Monday, 27 February 2017

Crossing from Asia to America - via Hong Kong

Hong Kong: 23/02/17 - 27/02/17

The last step of our Asian adventure...

So after a brilliant 6 or so months in Asia, our last destination was somewhat forced upon us. After months of checking for the cheapest/best flights across the Pacific, we finally settled on a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago. We knew it was risky going to the Windy City in the middle of Feb, but it was nearly double to fly to the west coast as we'd previously planned. Hong Kong was also the cheapest place to fly from, so that was that. 

We thought it'd be cool being able to explore HK for a few days, but as we soon discovered it's a pretty expensive city. It's one of the most expensive places in the world for buying property, so with that comes expensive hostels, and everything else. As was also explained to us, you can rent a cage in a flat to sleep in, which comes with a shared kitchen and bathroom, and which costs roughly the same as a flat to rent in Cardiff. We had looked at hostels in HK, but the cheapest (at 15 quid a night for a double) was in the middle of one of the most densely populated parts of the city, and we were told was not a place you wanted to stay. We also walked past it one day and it looked incredibly dodgy. Therefore, we decided to continue Couchsurfing, as we found its the best way to meet new people, explore an unknown city and save some money! After sending 200 (no exaggeration) requests, we had one answer - from Amanda. She was our saviour, as we may have had to live in the airport if we'd had no answers! 

The difference between the buisness part and the old part of town

Amanda lived in a fairly quite part of HK which was nice. It was busy, but as we soon learnt, the main centre is crazy. You have the mix of huge skyscrapers and office buildings, and the old high rise apartments which are straight out of a Kung Fu movie. As Amanda had a busy schedule working in a hospital, most of the time we spent in HK we walked around of our own accord (going by some of Amanda's recommendations), but we did spend a day being shown round the older part of HK and having a brilliant food tour by our host! That was definitely the best part of our few days! 

As I'm fond of lists, bullet points, and not writing a lot (pretty much the opposite of Bob's writing style), heres a run down of what we did in our last stop is Asia: 


  • Avenue of Stars: This was pretty much a long avenue (as the name suggests), celebrating many different actors, actresses and singers from Hong Kong and around. There was a statue of Bruce Lee and a wall of handprints from many different celebrities/directors/actors (most of whom I didn't know). Part of the avenue was closed, but it was interesting to walk down. There's an especially nice view over the river of the Hong Kong skyline.
  • Star Ferry: This was another tourist attraction recommended to us. For very cheap you can get a very from mainland HK to the main island. The views are beautiful, and we took it at night as well which is even nicer as the skyline is incredible. 
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  • Victoria Peak: Yet another tourist thing to do, but again the views of the city are amazing. It took us about 2 hours / 1 1/2 hrs to reach the top (it's quite a tough climb but on a road). The walk was probably the best bit though, as at the top you meet the people (so many people) who took the tram up, and there's a huge mall. It kind of takes away from the great view, and they try to get all your money by charging you to get up to the observation deck. We just got some chips instead and looked out over the poor-persons view. We also did this hike the day we were leaving for the airport, in an effort to tire ourselves out for the 13hr flight/sleep in HK airport. 
  • Science Museum: We were entertained for hours in this museum. We didn't expect to spend long there, and for 2 quid we didn't think we'd get much, but we spent nearly 4 hours walking round marvelling at the dinasaurs (there was an interactive VR headset thing) and playing with the electricity exhibition.
  • Being generally amazed by all the buildings: As we're cheap and on a budget, most of the things we do are walk around and look at things. This was easy in HK as theres so much to see! The new, upmarket, buisness district is crazy with it's huge shiny skyscrapers, and very busy streets, Then just up the street you're taken into the more genuine HK - closely built highrise apartments, filled with people. The streets below are also filled with people, stalls, animals and cars, as well as tiny little cafes selling everything.
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Those views though!! 

Our day with Amanda

This day definitely needs its own section, as we did a lot of cool stuff/ate a lot of good food. We started the day at a Michelin Starred Dim sum restaurant, which although had a big queue, was worth waiting for. We gorged on all types of dumplings and dim sum, and then took a walk around the streets of the older part of town. Amanda explained that every street 'has its own this'. So you get streets filled with people selling toys, aptly names Toy Street. There's one for clothes, shoes, tech and even animals. We spent a while gazing at all the kittens and puppies in the shop windows. Whilst walking around this part of the city, we also took a few stops to try more classic Asisan/HK/Chinese food. We tasted delicious pineapple bread (name due to how it looks like the fruit, not because it contains it) and tea, fried chicken, octopus balls (interestingly tasty), spicy curry skewers, mango pudding, bubble waffles and pork balls. Safe to say we were very full by the end of the day. 

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, foodTo attempt to walk the food off we also took a mini-hike to the top of a hill to watch the sunset. Unfortunately it was a bit too cloudy to see the sun, but we had a great time chatting and looking at the views. Before we went home, we took one last trip to some food stalls, and walked through a busy market street filled with old women dancing to classic HK music, as well as men dancing with dogs (?!).

