Sri Lanka: Sigiriya

Lion Rock

We left Trinco at 9:30, and the drive to Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, was only about 2 hours. We checked into our hotel, changed our clothes, and headed straight for Lion Rock.

After you get your ticket, there’s a museum you can explore. We didn’t spend much time there because it wasn’t air-conditioned. The grounds are full of more ruins and interesting places to explore, and there are some vendors selling wooden trinkets and other souvenirs.

The ruins and archeological sites around Lion Rock

The guidebook suggested climbing Sigiriya first thing in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat, or later in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the tourist hordes. The thing is, the climate at Sigiriya was downright comfortable compared with Oman, so we ignored the advice. We arrived around 12:15 and started the climb up around 1 pm. The climb took about an hour, with frequent water stops. It’s about 50 stories up, and it’s basically a continuous climb up lots of stairs.

The one time I was able to actually look at and take a picture of the view during the climb up without my fear of heights getting the better of me

There’s lots to see on the climb up, including cave paintings, a thousand-year old wall of graffiti, huge lion paws carved into the rock (which is why it’s called Lion Rock), and beautiful views, if your fear of heights doesn’t get the best of you on the climb. Mine did, and I reached a point where I just kept my head down and kept going up, rather than enjoying the scenery.

The paws are the only part left of the lion for which Lion Rock is named

Once you reach the top, there’s a bunch of ruins and more even better views. It’s definitely worth the climb!

Ruins on the top of Sigiriya

Stunning views from the top

After Sigiriya we went to Dambulla to see the cave temples. It’s another 25 or so flights of stairs up to see the caves. The cave temples are incredible, and there’s so much to look at. Each cave has a huge resting Buddha in it, and most of them have a bunch of other statues and paintings also, mostly of more Buddhas.

Dambulla cave temples built into the side of the mountain

Lines of Buddhas inside the cave temples

Buddhas everywhere!

A note about clothing: since Sigiriya is archaeological ruins, shorts and tank tops are fine. For Dambulla, you should cover your shoulders and your knees. If you aren’t appropriately dressed for Dambulla, they have sarongs and wraps that you can rent.

We stayed at The Nature Park Villa, which was lovely and very inexpensive. M had a lot of fun running around the hotel grounds, and we all slept very soundly. The breakfast they provided the next morning was delicious and more than enough food!

The sunset through the jungle at our hotel

I would say that climbing Sigiriya is a definite must-do on any trip to Sri Lanka. You really only need to spend one night here, and if the temperatures are too high, go visit the cave temples (only about 20 minutes away) first and then go to Sigirya later in the day. Just make sure you bring plenty of water: you’ll get thirsty on the climb up!

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Sri Lanka: Trincomalee

Trincomalee shoreline

Our next stop after Anuradhapura was Trincomalee. We chose to go to Trinco because we wanted to go diving, and supposedly in June the diving is better along the Eastern side of the island. Plus there’s some interesting stuff to do, and we never say “no” to spending time on the beach!

The drive from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee is about two and a half hours. If you explore the Sri Maha Bodi and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba before leaving Anuradhapura, you’ll be able to leave by 11 am, arriving by 1:30 or so. There’s a hot spring you can stop at on the drive over, just outside of Trinco, and it’s an interesting opportunity to stretch your legs.

Very different from the hot spring we have near Muscat, but interesting none-the-less

There were metal pails you could fill up with water. Some people dumped water all over themselves (we did not)

We spent two nights in Trinco. The first day, after we arrived, we tracked down some lunch and checked out the beach, and we visited the Kandasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

The temple is scenic and beautiful, and the views of the ocean are stunning. The history of the area is also quite interesting, as are the tame spotted deer all over the peninsula. The cliff across from the temple is supposedly the best place in the world for whale-spotting, but we didn’t see any. If you are serious about seeing some whales, there are whale watching tours you can go on, or you could bring your binoculars and hope for the best. With a 2-year old in tow we didn’t really feel like doing either.

