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Chinese New Year in Sri Lanka, pt.2: From the Beach Back to the City

Watching snake charmers in Galle and bad movies in Colombo

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In my first post about our holiday in Sri Lanka we had avoided buying duty free white-goods at the airport, walked around parts of the capital city, Colombo, and then taken a train ride to the historic, seaside town of Galle that was interesting to say the least. Now for the second half of our journey:

Sunday, February 3, 2019
We had realised the previous night that, unlike Colombo, Galle is a great city for just wandering around, particularly the Galle Fort area where we were staying. A little background on Galle:

Galle is a major city in Sri Lanka, situated on the southwestern tip, 119 km from Colombo. Galle is the administrative capital of Southern Province, Sri Lanka and is the district capital of Galle District.

Galle was known as Gimhathiththa (although Ibn Batuta in the 14th century refers to it as Qali) before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, when it was the main port on the island. Galle reached the height of its development in the 18th century, during the Dutch colonial period. Galle is the best example of a fortified city built by the Portuguese in South and Southeast Asia, showing the interaction between Portuguese architectural styles and native traditions. The city was extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century from 1649 onwards. The Galle fort is a world heritage site and is the largest remaining fortress in Asia built by European occupiers.

On 26 December 2004, the city was devastated by the massive tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which occurred off the coast of Indonesia a thousand miles away. Thousands were killed in the city alone.

Because of the time difference, combined with a relatively early night the previous evening, we were up and fresh at what seemed to be a sensible hour on Sunday morning so we had a coffee each at the hotel and it was time to hit the street. When you’re walking around this town, it’s hard to believe that it was ravaged by the 2004 tsunami — Sure, it may have been over 14 years ago, but the restoration efforts were incredible, because there are no obvious signs at all of any damage. Anyway, one of the first stores we checked out was right near our hotel, a place called Embark that sold anything and everything for dogs with all proceeds going to improving the wellbeing of street dogs. This shop was in an old house and was absolutely enormous, plus Anna likes to spoil Kermit so to say that we spent a fair bit of time in there would be underselling it a little.
Once we were finished in Embark, as well as looking at some jewellery and homewares shops, we were both starting to get a little peckish so Anna found a place that looked quite good, the Lucky Fort Restaurant and Cooking Class. The only problem was that it didn’t open until 12:30pm so we walked back around the corner to kick back in a cafe for a bit and then returned for a lunch that consisted of a sample of 10 different curries with some rice and a couple of lassis each.
Here’s how our day had looked thus far:

That was a good meal, but damn it was big so we were going to have to go for another walk, a good excuse to have a look around nearby parts of the Galle Fort:

Galle Fort, in the Bay of Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, was built first in 1588 by the Portuguese, then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century from 1649 onwards. It is a historical, archaeological and architectural heritage monument, which even after more than 423 years maintains a polished appearance, due to extensive reconstruction work done by Archaeological Department of Sri Lanka.

The fort has a colourful history, and today has a multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. The Sri Lankan government and many Dutch people who still own some of the properties inside the fort are looking at making this one of the modern wonders of the world. The heritage value of the fort has been recognised by the UNESCO and the site has been inscribed as a cultural heritage UNESCO World Heritage Site under criteria iv, for its unique exposition of “an urban ensemble which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries.”

There were a lot of tour groups around the area, but we managed to avoid them and just take in the natural coastal beauty of the area, walking along the wall and seeing the locals swimming in the bay while almost pale-blue British tourists were getting horrifically sunburnt. It started to rain a little as we made our way around to the lighthouse while kids played cricket on the beach and snake charmers went about their business. That’s right, snake charmers:

I completely forgot until I got Anna to read through this post that this wasn’t the first time in my life that I had encountered a snake charmer. I had previously seen one in Goa, India back in late 2011 on a New Year’s Eve getaway, even paying ₹300 (US$4.20) to wear a cobra on my head in a basket! Apparently I wasn’t even sure snake charmers actually existed because I had only seen them before in cartoons, but then we stumbled upon one on the beach. He did his act and as he was putting the snake on my head he whispered in my ear that he wanted ₹1,000 (US$14.20) per photo. I told him we didn’t have that much cash on us so he settled for what we did have. Most people would tend to recall an event like that if it had happened to them, but I guess I’m not most people:

