Tag Archives: Beach

24 hours in the Maldives

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog. Since the last entry we have been to the UK a couple of times, spent a couple of months in Bangkok, a couple of weeks in Japan, and another couple of months in Yangon before moving back to Sri Lanka, where we’ve been for nearly eight months now. Part of the arrangement at the moment is a visa run every 30 days. And until this last one I have avoided the Maldives, despite being a short flight at around one hour from Colombo. I suppose I felt that nearby cities such as KL, Bangkok, Chennai, would be better for such fleeting visits. Yet I was wrong – and had a thoroughly enjoyable 24 hours in the Maldives.

From the first time I came to Sri Lanka five and a half years ago I’ve been curious to visit Male’, the tiny Maldivian capital. I remember Male’ rising from the Indian Ocean across the strait from the airport, hazy in the evening dusk, as we waiting on the tarmac to pick up passengers. I didn’t stay in the city but in one of the small guesthouses on reclaimed Hulhumale’, linked by road to the airport island. It was built just over a decade ago to ease housing issues and provide more space, with wide streets, a beautiful beach, an obvious plan, but with little discernable soul.

The ferry to Male’ took about 15 minutes, skirting around the airport on its way to the capital. Intense blue, everywhere. And flat: the perpendicular of sea and sky broken by small atolls of green, enormous boats, then Male’ with its low to medium-height buildings of banks and corporate head-quarters, clad in glass reflecting the sun or painted in different pastel colours, squeezing onto the little available land. It really does look like it grows out of the sea.

It’s a lovely thing, having several hours with nothing to do in a new place. I wandered from the Hulhumale’ ferry terminal at the northeast to Villimale’ ferry terminal at the southwest. From one corner of the capital to the other; just over a mile. Male’ is compact, frenetic, made up of thin streets that crisscross the island. Moving from northeast to southwest the buildings become lower rise, with fewer shops, fewer mopeds. There is a surprising amount of greenery. And you’re never far from a glimpse of that perpendicular. All of Male’’s roads are brick not tarmac which gives an unusual, appealing, streetscape.

Villimale’, two miles from the capital on the nearest atoll, yet a world away. Motorised vehicles are banned and the locals get around on foot, bicycle, electric moped or golf buggy. So it is quite, amazingly quiet. Along the promenade from the terminal the beach begins and, true to the Maldives, it is palm-fronded, azure and golden. From the palms hang individual hammock chairs that sway in the breeze. From what I can gather the locals spend their days asleep in these, not a bad way to spend a day. I join them, conscious, however, that I must return to the airport in a few hours.

 

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18 months through a smartphone lens

Across the border

The minibus from Dawei to the border crossing at Htee Khee carried a monk, two local ladies, a German tourist, boxes of dried fish, milk powder and a container of mangoes, along with my wife and me. Extracting information about our passage to Kanchanaburi in Thailand had been hard work.

As we set off along the dusty tracks out of Myanmar’s southern capital and into the jungle, we had no idea how long the journey would take, or indeed if we would even be able to cross into Thailand. The border at Htee Khee is in constant flux, reflecting the political situation in Myanmar and the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the many separatist groups that operate mainly in the impenetrable border regions of the country. There was also the possibility that the Thai side would be closed, as it had been recently when all land borders shut temporarily as the military overthrew the government.

What I did know is that we would pass through territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) and its military wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), a long established and well organized group that had been fighting the government since 1949. I also knew that tensions between the two had been flaring up of late. So as we trundled along bumpy tracks of sand and rock, deep into the mountainous jungle and past infrequent settlements of traditional bamboo shacks on stilts, there was the real possibility we’d be returning this way at some stage later on.

I put my anxieties to one side and pondered the unspoiled beauty of rural Myanmar and how I had come to be here. Just a few days before I had set off with my local colleagues on an 18-hour bus journey from Yangon to Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi, Myanmar’s southernmost state that occupies a vertical strip of land between the Andaman Sea to the west and Thailand to the east. We were on our way to a team building retreat at Maungmakan beach. The journey had been incredible: from Mawlemyine the Yangon-Dawei highway deteriorated to a single lane track of intermittent tarmac, potholes and sand. The mountainous region on the Mon-Tanintharyi border presented the most perilous road I’d ever experienced; a white knuckle ride along hairpin bends that hugged the contours of the range, inching past patches that had collapsed down sheer cliffs – often at the hairpin apex – at frequent intervals. By far the best ways to reach Dawei are by plane or boat.

