During one random conversation, my friend told me how obsessed (for lack of better wording) her husband is with Indian trains and the experience that comes with it. He was so intrigued by what he had heard about them that he was pestering her to go to India on their honeymoon just to get a taste of the train experience.
His prime interest- to shove his way in to an overcrowded Indian train!. Would have been quite the honeymoon I must say!!
I’ve had my share of train journeys across India (I was a student living on a tight budget, what did you expect?). I’ve travelled from north to south and west to east, I’ve practically lived on trains for days at an end. I’ve seen the landscape change from the shores of Chenni to Delhi and alongside I’ve seen the cultural change. I’ve seen the language change from Marathi to Bengali and along with it the flavor of food.
I personally have a love-hate relationship with the great Indian railway. It can be the best mode of travel through India and sometimes the worst and in some cases both at the same time.
Haha!! There is no such thing! You decide to take an overnight train? Kid you’re on your own! Unless you travel in first class, having your luggage safe, unattended is a myth. You better have your luggage chained up at all times. Yes! Literally! You can buy these thick metal chains that I’ve never seen in any other country I’ve traveled to, from the train station to serve as your safety companion. You’ll find hooks at the bottom of your seat through which you can run these chains to fasten your luggage. Keep your valuables like your passport very close to you, Fanny packs are ideal for this.
I’m not trying to inflict fear in you but it is what it is! Not just when you’re on the train, but you should be mindful even when you’re on the platform. You will not know from where or when someone would come and take what is yours! You lose concentration for a minute or two and your belongings are gone.
Food on trains are surprisingly good! As long as you have a strong digestive system that is! Bread-omelet for breakfast with chai, Wada and Kur-kure for snacks and railway biryani for dinner is the way to go. Depending on what part of the country you are traveling through the taste of food will change drastically! But the basics will be the same- In the morning you’ll be woken up to a train attendant shrieking “Breeeead Omleeett” and “Chaaaaaaiii” and for lunch and dinner an attendant will come and get your orders a few hours before lunch/dinner time and deliver them to your seat. Paani bottles are ever-present and so are local snacks, including counter fit Lays.
Go vegetarian as much as possible because you don’t want to have an upset stomach given the washroom situation.
Getting your ticket
Indian trains are an experience even before you step on them. You have two ways to get your tickets- one through the ticket counter, other through a sketchy guy from an outside agency. Don’t really know how the sketchy guy works but your name will be on the list, tried and tested (not recommended though). Yes there is a LIST especially on overnight trains, you’ll find this list pasted next to the door of the compartment.
Sketchy guy or not make sure your name is on the list and also check your name and gender on the ticket, because some ( I emphasize on some) ticket collectors may make a scene for the most random reasons specially when your identity proof is a passport. They know you are an easy target to shake a few bucks out of your pocket- yes bribery is a thing on trains too. So best option book in advance, way advance!.
Also make sure you reach the station a while before the departure time, especially if you’re getting on from a major stations, because Indian stations can be confusing! Especially if you are not familiar with the language. They change the platform numbers like it’s no one’s business! So always make sure you check and keep checking your platform number. And if they do change it know that you will have to be ready for a mad dash over crowded connective bridges and through crazy crowds on platforms and also dodge coolies carrying ridiculous amounts of luggage. Also, you might get the chance to reenact the infamous DDLG scene, running alongside a moving train to get in, because being late for a train is not something you can entirely avoid when in India.
A hole on the floor is all you’ve got! You will also find a sink with the most difficult and complicated faucet you will ever have to use, especially on a moving train. You will need mad balancing skills to even wash your hands.
Say what now?
Cleanliness for the most part is a concept that stands no meaning on these trains. It’s not dead right unbearable, but it’s definitely somewhere up there!
But one thing I did notice is that certain trains that run through certain states are cleaner than others.
Now sitting here post(-ish) pandemic and with millions of hygiene practices drilled in to my brain, I genuinely can’t imagine how I survived.
Hoping for a good night’s sleep? Yah keep hoping!! Especially if you get the top most berth. Getting some sleep with all the noise and making sure you don’t fall down, not the most comfortable place to fall asleep. But I surprisingly have the superpower to sleep well on Indian trains, and I prefer the top berth because it’s a little away from the chaos bellow and I even like the sounds and movement of the train.
Again, there is no such thing!!You reserved a seat and you’re under the impression that you’ll get to sit on the whole seat. Think again! You’ll get your average last minute ticket owners that wants a little space on your seat to beggars, floor sweepers to Hijras asking you for money( in some parts of the country) taking up a little bit of space. But they are all just a beautiful part of the experience.
