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Posts tagged “UNESCO world heritage sites

Tanjavore

DAY 0 (Planning)
It was 2 months since my last trip, the long trek up sandakphu. Now it was time for another, only this time with family instead of friends.

Given the short time in hand and lack of interesting spots to visit, I decided to visit some temple towns this time; ironic for me given that I am a pseudo atheist. Mother and sister wanted to though, so the trip was on.

The plan was to tour only two towns, thanjavore and madurai and back in 3 days. All via train.

DATE Day Source Start Time Destination End Time Time Mode
SAT 23/02/2018 1 BLR 19:00 TJ 4:48 10 Train
SUN 24/02/2018 2 TJ TJ
MON 25/02/2018 3 TJ 6:22 MDU 10:00 4 Train
TUE 26/02/2018 4 MDU 6:00 BLR 4:00 6 Train

Booked all the hotels and train tickets 2 months in advance.

 

Day 1 (Bangalore to Thanjavore)
We had a late evening train from bangalore ; caught it at majestic as usual and was onboard by 7 p.m departure time. Now the food in IRCTC trains isn’t exactly reputed so to speak. I took the risk nonetheless, idli-vada it was and was it ..bad. The idlis were rock hard. To get that taste of the mouth, ordered “biryani” but that ended up equally bad, yellow colored rice is all. Disappointed with the dinner, it was time to forget it all. On the way to tanjavore, we passed by the railway track next to my house. We always did wonder where that track went on our usual weekend walk, well now we knew. If only there was was station next to my home. Our train was scheduled to reach TJN at 5 a.m.

 

Day 2 (TJN)
Spot on time , we reached TJN by 5.30 a.m. TJN station was clean and maintained well, as expected from small town stations. In darkness , Gmaps showed is the route to our hotel, hotel oriental towers. I had booked it close to the station by choice and it took us only 20 minutes by walk to reach the hotel. On the way we passed by the early morning tea stalls serving hot tea to travelers coming in/out of the town.

The hotel looked grand from the outside, is atleast 20 floors I think. The receptionist was fast asleep; probably cursed me when i had to wake him up from his slumber. He gave us the room on the top most floor which turned out to be mistake. The hotel itself is excellent; old paintings and sculptures adorn the halls and dim lighting gives a nice old world feel. Its definitely worth a stay. However It was summer already in TJN and without AC, the top floor rooms turn into ovens. I of course realized that through the course of the day. After freshening up, we were out by 8.30 a.m for so.

Oriental hotel

TJN is known for its authentic tamilian cuisine, the breakfast is especially good. Gmaps and trip advisor pointed us to sree krishna bhavan. Located only 1 km away from our hotel, it was rated one of the best in TJN, totally worth the 1km was our opinion. So we began the short long walk through TJN.

Streets of TJN

The restaurant had just opened it doors and we were probably the first ones in. Hot idilis, masala dosa and puri was the order. The breakfast is served with 2 delicious chutneys and the dosa was absolutely massive, almost too much for one person. We were pleased with it; especially my mom; sort of tired of eating the ultra liquidy sambar from BLR.

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After the hearty breakfast , it was time to start our sightseeing; the most famous one of TNK being the Brihadishvara Temple. It is one of the largest South Indian temples and an exemplary example of a fully realized Dravidian architecture.Built by Raja Raja Chola I between 1003 and 1010 AD, the temple is a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was never much interested in temples but UNESCO world heritage sights have always been on my checklist.

Managed to negotiate the 2 kms to the temple for 100INR and we were there in no time. The temple complex is massive, easily the biggest one I have seen. It is classified as a living temple; which means that it is not just an architectural wonder; there are live ceremonies always going on; some one is getting married, offerings to the god etc. all in parallel in the multiple ‘mini temples’ within the complex. Before going, slippers and bags have to given way; in the heat of the sun, walking barefoot on hot rocky ground is problematic but can’t be helped.

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The main temple is massive and over a 1000 years old; thousands of carvings adorn the walls and a proper guide could probably explain the the history of it all. A very old & large nandi statue guards the entrance to the temple. We joined the long line of devotees entering the temple. After a wait of about 30 minutes in the line darshan was finally possible and we headed back out ; it out in sweltering heat.  Thankfully the large complex has some rest spots.

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After a quick drink of water and few more shots of the complex, we were out.

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Next up was the Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex , about 2 kms away with 100 INR for an auto. To be honest, the ‘palace’ is not well maintained; its not really a complete palace either , just parts of it. Over 200 years old, the complex comprises of Sardar Mahal Palace, the queen’s courtyard and the Durbar Hall.

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A reasonable part of the palace is in ruins, but what remains is good enough for a single visit. There is a couple of small museums within & near the palace which one can visit for a small price. The museum contains sculptures and carvings hundreds of years old and could potentially take hours of time if one were really interested. I spent about an hour here.

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Apart from the these two major sightseeing spots, there isn’t much to see in TJN. There is the sivaganga park though which local visit on cool evenings but given the heat, we just decided to skip this to rest in the hotel and get some of those sweaty clothes washed.

The temperature cooled down a bit further in the evening and thus time for some dinner; Aranya Nivas was universally rated to be the best restaurant in TJN; especially the traditional thali. Even though it is located about 1.5 kms away from the oriental hotel, we decided it was worth it; we may never visit TJN again in life after all.

For a small town, TJN had a reasonable bit of traffic. After some hectic navigation, we finally reached aranya nivas. There is a general seating area and another AC seating area inside. The general seating was full, so we moved to the AC seating area which was empty.

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Our order, dosa, paneer pulao and nan-panner curry was decent enough; but we definitely wanted to try the traditional meal which was unavailable for dinner.So after a nice heavy dinner and the long walk back, it was time to hit the bed; our train was for the early next morning.

DAY 2 (To Madurai from TJN)
Our train to Madurai was scheduled for 6 am with the travel time to madurai 3 Hrs+. On the way to madurai, the journey was amazing. The fog lining the fields a few feet above the ground and relatively cooler temperature along with a hot cup of coffee, perfect for morning. Of course we knew it was going to get much worse soon, madurai is known to get very hot in the summer season. We reached madurai by 9 a.m or so; I had booked an hotel hardly a km from the railway station, so it was an easy walk to the hotel. Before reaching the hotel though, some breakfast need to be had. One specialty of Tamil nadu , in general, is definitely the awesome breakfast. Where else can find so many varieties of chutneys and all so delicious.

Yummy !

After an awesome breakfast, we arrived at our hotel which only 10 minutes away. There were only two sightseeing spots on our list, Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace and Meenakshi Amman Temple. It is always ideal to visit a temple in the evening, so that was postponed to the next day; which means the palace was on our list for the day. The advantage of a small town is that all the major spots are always close to visit; so was the palace located only 1.5 kms away. Google maps as usual helped reach the spot in most efficient way.

Thirumalai Nayak Palace is a 17th-century palace erected in 1636 AD by King Thirumalai Nayak, a king of Madurai’s Nayaka dynasty who ruled Madurai from 1623–59, in the city of Madurai, India. This Palace is a classic fusion of Dravidian and Rajput styles. The building, which can be seen today, was the main Palace, in which the king lived. The original Palace Complex was four times bigger than the present structure. In its heyday, the palace was considered to be one of the wonders of the South.

There is a small entrance fee for the regular entrance; in the evening , a sound and light show is organized with some additional fee. The palace is reasonably well preserved and worth a visit.

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We were done with palace by 5 p.m or so and then it was the long 2 km walk back to the hotel. On the way , some dinner and hit the bed.

Day 3 (Madurai and back to BLR)
The most famous attraction of madurai is obviously the Meenakshi temple complex. The complex now houses 14 gopurams (gateway towers), ranging from 45–50m in height, with the southern gopura tallest at 51.9 metres (170 ft). The complex has numerous sculpted pillared halls such as Ayirakkal (1,000 pillar hall), Kilikoondu-mandapam, Golu-mandapam and Pudu-mandapam.

We left for madurai temple early in the morning; on the way to the temple , we barely escaped getting ‘tricked’; an auto wallah met us on the road and told us that men were not allowed into the temple without a “veshti” or a lungi; legs must be covered which was true. However for 10 INR only , promising to take us to the temple dropped us off at an clothes emporium selling expensive sarees. No doubt he had sort of arrangement with them.  Having been in similar situations before, we decided to bypass entering the shop and walked off to find a store where we could purchase an expensive veshti ; after an hours of roaming the streets around the temple, we finally managed to find a shop selling one priced at 100 INR.

Now phones and cameras are not allowed inside the temple; so i could not record anything even for memories sake. After depositing shoes for safe keeping, we entered the complex through the eastern gate. There is an entrance from each of the directions, the complex spread over many acres.

The complex is quite vast; with multiple temples. We immediately entered the main deity temple first; there was a reasonably long line. The guards do not allow more than few seconds of sighted worship per devotee , so this was done pretty fast. On the way out, there are outlets selling snacks and delicacies at a reasonable prince which we were glad to purchase and gobble up. At various point , there are centuries old sculptures of various deities; the scale of the temple is mind boggling. After exiting the roofed temple complex, we entered the 1000 pillar museum which again has hundreds of sculptures. At another point, we witnessed a live puja with the aid of an elephant. Walked a bit more and an ongoing marriage; all these simultaneously happening is what makes this a ‘living temple’.

