Vesak Festival in Colombo

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About a week after I returned to Sri Lanka from my month in Vietnam (posts to come soon – promise!), the Vesak poya (full moon) festival was celebrated by Buddhists in Colombo and around the country. Vesak is a holiday that is celebrated annually by Buddhists to honour the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha. We also get two holidays off work, which is always fun (you probably get tired of hearing about all my holidays… Sri Lanka apparently has the most in the world!).

During Vesak, Buddhist parts of the country become adorned with lanterns and alit with string lights (just like back home at Christmas!). It’s a beautiful sight to witness, especially at night when the decorations give a festive feel to every public space and little side street. In Colombo, the government sponsors massive installations to celebrate the festival. There are pandals, which are huge murals lit up with many bright and moving lights to depict scenes like Buddha’s enlightenment, and there are displays of giant lanterns, which also depict scenes from Buddha’s life story and sometimes even include movement!

Three nights during the festival, I explored the decorations. On Vesak day (the full moon day), I walked along a road where some of the giant, handmade lanterns are. It was breathtaking to see the craftsmanship that goes into these works of art but I found the waves of people a little overwhelming so I didn’t stay for too long (it reminded me of the crowds during pilgrimage at Adam’s Peak in February…).

The next night, I went with friends to Gangaramaya Temple, the Buddhist hub of Colombo. We followed the evening crowds to Beira Lake, which was completely decorated with lights (some even creating the Buddhist flag) and even a lit-up boat taking worshippers to Seema Malaka, the meditation centre on the lake. We got to see even larger and more beautiful lanterns but the crowds, again, were a little much and it was still thirty degrees Celsius at ten o’clock at night so we didn’t try to get into the temple that evening.

On the weekend, though, I took a staff member visiting from Canada again to Gangaramaya temple and we were late enough in the festival that the crowds had somewhat dissipated so we were able to not only explore more of the lanterns but we were also able to get into the temple, which was fun to do with so many people out and about. It was a late night but worth it for the views!

Those who follow me on Instagram (@katherinelmacg) have seen some photos and I recommend you check out a few of my Instagram posts from last week to see videos of the lanterns in motion. For more of a taste of what the festival looks like in Colombo, here are some photos:

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This is a good example of the simple lanterns and string lights found around the city. Notice also the Buddhist flags and the lotus flower lights, showing that this is a Buddhist festival.

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Buddhist flag strung up over a street

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An installation of a lotus flower at a roundabout (it lit up after dark)

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These lotus flowers and stupa created with string lights were outside a government department tasked with preservation of cultural sites like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa

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This tree is filled with so many lanterns, making it a breathtaking sight to take in!

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Some of the very large crowd on the way to Gangaramaya Temple (it took us over an hour to navigate our way there on Thursday then on Saturday it only took about fifteen minutes!)

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This is one of the moving lanterns. To stand in front of it was extraordinary!

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It was so hard to capture good photos of moving lanterns!

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I’m quite fond of the Buddhist-kitsch aesthetic of this lantern (also moving)

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This one, though smaller than some of the showstoppers, was one of my favourites

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The lights in this lantern, like many others, would change colour with the music!

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Another stunning medium-sized lantern

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This lantern was MASSIVE! This moving section was the bottom level and there were THREE levels above it! 

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Some of the spectacle around Beira Lake

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Seema Malaka, the meditation centre designed by Geoffrey Bawa, was all decorated for the festivities

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My favourite site of the entire festival was this giant flashing pandal and the boat that took people across the lake to Seema Malaka! So bright!

 

 

 

“Down South”: Beaches, books, and more

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I’ve learned in Sri Lanka that I’m more of a “mountains and rivers” and less “beaches and palm trees” kind of girl. That said, I have spent more time on the beach in the past few months than I thought I’d ever spend on the beach in the course of my entire lifetime. The beaches in the southern part of the island are generally quite accessible to me in Colombo thanks to a new highway. Nowadays it takes only two hours to get to Matara, for example, and before the highway that trip could take several hours along the coastal road.

I’ve also learned in Sri Lanka that, while I love the amenities a city provides, I also am a country girl at heart and need to get out of the hustle and bustle (and honking horns and traffic) quite often to keep myself enjoying the city life. So because it’s quick escape from city living in Colombo, I’m learning to love the beaches down south. I say “learning to love” because I still love my mountains and rivers but I’ve grown to appreciate the unique gifts of coastal getaways, despite my extremely sunburn-prone skin (I’m recovering from a burn as I write this) and the propensity for sand to migrate home with me from the beach only to inexplicably turn up in my bed (WHY??).

The south has not just provided me with a beaches but also with some fun activities, too. Here’s a round-up of some of my weekend excursions in the south over the past few months:

Dalawella beach

Towards the end of last year, some friends and I got into our heads that we should rent a villa with a pool near the beach. And, honestly, it was the best idea ever because it felt very luxurious but was actually reasonably priced because we brought most of our own food and split the cost of the house evenly. It was relaxing and wonderful to have time by the pool during the day and then venture out to the beach for sunset. It was a very low-key weekend but I think back to it fondly (except for the *wonderful* tuk-tuk drivers who ripped us off on the way there… but what to do?).

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Hanging out on the giant rock on the beach (some people went higher but I 100% chickened out!)

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The after-thunderstorm sunset was breathtaking on the beach

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We rented a villa with a pool! Such luxury!

Whale watching in Mirissa

For my friend’s last weekend in Sri Lanka, we decided to finally invest in seeing some whales. I say “invest” because it’s one of the pricier activities you can do in the south. I wanted to make sure I went with a reputable company that treats with the whales with the respect they deserve and I also wanted to make sure I was safe on a boat in the middle of the ocean so that meant going with a more expensive option.

