Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sri Lanka

8 to 18 January, 2018 - Polonnaruwa, Kandalama, Dambulla, Sirigiya, Anuradhapura, Jaffna, Colombo - (Sri Lanka)



Taxi drivers. At the airport, we encountered the drivers who were sure they knew where we wanted to go. We were waiting for a local bus to take us to the nearby town of Katunayake (about 2 km away). We had numerous (maybe a dozen) come up to us and offer "Colombo?". A few took "no thanks" on the first refusal, and the majority offered some other destinations before giving up, but we did have to laugh at the driver who thought we would accept his offer if he changed the intonation. He asked it flatly, tried a rising tone, and the final time he sort-of sang it. Each time we said "no" he seemed convinced we were lying...

Day one was a six hour 3 bus haul to Polonnaruwa. We forked out a few extra dollars to be accommodated at a very pleasant place overlooking the rice fields near the edge of the small town. Peacocks flew into the trees, and monkeys played in the branches. A nice breakfast was prepared for us so we were ready for a day of ruins. The comments tell of a small (80's) reason for visiting, that was a little bonus to the antiquity.

Monitor
Monitor
Quite nonchalantly wandering through the temple ruins, this large monitor lizard (about 1.5 metres long) truly acted as if he owned the place.


Moonstone, Polonnaruwa
Moonstone, Polonnaruwa
Some of the fabulous work on the Vatadage moonstone.


Duran Duran-esque Shot
Duran Duran-esque Shot
Lankatalika, in Polonnaruwa. Final scene of "Save a Prayer" video. We weren't wearing our linen suits so thought these locals were "truer to the spirit" of the clip.


Lankatalika
Lankatalika
Great lighting on Lankatalika.


Gal Vihara
Gal Vihara
Another recognisable filming location from "Save a Prayer".


Smiling Characters, Tivanka Image House
Smiling Characters, Tivanka Image House
The outside of this temple had a row of characters, in varying state of repair, all the way around it. Every character appeared to be unique, with different poses and expressions.


We had not anticipated doing any wildlife watching on this trip - something we did a lot of on our trip to Sri Lanka in 2007. However, the offer to visit the nearby National Park was accepted, and knowing that these sorts of trips rarely disappoint, we changed our plans and included it. And it did not disappoint. We were concerned when the main draw was a little sparse - elephants. Only two, and we were getting close to leaving, and then we saw them, a handful, and another, and then a small herd, and then a larger herd. Maybe 30-40. A few heart stealing babies, and a whole lot of cute expressions from some big ones.

Kingfisher
Kingfisher
On our way to Kaudulla, a kingfisher scans the waters below.


Eagle Silhouette
Eagle Silhouette
A bird of prey seeks fish.


A New Perch
A New Perch
The eagle had a go at a fish and, upon failing, chose a new place to continue watching from.


Bird with his Catch
Bird with his Catch
A small bird with a large insect. It appears to be throwing it up to get a better grip.


Small Bird, About to Eat
Small Bird, About to Eat
A small bird about to down a large insect.


Happy Looking Elephant
Happy Looking Elephant
It's hard not to imagine that he's smiling.


Elephants at Kaudulla National Park
Elephants at Kaudulla National Park
A couple of the 40 odd elephants that we saw in Kaudulla.


Near Dambulla, we stayed at a luxury hotel - Kandalama Heritance. We had planned this after a recommendation from an English friend, Anna, and we had decided to pay the premium for a better view - and so worth it. Soooo worth it. One of our most amazing "stays", ever.

Our Panorama Room
Our Panorama Room
Magnificent views from our wonderful room at the Kandalama Heritance Hotel. Includes a "towel rabbit".


Hive
Hive
Bees doing what bees do.


Mother and Baby on our Balcony
Mother and Baby on our Balcony
Many monkeys spent time around our room. There were many nursing mothers on the balcony and ledge.


More Monkey Visitors
More Monkey Visitors
For about 2 hours one morning, they cavorted and played on our balcony. The young ones crashed in to each other, in to the furniture, and were generally quite hyper.


Some "not too strenuous" day trips were undertaken, so that we had some time to enjoy our wonderful place.

Dambulla
Dambulla
Inside one of Dambulla's ancient cave temples. This is Maharaja Viharaya.