Money well spent

If I learnt anything that day back in India, it is that I now know for certain that tormenting an extremely venomous reptile, such as a cobra, just to make a bit of loose change off tourists and passersby really isn’t worth the risk. Still, here is a video of one of several snake charmers that we saw on the beach in Galle on this holiday, just doing his thing, including swiping at the cobra with his bare hand:

Once we were done with the beach, it occured to Anna that we were near the Old Dutch Hospital again, a perfect chance for her to look through some of the stores that she was interested in the previous night. A lot of the stores in there are ones that sell gem stones and jewellery and this must be the area where a lot of the Chinese tour groups go to purchase them, as Anna was quite surprised when in several of the stores, Sri Lankan shop assistants would approach her and begin chatting to her in perfect Mandarin, able to enunciate themselves better than even she can. Normally she’s kind of deterred by this type of thing, but these stores actually had decent products and prices, but she still ordered a couple of rings that would be available the next day from a store that treated her like a regular customer.
There was also an outlet of Spa Ceylon, a tea store and spa where she had stocked up on more than enough tea in Colombo, as well as being the same franchise where she had earlier booked a massage nearer to our hotel for the next day, but this still didn’t stop her checking out this outlet just to make sure there wasn’t any tea or soap she might’ve missed that wasn’t available at their other stores. There wasn’t.

It was still only the middle of the afternoon and the plan for later in the day was for us to go back to our room and shower before meeting up with our Australian friends from Singapore, Tom Cargill and Leonie Brown, for dinner at 7:30, but it was too early and beginning to get a little wet to walk back so we grabbed a seat in a different bar in the Hospital and had a few mid-afternoon Sunday libations, as we tend to do while on holiday.
After an hour or two it was time to make the short walk back to our hotel, but we knew we’d be back at the Old Dutch Hospital later again that night. Once back we showered, got changed, and had a few more beers at the Galle Fort hotel while we waited for a torrential downpour similar to what we experienced over New Year’s Eve in Bangkok, Thailand to let up so Tom and Leonie could walk down to our hotel. They arrived not long after the rain ceased and the four of us walked down to where Anna had made reservations for the night, the Amangalla. Dinner was another spectacular array of curries and chutneys and then we all headed back to the Old Dutch Hospital again to get some sneaky drinks in the same bar as the previous night before everything closed early, as tends to happen in this town.
A few pictures to wrap up that day in Galle:

Monday, February 4, 2019
It was our final day in Galle and we would be being driven back to Colombo that evening, but we still had a few things to sort out while we were in town. Tom and Leonie invited us to join them for a cooking class they were taking at Lucky Fort, the restaurant where Anna and myself had had lunch the previous day, which helped answer a few questions; the cooking class began at 9:00am and wrapped up at 1:00pm, however, as we had found out on Sunday, the restaurant only opens for lunch at 12:30pm so it would be safe to say that the cooking class provides at least some of the food for the lunch menu.

We declined their offer, not just because it was theoretically more expensive to make your own lunch at Lucky Fort than to simply order it, but Anna was also booked in for a massage and had to collect the rings she had ordered as well. Furthermore, we had one other food item on our list that we wanted to try, kothu roti, otherwise just known as kottu. Anna went about her business, while I had a shower, brushed the bull ants off the toilet paper and went about mine, then had coffee while reading a book out the front of our hotel. At one point while sitting there I was confused as to whether a man was either begging or making a lame attempt at robbing me; he was standing on the road and kept mumbling something at me which I had to ask him to repeat several times. I eventually heard him ask, “how many rupees do you have?” I still couldn’t work out if he wanted to steal my cash, so I said “none” and gave him an intimidating look that highlighted my facial injuries from my seizure several days earlier. He stood and stared at me for a bit before he left, completely unaware that he probably would’ve been able to beat the shit out of me if he actually wanted to.

Our kottu

Soon Anna returned and it was time to go and get some kottu for lunch. When it comes to popularity, kottu is like getting a hamburger in Sri Lanka, but it is traditionally just made of leftovers — a mashup of shredded roti (flatbread), some vegetables, and leftover curry — but the store we went to had a few different varieties available so we got a large one with prawns to share (above, left), as well as some chili cuttlefish and rice. Pretty damn good!

We caught up with Tom and Leonie at the Old Dutch Hospital again after their cooking class to have a few relaxing afternoon beverages before we returned to Colombo, but Leonie just seemed a bit off for some reason, although nobody, including herself, could really put a finger on what it was. We pulled up a seat in the same bar as the previous night, but it turned out that they weren’t serving alcohol and we’d soon know why:

The Excise Department announced today that sale of liquor will entirely be banned countrywide for 19 selected days in this year including of every Poya day and during other special holidays.

