Adventures in Sri Lanka Part 1 – London – Doha – Colombo

So, back in November last year, as my birthday arrived and I found myself at 35 years of age (physically, if not mentally) I started to do a bit of introspection. One of the first things that popped into my head was that, of all my travels, which have taken me around much of Europe and a fair few places in the northern part of Africa, none have ever taken me into Asia proper. Sure I’d been to Anatolia in Turkey, but it’s a distinctly European nation, particularly until you go into the more Kurdish areas in the east, which I’ve yet to see. And, with my love of the spicy cuisines of much of south Asia, it seemed pretty silly and like something I should correct as soon as possible.

The result of this was sitting at 4pm, inside a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 at Heathrow’s terminal 4, waiting for the off. My journey – as it was the cheapest route – was an afternoon flight to Doha, a quick overnight in a hotel there and then a lunch time flight the following day, in to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. After the usual Heathrow delay of about 40 minutes, we were off. The flight was remarkably calm and I’d been told to expect a lot of Qatar airways’ service and they didn’t disappoint. Even back in the terminal, they’d had porters to do the job of taking my rucksack to oversize baggage, so that I didn’t have to carry it myself. The food on the flight was excellent and the selection of film and TV was above par.

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Landing at Qatar’s relatively new Hamad International was quite the sight. The runway juts out into the water, with it’s amazingly clean lines of glass and steel everywhere making it into a hugely aesthetically pleasing place. The service culture was in evidence again as, almost every 10 steps you took, there was a Qatar Airways staff member waiting to help you, should you get lost or need help. I went through security, quickly got my transit visa and jumped in a cab to the centre, where my hotel was. My cab driver was from Kathmandu, Nepal and spoke quite openly. First he mentioned the recent earthquake, in which he had luckily not lost any family members and then he went on to speak about life in Qatar. He pointed out that, as a migrant worker, he doesn’t have the same rights as Qataris in the country, but that he still feels his life is much improved relative to how it was in Nepal, and also that he has a sense that the current mood, amongst Qatari people as much as the millions of migrant workers in the country, is one with an appetite to change that and to make life better for them. I hope he’s right. Arriving at my hotel at just after 1am, I found my room and went straight to sleep.

I woke up with a spring in my step, partly because of the excellent sleep I’d had and partly because I knew I had an Arabic breakfast waiting for me downstairs. Sure enough, it was an excellent combination of flat bread, poultry sausages, omelettes, fried vegetables and a really terrific bean stew. There was also a few olives and a bit of white cheese. If it doesn’t sound like breakfast, then you really need to change your breakfast priorities. It’s terrific.

The Arabs know how to do breakfast
The Arabs know how to do breakfast

After breakfast, I decided to take a bit of a wander around my neighbourhood to see what was around. I also needed to get some Qatari rials for the reutn taxi ride in to the airport.Walking outside the air conditioned solace of my hotel, I soon realised that it was indeed 44 degrees centigrade at 9:20am. Ouch. So my walking around involved looking at some things outside, then finding anything I could that was inside to make use of the air con and alternating between the two. Sadly, as it was the height of Ramadan, it was all rather quiet and there wasn’t much to see.

Nice mosque Doha

So with my money changed, it was back in one of the beautifully bright, air conditioned cabs to the airport. The road out of the city, which I hadn’t noticed the night before, runs right alongside the coast, and planes landing at Hamad International fly remarkably closely overhead.

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Once checked in, there was just time to see this dinosaur and then to board another 777 for another 4 hours in the sky.

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Service continued as it left off and, for airline food, my meal was once again quite excellent.

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So, at something after 10pm, local time, we landed in Colombo. Immediately everything was different. The tranquillity of Doha and the flight in was gone, the smells in the air were different and the sales models were questionable.

How do they make any money?!
How do they make any money?!

Also unusual was that duty free was crammed with white goods. Sure, there was a stand full of whiskeys and the like, but the majority of travellers were flocking to duty free fridges and washing machines. A new one for me. Passport control clearance was mercifully rapid though and, within a few minutes, I was outside and immediately bombarded by taxi drivers, tuktuk drivers, people selling tat and general crowds of people moving all over the place. My book – The Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka 2015 – had told me previously that buses to the city centre ran throughout the night. A good thing I’d checked as every taxi driver to whom I said I was taking a bus tried to tell me there were no buses at that time of night. Finally happening upon a military policeman, after several minutes of aimless wandering, I was shown to a bus – with air con, no less – which would take me to the city centre for less than 200 rupees – 1/6th of what the rather unscrupulous taxi drivers were asking for. I said goodbye to the airport’s statue of the Buddha and jumped on board.

