The bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla cost 360 rupees (£1.80), which surprised me as the journey took little over an hour and my 3 hour bus from Jaffna to Mannar only cost 200 rupees, but this ride was inside an air-conditioned minivan so maybe I was paying extra for this “luxury”; not necessarily worth it once they had crammed so many people on that it was like a tube in London, one man’s crotch in my face and another practically sat on me. We arrived at Dambulla bus station at around 6:30pm and I walked the 20/30 minute journey to Dambulla City Hostel where I was paying 1,600 rupees (£8) for 2 nights. There were a few power cuts during my time there (twice on my first evening, one of which while I was taking a shower) and the 6 bed dorm I was in was ridiculously stuffy and hot at night, but I met a lot of fellow travellers here (the most I have during my time in Sri Lanka so far), the staff were super helpful and the facilities were really good.
I didn’t venture out on my first evening, feeling lazy and then put off by the power cut, but some really kind Spanish females staying at the hostel offered me two padis they couldn’t manage. I woke at 7am the next morning to get to the bus station for 8am so I could catch the first bus to Sigriya, 15km north of Dambulla, paying 40 rupees (20p) for the half hour journey. Sigiriya rock (Lion Rock) is a world heritage site and rises 200m above the surrounding countryside, being one of the main attractions in Sri Lanka and part of the “cultural triangle”. However the price of the ticket – to enter the surrounding site of museums and gardens as well as climb the rock itself – costs 4,500 rupees (£22.50) for foreigners.
Therefore many tourists now instead pay 500 rupees (£2.50) to visit and climb Pidurangala rock, which lies 2km opposite Sigiriya. While you miss out on the various sites within Sigiriya, with Pidurangala you have to walk round the perimeter of the Sigiriya rock site – providing at least some experience of this heritage site – and you are gifted with views of Sigiriya rock itself from the top. Plus the climb is mostly shaded from the trees and haphazard rock formation, whereas the climb up Sigiriya is straight up the side of the rock, completely exposed to the elements.
The bus stops outside the entrance to Sigiriya/Pidurangala and from here you walk ahead, then turn left to walk around the perimeter of the site to reach the entrance to Sigiriya on the side. Pidurangala is a further 20/30 minute walk from here, continuing around the edge of the Sigiriya site (offering views of the rock from below) before turning left and walking straight to find the entrance to Pidurangala. I hadn’t even made it to the entrance of Sigiriya before a Sri Lankan on a moped stopped beside me and asked if I wanted a ride to Pidurangala. I asked him how much it would cost and he said it was free as he was going in that direction anyway; I hopped on behind him and was taken to the entrance in 5 minutes, feeling humbled and grateful, totally restoring my faith in humanity.
You purchase your tickets at the entrance at the bottom and then have to make sure you are appropriately dressed before ascending the first set of steps that reach Pidurangala Royal Cave Temple, taking off tour shoes before venturing inside. You can then de-clothe as appropriate before taking the route uphill on the right, steps made out of stone ascending up through the trees. I was wearing sports leggings, plimsoles and a baggy shirt but I whipped off the tshirt and climbed in my sports bra; despite being in the shade and being only 9:30am it was ridiculously humid and I needed as much breeze as I could get.
It was a fun climb, following a slightly haphazard route and scrambling up rocks along the way, the last section being the most tricky to navigate and pull yourself up to; I would recommend shoes as opposed to flip flops as it’s better to have a solid grip, and take a backpack or bumbag rather than having anything in your hands.
It took me approximately 15 minutes to climb, making it to the top for panoramic views of the surrounding countryside, punctuated by the view of Sigiriya rock poking up and out of the land below.
You can even see the zigzag path that is taken to climb the rock, highlighted but they forms of the people taking the uphill ascent in the sun. It is quite windy near the edge of the mountain and even more so if you climb further up the rock just behind you so be careful with your footing, but it was definitely a refreshing welcome.
After stumbling back down, walking to the bus stop, taking the bus back to Dambulla for 35 rupees (18p) and having a below-average Rice and Curry for 200 rupees (£1) in the town, I made my way back to the hostel, arriving back 4.5 hours after I set off. I spent a bit of time chilling at the hostel before heading out with Madeleine, a German female whom had just arrived in my dorm. We wanted to visit Dambulla cave temples, marking Dambulla as another point on the “cultural triangle”. It took us about 30 minutes to walk to the entrance, passing the Temple Lake on the way, where you are greeted by a giant gold Buddha.
From here, however, you then have to climb up alongside the granite outcrop, before walking back down the other side, turning right and walking a few hundred metres to reach the ticket office. The entrance is 1,500 rupees (£7.50) and you then climb up another set off granite steps to actually reach the cave temples, all sets of steps exposed to elements. Therefore it is recommended to visit either early morning or late afternoon to avoid the intense heat of midday; even at 4pm it was a touch slog in the humidity.
The cave temples date back to approximately 100 BC when king Vattaganini and had to take refuge in these caves for 14 years to hide from Tamil invaders whom had taken his throne, later having temples constructed here in gratitude. It is recommended to visit the cave temples backwards, starting from 5 and ending on 2 as this is seen as the most magnificent, but Madeleine and I took them in the order they came, struggling to find space in cave 5 due to its size and the number of tourists. In this one I was struck by the artwork on the soles of the laying Buddha’s feet.
Cave 2 was particularly impressive, various Buddha statues and carvings dotting the inside, but I was most drawn to the carvings and decoration on the walls and ceilings of the granite inside the cave, which were colourful and told far more of a story to me.
I was also moved by the flowers and offerings left to the Buddhas, moving out the way as quickly as I could to allow those wanting to pray and make offerings have the space and privacy I could allow in such an environment.
Frustrated by other tourists taking photos with their backs to the Buddhas (something that you are repeatedly asked not to do as it is disrespectful) pushing you out of the way in order to capture a photo or video, apparently completely unaware that other people were around, I made my way around as incognito as I could.
Once finished visiting the caves you exit down the other side, but not before we sat on the sloping side of the granite outcrop for views of the surrounding countryside and nor before taking photos on the edge as we made our way down.
We planned to head to Temple Lake for a swim and to watch the sunset but first we popped to the market opposite the base of the cave temples – by the entrance to the Golden Temple – to peruse the sweet snacks.
We therefore didn’t make it to the lake until around 5:30pm and by this time local men were either washing themselves or their clothes in the lake at all the spots where you could possibly climb in, and they were staring at us in amusement so we didn’t exactly feel tempted to jump in alongside their soapy selves and dirty clothes.
So instead we took a seat on a rock alongside the lake and chatted as we watched the sun slowly set beside the granite outcrop of the cave temples.
On our walk back to the hostel we passed a Bread Van on the side of the road; Bread Vans in Sri Lanka are converted Tuk Tuks selling bread and are basically like Ice Cream vans, playing a shrill version of Beethoven’s Fur Elise on loop with the vendors known as Choon Paan – or tune bread – sellers.
The noise can be sort of annoying if it is parked right by you and the tune is in a continuous loop, but I was absolutely giddy with excitement at this Bread Van, skipping towards it like a kid would to an Ice Cream van, paying 50 rupees (25p) for a flat bread roll topped would vegetables that was spicy and delicious.
My dinner consisted of a spicy vadais, this vegetable bread roll, a jelly yogurt and plain yogurt I had bought from the shop earlier, and some weird deep-fried twisty sweet thing. I didn’t take photos – I just inhaled it all – so my poor description of the items will just have to do. I had another stuffy, disturbed sleep before checking out of the hostel the following morning to make my way to Kandy, wanting to make it in time for the end of the Esala Perahera festival.
So I start my exploration of the “cultural triangle” in Anuradhapura, paying 100 rupees (50p) for the train from Mannar to Anuradhapura New Town – the New Town station was closer to my accommodation (City Capital Hostel) than the main station, however the train sat an Anuradhapura station for at least 20 minutes so it wasn’t entirely worth it time-wise, yet I walked the 15 minutes from New Town station to my hostel with my bags rather than paying for a Tuk Tuk, arriving at my hostel at around 11:30am. A bed in a 10 bunk dorm for 1,200 rupees (£6) wasn’t too bad, but as soon as I arrived they were trying to sell me Tuk Tuk tours and encouraging me to stay another night.
After relaxing for a bit at the hostel I went for a wander of the surroundings, stopping first at Peter Pan’s Ice Cream parlour just down the road to cool off with a scoop of Oreo ice cream and a scoop of coffee ice cream. They were quite piddly scoops at 80/100 rupees (50p) each but it was icey and creamy and filled a hole.
I then wandered over to Kumbichchan Kulama Tank; Anuradhapura is nestled between 3 main tanks, which are basically man-made giant lakes, if you will, but this one is a much small one within the city. Still, walking around the perimeter provided a cool breeze against the burning sun and, being practically secluded, a break from being approached or hassled or stared at by locals. I was tired and wanted a bit of time to myself, so I sat against a tree, facing the tank, and read my book for a while. It’s a good place to escape the bustle of the city if you ever feel you need to.
Afterwards, at around 3pm, I walked to New Town bus station and caught a bus to Mihintale for 30 rupees (15p), which took about 20 minutes, before hopping off and walking the short distance to the site, passing the hospital ruins on the way.
The site is where Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, which is why Mihintale is also part of the cultural triangle. I had heard mod-late afternoon was the best time to visit as you miss the heat of midday and can also then stay to see the sunset, but I still felt the humidity in my throats as I began to climb the stairs up towards the site, veering off to the right to take the steps up to the remains of the Kantaka Chetiya dagoba.
I was surprised, but also glad, to find absolutely no one else up here and I spent some time wandering around the periphery, gazing at the elephant decorations within the stone whilst having my eyes constantly trained for any nearby monkeys. It would seem the Mihintale site is filled with monkeys – in groups and solo – and I was well aware of how territorial or hungry they can get, neither of which bodes well for me and receiving another animal bite. Still, it was really peaceful and offered views over the mountains.
I then headed back down these stairs and hen up the staircase to my right, which is where you enter the remains of the second floor of the Medamaluwa monastery and where you have to buy a ticket for 500 rupees (£2.50) to continue; the guy behind the desk was lovely and helped me with my questions about the site, plus encouraged the Sri Lankan Giant Squirrel that was hovering nearby to come closer so I could take a picture.
I probably found the Medamaluwa monastery the most under-whelming part of the site, as most of it is just ruins, plus the “Lion Pool” is tiny and the statue practically impossible to decipher as once being in the shape of a lion.
After this you take the stairs on the left to the upper terrace, but on the way I saw a sign on the right for Naga Pokuna (“snake pool”). No one else seemed to be taking this path, which admittedly was less of a path and more of a rocky, dusty, unidentifiable track, but the guy working at the shop opposite assured me it was the way so I meandered along the sweeping path and eventually reached the Naga Pokuna, where again absolutely no one else was; bliss. Oh but there were loads of monkeys lying around, and as I stood I watched one of the monkeys jumped straight into the pool, causing a splash and alerting his friends, for two more to then follow one after the other. It was as if the heat had become too much for them, too, and they just had to cool off; I was pretty thrilled to manage to get a photo of the last two diving in, totally carefree.
I continued on and came to the remains of an Image House and from here saw a sign to Et Vehera on the right. With still no one else around and embracing the opportunity for a peaceful climb, I made my way up steps that eventually snaked along the edge of the rock to reach the highest point in Mihintale. Here, I had views of stunningly white Mahaseya dagoba, people climbing the rock that is Aradhana Gala, and the fields and mountains surrounding Mihintale. Rough Guides said the best views was from Mahaseya Dagoba but, for me, this was far superior and more satisfactory due to the uphill climb to get there.
Aradhana Gala rock and Buddha
From here I walked back down to Image House but then took a different direction, following some steps along a rock, to reach Mahaseya dagoba, but I knew I wanted to spend time here at sunset so I sidestepped the hungry, aggressive monkeys and made my way down from the dagoba to the upper terrace below, first taking the short rock climb to the white Buddha.
Then I wandered over to Aradhana Gala rock to take the steep, slightly slippery climb up and around the perimeter of the rock to reach the top, getting a view of the sun beginning to set alongside Mahaseya dagoba.
Once back down I went back up Mahaseya at around 6pm and watched the sun slowly set. It was supposed to be one of the best spots for sunset but, unfortunately, due to the number of clouds it wasn’t the most dynamic or colourful I have seen. Plus, in my opinion the views from Et Vehera were better, but I suppose it’s all subjective.
Once I was back in Anuradhapura, after paying 35 rupees for the bus back for some reason, I ducked into a cafe and ordered some noodles to go (I watched the chef at the front make it and asked him to add stuff as he went along, so I sort of somehow created my own dish) before heading back to the hostel. I don’t know if it’s the heat, the humidity or delayed jet lag but I am finding myself tired so early at the moment, that I crashed at around 10pm.
I checked out the next morning and left my stuff at the hostel, paying 500 rupees (£2.50) to rent a bicycle so I could explore the ancient city. Anuradhapura is the history of Sri Lanka, but due to the size of the ancient city visitors can find it overwhelming and I read a lot of blogs saying it was actually also not as impressive as they had expected, preferring the ruined capital of Polonnaruwa instead (which is also part of the cultural triangle). It also costs 25 USD to visit most of the sites, so many travellers end up skipping it entirely or trying to visit the free, or cheaper sites, instead. This was my aim.
