Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

2016 Sri Lanka and Maldives


The first 4 weeks of my 2 months South East Asia adventure will be spent in Sri Lanka with my good friend (and previously weekend trip travel buddy) Linda. I will meet my long time travel buddy Fredrik in the Philippines for the last 4 weeks. It is always a bit scary to travel with someone new, but so far it has been amazing although different. Fredrik and I usually move around a lot, and always have a lot of plans for things to see and do. Linda is teaching me to slow down and relax, which turns out to be pretty great too.

We arrived in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, after travelling for about 20 hours. Emirates were great, but none of us could sleep much on the flights, so we barely managed to stay awake until 7 pm before crashing for more than 12 hours. Our first impressions of Sri Lanka were that it was very green and that everyone are super friendly. Unawatuna is a small beach town on the west coast, known for its beautiful beaches and corals. Both were badly damaged by the tsunami, but the beach is still beautiful, and the coral reefs are getting better.

Our hotel, Prime Time, was located across the road from the beach. It had Swedish owners, but the manager and the staff were locals. Quite good value for money, but our backs were not too happy with the mattresses. We had peacocks, squirrels, lizards, birds and probably a lot more on the roofs and in the jungle around the hotel. Most if the time we had the shared balcony outside our room to ourselves (except the mosquitoes). We also had some drinks with staff and friends in the common area downstairs.

Most of our time in Unawatuna we spent on the beach
(or in the water actually) and in the many beach restaurants (preferably the ones with shadow and ceiling fans). It was warm and quite humid, and with 30 degrees Celsius in the water it was difficult to cool off. Sun beds were free if you bought some food and drinks, so we had
breakfast or lunch at the beach most days, and lots of fresh pineapple juice. A few people were walking around selling clothes, blankets, coconuts, souvenirs and offering tours, water sports and massages, but they were all very polite and actually took no for an answer. We got very fond of one of them, Auntie Coco, which we had a long talk with one evening.

There is only one street through town, and we walked parts of it several times every day. The tuk tuk drivers and shop owners all said hi, and when we didn’t want to buy anything they still wanted to talk or at least wish us a good day. After a few days it felt like we had friends all over town (even though they kept calling us madam). 😀 I also have to mention the quite annoying bread van (tuk tuk) driving around and playing Für Elise day and night.

We tried several different restaurants, and had so much great food. Even the more western dishes were served with some amazing local sauces, which made all the difference. Our favourite restaurant was without a doubt, Kingfisher. The first time we went there was in the middle of a thunderstorm, and we had water over our ankles on our way there. They had large, solid tents on the beach though, so we had a great time watching the rain and lightning. We even had a scorpion on the beach, trying to escape the water. All the dishes we had there were top notch, and especially their Brandy-zucchini sauce was to die for. The creamy pineapple daiquiri was amazing as a dessert, and the service was really great too.

As many of you know, we are fond of good craft beer. In Unawatuna there was only one beer available, Lion lager. Not a bad beer, but quite boring after a while. Luckily we were able to buy Lion Strong (just ok) and Lion Stout (surprisingly good) at the wine store at the main road. In the evenings we often had a couple of drinks instead of beer. Drinks made from fresh fruit are actually quite delicious, especially while lying in a pillow-filled bed at the beach listening to the waves.

We had a daytrip to nearby Galle fort. Our tuk tuk driver suggested a short stop in a herbal garden on the way there, and it was actually quite interesting. We got to taste, smell and try a lot of the different herbs and plants, and even ended up with a little shopping at the end. Galle fort was built by the Dutch in 1663, and is still a vibrant part of the city. It has lots of historic houses, churches, mosques and temples, but it was too hot for us to walk around, so we only saw a few of them. We also had a walk on the fort walls to the 18 meter high lighthouse. We had lunch in a hammock bar in the recently restored Dutch Hospital, a beautiful colonial building from the 18th century overlooking the small lighthouse beach. On our way back to Unawatuna we stopped at the spice market for some shopping and local recipes.