At dawn, we were picked up from our hotel (a rather… interesting… establishment in nearby Weligama, where we had spent our Saturday lounging on the beach). Then we were shepherded onto the whale watching boat, which was much bigger than I expected, and given breakfast while we went about an hour out into the ocean, until it was deep enough to find the whales. Sri Lanka has a variety of whales that you can see but we were looking in particular for blue whales – the biggest mammals on Earth!

It took a bit but eventually we saw a few for ourselves. Because they are so big, they don’t breach the water like humpbacks or other smaller whales could. Furthermore, they are more shy and less curious than some other species so even though they are massive, they can be more challenging to find. When we did find them, it was amazing to see their backs come up out of the water and then see their tails as they dove into the depths again. We also saw approximately a billion dolphins on our way back to land, which was truly breathtaking.

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Late afternoon on Weligama beach, a favourite spot for surfers in Sri Lanka

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Caught the sunrise in Mirissa while heading out to find some whales

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Breakfast on the boat started with a HUGE plate of fresh fruits

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One of the whales we saw as it dove into the ocean (photo by Raja & the whales, the company we went out with)

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Some of the hundreds and hundreds of dolphins we saw on our way back in (photo by Raja & the whales, the company we went out with)

Galle Literary Festival in Galle Fort

People who know me know I’m a little more than extra nerdy about books and reading and it’s only gotten worse in Sri Lanka with my newfound love of audiobooks. So when I learned that there is an international literary festival in Sri Lanka, I was sure to visit! The festival is in Galle in January each year. I went earlier this year and stayed inside the fort to have easy access to all the events. I spent Friday afternoon, the whole day on Saturday, and then Sunday morning in Galle, attending events with authors like Christina Lamb, John Gimlette, Shyam Selvadurai and more. I also watched the sunset each night – which is spectacular from the fort walls – and, of course, I indulged in all my favourite Galle fort treats like fruity gelato, fancy ice teas, and I even took myself out for a fancy Sunday brunch by the sea at Jetwing Lighthouse hotel.

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One of the many beautiful sea views in Galle

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Cute outdoor hang-out area set up by the festival

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One of the AMAZING performances I saw during the festival

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I also had the honour of hearing Sri Lanka’s first Everest mountaineers speak about their climb in May 2016

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The Galle fort walls are one of my favourite places to catch a Sri Lankan sunset

Hikkaduwa

It took me a long time to finally get myself to Hikkaduwa but eventually one too many friends shared photos of themselves with sea turtles that I simply had to get myself down there. I visited friends in Matara on Saturday. We browsed beautiful batik at Jez-Look Batik and ate dinner by the ocean at Dutchman’s Street in Fort Matara. Then, on Sunday, I took the morning train to Hikkaduwa. When I got there, I immediately went for a long walk on the beach… at high sun… without sunscreen… (I’m really smart.) So after acquiring myself quite a lovely sunburn, I spent the rest of the day under palm trees reading and chatting with friends. Oh, and we all finally got to see Sri Lanka’s sea turtles! After seeing smaller sea turtles in Borneo at Christmas when I went snorkeling for the first time, I needed to see some again. They are so amazing and the ones at Hikkaduwa are so big and wonderful. It might have even been worth the sunburn.

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Very green view from my friends’ balcony in Matara

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Hikkaduwa beach (Taken as I accidentally baked in the sun… oops! Remember to wear sunscreen ALL THE TIME in Sri Lanka, folks)

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GIANT SEA TURTLE! So beautiful and amazing!

Here’s to more beautiful beach time in the future!

Even more stairs: Things I’ve climbed in 2017

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After hiking Mount Kinabalu at Christmas last year, I wanted to find some more hikes closer to home in Sri Lanka. The central hills of Sri Lanka are prime hiking areas so I thought I’d find lots of hiking to do there and also in some other parts of the country. And I did! Yay! Here are some stories from the hikes I’ve done in 2017 so far:

Utuwankanda (January 2017):

This rock is famous for it’s epic history: the nineteenth century Robin Hood of Sri Lanka, Saradiel, used the top as a lookout. He would see the caravans of British goods coming down Kandy Road and then loot! The hike up this rock is only about a half hour. It is not particularly hard except at the end where you have to do some scrambling to get the best views. Once you’re at the top, you’re pretty high up so it looks like you worked really, really hard to get there (but you didn’t!). 

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On top of Utuwankanda

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Another view from the top of Utuwankanda

Adam’s Peak (February 2017):

I know I said I did not enjoy hiking Adam’s Peak the first time (and it’s still very true that I didn’t) but I had the opportunity to go up a second time, this time during the pilgrimage season, so I took the opportunity to go on this adventure with friends. Adam’s Peak is the second-tallest mountain in the country and it’s an important place for people of all religions in the country. Different religions believe the rock formation at the top is the footprint of an important figure. For Christians and Muslims, it’s the footprint of St. Thomas or Adam. For Buddhists, it’s the footprint of Buddha. For Hindus, it’s the footprint of Shiva. This is to say that during the pilgrimage season almost every person in Sri Lanka wants to climb Adam’s Peak.

So when I went again, it was on a Saturday night… a weekend… and a holiday even (it was Sri Lanka’s national day)… during the busiest season… This meant approximately ten thousand people were climbing it at the same time. The stifling crowds were the most anxiety-inducing experience of my time in Sri Lanka so far. After being pancaked for hours on the stairs in the middle of the night, we didn’t quite make it to the top (because we just couldn’t take another few hours fighting through crowds). If pressed, I would say it was nonetheless a worthwhile experience because we took the long hike back down, which was quite beautiful, though admittedly very long and hot. In all, we walked about twenty-five kilometres from about 1:30AM to 12:30PM that night.

While it was fascinating to be a part of the pilgrimage, I really wouldn’t recommend hiking on a weekend holiday during the season. It was much nicer in November when the “crowd” was approximately three hundred people. And even then, Adam’s Peak isn’t a really a hike, just a really long staircase comprised of thousands and thousands of uneven stairs. That said, you can’t beat the sunrise view at the top.

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The triangular shadow of Adam’s Peak (I didn’t get to see this last time!)

