Searching for wild elephants in Munnar

Searching for wild elephants in Munnar

Munnar is….tea and elephants!

That’s quite a combination. Throw some extremely uncooperative weather into the mix and you have my trip to Munnar, in the Indian state of Kerala. If you’re visiting Cochin and want to do some sightseeing out of town, Munnar will likely be one of the prevailing options available to you. It’s definitely worth doing, even if the weather is somewhat unreliable. For a start, the landscape is completely different to Cochin. Based high in the Western Ghats, close to the border with Tamil Nadu, Munnar is surrounded by tessellated tea plantations, waterfalls and thickly forested mountains. Secondly, you have the opportunity to see something quite special: wild elephants.

I had seen elephants before and not just in the zoo. I’ve been lucky enough to get fairly close to them in Nepal and in Sri Lanka. The first time I saw one casually strolling past the window of our minibus in Nepal is something I’ll never forget. It was a definite “wow” moment. However, even though some of the elephants that I saw in Sri Lanka were on a nature reserve, I’ve never seen any truly wild elephants before now. Elephants that are just left alone to do their own thing, with no interference from humans. I was under no illusions that such a sight wouldn’t require a lot of luck – particularly in the vast forests of the Western Ghats and particularly when you were just driving around, not going off-road or trekking remote trails.

Anyway, you know that uncooperative weather I mentioned? Well, it rained during our trip. It rained a lot. I think we had, perhaps, three hours of dry weather and most of that was spent in the car as we headed out of Cochin. When we stopped off at one of the many spice gardens en route to Munnar (Kerala is famous for its spices), we had to dig out our waterproofs and try not to fall over as we navigated the steep, slippery paths around the garden. By the time we reached the tea museum, it was clear that even our waterproofs weren’t going to cut it. And at this altitude, the temperature had dropped to UK levels. As we sat in the museum, wet and shivering, it felt like so many of the school field trips I had taken. In other words, it was miserable.

We had hoped to do some hiking through the tea plantations, especially as our attempts to do this in Sri Lanka had come to an abrupt and soggy end. But, once again, the weather just was not on our side so all we could do was head straight to our accommodation. It wasn’t how we had wanted to spend our time in Munnar but we had high hopes for where we were staying. It had been sold in to us as a “luxury” house owned by “the richest lawyer in Kerala”. And we would have it all to ourselves. At least we’d be able to cosy up somewhere comfortable with a good book and a cup of tea until the rain stopped.

Er, no. The house had been converted wholesale into a hotel, with every spare room being turned into a bedroom. As far as common areas were concerned, there was a dining room and there was a large terrace, which wasn’t particularly appealing given the weather. And that was it. We had expected an actual house, something perhaps along the lines of an Airbnb place, but what we got was a very basic hotel which cost twice the amount we would usually pay. It certainly wasn’t luxurious. It was freezing cold, it was damp, there was no hot water and our shower didn’t work, meaning we had to wash with a bucket. And we didn’t have the place to ourselves; there were four other people staying there. At least there was wifi, so we could binge Netflix as the rain lashed the outside world. Then the power went out so that was the end of that. I couldn’t picture the richest lawyer in Kerala living like this.

It was too cold to sleep properly and, as the weather grew wilder, I lay awake worrying about the very real possibility of being stuck on the mountain. After a freezing bucket wash the next morning, compounded by a freezing breakfast surrounded by cloud on the terrace, we were eager to return to the tropical climate of Cochin asap. Had the weather abated during the night then we might have been able to do some hiking but guess what? It was still raining. Which left only one more thing on our itinerary – look for Munnar’s wild elephants. Our driver, Shaji, was mortified by how our excursion had been derailed by the weather – even though bad weather can’t be helped – so he was determined that something would go to plan today and we would see those elephants.

Actual view from the terrace

However, pinning all your hopes on a wild animal is a short-cut straight to disappointment. We were all too aware of this after failing to see any leopards at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, despite it being one of the best places in the world to spot these incredible beasts. We pootled along the mountain roads, watching plastic-clad people pick tea; small, multi-coloured specks in a world of green. We saw the town where the plantation workers lived, made up of buildings as colourful as their owners, straggling their way up the hillside. We visited Top Station bazaar where the steam rising from the roadside chai stalls merged with the low clouds. All the while we were craning our necks and squinting into the distance, just in case we caught a glimpse of an elephant. But it was not to be. Shaji reluctantly turned the car around and we made our way back down the mountainside.

So that was my trip to Munnar – wet, cold, grey and a little bit of a let down. Until….

About 10 minutes after we turned back towards Cochin, Shaji suddenly yelled out “ELEPHANT!”. And, lo and behold, in a field right next to the road were three, absolutely incredible wild elephants including a baby. They were far enough away so as not to be disturbed by us but close enough for us to be able to fully admire them. It was a wonderful sight – beautiful wild creatures just making their way through their world, exactly as they are meant to.

After that it didn’t matter about the crappy weather. Or the cold hotel (sorry, I mean “luxury house owned by the richest lawyer in Kerala”). Or the bucket shower. Or nearly falling on my arse while looking at plants. Because seeing wild elephants is so awesome that everything else fades into the background. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my travels and is a memory that I’ll be able to call upon to make me smile for years to come.

What are your travel highlights? Share in the comments below.