Another highlight was a deep tissue massage at The Sanctuary Spa. It really lived up to its name. The experience started in a beautiful and serene garden, and from the massage bed I had beautiful views of the surrounding jungle. The massage itself was really good (although a bit painful at times), and afterwards I enjoyed a fresh coconut in the peaceful garden. Lovely!

In between all the relaxation, I also had time for some scuba diving. I decided to go with Unawatuna diving center, which seemed more professional than most of the smaller places. They were very accommodating, drying and storing my gear between dives, offering free transport to and from the hotel, did all the heavy lifting and always had time for questions. They also had small groups (3 divers + guide), which was really nice. Since the water was so warm, I didn’t even need a wetsuit, just a thin rash guard. I did all dives in the morning, when the visibility was best, around 10-15 meters. The dive sites I visited was SS Rangoon wreck, SS Orestes wreck, Galle wreck and Goda Gala Diyamba. Lots of colorful fish, starfish everywhere, lionfish, cuttlefish, a giant moray out swimming and 5-6 large octopuses. Nice!


We booked a private air conditioned car from Unawatuna to Tangalle, an even smaller beach town on the south coast. There was a problem with one of the tires, so we had a short visit at a turtle hatchery & hospital while the driver got it changed. In one pool around twenty 10 days old turtles were swimming around, ready to be released in a couple of days. There were also several turtles injured by fishing nets that were receiving treatment, and one disabled turtle swimming in circles. We also had a short stop in Weligama to see the poles used for stilt fishing, and in Mirissa to see yet another beautiful beach.


After 2,5 hours we arrived at our hotel, Ceylon Sea Hotel & Spa, where there was a wedding party going on in the garden. The hotel was less than a year old, and is rated as a 4 star hotel, but it didn’t really live up to the expectations. The location was superb, with a short walk through the garden to a beautiful beach, but with weddings in the garden pretty much every day (starting with loud drums at 8 am) it wasn’t that easy to reach after all. The hotel is built with the balconies away from the sea, there was two dining room chairs and no table on the balcony, the 24-hour reception closed at 4 pm, the spa was a yoga instructor with a table, and none of the other advertised facilities were available (including internet). The young trainees were superb tough, showed us around, fixed what could be fixed, and always met us with a huge smile.



In addition to the loud weddings, we also had quite a bit of rain while in Tangalle, so we spent a lot less time at the beach than originally planned. But we spent a lot of time in the warm ocean, fascinated by the waves, the super soft sand bottom and “being all alone in the sea”. We went to the local bottle shop to buy some dark beer, which was kind of a crazy experience. Locals pretty much climbing on top of each other waving money around, but after a while one of them helped us to the front of the line. There were not a lot of tourists at all in Tangalle, so everybody wanted us to eat at their restaurant (mainly family owned places it seemed). We had dinner twice at Sea View restaurant, which was highly recommended on Tripadvisor, had really good food, a few cozy tables at the beach and a very friendly waiter (Lali). Our first night there it started raining, so we were invited for some arrack and soda with the owner and friends until it stopped.


We also had dinner at Kura restaurant one day. Afterwards we were invited over for some drinks with some locals and an American couple. We had a great time for a few hours, but then more and more friends kept showing up, and they all wanted a piece of us, so we figured it was time to leave. Friendship Beach Bar was also an interesting place at the beach. It was very laid back, and some young locals were playing drums and guitar. They were quite good when playing local songs, but we struggled to keep a straight face when they tried to sing modern pop songs. Fun for a while though. All in all, Tangalle was not the paradise we were hoping it would be, but we still had a good time there, and it felt a lot more genuine than Unawatuna.



