Tag Archives: traveling with a todddler

Borneo: Sarawak or Sabah?

“I am going to Borneo” would be like saying “I am going to Europe”.  Will you visit Ireland, Lapland, former socialist countries bordering Russia or the Mediterranean islands?

Borneo is the world’s third biggest island divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The diversity touches all the spheres of life from culture and food to people and nature. WWF says that on average three new species are found in Borneo each month. WWF further estimates that over 170 languages are spoken in the island. Talking about re-inventing the word “diversity”!

There really is a lot to see in Borneo and that’s why we would have to smart about how to best use our precious ten days. So, where to begin? I started posting on travel forums and asking friends if they know anyone who has been to Borneo. Responses started to direct me toward Sabah but I remained intrigued by Sarawak. Ever since I discovered a great article on Kutching (the capital of Sarawak), published by the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2017/jan/21/kuching-borneo-malaysia-city-guide-hotels-restaurants-bars I could not help but feel that Sarawak is The One. I read more and purchased the Borneo guide book by Lonely Planet. What I gathered from my extensive research was that there are two main differences between Sarawak and Sabah: the latter has better beaches and Borneo pygmy elephants. Orangutans can be seen in both states, which was important to us. I returned to travel forums to ask a strategic question: Why does everyone go to Sabah? Is Sarawak so much less interesting? The responses reassured me. I was told that Sabah is more developed and more known, but that Sarawak is like this rough diamond that hasn’t been fully discovered, with as much to offer as its more famous sister state (and more because Sarawak has famous caves).

To be honest, the fact that Sarawak is only 1 hour and 15 minutes by plane from Singapore (as opposed to Sabah, which is 2.5 hours away), was a key factor to us. The idea of being so close to Singapore in case there was an emergency comforted us. Yeah, we had never before chosen a travel destination even partially based on its proximity to a big city, but traveling with a child follows its learning curve…. I told some of our friends who insisted on Sabah that we will be a bit more adventurous next time. One step at a time. After all, this was our second exotic trip with our daughter. Even if Sri Lanka had been a piece of cake, Borneo was one step crazier.

But there was another practical reason. Sarawak is more compact than Sabah and we would be able to be based in one place (Kuching) and do half and full day trips from there. In Sabah we would have to visit Kota Kinabalu for the beaches. From there we would have to drive or fly to Sandakan for the orangutans and the Kinabatangan river safari (this is where you see the pygmy elephants). Ideally from Sandakan we would have to continue to Danum Valley for amazing rain forest and more orangutans and the Semporna Archipelago for some of the world’s best dive sites. Current warnings against traveling in the Eastern parts of Sabah worried us too. There was no need to take additional risks, especially when traveling with a precisious three-year old blond.IMG_0168I know we could have combined Sarawak and Sabah but it just felt like too much. So we purchased Singapore-Kuching-Singapore tickets by Scoot, but until the day of our departure I kept wondering if we made the right choice about visiting only Sarawak. Would we be disappointed by the beach? Will there be enough to see in Kuching and in the surroundings?

Follow our journey to find out more! Pearlspotting is also on Facebook and Instagram.

Previous posts:

May travel dilemma

May travel dilemma

When an unexpected holiday opportunity presented itself, we quickly started searching for cheap flights. You know, last minute can be expensive… at least so we thought!

Our criteria were: something hot, cheap/affordable, delicious food, wildlife, ocean swimming and culture. And of course suitable for a 3-year old toddler girl.

It should not be that difficult to combine all this, but if you are based in Europe you know that it is challenging to find a destination that falls under the aforementioned criteria. Our one-month-long trip to Greek islands two years ago (a fantastic trip I never had time to write about) was wonderful but also a good reminder that the sea water in Europe isn’t necessarily warm enough for swimming in May –even for a Finn like me!

