Sail Rock is a small rock pillar north of Ko Pa Ngan, and perhaps the most popular diving site here. Fish are so plentiful that they formed tornadoes around me so large that they obscured the light from the surface. I was hovering in huge clouds of silver and yellow fish, among them barracudas a meter long. Visibility was excellent.
Sail Rock has a chimney: divers enter at a depth of 18m, and ascend along an irregular shaft to 6m. Really too bad that these were my last dives; tomorrow I’ll leave the island.
It’s easy to shock the locals: I claim to be American and ask where to stow my harpoon and explosive-tipped bolts. Before I actually started diving, most of what I knew about it was from watching James Bond movies, and you never know when you need to blow a shark or enemy submarine out of the water. But this is not a joke that Thais appreciate , diving is all about conservation.
The island of Ko Samui itself is not very exciting anymore. When I came here for the first time over 15 years ago, it was a simple paradise with few luxuries. Now resorts block access to most of the large beaches, there’s a KFC and a McDonald’s, and everyone drives around in obscenely big pickup trucks. When probing the locals, what they complain about most is out-of-control construction and – loud Russian tourists.
Many of the best diving sites are around Ko Tao, the smallest of the three large inhabited islands here. My dive boat was fairly large (larger than the one in the photo), with a lower “wet” deck for the equipment and an upper “dry” deck for rest, meals, and sleeping.
Diving is mostly corals, but they have also sunk various concrete structures and seeded them with corals to create artificial reefs. There are hollow concrete boxes and suspended hoops for practicing buoyancy skills, but also some steel wire structures resembling boats and houses, concrete sculptures, even stair masters and weight racks, and a family of toilet bowls with their seats gently flapping in the current.
At a depth of 30m lies an old warship, also deliberately sunk there to create a reef. Many fish have already made it their home. Divers pose for pictures at the cannon, and there’s an actual line of divers waiting to swim through the bridge of the ship. Unfortunately the no-decompression time at that depth is quite short – the deeper you go, the more air you use.
I’ll post some underwater pictures later.
Samui is all about beaches and water sports. Tomorrow I’ll leave on a dive boat for a few days, seeing various parts of the islands.
Colombo is Sri Lanka’s largest city, and it’s pretty useless as a tourist destination. Nothing much to see there, just asphalt, heavy traffic, polluted air, highways and train tracks that block most of the feeble ocean beach, and no sights or even restaurants, unless you count KFC and other foreign fast food joints in the various mall food courts.
They do have a decent National Museum with exhibits and good English descriptions of Polonnaruwa and other sites that I had seen, and the Pettah neighborhood is a picturesque grid of streets packed with small shops and frenetic activity. The eastern end is where they sell sacks of onions, potatoes, and other vegetables, and every few meters I was called in to chat and take pictures. Very friendly people.
But perhaps Colombo’s nicest attraction is the international departure lounge at the airport, where I am writing this. Chatted with some airforce guys while waiting, and we performed a very Indian ritual: he now has a Berlin ballpoint pen, and I have a Sri Lanka Airforce pen. How’s that for a souvenir.
A dagoba is not, in fact, Yoda’s swamp retirement home. It’s a domed shrine, usually holding some Buddhist holy object. Elsewhere they are known as stupas, chedis, chörten, or by other names. The archaeological zone of the town of Anuradhapura has two of the highest, at up to 74m, but other than that it’s no match for Polonnaruwa. The ruins here are more of the foundations-with-leaning-pillars kind. You need a lot of imagination to see a palace in something like that. Greek visitors will know what I mean.
Lunch can be an elaborate affair with rice and a selection of different vegetables and curries. The locals mash them together with their fingers; tourists get spoons. They are quite fond of deep-fried chicken pieces. Overall, Sri Lanka’s cuisine can’t touch India’s.
There was a volcano once at Sirigiya. It eroded away long ago but a 350m tall basalt plug that was the magma chamber still stands. Naturally a Buddhist meditation place was built on top sometime around the 5th century, and now there’s tourists crawling all over it. Fortunately, I was there before the crowds arrived.
There are stairs leading up part of the way; the rest is steel stairs, walkways, and a pair of spiral staircases that allow a nice view of the sheer rock face below your feet. Halfway up are some amazingly well-preserved paintings, plus ancient and modern graffiti on a wall alongside the paintings. Plus ça change…
The view from the top is stunning. Much of this part of Sri Lanka is a national park, and there are forests, lakes, and mountains all around with little evidence of civilization – with the exception of a huge shiny white Buddha in the middle of the forest.