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Didn’t make it to the top because of crowds, but the view for sunrise was still pretty great!

Bible Rock (February 2017):

Bible Rock is so named because of its distinctive shape that makes it look like a giant open book / Bible. I’ve wanted to hike it since I first saw it from the road en route to Kandy. It took me a while to get around to it but I was finally able to climb it last month. And… it was an alright hike. Most of the hike was up a very, very steep concrete road. It was not a fun or comfortable walk, especially since we started mid-day (aka in high heat). Also, it was strange to “hike” up a road when every now and then a tuk-tuk would putt past or a person living in the area strolled by carrying washing that had been done in the water source at the bottom of the hill. (Because of the severe drought here right now, all the nearby water sources like rivers have dried up so the people who live in the houses up that road must go down to the bottom and then carry it back up every time they need water, as they do not have running water at home).

After “hiking” up the road for quite a while, we finally reached a trail. The trail was quite short, though, because we’d climbed up most of the way already on the road. After a brief scramble up some stairs cut into the rock, we emerged on top. The top is remarkably wide, taking about ten minutes to walk from one end to the other. (The view from one end shows the scars on the side of one of the hill, the result of one of last year’s many landslides. Landslides and flooding came about a year ago during the floods from a tropical storm that caused the deaths of many people in affected areas.) There is a small Buddhist temple on one end of the top and, on the other end, there are big rocks that provided us shade while we hung out up there, enjoying the view and resting before our descent.

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From the top of Bible Rock

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Hanging off the edge! (But don’t worry, Mum and Dad! We were safe!)

Horton Plains (March 2017):

The hikes in Horton Plains National Park are some of the few in the country that provides some flat-land hiking. Most hikes in Sri Lanka seem to be motivated by climbing to the top of some big rock or hill. In general, I haven’t found even one hike motivated by “it’s pretty here so let’s just walk around” because even in Horton Plains, you go for the view at what is called “World’s End”. Don’t get me wrong, climbing up things is fun because of the views (Sri Lanka’s hills are extraordinarily beautiful) and that fulfilling sense of accomplishment when you get to the top… But sometimes you want some variation! (If you know any non-“up then down” hikes in Sri Lanka, please let me know!)

Anyways, I loved Horton Plains. I had waited a long time to complete this particular bucket list item because I wanted to take the train there but trains can be impossible to book, especially on long weekends. These tickets are in such high demand because between Kandy and Ella (which this park falls between) is Sri Lanka’s most famous train journey, filled with incredible views of the hills and tea plantations along the way. Luckily, I actually ended up coming to this area for work. We had a training in Nuwara Eliya (a good place for everyone from all over the country to meet in because it’s pretty central) and then we all went to Horton Plains at the end of the training as a team building activity / thank you for sitting through two solid days of intense training on social sustainability programming.

The hike is gorgeous and the landscape in Horton Plains is so unique to the rest of the country. It was certainly one of my favourite places I’ve been to in Sri Lanka so far. It’s called “plains” because there are areas that look like open plains, which are so unusual in this part of Sri Lanka. Along the way here, you also hike through some dense forest and there are hills all around you when you reach the lookouts (there’s a reason it’s called “World’s End!). It’s a wonderful place to visit and I think I might go back for a longer hike that I’ve heard rumours of from another volunteer who also has the hiking bug.

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World’s End at Horton Plains

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The view from a little higher up at World’s End! (We were lucky to have such clear skies!)

Little Adam’s Peak (March 2017):

While we were planning the training in Nuwara Eliya and the visit to Horton Plains, I was chatting with another volunteer who suggested I take a day off work to go from Nuwara Eliya to Ella afterwards because I’d mentioned I wanted to do the second of two popular hikes in Ella. In November when Aurora visited, I hiked Ella Rock (still one of my favourite hikes in the country) but we didn’t have time to also hike Little Adam’s Peak, a hill across the valley from Ella Rock that boasts some amazing views from the top, too.

I decided to take the advice and visit Ella again after Nuwara Eliya. This time, I booked myself a “fancy” train ticket on the privately run ExpoRail car, which is fancy because you get served water, tea, and food and get air conditioning and an outdoor observation area. I took this train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella (about five hours) on a Sunday and stayed overnight in Ella that night. The next morning, I woke up around sunrise, put on my hiking gear, and walked to the base of Little Adam’s Peak. The walk there was fine, mostly road and then a private path through a tea plantation, which gave me gorgeous views of the sunrise illuminating Ella Rock. The climb up Little Adam’s Peak, though, is exactly like Adam’s Peak: ALL STAIRS. But this time it was all stairs for about ten minutes only and then you’re at the top so it was much less mentally taxing to climb. 

When I got to the top, the clouds had come it and I couldn’t see anything, nothing of the beautiful view I knew was hidden behind the mist. I was a little sad but I figured I had seen the view from the other side in November so I left to go see the nearby famous Nine Arch Bridge instead of waiting around for the clouds to clear (which could take a while). I walked to see this beautiful bridge (built during the British colonial period) and then walked back to Little Adam’s Peak on my way back to Ella town. My train home wasn’t until later that day and it wasn’t even mid-morning yet… So I decided to climb up the stairs again to see if I could get the view. And this time, it was perfectly clear! I was greeted with a spectacular view of the valley below and Ella Rock on the other side. I was tired after climbing twice in about an hour (as well as from the hike to and from the bridge) but I think it was very worth it so I’m happy I spent the energy going up again. Besides, I got to rest my legs for the rest of the day on the ten hour train journey back to Colombo (which was a very beautiful journey that was also very, very long so thank goodness for Audiobooks to keep me distracted and entertained!). 

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The spectacular Nine Arch Bridge

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Little Adam’s Peak stairs… Sri Lankan hiking often involves an extraordinary amount of stairs

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Second time was the charm! Clear skies after a gloomy first run up the stairs. (That’s Ella Rock behind me!)