Need a Last minute ticket?
Hope you like sitting/ sleeping on the floor. I’ve done it a few times (not proud of it though, Okay, maybe a little for surviving). It comes handy when time means more than hygiene.
Make friends but keep an eye on anything fishy
Gruesomely long boring train rides can lead to some great lifelong friendships. I’ve had many such encounters and some were life altering. For instance a chance encounter with a Tibetan monk on a train from Agra to Jalpaiguri got me the chance to go to Bhutan back when tourism in Bhutan was not a thing.
But do keep in mind, everyone that is friendly is not your friend.
Yes there are certain trains that run along the great Indian railroad like the Royal Orient that offers its passengers a train ride of a life time with its fancy saloons and sleeping quarters and safe, over the top cuisine. And they are an experience of their own too. But I would choose the noisy second class and its bland vegetable biryani over and over again, because it’s an experience that will give you a taste of what India is really about. And trust me it’s a beautiful journey!
Yesterday while on my way down the rabbit hole that is YouTube I came across a documentary about a man who was shipwrecked and survived for 76 days on a life raft.
76 days with only a life raft, a spear for fishing and a solar stilt to purify water. 76 days of fear, marginal hope and a drive to survive.
Through the 45 min documentary he talks about his journey, the events that happened between the ocean and him and everything in between. But what stood out for me the most is what he said about how he felt during those long and excruciating days alone in that life raft.
Other than his thoughts of survival he said that he kept having flash backs of his previous life. Flash backs of a life before the shipwreck, of things he did and didn’t do. And he kept saying that he had a gut wrenching feeling that he hadn’t “lived” enough. In his own words he had only lived an average live. Being in a situation where he had no idea if he would come out alive, he felt that he hadn’t done enough in his life to be at peace with him.
And that got me thinking, what would I feel if I was in that situation having similar flashbacks? Would I be at peace with my life?
Most of us (minus a few who truly have “lived”) have just had this mediocre existence. We are all caught up in this rat race we wrongly call life. Work, home, work, home-a routine that we are now addicted to. Life has turned out to be so monotonous that it truly doesn’t feel as if we are living anymore.
Every person has a different perspective on what life means to them, each interpretation is different from the other. And moments that make you feel alive are also different from one person to the other. They are all valid, you just need to find what your moments are.
Some might be holding on to a bucket list of things to do to reach that level of content while some may find that peace in life’s’ simple moments. And some like yours truly, a moderate in-between.
These moments can range from wanting to go on the EBC trek (Me!!), go skydiving to sleeping under the Northern lights. Or it can be as simple as opening up a conversation with someone you always wanted to connect with or reading a good book. It’s all your personal choice. The only question is are you at that point where you are content with yourself?
We never know when our “life raft” moment will come, when those flashbacks will come, when those questions of whether we truly lived or not will come, If that moment was right now do you think you will be at peace? You would be content with what you have done in your life?
If the answer is yes, good for you! You’ve truly lived. But if it’s a no, what would you do to change it in to a big fat yes?
When on a relatively unexciting day at work, a friend of ours told us about this beach camping place near Dikwella we went in to a trance of excitement, to say the least and couldn’t wait to get on the next train heading out to Matara, the nearest town to Dikwella. So without even thinking twice we called up the host and booked the closest available date, which was two months away! A much longer wait than we were hoping for! Sigh!
Phase 2- Anxiety Crept in
As time passed by phase 2 start to set in! Do we really know this place? Is it safe? Would we be able to come out with our limbs still attached? How trustworthy was the host? were just a few of the doubts that crept in slowly but steadily and paralyzed the excitement that was bubbling inside of us.
Following many late nights and long hours of research on the place by extensive reading of reviews, scouting out the location via google earth and contacting people who have had been there before phase 3 finally came about just in time for the big day!
Phase 3- Might as well do it!!
Ohh well! We only live once, and we’ve already booked the place so…might as well do it!!
So after a roller coaster ride of emotions I found myself at 5 am on a Saturday morning on a train bound Down South of Lanka. After a 6 hour long bumpy ride and a change in back drop from lush green mountains to picturesque sea side, we reached the city of Matara around 1 pm. And after begging a “Matara-Hambantota” bus conductor who was taking his job way too seriously we hopped on to an overly crowded bus which would take us closer to our destination.