We were very very grateful for the amazing tour and insight we had into the city with Amanda, and that she let us crash in her lovely apartment!

So our few months in Asia came to an end in Hong Kong airport at about 6am (after sleeping on the floor in said airport for about 5 hours). Well, we actually had a stopover in China but that doesn't count as it was a nightmare - nearly didn't make the Chicago flight as the queues for security were massive and the guard was messing around with my bag. We were very sad to leave this beautiful continent, as we'd had so much fun and seen so many things. It had been cheap, full of tasty food, and we'd met lots of great people. From navigating Indonesian mountains on scooters in the rain, to being overwhelmed in Delhi, to jumping into lagoons in Laos, we really didn't want to leave. But we were looking forward to the American half of our adventure and seeing old friends, and family! 

Sarah x

For more photos -- Instagram: wheres_halliday



Monday, 28 November 2016

Sawasdee Thailand - A Week in Phuket

Phuket: 22/11/16 - 28/11/16

From 2 weeks in Indonesia to a month in Thailand...

After a pretty hectic 2 weeks in Bali and Java, we flew to Phuket (Thailand's biggest island - south Thailand) to relax. This was pretty exciting for me for 2 reasons: I love Thailand and we were meeting up with my two most favourite friends for a week. We arrived on the 22nd of November '16, and met up with Sam and Beky on the 23rd. On arrival in the airport we were a bit annoyed to find that every ATM in Thailand has a 200bhat (approx 5gbp) ATM charge, which was annoying because it meant we had to get a lot of money out at once. Apart from this, Phuket airport was pretty nice and we managed to get a metered taxi to our condo. 

Reunited
Now we'd been travelling on a pretty tight budget up to this point (forgetting Europe, because Spain in summer is crazy expensive), so we were used to staying in 0 star hostels, on mattresses I'm sure were made from brick, in the loudest part of town (see: India) for about 3-5gbp a night. However, obviously because it was a proper holiday for Beky and Sam it wasn't really fair to them to stay somewhere like that. So Sam had booked us a pretty nice condo on Air BnB for about 60GBP each for 5 nights. Bob and I arrived a day early so got to check it out first - it was very nice. Huge living room/kitchen, 2 bathrooms and 2 bedrooms. The bed was amazingly comfy (in comparison to others; see: India) and there was a swimming pool. Only downside was it was located a bit far away from the attractions. 

The week we spent in Phuket was pretty amazing, albeit expensive. We rented a car for a few days as it was the easiest way to get around (props to Beky and Bob for driving the pretty crazy roads, and to me for navigating. And to Sam for the top quality conversation). We also got to chill on the beach, swim in the sea (which for some reason is mad in Phuket - waves are crazy huge), see some temples (standard) and enjoy the local markets. Some things we did in Phuket:

Yeah it's pretty big
> Big Buddha (Karon, East Phuket) - lives up to it's name, it's pretty big. We got a taxi from our condo to the Buddha. It was pretty touristy at the top but the views were impressive and the Buddha even more so. We made the mistake of not asking the taxi to wait for us at the Buddha, so we were pretty stuck when it came to getting back down to the town. The winding path to Karon was quite long, but we were informed that there is pretty much no way to get down if you're not on a tour/have a taxi waiting. Also no WiFi to order a Grab. We started to walk down and made it to a viewpoint cafe where we had some food/Margaritas. The taxis from there were waaay to expensive so we started to walk again, when we were picked up by a truck, and the driver said he'd take us down to the town. We were then able to get a taxi from the town.
Lesson: Make sure the taxi waits for you, else you have the 3k trek back down to look forward to! 

>The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project & Bang Pae Waterfall - both located in the same national park. The project was really interesting, and if you're lucky you can see some gibbons in their cages. It looks after gibbons who can't live in the wild due to illnesses or being captured previously by humans and made to entertain tourists. You can adopt a gibbon or make a donation, as none of the entrance fee to the park goes towards the project. 
Waterfall life
We also walked up to the Bang Pae waterfall, which was beautiful. There are a few different parts in which you can swim, which we did. It makes for some great photos - which I could post here, but our GoPro decided that it would delete all our photos from this trip, which was really useful. Apart from this, it made for a nice day out. 

>Coconut Island - I don't think we did this trip right, but we drove to a pier in east Phuket where you can get a boat out to the island and to the floating restaurants. It was a nice little journey, but I'm pretty sure we got off at the wrong side of the island. We got to the pier on the island and walked for about 35/45 minutes up the road in the sweltering heat, only to see a lot of trees, dead frogs and the occasional bus full of construction workers. There was a little village and a couple of resorts, so we walked back to the pier. There were a lot of little crabs that we found on the beach, but I think that was the highlight of the island. We went to the floating restaurants which were very nice and offered some lovely views. 

