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!

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The Importance of Travel

My article ‘The Importance of Travel’ was first published in Travel & Aviation magazine in May, 2015. 

You will only live once. And a majority of that life would be spent in the traditional phases for most of us. School – College – University – First Job – Second Job – Job – Fall in love – Get married – have kids – raise them – retire and enjoy old age. I think that would pretty much cover about 60-65 odd years (based on the average expected life Pakistanis). That’s schooling, working, family life split up in those 65 years, 365 days a year. Now trust me the people or person or story which gave life to the phrase You Only Live Once were definitely talking about the above. They were talking about life in spite of the above. All those things will happen. But it is important to live during all this. To make experiences which perhaps would only add or make you appreciate your everyday life more.

Travelling is that one major important element which will give you the experience and perspective and personal insight to all of the above. Whether for adventure, to relax, to explore, to learn or simply to get away from everything and take whatever it offers you – travel is something that should not be ignored. It should be undertaken with open arms and open mind. Travel and you truly will understand the fact that you will live only once.

We have compiled a list of reasons for you to travel. My best bet is that you will be able to relate to at least half of them.

  1. Travelling has never been easier

First of all let’s clear the air about the difficulties of planning a travel. Travel isn’t a gigantic task or a mount everest that needs to be climbed over. It is not something unreachable or undoable and certainly not because it is difficult to do, plan, manage or execute. More now than ever before travel is actually easier to plan and manage. Yes there might be the challenge of getting the VISA for the destination of choice but beyond that it is certainly no herculean task. The easiest route of course is a travel agent. Just tell them where you want to go and they will plan everything and get it done. Even airlines offer you the option of making arrangements for accomodation along with booking a flight and even transport.

If you are more into doing things and managing yourself than there are many online websites now which help you make your travel plans, book online, provide reviews etc. tripadvisor.com , lonelyplanet.com and booking.com are three such websites which will help you plan you trip from a to z. With reviews provided for hotels along with information on the top attractions of a particular city, these websites also come with ongoing deals on accomodation, tours and air travel. They will help you compare each element, guide you on the dos and do nots and give the perspective of other fellow travellers. Make a detailed itinerary or a light one all can be managed by booking through the websites.

  1. Opens your eyes and changes the way you relate to the world

It is great reading about all the customers, cultures and things that happen around the world in newspaper articles and online blogs and magazines. They are fantastic to look at in documentaries and other shows on the television. But nothing quite compares to experiencing all of this first hand and then opening your eyes with that added experience to the world that awaits you. The Donor Kebab that you saw on tv or had at the local franchise was great. But the one you can have standing in the streets of Istanbul amidst all the hustle and bustle of Turkey’s most beautiful (in fact one of the world’s most beautiful) cities was an experience on a whole other level. Seeing the locals interacting with each other, going about their daily business, having their lunch in a quick street meal and the way it all comes together was something on its own. Add to that the authentic Donor kebab from the very heart of Istanbul itself – priceless.

The way we look at everyday things that we do when at home changes when we have an added perspective of another part of the world in a meaningful way. Whether it is food or business or a local merchant or a local small business man or any other xyz thing – the perspective you gain, the way you can relate to your everyday life back home will have gained from the travel experience.

  1. Self Insight

Backpacking through Europe, not knowing exactly where your next stop and meal is going to be at and just living life 1 day at a time during that 10 day vacation. Doesn’t quite sound like the everyday hustle and bustle of driving from your home in DHA or P.E.C.H.S and driving through the clutter of cars on Shahr-e-Faisal and I.I. Chundrigar back in Karachi. Neither is it anything like well cooked Biryani waiting for you at the comfort of your home. You see when you step out of your everyday routine or your comfort zone you will most definitely get an insight about yourself. Maybe you will learn that you enjoy walking. That you actually enjoy roaming the market streets and interacting with people more than you thought. Perhaps you are someone who likes to get your hands on fresh produce and whip up something of a quick meal and experiment and make all that Masterchef viewing come in handy. You will learn that you can be quick on your feet in decision making and that there are certain areas of life that you never knew could be explored. Most of all you might learn that you have a thing for taking breaks, going to new countries and getting new experiences of people, cultures and food.

  1. Meaningful and memorable encounters with people

When on travel you are bound to meet new people, have new encounters with them. For most parts these might just be your average typical conversation. But everyone once in a while you have a special encounter with someone who might through their shared life experience leave you wiser and enlightened. Or someone with whom you might by chance share a mutual travel experience with which lends foundation to perhaps a story that you tell over and over in your life. They might even be someone that you become good friends with. And maybe, just maybe if you are experiencing a rare hollywood / bollywood moment than you might even meet your soulmate. You learn to embrace being outside of your own social circle of family and friends back home in Karachi or Lahore or Islamabad or wherever in Pakistan you hail from and learn to make new connections and the different perspectives it can bring. It will help you develop the skill of striking up conversations with people you have never met before, of breaking the ice, of making small talk and interesting ones. You will be a more confident and well rounded person at the end of it.

