Saturday, 14 January 2017

Things To Do In Unawatuna - Sri Lanka Travel Diary #3



Hello again, three times in one week? You are lucky! The third instalment in my Sri Lanka travel diary is about the time we spent in Unawatuna, which is a coastal town situated south of the island.

When I looked up Unawatuna in the Lonely Planet guide, it wasn't highly commended, however I've got to admit I quite liked it. It's a small(ish) place with a few shops, restaurants and a decent beach. While it's clearly becoming more and more touristy, it's still quiet enough to enjoy relaxing on the beach or having a peaceful meal out.

We stayed in the Gloria Grand Hotel, Unawatuna, which I'd say was probably my third favourite hotel (out of five in total). The hotel is ideally located, as it's just a short walk from the beach and quite literally opposite some really great restaurants.

On our first night in Unawatuna, after a long day of driving, we decided to take it easy so we freshened up and headed to Hot Rock restaurant, which is situated halfway along the beach. Hot Rock does really nice Thai curries (we shared a butternut squash curry and a prawn curry, both of which were delicious). As we sat and ate, with the waves crashing in the distance, we watched the bats flit between the treetops. It was a sight to behold.



The following day we took a tuk tuk into Galle, which is about a 20 minute ride from Unawatuna, to see the Dutch fort. Now I'm going to be honest with you, considering it's one of Galle's number one attractions, it's not all that. It's basically just the remains of a big wall which the fort must have sat behind at one point. Don't get me wrong, it's nice to walk along the wall (or what's left of it) and admire the sea, but that's literally all there is to do there. It is free to go and look around though, so that's good! #Bargainz

After an afternoon in Galle, we headed back to Unawatuna and spent what was left of the day on the beach, reading our books and taking in the fresh sea air. That evening, we decided to check out the vegetarian restaurant opposite our hotel called Jina's (we'd noticed it had good reviews in our Lonely Planet book, so thought it would be worth trying). Needless to say, the food didn't disappoint. I had a selection of veggie curries including a potato curry, mushroom curry, chickpea dhal and some other interesting concoctions - all of which were delicious (see picture below). Dan tried the pittu, which is basically a large cylinder of flour, dried coconut and some other ingredients. It came with coconut milk, which you pour onto it, and dhal. It's quite a heavy dish so if you do try it I'd recommend ordering one to share.



The following morning we woke up at 5am to go whale watching in Mirissa. The fishing town is about one hour's drive (in a tuk tuk) from Unawatuna. We had booked the trip through a place that organises excursions near to our hotel, it cost us 10,000 rupees in total, which included transport to and from Mirissa, the boat trip and breakfast. When we arrived in Mirissa, we boarded the boat and were handed life jackets (which probably should have made us feel safer, but actually just terrified me even more). We sailed out to sea as the sun was rising, which made for some pretty dishy photographs.





It took about 90 minutes by boat to get to where the whales were. The sea was pretty choppy so I ended up shutting my eyes for most of it (and miraculously ended up falling asleep). I was pretty glad we were wearing life jackets at that point. When we eventually got to where the whales were, it was well worth the 90 mins of cray cray waves.

In the distance, you could see spray in the air where the whales were pushing water through their blow holes. The captain of the boat then decided to put his foot down and we ended up colliding with waves to get to the whales, which resulted in the boat rocking BIG TIME. I was clutching the pole on the side of the boat with one hand and my SLR in the other, while adopting some kind of mega squat stance to keep my balance. Despite the terrifying ride, it was magical to see the whales. There seemed to be so many of them and in the distance you could see them spraying water into the air. After a bit of research we deduced that the ones we saw were sei whales, which can grow to be 66 feet long. Here are some of the photos I managed to snap of them...











After whale watching (and a 90 minute journey back to shore, during which we saw a dolphin) we headed back to Unawatuna, just in time to check out of our hotel at midday. When we got back, we grabbed some lunch nearby and then got a tuk tuk to our next hotel (aka the best hotel I've ever stayed in) which was situated halfway between Galle and Hikkaduwa - about a 30 minute ride away. AAAANNNND my next blog post will be all about our stay there... 

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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Things To Do In Ella And Udawalawe - Sri Lanka Travel Diary #2

Hello again, it's time for part two of my Sri Lanka holiday breakdown. EXCITING! 

This post is all about our stay in Ella, Sri Lanka, which is a small town surrounded by hills and beautiful scenery (see above if you don't believe me). Surprisingly, for such a small place, Ella is very popular with tourists - in fact, I feel like we saw more travellers than locals there. There are a handful of trendy bars, nice restaurants, coffee shops and lots of interesting things to do. 

We spent two nights in Ella overall, which meant we had half a day to mooch around on the day we arrived (day four), followed by one full day (day five). We stayed at a place called the Mountain Heavens hotel which I'd definitely recommend. The rooms are big, it's not too expensive, and the view is probably the best I've experienced. Ever. 

Exhibit A. Day time.



