India and Sri Lanka - Part 1
Background for trip:
We might never have ventured to the Indian sub-continent, had not our daughter Amy decided back in 2016 to accept a teaching contract in Chennai (formerly Madras) at an American international school.
Like many people, travel to India had always been thought to be too hard on account of the cultural and social divide that exists amongst the peoples within the Republic of India and especially the notorious outbreaks of violent religious intolerance. Despite its rampant economic and industrialised growth, many of India's cultural practices were seen as too confronting for a comfortable 'look and learn' holiday. But we decided to give it a go anyway.
The preparations for this trip were far more exhaustive than those taken for previous travels. Protocols for Indian visas, booking train travel and securing accommodation three months ahead proved quite taxing.
Then our local GP was showering us in scripts for various nasty conditions know to inhabit the southern parts of India eg malaria, cholera. Japanese Encephalitis as well as Delhi Belly, tropical ulcers etc – I think it cost close to $1000 for Maria and I for various inoculations and drugs.....we subsequently failed to catch anything more serious than a head cold.
Once we had confirmed our intention of travelling, daughter Amy was quick to submit a list of items she would like brought over to her. These mainly consisted of food items unobtainable in Chennai where she lives; viz: European herb seeds, salami, anchovies, Regiano Parmesan cheese. However, it was the decision to transport her Baby Q Weber barbecue which caused the greatest logistical issues for our final pack up within our 30kg limits.- I eventually dismantled it and packed it up in hessian potato sacks purloined from the local farmers market months before.
This was initially determined by the climatic realities of Northern and Southern India which dictates that only the southern portion should be attempted over Australia’s summer months, while the northern regions should be explored during our winter months. Then we consulted friends who had travelled these parts some years earlier and then I started my own research with a couple of guidebooks and online blogs. It proved deceptively easy to identify and book three star accommodation in all our nominated areas. However, we later learnt that centrally located three star accommodation in India was no where near as good as that found in SE Asia; where tourism is more readily developed. Generally, Indian 3 star accommodation was characterised by small room sizes, dodgy plumbing, windows with no view, lack of a desk, only one chair, poor lighting, nowhere to rest heavy suitcases and just forget the inclusion of a bar fridge.
The other parameter that had to be taken into account was the sheer size of the country which took us little by surprise eg . Chennai is approximately 1300kms from Mumbai, necessitating the first of a number of internal plane journeys. The trains also travelled quite slowly which resulted in a greater percentage of our time spent travelling rather than sightseeing.
At any rate we have planned 2-3 day stops in most of our nominated areas to visit. Once mastered, the mammoth the online timetable of the Indian Railway Train Commission (www.irctc.co.in/eticketing) proved an invaluable planning tool and their prices were ridiculously cheap if one staid with 2nd class A/C seats/sleeping berths.
We confronted our first hurdle at the Singapore Airlines gate where our luggage just scraped in under the 60kg combined limit. We were queried about the Bar B Cue but were able to produce a copy of an emailed approval obtained months prior. Their only concern then appeared to be that it was not a new piece of equipment on which duty would have to be paid on arrival in India. My concern then centred on the frozen foodstuffs we had buried deep in one of our cases… would it remain frozen all the way to Chennai – fortunately it did.
We opted for a night flight out of Brisbane to Singapore and this went off without a hitch. However, 6 hour Changi airport stopover was a real drag. It closed down for about 3 hours between 0230hrs and 0430hrs and the price of beers at Harrys Bay are now a monstrous $19/pint.
Our next leg with Silk Air (Singapore Airlines regional and budget subsidiary airline) was in a much smaller plane but with only 3 cabin crew it was hard to get any service. The flight took 4 hours with most of it over the Indian Ocean. Our descent down into Chennai took nearly 45 mins all of it in heavy cloud. On arrival we had to walk nearly a kilometre to the immigration hall (with no toilets) where there were only two desks operating but then it was time to confront Indian Customs and declare our cargo of (hopefully) frozen food stuffs – we had practised an agreed speech for them about bringing in a few trifles for our daughter’s surprise birthday party in a couple of days’ time.
Alas, we were not given the opportunity to give our spiel as all Customs staff appeared to be having their lunch break or smoko and providing we were not carrying any of the offensive weapons displayed on their large posters they were not interested in us – so we just walked through. Amy’s partner John was waiting for us as we emerged along with their car and driver Arul. Of more importance however was the balmy weather of 27C temp mixed with 120% humidity.
