Sri Lanka: a nice country I just didn’t feel like visiting.

Here is the detailed schedule of my visit to Sri Lanka:

Day 1: Arrive in the country after a painful overnight flight, do nothing and stay one night in a hotel near the airport to rest a little. Think about what to do in Sri Lanka.

Day 2: Drive to Kandy in the morning, onboard a PAINFUL local bus (the kind chickens would refuse to board) and stay indoors all afternoon as it rains like crazy outside.

Day 3: Beautiful day, go out and look at this temple where they apparently have one of Bhuddha’s tooth. Could not possibly care less, did not visit. Thought about visiting a tea factory outside of town, but remembered I don’t even like tea. Had coffee by the lake and looked at a guidebook I had previously downloaded. Temple this, mountain view that; both pictures and descriptions left me completely unmotivated and uninspired. Figured I would sleep on it.

Day 4: Though about a shorter itinerary over breakfast. Had a second cup of tea (I know, I don’t like it, but coffee is what I had ordered. It happens.) Then I though: but why? Having no answer to that question, I went back to Colombo and boarded the first plane to Bangkok.

A little impulsive? Perhaps, but I have no regrets. The funny thing is that I have nothing negative to say about the country (OK, other than the terrible transportation infrastructure and the fact there were ants in my soup. Not familiar with the expression “having ants in your soup”? It’s because there is no such expression: THERE-WERE-ANTS-IN-MY-SOUP, literally. And it was chicken soup, not some exotic Sri Lankan ant soup).

Anyway, the food is usually OK, everything is cheap, the people are very nice and they often speak good English, so you can exchange more than smiles, there is culture to be seen and experienced, some nice scenery, diving, etc. But, it just doesn’t inspire me. Actually, this entire part of the world leave me totally unenthusiastic: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh alike. It’s likely I will go to Surinam, Benin, Azerbaijan and the Marshall Islands before I visit India. Not sure why.


South Asia just makes me feel like this guy.


Anyway, Kandy is a nice town, I guess, with a beautiful artificial lake built by the last King of the Sinhalese monarchy, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha. The local chiefs complained about their people being forced to work on its construction. To convince them it was a good idea, he had them all killed. The argument proved decisive in the debate and as soon as they were dead, the chiefs stopped complaining. However, in hindsight, his decision to apply the same methods to British merchants was not such a great idea. The 2,300 year old dynasty, well, sort of ended right there and then. On the positive side, the new King’s name was much easier both to remember and pronounce: George III.


Car and human traffic, near the Kandy train station.


The first class “Observer Lounge” car, on the train back to Colombo. No air conditioning, and the shaking was so bad I thought the train might derail. I tried to use my computer but I put it away, not because typing was too difficult, but because I was afraid I might drop it!

Once in Colombo, I had a few hours to kill in the historic Fort District before making my way to the airport by means of a horrible 1.5 hour bus ride (in Africa they put four rows of seats in buses, and then add people in the aisle. In Sri Lanka, they put 5 rows and then add people in the aisle anyway! Nobody can fit in a seat, except perhaps South Park’s Starvin’ Marvin). Anyway, none of this touristing happened, and instead I took refuge in a TGI Friday, for some powerful air-conditioning, cold beer, and nice, overpriced, 100% ant-free food.

Final symptom of my boredom: I usually put a couple dozen pictures on my blog posts, often out of hundreds I took. In this case, I showed you 4 pictures out of 11, 8 of which are Kandy Lake from different angles. Could not have been less motivated… Sorry Sri Lanka.


Burj Khalifa: Because the tallest building in the world gets its own post.

Partly because I had too may pictures of Dubai, and partly because I was tired of writing a few days ago, I came up with the rule that the tallest building in the world gets its own post on my blog. As a Canadian, I should feel disappointed by this, as the tower replaced Toronto’s CN tower as the tallest free standing structure in the world, as well as the tower having the highest restaurant in the world. However, I am satisfied in living in a country with only the second highest restaurant, but a gender ratio that is not 1.5 man per woman.


