Just back from Sri Lanka

Nov 29th, 2012, 05:59 AM
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Just back from Sri Lanka

We (husband and I from Italy) have just returned from 3 weeks in Sri Lanka. The main purpose of our trip was to take part in the World Carrom Championships which took place in Colombo in early November. When this event was over we set off for some tourism.
In Colombo we stayed at the Galadari hotel which exceeded our expectations. Between games we were able to visit the colourful Pettah neighbourhood with its lively market, the beautiful and interesting National Museum and some very nice cafes like Barefoot and especially Geoffrey Bawa's The Gallery. Colombo does not get good press on most travelblogs but I think it is definitely worth a visit and there is plenty to see and do.

After a few days of really heavy rain we finally saw some sun just as we were due to leave for Kandy. We travelled on the observation carriage of the Colombo Badulla train. This is a great experience though the ride is very bumpy. Be sure to get seats number 43 and 44 or 21 and 22 as these are the only ones that give you a really good view.
In Kandy we stayed at the Queens Hotel. This does not get good reviews but we loved it. The location is umbeatable,the public parts full of charm an the decor of the old wing rooms is perfect. The pool is lovely too. The staff were very welcoming and efficient. I wouldn't hesitate to go back. It is also especially convenient if you don't have a car as it is so central. Kandy is a good sized town with lots to do and see. The Tooth temple and Periadeniya botanical gardens are the obvious ones but there is also a nice covered market, lots of shops, nice walks. We ate rather badly in the pretty White House restaurant and somewhat better at The Pub, but I wouldnt call Kandy a foodies paradise!
We travelled backwards and forwards from Periadenya station by tuk tuk spending 300 rupees (about 2 euros) each way.
Coming up next ......Nuwara Eliya
carrom is offline  
Nov 29th, 2012, 09:19 AM
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After 2 nights in Kandy we got back on the train (same seats!) headed to Nuwara Eliya. The train journey was once again amazing travelling through jungle, tea plantations, waterfalls , small villages and wonderful scenery. However, once we arrived the town itself was rather disappointing. There is nothing to see or do other than walk into the old colonial hotels like the Grand and Hill club. We stayed at St Andrews which was charming and the food excellent but the weather was cold and rainy all the time. We did enjoy the visit to the Pedro tea estates and regretted not having bought more of their well priced and delicious tea. On our second day we were picked up at 5am by a driver which we had arranged through Red Dot to go to Horton Plains. We were surprised to see him turn up in an old jeep with another driver but he said it was necessary for the bad road conditions. The drive took about one and a half hours and was quite bumpy - no chance of catching up on some sleep! We passed some interesting farms and a huge condensed milk factory. We were very lucky as the weather was sunny and clear and the 10km walk was very nice with some spectacular views. We saw some sambar deer (one tried to get inside the car)! and a colourful jungle fowl, the national bird of Sri Lanka.
I would definitely recommend this walk but wouldn’t go to Nuwara Eliya unless as a starting point for some sort of trekking.
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Nov 29th, 2012, 12:24 PM
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Thanks for posting your report, I look forward to reading more about your trip.
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Nov 29th, 2012, 12:44 PM
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You never know what you'll learn on fodors. Today I had to rouse Wikipedia to explain carrom to me. How did you do in the World Championships? I'm enjoying your report. Thanks.
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Nov 29th, 2012, 02:59 PM
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I remember when you were planning this. I agree that there's not much to NE after you've seen the lake and the gardens. Looking forward to more.
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Nov 29th, 2012, 03:05 PM
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I'm also reading along and interested. Thanks for taking the time to post this.
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Nov 30th, 2012, 01:44 AM
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Thanks for comments. We did ok in the World Championships though Italy is a bit like the Jamaican Bobsleigh team when it comes to carrom! It is a typically South East Asian game. Still we beat Germany, Japan, Korea and Malaysia so we're pretty satisfied!
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Nov 30th, 2012, 02:14 AM
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hi carrom,

interesting start. I still have no idea what carrom is but i'm willing to learn!

