Infamous Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka

Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka may not be the easiest place to pronounce, but then again World Heritage sites almost never are.

Polonnaruwa was the capital of the ancient Polonnaruwa kingdom, which spread throughout North Central Sri Lanka. Without going into too much detail, lets just say this was the major crossroads for trade, agriculture and commerce in 11th century Sri Lanka. Polonnaruwa is a good stop if you’re in Sri Lanka for a honeymoon or other unforgettable holidays in Sri Lanka . What is really unique is the Sea of Parakrama.  Polonnaruwa is not on the ocean, but King Parakramabahu I was an absolute nut about water conservation.  He devised an advanced system of irrigation, one of which is called the Sea of Parakrama.  It is hard to see from one side to the other.  Incredible.  His water conservation efforts helped the kingdom become completely self-sufficient.  More than most modern states can say today.


Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka

IF YOU GO to Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka:

Present day Polonnaruwa Sri Lanka is a few kilometers away from the ancient ruins. Not quite a day trip form Colombo (5-6 hrs by car), plan to spend a few days in the area. You can get to Polonnaruwa by train, bus or private/shared taxis, which are inexpensive and plentiful in Sri Lanka.

Of course, you’ll first have to travel to Sri Lanka itself.  You’ll have the easiest time finding flights from India but there is also some decent availability from South East Asia as well.  Regular flights come from as far away as the Middle East and there are even seasonal charter flights from Russia and Scandinavia. Sri Lanka is one of those places we wished we made it to on our RTW trip but it will certainly make a good stop if you’re still planning yours.

Rail Holidays – The Jewels of India

Imagine being buried in a pile of penny sweets wearing a suit made from feathers surrounded by the cast from West Side Story in full chorus. This kind of sensory overload is equal to that which you will experience on a trip to India. However the India trip, of course, will also be much more rewarding, enjoyable and less like a Lady Ga Ga video. One way to remove a bit of unnecessary intensity from an Indian adventure is to let somebody else take care of the plans, which is why I decided to go with rail holidays. With the worries of destinations and transport taken care of, I was free to soak up the experience.


First was the chaotic cocktail that is Delhi. What a magically intoxicating mix: throw in a handful of languages, a generous portion of New Delhi sophistication, mix in a few drops of ancient magic and blend in a bumper pack of Crayola. This is a city shared by medieval markets and cosmopolitan coffee shops; where tours of ancient monuments can be followed by a round of Mojitos. My highlight had to be the Red Fort: towering arches and auburn splendour hewn from sandstone in the 1600’s; the first of many architectural masterpieces to come.


Of course, nothing could quite prepare you for the Taj Mahal, the jewel in Agra’s crown. No matter the level of hype or hyperbole, this palace more than lives up to it. A fleet of 1000 elephants carried the dazzling slabs of white marble 200 miles to construct it; surely the most extravagant gift ever made to a lover. Inspired, I tried a similar feat with hamsters and Mini Cheddars when I got home. Apparently it’s not a good idea to use an edible building material.

Beyond the Palace of Winds, Fort Amber looms over the Maota lake. This really is the stuff that legends are made of. Whilst the Palace is a ghostly ruin, sand blowing beneath high arches, the Fort’s facade resembles a princess’ jewellery box.

Ranthambore National Park

If anything grapples with this incredible architecture to be the icon of northern India, then it has to be the elusive tiger. Our next destination, Ranthambore National Park is a haven for them, as well as a plethora of other animals including leopards, mongoose and crocodiles. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the safari, and we even caught a glimpse of the majestic tiger, lapping from the edge of a nearby lake.


Udaipur is another watery wonderland, rippling reflections of towers and temples decorating the surface of Lake Pichola. The floating palace at the water’s centre is positively dreamy, and our tour was lucky enough to arrive when the waters allowed a visit.

To round off are the ancient Buddhist and Hindu temples known as The Ellora Caves. Never before had I seen anything even remotely like this: an architectural wonder calved straight into a basalt cliff face. Statues, balconies and pillars stand frozen in time, expertly crafted over 1000 years ago.

Author: Sophie McGovern is an avid traveler who enjoys the challenge of travel. She still hops a train from time to time.

