Codename V

Vanguard of Individuality and Freedom

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Sri Lanka & Maldives (June 2012)

This is a very short account of our trip to Sri Lanka and Maldives from 1st June to 10th June. It is short because this is not a travelogue. Not much time and space has been spent on describing the places visited. The purpose of this article is to help in planning the trip and what points to take care of. We can discuss the beauty of the places when we meet, and to see them just google or have a look at our photographs.

The destinations were chosen because of these reasons:

  1. Wanted a break from work with not too much travelling involved
  2. Had exactly 10 days for the trip (Sanjukta was between jobs)
  3. Planning at very short notice so preferred visa-on-arrival
  4. Had to be a mix of “natural beauty” and “historical” places
  5. Budget was maximum 3lakhs all inclusive

It is always better to combine Sri Lanka and Maldives since all flights to Maldives go via Colombo.

We spent 6 days in Srilanka and 3 days in Maldives. Our itinerary:

1st June: Mumbai –> Colombo –> Kandy

2nd June: Kandy –> Sigriya

3rd June: Kandy –> Nuwara Eliya

4th June: Nuwara Eliya –> Bentota

5th June: Bentota

6th June: Bentota –> Colombo

7th June: Colombo –> Male (Maldives) –> Resort

8th June: Resort

9th June: Resort

10th June: Resort –> Male  –> Colombo –> Mumbai

The total cost of the trip was Rs.2,90,000, all inclusive. Sri Lanka’s share was Rs.94000 and rest was Maldives. This is a little on the higher side considering it was off-season at both places. However, we didn’t compromise on stay and shopping anywhere. The cost excel sheet is here Sri Lanka – Maldives (yes! An excel sheet!). Went with 2 medium-sized luggage, came back with 3. Dress code everywhere is casual and resort chic. But carry couple of formal shirts/dresses for occasional dinners. And carry lots of sun-screen.

Sri Lanka:

This country is way over-rated in terms of its natural beauty. To give a comparison, the hilly areas are like Sikkim, the beaches are like Puri and the cities are like Simla (but better to go here than Munnar or Coorg). Even a Sri Lanka – Kerala combo is good. Indians will find it “not new, but different”.

Sri Lanka

The pros are:

  1. Only about 3 hrs from Bombay
  2. Visa on arrival (almost. You have to submit an online application, that’s all. No docs required)
  3. Can hop from a city to hills to beaches and back – all at max 6hrs travel by car
  4. Favorable conversion rate: 100 LKR = 42 INR
  5. So becomes a good shopping destination
  6. Wi-fi in almost all public places and hotels
  7. Good cheap food available everywhere, even vegetarian
  8. Nice polite people and clean surroundings (very clean public toilets everywhere)
  9. Good for either purpose: relaxation or place-hopping or adventure
  10. You can go extreme budget or total luxury

The cons are:

  1. Doesn’t look very different from India (except its cleaner)
  2. At touristy places, everyone seems to be a tout or begging for money
  3. Going only to Sri Lanka and coming back is probably a waste of time and money

1st June – Kandy

Travel:

2am flight to Colombo. Reached at 5am. Took an airport shuttle bus to nearest bus stand. At 6.30am, took a normal state transport bus from there to Kandy. Reached Kandy at 10.30am. Took a tuktuk from there to hotel. Tuktuks are a good way to travel there but bargain hard. They’ll quote 250LKR for a 100LKR ride, 450LKR for a 200LKR ride and so on.

Place:

Kandy is basically a small hill town that has seen better days during the British rule. And as with all British cities, life is concentrated around a mall road. There is nothing to do within Kandy except see the lake and visit the Temple of Tooth. The main market is Dalada Veediya. The White Buddha that you see in the map below is a huge statue atop a hill that can be seen from everywhere. But no need to visit it.

Kandy

Stay:

We stayed at Hotel Anna Shanthi Villa. Don’t be fooled by the name. It’s a house converted to a hotel with about 4 rooms. Run by an Italian-Lankan couple whose daughter is Anna. Excellent rooms with all amenities, all you can eat breakfast, excellent hosts, very peaceful, and good rates too. Only drawback is the location. It was at the bottom right-hand corner of the Lake. The Lake is longitudinal, so walking around the lake fully takes around 45mins. The Hotel is about 15mins walk to the Temple of Tooth.

