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I write this blog post somewhat longer than usual, for the benefit of a number of friends who have expressed an interest in hearing of my experiences in Sri Lanka, as they too are considering a visit to this emerging ‘hot-spot’.
Half way to Galle, we leave the expressway and head towards the coast through little villages, colourfully vibrant and alive. Hands of invitingly yellow bananas and bunches of equally yellow coconuts decorate small stalls along the way. I feel I’m in India or the Asia of old once again – the simplicity evokes memories of this ‘other time’ in another ‘must see’ destination, Burma last year (or was it the year before?)
Our young Buddhist driver Vinod, deftly avoids spluttering tuk-tuks, skittish dogs, and locals stepping out into the traffic with seeming abandon, but more expertly saves us from speeding buses crowded with humanity coming straight at us with horns blaring. We hit the coast at the seaside town of Bentota, and head south. Yes, it’s palm-fringed and pretty, just like the travel brochures tell of this ‘tear-drop’ of an island, just off the south east coast of India.
We turn off onto a narrow, bumpy bush track through jungle and cinnamon trees to Frank’s murmuring, “like the days when people rode on backs of horses”. By 3 pm, we finally reach my planned lunch stop at Lunuganga, the home of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, whose architectural legacy lives on in so many buildings throughout the country, (including the Parliament in Colombo). We ring the bell at the gates and wait for someone to come and walk us through the jungle paths to reach the rambling old house set atop a rise with commanding river views, and looking out across a lifetime of landscaping of the natural terrain (with more than a few Italianate touches).
I’m not too popular when we find lunch is off and we have to settle for a pot of tea and a guided tour of the gardens, but at least Frank gets to smoke his lungs out. By chance, we meet a couple of Melbourne, who are staying there at the end of a ‘cooking tour’ in little villages, lead by TV personality, Peter Kuruvita, which they describe as marvellous. Not a bad idea for the future.]
Back to the coast to head south to the Galle Fort Hotel as storm clouds gather. Mile after mile, coconut palms reach out to the sea looking as majestic in the drizzling grey at dusk as they will be so glorious on the blue sky day I’m expecting for tomorrow. There’s little sign today of the devastating tsunami that wreaked so much devastation and loss of life in this area eight years ago.
Our best-laid plans for rest and relaxation fly out the window when I hear of so many interesting activities that can be done easily from our ‘headquarters’ in Galle. One budding young Sicilian restaurateur I meet tells me that the little enclave within the walls of the UNESCO heritage protected fort is set to become the next Saint Tropez of Asia. I think the Australian and Malaysian owners of the Galle Fort Hotel where we are staying had similar visions, but after nearly ten years and great success, they’ve sold out to a Sri Lankan company. I love passionate adventurers.
Vinod gives us some idea of what we might include in a couple of days of driving out of the fort area. The sky is so blue so let’s start with one of the highlights and driving east along the coast to find the famous stick fishermen. Great! We stop by the beach at Weligama to watch these old men, clothed in traditional sarongs, clamber spider-like up stilts, casting their rods into the surf. Balanced on a crossbar tied to a vertical pole embedded in the seabed, they store their catch, usually small herrings and mackerel, in plastic bags attached to their waistbands. (On a signal from the shore that I’d parted with some rupees, they turned to look at me face-on, and started fishing furiously (for the camera). My day is made.
And then further east through the administrative hub of the south, Matara, we stop to watch the frantic activity of the local fishermen dragging their catch in nets from colourful catamarans drawn up on to the beach. They sell an amazing variety of fish nearby in the shade of the trees.
Frank is on a ‘mission’ to find the cemetery in Tangalle, and locate the un-named grave ‘under a big tree’ of a German friend who was swept away in the tsunami of 2004. Vinod finds the cemetery but the gates are locked. Fortunately, one of the workers comes and lets us in leading us to where westerners were interred together – ‘under a big tree’; Frank lights a candle and says a prayer.
Going back through the busy little town of Tangalle, we turn off on to another small road and drive through little villages to arrive at the very smart Aman resort, Amanwelle, beautifully sited beneath tall coconut palms on its own secluded beach. We opt for a simple salad in a pavilion open to the sea breezes and watch the surf roll in. How the shaved lemongrass and curry leaves in the organic chicken salad were so soft and tasty still escapes me. A salad so simple permits me to consider a dessert so delicious – chocolate chilli and cardamom cake served warm to release the spice flavours, washes down so well with a cup of St James Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe.