I am subscribed to newsletters of almost every reputable airline existing in the world. I also follow http://www.secretflying.com and https://www.voyagespirates.fr. We usually fly Emirates to Asia but as Dubai has been getting more expensive due to the strengthening USD we felt it is time to try something else. Anyway, the Gulf-based airlines like Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad had nothing very exciting going on in terms of promotions (between 600-700€ per person). Finally, after going through Secret Flying promotions I came across with something really interesting: Paris-Singapore-Paris 439€ per person by Lufthansa! A real bargain, which is not even a special promotion. I called Lufthansa to ask some questions and I was told this is their standard price. Wow. Is flying becoming cheaper or have I been looking at wrong places before?

 

The next question was where to go from Singapore, which is not really a destination where you spend three week. I asked questions in various Facebook travel groups and one destination that a lot of people kept recommending was Borneo. We had thought of returning to Sri Lanka to see the regions we didn’t visit the last time (i.e. the North, the East and the Center). However, the more I read about Borneo, the more I became intrigued. I asked more questions in different travel forums and the decision was sealed. Borneo, and specifically Sarawak (one of the two states in the Malaysian Borneo) was going to be our new discovery!

Did Sarawak fulfill our dreams? Is it suitable for small children? To find out, stay tuned and follow Pearlspotting on Facebook and Instagram!

Blue Turtle Hotel in Tissamaharama: Stylish and comfortable boutique hotel in lush surroundings

The ride from Dalawella to Tissamaharama was long. We left Sri Gemunu Beach Resort: stunning location with friendly service before the noon, stopped briefly at Kataluwa Purwarama Temple: one of the finest temples in the southern Sri Lanka, did one more stop near Tangalle to check out a hotel and arrived in Tissamaharama just before the sunset. About 150 km of driving took us almost six hours. The road and traffic were ok, but things just take unusually long when traveling with a small child…

Anyway, we had shortlisted several hotels in Tissamaharama: Kithala Resort, Diyadahara Resort, The Rain Tree Hotel, Thaulle Resort, Chandrika Hotel and Blue Turtle Hotel. We chose Blue Turtle Hotel mainly for two reasons: it holds the Tripadvisor number one position, which usually means one cannot go too wrong, and they were very fast and professional in their communication (text messages).

We were more than pleased with our choice. The quality we got for approximately 50USD per night (including breakfast) was great. Rooms were very clean, simple yet stylish, came with a mosquito net and service was friendly. There was a wonderful pool we never got to use because we were the unlucky ones to get some rain (unlucky because apparently rain is not good for animal watching).  Blue Turtle opened in 2015 and everything is still very new.

Upon arrival we chatted with the Sri lankan owner who had  lived in Paris for thirty years. Being a former restaurant(s) owner means that he is serious about food, something that was proved to us at the dinner. The menu is limited (grilled meat and kottu roti), but the fact that most people only stay 1-2 nights in Tissamaharama explains it. Moreover, everything is so delicious that we didn’t mind eating the same thing twice! The only thing we regret is that breakfast was not Sri Lankan. Upon leaving I made a remark about this to the owner who explained that the reception should have asked whether we want European or local breakfast. Oh well, next time we know better!

We highly recommend staying at Blue Turtle. Most people arrive in Tissamaharama, sleep one night, go for a safari in Yala National Park in the morning and leave in the afternoon, but I would strongly suggest you stay two nights like we did and include a fascinating religious town called Kataragama in your itinerary. More about these two destinations in my next posts, so stay tuned.

PS There were surprisingly few mosquitoes wherever we visited in Sri Lanka, but most of them seem to be living in Tissamaharama, so do not forget your mosquito repellent.

Blue Turtle Hotel:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/blueturtlehotel/
Website: http://www.blueturtlehotel.com
Cell.phone: +94 77 5486836 (Text messages are most likely answered by the owner’s son Oliver who will help you in whatever you may need. He speaks French as well.)