Our recommendation: There are basically two stay options in Kandy. The best one is Queen’s Hotel. This 4-star hotel has the best location in Kandy, right next to the Temple of Tooth and in the middle of the main market. If you don’t want to stay in the middle of Kandy, then blindly go for Anna Shanthi Villa.

Eat:

Packaged food is costly in Sri Lanka. Food ordered in restaurants is quite cheap. What makes it better is that it is served in generous quantities. You can expect to have a hearty meal for two in 500 INR. Except at the touristy places where there is only buffet and it costs at least 900 LKR. Only thing is that they are not great on taste. Chicken is good only in curry. Mutton is non-existent. Beef, fish and sea-food are more common. But there are always good vegetarian options. There are practically only 3 restaurants in Kandy: Captain’s Table (pathetic), The Pub (excellent), Pub Royale (good). But remember, markets close by 6.30pm and restaurants by 10.30pm. There is also a bakery The Bakeshop right under The Pub which is highly recommended but I found it ok. All these eateries are within 20mts of each other near the Queen’s Hotel.

Visit:

As soon as we reached the Hotel, we freshened up and left in a tuktuk arranged by the Hotel for the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which is about 90kms from Kandy. They basically keep and rear orphaned elephants till they reach adulthood. It was very boring. This Pinnawala area has become an elephant-based industry. The Orphanage is run by the government. But all around it are other private elephant keeps which are so similar that you would get confused. Our tuktuk-walla first took us to such a ‘shop’. There they charge exorbitant amounts for 15mins rides. Thankfully, we saw through the scam and made the driver take us to the real thing. Which wasn’t much better. It is basically interesting for foreigners who rarely see elephants in the open and love to see them bathe in the river and feed them (at a price). Plus, there will be a smooth-talking employee who will double up as a tout. They will always say “I don’t want any money.” This should be the first warning to you. Because this means that he will definitely ask you for money. Just politely say no thrice. There are also couple of shops nearby. But overall boring. Our recommendation: Yes for foreigners. No for Indians.

2nd June – Sigiriya

Visit:

Sigiriya is an ancient city around 3hrs from Kandy. At around 6AD, it used to be the capital of the major dynasty of Sri Lanka. Whimsical king Kasyapa chose to build his palace atop a 200mts high rock. Now I don’t say hill. It is on top of a huge rock.

Sigiriya

We went there by taxi. The roads are very good and the ride is comfortable. But going by bus is not a feasible option. Be sure to carry a hat else the direct sunlight will kill you. The ticket costs are high by Indian standards and in Lanka they do not accept cards. There you have to first visit the museum and understand the background. Then begins the climb up the rock which is exhausting and can take up to 1 and half hour. There is no water and food available on top so carry your own stuff. On way you can see some excellent frescoes. The actual palace is in ruins and you can see only the steps and foundation stones and a pond. But it still gives a thrill to see what might have existed once. Our recommendation: Must-visit. But not if you have babies or adults who have difficulty walking.

On our return, we stopped by Dambulla Buddhist Temple which is on the highway itself some 1hr from Sigiriya. There are caves here which we heard were worth seeing but couldn’t go in since we didn’t have cash left. We didn’t have cash left because our driver scammed us by promising to take us to a cheap place and we ended up having lunch for 1300 LKR. Never go by your driver’s recommendation which goes like “I can take you to a cheap place. Where I eat.” The places he eats will have buffet lunch for not more than 150 LKR. But he will always take you to a place from where he gets a commission. Beware.

3rd June – Nuwara Eliya

We had planned to leave for Nuwara Eliya at around 11am so that we reach the hotel there latest by 1pm. So we thought of visiting the Temple of Tooth in the morning. That’s when our plans went awry.