Cheeky Monkey
Cheeky Monkey
The adorable face of a cheeky character near the cave temples in Dambulla.


Sigiriya
Sigiriya
Sigiriya is partly around the base of the rock, but significantly, also on the top. Reached by a combination of ancient and more recent steps, it is amazing to think there were people living on top. There is little documented about it from the time, so there are even conflicting ideas about whether it was a temple or monastery or a palace. Whatever, it is a dramatic location, and certainly a taxing climb in the hot sun.


Atop Sigiriya
Atop Sigiriya
"Save a Prayer" video reference number three. We couldn't organise a helicopter for the overhead shots - maybe should have brought a drone.


Across the Ruins on Top of Sigiriya
Across the Ruins on Top of Sigiriya
There's not a lot left, up the top - walls and foundations. The views, however, are phenomenal.


And then to city number three of the Ancient Cities - Anuradhapura.

Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba
Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba
Afternoon sun lights up the dagoba Ruvanvelisaya, in Anuradhapura.


Magnificent Moonstone
Magnificent Moonstone
Details on the moonstone of Mahasena’s Palace in Anuradhapura.


When we came to Sri Lanka, in 2006-2007, much of the north was off limits. Guerrilla activity tends to reduce one's feeling of comfort when travelling. So, given that you can't do everything, any way, we stayed focused on the south for that visit. This trip was about filling the gaps from that trip. The Ancient Cities, and the north. So north we went, to Jaffna.

Jaffna Fort
Jaffna Fort
The rebuild of the fort has begun. Since the end of the civil "unrest" in 2009, there have been major works all over the north of Sri Lanka. The walls have had some attention, but the inside has piles of "rubble", which are being sorted and organised for - well, who knows whether they can (or should) rebuild what's inside.


I must say, I think we were really over the buses after the unpleasantness of our journey to Jaffna. We were overcharged and bullied by the conductor who refused to give us a ticket - meaning he was going to pocket the complete fare! Besides, it was longer than expected, rougher than expected, and just an outright, uncomfortable and disagreeable passage.

So, being in a country with a reasonable rail service, we trained back to Colombo, for one night and two days. We had not planned to go looking for the Pagoda Tea Room, but happen-chanced to be staying just around the corner from it, in the fort district. It was a great place to coffee, and we returned for lunch the next day.

A Final Duran Duran Video Reference
A Final Duran Duran Video Reference
At the Pagoda Tea Room - start and end of "Hungry Like the Wolf" video. The decor is changed. The colour scheme is not as it was. But it is still recognisable. Especially if you watch the video before and after visiting!


Thank you, Sri Lanka, for a second wonderful visit.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Maldives - Atolls in the Indian Ocean

30 December, 2017 to 8 January, 2018 - Male, Maafushi, Hulhumale - (Maldives)



Often we like to finish a trip with our "beach time". This time, though, we began with some time on the Maldives. Once a destination largely reserved for the cashed up tourists, it is now getting more and more affordable options and is opening to the more budget conscious traveller. We do admit to, generally, being in that category.

Don't get me wrong, the number of private jets parked at Male airport are a testament that the cashed up still do come! Taking local ferries, we passed islands with strings of cabins reaching out in to the ocean. But there are options. Not cheap, but reasonable.

Direct flight from Melbourne to Colombo, had a weird night in a not very salubrious accommodation near the airport, and then made the short flight to Male, capital of the Maldives. We didn't quite see the New Year in, but we had a nice seafood dinner and followed it up with a little in-house celebration to mark the start of 2018.

Maldivian Islands
Maldivian Islands
Some of the thousands of islands that make up the Maldives. Most of them form giant rings - over 2 dozen atolls.


First Dinner, Male
First Dinner, Male
New Years Eve at the Seahouse. Complete with "mojito mocktail" - incredibly, it tasted authentic.


Our first "proper" stop was at the island of Maafushi. We did the right thing by ourselves - we didn't do vey much. Beach time every day, plenty of reading, some good food, and one day snorkelling.

Thumbs up - All good
Thumbs up - All good

School of horned fish
School of "horned fish"
Like unicorns of the sea.


Is He Going Cross-Eyed?
Is He Going Cross-Eyed?
He seems to be staring intently on the horn on his forehead...