i'll be back later to read more about your trip.
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Nov 30th, 2012, 02:17 AM
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Next day we headed south in a normal and very new, clean car this time with just our Red Dot driver and stopped at Ella to see the Gap and at Ruwana falls. Both pleasant as a stopover but not mind blowing. I wanted to stop at Buduruwagala to see the old temple but the driver said it was too much of a detour and DH wasn't too keen so we headed straight to Tissa stopping only for bananas and mangoes on the way. It took about 4 hours.
We arrived at Chaaya Wild hotel right on the edge of Yala National Park at about 2pm just in time to be greeted by a huge colony of monkeys which feed outside the bungalows between 2 and 5pm. We liked the hotel lot. The bungalows are very well appointed and we had chosen one very far from the reception hoping we would get to see more animals. In fact there is so much wildlife on the grounds that this was not particularly necessary. In the first few hours aside from the monkeys we saw at least 20 wild boars, crocodiles, peacocks, chipmunks, monitors and many varieties of birds.
We had arranged a safari for 6am next morning for 3,800 rupees for half day. This is approximately £20 plus another 6,000 or £30 for the entry fees etc. Unfortunately it was an open jeep and it rained after about one and half hours so we got soaked and had to return before 9am. We saw one leopard on a rock from quite a distance and two elephants, one very close up, a lot of deer, two eagles and some water buffaloes. The problem as others have mentioned is the huge number of vehicles in the park and the bad habits of some of the drivers who careen around like banshees screaming on their mobile phones in a frenzy to find leopards. One jeep got stuck in a huge puddle - more like a pond really - and all the others just revved their engines, plunged in and overtook it!
In any case the scenery in the park is very spectacular and worth the trip. There is a moving monument to the 54 people who were swept away by the Tsunami as they took their sandwich break just by the beach. It looked so peaceful.
Once back in Chaaya Wild we were in for another surprise. At around 11 am we were walking out of our bungalow and practically collided with an elephant feeding. We watched it for about half an hour before it moved out of the hotel grounds. This was a real wild elephant, no mahout hiding in the background. Over the course of our 2 day stay we saw elephants 4 times. We also saw a giant squirrel (dandu lena?), a snake, a large hare with a black collar, several monitor lizards etc. plus the funny little dogs roaming all over the property.
The pool area is nice and there is a beautiful beach to walk on. We also enjoyed the rooftop bar and the buffet which was varied and not at all bad. The other guests were mostly Sri Lankan, Indian and English so it was fun to chat. All in all we really enjoyed our stay at Chaaya Wild and it was definitely one of the best parts of our trip.
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Dec 1st, 2012, 01:11 PM
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I just recently discovers Fodor's Forum and am completely addicted. Carrom -- I've just learned about a new game, a new animal (giant squirrel) and you've interested me in a new place to visit. I loved your non-chalant noting of the "large hare with black collar." Thanks for opening up my world!
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Dec 1st, 2012, 01:12 PM
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The following day our driver took us to our next destination in Rukawa Village. On the way we passed by Tissa and the large Tissa Wewa as well as the huge Dagobas the town is famous for. Rukawa is a tiny village with the sea on one side and a large lagoon on the other. We had booked two nights in the modern Buckingham Place Hotel much appreciated by Tripadvisor reviewers. The hotel did not disappoint. The location is very peaceful and the rooms beautifully decorated and very comfortable. The beach is beautiful but sadly only good for walking. At this point we said goodbye to our driver and were once more carless. We hired a tuk tuk into Tangalle and visited the port and some of the beaches. The area is not very frequented by tourists and has a busy yet laid back feel. We watched fishermen bringing in their nets and the fish being auctioned.
After two nights of relaxation at Buckingham Place (excellent food) we hitched a ride to Unawatuna with a couple staying in the same hotel . On the way we stopped at the hilarious Blowhole which was just a spurt compared to some we have seen but still a fun detour. As usual we were charged ten times more for tickets than the locals but this time it did seem a rip off! We also stopped to view Mirissa beach which looked very nice and uncrowded for a swimming beach.
We had booked one night in Thalpe a beach destination South of Unawatuna in a nice property called Frangipani Tree. Once more the beach was really spectacular but not safe for swimming. That afternoon and all night it rained and rained with spectacular lightning. We were glad to be somewhere cosy with a very good restaurant as there was nothing else to do.
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Dec 1st, 2012, 01:39 PM
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Thank you ElaineK for inspiring me to write on, I thought no one was listening!!
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Dec 1st, 2012, 03:02 PM
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We're listening
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Dec 2nd, 2012, 01:41 AM
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On the following day we crammed ourselves and all our luggage into a tuk tuk for the half hour drive to Galle where we stayed at the Galle Fort Hotel. We liked Galle a lot. You can walk everywhere and there are lots of pretty shops , museums and nice places to eat. We had done no shopping at all up to this point so needed to get a few presents. Sri Lanka is not a great shopping destination in my opinion. Things tend to be either very cheap and poor quality or very expensive compared to both Europe and India. In the end we did not buy much. On our second day we rented a scooter (we are from Rome remember!) for the ridiculously low price of 500 rupees - about 4 euros - and spent the day wondering around and had lunch on the big tourist beach of Unawatuna. This beach is protected and good for swimming. As a consequence it is not as unspoilt as the others we’d seen. Every square inch of beach is occupied by deck chairs, parasols and stalls selling stuff. There are countless little hostels and some bigger package tour hotels. It is kept fairly clean though and the atmosphere was relaxed and fun. It was also not very crowded in November but I can imagine it being worse, eg more waterbikes etc. We had a nice fish in one of the beach shacks “The Yellow” and the sun was scorching but lovely after so much rain.
In Galle we had some very good meals , one at our Galle Fort restaurant, the other at the very posh Amangalla Hotel up the road. We also had a great lunch at Crepe-ology. On the whole we found that the more expensive places were actually better value for money for us than the mid/cheap ones. You would never get a meal served in such splendid settings in the West for less than 20 euros. Wine however was, not surprisingly, very expensive everywhere and not particularly good. Better to stick with Arrack cocktails and beer!
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Dec 2nd, 2012, 04:31 AM
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At the end of our 2 nights in Galle a friend’s driver came to pick us up for the trip back North to Negombo. En route we saw some of the signs of the devastation caused by the Tsunami. Very sad. We stopped in a little beach shack for a drink of toddy or palm wine – very much an acquired taste I would say. It was an interesting experience because we saw the tapper collecting the juice from the flowers of the palm. This ferments very quickly and is supposed to be at its best within two hours after being extracted.
We then continued towards Bentota where we had planned a detour to visit the Brief Garden and Villa designed by famous architect Geoffrey Bawa’s brother Bewis Bawa. The detour ended up being quite long and though we never actually got lost our driver had to keep asking directions. The location of this place is amazing as it is in the middle of so much jungle and tiny villages. Like Rekawa where we stayed earlier on you get a view of a completely different Sri Lanka - miles away from the busy, overcrowded towns , the rubbish, traffic and touts. Here all is peaceful and clean and people are getting on with their lives at a different rhythm. You can see why the eccentric and intellectual Bawa wanted to build in a place like this. He meant for it to be difficult to find so only really motivated people would visit. The gardens and villa are very interesting and we were very glad we made the effort.
We also visited Ambalangoda – the town famous for its masks. The Arapaliya showroom and museum has excellently crafted woodwork which really looks different from the trashy stuff available in many shops round the country.
Eventually we made it to Negombo. From Galle to Negombo along the coast road with our detours took us 7 hours. We were pretty exhausted and only just in time to cool off in the swimming pool of the quirky Villa Araliya B&B where we had booked our last night. We wanted to get a quick look at Negombo where we had been many years ago before going to a birthday party at the home of some Sri Lankan friends. Negombo is known as Little Rome because of its large Christian community and many of its residents live and work in Italy. The main street in Negombo is very touristy but has a lively atmosphere with lots of bars, pubs and restaurants and many little shops which may turn out to be not bad for shopping. There is also a string of good looking hotels along the beach. We could see why many tour operators recommend it as a starting/ending point for a Sri Lankan holiday. We actually regretted not having spent a few more hours there. But it was not to be. After our party which in true Sri Lankan fashion lasted until very late at night we just got a few hours sleep before a taxi came to fetch us for our 9am flight to Doha.

