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Published: December 14th 2017
Today we were travelling south-west from Yala National Park to Mirissa
We woke late at 6:30am, quickly organised our packs and headed to breakfast in the hotel’s open air restaurant at 7:30am. With little time to spare I gobbled a couple of egg hoppers
(thin crispy rice flour and coconut crepes cooked in a mini-wok, with an egg in the centre) with seeni sambol
(caramelised onion relish), and they were fantastic. I also managed to grab a mixed fruit juice, tea, fresh pineapple and some crepes that had been rolled into a thin tube with a jaggery
(Sri Lankan palm sugar) and coconut filling.
We left our hotel (Oak Ray Lake Lodge) at 8am and started our journey towards Mirissa. After only 15 minutes on the road we stopped at the dwelling of a local family in the township of Tissamaharama to sample buffalo curd from a terracotta pot. We crammed into the family’s basic kitchen and watched a heavily pregnant woman stirring buffalo milk over an open flame. Flies were everywhere and hygiene didn’t appear to be a priority. I was nervous about tasting the family’s curd (which had been prepared prior to our arrival), but
I wanted to see if it was any different to the commercially produced curd we’d been sampling (which I loved). I tried some with treacle, and while it was enjoyable, it had a much looser consistency than the curd I‘d become accustomed during our past few weeks in Sri Lanka.
We left the family and continued our journey to Mirissa. After 30 minutes on the road we stopped at a small roadside shop in Hambantota
that made and sold dodal
, a Sri Lankan toffee-like sweet made from coconut milk, rice flour and kithul palm jaggery
. The shop also sold cheap plastic toys that appeared to have Chinese or Korean heritage, and this seemed to be an odd mix of products. Some of the dodal
tasted great, but most were way too sugary and sweet for me.
We left the roadside shop at 10am and settled in earnest for our long trip along Sri Lanka’s southern coastline. After a few hours we stopped in Hakmana
at the home of a local Muslim family for lunch. We started with a glass of falooda
(cold milk with rose syrup, basil seeds and jelly), which was sweet, refreshing and very welcome, as
the midday sun was searing outside. We then sat at a long table and shared a large meal of rice, beef biryani
(rice dish steamed with beef curry), deep fried chicken, cashew, cauliflower and pea curry, fried shrimp sambol and red onion pickle. We finished the meal with a bowl of Sri Lanka’s ubiquitous watalappan
(spiced coconut egg custard). Our female hosts didn’t venture out of their kitchen and we weren’t allowed to enter it, but our male hosts (a father and son) carried the endless plates of food to our table and briefly explained each dish. While the meal itself was filling, it was not overly tasty. The biryani was dry (as it always seems to be) and the chicken had been cooked within an inch of its life.
We left the local Muslim family’s house and continued on to our hotel (Hotel Silan Mo) in Mirissa, arriving at 2pm. Our rooms weren’t ready, so I walked along the very narrow and very busy coastal road to the closest laundrette – we were down to our last items of clothes. When I got there it was closed, and it looked like it had been for quite a while.
I dropped into the restaurant next door and they confirmed it had closed down, but they offered to do our washing for a very reasonable price. I was a little hesitant, mainly because they were operating as a restaurant, not a laundrette. A woman in the kitchen was clearly not impressed with the deal struck by the young guy running front of house (most likely her son), but he assured me our washing would be ready by the end of the day or the following morning. I had no choice. I left our bags of clothes with him, crossed my fingers and walked back to the hotel.
Mirissa is not what I would call a picturesque town. It is right on the coastline, with public buses and traffic roaring along a narrow busy road parallel to the beach. Both sides of the road are littered with tourist accommodation and tourist-focused shops, and access to (and ownership of) the beach front is mainly through private restaurants. We found a few narrow tracks down to the beach, but it is not a beach culture I’m used to. Hangover Hostels and Hangover Cafe were just along the road from our hotel… their
names said it all!
