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A glimpse of Sri Lanka on a rainy day convinced us we need to return, May 15, 2013
Colonial-era architecture, friendly people, balance of modern and traditional
Traffic, lingering tsunami destruction
saw things this way
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. 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 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. Occasional derelict buildings or bare foundations served to remind us of the devastating 2004 tsunami. The road also buzzed with traffic—motor bikes 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 motor bike 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 2 hours on the congested road back to Colombo in the rain and gathering darkness. With brief stops at a 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 water front, a throwback to this country’s colonial past.