Thursdaysd's Boutique Sri Lanka

Old May 25th, 2011, 02:33 PM
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Thursdaysd's Boutique Sri Lanka

This is the January leg of my six month RTW. Earlier reports are here:

http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...-excursion.cfm and
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...an-sojourn.cfm and with pix
http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com

I had wanted to visit Sri Lanka for some time, and with the civil war apparently decisively over, it seemed like a good time. Unfortunately, a lot of other people had had the same idea. Aside from all the good tourist reasons to visit, I had a personal reason. My father was in the Royal Navy during WWII, and after serving as fleet signals officer he wound up in an unspecified shore job in Colombo.

I usually travel at budget level, using trains and buses, and staying in the equivalent of B&Bs, pensions, guesthouses and low-end hotels. However, I was booking very late for Sri Lanka, with internet access but without a guide book, and traveling during high season. I wound up using Boutique Sri Lanka. I'd have a car and driver for the whole trip, and although I wasn't staying at Tea Trails, I did blow my budget.

Jan 9-11 - Have I Gone Deaf? And a Concrete Bed.

The first thing I noticed about Sri Lanka, being driven from Colombo airport to the tourist enclave of Negombo, was the quiet. Was it possible that my comfortable car was sound-proofed? Was I going deaf? Well, no. I quickly realized that the Sri Lankan drivers maintained lane discipline, and didn't drive with one hand on the horn. But after six weeks in India, I had grown so accustomed to the continuous honking that accompanied any car trip on urban roads, that the quiet seemed almost eerie.

Just as my ears were no longer assaulted by the sounds of India, my eyes were spared the trash that fouled the streets of almost every Indian city. dogster has described Sri Lanka as India-lite. At first sight it was certainly India-clean-and-quiet. It seemed amazing that traveling such a short distance could have produced such a noticeable change. It surely also invalidated the excuses I heard for the dirt and chaos in India. True, Sri Lanka was a smaller country, but it had only just ended a vicious and long-lasting civil war.

Visitors to Sri Lanka are generally advised to spend their first night in Negombo, rather than tackling the capital, Colombo. In fact, they're often advised to avoid Colombo altogether. Since I wanted to see Colombo I had decided to start in Negombo and finish in Colombo. When I couldn't get a reservation for the accommodation I wanted in Yala National Park, I added an extra night to Negombo.

Even though I had been prepared for Negombo to be touristy, the continuous row of cafes and souvenir shops still surprised me. My hotel, the Villa Araliya, was down an alley at the far end of the strip. My room, while a good size, was unexpected. The one double and one single bed were built from concrete, and just one single top sheet was provided. While the shower itself was fine, no hot water was available from the tap beneath the shower or at the sink. I fought a consistently losing battle with the door lock. I saw no sign of the supposedly welcoming owners when I arrived, and when I went down in search of coffee and internet and information, I assumed the woman who helped me locate coffee was another guest. Not until they greeted an arriving couple did I identify my hosts. I did not feel welcome.

At breakfast I met a couple of long-term travelers - a Canadian and her NRI husband - starting their fifth year on the road. We shared a rickshaw down the street to the Ice Bear, a popular budget guesthouse, for lunch. The food was fine, but took forever to arrive, and while the place was on the water it looked pretty basic. I ate rather better in the evenings: a good Wiener schnitzel and fries at Bijou the first night, and an excellent sampler of Sri Lankan dishes at pricey Lords the second (http://www.lordsrestaurant.net/ ). The lobster, pear and lemongrass soup was a little tasteless, but I loved the spicy prawn curry, and enjoyed the dal and spinach, and pea and cashew curries. Between the wine with the meal, the Cointreau I treated myself to with coffee, and the free apple schnaps that arrived with the bill, I had something of a hangover the next morning!

January in Sri Lanka is still high season, one reason I had booked through an agency, and I should have been met by blue skies and bright sunshine. Instead, most of the time I was in Negombo it rained, and the Cultural Triangle area, my next stop, had been suffering from floods. Not an auspicious beginning.
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Old May 25th, 2011, 02:41 PM
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I've been looking forward to your Sri lanka report, Thursdays. I had to chuckle at your first impressions - ("Have I gone deaf?"). We met a British family at Glenburn (in Darjeeling) who are living in Delhi and her reaction to visitng Sri Lanka was "You could eat off the floor it's so clean!"
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Old May 25th, 2011, 07:46 PM
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Having just returned from Sri Lanka myself, I'm looking forward to your continuing report. And jealous too, as I was mainly a 1,000-1,800 rupee/night Lonely Planet traveler!
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Old May 25th, 2011, 10:52 PM
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Good to read your report thursdaysd - we stayed at the Ice Bear in March - sadly the service had not improved. Our dinner was over an hour late in arriving, Still, at least they only took 30mins to serve the beers!
looking forward to more
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Old May 26th, 2011, 06:16 AM
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Thanks!

