Saturday, 31 March 2012

Bikaner, India

With Greta gone I'm now travelling alone, well, for a few hours at least. I meet Bryan on the bus - a very well travelled American. He has a hostel booked in Bikaner so I jump in a tuk-tuk with him. The hostel is full except for one "room". He leads me up to the rooftop where a great view of the city and a bed awaits. He says I can have it for 100 rupees. Why not - I slept under the stars last night. I accept the roof, insert ear plugs to dull the traffic noise and have a great nights sleep!

rooftop bedroom
There's not much to see in Bikaner itself, it's mainly used as a transport hub by tourists, so for us it will take us to Amritsar later that evening. The hostel manager did however tell us that it's a great place to shop for fabrics, especially wool, as it has the biggest wool factory in the world (I haven't confirmed this with Google so please correct me if wrong). Needless to say I didn't shop for fabrics but instead decided to go to the rat temple 30km away.

The temple is extremely busy being a weekend so we queue to get in. The rats contain the souls of dead worshippers and are sacred. They are offered milk and corn by the worshippers. If a rat is killed it has to be replaced with a golden rat - I don't recall seeing any golden rats though! A white rat is especially lucky. There are holes in the walls at ground level which they enter/exit the temple for food. I thought there would be hundreds swarming about but there wasn't so many. There was maybe twenty in a group around the giant milk bowls at one point. Considering there's (too much) food for them they looked in pretty shabby condition, I've seen healthier looking rats in sewers.

Rattus Rattus
Waiting at the train station to get back to Bikaner we pulled quite a crowd. Normally there's a small staring party but this was literally twenty people, gathered close around us, not saying a word but occasionally trying to take sneaky pictures. On the train was the same, with people curiously studying from afar. Nearing Bikaner a child had a trouser accident, which ended up all over the floor when the mother took the trousers off, making getting down from our 3 tier bunk treacherous!

That evening, with nothing else available, me and Bryan book a romantic double bed sleeper bus to Amritsar.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Camel safari

Dropped by jeep 50km west from Jaisalmer in a dusty car park we meet our camels for the first time. Mine's called Jamie but bears no resemblance to a long time friend of mine sharing the same name. They're quite cute, but apparently grumpy animals. On trying to pet Jamie on the nose he raises his head and snorts. You can't blame them for being grumpy - every day some westerners come and they follow the same path to the same sand dunes in the incredible heat.

I mount up, legs stretched to capacity and beyond over the series of duvets and padding on the hump - later to be my bed for the night. With a sharp command from the trek leader the camel swiftly rises to its knees then up onto its toes [refrains from making crude joke] like a transformer transforming from a camel into a camel - awesome stuff. From this point I refer to my camel as Optimus.

Ten minutes in, and already incredibly uncomfortable, I look around at Greta, who's also showing signs of inner leg pain. We agree that the one and a half day trek was plenty. To anyone considering doing this I suggest practising the splits for at least a week before departure - this will increase your comfort levels dramatically. Also if your pack on the back of the camel is set in a certain way you can lie back, effectively (but not gracefully) using your bed for the night, in the day! (If spotted, the guides will have a word)

Lunch is under some thorn trees on some soft sand and is cooked fresh by the guides. We sit around while they prepare a delicious vegetarian thali and more chapathi's than we could eat (the rest went to the goats and dogs). After lunch we laze about on blankets for an hour soaking up the absolute peace and quiet.

The terrain is not what you might think, as in the "classical desert" sense - it's flat, dusty and rocky with huge wind turbines everywhere - there must be thousands . There are wild peacocks, wild dogs, goats, cows and even sweaty sheep all around. Local people scatter the landscape, collecting and carrying to and from villages. We visit two of these villages en-route to the dunes, one which serves as a watering hole for the camels, and an ice cold pepsi stop for humans as the water we're carrying is already bathwater. The camels slurp as much as they can, sharing the watering hole with thirsty goats, cows and dogs. Kids gather around looking for photo's, money and school pens. Fully refreshed we continue.

Around 4:30pm we see some huge dunes in the distance. This is what I wanted to see! We arrive half an hour later and quickly dismount the camels to race up the dunes to get a look from the top. Beyond the dune is more flat arid land. This huge dune must just float around this landscape on its own. After doing the usual jumping up and down the dunes, sitting about watching the sunset and feeding/watering some wild dogs that have gathered we settle down to dinner - another delicious thali. 

Post dinner and everyone's chatting, the camels are happily grunting and the camp fire is crackling. We quiz the guides about the "traditional songs around the camp fire" as mentioned in the book. They laugh, get an empty plastic water barrel (as a drum) and hilariously burst into the chorus of "I'm a barbie girl"

The bed rugs were very comfortable and warm. Once the moon had gone down you could pretty much see the complete band of the milky way (although not 100% clear). The effect is so dramatic I felt like I had vertigo, almost like being lifted up into space. Every two minutes a shooting star would flash across the sky. All of this, coupled with dogs howling/barking/grunting and trying to nuzzle onto a warm rug with you, camels grinding their teeth and other unidentifiable noises led to not much sleep - but it's more than worth it.

Up at 6am and blearily bounding up the sand dunes to get a shot of the sunrise before breakfast then the three hour trek back to the waiting jeep. A fantastic experience, and I would recommend Ganesh travels if you're undecided who to go with. Once back in Jaisalmer we grab our stored bags and remove the sandy desert via a shower. I'm now heading north and Greta south, it's sad to part company with such an awesome travel companion, I'll miss her. Next stop Bikaner.


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Jaisalmer, India

At 100km from the Pakistan border this is as far West as you can get without riding a camel (see post post-this post when I've written it). It's oppressively hot - 41 degrees C to be exact. The sandstone fort looms up above the rest of the city below and the desert further out. The streets in the fort are so thin, full of flies, extremely smelly and still have motorbikes honking their way down them. Despite all this, and rumours of the fort sinking, we stay at hotel desert. I luck out, getting a nice breezy room in the fort wall with a view down to the city because of a sick girl wallowing for an extra day in the cheap room I was due to have.

