Sunday, January 29, 2012

Last Day in Kandy

Saturday, January 28th

Experiencing the culture is what traveling is all about and we certainly did that today! We started off our morning by having a lovely breakfast of string hoppers (noodles you pour curry sauce over) and chicken curry. I had my first taste of local tea and the flavor was so nice! After breakfast we took a tuk tuk with Lal our driver about 4km to the Ceylon Tea Museum. Originally we were hesitant to take a tuk tuk that far but it actually wasn't bad and Lal was a careful driver. It took about 15-20 minutes up to the top of a hill to a gorgeous property. The museum itself is in a huge 1925 building and has the coolest light fixtures, original glass windows, and original wooden floors.

Little bit of history-
The rise of the Ceylon tea plantations over the grave of the coffee industry in 1869 followed years of experimental planting by James Taylor of Loolecondera (considered the father of the tea industry in Ceylon) first planted tea commercially in 1867, two years before the coffee blight. It was fortunate that the tea grew well as many coffee pioneers were able to turn the death of the coffee plantations into the birth of an even greater and enduring industry 'tea'.

The first tea seeds and young tea plants were brought to the island from the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta in 1839. The first shipment of tea in 1872, was only two small packs containing 23 pounds valued at 58 rupees. The country exported 280 million kilograms last year. Today, Sri Lanka is the largest exporter of tea in the world. They also conduct the largest tea auction in the world, which had been in operation since 1883.

The oldest known packet of Ceylon Tea is 56 years old and still in its original packaging.

At the end of our tour we had a nice cup of black tea.

Next Lal took us to a functioning factory called Embilmeegama Tea Factory about 15km outside of Kandy. We were shown the machines in use and could smell the fragrant leaves as they went through the grinding, drying, and fermenting process. Of course we had a cup of bop (broken orange pekoe) tea. Very good!

Headed back to The Orchard for a fabulous home cooked lunch made by Shanthi. She made potatoe curry, fried vegetable rice, pork curry, salad (cucumber, tomato, pineapple, carrot in a white sauce), grilled aubergines and onions, and pappads. Best food we've had on our travels!! We chatted with Lennie and the girls for awhile and took a few pictures before we left.

Our original plan was to take the bus back. However, Lennie, said the train would be faster and we would be able to enjoy the scenery. The tickets for the 3:30 train were 190 rupees each (less than $2) and with all the stops we arrived in Colombo around 7:30pm. Negotiated with a tuk tuk to take us to our guest house for 500 rupees. Along the way, people were having a big kite flying event at the beach. There were tons of people and booths set up. Unfortunately we were so tired that we didn't make it back to that area.

Sarah and I have been trying all the different kinds of cookies and candy throughout the places we visit. Our latest favorites is a Sri Lankan brand called Maam. They have a ton of different flavors but we're hooked on the banana cream :)

Luckily when we got to our guest house Harshini was here and we spent the evening hanging out and chatting. We have so much fun with her! 

Sri Lankan train ride

To get back to Colombo from Kandy we either had to take a bus or a train. The sweet old gentleman who owned the guesthouse we stayed at in Kandy suggested the train because it is safer and a shorter trip (2.5 hours). He told us we needed the 3pm train which is direct to Colombo. Well, unfortunately, we didn't get there in time to purchase a ticket for that one. So we had to take the 3:30 train out to Colombo which we found out about three minutes into the trip that it did make stops. So we are sitting on the train squished three people to a seat and our knees almost touching the knees across from us, the train left 15 minutes late, and was bouncing up and down and jerking side to side and now we had no idea how long it was going to take us to get to Colombo. Granted we knew it was going to be better than the 36 hour train ride in India but I couldn't help but think "crap, another long and painful train ride".

