Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a beautiful place that you should visit in your next vacation. The rolling greens of tea plantations, the endless Indian ocean, the friendly people and the pocket friendly choices for accommodation and food are reasons you should consider it for your next holiday.

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Sri Lanka is very well visited by the Indians (due to proximity) and the Europeans (due to its British colonial history and it’s cheap prices?) but not so by Singaporeans. When we were there, we were the few Southeast Asians roaming about and everyone assumed we were from China. Sri Lanka is an up and coming travel destination and my advice is to go there asap before the prices start going up!!

There has been outpouring of investments into Sri Lanka due to the immense potential for growth ever since the civil war ended in 2008. Lots of luxury holiday destinations are being built up and lots of jobs are being created for the Sri Lankan. In fact, Tourism is one of their top national incomes. So go there before it becomes overcrowded like Bali and overly touristy!

However, be warned that it is still a developing country and hence the travel conditions are less than ideal. For example, the roads in the central highlands are extremely winding because they follow the natural contours of the hills, or it is likely that the road leading into your hotel (even if it is a 5 star one) is a dirt road suitable for only one vehicle to pass.

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Since Sri Lankan is not very popular in Singapore yet and finding information may be confusing at times, I’ve compiled my To-See, To-Live, To-Eat list, in addition to some advice.

My 8-day itinerary was as such-
arrive at 12am from Singapore
stay overnight at Airport Green Hotel
2 nights in Stafford Bungalows (near Nuwara Eliya)
2 nights in an Ella Airbnb
1 night in Jetwing Yala
2 nights in Hotel Calamander Unawatuna

As you can see, we made a loop travelling from Colombo to the central highlands, then down South before returning to Colombo. If I had to choose my favourite place, it would have been Nuwara Eliya. Maybe because I am more of a green, hilly, mountain-ey kind of person rather than a beach person. Before I start rambling on, let me share with you my lists.

To-See
1. Tea plantations around Nuwara Eliya

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These tea plantations are on hill after hill as you drive through the Central Highlands. Take your pick as to which plantation you would like to visit. As we were staying in Stafford Bungalows, we had a morning tour around their own tea plantation and also visited the nearby Pedro plantation. Some would charge you for a factory tour, my advice is to just do it once to see the machinery and the processing of tea leaves. It is quite an interesting learning process!

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After finishing with the factory tour, you should walk around the tea plantations to see the women plucking the tea leaves. It’s incredibly hard work as they carry 10kg of tea leaves on their back while plucking leaves at lightning speed under the hot sun. A lady showed us her hands and they were all callused up ): And she was only 30 years old. You can take a photo with them, but they expect a fee. I would encourage you to take a photo with them and stop to talk to them for a while, they are really friendly. It’s okay to give them some money also especially because their wages are low, they earn about US$5 for 4h of plucking. They can work in the morning from about 8am -12pm and then afternoon from 2-6pm, so you are most likely going to bump into them!

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I would give Finlays tea factory at Ella (near 98 Acres Resort) a miss because the staff were one of the most unfriendly Sri Lankans we met (that is an achievement in itself) and the green tea they produced tasted terrible. Furthermore, you have to pay for the tea-tasting! The Finlays green tea is different from the Japanese green tea we are used to, the aroma is much milder and the stronger ones leave a bitter aftertaste.

2. The beautiful Southern Coastline

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Stop and stay at any of the coastal towns just to enjoy the ocean breeze and marvel at the incredible Indian Ocean. I stayed at Unawatuna, which is deemed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka. It had a touristy vibe to it because there were many homestays and seafood restaurants on the beach, but the beach itself was indeed lovely. If you want a nice relaxing beach holiday with cocktails in the evenings and lots of food choices, then Unawatuna is for you. Lots of people were sun-bathing and bobbing in the waters throughout the day. Swimming is not advised because the waves are really strong and there wasn’t a lifeguard in sight.

