Penang. Penang, Penang, Penang. Sometimes when you say a word too many times it loses all meaning, other times it just becomes a word that get stuck in your head. Penang is one of those words that does both. What is a Penang? How do you cure a case of penang? What the penang is happening? It’s really penanging hot in here! Penang you too! It is a noun, a verb, an adjective, it is everything – yet what is a Penang?
Ok, that was just filling the void by randomly pounding the keyboard – and no, no substances were involved in concocting that thought train. Just, where exactly does the word Penang come from? Even more curious is that if you are from Penang you are considered a Penangite. Like say what?
Apparently, the word Penang comes from the reference to Pulau Pinang, which means The Island of the Areca Nut Palm. Ok, so does that mean if you are from there you are essentially a person of the nut? Hmmm, so many inappropriate references here.
More seriously though is that Penang is a highly educated, business and technology centre, with an ethnically diverse population, making it a highly sought after place to work and live for people all over the world. Makes sense that is a desirable place to work, as it is warm year round, safe, easy to get to, and is a modern city wrapped in an ancient shroud, with history coming out of every corner.
Travellers, especially the worldschooler community, are constantly raving about Penang, and seemingly everyone has spent 1 – 6 months here exploring all it has to offer.
Our adventures in Penang were compressed to about 2 weeks as it was really an in-between place for us. We had just left Singapore, without a plan, and we needed to figure out where to go next, so Penang suited everything we wanted in a stopover, except it was not as inexpensive a place as we first thought. It was by no means on par with the high costs of Singapore, but not the same as Sri Lanka, where we had been used to relatively inexpensive, well, everything!
Our foray into the world of Penang began with our first low-cost airline of our trip! Somehow we had found flights using major airlines to get us this far – all for almost the same cost as using the cheap-o-air versions. Our short hop from Singapore to Penang was at the back of an mostly empty aircraft on an average weekday evening. Moving further forward in the skybus would cost something (even though it was empty forward of row 15 or so) so we remained seated in our cramped, straight backed, seats for the 1 hour flight – no big deal. In fact I think it took us longer to get from the airport in Penang to our Airbnb than it did to get to Penang from Singapore by plane.
Our Penanging began with a drive by tour of the night life of Penang. No crazy lights or party people wandering the streets, but certainly no lack of inhabitants out in the steamy night air, enveloped in their enjoyment of some local culinary concoction, available at every corner. Nothing in Penang was ever to far from food – no activity, historical sight, or residence was ever more than a few steps from some sort of traditional dish.
The smells of Penang were both curious and alluring as they languished on the breeze, of which there was little the first couple days – but the smells of spices and curries were flung far and wide throughout the city and beyond. We had tried our best to stick to home cooking, as our Airbnb came with the use of an outdoor, but functional kitchen; however, the smells and sights of the local and imported cuisine brought us out of our cave and into the belly of the city – in search for delicious and nutritious (to an extent) nourishment (Ok, so I just misspelled that word (nourishment) on the first try (forgot the U), and the spelling suggestions were: nourishment or Irishmen, like really? … nutritious Irishmen.. who programmed this thing, Hannibal Lecter?).
Despite our lack of nutritious Irishmen to tickle our palate, the trip through the cuisine of Penang was filled with the promise of spice and diversity – both of which lived up to the hype. Indian, Chinese, Szechuan, Malay, Japanese, Korean, Western were a few of the food types available – along with mixes of the above and other labels that we didn’t understand or recognize. Anyway, we didn’t lack for choice in Penang.
One choice we did make, that turned out to be both delicious and worth the journey, was a vegan buffet place in the heart of the city (Georgetown). A variety of fantastic vegan dishes awaited us, with an extremely reasonable price tag attached to it – it was flavourful, filling, and nutritious – what more do you need?
Ok, so we didn’t just eat in Penang – we Penanged it up! We got out and explored! We ventured out on to a couple of the clan jetties in Georgetown. The rickety wooden jetties, home to Chinese family that settled in Penang, have been around for more than 100 years and extend out into the ocean from the city and seem to be barely holding on in places. We also wandered around Georgetown sweating and taking in the famous integrated artworks on a couple of occasions as well as visiting a little batik spot/museum, where we learned about how they make batiks.
Stopping to enjoy some flavoured iceballs to help cool us down was one of our favourite snacks in Georgetown. Of course doing anything in Penang in the middle of the day was hard, as the heat in Penang was constant and oppressive at times, yet still not as intense as Singapore (a 3 shirt-a-day town). Most days I am sure the humidity was probably running at 75% or more – so no dry days to be had there!
While gluttony wasn’t goal for our tour of Penang, we did indulge a few times when the lure was too strong. Delicious Indian curries danced across our tongues along with a few of our favourites from home (waffles!). Four other activities in Penang that made the favourites list, beyond eating, were the 3D Trick Art museum, the Penang Hill railway, a hike though the national park, and the outdoor splash pools!