It was about 15-20 minutes into the ride where I decided I didn't care how long it took to get to Colombo because the view was like nothing I had ever seen before! I was sitting next to an opened window that show cased the rain forest covered mountains, valleys, and rivers of Sri Lanka. There were hundreds of different types of trees, flowers, vines and bushes all over. At times we were so close to the trees where I could have reached out and picked a banana off the tree. Then it would open up to a valley with picturesque mountains in the background. When the trees were close I was on the search for a sloth (Although I failed miserably at finding one, I am still determined to see one in the wild someday!).

Despite the guys walking up and down the isles trying to sell stuff, the random lady completely invading my personal bubble and the fact the back of my legs were glued to the plastic seat with sweat all I could think about was how beautiful God's creation is and how God is so amazing and that I feel so blessed to be experience all of this.

We ended up getting to Colombo in about three hours which wasn't that much longer than expected. Although, I probably would have been okay with it being longer.


Day around Kandy

Friday, January 27th

Woke up fairly early to get a start to our day. We managed to flag a tuk tuk on our way down the hill because construction was going on at the site (obviously, the owner must have been nuts asking us to walk through it!) The driver was nice enough not to charge us because we were going to the hotel. After breakfast we walked down the hill to The Orchard Guest House to see of they had a room for the night. Lennie (older retired gentleman, probably in his 70s) and the girls were so sweet and accommodating! We set up a time to come back to check in and drop our bags. He did mention he gets quite alot of traffic that leaves the hotel to come stay with him because they're unsatisfied, thought that was interesting! Happy with our decision we took a tuk tuk into town and wandered around a bit. They have bakeries EVERYWHERE and have the best cookies and sweet breads! Headed back up the hill to check out of Kandy View Hotel before noon. The owner was nice enough to drive us up the hill to the 'bungalow' and back down to the Devon Hotel (where we told him we were staying, he didn't seem happy about it and asked us why we weren't staying with him another night. REALLY?!?). Checked our bags into The Orchard and chatted with Lennie about things to do and see in Kandy. He recommended the Culture Show that evening and helped us plan our next day adventure!

Had lunch at the Devon Restaurant with all the vendors from the EdCon next door (Sri Lankan Education Expo 2012). The restaurant had a great variety of fresh fruit juices and we had to try the pineapple and passionfruit, so good! The real deal for about 70 rupees (less than a dollar).

Afterwards we continued walking around and had planned to go to the Temple of Tooth (i thought everyone was saying truth, but no, it's really tooth. As in there is the lord buddhist's tooth there). They wanted 1,000 rupees to get in (about $10)! Decided that tooth was not worth $10 and crossed the street to the beautiful Kandy Hotel for Lion Lager instead. At 5pm we wandered around the lake to the cultural center to see Dances of Sri Lanka held by the Kandyan Art Association. Tons of tourist flocked but we were very lucky to sit in the front row for the show. Dances included Blowing of the Conch Shell, Pooja Dance, Panteru Natum, Cobra Dance, Mask Dance, Mayura Wannama, Raban Dance, Ves Dance, national anthem, Fire Dance and Fire Walking. The costumes were very colorful and the dancers were great! The men with the fire were really into it, even licking the flame several times! Very impressive! Had a nice walk to The Garden Cafe for chicken develled with noodles for 220 rupees each ($2) and headed back to The Orchard to relax and catch up with email (yay wifi!). The night had a great ending  with HOT showers (yay hot water!!) and early bed.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sigiriya and Dambulla

