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Hi everyone, it's been over a month since our last post and we have been quite busy so it's time for an update. The last month has included 2 trips to Bahrain, a weekend getaway in Oman, and a week in Sri Lanka. Ever since we've arrived in Saudi, we've been asking expats about their favorite (yes Canadians, we have started to spell it 'favorite' instead of 'favourite'!) travel destinations. Oman and Sri Lanka regularly come up at or near the top of their lists. So we thought we should check what all the hype is about.
Sorry for such a lengthy post filled with pics and a few videos. Hope you enjoy some of the stories...
OMAN (November 10-13)
Oman is a BEAUTIFUL country southeast of the UAE and about an hour and 15 minute flight from us. You can see the map below. We live near Dammam along the east coast of Saudi - we stayed just east of Muscat along the coast at an amazing resort called Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa. We highly recommend it and will be back for sure.
Oman is quite different from other countries in the Middle East. The country is not all desert - there are many mountains and different terrains. In fact, people go camping there with big RV's like you would see back home and there is even a 'grand canyon' you can visit.
We were very excited to go on a "Wadi" tour on the Friday morning - these are natural sinkholes in the middle of nowhere that you can swim in. Unfortunately, the tour guy didn't show up. Sumbitch! No worries, we will be back and will do it then. Lisa had a brilliant idea in her positive way of thinking - "let's go make the best of the day"...quickly went to our mini bar and devoured her bottle of Prosecco from duty free. Drunk by 11:36AM - that's my wife!! These next 3 pics are from google just to show you the beauty of the Wadi since we didn't get to go. We hope that it's us swimming in here soon!
OK, so what about Oman??
Many beautiful mountains, amazing coastline, great diving and snorkeling, beauty beaches. Very clean. Friendly people. AWESOME!
And the best part? Easy access from many airports - direct flights from Toronto, London, and many others. We met many people travelling there as a destination, as well as a stopover from other travels. Lots of Europeans there.
The resort was made up of 3 hotels, many restaurants, bars, pools, and beaches. And the coolest thing - a lazy river that connected the pools and bars. Perfect! How handy would that have been for some of our T&A travels when we had long, stumbly, wobbly walks back to the room after the swim up bar??
Anyways, here are some pics...
SRI LANKA (November 21-26)
Sri Lanka was an incredible experience! A few points about this beautiful country:
- it is a tiny country but has over 20 million people living there
- it is an extremely poor country but has some of the happiest and friendliest people we have ever met
- was officially known as Ceylon (until 1948 - previously under British rule) .. hence Ceylon Tea
- every place you visit almost seems like a different country - different terrains, industries, etc
- Their main language is Sinhalese, which is very cool and artistic looking when written. There is a pic of a sign later so you can see. English is spoken throughout as well.
- Main industries? Tourism, tea, vegetables, garments, spices, gems, rice, rubber (it was very cool to see the mountainsides covered with people picking tea and vegetables and the lowlands full of people in the rice patties)
It is VERY cheap to get there - $400US total for our flights. Then we booked a 6-day travel package through viator.com for $1200. That included a private driver, accomodation, and breakfast for the entire trip. Great value.
Our driver was AMAZING! His name was Jayantha, he goes by "Jaya". Very friendly and knowledgeable about the culture. He had actually worked in Oman and knew the hotel we stayed at. Jaya would allow us to stop whereever we wanted for pics and he was very perceptive to see that the girl in the backseat loved beer, often asking "Do you want to grab beer?" to ensure she stayed hydrated for our travels. I think you know what her response was.
Here are a couple maps to show the location of Sri Lanka, as well as a country map showing the areas we visited. Click to zoom in if you like.
Monday - Arrive in Columbo airport, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, Spice Garden, Buddhist Temple of the Sacred Tooth, stay overnight in Kandy
Jaya greeted us at the airport after we went through duty free (Bailey's and Captain Morgan!) and customs. Crazy thing we've never seen before - their duty free is loaded with electronics and appliance stores! Just imagine..."What did you get at duty free sir?" "Just a washer/dryer set!" Really?? Jaya said it is way cheaper than buying in Sri Lanka stores.
