Snippets from Sri Lanka Trip

Dress Code Like No Other

The religious places all over the world have their dress codes and I don’t care enough about religions to complain about them. But Sri Lankans are the most bull-headed about its literal implementation, more than any other place I have been to till now (to their credit they hassle men and women alike – no sexism there!). In most other places they stop you only if your dress is blatantly improper and don’t get offended by every centimeter of departure from the prescribed length! Not in Sri Lanka. Their definition of covering the shoulders includes covering the upper arms too. This was the part I was not prepared for and had to go around with a jacket on my shoulders on the first day (it was HOT and HUMID!) and then a towel (Because, unlike what you would expect in tourist places, there weren’t even any vendors around selling stoles or sarongs to the trapped tourists)!

While at most places covering upper arms and a below-the-knee dress or trouser was enough, in Dambulla you were required to cover the legs all the way up to the ankles (there was also a totally unnecessary and super unpleasant encounter with a culture-supremacist uncle there, but I will skip the details). At Isurumuniya temple in Anuradhapura, there was a diktat against wearing black or dark-colored clothes. You should wear white! Our driver told us that they don’t impose that restriction on tourists and thankfully he was right. They didn’t bother me about my black shirt (perhaps it was compensated by my super white skirt).

Finally, hats and shoes have to come off almost everywhere. And the stupas, as they were being built, seemed to have gotten into a competition with their predecessors; so they kept getting bigger and bigger. Just to go around them, you have to walk over the stone-paved surfaces for a long time. At other times it is sand you are walking on. While scattered here and there may be some carpets, they are not available with any reliable frequency and they might also get dangerously hot besides being prickly depending on the material used. Not wearing socks proved daft. Did I burn my soles or what!

Taking all this into account, here are the suggested best practices:

  1. Wear full-length clothes. While below the knee works at most places, you never know where they decide to become more competitively pious and demand longer clothes.
  2. Cover upper arms. Perfectly modest, but sleeveless dress or shirt is not enough.
  3. Wear socks even if the heat doesn’t encourage it and even if your shoes don’t demand it. Your soles will thank you for it.
  4. Wear shoes that are easy to remove and put back on.
  5. Wear white or light-colored clothes. They would anyway be more comfortable in the heat. But even if worry about dirt tempts you towards black clothes, don’t give in.

Hindi in Sri Lanka via…?

The first site we visited was the fort at Yapahuwa and the person at the ticket counter immediately started talking in Hindi. He was pretty fluent too, unlike the waiter serving us our first meal in Italy. So, this time I managed to ask how he learned Hindi. It turned out that he had worked in Dubai for ten years and an obvious outcome was learning Hindi!

We also came across other people who could communicate a bit in broken Hindi.

Ancient Hygiene-awareness

Sri Lankans have been hygiene-aware for a long time, it seems. Urinal and lavatory stones in monasteries, lavatories & septic tanks in palaces and an ancient hospital speak to that. Urinal stones were the most decorated elements in some monasteries. Apparently to show the monks’ contempt for worldly beauty!

On and off the Tourist Map

Given the limited time, we decided to stick to the area called “Ancient Cities” for touristic purposes – specifically Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla.

  • Anuradhapura was the capital of the main Singhalese kingdoms from few centuries BC until 10th century AD.
  • At that point, Cholas conquered them and ruled the kingdom briefly. They shifted the capital to Polonnaruwa. When a Singhalese king ousted them, he continued to rule from Polonnaruwa.
  • After 13th-century the capital shifted again, and then through the usual complicated processes of successions, divisions, and assimilations different kingdoms and dynasties came, slowly capitulated first to the Portuguese, then to the Dutch and finally to the British.
  • The last native kingdom remaining was Kandyan kingdom, with its capital in Kandy. It succumbed to the British in the 19th century. Among other things, they had patronized the already existing monastery at Dambulla and there are a bunch of cave paintings and statues there from the Kandyan period.
  • Mihintale is a place near Anuradhapura, where Mahinda (Emperor Ashoka’s son who took Buddhism to Sri Lanka) is supposed to have met the Sri Lankan king who converted to Buddhism – Devnampiya Tissa.
  • Yapahuwa was the capital for a short period in the 13th century, and currently has the ruins of the fortified city.
  • We were planning to visit Ritigala too but skipped it because of lack of time. It houses an ancient monastery and is supposed to be the place from where Hanuman jumped back over the sea to reach Lord Rama after finding out the whereabouts of Sita.

