Sri Lanka… some more bits

Still here, in Sri Lanka, and likely to be for a few more days yet.

So on our weekend off we have seen a little more.

Negombo is a coastal town with a beautiful beach but pretty much nothing else going for it. We went into the town centre and there is a lively fishing industry operating from the very crowded lagoon

And there is a prison. A working prison (kevin takes me to all the best places!!!)

And… that’s about it really. Most tourists stay by their pools in their hotels.

The beauty of online learning is that you can work from anywhere in the world as long as you have WiFi. The downside is that excessive online learning, such as we are dealing with, results in quite a sedentary working week: So was keen to get some steps in.

But the downside to just going out for a walk is that every other of the 1.2 million tuk tuk drivers in Sri Lanka (or at least it feels like) stop and offer you a lift. We say no, thanks but they try and engage us in conversation in the hope of getting some of the severely dwindled tourist business. I do feel sorry for them but they DO NOT LEAVE YOU ALONE!!! They simply can’t understand the concept of ‘going for a walk’. It isn’t done here. It gets very wearing and we end up snapping which isn’t like us.

So we took the more expensive option of a taxi ride to a nearby botanical garden. We were able to clock up our 10k steps by doing 2.5 laps (it wasn’t a massive space) in peace and quiet. At the same time we could see some of the local flora and fauna.

In the 1870’s Britain sourced all its burgeoning rubber industry supplies from Brazil, which was then the only producer of rubber. Then in 1879 this guy Henry Wickham

(Check out those whiskers) stole some rubber plants (about 70K seeds!) and brought them to Sri Lanka and Malaysia from where a rubber plantation operated at a much reduced cost until a cyclone destroyed the trees. Here is all that is left of the plantation.

I’m not a botanist so I have no idea what these plants are but they look pretty

There was also a tree with these really big fruits on

But this tree with unusual hanging red flowers is called the Queen of Flowers tree

For much of the walk we were surrounded by enormous butterflies who seemed to glide around us with beautiful wings spread for us as it showing off their colors and patterns. It was quite hard to capture but I did get this clip

And just one close up of a common tiger

The lawns were parched and grass stalks cracked under foot and many of the plants looked thirsty even to my non-botanical eye.

As mentioned in the Colombo blog all canoodling has to be done in public places so parks are a big attraction for courting couples.

But what happens is that where seats or benches are arranged in clusters, no one else will sit by them. We saw this a lot!

On the plus side there was a magnificent tree house in this wonderful tree, which kept Kevin happy.

Finally, I don’t know why but the shape of tree roots fascinate me, perhaps because normally they are hidden underground. This tree has exposed roots which reminded me of the groynes in Morecambe Bay. A little reminder of home.

As sweet as Kandy?

Call me crazy, but I think that when you take a job driving some tourists to their hotel in a town 100km away, then the least you could do is check where you are going to drop them off before you set off! It’s radical, I know BUT it would save you an hour of driving round and round Kandy when everyone is hot, thirsty and tired whilst stopping every few hundred yards to ask for directions!!! We didn’t have a local SIM so google maps didn’t work and he had the kind of Nokia phone that I used to use 20 years ago!!!! But as a local you’d think he would have the sense to find out where he was taking us BEFORE setting off!

And the driving? Well, let’s say that the national pastime is clearly ‘traffic leapfrogging’. Particularly if you are a bus. The fact that a car is currently overtaking a tuk tuk is no problem. The bus will just go anyway. So three abreast on ordinary roads against oncoming traffic!!! It’s just all in a normal run for them.

Our driver was a champion of the ‘stabbing at the brake pedal’ motion and an award winner in ‘extreme acceleration’. The lurches were phenomenal and this only lasted 3 hours (4, if you count the hour we spent lost and trying to find our hotel). He wasn’t as proficient at honking as the other drivers who had reached master class level and who honked prolifically – especially when our driver just stopped in the road to ask directions.

The view from our room (once we finally arrived) is beautiful

And this morning we had a walk around the lake where we spotted lots of local wildlife. This chap is obviously very well fed but then again the lake was simply teeming with fish.

And even plenty of these

There is too much traffic though and no attempt at filtering the diesel fumes. Plenty of old busses just spurt out thick black clouds of exhaust, like the old days in the U.K. So the air is not pleasant to breath (which is a great shame and spoils the place).