Most roads in Sri Lanka are slow moving, narrow, winding roads that are full of small vehicles, buses, and "tuk-tuks" (pronounced 'took-tooks'). Often, we would only go 30-60km per hour so travel took a while. Also, no idea why, but it was VERY common to see dogs curled up sleeping on the sides of the roads. Maybe the roads kept them warm? Wonder how many got run over.
On our way to the Kandy area, we saw our first, of many, family of monkeys. They are EVERYWHERE! Along power lines in towns, near temples, on sidewalks, and just along the road. Like you would see a gopher back in the prairies of Canada...except way friggin' cooler!
1st stop - Pinnawala Elephant Orphange.
They help breed and nurse elephants and have been doing this since 1975. Due to poaching and people hurting elephants for their tusks, there is a need to keep these beautiful animals safe. They have 93 captive elephants, the largest amount in the world. Everyday, they walk them down to the river for a bath and shower. Pics are shown below.
2nd stop - Spice Garden
A cool stop to see one of Sri Lanka's main exports. We saw all the plants that are grown to make the spices and lotions we all use - vanilla, chocolate, peppers, cinnamon, citronella, aloe, cardamom, coriander, turmeric, cumin, lemon grass, etc. Then, of course, they want you to buy some! Knew there was a catch!
3rd stop - Buddhist Temple of the Sacred Tooth
This is officially called Sri Dalada Maligawa, built in 1595. This is holy ground for Buddhists, who travel from all over the world to visit this temple. Amazing architecture! Surrounded by a water moat that had a water monitor lizard (small version of a Komodo dragon) swimming in it. Awesome!!
On the way back to the hotel, Jaya took us into a back alley 'beer store' to get some beverages for the room! Lion beer is supposed to be the best but they were sold out. Next best? Tiger beer. Of course. Sold!
Off to our hotel for a much needed sleep. Hotel is literally on the top of a mountain overlooking the city of Kandy. In fact, the car wouldn't even get us up the top of the mountain since it was so steep ... needed a lift from the tuk-tuk. So steep that only one person could ride the tuk-tuk at a time. Wicked! Sampled the Tiger beers on our patio, admiring the view. Then the bottle of Captain from duty free winked at us and helped tuck us in to bed.
Tuesday - stop at Royal Botanic Gardens, Ramboda Falls, Blue Field Tea plantation, stay overnight in Nuwara Eliya
We started out at the Royal Botanic Gardens, just west of Kandy. This has been around since 1371 and was a huge park with tons of cool trees and flowers. Plants and birds aren't exactly our thing but we thought the walk would be good for us and the fresh air may help us bounce back from the damage caused by the Tigers and Captain. A few facts - this place is 147 acres of green space, has over 4000 species of plants, gets over 2 million visitors a year and has some really cool plants! Yes, we just said that. Some cool plants - the giant bamboo plants, double coconut palms, cannon ball tree, "Palm Avenue".
Funniest part - Jeff decides to walk over a suspension bridge for a pic or two. Quickly stops as he sees it is covered with monkeys. He didn't know if they would bite him, rape him, or just leave him alone. He's too fragile to risk the rape part.
Ramboda Falls - a gorgeous waterfall set in amongst the mountains and tea plantations of Sri Lanka
Blue Field Tea Plantation - this was a cool experience to see hundreds of people picking bags of tea leaves, then the processing involved to make black tea, green tea, orange pekoe tea, earl grey tea. The entire area smelt amazing - like fresh brewed tea everywhere! Sampled some, bought some, and left!
Got to the Alpine Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, took a tuk-tuk into town and somehow found a place called "Restaurant & Pub". Had dinner and a pitcher of Lion beer for $9US. And also had a rat run past us. Lisa is still haunted. Check out the pic below of Lisa's "garlic bread"...yep, just a slice of bread full of garlic. No worries of vampires tonight!
Wednesday - drive to Tissamaharama, temple, Rawana Falls, Yala National Park safari
Stopped at a really cool looking temple just south of Nuwara Eliya for pics and saw a ton of monkeys hanging around there. Very friendly!
Rawana Falls - another cool waterfall area with, yep, you guessed it....more monkeys!
Checked into our hotel in Tissamaharama, quick lunch and Lion beer, then off to Yala National Park for our first safari!
