The Great Sri Lankan Adventure – The End.

And so the great Sri Lankan adventure came to a close in much the same fashion as it had begun. We woke up bright and early at 6.30 am, only to switch off the alarm and get back into bed till at least 7 am. Took a nice long warm shower and headed down for breakfast. It was nice to see nothing had changed in the week that we had been away and we had a nice, light breakfast and were treated to the scenes of a Sri Lankan wedding. The bride looked stunning in her traditional white sari and more than her dress, it was her calm, poised and elegant attitude that made her look all the more attractive. We stopped to look at the happy couple before going down to roam around in the basement souvenir shop that we had bought our first postcards from. No poo paper here (there was a souvenir shop outside Pinnawala selling a variety of products made from elephant poo), only the regular elephant statues, magnets, masks, coins etc. I got some Sri Lanka stamps for a colleague at work who collects stamps and my brother bought a book to read on the plane.

After a while, mum and I decided to roam around the hotel and do some exploring. We weren’t sure where we were going when we found ourselves next to a tiny garden with a pond filled with water lillies. As we approached the garden, we found that someone had already beat us there, a man dressed in traditional garb and a drum slung across his neck and we figured he was there for the wedding we had seen earlier. He was there for a wedding, but not that wedding. We had in fact chanced upon the site of another wedding. Right opposite our vantage point, the bench in the garden, passed the procession for another wedding headed by traditional musicians and dancers who led the bridal party. Mum insisted that the first bride looked better. I would have to agree. We didn’t take any pictures because we didn’t mean to intrude but the drummer had allowed us to take a picture of him when we had entered the garden , before he went back to taking pictures of the garden.

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I spy with my Sri Lankan eye… a drummer taking pictures

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So what was he taking pictures of?

We waited patiently for all the wedding processions to end before making a run for it back up to our hotel room where we put the finishing touches to packing up our luggage and watched TV. We ordered an early lunch, seeing as how we had to check out by 3 pm (the hotel had granted us an extension), and by the time we finished our lunch of a kid’s meal of fish and chips, cheese pizza and a regular burger, dad came back from his morning meetings and art adventures. He had picked up an enormous canvas as large as a king-sized bed. It was a painting of horses but quite mediocre and not to mention hurriedly done, not at all in the class of the painting he had brought back with him on his first trip. The more pressing point, however, was how we were going to lug it around at the airport. Dad had it wrapped up in newspapers and taped it up and by 2.45 pm we were ready to check out and head to the airport. We paid in cash; counting in thousands is tedious business and I can’t imagine how the Italians and Koreans manage.

We finally set off with our driver/guide who we had retained for the last day as well, choosing him over a hotel transfer to the airport because he was much more informative and because we just enjoyed his company so much. Driving down, he told us that the Dutch had once created a canal for transport but thanks to the canal, the sea water had seeped into a nearby river which could no longer be used and as a result of which nearby paddy fields were given up on. Also along the way, he pointed out that people were fishing for prawns on our left. There were no people, only the tops of wooden spokes could be seen and he explained that the cage-like wooden structures were used to trap the prawns. He told us that we could go for a boat ride there as well, but we just headed for the airport where we bid a fond farewell to our guide whose contact details we took down in hopes that we could meet him again if we got another chance to come back to Sri Lanka.

It’s amazing the things you take for granted, living in the UAE – like clean toilets and great airports. You can check in pretty much whenever you like (obviously not seconds before the flight), and you’re guaranteed to just go in and be able to reach your gate where you can lounge around (no pun intended) outside till the gate officially opens. In Colombo, however, it was was very different. As the airport is much smaller in scale, because we were early (as usual), we couldn’t check in. In fact we had to sit outside in the waiting area till they announced the check-in and that the gate was ready for us. That was around 5pm. We didn’t let that deter us and spent the time browsing around the souvenir shops in the waiting area. We ended up buying cashews and a cute elephant cushion cover, while dad had lunch and my brother sampled more of the local soft drinks.

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Elephant Cushion Cover

At around 5pm, we joined the long queue to check-in and found ourselves behind someone who was leaving his family for the first time to go to Italy. There were lots of tears and fond farewells and it was reassuring to know that people are capable of so much love. Since we were without a porter, my brother had to do all the heavy lifting, but unlike Dubai, the airport is not a marathon course and it was just a matter of minutes before we were back to where we started – the statue of Buddha we had first seen on arrival. We roamed around in the Duty Free for a bit only to kill time, grabbed a coffee and a croissant to gobble down before the gate opened. Luckily our gate was next to a restroom and we thought we’d take a trip there before checking in, but dad mistakenly thought the plane was boarding (an hour and a half early) and got us all checked in. In fact, the gate had only just opened and off we went inside past the last security check, doffing shoes and all. Unlike the rest of the airport which was rather warm, the waiting area was really cold, a sign of things to come. We waited patiently, dad facebook-ing, my brother reading his book, and mum and I counting the minutes.

Boarding call announcement at last. Our seats were split up so mum asked the Italian couple sitting next to the men if they’d perhaps exchange seats to which the amiable lady replied, “Yes we can!” and promptly went on to swap seats with us, leaving us all seated together – under the killer A/C ducts. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice and decided early on to get a blanket and proceeded to cover my head. I may have looked ridiculous, actually I did look really ridiculous because I really have no turban wrapping skills to boast of, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough. While the seats were as uncomfortable as when we flew down to Colombo, it seemed that the plane was now twice as cold. We were all huddled in blankets, and when I say all, I mean even the Italians and Europeans who were lucky enough to have hoodies and sweaters in their carry-ons because they were flying transit to Italy. Now where on earth were we supposed to get warm clothes, travelling from tropical Colombo to desert Dubai? I would have taken a picture of how ridiculous the entire cabin looked, except my fingers were numb and I wouldn’t take them out from under the blankets even if you paid me to. After a while it seemed the only requests the air hostesses were getting were to somehow raise the cabin temperature. They fielded the questions and repeated requests and each air hostess had her own response. Some said they had adjusted it (pacifying the people who would realize later they’d been conned), some said it was the cabin design and only our cabin was experiencing this extremely low temperature (you can’t really argue with aircraft design with the crew because they can;t really fix it, can they), some said it was simply not possible to change the temperature (again, it’s unreasonable to ask for the impossible so a great way to get people to stop asking) and yet others said the reason the cabin was so cold was because they were circulating external air into the cabin to prevent the spread of diseases. The last one seems like a sound reason, except by the time we landed in Dubai, the plane was a cacophony of people coughing, sneezing and blowing their noses. I think that flight caused more illness than it supposedly prevented.

