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February 12th 2007
Published: May 25th 2008
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Galle and the Southwest Coast

After lunch at The Last House Yves left for Colombo where he had a meeting that evening, and we left a little later for Galle. It was a pleasant two or three hour drive along the coast with inland views across the verdant paddy fields and seawards along the picturesque palm-fringed beaches. We made a couple of stops along the way. Firstly at Sri Lanka's tallest Buddha (fifty metres), rather kitsch, with an eight-storey building behind it from which you can apparently walk into the head - all built around 1960 I believe. And, later, at Dondra lighthouse, a very pretty spot on the country's southernmost headland - there's nothing between here and Antarctica except about 20,000km of ocean. A local woman and her five year old son were strolling near the lighthouse and she volunteered that her son wanted to come down here every day to look out to sea for his fisherman father who had been away for two weeks. No radio or any other means of communication of course, just daily prayers that he would return safely. We felt completely lost for words.

Later in the afternoon we arrived at Galle and checked into the Galle Fort Hotel, a tasteful conversion of a 17th century Dutch merchant's house into a boutique hotel with fourteen rooms. It is located in the heart of Galle Fort, built by the Dutch in 1663 and occupying a 36-hectare promontory protecting a natural harbour to the north. It was the harbour that attracted first the Portuguese and then the Dutch to fortify this strategic location, but after the British consolidated their takeover of the island in the early 19th century Colombo rose to prominence and Galle rapidly declined in importance. Unlike many other UNESCO World Heritage Sites, however, Galle remains very much a thriving community with several thousand residents (a majority of whom are Muslims), schools, law courts, and an active business community. It is said to be one of the best preserved examples of 17th century colonial fortifications in the world.

We relaxed over a bottle of wine and plates of noodles in the bar before contentedly retiring to bed in our spacious two-storey 'Loft Room' suite.

We spent the next morning on a very gentle stroll along the streets of the Fort, poking our heads here and there into some of its old buildings. Our first stop was the rather austere Dutch Reformed Church completed in 1755 and the oldest protestant church in the country. Close by is a building that started out life as the Dutch garrison command in 1684, became the New Oriental Hotel in the 1860's, and was transformed into a luxury Aman resort in 2005.

Not far away, walking past the New Old Dutch House (sic) we were greeted by Mohammed, its owner, a handsome man in his forties standing arms folded in the entrance, smartly dressed in a white close-fitting tee shirt and white sarong. He showed us over his seven-roomed guest house which he generously offered to us for only US$950,000. Considering that you would have to remodel it to a maximum of four rooms to generate a room rate of $100 a night and spend a small fortune on renovations, that would work out at about $300,000 a room, which is probably what you'd pay for a Ritz Carlton. Mohammed said that business was good (though there were no current guests), but that he wanted to concentrate more on his commercial interests in the Maldives. When we demurred, he tried to sell us some gemstones instead, but we could tell his heart wasn't really in it. A few years ago, when it looked like a peace accord would be reached between the government and the Tamil Tigers, prices of tourism-related properties started climbing, and some high-priced deals became common knowledge. Now everyone thinks they can sell their house for high multiples of their inherent value. The reality, unfortunately, is that there are very few tourists around throughout Sri Lanka since the resumption of fighting between the government and LTTE, and especially since the LTTE naval attack on Galle harbour in late 2006. Governments of several countries significant for Sri Lanka's tourist arrivals have issued harsh travel advisories and, although reliable figures are hard to come by, it is clear that the industry (which accounts for some 10% of GDP) is suffering very badly indeed.

We strolled back towards the hotel, browsing at a few shops selling handicrafts, art and books, and after lunch took a long siesta. Much refreshed, we set out to walk around the Fort's ramparts as the daytime heat began to dissipate and residents came out to enjoy the best time of day. Boys gathered to play cricket and soccer on the streets or the small open spaces, young lovers wandered hand-in-hand lost in their dreams of the future, and families strolled leisurely laughing with their children as the sun dipped, almost unnoticed, into the Indian Ocean. It was another of those moments in life that will be forever hard to forget.

After a glass of wine in the bar we showered and changed for dinner. While we were eating, one of the co-owners of the hotel, Australian Karl Steinberg, dropped by our table for a chat; he and Christopher Ong, his Malaysian partner, bought the property five years ago (for US$500,000 we heard on the grapevine) and spent three years renovating and rebuilding. They did a nice job, although the décor and colour scheme have a very masculine feel which Lisa found rather off-putting. Chris manages the F & B side of the business and Lisa and I both felt that the modern Asian food served is exceptionally good. Their two small Papillon dogs, Max and Chian, are always to be seen scurrying busily around the hotel or fetching balls thrown for them by guests. Having finished dinner we joined Isabella and Humphrey for a drink at their table - the London couple we had met earlier at Tea Trails.

Over a leisurely couple of hours the following morning we walked the two or three Fort streets we hadn't covered the previous day and visited a couple of large "antique" dealers choc-a-bloc with old Sri Lankan furniture, Dutch plates, metal-work and a host of other stuff both new and old. No bargains left to be had here, however. Ervin picked us up at the hotel later in the morning and drove us out of the Fort a few kilometres west where we lunched at The Lighthouse, another Bawa-designed hotel perched on a promontory at a bend in the road heading to Colombo. We were getting used to Geoffrey Bawa's style by now and this was not atypical - not stunning at all from the outside, but a wonderful entrance with a pond, natural rock feature and metal sculpture winding its way up three flights of a circular staircase. The outdoor restaurant is beautifully located just above a rocky cove overlooking the sea, and was cool and breezy despite the 34ºC heat. Unfortunately, in contrast to the ambience, the Sri Lankan food we ordered was rather average.

