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Asia » Sri Lanka » Southern Province » Unawatuna
October 23rd 2012
Published: November 2nd 2012
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Lotty's version;

Sri Lankan airways were a pleasant surprise. We had checked in behind a family of about 12, each one had maxed out their 30kg baggage allowance with tatty boxes and taped up carrier bags, seriously who puts a carrier bag into hold baggage! We also saw a guy casually checking in two flat screen TVs... as you do! India had remained weird even up to the airport! After the worlds longest queue and grottiest airport (OK, maybe not grottiest after experiencing other Indian airports) the airplane seemed like a palace! It definitely had the biggest legroom i've experienced and the food was actually really good, for a 75 minute flight they did extremely well. 10 minutes in the person in front put their seat back, wouldn’t have been too bad if I wasn’t trying to use the table to write my blog! As the plane was no where near full I loudly requested to move and we ended up with four seats to ourselves with no one behind or in front!

Colombo airport was also really nice, although in the duty free beside the alcohol and perfume were fridges and washing machines.... to go with the guys two TVs maybe? We added another stamp to our passport before collecting our belongings and heading out.

I had researched our journey South from the airport to Unawatuna and decided the most cost effective and fastest was to get the train. To do this we got a free shuttle bus to the bus station. Then a bus to the train station. All the changes happened really quickly and we had no time to really think, except for on the bus which took 90 minutes to get to the train station! The bus was playing a kind of hula Hindi fusion music and out the window everywhere you looked were banana sellers and palm trees. It felt like we were on holiday! It was however, obviously a westernised place but a little behind the times with “coke” and “Farleys rusks” being the main advertisements. The women were obviously a lot more westernised than India too but still maintaining a modest dress, unlike what we had seen in Calangute, Goa. As our journey progressed more and more locals were cramming into the bus, Planty was getting more and more irritated with the music (I thought it was quite good... happy and upbeat it was definately better than Goa FM anyway!). the guy infront of us was snoring with his head awkardly propped against the seat infront of him meaning he got a bang every time the bus slammed on (and they drive like India, but with less use of the horn!) Finally at the train station we were once again surrounded by Tuk Tuk drivers asking if we wanted one, “How much to Galle?” Planty asked mockingly. When we finally found our way to the ticket counter where they promptly ignored us until someone pushed in front and Planty shouted at him and then the ticket sellers. When we said we wanted the train to Galle he declared “the train is on the platform you need to run” and threw our tickets and change at us like we were the ones dithering! We ran with our rucksacks up the overpass and onto the train. There were no seats and we had to prop our belongings up and stand at the doors. About five minutes later the train slowly rolled off the platform, at this point it became apparent we should be thankful to even be inside the train, many were just hanging on for dear life on the outside! I perched on my rucksack and held the other bags close as we speeded up and the huge doors remained open meaning I dreaded loosing anything. It wads OK though, the view out the door was amazing! I don't think Sri Lanka was very geared to tourism when they planned the train line as it runs right down the coast, great for the traveller but not for the massive five star hotels that cannot build anywhere near the beach!

Just as my bum had gone numb from sitting on my bag and most of my toes were dead from being trodden on, a guy motioned to Planty for me to take his seat, he helped Planty put our bags up and pretty soon I was sat opposite his wife, a charming chubby little girl and a baby with a mono-brow! There were also people walking up and down the train selling drinks, balloons, sweets, prawns and red chilli’s, as you do. We had three hours of this altogether but Sri Lanka was quickly becoming my new favourite country! The weather was also gorgeous. We had been checking the weather app and then with Goa being miserable we were convinced Sri Lanka would be the same but no! The app was clearly lying because where there should be storms was bright sunshine. I crossed my fingers and my toes for the next few days! A slightly crazy guy on the train had advised us to get a bus from Galle to Unawatuna, we tried our luck with a Tuk tuk but they were all more than we had been quoted, so we hopped on a public bus which dropped us right at our hotel! Altogether our journey had cost £3.80 for the two of us. The three hour train had cost 85p each!

