The Best of Sri Lanka’s Stunning Southwest Coast

“This now looks like every other big city” was my first thought when we landed in Colombo. Over the last few years, the city’s cultural charms have slowly given way to modern skyscrapers and globalised aesthetics, at least in the financial and business districts. Perhaps appealing to investors and multinational businesses, its fading individuality makes the culture-traveller feel a tiny bit blue.

The Southwest coast of Sri Lanka offers an ideal break with plenty of interesting experiences. Here are 9 must-do things to add to your list for your next visit:

Walk Along Galle Face Green

1pm may not have been the best time, but the walk along the Galle Face in Colombo was one down memory lane. We started at the Kingsbury Hotel, and walked up to the Galle Face Hotel, checking out the old Parliament and the pelicans on Beira Lake en-route.

The stroll through what felt like a bustling construction site gave us the opportunity to identify all the new buildings that had appeared since we’d last been 3 years ago.

We watched the dredging to build the new Port City in progress, and observed the fish trapped in pools of water left by the receding tide. In the evening, the green offers a refreshing walk by the ocean and a delightful stretch to indulge in romantic rendezvous, while munching on snacks and beverages from the kiosks.

Have an Iced Tea at the Galle Face Hotel

Overlooking the Galle Face Green is the iconic Galle Face Hotel, one of the oldest properties East of the Suez Canal. On our way in we spotted a bride in traditional attire rushing to the ballroom – every inch of her saree covered in magnolia beads, followed by her groom in a puffed sleeve coat and elaborate headgear.

We toyed with the idea of peeking into the decked venue, but found a comfy spot at the hotel’s Traveller’s Bar offering a view of the ocean and manicured lawns instead.

As we sipped the pina coladas and iced teas, we couldn’t help but feel a tinge of excitement knowing that the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain sat in this very spot to be inspired by the Indian Ocean and the mysteries of Ceylon. Beverages start at around LKR 500.

Dine in the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital

What served as a well-located hospital to treat seafarers and Dutch staff during colonial times, the Dutch Hospital opposite the World Trade Centre is now a heritage building that houses shops and restaurants.

The structure has indoor, outdoor and courtyard dining options. With excellent ratings, the Ministry of Crab is a must-do for seafood aficionados, but was surprisingly empty when we popped in for lunch.

We chose the Harpo’s Colombo Fort Café in search of vegetarian food and were immensely pleased with the creamy garbanzo hummus with warm pita bread, and tacos with fresh vegetables. Remember that between 2 and 5pm, these restaurants aren’t allowed to serve alcoholic beverages so we stuck to coffee and water. In the evenings, the hospital is popular among office-goers to catch up over good food and drink. You can also pick up souvenirs from the many boutique stores.

Visit the Kande Vihara Buddhist Temple

To get to Galle from Colombo, you can choose to drive down the highway, or take the longer country road. We chose the latter. About halfway to Galle is the town of Beruwala which has the magnificent Kande Vihara (meaning: mountain top) Buddhist Temple.

As we drove into the street, the giant serene face of the Buddha greeted us. At 160 feet, this is among the tallest statues of the sitting Buddha in the world. The campus is tranquil, green, and rich with history. Walk around to take in the peaceful vibes, and step inside to appreciate the frescos depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life.

They only ask that you cover your legs upto your knees before you go in. Entry is free but you can make a donation to the temple if you wish. On-site residents also include a female and bull elephant.

NOTE: You cannot take pictures/selfies along with the Buddha – it is punishable in Sri Lanka.

Say Hello to Baby Turtles

Along the coast are a few turtle hatcheries or conservation centres. At LKR 1000 per person, you can see day-old turtles awaiting release into the ocean. The centre we went to in Bentota was home to full-grown handicapped turtles that would never survive the ocean.

I felt so sorry for the one with a damaged shell, that I dipped my hand into his pond to stroke him, only to send the staff screeching at me to back off. “You are lucky to still have your fingers” I was told. Who knew turtles could bite them off?!

There were also Hawksbills, Terrapins, baby Olive Ridleys, Leatherbacks, Green Sea Turtles, and even the rare albino they lovingly called “Michael Jackson.” Despite seeing the great work they do, a small part of me couldn’t help wondering how much of it was about driving tourism rather than conservation.

