Jan
31
2013

Punjab

On the train to Amristar we met a girl called Hayley who had been travelling across India like ourselves. We ended up staying in the same cabin so we quickly got talking and all became friends. Amristar is a fairly small place compared to some other cities we have been to but is home to the Golden Temple, the Sikhs prise place of worship. Having been to a Sikh temple in Delhi with our driver, we knew exactly what to do to make us try and fit in. Also my only word in Punjab that I had learnt from our driver Singh was ‘Satshreaca’l which was a bit like Bonjour and used through Punjab as a greeting. I must have impressed a couple of older Sikh guys with my greeting as I was rewarded with a couple of handshakes that turned into hugs.

Abby and Hayley were constantly asked for photos with people’s mums, sisters and daughters which was funny as well. That evening the three of us shared a Tuk Tuk to the Pakistan border (about 20 miles away) to watch the closing ceremony which happens every evening. I have seen the ceremony on the TV before on some Michael Palin travel programme I think and always wanted to go. The ceremony lasts for about 30 minutes and is basically a contest between the Pakistan and Indian border guards about who can hold the longest note down a microphone, who can march the hardest and swing their leg the highest. It was all very good and ends in a guard from each side of the border shaking hands before the gates are closed and locked for the night.

The whole setup was a bit of a joke though as tourists and VIP get the better seats but are constantly shuffled around to try and squeeze more in. We had got ourselves some good seats near the front, but as it started to fill up, some idiot guard decided he wanted me to go to the very back and wouldn’t let me sit with Abby or Hayley. So after shouting some abuse at him for a minute (this guard didn’t have a gun so I thought I could get away with it) it made no difference so off to the very back I went. It was only about a minute later after he had decided to put a bus load of German tourists in between me and where Abby and Hayley were sitting, he signalled to me that it was ok to sit together again. How he expected me to climb over 50 Germans was beyond me so he got a bit more abuse from the back row to which he just left us be. The armed sniper that was standing behind me in his nest didn’t get spared either. After telling him that the guy down the front was stupid and that the Pakistan tourists seem to have a much better view and could swap sides, he decided to shut me up and let me stand in the nest with him. Best view in the house I would say as he needs to see all so he can shoot anyone that crosses the border illegally.

Hayley found a beauty place that looked ok so her and Abby decided to go for a manicure and pedicure while we had time to kill on our last day. This was Abby’s first experience of anything like this as she has never had any nails to do anything with for as long as I have known her. However, coming to Sri Lanka and India has stopped her biting them in case of getting really ill so let’s see if she can keep it up! I don’t think the whole experience was quite what Hayley had expected though (being an expert in it herself) and it turned into a more cringy experience than a pleasant one. I just sat there laughing at the both of them!

We also went to a local mall that had a McDonalds as Abby really wanted the new McSpicy (like a spicy McChicken I suppose) as it has been on all the adverts on TV. While in the mall, Hayley decided she wanted to buy a warm top and a body warmer as she was heading to Nepal as didn’t think she had enough warm clothes. While in the mall some random guy came over to talk to me but I could instantly tell something wasn’t right. He spoke to me for about 3 minutes without taking a breath and only about 10 of those words were English. I had no idea what was going on and there was something about the way he looked and spoke that wasn’t right. He wanted to shake my hand so I allowed it seen as though he was already in my personal space and I thought this might be the way to get rid of him. The handshake went way past the point where it started to feel weird and uncomfortable and I had to use my left hand to prise open his fingers to get my right hand back. He then disappeared into the shop and just stood meters away staring at Abby and Hayley. This didn’t please me much either. We left that shop and went upstairs into a really girly clothes shop and he just followed us around like a bad smell. Hayley shouted at him in front of some staff members who went and got security and he was escorted from the mall. One of the shop guys came over to tell me he had gone and that he was a ‘Crazy guy’ which is what I had suspected. It has been quite cold up in Amristar compared to the temperatures we have gotten used to so we are looking forward to our last Indian train back to Delhi so we can fly to Bangkok. Also I am quite glad at leaving India now as we have been constantly eating carbs in the form lovely Paratha, chapatti and Nahn breads so looking forward to some spicy but fresh Thai food with less carbs!

Jan
28
2013

The Triangle

We considered taking the train from Bangalore to Delhi as opposed to flying but that soon changed after we learnt it was either a 2hr 30min flight or a 39hr train! We paid the extra and flew!

We were both not looking forward to Delhi from what we had heard about the place and what we imagined it to be like. Abby’s feelings for the place weren’t helped by Vineeth after he was telling us to make sure we didn’t take tuk tuk’s at night, not to walk around too much unless we were in a group and pretty much don’t stray too far from the hotel after dark.

I must say I was amazingly shocked by the place for all of 45 minutes! Landing at Delhi International airport, it was immaculate and quite frankly a very arty styled building. Everything was quick and simple and in no time (less than 15 minutes after de-boarding) we had our bags and were heading for the airport Metro station. The Metro itself looked brand new and if there weren’t a handful of people at the platform, we would have been the only ones on the train. Blue LED displays inside the carriages tracked the train’s progress from the airport to the centre and I don’t ever recall being on a cleaner or more impressive metro in any city I have ever visited. I was beginning to wonder what everyone was going on about.

