I don’t very often talk about the business side of things on my blog, but I guess it’s pertinent that I shared with you the fact that I recently visited Sri Lanka as part of the world’s 50 top travel bloggers invited to the very first travel blogging conference in Asia - TBCasia.
It all started about 10 days before the 14th November. While in London I received an unexpected email offering me a trip to Sri Lanka for the world’s first Asian travel blogging conference.
I was ecstatic. But I was also about to embark on an epic road trip around Wales for 6 weeks with my family. Josh encouraged me to take up the offer and, having gained the freedom from my awesomely encouraging husband, I sent an email back replying I would be happy to attend.
Sri Lanka for 5 days? Was I mad? Back in my old life, with my 9-to-5 job and 4 weeks of holidays per year, a trip to Asia for 5 days would have been a welcomed holiday. These days it seemed such a small amount of time to spend in a new country I knew I would fall in love with. However, a small taster would still be embraced, if not just to confirm my suspected affection for another beautiful Asian country.
And Sri Lanka was to be my 50th country so I knew it would be special.
Day 1 – Flying Sri Lankan Airlines To Colombo
On the 13th November I covered Josh and my kids in kisses and cuddles and hopped aboard a train in Cardiff, Wales direct to Heathrow.
At Heathrow I was greeted by several new (and old) friends also making the 10-hour flight from London to Colombo. Our flight with Sri Lankan Airlines wasn’t particularly full so I was fortunate to receive 4 seats all to myself. At first I thought I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep, but when I finally sat up there were only 2 hours to go. I was chuffed.
I celebrated my return to Asia by ordering curry dishes for dinner… and breakfast, on the flight. They were tasty but mostly I was glad to be heading back to the region where our amazing worldwide adventure started. It had been too long.
In Colombo a bus was waiting for us and we made a b-line straight to Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel in the heart of Colombo. My roommate was the delightful Sofie from Wonderful Wanderings who I had previously met in Belgium in August. We hit it off over dinner and I was excited to be paired up with her for the trip.
I spent the afternoon relaxing in my room before Sofie and I headed down to dinner. Cinnamon Lakeside offered a vast assortment of colourful dishes in the buffet. I stayed for several hours chatting to many fascinating bloggers before I couldn’t’ resist the beckoning of my bed any longer, and retreated upstairs to try and get some much-needed sleep before the early start the next day.
Day 2 – Headed to Habarana For An Elephant Safari
Nobody (normal) likes getting up early, especially when it still feels like the middle of the night (in the United Kingdom, where I had just flown in from). But I shuffled on the bus like a dead-eyed zombie from The Walking Dead, and we headed to our next hotel, Chaaya Village.
We had a brief stopover at Kurunegala, where we were served a refreshing cold tropical fruit juice before arriving at our new home in the middle of the lush jungle.
We were greeted by traditional Sri Lankan dancers and a brightly coloured masked elephant. Unfortunately my camera didn’t appreciate the sudden change in temperature and humidity and would not cooperate.
It was a quick buffet lunch before returning back to the bus and onward to Kaudulla National Park for an elephant safari. This was one of my favourite days on the whole trip, and I wrote about it in a separate post here.
The sun was slowly setting after our elephant safari and we returned to our hotel for a blogging workshop. But more importantly, after our workshop we were awarded with a superb Sri Lankan dinner at the Cinnamon Lodge, (sister hotel next door to our Chaaya Village). This delicious array of spicy food left my mouth burning and my tastebuds dancing.
Day 3 – Sigiriya Rock & 32 Flavours Of Ice Cream
Another early morning start, this time to visit the well-known Sigiriya Rock. This beautiful rock formation was really worth it’s own post so you can find the full story here, including how I managed to evade an enormous swarm of killer wasps, yes wasps!
It’s hard to believe we had conquered the mountain and it was only mid-morning.
We headed to Polonnaruwa after our rock expedition. A few people chose to bicycle around the second most ancient of Sri Lanka's kingdoms, while I decided the airconditioned bus was good. Polonnaruwa is a World Heritage Site and one of the best planned archaeological relic sites in the country.
The most impressive part for me was the last temple. The Gal Viharaya has four large images of the Buddha carved out of a single rock.