6 unmissable bars in Kuala Lumpur

6 unmissable bars in Kuala Lumpur

Bars in Kuala Lumpur are…secret and sophisticated

To be honest, Kuala Lumpur was never on my extremely rough itinerary. But a combination of circumstances led to me spending an inordinate amount of time there. My first impressions were not favourable. I thought the city was ugly, traffic-choked, smoggy and sweaty. Over time, however, I grew to love it. It may not be an obviously lovely place, unlike other capital cities, but it has a vibe about it that keeps tugging at your sleeve saying “there’s more to me than meets the eye”. It helps that the bar scene is excellent, especially if you’re a total boozehound like me. From glitzy roof top establishments in among the soaring skyscrapers to speakeasies that are genuinely tricky to find (unlike *cough* the ones in London *cough), the bars in Kuala Lumpur are just one reason why this city is so much more than just a convenient transit point.

Sky Bar
If you’re in KL for the first time, chances are you’ll want to head straight to one of the many rooftop bars for a glimpse of that famous skyline. Sky Bar, on the 33rd floor of Trader’s Hotel, is a good place to start. Unlike a lot of the rooftop bars in Kuala Lumpur, Sky Bar manages to be sophisticated without being snobby.There’s no dress code, meaning it’s easier to visit if you’re backpacking and haven’t brought your high heels with you. The bar itself is dominated by a massive swimming pool with seating areas sunk into the floor surrounding it.These prime spots have floor to ceiling windows affording a cracking view the Petronas Towers.There’s an extensive cocktail menu and various nightly discounts, making Sky Bar one of the more affordable rooftop bars in town.
Sky Bar, Level 33, Trader’s Hotel, KLCC

Omakase + Appreciate
This quirky speakeasy is near impossible to find unless you know what to look for. And even then, I still had to ask somebody. Hidden away beneath a nondescript office building on Jalan Ampang, Omakase + Appreciate doesn’t even have a name its extremely unprepossessing door. The only giveaway is a sign saying “No Entry” in several different languages. “Omakase” is a Japanese concept meaning “it’s up to you” and that’s exactly what the bartender here let you do. Sure, there’s a cocktail list – divided by bartender rather than spirit – but the real fun here lies in letting the bar staff make up a bespoke cocktail just for you. Let the guys know what you like and they’ll use their mixological talents to create something unique.
Omakase + Appreciate, Ampang Bangunan Ming Annexe, Jalan Ampang

Botak Liquor
A relative newcomer on the KL bar scene, this garden-themed hideaway is above Chocha Foodstore in Chinatown. Head up the wrought-iron spiral staircase and enter a gorgeously green, foliage-filled drinking den, with a shabby-chic vibe that wouldn’t look out of place in the likes of Hackney. The inventive, horticulturally-inspired cocktails are created with botanicals grown on site, making use of local ingredients such as pandan, starfruit and calamansi – flavours that are perhaps unusual to Western palates. A particular highlight is their Chocolate x Chili, which contains tequila, gin, sweet vermouth, bitter orange liqueur and chocolate. It packs a punch both in terms of booze and heat so it’s not for the faint-hearted!
Botak Liquor, 156 Jalan Petaling

Marini’s on 57
My first attempt to visit Marini’s ended at the front door due their very strict dress code and my pink flip-flops. However, a quick trip to H&M later and I was back the following night. As one of the highest bars in Kuala Lumpur, located on the 57th floor of Petronas Tower 3, it commands a fantastic view of the twin towers. It’s a bit of a mission to navigate both the dress code then the trip up to the 57th floor, but the cocktails alone are worth it. Try the Mango to Tango – a tequila based cocktail with yellow chartreuse, mango, honey, lime and egg white. Marini’s is brash, bold and noisy with big beats and brusque service. If that’s not your cup of tea then it’s best avoided. If it is, get there early for a seat next to the windows.
Marini’s on 57, Level 57, Menara 3 Petronas, Persiaran KLCC

PS150
PS150 has a reputation as one of the best cocktail bars in Kuala Lumpur and it certainly has bags of character. Once again, I had to ask someone for directions as it’s hidden behind a “toy shop” facade. Open the door and follow the dimly lit passageway until you hit the jackpot –  a tiny, jewel-like respite from the mayhem of Petaling Street with a very well-stocked bar. The cocktails are divided up by era – Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, Post-War, Dark Ages (the 70’s-2000’s) and Revival (contemporary). It felt very much like a genuine speakeasy; the glowing red lanterns, calligraphy and crumbling brickwork transported me back to an era that was perhaps naughtier, more daring and more exotic than the present. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising considering the building used to be a brothel! A must for anyone visiting KL.
PS150, 150 Jalan Petaling

Pahit
If you’re a gin lover – and let’s face it, who isn’t these days – then Pahit should be on your radar. It’s tucked away on a pretty residential side street and, while it’s not as well-hidden as some of the other speakeasy bars in town, its entrance is still fairly discreet. It feels like you’re at someone’s colonial house rather than a bar and, even though its in the centre of town, you will believe that you’re a million miles away from the madness of KL. Sink into a wicker chair in the courtyard garden or head inside where it’s all louvered doors and crumbling, white brickwork. With over 70 varieties of gin to choose from, where do you even start? A good place is their list of fruit-infused gin and tonics. Try the calamansi and asam boi version for a Malaysian twist on a classic.
Pahit, 3 Jalan Sin Chiu Kee, Bukit Bintang

Travelling and leaving home: How not to do it

Travelling and leaving home: How not to do it

Travelling is…..good planning and organisation

I’m not generally a disorganised sort of person. I worked as a personal assistant for a good many years; a job where your organisation skills have to be top notch. And when it comes to travelling, I’ve always been borderline paranoid; making sure I have everything I need, leaving for the airport/train station super early just in case, triple checking that I’ve locked all the doors and windows…. Yet for some reason, when I planned my biggest travel adventure yet, organisation went right out of the unlocked window. Here’s how NOT to start your trip.