Kandy is notable for having a relic, the Buddha’s tooth. It is so important in Buddhism that it was something which I learned about in my A level RS course and it stuck with me because I always that it ironic that a tooth relic should be in a place called Kandy! I never in a million years thought that I would ever come here…

A stupa in the temple

I’m not entirely sure which one, but today was a festival and the shrine was closed to us until 6.30. Devotees wearing white flooded the town and they are seen here lining up to enter with their lotus flower offerings. Lotus for peace

The shrine itself is very impressive and structurally reminds me of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem with the ornate inner building. This one however, has an upper and lower level. The upper lever is where the oblations and prayers are offered and the lower level in where the ceremonies take place.

The shrine with a stunning golden canopy
Floral offerings at the upper level of the shrine

There are tooth ceremonies three times a day and we were fortunate to see one. It involved much ceremonial drumming and key unwrapping. Monks and temple officials slipped into the shine where I am told that the tooth sits inside 7 bejeweled stupa caskets, one inside the other like Russian dolls. We weren’t allowed anywhere near those!

The door to the shrine at the lower level. Kevin particularly likes the mask on the lintel

Once a day though, the tooth is washed with herbal water and the water then distributed to the people where it is said to have healing properties, something similar I suppose to Lourdes. We did see some disabled children in wheelchairs here which was good because you don’t see that very often at all in Asia.

Just look at the sleeves!

The Tempe grounds had many smaller shrines, including this one with a halo of flashing electric lights

We also watched a cultural dance show (we have seen several of these now on our travels). This one had a particularly good mask dance which is supposed to ward off evil spirits and apparently is still used in psychiatry on the island today! Having seen the mask exhibition in Colombo it was nice to see one in action.

The show ended with traditional fire eating/walking to much oohing and ahhing from the audience.

But the BEST part of the day was our Indian Thali meal. All this for just £2! unbelievable!

The iconic octagonal tower which houses the Temple Library

Colombo; a ‘capital’ city

We arrived in Columbo on Saturday 9th Feb. To be honest the health screening at the airport was a joke. We walked past the thermal imaging camera and behind a screen was a bloke more interested in his phone conversation than watching us!

Then another health declaration form which we had scrupulously completed was snatched away and dumped with all the others. Is anyone actually reading them I wonder?

We are staying in a lovely quiet place called Zylan villa It’s quiet small with only 6 rooms and was was once a villa owned by an artist from Hong Kong so it is beautifully done all to her artistic taste with lots of peaceful relaxing spaces.

There is even a plunge pool on the roof (although the local crow population used it as drinking water so clearly there were not enough, if any chemicals in it)

I love the book swap cage. It’s a great idea

Some good nooks and crannies in which to set up for work. This is the view from my new office. It was very peaceful and I got loads done.

There was some confusion at check in about whether we had paid fully or not. We need to send washing but K reluctant to until payment issues resolved. They think we owe them & k says we have paid in full via First time we have ever had this sort of confusion. Obviously they haven’t yet been paid.

Only a few interesting things to see in Colombo. It’s quite a boring city on the whole. We visited the museum which had an amazing collection of masks. Plus their Crown Jewels. I love the crown. So square. The entire set was plundered by the British but we gave them back.

Then a trip to their main temple which was so cluttered with stuff that it reminded us of Chatuchak market!

Check out the dinosaur next to the Chinese dragon. All places of worship can only be improved by the addition of dinosaurs I feel. Then there was the life sized stuffed elephant!

This section was so brightly painted that we dubbed it the ‘gaudy Buddha’ room!

This little jade statue was very precious

But we were totally not expecting to find a conquistador here!!! He is more of a war-monger. Perhaps he was guarding the precious statue. Who knows!

The inner courtyard was quite striking even if the structure at the top did resemble a Death Star (we have been watching too many movies)…

We discovered some basic do’s and don’ts for visitors in this country:

1. Don’t disrespect religion. In this way it’s similar to Thailand. Monks come first. End of.

2. Don’t turn your bum to a Buddha statue. They don’t like it (allegedly).

3. Don’t compare Sri Lanka to India. Even if you have been to both and have an opinion! It’s a very touchy subject. Just for clarification, Sri Lanka was never part of India, is not part of India and never will be. Ok. Got it! It’s not Indian even if it feels very similar.

4. Don’t get carried away in public (even though we witnessed quite a lot of canoodling going on in Cinnamon Park. Lots of it!)