View down to the city from the fort
When we arrive we're taken to the roof to see the beautiful view and the camel safari bonanza sale begins. The hotel staff lay it on pretty thick telling us about the family run business, their own camels, how they're desert people etc. We duck out after an hour saying that we'd like to shop around a little - there are hundereds of people offering these in Jaisalmer. The next few days are spent getting deeper and deeper into the world of the Jaisalmer camel safari. The hotels charge varying rates from extortionate to reasonable, with a free room when you get back - it's incredibly confusing trying to decide who to go for. In the end the deciding factor was that we probably wouldn't want to ride a camel for more than 1.5 days, and one constantly well-rated company (Ganesh) provided this at a good price - not that I would know how much it costs to run a 1.5 day camel safari!

During this time Greta got particularly ill. This seems down to a papaya flavoured lassi, which is odd as the girl in the room I was supposed to have had a whole papaya, then became violently sick 2 hours later. With another girl also ill in the hotel it became more of a hospital - but the hotel owners and staff were incredibly sympathetic. Between me and them we made several trips to the chemist for drugs for the patients.

We met a (stunning) girl from Israel who was learning to play the sitar. From her sitar class in Varinasi she'd heard of a famous Rajasthan musician who was on a break from travelling the world with his band (Rajasthani Josh). He'd literally just flown in from Indonesia. They were at an artists colony just outside the city. We travelled out and sat on their rooftop drinking whiskey, eating nuts and listening to a wonderful impromptu gig from some incredibly talented and famous artists. Check this!

Rooftop gig
Alongside being incredibly hot, gaining a doctorate and planning a camel safari, most of the daytime was spent in shade, sleeping and reading - it was nice to take time out for a few days before riding, legs akimbo, into the desert!

A quick mention must go to the catfish of the lake. Sprinkle some food into the lake and hundreds (thousands?) of 50cm + catfish writhe to the surface to feed. Freaky shit!

Friday, 23 March 2012

Pushkar, India

The day train heading west from Jaipur to Pushkar takes you into dryer and dustier landscapes. Camels appear in the fields and the heat noticeably rises. We get a side seat by the window and in the berth opposite are possibly the friendliest family i've met so far - photographs and smiles are exchanged for most of the journey!

Surrounded by a swarm of determined tuk-tuk drivers we leave the train station and walk up the road in the sweltering heat to the bus station. On the way there are some bulls munching a tiny patch of rare green grass in what looks like a school field. The gate is slightly open so we go to take some pictures, when a bull raises its head in what looks like a gurn and rapidly starts moving towards us. I try and close the gate but didn't get there in time so turn and run. Greta is already running to the amusement of the locals! After a minute I stop and look around - the bull has stopped in the road, traffic flowing around it, doing the head thing again - strange!

The bus is so busy. We sweatily push our way on with rucksacks and get to the back. Standing room only for this 40 minute journey up the hill. At the top, thankfully, everyone gets off the bus and we're in a super-dusty bus stand / market area. There are the usual crowds of people, cows and dogs but now also the odd working camel walking past. We set off in search of a guest house.  

We end up staying at the Mayur guest house for 200 rupees a night. Lovely little place with spacious rooms, en-suite, and cute little courtyard out front and run by a lovely family, who's house (and private temple) is attached. This could be one of my favourite guest houses so far. 

Pushkar is a holy city so there's no meat (not even eggs) or alcohol allowed (although some places do sell it under the counter). The lake is the centre surrounded by Ghats (steps) where people can get to the water, and the town is built up all around this and surrounded by dusty hills. It's very pretty, and spiritually "touristic" with modern and classic hippies roaming the main street in Ali Babar trousers - you can get espresso's and pizza here no problems! 

One day we saw a dog arched over, limping, slightly drooling from the mouth and blood coming from its rear, it looked at us with such a heartbreaking face as the locals dash around it like it doesn't even exist. Not wanting to touch it we try and find a vet: someone that can maybe put the dog out of its misery. This is not possible. Even if there was a vet we're told that culture wouldn't allow them to kill something - nature has to take its course. The next day we see the dog again and it's still alive but lying in the road, eyes closed, in the full heat of the sun. it's so frustrating to see this and not being able to do anything. The next day the dog is dead, and has been covered up by someone, who will then move it. It was only later that day that I found a leaflet for a UK animal charity working in India called TOLFA - who care for sick and injured animals.

We're here over Indian new year and there's a festival or procession happening every morning, noon and night! There's just too many to list and I forget which is which as this was over a week ago and they all melt into one colourful array. People dressed as Shiva sit on thrones in the town square watching fire breathers, and spinners. Free food is offered to thousands of people celebrating on the streets. Holy water is collected from the lake and taken through the streets on ornate carts with trumpeters and drummers alerting of its presence. Holy men bless people as they are transported through the streets on carts while extremely random sounding (LOUD) organ recordings play. One ghat is decorated and huge collections of musicians sing and play while people (and occasional cows) flock to the water. I've never seen anything quite like it.

Over breakfast one morning I got talking to a Spanish American lady with an identical twin and a huge interest in photography. They live in Pushkar for months at a time and know some interesting people. We go to an "invitation only" antique shop buried off the side of a temple - you would never find it unless taken. The shop is tiny but tall. Shelves full of Indian antiques and rarities pile high to the ceiling, years of dust cementing things together preventing collapse. Tobacco tins, paintings, cameras, cards, syringes, jars and instruments - more things than anyone could ever look at! The old smiling Indian owner enters the room and offers chai and smokes with a gruff voice then sits cross-legged. We chat for a while, I buy a cool old Indian tobacco tin from the 50's for a gift and we say goodbye. It was quite surreal, like being on a film set.

There are various temples around Pushkar, and some out on the surrounding hills. All reachable within 1 hour and with some great views back down to the town.

