21 years car free, 11 years serving on transit boards helping SF and Caltrain move forward, and now, traveling the world. Happy doesn’t begin to describe how I feel when traveling with my hubby TravelRich.
We are not foodies. We don’t seek out the ‘of the moment’ restaurants or cooking trends. But we do love to eat, and to find small mom and pop places to spend our money. When we’re in travel mode, or bicycle touring, we eat out just about every night. And afternoon. Mornings too, if the hotel doesn’t have breakfast available. So that’s a lot of searching for and sitting down to meals.
Tteokbokki is chewy rice cakes cooked in a red, spicy broth. This version at a place called Hang Out in the charming Ikeseon-dong area, a maze of little streets with so many different shops and restaurants, was more of a beer snack meal than the smaller street vendor versions we saw later on. This version had Sundae sausage and cheese as well as the rice cakes.
After a visit to Dongdaemun Design Plaza, the amazing museum complex designed by architect Zaha Hadid, which is well worth a visit, we went over to the Gwangjang Market to walk around and ogle the food on offer.
You know how people like to talk about getting out of your comfort zone? Food is a fast and easy way to do that. I don’t consider myself an adventurous eater, Rich is willing to try anything but I’m a lot more picky, or cautious. And, I don’t like seafood all that much. I’ll happily have sushi or sashimi, but most cooked seafood gets a pass when I’m choosing my meal. However, once we got bicycling on our trip from Seoul to Busan, I really did have to eat what we could get. Whether it be from the ubiquitous convenience stores, or at a restaurant.
Bike touring lets us see a country in detail, and forces us to figure out how to feed ourselves. Korean convenience stores are easy to find, and although I prefer Japanese convenience stores, we did well finding things that appealed to us.
So, how about when the food finding is not so easy. Or not so successful? Or you get to town kind of late and not much is open? Then it’s chicken and beer places. We had to resort to chicken and beer places twice, on long days. They are known as Chimaek. From chikin ‘fried chicken’, and maekju ‘beer’.
There was an evening when we pulled into town on our bikes, in Gumi, and planned on eating at the food court of a large grocery store chain, E-Mart. Food courts in Korea are good. We were looking forward to it. We checked in to our nice hotel, unpacked, showered, and strolled over with plenty of time for dinner. It was closed. There was a mysterious local holiday that no one but the management of the E-Mart seemed to know about, or care about. So, grumbling and hangry, we headed back to our hotel, and then spotted the sports team from the hotel lobby at a small place down the block and went in.
Once we reached Busan and were off the bikes and in a city it was easier to search out restaurants and plan ahead. While cycle touring you are often at the mercy of how far you were able to ride, and what time you get to town, and how much energy you have to find and walk to a restaurant. But with a few days to explore you can find what you actually want. Rich was happy to find that Korea has had a renaissance of craft beer brewing in the past decade or so.
Korean food is quite varied. Most people know Korean BBQ and bibimbap, but there is a lot more to discover.
We took the train from Busan to Seoul and stayed for a week in an apartment which meant we could cook our own meals. As much as we enjoy eating new foods, it gets stressful and tiring to find restaurants, translate menus, and constantly try to figure out what goes with what – does this go in here or do you dump this into there? Our first lunch in our apartment after a visit to the big E-Mart grocery store was grilled cheese sandwiches.
Our apartment in Seoul for our last week in Korea was out in a neighborhood. While at first glance during the walk from the Jungnang metro station it appeared to be a lot of tire shops, new apartment buildings, and little clothing stores, the small back streets proved to be full of restaurants and places to buy groceries. It was easy to wander around and pick a place a for dinner.
Seoul was fantastic for hiking, as we covered in the previous post, and it was also fantastic for simply walking into a restaurant and getting a delicious meal with very low stress or awkwardness. The owners were always nice and welcoming. They would help us out when we were obviously confused about how to proceed with our meal, and payment was always easy – just get up and walk to the cash register and tap your credit card. No tipping, and taxes already included. Another nice thing about walking up to pay is that you don’t feel guilty having left some of the little plates of pickled things. Our clean your plate mentality is hard to break.
