New Years in Sri Lanka

I’m about 9 months post date on my blogs.  I seem to start blogs and then never get around to finishing them.  But I still want to make sure I write down what I remember so our kids have memories.  Let’s be honest, so I have memories.  This mommy memory loss is no joke.

Here goes…NEW YEARS IN SRI LANKA, 1-7 January 2017

Luckily, with a little help of the Universe making it nearly impossible to get to India for the New Year as I had hoped, we found ourselves looking forward to a week in Sri Lanka. Not knowing anything about Sri Lanka I decided to book through a tour company. The thought being, if this is our only chance to see Sri Lanka then I want it to be the most informative, spectacular, memorable, AND fun trip for everyone. With the help of the tour company Red Dot, we had just that.  To this date, Tad thinks our trip to Sri Lanka was our best yet.

Here is what made Sri Lanka an amazing family vacation.

Day 1: After a direct flight from Bahrain, and an Izzy who did not sleep very well (ugh), we arrived at the newly renovated Colombo airport.  Our driver, Aruna, met us there and made us feel very welcome and comfortable instantly.  His van was immaculate, his English very good, and there was even water waiting for us in the van.

The first Sri Lanka experience was surprisingly not the airport (as I had mentally prepared for) but the just the driving.  Within seconds of leaving the airport it was clear I should not look out the front window because it always looked like we were about to hit someone or someone was about to hit us.  Tad immediately pointed out that he was glad he wasn’t driving and happy to turn the wheel over to a professional.  At first it seemed chaotic but we learned after a few days that there is definite order within the chaos of driving in Sri Lanka.  Like many places, the law of gross ton, applies.  The bigger you are, you have the right of way.  You can pass as many cars as you want, even with cars heading straight at you, but be prepared to feel like you’re going to have a head-on-collision every time.  Still, it was worth every single penny to have someone drive us around for the week.

We jumped right into our vacation by heading straight to the to the Millenium Elephant Orphanage Foundation.  As I read from other family blogs, this stop is a good way to get the kids excited about being in Sri Lanka.  It worked.  It was perfect.  Even for Tad and I, the Elephant orphanage made us realize we had stepped into a totally different time and place.  Within a short walk from the front entrance, we were greeted with a huge field of elephants.  There is no glass or walls or anything between you and the elephants, just a few guys with sticks to guide and corral the elephants. Aruna had timed our arrival perfectly so we got to watch the tourist coveted “feeding.” Honestly, it hurt to watch because it looked so uncomfortable for the elephants. But apparently elephants like milk and I trust they are not hurting the elephants at an orphanage.  Right?

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As soon as the feeding was over, Aruna told us to follow him.  At first I was really annoyed he was taking us out of the park and not letting us look around.  But he was insistent we follow him and quickly.   He led across the main highway (a two way road), down a tourist-trap street filled with Sri Lankan knik-knaks, to a hotel that sat on a beautiful river.  He then said, “Sit here. Order tea. Eat lunch.” Little did we know the best elephant show of our lives was about to take place. We had the best seats in the house to watch the elephants bathing in the river.  Within 15 minutes a huge herd of elephants were parading right next to our table and heading to the river we were overlooking.  It was both magical and humbling.  All of a sudden it was clear these were not cozy little kittens but huge, powerful, smart creatures.

While some of the elephants were chained in the water, most were let free to just bathe. There were huge water guns spraying at the elephants (which they seemed to like) as well as fireman grade hoses spraying them off.  It was so funny to watch.  You could begin to see personality in the elephants and how they preferred to bathe.  My favorite had to be the ones who just plopped down and started rolling around.  I’m not quite sure who loved it more, the kids or Tad and I.

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After lunch we got back in the van for a few hour drive towards the Central Province of Sri Lanka.  Since we arrived in good time to our hotel area, Aruna suggested we visit the Dumbulla Caves, aka the Buddha caves.  I hadn’t included it on our itinerary because I wasn’t sure how the kids would do but I am so glad Aruna essentially forced us to go.  As you approach there are prayer flags strung above the road letting you know you’re approaching a very holy Buddhist site.  And holy, divine, and great it was.  From the parking lot, you turn a corner and BAM you’re greeted with one of the country’s tallest golden buddha statues.  My mouth dropped.  My heart fluttered.   It is by far the the tallest Buddha statue I’ve ever seen. It’s not the largest in the world, by far, but it’s still breath taking and emits an aura that is respectable.