Decide to move out and fly on the same day
Because there’s nothing more stressful than moving house. And there are few things more stressful than travelling. So, of course, it makes perfect sense for you to do both of these things on the same day. It helps if you haven’t finished packing either for your trip or your move, so you spend all morning frantically trying to get everything finished off before the inventory clerk arrives to do the tenancy check-out. But it’s ok because you don’t have to physically vacate the premises when the inventory clerk is there….do you?

Leave all your packing to the last minute
Well the answer to that question is yes, you do have to physically leave the premises when the inventory clerk is there. That means the property should be completely empty and completely clean. Leaving all your packing to the very last minute and totally underestimating (a) just how much stuff you have and (b) how long it would take to get rid of it all is the perfect way to move house. Doing it this way means that you still have a houseful of crap to remove when you’re supposed to be out of the door and it also means that you won’t have finished packing for your trip when you’re meant to be travelling to the airport in a matter of hours.

Keep working right up until the bitter end
Don’t worry about leaving yourself an free week or so to sort out all your packing and logistics. Keep working at your full-time job right up until you’re due to leave the country. It’s fine – you need the extra money and you don’t have that much to do really…

Have a break down in front of a stranger
By the time the inventory clerk arrived to do the check out, I was in a state of frenzy. So when she pointed out that the house hadn’t been cleaned to an appropriate standard – despite me hiring “professional” cleaners – and that I would have to vacate the house when she was done….well let’s just say it was the straw that broke the stressed person’s resolve. I burst into tears right in front of this woman who I had known for all of five minutes. Yeah, sometimes I’m not great at adulting.

Lock yourself out of your house on your last day
I lived in my last place for 8 years and not once did I lock myself out. Until my very last day when I had to leave for the airport in a couple of hours and I still hadn’t finished moving my stuff. I was in such a tizz about everything, I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. In my haste to take yet another load of stuff down to the charity shop, I picked up my back door keys by mistake and dashed out of the front door… The panic that set in upon realising my error is not something I wish to repeat. Especially as I didn’t even have my phone with me. My landlady had recently moved to a new lettings agency so I had to power walk to their office, praying all the way that they would have a spare set of keys. Fortunately they did, but the whole incident ate into my limited time.

Get a new phone but don’t set it up until you’re about to leave the house
Then realise that it doesn’t work properly when you’ve officially vacated your house and you’re trying to book an Uber to the airport and it’s raining.

Pack for your travels in a really impractical way and don’t do a test run before leaving
I had a medium-sized wheely bag that you could also wear as a rucksack. I thought this was a really genius thing to use, as I didn’t want to have to carry a heavy bag on my back if I could help it. Not realising that the frame and wheels of this sort of bag made it much heavier than necessary. So I planned to take this and then my normal sized rucksack as a day bag. But then I discovered a much bigger rucksack at the back of a cupboard – a brand new one that I had forgotten all about. It was, like, a “proper” rucksack; bigger than a day bag but not as big as a backpacking type of bag. So, I reasoned, why not take this one as my day bag instead? And then use a tote bag/mini rucksack for wandering around town etc? Yes, that would be a great idea. Until I tried to carry everything. I was so weighed down with bags that I couldn’t even get onto the escalator at Earls Court tube station. I eventually ditched the wheely bag and learned how to pack in a more streamlined way – making travelling a thousand times easier.

Leaving a life behind to travel the world is exciting and wonderful and full of possibility – but it’s also stressful and annoying and potentially a logistical nightmare. Don’t make it more difficult than it has to be.

10 colourful photos that will make you want to visit Panaji

10 colourful photos that will make you want to visit Panaji

Man with bicycle outside shop in Panaji, Goa

Panaji is….a glorious architectural rainbow

Chances are you’ll be visiting Goa for the beautiful beaches but what if you fancy a change from all that sun, sand and surf? Goa’s capital, Panaji (also known as Panjim), is a brilliant way to spend a day away from the coast. The Portuguese influence is still strong in the crumbling old town; evident in the azejuelo tiles, the language on the street signs and the wonderfully distinctive cuisine. Visit certain restaurants and you could almost be forgiven for thinking that you’ve somehow teleported to the other side of the world. There aren’t any major sights in Panaji but the pleasure is in simply wandering through the sleepy, rainbow-hued streets, occasionally stopping for a glass of local wine and soaking up the atmosphere.

Yellow building in Panaji, Goa

Mellow yellow…

General store with Portuguese tiling in Panaji, Goa

I love the contrast of red walls with blue tilework.

 

Printer and stationers shop in Panaji, Goa

Wish I could have seen what’s behind this door. Such an old fashioned sign.

