Friday, September 15, 2017

Colombo- remnants of the colonial past

It was the first time, someone was waiting at the airport holding a placard with our name. Officials at the airport were cordial with a smiling face.  After the formalities of  immigration we headed to exchange the Dollars into Sri Lankan Rupees. Our chauffeur, Rohita has worked in Oman and is back home after retiring. Chatting about myriad topics -including religion, war, car prices, economy, education, waste management - we reached "Stay with Travel Writers" homestay. We were surprised by how clean the city was, and thought it must be because it was late night. The following days we realised that cleanliness was part of culture and people are not used to littering.

Stay with Travel Writers is owned by Shehan, who will gladly help you with places to stay and visit. This nice house is tucked away in a quiet residential area, 10 minutes' walk from the IDH bus stop at Gothatuwa. Rooms are tastefully furnished with clean toilets. There is a big drawing room, where you can meet fellow travellers, some useful books to refer. If you are not keen on staying inside the city, this is an ideal location.

There are frequent buses to Pettah (Fort area) from Gothatuwa, route number 152 (LKR25, 45min). Perera and Sons bakery at IDH was our first taste of Sri Lanka. It is very easy to find a bakery in Colombo, than to find a restaurant to eat a proper meal. People are very busy, who stop at bakery for a quick bite. Walking around in the Pettah market - where each passage has its own specialty, ranging from Ayurveda medicine to home appliances to jewellery and gadgets - we came to an old restaurant by name Neelagiri. It is here we had our first Sri Lankan meal, veg biriyani washed down with EGB ginger beerFort Railway Station and Central Bus Station - from where you can get connected to any part of Sri Lanka - are close to Pettah market.

Fort area is a nice place to explore on foot. Few authorised money changers here give a better rate ( 1 USD = 152 LKR approx) than airport. Vehicular traffic is less and you can walk down to Galle Face from here, passing through Clock Tower, Central Bank of Ceylon and so on continuing until Kollupitiya. From there a tedious bus ride in rush hour traffic brought us back to Pettah, through Slave Island and South Beira Lake. Seema Malakaya Meditation Centre is almost in the lake and seemed to be an apt place for meditating.

Viharamahadevi park is a sprawling greenery bordered by Town Hall, National Art Gallery and Natural History Museum. One can enter park from three streets [Mw- Mawatha is the Sinhala word for street] - Ananda Coomaraswamy Mw, Dharmapala Mw and FR Senanayake Mw. Get into route number 138 bus from Pettah, to get here. There is a canteen where you get meals and snacks, and many push carts selling tasty Elephant House Ice-cream.To get back to Pettah, take the bus 120/122. Coincidentally we boarded the same bus on Gothatuwa-Pettah route for the third time, and by now the ticket collector was used to us and would give us the ticket to our stop. We bought a new local mobile connection from Hutch, only document required is the copy of passport. From the Fort Station we booked our train to Anuradhapura ,which was not difficult to get. There was a serpentine queue for the Kandy train though.

 At Gothatuwa, very close to the homestay, a serendipitous finding - Red Leaf Fruit Corner - was a relief in a place popular with non-vegetarian restaurants. This place is an excellent way to enjoy fruit diet.
  Relishing authentic Sri Lankan food,  delicious coconut rotti and Wellawahum (Sri Lankan pancake) for dessert, we shared travel stories with the owner Weerakone, he recommended to add Jaffna in our itinerary. Popular for the fresh fruit juice and pickled fruit salad, Red Leaf is busy in the evenings. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Sri Lanka for Dummies

Sri Lanka is a beautiful island country with less hassles of travelling in a third world country. Clean cities and villages, less population and good roads. Here are a few pointers to ponder before travelling to Sri Lanka.

Visa: Indians get a visa-on-arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo. Fee is $25 per person. You can obtain this visa in advance by applying online - and pay $20; provided you have an international credit/debit card to make the payment. The airline staff at Jet Airways insisted that we should have this visa before issuing the boarding pass but we could talk to the supervisor and got confirmed that, if we have a return ticket and confirmed accommodation immigration officer will let you board the flight. On arrival at Sri Lanka, you will need to fill up the address of your first day's accommodation.

Flights: There are frequent flights from Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai. If you opt weekdays the price is going a lot different. We paid INR 10,200 for round trip for one person.