The temple facade

Vishnu was getting a facelift

Swami Rock, whale-watching central

The peninsula is loaded with tame spotted deer

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to go scuba diving. We used Taprobane Divers, and they were great. All our tanks had over 200 bar, the BCDs much nicer than I’m used to, and our dive guide, Rohan, was very cautious and safety-minded. The dive shop is located in Nilaveli, which is about 30 minutes from Trinco. We dove at Swami Rock, which is right below Kandasamy Kovil, and at Navy Island (not actually an island) which was right off the coast near our hotel. Neither spot was that great, frankly, but all the Hindu statues at the bottom of Swami Rock were pretty interesting. The visibility was so-so and we didn’t see anything particularly exciting, but it’s always cool to dive someplace new.

We spent the rest of the day playing on the beach (Nate and M) and napping (me). The beach is lovely, and the humans, stray dogs, and cows all seem to enjoy it.

Cows along the Trinco beach

We stayed at Dutch Bay Ocean Cottages, and it was… basic. It felt like a throw-back to our Peace Corps days. Granted it had air conditioning and a private bathroom, and luckily we didn’t get bedbugs or anything like that, but we pulled up and I was like “Oh boy.” Thankfully Nate focused on the nice view from the hotel veranda rather than the lack of amenities, and he stayed positive. The hotel provided a babysitter so we could go scuba diving, though, and she took good care of M while we were gone for 6+ hours. So that’s something.

Our hotel didn’t have a kitchen, and we had to venture out a bit for our meals. We ate at a place called Beach Paradise, and the restaurant didn’t look like much, but the food was AMAZING. I had seafood with rice, and Nate had deviled prawns. It took a while to prepare, but it was worth the wait. Our other favorite restaurant was the Green Park Hotel, which is actually not a hotel. We literally ate there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At dinner they set up tables and chairs on the beach, and it’s really lovely.

The view from our hotel

I’m glad we went to Trinco and we enjoyed our time there, but I don’t think we’d come back simply because we’d rather explore new places. We saw all there was see, which was really neat and worth the trip, but there’s definitely no need to spend more than 2 nights here.

Next stop: Sigiriya, or Lion Rock!

Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura

Ruins and guard stones in the Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura

We arrived in Colombo at 4:45 am, breezed through immigration and customs, met our driver, and we were on the road by 6:00 am. We stopped on the road to buy water and a quick bite to eat, and we checked into our hotel by 10:30 am. We were all pretty tired from the red-eye flight, so we took naps and arranged for the driver to pick us up at 2 pm.

Anuradhapura is known primarily for its ancient Buddhist temples and archeological ruins. Have your driver take you immediately to go buy your entrance ticket in order to make the most out of your $25. The museum is supposed to be pretty good, and after that go explore the ruins.

More Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

The moonstone in the Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

Cows roaming around the Abhayagiri Monastery

The following morning, before leaving for Trincomalee, go visit the Sri Maha Bodi, or the Bodhi tree temple, and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, neither of which are included in the $25 ticket. Our driver took us to before we bought the ticket, which gave us about 1.5 hours to explore the entire enormous area that the ticket gives you access to.

The ruins are really cool, and I was reminded a lot of the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It’s definitely not as awe-inspring as Angkor (what is?) but the ruins in the forest with the monkeys, cows and Buddha statues are fun to explore.

When you’re in the Abhayagiri Monastery area, first explore the moonstone and guard stone ruins, then walk over to the Abhayagiri Dagoba. This will give you a chance to explore all the ruins in the wooded area, and it’s a fun spot to walk around. You’ll find the Elephant Pond (no actual elephants, sadly), lots of Buddhas, and some other neat ruins to poke around in.

Visiting the Thuparamaya Dagoba, one of the oldest Buddhist dagobas in Sri Lanka

The Sri Maha Bodi: this tree is had generations of caretakers for the last 2,000 years and is a major pilgrimage spot for buddhists.

