Day 12: Sri Lanka (Beautiful Island)
ABOARD OCEANIA’S NAUTICA — Our guide, who said to call him “Wilhem,” explained that Sri Lanka translates as “Beautiful Island” in Sinhalese, the native tongue of about three-quarters of the inhabitants. We got glimpses of that beauty, including some fetching beaches, and the Mahdu River, a vast, mangrove-lined lagoon. But our tour — arranged independently through a California company, Ceylon Express International — also gave us a look at a “slice of life” on the island we learned in school to call Ceylon.
On a quick spin past a few highlights of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial center, largest city and our port of call, we saw old colonial buildings in the center, a huge statue of the standing Buddha, an architecturally dramatic Chinese-built performing arts center, and an equally dramatic if totally different Hindu Temple.
Intermittent showers, at times heavy, punctuated our day — the first significant rain of our entire journey, not counting evenings aboard ship. Wilhem steered his air conditioned Hyundai sedan onto the new turnpike and headed for Galle (pronounced “gawl”). After an hour plus drive to the end of the high-speed highway, we arrived in the historic city in time for lunch.
The reason to visit Galle is to see the Dutch Fort, built in the 1660s and replacing an earlier Portuguese one. It’s more than a fort, it’s a fortified city built on a promontory and entirely surrounded by a stone wall complete with bastions and gun emplacements. A more modern city now sprawls outside the walls, but the well-preserved district within remains a vibrant neighborhood and has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
We savored a lunch of fish and vegetable curries at the Ramparts Hotel terrace, overlooking a stretch of the wall and the sea beyond. We watched what appeared to be local (or at least Sri Lankan) families enjoying a holiday by strolling along the rampart, children swimming at a tiny beach at the base of a bastion. Due to that holiday, museums were closed, so after a walk along the walls and a quick look around the walled district, we headed down the coast road back toward Colombo.
The coast road is lined with buildings — houses, large and small, resort hotels, businesses. It’s also buzzing with traffic — motorbikes, some laden with entire families, trishaws, as they call tuk tuks here, autos, trucks, and buses, many buses. Bicycles and pedestrians occupied the shoulder. In the rain a startling number of bicyclists and motorbike passengers carried umbrellas. The motor vehicles all seemed to behave aggressively, with horn-honking and light-flashing prevalent, but the most aggressive were the buses. Wilhem explained that they are independently owned and race one another down the road to pick-up passengers first!
To try and compensate for the closed museums, Wilhem suggested a boat ride on the river where we may spot some wildlife. By the time we arrived at the boat dock the rain was coming down steadily. In spite of the canvas top we got rather drenched, and had difficulty keeping our cameras dry, so had limited photos. Still, the large estuary dotted with 45 islands, many inhabited, affords habitat for many birds including egrets and herons. Monkeys, large fruit bats, and, we were told water monitors and crocodiles, inhabit the lagoon though we cannot personally vouch for the latter. It is also home to many shrimp farms and the fishermen who tend them.
We finished the day with another two hours on the congested road back to Colombo in the rain and gathering darkness. With brief stops at turtle hatchery and a tea shop for a souvenir of real Ceylon Tea (they still use the island’s old name for tea, Sri Lanka’s largest export), Wilhem safely transported us to the port, after making a final quick stop at the Hotel Galle Face along Colombo’s waterfront, a throwback to this country’s colonial past.
While a bit disappointed in the weather and the holiday closings, we think we got as good a look as feasible in a short day. The cruise line did not offer an excursion to Galle, so that was not an alternative, and our private tour cost roughly the same as an excursion. We think this is a valid option depending on one’s interests and perhaps on the port of call.