A Travellerspoint blog

To Sri Lanka

sunny 32 °C

I spent three weeks in Sri Lanka, going from Galle in the south to Jaffna in the north, with side trips to the hill country and to an east coast beach. To get there from Chiang Mai, I had to transit back through KL and on to Colombo. I had a good plan. I would fly back to KL in the late afternoon, leave early-ish in the morning for Colombo and be there in time for check in at a hotel.

This made staying at a transit hotel in KLIA2 a sensible idea but unfortunately my plan was thwarted by the powers that be deciding to close Colombo airport during the day for a few months so they could upgrade the runways. This work commenced just a day before my arrival, and caused Air Asia to cancel all day time flights and aggregate all passengers on a single flight arriving fairly late at night. I now had a bit over 24 hours to kill in KL, with the airport hotel booked for 10 hours. I hung around in the airport until about 10:00 o'clock before checking in. The hotel I picked was essentially an airport lounge with some attached tiny rooms: I had unlimited free food (not particularly nice) and beer, and while the room was tiny, it was clean and comfortable so it was not a bad place to stay at all. It had the added bonus of being in the shopping mall next to the airport, so I really thought I could occupy myself there all day - it has two food courts and lots of other cafes and places to eat.
By late morning I was on a bus to Klang, about an hour away, just for something to do: it turns out that Klang is not a nice place to visit - it is an old port town, quite run down, very hot when I was there. It has a couple of pretty much abandoned malls, a nice mosque and a few parades of shops - sadly, no decent coffee to be found. The reason the malls had been abandoned was a shiny new one about 5 km away (where the bus from the airport had actually dropped me), so I went back there, where I could find coffee and a wonderful branch of the Popular Book Shop.

Back at the airport, I was surprised and pleased to find Popeye's Louisiana Chicken - superior to KFC - so I pigged out before going to find my plane. At the other end, I was out of Colombo airport at around 10:30 and decided to walk to my hotel, about a km away. I'm afraid that I lost my temper with the cluster of tuktuk drivers who pestered me as I left the airport who simply would not accept I wanted to walk.

I can't say that Sri Lanka is the best place I have ever been, or that I expect to be back unless there's a good reason to return. There were good things about the place, and my next posts will deal with them - this one is more about the background niggles that made it less than optimal. I'll start with the tuktuk drivers, as they were my first experience. Of course, many passed me by without being a nuisance and many others accepted a "no thanks" when they asked if I wanted a taxi. Too many did not, however, and had a variety of responses - this is the full monty - a couple went through the whole thing, others had a shortened version:

"Taxi, sir?"
- "No thanks".
"Where you going?"
"How can I help you?"
"City tour, sir? Cheap. See everything, 2 hours, 2000 rupees."
"Where you staying? I'll come collect you, you can hire me for the whole day."

It didn't seem to matter what I was doing or how unlikely it would be that I'd be wanting a tuktuk - they'd still ask. Most problematic is when I'd be trying to cross the street, spot a small gap in the traffic, be about to leap into it, only to find that a blasted tuktuk had stopped to find out what I wanted to do and how they could help me.

Most of my travels were by train. The rail network was set up by the British and hasn't really had a lot of investment since then. In addition, Sri Lanka has had decades of civil war and a tsunami to contend with - meaning most of the trains are really old, not that comfortable or clean and very slow. I had reserved seats for most trips but some times I couldn't - the unreserved carriages were crowded: I don't like to be in close proximity to people at the best of times, so spending three hours or more standing with no room to move is not that appealing. On the other hand, I had three bus trips and was quite pleased with them.

I particularly enjoyed the Sri Lanka take on chicken curry, but it isn't their way to just serve a bowl of it with some rice. Instead, they'd have rice and curry - a plate of rice, a very small amount of the particular curry I'd ordered and then between four and ten other random curries. Pretty much everywhere had a version of this dish. Some of these were very good, some curried were inedible (one nearly killed me, when some long stringy green vege got stuck half way down my throat) and others were just too odd looking for me to want to try. In the cheaper places, they'd just pile everything together but in the posher places they'd separate them.