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The 32km between the airport and central Colombo is completely consumed by urban sprawl from the capital. So the journey took a full hour and thirty minutes, stopping every 500m or so to let people on and off the bus. In the meantime we were treated to a video of a Sri Lankan stadium rock band, who played a mixture of their own songs and those of 80s rock bands like Queen, Europe and others. It was a surreal experience, but refreshingly other worldly, so I just sat back and took it in. It certainly made the time pass more quickly. Jumping out of the bus, I negotiated simultaneously with about 6 taxi drivers until one of them offered to drive me to Narahenpita and my hostel for less than 500 rupees. Once there I was, once again, dying for my bed and so just got my head down after brushing my teeth.

I’d managed to arrange with a really nice local lady to show me around the city. She would drive me around and give me the benefit of her local knowledge and I’d buy the food and drinks. It seemed like a good deal. So I ate my breakfast of toast and surprisingly decent coffee at my hostel and then went outside to meet her opposite the cricket ground. Within a couple minutes I was in her car and delighted that she had basically perfect English and already had places in mind to take me. The first stop was Independence Square, a monument created after Sri Lanka gained freedom from the British Empire. It’s an impressive monument, even if it does need some renovation and it is situated in a quite lovely park, which is remarkably calm, in spite of its city centre location.

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Behind the monument is an old colonial building. Originally built by the original British governor and later extended and converted, it’s since been turned into a luxury shopping and dining facility with high quality designer clothing and hi-fi stores, Sri Lankan and Indian restaurants and… Burger King. But it really has been kitted out very nicely with antiques and simple decor.

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After this small glimpse of modernity and colonial history in one hit, it was time to see something spiritual. Not Burger King, but the Gangaramaya Temple. It was a very short drive and, within a few minutes we were parked up outside and leaving our shoes with a shoe monitoring person, for a small fee. Here there’s no charge for locals and that for tourists is pretty small and it’s really worth a look around. My guide told me that the head monk collects any old stuff he can find to display there and it’s not hard to believe, looking at some of the display cases. Nonetheless, the complex is a fascinating place, with some beautiful stupas and a wall of seated Buddhas at the rear, mostly donated by Thai benefactors, I’m told. It’s an open, airy space, which you can walk around in freely, and likewise, birds and insects too fly around freely inside. There are also countless monks working on the upkeep of the temple and adding new fixtures, new effigies and so on and one we saw had a working elephant with him, carrying some logs.

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With the temple covered, I was starting to get hungry, so we decided to head across to the fort for a snack. Near the fort and the financial centre is an old Dutch Hospital which has been renovated into restaurants, cafés and the like. One such place was a tea room with a difference, offering sublime cakes and fruit juice and tea mixes that sounded really intriguing. I didn’t take much persuading. Parking up in the car park of the Kingsbury hotel where, strictly, we were not guests, we put on our best “posh folk” faces and walked through the foyer and up along to the old lighthouse and further to the hospital complex. I ordered a black tea and soursop soda. I didn’t even know what soursop was. I also ordered a red velvet cupcake, while my tour guide ordered a slice of death by chocolate and an ice tea with some interesting fruit elements. It was a little pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but my god it was good. The setting was also just about perfect, with big, comfy blue leather sofas, low tables and huge flat screen TVs showing – what else? – cricket.

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From here, it was a walk down the historic streets towards the fort train station. We passed the financial district, with it’s huge, cylindrical towers of the Bank of Ceylon and others, various huge British era warehouses, converted into hotels and restaurants and, just on the edge of the Islamic quarter, the place we’d decided on for lunch – The Pagoda Tea Room, the place where Duran Duran recorded the video for Hungry Like the Wolf, back when I was a fresh faced young lad. The place has hardly changed, but I resisted the temptation to flip the tables on to the floor, unlike Simon LeBon, and I was grateful for the lack of snake charmers. We asked what was left of lunch, as it was getting a bit late, and were offered vegetarian curry or chicken lamprais. The lamprais was recommended to me and so I plumped for it. It arrived and was a huge portion of diced chicken, some vegetables and rice, wrapped in a banana leaf. It smelled fantastic. I asked if the small portions of red, onion rich paste dotted around were spicy, as I put a little into my mouth and discovered that yes, seeni sambal is indeed very spicy. It was an excellent meal and I was staggered to be charged only about five euros for both dishes, along with soft drinks and cups of tea afterwards.

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Looks dreadful, but tastes delicious!

With tea gone, we strolled down the old shopping street, stopping off at the famous Cargill’s food mart to buy some essentials for my trip – toothpaste and the like. The buildings are wonderfully preserved and there are some hilarious placards with messages that are entirely other worldly on them.