It took just 30 minutes to get from the airport to Delhi central railway station which is pretty much the middle of the city and not far from our hotel. Then my bubble was well and truly popped! Climbing up the stairs to street level from the railway station was indescribable. Stepping over sleeping people, dog and human crap on every other step, the sight and smell of urine that was slowly cascading down the steps in an elegant yellow coloured waterfall! It’s at times like these you really wish you weren’t wearing flip-flops!

I’ll skip over all the other horribleness and just say we got to our hotel after a 10-15 minute walk which was right in the middle of what looked like the most horrible street in Delhi but was just in actual fact, any normal street in Delhi.

The next day we asked a Tuk Tuk to take us to the official Delhi Tourism office so we could book the triangle tour of Agra and Jaipur. Knowing where is was on the map I was holding in my hand and with my sense of direction telling me that we were not going in the right direction, it was no surprise when we arrived at a scam tourist office. A quick look at the sawdust on the floor confirmed he was trying to scam us so after threating not to pay him, he took us to the real ‘government’ tourist office. When we arrived here, I could again tell this was a scam, even though it had government written on the door it just so wasn’t the official place. We decided to just head for Connaught Park where I started to chat to two tax office workers that were out getting some air on a break. They basically told us to see the Delhi sights in a day and then get out as it wasn’t worth wasting any more time here! And that’s coming from two guys that have lived there for over 40 years! They also showed us were the official, official tourist office was so we were able to book our tour.

We saw the sights of Delhi for the rest of that day with our driver ‘Singh’ (first name unpronounceable) but it was a little disappointing as the Red Fort and India Gate were closed due to the Republic parade that was planned from the following day and security were guarding the areas.

Singh also took us to his local Sikh temple and explained exactly what happens and what the Sikh religion is all about. I must admit I do remember a lot of what he said as religion stuff doesn’t normally stick in my head. He took us through the kitchens (we just walked in with no questions asked) and looked at how they cook the free meals they provide each day to the visitors to the temple. There is no charge for meals and they don’t ask for any donations.

 

Agra

Now we had both heard that the home of the Taj Mahal was supposed to be even worse than Delhi but both Abby and I disagree. Sure it was no Bangalore but I would say it was a lot better than New and Old Delhi and didn’t really have a problem with it.

The journey to Agra was supposed to take around 3hr 30mins but because everyone in Indian seemed to be visiting Agra on that day (over the long weekend) it took around 7hrs. The queue for locals to get in was over 3hrs long so it’s a good job the price tourists pay (£8 as opposed to 20p) allowed us to just walk straight in.

No doubt about it, the Taj was impressive! It would have been even more so if there wasn’t 1.3 billion other people in there with us. It was beyond packed. There was no way either my Dad or Nigel would have gone in there knowing both their love of crowds and people.

It was amazing we actually got any decent pictures of it really but it did involve me laying down on the floor where Princess Diana sat with Abby trying to stop people standing on me. She wasn’t so good at this but I think it may have been worse if she wasn’t at least trying.

There were so many people in the actual Taj itself that guards were basically pushing people in and pulling people out as we circled the tombs. It was like being in a lazy river as you had no control over your own movements!

The funniest part for me was after we had come out from the lazy river, some bloke ran up to Abby and threw a baby at her (to which she instinctively caught), he then proceeded to take a photo, grabbed the baby from her and ran back off into the crowd. It all happened in no more than 10 seconds. Abby’s face was brilliant! It was worth braving the 1.3 billion people just for that!

If anyone can take any useful information from this post it is this: Do not go and see the Taj on a government/bank holiday! Just don’t!

 

Jaipur

The journey to the Pick City was fairly quiet compared to the madness the previous day. We spent a good few hours in the Amber Fort and the Palace which were set on top of a massive hill overlooking the town. The palace had so many passages, tunnels and rooms it was brilliant. It would have made an excellent place to have a massive game of paintball with about 100 a side, or even a terrain on Call of Duty! Awesome!

We also visited the Water Palace and Janta Manta which is the ancient observatory (oldest in India I believe but don’t quote that) which contains large stone and marble monuments of the 12 stellar constellations that we regularly associate with our horoscopes. These were marbleous!

It also contained massive instruments to measure all sorts of celestial measurements of foreign bodies and also the earth, including what we were told was the largest working sun dial on the planet. This was quite good actually but difficult to get a decent picture of without defying gravity.

The food in Jaipur was really good too and I had one of the best Thali’s I’ve eaten in India.

The next morning we made our last visit to the palace inside the Pink City itself and its museums which was nice to see but I didn’t think was as good as the other palace and fort.

