Arctic Sweden and the Ice Hotel


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The Ice Hotel, Jukkasjärvi

So what would you choose if you were given £500 to do something you had always wanted to do? This was the envious position in which I found myself in the latter half of 2012, after my father (the brilliant travel writer Jos Simon) gave me and my sister £500 each to do just that.

Of course, I immediately opted for a solo trip to the coldest, darkest place I could possibly find. Well, come on – you didn’t really expect me to head for the Maldives, did you?

The decision was not actually a difficult one. Ever since watching the fantastic movie Local Hero (also referenced in the trip to Western Scotland that previous summer), I had wanted to see the northern lights. Not a particularly original desire, granted, but I do try and aim to do things that I actually want, rather than just for novelty. (Though, if I’m being honest, the search for novelty plays a part in my travel decisions far more than it probably should. Who, after all, doesn’t want to win the game of ‘have you been to…?’. Iraq is currently my trump card…) So northern lights it was. As I live and work in the United Arab Emirates, the northern lights are typically a very, very long way away. However, taking advantage of the fact that I would be home in the UK for Christmas and New Year, I booked myself a flight from Manchester to Kiruna in arctic Sweden – the cheapest of the arctic airports to which I could travel.

I knew nothing about Kiruna, had never even heard of it, despite having toured Scandinavia (including the arctic) some 18 months previously. I went straight to and discovered that, as in most of Scandinavia, hotels in Kiruna were expensive! I booked a single room at the SPiS Hotell City for the bargain rate of €250 (£195; $275) for three nights. I also booked a rental car and a dogsledding trip into the wilderness. Where, of course, I would see the northern lights.

I didn’t think a great deal more about it for some weeks, until I noticed on the news that SAS, the airline on which I was booked, was in very real danger of going bankrupt: an eventuality which my annual travel insurance would not cover. Although I have never really been interested in financial news, I spent much of the following week glued to the city pages of the BBC website, growing increasingly frantic until… SAS survived. Just.

Filled with a renewed sense of excitement about the upcoming trip, I set about looking at what else there was to do in the area. I discovered that I would be 145km north of the Arctic Circle, considerably further north than Rognan in arctic Norway, the furthest north I had previously been. Far enough north, certainly, to ensure that I wouldn’t see sunlight in my four days there. Which, for a northern lights hunter, is a good thing. And, for a miserable introverted goth, a very good thing. I discovered that Kiruna has the world’s largest iron ore mine and has the Esrange Space Centre, from where they launch rockets. Cool! I also discovered that, although it was possible to tour the iron ore mine, it would not be possible for one person travelling alone between Christmas and New Year. More anti-miserable introvert bias at work! So, what, then, would there be for me to do?

Then I saw it. Nearby, near the tiny village of Jukkasjärvi, the original Ice Hotel. Built annually in December, the entire hotel then melts each April. It is built from snow and from blocks of ice from the nearby Torne River, with water so pure that the ice is transparent. Well what would you do? I had already accounted for the £500 by way of flights, hotel, car rental and dogsledding. I was not exactly flush at the time. But there was no way I was going to travel to Kiruna in midwinter and not stay there. No way on earth.

The Ice Hotel is not cheap. Neither is is comfortable. In fact, I would be spending €370 (£285; $405) for a night in the cheapest of the ice rooms – a room with no bathroom or minibar. A room, in fact, with no window or door. The more expensive, artist-designed rooms (more of which later) will currently set you back around €900 (£700; $1000) a night. Normally, people don’t stay for more than one night in the cold rooms (there is also a permanent block of normal rooms, not made of ice, on site that go for €185 (£145; $200) a night). I opted to stay for my first two nights in the hotel I had already booked in Kiruna, followed by one exorbitant, massively uncomfortable and totally unforgettable night in the cheapest of the ice rooms.


Kiruna Ariport

Even though by the time I finally set out on the trip I had had a week of ‘acclimatisation’ in the British Midlands, the cold as I left the aircraft in Kiruna was painful. Minus 20 degrees celsius, and that was without windchill. I arrived late in the evening (though in the polar night, 20 hours every the day feel like late evening to deep night). The airport was compact and there were few travellers alighting beside myself. It was snowing and, from the heavy blanket across the landscape, had probably been doing so for some time. Like several years. I collected my rental car, finding to my pleasant surprise that I had been upgraded to a family estate car (the closest I think I will ever come to, y’know, actually having a family). All familiar so far, except the cable that I was shown how to fit into a port hidden in the car’s front grill which I should then, I was told, connect to the heating box which would be present in every parking space. This would keep the engine warm enough overnight to stop it seizing completely and fusing into a useless, frozen chunk of iron and thus completely ruining the car. I couldn’t work out how to connect it properly, but, hey, no pressure.

The drive into town was very exciting. So much so that I pissed myself. Or at least that’s what I thought when I felt a warm puddle slowly spreading in my lap. I had never come across heated driver’s seats before, see? Well I live in the damn desert. Once I realised that I had not suddenly become incontinent, I relaxed and enjoyed it. Such a pleasant sensation. So very, very pleasant. Oh yes.


My grunge-tastic cold weather wardrobe

The hotel was sparse, but clean and, above all, warm. I had managed to hastily and cheaply assemble a cold-weather wardrobe from various factory outlets both in Dubai and the UK. As I finally closed my bedroom door, I caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror. Somehow, and entirely coincidentally, I had managed to become a refugee from early-90s Seattle. Oh well.

The following day I got up. I have no idea whether it was early or late, as it was dark out. I had already experienced the opposite in midsummer arctic Norway, and even if you can imagine how either perpetual daylight or unending night feel, the reality is still quite jarring. I ventured into town. I knew that Kiruna is a fairly modern mining city, and thus was not expecting it to be attractive. And I dare say that in the summer, it might well not have been. But heavy snowfall can make anywhere look pretty. I’m sure if snow ever fell heavily on my erstwhile home town (and presuming the locals didn’t then beat it up for ‘not being from round here’), then even Stoke-on-Trent might look pretty. Though that’s quite a stretch…

Kiruna, however, was delightful. I searched out the important things first – the supermarket (I couldn’t really afford to eat in restaurants) and the off-licence (Sweden only sells booze stronger than 3.5% through state-licensed liquor stores called Systembolaget). I checked out the tourist information centre in the town hall and found the place from where my sled-dog experience would leave that evening. I wandered the streets of central Kiruna (all five of them) for a while until the cold started to tell, then returned to my room to prepare for some (arctic) night photography. The first thing I found was that my tripod, unused in many months, had completely fallen apart in its carry bag. Well this was no good. There was no doubt in my mind that the northern lights were gearing up for a very special show just for me that evening. And there was no way I could photograph them without a tripod. This, then, became my number one priority. No matter how miserable, gothic or introverted I become when I travel, I need photographs! I used my iPad to find a local photography shop (how much more difficult was travel in the those far-off olden days before 3G and wifi?) and, thanking both of my lucky stars that I had seen fit to rent a car, set off in search of a small retail park on the outskirts of town. After first enjoying that heated seat for a moment or two. Or, indeed, three. Oh yes. Again. It turned out to be a fortuitous trip as I saw a few more of the sights of Kiruna that I might otherwise have missed – namely the Town Hall and a rocket monument to the local contribution to the exploration of space.

Thus it was that I set out for my dog-sledding in the the wilderness experience with a full photography set-up, including a brand-new tripod, all ready for some ass-kicking, world-beating, award winning photographs of the Aurora Borealis. And some dogs, too.

