Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Art of Budget Travel [And How I Manage To Completely Ignore That Art]

Rounding the corner into the final quarter of 2014, my birthday trip awaited me as the perfect conclusion to another miraculous year of life on this tiny blue planet. For months, my boyfriend, Sanoon, and I daydreamed of our fourth quarter excursion from island life. We thought that it would likely be the last time we left the island in 2014, so we wanted to make sure that the trip was planned to a place where we could not only explore, but also frugally get to and from without dipping too deep into our savings. After all, my year-long contract in the Maldives was about to expire and without the definite prospect of steady employment on the horizon, the buzzword "budget" was popular in my travel vernacular.

We decided to take a quickie trip to Sri Lanka to ring in my big day. As you may remember from a previous post, Sanoon and I took our first trip together to the Southern coasts of Sri Lanka one year earlier. I fell madly in love with the sandy shores of that little island country and vowed to go back and explore the Northern, mountainous regions at my next opportunity.

With much anticipation, the time finally came to strap on our life jackets and take our obligatory freedom selfie hop on a speed boat to a sea plane, which would eventually get us to Male International Airport.

We saw birds-eye views of the islands below while flying [relatively] high over the lowest country on Earth.
 (Uninhabited island- not quite the size of Manhattan)

Sanoon even pointed out his home island to me for the first time.
 (When asked which island was specifically his, I believe his direct quote was, "the one that looks like a dick.")

Shortly after arriving at the Male airport, Sanoon and I boarded our flight to Colombo. Once in Lanka, we opted to stop over for the night in the beachside town of Negombo. Negombo is a popular place for travelers to rest a few hours in transit based on it's proximity to the Colombo International Airport. Although we didn't make it to the beach there, we did eat dinner next to a fishpond where a sociopathic turtle tried to drown and rape the other females in the tank.
(Sanoon acting as an innocent bystander to the violence.)

The next morning, Sanoon and I broke the first rule of budget travel and hired a private car to drive us  to our next destination, Kalpitiya.  

Kalpitiya is located on a peninsula in Puttalam, a northwestern province of Sri Lanka. Fringed with unspoiled beaches and wedged between a lagoon and the Indian Ocean, Kalpitiya remains one of the few spots left in the country that hasn't been overrun by tourism. Aware that the serene and remote nature of this part of the country may not last long as the government has plans to establish it with a $4 billion tourist zone, Sanoon and I decided it would be the perfect spot to ring in my birthday.

Aside from the occasional goat traffic, the ride up the west coast of the country was charming.
(Who am I kidding? Those goats are pretty damn charming too.)

 After a few hours of driving the country roads, Sanoon and I arrived at our quiet beach bungalow.

The birthday glutton in me had a sweet surprise waiting as I entered our new digs.
(Yes, that's my name written in frosting on the placemat. No, I did not eat it.)

It was fairly rainy our first night in Kalpitiya, but Sanoon and I were not fussed in the slightest as we managed to catch the remnants of a beautiful sunset and enjoy a chilly happy hour by the beach.

The following day I broke rule number 2 of budget travel and booked us an all day jeep safari in Wilpattu National Park. The allure of seeing an elusive Sri Lankan leopard on my birthday far outweighed the cost of the extravagant excursion. 

Wilpattu National Park is the largest, and formerly most popular, park to spot wildlife in Sri Lanka. However at the onset of the civil war, it's strategic position straddling the Sinhalese and Tamil areas led to the widespread destruction of the area and the poaching of wildlife. The park closed down during those turbulent years, but reopened its doors in 2009. Although the flora and fauna are slowly recovering, there's a slimmer chance of spotting wildlife than some of the other national parks in the country. 

Undiscouraged by the history of the region, we set forth on our safari with high hopes. We were greeted early on by regal eagles,
and cranes.
We saw monitor lizards,

(I swear to you that skinny grey "rock" is a croc...and not the type of croc my mom wears.)

And even a field full of jackals,
(Next safari I'm bringing a camera with a long-range lens instead of my iPhone camera.)

But it wasn't until after many hours of driving that we stumbled upon this lazy kitty in the jungle.

Satisfied with the safari, Sanoon and I decided to call it quits and head back to our hotel where we had drinks at the bar,
(This Texas longhorn is for you, Uncle Sid- my most devoted reader!)

Received some sound advice,

And then ate a delicious birthday dinner.

We spent one more rainy day on the beach,

And then decided that at 4 days into our vacation it was time to budget travel by taking a local bus from Kalpitiya to Kandy.

The bus was cramped and crowded,
but for $1, it was worth listening to Bollywood music on the loud speaker and sitting packed in like a sardine for four hours.

We were excited to finally arrive in Kandy, the mountainous cultural capital of Sri Lanka.

But after being aggressively approached by one too many touts on the street, our "Kandy faces" began to emerge.

