Travel

Sri Lanka for beginners – 1

We were supposed to land in Colombo at 11am, but were delayed for some reason, perhaps crosswinds, or maybe air traffic control coming out of Bangkok. Either way, we were slightly late to meet our driver. I desperately needed to use the bathroom and happily used the squat toilet- the very first I’ve used with a flush!

Immigration was easy enough and we stood patiently in line as a family of Russians barged through, with a small child and a green plastic bag of clothes. We paid for our visa online, so as we waited to be processed we made small talk with the Immigration officer, who had a warm smile and taught us that ‘Ayobowan’ means a lot of things, generally in the ballpark of a greeting. Snidely made nice with a woman in our row on the plane and she came up to him desperately seeking help. She spoke only Thai with not a skerrick of English, and she was trying to call for a taxi through a man who only spoke Sinhalese. I don’t know how he managed to get to the bottom of it, but through some patchy translation app and wild hand gestures, Snidely figured it out and managed to help the lady.

The drive from Colombo to Kandy is long and windy. We passed villages along the way; a strip of storefronts became peppered with derelict building projects which thinned out onto stalls covered in king coconuts and finally the landscape opened up to reveal rice paddies. Sri Lanka is so green. The humidity encourages all the plants to grow and grow and they become overgrown and muddy as the palm fronds along the main road collect dust.

The traffic is ordered chaos. Buses screech to a halt, pick up one or two saronged people  and start with a cough and a splutter of diesel. Cars navigate this at a reasonable speed and always remain in a state of overtaking, so that when they get a clear shot, they speed up and swerve in front. Add tuktuks to the mix, bleeping and coming up on the inside, you get all the threads necessary for a braid, decorating the countryside.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant that put on Western pop songs, just for us. Their menu boasted submarines and steak and fries, but we were mostly interested in trying some Sri Lankan cuisine. We had rice and curry, dhal, eggplant, potatoes, an array of delicious sides and fresh rice, and prayed that we would not get sick. Although the saying goes that hunger makes the best sauce, I disagree- Sri Lankan chicken curry is pretty good too.

Our driver recommended a few stops on the way to our hotel in Kandy. Snidely and I were yearning for a unique and authentic experience that shows ‘the real Sri Lanka’, but I guess all tourists are after that as well. We chose not to ride the elephants, or smell the herbs and spices factory, or see the silk factory. We elected to wander Kandy so onward we went.

Kandy is loud. Kandy is a mess of everflowing cars and trucks and tuktuks and this is the single most intimidating thing about Kandy. The street vendors are particularly intimidating too. Like hungry hyenas they encircle and follow you, with a handful of fridge magnets or popcorn.

The streets are a mixture of dusty shopfronts, secret alleyways and colonial architecture. There’s not a lot to lure a tourist, and yet foreigners are called and waved inside (for a toaster or a wedding photography package or something?).

We agreed to a cultural dance in the evening. Only an hour of sitting in a hall that was filled with seats and busloads of us. The performers showcased dances from the local surrounds, some representing demons, others representing peacocks. The program outlined that many of these dances were traditionally performed at festivals or in rural settings. Bright, colourful acrobatics, the tinkle of ankle rings, shells and the twang of drums. We skipped the firedancing, however. We didn’t want to watch a spectacle put on just for us.

Our driver took us to see the Buddha’s Tooth Relic. This Buddhist temple sits beside the lake and is much more peaceful in the cool of the evening without the blare of traffic. We followed pilgrims through decorated tunnels, around pagodas of incense and up the stairs to the relic. There’s a half hour wait on the queue to see the casket that holds the relic (noone can see the relic itself, or as legend goes, the alleged relic). Monks from overseas stood in line, pilgrims sat all in white on the floor and prayed, others brought in jasmine and lotus blossoms as tribute. There was a lot of hustle and bustle to see the casket through three doors, so we chose to pay our respects and move on.

The bed and breakfast we stayed in was lovely. Out of the city, up on a hill, we had a panoramic view of the city lights. After such a long day, we collapsed. A beautiful hot shower and a soft mattress sent me right to sleep.

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Somerset Liang Court, Fort Canning, Singapore

Somerset Liang Court is nice apartment-style accommodation. Three of us managed to get a room that sleeps four (maybe 5 on the sofa bed) and of course we had ample space; living room, en suite in the master bedroom and a large kitchen area with washer and dryer. It was great for our week-long stay in Singapore.

Location-wise, it’s perfect. Walking distance to Clarke Quay and minutes to the MRT which will take you anywhere (it’s on the same line as Chinatown and other relevant touristy places).

We had a bit of a weird check-in, however. Although we had paid upfront, (and we had confirmation from out travel agent that accounts were settled,) the receptionist refused to give us any confirmation that our payment had been received by the hotel, claiming she was ‘unable’ to. We also had not been explained that there’s a button on the wall beside the bathroom lights which controls the hot water heater, so my mother had some cold showers until we figured out that the switch must be turned on and stay on, and that the housekeeping may have been switching them off during the day. We also had a complete fuse outage one evening, as the hot water generator needed replacing and short circuited out the whole flat. Service staff were prompt in addressing this, however.

With water damage on the bathroom door and an old hot water system, we left under the impression that we got a good room rate because there are things about the hotel that need updating and renovating.  Also, it turns out the promised views of the nightly Marina Bay lightshow is not a guarantee as it depends which direction your room is facing. We were satisfied with our stay, actually, perhaps a little disappointed.

 

 

 

Disclaimer: S This review was also posted by me on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.

Balios Resort, Khao Yai, THAILAND

Balios Resort is a short distance from the main happenings in Khao Yai. It offers a substantial amount of land in the Thai hinterland and facilities such as a restaurant, breakfast buffet, swimming pool and attached shopping village.