Walk the Perimeter of Galle Dutch Fort

After 20 minutes of frantic searching, we were beginning to think the Airbnb we had booked didn’t really exist. But we did finally find it and could not have asked for nicer accommodation.

Checked in and showered, we headed to explore the Fort. The best way to do this is by walking around its perimeter. In just over an hour, you will see clear blue waters, old bastions and grass-clad walls built from sliced coral rock, canons, churches, mosques, Buddhist temples, lighthouses, clock-towers, beaches, cafes, shops, hotels, museums, monitor lizards and fishermen.

If you’re lucky, you may even get to watch a live cricket match at the stadium – we caught Sri Lanka vs Bangladesh! Also an old Dutch colony, Galle has a hospital which has been converted into a food precinct as well. Remember to buy unusual blends of tea here.

Have a Traditional Sri Lankan Curry

Most definitely the highlight of our trip, the Sri Lankan curry we had at the tiny Fort Dew restaurant opposite the Sri Sudharmalaya Buddhist Temple left us licking our fingers and wanting more.

“It’s going to take an hour to make all the curries” the waiter warned us, but we declined his offer of cheese sandwiches. So while the chef made fresh from-scratch creamy curries for us, we waited impatiently for what was undoubtedly one of the best meals of our lives.

Five different gravies served combinations of cabbage, leeks, spicy potato, tender chicken, carrots and a whole lot of flavour, with hot white rice and fried appalams. There simply isn’t a better way to spend an afternoon in Sri Lanka. It is now my hope to someday learn the nuances of the cuisine from a Sri Lankan expert.

Catch the Sunset over the Indian Ocean

Evenings in Galle bring all of its tourists to the walls of the Fort. The stretch offers unrestricted views of the sky turning hues of orange, and the waves shimmering in the fading sunlight. You may even see a lone fisherman making his way to the shore.

It felt strange watching the sun set into the ocean as opposed to the sunrise we have on the beaches of our Coromandel Coast. A good opportunity to get some beautiful photographs, but also one to enjoy the simper pleasures of life.

Don’t stop at the sunset though, because nights come with clear skies and a chance to spot stars, planets and constellations. All shops shut early, but restaurants stay open till about 10pm, so venture out for a stroll through the lovely streets, and perhaps a nightcap to top it off.

Climb Some Rocks on Bentota Beach

Halfway back to Colombo, the beach town of Bentota is popular among European tourists and the resorts are filled with families looking for a sunny break. To get to some of the resorts, you have to take a boat from the mainland, through the Bentara Ganga River, to the beachside.

Bentota beach is flanked by the ocean and the saltwater river, so it’s lined with thriving mangroves. Mostly sandy, the beach also has some rocks that have been shaped by time and tide.

Climbing up the rocks means you can watch a whole range of crabs and sea animals making home against the walls, along with trapped little fish taking leaps of faith from one tiny pool to another in hopes of reaching the ocean. You can also take a boat ride to see saltwater crocodiles, or treat yourself to water sports at the beach.

More:

  • Other things to do along the Southwest Coast include whale watching in Mirissa, diving off Hikkaduwa to see shipwrecks, and snorkelling to see corals in Unawatuna.
  • You can travel the Southwest coast by road – through the highway or the longer country roads which will allow you to go off-track and experience different sites. You can also take the train that runs parallel to the ocean.
  •  The bus-top tour in Colombo can save you time. Although this is quite expensive at $25, and the guide doesn’t really tell you much!

Being #GirlBoss And Everything That Comes With It

Two and a half years ago, when I decided to quit the corporate world and try my luck at self-employment, little did I know that the path held whirlwind lessons and experiences for me.

One of the brands I’ve had the good fortune of working with, is Arture. The brainchild of two young incredible entrepreneurs Shivani Patel and Keshsa Vasant, Arture designs eco-friendly, vegan, sustainable, fashionable accessories. Think functional yet sexy bags, wallets, laptop and Kindle sleeves – all made from strong cork fabric.

Over the year I’ve known them, we’ve worked out of each other’s homes – writing product descriptions, talking database segmentation, stalking bloggers over raw carrots and filter coffee, walking dogs, and skyping across continents.

