Travel Forums – life savers I say!

Ever used TripAdvisor or IndiaMike or LonelyPlanet’s thorn tree or Roughguides?

Well if you travel regularly and manage your travel by yourself I am sure you have used these sites. If you haven’t used them and love travel, I recommend you get onto them immediately. These sites are nothing less than a boon for a travel loving person. I like to do my travel by myself, I hate packages or tours, never taken one, nor will ever take one. So whilst I like to travel by myself I am greatly assisted by these travel sites and more than just reading about travel, the best part about these sites are the forum’s on them, you got any question, any doubt, just ask away and you will have some travel loving folk helping you out. I wonder how the people who used to explore on their own before the age of internet managed. Perhaps they were the true adventurers! 🙂

I encounter many people who want to travel, sometimes dont want packages from tour operators, however, eventually give in to them. However, if you are keen to travel on your own, get on these forums, not only can you give great tips to people who are travelling to places that you are well aware of you can also get a lot of info. Many a times people are apprehensive about so many things and have so many doubts and very few people to ask, especially when travelling to remote or offbeat places. No longer should you have any inhibitions if you use these forums.

How safe is it after dark?

How easy is it to rent a car?

Are the directions in English or some other language?

Apart from the popular circuit, what are less touristy yet equally interesting places?

Can we drive in a safari?

Can we camp?

What area is better to stay in with regards to restaurants? etc etc etc…

There are a load of questions in our mind before embarking on any trip, especially if you are going slightly off the beaten path or are totally unaware of the place you are going to. Thanks to these forums now its a piece of cake.

For example, before our recent South Africa trip, I met one kind soul on the forum of Lonely Planet, she seemed to be replying a lot of people about their South Africa travel queries. So I sent her a message asking if she would assist and I sent her a list of questions. Voila! She not just assisted but after many messages back and forth, she not just replied to my innumerable queries, she would offer quite a few suggestions, send me links, contact details and what not. Infact, she was the only reason I had a 12 day road trip in SA (my first driving outside my country) which was not only comfortable and slow paced but entirely smooth and without any sour incidents. We would have never known about the Panaroma Route in South Africa and Drakensberg mountains which are a must visit sort of place if we had gone by some commercial tour planner.

Unfortunately I couldn’t meet the lady as she was herself travelling whilst we were in SA, however, I can never ever thank her enough for the amazing information she gave us and for being so patient with so many of my questions. I don’t think I would have done the trip like we did without her assistance.

I have been writing on Trip Advisor since a long time and now am looking forward to replying a few people about their queries when they come for a trip to India on Lonely Planet as well. India Mike is also a wonderful place to ask all your questions especially if you are looking to do Road Trips in India! These forums are a boon for the wanna be explorer’s/travellers 🙂 Don’t believe me? Go check them out for your next trip!! You will not be disappointed!

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Stop pondering about how to plan a trip and get onto these lovely travel forums and start interacting!

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Road Trip – South Africa

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Ever since I have come back from South Africa, I cannot stop raving about the amazing road trip we had there. The feeling of being cock a hoop is not leaving me. The country has amazing panaromic views all around, the roads are in top notch condition and the traffic there is absolutely nothing, especially for a guy who lives in India! After driving around about 4050 kms in the country and spending 12 days there I am quite adamant that anyone that goes to South Africa has to do a road trip.

 

For someone who had not driven in any foreign country before there were a lot of apprehensions and doubts let alone half the known world here telling me it was a horrible idea, that in South Africa after dark people are just waiting to mug me or rob me. Let me tell you, nothing of that sort happened, we infact in our 12 days trip did not ever encounter any of those scary experiences. The thrill of self driving in a safari in a bush full of Elephants, Rhino’s, Giraffe’s and what not has to be experienced and soaked in. Once you complete the trip it seems all chilled out and I wondered what the fuss about it was.

Okay lets first give some information for you guys if any one of you plan to drive in SA :

 

1.) Indian driving license is valid in SA as long as your driving license is in English. However, we had read on the internet that car hire companies could demand an International Driving Permit and so we actually got one and spent money on it, but it was never asked or checked!

