India and Sri Lanka

Hello everyone! You may or may not (probably the latter!) have noticed that the blog was silent for the month of January – this is because I happily avoided its associated blues by going on holidays! My destination? Well, you’ve already guessed it from the title: India and Sri Lanka.

So I want to write a blog post about the trip for anyone who may be interested in visiting that part of the world at some time in the future! They are both beautiful countries with a lot to offer to tourists.

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Refreshing pomegranate, lime and mint soda looking out over the sea in Varkala, Kerala.

This was my 6th trip to India! The first question a lot of people seem to ask when you say you’re going on holidays to India is ‘why’?! For me the answer is very simple – since I was 7, my mother and I have been involved with an NGO based in Kerala, Embracing The World. The charity is headed up by the world renowned spiritual leader Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, but who is more commonly known as Amma, meaning mother. She founded the largest charitable network in India, among which she has built schools, world class hospitals and a top university, has planted  over a million trees and built thousands of houses. She travels the world (even here to Ireland!) spreading her message of peace, love and compassion, and greets personally every single person who comes to see her, which has earned her the nickname of ‘The Hugging Saint”.

The HQ of Embracing the World is located in a remote part of Kerala, on a small strip of land between the famous backwaters and the magnificant Arabian Sea. It’s a huge ashram (for a loose translation: monastery) where some of the optional daily activities include voluntary service, yoga and meditation. It is an amazing place where you will meet a whole host of interesting people from different walks of life – some nice, some crazy and some who will become lifelong friends! As for food, there is something to cater for even the fussiest eater between the Indian and Western meals on offer, although everything is vegetarian. The cost of food ranges from free (for the basic Indian meals) to 120 INR (€1.60) for the most expensive item on the menu. On average you’ll spend around €2-3 per day on food. (The accommodation is in the form of very basic ‘flats’ consisting of a mattress on the floor, although you can request a bed, a sink and a basic en suite wetroom, and will cost you  350 INR per night (€4.60).

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The beautiful view from the Amritapuri apartment blocks looking over Kerala’s famous backwaters. In the left of the photo, Amrita University is visible.

So back to our trip! We flew from Cork to London Heathrow, from there we took a 9 hour flight to Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka), before taking a short 1 hour flight to Kochi in India. A three and a half hour taxi (which we had pre-booked) took us from the airport to the ashram in Amritapuri, and set us back 4000 INR (€52). We ended up having a bit of a disasterous start to the trip in that Sri Lankan Airlines lost our luggage and our taxi briefly caught fire en route to our destination! But this is India, so no biggie! A note on Sri Lankan Airlines: pleasant to fly with, but I would not do so again due to the hassle we had with our bags. Their staff at Cochin Airport were completely incompetent and their customer service is AWFUL! My mom rang them 29 times from Ireland in trying to trace our bags, only to be hung up on 3 times and get absolutely nowhere! Bags eventually turned up 3 days later and Donal (my partner) had to make the 7 hour round trip to collect them himself. Instead I would fly with Emirates or Etihad from Dublin to the Middle East, and then directly to Cochin or Trivandrum in Kerala.

We spent 6 nights in the ashram before traveling to Varkala, a beach paradise about 2 hours away. A taxi from ashram cost INR 2000 (€26.60) to get there. Accommodation in Varkala varies, from the luxurious to the disasterous! We went down the backpacker end of the scale and stayed at Mango Park for €8 per person a night. While I wouldn’t say it was ‘nice’, it was grand! It did the job for the two nights we were there, and was in a good location. The touristy part of Varkala is situated along a cliff top which perches above miles of golden rich sand. There are oodles of options when it comes to choosing a place to eat. My favourites are definitely Cafe Del Mar and Little Tibet (make sure you try a Lemon Mint drink at the latter for a delicious afternoon refreshment). You won’t be going on a wild party here, cocktails are shite, but most places offer the local Kingfisher beer which isn’t bad at all!

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Varkala’s leisurely sunsets are not to be missed.