“You can’t take that,” said the terrifyingly manly guide, pointing at my camera and tripod. I was at the office of the dogsledding adventure company, pulling on the heavy overalls and fur lined boots provided by the company for the wilderness experience.

“Really?” I said, deflated. “But…”

“No room on the sled. Camera OK. Not this other.”

So no tripod then.

No matter. I’d make do. I’m good like that. And he really was rather terrifyingly manly.


Dog sled

We travelled by minibus through the gloom, collecting other people from the few hotels scattered through the city, and drove for an hour or so to a location outside of the city. As is usually the case, I was the only solo traveller, garnering carefully hidden looks of sympathy from the others. I’m used to it – it happens a lot. We disembarked and were shown to our sleds. I got one to myself, given that I didn’t have another person to perch between my knees. I have often thought I should compile a list of these moments where solo travel marks you out as ‘different’, and should I ever marry again, write them into my vows: “I promise to take thee, XXXX, in sickness and in health, for cheaper prices on hotel rooms, so as not to pay the single traveller supplement, between my knees on a two person dogsled…” and so on. I often get the feeling that I’m destined to live alone…

The dogs were Siberian huskies, beautiful animals, yipping and prancing in delight as they were let out of their mobile kennel. I am not much of an animal person – in fact, usually the only time I like to get close to animals is when they are served inside a burger bun, but these dogs really were such beautiful creatures. They were lined up, 10 or 12 to a sled. I have no idea of what the animal cruelty quotient is here (and given that I am a bullfight aficionado, perhaps I am the wrong person to judge) but the dogs seemed well treated and happy enough.


Sled dogs




The Sammi tent (lavvu)


The lavvu from the inside

It is easy to imagine a dogsled trip through the arctic wilderness, but again, the reality is so much more. To travel at speed through the darkness, with no sound but the excited yipping of the dogs and the swishing of wooden runners through packed snow, is quite, quite magical. The tour (clearly a tourist tour but none the worse for that) took us an hour or so out into the darkness beyond the city, to a traditional Sammi tent (lavvu) where we were served coffee brewed over an open fire, and assorted Sammi delicacies. The darkness out here was complete, the milky way resplendent overhead. Truly incredible. So breathtaking was the celestial view, in fact, that I didn’t even notice the complete absence of the Aurora Borealis for quite some time.

Back inside the lavvu, I continued with the pretence of jollity often necessary when being the only solo traveller in an organised group. Perhaps understandably, given my love of solitude, I have a somewhat lugubrious demeanour. As a child, I went to the dentist and was given gas and air. This, my first encounter with altered consciousness, was by far the best I had ever felt. The happiest I had ever been. “Cheer up,” said the dentist, “you look like your dog just died.” Forget resting bitch face; I have resting goth face. Which is much, much worse. And now, I am still terrified that my presence as a solo traveller might make others try and befriend me. Consequently I have to, at all times, appear happy and fulfilled as a human being. Which means smiling. Thankfully, there were no small children present on this particular trip, as me smiling frequently makes them cry. And in some cases, hysterical. But that’s a different story.

On the journey back from the lavvu, we stopped for a moment. The guide pointed to the sky. “Northern lights!” he boomed, manlily. “They are not always colourful.” I looked to where he was pointing. There was indeed a rippled sheet of grey-white extending across part of the sky. I decided to trust the guide (and not just because he scared me) and tick ‘seeing the northern lights‘ off my bucket list (ugh, I hate that phrase). Though personally I could have sworn that we were all oohing and aahing over some clouds. Cirrus clouds to be sure. But still. Clouds.

That night, we were back early enough for me to go out for a drink. Yes, I had been to the Systembolaget, but I actually felt like going to a bar. A real bar. With people. Real people. Needless to say, I took my Kindle, just in case any of the aforementioned real people decided to try and talk to me (they didn’t). The only bar I could find was warm, welcoming and lively. I bought a pint, switched on my Kindle and settled back to watch. Dear god, the people were beautiful. Sooo beautiful. Looking at the seven foot tall Viking males and their similarly statuesque female counterparts, I thought, I need to move to Scandinavia. These people are just beautiful. It took another pint for the correspondent thought to form: Fuck. These people are beautiful. And that makes me the weird, misshapen troll in the corner. And, looking around me, I knew I was right.


Kiruna church at midday – this is as light as it gets

The following day, I took photographs in the lunchtime dusk (the closest it gets to daylight) before heading out to Jukkasjärvi. I visited the village of Jukkasjärvi itself, and its famous wooden church (now enclosed in a corrugated metal shell). I also found a small supermarket and bought a bottle of vodka. Vodka doesn’t freeze, see? Then, it was time for the Ice Hotel. I knew that access to the rooms was not possible until 6pm as between 10am and 6pm, the Ice Hotel is a museum (free access for guests!) allowing visitors to wander the corridors and rooms. And indeed I took the tour myself, (again, the only solo traveller, smiling and grimacing to ensure the safely-coupled that I was perfectly OK in my solitude and neither needed nor indeed would welcome any attempts at companionship). The hotel really is an astonishing thing. As mentioned before, it melts every April and is rebuilt every December. It is built from a combination of frames upon which snow is sprayed, and blocks of ice cut from the impossibly pure Torne River. Each year, artists are brought in to design the more expensive rooms, each coming up with their own theme.


The Artist Suites: Dragon Residence, by D. Lkhagvadorj and Bazarsad Bayarsaikhah




The Artist Suites: A Virgin in Space by Monica Popescu and Petros Dermatas, desigend to look like the spacecraft in the 2009 movie Moon



Blue Marine, by William Blomstrand and Andrew Winch. Designed to look like you’ve been swallowed by a whale.

There is an Ice Bar (the original ice bar, whatever the management of your local Ice Bar franchise might tell you), an ice reception and, coolest of all (quite literally) an ice chapel, where one can get married. Again, on the unlikely off-chance I ever decide to couple-up legally again, this is where I want to read those aforementioned vows.


The Ice Reception area


The Ice Chapel. Where the miserable introvert can get married.

Even with the tour, I was still a couple of hours early for my room. It was, nevertheless, two hours spent very pleasurably, in the warm reception room, reading a book and drinking a whole series of complementary (and extremely good) hot chocolates. And if I gained weight because of them, I figured, it could only serve to make my evening more comfortable. I’m sure that if seals and whales had access to hot chocolate this good, it would become an intrinsic part of their winter-blubber-preparation diet. Probably. Again, scarves were invaluable here as a solo traveller – as the day progressed, the reception area filled up. Even though, as always, I took up as little space as possible, selecting a small table and a single chair in the corner, a well placed scarf and book ensured that the space was still mine after I returned with yet another hot chocolate.


The corridor outside my room. Which appears to be on Hoth.

When it was finally time to check in to the room, the rules were explained to me. I would be provided with a heavy, warm, thermal onesie, fur lined boots and a four-season sleeping bag. As the rooms were made entirely of ice and snow, it would be a constant minus five degrees celsius inside, regardless of how cold it got outside. Well, that’s OK then! I would leave all my belongings in a locker in the permanent warm building, which is also where the bathrooms would be. If I needed to pee, then I’d have to leave the ice building for the warm building. Same as if I needed anything from my luggage. I would have a bed (made out of ice but covered in reindeer pelts), a table, chair, bedside table and sculpture (?) made out of ice and a woollen curtain instead of a door. And nothing else.



