Tag Archives: Asia

Travel Guide: Galle (and a brief stay in Negombo)

After the cool climate of Kandy, which you can read about here, Mitch and I made our way south to Galle. Galle is normally very hot and they were having a heat wave. The locals couldn’t stop talking about it! We couldn’t stop counting the hours between our iced coffee breaks, but we absolutely loved our time in Galle. I’m so glad we ended our trip there; it left me feeling very light and joyful for the experienced that we’d had and the time we’d spent together.

We arrived in Galle after dark on New Year’s Eve (granted, pitch black was about 7pm). There’s a large Muslim population living in the Old Fort section of Galle, mostly families descended from prosperous merchants during the Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial eras. Over the course of our visit, multiple locals complained that living in the Fort had gotten too expensive; apparently about half the homes are now owned by foreigners.

Galle seemed rather quiet when we walked around town in the evening and we soon realized that most locals had gathered on and around the ramparts built by the Portuguese and enlarged by the Dutch to fortify the city. There’s a beautiful breeze up there and we could see stars for miles. With the ocean crashing below us, there was really nothing that could have made me happier (except, perhaps, a beer). We knew immediately that Galle was going to be our favorite of the places we visited in Sri Lanka.

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How can you help but love a town with dessert food trucks?

Most of the restaurants were closed by the time we arrived, but it seemed appropriate to eat at a Middle Eastern restaurant that served amazing, authentic food (but, predictably, no alcohol). Our Airbnb was located next to a mosque and across the street from another one, so we heard prayers each night and each morning, which I loved. I heard prayers at a mosque for the first time on Arab Street in Singapore earlier this year and was stunned at how similar the melodies and words are to prayers that I’m used to in a synagogue. Really cool.

Mitch went for a run the following morning, New Year’s Day, despite the incredible heat. I made friends with a young guy running a restaurant and hotel near our Airbnb and drank an iced coffee while I waited for Mitch to turn up (and then had another one). We spent the day wandering through the streets and enjoying the colonial architecture and atmosphere of the Fort. Based on the number of churches and their sheer variety, it was easy to identify missionary influences. The majority of our time that day and the next day was spent wandering up and down streets with adorable names like Small Cross Street and Middle Street.

As I’ve said before, the ocean is my happy place. We spent quite a while walking along the ramparts of the Fort and then simply sitting down and starting at the ocean below us. The much-needed breeze was at its best up there and there seemed no reason to leave until we got hungry. Before lunch, however, I did happily walk into the Indian Ocean in my sandals and in my dress and I was perfectly delighted. Crossed that off my bucket list! Just like the previous evening, locals were at the beach going swimming and it looked lovely.

Mitch and I would have taken a dip, but we had errands to run. Mitch’s aunt had sent us on a quest for crystals and gems, which are apparently a hot commodity in Sri Lanka. Ideally, we would have shopped at the Pettah in Colombo but that was far too overwhelming. Although most shops were closed for Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, most jewelry and gem stores in Galle are owned by Muslims and therefore remained open. We had a lovely chat with a woman who sold gems in the front room of her owned, bought a few things, and hopefully accomplished that mission!

We were particularly excited about our evening activities for the New Year. Our friend Janitha’s home town is Galle and he invited us to his family’s house to meet his parents, grandparents, and brother and enjoy some traditional New Year foods, most of which are sweets! It was a very interesting cultural experience to be in a local home and learn about the local foods that we were enjoying. Definitely a highlight of our Sri Lanka travels!

The following day was even hotter and we continued our wanderings (photos above) but took breaks every 90 minutes or so to walk into a shop to stand under a fan or to enjoy an iced coffee and sit under a fan, though we never truly cooled off. It reminded me of the coldest skiing days when you go in for hot chocolate every run or two but never actually warm up until you call it quits for the day.

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Even this plant was hot!

We did make our way into the Dutch Reformed Church, which was really interesting because it had a cemetery outside and tombstones in the floor inside. It was strange to be in a church in shorts, especially a church that is still active on Sundays, but the officials didn’t seem to mind.

After two nights in Galle, as with everywhere else, it was time to move again. The economical option was to take a bus back to Colombo and then a taxi onto Negombo, the beach town 10km from the airport where we’d arranged to spend the last night of our trip. However, neither of us had particularly enjoyed the bus ride to Galle and didn’t feel the need to repeat it, especially considering how far under our budget we were for the trip. So we went with the non-backpacker option and hired a taxi that got us to Negombo in about two and a half hours. The only unfortunate part was that I left my Kindle in my luggage and my luggage in the trunk; I couldn’t reach my bag, so I had a nap instead.

As we drove into Negombo, we saw more churches than mosques or temples. We also saw Jesus bumper stickers on lots of tuk tuks! The driver told us that a large percentage of Negombo’s population are Catholic, which, for our purposes, meant much easier access to Sri Lanka’s Lion beer. We were delighted.