Temple of Tooth is a temple dedicated to Lord Buddha which we heard houses a tooth of Buddha brought by a sibling duo from India. This is not true. It houses a casket in which the tooth was supposedly brought. So you have people praying to an empty casket. Not very different from the idol-worship seen in Hinduism with all its rituals and bureaucracy. The scene inside is similar to that inside Shirdi or Vaishno Devi. Because you stand in queue for an hour but get to see the casket for just a split second. Unaware of all this, we walked down to the temple. Make sure you go there all covered (men included). The good thing is on paying the entrance fees you get an audio guide which is quite informative. The bad part was it was a Sunday and the day before full moon. So it was very crowded. We had expected it be over in an hour but it took longer. Our conclusion: Must-visit. Do it in the middle of day or late evening (open till around 8pm).

We managed to get back to the hotel by noon. Already running late, we wrapped up everything and reached the bus-stand by 1pm. We then took an air-conditioned bus to Nuwara Eliya direct at 1.30pm. Again, the roads are good and the ride is comfortable. You can make do with non-a/c also. But we made a mistake in not enquiring beforehand the location of our hotel in Nuwara Eliya.

Place:

Nuwara Eliya is basically the tea plantation area in Sri Lanka. Probably four times the size of Darjeeling’s plantation area. So the beauty there is different from other hill stations. It was originally a coffee-growing area. But a pest infestation forced the planters there to shift to tea. The planters were mainly from Scotland and they tried to recreate their homeland there. So you still have Scottish names like McWood and houses named Inverness and Lochside. The tea here is far better than Indian, the variety here is in terms of strength and not flavors and they are growing it organically.

Nuwara Eliya

There is not much else to see here except the Gregory Lake which is 15min walk from the bus-stand. It is again a big lake with promenades and cycling-tracks built alongside. It is a family favorite and good place to relax. Apart from this are the Botanical Gardens, which are an hour’s drive. Indians will be more familiar with it as the Ashok Vatika. They say the tree still stands there although I am skeptical. My vote will still go to the world’s largest Banyan tree at the Botanical Gardens in Calcutta. In any case, we couldn’t visit this place because we were short on time. Why we were short, is in the next section.

Stay:

The best place to stay in Nuwara Eliya is the Grand Hotel which is next to the Golf Course and around 10min drive to the bus-stand. It is a good 4-star property and provides easy entry and exit from the town and also if you want to visit the Ashok Vatika.

But if you want a wonderful experience, then stay where we did – at the Heritance Tea Factory Hotel. It is a theme hotel converted from an actual tea factory. It is amazing and worth staying for a day or two. Excellent food, great staff, there is also a mini tea factory where you get free tour seeing tea being made. In fact, the place is so good that people staying in other hotels come to have a look at it. And that’s how we bumped into an old friend there.

The only problem is the location. To reach here, we first took a bus from the main bus-stand in Nuwara Eliya to nearby town Kandapola (around 20mins). Then took a tuktuk 4kms uphill to reach the hotel. By the time we reached the hotel, it was already 5pm and we had to cancel our plan for Ashok Vatika. All who stay there come in cars or taxis. We were the only ones on foot. But the stay was memorable. We had asked for room with a good view and they obliged us with one with windows on three sides. No wonder this hotel is a favorite among honeymooners. It gets very cold in the mornings so take care.

Our recommendation: Spend at least a night in Nuwara Eliya and stay at this hotel.

4th June – Bentota

We liked the hotel so much that we decided to leave for Bentota as late as possible. There was another issue. Going from Nuwara Eliya to Bentota is more difficult than going from Bombay to Gangtok. There are no rail links and going by bus takes around 12 hours. The only option left was taxi but the hotel said it would cost 27000 LKR. So we decided to try our luck and take the taxi from Nuwara Eliya. We checked out at 11am and started walking down the road. Mid-way we took a tuktuk to Nuwara Eliya. From there we negotiated with the taxis and hired one till Bentota for 13000 LKR. We left Nuwara Eliya at 12.30pm and reached Bentota at 7pm.