Due to the location of my hostel I started by cycling west along Bandaranaike Mawatha, running along the south of the ancient city, passing by gloriously green fields and palm trees either side of me, to reach Isurumuniya Vihara rock temple. This site isn’t included in the main ticket so I paid 200 rupees (£1) to enter, taking off your shoes first, enjoying the picturesque, diverse mishmash of buildings, trees and sand, with elephant carvings within the rock above the pool.
I then took the path round the back of the site to climb the steps up the two small rocks to the viewing platforms, where you have sweeping views across Anuradhapura including the sites of Ruvanwelisya and Abhayagiri. It is recommended to come here for sunset, and I can see why, but I was still impressed by the panorama I saw.
Back on my bicycle I then headed towards Sri Maha Bodhi, which also isn’t included in the main ticket but encourages a donation. You have to park you bicycle at the car park as vehicles aren’t allowed anywhere near the Sacred Bo Tree, seen as the spiritual and physical heart of Anuradhapura. Apparently the tree was grown from a cutting taken from the original bo tree in Bodhgaya, India, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, and is at the centre of a stone wall enclosure. Surrounding the tree and the walls were white-robed pilgrims praying, and this was the most captivating site for me.
From here you can then walk north towards Ruwanwelisaya dagoba, known as the “great stupa”. There was a check point along the way, presumably where you have to show your ticket, but it wasn’t being manned when I rocked up so I just passed on through. The dagoba is stark white, so bright that it almost blinds you, encircled by a strip of bright orange ribbon in contrast; with the trees up front and the flags hanging nearby, it did look pretty spectacular.
I walked the periphery, after taking off my shoes again, before being met by a group of school kids entering as I left; suddenly I was met with a procession of high-fives as they all passed me, revelling interaction with a tourist. Not-so-secretly, I enjoyed it almost as much as they did (maybe more).
Returning the way I came, passing the unmanned checkpoint, I got back on my bicycle and tried to figure out a route to get to some other sites, looping around the west of the ancient city and passing by both Tisa Wewa tank and Basawakkulama tanks on the way and enjoying a pit stop at each one for the wind and calm it offered.
I eventually stumbled across Abhayagiri Dagoba from the west – a brick stupa I had spotted in the distance and been struck by, desperate to find – purely by following my nose (and, I’ll admit, avoiding roads filled with barking dogs). It’s said to be the spot where the Buddha left a footprint on one of his visits and was far more deserted than the other dagobas, plus I was drawn by the more rustic, ancient look of this dagoba compared to the striking white of the others.
I then continued East to reach The Samadhi Buddha, one of Anuradhapura’s most celebrated images showing the Buddha in the meditation posture. Without meaning to be disrespectful in any way, I found it pretty underwhelming but obviously it holds greater spiritual significance than its physical representation suggests – not everything is about the aesthetic, right?
And this is where I decided to conclude my exploration of the ancient city, having ran into various checkpoints the further into the centre of the old city you go and having been out in the sun for almost 5 hours now. I was tired and beat, and satisfied by the various sites I had come across and the impression I had of the ancient city, especially being able to experience the beauty and colour of the narrow roads lined with trees from taking the route by bicycle.
From my experience I would say that paying the main ticket price wouldn’t have been worth it for me, and I’m glad I saved the expense and full-tour experience for Polonnaruwa, although I will have to confirm once I have actually visited it! For now, though, it’s onto another part of the cultural triangle for me; Dambulla and nearby Sigiriya.
The bus from Jaffna to Mannar cost 200 rupees (£1) and left the bus station at around 10:20pm, arriving into Mannar bus station at around 1pm following a 15 minute rest stop roughly halfway through the journey. It is the first “long-distance” bus I have taken and fortunately I was there early and managed to get a seat, by the window, as it son filled up along the way and had passengers standing in the aisle, Indian-inspired music videos blaring from the tv screen up front.
My favourite part was driving over elephant pass across the shimmering water, my least favourite being when we hit some animal along the side of the road and apparently killed it.
At Mannar bus station I decided to take a Tuk Tuk rather than walk with my bags; although only about 20 minutes the hostel I was staying in (Blue Moon Rest House) was new and wasn’t coming up on my google maps so I didn’t really know how to find it. I paid 100 rupees (50p), although I probably could have negotiated. The hostel was around 1,500 rupees (£7.50) per night for a twin room with fan all to myself and including breakfast; not too bad. After settling into my room I decided to wander the out into the town to explore, as is my usual first activity of choice, passing by the church (where I nipped into to hear locals singing together in a group), the post office and some cows along the way.
I also picked up a couple of snacks from a hole-in-the-wall, opting for two different types of Padis (egg and potato); both had flavour and spice (the potato being the hotter of the two) but the pasty they use is particularly tough to bite through and ridiculously chewy.
I passed through the main part of town, weaving around the bus station and the Market streets. I received a lot of stares and men beckoning me over, laughter as I ducked into shops to buy a drink, and felt every face turn to stare at mine as I walked alongside the market stalls. It felt quite intimidating at times so I started to deliberately not make eye-contact, something I wouldn’t normally do as I like to engage with the locals and absorb my surroundings. It’s hard to put into words how exposed and vulnerable it can at times feel, contrasted by moments of amusement and how absurd and comical it is; I turned down one market alley and as I walked along felt every single male turn their head to stare at me as I walked past, and at the end I turned back to snap a photo of them all looking at me. Some smiling, some laughing, some just plain staring; something I am slowly having to get used to in Sri Lanka.
I also spotted the many donkeys that Mannar is known for, having been brought over by the Arab traders; not willingly, in my opinion, as all the ones I came across were stood completely still staring at the ground, experiencing some sort of existential crisis.
I made my way over to the old, crumbling Portuguese Fort (later strengthened by the Dutch) and spent some time wandering around the ruins, revelling in the peace and respite this near-empty sight by the water offered, the winds feeling refreshing. There are a ridiculous number of crows circling round, which added to a slightly tempestuous feel reminiscent of Wuthering Heights but at times felt a bit territorial; I’m not sure I have felt directly threatened by birds before. Still, this was probably one of my favourite spots.
I then made my way towards the famous biobab tree, again apparently planted by the Arab traders, which is said to be the largest tree in Asia with a circumference of 20 metres but a kind local informed me it was actually the second largest. I enjoyed sitting on the wall surrounding the tree, having the branches cover me like a canopy, having my respite interrupted when a local homeless man came right up to me saying “ooooo” and seemingly asking me for money, refusing to leave me alone; a kind, younger local came over asking if he was bothering me and ushered him away. I never really know what to do in those situations, and any sort of poverty is saddening, but not speaking the language and having him cornering me on the wall I was extremely grateful for his help. And to the local family whom I offered to take photos of that then offered to drive me back to the town (about a 15 minute walk) in their air-conditioned car!
I slowly made my way back to the hostel, weaving round side streets and popping into a shop to browse their local sweet treats. After intensely questioning the shop keeper as to what each item was and him kindly letting me sample some, I settled on Milk Toffee (like a very sweet version of fudge, this one I milk chocolate and white chocolate flavours, topped with almonds) and 100g of Jujubs (jelly sweets covered in sugar).
I woke up lazily the following day, having my breakfast of dosa (like a pancake) with chutney and and Dahl, before heading out to wait for the bus to Talaimannar.
I waited at a stop near the hostel rather than go into town for the starting point at the bus station so when I hopped on it was packed; for all buses, if you can get close to the first stop then I would recommend it. I was stood in the aisle when a local woman instructed a boy whom was sat down to give his seat up for me – he went to stand but I insisted I was fine. A few minutes later the bus conductor came round to collect my money (60 rupees, or 30p) and also told the boy to move, making him stand again for me to once again insist I was ok. It was interesting to see another way in which women are viewed/treated by men, but this time to the female advantage (if you see it in that way).
Again the bus had Indian music blaring and the back of the seats were decorated in some gorgeous pattern, but they once the boy got off the bus and I took his seat I immersed myself in my book much to the interest of the locals around me, looking over my shoulder in curiosity at the English words on my page.
We arrived into Talaimannar just before midday, me having missed the stop for the pier on the way and instead getting off the last stop in the town. So I decided to first make my way towards Adam’s Bridge; a chain of islets and sandbanks that stretch all the way to India, 30k in the distance, apparently the route used by the earliest human settlers. I wanted to just see the inlets from the edge of Talaimannar but was having trouble locating it, bumping into Anne (Canada) and Martin (England – Manchester) who were looking for the same thing.
He eventually had to leave to get his train so the two of us walked onto the beach and asked local fisherman about Adam’s Bridge; they said we had to get a boat there but we just wanted to view it from a distance so we wandered further along the shore, eventually being put off by the number of dogs approaching us and barking – after being bitten in Ecuador and needing stitches I suddenly had a desire to be very far away from angry, territorial canines.
So we went back to the fisherman and sat in the shade under their thatched hut, watching the family unweave the fishing net and trying to negotiate the price on a boat out to Adam’s Bridge sandbanks. They had started at 5,000 rupees (£25), which is insane for a 6km round-trip, but after sitting with them for some time, chatting in very broken English and discussing crabs, they eventually agreed to 2,000 rupees (£10) between us.
We donned our life jackets and hoped into the boat, having to settle on resting on the edge of the boat as there were no seats inside, and braced ourselves for a bumpy ride across the ocean; every time the boat bounced up and down we shrieked “ow” in unison as our bums smacked down against the solid wood. Despite not being able to turn my head to the side as the wind would blow my sunglasses off, it was lovely being out at sea and having a break from the stifling sun.
The sandbanks – many of which are almost entirely submerged – were pretty but it was just so interesting to get close to India (about 20km away) and see how people originally made their way across. The experience as a whole – spending time with the fisherman’s family, holding on for dear life in a super speedy boat and running away from dogs – was certainly an interesting one!
Back on the shore, Anne and I walked back to the bus stop and took the first bus heading to Mannar to get off at a Talaimannar pier, paying 10 rupees (5p) each. The interesting thing here is he Railway line, which used to stretch out into the sea (almost like a pier would) for people to then get the ferry across to India. This former departure point was suspended in 1983 and now the Railway line ends just before the beach, about 300m after the Talaimannar Pier railway station.
Because trains don’t run this far – or if they do then only twice a day – we walked along the railway track to the beach, where we came across cows sunbathing on the beach; I’ve always wondered what they enjoyed doing in their free time.
We walked back towards the bus stop by the station to pass by a group of local men playing a game – Carrom – which they invited us to join. Sat on a concrete brick I was instructed to flick the red counter across the board to knock the opponents counter into the corner pockets. Known as a “strike and pocket” game, I was told by the locals that I had a “powerful flick”. The guys were friendly and kind, interested in us and eager for us to join but not intimidating or forceful; exactly the kind of wonderful interaction with locals that I enjoy.
Back on the bus just after 4pm we made it back into town around 5:30pm, Anne heading to the Fort and me drawing money out whilst receiving “come here baby!” and various other catcalls and laughter from local men before we made our way back towards our hostel. We stopped for some food at New Shivaa Brothers Hotel on Hospital Road, just round the corner from our hostel, and had a Paraty each to start; served with chutneys and curry sauces it is a thick, buttery pastry twisted into shape and was tastier than dosa in my opinion.
We then both had a Chicken Kothuthu (also spelt Kottu in the south) – a Sri Lankan dish made with chopped roti, onion, veg and sauce (plus egg or meat if you choose) which is then cooked on a hot griddle and chopped quickly and forcefully with a cleaver type knife; a skilled movement. The dish was huge and tasty, the chicken on the bones delicious.
The next morning I woke at 7am to have a quick breakfast and catch a Tuk Tuk to Mannar Train Station for the 8:08am train to Anuradhapura, paying only 100 rupees (50p) for the 3 hour train ride.
So my second class sleeper train for 700 rupees (£3.50) left Colombo just after the scheduled time of 8:30pm and arrived into Jaffna just before 6am, following a bumpy journey where the dim train lights remained on all night and I struggled to get any decent sleep in the solid, semi-reclining chairs. I have heard the Colombo-Jaffna night bus is far better, so I would recommend you do this. Fortunately Jonathan, the owner of my hostel in Jaffna (Lotus Lodge Hostel) had offered to pick me up from the train station on the back of his moped so I didn’t have to stagger there, bleary-eyed, or pay for a Tuk Tuk. On the way to the hostel we stopped at a shop – well, a room really – to pick up some fresh milk that had come straight from a farm and was only 80 rupees; locals bring their own plastic bottles to fill or the dude working there provides plastic wallets to pour it into.
We arrived at the hostel around 6:30am, although I would call it a homestay more than a hostel as it was his own lodgings that he had converted into a guesthouse and he provided tea and coffee and looked after you as though you were a house guest. The house is on a big stretch of land and is a wonderful respite from the busy centre of Jaffna. After chatting over coffee (with my fresh milk added, having been boiled off and tasting delicious) and getting advice about travelling around Sri Lanka I rented Jonathan’s bicycle (300 rupees, or £1.50, for the day) to set out and explore Jaffna town just after 10am.
