A snapshot tour of Sri Lanka

A few years ago, we were looking for a holiday destination for a ten day January getaway. We looked eastwards (from Europe) and wanted both warm sunny weather, nature and historical sights. There are so many amazing places to visit but we decided upon southern Sri Lanka. And what a great trip we had! Ten days were enough to experience different aspects of the Sri Lankan culture as well as relax on the beach.

Getting there and around

From southern Sweden, we discovered that the easiest way to get to Sri Lanka was to fly Emirates with a layover in Dubai. (That worked well on the way out, but on the way back to Europe our flight from Sri Lanka was delayed and we missed our connecting flight. This wasn’t a disaster since we were able to take an extra day off and suddenly found ourselves on a whirlwind visit of Dubai including visiting the Burj Khalifa. But that’s another story.) The international airport of Sri Lanka is outside the capital Colombo. 

For this trip, we used different means of transportation: private taxis, train and local busses. Everything worked well and we felt safe. The train was crowded but we only used it for daytime travel. We arranged the long-distance transfers with private taxis on arrival, which was easy through the airport counter or our hotel.

Trains getting close in Sri Lanka

Itinerary

With ten days to explore Sri Lanka, we decided to stay in the southern parts of the country. Here is our itinerary:

  • Beach time in Mirissa 
  • Glamping and leopard spotting in Yala national park
  • Relaxing at the beach in Unawatuna
  • Historic sights in Galle
  • Temples and elephants in Kandy
  • City time in Colombo

No Ella you might ask? Well, we have been to southern India and have experienced the beautiful hills and tea plantations. So due to time restrictions, we decided to skip the hill country in Sri Lanka for this visit, but I would love to go back and take the train through the tea plantations some other time.

Mirissa

We had prebooked a private transfer from the airport outside Colombo to the southern seaside resort of Mirissa. The drive was mainly on the pay highway where the traffic was light. We arrived in Mirissa a couple of hours later and found our B&B on the main road in this small fishing village. Since it was the start of our holiday and we came from the cold in Sweden, we spent the next couple of days just relaxing on the beach. Foodwise, we had some great fish on the beachside restaurants as well as the curry plate very common around Sri Lanka and roti.

The beach in Mirissa

If you’re into whale watching, there were ample opportunities to go on a boat tour. We were warned though that the sea can be rough and that most people experience seasickness so be prepared with pills if you go. Mirissa also seemed to be a popular place for surfing. But we were lazy so stayed on the beach during the day. One night, we went to a spa where I had an traditional oil head massage. It was very relaxing and probably good for the hair but plan on having very greasy hair for the next few days…

Glamping safari in Yala national park

When we were thoroughly relaxed and ready for some action, we took the bus to the Yala national park, or actually to the city of Tissamaharama where we were picked up and taken to our campsite very close to the park entrance. We spent 24 hours at the campsite and had a great time at the site which consisted of a few tents and a few buildings such as a restaurant. There was also an observation deck overlooking the national park greenery, perfect for a beer. It felt safe with guards on the lookout for elephants approaching the area at night.

We were taken on two jeep safaris in the park, one on in the afternoon and one at sunrise. We managed to see a leopard as well as elephants and other animals. The safari experience was nice but not as amazing animal-wise as in the national parks of for example South Africa and Kenya.

The meals and accommodation at the glamping campsite was great. Lots of curries and local beer! The transfers worked like a charm as well and we took the bus to Galle after the safari.

This is where we stayed in Yala: Pardus seek (TripAdvisor link as I can’t find a website, we booked through e-mail)

Historical sights in Galle

Galle is the provincial capital of south Sri Lanka and has a long history of port activity. The city is on the UNESCO world heritage list and has many sites, including the harbor and the fortress which was built by the Dutch in 1663. We stayed in a cute hotel close to the sea and enjoyed walking around the streets of the old town and the fort’s ramparts. There is something around every corner with lighthouses, markets and luxury seaside colonial bars and hotels.

Back to the beach in Unawatuna

After our stay in Galle, we were supposed to go up north along the coast. However, the hotel had made an error so we had to have a change of plans. We had passed the small seaside village of Unawatuna on the way from Mirissa and liked the look of it so we decided to go there.

