Sri Lanka – The Land of Smiles

This articles was first published in Travel & Aviation magazine here: http://travel-aviation.com/index.php/category/country-piece1/

Sri Lanka –the land of smiles – is one of the most underrated destinations in my humble opinion. That may be primarily down to the fact that the country was dogged with internal security issues till about 4 years back during which time competing destinations marketed and established themselves much more. But if you ask me it ranks right up there in terms of experience and beauty and hospitality. Especially for those of us looking for an economic get away and something that isn’t a burden on the wallet. The tagline ‘the land of smiles’ also fits really well as the people are really welcoming, hospitable and great. They always seem to be smiling and happy and there is actually no language barrier to be faced here.

For Pakistanis another plus point is the VISA. It used to be easier than it is now as it was on arrival till 2014. However new rules require travellers to apply online. This isn’t a cumbersome process at all and quite easy. I got my visa within 24 hours and it was all online. No passport submission anywhere. No documents. Nothing. Easy.

Easy Visa process + easy on the wallet makes this for a great destination. And it has a lot more to offer from a tourism point of view. There are scenic views, cultural and spiritual experiences, natural beauty, and interaction with wild life and beach resorts as well. Colombo offers some amount of an urban metropolis with the required shopping as well. Not as expansive as most other destinations but good nonetheless.

For the Pakistani Wallet

As mentioned earlier this is one of the more economic destinations for Pakistanis not looking to splurge. And with all other travel guides we like to encourage the smart traveller in you to plan ahead and make life easier for yourself. Book in advance and use the miracle of the internet to book online. Sites like booking.com are great in this regard and you never when you might come across a ‘steal’ of a deal for a 5 star accommodation.

To give you an idea here is the breakdown. Travel to Sri Lanka can be done via Sri Lankan Airlines from Karachi at fares which will hover around PKR 45-55k depending on how early you book. These are the fares for economy seats. For other places people can either journey to Karachi and onwards or take other airlines which won’t be direct like Emirates or Etihad. So for non-karachi travellers I would say the flight estimate would be around PKR 65-80k depending on airline, flight and date of booking. Keep in mind the peak season for Sri Lanka is between July to September so fares will go up if you book during this period.

VISA costs are 99$ per person. You can pay online using a credit card while applying for the VISA if you are managing this all on your own. Otherwise your travel agent can take care of it and add it in his overall bill. This is a spike as up till last year the VISA cost was 20$ for applied VISAs and 30$ for on arrival VISAs.

Expenses within Sri Lanka on food, shopping and tours etc are more or less in line with the kind of costs and expenses you might expect to find in Pakistan. Once you do the conversion its more or less the same. And the conversion goes in our currency’s favour which is just that slight bit stronger than the Sri Lankan rupee (roughly around 1 PKR to 1.3 Sri Lankan Rupee*). Average meal cost would be something like PKR 1,200 per person in normal restaurants. And for fast foods and on the go foods it would be something like PKR 700 per person. And there are plenty of Halal options so that is also a load off. Not to mention the vegetable variety on offer.

 Accommodation for an 8 day tour would come to around PKR 90k for a double room or twin share stay throughout, which is again great and can be slightly less also depending on what kind of hotels you book and how smart you are online in getting good deals. An example – when I recently went I got a 5 star property in Bentota (beach resort area near Colombo) for around PKR 25,000/- for two nights inclusive of breakfast and dinner! The hotel was Cinnamon Bey and I got this amazing deal through booking.com. Just goes to show how well you can manage your accommodation expenditure if you are smart about it.

Transportation is not something that needs to be explored. You can easily hire a guide and driver for the duration of the stay. The guy stays with you for all the days and is your transport for throughout Sri Lanka. There are no public transport hassles. All travel in Sri Lanka is customized to your own time table and not to mention the convenience and ease of having a guide / driver combo throughout. A good one can come in around 55$ per day inclusive of fuel, car rent, services of the guide, his food and accommodation. Now please tell me that is not a steal?

All in all the total cost per head should come to around PKR 140k for an eight day stay including travel, stay, tickets, tourist activities, food and guide. And mind you stay is in 4-5 star hotels. This does not include shopping and any other luxurious activities like spas and massages. However even if you add the latter for a couple of times it would come to around not more than 150K per head which is fantastic for an eight day tour. Honestly great destination and you can probably get away with a lower budget as well.