My bedroom



Thus I snow-suited up, stored my stuff and went to my room. Wow. Nothing really can prepare you for the silence of being inside a room made entirely of snow and ice. It is hard to describe the overall feeling. I can try, but it still won’t come close to the actual experience. As expensive and uncomfortable as it may be, I would highly recommend you give it a go it should you ever be fortunate enough to have the chance. Just wonderful.


The bedroom ‘door’

There was clearly no way I could spend the entire evening alone in my room, as I normally might, so I had to make the most of the hotel facilities. I had a few drinks in the Ice Bar (the one made literally out of blocks of ice). It was sponsored by a vodka company (I forget now which one) so most of the drinks were short vodka cocktails. At about €10 (£7.75; $11) they weren’t cheap. But they were delicious. Also, you are sitting in a bar where the bar, all the tables and chairs and, indeed, the very walls, are made out of blocks of ice. And the gimmick with the drinks (and it’s a good one!) is that they are served in glasses also made out of ice. A truly incredible place, but much like the rest of the cold parts of the hotel, not comfortable enough to spend a whole evening in. So I went on to the warm (permanent and not made of ice) part of the hotel.


The Ice Bar


Drinks at the Ice Bar


Drinks in glasses made of ice in the Ice Bar

First I ate at the restaurant. The food and the ambience were brilliant. All the dishes were local and organic and very well prepared. Reindeer meat, a variety of arctic fish and deserts made from arctic brambles, served by the most beautiful human beings you have ever seen, it truly was a perfect experience. As with everything here, it certainly wasn’t cheap. But also as with everything here, it certainly was worth every krona.


The ‘warm’ bar at the Ice Hotel

From the restaurant, I had a few beers in the warm bar (also incredibly pleasant) before liberating a (plastic) glass, returning to my sub-zero lodgings and zipping myself and my nightcap-sized bottle of vodka in for the night.


Ready for bed!

Thanks more to the vodka than the comfort of the room itself, I slept well. And the next day, was able to drive straight to the airport and thence home.

So the original question was: if I were given £500 to do something I always wanted to do, what would I do?  As it turned out, it cost double that. So, £1000 for a three night stay in an incredibly uncomfortable room in a freezing mining town where it never gets light and the aurora borealis are indistinguishable from a dirty strand of cirrus clouds. Would I do it again?

Fuck yes.



Mallaig, Skye and The Outer Hebrides


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So, where would you go to mend a broken heart? Ibiza perhaps. Get tanked up and pull some birds, live life to the max, and all that. Forget about thwarted love with some good old fashioned lust. Or Paris. City of Lights. Heal the hurt by absorbing culture, arts, architecture. Faced with the eternal mystery of La Giaconda, what does a passing liaison amoureuse even matter? This too, after all, shall pass. Or even Amsterdam. Where, with sufficient herbal encouragement, one can forget about just about anything. Nope. The true miserable introvert goes to the Outer Hebrides. Alone.

Thus it was that in the summer of 2012, heart-broken and spirit-low, I found myself alone in Mallaig on the west coast of Scotland, gearing up for a solo jaunt across some of the loneliest terrain I had ever encountered. Why Mallaig? Simple really. For some reason, still unbeknownst to me, I had agreed that summer to walk the West Highland Way with a group of friends. Which involved two of my personal bêtes noire – exercise and dormitories. By the time we finished up in Fort William, despite the immense rush of having completed a week-long hike through the mountains, I was exhausted, and in desperate need of some alone-time.

I had, thankfully, foreseen such an eventuality, and planned a week-long jaunt around the islands, explicitly for the purpose of riding the Jacobite train to Mallaig and flying from Benbecula in the Hebrides, landing at Barra Airport – famous for actually being a beach. Implicitly, however, it was the loneliest holiday I could think of. Perfect for the heartbroken, and extremely miserable, introvert.

The Outer Hebrides. Just as a name it is rich with the allusion of loneliness. It sounds like the loneliest place on earth. The Outer Hebrides. Familiar from the soothing-but-incomprehensible lull of the shipping forecast on the radio in my parents’ car when a small child. The Outer Hebrides. In actuality, they are less than 50 miles from the coast of the Scottish mainland, and less than 35 miles from Skye. Still, they sounded like the perfect place to be alone. And I wasn’t wrong.

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The Jacobite Express crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct

The journey from Fort William to Mallaig (from where one can catch a ferry to Skye and thence on to the Outer Hebrides) is spectacular. In 2009, Wanderlust magazine voted it the best rail journey in the world, ahead of such luminaries as the Trans-Siberia Railway and the Cuzco-Macchu Pichu line in Peru. Although one can make this extraordinary journey by regular, multiple-unit train, that would be missing a trick. A very big trick. The West Coast Railway Company runs the Jacobite Express for the full length of the route. Probably most famous as the train used to film the Hogwarts’ Express scenes of the Harry Potter films, the 42 mile trip is undertaken in ex-British Railways coaches from the 1960s and pulled by one of three ex-LMS/British Railways steam locomotives. A standard class single ticket will currently set you back some £29 (€37.50; $41). And, boy, is it worth it. The countryside is just incredible, from the end of the highlands all the way down to the coast. If possible, I would recommend sitting on the left side in one of the rearmost carriages; that way, you get a fantastic view of the whole train as it curves across the horseshoe-shaped Glenfinnan Viaduct. Also the left-hand side of the train affords amazing coastal views from Arisaig (upon whose beach Local Hero, one of my favourite ever movies was filmed) onwards.

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The Jacobite Express at Fort William


the Steam Inn, Mallaig

In addition to being the terminus of the West Highland Line, Mallaig is also an important fishing port and the base for Caledonian MacBrayne ferries to Skye and the Small Isles/Inner Hebrides. I had planned two nights here, with a day cruise of the aforementioned Small Isles before heading out across Skye. I had booked a tiny, single room at the Steam Inn a pub/inn round the corner from the station. It was basic but clean, a perfect place to spend my first night alone. And alone I spent it – frazzled from constant companionship for the duration of the West Highland hike, I couldn’t even bring myself to go down to the bar. Setting a pattern for many, if not most, solo adventures to come, I bought a couple of bottles of wine from the local supermarket and retired to my room. I did, however, venture forth for food. As Mallaig is a major fishing port, the local fish and chip shops must be pretty good, I figured. Sadly, I was wrong, but two bottles of cheap pink wine quickly washed away the taste of stale batter.



The Isle of Eigg

The following day I set out for the ‘mini-cruise‘ around the small isles. In effect, this is just a matter of sitting on the ferry as it makes its rounds. You don’t get to disembark, instead having to settle for photographing the aforementioned islands from the deck (or, as the day drew on and it got colder, through the window of the bar). Perfect. No interaction necessary. Just me, my book, my camera (phone) and an occasional foray to the bar for coffee. The non-landing ‘cruise’ took a little over four hours and cost around £10 (€13; $14.25) and was well worth it. As well as seeing four islands (Eigg, Muck, Rum and Canna, which sound like some obscure regional stag party itinerary) I got to see dolphins, a whale (distantly) and several white-tailed eagles. And jellyfish. Lots of jellyfish. Ick.


The Isle of Muck

Despite attaining the loneliness I desired, I spent that evening deafened by settling gulls and huddled against a cold wind in the semi-shelter of the Mallaig RNLI lifeboat station – the only place I could get half-decent 3G reception in those heady days when small hotels didn’t have wifi.

