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24 Hours in Colombo

I try to get back to Sri Lanka every year and each time I go I discover something new and exciting. The capital Colombo has a growing cosmopolitan scene, with chic restaurants and hotels springing up next to luxury high-rise apartments. Most of the city’s new wealth comes from international Sri Lankans returning from overseas, bringing not only cash, but global inspiration and creative vision.

Seven years ago, when I first visited it was a different story. At the end of the 25 year war between the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam) and the Sri Lankan government, Colombo was not a particularly welcoming place. Armed soldiers in barbed-wire watchtowers and constant security checks made the city feel intimidating and a meagre trickle of tourists left only a few scraps of business to go round. Today, though, these lean times are a dim and distant memory and with tourist numbers up nearly 40% in two years, Colombo has a new found energy and confidence.

A good place to start your Colombo tour is the historical Fort area and the gorgeous seventeenth-century Dutch Hospital, a legacy of the Dutch colonists. Converted into an arcade of stylish boutiques and restaurants, it’s also home of the renowned restaurant Ministry of Crab, the brainchild of two former Sri Lankan cricket captains. If you fancy an ice-cold Lion beer, try out one of the city’s rooftop bars. The large roof space at Colombo Courtyard offers a welcome breeze above the rooftops of Duplication Road and Cloud Red on the 26th floor of the boutique Cinnamon Red Hotel, also boasts an infinity pool. Stately Independence Arcade, another piece of historic heritage transformed, houses contemporary bars such as Asylum which dishes up great tapas and live jazz as well as more shopping. Despite these confident newcomers, Barefoot, an enduring haunt of both tourists and expats known for its homely menu, vibrant hand-loomed textiles and art exhibitions, is still one of the best places to socialise. Close by, Gallery Café, housed in the former offices of stellar architect Geoffrey Bawa is also deservedly popular, serving fabulous fusion food and delicious mixed cocktails (try the chilli and tamarind martini for a local twist). Old colonial stalwart The Galle Face Hotel has held on to its reputation for sophisticated elegance. Newly refurbished, the iconic hotel is famous for its chequerboard veranda and perfect location and is still undisputedly the best place in Colombo for a G&T, while gazing at the tequila hues of an Indian Ocean sunset.

Despite its new contemporary veneer, authentic Colombo street life is still easy to find. Grab a tasty snack of isso wade (deep-fried shrimp cakes) from one of the street vendors and mingle with friendly locals on Galle Face Green, packed on Sundays with families flying kites and packs of boys playing cricket. Further down the Galle Road, the long, straight road that forms the spine of the city, are authentic hole-in- the-wall eateries offering 100 rupee (50p) rice and curry lunch packets and fast food dishes like the famous kottu, which literally means chop – an appetising combo of roti bread, eggs, vegetables and spicy gravy all thrown together and noisily sliced up on an enormous steel board.

I recommend a good browse around Saturday’s Good Market, which has a collection of great healthy living stalls – look out for the Talking Hands massage station. If the heat gets too much, take a tuk-tuk to leafy Victoria Park for a leisurely stroll in the gardens and perhaps a visit to the well-known (and air-conditioned!) Odell’s department store. If you’ve got any energy left after that, late afternoon is a good time to brave frenetic Pettah Market, where bustling streets are piled high with everything from exotic fruits to vibrant textiles. Pettah is where Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim cultures meld seamlessly and beneath the chaos, you’ll discover a relaxed vibe and smiley locals. There are number of interesting buildings in Pettah too: I’m welcomed into the striking mosque where I gaze up at tiers upon tiers of candy-striped arches. Round the corner, Hindu temples line up on Sea Street, their soaring gateways (gopurams) covered in cartoon-like Hindu deities. Inside the dark and cavernous interior of Colombo’s oldest Hindu kovil (temple) Sri Ponnambal, I watch Brahim priests conduct elaborate pujas, offerings to the myriad of gods and goddesses.

Seema Malaka Temple on Beira Lake (feature image), is a must-see tourist pit-stop with its Buddha-studded pavilion or if you’re heading back down the Galle Road, you can find Ashokaramaya Temple with its Sistine Chapel-like ceiling depicting the life of The Buddha.

It’s precisely this colourful cultural mix that’s what I love most about Colombo. With its compelling history, tropical modernism, great hotels and laid back island atmosphere, Colombo is now starting to make a name for itself as a cosmopolitan destination in its own right.

Independent Maldives

I’ve flown via Male a few times, but I’ve always wanted to see these dreamy islands up close. The country has been open to independent tourism for a while, but it might still come as a surprise that you can actually get around the main atolls (groups of islands, of which there are 26) by super-cheap public ferry and book independent guesthouses. Backpacking in the Maldives – who’d have thought it!

