We got off work early for Christmas Eve. Some restaurants were about to close as we picked up our takeout from a small Japanese restaurant in Tai Hang. In Hong Kong, no restaurant is allowed to serve customers (except takeouts) after 6pm. No countdown events, Christmas parties or family gatherings. Just a simple dinner at home for the two of us seemed to be the most appropriate Christmas Eve celebration for this unusual year. 2020 is an extraordinary year. I can hardly recall another incident in my lifetime that has simultaneously affected virtually every single human being in the world. The terrible pandemic is forcing all of us to face the same fear, frustration and isolation. Most planes have been grounded, borders shut, and international tourism has almost come to a complete halt. This abrupt disruption to our lives lead us to realize that celebrating a festive moment with families and friends or spending the holiday season at a foreign land shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Memory is interesting when it works with time. At this bizarre moment of frustrating lock downs and social distancing, a recollection of how we had spent Christmas and New Year in the past two decades remind us how we used to freely experience the world and appreciate every little things around us. Looking beyond the vivid fireworks and lavish parties, it was our curiosity, freedom and gratefulness that allowed these joyful moments to simply make us happy in different stages of our lives. At this time of physical restrictions and emotional stress, looking back at these little moments of ours have become more precious than ever. Everyone deserves memories of celebrations that worth cherishing. Hope our little sharing would remind you some of your own best moments of Christmas.
We wish you Merry Christmas and good health for the upcoming 2021.
Day 2 (2 of 5).
We always enjoy scenery outside the car window while traveling on the road. It offers us an aperture to frame momentary street scenes away from tourist attractions. From billboards to posters, gas stations to bus stops, convenient stores to market stalls, private dwellings to communal housing, observing the locals from the car gave us a collage of insights on their daily businesses from a discreet distance. Unlike driving on a North American highway where human activities remain unseen from the road, the enthralling human activities in South Asia may happen anytime next to the curb, even along a busy highway.
The 4 hour car journey from Negombo to Anuradhapura passed through numerous villages and towns, school complexes, wet markets, Buddhist temples, Christian shrines, palm forests, rice paddy fields, etc. Roads were surprisingly clean and well maintained, and traffic was certainly not as hectic and insane as we have seen in other countries like India, Egypt or Peru. Indeed, Sri Lanka is one of the fastest growing economy in South Asia. According to the World Bank, Sri Lanka has the lowest rate of extreme poverty in South Asia. As we have seen during the trip, the gap between the rich and poor in Sri Lanka is certainly not as apparent as many other countries we have visited. While lives of most Sri Lankan remain simple, rapid urbanization, wide-spreading of the Internet and mobile network, and high literacy rate would certainly transform this sleepy island nation in the near future.
Water puddles reminded us that the monsoon rain was getting more unpredictable and lengthy in recent years according to the driver.
Fishmonger like to set up their stalls right by the road, usually under a big tree.
Peacock is the national bird of India. These magnificent birds are also very common in Sri Lanka. Their vivid colours become an undisputed symbol of beauty for the country.
Many rely on the state-run Sri Lanka Transport Board buses to move around the rural areas and go about their daily business.
Convenient stores selling snacks, sweets, fruits and drinks were the most common shops we saw on the road.
Like much of South Asia, the sugar-coated problem of diabetes also poses a rising threat to Sri Lanka. In 2017, the prevalence of diabetes in Sri Lanka was about 10%. This number climbed to 27% in the city of Colombo. Around 10% of pregnant mothers had diabetes and 35% of women were overweight.
Occasionally, we would pass by large neglected estate or plantation compound.
Christian shrines dot around the roads near Negombo.
The Christian shrines gradually make way for their Buddhist counterparts further away from Negombo.
Dialog and Mobitel are two of the most popular mobile service providers in Sri Lanka. Foreign tourists usually choose between these two providers for sim cards.
Bicycles are the most popular means of transportation for local villagers in rural areas.
For town dwellers, motorbikes are definitely their desirable choice.
However, for moving a group of people or traveling with goods, most locals would opt for hiring a tuk tuk (auto-rickshaw).
For local women, fashion and styling are heavily influenced by Bollywood from its powerful neighbhour.
Fashion in Sri Lanka is relatively conservative, especially in the north or near religious sites.
A Buddhist monastery features a smaller version of the famous elephant wall at Ruwanwelisaya Stupa in Anuradhapura.
Approaching Anuradhapura, we passed by a series of water bodies. Since the 3rd century BC, reservoirs were constructed around the ancient capital to sustain the earliest kingdom of Sri Lanka.
The arrival at the artificial reservoirs of Tissa Wewa and Basawkkulama signified our 4-hour-drive had come to an end. We had officially arrived at the heart of Sri Lanka’s most ancient capital, Anuradhapura.
Day 2 (1 of 5).