After checking into the hostel, we walked across the street to the beach and stopped at the first restaurant guesthouse that we saw. It was located in a charming garden right on the sand.

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We ordered a couple beers with lime slices and vegetable and fish curries. We ate, drank, enjoyed the breeze off the ocean, and talked about our favorite experiences from the week.

When the sun started to set, we took off our shoes and walked along the beach, both in and out of the water. Step into the Indian Ocean round two! And the sunset was beautiful.

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Mitch and I left the hostel a few hours apart the following morning to journey back to our respective homes. I returned to Singapore feeling refreshed and relaxed, optimistic about the rest of the school year, and excited for the future.

It’s all an adventure, really. Life, they say, is a journey and not a destination.

Travel Guide: Kandy

This posts details our second location for the week Mitch and I spent in Sri Lanka. You can read about our first few days in Colombo here.

After our two nights in Colombo, Mitch and I ventured to Kandy on a beautiful train ride. I really loved watching the countryside and getting glimpses of the towns and villages that we passed. We paid a little bit extra for first class tickets on the express train, which meant comfy seats, air-conditioning, and stops in only a few towns. Otherwise, we would have been looking at wooden benches, assuming we could get seats at all, and a much slower journey. The view as we climbed through the hills was really beautiful.

 

We had a bit of an issue with the guesthouse where we’d planned to stay on one of the hills overlooking Kandy, so we ended up at a place by the lake. Kandy is very a small town and feels that way. Most restaurants and shops close quite early and it is rather challenging to find anywhere that serves alcohol. Rough Guides had warned us that this would be the case and they were right! We enjoyed a walk through town on our way to find lunch.

 

The main attraction within Kandy itself is the Temple of the Tooth, which contains a tooth relic from the Buddha. I first learned about Buddhist relics when I visited Hong Kong about a year ago. While seeing the tooth itself is off limits, as is photography for most of the temple and the temple’s museums, the architecture itself was really enjoyable.

 

In a coffee shop later on, Mitch and I decided we wanted to spend the following day exploring the hills around Kandy. We made a few calls and ended up booking a tour to hike Knuckles Range under the guidance of Ravi Desappriya (his website is here though we contacted him by phone), recommended by the Rough Guides book.

The sunset around the lake that night was really pretty:

 

Ravi and a fellow guide picked us up early the following morning and we joined two other couples, one about our age and the other a bit older. All four of them lived in London, but one was originally from Hungary. All were very well traveled, and my own experiences paled in comparison to some of their adventures. Travelers are probably my favorite people. Everyone is friendly and open-minded, everyone has a story to tell, everyone asks questions, and everyone is eager to learn. We all had a lot of fun on our trek, which started with a drive of about an hour and a half into the mountains. We drove through tea plantations and small towns, stopping once to pick up the lunches that we would take into the Knuckles with us, once to enjoy an absolutely delicious breakfast and tea at a dingy family eating house that I wouldn’t have even noticed on my own, and once to buy bananas from a market that we passed.

 

Once we arrived at Knuckles Ridge, the sun was fully up and it was hot, much hotter than it had been when we started. We began at the foothills of a tea plantation . . .

 

. . . and then ventured into the Knuckles.

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While I initially wished I was wearing leggings, I ended up quite happy with my shorts. The guides taught us about the plants we saw and bird calls we heard as we hiked. They were also instrumental in helping us pick off the leeches that we found everywhere on the path. Everyone was in socks and running shoes except for me (I had my favorite pair of Tevas, of course) but it didn’t seem to make a difference. The guy in our group who got it the worst was wearing running shoes without socks, but everyone shook leeches out of their shoes and socks at least once. Those little buggers are clingy and not very friendly! The scenery, however, more than made up for the discomfort.

 

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Look, Mitch and I asked someone to take a picture of us! This is the only time this happened over the entire trip.

We stopped for lunch after about three hours of walking and then headed back down a slightly different path towards the residential areas of the tea plantations. Mitch and I had a really fantastic experience visiting tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia in December 2014 and I’ve loved them ever since. You can read about that trip here and see loads of pictures of the tea plantations. It’s a little different from what we saw in Sri Lanka:

 

The path guided us towards a waterfall and natural pool, which reminded me of Letchworth State Park (take a look here) back in Upstate New York. This waterfall was a lot smaller than the gorges at Letchworth, but it was so peaceful to sit on the rocks in this beautiful environment with my feet in the water.

 

We were quite tired when we got back in the evening and more than happy to have an early dinner and head off to bed. Although we knew we had a long day of travel to look forward to the next day, Mitch still got up to go for a run in the cool morning air so I took a walk around the artificial lake in the center of Kandy. The lake was created in 1807 using forced labor on what used to be rice paddies, according to Rough Guides. It’s amazing how much beauty is a result of blood. History is the best!