After such a sweaty (and exhausting) hike the ideal follow-up activity was to head back to our Chaaya Village hotel and have a refreshing soak in the pool. This also turned out to be perfect way to get to know some of the other travel bloggers on the trip outside of the “work environment” (I use that term loosely).
As nomadic travellers we don’t often have time for the niceties with new friendships. The “how are you”, “what’s the weather like” chatter is bypassed for the straight-to-the-point topics like “how’s your love life?”, “where’s your next travel spot?”, “how much money do you make?”.
This makes for an interesting life and also the making of very fast friends. These friendships started in the pool and continued through the whole trip, and even afterwards.
Lunch opened up while we were swimming so we all went in for a quick bite and then I returned to my room to attempt to catch up on some work. Unfortunately the Wi-Fi in the jungle was pretty much non-existent.
Later that afternoon we walked over to the Cinnamon Lodge Hararana for a cooking demonstration. We spent a delicious amount of time watching simple, yet flavoursome, dishes come to life with the use of curry leaves and tantalising Sri Lankan spices. It was simply mouth-watering.
But it wasn’t until we stepped out from behind the stove to the rear cooler rooms where we meet Nimal and his 32 favours of ice cream. Nimal won the IKA Food Olympics in Frankfurt 2012.
His crazy ice cream flavours ranged from the delicious to the bizarre to the spicy. Half a teaspoon of chilli ice cream was hotter then any curry I’d eaten in Sri Lanka! And you could smell the Durian before you even tasted it. But the sour-sup and the brown bread ice creams were surprisingly delicious.
For a more adult moment I had to confess my favourite ice cream was the pina colada with real pineapple juice and white rum. Delectable!
Despite eating all that food we made our way back to our hotel for a late dinner and hit the sack for another big day.
Day 4 – Spices, Temples & Trains – Oh My!
Another early morning saw us eating breakfast, dressed, packed and onto our coaches before 8am.
It was a full-on day of transport, with several hours spent on the bus and train.
Our first stop was a Spice Garden. Josh would have loved this, being a fan of fresh herbs and spices. It was very much like the Spice Garden in Penang and our guide was filled with enthusiasm. The highlight was watching Backpack with Brock try to eat a plain curry leaf… It didn’t taste as nice without the coconut milk and heat.
After our tour through the lush garden we were taken into a multi-level building for an overview of a selection of special herbs and what they do for the body. Then out of nowhere the guide plucked me out of the crowd for a facial scrub. Your face is one of the most intimate parts of your body and in many cultures you are not allowed to even touch other people’s faces. With that in mind, it felt most unusual, uncomfortable and bizarre to have a Sri Lankan man rubbing every inch of my face in an attempt to ‘even out my skin tone’… I happen to love my freckles, thank you very much!
My fellow bloggers moved onto shoulder massages, while I enviously peeped from behind tightly closed lashes. I am sure anyone else would have enjoyed a facial massage, but I have super sensitive skin and it wasn’t long before my skin started to tingle and I was rushing to the bathroom to wash off the ointment. In saying all that, my face certainly did feel much firmer… almost younger. :)
After this spicy experience we were back on the bus and headed to the Buddhist city of Kandy for a visit to the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa), so named because it houses a tooth of the Buddha. You can’t actually see the tooth as it is kept in a gold casket, which is heavily guarded.
The entire temple complex covers a large area and features impressive architecture as well as amazingly intricate designs.
From the temple we made our way to the train station, where we caught a train back to Colombo. Pffft! What’s so special about a train ride? Well a train ride in Sri Lanka is a must, as I found out.
You can read all about that experience in my post Living Life On The Edge. But let’s just say this is not your typical sit-down-and-wait-for-2-hours type of train… I almost lost my head. Literally.
After we disembarked it was back on the bus for another long ride to Beruwela and our new home for the next two nights - Cinnamon Bey. Wow! This turned out to be my favorite hotel throughout the whole trip.
I’m partial to the beach and our rooms overlooked the sea and the pool. I felt immediately relaxed. We finished the evening with a very late dinner that took us way past pool opening hours, devastatingly.
So a group of us headed to the beach which happened to be marked as unsafe to swim. We stood in its dark waters for a short while before retreating back to the hotel and up to the Hookah Lounge.