Loaded with items from the fabulous falafel shop me and Greta head to the overnight sleeper bus pick up area on our way deeper into the desert.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Jaipur, India

Up at 4am for the 5:10am train. Me, Ahn Jong and Greta said goodbye to Alex who was going to Varanase. Another journey in the sleeper carriage with the locals and Indian tourists. The terrain becoming noticably different now heading further west into dryer, desert zone. Arrived at 9am into pretty much a dust cloud. You could feel it in your lungs when breathing! A little messing about with guest houses and finding one for the right price. Me and Ahn Jong opted to share a double and Greta had a single. Greta decided to stay and sleep for a while, feeling sick from Delhi still, so me and Ahn Jong donned masks and headed out to the pink city. The pollution, dust, heat and tiredness from an early start was so overwhelming after 2 hours of walking about we decided to bail back to the guesthouse and get some sleep.

Later Ahn Jong decided to leave Jaipur, leaving me with a double room to myself - thanks buddy! He'd already been there a few years before and wanted to go somewhere new - he's been a great travel companion the past few days and I hope to go and see him in Seoul sometime.

Next day me and Greta head out with a French couple (Xavier and Lau) we'd met the night before. Squashing into a tuk-tuk we zoom off into the pink city, which is actually orange. We decided to head to Pushkar tomorrow morning first thing so we need to cram EVERYTHING into today. We see everything there is to see in the pink city (the observatory is particularly fascinating) and at 4pm jump on a local bus to the epic Amber fort, which is yellow.

Being almost the only foreigners we're pretty much the main attraction in the fort, more than the fort itself it seemed sometimes! I lose track of how many photo's there were taken with/of us. Huge families have individual pictures, big group shots, small group shots, men only shots, women only shots, children shots. I can now imagine how tiring it must be to be a celebrity, and never want to be one!

Exhausted from our new-found fame we leave and jump on a bus back to the pink city. On the bus we meet some (fluent) Italian speaking Indians (wearing designer shoes) who see this opportunity to practice their Italian, basically talking AT Greta for an hour.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Agra, India

Me and Ahn Jong grabbed the 10:10am train from Delhi to Agra. Avoiding AC class and travelling sleeper class with the locals is much more fun, but as it turns out we're placed in a booth with 2 other westerners. I wonder if this is done purposely or completely random? There was an Italian girl called Greta who'd just arrived into India and was experiencing her first "Delhi belly" and a Brazillian man called Alex, who loved to write. We spent the rest of the journey doing the now-standard traveller story swaps and decided to find a hostel together when we arrived in Agra.

The trip to Agra was literally just to see the Taj Mahal. So when we arrived and found a good hostel we dashed out to catch the sunset. Agra itself is dry, warm and smelly! It's a quick 10 minute jostle with trinket sellers from the hostel to the south gate. Walking through the gate with the Taj opening in front of you is a surreal experience. I'm not sure if i've ever had a shiver down the spine on seeing architecture before, it is truly, truly magnificent, eye-poppingly beautiful and absolutely enormous! (inside is a bit of an anti-climax). There wasn't as many people as i'd expected, you could just about get a space on the famous picture taking spot! We watched the sunset from 305 different angles then bailed when a billion mosquitos decended at dusk. I would love to see it at sunrise but we booked a 5am train to Jaipur as part of this quick-stop.

We all grabbed some dinner in a social little cafe called Jonies then went to bed. In my dream that night I was at the Taj Mahal went around the back only to find that it was a cardboard cutout, like a film set. As soon as they saw me police were blowing their whistles and running after me.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Delhi, India

We pull into the bazaar street, where the Namaskar hotel is located, at around 1am. It seems more like Mogadishu than India at this time. Litter is blowing across the road, deserted market carts, dogs barking and people lurking in the side alleys. 
 The hotel has an echo, there's no soft furnishings here! There are metal doors to the rooms and grilles to the floors below. With the functional pink rooms it's like a boutique prison. I like it.
 I settle down to sleep when there's a power cut and a generator that could possibly be the size of the starship enterprise cranks up in (what feels like) the next room. Earplugs IN.

Next day walking out of the alley from the hotel the bazaar is completely different. People everywhere, motorbikes, tuk-tuk's, cows. Yeah! I missed India! Within 5 minutes of walking down the road i'm offered a peacock feather, a whip and a "very good price" USB stick.

This area is the backpacker hangout. There are cafe's, shops and rooftop restaurants selling anything you could want. Legs powered with chai and samosa I stroll north to the red fort. Talking to someone on the street they tell me the red fort is closed today, open again in the evening. Change of plan: I jump in a tuk-tuk and head down to Connaught place, a large mall-like shopping area, from where I can walk down to the President's house and India gate. The tuk-tuk driver asks me if i have a map (I don't) and says we can drop by the official tourist office to grab one, which I agree too. We end up at an unofficial travel agents, where two beaming men jump out to welcome me. Realising what just happened I defend against the organised tour onslaught and walk out with just a map, much to the disappointment of the commisioned tuk-tuk driver. 

Walking down to and past India gate I head towards Humayan's tomb. On the way I notice a western girl surrounded by Indian men, she seems a little overwhelmed so I ask if she's ok. She's fine but needs to find somewhere to change money as it's her first day in India. We find a bank on my newly aquired map and I head over with her. Her name's Julia, an Italian heading east later that evening to study oil and herb therapy. We spend the rest of the day strolling around the tomb, which is stunning, and the presidents house then grab the shiny new metro back to New Delhi station. 

What happens next still hasn't quite sunk in. Me and Julia grab some falafel at a random restaurant back on Bazaar street, we sit down when over my shoulder I hear "Stu". I turn around and see someone whom i haven't seen in 16 years! I said something expletive and we man hugged and WTF'd for a while then all sat together and had some food. Turns out him and his girlfriend are staying in that hotel. We spend the next hour jabbering in some broken Brummie language, I feel sorry for Julia who had to sit through it all! Later she had to get her train so we said goodbye and me, Will and Sam moved up to the bar for more catching up. 

