Friday, March 13, 2015

Off to China and Central Asia - new blog on Travelpod

Hi All

So we're leaving for China and Central Asia in a couple of days. Unfortunately Blogger/Blogspot doesn't work in China so we're using a different blog address. Follow these new travels here:

There's nothing on this blog yet - we'll probably do our first update in April some time :)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Belated update (5 years later): Festival time in Bali...and our journey comes to an end...

So 5 years later we're about to head off to China and found that the final blog installment of our India trip was never posted.

So here's just a super quick summary: we went to Bali, spent much of the time with a Bulungula friend in Ubud, we traveled round the island on a scooter and did some incredible snorkeling. We also saw some amazing festivals (go checkout the videos at the bottom of this page) and climbed a volcano.

A wonderful month to end a wonderful year :)

The view from Dale's (our friend) house in Ubud - overlooking the rice paddies.

Water Temple

Rice paddies

Water temple - Balinese temples are much less garish than some of the Indian temples.

Another friend's epic Bamboo house on the Bali coast.

All the streets were adorned with festival decorations - there seems to be a different festival every 2 weeks in Bali.

Crazy Bali decorations!

A particularly crazy festival which involved 2 teams of worshippers fighting to get a bamboo bed-like structure inside their particular temple.

Festival food.

Hot volcanic steaming springs.

Top of the volcano.

Cooking an egg in the scorching volcanic earth.

Gili Islands - no cars, salty showers, snorkeling with turtles, beach music. 

Donkey transport around the Gili Islands

Cool, crazy ceremonies.

More crazy ceremonies.

And so ended an epic year. We promised ourselves that we would do a long trip every 5 years, and so it is that in a few days time we will leave for China and Central Asia. We will not be able to blog on this website in China as Blogspot/Blogger is blocked in China. We will post our new blog address on this blog soon.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sri Lanka - an easy cruise

After almost 10 months in India and Bangladesh we boarded a plane and made our way to the tropical isle of Sri Lanka. After the huge Indian subcontinent, travelling around an island about the size of one Indian state was an easy cruise.

We headed straight to the beach at Negombo from the airport rather than into the steamy capital of Colombo. Negombo was nice - although the beach was a bit India-style dirty - and we relaxed there for just a few days before heading into the hills, away from the pre-monsoon heat.

Our first stop off the super-cheap, rickety buses was Kandy, a tea-producing, hill station town nestled in a forested valley around a lake. There we stayed in a beautiful old colonial-style house filled with antique furniture and artworks, clusters of family photographs spanning the generations down to our host's great-grandchildren and odd knick-knacks including huge elephant tusks on either side of throne-like chairs, fit for a King. His grandfather was the nominated representative of the Sri Lankan people at the coronation of Edward VII and he had loads of interesting tales that he proudly shared over the lovely cups of tea we enjoyed on the porch overlooking the pretty garden.

The view from the hills surrounding Kandy

During a few chilled out days in Kandy we visited the very holy Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic which purportedly houses one of Buddha's teeth that was rescued from his funeral pyre. Unfortunately, you don't get to see the actual tooth so it was really just another temple visit, not very much different from the many others we'd seen before.

Although it is just a 20 kilometers across the sea from India, Sri Lanka is a very different country. 70% of Sri Lankans are Buddhist (Sinhalese) and just 15% are Hindu (Tamil). These two groups fought a vicious war for 25 years where both Buddhists and Hindus committed horrific atrocities. The Hindu Tamil Tigers have the claim to shame of inventing suicide bombing while the Buddhist government brutally persecuted the minority Tamils. If you believe Buddhism to be some sort of unique, peaceful religion, you'd be sad to know that in Sri Lanka militant Buddhist monks wield significant power and, during the war, actively encouraged a military solution to the conflict. One can see AK47 symbols on Buddhist temples here!

The military solution came last year when the government defeated the Tamil Tigers. The actual events that transpired at the end of the war are still shrouded in secrecy but it seems that there were large massacres of civilians as well as militants and much of the northern parts of the country, as we were to discover, is still very much off limits to foreigners.

This bloody recent history was not evident in the lush mountains around Kandy. In fact, Sri Lanka has a much higher standard of living than India and the towns and villages in the south matched or exceeded what you'd find, even in the wealthy Indian state of Kerala. The status of women in Sri Lanka is also considerably better than in India with women far more visible in all lines of business and in most kinds of jobs. Women tourists are also hassled far less.

We jumped onto a series of local buses and made our way to Adam's Peak, the highest climbable mountain in Sri Lanka. This mountain is holy to most religions as it has - what is believed to be - Adam, Shiva or Buddha's (take your pick!) footprint at its apex.