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To see the caves, dating back 2700 years, you climb up a steep hill lined with monkeys and people selling floral offerings.  This was also the first glimpse into the Izzy show. Almost every person we passed swooned over Izzy, smiling, cooing, pinching her cheeks, kissing her head.  At this point, after being in Bahrain for so long these types of gestures don’t bother me and we follow Izzy’s cues.  Partly tired, partly uncomfortable she wanted Tad to carry her.  So while the rest of us walked, Tad carried his little movie star up the steep hill.  Trace was totally thrilled that he wasn’t sitting anymore and happily walked up the hill.

The Dumbulla Caves Monastary are still functioning and are the oldest preserved edifices in Sri Lanka.  The kids were scared of the caves but enjoyed running around looking at the lotus flowers in the ponds.  It was just the beginning of a full week of lotus flower excitement.  Tad and I each took our turn in the caves and were both happy to have visited the holy place.  The cave paintings are very well preserved and the statues are breathtaking.  I would have liked to sit and meditate in the caves but long gone are the days of traveling on my own time.  The kids were getting rowdy and it was time to head to the hotel.  My photos will not do this sacred place justice but these Google images will.  The Dumbulla Caves have a fascinating history and worth a read on Wikipedia.

We stayed two nights at the Elephas Resort in Sigiriya. It’s a small boutique style hotel with an eco-friendly attitude. Most memorably, it had the best shrimp dish I’ve ever had.

Day 2 in Sri Lanka we ventured to the famous Sigiriya, Lion’s Rock Fortress. The history of this fortress is impressive and captivating–a real life tale of rulers, harems, Buddhist monks, honor, and wars.  Walking around the pool gardens trying to imagine what it would have looked like in 5th century was exciting and unbelievable.  Aruna hired a guide who took us to the top which means the guide also carried Trace up all the steep and treacherous spots (there were many).  For most of the trip you’re climbing steep steps strapped to the side of a mountain with scaffolding…and not US standard scaffolding, Sri Lankan standards.  In retrospect, Tad said we totally got lucky that our guide didn’t get mad or upset at us or Trace and accidentally let Trace fall over the cliffs to a horrible death.  That never even crossed my mind.  We’re an adventurous family with good intuition and I thought it was good for us (said the mom not carrying a child up the steep steps). I was most proud of Tad knowing he isn’t the biggest fan of heights but he didn’t say anything and kept trucking along with Izzy in his arms.  Izzy, showed her love for all things adventurous and daring and had no troubles with the heights.  The top of Lion Mountain where the main palace was built had a spectacular view (as you might imagine) and was WORTH every sweaty step (again, said the mom not carrying a child and who loves heights).

That afternoon we arranged to go on an elephant safari at Kaudulla National Park.  We had our own private jeep and guide who knew which area of the park the elephants were gathered.   Apparently the elephants migrate between three main areas during the different seasons. Not only did we see the most spectacular wild elephant show ever imaginable (blew Day 1 out of the water), we got to see a wild elephant on the way to the park just cruising along the highway.   Elephants are spectacular, breath taking creatures even at the zoo but to see them in real life, in their habitat, playing together, fighting, eating, cruising, bathing…it makes me love them even more. It was this park that we also got to see our first peacock with its feathers raised. It was far away but still spectacular.

Day 3 we loaded up the van and headed to Kandy. And yes, it took all day. Sri Lanka, while having modern roads doesn’t mean the traffic or driving is fast. The twists, turns, and traffic made what would be a quick hour drive from point A to point B a six hour drive.  Knowing it would be a long drive, Aruna was really good at spacing out stops for us.  The first one was at an Ayurveda spice garden.  Having self-studied Ayurveda since I was a teenager and then becoming certified as an Ayurveda Wellness Counselor in the States, I was excited to see the medicinal plants in the wild.  To be honest it wasn’t anything spectacular but it was a good mini-ecological stop and opportunity to see Ayurveda medicinals in action.  Right at the end of our tour, Izzy tripped and fell slicing open her knee.  She couldn’t have done it at a better place.  Immediately 10 guys swooped around to help and calm her (obviously freaking her out more) and clean up her wound with traditional Ayurveda herbs.  I was thrilled to see Ayurveda from its motherland in action.  They applied crushed herbal powder onto her knee and told me to let it stay on as long as possible.  No joke, her knee healed surprisingly fast.