We quickly drove home to their luxurious and spacious apartment – 3 bedrooms, 3 bathroom, multi-balconied and large living dining areas with A/Cs and fans in all rooms. They occupy the top floor of a four floor building in a quiet suburb just 1km back from Elliot’s Beach on the Bay of Bengal and probably 12kms south of the CBD of a city.
Amy & John's Apartment in Besant Nagar
Chennai is India's sixth largest city with about 10 million population. It is the centre for a lot of Indian heavy manufacturing - especially vehicles, ship building and railway rolling stock. It is a sprawling city with no geographically recognised centre.
After a furtive inspection of our bags we discovered that all of our frozen deli items had arrived still pretty much frozen or at least very cold, including the Duck Confit I had prepared for them - as a special gift! We subsequently had a lengthy ‘welcome to country’ drink on the apartment balcony prior to Amy’s arrival home from school at about 1630hrs……a couple of very nice Kingfisher Beers which I discovered later are 6%. We later unfortunately made some pre-emptive moves to assemble the Baby Weber and bloody well broke it....I could have wept - it took weeks to ascertain the broken parts were not available in India but John and driver Arul were able to source a replacement model from a franchise in New Delhi.
The Baby Weber awaits unpacking by the 'very excited' John & John Barbecue Installation Team
Our first full day in Chennai Amy had booked us all into a walking tour of the two most visited attractions in Chennai the Kapaleeshwarer Temple and the not so interesting San Thome (Thomas) Cathedral. The walking (www.storytrails.in) tour proved a most informative and interesting three hours with our guide Vijay who provided us with an excellent potted history of Hinduism.
Main gate to the Kapaleeshwarer Temple and later lunching on a classical South Indian dish of Masala Dosa
That night we accompanied Amy to her school’s Xmas party – quite a flash affair with probably over 100 guests being hosted by the school’s urbane American principal and CEO – excellent turkey buffet and bar facilities. The night climaxed with the younger staff members breaking out and practising their wild Bollywood dancing techniques and moves.
The next day John and Amy took their own car for a drive south to Mamallapuram which hosts the World Heritage listed temples and carvings dating from the 7th century. These amazing features were all carved out of the granite boulders’ from the top down and were only unearthed by the British from the encroaching beach sands some two hundred years ago. These edifices (the Five Rathas) were never actually used as temples but instead were representations of vehicles or chariots for use by the Hindu gods.
We later went to the Radisson Hotel for Amy’s birthday lunch of assorted seafood. Excellent location overlooking the wild surf. We had jumbo prawns, a whole baked snapper, calamari plus a few glasses of very expensive wine. We then decided to give some of the Duck Confit a try at a rather informal dinner party.
Amy's Birthday present - Cafe' Table & Chairs for her balcony
It turned out totally delicious and we were able to crisp up the skin and accompany them with some sliced roasted potatoes also cooked in duck fat and some salad prepared by Amy which incorporated some quinoa, pomegranate and assorted salad leaves.
A rather late and rollicking night.
We had use of Amy and John’s car and driver for the day and he took us around the old Fort area developed initially by the East India Company in the early 1600s. Also included in the Fort area was the very old Anglican church St Mary’s with its wicker pews and memorial flagstones commemorating over 300 years of devout attendance by the colonial rulers and their families.
We then looked over Main Beach from the huge Madras Lighthouse which I volunteered to climb while the rest took the elevator – I discovered it was 9 stories high – very good exercise and the views are spectacular. The vast expanse of the beach is variously occupied by a residential slum and ad hoc fast food and drink stalls which service the area all day but especially at night. The 12km long beach (2nd largest city beach in the world) owes its existence to the construction of the Madras Harbour in the late 19th C which gradually deposited the beach sands one sees today. The sea once lapped the walls of the famous Fort at Georgetown.
Marina Beach and the public housing built to accommodate reluctant residents of the old fishing village
The heat haze visible in these photos of Marina Beach appears to be a permanent feature in Chennai and for most of the rest of Southern India. The ruinous beachscape is separated by a broad road which services a series of gleaming white-washed Indian Government administration buildings plus the red brick Madras University. The impressive colonial infrastructure buildings housing the Central Railway Station, Post Office, High Court, Customs Building etc were very reminiscent of similar buildings we saw in Yangon in Myanmar.