Next we took an early morning hour long flight from the nearby Trivandrum Airport (TRV) to Colombo (CMB), the capital of Sri Lanka. We took a taxi from the airport for 10,000 LKR (€52) straight to Galle (pronounced Gawl). Here we stayed for two nights in the old Dutch fort part of the city. It had a real Mediterranean vibe, which is not surprising due to its rich colonial history, and reminded me a bit of Kinsale. We stayed in the most amazing small boutique hotel, Antic Guesthouse, which I honestly could not recommend enough. Everything was top class from the rooms, to the decor, the service, the food and the location. It was a little bit pricier than our other accommodations at $120 a night for the two of us, but it was definitely worth it.

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Delicious traditional Sri Lankan breakfast served at Antic Guesthouse, including an egg hopper, dhal, coconut sambol, tuna curry and fresh seasonal fruit (the passionfruit was to die for!).

Galle Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a walk around the old fort walls at sunset is not to be missed. Featuring spectacular views of the sea, lighthouse and Japanese Peace Pagoda across the water, it is a tourist and local hotspot at sunset in particular. We had a great time tasting ten delicious local curries at Lucky Fort Restaurant, but arrive early as it’s a really popular spot offering the best value around at 1500 LKR (€7.80) for dinner for two. For nice and reasonably priced European food, try Pedlar’s Inn.

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Sunset walk around the old walls of Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Be sure to venture outside of the fort into Galle itself to experience the real hustle and bustle of this great Sri Lankan town with its fantastic vegetable and spice markets, but be careful of scamming locals and tuc tuc drivers who hang around the entrances to the fort offering to show you around. They will bring you to certain markets and corner you in the shops trying to force you to buy things you don’t want! Do not pay more than 100 LKR for the tuc tuc into town, or alternatively walk the 5 min if you feel comfortable doing so.

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Old fish and vegetable markets in Galle.

From Galle we took a 6,000 LKR (€32), 2 hour taxi ride to Tangalle. We stopped off en route at a sea turtle sanctuary in Koggala. It cost just a few Euro for a guided and interactive tour where you get to see and hold several types of sea turtles, some of whom are permanent residents due to missing flippers.

We stayed one night at the Cinnabar Resort in Tangalle. This place was situated in the most spectacular location imaginable – the most beautiful golden stretch of beach. The hotel itself consists of basic tree cabins ($60 per night incl. breakfast), but be aware that  they accept cash only. It can only be described as a tropical paradise! Sunloungers and hammocks a-plenty, there is a really relaxed vibe about the place. The food isn’t great, but they do passable pizzas from a wood fired oven at night. Again – skip the cocktails, but make sure you go for a walk on the beach at sunset.

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Lazy lays and sunset ways in Tangalle

From Tangalle we took a 7,000 LKR (€36.50) taxi journey to Uda Walawe in order to visit the national park of the same name. We stayed at Kottawatta Village for one night at a cost of $46. The accommodation wasn’t great, and the food available in the hotel was overpriced and, for want of a better word, pretty yucky! They did have a nice pool and were able to organise our trip into the national park at dawn. The safari trip costs 4,000 LKR (€20.90) per jeep, which usually seats 6 people, but beware – despite the hotel assuring they will fill each jeep with other guests, come morning time they quickly usher everyone into separate jeeps to ensure they get a maximum payload. My advice: talk to some of the other guests around (who are all there for the safari as there is nothing else to do in the area) and pair up to ensure a full jeep.

The safaris set off before dawn to the entrance of Uda Walawe National Park where everyone has to alight from the jeep in order to pay the 3,600 LKR entrance fee (€18.80). Be careful here not to pick up a “Volunteer Guide” unless you’re willing to fork out a hefty tip! The National Park itself is famed for its elephants, and within minutes of entering we were greeted by a large male elephant not more than 10 metres away. We saw dozens of elephants, including adorable little babies, water buffalo, a crocodile, peacocks and actual cheeky monkeys who gave chase! The scenery in the remote park is totally wild and undisturbed, but unfortunately the drivers are inclined to be quite aggressive with other each other in order to get their passengers as close to the elephants as possible, without giving much regard to the animals’ well-being.