Korea is famous for its barbecue. That’s the one thing most travelers might know about Korean food – barbecue. And the many barbecue restaurants are super popular with locals. It’s a fun thing to do with a group of family or friends. The ubiquitous restaurants are easy to spot with the ventilation hoods over the table grill. We decided on our last night eating out in Seoul to finally try a barbecue place. We’re not really big meat eaters, but thankfully as with any meal in Korea there’s no worry about getting plenty of veggies.
We had a great time in Korea. The people, the food, the biking, all of it exceeded our expectations. We are in San Francisco now, after a lovely family visit in Colorado, and we head back to France soon to pick up new touring bikes in Germany and then out for cycle touring!
We knew that Koreans love to hike. Even if we hadn’t known that before coming to Seoul the sheer quantity of hikers using the metro would have tipped us off. Boots, backpacks, hiking poles, sun hats, we felt right at home with these transit enabled hikers. We hadn’t planned on turning our time in Seoul into a multi day hiking expedition, but that’s the joy of travel. Sometimes you just never know what’s going to happen and what you’ll find in a new place.
You may be realizing that what these views have in common is that we are looking down at the city. Down as in ‘we climbed a lot of darn steps to get up here’.
Rich found the first hike for us by seeing the mountain park from our 12th floor window and navigating us there hoping there would be a trail. There was. And there was an amazing accessible boardwalk style trail all the way up to a temple and a cafe. Maps.me was helpful, showing some trails, and Alltrails had some as well, but lacking a great mapping site we relied on Rich’s wonderful navigation skills.
Since hikers are getting to and from their hikes on the metro, there are also signs to get you to the trails from the neighborhoods.
The signage and maps varied in detail, and confusingly played fast and loose with having north be at the top, but on the whole you were well taken care of, signage wise.
Not only was the number of trail opportunities great, the amenities along the trails, and the construction of the trails were impressive. Very nicely maintained steps, benches and picnic spots, restrooms, and my new favorite thing – carpeted trails. It looks like jute, or coir, and for stretches that are steep up or down, or could get quite muddy, it’s super helpful. It also stops the usual trail ruts from forming, or the footsteps turning into hardened mud. And dang, carpeted trails – what’s not to love about that?
It’s not unusual for us to come to a city and skip the A list sights. Doing things we love to do, like hiking or biking, or even just walking city streets, gives us more insight into what life is really like in a place like Seoul. Seeing the neighborhoods far from the tourist friendly zones. Going into restaurants with basically zero idea what kind of food they serve. And hiking trails like these, full of locals. I tell Rich he’s never happier then when there are zero other western tourists. I developed a rating scale for him of tourist bombs – a high of five is a lot of tourists and not going to result in a happy Rich, and a low of one is good, but zero is better. After the tourist bomb rating is the wide eyed locals rating – which shows how surprised the locals seem to be to spot two big foreigners on their trail or in their small neighborhood restaurant. Our best hike was zero tourist bombs, and five wide eyed locals, the highest rating possible in my new rating scale.
In addition to good trail signs, there are informational signs about archaeological sites, and signs asking folks to please not collect acorns and chestnuts as the wildlife depend on them.
You might be thinking, ok, so that’s all impressive and interesting, but lots of places have trails, and signs, and views. Well hold on to your sun hats, there’s more.
The unexpected pleasure of hiking in Seoul was highlighted by all the amazing views. As you climbed up, wrapped around, or climbed down a mountain park, you got new views of a different part of this mega city.
