We must have had one of the most relaxing vacations ever! We started out with taking an Air Lanka flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. We chose Air Lanka because it's much cheaper than Singapore Airlines. We definitely realized that we're travelling on a "3rd world airline" when we were directed to a special security check area just for Air Lanka! We then had to identify our checked baggage before boarding. Guess they don't want any bombs on the plane! Other than that, we were pleasantly surprised with great food and good service onboard.
The Colombo airport was much more modern and civilized than we had expected. I had thought that it would be similar to the Caracas airport in Venezuela, and we were all ready to face the hoards of "porters" trying to grab your bags. We were glad to spot a woman holding up a sign for "Pederslie" when we got our baggage cleared. She was the wife of our agent, and she also happened to be the ground crew for Air Lanka. We followed her outside to the waiting area where we met up with her husband who had just started the Sunflower Tour Agency. We then started on our long 2 hour journey to the Bentota Beach Hotel, about 70 kms from the airport. Boy, was I glad we didn't decide to get a car ourselves. The Sri Lankan folks are very aggressive drivers. Our agent would pass every car in sight, even though we were mainly on two-lane roads. Sometimes, four cars would squeeze by each other! Unbelievable!
When we finally arrived at the Bentota Beach Hotel, I was completely beat and was red-hot with a fever from my cold. The hotel was actually built on an old Dutch fort. Quite interesting indeed. We felt like we were entering a castle! The hotel lobby had these nice ceiling panels made with batik. That was a nice touch. Our room on the second floor had a fantastic view of the beach. Sri Lankan has lots of tall palm trees everywhere. But the room itself was quite hot and muggy. Apparently, the air conditioning of the hotel was hardly working. I didn't care the first night because I was shivering from the fever anyway. We ordered room service....basically, they brought whatever sandwiches were available. Robert ordered a milk shake, but it was basically strawberry flavored warm milk. Yuk! The tomato and cheese sandwiches weren't bad though, although I thought the cheese tasted funny, like the ones we had in Nepal (Yak cheese!).
We found out at breakfast time that each room was assigned a specific table at the "dining room". After an uneventful and mostly unappetizing breakfast, we headed outside to check out the two baby elephants who were taking their daily morning baths. The elephants were laying in the shallow water, and these workers were riding on them, scrubbing them clean with fresh coconut halves. The elephants really looked like they were enjoying themselves. Since they were mostly submerged in the water, you could see their trunks sticking out of the water once in a while to get some air.
Throughout the hotel grounds, signs of topless women with a cross on top of them were posted on the palm trees. Sri Lanka is mostly a Muslim country, so nakedness is definitely a taboo. I bet the Europeans must not had been pleased with that.
The hotel had quite a large swimming pool with big rocks embedded at the bottom of the pool. Looked quite interesting, but the water was much much too warm! We swam just a little and started sweating all over. Definitely not a refreshing swim. The Indian ocean was much much better. The water was warm but not hot, and Robert and I spent quite a lot of time playing in the waves. The waves could get quite big at times. Robert would lie in the water and try to catch a wave. He got lots of sand in his shorts (hee hee!) I just stood in the water because I was chicken. It was great fun!
Dinners at the hotel were not bad, but the worst part was that the men were expected to wear long pants at dinner time. Considering the fact that the air-conditioning was nothing more than a weak fan, dinner got to be quite a pain. The Sri-Lankan food was much better than the continental cuisine. Most of the guests at the hotel were tourists from Germany or other European countries. They didn't seem to mind the hot stuffy restaurant at all. Strange! Some of these people really overdid it with the sun-tanning. There entire bodies, including their faces, were beet-red in color! It was painful even to just look at them!
Robert bought me a beautiful Ceylon Sapphire and Diamond ring as my early birthday present. It was a good deal even though we just bought it at one of the jewelry stores at the hotel. As our Dutch friend Eveline would say, the ring was "cheapy, cheapy". Apparently, we were the first customer for May day, so our jeweller wanted our business badly. It was funny, because he was taking a nap when we entered the store. I guess business was not good for him that day.
