The challenge to find a holiday destination in July to August is actually more difficult that you’d think, especially when you live on an island paradise, like Bali, and everything is at your doorstep. We have the school holidays to consider and I do like to get away with the kids, taking them somewhere different each year and giving them an opportunity to extend their knowledge and break out of their comfort zones. I call it backpacking with the kids, they call it travelling rough with dad.
Everywhere in South East Asia at this time is in deluge, it is wet season during Bali’s dry so the decisions have to be made with one eye on the weather news. Sri Lanka though has two seasons at the same time, and while it rains it is also guaranteed sunshine, and given some research I discover that the north-east coast is best to visit between June to October. Also I discover that this area of the country had been torn by civil unrest, escalating to Civil War and then rebellious uprising since the year of my birth and peace is new but thankfully not fragile. One of the things we learn very quickly, and not I might add from anything taught in schools, is that war torn countries have been saved from the ravages of tourism. Not that I am advocating war as a method of preservation, it is just a fact, there has been little development in Sri Lanka and the tourism infrastructure is in early days.
I selected to start our journey at the ancient city of Anduraphura and travel to Trincomalee by private minibus. It seems to be the best way to get around as the roads are quite winding and the views promised to be sensational. Anduraphura is worth a visit, the impressive Buddhist stupas and the ruins mark the birthplace of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, you will find a lot of Buddhist landmarks across the country and they mark a history of how far and when Buddhism travelled across the south-eastern lands.
Fortunately most journeys in Sri Lanka rarely take more than four hours, so the mini bus is perfect. The public bus drivers are positively hair raising, I dread to think the process to gain a licence, and the train takes three times as long so with a couple of motion sickness tablets for the kids we are on our way through lush hillsides, elephant hazard signs, crocodile signs, random cows on the road and crazy bus drivers bearing down on us. Our journey took around two and half hours, but I would say do it in three and use a few stops to catch your breath.
Trincomalee is a sleepy backwater fishing town in the middle of the east coast of the island, 10 k’s to the north is Neveli which has beautiful beaches but only very low key accommodation with one exception, it’s higher end and if you are looking for solitude and quiet this is the place to be, or you could try south of Trincomalee at Upevili which is similar, however we stayed in neither place, opting instead for Trinco Blue, a resort run by the well regarded Cinnamon Group who manage and run properties across Sri Lanka.
Trinco Blue is forty years old and while charming as is there are plans for a big renovation to keep apace with the expanding demand from the world of selective tourism that is beating a path to Sri Lanka before mass tourism floods the market. Trinco Blue was already fully booked with visitors from all over the globe sending a strong message that Sri Lanka is the next frontier for people who like to discover the new rather than find home comforts in far away places. While the town is small the shoreline stretches an impressive ten kilometres and is dotted with attractions from scuba diving to whale and dolphin watching. Behind the beaches there are bustling markets selling fish and fresh vegetables, and the impressively girthed old Fort Frederick that now houses a Buddhist Temple and Military base, illustrating for some the curious conundrum that is Sri Lanka’s past, present and possible future.
The fort was completed by the Portuguese in 1624 who pretty much managed to place forts across the East from Goa to Timor L’Este. The fort was then possessed by the Dutch 1639 who lost it to first the French, who handed it back to the Dutch momentarily in 1784 until in 1795 it came to the British with whom it remained until 1948. Interestingly although Sri Lanka was independent of Great Britain it was not until 1972 that it became a republic and then the civil war broke out in 1983. It’s quite a fascinating place to visit with history so fresh that you can see the divisions and effects of it clearly.
It was during the Portuguese occupation that the port of Trincomalee suffered as the Portuguese, determined to rid the country of it’s ‘evils’, swept the temples and sacred statues into the sea from the cliffs. Now in their watery grave they have become an attraction for divers. While not exactly diving for the Lost Ark or being a Tomb Raider, the statues look more like garden ornaments, the dive is worth taking. I selected the hotel’s dive company as they had a Western guide, and after my experience with the safari guide’s English I was erring on the side of caution, and we had a good time, although the effects of the Boxing Day Tsunami are apparent below the surface as the coral reef is still recovering.
Given all there is to do during the day the Trincomalee night is something of a contrast, which is why a good hotel is important and if you are so inclined you need a nice bar to hang out in after the government imposed curfew of 10pm. This article was written for NOW! Bali, and originally published in November 2018
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My Java Bound : Surabaya to Malang

My Java Bound : Surabaya to Malang

I love to travel to East Java, I am surprised so few people take the trip from Bali to be honest, I mean, it is easy to get to, there are trains, buses and planes, you can hire a car with or without a driver and in five days see vast changes of character and climate. Take your time and discover the wonderful East Java cities of Surabaya and Malang.