Anuradhapura and Mihintale do not seem to be on the main tourist circuit. So, tourists are outdone in number by the local pilgrims. But these places have some of the oldest sights Sri Lanka has to offer to the history-lovers.

The ancient cities of Sri Lanka also boast of early expertise in water management and irrigation system. They were already pretty advanced in centuries before Christ. We saw Nuwara Wewa which is a tank built in 1st century BC and covers an area of 1200+ hectares. Two other tanks in Anuradhapura area are also spread over hundreds of hectares. Parakram Samudra in Polonnurawa is 2000+ hectares. The tanks and canals powered irrigation system was the backbone of this ancient civilization.

Other places on our list were more likely to be on typical tourist itineraries. But the most common places on tourist radar – Kandy and then the beaches in South – were not on our list this time. We didn’t have enough time. So, hopefully, there will be another trip!

Museum at Anuradhapura was sadly closed for renovation, but those at Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa were useful. If you take guides there, they would usually skip museums. But if you have time, visiting the museums is highly recommended. Dambulla Museum is a hidden gem, which most people don’t visit. But it is well-organized and gives just the right amount of information about Sri Lankan wall paintings through the ages. It also sets the right context before you visit Dambulla caves.

The Buddhist Country

Sri Lanka is an interesting country in that it has been Buddhist for a long time (since 4th century BC). Hinduism had a strong influence and the big Tamil minority continues to be mostly Hindu. There still are tribes whose faith is pre-Buddhist and there are also Muslim and Catholic minorities. But if there is a country that can lay claim to the longest, sustained Buddhist tradition, it would be Sri Lanka. The Buddhists have also diligently maintained the written history of the island (although those histories delve into fantasies too often to be comfortable to modern minds, but dealing with that is the fate of historians all over the world). Not only is the island, then, a rich source for Buddhist history, but also, given the strong Indian connection, for reconstructing the history of India. We would never have known that those inscriptions strewn all over the Indian subcontinent were from Emperor Ashoka, but for a Sri Lankan Buddhist source that mentioned that Devnampiya Piyadasi (the name mentioned in those inscriptions) was Ashoka himself.

Tourist Experiences

In terms of tourist facilities, even Sri Lanka outdoes India. Usable toilets were easy to find. Although at some places, toilets for foreigners and locals were separate. Presumably to maintain better ones for the foreigners who paid a much higher price for the tickets. This segregation was uncomfortable, but hey, the toilets were clean and even had toilet paper available most of the times.

We had booked one taxi for all three days. So, we do not have any other experience of dealing with local taxis. But this one was a good experience. Unlike most tourist taxis in India, the driver was not trying to cut corners. Not only was he proactive in taking us to all the planned sights, he was equally comfortable with any additions and modifications. Not having to be on your toes all the time makes the experience so much better.

The experience with guides was mixed. In Mihintale, our homestay host was also a guide and we took him along because apart from his belief in the levitation abilities of Buddha and Mahinda, his knowledge of history seemed to be all right. He showed us all the sights and explained the finds in detail. In Yapahuwa there was limited number of things to see and we didn’t look for a guide.

In Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa, we spent almost an entire day each. So, we didn’t take a guide. Using our own research and the information available on the sites, we had a satisfactory experience. In Sigiriya, since we wanted to finish it quickly, we looked for a guide. Our driver was, by then, aware that we liked “going deep” and tried to arrange for a guide who would do that. That proved to be a counter-productive! They put forward a guide, an elderly man, who claimed to have a relevant university degree and assured us that he would explain it all to us. He also charged heftily. But he was worse than any guide we have ever had. We didn’t do much more than climbing up and down the hill with him. We got more information from the boards at the site and the museum we visited later. He didn’t show us even what we saw other non-university-graduate guides showing people. Next time we must warn any well-meaning drivers against looking for elite guides!

At Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa, the ticket price of Indian passport holders (perhaps for all SAARC countries) was half than that of other foreigners. It is always a good idea to ask if there is a discount, before purchasing the tickets.