We wanted to rent a water scooter for two that afternoon, but the boat house told us that there were some "problems" that day so they were closing the boat rentals early. We initially thought that their boats need repair or something, but we found out the next day that it was because of the imposed curfew throughout Sri Lanka that evening. The President of Sri Lanka was apparently bombed during the May Day Parade!! Some guy (must had belonged to the Opposition) strapped a suicide bomb to himself so he could kill the President. Scary that anyone would be crazy enough to do that! Good thing that there were no riots or anything after the assassination!
The next morning, we rented a boat to take us on a tour up the river. Our boatmen showed us water monitors (they were lying on tree limbs, and were about 1 foot long) and various birds (eagles, cormorants, etc.) We also stopped by this little hut where two little girls came running to show us their "pets", a mongoose and a baby alligator! The mongoose actually looked quite cute, but I didn't want to pet it in case it bit me. I figured that if mongooses (or is that mongeese??) were tough enough to kill snakes, they couldn't had been that domesticated! We bought a hand-painted wooden elephant as a souvenir of the trip. We later found out that the wooden elephant was missing its tusks... bummer!
When our agent picked us up to take us to the airport for the flight to Male (the capital of Maldives), he showed us the spot where the President was killed. I didn't see anything unusual other than the fact that there were many policemen carrying rifles patrolling there. On our way, we saw lots of white flags and white banners. Air Lanka required us to check in 3 hours before flight time, so we had plenty of time to shop in the duty free area. The shopping was WONDERFUL at the airport! We bought lots of Ceylon tea (the Mango tea was especially delicious), and bought four kinds of cashew nuts. I also bought some cosmetics because the prices were really good. Now, THAT'S duty-free shopping! I was so happy shopping that before I knew it, it was time to board the aircraft. Bummer!
The Male airport was on a completely separate island from Male itself. It was very small, and was basically non-air-conditioned. We were met with a representative from Nika Hotel, and was quickly transferred to the Hummingbird helicopter waiting area. Nika Hotel is on Ari Atoll. It would take about 2 hours for speedboat transfer, so were lucky to get the helicopter transfer instead. The ride on the helicopter was very nice since we got to see all the beautiful islands below us. The Hummingbird helicopter service ran two different helicopters, an American one and a Russian one. Apparently, they had to hire a Bulgarian pilot to fly the Russian helicopter since all the controls were in Russian. After we arrived at the helicopter pad, we then took a 10 minute ride on the boat to get to the Nika Hotel. Boy, what a trip! I was completely exhausted when I got there. But at the reception, they had already laid out fresh pineapple and papaya together with two coconut drinks for us. What a nice surprise! They even had nice cold towels for us...ahhhh.... this is the life!
Nika Hotel was situated on this small island covered with many fruit trees. It was named Nika after a rare tree in the middle of the island. The hotel was owned by Italians but was run by local Maldivians. The bungalows were shaped to look like coral shells. Very interesting indeed! The water around Nika was absolutely gorgeous in all different shades of blue! The only thing that I didn't like about the island was that there was this one bat (at least I hoped that there was only one of them!) that would fly around the pathway at night! Gross! I could even tolerate the little lizards that would run around the island. They looked just like miniature iguanas. When they ran, their tails would swish around, making them look very comical!
We were assigned the Sultan room, and later found out that we got the best bungalow suite on the entire island. Nika Hotel had altogether about 26 bungalows, and each one got its own private beach, well, except for bungalow #1 (to the left of our bungalow). The two young Italian girls (I called them the Italian babes, they looked like twins) in Bungalow #1 were sunning themselves on our beach when we arrived! Imagine my surprise when I saw them right next to my bedroom window! So much for the private beach! Our "public relations" guy told us that their beach was being repaired, and so they were sharing our beach with us. But if we didn't want to share, he would tell them not to go to our beach anymore. Well, I didn't want to chase the two women off our beach, but I didn't want to have them lying by my bedroom either! But I guess Robert and I grossed them out when they saw us lying around on our bed (with our towels) after our shower (we were so beat!) I guess the Italian babes got embarrassed and decided to find another beach themselves. We later found out that they decided to share the beach with some of their other Italian friends. Lucky us!