I arrived in Portree, the ‘capital’ of Skye, the following day around lunchtime. The ferry from Mallaig to Armadale, the sea-bound entrance point to the Isle of Skye, had been half an hour late which naturally led to me spending most of the morning panicking that I’d miss the bus between Armadale and Portree. Of course, the bus only exists to ferry ferry passengers, so to speak, so it waited for us. Well, for me. The journey between Armadale and Portree was predictably stunning. (One of the few downsides I can imagine to being Scottish must be the constant inability to be impressed by natural landscapes. There really are very few places which, at their most beautiful, can even approach an average Scottish landscape. On the other hand, being from good old Stoke-on-Trent, I’m impressed if the barman has the normal number of limbs). We passed some of the most incredible views it had ever been my privilege to witness. The Old Man of Storr was just off to the left of the bus route. I only wished I had had the time and motility to see the island properly.


The Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye

Portree, just as predictably, was also incredibly beautiful. Having booked several weeks ahead of time, I was due to stay in a reasonably priced hostel dormitory. I arrived to find that I could not check in for another three hours. Three hours was enough to tour the town – another amazingly picturesque place with a (famous) quay of multicoloured cottages and a perfect view out across the Irish Sea (spoiled only slightly by a large cruise liner moored just past the end of the bay). Three hours was also enough for me to decide to abandon the booking and find a private room in the Portree Hotel, right in the centre of town. At £60 (€77.50; $85) for a tiny, aged, and somewhat distressed single room with no view at all, it didn’t exactly represent great value for money. It did, however, represent privacy. And as any self-respecting miserable introvert will tell you, privacy is worth whatever you can afford to pay. Another local supermarket, another couple of bottles of wine, and I was set for the night.


Portree Harbour


Uig at sunset

The next day I made my way to Uig. I would have dearly loved to spend more time on Skye, to visit the world-famous distillery and the even-more-famous Storr rocks, but the bus timetables were not my friend. I did swear that one day I would go back under my own steam. And indeed one day I will. My day’s journey ended at a Youth Hostel a couple of miles outside Uig. A Youth Hostel. With a dormitory. Into which I was booked. I went down to the local pub and proceeded to panic. I was set to spend the night in an enclosed room full of Other People. And their farts. I used the pub wifi to try and find a private room somewhere. Anywhere. But it was a Saturday night at the height of the summer tourist season. No dice. Enclosed room and farts it was then. Which meant I had to get drunk. Very drunk. Which I did. I could still feel myself breathing those damn farts though.


Uig just after sunset


Welcome to Lochmaddy

The ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy, the main port of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides proper, landed on the afternoon of Sunday 5th August. The day of the London Olympics 100m men’s sprint final. But, more importantly, a Sunday. I disembarked into a light drizzle to be met by a preacher with a broad Northern Irish accent bellowing scripture at a small and entirely middle-aged congregation on the dock-side. Not sure whether this was a frequent occurrence or a one-off some-sort-of-anniversary-of-something-or-the-other special, I tried to take a few photos, but Northern Irish accents have always enormously intimidated me, especially when coupled with religion, so in the end I just took off toward the guest house I had booked.

Sunday 5th August. Sunday. Lochmaddy had a shop. Right next to my guest house. But it was Sunday. The shop was shut. No matter. I arrived at my guest house at the time I had told the landlady. And, indeed, there she was to greet me. She was jolly and happy and very Scottish. She showed me the room, with which I was more than pleased. She explained how to use the tea and coffee making facilities and pointed out the free biscuits. She showed me the kitchen and which of the items in the fridge made up my breakfast. It turned out she didn’t live in the house. She didn’t, in fact, live anywhere near the house. And nobody else was booked to stay. I was the sole occupant of this big, isolated and more-than-slightly-spooky guest house. Damn. The local shop was closed, so no chance of wine or crisps. There were no cafes or restaurants open anywhere near the docks. I was, it would seem, buggered.


Lochmaddy, North Uist

Lochmaddy itself was quite beautiful. Spread out along the coast, it had a bank (well, a bungalow with a Royal Bank of Scotland sign affixed to the front), a visitors’ centre (closed) and a mini-mart (closed) attached to the petrol station (closed). Thus it was that I found myself venturing inland towards the Lochmaddy Hotel. Which had a bar. That did food. And booze. It was there through a pleasant haze borne of fish, chips and beer, that I watched Usain Bolt beat the 100m Olympic record. I was happy for him. I was even happier for myself. By the time I returned through the foggy and totally silent streets of the village, I was hungry again. My breakfast called to me from the kitchen, but I had no idea where or when I would have a chance to eat the following day. And in any case, the breakfast only consisted of two slightly-stale and over-refrigerated slices of white bread, a banana and a yoghurt. Instead, seized by a stroke of drunken genius, I went from bedroom to bedroom (all thankfully unlocked) throughout the whole guesthouse eating the free biscuits that came with the tea and coffee making facilities. If you, dear reader, stayed in a guesthouse near Lochmaddy port in early August 2012 and found, much to your eternal disappointment, that the tea and coffee making facilities did not include any biscuits, then I apologise from the bottom of my wretched heart. But, damn, they tasted good.

The following day, there was but one bus to Benbecula Airport on the isle of Benbecula from whence I would travel by air to Barra beach. And it left in mid-afternoon. In the three hours between leaving the guest house and the bus departure time, there was little else to occupy me in Lochmaddy other than the (very good) visitors’ centre. Consequently, I now know more about the history of North Uist than I ever thought possible.


Benbecula Airport

The bus journey from Lochmaddy to the airport traversed an almost alien landscape of craters, pools and barren land and ended quite anti-climatictally at a small industrial estate on the outskirts of Benbecula itself. That being the only possible bus that would connect with my flight, I found that I had three hours to kill at Benbecula airport. Now I am no stranger to long layovers. I have done 10 hours in the old Bangkok Don Muang Airport and a further eight hours at Amsterdam Schiphol at the other end of the same day without the slightest problem. Six h0urs in Heydar Aliyev International Airport, Baku? Bring it on! Even the best part of an afternoon spent staring at a dirty, tiled wall in Trivandrum Airport in India was manageable. But Benbecula? For three hours? I almost went crazy. There was a cafe. It was closed. There was a runway. It was empty. There didn’t appear to be anyone else in the entire building. Until I actually went to the gate to board the flight, when I was searched and patted down and questioned like I was wearing al Al Qaeda t-shirt and carrying a bag with a ticking alarm clock hanging from the zip. I can only assume that the security staff there were even more bored than I was.



All aboard the DeHavilland Twin Otter

The flight itself was great. 20 minutes aboard a DeHavilland Twin Otter, seated right behind the pilot with great views across the Little Minch and the Sea of the Hebrides towards mainland Scotland. Barra Airport regularly features on Top 10 Airports bucket lists. It has a terminal building, with a cafe and a departure lounge. It has a baggage reclaim area (albeit a small shed attached to the side of the building). What makes it a constant presence on the bucket lists is the fact that the main runway is actually the beach. It is the only airport in the world where flight schedules are dictated by the tides. And, glued to the porthole as I was, it is a pretty fucking impressive place to land a plane. Forgive the swearing, but if you ever do this journey, you will realise just how justified it is.


