When is a scam a scam? A most unusual day at Patong Beach

While in Phuket, we decided to do a day trip to Patong, the real warts-and-all centre of tourism in this part of Thailand. We did it so we could say we’d done it, and secretly so we could pretentiously and smugly judge its outrageous facade; the worst stereotypes of farangs go wild writ large. Instead, we found ourselves having an altogether I-promise-it’s-true, you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kinda experience…

We had really only just arrived when we met fellow Kiwi Scotty, having wandered down the (in)famous Bangla Road with its morning after hangover appearance. We were both wearing black tops that easily identified us as such, so we were easy targets! After a bit of general chit chat, his intentions became clearer.

He and his Swedish ‘colleague’, like himself another slightly weather beaten expat, gave us cards that were part of a ‘promotion’. We opened them to reveal that, while one was just a T shirt (cue sympathetic ohhs), mine – surprise surprise – was major: an iPad, smartphone, USD$1,000, or a seven night resort holiday. They started excitedly jumping around. This was great news as not only had we won, but if we just went to this 90 minute presentation, they would get thousands of baht in commission and they’d be able to ‘eat steak tonight’.

By now we were well clued in, and really should have a) declined and b) remembered that no one ever beats the house! However we decided to do a fellow Kiwi a favour.

He clearly (not) needed a good iron feed. So we agreed.

Scotty played his part well, remaining excited throughout. A tuk-tuk was hailed to transport us up to the Patong Bay Hill Resort while he dressed up as chit chat what were clearly the screening questions: are we wealthy enough to desire annual resort holidays, are we their target market? Because we were staying in Phuket Town in a nice but budget-friendly hotel, he coached us to talk up how much we’d paid per night, and to really emphasise our next destination: a branded resort at Karon beach.

And so, upon arriving at the functioning but still under construction resort, what turned into an almost four-hour show began.

Jellyfish: not the only spineless blobs we encountered on Phuket!

Sean, a Manchester lad of Irish descent, was our chosen narrator. He spent quite a bit of time establishing rapport. In retrospect, it’s bizarre how long we spent just ‘chatting’ before any talk turned to what the package was; although, of course, it’s also totally not, being clearly part of the game. He told us a lot about himself, and how he ended up in Patong. The extended version. All the while he was asking us questions too, obviously feeling us out and trying to find the little hooks he could use.

He mistakenly assumed, for example, that our black and white tops with silver ferns on them were All Blacks/rugby tops, and so assumed we were either fellow players (our builds) or at least fans. Wrong on both counts Seanypoos.

(As was also the case when we later met Andy, the big boss, who had recently spent a boozy weekend in notorious Pattaya, a place we avoided for that exact reason, and told us about how it got rowdy, a great boys’ weekend, and how his bank balance was now paying for it. Bad mis-read, bro.)

While this was happening, we were seated in an AC room/office with a tasty-looking continental buffet spread in front of us, told to help ourselves, and were plied with – not great – coffee too. If only we had no shame.

He then showed us around the flurry of activity that was a US$1 million dollar pool being built, while making lame jokes about Thai time and OSH in this part of the world. Another mis-read. The knowing laughter was canned, Sean.

(Side note: a hilarious part of the theatre of it all is how you are introduced to other staff members as the show progresses; the bit characters to the main event. They pop in and out, all smiles and delivering little scripted jokes.

Exhibit A: we meet the other British sales guy whose son is apparently going to be the next answer to the Arctic Monkeys. After he walks off, cue Sean: no he’s not because the band’s crap. Cue more canned laughter, and yet another misread: just because I’m a music scholar, it doesn’t mean I’m an instrumentalist, or that because your playlists are eclectic and could be anything from classical to hip hop, it makes you interesting; and why are those always the two ends of some kind of musical taste spectrum anyway?!).

Sashay away, Seanypoos, sashay away!

After the first part of the show was over, we take a taxi down to the Club’s beachside resort, so we can ‘get a taste of what you could be looking forward to’, if we joined up today. The location was amazing – literally out your door and straight onto the beach – everything else was questionable.

The pool took up a large part of the resort area and it felt like it was full of shirtless muscle lads looking for good time girls to bang. The rooms were literally metres away, so there is nil privacy to enjoy your little private plunge pools. No wonder they were empty. The vibe was just a bit seedy.

I don’t know whether Sean picked up on this, or not, but he didn’t show us around much and we didn’t stay that long, just long enough to enjoy a coconut shake. Instead we returned to Patong Bay Hill Resort for the final act.

Now the sell finally begins. Back at the office, Sean shows us how we could book into luxurious villas that, on booking.com, were thousands of dollars a night, for ONLY $USD288 A WEEK!! And, because of their ownership within the Marriott family, there were thousands of these properties across the world we could have access to. No matter where in the world we wanted to go, almost, we were guaranteed to be able to find a week’s worth of five-star accommodation for USD$288, Sean told us excitedly.

By the way, I’ve started speaking these words in a sarcastic tone; you should read them likewise.

It was time to see what was meant by this, so we were taken up to one of the resort’s one bedroom suites, which we were told would be the minimum guaranteed standard we could expect, if we weren’t upgraded to something better. Admittedly the suite was fine, and the outside infinity pool tempting.

Standing outside on the balcony, overlooking the pool and view out across Patong, it was time to start building to the climax. We’d been told that, if we could answer yes to four questions – is it value for money, would we get the use from it, do we deserve it, and one other piece of nonsense I can’t remember now – then a simple yes/no answer should be a no brainer. Were the answers to the questions a yes? Indeed. Would we be able to give him a simple answer today? The start of problems ahead for Seanypoos.

Insert lame joke about wanting to parachute out of the situation

He’d previously mentioned that he was a researcher by nature, investigating all of his options before deciding anything. I reminded him of this and that, as a researcher I would be very unlikely to say yes to something without taking time to research and investigate. I can’t remember his retort, but of course there was one. Something lame to keep us in the game.

We returned to the shiny sales rooms for the final reveal. The normal price for a 10-year membership – and that was fine as ‘the majority of people enter at the 10-year and then love it so much they upgrade to the full 25-year options’ – was just under NZD$20,000, but today, and only today, we’d get 20% off that price.

As a bonus, we’d also get an extra ten free week bookings over the ten year period, and so we didn’t have to consider the full amount, we could make a deposit – how much could you realistically put down today? – and pay the rest off over six months, longer if you need it, we’re completely flexible and it’s 0% interest, and the ten years won’t start ticking over until we’ve made payment in full, but the special has to be taken today. Can you imagine how the lines are starting to be delivered?

We sit outside so we can ‘talk without two annoying British guys standing over you’. And so we can finally talk about how we are going to get out of this.

To be continued…

Myanmar’s tourism highlights I: the temples at Bagan

Bagan is likely the first image you’ll see if you Google image search Myanmar. The intoxicating image of balloons flying over an early morning, mist-covered and temple-littered landscape certainly captures the imagination, and was unquestionably a primary motivator in our visiting the country.

Having now experienced Bagan, in reality I’d say you do need to check your expectations just a little. It’s still a breath-taking sight, but those pictures were taken at exactly the right time of the year and in an era when the temples essentially represented an all-comers adventure playground. Visitors were able to amble at-will all over these pieces of precious historical taonga (treasures), in order to find those jaw-dropping vistas.

Today if you come to Bagan expecting an Insta-perfect experience, you may leave disappointed.* This is because you cannot simply climb all over the temples anymore. A combination of the impacts of too many tourists climbing all over them, and a pretty significant earthquake in 2016, have caused a lot of damage and make it simply too dangerous (and perhaps we shouldn’t have been doing this in the first place anyway!). Thus, the upper reaches of temples are now out of bounds.

*In saying this, if your budget stretches that far and you’re in season, I’m pretty sure taking the famed dawn balloon ride would come pretty close; they had stopped for the season by end of April.

Once a grand city, around a particularly fertile bend in the Ayarwaddy river, the 4,000 temples of Bagan were constructed in a 230-year long building frenzy, until the Mongol invasion of 1287 put an end to it all. At its height, it is estimated that a new temple was begun every two weeks!

In recent decades, there has been some very questionable restoration projects completed (a ‘Hindu’ temple that looks unlike anything we ever saw in India, for example). Some argue that the original boon of immense activity was a case of trial and error anyway, so they’re simply following in their ancestors DIY punk ethos, which is an interesting perspective.

Damage, degradation, and questionable rebuilding aside, Bagan is a pretty mesmerising and utterly unique landscape, as the photos hopefully make clear. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world that looks quite like Bagan. There’s days worth of exploration here, just waiting for you to unleash your inner adventurer and explorer.

We spent two full days exploring the landscape on e-scooters. It’s a large area, so we spent the first day in the surrounds of the Bagan Archeological Park, ambling through the landscape and stopping at points of interest (or anywhere that took our fancy). It was really quite a freeing experience, knowing that you could go wherever there was at least a sandy track to take you. And with main roads essentially squaring you in (or the river if you really went off-road), you couldn’t really get too lost.

If you ever held (unrealistic) fantasies of an archaeologist bashing through harsh(ish) landscapes to rediscover remarkable lost pasts, now is your chance to run wild. Run Forrest, run..

On the second day we zero’d in on the heavy hitters, the grand, still-functioning temples that give you an idea of how magnificent a city Bagan must have been in its day. Visible from all over, they’d been our orientation points the day before, and now we drank them right in.

Both days ended atop obviously more recently constructed viewing mounds. From there we were able to get pretty breathtaking views of stupa-pierced vistas – photos don’t really do it justice – even though on both days the sun failed to set in truly dazzling fashion (the pre-rainy season haze – not mist – that has followed us around once again obscuring the horizon).

To be frank, there isn’t one temple that sticks in the mind as being truly truly remarkable, but I don’t think that’s the point of Bagan. It’s more about the experience of the whole, not entirely unlike Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat. The key temples were grand, to be sure, but they combine with the quirkiness of others and the randomness of discovery to create the overall feeling of the experience that remains with you. And you can’t capture that in a photo.

Getting there, away, and around: how we did it

To Bagan, we arrived from Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), and afterwards moved on to Inle Lake. Both rides were with the same company, OK Express, in minivans that were, as their name suggests: OK. They were a little squashy, a little uncomfortable, and the AC struggled against the heat, but they did the job. We’ve certainly had worse minibus rides (hello Laos!)

From what I could gather, OK are only company plying the Maymyo-Bagan route, and it was the only option presented at our guesthouse. From Bagan there were more options, but OK ended up being the only company going to Inle Lake around the time we wanted (mid-morning).

At Bagan, it seems like there is no option but to be dropped off at a bus station 3kms or so out of town. We were, in fact, on a bus that went directly into Nyaung U, but were swapped onto one that was transporting the other tourists, and we watched as our original bus went to where our accommodation was, while we went in the opposite direction!

Tourists must pay a 25,000 kyat visitor fee, and this is collected at a stand on the way into town from the bus station, so this might be the reason. Either way, you are at the behest of the local taxi mafia once you arrive at the bus station (it was a pretty hefty 8,000 kyat for the 3km ride, where the 7-hour, 400km bus has been 15,000!). Yes, they’re well aware of how the tourism game works here…

In terms of Bagan itself, out of season Nyaung U was certainly the more lively and convenient option as a base (Old Bagan and New Bagan were very quiet, although fine for lunch stops on our days of exploring). Even so, Nyaung U is really just a large village, with everything a traveller will need centred around the one road. This is not a Siem Reap or Kuta style destination…

For the two days tiki-touring, I used the wonderfully detailed maps.ME (I’ve spoken of it before), Lonely Planet’s pretty extensive overview, and Google maps, to plot out a rough plan, which we more or less then followed, along with our noses! Day one took us in and around the roads that run south/south-west of Nyaung U, leading to New Bagan and north of (the blue tags), while the second day took us along the main road to Old Bagan and finishing off where we left off on day one, south of Anawratha Road (the pink tags). Of course the on-the-ground reality was not quite so linear, but you get the drift..

Travelling random in Chiang Rai: when ‘unhealthy’ air strikes back II

Our week in Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province, got off to a rocky start, with ‘dangerously unhealthy’ levels of air pollution (and extreme heat) scuppering our plans for hill trekking. With the flexibility of gymnasts, we changed tact and instead found ourselves on a bus to Chiang Saen, a riverside town on the border with Laos.

Fortunately, we needed to fill a weekend; and this, the hive mind told us, was when Chiang Saen would come alive with markets-a-plenty, as people from surrounding hill tribes/villages and neighbouring Laos come to town to trade and do the weekly shop. Sounded good.

The Saturday night market was definitely a lively affair, with all manner of food options available and entertainment via music and dance on one stage, and a more poppy DJ affair for the kids. We strolled along the riverfront – where we would eat all three nights – settled on a few essentially random options (local grilled sausages, chicken curry and rice, papaya salad, and baby pineapples), and joined the families eating on tiny chairs and tables in front of the stage. It was very convivial.

She burns bright and fast though as, wandering back just after 8pm, the majority of the stalls were shutting up shop. Delightfully small town.

The Sunday markets were even more elaborate, snaking outwards along streets off the main road, and featuring everything from bright Island-style print shirts, to electronic gadgets, prepared food, fresh food, and even live chickens (including those bred for cockfighting). Just as the hive mind told us, there was busy traffic across the Mekong, with boatloads of people returning to Laos with boatloads of goods.

Otherwise, though, we spent the first day and a half relaxing, reading, swimming in our resort’s pool, and looking at the Mekong. It was pretty glorious, and we quickly decided to extend our stay for a third night. If Chiang Rai was appealingly laidback, then Chiang Saen was gloriously glacial, and we had felt its charm immediately.

By Monday, though, we were ready to return to something more adventurous, so hired bikes and set off to explore the countryside. We started by cycling 12km north to the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet, and now a pretty gaudy tourist zone (yes it was steaming hot, only fools…etc., although the area is completely flat).

With China just a little way up the river, busloads of tourists were piling out at any one of many ‘golden triangle’ photo opportunities. A group of Australian teenagers provided a counterbalance (of what I’m not too sure). I actually quite liked it, it was all rather Buddhist kitsch.

Across the river in Laos, though, there’s a challenger on the rise: the Chinese government has taken a 99-year lease on some land and is building a city clearly intended to become a tourist-magnet; think hotels and casinos and all that comes with. I’m pretty sure the Thai side of the GT will have a gaudy rival fairly soon. Battle of the tack is on.

My feeling was that the GT was one of those places without history (i.e. an historic reason for existing) and, in my experience, this always creates places that are just a bit odd, a bit rootless, transient and wild-westy.

This is somewhat true; the area in fact was named the Golden Triangle because it was historically the world’s main source of opium and then heroin; hardly a ringing endorsement for stable community. However, just a few streets off the trail, there is evidence of a much older history.

The Phra That Doi Pu Khao wat complex sits atop a hill – where there is another Golden Triangle sign photo op; oi vey – and possibly dates back to the 8th century.  The current series of buildings dates to the 14th century and were being rebuilt as we visited; a pretty fascinating display of how temple reconstructions can take place. It was also, at one time, under Burmese control, showing just how much borders and power have waxed and waned here over the centuries (millenia, probably).

Further down the road, Wat Sob Ruak has been completely renovated and now, in my estimation anyway, is a temple to rival Chiang Rai’s famous white temple (not nearly as elaborate in ambition and scale, but a more serene experience overall). Both temples were a lovely meander, and a pleasant way to get off the beaten path.

Back in Chiang Saen, we spent the rest of the afternoon using an hilarious hobomap as a basis to explore the town, which has a long and fascinating history way back into antiquity. Later, it became an important city of the Lanna kingdom, from 1325, but was later captured and ruled by the Burmese (16th century). Because of this, King Rama I completely sacked the city at the start of the 19th century, and it was abandoned for a hundred years. It was only repopulated after 1900.

Because of this, it’s a fascinating hodge podge. There are ruined wats everywhere, a few that survived and deserve visiting, a small and charming town on a grid plan, and most of it still encased within the old double city walls, which are largely still in-tact but have groovy trees growing out of them. Outside the walls, on a hill overlooking the city and Mekong, the Wat Phra That Chom Kitti provides the perfect and peaceful finishing point.

What definitely added to the small town charm was that we were there in the days leading up to Songkran, the Thai New Year. Most well-known outside of Thailand for the water gun-heavy water fights that break out in major cities and tourist areas, here this was something completely different.

For each of our three nights, we watched as the town’s central wat, the riverfront, and the other main road that intersects its middle, were all being transformed in preparation for the country’s preeminent festival. And as it did, you could feel the anticipation and revelry start to ignite.

Around the temple and along the riverfront, festive lights were being strewn and turned on, and amusement rides set up and started in earnest. Further down and around the corner, stalls started to eck out their spots, and, finally, the fairground-type games came alive.

It provided us a real glimpse of Songkran small-town style, and, as we geared up for massed water carnage in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge that we weren’t still wandering along that gorgeous riverfront in that charming wee place instead.

Maybe next time.

Elephant detailing outside temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand, April 2019.

Travelling random in Chiang Rai: when ‘unhealthy’ air strikes back

Poor air quality forced us to abandon our intended plans for a week in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province. Fortunately, what resulted was the very best kind of on-the-fly travel: unplanned, nil expectations, maximum enjoyment.

Our final afternoon in Chiang Rai perfectly summed up how wonderfully random and unexpected our week had been. We had returned from a joyously unplanned three nights on the border of Laos, and intended to cycle north to the third of the city’s mono-coloured temple attractions – the blue temple – and then further on to Artbridge, a contemporary art gallery.

By late afternoon, both ticked off, we had a bit of time to spare. Zooming into Google maps, it dawned on me that the old and now abandoned Chiang Rai airport looked open for exploration. We should check that out.

Speeding down the runway, still stained with the black remnants of jet fuelled-travel, I’m not going to lie: the inner child surfaced, the one that used to zoom around the neighbourhood pretending to be a bus driver or a pilot (I had routes and stops and made the relevant noises). Don’t ask me why, but the child and now the adult has always been fascinated by the crossing paths of mass travel, the intersections of people going places.