The one dish I had heard about before getting to Sri Lanka was kottu, and I expected to see it everywhere but it was more than a week before I came across it. It is a bit like fried rice, but without the rice - instead, they use a finely chopped roti - it is chopped right on the grill and so making it creates quite a distinctive racket.

I found these two dishes to be a bit samey after a while, but a lot of the restaurants went for western style dishes, which is not really why I came here. I did find some good Thai food and only resorted to KFC once, just to see what it was like - not much different from home. Most of the places I stayed supplied breakfast - and I had specially chosen to order breakfast when I booked my first hotel, interested in seeing what a Sri Lankan breakfast is. Turns out an omelette with toast and marmalade, some fruit and a Liptons tea bag is pretty standard. Indeed, given that Sri Lanka produces so much tea, it was actually quite hard to get a good cup of tea - even tea shops would supply a tea bag and milk made from powder. There were exceptions, like the Dilmah shop in Colombo.

Coffee was just not a thing in most places. Although beer was readily available, and most places had several beers listed in their menus, the reality was that Lion lager was often all that was available. Its alright, but having a change is nice. I did try the locally brewed Tiger the one time I found it - awful! I did enjoy the locally brewed ginger beer - not as sweet as Schweppes and with quite a kick. It is made by Elephant, who recognise the power of a TLA, and call it EGB.

My own planning let me down a little. I found that the hill area was really nice, and as I traveled, I picked up ideas as to where I could have gone to explore it more. I'd had to book the train up there and back about four weeks before I left home, and was under the impression that people went up there mainly for the spectacular train ride. This led me to book to go up one day and, sadly, back the next. Luckily, as I moved north, it became easier to get trains without booking well in advance, so my travels could be somewhat more impromptu.

Posted by NZBarry 20:49 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Chiang Mai - Wat Ket Area and Departure

As I stood by the river after leaving the Warorot Market, I noticed some people on the other side of the river sitting at what seemed to be tables. I had to investigate, and found a wonderful part of Chiang Mai - just a couple of blocks worth, but it had a lot to see and, above all, was relatively peaceful. It seems that areas are named after the local Wat, making this Wat Ket. The tables I'd spotted happened to belong to an odd sort of place - cafe, guesthouse, cat refuge and (dare I say it) junk shop - called Old No 89.large_IMG_8340.jpglarge_IMG_8350.jpglarge_IMG_8351.jpglarge_IMG_8348.jpglarge_IMG_8352.jpglarge_IMG_8353.jpglarge_IMG_8354.jpglarge_IMG_8355.jpg

I couldn't quite work out the theme of what was being sold in this place - some memerobilia, but a lot of other stuff. No matter, it was a nice place to sit by the river, eat lunch and have a beer. Across the road there's a much posher place - an air-conditioned cafe/restaurant with a shop selling posh gifts and the like. I didn't see anything there to take my fancy. There's also a flash spa and hotel, and a couple of bars right on the river. The place that caught my eye, however, was the Veng Joom On Teahouse - which also had tables on the river front and a proper tea shop.


Of course, there's the Wat itself, as well as some traditional looking buildings, a small tour boat operator and people fishing the river.

I have saved the best for last. Way back when I was staying by the University, I went in search of a craft beer bar I had heard about, but never found it. Its not the same one, but I was very happy to find the Craft Beer Factory here. No, they don't actually make any beer, but they have 12 craft beers available, including Tuatara from New Zealand, a big outdoor area, and a variety of spaces indoors. My only problem was that I had to wait for an hour or so for them to open - being awash with coffee and tea meant I didn't really want to go to a cafe to wait, so I just watched the fishermen and the man on his boat until it was time.


The sausage is a local version, and contains lemongrass, galangal and some red curry paste - so it has a bit of a kick.

I had an early afternoon flight back to KL and, although I'd worked out how the airport bus operated, I waited for a long time at the bus stop with none in sight. Eventually I gave up and caught a songthaew - my first time in one. It is quite exhilarating, sitting on a bench seat, no seat belt, travelling at speed whenever possible. Of course, the airport bus materialised and actually drove into the airport just in front of us.