We walked along the beach to a small headland in the late afternoon and watched the sun set over the throngs of tourists. Every inch of beach was covered in some sort of tourist venture, be it tables, deckchairs, shops or hire companies. A number of people were surfing just past the headland, and I briefly considered joining them, but time was against me. Dusk was falling quickly, and it would have been well and truly dark by the time I’d hired a board and paddled out. We walked back to the hotel and lazed in the rooftop pool as dusk descended upon us. We had the rooftop to ourselves, so it was nice (and slightly ironic) to gaze out over the Indian Ocean from the comfort of a hotel pool.
We headed down to Kama – a beachside bar just over the road from our hotel – and enjoyed a few happy hour cocktails before returning to the hotel restaurant for dinner around 8pm. Unfortunately the anglicised buffet meal looked dreadful and tasted worse, so our only option was to backpedal to Kama. There didn’t appear to be many restaurant options in Mirissa,
so we kicked back and enjoyed the crashing waves and sand at our feet as we sipped red wine and grazed on pizza. We had an early start the following day, so we wandered back across the road to our hotel before the night grew too old (and before the tide came too far in).
We woke early and prepared for our whale watching adventure – we were heading out on the Indian Ocean to (hopefully) see blue whales migrating through the warm currents off the Sri Lankan coast. We clambered into a three-wheeler (motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin, also called tri-shaws or tuk-tuks) at 6am and headed to Mirissa Water Sports, where we quickly discovered that whale watching in Sri Lanka is very popular. We purchased our tickets, grabbed a couple of complimentary motion sickness tablets from the counter and walked to the harbour area where our whale watching boat awaited us. There were about ten whale watching boats bobbing alongside a fleet of colourful commercial fishing boats in Mirissa Harbour, and each had a seating capacity of around 50-60 people. All of the whale watching boats had a bottom and top deck, and ours was one
of the few that had a viewing deck on top as opposed to a top deck with chairs (which filled up quickly with those annoying bloody tourists who always push to the front, trampling anyone and everything that get in their way).
We settled into our seats on the bottom deck and left Mirissa Harbour around 7am. We slowly made our way south, watching the Sri Lankan coastline gradually disappear from view behind us. The crew on the boat were fantastic – we each received a fried egg sandwich with sausages and a banana in a polystyrene box for breakfast, which was very welcome, as we hadn’t eaten at the hotel. While the ocean was relatively calm, we were drenched by sea spray. After about an hour of gently rolling through the ocean swell we saw our first blue whale.
Everyone rushed to the front of the boat as the whale surfaced and blew a spout of water. This was exciting stuff, and despite the numbers on the boat, everyone behaved relatively well apart from an English girl who tried to push in between us. We stood our ground at the rail, so she decided to rest her
camera on Ren’s head. At this point, Ren decided to move to the viewing deck which did not have seats, and I followed shortly after. It was a much better place to view the whales and take photos, so we stayed there for the rest of the journey.
From the first sighting, the whale watching boats (that had sailed together in formation from Mirissa Harbour) chased whales as they surfaced. This was hardly an environmentally sympathetic approach to marine tourism, and I felt sorry for the whales that were being chased and photographed (by me) as they gently and majestically went about their migratory activities. However, I have to admit it was fantastic to see them in their natural habitat, and we did get caught up in the excitement. We would be slowly listing in the swell until one of the crew shouted “Whale, big one”, and we would be off. As we got closer, a crew member would shout out the whale’s location in relation to our boat’s position in the water. As he shouted “11 o’clock, 11 o’clock, 11 o’clock”, we would kneel and rest our arms on the railing, waiting for the whale to surface with
cameras at the ready. The crew would yell “Coming up, coming up, coming up”, and just as the whale was about to surface in front of us, they’d screech “Body, body, body”. After the whale had gently broken the water’s surface with its back about three times, the crew (who by this stage had reached fever pitch) would collectively scream “Tail, tail, tail”, and we would blindly point and click our cameras into the glaring sun, hoping somehow to catch the whale’s tail as it gracefully dived into the ocean depths.