I had forgotten just how crazy it can be riding down roads in Asia, navigating the mopeds, Tuk tuks, pedestrians and cyclists that seem to all follow their own road rules, weaving in and out of tiny spaces at full speed like the traffic daredevils they are. Cycling past fellow road users and market stalls I received many stares and hollers as I passed by, bemusement or amusement being the main reactions I received at being a white woman pounding the streets on her own.
About half an hour later, however, I made it to my first stop; the Jaffna Fort. It’s the largest Dutch fortress in Asia, built in 1680 and severely damaged during the Sri Lankan civil war; the remains have now been restored but it’s still slightly in ruins, with one side of the Fort lined by the Jaffna lagoon. By this point, although not even 11am, the skies were totally clear and the temperature had reached 34 degrees so, due to little shade, I didn’t spend too much time here, and it’s bizarrely tucked away from anything else.
I continued cycling until I reached the library, where I decided to park my bike as you could do so inside the entrance and lock it securely; what I had seen of Jaffna town on my cycle through didn’t seem like the safest or most secure place to lock up a bike. I then took a slow walk towards the town, my first point of interest being the market roads around the busy bus station where I literally had every single male in the vicinity, both in groups and solo, turn to stare at me, some smiling or laughing unnervingly. It was half comical and half unnerving to suddenly be right in the middle of 60 or so men all looking in your direction and not really knowing where to look yourself. At one point a frail man came right up to me and muttered something at me, then when I went to continue walking he wouldn’t let me me past, darting side to side to block my path. A really kind, younger Sri Lankan male came up to intervene and ushered the man away from me; with every slightly unnerving, vulnerable experience there is also a warm, friendly one to counterbalance it.
Having not eaten I ducked into Malayan cafe, recommended in Rough Guides, to sample some of the cuisine of Northern Sri Lanka, which has more of an Indian influence due to its proximity to the south of India; in fact you can see the influence in the food, the music, the religion (Tamil Hindu) and the cows freely wandering the streets. The guy manning the till was incredibly helpful, describing the items in his best English, and I eventually settled on a vadais with green gram and a huge pancake filled with potatoes and spices; both were served to me on a banana leaf and a waitress came over with metal buckets filled with different chutneys/dips to ladle onto my banana leaf. You then basically eat with your hands, breaking bits off and mixing it together with your fingers before scooping it into your mouth. The vadais was a very heavy, doughy texture and I struggled to finish it but the pancake was delicious and full of flavour.
I wandered around the town streets for about an hour, passing a couple of temples and being spoken to by a local male every 10 minutes or so, taking moments in the shade where I could, before making my way back to the library to pick up my bike. I then cycled along Main Street, past St James Church and up along Old Park Road to lock up at Old Park and sit on a bench in the shade for an hour to have a break.
As per usual I received a lot of stares, but then two teenage girls came up to me, giggling, and asked for a selfie, to which I happily obliged; the curiosity, interest and amusement I don’t have a problem with and will willingly engage in, it’s some of the more aggressive or predatory behaviour that the struggle with.
I then cycled back up towards the hostel but parked my bicycle just down the road from the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple as a stretch of road about 500m long had been blocked off from all vehicles due to the annual Nallur Festival. The festival runs for 25 days, finishing on the poya day in August; every full moon (usually once a month) is a public holiday in Sri Lanka and is known as a poya day. The Nallur Kandaswamy Temple is a Hindu temple and, for the celebrations, men don white sarongs (wearing nothing on the upper body) and women their best saris.
At the approach to the temple was a small fire pit that locals would throw things into and a square of land with coconuts that they would smash, before making their way into the temple for live music and a colourful chariot being carried around. It was honestly one of the most beautiful religious celebrations I have witnessed, in what I can not describe as a simply stunning temple, and I found myself being moved to tears by the faith of these people; sometimes I feel sad, or as though I am missing out, by not believing in something greater so completely, with such utter devotion. Well, I have moments of that with things, such as with travelling or he enormity of the world, but it’s different I guess.
I forgot to mention that, prior to going into the temple, I popped to Rio Ice Cream to sample the delights that have been raved by many tourist visitors and that Rough Guides declared as having unusual flavours of ice cream; I was therefore disappointed to find the most “unusual” flavours were blueberry and pineapple. I don’t think vanilla, strawberry or chocolate counts as at all unusual, and surely mango isn’t that strange? Anyway I paid 100 rupees (50p) for a large scoop of blueberry and a small of pineapple, both of which were really tasty but I certainly wouldn’t go out of your way to eat there (unless I was seriously missing out by not opting for one of the sundaes or the jelly/fruit salad/ice cream concoction.
I slept solidly that night and woke lazily the following morning, taking my time over my breakfast of coffee with the farm milk and some Sri Lankan treats Jonathan kindly let me try. Milk hopper, which was sweeter than the plain one and I believe it uses coconut, but it was still very tasty and addictive; Susiyam with green gram, which looked a bit like an onion bhaji and was covered in batter but has coconut inside along with the green gram and tastes quite grainy and sweet (although it looks savoury); finally, something Jonathan named Vaipan but I don’t believe was made with banana like my google results tell me, a ball-shaped donut-looking treat eaten at breakfast or at tea time that was more dense than donut but had a similar taste, without the sugar coating. I enjoyed all of them and they were super filling.
I couldn’t decide on my plans for the day, I only knew I wanted to explore more of Jaffna than just the town, so Jonathan kindly suggested we spend the day exploring Jaffna together on his moped and he could take me to various spots he knew of; I would only have to pay for petrol.
So just before midday we set off on his moped, driving North and away from the town, very quickly hitting narrow roads lined with farms, crops and palm trees, passing locals cycling with shed loads of bananas resting behind them and tractors carting trees. We also passed by a cow (a sacred email free to roam as they so choose) that I was impressed to see following the road rules by using the pedestrian crossing to get to th other side.
We stopped first at the Nilavarai bottomless well – a natural underground water well that contains fresh water (40 feet) and has two tunnels, apparently one of them connecting to the Keerimalai hot springs in the very north. You had to pay 10 rupees (5p) to get in and no one else was there while we were, but I believe you can get quite a number of locals there jumping in.
Just opposite the well there was a house being built and I spotted a stuffed human hanging up outside, remnant of a Guy Fawkes doll or a floppy scarecrow; apparently these are hung to keep away evil spirits throughout the building process and sometimes even kept near the house after completion.
We then continued further north, crossing over a body of water to the east to reach the area of Point Pedro, driving through the town before reaching the beach. Probably due to the lack of shops, bars or beach refreshments and amenities the beach, despite having stunningly white sand and perfectly still, deep water for swimming in, is not mentioned in the guide books and was almost completely empty, save for a few locals. I now wished I had brought my bikini or planned for a beach day as it was perfectly peaceful and a great spot for sunbathing and swimming; works where going in on while we were there so it would be nice interesting to see how it develops over the next year.
We hopped back on the scooter and this time drove along the coastal road lining the north of Point Pedro, a section of ocean that is more tailored towards fishing than it is towards swimming, passing by upturned fishing boats, fisherman taking a rest, and even a man on a bicycle with fish sticking out of a plastic crate balancing on the front of his bicycle; Jonathan stopped the moped and tried to barter with the guy over fish, and even though I couldn’t understand the language I could tell he wasn’t getting very far with reducing the price, so we continued on.
Our next stop was at a spot where fisherman came in from Colombo and there were distance posts showing how far various other places were from us, including Australia, the Maldives and Myanmar, before we continued on to Sakkottai; the most northernly point in Sri Lanka.
Jonathan had heard about some recently-discovered cave nearby so we looped down to find it, asking locals for directions along the way and eventually pulling up alongside some houses and wandering through the land adjacent to them. The cave was fairly underwhelming but I sat on the edge and had a “chat” with a local Sri Lankan woman (as best you can when you speak entirely different languages) wearing what I can best describe as a nightdress. I will always remember how remarkably silver and shimmery her eyes were, however based on my attempt to explain how lovely I thought her eyes were with the use of gesture probably means she will always remember a white British girl trying to gouge her eyes out.
Anyway we continued on, carrying on the road along the north and crossing back over the body of water we had passed on ur way but this time at the northern crossing, but soon became stuck trying to travel further west; during the civil war the military had taken up residence in parts of the north and resettled the residents elsewhere and, despite the war being officially over 8 years ago in 2009 they still occupied an area in the north and they were blockades stopping you getting through. This meant we spent a good hour navigating the streets to try to get around the blocked roads, coming up against a few on our way, before clearing them and being able to carry on across to the east.
We took a rest stop first, though, ducking into a cafe; I mean this term loosely; a dark, cement room with tables and chairs. We both had a Sri Lankan tea, which was very milky and very sugary; you can ask for it without the milk but the standard way is with milk, and this is quite possibly the first cup of tea I have ever really enjoyed. I had my tea with a square of muscat, which is dark, shiny and almost transparent looking with a jelly-like texture that tasted a bit like a nutty version of Turkish delights and was, quite frankly, delicious. We also shared a cinnamon ball as a snack; literally sugar and cinnamon, it was really good and great for energy but quite rich.
Sri Lankan Tea & Muscat
We made a couple more stops at Kadurugoda Buddhist Temple – an archeological site where the first excavation was done just before 1920 where the remains of a shrine room, Buddha images and roughly 60 pagodas (although I only saw the number for up to 57) are still there in various remaining forms – and at Keerimalai Sacred water spring right along the northern shore, which is believed to have therapeutic powers if you bathe in it (again, probably should have brought my cossie today – then again the water didn’t look that clean…)
Keerimalai water spring
Kadurugoda Buddhist Temple
Our final stretch of the journey was to continue riding through the narrow roads lined by crops, trees and fields as the sun began to slowly set before driving across the bridge over the Palk strait and onto Karainagar island, making it to Casuarina Beach at 6:30pm just as the sun was almost finished setting behind the clouds.
Whilst Casuarina beach was not as spectacular as Point Pedro beach (yet the guide books recommend Casuarina beach), it was really calm at this time of the day and offered good views of the sunset.
Back on the road to cross back over the palk strait and then to head south towards Jaffna town, we spent most of the journey weaving traffic at high speed in the pitch black, much to my delight; whilst Jonathan is a skilled moped rider it is not a speed nor a style we Brits are used to, and by this point m pay thighs and arse were sore from all the clenching to balance myself. I received a break from the clenching when Jonathan suddenly pulled over as he spotted locals selling fresh fish just along the side of the road, so I watched in amusement as he tried to haggle over fish while the locals watched in amusement as a white British girl tried to make her way around a very local fish market.
We eventually made it back to the house at around 8pm for me to have a much-needed shower followed by hand washing some of my essential clothes (one of my favourite things about travelling is the simple, back-to-basics style of living, which was find really liberating) while Jonathan cooked an absolutely delicious dinner of fried fish, fish curry, Dahl and rice using the fish from the market. It was honestly some of the tastiest fish I have ever had and, washed down with Necto (a fizzy fruity drink, usually by popular brand Elephant House, that reminded me a bit of Vimto) and followed by a game of Connect 4 (I won) and Checkers (no one won) it was the perfect end to my homestay in Jaffna.
The following morning Jonathan kindly rode me to the bus station in Jaffna town so I could catch the 10:15am bus to Mannar, my next stop in the North of Sri Lanka.
Spending time in Colombo was not my intention, at least not right now. I had only got the bus to Colombo from Negombo at the last minute as I apparently couldn’t go direct to Jaffna, the 60 rupee (30p) 1.5 hour bus journey causing me actual bodily pain every time the driver slammed on the brakes to accelerate at lightning speed and then brake suddenly once again; my head based the metal pole of the seat in front a number of times, and the constant beeping of the horn made it difficult to really relax. But I definitely felt as though I was in Asia with the manic traffic and the heat.
Anyway, we arrived at the bus station in Colombo just before midday and I started to make my way to the train station, for some reason thinking the night train would be my best bet but later discovering the night bus is apparently far better. Fort train station is probably only a 15 or so minute walk from the bus station but I was baking hot and I couldn’t find my bearings so I paid 100 rupees (50p) to take a Tuk Tuk there, eventually locating the counter for trains to Jaffna to find out the train for that night was fully booked; the clerk advised me to come back at 2:30pm when there might be cancellations I could nab. So I paid 60 rupees (30p) to store my main bag in the train station cloak room and left the station to try to see some of Colombo.
I made my way west towards the Fort district and into Pagoda Tea Rooms, as recommended by Rough Guides, as I hadn’t eaten yet and was running low on energy. I went for a white coffee (average at best but a caffeine fix anyway) and a Chicken Lamprai; a surprisingly tasty dish of rice, spices, onions and chicken wrapped inside a banana leaf for 400 rupees (£2).
I had an hour to kill before needing to be back at the train station so I decided to wander towards the Clocktower-Lighthouse and then towards the south, where I crossed paths with a Sri Lankan called Rashan on his way to Gangaramya temple, and this is where my day changed completely.
Apparently it was a special day at Gangaramya – I couldn’t quite understand why, but it seemed to be to do with blessings – so he wanted to make a visit before it got really busy at around 2pm. Sensing my interest he suggested I join him before going back to the train station in time for booking my ticket. So we hopped into a Tuk Tuk and made our way to Gangaramya, Rashan covering the 500 rupees for us to get in and me being handed a white skirt to put over my bare legs (you need to be appropriately dressed, especially for Buddhist temples, so taking off shoes/headwear and covering your shoulders and legs is important).