It was a singularly unique experience: unplanned, unresearched; pure joy. Hot wind blowing on my face, I was sitting on a wing as the thrust engaged, and the engine roared into life. Off, off and up…

Our original plan was to hang out in Chiang Rai for a few days, soak up the atmosphere of the so-called an arts and culture hub, and then do something like a trek in the hills. Because it is now firmly low season, I put a shout out on a travel forum to see if there were any travellers about who might be thinking the same and wanted to band together.

Within hours, I had local experts asking me if I was crazy, given the heat and appalling air quality currently being experienced. They linked me to a website that showed real-time sharply red ‘dangerously unhealthy’ readings amid temperatures approaching 40C. It was fairly obvious we were going to have to change tact.

(Side observation: I always find it funny how you tend to become removed from the news cycle inside the country you are travelling in. I’m completely connected to news as it’s happening in New Zealand, but know little about events as they might be unfolding on the road. The latest Colmar Brunton political poll – tick; air quality emergencies in SE Asia – I got nothing!)

We spent the first three nights in Chiang Rai as planned, exploring its wonderful and unique quirks. The inner city moves at an alluringly small town pace, and we quickly complied. It’s stuffed with temples and markets spaces, cafes and massage places, and everything is wonderfully walkable and open; perfect for the professional meanders we now are.

Ambling around its atmospheric night market is such a cliché, but so enjoyable when the pace is set to relax and immaculate drag queens in their evening best are providing the floor show. Afterwards, we caught a further show when, wandering passed the already very campy clocktower, it suddenly lit up and started playing music. It is hard to decide which was more gay! Fabulous.

Just out of town is the inland Chiang Rai beach. It’s actually a long line of bamboo structures, lined up along the Kok river, where locals go to relax, eat, and swim. As the river rises and falls so significantly, clearly everything is dismantled and reconstructed every year. It’s emblematic of a way of life developed to be in tune with the rhythms of nature and seasons.

We had hired bikes to explore the surrounding countryside for an afternoon – always a good idea – and were further rewarded for our efforts by coming across a stunning cave temple. It was completely deserted, and so totally ours for just a little bit (well, ours and all the bats…).

Two eccentric artists are responsible for two must-see attractions: the white and black temple complexes. The white temple was at once both familiar and unknown. Its shape, design and embellishments were as we’ve seen elsewhere, yet its scale, flourishes and ambition are quite extraordinary.

Inside the temple – photography banned unfortunately yet understandably – this eccentricity was on full display. Alongside the more standard Buddhist-drenched imagery, representations of pop culture figures, from the Matrix to Harry Potter to MJ in full Beat It mode, were interwoven into a canvas of fantastical elements. Even such a simple concept as a lotus-inspired wishing well was mesmerising, and I stood watching for far too long, entranced by the way the gently rippling waters made the lotus appear shimmering.

I think I actually enjoyed the black temple more. It’s not strictly a temple, but a collection of around forty buildings, many of which are shaped like temples, but also igloo and other weird and wonderful shapes. They’ve all been constructed to house one artist’s insane collection of animal trophies (at least that’s how I read them), phalluses, drums, large furniture and other sculptures.

Although I found the combined energy of it all a tad aggressive, and perhaps thought it bordered on being slightly masterbatory, it was still a wonderful trip into the bizarre and otherworldly mind of a unique vision, carried out with singular determination. And that can always be appreciated.

And then there was the blue temple. Although white is the colour of peace, the white temple was actually quite harsh under the glare of the intense sun. I found the blue temple so much more serene and calming. The inside frescoes were similar to the white temple – stunning – but without the fantastical elements.

These temples are all out of town, the black and white at its northern and southern edges, around 24kms apart. Local buses can get you there, though, and the helpful tourist office at the bus station (indeed any ticket collector) will gladly point you in the right direction. To get back from both, we simply went out to the roadside afterwards and, before too long, shared songtaew trucks came along and scooped us up. I’m guessing flagging down a passing bus would have been possible too. Everything was the same price: 30 baht each. Easy as.

With Chiang Rai covered, we now had some days to fill and any hiking plans were well and truly out of the picture (the haze was bad enough to almost have us buying face masks, almost). So, we turned to the hive mind of the internet and found some information that suggested a trip to one of the small border towns would be worthy.

We decided to take a punt and, thanks to an online fire sale, booked into a resort beside the Mekong River. Off to the bus station we went, and within minutes we were on a bus bound for Chiang Saen. As soon as it was full (or near enough to), we would be off.

To be continued…

Three months in: the story so far…

So, astoundingly, we’ve passed the halfway mark of our trip; it’s crazy to think that we’ve been on the road for three whole months.

On the one hand, time seems to be rushing passed us this time, unlike 2013, when the landscape in front of us seemed endless, for so long. Everything was new then, every day a sensory overload, hour-by-hour to be savoured. It definitely is a different experience second time around.

But on the other hand, thinking back to the day we rolled into Colombo and the huge distance we’ve covered since, you realise just how much you’ve seen, and the sizeable bank of new experiences and memories that will remain visceral for quite some time.

We left New Zealand pretty exhausted and battleworn from what felt like a long, tough year. It’s nice to realise that we are ready to come back, refreshed and rejuvenated, with energy to start again, and yet we have three more months in front of us yet. Now that’s a feeling worth savouring…

Sri Lanka was the perfect starting point. We were originally going to start in India, and make our way down, but, in a stroke of genius insight, I guess, one night I suddenly had small palpitations about the thought of returning to India, tired, worn out, but fresh and green, and directly into the chaos of Kolkata. It just felt too much, too soon, and if Sri Lanka was going to be a less crazy version, then that is where it felt right to leap off from.

Sri Lanka in fact isn’t any kind of version of India at all. It’s somewhat related, true, but it is entirely unique. And boy did we love it.

In direct contrast to India, we found it one of the easiest countries to travel around. The train system is great, and we used it wherever we could. Where we couldn’t, the bus networks were vast, frequent, and easy to navigate, and everything was helped by the fact that people were, on the whole, super helpful and friendly.

And then there’s the food, glorious food, on which I’ve ruminated extensively elsewhere.

We started in capital Colombo, passing a pleasant three nights as we settled into and found our new rhythms. A lot of people bypass the city, but we found it worthy of exploration. It’s also undergoing massive and rapid change, so will be fascinating to see what it becomes in the near future.

Visitors usually head for the country’s south coast beaches, and rightfully so: it’s truly glorious (and we say that as people of the Pacific). We didn’t dally about for long though, spending just enough time for a beach day and another exploring the magnificent Galle fort, before heading inland for an elephant safari. A part of us wishes we did dally longer, so maybe that will have to be reason #1 for a second trip.

But it was towards the second key selling point that we needed to head, hill country, and we spent a fabulous week passing through Ella, Nuwara Eliya and onto Kandy. We strolled around hills and lakes, rode world famous train routes, saw giant Buddhas, vistas, and tea plantations, and witnessed devotional frenzy.

And then there was our epic overnight adventure and trek to the most holy site of them all: Adam’s Peak.

Sri Lanka’s fascinating ancient capitals were up next, and in quick succession we visited the breathtaking Sigiriya, the giant Lion Rock upon which a capital was constructed, the astonishing caves at Dambulla, full of ancient sculpture and paintings, and then the ruins at Polonnaruwa, full of temples, dagobas, monasteries and more.

The first, longest-lasting and most extensive of all the ruined capitals, at Anuradhapura, was one of the final places we visited, and presented another piece in the Pearl Isle’s fascinating historical puzzle.

From ancient hearts we headed to coastal breezes, and firstly towards our only misstep, but a charming one nonetheless: Batticoloa. There we found a strange emptiness that we attributed to the devastation wreaked by the 2004 tsunami, the evidence of which still remains distinctly evident. After that, the far north coast and Jaffna provided a truly fascinating insight into an area still emerging from decades of civil war. It’s a completely different side if Sri Lanka.

Our last couple of nights were spent north of Colombo, in the tourist-oriented Negombo, but even that we found charming, to be honest, and we left Sri Lanka totally enamoured.

In 2013, we spent six weeks travelling around India’s southern tip, from Goa to Chennai. This time we started in Chennai, hustling through the bustling megatropolis in 48 hours, before moving on to another energetic city, Hyderabad, before heading all the way west to a deliciously relaxing week in Goa. Goa is India’s must-do state; in fact, the whole of India’s south remains overall our favourite part.

We then headed north to finally do steamy Mumbai properly, and we loved it, again. The astonishing caves at Ellora and Ajanta, also in Maharashtra state, saw us at our intrepid best, and were all-of-India highlights.

From there it was an unplanned leftward turn, which became a joyous introduction to the state of Gujarat. We spent time in Vadodara, Pavagadh and cool capital Ahmedabad, soaking up its intoxicating forward-hustling energy.

Next up we returned to alluring Rajasthan, starting in the extreme western expanse of Jaisalmer and the Thar desert, before taking a southern loop to see India’s biggest fort, at Chittor, and the undiscovered cool of Bundi, with its dilapidated fort, palace and myriad of stepwells.

From there, it was on to the capital, Delhi, and this time, rather than being overwhelming, she purred like a kitten. Delhi is the face of a fascinatingly changing India, I wrote.

At this point, we were onto the home stretch of our subcontinental trek, with hugely rewarding but whistle stop trips to the infamous erotic temples of Khajuraho and a return to the sacred utopia of Varanasi.

Finally, just before returning to another of our favourite cities, Kolkata, we spent a most fascinating week exploring the hills of West Bengal, the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, and the feeling of having left India for Asia while still being in India. It proved another trip highlight, simply because it was so unexpected.

And that, friends, brings us up to date, although, for a little culinary inspiration, there’s always my take on India’s gastronomic wonderland to read as well: part one and part two

Onto the second half: Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Hong Kong. It ain’t over yet…

Food in review II – India at an end

When last checked in on all matters culinary, we were at the end of our stay in the charming state of Gujarat. Needing to fill in quite a few hours on our last day, without getting sweaty (as we’d already checked out of our hotel), we spent an afternoon/evening in aircon heaven at the mall, eating ‘mall food’. You’d think it a heinous proposition, but nup: even food-court food in India is more than palatable. Even better, as we were at Ahmedabad’s biggest mall, it was pretty flash.

We started off local, with a pav bhaji off, buying Mumbai’s famous street-food staple from two competing eateries and then putting them through the rigours of in-depth analysis. Or we just ate them and threw shade at the loser. We then whiled away a couple of hours at a schmancy cafe, which truly delivered, with the best coffee I had in all of India (so good, I had to have two). Finishing up with a post-movie Maccas feed might seem a little declasse, but the chicken McSpicy McBody-slammed any of the tripe Ronald’s serving up at home, to be honest: spicy, succulent, fresh.

From there, it was off to ravishing Rajasthan. I have to say, magnificent forts and deserts and palaces (oh my) aside, the food didn’t quite ignite the superlative searching on thesaurus.com; however, this may have been more a mixture of illness (flu, what?), tiredness, plus the fact that the state is heavy on the tourist traps.

In Jaisalmer, the one true Insta-worthy meal went unphotographed due to fading light. It was at a stunning rooftop haveli restaurant, and was a real vege feast: a gorgeous, rich and creamy baigan (eggplant) bhaji; another new dal to add to the list, dhora dal, which has a wonderfully fragrant, roasted coriander seed flavour; and something completely new: Rajasthani gatta, dense, chickpea flour sausages, cut into chunks, and cooked in a spicy yoghurt and tomato gravy. Wow.

Otherwise, we mostly ate on the roof of our guesthouse; partly convenience, partly for the fort views, partly because the host was a real kool kat. It was also great for big pots of chai tea and milk coffee, which seemed to stretch forever in the small little chai cups favoured here. Bliss.

The hit-and-miss continued through our other two Rajasthan stops. I mentioned elsewhere how much we found the city of Chittorgarh a strange and unwelcoming place, so, yeah, we were more than happy with a couple of completely acceptable vege thalis!

Bundi, pretty Bundi, sadly derelict when it came to memorable eating, apart from one exceptional exception. Our guide’s sister ran a home kitchen from which she prepared fresh thalis for visitors that charismatic Jay had managed to convince they needed to try (but of course).

They were very expensive compared to all other thalis we ate, by some distance, including the epic Gujarati thalis I spoke about last time, but it’s pretty hard to beat freshly cooked curries and puris (gorgeous little puffy roti-type fried breads). She also made the most amazing tomato-chilli chutney that had us licking the bowl (it was oily so you know it was good!) . That stuff could be bottled and become the India’s version of Lao Gan Ma, seriously!

Delhi saw the dreaded illness return, and me either not hungry at all (say whut?) or needing/craving blandness (double whut?). The upshot, though, was that I finally got a good helping of luscious, organic peanut butter on suitably dense brown bread. Heaven!

Before the illness descended, there were two other great food memories. Randomly, we stumbled upon a Parsi restaurant that was very old school glamour. What was not old school, though, was the baby eggplants stuffed with coconut and peanut powder and served in a herbaceous spiky green gravy. Exceptional.

We also returned to the hipster enclave of Haus Kass, and a particularly memorable South Indian dosa. It was still as good as the first time around, and as a free gift with purchase, as we were eating early, we got to witness the maitre D perform his puja (prayer) for, I’m guessing, a profitable and successful night’s trade.

Onto Khajuraho, which, like Bundi, was pretty devoid of tourists. With food options a bit limited, we stuck to fairly mainstream tourist fare bar one memorable wander into a small local Jain place. I felt like eggplant, the owner recommended baigan nizami and told me to trust him, and I’m glad I did. A fried whole eggplant, split down the middle, and smothered in a richly spicy almost pastelike sauce arrived. It was duly mopped up with garlic naan.

I do also have to confess that I had been craving a proper beef burger for quite some time, and while Westerning it up, I had a lamb burger that really Hit. The. Spot. #dontjudgeme

Varanasi, and again more continental fare: eggs and more peanut butter and brown bread. Our one night meal was spent at an NGO where the Indian/French husband and wife owners appeared to be in the middle of a marriage breakdown. The tension clearly got into the food. Sad buzz.

At least, though, we did get back to the world-famous Blue Lassi shop, to pray at the altar of lassi. We tried a trio of orgasmic delights: pomegranate, coconut and chocolate, banana, coconut and chocolate, and saffron and dried fruit and nut. All were super stuffed with fillings, lusciously rich, and just glorious.

Lassi galore at the Blue Lassi Shop.

West Bengal’s Hill Country, and the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, represented a dramatic shift. For the first time in three months we were cold, for multiple days in a row. It was equivalent to the middle of a New Zealand winter, with a cracking storm to go with it. So, we did what any humans would do in such a sudden and shocking climatic change: we carbed it up.

In Kalimpong, we momo’d ourselves into a frenzy, unable to restrain our desire for Tibetan dumplings any longer. We had them beef, we had them pork, we had them any way the lovely people wanted to give them to us. But it wasn’t all carbrageous sinning. There was the strange case of finding another example of Keralan chicken curry, which now has me convinced it is the source of Indo-Fijian chicken curry, and a pretty decent thali (served without breads!).

‘Keralan chicken curry’

In Darjeeling, though, the carbfest reached its zenith. It probably wasn’t helped by the fact that our guesthouse served us bolstering but gargantuan breakfasts every morning, including local Nepali cuisine that had us saying, where we do we sign up?

The first night we went to a famous colonial era place, Glenary’s; the kind where elites of yesteryear would come to hob their knobs. Now it’s international tourists and classy domestics who come to knob it up amongst period wood panelling. Perusing the menu, I saw the words baked macaroni cheese and I didn’t have to be told twice. The chinese-style fried rice and chilli chicken was also pretty magnificent.

Beyond that, it was a lot of eggs and cumin hash browns with chunky wholemeal toast, and a most amazing beef burger that tasted like the very best of homemade food. I hate to admit it, but it was all comfortingly sublime, despite the new layer on insulation I could feel growing around my middle. Eek.

But there was local too, with a rather magnificent experience at a wee family-owned place, where we were served a feast of momos and two types of Tibetan noodle soups, gyathuk and bhagthuk. Again, where do we sign up?

Our India odyssey came to an end in Kolkata, but was unfortunately again marred by the return of dreaded lurgies, which pretty much had me holed up in our hostel for the last three days. So disappointing.

It didn’t, however – and nothing would – stop me from living it up with Kolkata’s gift to the street food world: Kati rolls, a layered paratha bread, coated on one side in fried egg and then wrapped around usually mutton curry, chutney and red onions. So utterly sublime, and genius in its simplicity.

Kati roll.

We also felt the need for one last Biryani…and we chose well. The mutton was so soft it put up no fight to stay attached to its bones, and each grain of rice felt lovingly hugged by its subtly spiced cooking broth. We also added another new dish to the repertoire: vege banjara.

Banjara means cooked in the style of gypsies, which basically means that the dry spices that make the masala are more coarsely ground, it’s easy to make with ingredients to hand, and it generously wallows in plenty of ghee. It’s also got a pretty fierce chilli bite. Excellent.

Finally, for our last meal, it seemed fitting to go out with a bang, in a place called Oh! Calcutta. Our vege choices were for the memory books: okra cooked in mustard oil and served in a gravy of mango and caramelised red onion; baby potatoes in a creamy, tomatoey curry; and banana flower cooked in coconut and warming spices (cardamon, cinnamon, etc.). The paratha alongside was golden, crispy and layered to perfection.

