Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Chameera Cycling

During a stay in Galle Fort we decided to explore the back roads and found a small, locally run company that would take the two of us on a cycling trip. Johann, Chameera's brother, was our guide and after a drink at their home we set off inland, away from Unawatuna and the coast. The ride took us through stunningly beautiful rural scenery and there were some interesting stops along the way. The coconut factory was fascinating, an operation that employs around 20 people who take left over coconuts and transform the husks into rope. We visited a temple, watched a very talented crab fisherman and did a lot of nibbling on fruits, leaves and a variety of snacks. Another highlight was a cup of tea and some bread at a decidedly basic roadside cafe that functions as the areas gambling hut. The funny thing is that it's British horse racing that the locals are betting on, and although they don't speak a word of English, they know everything there is to know about the various tracks, horses and events. The tour took around 4 and a half hours and on our return we were given tea, fresh fruit and an ice cold facecloth - genius. 

The first-class fusion of Galle Fort

Galle Fort, on Sri Lanka's south-west coast, was built by the Portuguese in the late 15th century, with the Dutch enhancing fortifications from the middle of the 17th century.  Today it is a fascinating multi-ethnic melting pot of religion, culture and cuisine.  An intertwined web of European design and Asian tradition; a fully functioning little community with schools, churches, mosques, temples and every type of business imaginable.

Walking in the early morning and evening is the best way to experience Galle Fort's number one attraction - it's people.  Playing cricket, soccer, swimming, exercising, or purely enjoying a leisurely stroll, they love the outdoors and they interact as often as they can. 

Wandering along the walls allows one to appreciate the way the fort is as much a part of the ocean as it is part of the land, not only in position but also in the way it was built, with a substantial amount of shells and coral being used in its construction. 

If you could only visit one destination in Sri Lanka I would look no further than Galle Fort.  It's a truly unique destination, both in Sri Lanka and the rest of of the world.  It's a one of a kind.             

Saturday, 23 May 2015

My top 5 things to do in Mirissa

  1. Go for an early morning swim
  2. Walk to the harbour and watch some early morning fishermen activity
  3. Eat a roti or some kottu at 'The No.1 Dewmini Roti Shop'
  4. Have a tour of the Hundungoda Tea Estate
  5. Walk along the beach in the evening and then find a spot, at one of the many restaurants, and watch the sunset with a happy hour drink in hand
At first glance Mirissa seems like the perfect example of tourism gone horribly wrong.  It was exactly my feelings towards the place.  But I was wrong.  Just wait, be patient, there's a good chance it will grow on you.  It's an acquired taste; a bit like jackfruit.

The Hundungoda Tea Estate

On Sri Lanka's south coast, not far from Koggala, is the tongue-twister tea estate of Hundungoda, famous for it's Virgin White Tea.  This tea, which fetches unbelievable prices internationally (68 euros for 100g), is never touched by human hand, or any hand whatsoever.  The tiny shoots or 'silver tips', at the very top of the plant, are used and the result is a tea that not only tastes good but also has incredibly high anti-oxidant content. 

We caught a tuk-tuk from Mirissa to the estate, not really knowing what to expect or even if they'd be open.  This they were, and amazingly our guide was Malinga Herman Gunaratne, the sole proprietor and someone with more than 45 years in the industry.  We joined a small group (there were 5 of us) and walked around the estate that comprises tea, rubber, cinnamon, pepper and coconut, having a short break, at the plantation bungalow, for 2 cups of (different) teas and a beautiful piece of chocolate cake.  We also visited the tea factory, where fresh tea leaves are transformed into the stuff we are accustomed to.  The tour concluded with a tasting of all of the varieties produced in Sri Lanka and the (completely optional) chance to buy some tea.  The tour was free and it was without doubt one of our highlights of Sri Lanka.               

Hoot when confused - leaving Ella

The road from Ella to Mirissa was a fascinating one for a number of reasons.  I must pause here to talk briefly about the hooligan bus drivers, especially those driving the (red) government buses.  If I was asked to describe their motoring capability in two words they would be 'misplaced confidence'.  Crazy speeds in the worst possible places; reckless beyond belief in an environment of very little anticipation.  The amalgamation of buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians and an abundance of both very fast and very slow moving cars, creates a never-ending story of madness, drama, a bit of love and a lot of humour.   

