The main attraction in Amritsar is the ‘golden temple’, the most sacred Sikh temple, which is housed inside the religion’s most important gurdwara (place of worship).
We arrived at our next destination on the last Thursday of November, the day that Americans everywhere celebrate thanksgiving. The problem is there aren’t many Americans (or even carnivorous humans) in Amritsar, so there would be no turkey for us this year! What we ended up doing was, however, still quite memorable.
The main attraction in Amritsar is the ‘golden temple’, the most sacred Sikh temple, which is housed inside the religion’s most important gurdwara (place of worship).
Many gurdwaras feature kitchens offering free food to visitors, and the golden temple does this on the grandest scale, feeding up to 100,000 people per day. At around 8pm we sat on the floor for a thanksgiving meal with a difference, eating vegetarian curries, rice and bread, all funded by donations and served by volunteers.
The temple itself, which we saw both at night and during the day, was quite impressive, although not knowing much about Sikhism meant that we didn’t really understand many of the rituals and ceremonies going on around us.
Our last stop in India was the national capital, Delhi. One of the oldest cities in the world and now one of the most populated, Delhi features lots of architectural attractions from various eras, but getting from one to the next requires long stints in horrendous traffic. Our favorites were Qutab Minar (a 73 metro high muslim structure build in the 12th century), Humayan’s tomb (which was built for a 16th century royal), India Gate (a centrally located war memorial) and Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque). We were less impressed with the overcrowded Red Fort.
We spent the rest of our time in Delhi’s richer neighborhoods, doing some important admin (including getting some extra pages into Cindy’s packed passport), shopping and splurging on some really nice (but relatively expensive) food. A lot of travelers we spoke to either skipped Delhi altogether or only spent a day or two there, but we were glad in the end that we allowed four full days to explore the city.
We just wanted to wish all our family, friends, and followers around the world a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. We will be spending both Christmas and NYE in Thailand.
Thanks to all of you who have been following our adventures this year…. It has been a BIG 2014 for us - visited 20 countries, 3 world wonders, and 1 world cup. Here are some recap photos from our 2014.
We saved India’s most famous attraction for our last week in the country. Most people know at least a little about the Taj Mahal and why the deserving wonder of the world was built. If you don’t know the story, you should look it up (somewhere else). In this post we just want to deal with two things. Firstly, we want to say that, yes, it is every bit as amazing as it is made out to be, and yes, if you haven’t been there you absolutely need to go.
We want to dedicate the rest of this post to those of you who haven’t been but want to, sharing our tips on how to make the most of the experience and get the best photos.
The Taj Mahal is the biggest attraction in a country that will within a decade be the most populous in the world. Predictably, then, it gets crowded, with 50,000 people moving through the place very day. Most visitors are Indians, who pay only 1.5% of the foreigner fee and seem to visit mostly in the afternoon when it is most crowded (we found Indians are generally used to, and not bothered by, crowds). Foreigners in the know who are eager to beat the crowds queue up to be among the first let in at sunrise.
With that in mind, we’d suggest you follow these steps:
We should mention that while in Agra we visited the other main attraction, the Agra fort. Having seen so many forts in Rajasthan, we weren’t particularly impressed with this one, and a comically bad audio guide only added frustration to the unremarkable experience. In fairness, though, the Taj Mahal was always going to be a tough act to follow, as it really is one of a kind. For that reason, we’ll save the rest of India, including Delhi and Amritsar, for our next post.
Jaisalmer is a small fort town in the heart of India’s Thar desert that dates back to the 12th century. The town itself is pretty close to the Pakistani border, but soon after arriving we traveled 30kms closer, through a few police checkpoints, to a secluded desert camp. From there, Cindy ticked off yet another item from her bucket list; riding camels over desert sand dunes. Cindy enjoyed the sunset ride so much that we came back for a second helping at sunrise (which, on account of the discomfort involved, Sam decided would be the last time he ever gets on a camel).
At night the desert camp put on an elaborate (and a little elongated) traditional Rajasthani dance and musical performance. Our fellow guests in the audience consisted of the British friends we mentioned in our previous post and two dozen curious locals. This made for an experience that felt quite genuine, although at times a little awkward (especially when we were being stared at or photographed). With a bit of humor, though, the four of us foreigners had a lot of fun.