Usually, we book hotels in advance but this time, we arrived at the beach and saw one directly above it that we liked the sight of and just went inside to see if they had any available rooms. It turned out to be a very lucky shot where our room had a fourposter bed, an exquisite front row view of the ocean and AC as well. And so we were back on the beach which was excellent. We ate our meals barefoot in the sand in one of the restaurants and enjoyed every minute of it. The breakfast was in-room service so we ate on the balcony overlooking the ocean, simply perfect.

The southwestern coast of Sri Lanka was hit hard by the tsunami in 2004. When we were in Unawatuna, there was an exhibition with photos showing the damage the wave made. There are also tsunami signs pointing to higher ground and alarms in place now. 

Train to Kandy

After a couple of nice days in Unawatuna, we were ready to take the train to Kandy. The train left from Galle and took about xx hours. Kandy is the second largest city on Sri Lanka and is also on the UNESCO world heritage list. The most famous sight is the Temple of the Tooth, which contains a golden box with a tooth of Buddha inside (you won’t see the tooth). The temple areas are busy with elephants, flowers and bells everywhere. You want to wear clothes that cover your legs and shoulders. 

Kandy lake is an artificial lake that the last king of Kandy created in 1807. The lake is close to the center of town and has lovely pathways to walk along.

To Colombo through Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage

To get back to Colombo, we decided to hire a driver for the day so that we would be able to stop at some places. First, we went to a spice plantation where we were given a tour of the different plants and then the oil-making plant. We bought some vanilla. 

Then, we stopped at the Pinnewala elephant orphanage, which is government run. The nicest part of our visit there was to see the elephants walk down to the river and bathe. We had a drink at one of the restaurants overlooking the river and watched the elephants frolic in the water. I always prefer to see animals free and in their natural habitat, but this seemed to be a well-managed place and the elephants seemed pretty happy and well-fed. Read up and make up your own mind if you want to go. If you want to get a special souvenir while you’re there, you can buy stuff made from elephant dung. 

We arrived early afternoon in Colombo. Our flight was scheduled to depart after midnight so we left our luggage at the bus station and then went into the city. We had tea at an English tea house, a nice walk along the coast, enjoyed the sunset, bought some souvenirs and then went to a great crab restaurant: the Ministry of Crab. It was located in a nice area called the Old Dutch hospital. The most famous dishes are whole lagoon crabs from Sri Lanka in various sizes and flavorings. I had the garlic chili crab and loved it. Do make reservations, this is a popular place which is on the 50 best restaurants in Asia list.

And then it was time to leave Sri Lanka!

So – what to eat and drink?

You will find the Sri Lankan curry plate everywhere. It’s a dish that consists of several small bowl with vegetables, a protein like fish or chicken, rice and a roti bread. Fruit juices and coconuts are abundant of course and filled pancakes for breakfast. In the coastal areas we had fresh fish or seafood for dinner every night. For drinks we had lots of beer (the local kind is called Lion) and ginger beer. And in Colombo, there were tea shops that served many kinds of tea and snacks.

In conclusion…

In my opinion, Sri Lanka is a perfect destination for a two week holiday. The nature is varied, the sights historical, the food fresh and tasty, the climate supernice and the beaches amazing – what more could you ask for? We call if a kind of “India light” because the island has a lot of similarities to southern India (Kerala) but is more laidback. We very much enjoyed our visit and would love to go back!


Japan – part 2.1: Even more Tokyo

Shibuya

Shibuya is a very vibrant district with the famous crosswalk in the middle. Compared to the relatively quiet Asakusa district, we had to get used to the massive neon lights and multi-story houses. Outside the metro station, the statue of the dog Hachiko (watch the movie if you want a good cry!) is always surrounded by picture takers and street performers. People everywhere, so much fun!

We had dinner at Genki sushi in Shibuya where you sit at a counter, order items from a personal screen and then the food is delivered to you on the conveyor belt. I loved the sushi. It wasn’t fancy or expensive but still everything was so tasty and fresh. My husband who is allergic to shellfish and doesn’t like raw fish still enjoyed his sushi made with chicken and cooked salmon. We had so much food that night and it was all so good!