Landing at Barra airport


Barra Airport


Disembarking at Barra Airport


Barra Airport luggage claim



Castlebay, Barra

Unfortunately, famous beach-bound airport aside, there is not a great deal more to see or do on the island of Barra. I had two days in a B&B before my flight back off the beach to Glasgow, and spent much of it reading in bed and (surprise surprise) drinking cheap wine from the local supermarket. Cafe Kisimul is a very pleasant cafe that turns into a highly rated Italian, Indian and local seafood restaurant in the evening. However, having had lunch there, I was too late to book a table for dinner – it was sold out. There is a castle in the middle of the bay (the main town is called Castlebay – such native cunning!) which is worth an hour round boat trip and a few photographs. Failing that, it was a pretty good place to recuperate and read but nothing much more. The biggest downside, however, was that the B&B, clean, reasonable and well located as it was, nevertheless felt like staying in someone’s house. Hence my natural introvert’s reaction of 48 hours of buttocks being tightly clenched in embarrassment. Oh well.


Loch Lomond and Conic Hill from the air

The flight back to Glasgow was even more spectacular than the flight in from Benbecula. It helped that I could clearly see parts of the West Highland Way that I had walked some 10 days previously – specifically Loch Lomond and Conic Hill; and was able to reflect on how much better I already felt than I had then. So perhaps, after all, a week spent away from the world with just myself for company was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, it’s just good to be alone, however shitty you feel. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.








Burma: the pain of being an early adopter

I am a tourist. Not a traveller. A tourist. I am not too keen on those who pride themselves on being travellers rather than tourists. In the same way that I am not too keen on battery acid enemas. Of course they are tourists. They are just more supercilious. And often have terrible, culturally-appropriated white-boy/girl dreadlocks. And no sense of humour. However, having said that, and bored shitless of the ‘have you been to…’ game that they all play (see the wonderful Julian Rhind-Tutt as Jason Hamilton the travel writer in Black Books for illumination), I travel a lot and I do like to see different places. I see myself as an early-adopter tourist. And sometimes, that just sucks. Easter 2012 was one of those times.

I have no idea what Burma is like now – I suspected at the time that its west coast beaches (didn’t visit – don’t like beaches) would soon be massively spoiled by slicks of entitled, over-earnest western teenagers in tie-dye Bob Marley t-shirts who have all figured out the meaning of life. But in 2012, the country had just opened up after decades of oppressive military rule. The perfect chance to see it before it followed Thailand down the gap-year shitter. There was, however, a massive down-side to this. And I’m not talking about the three day wait in Bangkok for the flights and visa to be sorted. Though that was pretty shitty.


Tuk-tuks on Soi Rambutri, Bangkok

I do still have a sort of soft spot for Bangkok. It was, after all, the reason I resumed my travels after a 10 year hiatus back in 2004. Back then I had never been anywhere particularly exotic (though I had seen most of Western Europe and even lived in Austin, Texas for a time) and, as a love-sick young pup one one year into his thirties, had followed a woman there for a summer. Back then I was blown away – the Khao San Road was the most impossibly exotic place I could have imagined. I loved it. Eight years later, it just seemed tawdry; the stamping ground of tired stag and hen (that is bachelor and bachelorettes for my American friends!) parties and drunken Brits in football shirts. Though still with too many fucking ‘travellers’. I am not sure how much Banglamphu had actually changed in those intervening years – not much I suspect. I, however, had changed a lot. That is the downside of frequent travel (and the only downside, as far as I can see, perpetually empty bank account aside) – you get jaded. There are very few places (Kathmandu and Tokyo being the only two that immediately spring to mind) that really feel magical on first acquaintance. Generally, although arriving somewhere new is still a great feeling, it just feels nowhere near as special as it used to.

Burma in 2012 had just emerged from nearly 50 years of massively repressive military rule; half a century that had seen the country ostracised internationally. Travel to and round the country had been incredibly difficult, if not impossible. By 2012, though, things were changing. Elections in 2010, though eventually decried as fraudulent, followed by progressively more movement toward proper democracy had seen borders open up and tourism, still a trickle then, begin to provide the promise of an national income. The problem (the big problem to which I alluded earlier) was that there was still virtually no tourist infrastructure. And whilst ‘travellers’ might thrive on such conditions, I (as I believe I may already have pointed out) am a tourist.

When I was a small child, my parents, my sister and I would regularly drive across Europe. We visited family in Greece, took camping tours of France. I am certain that this is from where my love of travel stems. (My father, Jos Simon, is indeed a travel writer). Travel across Europe in the late 70s and early 80s was a very different beast than it is today. No internet, no ATMs, no satnav or Google Translate. No Euros – a trip to Greece might involve five or six different currencies. We relied on arriving at places early enough to visit banks at a time when banks closed at 3pm. We relied on road atlases, phrase books and crossed fingers that campsites would have spare pitches when we arrived. We were plagued by unreliable transport – at one point our tiny Fiat caravanette proved to be so underpowered that we had to traverse an Alpine pass in reverse. And have you ever tried getting a complete exhaust section for a 1973 Vauxhall Victor in a largely inaccessible (the terribly rocky path there creating the need for a new exhaust in the first place) village on the border of Greece and Albania? My parents have. And they did it with two small, and largely fractious, children in tow. They would (and no doubt will) scoff at what I considered to be difficulties in travelling round Burma. But difficulties, nevertheless, they were. Such as trusting a shadowy, online ‘tourist agency’ to arrange a visa. Such as the fact that there was not a single internationally connected ATM in the whole country and nowhere took credit cards. And the lack of options when booking hotels online. Not to mention the complete impossibility of booking and paying for internal flights without actually being at the airport. And a different airport from the one at which I would arrive. But my parents should be proud: I endured. I transcended. I overcame, goddamit. I overcame.


Fucking Thingyan

I arrived in early April, 2012, for a visit that was limited (by the length of school holidays) to a mere 7 days. In by-elections a week before, Aung San Suu Kyi’s previously outlawed National League for Democracy had won 43 of the 45 available seats. On top of that, Burma was also celebrating Thingyan (also known as Songkran in Thailand), a five day water festival leading up to Buddhist New Year. As I understand it, people actively travel to Thailand to experience Songkran. But then, as I understand it, people actively throw themselves out of planes with parachutes and off bridges attached to an elastic band. People actively mutilate their own genitals to derive sexual pleasure. People actively listen to Radio One. There are a lot of fucking weird people out there. Songkran/Thingyan is five days of people shooting each other with water pistols and thinking it is the funniest thing in the world. Let me run that by you again. Five days. Of shooting people with water pistols. Five days. Even as a child, water pistols ceased to be even mildly diverting after five minutes. So Thingyan? I fucking hated it. And not because I am a miserable introvert. Because it was shit. It was impossible to walk anywhere without getting soaked and it wasn’t warm enough yet for the water to evaporate. Without taking undue care, you’d end up prune-fingered and shivering for nearly a week. Like being in Manchester in the summer. Only without being able to understand a word people say. OK, exactly like being in Manchester in the summer then.


Yangon International Airport. And its carpet.