As we drove back to Jaisalmer we got a sense of how it came to be known as India’s ‘golden city’. The sandstone fort city (the oldest living fort in the world) rises out of the desert and under the midday sun the fort, buildings and surrounding sand all have a distinct golden look. Inside the fort we toured the large city palace and a few beautiful Jain temples. However, what we enjoyed most was wandering through the busy streets, which are filled with restaurants, guesthouses and vendors (a point of difference in Rajasthan, since all the other forts are museums open only to day ticket holders). We found the best view of the fort, however, was from the rooftop restaurants and bars outside, where we enjoyed a few nice meals.
Our last night in Jaisalmer was the eve of Sam’s 30th birthday and, with the generous help of Sam’s family, we marked the occasion in style, staying at a beautiful boutique five star hotel within the grounds of its own desert fort. The staff at the hotel did all they could to make our one night of luxury memorable, offering us a free room upgrade, delivering a birthday cake at midnight and surprising us after our beautiful dinner with a room full of flowers and candles.
After a relaxing birthday morning and afternoon in five star luxury, we put our backpacks back on and boarded a very one star overnight bus to our next destination, Udaipur. The city, built around a beautiful lake, features several palaces and $1000+ per night hotels, and has regularly been chosen as an exotic film location, most famously in the Bond film Octopussy. Our accommodation was certainly not one of the more glamorous in town, but it was perfectly located and offered amazing lake views from both our room and the rooftop bar. The main attraction in town, the huge city palace that took us two hours to walk through, was just next door.
To get the best view of the city palace, and Udaipur generally, you need to get on the water. We chose the priciest option, leaving from the grounds of the city palace, circling the iconic Taj palace hotel in the middle of the lake, then stopping at another island palace (Jag Mandir) to take some nice pictures before returning to the city palace just after sunset.
While in Udaipur we visited most of the other tourist hotspots, including the beautiful (but less glamorous) Fatah Sagah and a popular museum built in an old Haveli (fancy word for mansion). We also talked our way into being allowed to have a drink at the most glamorous hotel we’ve ever seen, the Oberoi Ubervillas. We spent the rest of our time in Udaipur wandering through its many lane ways and eating at some really nice rooftop restaurants. Doing this, we found it easy to see how Udaipur has earned a reputation as India’s most romantic city (even easier when we tried to ignore the still omnipresent holy cows and their not so holy sh!t).
From Udaipur we headed north to Delhi and Agra. Many backpackers would have taken the 20-hour train ride, but we were more than happy to pay a premium to fly.
After a 16-hour ‘first class’ train ride from Khajuraho we arrived in Jaipur at 1am feeling pretty grotty and exhausted. Just as well we had decided to splurge on two nights in a reliably clean, comfortable room at an Ibis hotel.
Only a few hours later, we arrived at the nearby Amber fort, feeling refreshed and ready to tick off another of Cindy’s bucket list items; riding an elephant to a palace. The historic hilltop fort is known as THE place to do it, and even though we arrived half an hour before the fort opened there were a few busloads of people lining up ahead of us.
The ride was a lot of fun (despite the crowds and relentless spruikers), offering beautiful views of the palace, fort, lake, gardens and surrounding mountains. The huge palace at the top was just as impressive, although our guide’s thick accent meant we didn’t get the full benefit of his insight.
We spent the rest of the day in Jaipur’s historic walled Pink City. There, we visited the expansive (but we thought not otherwise impressive) City Palace and the beautiful Palace of the Winds, which was designed to allow women to see the outside world without themselves being seen (an architectural feature found in every Rajasthan palace we visited). We also walked through the Jantar Muntar, a well preserved collection of large-scale astrological instruments that were built by a Rajasthani king almost 300 years ago.
To get to our next stop, Jodhpur, we had booked an ‘express’ four-hour train leaving at 6am, this time sitting in third class (the best available at the time we booked). Indian trains, we had already learnt, are famous for being consistently late, and this time it meant we had to endure a further two an a half hours of locals’ most annoying habits (specifically, refusing to use any kind of deodorant, eating pungent food, having no respect for personal space, and, Cindy’s favorite, shamelessly and constantly staring).
Indian trains are also notorious for being difficult to book. In Khajuraho we had queued for half an hour to put our names on a waiting list for a train from Jodhpur to our next stop, Jaisalmer, and when we arrived in Jodhpur we spent almost an hour asking any rail work who would listen (in the end only two people) whether we had managed to get seats. By the time we finally arrived at our guest house, we had decided that we didn’t even want the train tickets any more (even if we could get them), so we were pleased when the owner was able to arrange a private taxi transfer for not much more than the train would have cost.