I'm Just Waiting for a Mate!
I'm Just Waiting for a Mate!
Sitting quietly and nonchalantly on a rock on the sea-bed.


I Loved Following These
I Loved Following These
I followed them around the rocks, hovered over them while they fed, and just spent quite some time trying to get a nice pic.


Pretty Blue and Yellow
Pretty Blue and Yellow

Great Markings
Great Markings

S'in a Giant Clam
S'in a Giant Clam
Rock - Rock ...


Photographing Clown Fish
Photographing Clown Fish

Clown Fish Weaving and Winding
Clown Fish Weaving and Winding

Dolphins
Dolphins
I Saw the Leap - Too Late with the Photo :(


They Accompanied Us for Some of Our Journey
They Accompanied Us for Some of Our Journey

Happy Us
Happy Us
Taking time for a pic on a sandbar during a wonderful day out snorkelling.


A Sandbar - Almost in the Middle of Nowhere
A Sandbar - Almost in the Middle of Nowhere
The waves just crashed and swished up both sides of the "island". Quite surreal that the whole thing doesn't just wash away.


The sandbar was super weird - a long way from the next island, it is fully submerged at high tide (knee deep) but exposes itself when the waters drop. The most surprising thing is that it doesn't wash away. Must be the exact and ideal place for the formation of this perpetual pile of sand.

We spent two nights on Hualmale, near Male and the airport, before heading on to the next destination - Sri Lanka.

Culturally, the Maldives was way more interesting than you may at first believe. Staying away from the resorts you discover there is an unexpected depth to the place. It is NOT just tourists sipping cocktails by the pool in resorts. Side note - resorts are about the only place you will find alcohol in a country which is, in essence, alcohol-free. We compensated by drinking a variety of mocktails. A note on beachwear, too - while both Maafushi and Hualmale both provided "bikini beaches" where foreigners can don attire they are more used to, the local beaches expect a high degree of modesty - Jo swam with a rashie top and a sarong around her.

Overall, it really is as beautiful as the brochures make out.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Walls and Borders - Boundaries Past and Present

10 to 15 July, 2017 - Suwon, Seoul, DMZ, Panmunjom - (South Korea)



Kimchi. The first few times it was served, we ate most of it. The next few times, some. And towards the end of the trip, I have eaten a bit and Jo has hardly touched it. The taste of spicy pickled cabbage is certainly not growing on us, despite (or perhaps because) it being served up twice a day with every meal. Other than the kimchi, and one or two other accompaniaments, not a single dish we have had in Korea has disappointed.

Back near Seoul, in Suwon, weather affected us for the first time. Persistent rain meant we spent the afternoon wandering in markets and drinking coffees instead of visiting the walls. Next morning, sun shining, we walked the entire 6 kilometres or so of the Suwon city walls. Certainly a trip highlight.

Paldalmun, Suwon
Paldalmun, Suwon
Also known as Nammun, or South Gate. Part of the amazing walls of Suwon.


A Baby Raccoon
A Baby Raccoon
He looked too young to be on his own. Tentative and unsure, and not quite steady on his feet. But he found a nice spot in the sun, back against the city wall, and promptly went to sleep.


Tolling the Hyowon Bell
Tolling the Hyowon Bell
Not too much effort was required. Long after the initial "bong" rung out, it was still humming, a low vibration taking a minute or more to fully dissipate from the large bronze bell. We leant back against it and let the resonance ripple through our backs like a little massage.


Walls of Suwon
Walls of Suwon
A section of the impressive walls, snaking around and over the hills. We walked the entire length, nearly 6 kilometres.


The Watergate, Hwahongmon
The Watergate, Hwahongmon
As depicted on the Hyowon Bell!


Jeongjadong Cathedral, Suwon
Jeongjadong Cathedral, Suwon
The massive cathedral dwarfing everything around it, beyond the city walls of Suwon.


Back to Seoul for the last few nights of our holiday.

Highlights from a Seoul Menu
Highlights from a Seoul Menu
This menu had a number of gems. But these four particularly tickled our fancies. Not sure if any of it is not in public morals, but good anchovies over my body may be pushing the boundaries a bit.