The department had recognized 19 days as special holidays in the year 2017, which the sale of liquor in all forms be banned.

As a result all liquor shops, wine stores, restaurants, hotels, bar and taverns will ordered to be closed on all Poya days, the Independence Day on February 04, the day and the day before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in April, the day after Wesak in May, Ramazan Day, World Alcohol Prevention Day and the Christmas Day on December 25.

Additionally, the liquor shops will have to close due to the short notice decision taken by the government following special other occasions.

That article may be for 2017, but those rules still apply; unlike most western countries where getting plastered is part of their National/Independence Day celebrations, in Sri Lanka the sale of alcohol was banned. This worked in Leonie’s favour, as her and Tom decided to go back to their hotel where she spent almost the entire afternoon sleeping, but Anna and I thought we’d try our luck at another bar in the precinct with an amusing level of success. When we asked a barman for beer, he said “no,” but gave us a nod and took us to an upstairs area where we were isolated from the rest of the customers, most of whom were local. After waiting for about 15 minutes I was wondering what was going on, you can’t really go downstairs and ask where your contraband drinks are, but he eventually returned with two cans of beer in an opaque plastic bag, as well as two teacups he insisted we drink them from so we could just say it was tea. He then filled our teacups with beer and threw the can over the edge, insisting that we hide the other can until it was finished. It was essentially like drinking in a speakeasy during the US prohibition and we felt bad for putting our server under so much stress so we figured we’d just finish those drinks, give him a big tip, and be on our way. As we were finishing up, an American couple was led upstairs to where we were sitting and they started talking to us about not being able to buy alcohol. We gave them an acknowledging look and said they’d be fine, but they didn’t seem to agree… until they were presented with some beers and teacups. It was then that they looked over at us, realised it wasn’t tea in our cups, and the four of us just pissed ourselves laughing. When our tab came we noticed it was predated so the establishment wouldn’t get in any trouble either. Was it worth the effort for a few illegal drinks? probably not, but it left us with a great story and our barman with a very large tip:

It looked like it was going to be a fairly anti-climactic day if that was the national law so we opted to get our driver to take us back to Colombo a bit earlier in the vain hope that we might be able to find a bit more action there. We had previously agreed on a fee of Rs10,000 (US$55.00) for essentially an Uber ride and embarked on the 120km (75 mi) trek from Galle back to Colombo, taking about two and a half hours from the doorstep of The Bungalow, our hotel in Galle, to the entrance of our new home for the night in Colombo, the Paradise Road Tintagel. Don’t ask Anna anything about the trip though, she shut her eyes the second the car started moving and didn’t open them again until we had arrived.
Our hotel was incredible, our three-room suite was immaculate and larger than our apartment back in Singapore, despite requiring us to take a back entrance near the restaurant’s kitchen, but the building itself has an interesting history, too:

Completed in 1930, Tintagel was intended as a residence for Dr. Lucien de Zilwa. In the mid 1940’s de Zilwa was given a week to vacate the property by the British Military to house one hundred soldiers. The military occupation saw the house wrecked and de Zilwa sold Tintagel to Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike for his son, Solomon West Ridgeway (S.W.R.D.). It is from this point in time that the house gained recognition as a structure of national importance.

It was here that Ceylon’s political history was decided. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike became Prime Minister in 1956 and he was shot on the verandah of Tintagel in 1959 and subsequently died in hospital. In 1960, his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became the world’s first female Prime Minister. Mrs. Bandaranaike won several elections and was re-elected in 1970 and 1994, thereby becoming the longest serving Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Mrs. Bandaranaike resided at Tintagel right up until her demise in 2000. In 1983, their only son, Anura Bandaranaike became leader of the Opposition, Speaker of the House of Parliament in 2000 and a Minister of several Ministries of Government. The younger daughter of S.W.R.D. and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga progressively became a Chief Minister, Prime Minister and then Sri Lanka’s first female President in 1994.

In 2005, Tintagel, the family home of the Bandaranaike’s was leased to Udayshanth Fernando by the family to become Paradise Road Tintagel Colombo, a unique private hotel.

Once we had checked in we asked about the alcohol law and it turned out that a loophole allowed us to have it put in our room as part of the minibar so they took our order and soon it all arrived for us. It looks like we’ll be spending this one back in the room after dinner.