The Top Places in Sri Lanka

It is all basically a drive around the country once you land in Sri Lanka. The perfect planning would have you land in Sri Lanka and stay overnight in Negombo (city close to Colombo and on the beach). From there you drive away to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya and then back down south towards Bentota and Colombo.

Kandy

By far the most activity filled city with tourist attractions aplenty and very scenic hilly views as well. The weather the city has to offer is excellent between July to September which is overall the ideal time to go to Sri Lanka. There will be showers out of nowhere but then the sun will come back up out of nowhere to. Kandy is the second largest city of Sri Lanka after Colombo. It has temples, market areas, natural man made attractions and cultural shows. You can visit the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawala and the Spice Gardens on your way to Kandy and not far from the main city (maybe about a 1 hour journey). The orphanage is great where you can get up close and personal with gentle giants of the Ceylon valley and feed and ride them for an enhanced experience. Then there are the botanical gardens which are beautifully made and have some of the tallest and oldest trees around which are nothing but beautiful. Very well maintained and made the botanical gardens are a must see. The one in Kandy is high on plants and trees as compared to flowers. And if you are lucky you might get a peek of monkeys as well! Additionally you may also visit the Temple of the Tooth for some cultural input and attend a local dance and culture show in city to cap of the stay here. A 2 day stay in Kandy is sufficiently comfortable but you can do all of this in one hectic day as well. On your way out from Kandy be sure to visit a local wood carving factory for some great souvenirs and take home stuff.

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Places to stay in Kandy would definitely be either Amaya Hills or Earl’s Regent. Both are excellent hotels with comfortable rooms and excellent hilly views. The Ayurvedic massage treatment at Amaya Hills is especially excellent.

Nuwara Eliya

The hill station of Sri Lanka that is absolutely gorgeous. Expect weather to be on the chillier side here with temperatures during the day time during July-September also touching around 13-14 degrees. It gets cold in the night so be sure to pack something slightly warm for here. Nuwara Eliya is on the hill so the journey to and from the city is a windy road. For those who have travel issues on such routes I would definitely advise taking a motion sickness tablet before hand to help during the journey as it can be a bit much. The result is worth it though. The view from Nuwara Eliya and on the way is gorgeous. The higher you drive closer to the city your view is filled with beautiful tea gardens all across the hills. You can stop at one of the tea factories for a quick visit and lesson in how tea is made and how many different kinds of tea are there. You will also be served a complimentary cup of tea made from the fresh produce. Another on the way sighting is the Ramboda Waterfalls. This makes for a great view and a nice lunch stop. Once in Nuwara Eliya to be honest there are just a couple of things to do. More so for the nature geeks in us who like treks and lakes and horse rides. Gregory lake makes up the main attraction in the city with boating, horse riding and a typical hill station weather time coffee. Maximum you just need a day in the city and then you can move on. If you like relaxing in such environments you can extend your stay.

Recommended hotels for the city are Qantara and Araliya Green Hills. Qantara is a fairly new hotel but very well made is almost at the top belt of the city so the view from here of the whole city all the way to the lake is breathtaking. Stay at both hotels is comfortable and food is also good.

Bentota

The perennial beach resort. Bentota is something of a properly developed sandspit or hawksbay that Pakistanis and Karachiites in particular might be able to relate to. The hotels are resort type hotels here and it is basically the stop for a relaxing, tanning and spoil of yourself resting type of stay. The beach is somewhat pebbly so be sure to be prepared in footwear accordingly. There are some good water sport options that can be done here including jet skiing, tube riding, motor boat riding, snorkelling and fishing to name a few. There is also a wild life attraction in the Turtle Hatchery in Bentota which you can skip or do depending on your interest.

The hotel to stay in here is Cinnamon Bey. It is a 5 star luxury property with a great beach, excellent restaurants and fantastic amenities overall. A 5 star resort in the true sense of it.