The next stop on our way to Kandy was at a friend’s of Arunas.  This family showed us how to use every part of the coconut tree from the nut itself (water, milk, oil) to making rope with the coconut shell husk, and woven mats from the fronds.  Being a lover of all things coconut, it was informative and impressive to see how the whole tree was used and processed to aid humans’ lives.  The kids each took a turn making coconut fiber ropes which they then carried with them throughout the trip like a trophy.  I liked that stop even more than the Ayurveda botanical gardens.

We arrived in Kandy at rush hour…although I have a feeling it’s always congested. After checking into our beautiful and modern hotel OZO Kandy, we took a guided tour at Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.  The Temple is one of the major pilgrimage places for Buddhists.  Honestly, I’m not sure what was more impressive our 98 y.o. tour guide or the temple.  Joking, not joking.  Our tour guide had Tad and I holding back laughter the entire time.  He was so sweet mannered and definitely knew every single piece of history about the Temple but was unable to field any of our questions without repeating his entire monologue again.  Neither Tad or I are Buddhist but we have both read lots of Eastern philosophy texts and Buddhist books.  The Temple took all of our breath away at different points.  The most notable moment was in the meditation hall near the actual tooth relic. Trace and Izzy, despite being squirmy since getting out of the car, sat still and silent while our Monk friend forced us to sit and “meditate.”  Clearly I was all about it but to see the whole family feel something unique and quieting was unexpected and heart warming.  As we exited the museum to conclude our tour the only rain of our trip poured down on us.  It was a welcomed blessing and “cleanse.”

We finished our only night in Kandy with a Sri Lankan cultural dance show.  Although Tad and I were very excited to see it, the kids took one look at the masks and nearly lost it. Okay, Izzy totally lost it. Trace lasted about 10 minutes then was too scared to go on. Oh well. That’s one of the things about traveling with toddlers–not everything is going to be a big win.  Tad and I have to make quick decisions and decide if it’s worth moving on, potentially having already paid for a ticket or fee, or to make the kids tolerate it because we really want experience/see it. We decided to leave the show and walk the long way home around Bogambara Lake which was a nice way to feel and see more of the city before heading to bed.

Despite spending most of Day 3 in the van, day 4 was our longest day on our total week long vacation.  Again, God bless our kids were growing therefore napping all the time, we drove about 250km from Kandy to Laya Safari Resort, due west of the Yala National Park entrance. Technically Google Maps says it takes about 5.5 hours but it took us 8.5 with scenic stops along the tea plantations and lunch in Nuwara Eliya.  For many, driving that long and far doesn’t sound like a way to spend vacation. For Tad and I, we totally love it! We got to see SO much of the gorgeous countryside we wouldn’t otherwise see. We also weren’t driving so we could nap when we wanted.  Since Tad and I love tea, stopping and taking a tour at the tea plantation was awesome. We learned so much and gained an even deeper appreciation and love for all things tea.  And like everywhere else in Sri Lanka, Izzy was asked to be in many family photos.  To me, it’s bizarre to even imagine why you’d ask a stranger to be in a family vacation photo but apparently it’s a thing.

Nuwara Eliya was a nice lunch stop with the best shrimp masala Tad and I have ever had.  This is where a lot of Indians and Middle Easterners come to vacation.  It definitely has a resort town feeling to it.  I’m sure there is a lot to do but we continued on.  The last stop before we left the mountains was in Ella.  Ella is Sri Lanka’s backpacker’s mecca.  It wreaked (literally and figuratively) of backpackers with all the quintessential backpackers places like the german bakery, internet cafes, smoothie and juice stands, lounges, yoga decks, and shopping.  While we stopped for a quick tea, and let Izzy indulge in her first experience with chocolate cake, it was nice for me to remember my backpacking days and think about how much I would have LOVED this town.  Now, as a married globe trotting mother of two, I realized I no longer desired this type of vacation spot and was truly happy to be where I was in life.  As we drove away with sounds of Bob Marley and ambient music playing from hippy-chic incense burning cafes, I felt like I was driving away from that part of my past for good.  It felt sweet and freeing.