It was a 4 hour drive from Tangalle to Colombo, but with a lot to see along the road. Several temples, one with two elephants living in the garden, small towns and larger cities, an area known for cashew nuts had stands selling these every few meters, an old Portugeese fort, a romantic beach full of couples with umbrellas, crazy traffic, pimped up tuk-tuk’s and full families on small scooters. In Colombo there were some demonstrations towards the new government, for raising taxes and fines with several 100 percent, but our driver was prepared and got us to the hotel without any problems.


Our hotel, Cinnamon Red, was everything Ceylon Sea was not. Efficient, elegant, artsy, 24 hour service, quiet, great food, surprisingly cheap and with an amazing roof top terrace with an infinity pool on the 26th floor. We probably spent more time in the hotel than we should have, but we had such a great time there, and never really figured out Colombo. The city was quite loud and dirty, and we didn’t really find any nice areas to walk around. We spent a lot of time trying to find a cheap place to do laundry, and ended up in a strange place with no signs quite far from the hotel. When picking it up the next day, the place was closed, and after calling the owner we still had to wait 45 minutes for someone to show up.


We booked a 4 hour city tour, but got a very strange driver, driving in 20 km/h most of the time, and who was more interested in showing us bus stations and military buildings than the actual sights. We still got to see Galle face green, the parliament, the lighthouse, the Independence Hall, Sambodhi Chaithya stupa, several beautiful mosques and churches, an impressive Hindu temple, old and new city hall, large hotels, ports, courts and statues. We had a relaxing stop at Beira Lake, with a romantic island in the middle and several couples in swan-shaped boats on the lake. The most interesting stop of the tour was Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, built in a mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese architecture. The temple itself with statues, pagoda, Bodhitree and assembly hall was interesting, and we got very fascinated by the museum. It contained some old artifacts and a lot of worthless gifts and souvenirs (like old pens, beer mugs etc.).



We spent a lot of time in Colombo booking the rest of our trip. High season starts in the middle of December, and it was a lot harder to find good and cheap places to stay. The biggest challenge was the train ride to Kandy. We were told we needed to pay in advance for luggage online, but after several email back and forth with the helpdesk we gave up and asked the reception to call them. We were advised to go to the station to arrange everything, but their printer didn’t work and they said we could pay for luggage on the train (which we never did).


Our best meal in Colombo was without a doubt at Lagoon restaurant. It is part of the posh Cinnamon Grand Hotel (with pink Christmas trees and decorations all over the place), but is located in a quiet, green oasis in the back. You pick the seafood of your choice from their display, and select how it should be prepared. We ended up with a starter (lobster tail), and 1,5 main dishes (Tuna steak and a couple of scampi in a sauce that sounded too good to miss). Everything was absolutely delicious, and we even had room for a small dessert in the end. Great night!