  1. Learn new languages

It has, it is and always will be cool to know how to speak a different langauge. Other than our mother toungue of urdu, the globally official language of english and our regional ancestral language of sindhi, balochi, pashtu etc. You may not be extremely fluent in it but to be able to utter out a few sentences that you learned while away in Italian or Spanish or French is something that will add that ‘coolness’ factor to you. And its always better when that learning has that travel story attached to it rather than language classes at for example Berlitz in Karachi. Added to all of that there is something deeply satisfying about having been able to do it with the locals on your travel.

  1. As a transition

It is always good to get away from your world from time to time. It leaves you refreshed and recuperated. Re-energized and raring to have a go at everyday life once more. This is truer for people who are going through different transitions in life. These transitions might be good or bad. It might be in between jobs, in between schools and moving, kids or relationships but just stepping away from all of that for a few days of escape will benefit the end goal of that transition. Sometimes more than the end goal the escape is necessary simply for you to move on with your transition. It can maybe help you deal with a major life event. I have had the personal experience of travelling twice when things got a little too overwhelming for me in my personal life. Both times I came back feeling renewed just that little bit extra. It helped me shut off my mind from everyday stuff or ongoing stuff for those few days and be back with a different energy to move on. This was especially the case when I went to Sri Lanka last year to help myself get over the loss of my mother. Whats more is that at times it needs to be solo to be able to achieve the required goal. So from experience I can say in my opinion that travel is perhaps the best drug, in a completely legitimate and good sense, during any sort of transition period.

  1. For all the food in the world

Travel is especially essential for a foodie. And we are not talking about the people who are foodies because of their unbelievable capacities to down gastronomic monstrosities. No we are talking about people who love food, for the art of food, for the divine experience of food. For people who know and understand and want more out of their food life than your local spicy biryanis and parhata rolls and niharis. While our pakistani cuisine is rich collection of culinary delights and heritage and history – it is certainly not the end of the world. The world has so much more to offer in taste. So many different ways to cook the fine produce from mother earth each with its own sense

  1. For the adventure, the experience

Riding the elephants in the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka or having the parakeets standing on almost every part of my arms and head while feeding them at the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore or walking through the streets in Trafalgar Square or visiting the historical grounds of my love i.e. Arsenal (football club) in London UK are not experiences that I would trade for anything ever in life. In fact all the traveling I have done – domestic or international – has only left me with the desire of doing it even more. To wanting to see more and more different places and being able to experience the different foods and cultures and people those places have to offer. The night safaris, interacting up close with wild animals, trekking through the mountain ranges, visiting different historical landmarks, the mueseums, the art, the culture, the sacred places, pushing my physical limits and pushing my cautionary flags are experiences and adventures that have left me wanting more. There are many beautiful places and cultures in this world that are waiting to be explored and taken in. The need for adventure and new experiences is hardwired into us. Travel helps you awaken this need and tap into it.

There can be a million more reasons added to this or just one taken from the list above but as soon as you understand yourself and look into yourself you will know that you want to travel. So grab your backpack, book your tickets and get going. The world is a wonderfully diverse place waiting to enrich you with all it has to offer in every corner of it.

The Greener Grass

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I was recently told by someone that despite all that is taking place in my personal life with my mom’s cancer and visits/stay at the hospital that I still manage to come to work without giving any such impression. While it is good that people perceive that, I know I have some tells which can give away that there are cogs working in my mental background. However it did make me think that there are people who while being in the midst of some of the most traumatic life experiences still manage to show up looking like a million dollars as if life was all cherries and gold. And that in turn made me think more and how people tend to look at others or their circumstances and start wanting all of that. The greener grass.

People inadvertently always tend to drift towards this psyche that regardless of what their current circumstances are – the philosophical grass is always greener on the philosophical other side. In all this philosophy the reality is of course sometimes a foregone conclusion. Nailed somewhere in the background and out of sight. But the thing is that the grass while greener isn’t all that it seems. Eyes can deceive and things may not always be as they seem.

Every one is fighting their own personal battle and regardless of comparison of one battle or the next or someone else’s – it is ‘their’ battle. Everyone’s circumstances are different. Everyone’s struggle is different. Even if a person is genuinely happy with nothing wrong in their life at a certain point in time one simply cannot know what that person has already had to endure to get there or what all he must endure in the future. One cannot know of someone else’s trials and tribulations simply by looking at them.

People are where they are after having gotten there. They have either endured or their cosmic fates are preparing them to try and endure what lies ahead. Everyone’s journey is different.

It would be better then to stop lusting for that philosophical grass and instead working on the one that we have been given on our side to fend for. We are given our lives, our specific lives because we are strong enough to live it. To face it. Let’s remember that. And then go forth and live.