The next morning I find myself sandwiched between 3 Danish girls and 4 Dutch girls. I mount up and follow the guide into the depths of Delhi. This 6am cycle tour takes us through all of the back streets and lesser visited sights, then main sights before the main bulk of traffic starts. The four Dutch are air hostesses for KLM and arrived in Delhi 2 hours before, then fly home later that evening. Tough life! (

8am next day and I meet Ahn Jong, the South Korean architect I met on a bus in Sri Lanka, who just flew into Delhi. He's travelling on a official government passport so has no visa, and is having massive issues getting a hotel and trains to accept him. We eventually get a train booked to Agra in a few days and he decides to hang back and try and speak to the Korean embassy about hotel issues while I meet Will and Sam. We do the Red fort (I wasn't so impressed) then walk over to the spice market which someone recommended to me. If you go to Delhi you HAVE TO go here. It's an assault on all sense, especially the respiritory system!

I have a confession: we went to McDonalds. What can I say, we were craving western dirt food! C'mon, after a month of curries we're allowed one right? The chicken Maharaja burger, which contained odd coloured chicken patties, was quite bad (how I wished for a big mac) but the fries were NOM NOM!

The rest of that day and the next day were spent walking the tight maze of back streets. No tourists, touts or people trying to sell you anything, just families, local eateries, men chatting next to mini temples, dogs and kids running about. So nice and friendly. Delhi then became my favourite Indian city so far.

That evening, lying in bed, happy from meeting old friends and seeing new places, I suddenly had an absolute sinking feeling: where was my blue mini-rucksack? This was my secondary bag, the first being my camera bag. Realising my kindle was in it wasn't so bad (i can replace that) but then it dawned on me that my travel mascot was in there. I later realised that my sunglasses and a small wooden cat, that i'd bought as a gift for someone, was also in there.
After some odd dreams about Monsta I woke up and decided to make a massive search effort. I delayed my train journey to Agra one day and made some "missing" posters (yes I realise this sounds crazy) then put them up along the bazaar street and all around the hotel where the restaurant was, complete with a reward! The hotel staff were immediately busy and turned the place upside down. I'm pretty sure it wasn't staff or a local that took the bag, it had to be a foreigner. I've since been sending the kindle text documents to see if anyone responds. I've had nothing back yet, and i'm pretty sure I won't see my little buddy again :(

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Lost bag in Hari Piorko hotel, Delhi

This is a plea in case someone has picked the bag up and is searching on the internet (a long shot I know)

I left a bag in the Hari Piorko hotel rooftop restaurant on the 16th March. It's a small blue bag and contains a kindle and two sentimental items: a small soft toy (mascot) and a small wooden cat- this is all

I've been to the hotel several times and searched the store room and have some "missing" posters up - the manager said the staff would hand it in - so it can only be a tourist, there for a meal who found the bag and didn't hand it in, for whatever reason.

I don't care about the kindle, but the other two items I dearly want back. Any information please email me on or call me on my India sim - +91 9899197437

I'm willing to pay a reward. This is my travel mascot;

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Sri Lanka to India

Spicejet flight SG2 from Colombo, Sri Lanka to Chennai, India. Back home, or what strangely feels like home as i've already been here for one month.

Had a browse of the visa at the airport: "no re-entry permitted within 60 days of exit" - hmm, this could be an issue with me getting back into India after only 14 days away. Spoke to the nice spicejet (nicejet?) people and they called someone, who called someone else, who called someone else. Came back as fine, and I checked in. Phew.

Quick flight to Chennai, some very beautiful Indian hostesses on the plane. Now I had to catch a plane to Delhi, but I'd give myself quite a large buffer in case of issues: 5 hours to be exact! Chennai airport is not the most exciting place in the world, but I read my book and time went quickly.

Coming out at Delhi airport around 11pm in was almost cold. A lovely change from the humidity of the last 2 weeks. Ahhh! I'd already booked a guest house here as I knew i'd be late. I'd confirmed with the driver four times via email my arrival time, flight number etc. so was confident he would be there to pick me up. An hour passed - dug out the contact details and called the guest house. "Our driver is there!" he said. "No, he's not here at the domestic terminal". "Ah, you're at the domestic terminal?". "Yes, as per the four confirmation emails!". 30 minutes later the smiley driver turns up and we speed into Delhi centre. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Negombo, Sri Lanka

Negombo is just north of Colombo, and a good first / last stop for the airport. I arrived about midnight after the huge journey from the north - found a good price room (with many resident mosquitos) and crashed out.

There's a town here, a stretch of sand, a cool fish market, some churches (the Portuguese converted a lot of the local fishermen in colonial days) and lots of tourists. I mostly relaxed here, got very sunburnt, met a German and a Dutch girl and had some dinner then went to a cheesy karaoke type pub populated by English and a crazy drunk Russian man who didn't make much sense.

fish market

Monday, 12 March 2012

Pinawalla, Sri Lanka

My plan was to head here and stay a night then grabbing some sun on the beach near Colombo before the flight home. I arrived off the bus on the main road but was quickly surrounded by tuk-tuk's. I grabbed one and headed off to Pinawalla, some 3km away from the main road. On the way the tuk-tuk driver suggested I check out the Millenium elephant trust, instead of the elephant orphanage that all of the guide books recommend. I thought i'd have a look, and the selling point here was you can wash an elephant!

On arrival, seeing their five elephants chained up and doing that repetitive motion thing that kept wild animals do was depresssing, but they all looked healthy. There's lots of information on how they were old temple elephants that couldn't afford to be kept, and there were several vet's on site (volunteers from around the world), which was comforting. The elephant I was going to wash was called Saliya - 45 years old. Saliya came down to the river and I scrubbed with a coconut husk, too lightly according to the keeper, who grabbed the husk and scraped as hard as he could - Saliya seemed to enjoy it!

Once finished I refused to ride Saliya and headed back to the tuk-tuk driver who was patiently waiting. He took me into the town. At the hotel it was dead - like no-one anywhere. Not another guest apparently! I dropped my bag and walked about with the camera: still no-one about but a dog who befriended me.

Decided to go back to the hotel grab my bag and ditch to slightly north of Colombo early, ready to get to the airport. The hotel owner was very understanding. On the way out rescued a little bird that was stuck in the hotel and panicking like crazy. Grabbed a bus to the nearest town then onto a SERIOUSLY crowded bus to Colombo. Spent most of the journey standing in the aisle swaying about as the bus driver swerves and brakes - love it!

