Friday, 31 August 2018

Srilankan Wonders


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Planning family holidays is a challenge with each member having a different date availability and destination preference.
Well, against all odds, I managed to squeeze in a 5N/6D trip to Srilanka on a family holiday in the month of June.
Aptly called the "Srilankan Wonders" tour by Thomas Cook India, the tour operator I selected, it was indeed a wonder we pulled it off! 
An even greater challenge proved to be me compiling this post on the tour! Yeah, I am no travel blogger but I persevered to put together this post and by the end of it, I was honestly in awe of the travel bloggers I know, who do these mind-blowing posts of all their exciting and exotic travels on a regular basis! Sometimes it is best to leave certain things to the experts!
Anyway, the deed is done and I have managed to do this travelogue which will hopefully be of use to someone. I had this back in time feeling of doing the mandated, "My Summer Vacation" essay while doing this post, but hey, why not!

Srilankan Wonders here we come...


DAY 1

The most irksome part of this trip was thankfully, right at the beginning - The flight from Mumbai to Colombo.
Despite my repeated requests for a change in itinerary, the online 'travel experts' booked me on a really uncomfortable 8.5 hrs night-long journey from 12.00 a.m - 8.30 a.m that included a 4.5 hr layover at Chennai. 
A sleepless night followed by a hectic day long sight-seeing tour planned for after we landed at Colombo. 
So our sleep-deprived family of four landed at Colombo airport on time, to be greeted by an executive from the Thomas Cook travel partner, Luxe Asia and promptly taken to our waiting vehicle with driver-cum-tour-guide-cum-travel-redeemer!

A short halt at a Bed-Breakfast place just off Colombo for a shower and breakfast and we were ready to make our way to a busy day ahead.
First on the itinerary was, The Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala. Enroute we stopped for a touristy elephant ride (priced at Rs 2500/elephant ride for 10 mins).



The elephant enclosure is quite interesting. We got to see the baby elephants being washed and fed. The Srilankan elephants are Asian elephants of the sub-species Elephas maximus maximus. The Srilankan elephants are smaller than the Indian elephant - Elephas maximus indicus while the Indian elephants have a more rotund form.

This was followed by lunch at restaurant Elephant Park one of the many restaurants along the banks which offer a glorious view of elephants frolicking in the Maha Oya, stream - though it looked mighty enough to be a river!

We made our way next to the city of Kandy. By now, the effects of a sleepless night and excitement was taking a toll on us. And that is when we made our way to Prasanna Gems-store
Did you know that you should never shop for food when you are hungry? 
Well, likewise never enter a gem or jewelry store when you are sleep-deprived, especially if you are a lady! The eyes simply glaze over anything sparkly. 😜
Needless to say, I spent a fortune on stuff worth less than quarter their value at this place.

It was now time to head to watch a Traditional Kandyan Dance
The Kandyan dance, music and costumes are quite unique and a must-watch experience.

Finally Day 1 came to an end as we eventually reached at our difficult-to-find hotel.
Hotel Yo is quaint, small and has the feel of a home-stay. But...I seriously do wonder, how did they come up with the name for the hotel?!😜



DAY 2

We started the day on a spiritual note with a visit to the Buddhist Sacred Tooth Relic temple - the Dalada Maligawa. The temple is perennially crowded with locals (dressed in pristine whites) as well as tourists and Buddhists from the world over. I was enthralled by the amazing history and architecture of this temple.







The Royal Botanical gardens, Peradeniya
This is a must visit place in Kandy. The entrance fee is at Rs 750 INR/person. 




Sprawling at 147 acres and well-maintained, ideally this garden needs at least half a day to do it justice. It has a beautiful Orchid garden, different kinds of palms, bamboos, pine, grasses, herb collections besides several species of plants. The mighty Mahavali river flows by this park. We took a large golf cart (Rs 1000 INR) to save on time but it would have been better to meander on foot and enjoy this treasure-house of beautiful flora. 

We moved towards our next destination which was the famous hill-station Nuwara Eliya. On the way there is the picturesquely located  Chinmaya Mission's  Hanuman temple that has a nice restaurant, Annapoorna.
We also stopped at Damro Tea estates for some tea-tasting and shots of the misty tea gardens.

Ramboda Falls
The Ramboda falls at 358 ft is a pretty impressive stop-worthy location enroute to Nuwara Eliya.

Nuwara Eliya
We drove through a rain-drenched, chilly Nuwara Eliya (1868m altitude) with a rich colonial history. The Gregory lake, the racecourse, the colonial architecture, terrace farming are some sights we saw. 
We were keen to visit the Seeta Amman Kovil at Seeta Eliya and it was truly worth visiting. Later our guide suggested we enjoy what Nuwara Eliya was famous for - its cool climate by taking a long walk through the lovely Victoria gardens.

For some strange reason our itinerary constituted a 2N stay at Kandy and so we made it all the way back to Kandy and Hotel Yo instead of staying at Nuwara Eliya.


DAY 3

We started the day with a bird's eye-view of Kandy city.


This was followed by some retail therapy at Lanka Silks (Branded garments that may/may not be original, at really good rates).
Oakray Woodcarving that has some beautiful wooden artifacts and furniture but I found them very expensive.

Next we headed to the Sushantha spice garden to be fleeced...err..I mean to be taken on a medicinal-botanical tour that ended with a not so surprising display cum sale of "genuine Ayurvedic products"- costing a bomb!
Lunch was at The Grand Ralidya.

And finally by 4 p.m we reached Club Waskaduwa Beach Resort and Spa, about 25 kms from Bentota


The resort rooms are great and the property excellent. Indian vegetarian food sadly seemed a little...sad! 