Waiting outside Arrivals is your first glimpse of the glittering Indian Ocean, beckoning you to tropical paradise. Most resort guests are collected by a glamorous speed-boat transfer, but as I was staying in a guesthouse on Hulhumale Island, the artificial island designed as an overflow for Male, just north of the airport, I needed to find some transport myself. Anticipating an expensive taxi, I actually discovered a local bus (a budget-saving 1USD) which took a loop round the runway, over the link road, conveniently stopping in the centre of Hulhumale, walking distance to my guesthouse Velima Inn. Hulhumale is laid out on a grid of wide roads with purpose-built housing blocks. But as we’re on the Maldives, this new build estate is fringed with swaying palms and white sand beaches. There are even a few nice restaurants with fresh juices and seafood. Accommodation prices on Hulhumale are much lower than densely-populated Male, where space and rates are a premium, plus it’s a only a 20 minute speedboat ride across the water. Hulhumale ferry docks near Male city centre, at the edge of the circular road, Boduthakurufaanu Magu, under Sea House restaurant. An afternoon spent mooching around Male is a great way to see traditional Maldivian life. There are colourful markets – where Maldivians come to sell their produce – a bustling fishing harbour with traditional dhows, a 17th-century mosque made of carved white coral, (plus a striking landmark modern one). The tiny capital even boasts a museum.

Slow boat to Maafushi
The next day, I arrived early at Viligili Ferry Terminal (back on Male) to buy a $2 ticket for Maafushi Island ferry, a 1½ hr journey.

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I’d seen complaints on Trip Advisor about Maafushi being less than perfect, so remember this is not that all-inclusive luxury resort (you need to pay a lot more for that) but actually a large inhabited local island with schools, mosques, shops and even a working prison. But I found Maafushi’s sandy lanes, brightly painted houses and low-key cafes charming. The independent guesthouse scene is well-established too, a double room at contemporary Beachwood Hotel, was approx. $100 a night. OK, not quite the budget definition of south-east Asia, but a still an absolute snip compared to the luxury brands. In the ultra-conservative Maldives you can’t go on public beaches in a bikini, so one of the best things about Maafushi is the private beach for tourists, concealed behind a fence of palm fronds.

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Each guesthouse has nightly BBQs, plus they arrange day-trips, such as a picnic lunch on a deserted, pristine sand bank, so there’s a good few activities to prevent you from feeling too bored (did I mention there’s no alcohol at all outside the resorts?!) With the lack of entertainment, restrictive dress code and no booze, these islands are definitely not the place for travellers looking for a Full Moon party experience, most people come to the Maldives to experience the flawless beaches, a perfect antidote to chaotic, polluted city life.

Even on a budget, you can still sample a taste of luxury by visiting a neighbouring island resort for a day. Anantara and Olhuveli were out of my price range at around $250 for a day’s use, instead I took a short speedboat trip to low-key diver’s resort Biyadhoo, where I spent the day sunbathing, snorkelling and wandering around the jungle paths. Pure bliss!

Don’t miss the 7am ferry back to Male, or you’ll either be stranded, or shelling out for a private speedboat at $250+ Always check the schedule (double/triple-check at the guesthouse) and remember ferries don’t run on Fridays. Also, some of the remote atolls are a seaplane ride away from Male, followed by a local ferry, so check the map very carefully before booking online and stick to the North or South Atolls if you’re going for a short trip.

Maldivians are used to tourists, so it’s a safe place, with zero hassle and no touts; the only sharks to be found are most definitely off-shore. A do-able 10 hours direct flight from LHR to Male with a 30 day visitor’s visa issued on arrival, it’s the perfect tropical bolthole. I found myself transfixed by the iridescent clarity of the ocean,  glittering all shades of blue one minute a perfectly-cut sapphire next, pale turquoise. An earthy paradise where winter quickly becomes a dim and distant memory, this collection of tiny gem-like islands is without a doubt the perfect place to refresh your mind.

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Around Bangladesh Solo

A solo trip to Bangladesh is definitely not for the faint-hearted! Get ready for crowds of people photographing, videoing and following you (I even had excited people sprinting after me)! and being asked hundreds of random questions (one man piped up out of a group of 40 spectators at a train station: “Madam madam! please what are you?”). I should point out (before I put potential travellers off in the first paragraph), that being the centre of attention is all part of the Bangladeshi travel experience, although after a while it does leave you a bit exhausted (sort of like an in-demand celebrity on tour).