2.) In South Africa like in India they have a right hand drive, so its almost no adjustment for us Indians. They do follow rules though, which might be a little tricky for us Indians 😛 However, if you just drive carefully and watch around, there are plenty of signals and signboards and they are all in English and so once you get a hang of it you are sorted.

3.) Budgetcar.co.za was the car rental that we used and believe it or not for 12 days and 4050 kilometers for two drivers it cost us just 20k. How cool is that? Yes we paid for the fuel and toll (which was at very few places)

4.) We did actually pay around 2500 extra for road side assistance (included in the 20k) however we never required it.

5.) When we left we had booked a Volkswagon Polo, however they gave us a ford fiesta. Which was a pretty similar hatchback type car.

6.) For Safari, ideally you want to hire a jeep or a higher vehicle. We made a slight mistake and didn’t opt for the higher vehicle.

7.) Dropping a car and hiring was very easy and whilst picking up it took us some 15 mintues while dropping the car it took us hardly 2 minutes.

 

See it is that easy and hence I recommend you do a road trip in SA and never opt for any other option. If you are weary of driving a very long distance, which we are not, you can drop a car at an airport and pick up another one from another airport. Its easy and no hassles.

The people here even when driving communicate a lot, while we were driving around in Kruger National Park almost every car that would pass us would wave or flash a light to say ‘hi’!! On the highways when you let a car pass, it would switch on its parking light to say thank you and we would flash our light to say welcome! Seriously almost everywhere this was the norm! In the city of Cape Town though all that disappeared but then I guess folks in a big city are always too busy and in a hurry. It used to amuse me though when our host in Cape Town warned us of traffic on the way to the airport, for someone who comes from India the traffic in SA was an absolute non issue, they simply dont have that many cars or people. There were very few two wheelers and that is half the problem solved.

Having our own vehicle in a national park doing safari was something I was most apprehensive about, how do we find routes, how do we identify animals and birds, what if we encounter big animals on the road? If you are just a little sensible with the animals and keep a distance, the animals were fine, most of the time they kept their distance as well. Kruger National Park has amazingly clear sign boards for a park that is spread across 28000 square kilometers! Riding there and tracking animals or finding a waterhole and spending hours waiting there was so amazing that I cannot quite describe it! We have always complained that in Tiger parks in India they do not let us spend enough time inside the park, here from morning 6 to evening 6 you are free to roam in the park track animals or sit at spot and wait for animals. Can you imagine 12 hours of being in the wild looking for animals and birds? I could not before this trip! We bought one animal identification book in the park and it was great to spot birds and refer the book!

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An Impala walks patiently for us to cross before it crosses! 🙂

The most amazing moment was when we encountered was when we saw a family of Cheetah, the parents were teaching their kids to hunt, the kids were pretty inept and could not stalk at all and would always alarm the Impala and Zebra before they could get near enough to chase. We spent an hour with that family and eventually left that family to perfect their art. It was like the first time that we got to see a wild cat for such length of time! We spotted a pride of lions when we were driving and there was no one else around, just us and the lions! One night we got delayed and drove in pitch darkness in the park and encountered wild dogs, Elephants, Rhinos sitting on the main road! Oh I can go on and on about our 3 day drive in Kruger National Park.

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They were more curious about the cars then the Impala’s!

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The usual traffic jam in Kruger! We looked forward to such traffic jams, which clearly meant some good sighting was happening! We used to rush in the midst of all traffic jams! 😛

 

After Kruger National Park we went on a drive on the Panaroma Route and the route is named totally aptly! The views on that drive were amazing, SA generally has less trees and small buildings so the visibility is amazing, you can see far and wide and the landscape is absolutely stunning. There are so many waterfalls on the route that we didn’t know which to visit and which to skip. Overall we felt we should have given ourselves a few more days to properly explore the Panaroma Route and the Drakensberg Mountains, but perhaps that would be for another time. Here are some snaps from the Panaroma Route.

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The drive upto the Three Rhondavels View Point is amazing and the reward at the end of it equally stunning!