Currency: Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) is approximately 2.25 times against INR. So INR100 = 225LKR or INR 44=100LKR. It is a dollar friendly country, so it makes sense to carry currency in USD from India. 1USD = 151LKR approx. There are many counters at the exit gates of airport to change the currency and all the counters offer the same rate at a given time. These counters work 24hrs. In case you don't change at the airport, there are many shops and banks throughout the country to change the currency. INR can't be changed at the airport and there are limited options - Colombo city and Jaffna are two places we found authorized money changers for INR. In a nutshell, carry enough USD- change at the airport and on the way back home change LKR to USD.

Expenses: Sri Lanka is not a dirt cheap country to do a backpacking trip like India. Accommodation generally boasts a minimum standard and the prices start at LKR1500 without air-con, with attached bathrooms. Mosquito nets and tissue rolls are provided at most of the guest houses. More expensive options with creature comforts are easily available at LKR3500 onwards.

A good meal (rice and curry)at a normal restaurant will cost you LKR300. Plain Tea is LKR20. Fresh fruit juice is LKR100. A cream bun will cost LKR50.

Ancient Cities and temples have a hefty entry fee for the foreigners, Dambulla cave temple entry fee LKR1500 as an example. Calculate these expenses under a separate head on your daily budget. 

Transport: Mass transport is generally very cheap in Sri Lanka- buses and trains are not crowded, thanks to low population. You can get a reserved ticket on a long distance train as early as 10days in advance. We booked our tickets mostly 2 days in advance. The tourist rail between Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya-Ella can be full, so please plan ahead.

A 3hr bus ride costs LKR200, well maintained Ashok Leyland buses are comfortable and trouble-free.There is no advance booking for buses. All the buses sport a board in English and a route number. State run buses are red in color and bears an emblem of SLTB. Private buses are painted white. Both have the same prices and they stick to a regular timetable, enforced by punching stations en-route. Air-con Toyota Coaster buses are more costly and faster, as they don't stop anywhere other than the big towns.

Tuk-tuk and taxi cars are easily available and generally more expensive. A taxi from Colombo Fort Rly Station to the airport will cost a minimum of LKR1500 whereas bus fare is LKR100, for a comparison. While hiring a tuk-tuk, it is a good idea to fix the fare. Expect to pay a minimum of LKR100.

Guest houses offer bicycles on rent, expect to pay LKR300-500 for a day. There are many other options to rent the bicycles at Ancient Cities, in case the bicycles from the guest house are not good enough.

Roads are excellent across the country and divided as A for highways and B for smaller roads and so on. Most of the highways are two-lane.

Language: You are going to have a tough time unless you are on a package tour with guide. You don't find many people speaking English when you want to ask for directions or vegetarian food. Sinhala is the main language and Tamil is spoken in the Hill Country(Kandy and further up). Jaffna Tamil is totally a different language and knowing Tamil helps here. Official boards are in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Food: Mostly non-vegetarian food and many don't understand the concept of vegetarian food. Buddhism doesn’t mean vegetarianism. Don't be surprised if you find tiny chicken pieces in your vegetarian kothu rotti. Rice and curry is the staple diet where curry can be dal fry, vegetables, egg, fish, chicken, pork etc. Fruits are really good and cheap. You will find a lot of sugar and salt in food, so asking for less sugar in fruit juice will save you from high glycemic index. Bakeries open at 6am and locals flock there for a breakfast on the way to work or school. String hoppers (idiyappam) is a common breakfast menu and is served with dal fry and coconut chutney.

Weather: Sri Lanka has tropical climate, making it a hot and humid place, except the hill country - though precipitation is pretty high.The sun is up early and it is bright daylight by 5.30A.M. South and west get rain between May-September, North and East during Oct-Jan. Carry sunscreen, hat, umbrella or rain poncho.

Civic sense: People are well behaved, not throwing waste on the road, diligently following traffic rules, stopping for pedestrians to cross and everyone wears a helmet including the pillion. Garbage is well managed. Waste is segregated at source, then collected and processed. You don't see people multitasking with their mobile while on wheels.

Civil war and related stuff: If you are flying to Colombo and stick to the tourist circuit, you will never come across anything related to the past war. So there is nothing to worry about the security across the country. Military presence in the country is very less and we were never asked to show ID proof. Yes, you can travel to Jaffna and further to the islands -Delft, Nainativu. No special permit required.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Wayanad- bullet, rain and unniappam

There is something about Bullet that makes people buy it. After 1000km trip in 4days, we would say it is worth the troubles of keeping it running. The story begins when two of our friends cancelled their motorcycle trip and headed in a car. The motorcycle was none other than Royal Enfield, Classic 350cc. We had the motorcycle for ourselves for four days. It made no sense staying back in Bangalore with it. Wayanad sounded the best place to make most of the high torque engine and rainy season was a plus.

On a Friday morning, we headed to Decathlon to buy rain gear for the road trip ahead of us. Next stop was at a friend’s home to borrow the saddle bag- ViaTerra saddle bags and really comfortable. We started our ride at 1pm and reached Bathery by 7pm and finally Kalpetta at 7.40pm after battling the traffic on potholed road. Bangalore to Mysore was a slow ride, we couldn’t even see the Dukes riding past us. Our motorcycle didn't have brake at the rear, only front disc which was making noise, so we didn't go above 80. But once we reached hills and bad roads, RE CL 350 was really another beast.  

Total distance was 325 km and the route taken was Bangalore-Mysore-Gundalpet-Moolehole-Muthanga-Bathery-Kalpetta. Day 1 Route

At Gundalpet there are two routes, one towards Ooty and the other to Bathery. Take right turn at Gundalpet to reach Kerala or continue straight if you are headed to Ooty via Gudalur. This route through Gudalur takes you to Meppadi, in Wayanad but would be a very long one. Once you pass the Bandipur Forest entry Check Post and until you reach Moolehole check post - which marks the border between Kerala and Karnataka - you have the herculean task of going over 37 speed breakers.  

On Day two, there was heavy rain throughout the day and we did a 170km ride on the Kalpetta-Meppadi-Vaduvanchal-Cherampadi-Pandalur-Nadugani route. This is a fantastic route to ride and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the sole reason we headed to Wayanad was to ride on this route. In 2011 when we had come to Wayanad we stayed in Valley View and the owner Jenoy had taken us to a nearby waterfall which he said no one knew about. Today the same waterfall, Kanthanpara is a tourist place and the Kerala Government has spent a good amount of money in providing facilities and safety precautions. 

Meeting Jenoy was like refreshing our memory of the first trip to Wayanad. After a cup of hot coffee we started our ride towards Vaduvanchal-Cherambadi-Pandalur-Devala-Nadugani. There are two routes from here -one towards Gudalur and then Ooty, other towards Vazhikadavu in Kerala. On our way back we stopped at Kaithakolli and relished fresh homemade lunch. We made frequent stops at tea shops to warm up with black tea. There are many boards warning about the elephants, so keeping an eye for them especially when we can't see the road ahead due to heavy mist. A short stop at Soochippara waterfalls, 13km away from Meppadi town - a dilapidated road where the RE was a joy to ride.  Day 2 Route

It was pouring on Saturday and CL350 did not complain about it, though we were really worried about that. All the roads were potholed and filled with water. Our RE had dolphin exhaust, it makes a hell lot of noise! So honking was not required to make way in the congested town. The torque works wonders on inclines and saves you a lot of effort in riding on bad roads. Sunday morning welcomed us with a downpour, there was nothing to stop us from riding on. We headed towards Makkiyad, via Padijnarathara-Tharuvana-Vellamunda, the heavy rain with potholed road was manageable but the rash driving tourists bused made us think twice before heading further. So we got back to Mananthavady via Edavaka and set out in the direction of Thirunelly to satiate our palate with the famous Kuttetan’s Unniappam. It is at the junction where the road deviates to Thirunelly temple and other towards Tholpetty. After the finger-licking snack we moved towards Kuruva Island deviating at Kattikulam.

The Island was closed to visitors as expected. Unfortunately we have never been able to set foot on the island in the umpteen visits in different seasons.
Very close to the island there is a clay art gallery, named Valmeekam Tribal Museum. It is a unique museum, with sculptures carved in terracotta. Each sculpture here portray innumerable stories about the relationship between man and nature. The place is worth paying a visit, as the art and spirituality are admirably blended. You feel instantly connected with the surroundings. 

We then visited a friend’s home at Dasankkara. Shorter route to Panamaram sounded like end of journey, and it was not difficult to lure Romin into taking a longer route through Pulpally-Nadavayal and then reach Panamaram. This route winds thorough the spellbinding Padiri Reserve Forest. It is not a tourist route and is taken only by locals, so there is hardly any vehicular movement thereby you get to enjoy the serenity of the jungle. On the Panamaram-Nadavayal-Benachi road we stopped at a small tea shop to warm ourselves with black tea and feed our stomach some snacks. This was right opposite to the new Padre Pio Ashram on the aforesaid main road. Total distance covered was 180km.  Day 3 Route
Both evenings, Thoufeeq was our dinner destination to recover from the daylong fatigue. Monday morning was time to head back to Bangalore. Bidding adieu to the pristine nature, the refreshing rains, we headed to Muthnaga. Just before the Karnataka border we refreshed ourselves with tea and prepared for the upcoming arduous task of tackling the 37 speed breakers. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Kotagiri - walking along the ridge

Image Courtesy: Vijay Chandran

BMC started a new trek at Kotagiri from this August - We were excited to go to Kotagiri as our previous visit in 2013 had been very pleasant. Unlike Ooty, Kotagiri is still away from tourist crowd and touts.

We boarded the BMC-organized minibus from Indiranagar at 8:30pm on a Friday night. After picking up a few more from Domlur and LifeStyle, the bus was zooming past the Friday night traffic towards Hosur. Since the Bandipur forest is closed to night traffic, the only other option is to go via Salem -Coimbatore-Mettupalayam. Kotagiri is 30km from Ooty, famous for International Schools and tea/coffee estates, including newsworthy Kodanadu estate.

All of us were sleeping like babies until Kotagiri, thanks to the expert driving of our driver. After reaching Kotagiri town, Shivaji escorted us to our camping site. Ayyappan welcomed us with hot tea and allocated the tented accommodation amidst tea plantations. We soon learned that Ayyappan is a  full-time serial actor and busy on weekdays at Chennai.

After morning ablutions, we got ready for the trek. Then comes the best part of this trip- the hot sambar/idli combination was so delicious that we couldn't satiate with one or two serving. After packing our lunch, we started walking towards a cliff.

Image Courtesy: Vijay Chandran

A huge tree was uprooted in the recent cyclonic storm in July, Shivaji explained. Mesmerized by the fog covering us, we got thrilled to climb down the cliff to a nearby cave. After spending a few minutes there, we started climbing up through a rough patch to a house occupied by locals. Many affluent businessmen from Chennai make Kotagiri their vacation home, obvious by the unoccupied palatial houses along the road.

The native tribal people of this area are called Badugas -  - . and they speak a language by the name Badugu - a mix of Kannada and Tamil. No script and if you know Kannada, you can understand 70% of it. The local children walk 30minutes to get a school bus and educated at an English medium school. Shivaji also explained that government runs many welfare schemes for them. He mentioned that there is no birth control practices among them, intentionally to have more population of this indigenous tribal group. The school going children could use a few basic phrases to communicate with us, though they were too shy to see a big group of city-dwellers.

Image Courtesy: Vijay Chandran

After resting for a while on top of the peak, we marched along the tea estates towards Catherine Falls. A horde of peace-loving wild gaurs greeted us on the way. Occasionally a snake slithering away from our group of trekkies. Shivaji spotted poop of bear and cheetah on the trail, which accentuated our wild-life experience on the borders of a thick forest.

Image Courtesy: Vijay Chandran

Catherine Falls was not blessed with much water, thanks to deficit monsoon this season. We had our packed lunch and then started walking back. The locals were greeting us and asking about our whereabouts. Some of the ladies told us about their sons working or studying in Bangalore. Visiting  a tea-factory was a nice experience . The tea-leaves are collected by women who work for Rs 350 per day plus incentives. The huge bags of tea leaves are transported to the local factory where it is dried using huge fans and then powdered through a long mechanical process to various forms based on the granularity.

The tea sacks of 35kg each go to the town and are auctioned and processed and packaged by different brands.

Later at the campsite, we had a sumptuous dinner around the campfire. By this time, we were all friends who have never met before. The mercury dropped close to 15C and we were ready to snore and rest our aching legs. We really didn't want to leave the misty morning next day, but life is not  a dream. We returned through Gudalur- Mudumalai- Bandipur-Mysore.

If you are driving or riding to Kotagiri, contact Ayyappan for tented accommodation, food, trekking - Mobile: 9840909470

We had lunch at Thorappally Post, Gudalur. Hotel Regency owned by Sabeesh offers good meals.He also owns a lodge above the restaurant (dbl Rs 700) and a resort at Ooty. Mobile: 9487-866238 - an NGO working with the tribal groups for a sustainable trade of forest products at Kotagiri.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Monsoon Magic in Wayanad

Monsoon in Western Ghats and Kerala is something one should never miss. In the six years I have been coming – irrespective of weather - Wayanad never disappointed me. Lush greenery around in the monsoon was the best welcome back! Busy traffic on the Kalpetta – Bathery route at 5.A.M made sure there was enough light to enjoy the green hue with the rain drops. Staying awake on this stretch, I was longing for a black tea (preferably the Malayalam word “kattan”). It was a perfect way to celebrate our 6 years of marriage, rain in Western Ghats and Ayurveda massage.  Wayanad is the first place I visited in Kerala and each time we get here, I can feel the Goosebumps. 

Massage at Kannur Ayurveda Clinic  was relaxing and refreshing. They have variety of Ayurveda therapies as well as a homestay. I thoroughly enjoyed my three day session of Full Body Massage and Shirodhaara. 

The comfy rooms come with attached bath (with hot water shower). They have a limited collection of books and a few games, in case you don’t want to step out during the rains. Right next to Kannur Ayurveda Clinic on Emily road, Hotel Kukku named after the owner’s grand-daughter, dishes up basic meals including seasonal fish fry. Hurry for breakfast and lunch, it gets over really fast.

This vacation was a big gastronomical therapy as well. After every session of therapy, we marched to the nearest ‘thattukada’ (cart on wheels) which serves ‘ennakkadi’ (fried snacks) and ‘kattan chaya’ (black-tea) throughout the day. We also raided other bakeries on the main road. Hotel Thoufeeq adjacent to the mosque, opposite to Sindur Textiles, was the best place for breakfast.  Affas Udupi Hotel, opposite to HDFC Bank on the main road serves the best vegetarian meals in town. On Sunday, there are many retailers offering spices and organic vegetables arranged in front of the closed shops. 

The ride to Dasanakkara to meet our friend was a gripping story-telling session, it was a really long distance auto rickshaw ride -52 km round trip. The view was mesmerizing with the continuous rain and our new local friend, Samad kept us entertaining with stories and current affairs. During our Northeast backpacking trip we had met Jobin and Varghese in Menchukha. Jobin was riding home from Bangalore and decided to catch up at Wayanad. This rendezvous was after a good 5 years and it was nice recalling the old stories and sharing new travel stories.

How can we leave Kerala without riding a KSRTC bus? We boarded the first bus that came our way at the Kalpetta bus station. The bus was headed to Vaduvanchal, we bought the ticket for the last stop. The ride was ravishing, with occasional downpour enhancing the freshness and green hue. After contemplating on whether to get off the bus and take a different route back, downpour helped us make up our mind to return in the same bus.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Fort Kochi to Vagamon - motorcycle trip

(C) Surabhi Rajan


Gokul was fantasizing about riding a Royal Enfield for a long time. Amer added momentum to plan this trip from Kochi with But working hours and terms and conditions of did not match our requirements. Gokul did a bit more research and found out Arafath Bike Rental (Mob: 9947478328,  9995784000), Princess Street, Fort Kochi. RE Bullet 500, Bajaj Avenger and Yamaha FZ150- we completed the formalities and got the bikes one day earlier. FZ150 needed a bit of service. Surabhi sponsored his brother-in-law's RE Classic 500. And that was it!

(C) Surabhi Rajan

All of us started riding on a fine Saturday morning towards East from Alleppey via picturesque Changanassery road. After a few pit-stops, we were at Mundakkayam for breakfast. A brief stop at Panchalimedu was enthralling to watch the panoramic view of “high-range” of Kerala. Local shop owner Shanthamma gave us hot black coffee and salted mangoes to go with her stories of migration to the hills for farming. The locals still get water from the streams and we ventured into the dense forest to have a look at their infrastructure to siphon the water down to their homes. Shanthamma's family hails from coastal regions of Kerala, her husband was lured by farming opportunities while working at Sabarimala as a guard. There is a route to Sabarimala which is not motorable from Panchalimedu. Further, the roads were excellent for cornering and we reached Vagamon by 2pm. Misty clouds and a light drizzle satiated our wanderlust.

(C) Surabhi Rajan

After lunch, we decided to find a shelter and Amer had a good recommendation to stretch our back at KMK Resort at Kottupara. Call manager Ravi (Mob: 9495927417, Tel: 04869 248222) for rooms (dbl Rs 1500). It was a serendipitous finding that 30min ride from this resort will take you to a forest near Uluppunni. We walked along the stream into the forest but couldn’t go too far as it was getting dark. Make sure you return before dark, or you may get lost in the jungle. There are many routes in the vicinity, tempting the off-roading enthusiasts.

(C) Surabhi Rajan

Next morning, we decided to take the shorter route to Kochi via Eratuppetta-Kottayam-Thanneermukkom-Cherthala. We had a bit of adventure on the way climbing a steep hill 20km from Vagamon town. Bumpy ride until Erattupetta and further the tarmac is really good. By evening 4pm, we were at Fort Kochi. Sipping Kahwah tea at Loafers’ CafĂ© near  Tourist Information Center on Princess Road, we were contemplating next motorcycle trip.