At 9:15am we abandoned the chase and headed back to Mirissa Harbour. Our whale adventure was over. We settled on cushions that lined the railing of the viewing deck and enjoyed the ocean breeze as we motored back to port. The crew handed out watermelons, Smak mango nectar drinks and cold hand towels on the way, and they were very refreshing. All up we’d seen four blue whales, with two separate sightings of each. This equated to eight sightings in my book, but the more pedantic among us would probably argue that it was really only four. After such an enjoyable experience, the number of whales mattered little.
We docked at 10am, and it had been a great three hours on the ocean.
We clambered down from the viewing deck, slowly made our way off the boat with our fellow whale watchers, retraced our steps to Mirissa Water Sports, jumped into a three-wheeler and headed back to the hotel. On the way I jumped out at the friendly laundrette/restaurant where I’d left our clothes the day before, picked up our laundry (as promised) and then walked the remaining distance back to the hotel in the searing morning sun. The clothes had been washed, dried and ironed perfectly.
After a quick shower to wash the ocean’s residual salt from our skin, we jumped into a minibus and headed along the coast to a local fisherman’s family home for lunch in Weligama
. We stopped on the way to pick up some fresh tuna from a roadside vendor, as the family had agreed to prepare ambul thial
(hot and sour clay pot curry), one of my all-time favourite Sri Lankan delicacies. We watched in awe as the vendor skilfully (and speedily) cleaned the fish with a massive knife before chopping it into perfectly sized chucks for this hot, sour
and peppery dish. I first encountered ambul thial
at a small Sri Lankan restaurant in Melbourne that we occasionally visited with Ren’s parents. It was a taste I had never experienced, and I couldn’t get enough of it. An authentic ambul thial
was something I’d really been looking forward to on this trip, and where better to try it than at the family home of a local fisherman.
We arrived at 1pm and watched the mother prepare cuttlefish curry, chilli crab curry and ambul thial
over a wood fire in an outside cooking area at the back of the house. We then settled at tables in the front yard and waited for the meal to be served. In addition to the fish curries, we enjoyed jack fruit and nut curry, green bean curry, green leaf stir-fry, fried fish and fresh bananas. It was fantastic. The cuttlefish had been boiled prior to cooking, which made it soft and slightly flavourless. However, the crab curry was great, and the fresh ambul thial
was sour and tasty.
On finishing our meal, we said goodbye to the family and headed to a nearby beachside to witness stilt fishing. Well, we didn’t really
“witness” stilt fishing per se, but we did watch two very bored old men pretend to fish on stilts – their fishing rods didn’t even have a line and hook attached. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s unique method of fishing is on the wane, and the stilt fisherman can make more money by pretending to fish in front of tourists (who pay to watch and photograph the facade) than by actually catching and selling fish. It was difficult to stand and witness.
After snapping a few photos of the fisherman-actors (the touristic urge to do so clearly outweighing any pangs of conscience), we jumped back into the minibus and made our way towards Galle
. After a 45 minute drive along Sri Lanka’s southern coastline, we arrived in the colonial township and headed straight for the Royal Dutch Fort area, passing the Galle International Cricket Ground on the way. We walked the narrow cobblestone streets and stood atop the steep stone walls of this majestic place, wishing all the time we were staying here rather than spending another night in mad Mirissa. It was incredibly hot, so we sheltered in a small gelato cafe (Il Gelato) and enjoyed a welcome selection of
roasted coconut, pistachio, date and brandy gelati. The late-afternoon heat was unrelenting, so we cooled down with a cold ginger beer before heading back along the coastline to Mirissa.
We arrived back at Hotel Silan Mo around 6:30pm and headed over the road to another of Mirissa’s pervading beachside restaurants (Nissan) for pre-dinner drinks. While ‘restaurant’ may have been its operative title, ‘beach cafe and bar’ was much closer to the mark. We decided to stay for dinner and shared a margherita pizza. It was OK, but not quite as good as the night before. Our eating options in Mirissa were limited (to say the least), and we were not – under any circumstance – going to dine at the hotel restaurant, even though it was included in our trip costs. If only we were staying in Galle…
We were fading fast from such an early start, so we called it a night at 9pm and walked over the road and up the steep, endless stairs to our room. Our Real Food Adventure was finishing the following day in Colombo, and we were half way through our Sri Lankan travels.