Eating lunch on the rooftop of our guesthouse, we got our first view of the spectacular Mehrangarh Fort above us. A poster advertising a zipline around the outer walls of the fort caught our eye and a couple of hours later were strapped in for a really memorable and, once we stopped worrying about how weird it was that we weren’t offered helmets, enjoyable experience. The sunset views of the fort and the sea of indigo painted buildings below (Jodhpur is known as ‘the blue city’) were particularly spectacular.
Joining us for the zipline were some friends we had met in Mumbai, bumped into on a plane the following day, and finally gotten to know when we by chance were placed on the same table at a Varanasi restaurant. We had a lot in common with these british boys; as well as following a similar path through India, they are also traveling for a year to many of the same countries and are blogging about their adventures. The stark difference is that both of the boys are deaf. Even so, they are still managing to see at least as much as us and are having at least as much fun. We’d highly recommend you check our their inspiring blog here: www.deafontravel.com.
The following day we went back to tour the inner part of the Mehrangarh Fort, aided by an excellent audio guide. We then wandered around the busy downtown bazaar and caught a tuk tuk out to the enormous and luxurious Umaid Bhawan Palace (getting as close as we could without paying $1,500 a night to stay at the palace hotel).
We then jumped in our luxurious (compared to the train) air conditioned private taxi to Jaisalmer. More on that in our next post.
We'd like to start this post with an apology to many of the countries we've visited earlier this year. At various times, we've made not particularly favorable comments about horrible traffic, worse drivers, false advertising, general dirtiness etc etc. It wasn't until we arrived in India generally, and Varanasi in particular, that we realized how relatively clean and tranquil central and South America is.
In some places, like Buenos Aires, it seemed like everywhere we looked we found a reason for us to come back in the future. In Varanasi, unfortunately, we only found compelling reasons to make our visit a one off. First up was the insane traffic (especially considering its moderate population), with constant car horns and drivers seemingly determined to mow you down. Then there was the assorted excrement (human, canine, bovine, feline, equine and simian) littering all of the alleyways and streets (the image that's most difficult to forget is that of an 8 year old girl taking a dump in the alleyway right outside our top rated guesthouse). Finally, and less concerning given the appetite suppressing nature of the place, was that we found it impossible to find decent non-vegetarian food in the old city (not to mention the fact it's illegal, but at least not impossible or even difficult, to get a drink). Hindus often like to have their bodies taken to Varanasi when they die, and the only way I'll ever go back is if I'm also in a box.
Anyway, many consider Varanasi to be a must-see destination, so we should talk about why. Varanasi is one of the three oldest continually inhabited cities in the world (the others being Delhi and Jerusalem) and has been considered the cultural capital of northern India for several thousand years. The central ‘old city’ of Varanasi sits on the side of the Ganga river, featuring a labyrinth of narrow winding lanes that tourists find impossible to navigate. Unfortunately, unlike Venice for example, getting lost in Varanasi’s laneways is not a particularly enjoyable experience (for the reasons mentioned above). Asking for directions is a bad idea because you’ll inevitably be led to the ‘guide’s’ overpriced silk store instead of your hotel.
The old city of Varanasi is the spiritual hub for Hindus and Jains, with worshipers flocking to the many crowded temples (often queuing for hours to enter the most important, ‘Golden’, temple), as well as the sacred Ganga river itself. Along the shore of the Ganga are a series of Ghats (stone stepped embankments), but two are particularly notable. Each evening at the main and oldest Ghat (called Dashashwamedh), a group of priests perform a fire worship dedicated to a number of Hindu deities. We rented a small boat to watch the sunset and subsequent performance (along with large numbers of tourists and locals).
The other notable Ghat is called Maikarnika, and is where many Hindus like to have their bodies cremated (they believe this will bring them salvation). At all hours (day or night) you can see about a dozen small fires with relatives watching on. Afterwards, bones are thrown in the Ganga (yes the same one that locals bathe in, wash their clothes in and use as the city’s only source of water).
Sunsets in India are often quite dim (much of the light and heat is lost when the sun hits the thick rim of smog, which can happen an hour before it would otherwise reach the horizon). As a result, we decided to rent a boat again during the day to get a better view of the old city, and would recommend others do the same.
Not far from the old town are a number of prominent Hindu temples. We visited the main three (the red temple, the monkey temple, and the Vishwanath temple), but to be honest we didn’t really enjoy any of them. We think Hindus should be commended for being able to have spiritually rewarding experiences in places so crowded and chaotic.
Much more enjoyable was our trip to the nearby town of Sarnath, the place where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma. While there, we visited the world’s oldest Stupa (a mound-like structure featuring Buddhist relics), the nicely presented Sarnath Archeological Museum and India’s tallest Buddha statue.