 

Orange house in Panaji, Goa

Could you get away with an orange house in London? Or does it only work somewhere tropical?

 

Indian women in saris in Panaji, Goa

One of the things I loved about Goa was how colourful the women were too.

 

Green building with balcony in Panaji, Goa

Green walls, tiled floors, my kind of design…

 

Tailor and pay phone in a yellow building in Panaji, Goa

I love how beaten up this looks. Also the combination of tailor and pay phone is pretty unique!

 

Old building with wooden balcony and plants in Panaji, Goa

When I move back to the UK, I’d like a colourful house full of gorgeous green plants please.

I’d never even heard of Panaji before arriving in Goa so it was an extra-lovely surprise to discover how gorgeous it is. Not only does it look beautiful; it’s a glorious mish-mash of cultures and religions, where you can find wedding cake Catholic churches snuggled up to gaudy Hindu temples and traditional Portuguese cooking with more than a dash of Indian spice mixed through it.

Panaji is basically a creative’s dream. I found so much to inspire me here – both from a design point of view and also from simply observing daily life. It felt almost like going back in time to a place where big brands, mass production or digitised working don’t exist – although much of India can do that to you. If you want an insight into everyday Goan life away from the beach resorts, Panaji should definitely be on your to-do list.

Need to know:
We took a taxi to Panaji from our hotel in Baga and got it to drop us off at the bus station. We then spent a good couple of hours wandering around looking for the old town. Either take a taxi straight there or ensure you have a map (we didn’t!). There are also tuk-tuks around but not that many comparatively and some of them will try to charge you per person. If you take one then make sure you either have a street name or specific location to give them.

Most places close for a siesta in the afternoon, including restaurants, so plan accordingly.

There’s a fish market and fruit/veg market in the main town which is definitely worth checking out.

A houseboat in Kerala: How to relax like a pro

A houseboat in Kerala: How to relax like a pro

A houseboat in Kerala, India

A houseboat in Kerala is…for people who can’t switch off (and for those who can!)

I don’t know about you guys but I’m not great at switching off. Living in London does it to you; the constant thrum of the capital means you’re pretty much always on the go. Even when I was vegging out in front of Netflix, my brain would still be processing the sensory overload of the city; thinking about what to do and where to go next. And I’m the same now I’ve left London. Contrary to my belief that giving up my full-time job would free up some time, I’m actually busier than ever, just in a different way. How would I cope staying on a houseboat in Kerala – a full 24 hours without the internet???

As the many road signs proclaim, Kerala is God’s own country. This blissed-out, palm tree-strewn southern Indian state is pretty close to paradise on earth. If you only do one thing in Kerala, you should stay overnight on a houseboat. Kerala is known for its backwaters; silent lagoons linked by sleepy, meandering channels. The best way to explore this beautiful area is by houseboat and you will find lots of different tour companies offering various packages – either online or just by walking around Fort Kochi, for example. However, you’ll most likely end up on a motorised boat around Alleppey, jostling for space on the water with a hundred other houseboats. This is not the chilled-out Keralan vibe that you’re looking for.

On the Kerala backwaters, India

If you’re going to do the whole houseboat thing in style then the trick is to escape from everyone else who wants to do exactly the same. And for that you need to avoid Alleppey. By chance, we wandered into the office of Wilson Tours in Fort Kochi where we were given a choice – take a motorised houseboat around Alleppey or a smaller, punted boat in a place where we would see no other tourists. Well, it was a no brainer really…. That’s how, one slightly damp morning, we found ourselves boarding our very own houseboat in a tiny Keralan village. And it really was all our own – complete with two guys to punt and one onboard chef. It seemed like such a treat but actually only cost around £25 each.

The houseboat contained a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, a kitchen and a deck area complete with two lounge chairs, a coffee table and a fold-away dining table for our meals. We settled into our seats, were given a pot of tea and a plateful of freshly made banana crisps (to die for) and off we went. There was literally nothing to do but read, write and watch the sleepy Keralan countryside glide by. And that’s the beauty of a houseboat in Kerala – you’re forced into a digital detox where the only thing you can do is relax. There was no noise other than the splash of the punt or the sound of the many birds along the backwaters – kingfishers, brahminy kites, fish eagles and loads more that I couldn’t even begin to identify.

Onboard a houseboat in Kerala, India

Wilson Tours were true to their word. We didn’t see any other tourist houseboats on this trip. Occasionally we passed local people in canoes or fishermen on their way to check the large Chinese fishing nets that were dotted around. But that was about it as far as other people went. As the late afternoon light grew more golden and the shadows grew longer, I felt like I could quite easily doze off. Considering I have been on sleeping tablets for three years, this is nothing short of a miracle. Having absolutely nothing to do other than lazily float on calm, green waters while being fed incredibly well is clearly a winning strategy for relaxation.

A Chinese fishing net in Kerala, India

We moored up in a lagoon for the night and watched from underneath our canopy as rain fell gently around us. As it grew dark and we enjoyed our dinner of curry with freshly made chappatis, hundreds of fireflies darted around us; a beautiful sight I’ve never witnessed before. I was then more than ready to curl up in our cosy little wood-panelled bedroom and enjoy a nights sleep with zero light pollution. Waking up to a soft, Turner-esque dawn and settling down to watch as the morning mist gradually evaporated off the lagoon while fish eagles wheeled and dived around me beat that Tube commute any day.