Colombo

Colombo is the only metropolis experience that you will get in Sri Lanka. This is the place for fulfilling the retail, shopping, big city cravings in you. There are some places you can see as a tourist like the Independence square but really Colombo is really for concrete jungle feel for rounding off the Sri Lankan holiday. There are some very nice shopping outlets and retail malls here where you can get good stuff. Odel, Paradise Road, Glitz and Barefoot are a couple of places that you should definitely visit. Shopping is also like almost all other things not that expensive in Sri Lanka and in some cases you can actually get some pretty good deals. For fine dining experience be sure to try out either Beach Wadia (for sea food lovers) or Gallery Cafe which is a great combination of an art gallery, a retail store and very fine dining.

There are plenty of good hotel options in Colombo. Cinnamon Grand, Hilton, Cinnamon Red and Mirage a few of the good ones you can choose from.

Overall

Overall Sri Lanka is a great holiday experience which gets ignored thanks to the Thailands and Malaysias on offer. Head to head it is probably not as high in experience but definitely has a lot to offer and is something which will be economical for Pakistanis. Excellent destination for couples and honeymooners!

On Cricket

Over the past couple of years due to varying circumstances I have sensed a decline in my ‘interest’ level in cricket. Yes… cricket. The sport that may not be our national sport in Pakistan but certainly the one which is given every honor and importance of being that national sport of the country. Almost being a monopoly in terms of commercialism of sports in Pakistan. Cricket is king. Yes… it is this cricket for which I find my interest level declining.

Long gone are the glory days of being the ‘Unpredictable’ Pakistan side. Long gone are the days of having prolific players in our side. Long gone are the days of having some of the giants of the game. The modern day cricket of Pakistan is nothing like its predecessor and unfortunately is not all that endearing.

It is a combination of on the field and off the field controversies as well as performances and results and overall attitude/character of the side. They lack the confidence that should normally come with being one of the ‘Big’ teams of the sport.

Don’t get me wrong – I would still follow and watch Pakistan and its exploits on the pitch. I will still be roaring come the 2015 World Cup or the 2016 Twenty20 World Cup. But it won’t be the same roar that was there perhaps up till the 2011 World Cup. Cricket for all intents and purposes is losing its whole charm-of-being-an-emotional-birth-right-and-national-team-fan thing. Previously I would look forward to various series and tours as well. Now probably not so much – for example the recently concluded Pakistan vs Sri Lanka series which took place in the UAE was one in which I perhaps just saw …….2 live overs..maximum. Over the entire length of the series – all tests, ODIs, T20s included.

The reason for this as I said is a combination of on and off the field issues. It is the controversies – one after the other. The constant state of chaos that PCB loves shrouding itself in. The repeat situations where our team has inexplicably collapsed or succumbed or been toothless. It has been the lack of any confidence inspiring new talents. Afridi isn’t the same he was in 2011. He still tries to be dangerous and consistent as a bowler. But he is still the worst person to rely on as a batsman who will bail the team out from 5 or 6 down at low scores. Saeed Ajmal has been our most threatening bowler and now his action has been challenged and he is likely to miss the world cup. We haven’t had an out and out pace threat – like a dominating, soul crushing pace attack like the days of yore since the unfortunate bans on Asif and Aamir. We haven’t had a decent opening pair let alone an explosive one since the days of Saeed Anwer and Aamir Sohail. Pakistan cricket has been in a state of sluggishness which is leading towards a steady decline of the overall team. And that there doesn’t seem to be a positive outlook in place to try to fix the fundamentals because of which this is happening. The fact that international cricket doesn’t look any closer to returning on Pakistan soil is a contributing factor to all of the above.

I love cricket. My memories of cricket will always be very fond. Imran Khan lifting the 92 world cup being one of my first conscious memories. But yes … I am not as interested in every game as I used to be once for Pakistan. And that’s a little sad.

Banned

Sure… let’s ban Whatsapp / VIBER / Skype and all other modes of Data Communication so that our security gets jacked up by X%. I mean like half the plans are made on these forums to begin with. And of course now that our government agencies are saying that these terrorist cells have moved from GSM networks to Data Networks it makes the plan all the more credible. Of course they won’t ever think to send an SMS because if they do then memories of RehBAN Malik shall be revived. Long live democracy and the liberal PPP and all these wonderfully well made policies that shall ensure our security and life and what not. Since we are at it .. might as well go all the way. Let’s ban all forms of communication! Ban SMS, Ban PTCL, Ban Speaking (because terrorists use their voices to make plans also and that hinders the security for the valued citizens of the province), ban sign language (as a future measure) and also please ban ‘Eye 2 Eye’ correspondence and contact.