As a food tour destination, Mirissa was
bitterly disappointing, especially given the fact that we spent two nights here. We shared meals with a few local families on the way from Yala National Park, but I have to admit these were all a little underwhelming. The only notable food experience was visiting a local fishing family during our half-day trip to Galle. It was difficult to hide our disappointment. We’d purchased this ‘real food adventure’ in good faith, yet we spent two days in a place where ‘real food’ (i.e. local Sri Lankan food) was almost impossible to source. As a travel location, Mirissa is a place for backpackers and resort tourists – it is not a food location. If it is nothing more than a stop-over place between Yala and Colombo (in terms of the ‘real food adventure’ schedule), why not stay in Galle? SHE SAID...
For the first time on the trip, we slept through the 6am alarm! We had to rush to get ready in time and fit in a quick breakfast before we left Tissamaharama. I was especially annoyed at our tardiness that morning when I realised there was a dedicated hopper
station at breakfast, making delicious egg hoppers
crispy rice flour and coconut crepes cooked in a mini-wok, with an egg in the centre) to order. I would have loved to have enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with my favourite Sri Lankan food item. As it was, I had to rush through my selection of egg hoppers
, seeni sambol
(caramelised onion relish), pol pani
(crepes filled with sweetened coconut), fruit and tea.
We were leaving Tissamaharama and driving to Mirissa
. On the way we stopped at a small family business that made traditional curd with milk from their small herd of buffalo. I had been very excited about this stop, as I had really enjoyed tasting treacle (the other half of the curd and treacle dessert) at the coconut plantation family business we stopped at in Madampe a week ago.
We walked into a family compound with barking feral-looking dogs charging towards us, and I was quite taken aback that the family just watched and did nothing to check the dogs until our group leader Thila (who we knew had a fear of dogs) asked them in no uncertain terms to restrain the dogs. We were led into the family home and then into a smoke-blackened kitchen
where a heavily pregnant woman was standing over a very hot wood fire stove.
Basically the curd is made by boiling buffalo milk for two hours, then cooling it to room temperature, before a small portion of the previous day’s curd is added to provide the culture. It’s then poured into small clay pots, covered with a piece of paper and left to set for 12 hours. I have to be honest – the site for this curd making demonstration was less than ideal. We were relentlessly bombarded by little flies as we stood in the hot and clammy kitchen while the buffalo milk was being boiled. My heart went out to the pregnant woman who had to do such hot and heavy work at such a late stage in her pregnancy.
After the demonstration there was a tasting of curd with treacle, but the environs and the fact that I had recently stuffed my face with egg hoppers
meant that I skipped the tasting. Andrew had a small serve and thought the curd was of a much looser consistency than that we’d had so far on the trip. This made me think that we’d probably been having
commercially made curd (hopefully in more sterile factory conditions…).
After that underwhelming stop, we followed the road west and drove towards Hambantota
, passing government farms of kurakkan
(finger millet) and extended rural belts that lined the road the entire way. We eventually stopped at a row of roadside shops that sold food, toys and ubiquitous household goods. The stall we were visiting was famous for their dodol
. Of Malay origin, these super sweet confections have a firm jelly consistency and are made of coconut milk, rice flour, jaggery
(Sri Lankan palm sugar), nuts and spices. The mixture is cooked for a very long time, until the original ingredients have morphed beyond recognition into a translucent gooey mass with an oily coating.
We walked through the stall and into the outdoor kitchen where the sweets were made in massive metal pans over a wood fire. The use of either refined sugar or jaggery
(and the varying quality of the jaggery
) determined the quality and price of the different dodol
samples on offer. I loved these sweets when I was a kid, but after a few tastings I realised that it was waaay too sickly sweet for me
now. So instead, we bought a pack of our much loved thala guli
(small sesame and palm sugar rolls wrapped in wax paper). Our driver Anil bought a large pack of dodol
for his children, and apparently did so every time he drove past this stall. It must have been good dodol
, but I wish they’d halved the sweetness!