All this walking and it was almost time to check out of our hotel; 12 p.m is what was told to us. But our train out of madurai was scheduled for 6.30 p.m ; so we had many hours to kill and not a single sightseeing spot left to see, in madurai i.e. Well there are a couple of temples but we were done with out share of temples for the trip. Movie and mall came to my mind; under normal circumstances I despise malls but there was no choice left to us whatsoever. It was terribly hot out in the open and there was no where left to go.

There is only one mall in madurai, Vishal de mall and there were only two hindi movies running in the theatre at that time. The mall-theatre were located about 20 minutes away from the station, We deposited our luggage in the madurai station clock room and caught an auto to the mall.Ran my calculations and realized that we would be cutting in too close to train’s departure at 6.30 p.m; the movie was 2.5 hours long and scheduled to start at 3 p.m. So we decided to skip movie altogether and head to the food court to kill time.

There wasn’t much variety as such in the food court either but at least it was ‘cool’. I ordered a burger meal while mom & sister went in for some chettinad rice combo. Both were high on price and average on taste.

 

 

At 6.30 p.m we finally departed for bangalore. A good temple run had finally come to an end !


Day 3 (in and around hoi an)

Early morning flights are always difficult to catch ; we managed with some difficulty. The morning bus from Trong Ah Nang dropped us off at the domestic terminal for our departure to Hoi-An. We reached our destination airport by 9.30 a.m and the driver was already at the location to pick us up and drop off at the hotel.

It is an hour’s journey from the airport to the hotel and along the route was a beautiful sea shore lined by large number uber luxury resorts. On the way , we spotted the famous marble mountain which happens to be another famous sight seeing spot; unfortunately though not a part of our itinerary.

Marble Mountain on the way to the Jade hotel

Hoi-An , Danang are still not the world tourist map but the the rate of growth suggested that soon they would be. Jade hotel staff welcomed us with some fresh fruits and we checked into a nice room by 11 a.m. It was a welcome change from the dulll room at Dablend hostel.

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Hoi-An is quaint little town with very old world feel; wide roads with small restaurants lining them.

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Since I had lost my glasses the day before and Karthik had missed bringing his; it was time to purchase one. GMaps again helped us locate the closest Sunglasses store which was hardly a kilometer away. The store had a variety of sun glasses on sale, from Gucci, Ray Ban and multiple other international brands; all fake obviously. How do I know? The price of course !. A rayban costed us only 400 INR ; it should have costed us 10 times that amount. Regardless, we purchased a pair and proceeded to have quick lunch since we were expected to meet up with the driver at 1 p.m. While walking towards the restaurant, we realized that the best and most fun way to tour Hoi-An is via bi cycle; we saw dozens of people doing so. “An Nhu” quay Chay located on the street near the Jade Hotel promised delicious Veg food at a low price. It lived up the promise; I tasted my first veg noodle soup in Vietnam and it was delicious and economical. This would become one of my favorite dishes in vietnam in the days to come.

Noodle Soup

We caught up with our driver on the way back who came with our guide. We were transferred to Hoi-An old town located 3 Kilometers away from Jade hotel.

Old Town Hội An, the city’s historic district, is recognized as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century, its buildings and street plan reflecting a unique blend of influences, indigenous and foreign. The most famous & frequented sightseeing spots would be

Japanese Covered Bridge
Fukian Assembly Hall
Cantonese Assembly Hall
Museum of Sa Huỳnh Culture
Museum of Trade Ceramics

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A large number of cafes dot the streets of Hoi-An; large influx of western tourists combined with the natural affinity of the Vietnamese towards coffee is probably the reason. The sightseeing spots themselves aren’t too attractive to be honest ; but hoi-an as a town has an old word charm with its the yellow colored concrete structures. The beach at Hoi-An is also quite famous from what I had heard but we did not get a chance to visit it. As a part our itinerary, we got to visit a silk manufacturing facility and witnessed the process of making & weaving silk first hand. We were expected to make the customary purchase; i just ended up purchasing a silk scarf for my sister. On the way out though, we noticed some very cool artwork made from duck shells along with some cheap 1$ lanterns . We ended up inflating our bill by many thousand INR. To add to it, a T shirt store on the main street showed us some pretty cool looking T shirts and we ended purchasing few of those as well. Each T shirt cost us around 100K VNDs which was a lot for a T-Shirt! (It should have ideally costed us only 60K VND)

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Hoi-An turns especially beautiful at night with multi-colored lanterns lighting the street. I can only imagine how beautiful it would be during the lantern festival. It is probably the famous Hoi-An lantern festival along with old preserved architectural buildings which earned it UNESCO world heritage site status. To kill time in order to actually stay around till night from late afternoon, we embarked on a quest to find the famous Banh-Mi; a baguette filled with meat & vegetables. Since me and karthik were vegetarians, it was a challenge to find a veg version of the banh-mi. We must have walked at least 3-4 kms through the markets but were enable to located single restaurent selling a veg banh-mi. We finally located one store which was selling one veg variant with cheese, onion and sauces but servers used same chop sticks  set to serve the beef, pork and then the cheese in the veg variant. Karthik being a pure vegetarian refused but I didn’t; it tasted exactly as it looked. Cheese & onion with spicy sauces between bun. It was late evening by the time I was done with my Banh-Mi and rest of the evening was spent in photography of Hoi-An which truly turns radiant in the night.

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On our way back, we discovered another delicacy of Hoi-An which we have been unable to find anywhere else in the world, the legendary Milk Tea. Recipes contain tea of some kind, flavors and/or milk, as well as sugar (optional). Toppings, such as chewy tapioca balls (also known as pearls, or boba), popping boba, fruit jelly, grass jelly, agar jelly, and puddings are often added. Each glass cost us only 20K VNDs and we sipped on one for an hour walking through the beautiful Hoi-An streets. We liked it so much that we purchased another one and sipped on that one as we walked towards the hotel at 10 p.m. in the night.

Milk Tea !!

After reaching the hotel, Karthik decided to take a dip in the cold waters of the swimming pool; made sense since we are leaving early morning for My-Son and there wouldn’t be any time left. I skipped that getting wet unnecessarily and completed my blog notes for the day by the pool side. Unfortunately , something unfortunate happened here. Karthik handed me his ancestral gold ring for safe keeping as he went for a swim. Well, I ended up losing it. Kept it on the table and forgot all about as I saw there completing my blog. It was only the next morning that we realized the horrid mistake.

By the pool side at Jade hotel

By 11 p.m we were done for the night ; ready for My-Son the next morning.

>> On to Day 4


Day 5 (To Phong Na & Paradise Cave)

The tour guide to Phong na,Huang, picked us up at 6.30 a.m from canary hotel. We had mostly vietnamese as part of the tour which made things sort of difficult for us; all of them were going to paradise cave with us. On the way , we picked up a lot of foreigners who were travelling to explore Phong Na, our destination of the day.

About Phong Na
Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2003, the remarkable Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park contains the oldest karst mountains in Asia, formed approximately 400 million years ago. Riddled with hundreds of cave systems – many of extraordinary scale and length – and spectacular underground rivers, Phong Nha is a speleologists’ heaven on earth.The Sơn Đoòng Cave, which was discovered in the 2009 survey by British and Vietnamese explorers, is considered the largest cave in the world. Even before this discovery, Phong Nha held several world cave records, including the longest underground river as well as the largest combined caverns and passageways

It was a long 5 hour journey to Phong Na National Park and it was lunch time by the time we reached. Lunch on the way was served on rotating round table; most of it was non-veg and we had a very hard time eating especially when surrounded by Vietnamese who seemed to be having a lot of fun and we had trouble even picking up a finger chip using chop sticks. While having lunch, I read up on Phong na and realized this was one place which deserved 3-4 days atleast. The Son-Doong cave is the crown jewel of the phong na and at the time of the blog, only one tour operator offered a trek through the cave and costing a mammoth 3.5K USD for the 5 day trek. I promised my self to return some day for the trek.

The entrance to Paradise Cave was located another 30 minutes bus ride away; we huddled into the bus and by mid-day, we arrived at Paradise Cave. It about half hour of trek up from the ticketing point to reach the actual entrance.

Paradise Cave
Surrounded by forested karst peaks, this remarkable cave system extends for 31km, though most people get to visit the first kilometre only. The scale is breathtaking, as wooden staircases descend into a cathedral-like space with colossal stalagmites and glimmering stalactites. Get here early to beat the crowds, as during peak times (early afternoon) tour guides shepherd groups using megaphones. Paradise Cave is about 14km southwest of Son Trach. Electric buggies (per person one way/return 15,000/25,000d) ferry visitors from the car park to the entrance.

Our guide have us only an hour to explore the cave but quite frankly one can spend an entire day soaking in the breathtaking beauty. The vibrant colored cave structures which took millions of years to form, its truly awe inspiring.

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We were out by 1 p.m or so; our guide was a bit unhappy with our ‘late exit’ ; thankfully the other members of the group while out early were much slower to walk down and we weren’t weakest link. The only thing left now was to rewind through all the happy memories while stuck in the bus for another 4 hours or so. We were dropped off at a convenient point in Hue and took us another hour to reach canary hotel.

Dinner was pending though. A google search that “nook’s cafe” was rated very highly by tourists. It was half hour walk away from canary hotel but we didn’t mind that, Hue really comes alive in the evenings.