The ride from Nuwara Eliya to Bentota via Hatton is very scenic. Luckily for us, it was full moon day so official holiday in Sri Lanka. This is a festive day marked for charity. So all along the roads and highways people set up stalls from which they offer free food and drinks to passers-by in unlimited quantities. Each stall serves one item, and there are such stalls after every km or so. So all along the journey people can have squashes, coffee, tea, lunch, even ice-creams. Fun part: both kids and adults take part in it and actively flag down vehicles offering them free drinks or food. The quality is good since the authorities conduct quality checks. The route is practically the same as the one to Colombo except that, 35kms before Colombo, you take a left turn on to the spanking-new expressway to Bentota. The expressway, built by the Japanese, connects Colombo to Galle (the metro in the south) and Bentota lies in between. It is the best ever we have seen – imagine motorways in UK, only wider, with more signages, more emergencies lanes, milestones every 100mts and warning signs every 200mts. Before this, the Mumbai-Pune expressway looks ancient.

Place

Bentota is a beach town with some beautiful resorts and scope for some water-sports. The beach is small but beautiful. There is nothing else to see or do so two days is more than enough for it.

Bentota

Stay

In Bentota it makes sense to stay at a beach resort. All the resorts are located side-by-side in one small half a km stretch called Resort Town. There are five resorts here in the order of ratings: Bentota Beach Resort, Avani Beach Resort, Taj Vivanta and one more which I forget. We stayed at Avani Beach Resort (earlier Hotel Serendib), which is very good. We chose it because we got a good last-minute discount on agoda.com. If you are not particular about rooms and service, then stay whichever is cheapest. Because the beach is public and same for all these resorts. We mostly spent time here on the beach or in the pool.

Eat:

Never eat at any of these resorts, except breakfast. Nobody does that. Because is the food is expensive, in small servings and not very tasty. To eat, people come out of the resort and onto the main road (there is only a railway track that separates the resort lane from the main road). There is a line of restaurants that serve good food at reasonable rates. We had dinner at Golden Grill and we couldn’t finish off a wonderful 1600 LKR meal. Compare it with buffet at 2000 LKR each at the resort. And don’t get me started on the ala-carte menu.

 5th June – Bentota

We had kept aside this day for mainly relaxing and water-sport activities. But to our mild disappointment, this is off-season for water-sports. During season (Oct-Jan), these watersports are organized in the sea but during this season in the river since it is calmer. So the options are limited by the fun doesn’t get less. The river is right next to the Bentota Beach Resort so you can walk down to the place where they do the activities. Out of the many options available, we chose Sigg’s and didn’t regret it. Our resort also has Sigg’s as its official water-sport company, but we went on our own. We demanded off-season non-hotel rates and he obliged. Next two hours was fun and I tried the jet-ski (fun), water-skiing (difficult) and doughnut-ride (absolute fun on a big lifebuoy). Para-sailing is available only during season. Even this gets very tiring and we came back in the afternoon and rested. In the evening we went to the beach and then relaxed in the pool.

6th June – Colombo

We were in no mood to do any tourist visit in Colombo so decided to leave Bentota at our convenience. We decided to take a bus from the bus-stand which is 1km from the resort. We left the resort at 11am and reached Colombo by 1pm.

Place

Colombo is like Delhi, only flatter, cleaner and better planned. Distances are not much and the main areas to visit are mostly along the Galle Face Road, which is the city’s Marine Drive. There are lots of forts and museums and other such places to visit. We weren’t at all interested in them and wanted to shop a little.

Colombo

Stay

Hotels in Colombo are slightly costlier compared with the rest of the country but still neat and clean. Since we had to stay only one night and were treating Colombo as merely a stop-over, we chose a mid-range hotel on Duplication Road, which runs parallel to the Galle Face Road. The Hotel Indra Regent was just right for spending one night and not having food there. It’s a good high-end shopping area too.

Shop

Colombo is a good for apparel-shopping because it is a manufacturing base. The shops/malls like Odel and House of Fashions are manufacturers-cum-retailers and this, combined with a favorable exchange rate, makes it a shopping destination for Indians. There are barely any malls in Colombo and mostly stand-alone shops.

