Daily Archives: 08/02/2015

Mike Cathy and Katja in Sri Lanka Part 1 out of 7

sri lanka or bust!

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for”
John A. Shedd

Our mosquito bites since our trip to Australia hadn’t even healed yet but once again Katja and I found ourselves in another airport ready to visit another country we hadn’t been to before. The difference this time was that we were traveling as a family with Cathy. In fact, you could probably say we were traveling as a rather large family as most of Qatar Academy seem to be on the same flight. For some bizarre and unplanned reason, traveling as a family is relatively rare for us. For some inexplicable reason we tend to travel separately and meet up in our intended destination, it usually ends up happening that I drive and pick the girls up from an airport and go on from there.

Carmageddon?

This mini holiday was a countrywide holiday which meant that every man and his dog were on a week’s holiday and more than likely traveling somewhere out of Qatar as is usually the case. Cathy finished a tad early from school so we could make our way to the airport with plenty of time. I had already booked Jamaal quite a few days earlier to make sure we got him first. We left home at 15:45 (flight time was 19:30 hrs or thereabouts). We hit the road and just before the roundabout we realised we hadn’t packed our return flight tickets, so it was back home to pick them up. Once you hit the dual carriageway by the compound it’s a bit of a pain to go back, but that’s what we had to do. Soon after we were back on the road and as usual and as expected, we hit heavy traffic soon after. However, much to our surprise, as soon as we hit the ring road it seemed to fizzle out and made it to the airport in about the same length of time as normal which meant we were there quite early!

Sri Lanka or Bust! asia-map

We met with numerous people from Qatar Academy at the departure lounge as well as with our traveling companions, Eric, Alyssia and baby Bryce (10 months old). We had mentioned to them about coming to Sri Lanka with us after one of our camping trips, we are glad we did as they were great people to travel with. We waited in the departure lounge ready to board our flight chatting and starting to enjoy the start of an adventure. It was all great other than a Belgian family who decided to entertain their kids by playing silly games and having no respect for others there. This involved running around with them (the tags on their bags said Belgian, it’s not that I decided they were), even after several dirty looks from me after being bumped into by them they carried on…anyway.

Soon after, we boarded our flight and were once again up in the air. It was an OK flight other than poor service by the cabin crew and not having any children’s meal for Katja which was a disappointment for her. We have done a lot of flying over the years and cabin crew has always been very good in most airlines, best one so far has to be Etihad and the worst crew award goes to a certain Hungarian airline we had the displeasure of having to fly with on many occasions when living in Eastern Europe. Anyway, cabin crew on this flight was far from great!

Welcome to Sri Lanka

We landed in Colombo bang on time, just a small matter of going through immigration, collecting our suitcases and meet up with our driver (we had one booked). The driver was there as agreed and soon set off to our first hotel which was (meant to be) approximately 2 km from there. We left the airport and one of the two very noticeable things was how dark the streets were and oh, hang on, they drive on the left hand side like in the UK (this made us feel at home right away!). The main road turned into a smaller road and then eventually into a dark narrow lane. At this point I was beginning to feel a little concerned. The driver seemed to have no idea where we were going (neither did we) and this was now certainly a lot further than 2 km. After a couple of hundred yards, we reached a big gate and a dead end. The driver sat there tooting his horn but to no avail. (it was approximately 3 am by now). he made a couple of phone-calls and we were eventually joined by someone on a motorbike. I must admit I did feel a little uneasy, had we just been kidnapped or something? The driver made a very tight 300 point turn and we were back onto the sort of main road. Not long after, we were back on another narrow track with another gate at the end. This time our escort on his motorbike opened the gate which lead into a courtyard and then through another gate to a parking lot. We had arrived…..not sure where but we had arrived somewhere.

The man on the bike introduced himself and soon put us (me) at ease. we were shown to our accommodation which was basic but by now it was pushing 4 am, all I wanted was a bed. The bed wasn’t exactly comfortable but who cares, the worse bit of it was it absolutely stank of bug spray and chemicals, as did the pillows.

Part II  – Waking up in Paradise

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Mike Cathy and Katja in Sri Lanka Part 2 out of 7

welcome to paradise!