Thursday, January 26th

Woke up early to have breakfast at 7am and met our new friends to leave for Sigiriya at 7:30am. Our first impression of the driver was not great.. The toyota van was in very bad shape and we were all pretty certain he was not too familiar with a manual. Before we even left town he stalled and killed it a few times. The drive from Kandy to Sigiriya is about 2.5 hours and I personally slept for about an hour or so. The county side is beautiful and very green. Tickets to enter Sigiriya-The Lion Rock, Mirror Wall, and the museum was 3,450 rupees ($30). People are standing everywhere to try and persuade you that you need a guide. Through out the fortress, there were plenty of signs to let you know about the most, the water gardens, and various rock locations that rooms were built under. Everything was very green and lush. Killed 2 camera batteries with all the pictures we took! The fortress was built by the King as a palace and fortress for protection in 477 and later changes were made as it was being used as a monastary by Buddhist monks. There were monkeys everywhere!! To get to the cave paintings we had to climb two steel circle staircases that were wrapped in fencing that climbed along the side of the rock. Very scary! Then we continued to the Mirror Wall (which was a smooth rock wall that was polished along the side of the rock pathway, still going up). At that point we reached a landing with grass and trees at the foot of the Lion Rock, with lions feet included! The climb up the rickety stairs wa very scary and there were so many people and school groups. But the view from the top was worth the climb!! We spent awhile admiring the views. Absolutely amazing. The pictures won't do it justice unfortunately. The chinese girl with us was really afraid of heights and didn't make it all the way to the top. Took us awhile to make it down.

Once back in the van, we found a close by restaurant to have a buffet lunch. We were excited to try a local root similar to a sweet potato (more like a plain potato to me) covered in coconut. Didn't have much flavor but it was still good. After lunch we headed to Danbulla to go to the Rock Temple and see the reclining Buddha. It cost 1300 rupees ($12) to get in. The museum had minimal things and nothing was labeled. Check out the map below, they had a huge map of the world on the wall and nothing was correct. More stairs to get to the Rock Temple (our legs were killing us! And only then did we find out our new friend's dad has heart issues!). Before entering the temple we had to remove our shoes (forced us to leave them, I've heard stories of people having their shoes stolen..). Then I couldn't get in because my shoulders weren't covered. One more thing to pay for! This country charges for everything! I had to pay 50 rupees to borrow a shawl to go. There were four rooms total, the first room had the first reclining buddha with paintings on the ceiling. The second room had another reclining buddha and quite a few sitting buddhas (repeat that for the remaining rooms). I originally thought there was only one reclining buddha in existence, however, we saw four at this temple. We learned later that each buddha has a different hand signal and they have different meanings. Throughout the property were tons of monkeys, we even witnessed a monkey fight! Once we got back to the van, we were hoping to get some additional info from our driver regarding the area. No such luck, I repeated myself twice before he finally just pointed for me to get back in the van. By that point it was after 3 and we were all wiped out. Took a nap on the way back to the hotel. I think we're more sore from the car ride than all the hiking and climbing we did! Once we returned, the owner of the hotel informed us that they didn't have a room for us and that we could stay at the 'bungalow' up the hill and he wouldn't charge us extra. By this point we were so mad because the night before he guaranteed us a standard room that we booked. Having no choice he took us all the way up the hill and told us we could still use the hotel's amenities, just walk down the hill though the construction site to the main building. By this point we'd had it. It was dark and there was no way that was happening. We argued with him and finally just decided to stay since we didn't have any options. He had to attach a shower head and assured us there would be got water. No hot water. The window was up so high and open that we attracted a ton of bugs.. The bungalow itself was unfinished and the linens smelled.. The only upside is that he personally drove us up and down the hill when we asked. Cranky all the way around! Not a great way to end our day!

