Travel

Solo in Sri Lanka

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It’s 6am and the air is already thick with humidity. The sun has barely penetrated the horizon and a cluster of devoted surfers are tending to the waves. After all, the surf is always best in the morning. The rest of the beach remains dormant, aside from the handful of locals that are busy setting up their small dishevelled restaurants and board-hire stalls, ready to cater for the hundreds of tourists that will flock to Hiriketiya throughout the day.

The water licks the tips of my toes as I stand on the shoreline assessing the swell. Not too big, not too small, just right. After rummaging through my wallet trying to pull together the 500 rupee (approximately $4 AUD) that it costs to hire a board for an hour, I approach one of the locals and confidently ask him for a 7’10 fibreglass. He smiles and carefully picks the best of a battered-looking bunch of boards. “Perfect”, I say. The water is smooth, disturbed only by the sets of clean-breaking waves that come and go. I’m a mere novice compared to the group of seasoned surfers that are already occupying the water. I carefully position myself so as not to risk cutting any of them off accidently. God forbid if I did. I may be a rookie, but I’m experienced enough to know not to get between a surfer and their wave.

I sit propped up on the board, legs dangling loosely in the water, waiting in anticipation. After a couple of minutes have gone by a perfect wave begins to form in the distance. Determined not to make a fool out of myself I get into position and begin to paddle, remembering to keep my chest up just as the instructor taught me. As soon as the wave raises me up towards its crest I pop to my feet. Get this part wrong and you’ll be acquainting yourself with Mr Sea Urchin on the reef below. Fortunately, this time I get it right. With immense power, like that of a wild horse, the wave carries me towards the sun-blanched shore. Eventually, its white hooves begin crashing down beside me I decide to carefully kick out of the wave. I promptly drop down onto my stomach and begin paddling back out to sea, ready to do it all again.

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It’s been almost six months since I returned from my three week trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year, and despite the horrific terrorist attacks that took place over Easter, my view of the country has in no way been tainted. However, I must admit that if someone had asked me this time a year ago whether I would consider travelling to Sri Lanka, I would have told them no. Not because I thought that it was unsafe or dangerous, but because it had simply never been on my radar. But that all changed after spending a sleepless night scrolling through the internet looking up the ‘best places to travel in 2019’. According to the well-reputed travel site, Lonely Planet, that was Sri Lanka. After conducting a quick Google search I found that it was not the dull cricketing country that I had assumed it to be, but rather, a vibrant and alluring island paradise. I was sold. The next morning, running off about two-hours of sleep and far too much coffee, I booked my trip to Sri Lanka. The question was, would I come to regret my hasty, somewhat impulsive decision? Looking back now I can safely say that the answer is absolutely not!

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Upon arrival, I wasn’t sure what to expect but having spent three weeks there I can say with certainty that Sri Lanka is undeniably beautiful, which is hardly a surprise considering it is home to eight UNESCO world heritage sites. While the South boasts some of the most pristine beaches you will ever step foot on, travel further inland and you’ll come across temperate rainforests, rolling foothills and verdant tea plantations (lots of them). It’s almost as if you’ve entered an entirely different country. The people are incredibly friendly, their easy-going demeanour rubbing off on tourists as they pass through from one locale to the next. And of course the food, which was simply delightful (aside from the uncooked poached eggs I encountered at one point, but we’ll let that slide).

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I chose to travel to Sri Lanka alone. Why? Well, to be honest, because I didn’t really ask anyone if they wanted to join me during my temporary bout of hastiness and rash decision making. But in hindsight I think I’m glad that I chose to do the trip alone, because as cliché as it may sound, it gave me an opportunity to become well-acquainted with myself. I won’t deny that it was difficult at times, but those occasions were far fewer than those that I felt completely unencumbered by any sort of restrictions or expectations. So, if you’re thinking about travelling solo any time soon (which I highly recommend doing), here are a few things that I learnt along the way.