I want to include some tips for hiking in Seoul: Keep your metro card charged up, all the hikes we did are transit friendly. Bring snacks or lunch, the smaller neighborhood parks might have a cafe, but the longer trails that we hiked didn’t. Bring water, we were able to refill on all of our hikes eventually, but bring enough water to last for most of your hike just in case. Now, how to find hikes. You can assume that every mountain you see has trails, but finding a trailhead might be a little tricky. Rich used a combination of google maps, maps.me and All Trails. You can find information about the Seoul Trail at English.Seoul.go.kr and on our links page. If you find yourself confused, ask a local or follow someone in hiking gear.
We’re at Incheon Airport now, slightly dreading the 12 hour fight to the US. I will definitely do a post about the food we ate while in Korea. The good, the not my favorite, and the mysterious that Google translate failed to help us understand. See you soon San Francisco.
I will miss the trees. We visited a lot of gardens and parks to see cherry blossoms, but the blooms aren’t the only attractions. The trees, the green moss, the water features. Although Japanese cities were not all blessed with a lot of parks or green space, those that exist are so well taken care of.
I’m going to miss the small streets, with restaurants and shops that cluster together, usually near a train station. Each city has its share of large arterial roads, with plenty of car traffic and sometimes intolerably long signal phases, leaving you standing for minutes waiting for a pedestrian walk signal. But, when you find the area of small streets the entire nature of that city changes. Narrow and mostly car free or very car light, the small streets give you an opportunity to feel you’ve stepped back in time.
Within these fine grained streets, with corners hiding the next view, are the amazing small restaurants. I’ve mentioned the awkwardness of sliding open doors and facing a tiny space perhaps already packed with customers. It can be cringe inducing, but so rewarding to be able to eat at a restaurant that is run by people who focus on one thing. This type of food – we do this and we do it well. You will wait the required amount of time, you will likely be served on hand thrown ceramic plates, and the food will be exquisitely displayed.
If it’s possible to desperately miss something you only got to do twice then we will desperately miss the Yatai of Fukuoka. The Tenjin neighborhood has small food stands, Yatai, which set up each night to serve up food in a space half the size of the storage unit holding all of our possessions back in the US.
The number of Yatai was shrinking, but in the last few years they’ve enjoyed a new renaissance and there are about 150 now. In addition to dinner at one we spent a hilariously fun evening drinking at a Yatai bar. Everyone is friends at a Yatai bar which measures 10×8 feet.
What else will I miss about Japan? The safety. The ability for Japan to have nice things that people respect and take care of. Public restrooms which are clean and stocked with rolls of TP which are not stolen. And the quirky things. Things you see and go, oh yeah, that makes sense to have.
You will always feel you missed out on experiences and places when traveling. We immediately have a list for “next time”. It says a lot about a place that you want to come back, soon. Regret is a rear view mirror. So what do I regret about our time in Japan now that we’ve moved on?
This is when Rich and I say to each other “I used to do important things.” Recalling our previous professional lives where we earned money, and made multiple decisions a day that impacted people and projects. And we laugh at ourselves. Another regret? Hotels in Japan supply you with pajamas. Really. Instead of a robe you get pajamas or a button up nightgown contraption or a yakuta, a light cotton kimono. Somehow the pajama tops and bottoms fit both me and Rich, sometimes with pretty funny differences. Do I have a single photo, let alone a collection of photos? No. If you go to Japan learn from my mistake and take photos of yourself in the pajamas in your hotel rooms. And take a notebook to collect the stamps.
No regrets that we visited Japan. Such a lovely place with wonderful people. Goodbye Japan. Hello Korea.
There are things you know about a country before you arrive and are looking forward to – food, specific sights, cultural norms that are different from your own and therefore fascinating – but the things that catch you by surprise are the gifts of travel.
Plentiful water. Still a mind bending notion to someone raised in Southern California. The city of Shimabara has a castle, a lovely neighborhood of samurai houses, and so much free flowing water. Water under tea houses where koi appear to float in midair, a visual trick of the crystal clear water. Water running between houses in fern lined canals. Water fountains with ladles handy so you know the water is drinkable. So much water. And yes, some of it hot thanks to Mount Unzen, an active volcano which rises and steams and bubbles a short bus ride away.
