Myanmar’s tourism highlights II: gliding on Inle Lake

I was not expecting to find myself smoking a cigar on Inle Lake, but there you go. When in Rome and all that. One of the last stops on our day trip, the cigar factory was a fascinating lesson in what goes into them (tobacco, obvs, but also spices, local honey, alcohol and so on) and how they’re wrapped in local cheroot leaf and fitted with a filter made from corn husk. All natural. And so, surprisingly, I found myself enjoying the distinctive taste of a star anise cigar.

The longboat tour is the quintessential Inle Lake experience. Yes it’s contrived: the stops at little lakeside industries, the ‘fishermen’ that we were later told only come to life as the boats float by, like some kind of tourist-operated animatronic, the floating market that is essentially complete gimmick (the real local markets take place in the villages that surround the lake). But, like most things in life, you take the good with the tack, and if you accept it for what it is, then it’s quite enjoyable.

Besides which, it does provide interesting insight into local cottage industries, such as the cigars, and also silver making process, weaving and making fabric from a silk-like residue from lotus stalks (who knew?).

In between these is when, floating around, you catch glimpses of daily life on the water: the wonderful array of produce grown on or basically in the water; the huge operations that collect seaweed used as a natural fertiliser*; the rhythms of daily life where houses are perched above a liquid earth and longboats are cars, buses and taxis, gliding through liquid roads.

The entire area has a rotating market that works on a shifting five-day schedule. People from local hill tribes, villages and towns come from all over to buy and sell goods and produce. The day before, it happened to be in Nyaung Shwe, the main tourist town, so we’d already had our fill of market action.

Thus, we skipped it entirely and siddled around to the village of Indein instead. Around the heavily touristed village lie a number of old (but not ancient) crumbling stupas; I don’t think we were quite expecting the numbers of stalls and restaurants and tour touts that greeted us.

No mind: the real reason to visit is the 1,054 stupas (in better condition) that sit at the top of a hill. Beyond that, a slightly hidden track leads to a further stupa from where you are afforded magnificent views of the lush countryside. Local kids will probably show you while simultaneously asking for money; otherwise you just scrub around. The stupas are also fascinating, with many now renovated using donations from refugees/migrants who emigrated overseas and did well.

The standard day trip also includes another couple of important stops.

History seeps out of the dark wooden walls of the ‘jumping cat’ monastery. There are no longer jumping cats though, with our feline friends these days preferring to lie around rather than perform the tricks of their better trained predecessors! It has a stunning collection of ancient wooden Buddhas in the main shrine, in different styles (Shan, Tibetan, etc.), which make a delightful break from the usual gold covered images.

Speaking of gold, the Phaung Daw Oo temple is the holiest in the region, because it houses five ancient Buddha images that have been transformed into amorphous golden blobs due to the sheer amount of gold leaf applied to them by devotees. We didn’t know this beforehand, but could tell by the size and embellishments of the temple they were housed in, combined with the number of people taking selfies with them, that these strange looking blobs were clearly significant and sacred.

The Inle experience is complemented by its surrounds – the temple-topped hills that dot the landscape, temple caves, the lush, rice paddy-infused countryside – so we grabbed bicycles and spent a day tutuing about. It was so quiet, and peaceful, and empty, it felt like cycling around rural New Zealand at the height of summer. It was a lovely way to spend a day in the freedom of countryside and warm breeze.

Spectacular sights aside, Inle will always have a further special place in the memory banks, as gastronomic rehabilitator. While the temples at Bagan were unquestionably a highlight, gastronomically speaking it was not unlike its surrounds: sparse and arid; a bit of a desert. Combined with a bit hit-or-miss eating at our previous two stops and I was starting to fear that Myanmar was going to disappoint in the all important eating stakes.

Thankfully, Inle delivered in spades.

We spent the four nights eating at only two restaurants: Indian food that made us feel like we were back in India (hallelujah!) and a Shan eatery that was gobsmackingly good. Thinking about sticky noodles infused with peanut, multiple textural salad delights, tasty local vege dishes and super tasty fish has me salivating at the memory.

