Tuesday, 27 March 2012

My Sri Lanka: Negombo

From Colombo, its a 30 km road trip to Negombo (Nigambu to the locals). Incredibly, we made it there in about an hour by a three-wheeler! Negotiating the traffic congestion in Colombo was a clinch for our driver - he changed lanes all the time! Then he sped all the way to Negombo, once being stopped (and fined 500 Rupees) by police for a traffic violation (wrong turn, he told us). Anyway he got us to our destination - the Golden Star Hotel at Lewis Place - after asking for directions quite a number of times.

The three-wheeler that got us to Negombo (CNB 2012)

The Golden Star Hotel (CNB 2012)

Nelli (a local herbal drink) is served at the poolside (CNB 2012)

We arrived in the late afternoon and at around 6.15 pm, experienced another beautiful technicolour Sri Lankan sunset on a lovely stretch of beach, with swaying palms and friendly locals.

The beautiful technicolour Negombo sunset (CNB 2012)

A sun worshipper (CNB 2012)

Friendly but shy locals on the beach (CNB 2012)

No prizes for guessing who! (MB 2012)

That night, we were lucky because dinner was a themed affair. It was ... 'Sri Lankan Night', so the food and music was truly local.

Musicians in batik (CNB 2012)

Thosai with sambols, yellow rice & fish curry (CNB 2012)

Spices of Sri Lanka (CNB 2012)

Negombo, a charming fishing village cum coastal town, is much nearer than Colombo to the Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake. So if you fly into Sri Lanka late at night, or like us, have to take a very early morning flight out, then staying in Negombo is a good thing.

15-21 March 2012

Monday, 26 March 2012

My Sri Lanka: On the Road to the South

After Colombo, we went on a road trip down to the southern beaches, in our quest to find Sri Lanka's iconic stilt fishermen. The south coast was highly damaged by the 2004 tsunami, but international aid has rebuilt most of the affected areas. The railway tracks that hugged the coast are being rebuilt and the trains are expected to run again when completed.

Our first stop was the Kosgoda Spice and Herbal Garden where spice, herbal and medicinal plants used in Ayurvedic medicines were pointed out to us. Most were familiar, and the spice tea we were served was much appreciated. One teaspoonful of spice tea contains cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and coriander with hill country tea. Natural vanilla oil sweetens it slightly. This spice tea is supposed to 'stimulate the body ... effective against phlegmatic diseases and stomach disorders'.

A very stimulating cup of spice tea (CNB 2012)

At Balapitiya, we went on a two hour cruise on the Madu Ganga. This International Ramsar wetland site has a network of lagoons and 64 islands. We were able to observe the interesting fauna (eagles, kingfishers, iguanas, monkeys, even jellyfish!) and flora along the river, and the human activities carried on there. At Cinnamon Island, we saw how the cinnamon tree was grown and the leaves and branches harvested. A tilapia rearing project was carried out at a floating farm.

The mangrove trees of the Madu Ganga (CNB 2012)

'Processing' a cinnamon branch on Cinnamon Island (CNB 2012)

One of numerous blue jelly fishes found at this Ramsar site -
quite surreal! (CNB 2012)

Among the mangroves (Saman 2012)

For lunch we stopped by the beach resort of Hikkaduwa for a seafood meal at Mamas Coral Beach Restaurant. Here at Hikkaduwa there are glass-bottom boats that take visitors out to see the coral gardens, the fishes and sea turtles at the marine sanctuary in the Indian Ocean. But I was outvoted about going out on the boat because it was far too hot then under the blazing sun.

We stopped by the 16th century Dutch fortifications at Galle. But unfortunately it was a very, very short stop and we definitely missed a lot of the much touted 'whimsical, medieval European town unexpectedly deposited in the tropics'.

Boys sharing their lunch packets at the Dutch fort, overlooking the
Galle International Cricket Stadium (CNB 2012)

We reached Weligama rather too late to see any stilt fishermen, but were just in time to catch a beautiful sunset - only it was on the wrong side of our accomodation, the Bay Beach Weligama. Anyway this meant that we got a nice sunrise over the bay instead.

Sunrise over Weligama Bay (CNB 2012)

Early morning fish stall at Weligama (CNB 2012)

Then we set out early (before breakfast) to the sites where stilt fishing was carried on. At the first site we found only the stilts! Then further on there was a lone fisherman, and then there were another two at Ahangama. Note: As soon as the fishermen realise that they are being photographed, they very, very quickly get down from their stilts and approach you for (Rupee) handouts. Anyway, the photo opp is ... priceless!