Adam's Peak

Every night at 2am hundreds of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim pilgrims begin climbing the peak so as to reach the top just around sunrise. We joined them on this surprisingly tough climb made up of over 5000 concrete steps. The view from the top was nice (though once you've been in the Himalayas...) but the sunrise that morning was a bit clouded over. The walk down was hot and sweaty and the cumulative 10 000 steps meant we both walked funny for the next 3 days (a common problem for Adam's Peak climbers)! We couldn't feel too hard core for having completed the mission as our fellow climbers included loads of old timers of over 70 years in age and one guy whose whole left side of his body had been paralysed in a stroke!

Colourful villages seen from the train

Next we hopped onto a train to the village of Ella, spoiling ourselves with first class seats in the special carriage at the back of the train that has giant glass windows all round so you get beautiful 180 degree views of the tea plantations and forests through which the train meanders.

Ella is a tiny village perched higher up in the hills from Kandy and so was cool and quiet, with views of the lush forests surrounding the area. We found a delightful guesthouse which had a verandah that was just made for us to do absolutely nothing but nurse our sore Adam's Peak muscles, contemplate the views and sip a nice cuppa or two (oh, yes, Rejane did move enough to get herself down to the spa for a full body massage, steam bath and hot oil hair treatment). We stayed 10 days! Once our legs had begun to recover we ventured out and did a bit of walking in the surrounding hills, villages and tea plantations. Our favourite mission was to walk along the railway tracks - used as a walking path by locals - and visit the lovely little villages along the way while dodging the train when it came past a couple of times a day. After a morning of walking we'd catch the afternoon train back to Ella just in time to avoid the daily afternoon thunderstorms which we enjoyed, again from our lovely verandah with the pot of wonderful Ceylon tea.

Walking the train tracks in Ella

here comes the train!

We met a number of different travellers in our time in Ella and got to know all the little restaurants and tea stalls in town. Another difference between Sri Lanka and India is that Sri Lanka only has a handful of traditional food dishes. The main one is known simply as Rice & Curry which is delicious and consists of (wait for it) rice and a mix of up to 10 veggie curries and one meat curry. The curries are not as rich and saucy as the Indian curries but were a nice change... although after a few weeks it did get a little boring. Perhaps due to the war (we don't really know why) there isn't much of a street food or eating out culture and sometimes just getting a chai could be a challenge. One favourite meal was the Muslim-made Kottu roti which consists of stir fried meat and veg to which a chopped up roti is added, this is all diced up rapidly with two giant knives making the famous sharp clanging, chop-chop-chop sounds heard when walking by. As with India, one has to be fast to avoid the dolop of salt or chilli powder on your fresh fruit and the sugar on your avo! I mean, SUGAR ON YOUR AVO!!!!! (Ja-sis, that definitely qualifies as the most unpleasant surprise to one's taste buds when you're not expecting it!)

On the train back to Kandy

After our long chill in Ella, we caught the train and a couple of buses to the town of Dambulla where we visited the famous caves with giant carved Buddhas inside. We stayed in a beautiful homestay/guesthouse called Little Dream out in the rural paddy fields near the lake and once again got stuck for a week...

Sleeping Buddha in Dambulla cave

We used Little Dream as our base from which to explore the historical sights scattered in the region. One of the most famous is Sigiriya ("Lion's Rock"), a giant stone amidst landscaped water gardens with the ruins of an ancient temple at the top. This giant complex dates back to the 5th century and was occupied as either the nation's capital or as a temple until the 14th century when it was abandoned. Although the buildings are mostly ruins now, there are still beautiful paintings in the rock's caves and the view from the top was great.

Sigiriya - gardens below and temple ruins on top

Sigiriya cave paintings

the steps up to Sigiriya temple - lion paws on either side

View from the top of Sigiriya onto gardens below

During our time in Dambulla, we decided to explore the area around the lake. What was supposed to be a quick stroll around the lake turned into a 5 hour mission when we got lost in the forest! After about 2 hours we were getting peckish and walked in the direction of what we thought was the main road for a snack. This just got us deeper into the forest with little water and no food. After another hour or so, walking aimlessly, getting hungrier and running out of water, we were very pleasantly surprised to stumble upon ancient ruins that had not been referred to in any guide books. Although the ruins themselves were nothing of the scale of Sigiriya, wandering among them deep in the cool forest was wonderful. We subsequently found out that these were the ruins of a monastery complex called Kaludiya Pokuna and dated back to the 9th century when a wealthy man gave 23 containers of gold to provide food for the monks "as long as the sun and the moon last." There was certainly no food there now, a fact our grumbling bellies could attest to, but we were given some water by the caretaker of the ruins who lives all by himself the forest. The information about the ancient, wealthy benefactor along with other very detailed instructions are all engraved on cave walls which, amidst the overgrown forests, gave us a bit of an Indiana Jones feeling of adventure! We enjoyed this mission so much that we returned with a travel buddy a few days later and discovered a stream and rock pool where we swam while having our skin exfoliated by nibbling little fish.