The journey back to Delhi to catch over overnight train to Amristar was a bit scary as we thought at one point we weren’t going to make it. Again, it was Monday after the long weekend so everyone was on the move again and the traffic was just horrific. The road between Jaipur and Delhi is nowhere near as good as the road from Delhi to Agra as they are redoing it all. Maybe in a few years the 8hr journey time will be halved but for now it’s just chaos!

While we were sitting on the platform waiting for our 20:35 train, a Sikh guy from the army came to sit by me and talk to me for 30 minutes. He also gave me some of him mum’s homemade cake which after 5 minutes of trying to ask if it had nuts in it, I just gave up and tried it. It was very good so I went in for another piece! He found it funny as I was wearing shorts and t-shirt and everyone else in Delhi was wrapped up as it was quite cold in the evenings!

Jan
24
2013

Party Capital, Bangalore!

We got the overnight train from Alleppey to Bangalore which took 14 hours or so but arrived bang on 10:00am. I must say I’ve been impressed with the trains in India, far from what I imagined them to be. Gone are the days of hundreds of people sitting on the roofs hanging on for dear life on the overcrowded local routes. They are still way overcrowded but people just tend to hang out of the sides instead. The long distance trains generally run on-time and have all been fairly clean so far if you can overlook the odd cockroach here and there. The toilet areas however are disgusting to say the least and Abby has of several occasions nearly thrown up!

The weather in Bangalore is pretty much the same as that of Kerala, maybe a little warmer as there is no costal breeze. We have both continued to sweat our arses off in temperatures around the mid 30s. Bangalore itself doesn’t offer much to the average sightseer and is not a very touristy place. The main reason in coming here was to meet up with my friend and former colleague from BT, Vineeth, who now works and lives here.

The city is generally quite new, clean, well designed and well laid out, maybe even the cleanest city in India. Wow, that’s that big claim if it’s true! As it’s is one of India’s few IT hubs, the traffic on the outskirts of the city is mental in the morning and evening but that makes it better for the city itself. It is fairly Western city with a couple of McDonalds, KFCs and a few well known coffee chains littering the main city centre. There is also a lot of shopping outlets with brands that we commonly see back home, this made Abby happy although she has no room to carry anything should she buy.

We visited the top three sights that are mentioned in Trip Advisor when you Google Bangalore, but to be honest they’re not really worth doing. The most interesting of the three (and by most interesting I mean, still only a 3 out of 10 on the interesting scale) is the Bull Temple. I was expecting a big monument with a massive statue of a bull in there which has been carved from one giant piece of stone. The Bull was impressive but it was housed in a really small cave like building that took away its glory as it just didn’t appear as big as it really was.

The park area in Bangalore is really nice and we spent an hour or so just laying round and taking in the sights and people watching. We also went to what was Bangalore’s version of Chelsea Flower Show which was good but way too hot to be wandering around in poly tunnels etc. I thought I’d put a few pictures up for my mum and to let her know I didn’t spend the whole day walking round sneezing like I did at Chelsea last year!

Vineeth took us to one of the city’s best restaurants which is located on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the city. The food was not so much Indian themed but more a mixture of fancy stuff at a reasonable price. Very tasty and very well presented! The view from the top of the building was fantastic and as the evening went on, the roof got busier and busier as it was also one of the city’s best bars complete with a live DJ. It did amaze me that there wasn’t that much security there as I could imagine a few people getting a bit too drunk, having a bit of a fight and it ending up with one of them being thrown over the not so high barriers that surrounded the roof area.

It was a good evening and we enjoyed catching up with Vineeth and it’s a shame we weren’t staying longer. Will definitely visit the city again at some point in the future.

Jan
21
2013

India, Beautiful Kerala

We arrived in Kochi at 2:30am after 8 hours in the taxi. Having not booked anywhere to stay but expecting there to be at least 1 hotel or guest house with a 24hr reception, we were severely disappointed to find out it was like a ghost town! The driver felt sorry for us after dumping us on the corner of a street, so he insisted on driving us round for 30 minutes waking up various guest houses only to be told they were all full. He must have been to at least 5 or 6 places before he told us he had to really get going as he had an 8 hour return journey to make before he saw his bed!

We decided to wait in the park until morning as most places would open around 7am but just as he was driving off and I was preparing for 4 hours of mosquitoes killing mayhem, 2 police officers arrived on a moped that looked like it was from the 1940’s.

They weren’t happy to see we were just hanging around the streets and if it wasn’t for the driver coming back to explain to them, I don’t think they would have bought our 8 hour taxi ride story. Anyway, they told us to follow them back to the police station which was about 50 yards away and when we got there, we realised that they had decided to drop all policing responsibility for the town of Kochi and help find us somewhere to stay. After a few shouts over the radio, 3 more policemen turned up and Abby and I just sat there while 7 or 8 coppers started phoning all the guest houses they could get phone numbers for.