Let me tell you something about mother Lanka, even though it’s one of the tiniest countries in the world and has a similar culture and language spread throughout, the dialect of language used may differ in the smallest possible way from area to area. These changes are no more than a few syllables long, a small difference in the pronunciation or wording here and there. But to the trained ear it may feel quite different!
On that crowded bus, surrounded by people talking in a slightly different way than I’m used to, in a different climate than I’m from, for a split second I was teleported to a place where I felt foreign. And in that moment I thought our overly packed bags or the countless bottles falling from the sky (yes I accidentally placed a bag full of water bottles in the overhead bin and bottles started to fall on to the heads of the passengers sitting bellow..one by one with painful to watch poses in between! cringe!!) will be choked up to mistakes by poor, lost travelers. But thanks to the unnecessarily pushy conductors’ screams, I was dragged back to the reality that I’m just in another tiny corner of my beautiful island and that yes both the bags and bottles bothered other.
So a “Fast and the Furious” sequel of a bus ride, a screaming overly ambitious conductor, a moment where we thought that one of our backpacks were thrown out of the bus and a frightful episode of getting down later we reached the off road that leads to the picturesque little seaside village of Nilwella, where we were to spend the night on a nearby private island known as Blue Beach Island.
We met our host, Mr Suneth near the sand bar that connects this tombola island to the main land and since we had reached there quite earlier than the given time he took us to his home which serves as the base of operation. Here visitors get to take a bath, charge their phones and indulge in all the homey comforts before giving them up for the night. The mother of our host, a kind lady who can make a mean ginger milk tea-the best of its kind I have ever had, is more than willing to assist you in anything you need. And meeting her triggered the lingering feeling of anxiety to evaporate drop by drop.
Once we had settled down and acclimatized ourselves to the surrounding, we made our way to the sand bar where we initially met our host to have some beach time. When I say “some” I mean a few long hours of rolling in the sand and crashing in to the waves like children gone wild. I must say we might have been the most bothersome group our host has had to handle when it came to dragging us out of the water.
Laying on the beach as the sun sets behind us and the waves crashing near our feet, feeling the sand give away beneath us was what we needed to put our minds at ease and embrace this experience full heartedly.
As the nightfall approached we made our way to the camp site nested on a side of the island hidden away from the common world. Since we had spent too many hours in “beach time” we lost the chance to explore the island beforehand and now due to low visibility we had to wait till the morning to see the island in all its glory. –Bummer!! We made our way up the rocky shores and in to the depth of the island with the help of our touches not knowing where we were going, to reached the camp site.
The camp site was quite the fancy affair with Tiki torches lighting the area and at the center was the most coziest looking tents surrounding a roaring camp fire.
Surrounded by the sound of the waves crashing against the shoreline, enveloped in the darkness of the hour, we truly felt like we were cocooned in a different world, truly disconnected from the outside world, in our own small little bubble, lost on an island of solitude away from the highs and lows of the world outside. It felt nice..even for just one night..
Once we had picked sides in our tents and settled down dinner came next. Food wise, while booking the package you get the option of choosing your hearts desired menu, ranging from vegetarian, chicken to seafood. But the host also caters to your special dietary requirements that are not part of the menu. For instance if one of your fellow campers is a vegetarian as was in our case, they make sure to add plenty of vegetarian options so that no one feels left out. Fresh produce sourced locally, grilled in front of you makes the whole dining experience extra appealing to the taste buds.
Once our monstrous apatite was tamed by the never ending supply of food, we gathered around the fire place to stroke a few vocal cords (rather try to!). And while we were busy trying to figure out the lyrics to a song, the moon decided to pay us a visit and show us its majestic ways.
By far the moon that I saw that night was the biggest and brightest I have ever seen in my entire life. It looked like it was right out of the imagination of thousands of artists who have painted the quintessential image of a golden moon glistering over the vast ocean with a lonely boat battling the waves in the far off distance and the silhouette of the lush coconut palms peeking in to the frame from one corner- Noting less than the work of an master artist.
As the night crept deeper and as our silhouettes made dancing shadows on the beach against the roaring fire, I felt at “home”. Accompanied by the moon and the stars I felt a calmness wash over me that was quite new to me. So different from the tick-tock of the ever moving clock of life that we had left behind. Even after a month or so I still feel my heart threads yearn for that peacefulness to envelope me again in its wonderful embrace.
