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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Italy Nuggets: Curious, Funny and Scary Experiences

Meal Ordered in Hindi

IMG_20170526_224219673We had reached Rome late in the evening and landed in a restaurant close to our hotel for dinner. The English-speaking staff was not in abundance and after struggling with our first Italian menu, we tried unsuccessfully to convey to the waiter what we wanted. Then he spoke a sentence in (very broken) Hindi. He confessed in the same broken Hindi that neither his Hindi nor his English was very good. But we realized that fragments of simplified Hindi were better understood by him than fragments of simplified English.

And thus, we ended up ordering our first meal in Italy in Hindi! The language barrier was still too high for us to figure out why and how he learned Hindi. He looked South Asian but was clearly a local.

A Bus Ride to Elate Monisha Sarabhai

IMG_20170526_203622460We took a day trip from Rome to Cerveteri which boasts of some well-preserved Etruscan Necropolis. The nearest station is Ladispoli-Cerveteri and you need a take a bus from there. The very helpful newsstand owner outside the station managed to convey to us the bus number we were supposed to take (while pronouncing the ‘u’ in the bus as in ‘truth’, thus making the process of communication a wee bit stretched out). He also sold us the tickets.

The bus came almost immediately and we rushed to grab a seat. For a few minutes after the bus started, I tracked the route on Google Maps, then satisfied that we were on the right track sat back and relaxed hoping to reach Cerveteri in fifteen minutes. Except as the time neared we saw no stop that looked like Cerveteri. So, I opened the Google Maps again. We had deviated from Cerveteri’s direction a long time ago and were now in an area we knew nothing about. We looked around the bus and knew instantly that there were no English speakers there. After worrying and panicking for a while, Abhaya managed to find the bus route online. It turned out that the same bus travels in two different directions from the station, although it enters and exits the station from the same direction. We should have carefully checked the timing before boarding the bus and taken one at the right time. Too late. What was supposed to be a fifteen-minute ride was already into its fortieth minute or so. However, now knew that we will eventually reach Cerveteri after once again crossing the station. We lost time, but we had a nice ride through the countryside. And we didn’t even have to buy another ticket.

Monisha Sarabhai would have been proud.

The second time the bus left the station, I watched Google Maps with hawk eyes. We were on the correct route this time.

Ticketless Travel

This was the scariest one. In Florence, we didn’t have a pass for local transport, because the add-on to the Firenze card that was supposed to give us that access was not available where we bought our Firenze card. Buying a transport pass separately would have been more expensive, and Florence is supposed to be immensely walkable. So, we decided we will make do with individual tickets. But we returned from Pisa late at night. All the tobacco and other retails shops that were supposed to sell the tickets were closed. The tickets are supposed to be available on the bus also at a higher price. But the bus was so crowded we couldn’t even reach the driver to ask for the ticket. We breathed a sigh of relief when we got down from the bus without any incidence. We will stock up the tickets first thing in the morning, we promised ourselves.

Except in the morning, we had to leave early to meet with a walking tour group we had booked! The shops were not open. The bus was empty – so we hopefully asked the driver for the ticket and realized that even if we had managed to reach the driver last night, we wouldn’t have gotten the ticket. Although the drivers are supposed to have tickets, they usually don’t. Perhaps because nobody buys them onboard. It is inconvenient and also more expensive. Another bus came at the same stop and we made the mistake of asking that driver too. He also didn’t have one. We would get late if we didn’t board one of those two buses. We were distraught. The place was a little far, and after days of walking in Rome, Cerveteri, Pompeii, Paestum, and Naples, my legs were revolting.

The lady driver of the first bus noticed our distress and helpfully suggested that we can take the other bus instead of hers. I think she was trying to tell us that we shouldn’t ask the driver and just board. But we had already asked him. Finally, the same helpful driver told us that we can ride with her, there will be no problem, and we should buy the ticket once we get down. Oh yes, yes! We will. We will buy a few extra too. Happily, we boarded the bus. She also gave us the wise words of advice. “Florence is so walkable; you don’t need to use the bus.” That statement, often heard, had started hurting by then. Especially to my legs. But she had been so helpful that I could only smile is extreme gratitude and thank her from the bottom of my heart.

