Sri Lanka

I have never understood how anyone can like January. The sad, sinking feeling caused by limp, leftover tinsel hanging in shops, braving the dreary weather without any promise of a mulled wine stop, realising that everyone you know has vowed to lose weight, save money or quit drinking- it is a real slog of a 31 day month.  For me, the January Blues are hitting particularly hard this year (can you tell?) Having spent Christmas on holiday in India, flying back to reality on New Years Day has left me longing for backpacking adventures again. So, before I get a grip, look forward and make plans for 2014, here are my top 10 beautiful places in Asia, home to my happiest past travel memories.

10.   Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

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late July in Walnut Garden

By far and away the best thing I did whilst traveling around China, The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike in northern Yunnan is, in my opinion, still massively underrated. The Hutiao Xia gorge, at 16km long and 3900m from the Jinsha River to the snow capped Haba Shan, is simply breathtaking.  During summer the hills are absolutely teeming with plant and flower life and an even pace allows you to unwind in the picturesque villages along the way. The trail stretches between sleepy Qiaotou and even sleepier Walnut Garden and runs high along the northern side of the impressive gorge, passing through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the country.

Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou is the perfect place to prepare or recover from the trek. The food is homemade and hearty, the coffee is strong and the rooms are cosy with clear views of the snow-capped peaks. At the other end, Sean’s Spring Guesthouse is worth every footstep of the extra walk into Walnut Garden. Keep following the painted yellow arrows- you will not regret it! We finished our trek with warm Tibetan bread, celebratory beers and an open fire in Sean’s homey lounge.

The hike can be completed in a day or two, but it is equally tempting to linger and enjoy countryside life for longer. After all, how often do you get to watch the sun set over Jade Dragon Snow Mountain while supping Chinese tea and resting your tired feet?

9.    Gili Islands, Indonesia

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girls night in a bamboo hut

There is a lot to be said for an island with no motorized traffic. Being able to stroll around the parameters, barefoot and still sandy from the beach, having left your friends snoozing on one of the shoreline sofa beds, is reason enough to make the trip across the water from Padang bai. Though they are certainly not undiscovered, the three irresistible Gili islands offer a quiet and serenity that the rest of Bali simply does not.

Made up of beachfront bungalows, white sands and warm waters, Gili Trawangan is the isle with the most going on. Like many of the Indonesian hotspots, it ticks all the boxes for a desert island cliché and also boasts an exciting nightlife for those living-the-dream on the South east Asia trail. Designated party venues mean you can choose between a night at one of the low-key raves or whiling away the hours at a beachfront restaurant. Highlights for me were the Nutella milkshakes, having our very own DVD night in a private beach hut, dancing under the stars at Rudy’s Bar and night swimming with phosphorescence- luminous plankton.

You can reach the tiny tropical islands by fast boat from Bali and mainland Lombok or (painfully) slow ferry from Padang bai and Senggigi.  Prepare to wade ashore.

 8.     Malapascua Island, The Philippines

Malapascua Island

beach at Logon

This little island off the northern tip of Cebu is sun-bleached and fabulous. Simple villages, bustling basketball courts and local fiestas play a huge part in making this tiny speck of The Philippines a traveler’s paradise. Though it is slowly becoming more and more popular, Malapascua remains off the beaten track and humble in its approach to tourism. Home to welcoming locals and some dive school expatriates, the island community is peaceful and charming with a real sense of having left the western world behind.

The diving here is also world class. With three wreck dives, a sea-snake breeding centre and daily thresher shark sightings, Malapascua is one of the best places in The Philippines for big fish encounters. Night diving is popular, with mandarin fish, seahorses, bobtail squid and blue ring octopus making regular appearances. And if marine life isn’t your thing, the delicious local food, mesmerizing sunsets and picture-perfect Bounty beach make for a blissful dry land experience.

Sunsplash Restaurant operates a beach bar during high season and is the perfect place to wait for the sunset. For the very best views and an extra slice of quietude, stay at Logon or Tepanee.

7.     Mui Ne, Vietnam

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Suoi Tien fairy spring

For someone with a notoriously terrible sense of direction, the surf capital of southern Vietnam offers a welcome sense of order. With everything spread out along one 10km stretch of highway, it is impossible to get lost and easy to find friends. In fact, with guesthouses lined up on one side of the road and restaurants and shops flanking the other it couldn’t be any easier to negotiate your way around the coastal town.

Once an isolated stretch of sand, Mui Ne is now famous for its unrivalled surfing opportunities and laid back vibes. For windsurfers, the gales blow best from late October to April while surf’s up from August to December. Luckily for me, lounging around on the beach is possible all year through. For the very best Kodak moments, the red and white sand dunes provide endless hours of sledding fun and jump-as-high-as-you-can competitions with the local children. A beautiful walk along the Fairy Spring will also take you past some stunning rock formations. While it feels as though you should be wading upstream barefoot, be sure to take shoes if you are going during the midday sun.

When night falls, resident DJs, beach bonfires and live bands draw the surfer crowds to DJ StationWax and Joe’s 24 hour Café, where happy hour can and usually does last til sunrise.

6.    Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

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turquoise tinted waters

Unawatuna Beach in Sri Lanka is what I hope heaven looks like. Deliciously lazy, exceedingly tropical and just so very, very beautiful, this sandy gem is the kind of place everyone dreams about. Life moves slowly here. Sleeping under a swaying coconut palm is about the only thing on the itinerary for most.

Following the devastating effects of the tsunami in 2004, locals of Unawatuna set about re-building their businesses right on the sand. While this does mean that the beach is much smaller than it used to be, honey-mooners and hippies alike flock to this boomerang shaped bend to soak up the Sri Lankan sunshine. And it really doesn’t get much better than this. The sea is gentle, turquoise and perfect for swimming and banana lassis are brought to your very sunbed. Colourful tropical fish swim in the live patch of coral in front of Submarine Diving School and you can rent snorkel masks from any of the places on the beach. I discovered a whole new meaning of lazy in Unawatuna but, if you want to leave utter beach paradise, it is a great base from which to explore the surrounding areas.

