Notes from Sri Lanka

I don’t usually take travel decisions on an impulse. My travels are thought out and planned for months in advance. But when I was procrastinating at home for more than a month with major travel plans only happening in late July, I knew I had to go somewhere. As if Bangalore’s summer wasn’t bad enough, it was also excruciatingly bad elsewhere in India. And hence I looked South and there it was, begging to be explored – Sri Lanka, the tear drop island that I have only read so much about but never visited despite its proximity.

I booked my tickets, spoke with dear dear Gokul (whose photography you should check here) who is from Sri Lanka but lives in India and scribbled a rough plan for around three weeks. No other bookings were made, Gokul kindly helped me stay in his and his relatives’ house and I played it by the ear as I travelled.

I have heard people compare Sri Lanka with Kerala, India and as far as generalizations go, it is a good one. The landscape is so much like Kerala and the food much more so. You don’t eat anything that is not made with coconut, coconut oil and coconut milk. But hey, who’s complaining, right.

Here are a few things I did in Sri Lanka.

I watched the sunset at Galle Face, Colombo’s ocean front promenade.

Sunset at Galle Face, Colombo
Sunset at Galle Face, Colombo

I saw a gentle form of devotion at the Kandy Sacred Tooth temple. So much so that even the pushing and shoving didn’t feel annoying.

The sacred temple of Kandy
The sacred temple of Kandy
Devotees inside the Sacred Temple, Kandy
Devotees inside the Sacred Temple, Kandy

I saw hundreds of Buddhas in various postures – sitting, reclining and standing – carved centuries ago with their facial expressions so life like that it became impossible to peel myself away from these places.

The reclining buddha at Polonnaruwa
The reclining buddha at Polonnaruwa
Buddha at Polonnaruwa
Buddha at Polonnaruwa
Inside the Dambulla rock caves
Inside the Dambulla rock caves
The rock structure at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
The rock structure at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

I ate plates after plates of rice, roti, wada, curries, dhal curry, various vegetables in delicious forms, stir fried greens, sambal and often washed it down with Lion beer.

A Sri Lankan breakfast
A Sri Lankan breakfast
A Sri Lankan Rice and Curry meal
A Sri Lankan Rice and Curry meal

I went on short hikes with summits that offered magnificent views in the tea country of Sri Lanka’s central region.

View from Unnas Giriya, Sri Lanka
View from Unnas Giriya, Sri Lanka
A tea picker, Sri Lanka
A tea picker, Sri Lanka
View from Little Adams Peak, Ella, Sri Lanka
View from Little Adams Peak, Ella, Sri Lanka

I took a slow train across the tea country that offered sweeping views of tea plantations and passed through quaint little train stations with their impeccably dressed station masters.

On a slow train to Ella
On a slow train to Ella
The train ride to Ella
The train ride to Ella

I met interesting people, bought an anthology on Sri Lankan literature and wrote postcards at restaurant tables while waiting for my meals to arrive.

Notes from Sri Lanka
Notes from Sri Lanka

That’s not all: I got mistaken for Sinhalese all the time; I met Shyam Selvadurai’s dear friend; I ate a delicious fusion pizza with baby jackfruit for topping; I generally ambled around locations where conversations happened with amazing fluidity and friendships were made. Sri Lanka is lovely and it is only first of the many times I am going to be visiting the country.

Have you been to Sri Lanka? What did you think of it? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

 

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Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part II

This is the second and last instalment of pictures of Bagan ruins. Get there before Bagan catapults into the tourist circuit (it already has and tourist footfall is only going to grow). I did it by horse cart but if you have a slightly bulky wallet, get on a hot air balloon and watch the ruins from above. Balloons over Bagan offers rides, click here to visit their website. Once done, hire a horse cart with the help of your hotel front desk and take a ride along the ruins to give yourself a different view. It is quite an experience.

Do buy the February’2015 edition of Outlook Traveller (India) to read my story Bagan by Horsecart.

Click here to read the earlier post about Bagan (or simply scroll down).

Monks seeking alms
Monks seeking alms
Sundown in bagan
Sundown in bagan
Skies painted blue and orange at sun down
Skies painted blue and orange at sun down
Sulamani
Sulamani
Souvenirs for sale
Souvenirs for sale
Ruby with her cart
Ruby with her cart
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sunset cruising in Irrawadycc1
Sunset cruising in Irrawady
Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies
Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies
Thatbyinnu
Thatbyinnu
The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan
The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan
The ananda phaya
The ananda phaya
The abayadhana temple
The abayadhana temple

PS: Some of these pictures are generously provided to me by my travel companion and friend Kiran Kannappan who was with me during the first leg of my Myanmar travels.