After a matcha tea, we were off to experience the famous crosswalk by night. There are cafes such as Starbucks overlooking the square so if you’re lucky or willing to wait, you can get a table by the window. You can also see the crosswalk quite well from inside the train station, walk towards the department store.

Meiji Shrine

The next day we went to the Shinjuku area and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings Observatories in the morning. These are two twin towers with free observation decks with an amazing view over Tokyo. Go on a clear day like we did. There is also a restaurant as well as a gift shop up there in each observatory.

View from one of the observatories. The blue spots are where people put out plastic sheets in the park to mark their spot for picnics in the sakura season

Then we went to the Yoyogi park and the Meiji shrine. The shrine area is located in a forest and it was absolutely beautiful. Very serene even though there were, as everywhere, lots of visitors. Japanese families enjoyed their time in the sun and took wedding and family photos which was fun to watch. The entry to the shrine is through a 12 meter high wooden torii gate.

In the afternoon we went to the Takeshita area which was absolutely crazy. This pedestrian street is a favorite teen hangout and was so crowded. We had so much fun when we took snapshots purikura-style (add the filters you wish, hilarious) and visited a cat café with Oriental cats. There are also several crêpe cafes on the street and they had massive tasty servings. Great afternoon!

The cat café with beautiful friendly cats (and yes, they could escape to safer grounds whenever they wanted)

Back in Shibuya, we went for dinner at the Ichiran ramen restaurant. You stand in line, order the food from a machine, get paper tickets and then take your seat at a wooden booth. There are curtains before you with the kitchen staff moving around behind them. You fill out a form with extras and then you are given the most wonderful bowl of ramen noodles. Slurp away! It was so good, almost hard to believe. Needless to say, it wasn’t our last bowl of ramen in Japan.

More shrines and the castle park

The next day, it was our final day in Tokyo and we started off by going to the Chiyoda district by train. We went to the Yasukuni shrine that had pretty parks and a zen garden with a lake. Somehow I dropped my phone and credit card wallet into the pond but everything survived the fall and the water… Lucky me… The Kitanomaru park was close by and we enjoyed watching the rowing boats on the lake in the park.

Our next area to visit was Yanaka which is an old-fashioned street with lots of cat things due to some comic book character. We had some fun cat-shaped filled cakes and looked at a lot of cat stuff. We also went to the cemetery nearby which is famous for its cherry trees. Since we were right in the sakura season, it was wonderful to watch all the flowers, and the cemetery had lots of pretty statues as well.

After a busy day, we actually returned to the Metropolitan building to see the Tokyo skyline by night. And then we had sushi, lots of it again. It’s very easy to order even though we don’t speak Japanese since there are photos of every dish with the price next to it.

And that was it for our days in Tokyo. Although we visited some of the neighborhoods, Tokyo is a gigantic city. You need to be able to maneuver the public transport system to get around. We relied on trains, and since there are several train companies, the pre-charged metro card came in handy. And yes, the rumors are true – avoid the before and after work hours since the trains are crazy busy. There are carriages for women only which are slightly less crowded.

Next, we were going to something completely different: a traditional ryokan in Hakone!

Japan – part 3: Ryokan in Hakone


Japan – part 2: Tokyo

This is part 2 of our two week trip to Japan in April. Part 1 covered the basics of traveling there and the foodie highlights. At the end of the post there is a map showing most of the places we went to. Tokyo is huge, so plan your days carefully.

Experiencing Tokyo – the first three days

We arrived at Narita airport mid-morning and picked up our Japan rail passes from the airport station to save some time later in the week. Since we were going to be in Tokyo for a while, we bought rail passes with a later starting date and booked the Shinkansen fast trains accordingly. While waiting in line for the train pass, we got our first taste of Japanese cuisine from a well-stocked 7/11-store when we bought some seaweed covered rice balls, a snack staple later on our trip.

So many fillings to choose from, so easy to eat on the go.

Then we bought our rechargeable Tokyo public transportation card and off we went into Tokyo. Our first stop was the neighborhood Asakusa for two nights. We stayed in a tiny but clean AirBnB very close to the temple area, perfect for our short stay of three nights in Asakusa.