Oh India, delicious, delicious India, how I’m missing you already…

A retrospective shout out to Kolkata

Kolkata, for centuries the capital of British India and lumbered with the cruel ‘black hole’ tag, is one of our favourite Indian cities. Like others we really enjoyed – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore – it has size, scale, history, chaos, and plenty to see and experience. But it also has that somewhat hard to define special quality; an energy, a vibe, which casts its unique spell and draws you into its web. And thus begins a love affair with Bengal state’s independently-spirited capital…

Kolkata was the final stop on our India odyssey this time around. Just like last time, when Mumbai was the end point, it is hard to maintain the go-go-go, as we call it, in those final days, when you know a lengthy chapter is coming to a close. Further, the dreaded lurgy I’d been battling on and off for weeks decided to make a valiant last stand.

The result, unfortunately, is that I spent the majority of our three days inside our hostel; hardly the best way to enjoy a huge city. So, this is more like a retrospective shout out to the glamorous old dame, because if there’s one thing I did get from my limited interaction this time around, it’s that she’s lost none of her allure.

Kolkata has an interesting history that, I think anyway, explains much about its contemporary setting. Before the Brits showed up, from 1690, Kalikata was a rural settlement amidst jungle and swamp. Aside from the hugely significant temple dedicated to the goddess Kali (still standing today), there was little else. The Empire did not sack and colonise an existing ancient city, but built its grand mini-London from the ground up.

Further along, in the late-19th century, a huge cultural renaissance took place among the emergent educated Bengali middle classes, and the desire for an independent India, free from the shackles of Empire, began to ferment.

This movement was galvanised by a British misstep in 1905, when they partitioned the state of Bengal in two. They were forced to backtrack six years later, but the damage was done, and the Brits moved the capital of colonial India to the ‘less troublesome’ New Delhi as a result.

Post-independence, Kolkata suffered immeasurably, as it was forced to absorb massive waves of Hindu refugees escaping East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Approximately four million arrived following partition in 1948, with the second wave arriving in the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

These influxes created the slums and massive outbreaks of disease and starvation, which created the enduring imagery that the city is still so closely associated with. Adding to the pain, the city’s port-led economy suffered with the loss of most of its hinterland falling behind the closed doors of East Pakistan.

This history has created a politically-active population. The city has certainly seen its share of civil unrest in the past fifty of so years, as its economy tried to adapt to these significant shifts and disruptions. From 1970 until 2011, state politics was dominated by leftist, mostly outwardly Marxist parties, and protests and civil movements were a fairly common feature during these turbulent years. In Kolkata, citizens having an active voice and using it loudly is part of its fabric.

So the upshot of Kolkata is that it is home to a politically-engaged, fiercely-independent, and socially-progressive citizenry (in relative terms), living in undoubtedly India’s most stunning colonial-era city. Like elsewhere, though, the winds of more recent development are also blowing through, creating a fascinating landscape-in-flux.

No other major city in India – aside from maybe Mumbai – provides such a delicious walking environment. There are the grand monuments and buildings, such as the Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s cathedral and numerous other examples. But then there is also simply walking around areas like BBD Bagh, taking in the historical feast as you look upwards while navigating the chaos at street level, where hundreds of years of growth have crowded what we’re once no doubt spacious old boulevards. There are remnants of many old churches to be found here, illustrating the sheer variety of places from where traders came to ply their wares.

Add to this the frenetic markets in and around New Market, a veritable wonderland of bazaars, a wander around the old Chinatown (little of China remains, but it remains a fascinating area to explore), and the people-watching Mecca of the Maiden and riverfront parks alongside the iconic Howrah Bridge, and you can easily see days just melt away, and you still haven’t left the central city!

As well as its revolutionary heritage, Kolkata is highly regarded as a centre for arts and culture; its pedigree across multiple artforms is impressive. From literature, to music and dance, theatre and especially the Bengali School of Art that arose in the mid-19th century, the city is well known for its ‘furious creative energy’. We enjoyed visiting several institutions, like the Academy of Fine Arts, but there are a whole bunch around South City that will just have to wait for visit #3!

Kolkata’s creative energy extends into the cuisine, which is famous and distinctive in its own right: an emphasis on fish, mustard oil as a key frying medium, spicy dishes, and a love of sweets are key characteristics. Bengalis love to eat, and are famous for being particular and finicky about their food: certain foods for certain occasions, dishes served in particular orders, and so on.

Part of me loves this, the idea of creating elaborate rituals that draw focus to the process of eating. On the other hand, I’m just as easily drawn to a much more casual approach to food. Mood-dependant, I guess.

There are a number of dining institutions around the city that combine this love of eating with strong ties to a colonial past. Places like Peter Cat and Flury’s have been serving up their respective specialties for generations, and while I would most certainly be lying if I proclaimed them eating India highlights, they undoubtedly have a certain nostalgic place in people’s hearts, evidently for both locals and returning tourists, and are glimpses into rapidly receding eras.

The glorious kati roll, Kolkata’s gift to the street food world!

On our first visit to Kolkata, we felt that residents, on the whole, gave an aura of being quite progressive by comparison to the rest of much more conservative India. It’s hard (even impossible) to quantify the truth of this, or not, but this observation was made primarily on the basis of two noticeable differences.

The first was the mere presence of women in everyday life, in far greater numbers than we’d seen elsewhere (up to that point). They were on the streets, taking lunch with their male colleagues, shopping, socialising, and were far more visually and vocally present than we were in general used to seeing (this was six years ago).

The second was more funny. All over India, walking through parks and temples complexes, we’d quite often spot young couples who, given the country’s social conservatism, were having to find secret and hidden corners to have private moments. It was like something out of an old Bollywood film, and it became something of a game to spot the deer-like glimpses.

Not so in Kolkata, where couples were cavorting much more openly, with no-one around seeming to be worried about the moral decline of the population. It wasn’t gross, but it was noticeable.

Other smaller observations added to this: young people dressed a little more daringly, wearing makeup and with hairstyles that again sometimes just seemed to be pushing the boundaries a little more. And lots of people smoking, including young women. A heinous habit for sure, but a behaviour that was again something quite noticeably different than other cities.

On this visit, our observations were supported by our roommate, a young Bangalorean on sabbatical. Getting ready to go out on the Saturday night, without prodding, he randomly commented that women in Kolkata are the most beautifully made up in India, but are hard to get close to; they aren’t easily impressed by the usual antics of men. Funnily enough, earlier that day I had been thinking to myself that you might say that women here are like the Romans of India, in how well dressed they often are.

It gives the impression that young women here are taught to be strong and independent, and to be proudly so; that the (still) usual notion of woman dowried to men, implying inferiority, is being rejected. And it leaves me to wonder if such a simple reason as gender politics helps to explain Kolkata’s unique culture?

India is a country where the role of women and gender-based violence (still) can leave you completely dumbfounded, aghast. You hear about things that seem completely unimaginable in a modern democracy.

Yet there are highly-educated pockets in many places across India.

So is it that Kolkata’s long history of valuing education, the arts, and political activism, and of doing so in a much more female-inclusive way, created a society that stands apart? Does the mere presence of women in public life create differences that ripples out into wider society and culture in profound and unimaginable ways? Should we be taking note?

In an era where this issue is ever increasingly being brought to the fore, and where it feels like democracies are so desperate for something new, something different than the bully boys who’ve been ruling the world since forever, it might just be enough to inspire hope. It may be a fool’s hope indeed, but I’d argue that all hope is a form of that, anyway.

I contemplated this as we caught our Uber to the overly-spacious, future-proofed airport.

Once out of that frenetic central concentration of energy, you hit the suburbs, where life is perhaps more mundane, a bit more conservative. However, racing through, along the elevated series of new flyovers, signs of that new change flooding into India are popping up all over.

Like nowhere else I’ve seen, India truly continues to live its past as it races at breakneck speed into its future. On the whole, the place has changed immeasurably in the six years between visits, and a lot of amazing progress has been made. Let’s hope it continues to manage the journey to come in a way that captures the best of where it’s come from, and for the benefit of all its many varied peoples.

Khajuraho and a return to the Ganges

Khajuraho is a village-town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, quite far removed from standard tourist routes, but famed for its legendary/controversial ‘erotic’, tantric temple carvings. Debauched scenes of animal husbandry, fellatio and elaborate orgies, the more hysterical voices scream, voices who probably haven’t visited I’d guess. The reality is not quite so dramatic.

Logistically, Khajuraho is not hugely easy to get to, unless you’re doing a more thorough/intrepid exploration of the state. A train, but only from and to a select few destinations, arriving early and leaving late, is among the few long-distance options. It makes for long, quite sleep-deprived days either side of a visit.

Coincidentally, though, it is this relative isolation that possibly helped preserve the temples so well, as Muslim invaders of past eras did not inflict on them the kind of destruction temples elsewhere faced. They were then reclaimed by nature and sat undisturbed for centuries, until the early 19th century.

The temples at Khajuraho are billed as overwhelming, a monumental experience. Everything I’d read conjured up images of a complex akin to something like Angkor Wat; an undertaking requiring multiple days of sustained attention. Both fortunately and unfortunately, it’s not. The whole complex, all three temple groups, are easily doable in a single day.

This could be unfortunate because of the chance that expectations become undeliverable. But, the reality of it being so manageable means you avoid the dreaded temple fatigue from taking hold, something that is inevitable as much as you don’t want to feel disrespectful by starting to find such important, sacred places a bit same-same, a bit boring. Luckily, for us, at this point in our trip, the temples being so manageable fell on the fortunate side.

An inevitable question arises, though, if coming from and leaving to such afar places: is it worth it, worth the effort?

For me, it’s a yes, despite arriving early Monday morning and leaving late the next night, meaning two out of three nights ‘sleeping’ on a train.

(My only thoughts, in retrospect, would be that it’s worth staying longer. Not because there’s a whole lot to do, because there isn’t really, although I was told by fellow travellers that exploring the surrounding countryside by bike was a nice way to while away a day. But moreso, just to give yourself a chance to chill out and relax, and the village was certainly quaint. Unfortunately, for us, the limitations of train timetables and availability, as well as the encroaching end of our time in India, dictated a rather mad in-and-out style visit.)

As for the temples, despite the fact that, by now, we’ve seen quite a lot of Hindu and Jain temples, these were indeed something extraordinary. They are said to represent some of the finest temple art in the world. For me, it is the style of their carvings that makes them stand apart.

Hindu temple art, indeed all temple art, has stylistic similarities; you start to recognise them, even if you can’t name them. The scenes of everyday life and religious devotion that adorn the freezes here are of a similar type, but are remarkably different at the same time.

I would describe the style as more fluid, indeed more sensual, although by that I do not necessarily mean sexual. Yes, there are the scenes of various kinds of copulation, featuring a variety of actors, but actually, these are only ittimitantly spread across a few of the temples. The vast majority of the art is nothing sexual at all.

What I really loved were the more realistic representations of people complemented with some slightly fantastical elements. Elsewhere, figures are taut, lean and have overly Parton-esque chests; here, there are curves and doughy little bellies, and the rhythm of movements depicted feel less constrained and controlled. The scenes of everyday life feel more varied and detailed, and a lot more joy and festivity appears present. Maybe these people had pretty carefree lives?!

Alongside this, you might see, for example, a row of elephants and humans depicted more or less to scale, but then right alongside that will be humans the size of elephants. And then there are the figures that are part human-part animal. It looks and feels a little playful, a little fantastical. It may not be this at all, but that was certainly my interpretation.

Probably most memorable, though, simply because it’s something I’ve never seen elsewhere, was the elaborate rendering of the God Vishnu represented as his boar avatar. Over a thousand years old, it’s covered in a veritable pantheon of carved deities in breathtaking (and probably painstaking) detail, and was truly a sight to behold.

Overall, Khajuraho was another tick off the lengthy experience India must-see list.

Varanasi

As for Varanasi, this was something of a forced stop on our way to Darjeeling. There was no way to get there direct and Varanasi was the most logical choice, from a logistical/transportation point of view; as I mentioned above, options out of Khajuraho are fairly limited.

But it was not a stop of forced labour. Indeed, I had wanted to return to Varanasi, time permitting. It was a chance to banish the demons that tarnished our first visit, in 2013. This was somewhat achieved.

Our first visit was marred not by the Ganges itself, but by a couple of bad experiences in and around the sacred waters, and by our experience of the old city overall: truly chaotic, incessantly noisy and gridlocked, and just scammy and unpleasant. It’s hands-down my least favourite urban space in India.

We’d been told about and made contact with a local, unofficial guide, who was lovely, but we made the mistake of leaving the itinerary in his hands and not being clear about what we wanted from our visit. We learnt from that.

We ended up staying smack bang in the middle of the seemingly endless and endlessly confusing tangle of lanes that sit between the old city and the ghats that line the river; we’d wanted the quieter southern end of the river.

We found ourselves being raced through a hugely sacred temple, at a truly frenetic pace, treated like VIPs and whizzed passed Hindus who would have been lining up and continued to wait for God knows how long to make their pilgrimage (a situation that always makes me unconformable and that I always try to avoid).

And we then found ourselves caught in the burning ghat scam, where, before you realise it’s happening, you’re being shown around, having its function and how it operates explained to you (a legitimately fascinating experience), but then taken away to a place where no one else is around and the process of an intimidating shakedown begins. I’d read about, was ready for it, but even I was initially caught unaware, realising too late what was happening.

It all added up to a profoundly unpleasant aftertaste.

But to experience the Ganges is also something quite profound; there is nowhere else of Earth I can think of like it. To be able to spend time simply walking up and down, sitting, watching and witnessing the variety of activities that take place in and around these most sacred of waters is a real privilege. You then take an early morning boat ride, and see the whole operation from a completely different angle.

This time, we wanted more of the latter, less of the former; by-and-large that is what we got. Because we’d been before, there was no rushing around trying to tick off experiences this time; it was more just a process of ‘being in space’ and enjoying that.

And this time, apart from a couple of trips for admin purposes, and of course getting to and from the river via the tuk-tuk mafia, we stayed well clear of the old city, spending our 36 hours around the ghats and the quieter and more spacious southern end (also more gentrified, but Lord knows, sometimes you just need that!).

Quite by chance, we did have another burning ghat experience. In spite of the scam the first time around, I did find the process of observing those final rites and seeing bodies wrapped in white being cremated not at all morbid or squeamish, but rather peaceful. In spite of the chaotic nature of ghats during busy times, the attention so focused on seeing a loved one sent into the next stage of life lent a calmness to the proceedings.

This time, we got a much more up close and personal view, as we just happened to be walking through a ghat when a body was being prepared to be placed onto the pyre. It was literally metres away from us, but no one at all tried to move us on, or any of the others who inevitable started rubbernecking (which I swear is an India-wide pastime!).

That’s probably one of the best things about experiencing the Ganges: so much happens, from funerals to daily puja (prayer) ceremonies to the Goddess Ganga, people coming to pray, bathe, wash clothes, spread ashes or otherwise just splash around, to all the sadhus/sadvis (Hindu monks) camping along the ghats, getting on the ganga, and offering all manner of spiritual enlightenment.

The possibilities are magically varied and endlessly fascinating, and what you see simply comes down to being in the right place and the right time.

One other place worth visiting, if in town, is to take a day trip out to Sarnath, which is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Razed multiple times over the centuries, it’s one of the four key Buddhist pilgrimage sites and attracts visitors from all over the world. A stupa marks the spot where the famous sermon happened, and other Buddhist nations have also constructed temples and gardens that you can visit, providing an interesting overview of different styles in one spot. It’s yet one more spiritually significant element in a visit to this most holy part of a rather holy country.

Delhi and the changing face of India

Delhi is a giant of a city. Not only in terms of population or sheer scale, as it continues to grow ever outward, consuming what were once distinctive villages in the onward march of development. But also in terms of the sheer bounty of things to see and do. With two visits under our belts now, totalling nine days, there are still pockets left unexplored, attractions unvisited. We gave it a good go, though…

There’s the historical, illustrating the city’s important place in empires ranging from the ancient Hindu, through the Mughal period, and of course the British. From the architectural wonder of the Qutb Minar, to the giant splendour of the Red Fort; from Jantar Mantar, the Mughal period observatory, to the colonial era Nicholson Cemetery. The pompous spectacle of Rajpath, the India Gate, the magnificent secretariat buildings and presidential palace straddle the transition into independence.

Alongside this is the everyday Delhi that maintains rhythms of daily life that connect directly to patterns of the past. Here I’m talking about the bazaars and industries most often viewed by tourists in old Delhi, around the famed Chandni Chowk. It’s chaotic, it’s frenetic, it’s overwhelming. It’s most likely the kinds of scenes you’ve never before witnessed (and certainly at such a scale). It’s a wild ride.

Of course there’s the religious, and particular way that monuments, shrines and the worshipping of/at are often woven into daily life. I include here the stunning tombs littered across the city, memorialising past rulers. The peaceful Lodi Gardens contain tombs that are simply and accessibly part the park itself.

But then there’s also the mosques, the Jain temples, the Hindu temples, and so on, offering so much variety, so many experiences. The visits we made to the Sikh Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, as well as Amritsar’s Golden Temple, both in 2013, remain for me profoundly moving memories of peaceful, welcoming ritual (and are, whether fair or not, compared to the colossal beauty but otherwise pretty scammy experience at Delhi’s giant Jama Masjid).

And then there’s the new, the Delhi that reflects India’s growing wealth, confidence, and social change. The wonderful art galleries, where we soaked up the country’s vibrant contemporary art scenes, the museum’s ranging from national scale institutions to the quirky, and plenty oriented around historical figures too (the Ghandis, the Nehrus, and so on). Girgaon, technically just outside the territorial limits of Delhi and agricultural villages mere decades ago, is now a throbbing pulse of hitech, finance and commerce, and all the associated development that comes along with it.

And it’s on the new that I wanted to muse.

Delhi represents the face of country that has been changing rapidly in recent years; indeed, we feel like India has changed dramatically in the five years between visits. Like elsewhere, this is most immediately visible through technological change.

In dramatic fashion, India is now a smartphone and social media-connected nation.  Everywhere we went in Delhi, people are as glued to their screens as the rest of us. And, like elsewhere, this is creating a population connected globally; to new ideas and globalised cultural flows, and the youth are increasingly agitating for change they want to see (Yuss!).

