Ella: Mountain Views, Tea Fields, and Monk Funeral

After Udawalawe, our driver took us up through the mountains to Ella, a tourist respite for both Buddhist pilgrims and international hikers. The steep, green mountains layer behind each other for incredible views with minimal development and a constant mist that commonly covers the popular peaks such as Ella's Rock, Little Adam's Peak and the quintessential Adam's Peak (where Christians believe Adam was cast out of heaven and Sri Pada aka "Sacred Footprint" for Buddhists where Bhudda stepped as he entered paradise).

Ella is touristy for hikers the way Mirissa is touristy for surfers, but the hikers seem to have more flavor for local cuisine as there are loads of great roti shops along with tea shops and Sri Lankan restaurants.

Ella also has one of the largest tea factories in Sri Lanka, Uva Halpewatte. We took a tour and learned about the six tea regions of Sri Lanka and how they're different due to soil nitrates, sunshine and amount of rain/humidity. We also learned about the five stages of creating tea leaves and saw the equipment used in the enormous factory. Interestingly, the same tea plant is used in all regions for both green and black tea with only the drying and fermenting process being different.

Our first, and only hike, was to Little Adam's Peak - an easy 2.5 hour hike that is easily marked and well maintained. Due to rain, we didn't do our sunrise hike but waited a bit longer and we're pleased we did as the mist began to part just as we arrived. Through the morning we caught incredible moody scenes of fog drifting through the high peaks and green hills. At the top, visibility was limited due to fog (quite common on all peaks) and we returned back down to more beautiful views. A little bit about the other two taller peaks. Adam's Peak is the main attraction, taking about 5 hours, it can get very busy during pilgrimage season where they light the trail for thousands of sunrise Buddhist hikers that take it sometimes yearly. The other is Ella Rock, the second highest peak that takes around 4 hours and is known for its confusing trail where signs and locals deliberately try to misdirect in an effort to obtain you as a customer. After Little Adam's Peak, and realizing A. How unfit we actually were, and B. That you could wake up at sunrise, hike in the dark for 4-5 hours without breakfast, and potentially not see anything due to mist at the top - we opted to stay in a resort with mountain views the last night instead. #noregrets

One night we were privileged enough to witness the procession for a monk's funeral. The whole town had been preparing for days by hanging orange bunting all along the main road and constructing a 15 meter tall orange cloth structure we would later learn was to burn the body within. During the procession, most businesses closed as the monks and gold coffin led the front of the procession followed by a crowd of locals that filled the streets behind them all clothed in white. We didn't attend the actual burning of the body but when we returned after dinner, smelled the heavy aroma of ash and saw what flames and smouldering ashes remained.

Our first place we stayed in was minimal at best and required a hike back behind town as they were building the road by hand. The cement two bedroom guest house was clean with all the necessary amenities - mosquito net included, but we would soon discover it was overwhelmingly damp making drying anything in the wet climate extraordinarily difficult. We would also learn the lazy stray dogs that often sleep on the road or brush up against your legs during the day, turn into demons in the night, howling like monkeys caught in a meat grinder.

We had planned on taking the train from Ella to Kandy as it contains many of the must-see views, however when we made it to the train station to order tickets, all tourist classes were booked through the New Year and only general admission was available 30 minutes before departure. We sat outside and whilst considering, and a young English couple stopped us who had just came from Kandy and warned us about general admission. Apparently general admission included being packed into each car like cattle and unable to move or use the loo for 7 hours. They also said there is a strong likelihood you would not even see the views if you do not obtain a good seat and recommended we take a tuktuk one town earlier as easily 300 people get on the train at Ella station. After careful deliberation, we decided to not take the train and opted instead for an extra night in Ella and another at our final destination, Colombo. This wasn't a decision we regretted until our last day we photographed the train taking off and met the passengers' smiles with smiles of our own, until we realized the train was NOT packed and we could potentially have had s pleasurable trip (that said it still might have been 7 hours without a toilet).

Our extra night in Ella was spent at Ella's Edge Resort, a well-placed hotel that offered drier accommodations and incredible views. The staff was excellent and even ended up Facebook friending me at the end of our stay.