Other than the sub-arctic temperatures, the flight was relatively uneventful (or maybe we were too numb to process anything), except for the one case of sudden turbulence and drop in an air pocket. It was so unexpected that there were cries in the cabin, a scurry of cabin crew rushing to their stations and one air hostess got injured. We reached Dubai safe, not sneezing, and on time thanks to the strong headwind. No rush at the immigration counter was compensated for by the extra long bus ride to the arrivals due to the then upcoming and now ongoing maintenance activities. In a short while, we were out of the airport and back at home with my fish who were glad to see the end of our week-long Sri Lankan adventure. Alhamdulillah.

The Great Sri Lankan Adventure – Day 7

That restful night that we were hoping for on Day 6 didn’t quite materialize. The dogs barked for the longest time and when they finally stopped we managed some shut-eye till something set them off again. Dogs aside, it was so cold that we kept waking up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet. It was only in retrospect, after we woke up, that we realized there had been extra blankets in the cupboard. In any case, the alarm went off at 5.45am and we pretended we heard nothing till 6am when I overcame my sleepiness and washed up. It was so cold that even the shawl seemed useless and taking a shower was the furthest thing from my mind. We headed for a buffet breakfast at 7am, but it didn’t match up to St. Andrew’s in Kandy, so we just nibbled a bit. My brother, at least, was happy to try different sauces with his freshly made pancakes – chocolate, berry, maple and what not.

Right after breakfast we headed for the hotel souvenir shop called “Memories”. The plan was to get some postcards, some to send to my friends and one to send to ourselves back home! In the same shop, we found some nice jewellery but alas nothing quite appealed to mum and after much browsing we gave up. Halfway through though, I had to make a mad dash to the restroom and when I got back to the store mum was missing. After roaming around, I finally found her and we made our way back to the store, bought the postcards, browsed around some more, then went to relax in the lobby where I filled out the postcards before mailing them at the reception.

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Even the view from the toilet is lovely

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Postcard Time!

We were thinking of checking out at 11am but my brother was keen on going horse-riding and our driver/guide was keen on showing us some lovely sites so we left the hotel by 8.30am. We stopped at Gregory Lake where you could see the typical swan pedal boats moored to shore. The lake was like a glittering jewel in the surrounding green mountains. All around were colonial period cottages that have now been converted to hotels, inns, travelodges and restaurants. Our guide promised us that if we visited again, he’d show us some good cottages to stay in. As per our guide, this area had never been occupied till the British arrived and started making the tea plantation and their homes up in the mountains. Among the settlers was a British governor with a penchant for killing the elephants native to the region. He hunted hundreds if not thousands of elephants for sport and to collect their ivory tusks. One day, he was struck down dead by a bolt of lightning which the locals say was nature’s way of punishing him for his transgressions. Even after his death, his tombstone has been the site of repeated lightning strikes.

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Passing the Post Office on the way to Gregory Lake

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A glimpse of Gregory Lake

Before stopping at the racecourse for some horse-riding, our guide took us to The Grand Hotel which had once been the residence of British governor in the 1800s. The gardens were beautifully manicured, the flower arrangements tasteful and the overall landscaping just perfect. We took our time strolling through the gardens, stopping at the children’s play area to swing on the swings (despite the sign explicitly saying 8 years and younger… I’m young at heart and I think that should count) before finally leaving for the race-course.

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Grand Hotel

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Grand Hotel

We were a bit late to arrive at Nuwara Eliyas when we did because the race season had just finished so we weren’t able to see the race course in all its splendour. Instead, we came across the race course, post races so the hoardings were being removed and general cleaning being done. In fact, it was the only place we’d seen in Sri Lanka that I would call having been in a state of disarray (with good reason). We started looking for a horse to ride and though our driver/guide warned us we would need to bargain, being no good at haggling we paid far too much. I would advise anyone planning to go to stop at LKRs 1000 and not more. As we walked in, we saw a horse with her foal snuggled next to her .We were told she had just been born the day before (feel free to go awwwww).

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Mummy with her newborn foal <3

At first, I was really eager to ride a horse, but changed my mind when I saw that the horses were so tiny. The family convinced me otherwise and I finally relented rode a tiny but strong little fellow around. It was getting late so we packed up, got back into the van ready to head to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. The way down was far more dizzying than the way up. We had to make a pit-stop at another tea factory so we could all use the restroom and also so I could steady my nerves which couldn’t handle the spiralling drive down the mountain. I managed to calm the nausea a bit with the fresh air and my brother took the opportunity to sample a local drink, Necto (Verdict: Yummy, like a strong version of Vimto). Back on the road, we stopped to get some sour green oranges, for lack of a better word. They weren’t oranges and they weren’t quite grapefruits either. Round, green and citrus about sums it up. It helped to suppress the bouts of nausea, if only for short spells.

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View from the next Tea Factory

Before we knew it, we had left the  beautiful mountainous landscape behind and were back in the hot, humid weather on the way to Pinnawala. Near the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, there are plans to start a zoo as well, and we could see the first phases of development. We reached the orphanage spot on time at 1.15pm, just in time for feeding the elephants. Again, the tickets were discounted and my brother and I got tickets to feed the baby elephants milk. Tickets for feeding fruit can be bought once inside. Once in, we rushed to the baby elephant milk feeding enclosure where we fed the sweetheart elephant milk from an oversized baby bottle which it drained down in a matter of seconds.

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Baby elephant asking for milk at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

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Milk feeding time at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage

Close by is the area for feeding fruits to much larger elephants. The elephant had a big appetite to match his big stature and gobbled up two entire baskets of fruits in a few minutes, skin and all. We fed her bananas, pineapple and watermelon. I’ve always loved elephants so it was great being up close watching their ever smiling faces. I didn’t imagine I would ever get up close to an elephant let along have my hand in their mouth but it was a brilliant experience.