The roads in and around Hambantota were very good. This was the hometown of the previous President, and we saw evidence of all the overseas investment (read: Chinese) money he’d diverted to this area. There was a barely-used International Conference Centre, a barely-used airport, the fortress-like Chinese harbour and the Shangri-La Hotel that had shipped Chinese workers in to do all the work.
We had a toilet stop at a cafe at the beginning of the scenic southern coast road, and we took some time out to admire and soak in the beautiful panoramic coastline. We were right at the bottom of the country, which is a bit of a magnet for seekers of surf, sand and seafood.
We drove past Mirissa (our intended destination) to nearby Hakmana
for lunch at the house of a Muslim family. We
walked down a small side lane and were ushered into the house by a young man. We could hear female voices in the kitchen, but were told that they weren’t comfortable coming out to meet us. The meal started well with a welcome drink of refreshing and delicious falooda
(cold milk with rose syrup, basil seeds and jelly). I’ve been a big fan of falooda
(or anything with rose flavouring really) since I was a child, so I was most happy with our welcome drink. Unfortunately, it went a bit downhill from there for me… We were served a very bland beef biryani
(rice dish steamed with beef curry), fried to a crisp chicken, an oily dried shrimp dish, an ok vegetable curry (of peas, cauliflower and cashews), a delicious salad of cucumber and onion with yoghurt, and an interesting mustardy pickle of whole small red onions. Sadly, even the watalappan
(spiced coconut egg custard) dessert, which I had been really looking forward to, was overcooked and dry.
Alas, it wasn't a great experience. Even though the food wasn’t brilliant, I was actually more disappointed that there was minimal interaction with the family. We were served by the young
man and his father, but their communication with us was very awkward. To me, this totally defeated the purpose of a home visit. Sigh, such a missed opportunity.
On a related note, I still don’t understand why people love biryani
so much. I get that it’s a labour intensive process, but to be honest, I think I would prefer the rice and curry separately, before they both get weakened and dried out by being steamed together. I have only ever had one truly delicious and moist biryani
, which was cooked by the inventors of the dish – northern Indian Muslims. I think something has been lost in its adaption elsewhere in the world. However, given that when it comes to food, I tend to have a case of FOMO (fear of missing out), so I’ll probably keep trying it. 😊
After lunch we doubled back to Mirissa. We arrived at Hotel Silan Mo in the mid-afternoon, but our rooms weren’t ready, so Andrew spent that time hunting down a laundry service (we were seriously low on clean outfits). His tale was one of a long, hot and sweaty walk in an effort to find a place that was
open and that also charged for laundry by weight rather than per item. It fascinates me that even with tourist numbers on the rise, supporting services like laundries are so hard to find in Sri Lanka.
We eventually checked into our lovely room on the third floor of the hotel, at the end of a very steep set of stairs. Each floor only had three rooms, and they all had gorgeous sea views and large balconies. Our room and balcony was lovely, but the bathroom was another story entirely. It was a wet bathroom, which I don’t love but can live with. However, it was dark and damp and had odd little windows that opened directly onto an internal corridor… so my gasps of shock (and a swear word or two) when my comfortably tepid shower water suddenly turned icy cold or scalding hot, probably reverberated down the hallway and into the other rooms. 😊
Andrew and I eventually regrouped and walked to the beach just across the road. However, as the entire beach is lined with restaurants and bar shacks, we could only access the beach by walking through a bar. It had turned into a lovely
afternoon and the beach was totally packed, which wasn’t ideal, but thankfully it still had a chilled vibe. Instead of settling down on beach lounges as we had planned, we decided to walk the length of the beach to the small islet of Girigala (Parrot Rock). It was low tide, so we could walk across sand and slippery stones to the rocky outcrop, from which the arch of Mirissa’s two beaches can be seen. It was a lovely spot, but made slightly less lovely by everyone crowding into it to watch the dramatic sunset. We watched the selfie stick wielding Instagram mob for a while, and then decided to return to the rooftop pool of our hotel. The pool was bathwater warm and blissfully empty. We sat in relaxed silence and watched the ever changing colours of the dusky sky over the Indian Ocean.