Leaving Ella, we took a taxi to Colombo which was easily the most beautiful car ride of my life. We passed through incredible mountain passes, deep jungle valleys, rubber tree plantations and many bustling towns and cities. If I haven't said it before I say it now - Sri Lankan driving is crazy. Everyone passes everyone around blind corners sometimes within inches of each other (our driver joked there are only two straight roads in Sri Lanka; one to airport and on in Madras). They honk constantly to communicate approach, that they're in process of passing, to berate someone or to thank someone; all of which is communicated through length and number of honking. That said, we've found drivers impressively attentive and will stop or swerve abruptly for any sleepy dog or car that crosses their path (which is impressive as there are SO many strays). The most terrifying vehicle are the red or blue buses that roar like trains down the narrow, winding roads blaring their musical horns obsessively every time they need the attention of other vehicles.

Looking back, Ella is one of the most magical places Vic and I have ever visited together and firmly believe we will return again (perhaps when we're more physically and mentally prepared).

3 Nights in Mirissa the Surf Town

Mirissa is a sharp contrast to Bentota; where Bentota is an authentic Sri Lankan town just finding its tourist sea legs, Mirissa is a surf destination for people around the world. Where Bentota has either honeymooners or quiet middle-aged travelers, Mirissa has tanned, hard-bodied twenty-somethings with dreadlocks and tattoos that beach party by night and surf by day.

 Mirissa

Mirissa

Mirissa, and it's neighboring town Weligama, make up a collection of bays with rolling waves around 1-2 meters tall. The tide is strong and only about a half beachgoers seem to brave anything past waist depth. The two activities that draw people to Mirissa are surfing and whale watching. Both of which provide decipherable industry to hotels, restaurants and surf schools. The impact on cuisine is also apparent as Sri Lankan is the minority taste of choice. (That said, we found a Roti Shop on TripAdvisor that served us AMAZING roti and kottu (a roti mixed with vegetables and chopped to bits ceremoniously with two blunt pieces of steel - loudness is part of the dish). They also do pre-ordered curries that we ordered for our Christmas dinner (most of Sri Lanka is Bhuddist and only celebrates Xmas as entertainment or tool in entice Western tourists). )

Side Note: It was in Mirissa that we learned to check each tuktuk before agreeing to pay for a ride as MANY times there is a bottle of Vodka riding shotgun in the cupholder (if the cupholder is hidden, you KNOW it's Vodka).

On Christmas Day, we left by tuktuk at 6:30 in the morning to go whale watching. The harbor was rammed with tourists flocking onto boats with sleepy dogs drifting between their legs and brown monkeys above, balancing with their long tails along the power lines. At about 7 am all 12 double decker boats left the harbor, in a true tourist Pirates of the Caribbean procession.

After about 40 min. of driving all the boats stopped and waited. Jokes began to start about seeing anything at all and then, "There! Blowing!" A spray of mist in the horizon. Over the course of the next hour or two we would see three blue wales spray a plume of mist followed by a gentle flick of their tails around 7 times.

IMG_5758.jpg

On the way back our captain let us have a Xmas day swim (only four of us did) but we were lucky to be joined by a green turtle. That night we ate a vegetable curry at our favorite roti shop with many sunburnt Christians to the bang of kottus being beaten in the kitchen.

The best day however would be the next, as we woke up at 4 am to leave Mirissa and go on a safari at Udawalawa National Park, a refuge for over 250 wild elephants (even before we entered, with the sun rising over the reservoir, a large elephant was grazing along the fence). The safari started at 7 am with us as the only passengers of an enormous Jeep. Morning mist drifted along the trees as we entered and every tall tree was accompanied by the silhouette of a peacock's tail feathers. It had recently rained, making the air cool and humid like a greenhouse in the winter. From there, we saw our first of what would be four elephant groups (including two baby elephants only a couple months old!), a herd of water buffalo running through a lake, loads of peacocks and many other exotic, colourful birds. Vic cried in the first fifteen minutes and we both agreed it was the best thing we've ever done together.

Click to enlarge pics - because the baby elephant!!!!

3 Nights in Bentota: Sea Turtle Project, River Safari, & Elephant Festival

We arrived in Sri Lanka at night and took a taxi from Colombo down to Bentota. (We quickly learned "Sri Lankan" time which means everything is about a third longer than you're told.) We were greeted by Ramesh and Ishara, two Sri Lankan men in their early 20s left to look over the villa we were staying in whilst the owners (a Russian couple) was in Malaysia until the following day. Ishara made us coconut waters from the tree outside but we weren't much for company and quickly went to bed.