Our two lunches in and around the lake were also great. At the whim of a commission-linked boat driver, I had reservations, but he took us to a delightful restaurant set over the water. Local lake fish curry, vibrantly red, with fermented bean fried rice and watergrass and oyster more than hit the spot. Our cycling tour, meanwhile, took us to a wonderful little place, set amongst lush countryside, and brought us yet more super delicious fish and crazily imaginative ginger and carrot salads. Cooks here are the masters of salads!

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

Thankfully, all was super simple. The guide books that tell you there’s no direct transport are now out of date. We were able to book our OK express minibus direct from Bagan to Nyaungshwe through our guesthouse; as I explained elsewhere, there were other options too. It dropped us directly to our new guesthouse, the wonderful and recommended Aquarius Inn (if you were staying out of town, though, then you’d have to taxi from the local bus stand).

The good folk at Aquarius then booked our onward day bus to Yangon, which included a pick up from the Inn. Easy.

The Inn also had a boat tour, for which we paid 9,000 kyat per person (there were four of us) for the whole day. Easy.

For cycling, we simply wandered up to town and found some sturdy looking mountain bikes for around 5,000 kyat (8,000 in high season, from memory). Too easy. Spot the theme?

The only bung note came when we went to cross the lake with our bikes (the recommended cycle route takes you down one side of the lake, you boat across, and return up the other side). There was another couple there, and for the pleasure we were charged 6,000 kyat per person (a helpful local had told us it should be 8,000 for the entire boat!). Compare that to the price for an entire day trip, and you see how much the men, who are otherwise simply lying around rather than working, have got the poor tourists over a barrel.

Unfortunately, we had a tyre puncture so had little choice but to return to home base, but for sure, if this hadn’t been the case, I simply would have cycled back to town and then out the other side. The whole area is not that big, is flat, and the cycling is by no means punishing. At all.

(* We were told that, five years ago, the region initiated a collective effort to rid the area of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. I couldn’t find information online about this, although signs around town support the claim. It is important to note that there are dire concerns about the future of the lake, and especially the very real negative impacts that the tourism explosion has had.)

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..

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…

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!

Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 1: Eating

Of course I would start here! Welcome to my four-part attempt to sum up our month in Sri Lanka, providing information and anecdotes across four themes: food, buses, trains, and a general tips and tricks conclusion. It’s my attempt to put out there, into the internet ether, some practical – hopefully entertaining – information for people who may be considering a visit (and you really, really should).

For those who know me, or follow my Instagram, it’ll be no surprise that food would be topic numero uno. Eating and food is not a prime motivation of travel, it is the prime motivation! Maybe that is overstating it just a bit, but, for me, one of the biggest attractions of starting in Sri Lanka and working our way back across to Singapore/Hong Kong was the knowledge of how many glorious cuisines that path would cover.

Additionally, the ‘things to see’ – the monuments, landscapes, historical features, and so on – are all written down in guides, explained in detail; sniffing out that most basic of human needs – sustenance – is one of the great unknown joys (mostly joys) of every day on the road. For me, anyway.

In saying this, I’ve mulled over this post for quite a while. I’m a Sri Lankan cuisine convert for sure, and definitely not someone who sees it as some island offshoot of the complex motherland. Of course there are similarities to India, but a cuisine is also about how food is enacted, how it functions and the role it plays in daily patterns and social life. And here, Sri Lankan cuisine had me sold.

I could rhapsodise on and on, but, I feel, I would only be rhapsodising endlessly about what are variations on common themes. So, instead of some kind of blow-by-blow account – I’ll leave that to moments of personal remembering (there’ll be many) – I offer instead reflections on what I consider the key culinary components I picked up from this most wondrous adventure.

Eating in vs. eating out

Lonely Planet makes the observation that, completely at-odds to other Asian nations, there is not (yet) a great culture of eating out in Sri Lanka. Therefore, eating in at your guesthouse is often your best bet.

I don’t know that this observation holds as true as it implies. It is true that we found more limited options right across the country, but we never had any trouble finding local eateries serving locals eating. True, they did seem to close early – one stark difference between Sri Lanka and India is the calm quiet of most places post-about-9pm – but we’re not Argentinians or fancy Europeans who eat at 10pm. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

However, in saying this, I’m all for eating in, especially when this means being served ‘mother’s cooking’, and mother’s cooking is always best (we all know that). Some of our best meals were unquestionably in-house.

Breakfast

Ahh, the most important meal of the day!