Left the mountains to see Sri Lanka’s ancient ruins, beginning with Polonnaruwa. There is an extensive site with many large monuments, most dating back 800-1000 years. There are palaces, Buddhist stupas and shrines, but also the foundations of hospitals, monasteries, and even market stalls, giving a good sense of the layout of the ancient city.
It’s not as grand as Angkor’s big signature temples, but some of the monuments are enormous. Among the biggest are a 54-meter brick stupa, a standing Buddha in a huge temple building, and numerous palaces and shrines. A lot of the brick structures have been repaired in modern times; this is documented in an excellent museum attached to the site.
Ceylon is the name the British used for Sri Lanka. Their tea plantations are still here, scenically covering the hills and valleys of Sri Lanka’s mountain region. Next time you buy an expensive small package of exquisite Ceylon tea, think about how it was scooped up from a huge pile on a factory floor here.
Ella’s main landmark is Ella Rock, a mountain towering five hundred meters above Ella. Getting there requires walking a few km on the train tracks. At home I’d be afraid of TGVs at 350 km/h, but here the trains are slow and everyone does it. In fact several restaurants can not be reached any other way. The climb up to the top of Ella’s Rock is quite strenuous, and the path markings strategically vanish where the guides are waiting to intercept tourists. For winter in the mountains, it was very hot.
The view from the top is fantastic. I sat with my feet dangling down the 400m vertical cliff that faces Ella, admiring the views up and down the valley. A few tall trees below conspire to give a sense of height. It’s not as dangerous as it sounds because the rocks up there slope up.
There’s a train from Kandy that scenically winds its way up and down Sri Lanka’s Hill country. The views of the tea plantations in the steep valleys are fantastic, but the train isn’t - it’s so packed with people that it makes the Tokyo metro look like a golf course. I am amazed that nobody fell out the open doors. I managed to get half a seat after standing, pressed to other people, for three hours.
Interestingly, most tourists here are French. I met one today who lives just down the road from my old apartment in Marseille. I speak more French here than English.
The town of Ella, my destination today, is just a sleepy little village in the mountains where two roads meet. There are a few simple guesthouses, most with only a few rooms; mine has two. Regrettably most of them serve western food, who comes to Asia to eat pizza?
Kandy is up in the mountains of Sri Lanka. Not sure I like it much - lots of traffic, bus diesel fumes, and very narrow sidewalks with fences on the sides so cars aren’t bothered by human obstacles. They clearly don’t want pedestrians.
But otherwise Sri Lanka feels like India 2.0. Much cleaner, far more organized, neater buildings, no visible poverty (so far), almost no honking. These people even blink their indicator lights before turning! That would be absurd in India.
Kandy does have a tooth, and a huge beautiful temple built to house the tooth. You can’t actually see the tooth, it’s enshrined in gold vessels which are also hidden from view. It is said that whoever has the tooth, rules Sri Lanka. You are not allowed to have your photo taken in front of the tooth. The tooth, you see, is Buddha’s, saved from his funeral pyre.
Trivandrum is a major transport hub and international airport in southern India, but it doesn’t have very much to offer to tourists. The main temple is closed to non-binding and the palace next door is closed to everyone, except the museum.
So we went to Kovalam for the day. There is some debate on which town has the better beaches, Varkala our Kovalam, but I favor Varkala. Despite the pizza-souvenir-massage circus, the views from the cliff promenade make it much more scenic, it has the better beaches, and the Indian food I had is equally terrible in both. Kovalam is quieter, there are few backpackers there.
Kanyakumari sits at India’s southernmost point, and gets its fame from being the place where the Arab Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal meet. People say that only here you can see dawn and sunset at the same point, a statement that needs so much qualification that it really doesn’t mean much. Still, Kanyakumari is a pleasant city with lots to see: a gleaming big cathedral, two islands with a temple and a huge statue, a Kumari temple that would be an appropriately gloomy setting for a Lara Croft movie, and lots of markets and restaurants. Interestingly, there are many Indian tourists but few westerners.
We got there by train, another very Indian experience. It’s crowded yet cavernous, the windows are small and barred, and partially covered with what looks like blast shutters. A lot of iron goes into these trains. Ours had over twenty cars, it looked endless.
Varkala’s beaches have become a major attraction. The main beach is huge, with fine white sand, warm water, good surf, and lifeguards waving red flags that are cheerfully ignored by everyone. Most swimmers are men; if women go into the water they are fully dressed and stay at the edge. India is still quite conservative.
