Sri Lanka!

We arrived in Sri Lanka, naively believing it would be the same (or similar) to India, it’s often described as the “light” version of the two countries, but we found that they are worlds apart. Sri Lanka is less crowded and much smaller, people are just as, if not more, friendly. The curries are completely different, less rich with a passion for dried fish that we really didn’t share. There was nowhere near as much vegetarian option as in India, despite the 75% Buddhist population. The beaches are cleaner, the transport is just as mad!

Our route around the country was: 

Colombo > Kandy (where we caught an England vs Sri Lanka cricket match) > Dambulla > Polonnaruwa > Sigiriya > Kandy > Ella (the “most beautiful train ride in the world” or the “most crowded train we’ve ever been on”?) > The coast (Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa) > Negombo. 

Top tip: the 7 hour train journey from Kandy to Ella has become extremely famous and rammed full of tourists, if you’re desperate for a reserved seat, tickets sell fast when they are released a month before travel (mostly by agents who they resell these at inflated prices). If you miss out of reserved like we did, you have a few options, you can buy one through an agent, just accepting that you’re paying up to 10x the price of the ticket, you can go to the station before Kandy to secure a seat, or we would suggest buying third class unreserved, instead of second class, we ended up moving down to third anyway where there was more room and after a few hours we got ourselves a seat. Sit on the right hand side before Nuwara Eliya and left hand side afterwards for the best views! 

Sri Lanka has seen a huge increase in tourism in the last 5-10 years, but it’s clear that no one is bending backwards to cater for your western needs – which we like (excluding a few fancy resorts on the coast which we did not manage to squeeze in!) For example, to travel from tea country to the coast, you either live like a local and take a 6 hour bumpy bus for 300 rupees (£1.40) with no guarantee of a seat or you pay 15,000 rupees (£70) to be taken the same journey by air conditioned taxi, there’s no in-between. We took the former, the bus time table is kept in a hand written note in the Curd shop on Ella high street, it’s not well publicised (probably to help the taxi drivers out). We got a seat no problem, but it was not peak season so a lot less busy than normal. 

One thing is for certain, Sri Lanka is beautiful. Everything is green and luscious, so every train and bus ride has amazing views, if a little (read: very) bumpy/crowded. We saw elephants, buffalo, peacocks, sea turtles, tropical fish, monitor lizards (and cockroaches, but we won’t dwell on that). We climbed Pidurangala, Little Adams Peak, up to Uva Halpwette tea factory, and Ella’s Rock. All had spectacular views and best done at dawn, before the crazy heat. Our favourite was Pidurangala, which is not the famous Lions rock in Sigiriya, but the one opposite. It was 500 rupees entry instead of 5000 and we would argue even more beautiful. It is less crowded, we had the entire top to ourselves, whereas we saw a queue of about 100 people for Lion’s rock, although apparently the climb is a little more difficult on Pidurangala, the paths completely disappears at the end and there’s some rock climbing required.

Another amazing day was when we cycled round Polonnaruwa in central Sri Lanka, which contain the restored ruins of what was once the capital of Sri Lanka in around 800 AD, before being deserted by 1200. 

Once we got to the coast you can see it is being built up, in most seaside towns there is a parade of shops and bars along the beach, practically touching the ocean, we learnt that it was a lot more built up prior to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that devastated the country. We stayed in a great hostel in Unawatuna with a family and their adorable 2 year old son Leo, who quickly enlisted Isaac to build Lego guns with him. In Hikkaduwa, Isaac managed to bag a serious offseason gem and get a beautiful hotel and swimming pool at a fraction of its peak season price. 

1 blog really isn’t enough to do Sri Lanka justice, but hopefully this video Isaac made will show you why we loved it here. 

Shoulder season in south Goa

After moving almost every day or two for a month we were excited at the prospect of relaxing on a beach in the sun. We planned to start off in Agonda, a peaceful village in the South of Goa.

October is shoulder season in Goa, with monsoon nearly over and high season not until November, Agonda was just waking up again after a summer asleep. In the week we were there beach huts were uncovered from their monsoon protection, bars and restaurants started to open up and whole resorts were being built. 

A pro of visiting in shoulder season is that you still get off season prices and nowhere is full, after staying a night in a very budget and pretty grim room in the north of Agonda we wandered down the Main Street and everyone was keen to show us their spare rooms. We ended up with a beach view room at “Red Villa” in the centre of town with a guy called Marseille and his family, they were so nice bringing us a coffee and biscuits during a storm and a candle for the blackouts. The mum made us a huge bowl of chicken biryani that went down very well with Isaac! We even came back at the end of our 2 weeks in Goa for a few extra nights stay. We bagged a deal at 800 rupees (~£8.50) a night, whereas most of the resorts in Agonda are averaging 3,000 rupees a night. This was good news as we had gone a little over budget in the first month of our trip!

