Amit Paranjape’s Blog

Sri Lanka Trip – 10 Interesting Memories

Posted in Travel by Amit Paranjape on February 10, 2010

We recently made a short 3 day trip to Sri Lanka. Thoroughly enjoyed the visit. Great Nature, Nice People, Good Food and Cost-Effective! Yes…with the current exchange rates – the prevailing prices for hotels, food, transportation, etc. seemed to be a lot cheaper than in India.

Also, in the increasingly painful international visa regulations, Sri Lanka is amongst the few countries where an Indian Passport holder can get a Visa on arrival, if travelling for tourism purposes (with a stay of under 30 days). So you can literally board a plane and get there. And note, the Chennai – Colombo flight roughly takes the same time as Mumbai – Goa.
 
In this blog post, I am highlighting 10 interesting memories from this trip. Frankly, we ran short on time. My recommendation is you plan for at least a 5-6 day trip. We are also looking forward to another trip there soon!

 

 
Old Cars/Vans & Repair Shops
 
Upon landing, as you head on the road from Colombo Airport to the city, you cannot help but notice a series of old-car repair shops. Various car brands (mainly Japanese) replacement chassis are laid out in the front. You also notice that the cars and mini-vans are a lot older than what you would see in India. I guess given the depressed tourist economy during the past 2 decades of civil war, not many new vehicles were imported. Hence these repair shops seem to thrive.
 
Traffic Discipline
 
Most roads are quite tiny, even by Indian standards. Even the major roads, like the Colombo Airport to City Highway, are 2 laned undivided roads. However, the traffic discipline is definitely a notch higher than in India. And the Helmet Rule is extremely well followed! In our 3 days there, we didn’t see a single motor-cycle rider or even the pillion rider, without a helmet. Honking is also quite uncommon (though not as uncommon as in EU/US).
 
Security
 
The long civil war, the Presidential Elections (we were there a week before the elections)  are probably the reasons why we witnessed a lot of security presence in Colombo. Add to that, our hotel was near the Central Business Area that houses a lot of Government Offices. The sight of security personnel with automatic weapons, can be a little disconcerting for a first time tourist!
 
 
Nuwara Eliya – Quaint Old Hotels
 
Nuwara Eliya is a fabulous hill station and an important tea plantation region in Sri Lanka, perched up at an altitude of over 6,000 feet. A 5 hour drive from Colombo through continuously winding roads gets you there. The landscape changes quite drastically as you ascend from the sea-level, into the mountain slopes lined up with tea plantations.
 
The British clearly loved this place and setup quite a few retreats here in the 19th century.  These include the summer residence of the British governor-general. This royal residence has now been converted to a beautiful hotel, quite aptly named ‘The Grand’. Upon entering it, you literally experience the grandeur of the British Era. In this remote place, they have built an amazing place with huge halls, lobbies and regal rooms. The Hotel has done a great job in maintaining the historic residence – with the artifacts, wooden floors, fire places and decorative glass windows.  The grand ball room is quite impressive.
  
This royal residence literally transferred me to that era, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between a similar residence in Pune – the British Governer’s mansion that is now the main building of the Pune University. Unfortunately, the Pune University Building is not anywhere in the same state as the Grand Hotel – given that both were probably identical in 1947.
 
We stayed at the St. Andrews Hotel – a much smaller hotel but equally beautiful. This was built initially as a residence by a Scotsman who was clearly a Golf Fan. No prizes for guessing the origin of the hotel’s name!
 
This hotel’s main lobby also dates back to 1875 and is very well-maintained. The multi-course European Dinner served at this seemingly remote Hotel/Town was simply exquisite! This hotel also has its own garden where they grow their own herbs and vegetables.
 
Nuwara Eliya – Tea Estates
 
Nuwara Eliya has many tea estates, and we visited one of the more prominent ones – Mackwoods Tea.
 
They provide a nice tour of the tea-making process.  They also have an excellent tea tasting room, as well as a great gift shop.
 
Shopping/Prices
 
While I am not much of a shopping enthusiast myself, couldn’t help noticing the attractive prices of various items: especially apparel. Two large stores/malls that we visited (recommended) in Colombo were: House Of Fashion and Odel.
 
Promenade by the sea  in Colombo
 
The central business area in Colombo has a beautiful promenade by the sea – somewhat like Mumbai’s Marine Drive. The major hotels (Taj, Intercontinental,Hilton, etc.) and Government Offices are in close proximity. There are street food vendors that sell seafood and other local snacks (no BhelPuri/Chaat here 🙂  ). This place is quite popular with tourists as well as locals.
 
Friendly People
 
Based on our experiences (many tourists I spoke with concur!) – Sri Lankans are nice and friendly people. Our first experience started at the airport. The immigration officer was very friendly – not a common experience 🙂 . Maybe we were there during the peak wedding season…wedding celebrations were everywhere. Our hotel had 3-4 wedding related events everyday. Got a chance to understand a bit about their unique wedding customs that differ by religion/ethnicity/etc. Though irrespective of these differences, the weddings were grand parties in general!
 
I asked our car’s driver about the cricket – clearly Sri Lankans are very passionate about cricket and their team. Was a bit surprised to hear that the most popular player in Sri Lanka right now is not Sangakara, Jayawardhane, Jayasuriya or Murali… Its Dilshan! Also, the most popular Indian cricketer in Sri Lanka right now is Sehwag.
 
Food
 
I am not any expert in Sri Lankan cuisine, but from what I sampled there, got an impression that there are distinct influences from South India and East Asia. I liked the Hoppers (a rice ‘Dosa’ like preparation, sometimes also made with rice and eggs) as well as String Hoppers (somewhat like thin rice noodles). The Curries were quite tasty and reminded me of the Thai/Malaysian Curries. No surprises that most major hotels have excellent selections of continental and Indian cuisines available.
 