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
Rudyard Kipling

This quote by Rudyard Kipling couldn’t be truer! A good friend of mine always said, every country has a distinct smell. Not something I had paid too much attention until then but after he told me this, I started noticing that each country has a very distinct smell. I am not being rude or disrespectful, it is just something you notice…or I do anyway.

Waking up in Paradise colombo

Sri Lanka is 2.5 hours ahead of Qatar, I had one phone which had set itself automatically, my other one hadn’t and neither had Cathy’s phone. We had set the alarm for 11 am; we had gone to bed at 4 am after all. By 8 am we were awake and ready to explore our immediate surroundings before being picked up at 11:30 to go to our main Hotel in Waduwa. we hadn’t noticed any of our surroundings before going to bed; come on, after all, it was 4am and pitch black. We realised at this point that we hadn’t really stayed in a hotel but a house which is rented out, we were the only people staying there. It was basic as I remembered from a few hours earlier before going to bed but at least it was clean(ish). The chap who met us earlier on was already there and wandering around the place. It was at this point which I noticed how friendly everyone is. There were a few maintenance people there too. First thing he did was apologise as there was no electricity at the moment, something I hadn’t noticed but also didn’t really care about too much as I was simply amazed by our surroundings. We walked up to the water’s edge, we were mesmerized by the wildlife as well as greenery all around. Yes, it was basic but truly beautiful. As we chatted away with our host (man on motorbike from the night before) we were joined by a fisherman on his very simple boat, I politely declined the offer of jumping on the boat with him as we had to have breakfast and head off, otherwise, I would have been very tempted to do so!

Breakfast was provided by the restaurant next door, I must admit it was a bit of a weird breakfast as all they had was sandwiches, but hey ho, it was food. a little later I popped over to the restaurant to buy some water for our trip, it was at this point in which I failed to check on currency conversion and accepted the price told….big mistake! I had been warned to be on my guard when it came to prices as they will try and pull a fast one if they can. In western terms I had a bargain, in local terms, I had been overcharged considerably, lesson learnt.

Driving to Waduwa

Our driver picked us up not long after breakfast and we were back on the road. The drive to Waduwa took us on the expressway and then a little across country which gave us an opportunity to take in some of the sites. Mile after mile we were falling in love more and more with the place. Its beauty, its smells and everything about it, we simply fell in love with.

Welcome to the River View Hotel DSC06047

We arrived at our hotel about an hour and a bit later. To one side there was wide river and at the far end the sea, perfect combination! We received a warm Sri Lankan welcome by friendly and helpful staff, we immediately felt at home. We were shown to our rooms and soon settled in. The room was basic but it had air con and an en-suite, had our own terrace to the front leading to beautifully manicured and well kept gardens with a wide variety of shrubs and trees.

We had a look around and familiarized ourselves with our surroundings; then sat and had some food in the restaurant accompanied by several Lion Beers, what a great way to start our holiday!

Part III – Exploring Waduwa and Panadura

 

 

 

Mike Cathy and Katja in Sri Lanka Part 3 out of 7

exploring sri lanka’s western province part I

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
Lao Tzu

One of the (many) great things about this trip was that we had no real plans, it was a “take it as it comes” sort of trip. For us, it most definitely worked as we had the opportunity to experience and live the real Sri Lanka.

Friday DSC06077

After having had a nice meal we popped over to the beach. At this point we started noticing how very friendly Sri Lankans are. Some want something from you but others are just curious to find out about where you are from as well as to practice their English. One such chap who’s name escapes me came and started chatting with us on the beach. He showed us how to catch crab fish from the sand (Eric got the hang of it quickly, I didn’t…….at all). He then brought his mate who climbed up a coco nut tree and brought us down fresh coconuts, peeled them and chopped them, we then had coconut milk directly from the coconut. I really didn’t have the heart to tell him I can’t stand coconuts! He “casually” mentioned he was a tour guide and if we were interested in visiting places he had a mini bus he could take us in. we mentioned we were interested in seeing the Elephants, Botanical Gardens and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. He gave us a price and we just left it at that. We were also given a price by someone else before deciding to go with the chap from the beach; we did this on Tuesday.