The Kerala backwaters, India

For someone who doesn’t really know how to relax and who gets slightly twitchy whenever there’s no internet, a houseboat in Kerala was the perfect tonic. Spending time away from the “black mirror” of my phone and laptop genuinely helped me to switch off and decompress. There are times when my decision to escape the rat race has been hard, but this definitely wasn’t one of them.

What relaxing experiences have you had while travelling? Share them in the comments.

How to start your own blog

How to start your own blog

 

How to start your own blog today

I’m often asked how and why I started blogging. On one hand, I’ve always enjoyed writing so that bit makes sense. On the other, I’m a total technophobe with no prior knowledge of websites, social media or anything to do with IT. So how does a girl like me end up with her own website and an online presence? I’ll let you into a not-so little secret: it’s really, really easy! Here is everything you need to know to start your own blog.

Choose your topic
The Determined Diner actually isn’t my first blog. I started off writing about something entirely different – human rights. This was my first foray into blogging and I guess it was a bit of a test run; not least of all because I realised that I didn’t really enjoy the almost permanent state of confrontation such a topic induces. I also discovered that I was more interested in all the different food and travel accounts around, so I shelved my first blog and started The Determined Diner instead. I learned two lessons from this. Firstly, it’s not the end of the world to call time on one thing and over again; secondly, you need to write about what you love. Blogging should be fun, not a chore.

Choose your platform
This is where I get the most questions. How did you start your own blog and create your own website? Especially if you don’t know ANYTHING about websites?? I had always thought it would be really difficult – that I had would have to learn how to code or pay someone else to create something for me. And how would I maintain it? I was so wrong. A quick Google search turned up everything I needed. First off, I discovered WordPress which makes life so easy. They have loads of free website templates that you can customise and the back-end, where you write your posts, is really user-friendly. As it’s so popular, there are plug-ins for everything that you could possibly want your website to do – from SEO to social media buttons. Again, these are super-easy to work with through WordPress. Oh and it’s free!

You can choose between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. If you choose WordPress.com then WordPress also host your blog – but your URL will have the WordPress suffix. If you choose WordPress.org then you can use a domain name and URL of your choosing but you will need to pay for hosting and for purchase of a domain. Which leads us to the next stage….

Choose your host and domain name
Your domain name is very important – it’s essentially the name of your blog, so make sure it’s one that you’re happy with and one that’s easy for others to remember. I chose to go down the WordPress.org route and generate my own domain name. To do this, I used GoDaddy and, again, it was ridiculously easy. Once you’ve chosen your domain name, just type it into the search bar on the GoDaddy homepage and see if it’s available. You will then have to purchase it on an annual basis but it’s usually not a huge amount of money – mine is £6.99 a year.

One of the reasons I chose GoDaddy is that they are synced up with WordPress. So if you choose WordPress as your platform, it’s then really easy to get started. You just click the WordPress option on the GoDaddy homepage and away you go. Again, if you go down this route there is a cost for hosting. I pay just over £17 a quarter but there are different plans available, depending on what you want.

Choose your social media channels
You can write a blinding article but if you don’t tell anyone you’ve done it then you’re basically shouting into the void. Admittedly, blogging (and social media) can sometimes feel a bit like that anyway, but you need to share your work because the chances of someone just randomly stumbling upon your masterpiece in Google are basically non-existent. Especially when you first start your own blog. This is where social media comes in; it’s your platform to tell the world about your awesome new blog. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat or a combination of any or more of these, you’ll quickly work out what suits your needs best and what you enjoy using most. Follow and interact with other accounts that interest you to build up a following and get to know likeminded people at the same time.

Starting this blog has not only resulted in me learning new skills; it has opened so many doors and provided so many amazing opportunities for me. It’s also given me something to focus on when my health has been poor – in fact, that was one of the reasons I started writing in the first place. Whatever your motivation, starting your own blog could end up being more rewarding than you could ever imagine.

Now all you need to do is start writing. Good luck with your new blog!

How and why did you start your own blog? What platforms do you like to use? Let me know in the comments.

Fort Kochi: Where to eat great food

Fort Kochi: Where to eat great food

Fort Kochi is the perfect introduction to India. If you’re a first time visitor to the sub-continent, the chilled out state of Kerala, with its palm trees, fishing nets and spice gardens, will gently welcome you with just enough Indian verve to make you feel like you’re somewhere truly exotic, yet with minimal hustle and hassle. If you’re an old hand when it comes to the chaos of India then Fort Kochi will seem like a a long cool drink of water. This historic, bohemian town – shaped over time by the Portuguese, the Dutch, Catholics, Hindus, Jains, Jews and so many more – is a hub of local artists, colourful cafe culture and fascinating local life. It’s difficult to find bad food in Fort Kochi but you can be a little overwhelmed by choice. Here’s where to head to first.