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Slightly miffed by the Sigiriya thing I topped up the wallet in Dambulla and waited for another bus. I got speaking to a local who was in the navy, and was a gun operator. He was on his way to work and suggested a quicker bus for me to catch, which was the same bus he was catching. He couldn't get over the fact that I was mid (to late) thirties and not married, with children. He was early twenties and was married, with a baby on the way. He told me I must find a wife and have a family as soon as I get home!

Once arrived I did a little wandering about and found a room on budget. Odd place (Hotel Shalini) as there didn't seem to be ANYONE else staying there. The owners spent most of the day and night watching the cricket!

Anuradhapura (old side) was the ancient capital of Sril Lanka until the 11th century AD and is now well preserved ruins, spread over huge distances. The guide books recommend that you hire a bike or tuk-tuk to take you between the different areas but of course I walked pretty much the whole thing, meeting locals and getting more of a feel for the place. There's so much stuff to look at: huge Dagoba's, Stupa's and old royal palace ruins, citadels and cutting edge irrigation "tanks" - all extremely impressive for the time.

It was here that I was my first rainfall since leaving England. It was so nice, the air went immediately fresh from being incredibly humid, I stood for hours, under a shop roof, watching the tourists and feeding a dog that gave me such a cute look. I didn't realise the time and the shops started shutting, and all the tuk-tuks and buses had gone, but a friendly shop keeper took me back to town save me (and my camera) getting soaked!

Back at base, still no-one about, grabbed some water and went to bed cream-crackered.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Made a major boo-boo here. Sigiriya's in the middle of nowhere. I just wanted to head there for the day then move on as there's a ruined citadel on top of a large tooth like rock. I packed my bags and grabbed a bus from the terminal in Dambulla. Got to the site and walked ages to get to the ticket desk, with my rucksack (i was hoping i could leave it somewhere). Sweating like mad I asked how much for entry - 3800 rupees! hmm. I should've checked the guidebook first on prices, I was a little short. The lady on the ticket desk wouldn't budge, even to let me go in as a local (who's price was considerably lower). So, a long, hot slog back to the road and a long wait for the bus and some amusing banter with some tuk-tuk drivers trying to get me to go on all sorts of tours. All was not lost though as an Australian girl turned up who'd been to the top and had the pictures to show me - so I almost felt like I'd been there!

as close as i got!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Dambulla, Sri Lanka

A long winding bus down the mountain from Nuwara Eliya to Kandy with an interesting chat to a South Korean architect living in Colombo, then a quick bus change and north to Dambulla for a one night stop, just to see the rock temple.

A giant gold Buddha greets you atop the Buddha museum, which contains various Buddha in various forms donated from different countries and other small exhibits. You then head up to the rock face, maybe 200m up stairs in the baking afternoon heat, passing fruit stalls, beggars and gift shops selling offerings and monkeys that point at their mouths asking for food and scratch you if you don't supply - little buggers!
give me food!
My shirt at the top looked like it'd been dipped in a bucket of water. At the top you take your shoes off (as always) and hop about on the hot rock towards the nearest part of shade. The caves in the rocks are FULL of Buddha's: statues and pictures everywhere, no surface untouched. There are pure white ornate entrances around the caves with pathways to each cave. The view from the top is amazing, back over Dambulla and the green valleys beyond.

I sat about with the monkeys for a while trying to cool down a little before the walk down. They're fascinating to watch. One was grooming the other, picking fleas off and eating them. The one that was being groomed was watching the groomer, intently, studying it's face. I wonder what it was thinking?

Headed back down and had a walk about the town and grabbed a haircut inspired by the monkeys. Not much to the town: a main road down the middle with some shops and a huge wholesale food market in the middle. Back at the guest house (Healy Inn) I had some chilli cashew nuts and water, got into my mosquito net base with the kindle and read for hours and hours.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Caught the 9:45am west bound train from Ella. What a stunning ride through the mountains on a cute CUTE old train! The journey was slow and there were frequent stops but the mountain tea plantation scenery was incredible. You had to jostle for position from left to right to get the best views from the seats so I joined the locals and hung out of the open doorways.

The journey took about four hours. On arrival at I grabbed a 20 minutes bus up to the main town. Had a good chat to a chap teaching the tea pickers English. Got off at the bus station. The town is nice in a typical Sri Lanka fashion with colonial buildings, golf course, parks and a lovely post office. 

Walking about I came across a chap on the street who could do a room for me in the Piya guest house on budget, so walked with him for what seemed like miles to get there. The room is literally a double bed in a clean box! This is all me and Monsta need.

It's getting late so I find a guide that can get me a tour of a tea factory - being English and all I obviously had to go! I went to the Mackwoods tea plantation, pretty huge by all standards, seemingly covering each hill we passed on the 15km journey there! 

Tea covered hills - you can just see the pickers as white dots
A quick (free - donation accepted) tour of the relatively tiny, but amazingly smelling, factory and then to the tea bar, to sample some fine fresh Ceylon, which was brewed in a teapot, served in a china cup and was completely fantastic - like no tea I've ever tasted before!

Tea drying - ahhh the smell
Back from the plantation I grabbed some carrots from a veg. stall. Along with cabbages and other typical English vegetables they grow great here in the cooler mountain air. 

I have a stroll into Victoria park, only to be stopped and notified of a price list. It has something written in Silhanese 

In the evening I head into town for a walk about. There's lots of people but no other tourists. I head into a local hotel (restaurant) and grab some tuna in a curry sauce, with some bread and water. I get chatting to the waiter who's English is amazing (he used to work for an American company in the middle east), he tells me that the tourists stay in the hotels for dinner. I swap email addresses with the waiter and check the guide book as to the location of a large colonial hotel and head down there, purely out of curiosity! A very grand typically English man building meets me, quite enormous. Walking in a man greets and ushers you to the bar, where I order a local stout. I head for the piano lounge and chill there for a while, watching people come and go under the chandeliers in their dinner outfits, I could almost have gone back in time if not for my shorts and t-shirt dragging me back. A man from the States makes a kind of clicking noise at the Sri Lankan man playing piano, and hands him 50 rupees. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Ella, Sri Lanka

A resident of Ella on the bus with stumps for legs and a weeping hand (he'd been to the hospital) wished me luck on my travels, a one-eyed man let me have a cup of tea for free and a Sri Lankan man called Roy supplied me with a gem of a room. Maybe my faith is now restored?