Of the two recommended malls, we first went to Majestic which was a 20-min walk from our hotel. This is the older one and so was a disappointment. It is eerily similar to the Spencer mall in Chennai – an atrium surrounded by four floors of cubby-hole shops, even a pathetic food court.

We, thankfully, didn’t shop there and went to Odel at Alexandra Place. Now this place looks like a big bungalow from the outside and so is beautiful inside. My wife went berserk on seeing it and we shopped for 5 hours. You can do all the Lanka shopping here. The crowd is 50% tourists and 50% classy locals. The best sections are women’s apparels, souvenirs, Ceylon Spa’s shop and Hallmark’s gift shop. We finally stopped at 7pm and then had to buy a suitcase to stuff in all the shopping.

Eat

We met our friend Madhurim (whom we had bumped into at Nuwara Eliya) for dinner. She took us to the Cricket Club somewhere in Colombo-3. It is a cozy cricket-themed restaurant with a relaxed atmosphere and good food. Our recommendation: Definitely go if you’re a cricket fan. Don’t go if you are looking only for traditional Sri Lankan food.

Dress Code in Sri Lanka:

Even though Lankans get unnecessarily conservative in temples, outside it is much more ‘comfortable’. Skirts are the most popular wear for women, but of course they move up only till the knees. For female tourists, it is much more relaxed and tolerant. But definitely wear something loose and confortable as the humidity saps you.

 

Maldives:

Maldives is an archipelago of coral islands. Male is in the centre above which are the North atolls and below the South atolls. The atolls are a series of coral islands in circular line, each not more than 500mt in diameter. Each island has only one resort and nothing else. So each resort is luxurious, exclusive and expensive. Nobody stays in Male. They all go to these resorts. Maldives is now planning to build three 1500-room resorts near that’ll be more affordable and still have all the facilities. The last Tsunami destroyed a lot of resorts and corals, so most of the resorts will look new and contemporary.

Maldives

Pros:

  1. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful
  2. Exclusive and not touristy like Bali, Mauritius or Thailand
  3. Some good diving sites, if interested

Cons:

  1. Expensive. Unsettles your whole vacation budget
  2. Reaching there and getting out is a pain
  3. Gets boring after a while – 3 days is max
  4. Will get tanned

7th June – Maldives

Travel

We had an early morning flight, so took the hotel-arranged taxi at 4.30pm. The Colombo airport is 60kms from the city. The Sri Lankan Airlines is a perfect counterpart of Air India – old planes, flight around 30mins late, jaded air-hostesses, just a sandwich for breakfast, and no tea/coffee. We landed in Male at around 8.30pm. If your flight is reaching after around 2pm, then you might have to stay in Male for the night.

Now there are two ways to reach any resort. The nearby resort islands can be reached by a high-speed water-boat. The islands further away can be reached only by a sea-plane. Whatever be the case, it gets arranged by the resort itself and the cost included as part of the package. Most of the travel agencies will book you in a resort that can be reached by a water-boat (eg Taj Vivanta) to keep the costs down. But this doesn’t mean that the resorts closer to Male are in any way inferior. The good and bad resorts are spread all across.

Ours was a sea-plane transfer which was an enjoyable 40-min ride and gives a good aerial view of the atolls. As the plane landed near the resort, a boat was ready to take us to the resort. We finally set foot on the resort at 12 noon.

Stay

At the outset, I’d like to state that there are no bad resorts in Maldives. And there are some 100 of them. We did extensive research on them and chose the best as per our requirements. All have great beaches, good facilities, excellent staff and service and okay food. So what’s left?

  1. Budget: Choose resorts that have rooms from range Rs.30000 to Rs.100000. Ours was somewhere in the middle.
  2. Location: Near the better diving sites, if interested. We weren’t.
  3. Rooms: All resorts have two kinds of rooms – one on the beach and other on the water (on stilts). Asians prefer water-villas; foreigners prefer beach-villas (easier to sun-bathe, closer to bar, cheaper because they stay for average two weeks). Also, travel agents usually book the water-villas.
  4. Size of rooms: We purposely chose one with huge rooms to get more bang for our buck.