The Historic City Of Kandy
 
We spent the least amount of time in Kandy, something we definitely need to rectify when we visit next. This historic city was the capital of Sri Lanka before the British Era began in 1815. There are many historical monuments, the star attraction being the old Palace. We heard that the botanical garden there is also extremely impressive – unfortunately, didn’t have time to visit.
 
 
Notes
 
Photo Credits: Sarika Phatak
 
Useful links about Sri Lanka:
 
 
 
 
 

 

10 Ways In Which Kokan (Konkan) Has Changed Over The Past Two Decades

Posted in Travel by Amit Paranjape on December 6, 2009

A typical Kokan Coastline

  

 (Image Credit: Wikipedia)   

Recently, I got a couple of opportunities to travel to Kokan (I have no idea how the term ‘Konkan’ in English originated. I guess it was the British who started spelling it this way. Going by its Marathi pronunciation, it should be ‘Kokan’ and not ‘Konkan’). These were my first trips to Kokan after over 20 years! Needless to say, I noticed quite a few changes. This blog is an attempt to highlight some. Note I am focusing this on the Kokan region of Maharashtra, and not the entire Kokan region on the western coast of India.     

1.  Kokan Railway        

For a long time, the Kokan region was lagging behind rest of Maharashtra in growth and development. I think Kokan Railway was a seminal event in the transformation of Kokan, which is now well and truly underway. After many years of planning and discussions, this impressive civil engineering project was finally completed in 1998, with the first train being flagged off on the Republic Day. I have not yet travelled on this rail route, but hope to do so soon. Some of the bridges and tunnels on the Kokan Railway look quite spectacular.  The Kokan Railway website has some very useful information www.konkanrailway.com .    

Konkan Railway Bridge

  

 (Image Credits: Wikipedia)   

2.  Roads/ Bridges       

Quite a few new roads (state highways and national highways) and bridges have been built over the past 2 decades. (Though like every other infrastructure issue in India, a lot more still lot more needs to be done!). The Rajapur – Ratnagiri – Ganpatipule coastal state highway is a great example. Many big and small creek bridges have been constructed. Distances that took hours to cover now take minutes. If you look at the Kokan geography, there are many small creeks that separate villages and towns. In the past, a trip to a neighbouring town took a long time since there was a need to circumnavigate this water body. Not anymore. Ganpatipule to Ratnagiri time is down to less than 45 min from the previous nearly 2 hours.This coastal highway provides many stunning views of the Arabian Sea and really reminded me of the Pacific Coast Highway in California (just that the road quality has some room for improvement…).       

3.  Television and Communications        

During my last trip to Kokan in 1989, the satellite TV and Cable revolution had not yet happened. Hence TV coverage was very limited. Very few folks had those large dish antennas, required to receive INSAT transmission of Doordarshan. Now, thanks to Cable TV and Satellite Dishes – TV coverage is available in the remotest of the villages. Same is true with mobile telephones coverage.  One interesting, yet a little different example I can cite here is that of my car GPS navigation system. Was quite skeptical of using it in Ratnagiri and Kokan, but was amazed to see that it had a comprehensive database and turn by turn directions for Ratnagiri Roads and Points of Interest!       

4.  Tourism       

Though Kokan is no where near Goa in terms of tourist volume, the railway and better roads have helped substantially in improving the tourism. Many new hotels and resorts have come up. But still the quality and standard of most needs to improve. Ganpatipule has been transformed from a small coastal village and temple town, to a big tourist hub. Talking about modern tourism –  the famous Ganpati Temple at Ganpatipule has a prominent sign – www.ganpatipule.co.in This is a nice website with lot of good information.      

5. Development and maintenance of heritage structures and temples       

Most probably driven by cultural tourism, I noticed a big improvement in the upgradation of facilities and maintenance work done around heritage structures and temples. I visited a few that were over 1000 years old and were very well maintained.       

6.  Economy       

Once good infrastructure is in place, the economy is bound to improve.  This is clearly evident. Compared to the 1980s, the area looks much better off. Still, the economic activity and prosperity gap, is evident when you climb up from Kokan via Amba Ghat into the Sugarcane rich rural Western Maharashtra. Maybe Kokan would bridge that gap in the coming decade. I noticed a big increase in number of bank branches. Even the smallest towns had a prominent bank location – a clear sign of economic progress.      

7.  Urbanization       

I remember in 1979, how Ratnagiri looked like a village. That changed a bit when I next visited in 1989. However in my most recent trip – the changes have been drastic. Ratnagiri now increasingly looks like a small city, with 4 laned divided roads, large buildings, markets, factories, restaurants, hotels, etc. Chiplun has also become an industrial town.       

8.  Agriculture       

Cash crops are booming in Kokan, clearly led by Mangoes. I noticed a big increase in organized mango farming over 100s of acres of land.       

9.  Education       

Like elsewhere in rural Maharashtra, the spread of education in villages seemed quite prominent. In every small village we drove through, we saw a bunch of primary and secondary school kids en route to/from their schools. Similarly in urban and semi-urban areas, many colleges have also sprung up.       

10.  Industry       

Many new industries have come up in Kokan. Chiplun is becoming a chemical / pharma hub of Kokan.  While driving to Rajapur, we saw a massive new Tubes Plant that is coming up just 10 km south of Ratnagiri. The much debated Dabhol power plant is also now functional (though I am not sure if it is at 100% capacity). The small Mirai port near Ratnagiri is also undergoing big upgrades.

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