 Hello, Heaven.

Hello, Heaven.

The next day, Ramesh took us via tuktuk to the sea turtle conservatory down the road. We paid a small fee and we're taken to a tank of two day old hatchlings swimming and fluttering around. Our guide said they buy them off the underemployed so the eggs do not get sold to restaurants (it is illegal in Sri Lanka to eat seat turtles or their eggs but it still happens). They then rebury the eggs in a fenced in area so they can guard them from predators until they release them at night. We ALSO learned if we come back in the evening we could pay to release them! Vic almost lost her mind.

5 Fun Facts About Green Sea Turtles:

  1. An adult green can hold their breath for 5 hours whilst a hatchling can only do about 1 minute.
  2. Green turtles do not start laying eggs until 20 years old!
  3. Green turtles can live to 120 years but typically live around 40 - 50 years.
  4. Green turtles enjoy their necks being rubbed.
  5. Green turtles can feel the surface of their shell.

After holding and learning about the turtles we went to the beach to work on our tans and eat lunch. The beach Ramesh brought us to was empty of anyone but staff and the occasional local. We had vegetable curry, popadoms with mango chutney, a shrimp cocktail and split a large Lion lager to wash it all down. In the evening we went back to the sea turtle project and released 4 baby sea turtles into the surf. The price was a bit steep but we hope it benefits the cause and hey, when else are you going to get to release baby sea turtles? After, Ishara walked us around the rock shoreline of a new hotel and we got to see where the river meets the ocean (I also saw what I thought was an owl but was actually a bat with over a two foot wingspan!)

The next day, Ishara took us via tuktuk to his friends for a river safari. Immediately we spotted water monitors (Komodo dragons), kingfishers, comorans, and HUGE bats. Later on we would see a 3 meter long crocodile(!), a water monitor that had recently eaten, a baby crocodile (that I held! Vic nearly shat her pants) and monkeys. It was pure bliss, only slightly tempered by a "surprise" stop to the herbal doctors where they educate you about ancient local herbal remedies and then hard sell you (don't worry they take USD, rupees, Visa or MasterCard).

Once the river safari was over, we told Ishara we wanted to go back to the villa to rest (it was been 90 F and sunny all morning). He agreed but wanted to surprise us first. We raced around dogs and children on the single carriage roads until eventually we stopped and saw many locals gathering in a clearing, and there eating coconut branches was an elephant! We each fed him a banana and went a bit further to where another elephant was being kept. After that, we saw a baby elephant with his tusks, rocking back and forth as if dancing. And again, once we were leaving we came across two more chained to coconut trees - this one I went to feed a banana and the handler grabbed by hand and put it in his mouth so I could feel his tongue! (Which I thought was incredible until a minute later I saw the elephant pick up an enormous stalk of coconut branch and split it like celery in his teeth.)

Once back, we relaxed and took a long walk along the beach. On our walk, we found most Bentota tourists keep close to the resorts, beaches and occasional river safari. That night, Ishara's friend cooked us a meal at the villa. He had picked up fresh millet from the market that day and grilled it with garlic and other herbs. He served it with a fresh salad, rice and of course Lion lagers.

After, the villa owners, our chef and Ishara all walked down to the annual Buddhist elephant festival with us where we would see a parade of fire dancers, decorated elephants (23 in total from around Sri Lanka), discus spinners, whip crackers and other manner of dance I don't really know how to describe. Ishara was in his element parading his tourists around whist his gaggle of school friends laughed and teased him. Ishara, in order to help Vic see as she is so short and the crowd of people so large, kept yelling at people to get out of the way (his friends joined in as well) until he eventually borrowed a stool from a local shop and presented it to vic as if he had found her long lost child. The parade was spectacular and everyone in Bentota had crowded the streets with riot police on standby with face shields and big trucks. They didn't seem too concerned however as we caught at least a handful taking pictures and video on their mobiles. It is around this point it was clear the Sri Lankan people are quite universally relaxed and friendly. Unperturbed by missed timelines (we arrived an hour late to our river safari as Ishara had tuktuk tire issues) they have a relaxed, often barefoot, gaight that is only interrupted by their manic driving no matter tuktuk or car, through sleeping stray dogs and occasional head-on incoming traffic.