When we did finally arrive to our next hotel, Laya Safari Resort, we realized just how far our money goes in a country like Sri Lanka. While the places we had stayed in were nice up to this point, this was another step up into luxury vacationing.  Lotus ponds greeted us at the front entrance, the property sat right on the Bay of Bengal, elephant markings were all over the property, and monkeys were playing and watching us humans from the rooftops as if we were the safari park.  This is also where Trace and Izzy learned the phrase: NO MUD, NO LOTUS.  The service and food were incredible and we were at the gateway to Sri Lanka’s coveted Yala National Park, one of the best safari parks in the country.  While we were assured it was a family friendly spot, I was a relieved when we were lead away from the beach front properties to our own private two bedroom Thicket Villa.  We were completely isolated by nature and the sky. The kids finally got to experience the night sky in all its glory and we even got our own monkey visitors the next day. 

Day 5 we began the day lounging around the pool and taking a walk-about on the beach… with the lifeguard.  At first I was really annoyed that he wouldn’t leave us alone but then I felt bad when Tad told me the lifeguard had lost all his family and many of his closest friends and teachers in the 2004 tsunami.  My heart sank when I learned this.  It was our first reminder of the devastating tsunami that changed the lives of thousands in this tiny country.  Hearing his past and reflecting on my annoyance made me remember to be more compassionate with all.  My perspective immediately shifted and I was grateful he cared about us so much.

That afternoon was our Safari Day at Yala National Park.  Right before our safari we had our own close-encounters with wild monkeys at our cabin.  What started off as, “oh look at the cute monkeys right there,” quickly escalated to Tad locking all the doors and witnessing a monkey throw itself against our patio door. We still don’t know if it was trying to get Izzy, open the door, or just show dominance. Either way, I no longer saw the cute hotel monkeys as “cute.” Instead, I wanted nothing to do with them.

As we began our private safari tour, I sat back with very low expectations.  Since we had already seen the most magnificent elephant safari I could imagine in Kaudulla, I wasn’t too worried if we saw anything else in Yala National Park.  The safari was filled with beautiful landscape and tons of animals but I also got really upset when we found ourselves in a jocking match with 20 other jeeps for the best view of a small family of elephants.  I know our driver just wanted us to get good photos but I just wanted us to stop, respect from afar, and watch them rather than worrying about being “the closest.”  I finally asked Aruna to tell our driver to stop and to just sit and watch.  When we did so, four or five elephants came really close to our jeep.  I got to stare into the eyes of a huge elephant and then as it stood there, I noticed the belly was moving.  It was a pregnant elephant.  I got chills watching her slowly pass us and watch the unborn elephant move from the outside.  I admit, I was teary.  It was a magical in-the-wild moment for me.  Four hours later filled with elephants, water buffalo, crocodiles, peacocks, an eagle eating a rabbit in a tree, and more peacocks, we were all beat and full of wild life sightings.  It really was spectacular and fun.  By the end, I had decided my new totem animal was the Water Buffalo and Izzy had a keen eye for peacocks.  Every time she saw one she yelled in her cute little toddler voice, “eecock, eecock.”  Izzy now has a peacock poster on her wall.

Day 6 we drove along the south coast and finally experienced the Sri Lankan coastal vibes.  Between the cities that were bustling with tuk tuk’s, horn honking, ladies in beautifully colored saris, and the aromas of delicious Sri Lankan food were vast stretches of coconut lined turquois white sandy beaches.  We even got to see the Sri Lankan famous stilt fisherman (either for tourist purposes or because they were really fishing, probably a little of both).  We arrived mid-day at another amazing hotel, Mosvold Villas in Ahangama Bay.  The minute they opened their private gates I felt like we were transported to an entirely new Sri Lanka. And we were. It was the beach life version of Sri Lanka. While we had experienced a large touristy hotel for lunch, we were thrilled to be staying at small private boutique hotel with only 8 rooms. I HIGHLY recommend this small hotel chain. It was amazing! In fact, to this day it is still one of my favorite hotels of all time. Then again, maybe it’s my association because I FINALLY got to go surfing!!!! IN SRI LANKA!!!!!!! I hadn’t been surfing since June 2014 when we moved away from Oceanside, California. Over two years later, thanks to Tad watching the little ones on the beach, I got to go surfing in Sri Lanka!!!! Insert biggest Haunani smile you can imagine.