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If you want to learn surfing, you can try it at Welligama where there are lots of surf schools. From the road, we could see lots of beginners tumbling with the waves. If you would like to do whale-watching, you can visit Mirissa. We gave whale-watching a miss because we were concerned about safety, since it was a developing country and the Indian Ocean is a scary place (we are scaredy cats).

3. Moonstone Mines or other Gem Mines

Sri Lanka is rich in semi-precious stones, so ladies, this is an opportunity for your guy to splurge on you. There is a whole range of semi-precious stones that can be found, from pink topaz to the blue sapphire. These semi-precious stones are considered inexpensive jewellery but they are pretty, so they are used as costume jewellery.

If you are driving around Sri Lanka, then there will be mines along the roads for you to visit, or ask your driver to bring you to one (they definitely know a place). Our driver brought us to a Moonstone Mine which was really interesting because they showed us the whole process, from collecting the gravel and stones from 12m underground using a pulley system, to washing and separating the moonstones from the rest of the stones/ sand to cutting and embedding it. The tour ended with a visit to their shop where lots of jewellery were on sale. The prices are definitely much cheaper than what you would get elsewhere (at least for Singapore), with a huge moonstone ring setting you back by about 40USD.

If you do not have the opportunity to visit a mine but would still like to purchase some gems, then it is advisable to go to a reputable shop with a certificate from the government, so that you are assured that the gems are real. Make sure to ask for a certificate when you buy your gem.

To-Live
1. Stafford Bungalows

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One of the most beautiful places I have stayed at in all my travels. The drive to Stafford Bungalows was extremely long from Colombo, especially because Stafford is a 1h drive from Nuwara Eliya. However, the long drive was worth it. Upon entering the gates of the bungalow, you are greeted by the sight of trees, blooming flowers and the tea plantation. The garden was my favourite place to relax at, and the Management encourages guests to do so. They placed comfortable lounging chairs in the garden for you to soak in the surroundings, and serve breakfast and afternoon tea in the garden. One night’s price includes afternoon tea, a 4-course dinner, breakfast and morning and evening walks.

Price: $$$$

2. Jetwing Yala

When we first entered the hotel, all that we could utter was ‘wow’. The view was unparalleled; you had the Indian Ocean right in front of you at almost every corner of the hotel. Being situated near Yala National Park, it is not uncommon for hotel guests to spot elephants and wild boars roaming around the hotel grounds. Unfortunately for me, the elephants did not come say hi to me, because they already visited the previous night ): Hopefully, you would have more luck!

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Also, the facilities were great, the furnishing was modern, the swimming pool was well-maintained and there were beach chairs for you to laze around by the ocean. The dining experience was memorable too! For dinner, we sat under the stars in the open air while feasting on freshly grilled seafood. The hotel prides itself in getting most of its ingredients from their own organic farm and making their own curd. I loved their curd! My greatest regret of the trip was that we only stayed here for 1 night. I would definitely be back!

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Even if you aren’t interested in going for the safari, many people still stay here to relax because it is away from the hustle and bustle of beach life and the service is impeccable. In fact, we were not very impressed by the Safari because there weren’t many animals to see. Even though we saw the elusive leopard from afar, most of our time was spent driving around the national park trying to spot animals. There are definitely better Safaris out there in the world, so if you’ve been to one already, I would say, just give this a miss.

Price: $$$

3. Airport Green Hotel

Run by a local and recently refurbished 1 year ago, this place was a good resting spot right after we landed at 12am. It is located just 10 minutes away from the airport and has 3 rooms. The rooms are clean, the local breakfast of hoppers and eggs provided was yummy and the owner was very friendly and helpful too!

Price: $

To-Eat
1. Grand Indian at Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

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The best Indian food I have ever eaten.

That statement shall be kept there until I visit India. But this meal was so satisfying. Fresh naan with butter chicken and really delicious tandoori chicken at great prices – what more could you ask for????? You have to try this place if you are in Nuwara Eliya.

