Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

Halfway across the world, and back again

I logged onto my wordpress account recently, and saw the date of my last post glaring back at me: October 26th, almost than a month ago.

The last time I let such a time pass between posts was during IFSS, when my three weeks in Spain marked the gap between London and Berlin.

This time, looking at my photos and words from my last post, it feels like an age has passed since that time, like my three weeks in Sri Lanka were a whole ‘nother world, another trip apart from my cosy guesthouse in Chiang Mai where I am writing this now.

From quiet Mirissa to the tourist beat of Unawatuna, where Clare and I passed three nights and four days in a blur of finding (and fighting for) a beautiful blue shack above a bar on the beach, falling in with a group of English guys who worked anti-pirate security on high risk shipping runs, drinking beer and going for midnight swims in the warm tropical sea, and seeing more sunrises than I had in the past month.

From Sri Lanka, and my farewell to Clare, I caught a plane to Singapore, where the clean streets, quiet hostel, and perfectly functioning public transport were a stark but welcome contrast to the relentless noise, chaos, and stares that follow and surround you in Sri Lanka. Then from Singapore, the leg of my trip that, when outlined to fellow travellers, had never failed to produce a confused stare and a series of questions: New Zealand, and the Asia Pacific Forestry Commission in Rotorua. This trip deserves (and hopefully will be, when I get around to it!) a post of its own – as does the sneaky stop-over in Melbourne on my way back to Singapore, and the subsequent week in Java, Indonesia.

But for now I’ll jump forward, to Thailand – the beginning of the final stage of my nine month adventure. I’m here to lead a series of student volunteer projects, with a company I worked a season for in Australia last year. My first project was supposed to start tomorrow, and I was supposed to have spent the last week in Chiang Mai for training. Instead, my first project was cancelled, and I found myself with a week to kill in Bangkok.

I have a sort of love hate relationship with that city. Like most Asian cities, it can come as a shock; the noise, pollution, traffic and general chaos can be overwhelming. That was my experience the first time I went to Bangkok, back in 2009, and it was less than 24 hours before I was headed north on a bus to Chiang Mai.

And yet there are things I love about Bangkok too: the cheap and delicious food, the wonderful shopping,the easiness of it all, as a city used to hordes of tourists.

After six days in the city, my love hate relationship had been even more (ill)defined.

Arriving at Don Mueang airport, I realised it was not the main airport I was familiar with, and that I had no idea how to get into town and my hostel. Then felt a sense of relief and gratitude when I was directed by a friendly security guard to the bus stand up the road, and approached by a series of concerned locals eager to help me find my way.

On my second morning, running late for a workshop on the other side of town, I reached a peak of frustration when almost no taxis would pick me up due to traffic, and those that would – along with the tuk tuk drivers I approached – wanted to charge a small fortune to do so. Then I found a bus that travelled my exact route, and one that was free (that’s right, free!) at that.

After three nights in Khao San area, I realised I couldn’t take the crowds of drunk tourists and heckling touts anymore. So I found a beautiful boutique hostel near Victory Monument, an area full of cheap street food and bustling, local night markets.

Still, after six days, I was more than ready to leave the (big) city, and to jump on a plane heading north.

I’m in Chiang Mai for the next two weeks, being put up by the volunteer company in exchange for a few days a week helping out in the office. I’m currently staying in a beautiful, bustling guesthouse – the same guesthouse I stayed in all those years ago. Tomorrow I’m moving further west to be closer to the office, and then I’ll settle in for my stay. I can already feel the chaos of Bangkok slipping away, with the honking traffic jams replaced by the odd scooter rushing past, the drunken mess of Khao San replaced by a chilled backpacker vibe, and the high rises replaced by the low buildings and leafy streets of the old town.

Not a bad place to get stuck for two more weeks.

Lazy days at Mirissa beach

This last week I’ve been doing a whole lot of not much.

After ten days hiking around the hill country, it was time to make my way south to the coast, to meet my friend Clare who was flying in from Copenhagen. Like me, she is slowly making her way homeward after months travelling Europe.

We’re staying in a lovely guesthouse, a short wander back from Mirissa beach. We’ve got a private room in a small building off to the side of a large garden and communal space which, after the secludedness of my hill country guest houses, has been great for meeting other travellers.