Rather wonderfully, though, at least for now, there is no sense that this represents any kind of cultural imperialism, of one culture being swamped by external forces and the local being somewhat drowned out by a sea of (primarily American) pop culture. This is resolutely still India. Bollywood (and its regional offshoots) and the prevalence of religious practice in everyday life, for example, still absolutely reign supreme and remain seemingly unshakeable.

Cable TV, for what contemporary relevance it still has, is beaming literally hundreds of channels across the land, in a range of languages. It brings together a plethora of options, of not only India’s media cultures, but of global platforms too. Programme formats have been adapted from elsewhere to suit local conditions too. A particular favourite has been watching the lifestyle/food programmes, even if they’ve been in Hindi, or Hinglish as we might call the peculiar but amazing way people language-switch with relative ease here.

And the government’s continued push to make India a digital economy, while making ATMs and cash a bit of a headache for us at-times these passed two months, is resulting in the rapid take up of e-commerce.

Long before Uber Eats and their ilk, India already had a long tradition of meal delivery, via the marvel of the tiffin tin lunch delivery service, especially in Mumbai. For over a century, this has allowed wives to be able to deliver their hard-working hubbies something fresh from their kitchens for lunch (I say with a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek, on multiple fronts).

In the digital age, this has now spiralled into a number of delivery services, chiefly Zomato and Swiggy. Their spread has been so great that our usual mantra of looking for food based on finding places busy with locals had to be extended to include places doing a roaring trade in takeaway deliveries (visible by the number of motorbikes zipping in and out of places). You can even order meals to be delivered to your train seat as you whiz into pretty much any town/city, right across the country!

And, at streetside level, you can pay for things using Q codes and, increasingly, mobile apps like PayTM.

For me, the ultimate symbol of all of this change is the Metro. All over India, in every major metropolis we visited, there exists a Metro system in the process of being built or, more often, expanded. Delhi’s Metro, less than twenty years old, is already one of the world’s largest, by both length and patronage. It is vast, and there wasn’t a single place in the city we wanted to get to, that we couldn’t access via its efficient, snaking paths.

This connectivity has completely transformed the way Delhiites move and live. It has made literally millions of people mobile, able to move about and work and socialise in much larger circles and manifestly different ways than previously possible. We rode with people commuting, families on day trips, young people out and about. And women, my gosh, we saw women, in groups, alone, young, old, outside. Remarkable.

I think this new mobility (freedom, really) is creating unprecedented social change; in ways it will take decades (and some choice social historians) to fully comprehend and explain.

But one small, curious way I think I observed this is in the rise of what I’d call ‘fixed-price culture’. Previously, unless at a shop like we understand them (retail malls, boutiques, supermarkets, etc.), by-and-large, shopping in India is the artform of negotiation (or, if simply buying food and drink, for example, from small roadside shops, stalls or markets, being told the price and knowing it was inflated over and above local prices, but not really caring…much). Indeed, it primarily still is.

But all across urban centres, more and more, I noted growing numbers of humble street-side stalls with price lists and signage (mostly in English). Some produce markets even had ‘per kilo’ prices. And market stalls are being transformed into fixed priced outlets, sitting right outside glittering new label shops.

Additionally, young entrepreneurs are taking the humble street stall and giving them hipster makeovers, creating all manner of little eateries that have been designed, interior decorated, and are digitally connected. They’re expanding what street/fast food is and looks like by making their spaces accessible (and Instagrammable) in this accessibility-enhanced age.

I noticed it on our first stop, in Chennai, and then to varying degrees in other cities.

Now, of course, the growing wealth of the middle classes, who are demanding things like shopping malls, department stores and supermarkets to satisfy their growing consumptive desires, are undoubtedly having a huge impact here. But I also wondered about the impacts of this new mobility.

If previously, your lifestyle was largely confined to a more limited area and range of options, then of course you got to know your local businesses, your local shopkeepers, and you knew local prices. It’s only tourists left completely baffled. But the rise of fixed-price culture is not about tourists, it’s about locals. And I wondered if it’s perhaps about increased mobility too, as people – especially young people – are moving about in much larger circles, consuming and purchasing in increasingly diverse ways and unfamiliar locations.

New India and its residents are demanding a certain level of transparency and certainty to their new lifestyle patterns, like the global influences they are so connected to and, to a certain degree, wish to ape. By-and-large, it seems, they are getting exactly what they want.

Watching this space, with continued fascination.

Return to ravishing Rajasthan II: Chittor and Bundi

For the first part of our trek through Rajasthan, taking in Jaisalmer and a trip to the desert, click here. Here is the second part, in which we took in more incredible fort experiences, temples, palaces and stepwells.

Chittor

I would like to, but I can’t say that I enjoyed Chittor (and am resisting using a low level profanity to make a play on its name!). We were there for two nights and found the place, well, just odd. Our conclusion was that people come to see its fort complex as a daytrip from elsewhere, probably the much more tourist-friendly Udaipur, which is only two hours away.

The result is that the town is not set up for tourists, and seems to have little to offer (aside from the obvious). It was hard to find its pulse, its heart, and it was woefully pedestrian unfriendly (which I’ve come to believe is hugely important to make an urban space welcoming for visitors). It didn’t help that we were made to feel quite unwelcome at our strange, eerily empty hotel, where there appeared to be nobody staying for most of the time.

However, weird vibes aside, we were there to see the fort, and it was quite something to behold. India’s largest, it sits atop a hill, on a 6km long plateau that falls away down sheer hillside to the plains below. Like Jaisalmer, and others we’ve previously seen in Rajasthan, it’s a dramatic and arresting sight.

Just like Jaisalmer too, though, it was also prone to attack, and jauhar (ritual suicide) was committed three times, in 1303, 1535, and 1568. At this point, a new capital of the Mewars was established in Udaipur and it was never resettled.

For our visit, we simply tuk-tuked to the entrance at the top, and then wandered around and then down the hill over the course of around six hours. After the somewhat emptiness of Jaisalmer, Chittor was bustling with visitors, although very obviously skewed towards the domestic (the selfie requests continued!). It was a welcome busyness, with large family groups, school groups, people with guides, lots of cars and tuk-tuks ferrying people about, and others like us just wandering around.

And Chittor is a wanderer’s delight. There are ruins of palaces, as well as temples and tanks and a remarkable ’tower of victory’, dating from the fiftenth century, all simply dotted about the place and waiting for your attention. The tower is in the area where the jauhar was carried out, with plinths and stones strewn across the ground the ghostly evidence of its heroically morbid (or is it morbidly heroic) past.

There are also extraordinary views from the top, back down and across the surrounding areas. They were views that had us continually reaching for our cameras, as changing light and angles presented new outlooks.

The highlights for me were the Jain temples and wandering over to the eastern gate, both for similar reasons. The Jain temples are extradorinarily beautiful and intricate and they were basically deserted, as everyone was at the Hindu temples, so we had them to ourselves. A rare treat.

Similarly, the eastern gate was far less populated, even though it was really only a matter of mere minutes walk away. It was deliciously peaceful and freeing, as you’re able to wander through the gate and down some of the deserted approach that once functioned as the main entrance. The views down into the cultivated valleys below are even better here, and back up top, there is also another tower to visit, this one beautifully Jain.

To end the day, we took a pleasant amble through the village at the top and then back down through all the gates, climbing on and off the fort wall, taking yet more photos, and returning all the friendly waves and hellos from people scooting passed on motorbikes. It was a lovely end to a really nice day out, making the awkwardness of the city below well worth the effort.

Bundi

Finally, Bundi, which is billed as the super-chilled, less-touristy cousin of Brahmin Blue-hued Jodhpur, with a decaying fort and palace to explore in a town full of stepwells. Something about it sounded appealing, although there was always the risk that it was being completely oversold (hello Batticoloa!)

However, this time, they are right on the money, and we were only sad we couldn’t have stayed for longer to chill out in its chill-inducing surrounds.

We felt its beguiling charm as soon Bundi came into view: a dramatic palace rising out of the hillside, an old town dotted around a small lake, and the blues, the purple-y blues, all fringed by hills topped with historic lookout posts.

It was, is, achingly beautiful. You could not but feel instantly charmed. Wandering around as night fell, it was clear that this wonderfully sleepy town was having the desired impact on our nervous systems (although, for a little bustle, a bazaar was only minutes walk away, through one of the old town’s gates).

The next day, to explore the fort and palace, we hired a guide, which is something we don’t usually do (we normally just amble about). However, I had read about this character online, Jay, and recognised him as soon as we approached the palace entrance (it’s all informal, of course).

I’m glad we did, though, as he really was as entertaining and funny and engaging as the reviews said, promising us multiple ‘super amazing surprises’, for which we could beat him with a stick if we weren’t suitably awed (we were). He brought the fort alive with the passion of a proud local, and also acted as protector from the red-faced monkeys, of which they were many.

There’s a high chance we wouldn’t have found all the spots that he showed us on our own, or not ventured in as far we did, as the monkeys really weren’t that friendly looking.

The fort is deserted, you see, accessed via a shackle-shingle path that runs up to the top of the hill behind the newer palace, and the whole complex is being slowly recaptured by nature. Jay showed us around the fort’s crumbling old palace and the three impressive stepwells that provided its community with water, the uppermost of which has ‘super amazing’ views down into the neighbouring valley and village, the place from which Kipling wrote his infamous Jungle Book.

The newer palace below is equally ruinous, with only a portion of it publicly open (the rest, supposedly, has been turned over to the bats). It’s (part) owned by the current Maharaja, who lives in Delhi and has shown little interest in investing the funds required to restore it and/or donate it to the Archeological Society of India, who do a truly stellar job of restoring and running most of the country’s major historical attractions, from the Taj on down.

For me, this palace housed a much more folorn vibe, like it was deliberately being left to fall apart by a disinterested owner. The older palace and fort at the top of the hill are already in a state of ruin, and, selfishly, there’s something very Indiana Jones about the adventure of walking up there to explore it. The newer palace needn’t necessarily be so.

However, in sayng this, there is always a certain amount of romance in decay, and compared to the restored splendour of the state’s other palaces, this is quite a different experience. It certainly had its own charm and appeal.

In one part, there is a gallery that was once used to receive/host guests, and it contains a quite unique and impressive gallery of murals and paintings that are still in remarkable condition. Below this, you can wander through palace’s main gate and into its courtyard (complete with horse/elephant stables), before walking up to an open-air hall from where the King could presumably survey proceedings below, and then onto what felt like a maybe queen’s private residence and courtyards.

I say presumably and maybe because, sadly, there isn’t any information to accompany you, and, as he was unofficial, Jay was not able to accompany us into this part of the complex, so we had to guesstimate what we were seeing based on the other palaces we have seen.

Like Jaisalmer, the rest of old Bundi is a tangle of lanes where history appears to come to life right in front of your eyes. It’s hard to not feel like you’re visiting something out of a middle ages fable, a tale of an era filled with glamourous sandstone-hued old haveli houses. I realise this denies its residents their contemporaneity, their 2019, but as I say, it’s hard to not feel at least a little hypnotised by the alluring spell Bundi casts.

The final ingredient of this potion is the city’s stepwells. There are a large number of them dotted around the town, and the public can freely wander about all but one of them. We only explored a small number of them in the end, but including what are probably the most impressive: a pair of twin wells that sit right in the middle of the bazaar. It was quite something to disappear beneath the hubbub of the marketplace and down into the myriad of angular staircases that are staggeringly deep. Quite surreal calm in the most unexpected of places!

Return to ravishing Rajasthan I: Jaisalmer and the Thar desert

On our first trip to India, Rajasthan was one of the last places we visited on our three month-long trek around the country. By this time, quite frankly, we were starting to expire; our patience for some of the more trying and tiring aspects the backpacking the Subcontinent were wearing paper thin. Also, we thought we’d pretty much ‘seen’ India by that stage.

We hadn’t.

Rajasthan was a glorious revelation: a state and a people so vibrant and alive, so colourful and charismatic; a pride in culture and history worn in elaborate detail. We were quite entranced. There seem to be two narratives at play here.

Rajasthan is part of the Golden triangle of India’s tourism offerings: fly into Delhi, head south to Agra for the Taj, and then east into Rajasthan. It’s a well worn path, long on the tourist trail, so the state is well versed in selling its story. This narrative centres around the fabled histories of Rajput kingdoms, full of stories of gallantry, bravery, incredible riches and jauhar, or ritual mass suicide in the face of conquest.

The other narrative explains that the vibrancy of Rajasthan and its culture(s) is in direct contrast to the often arid and sparse landscapes in which its people live (although there are also many lusciously irrigated agricultural lands and valleys). Here, this sometimes desolation provides a blank canvas onto which rich cultural tapestries have been woven across millenia.

Put these together, and you’ve got a pretty intoxicating recipe.

It may be (a little) trite, I don’t know, but it does feels like it does ring true: the people here are just that little bit more flamboyant, loud, and charismatic. And whether true characteristics, ones created as tourist product, or, more likely, somewhere in between, it works: Rajasthan is an India highlight.

As we did the state’s big hitters last time – Jaipur, Jodhpur, Pushkar and Udaipur – this time was about finishing what we missed first time around, Jaisalmer, on India’s far western extreme, as well as a couple of lesser known stops on our way up to Delhi: Chittor, home of India’s largest fort, and Bundi, the achingly pretty, low-key equivalent to the State’s bigger tickets.

Overall, they were good choices.

Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer sells a most romantic and heroic story: a 12th century fort rising like a mirage out of the Thar desert; a place where jauhar was carried out by its women and children multiple times rather than allow themselves to be enslaved, its men riding out to battle knowing they would be slaughtered in the process.

While those stories are absolutely real, the mirage is just that: a bit of a far-fetched reach. You do have to come here with realistic expectations. The fort is surrounded by a town that sprawls outwards from its base. The town is itself surrounded by a lot of no-go defence land and dotted all over the landscape are wind farms. Jaisalmer doesn’t suddenly appear like an apparition.

However, in saying this, the fort is dramatically impressive. You can sit on any number of rooftops (hopefully your own guesthouse) and stare at its magnificence for hours, jutting out of the rocky hill with that most beautiful honey-hued sandstone. It’s an arrestingly romantic visage.

Inside the fort, the tour of the palace, with requisite Audiocasters guide, further brings its history alive. So does wandering around its lanes; it is a living museum. Everywhere you turn feels like a page from a history book or adventure novel. Walking right around its 99 lower ramparts affords views looking out into the Thar desert. From all angles (apart from looking down at the rubbish!), it is quite breathtaking.

It’s also imbued with that unique vibe that seems to be present in places located in extreme geographies on extreme edges of nation states; there’s always something just a little wild west about border zones.

The downside is that the fort at least is totally dependent on tourism; it is its lifeblood. And, with not that many tourists around while we were in town, there were a lot of people hanging loose. All over India, as well as Sri Lanka, the story has been the same: this year has not been a great tourist season. The notion of dependency on such a fickle, fluctuating industry, is an uneasy thought to ruminate on.

Tourism is also, slowly but surely, destroying the fort. The pressure of all those guesthouses and their constant running water is slowly causing the fort to slide down the hill. This, and the visible signs of waste creation, is a real risk to brand Jaisalmer, which is why, if visiting, you should really try your hardest to not stay inside the fort.

The sense of the extreme saw us take to the desert on our final day, for a single day safari. We took the advice – and are glad we did – of a new Kiwi pal we met in Goa, who said a single day was quite enough.

For us, we wanted to wander about on a camel for a bit, explore some sand dunes, and get a glimpse into the life of desert people, as they call themselves. We got all of those things.

(For the record, riding a camel was not really that comfortable. Once you stop tensing so hard, believing you might slide right off the plodding meanderer, the rhythmic monotony becomes somewhat hypnotic, but I can’t say it ever becomes comfortable. The one-hour ride more than ticked that box for me.)

Excuse you, gurrrl…

As for desert life, it is always astounding to me when you get insights, even if only momentarily and fragmentary, into lives that seem so impossible, so very different from everything you can imagine human existence to be. It’s not a case of deficit comparison, of wondering how people live without screens, fridges and WiFi (lord forbid), but of simply a reality so far removed from all that you know, it’s just hard to conceive the how of life: what the practices, norms and rituals of daily life are.

(And, of course, I’m just as sure it operates the same way in reverse. At dinner, around the fire, one of our hosts told us we were sitting, effectively, in his backyard, and how he loves the quiet and how noisy Jaisalmer is. Imagining him in the middle of Mumbai, I’m certain he might wonder exactly the same: how does anyone do life in such chaotic, crowded, and noisy spaces!)

So we got to see little settlements and villages, built in both sandstone and older mud-brick styles. And indeed life happens here; schools, shops, labour associations, and so on. We were told that the wind turbines finally brought them electricity, about six years ago.  

One of the most arresting images, aside from a sadly almost bone-dry oasis, was standing in a fort above a town abandoned some centuries ago. They were both stark reminders of the extreme nature of the environment here.

And the sanddunes, of course, were beautiful. For the briefest moment, we got our Lawrence of Arabia moment (you do also need to be realistic about what the (edge of the) Thar actually can deliver on a limited-time safari; this is hardly a trek across the great Shah expanse).

Most memorable for me, though, will be the moments of silence; actual, complete, silence. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in such a vacuum before, such a total absence of sound, a total void. For moments there weren’t even insect sounds. The true sound of silence is indeed extraordinary.

To be continued…

Gujarat’s Hidden Treasures: Ahmedabad

After our surprisingly enjoyable half-week in Baroda, we moved on to the state’s biggest city, all six million souls of Ahmedabad. Our transfer turned into an adventurous expedition on its own!

We returned to the glitzy bus stand, expecting to stroll back to the state bus counter and ask for two tickets on the next bus. Instead, the glitz was barricaded, buses replaced by security guards. Turns out the state buses were on strike. Of course.