So there you have it, the 828 m tall Burj Khalifa. It was initially named Burj Dubai, or “Tower of Dubai”, but it has since been renamed Burj Khalifa, which translates loosely as “Tower-of-the-dude-in-the-Emirate-next-door-who-saved-us-from-certain-bankruptcy-in-2009”.


The picture from the ground doesn’t really do it any justice. To be frank, since it stands almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building, it is hard to do it justice in a picture. Aerial pictures are better, but I was not about to rent a helicopter to get one, so here is a heavily “Photoshopped” picture I took on a hazy morning through a dirty Fly Dubai airplane window. The big flat structure on its top right is the Dubai Mall, the largest in the world, with 1,200 stores and other businesses, spread over half a million square meters of floor space. The whole area of 2 square kilometres, including the large fountain and the adjacent buildings were developed as a single project: “Downtown Dubai”. This kind of major project characterizes Dubai, compared to the “one of” tower projects you might see in cities where private businesses have to finance such things.

The tower includes a combined indoor/outdoor observation platform. You reach it through a two-stop elevator, which takes you up 125 floors in a minute. “Try to swallow” said the elevator operator. This terrible video gives you a vague idea of what it looks like, and demonstrates very clearly how poorly a GoPro camera performes in the dark.


From the exterior platform, you can see the 38-ish floors remaining, plus all the technical, unoccupied floors (another 46). When the platform opened, it was the tallest in the world. But that only lasted 9 months, when it was beaten by Shanghai’s Canton Tower. And that is the problem with this kind of “who can pee the farthest” competitions. Dubai was probably right that such a spectacular structure would help put their city on the map. After all, would I have paid $35 to go up the 15th highest tower in the world? Probably not.

But how long will this triumph last? It used to last quite long. The last time the tallest structure in the world was in the Middle-East, it retained the title for an incredible 39 centuries. But the Great Pyramid of Giza’s rule ended in 1311, and things have changed quite a bit since then. Now, this kind of glory lasts not long at all. As soon as next year, the relatively unknown Chinese city of Changsha (pop 7M!), may beat some of the records, although the project is apparently facing difficulties. In any case, by 2017, Saudi Arabia should beat all the records with its Kingdom Tower, planned to reach a height of one kilometre. Within this decade, several countries plan to complete towers in excess of a kilometre, including Brazil, Kuwait, Bahrain and even Azerbaijan. Of course, not to be outdone, Dubai has proposed the Dubai City Tower, a 400 storeys, 2.4 km high building tentatively planned for 2025. Continue reading

Dubai: boom or bust?


I look rested on that picture, don’t I? Sadly, that’s because it was taken years ago, when I was 29. Incidentally, the same age I am now. Funny how that works.


How much has Dubai changed as I was repeatedly turning 29? A lot! This entire area, the Dubai Marina, is not ten years old and when it will be completed, it should house 120,000 residents. This particular cluster is supposed to be the “highest city block in the world”, with all the buildings being between 250-300 m high.


Everywhere around the marina, clusters upon clusters of new mixed use towers…


With more being built everyday.


I am not sure what definition Dubai uses to classify a building as a high-rise, but in 1991, they claim they had a single one. There are now over 900.


So, it is too much? Who knows. Dubai came very close to a catastrophic collapse in 2009, but seems to have rebounded, thanks to a massive bail-out from Abu Dhabi. One of their big Government-owned conglomerates put a 63 story, 542 apartments building on the market two months ago and all the units were sold on the first day. Trade, finance, tourism, regional headquarters; there’s a lot happening in Dubai and oil only represents 2-4% of GDP (less than half the figure in Canada!), but that doesn’t erase the crippling debts they face. Continue reading

Oman: big mosques, long history and a dictator who seems to be a nice guy.

I rarely get overly enthusiastic about religious buildings, but I found Muscat’s Al-Ghubrah & Ghala mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque, especially photogenic. So here are a bunch of photos.