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We found loads of maple tree’s near Graskop where we had the best Pancakes ever!

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The Golden Gate Highlands National park is straight out of the wild west or Texas! We were pleasantly surprised to see it!

 

We absolutely loved the Garden Route, picture this : Green Mountains on a side, the top being full of clouds on one side, the ocean on the another and you are zipping about on a tip top highway! The country is amazingly beautiful and one way to see a lot of it in a short time is to take a car and drive! There were innumerable view points, the amount of stops that we took to take photographs would drive any other driver mad, unless ofcourse if the driver and the photographer are the same person!

 

Here are some more pictures of the Garden Route, a full travelogue comes next and then our experiences of our encounters with locals there!

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I told you green mountains with their tops in the clouds on one side!

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The ocean on the other!

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when clouds descend on the garden route!

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Thoda to style maarna banta hai!

 

 

 

 

Cruising around Sunderbans

I had heard a lot about the Sunderbans and even watched many videos and documentaries about the man eaters in Sunderbans, the place always fascinated me, I did want to make one visit there last year as well, however, it didnt work out and so when this year we learnt of a group taking a trip to the Sunderbans we latched onto it.

 

At the outset we knew that tiger spotting is quite difficult around here, that did not deter me, for I have seen quite a few tigers in the wild, I know its all dependent on luck and so you should never make plans based on tiger spotting. I was keen though to atleast see all sorts of birds and more importantly the bio-diversity and the dense jungles that no one inhabits.

 

We reached Sonakhali ferry station, which is about a 4 hour drive by bus from Kolkata, at around 4.30 pm and set in our ferry for the place where we were going to stay, the sunset was quite mellow and there was quiet excitement amongst everyone.

 

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We reached our base camp in pitch darkness and at the camp they told us not to venture outside the lighted areas of the camp as they had seen a tiger roaming around just two days back. Perhaps this was done to ignite excitement among us and also to ensure no one ventured outside the camp vicinity too much!

 

The next morning we were all up early for a safari, however, the organisers told us that we cannot go towards the core zone as the forest office opens only after 9 and so we waited. In normal cases tiger safari’s are always to begin early in the morning so this was a first. Whilst we were waiting we did walk around the Gosaba island where we were based to get a feel of the local village life. Interestingly on that island there was only one shop vendor, who stood with a stool selling, honey, cigarettes and mineral water! That was just about it. Most or almost all of the houses around here had a pond dug around their house and paddy also grew abundantly everywhere so the local staple food of rice and fish was clear for all of us to see. The people here were pretty much entrenched in their daily routines of finding fish from their ponds or looking after their chicken and goats. Some kids were busy playing Bengal’s favourite sport football!

 

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A lady busy catching fish in the morning!

 

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The kids busy playing football

 

We did wander about and spotted a few birds and the people on the island seemed quite gentle and kind and ready to smile.

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A Fulvous Breasted Woodpecker

 

Eventually after breakfast we set out on our ferry searching for the tiger and more importantly ventured towards the core zone! The whole area is a delta and thanks to this richly dense mangrove forest all the storms of the Bay of Bengal is not allowed to enter the mainland. The vegetaion here is dense, the area gets flooded thanks to the high tide and so the land is not really easy to walk on. We infact noticed that during the high tiger the water went up by almost 15 feet!

 

The thing about Sunderbans is that the islands here are not small, they are pretty huge, so whilst you are only allowed to visit the place on boat it means you cannot get to see anything apart from the outer sides of the islands, secondly when it is high tide all you can get to see is tree branches, not even the trunk of the tree as the water goes up that high on the banks of the river. The area is highly inaccessible, dense and so your chances of wild life spotting are few and majorly dependent on luck! We tired our eyes watching however on the first day we barely saw some 10 king fishers and maybe two or three deers on a full day safari! Not ideal for animal watching is this boat safari, also they do not have smaller boats for us tourists or else we could go inside the smaller creeks and see more of the inside of the islands.

