Beware of my holiday destinations

May 27th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

The joke among our family and friends is that, when I choose to visit a particular part of the world for a holiday, something dramatic often happens there.

I suppose it started when I made a first visit to what was then Czechoslovakia in 1988. The following year the country overthrew Communism in its ‘velvet revolution’ which triggered other revolutions in Central & Eastern Europe.

In 2003, I made a visit to Nepal when the Maoist insurgency was still active.The day after our arrival in Kathmandu, the chief of police, his bodyguard and his wife were killed while on an early morning walk on the outskirts of the capital.

In 2008, I made a visit to Cuba. Just two weeks before our departure, Fidel Castro announced that he was stepping down as the world’s longest-serving president after an astonishing 49 years in power.

Then there was my trip to Iran in 2009. When the disputed presidential election led to massive demonstrations and brutality in June, the British Foreign Office advised against travel to Iran and we wondered whether the trip would actually go ahead. Fortunately the domestic situation became calmer and we were able to make the trip in the first week of November  even though this coincided with fresh demonstrations around the 30th anniversary of the taking of the American Embassy hostages.

The saddest occurrence was the follow-up to my  trip to Syria in 2011. Just a couple of weeks after our departure, demonstrations started that soon led to armed conflict and then a full-scale civil war that is still raging. As the conflict enters its seventh year, more than 465,000 Syrians have been killed in the fighting, more than a million injured and over 12 million Syrians – half the country’s prewar population – have been displaced from their homes.

Four years ago, I visited Bangkok as a break on the flight to Australia. The next year, there was a coup d’état in the country which is still ruled by a military dictatorship.

Three years ago, I made a tour of Central America, visiting Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Three of these countries have had brutal civil wars which are now thankfully over, but three have them are ravaged by violent street gangs and drug groups, with two of them having the highest murder rates in the world outside of actual war zones.

This week, I returned from a two-week holiday in Sri Lanka. All the time I was there, there was talk of the late arrival of the south-westerly monsoon which they have at this time of year. Clearly we were travelling out of season which is why our hotels were so empty and I was able to save so much money by not having to pay a single supplement.

But I have just heard the news of massive flooding from the arrival of the monsoon. At least 100 people have been killed and nearly 500,000 displaced. So sad for the wonderful people of Sri Lanka.

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For the first time in forever, I watched a movie on an aircraft

May 27th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

I’ve just returned from a wonderful two-week holiday touring the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. Obviously the flight there and back were long ones but I never use the inflight entertainment, preferring to read and sleep.

As many readers will know, I’m a massive movie fan. But I like to see my films on a decent-sized screen with good sound and, on an aircraft, the screen is tiny and the sound is awful because of the engines – so I never watch movies in the air.

But my flight back from Colombo to London was a daytime journey of over 11 hours and, after doing a fair bit of reading and sleeping, I wondered whether I would break my rule and watch a movie. I reckoned that, if I could find a film that I had already seen, would like to see again, and did not have too much dialogue, I would give it a go.

So I watched “La La Land” and, as when I saw it at the cinema. I just loved it and it put a smile on my face. You can read my review of the film here.

PS 1 I’m still jet-lagged.

PS 2 I was not on British Airways (which today has a massive worldwide computer problem) but on Sri Lankan Airways.

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (14): on the way home

May 23rd, 2017 by Roger Darlington

On my last morning (Tuesday) at the Trinco Blu Hotel, I checked the news online and was horrified to learn of the suicide bombing in Manchester, the city where I grew up and where my brother still lives. Following an exchange of texts with him, I learned that four schoolmates of my niece had been at the concert but fortunately all were safe.

My Sri Lankan holiday was effectively over and it was time to go home – but this was quite a journey. First I had to travel from my hotel north of Trincomalee on the north-east coast of the country all the way over to a hotel north of Chilaw on the central west coast of the island.

Shaleen picked me up at 9 am and – seven and a half hours later – just after 4.30 pm we rolled up my hotel. Driving was five and half hours – via Anuradhapura and Puttalam – but we had two breaks of an hour each, one for coffee and the other for lunch. It was a ride of around 170 miles (275 km) but we chatted all the way on a range of subjects from movies to palindromes.