In all my years of travel I had never attempted a hookah. Well, I thought there is a first time for everything as my friends passed around a pipe filled with a mysterious melon-flavored liquid. I was given a brief lesson and handed a pipe. My first thought was “everyone has sucked on this”, but no one else seemed to mind, so ok. My second thought was “how do I do this coolly without gasping and choking”. I sucked in quite shallowly and blew out the smoke. Ahhh… it was easy and it didn’t taste too bad either.
It was a gorgeously balmy evening sitting on the balcony bar with a hookah, a pina colada and listening to the distant sound of the lapping ocean in the pitch night, drumming a consistent, rhythmic beat. It was enough to lull everyone into a slumbersome temperament that could only be satisfied with a bed.
Day 5 – A brief visit to Galle & Sri Lanka from the air
Out on the road again for a brief visit to Galle, a fortified Dutch colonial city. Galle fort is a world heritage site and is the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers.
It was quaint and gorgeous, sitting scenically on the ocean. I wish we had more time, but I had a good reason for cutting my time there short.
During our various trips around Sri Lanka we took part in different competitions and apparently a short piece I had written about ice cream won me a scenic airflight. Scored! So it was back in the coach – off to our scenic air flight with Cinnamon Air, which you can read about here. It was incredible.
The flight went longer than anticipated and so we enjoyed a late lunch then our group went their separate ways. Some people decided on a river safari, while I knew it was time to really enjoy Cinnamon Bey and so I put the swimming pool through it’s paces.
After a long luxurious swim it was time for karaoke. Yes, Cinnamon Bey had everything including a karaoke lounge. We sang the night away, enjoying a distilled alcoholic drink named arrack. Sri Lanka is the world’s largest producer of coconut arrack and it is delicious.
It was 10pm before I knew it so we headed to the buffet for dinner. Yep, another buffet.
Day 6 – TBCasia
It was a long and early bus ride back to Colombo just in time for the 9am kick-off for the inaugural TBCasia conference. Actually we were late. But the conference waited and as soon as we arrived it was all hands on deck.
Having been to several blogging conferences I really loved the structure and format of TBCasia. I learnt a lot and met some great people in the industry.
After a long day of meetings and sessions we were invited to our final event – dinner on “8 Degrees” – a gorgeous boat sitting on Beira Lake. The top deck was open, while the bottom deck air-conditioned. We enjoyed listing to a live band, sampling delicious food and relished wonderful friendships.
Even when we had finished no one wanted to say goodbye so we took the party to The Library, a bar within the hotel. And when that closed down we moved outside by the pool dragging on the night of comradeship as long as possible.
Day 7 – Goodbye Sri Lanka
One of the few reasons I was looking forward to leaving Sri Lanka was the end of these exceptionally early mornings. Up, dressed, packed and eating breakfast before 8:30am. I know, I know. I first-world blogger problem.
Several people had left earlier, some were staying around and leaving later. Luckily I was heading back to London with several friends so we piled into the bus destined for the airport.
The hardest moment came when my new friend Brock was to depart on a different flight heading back to Canada. As I mentioned before, travellers form intense relationships that surpass years of friendships in a regular life so it was a deeply sombre farewell for us.
With some spare time on my hands and a sad countenance, I walked past a massage parlour and decided what to spend my reminding Sri Lankan currency on. I settled in for an ultra relaxing deluxe 1-hour pedicure. It was my last souvenir from a special week in Sri Lanka (and a special present to myself for all the hard work). Yes, yes, it’s still “work”.
We boarded our flight to London with Sri Lankan Airlines and I happily claimed 4 seats again. I attempted to stay awake for my 11-hour flight, trying to get accustomed to UK timezone, but I did sneak in a quick nap... or 2. Time passed quickly and before I knew it I was hugging my friends and saying farewells in Heathrow.
I had stayed for 1 night at a small hotel near the airport before catching a 4-hour train to Wales and being gleefully reunited with my family. The final train ride the next day was the perfect ending to the trip, giving me time to process my experiences, write several posts and smile fondly over the special friendships I had made.
Life throws amazing opportunities at us sometimes and every day I am thankful that I started this blog. Not only so I can express my thoughts to people everywhere, encouraging them to travel and live life to the fullest, but because I have the opportunity and privilege to meet amazing people and have the most surreal life experiences. TBCasia was one of those life-defining moments for me where I made life-long friends, created memories I will forever remember and I added a new wish list destination for my family. Sri Lanka, mark my words. I will be back!