I will forever be in awe of their thirst for success, and their determination to uphold the values closest to their hearts – something the big bad corporate world can sometimes severely lack.

Shivani and Keshsa came up with #Collaborate – an idea to bring together their team (designers, writers, photographers, stylists) every few months. For the day, one of us teaches the rest of us something new. So far I’ve learned how to dress to express, and had some solid lessons in home decor.

To mark their second anniversary (Yay Arture!) they put together the 2017 Collaborative: #GirlBoss Edition.

“In the last two years, we’ve worked with a whole range of self-employed professionals and business owners – most of whom happen to be women. We wanted to find a way to celebrate that with #GirlBoss” says Shivani.

Breaking The Ice

That title is a lie, because there was no ice to break. We instantly bonded over the challenges we face as 20-something female professionals and business owners. The team included fashion designers, make-up artists, accessory manufacturers, a fitness instructor, retail store owners, a wedding planner, a chartered accountant, a photographer, an NGO founder, restaurant owners, mums, mums-to-be, writers, and certified scuba instructors. Continue reading Being #GirlBoss And Everything That Comes With It

The Allure of Ellora & Ajanta

Are you embarrassed by your fellow-travellers? Do you cringe and step away to disassociate yourself from selfie-obsessed loud littering tourists? Do you groan at the sound of passengers unbuckling themselves from the shackles of the airplane seat-belt the second the wheels touch land? I do.

Why do people leave garbage at monuments? Why do we scribble on the walls? Why must we express our love for Mona and Shona and Ramesh on ancient structures? Nobody cares that you <3 Kishore, Laila!

This unsolicited marking of territory is no better than the apartment kitten I feed everyday, who has recently discovered he is a boy and must wee on my couch to announce his existence. He has been christened Lulu McSusuFace, and is not allowed inside my home anymore. Ah who am I kidding. Of course he is. Look at that moonji.

Lulu with his sisters

On this trip to Aurangabad, apart from the beautiful caves, I saw the following:

  • Morons climb up an ancient monument with their shoes on to get selfies, and then walk past the rest of the temples without even looking.
  • People scribble on the walls of the 2000 year old cave structures.
  • Families have a picnic in the lovely lawns, and then leave their garbage there.
  • Stone-carved goddesses with well-worn breasts and thighs because guess where people like to touch the statues the most.
  • Flash photography inside the dark caves that house the world-famous Ajanta paintings.
  • People scream at their kids to stand still for photographs inside the Buddhist shrines, while the serene chanting was in progress. 
  • People scratch the painted walls and then say “huh, it’s not very well maintained, the paint is coming off.”

If you plan a trip to Ajanta-Ellora, please do your bit to not destroy what remains of our heritage! Continue reading The Allure of Ellora & Ajanta

Listen: A New Way To See Chennai

Even before we learned about the Partition in history class at school, our grandparents told us tales – tales of heroism and cowardice, of homes left behind and acquaintances lost. They told us of the fear and the resentment, the times they felt their hearts in their throats.

We listened wide eyed and fascinated, to stories etched in their memories from 7 decades ago. These were history lessons sans facts and figures, but they stuck. I will never forget them – they help me see an entire generation of people in a new light.

I understand why they are the way they are. I understand why they hold on to some material possessions and see no value in others. I understand their warrior instinct, I see why they aren’t willing to let go of some prejudices. All thanks to their stories.

Storytrails

When someone asks us – how is work? The answer is usually along- oh it’s all right, you know, my boss is okay and I have a wonderful team. The highlight of my day is lunchtime as this colleague brings hot mum-cooked food and has to bring an extra dabba for the rest of us!

As opposed to – Work is good, my office has a 5 foot long desk and the A/C is not too cold. I do have to climb up 50 steps though, but can’t complain.

We share experiences through stories.

Surely then, every city and its history has fascinating stories too. Some partially true, some cooked up through the ages, some mythological, some factual.

Going strong for 11 years now, Storytrails has regaled thousands of visitors to Chennai with its stories. The company hosts walking tours in Chennai, Madurai and Pondicherry, with ‘storytellers’ who will entertain you with tidbits you can never find in a book or blog, or even from a travel guide looking to make his quick buck and be done with you ASAP.

