Sri Lanka was always going to be tricky. We had first visited with Oona and our good friends Maggie, Takki and Caitlin in 2005 and again in 2006. That first visit was one year on from the Tsunami, the island had been devastated and the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils in the north was bloody, violent and unresolved (not that the resolution, when it came wasn’t equally bloody and violent). At that time tourists were, by and large, staying away.
As we toured around the South, we feel in love, as so many do, with the place and people and we came away with lasting memories of a place and time that would never last. Of course Sri Lanka is a big country, but given the monsoon season in the Tamil North East we planned to visit the South once again, eleven years on.
So as the plane taxied along the Colombo landing strip (in dangerous disrepair it turns out), thoughts of ‘never go back’ were in both our heads. It is only just over an hour from the Maldives to Sri Lanka, but the taxi from the airport to our city hostel was as big a contrast as you could make. Tuesday evening, peak hour, gridlocked traffic of cars, bikes, buses, TukTuks and pollution as the clouds emptied a tropical downpour on to the chaos. An hour and a half later we emerged from the car into darkness, rain and unmade pavements to find our bags soaked, inside the boot. We had avoided Colombo on previous occasions and were beginning to think that was the wiser move.
With clear skies the next day we began to explore some of the charm of the city, which alongside the noise and chaos of the previous night exemplifies much of what has changed in the country. We wandered around Victoria park (which has a Sinhalese name that nobody uses) saw lovely stupas, a government building with a nativity scene on the lawn(!) and every available bench occupied by young Sri Lankan couples looking for space to be alone and in love. It was serene.
We also spent hours in Gangaramaya temple, which in addition to the tens of thousands of Buddha’s on display, had the most eclectic collection of artefacts you can imagine. I saw a sphinx, toy cars, antique real cars, coin and stamp collections and a big stuffed elephant, with a (live) crow pecking at his head.
The other side of Colombo could be found nestled in the walls of the old fort. Beautiful old Dutch buildings, restored and immaculate, full of cafe’s, designer shops and the international elite. Globalisation has arrived, here as elsewhere, with its own rules and comforts.
Our journey to Galle was not comfortable. A second class rail ticket is a bit of a lottery. You might be able to force your way into the carriage. If so, and you create a space to stand, you will be politely, but firmly, pushed squeezed and levered until that space is now occupied by four more passengers. Bags are placed on the laps of those lucky enough to have a seat (three or four in a seat for two is the norm), and as the train rolls along the coast, incredibly, sellers of roti, water and fruit slip through the multitudes with their wares in plastic buckets on their heads. Tempted as I was to buy some fruit or water, putting my hand in my pocket for some money was not a contortion I could manage. As we approached Galle spaced eased to the extent of a peak hour London tube train and I made a friend with a piece of origami for a patient but bored child.
We had visited Galle and Galle Fort in 2005, and the transformation since is astonishing. The buildings within the fort survived the Tsunami, with massive thick walls (utilising coral for strength and interior coolness) but everything was crumbling, dirty and dilapidated. Now the famous cricket ground is restored, the Dutch Government has funded sealed roads and pavements and renovated the original walls (including removing the British colonial additions) and money has arrived big time.
It’s a relaxed and elegant place to wander around and it’s wonderful to see the difference, but of course change has a price. The owner of our guesthouse pointed to the private residences around him – owned by Australian, Dutch, Americans – all with high walls and mostly unoccupied through the year. One, beautifully restored home was on the market for US$3 million (including fixtures and fittings) and one American owned hotel has rooms at US$800 a night. Lots of people seemed to be there just to go shopping.
One fascinating part of our stay in Galle Fort was the chance to observe the Buddhist ceremony welcoming in the New Year. It’s simplicity contrasted to the consumerism unleashed in the rest of Galle Fort.
Our guesthouse was just across from the stuppa and we were able to sit on the balcony and watch the lamps being lit on the cricket green below. It was a wonderful place to sit and watch the world go by, the sun setting over the fort walls, and to enjoy a Sri Lankan anniversary meal.
Of course this was peak tourist season, and rental rooms had doubled in number in just one year, but the market seems insatiable. It’s a different place, though some of the original remains, hanging on for now.
There are downsides – finding authentic Sri Lankan food in Galle Fort is the exception rather than the norm, Western food is fast, and some is of very good quality with prices to match. The local Sri Lankan people coexist with the changes, rather than benefit, and the vast majority are left behind. Would we prefer the impoverished Galle of old? Of course not, but with globalisation Sri Lankans cannot pick and choose the changes – it’s not within their power to do so. Never go back? There is no going back, but as our experience and hopefully the pictures show, there is plenty still in Sri Lanka full of grace and beauty. I do miss the head waggle though, like so many things it seems to be going out of fashion.
Sunset at Galle Fort
From Galle we took a one hour tuk-tuk ride along the coast road to Mirissa. It was always a beautiful beach though now the palm groves have been replaced by restaurants and reggae bars, with the odd exclusive hotel thrown in. A few beach days before the drive up to Ella in the hills, then back to Colombo for a five hour check in as they repair the dodgy runway.
Updates on these will need to wait until the next post.