The Sultan bungalow had two large bedrooms complete with mosquito netting over the beds. The place was furnished with old Sri Lankan furniture, and the bathrooms were actually outdoors! There was even a second bathroom with an outdoor tub. Strange! Since parts of the bungalow were outdoors, there were quite a number of house lizards and ants running around, especially at night. One of the house lizards actually got into the toilet and was doing a backstroke in it. Yuk! The best part of the bungalow was definitely our bedroom as we overlook our private beach. It was really nice to hear the waves lapping away at night! Sort of like a lullaby! There were several ceiling fans throughout the bungalow, but we really wished that they had air conditioning during our first evening there. Somehow our part of the island had very little breeze at night... so that was a drag. On our first night, we kept on waking up every few hours because of the heat. We actually went and took cold showers to keep cool.
Dinner was served from 9pm to 10:30pm! Nika set its time 2 hours ahead of Male time, so I guess it wasn't too late after all. Besides, there wasn't too much to do after dark on the island anyway, except for swimming in the moonlight (which we did the first night...it was really nice!) The moon was glowing on the beautiful water, and I could actually see the sand underneath the water! Anyway, back to dinner. We got one of the best tables at the restaurant because we got the Sultan bungalow, and our waiter's name was Hussein. He was a really nice Maldivian. Lunches and dinners were always a three course affair with tea or coffee at the end. Considering that they had to import mostly all of their foods, I would say that the food was quite excellent. We had excellent pastas with tomato sauces, and we had fresh fish every day. At night, they would usually serve some meat. We also had a Maldivian buffet (curry and rice mostly) one night. The hotel actually grew its own vegetables and fruits. One night, I ordered the lobster as a special meal. Our waiter made beautiful flowers with our paper napkins. It was so pretty!
Next to our tables were this one German couple who seemed to know EVERYONE. The wife had these incredibly long thin legs. I was so jealous. But she had an ugly face and really awful long hair. I told Robert that I would like to have her body but keep my face. He thought that I would look very strange indeed! The German husband had this very very dark tan! He must not had been worried about skin-cancer!
At the other table sat the Italian Doctor and her buddy. I had requested for some cough syrup when we got to the hotel, and ended up getting a quick checkup by the Italian Doctor. She couldn't speak English well at all. It was my first checkup in Italian! That was funny. Apparently, the hotel always invited a Doctor to be on the island for medical emergencies.
>From our dinner table, we could sometimes see the moon rising over the horizon at night. It was a really beautiful sight to see the moon rising over the clouds! Too bad we didn't have a camera to capture it on film.
There was an open air aquarium not far from the restaurant. We would take our bread to go feed the turtles, fish, and sharks (they didn't like bread) nearly everyday. It was really fun to see the turtles fighting for the bread! The German couple had this ritual where only one of them would go feed the turtles during every meal. Strange...