  1. Dining alone is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. However, if you are daunted by the thought of copping judgement from your fellow diners (which I can assure you won’t, because they honestly don’t care), then you can always take a book to read, journal to write in, or a podcast to plug into. At dinner, try and find a venue that has some form of live music or entertainment, and if you’re concerned about taking up a whole table to yourself, then simply sit at the bar. This will also give you a chance to make friends with the staff and maybe snag a cheeky beverage on the house!
  2. While travelling with a buddy is fun and comforting, it’s easier to rely on each other for company than to spark up conversation with a complete stranger. Travelling alone, on the other hand, forces you to make friends with other travellers and locals.
  3. You’ll learn to embrace your own company and eventually, you’ll grow to love it. The fact is that when you’re travelling solo you spend a lot of time with yourself. This is a good opportunity to learn more about who you are as a person, who you want to be, and the things you like and dislike about yourself (*insert image of beach sunset and a cheesy caption about finding yourself here).
  4. You get to make all the decisions and be as spontaneous as you want. For me, this was tough, because for anyone that knows me I am frustratingly indecisive (I’m literally incapable of ordering food at a café without first asking the waiter or waitress what they would recommend from the menu).
  5. Travelling alone isn’t necessarily an unsafe way to travel (unless perhaps you’re thinking of going to a country that is known for being dangerous, such as South or Central America). But, in a country like Sri Lanka, as much as my grandmother would say otherwise, so long as you have some common sense and vigilance, you should be A-Okay.
  6. You will feel lonely at times and this is completely normal, but these feelings will quickly be surpassed by the sense of empowerment that comes with travelling alone.
  7. A great way to ‘travel solo’ is to join a group tour. This gives you the chance to build relationships with people from all over the world. It’s also great because as well as seeing all the main tourist attractions you’ll also get the chance to take part in experiences that might not be available to other travellers. I spent the second half of my trip with Intro Travel, a company I couldn’t recommend highly enough. Their staff were passionate and experienced, the tour was well organised and incorporated a lot of different activities, the accommodation far exceeded expectations, and I met some amazing people who I’m still in touch with today.

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Recommendations

Stay

The Kip, Ahangama

A truly magical place, Phoebe and Seddy will go out of their way to take care of you and make sure that you have the best experience possible during your stay. Also be sure to check out their adjoining café which provides some of the freshest, tastiest vegan delights I’ve ever tried.

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The Verse Collective, Dickwella

If you’re looking for the ultimate hipster hang out, this is your place. Situated just five minutes away from Hiriketiya, The Verse Collective is not only a perfectly located beachfront hostel, it also has a spacious open-plan co-working space and a trendy café/bar which serves up Australian-style coffee (i.e. the best style of coffee).

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Layback Hostel, Weligama

A boutique surf hostel situated just five minutes from the Weligama beachfront, this is the place to stay if you’re looking to embrace the laid-back lifestyle of the local surfers.

Hangtime Hostel, Weligama

Salt House, Hiriketiya

Eat

Roti

While traditionally an Indian dish, the Sri Lankan’s have put their own spin on it, serving up pol roti (coconut roti). A simple flatbread made from flour, water and grated coconut, this is a great accompaniment to almost every meal.

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Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/roti_31237

Kottu

This was my favourite local dish. A traditional form of street food, Kottu is made with roti, which is fried and chopped up alongside a selection of ingredients and served with a decadent curry sauce. Think of a classic AB from the Blue and White café on O’Connell Street but replace the chips with roti and yiros meat with curry. Yup, it’s heaven!

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Source: https://www.theflavorbender.com/sri-lankan-chicken-kottu-roti-koththu/

Fresh Seafood

Even if you’re not a huge seafood fan, do yourself a favour and at least try it if you’re travelling along the coast of Sri Lanka. On one occasion my food came out about 20 minutes later than the rest of my group because the chef had to wait for the local fisherman to return with his morning haul. Fair to say I was happy to wait.

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Coconut Sambal (Pol Sambal)

A fresh coconut relish made from a blend of finely grated coconut, red onion, chilli, lime juice, salt and Maldive fish. This dish is often used as a garnish or a side dish.

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Source: https://www.196flavors.com/sri-lanka-pol-sambol-coconut-sambol/

Hoppers

Basically a Sri Lankan pancake, made from a mixture of rice flour, coconut milk and sugar. The batter is then fried in a small wok to create a bowl shaped pancake.

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Source: https://brandycreekestate.com.au/events/hoppers-buffet-dinner

Lamprais

Lamprais essentially means ‘lump rice’. It is a combination of spiced rice, spiced meat and sambol wrapped in a banana leaf parcel and steamed.

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Source: https://www.whimsicalchef.com/2017/09/sri-lankan-lamprais/

Any and every traditional curry that is on offer!