There are a few absolute rules of the road in Sri Lanka.  It must be remembered that this is not something I have studied extensively, it is purely appreciated through observation. The first is one that is extremely prevalent throughout Asia, stating that on any given road, when one or more vehicles interact, the biggest will always have the right of way.  Something I have never seen before is the accepted behaviour when approaching a busy road or motorway, even if you are doing so on a scooter from a driveway or narrow side-street.  Move cautiously, at nothing more than a snails pace, maintaining this speed as you turn directly into whatever traffic there may be, without even glancing  at what may be hurtling towards you.  Vehicles, often travelling at considerable speed, expect the unexpected at all times, which brings me to the next very important regulation.  If confused, just hoot.  Hoot when approaching any road, parked car, bicycle, pedestrian or animal.  Hoot also if there is a vehicle travelling too slowly in front of you, when you're overtaking any vehicle, if you see your friend or if you're just in the mood to hoot.

Luckily we managed to avoid the odd collision and stopped near Wellawaya to have a look at Buduruwagala's remote location and impressive carved Buddha's.  A while later we witnessed the somewhat bizarre sight of a woman spreading her rice out on the motorway, with the intention of it drying.  According to our driver it was not such a busy motorway which is, I suppose, slightly reassuring.    

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Review of Waterfalls Homestay, Ella

After a fabulous couple of days at Sujatha's, in Kandy, and a spectacular train trip into the hill country, we found ourselves wandering, slightly nervously, down Ella's busy and slightly grubby main street.  We followed my map and took a right turn up and away from the road.  With the noise of tuk-tuks and buses fading behind us (thankfully), we continued on for around 15 minutes and arrived at Waterfalls Homestay.

I had read that it was a peaceful spot, away from the (relative) rush of the town, but this was a serious understatement.  The place is chilled in the extreme and it's impossible not too fall in love with it and everything around it.  The views from the breakfast table, towards the waterfall, but also over farmland and forest, are sublime.  Almost as good as the breakfasts with great coffee, fruit, curd, honey and eggs done exactly the way you want.  Evening meals are also a hit with some of the dishes being better than anything I'd tasted in the country.  Memories of Kemal's sour fish curry (or Ambul Thiyal) brings tears to my eyes for all the right reasons.  Powerful black pepper, sour Gorika fruit and cubes of tuna, a mix that had bubbled away gloriously on a generous base of fresh curry leaves.

Our room, the studio, was on the first floor, with wonderful views and a tree-house sort of feel to it.  The room was spacious, clean, incredibly comfortable and, as an added bonus, had a extensive library of books.  I happened to pick up Across many mountains; putting it down again was extremely difficult.  A brilliant read especially if you have an interest in the Tibetan/China situation disaster.

Ella is famous for it's big rock, for postcard landscapes, for little Adams Peak and for it's position in amongst some of Sri Lanka's most wonderful tea plantations. For me it is special because of Waterfalls Homestay and hopefully, when I return, that is were I will once again unwind.
The view through Ella Gap

Not a bad spot for breakfast


The view back towards Waterfalls Homestay from 'the' waterfall

Monday, 18 May 2015

The trains of Sri Lanka

Our recent 3 week adventure through Sri Lanka included 3 train journeys; which in my opinion is the best and most affordable way to get around.  The rail network was established by the British (in the 1860's) to facilitate the transport of tea and coffee from the hill country to Colombo.  At that time the natives of the little island referred to these machines as 'Anguru Kaka Wathura Bibi Duwana Yakada Yaka', which means the coal-eating, water-drinking, sprinting metal devils (taken from a very interesting article in the Sri Lankan Daily News, from 2011).  The present-day natives have become a lot more comfortable with these machines and they are now a very popular means of transport.  This makes for highly entertaining travel and although occasionally being overloaded, the open doors and windows, the never-ending scuttle of tea and snack sellers and the jaw-dropping scenery around every corner, make for an absolutely enthralling experience.  As a tourist, if you happen to be on a seat, you will certainly be on it's edge.  These trips, that last hours, fly by in the blink of an eye.  It's the only time I've ever felt sad to get off of a train that I had been on for 3 hours, without ever being able to sit on an actual seat.  I must advise that even though the much prized position of sitting in an open doorway has a million positives, there is one very important negative, or warning.  Make sure your feet don't stick out too far.  The train comes pretty close to station platforms and if you're on an express, that's travelling through at speed, it's a very good way to clip your toenails or something more significant.     

On the way to Ella, through beautiful tea plantations

Mind the gap!