Friday, June 27, 2014

Trinco, a beach of fish

On the east coast of Sri Lanka, 6.5km north of the town of Trincomallee (or Trinco as it gets called) was the beach at Nilaveli.  It was bliss because it was missing a few things we have become used to experiencing on the beaches in Asia
  • There was NO rubbish on the beach
  • There were NO crowds
  • There were NO beach hawkers trying to sell you things.  There was one lady waking up and down with sarongs, but she stood 20m away from you, briefly waved the material and when you didn't look interested she wandered off again
The water itself was warm enough to be inviting, but also cool enough to be refreshing.

Trinco Beach

Trinco Beach3

The water was so clean and clear that every time we got in the water we saw fish either swimming or jumping out of the water.  One of the highlights was in the early evening, as the sun set it illuminated schools of fish jumping out of the water.  In some schools there would be hundreds of silvery fish, jumping in and out of the water as they made their way across the bay.  Being on the east coast there were no golden sunsets, but the light on the fish was a far better experience.

The fish were an important part of daily life on the beach.  There were local fishermen wading in and throwing out nets to bring back in a small haul of fish which they put into woven baskets they carried.

On a larger scale there were fishing nets set by boat, which were brought back in by teams of men (and the occasional tourist) hauling in the rope in a syncopated rhythm – pull, pull, small step, small step sideways.  The overall operation managed by the man in the boat indicating which side needed to adjust their method to bring the net in straight. There were a few big fish in the red nets, but a large portion of the catch were quite small.




There were not many people on the beach, and this was the start of the high season.  The area suffered badly due to the long civil war from 1983 to 2009. Just as the tourists started coming back after the 2001 negotiated ceasefire, the 2004 tsunami wiped the area out and killed hundreds of people.  Fighting then broke out again in 2005 and it wasn't until 2009 that a victory over the Tamil Tigers was declared. The area is slowly coming back onto the tourist map.  There has been limited investment in hotels and beach-side dining, but that is rapidly changing.  It was interesting to note that there were, as always it seems at Asian beaches, quite a large number of Russian tourists.

A group of Sri Lankans did arrive on the weekend.  They preferred to swim in the pool and when they did go in the sea it was always in a group and never too far out that their feet didn't touch the seabed.


Nearby there was a war cemetery which we walked to one morning.  The caretaker told us there were 5 New Zealanders buried here and pointed out various graves to us.  Trinco was attacked by the Japanese airforce in 1942, and a large number of the graves relate to this period, while many of the remainder relate to lives lost in the water around Sri Lanka.  After the fall of Singapore Trinco became a naval base of importance for shipping in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.  As in any war cemetery, most of the graves were for young men aged under 30.


There was no shortage of wildlife – this crab was bigger than both Andrew’s feet put together.


Even though it was a long haul by train for us to get there, it was one of the best beach times we have had. 


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Trains and Zombie Trains

I seem to have had a posting spree this week. Two blogs I posted by accident while writing and I had to delete/amend them - that was definitely human error. But where the orangutans re-posts came from I have no idea. Hopefully the last couple of posts for Sri Lanka will come through smoothly once they are written. Here goes step one...


Having ticked Galle off our list it was time to return to Colombo. Our trip down had been a breeze, modern carriages and seats for everyone. But as the train pulled into Galle station we knew we were dealing with another kettle of fish.

The train was from the 1960s and we could see it was already full as it came to a stop. And it stayed that way for the entire 3 hour journey. We didn't nab a seat as we didn't join the scrum to get on the still moving train, as it came into station. Instead we stood for the whole trip. On the plus side we staked a position by the open door and didn't let it go, so we had good ventilation. On the negative side it was also by the toilet - but it wasn't too bad. We survived but began to worry about our train journey the next day. The 3 hours between Galle and Colombo paled into insignificance when we thought about the next days planned journey with the 6am departure, the scheduled 5 hours to Gal Oya junction where we had to change trains for the connection to Trincomalle, a scheduled wait between connecting trains of 3 hours, followed by a short 2 hours train ride to destination. So we asked about reservations at the train station, but we're told there were none available. Bother! But the ticket clerk did suggest we returned at 5:00am the next morning to see if there had been any cancellations.