DAY 4


The day started with this magnificient Peraliya Buddha statue, a tsunami memorial at Hikkaduwa.

We visited one of the numerous (and if I might add, shabby) Turtle Conservation projects.

It was time next for a boat cruise on the Madu river.
Sri Lanka has a great number of rivers, many of them really massive and when I asked our guide if they were always full, the guide was bewildered. "Of course they are full all through the year", he replied. You see Sri Lanka is blessed with dual monsoons from the N.E and S.W monsoon clouds and hence the perennial rivers.

The cruise was a lovely 45 min ride through the mangroves with a halt at a tiny piece of land very royally named "Cinnamon island". A man there disinterestedly shows you how they harvest cinnamon barks and of course sells you all things cinnamon and soon after we were on our way back. We spotted an iguana in the mangroves but the boat had sailed by the time we whipped out the cameras.

We reached Galle city at lunch time and feasted at the Hotel Rampart, Galle

Galle, a UNESCO site is a beautiful place straight out of a history book! I fell in love with the beautiful Portuguese, Dutch and British influenced architecture. 



The walk through Alfred Street will make you honestly wonder if you aren't really in yesteryear Europe.



We had a lovely time walking along the fort's grassy ramparts, visiting the Clock tower, light house, Old Dutch Hospital, the Cricket stadium, and the All Saints Church.
I had to be literally be dragged away from this lovely city. We had more to do for the day!

My kids, the kids-no-longer, wanted something more adventurous besides staring down the cobbled alleys and gazing over quaint boutiques and art galleries of Galle!
So we headed for some Water Sport action at Divakawa Water Sports centre for some adrenaline spike!
Back by late evening to Club Waskaduwa for R&R.


DAY 5
Colombo City
We had a leisurely start to Colombo from Bentota and we were there in 1.5 hrs.
We drove through the city with detailed commentary from our guide. 

Some of the places we saw were, the Marine drive, Galle face, Bere lake, old parliament, the 350 m to be inaugurated Lotus towerTown hall municipal corporationLotus hall, Independence square, the Mental hospital and International conference hall. We actually didn't get out of the car anywhere except for a stroll at Galle face.
Lunch was at an authentic Indian restaurant, Sri Vihar, great food, reasonably priced. 
Well, we did have loads of free time but our tour itinerary didn't offer anything more and with the weather playing truant we finally ended up relaxing at the hotel, Hotel Sapphire


DAY 6

We had a 12.00 noon flight from Colombo airport to Bengaluru and then onwards to Mumbai with a 2 hr layover. 

And thus we come to the end of the Srilankan Wonders trip.

THE THOMAS COOK EXPERIENCE:

For folks considering booking their trip through the Online Thomas Cook portal, let me hasten to warn you that, do this only if you are comfortable with vague instructions and minimal communication which is what you will get once payment for the entire travel is done. You only have a toll-free number to contact them and every time you call, you speak to a different person.
Email communication is no great shakes either. Most mails you send bounce back though the executives said they do receive them. 
I asked to be booked for a group tour since we had tried it before and really enjoyed interacting with other families. After repeated enquiries, I was informed that the group tour hadn't materialized and that it would be just our family. ("Oh no! Not just you guys again!" cried my outraged offsprings.)
The strange thing is, when I got tired of following up these supposed 'travel experts' over multiple phone calls, I decided to pay a visit to the local Thomas Cook branch. The folks there declared that they had nothing to do with bookings done online!!

Well, after all this initial drama, I had absolutely no expectations from my trip. 
A trip that I had written off as a disaster due to the poor communication with online executives, turned out to be one hell of a pleasant surprise. 
The good hotels we stayed at, point to point travel arrangements and the sheer convenience of a good travel guide cum chauffeur at your call sure make up for all other discrepancies!
All is well that ends well, indeed!!
After I returned from my trip, I immediately emailed Thomas Cook expressing my thankfulness for the unexpectedly good trip. 
But of course, no one acknowledged or replied to that!

TOUR COST:
Srilankan Wonders entire package including economy airfare, guide/driver, hotel bookings (breakfast & dinner included) local sightseeing and travel: Rs 45,617 INR/person. 
Lunch: Extra
Visa on arrival: Rs 1750/person 
Shopping expenses extra
Entry fees to parks, rides etc. extra
Tips to guide extra

SHOPPING:
Souvenirs, magnets, handicrafts, wooden artifacts, gem stones, wooden demon masks, cheap knock-offs and seconds of branded clothing, batik fabric and of course tea!

TAKEAWAY:
Sri Lanka is very similar to India yet very different. It kind of reminds you of Kerala but trust me it is a lot different. Just within an hour's travel in this country, you can experience different geography and climate. Beautiful beaches, cool hill-stations, lush greenery, amazing culture abound this place. June isn't too crowded a time to visit Sri Lanka as the rains are just about starting here. 
Culturally rich, with a vast and interesting history. You can make your way through with English and many locals can speak Tamil too. Locals are polite and helpful. The currency conversion factor ( 1 INR = 2.32 SLR), helps! Still, I felt most of the stuff there was more expensive than in India.

Good tour guide cum driver - A boon for any tour especially in a new place.
Online travel bookings - Not for me.
The detours, add-ons on the tour - One needs to be wary as they are big pocket drainers.
Research prior to travel - Must do.
Expectations from the holiday - Expect least and you'll be pleasantly surprised with whatever comes your way!




Note: This tour was made at my own expense. All the opinions expressed are honest and truthful and not meant to promote or be derogatory to any enterprise.


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