My hotel was the Anantaya Resort & Spa at Bandadeniya, just north of Chilaw, and by the ocean. It was the eighth and last hotel of the holiday. Even more so than the other hotels (except the one outside Trincomalee), I was aware that we were out of season because for a time I was literally the only person having dinner in the hotel restaurant. Fortunately, later a German mother and daughter came into the restaurant, I approached them, and they kindlly invited me to join their table for a chat.

Tomorrow I fly home and my driver has offered to take me on the way to the airport to his home to meet his wife and daughter.

It has been a amazing holiday full of different experiences and I hope that you have enjoyed reading my blog posts about the trip.

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (13): swimming with sharks

May 22nd, 2017 by Roger Darlington

The Trinco Blu Hotel outside Trincomalee is the kind of place that, once guests have checked in, they tend not to leave until they check out – but I like to explore around and seek new experiences, so this morning (Monday) I booked a trip to a place called Pigeon Island. I was the only person on the excursion, so I had to pay quite a bit more than the list price (for me it was £68) for the three hours, but it was worth it for the opportunity to go snorkelling in an accessible and beautiful location.

I have only been snorkelling once before in my life and I had doubted that I would be able to do it again since I go on cultural rather than beach holidays. My previous experience of snorkelling was four years ago at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia when I was on a vessel with around 200 other tourists but essentially left to my own resources. This was different in so many ways. It was on a small island, there was only a local guide and me in the four-seater boat, and my guide was with me at all times.

We set off at 8.30 am and, a little way off shore, my guide stopped the boat opposite a small Hindu shrine and made some sort of supplication. Gosh, I had no idea that our venture would be so potentially hazardous. It was a wet and bouncing ride of half an hour to Pigeon Island about half a mile off shore from the village of Nilaveli. The island is a national park named after the blue rock pigeons that nest there.

I changed into my swimming trunks and donned orange life jacket, lime green flippers and black snorkel. Two problems soon became apparent. First, my guide knew only a handful of words in English and pronounced them with an indecipherable accent. Second, as on my first snorkelling experience, it took me a while to breath through the snorkel without ingesting salty sea water. Later a third issue emerged and I learned an important lesson in life: when wearing flippers, you can only walk backwards and slowly (it makes you look like a dumb duck, but it works).

There are two beaches on the narrow island and the first is noted for its sea life. I saw a couple of small sharks and several turtles really close. The area was affected by coral bleaching in 2011, but the coral still looks mysterious and, when there is some colour left, absolutely glorious.

When we moved to the second beach, my guide repeatedly told me there would be “lots of piss”. Only when we were in the water did I appreciate that he meant that I would see plenty of fish. Observing at close quarters underwater fish of different sizes, shapes and colours is a truly wondrous experience. Suspended in warm water with the only sound one’s breathing is almost a mystical experience.

Since this is essentially the last day of my holiday (the rest of the time is travelling), snorkelling on Pigeon Island was the icing on the cake of a fascinating and fun holiday.

After lunch at the hotel, I had a post-prandial stroll outside the establishment but, since the temperature was 34C/93F, it had to be a short walk. The rest of the day was more writing, more reading, more swimming, more sleeping and of course more eating and drinking. Such a tough life …

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (12): around Trincomalee

May 21st, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Trincomalee is not really what I was expecting. The hotel is not in the city but at a resort and all the other guests are young couples or parents with small children, so there are no cultural options on offer. However, I read about a place nearby called Velgam Vehera and, since Shaleen had decided to stay at the same hotel rather than go home, this morning (Sunday) I paid for him to take me to this place.

The location is the remnants of a Buddhist monastery thought to have been built by King Devanampiya Tissa in the 2nd century which escaped destruction in the Chola invasion in the 10th century. As well as these ruins and a tiny modern shrine, two things attracted my attention.

First, there is a tiny museum – just one room with photographs and a video – about a local attack by the Tamil Tigers at the site in 2000 when 26 Sinhalese soldiers and civilians were killed. Second, I called into a local Buddhist Sunday School and mixed with the teachers and the children.