Saturday IMG_1013

Having chilled on Friday, we popped over to reception and ordered a couple of Tuk Tuks to take us into town and in particular to any big markets. We headed off to Panadura market which was pretty big. Loads and loads of fish stalls (not quite my cup of tea but still…) as well as numerous shops and stalls selling fruits, veg, clothes etc, etc, etc. we had a wander around trying to take it all in and then headed back to our Tuk Tuks which were waiting for us. After that it was off back tot the hotel to chill out by the pool and have some food before heading to the beach to play. If you are planning to visit Sri Lanka (which I would whole-heartedly recommend), it’s important to be aware that the beaches in this area have pretty strong currents. Locals go for swims etc, but don’t venture too far out. If you are looking for a beach holiday with swimming etc, etc, it is probably best to head further South towards Galle.

Sunday

One person’s reality is another person’s adventure.

IMG_1035

The best adventures are the ones not planned. I appreciate that in some cases planning is required (fail to plan, plan to fail and all that) but sometimes it is great to just “go with the flow”. We decided that we would catch a train and head off to Galle. We arranged for a couple of Tuk Tuks to take us to the train station. We arrived at the station and bought some tickets to Galle. We were advised by a very friendly chap (who would later change our day) to buy second class tickets as they are better than third class. Obviously we looked like we couldn’t afford first class, either that, or first class wasn’t running on a Sunday! We purchased our tickets to Galle which is approximately 1.5 hrs on the express train and then waited for the train to arrive. We got chatting to the friendly chap who told us to buy second class tickets, it turns tout he lives in Jersey and is a French language student there. We chatted for a long time and then our train arrived. It wasn’t as quiet as we had been lead to believe but it seems to be that you can always squeeze a few more in. Eric and family squeezed their way in and found some standing space as did Cathy and Katja. I sort of squeezed in between a few people hanging out of the doors, great fun! Katja soon got chatting and playing with a couple of local kids and had a great time. We settled into our standing positions enjoying the fresh air from the open doors in the carriageway while holding onto whatever one could to try and avoid falling onto someone causing them to fall off the train and a certain death! During all this we continued to chat with Mr friendly chap and he suggested we don’t go to Galle but get off at Ambalangoda which is one stop before Galle. He suggested we took the river tour, visited the mines, the turtles and the temple. Having not gone out with any plans in particular, we took his advice!

Part IV – Exploring the Western Province

Mike Cathy and Katja in Sri Lanka Part 4 out of 7

Exploring sri lanka’s western Province Part II

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust

Ambalangoda IMG_1119

We arrived in Ambalangoda around an hour after leaving Panadura, the nice chap who suggested we stopped here came out and negotiated good rates with a couple of local Tuk Tuks which were waiting outside before he disappeared to catch another connecting train to his home town. I am not sure if he had any vested interest in us visiting these places or not. After a while you do become a little suspicious and wonder if they are being friendly or just want something from you. At face value he didn’t as he vanished after helping us out with the Tuk Tuks, I guess we will never know!

River Cruise

A short Tuk Tuk ride from the station we arrived at the river cruise place. The cruise was a couple of hours long and you visited the numerous islands on the way.IMG_1054 The nice chap on the train had told us what the price was but just to be on the safe side I checked with the people there first. They quoted me a slightly higher price; I soon sorted that out and we were charged the price the chap on the train had told us. We set off on our boat cruise and shortly after leaving and much to Katja’s delight, we came across someone on a boat with a monkey, yes, I know, very random! But for a small fee we could hold the monkey and take photos etc, etc! After giving this random chap some money for letting us hold his monkey, we were off again. The next stop was at a river fish foot massage place. It was quite an interesting experience to dip our feet and have fish come up to us and nibble at our feet. This was then followed by a yet another random moment in which they brought out a baby crocodile which we could pet, this baby crocodile eventually made it onto my head. As you can probably guess, they too wanted some money! The tour took us to another island where we visited a temple and had some string bracelets given to us by  a monk. This was then followed by Cinamon island and then back to base. Katja charmed the guide and he let her steer the boat, once again, much to her delight!