We then made our way round the temple, Rashan explaining the different gods he was praying to and why as we made our way inside. In front of the gold plated Buddha – the Buddha of enlightenment – he prayed for luck on my travels and for me to be safe. Gangaramya is a temple comprising of a group of buildings clustered around a courtyard with a 300 year old Bo Tree draped in prayer flags taking centre stage; apparently touching the tree with your hand brings you good luck.
On our way we around we placed the heads of flowers near statues as an offering, and just before we left we received our own offering from a monk; tying string to my wrist, signifying good luck, and placing a gold ornamental hat on my head as I bowed, I received a blessing and prayers for safe travels. It was a beautiful temple full of colour and energy.
Back in the Tuk Tuk we zipped to the train station where I managed to get a second class ticket for the 8:30pm sleeper train to Jaffna for 700 rupees (£3.50) before looping back around the edge of Slave Island (a serene body of water adorned with temples, trees and cafes) to reach Captain’s Garden Hindu Temple, apparently the oldest temple. It was locked when we arrived but Rashan knew the guy who had the keys, who, lived in one of the houses surrounding the temple. Walking down a narrow alley with flat, terrace houses in a block-like structure, all painted in a slightly different colour but incredibly worn, I was struck by the local lifestyle of the more derelict areas.
Rashan knocked on the door and a man wearing a sheet on his lower half only (quite common in Sri Lanka) answered, eventually coming out to unlock the temple for us. After throwing on my Hareem pants (Hindu temples aren’t always as strict as Buddhist temples but I was only wearing shorts and a vest) and putting both white and red powder into a small circle on my forehead (presumably like a Bindi) we wandered around this empty, run-down temple, kept alive but the ridiculously colourful ceilings as streams of light burst through. I paid the 500 rupees this time and then back into the Tuk Tuk we went.
We then stopped outside the White House – home of the former Prime Minister – for some pictures, both of the White House itself but also of me posing in the Tuk Tuk drivers seat (how I would love to try driving one myself – that might be my ultimate travelling goal).
Driving on we passed two cricket venues and the flat, peaceful Viharamahadevi Park before making it to the Independence Commemoration Hall in honour of Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948, when Sri Lanka still went by its former name of Ceylon. Locals were inside the hall decorating parallel planks of wood with red and white tissue paper, apparently something taken from Kandy and used for processions.
Rashan needed to go back to the Fort district at around 4pm as he had left his car at work and I was happy to be dropped off there, stopping at an ATM so I could get more cash on the way. It was as I was walking back to the Tuk Tuk that I suddenly had this feeling of being scammed or used by Rashan, something that for some reason hadn’t crossed my mind before then, which seems stupid to me now. I tried to insist walking to the Dutch Hospital – a courtyard area of coffee shops, restaurants and bars – from here but, ushering me inside the Tuk Tuk, Rashan insisted I be dropped off as he would walk from there. How convenient. Then it came to telling me about payment for the Tuk Tuk – 8,000 rupees please, and he didn’t have any cash on him plus he had paid for a couple of water bottles and one temple entrance (which, incidentally, wouldn’t have even come to 800 rupees let alone 8,000.
Now, I always manage to come up with great responses or arguments a few hours later when sat by myself and, had I been able to reach those conclusions in the moment, I would have expressed outrage at such a high cost (£40 for 2 hours in a Tuk Tuk is ridiculous) and politely pointed out it wasn’t exactly fair for me to cover the whole cost, but I had been cornered inside the Tuk Tuk, with the driver in front of me and Rashan blocking the doorway out, and I couldn’t see anyone around me. Plus I didn’t really have time to do the calculations in my head. So I paid. I stupidly, annoyingly, regretfully paid. But maybe for my own safety, who knows. He left, I was driven to Dutch Hospital, and there I sat thinking about what had just happened – how annoyed I was at myself for getting into the position but how angry and sad I was to have been treated in that way. It can make you wary of engaging with locals – which I don’t want to be as that is such a huge part of the travelling and cultural experience for me – and counters some of the otherwise lovely interactions. It didn’t get to me as much as something like this would have done during my first time backpacking – maybe I am getting better at letting things go – but it is such a shame and I want to learn from it whilst not shutting off from locals.
Around 6pm I decided to wander down Main Street, through The Pettah district, where the sun was beginning to set and the colourful lights of the shops lining bustling Main Street were lighting up the way; the image of Tuk tuks, motorbikes and locals carrying goods all weaving through the road was my favourite of the day, culminating in the spectacular red and white Jamil Ul-Aftar mosque. The energy was electric and I loved my amble down this street, dodging both mocking vehicles and people.
I weaved past Kayman’s Gate, up Sea Street and eventually into St Anthony’s MW to get to Sri Ponnambula Vanesvara Kovil, but now I wish I hadn’t bothered. The further I went the more leers and comments I received from local men, literally looking me up and down in a suggestive manner and making me feel hugely on display. It was stifling hot but as the sun went down and it got darker, the roads narrow and filled to the brim with locals, my shorts suddenly felt like a very bad idea indeed. It was on my walk back – having made it to the entrance of Kovil but not being able to get in – that a Tuk Tuk slowed beside me and the driver told me I was pretty and he liked me. I kept walking but he carried on driving alongside me before stopping to repeat that he liked me and asking if I like him too; I replied “no, sorry” and kept walking. He then caught up with me and slowed alongside me, saying “do you want me to show you my thing?” and starting to unbutton his trousers with one hand whilst keeping the other on the steering wheel. I firmly said “no!” and he replied with “you don’t want to see it?”, so I answered with “absolutely not!” followed with “and that’s not how you should speak to women!” But I think that last bit was somewhat lost on him.
I was a bit shaken but fortunately it was busy so I didn’t feel in imminent danger, just a bit vulnerable and mistreated. I ducked into the first female-run shop I could find and asked if I could stand behind their counter to change into trousers – they were so warm and friendly (I wonder if they sensed why I might suddenly want to change) and asked me where I was from as a distraction. Back on the streets I walked down to the road facing the train station and ducked into the first restaurant I saw, attempting to order food to the amusement of both the staff and local diners; I seemed to be a bit of a spectacle to them, a sweaty white woman trying to decipher what each dish was and even trying to ask how to eat it once it arrived in front of me. I order devilled fish curry (this one being a coconut based curry) which I ate using a plain hopper (I liked this so much more than I bought I would, enjoying the thick, slightly gooey centre with the more pancake like edges) and an egg rotti, which I found to be tougher and less tasty than a plain hopper. It all came to 155 rupees but as they had been so accommodating to me I left 200 rupees (£1); its standard to tip in Sri Lanka anyway, I believe, but I think 30% might be unusual.
I made it to the bus station at 7:45pm, collecting my backpack from the cloak room and heading to platform 6 just before 8pm. Here I had about 3 different local Sri Lankan’s talk to me at separate points, wanting to know where I was from and where I was heading to. Even though tourism has been open since 2012 I don’t see half as many Backpackers as I did in South East Asia and I still think it’s unusual for them to see a solo white female. These conversations I didn’t mind, though – you usually get a sense quite quickly of the sort of inter st they are showing you and if it feels appropriate or not.
Colombo Fort Station at night
On the way into Jaffna
The train arrived at around 8:20pm when everyone suddenly rushed onboard (standard second class seats aren’t numbered so they rush to get a good seat) but as I had a second class sleeper with designated seat I made my way slowly, leaving my main backpack on the luggage rack by the doors and settling into my seat with ceiling fan and windows wide open. The seats didn’t recline very far and were pretty uncomfortable for sleeping so I only managed to doze intermittently – the bus would have been a wiser choice – and we arrived into Jaffna just before 6am despite online telling me it would be 5:10, but I had a pick-up from my hostel planned so it wasn’t all bad…
My 11 hour flight from London Heathrow to Sri Lanka (at £530 one way, presumably due to it being July) was pleasant enough, and more enjoyable than other flights due to being in a row of 2 instead of 3 so I only had to force one person out of their seat when I needed the loo form my window seat, but I was already exhausted before boarding the 9:30pm flight so to then not be served dinner until just before midnight was painful (I would never even consider skipping the meal in favour of sleep). So I only managed to fall asleep gone midnight once they finally turned the lights off and was then woken at 5am by the lights to be served our breakfast – a full 3 hours before we were due to land – which, quite frankly, I found inconsiderate (no I wouldn’t be missing this meal and as if I would be able to sleep anyway with everyone else around me munching away as the light is glaring in my eyes).
Anyway, we landed into Bandaranaike International Airport at 12:45pm local time and after collecting my bags I made my way through out the front of the terminal (after withdrawing cash at one of the few ATMs inside) and was immediately targeted by taxi drivers insisting it would cost me the same as taking a tuk tuk at 1,500 rupees, which apparently would be a 1km walk to get to. It took me all of 3 minutes to actually exit the front of the terminal and cross the road to locate the array of Tuk Tuks on offer and it cost me 700 rupees (about £3.50) for the 40 minute drive to my hostel on Lewis Place in Negombo. You can also take a local bus for a lot less but I was shattered and hot and just wanted to get to my hostel.
Aurora Hostel left a lot to be desired in my 6 bed, stifling hot dorm but at £6.30 for two nights it was hard to complain and the woman running the place was absolutely lovely, trying really hard to communicate in English. Although Roman – a fellow backpacker from France – found a bed bug on the second night.
I had a shower as soon as I got there – a cold shower, which was deliberate as it was super humid and sticky, but apparently I wouldn’t have a choice over it anyway. At around 3:30pm I went for a wander to the beach, picking up a fresh coconut to drink on the way that looked uncannily like a pig once the shop owner had rearranged it for my consumption.
It may have been the time of year but the beach wasn’t that sunbathe-able with the treacherous waves and high winds making it impossible for me to read my book with both sand and my hair, at alternating points, blowing in my face.
I had a few locals trying to sell things to me and another Sri Lankan male deciding to come right up to me and startle me out of my reverie by asking a group of questions that quite quickly have become the standard course of interaction between the men of Sri Lanka and myself; “where are you from?”, “are you married?”, “do you have a boyfriend?” I should have at least said yes to the last one as I was lying there half naked, with him looking me up and down, and this seemed to make him think he could sit and join me. I told him I was tired and just wanted to rest (all true), but he then he said I was angry with him so I somehow ended up reassuring this strange man whom had interrupted my peace and quiet.
By 5pm it was far too windy so I left the beach and took a walk further north to find Rohans Place – a restaurant recommended in Rough Guides – for some dinner. I settled on the traditional Sri Lanka dish of Rice and Curry – opting for pork – which arrived in six separate pots and was absolutely delicious. So much flavour and spices yet not too hot on the palate, and for 750 rupees (£3.75) I was pretty happy with my first meal in Sri Lanka. Oh and the ginger beer – a popular Sri Lankan drink – washed it down a treat.
The following morning I set out to explore the area of Negombo around the lagoon and Dutch canal, opting to walk the 30-40 minute journey rather than take a Tuk Tuk – the main roads of Lewis Place is fine to walk along but Sea Street more difficult due to the lack of pavement and hoards of Tuk tuks, motorbikes and cars zipping down the road. If you can, instead walk along the Dutch canal. Anyway I first made it to the Fish Market by the lagoon, grabbing a papaya fruit juice blended with ice for 100 rupees (50p) before heading in, where I was straight away approached by a fisherman wanting to show me around. I had read about locals offering to help and then trying to charge you at the end so I said I was happy to walk around on my own, to which he replied I would then learn nothing and leave having no idea what I had witnessed.
So he showed me the parrot fish, sting ray and cat fish eggs before taking me outside the fish market shack to the shore out front where hundreds of sardines fish were lined up on netting being dried in the sun – having first been soaked in salty water for 2 days they then spent 2-3 months in the sun, rotated every 4 hours, to then be sold as dried fish.
It was interesting to watch the process and informative, so at the end I gave him 200 rupees as that was the only change I had, to which he said he wanted 500 and 200 would get him nothing – but when I suggested he could give it back if he wanted he decided to keep it even though “200 rupees is nothing”
I then wandered around the periphery of the lagoon, passing by local men bringing their boats up to the shore and packing away their fishing nets, all smiling and waving at me as I passed. I looped around to the prison, which I had for some reason assumed was an old prison for visiting but when I arrived I was greeted with amused stares from a whole group of locals whom I suddenly realised were probably visiting inmates and perhaps it wasn’t an old prison after all but a fully functioning one!
After ducking into St Mary’s Cathedral right before it closed I then walked alongside the Dutch canal and almost made it to Custom House Road before being approached by a local boat operator, offers me a boat tour of Negombo lagoon.
I had read that nearby Muthurajawela offered more interesting boat tours around the wetlands and they were cheaper than in Negombo but it would take about an hour to get there by Tuk Tuk and, still tired from my flight the day before, I decided to settle on Negombo so I could sit back on a boat just there and then.
As it was only me it cost 2,500 rupees (£12.50) but I probably could have haggled yet for some reason didn’t even try. But he included drinking water and fruit in the price and he said it could last as long as I wanted so I agreed. We set out from the canal at around 1pm and into the lagoon nearby the port, passing by wreckage from the 2004 tsunami followed by local fisherman out catching sardines near the shore.