Don’t be afraid if there are some ingredients that you haven’t heard of before, that’s all part of the experience!

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See

Sigiriya Rock Fortress

Tea plantations (there are many to choose from)

The Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

Sea Turtles in Mirissa

The Nine Arches Bridge in Ella

Go/Do

Surfing in the South (Hiriketiya, Weligama, Ahangama)

If you’re looking for some top-notch surf instructors, get in touch with the guys at Layback. Thilina and his friendly crew are not only passionate surfers themselves, but are also extremely competent instructors. Whether you’re a complete beginner who has never touched a surfboard before or simply keen to improve your skills, they have you covered!

Climb Adam’s Peak or Little Adam’s Peak

Master the art of yoga

Treat yourself to an Ayurvedic message

Take a cooking class

Spend a day Galle, a fortified city founded by the Portuguese in the 16thCentury

Travel by Tuk Tuk

Take the world’s ‘most scenic train’ from Kandy to Ella.

Go on safari in Udawalawe National Park

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Finally, if you’re interested in travelling with Intro, check out their website here! (this is not sponsored, I just genuinely believe they are a great company to travel with).

Music

Rock ‘n’ Roll in Kabul: A story about the rise and fall of the music scene in Kabul.

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A gentle crooning echoes through the concert hall in accompaniment to the static hum of the Marshal stack that sits at the back of the stage. A crowd of three-thousand wait in anticipation as the next act prepares to come on. Today is the final day of the Sound Central Music Festival (SCMF), Afghanistan’s only alternative arts event. There is barely room to move amongst the sea of sweaty, mostly teenage bodies that fill the French Cultural Centre. It’s no Coachella, but in a country where all non-traditional music was banned between 1996 and 2001, this festival is a cathartic release for the youth of Afghanistan.

A deafening roar erupts as White City, the codename given by the UN to a city that is under a high-security threat, wander on to the stage. Their lead guitarist, Travis Beard, is an Australian photojournalist, better known for being the brains behind the festival. Dressed all in black, he dons an oversized bomber jacket over a faded Led-Zeppelin T-shirt. His jeans are ripped and frayed at the knee caps. Whether that’s ‘the look’ or the result of a night that got out of hand, we’ll never know.

Travis wastes no time and as soon as the rest of the band are in position he swings his cherry-faded Gibson over his shoulder and begins thrashing down on the strings like a mad-man. Small waves begin to rise from the sea of roiling bodies as the crowd jump up and down in unison. People are ferried back and forth atop the expanse of raised arms. Towards the front of the stage a tower three bodies high, looms over the rest of the audience, dubiously swaying from side to side with a concerning level of instability. At one point, a rogue fan attempts to lunge onto the stage, only to be blockaded by a thick Afghan security guard. The crowd bark and cheer with an infectious level of energy, which is reciprocated by Beard and his bandmates as they bound around on stage. Right now, all that matters is the music and the melodic riffs that resonate from Beard’s guitar.

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For Travis, the period between 2006 and 2012 were the “golden years”. During this time, the war was focused more towards the South, in cities like Kandahar and Arghandab, leaving the North largely untouched by the conflict. Subsequently, Kabul became a hub for the thousands of ambitious expats and aid-workers who flocked to the city looking for opportunity. The city fast became an expat bubble, or as private security officer, Elijah Berry, prefers to call it, the “Kabubble.”

“You’d have hordes of big burly US troops roaming the streets with AK47’s strapped over their shoulders, and then you’d have the dreamer peace-core ‘hippies’ that Afghanistan had become a mecca for,” explains Elijah.

However, despite all their differences, there was a common yearning for entertainment, especially on weekends. “People just started bringing their instruments into the country with them and playing small acoustic gigs at the local bars,” Elijah tells me. And so, the evolution of Kabul’s “underground” music scene was set in motion, a scene which was still very much in its infancy when Travis happened to stumble upon it shortly after his arrival in 2006.

Travis picked up his first guitar when he was 13 years old and played in several rock bands throughout high school. However, his interest in guitar began to wane after he discovered photography. Ironically, it was a career in photojournalism that first bought Travis to Afghanistan, where he rediscovered his passion for music. Within months, Travis had formed his first band, the Insurgents, which was mostly comprised of military personnel. The group would travel from one military base to the next, performing gigs on a Thursday night. The high turn-over rate within the military meant that there were constant changes being made to the band. “We’d go from having a helicopter pilot on drums one week to an infantry boy the next,” Travis says.