Getting off the bus into the cooler hill air of Ella I knew I'd like this place. The lush green hills surround this cute little town. Little cafe's and shops line the tiny street and people are super-smiley. Excited by the photo opportunities I sweated my way up (backpack and all) to the nearest vantage point, much to the amusement of tuk-tuk drivers (whom i'm boycotting). Up at the Ambience guest house the views are magnificent, down Ellas gap with Ellas rock on the right and little Ella on the left.

After gazing for ages I make the descent to try and find a guest house in my budget. Most places are overpriced because you have a view from your balcony or air conditioning. I just want a small room, good price. Fourth place i'd looked at: too expensive. Further down the street a Sri Lankan chap called Roy pops out "Room sir? Good price" The price is in budget (£14 for two nights) so I have a look. He leads me into some kind of palace thing with columns, then up stairs with big Japanese paintings at the top. As he opens the door he says "Room quite small sir". Expecting the worst the door opens into a GIANT room.
The mosquito net covers both beds
I ask Roy "Why so cheap?" and he just says "You're lucky". Once paid and Roy gone I sit in the little throne in the corner and wonder what on earth possessed someone to make such bad use of space?? There's a little table and two chairs, one double and one single bed. A throne, two sun loungers in the ceiling to floor windows and an en-suite. I'm still in wonder now, two days later! Was this the man on the buses doing?
Me on my throne, surveying my kingdom
Once I'd gathered my thoughts I came across the next bonus. Fast wi-fi, very close. This is how I've now managed to upload all my photo's to date (you may need to befriend me on Google+) and update this blog, pretty much to where I am now! (I'm sitting in this palace). 

Sampled the famous garlic curry at the Rawena palace hotel that evening, kinda wish I'd taken my camera but was charging the battery. And I didn't think that it would be such a spectacle of 15 dishes, with fresh lime soda and large bats flying around the open restaurant. 

Next morning up at 6am. Packed biscuits, water, bananas, oranges and chocolate for the walk up Ellas rock. This isn't a walk by English countryside standards. There's no signposts, you have to walk along railway tracks, across a rickety bridge, through head high reed fields, tea plantations, forests then a steep rocky top section. I was lost in the reed fields when a "farmer" popped out of nowhere to show me the way. I was glad, as I was on my own with no-one else about at that time. He lead me to the top to an incredible view, and super-fresh morning air. 

We stayed at the top for ages. He told me that his name is Javaheda (that's how it sounded anyway!) and he is actually a farmer, and produced tomato seeds - a sure fire sign of a farmer. I gave an approving nod and we had some food and drink. He didn't seem so sure when I pulled Monsta out of my bag though.

Quick jaunt down and I offered him 200 rupees for the help and walked off back down the tracks towards town. The rest of the day was spent doing the same, but in various other not quite so strenuous monkey infested walks then relaxing in the palace finishing the photo uploads and drinking tea. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka

VERY quiet here. Pretty much nothing going on apart from the locals and some dogs. Arrived with nothing booked and walked up and down the high street speaking to locals. The room rates here seem to vary wildly. This town has (apparently) one of the top 10 surfing breaks in the world, and regularly holds competitions. The best surf is in May, but some guest houses hold their high prices all season.  Have they never heard of supply and demand?

The high street
I bargained hard and got a 700 rupee room on the beach. I later ask about the tsunami and how it affected him. He tells me that it flattened his house and business and 5m of water gushing over the beach nearly killed his family - they managed to get inland quickly. The tsunami only reached 100m inland. Nothing near the scale of Thailand but equally terrifying. I felt bad about bargaining hard and in the end I paid a little extra.

The beach is wild. You can see the hyped offshore break and there's a few surfers pootling about on it but it was small. I walk miles down the coast accompanied by a pair of rowdy dogs! There's lots of tsunami damage: house foundations, broken trees and even black palm trees, though i'm not sure how they got to be this colour. Found what I thought was a football washed up on the beach, but was a fully inflated puffa fish.


In the evening had a real German beer in a Thai bar owned by a real German and his Thai (I can only assume) wife! Delicious. Grabbed some incredibly spicy (and cheap) rice and curry from a local hotel over the road and went back to the room. Not much else to do!

I think my little toe was up against the mosquito net in the night as it got painfully munched.

Next day, had another trust episode with Sri Lankan men while waiting for a bus. I was 99% sure the bus came this way, but got told by tuk-tuk drivers, and locals who had tuk-tuk driver friends, that there was no bus, or the bus wasn't until the evening. I shrugged them off then later a lady hotel owner came over and told me that there IS a bus and it'll be there at 11:30. Sure enough 11:30 came and so did the bus. I'm now only speaking with women!

You can see all of the photo's here

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Tissamaharama, Sri Lanka

I was unsure about coming here but as it's tucked neatly next to Yala national reserve and I really wanted to see some wildlife I thought an investigation was in order. The bus dropped me on a tiny high street, just a few shops but an array of tuk-tuk drivers as usual. As soon as I get off the bus I head across the street to a hotel and grab a samosa. As usual I could feel people looming down on me offering services. The guesthouse I had in mind was a way out of town, I had to get a tuk-tuk.

With the driver in the front and his friend in the back they began the hard sell! I was weary and after a little bargaining I decided to head to his friends guest house: it was half the price of the other place I'd chosen! Then the safari selling started. This is why most people come here to "Tissa" - to see leopards, elephants etc. I kept saying no no no, telling them i'd been to the best place in the world on safari.