We continued around, passing by large fish boats with Nuduya telling me how they go out into the Indian Ocean for 3 months at a time to fish in self-contained boats complete with mini kitchen, to then come back to Negombo for a week or so before going back out. As we passed by the boats most of the fisherman were sat abroad eating lunch so I was acknowledged with waves and smiles and permitted to take photos of the front of one of the boats, just about capturing the tiny fridge and breakout area.
Nuduya then took me further out into the lagoon, the mangrove trees and little patches of “island” (or just exposed patches of sand) before mooring up on one of the sand banks for a rest stop. Right in the middle of the lagoon.
I hopped out into the water and Nuduya grabbed plastic stools from inside his boat, which he then positioned into the sand right in the middle of the water and passed me a plate of cut up watermelon, pineapple and banana. So there I am, sat on a plastic stool (reminiscent of the chairs in Vietnam) smack bang in the middle of a lagoon, munching on some fruit with the sun in my face and water cooling my feet. Standard.
Of course, being me, it’s now that I need the toilet so I wade over to one of the sand islands and squat behind one of the bushes to take a wee. My first marking of territory on Sri Lankan land! We spend almost an hour here, walking around in the water and sitting on the patches of sand before drinking a Bison strong beer (8.8%) together.
Afterwards, when I’d had enough of the heat, we hopped back into the boat and circled the lagoon before pulling in at a section of the mangrove the trees where there were a group of monkeys just hanging about. Apparently this isn’t their natural habitat but they would bought and put there by the government, which seems a bit bizarre, but considering we can equipped with bananas and watermelons for them to munch on they didn’t seem to mind our presence too much.
We then made our way back to the Dutch canal, Nuduya bravely letting me drive the boat out of the lagoon, passing local men fishing out over one of the main bridges, and arrived at the starting point at 4pm, a solid 3 hours after we left.
I was planning on taking a Tuk Tuk back to my hostel but decided to first take a slow walk along the Dutch canal, where I passed by a group of local Sri Lankan men sat by the sad of the canal, eating crab from the fish market and drinking “coconut tonic”.
After the usual hello-where -are-you-from pleasantries they invited me to join them, so I sat down to be immediately passed a slice of thick toasted bread and chilli crab to munch on and a glass of coconut tonic – not my favourite ever drink but refreshing in the heat. One of the men – it turns out they were all cousins or brothers or close friends – offered me some whiskey for one of the other men to put his hand out and shake his head; following translation, it turned out he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of them being a group of men giving alcohol to a female on her own and what that might imply. Sweet, really. Besides, my head was already feeling woozy following the huge, high percentage beer devoured in the sun at 2pm.
That evening I went out with a couple of people from my dorm – Charlotte from England and Roman from France – to join Kimo from France and a few male locals at a beach side restaurant for happy hour cocktails. The ridiculous wind on the beach was refreshing at this point and after a few drinks we decided to eat there, but the food took 1 hour 15 minutes to arrive and was cold, bland and small when it eventually did so it wasn’t the best dining experience (I definitely had rage) but it was a fun, spontaneous evening, laughing about the only French I could remember from school (jambon and l’escalier will get me far, I think) and generally mocking one another.
It was the most ridiculously hot night with the air con making absolutely no difference to our room so I didn’t sleep very well before leaving the following morning for Jaffna. I’d been told I could get a direft bus from Negombo bus station to Jaffna so I paid 200 rupees (£1) to take a Tuk Tuk to the station to be informed I had to first get a bus to Colombo, only costing me 60 rupees (30p) but taking at least an hour. I could already tell this was going to be an eventful day…
This is a very different post for me because every other blog I have written reflecting on my travels in a particular country or continent has been produced via a combination of immediate responses furiously scribbled as I travel and then more detailed, informed thoughts right after my time there. They have been in-the-moment and and timely. South East Asia, on the other hand, has manifested itself incredibly differently. As I type this – thoughts that are spilling from the recesses of my mind out through my fingertips and directly out onto this blog page – it is a year since I was in Vietnam. I spent just over 3 months in SEA – Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore – first flying into Bangkok, Thailand on 29th May 2016 and then flying out of Singapore on 8th September 2016 (although Singapore often felt worlds away from the rest of South East Asia that I often wouldn’t group it within the same experiences and reflections).
Resting in a hammock
My favourite snack from Thailand
Yet I didn’t write a single reflective note while I was there and I have only now – in July 2017 – started to put together all the thoughts and feelings I have about South East Asia into the written word. Honestly, I think it is because South East Asia stole my heart. I fell in love with it completely and utterly, matching its pace and being totally immersed; there’s little time for the mind when the heart is occupied. And then I left, leaving a part of me there, and spent a lot of my time in Australia, as wonderful as it was, mourning the loss of South East Asia; grieving that was too raw and fresh to be able to write about it without it hurting far too much.
Sound dramatic? It is. It was. When somewhere – or something – captivates you in that way, when it pulls you in and sets you free, it is devastating once that has gone. South East Asia was the first place I travelled alone – a solo female traveller – with the exception of Laos (side note, I wonder if that is why Laos doesn’t stand out as much for me in terms of how it made me feel) so I recognise the significance it holds in that respect; the freedom, challenge, empowerment, independence and sheer euphoria at travelling alone are so many of the things I found wonderful about backpacking and that formed an identity I had spent years searching for. Elements that I would now identify as prerequisites and desires for the life I want to live. So to experience all of those together, for the first time, will always make South East Asia stand out for me. I proved to myself that I could do it, even when I would be sat there actually speaking aloud the words “I can’t do this” as I would be sat on the balcony of a hostel in Vietnam overlooking the busy Hanoi streets, a single tear falling slowly down my cheek. I knew somewhere deep within me, that I could, even when it felt ridiculously hard to, and I did. South East Asia was the first place I realised I was stronger, braver and far more capable than I gave myself credit for. Than anyone gives themselves credit for.
I guess I will always be protective of South East Asia; protective of what it means to me and protective of that being tainted by anyone. I am aware of how subjective any travelling experience is and, therefore, the opinion of any country. People often ask me which has been my favourite country and I find that so hard to answer, subjectively or at all, as your feelings towards a country have only about a third to do with that country itself and the rest is shaped by the people you happen to meet and the experiences you happen to have, which can be down to chance, luck, weather, political situations and so on. So I don’t have a favourite country – or favourite countries – but there are countries that were my favourite to experience. For me at lot of those were in South East Asia, despite having good and bad experiences and a lot of frustrations, all of which are my own and personal to me. As ever, the opinions, thoughts and reflections I present here are just that – mine – and not to be taken as absolutes.
One of the wonderful things about travelling around South East Asia is how relatively easy it is to, well, travel. I didn’t realise at the time until I went to Australia and saw how expensive it was to travel in comparison and then went to South America and saw how difficult and convoluted it was to travel in comparison. That’s not to say it should be easy or cheap to travel around another country – why should they accommodate travellers or adapt their systems for us? We are visiting their country, their culture, and it shouldn’t have to be tailored to make that more accessible for us, not when we profess a desire to want to see a country as it really is. However, I completely took for granted how cheap, easy and (relatively) stress-free it was to travel around South East Asia. I would get frustrated when we would arrive at our destination at 5am instead of 6am as stated – their concept of time is definitely something to be taken loosely – or when I got moved 3 times between different buses as they couldn’t figure out which one I was supposed to be on to get from Hanoi in Vietnam to Danang. But arriving somewhere early is actually far better than late and at least I managed to get a seat on a bus with minimal effort.
There were some issues with the buses and it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In Vietnam, where you mainly get nightbuses from one place to the next due to distance, they drove so fast and beeped their horns so regularly (apparently to notify motorcyclists of their presence but I never did understand the need for such dramatic declarations) that you were surprised to find yourself not in the middle of a traffic accident. It was also on my journey from Dalat to Mui Ne in Vietnam were the bus blew up on the way but the driver still persevered around the winding mountain roads and a group of locals even tried to push-start it once it had clearly failed. In Pai the mist surrounding the mountains was so bad that all we could see was white when we looked out the window but the driver kept going anyway (are you sensing a theme?) And many buses and minivans would collect locals along the way from the sides of the road despite already being at full capacity.
A minivan through Cambodia
The bus that blew up in Vietnam
A nightbus across Thailand
But I took minivans, buses, night buses and local buses to get from one destination to the next in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia, including ones that crossed borders; Cambodia into Thailand, Thailand into Malaysia, Malaysia into Singapore. Half of them I booked a day in advance whereas the other half I booked the morning of travel, meaning I could make the decision that day if I wanted to move on; the freedom and flexibility this offers as a traveller is completely wonderful, as often you will not know how long you wish to spend somewhere and part of the joy is being able to be spontaneous about your movements. There were so many different bus companies to choose from that you would rarely encounter a problem where you couldn’t book a seat, plus you could find these companies – or tour operators – literally lining the streets in each location you were at; you could walk a minute from your hostel (or even find a tour desk in your hostel) to book transport, so it was quick and easy to do. Moreover, the majority of buses would leave from the centre, or near the centre, of one city and take you to the centre, or near the centre, of the next.
I remember my bus to Danang stopped away from the city and I, stubbornly, walked about half an hour in the heat with my backpack sticking to my body. Another time I opted to take a local bus rather than a “tour” bus from Danang to Hoi An as it was so much cheaper but this also stopped far from the centre, this time my stubborn refusal to pay for a motorbike ride and fear of being scammed leaving me with an hour walk trudging around the hot, humid streets of Hoi An. But they are the only two examples I can think of where my walk from the bus dropping you off to the centre, or my hostel if pre-booked, took longer than 15 minutes. The majority of South East Asia caters for travelling – for backpackers – in how regular, cheap and easy the transport is, plus the cost of a tuk tuk/motorbike/taxi if you are caught short will never break the bank.
As with most developing countries where it is cheap to travel, poverty is an issue and hand-in-hand with that often brings the risk of theft or scams. I try not to generalise or blanket anywhere or anybody – I also travelled to South America and similar things could be said there, plus I lived in London for 5 years where muggings are also commonplace – but I can really only speak of my experience and this was part of my experience of SEA. There are elements of haggling and scamming everywhere in South East Aisa – whether that be for hostel beds (in Laos this happened a lot), for tours, for bus trips or for market goods – but, for me, the place where I felt the most wary of being scammed and the place where I feel it happened the most to me was in Vietnam, in particular Hoi An. I heard the most stories about travellers being charged double what had been agreed at the beginning by motorbike taxis and motorcycle tours, with them not being taken to their final destination until they had been paid what they were now demanding. Personally I couldn’t ever really tell if I was getting a good deal or being taken for a ride or not.
Firstly, Hoi An is known for its tailoring, many visitors having a suit or dress custom-made while they are there as its one of the cheapest places to have something tailored to you. However you are advised to offer around half of the price they ask for, but it gets very confusing and they are very persistent, and you leave not really being sure if you have been scammed or not. I paid £12 to have a bikini custom-made for me, cheap for at home but actually expensive for Hoi An, especially is it pulled away at the seams by the time I reached the end of South East Asia, but I was in a rush and I didn’t haggle as much as I should (or could) have done. I also had an experience where I was on the “better” side of bartering but at the same time still ending up feeling scammed when I booked a tour of the My Son Ruins through my hostel. The Sunrise tour was advertised at 180,000 dong and I managed to haggle it down 160,000, later finding out someone else from my hostel was on the tour and paid the higher price. However you pay more for a Sunrise tour than for a day tour and, after falling in love with sunsets I decided to pay a higher price and wake up at 4am to experience a sunrise over the ruins. But my bus didn’t arrive until 5am and we weren’t on the rad for long before the sun rose – when we queried about the sunrise they quipped that sunrise is too early, to which I questioned why it is called a My Son Sunrise Tour if you don’t experience the sunrise at the ruins. “Because we go early and you avoid all the tourists.” Then call it a My Son Early Tour!
The element of haggling brings about its own issues of being ripped off. Hoi An was particularly hot and the air really still while I was there and as I wandered round the markets I noticed mini wooden fans on every stall for 20,000 dong; you will often come across the same items again and again on these stalls, and literally everywhere was doing them for the same price. Then, on the day I finally decided to purchase one, I wandered over to the first stall I saw, picked one up to buy and was told it was 70,000 dong. I was palpably shocked and said something along the lines of “no way, these are 20,000 everywhere, it is not worth 70,000” and she replied, “ok, fine, 20,000 it is”. They try their luck, hoping you don’t know better or have just arrived and are unaware of the local price of things, which is definitely an issue; every new place you go to you have to first establish the rough going price of things, which varies city to city as well as country to country, and this can take some time, often meaning you are a little bit scammed to begin with, until you figure it out. And don’t get me wrong, bartering is part of the experience and part of the culture and it can be fun, but it can also be exhausting and tiring and frustrating; I even had to barter over a can of coke, for goodness sake. I remember at one point even saying I missed England, where everything was far more expensive but at least you knew everyone was paying that same. I mean, I kind of didn’t miss the prices, I just found being on edge and having to work so hard to purchase anything was getting slightly draining.