Back at the hotel, there was a different atmosphere today. At lunchtime a couple of dozen young local Air Force personnel – all male – on some kind of break from an intense course had a beach party, all dressed identically in jeans and Air Force T shirts and dancing to unbelievably loud music. I chatted to a group of four of them: two Sr Lankan (one Sinhalese, one Tamil), one Indian, one Bangladeshi. Their only common language was English and they were all fluent, so we got along well and exchanged contact details.

I spent the rest of the day chilling: eating, drinking, writing, reading, swimming, sleeping. It’s a tough life …

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A review of a book on the Sri Lankan civil war

May 21st, 2017 by Roger Darlington

“This Divided Island” by Samantha Subramanian (2014)

I read this book about the Sri Lankan civil war before and during a two-week trip to the island in which I ensured that I visited the Tamil part of the country as well as the more general areas populated by the majority Sinhalese. It is an unconventional book in a couple of respects.

First, it is not written by an insider or a total outsider and, though it is a work of non-fiction, the power of the writing has some of the elements of a novel. Subramanian is an Indian of Tamil ethnicity and Brahmin caste who studied journalism at Penn State University, so he has some sympathies with Tamils and speaks their language but he has the objectivity and fluency of a journalist.

Second, this is not a factual narrative of the Sri Lankan civil war, although helpfully there is a two-page timeline. Instead the structure of the work is a series of personal stories curated through interviews and travels. This approach means that the reader learns little hard fact but really feels the pain and loss of the people on either side of the conflict.

Subramanian refers to the origins of the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority Hindu Tamils and argues that, though Buddhist nationalists represent the Sinhalese as the native population and portray the Tamils as foreigners, “Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils” but “Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries”. He insists: “In Sri Lanka, ethnic divisions are lines drawn not in sand but in slush”.

He argues that “Through no doing of their own, Tamils found themselves unfairly advantaged” by British colonial policy which meant that Tamils were disproportionately likely to go to university, work in the civil service and learn English. Following independence, in 1956, parliament sought to correct what was seen as an historic and unfair advantage by making Sinhalese the sole official language of the country. Then, in 1972, a new constitution gave Buddhism ‘the foremost place’ among the nation’s religions.

In 1975, a Tamil called Velupillai Prabhakaran – who the next year founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers – assassinated the mayor of Jaffna. The beginning of the civil war is usually dated from a Tiger ambush of an army convoy in Jaffna on 23 July 1983 when 12 soldiers were killed. The government finally declared a crushing victory on 18 May 2009 and Prabhakaran himself was killed in the final day of fighting.

The 26 year long war cost up to 100,000 lives. Then, in the final bloody weeks, some 40,000 non- combatants were killed in what many have classed a war crime by the Sri Lankan army. The Tamil word for the war was ‘prachanai’ which simply translates as ‘the problem’.

Subramanian is even-handed in his acknowledgment of injustice on both sides of the conflict. He explains how the LTTE forced ever-younger boys into their army and killed those they regarded as traitors of even just critics and he writes of the Tigers showing “such an endless genius for brutality”. But he expresses horror at the excesses of the Sri Lankan army, particularly the shelling of civilians and hospitals in the final weeks, and records the multiple disappearances of former Tiger soldiers and critical journalists since the conflict ended.

He notes: “In the long war, the two sides had grown closer in temper than either would have cared to admit”.

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (11): Trincomalee

May 20th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

In the part of north-west London where I live, there are lots of Sri Lankans, all Tamils who were refugees from the bitter civil war. Indeed the local cab company I use is staffed almost exclusively by Tamils. Therefore I was determined that, whenever I visited Sri Lanka, I would see something of the Tamil part of the country in the north and east. The basic Voyages Jules Verne tour does not include anywhere in Tamil territory, so I needed to book a VJV extension, only to find that I was the only person on this extension.