 

We did see quite a few kingfishers and many more deer and wild boars the next day, the highlight being one amazingly huge salt water crocodile, the biggest I have ever seen. Apart from that though the wildlife watching here is really difficult. I really wished there would be some way to see the islands from the inside but we couldn’t find any way yet. They do have a few watch towers, however, it was during the holidays and way too many people had come around there, plus even there the sighting was quite poor.

 

Thankfully we were quite a few friends together and we kept ourselves amused whilst the two  and half days that we cruised around here. As far as sighting is concerned the place is quite difficult unless they improve accessibility, that too ensuring no disturbance of the local eco-system. All in all the secrets of the Sunderbans are not there for everyone to see, it would require a lot more sources or a lot more time to be spent around here to find ways to get around the Sunderbans!

 

Perhaps nature at some places doesn’t want everyone to come about and see everything and maybe some things are better off without any human presence. I ll leave you guys with some pictures.

 

Personally I wouldnt recommend people to go to the Sunderbans with high hopes of seeing too much wildlife, the eco-system though is picturesque, however, unless you have some means of getting more access I think I wouldnt spend time cruising around with a boat for so much time.

 

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This croc’s size was humongous, I dont know if the pic does justice! It was really huge!

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These folks probably know the most about these jungles than anyone else!

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The roots of the Sundari tree have this way of coming out of the soil, this is where Sunderbans gets its name from

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These fishermen do go inside these islands to collect honey and they I think are our way to seeing this place up close, perhaps when we venture alone here!

 

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A black capped kingfisher pops a crab for lunch!

 

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These dense mangroves have so many stories inside that they do not want to reveal!

 

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A common kingfisher watches us pass by!

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This is the kind of banks the islands had, no way you could walk without your legs going knee deep in the mud! The mudskippers though loved the place!

 

Breaking the break!

My beleaguered blog needs some revival, its been a while I even looked at the blog, forget writing a post, consciously I need to now get back to regular posting and note down my travel experiences before I start forgetting them! I guess writing down is a habit and it is safe to say this time I am out of habit. Life has been way to eventful at times to actually sit back and soak it all in and summarise and hence the absence from the writing scene. I guess it happens to almost all of us. So many times it feels like the blog is dead and then somehow something inside me tells me to never give up on this idea, somehow keep it alive and sustain it and keep writing, whatever gibberish it may be, just do not give up!

 

At the very least remember to post travel stories! Although pretty much in a phase of life where I am not travelling right now, I must though ensure I tell you I did travel in January to the city of joy and then went tiger spotting in Sunderbans! 😀 😀

 

Yes bitches! I did, ate many Rosogullas and Kolkata Rolls and Mishti Doi’s and even went gliding down the beautiful mangrove forests! So whilst I am not telling you everything about the entire trip right away. I am atleast breaking the break from the blog and am promising to myself more than anyone else that I will be here more often! 😀 😀

 

I’ll leave you with one photo taken during our gliding around the the delta of Sunderbans, on a misty day when the horizon disappeared this boat broke the illusion that had been created! 🙂

 

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Old Magazine House

I have been planning to go to the Western Ghats for a birding trip since long, many articles, pictures and stories have been coming my way since a long time about how the bio-diversity here is amazing. Eventually this Diwali we managed to go and finally made a road trip down to North Karnataka.

The first destination on the list was The Old Magazine House a jungle camp that is run and managed by The Jungle Lodges and Resorts. As it turned out this place is a heaven for bird watchers!

Tucked slightly away from the highway, a 2 kms off-road drive brings you to this small camp. Amidst tall trees and very little sun peeping through the camp gives you a feel of calm and peace and tranquility about it. They have a small area that has been cleared of the trees where they have put some bird baths and on days when there is no rain around these very bird baths are an absolute favourite of the birds. The birds come here in throngs and they have put some green nets with small gaps made for the camera so that the birds are not disturbed by the bird watchers and photographers.

The first evening itself after around 5 till around 7 we counted 32 different species of birds at one spot, all you had to do was keep your note and pen ready, we would sit around sipping tea or reading a book and the birds would come! I mean I have gone to a lot of places to spot birds and yes there is a lot of fun and a sense of achievement in walking on trails and identifying birds but this was a first!