 

Finding breakfast that morning was a bit of a challenge because it was New Year’s Eve and a lot of restaurants were closed. However, by that point we understood enough about Sri Lankan food and etiquette to sort out food and coffee at the two options available. It helps that it has never been easier to be a vegetarian and travel. That is very challenging here in Southeast Asia, but Buddhism in Sri Lanka means that vegetarianism is encouraged. Every local restaurant that we checked out, as well as many fusion and Western places, had vegetarian friendly menus and it was great!

We had a really positive experience during our time in Kandy and I’m really glad that we did. Everyone who we talked to prior to arranging our trip was adamant that we visit and they were right. In the future, I’d do what one of the couples we met on our hike had done. They landed in Colombo and immediately made their way to Kandy, planning to spend a couple days there and then hike Adam’s Peak and World’s End, both of which are located further south than Kandy in hill country. It would be lovely to spend more time in that area in the future.

After Kandy, it took us a tuk tuk, a train, a taxi, a bus, and another tuk tuk to make it to our next (and ultimately favorite) destination – Galle! Look out for that post soon.

 

Travel Guide: Colombo

This is the first of three blog posts that illustrate the week Mitch and I spent in Sri Lanka. You can see the posts for Kandy and Galle here and here, respectively.

Mitch and I met up in Sri Lanka for the week I had off for spring break. Going to Sri Lanka had been in the back of our minds since we met two Sinhalese Sri Lankans at the guesthouse we all stayed at in Langkawi, which was my and Mitch’s first travel experience in Malaysia. When I was in the States back in December Mitch and I spent a considerable amount of time evaluating travel options for this week. We considered a variety of places – Japan, Korea, Nepal, Kenya, Iceland, Latvia – before settling on Sri Lanka because it was relatively halfway (4 hours for me and 20 hours for Mitch, which was better than 17 hours for each of us) and quite affordable (the entire week ultimately cost only $300 more than flights to Kenya). And, of course, we have friends in Sri Lanka. Who we met in Malaysia. Which I just think is so damn cool.

One of these friends in particular, Janitha, was instrumental in helping us plan what we were going to do for the week. He also made sure we were able to work around the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year, which fell during our travels. We had a useful guidebook, Rough Guides, but having a friend is even better.

My flight landed in Colombo a few hours before Mitch’s, so I had some time to explore on my own.

The highlight of Colombo was meeting up with Janitha and Jayamin for drinks and dinner (yes, in that order). They took us to a bar at the Old Dutch Hospital (exactly what it sounds like) and then to a restaurant where Jayamin ordered me a plate of cheese kotthu, which, though considered standard local fare, was everything drunk food should always be.

The next day, Mitch and I took our first Sri Lankan tuk tuk ride. Tuk tuks were the easiest and most accessible mode of transport everywhere we went. Janitha told us about a very useful app, Pick Me, to hail tuk tuks in Colombo. It’s basically Uber for tuk tuks and worked really well!

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We couldn’t help but notice this “water bottle” in our tuk tuk . . . based on his driving, its contents are questionable.

We wandered through the colonial district to take a look at some of the buildings left over from the Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonization periods:

By far my favorite part of Colombo was our visit to the Pettah, Colombo’s bazaar district. I’ve been to markets literally all over the world and felt so out of my element here! It was big and loud and crowded, divided as it would have been when guilds were in power, and totally overwhelming. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I would not have been comfortable attempting to haggle over any purchase. I haven’t had a problem doing that anywhere I’ve been in the past, but this felt very different to me, perhaps because of the sheer numbers of scams and general harassment we had encountered by that point (more on that below).

The Pettah district is also home to a stunning mosque:

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We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Independence Arcade (used to be the Colombo Asylum and is now a pretty spiffy mall) and Viharamahadevi Park. I particularly liked that bike rentals were available!

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At the end of the day, we watched the sun set from the rooftop of our hotel and enjoyed espresso martinis. Coffee time had passed and we both wanted the caffeine, so we improvised. It worked.

Later that evening, we headed to Galle Face Green to have dinner at a different hotel located by the shore of the Indian Ocean. We could hear and smell the sea and I felt completely at peace. The ocean has always been my happy place.

As this is a travel post, I’m going to close with a note of caution:

Sri Lanka is the only place I’ve been where I wouldn’t have felt comfortable alone. However, even being with a buddy (in this case, a pretty tall guy) didn’t diminish the amount of harassment we experienced everywhere we went. The Pick Me app likely saved us from extortion, just based on how much regular tuk tuk drivers suggested for a rate. The location of one of our guesthouses had disappeared so we had to find a new one. Boys and men hurled dirty comments in broad daylight, regardless of whether I was alone or with Mitch. It was the sexual harassment and its various forms that surprised me the most. I’d definitely still advocate a visit, but I’d also suggest getting out of Colombo as soon as possible. We much preferred Kandy and the hills and simply loved Galle. Click on the links to read about them!