The mood lightened somewhat when they found out we were from England, at which point they took great pleasure in trying to tell me how India had given us a good stuffing in the cricket that day! The cricket that was being played about 10km away from Kochi and the reason why all the hotels and guest houses were fully booked! I jokingly asked the main bobby if we could just spend a night in the cells and look for a place in the morning, to which he replied we could but he was required to record our passport numbers in the book and it might give us trouble later on in other regions of India. Hmm...

At that point some guy with a massive afro turned up on a motorbike who was a mate of one of the coppers that they had just phoned to get him out of bed. He told me to jump on the back of the bike and we proceeded to roam the town waking up all guest houses that we found. We eventually found a room for the night and even though it had a massive ants nest in the corner, it had to do.

The next morning (within 5 minutes of leaving the nest) I found a place for us to stay a further 2 nights so we were all set! I don’t think we would have got that kind of service from GMP hey Lynne?

So what was Kochi like? Well it’s beautiful. Loads to see and do, the food in the south of India is probably the best in the country (a lot more spicy and tasty than the north and what we know back home).  The local fishermen use old school Chinese fishing nets (something the Chinese don’t use anymore) to catch all sorts of fresh loveliness which you can buy direct from them and then go over the street to get it cooked.  An old Dutch fort and the oldest European church in India are worth a visit too, and a walk around the massive spice markets are a must do.

While we were in Kochi we took part in another cooking course, in which we learnt how to cook some of the amazing food we had been eating over the last few days. We cooked four meals in total and also learnt how to make chapattis properly! There were two Canadian’s on the course as well who had done a lot of travelling in their time, so they gave us some good tips for Thailand.


Alleppey

So we left Kochi with a 15 minute ferry over to Ernakulam and then the train down to Alleppey as the next day we had booked to stay on a Houseboat and go on a day tour of the Backwaters.

Abby’s tolerance levels with the whole ‘India thing’ were dwindling by this point and I was hoping a nice day relaxing on the Backwaters would calm her down. She has been getting really snappy with everyone and everything (and I don’t blame her really) as she has had to put up with a lot of blokes staring at her and people trying to fuss over her (which she does not like). Also, those of you that know Abby will know she’s “Little Miss Recycling” at home, so it’s fair to say she’s not at all impressed with the rubbish and litter that covers India. In fact, she’s become so snappy, that I have started to call her Carrie (from the show “King of Queens”), as that woman is constantly angry!

Anyway, it got to a point while waiting for the train to Alleppey, that Abby spotted some bloke on the opposite platform get up from his seat, walk past the bin and heave his drinks bottle onto the rails. Enter Carrie!

I managed to restrain her but I wasn't quick enough as she had jumped up and started to hurl abuse at the guy! A lot of people were looking at us by this point so she sat in silence for the next five minutes as I didn’t feel she was quite ready for me to take my hand from over her mouth. By the time we reached Alleppey (1 hr later) she had calmed down!

I didn’t think Alleppey itself (as a town) was anything special compared to some of the other towns we had stopped in or passed through but its surroundings made it special. It’s located right on the edge of a massive labyrinth of canals (both small and large) referred to as the Backwaters.

We turned up at 11:30 at the main boat Jetty expecting to see 100 or so houseboats. How wrong were we! There was hundreds all moored up together, 3 deep in places and stretching for about a mile along the bank. It was an amazing sight!

Once we found our boat, we were greeted with fresh coconut milk (which Abby didn’t like) so I ended up drinking both to be polite. Our boat was massive with 2 bedrooms although we were the only occupants excluding the three crew. And even though so many boats were being boarded, it wasn’t crowded at all once we got out into the Backwaters. There were just so many different canals and passages to get around, each captain had their own scenic route that they liked to follow.

The journey itself was beautiful and relaxing but the meals were way too big. It’s as if they were still catering for 4 even though there were only us 2! Massive but yummy meals indeed! The meals did include a dish called “Fish Fry” which was exactly that!

At one point I spotted a snake in the water but it had disappeared before I could get the camera to hand. I did see this guy below that looked like he could do with a good meal. I named him bob!

Also, this was the local supermarket that provided much needed food to some of the locals that lived on the islands that weren’t accessible by road or ferry!

We can both definitely recommend a trip on a houseboat around Alleppey as it was one of the best things we have done so far in India. Thank you Vineeth for recommending the houseboat company we went with!

So that’s it for our Kerala trip as we spent not far off a week in total, so it’s time to get the overnight train up to Bangalore for a few days to see some friends before we head even further north.

Jan
21
2013

India, Tamil Nadu

India, what a place! Landed in Chennai at 7am and quickly left. Completely different to what I imagined it to be and didn’t want to spend another minute there. We headed south to a town just outside of Chennai that neither Abby or I could pronounce correctly. Google maps calls it Mahabalipuram.

After an initial battle with the Taxi man to take us to our hotel without forking out more money for the ‘town toll’ (which I was adamant I wasn’t paying as it was just a scam) we eventually found the place.