 

Here you just wait and all the birds from the surrounding woods come and give their attendance! How cool is that!? We counted 48 species in 24 hours and that I think is an amazing number! So many firsts that I cannot even tell you! This place is an absolute paradise for bird watchers who are lazy to go on trails I tell you!

 

The staff in the place is also very well equipped in terms of bird, plant, reptile identification and can have a conversation with us quelling all our curiousness. They not only are efficient that ways but are extremely caring and hospitable, never imagined govt tourist houses to have such a courteous and caring staff. They made some awesome meals as well and also took us out on trails in the woods.

 

The boarding facilities are basic, whilst the cottages are under repair the dormitory that they have are quite simple and good and adequate. Very neatly run this place has to be up on your list if you are looking to go birding in the Western Ghats. Here are some of the birds that we spotted here!

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Flame Throated Bulbul

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White Bellied Flycatcher

 

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Spider Hunter playing hide and seek with us

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Orange Headed Thrush & Fulvetta

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Emerald Dove, the state bird of Tamil Nadu

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Asian Paradise Flycatcher (female)

 

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Hump Nosed Pit Viper. Apart from the birds there are many other things to spot too 😀

 

 

 

 

 

 

The secluded beach and the sunset

Call me snooty but I generally prefer places with less people, the more quiet, the more I can hear the sounds of nature, my thoughts and just be with my thoughts without any distraction. I love trekking in the Himalayas precisely for that reason, for the only way you can go away from people to the real places is when you walk away from the road and take up a trail up the slopes!

 

There always is an effort going on whenever I travel to go find such spots, sometimes its great to be just by yourself in nature, watching a sunrise or a wave crashing on a rock or a squirrel making merry with some nuts.

 

Recently we stayed in a place called Balapitiya, kinda in between the more famous Bentota and Hikkaduwa on the west to southwest sea coast of Srilanka, whilst Hikkaduwa and Bentota both are pretty nice beaches, there is a lot of activity there too, we did immerse in those, however, in the evenings after a couple of Mojito’s we preferred to walk on the beach across the road from the villa we rented. Barely 50 meters away is this beautiful beach, the best part was very very few people were about and so it was great fun to have this all to ourself.

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The beautiful Balapitya Beach!

 

We took long walks whilst watching the waves, collecting shells, getting our legs wet, spotting snails stuck on stones, and when tired we sat down to see an ethereal sunset! A very quiet, peaceful evening on this wonderful beach that was also where we took our first dips in the morning, albeit in the morning there were a few joggers around!

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The waves crashing on the rocks

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Soon enough the sun started going westwards!

 

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continually showing different hues as it went on its way!

 

There always are hideouts everywhere, remember that! If you are one of those who likes finding them, this is one nice beach tucked away in Srilanka that is not “developed” and at times I am thankful of that! 🙂

Living with locals

Ever since I discovered AIRBNB, I have fallen in love with it, its very different from what I had always tried, apart from having a home with a lot more space and facilities that hotels ever provide, there so many times is an opportunity to engage with a local. Not always have I had a host who is living hands on, however, many times I have had the chance through AIRBNB to actually stay with some locals and that I must tell you is where AIRBNB takes the cake in comparison to all other websites that aid travel. I must confess I have not really travelled to Backpacking hostels which are next on my list to visit and experience but till then AIRBNB is doing a wonderful job really.

I have to mention this now especially when I am back from Sri Lanka, where we visited not one but three different homes and hosts. Amongst them one experience was so wonderful it will stay with me for life.

I have to mention the wonderful stay we had with Domaine de Bellevue, a home hosted by Valerian a Sri Lankan and Laure his wife who comes from Switzerland. As much as I regret that I could not meet Valerian’s wife or kids who were holidaying whilst we were there, I think that gave us more of Valerian’s time and interacting with the guy was a wonderful thing to do. The guy has travelled extensively all around the world doing all sorts of jobs, speaks 7 languages and now seems to have settled on this little mountain he bought, yes, you read that correct, he bought a mountain with a view and then he built his house. The location is so superb that sitting on his porch in Wattegama we can actually see & determine what weather is in Kandy(18kms away), Colombo(153kms away) & Nuwara Eliya (91kms away). To actually reach his house you have to climb around 400 meters inside his property from where the vehicles stops!! I told you, the guy bought a part of a mountain!