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Audio Tours

A brand new venture, Storytrails has now forayed into audio tours, offering trails on an app. It has been a truly humbling experience learning about my city, and lending voice to these tales.

Did you know, for example, that Chennai has one of the only 3 churches in the world, built on top of an Apostle’s remains? I sure as hell (sorry St. Thomas, I mean heck) didn’t!

I learned about Cenotaph Road, about King James’ new crown, the sparring sects of Christianity, the thieving British (but also the good ones like Annie Besant), the love-hate relationship between the English and the French that extended to Chennai as well. I learned about the mighty Pallavas and their mightier egos, that the Pancha Pandava Rathas have nothing to do with the Pandavas, and that Ganesha wasn’t part of Shiva’s family in South India for a long time!

If you live in Chennai, these trails are guaranteed to have you look at your own city from a fresh perspective. And if you’re a visitor, there really is no better way to learn!

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Download the app here, to walk (and listen to) the British Blueprints and Mamallapuram trails!

Waking Up To The Taj Mahal

Ticket guy at Taj Mahal: You have to pay 1,000 rupees for the ticket madam.

Me: But….that’s the foreigners ticket price. The Indian ticket is 40 rupees.

Guy: Yes.

Me: But I’m Indian.

Guy: How do I know that? You look like you could be a foreigner.

Me: But…what? We’re literally the same race! What?!

Guy: Can you prove you are Indian?

Me: But… main Chennai mein rehti hoon, kaun si bhasha samajhte hain aap? Naan Chennai le indhu vandirukein. Tamil Nadu India le iruku, theriyuma ungalku?

Guy: Whatever. Can you prove you are an Indian citizen?

Me: I have a PAN card…

Guy: I need to see your passport.

Me: Who brings their passport to the Taj! I’ve left it in the hotel!

Guy: Have you got your Aadhaar Card?

Me: ….no?

Guy: In that case please pay 1,000 rupees for a foreigner ticket.

I had been up since 4am to catch the sunrise over the Taj Mahal, managed to wake a sleepy auto driver to take me there in the dark, got to the counter well before it opened, and was mighty proud to be the first in the Indian ladies queue. There are 4 queues – Indian men, Indian women, foreign men, foreign women. Besides me, there were some scruffy hippie Aussie tourists who looked like they had camped outside the Taj to be able to beat the morning lines. Continue reading Waking Up To The Taj Mahal

Beyond The Taj – Agra’s Other Stunning Structures

The city of Agra is perhaps one of the most visited by foreign tourists coming to “discover India.” From Delhi, the Gatimaan Express (the fastest in the country) gets you to Agra in about 100 minutes, serves a meal, and even has hostesses, as the public sector attempts to up their tourism game.

But as soon as you step in to what was once capital of the great Mughal empire, you see that it is utterly chaotic, underdeveloped, and a challenge to navigate. It is quite unfortunate that the divide between the rich architectural history, and the current state of affairs is so extreme.

Nevertheless, Agra has plenty for the tourist apart from the Taj Mahal, which will no doubt be the crowning glory of a trip to the city.

Fatehpur Sikri

To get here from Agra, we booked a cab online with Gozocabs. The driver was well-spoken and knew where he was going, although a little on the expensive side. On the drive there, we encountered groups of religious protesters carrying swords and chanting slogans. It freaked us out when the driver turned around to make sure our doors were locked. They didn’t seem interested in passersby though, but our heart rate took a while to come back down again. Continue reading Beyond The Taj – Agra’s Other Stunning Structures

In Pictures: Discovering Delhi

The capital city of Delhi is one of contradictions. It houses some of the greatest architectural accomplishments of the mighty Mughals and other Islamic rulers, and is yet one of the most congested, polluted cities I have been to. It’s got lavish malls and an excellent Metro system, and yet only areas of commercial and diplomatic importance are clean, green and well-maintained. For the history and architecture buff, there couldn’t be a better city in the country.

Getting around Delhi is super-easy, with the Delhi Metro Rail being efficient, well-connected, unbelievably cheap, and extremely helpful to outsiders. Uber and Ola help things even more, allowing you to discover the city’s jewels at your own pace.