(This one does come with a warning. A cockroach warning. It is not enough to get Unawatuna booted off the list, but please note that multiple hard-shelled creepies do feature in my memories of this otherwise utterly perfect corner of the resplendent isle. Having said that, I did choose to stay somewhat off the beaten track at Mr.Rickshaw’s brother’s cousin’s place. It is very likely that the crayon-box cute guesthouses on the beach are roach free.)

5.    Yangshuo, China

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cycling through Aishanmen village

For the perfect blend of bustling Chinese culture, enchanted landscapes and sleepy relaxation, look no further than this sedate and peaceful ancient city. Worlds apart from the mayhem of congested Guilin, Yangshuo lies in the mist of karst limestone peaks and the gentle Li-river. Cycling through the villages will take you past duckmen, fishermen, water buffalo and clementine farms, as well as over silky brooks, ancient caves and sights like Moon Hill and the Big Banyan Tree. And when you’re done with the countryside, get lost amongst the painted fans and embroidered costumes of Yangshuo Town and its cheery market place.

I stayed at beautiful Dutch guesthouse, The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village. Bamboo rafting was on our doorstep and they arranged transport to the Lakeside lightshow, ‘Impression Sanjie Liu’. Cycling into town for street side specialties, souvenir shopping and live folk music was easy enough, although the starlit ride back after a few Tsing Tao’s was a little shaky!

4.     Luang Prabang, Laos

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Mekong River at sunset

You can’t help but smile when you are in Laos. The people here are possibly the most laid back people on earth. Even after two long, long days of doing nothing on the slow ferry, arriving into the languid mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang makes you want to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Tourists meander down the French colonial streets to the flow of the Mekong River and saffron robed monks seem to almost glide up and down the shaded sideways on their way to prayer.

Voted one of the best places in the world for ‘slow travel’ by Lonely Planet, this hushed and heady city offers everything from red roofed temples to quaint provincial coffee houses, the moonstone blue Kuang Sii waterfalls and exquisite night markets. You can watch the sun setting over the river, hear the monks chanting their oms in the distance and enjoy delicious local dishes with a cold Beer Lao. With a curfew bidding this heritage listed town goodnight at 11.30pm, catching up on your sleep has never been so enjoyable, especially if you are recovering from tubing in Vang Vieng. (For a much less sleepy evening, ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the local bowling alley. Trust me on this one.)

3.    Mira Beach, Perhentian Pulau Kecil, Malaysia

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beach on our doorstep

When I discovered that Beach Tomato had included Mira Beach as one of its ‘world’s most beautiful beaches’ I physically stood up and clapped. I almost don’t want to say it aloud for fear of contributing to this unspoilt patch of paradise becoming, well, spoiled, but I couldn’t agree more. Set back on the western side of tiny Kecil island, Mira Beach is its very own secluded cove. Surrounded by forest-green jungle, lapped by bathtub warm sea and drenched in Malaysian sunshine, the white bay can be reached by taxi-boat or Tarzan inspired trek only. Steer clear if you’re looking for plush resort or summer luxury though, the stilted chalets are as basic as they come. Managed by a local Malay family, the collection of rustic huts are kept clean and framed by frangipanis for ultimate postcard perfection. We left by water-taxi, tanned and having swum with turtles. Heaven.

2.      Pokhara Valley, Nepal

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Lakeside

Whether you are in Nepal for trekking the Himalayas, volunteering with an NGO or spotting the rhinos and elephants, a visit is not complete without catching a glimpse of (or a good long gaze at) Lake Phewa in Pokhara. Popular for being the gateway to the AnnaPurna trekking circuit, the valley has been blessed with panoramic views of this breathtaking region. Waking up to crystal clear views of snowy Mt. Fishtail, boating on Phewa’s placid waters and hiking to the sunkissed World Peace Pagoda could not have made me any happier. Throw in the cups of masala chai at Asian Teahouse, the surrounding Tibetan villages and the unimaginable hospitality of the local people and I was about ready to miss my return flight home.

Guesthouses are homely, food is hearty and the scenery really is spectacular. Pokhara is so much more than just a place to rest your feet after a hike. A month here saw us paragliding from Sarangkot, exploring the Old Bazaar, playing guitar in an underground Blues bar and falling in love with the children of the Himalayan Children’s Care Home. Don’t miss out on the Nepali specials at Asian TeaHouse and Pandey Restaurant. For me, the smaller the café, the better the food. Venture away from those Lakeside favourites!

((Drum Roll please…))

1.     Varkala, India

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frisbee at dusk

If Varkala were a fairytale, it would be the one that made you believe in love, trust in the happy ending and doodle hearts and flowers in your notebook.

Nestled in the evergreen state of beautiful Kerala, this seaside town offers sunlit red ochre cliffs, coconut palm fringed beaches and peacock blue waves. The liquid lulls of local Malayalam, coconut spiced South Indian curries and breathtaking views of the ocean make it the perfect haven from the hustle and bustle of India’s cities. After ten days here, I wondered how I’d ever been happy anywhere else in the world.

From the singing mango-seller on the sand ‘yum, yum, yum, yum, eating eating’, to the cheeky waiters at the cafes, the locals on the cliff have got it exactly right. You could while away days, weeks and months watching the lives and loves of fishermen, frisbee-playing locals, moonlit yoga classes, Hindu temple men and strolling backpackers. Guesthouses are secret gardens and bamboo huts, restaurants are candle lit and family run and the Tibetan market wafts incense until after dark. Yet, far from being just a serene stopover, Varkala boats a ‘Shanti Shanti’ soul and cheeky community spirit that binds even the quietest visitor under its spell. By night, lanterns twinkle, candles flicker and stars burn bright over the backpacker favourites. I never knew beer could taste as good as it does here; poured from a discrete tea-pot, served with a glinting smile and supped to the blissful sounds of ocean, music and laughter.