Yangon International Airport was surprisingly modern. There was a short queue for the visa stamp – not many people requiring visas were visiting Burma at that point. The couple ahead of me were asked to pay for their visa and protested that they had already paid a tourist company. The impressively-military-peak-capped border guard didn’t care. In the end they had to pay. Again. I hadn’t paid, but had arranged to meet the Burmese man who had ostensibly invited me to stay, and to whom I would pay the requisite fee in cash. Of course now I was worried that I would have to pay the border guard as well. And then I might not have enough cash. Cash, you see, was something of a problem back then in Burma. There were, as already noted, no international ATMs. The Burmese Kyat was not available outside the country. So the only possible way to do business  was with the mighty US Dollar. Which meant I needed to work out how much money I would need for the whole holiday and have it in dollars. If I ran out of money, I would have no food, no shelter. No booze. Unthinkable. Obviously, I had erred on the side of caution and taken many more dollars than I thought I would need. But there was still the fear of robbery. Or of having to pay twice for the not-inexpensive visa. Like I say, I’m a tourist, not a traveller. I really, really do not want adventures. I want holidays. But the letter I provided for the border guard proved sufficient, and I received my visa. At the other side of the border control, I met my ostensible inviter, and, carefully removed his dollars from my bag. I say carefully, as, by another quirk, not only would the Burmese only accept US Dollars, they would only accept pristine US Dollars. Any fold, crease or tear? No longer legal tender. So I had had to take my stack of US Dollars, wrap them in bubble-wrap (and I mean literally – actual bubble wrap) and place them in a sturdy cardboard box that I surrounded by soft and shock-resistant clothing in my rucksack. I’m not kidding.

First order of business was to pay for my internal flight tickets. Air Mandalay had a deal for a four ticket round trip (Rangoon to Inle to Mandalay to Bagan to Rangoon) that seemed eminently reasonable. And while I could read about it on their website, and book the tickets via email, I couldn’t pay for them unless I turned up at the airport with cash. Perfectly preserved cash. And I could easily be bumped from the flights if I didn’t pay as soon as possible. And as this was a major national holiday season, the flights were filling up. Fast. So I had to get to the domestic airport. Which luckily was right next door to the international terminal at which I had arrived. About a 15 minute walk with ridiculously long airport driveways taken into account. So walk I did. The domestic terminal was everything the international terminal was not – run down, chaotic, dirty, crazy. Worse even that Kathmandu’s infamous domestic terminal. Like many repressive regimes, a lot of money had been pumped into the parts of the country that foreign journalists might see, but the parts that they would not told the true story. I found the Air Mandalay stand – and it was a stand: one of the small metal lecterns from behind which airport staff issue your boarding pass – and paid a very friendly and very accommodating Air Mandalay employee. As I was to find out the width and length of Burma, the lack of facilities for tourists certainly did nothing to damp their hospitality. In return for my meticulously ironed and bubble-wrapped dollar bills I received…a ticket! A real, old-school (for those of you old enough to remember) carbon-papered, booklet-style airline ticket, which she filled in by hand. It had been something like two decades since I had seen a proper, old-fashioned airline ticket. It really made me smile. (And I’m a miserable introvert etc. etc.).

Armed with my charming airline round trip ticket, I made my way back to the shining international terminal and got a cab to my hotel. The East Hotel was one of the few, then, to jump on the new Burmese tourist wagon. It was advertised online as a boutique hotel (and in 2012 that classification was only just beginning to become tiresome) and one of the few hotels in the area with an online presence. It was…interesting. Definitely not a bad hotel at all, it was a strange amalgam of a standard, pre-cast concrete, five-floor tower as seen all across South East Asia, and a second-hand description of what a boutique hotel should be. Hence the immense pride in the key-card system. The forty-year old dented-door elevator up to the rooms. The random collection of objects in the (nevertheless very pleasant) room itself – a bead curtain made out of leather gourds? Well why the hell not?

I had two days in Rangoon, most of which I spent dodging fucking water pistols. But it was here that the lack of tourist infrastructure (along with the fact that I was visiting on a major religious holiday) started to let me down. Across the road from the East Hotel was a large and ramshackle hotel that bore the name of a famous Western chain. It is not there anymore. However, it was the only place I could go locally to change my dollars into kyat. I handed over two $100 bills in the gloomily mahoganied lobby and received a wad of bills as thick as my forearm in return. OK, I don’t work out so my forearm isn’t all it could be, but nevertheless…

Again, avoiding the omnipresent water pistols, I headed down the road from the money changer to the next tourist point: the much touted Bogyoke Market, where I was assured I would be able to try authentic street food and observe the hustle and bustle of everyday life in the Burmese capital. As it was Thingyan, I got soaked on the way. And as it was Thingyan the market was closed. Fuck. With very little else to do, and with most shops and restaurants being shut, I started to freak out a little. Even my first trip to Vietnam some years previously, where (at that time) the lack of the ubiquitous Thai 7-11 shops meant I didn’t know where the hell I could even get a bag of crisps was not this otherworldly. I was hungry. But there was nowhere to buy food. Especially for a miserable introvert. Eventually, I found my way through dark and sodden streets to what was either a mall or an indoor market which had an insane department store attached. I managed to collate enough random foodstuffs that I had a pretty good chance of having a passable bedroom-picnic by the time I finally got back to the hotel.

The next day was my full day in Rangoon. Dominated, naturally, by wanting to visit the nearby Sule Pagoda and the world famous Shwedagon Pagoda. There are some tourist attractions that, though internationally famous, it is easy to discount. The ‘meh’ factor. (Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid is, well, little. Trafalgar Square: really – why? Perhaps you like bird shit and psittacosis?) Shwedagon was not one of them. It was, as it turned out, a blazingly hot day and the only time I would have welcomed a dousing. But it is a religious site, so no. There are four approaches to the pagoda, each involving many steps, some covered, some not, and an awful lot of tourist shops selling Buddhist tat. Having said that Burma’s tourist infrastructure was new and undeveloped, clearly that was not the case for internal tourism. On a hot day, Shwedagon can be painful for western feet – it is not permitted to wear shoes in the compound and the ground heats up pretty fast. Even in changeable April, that day involved an awful lot of walking quickly. But it is SERIOUSLY worth seeing. Nobody seems quite sure when the famous stupa was actually built – anywhere between 1,000 and 2,600 years ago. The previous month had seen the first permitted celebration of the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival in nearly quarter of a century. The place was happy. And busy. One of the most amazing facts – the pagoda is covered in gold. Real gold. At the top, it is encrusted with diamonds and rubies. And even after half a century of oppressive military rule, it is perfectly intact.


Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon

Next stop – Inle Lake. An hour’s taxi ride from the delightfully named Heho airport lies Nyuang Shwe – Inle Lake’s main town. I had booked two nights at the Princess Garden Hotel (highly recommended – very peaceful, on the edge of town) so only had one day where the boat tour of the lake (the reason for being there) was possible. I ate at the (also highly recommended) Green Chilli restaurant and went to bed early, full of hope that the weather the following day would be good enough for the trip to go ahead.

I woke to a fine hotel breakfast of fruit (which I ate, even though I don’t usually trust food with vitamins in it), coffee and pancakes. And beautiful, clear skies. The boat trip round the lake is the reason people visit the area. It is very much a tourist trap, though as I am a tourist I have no problem with that. One of the things that had been continually impressed upon me about visiting Burma was the need to spend money in places where it would go to the people rather than the government. And even though the various workshops that the tour stops off at sell goods often at double the price of elsewhere, the cost was still negligible and the money would go directly to the people. There is, after all, a clear line between getting ripped off and just being mean. The tour, in an incredibly noisy diesel-engined long boat, is worth it. Naturally, this being a Burmese national holiday, the lake was thronged with other tour boats, and a convivial atmosphere of tour groups calling and waving to one another ensued. Even I waved. Once.