Like what you see? Leave a comment.

Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part I

“There is a country far nobler than any, a land that brings joy to the heart; and it is called Bagan.” This was inscribed on stone in the 14th century by order of a queen of the Pyina dynasty. Says the beautiful picture book titled ‘Bagan Mystique’ by Ma Thanegi that tries to dissect the history behind the mystical ruins that lay scattered in the central plains of Myanmar for centuries.

Bagan is an ancient city and its existence was noted by Chinese travelers as early as 1225 CE. Decades of military rule had isolated Myanmar from the rest of the world and these structures remained somewhat a mystery while the neighboring Angkor Wat hogged all the limelight. That is until Myanmar opened for tourism in 2011 after the military dictatorship partially came to an end. As soon as the floodgates of tourism are open, Bagan started receiving millions of tourists each year to gape at these architectural marvels that have stood their ground through centuries.

A devastating earthquake of 1975 destroyed many of these structures. However, a mighty 2230 of these pagodas, temples, monasteries and cave pagodas remain according to a 1993 census conducted by the Department of Archaeology. These structures are scattered across 16 square miles and evoke an imagery of surreal mysticism. Details are patchy but inscriptions found in various temple complexes suggest that construction of the oldest structured happened in the late 11th century.

The mystical Bagan is slowly gaining prominence as tourists are trickling in. Here are some of the pictures from the trip. The pictures are just so many they couldn’t be contained in one post. I will post the next instalment very soon.

A monk in contemplation
A monk in contemplation

 

A sand painter
A sand painter
A temple complex
A temple complex

 

An ornate signboard
An ornate signboard

 

Ananda Phaya
Ananda Phaya
Fresco at Apayathana
Fresco at Apayathana
Dhammayan Gyi
Dhammayan Gyi
Cycling is a preferred form of transportation
Cycling is a preferred form of transportation to visit the ruins
An apsara at the Apayadhana temple
An apsara at the Apayadhana temple
Htilminlo at sundwon
Htilminlo at sundwon
Horsecarts in front of ruins
Horsecarts in front of ruins
Htilminlo temple from a distance
Htilminlo temple from a distance
Hundreds of years have had the telling effect on the structures
Hundreds of years have had the telling effect on the structures
Little monks in contemplation
Little monks in contemplation

 

Also read my story in the February edition of Outlook Traveller that is on stands now.

Like what you see? Leave a comment and let me know.

 

 

Strolling the Crab Island – Pulau Ketam, Malaysia

The aircraft shaped ferry arrives bobbing in the water. Chinese gentlemen unload the wares – fresh catch from the island in sacks, dragged by another set of men in black containers. When I stepped inside the boat, the air smells of paint, the windows are sealed over from rust and age. The boat would take me to Pulau Ketam island, Crab Island in other words, off the coast of Klang Port. The prospect of looking out of the window having been sealed, I turn to the only other in-boat entertainment – a supremely bad B grade Hollywood thriller with Chinese subtitles about bizarre beasts and skimpily dressed blonde women.

Soon enough, the boat bobs gently and picks up. I remember the ticket counter gentleman explaining that the boat is air-conditioned. I doze off and after a couple of hours, I reach a tiny Chinese fishing village. A narrow strip of wooden walkway lined with shops on both sides sell fresh produce of vegetables, fish and groceries. Restaurants slowly wake up to the morning, elderly Chinese men sit around on concrete benches and banter. “Sir, bicycle?” a friendly Chinese girl asks. I’ll come around later, I tell her and continue walking.

Row houses on stilts face each other, women squat and wash their utensils. Tiny shrines with Chinese idols – smiling baby faced Buddhas and monks with flowing beards – are painted red and incense sticks burn in front of them. I walk to the end of the road and find a Chinese temple without doors. The pagoda like structure has dark green paint and the wooden benches are cool and inviting. Chinese workers mill about in the workshop opposite. The humidity in the air hangs heavy.

I sit around, inhaling the incense, taking notes and listening to birds screech in the mangroves. I spend the better part of the day thus and wander around some more in search of lunch. Amid the din of fiercely competitive restaurants soliciting business from tourists, I settle in a eatery and ordered Seafood Mee Hoon with a bottle of Guinness.