This is NOT recommended. Do not travel ticketless. If you don’t have the pass, hoard up the tickets in advance. When the ticket checkers do come, the fine is enormous and the experience, I am sure, mortifying.

Tours in Italian

IMG_20170527_170613474The first time it happened at Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. We reached just in time for their last tour of the day. We hadn’t known that taking a tour was necessary to go underground. It was, though. So, we would take the tour. Only caveat. The tour was in Italian. Uh oh! We said we would join. At least we get to go inside. We had our own research on what to expect inside. They agreed and also gave us an English handout that would help us understand at least some of things. When we asked questions, the guide explained to us in English. Somebody else in the group was translating everything to her partner in French. I guess it was quite a multilingual group with many in the same shoes as us.

The second time it happened at the Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri. The lady at the ticket counter had helpfully told us the timings when the film was played at their office inside the necropolis area. She forgot to tell us that the next one was in Italian with no English subtitles. So, we ended up watching a half-an-hour movie about the necropolis in Italian, understanding nothing. We thought that perhaps they will play the English version after the Italian one. But that was not to be. The staff there, realizing our predicament, did take us to a couple of tombs nearby and turned on the video presentation there in English. I don’t think that was a replacement for the movie. But, count the blessings and thank the sensitive, helpful folks when you find them!

A Pen to End Your Meal?

After our lunch at Paestum, I waved to a waiter and signaled to him what I wanted. He nodded in understanding. He came back promptly. With a pen.

Italy Nuggets: Things We did Right

Here are a few things we did right for our first Italy Trip.

Not Buying the City Cards Online

Rome has Roma Card, Naples Arte Card and Florence Firenze Card. They give access to monuments, museums and local transport in those cities with varying degrees of complexity. All of these can be bought online and then can be collected in the city. But it seems you need to specify the place where you would collect it. If you plan changes, if you are not able to reach the particular pickup point you intended to reach, it may spoil things. Buying online doesn’t seem to confer any particular advantage. So, it is better to buy the card after landing in the city. That’s what we did and it worked well. In Rome, we bought the card at the airport, in Naples at the train station. In Florence, we bought it at the first museum we visited because it was not available at the train station, although in this case, the non-availability of the add-on transport card was a bummer. But as mentioned in the previous post, I didn’t think Firenze Card was a good idea in the first place.

Buying Local Phone + Data

Everybody online advises against buying the high-priced so-called “international” cards and the advice served us well. Some people also manage to do without a local phone. But buying it was convenient, especially the data. Apart from other things, Google Maps served us well in exploring the places. We bought a TIM sim card with a special pre-paid vacationer’s plan at the airport.

Booking a Point-to-Point Shuttle from Airport

At first, it seemed like that only real affordable option of getting to the city from the Rome Airport was the Leonardo Express train. But our hotel was not located conveniently and we would have had to change trains/buses multiple times to reach there. With the luggage for a 10-day trip in the tow, it wasn’t a particularly pleasing proposition. But later we came across many shuttle services. These are mini-buses that will drop you right up to your hotel and not be as expensive as booking a taxi or a private transfer. You may have to roam around the city a bit because there will be people destined for different hotels, but we were reaching late in the evening. There was nothing to do on that day except reaching the hotel and getting some dinner. So we didn’t mind that. As it happened, ours was the second drop – so it was pretty convenient and quick.

Limiting number of cities and spending time in each city

The enthusiasts will say that three cities in ten days still means spending too little time in each city, but compared to the schedule of many others we did well 😊 We didn’t try to squeeze in Venice, Milan, Amalfi Coast and Sicily despite the temptation of checking things off the bucket list!