Local food was good and mostly cheap. Our driver did a good job of taking us to nice places.

VISA and Currency

For Indians, you can apply for an ETA online. It is issued quickly and is valid for six months from the date of issue. Within a 30-day period in those six months, you can enter the country twice. ETA is as good as a VISA in the sense that you don’t have to separately get a VISA on arrival. You can go straight to the immigration queue.

Changing INR to Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is almost not possible. So, if you are depending on currency exchange, it is better to carry dollars. The exchange rate at the airport was the best and all the counters there had the same rate. At the places we visited, there weren’t many shops with clear signs for currency exchange, but it was possible to do it. Our driver guided us on that.

Almost every service we had booked in advance (taxi and homestays quoted prices in dollars and they were happy to accept dollars too). At some of the major sights (Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa), you can also pay for the tickets in dollars. But for other expenses, we stuck to converted LKR.

If you are depending on ATMs, be sure to withdraw money in major cities and towns. Along the highways or in smaller places, ATMs didn’t seem to be easily available. Credit card acceptance is limited in many of these places.

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Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Performances and Shows

What we saw

Catru

I am no connoisseur of traditional dance or music of different places, but while traveling I don’t mind tagging along with Abhaya to see a few of them. Because like a lot of other things – from the people we meet to the food we eat to the sights we see – they reveal something about the place and people. We caught a Catru performance in Hanoi Old Quarter at a temple cum old communal house called Đình Kim Ngân – one among many such places to be found in the older parts of cities like Hanoi and Hoi An. This performance was organized by Hanoi Catru Club whose website www.catru.vn was not working when I wrote this post. Thang Long Ca Tru Guild also organizes Catru performances. Their website was also not working when I wrote this post!

Catru was traditionally performed in royal courts and for the entertainment of the wealthy. The performance we attended also included other forms of songs and dances from Vietnam which had their origins in temple rituals or folk culture.

The Quintessence of Tonkin

Even if slightly expensive, The Quintessence of Tonkin is worth seeing for its grandeur and vision. It combines traditional performance forms with modern props and lighting to create an impressive and spectacular performance requiring the coordination of hundreds of performers. The venue is slightly far from Hanoi, but they provide shuttle services from (and back to) Hanoi. We caught the shuttle at a mall that was called (for some reason) The Office!

They have converted a large, natural lake with hills in the background into a stage. This part gives me pause because I wonder what this stage creation has done to the environment of the lake. But even if they have not, I think others copying the concept can do it responsibly. And I would want the managers of our heritage tourist spots to see this and get inspired. The Quintessence of Tonkin is what our light and sound shows need to become.  This is the 21st century and given how much visual stimuli is available to us, the light and sound shows in our heritage buildings have become staid and won’t entertain even small kids.  They need to upgrade and this show can show the way.

Water Puppetry

Water Puppetry is a traditional entertainment performance of Vietnam. While you can find the shows in all major tourist places, the authentic place to see it would be Hanoi. We didn’t see one of those street performances of water puppetry. But The Quintessence of Tonkin show mentioned above also included water puppetry among other kinds of performances.

What we missed

Variety Shows

On the pattern of Cirque du Soleil, there are a couple of famous variety shows in Vietnam, which can be watched in Ho Chi Minh City’s or Hanoi’s Opera Houses (or other venues). Unfortunately for us, on the dates we were in the two cities, there were no shows scheduled. IONAH and AO Show were the ones we were interested in.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Translate and Tripadvisor

Beware of Google Translate

Despite the huge technical advancement in the field, automated translations can be a source of humor, embarrassment, and bizarre inaccuracies. You have to particularly careful in Vietnam if you are relying on knowing English to decipher their script. If you are typing Vietnamese in Google translate, don’t do so without getting the diacritics right. Else you may get bizarre results. A sign we often saw on the road from Hai Phong to Hanoi, translated as “doubtful”. Since it made no sense to see so many of those on the road (coming to think of it, that sign will be scary to see on the roads), we tried again by observing and getting the diacritics right. Then it translated as “motel”. I can’t remember what exact word had we translated there (we might have made some mistake with letters too, not just diacritic). But here is an example I have been able to recreate.