Christmas above the clouds: December 2016 trip to Malaysia

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About a week after I traveled to Thailand, I was yet again in the Bandaranaike International Airport fighting through crowds to get to my gate. This time I was flying to Kuala Lumpur, then on to Kota Kinabalu for some Christmas holiday adventures in Malaysian Borneo. After a not-at-all-fun overnight flight from Colombo (turns out Air Asia flights are never fun), I arrived at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport around 6AM. I paid to store my backpack in the terminal so I didn’t have to carry it around the city with me and then I spent the day exploring before my evening flight to Kota Kinabalu.

I found myself a train ticket to get me to the famous Batu Caves, which house Hindu temples. I climbed the billion stairs to the top and then explored inside the main cave. Even though it wasn’t the most breathtaking place, it was nonetheless a very unique worshipping space and I’m glad I took the time to visit. After, I hopped in an Uber and visited the nearby Kanching Falls. It’s a series of seven waterfalls in a lovely park could have used a cleaning (although I have a feeling that the monkeys were responsible for spreading trash from the bins). I climbed all the way to the top waterfall (all the while hoping that the rumours I’d heard about purse-snatching up there were unfounded). It was extremely hot and humid and pretty soon sweat was pouring off me, which made me long to swim in the falls like some of the other visitors. Sadly, I didn’t have a swimsuit so I just wandered about and took in the scenery (and spent my time mostly dodging the monkeys…).

To get back to city centre, I took a local bus that picked me up from the highway. I had some time so I figured this wouldn’t be an issue even if it took a long time. I was right, thankfully, and I eventually made my way into KL central area, with the help of some of the free shuttles sponsored by the government (if you go to KL, be sure to check them out because they are quite convenient!). While I waited for my friend Julia to arrive in KL – she had been traveling in southeast asia for a month so was meeting me in Malaysia – I also visited the famous Petronas Towers and one of the markets in the area.

Julia and I finally met at the bottom of Kuala Lumpur Tower. We paid the (exorbitant) fee to ride the elevator to the top to see the city of KL laid out beneath us and tried to catch up on all that we had missed since seeing each other last about three weeks before. At the top of KL tower, we had both expected the viewing platforms to be very secure, with cages keeping people from throwing things down below or even falling from the top like what you would see at the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada… but there was none of that at the top of this very tall tower. Instead, there were just simple glass barrier walls that seemed secure enough for use at a mall but not safe enough for what is (I repeat) a very tall tower. We nonetheless explored the viewing platforms but neither of us could truly brave the glass boxes with glass floors that jutted out from either side of the tower. We spent enough time at the top to take in the view and take some photos and then we hurried down because there was a rather large thunderstorm approaching from one side, the lightning threatening to strike anything very tall in the area (like, perhaps, the tower we were standing on…).

By that point in the afternoon, it was time for us to venture back to the airport. We collected our bags from the luggage storage service and then boarded our flight to Kota Kinabalu. After a short flight, we arrived in Kota Kinabalu quite late on Christmas Eve and collapsed into bed at Borneo Backpackers. We needed our sleep because we were climbing a mountain the next day! We woke up around 5AM on Christmas morning, grumbling that we definitely didn’t get enough sleep for the long hike ahead of us. We groggily pulled on our hiking clothes, ate a quick breakfast, and were met at the front of our hostel by a van.

The van took us to the base of Mount Kinabalu, which we would climb over the next two days. Mount Kinabalu is 4095 metres tall and can be summitted in two days. On Christmas day, we hiked up and up and up on a simple path for about five hours. We stopped a couple of times for snacks, lunch, and some water but we always missed the views on the way up because of the mist. (We prayed it would not be misty the next day for our summit so we could get a clear sunrise and pretty views for our descent.) The hike was challenging but not too strenuous and it was fun to greet all the hikers with a smile and “Merry Christmas!” Certainly a Christmas day to remember.

When we reached the hostel that we would rest at before summitting, we were a bit tired but more hungry than anything else. Thankfully, the hostel has some excellent food and comfy beds. And, in celebration of Christmas, Julia and I bought a beer apiece and said “Cheers!” as a man dressed as Santa Claus gave all us weary hikers candy. It was fun and silly and kept everyone’s spirits up for the holiday. The hostel didn’t have hot water that day because the sun wasn’t out enough for the solar panels to warm the water so we each only had a very short shower before climbing into bed and resting until about 1:30AM, when we awoke to begin our summit.

The summit started out with lots and lots and lots of stairs then slowly morphed into a hike on rock. Again, we climbed up and up and up. Julia and I felt strong and we eventually made it towards the front of the pack. When we looked down, we could see a trail of lights beneath us from the headlamps of everyone climbing up that morning. The air was a bit thinner up there but I still felt pretty solid and felt thankful I was hiking with Julia because it was nice to have someone to push with. We reached the summit just around quarter to five in the morning… and we were the first team at the top!

It felt like such an accomplishment… but it meant that we had to wait in the freezing wind for longer than everyone else. I wish I had brought with me warmer clothes but I survived (and Julia survived my complaining with a remarkable amount of patience – thank you!). Thankfully, the sunrise was worth the frigid wait! We knew the skies were clear because we saw the stars on the way up and so we were lucky enough to see the full sunrise from the summit of the mountain. It was beautiful and such a great atmosphere because everyone at the top was congratulating each other on making it up to the top. I’ve never done anything like that before so it felt like such a rewarding moment.

Once it was light enough, we began the descent back to the hostel. It was fun seeing where we had hiked a couple of hours before in the dark. With the sun up, we could see everything and it was extraordinarily beautiful! We kept repeating, “This is the best Christmas ever!” (Side-note for family reading this: I missed you, I promise!) and we took approximately ninety million photos (even though our phones kept shutting down because of the cold!).

At the hostel again, we ate a huge breakfast (our third meal in about twelve hours because we had eaten before the summit, at around 2AM), then grabbed our things and headed back down. When we reached the bottom, I was truly exhausted but also exhilarated. The whole hike was a very cool experience! (But I needed about 24 hours of sleep by the end of it.)