So excited for meatballs
>Phuket Weekend Market (Phuket Town, close to the Public Park) - my favourite place. Okay, maybe not favourite but it was a pretty cool market. Filled with the obvious tourist tat, we did buy some elephant pants (standard Thai tourist attire) and had a look at the many stalls on offer. At the end, we discovered the fantastic food hall, filled with an insane amount of street food (Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese...). We had to try everything, obviously, so we started with some skewers (or as we like to call them: random 10 bhat meat on a stick), had noodles, fried sweet potato balls and Thai cakes. Could have stayed there all day. 

We also visited Kamala beach a couple of times, which is full of cafes/massages/people selling you things. It was a lovely beach, but as I said the waves were huge (like, if-you-just-stand-there-you-will-drown kinda huge). It's all overpriced for the tourists too, but that's to be expected really. If we came with a bit more money it would have been perfect. Beky also did a para sailing type thing where you're connected to a speedboat and it lifts you into the air, which was very cool! 

So yeah, Phuket was pretty awesome. It was great to see my girls (as always), and we came away with some cool memories, a bad sunburn and a craving for White Almond Magnums (well, I did anyway). 

Ciao, Sarah :) 

For more photos -- Instagram: wheres_halliday

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Bali: surfers, scooters and Aussies

Bali: 4th November 2016 - 10th November 2016


After the nightmare that was the flight to Indonesia (me dying of the worst traveller's sickness I've ever had), we finally arrived in Bali. I was still feeling very rough, but was able to walk on my own, and we got to our hotel in the evening. We were meeting Yael & Bruno (my Suisa who I met in Peru), who met us in the hotel and brought me a energy drink to replace all the fluids that had left my body. It was lovely to see them, but as I still wasn't 100% they left us in the hotel so I could die some more. 

This was the first place that we hadn't really planned or researched anything to do, so we were looking forward to discovering the town. We were originally going to stay a few nights in Denpasar, the capital and the location of the airport. However, we decided to stay where Yael was, and where all the beaches were; Kuta. In retrospect we were glad we did this, as Denpasar was just a city with not much in it, whereas Kuta was more (maybe too) lively and had a lot more going on. The hostel was a nice place a few streets away from the beaches and the main strip, with a really awesome pool, but lacking in fan power so the room was quite warm. 

Loving the pool in Kuta
After rehydrating in the room, we met up with Yael for dinner, buying some antibiotics on the way (well, buying two packs as Bob dropped the first pack somewhere...). They worked pretty well and within 2 days I was pretty much better, and able to eat something.  The main (read: cheapest) food that we ate there was rice and stir fry, which wasn't too bad! The first full day we had in the town, I was still feeling rough so we just did something safe which was going to the cinema (Bob had to see Dr Strange - it was good!), hit up another Hard Rock, and walk along the beach. 

Throughout our week there, with me getting progressively better, we saw Yael some more - Bob had a great surfing lesson with Bruno, visited Ubud, relaxed, and had our first experience with a scooter!! Kuta was a nice place to relax, but as we'd previously been in really chilled, small places (like Weligama which was pretty much just us and the beach), it was very overwhelming. We soon learnt that it's like the Magaluf for Australians, which meant it was packed with overpriced souvenirs, people selling drugs, and lots of drunk teenagers. Not a place I'd recommend really, but it's not bad if you like to drink, sit on the beach and party.

Ubud day trip

So as not much else was going on in Kuta, we decided to have a day tour to a local town called Ubud, which is surrounded by paddy fields and forest. As we quickly found out, Bali/Indonesia doesn't have a great public transport system as most of the population owns a scooter. Bruno told us how easy and cheap it was to rent a bike, so we decided that would be the best option for a day trip to Ubud. Bob had a quick practice on Brunos (which was...kinda successful), and the next day we hired our own from our hostel, for about 5 pounds for the day (and another fiver to top up with petrol). We were going to take the trip with Yael and Bruno, but sadly Yael caught what I'd had, so they couldn't come with us. 

I loaded Google Maps, and we were off. Our first fun part was crossing the highway, which meant crossing 3 busy lanes of traffic twice. I was holding my breath for most of it, but we managed to get across alive, and the rest of the 1 and a half trip was pretty uneventful as Bob's a pretty good driver. 

We did a few things whilst in the town (and the bike made it so much easier to do what we wanted, when we wanted). We started off at the Monkey Forest. This was pretty awesome, and was literally a forest filled with monkeys running around and stealing your food. You could buy bananas at the entrance to give them, and we saw many tourists fighting with the monkeys over the food, as there were hungry, grabby monkeys everywhere. There were signs everywhere that said not to annoy or mess with the monkeys, but we were entertained when an American woman and her daughter blatantly ignored this sign and tried to wrestle with a monkey and got annoyed when it took all their bananas. 

After the entertainment at the monkey forest, we continued our bike trip and checked out a couple of temples. As we were getting hungry, we decided to make a trip to a close by rice paddy, which promised food and good views. It had both of these, and also lots of tourists (standard), and fairly overpriced food. We shared some tasty noodles whilst overlooking the beautiful paddy fields. After having lunch, we set off again for another little bike ride. However, as we found out, the petrol tanks in scooters aren't very big, and we ran out of gas halfway up a hill, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. We knocked on a few doors to ask about petrol, but it took about 15 mins for anyone to answer us. Finally, we were told that there was a man selling petrol a few houses away, to we went there. This was petrol, in a bottle, probably filled half with water, but cost about 80p, so we filled it up and promised to go to the nearest station. 