The following day we were able to utilise Arul and the car to make an early morning assault on the old quarter of town known variously as Georgetown or Black Town (white town was the term used by the locals for the Fort) Georgetown is a maze of tiny streets bristling with retailers but mostly wholesalers of every description usually lumped together according to the particular type of goods traded. The tiny narrow streets are jammed with human porters, plus the usual cacophony of motorbikes, Tuk Tuks and large delivery trucks making it very difficult and confronting for casual tourists such as ourselves.
We also visited St Thomas’s Mount an old monastery on a high hill which provided excellent views of the sprawling city of Chennai and the airport. We began to realise what an important asset Arul was to John and Amy: not only was he a expert driver in the otherwise chaotic traffic of Chennai but also an on tap "Google Map" who knew the city and its surrounds intimately and could take you to wherever to look at and or purchase anything one wanted....worth his weight in gold!....given that he is of quite slim build and the price of gold has slipped a bit.
On another occasion, Arul took us to the DakshinaChitra (www.dakshinachitra.net) some 25 kms south of the city which is a living history museum dedicated go the preservation of Tamil and other south Indian culture and crafts as well as architecture. The museum proved extremely interesting and we spent over two and a half hours inspecting its various exhibits – not even the odd rain shower could dampen our interest.
Prior to its opening Arul took us to a local food chain café where we ate a delicious 'Baby Tiffin' breakfast which includes a small Dosa Masala, Idly, some Sambals and spicy dips and a small coffee all for around $2 each
Afterwards we all went to a beach front resort for lunch where I indulged myself with another Chicken Biryani. Now in Southern India they are not too particular how meat is used in dishes and it is quite the norm to find it presented as roughly chopped and still attached to the bone. In up-market restaurants you will find the menus include the same dishes but qualified by the word (boneless) for which you have to pay a higher price. I should also mention here that the little beef that is sold is mainly buffalo while the mutton is invariably goat. Both very lean alternatives which should only be ordered if accompanied by 'a spicy gravy'.
With Amy at last commencing her short school break, we all flew to Sri Lanka for the start of our Xmas holiday. Our flight was mysteriously delayed for 30 minutes but otherwise we enjoyed our short 90 minute flight with Air Sri Lanka in a brand new Airbus A330-800. The clearance through Immigration proved a bit slow but we were fortunate in having already secured Visas in Australia rather than have to join the long queues for those applying for them there at the airport
Once out we spent some time shopping in the better Duty Free offerings than were on offer in Chennai and we then sailed through customs to meet our substitute driver whom had been sent to meet us and take us down to Mirissa. Our contracted driver was unfortunately unable to make this initial journey with us and had instead sent one of his friends who we later learned lacked adequate English speaking skills and had had no prior tour guide experience.
The trip down was uneventful and we all marvelled at the generally clean and kempt appearance of the countryside and towns we passed through – a marked contrast to that found in Tamil Nadu.
We decided to pause for a late lunch at the most renowned surfing/tourist beach town on the South coast Unawatuna and found it a little over done - lots of westerners carrying surfboards and loud music emanating from the bars etc
On arrival atMirissa some 30kms further East we knew we had made the right choice for our Xmas beach holiday – its certainly more laid back and quiet – there are some quite large resorts being built but at present its all still pretty low key. Amy had booked us into a two bedroom (Moon Villa) cottage via Airbnb which was attached to a small spa resort called Secret Garden – it was a 5 minute walk back from the beach set amongst tropical gardens and local farms beautiful – we had monkeys, squirrels, peacocks pass through our private garden each day. In addition to the two bedrooms we had two bathrooms, small kitchen and verandas all round….so we were able to cook basic meals for breakfast. The villa had been designed by the owner; a Dutch architect
The beaches at Mirissa were deep shelving, clean albeit with some rocky outcrops. While we were there, there was at least one metre waves making it pretty safe for swimming which we did most days. The beach is lined with fairly low key accommodation all with beach front restaurants and bars. Fresh iced Seafood was dragged out each evening to entice customers for a quick bite. The town itself has a few boutiques to interest punters but on the whole its all pretty laid back. Not so the larger town 10kms further east of Matara which was a hectic affair as we found out on our motor scooter one day.