While touring the outskirts of Varanasi we also visited Ramnagar fort, which houses the most poorly kept museum we’ve ever seen. Layers of dust thicker than you’d find on the oldest cellared wines made it almost difficult to see many of the exhibits, and left us wondering where our 150 rupees per person entrance fee was being spent. Even worse than the museum was our drive to get there. Instead of finding an appropriate place to do a u-turn, our taxi driver decided to do a protracted three-point turn then drive across a very long and very busy bridge on the wrong side of the road. By some miracle, we avoided the rapidly approaching oncoming traffic and lived to tell the tale. I guess now we know what it’d be like to catch a ride home with a drunk teen pop star.
Our next destination, Khajuraho, was a much smaller and more peaceful town in the centre of northern India that is famous for hosting a series of Hindu temples. To get there, we had to catch what we thought was a direct Air India flight from Varanasi. What we got was a flight that took off an hour late, effectively flew over Khajuraho to make a stop in Agra, before taking off again and arriving two hours late. Hot tip for anyone looking to fly in India - in our experience the 'budget' carriers (IndiGo and SpiceJet) are significantly better than the supposedly full service airline (Air India, which served us a sugary juice box for lunch).
Before we travel to a new city we always research how far away our hotel is from the airport or bus/train station we're arriving at. This time our hotel wasn't much past the end of the runway so we knew it shouldn't cost us much to get there. Expecting a protracted negotiation process with a tuk tuk driver, we made sure that we left the terminal with our big backpacks on (so it was clear that we were ready to walk if need be). We were surprised to find someone from our hotel with a sign and our name on it. Turns out the guy had guessed we'd be on the plane and had come to make sure we made it to the hotel. Good service, right? He ushered us to his friend's car and it wasn't until we had our bags in the boot and were sitting in the backseat that the driver whispered under his breath, '300 rupees OK'. We immediately sprung out of the car and began to put our backpacks back on as a dozen cab drivers crowded around. After much fanfare and threatening to walk, we got the price down to a reasonable 100 rupees and were on our way.
Khajuraho's temples and their detailed engravings make a very strong first impression, and we particularly enjoyed wandering around the beautifully presented western group of temples and surrounding gardens. The real crowd pleasers, however, are some risqué scenes depicted in some of the engravings. We wont make you pretend you’re just reading this part of the blog for the articles, so will just say we were really impressed by the temples themselves, and move on to the pictures.
From Khajuraho we took a 16-hour train ride to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. We’ll have full details on our time in India’s land of Kings in our next post.
The first stop in our month-long stint in India was Kochi, the coastal capital of the south western state of Kerala. Top of the list for most tourists visiting Kochi is the nearby Kerala Backwaters, a network of rivers and lagoons, so that’s where we headed on our first full day. Many travelers hire a houseboat to spend a night anchored on the water, but for us an eight-hour day trip was more than enough. Our tour included, as small breaks from the pretty but relatively repetitive scenery, a couple of short stops to see how the locals make a living. We first visited a small factory that breaks down clam shells for all sorts of industrial uses (ranging from cement to pharmaceuticals), and later witnessed locals making rope from dried coconut fibers.
Kochi is known for its historic Fort, which played host to Portuguese, Dutch and British (in that order) traders during the 16th and 17th centuries, and now features lots of museums, hindu temples, christian churches and a famous jewish synagogue, each built during various stages of the Fort’s multicultural history. Despite the European influence, Fort Kochi is unmistakably Indian, with plenty of spice markets, local fishing nets and outdoor communal laundries (not to mention the cows and honking tuk tuks). We stayed close to the middle of the Fort, and could easily have walked to all of the attractions, but instead chose to take a tuk tuk, ensuring we wouldn’t get lost or get too sweaty wearing temple-compliant winter clothes in hot summer weather. We’d recommend the tuk tuk as a really good cheap option, so long as you’re prepared to say no when drivers insist on taking you to all sorts of small stores (a hefty commission, often as high as 50%, is where drivers really make their money).
Kathakali (which in the local language means story play) is a style of Indian dance-drama that originated in Kerala in the 17th century, so while we were in Kochi we attended a performance. The play we saw told an 18th century story of an evil woman who tries to seduce a prince. The actors train for 10 years to tell the story using exaggerated facial expressions and dance, so there is no need for tourists to understand the language (although an open mind is necessary in order to enjoy the show and keep a respectfully straight face). One of the key features of Kathakali is the elaborate make-up, so we arrived at the theater an hour early to watch the actors transform themselves on stage.