On arrival at the hotel the German owner had abruptly told us I had made an error with the booking and only managed to book for one person. I was tired, hungry and hot and making mistakes like that make me stress massively, I just wanted to cry! I think her abruptness was more a culture and a language thing, she said we could sort it the next day, we did end up paying an extra 5 Euros but for what we initially paid and for the extra b & b it was no issue. Plus this place is gorgeous! We had time for a quick change and a dip in the sea so after a quick chocolate fix we were out on our own private beach (or so it felt) the hotel is a little out of the centre and the sea is too rough to swim, apart from an area where rocks form a natural barrier across, basically forming a swimming pool in the sea. There was no one around except for a few locals fishing. It was amazing! We ate in the hotel and got an early night as we were exhausted!

After a good breakfast we were back on our beach. We went for a walk along it photographing palm trees and stilt fishermen and spotting crabs, cormorants and kingfishers. We had lunch in a beach front restaurant where I experienced possibly the best dessert on the planet; home-made lemon cheesecake with stem ginger.... mmmmmm, afterwards we lazed around and ate dinner in the hotel, not really good blogging material I’m afraid!

Day three was a gloomy start, we sat in the restaurant catching up with the India blog (which we were so behind with as it was so jam packed!) by mid morning we had moved to a big stone bench overlooking the sea and by lunch time it was scorching! The weather app claimed there was an 80% chance of rain, only issue with that was there wasn’t a cloud in the sky (not that I was complaining!). I spent hours (literally) watching the waves crash in and spotting turtles surfacing for air, this is such a beautiful place!

For dinner we got a tuk tuk into Unawatuna, I’m sorry to say tuk tuks here put India's party tuk to shame! They are faster, most are adorned with postcards of Sri Lanka, have sound systems, skylights, UV lights. The drivers will burn incense in them when they are not being used and there is even one driving around which has been converted into a bakery and plays “Santa Claus is coming to town” meaning it gets in your head and you question why you’re humming Christmas songs in October! Dinner was amazing, and cheap! I had a pineapple daquari, later in the same bar I had an arrak sour, arrak is the local spirit and it is pungent to say the least! On the way back we browsed the shops and ended up in a little gem shop adorned with sapphires and moonstones,I made a mental note to visit Galle where jewellery sellers have a much better reputation for quality. Eventually we grabbed a tuk tuk, Planty tried to get a UV one but we ended up with a tuk tuk with brochures of guided tours plastered all over the seats and a driver that had no idea where he was going!

When our new found alarm clock (the local train) woke us up the next morning we gingerly looked outside BLUE SKIES! Yay! We dressed, ate breakfast and were down on the local public beach before you can say burnt plant! the way it works is there are loads of beach bars lining the beach and each beach bar has a few sunbeds you buy a couple of drinks and you're free to use them for the day. At night they turn into the local restaurants, each having their fresh catch on display and most having a BBQ on the beach. They all have names like “happy banana” and “lucky tuna” and on this particular day we opted for “Happy banana” Although “”Lucky tuna” became our favourite as the beer was cheaper and the food of a higher quality.

For this day, and many afterwards we alternated between the bar and the sea and basically spent the time topping up our tans! The only irritation was the beach sellers, apparently having bad memories they asked if we wanted their products every time they walked past, and had to explain what they where selling each time, they stand right in front of you and wave their products at you until you drag your eyes away from your book and answer them, even then no obviously wasn't in their vocabulary! They all had the weirdest collection of products too, what do they expect me to do with a green coconut and a map of Sri Lanka?? Another was a man selling peanuts and postcards, and then a Lady selling bracelets, cigarettes and peanuts. It was only made funny by Plantys commentary about how she was a walking convenience store and should call herself Tesco!

