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Chinese New Year in Sri Lanka, pt.1: Colombo to Galle

Leaving Singapore to explore somewhere completely different over the holiday period

Anna and I came to a conclusion recently — She needs to relax more and take more holidays. Yes, we do go on a lot of trips and we have plenty coming up this year, but it is almost entirely for her work so she doesn’t really get to take a break. When we went to Thailand and a resort in Indonesia recently, she was a completely different person and got to unwind properly for the first time in about a year. We did go to Turkey late last year, but it was on the tail-end of a conference that Anna had put in a lot of work for, plus it was an extremely hectic trip anyway, hardly any time for relaxation.
That’s why we decided to take part in the world’s largest annual human migration and get away at Chinese New Year this year; it’s a relatively quiet time for her at the Eye Centre as few people in Singapore want to have surgery done during this period and the timing of Chinese New Year meant that Monday, February fourth was a half-day public holiday, while the fifth and sixth were full days off.
We wanted to go somewhere neither of us had been before and initially considered Taiwan, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to go there during Chinese New Year as everything would be closed and we kind of wanted to escape the stress of being in a Chinese environment during those celebrations, because constant drums, chanting, and fires aren’t conducive to a relaxing weekend. Instead, we opted for Sri Lanka, a place neither of us really knew a whole lot about. My knowledge of Sri Lanka was limited to what was shown when singer Kamahl did advertisements for teabags in Australia and the fact that their cricket team was abysmal when I was growing up. Well, here are the basics on Sri Lanka:

Sri Lanka is an island country in South Asia, located in the Indian Ocean to the southwest of the Bay of Bengal and to the southeast of the Arabian Sea. The island is historically and culturally intertwined with the Indian subcontinent, but is geographically separated from the Indian subcontinent by the Gulf of Mannar and the Palk Strait. The legislative capital, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, is a suburb of the commercial capital and largest city, Colombo.

Sri Lanka was known from the beginning of British colonial rule as Ceylon. A nationalist political movement arose in the country in the early 20th century to obtain political independence, which was granted in 1948; the country became a republic and adopted its current name in 1972.

The island is home to many cultures, languages and ethnicities. The majority of the population is from the Sinhalese ethnicity, while a large minority of Tamils have also played an influential role in the island’s history. Moors, Burghers, Malays, Chinese, and the indigenous Vedda are also established groups on the island.

‘Colombo,’ not ‘Columbo’

Sounds like it could be an interesting place to spend a few days so the plan was to fly out on Friday evening and stay the night in Colombo, catch a train to Galle and spend Saturday and Sunday night in the Fort area there, meeting up with our Australian friends from Singapore, Tom Cargill and Leonie Brown, whom it happened would be in the same place at the same time, and then come back for a final night in Colombo before flying out very early Wednesday morning. There was, however, the issue that I had had an epileptic seizure a few days prior to leaving that would require me to get my head stitched up in hospital, but wasn’t expected to put our trip in any jeopardy. Let’s see if all went to plan.

Friday, February 1, 2019
Anna finished work early on Friday afternoon so we packed, took Kermit to the dog hotel, and then got a cab to the airport. Our flight was at 7:30pm and it would take three-and-a-half hours to touch down in Colombo, however, Sri Lanka is two-and-a-half hours behind Singapore so it was barely 9:00pm by the time we landed. Getting through immigration wasn’t too much of an issue, although I did get a few sideways glances from officers because of my rather impressive black eye, but we were soon through the gate and one thing became abundantly clear; A lot of people landing at Bandaranaike International Airport must purchase fridges on impulse! Sure, there was the regular duty free store selling alcohol, cigarettes, perfume, and the usual stuff that you encounter in any international airport, but this was surrounded by endless shops selling duty free white-goods — refrigerators, washers, dryers, ovens, vacuum cleaners, and everything else any complete home requires were all available and all tax-free at any of the countless electronics and homewares stores in the arrivals area. I think Harvey Norman may have to rethink their business model, I’m not kidding, there are tons of these stores so they must be selling something, take a look around for yourself:

We managed to resist the urge to pick up a reasonably priced chest freezer and walked down to the taxi rank. Initially we thought that maybe we should’ve requested a hotel transfer, but we had nothing to worry about, getting a taxi without getting ripped off wasn’t a problem as there was a fixed-priced taxi counter. Now onto our home for almost the next 24 hours, Colombo:

Colombo is the commercial capital and largest city of Sri Lanka. According to the Brookings Institution, Colombo metropolitan area has a population of 5.6 million, and 752,993 in the city proper. It is the financial centre of the island and a popular tourist destination. It is located on the west coast of the island and adjacent to the Greater Colombo area which includes Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the legislative capital of Sri Lanka and Dehiwala-Mount Lavinia. Colombo is often referred to as the capital since Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte is within the urban area of, and a suburb of, Colombo. It is also the administrative capital of the Western Province and the district capital of Colombo District. Colombo is a busy and vibrant place with a mixture of modern life and colonial buildings and ruins. It was the legislative capital of Sri Lanka until 1982.