What we learnt from him was most Sri Lankans are involved in making their own houses, unlike us who basically hire people to do stuff. Very proudly Valerian would tell us that the tiles on the porch we were sitting on were actually done by his own hands! How amazing is that?! The man would go for his job, cook breakfast and dinner for us, do gardening, most of his food came from his own garden, would clean and do the dishes, feed his dogs, cats and birds, regale us with his chats, arrange transport for us and all that single handedly! I mean how industrious and resourceful is that, honestly I have come back with a big complex from there!

The other benefit is that it offers so much insight when you have a local who is ready to talk and converse with all the time, so many of your questions have suddenly got some answers, there is ready information to feed all your curiosity about the place.

Another amazing thing was, when at night we would sleep or when we would go out all we did was just close the magnet locked net of the door, the door would be otherwise open for anyone wanting to enter. That is how safe it was around there! Imagine doing that in a foreign country?

I actually joined him in the kitchen, he even made me love eating a pumpkin, I tasted several new fruits in his garden, Katu Anoda juice being new for me and one that fast became a favourite with the meals. We even made a wood fired pizza with me helping him a teeny weeny bit of garnishing. The pizza again was made from dough, that he prepared, most of the ingredients for the toppings came from his own garden, was wood fired, yes he had a wood fire oven made for this specially!

Infact one night he had some other guests who were a french couple who wanted to eat french food and Valerian made a complete french dinner and even asked us what sort of wine we would like to drink alongside! We had a wonderful dinner that night with some awesome classical music collection that Valerian has, the conversation during that dinner was enriching, I love interacting with people from different countries and cultures.

I wonder if hotels can ever provide such experiences? Atleast I have never had any of such in Hotels, its with homestays, which have locals living alongside that such pleasant benefits exist.

Apart from giving so many wonderful moments as far as the stay facilities are concerned the houses have so much more character than hotels, so much more space than a hotel room and actually a lot more privacy than hotels plus this wonderful insight into local life. Isn’t that what most travellers look for when they set out to travel???

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When we reached a little late in the noon to his place and claimed we were hungry, he made us this wonderful salad and Katu Anoda juice. The orange thing in the salad is actually Pumpkin boiled in just nutmeg water and salt and tasted wonderfully with pepper! I never knew I would say I loved eating Pumpkin you know!

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For really wonderful photos of the place you have to visit its page on FB on the link I shared above.

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We spent a lot of time here lazing with a book and sipping tea or just admiring the view.

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The view of Kandy city from our HOME in Wattegama! 😀

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Lest I forget, the place is a treasure trove for birds, we spotted many many birds of whom I have to identify many yet! Here is a Scarlet Minivet we spotted from our hammock!

 

I just can go on and on about the benefits of staying with locals or staying in homes instead of hotels, not taking anything away from hotels, I use them as much, however, for the sheer varied experiences you get from a home and living with someone it just cannot match up.

 

So have you ever stayed in a homestay or with locals?? If not don’t wait, give it a try!

 

 

Sea, Sand & Fun

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A couple of kids jump into the Indian Ocean at a beach in Galle under the watchful eyes of their father. A beach is a wonderful blessing to have nearby and the Sri Lankans are pretty lucky in this regard, especially the ones that live near the coast. We happened to spend a week there, which coincided with Sri Lankan holidays as it is their festival season. It was a short, sharp trip but we loved it anyways watching the mild, smiling Sri Lankan’s enjoying their holidays and basking in the glory of their rich lands. Finally after the war ended some 6 odd years ago the emerald isle is set to shine and grow.

 

I guess the abc tag has to take a break, there are a lot of stories from Lanka to share. So stay tuned for more!