The other town which appeared pleasant enough was Weligama whose beaches were crowded with surfing schools and the odd bar. It was here that I was pulled over by the local police and asked whether I had a licence to drive our scooter. They seemed quite disappointed when I produced my International drivers Licence - we learned that very few tourists bother to get one and are summarily fined quite regularly....it was the same story in Cambodia
Our Villa and Gardens
While unpacking on our first night, I realised that I had left behind my all-important bag of electronic equipment which included all the chargers for the cameras and the computer – we realised we would have to seriously ration the use of both. It was then decided that we would arrange for Amy and John’s driver Arul to arrange for it to be delivered to us via personal courier – this meant delivery to Kandy on 28 December as the Xmas holidays prevented any earlier delivery.....Hooray for Arul - yet again!
Maria and Amy arranged a massage next door and afterwards John insisted we catch a local bus to the old historic town of Galle (pronounced Gaul) some 55kms away - this was an unnecessarily arduous trip most of it standing with my nose under someone's perspiring armpit. Galle was crawling with tourists (including lots of Americans). While the old Dutch colonial buildings have been beautifully preserved and or renovated, it tended to be a little over commercialised. We took a Tuk Tuk home which was much slower but more restful than the bus.....one really needs the best part of a day to properly appreciate and enjoy Galle....we did not do it justice.
On Xmas eve we went exploring on our scooters the only traffic hazard being the "hooligan" bus drivers who drive up and down the beach road at great speed with scant regard for anything or one not commuting with them. Amy and John discovered a nice viewing point for sunset that evening and we went up there for Xmas Eve drinks and nibbles.
Xmas morning was celebrated at the Villa with champagne and a cooked breakfast it was then down to the beach for a swim and then to the Zephyr Restaurant & Bar for a Xmas lunch of Spicy Lamb Shanks plus some more drinks. Most of the bars had organised special Xmas festivities the night before in accordance with the dominant European visitors' practice.
On Boxing Day we had booked to go on a 4hr Blue Whale watching charter with Raj (www.rajandthewhales.com) Whale Watching @A$100/hd which proved to be one of the highlights of our trip to Sri Lanka. We saw plenty of pods of these giants of the oceans - the largest mammal on earth. We also saw plenty of Pilot Whales, a Manta Ray leap into the air and a lot of Dolphins.
We said a reluctant farewell to Mirissa for the drive north to Ella some 1900m above sea level which is home to Sri Lankans tea plantations mostly established during the early British colonial period in the mid 1800s following the success they had had with growing tea in India. They also brought across the Tamil population who were already trained in the industry. Today most of the tea workers are Tamils. And they make up almost 15% of the total Sri Lankan population.
On route we stopped at one of Sri Lanka’s foremost nature reserves Uda Walawe National Park with over 6000 acres of land protecting some of the largest wild herds of Elephants and Buffalo. We saw plenty as well as the odd crocodile.
Visitors to this park need to be warned that outside the main entrance gate one must run a gauntlet through a cluster of rogue 4x4 jeep safari vehicles with touts who lie in wait for the unsuspecting traveller with offers of unique 3hr tours of every animal known to man. All seemingly at the same price of Rs4000 (A$35) per head. The price is supposed to cover the cost of a guide. Unfortunately we got done by a betel nut chewing driver who owned the least roadworthy vehicle there and who initially tried to take us out without a guide – we objected and he went back and grabbed one.
Half way round we alerted him to the fact that he had a flat tyre only to discover his spare was threadbare and he possessed no jack. He eventually persuaded another rogue drivers to stop and loan him a jack. During this mechanical exercise it began to rain and we thought this was the end of us. However, as it turned out, this unscheduled stop later enabled us to come across the highlight of our tour with him.
We were particularly lucky to come across an extended family of elephants where the dominant male was getting ready to mate with one of the females in the herd. His extended penis was indeed something to behold. We also managed to see a number of Chameleons, Buffalo, monkeys, pelicans and a Hornbill. Sri Lanka is blessed with many national parks and we had just stumbled across this one.
The remainder of our trip North to Ella involved a continuous climb up into the clouds and our still temporary driver did his best to negotiate the almost continuous switchbacks while contending with the ever present bully bus drivers and sneaky Tuk Tuk drivers.