The weather might be seen as a con of shoulder season, and we were definitely a bit deflated on our first night when we were sitting in our room in the dark after the 4th power cut and forecast said we were in for 2 weeks of the same thunderstorms. However, the forecasts changed by the hour, and we ended up with only 1 day in 2 weeks where it rained torrentially and mostly the rain came at night. On average Goa only experiences 5 rainy days in October. Even the storms were pretty incredible, lightening lit up the entire sky and thunder was the loudest we’d ever heard. The towns were plunged into darkness and candles were lit, a lot of chai drunk and card games!

Sitting on a beach in Goa you could be on any beach in a hot country, the sand is golden and the sea warm and blue, until something undoubtedly Indian reminds you where you are: the smell of fish curry from a beach-front hut, a herd of cows wandering along the beach, or a woman emptying the contents of her outhouse into the sea(!) 

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Whilst in Agonda we walked to the secluded Butterfly beach. We read up a lot about this and the prognosis was that you should get a boat there as the trek was “difficult” however, it was about 1500 rupees each and we both wanted to save that money for some delicious Portuguese-inspired Goan seafood! So we went for the walk, which it turned out was incredibly easy. It took us an hour from Agonda through the jungle, we met two other people on the way and the path was clear cut, although you could imagine parts getting muddy during rainy season. The beach is beautiful and full of butterflies, but quite sadly now polluted with plastic and litter. From here we attempted the trek to the next beach “Honeymoon bay”, which was the opposite to the easy walk to Butterfly beach! It was a treacherous hike over a cliff and there was hardly any path, the beach itself was pretty underwhelming and we decided that these names were only given as tourist traps! 

After Agonda we hired a moped (Isaac was in charge) and drove around to find a working ATM (the one in Agonda was sill under construction) and we drove to the nearest town Chaudi, and to see a few other beaches; Palolem, Putnam and Colomb. We then spent 4 days in Palolem which is bigger than Agonda and had slightly more going on. We found some beautiful beach huts right on the beach to stay in (again for discounted off-peak price) and believe we achieved the relaxation we had arrived in Goa looking for! 

From Goa it was a series of night trains to Bangalore and then to Madurai. We couldn’t believe our time in India was over, still so much to see and explore, we will definitely be back. Next stop: Sri Lanka…

Love Ella and Isaac xxxx

Rajasthan part 2 

Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur & Udaipur

In Rajasthan we had a taxi driver called Balvinder who took us around, this was great because we weren’t restricted to the train routes and times. Balvinder was really nice but sometimes wouldn’t say anything for a few hours and would then shout some words at you until you got out to discover what he was talking about. One of these examples was on our drive to Bikaner, “RED TEMPLE” he said, “RED TEMPLE!”, we didn’t understand, “RED TEMPLE” we sighed “OK, OK we’ll go see” we got out, not too keen as we’d just woken up from a long heat-induced nap and we were starting to feel a little templed-out.

Anyway, we took off our shoes and wandered in, Ella noticed a large black rat scurry through a crowd of worshipers, Isaac pointed to a group of 10 rats in one corner and another 20 rats being fed seeds by some locals. “Ohhhh RAT TEMPLE” we had read about this temple which is overrun with 25000 rats but people still come from far and wide to worship at.

Ella’s opinion was that it was that the smell was revolting and Isaac was expecting more rats…

It was c.40 degrees every day in the desert so we went out mainly in the early morning or evening. In Bikaner we took and evening Tuk tuk tour through the winding old streets seeing the most beautiful hand carved wooden Havelis (hotels).

We went to see a master of miniature painting as well which is famous in the region, he did a miniature painting on Ella’s nail and we got one (on paper, not nail) to take home. 

The highlight of the next city, Jaisalmer, had to be our visit to out into the desert. Neither of us had been on a camel before and it was a scary ride 10ft in the air! In the evening there was dancing entertainment and dinner with some other groups of tourists. There was a lot of laughing, some local children even came and sang. After dark we opted to sleep out in the dunes under the stars, the moon was so bright you could see for miles and we woke up to sunrise over the Thar desert.

Top tip: podcasts or entertainment are needed for the long car/train journeys in Rajasthan… eye-spy is not that entertaining in the desert!

Jodhpur was another beautiful city based around a fort, every hotel and restaurant had great views from the rooftops. It was also a great place for shopping, Ella got a Sari, Isaac bought a shirt and we also got some Masala tea spice for our Chai.