Dal Roti
This stripped back, simple restaurant is super popular and for good reason. The North Indian food is excellent, the portions are generous and it’s ridiculously cheap. We ordered the chicken biryani and the mutton thali – both of which were incredible. I’m always a bit wary around mutton as it risks being tough and chewy, but in this instance it just fell apart. The biryani was huge and easily one of the best I have ever eaten – and believe me when I say I’ve eaten a lot. Decent lassis, warm service and a full belly for less than a fiver? Winning.
Dal Roti, Lilly Street/Elephanstone Road, Fort Kochi

Kashi Art Cafe
Like almost every tourist, we took up almost permanent residence in Kashi Art Cafe. Tucked away down pretty Burgar Street, this garden cafe cum art gallery is hot property. Their breakfasts are legendary – you can choose from the likes of French toast, turbo-omelettes, homemade granola and even cinnamon breakfast cake (yes, breakfast cake!!!) – as are their chocolate brownies. A good mix of Indian and Western dishes is available all day until 10pm. Go for the art, the vibe and the food; stay for the lovely staff, the wifi and the excellent masala chai.
Kashi Art Cafe, Dist Ernakulam, Burgar Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Oy’s Cafe
Also located on Burgar Street, Oy’s is boho, artsy and perhaps wouldn’t be too out of place in the likes of Shoreditch – only there’s no London prices or hipster wankers here! This vibrant jewel of a cafe serves up excellent all-day breakfasts and a limited, yet incredibly delicious, evening menu cooked by local Indian women. Lounge against colourful cushions, admire the art on the walls, sip on one of their powerful ginger concoctions (Cochin is known for its ginger) and pimp your social media feed at this Instagram-friendly haunt. Don’t miss out on one of their super-naughty, super-decadent milkshakes!
Oy’s Cafe, 1/390 Burgar Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel
We would never have found this place had we not asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us somewhere for a good biryani. Hidden away down the labyrinthine streets of Mattancherry is Kayees; a spit and sawdust restaurant that’s home to (allegedly) the best biryani in town. We were the only foreigners in the place, which was packed with Indian families – always a good sign. Expect no frills, maybe a few curious stares and plates piled high with THE most delicious biryani. I looked at mine and thought “there’s no way I’m going to even make a dent in this and then I’m going to look so wasteful” but funnily enough I cleared my plate. Our tuk-tuk driver asked me to marry him.
Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel, New Road, Mattancherry, Fort Kochi

Teapot Cafe
Another gorgeous gem of a cafe – Fort Cochin really does spoil you! This peaceful, saffron-coloured retreat is housed in a crumbling, high-ceilinged old building liberally decorated with different teapots from across the years. What would be twee in the UK somehow manages to be quirky in Fort Kochi. The softly-spoken, smiling staff guide you through their fabulous food and drink menu. The tea selection is extensive, and you can also get “tea bites” like Indian rarebit alongside more substantial offerings such as the local fish moilee (a green, coconut-based curry) or Kerala fish curry. A yummy cake selection is available too.
Teapot Cafe, Peter Celli Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Fusion Bay
It’s a known fact* that you cannot visit Kerala and not eat a fish curry. Kerala is known as the Land of Spices due to its historic spice trade routes, and curries here are flavoursome rather than face-meltingly hot. Coconuts grow in abundance in Kerala so they are frequently used in cooking, giving a milder, creamy feel to dishes. And of course, fish is a food staple around the coast. Fusion Bay feels a bit like an old fashioned curry house found in the UK but they do a mean – and great value – fish curry. Go for the fish masala or fish moilee and mop up the delicious sauce with appam – spongy bread made with fermented rice and coconut milk.
Fusion Bay, Santa Crus Basilica Junction, KB Jacob Road, Kunnumupuran, Fort Kochi

*In my world

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

To say that we were a bit wet is an understatement. Our hike through the verdant tea plantations of the Sri Lankan highlands was cut soggily short with the arrival of the downpour to end all downpours. As we waited for our tuk-tuk driver in a nearby cafe, the thought of returning to our chilly and damp guest house did not fill us with excitement. We were desperate to get out of our sodden clothes and have a hot shower, but we knew that nothing was going to dry at our current abode. A cheeky thought occurred to us…why not treat ourselves to a night at The Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya – former home of the Governor of Sri Lanka – is a testament to the old-fashioned British influence that still lingers in this part of Sri Lanka. The town itself is known as “Little England” and the climate is certainly very reminiscent of home! The centre of Nuwara Eliya is very much like the majority of Sri Lankan towns but the outskirts tell a slightly different story. Here, deep among the shade of cool deciduous trees and golf courses, you will find grand colonial buildings of a by-gone era. Here is where you will find The Grand Hotel.

This luxury establishment discretely whispers elegance; from the manicured lawns to the white-jacketed staff. Of course, we totally destroyed this by rocking up in a tuk-tuk with our huge backpacks, wet and covered in mud, blaring Bob Marley at full volume. Never let it be said I don’t know how to make an entrance… The staff didn’t bat an eyelid at their new, rather careworn, guests. Our bags were taken from us and we were ushered into the lounge, where we were given hot vanilla tea and handmade fudge. It was like they read my mind and knew exactly what I needed to feel 100% better.

Our room wasn’t HUGE for a five star hotel, but there was still plenty of space for two people with lots of luggage to be able to move around comfortably. Best of all there was a heater – perfect for drying wet shoes. The bathroom – yes, proper bathroom not a sodden, slippy wet room – had an actual bath and endless hot water. Hot shower, white bathrobe, dry clothes = a substantially happier me. The only niggle was that there is no wifi in the bedrooms, only in the common parts.