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Wild Asian Elephant and her baby in Uda Walawe National Park

All-in-all the safari takes around 4 hours, and the hotel will send you off with a small packed breakfast and water, but do bring a jumper or cardigan as it is unexpectedly cold in the windowless jeeps. Be aware it is also expected of you to tip your driver. If you have back issues, I would advise you to unfortunately give it a miss, as the jeeps go over very rough terrain at times. I cannot adequately describe how bumpy it is – all I’ll say is wear a sports bra!

We took an 8,000 LKR (€41.80) taxi journey to the magical town of Ella, four hours away in Hill Country. Here we spent two wonderful nights at the newly opened Arana Sri Lanka Eco Lodge and Yoga Center at a cost of $45 per night. The hotel is built into the hill-side, with natural materials. Our beautiful room had two existing trees going through the walls and out the ceiling, and from our little balcony we had a wonderful view of the valley through the foliage. The owners are very warm, pleasant and helpful, and will call a tuc tuc into town for you if you don’t feel like the 10 min walk. (Small warning about this place – if you have poor mobility or are traveling with small kids, be aware to access this property you have to go up and down a lot of steep steps).

There are lots of fabulous walks and hikes around Ella, and we opted for an early morning walk up Little Adam’s Peak at sunrise. The views are absolutely breathtaking, and it’s a pretty easy, half-hour climb that’s very achievable in normal runners. We walked from Little Adam’s Peak to Nine-Arch Bridge, and from there walked along the train tracks back into Ella town. The whole thing probably took around 3 hours. Although we didn’t do it, a friend-in-the-know recommends to also do the more difficult hike to Ella Rock, which takes around 4 hours and a pair of hiking boots!

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Relaxing street dog oblivious to the gorgeous views from the top of Little Adam’s Peak, Ella

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Walking along the train tracks atop Nine Arches Bridge, Ella

In Ella town, stop at Starbeans Cafe for a hit of caffeine, or a delicious blended iced tea at Chill Restaraunt Bar. The latter is, without doubt, the best place to eat in town! Like its name suggests, it has a really ‘chill’ vibe with the upstairs deck full of backpackers and beanbags! The food is delicious and there are many cuisine options on offer. Donal really enjoyed the local offering which was wrapped and baked in a banana leaf!

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Starbeans Cafe, Ella

On the recommendation of some backpackers, we took a 20 min bus down the mountainside to visit a remote and ancient Buddhist monastery built into a cave in the 1st century BC, Rakkhiththakanda Len Viharaya Cave Temple. The resident monk offered us yoghurt and fruit on arrival and gave us a tour. The view from the monastery was absolutely breathtaking and the walls of the temple, which is situated inside the cave, are covered in rich and colourful paintings dating from the Kandyan Era. You could see for miles and miles into the distance. With a donation box in the corner, you are obliged only by your conscience to make a payment.

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View from Rakkhiththakanda Len Viharaya

After spending two nights in Ella we headed for Nuwara Eliya via train. You’ll need to book the train in advance as the seats fill up days in advance (trust me – we very almost missed out!). A first class ticket in an airconditioned and uncrowned carriage will cost you 1,000 LKR (€5.20). The 3 hour journey through the tea plantations in the hill country offers superb views from the right side of the carriage for most of the journey.

Nuwara Eliya… We spent two unforgettable nights here! But unforgettable because we couldn’t wait to leave!! The Nanuoya train station that serves Nuwara Eliya is about a 15 minute tuc tuc journey from town. The journey should cost 700 LKR max, so don’t be afraid to haggle with greedy drivers. We stayed for at The Farmhouse which was in a beautiful location in the hills above town. It was cheap at $30 a night, but that’s about all the nice things I have to say for it, so I’ll say no more. There’s not an awful lot to do in Nuwara Eliya, and it’s surprisingly, bloody cold there as it’s so high up in the mountains. The locals even call it Little England due to its climate! There’s an uncomfortable divide in the town between locals and tourists. The wealthy stay and dine at the beautiful old colonial hotels situated behind the golf course on the side of town, while the locals largely stick to the town center.