Price: $$ ($10-$15 per person)

2. AK Ristoro, Ella

This restaurant is set up by a local who married a Japanese lady, and serves Italian and Japanese fare. We did not try the Japanese fare but we tried their pastas, twice. We came back for two consecutive nights because the pastas were so delicious. Their kitchen is an open one, so you get to watch the Sri Lankan chefs whip up your al dente pasta.

They have lots of sauces / ingredients available but the most memorable combination that we tried were – anchovies and cabbage aglio olio,

Price: $$ ($10-$15 per person)

3. Galle Face Hotel Sea Spray, Colombo

I would travel to Colombo just to eat at this place again, and actually live at the beautiful Galle Face Hotel. As the flights home to Singapore were at a strange timing of 1am, we had the opportunity to dine at the Sea Spray restaurant in the Galle Face Hotel. It was ironic that even though we spent 2 nights along the beach in Unawatuna, the best seafood we ate was actually found in the city Colombo. Another ironic thing is that you can’t find the famous huge Sri Lankan crabs in Sri Lanka because all of them are exported, so what’s left are tiny crabs. Anyway, what I loved about this restaurant was their sides. Their rice was cooked so fancifully, I could just devour the entire bowl. They also serve homemade bread in the shape of fish (!!) with fancy butter. Yum! And of course, the seafood was fresh and the tuna steak was done perfectly with a perfect price of $13.

Price: $$$ ($20-$30 per person)

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wwoofing in Switzerland

Hello!

I’m back from my 1 month wwoofing experience in Switzerland and experiencing withdrawal symptoms, simply because it was just so amazing!! (wwoof stands for world wide organisation of organic farming which is established all over the world. basically you work for the organic farmers and get food, lodging and friendship in return!)

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I’m so thankful to God for blessing me with a wonderful host family who welcomed me with open arms and shared their stories with us. We felt like friends right from Day one. And even though we were there to work for our food, we had a good balance of work and rest. We had afternoons and weekends off, and even hot days off! I can imagine how different things could have turned out; perhaps getting a family that treated us like workers and doing manual labour the whole day with few breaks.

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Being in a farm for 4 weeks was so eye-opening. Just imagine a city girl, growing up in the hustle and bustle of Singapore, going to the quiet, serene rolling hills of Switzerland. What a contrast! Elka (the mama) commented that we city people are the best wwoofers to have because we are amazed by everything we see. Like everything. That was so true.

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We saw our first double rainbow while driving back from the meadows in the 30 year old golden Audi and it was such a perfect moment. It was the first time I ever saw the start to the end of a rainbow because in Singapore, the rainbow is bound to touch some building and disappear. Such an amazing sight!

We got excited by the abundance of wildlife, from the cute little cunning fox we spotted while driving past the forest to the occasional Bambis (deers) that wander into our fields with their little ones. And so did we love the cows, big and small. The big cows just ate all day (apparently they eat up to 70kg of fresh grass every day?!) but they were endearing in their own ways; mooing at us for more food or letting us pet them or visibly enjoying our daily scrubs. The small cows were more adorable though, they would lick us and chew on our clothes thinking its food.

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Or simply how raw milk even looks like. Did you know that raw milk will naturally split into 2 layers, the cream above and the remaining milk below? So the full cream milk that we drink is actually homogenised, meaning that the fat molecules are broken up so that it remains with the milk and there are no two layers anymore.

Well, I was so sad when 4 weeks came to an end. I almost teared when I said my final goodbyes and left. Never had to say goodbye to home because I study locally, but I finally understood those emotions because the farm really did feel like home for 4 weeks. Really can’t wait to go back another time (earliest is 2 years later though/:) when the cherries and apples can be harvested, and the cows are happily chewing away in the meadows!

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Upon returning to Singapore, everyone asks me, “So what have you learnt?”

And to be honest, I haven’t really learnt much because I was just there to provide manual labour. Misunderstand me not, real farming is not just manual labour but also involves brains (which obviously isn’t part of my job because I have zero clue about cow health / milking). But as a wwoofer, my main role is to just do labour-intensive jobs like weeding, feeding, cleaning. So I guess, I’m a super good weeder now? Give me your messy garden and it’ll be clean in no time, haha.