The next morning we left Kochi, taking a smooth three hour, one stop, flight to our next destination, Goa. The state of Goa features a beautiful stretch of beaches running for over 100 kilometers, with the airport in the middle. We were keen to choose one beach and stay put, but that meant doing a lot of research before making our choice. We ended up settling for Colva, a very pretty white sand beach in the south (where most of the nicer beaches are) that still offered a decent range of restaurants and bars (but not as many as some of the northern party beaches). We felt that Colva got the balance just right, particularly since we only had to walk 100 meters down the beach to get away from the crowds of locals.
Prior to Goa the only time we’d come across Russians in our travels was at the World Cup, but in Colva they were everywhere. The waiters all spoke Russian, the bars played exclusively Russian music and Sam (because of his white skin) would inevitably be given a Russian menu. This was certainly not expected, but I guess not too surprising since there aren’t many closer beach destinations for price conscious Russian tourists (which is a polite way of describing most of the people we came across, with many sneaking their own alcohol into restaurants and arguing about very reasonable food prices).
While in Colva we quickly settled into a nice routine. Each morning we walked to a chill beachfront shack to set ourselves up for the day on some sun loungers. Between swims we enjoyed very cheap kingfisher beers and tasty tandoori chicken with fresh garlic naan. At night, we kept going back to our hotel restaurant, which served some of the best Indian curries we’ve had anywhere. We could have happily stayed in Goa for a week, but after three full days we felt refreshed and, we thought, ready to take on the mad metropolis of Mumbai.
We didn’t feel so ready a few hours later, however, as our taxi crawled through horrific traffic, passing seemingly endless stretches of slums. At every traffic light, beggars knocked loudly on our windows as we wondered how long it would take us to get to the nice part of the city (where our well reviewed hotel must surely be located). We certainly hadn’t reached the nice area when we arrived at our hotel. Affordable accommodation is tough to come by in Mumbai, but we didn’t expect to be staying on top of rat infested restaurants in such a gloomy part of town.
In one of the most fortunate travel cock-ups we’ve come across, our hotel had lost our reservation, was booked out and needed to find another place for us to stay. After much negotiation, we ended up getting a free taxi to a much nicer (and usually three times more expensive) hotel located immediately behind the iconic Taj Mahal palace hotel (Mumbai’s number one attraction). After regrouping for a while in our room, we headed out for dinner at the nearby Leopold cafe, which is famous both for its relatively affordable food and for being one of the targets of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks (the major target was the Taj Mahal palace itself).
The following morning, we checked out the Gateway to India on the way to boarding a one-hour ferry to Elephanta island.
Between the 5th and 8th centuries, a series of impressive Buddhist and Hindu rock sculptures were cut inside three principal caves at the top of the island. The caves are still relatively well preserved despite several centuries of neglect, and the day trip was definitely worthwhile (just make sure you hold on to your belongings, because there are hordes of thieving monkeys on the island).
After a busy, hot, morning on the island, we were greeted by aggressive street vendors and beggars as we got off the boat. In need of some peace, quiet and air conditioning, we decided to indulge ourselves in a sugary taste of home inside the relative nirvana of the Taj Mahal Palace Starbucks. The real indulgence came later that afternoon, as we sat down for the famous all you can eat high tea at the Palace. The price of admission was not exactly backpacker friendly, but by treating it as our only meal for the day we managed to get very good value for money (especially when you take into account the quality of the view, the luxuriousness of the restaurant and the rarity of the view from our window seats).
Mumbai is known for having the best shopping in India, so for our last night we headed to its biggest mega mall, High Street Phoenix. We were mostly there for window shopping and people watching, but ended up each getting a pair of very Indian pants (allowing Sam to wear something other than hot jeans or a make-shift skirt on temple days). The following morning we were quite happy to be heading to the airport having seen enough of Mumbai to know that we won’t be in a hurry to come back.
Our first impression on boarding the train was not particularly favorable. We’d paid a significant premium to sit in a first class featuring air conditioning, meals and a special open air viewing platform. Instead we were placed in an old cabin with no open platform and a broken generator (so no air conditioning, and presumably no meals worth having). Luckily, after plenty of complaints, the generator unbroke itself and we settled in for a more comfortable seven hour scenic journey.