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Unfortunately, the mosque is only open to non-muslims in the mornings, and I was flying to Dubai that very evening. I would have liked to see the main prayer hall, which apparently houses the largest hand woven carpet in the world, at 60 x 70 m. 600 women worked on it and it took them 4 years to finish! Continue reading

Qatar: the old, the new, the beautiful and the delightfully fake.

While Qatar is certainly not a big touristic destination, I did see a few more tourists in Doha than I had in Kuwait or Bahrain. One nice thing about Doha is that transportation is less problematic than in neighbouring capitals, with most attractions located around Doha Bay. While the number of attractions may be limited, there are unquestionably a number of things worth the visit.


South of the Bay, the 19th Century Souq Waqif is a main commercial and touristic attraction. Throughout the medium-sized network of narrow pathways, one can find everything from foodstuff and clothing to souvenirs and jewellery. The mud walls, timber roof, flimsy wall mounted fans and traditional dress of the locals carry that exotic feeling of days gone by. Actually, enough fiction, Souq Waqif is completely fake. Not even 10 years old, it was built to look “authentic”, in what was a slummy part of town. Only in the Gulf!


That being said, while the concept is a little strange, the project has been a big success, on all fronts. I have no interest in shopping, but for someone looking for a souq “experience”, the place will do the trick. Pleasant to walk through and peppered with cafes to stop and people watch, it attracts mostly local residents, although 99% of all tourists in Doha probably make at least a brief stop there.


During the day, pigeons are the main customers, as Doha, like all countries in this very hot region of the world, has a rather late shopping culture.


The Bay is surrounded by the Corniche, which is designed like those in other Gulf capitals, i.e. horribly. A product of the car culture at its pinnacle, the decision was the same made in many new cities around the world: we have a beautiful waterfront, let’s put a highway on it! There are no cafes or stores to sell you a bottle of water, just big Government buildings to one side and the water on the next. Still, the path is nice and it beats walking in traffic. As the evening got cooler, an increasing number of runners showed up, including women in normal hot weather running gear, which doesn’t seem to faze anyone here (not local women, expats, but still).


The old and the new. Continue reading

Driving on a F1 circuit and visiting tiny Bahrain’s touristic sites.

While Kuwaitis are concerned about being outnumbered by foreigners 2 to 1 in their own country, the big divide in Bahrain is more about religion than citizenship. Bahrainis are only slightly outnumbered by foreigners, but all the power in the country in is the hands of the Sunni muslims while Bahrain – an exception on the Arabic Peninsula – is a majority Shi’ite country. So while Kuwait “forces” young men to serve in the Army and Police to keep these institutions “national”, the Bahraini regime recruits large numbers of Pakistani and other Sunnis to serve in its security forces. I say power is in the hands of the Sunnis, but really it’s in the hands of the Khalifa family. Wikipedia has a page listing the public offices held by members of the family. Basically, they hold all positions of power


A few censored graffitis is the only sight of dissent I saw during my visit, but the ongoing uprising was much more intense two years ago, when the mighty Bahraini security forces had to request military assistance from Saudi Arabia, because shooting unarmed civilians was proving to be too challenging a task for them.


While Bahrain is safe at the moment and free of Saudi troops, several sources told me to be very careful around Saudi drivers. Apparently they drive like maniacs and follow Saudi road rules in Bahrain, which apparently doesn’t work. After my transportation difficulties in Kuwait, I chose to rent a car in Bahrain. Because of this, I got to see a lot more of the country, but I also have few pictures to share, since I was busy driving and the roads are rarely designed to allow you to safely pull-over. And except for this time, I try not to take pictures while driving!