From Bali to Surabaya’s streets

I recommend the short flight to Surabaya: For one thing it is just over an hour from Bali and the view from the plane is breathtaking, the tips of the volcanoes peak through any cloud cover and you can feel almost as excited as the first colonials must have been as you touch down into a city that bares the marks of the true explorers, the Bugis, the Massakans and the Arabs. Here Surabaya’s streets beat with the ancient history of the Turks, the Moors and the Hadhramis well as the Chinese that approached from the seas to the north. While the architecture of Raffles and his conquering cohorts dominates the physical history of the city if you look further in, into the faces, the markets and the minarets of mosques, you will find true history.

There’s to me an essence of that hard core gypsy living that contradicts the efforts of big cities like Jakarta to placate history with a sophisticated facade. Here in Surabaya there is a rawness that resonates with the earlier rebelliousness of the place. To me I think it has the appeal of Liverpool or Birmingham, port cities running in ‘second place’ to a capital, yet richer and more rewarding because of it. I love the tangible hard work ethic that pervades the markets and the shops, the way that trading carries on in a similar fashion to the ways of a century ago.

Visit Pasar Bebeng, or Pasar Pabean and see for yourselves, the Maduranese women, the ‘pirates of the pasar’, are running everything in sight and see if you can get past them without comment. They gave me such a ribbing, honestly if it wasn’t for my ability to give as good as I get I would have left with my ‘tail’ tucked well between my legs.

The Hotel Majahpahit

Don’t worry too much though you can always retreat to the colonial aspects of the town and don for a moment the shield of nostalgia at The Hotel Majahpahit.

Here is the original Hotel Oranje started by Louis Sarkies of the Armenian Sarkies brothers who really were the original luxury hoteliers of South East Asia.

With the famed Strand in Yangon and Raffles in Singapore to their name, they commissioned hotels that offered dreams of colonial grandeur despite their own status as emigres and luminaries attending the Majapahit’s opening included Crown Prince Leopold III from Belgium Princess Astrid from Sweden and English actor Charlie Chaplin.

Oh yes, Surabaya was the city of the Java Jive, and from the early 20th Century until the Japanese invasion and subsequent liberation of the country, a heady and exotic mix of ethnicities including Muslim Yemeni and Buddhist Chinese, the Calvanist Dutch and the Islamic and Hindu Javanese mingled in relative peace.

This is the Surabaya to discover, the city, one time larger that Jakarta, a competitor to Hong Kong and Shanghai and the largest city in the Dutch East Indies.

In the summer the Surabaya elite retreated to the hill city of Malang where eventually Dutch colonials built their bungalows, and today golden apples still grow and small canals are traversed by arched bridges alongside pretty cottages bedecked with flowers and domestic cats in a miniature version of Dutch urbanity.

Captured by this ‘olde worlde’ charm the city of Malang is a marvellous mirage, seemingly full of budding intellectuals who are fervent and ardent in discussions that desire to shape the nation of the future.

The many cafes and warungs are bursting with a student population drawn to this hub of academia, here they feast on an excellent beef soup called Rawon and noodle dishes, Cwie Mie or Pangsit Mie and the cakes and breads that can be found everywhere but nowhere better than the Roti Tugu Bakery.

The Hotel Tugu Malang

The Tugu Group happens to be one of my favourite hotel groups precisely because they are not a group, they are a family. At the Hotel Tugu Malang you will find the history and architecture of Malang spread before you with artifacts, gallery displays and entire rooms given over to histories from the myths and legends of the Ramayana to contemporary stories of Eastern Javanese history.

Resident or not the Hotel Tugu is a must visit, from early morning coffee to afternoon teas the hotel draws you into its unique and heady atmosphere of Dutch colonial era heritage , Indonesian and Chinese cultural fusion and the humble beauty of traditional Indonesian art and craft masterpieces.

Spending a day exploring on bicycles is easily arranged through the Hotel Tugu, grab a becak – cyclo rickshaw- to visit local warungs or hire a taxi for a day to take you out to the tea and coffee plantations that adorned the surrounding hillsides.

Whatever you do and wherever you go in East Java you will feel all the richer for it.

Plan your time

Between Surabaya and Malang there is at least a week of adventure to be had and planning a tour can be a good idea. If you, like me, love adventure and bikes look no further than Infinity Mountain Biking for their nine day East Java tour that includes a trip to Mount Bromo.

Tasting tips

Malang Rawon Rampal, Jalan Panglima Sudirman – Beef stews, soups and curries. Depot Hok Lay, Jalan KH Ahmad Dahlan – Lumpia and Noodles Cwie Mie
Surabaya Try Indonesian street food like Sate Klopok and the foods of the Arabian diaspora such as Nasi Kabuli, Kuri Kambing and the Perenakan or Nyonya foods of the Chinese Malay culture. This article was written for NOW! Bali, and originally published in August 2018
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