When we left Bentota the next day, Ishara had tears in his eyes and made sure we exchanged emails so when we come back we stay in Bentota again so he can be our tour guide and plan our itinerary (he's quite pushy but we learned over time it's comes from a good place). Vic and I have both agreed: no where has effected us so quickly as Sri Lanka. The landscape is as stunning as Iceland only it's tropical with unspoiled beaches, smiling people and unending wildlife. The only part we found disconcerting (that we would learn is primarily in smaller, more traditional towns) was the lack of presence in local women. Ishara told us no local women work in Bentota and that gave us this general uneasiness that underlied a few of our interactions with older local men. We also learned from our Ishara and our cook that drugs (mainly due to unemployment) and drinking while driving are also issues in Sri Lanka. That said, we are already incredibly moved by Sri Lanka and are already looking forward to the rest of our trip and coming back in the future.

4 Nights in Vung Tao

Last Thursday, in a hunt for sun and consistent warmth, we flew from Da Nang (near Hoi An) to Ho Chi Minh and stayed in a cheap hotel that smelled of cigarettes (Vic loved it). We had heard there was a town called Vung Tao just outside HCM on a peninsula in the South China Sea where locals would go on weekends.

So, the next day, we went by hydrofoil (aka fast ferry) to Vung Tao. We had read that boat was the best way to get there but we're shocked by the amount of litter in the river leaving HCM. While still in port, a gentlemen leaned over the rail of the boat to admire the scenery with his coffee and once finished, threw his coffee with its plastic bag into the river. (Vic howled in offense but the man simply stared and moved on.)

IMG_4401.jpg

Vung Tao has a few notable features, perhaps most notable is the population of overweight, middle-aged white males who haunt the transplanted Australian cafes by day and by night, slip into entrepreneurial establishments with names like Hot Lips, Hungry Duck or my personal favorite, the Bearded Clam. Through Victoria's sleuthy googling, we have come to understand many are Australian Vietnam vets, who upon returning home decided they no longer fit and divorced their wives to come back to start local Aussie restaurants, hitch up with locals and allegedly volunteer throughout the community to make amends for the war. Overall, the coexistence seems complacent if not unsavory, with a common sight being a man holding hands with a woman, who had it not been for race, could easily be confused as his daughter.

IMG_4563.jpg

Our hotel however was marvelous, set back on a small jungle mountain with a beautiful pool and motorbikes to rent. We spent three days speeding around the peninsula, working hard on our tans and gawking at poorly matched couples. Compared to everywhere else, the food was what you would expect from a holiday town as it was overpriced and overly catered to foreign tastes. One bizarre detail worth mentioning is the style of Asian holiday restaurant that I only describe as neon food barns. They are HUGE with neon lights, loud music and servers on walkie talkies to cater to the groups of up to 20 (mostly Chinese) tourists at a table, taking down platters of seafood like nothing I've ever seen. Needless to say we opted for smaller establishments but couldn't help being impressed by the young Vietnamese serving staff who executed their mission with precision and tenacity.

After three days, we returned to Ho Chi Minh to spend a night before flying to Sri Lanka, and see an Australian couple we had really enjoyed whilst in Ha Long Bay. We ate lunch at this incredible spot that only served beef pho. We were seated table with a basket heaping with mint and spouts as well as an array of chili sauces. The pho was steaming hot and perhaps the best we've had in Vietnam. After lunch, we walked around Ben Tanh Market (we bought a basket purse, a fake wedding ring for when we're in India [Vic left hers in UK, the saucy tart] and a bag of Weasel coffee) and met an Aussie couple for a few rooftop drinks that turned into more drinks until eventually they had to catch their 2 am flight to Sydney. Luckily, we had enough wits about us to call a cab rather than walk and slept like the dead (as we have done every night since landing as unemployed travellers).

Words - Sam Campbell & Photographs - Victoria Campbell

3 nights in Hoi An

After our night train to Da Nang, we took a taxi to Hoi An for three nights. The hotel we had booked turned out to be shut down (Thanks Hotels.com) but we quickly found another around the corner that was 10x better (beautiful rooms/pool and great staff, walking distance to everything).