The 3D Trick Art Museum was one of those places were you could pose in front of a number of scenes, painted to look 3-dimensional when photographed. You could be chased by a dinosaur, hang form a ceiling, or even ride in a rickshaw. The ‘museum’ was a bit over-priced for what it was and much shorter than expected – but it was one of the highlights of Penang for our kids, so probably worth it – but the cheese factor was high when walking through the museum. You can even find exampled of the 3D art in the Penang airport.
Up on the north end of Penang was the National Park, Taman Negara Pulau Penang. The national park was a great hike but a sweaty one! We recommend heading out early in the day, bringing tons of water, and if possible, take the boat ride back around. Also if you kids are a bit on the ‘are we there yet?’ side, keep an eye out for the wildlife, as there are lots of monkeys to keep you busy (and busy keeping your lunch safe). If you take the boat back after the hike to the turtle centre, you can stop in at the swimming beach (Monkey Beach), as the beach (Kerachut Beach) near the turtles isn’t ideal for swimming. During your hike you can even grab a couple of geocaches – like we did!
Another one of our outings was to the the Penang Hill Railway. The railway is a bit expensive, but cool way to see the city. As with many things around these parts, if you are a tourist, expect to pay double the rate of the local. I understand why, but had to learn to always look at the higher price first and expect to pay that. The ride up and the view of the island and surrounding area is great. The area at the top is full of vendors and guides, as well as an impressive compliment of oversized arachnids inhabiting the areas near the start of the trails. Our eldest daughter, and her lack of enthusiasm for the 8-legged insect eaters, definitely had s difficult walk along some of the trails because of the spiders lurking in the trees. Luckily for all of us, they were a relatively harmless species that was more interested in 6 legged prey than us. We only ended up spending a couple of hours there, around sunset, but probably could have stayed longer and done a bit more hiking; so plan wisely and expect to need a few hours to see and do it all up there.
Now, the other thing that made Penang a great stop over for us, was our hosts in the Airbnb. Yan and his family were tremendously friendly and welcoming. We felt that it was more a temporary home than a guesthouse. Our girls met his kids (also girls) who were the same age and they had a blast for the time we were there. They danced, played, watched youtube (As kids do) and had a great time! Other things making the house a great place was the location. It was right next to the beach and easy to get rides into town (get the Grab app), was clean, well stocked with clean drinking water and other necessities, and perfectly set up for families. We booked 8 days and stayed 13 in the end – as we didn’t see the need to move! That and some visa issues! On our last night we joined our host at a private party with his family and his friends from China and Penang; one was even an international movie star! All of them were super nice people and it was great to hang out to eat and drink with them. We even tried some very good Chinese alcohol to go with the hot pot dinner! Partying in Penang with new friends was a great way to end our stay!
So despite our best efforts to make Vietnam our next port of adventure – their inefficient visa system wasn’t up to the task (too slow – and note to people doing the same as us, don’t trust their ‘times’ for approval, expect twice as long as they say, and expect no reply to any inquiries) – so our pre-planned route took a hard right and headed south, below the equator, to the nation of islands known as Indonesia; Bali to be more specific. This is where our Penanging stopped and our search for the best nasi goreng turned up a notch! A dish found throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, and even the Maldives!
Next up… Indonesia, but who knows which blog will actually be finished next!
M (Secondary director of information and geography of the M4 travels)
Our time in Sri Lanka during our first foray into the ancient island nation was interesting and eye opening. We had slow travelled for most of the first month and spent the majority of the time in the northwest part of the country. Our one room rental was not luxury but allowed us to slow down and meet local people and enjoy what the area had to offer.
Our second stop back in Sri Lanka was going to be a bit different. We knew that we wanted to see some of the well travelled tourist spots in the south of the country, as they are popular for a reason, and not just sit still. So, with the images of the impossibly blue and turquoise waters of the Maldives still fresh in our minds we flew the giant bird back to Sri Lanka – back into the chaos!
Headed south, we took the fastest road in Sri Lanka. It was a toll highway that stretched from near Colombo to the south coast. Finally a road without cows, dogs, bikes, tuk-tuks and all sorts of other interlopers interrupting the flow of movement. We arrived in record time, for Sri Lanka anyway, and found our guest house in the old fort area of Galle.
Galle is a town set in and around an old Dutch trading fort. It was a nice setting for the views and sunset, but definitely was no longer what it once was. It is now filled with restaurants, bars, guesthouses, and souvenir shops. Each one trying to attract tourists with their increasingly elaborate signs and offers. Galle was the first place in Sri Lanka where we saw the local population seeiming outnumbered by tourists. It was strange, as we had spent most of the past 2 months in areas with few tourists, but now we were back in the belly of the beast – the tourist trail! (Dun-dun-dunnnn).