Getting negatives out the way first, it’s important to bear in mind that travelling in Bangladesh can sometimes be difficult if not impossible. Although it’s easy to find a cycle or auto-rickshaw in Dhaka – there are literally tens of thousands of them zipping through the traffic-choked roads – exiting the city is another story.

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I ended up getting stuck in the Gulshan area during a political rally, with the city on almost total shutdown (a hartal). Leaving was proving to be impossible. It was only by a stroke of luck (I found a guide on an online travel forum and he managed to secure a train ticket) that I managed to reach Srimangal in the north-east. So if you can afford a driver/guide, I definitely recommend it to ensure you actually get to places.

It’s not all hassle though, and it’s definitely one of the best countries I’ve been to for people photography. Bangladeshis are friendly, trustworthy and helpful – and most seem to love having their photo taken. As there’s very little tourism, the rip-off mentality is a rarity and hotel staff are keen to help organise chaperones, informal guides and transport. But Bangladeshi men are very over-protective and I was warned not to go out, well, anywhere! My hotel staff in Dhaka were extremely unhappy about me going out alone, especially after dark, and were absolutely bemused by why a European female tourist would choose to visit Bangladesh. They so want you to be there for something sensible like a conference! Ladies: I should also point out that I didn’t need to wear a headscarf, just a long printed cotton kurta top (from India) with a shawl and leggings, which seemed pretty much OK as an outfit choice.

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At the train stations, (despite all the staring), there’s always someone happy to help you find the platform, or guide you through the sacks of produce being piled up onto the train – people even help you find you the right seat (imagine that in the UK!). I found the train journeys a welcome respite from the outside chaos; with tea elegantly served in china crockery by white uniformed waiters. Dhaka stretches for miles and after hours rumbling through the city’s industrial outskirts, we finally emerged into bright green paddy fields that stretched for miles. It was the rural Bangladesh I’d been hoping to escape to.

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The sun turned into an enormous dusty ball of faded crimson, drifting lazily towards the horizon. We rattled over dizzying iron bridges, where far below flat glass-like rivers flowed molten copper and rose-gold, mirroring the sunset. Bangladesh was amazingly photogenic. I watched groups of boys hurrying off to village mosques in jewel-coloured kurta shirts, their caps little spots of bright white in the shadowy dusk. As night fell further, the train trundled on through busy trackside markets, their stalls lit by single tungsten bulbs overflowing with shiny fruit. Wisps of smoke from cooking fires cloaked the palms and in the distance I could hear the hypnotic sounds of the call to prayer.

My fellow train passenger to Srimangal was a chivalrous but rather cross little man who held himself totally responsible for my ridiculous solo trip. “Madam” he said, “please close the window there’s robbers out there.” “Madam, just watch your luggage please.” “Who is this man you are meeting. What? You don’t know him? Why are you meeting someone you don’t know alone?” I’d been keeping in contact with my well-reviewed guide Tapas Dash by text (local SIMs are easy to get at the airport by the way), and I was confident he would be there to meet me on the platform. He was, and luckily easy to spot at over 6ft! We walked to Green Leaf Guesthouse, which was welcoming and homely. There were a good few independent travellers staying there too (a rare species in Bangladesh!). Srimangal turned out to be superb for photography. Tapas arranged some excellent eco-focused excursions to places I wouldn’t have had a clue how to get to. The Wetlands area was stunningly beautiful, where lotus-covered lakes glow gold at sunset. (feature image) We wandered around pineapple plantations, serene national parks with interesting walking trails, a tea estate and a Manipuri village. If you go in mid-February, the weather is perfect too.

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We also stopped at the Nilkonthi Tea Cabin to try a glass of their famous seven-layered tea. Sipping each coloured stripe slowly, we tried to detect the flavours – a subtle mix of black, green, milk tea and spices. A unique taste experience for tea lovers for just a few taka.

When we left Srimangal there weren’t any seats left on the train, but one of the kind guards brought me a little wooden bench for the five hour journey (nobody cared about it blocking the aisle either!) Finally back in Dhaka, I decided to take a boat ride from the main Sadarghat out on the Buriganga River. It was a nerve-wracking experience being perched in a tiny wooden rowing boat while hulking cargo ships ploughed through the black sewagey water only a few feet away, but worth it for the photo opportunities. (One of my Sadarghat photos was runner-up in a competition). As I made my way home by cycle rickshaw through the narrow streets of Old Dhaka, I was rewarded with crowds of people cheering and waving, a typically enthusiastic Bangladeshi send-off on my last day!

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