One of the top Sri Lankan experiences is to ride a slow train through the picturesque mountains from a small town called Ella to the cultural capital, Kandy. To to this, however, we had to get from Mirissa on the southern coast to Ella in the centre. As the bird flies, it wasn’t too far, but in the absence of any trains, our only option was to take winding roads full of mad drivers with a knack for creating unnecessary traffic jams. Having decided we didn't want to pay $200 for a private transfer, we elected to take a significantly more affordable tuk tuk, public bus, tuk tuk combination. The first leg was fine, but the second, four-hour leg, was pretty torturous. Prior to that day we’d only been on one bus that seats six people across, and that was an Airbus that was appropriately wide and had air conditioning. This time, even when the isle wasn’t overflowing with people (as it was most of the time), the lack of shoulder to shoulder space was extremely uncomfortable.
When we got off the bus, the worst part of the trip was supposed to be over, with just a scenic 27 kilometer tuk tuk ride up hill to Ella remaining. It didn’t quite pan out that way. About five minutes in the heavy rain started, as we discovered gaping holes in our tuk tuk’s canvas walls. After a further five minutes, we came across our first landslide. For the remaining 20 kilometers we encountered rocks (of varying sizes) on the road at least every hundred meters. Water was flooding across the road from temporary waterfalls and our tuk tuk driver was spending more time looking out for falling rocks than for oncoming traffic. About an hour later we breathed a sigh of relief as we made it to our hostel. Although we (particularly Cindy) had been really scared throughout the tuk tuk ride, it wasn’t until a couple of days later we realized just how dangerous the situation was, reading news that two hundred people were missing after a landslide had wiped out a nearby town.
That night we had a few calming beverages before sitting down for a delicious home-style Sri Lanka’s meal. We’d read great things about the ‘restaurant’ (you eat in the living area of the owner’s home) on tripadvisor, and our only disappointment was that we didn’t have time to attend the chef’s cooking school so we could reproduce the delicious experience back home.
The following morning we hiked up the nearby little Adam’s peak, getting a feel for the spectacular mountain views we’d be treated to on the train.
Kandy was historically the capital of Sri Lanka during the ancient kings’ era, and although it is no longer the political capital it is still known as the cultural heart of the country. The main attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth which, as the name suggests, is a temple housing a relic of Buddha’s tooth. A long held view that whoever holds the tooth relic holds the power to govern Sri Lanka means that the temple is one of the most guarded buildings in the country. In our experience, the temple is also one of the most crowded buildings, which unfortunately meant we didn’t particularly enjoy our visit there.
We were much more impressed by the golden/cave temple, located two hours further north in Dambulla. This temple, dating back before Christ, features over 150 Buddhist statues housed in one of five large caves built into a towering rock. After paying a hefty entry fee and climbing a couple of hundred stairs on a hot and humid day, dodging hungry monkeys along the way, we knew on first sight that the temple was worth the hike.
While in Dambulla we stayed at a secluded guest house that, although nice and clean, would not have been particularly memorable if not for its friendly owner, a chef who spent the last 14 years cooking at some of the finest five-star resorts in the Maldives. We savored his cooking at every opportunity, enjoying some of the best (and certainly the best value) food we’ve had anywhere.
From Dambulla we visited the nearby Sigiriya, a huge rock that by itself makes a strong first impression. Much more impressive, however, is that sixteen centuries ago, a king built a huge palace on top of the 200 meter high rock. When the seven wonders of the world were announced back in 2001, Sigiriya was very unlucky to miss out, and we personally think it is no less impressive than a couple of anointed wonders we’ve visited so far (the Macchu Picchu still being a cut above). The view from the top of the rock was stunning, and we really enjoyed wandering around the ruins of the palace and surrounds.
Our final stop in Sri Lanka was Trincomalee, a beautiful north eastern beach town that was off limits to tourists while the Tamil Tigers were causing problems. Nowadays the only barrier is that the town is relatively remote (for Sri Lanka), for us requiring a painful 3-hour crowded public bus ride (same experience as above) from Dambulla (the closest major town), followed by an 8-hour overnight bus back to Colombo.
Soon after the civil war ended, an abandoned 70s resort was brought back to life by an international hotel chain as a luxurious beachfront resort. Since we were coming out of peak season, we found a last minute deal that was irresistible, and when we were greeted at the beautiful resort with a free room upgrade we were sure we’d made the right decision. Luckily the rain stayed away for the duration of our time in Trinco (rare for this time of year), allowing us to spend most of our time on the beach or by the resort pool.
Our overnight bus back to Colombo left us alone on a dark street corner at 3:30 in the morning. Fortunately we were able to quickly find a tuk tuk and, even more fortunately, our friend from Colombo, Aneesha, was waiting in the middle of the night to invite us into her home for a few hours’ sleep. Later that morning, the three of us had a nice breakfast before we headed to the airport, ending our time in Sri Lanka.