Inle Lake

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Bath time, Inle Lake

The trip covered all the sights I had been told (by the internet – you don’t think I’d actually ask someone, do you?) to see – the iconic Inle Lake fishermen balanced on one leg on their narrow boats, a cigar factory and a blacksmith (both of which sold the goods made right there so no importing cheap Chinese rubbish), a Paduang (long-necked) weaver and a small village for lunch. We ended up at the Nga Hpe monastery, a wooden building on stilts (like most of the Inle Lake buildings) where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops. Well I guess you have to have something to do with all that time saved by not drinking or having sex. Again, a big tourist draw, the jumping cat monastery was…OK. The monks all seemed spectacularly stern and grumpy. “Hey,” I wanted to say, “I’m a western liberal. I supported you in your struggle against military oppression. I liked your Facebook page. You could at least crack a fucking smile.” I didn’t though. I don’t talk to strangers.


Inle Lake fisherman

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Stopping off at the Jumping Cat Monastery

The next day was Buddhist new year. Which was very nice and all, but it was a fucker to get a taxi to the airport. Culturally sensitive to the nth degree, me. I had decided to give the planned night in Mandalay a miss (not much to see there, I had been told. And I only wanted to go so I could make lame Nellie the Elephant jokes on Facebook anyway) so didn’t get off the plane there, staying on to Bagan instead, where I would spend the extra night.



Bagan is an incredible area. On the banks of the Irewaddy river, in the 11th and 12th Centuries, some 13,000 Buddhist temples were built in an area the slightly larger than Camden in London. 13,000! There are around 2,200 still remaining, a site seen as the less-famous but otherwise-equal Burmese equivalent of Angkor in Cambodia. I arranged a day tour of some of the bigger and better preserved temples and stupas for the following day, and set out through the dirt streets of New Bagan, the area’s main town, to look for something to eat. Just around the orner from the hotel, I discovered what is still one of my favourite restaurants.


The San Carlo Italian and Chinese Restaurant, New Bagan

The San Carlo Italian and Chinese Restaurant. It doesn’t look like much – a concrete shell with no walls and mismatched tables and chairs. And, to be honest, the food was good but not brilliant. But it was cheap, and the beer was cold. And, best of all, when the waiter brought the starter and then the main course I had ordered, he arrived from two different directions. It seems that the restaurant is a neighbourhood enterprise and the different dishes are cooked in the different kitchens of all the local residents. How’s that for putting money in the pockets if the people? I liked it so much, I went back the following two evenings.



Bagan at sunset

The tour the next day was fascinating. Having endured a two week tour of Rajasthan some years previously, I was aware how quickly AFTS (another fucking temple syndrome) can set in. But the six or seven temples we visited were just enough, and just different enough to remain interesting to the last. The bigger temples are still going concerns (though one suspects the tourists outnumber pious locals by something in the region of 100 to 1) and it is possible to enter, photograph, light incense, all the usual stuff. There are also hundreds (thousands in fact) of small, usually crumbling bricks stupas that make for good photography.


Thatbyinnyu Temple, Bagan

After Bagan, I had one last night in Rangoon before flying back to Bangkok. Wherever possible, when travelling for anything more than a few days, I try and stay in the best (and ideally Grand Old) hotel I can afford on my last night – a bit of 5 star luxury after the deprivations of mere 2 and 3 star travel. I have stayed in many wonderful hotels in this fashion – the Manilla Hotel in, well, Manilla, The Galle Face Hotel in Colombo and the Shanker Hotel in Kathmandu all spring to mind.

The Strand Hotel in Rangoon, however, put them all to shame. Celebrating its 111th birthday that year, Somerset Maugham, Pierre Cardin, Mick Jagger and Rudyard Kipling are among the many luminaries who have enjoyed its hospitality. I didn’t much care about that though. What I cared about was the fact that I had my own butler. Really. And that the hotel bar was a haven of wood-panelled, Imperial splendour. So impressive was the hotel bar that I started to get depressed that I didn’t have a linen suit and a panama hat with me and that I don’t smoke cigars. Seriously, it is the sort of place where one needs a linen suit, a panama hat and to smoke cigars. The hotel was completely restored in 1993, and unlike many similar hotels in that part of the world, the developers resisted the idea to over-modernise – there is no new wing; the fixtures, fittings, bath, taps, doors and floors are all original. It is not a cheap hotel by any stretch of the imagination. It is however a fantastic hotel. If you are in Rangoon and can afford it, stay there.

The following day I returned to Bangkok where I had an overnight stay before my flight home. It is a mark of how difficult I found travel in Burma that I was relieved to be back on the Khao San Road. Obviously, it was just as tawdry as ever. But it was easy. That night I ate at McDonalds, bought a couple of bottles from a 7-11, and all was well in my world.

They say that the definition of an adventure is that it is no fun at the time, but a lot of fun in retrospect. I am not an even remotely adventurous man (as well you might have guessed) so I didn’t really enjoy visiting Burma. But I loved having visited it. If you see what I mean.


A note on nomenclature – I am aware that Burma is now Myanmar and Rangoon is Yangon, but at the time I visited, the BBC advice was that Burma and Rangoon were the names preferred by the pro-democracy campaigners as the the change to Myanmar and Yangon was brought about by the ruling military junta. Even if that has changed in the ensuing years, I have stuck to the original names a) to provide continuity with the time I visited and b) because I think they sound cooler.


The delights of economic tourism: a week in Sri Lanka

I have been in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka for three days now, and am moving on to Kandy tomorrow afternoon. So far, I must say, so very, very good. I’m not sure that Colombo itself has a great deal to recommend it. Indeed, I received a message from a colleague who had arrived in the city a day ahead of us telling us it was, in her words ‘shite’. I don’t think I’d go that far. It feels like a third world city: very poor and clearly battered by 37 years of war. There is a huge army presence still, with every bridge, every building of note and most major junctions having heavily armed checkpoints – a minimum of six Kalashnikov-toting soldiers at each, and often a tripod mounted heavy machine gun or, in a few cases, a rocket launcher. It has a different feel from other cities with a heavy armed presence, Cairo for instance, in that the Sri Lankan soldiers don’t seem to view their guns as macho accoutrements, more uncomfortable but necessary tools. The armed soldiers are a lot more cheerful for a start – more than happy to wave and smile and call out greetings. This was a bit unnerving at first. But I got used to it.

Given that Colombo has little to recommend it, why then so far so very, very good? That is because of the hotel. I would go as far as to venture that Colombo would probably be worth giving a miss entirely were I not staying at the Galle Face Hotel. As it is, I will indubitably be back. The Galle Face Hotel is the oldest hotel in Asia. The oldest hotel, in fact, east of Suez. It was founded in 1864, 46 years before Singapore’s Raffles, 64 years before Hong Kong’s Peninsula and 23 years before Conrad Hilton was even born.

The Galle Face Hotel seen from it’s swimming pool.

These days it is split into two sections – the Galle Face in the northern wing and the Regency (not sure why you would choose to call a Victorian Hotel the Regency, but there you go) in the southern wing. The Galle Face is the original part, slightly tired by all accounts, but charming. The Regency, where I am, has been renovated in line with what modern customers would expect from a hotel of this standing. The building is all one, though. And the building, along with the location, is what makes to hotel what it is. My hotel bedroom looks out over the courtyard which faces straight out westwards across the Indian Ocean.