And now we were winding through mountainous terrain on a sandy track again, following the course of a wide and turbulent river. After several hours we passed into KNU territory. From here on the few settlements and checkpoints flew the Karen national flag and proudly displayed their mascot of two buffalo horns, polished, inscribed, and joined together at their bases. Only once did I get an inkling of the ongoing conflict as we were passed by a Toyota Hilux filled with armed men in what I presumed to be KNLA military uniforms.

We reached Htee Khee 8 hours after leaving Maunmakan. It was a tiny place of bamboo shacks, nestled in the craggy, foliage covered hills, whose only purpose appeared to be servicing the border crossing. Billboards showing expansion plans for economic zones, hotels, business and improved infrastructure hinted at Myanmar’s ambition for the region, but their tired and worn appearance suggested slow progress and, for now at least, Htee Khee remains a frontier settlement lost in time.

Crossing into Thailand passed without incident. We’d been taken to a port-a-cabin that served as the emigration office, had our passports stamped, and been driven across the kilometer or so of no man’s land that lay between the two gates. We were greeted by burly Thais in smart military uniforms, all wearing sunglasses and carrying arms. Ahead a man changed his Myanmar number plates for Thai equivalents. Was that legal? No one seemed bothered. Through immigration and onto the broad, smooth expressway that took us the 65 kms to Kanchanaburi, famous as the location for the ‘death railway’ bridge across the River Kwai.

In the comfortable and developed surroundings of our guesthouse and Kanchanaburi later that evening, it was hard to comprehend that Htee Khee was just over an hour away by road. So close, yet a different world.

Water festival in Maung Ma Kan

Having been at work in Yangon only a month, the country shut down for a week to celebrate Thingyan – the annual water festival – that brings in the Myanmar New Year. We were told to expect constant drenchings from dubious water sources, should we venture out, as the entire population got drunk, picked up a bucket, and took to the streets.

We reasoned that getting soaked in paradise seemed infinitely more appealing than in a crowded and dirty city, and took the opportunity to escape to Maung Ma Kan beach in the southern state of Tanintyari.

And so it was that we found ourselves buzzing through rolling tropical jungle on a scooter, along dusty roads, through small villages of bamboo huts on stilts, to unspoilt beaches and golden pagodas.

Oh, and getting drenched by bucket-wielding locals at impromptu roadblocks in every habitation we passed.

Here are some photos from the trip. Sadly none were taken of roadblocks and water stations, due to obvious hazards to the equipment…

Into the setting sun

The sun sets over Tangalle bay
The sun sets over Tangalle bay

To all our wonderful friends in Sri Lanka, thank you for making our time here so special.

Good bye Sri Lanka, it’s been a hell of a ride and we’re gonna miss you.

Life in the east…

For several months we’ve been living on and off in Batticaloa, a beautiful Tamil fishing town on Sri Lanka’s east coast. I’m helping a project in Ampara with PCA that’s supporting local people from Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala communities get better access to local government services.

Batticaloa is a breathtakingly beautiful place. It seems to be surrounded on all sides by water – the sea to the east and various lagoons elsewhere – and has sunsets that turn the sky red and gold. I first visited the region nearly two years ago and was struck then by how idyllic the place is.

Initially I was homeless in the east, and spent my time living out of small, local guesthouses. The pick was a homestay north of Batticaloa, just off Kalkudah beach. When Katherine came to visit from Colombo we’d borrow old Singer bicycles, rusted by age and sea air, and cycle along the hardened area of sand that’s just beyond the breakers. The ruts from the tires eventually disappeared with the incoming tide.

The east coast of Sri Lanka is for the most part undeveloped. I speak little Tamil, but learnt that place names ending in ‘kudah’ (Kalkudah, Passikudah, Punikudah, etc) signify a calm and shaded bay. These are the sort that curve in a golden crescent, dotted with small and colourful fishing boats, where sea eagles hover on the warm currents above.

We’ve started living in a house on the edge of Batticaloa lagoon. Various volunteers have lived there over the last couple of years. The rainy season has not yet hit the region, and the days remain hot and dry, regularly pushing 34 degrees. Yesterday we cycled along the water’s edge to the sea, to an empty beach about 3 kilometres north. I was hoping to swim, but a fluther of jellyfish washed up in the shallows changed my mind.

We were treated to a night in the fabulous Kandalama hotel recently. The kilometre long, seven story building sits majestically in a forest overlooking Kandalama tank and Sigiriya rock beyond. All manner of tropical foliage sprouts and cascades from its louvers and crevices, so that it becomes fairly indistinguishable from the surrounding habitat. It is a testament to the genius of Bawa that this neo-brutal block is now a part of nature.

The last few weeks in photos