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!

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.

An Epiphany

An epiphany can be described as an obscure moment of absolute clarity regarding a problem or dilemma that is being faced. It is may be obscure because it can come in any shape or form, at any time and at any place. The weirdest of places as well. Some epiphanies occur after creating the required setting for one to come. Others take course themselves.

As I flew back from my holiday – I felt an epiphany had struck me. This holiday has probably been one of the better decisions in my recent history. The whole two weeks of it (Bahrain & Sri Lanka both). Just underlines the importance of two things. One that everyone should and needs to take some time off. It does them a world of good. And if possible then also take some time to yourself, to gather yourself, talk to yourself and rediscover who you really are underneath all the layers of everyday routine and hard realities of life. The other thing is of course – family. Nice to just slow down everything else and take time to be with your family. Trust me you can never get enough of family. Regardless of whether your entire family is living together or spread out over geography, you simply cannot. In your own way of course – every family being different to each other. Point taken I assume.

Coming back to the epiphany. I feel some parts of me have changed. I definitely do feel fresher. Rejuvenated even (a word that has been the source of much amusement for some people I know over the past few days). I feel like a different person at work – thou the work place seems different from last when I left it but that’s a whole different story and perhaps a blog post some time in the future. And most of all I can feel myself smile. I know that might sound weird but I don’t think I have smiled on the inside in a long time. Longer then I can remember really. I have had a cautious smile perhaps but not this free kind all the way inside my soul, my spirit.

It wasn’t that Bahrain had anything magical about it or Sri Lanka. Both place offered their own positives. Bahrain a nice relaxing time with family and Sri Lanka a peaceful, beautiful solo escape to be by myself. I think the combination did the trick really. And of course our Lord and Creator, Allah. I genuinely think given all that has happened Allah has done something even if it is temporary to sort of balance of my emotional equation. I am very thankful to that and genuinely feel that is one of the major reasons for me to smile. My epiphany. That life is and forever going to move. It will not stop for anything. That it will take from us but also at the same time give us opportunities of greatness. That we must take it by the horns to truly live it. To truly understand it. That there are things that are not worth worrying over and there are those things which require that emotional investment as they are worth it, they are worth the risk. That everything that happens does happen for a reason and that there is indeed a connectivity to everything. Every single moment in life has been preparing me to be at this current moment. There was a connection between all. They all had to be lived to be where I am today. Wherever that may be. I am thankful for where I am today because I know there are those with much more difficult struggles then mine. Mine maybe emotional , for some it is survival. So yes I am very thankful to Allah for everything. I am thankful that He has always given me strength when faced with a loss. And the ability to move on. To move forward. And at the same time for showing new paths, new bridges, new connections that will take me more forward. I feel one such thing from this holiday. Maybe it is true, maybe it isn’t – but at least it has helped me smile.

While most of the things I said above just now may seem cliché , I humbly believe unless you actually come to a point where you feel all of the above one cannot truly understand it. Till then they will remain clichés.

It is in moments like these that one understands that there are more powerful forms of communication and connection out there then just mere words and letters. There is a language beyond the one governed by alphabet alone. It exists in signs, in gestures, in those little things that happen to us in life, those little things that we see happening to others in life, the right moment for a particular song or set of musical notes, the perfect view, the sound of nature, the silence of peace. An absent voice that forms in your head using imagination while talking to someone via text/online. 

One simply cannot underestimate the power of an epiphany. An illuminating realization, a discovery resulting in feelings of elation, awe and wonder.

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Thoughts From Above The Clouds

There is no measure to how fast time flies. It is a month already that my mother passed away. Forget the last 5 months, it just seems like yesterday that I boarded Sri Lankan airlines for our family holiday to Singapore – to celebrate Eid together at my eldest brothers. One the most treasured moments in the last 4 years. Other moments might have been tainted. But the trip in August and then the family reunion in Karachi in December will remain closer to heart then all other memories of recent years. Yes emotional bias is there but that is just natural I suppose.

Allah is kind on His creations in this that death of a closed one (barring some traumatic experiences beyond even that which we have had to face) is also something which invokes a naturally tailored recovery within ourselves. We eventually – if not consciously then in the background – realize that life has to continue. That it must continue. That it simply does without really anything being done about it. It is only in times when you realize this that you feel this sudden sense of a gaping hole following you around. A void stuck to you. Forever being attached with you. A permanent companion from here on. I think somewhere along the way the acceptance has come. The realization of what this acceptance truly represents hasn’t really set in thou. It still seems unreal.

Both my parents went after fulfilling all their responsibilities towards us and we feel and hope a complete and full life. However there did arrive a sense of completeness in terms of moving on with my father’s passing. Emotionally I mean. With my mother’s passing there seems to be a sense of something being left incomplete. Like an unfinished conversation perhaps. I don’t know how else to put it. There was peace made after Abbi’s passing. There is peace with Amma’s passing as well but just that little bit of nagging feeling of something having been missed out. Maybe that is the sense one gets when they lose both their parents.

This feeling has certainly led me to believe that I needed to get away. Which I did for a week to Bahrain to my elder brother. And it was great. Relaxing. Time away from the routine and responsibilities of Karachi which I will have to get back into. But before that I think I needed this journey that I embark on now. Sri Lanka. If nothing else I get this sense that this place for some reason is calling me. To visit , to explore, to discover. Itself and perhaps my own self as well. Just 4-5 days and a packed itinerary but on my own so at my pace. I think it will do me good. I really think it will help.

Maybe, just maybe it will slow down the otherwise fast moving or at least bring us neck to neck. And maybe it will help me discover whatever it that is amiss. Some things I have already come to a conclusion for regarding the immediate future of my life. However I think maybe an epiphany or two in Kandy while watching the elephants will further that.

I can almost imagine my parents smiling at me but at the same time also thinking I am probably weird to go to Sri Lanka alone for self discovery and epiphanies and what not’s. (like some others Smile)

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So 10 months on I am travelling on Sri Lankan again – for a different holiday. For self discovery and to answer a ‘weird’ calling. Written on flight and just got access to post it online.

P.S.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with coconut trees and greenery and nature aplenty!