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Nuwara Eliya Town

While we were there we took an interesting trip to the Damro Tea Estate where we had a free tour of the working factory and were given a complementary tasting of one of the teas produced there. There was no pressure to buy anything or even tip, and the estate itself is really beautiful so it’s definitely worth a visit. We tried to visit the popular Pedro Tea Estate, but it was closed due to the local Tamil population celebrating the monthly Pongal festival. Instead, we took an enjoyable walk up to the nearby Lover’s Leap Waterfall. Enjoy great and well priced food at the Grand Indian from 6 pm (arrive on time or make a booking as it fills up in about 5 min!).

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Damro Tea Estate

From Nanuoya train station, we took a 400 LKR (€2) long-assed, uncomfortable, third class train journey back to Colombo (book your tickets several days in advance to avoid this!). We had one evening in Colombo and very wisely decided to spend it at the number 1 ranked restaurant in Sri Lanka 2017, Ministry of Crab. Having booked it in advance at the recommendation of a very wise friend, we feasted on the most amazing sea food imaginable. My mouth is watering just thinking of it now! We had a garlic chilli crab, garlic pepper tiger prawns and butter soy prawns with fresh rice and bread. If you’re in Sri Lanka you have to go to this place. Full stop!

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We stayed at Neo Holiday Home near Colombo airport. Booked in advance, we paid €25 for the night, and so were unsure of what to expect. But our fears were misplaced as it turned out to be a really nice, spacious and clean place with airconditioning that was only 5 min from the airport.

We flew from Colombo back to Kochi (CMB to COK) in India for three more nights. We took a cheap bus ride from the airport, through the city centre, to Fort Kochi, where we stayed at the Old Light House Bristow (€95 per night). They gave us a free upgrade on arrival, and the remarkably lovely receptionist, Anne, made us feel right at home. There’s a lazy and relaxed vibe in the old fort, and you can find some great bargains in some of the shops. Make sure you enjoy a cup of tea and slice of cake at the Teapot Cafe. Unfortunately that’s about all I can recommend in the area as I woke up the next morning in agony from a severe inflamed stomach that briefly landed me in hospital! The hotel and hospital staff were all so kind to me, and turned the nightmare of a situation around in lightening speed once we asked for help.

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Inside Teapot Cafe, Fort Kochi (splash out on a silver tips tea here!)

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Spice hunting in Fort Kochi

It is a trip I can’t recommend enough to take. It’s an exciting adventure filled with ups and downs, rich in color and culture, and overflowing with memories.

 

Notes:

Make sure to bring buckets of mosquito repellant as it’s surprisingly not widely available. Especially for Sri Lanka as there is currently no available vaccine for Dengue Fever.

A lot of people worry about the toilet situation – don’t! Everywhere we went had western toilets with water hose attachments to clean yourself.

For traveling to India and Sri Lanka as an Irish citizen you will need two separate electronic visas costing €50 and $30 respectively, which you can apply for online here and here. You will need to bring a printed copy of your Indian visa with you once you receive a confirmation email.

Pack as lightly as you can, and preferrably use a back pack if you’re going to hill country (trust me on this as having made both of those mistakes!).

Be prepared to be extremely patient when dealing with any authorities or public services.

Don’t drink any tap water, but drink plenty of bottled water and fresh juices throughout the day to stay hydrated in the hot climate.

As you cannot buy either Indian or Sri Lankan rupees here, you can exchange your money in the airport when you arrive. ATMs are hard to come by in Sri Lanka, and most places do not accept card, so take out sufficient funds upon arrival.

The best time to travel to this region is a month or two either side of New Years. European summer time coincides with the monsoon season and so isn’t the best time to go.

 

 

 

 

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