Nook’s cafe is a fairly expensive place ; we ordered the tofu noodles (dry) , veg noodle soup and a veg roll. The highlight of the meal was karthik finding egg in his tofu noodles; as a pure vegetarian that was a major put off for him. But not wanting to waste food, we continued eating and managed to complete the meal with some difficulty.

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Another half hour back to the hotel and we called it a day

>> On to Day 6


Day 7 – (Hanoi to Hoa Lu/Tam-Coc)

The location of the asia travels is located hardly 500 meters from pillow backpackers hostel; unfortunately we had to miss the free breakfast at the hostel, again. Well, you win some,lose some. We were greeted by Huang, our guide at asia travels along with many other tourists at about 8 a.m in the morning (We walked to the meeting point). A mini van picked us up near the office and subsequently picked 11 people along the way. We had a nice mixed group; an Australian elderly couple, a couple from Ecuador who were on their honeymoon for 5 months travelling across the world, 2 German teachers and few more. Hoa Lu/Tam Coc is located at a fair distance from Hanoi and me & karthik caught up on some much needed sleep in the van. The road to Tam coc changes quite a bit towards the end; one realizes why it is called halong bay on land. Large limestone formations are visible on the horizon and this area ,a part of the famous Trang An Landscape Complex deserves its UNESCO world heritage site tag.

Unfortunately as soon we reached Hua lu, it started raining like no tomorrow and we ended up purchasing rain jackets from a local vendor unnecessarily for 30000 VND each. Rain is generally not expected in April but weather is a bit unpredictable in the Vietnamese spring. So anyways the rain jackets were quite flimsy, just polythene layer structured into a jacket but we had no choice.Our guide though wasn’t going to allow the  heavy rain to stop the show; and to be frank, me and karthik quite enjoyed getting drenched. The cloudy weather added a moodish layer to our shots which we liked. Having said that, it was extremely difficult to take shots in the rain. But we did nonetheless, more on that later.

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So anyways, Hao Lu was the capital of Vietnam in the 10th/11th century and the location itself comprises of multiple temples dedicated to the kings of the time. Our trip included visits to the Temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng and Temple of Đinh Tiên Hoàng. While architecturally, these are not that impressive but the mountain background adds to the charm.Our guide was busy explaining the history of the temples but the incessant rain made the over experience a bit difficult. Overall though the place is still worth a visit and one can spend at least an hour here easily.

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Next up was the visit to Tam coc and a boating trip through the limestone formations amidst the rice fields. Before that though, it was the vietnamese lunch buffet at a local restaurant located at the tam coc wharf. The buffet was a good one with lot of variety including beef pizza, pork noodles, fish fingers and a lot more; only there was very little for vegetarians.Me & karthik hunted around for vegetarian food, asking the waiters in English who had no idea what were were talking about. Somehow with difficulty, we were able to ‘screen’ the food and select some items which at least looked vegetarian to our less trained eyes. The ice breaker conversation at the lunch table mostly revolved around the travels of the couple from Ecuador who spoke of their travels around the world; from Iceland to Europe; from Nepal to India and then pretty much the whole of South East Asia. It sure gave me some awesome travel goals. The Germans seated in front of us were teachers and were on 10 day Vietnam tour; they intended to travel to India but were apprehensive due to safety concerns. We allayed their fears with some safety travel tips. Meanwhile, the rain showed no signs of abating but our guide urged us to take the boat ride nonetheless.

The wharf was fairly crowded and the sampan boats while a bit rickety can carry two people plus a rower.

@ Tam Coc Wharf

Life Vests on and off we were. The rowers use their legs to row the boat and its almost 5 kms up and down ; there were quite a few boats along the river stretch as well. The scenery starts off plain enough, there a couple of nice hotels overlooking the river stretch. Its only after you pass the first over bridge that the stunning view comes into sight and what a sight it is.

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A meandering stretch of water through the paddy fields with gigantic limestone rocks on both sides, it is truly a magnificent sight !!. The rain made it very difficult to take any shots whatsoever. So me and karthik made a pact. I would risk my DSLR taking shots in the rain and he wouldn’t so that we would have at least one camera functional for halong bay, in case mine conks; it was totally worth it. The mystical mountains, the rain, the wind and the boat slowly making its way through the giant rocks, it was magical. We passed through at least two caves on the stretch; the water itself though is not too deep at hardly 1.5 meters.

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The paddy fields which would have glistened a bright green on a sunny day were now misty green. The water was actually warm compared to the cold weather. There is another boat which will offer to take snap of your once in a lifetime sampan boat ride but beware ! ; they charge a hefty amount to process the snap. At the end of the 2 km stretch there are other boats selling souvenirs at a hefty price. The boat makes a U turn here and follows the same route all the way back to the wharf.

The only negative of the entire trip happened here; the boatman decided to offload himself somewhere midway and shift boats and demanded a hefty tip of 50000 VND from us which we had no problem giving us such. His replacement too demanded a fee of 50000 VND at the end point which is sort of ridiculous and in fact did not row the boat to the shore until we paid up. Tipping is perfectly acceptable but this was daylight robbery. (we ensured to write a note on this to the operator). The tour was supposed to end with a bike ride through the country side but it was cancelled due to the incessant rain. Drenched and cold but with warm memories, the van made its way back to our hostel.

A quick change of clothes and karthik informed me that his friend from Delphi, Nikhil along with his wife was at the hanoi old quarter hardly 500 meters away from pillow backpackers hostel. Nikhil had travelled to Hanoi from Shanghai for the weekend. He caught with him and made our way to Hanoi Night market. Hanoi Night market is shopping haven setup impromptu in the evenings at long stretch of blocked street in the evening by traders and vendors. Brightened by array of lights and myriad shops offering everything from shoes, jewelry, clothes and what not, it is a must visit in Hanoi; even the name sounds something straight out of a fairy tale book.

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We covered a major part of the stretch without really purchasing anything but we did try out a few of the local delicacies. Hanoi’s version of milk ice cream or kulfi  which which comes in a variety of flavors (5000 VND only), a gooey sticky strawberry gum on a stick (5000 VND) and instantly prepared ice cream roll (20000 VND).

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Night market can easily consume hours of one’s time but we were there just for the experience;also  most of the items sold looked fake to us. After the exciting tour of the night market, the hunt for a vegan restaurant was on the cards. Google helped us out here and Min Chay located hardly 500 meters away from the night market seemed like a good choice. The food was good ; we ordered the vegan noodle soup along with Vegan Banh Mi. The decor is interesting and the overall it is a bit expensive. (But note that vegan food is a bit hard to find in a hardcore meat eating country)

After a hearty dinner, we separated ways from nikhil ; the night was still young and we weren’t sleepy. Egg coffee is a pretty famous specialty drink unique to Vietnam; a number of stores around us were in fact selling it. Depending on the class of the cafe, the price can very from 20000 VND to 80000 VND. It was a one time experience; so I decided to visit the best one in the vicinity and splurged 87000 VND on a barely half cup of coffee. To be honest, totally not worth it! Egg yolk mixed with regular coffee; that’s it. What a disappointment (or maybe I don’t have a connoisseur’s tongue). Whatever the case, on the way, a street side vendor selling  T shirts convinced us into buying a “Vietnam Experience” T shirt for 50000 VND. Not a bad deal for the end of the night. Satisfied, we hit the bed by 10.30 pm ready for halong bay the next day.

>> On to Day 8


Day 6 (In & Around Hue)

We were scheduled to be picked up by 8 a.m or so and the complimentary breakfast at the Canary hotel did not disappoint; and for once we were not in a hurry either.

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Jack (our tour guide) arrived by 8.30 am in front of the hotel and an air conditioned bus greeted us.
About Hue
Huế is a city in central Vietnam that was the seat of Nguyễn Dynasty emperors from 1802 to 1945, and capital of the protectorate of Annam. A major attraction is its vast, 19th-century citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. It encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines; the Forbidden Purple City, once the emperor’s home; and a replica of the Royal Theater. The city was also the battleground for the Battle of Huế, which was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.

Some of the notable sights in Hue include
Thien Mu Pagoda
The Perfume River
Hue Citadel, The Imperial City
The Tombs of the Emperors: Tomb of Tu Duc
The Japanese Bridge: Thanh Toan Bridge
The Tombs of the Emperors: Tomb of Khai Dinh
Lady Buddha pagoda
Minh Mang Tomb
Royal Museum

First up was a quick visit to the local market; lot of fresh produce and we ended up purchasing quite a few eatables.

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Next on the list was the top attraction of Hue, the Imperial city. The Imperial City is a walled palace within the citadel (Kinh thành) of the city of Huế, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. Jack was very knowledgeable about the history of Vietnam; overall Vietnam had 13 kings, last one was in the year 1945 and most of them had lot of wives. Apparently some kings are not worshiped since they were incompetent. The imperial city is huge ; I saw a few folks using the motorized car although we just had to walk for all the distance.  Most of the imperial city was destroyed during the Vietnam war but is being rebuilt by the government.

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The imperial city is huge and 3 layered. The inner most is the ‘forbidden city’ which is where the king, wives and the eunuchs resided. Inside one of the temples, one can buy Vietnamese coins, stamps and few other artifacts.  It was a special occasion on that day and we caught a glimpse of many kids performing traditional dance right in front of the main temples. Most of the temples require a knee deep pant/skirt; thank god our half pants were size of 3/4.