One thing to note is that, for most temples and the grounds, you have to take your shoes off before entering. So if you’re wearing sandals, this means you’re walking around on hot rocks, sand, and bricks barefoot. I’d keep a pair of socks in your bag for these occasions. My feet were swollen and bright red after spending a few hours exploring the temples, and it was pretty unpleasant.

The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Elephants lining the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Anuradhapura was a good first stop for our trip. Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, I knew next to nothing about the country, and the history and ruins of the area where a good crash-course.  We were able to explore at our own pace, not feel too rushed, and our hotel had everything we needed.

We stayed at The Lakeside at Nuwarawewa. The room was basic, but the hotel grounds were lovely and the restaurant was amazing. I ordered vegetarian curry and rice for lunch and I got enough food for 2 people for $5.

The pool area at the Lakeside at Nuruwewa

Lunch!

Our trip to Sri Lanka

At the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba in Anuradhapura

We recently got back from a 9-day trip to Sri Lanka and it was incredible. Absolutely amazing. It’s a relatively small island, and there is so much to do: temples, archeological ruins, beaches, hiking, national parks, snorkeling and scuba diving, wildlife safaris, religious artifacts, you name it. Oh, and the food is amazing.

The view from our hotel in Trincomalee

Before having a child, our travel style was to hit the ground running, spending a night or two in most spots, trying to do as much as possible in the time available. We took trips, not vacations.

We altered our travel style a bit once M came along, lowering expectations for what we’d see and accomplish each day. We still took trips, but they were generally less intense and a little slower-paced than they used to be. But M has grown a lot and is pretty easy-going,  and he’s generally happy to do whatever we’re doing, napping in his hiking pack or stroller along the way. So with this trip (because it was definitely not a vacation) we reverted back to our former travel style.

I knew it would either go well or be a temper-tantrum-filled disaster, and it went about as well as I could have expected. Aside from some trips in the car taking much longer than planned, everyone had a lot of fun, we saw and did tons of awesome stuff, and nothing went seriously wrong.

Sigiriya, or Lion Rock

I’ve talked to a number of people are interested in going to Sri Lanka, but planning an itinerary is kind of daunting because there are so many options. Some of folks have asked about our itinerary, and since the trip went well, here you go:

Day 1: Arrive in Colombo, drive to Anuradhapura
Day 2: Drive to Trincomalee
Day 4: Drive to Sigiriya
Day 5: Drive to Ella
Day 7: Drive to Udawalawe
Day 8: Drive to Colombo
Day 9: Depart from Colombo

Because it might make more sense in map-form, here’s this:


(Yes, I just embedded a map on my blog. I am pretty proud of myself, I gotta tell ya!)

I’m planning a blog post for each location with what we did, what worked, what didn’t, and anything else that might be helpful.

In the meantime, here are some pointers for planning a trip to Sri Lanka:

  • Take the monsoon season into account. There are different monsoon seasons for different parts of the island. Monsoon season is May to September in the west and south-west areas, while it’s in the east and northern regions from October to February. We largely avoided the west and south-west parts of the country on our trip.

Inside the Dambulla cave temples

  • Look into hiring a car and driver. I’m pretty sure you’re only allowed to drive in Sri Lanka if you have a Sri Lankan driver’s license, and frankly the roads and traffic are so crazy, there’s no reason to drive yourself if you can help it. Hiring a car and driver is surprisingly affordable, and you shouldn’t have to pay more than $60/day for all the costs associated with it.

At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

  • If you’re traveling with little kids, particularly babies or toddlers, bring everything you think you might need with you. Don’t plan on trying to buy anything in Sri Lanka. Unless you’re staying in Colombo, chances are you won’t be able to find whatever you’re looking for very easily. We brought bags of snacks and fruit pouches, sunscreen, a thermometer, medicines (Tylenol and ibuprofen), a pack n play, child-safe bug spray and a metal-framed hiking pack. Oh, and a car seat. Definitely bring a car seat, especially if you’re hiring a car.