I’ve touched upon Tuk Tuks and motorbike taxis but this definitely deserves a mention of its own as it is such a big part of the culture of South East Asia. You literally cannot walk down a single street without having “Tuk Tuk?”, “You need Tuk Tuk?”, “Pretty lady want a Tuk Tuk?” barked at you in succession. Sometimes you will pass 4 or 5 Tuk Tuk drivers in a row whom ask you the exact same question for you to give the exact same answer each time, sometimes the SAME one person will ask you 4 or 5 times, changing it from a simple “Tuk Tuk?” to “Where are you going?”, to “I can take you Tuk Tuk to airport?” even after you said no to the first question. If I said no to taking a tuk tuk at all, why would I suddenly need one to the airport?? Replace the word Tuk Tuk with Taxi or Motorbike, and you pretty much cover one third of the conversation you engage in during your time in South East Asia. When you’re hot, tired and just want to get to your destination, having someone come up in your face and repeat the same sentence at you over and over could be tiring, but at other times it would also make me laugh at how ridiculous it could be. If I wanted a tuk tuk, don’t you think I would just ask for one?? But then I would remind myself that my culture and my way isn’t their culture or their way – and I am, after all, in their country – and pull myself out of my privilege to recognise that it was their way of making a living.
Me and my bike on a Tuk Tuk in Siem Reap
Colourful Tuk Tuks in Malacca
Tuk Tuk paradise (Bangkok)
DJ Tuk Tuk in Battambang
In fact, I think this is something we should always be aware of when travelling to another country; we are in their space, in their world, in their culture. Who are we to impose our ways of living onto them? It can be hard at times – and of course there is a place for observations and opinions and personal preferences, which I hope I express here without judgement or condemnation – but we also have to remember that we are a visitor in their country and we don’t necessarily do everything better or right (blimey, far from it!) For me it’s about recognising our differences and reflecting on those while being respectful. I had some of my most wonderful experiences when crossing cultural barriers with locals, this being one of my favourite things about travelling to other countries altogether. When I was picked up in a taxi from my hostel in Hanoi to be taken to my bus leaving for Sapa and the Vietnamese taxi driver began singing along to Hotel California despite not speaking any conversational English, slapping my leg enthusiastically as he threw himself into the lyrics; when I rode a moped to a waterfall in Kampot and a man from a nearby Khmer family having a picnic came up to me to ask (via gesture) if he could have a photo with me, which caused shrieks of delight and laughter from his family members as I happily obliged and threw my arm round him for a picture before sitting with his entire family with a huge smile on my face and warmth in my belly.
Or when I hitchhiked in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, to the Jungle Trek, jumping in a huge car with a Malaysian family and not being able to communicate at all with one another in the same language but their kindness breaking any barrier; when I was asked to stop and speak with a group of Vietnamese students in Ho Chi Minh city whom wanted to practice their English, asking me about the Royal Family, about where I love to travel, about the religion in England, and them teaching me popular Vietnamese songs.
Vietnamese students in Ho Chi Minh City
Malaysian family I hitchhiked with in Cameron Highlands
Or when I spent an entire day – from 4:30am – with my Tuk Tuk driver all around Angkor Wat in Siem Reap that, even though we barely spoke to one another we had shared so much in that one day, I felt sad to say goodbye and asked for a selfie, to which he happily obliged; when I had a sore throat during my Homestay in Sapa and the woman running the Homestay – Mamasa – offered to give me a “home remedy” which I jumped at the chance for and involved her plucking at the skin on my neck, leaving me with bruises on my neck and a story that will last me a lifetime.
“Home Remedy” in Sapa, Vietnam
Tuk Tuk driver in Siem Reap, Cambodia
The food. Oh my goodness, the food. How can I not yet have mentioned the food?? Food, as with culture, is one of the big reasons I love to travel. I love food – I have always loved food – and I have never been a “fussy” eater. I literally will try anything and I will always be up for trying the local dish, even if it is something that may not usually appeal to me. South East Asia was not as wildly adventurous in terms of food when it comes to China (dog, lamb testicle, grilled worms, roasted scorpion) or to South America (Guinea Pig, Alpaca, Lllama, Sheep’s head), probably Barbecued Rat along the Mekong River in Vietnam being the most adventurous I had, but the food was fresh, cheap, well portioned, and made using the most simple yet tasty ingredients. One of the things I loved most about travelling around South East Asia was how cheap and easy it was to eat out, wandering the streets, beaches or mountains all day to then realise you are hungry and be able to decide to eat, there and then. Taking a pew on a small, colourful, plastic chair on the pavement, you would be able to devour a meal made in 5 minutes while being surrounded by locals. It was the ultimate in dining like a local and so wonderfully easy and tasty.
Along the way my favourites would have to be Pad See Ew and Pad Thai in Thailand (I could literally eat these all the time); a Khmer Curry (my favourite being an aubergine one I had in Battambang, but everywhere the rice was sticky and tasty with the most delicious, flavoured curry I have ever had) and Amok Fish in Cambodia; fresh spring rolls made at my Vietnamese Homestays in Sapa and the Mekong Delta;
Mekong Delta Homestay spread
Khao Soi in Chiang Mai and in Laos (although the food in Laos was heavily French-influenced with a lot of baguettes); Street Food Markets; Mee Goreng in Malaysia and pretty much any Hawker food in Singapore, but mainly the Malaysian-influenced food for me or the infamous dishes at Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle. I am actually salivating talking about the food and looking back at pictures. Food, food, food.
Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle
Street Food Market
Coffee shops and cafes were also much more prevalent than I expected, mainly in the cities of Vietnam (Hanoi and Hoi An in particular), Cambodia (Siem Reap especially, but also Battambang and Kampot) and Laos. Oh, and the fresh, icy fruit shakes you could get pretty much anywhere in SEA for around £1 became my staple, and favourite, breakfast item.
Interestingly I also fell a bit in love with the hostels. They were basic – sometimes rustic – and cosy, offering all the amenities you would need and more often that note came equipped with an individual power socket, and individual light and even, at times, a curtain to pull across your bed; these little things became luxuries for me and would be the absolute dream in terms of a hostel bed. They weren’t fancy or over-the-top, nor were they over-priced, but they often had a homely feel, especially the more independent ones ran by locals (NB, I generally avoid party hostels; I love a good drinking session and I have visited party hostels as a night out but I wouldn’t choose to stay in one. I don’t like to have it forced on me, I like to be able to get some sleep when I want to, and a lot of the time they are run by backpackers who also just want to party so the experience you have is usually far poorer and not at all cultural). In most of these there would be a common area where you would meet fellow travellers and end up hanging out, doing tours together or going for dinner. At DeNative Guesthouse in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, the bungalow-style thatched buildings were quaint and cosy, and the fire pit with tree-trunk seating had fellow travellers drinking around it at night before blasting out some karaoke on the Guesthouse system.
Another example would be Mr Peace Backpacker’s House in Dalat, where the owner was eccentric to say the least – giving hugs on arrival – but where we would have hostel dinners together and a load of the travellers staying there played card drinking games on the terrace and went out to the local jaunts (100 Roofs Cafe and BeePub) together. There was more of a sense of community in these hostels, and they made up a good chunk of the backpacking experience in South East Asia.
One of my favourite hostels – The Hangover Hostel in Koh Phi Phi – was a one-room, 10 bed hostel with two bathrooms off the main room where the “common area” was the patio out front. All 10 of us staying there spent the evenings drinking whiskey and eating nuts on the patio with the hostel owner, and all of us went out together for a night out of Muay Thai, food and bars on the beach in Koh Phi Phi.
Safety. As a solo female traveller, most of the time I felt safe backpacking around South East Asia; I can only think of one time where I felt unsafe or at risk, at a backpacker party hostel in Ho Chi Minh City, and I made the decision to leave at 5am, in floods of tears, to find another place to sleep and thus removing myself from the situation. But other than that I am struggling to come up with a time that I felt unsafe or at risk; maybe I have romanticised South East Asia and put a mental block or any negative feeling, but I honestly didn’t feel more at danger being a female or being on my own. Sure, things felt more stressful or emotional if they went wrong, but the locals were so friendly and the areas so widely backpacked that you will usually find someone – fellow traveller or local – who is wiling to help you. Don’t get me wrong, all sorts of terrible things can happen – and have happened – with backpackers, but also all sorts of terrible things can happen wherever you are, whoever you are and whatever you are doing. Some of it is down to common sense and you develop a safety gauge and learn how to trust that; it doesn’t matter if you maybe think you overreacted or were irrational later, if you feel unsafe then you remove yourself from that situation.
I have managed to talk on and on about South East Asia without really mentioning the things you do there, which seems insane but maybe justifies the point I made earlier about so much of your encounter of a country being about who you meet and the individual experiences you have as opposed to tangible things about that country itself. But it would be a huge omittance on my part to not mention the wonderful array of landscape, activities, travel, culture and architecture that is South East Asia.
The interesting yet harrowing museums of the War Remnants in Ho Chi Minh City, Women at Work in Luang Prabang, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Hao Lo Prison in Hanoi, Cope Visitor Centre in Vientiane, Landmine Museum in Siem Reap.
Women at Work Museum
War Remnants Museum
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Cope Visitor Centre
Hao Lo Prison
The energy and character of local markets, food markets, floating markets and crab markets; the colour in the form of painted houses and street graffiti.
Floating Markets of the Mekong Delta
Food Market Koh Phangan
Hanoi Coffee Shop
Penang Street Art
Malacca painted/graffiti houses
The crazy city roads and of Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Chiang Mai where it is less dangerous to just close your eyes, go for it and don’t hesitate rather than attempt to weave the insane traffic; the borders you can cross from one country to the next by road or by boat along the Mekong River (Thailand into Laos, Vietnam into Cambodia).
The boat crossing the border from Thailand into Laos along the Mekong
The moped rides you can take along the winding Hai Van Pass of Vietnam, the vast island of Koh Phangan, the terrifying grid system and dual carriageways of Chiang Mai, the steep and wide Bokor Mountain in Kampot and the moped-friendly roads in Pai; the scenic cycling routes of Hoi An, Kampot, Luang Prabang, Singapore and Malacca.
Hai Van Pass
The marvellous use of bamboo in the form of bamboo rafting across the rivers of Pai, bamboo canoeing along the rivers and canals of the Mekong Delta and the crazy yet exhilarating Bamboo Train in Battambang.
Bamboo Train Battambang
Rafting down the Mekong
The numerous temples, statues, celebrations and commitment to religion that you cannot avoid or help being moved by.
The Half Moon, Full Moon and beach parties in Thailand; Reggae Muay Thai bar in Koh Phi Phi, 100 Roofs Café in Dalat for a maze-style Hide and Seek session, Monkey Bar in Koh Lanta for karaoke, Sakura Bar in Laos for post-tubing drinks, Raffles Bar in Singapore for the classic Sling, Amsterdam Bar in Koh Phangan for the weed and the sunsets.
Monkey Bar Karaoke
100 Roofs Cafe
The surprising, spectacular mountains in Danang and Kampot; the varying caves you can wander around in or crawl through in Halong Bay, Kuala Lumpur and Kampot; The natural canyons of Pai and Chiang Mai in Thailand, the Sand Dunes of Mui Ne in Vietnam, the harrowing Killing Fields of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, the resourceful Cu Chi Tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, the impressive and mighty Angkor Wat ruins in Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Caves in Kuala Lumpur
Cu Chi Tunnels
Mountains in Danang
The stunning ocean, rivers and lakes with Xuan Huong Lake in Dalat, Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Secret Lake in Kampot, Nam Khan River in Luang Prabang, Pai River, Thu Bồn River in Hoi An, Kampot River, Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Penang River, Hàn River in Danang, the Malacca River, Siem Reap River, Chao Phraya River and its connecting canals in Bangkok.
Cultural activities including elephant feeding and bathing in Chiang Mai; Meditation with Monks in Vientiane (Laos); helping kids with their English in Luang Prabang; Cooking Classes in Hoi An; visiting the Rice Fields in Laos and the Pepper Plantation in Cambodia.
Meditation with Monks
The gorgeous beaches, waterfalls and islands of Halong Bay, Koh Phi Phi, Kuang Si Waterfall, Koh Phangan, the Mekong Delta, Koh Lanta, Koh Tonsay, Maya Bay Koh Rong Samloem, Perhentian Islands and Koh Chang.
Koh Phi Phi
Kuang Si Waterfall
Koh Rong Samloem
The incredible landscape, jungles and treks in the Cameron Highlands, Sapa and Penang.
Kayaking in Vang Vieng and Halong Bay, Scuba Diving in Koh Tao, Snorkelling in Perhentian Islands, Tubing down the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng and Canyoning the waterfalls of Thac Datlana in Dalat.
Tubing down Vang Vieng
Jumping off a cliff
Snorkelling in Perhentian Islands
Tubing and Caving
The surprising things you fall in love with including the rustic, simple bamboo bridges of Laos compared with the tacky, over-the-top bridges in Vietnam and the large, impressive bridges in the cities of Thailand.
The unsurprising yet still remarkable things you fall in love with including the spectacular sunsets at Pre Rup in Angkor Wat, the viewing point in Koh Phi Phi, Mount Phu Si in Luang Prabang, the lookout in the Pai Canyon, from a boat along the river in Kampot and at the Amsterdam Bar in Koh Phangan.