Yala - we did the safari from 2PM to 7PM. Incredible experience to see animals in their natural habitats! Wow! Cheap too - $50 each for a private tour. Crazy!
Saw monitor lizards, chameleons, peacocks, mongooses, crocodiles, monkeys, deer, elk, water buffaloes, wild boars, mongoose, snake. Sri Lanka has the largest population of leopards and they are very elusive. We did see one way up in a tree but needed a strong zoom lens to actually see it. Pic is below.
Saw an amazing image of deer, elk, and water buffalo all laying in the sun near the water...with crocodiles laying near them all stretched out. How awesome!
Saw a natural graveyard of bones - various animals. They were killed there by the leopards and left for the tourists we presume.
The highlight - ELEPHANTS. In the wild. A foot from us in our jeep. It started like this. The driver stops the jeep because a tree is shaking (almost like you'd see in Jurassic Park). Then you see an elephant. Then he comes out. Then the baby comes out. Graceful and peaceful animals. They walk right past us. We could've reached out & touched them. We watch them play in the water. They leave so we drive away happy with what we just saw. Now for the cool part - we take the corner around the trees and the driver just kills the engine - there is a mom, dad, and baby elephant on the path walking right towards us. Incredible to just watch them walking and grazing on the trees.
What a day! Early night to be ready for 5AM departure for Yala Park round 2.
Thursday - Yala National Park safari, stay overnight in Mirissa
We were on the road at 5AM to get to the front of the gate as the park opens at 6AM. Saw more of the same as yesterday. Lisa says "wow, look at all the elephant dong!" I think she meant "dung". Filthy mind she has!
Saw the Sigiriya rocks. They form a very impressive 1600 year old rock fortress that is over 200m tall. They have been declared by UNESCO as one of the seven World Heritage Sites in Sri Lanka.
One of the rocks is shaped like an elephant and appropriately called "Elephant Rock".
Fun fact - the video for Duran Duran's "Save a Prayer" was filmed here. Check out the video - cool scenery and a killer track from the 80's.
Safari ends at 1PM. Off to the hotel and for a trip to the beach town called Mirissa. Holy shit! Amazing little town filled with surfers from all over the world. Stayed at the Mirissa Palace which is a resort on top of the mountain overlooking the coast. We had a private villa with a patio overlooking the surfers.
Walked down the hill to the beach and nestled into a beach bar with a patio on the water. Coronas, waves, watching surfers. God damn! This is like a TV commercial!
Seafood platter (prawns, lobster, crab, calamari)
4 Lion beer
= 7000 Sri Lankan rupees / $47US
Friday - Whale watching, Galle Fort, stay overnight in Bentota
Up early for a whale watching excursion. 6 hours at sea. Apparently, Sri Lanka has a huge population of blue whales off their coast. We've attached a youtube video we saw.
What about them?
- they are the largest animal known to ever have existed on Earth
- 30 m in length and recorded to weigh up to 173 tonnes
- hunted almost to extinction until they became protected in 1966
- estimates are that there are 10,000-25,000 around today
Well, we did see 2 or 3 of them (not sure if they were the same one) as well as several dolphins playing alongside the boat. Pics are below. The one image shows the size comparison of blue whale to elephant to human.
Off to Galle - quick stop at the Galle Fort (another Heritage Site) built in 1588 by the Portuguese. A quick visit with the cobra charmer and we're off to another coastal town, Bentota. Had an amazing prawn dinner! Then took a boat over to a beautiful resort (only accessible by boat). Had a cocktail and saw a very cool 'breakfast in the pool' and 'dinner on the beach' promo they had. Maybe next time. Good night Bentota!
Saturday - leave Bentota, fly home through Dubai
What a great place to visit! We loved Sri Lanka!
BAHRAIN BRUNCH (December 2)
With the Christmas season coming, many of the people on our compound travel home so we decided to go to Bahrain for a brunch. Not sure why these are only in the Middle East but they are a ton of fun!
We checked into the Gulf Hotel Thursday night a couple blocks to an area called Adliya, which is a very cool, trendy area with lots of bars and restaurants. Had an incredible dinner at a place called Meat Co. We had some fantastic steaks and a killer atmosphere that made us miss The Keg back home. Walked over to a fun bar called JJ's Irish Bar to see the Jagermeister girls, have some pints, and watch a killer live band called The Noise.