We eventually dragged ourselves downstairs and got ready for pre-dinner drinks at Kama Beach Bar directly across the road from our hotel (which had provided our access to the beach earlier). I had a couple of very pleasant Passiontinis during happy hour, while Andrew had a disappointingly watery mojito and a beer. There was definitely
the sense of a relaxed and laidback backpacker lifestyle in Mirissa.
We returned to our hotel for an included dinner… and to say we were all bitterly disappointed would be an understatement. It was the most uninspiring and insipid food I’ve had the misfortune of eating in a long time. The buffet was less thrilling than a wet sock, and didn’t taste much better either. It consisted of oily fried rice, a watery dahl
(lentil curry), chicken curry cooked to the texture of leather, flavourless fried fish, tasteless potato wedges, over boiled vegetables, and wilted spinach and garlic – which was the only non-terrible thing in the whole buffet.
It was very disappointing that a food trip would offer this as an included meal, not just on one night but for two consequent nights! Thila again failed to do his job and didn’t do anything to rectify it. Andrew, Damien, Steve and Lisa didn’t even try the buffet, so we eventually walked back to Kama Beach Bar. They ordered pizza and red wine, and as we sat in a beautifully atmospheric bar right on the beach, we tried to salvage a day that hadn’t been one of our
better travel days. Apart from breakfast, we’d bummed out on every food tasting and meal. I suppose you win some, you lose some.
As lovely as the evening at the beach was, we avoided having a late night, as we had a super early start for our whale watching expedition the next day.
We’d been ‘guaranteed’ to see whales by the company we’d chosen – Mirissa Water Sports. Of course we knew there was never a guarantee with wild animals, but it gave us the impression that there was a healthy number of whales around at the time. If I was a whale I’d hate British marine biologist Charles Anderson, who in 1999 proposed that there was an annual cetacean migratory route of blue and sperm whales around the south and east coast of Sri Lanka – when they moved between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. His theory was correct, and thus began the whale watching industry around the coast. Mirissa is perfectly placed for sightings of these gargantuan creatures, as the continental shelf on which Sri Lanka sits is at its narrowest, with ocean depths of 1km within 6km of the coast – which
is apparently ideal whale country.
We were up at 5am to leave the hotel at 6am. Everyone I know who has been whale watching off the coast of Mirissa has told me horror stories of how rough the sea was and how many people were sick. I don’t usually get seasick, but when Debbie kindly offered me a Kwells motion sickness tablet, I gladly took it. Nine of us and Hemantha (our bus assistant) shared three three-wheelers (motorised tricycle with a passenger cabin, also called tri-shaws or tuk-tuks) to the Mirissa Water Sports office near the harbour. While registering, I noticed advertising literature that indicated we could expect to see blue whales, sperm whales, fin whales, occasional orcas and other types of dolphins.
Our boat left the harbour at 7am. We scored seats at the front of the lower deck and soon after got fed a breakfast of two fried egg sandwiches, two sausages, a banana, and a bottle of water. I was quite impressed. The boat journey was so calm and gentle that I fell asleep for most of the one hour trip out to deep water (quite possibly with the help of my motion sickness tablet).
The only thing that kept waking me was the occasional big sea spray that hit the side of my head. 😊
As some point I heard a commotion, and by the time I woke up and hurried to the front of the boat, Damien and Steve were already pointing into the distance where I could see a faint blow of a whale. However, the whale was too far in the distance to make out any details. Not long after that we had two more sightings, and the front of the boat started getting quite packed. When a grumpy girl behind me decided to balance herself by leaning into me and then proceeded to rest her camera on my head to steady her shot, I decided to give the upper deck of the boat a go. That was a fabulous decision, as there was more space upstairs and we had the ability to quickly move to whichever side of the boat the whale appeared on.
