23 – 27 November 2012
We had a bit of an up and down start to the Sri Lankan leg of the holiday. We’d opted to forfeit the last night of the organised Golden Triangle tour in India so that we could make the most of the limited time we had in Sri Lanka. The flight we’d booked was 18h50, due to land at 22h20, which brought us into Colombo late, but meant we’d have a full day on the Saturday rather than wasting it on more transfers and waiting around in airports. The flight left 10 minutes early, which was good; but hovered on the runway when we arrived so we ended up only disembarking the plane just before 11, which was bad.
It was raining, which wasn’t great; but the currency is half the price of the Indian Rupee and we easily arranged a taxi transfer to our hotel, which is good. It’s *very* humid in Colombo, which is bad; but our taxi had aircon, which is good. The taxi fare was arranged in advance and a bargain at the price, which was good; but the driver couldn’t find our hotel, so we ended up driving around and around until 00h30, which wasn’t fun.
It’s not the taxi driver’s fault though. Their numbering system is up the pole. Our hotel was number 103/12 Dharmapala Mawatha, which had no road frontage – it just went 101A, 101B… Big bank with no number. We drove up and down, went around the block stopped a few wandering locals to ask them… And then eventually lucked out with a stab in the dark, driving down a narrow alley at the far side of the big banking complex… Which revealed all the 103/extensions! It was so narrow and windy that we’re not sure how the poor driver got out of there but we tipped him well for his troubles and – short of having to apologise profusely to number 103/11 whose bell we mistakenly rang the first time – were done with the challenges for the night.
Or so we thought. The room we were allocated wasn’t the room we booked. We got a very spartan back room with twin singles on either wall, with thin foam mattresses and a single top sheet draped at the foot to be used for cover. Worse than that – no en suite! Far too late for debate though (I started the discussion with the landlord but was soon lost in translation) and seemed pointless to argue seeing as we were straight to be and up and out early anyway.
We placed an order for our breakfast (cheese and ham toasties, with coffee for Christian) and called it a (very long) day.
Saturday morning we awoke to no rain, bright skies, but a few menacing clouds on the horizon so we decided that, rather than tempt fate and end up doing Colombo sight-seeing in the rain, we’d go straight to Galle. We’re staying in Unawatuna Beach, said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world preserved by its coral reefs, and the prospect of a lazy lounger day and lingering sundowners trumped hot and sticky Colombo from the moment the possibility was brought to discussion!
We grabbed a taxi down to Maharagara, to the terminus where the busses leave for Galle. We’d initially planned on taking the train from Fort (Colombo) to Fort (Galle), but this is a 3 and some change hour ride, so the express bus on the Southern Expressway being less than an hour and a half held much appeal. The hotelier warned that this express comes at a premium and is twice as expensive as the normal train or intercity bus, but at 940 Sri Lankan Rupees for both of us (R70), we sucked it up!
Our hearts sank when we got to the ‘terminus’, which was little more than a tarmac clearing with a long snaking queue of people waiting, but it worked out swimmingly since the bus arrived as we joined the back of the queue and – unbelievably – we got literally the last 2 seats on that bus! Enormously good signs!
Turns out the earlier-than-planned departure to Unawatuna was the right thing to do. An easy bus ride, greeted at the Galle end by a jovial and enthusiastic taxi driver who gave us a new appreciation for living with his Knieval driving style and, best of all, we beat the weather at its own game. Galle and Unawatuna were both sunny skies and nowhere near as humid.
We checked in at Surfcity Guesthouse and were pleased to see that the ‘hit and miss’ relatively blind online booking process had dealt us a winner. Down a single lane road parallel to the beach, the triple story hotel had us booked in a simple, but clean and ample room on the middle floor, facing directly over their restaurant and bar (across the road) with a lovely view of the ocean.
The ocean is gorgeous, with dark blue on the horizon, mottling blue and green over the coral reef, lightening to turquoise near the shore and then dramatically changing to a light aquamarine in the last few metres before the white foamy section climbs the sand toward us. Of course there is science to the miraculous effect since there isn’t much shallow end to this big pool and clearly as soon as it gets deep, so does the colour deepen. It’s quite rough (especially after the tranquility of our Goan experience), but the unpredictability of the incoming swells and the strength of the undercurrent are the fun side of challenging and we had some good giggles at having our feet pulled out from under us! … And better fun watching other people floundering about the place!