The next day back in Kota Kinabalu, Julia set off for her Open Water PADI diving course and, since I had decided not to do my PADI this time, I set off to do other things. Over the next few days, Julia successfully completed her PADI and fell in love with diving and, even though I kind of regret not completing it with her, I still did some pretty cool things with my time there. I paraglided from Kokol Hill, ziplined between two islands, snorkeled with sea turtles and so many kinds of fish and coral in the Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park, and spent an afternoon hiking around one of the islands in the area.

After this short time in Kota Kinabalu, we flew back to KL, where we met our friend Maree, who had flown in from Australia. We all took a bus and then ferry to Pangkor Island, where we met Maree’s friend who had flown in from Nepal and her aunt from Australia. We spent just a couple of nights there and during this time, we mostly hung out on the beach, ate delicious curries and soups, and watched the sun set in bursts of yellow, orange, and red. It was a lot of travel to get there and back but I’m still glad we went because it was a pretty cool place to ring in the New Year before flying back to our respective homes in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Australia.

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The main temple at Batu Caves

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Photobomb-ing the Petronas Towers

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On top of KL Tower, inside the glass box

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Thunderstorm approaching! On top of KL Tower

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Sunrise at the summit of Mount Kinabalu

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Sunrise part 2!

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Amazing views from the top

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So beautiful up there!

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One of the ferries that brings people from Kota Kinabalu to the TAR marine park islands

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Shallow clear waters between two of the TAR marine park islands

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End of the island-to-island zipline

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View from the top of Kokol Hill before paragliding

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Paragliding! (with pilot Chris)

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Beautiful beach on Pangkor Island

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Sunset on Pangkor

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Merry Christmas! (I know… I know… it’s March! Took me a while to write this… oops!)

Temples on temples on temples: my week in Thailand (December 2016)

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At the end of our meeting, my supervisor asked, “Why haven’t you requested time off next week?” Confused, I asked why I would. Her response was something along the lines of, “Well, there’s a four-day weekend! You only need to take three vacation days to end up with nine days off. Go look up flights!” This is how, just over a week later, I found myself on a plane to Bangkok, Thailand.

I live on a beautiful island (Sri Lanka) and so I get a lot of amazing beach time along the coast. So, while I definitely want to explore the southern beaches of Thailand someday, it wasn’t the right time to do that. For this trip, I decided instead to work my way by bus and train from Bangkok to the hills in northern Thailand. I was excited to explore Thailand’s nature and cultural sites as well as eat as much Thai vegan food as I could over the next eight days. I was also excited because it had been a while since I had traveled by myself and, though I love traveling with friends, I was eager to get back into the groove of doing whatever I want, whenever I want.

After landing in Bangkok, I immediately traveled into the city to the famous neighbourhood around Khao San road. It’s touristy but amazing and I knew that, while I’d probably be overwhelmed by its chaos, it was something I had to see as part of my first time in the country. I dropped my backpack at my hostel (Nappark, which I would highly recommend!), bought a fresh mango juice on the road, and wandered through the chaos of the neighbourhood’s small shops and street markets to arrive at the Grand Palace.

A couple of months before, the king of Thailand had passed away, which meant the Grand Palace when I visited was still a place of mourning. (It also meant most of the cultural sites I visited on my trip were free, which was a bittersweet bonus.) All over Bangkok and especially around the Grand Palace, people had traveled to say goodbye to their king. Most people in the city were dressed in black and most buildings in Bangkok – especially those nearest to the palace – were draped in white and black cloth to honour the king’s passing. It was a very moving sight to witness.

As I took in all the hustle and bustle of mourners around the Grand Palace, three tourists rushed past me. They assumed that I, too, was heading to the palace so they waved me forward to run with them. We didn’t share a language but I felt their urgency so, laughing, I ran with them. I am sure thankful I did because I just made it in time to get entrance to the temple before it closed its doors for the evening. I explored the Grand Palace grounds for about an hour, marveling at the beauty, size, and shininess of it all. (Food side-note: After all that excitement, I settled down for dinner at Mango, a vegan restaurant near my hostel. I especially recommend the coconut ice cream.)

The next day, before my train to Ayutthaya, I walked the quiet Sunday streets of Bangkok on a mission to visit a couple of the famous Buddhist temples in the area where I stayed the night before. I visited the Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (the Temple of the Dawn). I also walked through the national museum and an indoor flower market, which was filled with the same lush purple and yellow flowers at hundreds and hundreds of stands. (Food side-note: I ate lunch at Ethos, another excellent vegan restaurant. It was mostly a friendly place except for the weirdly threatening note in its menu about how they don’t serve Coca-Cola because it’s a concoction of chemicals designed to kill you…)

Then, I took the train about an hour to Ayutthaya, where I stayed for the night. (Funny story: I went to the train station, bought my ticket and got on the train before realizing that I had forgotten to pick up my passport again from the hostel. I had just enough time before the train left to hail a taxi, get myself to the hostel, convince the driver to stay nearby for five mins, grab my passport, then race back to the train station. I made my train but, oh boy, it was a close one.)

The next day in Ayutthaya, I rented a rickety bicycle from my hostel (AllSum, another place I would highly recommend). For those that know me, you know I’m mostly terrified of bicycling on roads… but everyone at the hostel agreed that biking or scootering were my best options for getting around and I was NOT about to drive myself around on a scooter (I’m too young to die). So, I chose biking as my mode of transport around the incredible historical park in Ayutthaya. The ruins there are breathtaking. Ayutthaya was founded around 1350CE as the second Siamese capital (after Sukhothai). They were mostly destroyed by a Burmese invasion in the 18th century but they are nonetheless incredibly beautiful to explore. I sweat out most of my body weight that day, biking over twenty kilometers in the sun, but I loved every minute of exploring those ruins. (Non-food side-note: I want to give a shout-out to the Dutch guy who became my biking coach for a couple of hours and taught me how to cross a six-lane Thai highway on a bicycle without dying. Thank you!)