I’ve read so much about the ‘curries’; this could well turn into a Sri Lankan ‘food safari’. By evening, my tastebuds are primed and ready for the next affront. Thanks to a tip from a Sydney friend via a Facebook post, we venture out to The Fort Printers cafe for Sri Lankan Lobster Curry. Two tender lobster tails, in a curry of wonderful spices softened in fresh thick coconut milk, are superb. Fresh condiments make up the feast, including a juicy coconut sambol made with freshly scraped coconut, minced onion, chill and lime juice. I eat it with a spoon, it’s so good. (And to think it cost but $15.)
Another recommendation I’m carrying from an A & K magazine has us piling back into Vinod’s car next day and travelling inland into tea country, where we take a tour and sample teas at the Hundungoda working tea estate. Further inland, we drive up an impossibly steep driveway through a hillside of tea to reach Kahanda Kanda, a boutique hotel and restaurant created by another expat ‘adventurer’. In an open pavilion atop a hill, we wait for the Sri Lankan Crab Curry that we specially ordered yesterday. The crabs have just arrived in the kitchen, collected from the fisherman’s pots, still live, to be cooked (and cracked please).
It’s not too difficult sitting miles from nowhere with waiters in batik sarongs looking after us, the only guests here for lunch today. Ginger beer quenches, while cool breezes waft right through the pavilion and rustle the lotus leaves standing for the sun in the pond outside. Pappadums so light are irresistible as I wait for the bowl of crab. And then for our fill, with messy fingers and hands into the bowl looking for the juiciest claws and easier pieces to suck from the shell. I spot the front of my shirt with splashing curry, but nothing like the wavy white batik design of dried salt from the exertion this morning’s perspiration that’s has appeared on Frank’s navy T-shirt.
‘Touring’ out of the way, it’s time to pick up a guide sheet and walk, discovering attractions within the walls of the Fort. So hot, and sweating profusely, we don’t get far in the heat of the midday sun just five degrees north of the equator, and head back to the hotel for a long Lime and Ginger Fizz (I’ve relented and not refusing ice any more), a swim and some lunch. As the sun is setting, we venture forth once more to explore the back streets, and walk along the ramparts, where young boys dive into the sea for us from flag rock (for a few dollars ‘to feed their hungry families’).
I finally convince Frank that a tuk-tuk ride to get outside the walls an up the hill to Sunday Mass is a better option than walking. God-fearing Catholics pack the 19th century Cathedral of the Holy Rosary where the priest preaches in cadences to a hushed congregation for what seems like an hour. Frank is so impressed with the tuk-tuk experience, we squeeze in again at lunch time and merrily take off out of the Fort and along the sea for the much talked about buffet at the Bawa-designed Lighthouse Hotel. We’re getting accustomed to ‘dining in the fresh air with a view’ and sit on the covered balcony watching the waves break on the rocks sending spray high into the air as we dine.
Sri Lanka is embarking on major infrastructure development programs since cessation of hostilitites with the Tamils about four years ago. Our drive from Galle to Colombo city all the way on a new expressway takes less than two hours. The continuation all the way to the Airport will be ready in a few more months.
In an overnight stopover in Colombo we have just enough time to take a tuk-tuk to the Gungaramaya Temple to see preparations for the big Buddhist Festival Parade. This full moon Poya Day is a Buddhist public holiday in Sri Lanka and occurs once a year. Shops are closed, and there’s no alcohol served. Our tuk-tuk driver becomes our personal guide and drives us to a park to see some of the 70+ elephants that have been brought to the capital. hat a shame we’ll miss the parade this evening with the colourfully decorated elephants, Kandy dancers and loud music.
It’s interesting to see the contrast between old Colombo from British times, and the skyscrapers in downtown. The older buildings remind me a lot of colonial Rangoon, but not in a state of decay and crumbling. And we groan at the thought of yet another buffet, (but that doesn’t stop us), on the verandah of the old Galle Face Hotel, by the sea, still a truly ‘Victorian’ establishment and regarded as the most British of hotels east of Suez.
Kandy, the last capital of the ancient kings’ era of Sri Lanka located in the hills of the Central Province is right ‘up there’ for me. And I’d like to travel there from Colombo on the heritage train with a steam locomotive over the route built in the 19th century.
From Kandy, I’d include a couple of nights in one of the century-old tea planters’ bungalows beautifully located amidst rolling green hills of tea plantations.
For whatever reason, the rock fortress at Sigiriya, and Jaffna further north are not registering on my radar at the moment.
View the Picasa Photo Albums with a wider selection of photos and captions by clicking on the following Album Titles:
Sri Lanka – Negombo to Lunuganga and Galle
Sri Lanka – Galle Fort
Sri Lanka – Around Galle
Sri Lanka – Tangalla, Amanwelle and Stick Fishermen
Sri Lanka – Hundungoda Tea Estate and Kahanda Kanda
Sri Lanka – Colombo
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