We’d actually visited The Grand Hotel the previous day, so already had a feel for what it offered. Next stop on our road to feeling human once again – high tea. This is offered every day at The Grand Hotel from 3:30pm in another nod to British tradition. Softly-spoken staff pour endless cups of tea as you nibble on a mixture of British and Sri Lankan-inspired treats. And if you want something a bit stiffer than tea, the same tea lounge also offers tea-themed cocktails or you can decamp to the subterranean wine bar for a sharpener in front of the open log fire.

There are numerous restaurants to choose from, catering to all culinary tastes. So much so that it was actually a bit difficult to find Sri Lankan food among everything else. We eventually found a few curry options in The Magnolia, but if Thai or Indian or Arabic is your bag – or even if you’re just craving a burger – you can find it at The Grand Hotel. Not surprisingly, breakfast is an event. A mind-boggling variety of food options are available, with a number of items made fresh in front of you. You can even find good old fashioned British baked beans. Go hungry!

The staff at The Grand Hotel were brilliant and helped push our laundry through (we really didn’t want to pack damp, muddy clothes) and organised a driver to take us on the long journey down to Tissamaharama the next day. Our tea plantation hike may have been a wash-out but our experience at The Grand Hotel made up for it somewhat.  If only I had an excuse to dry out in five star luxury every day…

The Grand Hotel, Grand Hotel Road, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Rooms start at £138 per night, including breakfast. We booked through Booking.com for a discounted rate.

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

I’ll be honest. I had never even heard of the Esala Perahera before, let alone considered getting in on the action. But, in one of those wonderful strokes of luck, we arrived in Kandy in time for this most magnificent of Asian festivals.

The Esala Perahera is linked to the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the Sri Lankan hilltop town of Kandy. The temple holds the sacred Buddha’s tooth and, for 10 nights every summer, a grand procession is held to honour this relic. It’s one of Sri Lanka’s – indeed, Asia’s – biggest festivals. So that’s why it helps to be at least a little bit organised if you want to visit Kandy at this time – unlike us! For a start, hotels are more expensive and get booked up much faster. If you want to stay in Kandy but you’re not bothered about seeing the festival, choose a different date. That way you’ll get a much better deal on your accommodation.

Kandy town centre is EXTREMELY busy during the Esala Perahera, making it pretty much impossible to explore at your leisure. People start camping out on the pavement hours before the parade starts and most of the pavements are fenced off, so you either have to climb over the sardine-like sets of families picnicking on tarpaulin sheets laid over the floor or take your chances with the traffic on the road. You also get funnelled through security checkpoints where your bag is searched and you get a very “thorough” pat down. None of this makes for a particularly relaxing experience.

However, gird your loins because it’s totally worth checking out this incredible festival. For a start, you get to see a totally different side to daily life in Sri Lanka. The general sense of excitement is wonderful; people start getting into the party mood well before festivities properly kick off and the streets are filled with vendors selling balloons, flags, whistles, popcorn and other snacks. The festival attracts visitors from all over Sri Lanka and it’s fascinating to observe the anticipation building throughout the day. It’s nothing like anything you would see in the UK.

So, how do you get to watch the parade? You can join the locals on the pavements if you don’t mind making a day of it. It’s free but you’ll need to get there early to get a good spot – and bring plenty of provisions with you. However, you can also buy tickets for the numerous seats that are dotted around town. One of the most popular places for tourists seems to be the Queens Hotel. This old colonial building is located right at the start of the parade route so you will get a great view. Tickets here are very expensive though; you’re looking at paying between $95-$125 per seat! They also tend to sell out pretty quickly so you need to be a bit more organised than we were.

We had done hardly any research before rocking up into Kandy and, in fact, had only found out about the Esala Perahera the night before we arrived. So we literally had no idea what we were doing. The owner of the guest house we were based at said that he could get us tickets for the parade at a cost of 9000 rupees, but he couldn’t tell us exactly where we would be sitting. Without having seen the parade route or even the town, we weren’t confident that we would actually have good seats. However, upon heading into town we saw that there were loads of different seating options available. Pretty much every local business had opened up the front of their shops and/or constructed makeshift balconies with seating. The owners hang around outside selling tickets and most of them will approach you if they see you looking. We simply wandered along the route, checked out a few different places and eventually bought a couple of seats above an electronics shop for 6000 rupees each (about £30).

The only “problem” was that, because we hadn’t got our shit together beforehand, our seats were three rows from the front. All the front row seats tend to sell out in advance so if you want a first-class view then you need to get straight onto it. Bear in mind that you will pay more for a front-row seat, however. We were seated a couple of hours before the parade started as well – it’s basically a case of bagsying your spot. Oh and it can be a bit of a squeeze and a scramble to reach some of the balcony seats, so if you’re wobbly on your feet then look for a seat at pavement level.

Squishing in with a bunch of other tourists and locals was all part of the fun of the Esala Perahera, however. It really helped build a sense of anticipation and when we heard the distant cannon fire, signifying the start of the parade, followed by the sound of the first whip-crackers coming down the road, the excitement was palpable. The parade kicks off with the whip-crackers and incredible fire dancers, who “clear” the streets before the flag bearers arrive, solemnly carrying Buddhist flags. Next up is wave upon wave of dancers and musicians in traditional dress, who become increasingly frenetic as they process down the street. The atmosphere is intoxicating; the frantic sound of drums and pipes swells in the smoke-filled, flame-lit night. After each wave of dancers, come elephants – yes, actual massive IRL elephants. These really are an incredible spectacle. Splendidly caparisoned and covered in fairy lights, they stomp through the streets with costumed riders sat astride.