After lunch we drove over to Unawatuna Bay a few kilometres east of Galle. This must once have been a truly beautiful place, its crystal-clear blue waters lapping at a perfect crescent-shaped beach. Today, however, it is difficult to get a view of the bay due to the strip development of rather shoddy tourist facilities the whole way along the shoreline. It reminded us of Phi Phi Island near Phuket, although it clearly has a strong following since Unawatuna was rapidly rebuilt after being terribly damaged by the tsunami, when hundreds died here and much of the infrastructure was destroyed. Regular visitors pumped in funds and turned up to offer help but unfortunately, again like Phi Phi, no opportunity was taken to temper the excesses of previous overdevelopment and today it is hard to visualise the devastation that occurred in late 2004.

Close by on the headland between Galle and Unawatuna is a very lovely and immensely peaceful spot on which is built a large white "Peace Pagoda" (actually a dagoba, or stupa) donated by a Japanese Buddhist in 2005. One senses very few visitors find this place (we had it completely to ourselves) but it offers a lovely view across to Galle Fort and must be stunning at sunrise.

In the morning we had dropped by the attractive, newly restored Fort Printers Hotel just down the street from where we were staying, and had ended up booking and pre-ordering dinner. We ate well here in the pretty candle-lit courtyard. Our three-course dinner was US$25 a head, expensive by Sri Lankan standards, but Lisa's main course was an excellent large fresh (live) lobster that alone would have cost $60 to $80 in London.

The 6th Annual Ceylon Elephant Polo Association Tournament in Galle kicked off the next day, and we went to the sandy field just outside the Fort ramparts to watch the first match at nine o'clock. It was between the Sri Lankan Police team - known as Elephino's and rank outsiders - and the Taprobane Tuskers, last years winners playing with a three-goal handicap. In an upset, the Police won by a significant margin. Next up was a Spanish team versus an all-woman team from Washington DC called the Capitol Pachyderms. The game is played on a field two thirds the size of a horse polo ground with three elephants a side - each guided by a mahout with the player strapped on behind and wielding a very long thin mallet. Some elephant/mahout combinations are a lot more effective than others, so to avoid bias, the teams switch elephants at half time. Seven international teams plus the Police had entered this year and it was all great fun. Unfortunately, just after we left to check out of the hotel an 18-year-old male elephant called Abey ran amok, throwing mahout and player and head butting the Spanish team's van into a pile of scrap metal. I would like to have seen the insurance claim form. Abey was eventually restrained by the mahouts and play resumed the following day. The eventual winners were Tickle and the Ivories based out of Singapore.

After a quick lunch we left to drive north along the coast to Colombo, and then on the airport for our 01:10 flight back to Singapore. The stretch of coast between Galle and Colombo is quite densely populated, and we saw more signs of tsunami damage here than at any other point of our trip. Whole stretches of buildings along the beach and further inland were reduced to their foundations. Many have yet to be rebuilt - perhaps because their occupiers died in the tragedy. Thousands lost their lives here, including 1,500 on a train which runs right along the coast.

We took a leisurely drive, stopping occasionally as we were in no rush. At one rather forlorn turtle-hatchery rebuilt among the ruins, five of the world's seven turtle species can be seen. The hatchery seems to be run for-profit rather than as a charity, and the value of such places is apparently debated by scientists.

A real gem some ten kilometres inland from Bentota is Bevis Bawa's house and garden, known as "Brief". Brother of the more famous architect Geoffrey, Bevis was also an architect and designer, and he started building "Brief" in 1929. It is a wildly romantic place, full of nooks and crannies and offering new perspectives whenever you turn a corner, both inside the house and in the extensive gardens. We were the only visitors and were shown round the house by the caretaker who is clearly enthusiastic about his job. It was a wonderful interlude from our journey.

Reaching Colombo, which straggles twelve or more kilometres down the coast from Fort, the old city centre, it seemed like we had emerged into another country - tall buildings, neon signs, heavy traffic, economic activity on a scale not seen anywhere in the rest of the country. It was quite a shock. Ervin drove us around to see a few of the sights although it was by now getting dark. The Cinnamon Gardens area looked the most pleasant, the Pettah market district the most chaotic. We stopped briefly at Odel - Colombo's equivalent of Peter Jones, I guess - and bought a few incredibly cheap, well-designed tee shirts - next time we must go with an empty suitcase, and start the trip here.

After dinner at a sort of suburban food court (roti prata and chicken curry, just like in Singapore) we eventually arrived at the airport. The flight home was a dreadful three and a half hour red-eye, leaving local time 01:10 and arriving local time 07:30. There seemed to be about ten minutes between the crew finishing preparations for take-off and telling us to fasten our seatbelts for landing. Absolutely gruesome. Next ➤ ➤

Howard's Galle Gallery

Additional photos below
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17th September 2010
Sri Lankan Airlines cabin crew at the polo

These aren't the Sri Lankan Airlines Cabin Crew, but the ground staff!!!

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