For every day we were in the Rockside Cabanas we pretty much fell into a routine, of getting up, eating, going the beach, going in the sea, having some drinks, eating, more drinks then going to the hotel and changing before going out and eating again. the exception being my birthday. I do like to get out and see the area but after India I was happy to play tourist for a few days. As the days went by the beach did become busier as we neared high season, however it was still bearable. Not that i'm complaining but there are far fewer “Brits abroad” here then I expected, but then I don’t know anyone who has actually been to Sri Lanka, I suppose the absence of Thomas Cook and Thomson is to be thanked for that. Everywhere you visit there is still remembrance to the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami on this area and apparently Unawatuna beach has never recovered its true beauty (I think its gorgeous), its obvious the area is dependant on tourism, I just hope it isn't ruined by it.

Each evening we alternated between the beach restaurants trying different foods. I’m not a massive fish eater being fussy and aware of its impact on the environment. However here it has to be more sustainable than back home and it is what the Sri Lankans do best! We had barbecued red snapper, tuna and Planty ate a lot of Prawns and calamari. We each tried a steak in different restaurants and its safe to say the Sri Lankans cannot cook steak! If you order a steak in France, no matter how you want it cooked it comes out bleu, the same applies for Sri Lanka, however no matter how you ask for it here it comes out tough as old boots! Honestly I think the little leather bag i've been carrying round since Pushkar was more tender!

As stated our little routine didn't apply to my birthday. I awoke on the morning of my birthday to blue skies and sunshine, so far we had been incredibly lucky with the weather and today was no exception. We went for breakfast and the hotel staff were full of happy birthdays. They gave me some flowers, Sri Lanka is full of beautiful flowers; hibiscus, birds of paradise and frangipani, however I got a bunch of scraggly I don't know what... looked like small Gerboras...but I like Gerboras! obviously whatever it was is a rarity here! However its the thought that counts!

We were at a loss what to do, we where going the turtle sanctuary for 5, but what to do until then? I didn't want to go and sit on the beach as I wanted to do something abit special. 15 mins drive from our hotel is Galle, the capital of the southern province of Sri Lanka it is an old Dutch fort complete with lighthouse and fortified wall.

We had read about a jewellery shop on trip advisor that seemed genuine so Planty suggested we get me a birthday prezzi from there and have a wander round Galle. We asked our driver to drop us near the lighthouse and swapped numbers so he could pick us up, he told us we should go the museum, after 2 weeks of them I could tell by Plantys face that’s the last thing he wanted to do and declined, when he heard us talking about the jewellery shop he said they were all fake and we should go to the one in the museum as that’s the only genuine one, a little later on another tuk tuk driver tried to get us jewellery shopping in the museum, I think they may have all been on commission!

We left the driver and went to walk up some steps to the fortifications to have a look round until we knew he had gone. From nowhere a dog appeared at the top of the steps, she was barking at something in the grass in front of us and when we looked down a monitor lizard was stood frozen. The dog lunged at the lizard which bolted off and we watched as they legged over the other side of the steep verge until the dog gave up! loads of dogs are fat here, coming from India we’ve seen from one extreme to another! The mental lizard chasing dog was no exception, she was fat with stumpy legs, I would have put my money on the lizard! We walked along the fortified wall for about five minutes before deciding it was far too hot to be walking around looking at culture! We knew the jewellery shop was right next to us so planned a brief visit there before finding a bar of some sort. about an hour later we left the shop, having sat chatting to the owner about India, drinking guava juice and picking a blue sapphire ring that was to be custom made and collected on Tuesday.... I hope its genuine! Our plan of finding a bar was definitely tougher! The place was like a ghost town, we tried to make our way to a newer part of Galle thinking it may have more choice but it was too hot and we had no idea where we were going! After some aimless wandering we found a restaurant, it was an enclosed courtyard and quite posh.... well it was my birthday! We were relatively unimpressed with Galle and had expected more, our driver could not pick us up as his tuk tuk had broken down (try understanding that on the phone!) but we made it back in the end! At about 4.30 we left for the turtle sanctuary, it was both a tourist trap and a conservation effort. All the turtles were in stone tanks, most were babies or rehabilitating but there were a few permanent residents that would never survive in the wild, it would have been nice to see them in enriched tanks, but I got the impression funds were tight! He told us about the different turtle species in the sanctuary (Green sea turtles, loggerheads, hawksbill and olive ridley) and some details on lifespans and when they mature. Just before sunset we were given three tiny little hatchings that were healthy and strong enough to be released, they were adorable. I could feel their tiny hearts beating through their soft under shell and they were constantly fighting to get away. We put them down on the sand a little away from the sea and after getting their bearings they were off! I hope they make it! I asked the guy what their chances were and he seemed very optimistic, he said around 80% because there is a reef just offshore for them to shelter, I’m not convinced, I’m sure its around 1 in 3, meaning realistically I have hope for one of the little guys! It felt good, I had an amazing experience and helped with a conservation effort. Its nice to give to charity and see directly where it goes! I'd definitely put it on par with the elephant bathing!