Bye Thailand - I'll be back.

Posted by NZBarry 19:08 Comments (0)

Chiang Mai - Riverside

sunny 30 °C

Riverside in Chiang Mai is between the western wall of the old city and, as you might expect, the river. It has two major markets - Warorot and the Night Bazaar - as well as many establishments for the consumption of beer, with a few nice places to eat thrown in and the biggest hotels in town. Despite quite a lot of negative feedback on tripadvisor, I went for the Chiang Mai Plaza Hotel, an older establishment just to the south of Riverside and near the largest bookshop in Chiang Mai, Suriwong. Apart from some initial hassles with wifi and a bar that never had any people in it, I was happy with my choice. It has an enormous restaurant which spills out into the garden where they run a great breakfast buffet and a nice lobby where a couple of musicians play in the evening. There is a bar, but no-one was ever in it so I didn't go in.

I moved in there on New Year's Day. I was super lucky because I hadn't bothered to plan anything for the day until a couple of days earlier, when I found out that the best restaurant in Chiang Mai on tripadvisor was also the best fine dining restaurant in all of Asia. Despite the proximity of New Year's Day, I was able to make a booking. It says something about the nature of those who use tripadvisor that nothing on the menu was Asian - instead, David's Kitchen is pretty much a classic French restaurant, run by a Brit. He's quite effusive - greeting guests as they arrive and then wandering around as they dine, trying to talk to everyone. I went for a classic French dinner - chicken consomme, boeuf bourguignon and a molten chocolate pudding along with a G&T and an IPA. It was all very good but still surprising that this is the best place in Asia.

I only actually went into the Night Bazaar a couple of times - once just to check it out, and the second time purely to eat. There's very little appeal in what is sold in the Bazaar - junky jewellery and tools, perfumes, clothes and dodgy souvenirs. It is in a building, but the stalls spread up and down all the nearby streets, making it very difficult to walk through. It is really for tourists. For me, the best thing about the market is that there are plenty of places to eat - by way of a complete contrast to my dinner at David's Kitchen, I was probably just as happy to hoover up a basil and beef with a cold beer in one of these places. I think it is the freshly fried egg which makes all the difference.

Wararot Market is a day time market, where you can buy actual useful stuff, and where most of the customers are locals - come to buy a pound of chillies and some flour, or whatever. There are actually two markets in large three storey buildings, pretty much duplicates of each other and connected by an overbridge. I was surprised to find that there was very little to eat - the basement was set up as a foodcourt, but very few stalls were operational.

Of course, my first need was for coffee and in my wanders, I found three great places (two actually had hostels above them). One was Marktel, just up the river a bit from my hotel.

Another I found when I went on a wasted journey to find a cake shop I had heard about - after a long walk to the south, I did find it, but it was closed, so I decided I would carry on walking to the Airport Plaza Mall,, to see if there were any movies showing (nope) or donuts and orange drink available (yep). On the way, I found Volcano II (the original is back where I started, on Su Thep Road, although I never noticed it).

The other was out near the Suriwong bookshop. I walked past one place a few times, it is on the road to the railway station, that intrigued me - it has a French name and a freezer full of New Zealand ice cream but the big draw was that it had lots of musical instruments, including a drum kit. When I finally made it in, I was not impressed with the food on offer or the coffee really, but it was a nice space in which to sit and read.

One more Chiang Mai post - about an area I found by accident - and then I am off to Colombo!

Posted by NZBarry 20:54 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Chiang Mai - Old City

sunny 30 °C

There is some irony in referring to the old city, given that Chiang Mai actually means new city. This is because it was established as the second capital (after Chiang Rai) of an area of northern Thailand in 1296 - probably because of its location on the Ping River, which made it important for trading. The original city was constructed within walls and a moat - it is this which is now called the old city. Not much of the walls survive - just the four corners really, but the moat is still there.