After only 2 hours in India Abby wanted to go home. She couldn’t handle the amount of people everywhere, walking in front of traffic without looking (even though living in Oswestry you’d have thought she’d be used to that by now). The constant horn blowing of tuk tuks, cars, buses and motorbikes was driving her crazy. The cattle and goats just trotting down the street willy-nilly and let’s not even start on the mounds of rubbish which was everywhere, and that is not an exaggeration. It all got a bit too much. I on the other hand was loving it again as it was exactly how I remembered except on a much smaller scale. Hopefully she will have gotten used to it before we hit Delhi otherwise I may be in trouble, again!

After a cold drink she started to relax. Unbeknown to us, we had arrived at the start of a public holiday for this region of India and the place was heaving with Indians from all over the county. We were constantly stopped and asked to pose with families for pictures which were funny at first, but after appearing in 12 different pictures in only about 20 yards, it made trying to get anywhere to see things painfully slow. We explored the town and visited the major attractions, Krishna's Butter Ball, Shore Temple, Five Rathas.

The butterball was very strange but my favourite of the attractions (a massive rock in the middle of nowhere just perched on a hill). We both did give it a good old shove to see if we could move it but it was remaining stationary.

This part of India is famous for its stone carvings and there were hundreds of them. They were all fantastic and I would have loved to take home something for the garden. There was a 6 foot (lifelike) crocodile that I took a fancy to and I reckoned I could have got the bloke down from the £9k he wanted to something more reasonable. It did apparently weigh around a tonne though!

The only other thing to mention was Abby went and had a pair of trousers tailor made for her which she is well impressed by and hasn’t taken them off.

We left Mahabalipuram and got the train down to Madruai where we were going to spend a few days. The Indian railway system is much more developed that that of Sri Lanka and they have around 10,000 trains a day. As you can imagine, the reservation process is somewhat complicated to say the least. In fact, it’s more complicated to understand than some of the more difficult mathematical equations I used to have to do as part of my degree. There are also 8 different classes of travel on Indian trains and none of which now allow me to sit on the roofs! (Well maybe in the north they will as it’s busier but for now I can still hang out the doors!)

We opted for the AC 2 class as most of the non-long distance trains don’t have AC 1 or AC Chair (which are the first classes). Our carriage consisted of berths of 4 separated by 2 solid walls and a curtain with 2 upper and lower bunks.

Sleeper class (which is how most of the Indian population travel) is similar to this but with 6 to a berth, no AC and is pretty grim.

Unreserved class is the cheapest and you can travel some real long distances for not a lot of money, but is not for the faint hearted! This is where everyone is just packed in together along with the local chickens and goats, with not much change or being able to turn your head, let alone move.

As it was nearing dinner time, every station we pulled into I jumped off and went and bought something different from the guys selling food on the platform. It was a bit like Russian Roulette for me with my peanut allergy as I didn’t have a clue what it was or what was in it. Also, my chief food tester had reserved her right to not have to test anything for peanuts if it looked too hot to eat!

We arrived in Madurai around 1am with no accommodation booked but quickly and easily found a hotel with 24hr reception and checked in for 3 nights.

The only major thing we wanted to do in Madurai was visit the Meenakshi Amman Temple which was located right in the centre of the city. Again as it was a public holiday there were thousands of extra people there and it was manic. The temple was really nicely decorated with the colours etc but non Hindu’s were not allowed in certain parts of it so we didn’t get to see everything. Loads of people keep asking Abby and I to be in their photos with them outside the temple. People also kept stopping us and asking us to take pictures of them, with our camera. It’s funny as they don’t generally smile in photos, so it just looks like I have stopped some random strangers and asked them to stand there while I take photos of them.

Every day India so far has been a constant battle to fend off beggars and stopping people trying to sell you things and dragging you in their shops. We have given change to some poor people but where do you stop? Also, people normally leave you alone if you just say, ‘No Thanks’ but we found people here to be quite rude if you said no and just kept harassing us.

One bloke (who must have been mid 40s) came up to me just outside the temple and grabbed my arm and started screaming at me for some reason. At first I thought he wanted me to take a picture of his daughter who couldn’t have been more than 5 years old. But then I realised he was getting aggressive and either mistaken me for someone he had an issue with, or just wanted to fight me.  Anyway, he gave me a slap on my shoulder and stormed off with 2 others. Well I stood there for a few seconds in disbelief looking at Abby and looking at the other Indian people around me who were by now staring at me.

I don’t have the longest fuse in the world as it is, so I decided to follow him at a pretty quick pace. He turned around and saw some fuming white bloke charging after them at which point he said something to the others and they all dived into a crowded shop. I stood outside for a few seconds looking at them, looking back at me and when Abby caught up we just left and headed back to the hotel.

The next day we were due to leave on the 16:35 train towards Kochi but due to the complexity of the train reservation system we ended up as positions 1 and 2 in the waiting list for cancellations so we not allowed to board.  I did get on and tried to bribe the ticket inspector but he was having none of it! So we wandered back into town and stupidly got a taxi to take us there and then to Kochi instead of checking in for another night and waiting until the morning. Who knew 270km was going to take 8 hours!