After about an hour at Imperial City, Lady Buddha pagoda was up next. The only fact that I remember is that an old monk is buried there; the honor given because the monk helped rally the Vietnamese against the french. We toured the place for half hour or so before being taken to the nearby wharf to board one of the boats for a gentle 20 minutes ride on the perfume river which happens to be the life line of Hue city.

Boat Ride on the perfume

The boat was a typical tourist boat; the owner, a lady offered to sell some souvenirs to us. This was their way only source of income; while I intended to purchase some, they were simply too expensive. Cheaper variants were available outside.

After the boat ride, the tomb of emperor Ming Mang was up next. Almost every mausoleum comprised of the same basic key elements; the ministers at the entrance, a housing containing the exploits of the king, 2 large pillars to help the emperor’s journey in the afterlife and the burial site itself. Ming Mang’s mausoleum had some very beautiful koi fish and we spent 5K VND to purchase a packet of fish food.

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The last on our trip was the Mausoluem of Khai Dinh; the one which was the most expensive to build and understandably so; the interior are all colored ceramic.

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The last activity for the day for Incense stick creation; I did not participate in this particular activity; Karthik did though and even he wasn’t game to buy a bunch of incense sticks for 80K VNDs each.

At the end of the journey, we paid a tip of 50K VNDs to jack and another 25K VNDs to the driver before waving good bye. It was almost 4 p.m by the time we were dropped of at the canary hotel ; our pick up was scheduled for 5 p.m or so and an hour was spent on just loitering around at the lounge. The hue airport is almost 15 Km away and our driver was right on time. We were a little too early; there wasn’t much to do. The hue airport has a nice ‘town airport’ feel to it. There are a couple of souvenir shops and a few restaurants as well. I had a go at another bowl of hot noodle soup at the airport cafe; priced at 70K VNDs, a bit expensive but not too much,

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We found Vietnam airlines flight had much better leg room as compared to our previous Vietjet flight and is therefore recommend over others. After an hour or so, we reached Hanoi. There is a bus station right outside the airport and the bus dropped us off in hanoi old quarters which happens to be about 45 minutes away from the airport even in 0 traffic situation. GMaps helped us located Pillow backpackers which is located smack dab middle of the old quarters.

It was our first experience in a dorm of a hostel. There were 8 beds overall and the overall ‘feel’ of the place was interesting to say the least. Already checked-in folks very chatting, net surfing etc. We just huddled into our beds, closed the sheets and were off to bed.

>> On to Day 7


Day 4 (Mỹ Sơn & onwards to Hue)

For once, we had a chance to taste the “free breakfast” at an originally booked hotel. The spread at the Jade hotel was pretty good, a typical English breakfast spread. The pool side table only made it better.

Our driver arrived by the designated time of 8 a.m. Mỹ Sơn is located about 50Kms away from Hoi-An ; is about 60 minutes away by car the road was pretty smooth.

About Mỹ Sơn
Mỹ Sơn is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD by the kings of Champa. The temples are dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva, known under various local names, the most important of which is Bhadreshvara.Mỹ Sơn is perhaps the longest inhabited archaeological site in Indochina, but a large majority of its architecture was destroyed by US carpet bombing during a single week of the Vietnam War.The Mỹ Sơn temple complex is regarded one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia and is the foremost heritage site of this nature in Vietnam. It is often compared with other historical temple complexes in Southeast Asia, such as Borobudur of Java in Indonesia, Angkor Wat of Cambodia, Bagan of Myanmar and Ayutthaya of Thailand. As of 1999, Mỹ Sơn has been recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

The entrance is located about a Kms walk from the main ticket gate/ticket counter. The paved pathway leads to a motorized Cart stand; the carts transfer the tourist another 1km to the main ruins site. It was interesting to find an ‘Indian Connect’ so far away from home.

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The overall ruins complex is not that large; there are probably only 5- temples complex and a lot of restoration work was ongoing at the time of the vist; a collaboration between the Indian and vietnamese government.

We strolled around the archaeological site for about an hour or so; listening to our guide narrating the history of the champa people. To be honest, the site itself wasn’t too extraordinary for us since we had been to such ruins multiple times back home in India. What was interesting though a religion had spread very far away from its source hundreds of years ago.

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The highlight of the evening had to be song & dance performance by the performance group towards the end of the tour. It lasted for about half hour and was well appreciated by the audience.

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So overall, we were done with Mỹ Sơn in about 1.5 hours and it was quite an experience. Lunch was a part of the itinerary and we returned to Hoi-An for a quick lunch on the other side of the canal. It was unfortuante but we realized we were about to miss a very unique side of Hoi-An; this side was almost themed like a modern Riviera. We missed this side on the previous day primarily due to the lack of knowledge.

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We definitely wanted to spend more time here but our driver requested us to finish our lunch fast so as to catch the bus to Hue on time. The lunch was delicious and was a part of the itinerary but should cost some one in the range of 100K VNDs since it was a five course meal. (I ended up breaking an expensive glass here)

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The bus from Hoi-An to Hue was a very interesting one; it was a very large sleeper bus with three columns. The operator was ‘the sinhtourist’ and I would highly recommend this operator when in vietnam. They were professional and the bus is very comfortable.

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On the way to Hue, we passed by the beautiful city of danang again. While I wanted to take in the sights further, my body did not comply and I just fell asleep. The bus averaged at 40Km/hr ; so the journey was very comfortable although a bit slow.

When my eyes opened next, we were at Hue.

Thankfully canary hotel was located only half a Km away from the drop off location ; Gmaps as usual pointed to the precise location and we checked In by 3pm or so. The rooms were as per expectation ; very clean.

We had the rest of the day to our selves and there wasn’t much to do. So we got some laundry done and took a quick nap before heading out in the evening for supper.

About Hue
Huế is a city in central Vietnam that was the seat of Nguyen Dynasty emperors and the national capital from 1802 to 1945. A major attraction is its vast, 19th-century Đại Nội Citadel, surrounded by a moat and thick stone walls. It encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines; the Forbidden Purple City , once the emperor’s home; and a replica of the Royal Theater.

Hue is a very urban large town-city with hundred of cafe’s and restaurants; worth mentioning since the density is very high.

Walking around Hue, we were offered Marijuana more times than we can remember. We ended the night with dinner at Nina’s cafe which was rated very highly on Google reviews.

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>> On to Day 5


Day 0 (The Pre-Planning Phase)

The Pre Planning Phase
The very idea of visiting vietnam was arrived upon during the afternoon long discussion with karthik and Sanjeeva; Sanjeeva got his passport rejected, twice !. The original plan was to visit Egypt but it required us to wait for a month for approval of Sanju’s passport; we did but fate had other plans. By the time sanju’s passport arrived, it was too late and we had to select a destination ‘cool enough’ (literally) to visit in the tropical regions in the hot months of April-May. After hours of time spent on cursing sanju for delaying the plan , Thailand, Egypt, Philippines, Malaysia etc were out due to tropical summer ; google rescued us from the dilemma. Vietnam happens to be a cool 25-30C in the spring; perfect for vacationing. I was skeptical of visiting Vietnam initially; but the country blew my mind !! More of that in the blog.

  1. Vietnam Visa is fairly easy to obtain and we applied from one of our government approved website for a fairly decent price of 25$ for single entry (https://vietnamvisa.govt.vn/).
  2. In order to cut overall costs including flights, we took an unlikely route. We traveled from South to North instead of the usual North to South;
    31-March Ho Chi Minh Sightseeing (Landing)
    1st April Mekong , Chu chi tunnels (Take Evening flight to Danang)
    2nd April Danang,Hoi an, myson,Hue,Quang
    3rd April Danang,Hoi an, myson,Hue,Quang
    4th April Danang,Hoi an, myson,Hue,Quang
    5th April Danang,Hoi an, myson,Hue,Quang (Take evening / early morning flight to Hanoi)
    6th April Hao Lu and Tam coc (Hanoi)
    7th April Halong Bay cruise (Hanoi)
    8th April Halong Bay cruise (Hanoi)
    9th April Morning Departure from Ho-Chi-Minh
  • Two internal flights along the route.
    Ho -Chi Ming to Danang
    Danang to Hanoi
  • 1 Return flight across the country back to Ho-Chi Minh and then a flight out of the country. This worked out to be cheaper (50% lower) than a direct flight from Hanoi to India. The internal flights in vietnam were very cheap and thus the plan.The flights from BLR to Ho chi Minh was Air Asia via Bangkok and the flight from Ho-Chi Minh to BLR was via Singapore with scoot. Overall it cost only 15k INR to & fro for the flight in & out of the country from bangalore ; however there was a wait time of at least 3 hours at each of the transit destinations. The internal flights cost us approx 1.5K per Trip which was more than reasonable. So overall, it was approximately 20K INR for flights.
  • The second important thing to consider is that budget airlines are very constrained in terms amount of luggage. Overall, we were allowed only 7KG of cabin luggage with an additional laptop; the size of the luggage carrier too is specific according to the airlines which one is using.So Scoot and Air Asia had slightly different size and baggage allowance. Extra baggage happens to be expensive (that is how budget airlines make money). Well I decided to go minimalist and packed everything in a bag measuring 46*30*20. I essentially packed 3-4 days worth of clothes along with essentials & camera; plan was to wash n wear clothes whenever possible. Overall at the time of departing for Vietnam, my bag weighed only 3.7 Kgs out of which 800 Gms was the camera alone. ;and I still had space left for souvenirs.