On the way back to Kuta, we stopped off at a Luwak coffee farm, which was really interesting. It was a small farm with a few cages of Luwak (an animal whose poo they use for the coffee). We had a short tour around the farm and were told briefly how they make it, and what other coffee was produced there. After that, we were taken to the coffee tasting area where we could try lots of different types of coffee and tea (including ginger, chocolate and lemon). We didn't try the Luwak one as it cost quite a bit interesting, and I don't really care about coffee enough to try it in the form of animal poo. It was a nice way to spend an hour, and as an added bonus there was an amazing view of some more paddy fields that we looked over. 


We made our way back to Kuta, sunburnt but happy we survived our first scooter trip (although Bob did nearly take my toe off going around a corner). We'd planned to make our way to our next stop, in Java, overland, but after finding out there were no buses there, we booked a fairly cheap flight from Denpasar to Surabaya, and headed there a couple days later (after relaxing in the pool for a day!).

Ciao, Sarah

Thursday, 3 November 2016

(Nearly) Private beaches and surfing in Weligama



Weligama (and Colombo): 26 October 2016 - 3rd November 2016

Our last beach stop in Sri Lanka was in the southern town of Weligama. We got a bus from Ella to Weligama, which took around 5 hours, and during which Bob consumed a share packet (so like, 30) of custard creams. We found our way to the Air Bnb, which was beautiful. We had a lovely (albeit warm) room, and were able to cook in the kitchen. We were sharing the space with a Russian woman and her very cheeky 4 year old daughter, and the Sri Lankan Air BnB owner. 

Image may contain: ocean, sky, cloud, beach, outdoor, nature and waterOn the first day we decided to check out the local beach. Our host had given us directions to a beach not far from his house, so we went for a walk there. Following some windy dirt roads and some steep steps, we soon discovered one of the prettiest beaches I've ever seen. It was a small alcove, where the tide hit pretty much right up to the rocks, and with a small section of beach towards the end. There was noone on the beach when we first arrived, which made it even nicer. We had got there at just the right time to see the sunset, which was incredible. All the sunsets we'd seen up until that point didn't seem right. We took the next day to sit on the little beach, have a swim, and soak up some more sun (after being fairly cold in Ella).We also had some tasty Kottu Rotti (a Sri Lankan speciality of fried vegetables and rotti bread sliced up - and which Bob couldn't get enough of).

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Beautiful deserted beach!

We had about a week in Weligama, so we managed to see quite a lot. Another day, we took a walk further away from our house, to the main part of the town. It was a lot more touristy, and we walked along the beach watching the surfers and the brave swimmers who were trying not to get knocked out by the boards. We had dinner (another Kottu Rotti) in the town a couple of times as well. The first time, we got caught in a rain shower whilst waiting for the bus, and the second time I asked for no spice so was given a plain tortilla with plain roast chicken. They're not very good at using no spice in Sri Lanka, as we discovered! 

About halfway through our week, we took a day trip to the nearby town of Galle. It's a popular destination as there's a big fort surrounding the main part of the town, with a huge lighthouse in one of the corners. It offers lovely views of the town, as well as of the sea. We took the bus there from Weligama, and spent the day walking around the fort and looking at the views (as that was all there was to do really). 

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Galle Fort
The most eventful part of the day was when a Sri Lankan man decided to befriend us. He asked us where we were going, and as we were a bit hesitant (as we had no idea), he said there was a nice local market. Apparently, he was on his way there, so could take us. By this point (after India) we felt like most locals only wanted us to buy something from them, or give them some money, but this man was nice and didn't seem threatening so we decided to follow him. He was telling us stories about the markets, as well as about the tsunami that hit the island around 13 years ago. He told us how the town had been affected, how it had been built back up, and how he sadly lost his daughter and her husband in the disaster. When we arrived to the 'market', we found out it was actually a small shop filled with expensive spices, where I guess people get some sort of comission for bringing tourists. There was a picture of an article in The Guardian (from 2010) praising the shop, and a few men ushering tourists into it. We had a look around, butdidn't want to buy anything. Although, I actually looked at some spices and asked the price. They cost about 2gbp but the man wouldn't sell them to me as he said they were bad quality, and tried selling me a packet that cost 4 times the price. Nope. 

On the walk away from the shop, our new, unwanted tour guide told us he wasn't actually going home, but to the hospital, where his grandson was. Apparently his grandson was very ill, and as both parents died in the tsunami, doesn't have any money. He asked us for some money which was very awkward as previously he'd been repeating that he wasn't trying to sell us anything and just wanted to help us. I wasn't 100% sure he was telling the truth about it, but still felt very bad and awkward. We didn't want to deny him the money, but it did feel a lot like he was scamming us. After a lot of umm'ing from us he eventually just left, leaving us feeling like terrible people, but also annoyed that this kept happening.