Kathie - not only was it cleaner, the sidewalks were much safer.

nutella - that's how I SHOULD have been traveling! The car and driver were certainly convenient, but another time I think I'll go it alone, at least some of the time.

crellston - how were the rooms at the Ice Bear? The location looked good, but what about AC and hot water?
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Old May 26th, 2011, 07:23 AM
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The AC was, well icy! The water lukewarm (par for teh course really). We had a nice spacious room with large bed and separate sitting room but a bit noisy as we backed on to the kitchens. We were quite pleased and then we made the mistake of going for breakfast at the Jetwing Blue Hotel - what a place! A match for anything in Thailand and superb food.
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Old May 26th, 2011, 10:18 AM
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Jan 11 - Splish, splash

I had paid Boutique Sri Lanka deposits for each of my hotels, and for the car and driver, which they booked thorough E.C.D. Global. My second morning in Sri Lanka I paid Villa Araliya their balance in cash, and the representative of E.C.D. Global by credit card. It would likely have been cheaper to make the arrangements separately, certainly for the driver, but for once I was paying for convenience. Although I wasn't entirely happy with all the hotels, I had no complaints about my driver, J. R. A Ganiori (at (0)71 49 50 890). He was extremely careful, in fact at times I thought he drove too slowly, and he took almost obsessively good care of me! Usually I travel on public transport, with a backpack (admittedly it usually only weighs around 10 kilos, but still). Now my driver wanted to carry my day bag for me when I visited sights, and wiped my feet for me before putting my sandals back on when I had to take them off for temples. I thought I had traveled back in time.

Perhaps as a result of the bad weather Sri Lanka had been experiencing, the road from Negombo to the Cultural Triangle area deteriorated as we got further from the coast, plus we hit a number of traffic jams, and so didn't reach Dambulla until 2:30, instead of 1:00 as I had expected. Not a problem for some people, but I have a blood sugar problem, and lunch was way overdue. Fortunately, for once I enjoyed a buffet, at the Gimanhala hotel. Although I was sad to see the Sri Lankan dishes confined to a small section of their own, I ate plenty of the delicious fried prawns.

Besides the need for lunch, I was in Dambulla to visit the cave temples. Now, I should perhaps preface my opinion of the caves by saying that I am not really a paintings person. I preferred Ellora (sculpture) to Ajanta (frescoes), and in London I head for the V&A (decorative arts), not the National Gallery. So when I say that I was not that impressed with Dambulla, I'm aware that mine is a minority opinion, although I certainly think that the wikipedia author who claimed they are the finest caves in Asia had either been drinking or hadn't traveled very far. Dunhuang outclasses them easily, and so do Ajanta and Ellora, and even Yungang.

The bad weather didn't help, of course. What I saw of the setting was impressive, but the far view was obscured by mist. Nor was I happy about having to walk barefoot over the wet rocks outside the caves - I don't mind taking off my shoes inside, but after six weeks in India I was really tired of getting my feet dirty every time I wanted to visit even the outer perimeter of a temple. I don't even walk barefoot in my house any more - after several lectures from my chiropractor I keep a pair of "indoor" Birkenstocks. So when I say that I found the Buddhas repetitive and not particularly appealing, don't let me keep from going to see for yourself.

When I gave up on visiting Yala I added one night to Negombo, and one night to the Cultural Triangle, so I would spend four nights at my next hotel, the Deer Park in (well, more accurately near) Giritale. I should have read the description of the hotel more closely, as I wasn't really prepared for a place with 77 cottages that was home to tour groups and big buffets. On the one hand, I had a sizable bedroom with a nice window seat and a desk, although no view. On the other hand, it came with an indoor/outdoor bathroom. Rant alert! I really cannot understand this fad for outdoor bathrooms in the tropics. I live in central North Carolina, with a semi-tropical climate, and believe me, everyone who can afford it has a fully indoor bathroom and central air conditioning! The problem for me wasn't the lack of AC as it was quite cool, it was rain. True, only the shower area was actually uncovered, except by wire mesh, but it was decorated with potted plants, and the heavy rain splashed off the leaves into the rest of the bathroom. Plus, even when it didn't rain everything got damp from the humidity. I stored the towels in the bedroom.