Asakusa – temple area

The cherry blossoms were in bloom as we walked around the big temple area in Asakusa. Lots of people everywhere and very camera friendly. People (mostly tourists) were walking around in kimonos. Our first snack was a taiyaki, a fish-shaped pancake with a red bean or sweet potato filling.  Later on, we also had steamed meat buns for lunch and then some green tea Kitkats. Those Kitkats actually became an obsession during the trip, as well as other unique Japanese flavors we could find in the many, many convenience and grocery stores we went into.

Our first dinner was a tonkatsu meal in the Hamakatsu restaurant an easy train ride away. By the taste of that fried pork chop and its condiments, we knew we were in for an excellent trip foodwise. The Asahi beer was perfect to go with the meal.

Matsugaya, Ueno park and Ginza

The next day, we continued our walk around the Asakusa temples and then went into the Matsugaya area. There are tons of specialized stores there on different streets, for example the kitchenware stores. I almost bought a Hello Kitty rice ball shaper, so cute!

Then we stocked up on supplies for a picknick lunch and went to Ueno park. When the cherry trees are in bloom, there’s a constant family party in the park. After our picnic, we perused the food stalls and had some grilled sakura flavored marshmallows, more steamed buns and beer. It was a great day in the sunny weather.

When night fell, we went into the Ginza area for some shopping and then had our first bowl of ramen from a small noodle shop. We chose our meals from a number of plastic displays, got a ticket from a machine and then the noodle bowl was made to order. So tasty!

For dessert, we went to one of those uniquely Japanese places – a maid café in Chiyoda. This was one of the larger, more family-friendly chains (Maidreamin) but it was still kind of weird to see young Japanese girls dance around us in their maid costumes. We had some ice-cream and cake which were decorated at the table with cute drawings of bunnies and cats. Then it was back to Asakusa for us by metro, and we took a stroll around the well-lit temple area as well.

Tsukiji fishmarket and Nakajima tea house

We had kind of an early start and went to the Tsukiji fishmarket after a quick breakfast at a pancake place. Although most of the fish market has since relocated, we went when the wholesale interior part of the market was still up and running. We came after the big morning rush but were still able to see the fish mongers run around with carts of ice and so many kinds of fish and seafood. There were some kinds of fish that I have absolutely no idea what it was, along with some huge tunas. Although it was too early for sushi for us, we bought some condiments at one of the many shops next to the fish market.

Since it was still mid-morning, we walked to the Hamarikyu park. In the park, there is a lake with the teahouse Nakajima-no-ochaya next to it. We entered (shoes off of course!) and enjoyed a traditional cup of tea on the veranda. It consisted of a cup of matcha tea and a traditional pretty sweet, along with precise instructions for how to drink and eat. Such a great moment to remember! The matcha’s bitterness matched the sweet pastry perfectly and the surroundings were just beautiful.

The weather was excellent so we kept walking and went into the Hibiya park. There were temples, rock gardens, lakes and cherry blossoms so a great place to visit. After a tonkatsu lunch, we picked up our luggage and took the metro to our next area of stay, Shibuya.

And this concludes the first part of the Tokyo posts. We did so much in Tokyo in our five days there that there will be a second part, based in Shibuya.

Next: Two weeks in Japan – part 2.1: Even more Tokyo

Two delicious weeks in Japan – part 1: The basics and the best

In April 2017, we travelled around Japan for two great weeks. We timed the trip perfectly with the cherry blossoming. It was an amazing trip both food wise and for all the sights and impressions. Here’s our two week itinerary, divided into parts.

Part 1 – The basics and the best

Let’s start with the basics:
  • Where did we go?
    Tokyo > Hakone > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Hiroshima > Fukuoka
  • When did we go?
    The first weeks of April, perfect for the cherry blossoming (sakura)
  • How did we travel?
    In Tokyo: local trains, otherwise mostly fast trains (shinkansen) and a domestic flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo
  • Would we go again?
    Tomorrow if I could! 
The itinerary
  • Day 1-5                          Tokyo
  • Day 6-7                          Hakone
  • Day 8-10                        Kyoto (day trip to Nara and Osaka)
  • Day 11-12                      Hiroshima (day trip to Miyajima island)        
  • Day 13                           Fukuoka

Some of the best foodie experiences (but too many to choose from really!)

Travel companions

 

Next: Part 2 – Experiencing Tokyo from Asakusa