We lunched at a spot called The Rock, drawn in by the plaque at the entrance that commemorates their reopening after being devastated by the 2004 tsunami from the earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale. A good story was enough to draw us in and we enjoyed our fresh seafood metres away from the waterline. The food was really good – fried tuna and deepfried calamari rings (even though we’d ordered grilled, they clearly knew better), and I even ate the salad that was served alongside! It was unusual – shredded cabbage, grated carrot, slivers of cucumber, diced spring onions and wedges of pineapple. I haven’t eaten that much raw food on one plate since I last ordered carpaccio!
We wiled away the afternoon on loungers outside our hotel’s beachfront restaurant. Dipping and dunking in the sea periodically and entertaining ourselves watching the beach dogs and kittens.
At sunset we showered and changed and checked out the high street, which really doesn’t have anything to offer (including no ATM, we found out we have to catch a tuktuk to Galle to draw money!) so we retired back to our stretch of paradise for sundowners.
Unawatuna is a 2 km long bay with bars and restaurants side by side most of the way around, with a skinny walkway of sand between where the loungers end and the sea actively begins. It’s not crowded or built-up though. The restaurants are all wooden and charming and there’s a single row of loungers so it’s not cramped like Patong Beach was last year. It was great to sit at The Peacock a lowered table with short-legged patio furniture for sundowners, so we were inches above the sand and every so often a goliath wave would make it as far as lapping to our feet.
We’d picked a good spot so we ended up ordering dinner there as well. Noodles and pizza for a change of pace, but both with prawns and shrimp to keep the seaside authenticity. We’d had a bevvy of beach pets around us all day, but it was only our black and ginger patched kitten that begged for food, wailing as each forkful went into our mouths. She got a small cube of chicken, a shrimp, a piece of pizza crust and a faceful of pizza crumbs for her efforts and seemed quite pleased with herself (before strutting off to her next feeders).
We arranged first thing in the morning for a tuktuk to come and collect us to take us to Galle at 11am. Our mission twofold, see the sights and find an ATM. While there’s no shortage of tuktuk drivers begging our custom, it was just easier to pre-negotiate and firm a fixed time with our concierge.
Plans in place we hoofed it to ‘town’ in search of a light breakfast (bananas and drinking yoghurt the Plan A from experience in Eastern Europe), but found no such things at the nearby supermarket, so we returned to our stretch of beach and had a cheese and egg roti (spelt ‘rotty’ here) instead.
It was delicious! A big thin roti with eggs and cheese smeared on top and folded as it cooked so the final product was a sideplate-sized square parcel with a few layers of roti, egg and cheese. Very light, very yum.
We rewarded our great choice with a lounge on the restaurant’s loungers and a dip in the sea before heading back to shower and ready for our excursion.
The day was a scorcher. By the time we’d walked down the stairs and got into the tuktuk, we were drenched from sweat and very grateful for the breeze the puttering tuktuk created on movement. Our driver spoke good English and so we’d negotiated a full city tour on top of the return trip for an extra 200 Roupees (R14). He told us that Galle is 6km from Unawatuna and we’d be seeing the fort, visiting a spice shop and a jewellery factory and stopping for lunch.
First was the Fort, which you can drive into and comprises an entire walled old city taking up the full bulbous peninsular south of the cricket grounds. The fort is 620 years old and was built by the Dutch. They did a good job and the fort wasn’t damaged in the 2004 tsunami; in fact, the high thick walls meant that the water didn’t even get in the fort at all, chanelled around either side and wiping out the new city inland.
We saw the famous clock tower and lighthouse, took some photos of the cricket ground (apparently funded by Shane Warne), saw the underground dungeon jails and the pits where prisoners were kept, got gawked at by locals (there was a school on tour) and warned against entering the area still operational by local army. It was a really quick tour that we probably could have managed on our own, but it was nice to have the tuktuk at our disposal to be able to drive us up and down the narrow streets so we could see some of the ‘antique houses’ that are now mostly government buildings, hotels or holiday houses owned by rich overseas people (mostly Germans, we were told).
Next was the jewellery shop, with the same schpiel and false warmth. Still, we enjoyed their aircon and the 3 ice cold Cokes they gave us (saying Christian was too big for just one buddy bottle).
We asked our driver to take us to the market, but were underwhelmed with the merchandise. We visited a spice store, which held the most promise but left emptyhanded.
Last stop was lunch. We’d asked the driver to take us to a local spot that served a decent Sri Lankan signature curry and rice, and ended up in a backroom cafe, with a generous handful of locals pouring over very interesting looking plates. We ordered 1 fish (tuna) and 1 chicken curry and waited to see what we’d be given. We ended up with an enormous bowl of rice, 2 little bowls with the meats each in its own distinct sauce, a bowl of dahl, and 3 or 4 other bowls of things we’d never seen before. All in all, a worthwhile experience for R30 in total, including a 1,5 litre bottle of water.
