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From Colombo to Galle: A Sri Lankan travel revival
Sri Lanka has overcome 25 years of war and a devastating tsunami and is once again a terrific spot for those in search of some subcontinental wildlife, cuisine and a welcoming culture
The palm-tree pattered isle formerly known as Ceylon is recovering from its 25-year civil war and the devastating 2004 tsunami. Plenty of blood has been shed and oceans have been cried over the tear-shaped island of Sri Lanka. But now it is experiencing a resurgence, and nowhere is this more visible than in its capital Colombo and on the road to Galle.
Not in the travel brochures
Weaving south from Colombo to Galle, the roadside is littered with the hollowed-out shells of buildings, grave sites, memorials and photos of the tsunami victims. A family huddles around a tombstone and a teenage girl in a pink shiny dress stands forlorn. These are not the images in the travel brochures. Nor are they the only scenarios witnessed. On arrival at the airport, fellow passengers pile into vans with their luggage and fridges. As odd as this sounds, the airport is a duty-free haven for white goods and demonstrates Sri Lanka’s industrious side, a strength that propels them forward and beyond their hardships.
The power of outages
Fridges aside, maintaining cool temperatures is a battle due to regular power outages. There is a brand of bottled water called “Cold” but simply willing the water to chill isn’t enough in the insane humidity. Sweaty tourists battle with greasy hair and skin, especially after an Ayurveda treatment using gallons of massage oil. Add a ride in a breezy tuktuk and its a beauty crisis. Throw out that mirror and flop down on a beach instead; Unawatuna Beach in Galle is always a popular choice.
For the culture vultures
Trek to the Cultural Triangle spanning from Kandy (116 kilometers north east from Colombo) to Polonnaruwa (140 kilometers northeast of Kandy) to Anuradhapura (100 kilometers northwest of Polonnaruwa). There is a round ticket that can be purchased at the town museums or entrances of these sites or at the Colombo Cultural Triangle Office (11 Independence Ave, Colombo, tel. 011 267 9921) or the Cultural Triangle Office in Kandy (Palace St, tel. 222 2661). The World Heritage City and the hill-top capital of the Central Province is Kandy and hosts the Tooth Relic of the Buddha in the Sri Dalada Maligawa, the holiest shrine in the Buddhist world. Sri Lanka’s ancient capital Anuradhapura reveals Sri Lanka’s former glory with its massive dagobas (domes), the sacred Bo Tree (the world’s oldest recorded surviving tree) and architecture dating back to the third century B.C.
The grand medieval capital of Polonnaruwa showcases the well-preserved ruins of palaces, imposing Buddha sculptures, monastic complexes, and a massive artificial lake called the Sea of Parakama. Sixty-seven kilometers east of Polonnaruwa is the sacred complex of Sigirya, an enormous rock that rises 200 meters with palace ruins on the top and luscious gardens at its foot. Heading 116 kilometers south of Colombo is the fort town of Galle, famous for its Dutch-colonial buildings, artisans, and its tres chic reputation. Unscathed by the tsunami and with continued foreign investment, the fort houses some of the country’s most prized real estate.
The mother of nature
Those seeking an interlude with Mother Nature’s creatures have a plethora of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries hosting the illusive leopard. However, there are regular sightings of elephants, monkeys, squirrels and butterflies throughout any journey on the island, and on occasion hedgehogs can be seen walking on leads by their owners.
On the road from Colombo to Kandy is the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, which is a breeding ground and orphanage for wild elephants, and plays host to the largest herd of captive elephants in the world.
- Yala National Park, Monaragala, Kataragama
- Kosgoda Turtle Conservation Project, Galle Rd (beachside) just north of Kosgoda, tel: 091 226 4567
- Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, Rambukkana Rd, Kegalle
Sweet, sweet foodie goodness
This land of tea bushes offers a cuisine so fresh and tasty that foodies from all over the world are clambering to learn how to reproduce the curries in their own kitchens. Cooking schools demonstrate the difference between Indian and Sri Lankan curries, which have a larger spice base and use subtler cooking methods. As quoted by chef Peter Kuruvita of Flying Fish fame in Sydney, “To eat Sri Lankan food with utensils is like making love through a straw.” Learning how to eat with only your right hand is a practiced craft but once mastered, you won't want to go back.