The view from my hotel window.

This evening, I took high tea on the verandah and watched the sun set behind the palm trees.

The view from the verandah.
The verandah.

On my first night I ate at the Sea Spray – the hotel’s fish restaurant, my table right beside the balustrade, three feet from the breaking waves. The hotel is impossibly, unutterably, astoundingly wonderful. I am currently reading a memoir by the journalist Paul Harris who stayed at the hotel for a year in the mid 90s. I am very jealous.

The rest of Colombo is…well to be honest, I have rarely left the hotel. I went up to the station to book my train to Kandy (£1.80 for the best seats in the first class observation carriage – I’ll let you know what it’s like anon). I also made a sortie out towards the National Museum this morning, but gave up before I got there.

The one thing that has kept me constantly amused is the scam artists, of which there are many. Try to walk anywhere from the hotel and within twenty yards a local will fall into step and engage you in conversation which will eventually work round to his recommendations of where to go. Most often this can be deflected with a smile and a firm ‘no thanks’ but the persistent ones are often worth listening to for their invention. The heart of all the scams is that they will try and charge you to go to a special, one-day only elephant festival at a nearby temple. The thing is that there is an elephant there every day and it is free. One particularly persistent chap earned full marks for inventiveness with his replies:

Him: it is a special one day festival!

Me: I’ve been.

Him: No! This is a Hindu festival. The one you went to was a Buddhist festival.

Me: I’m short of time (I had reached the cash point that I was heading for, 100 yards from the hotel)

Him: Don’t go to that cash point. I will show you a better one.

Me: Better how?

Him: That one gives you Indian money. No good, you can’t spend it. I will show you a Sri Lankan cashpoint.

Needless to say, the money was fine. Another favourite is them telling you that you can’t go a certain way because of security checkpoints. All lies! The only one that worked was a Tuk-tuk driver who told me I should visit a shop on the way to where I wanted to go. I asked him why and he told me that if I did the shop owner would give him a litre of petrol and he was very poor. More examples of honest Sri Lankan advertising:

In case you can’t read the strap line, it says “because it is really good”
And some not so honest naming of a hotel:

I think that ‘bus stop’ might have been more succinct:

The thing that I suspect will most evoke my visit to Colombo will be the sound of crows. Previously their raucous cawing reminded me of the beginning of Worzel Gummidge, but it seems that the whole of the city of Colombo is given over to them. The hotel employs a man to stand on the terrace with a canvas strap to make cracking noises to scare them off. It is also the first time I have ever seen urban scarecrows:

The final footnote to all this is the cost. I am very much an economic tourist and the strength of the Western and Dubaian economy (don’t believe everything in the news!) means I can afford holidays like this, and feel OK about spreading some of my relative wealth around poorer countries. The hotel is £50 a night. The fish restaurant (one of the most expensive in the city) was £9. High tea on the verandah, £4.
The train to Kandy left at 3.35pm and I had to check out of the glorious Galle Face at midday. Cue a couple of tortuous hours spent sitting on the verandah reading a book. A wonderful way to spend my final hours in a wonderful hotel.

The train arrived about half an hour before the departure time, giving me plenty of time to settle in. At first, I thought we might have got it wrong – this was supposed, after all, to be the jewel in Sri Lankan Rail’s crown, the first class non-stop express between the island’s two main cities. It didn’t look like any jewel in any crown I have ever seen. The carriages were at least 50 years old, the promised air conditioning was four ceiling mounted fans that didn’t work. The toilet, well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. Can you imagine it? Actually, it was worse what you just imagined. This was first class. Second class seemed to consist of wooden benches in cattle-car conditions. Third class was basically clinging to the outside of the train.

My seat, however, were worth every rupee of the £1.80 it cost me. I was facing backwards, but with a big window from which to watch the receding tracks.
It mentioned in our guide book that the train could be “a little bit bumpy”. In the same way as Hitler might be said to be “a little bit naughty”. I have been on tamer roller coaster rides. There were stretches of track where I left my seat (vertically) twice every second. I feared I could feel my internal organs pureeing. I don’t like roller coasters. And I didn’t like this very much either.

This was the closest I was able to get to a level photograph due to the roller-coaster-like properties of the train

But on the calm stretches of track, it was beautiful. Farm and paddy land gave way quite quickly to mountains. Looking backwards down the track, I noticed that there seemed to be a surprisingly large number of people appearing from the undergrowth in our wake. It turns out that the railway tracks are also kind of public footpaths – there aren’t that many ways through the mountains.

The journey took close to four hours. Dusk came about three hours in, bringing flocks of what looked like massive gliding birds, but turned out (in true Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom fashion) to be fruit bats. Huge, massive fruit bats. Fruit bats the size of small geese.

It was fully dark by the time we reached Kandy, and the collection I had requested from the hotel didn’t materialize, so I jumped into a cab/minibus and off I went. The Queen’s Hotel is owned by the same people who own the Galle Face, and though not quite as old (built in 1895), it is every bit as colonially charming.

The lobby of the Queen’s Hotel

At first it was a bit of a culture shock – after the Galle Face, it was, shall we say, unrestored. The room was spacious enough, with lots of dark wood and high ceilings, but there was little there – no bath (and the shower was…old), no room service, no booze in the minibar. Though there was a phone, there was no internal directory. The check-in clerk had reeled of a list of different numbers I might find useful, but there was no chance I was going to remember them.

A sign in the bedroom
The view from the bedroom window

I got used to the comparative lack of luxury fairly quickly though. To be honest, I had kind of fallen in love with the place after a couple of hours. Particularly the bar attached to the hotel, the Pub Royale which was resplendently Victorian and…just wonderful.

The bar at Pub Royale

I ventured out into the dark and rain-slicked streets of Kandy to find that pretty much everything was shut. This was at about 7.30pm. Turns out it was Poya – the monthly full moon festival where they celebrate the full moon by shutting everything. I ended up eating at Pizza Hut.

The town of Kandy

Over the next few days, though, Kandy showed itself to be quite a lot livelier. Though it is Sri Lanka’s second city, it is tiny. It has three major streets, a lake and the temple of the sacred tooth (one of Buddha’s teeth is said to be contained therein). Tiny, but busy. I took a day tour of the region with the taxi driver who had picked me up at the station, including visits to the elephant orphanage (a field with lots of elephants in it), an elephant-poo paper factory where they make paper from elephant poo, a tea factory (my favouritest, favouritest place – it smelled utterly wonderful and I spent a small fortune on different kinds of tea) and the Kandy botanical gardens, which were beautiful and had some wildlife.

The Geragama Tea Factory


Tea leaves before…
…and after.
Elephants at the elephant orphanage
Some of the local wildlife
Some more of the local wildlife (monkey in a wig)
Fruit bats

In total, I was in Kandy for three days, which felt about right. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to tour the ancient cities (another 2-3 day tour), but that’s a reason to go back next year, right? I got a cab from Kandy direct to the airport (faster than the train) and home I went. The duty free shopping in the departures section of Bandaranaike airport was a bit disappointing – the arrivals duty free sold guitars, cookers, fridge-freezers, you name it. I suppose it might be a bit difficult to get a duty free washing machine onto the plane though.

Overall, I loved Sri Lanka – the hotels, the history, the (seemingly) genuinely friendly people, and we will definitely be going back next year some time.