We arrived quite late into Ella only to discover that our pre-booked hotel had no record of our booking (the previous manager was blamed). To his credit the new manager scurried around the town to find alternate rooms for us. But it was not until after 7pm that Maria and I had been ensconced in the Highest Ella Guesthouse up an incredibly steep track; that we dared not traverse on our own at night. The stairs were so steep that I feared we would both fall backwards ascending them. Our temporary driver was again instructed to advise the other two who had been found a room in a other hotel of our predicament; but failed to do so . Amy came looking for us and was advised we would not be leaving our eerie that night and that we would all meet up the next morning. The temporary room was a stinking joke, it smelt rank, no fan let alone a/c, no blankets and the shower didn’t work – all for A$40/night – however, as compensation the manager who had found this room for us also came back to us with two servings of spaghetti bolognaise from his other hotel.
The next morning we boarded our train to Kandy through some of best scenic country in Sri Lanka. Luckily we had pre-booked Reserved Second Class seats and these were great - the rest of the carriages were filled with locals who rode like cattle for the entire journey – this journey is a must for any visitor.
We were persuaded (by our absentee Driver) to leave the train at the half way mark at the town of Nuwara Eliya in order to get a better view of some waterfalls and tea plantations - in hindsight I doubt that this was warranted – sure we had lunch overlooking the impressive Ramboda Falls but the winding road out of the clouds down to Kandy was a very long and uncomfortable drive.
We got into Kandy at about 5pm and this time the booking at the Cafe Aroma Inn in the old commercial quarter was OK and located very close to both the lake and to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. Furthermore, my package of re-charge leads was waiting for me – hooray. To celebrate we went in search of a good bar and found the rather olde world Royal British Hotel in King Street which serves a very good G&T as well as Bloody Mary…its upstairs bar reminded us of the Foreign Correspondents Club in Phnom Penh. Kandy is built around a beautiful lake with most of the flash 5 star hotels built on the southern side. Its easy to walk around and has a quaint horse mounted police contingent.
We have still not resolved the issue of our supposedly temporary driver, who constantly lets us down with his lack of English and guiding skills. We have paid his employer US$60/day for this useless individual.
Today we took off for a tour of a batik fashion house which did not inspire. But then we toured the Ceylon Tea Museum some 30 minutes drive away and it proved to be excellent and probably far better value than a visit to any Tea plantation. There was an excellent guided tour around every floor of the converted tea factory with detailed explanations of all the processes involved in tea production, marketing history vide Mr Lipton and its reputed medicinal qualities - very worthwhile.
We then lunched at the Queens Hotel and I had my first Lampries Chicken and Vegetable curry and rice wrapped in a traditional banana leaf – the lunchtime special at A$8.00 was great value.
It was then off to tour the nearby Temple of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha (Dalada Maligawa). There is a very easy to follow historical description of the relic’s origins and of the violence associated with its preservation over the past millennia. However there are strict rules prohibiting photography anywhere near the relic’s present resting place inside the temple.
Temple of the Tooth
Later we did a bit of shopping for tourist trinkets and clothes before retiring first to an establishment simply called The Pub to have a few evening drinks – alas it was opposite a couple of trees laden with the proverbial Noisy (Indian) Minors and these together with street hawkers made the place unbearable and so we decamped back to our old favourite on the balcony of the old Royal British Hotel....here we enjoyed a pretty fair meal….and a bit of an argument about the cultural merits of routinely tipping on the sub-continent even after being slugged a service charge…..we agreed to differ!
Nearing the end of another year and we were off again this time further north to the archeologically significant towns of Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. Enroute near the town of Naula we visited a couple of craft shops where we both purchased some wooden carvings.
We eventually got to the Dambulla Caves where, after slowly clambering up the 350 odd steps, we spent a couple of hours perusing all five caves which house highly decorated Buddhist temples – they date from first century BC and I found them a bit repetitious in the style and format of the Buddha’s presented. However, this was Maria's first real physical challenge and she doggedly climbed all the steps at her own pace with occasional unwarranted urgings from one or other of us..
It was then on to Sigiriya where we had booked into the Sigiriya Amity Home stay. It was a lovely duplexed cottage set in the owners backyard (similar to Gil and June's arrangement down in Tas - but no where near as swish) - we had instant views of Sigiriya Rock from our front verandah.
Our Home Stay and view from back garden
We had to climb this
The owners made us feel most welcome with the wife preparing us a lovely traditional (spiced down) Sri Lanka meal while the husband came across to brief us about the Rock’s history “The 8th Wonder of the World”.