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Autocorrect doesn’t work very well if your diacritics are wrong, because slight change or absence of diacritic may very often still make a meaningful word, only a totally different one.

Even if you get diacritics right, the usual precaution of not blindly using the automated translation applies. At Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, there was a box outside the toilet, where you were supposed to give a small voluntary donation. Somehow something like a “voluntary donation box” had been translated to “quadrilateral” in English, much to our guide’s annoyance with the use of Google Translate!

An Altar for Tripadvisor

writereviewflyerThe tourism industry in Vietnam might as well make a pagoda for Tripadvisor in every city and an altar for it in their homes! Yes – like it or not – Tripadvisor has become the biggest source of customers for a large number of businesses in tourism industry world over. And hence far too many of them have gotten too busy optimizing themselves for Tripadvisor reviews. In Vietnam, it seemed to happen at another scale altogether. I don’t mind a gentle request for a review, but in some cases, they were annoyingly repeated. And in case of our very first tour to Cu-chi tunnels in HCMC, it was simply outrageous. The guide kept insisting that we should use our phone and the free wi-fi available at the site or the restaurant to write a review there and then. Because later we will forget. As if it is our duty to write a review! When I expressed my disinclination explicitly (because he won’t take polite hints), he went into the misery-tourism mode of how it is important for him to get all the reviews to keep his job etc. A quiet, young woman from Hong Kong who was also on the tour with us obliged. I was too annoyed to do that. But his continued insistence even after telling him in clear terms that I am not comfortable doing that spoiled the tour for me. It was perhaps no better or worse than a tour provided by any other company would have been. But simply because of this nuisance, if I had indeed written a review, I would have rated them rotten.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Drivers and Money Changers

Vehicles, Drivers, and Taxis

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A fridge magnet bought in Vietnam

Vietnam is big on two-wheelers. A lot of Saigon traffic jokes are around the number of two-wheelers in the city. Apparently, the number of two-wheelers there stands at 70% of the total population!

Tour guides are perennially apologetic about the traffic and bad driving. But don’t worry about it if you are an Indian city-dweller. The drivers in the tourism industry, to my Indian taste, were driving a bit too carefully and a bit too slow. The snail-pace of the drive from Hai Phong to Hanoi fried my brains with boredom. But our Spanish co-passengers still seemed terrified. So, I couldn’t really have requested them to speed up.

They also seem to wash their vehicles a lot. They stopped, not for a food or toilet break on the five-hour slow, boring drive mentioned above, but for vehicle washing! Given that they dropped us at a handicraft showroom for the half an hour they took to wash the vehicle, I wonder if vehicle-washing is a euphemism of some kind!

Many four-wheelers have a plastic cover on the ceiling. These are well-fitted around the lights, air vents, and other fixtures; so most likely done by the car company/dealership or other professionals. Not sure what for though!

Taxis are the most convenient means of local transport, and rest assured they will scam the heck out of you. There are tons of taxi companies whose cabs you can hail. A couple of them are supposed to be reliable ones, whose meters won’t run faster than a cheetah and whose drivers won’t take you on a wild ride through nowhere just to push the fares up. But they have an ample number of copy-cats ever eager to dupe you. There are precautions you can take to identify the right taxis. From the information available online I compiled a guide for myself. Even then, after a couple of good rides, in the third one, the driver started taking us “for a ride” taking random turns after reaching close to the destination to avoid actually reaching there. When we objected he didn’t understand English (or pretended not to!). The taxi was from one of the “reliable” companies – we had made sure of that. But that went only so far. Finally, we asked him to stop and walked a short distance to the destination. After that, we stuck to grab and there the experience was pretty good in all the cities we went to. The only problem was that sometimes you have to speak to the driver on phone to confirm your location and language problems might surface. One way to deal with that is to choose a conspicuous starting location – say in front of a big shop with clearly visible signboard and enter the name of the shop in the app, instead of just your current location. Or to book from inside the last restaurant or shop you have visited and take help of their staff in talking to the driver.