Our guest house was smack in the middle of the touristy area of Galle Fort, but you wouldn’t have known it was a guest house. It looked like an old mansion, well past its prime, potentially abandoned, but with lots of character, sitting in between shops. It wasn’t clear that it was anything at first – but once inside you could see it was a family home, one that had been there for a long time!
The owners were very kind and the patriarch of the family enjoyed talking the ear off of anyone that would listen. He was also very inquisitive and knowledgeable about a multitude of topics. He happily listened to everything we had to say, seemingly increasing his already vast knowledge of the world. Also, luckily here the girls also met a couple other little girls and had playmates for a couple evenings. Our room upstairs was in the back of the structure, a room that was best described as spartan, but livable. The old tiled roof was on its last legs and each morning greeted us with a fresh pile of its mortar on the floor next to the door. A balcony that might have once looked out over the ocean and the sunrise to the east, now stared directly into the adjacent buildings, and the garden below, that is if you dared to venture out on it. A fan that had 2 functioning settings, take-off and couldn’t push over a butterfly, was our only source of cooling during the stifling nights. Luckily a mostly functional mosquito net kept us from the abundant night time intruders doing their best to separate us from our blood, one small bit at a time!
Despite the obvious state of the house, the owners had an extreme amount of pride in their home. It had been in the man’s family for generations, built by one of his relatives long ago, and continued to serve as the centre for the current family. Renovations are badly needed, as the sky is clearly visible through the roof in places, and half of the upstairs isn’t even usable anymore – but that might be the future for another generation of the family – one that has a pride running deep for the area, and their home. While many of the other stately homes in the area have been sold to outside investors, looking for a base to get a piece of the tourist dollar in Galle, this home has, and will continue to stay in the family; at least that is their current plan.
The rest of our time in Galle was mellow. We ate some good food, toured the Japanese Peace Pagoda high above the hills opposite Galle Fort and even stopped in a turtle rescue centre / hatchery. The centre was a big hit for the girls, as who doesn’t love turtles! The guide gave us his best rendition of a tour, one that certainly had been given before, and we were able to see living examples of each species found in Sri Lanka. The organization is one of a few that are important for the turtles of Sri Lanka, so we hoped that our meager contribution would go to continue the efforts to help them. Another nearby attraction worth mentioning is the famous stilt fishermen. We were pretty underwhelmed and disappointed to see that the fishermen really only seemed to be there to pose for the tourists and to push tourists’ butts up the stilts to get their photos taken with rods (no line!), for money of course. We get this is how they make money now and, really, it’s probably better for the state of the fisheries but we just couldn’t…
After Galle, we headed along the coast to Mirissa, another stop on the tourist trek along the south coast. Here we stayed at a quaint little guest house with an extremely friendly family. Yeshin Guest house was the perfect location for heading to any of the area’s beaches and just relaxing. Our girls were lucky to have a little friend to play with in the host family’s son and many a day was spent by the three of them chasing and playing in their yard.
Welligama Bay, near Mirissa, was also the location where both our little adventurers learned to surf. Maëlle started the drive for finding the perfect wave and her little sister wasn’t far behind. Two days of lessons and more waves were caught than missed by these two super girls! It was amazing watching them show off their prowess on the boards. A balance that was acquired through gymnastics and dance came into use as the waves were no match for these little surfers! We think they might be hooked, as I’m sure this won’t be the last time we see these two on surf boards.
Another popular attraction in Mirissa is blue whale watching. While all four of us are adamant ocean creature lovers and never want to pass up a trip to see the majestic creatures of the sea, we just couldn’t make ourselves go for it. It wasn’t the cost, nor the time commitment, nor the boats being used (although really that should have been taken into account), but the methods used by the companies to ‘whale watch’. More than one account of the trip found on any number of traveller or review sites indicated that the whale watch was more of a whale harassment hunt, and the majority of the trip was spent chasing or surrounding the whales (when they found them), often well within the recommended safety zones around the whales. Nothing about that appealed to us, so we let it slide – the chance to see the blue whales was worth passing up if we could be part of the group that showed the tour operators that their procedures were not acceptable by the only way they would notice, by not getting our money.
Our last adventure around Mirissa involved getting train tickets for Sri Lanka’s most famous train ride; the Ella-Kandy route. We knew about this train and had wanted to see it for ourselves since we had planned on coming through this part of the country. Getting tickets wasn’t easy however, as it involved finding a train station that sold advance tickets. Not everywhere did that – so luckily a station near by Mirissa did, and we headed off to get some tickets. We picked out the route and the date and even added another train route to our itinerary, Kandy to Colombo, thus avoiding another horrendous car ride through the twisty roads near Kandy. Four tickets on both train rides, both in first class (with A/C), came to less than one car ride on one of those routes, so it was an easy choice! Unfortunately, the total had to be paid in cash – and we were about 150 Rupees short (around $1.10 CDN). Seriously eh? We had come all this way, figured out how to book tickets and still had to get back, but were just that much short of getting our tickets, and of course to fit with the cliché, the ticket booth was closing in a few minutes! So… we either we had to give up the tickets or change classes on one of the routes. Luckily we were able to go down to 2nd class on the Kandy-Colombo route and save some money, while still getting where we needed to go! We had concerns that the second class trains in Sri Lanka would resemble those of the lower class trains in India we had ridden years before, and thinking ahead we definitely were apprehensive about having those tickets. Luckily, those fears were never requited and the trains turned out to be just fine, if not in need of a good deep cleaning.
