Travel Tales: Sri Lanka Family Tour, December 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

I can count on one hand the number of family vacations I’ve been on. For most of my formative years, my family’s financial circumstances and the sixteen hour days, 362 days of the year that my parents worked in the takeaway shop meant that they couldn’t justify taking the time or money to go on holiday.

We took precisely two family holidays between 1991 when we arrived in Australia and 2004 when I turned 18. Once in 1998 when I finished primary school and my parents decided to go back to Hong Kong and Cixi to see our family. And once in 2004 when I finished high school and my parents decided to do the same thing again.

That was the last time I travelled with my whole immediate family.

Since my mother passed away, my father has been travelling more to see our family overseas – partly I think, to escape an empty house. What it does mean is that he’s become more comfortable with the idea of taking time off to travel and see different parts of the world.

Travel is of particular appeal to my father when he can do it with his loved ones. So not just myself, my husband and my brother but our extended family – my aunts, uncles, cousins. And so, before long, our planned family trip to Sri Lanka for my cousin’s wedding turned into a larger and longer family tour around the island in a big tour bus.

Our tour group numbered 23 people in all and included two sets of aunts and uncles, cousins, cousin’s partners, family friends, and our new Sri Lankan relatives. The logistics of travel with a group of that size will always be difficult as you try to cater to everyone’s preferences – which naturally, are very diverse. The difficulties are then amplified when you’re travelling in a country like Sri Lanka where everything runs on ‘island time’ and the travel industry is still very much in its infancy. Add in the fact that the tour guide will try to bend to everyone’s wishes to be polite rather than ruling the tour group with an iron fist as is usually warranted with a group of that size – and it’s a real perfect storm.

It would be fair to say that the first few days were not without their hiccups. Veteran travellers in the group wanted to have more street food and more authentic non-tour-group experiences. Trying to take everyone on that authentic journey is near-impossible when you’re eating at small un-airconditioned stalls that can’t cater adequately for a tour group of our size. On the flip side, the older members of our group really struggled with the oppressive heat and humidity of Sri Lanka, and found it difficult to stay out of air-conditioning for much more than an hour. You can’t see much of the country from air-conditioned hotel rooms and tour buses. Finding that balance between the two opposing dichotomies was an interesting experience.

While the logistical aspects of a big family group tour had its challenges, there were definite highlights to the trip as well. My own personal highlight was a twilight safari tour we did in Kaudulla National Park where we saw herds of elephants by the water, birds in flight, and even a fox feeding on a carcass. Interestingly, one of the herds of elephants was moving around and mingling with a herd of cows that had once been domesticated but had escaped into the national park years ago.

I also enjoyed the time spent on a train to Nuwara Eliya (motion sickness not withstanding) – an old blue train winding its way through lush green forests and jungles, past distant waterfalls and into tea plantation country with curved waves of tea plants lining the hills as far as the eye can see. The time in Nuwara Eliya itself with its beautiful Colonial-era architecture was particularly pleasant with the higher and cooler climate proving to be a nice respite from the humidity elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

I’m a big nerd for cultural and historical facts as well – so I enjoyed visiting temples and the ruins of ancient Sinhalese cities. I would have preferred more of that style of historical tour to be honest, but that kind of learning-based tour wasn’t to everyone’s taste so we cut short visits to some places where I would have liked to spend more time. There’s always next time!

One final highlight – visiting and climbing Sigiriya, the site of a former palace of a dictator Sinhalese king, Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura. It is breathtaking in sheer physical size and you feel a real sense of achievement when you manage to climb all the way to the top of the rock. What I enjoyed though was the history that you could see in every part of the grounds – from the foundations of the ancient water gardens and palaces to the crude wall paintings hidden halfway up the rock. Hearing the details of the story of this dictator king was a real highlight, and helped to bring some of Sri Lanka’s history to life.

Food-wise, after a few missteps with attempting to feed 23 people at streetside stalls, we ended up eating primarily at air-conditioned, hygienic and overpriced restaurants that could cater for large tour groups. While sometimes that meant Sri Lankan curries (some of my go-to favourite options were the stir-fried kang kong and an eggplant dish called Brinjal Moju), other times it meant having a slightly bastardised Western-style meal. Not ideal, but practical…and if I’m being honest, even in those tame tour-friendly restaurants, I found it hard to have a bad meal!

At the end of the day, whatever challenges we faced along the way are the same challenges that you might face with your family under any circumstances – no matter if it’s on holiday or at home. Finding that balance between generational and personal preferences is what family relationships are all about.

I wouldn’t give up the trip for anything. Looking back now, or in five, ten or twenty years time I know that there will be only one thing that comes to my mind – the quality time I got to spend with my extended family. As K and I start to look towards the next stage of our lives and the possibilities of starting our own family, opportunities for being with extended family will begin to fade away. I’m grateful for the time that I had with them – heaven knows I didn’t get to spend enough quality holiday time with my mother before she passed away.