 We took the highly recommended scenic train ride from Colombo to Kandy, even though it meant we had to get up at 5.30 am. We bought first class tickets and expected an observation deck and a bit of luxury. What we got was dirty windows, seats falling apart and a bun filled with onion for breakfast. It was a really bumpy ride, so we didn’t dare to accept the tea or coffee being served. The views were not that spectacular either, probably because we are spoiled Norwegians. A few waterfalls and some hills far away wasn’t that impressive, but it was interesting to see all the people living along the railway and how green it was everywhere. We arrived 30 minutes after schedule and were picked up by a driver from the hotel. Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka, but it felt a lot smaller. It was a little bit colder (but still warm) since it’s 500 meters above sea level, and the city center was nice to walk around in with lots of shops, restaurants and markets. We stayed in Hotel Suisse, located close to the artificial Kandy Lake, and just a short walk from the city center. The colonial style hotel had large rooms, an open-air reception, a classy bar, a billiard room, a nice garden and a big pool. During our lunch just after we arrived, we got a visit from two of the monkeys living in the trees surrounding the hotel. They finished our sandwich, licked the ketchup jar clean, and even had some salad for dessert. Fun!
 We spent a bit of time in the hotel, just relaxing by the pool, watching the hundreds of bats living in the trees by the pool, playing snooker, talking to other guests and having a massage. The only problem was that they didn’t have Lion beer (there were some delays in deliveries because of a recent flood), and the alternatives were quite tasteless. But they had some nice cocktails, and very accommodating staff (although quite slow as in the rest of the country). We had dinner in the garden two evenings. There was a buffet dinner, but they had a terrible keyboard player singing in the corner, so we stayed away. The first night we shared a curry, and the waiter got a bit eager bringing all kinds of side dishes from the buffet, so we couldn’t even finish half of it. The next day we shared an Australian beef, which was really, really good.
 We did some sightseeing while in Kandy as well. We went to a nearby tea factory named Geragama, where we got to taste some of their tea, have a short walk around the plantation and a guided tour around the factory. All their machines (except one) were over a 100 years old (left by the British), and they were doing a lot of manual work like turning the drying leaves. We learned about the process of making the different tea types and about the different qualities of their finished products. We also bought some tea to bring home to Norway.
 We also stopped at a view point with great views over the city center, the lake, the large Buddha overlooking the city, temples and the surrounding hills. We visited Temple of the tooth, which houses Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha. You don’t get to actually see the tooth, but there’s a lot of other relics, statues and paintings telling the history of the tooth.

Cultural triangle

We had planned a few stops on the way from Kandy to Habarana, but it started raining on the way, so we skipped most of them. The Hindu temple “Sri Muthumariamman Thevasthanam” in Matale was an interesting stop though. Beautiful statues and decorations with incredibly many details. Sadly it was closed, so we were not able to see the inside of the temple.


We spent quite a bit of time in Colombo deciding where to stay in the Cultural Triangle. We ended up in Habarana Village by Cinnamon, which was pretty much in the middle of all the things we wanted to see in the area, and we got a very good discount. We had our own little house, with plenty of space, and a nice porch outside. It was located close to a lake, had some monkeys, squirrels and iguanas on the grounds, large gardens, a treehut and a beautiful multilevel pool. We also had access to the spa, travel desk and other facilities at the neighbor hotel, Cinnamon Lodge, but that was quite expensive. We still had a wonderful “couples massage” there, and booked the elephant safari through them, mainly because we didn’t have time to organize anything else.


We were really lucky with our safari guide, Kalum. It was just the two of us in the back of his jeep, and there was so much to see, so we were standing most of the trip. He spotted even the tiniest of animals that all other cars drove right past. We saw alligators, lizards, all kinds of birds and eagles, peacocks, monkeys and two large groups of wild elephants. We spent a lot of time watching them eat, flirt, play and protect the small kids. Awesome! We were served fresh pineapple half way through the safari, and Kalum had so many stories to tell and information to share. We were happy to book with him for 2 more sightseeing days.




The day we were going to Dambulla and Sigiriya it was raining, but we decided to go anyway. In Dambulla that was actually a good thing, because there were not a lot of people there at all. Our guide, Kalum, knew a shortcut, so we only had to walk the upper part of the steep trail to the top. 5 of the 80 caves dating back to the 1st century BC were open to the visitors, and they contained a lot of statues, murals and paintings related to Gautama Buddha and his life. There’s also 3 statues of Sri Lankan kings and 4 statues of gods and goddesses. We also had a short stop at Dambulla Golden Temple downhill from the cave temple. We ended up skipping Sigiriya rock, since it was barley visible through the clouds.



Our last sightseeing day in this area we went to the royal ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sri Lankas capital in the 11th century. It was a very warm and sunny day, so it was hard to walk around a lot, but we got to see the most important sights. The area contains hundreds of ancient structures, tombs and temples, statues and stupas and a museum displaying a lot of the relics found in the area. One of the highlights were Potgul Vehera or the Library Monastery, a circular shrine where the sacred books were deposited, and the ruins surrounding it. The rock temple, Gal Viharaya, was also impressive with it’s 3 enormous buddha statues carved out of a single granite boulder.



