Saturday, February 15, 2014


Ceylon is the name the British used for Sri Lanka. Their tea plantations are still here, scenically covering the hills and valleys of Sri Lanka's mountain region. Next time you buy an expensive small package of exquisite Ceylon tea, think about how it was scooped up from a huge pile on a factory floor here.

Ella's main landmark is Ella Rock, a mountain towering five hundred meters above Ella. Getting there requires walking a few km on the train tracks. At home I'd be afraid of TGVs at 350 km/h, but here the trains are slow and everyone does it. In fact several restaurants can not be reached any other way. The climb up to the top of Ella's Rock is quite strenuous, and the path markings strategically vanish where the guides are waiting to intercept tourists. For winter in the mountains, it was very hot.

The view from the top is fantastic. I sat with my feet dangling down the 400m vertical cliff that faces Ella, admiring the views up and down the valley. A few tall trees below conspire to give a sense of height. It's not as dangerous as it sounds because the rocks up there slope up.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Hill country

There's a train from Kandy that scenically winds its way up and down Sri Lanka's Hill country. The views of the tea plantations in the steep valleys are fantastic, but the train isn't -  it's so packed with people that it makes the Tokyo metro look like a golf course. I am amazed that nobody fell out the open doors.  I managed to get half a seat after standing,  pressed to other people, for three hours.

Interestingly, most tourists here are French. I met one today who lives just down the road from my old apartment in Marseille. I speak more French here than English.

The town of Ella,  my destination today,  is just a sleepy little village in the mountains where two roads meet. There are a few simple guesthouses,  most with only a few rooms; mine has two. Regrettably most of them serve western food, who comes to Asia to eat pizza?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The tooth of Sri Lanka

Kandy is up in the mountains of Sri Lanka. Not sure I like it much -  lots of traffic, bus diesel fumes, and very narrow sidewalks with fences on the sides so cars aren't bothered by human obstacles. They clearly don't want pedestrians.

But otherwise Sri Lanka feels like India 2.0. Much cleaner, far more organized, neater buildings, no visible poverty (so far), almost no honking. These people even blink their indicator lights before turning! That would be absurd in India.

Kandy does have a tooth, and a huge beautiful temple built to house the tooth. You can't actually see the tooth, it's enshrined in gold vessels which are also hidden from view. It is said that whoever has the tooth, rules Sri Lanka. You are not allowed to have your photo taken in front of the tooth. The tooth, you see, is Buddha's, saved from his funeral pyre.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Last day in India

Trivandrum is a major transport hub and international airport in southern India,  but it doesn't have very much to offer to tourists. The main temple is closed to non-binding and the palace next door is closed to everyone,  except the museum.

So we went to Kovalam for the day.  There is some debate on which town has the better beaches,  Varkala our Kovalam, but I favor Varkala. Despite the pizza-souvenir-massage circus, the views from the cliff promenade make it much more scenic,  it has the better beaches,  and the Indian food I had is equally terrible in both. Kovalam is quieter,  there are few backpackers there.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Three oceans

Kanyakumari sits at India's southernmost point,  and gets its fame from being the place where the Arab Sea,  the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal meet. People say that only here you can see dawn and sunset at the same point, a statement that needs so much qualification that it really doesn't mean much. Still, Kanyakumari is a pleasant city with lots to see: a gleaming big cathedral, two islands with a temple and a huge statue, a Kumari temple that would be an appropriately gloomy setting for a Lara Croft movie,  and lots of markets and restaurants.  Interestingly, there are many Indian tourists but few westerners.

We got there by train,  another very Indian experience. It's crowded yet cavernous,  the windows are small and barred,  and partially covered with what looks like blast shutters. A lot of iron goes into these trains. Ours had over twenty cars, it looked endless.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Beaches and pizza

Varkala's beaches have become a major attraction. The main beach is huge,  with fine white sand, warm water, good surf, and lifeguards waving red flags that are cheerfully ignored by everyone. Most swimmers are men; if women go into the water they are fully dressed and stay at the edge. India is still quite conservative.

There's a high cliff behind the beach, and a promenade along the edge of the cliff. Along the promenade there's lots of cheap accommodation, pizza restaurants, souvenir shops (most Tibetan, for unclear reasons),  and other places I'd much rather avoid when travelling. Fortunately it does quiet down a lot further down the promenade. Tourists,  apparently,  don't like to walk more than absolutely necessary.

Gods, fire, and elephants

Spent much of the day on a ferry from Alleppey to Kollam, another town down the coast. The ferry uses only inland canals and lakes.

On arrival, we got into a procession with brightly lit animatronic Gods on floats, drummers, dressed-up people with oil lamps, torches, and several elephants. All with incredibly loud Indian music from tortured loudspeakers. It's called the Devi festival.