1st we needed lunch and a cold drink as a reward for our hot travels. So headed to Barefoot cafe. It is hard to describe the disappointment on Andrew's face when he read the sign no alcohol sold between 2 & 5pm and he looked at his watch and it read 2:10. Luckily the waiter said he would serve him a beer so happiness was restored.

Having eaten and checked into our hotel, the concern about our train journey prompted us to go to the bus station and check out the bus options. The semi-luxury buses did NOT appeal, they didn't appear to seem to conform to our idea of luxury. It looked like our only option was our original train plan, queue theme music "one way ticket to hell and back".

So suitably mentally prepared, we fronted up at the train station the next morning and found we could reserve 2 seats for our 1st train. Yes, we had a seat and were not going to swing and sway for 5 hours holding the corner of someone's seat. Even at 5:10 in the morning the Colombo Fort station was busy.

For the eagle-eyed, Andrew is in a blue t-shirt, sitting on the seats toward the bottom left of the photo, trusty red day pack in front of him. In fact the train wasn't full, but we didn't care we had seats! The 1st leg took 6 hours and was fine, just long.

This snap of Andrew was taken before we realised a train was coming toward us and that him having his head out the window was not the smartest idea.

There had been unconfirmed reports on various travel boards there was a train that waited for the arrival of the Colombo train, even though it wasn't on any official timetable. It was described as a ghost train or a zombie train. But it was true and instead of waiting 3 hours for the next officially scheduled train we crossed the platform and were on our way to Trinco.

During the civil war the area we were going into had been a major part of the conflict zone. Railway workers had refused to do line maintenance on the line unless they had a military guard. As a result the 1.5 hour journey, in a carriage that was 1950s but very tidy, was the most volatile side to side motion of any train we had ever been on. A mother and child sat in our carriage and the baby giggled the whole time between their 2 stops as the rocking motion to her, was like being on a fun roller coaster.

But we were at destination, hours earlier than expected and the whole trip was far better than we had hoped.

And ultimately we were at the beach at Trincomalle and watching the day turn to night, our reward would be some good beach time.



Sunday, June 15, 2014

In, On and around the Galle Fort

Our accomodation didn't have breakfast so we set off to find some. This is the off season and start of the monsoon season on the Southern coast - which is why we are heading to the beach on the East coast, where it is the high season. Being low season a lot of places were closed and things felt a bit quiet. But it didn't stop us going to a Deli France for coffee and croissants. Revived it was time to walk the streets of the fort.

The Galle fort has been a stronghold of the usual suspects the Portuguese, the Dutch and the the English. The Dutch and English influence remain quite apparent. Around the square the magistrates court was buzzing with queues of petitioners, lawyers and probably gallery also. There was a very British feel with lawyers in suits, people holding case notes and the multitude of advocates offices around the square. These offices were teeming with people getting advice.

The town itself was atmospheric and there was a large range of architectural styles reflecting both the historic and religious influences. In Andrew's readings he noted that a large number of buildings had been purchased by wealthy locals returning to Sri Lanka or as investments by Indians. It certainly has resulted in a large amount of restoration work in-progress and completed. Andrew particularly liked the number of houses around hidden courtyards, woodworking and street art. He even went as far as to suggest the painted power poles we saw wouldn't look bad in Rankin St.

Around lunch time we walked out of the fort back to the new town. Primarily it was a mission to double check bus and train options back to Colombo. It ended up being a place to go to Joe's pub at the Sydney hotel, and have a cheap beer. 130 rupees vs 300 or 400 in the old town. It was an old style pub which had a drinks board where gin & tonic options took up one quarter of the list. Suitably rehydrated we carried on to the Old Railway cafe, run by a British expat designer. A really nice cafe lunch and then back to the old town.