The first thing we noticed were the tailors — they are EVERYWHERE peddling custom dresses/suits along with leather shoes, bags and jackets. (Vic and I both chose to treat ourselves to custom leather jackets, we'll be sure to share pictures of once we're back in England.)

Hoi An as a town is wonderfully walkable with loads of great restaurants that are all very affordable. There is also An Bang Beach just north of the town centre — either a 20 min. bike ride, $3 cab or 7 min motorbike (our fav choice). What Hoi An is most famous for however is its well-preserved Ancient Town that is loaded with shops, restaurants and at night, the night market where you can haggle with vendors, take boat rides or light lanterns to send down the river.

Our last night in Hoi An, we made sure to go before the night market started (as it gets a little bananas with tourists) and as we walked through the side streets were privileged to these beautiful moments of seeing locals get ready for the market; a mother running out of her house after her kids with her hair half undone; a family setting up their banana pancake stand; a couple putting out their laundry quick before work (we even participated by telling a dog off who decided to pop his leg over a woman's arrangement of silk scarves).

After our stroll we camped out with the tripod alongside the river and played with long exposure shots of the building street traffic and the lanterns being lit on the boats as the sun began to set.

Another night, we sat outside a restaurant after dinner, and tried to figure out who all the children running around the streets belong to as they ran in and out of different businesses with multiple mother and grandmother figures picking them up, feeding them or telling them off. Most of the shops in both Hoi An and Hanoi have seemed to be family run businesses - open 9 am to 9 pm - with different family members rotating in and out, often times juggling parenting or eating dinner whilst in the back of the shop. In Hanoi in particular, it is common during the dinner hour to see the entire family on the floor in the back of the shop eating dinner or watching TV.

One of my favourite sights, that I really want to capture but am afraid of offending, is when parents pick their kids up from school. About two dozen adults on motorbikes sit outside and when school is released, a flood of jabbering little heads pour into the street where they pile onto the back, front or lap of parents, sometimes four children to one bike. The parent then speeds off, each kid still jabbering and laughing, free at last.

Hoi An is where we first tried renting a motorbike and after a few failed attempts at starting it, haven't looked back! They are by far the best way to see an area. Over the course of three days we went by motorbike to the beach and to tour rice paddies (see water buffalo) and restaurants further outside the town centre. (We also learned the reason Asians put up what Westerners consider the "peace sign" is actually a hand signal for "hi".) The biggest advice I can give anyone renting a motorbike in Vietnam is to NEVER hesitate and NEVER, EVER go backward. Traffic is a steady stream of predictable bikes, motorbikes and cars - each very reliant that no one will stop completely, everyone is paying attention and everyone communicates via horn, blinker or hand signal.

Reflecting on the last 7+ days we’ve been in Vietnam, it’s obvious areas further north and outside the city suffer from extreme poverty. Living conditions are dismal with homes being built out of whatever is available — and while the interiors seem maintained significantly better than the outside, it is difficult to witness and realise the limited resources available to pull oneself out of such circumstances.

From our Googling, it seems Communism could be to blame as it seems to centralise most of the country's money around government and its contracts - OR the reality could just be that Vietnam is still a developing nation and there isn't enough money or industry to support developed countries' standard of housing, healthcare or access to clean water.

Regardless, the Vietnamese are smiling and gracious people and we have came across little that does not inspire or humble us with situations we could have just as easily been born into.

IMG_4263.jpg

Hanoi, Halong Bay & Night Train to Hoi An

13 Things We’ve Learned So Far...

 A street vendor in Hanoi

A street vendor in Hanoi

 

  1. You can order Uber Moped in Hanoi.
  2. Toilet paper does not go down drain but rather in bin next to toilet (doesn’t smell as bad as you might think).
  3. Tipping is typically not necessary but quite common in tourist areas.
  4. Most Vietnamese cannot swim.
  5. Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language meaning every word is one syllable. That said, one word can have various meanings if said with differing intonation. 
  6. If you use the toilet on a boat, close the curtain as a woman might paddle up to your window and attempt to sell you vegetables.
  7. 90% of Vietnamese still eat dog, but because of custom, not because they like the taste (They actually heavily season it with ginger root and another spice to make it pallatable. Vietnamese mothers also tease children when naughty, asking if they would like to meet the spices used to cook dog.). They also only eat a certain breed referred to as Vietnamese dog.
  8. Vietnamese workers typically work 25 days of the month with only Sundays off.
  9. Vietnamese cannot easily leave the country as there is a heavy burden of proof by other countries for an individual to prove their ties to Vietnam so they will not violate their visa.
  10. Chinese tourists are universally disliked for traveling in groups and being loud and rude.
  11. Korean tourists also travel in groups and are loud but hilarious and like to take pictures with white people (whiter/taller/blonder the better).
  12. The best Vietnamese coffee — Weasel — is made from coffee beans that have passed through a carniverous nocturnal animal and then collected (and I assume somehow cleansed?). Don’t worry, Derek — I’m sending you some.
  13. Egg coffee is rich and delicious. Appears to be a raw egg along with condensed milk poured on top of a coffee. ALSO condensed milk is delicious.