If you tire of strolling, swimming, sunbathing or smoothie-drinking easily, the charming Varkala Town is just a 5 minute scooter ride or leisurely walk away. Surfing lessons, yoga classes and cooking workshops are all available atop the rosy cliff too. For dolphin watching, walk past the quieter Black Beach to the hamlet of Edava and watch from the cliff curve.

My heartfelt recommendations for Varkala are breakfast at The Juice Shack, hammock swinging at Secret Garden Homestay and Restaurant and cold Kingfishers at Backside Café. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the Alleppy Boys are playing, get down to Chill Out Lounge for a jamming session with the gorgeous and very talented local band.

There are daily trains and buses to Trivandrum, and a backwater boat to Alleppy leaves from neighboring Kollam.

Hammocks at Secret Garden Homestay

hammocks at Secret Garden Homestay

Varkala Cliff

Varkala Cliff

India

sea view from Juice Shack balcony

New Year's Eve at Secret Garden

New Year’s Eve at Secret Garden

 

calendar 10An Outing in Sri Lanka

Dawn in a rural corner of Galle and the light is soft and milky, the air cool. Across the road, Langur monkeys scrabble through trees. On the lane a solitary cow grazes on the verge. A man wanders into view pulling an empty cart and disappears again. A cyclist wobbles round the corner before dipping behind the hedgerow. This world is oddly silent despite the activity.

Back inside the house muted Buddhist chants fill the air as the television screen shows Lord Buddha from every angle. Madam Kahandagamage hands a china cup of sweetened tea to the driver.

It’s the quiet before the onslaught.

My newly adopted Sri Lankan family pile into the hired van: Vi, her family, her best friend and sister, their distant cousin … and myself, the stray European. We’re going to Yala National Park.

We stop for breakfast, Sri Lankan style, by the Indian Ocean: spicy chickpeas, curry and egg and onion toasties. Further on at the temple, Mr Kahandagamage offers up prayers for a safe journey. We light oil and incense sticks, palms placed together, heads bowed.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time we reach Yala. We’ve been waylaid by temples, coastal blowholes, opportunities for toe-dipping, and beach-combing for miniature crabs, corals and shells. There’s also the distraction of food: skeletal dried fish; rambutan and figs; watery ice-creams and takeaway noodles.

At Yala, I hope to see leopard. We spy boar and buffalo, jungle fowl and wild peacock, even a family of elephants, but the leopard remains elusive.

Sometimes the magic is not where you expect it to be. Driving out of the park again, the light is fading out. A youngster herds cattle from his motorbike, farmhands drift past us huddled on tractor trailers. The street lights dance like fireflies on Lunugarnvehera reservoir. Above it the pale sky swirls a signature.
“I wish I could write in the sky,” Dimuthu says as we gaze upwards.

Driving on through the night, we pass open-fronted shops of garish souvenirs. We stop by one, weaving through tomato-red lions and fluorescent-orange dogs, ducking jelly-green bats, nets of balls and cascading plastic dolls.

Incongruously the counter is laden with great blocks of dodol, a toffee-like delicacy made of coconut milk and rice flour: sticky, thick and sweet. We pounce on the samples, trying every variety offered. “We could make our way down the street sampling dodol from each shop without having to buy any,” Vi giggles.

Leaving the shop, Yasas, the distant cousin and our travelling clown, picks up a revolver and presses it to his skull. His head falls, eyes roll and tongue lolls. “Cheer up, Yasas,” I say. “We mightn’t have seen any leopards, but I’ve got a kilo of dodol for the journey home.” Yasas resurrects and grins.

Homeward bound, I dip in and out of sleep in the darkened van. I see prowling leopards and roaring seas, shadowy roads and the flash of street lamps; bald-headed dolls and the light spinning across the faces of my new Sri Lankan family. It’s been a grand day out.

About the Author:  Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad’s Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. She’s still wandering. Helen was runner-up in 2011 British Guild of Travel Writers Competition and was highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing Competition in 2013.

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Sigiriya - showing lion's paws“I am the Queen” giggled the middle aged Japanese lady as we stopped for her to sweep past us, borne aloft by her two Sri Lankan guides. We watched with envy as, cool and calm, she ascended the steep metal staircase with her feet making walking motions while several centimetres above the steps. Firmly gripped under each arm she was being propelled up in regal fashion.

Hot and sweaty we continued to mount the iron rungs slowly, pausing every now and then to get our breath and have a sip of water. We had 750 steps to climb, with little shelter from a vicious sun but we were determined to reach the top of Sigiriya, a russet red volcanic rock in the heart of Sri Lanka. A UNESCO heritage site Sigiriya or Lion Mountain has the remains of a 5th century fortified palace built by King Kasyapa at the top of its 370 metre climb. As a keen historian I was determined to get there.

Fortunately for us the climb was broken up into manageable chunks with occasional stretches of flat. A third of the way up we stopped to admire the beautiful frescoes of women with flowers in their hair painted on the rock face in the Mirror Wall. The shade here was a welcome respite.

Up again, this time by way of a caged metal spiral staircase hanging off the side of the rock. Glancing up while on it gave me a horrible sensation of being in mid-air. I gritted my teeth, continued on and was glad when I was back on firm ground once more.

By now we’d reached a large flat area of rock where a pair of enormous lion’s paws appeared to be cradling the staircase leading to the peak of Sigiriya. This was Lion’s Gate, the entrance to the palace. We took advantage of the break to rally for the final climb before pressing on.