On return though, in the boat, this time there was a bad Chinese movie. And it was about a woman who owns a cobra for her pet. If the movie was any realistic, I think, the girl would’ve had something the Chinese consider unpalatable for a pet. I dunno, say, a dog?

Some pictures from the trip.

the dock
the dock
Houses on stilts
Houses on stilts
inside the chinese fishing village
inside the chinese fishing village
a temple on stilts
a temple on stilts
a chinese temple
a chinese temple
the village square
the village square
a chinese idol
a chinese idol
sea food mee hoon
sea food mee hoon

Have you been to the Crab Island? Leave a comment.

The lost childhood of the beautiful children of Myanmar

Cherubic with round faces and streaks of thanaka across their cheeks, the children of Myanmar can be shy and curious like children across the world are. However, unlike children anywhere else Myanmar’s children start really early. To work. In a country whose natural wealth has been plundered by the military rule for about 50 years, its citizens have had it hard. The economy is in tatters and the crushing poverty among its populace forces parents to send their children to work to supplement the family income.

From waitressing at restaurants to hawking knick knacks across tourist attractions, children in Myanmar can be found in various places working hard to make money so their families don’t starve. They are subjected to hard labor though I did not find any instance of their managers / minders being rude to them. Notwithstanding the kindness of their masters, it is heartbreaking to note that these children are dropping out of school with no future in sight or a guaranteed income other than the measly wage they are paid as a result of their hard labor.

Media across the world has been paying attention to the child labor issue in Myanmar but with very limited success. Read this Huffington Post story on child labor in the booming construction industry of the country. According to this NPR report that quotes U.N., a third of the country’s children have jobs. Another report titled, ‘Child labor is declining worldwide, but it’s thriving in Myanmar’ in the Foreign Policy magazine is self-explanatory.

During my trip across Myanmar, I found numerous instances of child labor. I found children working in restaurants wiping tables / serving dishes, hawking souvenirs around temples, plucking peanuts in fields and tilling the land.  It’s a depressing state of affairs and there is probably very little one can do about the issue in a country that is still partially ruled by military. But these children are still pictures of innocence. They are beautiful, heart breakingly so. Cliches be damned.

The extremely little

These are the babies. Those chubby faces and perky mischievousness know very little that they will be put in school and pulled out of it very soon so as to assist in the family’s income. Nevertheless, for now, they are cute as buttons.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

The school goers

Many children seem to only finish primary schools. They are pulled out of their schools soon enough they can manage a day job, as it were. But they are cheerful when they go to and come back from schools as I witnessed.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

The shy and curious

Step into a village that is not frequented by tourists and you will be surrounded by these children. They haven’t seen a camera in their lives. Nor have they seen a soul that is not their villager visiting them. Each one of them is photogenic and they seem to know it as they confidently stare into the camera.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

The unfortunate teens

You can find them selling postcards in and around pagodas frequented by tourists. To them, postcards are still relevant because their world is full of them as stocks, waiting to be sold to make money. You can also find them tracing designs on lacquerware trays and other utensils. One entrepreneurial fellow even sold me a bunch of hand-drawn postcards he made with his crayons.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

The hard laborers

They till land to make patches for vegetable plantations or glean peanut plants after the year’s harvest. They are the least fortunate among the lot for their work involves hard, physical labor. And no child should be forced to do that.

The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar
The children of Myanmar

I am ending this year on a poignant note with this post. I have had a good year and I have very little to complain about (if at all, I have to).  I hope each one of you have had a wonderful year as well. I wish you all a great 2015 ahead. Stay safe. Stay well. Leave a comment wishing me a good year and telling me what your travel (and general) plans for 2015 are. I would love to hear from you.

Walking in George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Leaving the precincts of Kuala Lumpur and its haze, high-rises, malls and traffic seemed like a release of sorts from the quagmires of urban life. Now don’t get me wrong. I liked KL and its veritable array of cultural and gastronomical experiences but I prefer a small town to a big city any given day. And I wasn’t going to exclude Penang, the northwestern coast of Malaysia, from my plans. So I boarded a bus and rode on it for six hours.

The pleasures of arriving in Penang are only multiplied by the beautiful visual scenery en route – the gargantuan mountains, vistas of the ocean, greenery and the tree rich landscape that is a relief from the landscape dominated by palm trees in KL. I arrived in the charming seaside town and its unhurried people to be welcomed by my host Mr. Henry. After a tiny tour of the neighborhood, Henry left me to my devices. Help was at hand, however. An architect friend Sanjay, took over from Henry but by then I had found a hawker stall, ordered the best tom yum soup I had in my entire life and finished slurping it. I felt welcomed.