Money Matters

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An old lady selling fake currencies, which they burn for their ancestors! (yep – those are fake dollars)

Money exchange is easy, although you should be careful about where you do it. When we exchanged USD to VND at the Saigon airport we got a rate of ~22650 VND per dollar. Inside the cities, the prevalent exchange rate with money exchangers was 22500 VND per dollar.

Although it isn’t as official as in Cambodia, most shops and tourism companies will also accept cash payments in USD. But the exchange rate is always tipped in their favor. If they have quoted the price in VND, the scrupulous ones will take payment in USD at the rate of 22000 VND per dollar, the unscrupulous ones at 20000 VND per dollar. If the price is quoted in USD and you are paying in VND, then you need to pay 22700 VND for every dollar. So, the prudent thing to do would be to pay in the currency in which you have been quoted the price originally. That’s what we did most of the time.

There is one exception to this prudent advice though. Converting VND back to USD fetches even worse rates than any mentioned above. So, if you find yourself with extra VND towards the end, it is better to spend in VND even at an unfavorable exchange rate, because trying to convert it back to USD will only get you a worse deal.

Credit card transactions are not welcome and many places charge extra if you are paying by credit card. Many may not accept credit cards at all. We went with cash everywhere except any pre-bookings we had paid by card online. Withdrawing cash from ATMs seems to be a costly and confusing affair. Fortunately, USD we had carried in cash lasted for us and we didn’t have to make any ATM transactions.

Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Bad Water, Tepid Tea, Good Food

IMG_20171207_183004If drinkable RO filtered water is available, we couldn’t find it. You have to use bottled water and there is no way of avoiding plastic. If you are staying long enough in a city, you could buy a 5-liter bottle and keep it in your hotel room, refilling your reusable water-bottles with it. But that’s about it. Most tours specifically include water-bottles in their package. Apart from buying a 5-liter bottle in Hanoi, we almost always had water to drink from the bottles provided on the tours!

img_20171203_145642.jpgFood, on the other hand, seems safe everywhere. Tour guides do not hesitate in taking tourists to small eateries. Food is flavorful and we almost universally liked it wherever we ate. They do use too much pork for our comfort, but we found ample seafood to keep us happy.

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At several places, tea served was often tepid, not hot enough for us. I can’t figure out if it was bad service, or that’s how they drink it. With coffee, if you ask for milk on the side, it might come cold, making your coffee tepid. So, you need to be careful about what you ask for! I stuck to black coffee when drinking it hot. Else I went for the iced coffee with condensed milk. It was tasty! Vietnamese coffee is strong and it is brewed with an implement somewhat similar to the south Indian filters.

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Egg coffee is a specialty of Hanoi. We tried it somewhere in Hoi An before we visited Hanoi. It wasn’t the real thing; the raw egg flavor was too strong and texture not as creamy. In Hanoi, it was a different experience. You must drink egg coffee in Hanoi. It is made by beating egg (yolk?) with condensed milk and adding it to coffee. It gives a creamy texture to the drink and this invention was, again, a compensation for the unavailability of cream French had to endure in Vietnam. They wanted cream in their coffee! A chef in Metropole hotel came up with this recipe. Don’t know if French found it adequate, but it is quite a rage in Hanoi. And it is super-sweet! It tastes nice, but if you ask us, it is more a dessert than coffee.

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Excluding egg coffee, I, personally, didn’t like Vietnamese desserts that much. There are all kinds of sweet soups available, many of them hot.

The local cafes, many a times, may have no food (by design!), and serve only drinks. We discovered that to our annoyance one morning in Hanoi when were hoping to grab a quick breakfast before a tour started. It might even be a Hanoi-only thing because I don’t remember running into this issue before that. Fortunately, we found egg version of their Banh Mi sandwich in a roadside shop and it was pretty good.

When you sit in a restaurant, especially in a tourist area, mobile roadside vendors may walk in and peddle their wares. The restaurant staff doesn’t stop them or send them away. I don’t know whether those walk-in vendors are protected by some law, or by some remnant of communist customs. People investing in prime real estate obviously do not like this encroachment. One relatively fancy restaurant we had walked into had a notice requesting their customers not to buy from those vendors, as it will encourage them to come in more often and disturb everyone. But they had no notice for the vendors themselves asking them to stay away. Don’t know what to make of it, but I found this interesting.