Booking Places that Get Sold Out

Although we missed out on Vatican Underground Excavation tour because we started planning too late, but as soon as we realized that some places need booking in advance, we got started on those. So, we were able to visit Villa Borghese Museum and do Underground Tour at Palazzo Valentini in Rome. For Underground Colosseum, we had to book a private tour (and pay a higher price), because the official tour was sold out. But it was a pretty good tour, so at the end, I don’t mind.

Visiting Naples

A lot of online information targeted at Westerners paints a picture of Naples that would make you shiver at the very idea of stepping into the city. But for an Indian, it just means that you should be careful like you would be in most Indian cities. Although we could only see the Cathedral and the museum in the city, having spent our time in the day trips to Pompeii and Paestum, the city was a good addition to our itinerary. The people are friendlier, food unique and tasty, and cost of living (touring?) cheaper. Their Arte Card is also one of the best value-for-money cards, better than Rome’s Roma Card and infinitely better than Florence’s Firenze Card.

Visiting an Etruscan Tomb and Museum

There were Rome and Italy before Roman Empire, even before the Roman Republic. A lot of history exists for that time. Visiting an Etruscan Tomb in Cerveteri was a good idea and made the trip to historical places more complete and rounded. We did have a weird bus experience there, but it worked out fine at the end. I will write about it later.

Taking Guided Tour of Vatican

Vatican is huge, overwhelming and crowded. Although we didn’t book as many guided tours as I now think we should have, I am glad we booked Vatican. Otherwise, I am not sure we would even have been able to reach Sistine Chapel in time! For a first-time visitor, booking a tour is a great idea. We booked the tour from their official site. But private tours which may cover other places are available too. The tour also helped us avoid the line at St Peter’s Cathedral. Because in a combined tour you take a passage from the museum to the inside of the Cathedral and don’t have to stand in line. There is no other way to avoid the line at the Cathedral, no skip the line ticket.

High Rises, High Season and Handicrafts (More Notes from Cambodia Trip)

Some missing stuff from the previous post.

  • The government doesn’t allow construction of anything higher than Angkor Wat in the nearby areas. So Siem Reap is pleasantly free of high rises. Even if it is some coercion on the part of the government, the outcome is not bad.
  • Online research led me to believe that as far as the tourism season is concerned, October is the border month, and the high season starts from November. But going by what local people in the business said, November is more of a border month and December is when the high season starts. So, pretty much by accident, we landed at a good time. It rained a little and sometimes relieved us from the heat. But not so much as to disrupt the plans. Tourist places were not shut down, but the crowd was not at its peak. And so on…
  • A curious difference between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. They call out to women as “Lady” in Siem Reap, but as “Madame” in Phnom Penh.
  • Cambodian food is rather bland. As if to compensate for it, a Thai restaurant we went to had overdone the chilies even for Indian taste-buds.
  • They don’t seem to believe in using salt in food. It was practically missing, not just from the Cambodian cuisine, but also from things like Pizzas we tried.
  • Most restaurants, quite annoyingly, do not serve water. So you end up buying packaged water.
  • In one strange case, we were not served water when we ordered the main course. But two glasses came when we ordered desserts later. I wonder if there was a minimum bill value constraint!
  • For some reason, I had a better time understanding people’s accent there than Abhaya and I was better at adapting my language and accent to theirs as well. By the end of it, I was pronouncing dollar as “dollaaaar”. In a proud moment, I even managed to negotiate the taxi prices down while talking in single words and short phrases on phone. The key was to ask “best price?” with suitable interrogative emphasis.
  • The middle-class penny-pincher in us was having a difficult time shopping there. Because handicrafts (or claimed handicraft) is what you can majorly shop for as souvenirs. And they looked so much like what you would find in India that we had a hard time shelling out dollars for them, even though prices might have been comparable to those in India.
  • Still, we did pick up some souvenirs and gifts including a couple of bottles of Sombai. Those who to our Christmas party can have a taste 😉