The boat guys were experts at spotting the whales and knew their surfacing and diving characteristics. They would shout directions such as 1 o'clock or 3 o'clock relative to the bow of the boat,
and then brilliantly predict when the whale was about to surface or about to dive – so we could all manically attempt to get that sort-after whale tail shot. 😊
Impressively, we saw a total of four whales over about eight or so sightings. I was so so so thrilled to see these beautiful colossal creatures of the sea. The absolute highlight of the trip was when one whale surfaced right alongside our boat, and from my vantage point on the upper deck I could clearly see its hulking great outline in the flat green water. It was such an amazing thrill! However, even at such close range I couldn’t accurately make out body size, shape, colour or markings – which would have been great indicators of what type of whale I was looking at. As a result, I had to take our boat crew’s word that we were looking at blue whales.
I did some research when I got home, and using our photos of the shape and size of the whale’s dorsal fins and tail fluking (the tail position as they dive), I confirmed that we definitely saw blue whales. Another indicator used is the shape
and size of the whales’ blow, but looking at our photos, the shape of the blow was hard to identify with distance and wind changing the way it looked.
On the trip back to port, we got some much needed delicious mango juice and some very welcome fresh watermelon to munch on. It tasted even better through our salt encrusted lips.
I would highly recommend Mirissa Water Sports for their professionalism and the helpfulness of all the staff on board. It cost a bit more than other whale watching outfits, but Intrepid Travel had assessed the safety of their operations, which is something I will always happily pay more for. And from the way some of the other boats behaved in the water, I’m glad we gave our business to a responsible operator. I also noticed that on the majority of whale sightings, our captain seemed to be the first to spot the whales, with other boats following in our wake.
Andrew picked up our laundry on the way back to our hotel, and we were so relieved to have fresh (and perfectly ironed and folded!) clothes again. The group headed out at 12:30pm for lunch at
a local fisherman's house in the small hamlet of Weligama
. We stopped on the way and Thila bought some very fresh tuna from a roadside stall to contribute towards the meal. It was amazing to see the guy at the stall clean, gut and cut the fish up so swiftly and expertly for us.
Saman the fisherman’s house wasn’t far from the beach, and he told us that the flood water from the tsunami had come right up to his fence, destroying all of his neighbours’ properties. His house was only saved by being on a slightly higher elevation than his neighbours – which must have been so scary!
We watched as Saman's wife Kumari cooked cuttlefish, crab curry and ambul thiyal
(hot and sour clay pot curry) with the tuna we brought – all on one open wood fired stove. As well as those dishes, Kumari had also cooked us red rice, green bean curry, jackfruit curry (complete with its large starchy seeds), mukunuwenna mallung
(sessile joyweed and coconut stir-fry), fried fish and pappadums. The crab was cooked whole, so it was a little messy getting the crab flesh out of the shell and legs. However, it
was a really flavourful, delicious and enjoyable meal. I’d really been looking forward to the cuttlefish curry, and even though the curry was tasty, the cuttlefish was far too overcooked for my taste. We’ve had to get used to the fact that seafood in Sri Lanka is cooked for much longer than we cook it at home, but given transportation and storage aren’t always in refrigerated conditions, it’s probably not a bad thing.
After lunch, we stopped to watch stilt fishermen fishing in the ocean along the roadside. Well, I use the term 'fishing' very lightly. Even though there are some stilt fishermen who still fish by perching on stilts, the vast majority of stilt fishermen exist only to put on a show for tourists. The Weligama area is famous for its distinct stilt fishing, an old traditional way of fishing only practiced in the southern region. They erect a single pole in shallow water just a few metres off-shore, where they perch on a cross bar and use bamboo fishing rods to cast their lines out beyond the surf break to catch small fish. With one hand they hold the stilt, while the other jiggles the bamboo fishing
As we approached the stilt fishing stop, two men emerged from a small roadside hut and walked down to the water and scaled up their poles and pretended to fish. It was funny, but also a sad indictment on tourism – a machine we were very much part of as we stood snapping photos of men pretending to fish. But the reality is, they make more money from our tips than from fishing.
After that quick stop, we drove on to the old town of Galle
(pronounced gaul). I had been looking forward to this visit, as I’d heard such positive things about this fully fortified city. Whenever I used to watch international cricket matches televised from Galle with Dad, he used to tell me what a lovely old city it was. Galle has an incredibly rich history, which is reflected in the UNESCO World Heritage listing of the 17th century Dutch Fort.