5. Don’t try to check into a hotel with no beds. Seriously guys, this is an actual problem. Confusingly many small Sri Lankan restaurants are called hotels, from the time when the best place to get a decent meal was a real hotel.

6. Don’t take no for an answer. When locals shake theirs heads from side to side what they actually mean is ‘yes’! (But remember it’s not India!)

On a book-buying expedition (for work as I need to record stories to send to the children as part of their online learning) we were thirsty. So we decided to have some tea because while in Ceylon you really ought to.

We ended up having High Tea and it cost £3.85 for all that food plus two cups of tea BETWEEN US! Yes, that’s right, that’s £1.92 each! You’d be lucky to get a cup of tea for that back at home!!! Unbelievable.

The main form of transport here is the Tuk tuk these are more comfortable to sit in that the Thai ones, nifty in traffic (often driving down the wrong side of the road to avoid queues!!!!) and extremely cheap. It costs only £1 to get anywhere in the city. The cost of living here is extremely low. In actual fact a week’s stay here in this nice hotel is less than one night in the (full price) beach room in the Maldives.

Had a bit of a visit downtown. This is more like the India of my memories. It was crowded and chaotic with uneven pavements and lots of crazy driving.

One of the disadvantages of packing to go to one destination for a week and ending up traveling around 4 countries, is that you don’t have the DK or Lonely Planet in your luggage. We usually research where we are going and have a rough idea of what we want to see. Not this time. We are fortunate that we do at least have Google but we have found that it isn’t always up to date!

Anyway a look at the map showed an area called Fort and we hoped that there was one. Sadly that wasn’t the case. There is another area on the map called Slave Island, but we decided against that (just in case)!

This is the Lotus Tower (no prizes for why), is inspired by the flower which culturally here symbolizes’purity’.

Colombo is quite a boring capital. There isn’t much to do or see. Even the top 20 things to do in Colombo lists ‘Starbucks’ as an attraction!!!!

We push off now for a weekend visit to Kandy, the cultural and literal centre of the island.

Marooned in the Maldives … or the time we had to go to the Maldives because of a world epidemic

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Not marooned really, more stranded… but even that’s a bit harsh. Probably holing up in the Maldives would be a more accurate if less headline grabbing title.

I have LONG wanted to visit and suggest it every time a holiday discussion comes up. We have twice considered it but changed the plans, particularly once Kevin has researched prices!

It was definitely on my bucket list as a dream location, especially the houses on stilts, but that accommodation comes in at silly, astronomical prices. Several friends have visited and stayed in more normal accommodation and recommended it. Kevin remained unconvinced.

Until now.

What has changed? Well the Wuhan virus has caused severe disruption world-wide including our travel plans.

We set off on our Chinese New Year break knowing that Wuhan was in lockdown but not really appreciating that the virus would be so virulent or that it was contagious during the 14 day incubation period. We went, as planned to our friend Gillian in Brunei. (See previous blog). While there we heard the news that the school would be closed until 17th Feb to allow for children who had traveled to go through the incubation period and not bring any infection to school.

Then we were told that we weren’t expected back until 16th Feb. Woo Hoo – an extra 2 weeks. We knew that we were to support home-based learning but the beauty of online working is that with good WiFi you can do it from anywhere. Absolutely ANYWHERE!

Several colleagues chose to return to their homes in the US but we were reluctant to do that, partly because of the cold weather in the U.K. (& we had a suitcase of shorts & Tshirts) but mainly because we didn’t want to risk bringing it back and infecting my mother who is not only elderly but has underlying health conditions. It was too big a risk.

So where to go? On the Friday Kevin (in true Toner Tours fashion) got us a very last minute affordable deal in beach-side accommodation in the Kuredu Island Resort where we could hole up in peace and relative seclusion while waiting out the last days of the incubation period.

We were a little concerned about whether they would let us in particularly as countries were ramping up restrictions on a daily basis. But we checked in ok, despite having Chinese exit stamps in our new passports and residence permits (& very little else). They weren’t bothered.

At the departure gate, minutes before boarding all the Chinese nationals in the queue were taken aside. There was much talk in mandarin which we couldn’t understand. As far as I know they didn’t board the plane, which is very xenophobic as the virus doesn’t restrict itself only to Chinese nationals!!! We weren’t included despite having been in China…

When we landed everyone was required to complete a health form and we were totally honest about where we had been. We were half expecting to be hauled off and placed in quarantine for the next 5 days with a bag of groceries and a stack of dvds!!! But the immigration officer didn’t even look at the form. He just slapped it on a pile and stamped our passports. We were in.