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Previous Sri Lanka trip posts (in the order of appearance):

Planning Sri Lanka: Itinerary

Sea Shine Guesthouse in Dodanduwa: spotless seafront rooms that come with a smile and delicious food

Dalawella Beach: Picture perfect and safe for swimming

Sri Gemunu Beach Resort: stunning location with friendly service

Kataluwa Purwarama Temple: one of the finest temples in the southern Sri Lanka

Kataluwa Purwarama Temple: one of the finest temples in the southern Sri Lanka

Dodanduwa and Dalawella were perfect beach destinations to recover from jetlag and wind down, but after a few days we wanted to see more of Sri Lanka. As we had decided to completely skip the Cultural Triangle, it was all the more important for us to visit those few religious sites that exist along the southern coast and Kataluwa Purwarama Temple was one of them.IMG_4463.JPGWe had a bit of hard time finding the temple as our driver had never been there before. Upon arrival only silence greeted us. All the doors were closed and apart from some school children and birds, nobody was around. Eventually our driver found a monk  who he lives in a house (monastery) below, located sort of behind the pagoda. He kindly opened the door for us (pay attention to his massive golden key featured in the photo!) and we entered a very beautiful, peaceful shrine full of Kandyan-style murals dating from the 19th century. The monk spoke very good English and gave us a private tour. For a moment it was just the monk, his eighteen dogs, Buddha statues, some Hindu gods (Vishnu, Kataragama, etc) and us. A beautiful, spiritual moment, indeed a refreshing break from the beach life.

In addition to Buddhist tales, the paintings depict the 19th life and even Queen Victoria can be found in the wall paintings. Guide books (Routard, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide) and Internet do not seem to agree on the history of this temple that some say dates from the 13th century, so I am not going to go into this. All I can say is that the temple is definitely worth a visit! And while you are in the area, stop by at Ahangama to see the stilt fishermen.

PS Naturally there is no entrance fee but donations are appreciated. We left 500 Sri Lankan rupees for the monk and he seemed very pleased.

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Previous Sri Lanka trip posts (in the order of appearance):

Planning Sri Lanka: Itinerary

Sea Shine Guesthouse in Dodanduwa: spotless seafront rooms that come with a smile and delicious food

Dalawella Beach: Picture perfect and safe for swimming

Sri Gemunu Beach Resort: stunning location with friendly service

 

Sri Gemunu Beach Resort: stunning location with friendly service

If you read my previous post Dalawella Beach: Picture perfect and safe for swimming, you already have a pretty good idea about the area. We chose Sri Gemunu Beach Resort as our base in Dalawella beach, located on the northern end of this wonderful beach (where the big rock is). IMG_4424.JPG

We could choose between a downstairs room overlooking the garden (where the restaurant is) and the ocean (just behind the garden), and an upstairs room (comes with a proper sea view). Had we been just two of us, we would have probably chosen the upstairs room (around 95€/night including breakfast and dinner) but we took the downstairs room. It was very convenient for our daughter to be able to run straight from the room to the garden. The downstairs room -number 22, a nice one as it is on the far end of the building so very quiet- cost us just above 80€/ night (half board also).

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Our room 22 is located downstairs on the right. It had more privacy than many other downstairs rooms.  

Our AC room was clean and came with a four-poster bed with a mosquito net (that had some holes in it but the housekeeping fixed it very fast). The safe and fridge didn’t exist but we didn’t miss them (valuable can be left at the reception). The bathroom -again- was the weakest part of the room, but it was clean. There was a baby cot that however wasn’t in its best condition. The room was nothing fancy but it had a traditional design, and we were very comfortable and loved the fact that the ocean was just a few steps away.

The hotel staff was very welcoming. They let me use the reception telephone for local phone calls free of charge. The chefs was particularly kind and always prepared something special and extra for our daughter. He made sure we always had enough coconut and honey pancakes. One of the owners brought his little granddaughter to plays with ours. Small things maybe but all of our questions and requests were promptly responded with a sincere smile.