After admiring the water in one neighborhood, we had lunch, a lovely set menu which is a wonderfully easy thing to order. Then we headed to a spot on the map marked as public foot bath. So far all the water had been cold and clear. Foot bath? That sounds interesting.
Feet refreshed and ready for more walking we headed off to see the neighborhood of samurai homes. The canal which runs through the neighborhood was a perk for these high ranking, hereditary, military nobility.
We headed back to our hotel, craving a proper onsen soak, but first we had to pass another fountain, and stop for another drink. How could we pass up this lovely landscaped fountain, which seemed to be part of the neighboring house’s garden.
One easy bus ride from our waterfront hotel took us winding up the mountain. The bubbling mud and steam clouds of Obamachounzen quickly let you know this volcano is not playing around. “An eruption in 1991 generated a pyroclastic flow that killed 43 people, including three volcanologists. “ The slopes of the mountain down to the sea will look familiar to anyone who has visited the big island of Hawaii. Lava field slopes.
Even though we hadn’t done much walking yet, just a few kilometers around the steamy and bubbly area of Obamacho Unzen, we headed right to the public foot bath.
We did a lovely hike after the foot bath and enjoyed the views of the volcano while having a picnic on an observation platform – keeping a wary eye on the plumes of steam. Then it was a bus back to the hotel, a lovely relaxing onsen and outdoor rotenburo soak at our hotel, and dinner at a local Izakaya. It was time to move on to Kagoshima, which was a ferry ride and train ride away. But first – foot bath by the ferry terminal!
The blessings of volcanos. Hot springs. There are more than 27,000 hot springs in Japan. The volume of water that flows from them is 2.6 million liters per minute. I was a volcano fan before this trip to Japan, now I’m a volcano fanatic. And we weren’t done yet! Next up, a ferry from Kagoshima to see the slopes of Mount Sakurajima and yes, another foot bath.
We’re in Korea as of today, but still catching up on all the fun we had in Japan. I was struck by the relationship the Japanese have with their volcanos. The idea of the blessings of volcanoes, and the use of the hot spring water, gives the volcanoes a different feel. Yes, potentially deadly, but also useful and part of life. Japan has the potential to harness this geothermal energy, mostly unrealized so far, but what an additional blessing that could be. But our feet were happy to take advantage of the blessings of the volcanoes.
Our arrival in Tokyo happened to coincide with an early cherry blossom season. We had already made our flight and room reservations when a representative from Japan Meteorological Agency stood beneath a signal tree at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine and announced the season to be underway.
Unfortunately, it was a rainy stretch in Tokyo as the fun got underway. Fortunately, we don’t melt. Parks and gardens are prime blossom viewing spots of course. So off we went. First was a night time cherry blossom event where the trees were lit up. It was beautiful, and wet. Very wet. But picking through the mud puddles was worth it to see huge trees and bamboo lit up with dramatic intensity.
On a dry Friday as we wandered parks filled with blooming trees we overheard other blossom peepers talking about what variety of cherry trees we were seeing. There are over 100 varieties of cherry trees in Japan, a few are wild and native to the forests, but most are cultivated. These trees don’t produce edible fruit, but flowers are pickled and used as tea and in other confections. We love seeing a forest mountain dotted with blooming trees mixed in with conifers and maples.
Blooming trees are not confined to parks. As we walked around Tokyo we found allées of blooming trees, or simply single trees, putting on a show worthy of admiration.
We left Tokyo for Kanazawa where we had a new batch of parks and gardens to explore. And a lovely castle. And more cherry blossoms to photograph.
You find new ways to view the blossoms, hyper aware that the blossom season is fleeting. People are super friendly and nice about snapping photos of each other. Cherry blossoms bring you all together in one place, for the purpose of admiring the beauty, and recording this fleeting moment.