Along the way we saw the fishermen selling the remains of their catch and walked back in via the 'new' gate.

Our destination for the afternoon was the Martime Museum of archeology. It was rebuilt after the 2004 tsunami, in a converted Dutch warehouse. Some of the items painstakingly retrieved from various shipwrecks had been somewhat involuntarily returned to the seabed during the tsunami. Being on a main shipping route there were a number of wrecks which had offered up their shipwreck bounty, and apparently there is still plenty of scope for further explorations.

In the early evening we completed our walk on the ramparts before climbing to the 3rd floor of a local restaurant for a good Sri Lankan rice and curry.



Saturday, June 14, 2014

Bangkok to Galle:Sri Lanka

Off to Sri Lanka for a trip primarily to visit the beach on the east coast, but also to slip in a quick trip to Galle in the deep south, which we had not managed to visit last time we were in Sri Lanka.

We headed to the airport at 6:00am without having had any breakfast. I believe this was a significant factor in Andrew's lack of judgement when he tried to step on the check-in agents conveyor belt to adjust one of his bags tags. This sudden move startled both the agent and me. But suitably chastised he then behaved far better once he had had his 1st coffee of the day.

Once on board I was amazed Andrew didn't go on about his knees actually touching the seat in front, perhaps that cup of coffee had made him more normal and relaxed? His good behaviour was rewarded when the steward wandered up and said he was moving us to the exit rows for better legroom - great service Sri Lankan airways. He even moved our bags for us, which we might have preferred to do ourselves as they were a quite heavy 7kg.

Immigration was a dream with pre-approved e-visas, which we didn't even need to print out. We waltzed through, picked up our bags and set off to find left-luggage. Not in the arrivals hall, not in the departures hall but finally located outside the departures building. Rather than carrying our suitcases on trains for the time in Sri Lanka, our bags are having a holiday by themselves at the airport.

We decided to take the modern micro taxi that stopped beside us and quoted the appropriate amount. While small, it was big enough for the two of us and made very good time. On the downside, the engine is located in the rear and the heat from the engine kept our backs hot and sweaty despite the air-con.

Rather hotter than we should have been, we arrived at Maradana station (not main station Fort) as the train started its journey from there and it meant we would be guaranteed 2 seats together for our journey to Galle.

Purchasing tickets was so simple and basic. The ticket, about $2 for a 3 hour journey was hand stamped on press printing aparatus - no computers here.

Happy to have found the station and to have a 2nd class, unreserved, ticket in our hands, we wandered away from the ticket window to be approached by a policeman with a rather large rifle carried in his right hand. Turned out he wanted to speak English to the out of place looking foreigners. He was lovely.

With some time to spare before our 2:15 departure we walked out onto the main road in search of something for lunch. We looked at a couple of places but there were no locals in them and the food didn't look appealing enough to try them out. Instead we found a 'bakery' with 2 lovely boys behind the counter who pointed out the fish, vegetable and chicken roti parcels. Andrew was feeling daring so he had a vegetable version as well as a chicken one! Good local food which didn't stint on the spices. The chocolate eclair, or ecliya as it was labelled, was a super sweet end to the meal.

On the train there were people literally running down the aisles to secure a seat, even though it was obvious there would be more than enough seats for everyone. Apart from getting 2 good seats together the train was one of the new modern ones on the Sri Lankan system.

We pulled into one station and when I asked what the name was and unbelievably what came out of his mouth seemed to be what was on the sign. Andrew is NOT known for ability in foreign languages and even manages to destroy unfamiliar English words. Perhaps Sri Lanka is the place for him?

It was an easy 3 hour ride down to Galle, with the train following the coast most of the way. There are so many basic villages built right on the railway line with people living their life in public view.

It was a short walk from the station to our accomodation inside the ramparts of Galle Fort. Fort de 19 was family run, was in a good location, tidy & clean, with friendly, helpful owners.

After a shower we wandered around for a bit as the sun set. The green area of the ramparts were full of people walking, playing cricket, having picnics and flying kites.