Temple IMG_1110

Our Tuk Tuk drivers were waiting for us and were ready to hit the road once again. We decided to scrap the turtles and mine, and just go to another temple which was highly recommended before heading back to the train station. The temple was located in a pretty remote area, I was wondering if the 100 cc Tuk Tuk would actually make it all the way there! Fortunately it did. This temple is currently undergoing work as you can see from the scaffolding but houses some amazing paintings and sculptures. The views from the surrounding gardens were amazing. The whole place offered peace and tranquility which was a very welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the roads and trains. We then headed back down the hill, made a quick stop at a local bakery and headed off to the train station. The ride home wasn’t as busy as the way out, Cathy even manage to have a seat, this was thanks to a local who gave her his seat! This meant we could take in the beautiful scenery throughout the trip. The train runs pretty much parallel to the beach; so as you can probably imagine, the views are simply breath-taking pretty much all along the way. As we pulled into Panadura station, I decided to do a little video which is just below:

Panadura Train Station

 

Part V – Exploring the western Province

Mike Cathy and Katja in Sri Lanka Part 5 out of 7

Exploring Sri Lanka’s western Province Part III

“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes “sight-seeing.” –
Daniel J. Boorstin

Monday IMG_1138

Cathy, Katja and I headed out by Tuk Tuk (of course) and went the opposite direction to Panadura, we headed to a large town and had a wander around various shops and market areas before ending up in a large temple by the river. What we both loved about the various temples we visited is how peaceful they feel. You are made to take your shoes off before entering and you wander about barefoot everywhere

Tuesday DSC06105

Tuesday was a big day for us as it was the day we had agreed to go to visit the elephants etc, etc. It was an early start as we were being picked up at 05:30 am for the cross province drive to Kandy. I mentioned to the hotel that we wouldn’t be in for breakfast; they immediately said they would get people in earlier for us so we could have breakfast before going out! After a beautiful and interesting (yet longer than expected) drive we arrived at the Elephant place. I would like to say it was the sanctuary we had in mind but later we discovered that this was a totally different place! I must admit I wasn’t enamoured by the place or the way the elephants were looked after. We took a short ride on one and upon returning were asked for money (having paid a considerable amount for the ride). What I offered him wasn’t enough so I gave him nothing! This was a good instance in which some prior research and directions would have come in handy, my overall comment for this place would have to be that we were disappointed by it! We left the elephant place and headed off to what we thought was the temple of the Sacred Tooth but made an unexpected stop.

Spice Plantation

The spice plantationt was interesting enough and we weren’t asked for money! So we bought some very nice spicy tea which we brought home!

Tea plantation

This was also an unexpected stop. I must admit it was very interesting and we were grateful to the guide for stopping here. Sri Lanka was a British Colony until 1948 and was formerly known as Ceylon (in 1972 it became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka). Ceylon tea is famous world wide! The tour was very interesting and ended up of course with a cup of tea. It wasn’t a plantation as such but a mixture of a factory where they process the tea leaves and a plantation.

The Temple of the Sacred Tooth DSC06194

After a bit of a rocky start things were looking up, even though the weather looked pretty dodgy and by the time we had arrived at the tea plantation it was raining. Fortunately, it had stopped by the time we arrived at the temple. The Temple is located in Kandy which is a bustling city. Today the city was busier that any other day as it was a religious festival and a holiday. Our guide showed us to the area we had to go and get our tickets and then where to leave our shoes. We joined (literally) several thousand other people in a queue to enter the temple. Katja was amazing in the queue as it wasn’t the most comfortable experience. We reached what we thought was the main area only to be faced with a further long queue. We decided to concentrate in this area instead of queuing further. The temple is stunning and once again, there’s a real sense of peace, even if you are surrounded by several thousand other people! Katja was also fascinated by the monkeys running around all over the place.