Hemeji, which was a day trip from Kobe for us, has one of Japan’s most stunning castles. And with the blooms it was a crowded site. Rich got us there as early as we could, and it was worth braving the crowds. I’m particularly taken with the old trees – gnarled trunks, branches propped up with bamboo poles.
After the bloom comes the time of Sakura snow. The petals blowing off and drifting, or, if it’s raining, sticking.
Being here in Japan for Sakura was a happy accident. We assumed we would be too early to see the bloom in Tokyo, but Sakura has been earlier than usual the past few years. If you do come to Japan for Sakura, be aware that hotel prices go way up. Rich booked our place in Tokyo before the season was announced, post announcement he looked to extend our four night stay and a single night extra would have cost as much as the four nights together.
We’re in Japan for two more weeks before moving on to Korea. We feel so lucky to have seen Sakura in a variety of cities and landscapes. Cherry blossoms and a Japan Rail Pass, what more could we want?
Somewhere around week two in Sri Lanka I announced that I missed abundance. It’s ironic since part of our decision to pack up our lives and travel was the desire to experience a less cluttered life. To have the freedom to shoulder our backpacks and go wherever we want. Well welcome to Japan, where abundance is always an option.
We made our first trip to Japan in 2007, before smart phones with translation apps. This time, we were ready for all Japanese menus. Our index fingers and thumbs were all warmed up for google camera translate. Uh huh. We bought SIM cards from a vending machine at Narita Airport but had not installed mine correctly yet, and Rich was using our US cell phone data sparingly until he got his new SIM installed. Well, long story short- the first restaurant we walked into we failed to navigate the confusing situation and quickly abandoned ship! Thankfully we found a small place with on screen ordering and settled in for our first meal.
The automation is fascinating to see. As with many countries Covid accelerated cashless payments and waitstaff free ordering, but in Japan you get a fun mix of traditional and modern.
A Sakura (cherry blossom) post will follow with many photos, but this is all about food. We were craving Japanese food for the past few weeks so we’re thrilled to walk and sightsee and eat. Our walking mileage has gone up sharply which helps with the eating. We took a train out from Tokyo to Koganei Park to visit the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. There was a festival going on despite the rain so we snacked our way through that.
With four nights in Tokyo we had a chance to try to get into a small neighborhood izakaya restaurant on Friday, and when it was full up, make a reservation for the next night. Another good travel hack, especially in places where you either have no local phone number or where calling is beyond challenging due to language barriers. Two folks working the small restaurant, no fancy automation here. We were grateful for our young server/owner’s help. We always find the further out from the heart of a tourist district the more patient and helpful the locals are.
After four nights in Tokyo, and a longer stay running into Sakura prohibitive pricing, we hopped on the trains to head to Kanazawa. Our JR Rail passes will be getting a work out this trip as the Japanese train system is beyond amazing.
Our first night in Kanazawa we struck out three times, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with a closed waiting list, an unagi (eel) restaurant which was closed despite the hours listed showing it should be open, and another full up sushi restaurant all by 8 pm. We figured out it was spring break week for schools so things were quite crowded. We finally saw a small tempura stand restaurant and got two seats at the bar. Another kind and helpful waiter sat us, got us an English menu, and took care of us the entire meal. We had a great view of the chef working his tempura fryer with chopsticks and tongs.
So far no breakfast photos, you might be thinking to yourself. Well, we’ve been having hotel room or apartment breakfasts of Musilix and fruit and yogurt, but we did get out early for cherry blossom viewing and then had a second breakfast our first morning in Kanazawa. Cafe Tamon is a small easy to miss but for the help of a passerby who saw us looking in confusion at our phones, pancake specialty cafe.
Remember that conveyor belt sushi place with a closed waiting list at 7:40pm? We went back the next night at 6:40 and put our name on the list. About an hour later we were in! The nice thing about being the only tourists willing to figure out the drill, was that the host knew who we were – not one of many tourists: the only slightly confused looking non locals.