Soon our time in Mirissa was over and we were off to Udawalawe and the national park for another safari. We had considered going to Yala National Park and visiting the most popular of Sri Lanka’s National Parks, but the distance, the pending car rides to and from, the cost, and the hoards of tourists that would certainly be waiting made us reconsider and turn north to Udawalawe.
Udawalawe is a small hamlet in the middle of south central Sri Lanka. It is well positioned for guest houses to serve as the starting point for the visit to the near by National Park of the same name. We found a basic and non-remarkable place to stay to base out of and arrived after our trip from Mirissa. In hind sight we should have booked the evening safari the day of our arrival, or booked it out of town immediately after our safari the next morning, but we hung on in the little town for 2 nights – a place with very little to do.
Our safari to Udawalawe started out slowly, after an early morning start, with more waiting than animal watching. We ended up entering the park well after sunrise, in a traffic jam/stampede of jeeps carrying scores of tourists. Immediately however we were pleased to spot elephants near the entrance gate. Sauntering along to their own beat they slowly moved off into the brush to forage for their breakfast. The rest of the tour however, save for the other encounter for elephants, was less remarkable than expected. Perhaps our previous experience with a safari in Wilpattu had set the bar high, but the Udawalawe experience just didn’t quite meet our expectations. A driver than spent more time on his facebook account that looking out for things for us to see was only part of it. His crocodile spotting was on point, but seeing other things was a bit hit or miss. He spotted at least 3 crocs from a distance and made us spend a much longer time than needed staring at them, while he checked to see what had happened in the social media world since his last check 4 minutes ago. His timing was also perfect for taking off just as I had lined up a nice shot of a bird or animal. My camera has an over abundance of half blurred images caused from a lurching jeep and an underwhelming number of actual animal photos.
Luckily, just before the end of our drive through the jungle, we found a herd of elephants in the brush. While most of the drive around the park was watching the jeep drivers act just like they do on the main roads (rushing to a pinch point in the road, neither letting up an inch, and then spending the next 10 minutes inching by each other to get through – where a 5 second delay at the start, by either driver, would have allowed the other to pass easily and then it would have been over… but nope, that never happened), occasionally we were alone on one of the paths around the park. It was here that I saw the slimmest glimpse of grey in a patch of green and brown; one that the driver missed, likely during one of his frequent checks into who liked his most recent selfie! I yelled out for the driver to stop and back up and just emerging from the brush was a herd of elephants – a mother and baby and a number of juveniles. We sat quietly and alone as they fed and wandered around us. We were alone with the herd for at least 10 minutes before another jeep arrived, allowing us to watch the magnificent pachyderms get within about 5 m or less from us. It was incredible and a memorable experience.
In Udawalawe we saw about 10 elephants total; not too shabby! However, on our trip from Udawalawe to Ella we probably saw 5-6 elephants along side of the road, just waiting to be fed. A much easier, and cheaper, way to see the symbol of pride of Sri Lanka; and you don’t have to be up at 5 am to do it!
Next stop Ella. Another twisty, tortuous ride through the roads of the highlands and we were in the coldest place we had been in Sri Lanka! In the hills you didn’t even need a/c to feel comfortable at night. It was great! We stayed in a nice little guest house and walked to some of the most famous sites in Sri Lanka. We visited Little Adams Peak – a high point in the area. The girls did amazing on that day, despite the heat (yes it was still hot in the day) and hiked up and down this peak. The going wasn’t too tough, but at one point we saw a woman just above us lose her footing and fall over the side of the path. A flash of an arm, and the woman beside her grabbed her just before she fell head first. I ran to get underneath her, to catch her if needed, and helped push her back up the hill. No one was hurt luckily, but you could see the woman was a little shaken, but happy to have been helped!
Little Adams Peak provided a marvelous view of the surrounding hills and tea plantations, and of course another chance for the ubiquitous instagrammers to get their shot of staring off into the distance while looking over a cliff. They actually line up to do the same pose over and over again – often with a similar wardrobe.