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Looking at us asking for some more fruit

The orphanage also houses elephants who need to be taken care of because of serious injury, in some cases caused by stepping on landmines. After feeding and wiping off the elephant saliva, we stopped to watch a herd of elephants spray themselves with mud to cool down in the simmering summer heat. At around 2 pm we headed off for lunch at the same time as the elephants started off to the river. We headed to a restaurant overlooking the river so we could catch sight of the elephants bathing. The restaurant is a quick walk away from the orphanage and the way there is lined with souvenir shops that leave you itching to go inside. Because the weather had suddenly turned to an unbearable degree of hot and humid, even by Sri Lankan standards, we went straight for lunch. The restaurant was unfortunately not air conditioned so the heat dulled our appetites. Lunch was less than agreeable and the toilets apparently sourcing water straight from the river, but the view was splendid. We caught the elephants coming straight down the path and into the river  while we attempted the buffet. We ended up eating more of the fruits and lapping up the water much as the elephants were in the river next to us. We decided to make a quick escape from the restaurant and even forego the souvenir shops which we had promised ourselves we’d browse through after lunch.

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Waiting around before bath time

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Elephants cooling down in the river

Back in the air-conditioned car, after grabbing a bottle of water and some Pringles, we spent the longest time trying to cool down with wet wipes and magic tissues soaked with cold water. Because it was unnaturally hot, nature decided to right itself  and before the clock hit 3 pm, it started to rain. The massive downpour continued till we reached Colombo a few hours later. Having lived in a desert, I don’t think I’ve seen this much rain in all my life than I did in those hours driving down to Colombo. The scale of the thunder and lightning were such that I’ve never seen before, but must be commonplace to people living through monsoon season. The trip back to Colombo was nerve-wracking as we drove through blinding rain on narrow roads. As the rain thinned, we found ourselves passing the familiar cashew and pineapple salesman and knew we were almost back to where we had started – Cinnamon Lakeside. By the time we reached, we were exhausted and hungry. Luckily,we got great rooms and room service was yummy as usual. Nothing like pasta and french fries to get you back to your senses after a long drive. We flopped onto our beds, lazed around until dinner when we opted for Chinese at Long Feng. I was already full so I just nibbled on the spring rolls while the rest of the family had our usual Chinese menu of vegetable fried rice and sweet and sour chicken. It’s amazing how the same food can taste different from country to country, adapting to suit the local tastes. Dinner wasn’t as relaxing as we had hoped since the restaurant was packed. What with the sound of rumbling thunder outside and the raucous group seated close by, dinner was a noisy affair but we relaxed nonetheless and left near closing time. By the time we reached our rooms, the thunder had subsided and we were looking forward to a good night’s sleep in preparation for the flight on the evening of Day 8.

The Great Sri Lankan Adventure – Day 6

After a fitful night’s sleep on Day 5 (not for lack of a comfortable bed, but more because we’re not used to changing beds almost every day), we headed from for a yummy buffet breakfast and got ready to head out of Kandy and on to the tea plantations.

Since we didn’t get much souvenir shopping done, our guide was nice enough to take us to several placed in Kandy before we checked out in the afternoon. First off, we were taken to a woodcraft factory and store, Rajanima Craft, where they showed us the different types of wood from which crafts were made by hand and how they were dyed. We learnt that ebony is the only wood that sinks and heard for the first time about rainbow wood. Rainbow wood is shaved and the shavings dropped in boiling water which causes the water to change colour. By adding things to this solution, such as lemon juice or chalk powder or even dipping iron rods, changes the colour of the water to a variety of colours such as pink, purple, blacks etc. The dyes are natural and fast so colours will not fade once applied to the wooden carvings. The gallery was lovely, filled with statues ranging from elephants to tortoises, fish, traditional masks, statues of Buddha ad even living room furniture. We didn’t buy anything and moved next door to the Batik factory/shop where they make hand-made Batik designs. The lady there took us through the Batik process where designs are first sketched on pure cotton or silk and coated with wax where they don’t want to dye the design. The cloth is then dipped into dyes moving subsequently from the lightest to the darkest colour. The shop was cleverly designed in that you would finish browsing everything available, make your selection only to find out that the cashier is on the 3rd floor… which means you have two more floors of batik designs to browse through. I indulged in a cute black and yellow Batik shirt with elephants. We left shortly after and pulled over to see some more sights on the way. At one stop, mum bought the cutest elephant carved straight from a coconut.

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Stopping to see the white statue of Buddha on a hilltop

 

Next stop was the gem museum. When we entered, they showed us a video of the gem mining process. I never knew mining gems was such a labour intensive process and so dangerous as well for the miners. The store had lots of jewellery with precious and semi-previous stones and after much consideration, we got a couple of things at a great price. The heat wore us down and we headed back to the hotel to do a quick check-out so we could escape the after-school rush in Kandy. We were lucky enough to avoid it and soon enough we had set off on another scenic journey, this time up the mountains to Nuwara Eliya. The winding road up the mountain is beautiful beyond words. No picture can adequately describe the beauty of our journey up the mountain.

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Driving up the mountain to Nuwara Eliya

All the way up the narrow two way road were shops selling fresh produce. It was a bit dizzying going up the winding road, but the sight of the sprawling tea plantations makes you forget everything, nausea included. We took some shots next to a tea plantation, where we finally narrow room next to the road where the car could be parked. While admiring the scenery, we were suddenly accosted by some tea plantation workers who insisted on being in our photos and the insisted they be paid. The got pretty persistent even after being paid and followed us back to the car asking for all sorts of things from more money to change for Euros.

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Tea picking in progress

We finally shook them off and went on our way further up the mountain and stopped at a gorgeous rest-house from where we could see the waterfalls from the veranda. It was lightly drizzling and while the guys opted for lunch upstairs, mum and I stayed downstairs for a light lunch of tea, cake and some attempts at a selfie.