Our final stop in Rajasthan was Udaipur which is the “lake city”. Here we went out on a boat around the lake and also took an Indian cooking class with a lady called Shashima. We could not recommend this enough it was so interesting to learn all about her life as well as how to cook the basics for all indian curries, breads, chutneys and teas. You leave with a cook book of recipes and a very full stomach as you get to eat everything that you made during the class. Following this we watched our last sunset in Rajasthan on a roof top cafe with some chai and headed for our night train which would take us the 800km to Mumbai and then onto Goa.

Love Ella & Isaac xxx

Rajasthan part 1

We spent 2 weeks in Rajasthan so we’ve split the tour of the state into 2 parts, part 1 is Agra, Jaipur and Pushkar.

We started off in Agra, home of probably the most famous Indian temple; the Taj Mahal. On arrival we visited a park that sits behind the Taj to see the “river side” as the sun went down a small crowd gathered to watch the ant-like people swarm in and out of the domes of the temple. The next morning it was our turn to be the ants, we woke up at 5.30am as we had be told that sunrise was the best time to see the Taj Mahal and it did not disappoint. There were less crowds, but still more than we expected, lots of short queues to get the Instagram-worthy shots!7589954208_IMG_1022

Next up was Jaipur, a half-day drive from Agra. We went to the Monkey temple, which is both a shrine to the Hindu Monkey God and overrun with real monkeys, we never got to the bottom of which came first! From here it was a short climb up a hill to the Sunshine temple which has an amazing panoramic view of Jaipur.

 

Top tip: keep small notes with you in the temples because if you are blessed you will need to give a “donation”, which are not optional and you will be advised if you don’t give enough! We were blessed about 5 times before realising you can politely decline before you’re out of pocket about 1000 rupees!

 

The next day in Jaipur we went into the old part which gives the pink city its nick name. The beautiful art deco buildings are a pale terracotta colour. We visited the Jantar Mantar where Ella could geek-out over the 18th century star constellation, astrology and time measuring apparatus (they have the largest sun dial in the world which could measure the time to a 6second accuracy, in the 1700s… pretty impressive!) We are trying to be positive tourists so we accepted the offer of a local guide in order to put money into the community, however this was a disaster as he failed to tell us anything, and wondered aimlessly around the grounds, so we gave him a small tip and carried on on our own.

 

No hurry, No worry!

The next place we moved to was Pushkar, this was the first city we had been to where there were a noticeable number of non-Indian tourists. Pushkar is a hippie paradise, people live by the phrase a tea stall holder said to us: “no hurry, no worry”. The town is tiny, we could walk from one side to the other in half an hour. There is a bazaar over 1km long full of stalls selling patchwork trousers and jewellery like that you’d find on a stall in Camden. The cafes mainly serve pizza and special lassi but we managed to find an incredible curry house (Raju, Main Bazaar) which may*** be the best curry we’ve had in India.

***The jury’s still out, we don’t want to commit!

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There is a holy lake in the centre of Pushkar which legend claims was a petal of a lotus flower placed down by a god in the middle of the desert. People from all faiths make the pilgrimage to bathe in it. For such a small town there are a lot of temples (500 or so), we visited during a festival where the statues of the gods from each temple were taken from their home and down to bathe in the holy lake, this was partnered with a lot of singing, dancing and music through the tiny streets. There are also temples on the hills surrounding the town; we opted to walked up to Savitri Mata temple (we love a steep hike apparently!) but there’s a cable cart going up and down the hill if you wish. The views are breathtaking from the top. You can see why the lotus flower legend was born as there is nothing but desert for miles around this tiny lake.

 

Love Isaac & Ella xxx

Treacherous Trekking (& a proposal!)

Whilst we were in Kashmir we went on a trek into the mountains to see one of the Great Alpine Lakes. We set off to the Naranag base camp with another guy, Ben, who had also been staying on the houseboat. We had signed up for a 3 day trek but this really turned out to be: 1 day small walk and set up camp, 2nd day 34km huge climb up the vertical side of a mountain (increased elevation of around 1200m) and back down, last day pack up and walk to base camp!

We were guided by Arfaz and Israd, a young man and teenager from the village. We set up camp on the first day near the river, which Isaac and Ben swam in; it was icy cold as the water flowing straight was from the glaciers at the top of the mountains. In the evening we ate the most delicious curry, we were stunned at how good it was seeing as there was just 1 gas stove in the middle of nowhere, we had fresh trout from the river as well.

One thing we haven’t mentioned so far is the amount of people who we have met who want photos of/with us, being asked “selfie?” is quite common in Asian countries but nothing quite compared to Naranag. We were stared at, a lot, and we were told that for quite a few people we were the first white Europeans they had ever seen, except on TV.