When we first arrived in Colombo, we really didn’t know what to expect from the small island nation, but in the end we really enjoyed our time there. Leaving aside our transport frustrations, the country has a lot to offer, including plenty of beautiful temples, several postcard-worthy white sand beaches and an archeological treasure in Sigiriya.
Next stop; India.
Sri Lanka is a small country but it’s relatively difficult to get around. The easiest option is to hire a private car, but this is expensive, partly because cars in Sri Lanka are extremely expensive (we’re told a new car you might pay $50,000 for in the US can cost $300,000 in Sri Lanka, with tax accounting for the difference). Large air conditioned tourist-friendly buses and shuttles (ubiquitous in most other places we’ve visited) are rare, a sign that Sri Lanka’s tourist infrastructure is still a work in progress (which we can forgive since the country is still recovering from a 25-year civil war that only ended 5 years ago). For backpackers not willing to fork out for overpriced tour packages, this leaves a choice between packed public buses on congested roads and slow trains on an antiquated network. To get to our second destination, the historic southern city Galle, we took the latter.
After a mad dash we managed to get on the right train (trains aren’t labelled) and find some nice seats in second class. The ride itself was quite enjoyable, as the route followed the coastline for almost four hours, allowing us to see lots of pretty white sand beaches along the way. Getting off the train was just as chaotic as getting on, with the very friendly, but apparently very confused, fellow passengers unable to agree on where we should be getting off. The station we did get off at (not the right one, but close) had a 20-meter platform servicing a 200-meter train, so disembarking involved a dramatic backpack-laden leap into overgrown trackside foliage, much to the amusement of all except for us.
After 4 hours of sight-seeing in the chaotic capital city, we felt exhausted (the heat didn’t help). Luckily, the owner of our very 1-star hostel had a dodgy arrangement with the concierge of Mt Lavinia’s iconic very 5-star hotel that allowed us to spend the afternoon in and around a beautiful terrace pool, enjoying panoramic views of the surrounding beaches. The only catch was we needed to spend the equivalent of $10 each at the terrace restaurant/bar, which was a very small price of admission compared to the rate for the cheapest room in the hotel.
Our first stop on this second part of our gap year was Colombo, Sri Lanka. We weren't able to book flights until the last minute because we were waiting for our passports and Indian visas to arrive in the mail, so the only affordable flight available required us to endure a 10-hour layover (luckily at Kuala Lumpur’s beautiful new international terminal).
Having arrived 24 sleepless hours after we left, only to be greeted by the constant sound of car horns in a ridiculously long (for the distance traveled) transfer to our hotel, there was, admittedly, a moment or two where we questioned the wisdom of putting our backpacks back on. We were staying at Mount Lavinia, Colombo’s nicest beach, about 8km (or half an hour in light traffic) south of the city centre, and with the last of our energy reserves we wandered to a beachside bar to watch the sunset. Although the taste of the national beer (Lion) was questionable, the sunset was beautiful, and we went to bed in a much more positive frame of mind.
We had earmarked the following day for Colombo sightseeing, but felt too exhausted to do it ourselves, instead opting for the lazier option of booking a private tour. It turned out to be an inspired decision because the main attractions in Colombo are quite spread out and the self-guided option would have taken us twice the time and wouldn’t have been any cheaper. We visited a couple of buddhist temples, the Sri Lankan parliament, the president’s residence, the Galle Buck light house, the converted Dutch hospital, independence square and the floating market (among others). The highlight for Sam (not at all for Cindy) was getting into the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground, the headquarters of Sri Lankan cricket that has hosted plenty of international matches.
That afternoon we toured the Unesco recognized Galle Fort, which was built firstly by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later fortified by the Dutch. We really enjoyed touring the fort around the perimeter of the city, which offered a beautiful view of the surrounding ocean and beaches. The most enjoyable part, however, was getting stuck into our first truly Sri Lankan meal at a small family restaurant deep inside the old fortified city. The 10-curry smorgasbord was full of flavor, and incredible value at less than $10 for the two of us. On the way out of the Fort, Sam stopped to marvel at the beautifully located cricket stadium, which he’d seen plenty of times on TV back in Australia (as in Colombo, the significance was lost on Cindy).
The other reason we had travelled to the south of Sri Lanka was to see a couple of the country’s top beaches. The first, Unawatuna, was probably a much more beautiful beach a few years ago before increased tourist numbers resulted in the overcrowding that we experienced.