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River view from the rest-house

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Waterfall view from the rest-house

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Back on the wet road

We were then off to find the Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre. Mackwoods, we learnt, is one of the biggest tea plantations in Sri Lanka and they even auction their tea to big labels like Dilmah and Lipton, who then sell the tea under their own label. We went through the process of how tea is made and toured the factory which could use some serious Kaizen improvements. We couldn’t believe that only the first three leaves of the plant are used to make tea. After touring the factory and seeing their sensory room, we moved to the store which was jam packed. Interesting thing to note though… to become a tea taster you have to swear off alcohol because it dulls your taste buds. Back at the store we bought my favourite cinnamon tea, cherry tea for my brother who loves all things berry and some loose tea leaves before sitting down for a complementary cup of tea in the pouring rain. Now if only there had been a side of pakoray or samosas to go with that tea… The mountains surrounding the factory were stunning and the landscaping just outside the factory itself was lovely, being filled with flowers. Before the rain got too heavy, we decided to make a move lest we stuck on the way up.

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Mackwoods Tea Plantation

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Outside the Mackwoods Tea Factory

At last we reached the hotel, St. Andrew’s Jetwing Hotel. As we walked in, the weather had cooled down as we had been promised, so instead of the customary cool towels and juice at the hotel reception, we were greeted with warm towels and a really tasty vegetable soup. We headed to our rooms which opened out into a veranda on the ground floor from where you climb up to a small spice garden. The hotel staff explained that the hotel was not air-conditioned, for a second setting off alarm bells in my head, when I realized that I was actually feeling cold. In fact, the temperature gets so low that all rooms are equipped with heaters. Mum and I decided to enjoy the great weather and took a long stroll outside which the men chilled indoors. We went up the stairs opposite our rooms landing in the spice garden and then came back down and around the colonial block heading to the reception. The lawn was lush green and the flowers lining the sides of the lawn, the buildings and the footpaths were simply stunning. If I would have taken a picture of every flower I’d never seen before I think I would have reached my room only in time for checkout the next day.

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View from our room at St. Andrews Jetwing… Up the stairs to the spice garden

We took our time sauntering along in the cool breeze, going wherever the path took us until we found ourselves in the rose garden filled with roses of all colours. In the face of so much beauty, we just sat down in the rose garden to take it all in. After a while we heard the sound of rumbling thunder and decided to make haste and head back to the room. By the time we got back in, it had started to rain. What is rain without a good cup of tea? We all head down to the hotel lobby where we took tea and coffee. We lazed around, mum and  I wrapping our shawls around us tightly and the men wearing their sweaters, and I found myself in the library. The library housed books ranging from ancient surgical and orthopaedic texts to the latest John Grisham. Also in the library were the hotel’s old accounts registers, dating as far back as the early 1900s, which we thumbed through. They were so detailed that it was really amazing. They included the names of guests, dates of their stay and all their expenses from billiards to drinks, all written in immaculate hand.

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A rose in bloom at the rose garden

After a while, my brother headed to the snooker room, which boasts a 128 year old snooker table, and played a round with one of the hotel employees who obliged to be his opponent. He finally won and with that we moved to the dining area for dinner.

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128 year old Snooker Table

Dinner was a set menu set to the sounds of the piano, but the staff was very accommodating even with a set menu, replacing egg dishes which we couldn’t eat with salads instead. Soup, just as the soup we had been served at check-in, was simply delicious. I’ve never been one for vegetable soup but this was a class apart. For the main course, I picked the creamy pasta and mum the tomato pasta which the men opted for for a mean with rice, chili chicken and some other things. Unfortunately for me, the creamy pasta sauce was not very well made, so I had to share mum’s yummy tomato pasta instead. The staff, on seeing that my plate was still full, offered to change the dish for me but I was already full and didn’t want to overstuff myself in light of tomorrow’s long drive to Colombo. Dessert was delicious fruits and an even more delicious cake with passionfruit sauce. After a drawn out dinner punctuated with my dad requesting songs from the piano player that he had never heard of, we head back to our rooms when we realized it was time for the restaurant to close. Mum and I rearranged our suitcases before hitting the sack and as soon as we had snuggled into bed and switched off the lights, someone switched on the dogs who wouldn’t stop barking. So much for a restful night before our long trip back to Colombo on Day 7.

The Great Sri Lankan Adventure- Day 5

Day 5 saw us check out of Kandalama and head for Kandy, hoping to have a pit-stop at Peradinya Botaincal Gardens before checking in to the hotel (Earl’s Regency). It’s a good few hours between Kandalama and Peradinya, but the drive is well worth it thanks to the beautiful views and the fact that our driver/guide knew some great places to stop along the way. Before we left our guide decided to stop by the cave temple, and though we were not up for making the climb, we got to see the temple from the outside.

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Golden Temple, Dambulla

Heading to Peradiniya, we passed through the spice belt, an area known for growing spices such as cloves, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon among others, so our guide stopped at a spice garden where we were given a tour of the miniature version of the real sprawling 7 km spice garden. We saw, as we entered, a huge tree filled with ripened jackfruit hanging off the trunk and coconut shells creatively decorating the base of the tree.

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Jackfruit

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Cocoa…notice the attractive use of coconut shells dividing plantations

The spices we came across included vanilla, cardamom, jasmine, cinnamon, cloves, curry leaves, sandalwood, ginger and red pineapple among others. We learnt of their various applications, particularly in ayurvedic medicine. Once the tour of the garden was finished, we were ushered into a tiny wooden “schoolroom” where we sampled some spice tea. My mum loved it, but the strong ginger taste meant I gave up after the first sip. While sipping tea, we were handed leaflets detailing various spice concoctions for different ailments. We were particularly interested in the treatment for acne and sinusitis so we picked up some bottles in the store where we got another discount (Yayy for being a SAARC member).

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Red Pineapple

We finally reached Peradiniya Botanical Gardens and went in, taking along our driver/guide. The botanical gardens which sprawl around 60 hectares were once royal gardens. The area is too vast to cover on foot in a day and the garden offers the option of being driven around in a cart (similar to the ones you get at the airport). There weren’t any available when we reached, so we opted to go on foot, enjoying ourselves and taking in whatever we could. We came across a stunning variety of palms, ferns, trees that I can’t even name, flowers that I’ve never seen, a spice garden, a herb garden and even an orchid house which housed an amazing range of orchids. We took pictures ,of course, but nothing can truly capture the beauty of the gardens except an appreciative eye.

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Looking back at how far we’d walked

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Beautiful plants at the botanical gardens

We even came across giant bamboo which can grow upto 30cm a day.The weather turned hot and sticky soon enough and we decided to call it a day, but not before stopping at the sir-conditioned souvenir and coffee shop where we indulged in some drinks and got some  keychains.