After the peak we hiked over to the Nine Arches Bridge; perhaps Ella’s most famous photo spot. The bridge is a brick/stone nine arched train bridge that spans a ravine. It was built about 100 years ago and has become famous for the amazing views over the bridge and jungle and nearby tea plantations. It is a beautiful area and we ended up visiting twice, including once while the train came through, and once we even walked all the way back into town by the tracks – a long, hot journey, not recommended in the middle of the day.
Ella was even more touristy than Galle and the backpacker crowd clearly decends into this former sleepy grove in the hills en masse at all times in the year. Despite the constant threat of rain while we were there, the restaurants and the trails and the area was filled with crowds of travellers.
We only ended up staying a few days, they hopped onto the highly anticipated train for our trip through the scenic hills to Kandy. The train ride was filled with twists and turns, bridges and vistas, jungle and tea plantations, and finally sunset and then darkness. We ended up being in first class, with an over powered a/c unit, not actually needed for this trip, as the air was cool and fresh in the hills. We watched as this one couple spent at least 80% of the 6 hour (or so) trip hanging out of the door of the train trying to recreate the famous photos from this trip. I am sure they took at least 1000 or more photos, as the entire time they were snapping away. Sure it was beautiful, but I hope they saw it with their eyes and not just through the view finder of their phone.
Our second time in Kandy was more pleasant than the first. No one was sick, and we stayed with a fantastically fabulous family (Dilly and Samantha) just outside the city. They had a very comfortable Airbnb and were superhosts to the max! Totally! They were on top of everything and were extremely thoughtful. It was probably the best Airbnb host experience we had on our trip so far (and we’ve had a few). We decided to go easy on our last couple of days in Sri Lanka and just hung around the Airbnb and visited the terrific botanical gardens. These are not to be missed if you are in Kandy. They are a bit pricey to visit (by Sri Lankan standards) but worth it!
Finally as our time was winding down in Sri Lanka, this time for the last time on this trip, we took the train back to Colombo and stayed one final night near the airport before heading off to our next adventure in Singapore – another pet sit!
Our last day in Sri Lanka also corresponded with our youngest daughter’s birthday. She was going to have a birthday in the air! So we surprised her by ordering a cake to be served on the flight. The flight attendants on Sri Lankan Airlines were awesome. They brought out the cake and even sung happy birthday to her. She was a bit embarrassed, but I am guessing she won’t forget that for a while! The cake was delicious btw!
So with Sri Lanka behind us and a new adventure in South East Asia on the way we looked back at the past couple of months and the thousands of new memories we made. Sri Lanka has a place for everyone. Veteran travellers, neophytes to the world of adventure, and those just looking for the perfect insta shot will have their buckets filled with gorgeous scenery and generous people. We may have left Sri Lanka, but it won’t be leaving us anytime soon, as our memories will have us thinking about the place for years to come.
Another installment of the M4 travels brought to you by M (Managing Director of air travel)
Welcome to the island nation known as the Pearl of the Orient. The tiny but fierce island will challenge you to explore its rich history, its modern side, its seemingly endless beaches, and even more endless twisty roads. You will be immersed into a culture that on the surface resembles that of India, but has its own indelible history that will separate it, in your mind and heart, from the rest of the world. Food will be a pervasive theme on your voyage to find your reason d’etre in Sri Lanka. You will find few of the island delicacies pass your pallet with a whimper as they either excite or surprise you, but rarely disappoint. Vegetarians and vegans can delight in the variety of fruits and vegetables available at even the humblest of stands in the remote corners of the country. Eating your way around Sri Lanka is certainly one way to explore this country of ten thousand temples.
Sri Lanka, a place that has been known by many names, Ceylon, Serendip, Eelan, does not do anything quietly. It may be a small player on the world stage, but the 20+ million inhabitants of this island all have their part to play in the chaos and symphony of this nation – and certainly their influence on us travellers allows them to reach much further than their own shores.
We aim only to give a high level view of our travels of Sri Lanka, as we spent 6 weeks (during 2 visits) exploring and living in the communities around the island, as we could not do justice to a full post on the entire nation without writing a novel few of you would read! The M’s had many adventures in Sri Lanka, from safaris (yes we did 2!), to beaches, to markets, to hikes to scenic vistas, to just sitting back and talking with people who were from there. We experienced a lot of what Sri Lanka had to offer, but there was so much more. Six weeks in Sri Lanka is probably only akin to listening to the first track on a box LP set – but it was a start for us and gave us a great taste of life in the Indian Ocean.
The First Week
Our arrival in Sri Lanka was as the sun was setting and the evening ritual for the animal and human inhabitants of the island began. The cacophony of birds echoed around the airport tarmack as airplane door opened and the jungle surrounding us made it seem like we landed back in time. A blast of heat after exiting the over chilled air plane left us with lungs gasping ever so slightly for breath, but eyes and minds already filled with wonder and anticipation. Naively we were descending into the heart of the empire, the centre of the island nation’s chaos – Colombo, with nary an idea of what to expect.