Conveyor belt sushi has had a hard time recently, apparently from a social media trend that has attention starved youngsters misbehaving and filming themselves. Insert eye roll here. I’m not sure if the screen ordering is a result of that stupid trend, but it worked out just fine for us.
Our third and final night in Kanazawa we were determined to try the unagi (eel) restaurant again. The Japanese name came through Google translate as eel welfare. We marched over at 6 this time and the lights were on! Yay! We went in and congratulated ourselves on being some of the first customers of the evening. One gentleman was just leaving, and another man came in and placed a to-go order. The sole proprietor sat us at the counter, gave us a menu and bustled about behind the counter. We got two draft beers and settled in.
Our eel man turned away a group of five Japanese, and then two western tourists. What is going on, we wondered? This is a frequent state for non Japanese speakers here. Confused but pressing on! When it came time to order all became clear – he only had two pieces of eel left. Ah ha! That’s why he had been closed two nights before- he closes when he sells out of eel. Two pieces of your best (only) eel, sir, and some tempura. So many times as a tourist a mystery remains a mystery, so we were happy to have this one solved.
It’s been a good start to our four weeks in Japan. We’ve honed our perception and empathy skills since our last visit here, and we know how quickly the world can change under your feet. (Poor conveyor belt sushi restaurants. ) We feel empowered by google translate, but a few key phrases in Japanese learned on line (link in our link page) quickly telegraph both our helplessness and our desire to be polite and thankful. There is so much more to experience and share, but for now itadakimasu! Let’s eat!
Another thing to file under “Wasn’t expecting that!” The buses of Sri Lanka are eye catching. Very eye catching. Day and night they burst with color and bright decorations and lights.
Not all the buses were so exuberantly adorned. There are state buses (with staid, some might say boring, paint jobs), and private buses (wow! Not all are wow, but a lot.). The private buses are licensed for a specific number of runs per day, this means they linger a bit at every stop hoping for more passengers.
Did we actually ride the buses? No. We took trains when we could, but on routes with no trains we hired drivers. The buses looked pretty chaotic, and a few tourists with rental cars we spoke to confirmed that the buses are bullies on the road.
In addition to a bus journey taking a long time, it is recommended that you don’t put your luggage down below due to dust and mud, so you must pay for an additional seat and face the wrath of your fellow crowded in passengers. We decided that we didn’t need to experience the buses of Sri Lanka as passengers.
It’s easy to criticize or second guess a country’s public policy and governance, and Sri Lanka is working through a lot of challenges, but transportation is the lifeblood of any city, and even more important in rural areas. For the sake of the people of Sri Lanka I hope the announcement that a recently announced purchase of 500 new buses shows a commitment for improving transit. Many of the old buses are gross polluters.
This wraps up my bus post. Once a transit geek, always a transit geek.
What is it that we love best when traveling? Walking and biking, of course. Sri Lanka has challenged us with the need to do taxi transfers and tuk tuk trips to avoid daytime heat or nighttime elephants, or to get from a hotel or guesthouse to a site.
Our first morning in Sigiriya, we had our guest house owner drop us at the west entrance and Museum to buy our tickets by 6:45 am, so we could explore and climb the rock before it got too hot.
First a capital for King Kashyapa AD 477–495, and then a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning.
We were staying close enough to be able to walk back to our guesthouse for a late breakfast, which made us happy. Any time you walk in Sri Lanka you do have to decline a lot of tuk tuk offers, especially at a popular tourist site like Sigiriya Rock. But we press on and enjoy the walk.
Sri Lanka has no natural lakes. Starting in 300 BC the Kingdom began to construct reservoirs and tanks. The Sinhalese people were among the first to build artificial reservoirs to store water. These irrigation systems of the ancient world are still intact. Sri Lanka has ten thousand man made bodies of water, lakes, reservoirs, tanks, ponds, and stepwells.