Back to our beach, we frittered away the afternoon on loungers, browsing the wares of passing hawkers (I bought a throw for my spare room) and joining the bobbing heads in the sea every now and then.
We rounded off a perfectly productive day planning the next, by booking the much anticipated surf lessons for the following day. Plans in place, we celebrated with yet another leisurely candlelit beachside dinner (grilled tuna for me and nasai goreng for Christian) and retired to our hotel patio.
We had intended to breakfast at the place that professed itself to be the best rotty shop in Unawatuna… But it wasn’t open yet – and we had a surf lesson date to keep, with the tuktuk meeting us at 9am. We settled for Black & White (our hotel’s beachside restaurant – our room’s terrace looks over the restaurant’s roof at the sea) and had a very pleasant cheese and mushroom (me) and Sri Lankan (onion, tomato, chilli, spice) omelette.
The tuktuk took us 40 minutes South to Weligama; it’s a small island so this was far enough to take us from SSE Sri Lanka to Sri Lanka South. We met with the surf instructor who issued us with rash vests and boards and we were off.
We were given a short tutorial on the sand on what to do. Paddle, hold the board, chest up, pop, crouch, adjust weight, arms out. Seemed simple enough. So, it was out to the water.
We did really well the first few times, even standing on the board within the first 15 minutes! But, then you get tired and it gets harder to fight the waves to get out and we misjudged a few waves and followed duds and, to be honest, ended worse than we’d begun. First hour up, we took to the shore for some liquid refreshment to regain breath and composure. Christian decided to man the shore, but after a half hour break I hit the waves again.
It was hard work, but really cool. And ticking off a bucketlister to boot!
On the way back home we stopped to take pics of the stiltfisherman – perched on poles fixed in the ocean bed, with their feet just above the water, spearing fish below.
All the surfing and commuting had been thirsty work, so lunch was a matter of urgency on our return. We decided on the Lucky Tuna, mainly because they take credit card (very rare in these parts), and they promised us toasties post haste. True to their word, Christian’s tuna and cucumber and my Club sandwich were very quick – and yum. Being fed on a comfy lounger led to the inevitable and we were ‘reading’ (really, napping) soon after.
At sunset, we were ushered from the loungers and headed back to the hotel to shower and dress and head out to do our last gift-shopping. We’d accidentally found the night before a road sort of parallel to ours that had a stream of restaurants, hotels, jewellers and curio stores. We had found it after dinner so the stores were shut, but definitely worth a revisit.
We doubled the gift-shopping with a hunt for a restaurant serving fresh butter fish. It had become a sort of quest since the night before a few restaurants we’d tried had advertised it on their specials board and then not had it when we ordered. We found a gorgeous spot, that had the actual fish on display at the open air barbecue selection buffet (“you pick it, we cook it” kinda thing), so the deal was sealed.
Thaproban had a very ‘tranquil’ entrance section, which initially put us off the night before as it seemed more zen than yum. What we hadn’t seen was that once you choose your fish from the road-facing zen side (all floating lotus flowers and whatnot) you’re led around the hotel to the sea-facing side to wooden tables and chairs on a seasand piled terrace with the sea lapping up to the edge. Really pretty.
The food was amazing! The butter fish was served whole, with head and tail, alongside a generous helping of McD’s style chips and the same shredded cabbage salad as the previous days. Christian selected deep fried crumbed seer fish as the second dish and it accompanied perfectly. While the butter fish was moist and flaky, the crumbing of the seer fish provided the crunch with a slightly drier meat, but not chewy like a game fishg. Christian likened it to a kabeljou; it just liked it.
We also had the delight of getting our hands on a few bottles of Three Coins, supposedly Sri Lanka’s local beer… Although this is the first time we’ve seen it and Lion is everywhere. Christian has been trying to get a beer label vest (or even t-shirt) everywhere, without success. The hotel manager happened to wander past our table to ask if the food and service had been satisfactory and we ended up having a lengthy digress with him about it – and he’d offered to get us a shirt sent from the factory for free, but it would take a few days, which of course we don’t have.
Nightcaps at Black & White to end the day as it had begun and it was off to bed, to wake for an early start to return to Colombo. A day of sight-seeing and then we’re off to the Maldives.
Our plans to get up early and have a good breakfast before our trek to Colombo were thwarted when, typically, the hotel’s restaurant didn’t open at its usual 8am. When it still wasn’t open at 8.15 and our tuktuk was early we decided to change tack and head to Galle, thinking we could grab a snack from a shop near the bus depot and eat properly in Colombo.