The story behind the building is that King Kassapa (AD477-495) built the palace as a fort to protect him from his brother who had objected to his earlier murder of their father. Following his brother’s eventual victory over him the complex was handed over to Buddhist monks who used it up until 14th Century and then abandoned it. The ruins remained hidden until the late 19th Century when a British archaeologist HCP Bell discovered them in the jungle– its been on the World Heritage register since the 1980s.
The climb Stage 1
The Lion's Gate - start of Stage 2 of the climb
Detail of the Lion's feet from below and looking down on them
Frescoes of celestial nymphs in a cave half way up which, legend has it, distracted many a monk enroute to more pious duties
Making it to the summit of Sigiriya
As did Maria
Remains of the Fort & Palace at the summit
Amy up to some 'monkey business'
As advised by our home stay host, we left for the Rock early (0630hr) so as to avoid the crowds and just as well we did as the crowd was not far behind us. While we were able to make our climb at a leisurely pace on the way down we observed that the line of climbers going up was frequently forced to stop on account of the sheer numbers trying to inch their way up.
The 200m high climb up is certainly not for everyone (Maria made it with some help from us and an official helper but the step treads are usually quite small and quite steep – at one stage you are required to ascend to the next landing via a caged spiral staircase. The early explorers of the site had to construct rope ladders to undertake the climb to the top.
Be assured the walk up is worth it from the point of view of the views, the frescoes in the caves as well for the appreciation of the size of the palace fortress built during the 1st-5thCentury AD – so much infrastructure was built by the king in such a challenging location.
The accompanying museum is also very worthwhile. We were able to reminisce about our epic climb from the sanctuary of our Home stay verandah and watch other tourists crawl over the rock like ants all day long.
PS remember to do it first thing in the morning.
As it was New Year’s Eve we decided to purchase some supplies from a nearby Wine Shop. Unfortunately the demand for wine is non-existent cf the local spirit Arak – easy to buy beer but our present accommodation has no fridge and so we have to rely on a small esky John brought over from Chennai and on the our local hosts – we’ll get by.
Later in the cool of the afternoon our host took us all on a small safari to view the rock from the Northern side across a lake where local villagers were doing their evening ablutions and washing their clothes. It was interesting to learn that these villagers have to erect electric fences to protect their fields from wild elephants.
We attempted to see in the New Year with last French Champagne we had scavenged from a bottle shop in Dambulla earlier that afternoon. Suffice to say we did not see in the New Year due in no small measure to our host’s generous decision to share his bottle of Sri Lankan Arak – a whisky tasting spirit.
Woken at 0700hrs by host to share in traditional Sri Lankan New Year Buddhist traditional ceremony where families heat an earthenware bowl of coconut and cows milk over an open fire until it overflows and kills the fire; then we each had to light a small coconut oil candle…..a nice touch albeit a little early.
During this ceremony our attention was distracted by the sudden appearance of a number of Mongoose running through the garden.
Off to the other archaeological site of Polonnaruwa today – some 45kms to the East of Sigiriya. This ancient city reached its zenith between the 10th and 13th Century but was established initially by monks in about 200BC.
The remains there today are of an entire ancient city and not just a single palace and are spread over an area of 120 hectares and display both Buddhist and Hindu buildings and artefacts At the entrance where you pay your US$25 entry fee you are guided through an excellent museum of the site with extensive annotated exhibits and descriptions of the individual buildings one will see.
As it turned out the Government’s antiquities authorities have been hard at work restoring many of the buildings and also creating speculative models of how some of the major sites would have looked originally.
Amy and Maria at the beautifully designed Lotus Pool
We spent over 3 hours at the area and still were only able to view possibly half of the site. Everywhere, there were monkeys raiding the bins and the contents of Tuk Tuks. Otherwise there were plenty of temple dogs and cattle grazing around the sites.
A 'Cleaner' hard at work clearing up the votive leftovers
New Year’s Day is also a Buddhist Public Holiday and therefore the site was especially busy with locals making votive visits and praying at some of the sites. The full moon coinciding with the first day of the New Year made it an especially auspicious day for the Buddhist people.
We had to drive back in the dark and came across a wild bull elephant walking casually down the highway causing some consternation to the heavy evening traffic. Dined at a local restaurant which turned out quite good –especially their Rotis. But being a religious holiday the proprietor was not supposed to sell alcohol but did agree to sell us the odd bottle of Lion Beer so long as we kept the bottles on the floor beside our table.