We were only a few steps up when the group in front paused and a panicky conversation took place between them and their guide. We moved forward and were stopped by frantic gesticulating and repetition by the guide of the word ‘bees’. There was a swarm of deadly wasps ahead and it was too risky for those on top to come down, or for us to continue going up. We retraced our steps to Lion’s Gate and, looking up, could see the swarm hovering near the side of the rock. Time ticked by and we were beginning to despair of ever being able to attempt this part of the climb when the wasps appeared to fly off.

I gave an inward cheer as a small group of plucky tourists began to descend now the danger had passed. A moment later and we were off up on our last leg to the top. This part was the most hair-raising of all. Affixed to the side of the rock the stairs were metal, hot and very narrow. Even more worrying the staircase was undergoing maintenance while we used it. A sign at the bottom warned us to be careful and as we climbed up we had to step over a man using a drill to affix one of the steps more securely to the rock. By now we were so near our goal we would probably have crawled up the remainder but even so I did feel a flurry of hastily suppressed concern.

A few more steps and we were there! With the last step we reached the flat rock top and could see the remains of the palace. It was huge, much bigger than I’d imagined and with clearly definable foundations still visible. As well as the palace, conquering the peak gave us a bird’s eye view of Sigiriya’s historic gardens spreading out from the rock into the surrounding countryside. Grateful to have made it we wandered around wondering how King Kasyapa, his family and courtiers accessed the palace and applauding their ingenuity in building on such a beautiful site.

And what about our queen? She’d been and gone, no doubt with scarcely a bead of sweat or a hair out of place, but I was glad we’d done it our way.

About the Author: Clare Gleeson is a New Zealand historian, librarian and travel writer who enjoys exploring her own country as well as those further afield. She has a travel blog at www.thewanderinghistorian.com

SnorkelingRain welcomed us. It was as though, all my stress and tiredness was washed away by the rain. From the moment I landed there to the time I came back, I felt peace; within and outside. The beauty was beyond anything I had dreamed about.

Sri Lanka was a miracle to me. From its beautiful landscape to the scenic rivers, from centuries old relics to the modern day buildings, from the delicious foods to the amicable people, the picturesque country made me fall in love with it again and again. I never understood Woods worth’s line, “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”, better than the time I vacationed at Sri Lanka.

It was a colorful ride. To me, Sri Lanka is a lot of things. It is the cultural dance at Kandy, the sweet girl at Nuwera Eliya who offered me flowers near a water fall, the Banana ride at Bentota, the Cave Temple at Dambulla, the serenity in the Buddhist temples and the sense of elation at reaching the top step of the Lion Rock.

The best part, however, was not on land. It was rather a venture into the deep blue sea. I have always been hydrophobic. I like going to the beach but if the tides are high, I restrict myself to a bench and just enjoy the view. My husband, on the other hand, is hydrophilic!! During our stay at Trincolmalee, he was overjoyed to know that we can go for Snorkeling. Basking in the love of a newly-wed, I couldn’t refuse and went along. Now I love him more for the experience.

A boat took us to the Snorkeling sight at Pigeon Island. The scenes were so breathtaking that I forgot my fears for a while. But the minute I was told I am about to be rolled into water, the idea shook me to the core and made me wonder if I was mad to have agreed to come here. I stood still as the guides prepared me with the snorkeling kit and wet suit, which consists of a mask and an oxygen kit that goes into your mouth for breathing – a simple mechanism. I was told not to worry about the fancy gadgets as the caretaker would take care of all that.

The moment they told me that I was about to be rolled into the water, my heart started beating wildly. On the count of three, I was falling on my back, holding my mask, looking at the sky and splash! For a second, I was overwhelmed by the fear of the unknown.

There was a moment of panic during which I couldn’t breathe properly, but the instructor soon fixed my kit. He kept me on the surface for a while after that so I could regain my confidence. Soon, the curiosity to discover the underwater world overcame my fear. The moment I dipped my head in, I congratulated myself for my courage.

The scenes under the water were breath taking. The refraction of light and green vision, startling at first, soon started to look spectacular. My gaze began to wander as far out as it could trying to grasp the entire beauty of the scene all at once. Fish traveling in shoals moved so close to me that I could almost touch them with my hands.

There was a kind of silence that words can’t explain, a sense of total tranquility and peace. I lost track of time, forgot that I didn’t belong there. I was in a trance. I came back to my senses when the instructor said we had to go back to the surface. He was surprised when I refused. After a few moments, he asked me again and despite my reluctance, I had to come up. As soon as my head hit the surface, I yelled: “I want to do this again!

If  it is one thing that everybody should get a chance to do on vacations, it is definitely a dip in the water. The deeper you are, the higher you go! Although all places in Sri Lanka give each other a touch competition in being the best but to me, nothing could beat the beauty beneath water. Happy Snorkeling travelers!!

About the Author: A banker by profession and a writer by choice. Twitter: @syedaerumfatima

Stilt FishermenSurvivor, Sri Lanka By Paul A. Freitas

Have you ever wanted to go somewhere that you have never been but have no idea which destination to choose?  You just point to a place on the map and go right?  This is exactly how I ended up white knuckling the rear door handle of a car in downtown Colombo, Sri Lanka.  From the moment I crossed the threshold at Bandaranaike International Airport into the oppressively heavy air of Sri Lanka, the world blurred and moved in fast forward.  I was led to the taxi that would take me to my first stop of the trip and we were under way.  Three minutes into the ride, I was thankful for a driver that knew what he was doing.  I could instantly see opportunities for death around every turn were the streets filled with tourists.  Instead, they were filled with tuk-tuks.  These are three wheeled motorcycle cars that are more affordable than your everyday sedan yet much less stylish.  Colombo is also where I learned that a 125cc motorcycle doubled as a vehicle for a family of four with an age range from three to seven years old.  Oddly enough, only the adults seemed to wear helmets.