My other big problem with the Deer Park (aside from its isolation - don't visit without a driver) was internet access, which I needed as I was in the middle of confirming my arrangements for Vietnam with Tonkin Travel. Back in the 1980s, my then husband and I bought one of the very first PCs that IBM made, along with a modem, which delivered a stately but frustrating 1200 bps (maybe less). I think the Deer Park's connection was even slower. In any case, it proved quite unusable, and I felt fortunate to find an internet cafe, complete with copier and fax, in Polonnaruwa the next day.
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Old May 28th, 2011, 01:02 PM
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Jan 12-13 - Rainy Day Ruins

Polunnaruwa and Anuradhapur. Multi-syllabic must-sees according to the guidebooks, each once the capital of a Sri Lankan kingdom. Anuradhapur was off-limits recently because of the civil war, but both are now firmly ensconced on the tourist circuit. Having realized that I'm not a fan of very ruinous ruins I had originally intended just to visit Polunnaruwa, but when I gave up on visiting Yala I added Anuradhapur. One day each, although as you can't leave for lunch and re-enter on the same expensive ticket it turned out to be more like half a day each.

While I didn't have to worry about getting caught up in fighting, I did have to contend with very unfriendly weather. The unseasonable January storms had been so bad that a good part of east central Sri Lanka was flooded. While the worst effects were east of me, I felt more than normally unfairly privileged driving past drowned fields and houses with water over their door sills. On the way to Anuradhapur we had to ford a small river that had overtaken the main road, and some of the side roads were washed out, but otherwise the main impact was that I saw the sights by car, and from under an umbrella. Perhaps that affected my response.

Of the two sites I preferred Polunnaruwa. The museum had good English signage, and I liked my guide. However, the ruins were very ruinous - lots of low brick walls, and the carving was good but sparse. The signature carvings were moonstones and guardstones, both at the entrances of temples. Moonstones could be thought of as stone door mats - half circles at the foot of entrance steps, while guardstones stood to either side.

At Anuradhapur the ruins were supplemented by dagobas - stupas - mostly plain and undecorated, which I found rather boring. Of course, if you believe in the power of the relics supposedly housed inside, I'm sure your response would be quite different. For me the absolute top sight at Anuradhapur, which made the trip there worthwhile, was the bodhi tree (http://srimahabodhi.org/ ), a 2,000 year old descendant of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Unfortunately, without special arrangements you can't get very close to it, but it's still a remarkable sight, and looks remarkably youthful as well.

Unlike the meal in Dumbulla, my lunches the next two days did nothing to brighten my outlook. The first day I picked the Polunnawura Rest House, once host to Queen Elizabeth II, with every expectation of good service and good food. Boy, what a let down! I passed on yet-another-buffet in favor of deviled chicken, only to be presented with a dish that appeared to have been concocted from scraps intended for the soup pot. The diners across the room, who had opted for the rather scanty buffet, didn't look much happier. A complaint had no effect whatsoever. I needed an afternoon stop for a cheese sandwich and fries to last until dinner.

The next day my driver took me to a small, local place next to the Abhayagigi Museum, but while the food was much tastier, the chicken was cold, and I wasn't willing to risk it. I topped up with another cheese sandwich at the Tissawewa Rest House: better food and service that at the one in Polunnawura (hard to be worse), but also looking tired and run down.

I had chosen not to visit the elephant sanctuary that shows up on a lot of itineraries - I had ridden an elephant in Thailand, and didn't feel a need to do it again. But on the way back from Anuradhapur my driver suddenly stopped the car, because up ahead of us a wild elephant, perhaps flooded out of its usual grazing grounds, was feeding by the side of the road! Now that absolutely made my day.
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Old May 28th, 2011, 05:10 PM
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loving this section...

did it occur to you that your driver may have had a foot fetish?
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Old May 28th, 2011, 05:26 PM
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I'm sorry your views of the ruins were marred by unrelenting rain. We had a nice meal at Polunnawura, but, as you know we also had a meal at another resthouse that was the cause of Cheryl's visit to Bumrungrad. We had a couple of good meals at Gimanhala - even got them to make it spicy for us. The resthouses were meant to offer, good safe food for travelers, but that seems to have fallen apart.
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Old May 28th, 2011, 05:38 PM
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Bob - lol! He must have been a really happy guy, in that case, because there were an awful lot of places I had to go barefoot - and it was no weather for that. (After the first day I took along a wash cloth from the hotel so I/we could dry my feet. I didn't want my sandals getting too dirty.)