Exhibit B. Sun rise. 


During our short stay in Ella we climbed Little Adam's peak, which is the peak on the left hand side of the photo above, and trekked to the Nine Arch Bridge, which is a viaduct down in the valley. Because Ella - and the surrounding areas - are quite mountainous, it's worth getting tuk tuks to wherever you need to go as, a lot of the time, the roads aren't fit for cars. Plus tuk tuks are usually pretty cheap to get. There are also buses which can take you to where you need to go (and that are often cheap too), although please beware - the bus drivers tend to drive erratically.

Here are some of the photos from when we climbed Adam's Peak. Check out that view (and those luminous trainers, which happen to be the comfiest footwear EVER).








We ate at three places in Ella. The first night we had pizza at a bar called Cafe Chill, as I'd become a tiny bit fed up of curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner at that point. The following day we had lunch in a place called Down Town Rotti Hut - I'd definitely recommend their kotu rotti, as it's absolutely delicious and like nothing I've ever tried - and that evening we ate in the hotel restaurant.

After a couple of days in Ella, we set out for Unawatuna on day six, stopping at Udawalawe national park en route. Udawalawe is renowned for its wild elephant population (as well as other animals like crocodiles, buffalo, lots of species of birds and monkeys). Our driver, Mahendra, called ahead to his friend who is a jeep safari driver / tour guide and managed to get us a private jeep for about £50. I read online that you have to be at the safari for either the morning slot (which starts pretty early) or the late afternoon slot - however in our case we just rocked up at midday and had our tour there and then. #Connections.

On our way to the safari, Mahendra warned that we might not see any animals at all as, apparently, that does occasionally happen. However we didn't have to worry as five minutes in we spotted a family of elephants with their tiny baby (disclaimer: it was tiny compared to them, not me). It was incredible to witness these wild animals in such close proximity. From there onwards, we saw a hella lot of elephants.

Here are some of the pics from Udawalawe. The tour took around three hours in total. If you go, I'd recommend wearing sun cream, anti-mosquito spray and taking a litre bottle of water as it's thirsty business.











If you have any questions about either Ella or Udawalawe, feel free to leave a comment below (or email / tweet me) and I'll try and respond! The next post is all about our stay in Unawatuna, which was a three hour drive from the national park. Stay tuned ;)

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Saturday, 7 January 2017

Things To Do In Kandy - Sri Lanka Travel Diary #1


Hey everyone,

So I wanted to write about our trip to Sri Lanka as, despite it being an amazing holiday, there were lots of learnings along the way which I think others (aka anyone who's thinking of going) could benefit from. I didn't book the trip through a third party, I basically did a shit load of research online, spoke to a few friends, and then drew up a plan of all the places I wanted to visit.

We went there from 1-16 December, as November is technically the tail-end of their wet season. Overall, the weather was great and I think it rained once the whole time we were there, so I'm glad we delayed the trip a little. Because we visited a few places, I've decided to break the holiday down into four blog posts - Kandy, Ella + Udawalawe, Unawatuna, Galle + Negombo. Aren't you lucky? ;)

Here's a day-by-day breakdown of what we did in Kandy, as well as some top tips for if you visit...

DAY ONE

We arrived at Colombo airport, Sri Lanka, at lunch time and got our money exchanged at the airport. All desks offer the same exchange rate, so we just chose the Thomas Cook desk. We exchanged £200 each for about 37,000 rupees (per person).

We met our driver at the airport. Dan had been speaking to a trusted company which drives Embassy officials around and had paid them in advance - £350 - for the driver to stay with us for a week. Our driver, Mahendra, was a lovely guy, very safe, and he also acted as a tour guide so he'd suggest extra things to do and the majority of the time we'd just go along and do it. If you're looking for a driver while in Sri Lanka, I'd definitely recommend him and can give you his phone number. Just drop me a comment below if you want it.

The first place we stayed at was called Kandy - the cultural capital of Sri Lanka - which was about three hours drive from Colombo airport (if you do that trip, I'd recommend buying a big bottle of water at the airport before setting off as it is TOASTY and you'll probably end up dehydrated).

Kandy


I chose to stay in Kandy as I'd read that it was the nearest major city to attractions such as Sigiriya rock, the botanical gardens and Temple of the Sacred Tooth. Looking back, I'd definitely opt to stay in hotels nearer to Sigiriya / in the surrounding area, as Kandy was very busy, the standard of hotels wasn't that great and I didn't feel that safe when walking around at night.

We stayed in the Kandy City Hotel, which I wouldn't recommend (if you do go to Kandy, I'd buy the Lonely Planet book and check out some of their recommended hotels). Our hotel was located right in the centre of Kandy which was great, however there were building works going on upstairs and on the last night I noticed a bug in my bed - which may or may not have been a bed bug. Needless to say it completely grossed me out.

The first day we got there mainly consisted of travelling to Kandy, having a nap, waking up, ordering room service, and going back to sleep until the following morning. What can I say, travelling takes it out of you. (And I do love my sleep.)