Our resort was a bit outside the city, so we spent quite a bit of time there. They had big buffets for lunch and dinner, but we mainly ordered from the ala carte menu (except one evening). After a couple of days all the people who worked there knew us pretty well, and we were offered free desserts from the buffet (and later soup and salads as well). We’re not really dessert people, but this was too impressive to skip. The first night they had a mediocre keyboard player, but luckily a couple of pretty good troubadours with guitars took over the next evenings, so we had a great time there. We got a lot of recommendations for the rest of our trip, had some great drinks and local arrack, and were given a very cute goodbye present (cookies and chocolate in an elephant shaped box) from the waiters.



We had a boring 4 hours car ride from Habarana to Negombo (close to the airport), with no interesting sights to stop at on the way. We were staying at Beach Lodge, a rustic and quirky small hotel at the beach. The location was good, but the service was very slow, they often closed the doors early and they messed up our booking (because we cancelled the first night), so it took us a lot of time to sort it out and avoid being overcharged. It was nice to be back at the beach though, and we spent quite some time playing in the big waves, relaxing on the sunbeds, watching the sunset and people going out in the traditional wooden catamarans.


It was also nice to be back in a city, where we could get our laundry done, buy a few more gifts, and have plenty of restaurants to chose from. One of our waiters in Habarana Village had recommended the Waves restaurant, and we went there on our first night. We talked a lot to the owner, who had been working as a chef all over the world, and we ordered a big seafood platter, with a lot of delicious food. The waiter who recommended the place also came to visit us in our hotel on our last day there, since he was in town visiting family.


We had a short trip to Negombo City, but it was warm, chaotic and noisy, so we didn’t spend much time there. Instead we enjoyed the quiet, small beach restaurants in our neighborhood. On Christmas Eve we went to the highest rated restaurant in the area, Lords, where they had live Christmas music, the waiters were wearing Christmas hats and there were a lot of happy people celebrating. We spent most of the evening together with a Canadian with a lot of great travel stories to tell. At the end of the evening we all wrote wishes on lanterns and sent them up from the back yard. We also had some Norwegian craft beer and aquavit that we had carried around for 4 weeks, and called home to our families in Norway.



December 25th was kind of a sad day, since Linda was going back to Norway and I would continue to the Maldives. We finished the craft beer, gave away our left-over beer to a happy tourist (no alcohol sales on Christmas day), packed our bags, shared photos and talked about everything we had seen and done the past few weeks. We had such an amazing trip, and it will be very strange to continue alone.

The Maldives

After 3 hours in Colombo airport, and a 1,5 hour flight I arrived in the Maldives in the late evening on Christmas day. I got some cash and a local SIM card, before meeting up with the Emperor crew who would take med to MV Leo. I was picked up together with one guy from Bangladesh and a big group of Chinese divers, which worried me a bit, but it turned out that we were just sharing a dhoni (traditional Maldivian boat) out to our liveaboard boats. The Chinese were going on a separate boat. When we arrived there, most of the other guests had gone to bed, and we had a boat briefing, set up our equipment at the diving dhoni, got our cabins (I got one all to myself) and finally got to sleep around 1 am.

In the next 6 days we had a total of 17 dives, normally 3 dives per day (an additional night dive one day, and only one dive on the last day). We were woken up around 6 am and jumped in the water less than an hour later. Breakfast was served after the first dive, lunch after the second and dinner after the third. Sometimes we moved to a new location between dives, sometimes we stayed in one place and went to the different dive sites in the area using the diving dhoni. The itinerary was called “Best of the Maldives”, and was concentrated around South Male and Ari atolls, but also included North Male and Vaavu atolls. I was teamed up with a Danish dive buddy, and also had an American couple in my group. We were a great group that looked after each other, pointed out things we saw, and when the guys were low on air, Anne and I teamed up and continued a bit longer, so most of our dives were around 60 minutes.