Kathie - yes, between my problem in India, my memory of dogster's problem in India and my memory of Cheryl's disaster, I was really leery of that cold chicken. Pity, because it was the most "authentic" place I ate in Sri Lanka. It was also a pity about the rain, I do think I would have liked the sites better if I had been able to wander around in good weather, although they would still have been no competition for Angkor or Bagan in my mind.
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Old May 28th, 2011, 07:15 PM
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Ahhh, I'm enjoying this MUCh more thurs... no time traveling. I got completely lost in the last post. So I'm settling in.

At last; the truth about runious ruins. I, too, found all of Sri Lanka's historical sites dull beyond all comprehension.

Mrrrrmgph!Zzzzzz. Snort.

Oh, sorry, I nodded off just thinking about them.
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Old May 28th, 2011, 08:28 PM
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i got that face cloth in my room the next day...THANKS A LOT
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Old May 30th, 2011, 07:56 AM
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Hi dogster - nice to see you. You've been conspicuous by your absence lately. Hope your legs are doing better. Bringing T. S. Eliot into the India saga may have been a mistake...

Jan 14-15 - Climbing Sigiriya

The Cultural Triangle's fourth and final key sight is Sigiriya - either a very large rock or a smallish hill, depending on your point of view. Formed from a magma plug from a long-gone volcano, the rock was briefly home to a fortress-palace, and for rather longer to a Buddhist monastery. It's impressive from below, rising abruptly from a flat plain, but the tourist is encouraged to climb to the top - all 200 meters (660 feet).

I tackled this on my last day in the region. The good news: it was a grey, cool, windy day, I didn't have to worry about heat stroke and carrying lots of water. The bad news: it was a grey, cool, windy day that turned to rain - fortunately not until I reached the top, but that was no place for light-weight umbrellas. I was pleased to reach the top without finding the climb too much of a chore, but then I wasn't doing it on a typical Sri Lankan day.

Unlike the other Cultural Triangle sights, Sigiriya lived up to my expectations, although the view was hidden by clouds, and then my camera lens fogged up. I enjoyed wandering through the elaborate former gardens at the foot of the rock, and breaking the climb with stops to see the caves near the bottom and the lovely frescoes part way up. Unfortunately, only the paws of the immense lion that guarded the final stairway remain, and the ruins of the palace on the flat expanse at the top are very ruinous.

I followed a successful, if damp, morning with another good lunch at Gimanhala, but wasn't sorry to leave the next day for Kandy. On the way I stopped at the small, old, and very atmospheric Nalanda Gedige temple, and the newer and not very exciting Aluvihara cave monastery, finishing with a Hindu temple close to Kandy. The Hindu temple was a poor shadow of those I had seen in India, and I left when I discovered admission cost 200 rupees. My driver said he had never been inside a Hindu temple before, and I assured him that it wasn't very representative.

A good tourist would also stop on the way to Kandy at the spice plantations and batik workshops along the road. I chose to do this as a separate trip while I was staying in Kandy, but I have to say not only wasn't it worth a separate trip, I wouldn't bother on the way to Kandy either. When I visited a spice plantation in Goa in 2001 I was taken round the actual plantation to see the spices growing, here I was just shown the harvested spices - it was a pure shopping opportunity, with the spices sold at inflated prices. Similarly, while some of the batik pieces I saw were attractive, the prices were much higher than I remember paying in Indonesia a few years back.
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Old May 31st, 2011, 01:13 PM
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Jan 15-18 - Liking Kandy

Kandy came as a bit of a surprise - bigger, noisier and more crowded than I had expected, but I liked it anyway, not least because I finally had dry, sunny weather. I recently read "A Covert Affair", by Jenner Conant, supposedly about Paul and Julia Child's wartime service in the O.S.S., but actually centered on one of their friends, later found guilty of espionage. Although I thought the cover and the reviews misrepresented the book, I did appreciate the descriptions of life in Kandy in the 1940s, at a time when my father would have visited. Much had changed!

I enjoyed strolling round the central lake (although not being accosted while doing so), but my favorite spot was the Botanical Gardens further out. I happily spent several hours wandering around, admiring the formal gardens, checking out the flock of fruit bats, and lunching with a view of the huge lawn. The next day I made a pilgrimage to the iconic Temple of the Tooth, along with plenty of local devotees. I got no spiritual vibe from the place, but did enjoy the buildings. That evening I attended one of the dreaded "cultural shows" along with a large roomful of other western tourists. I thought the dancers looked bored and under-rehearsed, but had to admit being impressed by the fire walkers.

Unfortunately I was less pleased with my hotel. In fact, I was so little pleased that I spent one morning driving around Kandy looking for an alternative. I didn't find another place to stay, but I did get to see plenty of Kandy and its serpentine streets, including lots of good views from the hills surrounding the lake. I liked the look of the Serene Garden enough to make a reservation for dinner, although the resulting buffet didn't live up to the building.