We ate at the hotel restaurant every night. There was a buffet, a mixture of Sri Lankan and Western food (this applied to breakfast too). After a few days the food got a bit boring but I guess buffets often do? We enjoyed Sri Lankan dishes but everything was a bit too westernized to our taste and we kept adding chili. Our daughter further extended her palate but pappadum and pumpkin curry remained her favorites. IMG_4367.JPG

The clientele of the hotel was mainly European: northern Europeans, Germans, English, Italians and French. The average age must have been around 60, but we did see some other families. The only thing that really bothered me was smoking as it is allowed in the outdoor restaurant. So when the wind blows from the right direction and you get a neighbor who loves smoking (regardless of smoke getting in your child’s face…), it is annoying, but not really a hotel’s fault (even if I would love to see all hotels in the world turn smoke free lol).

Would we return to Sri Gemunu Beach Resort? Definitely, any time! It is a great base to discover some important sites including Galle or just unwind at the beach.

Sri Gemunu Beach Resort: http://www.sri-lanka-resort.com

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Previous Sri Lanka trip posts (in the order of appearance):

Planning Sri Lanka: Itinerary

Sea Shine Guesthouse in Dodanduwa: spotless seafront rooms that come with a smile and delicious food

Dalawella Beach: Picture perfect and safe for swimming

Dalawella Beach: Picture perfect and safe for swimming

Sri Lanka is famous for surfing but if you want to find beaches safe for swimming, it gets trickier. When you read guide books that are full of warnings about dangerous currents, you start to wonder if swimming is safe anywhere -especially for small children. We did a considerable amount of research prior to our trip and I have to say that information I found was not very helpful. What people call “safe” seems to be very vague to…

After four nights -just enough time to recover not only from jetlag but also from Paris fatigue- we left Sea Shine Guesthouse in Dodanduwa: spotless seafront rooms that come with a smile and delicious food. Time to start exploring! We hired a car with a driver (more about this in another post) for the rest of our trip and decided to head towards Unawatuna, one of the most famous southern coast beach destinations. We decided to stay away from hustle and bustle and chose Dalawella beach because it was close to Unawatuna in case we suddenly felt like visiting the action center.

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We visited Unawatuna one afternoon and walked for an hour on the beach. That was sufficient for us. It was far too busy for us, not as clean as Dalawella, waves were strong and tourism in general very developed (sign boards were also in Russian!). If you want something quiet, stay at Dalawella like we did, or Thalpe.

We had been in contact with Wijaya Beach hotel, located on Dalawella beach, by email and telephone and were pretty sure we would choose to stay there (we usually like to see the place before making the final decision). Despite Wijaya Beach hotel probably being the most cool place to hang out in Dalawella, we decided not to say there. Instead we chose a more low-key, not as fancy but equally perfectly located Sri Gemunu Beach Resort.

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Wonderful Dalawella Beach, our favorite beach in Sri Lanka. Peaceful, very clean and oh-so-pretty. The beach is small as you can see, and there are many hotels along it. Sri Gemunu Beach Resort is located in the northern end of the beach (right where the big rock is). Right next to it is Rathna Guesthouse (the hut on the beach). The building on the right end of the photo with sun beds is Wijaya Beach. 

Every morning we extended our stay at Sri Gemunu Beach Resort. We developed a very good routine: breakfast, beach time, lunch & nap, visiting & beach, dinner. The hotel was nothing fancy, but it was clean, staff very friendly and we felt comfortable. Buffet food was good at most of the time. The hotel overlooks the beach and we had to walk about thirty steps from our room to reach the beach.

If you are thinking of staying at any of the hotels located on Dalawella beach, and if you want to be able to swim then continue reading (nobody on Internet tells you this!) : there is a coral reef in from of Dalawella Beach and during the low tide the reef appears, creating a sort of a natural lagoon. During our stay (January 2017) the swimming was best in late afternoons. Some people also snorkeled in the lagoon but you can see small fish even without the gear.