So on Saturday, I said farewell to Thelma and Andrea, who went off with Rashmika westwards to Chilaw preparatory to flying home, while I travelled north east to the Tamil city of Trincomalee. My driver was Shaleen Leiton, a cheerful and chatty Singalese from Chilaw, and I sat in the front of his Toyota Allion car so that we could talk together.

Clearly Sri Lankans are devoted to their religion: Rashmika – a Buddhist – had a small Buddha figure and a small prayer wheel (powered by sunlight) on his dashboard, while Shaleen – a Roman Catholic – had a small statue of the Virgin Mary on his dashboard and two crucifixes swinging from his mirror. It was a straight road north east from Dumbulla to Trincomalee and, in contrast to the previous days of my holiday, there was virtually no traffic but some army checkpoints.

Two and a quarter hours after leaving Dumbulla, we arrived at the Trinco Blu hotel which rather took my breath away. I felt that I had died and gone to heaven – except that it is not really my kind of heaven because I am not a sea and sand man. Both the open-walled reception area plus my modern ground floor room overlook an open air swimming pool, just beyond which lies a beach of golden sand and an ocean of breathtaking blue with palm trees dotted all around.

I really had no idea what – if anything – was arranged for me during my time in Trincomalee and Shaleen did not seem much wiser. He advised me that he was supposed to show me the city so, after a quick lunch at my new hotel, I reconnected with him and we had a ‘tour’ of about an hour and a half in a temperature of 37C.

Historically known as Gokanna, Trincomalee (or Trinco as it is often called) has a natural deep-water harbour, said to be one of the finest in the world. The town suffered greatly in the civil war and it also sustained damage from the tsunami of 2004.

Really there was only one place of interest on our ‘tour’ but that was splendid: the Hindu temple of Koneswaram Kovil. Although a shrine is thought to have stood at this spot for some 2,500 years, the present temple was built in 1952. It is one of the most sacred sites in Sri Lanka dedicated to Lord Shiva and a huge blue statue of this god stands outside the brightly-coloured temple.

At the hotel, I ate dinner alone for the first time on this holiday and indeed there was only one person in the part of the establishment where I had my food, but I’m OK with my own company. After eating, I wandered down to the beach to hear the waves and observed that on the beach there are a set of four-poster couches with side lights (very romantic).

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (10): Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa

May 19th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

Friday was the last proper day of the basic tour, since tomorrow Thelma and Andrea start the journey back to the airport and I commence three days alone visiting the Tamil city of Tincomalee.

Although our first destination was only a quarter of an hour’s drive away (past delightful rice fields), we left the hotel at 8 am to avoid the crowds and the heat. Actually this was the one destination in Sri Lanka where there were lots of other tourists (mainly Chinese) and it proved to be the hottest day of our holiday (mid 30sC).

Sigiriya ( Lion Rock) sits atop a giant granite rock rising nearly 660 feet (200 metres) above the surrounding countryside. Although the site is thought to have been occupied for millennia, much was what can be seen there today is attributed to the time of King Kasyapa who killed his father to inherit the throne in 477 AD. The name of the place comes from an enormous entrance built by the King in the form of a lion. The location is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The rock is famous for its climb to the top and the view when one reaches the summit. Apparently there are a total of 1,200 steps and, since the trip to Sigriya was an optional extra at a cost of 9,600 rupees (£48), that made it 8 rupees (or 4 pence) a step. It is not really that difficult a climb since all the stone and metal steps are very even and there are guard rails throughout; it is just not suitable for anyone with breathing difficulties or suffering from vertigo and Thelma and Andrea opted out of the climb and instead spent the time in the museum.

As one makes the climb, the first interesting feature is the so-called Mirror Wall. This was originally coated with a natural concoction of lime, egg white and honey which lent it a brilliant shine. The next thing to view is a set of frescoes in a sheltered gallery in the western rock face. It is estimated that there used to be some 500 but only 21 remain today, dating from the 5th century and depicting bare-breasted celestial nymphs.