Got to the guesthouse and it was the tuk-tuk drivers friends birthday, and they were in the garden drinking Sri Lankan whiskey. I got invited to sit with them so I did, and they gave me some whiskey, and some delicious food and all was good, but the safari selling never stopped. "More whiskey!" they said and topped up my glass. I could now see where this was going so stopped with the whiskey. One by one they spoke to me about the safari options and I kept a strong defence. Then they asked me if I wanted to go to a foundation party: his friend has just finished the foundations on his new house. They asked me if I liked to have "fun". I said I didn't understand their meaning of fun, but had an idea after the tuk-tuk driver experience. Indeed they did mean sex. I said absolutely not in a man-on-man way and told them i'd had the same question asked the other day! They explained it's common here. I asked about the women and they said that they can't have fun: they're not allowed to drink - only "certain" women can drink.

At this point the tuk-tuk drivers brother turned up and asked if i wanted to go to a famous temple with him. I said yes and made a hasty exit from the ever increasing drunkardness. He was fine, and explained that he doesn't like some of his brothers friends. He did though try the safari sell and also asked if I wanted a lady for the evening! Wtf! I declined both! The temple was lovely, full with locals singing and dancing.

I'm now extremely weary of Sri Lankan men, either because they want to sell me something or  want to have "fun". I really don't want to feel like this, it's bloody annoying. Also the extreme hard sell completely put me off the safari, which I was actually considering.

The next morning I bumped into a few of the hungover friends, who again went on about the safari. Stewing over the whole situation in the night I'd become highly irritated and ignored them and went for a walk by one of the wetlands nearby. Apart from the occasional tuk-tuk driver trying to flog me a safari it was blissfully serene with an abundance of birdlife and insects. This cleared my head a lot.

On my way back to the guesthouse I got talking to a lady washing her clothes in the river. She was an artist and sold her paintings in France. She took me to her house, i met her husband and looked at her art. Very colourful people paintings, not my thing but good. She made me sweet tea, sweet onion and egg hoppers for breakfast. Lovely lady! I wish I could remember her name. I wrote it down, but washed the piece of paper in my shirt.

She completely cleared the frustration and I left to grab my bag before the (non-gay) brother and his (hairdresser) friend dropped me at the bus stop. That arm on the hip is a dead giveaway I'm sure!

Sri Lanka buses

I thought the bus drivers in India were insane but after riding local smoke-belching metal-monster buses down the Sri Lankan coast i'd say that these guys win. Wait at a bus stop and one comes screeching to walking pace and you jump in the back door - mid-jump the conductor shouts something that sounds like "alle alle" and the bus roars off again while you fight your way in to try and wedge yourself somewhere. The bus by now is at top speed and overtaking everything with 5 to 10 second blasts on the horn when approaching something. When i say overtaking I mean forcing cars on the other side off the road.. This seems perfectly acceptible to the person coming the other way. I don't have a particularly large self-preservation nodule but i feared for my life on several occasions. The funniest part is the absolute calm of the locals on the buses: men chatting, children laughing, grannies asleep!

The driver and conductor are a tight team. Barking commands up and down the bus: who's getting on who's getting off, waving arms when overtaking, collecting cash, choosing which Sri Lanka music to play on the big sound systems. The whole theatre is very interesting to watch.

The government buses are rickety old Tata buses, painted red. The private Leyland (slightly more expensive buses) are white and are totally customised as the driver/conductor team see fit. They're amazingly boasting: turbo injection, super-intercooler, express and all manner of flames, stickers and things hanging off the front. On the inside the seats and seat posts are patterned, the light fittings have trims, there's fancy curtains and Buddha items.My favourites are the absolutely fantastic flashing Buddha pictures with the Hindu gods flashing next to him. 

When the bus stops all manner of people jump on and make their way down the aisle selling their wares. Food and posters/maps are the main fayre but today a gnarly man with one arm got on and started banging a tambourine against his stump while humming. I liked him and gave him 20 rupees.

Once at the destination and on checking my limbs were intact I had to smile and acknowledge the driver as I leapt from the bus (still moving) Good work sir! Does Sri Lanka have a bus racing team? It should!

I love the buses here. These are definitely one of the highlights of the trip. You can get a real feel for the culture. 

Monday, 5 March 2012

Weherehenea, Sri Lanka

I didn't stay in Weherehenea. I literally had all of my worldly possessions with me as I was travelling from Mirissa to Tissamaharama. I'd read about this temple so hopped on the 349 bus in Matara and the friendly bus conductor informed me when to get off, or I would still be on the bus now i'm sure!

The temple was deserted apart from some Monks and a man cleaning the dome. Shoes off and a scorching barefoot walk into the concrete grounds (100 rupees) reveal the enormous sculpture.  Quite something! This is the biggest Buddha on the island at 50m, and that's in the sitting (meditation) pose! If I was to ever have a sculpture of me I would want it this size.


Another 200 rupees and you can walk down into the tunnels and up into the building surrounding the Buddha. It was nice and cool underground. Every inch of wall or corridor has a painting or sculpture of Buddha - you wouldn't forget even if you tried. Eventually you get under the giant Buddha and to the stairs to make your way up to the top, with various viewing platforms along the way to look at Buddha's various parts. I particularly like the feet, as sat in the lotus position.

At the top the view is fantastic. Not only of the Buddha and temple grounds, but the countryside in each direction. I took quite some time relaxing up here as there was no-one about. Lovely!

You can see all of the photo's here

Sunday, 4 March 2012

One month down

Travelling for one month now. It's gone quickly. I'm obviously missing my family and friends. Travelling is pretty damn lonely at times, and even the people you meet in hostels are fleeting friends. I'm certainly missing my bed (not that I actually own one). The most I've slept in the same bed is 4 nights. I'm also missing rain (i've not seen rain since leaving England) and cheese.

Mosquito free sleep. I miss that LOTS! Little buggers nipping in the night. Where there's no mosquito net I've taken to sleeping in trousers and a jumper, with deet soaked hands. They don't normally attack my head but one did give me a lovely bite SLAP BANG in the centre of the forehead, it must've been in sheer annoyance at me lying there smug in my anti-mosquito outfit. But after being bitten 9 times on my left elbow the other night I'm almost numb to the itching now and I'm becoming quite a dab at catching them. My favourite is catching them inside the mosquito net, then getting in and torturing them! mwuhaha! No escape now you little sh*t.