Botanical Gardens

As we left the temple it had started to rain again. We arrived at the Botanical Gardens and the rain was starting to intensify….considerably! We started having a walk but the rain was getting worse; so we headed off to a restaurant on site and had some lunch. Sadly, the rain never subsided so we had to call it a day; the gardens look ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! We headed back to the mini bus and then back home. I think the driver may have either been in a hurry to get home or a death wish as he drove back like a scalded cat. Oh, except to make a couple of totally random stops to say hello to friends! We arrived back at the hotel tired after a long day. It hadn’t been as planned or expected as such, however, it was an enjoyable day exploring other parts of this magnificent country.

Wednesday IMG_1185

“Some people are so poor that all they have is just money”

This was to be our last day in Waduwa, we decided to have a quiet day by playing in the pool and the beach. I had a stinking cold so decided to have a bit of a sleep in the morning. In the afternoon after playing in the pool a bit more, we headed to the beach to watch the sun go down. We met a lovely local family and got chatting as Katja played with the kids. Cathy taught the kids some English songs and we all had a lovely time. I took a couple of pictures and the girls kept asking me to take more and more. They were amazed when I was showing them the ones I took. it turns out that they had never had a photo taken! I am sure we have all heard of things like this on TV or documentaries, etc, etc but when you hear it first hand it is a different story all together. These kids were happy with what they had. IMG_1189I am sure they weren’t fussed about Facebook, Twitter or whether they have the latest phone. They were happy with what they had. The mother and the girls had a fab time building sand castles and chasing each other around the beach. it was so humbling to see people who have so little were so happy. Our final day had ended on a high. We headed off to the restaurant for our final evening meal with several beers. we really didn’t want to leave this place. Every breakfast (several lunches) and every evening we sat and ate by the river watching the most amazing birds and wild life as well as monkeys fighting in nearby trees. However, tomorrow was set to be a totally different experience and adventure as we were off to Colombo for two days before flying back to Qatar.

Part VI – Colombo

Mike Cathy and Katja in Sri Lanka Part 6 out of 7

Colombo

What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
William Least Heat Moon

Thursday DSC06318

We woke up pretty early for people who are meant to be on holiday, I think it was sometime around 05:00 hrs but we were wide awake. We decided to head off to the beach to watch the sunrise and for Katja to have one last play on the beach before heading to Colombo. We had another amazing sunrise which I am so glad we got to see. There’s something rather special about watching the sun rise from behind the palm trees. The beach was deserted and the waves battering the shoreline accompanied by a chorus of birds celebrating the new day. We played on the beach for ages as night turned into day. On the way back to the room, Katja bumped into her the little girl who she was playing with on the beach. she was in her very smart white school uniform. She gave Katja a big hug and a kiss before saying good bye. We headed off to breakfast and then a quick last swim before being picked up to go to Colombo. As we were vacating our room one of the guys knocked on the door to say they had put out some drinks for us before we left. we turned up to a wonderful spread of a wide variety of food. These guys had nothing to gain by doing this as we had already paid our bill, but they were happy to look after us and make sure we didn’t leave hungry! Once we had consumed all the food and drink (fresh pineapple juice), they brought out yet another tray of food, almost as if to be doubly sure we were full! We said our goodbyes to people who were now our friends, we really didn’t want to go.

Colombo DSC06322

Colombo wasn’t quite as far as we thought it was, it took only a bit over an hour after negotiating with heavy traffic and suicidal tuk tuk drivers. We made out way to our hotel which we had booked before coming. The Cinnamon Red is a smart Hotel in the centre of Colombo. It took the driver a couple of goes at finding it but we got there…..eventually. We checked in and headed off to our room on the 22nd floor. Of course, being so high up, we had some pretty cool views of the city which in many respects reminds me of Sofia (Bulgaria) due to the numerous parks and green areas. After sorting all our stuff we headed off for some lunch followed by a tuk tuk ride around the city and to the port area.