There are five phases to the Esala Perahera and the tooth relic makes an appearance during the first one. It arrives on the back of the Maligawa Tusker – a huge, magnificently decorated elephant. All the locals stood up and bowed their heads as it passed by (although these days the “relic” is actually a replica; the original stowed safely away in the temple). The other phases of the procession include peacock dancers and female dancers venerating different deities, as Hinduism mixes with Buddhism in that way that is so typical of Asia. We didn’t stay until the end; jet lag was kicking in and the Esala Perahera is very long – something else to bear in mind if you’re visiting. Getting back out of the town centre was a bit tricky and I’m pretty certain I stepped on a LOT of people!

The Esala Perahera is definitely worth it. If anyone really needs any more reasons to visit Sri Lanka, this is one of them. It’s a spectacle like nothing else and was such a wonderful way to kick off my trip to Asia. I can’t wait to see what else I’ll discover over the next few months – but hopefully we’ll try to be a bit more organised from now on!

What amazing things have you accidentally stumbled upon when travelling? Let me know in the comments!

PS. My photos are DIRE because I was sat so far back and it was dark. If you want to get good pics, bag a seat right at the front somewhere and bring the usual low-light equipment.

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

 

Travel photo: Women in village in Nepal playing musical instruments

It’s only a matter of days before you leave London and start your big travel adventure. To say that your emotions are all over the place is an understatement. On one hand, obviously, you’re excited beyond words. On the other, you’re absolutely bloody terrified. Dealing with change is not one of your strong points really, is it. Which is a bit weird because you hate routine as well. How many years have you sat at your desk in work and wished that you were somewhere else? How many times have you got on the tube in the morning and silently cursed the uncomfortable tedium of it? For as long as you’ve lived in London you’ve wanted to do things on your own terms and not be beholden to a boss, a corporation, set hours. And now you’re finally breaking free from all of that and everything you’ve ever dreamed of is about to come true.

Anxiety
But you’re worried. Because that’s who you are – a worrier. Actually that’s putting it mildly. You have anxiety. You suffer from anxiety. This has been medically confirmed, so don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you’re stressed out because you won’t be able to buy your usual brand of moisturiser while you travel through Asia and your skin will shrivel up and it will bug you every day for the foreseeable future. Chances are you’ll be able to find an alternative. Chances are you won’t even care. But these weird, random little things do keep you awake at night, on top of this huge sweeping change that you’re making to your life, because that’s what suffering from anxiety is like. It’s a constant dialogue tapping away inside your head going “what if, what if, what if?”

Travel photo: Man selling pizza in a market outside Camaguey, Cuba

Security
This is where your mass of contradictions really comes into play. You get easily bored, so you yearn for adventure. You long to travel the world because you understand that there is so much more out there then the London bubble. But man, you do love your security. Having your own place, your little home is so important to you. Feeling comfortable in your town – especially a constantly churning, aggressive city like London –  makes you proud. Effortlessly knowing where to go, what to do and who to do it with, gliding from one borough to the next, navigating public transport with ease… Your wonderful group of friends that you managed to make all by yourself (yep, that still amazes you even at the age of 38!). And most of all – having somewhere to retreat to. You’re an introvert so being around other people – even your friends – can eventually become exhausting. You need a place of your own and space of your own. Removing that comfort blanket is terrifying.

But, you know what? All change is terrifying, And you were stagnating and you recognised this. That in itself is an achievement. Actually doing something about it is brave. Because no-one really likes any upheaval to their lives but you went ahead anyway and turned change up to 11. You decided to burn the whole thing to the ground and build something new. Be proud. Yes, it is scary and yes, you will doubt yourself but push on. You know it’s the right thing to do.

Travel photo: Tibetan people in Dharamsala, India

Depression
The black dog. Churchill nailed it with that description. It’s always there, following you around, no matter where you travel to. For a long time you believed that you just needed to escape; that if you could break free from your small life and see the world, see how other people live, keep moving, keep discovering, your black dog would be left behind. But that’s just running away and we all know life doesn’t allow that to work out. Your black dog will follow you to the ends of the earth and there will still be times when he comes too close, when he lies on top of you and wraps his tail around you and you feel like you can’t breathe. When things get bad you retreat to your little house and hole up with snacks, books and Netflix until the storm passes. You won’t be able to do that anymore, so you’ll need to come up with a new security system. But be brave, look that dog in the eye and know that you’re bigger than it will ever be.

And so….
You’re scared. Really, really, really scared. You’re walking around feeling like you’ve stepped off a cliff, hoping that you’ll somehow be able to fly before you reach the ground. Maybe you will and maybe things will go according to plan. Maybe you won’t and you’ll just go splat. Know that is a real possibility and think about how you will deal with that. It might feel like the worst thing ever but it won’t be. No matter what happens, whether you fall or whether you do actually fly, know that you’ll have done something amazing. And that, in itself, is something to be proud of.