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Giant Bamboo

One the road to the hotel, we were going through the heart of Kandy, past a multitude of shops and another gorgeous lake situated next to the Temple of the Tooth and Royal Palace. While we didn’t go in, we could easily spot the temple’s golden roof. We got stuck in traffic because the school’s had just gotten off so the streets were filled with buses and children in spotless white uniforms. We finally arrive at the hotel, Earl’s Regency, to the cool towels and refreshments but it was tough to cool down because there had been some sort of mix up and they didn’t have our booking, despite our having it confirmed it once before leaving for Sri Lanka, and once when he had reached Colombo. After much back and forth and analysis of email confirmations, they finally booked us in a for a night. We were accompanied to our room by a lovely lady, Nilu, who assured us again that all food was Halal and that we should feel comfortable going to the spa because there were only female employees and all ladies would be segregated from the male customers. The hotel setting was scenic, having being built along the same lines as Kandalama, upon a rock. The plus point of Earl’s Regency was, in the words of Nilu, the notable absence of monkeys which meant we could enjoy the view from the three balconies afforded by our corner adjoining rooms from where we could see the Mahavali River. We called for a quick lunch of pizza and pasta while my brother headed for the gym. The gym didn’t quite live up to his expectations, so he came back up rather quickly and we all ended up relaxing and enjoying the breeze from the balcony. And it’s a good thing we did because shortly, the wind picked up and, and much to our surprise and delight, it started to rain.

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Rain soaked walk to the hotel accomodation

Once the rain subsided, we decided to take advantage of the gloriously cool weather and explore the hotel. We found the passage between the rooms and the main hotel lobby branch to the left, so we took the road less travelled and found ourselves in the children’s play area where we spent the time swinging in the rain.

Back in the hotel room, we spent the time before dinner watching Argo. It’s a really good movie but unnecessarily nerve-wracking at times. Just as the movie ended and our eyes started drooping, it was time for dinner. The trouble getting dressed to head down to the restaurant was worth it in the end, with what was the best buffet of the trip thus far. I indulged in the creamy mushroom pasta and the Napolitana pasta and for the first time actually went for seconds. The choices were varied and everyone had a hearty meal. We roamed the dark veranda outside the restaurant before returning to bed, resolved to wake up early, do some shopping in Kandy before finally heading to the famous Nuwara Eliya on Day 6.

The Great Sri Lankan Adventure – Day 4

After a long Day 3, we woke up bright and early (6 am is actually later than we normally wake up) to get ready to go to Polonnaruwa, the second ancient capital city of Sri Lanka. Opening the curtains we could see macaques on the trees having a spot of breakfast and animatedly jumping and swinging from tree to tree. Last night some monkeys had actually paid my brother and dad’s room, scratching the windows and were still loitering around in the morning. As we ventured out of our rooms, the corridors where our rooms were located at Kandalama were filled with birds dive-bombing and flying at full speed inside and back out into the lush greenery.

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Birds in morning flight at Kandalama

Watching our heads, we headed for breakfast where you could see the monkeys around as well, peering in. We finally set off at 8am. First stop, Sigiriya. The climb up Sigiriya takes roughly an hour and a half or so, so we had to decline because the parents couldn’t make the climb. Instead we admired the Lion’s Rock from afar and learnt more about the Royal Palace and Water Gardens from our driver/guide. He explained to us that the water gardens contained pools fed by the lake below. How they managed such a feat at that time, I can’t imagine. The sight is splendid and another time, I would like to go closer and see the lion’s paws closely and walk up to stroll in the gardens.

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Sigiriya

We had underestimated the distance to Polonnoruwa but ended up enjoying the drive through the beautiful forest passing Habarana and Minneriya National Park which offers elephant safaris (excursions can be arranged directly from the hotel). We didn’t stop for a safari or tour the park but plunged ahead taking in the beauty around us, forests and giant man-made lakes as well as beautiful cottages and villas dotting the landscape. We finally reached after an almost 2 hour long drive. Entrance tickets cost USD 30 a head, but because we’re from a SAARC country, we got in at half price simply by producing our passports. We secured a tour guide recommended by our driver/guide, who took us around the museum first explaining the historical significance of the sites we were about to go out and see. No pictures are allowed inside the museum blocks and unfortunately I don’t remember the details too well, but as the guide said, “…just remember him as King 2 who was a great king who built many temples.” That said, we moved out of the museum blocks and drove to the sites. First stop was a statue of the king Parakramababu I, holding what looks like a yoke.

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Statue of King Parakramababu I

We then moved to the remains of what once used to be his splendid 7 storey palatial complex but is now a 2 storey (almost 3 at some places) ruin after having been burnt down by the Tamils. The stone structure remains a charred ruin, indications of hollow shafts where wooden beams once stood. The weather was terribly hot to be roaming around bare-headed, so we took emergency measures early on and got a couple of brimmed hats. When we bought the hats, he asked where we were from and was really happy when he found out we were from Pakistan. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever met so many people who are happy to meet Pakistanis. It was great! He even told us he loved our cricket team (he may soon be the only one the way things are going).

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Royal Palace

From the palace we went to the swimming pool, adjacent changing rooms as well as the King’s Council Chamber and a beautiful dagabal called the Kiri Vihara, the sheer scale of which was stunning.

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Kiri Vihara

We then set off to the sacred quadrangle. The parents by this time were drained by the heat and opted to stay in the car while my brother and I went out to explore the other Buddhist monuments housed in the sacred quadrangle, including 3 temples – one of which took 8 days to build and another which took 60 days to complete. One of the most beautiful structures was a circular temple which housed a statue of Buddha, which I couldn’t enter because it required the doffing of all head garb, hijab included which I couldn’t do, so I admired it from afar. Not knowing much about the history of Sri Lanka, I was surprised to find a lot of Hindu relics and temples as well.

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First glimpse of the Polonnaruwa Vatadage

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Looking inside the Polonnaruwa Vatadage

Nearby was a temple that seemed out of place in that it was shaped like a pagoda, the likes of which can be seen in Angor Wat. Opposite the pagoda was an enormous stone slab painstakingly inscribed with religious text.