Koh Phi Phi
During my time in South East Asia I caught severe sunstroke and had to go to hospital for blood tests and medication in Thailand, had a snake draped round my neck in Vietnam, got up close with monkeys in Thailand and in Cambodia, bruised my back during a Wipe Out water park activity in Thailand, had a 2 year relationship end and had my sister come to join me in the Thai Islands for 10 days. And I fell in love; with the people, the place, the culture. There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to experience; it is vast and beautiful and enriching.
Snake in Vietnam
Sunstroke in Thailand
The 3 months I spent there were the most challenging, enlightening, rewarding, exciting, petrifying and enriching experience of my entire life. I left my heart in South East Asia; where did you leave yours?
As with any post I write, this is completely subjective and based on the experiences I had personally; they are therefore not absolutes or definitions, but opinions that are my own. I don’t wish to offend anyone – South Americans specifically or those people and countries I make comparisons to – and I am extremely grateful to have been able to visit another continent and explore South America in the way I do. I will forever be thankful to those who were kind, welcoming, generous and helpful towards me and any “negative” comment I may have about my experience is not, and will never be, a poor reflection on that; I truly loved my time in South America. And here are my reflections.
The mountains, the mountains, the mountains. I didn’t realise South America was so mountainous (ignorant of me, most probably) and I never got bored of them. I could never quite comprehend how many nor how huge they were or how close they would be to cities, literally being a peaceful, gargantuan backdrop to the hustle and bustle. In Ecuador you would literally drive amongst the mountains; you feel at once part of them and completely intimidated by them. We do not get mountains close to anything like that in the U.K., and I will miss them dearly.
The language. Oh the language. The beautiful, intense, rapid-fire delectable language that is Latin American Spanish, spoken with the rolling of Rs as though one word flows into the next and without any pause for breath, rendering it inaudible to the inexperienced-language ear of a confused and ignorant Brit whom can only just about speak very (very) basic, broken Spanish. Asia was different as even if your bus driver didn’t speak English pretty much everyone else on your bus would and you would join forces to make sense of the situation, plus the booking of the bus would be done through a hostel (where most spoke good English) or a tour agency (where most spoke very good English) and all the locals – both adults and students – would be desperate to speak in English to you as it was the way to practise a language that would progress them in life, so you could always count on someone able and willing to converse with you in your language. Not in South America.
And it absolutely shouldn’t be; the problem is that I didn’t speak Spanish (not well enough, anyway) not that they didn’t speak English, and part of immersing yourself in a country and in their culture is to speak their language and it is ignorant and arrogant of us to expect for another country to cater for foreigners. I respect their language, I love their language, I want to be better at their language and converse with the locals, as it should be. But I found it really really hard, never having really had to learn a country’s language to travel to it as English is spoken as standard, plus not being taught another language at school until an age when it was more of a struggle to absorb. I just don’t have an ear nor a tongue for languages. And I therefore found it frustrating, not being able to communicate or navigate in the way I would have liked or to acknowledge and appreciate their language in the way I would have liked.
Back to School
Plus, so many people who travel South America are from another country in South America, or Spanish foreigners whom speak the same language, or foreigners from other countries whom have learnt Spanish and/or are wanting to practice it as much as they can, so even those that can speak your language are conversing as much as possible in Spanish. It feels as though everyone around you is engaging in a conversation that you cannot be part of but desperately want to, which can feel quite isolating plus it limits your ability to immerse yourself in the local culture. It has certainly opened my eyes, and my soul, to the privilege I have had being British in a world where English is very often the predominant language and to the isolating experience of those who cannot speak the common language. I have been fortunate and for that I am grateful, but now it has hindered me and I have to question its benefits for me in the long run and in the big wide world. I feel strongly that in the U.K. we really need to make other languages loads of the curriculum at a much younger age and encourage bi-lingual learning in many facets. Otherwise we are limiting and depriving ourselves of something beautiful.
The bus systems – especially the local ones – are a bit of a nightmare, where you can wait forever for one to show up to then pass you by completely or not be going the whole route. The journeys also take longer than stated and take ages to board as more often than not the driver does not take your money but another employee situated further down the bus so you end up queuing twice; once to get on and once to pay. The particularly difficult thing about travelling across South America, compared to South East Asia for example, is how difficult it is to then get to the main bus terminals to take your long haul bus; in most countries you cannot book these tickets online if you are not a citizen, so you have to go all the way to the one bus terminal that is located far from the main part of the city or countryside to book your ticket, or arrive really early the day you are travelling and pray to whatever you believe in that there is space.
It is basically the opposite to Asia in terms of transport from one country to the next where there are travel agencies every 100m with various bus companies that depart from the centre (of a town or a city that is significantly smaller, it is so cheap and easy to book your bus whenever you choose and the departure point is usually relatively close, or if not then a pick-up from your hostel is included as standard. By comparison South America is more expensive, time consuming and long-winded. Now, I’m not saying it should be made easy for tourists – a huge part of the reason we travel to other countries is to experience their culture and their worlds, so to expect them to accommodate us is audacious and demanding, plus it kind of defeats the point of the experience of that country, untainted by tourism. It can just feel difficult and overwhelming and, when you are on a time limit or struggle to communicate yourself in their language, frustrating.
The long-distance buses. Having said all the above, the long haul buses are pretty incredible. In Chile I took a 22 hour direct bus from the north – San Pedro de Atacama – all the way to the city of Santiago; the capital in roughly the centre of Chile. The toilets on board were functioning, the bus driver safe and competent, the employee whom stowed your baggage and checked your tickets was friendly and helpful, and the stops regular. Plus the landscape you see on the journeys is absolutely incredible.
Chilean long-haul buses were some of the best – Turbus in particular – offering aircon, reclining seats and the use of their website to watch films. Bolivian buses were perhaps the worst, run-down and most basic whereas Argentinian ones provided a meal and Peruvian provided snacks, but the fact that you could get long-haul buses and night buses from one part of the country to another – or from one country to the next crossing borders along the way (Peru into Bolivia is even on the one bus, no change required) – was incredible.
The safety. Ohhhhh, safety. Is it safe? Are you safe here? Are you sure doing that or going there is safe? Seguro, seguro, seguro. You spend a third of your time having the fear of God put you by other people questioning your safety, fretting over your safety, or regaining tales of their lack of safety, then you spend another third of your time feeling wary, anxious and unsafe yourself and trying to manage that, leaving you with only a third of your time where you can actually relax and absorb the experience. It’s tough, really tough, as South America is a fabulous continent with fabulous people and you want to be free to enjoy it as much as possible, but sadly there is a danger issue. And, yes, sure, anywhere has its elements of danger and its unsafe pockets, and your safety can be compromised anywhere in the world, whether that be mugging, accidents, groping, attacks or even death, and I have had experiences where I have felt unsafe in Asia, yet there is a heightened danger and safety issue in South America, and you can feel it. I’ve never heard so many stories from fellow travellers about their first-hand experience of muggings, gun-point robberies and attacks, plus horrifying tales of witnessing murders.
As a woman there is an added element of danger due to unprovoked sexual attacks from males; in Rio I was groped on the bum and had a Brazilian male literally grab my face and shove his tongue down my throats during carnival; men can be predatory and assume possession over women. It is such a shame as you have to censor, regulate and monitor in a way that can inhibit or restrict your exploration and sense of freedom: cameras or phones are often left behind in case they are nicked so you can’t take photos or rely on google maps; outfits are selected based on disguise of your money belt or bumbag with comfort taking a backseat and fashion (pah, fashion goes out the window with travelling anyway) is relegated to the boot; credit cards are kept at home while cash is distributed across bum bags, pockets and bras; solo night-time venturing becomes limited meaning you have to hope to join up with people in your hostel or perhaps miss out on evening activities; certain areas are off-limits for exploration on foot, purely because of safety, but you can so easily stumble across them by accident and many of which you may have to cross to reach your destination so a taxi becomes a necessity rather than a desire. And, of course, all of the above is rendered impossible when you are moving from one city to another where you have no choice but to bring all your belongings – deliciously and temptingly exposed on the outside of your body – and have no control over what time you arrive in your next location or even exactly where. Danger’s paradise.
The locals. So many locals were so kind and helpful when I (or we, when I travelled with Katie for a month) looked confused, lost or in need. In Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, a man went out of his way to get us off the bus at a safe place and onto another bus after we ended up going too far and almost crossing the border into Paraguay, communicating in Portuguese with the new bus driver to make sure we got off at the right stop; in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a cafe customer offered us money to take the local bus to the main bus terminal when it turned out we were miles away; in Bogota, Colombia, the uber driver insisted on putting my bags in the boot and seating me in the front beside him, looking the doors, as it was safer for me; in Valparaiso, Chile, a local cafe owner offered to drive us back to our hostel and taught us how to ask for help and insisted we came back if we felt unsafe after it transpired we would be walking back down a dangerous hill at 11pm; and, in every single country, I had locals come up to me and ask if I needed help when it was obvious I could speak little Spanish and was struggling to communicate my needs.
Once again I have been humbled by the generosity at willingness of others, making me question my own active approach to those whom are foreigners in my country and are, perhaps indirectly, looking for help. Despite the few that made me feel uncomfortable by leering, pouring and kissing their teeth or touching me without my permission, for the most part the locals are so warm and kind, wanting to engage in conversation with you and know more about you.
Complete strangers – locals – who engaged with you
Their curiosity and interest in you as foreigners – as tourists – is starkly comparable to our part-dismissive part-irritation at tourists in England (at least, in London) and reminded me of the joy of being human. Of interacting with people and not expecting the worst. Of crossing cultural, gender, age or social barriers to offer yourself out to another. Being more open to human interaction and connection is something I will definitely take away with me. Humbled, humbled, humbled.
The courtesy. I know that us Brits can be overly polite – saying please and thank you at every possible opportunity, apologising profusely, queuing for hours on end – but our awareness and consideration of others is something I value and appreciate. I struggled with the apparent lack of this in South America, although this isn’t me passing judgement or disdain on South Americans as people as their culture is just different from ours. Yet being sat next to someone on a bus who insists on playing a Facebook video through their phones at full volume with no headphones, having a Brazilian brazenly cut in at the front of a 59-deep queue of people whom had waited over half an hour at the terminal, or not being thanked after letting someone past or picking up something they dropped for them was something I found frustrating and borderline rude. I did have to catch myself, though, as I am in their country and who am I to impose my culture on them? I just feel that this type of common courtesy it is something (out of perhaps only a handful of things!) we have got right in the UK, despite me not coming across it in Asia, either.
The colour. South America is so colourful. That might be my one word to define it. Colourful. And in so many facets, too. Firstly, the music; the colourful music that often has no words but speaks to your soul, gripping on to an electric emotion – whether that be love, hate, passion, desire, euphoria – and vibrating through your body so it has no choice but to respond in a way it hasn’t before, with edges and flows. The music and the dancing.
Samba in Rio
Street drumming in Ilha Grande
Street performers in Santiago
Festival dancing in Valparaiso
A live band in San Pedro de Atacama
Secondly, the buildings; the colourful buildings, houses and favelas, scattered in a rainbow heap up the side of cerros softly juxtaposed against the dark green mountains, or lining narrow, cobbled streets.
Salento streets by day
Thirdly, the graffiti; the colourful street-art graffiti, fiercely and passionately popping up on the sides of buildings, on walls along the edge of a hill, down alleyways and on the entrance of hostels, angry letters pierced around government and patriarchal spots, the colour and creativity blaring out at you.
Fourthly, the landscape; the colourful yellow sand dunes, stark white waterfalls, rainbow city scapes, piercing blue seas, rich green jungles and mountains, browny-red streets, bright white salt flats, dirty orange canyons.
Dois Rios beach
And finally, the people; the colourful, diverse, frightening, unique, intense, exciting, curious, aggressive, brave, strong, loving, warm people.
This is their culture. Colourful, colourful, colourful.
Thank you, wonderful, beautiful, dynamic South America; I have loved you.
My flight back home to the UK was from Buenos Aires so, despite having already spent time there as part of my travels, I had to go back through and therefore decided to allow myself at least a full day in BA before having to fly so I could relax, knowing full well the journey from Uyuni in Bolivia would be a long and painful one. I paid 40 bolivianos (£4.80) for my “night bus” from Uyuni to Villazon at the border and, when I arrived for my bus at 7:30pm, I could see why it was so cheap; a run-down, decrepit, one-floor bus where many of the seats were broken and wouldn’t recline and those that would only did so as far as about 110 degrees. The bus was mainly filled with locals whom got off at their stop 2-4 hours in the journey, with kids filling the aisles and a lot of changing seats going on. With no toilet to speak of either – and with my bout of diarrhoea still hanging in there, for which I had bought and desperately taken an Imodium just to get through the night without ruining the bus journey for everyone – this really was not what I would class as a night bus.
Add to that the quality of the Bolivian roads and you have yourself a nightmare journey. I had heard – and been warned – about the dodgy roads in Bolivia but, other than Death Road which is no longer used for transport purposes, I hadn’t experienced anything that severe myself and didn’t really know what the fuss was about – could people not handle a bit of windy, mountainous roads or a little bit of bumpy travel? But, my goodness, the road South from Uyuni to Villazon was another thing entirely; “bumpy” doesn’t cut it. At one point we were going over so much uneven, free turf that it was almost like I was receiving a massage from my chair with the amount it vibrated, which might have been relaxing had it not been for my head being thrown into the window with every single up and down and my arse almost falling off my seat every 30 seconds.