Sure seemed like everyone else smoked except for us. I guess it was because the hotel guests were mainly Italians and Germans, and that smoking was quite common in Europe. Oh well... We just made sure that we didn't linger too long among the smokers. The main activities before and after dinner were to gather at the coffee-shop to have drinks. I particularly enjoyed our pre-dinner drinks since we could see the beautiful sunsets. Drinks were very expensive in the Maldives since the Government does not allow Moslems to drink. It was a major offense to smuggle in alcohol in the Maldives. Even our bartenders were not Maldivians. The Government would import Sri Lankans, etc. to act as bartenders. Robert's favorite drink was the Coca Dorato, a very potent mixture of coconut, Rum, and Galliano. Since I had a bad cold, my favorite was Coke with Lime (they call them Limon over there). They would serve the drinks with finger sandwiches (tuna and tomato, or olive spread), green olives and fresh coconut. All very yummy! One night, I fed the tuna-fish sandwich to the cat "Lumpy". This one white and gray cat would always show up at the coffee shop at night. He had one bad leg and would hobble around. I called him Lumpy (or Lumpaceous) because he had these scratches and scars all over his body. I guess it was tough to be an island kitty. Apparently, he was one of the five cats on the island. Lumpy was nice and friendly enough. He would always meow for attention, and loved getting petting from me. Robert tried petting him with his foot once, and Lumpy let out this awful meow after a while. He then kept staring at Robert's foot while meowing in this awful tone. Robert was sure that Lumpy was going to attack his foot! It was so funny!
My favorite activity on the island was definitely snorkelling! We could actually snorkel right from our beach. There were an amazing number of fish on the coral about 30 yards from the beach. We even fed them once, and these neon colored fish were very aggressive and even bit our fingers to try to get at the bread. It was fun! There was a short "wall" or drop-off in the coral, where we could see large schools of fish swimming along the wall. I couldn't believe all the marine life! Actually, before we discovered snorkelling right along the island, we went on this snorkelling trip to one of the outer reefs. The water was very choppy that day, and I was getting quite nauseas from the sea. Everybody else (there were only four of us) jumped into the sea from the boat, but I refused. So they got me this ladder which I hung on for dear life. I was so nauseas that I wasn't sure what would be better. In the water or on the boat. Good thing I decided to go ahead with the snorkelling anyhow. We actually saw a manta-ray swim by. The ray was a very fast swimmer. Robert tried to catch up with him, but he just kind of "flew" away. The other German couple saw a small reef shark. One of the local Maldivians from our hotel snorkelled along with us. He used no flippers at all, just stuck a mask and snorkel on. All the Maldivian men wore these long sarongs. It was really funny to see him in the water with this sarong. When we swam back to the boat, we had to swim outside the reef area where there was this incredible wall. I didn't have my contact lenses in, so I couldn't see how deep the water was all of a sudden. All I knew was that the water turned a very intense shade of green. Robert said he looked and couldn't see the bottom at all. Scary!
Since I caught this awful cold, we didn't get to try any diving at all. But the snorkelling was just fine for me. I had never seen so many fish in my life. The best part was that I could go snorkelling any time in the day right from the beach, and then go into the bungalow for a shower before coming back out to the beach to lay around. Sometimes we could see the water turning dark from all the schools of fish. Many of them would actually jump out of the water, making splattering noises. That was very entertaining! Our beach always had one or two cranes that would stand there patiently waiting for an unsuspecting fish to swim by. Robert would always try to get close to them, but they were awfully shy. So he would start running after them. These poor cranes would let out these awful noises when they were terrorized by Robert.
Maldives was having its rainy season, but we were fortunate to have only periodic showers from time to time. Actually, we enjoyed the showers because it would bring some relief to the hot weather! One afternoon, there was a big storm outside, and we actually spotted two water spouts! Robert was really happy because he had never seen water spouts before.
Lots of people were learning diving, including the Italian Doctor. One night, a group went on a night-diving trip. While we were sipping our pre-dinner drinks, they put on all their gear and just kind of disappeared into the water. One of the Germans was kidding to the bartender, saying that he better sign for his check before he went diving, just in case he didn't come back.
We arranged to be dropped off on a deserted island not far from the hotel. It was really strange to be there all by yourself. We spent the morning walking around the island, and Robert saw this black and white water snake in the water not far from where he was standing! Good thing I didn't see it because I would definitely have freaked out! Robert even tried to take a picture of it, although it didn't turn out very well. The snake was about 1 foot long. It was my understanding that all water snakes were very poisonous, although they didn't usually attack unless they were provoked. Still, the thought of us lying there on the deserted island dying from the poisonous snake bite was not a good one! It was quite hot and sunny that day, so we did some snorkelling around the island. We saw these very cute clown-fish (orange and brown with white stripes) that hang out in the anemones. Anemones were something like living coral and were poisonous. The clown-fish would secrete this mucus so that the anemones would think that the clown-fish were actually part of the anemones. This way, the clown-fish would be protected from other predators. They were really very cute. When Robert waved in the water with his hand, they would hide in the anemones, and then peek to check whether he was gone!