Ahangama is just west of the popular Weligama Bay and surf breaks.   There were plenty of surf lessons in Ahangama but not a lot of wave catching.  That wasn’t going to deter me.  After I found the board I wanted from a beach hut, the owner told me there was a reef break at the far east side of the bay.  At the time there was only one other guy surfing and one lady patiently waiting on the beach for the waves to pick up.  I didn’t waist any time.  I said my little prayer to the ocean Goddesses and jumped right in.  Now before I make myself sound better than I am, I do NOT call myself a “surfer.” I like to surf.  I love the water.  I can paddle out, catch a wave, and repeat.  I can surf but I leave the term “surfer” for the ladies and gentlemen who live on the water.  At this point in my life, and the long sabbatical since 2014, I am more like a visitor or surf vacationer.  I wish it were different, and maybe some day we’ll get stationed near a surfing town again, but for now I was beyond giddy, excited, and pumped to be catching little 1-2ft waves. Seriously, smile from ear to ear.  And since there was only two of us out, it was a wave factory–wave, after wave for just the two of us.  Eventually 4-5 more people paddled out and that’s when I decided I’d go in.  My last wave even brought me all the way to the beach.  It was the perfect exclamation mark to an amazing family vacation.  That night ended with a mediocre last meal in a beach restaurant that lost power.  Little did we know the lack-luster last meal on vacation would become a Drake family vacation trend.

Day 7, our final day in Sri Lanka, we woke very early to go whale watching. While the warf and marina experience was very exciting and the kids loved it (when they weren’t sleeping), Tad and I wish we had stayed at the hotel for the morning.  We did see a few whales but it didn’t come without me getting super worked up. The whale watching mirrored the Yala safari experience. When a whale was discovered all the whale watching boats (maybe 10 in our area) would go into high speed to chase the whale. Again, I’m sure it’s because they want the passengers to get good photos but it made my heart sink. I want to respect the whale in its environment, not scare the poor thing.   Logistically there are so many people crammed onto the boats anyway, good luck capturing a decent photo unless you’re willing to hand your camera and a few rupees to one of the deckhands.

By the time the whale watching tour was over, we were already exhausted but had to pull ourselves together for a quick turnaround to the airport. By that point, Bahrain felt so foreign again, so distant, and we were all pretty excited to get back. Sri Lanka was so good to us but we also were ready to settle into 2017 in Bahrain. Surprisingly, it was a little emotional for me to say good-bye to Aruna, our driver. I didn’t anticipate it but a week on the road in a foreign country makes you very fond of your driver. Like an Uncle you didn’t know you had until you realize he’s willing to do anything to protect you, make you have a good time, and be straight up honest with you about religion, politics, people, and philosophy. He was fantastic. If anyone wants his number, I still have it and am happy to share it with you. To this day, several months later, Izzy still asks about Aruna and every time she sees a grey van asks, “Aruna?”

Sri Lanka was more amazing and more enriching to our senses than we had anticipated. The people were beyond friendly…something to be said about traveling in a Buddhist country…and the food delicious.  My favorite way to describe Sri Lanka is: Sri Lanka is all the best parts of India without the grime, crime, and anxiety.  For those of you who are afraid or uncertain about traveling to India (I don’t blame you having been there several times) but want to travel to a country that is very far away from the western world, I recommend Sri Lanka.  People who have been to south India say Sri Lanka is like South India.  I doubt it.  Nothing will be just like Sri Lanka. Only Sri Lanka can be Sri Lanka. There is a magic there that will enter your spirit and you will come home with a little more of Buddha’s smile shining from within.

Aloha & Namaste

Final note:  Due to weird computer issues, I’m having troubles getting my Sri Lanka photos uploaded.  If you would like to see photos from our Sri Lanka trip, click HERE.  It will take you to Facebook where we have an entire album dedicated to our Sri Lanka vacation.

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