Next was a trip on a sea plane (which again required people examining our passports). Neither of us had ever flown in one so that was pretty exciting.

The views from the window were stunning as we flew over the aquamarine seas and the green atolls fringed with frilly white beaches.

Our room is perfect. Right on the beach with the most amazing views across brilliant white sands to the crystal blues of the Indian Ocean. Bliss.

We even have an outside bathroom, which worried us at first but we have not seen any bees this time. (See Gili islands blog from July 2018)

It is idyllic here and I can not recommend it highly enough. Mind you I think other folks are paying WAY more than we did!!! We are on a basic room & food package so any alcohol is extra. We could have had a drinks package like pretty much everyone else here and worn a wristband but at $80 per person per day we felt we’d need to be serious alcoholics to get our money’s worth… besides I am working.

Once upon a time I wanted to stay in the houses on stilts but actually now I think that they are overrated. They just look over the sea whereas we in the cheap seats look at the white sand then the sea. Much better.

Naturally I have been working hard and work was much easier once we had paid an extra $50 for unlimited WiFi during the 5 days.

The home-based learning for both students and staff is a steep learning curve for all. Initially there were access issue as everyone became familiar with all the various logins. I have spent time tracking down specific titles in online formats for teachers and posting instructions on how to use the online resources. If only I had known to bring my work lap-top on holiday!!! It’s a challenge using a phone. We invested in a cheap laptop in Bangkok but it doesn’t have any of my links or passwords so I am slowed down by having to recreate everything.

The school have been great and it is a very supportive community. I really appreciate how much the management are keeping us informed.

It would be easy to spend the entire time online but we have been advised to make sure we get a balance each day. So in the evening yesterday we walked the cumference of the island. It is 3.5km and took us an hour. It probably took us that long because we kept stopping to look in wonder at the beauty of the natural environment.

Opposite our room is a man-made lagoon. Very shallow and ideal for a sit in the luscious warm water. Right there with us are lots of fish. I hope that you can see a few in this video.

Further round the headland we also saw this chap:

Quite possibly a shark! A small one but a shark nevertheless! And then this elegant specimen waiting for the smaller fish to swim by. I’m not good on birds so I’m not 100% sure what it was. A heron or crane perhaps? Maybe someone can tell me.

We also spotted multiple hermit crabs, some stingray and these enormous fruit bats circling overhead. Kevin’s shot here has also captured its shadow.

The walk was LOVEly.

It has been a great place to work and relax. The white sand feels so soft and delicious between your toes. It’s not like the sand in the Caribbean which can burn the soles of your feet in the heat of the day. It doesn’t get THAT hot here fortunately. All the paths are just sand on the whole island so we haven’t worn shoes at all for days. That alone makes you relax.

We leave on Saturday as the prices go up considerably next week probably because it is half term in the rest of the world. So we will push off and find our next location to work from. Watch this space as the journey continues …

This island has left us with many happy memories as we leave only our footprints behind. In the end even ‘sun-shy’ Kevin enjoyed himself.

Brunei- the best bits

The Sultanate of Brunei is a very small country (approx twice the size of Luxembourg) and not one which is a major tourist destination for reasons which I shall explain BUT if you do make the effort to visit you can find a beautiful and extremely peaceful place. Nestled on Malaysian side of the Island of Borneo, Brunei is awash with natural rainforest, teeming with wildlife and stunning virtually empty beaches. It’s official title is Nation of Brunei, Abode of peace and it certainly lived up to its name. It was about as lively as Bare on a Wednesday morning in February.

We were visiting a former Shrewsbury colleague Gillian and her son who relocated there at the same time that I moved to Shanghai. Gillian works at The International School of Brunei (ISB) one of only two international schools in the whole country. ISB is known for being an eco-school and I was curious to see what difference that made.

All around the campus I found boxes like this which promoted eco issues and made information easy to access. The school has only two photocopiers and very few printers to cut down on paper consumption. Recycling was prominent and the school boasted an eco-garden as well as an area of rainforest behind the main buildings which it plans to use as an outdoor classroom.