Many people dream of opening a guesthouse in an exotic country and lead a carefree life: mingle with the locals, tend to a lush green garden, raise a brood of poultry, walk the dog in the morning, and surf at the beach until sunset. Not sure how Gerd Arthur Haisch from Switzerland ended up in Negombo 25 years ago. But his two decades of effort to establish the Icebear Guesthouse has proven Gerd’s original decision was not a short-lived enthusiasm. Though just an one night stay, Icebear Guesthouse offered us utmost comfort in a Sri Lankan setting. Apart from serving travelers, Icebear has long been a prominent member in the community, engaging in local drug and suicide prevention works as well as tsunami relief works back in 2004.
Coconut trees, aloe vera, hammocks, beach chairs, timber veranda, water features, bamboo furniture, colourful fabrics and exquisite handicrafts, the garden of Icebear Guesthouse is full of charm. Throughout the night, rhythmic waves of the Laccadive Sea washed up the beach. The thundering waves was a pleasant surprise for us when we first arrived at 1:30am. After a sound sleep, we get up as the first light seeped through the window curtains and mosquito net. By the window, the faint silhouette of wooden furniture and table lamp resembled a set coming straight out of a vintage movie. We quickly headed out for a beach walk before returning for a hearty breakfast in the paradise-like garden of Icebear. We felt that we could stay there for the entire day. What a refreshing start for our Sri Lankan trip!
Icebear Guesthouse offered us several hours of comfortable rest.
The first thing we saw when we get up was the soft silhouette of the wood furniture and table lamp beyond the mosquito net.
It wasn’t until the morning that we could appreciate the lovely setting of Icebear Guesthouse.
Icebear is a seaside villa complex full of unique handicrafts.
The reception veranda offer visitors a homey arrival.
Vivid colours go well with the tropical atmosphere.
The idyllic beachfront garden of Icebear Guesthouse is perfect for outdoor dining, leisure reading or even an afternoon nap.
The garden is full of seaside breeze and tropical vegetation. Ducks and birds roamed freely in the garden.
We had our breakfast at the dining veranda.
Our breakfast at Icebear Guesthouse: omelette, Ceylon tea, passion fruit juice, and bread.
20 days to go for Christmas!
Eye-catching statue on a mini column forms the centerpiece in the garden.
Beautiful decoration hung from a tree.
Traditional garden lamp decorated with seashells.
Beyond the garden stands the exit to the beach.
Day 1 (1 of 1).
Almost all foreign visitors coming to Sri Lanka would stop by Negombo, a seaside town less than 10km from Bandaranaike International Airport. Since many incoming international flights arrive at night, staying the night in nearby Negombo before heading elsewhere is not uncommon. That’s exactly what we have done, flying in just after midnight and staying the night at Icebear Guesthouse in Negombo.
Situated at the mouth of Negombo Lagoon, Negombo is an important commercial and fishing hub in the west coast of Sri Lanka. In the 1500’s, Negombo became a Portuguese port for cinnamon trade. Later came the Dutch who took over the town’s control, and then lastly the British arrived in the 19th century. The majority of Negombo’s population had converted to Roman Catholic ever since the Portuguese era. Today, two thirds of Negombo residents still consider themselves Roman Catholics. With its high concentration of churches, Negombo is sometimes referred to as “Little Rome.”
Unfortunately, St. Sebastian Church in Negombo was under terrorist bombing during Easter service in 2019. Innocent lives were lost and the town’s tourism was devastated. The negative impact on tourism and other related business could still be strongly felt when we visited in December. The only souvenir vendor we met on Negombo beach expressed his discontent and anxiety when we politely rejected his offer. Negombo’s deserted beach, vacant hotels and desperate souvenir vendor reminded me of Dahab in Sinai Peninsula back in 2006 when I visited the famous diving paradise two months after a terrorist bombing that killed 23 people. Back then, rows after rows of empty beach chaise lounges lined up on the silky sand along the Gulf of Aqaba. Desperate hotel and restaurant owners waited outside the bus station and approached any foreigner with dirt cheap deals. Today, there are a whole lot of places around the world solely rely on tourism to generate jobs and sustain the local economy. Any terrorist attack or natural disaster causing a sudden disruption to tourism would lead to terrible suffering for the locals. This economic vulnerability may spell unpredictable trouble for any resort town, but can also cause a painful impact for any tourist city like Paris or New York. Resilience, versatility, social unity and a persisted sense of hope would be vital for recovery and regeneration for any town or city after such mishap. First came the 26-year civil war and then the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, and now the Easter Bombing of 2019, Negombo is once again on its path of gradual recovery.
All foreign visitors coming to Sri Lanka have to fill out an arrival card upon landing.
Our flight arrived at midnight. The airport passenger concourse was surprisingly busy. We went through customs, bought some Sri Lankan rupees, and purchased two local mobile SIM cards.
We stayed our first night at the northern strip of Negombo where dozens of hotels and guesthouses dotted the shore of Laccadive Sea.