Upside to being away from the beach: no endless honking of horns and rumbling of busses along the beach road destroying our relaxed vibe.

Downside: walking the dark, quiet roads back to our guesthouse each night, keeping eyes ahead and pace brisk as we pass sleeping dogs and loiterers on the bridge (don’t worry mum, it’s perfectly safe….).

I’ve been here six days, Clare five, and time is passing in that slowly paced but disappearing way that it does when you find yourself losing track of the days. We get up late (some later than others), sit around drinking our morning coffee in the garden, go for a late breakfast/early lunch, then head to the beach.

The ocean is pretty rough here – shallow water but high, crashing waves that churn you into the sandy bottom if you’re not prepared. Jumping and diving through the waves is the extent of our exercise here. The sun sets early, maybe 6pm, and every evening all the bars along the beach set up little tables in the sand, each lit with a flickering candle, and serve fresh fish and seafood, the catches all on display for you to choose from. I *may* have switched to flexitarian here.

It’s the kind of place you can easily get stuck. We meant to leave today…but instead we will stay until tomorrow, then head west to Unawatuna. The plan was to go diving there but, based on what we’ve seen and heard, the conditions aren’t right and the diving isn’t exceptional anyway, so my suspicion is that it will be more of the same. Which suits me just fine.

I also haven’t taken my camera out once, so here are some instagram photos (from Polhena beach, and an epic Sri Lankan breakfast) for your viewing pleasure:

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Smiling at strangers

On all of my wanderings, along the roads and through the countryside high up in the hill country, I’ve felt a little like the Pied Piper, my western appearance and swinging camera the pipe drawing out groups of children from the surrounding villages.

The braver (more precocious) ones come chasing after me, keen to practise their English (a rapid fire of Hello miss what is your name what is your father’s name what is your country????). Others huddle back in groups, pointing and giggling, or walk past, flashing a smile and ‘hello!’, and laughing in delight when I do the same in reply.

And, like it’s a phrase, a series of questions or desires they’ve been taught, they all ask for the same, in the same order: Pen? Candy? Money? Not having any pens on me (and I heard they sell them anyway – not that I begrudge them for this early entrepreneurism) nor candy (not that I’d give this out), and not wanting to hand out money, they move on to the next question: photo?

A word of warning: take one photo, be prepared to get stuck taking twenty. Some parents wrote down their addresses for me – I have already printed and mailed a few photos to one address guessed from a semi-indecipherable scrawl in my notepad. But in general, they just want to pose for photos. I have never seen such delight in children’s faces upon seeing their own image coming up on my DSLR screen.

Here are some of the beautiful faces I have managed to capture during these past few days.

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Their smiles and joy are infectious.

I have begun to smile and say hello to everyone I pass. Initially it was just in response to a ‘hello miss!’ or a wave out a window, but now, it’s just instinct. It feels natural. Back home, it’s easy to get stuck in the ‘head down, don’t interact’ bubble; if you said hello to everyone you passed people might think you were a bit loopy.

But here, when you know that every smile you give will be returned, magnified in the beaming, gappy, betel-nut-red stained smile of an old woman, or the excited smile of a child; when you see gruff men’s faces transformed into a welcoming grin, why would you not?

Going solo

I’m writing this post as I sit reclined in a plastic chair outside my guest house room above the town of Ella, in the Sri Lankan hill country. I arrived this afternoon, and I barely had time for a quick wander of the town street, and a buffalo curd and honey at a local restaurant, before the rain set in. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather so far – sunshine and hot weather everyday – but the initial odd sprinkle of rain has started to become a regular afternoon or night time downpour. Perhaps the October monsoon change has finally hit.

I have spent the past hours here sitting on my covered balcony with a cup of tea, chatting to my neighbouring traveller (a fellow forester as it turned out), doing laundry, catching up on emails, and, when the rain finally ceased, walking back down the hill to the same restaurant for a dinner of kottu rotti and vegetables, with mango juice on the side.

I have been in Sri Lanka for barely ten days, and yet I already feel a change of pace, and a sense of relaxation setting in. I was supposed to be travelling with a friend Clare, but she decided to stay longer in Europe, so now we are meeting in a few days, on a beach somewhere down south.

Looking back, these ten days of solo time may have been just what I needed.