We swung between self-catering oats with milk and bananas (sometimes you need a kind of reassuring familiarity and routine), and eating local breakfasts in-house.

Sri Lankan breakfasts, with similarities to their South Indian counterparts, are culinary marvels. Our sugar-ladden cereal fixation needs a serious overhaul! Simple, yet endlessly varied (each cook has their own recipes, remember), it consists of dal, coconut (pol) sambal, and some kind of rice and/or coconut-based bread to mop it all up (roti, dosa, idly, etc.).

Served with tea, sometimes coffee, and often fruit (pineapple, banana and watermelon being most common), it’s a delicious set up, and always saw us through to lunch. Even better was when it came with pani pol, a pancake stuffed with coconut and jaggery (a darkly delicious unrefined sugar). My heart always slightly sank when we were served an omelette and toast-based Western breakfast, however nice it may have been.

The one great unique component is the hopper, a rice & coconut-based pancake but cooked in hopper pans to make them like little cups of heaven. They come in egg version, with a joyous golden egg at its centre, and also the string hopper, less cup like, but a round mound of squidgy noodles. However they come, they’re a perfect addition.

Drinks

Tea is phenomenal, of course. Drink it white, drink it black, sweetened and not; drink pots and pots of it. I’ve been a tea + milk drinker my whole life, but I came to really enjoy black tea.

Coffee was a bit of a different story. We didn’t find a single worthy café-style coffee anywhere in the country although, admittedly, I barely bothered looking and just adapted to local options, to avoid inevitable disappointment.

I almost gave up on Ceylon coffee too, after my own aborted attempt at making a cuppa in Sigiriya. However, our last two places served us pots of the stuff, and it was magic; lusciously dark, with a deep flavour all of its own, and made just that bit more wonderful with milk and sugar.

We didn’t drink a lot of alcohol, but the local Lion beer really hit the spot when served chilled in a chilled glass. The local spirit arrak, with notes of whisky smokiness, is also worth trying and rather cheap from alcohol stores (about NZD16 bucks a bottle).

Soda water was available everywhere and became our go to over sugary or chemically-enhanced soda. In saying that, the local Elephant House ginger beer, so much more gingery than our stuff (same goes for the gingernuts; get into them), was enjoyed quite a few times.

Woodapple, fresh and juiced.

Otherwise juices and lassis are the way to go. Mango, pineapple, watermelon, lime, even carrot and lime, were all wonderfully alive. The pick of the bunch for me was definitely woodapple. I described it elsewhere as apple with a tart, tamarind edge. A second, fresh, glass, had me thinking it was almost sherry/port-like. How fancy. The fresh experience I described here.

Bakeries and ‘short eats’

These are the heart of Sri Lankan snacking. These people know how to snack.

We didn’t consume a lot of baked goods, partly because same-same-but-different, but also, I have to confess, partly because of snobbery about the quality of baking from countries without a rich bounty of a available dairy. In fairness to me, this is also based on a lot of disappointment on previous travels (and see my point above about coffee).

However bakeries are everywhere and doing a roaring trade. What we tried was carbrageously yummy. There’s evidently a strong baking tradition on the island. Colonial period? I did particularly enjoy a couple of lump cakes. I couldn’t find anything about them online, but I suspect they came from a drop cake-like recipe flavoured with jaggery, given the vaguely coconut-sweet flavour (and the colour!)

Lump cake!

But short eats is where it’s at for me. A delicious, delectable range of small fried snacks, often centred around vege curry contained in some kind of moorish wrapping. From egg and potato curry samosas, with a heavenly crumbed coating, to vege curry roti parcels, savoury doughnuts and fried lentil discs (vadai), these glorious morsels are available literally everywhere. We mostly ate these in and around our transport journeys and at some historical sites, and they were uniformly delicious and comforting, even cold and clearly the end-of-day stragglers.

Short eats 4EVAH

One thing though: if you are served a plate of short eats, don’t panic, and don’t assume it’s a challenge. You’ll pay for only what you consume. Apparently it’s common practice in some parts/places. It happened to us once, and we overate; not that we regretted it, not one little bit! But don’t feel obliged to be so greedily grateful.

The many faces of Kottu…

Kottu and Lamprais: the indigenous masterpieces

Kottu I’d seen on TV; lamprais I read about just before we came. Kottu is ubiquitous; lamprais is sadly far less common.