Family Wedding in Galle, Sri Lanka

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

I thought I had an elaborate year of getting married in 2015, what with our wedding banquet in China, the actual wedding ceremony and a reception. Then my cousin comes along with a registry ceremony, a later ceremony, a reception, and then a full wedding banquet in Galle, Sri Lanka, where his wife is from. Check and mate! 

The wedding banquet is why we went to Sri Lanka in the first place. Myself, K, my father, my brother, two sets of aunts and uncles, my cousin and his wife, another cousin and her boyfriend, an older cousin and his wife, an aunt-in-law, another family friend…I think I’m losing track of everyone! Suffice it to say that we were a large group of Chinese people in Sri Lanka. Ten years ago that would have been a strange sight, but as more and more Chinese tour groups visit Sri Lanka, we were just one of many such groups.

More about the actual Sri Lanka tour in the next blog entry!

We started our stay in Sri Lanka in Galle with a free morning and afternoon to explore Galle Fort – photos of which you can see below. Galle is an absolutely stunning old town and you can see both the Portuguese and Dutch influences in the main buildings of the fort. My cousin’s wife’s surname holds these same Portuguese influences, deriving from the Portuguese surname Alves, or river bed. The history of Galle Fort is etched on every stone and it’s been surprisingly well-preserved – no doubt thanks to the conservation efforts that began not long after the 2004 tsunami which devastated the area.

Outside of the fort, the town is both frenetic and relaxed at the same time – frenetic in the rush of activity around central areas like the bus station where people tried to convince me to step onto buses going to faraway destinations I had no intention of visiting, and relaxed in more residential areas where you can look out of the window and see an overgrown jungle and monkeys in the trees. It’s a strange dichotomy, and one that makes Galle such an interesting place to visit.

The wedding reception was held at the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel, one of the most luxurious hotels in Galle with a fantastic view of ocean from the bar and restaurant. The hotel was designed by the legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and the eye-catching winding staircase sculpture depicts an epic battle between the Portuguese and the Sinhalese. Architecturally, the hotel is a stunner – I just wish we’d had the foresight to book a room at the hotel as it would have been a fantastic place to stay.

The reception wasn’t what I had stereotypically imagined – it certainly wasn’t the three-day long celebrations of colour, music, and dancing that I had expected. There wasn’t a Poruva ceremony as per a traditional Sinhalese wedding, and I was told this was because my cousin and his wife had been officially married in Australia and so they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) perform the ceremony in Galle. What they did do instead was the Homecoming ceremony, with candle-lighting, cake-cutting, Sinhalese folk dancers and musicians and most importantly – food. Lots and lots of food!

We had a great time meeting our new extended family who we can now bewilderingly introduce to people as ‘my cousin’s wife’s cousin’s sister-in-law’s brother”, taking lots of photos, eating lots of food, and then tearing it up on the dance floor. I’m only disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to experience the full Sri Lankan wedding ceremonies and festivities…anyone Sinhalese planning on getting married soon and want to send me an invitation?

Travel Tales: Singapore, December 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

When we made the decision to go to Sri Lanka for my cousin’s wedding, it was pretty much a no-brainer that we would stopover in other destinations (Singapore and Malaysia) on the way there and back. Breaking up a long flight with two shorter flights makes sense right? 

Well it did. And then it didn’t. The afternoon before we were due to fly out, Jetstar cancelled our flight to Singapore and calling their customer service centre for a replacement flight gave us two options:

  1. A direct flight to Singapore three days after we were supposed to arrive, at which point we would have to leave for Sri Lanka almost immediately and not have time to enjoy Singapore at all
  2. Flights to Singapore on the day that we were supposed to leave….via a layover in Hong Kong. We essentially doubled back to Singapore after flying to Hong Kong, adding around eight hours to the overall journey.

Jetstar are known as Shitstar for a reason.

A crappy start to the holiday was thankfully improved with each day we spent in Singapore. While we all suffered in the humidity (my family are not summer people), it was good that we were able to start acclimatising to the humidity of South-East Asia in the relative comfort of Singapore and its air-conditioned malls – we certainly wouldn’t be able to retreat to air-conditioned comfort quite as easily during our stay in Sri Lanka! 

That’s not to say that we didn’t venture out of the malls of Orchard Road, because we certainly did. We spent one day in the Gardens by the Bay, the futuristic vast nature park that they’ve somehow managed to squeeze into densely-populated Singapore. We went on the Singapore Flyer which I’d never been on before, and managed to time our visit so that we had an entire pod to ourselves, sandwiching in nicely between two overcrowded pods full of Chinese tour groups.

The highlights though, were when we just spent time wandering around different parts of Singapore, sampling local fare at different markets. Having only visited Orchard Road, Chinatown, Little India and Tiong Bahru, I feel as though we’ve only scratched the surface of what those Singaporean districts can offer us…let alone, what the rest of Singapore has to offer! What about areas like Kampong Glam, Katong, Geylang…and I’ve never even been to Sentosa Island!

I guess we’re lucky that Singapore is so (comparatively) close to Australia, and that it would make for a great stopover to wherever we may chose to go on our next trip. Over the course of a couple of years worth of two or three day stays in Singapore, we may finally get to see, and eat, more around the country. Singapore…I’ll always be back.