So, with no other option, we backtracked to the train station, where, in a slightly frazzled state, I bought two tickets for the first thing going to Ahmedabad. What we ended up with were two general class tickets that simply needed to be used on a train within the next three hours. But which one?

Fortunately, I knew there were multiple trains every hour, so, with tickets secured, we took the opportunity to sit for a few minutes, cool off, and recover the faculties!

And then it was off to match tickets to train. The absence of Roman script, which has presented such interesting challenges elsewhere, was present here again. Unless, of course, you were in the market for mobile phone accessories or whatever else it was that Bollywood figures and/or impossibly ‘fair and lovely’ maidens were trying to sell you.

Eventually, like some entitled baron, I simply strolled info the superintendent’s office, and asked there. Side note: very helpful, pointed in the right direction, and I also got to see the cool control room, all flashing track lights and switches (transport need alert!).

“I’m sure it’ll be fine, and hopefully we’ll get seats,” my ever hopeful cousin/brother/husband travel companion mused. I knew that our NZD$1 tickets were going to be nothing less than a total bun fight, but I decided to leave him to his hopeful naivety.

And sure enough it was.

The train turned up and all us general glass glamazons swarmed. The only choice you had, if you wanted on, was to join the current and ride the human wave as it lunged you forward to the door, completely unforgiving to those coming the other way who miss their three second window to exit.

Onboard, thoughts of sitting are completely abandoned. The most you can hope for is to find a space where you don’t stand on anyone, can somehow acrobat your way out of the way of the inevitable food and crap-wallahs that come strolling through (seriously, why would we want to buy wraparound sunglasses right at this moment?!?!), and try not to stand too close to raised armpits.

And so I stared at and became intimately familiar with an outdated Indian Railways menu, as we journeyed to Ahmedabad!

Our time in the city was less a tick list of sites and more a general, genial wander. The city is loosely divided by the rather pleasant Sabarmati River, which runs through its centre. Unlike too many waterways we’ve seen, this one was actually flowing and looked reasonably healthy as we wandered across a couple of its many bridges.

Along both sides runs amazing waterfront promenades, strangely underused and quite deserted though, as we discovered. I think it’s more a case of things being not quite completed yet, and the promenading habit not yet ingrained. Hopefully, because it’s all sitting there begging to be enjoyed.

West of the river is the city’s New: big roads lined with boutiques and shopping centres galore, and plenty of eateries for the post-shop graze. The university is over there too and there’s quite a big hub around it. You get the drift. On our first evening we strolled over and enjoyed soaking up the post-5pm buzz, and our final afternoon was spent chilling at the city’s largest mall, its gleaming food court, cafes and cinema. You get the drift. All very pleasant.

East of the river is Ahmedabad’s Old, and here we spent a day just strolling around its old neighbourhoods and taking a taste of its many flavours (for once I’m not talking about food). As we did in Mumbai, we simply plotted out the key points and then just ambled between them.

There are mosques and tombs and temples; bazaars, lanes and the humongous old city gate, which looks out over what is now the hugely vibrant main market (and you can freely climb to the top and wander around).

Two particular, very human, moments stand out.

We weren’t able to get into the central mosque, built by city founder Ahmed Shah in 1423, due to not wearing pants long enough. Fair enough, we should have been better prepared. We got a quick look inside, though. Very nice. Close by is the tomb of the Shah’s wife. Clearly no longer that important, it is literally surrounded by the bazaar. A bit of a fail. Third time lucky, the tomb of the man himself, along with his son and grandson.

Initially we were denied again, but, the small group of caretakers, who, by the looks of it live there also, motioned for us to wait while an elderly lady got us some sarongs. Suitably attired, we were then ushered into the tomb and left to wander about. It’s a stunning piece of architecture: a huge central domed cenotaph is surrounded by four other domes, which you can walk right around. Definitely atmospheric as we were completely alone. (Being such a sacred place, obviously photos were not allowed)

Obviously the donation plate was going to come out; we expect it to and gratefully contribute. But what was lovely was the genuine interaction; lots of head bowing and smiles expressing our thanks for their help in facilitating the visit, theirs in receiving our donation. I hope it bought them a substantive feed for their Friday dinner!

The most profound moment, though, came when we visited the first temple built by the Swaminarayan Hindu sect, in 1822 (scholars have drawn many parallels between the prophet Swaminarayan’s teachings and Gandhi’s work). Knowing nothing about it beforehand, there were nil expectations. We wandered through the gate and into the courtyard, marvelling at the gorgeous temple and its surrounding residences for visiting followers.

Indulge me.

Beginning our stroll around the temple, a man came up to us and started to talk to me. My suspicious antlers, of course, immediately go up and start looking for where the catch is going to be. Instead, he told me a bit about the sect and their key figures (Vishnu and Rama), and asked about New Zealand. As we got the farthest side, and sat down, he said it was nice to meet you and then left. Shame on you, Mackley-Crump.

After a bit, another man came and sat beside me and then indicated we had to go with him, ‘prasad, prasad’ he was saying. Antlers back up. He took us around to the other side, where a priest(ly figure) gave us a small palmful of grapes and melon. He indicated for us to eat it, and then back to the seat. Ok then, what’s the catch? (although it was funny that, walking through the market this morning, I had looked at the grapes and said how much I felt like a few…talk about speaking something into being…?!).

After a few minutes, we decided to leave, but the man indicated that, no no, we needed to stay. We presumed maybe a prayer was going to start (more and more people were arriving and circling the inner temple). We were right, and just before 4pm, the doors to the three shrines opened up and men gathered (women are at the back) and they started chanting.

With great excitement the man – who obviously speaks no English; this was all by gesture – guided us towards the shrines, one at a time (there is obviously a prescribed format to this). So we stood in amongst all the men while they chanted and prayed, while the monks were doing their thing. A little awkward, but no one seemed to care and it was fascinating, unlike any other religious practice we’ve seen.

Afterwards, our friend then gestured us towards the end of a line of men – now what’s going to happen; I’m still guarded – before pulling us out of the line and taking us to the front; exactly the kind of thing that makes me super uncomfortable (being privileged ahead of those to whom the practices actually belong).

At the front of the line, however, was the man who had talked to us first and, maybe sensing something on my face, told us that we were their guests (so why we were first), and were given another palmful of grapes and bananas as a symbolic gesture of nourishment.

And with that, the ceremony was over and we walked off the temple with the rest of the people. No scams, no sales, no offers of tuk-tuks or tours or cousin’s-brother’s guesthouse, nothing but host-guest hospitality.

As we walked back around to where our shoes were, we saw our second friend leaving, and were able to gesture our thanks to him, which was reciprocated. It was a rather extraordinary and pure experience, one that will remain long in the memory; the kind of unexpected interaction that makes you want to stop approaching so much here with guard up. We know, however, that you just can’t do that. In a positive sense, it makes the surprise of these experiences, when they do happen, all the more remarkable.

Our last day had one more unexpected surprise. Ahmedabad is home to the ashram of the state’s favourite son, Gandhi. It operated as his headquarters from 1917 to 1930, after which time he left on his famous Salt March and vowed not to return until India had gained her independence. It is now a truly remarkable public museum dedicated to his life and teachings, and you can also visit his (and his ever faithful wife’s) rather spartan living quarters, preserved intact.

What makes the museum so impactful is that the majority of the story is told through Gandhi’s own words, and you realise how much of a great orator and philosopher he really was. Despite the large crowds, the compound is huge and the atmosphere fairly reverential; there was plenty of space (physical and aural) for quiet contemplation and thought.  

Sadly, among the words of Gandhi’s I remember the most were those that, with reference to talk about partition (something he was vehemently against), suggested that a country born through an act of violence could never find peace. It was impossible to not consider how much he would be saddened by how true these words have been (and this was before the latest outbreak of India-Pakistan violence erupted).

A quintessential image of India for me, and one of the few photos I’ve taken that so visibly identifies someone anonymous (I try to avoid, if possible). It’s quintessential not because of the contrast, the apparent poverty or homelessness, but because here is a man asleep on a pavement surrounded by the buzz and noise of a city at night. As someone so hopelessly unable to sleep in all but the most controlled of situations, I’m constantly amazed how people here are seemingly able to nap whenever, wherever, to quote the great Shakira.

On Mumbai and why we decided to do a ‘slum tour’.

Taking part in a so-called ‘slum tour’ is not the kind of tourist activity you simply stumble into, or at least it shouldn’t be. To get to the point of handing over money, you are forced to reckon with a pretty simple question, but one that can bring huge moral confliction.

We ummed and ahhed for ages over this decision, both times we’ve been in this captivating city. The first time, our sheer exhaustion and the monsoonal weather made the decision for us: it’s a no for you. This time, with nary a drop of rain on the horizon, and no exhaustion or Delhi belly apparent, we had to finally confront the question: to tour or not to tour.

The ‘slum’ is called Dharavi, a city-within-a-city of around a million residents living within less than a square mile. It’s the third largest ‘slum’ in the world, after having been ‘downgraded’ because the government’s attempts to build apartment blocks for its residents is starting to gain some real momentum.

Dharavi was made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which in turn created the demand for people wanting to visit in the first place. It has been both a blessing and a curse: a curse because it popularised the image of Dharavi as a ‘slum’ to a global audience (and let’s be honest, wanting to visit can certainly be considered a kind of ‘poverty porn’); but a blessing because, funneled correctly, the money paid for tours can be used to benefit its community members.

(BTW: I’ve put quotation marks around the word slum because, as we would come to learn, locals view Dharavi as simply another suburb, in a city where an estimated 60% of residents live in similar communities. For locals, the word slum conjures up images of suburbs controlled by violence, crime and Mafia-like gangs, which Dharavi is not.)

The emotive tooing and frooing of trying to make a decision strikes right at the heart of one of tourism’s most fundamental ethical quandaries: are these sorts of activities a legitimate experience, or simply the exploitation of people powerless and without voice in the process of commercialising their apparent poverty?

In the end, after a lot of reading, we decided to do a tour.

We decided to not because we felt like it would provide a kind of life-altering experience; that we would come away with some kind of profound and uplifting revelation about life and existence.

I don’t think I’m being too arrogant when I say that I think we were already pretty realistic about life in Dharavi; that, although obviously challenging, it is also a functioning community, where families are made, live, laugh and find joy. We’re not the type to fetishise other people’s realities. They are what they are, and for all the ways that societies differ, there are also universal human similarities. We weren’t trying to purchase any kind of smug moral satisfaction, either for us or on behalf of the residents of Dharavi.

We decided to do the tour primarily for two reasons. Firstly, the company, Mystical Mumbai, is a something of a social enterprise, putting money back into the community via education projects and hiring local college students as guides (they do all sorts of tours), allowing them to invest in their own futures. In addition, the company was started by two brothers, determined to support their family after their father had to have a bypass in his mid-40s, and they didn’t want him to return to work; a worthy cause within itself.

The clincher, however, was actually quite simple: no cameras are allowed, which means no photos, which means no Instagram selfie hunters. The company is happy to send you some photos afterwards, but this means, in turn, that they are able to exercise a degree of control over the imagery of Dharavi put into the public sphere. To me, this is a great mark of respect for the dignity of residents as well, so we were in…

I’m really glad we did it.

Certainly, as you stand on the train overpass about to enter, Dharavi is quite an imposing sight. You can’t not notice its scale, obvious density and informality. As expected, however, Dharavi is like the city that surrounds it: a bustling centre of industry supported by all the goods and services that cater to and add to this. Truth be told, in our sometimes random ambling about India, we’ve wandered into and through plenty of suburbs and lanes that didn’t feel a whole lot less informal than Dharavi.

Our guide, Nick, a ship navigator when not in town and helping out his brother with the business, was really very knowledgeable, as you would expect of a third generation resident (another myth dispelled: residents are not trying to ‘get out’; why would they want to leave their communities?). He was neither trying to present an overly rosy picture to overcompensate, nor trying to rouse first-world pity; it was quite matter of fact.

And the fact of the matter is that, inside Dharavi, quite astonishing things are happening.

We learnt about how plastics are brought in for recycling, cleaned and graded, transformed into raw materials (in Dharavi designed and made machines), and then turned into products like string and rope, and used in the construction of a range of luggage products, for example. Elsewhere, discarded cardboard boxes are imported from overseas, re-covered again and again for reuse, until they are thick enough to be covered in tarpaulin and used in housing construction. In a similar sense, large paint cans can be cleaned, stripped and reused nine times before being cut, flattened, and used to make wall panelling.

We saw many examples of human ingenuity. If necessity is the mother of all invention, then Dharavi has a thing or two it could teach people of the world about both!

Aside from re- and up-cycling initiatives, Dharavi is also famous for its pottery and leather work. The pottery is pretty straight forward – three grades of clay are imported, moulded into a range of products, fired and sent to market – while the leathering process more complex and the results unquestionably more stunning. The gorgeous range of bags, satchels, jackets, belts, shoes and so on are made in both Dharavi’s own brand as well as sold to other companies to be rebranded.

The result of all this industry is that Dharavi’s economic activity is worth an estimated 650 million-1 billion US dollars annually, a lucrative source of income and jobs and taxable activity.

Therefore, as Nick explained, far from the idea of a ‘slum’ lacking basic facilities, it is actually in the government’s interest to ensure Dharavi has regular and secure utilities. Power is consistent, as industry runs 24 hours a day, and while water is available for a few hours per day, residents know the time period they have to shower, wash and fill storage to last them. ‘If you don’t have something whenever you want it, you learn not to take it for granted,’ Nick said matter of factly.

Aside from all this industry, we wandered through its streets and markets, and were just in time to see school finish for the day, the streets becoming a rush of manic youthful energy accompanied by harried parents; as it is the world over.

Finally, Nick also showed us the ongoing government regeneration project that is slowly providing residents with a more secure form of property. It was started in the early 2000s and sees new apartment blocks built, which residents own outright and which provides them with significantly more space and obvious improvements especially in sanitation matters.

The hindrance has been that every single property owner must agree to be rehoused before the land can be cleared and building begins (and these are property owners, with ownership rights over their lands). It’s fair to say that it’s taken time to build up the trust required; that residents can trust that they are not going to be evicted and left stranded (residents are housed in quality temporary apartment blocks, close by, while construction takes place).

With more and more new blocks being completed now, and improvements to residents’ quality of life so clearly visible, the barriers are slowly coming down and construction ramping up. Nick and his whanau (family) are hopeful that, soon enough, their time will come.

Let’s hope so.

(endnote: it should be pointed out that the rehousing policy, and the degree to which the future of Dharavi’s residents are being centred in the process, as opposed to other actors, i.e. private developers eyeing up a hugely lucrative block of Mumbai’s scarce land supply, is most definitely up for debate.)

(with obvious thanks to Mystical Mumbai for the pictures that accompany this post)

Why Goa is India’s must-do state…

India’s smallest state – by far – is curiously wonderful; a literal island I would argue, surrounded by sea on one side and foreign states on all others. Goa is the result of a unique history that stretches back millennia, but in a contemporary sense certainly back to the moment Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama stepped ashore in India, in 1498. de Gama came in search of trade relationships, namely spices, but his opening up of a sea route to Asia set in motion a course that forever changed, well, not only Goa, but the world really.

We’ve visited Goa twice; the first time in 2013, where we took in its Northern and Central zones, while just recently we spent a relaxing week in the South. In my mind, this is a logical way to view Goa, as offering three quite distinct coastal experiences. The North and South offer different beach atmospheres, while the centre is where its fascinating historic heart lies.

That the attraction and memories of Goa remain so strong after five years is an illustration of just how affecting it was; the recent visit only compounding and extending the allure. You can believe the hype this time: it’s well deserved. I can understand why northern hemisphere types return again and again, establishing almost familial relationships with some of Goa’s charismatic locals.

With both visits I’ve come away thinking that locals see themselves as Goan first, Indian second.

Postcolonial identities are complex and it’s dangerous to generalise, but you do get the sense that the state having never fallen to the British, remaining Portuguese until well after independence (it officially joined the union only in 1961), is a fact that Goans can point to as a point of difference. For better or worse, 400 years as a Portuguese colony created a vastly different culture and society than 200 years as part of the British Empire.

Secretly, I reckon that at least some Goans consider it for the better, something held apart from ‘India’ as a matter of pride. After all, pork, to a lesser extent beef, and certainly alcohol, are markers of Goan-ness that stand in stark contrast to (most of) the rest of the nation.

The people are different, Goa feels different, it looks different. Leaving on a late Sunday afternoon, driving up admittedly chaotic roads, I still noticed people sitting on their verandahs, chatting to visitors, enjoying a long Sunday lunch perhaps. And I wondered whether, like the other southern states in some respects, people here take a bit more time to enjoy each other and just being, rather than the seemingly relentless focus on the hustle that seems to characterise their northern country folk. There’s a bit more a feel of island time here, hence the characterisation of Goa as an island.

I could be, of course, am likely to be, simply romanticising, over-simplifying, and being offensive to the actual complexity of present day Goa. Evidently, the notion of what constitutes a Goan identity certainly attracts a lot of attention and discussion. But put that to one side, if you must, and trust me on the three zones thing…

The North is the Goa you’ve most likely heard about. It’s the Goa that has the reputation as mixing beautiful beaches with hedonistic partying, where you come to drop out for a bit, take acid and rave to Goan trance (yes, it’s its own genre). In addition, there’s remnants of its hippie history, and of course it draws in the yoga retreatests.

We actually never saw this, arriving well outside international tourist season (May!), and from what we understand, the ‘scene’ has been somewhat quashed in recent years. However, it is certainly the most hip and happening part of the state, where you come to beach during the day, socialise by night.

It’s centred around Baga and Calangute, and essentially, the further you spiral out and away from this centre, the quieter and more chillaxed its beaches and atmosphere becomes.

