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

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