It proved difficult to find a place for a beer. We were a bit tired after having an early morning in Bangkok, flights, taxis and trains. This is the only reason I can imagine for the resulting scenario where Andrew accepted a cafe that sold alcohol free beer! But it was good enough that he managed to finish a second bottle.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Mission to Yangon

It always amuses me that in the work we are doing when a team of people visit the site of a project, it is called going on Mission. I had planned to visit the finance team of my last project a week before the official Mission but on Friday afternoon, before the Monday I was due fly up, I got word that the finance team were going to Nay Pyi Taw for training and could I defer my travel for a week. Nothing like a 4 hour window to email the travel agent in Hanoi to request the changes while contacting the hotels in Yangon to rearrange bookings.

At the same time Andrew was scheduled to go back to NZ for some meetings. Our original plan was that we both left and returned on the same days, meeting up at Bangkok airport, even though we both returned into Laos on separate flights. So I had to fill in time in Vientiane for a week on my own, while Andrew ate lamb and drank wine in NZ.

Finally I got to Yangon. It was good to be on somewhat familiar territory.  No, I don't want someone to wheel my suitcase 200m from the taxi desk to the terminal. I managed to get it to the airport, through check-in and off the baggage claim by myself but that last 200m is considered to be the last straw?  In the taxi we weave in and out of the city's permanent rush hour traffic (and this is 6pm on a Sunday evening) and I watch the local buses packed to the brim, the drivers chewing and spitting betel, and it feels pleasantly chaotic.

 Much of the work we have been doing this year has been independent, so it was a bit of change to have to co-ordinate with a team of people from different countries. Pros include having people to go to dinner with and others to work out where we are going and who we are meeting. Cons include having to follow someone else’s timetable – what do you mean you want to have breakfast at 8:30am – I will have been up since 6:00am and will be hungry...What do you mean I have to sit through another consultation meeting... but from these meetings I did learn a lot about the Ayeyarwady river and it’s importance to the Burmese people.

From my project summary
The Ayeyarwady is Myanmar’s largest river basin and has been described as the heart of the nation.    Today the basin accounts for over 60% of Myanmar’s landmass, accommodates 70% of its population, and transports 40% of its commerce.  It is a river of global proportions, with an average annual flow equivalent to roughly 85% of the Mekong.  Groundwater resources in the basin are believed to be even greater than surface water resources.   


Most of the staff of the ministry I was working with finished work at 4:00pm on the dot and quickly left the building to get on the buses to the government ferries to take them to the other side of the river. I was told most of them lived on that side and looking at the trees and other greenery it looked more appealing than the main city side.

Yangon Buildings

It was also nice change to be in Yangon for more than one day and to have a break from Nay Pyi Taw.
My one weekend there I took the opportunity to see a couple of places I had not been before. We have eaten a lot of street food, but it is less appealing here to sit on the roadside with the volume of traffic, the rainy season and the high levels of fried food on offer.

Yangon street food

On the other hand there was the chance to return to some very good restaurants and to try a couple of new openings. One in particular stood out, Gekko, a Japanese influenced offering from the people who have Union Bar & Grill (which also remains excellent). I also got to the house of memories in an old colonial villa that had once been the office of General Aung Sang


I walked past Happy World beside the Shwedagaon pagoda and thought to myself that stagnant smell of the lake doesn't make me feel very happy. I wasn't surprised no one had taken the paddle boats out to cruise around the smelly waters. But the smell didn't stop the girls sitting on the tree to watch the group of boys just out of shot. The right hand picture looks a bit green, but that was what it looked like in reality, green outfits, green grass and lots of green water.

Yangon Happy world

I really liked the decorated footpaths, which were not at all slippery after a rain shower


And although the picture below is a bit blurry (iPhone+moving taxi) I really liked the idea someone had taken the child’s peddle car down to the local fix-it shop. I also wonder what sort of child in Yangon would have a toy car that big. Probably a wealthy one I suspect.