We made the best of our time in Kandy and broke rule number 3 of budget travel booked a lovely hotel that had a killer view of the city,

And an awesome pool for the guests [even though it was too cold to swim in and I was afraid of the big grey monkeys hovering around it].

Kandy is home to the Temple of the Tooth, the country's most important religious shrine housing one of Buddha's teeth. Legend has it that Buddha was cremated in 543 BCE in Northern India, and remnants of his various body parts were rescued from the fire, including one of his teeth. After the rescue, Buddha's tooth was smuggled into Sri Lanka in the hair of a princess.

Sanoon and I decided to check out this deity's denture and headed over to the temple. It was a madhouse in the there with many tourists and locals vying to get a glimpse of the holy relic. Sanoon and I moved with the flow of the crowd, but only made it close enough to see this replica of the pagoda in which Buddha's tooth is supposedly housed.
(Oh well, at least we saw his footprint in Laos.)

After we left the temple, Sanoon was greeted by his long-lost Sri Lankan cousin on the cover of a magazine.
("You have a Sri Lankan face," says everyone in Sri Lanka. #truth.)

We made a quick beer run to what looked like a local booze prison,

Then proceeded to watch a Liverpool FFC game on the smallest tv in the country
(Quite a change from last year's view of the game in Singapore.)

While I ate the biggest dosa of my life

And drank a coconut shaped like a bee.

Kandy was nice, but to be honest, we just weren't really feeling it.
(This photo of wildlife on the lake has nothing to do with anything, except that I took it in Kandy.)

So we high-tailed it out of there on a [questionably sober] rickshaw
to the train station

where we broke rule number 4 of budget travel and booked a first class train ticket to Colombo. The plan was to quickly transfer in Colombo onto a fast-moving private minibus to Galle/Unawatuna in the south coast of the country [mainly because of time restrictions as we neared the end of our vacation...and also to continue our trend of over-spending] .

Riding the train was one of our best experiences in Lanka.

The scenery was gorgeous as we passed through the misty mountains,

And the transit was super comfortable and efficient [as it should be if you're breaking the budget bank].

However, we arrived to Colombo at night in the middle of a monsoon, and with all the rain and utter confusion, we got on a local bus to Galle that was projected to arrive 3 hours later than our planned private minibus. 

To be honest, the local bus really wasn't that bad, and I was happy that we unintentionally stuck to our budget for once. So continuing on that frugal trend, when we arrived in Galle, I sent Sanoon and his Sri Lankan face alone to negotiate a rickshaw from there to nearby Unawatuna, where we'd be spending the rest of our vacation. The plan worked and he successfully scored the ride for the local price! However, when my gringo a$$ showed up, an additional 100 rupees was magically added to the quote [d'oh!].

That 100 rupees was long forgotten when we arrived at our hotel and were shown our gorgeous [and budget friendly] room.

The rest of our time in Una was mainly spent lounging by the water, eating, sleeping, making friends with locals and hitting up a party or two on the beach [but listed below are only pictures of water].

Sanoon was happy as a clam in his natural habitat

And I met a wonderful dressmaker that handmade me a gorgeous bag for my yoga mat.

One day we broke up our routine of utter laziness  and rented a motorbike to drive to Galle Fort. Galle is the major city less than one hour away from Unawatuna in southern Sri Lanka. Built by the Dutch in the 17th century, and boasting an intoxicating blend of Dutch-colonial architecture amidst a lush tropical setting, Galle Fort buzzes with energy that creates a unique reality in the region.

Tired from maneuvering the motorbike, Sanoon opted to get a traditional head massage while I explored the Fort on foot.

With no one looking, I broke rule number 5 of budget travel by ordering a super expensive necessary cup of Italian coffee.

After the coffee, I was surprised to stumble upon the sister [brother?] property to Three by TPV, the first hotel we stayed at in Sri Lanka a year prior to the current adventure.

I had to walk inside to see if it had the same flamboyant designs as its predecessor....
(Ummm, yep.)

(That couch is more bedazzled than a Harold Ramis comedy in the early 2000s.)

(A wall of dicks? Sure, why not.)

After our delightful day in Galle, Sanoon and I made our way back to Unawatuna and enjoyed the final hours of our vacation in the peaceful serenity of the island.

I was even able to convince Sanoon to accompany me to a vegan restaurant, where I indulged in gluten free meatless delights and he drank beer from a tea kettle.
(At least it looks healthy.)

Sadly our time in Sri Lanka had to come to a close, and before we knew it we were standing on a jetty in Male awaiting our seaplane back to work. We shared some pretty strong emotions about heading home...

But as we once again flew [relatively] high above the sunken amoebas islands, we agreed that although our wallets felt a little lighter than we intended, this trip to Sri Lanka did not disappoint!

Another birthday success for the books and a fantastic conclusion to the fourth quarter of 2014! X