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With the toothpaste bought and the early sunset – 6:30pm, as it’s so close to the equator in Colombo – we decided that all that was left to do was to walk back along to the Kingsbury and get a seat and a cocktail in the sky bar and to watch the sun go down over the famous Galle Face. Which is exactly what we did, before I hurried back home, to be ready for the morning train to Kandy.

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Throughout my stay in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on my Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get hold of your copy, here:

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2 Capitals, 4 Days – Part 1 – London

Travelling, as a tourist, to 2 capital cities in 4 days is, some would say, stupid. How can you possibly aim to see anything of such places in such a short time? Bear in mind, also, that we’re not talking about the capitals of Liechtenstein and [insert name of small country here] either. We’re talking about jolly old London and Lisbon. Big places. The two trips had to happen together though, for reasons that will become clear later, and so set off we did to my former home, and capital of my home nation, London.

“Can a trip to a city you lived in for nigh on half a decade actually be called an adventure?” you may also ask. Well, in this case, yes, for a couple of reasons. The first of these is that I wanted to see family and friends in a short space of time. The second is that I was taking my Polish girlfriend who had as yet never set foot in the UK.

So, after a huge kerfuffle of a last day of work, a further nuisance with a delayed bus to Poznan, in a very snowy, breezy -8 degree evening, and finally a heavily interrupted night’s sleep, at the hands of some monstrously whiney student person, I found myself sitting at Poznan airport at 9am, staring into this beautiful object, which was the only thing keeping me going at the time:

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Once the caffeine was roaring it’s way through my veins, my good lady and I headed to our departure gate and waited for our flying bus, or Ryanair plane, to board. In no time at all, we were boarded and airbourne. The views of a frozen Poznan were quite delightful, too.

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After a couple of hours broken up by attempts to nod off and catch up with sleep, we arrived at London Stansted, perhaps the most boring airport of its size on planet Earth. While making our way from disembarking the flight, we noticed lots of new posters from the UK Border Force, threatening that we may be kept waiting longer than usual, due to Britain’s increasingly unpleasant attempts to reassure foreign types that they are unwanted. Or something. And so it transpired that we were left standing in a closed corridor – more of a doorway between corridors really – for about 15 minutes. After this delightful experience, we were allowed to join the queue for passport control. Naturally, at midday on a Saturday, this was pretty hectic, and we had to wait for another 45 minutes here.

But once that dreadfulness was over, we were swiftly led around to the waiting column of National Express coaches, heading far and wide across the country. We immediately hopped onto one and were whisked into London, via the East. We swept past the Olympic village from the 2012 games and the great stadia, still waiting for their conversion. Past the new shopping leviathan of Westfield Stratford and finally into London Liverpool street. Famished, we walked over to Shoreditch and walked into the first restaurant we found (in this case a “Las Iguanas” – yes I know!) and stuffed our faces. After the meal, we decided to go straight to our hostel and ditch our bags.

Taking the tube to St Paul’s, from Liverpool Street, took a matter of minutes and, as a Saturday afternoon tends to be in this part of the city, all was fairly quiet. When we arrived at the hostel (YHA St Pauls, strongly recommended), we realised just how close to it we were. This was the view from the end of our road, about 50 metres from the front door:

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We were really in the heart of the city, which was great news. The view from our room was somewhat more modest:

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Still, I couldn’t have expected anything else from a room that cost less than 23 quid each, per night, in this part of town.

After a bit of a rest and a drink, we headed out into the early evening, deciding to stroll down the north bank of the Thames towards the London Eye. Walking down the Thames at night for the first time in a long time reminded me of just how blessed the centre of town is for remarkable architecture.Of course the view from the riverside paled in comparison to the views from up in the Eye. As luck would have it, my sister works for the folk who run the London Eye so, having met her outside, we were all able to have a ride on it for free. I’ve been on it a couple of times before, but not for about a decade. It was amazing how much the skyline had changed since then.

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After the jaunt on the wheel, it was time to get some food and, first of all I suggested visiting a tiny French restaurant next to Embankment tube station. So we wandered along the South Bank and then up over Charing Cross bridge. Except, when we arrived, we realised that the restaurant had closed. A great shame. I’d had some of my favourite ever pancakes and delicious tarte tatin in there. But in an effort not to dwell on it, we realised that, as we were very close to the Strand, we would take a walk and find something appetising soon enough. After a few hundred yards, we happened upon the Strand’s branch of Leon. Something that was very much in its infancy when I lived in London and now seems to have popped up just about everywhere. We strolled in and sat down, my sister and I getting through a couple of their burgers, while Ania chose an aloo gobi with rice (after I’d explained what ‘aloo’ and ‘gobi’ were). It was a great meal, washed down with Sagres (Portuguese beer – ominous!) for us and a hard vodka cocktail for my hardcore sister.

