in colourful boats to catch fish for their dinner, and for ours. It's quite the sight; they all cast their nets together, bobbing around in the shallows, and then one-by-one paddle back to shore when they've netted enough seafood.
Dining in Mirissa was a delightful experience - fresh seafood is plentiful, luscious palms hang overhead, and hundreds of twinkling candles light the beach after dusk. At lunchtime you had to be a little careful with your belongings however, as the waves would often get a little too rambunctious, washing past your legs as you tried to enjoy a relaxing cocktail.
After four warm, sea-soaked days in Mirissa, we decided to move onto the historic town of Galle. Initially aiming to get a bus for the one-hour journey, we changed our plans after a tuk-tuk driver quoted us just 2,000 Sri Lankan rupees (£10) for the journey.
As we sped along the coast road, our driver informed us it was the first day of the Buddhist festival of Vesak. At one point, with no explanation, he pulled the red tuk-tuk over at the side of the road, and we were handed three paper cups of pineapple juice by revellers. Silently we all downed the sweet, sticky liquid in one, and then the driver honked his horn and we were swerving along the coast road to Galle once more.
Galle Fort: Picturesque and historical
Galle Fort is enchanting. A hybrid of Portuguese and Dutch colonial architecture, there are rows of high-end restaurants, rooftop bars, and boutique shops.
Outside the walls of the fort, Galle is like any of the other Sri Lankan cities we'd passed through: bursting with life. Crossing the boundary into the quiet, picturesque fort, I felt like we'd suddenly been transported back to Europe.
The fort is steeped in history; initially constructed in the 17th century, it acted as Sri Lanka's main port for over 200 years. Galle has at different times been under the control of the Portuguese, Dutch and British - and hallmarks of these European nations can be seen throughout, mixed with the Sri Lankan culture that now prevails.
Galle would have been the perfect place to kick back with a cocktail after our hard travelling - but Vesak meant it was illegal to buy or sell alcohol for two days.
We began our exploration at Galle Lighthouse and then began walking along the coast, soaking up the festival atmosphere. The beaches were full of families enjoying their extra days off work and nearby, a group of children were partaking in Sri Lanka's favourite pastime: cricket. From an old stone structure jutting out into the sea we got a stunning view of Galle Fort set against the lively sea.
Desperate for refreshment after just a few minutes in the heat, we headed to the old Dutch hospital, which is now a shopping precinct, and also home to a number of expensive bars and restaurants. We ordered a couple of coffees and surveyed our grandiose surroundings. The bright white arches and pillars of the old institute are typical of Galle's architecture - most of which still looks as good as new.
With it being Vesak, most of the museums and tourist attractions were shut, although we did manage to make it to Galle's Historical Mansion Museum. It was like walking into a house that had lain untouched for a century. There were dusty displays of coins, tobacco pouches, vases, typewriters, letters, and even memorabilia relating to the British royal family. Our guide showed us around the old mansion - entrance was free - and at the end of the tour, shunted us into an extremely expensive jewellery store, also located in the building.
We spent the rest of our time in Galle Fort wandering the pretty streets, enjoying the colourful decorations that had been hung for Vesak, and the quaint storefronts. Each night there was a parade in honour of the Buddhist festival, where stilt-walkers and drummers in national dress would take to the streets in a booming procession.
Sri Lanka: The verdict
Sri Lanka truly is a once-in-a-lifetime destination. From the stunning peaks and dewy air of the tranquil hill country and the gorgeous sands of Mirissa, to riding ancient locomotives and weaving through traffic in tuk-tuks:
"I'd enjoyed every minute."
Part of the charm is that, while the number of travellers flocking to Sri Lanka is rapidly increasing, the country is far from "touristy". Yet there is still plenty of luxury accommodation and opportunities for relaxation, as well as endless things to do and see.
My highlights included the breathtaking view from the top of Sigiriya Rock, where we saw mountains, greenery and lilypad-filled ponds stretching out in front of us. The challenging climb up Ella Rock, swimming in Mirissa's warm waves and dodging the monkeys at Kandy's Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic are experiences I'll always remember. But topping the list was our train journey up into the hill country, where we were able to hang out of the doors and immerse ourselves in the lush greenery that blankets the country.