Sri Lankan Impressions

Tuesday, January 24th
Landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka at 3am, easily paid for a visa for our stay, and went through customs. While waiting for our luggage, we watched most of the passengers from our flight get their huge bags off the belt and immediately start opening and transferring Indian products into other bags. There was alot of scurrying around and the feeling they were panicked about their goods. My toes were stepped on more than once. Our guest house was awesome and had a driver waiting with Sarahs name on a sign. He was very good about showing us things along the way even though it was dark. By the time we got to the building the guest house was in, it was after 4:30am. We had to go to the 3rd floor of the residential building and woke the guy up on the couch to let us in. He barely spoke english and our driver had to communicate with him, he was hesitant to leave us. We got the impression that there weren't any rooms available. Finally we just went into one if the rooms where an australian girl had been sleeping in one of the two bunk beds. Luckily she was getting up to go pick her boyfriend up from the airport. Needless to say we went to sleep until about 10am. The kitchen balcony had an amazing view on the beach! Didn't waste any time putting on our stuits and heading to the beach! Found a nice local outdoor restaurant that had a really cool lifted cabana with a table where we befriended the 'entrepreneurs' and their friends. They love americans and for whatever reason they're fascinated by my hair color being so dark.. I guess fair skinned people aren't known for dark hair?? The food was ok. The noodles had dried fish and no flavor. The devel chicken had great flavor but way too many bones. Then we had a situation with a few scary crows.. Now you all know Sarah is deathly afraid of birds... I spent a majority of lunch hopping out of my chair to scare them away! Lol After lunch we walked down the beach and found a quiet place to take a nap and relax. The sand is so beautiful and the water is so blue and clear! Everyone that walked by had to stop and say hi. We finally had to tell a group of teenagers that we were going to take a nap. I think they thought we didn't like them. When we woke up we went back to the guest house and then headed to the main street called Galle to catch the #100 bus to go to Mount Lavania to wander around. Doing a great beach side restaurant called Bubbas Seafood. Sounds like it might be something out of Forest Gump but it was very classy and the food was great! I had the grilled sri lankan spiced darne of seer with a tangy lemon butter sauce. Amazing! Seer is a local white fish that is grilled and then served with different sauces. The atmosphere of the place was really cool and we had a great view of the sunday and a cruise ship off in the distance. We took a tuk tuk back to the guest house and were greated by the owner, Horshini. She is a 32 year old engineer and so sweet! We chatted with her for quite awhile and learned she is newly married, her husband is a doctor in the UK and they bought the apartment originally to live there but decided to turn it into a guest house recently. She was surprised to have so many bookings in the first week she listed and was excited to hear our recommendations. We were the first to write in her comment book! Originally we were apprehensive about the place but once we met Horshini we felt so much better and plan to stay one more night before we leave Sri Lanka.

Wednesday, January 25th
Slept in and packed our things to head to the main bus station in Colombo. Originally we were going to take the bus but decided it would be too hard with our packs and the amount of people they cram on one bus. So we negotiated a rate with a tuk tuk and held on for dear life! The bus station was very well laid out with clear signage. We bought extra water and a bag of green apples for the ride. Finding our bus and getting situated was so easy! We were lucky enough to sit in the very back of the A/C bus with our packs behind us. Now the buses don't leave until every seat is taken, I think it may have token 30 minutes at the very max. Along the way more people were picked up at different stops and seats in the aisles folded down. If one person got off, someone would move to his seat and it would all shuffle again. They have it down! The bus ride took about 3 hours to Kandy and it cost 245 Rupees (about $2.50). I took a dramamine JUST in case.. Once we arrived in Kandy we had to brave the mass amount of tuk tuks in order to cross the street. We finally settled on a tuk tuk and told him where we wanted to go.. Only for him to get us so lost and doing almost a whole lap around the lake! The thing with tuk tuks is that when you get in and tell then where you're going, they will ALWAYS tell you they know where that is. We have yet to meet one that actually knows where he is going. Oh and also make sure you negotiate rate before you get in. The tuk tuk that took us to the bus station in Colombo tried to tell us it was 500 rupees per person when we got there, I told him thats not what we adhered on, gave him a 500 and we walked away. If you hesitate, they got you!! Ok so back to Kandy. Our tuk tuk finally found the Kandy View Hotel with our help and we were frustrated to find out from the owner that they did not have the standard room available that we had booked. BUT he could give us a luxury room for no extra cost for the night and then we would have to move to a standard room for the next night. At that point we were ok with it and just wanted to get into our room to wash up and relax. We had a Sri Lankan dinner of curries, rice, and dessert. The owner kept visiting our table trying to set up a tour guide. We already knew we wanted to go to Sugiriya for the day and unfortunately his prices were way too high. He found a father and daughter from Shanghai that were interested in splitting the cost of a driver (3,500 rupees) and planned to meet the next day at 7:30am to go.