Before breakfast at Icebear Guesthouse, we went for a short walk along the beach behind the guesthouse.
On the wall of Icebear Guesthouse we could still see markings from the Boxing Day Tsunami 15 years ago.
With the country’s largest concentration of Roman Catholic population, churches and Christian shrines can be seen all over Negombo .
Looks like another new church is under construction by the beach.
Not the most exotic beach in Sri Lanka, Negombo’s beach nonetheless provided us a place for a relaxing stroll before moving on to our Sri Lankan journey.
The beach is popular with locals coming for morning exercises.
Dogs also take the beach as their playground.
After the Easter’s bombing, Negombo’s tourism has taken a heavy toll. There were hardly any tourists on the beach except a few Western couples.
A traditional fishing sailboat was the most eye-catching feature on the beach, though we had no idea how Tirol related to Sri Lanka.
A local man stood by the boat waiting for any tourist interested to take a selfie on the boat by paying him a small tip.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit Central Negombo and any of its churches, maybe next time.
Our most recent travels have been focused on short trips to Japan and South Asia. These experiences offered us two distinct views of Asia. In Japan, the minimalist beauty in fashion, food, and architecture, the strong sense of community and respect to local traditions in villages and urban centres, and the Shinto attitude on harmonic coexistence with the nature captivated our admiration. On the other hand, the pungent spices, mystic incenses, vivid costumes, bizarre rituals, exquisite temples, majestic landscapes, and mythical folklore of Tibet, India and Myanmar offered us some of the last glimpses of truly unique and centuries-long traditions in our ever-changing world. After an invigorating journey to Hokkaido in early summer, we turned our eyes to the exotic dimensions of South Asia once again. We picked the “tear drop” in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka, as our destination for a 12-day trip.
2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, a devastating conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the rebel force of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or simply known as the Tamil Tigers. The conflict lasted for 26 years. 15 years have also passed since the horrific 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the natural catastrophe that has devastated the coastal area of Sri Lanka and claimed 35,000+ lives. In the past 10 years, tourism has boomed exponentially along with the rapid growing economy. 2019 was on track to become another record breaking year for tourist numbers until Easter Day, when Isis terrorists attacked hotels, churches and residences in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, claiming 259 innocent lives. The incident caused a disastrous blow to the country’s tourism. The government immediately tightened national security, attempting to restore international confidence. Despite of the attack, magazines and newspapers remained affirmative to endorse Sri Lanka as a top destination of 2019. After learning about its diverse attractions, affordability, ease of travel and communication, pristine natural scenery and unique cultural experiences, we were not surprise at all to see why Lonely Planet selected Sri Lanka as their destination of 2019.
As a small country about half the size of England, Sri Lanka has a lot to offer. We planned for a loop journey starting in Negombo on the western coast, then moved north to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya & Dambulla before heading up to the hill region. In the hills, we stopped by the historical capital Kandy, took the “world’s most scenic train ride” to the tea plantations near Ella and Haputale. Leaving behind the hills of Ceylon tea, we ventured into the wilderness of Udawalawa for wildlife safari, and arrived at the beaches of Mirissa and the colonial port of Galle to embrace the Indian Ocean. Before leaving Sri Lanka, we stopped by Colombo for a delicious crab dinner. This trip was filled with lovely moments: joining Buddhist pilgrims at the 2300-year-old Bodhi Tree, hiking through Sir Thomas Lipton’s tea terraces, facing eyes-in-eye with elephants and leopard on safari jeep, spotting whales and dolphins in the open ocean, candlelight dining on the Mirissa Beach, not to mention devouring delicious curry and seafood, meeting the friendly and curious local people, and taking in the laid back atmosphere that we could always smell in the air.
Our journey embarked from the beaches of Negombo.
At Anuradhapura, we circled the 2300-year sacred Bodhi tree,
and visited several ancient Buddhist dagobas (stupas) where pilgrims burned incenses and offered lotus flowers.
At Sigiriya, we climbed up a rock opposite to Sigiriya Rock to watch the best ever sunset.
Visiting the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy offered us a chance to see the century-old rituals that once symbolized the political and religious power of the nation.
At Kandy, we stayed at the magnificent Villa Rosa Guesthouse overlooking the Mahaweli River,
and visited the famous Royal Botanical Garden to check out the large flying foxes.
“The world’s most scenic train ride” took us up to the hills of tea plantations.
In Haputale, we followed Lipton’s footsteps for a half day hike.
In Ella, we were rewarded with the peaceful and lush green scenery.
Onwards to Udawalawa where we had close encounters with Asian elephants.
Reaching the south coast at Mirissa signified the final leg of our journey.
Mirissa offered us moments of relaxation right by the Indian Ocean.
The seaside resort town is also renowned as one of the world’s top spot for whale and dolphin watching.
We enjoyed every moments by the sea at Mirissa and Galle before heading north to Colombo.