The exit from the airport was smooth, but not quick. The customs agents, as per the usual, seemed to relish in watching the masses languish in lines snaking along the smooth tiled corridor. They moved with the urgency of a snake digesting its latest dinner, knowing that the line was never ending; always replenished by plane load after plane load of wide eyed foreigners in search of their self or, at the least, a few dozen Instagram worthy photos to make their friends or mates back home jealous.
After being spit out into the arrivals hall after collecting our baggage, we did the usual dance of avoiding the taxi touts and money exchange booths, searching for the required ATM to dispense to us our saved up cash for the highly anticipated visit. An hour or so later, cash and new mobile sim card in hand, we negotiated our way into a taxi to our guesthouse. The guesthouse was on the south side of Colombo, near the other airport, while the airport we just arrived into was on the north side. A seasoned veteran of Sri Lankan travel would have probably avoided this situation, but alas, we were but a new born into the world of Ceylon, and knew not of what awaited. Our previous journeys in India had prepared us for the potentials – but we had been assured that this would not be the same. We hoped, and then jumped in and waited to see what would happen. The first hour of our voyage of approximately 45 km to the guesthouse was spent mostly staring at the dark and watching as pedestrians passed our barely moving van. Hour two was spent mostly doing the same – with the youngest of our daughters finally succumbing to her requirement for sleep, and passing out gently in the backseat of the overheated, slightly dilapidated (ok, who am I kidding – barely roadworthy) taxi van. The constant hum of the motor at idle and the harmonious and incessant sounding of the car horns were more than she could handle after a long day of flying. Luckily we only flew for 4.5 hours from Dubai to get to Sri Lanka, but it was too much for a 4 year old to handle without much sleep. Hour three – will we even get there? I think I saw the same man with a cane who was walking back near the airport pass us. Hour four – yes, seriously, we finally arrive. A 45 km ride taking almost 4 hours was not an anomaly, but a foreshadow of our road adventures to come.
Our first sampling of the local hospitality left us with high hopes that our family adventures here in the jewel of Asia were going to be epic. The first host was inviting and thoughtful, as he had prepared a light snack for us on arrival. Of course it was way too spicy for our daughters to even look at, but the thought was there. With a rejuvenated spirit we quickly checked out our accommodations for the first two nights of our stay in Sri Lanka and then headed off to find some additional sustenance to allow us to survive til morning. Luckily a great local place, just across the rail tracks, on the beach was still open and happily serving the hungry locals and tourists alike.
The first two days were calm – beach, food, relax, repeat. Oh, and more food in there somewhere. We tried new and exciting dishes, things we didn’t know existed like kottu roti. The smells and textures had us eager for more; but soon it was off to our next location, one that we booked the night before and that was to be our home for the next month – the eco-house on the northwest coast; a mere 150 km up the coast.
Tracks in Mount Lavinia.
Beach at Mount Lavinia.
Restaurant on the beach
Arrival at the Eco-House
The Uber driver pulled over about 1 km down the dirt road leading to our next destination. The car, a slightly larger Honda Fit than available in North America, couldn’t make it any further. The ruts and pot holes (although that isn’t really a fitting description, as they were more like mini road lakes) were too much for the little Japanese import and its 5 cm of ground clearance when fully loaded with 4 travellers and their bags. The driver had gotten us the 150 km from our last place to here in a non-record setting 5.5 hours. It was a long, long ride. Luckily our last kilometer was a track well known by a local tuk-tuk driver, Ali, who had been coordinated by the home owner to meet us and guide us to the place, as it was not easy to find. Ali, who did his absolute best in trying to communicate with us, often resulting in both sides laughing a bit as we tried to figure out what each meant, did a couple trips to grab us and our bags, ferrying them and us to the house. Our Uber driver seemed slightly less than pleased about our location, but did the normal Sri Lankan thing and slightly nodded his head to the side, then was off, back to Colombo.
The first glimpse of the eco-house was through the open side of the tuk-tuk as it puttered its way into the gated yard. A small concrete structure dotted with what appeared to be plastic bottles embedded in the concrete stood off to one side of a decent sized yard, mostly filled with what seemed like crops, with not much else filling in the gaps around. A large beach dune imposed itself into the horizon 100 m or so to the west, a small line of dense jungle vegetation separating us from that dune. We came to love and hate that dune over the next few weeks, as it signified both a healthy beach environment but an obstacle to conquer each time we ventured forth to enjoy the coast. Our oldest daughter came to name it the ‘dune of doom’ as it was our routine to often voyage over the dune some time during the heat of day – a journey filled with sweat, sand, and mosquitos, and for her, the potential for the encounters with spiders made it that much worse!