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Though I did not learn lots, I took away lots from this experience.

Firstly, I definitely made new friends and strengthened old friendships on this journey. Meet the Berger Family! 🙂

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We first met Bruno (the dad) who came to pick us up from the bus stop in his golden Audi. He is like the Big Friendly Giant in Roald Dahl’s books but only friendlier. And he doesn’t really speak English so it gets really funny at times because he randomly throws out English phrases that he knows. Eg. when we comment that the food is piping hot, he goes “Hot and Spicy”. Or when Elka was talking about how their neighbours were not very nice, he went “Nobody is perfect.” And the funniest was when we talking about cows and their shit, he piped “Shit happens.” HAHAH He is such a funny guy. Wished I could speak German so that I could talk to him more ):

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Then we met Elka (the mom) who hurried us in for lunch when we first met her, which kind of set the tone for the rest of the weeks because she was always cooking up something yummy! It was amazing to see her cook up a meal in half an hour for 6 people or make her sourdough bread. She’s the kind of cook who just opens her fridge, takes out whatever there is, eyeballs the quantity and whips up something quite amazing.

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Together, they have 3 kids- Christin (the oldest), Bianca and Toni (the youngest). Christin is funnily sarcastic but so warm and welcoming. She’s really tall (like 1.8m) and enveloped us in a huge hug when we first arrived. She also brought us on a walk in the forest where we talked about everything under the sun and laughed at us waddling / sliding down (with our butts on the floor) a very very steep slope. We Singaporeans aren’t very good at hiking. On the other hand, the Swiss are naturals.

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Bianca’s the responsible middle child whose main job at the dinner table is to pack the leftovers in the most suitable box. Sounds funny? It actually requires skill hahaha. She’s the artsy one who paints and dries wild flowers for her biology university project and also the one who always gets bullied. Toni is their youngest child who is in the Swiss army and only comes back for the weekends, so I only saw him a couple of times but because of him, I’ve tried the Swiss army chocolate and it is so so good. It is a milk chocolate bar with bits of crunchy cereal in it to cheer tired Swiss boys up. It’ll definitely cheer me up any day.

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I did farming with 2 of my good friends at different timings. The first 2 weeks were with Esther, my good buddy from primary school (oh gosh, look how well we have grown!). We ate lots of cakes (7 slices in 2 days), travelled like we were in The Amazing Race (rushing everywhere), plucked some Elderflowers for syrup, weeded a patch of grass for a new pumpkin patch and cooked up a Singaporean meal for them. The next 2 weeks were with Joy, my newfound good friend from medical school. It’s really funny how our friendship developed because we were actually friends since 11 years old but only started properly talking to each other last year. We cleaned up the farm, came up with a Cow Wellness Program (scrubbing the cow clean while they were being milked), battled the Nettles, and made a damn awesome Earl Grey Tea Cake 🙂

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Secondly, I’ve learnt so much about the farming world and come to envy how close-knit the community is. Neighbours will come and go at the dining table, bringing with them food and laughter. One neighbour, Peter, organises farm parties for the city people. He makes fresh sausages to supply at the party while his wife and daughter would make loads of cakes for dessert. Anything leftover gets directed to our farm and it is a w e s o m e. One morning, we came home to a tray full of blackforest cake, cheese cake etc. We also get nice fresh sausages occasionally! Another neighbour, Barbara and her 11 year old son, Noah, help out at the farm every week and we got invited to their house for cheese fondue! 🙂 Noah is super cute, he wants to be a farmer when he grows up and is best buddies with Bruno. (can you imagine a 50 year old and a 12 year old being best friends?!) They can talk about tractors all day!