Kottu is genius. Roti or string-hopper, chopped and turned into ribbons of carblisciousness, cooked on the hotplate with your choice(s) of meat/vege/egg/cheese, and served with a curry gravy for you to do the dousing. It’s street food mixed with comfort food mixed with a use-everything imperative.

It’s utterly delicious, and I rarely failed to inhale the entire plateful, even when I thought I couldn’t possibly indulge the pile put before me. That familiar clack-clack-clack sound, of knife on hotplate, which followed us across the land, has now entered the banks of sounds that makes me feel instantly hungry.

If I were to try and hazard an intelligent guess, I would say that the rice and curry ‘packets’, served up across the land as takeaway lunch on-the-go for busy types, may well have their origin in a dish like lamprais.

Foolishly (colonially, even) thinking that it was simply a reverse Anglicisation of its English name, lump rice, lamprais actually evolved during the Dutch colonial period and takes its name from lomprijst (“packet of food”). In its original form, it featured a three-meat curry, ash plantain curry, eggplant curry, a frikkadel (meatball), fish paste, maybe a fried whole-boiled egg, and specially prepared rice, baked and served encased in banana leaf. Sublime.

Evidently, at least the three times we tried it, lamprais has undergone some evolution, although there is evidently still some kudos to be gained from maintaining some allegiance to the original. I was happy, more than happy, to have it any way it was coming to me. I just wish I could have had it more often. There are some similarities, in its evolved form, to the truly ubiquitous rice and curry, but nothing beats an all-in-one meal cooked in banana leaf. The gentle flavour imparted by the encasing is utterly unique, as any tropical islanders or cultures with similar dishes would attest.

Lamprais, arrack cocktail, and fruit; heaven.

Curry and rice/rice and curry

And that brings us to the truly national dish, the bland-sounding but infinitely surprising rice and curry. I was a little bit skeptical at first, if I’m honest, but I was quickly won over. Now I could be said to be evangelical!

The genius of rice and curry is that you just order it. There is no thinking and barely any decisions required. It would either arrive, a collection of whatever the day’s curries were, or, if a so-called buffet, you needed to choose which rice, meat (if you were having), and then vege curries you wanted; a bit like those awful Chinese fill-your-own takeaways of yesteryear, which is an awful comparison, but you get the idea.

And what you get is always a surprise and anything other than generic. Firstly, of course, every cook has their own recipes, their own masalas and spice mixtures. No two chicken curries, or bean curries, or even dals for that matter, were ever the same.

Most of all, it felt that, with each curry & rice I ate, I added more new tastes, more new vegetables and dishes to my palate; curries that I probably wouldn’t have ordered on their own. I’m talking about vegetables like loofah, banana flower, jackfruit, leek/spring onion, amberella, cabbage, winged bean, bitter gourd, plantain banana, and baby aubergine, as well as ones more familiar, like cassava, potato, pumpkin and beans.

I was never any less that completely satisfied with rice and curry. It provided endless variety and tastes and, to me, builds in an inspired flexibility that responds to, well, whatever there is to hand, whatever is in season; and that is the real essence of an ingenious cook.

Just finally, there are a few things I picked up that I would describe as key differences between Sri Lanka and India (although, rightfully, India’s cuisine is really cuisines). Firstly, the curries are singular and ubiquitous, similar to curries in Fiji. We did come across dishes like Jaffna-style, and I’m sure there are regional differences, but it was essentially chicken curry, or pork curry, or fish curry, etc. There weren’t kormas and vindaloos and so on.

A lot of coconuts are used throughout the cuisine, similar to what we saw in South India, but seemingly more so. Coconut in dal is a dream. We also found a lot of dishes had a pronounced use of pepper, which was a lovely surprise, and unexpected.

Completely unsurprisingly, there is a lot of seafood here. What was more surprising was the use of dried fish. It appeared as a background (or more pronounced) note in curries, and is a key ingredient in the utterly addictive lunu miris, a chilli condiment with a base of roasted chilli, dried fish, fried onion, salt and lime juice pounded into the most gorgeous dry paste.

I’m sure there’s much more to Sri Lankan food and cuisine, but this hopefully gives you enough of an idea to realise Sri Lankan cuisine can certainly be considered distinct and unique. I look forward to learning, cooking and eating more when we return home.

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!