It was dark so I couldn’t quite decipher the “road” entirely but at one point we passed a gaping whole in the road to our right and at another we dropped down so low and fast from a standard road boulder that my heart went into my mouth. Everyone around me was sleeping and I had no idea how; never mind a fear of safety, I had no way of getting comfortable enough, or stable enough, to even begin to doze.
We arrived into Villazon at 4:20am, 40 minutes ahead of schedule, after I probably managed to get about an hour of sleep in total, feeling cold and uncomfortable for the majority of the time and focusing most of my energy on controlling my bowels. As soon as I stepped off, despite being pitch black and in the early hours, I was swarmed by local men asking where I was going and if I wanted a taxi. When I told them I was going to La Frontera (the border) they told me a price in bolivianos but I knew it was about a 10 minute walk so I refused – I needed to warm up somehow! I regretted the decision a few minutes later when I found I was walking down an empty street on my own, but I soon made it to the border where a kind Bolivian lady informed me it didn’t open until 6am (7am Argentinian time). Brilliant. So I sat on a stone step by the border, wrapped in an eclectic mix of most of my clothes (Thailand pants, walking boots, alpaca jumper, winter hat, alpaca gloves, Rio scarf and my Thailand towel wrapped around my shoulders) while I wrote my Salar de Uyuni blog as a way to pass the time.
At 6am I changed my remaining bolivianos for Argentinian pesos and made my way to the border to find the local Bolivians were smarter than me and had headed there early and formed a lovely long queue. So, despite me being first to the border, I was now 15th in line, outside in the freezing cold with my fingers turning blue. I eventually made it to the front, got stamped out of Bolivia and then at the next window was stamped into Argentina, where I then had to put my bags through a security van before walking approximately 15 minutes to the bus terminal in La Quiaca, the Argentinian town by the border. I was told the only direct bus going to BA was at 11am, arriving at 3pm the following day, so I paid the 1,700 ARS (£87) and went to sit in a hotel cafe to have some breakfast and abuse their wifi.
When I got back to the bus terminal at 10:45am and put my bag on the bus I realised it wasn’t a direct bus at all; instead I had a bus to Jujuy, which would take about 5 hours, and I then had to wait 2/3 hours for my bus from there to BA. Awesome. This was just getting better and better. I suppose I would get severe cabin fever on a 27 hour bus, but what I would do for 3 hours in Jujuy with all my luggage I had no idea and it just meant I felt I couldn’t properly settle or sleep, especially as Jujuy wasn’t the final stop on this bus and you never could rely on the bus drivers to announce the stops.
We arrived in Jujuy at around 4pm after making numerous stops along the way where local women would climb on board and try to sell their sandwiches. Fortunately the roads were much smoother and sturdier was than those in Bolivia and I could enjoy the beautiful mountains under the blue sky fir this leg of the journey. There wasn’t much in the way of food at Jujuy and my connecting bus to Buenos Aires was late, not arriving at the terminal until 7:30pm, but I was lucky to have no one sitting next to me so I had 2 seats to myself. I was shattered but took a sleeping pill to be safe, falling asleep at around 8pm but being woken at 11pm as we were stopping for half an hour at a cafe service station and I had to get off. Excellent. Back on the bus I quickly fell asleep again, before waking at around 7:30am and being able to grab some food from our rest stop at 10am.
I’d been told we would arrive in BA at 3pm and, based on the number of stops we made with market food the previous day, I thought I would be fine to not buy any more snacks. Wrong. The only stops we made were for passengers to get off and on – no food or opportunities to buy anything the whole way – and we didn’t reach Retiro bus station in Buenos Aires until 7:40pm. By this time I was tired, hungry, had a headache from the high volume of the films they played on the TVs (which I couldn’t properly follow because they were of course in Spanish, but I did kind if enjoy trying to decipher as much of it as possible) and disappointed to have my 1.5 days in Buenos Aires before flying home cut down to only 1 day. But, hey, at least I had planned for issues and allowed myself more time.
So, 48 hours after getting my first bus from a Uyuni in Bolivia I finally arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. So it is doable although tedious, long and a bit boring if you are by yourself. It has been recommended to break up the journey with stays in Salta or Rosario, which I would have done if I’d had the time, but that also does increase costs as buses across Argentina are generally quite pricey. As with many things in South America, don’t expect it to be on time and don’t expect to get exactly what you’re told you will get!
Despite being one of the shorter bus journeys I have taken on my travels, the leg from Potosi to Uyuni was possibly one of the worst for me. And it wasn’t even a night bus. I spent most of the 4 hour journey trying to fight the diarrhoea that had been haunting me for 2 days since my night of drinking in Sucre, battling a headache and sickness from the altitude and struggling to doze off despite being exhausted because I was absolutely freezing. I was relieved to just get to Uyuni, although dreading the diarrhoea-filled night ahead and having to wake early to book a salt flats tour for the following morning.
I pounded the streets to try to keep warm and quickly get to my hostel, Piedra Blanca Backpackers, arriving at 10:30pm to a fast asleep dorm room where I had to climb up to my top bunk without any sort of ladder attached to the bed. Using the sides of the lower bunk and the bunk bed next to it, I heaved myself up; a physical activity I had to repeat 4 more times during the night as my bowels continued to get the better of me. It wasn’t looking promising for a 2 day tour inside a jeep.
I woke up at 7:15am the next morning (more accurately, my bowels woke me up) and got dressed before heading out to scout tour agencies. It turns out not many tour agencies offer 2 day tours (which I wanted due to time restraints and having seen geysers/lagoons in Chile) and nor do many offer tours in English (which I generally needed if I wanted to learn much at all about what I was seeing) – not for at least double, if not quadruple, the price anyway. I eventually settled on a 2 day tour with Salar Camel, where the “guide” (more on that later) only spoke Spanish but there were other English-speaking travellers taking the tour so maybe they could aid with translation if necessary. I managed to get the price down from 400 to 380 bolivianos (£45), knowing I would need to pay approximately 60 bolivianos more for things that weren’t included in the price, and was told to return to the office at 10:30am.
I went back to my hostel to pack for my 2 days and to have breakfast; although 70 bolivianos (£9) is more than I was paying in other parts of Bolivia they obviously feel they can increase the price as you need a night before the tour, and the breakfast of toast, butter, jam, scrambled eggs, cereal and yogurt was actually pretty decent, especially on a cold morning before a long tour. Back at Salar Camel tour office at 10:30am – where they kindly let me leave my main backpack while I was on the tour – the 6 of us (me, a Costa Rican, a Peruvian and Dutch couple plus a Canadian and Swiss couple) jumped into the jeep with our driver Luis (who, rather than being a tour “guide” that gave us information, was more of a driver/DJ/photographer for our trip) and set off for our first destination.
Along with all the other tour groups in the world – whether on a 1, 2 or 3 day tour – we stopped at the Train Cemetery, where the train track that used to run from Bolivia into Chile is still firmly in place surrounded by the remains of the trains that collided in the crash that stopped the use of the track in the 1990s.
It’s crazy to have these rusted, desolate, hollow carriages scattered across the open desert, and while the graffiti that has since splattered the carriages is quite apt for any train system and the opportunity to climb atop or inside the carriages was a cool experience, it did feel a bit like tarnishing and climbing over someone’s grave. Like so many other things I visit as a tourist myself, I kind of wanted there to be no other tourists. This was the first of many stops where we got little information from Luis – even in Spanish, so I had to slyly eavesdrop into the the explanations given to other groups.
Our next stop, again like everyone else, was at Colchani Town for the markets – where I purchased my magnet for Bolivia – and the Salt Museum, before heading out for a drive across the salt flats. It is hard to describe how incredible it is just cruising across this large expanse of flat, white land with the bright blue of the sky as a stark contrast, the sun causing the salt to shimmer and sparkle.
We stopped the jeep at Playa Blanca, near to the first ever Salt Hotel, and it was here that we took our first lot of photos in the salt flats, greyish mountains in the far distance offering the only perspective of this otherwise never-ending, undefinable stretch of white land. We took the obligatory knobby salt-flat photos, abusing distance and perspective to make the impossible look possible (well, not really, our photography skills weren’t that great, but we tried) while I also pranced around on the salt, doing cartweheels and generally being a dick.
It was then time for lunch in the Salt Hotel, where we had typical Bolivian food of fried hamburgeser, fried egg, quinoa, vegetables and potatoes, dressed up with mayonnaise of course, washed down with coke and followed by a banana. We then went back outside and took more photos round the corner of a sort of salt-shrine to different countries around the world, with around 30 flags jutting up out of a salt stage in the middle of the salt flats. More than anything it was just amazing to be outside in the heat from the sun, yet cold from the wind, and take in this beautiful, vast landscape that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Back in the jeep we drove for maybe another half an hour/40 minutes before reaching an island in the middle of the slat flats that was covered in cactuses. It doesn’t sound very appealing, but it was a rocky, mountainous island that had the biggest cactus I have ever seen in my entire life and offered incredible views of the endless salt flats.
You had to pay 30 bolivianos (£3.60) to get in – and they even wouldn’t let you walk the perimeter of the base of the island, despite being free-to-the-public salt flats, without buying a ticket for the island – but it meant you got to use their bathrooms, and you never know when your next toilet stop may be in the middle of solid, flat salt. Plus it was a peaceful way to spend an hour, and when we came back down there was a group of male Bolivian drummers playing local, energetic music and eventually a group of female Bolivian dancers joined in the show.
We then drove to Thunupa Volcano where we watched the gorgeous sunset over the salt flats, taking in the incredible array and changing colours of orange, red and yellow.
We also took some standard sunset pictures, a few jumping shots plus a video of us walking across the salt flat water where the camera was spun and you couldn’t decipher what half was us and what half was our reflection in the water.
It was one of the most incredible sunsets I have seen on my travels and, with Uyuni being my last “new” place on my travels, it was really wonderful to experience it here. I could have spent hours out here, dancing in the sunlight.
It was then a 5 minute drive to our accommodation for the night at a Salt Hotel at the base of Thunupa Volcano. It was really cool to stay in a place where Salt lined the gaps between the bricks and the floors in our rooms were carpeted with salt. We had dinner at the hotel – vegetable soup followed by spaghetti Napoletana, washed down with a bottle of red wine between the six of us, before having a shower and then heading to bed for an early night at around 9/10pm.
The road leading into our accommodation
Salt Hotel (salt on the ground)
I was surprised, having been warned about how cold it would be, to sleep really well, waking up naturally around 6:45am to get dressed, pack and have a “breakfast” of bread rolls and cold cheese empanadas at 7:30am. Not the best meal on a cold morning before a hike, but I guess I shouldn’t really complain.
We then purchased our tickets to Thunupa Volcano for 30 bolivianos (£3.60) each before driving the first part up to the site of the mummies, discovered within the mountain around 30 years ago and with which we had to access by crawling through a small door into the inside of the mountain. With my basic understanding of Spanish it was hard to decipher the exact details but it seemed they were being kept there for conservation purposes and, while all deaths were naturally, some skeletons were those of children.
We then began our uphill climb up the side of the mountain, the sun beginning to beat down on us and the altitude taking up the space in my throat, making it hard to breathe properly as I hiked. Fortunately the view of the surrounding salt flats below kept me motivated and, once at the Mirador about 45 minutes later, I was so glad I persevered; the Crater of the Volcano and the surrounding multicoloured mountain (similar to pictures I have seen of Rainbow Mountain in Peru) was absolutely incredible, and I sat there just taking it in with the Canadian and Swiss couple, marvelling at how incredible our world is.
It took about half an hour to walk back down where we drove back down the remaining part to return to our hostel for lunch; chicken Milanese with pasta and vegetables, as always flavoured with mayonnaise. There was another group staying in the same hostel and each meal they seemed to get something slightly better than us; pique macho the night before, scrambled eggs for breakfast, and now chicken on the bone instead of deep-friend flat chicken steaks, which they also got with tomatoes and cucumbers. We never did find out how much they paid to get better food – plus an actual guide whom seemed to speak English – but our food envy was an irk alongside not having an actual guide. Oh, and the fact that the women working at the hostel were really rude to us, despite us paying them to be there.
We began our journey back to Uyuni at around 1pm, making our first stop about half an hour in to take more knobby photos in a completely desolate stretch of salt flat; it was amazing to have literally no one around other than the 7 of us, plus our jeep, and to be surrounding completely by pure, sparkling white.
We spent a while here taking photos and silly photos before driving on for another 40 minutes to stop and taking photos of what I like to call “salt boulders” before driving the final stretch back to Uyuni, arriving at Salar Camel at around 4pm. Despite not getting quite as much information as I would have wanted on the tour, Luis had impeccable music taste and was relentless and determined when it came to taking our perspective photos on the salt flats, plus it was just such an incredible and peaceful place to be that it almost didn’t matter. I loved it.
I had to start my journey back into Buenos Aires, Argentina, that evening, knowing it would be a long haul and that my diarrhoea – still in full, stubborn force – would make it even more fun. However this was still my last “new” place on my year long travels around the world (I literally cannot believe it has come to an end) and I want to finish on the wonder and beauty that was the salt flats in Bolivia; probably one of my favourite countries in South America, despite it clearly not being a fan of my bowels. Farewell, Bolivia, you have been dynamic!