- The Green Cabin (authentic Sri Lankan cuisine at an absolute bargain), 453 Galle Road, Colombo tel: 011 258 5511 or 011 259 1841
- The Gallery Cafe (recommendation: Black Pork Curry), 2 Alfred House Rd, Colombo, tel: 011 258 2162, www.paradiseroadsl.com
- The Fort Printers (fine chic dining), 39 Pedlar St, Galle Fort, Galle, tel: 091 224 7977
- Mama’s Galle Fort Roof Cafe (casually tasty with lovely views), 76 Leyn Baan St, Galle Fort, tel: 091 222 6415
- Dream House (Italian food at its best at local prices) Unawatuna Beach, Galle, tel: 091 438 1541
- Karuna at Sonja’s Health Food Restaurant, Unawatuna Beach Road, Unawatuna, Galle, tel: 077 961 5310
- Many hotels & guesthouses run culinary shopping and cooking tours
Shopping Sri Lanka
- Paradise Road Gallery, 2 Alfred House Rd, Colombo 3, tel: 011 258 2162, www.paradiseroadsl.com
- Barefoot Gallery, 704 Galle Rd, Colombo 3, tel: 011 258 0114, www.barefootceylon.com and 41 Pedlar St, Galle, tel: 091 222 6299
- Odels Department Store, 5 Alexandra Place, Colombo 7, tel: 011 268 2712, www.odel.uk
- Exotic Roots, 32 Church St, Galle, tel: 091 224 5454
- Arts & Craftexport, 228/2 D. S. Senanayake Veediya, Kandy, tel: 081 222 2644
Capital gains in Colombo
Despite the unsavory stigma associated with Colombo, its worth looking beyond its woeful traffic, strong military presence and rumored corruption as the capital is brimming with culture. Offering plentiful dining options, it’s mandatory to have high tea or a cocktail at sunset at the Galle Face Hotel. Across the road, the Galle Face Green heaves at dusk over the weekends as kites frolic in the breeze. Shopping zealots will notice the mall culture hasn’t caught on -- yet. Department stores, galleries, and gem shops are bountiful and the adventurous shopper will lose themselves in the Pettah Bazaar.
Despite Sri Lanka’s petite size, traveling by road is slow due to poor road conditions, invigorating hairpin turns and dodging the odd cow or two. There are trains between Colombo, Kandy, Anuradhapura and Galle and the planned domestic flight schedule and new highways will reduce some traffic congestion and traveling times, as well as opening up areas that haven’t been available to tourists until very recently, like Jaffna, Trincomalee, and their surrounds.
Sri Lanka can be visited year round and the monsoon season hits the south from June to October and from December to April in the north. Regardless of the time of year, the weather is hot and steamy, the sun is harsh and never go anywhere without water and sunscreen.
Where to stay
Accommodation can be hit and miss with refurbishments often still in the planning stages and quirky plumbing is common. With architects opting for tropical modernism, air conditioners battle with the humidity in rooms that are at one with nature. Those flush with cash will flock to boutique hotels while those on a leaner budget should opt for guest houses, which also usually serve authentic Sri Lankan cuisine.
- Galle Face Hotel, Galle Rd, Colombo, tel: 011 254 1010, www.gallefacehotel.com
- Hilton Colombo Residence, (serviced apartments) Union Place, Colombo 2, tel: 0 11 230 0613
- Kandy House, Ratwatte Walauwa, Amunugama, Gunnepana, tel: 081 492 1394 www.srilankainstyle.com
- Serendip Stone Bungalow, Natterampota, Kundasale, Kandy, tel: 071 6820 700
- Giritale: Deer Park, Giritale, Polonnaruwa, tel: 027 224 6272/6432/7685/7686 www.coloursofangsana.com
- Amangalla, cnr Middle & Church St, Galle Fort, tel: 091 223 3388, www.amanresorts.com.au
- Thaproban Beach House, Thambapanni Leisure, Unawatuna Beach, Galle, tel: 091 438 1722 www.thambapannileisure.com
- Secret Garden Villa, Unawatuna, Galle, tel: 091 224 1857, www.secretgardenunawatuna.com
- Villa Araliya, 154/10 Porutota Rd, Negombo, tel: 031 227 7650
Contact www.go-lanka.com for more accommodation options.