Jan
12
2013

Sri Lanka – The Hill Country

Leaving Tangalle felt like a good idea as it had just rained for two days on and off and although this didn’t stop me playing in the sea, there really was more of the Island to explore.

The route from Tangalle to Katragama was fairly straightforward and consisted of three buses. Not being able to speak the local lingo let alone pronouncing the names of the places we needed to get busses too wasn’t a problem. The locals just loved to help us. I think they might have actually taken pity on us more than loved to help us.

The 2nd and 3rd buses we took had uneventful journeys but I am surprised Abby wanted to get on a bus at all after the 1st one. It is fair to say this was the most terrified I have ever been on a journey before. The bus was packed and I mean packed! My head was in about 3 different people’s armpits at the same time (none of which were pleasant), you had people pushing to get to the front or back as their stop was coming up. The bus driver was incapable of driving less than what felt like 105mph and every time we went around a corner the two options you had were, to either swing from the roof bars like a meat carcass, or just fall onto the person that was lucky enough to have a seat.

There was nothing and I mean nothing that overtook us and I swear he didn’t stop at a few bus stops just because it would have been more dangerous to break and stop. The crunch came when a bus pulled out in front of him about 30 meters ahead and then stopped. The brakes were slammed on, most people fell over, I got more than a mouthful of armpit again but we only just stopped before running a guy over.

This guy was not impressed and within seconds there was a massive screaming match going on between him, what appeared to be some of his friends and the bus driver. I think they would have probably jumped on the bus if it wasn’t for the 2000+ people that were already occupying the space between me and the front door. He resorted to throwing some liquid (a drink of some kind) through the driver’s window which made the driver get out. I was waiting for the punches to start flying but after 5 minutes of severe screaming from both parties, we were on our way again. You might have thought this would make him slow down a bit… nope!

 

Katragama

This was a strange, small pilgrimage town in the middle of the jungle that is home to Ruhunu Maha Kataragama Devalaya (a shrine) which attracts Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim’s from all over. It was all very interesting to see, didn’t really know what was going on other than they have 3 worshiping sessions a day (4:00am, 12:30 and 18:30) and it gets packed. Everyone was carrying fruit, flower petals and other colourful things to leave as tokens to their gods I suppose. We got a couple of strange looks so we bought some flowery things for about 25p and left them on the temple.

Around the grounds were some monkeys playing so got a couple of snaps of them too. Not sure what that one is trying to do to that dog though?

We only stayed here for one night as it really was a small town so the next morning we jumped on a 4 hour bus to Ella which is right up in the mountains.

 

Ella

You’ll be happy to know that the bus journey to Ella was great. Quiet, peaceful with lovely scenery.  Some quite steep drops to scare Abby to death but other than that, nothing to complain about.

We arrived in Ella to be amazed by how many tourists there were, nearly as many white people as locals, which was definitely a first. It is a big tourist destination though as it is situated high up in the hills/mountains with masses of farmland around and lots going for it even though it is a small sleepy town. Lots of beans and tea are grown here and the tea fields seemed to go on forever. Quite a few cafes and restaurants too with some western food being served which was a nice little change.

We had booked a homestay with a local family who were very nice and welcoming. They also ran a Sri Lankan cookery course most nights which is originally how we found they had some rooms to book as well.

The cookery course was run by the family’s son and daughter. Chandika (the son) spoke really good English (better than mine) and knew a lot about his native cooking heritage. The course started by a walk around their spice garden and a lesson/explanation of what spices Sri Lankans use, why they use various ones with various things etc. It was good to see and I was a bit envious as my herb bed back home was nothing compared to this.

The course was good and lasted for 3 hours in which we made 4 traditional Sri Lankan dishes and then sat down to eat them together with the 4 others that were on the course besides Abby and I.

The next day we decided to go and do a popular local hike up to Ella’s Rock. The walk up took about 1.5 hours along the railway track at which point you take a left and head up through tea plantations for some stunning views before a steep climb for about 30 minutes up to the peak. The views from the top definitely made it worthwhile.

On the way back down we got half way along the railway tracks before the heavens opened and I mean opened! You know when you hear on the news that’s its rained 12 inches or so in 1 hour in some faraway place and you think, ‘Yeah whatever’! I shall never doubt those headlines again! Abby had her trusty umbrella so she was only 40% wet, I on the other hand, well words don’t describe how wet I was. I would have been less wet if I had gone swimming for 30 minutes fully clothed!

 

Kandy

The day after the wettest day of my life, we had planned to get the 09:47 train to Kandy where we would spend our remaining few days in Sri Lanka before heading back to Colombo and the airport. Because the rain had been so severe, the 06:30 train had been cancelled due to mud slides on the track.

They managed to dig our train out and when it eventually rocked up it was gone 11:30. I’m sure I read somewhere that Ella to Kandy on the train was only something like 160km but it normally takes 7-8 hours!