India: Ganga Aarati

IMGP1130Around sunset a spiritual calm envelops Rishikesh and storefronts all start to close. Hindu pilgrims gather by the river Ganges for the Ganga Aarati ceremony. The most holy river in Hinduism, it is believed that a touch of the river’s waters will purify one of all his sins.

We witness the ceremony in Rishikesh and Hardiwar, and for all the crowding, loud speakers and commercialism surrounding the ceremony in Hardiwar, the ritual in Rishikesh was blissfully peaceful.

IMGP1111Each night, around 5:30pm, just before sunset, boys studying the Veda begin to file onto an amphitheater of steps at the river’s edge. Vendors selling diyas, bowls made from leaves filled with flowers and a candle, move through the crowd and a good number of religious pilgrims fill the area. The children, Bhajan singers and other performers, dressed in vibrant saffron and orange robes file in and the ceremony starts. Before the ceremony a few Hindu pilgrims perform a ceremony at the river’s edge in which they throw spices, seeds and flower petals into a large fire.

As the singing begins, the ceremony takes on an enchanting atmosphere. The crowd, especially the children, immerse themselves in enthusiastic singing and as the sun sets, a large Shiva statue illuminates over the river. Singing prayers to Lord Shiva, lamps are lit and passed through the crowd with everyone jostling to hold it or be bathed in it’s light. The darkness and fire are such juxtaposition that the atmosphere is almost unworldly.

IMGP1138Without a doubt it was one of the most visually stunning religious ceremonies I have ever experienced. Watching the crowd of pilgrims and children I was struck by their emotions. Not very religious myself, I was moved by their devotion and the spell that spread across the crowd. For anyone, of any religion, it was a meaningful experience. Before leaving India we went to the Ganga Aarati in Hardiwar where the crowd was more intense and men with bull horns implored pilgrims to make donations. It was a completely different experience and being able to compare the two, I was grateful for having participated in Rishikesh.

Finding our Inner “Om”

The last week of this trip we decided to go to Rishikesh, a holy Hindu city in Uttrakand province. Known as the “Yoga City” Rishikesh has three things to offer: meditation, Hindu temples and yoga. For two tired travelers, it sounded like the perfect place to reconnect and prepare mentally for going home.
Rishikesh itself was lovely, and as we crossed the Ram Jhula suspension bridge to the other side we were greeted by a world without cars, alcohol or meat. Busy with Hindu pilgrims the village like atmosphere was enchanting. Monkeys swung from the trees, cows and sadhus (religious beggars) shared the shade, and advertisements for yoga, mediation, spiritual healing and all sorts of “finding your inner peace” workshop ads decorated the walls.

There are two parts of “yoga” Rishikesh, each with a different personality. Interestingly enough, each is named after its suspension bridge. Ram Jhula, where we stayed, is the lower part of the city. Across the Ganges, it’s a village like area covered with ashrams and religious centers. There are a few hotels and restaurants, but the area is a little more relaxed. Lakshman Jhula, or the upper bridge, connects to an area of Rishikesh that’s more commercial. Although it has it’s share of yoga studios, there are way more restaurants, shops, hotels and hence more people. Looking for more peace, we stayed in Ram Jhula.


For the next few days we filled our time with yoga classes, some of which were really amazing, others which left us wanting, reading and generally enjoying the peace and quiet. Our hotel, nestled down a residential back alley was cool and quiet. Despite having to dodge cows and their patties, we enjoyed the slow pace and the gentleness of the locals. Walking the streets proved to be the best treat. Unlike other places in India I wasn’t stared at or approached to have my picture taken. Looking for the Ganga Aarti one night, I was stopped dead in my tracks when a Masai man, (those are the ones in Kenya) in full regalia walked into the reception office. Escorted by a western woman, he looked incredibly uncomfortable. Smiling at him as we left the office, I greeted him with a hijambo (hello in Swahili). His face lit up like a lamp and a huge grin broke out. The woman addressed me in Swahili, and I professed that I only knew a few words. Never the less, seeing that man made my day and I think seeing me made his.