Post booking the flights, it was time to plan the trips within Vietnam. Under normal circumstances, I don’t take the pre-packaged operator defined itinerary but due to the shortage of time and vietnam being a huge country , we did not have a choice. We found a number of similar deals on
1. https://www.getyourguide.com
2. https://www.vietnamgrouptour.com

As a matter of fact, our listed trip itinerary was customized to suit the itinerary as provided by the tour operators.

The only pending item was booking our stays. Since our trip was already working out to more expensive than initially planned, we decided to plan out entire stay in hostels. Part of our stay was already taken care of as part of packaged itinerary; but we still had to book 4 days of stay. Dablend hostel in ho chi Minh City and pillow back Packers hostel in Hanoi seemed like a decent choice. Dablend hostel costed us about 600 INR per head per night for a private room. We wanted to book the dorm (which was about 400 INR per head) but felt that Private room would be needed after a journey of 12 hours. Pillow backpackers located in Hanoi old quarter costed us almost the same , only we booked the dorm room this time.

>> On to Day 1


Day 9 (Around halong bay)

After a quick mixed breakfast (Mix of Vietnamese and English) , our guide instructed us to get ready of supposedly the most breathtaking cave of halong bay , surprise cave; so called because each of three partitions within the cave was/is supposed to be more beautiful than the previous and that truly surprises the tourists. We quickly packed our bags as well since the rooms had to be vacated for the next group by 9.30 a.m for cleaning. A few members of the group were traveling to some bunglow in halong bay for an extended stay while another group was going to depart (including us). A another 5 minutes boat ride, we reached surprise cave.

Rightly so , mentioned by our guide, each of partitions overtakes the beauty of the previous one.However, the award for the most beautiful cave still went to paradise cave in our dictionary.

We spent about an hour inside the taking shots ; nothing different if one has already experienced Phong Na.

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On exiting the cave, there is a viewpoint which offers a fantastic view of halong bay.

View from Paradise Cave

After reaching the ship, an early lunch and a part of the group left for their bungalow stay and rest of us chilled at the ship waiting for the bus to arrive from Hanoi as the ship moved towards halong bay port while offering stunning views of halong bay. Me and Karthik spent hours taking shots, relaxing on deck and just enjoying this potentially once in a lifetime experience.

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At about 12 or so, our boat arrived to pick us up and we waived the staff a sad Good bye. A quick boat ride back to the shore and then a long bus ride to Hanoi. It was our last night in Hanoi; time for the last round of shopping. Karthik still had to pick a bunch of T-shirts for his cousin and I had too needed a halong bay t shirt; so it was time to go hunting again. A small shop at the busy street near the lake seemed as good as any ; after some negotiations and half hour of selections, 6 T-shirts were the winners for 300K VNDs . Coupled with the Mini Vietnamese hat for 15K VNDs and the halong bay globe for 100 VNDs, our shopping for Vietnamese souvenirs was finally complete. On the way to pillow backpackers, I picked up my last glass of traditional vietnamese coffee and we just strolled through the old quarter. Karthik on the other hand was still stuck with tasting the milk coffee from Hoi An. A chic shop aptly named “Milk Coffee” presented the opportunity. For 40K VNDs per glass, it tasted ok but not really worth it especially since the milk coffee at Hoi an costed us only 20K VND and was much better. Ah well, the ill effects of commercialization.

We lost track of time and it was almost 11 p.m by the time we reached our hostel and our flight was scheduled for early 7.30 a.m. Time to hit the bed.

Flight Back to Bangalore
The airport shuttle which makes it way through Hanoi found its way to our bus stop at about 4.30 a.m. It saved us the trouble of ‘communicating’ our destination to the taxi drivers. It took us about an hour to get to the airport and costed only 30K VND per head. The first check point on the way was the Ho-Chi Minh. This is how we had booked our ‘return’ to reduce costs. We reached Ho-Chi Minh by 9 a.m or so. The flight out of Saigon was scheduled for 2.30 p.m and as planned, we quickly made our way out and traced the route to the war museum at Saigon, the most famous sight seeing spot of saigon. It took us about 45 mins or so to reach the war museum.

About the war museum
The War Remnants contains exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War involving the French colonialists.
The museum comprises a series of themed rooms in several buildings, with period military equipment placed within a walled yard. The military equipment includes a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter, an F-5A fighter, a BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” bomb, M48 Patton tank, an A-1 Skyraider attack bomber, and an A-37 Dragonfly attack bomber. There are a number of pieces of unexploded ordnance stored in the corner of the yard, with their charges and/or fuses removed.

One building reproduces the “tiger cages” in which the South Vietnamese government kept political prisoners. Other exhibits include graphic photography,[3] accompanied by a short text in English, Vietnamese and Japanese, covering the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and war atrocities such as the My Lai massacre.

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The entry fee at the time of entry was about 40K VND per head. One needs at least 3-4 hours to soak in all the content on display but we had only an hour or so; so it was quick rush through. Most of the exhibits are split between rather graphical photos of the vietnam war and it effects ; and the weapons used by either side during the war. Its not recommended for kids for sure.

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Our flight out of Saigon was scheduled for 2.30 p.m and we were on time; well almost. We reached the airport about an hour before check-in but we didn’t quite factor in the security checks and there was a rather long line. We just made it to the flight and off we were from saigon.

Our first stop on the way was Singapore’s changi airport , known to be the best airport in the world; it surely lived up to its reputation. There are a plethora of eating joints and restaurants ; cushioned resting joints with power outlets and free wifi. I liked it so much that I started searching for ways to immigrate to singapore; the country which boasts of highest density of millionaires in the world.

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We boarded our flight to Bangalore by 9.30 and return to Bangalore was absolutely torture. 4 hours in a very cramped up space was rather unpleasant. 1.30 a.m and we were finally home. I waved karthik goodbye promising to meet soon to exchange photos and this was the end of our awesome journey.!

 

 


Day 8 (To halong bay)

Our guide picked us up at pillow backpackers at 8.30 am and transferred us to a rather congested bus. In all, the tour group had about 15 people from multiple nationalities. Our guide informed us that the ride from Hanoi to halong bay takes 4 hours on average; a rather long one !. A rather chilled out guy, he explained the history of Vietnam along with food preferences, climate etc of the Vietnamese people. We were rather tired due to lack of sleep and just dozed off instead after 15 minutes. Midway though, he noted down the food preferences of everyone.(there were only 4 vegans). There was a pit stop on the way for tourists to freshen up. (Note that everything at such locations is highly over priced and catered to tourists only; a souvenir can cost as much as 5 times the nominal here). A highly disturbed sleep and 4 hours later, we were finally at halong bay. There are approx 700 boats in all at halong bay as told to us and April month is the off season; so fewer boats at the sea comparatively.

Cloudy day @Halong Bay

A small boat took us from the port to the main boat, the grand palace cruise ship. We were given a grand welcome with the staff dropping flowers on us as we climbed up the stairs. The restaurant located at the second flower had a bar but the over priced drinks was of putting. A cool welcoming drink followed by an introduction to the cruise by the captain improved my mood though. It was an over night cruise , followed by an early check out. The room keys were handed over but there was no time to rest ! ; we were expected at the lunch table in 30 minutes. A quick unpacking followed by a couple of shots of the upper deck and wallah ! lunch was served. We were joined at the table by other members, 2 medical students from Germany and another couple from England, Jaime and Sarah. Jaime worked at Rolls Royce and a discussion on Tesla’s latest electric vehicles line served as a quick ice breaker. A lot of the conversation at the table was simply around the difference in culture of wherever each of us was from. The food was fantastic and all credits to the chef to have prepared a fantastic meal on board a not so large boat at sea.

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An hour of lunch and our guide requested all of us to assemble quickly in 20 minutes time to depart for the ‘Ti Top Island’, our first sightseeing stop within halong bay.

Nestled within the multiple lime rock formations was one which stood out; it had a viewing station at the top ! The name Ti Top is named by the most respectful hero of Vietnam, President Ho Chi Minh, after the Russian astronaut German Titop on the occasion of his first visit to Halong Bay in 1962. There are about 400 steps which lead to the top to the viewing station. It was very crowded on that day; how crowded? Well, it took us about 35 minutes to reach the top. A single continuous line of people all the way to the top.

Long line to the top

There is a resting spot at the 200th step for the ones who uninterested in admiring an awesome view of halong bay from the top. And a view it is !! . The only dampener though, as obvious , was the cloudy weather. A bit of mist would have been nice but that too was missing. Regardless , it was still something to remember for a lifetime.Another 20 mins of trek down and we regrouped with the rest.

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Next up was kayaking in halong bay !. Wow. As much as we wanted to, prevailing better sense prevented us from our phones/ dslr’s for kayaking. After regrouping at the main ship, another small boat carried us to the kayaking spot located 5 minutes away. As such it was just another island with a couple of people and kayaking boats. We were helped on to the boats by the helpers and off we were !