Evening Inside Deoksugung
Evening Inside Deoksugung
We were on our way here, and were sidetracked by a concert in Seoul Plaza (note lights shining up in background of pic). The delay meant we arrived at the gates of Deoksugong ten minutes after last entry. The first guard was quick to indicate we were too late and would have to return another day, but another came over, smiled, waved us in, and told us to remember they close soon. We still had ample time to enjoy this wonderful palace as the lights came on.


Under an Eave in Deoksugung
Under an Eave in Deoksugung
During an evening visit to the palace of Deoksugung in Seoul.



N Seoul Tower, Seoul, South Korea
Click on photo to change focus and perspective.


View from N Seoul Tower
View from N Seoul Tower
The men's room, N Seoul Tower.


Those who know us understand that doing a tour of any sort is not our style. However, there are things that cannot be done without a tour. Visiting the Joint Security (JSA) is one of those things. This is the zone that straddles the border between North and South Korea, within the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Some familiar (from footage) blue buildings where the two sides come together, only very occasionally, to talk and accuse.

The first part of the day, the DMZ tour, was mixed. A visit to a North Korean infiltration tunnel ("tunnel number 3") had interest, but the South Korean propaganda video that we were forced to endure was equally humurous and unnecessary, and lacked any substance that could be called informative. The tunnel itself (quite a hike down, and of course afterwards, a tougher hike up) was good to see, but then we were not given time to see the museum on our own.

After this, stop two was a mountain lookout over the border. A sign showed us what we should see, and we could identify the very tall south, and even taller north, flagpoles. Haze prevented us from making out the giant statues of the Kims, and obscured details of the North Korean cities. The highlight of the stop was listening to the "hymn" to Kim Il Sung that was being blasted across the border from the other side. (The retaliation is apparently a good dose of K-Pop!)

Thirdly, described as a symbol of hope, the Dorasan railway station. However, as it is not fufilling its primary purpose, I felt it was a symbol of disappointment and non-fulfilment. It was built to be the station that connected the two Koreas, but it still only sees services south to Seoul. The signage indicates which platform trains to Pyongyang should depart from, but the service has never started.

Finally, for the morning, a pretty good lunch at the Peace Park. This park is the site of a number of monuments and memorials, including a bridge where POWs were exchanged in the 50's, and a shot up steam train from the war.

After lunch, a visit to the JSA, which was our main reason for doing the tour. A briefing by the U.S. and ROK soldiers, outlining protocols and behaviour, before being ushered on to a bus. This took us to the centre of the JSA, the eye of the storm. We had a couple of strictly controlled photo opportunities, outside and inside the buildings. Crossed to North Korea in the process. And then got "thrown out" when a lady broke the rule about crossing in front of the guard, twice. Once she crossed, and got told off by the guide, and so she crossed back again the way she had come. That seemed to be it, then, and we were wrapped up, formed our two lines, and walked back to the bus. The JSA portion is now only 2 spots - they used to include the site of a brutal axe-murder, and another, but due to security concerns, those others are now excluded.

Steam Engine Riddled with Bullet Holes
Steam Engine Riddled with Bullet Holes
Shot up and derailed during the Korean war, this locomotive sat rusting between the two Koreas for many decades. Recently, it was recovered and set up in Imjingak park.


Meeting Rooms Straddling the Line
Meeting Rooms Straddling the Line
There, over there, beyond the blue buildings, just there, that's North Korea. You can see the line. No fence, no gate, no wall. A line. Permanent tension and readiness pervades the entire Joint Security Area. Protocol, rules, regulations. Restrictions on clothing; restrictions on gestures. Both sides keep an eye on everything the visitors do.


A North Korean Soldier
A North Korean Soldier
We didn't see him when we were there, taking our pictures. Apparently, they tend to skulk in the shadows a bit when visitors come. Standing behind pillars or around corners. After leaving, and looking over our pictures, we found him there. Not particularly recognisable, I know.


Jo, Technically in North Korea
Jo, Technically in North Korea
Such a rebel, hey...


Richard, Technically in South Korea
Richard, Technically in South Korea
We were free to walk around inside the small room straddling the border. It was just a matter of which side of the guard you were standing that dictated which country you were in.


All in all, we have had a wonderful fortnight in South Korea, and it certainly warrants a return visit. (Keep reading below for week 1 of the trip.)