My stay at Balios resort was disappointing. Our initial impressions were that the property was a little naff, a little kitsch. It’s themed decor of the ancient Greek equine persuasion leaves much to be desired. Our room had lichen green walls and a bed hard enough to reset your back. My partner’s shower ran hot and cold, and our friends staying in the next room waded ankle-deep through the bathroom as the drain didn’t work properly.  The wifi is weak.  There are limited mountain views, despite being in the heart of the hinterland. The bar closes before too late, but I did manage to get myself a cocktail. Cheap, but disproportionate. The bartender was trying his best.

This resort. It serves a purpose. Basic bed and breakfast.

I’d like to make clear- our experience was through no fault of the service staff. It’s just that the facilities of this resort are run down, and it’s charm has worn off.

Disclaimer: This review was also posted by me on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.

Private Tour, Fes Medina, MOROCCO

After this day, I’d say the only real way to see the Fes Medina is with a tour, and a private tour at that. The Medina is an absolute maze, a suburb of narrow alley ways with no signage and no directions- it would be impossible for a first-timer to navigate alone.

Our tour guide had lived in the Medina, grown up there and knew it like the back of his hand. He spent 9 hours showing us all his little haunts, all the craftsmen and the wares. There was the usual factory tour that you get on most tourist ventures, but these were interesting at least; the silversmith, the copperwares, the mosaic and ceramic factory and the knives sharpener. He gave us options for lunch and took us up some stairs to an authentic Moroccan restaurant. The food was sublime, showcasing an array of vegetarian salads and dishes that tasted chargrilled and smokey.

We saw the main tourist sites outside of the Medina walls as well. The Royal Palace, the tannery , the lookout from an ancient fort, the oldest university (and attached mosque)  in the world.

Honestly, taking a private tour is priceless. Our guide answered all our questions and saw us safely picked up and dropped off at our hostel.

 

 

*Hit the links for images of the Medina!

Disclaimer: This review was also posted by me on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.

Historic Centre, Sintra, PORTUGAL

The Historic Centre in Sintra was one of the highlights of my trip to Portugal. Sintra is this lovely, quaint little village where everything is boutique, local and artisan. It’s a labyrinth of alleyways with a restaurant on every corner and a the delicious smell of something cooking wafts down every street. It’s vibrant, there’s colour everywhere, from the little flags that string across the pathways, to the deep mustard buildings, and the flower boxes that sit below windows. Little frescoes and tiles painted with rural scenes adorn the outsides of residences and they show a side of Portugal that is still very real. Try the cherry liqueur served in a little chocolate shotcup, try the pastries all buttery and warm from the ovens. I got my keepsakes and souvenirs from here. If you wander off the main tourist trail it was all unique arts and crafts. We visited the historic centre as part of a larger tour, and I cherished the free time we had here. I’d factor in a few hours to your trip here because you want time to explore and have a bite to eat.

 

*Hit the links for images of this stunning little village!

Disclaimer: This review was also posted by me on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.

The Halia, Singapore Botanic Gardens

We trekked through the botanic gardens to see the National Orchid Garden, however as we arrived, we were overcome with exhaustion. The heat, the humidity, had completely sapped every ounce of energy we had. We needed respite.

The Halia offered that, and more. In a lush, laid back outdoor setting, we were able to cool down and return to our former selves. The Halia serve the simplest of dishes and drinks with thought, care and elegance. We shared a smashed avocado plate and it was absolutely divine, with feta and chili oil for little touches of depth and flavour.

What really invigorated us were the beverages. My travel partner was inpsired by the hot ginger, cumin and honey drink. The young ginger was pulled from the Ginger Garden in the botanic gardens, and was soft as an apple, served on a grating plate to extract maximum flavour. The honey was from wild mountain bees in Vietnam. My iced drink had blueberries, ginger, mint and lime and was light and refreshing.

With herbs and spices sourced from the local surrounds, The Halia promises artisnal flavours and delicious refreshments.

Disclaimer: This review was also posted by me on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.

Inside Lisbon day tour to Sintra and Cascais, PORTUGAL

João picked us up from outside the Hard Rock Cafe and we set off from Lisbon to Sintra and Cascais.

For me, this was one of the most memorable experiences of my trip. A road trip through the countryside was just magical; a warm summer breeze, a brilliant blue sky, vineyards as if from an animation, a cerulean sea. We packed a lot into the day trip. We stopped at Cabo Da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe and breathed in the clifftop glory of a truly perfect day.

We drove to Pena Palace and João provided an excellent commentary of the history and architecture. He was our tour guide and showed around the whole palace, then gave us time to walk through the palace ourselves. Then, we had some free time to wander the historical centre of Sintra. This town is full of narrow alleyways and boutique homewares. There are traditional restaurants and tasty delicacies so bring your coins and your camera. I would have loved more time here, in fact, I’d love to stay here forever.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant between towns nestled in a rural setting. The restaurant is clearly a roadhouse for tours such as ours, but I was happy with the meal. Air conditioning, wifi, clean bathrooms, rustic charm. The food was delicious- I loved trying the Iberico ham and local melons, and I had a main course of octopus, the thickest I’d ever seen! The wine rounded off the meal perfectly.

We finished our tour in Cascais, a boutique harbour town. The tourist markets and ice cream stalls weren’t to my interest by this time, so my partner and I found a cafe by the beach and sat with our sangrias. A truly excellent day.

I highly recommend this day trip. There’s so much packed into one day and as someone who only had a short stay in Portugal, I felt like I had seen enough of the country.

Disclaimer: This review was also posted by me on TripAdvisor. This blog has no affiliation with TripAdvisor. I just share my experiences to spread the love to fellow travelers.