We drove into the walled city through the Main Gate, which sits just opposite the International Cricket Stadium, and started our visit at the old Dutch Reformed Church (completed in 1755). The water stained white exterior and the dust covered white interior of
the church made it look quite unloved. You could sense (and smell) the oldness when you walked in. I guess the small panels of brightly patterned stain glass in wooden windows and the heavy dark brown wood pulpit and pews would once have looked stunning against crisp white walls. Parts of the tiled floor were haphazardly inlaid with old headstones rescued from the Old Dutch cemetery, and I found it slightly eerie walking over them. The church was plainer and far less spiritual than I’d expected. The experience wasn’t helped by the caretakers who’d been eyeballing us the whole time, and then shoved donation boxes at us without so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. I would much rather places charge an entry fee than rudely demand donations after the fact.
We walked past the All Saints Anglican Church, Post Office, Library and National Maritime Museum. We stood in the much appreciated shade of old trees in Court Square while we took in all the official buildings around the square. After this we proceeded out of the old city through the Old Gate. On the inside of the Old Gate wall, there’s a reasonably well preserved Dutch East
India Company coat of arms from 1669 with two lions and a rooster, and on the outside of the wall there’s a British coat of arms from a later period of colonisation. We were now at water level and up close to the stone walls of the fort, so we could appreciate what an incredible feat of construction it was. This part of Sri Lanka was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami, but luckily much of the city was protected by the high fort walls.
By now the whole group was flagging and we all desperately needed a cold drink, so we went back into the old city to hunt down a cafe. We stopped at Il Gelato on Pedlar Street, and my coconut and pistachio gelato was superb – as was Andrew's coconut, brandy and date combination. The cold sugary gelato pepped us up, and we continued our walk around the old city.
I was quickly charmed by the tiny paved streets inside the city walls. The beautiful old streets had a mix of unoccupied crumbling but striking colonial buildings, and beautifully renovated properties with well-tended gardens. No new builds are allowed within the walls, and I’ve
read that the long term goal is to restore everything back to its original condition.
We walked back out to the fort wall at the Aurora Bastion near the Dutch Hospital, and walked along the rampart to the Point Utrecht Bastion which is topped by the iconic 18 metre Galle lighthouse. We kept walking along the fort walls, passing the eye-catching white Meeran Mosque to Flag Rock, the southernmost point of the fort. This part of the fort was very popular with local tourists, school groups and vendors, so we didn’t linger long. It was easily the most picturesque part of the fort walls.
We crossed back into the narrow streets to admire the beautiful examples of Dutch colonial villas, some of which had been beautifully transformed into stylish antique shops, museums, galleries, boutique hotels and eateries. There was a lovely pairing of old worldliness with a contemporary modern arty vibe, with attractively curated spaces on almost every street.
Within minutes of getting to Galle, I regretted that we hadn’t made the time to stay a few days within the fort, and I was sad that we had to leave the richness of Galle and return to
Mirissa that night. We got back to our hotel at 6pm and gathered almost immediately for drinks at Nissan Restaurant Bar, which was diagonally opposite our hotel. I started with two Happy Hour drinks – a Moscow Mule and a Daiquiri – and both were pretty substandard. Andrew made a better choice by drinking beer. We couldn’t be bothered moving elsewhere for dinner, so we shared a margherita pizza and pol roti
(coconut roti) stuffed with cheese, and kept chilling out on the beach.
This southern coastal part of Sri Lanka felt a bit like south-east Asia in parts. Mirissa is essentially a fishing village turned chilled-out beach town, and now whale watching mecca. Even though it has a fine stretch of beach, the back-to-back restaurants and cafes right on the sand, and the noticeable overdevelopment of newly built unplanned hotels, gives it a cheap, tacky feel. It was a shame that there was nothing uniquely Sri Lankan about this place. We could have been in a beach shack town anywhere in the world – the pervasive types of places that play Bob Marley and sell pizza. It was nice enough, but I won't be rushing back.
We were in bed by 10pm. It had been a long but memorable day.
Next we travel north-west to Colombo for some big city cosmopolitanism.
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