Anyway, apart from that, Galle was very nice.

One of our last days in the town, we checked out a bar called Tiki Cliff Top Bar, which was recommended on Google and Trip Advisor. It was a bit of a walk to get to, up a pretty steep hill and we did manage to get lost a couple of times. People had said the sunset and view was nice, so we decided to have a look. It was a little bar at the top of a hill, which started to get a bit clubby, but had a nice vibe and nice views. They had food (only one choice), which was chicken, salad and some chips. It was a bit more expensive than usual, but we went for it as the reviews had said it was good. I think we waited for about an hour for the food (as we saw that they had to go out and get more ingredients), but when it came it was so worth the wait! 


Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people standing, sky, ocean, outdoor and waterTowards the end of our time in Weligama we were also able to meet up with Sam, a friend we both know from college and who we hadn't seen in about 5 years. He was there on a surfing trip, and helped us get surfing lessons from someone he knew, which was fun! Bob was pretty good at it, and I enjoyed it but didn't really manage to get up on the board. I'm pretty sure I inhaled most of the sea as well. We had a nice day with Sam surfing, and getting some lunch. Afterwards we went back to his hostel with some beers (from the licensed liquor shop, as they're pretty strict on alcohol rules), and chatted for ages, about everything. It was nice to see him, even if it was for a short while as we were off to Colombo the next day. 

Colombo:

Colombo was our final stop in Sri Lanka, as we were flying to Bali from the airport there. I haven't written a full blog post about the city, as to be honest we didn't spend a lot of time there, and due to me getting very ill, we didn't do a lot. 

The bus trip from Weligama was pretty dire - mainly because we were pretty hungover from the previous night with sam (we only had beer, but as we hadn't drunk anything in about 2 months it hit us pretty hard). We were thankful to get to Colombo and find the place we booked was lovely. It was very comfortable, and the man who ran the hostel was really kind. We decided to treat ourselves to Indian takeaway on the first night, and then pizza the next. The first full day we had we didn't do a lot, as the neighbourhood we were in wasn't very lively. We took a walk to post some parcels, grabbed some food to make lunch, and went back home. 

Halfway through our 3 days in Colombo I started to feel very ill. I won't go into all the details, as even thinking about it makes me feel ill again, but as we found out a week or so later, I had a bad bought of traveller's sickness. I was pretty much either confined to the toilet or doubling over in pain for the next 4 days. This wasn't the best timing, as we were taking 2 flights to Bali (stopover in Kuala Lumpur). I didn't think I'd make the flights at one point, but with sheer determination and the help of my lovely boyfriend (who probably suffered more than I did), we managed to get to Bali. 

So that's how Sri Lanka ended. It was such a lovely place to visit, especially after the madness of India, and had everything you could want from a country: incredible mountain views, sandy and beautiful beaches, and huge tea plantations. The added bonus was you could see most of it comfortably in a month!! 

Ciao, Sarah x

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Ella, ella ey ey ey... (Sri Lanka)



Ella - 23 October to 26th October



Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, plant and outdoorAfter the mountains of Nuwara Eliya, we took another picturesque train ride down to the mountains of Ella. Once again we got to hang out the side of the train while it was hurtling around mountains, and the trip was about 2 hours longer than planned because for some, unexplained reason we were sat in a station going nowhere. However, we finally arrived at the tiny train station in Ella and haggled for the taxi (as per usual), although we found out the hostel was actually quite far as it was at the top of a winy mountain path which we later just about managed to walk down (the rest of the times we had to get tuktuks). The hostel was fairly new, and was a very cute little place. We had a big bed with a much needed mosquito net, a bathroom and a little outside seating area. The owner even brought us tea and biscuits when we arrived which was much appreciated.

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We didnt want to go very far the first day, so we just had a walk around and had some dinner that the hostel owner arranged for us. We quickly discovered that when it gets dark, all the bugs attack. We got back to the hostel at about 6pm (in the dark), and there were the biggest damn dragonflies/some sort of monster fly all around the lights outside. Safe to say I didn't really want to sit outside with those buzzing around my face, but when they bought us the dinner (made of fruit, rice and curry), they fashioned some sort of plastic bag contraption around the lights so the demon bugs couldnt escape and we could eat in some sort of peace, which was nice. We only had a few days in Ella, so got onto Lonely Planet and planned the next couple of days.


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Tea with a view
We had a packed few days, as there are plenty of mountains to climb/hikes/things to see around Ella. The first day we decided to hike up Little Adams peak, which is the beginner's version of the nearby Adam's Peak climb.  We heard it only took a couple hours, and as it had been raining on and off all morning we wanted to go for something small. We got some food and headed down the trail. It started to rain again just as we reached the bottom of the 'mountain' (more like a hill), and luckily there was a nice little cafe so we took some shelter there and had some tea (standard). The views were amazing, the tea was tasty, and luckily the rain only lasted for a little while so we were soon off again. The hike was pretty chilled out, and we only nearly got lost a couple of times (as the path wasn't very well signposted), met a lot of ants and got to the top. The views on the way up and down were pretty incredible, even though it was a bit cloudy. At the top we met the sweetest stray dog and gave him some of our water, and admired the impressive mountains. It was still pretty early in the day, so we decided to do a loop back to the hostel. 