After a meal and a chat, the lack of sleep and travel-based exhaustion was getting to us and so we said our goodbyes to Fi and returned to our hostel and were asleep very quickly.

Morning broke in what seemed like a few seconds and we leapt out of bed, eager to begin the new day (and positively starving). We rushed out to the main street, wondering where we might find breakfast on a Sunday in the heart of the city. Almost nowhere, it seemed. Pretty much every restaurant and café was closed. We walked up the road until we stumbled upon the master of evil – McDonald’s. We went inside and ordered breakfast and I rapidly began to realise that while McDonald’s is never a particularly fantastic option, Ania was experiencing the opposite of what British people experience when they visit a McD’s abroad. Namely that the menu is less expansive, less imaginative and generally less good. Anyway, the coffee was decent enough and it didn’t cost us much. So we ate our underwhelming breakfasts and set off for the day.

Thanks to my sister’s working for the Merlin group who run almost everything in London, tourism-wise, we were able to go and ask for a Thames sightseeing cruise free of charge. Not bad at all. We crossed the river at the Millennium footbridge and walked down the embankment towards Waterloo and the boarding point for the cruise. Once again, somewhat miraculously, the weather was pretty excellent. We took in some lovely views as we made our way.

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We didn’t have to wait very long for our boat. It came along, moored up and some VIPs boarded before the rest of us. We made a bee-line for the front/back rows and took our seats. We quickly set sail and were entertained by spectacular views of the ever changing Thames landscape and also by a quite witty guide, who pointed out titbits of information I’d never heard as a resident of London, such as the origin of the boat on top of the Royal Festival Hall and a few other things. Ania also pointed out that the VIPs were none other than Penelope Cruz, her husband and children. I was largely unmoved by this information, but there we go. The boat basically sailed all the way down to the Tower and back again. these were some of the highlights:

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Once the cruise had come to an end, we disembarked and I asked Ania what she wanted to see on this, our last day of her first visit to London. The first mission was the Queen’s house, Buckingham Palace. From Waterloo, there’s no better way to get to it than going right through the heart of Westminster, so we set off across Westminster bridge, taking in a variety of sights on the way.

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What the devil is the London Necrobus? Anyone?

 

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He was a friendly little fella. Though my lack of nuts (no pun intended) curtailed his interest.

 

Walking through St James’ Park on a crisp, sunny winter’s morning reminded me strongly of the time, as an 8-year-old that my brother and I were chased on multiple laps of the pond by a small army of violent geese, hell-bent on our destruction. Fortunately, this day was much calmer and we instead enjoyed the sound of the non-goose birds chattering around the place and small squirrels begging for peanuts from passers by (and often getting them). As we came to the edge of the park, the splendour of Buckingham Palace appeared in front of us and, in spite of its rather ugly architecture, it was a treat for Ania to see it in the flesh. We stopped to take some photos and then headed out across Green Park to take in Piccadilly Circus, the next stop on our tour. A short stop on the way in Pret for a sandwich lunch, led to the discovery of a new addiction for my girlfriend – ginger beer. That most British of drinks which is totally unavailable, at least in our region of Poland was a bit of a mind blowing experience – and rightly so!

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After Piccadilly and so on, we headed past the Sherlock Holmes Museum and London Zoo over to Camden, where I used to live a few years back. Here we met a friend of mine at the ever busy lock. At the 3rd attempt we managed to happen upon a bar with a free table where we could sit and drink a coffee and have a good catch up (after about 3 years!). The final stop on our long and winding route was, mercifully, taken on a London bus. From Euston station out to Stoke Newington, where we were greeted by one of my closest friends who led us off for a top class fish and chip supper (with ginger beer). We stuck around, laughing and joking on Stoke Newington High Street, having a pint – Ania trying her first “real” cider and being quizzed by the locals about why we live in Poland, and so on. After a couple hours there, it was back to our hotel and to bed before the next day’s early flight to Lisbon.

Waking up at 5 is always a horrible task, never more so than on holiday. Luckily for me, as there’s no hope for my face, I don’t need make up or anything like that, so I slept for an extra hour while Ania got ready. But at 7, bleary eyed, we went out to the mini market on the edge of the City Thameslink station and bought some cinnamon whirls and coffee to sustain us through the pleasant train journey to Luton. Almost the instant the train left London though, the rain started. It was going to be a seriously grey day. Still, we arrived at Luton with 2 hours to wait for our flight. We sat. We watched. We talked and, finally, we boarded and took off to our next destination.