Planty chose a nice looking restaurant but dinner wasn’t great, the soup I had for my starter tasted like freshly cut grass and my main was tough, they did put a huge effort in for my birthday though so I felt I couldnt fault it! It was great to talk to my parents but strange to be away on my birthday! Although I had received no presents it was one of the best birthdays I have ever had. The thought of being another year older was not so great though!

Our last day at Rockside was pretty gloomy. I had my fingers crossed as we needed good weather for our PADI's for the next few days! My ring that we collected from Galle was beautiful and afterwards we just chilled in the garden for a few hours before moving on to the dive centre. Whilst we were sat around we saw a snake casually slide along and under one of the cabanas, it was probably nearly a meter long and silvery in colour, we didn’t stay much longer after that, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Planty so eager to leave a hotel before!

Planty's version;

We touched down at Colombo airport ready for a relaxing time in Sri Lanka, after all, India had certainly taken it's toll on us both, we were exhausted. Our first glimpses of Sri Lanka came from the airport arrivals hall, and it was certainly more impressive than the Indian airports we had encountered on our travels. The arrivals and departures area was pretty much merged into one, so as we walked past groups of cricket fans going back to the UK, I was more than happy to boast about the fact that we had 3 weeks in Sri Lanka, and they had about 3 minutes of their stay left. Walking through to collect our bags, we stopped (as was now tradition) at the duty free to pick up a bottle of vodka and noticed that Sri Lanka has the some of the most obscure items on offer at duty free. I can't remember the last time I went on holiday and thought “oh look, a fridge at duty free, I could really do with one of those right now”, the place had a full range of electrical goods, it was like Comet had just decided to open a branch in the middle of an airport.

We eventually got our bags, and headed out of the airport to begin our journey from the airport to our hotel near Unawatuna. The journey took around 3 hours altogether, first we took a free shuttle bus from the airport to the local bus station, then a bus to Colombo Fort (train station) which cost 300 rupees (£1.50 altogether) and took nearly an hour. From there we boarded a train to Galle, which lasted 2 hours and cost 360 rupees (£1.80 for the 2 of us). The train journey was rather cool, because the track ran all the way along the coast, and in most parts, the train line itself was no more than 2 metres away from the sea, we stood on admiring the scenery through the open doors of the train (they don't seem to ever close them).

Lotty had read somewhere that a tuk tuk from Galle to our hotel should cost no more than 200 rupees, so when I had a few drivers telling me it would be 500, I told them where to go, claiming they were trying to rip me off. Convinced that we were being ripped off, we opted for a bus, which cost 100 rupess (50p), looking back, I felt a bit of a tight arse arguing over £1.50 with the tuk tuk drivers, but as I found out a few days later from our hotel owner, they weren’t ripping us off, 500 rupees is the actual price.....whoops.

So, after our early morning flight and 3 hour transfer consisting of 2 buses, a train and another bus, we arrived at our hotel, the Rockside Cabanas, ready to throw our bags down and plunge into the cold sea, but there was a problem. The lady who owned the hotel informed us that we (Lotty) had booked a double room, but only for 1 person, this was the last thing we needed, thankfully, after a short pause, she had spotted the error before we arrived, and made the required changes to our room to accommodate for me........silly Lotty.