Wandering in the forests

Indiana Jones and The Forest Stupa

The girls getting exfoliated

We missioned off to other forest ruins in the area called Ritigala which involved busing and then walking for about 12km, the last stretch of which was through the forest along a road just swarming with beautiful white butterflies. These ruins, scattered all through the forest were made from giant stone slabs, linked by winding stone paths.

Butterflies everywhere - on the way to Ritigala

Ritigala ruins

We finally left our friendly Little Dream family and headed north to Anuradhapura where we visited the oldest tree in the world called the Sri Maha Bodhi which was planted in 288BC. It is now incorporated into a temple where Sri Lankans pay homage to the sacred tree.

Oldest tree in the world

The city of Anuradhapura was founded 3000 years ago and the ruins extend over 16 square km. We spent a scorching day wandering around these extensive stone ruins, visiting ancient baths, temples, giant stupas, castles and monastries... All pretty amazing, but by this stage of our trip we were completely templed-out and unfortunately the knee-high ruins of Sri Lanka just don't compare to the epic sights of India... it was time for something different...

Giant stupa in Anuradhapura

Stone baths in Anuradhapura ruins

We decided to head towards Jaffna, the main Tamil city, which had been off limits during the war. After a bit of searching we found a bus and headed north on the road. The further north we headed, the road and the surrounding towns became increasingly dilapidated and bombed out buildings became the norm with military posts almost after every 100m. After 2 hours or so on the bus we arrived at a large military complex where the soldiers spotted us and hauled us off the bus demanding to see our Ministry of Defense permit which we didn't have (apparently no-one has ever managed to get one of these). Despite the government's claims, the road to Jaffna is certainly NOT open to tourists - and the rumours that they have atrocities to hide will continue until it is.

So, more hot, rickety buses until we eventually arrived exhausted in Trincomalee, the scene of heavy fighting during the war but now a steamy, dilapidated coastal town. We spent a horrible sweaty night there at a dirty hotel on the beach before heading straight out to the first decent place we could find. Just 6km north we found the village of Uppuveli where we splashed out on a nice Italian guest house. This north eastern coast seemed like a different country to the southern half of Sri Lanka... dirty, bombed out buildings, military everywhere and added to all that, it got hammered by the 2004 Tsunami, like much of the Sri Lankan south and east coasts. Click here to get a sense of the destructive power of the Tsunami which killed over 250,000 people (not for the faint hearted!).

Snorkeling on Pigeon Island

The Uppuveli beach was ok, and we did some nice snorkeling at nearby Pigeon Island. We were still feeling the itch to see what was going on in the forbidden north, so we snuck onto some buses heading to Kokkilai Lagoon and even made it onto a boat heading for the island in the lagoon before, sadly, the military got us again. This is a beautiful area with huge tourist potential once all the bloody military stuff gets sorted out.

On Kokkilai Lagoon before the military turned us back

We made some lovely friends along the way and were invited to a lunch of rice and curry by a local Muslim family who treated us like royalty.

Our friendly family who treated us to lunch, near the Kokkilai Lagoon

The Trincomalee heat got too much for us so we headed south again, first to the nice seaside village of Kalkuddah and then on to the surfing village called Arugambay. We found ourselves a beautiful beach hut on stilts overlooking the beach and chilled for a week or so watching surfers and suicide-sunbathers (no matter how red and sore, they never give up!) and enjoying the large amounts of the local Arak spirits at a Full Moon Party that we and some friends managed to instigate...

Is that a tsunami coming?


Who's a lucky boy then?

After a fun week at Arugambay we headed back to Ella village where we met friends from Cape Town and a very long earth worm! We spent two night catching up on news from home and another day walking the train tracks before heading to the southern coastal town of Galle.

Big earthworm in Ella

Our last beach in SriLanka, Unawatuna

We spent a couple of nights in Galle, an old colonial British town with charming guest houses and restaurants which is fast becoming an "in destination" for foreigners with money to invest in property. We did a daytrip Unawatuna, a lovely beach spot where we relaxed for a day before heading to Colombo airport...

We had intended to spend 10 weeks in Sri Lanka, but after 6 weeks we decided that we needed something completely different - so we jumped on a plane and headed to...

(to be continued)