After exploring temples in Bangkok and then some ancient temples in Ayutthaya, I figured I hadn’t had enough temples (haha) so I traveled by bus to Sukhothai, which you might remember from the paragraph above as the first Siamese capital, which was active during the 13th and 14th centuries. The ruins in Sukhothai are very different from those in Ayutthaya so, as someone who enjoys visiting cultural sites like temples and ruins, I’m glad I went to both. I again rented a bicycle and whizzed around from temple to temple so proud of my newfound biking confidence.

From Sukhothai, I traveled by bus to Chiang Mai, a large city in northern Thailand that is famous for its night market and vegetarian food (yum!). I expected to love Chiang Mai but after a day of exploring, including visiting the beautiful temples Doi Suthep, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Pra Sing, I felt it was time to move on. Chiang Mai seemed like a nice place to live but not the most exciting place to be a tourist with my interests. Besides, everyone was saying that Pai was the place to be for nature lovers… so I clamoured into a minibus on its way to Pai.

The route to Pai from Chiang Mai is one of the windiest roads in the country. It is so treacherous that experienced motorcyclists will not take the route (though tourists on scooters ride it – and crash on the way – everyday). It’s also so windy that every minibus that travels there has signs posted stating the hefty fine for throwing up on the upholstery in the vehicle. I thanked God that I generally don’t experience motion sickness and settled in for one of the most uncomfortable bus rides of my life. (Thank God also for distracting podcasts. I listened to several episodes of Stuff Mom Never Told You on the way.)

Though it was touch-and-go at times, I made it to Pai in one piece (hurrah!) and only two people on our bus were carsick so that’s good… I guess? I was thankful to finally have my feet on solid ground and followed Google Maps to the hostel I had booked myself in for the night. Long story short, I would NOT recommend this hostel (which will remain nameless). After almost an hour of deciding what to do about the fact that I’d already paid to stay in that hellhole, I finally decided to give up the money I’d spent on a bed there that night and wander back into town to find somewhere less awful. Thankfully, a kindly hostel owner took pity on me and let me check in to his last dorm bed, even though it was by then well past midnight. It was clear, though unspoken, that I wasn’t the first backpacker he had rescued from the horrors (bugs, filth, grime) of the other hostel.

After all that fuss, I actually had an excellent night’s sleep and was rested well the next morning for the six hour hike I took by myself to the beautiful Mae Yen Luang waterfall. It was on this hike that I began to understand why everyone was telling me to go to Pai. Surrounded by hills and forest and waterfalls is truly a nature lover’s dream. After the hike, I showered and walked out of town to eat some delicious food at the most hippie restaurant I ever visited (Earth Tones – so good!) walked up a BILLION stairs to watch the sunset from the perch of Pai’s White Buddha. It was truly magical to watch the hills cast shadows across the valley as the sun set.

My second day in Pai, I visited Pai Canyon. I borrowed a bike from my hostel, which was the most rickety bike of the trip because it was stuck on a gear that forced me to peddle very quickly to get anywhere. The eight kilometre ride from the town to the canyon was a bit of an adventure on that bike, especially up and down those hills (I walked the bike for quite a few, if I’m honest), but I was so proud of myself when I arrived at the canyon. I guzzled some water and a coconut and then some more water to stay hydrated then hiked up and down the little narrow paths in the canyon. The views of the hills in the distance were outstanding and the canyon itself is very unique. I’m fairly sure the rock in the canyon is made of some kind of chalk because after a couple of hours I was covered in a fine beige powder. After my exploring the canyon, I grabbed my poor excuse for a bicycle to pedal my way the eight kilometres back into town.

I spent another night in Chiang Mai – eating at more delicious vegetarian restaurants (a standout was “Taste from Heaven”) and visiting more temples (Wat Sri Suphan with its silver sanctuary was especially beautiful) – before flying back to Bangkok and then, flying home to Colombo. In all, my trip to Thailand was exactly what I wanted. I met some really cool people (and some ~interesting~ people, too) and got to do all the things I love, including seeing ancient stuff, spending time in nature, eating vegan food, and reading good books on the road.

An interesting side-effect from my week in Thailand was how much it made me grateful for the more immersive experience I am gaining in Sri Lanka. Because I’m spending months and months here living and working and traveling, I’m gaining an understanding of the country that I would be unable to access if I was passing through for only a week or two. I still believe that shorter travel is valuable and amazing. But it’s different from what I’m doing in Sri Lanka and I’m thankful that I’m able to spend more time learning about this incredibly complex and beautiful country.

Photos from my holiday:

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First stop: the grand palace in Bangkok

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Look at how beautiful the walls are there!

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The walls at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha are also amazing (And here’s a fun fact: there’s a jade replica of the Emerald Buddha in Colombo at Gangaramaya Temple that was a gift from Buddhists in Thailand to Buddhists in Sri Lanka.)

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The garden of the grand palace

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Hanging out at the Temple of the Reclining Buddha… (PS: RIP sunglasses that I left somewhere in Thailand)

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The reclining Buddha statue at Wat Pho (the Temple of the Reclining Buddha)

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A small ferry that bring folks across the river to visit Wat Arun (the Temple of the Dawn)

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The garden at Wat Arun

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Flowers at the flower market I visited in Bangkok

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View from the only tuk-tuk I took in Thailand (they’re not a good deal but it’s all ~part of the experience~ so I had to take ONE… I prefer Sri Lankan tuks but I’m biased!)

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A very famous relic of eras passed in Ayutthaya

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More ruins at Ayutthaya

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More ruins at Ayutthaya – breathtaking!

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I biked SO far out of my way in the high noon sun to see this statue… Very worth it! (Also in Ayutthaya)

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Seaweed chips? YES PLEASE

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Ruins part 2 at Sukhothai (This is the most hilarious photo to me because I look VERY excited that I had just discovered self-timer photos and could free myself of selfies while touring solo!)