We started in Baga/Calangute, enjoying the buzzy vibe of coastal India in full domestic tourism season (school holidays), its beaches and streets lined and primed for everything you could need to fulfill your holiday desires. Long languid days at the beach, rotating between swimming and sunning on loungers with a drink, ending with a likely generic but actually still pretty tasty dinner, at any one of many identical-looking internationalised restaurants, and you’ve got yourself a pretty failsafe rinse and repeat holiday diary.

We did make time in this busy schedule though, for an afternoon’s walk up to the giant Fort Aguada at the southern end of the Baga/Calangute stretch.

Anjuna market

We then moved north to Anjuna, original home of the hippies and the infamous Wednesday flea market. It’s still a worthy spot, even if it’s a bit more hippy chic nowadays. Because it was literally the end of the season – Anjuna was already very quiet – we didn’t bother moving north again, but explored other beaches – Vagator and Chapora – on a long day trip, bookending our Northern stay with a second fort at the northern tip of Chapora.

Speaking of day trips, the North is serviced by the town of Mapusa, and we enjoyed a day trip there as a beach reprieve, taking in its bustling Friday market, full of seafood, Goan sausages, and uniquely Goan baked delights, as well as the usual market action.

Goan sausages, and the fierce market laydeez…
Panjim. Gorgeous.

Whether going North, South, or both, a stay in Central Goa and its historic heart is a must. Panjim is a wonderfully easy breezy state capital; by far India’s most relaxed. We spent a truly pleasant few days there, ambling about and soaking up its achingly beautiful streets and pousadas, rich in colour and history.

From here you can also visit old Goa, the original capital of Portuguese India. Once a thriving city of 200,000 (larger than both London and Lisbon at the time), it is now nothing more than its astonishing collection of churches and cathedrals in a sea of palm trees. It gives you a hint of just how important and wealthy it was, before repeated malaria and cholera epidemics saw the capital shift to Panjim. It’s a completely unique experience, and a fascinating outing.

Old Goa in a sea of palm.

Southern Goa, where we’ve just been, really struck a chord. As ‘mature’ tourists, no longer necessarily looking for the party, it’s hands down the place we would most return to in the future. In a state that is, comparatively speaking, pretty chillaxed anyway, the South takes it one step further off the throttle (probably a few steps); the place where Goans go to escape their own rat race!

Like the North, the South is serviced by a market town, Margao, a main stop on the Konkan rail line (we first arrived here from Delhi, and boarded the train to Mumbai here too). Sadly, we only drove through on the bus; arriving into Panjim on an overnight from Hyderabad, we local bussed it to Margao then onto Palolem. But it looked like an appealing place to while away half a day, exploring its historic colonial remnants – old mansions, churches and municipal buildings – while seeing to some life admin.

Further mirroring the North, Southern beach activity is centred in Palolem and again becomes further chilled as you spiral outwards. We spent four glorious days in Palolem, alternating between relaxing in our villa, situated in a quiet coconut grove, relaxing on the beach, swimming, and eating and drinking its astonishingly good range of offerings, from excellent local cuisine to its growing number of lush vegan hangouts, and I say that as someone usually adverse to places that are this-free, that-free. Some of the best eatings were had there. We explored neighbouring beaches Patnem and Rajbag as well; respectively more family-oriented and almost gloriously deserted by comparison.

This daily pattern simply continued for a further three nights in Agonda, which makes Palolem look like a bustling metropolis. We ambled about just that little bit slower, we breathed just that little bit slower, we cared about the world’s problems just that little bit less. It was a glorious end to a week’s much needed wind down, before winding right back up to hit India’s most enigmatic city: Mumbai.

To be continued…

 

Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 3: Trains

Here is part three of my four-part public service announcement; my attempt to throw back into the blogosphere, that which has given me so much, pratical information given in an entertaining way, for those considering travel to the wondrous isle of Sri Lanka. Parts one and two, on food and buses, are here are here.

Trains, oh trains. There’s something undeniably appealing about train travel, at least I think so anyway. Maybe it’s a lifetime of using trains as an everyday form of transport, maybe it’s that trains don’t travel on roads so give a slightly different perspective, a different view? I don’t know, it’s definitely not Maybelline, but I find myself drawn to train travel and will use it over and above other forms if available and practical.

As in other former British colonies, a working train system is one of the (perhaps few) beneficial practical things to remain from Sri Lanka’s long colonial period (dating back to the Portuguese). We took a number of trains, riding in different classes and using a few different ways to get out tickets, so here’s our experience.

First are foremost, seat61.com is THE best source of information for travelling on trains in Sri Lanka (and many other Asian countries!).  Its wealth of information is encyclopedic! The Sri Lankan Railways website was also a good way to look up timetables and train options.

Colombo to Galle (on the Matara line); difficulty level: easy as.

Our first train ride and experience of the Sri Lankan railway system was on the popular southern coast line. You cannot book tickets, so, as seat61.com says, you turn up on the day one hour before the train leaves, buy a ticket, and get on.  

We were there a little earlier, using the intercity reservation system (discussed below) and, like clockwork, the counter I was standing at was suddenly ticket-operational at 9.30am, for the 10.30am train. The front of Colombo’s Fort station is open to the road, so you just walk along and find the counter(s) selling tickets for the line you want. I went to the counter selling ‘all classes’ tickets for the Matara line (closest to the road side), as I knew you could get unreserved tickets for both second and third classes. As I say, like clockwork, at 9.30am, the man on the other side of the counter, who seemed to be filling some kind of money change order and ignoring the world, suddenly looked at me, and it was all go.

“Two second class tickets for Galle please” (yes, it’s pronounced Gaul or Gaul-ey, or Gaul-er…it’s seems to be all and any; go with Gaul though).

“The 10.30 train?”

“Yes, thank you” (remember your manners).  

He told me the price, I gave him the money, he gave me the change and tickets and told me the platform to go to (platform 5). It was as easy as that, and two other railway workers made sure we were on the right platform, one as we were crossing the overbridge, and another who was working a train that stopped on our platform; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere: helpful!

So yes, it is a lolly scramble for seats on the Colombo-Matara line (and on any unreserved carriage ticket), and we were just plain lucky that the doors were very close to us when the train came to a full stop, so we were able to get seats on the left-hand side (which is not the coast side).  

But, actually, we were fine on this side, able to see both the sea and also the villages, towns and estuaries we passed alongside. Also, we found the patronage quite fluid throughout. At one point we were able to move over to the right hand side, and the group of Germans originally standing were able to sit down after not too long a time, as people got off the train at other stops.  

In terms of baggage, just find a space! We were able to, just, squeeze our backpacks into the overhead racks.

My advice, just enjoy it wherever you are perched. It’s not worth fighting over a seat/position unless you’ve never seen a (tropical) coastline. Also, those who boarded last, probably strategically so, and perched in the open doors, were evidently having a great time. In short: it’s fluid in unreserved, man.

…where the most annoying thing will likely be tourists and their damn heads!

Ella to Nanuoya to Kandy; difficulty level: we pre-booked.

This is the somewhat famed train ride through Sri Lanka’s glorious and picturesque hill country. We broke this up into two trips, pausing at Nanuoya to spend a few nights in Nuwara Eliya and do the Adam’s Peak pilgrimage.

You cannot currently book trains before you arrive into the country via Sri Lankan Railways’ website. I wanted to make sure we had reserved seats for these trains, and in second class too, so the carriages would have windows we could open (i.e. not an air-conditioned carriage). Therefore, I used a service recommended on seat61.com: Visit Sri Lanka Tours.

I followed the instructions there and it worked just as it said it would. I received an email with reservation numbers, which I took to the Ella train station, along with my passport, and got both printed out at the same time. It did cost more than double the normal in-Sri Lanka prices to use this service – paying via Paypal – but it was worth it to secure reserved seats in a carriage that was never going to be squashed, and no jostling for space and views with people standing.

The first leg, to Nanuoya, was an extremely pleasant experience. The seats in the observation saloon were very comfortable with plenty of leg space, and the carriage itself was very roomy, making it easy to get up and move about, go and see the views from the full-length windows at the end of the trains, and so on. The windows pull up, the breeze is delicious, and you can poke your heads (and cameras) in and out across the entire journey.

This journey starts with rolling tea country, which is truly picturesque, and you’ll like see loads of locals and tourists alike moving in and around the train tracks as you pass. The valleys and mountains you steam through will have you wanting to capture the moment at each new turn. Eventually, the scenery becomes a bit more forestry, before returning to more tea country as you get closer to Nanuoya. Without wanting to overhype it, it is the train journey you’ve read about, it’s well worth doing, and I think worth securing good seats for (at our Nuwara Eliya our fellow housemates had fought out the Kandy – Nanuoya leg in uneserved third, and it sounded like a pretty hideous experience overall; it’s all luck of the draw in third).

The second leg, onto the cultural capital of Kandy, picks up where the first leaves off: loads of luscious views, tea, tea and more tea, although it does become noticeably more tropical-looking again, as you descend into the area around Kandy. For this leg, we were on the newer Chinese-built blue trains, and the ride and carriage was just as spacious and comfortable.

Polonnaruwa to Batticoloa; difficulty level: easy as.

If you are going to go to Batti – and I’m not entirely convinced it’s visit-worthy; at least not yet – the train ride is a real joy, winding your way out to the coast through rice paddy country. I’m not too sure how typical our experience was, but we turned up at 9.30am, for the 10.20am train, sat inside the clean and quiet station until tickets became available (10am) and then bought third-class unreserved tickets.

Rather than packed to the brim, we enjoyed a truly breezy and leisurely ride in an almost empty carriage the entire way, sitting in the open doors, or otherwise watching the countryside pass us by. It was truly a pleasant ride, and redunkulous value at around one NZ dollar each.

Jaffna to Anuradhapura to Colombo; difficulty level: easy as

For our last trains, we again broke up the trip with a stop in Anuradhapura, the first ancient capital.  For these tickets, we went to the intercity reservations office at Colombo Fort Station when we first arrived in the country (counter 17; it’s actually an office), again following the instructions on seat61.com.  

Inside, there are different counters for different trains, and it is somewhat confusing, so what I would recommend is this: use the timetable feature on the Sri Lankan railways website to find the trains you want to take, write down the stations you want to travel between, the date you want to travel, and the train number and name (e.g. #4004; Anuradhapura to Colombo Fort; 25 January) and take this with you.  As trains do apparently sell out quickly, it is helpful to know what other trains are travelling on the day you wish to travel, the times and train numbers, so you can book alternatives if your first choices are not available.

We were lucky and got the ones we wanted, and the experience was pretty straight forward, as straightforward as it is ever going to be anyway in these cross-cultural, cross-lingua franca situations!

The north of the country is quite radically different, as I’ve written about elsewhere. The first leg of the train ride was essentially a repetition of what we saw on the bus ride north: a quite pleasant but sparse landscape; lots of rice paddies, very few people. Our train, which was going all the way to Colombo, was quite empty all the way (I suspect it gets more and more full the closer to the capital you get, and certainly a lot of people got on at Anuradhapura). What this meant is that I was able to quite freely move around the carriage during the journey, moving from left to right sides. It was overall a pleasant ride, although quite bumpy in places; the kind of bumpy where you look at each other and think, “is this carriage about to come loose or derail?”, and you are calmed only by the fact that no local seems at all perturbed (that old trick!).

Plenty of room at the Inn.

The final train ride of our month, Anuradhapura back to Colombo, was an early start from another of Sri Lanka’s charming deco-era stations. It was really a rinse-and-repeat of the previous leg, just a whole lot more packed (as I predicted it would be) and, because we were seated in a group of four (two inward-facing seats with no table), not quite as charming or comfortable as our other rides. No biggie by this stage.

And that’s a wrap on our train adventures; hope some of the information is helpful for anyone intending to travel to Sri Lanks in the near future (as you should).

Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 2: Buses

Here’s part two of my four-part summary of our treks and travails across this most wonderful South Asian jewel. Part one, about its luscious, luscious food, is here.

If you choose to use them, you’ll quickly come to see how buses are the lifeblood of the nation. This makes bus stands, as they’re called here, fascinating places to see the nation in action. They’re a hive of activity, with people and goods moving about, on and off buses, in and out of eateries and other produce/goods shops that circle the areas. They are also fairly easy to navigate. We used both buses (and trains) to get around the pearl isle, and found signage straight forward and people overhwelmingly helpful, eager to see us on the right bus.

When you enter a bus stand, it’s not a front door situation; just walk up from whichever angle you are approaching. Essentially, you just need to walk around and look for the bus you want to catch. Red buses belong to the state corp, blue buses are private. Side note: in reality, the blue buses are a little more blingy and comfortable, and they be a little more expensive (??), but we found very little difference between them, and would just jump on the first going wherever wanted to go.

Each bus gate will likely have a sign telling you which route is served by that spot. Easier, each bus will have signs on the front of the bus that will state its origin and its destination, e.g. Colombo and Matara (a popular south coast route). On the side of some buses, the main stops along the route are also printed. So, for example, we caught the Wellawaya to Badulla bus to get to Ella, which was one of the stops along its brightly-coloured exterior (and the interiors of buses are treats within themselves!).

Each bus has a ticket seller, standing outside the bus yelling out his final destination. If you understand Sinhalese as it’s spoken colloquially then great, you’ll be able to make your way even easier. If, like me, you were looking at the name of your destination in a book/on a map and trying to imagine how you might say it, you’re imagining it wrong! What you hear will bear little relation to your imagination.

It’s more likely that you’ll stick out like a sore thumb, like all the other foreigners, he’ll make eye contact, ask you where you’re going, you’ll fumble something out that he’ll realise as a mispronunciation of where you actually want to go, and tell you to jump on!  

Moreover, we found all of these gents to be keen for us to do so, helping us to either put our bags up front with the driver, on the less busy/touristed routes, or in a storage compartment at the back of the bus, where it’ll be waiting for you when you arrive at your destination.  

The only slightly confusing occurence was, sometimes, multiple buses seemed to get plying the same route and more than one man was keen for us to jump on his bus. I’d like to think it is because they confused me with some dashing celebrity, and they wanted the bragging rights to be able to say, ‘you’ll never guess what…?’; more realistically, it’s probably just a kind of game, a bit of friendly conductor rivalry, maybe they get a certain commission from whatever they take.

If they are on commission, then certainly it didn’t feel like they saw an opportunity to charge ‘tourist prices’, as is the case elsewhere (not looking at anyone in particular, India). In fact, on some buses, the conductors had little ticket machines they used to print out tickets; on others they wrote it on a ticket and showed it to us, so we knew what the price was.

Only once were we told what the price was, which was more than we were told it should be, and given no ticket. However we’re literally talking cents here, and anyway, I had read that we might have to pay a second ticket price for our bags if the bus is busy; this never happened.  

Indeed, we found people to be overwhelmingly honest throughout Sri Lanka. Obviously we have no way to really qualify this; you only have your gut feeling. But we just didn’t feel the same kind of ‘everyone’s out to make a dollar off everyone in anyway possible’ mentally that we find in India. This is not a criticism of India, just a reality: girl’s gotta make a buck; get that cash gurrl!

Scenes from a bus…

In truth, the helpfulness we encountered is also likely just plain old efficiency. As I opened with, buses are the lifeblood of the country, vital vital networks, and bus stands are busy places. Bus operators don’t have time to ass about with befuddled tourists standing around trying to grasp the basics of Sinhalese and public transport. You gotta go go go…

Only once did we come across an attempted scam. At Wellawaya, on our way up to Ella, a ‘very helpful’ young chap told us that the bus would be leaving at 3pm (it was just after 2pm), and from the road side of the bus station. He then started to try and engage us in conversation about where we were from, where we were going, did we have a booking…the usual story.

As I had read previously – thanks Lonely Planet – buses from Wella to Ella, a main route, leave every 30 minutes or so. I was therefore suspicious, so, I thanked him and said to my compadre, “let’s go find something to eat while we wait, eh?” We wandered back over to the other side of the station, and quickly found the bus to Badulla, which stops in Ella, and left about 10 mins later.

Scams are scams are scams; a part of life on the road. I rarely get angry or show frustration, at least I try not to. I just tell myself that life can be hard in these places, and that these people are just being entrepreneurial and trying to make a buck. If they can do so via a little nefarious manipulation of tourists that nonetheless still provides the service – transport or accommodation – then, well, it’s just how it is.  

You have to have your wits about you, and if you’re at all suspicious, thank the happy helper person, make an excuse to wander off (or just wander off), and go looking for a second opinion or option. This is also where doing some reading and research prior to travelling is very helpful (although never foolproof).

Here’s the buses we took:

1. Galle to Unawatuna (day trip); difficulty level: extremely easy as.

Sri Lanka’s south coast is populated in what seems like one endless stream of villages and towns, and it felt like both locals and tourists were casually hopping on and off buses all along the coast for all sorts of purposes; it felt like quite a fluid approach to movement. I got this impression from doing a day trip to the beachside village of Unawatuna. It’s harder to tie your shoelaces drunk.

Get on the Matara bus (or indeed the Tangalle bus, if you want to go further along the coast), tell the man where you want to get off, enjoy the ride, get off the bus. Repeat in the other direction. I guess the only thing you’d want to make sure beforehand is that there are buses coming back in the other direction at the end of the day.

2. Galle to Udawalawe; difficulty level: easy as.

We jumped onto the Matara bus at Galle bus stand, switched at Matara to an Embilipitiya bus, where we ran into a plate of fried food heaven, and then boarded a final, smaller bus, to Udawalawe.  Fortunately, we were staying right beside the junction/clock tower, so got off there (there are marked bus stops, but it otherwise appear you just kinda make moves like you are going to get off, and it’ll stop somewhere soon).  The main bus stand – literally just a bus stop in this dusty one main street town – is around the corner (on the main road to the national park).

3. Udawalawe to Ella; difficulty level: again, easy as.  

Our guest house owner graciously dropped us to said bus stand above, where we awaited the number 98 bus to Wellawaya.  At the bus stand, some friendly men tried to sell us a van to Ella for 6000lkr, for up to six of us. In retrospect, if there had been six of us willing – there were some other tourists about – we might have taken up the offer as the bus was very busy and already quite packed by the time it got to us, as they said it would be!