Port Market – Colombo IMG_1208

As we rode in the tuk tuk around the city, it is amazing to see all the colonial buildings and trying to imagine what life would have been like in Colombo pre 1948. Many people who we met refered to pre 48 as “your forefathers did this and before your forefathers left”.We had a wander around the market in the port area. we had a good walkabout the place and of course, we bought numerous souvenirs and Cathy had a chance to buy plenty of clothes at amazing prices. After all this we tried to find a tuk tuk to get us back to the hotel but most of them either refused to take us as they didn’t know where the hotel was or just ignored us. Eventually we found a tuk tuk who would take us back but he didn’t have a clue where he was going. He stopped several times to ask for directions and to check with other drivers. We weren’t too fussed as we had agree on a price before starting so we were taking this as an unexpected extra city tour! Eventually he found the hotel (bit of a shame really as we were enjoying the tour!). Due to the magnificent views and floor to ceiling windows, we slept with the curtains open.

Friday

After a hearty breakfast in which I pigged out (pun intended) on bacon and sausages and every kind of pork products I could get my grubby little hands on, we went out for a wander to the nearby lake we could see from our bedroom window. We hired a pedalo and enjoyed the lake. OK, it was a bit too hot and humid but we enjoyed it nonetheless. we had to check out of the room by 12:00 hrs, but they kindly let us stay a bit longer for free as Katja was sleeping.

We went out to explore a bit more, outside the hotel we met another tuk tuk driver (Nicholas) who took us to several places and waited for us. We had lunch in a fish restaurant (I had chips) before heading back to the hotel where our luggage was waiting for us. We arrived a little early so we walked to the sopping centre which is some 300 yards from the hotel. When we were about to walk out we realised that it was raining, and I mean torrential rain! We bought a couple of umbrellas and braved it back to the hotel. The streets were flooded and we got absolutely soaked. by the time we arrived in the hotel we were like 5 drenched rats. The hotel gave us some towels and we got changed. as soon as we were ready we got into the taxis which were waiting for us and headed to the airport.

Part VII – Goodbye Sri Lanka

Mike Cathy and Katja in Sri Lanka Part 7 out of 7

Goodbye Sri Lanka

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.
Bill Bryson

We carved our way through the congested streets of Colombo, suicidal tuk tuks and crazy moped riders all trying to get somewhere. Our drive to the airport should have taken around 45 minutes, instead it took 1.5 hours.

We arrived at the airport; very differently from other places; you are scanned as you go in and then your luggage is once again scanned before checking in! We dropped our luggage off via emigration where we had our passports stamped and then headed for our departures lounge. Colombo airport is a little antiquated but very passenger friendly and easy to navigate your way around. There is also plenty of friendly people around to ask for help.

We boarded about an hour before take off and took off some 20 minutes ahead of schedule which was good as we were not due to arrive in Doha until midnight.

Immigration in Doha was pretty quick and Jamaal was waiting for us to take us home.

Conclusion IMG_1272

It was a lovely trip and we totally fell in love with Sri Lanka and its people. It’s a fun and beautiful country with many lovely people. We cannot wait to go back and spend more time there. We would love to visit the girls we took photos of in Waduwa as we were unable to print the photos and give them to them, I am sure they would love that.

Some Tips

If you are interested in visiting Sri Lanka all I can say is YES, do it, I am sure you won’t be disappointed.

  1. We booked our hotels via www.booking.com
  2. Check which coast has the better weather for when you plan to travel (East or West)
  3. Try and familiarise yourself with prices and exchange rates
  4. Agree on a price before any trips (Tuk Tuks and guides etc)
  5. Negotiate, Negotiate and Negotiate
  6. Take mosquito spray and antihistamines as mosquitoes are pretty vicious
  7. Change money before traveling as local exchange rates are not great
  8. Driving and driving standards are very different to what you may be used to.
  9. Paying with credit cards can sometimes be an issue, ask before hand
  10. Many if not most prices are quoted in US Dollars but local currency is Sri Lankan Rupee
  11. If planning to use a train beware that they are usually packed.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our trip, it was fun, exciting and interesting. We have learnt a lot about a country we knew virtually nothing about. We cannot wait to go back again. I can honestly and wholeheartedly say I love this place!!

Now it’s back to reality for us in Qatar, on Tuesday it’s National Sports day and on Friday we are off camping with friends. We are trying to make the most of the cool weather by spending as much time outdoors and enjoying the super mild winter in the Middle East.