The view from Ella Rock

  • It’s cold in Nuwara Elia! Luckily we only drove through rather than stopping, because if we’d overnighted there I would have frozen my ass off.
  • Food and goods are very inexpensive, but the cost to enter most sites is pretty high. Sigiriya was $25, so was Anuradhapura, and Udawalawe National Park was $20. On the other hand, as long as you’re not in Colombo or ordering lots of alcohol, you’d have to try pretty hard to spend more than $15 per day on food. If you know Nate, then you know how he eats, so that’s saying something.

Elephants at Udawalawe National Park

  • You have to pay with cash just about everywhere. Out of the 5 hotels we stayed at, only 2 took cards. Outside of Colombo, it’s rare to find anywhere that will accept plastic.
  • Dengue is prevalent, so bring bug spray!

That’s about all I can think of for now, but if anything else comes to mind, I’ll add it to the list!

Thailand vacation: Dolphin Bay

A sight for sore eyes!

A sight for sore eyes!

After a few days in Bangkok, we headed to Dolphin Bay Resort, around 3 hours south of Bangkok, and about 30 minutes south of Hua Hin.  We wanted to go to a beach within driving distance of Bangkok where we could just relax and do nothing, and this fit the bill perfectly.

The hotel (it’s definitely not a resort, despite the name) is across the street from the beach, and has a few salt water pools and a good restaurant.  The beach isn’t the pristine aqua blue water beach that you see in the Thailand guidebooks, but it was shallow, there weren’t many waves, and the water was nice and warm.

There were massive jellyfish that washed up on shore  each afternoon as the tide was going out, but luckily we didn’t encounter any in the water.

The view down the beach across the street from Dolphin Bay Resort

The view down the beach across the street from Dolphin Bay Resort

It’s definitely a family-friendly hotel, and everyone there either had kids or was retired.  There are a bunch of excursions you can go on, and we would have taken advantage of that if we thought M could have handled it.  But we were pushing the baby envelope enough by introducing him to water, sand, heat, having to wear a hat, and swimming pools all at one time.  So we just hung out on the beach, by the pool, and in our air-conditioned hotel room.

The hotel also has a spa  where you can get Thai massages and other stuff.  One afternoon we took turns watching M and each of us got an hour-long massage.  It was heavenly.

If I’m being honest, my favorite thing about the hotel was going downstairs every morning for breakfast and being greeted with the smell of bacon.  Every morning, I ate bacon.  It was wonderful.

The hotel restaurant was good, not spectacular, and slightly expensive for Thailand, but inexpensive for a hotel restaurant.  The panang curry, however, was extraordinary, and I can be picky about restaurant food.  The burgers were also better than expected.

After a few days of eating at the hotel restaurant, we decided to venture out a little, and we discovered a wonderful place called Meaw Restaurant that had tables and chairs set up in the sand by the beach.  The food was better and less expensive than our hotel, so we went back for lunch and dinner every day after that.  Plus the waitress would bring our food and then take M, fan him, and coo at him while we ate.

We almost didn’t give Meaw Restaurant a try simply because of the name.  It looked too much like “meow,” which is a little ridiculous, but we wouldn’t go to a Woof Restaurant or a Neigh Restaurant, so there you go.

One night while we were eating dinner at Meaw, a very nice young lady asked if she could hold M.  We said yes. Then she gestured, asking if she could take him to the open-air bar next door.  She seemed harmless enough so we said yes (questionable parenting choice? maybe.), and she was back less than a minute later because M was starting to get fussy.  Apparently she walked up to a dude there, claimed M was his, and that he needed to give her money.  Ha!

Overall, we had a nice, relaxing vacation in Thailand, to the extent that that is possible with a baby. Neither of us wanted to leave!