Not many get to experience nights like this sleeping under the stars, listening to the nights highs and lows of the sea. The tent setup was quite comfortable in terms of camping standards, with a rubber mat as the base accompanied by basic plush pillows. Falling asleep listening to the heartbeat of the ocean grow at times restless and at times calm,only to be disturbed by the occasional sound of a trailer boat passing by, was a feeling that no words can describe.
And if you’re feeling adventurous enough and want to feel the wind blow on our skin as you pass in to the world of dreams, you can opt to sleep under the stars, but keep in mind you might get a visit from a friendly mosquito once in awhile.
Following a rather dreamy night, we woke up around 5 am in hopes of witnessing the sun raise that oh so many have praised. With a hot steaming cup of ginger milk tea in our hands we patiently waited for the sun to make its grand appearance over the horizon.
As the wait continued, we were captivated by the scenes and sounds of the arising fishing village in the distance. With its many trailer boats bobbing around the water, fishermen battling with the fishing nets and fighting with all might against the beating waves, some returning back to the comfort of the jetty after a long and hard night while some just starting to face the first rays of the upcoming day.
Slowly the sun started to raise above the horizon pouring the surrounding with thousand shades of color.
Once the sun was way above the horizon we ventured in to the unknown parts of the island. With the landscape ranging from the lush green island to the rocky shores and large rock boulders raising against the mighty waves, we were pleasantly surprised to see and be on such an amazing island, which is undoubtedly a treasure trove for any nature lover.
There are two main camp sites on the island, one more towards the inland of the island, which we used and the other perched on the rock formations which can only be used during a certain period of the year since during the rest of the year the waves crash high above, splashing water in to the camp area.
As the day went on and the sun climbed higher and higher in the sky and bathed the surrounding with rays of gold and white we venture deeper and deeper in to the heart of this new found wonderland. Along the way we encountered many forms of sea life and at times just the remains of these magnificent creatures laying around the beach adding more beauty and value to the backdrop.
Back at the camp site a typical Sri Lankan breakfast of bread, Indiyappan, Kirimalu and Polsambol was waiting to greet us after our small expedition.
Once we were done with our breakfast and all packed and ready we left the camp site to make our way back to the sand bar where the snorkeling lessons take place. All the necessary equipment are provided by the host along with a thorough lesson on how to use them. After you’re all geared up and in the water he teaches you the basics of snorkeling and lets you worm up to the idea of floating in the sea. If you’re a beginner at snorkeling just the idea of letting go of the power to move at your command or the new found ability to breath while underwater may be scary but once you get a grip on how to maneuver yourself around you will feel quite at home. And if you’re not much of a swimmer the host himself drags you around to places where he’ll himself point out the fish to you- Catering to all levels of swimmers.
Even just a short distance away from the shoreline you will be greeted with the sight of an array of colorful fish and marine life including sea urchins, angelfish and many other fish of different colors and shapes.
Once the snorkeling session was over we made our way back to the hosts house where you can take a shower, shake off the sand and get ready to face the buzz of the real world again.
Things to look out for if you find yourself on Blue Beach Island
Pay attention to the safety briefing the host gives, first when you arrive at the camping site and while snorkeling. The host and his crew takes extra measures to make your stay as safe as possible. But without your cooperation it will be hard on them to provide the safety you require. So even thought we have full control and freedom of what we do on the island, please be mindful and don’t make the hosts job any harder than it is.
For once this island and its surrounding beaches are completely garbage free!!!! This is all thanks to the host and his team who according to him goes around the island once a month to collect garbage that is washed ashore by the waves. So let’s not add more to their monthly task shall we?
Prickly little critters
Coming back to the safety aspect again, only get in the water where the host tells you to!!. Because most of the rocky areas around the island is inhabited by sea urchins, little critters with spiny needles, trust me you don’t want to step on one of those!
Cold and wet at times
Pack a blanket and cloths that cover you well. Because even thought the tents are waterproof it can get a little chilly at times, specially at night! Be prepared.
The bathroom situation
Wondering how your going to answer the call of nature in the middle of nowhere? Fear not.. the host has got you covered.
During the day you have access to the hosts home washrooms, to freshen up and to take a proper bath before you leave for good. And while on the island you get to experience bathroom commodities in camping style. With a tent bathroom set in the most picturesque of backdrops just a few feet away from the camp site.
Book in advance.. way advance
This place even without being advertised much, gets filled for months at a time! So if you do plan to visit book in advance. way advance!!
Currently you can do bookings through their Facebook page Or by calling the host Mr. Suneth.