After spending my first night in the little beach town of Negombo, I jumped on a rickety local bus and headed inland to Kandy, in the hill country. Going against my normal Asia way of travelling, which is to turn up in a town and head for a recommended guest house, or just wander until I find something suitable, this time I booked in advance – albeit only that morning. I found an amazing looking room in an upmarket ‘home stay’ in the hills above Kandy, and, while blowing my (perhaps overly optimistic) budget for a few days, it turned out to be the best place to start my trip.

I ended up spending four nights there, enjoying my luxury room and my view over the Kandyan hills, and settling into the pattern that has defined my last 8 days in Sri Lanka: getting up early, eating a home cooked Sri Lankan breakfast of rotti and coconut sambal, or string hoppers, curry and fruit; going for a hike through the hills or a walk into town; wandering through the surrounding countryside or catching a local bus out to a certain site; coming ‘home’ for an afternoon nap, then another epic feast of rice, curry and fruit. Taking a book and a cup of tea up to my room each evening, and going to bed before 11pm.

So passed these first four days in Kandy. I spent a day following a ‘temple loop’, a ~10km walk between three temples around Kandy, passing through villages and rice paddy farmland.

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On my last morning there I got up at the ungodly hour (for a backpacker at least) of 6.30am, and went with Pathi, the father/guesthouse owner, and his friend on a ‘one hour walk’ (three hour hike) up through the hills and tea plantations, passing tea pickers and local villagers out for a walk, and dodging honking tuk tuks on our way back down.

Pathi and his family made me feel so welcome in their home, but after four days it was time to move on, to Haputale, higher up in the hill country.

One piece of advice I was given for Sri Lanka was to ‘take trains, LOTS of trains’. And so I did, buying a second class ticket for less than $5 for the 6 hour train ride from Kandy to Haputale, a window seat so I could take in the views. And what a view it was! After a few hours, the train noticeably climbed higher and higher, and the distances between stops became greater and greater until we were in the vast, wild looking landscape of the Horton Plains National Park.

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Passing through the isolated train station of Ohiya, and looking up at the tall, silvery gums shrouded in the oncoming mist, it was almost like driving through Victoria’s central highlands on a misty winter’s day.

I arrived in Haputale as darkness had just fallen, and was met by the son of my next guest house’s owner. After piling my luggage into the back of his tuk tuk,  we drove at high speed up out of town, to my little cottage where I would be spending the next four days.

Nothing could have prepared me for the view I awoke to the next morning – my cottage, perched on the edge of a steep hill, looked out over nothing but mountains, hills covered in tea plantations, and the jagged Eagle Rock above which eagles were seen soaring every day.

I could have stayed there for weeks. Each day I felt more and more at home in my basic little cottage. While I had enjoyed a little luxury in Kandy, I realised that this was really all I need – a bed, a shower, a roof over my head, good food, and to be surrounded by an incredible landscape such as this.

Every morning I got up early and, after breakfast, set off on a hike. I walked up the road away from town, passing tea fields dotted with the green and white bags slung over the tea pickers’ backs as they toiled all day in the heat, just so we can have our morning cup of Ceylon tea.

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I caught the local bus up towards Lipton’s seat, where Sir Thomas Lipton himself sat as he admired the landscape he had been instrumental in transforming into what it is today, then hiked the 16km back down, stopping for a tour of a tea factory, and, at each village, to chat and take photos with the swarms of children who came racing out after me.

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And, one morning, I walked down through the tea fields below my cottage then climbed up the steep hill to Eagle Rock, where I sat for an hour or more on a smooth rock beneath an old gum tree, a precipitous drop below and a breathtaking view in front, just sitting, letting my thoughts wander, relaxed in the way you can only be when you have nothing you need to do, and nowhere else you’d rather be.

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Of course, I was never truly alone for long. Whether it be the couple I joined heading up to Lipton’s seat, or my guest house family in Haputale who I chatted away with every evening, and who invited me to join their extended family for a feast to celebrate Hadji, there was always someone to talk to and share my days with.

However, these days travelling solo have reminded me of how much I also need my time alone. Sitting in front of my bungalow, hiking through forests and tea fields, walking kilometres each day, it has been a chance to clear my head, some much needed time to myself. And I’ve finally been able to justify carrying my hiking boots around Europe for four months.

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