PS I read somewhere that it is common to see turtles on Dalawella Beach.  Maybe we just didn’t get lucky, maybe January was not an ideal month, maybe the moon should have been in a different position.. who knows! If you visit or have visited this beach and have seen turtles, let me know please 🙂

Previous Sri Lanka trip posts (in the order of appearance):

Planning Sri Lanka: Itinerary

Sea Shine Guesthouse in Dodanduwa: spotless seafront rooms that come with a smile and delicious food

Sea Shine Guesthouse in Dodanduwa: spotless seafront rooms that come with a smile and delicious food

Due to some last minute cancellations, we had no taxi reserved upon landing at the Bandaranaike International Airport at 4 a.m. We prepared ourselves for some serious negotiating but that was not necessary: as soon as we walked into the arrival hall, there were several companies offering taxi services with prices written on sign boards. We used the Bandaranaike International Airport Taxi Service (when you arrive, the first company on your right) and the fixed price to Dodanduwa was 8740 Sri Lankan rupees (about 55€/58USD) for an AC van. In addition we paid 300 and 400 rupees for the use of two highways: Colombo-Katunayake Expressway and Southern Expressway. Plus some tip.

My husband and our daughter fell asleep very soon while I watched the night turn into morning. Black became pink, moist air created fog and I could see silhouettes of birds against a rising sun. It was all very pretty and I wondered if this is what the depiction of Garden of Eden looks like.

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Depiction of Garden of Eden? No, just a typical image taken on the Southern Expressway on the way to Dodanduwa.

Sea Shine Guesthouse, where we arrived three hours later, turned out to be exactly or even better than we had imagined. Our room was very clean, came with a mosquito net and direct sea view. Like often in Sri Lanka (based on what we saw during our 15-day trip), the bathroom was the weakest part of the room, but it was clean and that was the main thing. We had reserved a non-AC room and as the house was built according to traditional Sri Lankan style, there was natural ventilation (but very few mosquitoes!) making it very nice to fall asleep while listening to the ocean.

Breakfast options were either Western or Sri Lankan and we opted for the latter (but it had to be ordered the night before). Delicious! We moved very little from our hotel, just wanted to relax, so we had lunch and dinner every day at the hotel. Mr. Sunil’s (the owner of the guesthouse) son Roshan took care of the cooking together with his mother, and everything was fresh, tasty and copious. We ate everything and never had any problem… Our daughter became a big fan of pappadums and expanded her palate to devilled chicken, fried noodles, grilled lobster, octopus, stringhoppers, dal, pumpkin curry and sambar.

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Missing this breakfast! Chef Roshan’s dal was particularly delicious!  

In overall, we had a relaxing and lovely stay at Sea Shine Guesthouse. Of course it is a homestay, do not expect 5-star service, but we felt that the family went out of their way to make our stay comfortable. They played with our daughter, they taught her how to feed aquarium fish and always made sure she had what she needs for meals. There is no high chair but we had ours.  In terms of sightseeing, there are a turtle hatchery nearby in Kosgoda (we didn’t visit),  Galle (we visited from our next destination) and Hikkaduwa (we took a tuk tuk and returned by the beach). We appreciated the fact that there are some activities and towns nearby, but that the location of our guesthouse was very quiet (Hikkaduwa beach is very busy!). The beach was super clean, there were no beach boys and at night we only heard waves. Perfect! My husband went for a swim but I didn’t dare. I don’t estimate that the beach is safe for children to swim in, but most of the beaches in Sri Lanka aren’t. One should always ask locals what the sea condition is that specific day (sadly, a tourist drowned during our stay in Dodanduwa).

Should you be interested in Sea Shine Guesthouse, I recommend you to contact them directly. I didn’t get response to my email, so the best is to contact them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Sea-shine-Hikka-1548810175394587/ (type “Sea shine Hikka” on Facebook if the link doesn’t work)  or by WhatsApp / cellular phone +94-71-9725703. Facebook and WhatsApp messages are responded by Mr. Sunil’s friendly daughter Dily (say hello from me 🙂 ). We (2 adults and a toddler) paid 5500 Sri Lankan rupees per night for a nice non-AC room (number 2), including breakfast, and in the end we were given the room for 5000 rupees. Websites like Booking.com etc have higher prices, so contact the guesthouse directly!

Sea Shine Guesthouse: http://www.seashinehikkaduwa.com

To read the first post about our Sri Lanka trip, see Planning Sri Lanka: Itinerary