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 ❤

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 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