Wild monkeys by the side of the road en route to Kandy. 


DAY TWO

The next morning our driver Mahendra picked us up at 8am and we made our way to Sigiriya, which is basically a really big rock that a king used to live on top of many years ago. Locals refer to it as the 'eighth wonder of the world'. It's a long drive so, again, it's worth taking water if you're heading there from Kandy.

We stopped on the way to try some jack fruit, a sweet, fleshy fruit, from a seller on the side of the road. They have lots of these little stalls set up along the roads so you can stop and grab a cheap, healthy snack whenever you need to.

At Sigiriya, Mahendra introduced us to a friend of his who was a guide there. The entrance to Sigirya is about 4,300 rupees each and then you'll probably want to pay for a guide (min 1,500 rupees). The climb was difficult and I'd recommend covering yourself in sun cream, wearing a hat and taking a few bottles of water. Take a camera too as the views from the top are amazing and well worth the tiring climb. It's 1,202 steps in total, so wear decent footwear. Do not do what I did which was to wear thin sandals and then not be able to walk properly for a few days after because my calves were in bits (oops!).

Half way up Sigiriya there are some really cool cave paintings which are thousands of years old. Just a tip, don't get taking photos or touching them as you'll be arrested and punished. Nearer the top of the rock there are lots of monkeys and their babies, which is pretty adorable. Meanwhile the guide explains all about the king who lived there and what he got up to during his reign, which is very interesting.

Once you've climbed to the top, and sweated gallons, the views are breathtaking.

Sigiriya rock in all of its glory

More monkeys doing their thang

The view from the top

After Sigiriya we went to the Golden temple and cave temples in Dambulla, a nearby town. The cave temples are, again, a bit of a climb but totally worth it. More than 100 beautiful statues line the caves and their are more cave paintings too. The smell of incense is all around and you can hear the Buddha monks praying. It's very peaceful and definitely worth the trip. Entrance is free, so you'll just need 100 rupees to pay to the men who look after your shoes while you go in.

The cave temples at Dambulla

The Golden Temple

After our mega excursion, we headed back to Kandy, showered and went out for the evening to a restaurant called The Bake House. They do some great curries. The Bake House Special with chicken is top notch and comes with rice, veg, dhal and poppadoms with mango chutney.

DAY THREE

The following day we woke up and headed to a place called Balaji Dosai for breakfast. I had a paper roti and Dan had a masala roti, with a cup of tea and a coffee. It cost 500 rupees for everything, which is very cheap. The food was super tasty. For the uninitiated, roti is a paper thin bread that you scoop curry or dhal with. It seemed very strange to have this for breakfast, but it was well worth it and a true Sri Lankan special.

After breakfast we headed to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, one of the most prolific places of worship for Buddhists in Sri Lanka - and maybe even the world (according to Mahendra). Entrance was just under 3,000 rupees for the both of us. We were hustled into having a guide as he introduced himself as a temple officer and we just presumed he knew Mahendra, however that wasn't the case. If that happens to you I'd recommend just saying 'no' and going on without one, as our tour felt very rushed and our guide was quite rude, almost knocking over a little old lady who was praying!

The temple is beautiful inside and I'd recommend buying a flower or oil lamp at the entrance to offer to Buddha in the designated zones within the temple (they're not expensive). Also, you will see Buddhist monks throughout the temple. Never take a photo of one with their back turned as it is seen as offensive.

The temple



After the temple we went to the botanical gardens in Kandy which was a welcome break from the bustling temple and city centre. The gardens are very peaceful, spread out and packed with every kind of plant and tree possible. There's also plenty of wildlife including more monkeys, a variety of birds and bats.

There is an entrance fee, but I don't think it's much. If I was to go again, I'd definitely take a picnic, a good book and sit on the one of the shaded grassy banks.

These flowers completely covered the trunk of a tree

Pondering life

That evening we ate in the White House restaurant in Kandy (it was very near to our hotel and Mahendra had recommended it). The eatery provided some more traditional, Indian recipes so I ended up having a butter chicken dish which was delicious, Dan had something more spicy. Again, I'd recommend heading there for some grub as it's not too expensive and it's good food.

DAY FOUR

The next morning we got up early as we were travelling to Ella, the next stop on our Sri Lanka tour. En route, we saw waterfalls, tea plantations and even had a grand tour of a 100-year-old tea factory (which looked like something straight out of a Wes Anderson film). There we learned about how they make the tea I drink in copious amounts every day and got to see the different techniques / parts of the plants they use for different types of tea. It was pretty fascinating to be honest and the tour was free (although we obviously gave our tour guide a tip).

The tea factory, which is 100 years old
Fields of tea = my idea of heaven
The drive to Ella was long - about 4.5 hours in total I think (although I was asleep for most of it) - but when we got there it was well worth it. Our hotel, called The Mountain Heavens, was ah-mazing. Find out why in my next post... OH THE SUSPENSE.