Contact Number-077 810 2557
No trespassing please
The host island is privately owned so you don’t get to just walk in as you please like you would in to other beaches. So just be mindful of this and don’t just drop by. Make proper reservations and help them to maintain the serenity of this island.
All in all I must say that if you’re heading down to Sri Lanka or searching to do something new in the island the “Blue Beach Night Camping” experience is one not to be missed. The attention to details given by the host makes this a unique adventure safe and comfortable in every aspect possible. As mentioned before quite dramatically safety was one of the biggest questions we had while researching this place, and now we can say with confidence that you do not need to worry at all!
The hospitality extended to us by the crew was quite heartwarming. From the moment we arrived at the host’s house they went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and at home. The opportunity to wrap ourselves around the beauty of this island and having the chance to explore the island to our hearts content was without a doubt the highlight of the trip. Thank you Mr. Suneth and crew for organizing such a unique experience in such a positive and eco-friendly way.
It has been a few weeks since I left the shores of Nilwella but the sights and the sounds of the waves crashing, the feel of the sand beneath my feet still lingers in my heart and makes me yearn to feel that mystifying calmness wrap around me one more time. There are so many places hidden in the nooks and corners of the island of Lanka that are worth experiencing, and Blue beach island is one such place that if you find yourself searching for things to do on paradise, you should definitely look out for.
Hidden in the outskirts of Anuradhapura, is the ancient Buddhist temple complex of Thanthirimale. Considered as one of the oldest settlements of Sri Lanka, this area is not just home to a temple complex but also acts as a window in to the glorious past, even beyond the written history of Sri Lanka.
Even though this location holds high significance both in terms of Buddhism and also the history of this island, not many are aware of its existence or whereabouts.
Getting there:- There are two well known routes to reach Thanthirimale
Through Anuradhapura-Mahawilachchiya road.
Through Madawachchiya- Mannar road.
Thanthirimale Rajamaha Vihara is thought to have been built in the third century BC. Following many years of neglect and countless invasions and changes in Kingdoms, it was hidden from the eye of man until the 19th century when archaeologist rediscovered this magnificent complex and the surrounding ruins.
When you enter the compound you will first come across the much modern temple and then a museum which is home to many of the artifacts that were found on site.
Once you pass the museum you will come to a wide opening with huge rock boulders and small natural ponds of many sizes scattered around the area, nature at its best.
From there onward there are five main points of interest that you should make sure to visit.
Ashta pala boo tree
Once you climb up a stone cut stairway you will come to the much worshiped “Ashtapala Boo tree”. Considered as one of the most important religious boo trees found in Sri Lanka, it is thought to have comes from one of the 8 saplings that grew from the original boo tree brought to Sri Lanka by Arhat Sangamitta Theri.
The next most important land mark would be the Buddha statue carved in to a rock, located just off the Boo tree.
Following the great Buddha statue, the most noteworthy of rock carvings are the two statues on ether side of the Buddha which has been only partly completed along with a half done section of the staircase. It is believed that due to a foreign invasion that happened on the Kingdom during the end of the Anuradhapura era the artist was not able to finish his masterpiece leaving it incomplete.
Towering the raised natural rock formation located at the end of the beautiful pond is a square shaped building which was used as the pothgula or a safe heaven for puskola poth (Religious script written on the leaf of Palmyrah).
At the base of this boulder a man made cave like structure, complete with Kataram can be found which is believed to have housed meditating monks.
Rock caves and prehistoric drawings
Once you pass the pothgula and walk along a trail going deep in to the forest you will come across two natural caves on whose wall you will be able to see many prehistoric drawings depicting animals, sun, moon and humans. According to the renown historian Prof. Senarath Paranawitharana these drawing may date back 4000 years.
See the resemblance ?
Just across these caves you will find a few more natural ponds and a huge rock bolder which you can climb to see a 360 view of the area around.
The reclining Buddha stute
This Buddha state has many similarities to the world famous Polonnaruwa Buddha statue. Some parts of the statue has been damaged by time and treasure hunters
Thanthirimale temple complex has survived through invasions by Chola, Pandya and Magha dynasties and had been in ruins encroached by the jungle up till the 1960’s, when it was rediscovered and renovated to what it is today. Even thought many people are not familiar with the history and stories surrounding this masterpiece, it is one of the most important relics of the old world and should be preserved for generations to come.
So if you do find yourself in Anuradhapura don’t forget to go off the much known touristy route and explore the wonders of this hidden historical site.