We showered and went out to find something to eat, soon stumbling upon a restaurant in our neighbourhood called The Lagoon inside the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, a restaurant that is just like going to a fish market where you pick what you want and how you want it cooked. Sri Lanka is famous for its crabs, which we hadn’t had yet so we ordered a crab curry, some oysters, a sashimi platter, and a bunch of other side dishes and gorged ourselves before returning to the Tintagel.
Here’s a tour of our suite, as well as a look at our dinner:

We staggered home a little full after all of that food, receiving a message from Tom saying that Leonie was back to her normal self after about a five-hour nap, having maybe just overdone it on the curries over the previous couple of days. We returned to our suite to a fridge full of booze and something else which we hadn’t had access to at The Bungalow back in Galle; a television. There were only a handful of channels showing English, non-news related entertainment, one being a station where the film The Godfather: Part II, often considered one of the greatest films of all time, was just winding up. This seemed promising so we got ourselves a semi-legal drink each and prepared for what cinematic masterpiece was awaiting us. It’s hard to find many films that compare to The Godfather: Part II, however, The Perfect Storm, a nominee for ‘Most Intrusive Musical Score’ in The Stinkers Bad Movie Awards (2000), is far from being one them. We sat back and laughed at the lame dialogue, George Clooney’s awful acting, and moments when the writers forgot certain elements, such as when one of the boat’s crew had a large fishing hook go through his hand that had no repercussions whatsoever, or another crew-member having a large chunk bitten out of his leg by a shark and then completely never mentioned again. I didn’t realise at the time that I was beginning to bloat up and at one stage during The Perfect Storm, Anna slapped my stomach because she was laughing so hard, which made a hollow sound like a bass drum, resulting in an urgent trip to the toilet for me. It wouldn’t be the last such visit as it seemed that maybe three day’s worth of curry was starting to catch up with me, but we still managed to have a great night watching a terrible film.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019
Our last day was upon us as we wouldn’t be flying out until almost 2:00am. I still wasn’t feeling fantastic, but popped a Loperamil tablet and soldiered on, including even having more curry for breakfast. Probably not the smartest thing to do, but it was the house specialty at our hotel.
We were staying reasonably close to the Galle Face Hotel where we had spent Friday night, however, we were further inland in a slightly different district so our plan was to just wander around, looking at the sights, snacking, and making the most of our last day in Sri Lanka. Our hotel had a shop, the Paradise Road Gallery Café, which is listed as “within walking distance of the hotel,” yet we weren’t expecting it to take about half an hour to reach in the scorching heat.
When we finally arrived, the shop at the Gallery Café had two levels of pretty cool and unique stuff, from quirky gifts to bizarre items for the home, so Anna picked up a few things for friends and family, then we grabbed a coffee each and were off again. I mentioned earlier in this post that Colombo isn’t a great city for walking around; a lot of areas don’t have paths, or if they do, they are often blocked, plus the drivers don’t tend to have pedestrians in mind a whole lot so you really need to be on your guard all of the time, wary of cars flying out of driveways and around blind corners, and crossing roads is an absolute nightmare. Because of this, we decided to check out some of the parks nearby and this was where we ran into the last person who attempted to scam us on this trip. We were looking at a squirrel running up and down the branches of a tree when one of the older gardeners came over, thinking we must have some interest in botany. He began telling us some mildly interesting facts about the tree, including slicing part of a branch with his thumbnail so a milk-like liquid dripped out. He then insisted on giving us a private tour of the gardens, which were enormous, and it took a fair bit of time and effort to convince him we weren’t remotely interested, were doing something else in a different place, and that he should just get back to work.
We didn’t actually have plans, we just walked around, but there wasn’t really a whole lot to do or see besides some of the colonial buildings. We ended up pulling up a seat in a cafe in a mall for a bit to avoid a storm, but in the end we just decided to go back to our hotel, finish the leftover room service drinks from the previous night, have some dinner at the hotel, followed by some more drinks before catching an early taxi to the airport.
A look at our last day in Colombo, Sri Lanka:

We arrived at the airport and were soon on our way back to Singapore, arriving home early in the morning on about an hour’s sleep. I was tired and it would take more than a week before my stomach returned to normal, but it was a great trip and we had some excellent food. I’d happily return to Sri Lanka again any day, but I don’t think I’d bother with Colombo next time. Maybe somewhere else like Kandy, but we’ll make that decision when we come to it.

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