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Thirdly, this experience has definitely changed the way I see loads of things. For example, now I’m way more thoughtful about the waste I produce and the plastic bags I use. A wonderful thing about Switzerland is that everyone is so environmentally conscious. It’s ingrained into their culture. Everyone brings their own bag to the supermarket for their groceries. Everyone splits their trash into recyclables and non-recyclables. It’s something I wished Singapore would start doing. I’m actually quite disgusted by the number of plastic bags we use whenever we go on a huge grocery shopping trip. So I’m making sure that we bring our own bags to the supermarket from now onwards. Also, I bought a compost bin so that I can turn all my food waste into nutritious soil for my garden!

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Also, regardless of whether you’re staying in an apartment or house or farm, somehow everyone has a lingonberry bush/ apple tree/ cherry tree/ rhubarb plant to call their own. And they make amazing food from their produce, like lingonberry cupcakes or rhubarb tart. This spurred me to come home and revamp my garden so that there’s more edible things growing. So now my garden can boast of a slowly, but growing pumpkin patch, very fertile ladies fingers, an onion that gives us chinese chives for garnishing, some english chives, a couple of zucchinis, a couple of eggplants (but no eggplant yet), random chinese vegetables that we use for stir fry, a crazily growing dill plant/ tree, many basil plants, few pots of rosemary and one pot of english parsley. It seems like loads of plants because it actually is! We actually spend at least an hour a day watering the plants, trimming them and tilling the soil. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s therapeutic at least. And nothing quite beats the feeling of watching your plant thrive and literally bear fruit 🙂

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If you ever have the time to try your hand at farming, I urge you to do so! It’s an experience I would never trade anything for and one that I would always remember, especially because I grew up in a city. I really hope to return one day, to see the apples and cherries in full produce and the cows happily grazing on the meadows. Till then, I can only relive my memories as I toil in my small little garden.

 

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Chicken Paprikash

The holidays seem ten million years ago but it was only 4 months ago that I returned from my epic Eastern Europe adventure, where I tried loads of cuisines and visited beautiful places. I got so inspired by the hipster food scene that I am dreaming of  setting up my own hummus bar and open face sandwich shop hahahahaha.

My favourite place was definitely Budapest, with pretty grand buildings and a hip culture.

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Except they had really lousy ice cream. Ice cream so bad that we just threw it away unfinished because it wastes calories. Anyway, Hungary has more good things going for it than bad. Hungary is famous for its Paprika, something that I didn’t know until I wandered around the local market and saw every shop selling Paprika. I knew I had to buy a few packs back home because Hungarian Paprika is definitely a class above the usual paprika. It has a sweet, nutty and smoky aroma to it, making it so good that it can be the star of a dish. Like Chicken Paprikash.

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Chicken Paprikash is basically chicken in paprika sauce. It is a Hungarian classic that I tried once at a Hungarian restaurant. I mopped up all the sauce but left the Spatzle untouched (one of the few things that I dislike), and happily made a mental note to try cooking it in Singapore. It didn’t seem that difficult to replicate.

And it isn’t!

The hardest part of this dish is probably procuring that treasured Hungarian paprika. It’s found on Amazon but I haven’t come across it in actual shops in Singapore. So that’s a bit tricky.

Other than that, all you need is time and patience as the wonderful flavours of paprika develop in that pot.

Ingredients
4 chicken thighs
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, finely sliced
15g of Hungarian paprika
1 cup of chicken broth
1/2 cup greek yogurt

Directions
1. Heat vegetable oil in a pan, fry the chicken thighs skin side down, in one layer, without moving it until deep golden brown, about 8 minutes.
2. Flip the chicken over and fry until the second side is lightly browned, about 2 minutes.
3. Remove the chicken from the pan, throwing away most of the oil but leaving enough to cook the onions, about 1 tablespoon.
4. Fry the onions until soft and translucent.
5. Add in the red bell pepper and fry until soft.
6. Add in the paprika, stir until nutty and fragrant, about 1 minute.
7. Pour the chicken broth into the pan.
8. Nestle the chicken into the pan in a single layer, making sure that all the chicken is covered by the broth.
9. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and cook for 30 minutes, until the chicken is tender and pulls easily from the bone.
10. Serve this over a plate of pasta, macaroni or spatzle. Serve with greek yogurt for that creamy texture.
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