We also went fishing twice. Robert caught this 40 lb grouper, a very fat fish with an awful looking mouth and teeth, and also this 80 lb (6 to 7 feet long) Blue Marlin (or Sailfish, with this very beautiful blue fin and a nose like a swordfish). I caught these two much smaller fish by comparison. Boring! I did nearly get pulled overboard by this other Blue Marlin. He actually bit the steel leader off and got away. That was quite exciting! The fishermen hardly spoke English, but they were all very nice. All the fishing was done with just a hook with fish as bait and a piece of fishing line. For the big fish (caught during Trawling Fishing), we had a big piece of rope attached to the fishing line. No fishing rods at all! It was really amazing to see one of the fishermen pull in this great big shark (about 9 to 10 feet, I would say) with his bare hands! He also caught another smaller reef shark (about 2 to 3 feet). We took a picture of him holding his trophy before he let the little shark back into the water. That shark went bounding all over the deck in a fury. Robert's fisherman actually got on the bench to get away from the shark. It was so funny to see Robert's grouper jumping around madly, splashing water onto one of our fishermen's eyes. Everyone was laughing really hard. The Maldivians really keep their fishing boats very clean. They would clean and scrub with sea water every time a fish touched the deck. During our fishing trips, we also saw schools of dolphins playing in the water. They would gracefully jump in and out of the water. What a sight it was!
Apart from fishing, we spent some time playing "Travel Scrabble" and kayaking. As the slogan goes..."Maldives, the art of doing nothing!", I figured that we did alright! We could sure get used to this life! It was really sad to leave the place, although I missed Tiggra and Teddy badly. I stared at the blue waters as we took our boat ride to the helicopter pad, and I saw this spotted ray go by. It was beautiful! On the way back to the Male airport, since there were only three passengers, Robert actually got invited to go sit in the helicopter cockpit. He took lots of nice pictures of the islands below, and spent some time talking to the Bulgarian pilot.
Time to go back to Colombo for one night before flying back to Singapore. The Male airport was FILLED with local Maldivians who were seeing their relatives off on their trip to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia to pay pilgrimage...this was supposed to be their journey of a lifetime). It was really funny to see a huge Boeing 747 being filled with these folks all dressed in white robes. Looked like a giant Toga party!
We stayed at the Hotel Lanka Oberoi in Colombo. It was quite nice and luxurious in comparison to the simple bungalows we were used to. We had asked for a suite, and it turned out to be two adjourning rooms! They took out the bed in the other room and put in sofas. So much for a suite! Apparently, the occupancy rate was so low there that they could afford to have these "suite" arrangements. Our room was quite nice as it overlooks the swimming pool. After another hot and totally unrefreshing swim at the swimming pool, I went for a quick massage at the Health Club, while Robert read his newspaper (first time in over a week) by the pool. There were these big crows all standing around the pool, hoping to get a scrap of food. There were a lot of expatriate families around the pool area. Apparently, the hotel pools were one of the few hangout joints in Colombo.
For dinner, we tried out the local restaurant at the hotel called the "Ran Malu". We ordered all Sri Lankan curries. Yummy! We really like Sri Lankan food. They even had a band playing Sri Lankan music (sounded like Mexican music to us though). The food prices in Sri Lanka were very reasonable. The entire dinner with drinks came to about US$30. Not bad!
Well, all in all, we had quite a wonderful time at Sri Lanka and Maldives. I really want to visit Maldives again. I will never forget the beautiful blue waters....