About a 55 minute drive from the airport, and I reached the hotel, though I planned for a five minute drive thanks to the person on the phone.  Due to the miscalculation, five minutes of overly hot water and a towel that would not get me dry no matter how hard I tried and was on the road again.  My destination was Yala National Park on the eastern side of the Sri Lanka.  As I settled in for the seven hour drive, I felt adrenaline slow, adjusting to the speed of things happening around me.  Thanks to my driver giving me the grand coastal tour however, seven hours was another major miscalculation.

Our first stop was at the sea turtle hospital in Galle.  Sri Lanka is home to five of the seven recognized species of sea turtles.  The shelter finds the eggs, hatches them in a safe location, and returns the babies to the ocean to avoid people poaching the eggs.  There were also several injured turtles that had been saved from nets and boat accidents in the tanks.

From here, it was on to our next stop just south of Galle where I got to photograph the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen (see image below).  These fishermen wake up every day and swim out to their stilts (sticks entrenched into the sea floor) where they sit and fish for coral fish.  The cousin of the men said that these stilts were handed down from father to son for generations.  While the fish do not fetch an incredible amount of money at market, they are food enough to feed the family.  I finished photographing and was back in the taxi for the duration of the trip to Yala.

Upon arriving in Yala, I met with my camping host and tour guide.  Though I was late by three hours, they decided there was still enough light for an evening animal safari.  It was on this safari that I viewed my first ever wild “big cat”, the leopard.  Yala National Park is home to one of the largest populations of leopards in the world.  While this statement makes it sound like leopards are in great abundance, the truth of the matter is that Yala has approximately 35 leopards, truly sad for being one of the largest leopard populations in existence.  The next few days of my trip were spent roaming through Yala National Park to see and photograph many of the various types of flora and fauna.

As my time drew to an end, I was able to visit Udawalawe National Park.  Udawalawe has a reputation for its vast numbers of Sri Lankan Asian elephants (200+).  I was also fortunate enough to visit the Elephant Transit Home Orphanage.  The orphanage is home to juvenile abandoned elephants that are found and reported from all corners of the island.  The elephants are raised and encouraged to refine their natural instincts until they are old enough to be released back into the park.  Upon release, they are collared with giant radio transmitters to ensure that they are adapting to their new life in the wild.

While I was sad to depart from my new friends and Sri Lanka, visiting truly made me appreciate the things that I have.  Sri Lanka is seemingly a poor country.  Though its citizens make do, I could see that it was a very hard way of life.  All of the people welcomed me with open arms and lots of food!  From not knowing where to go, to not wanting to leave, Sri Lanka definitely ranks within my top 10 list of amazing destinations.

About the Author:  Paul Freitas is from Salem, Oregon in the United States but has been working as a contractor in Afghanistan for the last 4.5 years.  He is currently attending classes for travel photography at MatadorU and is also working towards a degree.  He can be reached on Facebook at or on Twitter.

Sri PadaIn 2009, shortly after my seventeenth birthday, I found myself at the top of the world gazing over Eden.

I was living in Sri Lanka, and on being asked if I wanted to climb Sri Pada (also known as Adam’s Peak), I was never going to say no. Sri Pada is a mountain with a history and religious significance appreciated around the world. It is specifically renowned for the giant footprint, nearing six feet in length, embedded at its peak, the origin of which is disputed but widely revered. Buddhists believe it to be the footprint of Buddha, Hindus of Shiva, and Christians and Muslims believe it to be the footprint of Adam when he first stepped onto Earth.

On the day of our climb, I got home from school, packed my bags and was ready to make the four hour drive to Muskeliya, from which we would head on to the foot of the mountain. I was accompanied by my close friend, George, who had done this trek twelve times before. We set off at two thirty in the morning, leaving about four hours to make it up the mountain before sunrise. I was nervous. I had stupidly not slept or eaten before embarking on this endeavour and I was not an especially fit person. The steps were steep and seemingly endless and I was repelled by the idea of not being able to make it up; of having to sit on the stairs, shame-faced, waiting for the others to return. But George was my veteran and stuck by my side the whole way, promising I would make it up before sunrise, no doubt. And in the end, I did.

We found a place to sit atop an old derelict building, squashed between tourists and pilgrims alike, and awaited the sunrise together in the cold, crisp air. Music blared out of speakers; the sounds of prayer and homage. When the sun peaked over the far distant hills and lit the valleys below, I felt the breath catch in my throat. It was beyond what I had expected, and after that miserable upward journey, I had expected a lot. The lakes shone silver and the clouds burst into flame. There was a total calmness to it, an absolute tranquillity. I felt detached from reality, like I finally understood T.S. Eliot’s line about being ‘at the still point of the turning world.’

Now admittedly, I’d spent the majority of my life declaring myself entirely faithless, but when I was up there, watching the sun rise over the mountains and gazing down at the valleys and lakes so far below me, I believed every one of those stories. It was more than possible to me that I was standing in Eden and that I was viewing the world from the point where the first human viewed it. That the giant footprint had indeed been made by Buddha and by Adam and by Shiva. That Sri Lanka was the garden of Eden and the birthplace of all humanity. Nothing seemed so plausible.

When we finally tore ourselves from the sunrise, we turned to the North-West side of the mountain to experience Sri Pada’s other famous landmark; it’s shadow. The shadow of Sri Pada is unique in that it no way resembles the shape of the mountain. It falls across the forests as a perfect pyramid, its two sides forming eerily straight lights tapering to a point that doesn’t exist on the actual mountain, which is rounded and misshaped. Scientists don’t understand it, nobody seems able to explain it. Yet somehow it just fits into the overall mystique and miraculous atmosphere of the ancient mountain.