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Sath Mahal Prasadaya

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Galpotha

Back inside the car, the guide promised we were almost done and were heading to the crown jewel- the 3 statues of Buddha carved into stone at Gal Vihara. My parked at a distance and had to walk the rest of the way past monkeys sitting in the trees. Approaching the statues required removing all head gear again, so my mum and I stayed back while my dad and brother went to have a closer look. The first statue is of Buddha sitting in deep meditation, the second of him standing arms crossed over his chest symbolizing his empathy with other people’s suffering and finally the statue of the reclining Buddha. The last statue depicts him lying down on his right side, one hand under his cheek, the other on his side, feet over each other such that one toe is slightly behind the other, symbolizing he was close to death and about to reach Nirvana. There is a temple in between the statues which was under renovation at the time, so there was no chance to look inside. The men then headed to take pictures of the lotus filled lake while avoiding the monkeys, while mum and I waited in the shade of a tree all set to call it a day and head to our next destination – the hotel.

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Sitting Buddha

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Standing and Reclining Buddha. You can see the scaffolding for the temple renovation.

After some refreshing king coconut on the way back, we reach the hotel, freshened up, had lunch and relaxed till 4pm which is when my brother had booked us all for…wait for it… an elephant-back ride! My mum was a bit reluctant at first, but by degrees we managed to convince her to come along for the ride. The elephant’s name was Monica (desi people, please refrain from singing at this point). Monica is a sweetheart of an elephant with pointy brown hair, sticking out of her head like an elephant sporting a punk look. We all walked up a platform from which we would sit on her back. We sat such that my brother and I were on one side and the parents on the other, legs dangling from the basket. She set off at a leisurely pace heading parallel to the lake, which the parents could see, and the forest, which my brother and I could see. The sun hid behind the clouds and a gentle breeze blew across the plain so much so that I had to forego the sun hat lest it fly right off.

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Say hello to punk elephant Monica

Sitting on the back of the elephant, it was hard to get a straight picture because you’re essentially bobbing along to Monica’s shifting shoulders and also for fear that you’ll just drop the camera, or fall off yourself if you don’t hold on to the railing in case she decides to shift gear. We were lucky that one of the men leading the elephant offered to take our camera and take pictures for us and of us. The scenery was beautiful and the weather even more so, that is until she headed straight into the forest. The path was narrow and the foliage dense, which meant we were at the mercy of Monica, trying to thwart unruly branches from scratching our faces and legs. As Monica wound her way into the forest, she came across her favourite food and naturally had to stop for a snack despite calls of “Daha Daha” from her trainer. She wound her trunk around the branches of the tree and yanked with all her might to get her food while we rocked on her unsteady back . Her trainer eventually got her to give up, much to her despair, and move ahead much to my mum’s relief. Her trainer was a nice guy though and as Monica plunged forward, he went back to get some tasty branches for her to munch on the way. We even paused in the forest for a toilet break…not us… Monica. “Monica toilet” as our handy cameraman/trainer put it, sounded very much like cannonballs dropping to the ground and didn’t look much different either.

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In the forest with Monica – Photo Courtesy: Our lovely elephant trainer /cameraman

The forest finally thinned, my mum finally breathed, and we headed to a solitary tree next to the lake where Monica posed for a picture, saluting the camera with her trunk. After her smart pose for the camera, she headed down to the lake for a drink of water and we thought we were going to be heading back to the hotel after her refreshments. We were wrong. Instead, Monica headed right into the lake, quite oblivious of my mum panicking on top of her. Ankle deep water soon turned into knee deep water and a dizzy spell thanks to the combined effect of Monica’s gentle swaying and the watching the ripples on the lake. When it was time for her to head back to land we assumed she’s turn around and go straight back, but again we were mistaken. Instead she seemed to move sideways, right to left, inching her way back to shore in a diagonal where you could see the footprints of her well-trodden track. Before we knew it, we found ourselves disembarking from Flight Monica and taking farewell photos. Thanks to our lovely guide/cameraman, we got some incredible shots of the beautiful landscape and of ourselves.

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Distance between us and the hotel. Photo Courtesy: Our lovely elephant trainer/ cameraman

Safari concluded, we decided it was time to kick back, relax and catch up on some much-needed rest before getting ready to check out early on Day 5 to head to Kandy.

The Great Sri Lankan Adventure- Day 3

Day 2 ended with a lovely dinner with a colleague of my dad’s and his lovely family. We dined at an Indian restaurant in Colombo called Amrit, the entrance of which boasted an aquarium with a lucky fish which rather resembled a sullen miserly old man. But then again, who would be happy pacing their life away in an aquarium.

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The lucky, or not so lucky, fish at Amrit

Dinner was dal tadka, prawn, some form of fish, bhindi and a veggie biryani. If we had been anywhere near home, I would have been tempted to try more than the solitary piece of okra and smattering of dal and rice strategically scattered around my plate to give the appearance of having eaten a lot more than I actually did. I mostly nibbled on the naan, fearing the return of the IBS tummy, and had a wonderful time listening to the stories of my dad’s colleague’s wife recounting her adventures of child-rearing. It was a lovely dinner all thanks to the great company.

So Day 3 started early as usual and by 8.15am we were all packed and loaded into the van that we had hired from Lespri Enterprises to drive us around the country. There were only 4 of us, but we had booked a 12 seater van, not just because the rates are much lower per kilometer but also because on 4 hour drives, everyone gets greedy for leg room. We had our first stopover before we even left Colombo and went to Keel’s Super to stock up on some basic supplies (read snacks for the road and the life saving tissue box). We opted out of visiting the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage on the way to Dambulla as our guide helped us map out a better route and put it in our itinerary to visit on the way back to Colombo on our last day. We decided to forego the highway and instead took the longer but more scenic route to Dambulla through the cities and villages. There are really no words to describe the beauty of nature in Sri Lanka. The land is green as far as the eye can see and even further. The buildings are notable in that most have red tiled roofs and are brightly painted hues of blue, orange, red, pink, green and yellow. Taking a road trip through Sri Lanka seems futile in that there are next to no places to really pull over and enjoy the scenery. At the same time, while Sri Lanka is the ultimate photographer and nature lover’s paradise, if you attempt to trek through the country you’ll probably need a couple of lifetimes to reach your destination because there’s no shortage of breath-taking scenery at every step.