Thailand vacation: Bangkok

We had a chance to get out of Dhaka for about a week, so we headed to Thailand.  Since this was our first “vacation” with M, we wanted someplace where we wouldn’t have to do too much in order to have a nice, relaxing time.

Grand palace (1 of 1)

Temples in the Grand Palace complex

We spent a few nights in Bangkok when we arrived, and then another night the day before we flew back to Dhaka.  We had one full day before heading to our hotel on the beach, and I thought it would be feasible for us to see the Grand Palace and one of the other temples.  Well, we decided to shlep to a bagel shop for breakfast that was further away than we thought (everything looks so close on the map… but it’s not) so we didn’t get in a taxi to go to the palace until about noon, and then traffic was horrid.  We arrived at the palace around 1:00, made our way through the literal hordes of tourists, and by 3:00, M had reached the end of his baby rope and was screaming bloody murder.  So we hopped in the first taxi we found and went back to the hotel.  We knowingly fell victim to a common taxi scam where the driver quotes you a flat rate probably twice the price it would cost with the meter running, but we needed air conditioning as fast a possible, so whatever.

Grand palace2 (1 of 1)

The entrance to the Emerald Buddha temple. Except it’s actually made of jade.

We didn’t make it to the other temple I wanted to visit, so I guess I’ll have to wait until the next time we’re in Bangkok to see the world’s second largest reclining Buddha.  That’s traveling with a baby: you are no longer in charge.

The main highlight of our visit to Bangkok was finally getting to see Star Wars.  Nate cared about this more than pretty much anything else, so we utilized the hotel babysitting service and went to a nearby theater. The total cost for 4.5 hours of babysitting, movie tickets for 7:30 on a Friday night at a nice theater, popcorn and soda was about $55!  In the U.S. it would have been at least double that.

Oh, we also found this nice grocery store called Food Hall or something like that, and I was in grocery store heaven.  It was aaaaaamazing.  It was basically a Thai Whole Foods, and I bought mangosteens, avocados, dried fruit, and Ghiradelli chocolate chips to bring back to Dhaka.

I could have spent another hour there, at least, but once again M insisted that things be done on his schedule (are you sensing a theme here?). I’m making the kid sound like a terror, but really he wasn’t that bad.  He did a good job considering how much time he spent in his Ergo and how stinking hot it was.  And honestly, there were times when he cried that I would have cried too, I was so hot and tired of the crowds, but it’s not socially unacceptable for adults to do that.

The first two nights we stayed at Ibis Siam, which is super convenient if you want to get out and walk around and do stuff, with a sky train station practically in front of the hotel.  There’s also a 7-Eleven in the lobby, which was awesome.

The night before we flew home, we stayed at the Swissotel Nai Lert Park, and it was fabulous.  I booked it specifically because the hotel had a babysitting service, and the more I thought about using a hotel babysitter, the more nervous I got, but the babysitter was a very kindly older Thai lady that M took to immediately.  When we got back from the movie, he was in his pajamas, sleeping soundly.  This hotel also has an amazing pool and a super tasty breakfast.  I ate so much for breakfast (crepes! pastries! donuts! bacon! waffles! roasted pork! dude, they even had dim sum!) , if I’d eaten another bite my stomach would have exploded.

Not the best photo, but you get the idea

Not the best photo of the Swissotel’s pool, but you get the idea

We booked the hotels through Agoda.com, which has the best rates I’ve ever been able to find anywhere.

Also, if anyone else is like “OOOOOO there’s a bagel shop in Bangkok?!” here you go: BKK Bagel Bakery near the Chit Lom BTS station.  It’s near the Haagen-Dazs, kind of on a side-street, next to the Kipling Store.  We bought a baker’s dozen to bring back to Dhaka with us, and they are actually pretty darn good bagels.  The sandwiches in the store are also tasty.

We really liked Bangkok, and since it’s so easy to get to, I know we’ll be back!