I spent a couple of nights in the Old City - near the Thapae Gate, which is half way up the western side of the city, and the most heavily touristed area of the city, probably because it is the first entry point when you arrive by train. Last time I was here, I simply walked in Thapae Gate and went to the first hotel I found: an $8 concrete walled box. This time, I planned ahead and stayed in one of the most highly rated guesthouses in town - Thongran's House. I walked in from my previous hotel near the University - about 3 km. I got so overheated that when I saw a nice looking place for lunch, I went in, not noticing it was a salad bar.

Thongran's house was pretty luxurious - not that you could tell from the street, as it was behind a coffee come massage place and a tattoo shop - and had a nice outdoor area where I could hang out, drink beer and read Infinite Jest.
It was actually quite a nice place to spend New Year's eve - the people who ran it invited me to join them for a barbecue, but I felt that would be a bit odd, as they didn't seem to have much food and there were a lot of them, so went off to a nearby cafe for dinner (my big night out was on New Year's Day - coming up in the next post). At around 10:00 or 11:00, I happened to look outside, and thought "golly, those stars look strange and there's a lot of them" - it turns out they were little lanterns floating off into the sky. I know that I should have done a bit more to organise something proper for the night, but it turned out OK.

Over my time there, I walked most of the streets and lanes of the Old City as well as completely around the outside. The area around Thapae Gate was chocker with tourist-related businesses - guesthouses, cafes, tour providers, currency exchanges, hotels, massagers, tattoists, new agey helth nut providers and the like. The further away you got, the harder it was to find a currency exchange (which is why I walked all the away around), and the more the shops and businesses responded to the needs of the local community - shops selling coils of rope or tins of oil, mechanics, rice traders etc. The one thing I actually wanted to see in the Old city was the National Museum - but it and the nearby art gallery are closed for renovation, except for one room with some black and white photos of Thailand's coast.
National Museum Chiang Mai

National Museum Chiang Mai


The Three Kings stand outside the museum - the first King of Chiang Mai (Mengrai) and two of his mates, kings from other areas in Thailand. There are also several Wats (temples) in this area - I made the mistake of going on a Wat tour the first time I visited Thailand, which left me pretty much watted out. Still, I thought I should take a photo or two.

I was amused by a form of mobile banking outside one of the Wats - complete with currency exchange and ATM.

I did venture out of the Old City a couple of times - once to the railway station, as I had to buy a ticket for the last part of my trip. Going out Charoen Muang Road, the character of the street changes dramatically once you cross the river - it is once again far more about serving the needs of locals, rather than tourists, and the price of coffee drops by about a half.
Charoen Muang Road

Charoen Muang Road


Naturally, there were more Wats - this (I think) is Wat San Pa Khoi.

The station was almost deserted when I got there, but I had lunch and hung around until a train came in. I couldn't have a beer with my lunch - there was a pretty horrible "incident" in 2014, when a drunk railway employee did terrible things to a young girl on a sleeper train, which led to a total ban of booze on railway properties.
The front of the station became an almost solid line of tuktuk drivers and guesthouse operators, each trying to secure business from those getting off the train.

One of the more notorious streets in Chiang Mai is Loi Kroh Road - it runs between the wall and the river, and has lots and lots of bars. I ventured along here one evening - most of the bars had groups of local young women, playing pool or generally lingering: the internet suggests that you can talk to these young women by buying an over-priced "ladies drink", and that many will be willing to leave the bar when you go. It all seemed a bit sad - I was probably a bit early when I walked along, because they didn't seem to have much custom, and called hopefully to me as I went past. I don't want to be prejudiced, but they didn't seem to be wanting a conversation about Infinite Jest, so I kept on walking.

Posted by NZBarry 04:27 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Chiang Mai - Su Thep area