The house from the outside
Tuk Tuk in the yard
Climbing up the dune of doom
Decending the dune of doom to the beach
The interior of the eco-house was not exactly completely spartan of amenities, I mean it had a bed (yes, one, big enough for 4), a bench, a bookshelf, a huge spider, a fridge, and a huge overhead fan, that did little but move the dust around – as we would, with great despair, find out on our first night, but it most certainly was not luxury. A basic life was to be had here and we were in for it. The sleeping situation became one of a large family style bed – we all shared and sweated equally, passing into the sleep each night after reaching a point of heat exhaustion.
An outdoor kitchen and bathroom rounded out the experience, with a lanai/porch area available for both eating and entertaining. Our adventure began at the eco-house in early December, continued through Christmas and New Years, and included many a day spent traversing the dune of doom to the beach and writing a few of the precursors to this blog. A trip to town here and there, oh and a trip to the hospital were also part of the eco-house experience; as we learned soon after arriving that the no-see-ums certainly do like to bite – and infection sets in easy in the humidity! All is well now, so no worries there! So after this experience we learned that our daily routine required change, so each day we applied a liberal amount of sunscreen and insect repellent before venturing forth out of the house – it was a must! Spending time outside also included the use of a stand up fan and mosquito coils at all times.
We honestly only made it through the weeks in the house because of the help of Sureka. Sureka, a local woman hired to help cook, get food and run errands, and clean around the house was a savior. She helped us figure out how things worked in the area, told us not to expect too much to happen around Poya, and helped us to develop a taste for real Sri Lankan cooking and food. Every breakfast and dinner she made was painstakingly thought out and prepared with care. Curries, dahls, papadams, naan, fish, veggies, rice, chapatti, coconut pancakes, pastas, everything for us and our kids was fresh and ready when we asked. It was a veritable selection of Sri Lankan delicacies that adorned the table each day, with favourites on repeat on request. A favourite of one of us, not to be named, was a dahl that showed up day in and out on the breakfast menu. It was delicious the first few times, but wore its way off the must-have list for the rest of us after a few days; either way, the effort to accommodate us whenever we asked was there, and she was an absolute necessity for staying, and worth every penny we paid to her. She was also lovely and brought her youngest son with her several times. Though he did not speak any English, he really liked playing with the girls and it was fun to watch them run around.
Christmas and New Years (and a birthday!)
A tropical Christmas was a new experience for the girls. They knew little outside of rain and cold at Christmas, except a couple of years ago where the white stuff made a rare appearance at this time of year. We did our best to prepare our daughters for the Christmas away and in the remote location – as it wasn’t going to be the usual present filled experience they have seen so far. We have always emphasized the importance of family time over presents, but we certainly weren’t going to completely eliminate the experience for them this year. Santa made his requisite visit and left a few small toys to delight the kiddos; however, the bigger part of this was spending time making and decorating the few ornaments we hung on a small tropical bush growing in front of the house. Of course we may have now implemented a new Christmas time tradition. The house had a pole on the patio in front which caused many an impromptu pole dancing party. Pole dancing to Christmas music while wearing Christmas hats in the heat will certainly be something we won’t forget.
Christmas day was actually spent at a local resort, a 45 min walk down the beach. Here the girls enjoyed the pool while sampling some rarely found western cuisine. One of us was confined to pants in this heat because of the infected insect bites and was not able to partake in the aquatic Christmas festivities. Another part of our December was the birthday of our eldest daughter. She knew her present, but none-the-less squealed with joy upon receiving her most anticipated gift yet – a mermaid outfit and mermaid fin! She could now swim with the mermaids and other sea creatures, as she clearly was ready to do so! The weather held that day, despite the previous days of rain, and she frolicked away in the waves for much of the afternoon. Rare to see her happier than that day! Made it worth it for all of us.
New Years came and went with little celebration outside of a small tip of the cup with Mr. Gordons and his friend Ms. Tonic. Side note to everyone reading: finding tonic outside of a major grocery store is not easy in the northwest part of Sri Lanka. In fact, it was a difficult beverage to acquire in most areas, so if you have a need for Mr. Gordons, Mr. Bombay, or Ms. Tanqueray to have a companion to mix it up with, stock up when you find it!
Cleaning the Beach
Our oceans are in trouble. Those who doubt that can stop reading this blog right now and google any number of articles on the plastic problem in our ocean and all over the planet. Seriously, stop reading and get educated. Go… then come back!
Our first glimpse of the coast was one of utter shock and then awe. We couldn’t believe that this vast expanse of reddish-brown sand was practically deserted, save for a few fishers, but was absolutely covered in plastic waste. It was an unimaginable sight – to stand on a remote beach, in a relatively sparsely populated area of an island in the Indian Ocean and have to pick your way through plastic to get to the sand on the beach. We were honestly both saddened and motivated to not let this stay as it was.