So, what was wrong with the Serendip Stone Bungalow? First, for me it was too far out of town. In fact it's in a place called Kundasale, not Kandy. Presumably the people giving it rave reviews on Tripadvisor just wanted to chill out by the very small pool, or on the verandah overlooking the river, but I both wanted and needed to get into town. Needed to because the hotel only served vegan food, and that wasn't enough protein to last me. Add in the lack of AC, the lack of driver accommodation, and the five minute wait for hot water (only available from the shower head) and I thought the place way overpriced.
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Old Jun 2nd, 2011, 11:54 AM
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Jan 18-22 - World's End

I liked Kandy but I loved the Hill Country. It turned out to be my favorite part of Sri Lanka, although next time I think I would stay in Ella rather than Nuwara Eliya. I stopped briefly in Ella on my way down to the coast and the scenery was even better than around Nuwara Eliya, plus it seemed that tour groups stayed in Nuwara Eliya while backpackers went to Ella.

On the other hand, Nuwara Eliya was a better base for hiking to World's End. The truly energetic hike Adam's Peak, at night so they are in position for the dawn, when the mountain's shadow travels across the clouds below the peak. I simply wasn't up for four hours uphill in the dark, whereas I thought I might mange the shorter, flatter hike to the World's End viewpoint.

I still had to get up at 5:40, arriving at the entrance to Horton Plain's National Park at 7:30. Once again I was taken aback by the cost of admissions in Sri Lanka - $30 to get me and my car and driver inside. I was also not fully prepared for the hike itself. While nowhere was really steep, a lot of the time I was hiking along dried up stream beds, over uneven rocks, and was very glad of my boots and hiking stick.

Most everyone else on the trail moved faster than I did, but I still finished the full circuit, including two viewpoints and Baker's Falls, by 11:00. I had started out shivering, but finished sweating in the sunshine - definitely a place for dressing in layers. I was more than ready for a rest as I trekked up the final slope, but still in better shape than my driver seemed to expect.

This was the most exercise I'd had since Lynn Canyon in Vancouver and I was relieved that my bad ankle held up. But besides a sense of accomplishment I was rewarded by remarkable views and an excellent waterfall. I am easily mesmerized by falling water, and would have made it back a good bit earlier if I hadn't tackled the steep slope down to the falls.

Why is it called World's End? The Park is at over 7,000 feet, and at a one place the ground drops straight down to the plains almost 3,000 thousand feet below. If you're lucky with the weather you can see for miles.

While the hike was the highlight of my stay in Nuwara Eliya, I also spent some quality time at the Botanical Gardens - bigger and wilder than those in Kandy - and ate a couple of good meals at the colonial era St. Andrew's Hotel. St. Andrew's hovers over the west end of town, surrounded by lovingly tended grounds. I stayed at the much newer Governor's Chalets at the other end, down by the lake. Clear, sunny days gave way to freezing nights and my log cabin definitely needed a heater.

Even better than lunch or dinner at St. Andrews was the one meal I ate out of town at Heritage Tea Plantation. The food and wine were excellent, and the hotel conversion - the building had originally been the tea factory - looked good, but the room rates were in the same class as Tea Trails, and I'm sure Tea Trails would be nicer.

Nuwara Eliya itself, aside from a park and the lake (where a new path was under construction) had little to recommend it. I checked out the shops, since I needed a new umbrella, and wasn't impressed.
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Old Jun 2nd, 2011, 12:00 PM
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I'm still following along with you, Thursdays.
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Old Jun 2nd, 2011, 12:17 PM
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Thanks, Kathie! It was seeming awfully quiet in here. Quiet on the Asia board as a whole, actually. I thought maybe everyone but dogster was traveling.
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Old Jun 2nd, 2011, 01:05 PM
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I'm following too.....and enjoying every bit.
A very different trip to ours, but also, remarkably similar.
Very similar itinerary....in many ways.... just done in another way.
We have no experience of India,.........yet,.....but I think I get the dogster classification of 'India light'.

We stayed at the Heritage and yes it was wonderful....quite expensive.....but MUCH cheaper than Tea Trails.

Looking forward to more of your report.
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Old Jun 2nd, 2011, 02:30 PM
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Leigh - looks like we had similar reactions to a lot of things - like the spice shopping op - but you enjoyed Polunnaruwa a lot more than I did. While I enjoyed lunch at Heritage (no buffet, yeah!) it was a long haul out of town.
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