My Pears soap has nearly gone. The replacement will be stolen soaps from more upper class places I've stayed. It's done well: washing a very sweaty me and all of my very sweaty clothes. It also helped me through the initial bout of botty squirts (as there's no toilet paper in India) but I will  forever now associate the smell of Pears soap with that function.

I've had one haircut and shave, in Pondicherry. I aim to have one in every country I visit.

80% of the time I'm living on around £10 a day. Catching characterful £1 buses, eating amazing street food (vegetable-chilli-egg-roti's = mouthwatering) for around £1 and staying in cheap accommodation when I can. I should hopefully be under the £5000 mark by six months down. Although at the time of writing this I'm sitting in a German bar in Arugam, which stocks a full compliment of expensively delicious imported beers! C'mon, there's only so much Lion or Kingfisher beer a man can take!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Sri Lanka - Colombo to Mirissa

A quick half-full flight from Chennai and i'm in Sri Lanka. The guide books tell of pollution, noise, hassle and scams. This is of course relative as I've just been in India: Colombo is sleepy town! Walking off the plane the heat difference is noticable and as soon as I get out of the terminal sweat literally runs from every pore. I've already lost a few kg's in India. If i lose 12 in total it makes up for the weight of my backpack and i'm neutral! (jokes)

I'll try not to make too many comparisons with India for obvious reasons but i will say that it's a cleaner, friendlier, more accessible alternative. Colombo has a city centre banking district, the streets have pavements (bliss) and there's even western style supermarkets, of which India has none.
I stayed in a beach hostel south of Colombo called Adikram. Cute hostel, i would recommend. There are 3 mixed dormatory rooms (sleeping naked not an option) and the rest of the place is the owners house. A quick jump over the busy train tracks and you're on the stunning empty beach. All the tourist resorts are further towards Colombo.

I was sharing my dorm with one other. A 70 year old (next birthday) spritely lady from Finland. She had been travelling since her husband died, and had pretty much done the whole world looking at some stat's she kept. She SMS'd her daughter every day to tell her she's ok still.
I went for a drink and some food with her one evening and i then realised that she likes a drink! I had to duck out after 2 (large) Lion beers as my tolerance has gone right down from not drinking. She had 3 Lions then wanted to go to a nightclub! (which never happened). 70 is the new 20 apparently.

Spent a day in Colombo getting hassled most of the time. People who just want to practice their English, and then take you to a shop, or ceremony. Constant "Hello!" from tuk-tuk drivers and guides wanting to show you the real Colombo. A beautiful sunset on the city promenade, where EVERYONE had gathered and food stalls had popped up from nowhere. Spoke to lots of genuine people, families would come over and say hi, wanting to know where you're from. Had a tandoori with two locals lads who were out looking for girls, but with no luck! I wished them luck and headed home. Thought about a bus but it was such a nice evening i did a Forrest Gump and just carried on, walking all the way home.

Caught a bus from Colombo to Galle and got off, expecting to find accomodation. Turns out there was a music festival on so i had to re-think and head further out: 16km further out. The only place i found was somewhere called the Lace Rock Cabanas. Walked in and no-one about. An elderly Indian man asleep on the floor woke up and through broken English I ended up in a room. No passport taken, no money or anything. The Cabana was right on the beach, with booming crashing waves and palm trees it was lovely, but it was dead. I have no idea if anyone else were in any other rooms. I left and got the bus to Galle to check out the Dutch fort and old town: very beautiful. Got back to the Cabanas and still no-one about. Went to bed. Got up and still no-one about! Decided to (after finding someone) pay and leave then head further down the coast, this place was soul less. Don't go here!

Next stop Mirissa. Incredibly picturesque surfing beach with lovely restaurants dotted up and down the palm fringed shores. Found a room for a great price, in the back room of this lovely family home.
I wanted to surf but looking at the enormous break (about 0.5km offshore) i decided against it. The shore break was hectic itself, some waves looming over you and booming down onto the beach. I love it and spent most of the first day getting thrown at the beach by the waves then chilling with a curry under a palm tree.
There's not much social here. No dormatories and all couples or friends. Had fleeting conversations with people at the cafe's but people aren't interested in making friends when they already have their friends here!

Went whale spotting. This part of Sri Lanka is on the migration route and they come here to feed. Of course as soon as someone realised this multiple companies were created, fishing boats converted into whale spotters and tourists pay a bomb! That is unless you're staying in my room! The father could get great rates, almost half of what some people paid on the same boat and I was told not to tell the other tourists about this.
Me, a portly Italian chap and four mid-twenties French girls had the top "luxury" platform, with comfy mats on the floor and a better view. Down below were the people that paid a wedge. After a 1 hour ride out we spotted two blue whales in the distance and we raced over but their tails were in the air and they dived down. Twently minutes later up again for air then the HUGE tails in the air and down. Quite incredible creatures, the size is bewildering. To think animals so big are just cruising about down there gobbling plankton. After a few more viewings our driver heads back, much to the disgust of a Russian chap who starts raising his voice to stay longer, even pushing our driver. The other Sri Lankan men hanging about (there's always some hanging about) bunched up and the Russian man shut up.
I have a new favourite thing. On the way back we spotted flying fish. Wow, these guys can fly fast! Skimming the water and plopping back in. I'm maybe going to have some of these when i get a flat but i'm not sure on the logistics. Maybe two tanks, one either side of the room so they can fly between. I will need to think about this more.

One tuk-tuk journey i took the driver seemed nervous. He kept looking at me in his mirror. Eventually he asked me if i wanted to go for a beer. I said no, i want to get back. Silent for a few minutes he then said "sir, do not take this wrong. Do you want sex?" Assuming i misheard over the noisy tuk-tuk i said "sorry?" He repeated. I said "No. I don't like men in that way. I like women!". He seemed pretty embassased by asking and I told him it's fine, don't worry, there's nothing wrong with being gay, but of course it's not the done thing in Sri Lanka and he begins to tell me that he's married, his wife is 6 months pregnant and he does not get sex at the moment. A this point we arrived. Dumbstruck and unsure what to say I just thanked him for the ride!