Due to its large harbour and its strategic position along the East-West sea trade routes, Colombo was known to ancient traders 2,000 years ago. It was made the capital of the island when Sri Lanka was ceded to the British Empire in 1815, and its status as capital was retained when the nation became independent in 1948. In 1978, when administrative functions were moved to Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, Colombo was designated as the commercial capital of Sri Lanka.

To make matters even better, we were staying at the legendary Galle Face Hotel. Just have a click around that website and you’ll see why we were excited to be staying there or if you’re too lazy, just read a portion of what Wikipedia has to say about our humble abode for the night:

The Galle Face Hotel, founded in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1864, is one of the oldest hotels east of Suez. It is listed as one of the “1000 Places to See Before You Die” in the book of the same name.

Celebrity guests include Mahatma Gandhi; the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin; John D. Rockefeller; former British Prime minister Edward Heath; Princess Alexandra of Denmark; Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh; First Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru; Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India; journalist Eric Ellis and photographer Palani Mohan; future British RAF officer and MI6 agent F. W. Winterbotham; Prince Sadruddhin Aga Khan; then-Prince Hirohito of Japan; Roger Moore; Carrie Fisher; Richard Nixon, US President; Lord Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma; Noël Coward, English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer; Josip Broz Tito, Marshal of Yugoslavia. In January 2018 Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex stayed at the hotel during their five day official visit.

I guess I can now name two hotels in which Richard Nixon has stayed. Anyway, once we had arrived we checked into our room and then went down to King of the Mambo, a Cuban-themed bar and restaurant within the hotel, right on the water. We pulled up a seat, ordered a couple of drinks and just started chatting while a Latin band played in the background when, before long, a couple on the next table, an Italian man and an Indian woman, must’ve overheard us say something about Singapore and asked if we were “Jacu’s friends.” It turned out that they both live in Singapore too and knew someone there whose friends were also traveling to Sri Lanka this weekend as well. We told them that we were from Singapore, but didn’t know a Jacu. I later had a look at Facebook and saw that there were comments on my friend’s page tagging me as traveling to Colombo, as well as another couple. This particular friend doesn’t use his real name on Facebook and I thought that maybe I had just forgotten his name as he is someone I only know from the pub so I showed his photo to the couple on the next table. “Yes, that’s Jacu!” they replied, so we settled in, ordered some food and got chatting with them. Not only did we have the mutual friend we knew of, but it turned out that the Indian girl, Adita, also went to university and is friends with one of Anna’s best friends, Roshini. To quote the comedian Steven Wright, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.”
Here’s a look around our room in the Galle Face Hotel and King of the Mambo that night, although we didn’t get one of our new drinking buddies:

Saturday, February 2, 2019
We were still operating on Singapore time so we were up pretty early by our holiday standards. One thing that we didn’t realise was that Sri Lankan National Day, or Independence Day, also happened to fall during our trip, being celebrated on the Monday so there were thousands of soldiers rehearsing for the National Day parade when we left the hotel in the morning. Our plan for Saturday was to catch a train down to Galle, however, first-class trains only departed at around 6:30am, which wasn’t an option for us. Instead, we could get an express train at 3:50pm, but we would only be able to get either second or third class tickets with unreserved seating. You’re probably thinking, “Oh, poor Tim and Anna, can’t get first class tickets, boo-hoo,” but anyone who has ever caught public transport anywhere on the Indian subcontinent would understand that even first class could be deceptive in definition, second class with unreserved seating could mean absolutely anything, and third class with unreserved seating may possibly resemble something like this:

Still, we had a few hours to kill so we hit the street, taking in some of the military rehearsals along the way. We began walking toward the centre of town along Colombo-Galle Main Rd. when we were almost immediately approached by a very well-dressed, albeit extremely sweaty, local man who burst into a power-walk to catch up to us. Sri Lanka is famous for its gemstones and this dodgy guy insisted on taking us to a gemstone museum and then a shop afterward. We’re used to dealing with scammers overseas so we made it clear that we weren’t interested and that’s when the bullshit began. “Today is National Day so nothing else will be open anyway, as you can see by the parade on the beach.” We explained to him that we were more than aware that National Day was on Monday, the shops were clearly open, and that the parade on the beach was a rehearsal, but he wasn’t deterred. “I work at your hotel, what sort of representative would I be if I didn’t show you the best of Colombo?” We then pointed out that it was one of his alleged coworkers that told us about the rehearsals and he wasn’t dressed like any of them, but still he insisted we see the gemstone museum, going on and on about it as we sped up, him struggling to keep pace. It was finally when he called over a tuk tuk for us and told the driver where to take us that we both finally snapped, telling him that we saw through his bullshit and that we were doing something somewhere else. He kept talking, but soon realised he wasn’t getting anywhere, muttered something under his breath, and walked away. We were expecting to meet hustlers like this after the time we’ve spent in India and the first person we encountered on the streets of Colombo was exactly that, but fortunately we wouldn’t meet too many more.