In return – as someone I know put it – please guarantee us a fool proof security period without any lapses. Guarantee results in terms of terrorists captured and brought to justice. Guarantee that there will be no bloodshed, no loss of innocent life. IF – and that’s a big if – this all is guaranteed then sure ban these things for a quarter , half a year or even a year. But see that’s just the thing; that IF is never really getting materialized. They know it, we know it and even the terrorists know it.

What is the point of hampering communication channels which are used by common citizens? More and more by the very common man especially in this day and age an increasing need to be tech savvy. In an age when one should remain connected.

And let’s face it – no one likes the fact that this ban is quite close to the auction of the 3G, 4G and other telecomm licenses. I mean everyone can do 2+2 and especially given the track record of our esteemed leaders and politicians the most obscure of calculations can be conceived. Even the fact that Chaudry Nisar stated that the suggestion is under review and that the ban will not be placed until the review is done and the center is convinced of it’s fruitfulness seems more like a review of the benefit of such a ban to the pockets of the Federal Government. Any expectation that they might actually be doing anything for this country seems delusional and impossible now.

Honestly with such brilliant leadership; absolute lack of focus on the problems at hand and more focus on thrusting onto to the seat of power and lining of pockets; increasing security and well being concerns it gets hard for even the most ardent patriot to defend any hope for the future of this country.

The ‘Tali-Bang’

So let’s see if we can get this straight – ‘Taali do haathon say bajti hay’ hence you need two parties to be mutually working towards the goal of a ‘peaceful’ dialogue process. But what is happening here is that the government is doing the taali for that process and the militants are bringing a Bang instead. And hence we establish how to do the ‘Tali-Bang’. That was just a lame way of saying that the Taliban is not an entity that you go and have a dialogue with. There is no basis for the government or the armed forces to be holding a dialogue with the Taliban.

For 12 years we have been entrenched in a war / conflict that has been inherited as a collaborated result of the American operations in Afghanistan and the prequel creation of the Taliban back in the Soviet Conflict. For 12 years we have faced drone attacks, terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, civilian casualties, armed forces casualties and countless other acts which will on any soil qualify as an act against the writ of the State and government of the country, against the Sovereignty of the country. Yet some of the more ‘sharp’ minded individuals in our leadership apparatus are convinced that the solution is a dialogue, a dialogue with an entity which continues to target innocents and armed forces personal. And it doesn’t end with the TTP. There is your LeJ, LeT etc etc. All carrying out different aspects of the same mindless killing plan. The TTP wages its war against the security forces and cries Jihad against the infidel American forces and the infidel American supporter. The LeJ cries infidel on all minorities and burns, kills, bombs their houses. Just yesterday we bore witness to a scathing attack on a church in Peshawer killing around 80 people (women and children included) and injuring countless more.

Earlier this year the LeJ carried out a series of attacks on the Hazara community in Quetta. Attacks were carried out on the Abbasi town Shia Community in Karachi. Homes of a Christian community were burned down in Lahore. All mentioned events are from this year alone which have resulted in the loss of almost a thousand lives.

The TTP’s most recent attack on the armed forces came last week in which a General was also killed. This was a day after some modalities of the ‘Peaceful’ dialogue process were shared.

The countless incidents of the TTP, LeJ and the likes’ various attacks on the armed forces, civilian populations and minorities can be listed. The where and the how many is not meant to be the discussion point. The point is there needs to be action taken against these groups. The point is no way that these groups should be sat down with for a dialogue. Why? It doesn’t make sense to hold a ‘dialogue’ with cold blooded murders slurring the name of our religion and constantly challenging the writ of the state and its security apparatus not to mention targeting innocent lives.

This is something that I was and still am against in Imran Khan and PTI’s mandate. I don’t agree with their approach. And please let’s come out of any corners and admit and condemn what is wrong.