The World Heritage Site title was awarded to the George Town area in Penang Island in 2008 by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The architecture of buildings in George Town infuses elements from the architecture of Europe, China and India. George Town was once a British trade post and hence colonial architecture is predominant. The rich cultural influences brought in by immigrants from India and China have also contributed to the city’s landscape and food.

The Street Art of George Town

The streets of Penang depict a curious array of art – iron rod sculptures on the theme ‘voices from the people’ and mural paintings on the walls by renowned artist Ernest Zacharevic. There are a total of 52 such iron rod sculptures present in almost every street of George Town, of which there are about 18 street murals by Zacharevic. There are maps available if you want to take a walking tour of these. A few pictures:

a wall art
a wall art
street murals of George Town
street murals of George Town

a street mural, up close

Temples of George Town

George Town hosts numerous ancient temples / churches – the oldest Anglican Church in all of South East Asia, the Maha Mariamman Temple from the 1790s, Chinese temples, Kapitan Keling mosque from the 1803 to name a few.

The Khoo Kongsi temple
The Khoo Kongsi temple
a chinese mazu idol
a chinese mazu idol
Kapitan Keling mosque
Kapitan Keling mosque
a smug buddha
a smug buddha

prayer lamps at the thai buddhist temple

a burmese buddhist temple
a burmese buddhist temple

Culture of George Town

Walk the streets of George Town and you are likely to find more than a handful of art galleries, art studios, puppet theatres and workshops, gold and blacksmiths who use ancient methods, Chinese coffin makers, book binders, perfumers and other quirks.

a chinese doll collection in a store
a chinese doll collection in a store
a chinese puppet in a souvenir store
a chinese puppet in a souvenir store
a souvenir
a souvenir

Architecture of George Town

The architectural treasures including the shop houses, colonial era buildings, Chinese clan houses are bunched together as a cultural enclave in the town. These buildings define the rich history of George Town and its cultural past.

the famed blue mansion
the famed blue mansion
an ornate chinese door
an ornate chinese door
streets of penang at night
streets of penang at night
penang skyline
penang skyline

Food of George Town

The coming together of various cultures has ensured a delicious variety of street food sold in the hawker markets of George Town, Penang. Taste the super pungent Assam Laksa, Mee Robus, Mee Rojak, Char Kway Teow and Fried Oyster and get introduced to flavors that you didn’t know existed. night time food scene

assam laksa
assam laksa
a funny sign board
a funny sign board

5 initial impressions about KL – Malaysia

If you were blind folded and taken around in the cities of KL and Singapore, you probably wouldn’t notice the difference. Granted the food is much diverse in the former and the attractions are much better in the latter. However, these two cities have much more than weather in common. Be that as it may. These are my 5 initial impressions about the city of KL – Malaysia.

1) The Street Food is Phenomenal

Pardon my cliche but Malaysia is indeed a melting pot of cuisines. The Indian and Chinese influences found in the food in Malaysia has made eating out fun and much more economical. Every street and every mall is brimming with street food from different regions. And Malaysians seem to love their fat. So much so that they have dishes named after fat – Nasi Lemak (rice with fat).

street food in Malaysia
street food in Malaysia
street food in Malaysia
street food in Malaysia

2) Roads are great but traffic is a nightmare. So is parking.

KL has huge, broad roads and the infrastructure is in place. However, the growing number of vehicles seems to constrict the roads and peak hour traffics are legendary and nightmarish.

friday night traffic in Malacca
friday night traffic in Malacca

3) Selfie poles are quite the rage now

No tourist attraction in the city is complete without selfie pole wielding youngsters and even families taking pictures of themselves in front of monuments. Like this couple in front of a graffiti wall in Malacca.

selfie pole
selfie pole

4) The city has an impossible number of high-rises

And twin towers is one of them. Like any other south east asian / middle eastern developed countries, Malaysia has its share of high rises too. The central business district is filled with them and the hop-on / hop-off tour covers a mighty lot.

The twin towers of KL
The twin towers of KL
The high rises of KL
The high rises of KL

5) There is a dearth of dairy but fresh soya milk is sold on the streets

Malaysia is not a dairy producing country but fresh soya milk is available for consumption, sold by hawkers. The powdery, earthy taste of soya milk can be off-putting at first but it is much better than condensed milk (which has no dairy and is used even in coffee as well).

soya milk in the background
soya milk in the background

Have you been to KL? What are your impressions? Leave a comment.