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Indeed, performing gigs in a country like Afghanistan did not come without its many frustrations. Travis recalls that the power was so unreliable that it was more common than not for it to cut out midway through a set, or for an amp to blow out during sound-check. But these common hiccups did little to discourage Travis and those alike, who were determined to keep the music scene alive. By 2007, bored with playing military gigs, Travis decided to leave the Insurgents behind. Within weeks, White City was born, comprising of English bassist and lead vocalist, Ruth Owen, Swedish drummer, Andreas Stefansson, and Travis himself on lead guitar.

Meanwhile, other expat bands such as The Internationals and The Ceilings of Nork had also begun to surface and were quickly building names for themselves amongst the local community. “It was incredible. Someone could go from being a highly regarded deputy ambassador by day to a beatnik drummer by night,” Travis says. Eventually, live music became so sought after that bars began organising legitimate events and investing their money into proper equipment and PA systems. Then, in early 2008, the first Afghan band popped up, Kabul Dreams. “That’s when things really started to get interesting,” Travis exclaims. “All of a sudden we saw that there was a local capacity to the scene, and it all just grew infinitely from there.”

Kabul Dreams is, perhaps, the countries greatest success story. Formed by the now 29-year-old front-man, Suleman Qardash, the indie rock group were quick to gain a loyal following. The success of their debut album, ‘Plastic Words’, which was recorded in Afghanistan using makeshift recording studios and borrowed equipment, led the band to California in pursuit of their musical dreams. The trio has since signed with an American record label and have played at major festivals such as South by Southwest. “In a country where contemporary arts had been suppressed for so long, the rise of Kabul Dreams was really an indication of the fact that the youth of Afghanistan wanted change, and wanted to be able to express themselves through music,” Travis says.

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Kabul Dreams: Image https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kabul_Dreams

As local talent continued to emerge out of the woodwork, Travis began toying with an ambitious idea: Afghanistan’s first-ever alternative arts and music festival. “It simply came down to the fact that we needed a bigger artistic platform,” he tells me. Despite having no experience in event management or festival planning, somehow it all came together, and in May 2011, the first SCMF was held at an open-air park just south of the city. Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge was security. “There was no promotion except for an SMS which was sent out on the morning of the festival with the time and location,” he explains. “It was the only way we could ensure that the Taliban would have the least amount of time to plan an attack.”

Despite a few minor technical glitches, the day was a success. A smorgasbord of creativity, the festival showcased work from some of the country’s most talented musicians, artists, photographers and filmmakers. By its third year, the festival had grown from one day to four and from one stage to three. But with this mounting success and popularity also came the greater risk of a security threat. In 2014, a difficult decision was made by Travis and his team not to run the festival for a fourth year. “It was just too dangerous and the last thing I wanted was for anyone to be harmed for the sake of music,” he explains.

Indeed, Travis had every right to be concerned. In 2013 the bubble that had once shielded Kabul burst, and the war that had devastated the rest of the country for years began to descend upon the city. One of the most ruthless attacks came in early 2013. The La Taverna du Liban was a popular UN security-approved restaurant frequented by expats. On the 17 January as a room full of unsuspecting diners sat down to their meals a man walked up to the entrance and blew himself up. Two more attackers followed, sporadically firing their assault rifles at anyone and anything. Twenty-one people were massacred at their tables that night.

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Source

This was the first in a series of escalating attacks against civilians. Not more than three months later, British-Swedish journalist, Nils Horner, was shot down in broad daylight by two gunmen in Kabul’s heavily policed diplomatic district. That same month, a group of Taliban militants stormed the Serena Hotel, killing nine civilians. Three weeks later, photojournalist Anja Neidringhaus, was shot point blank in the head by an Afghan police commander. Finally, on 11 December 2014, the French Cultural Centre was blown up by a suicide bomber during a theatre production. One person was killed and several injured. By the end of 2014, more foreign civilians had been killed than foreign soldiers. Suddenly Kabul was one of the most volatile and dangerous places on Earth. Concerned NGO’s began to pull their people out of the country and serious security restrictions were imposed on those that remained. Music was no longer the priority, survival was.