A terrace called the Lion Platform on the northern side if the rock marks the start of the final and steepest section of the ascent. At one time, a colossal brick lion guarded the stairway leading to the top of the rock but the lion’s paws are all that remain of the structure. Raskmika left me at this point, so I made the final ascent on my own with other climbers urging each other “Keep moving!” and “Don’t look down!!”

The summit is a substantial area (4 acres) and used to be covered in buildings but only the foundations can be seen today. The views are spectacular and the Chinese tourists especially contrived all sorts of fun poses for photographs. Back at the museum an hour and a half later, I needed a long cool drink.

Our other destination today was another highlight of the cultural triangle: the ruins of the city of Polonnaruwa which was the centrepiece of the Sinhalese kingdom established by KIng Vijayabahu I who ousted the defeated Cholas in 1077. The golden age of the city occurred during the reign of his successor King Parakramabahu I, but the city was finally abandoned in 1293 and was quickly consumed by the jungle. The location is now another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ruins are clustered today in various groups spread over a wide area, so we were very pleased to have our air-conditioned minivan to take us around the site. It seemed to be the hottest day of our holiday and it was probably around the mid 30sC with significant humidity so, by the end, we were wilting somewhat.

But we saw some highlights including the museum, the Royal Palace, the Council Chamber, the Royal Baths, and – our favourite – a large stepped pool shaped like the lotus flower plus of course various statues and shrines. By complete contrast with Sigiriya Rock, there were virtually no other tourists anywhere in the area.

Lunch – at a place called “Thidas Arana” – was late (3 pm) and light (as always we declined the buffet and chose from the menu). On the road back to Dambulla, we twice cane across wild elephants wandering in the road (elsewhere in the country yesterday such an elephant had killed two people).

As always, dinner was at our hotel but, since it was my last evening with Thelma and Andrea, I decided to push the boat out by ordering Australian fillet of beet which was excellent.

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (9): Anuradhapura and Mihintale

May 18th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

One of the wonders of going on holiday these days is that one can share impressions and photographs instantly with family and friends. One of my Facebook friends – a Japanese woman who has visited Sri Lanka – posted a comment suggesting that I try a local food of which I had never heard: hopper. – a kind of bowl-shaped pancake made of rice flower and coconut mint. So this morning I had an egg hopper for breakfast (tasty).

Our group set off at 8 am to spend most of the day at a place an hour and half’s driving due north called Anuradhapura. This was the capital of Sri Lanka for more than a thousand years, becoming the capital in the 4th century BC under King Pandukabhaya, achieved the height of its power during the 9th century AD, and finally being razed to the ground by the Cholas in the 10th century. It was gradually reclaimed by the jungle and lay largely forgotten until the area was cleared in the 19th century.

It is a very extensive area that is still being excavated and examined and we spent three and a half hours viewing some of the highlights. After an introductory visit to a small (three room) museum, our explorations took in no fewer than four reconstructed Buddhist stupas (or – as they are called in Sinhalese – dagobas) with amazing names and histories:

  • Jetavanarama Dagoba: When it was constructed in the 3rd century, this stood some 330 feet (100 metres) high, making it the tallest structure in the world at that time except for the Egyptian pyramids at Giza.
  • Abhayagiri Dagoba: Built in 88 BC, this stood at 380 feet (115 metres) until the structure lost its pinnacle.
  • Thuparama Dagoba: This was the first dagoba to be built in Sri Lanka, being constructed in the 3rd century BC and said to house the right collar bone of the Buddha.
  • Rumanwelisiya Dagoba: Dating back to the 2nd century BC, this is now enclosed by a striking wall with a frieze of black elephants.

Besides these four stupas, the other structures that we viewed included the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree (the largest and oldest bo tree on the site), the Samadhi Buddha statue (4th century meditation pose), Kuttam Pokuna (two huge ponds for bathing by monks), Mahapali Refectory (long stone trough which was filled with rice for the monks), and remains of the Mahasena’s Palace (wonderful 8th century moonstone featuring five circles of life).

After some lunch at “The Grand Heritance Hotel”, we drove half an hour to a place called Mihintale. This is a sacred hill where Mahinda, son of the Indian king Asoka, converted King Devanampiya Tissa to Buddhism in the 3rd century BC, leading to most of the country converting to the new philosophy (not religion).