With the sunset, the shadow and the footstep behind us, we turned to the last site Sri Pada had to offer; the bell that travellers can ring, once for every time they’ve made the climb. I rang it once proudly, feeling it was an apt representation of the triumph I felt. Then my friend George went and rang it thirteen times, much to the surprise of the crowd who couldn’t believe he had climbed the peak that many times and thought he had simply misunderstood the bell’s meaning.

Then, the descent. Most of the people I know informed me that going down was far more painful than going up as it’s harder on your leg muscles. Well, I pretty much ran down that mountain without feeling a thing. I was elated. Ecstatic. I’d made it to the top, I’d seen the sunrise and the shadow, and I felt in-vinc-ible. Sadly, this mentality died almost the second I reached home. My legs turned to jelly and I was literally unable to stand for two days. But oh well. No matter. I’d seen the face of Eden… and it was glorious.

About the Author: Angeleen Renker is a 20 year old aspiring writer. She plans on spending the rest of her life drinking gin, travelling to far off lands and trying to read as many books as humanly possible. She also hopes you have a truly splendid day.

 

SunsetA never ending sky. The grey-black clouds speak of a dusk, yet to arrive. The sun is still visible. But this is not the arrogant, scorching sun of noon; it is a gentle, mellow light that paints its surroundings in vibrant hues. Sometimes, you may see a boat, dot the horizon. An infinitesimal entity, gliding towards, a seemingly infinite space.

This is the seaside town of Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka. – Sri Lanka is a tiny island nation, nestled in the Indian Ocean. It’s lush, varied landscape, belies its very size. Mountainous terrain and an endless beach, lie within a few hundred kilometers of each other.- Here, at the Mount Lavinia beach, you feel at peace. A peace that was, once, hard to envision, in a country marred by a civil war, spanning over twenty five years.

The golden sand trickles through your toes. You long to build sand castles the way you did when you were small. And here, you can. Because, this is a place where you do not mind what others may think. Here, you are free to be your innermost self. And nostalgia is banished; as you pick up little shells to decorate your castle, and dig deep into the sand to build your own moat. You know that within a few minutes, a few hours or within the span of a day, the inevitable will come to pass, and the waves will carry your castle away to sea; but on this beach, it is only the here and now that matters.

The ash blue ocean beckons, enticingly. Captivated, some wade into the water, where white tipped waves break across their feet. The more intrepid, swim out to sea. Shrieks of glee can be heard at times, as the waves catch people unawares. Some, who have come to the beach fully clothed, are drenched, due to the unpredictability of the ocean. Yet, seemingly no one cares. The worries of the boardroom and the burdensome workloads of everyday life, are left far, far behind. The vastness of the ocean holds a compelling magic that somehow, seems to wash life’s trivialities away.

The tall, coconut fronds swish and rustle to the tune of the inescapable wind. Lightly plaited hair and loosely tied pony tails, cast their hair grips asunder, and fly wildly, unrestrained. Coupled with sea spray, hair tastes salty, here, as it swirls around your face. Free, at last.

palmsA few, wooden fishing boats lie quietly on the sand. They, the children of the night, are idle, now. But in a few hours, fishermen, dressed in loincloths or shorts, will be seated in these boats, with their nets cast out. The livelihood of these fishermen, who live in thatched huts on the beach itself, is almost entirely dependent on the bounties of the ocean. Unfettered with material possessions; they sail the seas, with a simple trust, that is touching to see.

Never has Blake’s words seemed more appropriate than at the Mount Lavinia beach:
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.”

About the Author: My name is Layanthi Tennekoon. I qualified as an accountant; but now, I engage in freelance writing, because that’s something I  truly love to do. It also means, that this way, I get to spend more time with my little son, who means the world to me. I like reading, learning new skills and meeting new people, as each in their own way, gives me a fresh perspective on the world.

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Last summer during a six week adventure in Sri Lanka, the small tear drop shaped island near India, I stood crushed for hours against George in three different crowded buses on a Friday evening in a near pilgrimage to the Far Northwest. I thought the war was over when we decided to journey on a six-week adventure to Sri Lanka but this Friday night made me wonder if it really was.

With bunkers on every street corner and gun-toting soldiers peering from their slotted openings, I said to myself, “Oh my, have we gone to Gaza on holiday?  Am I losing touch with reality?” Normally I would never go to the strip of land surrounded by Israel as a vacation spot,  but perhaps I found an equivalent country in Northern Sri Lanka, an area that has been devastated by over twenty-five years of civil war, followed by the horrors of the 2004 Tsunami.  It was as if we had stumbled on another war zone.

I saw UN trucks, UNICEF signs, and buildings with roofs labeled NEHRP — North East Housing Restoration Project. There were even signs that described money sent from Japan to help with all the rebuilding.

The next day when I woke up, I was grateful we survived the journey without being robbed or raped or otherwise brutalized, but then I remembered we actually had been robbed, sort of.  Here’s how it happened: The initial journey had gone well. Leaving the Sigiria Flower Inn with its attendant wild elephants that wander at night,  we took a couple of convenient buses from Iwanna Junction to Polonarua.

In Polonarua, a group of three touts somehow convinced us to take a quick tuk-tuk tour  and that we’d make the three p.m. train to the North. At the conclusion of our tour, the 3pm train had vanished by turning into a two p.m. train and in the end that one may not have really existed.

Whatever the cause, we found that we’d been scammed. Maybe the phone call they’d made to verify the train schedule was a fake one; we don’t get ripped off very often but we were taken for a proverbial ride on this day.  Feeling angry and frustrated, I said, “No,” to more help from the touts. Having missed the train, we attempted to find a bus. In Habanara, the bus for Trinco was just leaving with standing room only. This sweaty bus seemed to have room for four more standing room passengers; little did I know that over the next two hours about twenty-five more bodies would be crushed into the aisles, a writhing mass of humanity that made a sardine tin seem positively roomy.