Brunch was Friday at the Radisson - $65US included unlimited food and drinks from noon to 4PM. It was outside by the pool and pool bar, included some great live music, and some awesome dance moves! I can only imagine if they offered these type of events back home. Regardless, we were both quite cloudy on what happened after 4PM. Woke up Saturday morning, stopped for our "meat" shopping, and came back home.
How's life in Saudi now that you've been there a few months?
We are still loving life here. It has cooled down from the summer heat - going as low as 9 or 10 celcius at night with highs of 26-29. It's amazing how much we have climatized already. Had to wear a hoody last night. It's crazy - at 18 celcius in Canada we are running around with no shirts on! Turning into a wimp. We better not complain - our friends back home are fighting through a crazy cold spell. The wind chill in Shaunavon where Jeff's dad is shows up as -44. Prince Albert, where his grandma is, has a wind chill of -57. Hope they are stocked with good whiskey to keep warm!
Alot of coworkers have gone home for the holidays but Jeff is working through the holidays and actually teaching a class on Christmas Day. He is now certified in 4 of the Leadership Center's courses and begins certification on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People this week. He was also named to the Standards & Certification committee at work - they are the team that sets the facilitation standards and ensures all facilitators are followign the programs for consistency and quality.
Christmas? Trees and holiday decorations are not allowed in Saudi at all, as part of their religion. Many people have found creative ways to decorate their homes however. Hotels also offer 'takeaway festive meals' where you can order a pre-cooked turkey complete with stuffing, potatoes, gravy, and all that good stuff. Bahrain, however, is at the other extreme! Christmas decorations & cards, sleighs, Santas are everywhere! Probably a bigger presence of Christmas than we see back home. How can 2 countries separated by a 25km long bridge be so different? Crazy!
Anyways, life is good. We miss people back home but are so grateful for this amazing opportunity!
WHAT'S IN STORE FOR 2017?
Our next big trip (outside of weekend trips to Bahrain and possibly a quick getaway for our January long weekend) will be the T&A 2017 Trip...
We are so excited for this trip! Feb 14-26 we will be having fun with the T&A group at the Riu Bachata in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. There are 27 people booked in so far and more to come! We have arranged for a party bus to pick up everyone arriving on the 14th at the airport. And yes, it will be fully loaded with Presidente beers!
We're also pumped to spend the 26th & 27th in Miami partying with some friends at South Beach. That promises to be a blast. Then we start the adventure back to Saudi via Paris and Bahrain.
March 30-April 2
Lisa is researching a fun getaway for this extended long weekend. Ireland pub crawl perhaps?
June 23-July 19
This is our annual 'repat' vacation. Every year, Jeff gets a repatriation trip where the company gives him vacation and also pays for our airfare home plus a generous amount for spending money. Still hammering out details but here's some thoughts so far...
- We are thinking about a small pitstop in Europe for the first bit (Mediterranean, Prague, or an Alan Doyle gig in Germany). Possibly even a stop to see Mark & Gayle in Kansas City.
- We want to be back in Calgary for July 1. Canada Day, eh!!
- We want to get in a trip to Vernon to see Jeff's brother and new nephew, a trip to Shaunavon to see Jeff's Dad, and a trip up to Edmonton to see friends.
- July 9-16 we will be in Whitefish, Montana having a blast with friends. Thanks Michele for getting the kick ass cottage rented on the lake. Floating, cold beers, BBQ, and Moose's pizza. Yum! This is a 2 year old tradition that was skipped, and missed greatly, in 2016.
- then Jeff will work his way back to Saudi while Lisa heads out to Ontario to visit with her mom
Stay tuned for more details but would LOVE to see our friends back home!
August 27-September 14
Vacation dates are booked but no plans confirmed yet. We are thinking of an African safari followed by a few days on a hut over the water in the Maldives.
We have one more week of vacation to use as well but don't have dates confirmed yet. Probably in the fall.
Should be another year full of adventure, stories, pictures, and fun!
We miss all of our friends and family back home and wish everyone a Merry Christmas and all the best in 2017!
All posts are updated by Jeff & Lisa