We arranged an early start for our final drive back to Colombo some 200kms away and which took about 5hrs - enabling some of our party time to grab some sleep.
On arrival, we booked into the Grand Oriental Hotel in the Fort Area which was once the grand old dame of the city but is now definitely a little down at heel with unreliable A/C, poor plumbing and very old fashioned fittings…a bit like a musty old maiden aunt! However, it still has a grand foyer, giant rooms and corridors and exceptional breakfasts in a room overlooking the harbour. Renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa oversaw the last renovations at the hotel in 1966!
Cargills (Ceylon) Ltd - the legendary Department Store (now near empty)
Amy then had a chat to our driver and explained his short comings as a tour guide and then rather belatedly rang and spoke to our “absentee” driver about paying him the balance of the moneys owed. We had agreed to US$60/day for a car and English speaking driver/guide but only got a driver. They subsequently met up and talked it through sith “absentee Driver” agreeing go take us all to the airport tomorrow after lunch - he subsequently failed to front..
We spent that afternoon doing a little shopping and then grabbed Tuk Tuks to take us the Galle Fort Hotel just down the beach to watch the piper pipe the lowering of the flag at dusk about 1800hrs which is done every night.
This hotel like the O&E in Penang, the Strand in Yangon and Raffles in Singapore has had some mighty famous guests including Somerset Maugham, George Bernard Shaw, Che Guevara, Nehru, Richard Nixon, Tito, Evelyn Waugh, Lloyd George, Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, to name but a few that I can remember.
At sunset the piper did his thing and the flag was lowered and we placed our first order for drinks overlooking the from their terrace restaurant. It was subsequently agreed that we should also dine at this hotel which resulted in a quite expensive seafood meal.
I rose early to take some photographs of Colombo’s colonial architecture and was met by a hotel employee who asked whether I would like to visit Colombo’s largest (Gangaramaya) temple to witness a special celebration. I agreed to go with him and we visited this most lavish temple which also houses a relic of the Buddha’s hair - well why not!
Afterwards he offered to take me to a Gem Dealer who was offering very good prices – once in the door I was subjected to some very heavy pressure to buy something but I managed to escape using the excuse that my wife would want a say in any jewellery that was to be purchased – which was true! And that we would return after breakfast.
The Grand Oriental Hotel certainly put on a massive buffet for breakfast in their 4th floor Harbour room Restaurant overlooking the busy central port – we all over-indulged despite our room rate only entitling us to a continental breakfast.
I later returned to with Maria and we were eventually able to buy her a very nice present for her forthcoming birthday on 19 January. However, her selection was in pink gold and she wanted it changed into white gold which they readily agreed to do and deliver it to us two hours later at our lunchtime venue.
Lunch was had at the special Ministry of Crab Restaurant (we had booked the day before) where we all ordered Chilli Crab and their local Kade (traditional Sri Lankan rustic) Bread to mop up the chilli gravy. To protect one’s clothing all patrons are issued with a full apron and a special shell cracker. The crabs on offer ranger from 500g (A$35 ) to a Crabzilla @ 2000g (A$226)…it was a delightful experience but different spices used from the SE Asian version with which we are all familiar.
When you book here you are only given a two hour time slot and we found to our delight that our slot from 1200-1400 hours was the only lunchtime session permitted to serve alcohol – a very expensive concession for wine lovers.
We then had to scurry back to our hotel, pick up our luggage and go straight to the International Airport 45min drive away. We then fell foul of the check in authorities for not having retained our Indian visas. We explained that they had been taken from us on our initial entry into India – after nearly 30 minutes holding up an increasingly hostile queue they printed copies for us. – on arrival back in India Immigration were aware of our circumstances and merely shrugged saying the Sri Lankan authorities were just a little confused! It certainly put the wind up us.
At any rate we got back to Amy’s at 2100hrs - all a little buggered but agreed that Sri Lanka was a wonderful country which needed more time.
Amy subsequently cobbled together a wonderful small movie clip of our Sri Lankan adventure and, you can access it from the following link Sri Lankan X-Mas Movie
This instalment of our travel blog is taking longer than usual to get completed largely due to the necessity to concentrate on setting up a new home in Brisbane - purchased a week after arriving home. So I have decided to publish the first half now and then slowly work on the second half.
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