Gillian has been given a 3 bed, 3 bath house. Yes, a whole house with garden and to say I had accommodation envy was true although as she pointed out there are more expenses like having to get the grass cut.

Brunei is an extremely wealthy county being an oil producer (petrol was cheap out there). There are places with extreme opulence such as the golden dome of the Sultan’s palace which we could only glimpse from a distance. He is building a second palace we saw under construction (obviously this one isn’t enough!)

Known for his extravagant life-style the eldest son of the royal family, Prince Jefri, built the much-marbled Empire Hotel with its own private beach and idyllic swimming pools.

In actual fact the marble floor are fantastic to scoot on if you are a three year old who is obsessed by things that go! What a lucky coincidence.

And the many golden escalators provide hours of entertainment!

We had a sumptuous buffet lunch there and fortunately the waiting staff were very good at chasing after a lively toddler who saw it as his mission to ‘escape’. At speed. As often as possible.

The beach was idyllic palm-fringed white sand but almost empty. I couldn’t understand why until Gillian explained that recently an off shore island had been purchased by some Chinese businessmen who had cut down all the mangrove to build something for the oil industry. The mangrove, however was home to all the crocodiles and they have been displaced to all along the shoreline! I stuck to paddling only after hearing that. How the natural world suffers at the hands of greedy humans.

Altogether I was surprised at how few tourists there were in the little piece of paradise until I remembered that Brunei was a strict Muslim country that operates under Sharia Law. As such the sale of alcohol is prohibited and it is pretty much the only country where the airport does not sell duty free alcohol!! So I can see why it wouldn’t attract western holiday makers who really want to relax by the pool with a nice cocktail or a cold beer!

Brunei also bans smoking (which I highly approve of) since 2017 when the Sultan decreed that he would give his people good health as part of his birthday present that year. I understand that some cigarettes get smuggled in across the border but you cannot openly smoke or buy tobacco here thus is a great improvement on China where cigarettes are routinely smoked everywhere… this is us waiting at a road crossing behind some Chinese.

But back to Brunei. Some other things which are banned include

    Unmarried couples sharing a room
    Being in close proximity to the opposite sex while not being married
    Defaming the sultan

Yes, celebrating Christmas or putting up public decorations carries a jail sentence. Private celebrations can be carried out by special written permission! The reason given is that it might ‘undermine’ the role is Islam.

The version of Islam practiced here is strict but not the Fundamentalism which requires full Burka. Women are dressed in beautiful colours and stylish hijabs

The first stop on our tour was the Chinese temple. This contained some beautifully decorated tiles which clearly told ancient stories in the same way that stained glass windows do in a church

The mosques are splendid and dominate the city

The water town is apparently the largest in the world and a fascinating place to wander around. The walkways looked as though they had seen better days and some of them even swayed (which wasn’t great if you have a bit of vertigo!)

This water town boasts 3 schools, a fire station and several businesses. We stopped at the prawn cracker maker where we sampled and bought the most delicious fresh crackers. They were so good the British royal family had been to visit too and they proudly showed us the photos on their phone.

After that we had a lovely boat trip to see the proboscis monkeys

Unfortunately our own little chap who had been so very excited all day promptly fell asleep and missed them all.

The royal regalia museum was free and very well done. It was a great place to spend a couple of hours.

After a good old ratchet among the royal stuff we set off across the country (it only took a couple of hours) along fairly deserted roads to the heart of the rainforest for a jungle trek to see a waterfall.

At first it was ok

The track was wide and clear as you can see. But it rapidly changed. We had to Ford this leech infested stream…

Kevin did get one in his shoe. It doesn’t look much but they can be the devil to remove once they have latched on. You literally have to burn them off which isn’t fun. Fortunately Kevin’s sock saved him. Thanks sock.

The path became narrower and less defined until we were scrambling over tree roots or over muddy swampy places all the time being careful not to grab onto the razor sharp rattan for balance!

I have to admit to being somewhat outside my comfort zone particularly when something landed on my ankle and either bit or stung me. I shrieked and jumped so fortunately it fell or flew off but it sure was painful at the time.

We decided to call it a day and head back for my sake (wimp that I am) and I have no idea how Gillian managed as she was also carrying Daniel!!!!

We had a lovely time exploring Brunei and want to say a huge thanks to Gillian for organizing everything and accommodating us. Everything was so peaceful and serene you almost forgot what was happening in the rest of the world… but more about that another time