Stilts without fishermen! (CNB 2012)

A lone stilt fisherman (CNB 2012)

Two stilt fishermen at Ahangama (CNB 2012)

On our way back to Colombo, about 7 km inland off Galle Road at Mitiyagoda, we visited a moonstone mine. Very 18th century, these mines are 6/7 metre long muddy holes. The moonstone is a rather unique semi precious stone found in Sri Lanka and have been mined here in the forests forever. The process of filtering, cutting and polishing the stones can be observed and you can then buy these beautiful stones in the on-site shop.

Working a moonstone mine (CNB 2012)

Polished moonstones (CNB 2012)

We also visited the Sea Turtle Project, a turtle nursery and sanctuary at Bentota. There were Green, Ridley as well as Hawksbill turtles; some only a day old, some older and some that were 'handicapped' (blind, minus one or two limbs, also a rare albino).

The little turtles at Bentota (CNB 2012)

The trip to the south and back (to Colombo) was indeed eventful, complemented with the many picturesque golden beaches and swaying coconut palms by the turquoise blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

Coconut palms by the coast (CNB 2012)

15-21 March 2012

Thursday, 22 March 2012

My Sri Lanka: Colombo

Colombo was the capital of Ceylon from 1815 till 1982, but still remains the commercial capital of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka's colonial legacies are still very much intact in the many buildings found in Colombo, although spanking new skyscrapers are also on the rise as the city spreads north and south along the coast. Among the grand old structures include the two hotels we stayed in while there - the Grand Oriental Hotel and the Galle Face Hotel.

The Grand Oriental Hotel (CNB 2012)

Ms Puenima, Mr Mohamad, Mr Kasun & Mr Kaldera of the
front office, Grand Oriental Hotel (CNB 2012)

The Grand Oriental Hotel ('A Legend yet Living') in York Street in Fort (Col 1) overlooks the harbour. This was the finest hotel in Colombo 100 years ago, but sadly no longer. York Street has some grand Victorian shop-houses which offer a glimpse of British-era Colombo. Unfortunately, they looked neglected and abandoned. Fort was created by flooding surrounding wetlands when the breakwaters were built in the 1870s. Bomb attacks by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in the Fort area caused many major businesses to disperse across the city. The Fort Railway Station (actually in Pettah, not Fort) is of course another old colonial structure. Pity we were not taking any train from here to Kandy or Nuwara Eliya.

A colonial building that houses the Harbour
Stop Restaurant (CNB 2012)

Victorian Cargills on York Street (CNB 2012)

Fort Railway Station in Pettah (CNB 2012)

The Galle Face Hotel overlooks the Indian Ocean on one side and the Galle Face Green on its front. It is the oldest hotel east of the Suez, and clearly in a very good location. As the sun sets, many Sri Lankan families, couples, and youngsters stroll along the oceanfront Galle Face Walk. Little kiosks along the Green offer drinks and 'short eats' in the form of kottu rotti, prawn fritters, etc.

Galle Face Hotel plaque (CNB 2012)

93 year old Mr Kuttan - iconic doorman of the Galle Face Hotel.
Picture taken from postcard/cover of a book (CNB 2012)

63 year old Mr MB - guest at the Galle Face Hotel (CNB 2012)

At the end of Galle Face Walk is the Old Parliament/new Presidential Secretariat, a handsome building with statues of important statesmen on the lawn. The historic Fort Lighthouse Clock Tower (1910) is little distance further down in the city.

Schoolgirls at Galle Face Walk (CNB 2012)

The old Parliament/new Presidential Secretariat (CNB 2012)

Dusk falls on Fort, Colombo. The Fort Lighthouse clock tower
is at the far left, a mosque on the right (CNB 2012) 

The National Museum of Colombo was established in 1877 when Sri Lanka was a British colony. It is located in the Viharamahadevi Park, Cinnamon Gardens (Col 7). We walked through Sri Lankan history (unfortunately very quickly, I must say) in this museum. A couple of days after we visited the museum, I read in the local newspapers, the Daily Mirror and The Island, that it was closed indefinitely, because thieves had broken into the museum and stolen millions of rupees worth of artifacts!

School children at the National Museum (CNB 2012)

Pettah (Col 11) and Fort (Col 1) are the oldest parts of Colombo and the market activity here is sometimes at a riotous level. Everything can be found and haggled for here in crowded Pettah, but the morning we were there, surprisingly, we seemed to be the only foreigners around!