The set up of the hotel is really good, from the main road, they have a locked gate that only guests and staff can get through with their key, they have 2 small buildings on either side as you walk through with about 3 rooms in each block. As you walk towards the back of the hotel and to the beach, there are 4 cabanas (little wooden hut style things) with good views of the sea. The back of the hotel has a small gate that leads down a couple of steps directly onto the beach, and the sea washes up about 5 metres from the steps.

We spent some much needed time relaxing in the nice cold sea after our journey and the stress of our booking error. The next couple of days we sat in the hotel garden, reading, drinking, catching up on our tans and having the occasional dip in the sea, and eating in the hotel in the evening. The food wasn't that bad, but it wasn't exactly special, so the next night we opted to head to Unawatuna beach to try out one of the many beach side restaurants on offer. As Sri Lanka is big on seafood, each restaurant has a display of the fish they had purchased earlier that day, you choose which one you want, and they do the rest, apart from eating it, that’s still your job obviously. The food was amazing, so fresh, tasty, and dirt cheap, so for the rest our stay, we decided to sample as many places as we could on the beach.

The morning after, we headed to the beach, grabbing a tuk tuk to take us there. The great thing about the beach there, was that all of the restaurants had sunbeds that are completely free to use, but it's nice to eat there or at least buy a drink, and they all have wi-fi, so I could send pictures of me struggling to enjoy myself on a nice, hot, beautifully sandy beach with an ice cold beer to enjoy. The beach itself was quite quiet, we had arrived in low season, the weather was still great, but it just meant more room on the beach for us. As the hours rolled by, the beach sellers passed by, offering fresh fruit, duvet covers and all sorts of wooden carvings, there was even a guy offering peanuts and postcards, which I thought was a very obscure combination of products to sell, I can't remember the last time I thought I needed some peanuts to go with my postcards.

On our many trips from the hotel to the beach and back, we noticed that the tuk tuk's in Sri Lanka are so much better than India. The drivers over here spend a bit of money on them, decorating them with flashing lights on the outside, UV lights on the inside and huge stereo systems, its brilliant. The other thing we took note of was that the most insane drivers on the roads, are bus drivers, they literally drive everywhere with their foots hard down on the accelerator and constantly overtaking another vehicle, sometimes while that vehicle is overtaking something else.

For the next few days, we had gotten into a routine of, get up, have breakfast, head to the beach, have a beer (or 3), have lunch, go back to the hotel and shower, go back to the beach and have dinner and more drinks, sleep, and repeat. I could go into detail of what we did each day, but it's all pretty much the same, the only reason I explained each day in India, is because they were all very different. Along the way, we had somehow managed to get ourselves a tuk tuk driver who seemed to sit outside our hotel and take us wherever we wanted and then either arrange a time for him to pick us up again, or we phoned him, which was very convenient for us. On Lotty's birthday, we headed to Galle, which is the next big town up the coast, our driver took us there and told us to ring him 20 minutes before we wanted picking up. We had a wander around the local area, and even had a local old guy trying to con me by trying to shake my hand and telling me he's the chef in my hotel, once more he was politely told what to do, as our hotel had 5 staff, and none of them had grey hair. Local people often do this in tourist areas, being friendly and telling you that they work at your hotel, then try and lure you into their friends shop, it seems to happen more in all inclusive resorts because they spot your wristband and tell you they work there. After a quick look round the old fort, we headed to a very well known jewellers to buy Lotty a present, basically because I couldn't be bothered to carry one around in my backpack for the previous 5 weeks, because it wouldn't be a surprise. We picked a nice ring to be custom made to fit Lotty's oversized sausage fingers, and before anyone asks, no it wasn't an engagement ring, I'm not that daft.