After a night at Unawatuna, we headed to the second beach, Mirissa, and this time were definitely not disappointed. Longer and less crowded than Unawatuna, Mirissa is densely lined with palm trees and features beautiful turquoise waters. It also features a peaceful, clean and modern guesthouse, where we stayed and enjoyed a memorable home cooked Sri Lankan dinner.
After Mirissa, we headed north to the mountains and cultural triangle. More details on that in our next blog.
We left El Salvador on their independence day, September 15th, two days shy of our third wedding anniversary. Since our honeymoon in Bora Bora we have made a point of doing something special for our anniversaries, spending the first two on snorkeling/beach holidays at the Great Barrier Reef and in Fiji. This year’s destination, South Beach in Miami was, for Australian art deco fan Sam, at least as exotic as the previous two, but Californian Cindy wasn’t as excited.
Sam sensed he had some ground to make up, so he threw out the backpacker rule book and reserved a room at the Gale, a beautifully refurbished 5-star art deco hotel in the heart of South Beach, and asked for a nice room to celebrate the anniversary. An upgrade to the best room in the hotel, together with a complimentary bottle of champagne to enjoy on our huge private outdoor patio, definitely helped! The many luxuries at the hotel, including the high thread count white sheets, Italian marble bathroom, huge flat screen TV, memorable pool deck, and included admission to a beach club, were all thoroughly enjoyed after months of largely basic accommodation.
Our first meal in a western country for 6 months was a delicious traditional pizza with Italian cheese and prosciutto. Our next meal was a homesick gringo’s wet dream, featuring a massive barbecue bacon cheese burger, crinkle cut fries, a chocolate malt shake and a bottomless lemonade, all from a boutique burger joint with a cult following. For our anniversary dinner, we treated ourselves to an indulgent three course meal at a highly rated French restaurant, accompanied by a nice French wine that we would have never found on the award winning wine list without the help of an incredibly knowledgeable sommelier. Perhaps the most memorable meal of all, though, was a cuban sandwich from a tiny cuban deli a few blocks back from the beach that is a favorite for locals (and tripadvisor junkies like us).
While in Miami we rented bikes to explore the wider South Beach area, and admired all of the finest art deco buildings by foot. We spent the rest of our time laying out at either the pool or the beach club, or enjoying our first stint of Stateside shopping for six months. All in all, we both (including Cindy) really enjoyed Miami. The fact that it offered a break from the chaos and unreliable customer service that we’d become used to was just a bonus.
After our anniversary, our initial plan was to head back to start our new life (and, hopefully, jobs) in California. For a whole bunch of reasons, we’ve decided to defer that until March next year. The most important of these reasons is that in May this year, Sam’s Dad (John), the Best Man at our wedding and the best man (little b, little m) either of us has ever known, was diagnosed with Metastatic Melanoma, a nasty cancer notable for its scarcity of happy endings. Since hearing the news while in Bolivia, we have been keeping tabs on the situation and honoring John’s wishes to continue traveling and sharing our adventures on this blog. In this time, John has gone through a course of chemo on one cutting edge drug (becoming one of the 10% of patients to show positive results), and has been accepted go on to another, more promising and even more cutting edge drug. Even with this good news, by September we were both anxious to get back and see the Johny John, so after short stints in Santa Barbara (a few days for Sam and a week longer for Cindy) to see Cindy’s family, we separately flew out to Australia’s Gold Coast (Sam with a not altogether inconvenient layover in Hawaii).
While on the Gold Coast, we spent lots of time with Sam’s parents and grandparents, celebrating his mum’s birthday (she’d prefer if we didn’t share the number) and Sam’s 30th (albeit a month early). The main event, however, was Sam’s Grandad’s 80th birthday (no problems sharing that number, as he’ll tell anyone who’ll listen). It was great to catch up with most of Sam’s family, and many close friends that may as well be family, at the party (the notable absentee being Sam’s very pregnant and very very disappointed sister, who was grounded on doctor’s orders). Grandad (and, equally, Gran) is our inspiration, having visited 88 countries, and he was still looking pretty nimble on the dance floor for his age (80, in case you didn’t catch it).
The other thing we spent a lot of time doing on the Gold Coast (apart from eating and drinking) was preparing for the next part of our traveling adventure… that's right, the adventure continues, this time in South East Asia! The plan is to spend three and a half months in Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam (maybe others if we can fit them in) before returning to Australia to spend more time with Sam’s parents, meet our new niece/nephew and attend the wedding of one of our closest friends (Sam as a groomsman).
We’ll keep our blog going, so please continue reading! If anyone has any ideas for places we should go to, things we should see, or affordable hotels/hostels we should stay at, please let us know.