We did manage to squeeze into a seat, but it was an uncomfortable, head-lolling-around-on-a-stick typa ride, remembering that we had been up since 4.40am for a safari, and it was hot. Oh well. The bus from Wella to Ella was much more spacious and super lovely once we started the road up into the hills, both in terms of views, and also as the heat started to dissipate, just a little.

Yup. Just is.

4. Nuwara Eliya to Dalhousie (day trip); difficulty level: pretty easy.

We did this trip as part of our midnight mountain climb of Adam’s Peak adventure. The day before we wanted to travel, we visited the bus stand and asked at the office about a direct bus. We were told there was one at 4pm and, when we returned the next day at just before this time, sure enough we found ourselves on the bog standard public bus, going all the way to Dalhousie, with a stop for refilling of passengers at Hatton. 

What is a little less clear about this route is how many direct buses there are and when they run, as I believe they only run direct during the pilgrimage season to Adam’s Peak.

However, the next morning, post-climb, we were on buses within minutes that took us from Dalhousie to nearby Maskeliya, where we joined a Hatton-bound bus and, once there, there were big and small bus options immediately available to bring us back to Nuwara Eliya (and so, it’s no doubt just as easy to do this in the other direction).  

In other words, nada to worry about; I just wouldn’t recommend leaving too late in the day, especially out of pilgrim season (the season runs full moon December through full moon in May).

One tip, if you are going to do the midnight pilgrimage: once you leave Hatton, the road becomes incredibly windy, dark and unsealed towards Dalhousie; the bus driver doesn’t slow down for these factors, and is in fact a driving legend. But it will feel like you are heading more and more into the middle of absolutely nowhere, and, if it’s not a busy pilgrimage night, could make you feel like you’ve made a bad life choice.  Fear not, all will be fine!

Scenes from an unexpected stop on the road to Dalhousie…

5. Kandy to Sirigiya; difficulty level: easy; a little uncomfortable between Dambulla and Sigiriya.

This trip requires a change of bus in Dambulla. The most difficult part about the Kandy-Dambulla leg was locating the right bus stand, as Kandy has a few and the most obvious one – by the clocktower – is not the one.

Guides talk about it being beside the Good’s Shed (which appears to refer to the name of a building used for storing goods needing to be shipped by train; now it appears to be just a busy marketplace). This is correct. More easily remembered, though, is that it’s simply back down beside the train station, where you may well have entered Kandy.

Walk around until you find the right bus, or, more likely, someone will ask where you’re going and point you there. This was one of the least easy bus stands to work out, due to immense numbers of buses and no sense of logical placement, so I’d just ask straight away.

At Dambulla, you’ll get off on the side of the road opposite the bus stand. When we did, some guys, trying to be helpful, told us that the bus to Sigiriya would pass by here. We were a little suspect so walked over to the bus stand, where we found the bus and jumped on. They were actually right, and the bus stopped there also. However it was already quite full, so at least we did get seats.

Lonely Planet advises that the bus leaves from north of the clocktower. This is also right as, inexplicably, the bus stopped there for ages. We left the bus stand on the hour, and didn’t leave from the clocktower stop until half-passed the hour, having only covered a distance of minutes. I guess LP is trying to save you the wait, the squash, and the sweat. Because it was all of those things both times we took it, and quite uncomfortable in the end. Maybe worth tuk-tuk-ing the last leg?

Awaiting the bus to Sigiriya.

6. Sirigiya to Dambulla (day trip); difficulty level: so easy.

Buses leave Dambulla and Sigiriya every half hour in each direction, so the only thing to consider is the comfort level on the return journey (as above). A bus stop was right outside our guesthoue; I imagine you could probably wave it down wherever you are, or just check for the nearest wait spot.

7. Sigiriya to Polonnaruwa; difficulty level: so easy.

We’re basically local bus pros by this point, so taking a bus to a random junction to then wave down a second one sounds like a sinch. You simply grab the Dambulla bus to Inamaluwa Junction (just give it your best shot; he’ll know where you mean), then walk up to the bus stop (a couple of minutes away, and easily visible) and wait for the bus.

I thought we might have to try to quickly read the bus destination sign and wave the right one down, but the reality was the first one that came along was going who knows where, but the man leaned out, asked us where we were going, and told us to (quickly) jump on board. As easy as that, and we were in Polonnaruwa just after midday, after leaving about 10am

8. Batticoloa to Jaffna; difficulty level: easy, just uncomfortable.

There’s no other way to do this trip, unfortunately, although I’m not entirely convinced there’s any point in going to Batticoloa in the first place, really. Not right now, anyway. However, if you must, it’s fairly easily achieved.

The only buses making this ludicrous trip are the state ones; no private blue buses. The main bus stand has a full timetable painted on its side, which told us that the only logical option departed at 11am (the others were early, early morning, or late afternoon, which meant a middle of the night arrival; I’ll save that craziness for India).

I don’t know if the fact that it was a Saturday and/or the day before a puja holiday, but it was pretty packed, the whole time. The bus starts in Akkaraipattu, 50-odd kilometres south, so was already quite full by the time it arrived (and that’s why the waiting passengers all stormed the bus!). There’s an opening in the middle of the long bus stand, where buses can presumably U-turn, presmably to avoid having to go right the way around (remember: go go go!). This is where the bus pulls in and stops.

We had to stand for the first two hours, literally all the way back to where we’d come from (the bus goes inland back to Polonnaruwa, onto Anuradhapura, and then up from there). Thankfully, seats opened up there – the ticket man had helpfully told us to stay standing beside them – and we sat the rest of the way. As I say, it waxed and waned across the day, but was pretty consistently full. Just one of these things you have to do to get where you’re going right? A long day.

9. Colombo to Negombo; difficulty level: slightly more complicated.

But really only marginally. We caught the train back from Anuradhapura, and were continuing straight on without stopping. We wandered along from Fort station, and you are confronted two bus stands: the private and the public. The fast aircon buses you want leave from the CTB bus stand, and you’re looking for route 240. Hopefully this will save you from walking around, packs on back, in the steaming afternoon heat like we did!

Strange times in Coastal Lanka: the Jaffna edition

It’s funny. When we were making plans to come to Sri Lanka, the fact that parts of the country were, as recently as a decade ago, effectively civil war-ravaged no-go zones, never really crossed my mind. Perhaps no-go zones is overstating the reality a touch, but I was certainly guilty of being somewhat ignorant, of thinking that the civil war was something that happened further back in the past. Wrong.

The civil war, which officially ended in 2009, is the North’s currently untold story. Everywhere we went in Jaffna the war remains ever present, yet is a silent presence (or, for now, has been silenced). The guides warn against talking about the war, or trying to get locals to engage in a discussion about the war, lest you find yourself in trouble with authorities. And in our month in Sri Lanka, only one local talked to us about it; a guesthouse owner, who raised the topic unprovoked. His words were insightful and telling. Sri Lankans are looking forward now.

What I mean by silent presence is that, everywhere we went, and we covered some ground, there were abandoned and/or dilapidated houses and buildings. In front of some, there were signs advising that the property belonged to a certain someone, or was reserved for some department of the state. I assumed – hopefully correctly – that this relates to a process still ongoing, and not without controversy and conflict, of people dispossessed or who fled during the war, returning to claim their property. In some places, such as the fort, evidence of armed conflict was apparent (pock holes and so forth).

Inside the fort a pile of rubble sits where there used to be a church; the information board, with its colour photos, indicate that it existed until at least as late as the 1970/80s, as the conflict began. We’re left to assume its fate. Silent presence.

Pre-historic Buddhist site, or nah?!?

On our second day, we hired bikes and cycled out of town, eager to touch the northern tip of the country. We chose the road to Kankasanturai, stopping along the way to cycle through rice paddies and track down a possibly/probably pre-historic Buddhist stupa site; around 50 monuments to monks who died there. It appears to be the job of three military personnel to guard the site, which sits in amongst what is essentially a small village of lanes and was utterly deserted. But, unfortunately, it is also part of the ‘who was here first?’ debate, which caused so many problems here in the first place, so obviously the triumphant state sees the protection of these kinds of sites as very important. Silently noted.

Further north, as you enter KKS, as it’s known, you pass through a not-grand, but what still amounts to a gate; a gate with observation structures where (no doubt armed) guards keep watch. Beyond that, for a few kilometres, the only buildings and homes that line the road are state, police, and military.

Then you get to KKS, arguably the tiniest village we visited in the country. I’m not even sure it is a village, just a name on a map now and a role in the war games that belies its size. Don’t try to get close to the lighthouse. There’s a resort there, though; it’s owned and operated by the military. We grabbed packets of curry and rice and sat on the beach close to its fence, alongside locals doing the same.

Made it to the edge of another country…

The military still controls much land around these parts, and some consider it stolen. This occupation prevents you, for example, from cycling west along the coast, to the famed Keeramalai Springs. Whatever is in that area, you can’t not notice the pretty flash new buildings and roads leading in and out of there, as you cycle around it, at a distance of course. Silent barriers.

So there is much that was strange, a little eerie, about our short time in the North. But then there was so much else besides.

The North is different. I’d read that; now I appreciate it. I wasn’t paying huge amounts of attention as we made our way there from Batti, so I don’t know when exactly the change happens. But once I looked up from my reverie (i.e my phone; I was writing), taking in the gorgeous late-afternoon almost-dusk, the differences were quite stark.

The north is extremely flat and quite sparse, both in terms of geography and flora, and in terms of population. I’d read that the government are systematically removing graveyards of the war dead, which were created in obvious discord to Hindu norms, but were created as, I guess, political symbols, martyrdom memorials. They are replacing them with different types of war memorials, and we passed at least a couple of those too. So from the outset, it definitely adds a different air to the place; it feels like you are entering somewhere else, somewhere different from where you’ve been.

The other really immediate difference is the absence of Buddhism, the huge presence of Hindu temples and shrines, and, somewhat surprisingly, or at least unexpectedly, a huge presence of Jesus. Churches and Christian shrines are dotted about the place, crosses and ‘Jesus saves’ emblazoned on the odd tuk-tuk or three.

On our first full day, we explored the city on foot, taking all of this in and falling under the spell of its gorgeous architecture and easy-feeling vibe. I loved that there were lots of people cycling; multiple forms of transport all sharing the space with casual ease.

Oh the gorgeous, gorgeous architecture…
The stunning public library, burned down by rebels in the early 1980s, causing a huge upswing in the conflict, was tellingly one of the first buildings to be rebuilt, and built as a faithful replica of the one that stood previously.

Jaffna is a really fascinating place, and I am sure it will change a lot in coming years. Second to Colombo, it is the place where we have seen the most signs of change and construction. There are hotels and buildings being built, a new (modest) mall has opened right in the centre, and you get the real sense that people are both ready for this and egging it on, eager to move passed the troubled few decades of civil strife.

On the war, it is no doubt still far too raw a memory for people, and there is undoubtedly a lot of unresolved tensions to be worked through, especially to do with people claiming ownership of lands they may have fled from, or been moved off.

It will take time, but hopefully, one day, Jaffna will be able to tell its story; in writing, in oral histories, in museums, and so on. It feels like Sri Lanka really is about to boom, tourism-wise, and the North is in prime position to capitalise on this and use the cash for its own development. I am sure a lot of people would be interested in coming here to learn/see more.

Furthermore, in my humble eater’s opinion, Jaffna should also be promoting itself as Sri Lanka’s culinary tourism capital, as the food here was mesmerisingly outstanding (and I speak from having tread a path already filled with Lankan gastronomic highlights!).

In short, there is much here to celebrate and share. I could easily have spent another couple of days here (if not longer), exploring more of its countryside: Point Pedro, the west coast of the peninsula, and south-west of the city, over the causeway and into the countryside. It really is a fascinating place, and I hope the change that is coming keeps what is unique about the place, and simply enhances it. As with anywhere that courts and then comes under the intense and sometimes destructive gaze of the tourist, it risks losing its casual, easy nature and replacing it with something a little more harsh, unfriendly, jaded. And the North has had too much of this already in its recent past. It’s time for something different.

The famed Keeramalai springs, with its ancient healing waters. We got out just before the crowd arrived; what a glorious swim!

Strange times in Coastal Lanka: the Batti edition

When we did ‘the big trip’ of 2013, rarely, but it did occasionally happen, you’d decide to go somewhere, arrive, and from the first moment, something was just not quite right. Sihanoukville in Cambodia, Vientiane in Laos, and Madurai, India, in spite of its temple magnificence, spring to mind. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s like something about the aura, the energy of the place, it’s just a little off, out of sync. Batticaloa, on Sri Lanka’s east coast, can now join that list.

E is for extra. Empty!

I had anticipated Batti, as it’s called, to be a restful two-night stopover on our way to the far north; a chance to recharge the batteries with coastal air. Our train out there, a most leisurely ride in a breezy, almost empty third-class carriage, seemed to be setting us up for this. Everything I’d read about the place screamed ‘mellow vibes’.

Beautiful, beautiful rice paddy country…

When this disconnect happens, it does seem to happen from the moment you arrive; first impressions and all. And sure enough, as soon as we exited the train station, I remember thinking that this is not quite what I was anticipating. Now of course expectations are no-one but my own’s to manage; the problem, I’ve come to think, is that there was just no vibe at all. In spite of the not insignificant amount of coverage Batti gets in the travel guides, it appears we arrived in a town that is just not set up for and does not seem to receive visitors; non-Sri Lankan visitors, at least.

We had a slight moment of confusion finding our accommodation – never great when carrying your temporary life on your back, in the hot midday sun – and when we arrived, I’d not exactly call the reception welcoming. Nonetheless we got settled and thought great, the most highly-rated cafe on TripAdvisor is only a few hundred metres away. Except that, when we got there, it was closed; well, the gate was open but it was deserted. All we found was a dog gnashing its teeth at us down the street.

So we walked into the new town to find lunch. Look out for bike rentals on the way, I said. We’ll want to hire bikes tomorrow so we can explore the coast. What’d we see? Nada. Nothing. Bizarre.

After finding lunch – biryani, perfect – the rest of the afternoon was actually fine. We wandered south, across a bridge into old town, which is actually a small island, and explored the small Dutch fort, the bazaar, and wandered around its interesting suburban streets – there are lanes and alleyways all over the place – finding many of its pretty churches. It is quite pretty, surrounded by a lagoon, and I really loved a lot of the architecture, both religious and more domestically functional. Certainly, it felt pretty chilled, even if people were staring as if to say, ‘what on earth are you doing here?’.

The glorious, glorious architecture.

Tomorrow will be fine, I said: beach day, and then we’ll find the tourists.

Except we didn’t, and it really only got more bizarre. I had imagined finding a beach, not crowded for sure, but with people beaching, and being able to lounge somewhere for lunch, and hiring bikes to explore the sandy peninsula.

We found the beach easy enough. Over the 1924-built bridge east from the new town, and a bit further east from there, and you find a glorious, long, wide expanse of golden sand, stretching up and down as far as you can see. And there was no one there; no cafes, no bike rentals. The only place we came across was padlock-closed.

Beach day, anyone? Anyone…no?!

In New Zealand, finding yourself on a deserted stretch of beach is not completely unusual, and in fact it’s rather lovely. But what made this eerie was that it’s set up for beachgoers: a long boardwalk, street lights, and chairs and pagodas. Deserted.

And then you see a reminder of that Boxing Day in 2004, when the wave came ashore. And then you start to realise that you’ve been walking passed the evidence all along. Empty sections are dotted about the place, and all the houses are new, and if they’re old, they were lucky at the time, now most definitely unlucky looking.

And then you see the memorials.

And then you see the temple now sitting like the Leaning Temple of Batti; except no-one’s visiting.

The Leaning Tower of Batti; its replacement in the background.

And then it started to feel like it made sense, and we wondered whether we had arrived at a party already over, or way too early for one that’s yet to begin, in this country now atop the ranks of must-see nations.

So we returned to our inhospitable hospitality provider with many questions. Was Batti once on the holidaymakers’ radar, and has never recovered from that day? One of the memorials seemed to have a lot if nonlocal looking names among those so unlucky on that fateful day. Or is it yet to be put on the map, but lacking the resources – both natural and financial – to compete with its long popular southern coast cousins?

It appears to be both, neither. It’s true that tourists were among those killed on that day in 2004, but I couldn’t find anything to suggest that Batti was ever a tourist Mecca of thousands, suddenly wiped from the map and struggling to recover. In fact, Batticoloa – and all up the Eastern coast – were quite heavily impacted by the ongoing Civil War (I had thought it more concentrated in the North). This kept tourists away and primarily concentrated in the South, and the region was therefore dealt a double blow when the wave hit as well. Batticoloa was actually the worst affected district, with well over half its population impacted in some way, and over 10% of the lives lost in the country were lost here (3,500 out of 35K).

So it is what it is, and what it is I’m still not sure. Perhaps Batti is more of a domestic holiday spot, coming alive during Sri Lanka’s New Year holidays in April?

I certainly don’t regret coming here. There was enough to make it interesting, and it was a timely reminder of the destructive power of our watery origins and an event that is – rightfully so – most often framed in terms of its impact in Indonesia.

Sri Lanka’s ancient heart

If our stay in Kandy marked the end of our jaunt through Sri Lanka’s hill country, then it was also a narratively-handy segue into the country’s fascinating ancient heart, given its special role as keeper of so much history and culture. In quick succession, the four nights after we left saw us visit three more very important historic sites: the awe-inspiring palace/monastery on a rock at Sigiriya, the serene caves of Dambulla, and the vast ruins of a former capital city, Polonnaruwa.

Fortunately for us – in that we’ll avoid ‘temple fatigue’ – we will return to see the jewel in the crown, Anuradhapura, after a couple of coastal stops; one in the East and the other at the very northern tip of the island.