So what is the approach then? What is the solution? The only thing that comes to my mind is that an extensive operation has to be carried out by the armed forces – either head on or covert. But that’s the only way. Admit that there will be casualties. There will be collateral damage. But it is necessary. It has to be done. Will it work? I don’t know because honestly that’s where the will of the army comes in. They need to be heavily inclined to carry this out. But the more one thinks about it, the armed forces will probably not be inclined towards an all out operation. It will contribute towards a the Taliban’s methodology of recruitment using the whole ‘your own country is attacking you’ to lure more and more recruits. Secondly the Army for all its credibility and what not, does seem to give that sense of still having some deeply entrenched need not to severe ties completely with their previous employees. I mean after all they were used by us for the Soviet Conflict jointly with the US and then later on Kashmir. Let’s not make two ways about it. The mercenaries have been utilized by our armed forces for their gain where they saw fit. And one gets the feeling that they haven’t outlived their use in the minds of the security think tank. Especially when you take into consideration the fact that the army has and always will remain quite India Centric on one end and a little bit of America centric on the other. I am sure otherwise that as was done in Swat a similar operation is quite possible by our military. And covert hits are also possible through our intelligence. It is not beyond our capability.

As a colleague of mine pointed out that once the army option is exhausted above in terms of the do’s and don’ts and the want to do’s – there comes the civilian government and leadership. They will not make the call. They cannot make the call because they have ties and some coalitions with the clergy. With clergy driven parties. So no – they won’t. Imran Khan has never given the indication of wanting to take action against them and has rather stuck to the ‘Dialogue’ process so he gets ruled out. PML-N needs the clergy driven and religious driven parties to work with. They are not ordering the hit.

The clergy simply cannot back an operation which will engage people who are supposedly doing what they are doing in the name of Islam and Allah. That puts them in the most awkward of positions.

No matter how much one can wrack their brains there is no solution in the head which comes which makes any sense. A solution which has a murderer coming over for dinner is not any sense for me. These people have destroyed the social fabric of this country. They have pushed us more towards two different extremes rather than a moderation, a balance. But for the life of us there just doesn’t seem to be any way that can be fathomed which will give us a solution. Not any time soon and not from anyone but the armed forces who need in their heads the various entities and mercenaries for their ‘immortal’ enemies. For what is their use if there are no enemies and no borders to defend? Right?

So what do we do? What is the solution? What is the way forward? What is going to happen?

No one knows. So we continue with the Tali and they continue with the Bang.

Of Malala

Malala Yousufzai, the 16 year old brave girl who survived a taliban attack last year, delivered a fine speech at the UN Youth Takeover earlier this week in New York. She spoke primarily for the cause of education. For the cause of girls education from the region she hails from. The cause she raised her voice for and for which she was attacked. She delivered her speech with absolute calm and poise, viewed by a father who was beaming with pride and a mother who could not help but be emotional. It was certainly a moving moment. And why shouldn’t it be? Malala deserves the applauds that are coming her way. And for once I think we should rise above the conspiracy theories and just take this for what it is. The girl who survived an attack and went on to address the world.

I am not for one moment saying that she has gone through the worst possible experience and that there aren’t others out there. Yes there are – she pointed that out in her speech as well. She rightly said she is just one among many. But let’s rise above trying to make this into yet another American Conspiracy towards defaming Pakistan. Lets for once try and rise above our obsession with the US meddling in Pakistan. They do.. I am sure they still have agents / assets running around in Pakistan providing Langley with whatever the required intel is. But let’s not take anything away from what Malala has achieved here and what she stands for. What she symbolizes.

The speech may very well have been written for her. But she is still the one who delivered it with such authority and calmness that you could not fault her. And she doesn’t boast of a private school background – she has achieved this on her own through the basic system of schooling that was available to her.

And again – she was attacked, bullet to her head. It is not easy for anyone to come back strong from something as traumatic as that let alone a mere 16 year old girl.

I for one would like to applaud Malala for surviving and displaying the courage and maturity that seems years beyond her age. And I would also applaud all other Malalas who have gone through the same but have unfortunately not gotten the same media focus or attention. Those who continue in their silent struggle. Those who are waiting for their chance to free themselves from the shackles. ‘The Pen is mightier than the sword’. It certainly came true last week at the UN Youth Takeover.

Bravo Malala, I wish you all the success for your cause and I wish a better fortune for everyone for whom you have raised your voice. I will certainly try and do whatever I can to help this cause, for ‘Education First’. Can we all rise above the conspiracy theories and drawing room discussions to do the same?