Image may contain: bridge, plant, sky, outdoor, nature and water

We walked a lot that day, without really realising it. Once at the bottom of the hill, we took a path to a big tea factory (because we hadn't had tea in a while), which was quite and where we sampled some of their tea. We then checked the map again, and saw that there was a railway bridge fairly close by called the Nine Arch Bridge which was recommended on Google. It was a bit further than it looked on the map, but it made for a nice walk. The bridge is impressive, and we walked down to get a closer look. As is common in this part of the world, trains don't come often, and when they do you can hear/see them coming miles off so you can easily walk along the tracks. We walked along to the bridge, where we met some other travellers who informed us that the next train was in 15 minutes. This was pretty good timing on our part, as watching the train run over the bridge is an awesome sight, and something that only happens 4 or 5 times a day. We sat to watch, by which time it started to rain again. 

After watching the train, we were told that it was about a 45 minute walk back along the tracks to Ella, so we followed some people down the tracks. Train tracks aren't particularly easy to walk on (huge wooden panels, lots of stones) and it took us a bit longer than 45 minutes, especially with the constant rain drizzle and how it got dark very quickly. However, we finally reached Ella and decided it was time for something to eat, as we hadn't done that in a while. We found an awesome little cafe opposite the railway, which had 3 tables and a constant queue (which was a good sign). We ordered a french onion soup, garlic bread and a pudding (which was very much needed and appreciated). We then got a taxi home and finished our activity packed day.



Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor and natureThe next day we went to a place called Haputale which was another place Lonley Planet said to check out. It was about an hour or so from Ella, and was home of Lipton's Seat, where Mr Lipton was said to have sat and chose his tea plantations. Due to our love of tea, we had to check it out. The hike up and down took the best part of the day, mainly due to the fact that once we got to the top of the mountain (where Lipton's seat it), the heavens opened and we couldn't walk back down. We therefore sat in the tiny cafe for about an hour, being fed various Sri Lankan food, and tea, until it was safe enough to go back down. The rains were so heavy I genuinely thought that the cafe would be destroyed. Luckily, it wasn't. Anyway, the views on the walk were spectacular, with miles of tea fields and tae pickers everywhere. It was so quiet as well, as it wasn't tourist season so it was pretty much just us. Us, and for the final part of the walk, a little boy who spoke pretty good English and told us about his school and family. On the walkway were also a few motivational phrases, written in questionable English, which were an amusing addition to the hike. All in all it was a successful day, and we even got to meet Mr Lipton ('s statue) at the top! 



Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor
Us and Mr Lipton

As I said, we only had a short time in Ella, and were looking forward to getting back to the beach (it'd been a long 2 weeks without it...) so headed on down to Weligama!! 

Ciao, Sarah

Friday, 21 October 2016

Kandy to Nuwara Eliya: The best journey in the world?

Kandy to Nuwara Eliya - 21st October 2016

There weren't many reasons why we felt we should return to Kandy from Anuradhapura but there was certainly one good one. We had heard that the train journey that linked Kandy with Nurwaya Eliya a town in the mountain tops of central Sri Lanka to the south of Kandy was incredibly beautiful and voted by some as one of the most scenic in the world. Basically we had no choice in the matter, we had to take the train!
We arrived in Kandy on the bus where we headed straight to the train station to buy tickets for the next day as the trains to our destination left early in the morning. Excited to make the reservation we waited impatiently in the deathly slow queue before immediately being told they were all sold out. I was bitterly disappointed because it meant having to spend another day in Kandy, something either of us wanted to do, but as we turned to go we were informed that if we came early the next morning there may be some available. It was explained that they always leave one or two available to be bought on the day of departure and other people may cancel their previously bought tickets. What time was early? About 6am. eek. With raised hopes we headed to our hostel.

This time our we didn't stay with Ifti who lived too far out of the city but instead in a hostel close by but straight up a steep hill adjacent to the station, a place with according to the tuktuk driver was still "very far" a phase we had heard many times before and many more times since. The hostel was basic but it looked out over the city had an impression panaroma of the twinkling lights at night. It was just a shame that our room happened to be a damp little box that faced into the mountain. But it was fine because it was cheap and we didn't have to be there for long. 

Traveling in style. 1st class baby.
The next day we woke, or probably Sarah woke and then had to wake me up, we crawled out of bed and before the sun was up we were out the hostel, in a tuktuk and on our way to the station. SUCCESS! We bought the tickets. We were unsurprisingly some of the first people in the station but still the only tickets left for the train that day were first class which were 10x  more expensive than any other ticket but still cheap by UK standards and the advantage was in first class you were guaranteed a seat which was not necessarily the case in the other classes where your ticket bought you entrance onto the train but not a place to sit.