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Sri Lanka- A photographer’s paradise

We decided to be adventurous and sample some fresh fruit along the way. We tried some pineapple from the roadside stalls (which they were nice enough to cut) and let’s just say it’s been a while since I’ve had pineapple so sweet. Some time into our road trip, my dad’s colleague rang us up and asked our driver to take us to a rest house along the way, compatible to our over-hygienic sensibilities. It was the most beautiful rest-house you could hope to find disguised behind an unassuming facade. From within, you could see a stream flowing through a forest of trees, including one with extra large jackfruit hanging off the trunk. The parents took tea and we all took an extravagant amount of pictures before moving on.

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Wahalkada

Jackfruit Tree

Jackfruit Tree

View from Wahalkada

View from Wahalkada

What was fascinating was that every stretch of the road is flanked with tiny stores. Some areas of the country are famous for pineapples, so you can find everyone selling fresh pineapples. Other areas famous for their cashew nuts, sold only cashews all along the stretch of the road. We tried some cashews before sampling some freshly boiled corn from a stall inside a large man-made forest, where we also came across, for the first time in 3 days, someone begging. What is an every-minute occurrence in Karachi suddenly seemed so out of place in Sri Lanka.

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Looks like we weren’t the only ones stopping for corn!

The two-way two-lane only road wound higher and higher and the driver’s overtaking skills grew bolder and bolder. It’s best not to be looking at oncoming traffic at this point. We passed Ethagala, also known as the Elephant Rock, named so because the massive rocky mountain is naturally shaped rather like an elephant. Sitting atop Elephant Rock is a white statue of Buddha.

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Elephant Rock

Passing through the towns, our last stop before reaching the hotel at Dambulla, was a beautiful man-made lake where you can see a solitary rain tree. The rain tree, as per our driver, is not a native species of Sri Lanka, being brought over by the British to provide shelter against the torrential monsoon rains.

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Lone rain tree by the lake

The driver seemed rather surprised at our choice of hotel but led us nonetheless to Eden Gardens. While the setting was picturesque and the entrance and staff welcoming, we were completely unprepared for the rooms we for. Spacious though they were, there was a single lonely split A/C, a non-functioning ceiling fan and an open-air bathroom which could have used a thorough scrubbing down. We tried to wait it out and see if the room would get cooler, but eventually had to throw in the towel, despite the free Wifi, for the sake of everyone’s health. The concierge (a single young girl and two elderly gentlemen whose designations were unclear made up the concierge at the time) was flustered, our driver not surprised, when we announced that we’d have to change hotels.

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View from Eden Garden Hotel Room

After quick conferring, while sweating it out, we decided to take our driver and my friend’s mum’s suggestion and head to Hotel Kandalama, a pricier option situated in the middle of a forest. A wise decision, though the pocket felt pinched. We were truly grateful to the customary Sri Lankan hotel welcome of flowers, cold drinks and cold towels after our long drive. The hotel being a 5 star hotel is pricey, and we found ourselves missing Cinnamon Lakeside but it was all worth it, if only for the unbelievable view the hotel offers. We checked in and our balconies had signs asking to please keep the doors shut and locked to keep out the monkeys. I don’t know if the signs were there to keep the monkeys out, or us in… probably both.

Any monkeys around?

All the driving around meant we were barely in time to order lunch, which for me was veggie spring rolls with fries and burgers for the rest of the family, since again all meat served at the hotel is Halal (Kandalama has subscribed to the Crescent Rating Certification). With sated tummies, we flopped down in our air-conditioned rooms to relax, do some money maths and decided we’d spend the rest of the day exploring the hotel. The hotel is truly a jewel, with its main pool, the infinity pool, at the same level as the lake, an unbroken stretch of water leading up to the tree-lined horizon.

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Infinity Pool at Kandalama Hotel

While wandering around, we had a go at outdoor table-tennis and headed back to the room at sunset. Dinner was a buffet where we finally sampled the king coconut before heading back to our rooms which were at the other end of this kilometre-or-so long hotel. Night-time wandering in the hotel corridors was spooky because the hotel is a part of the natural landscape with no glass barriers to keep you from the monkeys you can see sitting in the trees. To avoid freaking out in the middle of the night in case of any monkey business, we closed the curtains and dozed off hoping to get an early start to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa on Day 4.

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Sunset at Kandalama Hotel

The Great Sri Lankan Adventure – Day 2

After a yummy Day 1 dinner of fish and chips and Napolitana pasta, we finally fell asleep watching Dark Knight. We woke up bright and early and had a filling breakfast before heading off for our half day tour of Colombo. First stop was the beach. The coastline was gorgeous, an open sea, a beach dotted with kiosks selling snacks, couples enjoying the last of the New Year holiday and young boys playing cricket. Watching the open sea reminded me of Karachi but Karachi lacks the silence and serenity I found in Colombo.

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Couple of crows at Colombo beach

Next stop was the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct which, as the name suggests, used to once be a hospital. A charming place, still under renovation, filled with tiny cafes, restaurants, a spa, the iconic ODEL and a requisite souvenir shop. We were in so early (punctuality is a habit that can’t be broken even by holidays) that most shops were closed but the souvenir store salesman was nice enough to spot us wandering around and open up early just for us. We entered a colourful little world filled with masks, elephants, magnets, bags, the whole barrage of souvenirs and we ended up getting some leather coin purses, magnets and cushion covers. We left the shopping and moved on with our whirlwind tour of the city. We passed a number of landmarks, glimpsing Independence Square, Town Hall, Art Museum, Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rakapaksa Theatre and the Fort Railway Station.

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Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct

We were then ushered into an old Dutch-era church, Wolvendaal Church better known as the Dutch Reformed Church, where we were shown around. The thing that struck me most was not the elaborately carved tombstones, or the cute kitty who took a liking to sitting in my mum’s shadow, but rather the notable absence of any statues or figures of Prophet Isa or Mariam. We were told that, being built at the highest point of Colombo, the church used to be the first landmark that seafarers could sea when coming in to port. Later, a Buddhist majority government felt it only appropriate that a Buddhist temple be the first landmark seen and so commissioned the erection of a Buddhist temple, Sambodhi Chaithya Dagoba, farther ahead thereby blocking the view of the church. Close to the scene of all this political squabbling, a  mosque sits quietly.