Now Doha, where we spent one night out of choice, turned out to be a pleasant surprise and very different from what we expected! But that is another story............
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Dec 2nd, 2012, 08:03 AM
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To end on a more serious note, from our experience, Sri Lanka is not quite the paradise that brochures make it out to be. The country is trying to find its feet after 30 years of civil war which ended, whichever way we look at it, in the worse possible way. A massacre that no one mentions. This will inevitably take a long time and while it looks as if the economy is moving forwards and major works are being carried out in provinces like Habantota, many fear that the Chinese loans will not help the economy in the long run. The country’s infrastructures are in desperate need of repair and renovation and yet money is being spent on a flashy new airport in the President’s home town. The country is run by a very corrupt oligarchy highly influenced by a chauvinistic and xenophobic Buddhist theocracy. Together they threaten the lives of ordinary citizens. There is little freedom of speech and press, people just disappear from their homes never to be seen again. The man in the street expresses very little faith in his political class and blames the horrors of the past solely on the politicians.
As tourists it is difficult to really appreciate what modern ideology lies behind the renaissance of Buddhist archaeology and the proliferation of new Buddhist temples. All the signposts in Sinhalese/Tamil/English would lead us to believe that this is once more the multi-ethnic country it has always been, but the recent past cannot be brushed so easily under the carpet. Beneath the smiling faces lie suffering, scars and fear for the future. We hope sincerely that Sri Lanka’s future will be brighter than its recent past and that the tourist industry will contribute to this with some awareness of the country’s background and needs.
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Dec 2nd, 2012, 02:15 PM
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nice report carrom and some thought provoking comments at the end. We were both concerned and reassured by the highly visible security presence that we saw, and had no illusions that some pretty dreadful things went on at the end of the war. our driver was pretty sure that all politicians are corrupt, but OTOH had no hesitation in telling us so - which hardly fits with the picture of a society cowed by fear.