This was my third kayaking experience overall and the best one yet. The scenery was amazing, weather cool and the water warm. Me and Karthik synchronized our rowing and overtook most people even though we had started last in the group. There was pieces of plastic trash and we did hope that the Vietnamese government take steps to maintain the pristine waters of halong bay.Half hour of kayaking and we decided to re trace the route; after only 45 minutes was the actual allocated time. Overall it was tiring but wonderful.

Next up, a quick dip in South China Sea. Our guide gave the daring ones (ones who knew swimming i.e) in the group 15 minutes of time for quick dip in the sea. It was long time since I had swum but Karthik though jumped right in and so did sarah and Jamie. I wore a life jacked and followed them; I wasn’t going to miss on this once in a lifetime opportunity! A quick swim around the boat and it was done; what a wonderful way to end the evening’s activities.

By the time we reached the cruise ship, our dinner was already ready and we asked to assemble in 15 minutes of time. Well, by this time, folks familiar with each other had already ‘grouped’ and we sat at the exact same location as during lunch. The food served again was excellent and dinner time conversation was mostly around the awesome day at halong bay. At the dinner, we had to make a difficult choice, karaoke or just chill on the upper deck. Pretty much no one wanted to stress their voice, everyone headed towards the deck, and it was happy hour on deck as well! A beer, cool wind and reclined seat; what more can one ask for.( Well a starry night would have made it perfect). We spent almost an hour just taking shots of everything we could. Most Just relaxed on the deck with a beer in hand. At 10.30 p.m or so , we decided to hit the bed.

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>> On to Day 9


Mahabalipuram

Mamallapuram, or Mahabalipuram, is a town on a strip of land between the Bay of Bengal and the Great Salt Lake, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It’s known for its temples and monuments built by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries. The group of monuments at Mahabalipuram is a collection of 7th- and 8th-century CE religious monuments in the coastal resort town of Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.The site has 40 ancient monuments and Hindu temples.

The entirety of Mahabalipuram can easily be covered in a day. I managed to book a tour via trawell.in for 3.5K INR for pickup and drop in chennai along with sightseeing spots at mahabalipuram. As such this can be done at a much lower price if you manage to reach mahabalipuram using some form of public transport and then rent an auto for the day for 1.5k INR; but I was in a hurry and did not have the time for research.

The following are the sites which I covered in sequence.
1. Shore temple & Beach
The Shore Temple (built in 700–728 AD) is so named because it overlooks the shore of the Bay of Bengal. It is a structural temple, built with blocks of granite, dating from the 8th century AD. Amazing architecture, well maintained with a beautiful garden entrance and with a minor entrance fee of 30INR at the time of my visit. The beach is right next to it but not maintained well at all; its not impressive either , so skip it. Lot of local stalls selling handicrafts, watches etc line the entrance to the beach. A couple of stalls serve food items as well. Spend about 45 minutes here overall

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2. Raya Gopuram
Few hundred meters from the shore temple is the Raya Gopuram; Stone remains of an ancient, unfinished temple entrance with ornate carvings & sculptures. Spend only 5 minutes here

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3. Varaha Cave
Located right next to the raya Gopuram downhill is the varaha cave which is a is a rock-cut cave temple. The most prominent sculpture in the cave is that of Lord Vishnu in the incarnated form of a Varaha or boar lifting Bhudevi, the mother earth goddess from the sea. Also carved are many mythical figures. Spend 5 minutes here.

Varaha Cave

4. Krishna Butter Ball/Trimurthy temple
30 seconds downhill from the varaha cave is Krishna’s Butterball (also known as Vaan Irai Kal[1] and Krishna’s Gigantic Butterball) ; a gigantic granite boulder resting on a short incline in the historical town of Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, India.The boulder is approximately 6 meters high and 5 meters wide and weighs around 250 tons.It stands on an approximately 1.2-meter (4 ft) base on a slope, and is said to have been at the same place for 1200 years.

Attempts have been made for a long time to move the ball but with no success thus making the ball “legendary”. A visit to trimurthy temple which is next to the butter ball is good. Trimurthy temple is another fine example of indian rock cut temple architecture. Spend 20 minutes here overall.

Krishna Butter Ball

5. Ganesh Ratha
Located 30 seconds uphill from Krishna’s butter ball is the Ganesh ratha.It is one of ten rathas (“chariots”) carved out of pink granite within the group of monuments of the Pallava Period at Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO-inscribed World Heritage Site since 1984. Spend 5 minutes here

Ganesha Ratha

6. Arjuna’s penance/Descent of the Ganges
Located on the same road as the entrance to Krishna’s butter ball a minute away and measuring 96 by 43 feet (29 m × 13 m), it is a giant open-air rock relief carved on two monolithic rock boulders. The legend depicted in the relief is the story of the descent of the sacred river Ganges to earth from the heavens led by Bhagiratha. The waters of the Ganges are believed to possess supernatural powers. The descent of the Ganges and Arjuna’s Penance are portrayed in stone at the Pallava heritage site.

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7. Mahabalipuram Light house & Mahishamardini Temple
Located 5 minutes drive away atop a small hillock is the Mahishamardini Temple.

Mahishasuramardhini Temple is an example of Indian rock-cut architecture dating from the late 7th century, of the Pallava dynasty. It is a rock-cut cave temple located on a hill, near a lighthouse, along with other caves in Mamallapuram. Atop the hillock is also India’s oldest lighthouse built in 640 A.D. The new lighthouse lighthouse with a circular masonry tower made of natural stone became fully functional in 1904. I decided not to go up the lighthouse since it was quite crowded as is. Spend about 25 minutes here.

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8. India Sea Shell Museum & aquarium
A relatively newer entry to the list of “sightseeing” spots but an awesome one for sure, this is Asia’s largest sea shell museum housing a breathtaking array of sea shells on display. It was actually a visual overload to visit this place since I had never seen anything quite like this. There was a entry fee of 130 INR at the time of my visit but it is totally worth it. In addition to the Sea shell museum, there is small aquarium as well; not too big but houses at least 50 species of marine life. Mayabazaar offers consumers a range of products to purchase from including handicrafts, sea shells, bags etc.

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9. Pancha Ratas
Pancha Rathas (also known as Five Rathas or Pandava Rathas) is a monument complex at Mahabalipuram. Pancha Rathas is an example of monolithic Indian rock-cut architecture and dates back to late 7th century. Each of the five monuments in the Pancha Rathas complex resembles a chariot (ratha), and each is carved over a single, long stone or monolith, of granite. The structures are named after the Pancha Pandavas and their common wife Draupadi, of epic Mahabharata fame.In order of their size, they include the Dharmaraja Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakula Sahadeva Ratha, and Draupadi Ratha.

There is a small entry fee of about 30INR at the time of my visit and is located 5 minutes away from the sea shell museum. The architecture is marvelous and structures are well maintained. Spend about 15 minutes here

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Overall Mahabalipuram offers an amazing experience of old indian architecture. Totally worth a visit.


Day 3 – Caves @ Dambulla

Day 3 started with breakfast, idiyappam, dal, bananas, chicken curry, tea, watermelon and tea. This was served to us by our hosts and cost us 1200LKR (which we initially thought was free, the 2nd B in AirbnB)

Post waiting at the bus stop for half an hour , we finally got one and reached the dambulla caves junction which was hardly 10 mins away from sanda guest house.

#Dambulla Caves Historical Importance#
Dambulla is the largest and best-preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka. The rock towers 160 m over the surrounding plains.There are a total of 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of gods and goddesses.Prehistoric Sri Lankans would have lived in these cave complexes before the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka as there are burial sites with human skeletons about 2700 years old in this area

The entrance to dambulla caves has a huge pagoda along with The Golden Buddha statue and Dambulla golden temple.

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A flight of stairs next to the golden temple leads up to the dambula caves; however do not proceed without taking tickets (They are checked at the entrance top of the hill and you don’t want to trek all the way down). The ticket station is actually atleast 1/2 km from this point. Take a gate on the left and proceed down the hill to reach a point where there is another flight of stairs leading up. Climb and 50 steps later, a ticket counter is available. International tourists were charged 1500 LKR per person. Continue taking this flight of stairs and a good half an hour later (with breaks), you are at the top.

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There are total 5 main temple caves which one needs to visit. The history of the each of these best left to a wikipedia but all the caves have a plethora of statues and murals worth admiring.

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We met a big group of vietnamese Buddhists monks as well;  on a visit to all holy buddhist sites around the world.

The trek down took us 20 mins and we were quite hungry by the time we reached the bottom. There weren’t too many eateries around, so we just entered one the small bakeries on the street. For 500LKR, three of us ate some of the stuffed baked items (stuffed potato patties, puffs etc). On a full stomach, it was time to plan our journey to sigiriya rock. Reached Sanda guest house, paid the 1400 LKR for breakfast and pushed off to sigiriya rock via bus. The bus can be caught from dambulla main bus stop; the journey took us about an hour.

We checked into our airbnb stay which was located 1 km from the bus stop, decent enough for what we paid.

