Happy Thanksgiving, fellow Americans! Though I am missing the pumpkin pie, festive turkey decorations, and boozy post-feast food coma with my family, I am THANKFUL for the stellar weather and to have Marc and Stella here with me.
This year Thanksgiving falls a few weeks after Diwali, India’s famous Festival of Lights. Instead of sticking around for the fireworks, we went south to check out Sri Lanka. If I had to sum up the trip in five buzzwords, it would be: “beaches”, “food”, “Buddhism”, “hospitality”, and “infrastructure”.
Our trip was short, only five days, and after reflecting on the amount of time we spent traveling here and there to our sightseeing stops, I think I could have planned it a little better. I would caution the ambitious traveler that the island is bigger than it looks on the map, and maybe it would be a good idea to pick a half or a quarter of the island on which to concentrate if intending to stay in one hotel the entire time.
We used a small family-owned hotel in the southwestern coastal town of Hikkaduwa called Villa Birdlake as the base for all our excursions. The shower water pressure was awful but that is my only criticism for the place. The room was appointed with traditional furniture and had a lovely balcony with a view of the lake. The staff were very warm and attentive, and the restaurant, well...honestly, I don’t know why it wasn’t full at all hours because the Sri Lankan food we had there, both breakfast and dinner, was AMAZING. Apparently their cook has been with the family for over thirty years.
Since our hotel was in the south, we started our sightseeing there. With the help of Jagath, our friendly rickshaw driver and tour guide, we tuk-tuk-ed along the scenic coast to the fort city of Galle, where we explored the old Dutch and British sections of the city and walked to the lighthouse, which sits on a pretty stretch of pebbled coastline. We had a delicious lunch of local seafood at Elita, located just feet away from the lighthouse, and took a stroll through the old city to check out the art shops and boutiques that dot the cobblestone streets. The next day we continued our rickshaw-ing for a tour at Handunugoda Tea Estate. It was a beautiful departure from the commercialized feeling of the tourist-trap “spice gardens” which line the regional roads, and the staff told us about not only the tea varieties but also the additional trees and flowers on the estate. We also got a peek at the processing facility where they are using equipment that has been running reliably for over 100 years!
On the way back we stopped at Unawatuna to take some pictures and dip our toes in the ocean. It’s one of the south’s most beautiful beaches, though I doubt Sri Lanka could possess an ugly one. I could have shipwrecked for at least a month with no complaints and I hope to return when the weather is more favorable (we had variable rain and clouds).
Our third and fourth days were swallowed in both transit and sightseeing in the middle of the island. For the six-hour drive, we set out in a much larger vehicle at 5am and headed north to Sigiriya Rock Temple. Our "tour guide" stopped 4 hours into the trip for breakfast at one of the most uninspiring, commercial spots on the highway, and we had a mediocre buffet breakfast surrounded by travel-package tourists, the type with fanny packs and camera-adorned necks -- it was a foreboding indicator of all future stops to come...
We arrived at Sigiriya Rock Temple where we were disappointed to learn that our "tour guide" was actually a driver and that we'd basically be on our own when it came to the sightseeing. We hired a tour guide at the temple for $15.00, and set out with him for the 1200 steps to the top of the rock. He told us a bunch of interesting information about the construction of the temple, the artwork in the caves, and the history around the area without getting out of breath, an impressive feat in the heat that climbing as steadily as we were. If you're considering coming here, I would suggest arriving early in the morning; there's a decent amount of effort required and it does get quite hot.
Our excursion to the rock temple ended around tea time, and after so much driving we were ready to find a hotel for the night and relax. We chose Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, a resort about 15 minutes from Sigiriya, which ended up having a fantastic spa, great food, and an absolutely beautiful pool. We planned to head out to to see the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, The Golden Temple, and the caves at Dambulla the following morning.
After being properly caffeinated (the hotel also had great coffee) we set off, and a few hours later found ourselves at an unimpressive "spice garden" which was set on a road that had at least ten other ones just like it, another awful stop by our driver. A bored "guide" walked us through the garden showing us sad looking plants we'd seen a million times before, and then took us to an area where we could conveniently buy products made from those plants...I picked a little moisturizing cream up in a small, unassuming plastic tub because I had run out of mine, and he wrote up the bill. He sneakily left off the decimals and zeros and was quick to take my card. Suspicious, I stopped him before he ran the charge to confirm the amount, and only then discovered that the "18600 rupees only" bill (thought is was Rs. 186.00, about $3.00) was actually 18,600 rupees...well over $150.00. I was floored at how obvious they were about to scam me, and we made a bee line for the van before I could explode and spit vitriol at them for taking advantage of people like that.
A short time later, we were at the caves at Dambulla. Another 300-ish step climb led to several rooms tucked into a mountain filled with Buddha statues and a beautiful cliff face that gave sweeping views of the mountains in the distance. We didn't hire a guide, as we had been smart enough to take our Lonely Plant - Sri Lanka book with us, and tried to eavesdrop on the tours in-progress, which were being given in Spanish and French...