After swaying in the aisle, mashed like potatoes into the crowd, we arrived in Trinco and boarded a small van to Nilaveli just as the sun was setting over the water. My ten words of Singhalese seemed useless this far North and I just kept repeating the name of the hotel we hoped to locate. For a fare under a dollar, we rode in the van for thirty minutes or so, still without seats, and finally we were dropped by the side of the road near a sign that said, “Nilaveli Beach Hotel.”  This was not our destination but by now we were resigned to a hapless fate.

We walked about two kilometers in the near darkness and veered onto a seemingly random dirt road. A tuk-tuk driver appeared about fifteen minutes later to tell us the hostel we were searching for was now closed. Timothy, from Pigeon Island Resort (which was under construction and used to be the Maruo, the cheap hostel we wanted), said we should go with DaShan who spoke English and the tuk tuk driver who only spoke Tamil. Timothy and DaShan worked at Pigeon Island Resort and seemed to want to help us and we needed help.  So we went to Sea View and then Shahira Hotel which amazingly did have a sparse room for a cheap price.  Our quarters contained a few shelves, white sheets on the hard bed, purple pillowcases, pink mosquito netting, paisley print curtains and a red concrete floor. Completing the lovely design were orange walls and a drying rack; in the dark on a Friday night the room seemed perfect.

The hotel staff even served food, a great service since we were now in the middle of nowhere with few if any food vendors evident. Our new friend, DaShan, offered to take us on his run for supplies and to meet his friends. We were given to understand that had been his destination when he stopped to help us find a hotel.

DaShan took us to buy alcohol and spicy Dal and I even met the Chief of Police. Later on the beach, I realized I did not have a card or the address of our hotel. We were on the beach with five strangers in the dark in the North near beaches with no knowledge of how to get back to our hotel.  After much singing, drinking and chatting, we departed the beach but were unable to find our camera.  I had stopped in our new room long enough to wash my face, brush my hair and get the device. I knew we’d taken photos on the beach but I thought perhaps we had dropped the camera during our exuberant festivities.

I flung myself on the ground searching for our camera. I wanted the photos! We had already been traveling for nearly two weeks. How could we lose the camera? In the end it turned out that one of our new friends had appropriated our property but finally chose to return it to us through DaShan.

And so ended a full day of being crushed on buses, enduring long journeys and stumbling into chance meetings. The incident at the day’s conclusion was a reminder that when you are traveling you need to be careful who you trust.  No one gets it right all the time but we do our best.

Article first published as Mzungu: One who travels around on Technorati.


lostIn the book, The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World, the three “lost girls” are in Africa and learn the word, Muzungu.  “I learned that [muzungu] originally meant ‘one who travels around,’ referring to the European traders who came in the 1800s.” As a “muzungu” or one who travels around, I really enjoyed this travelogue with the three 20-somethings on a mission to see the world, have adventures, and as with all long journeys, to find themselves.
Their three voices share the storytelling and their personal sagas. Each brings personal experience and dreams to be fulfilled. Learning to scuba dive, teach yoga or help young African girls through creating a play, is mingled with the dramatic tuk tuk rides, muddy hikes and their evolving lives.
sigiriaDuring our summer Sri Lankan adventures and in my 103rd country of travel, while reading this book, I had an incredible new experience!  At the Flower Inn outside Sigiria Ancient Rock Fortress I went to the toilet and A FROG jumped out of the toilet. I was surprised to see a frog and it smelled like crap which makes sense since it must have climbed through the septic system. Later that night as I checked the toilet first, there were two smaller frogs and tons of ants. Not a huge shock, as we generally stay in hostels that rank on our scale of minus one star.
We did have a typical rice and curry dinner which was a feast of 14 dishes of curry including pumpkin, Jackfruit, carrot, potato, vegetable soup and an omelette at the family owned Flower Inn which was started in 1972.elepphant
 
Sri Lanka is definitely a wild adventure and was a great place to read, especially when we were not allowed out at night due to wild elephants that wander in Sigiriya. In the book, The Lost Girls, they learn to be better friends to each other and themselves as they evolve while discovering the beauty of the Taj Mahal, the forgiveness of a van company after you total their car, and the importance of true friends who support you through all of life’s struggles. dagobaMy favorite quote is from the beginning of the book, “The world is round, the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning. Ivy Baker Priest.” The more I travel, the more I learn about myself and that the end is only the beginning. Like the actual Lost Girls in the story, I have “prioritized adventure and discovery over stability and structure” and that has made all the difference on the road less traveled. 
We are leaving December 18 for Colombia to begin our next adventure, and I look forward to more dramas like frogs in the toilet or wild elephants at night. Who knows what these muzungus will see next!  
New article on Science and Education, at Science Isn’t Scary: for the article: Race to Nowhere

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Article first published as Elephant Safaris in Sri Lanka on Technorati.

For this teardrop shaped country with a landmass of relatively small size, Sri Lanka boasts diverse flora and fauna over 14 principle national parks and reserves.  Of these locations, the following are worthy to view wildlife: Bundala, Gal Oya, Kaudulla, Minneriya, Sinharaja Forest reserve, Uda Walawe, Wasgomuwa, Wilpattu, and finally Yala, probably the best known and most visited safari location in the entire country.  Of these remaining nine reserves, only a handful will be accessible due to either the time of year and corresponding climate or the sheer difficulty and time required to reach certain locations.  