If one is so minded, one can start at the bottom of a long series of steep steps and finish up at the very top of the hill, but this involves a grand total of 1,840 steps. Instead Rashmika drove us to a point missing out a lot of the steps and we did not actually climb to the top of the hill. It was enough to see our fifth stupa of the day, the Mahaseya Dagoba.

In fact, at each of the five stupas we had to remove our shoes and walk around in stocking feet (or, in Rashmika’s case, bare feet) which was tough when the stone was rough and/or hot (the temperature rose to 35C today) and especially hard at this stupa where one had to climb worn and rough rocks before reaching the actual structure. But I guess that you could say we had a stupa day!

We were back at out hotel towards 6pm, having been out for 10 hours. As always, dinner was at the hotel and this evening I had my second banana split of the day.

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Holiday in Sri Lanka (8): Matale and Dambulla

May 17th, 2017 by Roger Darlington

During our two days in Kandy, there were hardly any other guests at The Tourmaline Hotel but, half an hour after we departed on Wednesday morning, some 200 guests were due to attend a wedding. We moved off in our minivan at 9 am (our latest start) and travelled due north to the town of Matale where we stopped briefly to walk around outside a Hindu temple with the snappy name Sri Muthmarian Thevasthanam which charges for taking photographs outside and then some more for access to the interior.

In fact, our main destination in Matale was the Sirilak Spice & Herbal Garden where we arrived towards 1 pm and spent almost three hours. First, we were given a conducted tour of the garden with an explanation of the nature of some two dozen herbs and spices and their use in the locally popular form of medicine called Ayurveda (“the scjence of life”).

Next we were invited to try some Ayurvedic massage and I accepted the offer. I took off my shirt (my poor elderly female companions) and a young man used herbal oils to massage my neck, shoulders, back, arms and hands – very relaxing. At this point, we were given a drink of Spice tea composed of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and cloves – very refreshing. Inevitably we had to visit their shop, but there was no pressure and I actually bought two collections of spices as gifts.

At this point, we experienced something quite different: a demonstration of curry cooking by a very good looking young man with decent English. One of us had to volunteer to be the cook, dress up in hat and apron, and cook the ingredients which included around a dozen herbs and spices. Yes, dear reader, it was me who rose to the occasion which will amuse family and friends enormously since I am well-known for my absolute lack of culinary skills. But, at the end of the demonstration, we sat down to lunch which was a mixture of my cooking and selection from a buffet.

After lunch, we drove for another hour further north. The afternoon was spent at the Dambulla Cave Temples where we were occupied for just over an hour and a half. At the foot of the cave complex, there is the largest Buddha statue in the seated position in the world – it stands at 100 feet (30 metres) – which was constructed as recently as 1997-2000 and the gold covering glittered brightly in the strong sun. The climb up to the caves involve a lot of steep steps in humid conditions, but one stretch was inhabited by lots of cute little monkeys.

The Dambulla Cave Temples date back to the 1st century BC when King Valagambahu sought refuge here after being exiled from Anuradhapura. When the king regained his throne after 14 years, he converted the caves into rock temples in gratitude to the monks who had given him sanctuary. The location is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cave temples are carved out of a granite outcrop that towers 350 feet (100 metres) above Dambulla town and the actual temple complex is made up of a series of five caves of different dimensions (Cave II is the largest and most impressive). The caves are filled with statutes of the Buddha in various sizes and gestures (called mudras) including several massive Buddhas lying down awaiting entry to nirvana.

Almost eight hours after leaving our hotel in Kandy, at 4.50 pm we checked into our hotel in Dambulla where we will be spending the next three nights. It is called The Paradise – which I guess is the next best thing to nirvana – and consists of a series of chalets, each with a king-size bed and an upstairs sitting room, nestled in the jungle area of the city.

Given the location of all our hotels on the edge of cities, we have had no choice but to have dinner in the hotel restaurant but the food has been fine. At this hotel, the was no Lion beer so I had Tiger (grrr!).

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