With temperatures reaching 90f/32c in the early afternoon, our walk opportunities were limited to mornings and after 4pm. Not only is the heat and humidity oppressive, but the UV levels will burn this pale human in 15 minutes. Sunblock, long sleeves, umbrellas, that’s the only way I can get out and about.
Walking the small dirt roads is not without obstacles though. Sri Lanka has so many dogs, some wearing collars and belonging to a specific house, but many many more simply stray street dogs. Most ignore you after a hopeful glance for snacks, but some bark and come rushing towards you. Not fun. We accidentally solved the dog stress problem when I deployed my collapsible umbrella while walking by a dog and it recoiled in horror. Ah ha. Shade giver and dog deterrent – the humble collapsible umbrella.
Our second full day in Sigiriya we spent visiting the ancient and Sacred City of Pollonnaruwa. We had a car and driver to take us the 45 minutes to the site, and once there we rented bicycles to explore the site and it’s many amazing artifacts. Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka for three centuries between the 11th to 13th century after the destruction of Anuradhapura Kingdom (which we’ll also visit) in 993.
Riding bikes around this ancient site was such a unique experience, but we did wish for better curation of the experience. Even the museum, which we visited at the end of our ride around, didn’t do a great job of giving you a sense of how people lived in Polonnaruwa. We didn’t hire a guide, which most of the visitors did, so perhaps that was a mistake on our part, but we so much prefer doing things at our own pace and we know we’re happier without a guide. From what we overheard from the guides I don’t think we missed out on much information beyond what we had from our guide book.
The area around Sigiriya is not only an archeological sanctuary site, but also has elephants and rice farmers. We saw an elephant from the road when being driven back from Pollannaruwa. Our long walk took us alongside many rice fields. We were fascinated to see the methods the farmers use to either keep the elephants out of the fields, or to alert an overnight watcher of the presence of an elephant so an attempt could be made to deter the elephant using loud noises.
You never know what you’ll see walking around small rural roads. Local folks were unfailingly friendly and helpful. We reminded ourselves that the small children had possibly never seen tourists, the three years of very little to no tourism meant that their wide eyed stares were not a comment on our hot sweaty state. It can be a bit daunting to wander the back roads, but so rewarding.
Taking trains is a big part of our travel joy. Riding trains with open windows and doors, winding through tropical jungles and tea growing areas, feeling the soft warm air on your face, seeing life as the train winds along – that is magnificent.
Our go to train advice site, The Man in Seat 61, recommends sitting in the non AC carriages to take advantage of the open windows.
From what we’ve read the trains got much more crowded starting June 2022, when the rising cost of gasoline and bus tickets increased train ridership by 50%. As tourists we are able to buy our way into the comfort of the reserved carriages, but we do wonder why ticket prices for foreigners aren’t higher, as one encounters at museums and archeological sites. There is much need for upgrades to the rail system and new trains and higher tourist prices could help fund that.
We don’t want to sweep the problems Sri Lanka is going through under the rug, and post only fun photos without acknowledging the challenges the country is facing, but in many areas you don’t see the difficulties as a tourist. You can live your tourist life blissfully unaware of the undercurrent of struggle many are still facing. If you pay attention to little things, while in line at the grocery store for example, you recognize the stress on parent’s faces as they watch the register add up, and you hear from men who worked in Dubai but came home during the pandemic and are now working towards getting employment in Japan or Korea.
One of our drivers was taking Japanese classes. He had calculated that five years of work in Japan would be enough for him to come home and start a solid life for himself, his wife, and their two young daughters. As Americans who admire the bravery of immigrants, who come from a country of immigrants, we understand the determination and hope that the hard working people we meet find a way through and forward.
We have a few more places to visit in Sri Lanka, and I’m sure a few more rice and curry meals to eat. We wish we could support every single small business we come across, buy every trinket, and eat at every restaurant, but failing that we will tell you all that Sri Lanka is an amazing place to visit. We’re in Sigiriya now, more on that to come. Happy travels.