When the train arrived a few hours later, pulling into the station, its carriages cleaming shiny and blue we hopped on board and got comfortable making sure to enjoy the extra expensive plushy cushioned seats we'd been given. The carriage was quiet and airconned with tinted windows and a tv showing a kids film; very nice indeed but in actaul fact not really what I wanted. There was a saving grace however, because as health and safety laws seem to be uniformly lax across most of the Asia we were able to sit on the footplate of the train. With the door open and the legs dangling over the edge, the wind in my hair and watching the world go by I traded in my first class armchair for the cold hard metal floor and thats where Sarah and I spent the best part of the 4 hour journey. It was absolute bliss.

Best seat in the house
Teeeeeeaaaaaaaa
The locomotive slowly chugged along the single track (which explained why there weren't many trains a day going back and forth), constantly on a slight incline and never going more than 20 or 30 mphs. As our altitude increased, the cool air grew cooler until we were driving through the clouds and as we did we saw the tea planations rise out of the misty mountainsides and valleys that frame the train track. Having spent the last 4 months in Spain and India we had only experience varying degrees and types of baking heat since the previous spring but here as the journey progressed we started to feel the sting of cold air. Not just a cooling breeze, not just a cooled airconned room, no here the air was genuinely cold. Man, it felt good.
The planations and tea fields extended out in all the directions we could see until our entire world became either train carriage, sky or tea bushes. What more could an Englishman want. Then whilst sitting peacefully watching the verdent vista grow greener and greener I was suddenly disturbed by the train driver who motioned to the few of us that were sitting around the footplates to get up. I was immediately sadden as I figured he wanted us to return to our seats but rather this hero of a driver invited us into engine cab because he wanted to point out the view of a waterfall that we were approaching. This cheery gentleman clearly enjoyed his job and I have zero doubt as to why he would. 


Four hours later we sadly arrived safe and sound in Nurwaya Eliya amongst a climate described by the locals as "English weather" - glad that stereotype has made it around the world - and more tuktuk drivers wanting to charge us exorbitant prices because our destination was once again "very far". We got the bus into town. 

People keep asking us what is the best thing we've seen or done on our trip. For me this remains in my top few activies. I would recommend anyone to go to Sri Lanka just to experience this central region of the island in all its beauty and the train journeys on offer here.
Thankfully there was more amazing stuff to come.

Until then,
   Bob


A Sri Lankan pitstop in England.

Nurwara Eliya 21st Oct 2016 - 23rd Oct 2016

Nurwara Eliya is a small town located in the mountains of central Sri Lanka with the interesting nickname of Little England. The settlement originally earned its name when it was founded by British civil servants and tea planters. Sitting at an elevation of near 2000m above sea level this, cool cloudy region of the island was perfect for growing tea and as such to this day the entire area seems to be dedicated to the growth of tea.

Perfect village green with appropriate weather
Immediately as we entered the town the British influence was noticeable. We arrived at a small red-brick post office which wouldn´t have seemed out of place if it sat at the centre of a rural West Country village. Around the corner on the outskirts lay a small lake, bordered by a pristine village green, fit with flower beds, a pavilion and pedalos. The only way it could have looked more British would have been if there was a Vicar partaking in a local cricket game.

 As a side note it´s amazing what strange things you can begin to miss when you´re away from home; it occured to me when we were walking past the well groomed lawns how much I missed grass. Sounds odd right? Having spent the previous months in parts of the world where the climate had just been too hot and dry for a proper field of grass the only times we´d seen it had been the occasional  well tended private gardens of hotels, clubs or of a wealthy person. The rest had been primarily pavements, sand, dust, and a few wiry grey green shrubs. Seeing the green made me miss the inordinate amount of hours I´d spent (badly) playing football with my mates growing up.
There was also a horse track which I presume has to be due to British influence. At least it´s not something we´ve seen any where else during our time in S.E Asia.

They´ve nailed that English house look.
The place we chose to stay was once again according to all the tuktuk drivers "very far" which seems to be a global taxi driver code for "I´m going to charge you an extortionate price because you´re not from around here". The stupid thing in this instant was that he couldn´t read the map we had presented him with (after staring at it blankly for 2 minut

es) and he had never heard of the place but he was still quick to tell us how far away it was. We´ve since discovered that few taxi drivers in S.E. Asia can read maps but instead prefer claiming to know the destination, getting lost then asking nearby locals for help. Our relationship with taxi drivers isn´t a particularly happy one. Admittedly the ironic thing here was that compared to the size of the town our accommodation was quite far away. Still only about 40 minutes walk though. After a quick phone call to ask for instructions we made it there and boy was it odd.