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Ruins at Sukhothai (Also check out that Ceylonese style stupa behind the statue. Sri Lanka-inspired ancient architecture right there!)

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Also had to bike far out of my way to see this GIGANTIC statue (photo doesn’t do it justice) but it was also very worth it

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In Sri Lanka, it’s not appropriate to take photos with Buddha – there are signs everywhere at touristy religious sites – but I asked around in Thailand and it didn’t seem like an issue there, which I found interesting. (That said, if you know that it is in fact an issue, let me know and I’ll remove this pic!)

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Lanterns in Sukhothai

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Surely the most colourful building in Sukhothai

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Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

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These guys guard the staircase leading up to the temple at Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

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Wat Pra Sing in Chiang Mai is a vision of gold!

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Inside one of the temples at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai

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A book shop next to a vegan restaurant = heaven indeed!

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Mae Yen waterfall in Pai

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The famous white Buddha in Pai

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Sunset over Pai from the top of the stairs to the white Buddha

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Pai Canyon

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Some of the beautiful hills of Pai spotted while biking back from the canyon

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Peaceful moments with a cup of ginger tea and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk In The Woods” at my hostel in Pai

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I visited one last temple before I flew through Bangkok back to Colombo. (This is the silver sanctuary at Wat Sri Suphan.)

7 days in Sri Lanka (AKA thanks Aurora for flying 25 hours to visit me)

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This story begins a few years ago. My friend Aurora, who I’d met during high school, and I were plotting to travel together. After my co-op term in Ghana, we thought, we’d travel to Nepal. We both had been enchanted with the thought of visiting Nepal for several years so we thought it was the perfect destination. But then, life happened (as it so often does) and plans fell through.

Visions of traveling together were still fresh in our minds, though, when, a couple of years later, I found myself living in Sri Lanka… and Aurora found herself again falling into wanderlust. After a few Facebook Messenger conversations across time zones and continents, it was finally decided that Aurora would travel in southern Thailand for a couple of weeks and then fly to Sri Lanka to spend a week traveling with me around the country in November 2016.

I was ridiculously excited to host Aurora in Sri Lanka… So much so that I might have gone a little overboard in planning. I started by collecting a list from Aurora of all the things in Sri Lanka that she would like to see while she was here. I then created a spreadsheet schedule of what we’d do while she was here and excitedly emailed it to her. I got a message back saying that perhaps seeing 2-3 sites per day plus travel was not possible so I reigned myself in, scaled things back, and sent it off again. It was still going to be a very packed week of jetting around the central and southern provinces but it was doable. Aurora confirmed we could make these plans work so all I had to do was wait for the day to come that she arrived in Sri Lanka.

I met Aurora at the airport in Negombo and we so quickly fell back into our comfortable friendship, so much so that it felt normal for her to be hanging out in my apartment in Colombo, even though the fact that she was there was actually amazing. We spent her first day in the country exploring Colombo. I took her to all my favourite places (Galle Face Green, Independence Square, Gangaramaya Temple) and we ate all my favourite foods (roti, dosa, rice and curry, milk hoppers). We got to visit some places new to me (like the gorgeous Red Mosque in Pettah) and even managed to eat our dinner fast enough to make it to a play that night. It was a packed but brilliant day.

We fell into bed exhausted that night then woke early to take a long, incredibly bumpy train to Polonnaruwa. It was not my favourite train trip in Sri Lanka and I was embarrassed that we were so uncomfortable after bragging to Aurora that train travel is so wonderful here. Thankfully, things got better quickly once we arrived in Polonnaruwa because it was time for our elephant safari in Kaudulla National Park. I’ve seen Asian and African elephants a few times now, but I honestly think I’ll never become bored with them. In Kaudulla, we got so close to so many elephants (probably about a hundred in total) that hang out near the lake during the dry season. We saw elephants young and old and I could’ve spent ages watching them graze, play in watering holes, and even just walk around.

The next day was just as wonderful. We rented bikes and rode around the ruins of the ancient civilization that was once in this area. I had been to Anuradhapura just the weekend before but I never tire of ruins and it was so cool to explore Polonnaruwa with Aurora, who – as an artist – noticed so many things I wouldn’t. Walking around with her perspective made me look at the ruins in a whole new way. We expected to spend a couple of hours there but actually spent almost five hours biking around in the incredible heat of the dry zone of Sri Lanka. Aurora took the heat like a champ, even though we both wore conservative clothing to be respectful of the fact that Polonnaruwa is a Buddhist site. (We were absolutely drenched in sweat but kept hydrated with copious amounts of water and coconut water from vendors inside the historical park.)

Our day wasn’t over after the ruins! We boarded a bus for an hour and traveled to Dambulla, where we climbed to the top of the Golden Temple to see the beautiful cave temples in the mountain and also to see the beautiful view of the Dambulla area from up all those steps. (Also, we climbed those steps with our backpacks bags and shoutout to Aurora for not killing me for making her do that!) Then, we boarded yet another bus and made our way to Kandy for the night. We miraculously found a air conditioned bus to Kandy, which was an excellent treat after a long and hot day.

We spent the next morning in Kandy, wandering around the Temple of the Tooth and inside the nearby museums. I even dragged Aurora to my favourite restaurant in Kandy, the Soya Centre, which has entirely pure vegetarian food. We each bought a neapolitan vegan ice cream for ninety rupees (less than a dollar!) and a samosa for our train ride to Ellathat afternoon. Then we raced to the train station in Kandy to catch our train… only to find our train was late. (The only times trains have been late for me in Sri Lanka is when I’ve dramatically raced to catch them just in time and find myself feeling silly about why on earth I rushed so much if the train was going to be late anyways. Oh well!)