During our visit from June 19th through August 2nd, 2010, we had the opportunity to visit three of the national parks listed above.  Actually, our first elephant viewing came while we were traveling in a local bus from Negombo to Kandy.  The elephant was clothed and was being marched down the road, probably to one of the many festivals that are held across the country these time of year.  After we arrived in Kandy and walked down to the lake area later that same day, we had our second elephant sighting, elephants and costumed dancers were parading down the streets celebrating Poya, a full moon holiday.  In fact, we later learned that elephants were included in all celebrations, most notably at Kataragama where symbolically, God is placed in an altar and as the locals claim, He is led while perched atop the elephant to visit his girlfriend.  Even God needs love sometimes, if only once per year as in this case!  
At this point, we had no firm plans to go on a safari while in Sri Lanka but while we were in Kandy, we decided to visit probably the most touristy places in all of Sri Lanka, the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage.  The government run operation is a great place to view about 80 elephants in a setting that has a brilliant backdrop that could be right out of Africa.
However, we have serious concerns regarding this project that was supposedly created to protect abandoned elephants.  The mahouts seemed at times somewhat vicious toward the elephants.  These elephants were forced to gather in areas near the tourist viewing points as the mahouts used sharp prodding sticks to ensure that the group remained in a certain radius.  Even more restrictive than the aforementioned is how we saw them chained in rows during feeding time.  I could not help but question the validity and the status of this “orphanage” and wondered if these creatures would not be far better off if left to live out their lives in one of the many national parks located throughout the country.  It was roughly  two more weeks before we would see the difference between these orphaned elephants and their free bretheren located in the national park system.
The Ups & Downs of Bundala and Yala National Parks
From Tissamaharama located in the southeast portion of the country, both Bundala and Yala national parks are easily accessible where day tours can be arranged with a variety of tour operators.  Unfortunately, the town locally known as “Tissa” has nothing much to hold the traveler other than Tissa Wewa (a water tank) and a large white dagoba standing almost 56 meters high.  We checked into Hotel Tissa and arranged an evening tour to Bundala National Park that evening and an early morning departure at 4:45am to Yala the following morning.  As far as accommodation, we recommend the Traveler’s Home located up the road and about 1.5 kilometers out of town instead due to a more relaxed atmosphere surrounded by rice paddies.

As we took off to visit Bundala, we did not have high expectations as Yala is touted as the national park of national parks in the country.  We were told that we would see some birds and crocodiles but that there was not much else to be seen unless we were lucky, and lucky we were.  In our jeep we passed through a remote and beautiful landscape with an interweaving group of waterways and lagoons that are home to a diverse group of 150 species of birds within the 62-sq-km area of the park.  The tracker pointed out a variety of birds and crocodiles as we slowly traversed the glimmering landscape.  The sand dunes abut the Indian Ocean at a lovely virgin coastal area with only one structure, a fisherman’s shack.  Upon our return, we were stunned to see a lone ten-year-old male elephant pass through the brush quite close to us.  We following the elephant to a watering hole where we watched it drink water for almost fifteen minutes, close enough to almost reach out and pet the great grey mammal.

The next morning we awoke at the crack of dawn and after waiting in a line or jeeps to enter Yala National Park, we proceeded to race around for seemingly hours in search of the ever illusive leopards who we would find either in trees or on one of a few rock formations.  As the sun came up, it became evident that we would not see the early morning large cats in the typical spots. We stopped for a rest near a river, still not having seen one major mammal with the exception of approximately 70 jeeps filled with local and international tourists.  In comparison, at Bundala the previous afternoon, we saw only two or three jeeps the entire safari.  At one point out tracker and driver heard that a leopard was spotted in a tree at a certain distant location.  We shot through the park and arrived to a location of where a dozen jeeps crowded together in huddle formation to few a leopard that was at least invisible to the naked eye.  Our driver finally gave up on the leopard hunt and began a more leisurely pace.  Yala is much larger yet not as pretty as Bundala.  There are more paths here and less waterways.  The overall landscape is more arid and desert like.  To be fair, we did see some wild boar and sambar deer in a couple of locations.   As the heat began to weigh upon us, the sun in our glinting eyes, we saw an elephant in the far distance, too far to take a quality photo without a 400-600mm lens.  Disappointed and tired due to the early awakening hour, we returned to Tissa and packed our bags.

The Fantastic Uda Walawe Redemption

From the stupendous beaches of Marakolliya just outside of Tangalla, we travelled via local bus to Embilipitiya, a town good as a base to the Uda Walawe National Park, but not much else.  We checked into a cabin at the Sarathchandra Tourist Guest House and arranged an afternoon tour.  As our tracker entered the jeep, it was a good omen that he felt that Uda Walawe was superior to Yala due to the famous herds of elephants that roam the park’s 30,821 hectares.  And at least for us, this was an amazing place to see elephants.  After passing quite a large area that was burnt down only a few days earlier by a burning cigarette, we entered the park center where we saw some sambar deer.  We then viewed an isolated male elephant at close range near a watering hole, though not as isolated or as close range as we had seen in Bundala.  Our driver and tracker slowly pointed out birds and crocodiles as we traversed the park’s abundant flora.  Then quite suddenly, as we went around a bend, we came across two herds of wild elephants, living off nature in a tranquil state, the place where elephants are meant to be, their home.

And so my wife Lisa and I were redeemed by the famous elephant herds of Uda Walawe, one of the many great locations that we would both recommend across Sri Lanka.  This country is now a land of friendly people who are truly happy that 30 years of civil war has come to an end and that both Tamils and tourists travel freely throughout their country

Without a doubt, Sri Lanka has far more to offer than elephant safaris.  Apart from the great people, lovely beaches, ancient ruins, tea plantations, colorful festivals and stunning natural scenery, there are elephant safaris, the best of the lot Uda Walawe.

Read more: http://technorati.com/lifestyle/travel/article/elephant-safaris-in-sri-lanka/page-3/#ixzz14pRtuU00