Located in the back garden of the owners´ house next to a preexisting cosy looking wooden lodge designs for groups of people sat our newly built little brick shed, built for two. The interior was a double bed with about 5 thick blankets laid on top and a small table with two chairs next to it. There was a small bathroom through one door and a kitchen with gas stove, camping kettle, 2 each of the crockery, cutlery and pans through the other. Oh and also zero insulation. We were very thankful for the stash of blankets we been given which accompanied our own 2 nicely and we were definitely thankful to ourselves for having lugged our skiing socks around with us for the past few months. When we left home we thought we´d only need them when we arrived in the US during winter but man oh man did we need them here too. Getting up in the morning was a mission of sheer willpower braving the icy floor tiles which you could tell were cold even through the thick woollen socks. But there was definitely something charming (perhaps in a bemusing sort of way) about our little hut; shuffling toward the gas stove in the mornings fully clothed and wrapped in a woolly blanket like an arctic nun to boil our little kettle to make the cups of tea that we desperately needed. I mean how could we not drink tea in the morning, we were at the centre of the tea world. It was also very nice to go to bed at night without having to make the choice of either sweating with the heat to the point of dehydration or being kept awake from the constant droning of a nearby desk fan. Peaceful, silent, cool bliss.
(Because the place was new and needed a photo to put on booking.com, they used us as models. We are now the coverphoto for this cosy shed's booking profile. I don't suppose our faces will bring them many new customers though)
Nuwara Eliya is amongst other things home to Sri Lanka's highest peak Pidurutalagala (bless you) which stands at a whoppingly small 2,524m, in other words it was low enough for us to walk up in a day without too much hassle. At least that was the theory. It turns out that the entire peak of the mountain is owned and controlled by the Sri Lankan military and it serves as a radio outpost. As a result access to the top is very restricted, so much so in fact that you need your passport to get past the military checkpoint at the base of the incline and you have to be driven by tour guide, taxi or private car. We weren't allowed to hike the hike. Somewhat dejected by this revelation, especially after the hour+ walk it took to get there (poor planning on our part I guess) we walked off in search of adventure elsewhere.

Lovers´ Leeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaap
We found it in a waterfall nicknamed "Lover´s Leap", the tragic tale stating that when a young couple´s love was forbidden by their parents they through themselves off the waterfall. I suppose every country has their own version of Romeo and Juliet. Although the waterfall sat just on the edge of town, so close that we could just about see it from our hostel, it was an absolute mission to get to. No directions on the road and no maps listed any of the winding roads we were on. We ended up walking down private roads, through farms, disturbing the odd cow, and along very small lanes. As such it came as a surprise when it turned out that the route we'd taken was right. With one final point down a mud path from a friendly local we arrived. You could immediately tell the extent of the drought which apparently affected this region too. It was suppose to be wet season yet there was barely a trickle of water flowing over the precipice above. At the base there was meant to be a pool of water but instead there lay bare rock. Although terrible for the environment it was quite advantageous for us as we summoned our inner mountain goats and joined the locals in scrambling across the precariously stacked boulders. There was sat and sunbathed, warming up from the cold night before like snakes on a hot rock. Mission accomplished, all we had to do now was scramble back down into town...


We couldn't be staying in the middle of tea country without visiting a tea plantation, that would be ludicrous. So we did the thing we knew best; we googled the cheapest plantation museum/tours in the area and finding a free one a few miles outside of town we eagerly hopped on a bus (which then waited another 45 long minutes in the station) before rocking down the zig-zag mountain roads to Mackwoods Labookellie tea plantation and factory. Hoping off the bus (and feeling not just a little motion sick) we were spotted by the staff and ushered inside a large wooden panelled cafe without asking or hesitation we were given a free cup of tea to sample and piece of chocolate cake each. Whatever followed afterwards this place was going to be getting 5 stars on Tripadvisor. Taking our time and enjoying the warming tea we eventually finished and after a few more tourists we done we were shown around the factory which sat just across the carpark. It was a basic tour but it was entirely free and nevertheless informative. For instance I had no idea that Green Tea and Black Tea comes from the same leaf as does English breakfast tea the only difference is how the leaf is dry, rolled and prepared. The drying room the was fascinating; I've always associated the smell of tea with the wet steaminess of a freshly boiled kettle but in this hanger sized room with desert heat and dryness (if you haven´t guessed the purpose of this room is to draw any moisture whatsoever out of the leaves), the powerful scent of tea filled every square inch of the air. An inescapable aroma, it was incredible.



Two more mildly interesting facts: Apparently tea factories prefer to employ female rather than male tea pickers because their hands are more nimble, faster and accurate at snatching up all tiny leaves. All tea from all the different factories in the country is sold to brands and businesses at a central auction in Colombo (the capital) meaning the tea leaves in every box of PG Tips you buy may come from a completely different source. Cool right?

After managing to score ourselves another free cup of tea and cake the clouds rolled in turning the verdant scenery into an eerie scene: a giant old factory building surrounded by woods and low clouds on the edge of an all too quiet mountain (a Silent Hill if you will). We hopped back on the bus to town just as the rain started up - I guess no more drought - and then it was time to pack and move onto Ella. Another train journey. Woooo.

Until then,
       Bob



We waited far too long to hear someone say this