We stayed at Vakarufalhi Resort. It is frequented mainly by Europeans. We were the only Indians on the island. But the resort is excellent and the rooms awesome. In Maldives, we would 100% recommend staying there.

Vakarufalhi Resort

Eat

We had a full board plan which is advisable since it includes all meals including complimentary wine/coke by the glass and evening tea. There is only one restaurant so there is not much to think and choose. Water-villa and Beach-villa people are seated separately. On the first day itself you are assigned a waiter for your whole visit. This is because he gets to know your plan and your food preferences. Also because, in case you order something that is not included in your plan, he can charge you more if you are water-villa (there are different menu cards). But we never felt the need for it. Food is largely for the European-palate. Every night has a different theme for the buffet and activities planned so that the guests don’t get bored. Fine with us except on the International Cuisine night. We shared our disappointment with our waiter who took it to heart. He got us special vegetarian/chicken/fish meals each day. Very kind of him.

8th Jun – Maldives

Apart from lazing around, the only other things to do are water activities. Snorkeling is free and you can get the equipment on the first day and return it on the last day. Since we were in the water-villa, we could just step down in the water anytime and start snorkeling. The diving centre also organizes excursion everyday: one-day whale shark spotting, second day manta rays, third day deep diving, etc.

We chose to go for whale shark spotting and left at 9am and came back at 1pm. In between was disaster. Now this is almost professional snorkeling. You spot a shark, everybody jumps in the water, snorkels and swims alongside the shark. This is safe but only for expert swimmers. Both of us know swimming and have done snorkeling before. But were still no match for this kind. The sea was rough and you have to swim really hard to keep up with the shark. Besides, you cannot slow the group down. There are few life-jackets and the guide will not help you unless you start drowning. The Europeans are expert swimmers (many are even trained divers) and strong. So don’t do it unless you are absolutely sure that you can manage it. We did see a shark fin above the water though.

In the evening, there is a free snorkeling session in the house-reef. We tried again but failed because it gets chaotic in a big group. And that’s our big grudge. There is absolutely no support for the less-experienced swimmers like us. It was better in Lakshadweep. We didn’t know swimming then. But there were two guides with us and we had life-jackets on. They took us by hand and showed us underwater for a full half hour. Our recommendation: If you are like us, don’t go to Maldives for snorkeling, etc. Go to Lakshadweep instead.

9th June – Maldives

Having renounced snorkeling with the big guys, we decided to do something on our own. We snorkeled in the water right below our cabin. It was still very enjoyable and we got to see whole lot of fishes. And in the morning the depth wasn’t more than 5 feet anywhere. And the missus loved it.

We then booked an evening spa session which wasn’t great but still relaxing. The 2hr morning snorkeling had been tiring and we were totally tanned.

Rest of the time, we rested, watched tv, read books or took a walk around the island.

10th June – Return

The last day was all travel. We woke up at 5.30am to be ready for breakfast by 6.30am. We left the resort by boat at 7.15am and the plane arrived at 8am. We reached Male sea-plane airport at 8.30am. Then a bus transferred us to Male airport. We took a 9.30am flight and reached Colombo at around 11am. We had a 4hr stopover and had lunch at the airport itself. Our next flight was at 4.30pm and we reached Chennai at 6pm. Then a long queue at immigration and liquor-shopping at duty-free shop. Then again a flight to Mumbai at 8pm and we reached around 10.30pm. Then taxi from airport to hotel and reached home at 12 am.

Now there are better ways to come back. But there were two constraints. First, if your flight from Male is before 9.30am, then you have to leave the resort the previous day and stay overnight in Male. Second, proper flight from Colombo to Mumbai reach Mumbai at around 2am. Then it would have been very late for us since we wanted to rejoin office the next day properly (it was going to be Sanjukta’s first day in her new job).

Final thoughts:

It was an excellent 10-day getaway. Like our friend Madhurim said, you’ll enjoy Sri Lanka if you lower your expectations a bit. Maldives exceeded our expectations. it was the ideal duration except the Sri Lanka leg which can do with some modifications. Overall, well within our budget also.

That’s all, folks!

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