We saw lots of moray eels, turtles, various rays, barracudas, tunas, trivallies etc. We visited a wreck, saw mantis shrimps, stone fish, leaf fish, several different nudibranchs and sea slugs, scorpion fish, large schools of small fish, anemone fish everywhere, beautiful corals and a few octopuses. In some dives we had quite strong currents, and used reef hooks to stay put in the location we wanted. This was mainly to watch sharks or manta rays searching for food or being cleaned by other fish at the cleaning stations. One of my favorite dives was Alimatha Circus on Vaavu Atoll. As soon as we got down a few meters we saw several large nurse sharks, curious to check us out. The biggest ones were 3 meters long, and they got really close, even bumped into some of us. They have really small mouths though, and are not scary at all. We also had two dives at Moofushi in South Ari, enjoying the magnificent manta rays at their cleaning station. Absolutely amazing!

We spent a bit of time searching for whale sharks, hoping to snorkel and dive with them, but the sea was a bit choppy and the visibility was not at it’s best in this area, so we would have been very lucky to spot one. A few evenings we put a big light on the back of the boat shining into the water to attract plankton and small fish. 2 nights we were lucky and got visits from several nurse sharks and manta rays. Especially the manta rays doing loops at the back of the boat was impressive.

We were a very international group on the boat with people from Germany, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, USA, Switzerland, England, Ireland, Spain, Bangladesh and China. Also the bar manager was from Sri Lanka, so I got to use the few words I learned when I was there (mainly “Thank you” and “Cheers”). We didn’t have fixed seats during the meals, so we moved around and got to talk to a lot of different people. There were also several social areas on the boat, and a big sundeck with bean bags and sunbeds on the roof. Great places to relax, talk and have a few beers in the evenings, even though we were a bit unlucky with the weather, with a lot of clouds and some rain.

Our first full day on the boat (December 26th) we had a Christmas dinner. We dressed up the best we could (sarongs, beach dresses and curly shirts), enjoyed a great meal with Turkey and other Christmas food, had free wine, and finished with Christmas cakes, Santa strawberries and other nice desserts. Our last full day on the boat was New Year’s Eve. We anchored a bit away from Male city, but could still see the firework from the city and the surrounding resort islands. We played music, drank prosecco and had a great time on the upper deck.

We also visited a local island, Guraidhoo, with a population of about 2700. Most of them work in the tourist industry, health sector or boat building. The closest resort island was just a short swim away, and the contrasts were significant. We also had a couple of hours in Male city, one of the most densely populated cities in the world (over 130000 in 5,8 square kilometers). The highlight was probably the Italian ice cream we had. Other than that is was noisy, hot and chaotic. On January first we all packed our bags and got ready to leave. Most of the people on the boat were only on a 1-2 weeks trip, and were flying back home, so I got a lot of sunscreen and things they did not need. I also gave away my Sri Lankan SIM card to a couple going there. We shared e-mail addresses, said goodbye to the great crew and went to the airport in the diving dhoni.

After a few hours waiting, I took a 5 hour flight to Singapore, where I planned to spend the night in one of the transit hotels located inside the airport. I had some food and a couple of European beers before I went to get a room. Fully booked! All of them! I checked the nap areas in the lounge, but they were full too. After checking the airport map, I found a quiet snooze lounge at the end of one of the piers, and lay down to try to get some sleep. After a few minutes a nice airport employee covered me in a blanket and gave me water and cookies for free. Wow! With a lot less sleep than planned, I continued my travel to the Philippines early next morning and arrived in Cebu after another 5,5 hours. I did not get any forms to fill out on the plane, so I was almost the last one through the airport. Also my suitcase was missing a wheel when I picked it up, so I had to fill out a damage report. After getting some money from the ATM and buying a local SIM card, I sat down outside waiting for Fredrik to arrive.

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