Happy with our choice, we left and headed to get some lunch in a very nice and relaxing restaurant close by, phoning our driver on the way, who told us he'd be 40 minutes, that wasn't a problem as it gave us chance to cool down as the sun was blazing that day. Halfway through our delicious, but slightly pricey lunch, we got a call from the driver, who in his part English, part Sri Lankan dialect, told us that his poor tuk tuk had broken down....oh dear. We found a replacement temporary driver to take us back, and met up with our driver later that night to pay him for the journey to Galle, as we normally paid him once we had returned to the hotel. Later that day, we made our way to a local turtle sanctuary, where I had arranged for us to release some baby sea turtles back into the wild, after paying a small entrance fee we went inside to be greeted by a member of staff. I mentioned that we wanted to release a couple of turtles and that I had spoken to someone the day before who told us to arrive at 5pm, to which I was told they had already released them, and gave the biggest hint ever, that if we wanted to release them, we need to make a small donation of $30 (not really a small donation when your a backpacker). Telling him that we were going to make a donation anyway, his eyes lit up and showed us around each of the conservation pools, then letting us choose the turtles to release. We took our mini ninja turtles onto the beach, placed them on the sand and waited for them to make their way into the sea, the turtle I put down must have thought it was a race against Usain Bolt, because he/she, sprinted off into the sea straight away. The other 2 shortly followed as we took pictures, while Lotty was highly impressed with what we had just done. We both stood there watching them as they disappeared beneath the waves reflecting on how we had helped 3 baby sea turtles back into the wild, but they've probably been eaten by a shark by now anyway.

I had the joyous task of picking a place to eat that night and I wanted a nice place for Lotty's birthday. I picked a place that we had passed a few times by the beach, it didn't have great reviews, but the setting and restaurant itself looked very impressive. As Lotty went to the toilet, I quickly had a word with the waiters and informed them of the special occasion, they asked for her name and would arrange a cake, and I quickly sat back down to avoid Lotty seeing me talking with them. A few moments later I noticed a waiter re-setting napkins on the table next to us, and then taking ours out of our wine glasses and placing them next to us....I had sat down on the wrong table. I tried to deflect the question when Lotty asked why had I moved to another table, but then the same waiter came over and asked for a word in private, this really didn't look suspicious at all did it?! Moving on, I could see what the bad reviews were all about, Lotty had a leek, potato and onion soup, that spent a few minutes in a blender before arriving at the table, and it tasted like grass. I opted for a beef fillet for my main and asked for it rare, but when it eventually arrived it was more than well done, I could have eaten a leather shoe easier than I ate the fillet. I was quite annoyed with the food, but didn't complain because I didn't want to wait longer for food, and they were about to bring out the cake. Turning all the lights off in the restaurant, the staff lit the candles on the cake, sang happy birthday and put it down infront of a very embarrassed Lotty, and its sad to say that the best part of the meal was the free cake.

We spent the next 3 days in the same routine as prior to Lotty's birthday, basically topping up our tans and watching the world go by, while occasionally going for a dip in the sea, where the waves continually seemed to kick my arse. The water is quite choppy in Unawatuna at this time of year, so people try and dive through the huge waves, or swim with them. So me, being highly intelligent thought I'd give it a go. Its all fun, until your swimming on top of a 10ft high wave which then drags you under, slams you on the sea bed and drags you up the beach with your shorts halfway down your legs, resulting in 3 tonnes of sand being forced into every orifice of your body. This seemed to spur me on more, but after a few hours of this, I was exhausted and decided I'd had enough antics in the sea, and it was time for a beer to sooth the pain.

Our final few hours in the Rockside Cabanas consisted of a walk up the beach to take in the sights of the huge waves and the stilt fisherman, along with the occasional dog. Our next accommodation is to be the Unawatuna Diving Centre, where we will complete our PADI scuba dive course, we decided to do this course in Sri Lanka because its cheaper, better setting, better weather and its either that or do it in a warehouse in Liverpool, I know which one I’d rather do.

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