We had been warned that there may be no bus service running since our planned departure date happened to coincide with Poya Day, which is the monthly full moon holy day as observed by the Buddhists, being the majority, so is a public holiday (every month!). We’d consulted a few people and gotten quite conflicting reports varying from the busses not running to running every 10 minutes.
It all worked out quite well, with our tuktuk driver stopping at a cafe where we could buy egg rotties and water (under R20 for both of us) and the bus waiting for us when we arrived. We ended up 15 minutes ahead of schedule with the best of everything we’d planned! (Except the bus’s very exuberant entertainment, with local music videos blaring from screens suspended from the aisle roof). We again thanked our lucky stars for the express bus, slicing the travel time in half. Might not sound like a big deal for back home, but quite fortunate that Sri Lanka’s *only* highway was only completed last year and happened to be the exact route we needed.
There was a moment of panic when the bus didn’t return to the depot as anticipated and we were unceremoniously deposited on an arbitrary section of pavement. But a request for directions to the depot (since this was where we were meeting the guide we’d pre-arranged) yielded easy directions to 50m down the road, where Shami was already waiting.
We started our guided tour with the Monument of Fallen Soldiers – a monolith with lions at its base with walls and walls of names of soldiers who died over the 33 years of war between the Sinalhese and the Tamils. Our guide estimates around 400,000 people fell during the fighting, including innocent people in the terrorist park bombings.
We then drove past the biggest Buddha and the national cricket grounds (which Christian recognised from tv) and on to Independence Square, with its large monument to commemorate independence in 1948. The monument is pagoda style – which again reinforces our constant impression that Sri Lanka feels a lot more like Thailand than India – and is again guarded by lions (statues, not beers). The lions apparently play a big part in the nations mythical history, with some strange story of witches and human/lion children.
This route led along Marine Drive, with a far more predictable beachfront layout than that in Mumbai – and a host of new hotels launched and under construction, not least of which the 7* Shangri La, due for opening in 2014 (and clearly not in the slightest related to the modest Shangri La where we stayed in Goa!). By contrast, we stopped at the railway station opposite and it was functional, but far from beautiful – and the train that stopped looked ancient and packed.
We were hungry again, being lunchtime and having such a light breakfast hours ago, so we stopped for a quick and easy McD’s. Christian had the Big Mac combo, which was exactly the same as at home, and I had the Big Mac chicken combo, which turned out to be a Big Mac with 2 junior chicken patties and mayo instead of the secret sauce. All good.
Refuelled, we drove through Colombo 7 (the fancy bit) and Shami pointed out all the important buildings – mostly municipal, governmental and state homes of dignitaries (mostly naval and military). Most fly the Sri Lankan flag as well as the buddhist one (5 vertical stripes from left to about 3/4 right with blue, yellow, white, red and orange; then the same colours horizontal stripes taking up the right hand 1/4).
We passed on (yet another) Buddhist temple and our guide was a little taken aback at our honest “just the famous ones” response. There really are just too many for all to be interesting – and I’m more fascinated by the little offshoot shrines that can be found in the middle of intersections, at bus ranks, in the markets etc. Just a buddha, with an altar and a bit of tiled floor space within waist-height palisade fencing, making the religion really accessible to the people to integrate their worship into their daily routines.
I’d wanted to visit Pettah, which is the famous market area, but was a bit disappointed that it was mostly luggage and electronic shops. The clothing shops are all a bit backward and the textile shops, where people seem to have everything made up custom aren’t of interest. Nonetheless, we walked up and down a few streets and drove around the rest and can tick it off as seen and done. It’s a blessing it was a public holiday so, while half the shops were closed, there was a fraction of the traffic so quite a pleasant experience overall.
We asked about the Fort here, having read that it’s a ‘to do’, but it’s a bit different to the other we’ve been to in that it’s not city within walls as is the conventional sense and the areas we’d been wandering around fell into the general ‘Fort’ district, adjacent to Pettah. The Cinnamon Gardens are also a bit misleading. I was expecting an actual cinnamon plantation or botanical experience of some sort, but it turns out that it’s just a fancy suburb named for the cinnamon groves that were there beforehand, when the area was established.
We did a bit more shopping and stopped at a few of the more interesting temples to grab a snap, especially the pretty pagoda on the lake next to the Botanical Gardens (which were literally that, not like the cinnamon story) with the ‘Treasure of Truth’ and wishing pond. But really, Colombo is just a city, so we’d had enough of driving around and got to the airport early for a relaxed check in for our flight to Maldives.