If you ever decide to drive in Bahrein, I will give you one piece of advice: you NEED a GPS. I thought I could easily find my way in this tiny country, and as a result I spent a lot of time going in circles and almost missed my flight to Qatar. The problem is that while the roads are excellent, they are not intuitive at all. Often I could literally see the building where I wanted to go, but couldn’t figure out how to get there! Typically, to get to the building 200 m away, you have to get on the highway, drive a kilometre, then get on this loopy ramp which brings you to the other side, then take a boulevard which goes around behind the building you are trying to reach, and then you get to the entrance. It works, but it’s impossible to guess and there are very few useful signs. Outside Manama driving without a GPS is easy. Another small tip, learn to read the Arabic words for “regular” and “supreme”, I put supreme in the rental car by mistake, which cost me a whopping 27 cents a litre instead of the normal price of 21 cents for regular. The funny thing is that a lot of Bahrainis don’t buy this fuel at all, they cross into Saudi Arabia, where it is apparently much cheaper! Ah, the shock I will feel next time I buy fuel in Canada…


The reason I drove outside Manama was to get to the single thing that puts Bahrain on the international map, the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix. Everyday at 10:00 (and maybe in the afternoon also), you can book a tour of the grounds, including a drive around the track. It starts at this store/visitor centre tent, where I met an actual Bahraini citizen who would take me on the tour (that would not happen in Kuwait!).


From the roof of the VIP viewing tower, you see the massive scale of what was built here less than 10 years ago. In the centre, the team’s offices (on the left), and the garages (on the right).

And here is the circuit:



The media centre is massive, with room for 500 journalists. It often gets rented out for conferences, training events, etc. The Bahrain university, which is adjacent to the racetrack, also uses it. Continue reading

A few quiet days in Egypt. Wait… I mean Kuwait!

I went to Kuwait with one major prejudice about the country; the fact that Kuwaitis do not work. I don’t mean they are lazy and they wallow in their misery, I mean they are lazy and they live comfortable lives because their country is floating in oil.

My knowledge of this is anecdotal and biassed, but funny. A friend of mine studied for a year at the War College in Kuwait City. Unlike in Western War Colleges, his study group was led not by one, but by two Directing Staff: a Kuwaiti Colonel who “headed” the group, and a retired British Colonel who actually did the work. Diddo for my driver in Jordan, who’s son had a Master’s Degree in Microbiology, and worked in Kuwait for a boss who had not finished GRADE school! Of course, there was another expat who did the actual work of the boss, but the man would still show up a few hours a day to have tea and sign a few documents.


So I couldn’t help but laugh a bit when I saw this picture at the Kuwait Scientific Centre.


This is probably a more common scenario. From left to right: western senior scientist who does the work, western ex-scientist turned manager, Egyptian middleman who makes things happen in Kuwait, Kuwaiti “Boss”, who hands over the check, and western junior scientist, who does what the senior scientist doesn’t want to do.


Not wanting to completely go away from reality, I consulted Kuwait’s own 2011 census. On page 16, you see that nearly all employed Kuwaitis fall in the category “Administration and Defence, Compulsory Social Security”. In other words, they do nothing. Two exceptions: many women work (for real) as school teachers, and men serve in the police force, as the country doesn’t want foreigners in that role. A taxi driver told me young men are attracted to that relatively low ranking job because it allows them the opportunity to pull over taxis and ask them for their female passenger’s phone number!

But, enough of my lame political comment and on with the “touristing”, although there is something strange about “touristing” in Kuwait. The strange thing is that you are the only tourist. Actually, I have been to far less touristy places, like North Korea or Burundi, but to be in a big, modern rich city with no tourists was a little strange. A taxi driver even asked me what I was doing with a camera. I said I was a tourist. He laughed! This reminded me of Djibouti, where the immigration agent didn’t believe me when I said I wanted to visit the country and had no other business there!

The Scientific Centre is one of the few major touristic attractions in Kuwait City. The other one is the big mosque, but my interest in such things is limited.


The centre starts with an ethnological exhibit. What I noticed the most was this display of the traditional possessions of a Bedouin. The funny thing is that about 70% of the objects this family would own are directly or indirectly linked to the making and drinking of coffee!  Continue reading