We continued exploring, but everyone we know that has been to Sri Lanka told us beforehand that there wasn’t a whole lot to do or see in Colombo, just tons of construction, and Galle was where the real action was. Still, we had a look around, grabbed a decent lunch, and then soon we had to head back to the hotel to grab our luggage in order to catch our train.
A look around our hotel and the surrounding area of Colombo:

These photos may not paint a particularly beautiful picture of Colombo, but it is really nice, just the area we stayed on that first night may have been a little less aesthetically pleasing.
After lunch we walked back to the hotel, got our luggage and checked out, and then we were on our way to the train station. The train station wasn’t far away, but we had to get there about an hour early in order to get halfway-decent tickets for our two-and-a-half hour journey to Galle. Anna read online that if we wanted to get a seat on the train, it was best to go to the first station on the trainline, but the concierge at our hotel said it was too far out of the way and we only needed to go to the nearest station. We got our first tuk tuk in Sri Lanka, negotiated a decent price due to the fare metre still being sealed in its original packaging, and rode in our three-wheeled deathmobile, weaving recklessly through traffic, all the way to the station. Anyone that has ever ridden in a tuk tuk before knows that you never feel all that safe in one and that’s not including the time a tuk tuk driver in Pondicherry, India (the vehicle called an “auto” there) made a piss-poor attempt at kidnapping me! These things are completely unstable, you’re not secured into the vehicle in any way, the drivers just throw caution to the wind, and in some countries they’ll do anything to screw you over to make an extra buck or two. Only some of them in Sri Lanka have a fare metre, but they are never used so you just have to haggle first and fortunately we never had any drivers try to scam us. Tuk tuks are the cheapest, and sometimes only, option, but all the ones we encountered on this trip could be trusted.
We soon arrived at the train station and I watched the bags while Anna bought our tickets and then we walked down to platform 5 where our train would eventually be arriving. We managed to get second class tickets with unreserved seating, which meant that the process for getting a seat was first in, first served when entering the carriage, however, our carriage would have ceiling fans. When we saw a train arriving on another platform, we realised exactly what this meant; the carriages in both classes were extremely crowded with people getting on and off while the train was still moving, others just hanging out of the doors as the only convenient place to stand in third class. After we saw this, I decided to ask someone on our platform where to board the second class carriage. I approached a friendly-looking young woman, only for her to let out a little scream and grab her handbag. Train stations around the globe are generally seedy areas so I guess when a female is approached by a rather large man with a black eye and facial stitches, she needs to be on her guard. I apologised, explained our situation, and she advised us to wait in the middle of the platform, as that is where the second class carriages would most likely be.

Our train soon arrived and we boarded, and although I wasn’t expecting complimentary champagne, we were also unable to get a seat despite how proactive we were, instead relegated to standing in the centre of the carriage, the end nearest to us only having two of the seven ceiling fans operating. Initially the carriage was overcrowded, people even sitting in the open doorway, legs hanging outside the train. There were handles hanging from bars from the ceiling, but it was easier for me to hold the bar, Anna grabbing a handle, and we were soon on our way.
Sri Lanka is infinitely cleaner than India, but as we were departing we crossed a river that could almost be tasted as we passed, the horrendous stench of raw sewerage hanging in the air. None of the locals really reacted to fragrant aroma of human waste, but almost every foreigner on the train instantly gagged. I’ve also heard awful rumours about the toilets on trains in this part of the world, essentially just a seat with a hole that drops turds directly onto the tracks, the room ending up ankle deep in human waste. How much truth there is to those stories can really be neither confirmed nor denied for me, but we both decided it was best to clench for the next couple of hours and take in the scenery.
Any photos from inside the train were captured as it was still moving, the view almost always obstructed by another passenger’s arm gripping a handle or pole:

Our ride only stopped four or five times en route to Galle, but for the last ten minutes or so enough people had exited the train so Anna could have a seat and I could sit on the table in front of her.

Me with some of our dinner

Once we arrived in Galle we took a tuk tuk to our hotel, The Bungalow in Galle Fort, and by that time it was already about 7:00pm so we decided to hit the town. The first plan of attack; get some hoppers. Hoppers are kind of like a bowl-shaped pancake made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk, generally eaten with curry and sambol. Not long after we had walked out the door and around the corner, we stumbled upon a small store simply called Hoppa so we pulled up a seat and ordered what we had come for. We got some egg hoppers and cheese hoppers, as well as some curried prawns and black curry pork and Anna later ordered some dessert hoppers that came with treacle. To be honest, I could happily eat hoppers for every meal daily, but I don’t know how my waistline would handle it.
After dinner we walked down to the Old Dutch Hospital, one of the oldest buildings in Galle, dating back to the 17th century Dutch occupation of Sri Lanka when the building actually functioned as a hospital. Now it serves as a shopping and dining precinct so we sat down in a bar, ordered some drinks and a shisha, but it wasn’t going to be a long night as it turns out most, if not all, bars in this town shut at 11:00pm, even on a Saturday. Oh well, it had been a packed day so we really weren’t complaining.

This concludes the first part of our Sri Lankan adventure, stay tuned for the second half when we spend more time wandering around Galle and getting into a couple of weird situations before returning to Colombo again for a final night.

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  1. Chinese New Year in Sri Lanka, pt.2: From the Beach Back to the City – Dr. Tan's Travels

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