sunny 30 °C

I have already been to Chiang Mai a couple of times - in fact, I was there the very first time I left New Zealand. I got myself in an awkward position in Bangkok, so fled north in a bus which seemed to take forever. On that visit, I did a pretty good job of exploring the local tourist attractions, without spending much time in town. I went back a few years ago, but was seduced into flying to Luang Prabang. So, the plan this time is to simply stay in Chiang Mai for a week, to get a proper feel for the place.
I arrived mid-afternoon: after a coffee just outside the airport, remembering that I'd walked out to the airport last time I was here, I decided to walk to my hotel - about 4 km. Big mistake! I'm a bit older now and it took forever in the heat. At one point a fellow tried to organise a songthaew (a ute with bench seats in the back) for me, but I couldn't communicate where I was going so I was committed to the walk. Unusually, my route didn't take me past any 7-11's or bars, so it was dry work - luckily it got dark and cooled down considerably. Eventually, I got to my hotel - the grandly named Sinthana Resort which was nothing of the sort (unless putting a few trees in the car park counts). The next challenge was to get dinner - I wanted a normal Thai dinner with a beer, but the only Thai food I could find nearby was from street stalls.
There were a couple of Korean restaurants, a rather nice ice cream parlour and a great cafe - the Sode, which became a regular stop whenever I walked past. The customers of the ice cream parlour were a little unusual - groups comprised of a single older foreign man and a bunch of Thai women, which I worked out to be English language students. They were having a great time.

I could not dine on ice cream and coffee, however, so kept walking - nearly walking past a place called RAW, because I took the sign quite literally, and thought it would just be trendily presented salads. Looking again, I found it to be quite the opposite - a very new Korean Fried Chicken joint. Although it lacked the beer (very unusual for such places), I gave it a go and was very happy - they gave me so much, I had leftovers for breakfast, and I could buy beer at the several 7-11's surrounding my hotel.

My first exploration was of Chiang Mai University - it is huge, and largely deserted when I was there, although I did find a coffee shop with about the best coffee I found on my entire visit to the city. The fellow running it was keen to talk, so we discussed the nature of Christmas, as you do. This picture speaks volumes of the level of activity I saw as I walked around.

I liked the campus - there are lots of trees, including a couple of smallish forest parks, a pond and some interesting buildings. I was amazed at the size of the Political Science Faculty, and found the Law Faculty right on the edge of campus, in the bush almost. There seemed to be some sort of singing competition happening there while the law professors were off enjoying their break.

The campus is so big, they have a shuttle system to take people around it, and have shuttles of a different colour to run what looked like orientation tours for intending students. There is an area where these shuttles herd together when not in use.

I had heard that the emerging action was on Nimmanhemin Road, which is a short distance from the University, so this was my other destination for the day. On the way, I encountered the University stadium and popped into the first cafe I saw, Taste Cafe, for a coffee. The other customers didn't seem too focused on whether the coffee was any good, but more about how it looked: everyone was busy taking photos of the coffee. One of the guys looked like he was doing a photo shoot - having his female companion pose with a coffee and a glossy magazine. I liked the look of the space, and the coffee was well made but a bit underpowered, flavourwise.

Ironically, given that I was visiting Nimmanhemin Road because it is where all the new bars, cafes and hostels are starting up, I lunched at the least trendy place on the road - the Hong Tauw Inn is probably the oldest establishment around, with dozens of old clocks lining the walls, and run by some rather ancient looking women. I thought if anyone was going to make a proper Khao Soi, this was the place - I was certainly happy with it. I took the photo with my phone, so it isn't that great.

One of my fixations when visiting Thailand is to get a donut and the overly sweet orange drink that most donut places seem to have, and you get this combination in malls. It is the only reason I visited MAYA, the new mall at the end of Nimmanhemin Road. Although I didn't actually find a donut shop, I was very impressed with the food court I found on the top floor - lots of little stalls, just like you'd find on the street.

Here's how the world looks from the top floor of MAYA, and a failry random photo as I can't actually remember what it is.

There's also a 24 hour co-working space - CAMP - which I wandered through but had no actual work to do so left, and went to the movies - Rogue Wars. By this time I was thinking of dinner, but that didn't work out too well for me. There were lots of nearly empty Indian, Italian and other foreign food restaurants but I wanted either an authentic Thai dinner or to go to a bar. In fact, I had a particular bar in mind - Beer Republic, which is a craft beer bar, but I never found it. The bars I did find were either packed or selling terrible versions of Thai food, and the nice Thai cafe I'd spotted closed as I walked in. So it was back to the hotel with what I could scrounge from the 7-11.

Posted by NZBarry 10:15 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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