Sigriya Airbnb stay

Soon enough we realized that there was no money left for dinner. Hah. Precisely calculated the amount of needed for dinner at the “Sigree Cafe” for Sandwitch, Omelette and Fries which came to 1800 LKR which we had thankfully. The problem was the nearest ATM was located quite far away and we weren’t sure that the location was valid enough; it wasn’t worth it walking in the darkness. So back to the room it was; walked in complete darkness listening to ‘Sultans of Swing’, ‘November rain’. We planned out the next day after reaching the room by 11 p.m. Shaheed wasn’t too excited about the next day given that this would be the trek of his life.:)

>>Day 4


Day 4 – Trekking @ Sigiriya

We intended to start the trek by 8 a.m but, well, as expected, it was almost 9.30 a.m by the time we left our stay , let alone start the trek. After a delicious breakfast , our first job was to withdraw cash since barely had enough for previous night’s dinner, let alone the tickets for the trek. Thankfully managed to locate a functioning ATM and shaheed withdrew 20K LKR. The sigriya rock entrance was 1900 LKR was citizens of SAARC countries which also includes the museum visit. Its a bit expensive, but sigriya rock is a UNESCO World heritage site ; so the money is going to good use.

#Historical Importance#
Sigiriya or Sinhagiri is an ancient rock fortress located in the northern Matale District near the town of Dambulla. The name refers to a site of historical and archaeological significance that is dominated by a massive column of rock nearly 200 metres (660 ft) high. this site was selected by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) for his capital. He built his palace on the top of this rock and decorated its sides with colourful frescoes. On a small plateau about halfway up the side of this rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion. The name of this place is derived from this structure —Sīhāgiri, the Lion Rock. The capital and the royal palace was abandoned after the king’s death. It was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.Sigiriya today is a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning

The start of the trek takes one through old ruins of water ways, ponds etc with the sigriya rock right in front.

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Flight of stairs leads one up and the journey up should take atleast 1 hour at an average pace. One the way up, one can also see old paintings on the wall, a mirror wall which was very shiny once upon a time and of course, a constantly improving view of the surrounding. You will be accompanied by people of many nationalities on the way up.We reached the Lion’s paw in about an hour or so and large part of the trek is covered. However the steepest part of th trek is next wherein the incline of the flight of stairs going up is nearly 60 degrees atleast I think. On the way up, Pidurangala rock is clearly visible and ironically enough to take the best shot of sigiriya, one should be on Pidurangala. Another 20 mins of trek up and we were at the top.

The top will not seem too impressive to the lay person; best to read up on it before hand or have a guide with you. Its mostly ruins of the old palace and the different parts of the palace are “marked” accordingly.

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An hour or so can be spent at the top if the weather is pleasant, which it luckily was on that day. The trek down took hardly half an hour and we ended up purchasing souvenirs along the way. Sigiriya town is 20 mins walk from sigiriya rock and we were famished by the time we reached the town. Fernando restaurent served up some reasonably delicious lunch; the sri lankan lunch platter is decent and worth a try if you are in the mood for some local cuisine. We were probably done for the day by 3 p.m or so and had nothing planned for the rest of the day.

Back to our room it was. The next many hours were spend in exhausting the host’s bandwidth in watching clips from friends, big bang theory etc. Of course we also recalled our reasonably awesome college days and the fun that we had.

7.30 p.m or so, tired from staring at the phone, we decided to finish up with dinner and get some early shut eye for the next day. Pradeep restaurent was ranked quite highly we found; nothing special about the restaurant as such though but food was good enough. The Veg rotti, egg & veg noodles was gulped down with a glass of coke. The walk back was awesome though; why you ask: It was completely dark, not a soul visibly and the sky was shining with stars.

Step count of the day ..25K ! Nice !

>>Day 5


Day 5 – Ruins of Polonnaruwa

Woke up to an early & delicious breakfast prepared by the cook at our AirBnb stay. We did not have much time in hand since Polonnaruwa was 2 hours away and well..we had to cover it completely. The bus to dambulla can be caught from the junction near sigiriya rock (There is no direct bus to Polonnaruwa). 30 mins and we were at dambula and what do you know, we met up with a polish couple who had lunch on the next table in fernando restaurant. The usual pleasantries were exchanged and they highly recommended a visit to poland in summer season. (winter season, folks from the tropics would probably freeze to death).

After half hour of wait, we caught the bus to Polonnaruwa which took us about 1.5 hours. It was no easy task finding our AirBnB stay, “green rest house” located in new town. The Polonnaruwa ruins, the UNESCO world heritage site is in old town. Post a quick check in, our host arranged a tuk tuck for us who obliged to take us around Polonnaruwa for 2500 LKR. We were quite late to be honest and weren’t sure how much ground we could cover. Starting at 4 p.m, we had 2.5 hours to cover all the ruins. Learning from our mistake at Anuradhapura , this time we ensured that we bought tickets, and from the right authority. In this particular case, tickets are available at museum and cost 2k LKR (for SAARC countries citizens). We managed to cover quite a bit of Polonnaruwa actually and covered almost all the spots. Won’t go into the details of the spots but here are pics.

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The ruins were amazing and are totally worth visiting. However in the process, we ended up quite late for dinner and restaurants in Sri lanka close by 8.Luckily after an hour of searching we located Vishwa’s takeaway the good old way, looking around. For benefit though, it has been added to google maps. The fried rice was pretty good and worth a try for anyone in the vicinity. The next day was our (really) long journey back to galle and we had needed to pack for the 8 hours train journey. Mango root bakery located close to our stay provided us with some tasty bakery items. Our train was scheduled next day at 8 a.m ; so this once we spared our host’s wifi.

>>Day 6 and Rest


Day 2 – In and around Anuradhapura

Ah. Day 2 started off with some nice hot tea, Kiri rice and Onion curry. In all fairness, with no disrespect to the host, it tasted rather weird and I could barely go through half a Kiri rice ‘block’.

Sri lankan breakfast is served

Not to mention that we were under the false impression that the break fast and/or dinner was inclusive. However it was not ; dinner cost us almost 500 LKR and 375 LKR for the breakfast. We called up the auto driver from the previous day and he sent his brother ‘taranga’ has our tuk tuk driver for the day which happened to biggest and in some way , the most memorable mistake of our journey. He promised to take us around anuradhapura for 1.5 LKR and charge us an additional 4.5 LKR for the tickets. (We knew that entry tickets were expensive for international tourists). What we did not know what is that we would eventually be taken only to those places which did not require tickets at all. (More on that as progress through the day)

So anyway, first on our list was “Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi” tree.
#Historical Importance#
Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi is a sacred fig tree in the Mahamewna Gardens, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. It is said to be the right-wing branch (southern branch) from the historical Sri Maha Bodhi at Buddha Gaya in India under which Lord Buddha attained Enlightenment. It was planted in 288 BC and is the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date.Today it is one of the most sacred relics of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka and respected by Buddhists all over the world.

It was located hardly 10 mins from our place of stay but there were more than a thousand people present at the location including students and devotees. It was a festival celebration day. Not much to do here , just walk around the entire complex and engage yourself in a quick ‘puja’ and take blessing.

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Next on the list were Ruwanwelisaya and Lovamahapaya; both of which are located hardly 15 mins walk away from the bodhi tree.
#Historical Importance#
The Ruwanwelisaya is a stupa, a hemispherical structure containing relics, in Sri Lanka, considered sacred to many Buddhists all over the world. It was built by King Dutugemunu c. 140 B.C.The stupa is one of the world’s tallest monuments, standing at 103 m (338 ft) and with a circumference of 290 m (951 ft). Lovamahapaya is a building situated between Ruwanweliseya and Sri Mahabodiya in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. It is also known as the Brazen Palace or Lohaprasadaya because the roof was covered with bronze tiles.

Marvel at the architecture thousands of years old and spend some time taking it all in. All the three spots can be covered in 1.5 hours.

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Next on the list “Isurumuniya
#Historical Importance#
The temple was built by King Devanampiya Tissa (307 BC to 267 BC) who ruled in the ancient Sri Lankan capital of Anuradhapura. There are four carvings of special interest in this Vihara. They are the Isurumuniya Lovers, Elephant Pond and The Royal Family.

The entry to Isurumuniya is 250 LKR which chaturanga took on our behalf.

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Next on the list “Ranmasu Uyana

#Historical Importance#
Ranmasu Uyana is a park in Sri Lanka. It sits on approximately 40 acres (16 ha), and is a noted example of Sri Lankan garden architecture of the pre-Christian era.

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Next up was  Vessagiri ; an ancient Buddhist forest monastery. The Vessagiri monks lived in rock shelters that were constructed by quarrying from local materials

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Meanwhile we realized that taranga had not purchased a single ticket except for Isurumuniya; we were being scammed !. We had paid taranga 3K already in the morning and decided to see if we can get of paying the remaining 3K. We still had another spot to cover though. First up was the Sri Sarananda Maha Pirivena which is just a place of worship. Its impressive though since the buddha statue is atleast 50 feet high.

Sri Sarananda Maha Pirivena

So this was the end our anuradhapura journey. It was bitter sweet; the ruins were impressive but we were not happy that we ended up paying double. So anyhow, we picked up our luggage from the room, thanked our hosts at Sindhiya Guest house and moved to bus stop to catch the bus to dambulla.

@ the anuradhapura bus stop

Here shaheed confronted taranga and well..we ended up paying 3K extra since none of us were in the mood to get into a ‘srilankan fight’. To brighten up our mood, we visited the bakery near the bus stop which was a welcome relief from all the thugging. The bakery owner was a old lady in her sixties who interacted with us on her travels, her husband who had passed away and kids living in australia. We had the omlette bun, chicken hot dog, veg pastries and tea, and all super affordable for hardly 300 LKR. She even refused to take 50 LKR for the water bottle.