It’s been five days since our last entry, during which we’ve spent a day in Hanoi, three days on a boat in Ha Long Bay and one on a train on our way to De Nang (and in turn Hoi Ann).

On Hanoi, we’ve learned it’s currently ranked second most polluted city in the world (behind Dehli) which makes since as the sun seems to set a few inches higher above the horizon than it should. We’ve also gotten the hang of crossing traffic which essentially requires someone to keep moving and assume mopeds and cars will go behind you. We also learned the small altars located at many hotels and restaurants are for daily prayers and offerings around the Chinese New Year. There is often money, biscuits, fruit and vegetables donated here — after which, anyone is free to receive these gifts as a reward from the gods (I couldn’t pin down exactly which religion it was). 

On our last day in Hanoi we also visited a section of homes and business built along a railroad track. I had wrote on Instagram that it was abandoned — it was not — these homes and businesses simply packed up when the train came and braced themselves until it passed. One coffeeshop even had seating and signage on the tracks that they would move when a train approached.

 Halong Bay 

Halong Bay 

Before we left for our trip, our friends in Minnesota had surprised us at our going away dinner with a OVERGENEROUS wad of cash to use on our travels. A few days ago, we were presented the opportunity to take a boat tour through Ha Long Bay for two nights and decided to use the wad on that and it was absolutely incredible! There was about 12 guests on the boat which included a cabin for each couple, along with a shared dining room and deck above with deck chairs and another seating area for dinner. We spent the following three days kayaking, swimming and sightseeing through Ha Long’s various caves and mountain views. Since Vic’s last visit here four years ago, it has became significantly more developed, with many more boats flocking on day trips than previous seasons. That said, our second day was excellent as we were able to take a smaller boat down south where there were less big groups and kayaked to a small natural beach where we swam and sunbathed. The meals were incredible and included about 5 courses for lunch and dinner. So, of course — THANK YOU FRIENDS!

First Impressions of Hanoi

Six weeks of travelling Asia has officially kicked off! 

We landed in Hanoi, Vietnam at 5 am Wednesday. We cabbed to our tiny hotel near the old quarter and it’s immediately obvious here that everything is flexible — traffic laws, etiquette, prices — it is all in a constant state of flux that everyone seems to not only be comfortable with, but incredibly patient about. 

Mopeds are EVERYWHERE — we’ve already seen everything from an entire fruit stand to a husky dog riding alongside — and everyone uses their horns as constant reminders of approach or infraction of whatever passes as road etiquette.

The biggest impression is how young and approachable the Vietnamese are — no matter where we go, people do not give off the same need for personal space and ownership like Westerners. You can walk right in front of oncoming traffic and while someone may honk, their reaction is incredibly subdued and polite. (Also, no one seems to go faster than they are be able to stop.)

You can walk right in front of oncoming traffic and while someone may honk, their reaction is incredibly subdued and polite. (Also, no one seems to go faster than they are be able to stop.)

We’ve only seen a few other backpackers with which we exchange a smile and keep moving as if hiding a small secret. #nonewfriends

So far, we’ve eaten Pho and drank perhaps the best coffee to ever reach our lips. We now plan on keeping a firm caffeine buzz for the duration of our travels.

No idea how tipping culture works — need to do some research tonight into when to pony up. (I gave our cabbie 20,000 dong (about $1 USD) as a tip and we acted like I bought him a house.)

PSA Update: Flipping on their brights means a car will NOT stop for you. #themoreyouknow

Words by Sam Campbell & Snaps by Victoria Campbell