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One of the photo shoot pit-stops

We set off on day 2, not really knowing what we had let ourselves in for. The first 3 hours of the trek were the steepest and most difficult, when we reached a tiny hut which sold tea and snacks, we filled up on sugary chai and were able to fill our bottles with fresh water straight from the mountain. The incline eased off a little after that but we still had a long way to go!

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Scary dog at an Indian military base

After another 4 hours walk, and a brief encounter with the Indian military (and their adorable puppies), we reached the stunning Gangabal Lake. The view of the glacier and of The Indian Himalayas was breathtaking. Isaac asked the guide to take a photo of us and as we were posing he got down on one knee!!!

Top tip: if you want someone to secretly take a photo of you proposing to your girlfriend in the mountains, first ensure they know how to use a camera (!)

So no photo evidence of the moment was captured, but it was incredible, and we will 100% remember that moment forever.

After the high of the proposal wore off, reality hit and we realised we had the return half to do and only 3 and half hours until nightfall. The guide did not seem too concerned about this at any point, but then again there’s a very relaxed atmosphere in Kashmir, weed grows freely at the side of the road and people don’t seem too stressed about anything!

Down was a lot quicker than up, but a lot more terrifying. As it got to about 7pm it was pretty much pitch black, luckily Isaac’s mum Jane had insisted we pack the brightest torch known to man, which I think we can safely say saved our lives! Once we eventually made it down (13 hours after leaving camp) we were treated to another amazing curry and quickly fell asleep like babies.

Ella & Isaac xxx

Mountains and Military in Kashmir…

We flew into the tiny Srinagar airport from Delhi, the flight was ok for me but Isaac was being pretty horrifically sick at this point… As we drove through the town we both noticed the heavy military presence, along the road and in empty building sites. The region has had a turbulent political past, as it has been the centre of a territorial dispute between India, Pakistan and China for many years. The peace movement has meant that the situation has been improving since 2004, but you can clearly see the impact on the people and towns. Most of the army in the streets looked bored and were playing games or yawning but this didn’t really distract from the fact they had military grade rifles strapped to them.

We didn’t know what to expect of Kashmir (Our £2 charity shop Rough Guide to India is 2001 edition, so only gives one paragraph on the region confirming that it was not accessible to tourists at that time). But it is incredibly stunning, the snow-peaked mountains make you feel like you’re in Switzerland and you could be in Venice lying on a Shikara long boat on the lakes.

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We stayed on a 19th Century houseboat on Nageem lake, a throw back to British colonial rule, the entire thing was made of engraved wood. We were looked after by a Kashmiri family, and drank SO MUCH Kashmiri tea (which contains cardamom, cinnamon & saffron). We were sent off with a huge bag of it to take on our travels. Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in India and a call to prayer can be heard 5 times a day echoing around the lake.

Top tip: data in India is ridiculously cheap 400 rupees (~£4.50) can get you a month SIM with 1.5GB of data per day, but you’ll need a different package to get coverage in the northern states, which we didn’t do, so were pretty cut off!

We really think Kashmir is beautiful. Things are a bit pricier than the South as it is not well connected by train like elsewhere in India, which meant we enjoyed a dusty, bumpy 10 hour jeep ride to the nearest train station in Jammu when we left!

Love Isaac & Ella xxx

Delightful Delhi?

After a sleepy 8 hour flight from London, and a quick panic that our luggage was missing (but turned out we were at the carousel for the other Heathrow flight) we ventured into the heat and humidity of Delhi.

Ella had read up about the Airport line which was new, fast and cheap (~68p) so we went down towards the air conditioned metro. So far, so good. We only had to make the 7 minute walk from the New Delhi train station to our hostel. Not so easy. This area is renowned for touts and scammers and we didn’t believe how many there would be, everyone telling us stories that our side of Delhi was shut off by police, it was flooded, the bridge was closed, and so on. After a lot of hassle and usage of our UK data we made it across the bridge into the Main Bazaar and to the comfort of our hostel, which bizarrely came with a three person sized double bed.

The next few days we had a great time exploring the roof top bars, where beer is served in tea cups, and a day tour with an eccentric rickshaw driver. I’m sure we won’t be the last to say driving in Delhi (and a lot of India) is crazy by western standards; “good brakes, good horn, good luck!” as one of our taxi drivers told us.

“Good brakes, Good horn, Good luck!”

Delhi is completely busy, with a population of 20 million, and we’re sure parts are definitely delightful, but for us 2 nights was enough and we booked a flight out to the mountains in Kashmir.

Top tip: if it’s your first time in India get a prebooked taxi from the airport, then get out to explore once you’ve dropped the bags that scream out TOURIST.

Ella & Isaac xxxx