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Dutch Reformed Church

Our guide then led us to a Hindu temple, the Sri Kailasantheraswamy Devashthanam. A stunning pyramid-like structure layered in intricate statues, the temple was a riot of colours as far as the eye could see.

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Sri Kailasantheraswamy Devashthanam Hindu Temple

From one temple to another, we found ourselves at the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. Shoes off, we trekked inside surrounded by large bo trees (desi people read peepal), watered by the worshippers. The museum section was closed so we headed to a relic room where there were all sorts of things ranging from china to spectacles, currency and infinite statues of Buddha in all shapes and sizes. It was quite overwhelming. On our way out, we passed the Buddha statues which were a gift from Thailand.

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Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple

Done with our temple tours, we whisked past Petta, a clean version of Karachi’s Khadda market. Would this be what Karachi would look like should there be peace and a crackdown on public littering? Driving past Petta, we stopped at Bread Talk for much needed refreshments and then headed to ODEL. Fishes greet you at the entrance and inside is a colourful collection of clothes, souvenirs, snacks, shoes…in short- a 3 storey mini mall. ODEL is more of a getaway for Sri Lankans looking to experience something new than for tourists looking to experience something traditional. Nevertheless, we were grateful for the air conditioning and so picked up a couple of T-shirts, for what trip can truly be complete without an ” I love (fill in name of country)” T-shirt.

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The requisite souvenir T-Shirt

Drinks in hand, we headed to the Colombo National Museum, an imposing white colonial style building. Tickets were discounted (passport holders of SAARC countries can enjoy a wide variety of benefits in Sri Lanka) and we got ourselves a photo permit- my brother was the designated photographer. The upper floors of the museum were closed off that day so we contented ourselves with roaming the numerous galleries on the ground floor. Warning: The museum is not air conditioned. There are fans at regular intervals but the humidity was a real dampener so we couldn’t linger around as much as we would have liked. The museum was filled with all sorts of artefacts, statues both Hindu and Buddhist reflecting the country’s rich heritage, swords, ceramics, clothes… In other words, it carried all the things that make museums interesting.

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Colombo National Museum

Damp with sweat, we realized we had been smart in choosing the half-day tour and finally headed back to the hotel for a simple fish and chips and cheese and tomato sandwich lunch after which mum headed down for a pedicure and my brother headed off to the gym. Another night to go before we headed off to Dambulla having planned a stopover at the Elephant Orphanage.

The Great Sri Lankan Adventure – Day 1

After taking the red eye flight at 2.45am, we landed bright and early in Colombo. While the pilot’s landing was worth remembering, the rest of the 4 hour flight was well worth forgetting. We were seated right at the end of the flight, so first on, last off. The seats were beyond uncomfortable so no one could grab any shut-eye. To make matters worse, the plane was freezing with the blasts of frozen air from the A/C vents hitting my head directly. I ended up with a runny nose- read leaky sinus. The aeroplane food was yummy but we all ended up eating the croissant and just sampling the omelette. All except my dad, who ate breakfast at 4am with all the gusto of a man being served a complementary 3 course meal. Immigration was a breeze and we soon found ourselves at the Dialog counter to get connected. Note to self: dual SIM phones are not as popular here as I would have supposed.

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Ayubowan!

First impressions of Sri Lanka?    Clean. It’s not easy to find cities as clean as where I live but Colombo is pristine. Not a speck of proverbial garbage anywhere at all, starting from the airport and all the way to the city. The first step out of the airport was like entering a green paradise. This is natural beauty- not the landscaped hard grown greenery that we’re used to, but nature- thriving. I’ve never seen trees so huge, towering like skyscrapers with trunks so massive it would take at least 5 people linking hands to hug them. The drive from the airport to the hotel was amazing. The sea at our right, and huge forest-like natural plantations on our left. There were soon signs of shanties on either side, but the scenery left me wondering if this could be a bearable poverty when your homes are embraced in the arms of nature. We checked in ahead of schedule at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel where we warmly welcomed with refreshing lychee drinks. We were lucky enough to get a room with a view of Beira Lake and the view was breathtaking. After trying, unsuccessfully, to take a nap, we decided to explore the hotel and have lunch. Lunch was a buffet at The Dining Room where I started off with the familiar Fattoush, to make sure my tummy didn’t make any scenes during our stay (IBS tummies make plenty of scenes… I BS you not). I kept lunch simple and vegetarian despite assurances from the hotel that all meat served was Halal. After lunch we explored the basement of the hotel where there were several tiny shops selling things ranging from clothes, souvenirs, art and jewellery. I picked up two pretty postcards and wondered how to send them to my friends.

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View from Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel

We then checked with the hotel regarding the Colombo Tour Bus that we had looked up before coming, but it seemed to be unavailable so we ended up booking a 3 person 4 hour Colombo tour for the next day when dad would be busy with work. We thought not to waste the rest of the day so we grabbed a hotel taxi and headed off to the Green Path to find some paintings and then some other artsy shops filled with paintings, carvings, leather work and batik.

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Wood carvings at a souvenir shop in Colombo

While the shops were lovely, we didn’t pick up anything and moved on to Cotton Collection where the men picked up T-shirts. Next? Well, we asked the taxi to take a nice route back to the hotel simultaneously playing tour guide. We saw the Prime Minister’s and President’s residence, the beach and lighthouse. We also drove past the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct which we added to our list of must see places for Day 2. The landmarks weren’t too far from the hotel, but if you’re travelling by car it’s a bit difficult to take pictures because there are next to no places to pull over. Learnt interesting things about the country on our drive back, including the fact that 75% of the population in our immediate vicinity is Muslim. :) We got back to the hotel before 4pm and everyone got some sleep except Mum. Just before Maghrib, Mum and I took a stroll down to the lake where we took some pictures and came across all sorts of fruit trees (pomegranate, apple, orange, almond etc) planted just next to the pool neighbouring the lake. My brother decided to hit the gym and we headed back to the hotel room to rest, order dinner and catch up on news of the tragic ferry disaster in South Korea. Another day in Colombo and then we were headed to Dambulla.

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Trees at Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel