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Little England. Nuwara Eliya.

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After our great few days in Ella it was time to move on. Next stop on our trip was Nuwara Eliya. Whilst we were in Ella we managed to get first class tickets for the journey, the cost of which was a 1000 lkr per person around £4.50 each. The journey takes around three hours and takes in some spectacular scenery along the way. The guide books and people we met who have done the journey say the best side to sit on, is the right side in the direction of travel for the best views, but this changes to the left side half way into the journey. Surprisingly as our first class carriage was relatively empty, we had the best of both worlds and could sit on the right and the left.

When we arrived, we immediately tried to get reserved seats for our onward journey to Kandy but surprisingly discovered there wasn’t any, in fact, the reserved seats were all booked for a whole month and we certainly wasn’t going to travel in the unreserved carriages, as we have seen how absolutely jammed packed they get. We later discovered that tour groups block book tickets. They take coach and mini bus loads to Nuwara Eliya from Kandy for a one night stay, then drop them at the rail station for the return journey back to Kandy in the morning.

We stayed in Nuwara Eliya for just two nights, which is enough in my opinion to see the main sights. The owner of the homestay we stayed at gave us a list of things to do in the area, and suggested we take a tour by Tuk Tuk. Fortunately for us we found a really nice Tuk Tuk driver at the station the day before. He asked us how long we were in town and what are our plans were, “well to be honest they all come out with the same line” but he seemed a real genuine guy so I took his number. Next day I gave the him a call, negotiated a price for the tour which was 3000 rupees which is around £13.50 for the five & half hour tour. On the way to our first stop, the Damro Tea plantation, our driver stopped at various viewpoints, explained how they harvest the tea leaves, how often they pick the leaves “once every 7 days”, basically all things to do with the tea growing business. I can assure you it was very interesting. One fact that he told us was about the tea pickers themselves. Firstly they are all woman, they work until the age of 55. Work an eight hour day and have to harvest between 18kg and 20kg of tea leaves per day to earn just 600 rupees which is £2.74. There is no company pension scheme, no worker benefits, just hard work, quite terrible really. He then pointed out the tea pickers homes which at first glance looked just like one average size bungalow in England. He then went on to tell us that this was not just one home in fact it was five, consisting of just one room with a family living in each. When we reached the Damro tea plantation we noticed that it was adorned with Chinese New Year banners, Chinese lanterns, and had coach loads of Chinese tourists arriving, even the Sri Lankan tea factory guides spoke Chinese. The factory itself was a very sterile experience. You really could not see much of the tea production except through perspex panels. It was in my opinion just a huge tourist attraction. Our Tuk Tuk driver told us that in fact it was a Chinese owned factory as Sri Lankan tea or Ceylon tea is very popular in China. He also told us that large Chinese companies are buying up some of the more profitable tea companies in Sri Lanka. Also they are investing heavily in the country’s infrastructure, roads, rail etc. We were having an in depth conversation with an owner of a homestay we were staying in, who was also a lawyer, she told us that the people are not really happy about the situation. I really do hope that the country doesn’t loose it its identity in years to come. Next stop was the much nicer Bluefield Tea Factory which is owned by two brothers and has been producing tea since the late eighteen hundreds. Touring the tea factory was a much nicer and personal experience, also much more informative. We then visited a couple of waterfalls which were quite spectacular and this was in the dry season. After our tour had finished we got the guy to drop us off at the Grand Hotel for afternoon tea “which one has to partake”. Afternoon tea at the Grand is mentioned in most of the guide books, so we thought why not. The Grand Hotel is one of the many colonial buildings in Nuwara Eliya, hence the name “Little England” Tea is served on a lovely terrace with, as you would expect, a three tiered cake stand with all the goodies that come with afternoon tea. The price for all this is 1300 rupees per person £5.97, considering how much you would have to pay in a high end hotel in the uk for this it’s an absolute bargain. Next stop was the Hill Club another throwback from the British Empire. It was originally a gentleman’s club, quite what that means exactly, but is now a lovely hotel. It costs 100 rupees to look around £0.46 but it’s well worth it. While you’re there have a nice cold beer in the really quaint bar. There are some other attractions, like the old post office and a golf course. Also there is Victoria Park, which we didn’t visit as it costs 300 rupees for foreigners and 30 for locals. It wasn’t the money it’s just that in Sri Lanka the prices for foreigners (tourists) are so over inflated, it was the principal. Besides I can visit much grander parks in the uk for free. Next Stop Kandy.

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Shh! Can you keep a secret.

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After our disappointing experience in Mirissa, we had one more beach destination to visit before moving inland to do some serious sightseeing. Our final stop along the coast is Talalla beach. Situated at the southern most tip of Sri Lanka (well almost, in fact Dondra is the southern most tip). We were still a bit apprehensive after our experience in Mirissa, but according to the guide books and google images it did sound and look lovely. We sourced an accommodation on booking.com, who was advertising a deluxe room, close to the beach. The pictures looked good, “but from previous experiences on our trip the camera does in fact lie” searched on google maps for the phone number and gave them a call, and negotiated a price of 5000 lkr around £22.50 per night. Subhasha Cottage (+94 71 965 8388) is located in a quiet lane leading down to the beach. The owner Isuri showed us to our room, and we were both gobsmacked. Our deluxe double room was in fact a two bedroom cottage complete with a separate kitchen with dining table, a separate dining room, a private seating area and an outside seating area and a really lovely shower room. Just amazing, we could not believe our luck. We dropped our bags and headed down to have a look at the beach, before we made our decision on how long we were going to stay. After our short walk of around 150 metres we were confronted by a glorious curved white sand beach, stretching for around two to three km, with just a handful of beach front restaurants and hardly any people, Paradise. So we decided to stay for five nights.

Subhasha Cottage

Talalla Beach

Our first couple of days in Talalla were spent just relaxing on the glorious beach and soaking up the sun. In the evenings we just sat outside and watched “something that I have never seen before”, fireflies darting in and out of the trees and bushes I watched in amazement for ages. I had to Google why and how they light up, I won’t go into detail but it was fascinating reading.

We decided to hire a scooter for our last two days and go and explore the sights further afield. Our first day we visited the Wewrukannala Buduraja Temple. (entrance fee 200 lkr) The temple is located some 14km from Talalla just outside the town of Dikwella. The temple is home to the largest Buddha statue on the island. The Buddha which is in the seated posture stands “or sits I should say” some 50 metres high. Behind Buddha almost like a back rest is a large staircase which you can climb, to reach Buddha’s head, once there you can peer through a viewing window and see a miniature Buddha shrine. As you are climbing to reach the top, you will see some marvellous Jataka paintings on the walls. The temple complex also houses some magnificent reclining Buddha’s in various poses.

Tallest Buddha statue on the island 50 metres Jataka paintingsReclining Buddha

Our next stop was Mulkirigala Raja Maha Vihara Temple, which is located some 22km inland from Dikwala. Mulkirigala is a series of 5 cave temples built on a 205m natural rock. (entrance fee 500 lkr) Each temple is accessible by some steps, “some of which are steep, so be warned”. In each cave there is a reclining Buddha, one of which depicts his passing surrounded by mourners. The walls and the ceilings inside each cave are lavishly painted and are well preserved. Once we reached the top we were greeted buy a really nice Buddhist monk who gave us a blessing. He chanted a prayer and anointed our heads, the ceremony was quite touching really. After we went outside and rang a ceremonial bell situated at the top of a bell tower, by pulling a rope. There is a donation tray for this experience “isn’t there always”. Unfortunate for us we did not have any small change, the smallest was 1000 lkr (about £4.50) but it was worth it as it was a lovely experience. Also he prayed for me to have a long life, so it’s a small price to pay if it works, don’t you think. Once you have been blessed, or not as the case may be, walk behind the temple down a very precarious slope onto the top of the large rock. “Beware of the sheer drop at the edge”. This is definitely worth it as the view’s stunning.

View from the top

On the way back to Talalla we stopped for something to eat in Tangalle. Tangalle beach is in my opinion somewhere in between Mirissa and Talalla for tourist numbers, but it has a much nicer vibe than Mirissa.

On our second day we visited Dondra and it’s Lighthouse, which is located at the southern most point of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately you cannot go into the Lighthouse and climb to the top,”contrary to what our guide book says” but it’s worth a visit as it is architecturally very nice and it’s stands in some nice grounds. Another fact that I learnt was that if you sailed in a straight line from this point, the next land mass you will encounter is Antarctica, some 15000 miles away “although I could not see any Polar bears on the horizon”. Next stop was the Devinuwara Raja Maha Viharaya temple. It’s a Buddhist and Hindu temple in the same complex. We have visited a couple of Buddhist temples so far in Sri Lanka. Now I have said for some time if I was to adopt a religion it would be Buddhism “although Buddhism’s not a religion it’s a way of life” but for Buddhists to preach that we should care for all living things, it’s a little contradictory to have elephants chained up in the larger temples to be used just for ceremonial purposes. The Elephant in chains at this temple was what appeared to me quite mentally distressed, as it was just swaying from side to side and unable to move from its spot because of its shackles, for us it was quite disturbing. I recently read an article about the taming of wild elephants and it was quite a barbaric process. Such as starvation and beating, quite shocking reading. So it begs the question, why! After Dondra we drove to Matara quite a nice town. Most people use Matara as a hub as the bus station here serves most areas in southern and eastern Sri Lanka. We came to visit the Star Fort, but unfortunately it is closed on Tuesdays “note to self, study guide book more carefully”. Another sight worth seeing is the small Paravi Duwa temple which is sited in a small island, connected to the town by a small suspension bridge. We had such a great time in Talalla it was sad to leave, but it was time to stop lounging around and head inland for some serious sightseeing. Next stop Ella.

Mirissa, What a disappointment

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Mirissa, What a disappointment

After our short stay in Galle it was time to move further south to the beach resort of Mirissa. We could have taken the train, but instead negotiated a good price with a Tuk Tuk driver for the 32km journey to Mirissa. Our driver was a very nice man, spoke good English, he carefully stowed our two wheeled holdalls in the back, and we were off. Surprisingly “being in a Tuk Tuk, probably because it was brand new”. the journey down was easy, nice and scenic too, as the route down hugs the coastline. We arrived at our lodging Celestial Inn, a nice place, very quiet located down a small lane away from the busy main road. After we dropped our bags it was time to go off and explore the much publicised beach. Once there we both agreed it wasn’t for us, the beach was lined with beach bars, and was very crowded. I have to add the beach itself is nice, it just had too many people on it. So we settled down in the quietest place we could find, grabbed an expensive cold beer and formulated our next move. As the sun went down all the beach bars brought in there sun beds and replaced them with tables ready for evening dinner crowd. We did eat on the beach that night and we did enjoy our meal, but a nice serene evening with just a few people around you it was not as the beach was crowded. Before we cancelled all our hotels we were going to stay four nights here. We were really glad we had changed our plans. After our first evening we were quite prepared to leave the next day, but decided to stay another night and go into Weligama to get some well needed supplies. Decided to take the bus into Weligama. Now let me tell you the local bus drivers in India and Sri Lanka are completely off there head, they drive so fast, “in fact like lunatics”, spend most of there time on the wrong side of the road, overtake on blind bends and don’t even wait as you try to get on, but thankfully we arrived in one piece. Weligama town itself is pretty nondescript, and busy, also the beach is very scruffy indeed and strewn with litter. Needless to say we did not stay long. So we got our supplies and headed back on the bus for another hair raising journey. Had an evening meal away from the crowds on the beach and went back to our lodging. All in all Mirissa was a let down.Let’s hope Talalla beach bodes better.

Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), Thanjavur and Kumbakonam.

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Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), Thanjavur and Kumbakonam.

We travelled from Madurai to Trichy by coach with Parveen Travels, who I have to say we’re very good indeed, and would throughly recommend travelling with. They have various offices located throughout southern India and it’s worth checking them out. The journey took around two and a half hours, and was very pleasant indeed. Having read a lot about these three cities whilst doing our research, and reading about the unique temples in each of them, we felt we had to include them on our trip. I won’t go into detail about each city, as quite frankly, and not to sound too harsh they are just very busy Indian cities with little else other than the temples.

I will concentrate on the main sights, and give you a little insight into each.

Trichy.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

The temple occupies an area of 155 acres (63 ha) with 50 shrines, 21 towers, 39 pavilions and many water tanks integrated into the complex. The temple town is a significant archeological and epigraphical site, providing a historic window into the early and mid medieval South Indian society and culture. Numerous inscriptions suggest that this Hindu temple served not only as a spiritual center, but also a major economic and charitable institution that operated education and hospital facilities, ran a free kitchen, and financed regional infrastructure projects from the gifts and donations it received “article extracted from Wikipedia”. Two other places of interest in Trichy, are the rock Fort with the seventeenth century Vinayaka (Ganesh) temple at the top. Entrance to the temple is in the very busy, China bazaar street. It’s quite an arduous climb to the top, up some very steep steps at times, which you will have to do bare footed, as it’s a Hindu temple. “Still don’t quite understand this rule, or who even made the rule up”. Upon reaching the top there are far reaching views across the city. The other interesting structure is Our Lady of Lourdes church , which is modelled on the basilica of Lourdes. The church is at the start of bazaar street so visit this first then walk along the China bazaar to get to the Rock Fort. These you could quite easily visit in one day. We originally had four nights booked in Trichy but we cut this down to three, as apart from the above there is not much else to do in the city.

Thanjavur

Is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Brihadishwara Temple and is by far my favourite temple on this trip. The Gopura’s (temple towers) are not brightly coloured like most of the other temples we have visited, but are left in original sandstone. Which in my opinion is more pleasing to the eye. Brihadishwara Temple is one of the largest in South India and is dedicated to the god Shiva. Also in town is the Thanjavur Palace. The Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex, known locally as Aranmanai, is the official residence of the Bhonsle family which ruled over the Tanjore region from 1674 to 1855. Most of it is now derelict but there some interesting artefacts inside and some nicely preserved sections. Note the palace is closed between 1pm and 2pm and entrance costs 200 INR which includes entrance to the library, art gallery and the museum.

Kumbakonam

Around one and a half hours drive from Thanjāvūr is Kumbakonam, the last stop on our temple trail. Kumbakonam is a very busy, bustling place,we felt more so than the other cities which we had visited, it was manic. It also didn’t help by the fact that our hotel was situated by a very large bus station, with their horns bellowing from early morning and until late at night. We had only booked two nights, so we only had one full day to explore. Their are quite a few temples to visit in Kumbakonam but we only managed one, probably as at this stage in our trip we were quite frankly all templed out. We decided on visiting the Airavatesvara Temple. It’s situated a little out of town, it’s nice and quite, and set in some well manicured grounds. Just perfect. The style of the temple is very much like the Brihadishwara Temple in Thanjāvūr, but on a much smaller scale. So if you are doing the same sort of itinerary as us, and like us “templed out” then it is one to visit.

Indian Religion

I feel I want to just add my take on the Hindu way of worship. Being somebody that has no faith, I still find all religions fascinating. Firstly I am a great lover of the amazing architecture of the places of worship, whichever religion this maybe. I am also fascinated by the dedication of the followers. We have seen hundreds possibly thousands of people queuing on a daily basis to give there offerings. We have witnessed train and bus loads of pilgrims travelling from all parts of India to worship at there chosen gods temple. We spoke to a group on a train that had been travelling non stop for some thirty hours to reach a a temple on there pilgrimage. I find this devotion and dedication quite mind blowing. The one thing that I will never understand though is that outside every temple we visited there are many market stalls selling flowers, coconuts, parcels of food, which are then taken into the temple and given to the gods as an offering. In addition to this millions of rupees are donated every day. My question is where does all this food and money go. Certainly not to the people who need it, as the amount of homeless people I have witnessed on the streets and living in squaller and begging for food is incredible. One fact that I looked up was that the current estimates of homeless in India run at 78 million, 11 million of which are children. These figures shocked me. That is 13 million more than the whole population of the UK. Food for thought I think.

Ancient city of Hampi

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Ancient city of Hampi

After our overnight train travelling north from Mysore, we arrived in Hospet, for the next leg of our journey, to visit the ancient city of Hampi. Surprisingly train journey was quite good, and surprisingly I had a good nights sleep. Which I wasn’t expecting The distance from Mysore to Hampi is around 265 miles, and takes around 12 hrs.

Hampi

Hampi is situated in east central Karnataka and became the centre of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, and its capital in the 14th century, and is also a Unesco World Heritage site. The now ruined city covers an area of some 16 square miles, and is an amazing sight to see. The amazing thing about the area where Hampi is situated is that from every view point, and far as the eye can see, the area is littered by huge boulders. Quite how this happened it remains a mystery. It’s nothing like I have ever witnessed before, it’s like a surreal lunar landscape from a sci-fi film. Many of the structures, temples and ancient bazaars are still in quite remarkable condition considering their age. These include the Elephant stables, the Virupaksha Temple in the Hampi bazaar, Lotus Mahal and the Queens bath and the Stone Cart to name but a few.

Top Tips

Personally I would recommend staying in Hospet when visiting, as the area around the Hampi bazaar with its limited accommodation is a little run down. In my opinion it’s probably aimed at hardened backpackers. A better reason to stay in Hospet is, at the time of writing the government is having a big crackdown in the Hampi bazaar area, and removed a lot of the shops and accommodation. In the local news, the reason was “they stated” that they wanted to clean up the area.

Getting to Hampi from Hospet

There are various ways to get Hampi from Hospet. You can take a tour by car from your hotel, the cost at our hotel was 1700 INR around £20 for the day. Or you can take a Tuk Tuk, there are plenty offering tours at a 1000 INR around £12. I would not recommend either of these as it would be somewhat rushed to see the sights in one day. We had two full days, to take the time to soak in the atmosphere of this amazing place, even more if you wanted to trek even further. Our method of transport was the local bus. They run every 10 minutes from the bus station, and you are not jammed in like most Indian buses, in fact it’s quite a pleasant journey. The cost of a single journey is 16 INR £0.20. The buses go all the way to Hampi Bazaar, or you can get off at the Queens Bath area which are the two main areas to visit (click on Hampi link to view map)

On our first day we walked around the Hampi Bazaar and the Virupaksha Temple, then if you walk away, with the temple at your back, along the long straight road with ancient bazaar either side, you will then reach the monolithic bull (Nadi). From here you walk up the hill in front off you and down the other side. You will then reach Achyuta Raya’s Temple. From here just follow your map, and eventually you will get to Vittala Temple, where the Stone Chariot is. It’s a full days walking, but you will see far more than if you are on a tour, as a lot of areas are not accessible by vehicles, which is a good thing in my opinion.

Our second day was exploring the Queens Bath, Hazara Rama Temple the Stepped Well, and the magnificent Elephant Stables. This site is around 6km from the Hampi Bazaar, and is not such a full on day. As explained earlier, the bus stops here on the way to Hampi Bazaar

Top Tips

This might sound obvious, but take plenty of water as there is not many vendors around, and it gets extremely hot in the height of the day. There are only two areas that have entrance fees, the Vittala Temple and the Elephant Stables. Our guide book stated that the fee for foreigners “Indians pay 50 INR £0.60” was 250 INR, around £3.00 for each attraction. On arrival we were surprised, this had gone up to 500 INR £5.80. On closer inspection of our ticket though, the price is for both attractions, but you have to visit them in the same day. We didn’t incidentally but we still managed to use our ticket

Accommodation

We stayed in the Royal Orchid, which sounds very grand but believe me it was not. But one Hotel I would highly recommend was the Hampi International Hotel. We ate there every night, the food was amazing, prices much lower than our hotel. Also the rooms looked much better. Only wish we had found this one when we were researching our trip.