We naturally used our time in Rishikesh to do some Yoga. IMGP1090 There were a few ‘intense’ places where fasting and meditation were a strict part of the experience so it took us a couple of days to find a yoga class right for us. In the end, it was filled with mostly western yoga teachers, leaving us as the lone greenhorns, but the strenuous classes combined with some good wholesome food left us feeling great when it was time to head home.

IF YOU GO: Searching for transport options from Delhi will be difficult as there are only a couple of ill-timed trains that travel to Rishikesh. Instead you should plan to travel to Hardiwar via train from Delhi (there are a lot of trains along this route) and then get off and go via bus (20 rupee / person) or tuk-tuk (about 300 Rupee up to 4 people). There are buses that run direct from Delhi to Rishikesh. Lodging options are plentiful and we had a nice hotel for about 300 Rupee ($6).

Taj Mahal: You’ve probably heard of this place…

IMGP1015So back to our story, which I think we left off in mid-December. You may remember the chaos of Mumbai . From there we jet set to Delhi to meet up with some of my sister’s coworkers. With an amazing local as our guide, the group of us set off for Agra and the Taj Mahal…

Bumping along the road, we drove through the outskirts of modern Delhi stopping every so often for a bite to eat or to pay a road tax. The last time we were driving around in a car we were in Africa. This time instead of people shoving meat on a stick through the window or jamming drinks at you, we had Indian animal charmers. You think I’m joking, but stopping on the way to Agra to pay a tax, our car was politely approached by a boy and his monkey, several men selling jewelry and what appeared to be another boy with a snake in a basket. Slightly more exotic than the offerings in Africa…

Arriving at the Taj Mahal was nothing less than intense. As we pulled into the parking lot, the car was accosted by local entrepreneurs trying to sell all sorts of “marble” knick knacks, Taj Mahal snow globes (apparently very popular) and a few Indiana Jones like whips. I can only guess what purpose the whips served. IMGP0977One rather jovial whip salesman, whose goods were topped off with a tuft of hair, persistently tried to get Danny to buy one. Unwilling to negotiate, we shrugged him off, hopped on a camel and … well slowly made our way to the Taj Mahal gates.

Security in India is everywhere. Since the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the Indian populace has submitted to opening their bags, being xrayed and in some places even being patted down before they enter a public place like a shopping mall or museum. The women’s line at the Taj Mahal was an interesting cast of characters. Swathed in colorful saris, women of all ages stood in line, and well, looked at us. A large school group of girls, meticulously clothed in their navy and white uniforms shyly giggled as we walked up. When their teacher motioned for us to pass through before them, each girl stared at us, shifting their eyes down as we approached. Finally one spoke up. “Hello, how are you?” She asked. Her classmates dissolved into giggles as we responded, and we walked up to the security area like queens, greeting each girl along the way.


The Taj Mahal itself didn’t disappoint. Sure it was crowded, but as we jostled around trying to get our “jumping” picture we were greeted and smiled at by nearly everyone. Some even tried to get us in their family photos, and many tried to get into ours.

We spent a few hours at the Taj Mahal, mostly waiting in line and exploring the grounds. So much time in fact that after a long, delicious Indian lunch we were too late to get inside the Agra Fort. Failing to talk our way in after the gates were closed, Danny was hounded by a street vendor to purchase a wooden chess set, which he finally gave in and purchased when the price had fallen from $20 to $2.


Driving is always an adventure, so I’ll end this post with perhaps the most incredible road experience of them all. We’ve driven through elephant herds in Africa, by penguins in Argentina and even a yak or two through Central Asia, but nothing compared to the traffic jam caused by the weddings on the road back to Delhi. For what seemed like hours we waited for bridegroom after bridegroom to make his way to the various wedding venues along the route. Flanked by an entourage of musicians, colorful lights, music and family members, an Indian bridegroom rides atop a horse or an elephant, arriving at the wedding location like a maharaja.


The road from Agra to Delhi is full of wedding venues, and since we happened to be in India for peak wedding season, every one of them was full. Displays of fireworks, bands and spinning lights met us every few minutes and the traffic backed up for miles. No one seemed to mind at all…