Humayun’s Tomb

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Humayun’s Tomb – constructed in memory of the great Emperor Humayun, commissioned by his grieving wife.
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Humayun’s Tomb – the structure was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, which was followed by repair and restoration work.

Continue reading In Pictures: Discovering Delhi

Have 48 Hours? Go To Singapore

This article was published in Metro Plus, The Hindu

Living in Asia has its perks. The weather, the food, and most importantly, easy access to incredible travel destinations. Singapore has consistently been a favourite among couples, friends and families alike. The Singapore Tourism Board reported an incredible 12.4 million international visitors from January to September 2016.  817,000 of them were Indians.

The ease of travel and range of accommodation catering to different budgets makes Singapore a must-do destination, even if you have just 48 hours.

Arrive

Indigo, Scoot, Jet Airways and Air India Express operate budget flights from Chennai to Singapore (ranging from INR 13,000 to 16,000 return depending on when you book). Taking the 10pm flight will get you to Singapore at 4.40am local time. Check-in to your hotel and catch a few hours of sleep.


Day 1
8:30 am – Singapore Zoo

The zoo is well connected by buses or you can take a taxi from the nearest train station connected to your line. Hang out with free range orangutans and lemurs, feed the giraffes, watch the Komodo dragon, learn about tropical and polar critters, and walk through the fragile forest enclosures. You can pack your own lunch or go to the restaurants on site for a choice of Indian, Malaysian, Chinese and international food. The zoo also offers River Safaris and Night Safaris which we decided to skip to be able to tick more things off our list.

We then took the free bus shuttle to the Khatib MRT station, and made our way to HarbourFront Station.

10 - Free range orangutans singapore zoo Continue reading Have 48 Hours? Go To Singapore

A Parallel India In Jaipur

I’m staring at the visual symmetry of a stepwell in the middle of Rajasthan, and I can hardly believe my eyes. We’re on the last day of our Jaipur exploration and happened upon the Chand Ki Baoli by divine intervention from the travel Gods.

While touring the palaces and to-do monuments the previous day, we feel like we’re on a United Nations field trip. Tourists from all over the world wander around taking selfies at the glimmering Sheesh Mahal, and hold up victory signs as they pose with the mahouts and the poor elephants who’ve been taking captivated travellers up and down the hill all day.

Amer Palace - Jaipur
Amer Palace – Jaipur
Sheesh Mahal - Jaipur - 1
Sheesh Mahal – Jaipur
Sheesh Mahal - Jaipur - 2 (Custom)
Sheesh Mahal – Jaipur

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We see something called Panna Meena Ka Kund on the tourist map and an auto-driver takes us to it. Through tiny streets and massive potholes we bump our way to the deserted stepwell. It’s taken us by complete surprise – there are no entry tickets and exactly zero tourists. And yet, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Meena Panna Ka Kund - Jaipur
Panna Meena Ka Kund – Jaipur

Continue reading A Parallel India In Jaipur

Cheese, Wolves, Food and Paper in Pondy

Always be nice to chefs. It pays to be in their good books.

My friend and I talked about doing a short holiday together. We went over every destination that mildly interested us. Ellora? Too far. How about Bali? Ugh, flights are too expensive. Kerala? Already been. Gujarat? Not so appealing actually. After 4 months of talking about going to an unconventional, exotic, impressive destination, we decided to go 4 hours down the road to…..Pondicherry. Yay.

This is when the Executive Chef at the Promenade (one of the finest hotels in Pondicherry) came to our rescue. An ex-colleague, he ensured we got a fantastic room rate and even better food.

We ticked off some very ‘Pondy’ things to do, and below are some recommended highlights. We didn’t get around to Auroville, the Ashram, or diving (we’re both awful swimmers), but do those if they interest you!

Walk Along The Promenade

“Watch out for the wolves on the promenade,” someone told us when we reached Pondy. Wolves?! What the hell kind of wolves live on the beach in coastal Pondicherry?! Obviously, we rubbished the warning and set about making plans for the rest of the day. Continue reading Cheese, Wolves, Food and Paper in Pondy