The scenery was beautiful! We climbed up and down mountains, through thick jungle, through tunnels, alongside waterfalls, it really was fantastic! We did have to stop twice so the driver and a few workmen could clear a fairly hefty portion of the mountain side from the tracks so we could pass, but that’s what it’s all about! Leaning out of the doorway, the wind in your hair, the taste of diesel fumes in the back of your throat! Amazing!

Abby was happy reading her kindle while I was in my element sitting with my feet dangling out of the doorway taking in the surroundings. I took the opportunity to catch up on a spot of work as well in hope of some WIFI at the hotel in Kandy! At one point I happened to glance down from my laptop to see that we were on a longish bridge between two mountains. The bridge had no railing on any side and was barely big enough to fit the train tracks on. My legs dangling over an unguarded 80-100ft drop down to the river below. I did think about reaching for the camera to get a pic but thought that I might have dropped my laptop (or myself) if I moved just then.

The Sri Lankan main lines between Colombo and Kandy and Colombo and the south West are generally in pretty good condition. Mostly concrete sleepers and you can tell they have actually used engineering drawings and spirit levels to set the tracks up as they are pretty smooth. This is so not the case in the Hill Country though!

The experience is comparable to that of a ride on Nemeses but without the safety of the harness. As we neared Kandy the driver was obviously aware that he was over 90 minutes late and so he started to wind the speed up past the point I actually think was safe. All it takes is for one of the tracks to be 1-2 inches lower than the other track due to rotten sleepers or boggy ground and this gives one hell of a tilt at the top of the carriage.

I was standing in the doorway of the 2nd class carriage holding on while watching the 3rd class carriage (directly behind the locomotive) being thrown around like it weighed nothing. There was a local guy standing there looking at me and I could tell he was thinking the same, that we were moments away from derailing. I know things are designed to move and centre of gravities etc, but honestly, I could picture the headlines back home, ‘2 Brits killed in Sri Lankan train derailment’! I kid you not, I would happily have taken that bus again than to be going that fast, on those uneven tracks!

The below pictures bring new meanings to the phrases... 'Please mind the gap between the train and the platform!'

'You need to change trains!'

'There is a signalling problem!'

Obviously we made it to Kandy in one piece and we spent a few days there. Nothing much to report from Kandy as we didn’t do much due to it pouring down for 2 days, so we just stayed around the hotel. We did get into the city and had a wander around the markets but didn’t buy anything exciting.

Saw a few thousand fruit bats that fly up the valley for their nightly feed around 18:00 each night. Massive things around 2-3 foot (wing to wing) so the hotel manager was saying. They did look it to be honest but you can’t really tell from the pictures.

We are due to fly to India this morning (05:45) so will be leaving for the airport shortly. Will post again from there.

Jan
4
2013

Sri Lanka – The South West

(Sorry this is a long post but internet in Asia seems to be a thing of the future so blogs are going to have to be longer and less frequent)

First impressions, this place is awesome. The colours are so vibrant, the birds, the plants, the chosen dress of the locals. The heat is just bearable at around 32C each day and not much less than high 20Cs at night. But it’s the smell that does it for me. It’s unfair to say it smells dirty because it’s only dirty relative to what we think dirty is. It just smells like Asia!

It’s fair to say I love this place even more than India (which smells the same), the people are much friendlier and they are less interested in robbing us or even asking for money.

Abby’s been a bit overwhelmed by the poverty we’ve seen so far. She says she has been a bit naive with the whole ‘Asia’ thing but with each day she is getting used to it and enjoying it more and more. Sri Lanka is a lot cleaner than India is, but Abby has started as she means to continue, not eating much (if any) salad or fruit, drinking only bottled water, cleaning her teeth with bottled water, so regimented!

I however have strayed from the guidelines slightly. The only thing I’ve really eaten is salad and fruit to avoid the presence of peanuts. I’ve been drinking both bottled and tap water and bathing in the streams with the locals, but we are both still fine.

We were unsure if we would even be able to come to Sri Lanka as the recent flooding on the news before we left was somewhat off putting. We haven’t seen much evidence of flooding so far as it has been confined to the east and centre of the island so the armbands remain redundant and are just extra weight!

Bentota

So we started off with 3 nights of luxury in a 5* hotel in Bentota which we booked back in August. Bentota is best known for its amazing beaches and we were truly spoilt here, a place I would certainly come back to again. Amazing food, amazing accommodation, beach just meters away, lovely pools and gardens. Fantastic!

The main Sri Lanka railway line ran right through the property separating the gardens from the beach. At first this sounded a bit weird, dangerous in fact, but it made the place even more beautiful. It’s not like having the west main line with 140mph Virgin trains running through the garden every 5 minutes, the Sri Lanka railway is somewhat more relaxed as we later discovered.

We had New Year’s Eve here on the beach with fireworks and music and amazing Sri Lankan seafood BBQ food. I thought Abby was going to struggle with the food as her general rule of thumb is pretty close to “I don’t eat anything from the sea, unless it’s a battered fish” but she did well. She finished her lobster, prawns, grilled fish and most of the squid and even enjoyed it all (except for the squid). Result!