as ever, it is very difficult to form an accurate view as a tourist only in a country for a couple of weeks or so, but IMO going there, meeting the people and listening to their experiences, is better than not going. and we would love to go again.

BTW, i agree with you about the food - the best we had was either very cheap or "top end" which was not a lot more expensive than middle of the range which was not necessarily very good. and I was most interested to read your comments about the Queen's Hotel in Kandy - we didn't stay there but the couple of times we dropped in it impressed us quite a lot.
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Dec 9th, 2012, 07:23 AM
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Here is a reading list of books which I found very interesting for anyone going to Sri Lanka:

Monkfish Moon and Reef by Romesh Gunesekara - contemporary novels

Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Salvadurai - novel set during independence

Cyril of Serendip - Donald Eugene Smith - novel

Not Quite paradise - Adele Barker - conemporary memoirs of American teacher living in SL during war and Tsunami

Anil's Ghost by Michael Oondatje - novel set in 1990's

The Cage - Gordon Weiss - UN official's tale of the horrors of the last days of the civil war with a lot of background - essential reading!

An Historical Relation Of the Island Ceylon... by Robert Knox - fascinating account of the author's captivity in SL in the mid 17th Century.

When memory Dies - A. Sivanandan - a very moving and explanatory novel relating facts about the early civil war

Running In the Family - Michael Oondatje - The canadian/SL author's family memoirs - set before independence

All these books are easily available also for download - some of them free. Enjoy!
carrom is offline  
Dec 9th, 2012, 09:44 AM
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading your TR which contained lots of useful information and details. Thanks for posting.
shelleyk is offline  
Dec 11th, 2012, 11:39 AM
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Thank-you Shelleyk!
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