Our next stop was Kandy, a sweet town perfect for a weekend, but first we needed lunch. The driver pulled into a restaurant, a white, sterile-looking building with absolutely no character and at least large 6 tour busses parked in a lot. I had finally had it with him and told him to put the car in park while I looked for an actual restaurant. I headed to Trip Advisor to do recon, and we ended up at the Honey Pot, a cute little restaurant on the river with great Sri Lankan food and a nice view.
Regarding Kandy, there are a bunch of interesting things to do and I wish we had planned two days around it. Shopping, a beautiful botanical garden, temples, the lake, theaters. Unfortunately that was not the plan. Instead we spent two hours at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (without a guide, which was a mistake) before it started to pour, extinguishing our plans to stop at both the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and the botanical garden -- such a shame. Our driver didn't have any alternative ideas, and truthfully I wasn't sure I wanted to press him for such, so we started the long drive back to Hikkaduwa,
Back at our hotel, we had one more night of amazing Sri Lankan food followed by some reading and a restful night's snooze under the mosquito net with the sounds of pouring rain in the jungle. We woke up to the smell of a delicious traditional breakfast of egg curry, red string hoppers, and coconut sambal, and enjoyed one more morning chat with our hosts and a nuzzle with their resident mutt, Brownie, before saying our goodbyes and setting off for the journey home. It was a good vacation, in a warm country, and I hope to return sometime to soak more of it in.
It's hard to describe the feeling of reaching the highest lookout of an Indian fort and seeing the landscape spread out below. There’s something about being a little sleep-deprived from waking up well before dawn to drive there, the exhaustion of having just climbed to the top, the cool morning air, the knowledge that you're in a place with almost 400 years of history, and being surrounded by the natural beauty of the area that makes for a surreal experience. I wish I could capture it in this blog post or with my camera lens, but I can’t, so you’ll have to do it yourself and see what I mean.
This week I visited Lohgarh Fort, about an hour and a half away from Pune, and it ended up being the perfect day trip: it wasn’t so far that I got antsy from the drive, the roads were in great shape, trekking at the fort was easy enough that anyone could do it, and there was a great restaurant in the area where I was able to freshen up (clean bathrooms!) and chow down on some delicious food before heading back to the city...
The fort itself is well maintained and the climb to the top is made less difficult due to the newly laid (and LEVEL) stone steps; the installation is still in progress but looks to be almost complete. There are food stalls and monkeys at the base and through the lower portion of the climb so if you take food, just know that they’re hanging around. I didn’t see any bathrooms in the immediate area, but I wasn’t looking for them either.
The fort structures are massive and still have a lot of old intact architectural features: several giant wooden doors with anti-elephant spikes, embellished stone carvings which decorate thruways, and cannons, which seems to be a bit strewn about but there nonetheless. When you reach the top, the fort opens up to a giant plateau, which is covered with beautiful, tall grass that sways in the strong breeze which passes over. There are lots of footpaths that meander this way and that, pass some small temples, many vantage points of the valley below, and eventually lead onward toward the "Scorpion's Tail" (pictured at the bottom), a peak that seems to go on forever. I didn’t have time to walk all the way so I don’t know how long it would take, but I hope to go back and attempt it. It looks like a great place for pictures, a picnic, and a snooze. There are also several water wells, most of which are so clean (still!) that they are crystal clear and host a variety of frogs, fish, tadpoles, and freshwater crabs. If I were adventurous enough, I might wager that swimming in the big one (seen below) could be quite a bit of fun!
One thing I didn't see at this fort which was a nice contrast to the others I've visited is trash. With the exception of a stray wrapper here and there, Lohgarh seems to be taking care of itself rather well. It really goes a long way in ensuring that visitors can admire the surroundings in the natural, majestic state they're meant to be.
To reach there from Pune is easy. Google Maps gave me directions that would have ended up being much longer so I’ll save you the trouble by shortening it. Take Google Maps directions to Karla Caves and before you make the right turn to go the caves, make a left, as if you were to go to Bhaja Caves. You can ask directions from the locals about how to get to the base of the fort from there since it's only about 10 minutes from the main highway. The road is quite straightforward –it's small but in great shape, and goes through a little village then off to a bunch of tight switchbacks and steep inclines until reaching the entrance on the right, which you'll know by the food stalls which line the pathway. The road offers a few good photo ops: a waterfall, a vista, and the beautiful mountains in the background.
On the way home I highly suggest stopping at Sunny Da Dhaba on the Old Mumbai-Pune Expressway. It's on the right side if you're going in the direction of Pune so you'll have to make a u-turn to reach it, but there are big signs for it. They have a full bar, hookah service, attentive waitstaff, tidy tables, and a big menu of northern Indian dishes. The serving sizes are generous (I placed one order of kebabs and it would have been enough for two) and they make a really nice masala buttermilk if you fancy it.