Marianne organized a clean up, and just after new years, after spending weeks picking at the trash here and there by ourselves, a group of locals joined our cause to clean this section of the beach and adjacent dune. A brief bit of education about plastic along with the physical labour of the clean-up crew (mostly kids) resulted in a 200 m section of beach going mostly plastic free in just over an hour and a half. A great start for this beach, but unfortunately, likely to be one of many efforts required to keep it clean. Turning our back on the problem isn’t our way and Marianne has the drive to get these things going, and hopefully has started the spark in the locals to keep it that way. The owner, though away, helped us organize this initiative and hopes to continue doing regular clean-ups.
Wilpattu National Park
A to do list of Sri Lanka, or a bucket list for those so inclined to enjoy the cliche, must include a safari. The typical safaris are those in the south, Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park, as they have been widely spread over social media, and rightly so for their bountiful and extraordinary wildlife. However, Wilpattu NP is a national park not to be missed! We will compare safaris on a later blog, as we were fortunate to have the chance to do two of the three NPs mentioned above. No spoilers here however, but we will let you know the details!
So our New Years Day started early, as there was little fan-fare or ball-dropping going on the night before, except a few minutes of fireworks around midnight in sleepy northwest Sri Lanka, and sleeping in with the heat was not really an option. So with a two-hour tuk-tuk ride with Ali planned, we weaved our way through the crowded streets of Puttalam and along the elephant frequented road that led to Wilpattu. This was our first real adventure tourism in Sri Lanka. A single stop for a cold ice cream to break up the tuk-tuk ride was our only respite for that arduous journey. Anyone who has ridden in the back of a tuk-tuk will attest that it is not the most comfortable, nor the coolest ride. This stop also provided us with a highlight from that trip. During the ice cream break, while the 4 Ms were thoroughly enjoying their frozen treat in the 30+ C heat, Ali proclaimed, quite loudly and seemingly out of nowhere, “Bathroom. It’s a go!!” and off he rushed. Sensing an urgency behind his words we assumed that he had proclaimed his intentions to keep us from wondering about his sudden lack of presence. Ten minutes or so later, looking sweaty and disheveled, he emerged from the back of the poorly lit store, wiping his brow furiously with a well used handkerchief, he quietly indicated he was ready to proceed with the journey. That bathroom break nearly did him in and none of us wanted to repeat his bathroom journey for fear of appearing as though we had barely survived that trip to the porcelain throne. The rest of the trip to the park was as the first part, hot, sweaty, and filled with the monotonous hum of the tuk-tuk’s severely under powered 4-stroke engine. We did actually love tuk-tuk rides!
Bright and early the next day, we piled into the modified pick-up truck (aka the jeep) and headed into the park in search of the elusive and majestic leopards, along with the hope of spotting an equally sight-worthy elephant. The guesthouse we stayed at had a reception and dining area lined with spectacularly close-up shots of the many leopards of the adjacent national park, wetting our appetite and filling our dreams with the chance meeting of an apex predator on its own turf. Our safari was a 5 hour ride through the bumpy dirt roads of the park searching for leopards, elephants, iguanas, peacocks and all sorts of other wild creatures. We saw our fair share thanks to our jeep driver / guide with his more than impressive sight, but the elusive leopard, the spotted ninja of the park, was just that, and never showed a hint, outside of a few footprints in the sand, that s/he even existed. No matter, as we knew that was the cherry on the icing to see a leopard, we left fulfilled with our current roster of Sri Lankan wildlife in the memory banks and on the memory cards.
The last week of our first visit
Our next week there was our last of our first visit, and we spent most of it in Kandy. Unfortunately, even the most careful of us can succumb to any number of the germs out to get us, and in Kandy the youngest of our brood spent the better part of 4 days battling a stomach bug that jumped up and got her, and only her, seemingly from out of nowhere. A calm, hotel bound final few days in Sri Lanka went by quickly, and except for our visit to the very entertaining traditional dance / cultural show the majority of Kandy’s culture and temples were left for another visit. Fortunately our little one healed up completely, just in time for another harrowing ride through the narrow, over crowded streets of this tear drop shaped nation – the last before heading to another type of paradise surrounded by turquoise.
So, Sri Lanka… there is so much we didn’t say about you. How could I accurately describe the feeling you give people when they arrive completely unaware of the full-on experience they are going to get. Your tuk-tuk and car rides could be a video game, but with many lives, as getting through unscathed is almost impossible! Your food both assaults and delights your senses, as the spices sneak up on you and overtake the other tastes and linger like a friend that just won’t leave after the party is over. Every bit of the country is alive at seemingly every minute of the day and night, except that one time we rode to the airport at 3 am, and we only saw about 5 people on bikes and 2 people standing randomly staring at the side of the road. All of your beauty and faults come front and center for every local, tourist, and traveller to see – and love them or hate them, they are what make your country unique and a can’t miss place to visit.
This was but our first of two visits, as we came back for more, which will be continued in another blog.
Written by M (sub-inspector of hand cleanliness and teeth brushing)
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