Bakery near the bus stop

Boarded the AC bus to Dambula for 250 LKR per head and the journey takes about an hour.

Our home stay was in weywala which happen to be about 10 mins from dambula main bus stop. (FYI, this is the main stop to go a lot of places). So anyhow we boarded the bus and we were so engrossed in watching TV in the bus (Kong Movie) that we never realized that we had arrived at the destination. The conductor informed us to disembark and in the confusion, karthik took another person’s luggage and got down who chased us outside the bus. It was absolutely hilarious.

We caught up with our host at the bus stop who escorted us to the our stay; “Sanda guest house”. The hosts, husband and wife were both teachers and the entire house was built exclusively for renting out. So we basically we the entire house to ourselves thanking the airbnb gods. The welcome drinks elevated our mood further 🙂

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Had some time before dinner, so finished our dinner and researched on entry tickets to dambula caves; we had no intentions to get thugged again. India vs Australia match too was ongoing, we probably ended up using entirety of hosts bandwidth on that night.

The restaurants in Sri lanka seem to shut down early; by 8 p.m it was already empty and  most items were unavailable. Anyhow we managed to get our hands on some fried rice for 750 LKR which was not too tasty but was enough to fill us up for the night. Looking forward to our next day of exploration of dambula, we called it a day.

>>Day 3


Day 6,7,8 : Dutch town of Galle and Unawatuna Beach

Woke up to an early morning breakfast of rice , potato curry and dry fish. To be honest, we weren’t too excited about the breakfast but it was all that was available/ prepared early in the morning. The train station was only 15 mins away and our auto driver got us there in 10. But how can any journey go without any problems; Karthik forgot our snack at the stay. Wow..we were now in a pickle. The train was due to arrive in 20 mins and the to-fro time from our stay was also 20 mins. Karthik took the chance and went ahead with getting us our food. It was a race against time but Karthik pulled through in time and barely in time. He and the train entered the platform together.. phew!

It was a very tiring 7 hours to Colombo fort and we took a local bus to galle. The bus was supposed to take the expressway or so we thought. It ended up taking the super congested colombo- galle road and it was absolute hell for the next 4 hours (what was supposed to be a 2.5 hours). Tired and pissed off with bad journey, Domino’s at galle came to our rescue.(located very close to the bus stop). Srilankan Domino’s had a variety of very interesting toppings quite different from the one found in India. We reached our Airbnb stay by 10 p.m.

Early morning breakfast at Kat’s coffee (which was pretty highly ranked) was a sort of disappointing. Sandwiches, quesadilla, ice coffee and cold brew set us back by almost 3k LKR and the quantity was barely enough. However it is a decent place if you want to just to relax and spend a lazy 2 hours going through a novel (which is what many people do).

The bus stops close to Kat’s coffee and a direct bus to Galle fort station landed us very close to the landmark of the day,,Galle fort.The fort walls line the old Portuguese town which really takes one back a couple of hundred years since a lot of the old world architecture is still preserved well.The fort itself is well maintained and a good view of the open ocean was enough to take our minds off the sweltering heat. One can spend a good 2 hours just covering the fort walls and then walking down to the adjacent open beach. The water is crystal clear!

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Taphouse restaurant located in the old dutch town is excellent and burger, fried went well with beer. It was almost 4 p.m by the time we were done. It was sunset at the beach! A quick trip back to our stay, packed our swimming trunks and we were off !

The road to Unawatuna in lined with restaurants and its at least 500 meters from the main road. Now we had 2 options, visit the world famous unawatuna beach or visit the more secluded but almost as awesome Jungle beach (The name given because the beach opens out through a jungle). We wanted to visit both of course but unawatuna was a bit crowded (although not as much as one would have thought to be honest). A tuk-tuk ride from unawatuna beach cost us about 250LKR and we landed up in the middle of nowhere. Jungle beach is quite remote and passes through some thick bushes; we reached just in time for sunset to get some decent shots. The japanese peace pagada is also visible from here as well.

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On the way back , we were accompanied by some russians who were last in the dark. On the way back, we entered Unawatuna beach and it was some awesome fun in the waves under the moonlight. The waves, the white sand; we spent almost 1 hour here just playing in the waves like small kids. There are a number of restaurants along the beach which are actually comparable in pricing to other non-beach side restaurants in the town. So its totally worth it to have a delicious dinner at the beach listening to the waves. As it so happened, there was a midnight beach party organized at one of the beach hangouts. But our host Vijay put in a word of caution about visiting such parties. We heeded the advice of a local and decided to skip it. A quick dinner comprising of the srilankan rotis and we were off to our hotel.

Now we hadn’t booked our stay for the next day since this was supposed to be our buffer day. AirBnb to the rescue, Fort69 at Galle old town booked at a very reasonable price of 1200INR. Time to hit the bed.

#Day 7#

As decided, Day 7 was to spent at Wijayan Beach is famous for its white sandy shores. Before going there though, it was a quick breakfast the barista below our AirBnB stay.

Breakfast at Barista

The entrance to the Wijayan beach is through a restaurant which is rated very high and its a bit difficult to locate; regardless it is on the main road with a big board in front. 10 min bus ride from our stay and we were there. The beach itself is absolutely beautiful; dare I say, it was the best one  I had visited ,,ever!!. Tourists from world over were taking in the sun and just relaxing/swimming in water which was not deep near the beach. One guy was even fishing in somewhere in the middle standing on jutting rock platform. We had not decided on getting wet as such but decided to enter the water at least till knee deep level since this was too good an opportunity to miss out. Not to mention, I wanted the photos.

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Shaheed got his Iphone completely wet exploring the rocky outgrowth but thankfully it was functional after a bit. That called for a treat the Wijayan restaurent ; the restaurant was quite crowded and was full of people from all over the world just soaking in the tropical sun and having a good time. The multi floored restaurant offers a fantastic view of the sea and the veg pizza went well with a can of lager. If we had more time, we would probably spent hours at this joint; but time we did not have.

Pizza at Wijayan Beach Restaurent

A quick bus ride back to our stay, good bye to our host and we were on our way to Galle fort again. FortInn wasn’t too hard to locate and is situated in the heart of galle old town. The host was a retired srilankan navy officer and stay itself was fairly new due to the renovation. The room though were not up to our expectation ; they were really small !!. Ah well, it was atleast economical and we let it go.

The rest of the afternoon/evening was spent in buying a number of souvenirs. It is recommended to visit a number of souvenir shops , decide on a baseline for a price and only then make a purchase. We spent almost 10K LKR buying T shirts, statues and mini stupas; per head i.e. On hindsight, we could have probably saved 30% of that but it was a learning experience for us for our future trips.

Galle fort beach completed our evening with a wonderful view of the sunset and an awesome ending to our last evening at Galle town.

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Rest of the evening time was spent roaming around the Galle old town and fort. The “old town”, although not large is very well maintained and is littered with souvenir shops and restaurants. The newly opened rocket pizza and burger joint served us some tasty burgers and that was the end of the night for us.

#THE LAST DAY#

There isn’t much to write about the last day really; our 9 day trip was nearing its end. Our AirBnB stay included breakfast; omlette, Marmalade, Bread, butter and tea it was. To be honest, it was the first decent breakfast (to our taste i.e) we had in days. Our flight was scheduled for midnight and so we still had the entire day ahead of us. Of course our checkout time was by 11 a.m and so we couldn’t stay at fort Inn either. Well, few more hours out in the beautiful town wouldn’t do us any harm. So we checked out and spent many more hours just exploring the small town. The hula hula cafe by the fort-beach is another cool joint to just chill. It was actually quite sunny on that day and we couldn’t really roam too much either. Sand witch, Macaroni and a fruit drink kept us occupied for an hour or so ; the restaurant host and we got into a discussion about cricket as well since it is one of the things that Indians and Lankans have in common. It was finally time to wave goodbye to Galle.

This time, we were careful ! Ensured that the bus from Galle was to take the expressway and not the long Colombo-Galle road. Via the expressway, the bus reaches mahargama which is on the outskirts of galle and it took us hardly 1.5 hours and was a very comfortable ride; quite economical as well at 500LKR. Colombo fort bus station is another hour away from mahargama and many local buses can get one there. The bus passes through the center of the city ;so we got to witness the hustle and bustle of the colombo as well. But we still had time to kill after reaching colombo fort! Karthik and Shaheed went on a hunt to get some T shirts in the local market at colombo fort station; not to mention we were out of cash and took us almost an hour to get an ATM which accepted our cards. It was almost 8 p.m by the time we were done with our shopping. The bus from Fort to Airport again takes a very busy road (we had taken the express way when we exited the airport on landing) and it was stuffed to the max. A rather weird lankan TV show kept me occupied for some time and rest of the time was spent just reminiscing on our awesome past 9 days.

Another 2 hours at the airport was spent on making notes of the trip, abusing the free wifi and finally boarding the flight at 2 a.m; of course we did not forget to order 2 rounds of apple juice onboard. At 5 a.m or so, airport of our home sweet home. We still had many photos to share of course. So me, karthik and shaheed decided to catch up in another 2 weeks ; and plan one more trip!!

A journey to remember 🙂