Now, Afghanistan “is in the worst state it has ever been in,” says Elijah. With fewer expats, less money in the economy, less of an ‘aid gravy-train’ and less of an audience, the music scene has been left to wither and wilt. “Of the four main local bands that once prospered here, all of them have now fled, taking their talent with them,” Elijah explains.

Travis remains optimistic that, one day, there will be another SMFC. But for now, the once vibrant music scene of Kabul has been laid to waste beneath the rubble in a country that has been plagued by violence and conflict for far too long.

Disclaimer: While this is a fact-based story, there are elements (mainly the description of the concert) that have been fictionalised.

 

Travel

Hong Kong, the city of dreams

 

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About three years ago my dad moved to the impressive metropolis that is Hong Kong for a once in a lifetime job opportunity. In the years since I have been fortunate enough to visit him on several occasions and each time I have fallen a little more in love with the place.

I have to admit, I was completely overwhelmed when I first arrived in the city. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The narrow streets are constantly teeming with people and you feel as though you could be swept away at any minute by a sea of bodies. It was hard not to feel slightly claustrophobic and engulfed by the concrete jungle at first, but this feeling didn’t last long as I quickly came to appreciate the unfamiliarity of it all.

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To me, Hong Kong embodies the idea of contrast. It is a melting pot of cultures with expats from all parts of the world making it a temporary (or permanent) place of residence. The city itself is home to hundreds of glamorous high-rise buildings, but amongst them, you will find alleyways dotted with shabby stalls selling tawdry trinkets and various other kinds of knickknacks. You’ll pass by quaint, age-old temples and stroll through local markets filled with exotic foods and smiling locals.

There is no doubt that one of the most iconic things about Hong Kong is its nightlife. Every evening you will be left in awe by a spectacular light show that illuminates the city. Across the harbour, you’ll find the streets of Kowloon ablaze with bright neon lights as the vibrant Temple Street Market comes to life. With an abundance of eateries to choose from, you’ll struggle to decide which gastronomic craving you wish to satisfy. But, whether it be a traditional egg tart purchased from a little street stall or an authentic plate of dim sum made by a culinary master, you’ll be left feeling all kinds of content. 

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Hong Kong is a truly remarkable city, and while there is still so much I am yet to experience, here are a few of my top recommendations if you ever get the chance to travel there for yourself.

My top recommendations for Hong Kong

Take a trip on the Aqua Luna. Kick back and relax with an alcoholic beverage of your choice as the traditional Chinese fishing boat – also known as a junk boat – cruises around the harbour. It’s a good opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and a perfect way to view the breathtaking light show that Hong Kong is known for.

Catch the star ferry to Kowloon and head to the award-winning Northern Chinese restaurant, Hutong, on a Sunday for an extravagant 18 course Feng Wei brunch. The restaurant is situated in the One Being building in Tsim Sha Tsui on the 28 floor (the view over the harbour looking back across Hong Kong island is pretty magnificent). You’ll be introduced to some Northern Chinese inspired delicacies such as the seared foie gras with Osmanthus-smoked coddled egg or the steamed bao filled with egg yolk custard. If you can manage, it’s definitely worth trying at least a bite of every dish, but some clear standouts for me included the sliced squid with freshly grated wasabi – the wasabi hits you when you least expect it and all of a sudden you feel as though someone has set a fire up your nostrils; and the Kung Po French cod fillet. Oh, and did I mention that it’s free flow, so drink up buttercup!

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Perhaps after you’ve ingested a week’s worth of food at Hutong, take a walk up the peak. At 552m above sea level, it boasts some truly stunning views of the vibrant city. If you’re not quite feeling like you can manage the walk, there is also the option to take the rickety peak tram to the top. Though given that it’s 125 years old I think I’d rather walk!

If you get the chance I would highly recommend heading to Repulse Bay on the other side of Hong Kong Island. The trip will only take about 15 minutes and yet you’ll feel like you’re in a completely different part of the world. The bay boasts some fine restaurants such as Lime-wood and Classified which are located right on the water’s edge so you can take in the glorious sunset while sipping on a mojito.

Finally, for some of the finest dim sum you will ever experience, make a booking for Dim Sum Library in Pacific Place on Hong Kong Island. Definitely try the Dan dan xiaolong bao, an explosion of flavour followed by a party in your mouth is guaranteed.

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