Our train finally arrived and we boarded with many other tourists with large backpacks like us. The train trip to Ella is one of the most famous in the world and for good reason! It travels through the tea plantations of Sri Lanka’s hill country and when it’s a clear day you can see the rolling hills for a long distance. Though somewhat cold and dehydrated (we didn’t have any water and strangely no one came aboard to sell us any) but the trip was amazing and I became enchanted all over again with the beauty of Sri Lanka.

The next morning we awoke very early for a sunrise hike of Ella Rock. The hike was beautiful but a bit “rocky” (haha) because we were a little sleep-deprived and the view was a little foggy at the top. Despite the clouds (I have yet to have a successful sunrise hike here!), I’d say it was worth it because the views from the top are breathtaking. It wasn’t even seven in the morning by the time we descended the rock so we took a short bus to see Ravana Falls, a famous waterfall in the area.

We scrambled up the rocks to see the various levels of this waterfall then had some refreshing coconut water, which always worked to perk us up. That afternoon, we took two (terrifyingly-fast) buses to get south and settled eventually in Mirissa beach. Aurora was again a trooper since she wasn’t feeling one hundred percent but managed to get herself on two three-hour bus trips (by local bus!) and still smile about seeing flying foxes (gigantic bats) on our way there. I was very impressed by her perseverance through illness and was grateful that she indulged my love of the app “Heads Up” (like charades) to pass the time on our bus ride.

The next day in Mirissa we spent on the beach and wandering around town. We had originally hoped to catch a whale-watching trip but with Aurora recovering from being sick and with me also being pretty tired from our gallivanting around the country, not going whale-watching was perfectly fine with me. We ended our day with a dinner on the beach… in a huge and aggressive rainstorm. Aurora was excited to catch a tropical rainstorm so, even though we were soaked through when we arrived back at our hostel, we weren’t too upset that the weather was being dramatic.

For our last day together, we explored a bit of Galle Fort, a favourite place to have delicious food and beautiful views of the sea while learning about Sri Lanka’s colonial history (Portuguese, Dutch then British colonizers) as well as the devastation of the 2004 tsunami. Once back in Colombo, we reflected on our travels and decided that, yes, we did a lot and, yes, we were tired but overall, yes, it was worth it.

With a teary farewell, I sent Aurora off to the airport, hoping that someday soon we’ll travel together again. 

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Elephants at Kaudulla National Park

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Ruins at Polonnaruwa

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Fun fact: inside this giant tree hole in were bees! (thankfully I survived unscathed)

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Aurora and I in Dambulla

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Sunset from the top of the hill that houses the Dambulla cave temple

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The beautiful grounds of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

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On the train to Ella

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On top of Ella Rock (it was just before 6AM here!)

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Street art in Mirissa outside of our hostel

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Sunshine on Mirissa beach

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A stormy dinner on the beach in Mirissa

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We found the perfect shop for Aurora in Galle Fort…. Called “Aurora”!

Thanks for such a wonderful trip, my friend!

Beautiful, yes… but worth it? Climbing the many, many stairs up Adam’s Peak

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Several weeks ago, I climbed over five thousand stairs in the middle of the night.

When I had first heard of the Adam’s Peak climb in Sri Lanka, I was excited. I love hiking!, I (naively) thought and eagerly awaited the time when I, too, could conquer the peak. When I was actually climbing these stairs, however, I wasn’t as excited. In fact, I was downright cranky.

If I’m being honest, I hated about ninety percent of the Adam’s Peak “hike”. You’ll note that I refuse to call it a proper hike because it is literally just stairs. More than five thousand of them. Uneven, concrete stairs. You climb these stairs in the middle of the night. It was splendid.

My roommate Julia and I started climbing at about two in the morning. It was dark and cold and we hadn’t slept since we had taken a bus then a tuk-tuk from our home in Colombo to the town of Hatton and onwards to Dalhousie (oddly pronounced del-house here) all in the same night. Both the bus and the tuk-tuk drove terrifyingly fast along winding, cliff-edged roads. Julia and I thought that the getting-there would be the worst of it that night… But then we started to climb.

Nope, it was climbing that was the worst. The worst of the worst.

Look, I know Adam’s Peak is a beloved trail in Sri Lanka. This is because it boasts gorgeous views from the top and also because it is a religious site of pilgrimage for Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist people in the country… But let’s get one thing straight: it’s a site of pilgrimage because it’s a VERY HARD climb. It’s a good way to show that you’re devoted to your faith because climbing all those steps is awful and everything hurts while you’re doing it.

Now, I’d like to think I’m in pretty good shape but by a third of the way up, I was ready to keel over from exhaustion. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one struggling. Even the huge group of military trainees who (hilariously) wore matching tracksuits and white sneakers were struggling. Heck, ALL of us on that mountain were struggling. (And by “all” I mean everyone EXCEPT for that one small crew of perky middle-aged Europeans that beat most everyone to the top. Great job at making us look like slow pokes, friends!)

All this is to say, I guess it was worth it for the view at the top. My legs shook for the rest of the day and my thighs burned for at least four days after and we didn’t get the most beautiful sunrise because of the clouds… but watching the sky lighten as day broke over the mountains was nonetheless an incrediblly beautiful and moving sight. Even with the spectacular views, the best part of being at the top of Adam’s Peak is knowing that you didn’t have to climb any more of those godforsaken stairs…

Until you realize that the way up is the same as the way down… which means five thousand more stairs in the opposite direction.

And, of course, that group of middle-aged Europeans beat us to the bottom.

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Some of the crowd waiting for the temple gates to open at the top of Adam’s Peak (excuse the blurriness… this was taken at 4AM, a charming hour to be awake… UGH)

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See those stairs I’m standing on? Imagine 5000 of them! Then imagine climbing them!

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Stopped for a photo break about a third of the way down… because even going down hurt our legs at that point!

PS: For the record, I would definitely climb this thing again. The promise of an even more spectacular sunrise might draw me back in… in another few months… because I still haven’t forgotten about the pain!