There’s a high cliff behind the beach, and a promenade along the edge of the cliff. Along the promenade there’s lots of cheap accommodation, pizza restaurants, souvenir shops (most Tibetan, for unclear reasons), and other places I’d much rather avoid when travelling. Fortunately it does quiet down a lot further down the promenade. Tourists, apparently, don’t like to walk more than absolutely necessary.
Spent much of the day on a ferry from Alleppey to Kollam, another town down the coast. The ferry uses only inland canals and lakes.
On arrival, we got into a procession with brightly lit animatronic Gods on floats, drummers, dressed-up people with oil lamps, torches, and several elephants. All with incredibly loud Indian music from tortured loudspeakers. It’s called the Devi festival.
The big attraction on Kerala’s coast is backwater touring, and Alleppey is ground zero for it. When you arrive by bus, touts will descend on you brandishing beautiful but faded pictures of houseboats. The iconic Kerala houseboat looks like a huge wicker basket mounted on a barge, but these aren’t actually the best way to see the backwaters because they can only travel the big canals, like a convoy of monster trucks on a freeway.
We got a Sikkara instead. That’s a small narrow boat with an outboard motor on one side, a sun roof, and a few seats. It can go where the big boats can’t, where village life is undisturbed by the wicker basket behemoths. Sikkaras are slow but quiet; in five hours we could see only a small part of the enormous network of canals, rivers, and lakes. Sikkara tours cost a small fraction of proper houseboat tours because tourists are stupid.
Alleppey is a town on the coast, south of Cochin. It has nothing to do with Aleppo. Alleppey is mostly known as the best place to explore Kerala’s backwaters, an extensive network of waterways spanning thousands of kilometers. While the hills are dry and cool, the coast is hot and humid.
Getting there involved another six hours in Kerala’s crowded public buses, except this time it was downhill from an altitude of 1000m so it went much faster. The driver didn’t drive so much, we hurtled, sometimes a hand’s width from slower or oncoming traffic. This is easy and safe because everybody has a loud horn. Another one of those essential Indian experiences, it just wouldn’t be the same thing if there were such things as safety distances, speed limits, or fear of turning into oncoming traffic. Traffic laws are for wimps. Bus drivers are the kings of the road because of their size and mass, and they know it.
Alleppey is a mid-size city with a layout defined by two parallel rivers, where the boats wait for tourists. We’ll rent one tomorrow. On the sea side end there’s a wide beach with a ruined pier, good for watching the sunset.
Up in the hills of Kerala they are growing tea since British colonial times. Nothing is ever flat here, and tea plantations cover the rolling hills like bright green pillows. Women hand-pick the tips of the plants for white tea and the top leaves for green tea, then someone clips the rest with shears for “ordinary” tea.
Of course they have a tea museum where they crowd tour groups into a small room to show them a movie with sappy music to explain how wonderful life was for the tea workers since the British brought tea and civilization to this poor land.
We actually went all the way to the top of the highest mountain in southern India, named Top Station with a distinct lack of imagination, in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. Everything is very relaxed and pastoral up in these hills - until we came with our onomatopoeically named tuk-tuk, that is.
Oh, and the tea they serve up there is excellent.
The Coast of southern India is hot and humid, even in February. This was perceived as unsatisfactory by the British when India was part of their empire, because British weather is not like that. So they moved inland to the “hill stations”. So did we today.
That meant a long tuk-tuk ride to Ernakulum, the commercial part of Cochin which holds no attractions whatever. Then a bus to Adimali, one of those local jobs, all hand-welded with no glass in the Windows and way too many seats per square meter. Five hours, but it wasn’t boring for a minute.
Another tuk-tuk brought us to our resort, which we promptly left for its much nicer neighbor, the Green Shades with its spice garden. Great location and views of the valleys and forests. Banana trees and orchids grow like weeds here.
The long tuk-tuk drive from the airport to Fort Cochin early in the morning brings back memories of South India. The long lines of gaudily decorated trucks and tuk-tuks (three-wheelers) with their “sound horn” signs, the stained concrete and rusty metal, and the Indian spices in the air… The ferry that took us across the bay was exactly as grungy as an Indian ferry is supposed to be.
Fort Cochin, as cities in South India go, is surprisingly pleasant, with narrow and uncharacteristically clean streets, and many souvenir shops but it’s the end of the season so it’s all very relaxed. Apart from the colonial architecture, Fort Cochin doesn’t have many monuments, so they make the most of what they have. On the beach are huge Chinese fishing nets suspended from cantilever that are lowered into the water, then raised to catch fish. Mostly they catch tourists now though.