SIGIRIYA is one of Sri Lanka’s world-famous, must-see attractions. A sprawling 1.6 hectare complex sitting atop a giant rock, towering over the forested plains beneath, it screams historical heavyweight.

By all accounts, it was constructed as a fortress palace for King Kasyapa, who assassinated his father and was obviously concerned that folks unimpressed with his act of parricide might try to enact revenge. Thus he wanted somewhere unassailable, and he couldn’t have chosen much better to be honest. This was late-400s AD. Possibly/probably it was used, after his reign, as a monastery, before being finally abandoned in the 1400s.

We arrived in the early afternoon and, with a luscious intro to local curry & rice out the way, we set out to bike around the local area and climb another rock to see the sunset over the main attraction. It was a glorious sight, and it reminded me of the episode of An Idiot Abroad (I think), where, taking in a marvel of architecture in the ancient Jordanian city of Petra, it was remarked that the best place to live is opposite the best place, because then that’s your view!

We were up and at ’em early the next day, determined to make it to the summit before both the marauding tour groups and the heat arrived. We won on the first count, as there were definitely more people arriving than we had to share the space with, as we were coming down. We needn’t had worried on the second count, as the day was overcast and cool the entire time; no hats or even sunscreen required!

It begins…

The ascent was certainly nothing compared to our Adam’s Peak escapades, but was a physical challenge nonetheless. Helpfully, the climb is not incessant.

You can say that you climb a third, including a fairly stomach-churning spiral staircase, and arrive at the wall of frescoes, so incredibly well preserved (and how did they climb up there to paint them, whoever they were?). Also there is the ‘mirror wall’, so-called because in certain conditions it apparently gave/gives a mirror-like reflection. Centuries and centuries and centuries ago, it was also a site for graffiti, and it helped linguists to chart the development of the Sinhalese language and script.

Back down a spiral staircase and along and up some more, you arrive at the Lion’s Paw (Sigiriya means Lion Rock) where, as well as the excavated giant paws there apparently once sat a large sculpture of a lion.

Walking up through the paws, the final cliff-hugging ascent begins.

Once on top, monkey welcome complete, Sigiriya reveals itself, and the scale is spectacularly impressive. They must have had a wild ancient pulley system to haul all the materials up to such a height, surely.

Lonely Planet says that the summit is not that visually impressive as is mostly foundations; I’m not too sure I agree. Sure, it’s not intact to the degree of other places, with the famed Machu Picchu being the most obvious comparison. But all this means is that’s it’s not as obvious, and you do have to imagine what it might have been like. It’s not hard.

How’s *that* for a plunge pool?!

There are palace complexes, audience halls, water storage facilities, and the most amazing cliff top plunge pool not for hire! We spent ages strolling around and soaking up its bewildering atmosphere, and I was especially drawn to its abundance of staircases and angular features, which reminded me somewhat of M.C. Escher’s famous ‘Relativity’ lithograph; you know one, with all the stairs that go nowhere…

On way down, we spent equally as long exploring the extensive terraced gardens, royal gardens, and huge complex of pools/storage tanks/irrigation systems (probably all three). They spread out from the rock’s lower slopes and around its base. Again, they were full of staircases, symmetry and angles; the designers would have won a Home and Garden award, hands down. It was a brilliant day, and our second installment of curry & rice was well earned!

All the sacred things 🙂

The next day we took a local bus to the nearby dusty town of DAMBULLA, notable for two things: its ancient caves and the country’s largest wholesale produce market.

We started with the caves.

The five caves are situated alongside one another, in an easily meanderable royal rock complex located on the lower slope of a hill (New Zealanders)/mountain (others) south of Dambulla town. The first Buddha sculptures were carved here over two-thousand years ago, and subsequent kings added successive waves of additions. As a result, the caves are full of Buddha figures, stupas, and sculptures of other deities (showing the influence of Hinduism), and the roofs and walls are completely covered in colourful stencils and depictions too.

Cave number two is by far the largest and walking into it is a breathtaking moment, like walking into the most wonderful Buddhist grotto. We were surrounded by sculptures and stencils en masse. It’s the kind of place that seems to demand reverential silence, yet also, like the myth of Santa’s grotto, makes you want to squeal with childlike wonder and delight.

The wonderful thing about our Dambulla experience, is that we had little prior knowledge about what we were going to see; only that it was something to see. This lack of expectation only served to make its eventual impact all the more pronounced.

It was a quietly sublime experience; serene even. Not a big, brash fort or hilltop palace, but some quite unassuming caves filled with artistic splendour.

A limitation to visiting a stream of must-see historical sites in a row, is that the extensive nature of some of them can sometimes overwhelm, and result in what we might call tourism (or touring) fatigue. Fortunately, here, the caves are perfectly formed for a compact yet comprehensive experience; we left feeling neither underwhelmed nor overstimulated. Just right.

The produce market was equally gob-smacking, although obviously in terms of scale and delicious possibilities, as opposed to ecclesiastical significance. A number of giant sheds lined with wholesalers and fronted with massive mounds of everything that, as I evocatively read somewhere, will be on Colombo dinner tables the next night.

Honking, beeping, yelling and selling, it was your standard market experience writ so very large, and helped to stoke our appetite for a final helping of curry and rice back in Sigiriya.

Our final stop in the historic trifecta was the ancient capital of POLONNARUWA, now in ruins. We hired bikes to explore the extensive evidence of its former royal glory, which lasted a few hundred years from the early 1000s.

It was first made a capital by an invading South Indian Chola dynasty, who moved the capital here from Anuradhapura, which had ruled over the island for 1,400 years and which will be our last stop. The Cholas ruled from here for 53 years, until control of the country was retaken by King Vijayabahu I in 1070; he decided to keep the capital here.

Most of the ruins relate to the reign of the third king, ‘Parakramabahu the great’ (1153-1186), under whose rule the development of the city reached its zenith; however we saw remnants of the first three reigns as well as the Chola empire (and no doubt subsequent kings too).

However it was definitely Parakramabahu who enhanced, expanded and enlarged the city, with much of it having been destroyed by previous wars, and today you can see clearly evidence of the original citadel, the larger walled city with its bazaar-lined main road, and a number of monasteries and temples beyond the city walls (including one that covered an astonishing 35 hectares).

The rather lovely ‘lake’ that sits beside Polonnaruwa, around part of which we took pleasant rides on both nights we were in town, is actually an amalgamation of three ancient tanks, used for water supply and irrigation (and it still seems to function in this way, with canals and sluices controlling the flow, and people also bath and wash in it, too). The lake may incorporate the huge 25-sq/km water tank that Parakramabahu constructed.

A long day’s exploring took us on a journey through palaces, audience halls and meeting rooms, pools, monasteries, shrines, temples and dagobas. Some were large, some were small; some were exquisitely detailed, others more ruinous. Quite a few displayed the influence of Hinduism. In fact, in the ancient city, there are a number of Hindu temples, something that is attributed to a degree of religious tolerance practiced by the Buddhist rulers.

Global trade also made it here, and evidence of trade and exchange with places as far away as Rome and Arabia has been found in coinage, ceramics and a particular type of teapot used only in royal ceremonies, indicating an important delegation from China had once visited.

Apart from ohhing and ahhing at some of the more magnificent remains, one of the more memorable moments of the day came at a Hindu temple that dates back to the Chola empire.

By pure happenstance, we were there as a Tamil family were making an offering to the deity by pouring milk on the idols; it was something I’ve never seen before so was interesting to observe (as was the nearby monkeys, who quickly lept on them to lick the milk before the family had a chance to finish the prayer by cleaning the idols).

One other observation I enjoyed mulling over was that Polonnaruwa is such a vast complex, over which now sits a lot of growth and the modern village. It’s incredible to think about what might still be sitting underneath the surface, waiting to be found and understood. That there appeared to be evidence of ongoing work only added to this archaeology-in-process aura.

Ex. Hausted. I feel ya, gurrl…

Before we came to Sri Lanka, I read about people complaining about the cost of some of these sites; Sigiriya is USD$30 per adult, for example, Polonnaruwa USD$25. Given there are a number of these sites to visit, you are indeed forking out a fair whack of USD to take them all in.

However, the sites are immaculately maintained, and, it appears, there is still a lot of excavation and restoration work to do, to really uncover this country’s rich history. Admission fees go directly to the CCF, the Central Cultural Fund, so my take is that if the money is paying for more archeologists, more archeological research, providing jobs in site maintenance and upkeep and so on and so forth, then I’m all for it.

Pay up or stay home and reflect on the privilege that allows you to complain about paying to see historical sites on holiday! We’ve had an incredible last week, and seen and learnt about things that far exceed the value of some USD!

A final food note

Curry.

Our attention has certainly been concentrated on the sites in recent days, however one must always eat. Well.

Curry!

In Sigiriya, we were treated to amazing curry & rice three days in a row, mostly right next door to our guesthouse. New curry flavours were in abundance: winged bean, supersized white bean, banana flower, loofah, and pea eggplant, as well as notable okra, pumpkin and cabbage delights (among others). In order to get around liquor licensing issues, at one place we were curiously served beer in a teapot. As you do.

CURRY!

In Polonnaruwa, vege curries were multiple in our ring a ring a rosy dinner, but this was completely overshadowed by our guesthouse feast the next night: exquisite chicken, okra, potato, eggplant, and a new addiction…amberella.

Ring a ring a rosy…

Yes, it’s been a deliciously eventful few days for the MC-Dyers…

THAT curry!
Those fork shots; that amberella!

Meandering through Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is defined, really, by one thing: tea. It’s the crop that the British famously brought to Ceylon in the nineteenth century, when the country’s coffee crop failed, and it is probably the thing for which Sri Lanka remains most known for internationally today.

Hill Country’s cooler climate and rolling, rolling hills made it a perfect spot to introduce this non-native crop, and great swathes of the countryside were cleared in order to feed Britain’s insatiable appetite. I knew Sri Lanka had tea, but I guess I did not appreciate quite how extensively the distinctive plants carpet this part of the nation. Tea is everywhere; it dominates and defines the rhythm of local communities and economies. And it is achingly pretty, like a form of topiary on the grandest scale possible.

We made three stops in Hill Country, at places with quite distinct and different profiles: a backpacker favourite, a British colonial outpost, and the last place to fall under colonial rule, and thus a natural centre for pre-colonial Sri Lankan culture.

There are, in fact, loads of other spots that seem to be eminently stoppable. On our trips through the countryside, we saw lots of tourists who seemed to be DIY exploring all over the place, basing themselves wherever a town with accommodation and food options was available.

It is gorgeous countryside, and a really appealing thought to be able to wander amongst it fairly freely (probably sticking close-ish to the train tracks; there’s no real risk of being hit by a train and certainly no one is going to stop you).

Our first stop was backpacker vibes-ville, Ella, which looks at risk of jumping the shark into overdevelopment, but for now sits on the side of charming. Just. A fellow traveller we met in Nuwara Eliya, with Sri Lankan ancestry, laughed when she told us that locals have started going to Ella because they assume there’s something there they’ve missed, since so many foreigners are going there. There isn’t especially; it’s just got a nice feel with a few points of interest in the surrounds. The small town is hemmed in by hills at all angles so it can’t really not be visually appealing.

After resting on the first afternoon, it meant we only had one full day to explore these surrounds. We spent it doing a loop walk that took us through/beside tea plantations, up to Little Adam’s Peak (or peaks), down to the famous Nine Arches Bridge, and finishing with a pleasant stroll along the train tracks back to the very pretty Ella train station.

Lamby mercilessly lampoons tourists and their narcissistic Instagramming…

That’s essentially what Ella is for: strolling (or tuk-tuk-ing, if you must) out from town, into the hills to explore. Undeniably the place charmed us: its relaxed pace, its beauty, its mountain climate respite (we were wearing light jerseys by around 4pm, and it felt great!).

It will also always be the place where my mission to savour Sri Lanka’s culinary masterpiece, lamprais, began.

Our next stop was Nuwara Eliya, most well known as a colonial hill station. To its credit, this reasonably cute wee town has not gone down the road of turning itself into a patiche of Britishness, now that the Empire has well and truly left. I had feared that we might walk into a sea of Union Jacks and cucumber sandwiches.

What this does mean though, is that you need to look a little beyond the obvious symbols, like the old Post Office and other colonial era buildings, for signs of its history as a summer retreat for fancy people. This is very much a functioning town, as opposed to Ella, which centres solely on the tourist economy. So, here, tourists and locals alike are sharing the same space while going about their mutual activities.

On our first afternoon, for example, we strolled out from our guesthouse, turned into what we had been told was some kind of Sunday market fair, still going strong, which then merged into one of the more bustly markets we’ve been to so far. And how I love me a produce market: the piles of resplendent vege, the spices and grains, the noise, the smells, the wax and wane. This then led us out to what is/was obviously the old local part of town, possibly a Muslim quarter, where we found a Cargill’s grocery dating to the mid-1800s.

Wandering back down into the main town is where we collided with tourists, taking in the more picturesque aspects, like the Post Office, Victoria Park gardens and Lake Gregory. Inside the park there is also a little museum, containing a small but fascinating collection of mostly colonial era photographs (me being a huge photography fan, especially historical, I lapped it up).

Because NE acted as the base for our epic adventure up the real Adam’s Peak, and the recovery from, we didn’t do a whole lot else; again just enjoying the hilly ambience. Similar to elsewhere, it is the surrounding hills where points of interest lie (treks, waterfalls, etc.).

We had a couple of great in-house dinners, chatting with fellow travellers from UK, Australia and Germany. We feel much more versed in matters of the EU and Brexit as a result, and are really glad we’re living on the opposite side of the planet. Shit sounds messed up!

For those of you commenting about the absence of food, our second dinner was a fireside feast and one to be savoured: chicken, okra/lady finger, potato, soy meat, and watergrass curries + dal (watergrass is a quite dense leafy green).

Epic, epic meal, featuring spicy chicken, leek and cassava curries + dal

Also, immediately before and after the epic climb, we had delectable off-menu curry + rice at a place called Milano Restaurant, which wasn’t so well reviewed online. Thank God we took the waiter’s suggestion – no idea why it was ‘off-menu’ – because it was phenomenal and included, among other dishes, a nicely firey chicken curry, green bean curry (cooked with some kind of oily fish paste) and…..cassava curry. Oh yes. It was like coconut-based dal pureed into a completely smooth curry and then simmered forever with chunks of my beloved thick starchy carb. Heavenly.

There. Food. Otherwise, Instagram folks!

Our final stop was the city of Kandy, an ancient kingdom centre that managed to stave off both the Portuguese and Dutch, but that finally fell to the Brits at the start of the 1800s. It’s still in Hill Country, but is definitely en route back to sea level. Much hotter, although still pretty pleasant at night, the landscape nonetheless noticeably moves away from tea plantations and back to more tropical-looking flora.

It was probably our favourite stop of the three, combining pretty – another lakeside location hemmed in by hills – with a bustling and cosmopolitan feel and some must-see attractions.

We eased our way into this, starting off with a couple of meditative temples, a 175-year old Anglican church, and a stroll up to a giant seated Buddha who oversees the city. Hey gurrl.

We also strolled around the lake, which turned out to be manmade by order of the last Lankan king, and the immaculately maintained British garrison cemetery.

The young gardener showed us around, telling us all sorts of interesting stories about the people buried there: the woman who died of a broken heart, the man trampled by an elephant, the man who died when the roof of the restaurant he was eating in collapsed, the man who died when a cricket ball hit him in the head, the important people buried there – the members of the Cargill empire, the decorated army man who fought in Waterloo – and lots and lots of young people and babies/children. It paints a picture of pretty brutal, short lives in early colonial era Kandy.

On our final day, we hit the big guns. First up, the temple complex containing Buddha’s sacred tooth, which makes this the most venerated spot for Buddhists in the country (and a top pilgrimage spot for all Buddhists). We attended the morning puja (prayer), joining the throngs of locals and tourists.

By virtue of absent-minded line joining, we ended up in the queue to go into the actual shrine where the tooth is kept inside a Russian doll-like series of caskets (of course). By the time we made it to the front, the sheer number of devotees and the curious meant there was no way everyone was going to get inside. Instead, it appears a decision was made to allow everyone to just file passed the open golden door, taking in a glimpse and perhaps making a quick offering to the infamous shrine.

So we ended up spending a lot of time in the temple, but it was fascinating to watch the people coming to make offerings and chant. It was both serene and chaotic at the same time: a heaving mass yet so intensely personal, and very memorable.

Afterwards we explored the rest of the complex: other shrines, an interesting museum, an open-sidded audience hall, a three-level octagon rotunda the last king built to store religious texts and watch parades and processions, and the world’s only taxidermied elephant. Yup. The whole morning was a trip highlight for sure.

In the evening we went to a show of ‘traditional’ music and dance. There was acrobatics, fire walking, plate spinning, rice cultivation dances, and dragons. I suspect some of its content may well be a little more recently invented, rather than historically accurate, but it’s certainly made me interested in learning more, and it was very entertaining.

Foodwise, Kandy was a treat. At the Muslim Hotel, we took in kottu and these wondrous things called kabool, beef and veges freshly stir-fried with egg, fresh and hot and contained within a light as air pastry triangle.

Beef kabool

Day two I reacquainted myself with that South Indian wonder, dosa, and we went air-conditioned, white table cloths for a pork curry and rice feast.

On our final day, we tracked down lamprais recommended and fondly recalled by a Kiwi-Kandyan, and for dinner, I finally broke the Western drought, and lapped up a giant, fluffy sandwich stuffed with egg, cheese and wonderfully spicy onion sambal. We had spied them the day before, stopping in at the Empire Cafe for a chai; I’m glad we returned.

And that’s our Hill Country in a (yes, okay, long-winded) nutshell: a super enjoyable week-long meander through gorgeous surrounds and historic highs. Now onto the Ancient Centre…