We have a new standard for judging ease of entry into a country. It’s not just how straightforward and easy the visa is, e-visa or otherwise, but also how easy and quick it is to get a local SIM card. Taiwan set the bar high back in January, but Sri Lanka is a very close second. That quick SIM transaction at the airport, and the joy of being able to get a hassle free taxi to our hotel had us nodding to each other – I think we’re going to like this country.
It’s easy to assume proximity means similarity, we assumed that with the UK and Ireland and were very wrong. We had heard while traveling in India that Sri Lanka was “India lite”, so again we assumed it would feel familiar and similar to India. Wrong again!
We’ve been reading about the troubles Sri Lanka has faced since 2019, and the economic crisis which is on going, and we were warned by a few Indians not to come here. So, we expected some issues. The first things we noticed were the things that made our arrival so easy. E-visa. SIM card. Taxi. All straight forward and easy. The drive to our hotel was much quieter than we had become accustomed to in India – here, honking is just not as common. It makes the streets feel so much calmer.
If you knew nothing of the financial crisis Sri Lanka is facing you could be forgiven for thinking all is well. The unfinished high rises under construction in Colombo, the executive and judicial capital of Sri Lanka (Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, a Colombo suburb, is the legislative capital.), are the first sign we saw that all is not well. There is less car traffic on the streets, based on our reading, due to the high cost of gasoline and diesel. Trains and buses are more crowded than previously. But these are things that as a first time visitor you wouldn’t know.
After only one night in Colombo we headed out by train to Galle, about a 2 hour train ride south. Our first Sri Lankin train! On the easy reservation site Rich booked us two seats in the air conditioned reserved seat (AFC) carriage.
Galle is best known for the 16th century walled fort built by the Portuguese, added on to by the Dutch, and finally occupied by the British. The Fort, as it’s referred to by the locals, has plenty of hotels and guest houses, lovely streets with few cars and scooters, and tourist friendly restaurants for the mostly Russian and French tourists we shared the streets with. We stayed in the new town, at the Brixia Cafe and Guesthouse, which was perfect for us. We could walk to the Fort and enjoy seeing what the new town was like.
You won’t be in Sri Lanka for very long before you notice how friendly people are. And helpful. Smiles and greetings, quick chats to ask where we’re from and how long we’ll be in Sri Lanka. With the troubles they’ve had you would expect folks to be a bit sour on life, but they aren’t. Our guesthouse host spoke openly about the challenges he faced during Covid, separated from his Italian wife for a year and half, and how he’d been lucky to get his building completed before inflation made it impossible, but he had the same positive attitude and warmth we continue to encounter.
It can feel awkward visiting a country going through struggles like Sri Lanka, but we know that tourism was an important part of the economy, visits peaked in 2018 at 2.5 million visitors. By contrast only 400k arrived in 2022. The upsides are fewer crowds, obviously, and an easier time booking accommodations. The downside is an ever present awareness of those missing tourists and their money. Again, you wouldn’t really know how different it is from the locals attitudes towards you. Or, maybe we benefit from the ‘wow, we do miss tourists’ realization. We try to share the love, going to little beach side restaurants and buying juices, beers, and meals and tipping generously.
Our beach stay was three nights, at a lovely beach side hotel where we could have a morning swim before breakfast, and walk out our door to the restaurant for meals and cocktails, and we can walk along the narrow streets and pathways to more family run restaurants. We can see that in the time of 2.5m tourists per year this was a much busier area, with a lot of guesthouses sitting empty right now. Thank goodness for the tourists who are here, from Russia, France, Germany, a few British and even fewer Americans.
We’re headed out to the safari part of our Sri Lanka stay, hopefully the next post will feature elephants. So far we are very happy with our Sri Lanka stay, and we hope for easier times and more stability for the people here. And we hope for our fellow tourists to keep visiting and keep spending.