Galle

Reality really set in when we had to leave the hotel as our backpacking had finally started. So without the safety of a 5* hotel behind us and weighing slight more than when we left the UK (as we nicked a hotel towel and an Asia travel plug adapter) we headed off for the railway station.

Abby was unsure about my chosen route to the railway station which was a 10 minute walk down the railway tracks. I prefer to navigate how the parrot flies were possible. Every beep of a horn or sound of an engine caused her a mini panic attack as she quickly checked for approaching trains. But knowing the rail schedule we were fine.

The trains were everything I imagined! I was just like a kid on them and Abby refers to the experience as “like babysitting and being the most worried she has ever been”. It is illegal to sit on the roofs of trains in Sri Lanka so I will have to wait until India to do that, but all the windows and doors were open as the heat would just be unbearable. As the train was fairly full we opted to stand in the doorway between two carriages. Abby tried to ignore the glaring big gap between the two carriages onto the tracks and just hung on for dear life. I continually hang out of the doorway on the train steps and took photos. Brilliant!

The journey to Galle (an old Dutch fort) took just over an hour and cost only 100 rupees each which is about 50p each.

Galle was a beautiful place and we soon found our accommodation for the night. It was the first time (of probably many to come) we would be sleeping with no linen and no air con but to be honest, with the fan on we both did get some sleep.

We wandered round Galle for the day looking at the fort ruins, churches and shops in what was definitely the hottest day we have had so far. Snow White decided that she needed a hat as her head was burning so we bought a baseball cap which made her a local celebrity. Every local now looks at her with a pleasing smile as she is supporting the Sri Lankan cricket team. I’m guessing we will have to lose this before we get into India or we are likely to be imprisoned! Anyway, it just got hotter as the day went on and the umbrella had to come out as well!

One thing we were amazed at is how many lizards there are running around the place. Not just tiny ones either but some fairly big fellas just crossing the road here and there.

Tangalle

We decided to only stay one night in Galle as we had done everything there was to see so headed back to the train station to get the train to Matara and then a bus to Tangalle (as the railway ends in Matara). This train ride was less exciting as I promised Abby that we would sit down but we will be picking up the train again in a week or so from a place called Ella to Kandy which is supposed to be the most scenic rail route in the world!

When we disembarked the train in Matara we were headed for the bus station when a Tuk Tuk driver offered us a great price to take us to Tangalle. So climbed in and off we went for 40 minutes. The drive was somewhat terrifying in a good way, I don’t know if the bloke was late for something or just trying to set a new Tuk Tuk land speed record but he kept checking his watch about 4-5 times a minute and he didn’t let much over take us. Anything that did over take us he managed to get back in front of on the next blind bend.

We had planned to have a couple of days relaxing in Tangalle on the beaches so found some accommodation right on the beach front. Unfortunately it started to rain just as we got there and although it stopped after a few hours, it remained very grey and hot for the rest of the day. The rain was really warm like having a shower and it didn’t stop me going in the sea.

We woke up on Friday to more rain so just chilled in a bar on the beach and then wandered into the town to have a look around. While sitting in the beach bar we saw a massive lizard, about 3-4 foot long, much bigger than some of the others we saw in Galle. I think it was going for a spot of sunbathing or maybe for a sneaky beer!

We are planning to leave Tangalle tomorrow and get our first bus to Kataramaga to see the sacred city where we will stay for a night. The plan then is to head up into the centre of the island in the forest/jungle (avoiding the floods) and head to Ella and then on to Kandy before returning to Colombo. The train journey around the hill country (Ella/Kandy) is supposed to be breath taking so we will see!

Jan
4
2013

Top 10s

So a few people have asked me for my/our top 10s while on this part of the trip… so here they are…

Top 10 fast food joints (overseen and approved by Mrs Potts)

1 – Chick Fil’A (Spicy chicken burger with Pepper Jack cheese)
2 – A&W (Mama burger)
3 – McDonalds (Double Big Mac)
4 – Dairy Queen (Standard burger or any of the ice creams)
5 – Jack in the Box (Number 1 or Number 4)
6 – KFC
7 – Sonic
8 – Burger King
9 – Wendy’s
10 – Panda Express (Wouldn’t go here again even if I was 1 meal away from dying)

Top 10 favourite places

1 – Alberta (Jasper, Banff, Calgary and High River)
2 – Boston
3 – San Francisco
4 – New Orleans
5 – San Diego
6 – Texas (Austin, Lockhart)
7 – Vancouver Island
8 – Niagara on the Lake
9 – Seattle
10 – Las Vegas

Top 10 things to see

1 – Jasper/Banff national parks
2 – Alcatraz
3 – Grand Canyon
4 – Niagara Falls
5 – Graceland
6 – Monument Valley
7 – D.C. (Washington Monument, White House, Archives)
8 – New York (Empire State, Rockafella Center, Central Park)
9 – Valley of the Giants
10 – Meteor crater, Arizona

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