M & Mr Nur Mohamed, a Pettah salesman (CNB 2012)

Pettah side street (CNB 2012)

The only temple we visited in Colombo was the 19th century Gangaramaya Temple. Apart from the significant Buddha statues, I was surprised to see many huge statues of the goddess Kuan Yin. The temple was a hive of activity because, other than orange-robed monks, it has a museum as well as a resident elephant. And a throng of tourists with cameras and local school teachers with their pupils in tow!

At the Seema Malakaya on an island in Beira Lake (MB 2012)

Resident elephant of Gangaramaya Temple (CNB 2012)

An obliging monk (CNB 2012)

Building detail at Gangaramaya (CNB 2012)

We stopped by the Independance Pavillion and noted that the locals also visited it in droves, the school children in their white uniforms and the women in colourful saris.

Colourful saris at the Independance Pavillion (CNB 2012)

Another colonial era hotel is the Mt Lavinia Hotel, in the old beach resort of Mt Lavinia, actually a suburb of Colombo. For tea we had ice cream and cold drinks instead, because it was a really hot afternoon when we were there.

The Mt Lavinia Hotel facade and doorman (CNB 2012)

Chillin' at the Mt Lavinia Hotel terrace (2012)

We had our first taste of  Sri Lankan food in Colombo. It is akin to some of our local dishes (of Indian origin) - among others, there are 'hoppers' or appa (apom/apam in Malaysia), 'string hoppers' (equals our putu mayam, except they eat it with curries and sambols). These local food appear on the breakfast menus of the hotels, so I tried all they had to offer, forgoing my usual continental fare. Once, for lunch at the Harbour Stop Restaurant, I tried the banana leaf wrapped rice meal called lamprais. It was devillishly pedas! Then I recognised on menus that any dish that is 'devilled' is really chilli hot!

We walked a lot in Colombo, the best thing to do to discover a city. But sometimes we opted for the three-wheeler taxis that ply the streets. The most 'memorable' ride in one of these was a 30 km trip to Negombo!

15-21 March 2012

My Sri Lanka

An ad at the Airport of the iconic stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka

Ayubowan (May you live long)!

I am just back from a week-long stay in Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. It was an interesting time on this 'island of serendipity', at the tail end of the tourist season (December-March). Together with M and Dr JS & wife, we explored Colombo (Kalambu to the locals), now no longer the administrative capital which moved to Sri Jeyawardenapura. But it remains the commercial capital, and largest city in Sri Lanka.

We also went to the southern beaches in search of the iconic stilt fishermen of Weligama. Along the way, the effects of the tsunami in 2004 are obvious, especially the railway tracks that used to hug the coast and are now slowly being reconstructed. We stopped at historically Dutch Galle and in Balapitiya, went on a river cruise on the Madu Ganga/River, an International Ramsar wetland site. Other stops were in Hikkaduwa, Bentota, and Mitiyagoda. The day before our flight back to Malaysia, we stayed at Negombo (Nigambu), a seaside town/fishing village, which is much nearer to the Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayake than Colombo.

The 26 year civil war has ended in 2009, but there is very visible military and police presence, especially along the road from the airport to Colombo and at significant buildings. We stayed away from the North and East for now and had the Central hill country in mind. A train journey there would have been fantastic, but in the end, due to time constraints, we had to forgo Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, and the golden valley of tea. Maybe next time! But this being the 'island of serendipity', Kandy came to us in the form of Kandyan dancers at a wedding reception in the Galle Face Hotel! It was just fantastic!

Kandyan dancers at Galle Face Hotel (CNB 2012)

When in Sri Lanka ...

Drink Ceylon tea - it is reputed to be the best in the world! Don't forget to buy bagfuls to bring home.

Ceylon tea - best 'souvenir' to bring back for family & friends
(CNB 2012)

Also drink thambili or king coconut water - it is quite refreshing, really!

A shopkeeper prepares  a king coconut for a drinking pleasure
(CNB 2012)

Eat 'hoppers' (appa/appam) with sambols.

A hopper/appa/appam (CNB 2012)

Ride a three-wheeler around Colombo (and beyond).

The ubiquitous three-wheeler taxi (CNB 2012)

Definitely enjoy the beautiful technicolour sunsets!

The sunset at Galle Face Walk, Colombo (CNB 2012)

15-21 March 2012