South Coast: Galle, Tissamaharama, and Bandarawela

Trip Start Jul 02, 2004
Trip End Sep 10, 2004

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Saturday, August 21, 2004

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, full of culture, impressive archaeology, excellent food and very friendly people. The recent troubles with the Tamil Tigers have given the country a reputation it doesn't deserve and judging by the reactions of the people I spoke to, most of the country including the Tamils just want peace now.

I spent 10 days in total touring Sri Lanka and it was a very busy, eye-opening but rewarding time containing many memories I will keep with me for life. It truly was the most spectacular of all the countries I have visited and one I will definitely visit again.

For those of you who want to read my accounts of Sri Lanka, I have divided up my 10 days into three sections:

1. South Coast: Galle, Tissamaharama, & Bandarawela
This involved touring around the south coast of Lanka from Colombo the 17th century fort of Galle, going on safari at Yala National Park near Tissamaharama and then climbing the hill country to Bandarawela.

2. Relics from the Colonial Era: Nuwara Eliya & Kandy
The British left their mark on Lanka in the form of Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. I visited both of these places and with their altitudes, resembled Scotland in the summer.

3. Cultural Triangle: Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa & Anurahhapura
Lanka's cultural triangle is regarded as being world famous. It holds ruins of two ancient capital cities of Lanka: Polonnaruwa & Anurahhapura dated from the 1st Century BC to the 2nd Century AD. Buddhism being Lanka's main religion was said to have been spread from within this area.

* * *
Facts for the Tourist
As an island, Sri Lanka is inhabited by 20 million people with tourism as it's main trade. It's also very famous for gems but few good mines remain because of the plundering of King Solomon, Sinbad and colonialists who removed most of the valuable sapphires and diamonds that the country is famous for producing. Mainly made up of the native Sinhalese people, there is a very large presence of Tamils who migrated from India in the past to work and live in Sri Lanka mainly as tea pickers and traders. The political wing of the terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers called the LTTE now controls the North West part of the island in an uneasy truth brokered by Norwegian negotiators.

The main religion in Sri Lanka is Buddhism followed by Hindu, Muslims and Christians. Because Buddhism is so revered in the country, each full moon day is sacred to Sri Lankans', so much so that bars are not allowed to open on these days and no alcohol can be sold either. Influences on Sri Lanka came from India, traders, the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa & Anurahhapura and the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonist who have left their respective mark on the country before it's independence in 1948

I started my journey off in Colombo having acquired the work of a good driver called Thomas. For the first day my jet lag returned to haunt me from Australia so I just had to spend the entire time resting in the really grotty Grand Orient Hotel in Colombo. It's supposed to be a Portuguese colonial hotel but is in disrepair and the spirit of the place has moved on.

Driving south to Galle, it was a long journey through the south of Colombo and the various towns that house many of the people who work in Colombo. Three hours in total and what I didn't realise was that this was just a short journey! Galle was worth the wait as it's an old Portuguese influenced town that served as a fortress for the Europeans. It's filled with relics of old houses, buildings, various cannons that litter the coast and beaches.

I spent the afternoon walking around the coast and through the small lanes in the town area. It felt really European with plenty of verandas and old house designs, the Portuguese had obviously made this their paradise. For lunch, I treated myself to a grilled sear fish. It was a useful exercise as the waiter decided to short change me by Rs.100/- only to look very embarrassed when I pointed this out to him. I realised that this is how dishonest Sri Lankan's decided to line their pockets a bit more and left me very cautious about handling money for the rest of my journey.

Leaving the next day from the fantastic hotel I was staying in was painful. Mosquitoes had eaten away at my feet leaving them completely covered in bites. Lesson learnt here; where there is water, there are mosquitoes. I don't know why they went for my feet though, maybe they were poking outside the mosquito net at night.

It was an early start to get to Tissamaharama. Don't worry if you can't pronounce the names of the places I've been to, I couldn't either. It's a real struggle for the English to pronounce the names which is why the English colonists shorted this name to 'Tissa'.

Ninja Turtles... well maybe
On the way, I stopped off at a turtle sanctuary. The sanctuary has a rolling stock of turtle eggs adopted from the turtles that come up on the shore where it is to lay eggs. To prevent poachers stealing the eggs, the sanctuary takes the eggs to their own purpose built nests to hatch. They even buy turtle eggs from the markets to prevent them being eaten as a delicacy and allowing the turtles to hatch.

25% of all the turtles that hatch are kept for a day to allow tourists to see them and then released in the evening. A couple of resident turtles, including a monstrous 200kg one, live in the sanctuary because they are not well enough to go to sea. This sanctuary isn't government funded so relies upon tourism and donations to pay for it. When you consider turtles are an endangered species, it only costs 30 pence to save a turtle egg from being sold at the market. So the real threat isn't a changing habitat but man who is destroying their chance of survival. Remember, turtles can live up to 150 years and only reach breeding age when they are 20. But they were around to see the dinosaurs and the beginning of mankind so should be respected for that fact!

Outside the sanctuary, I tried my first King Coconut. These coconuts are double to size of the normal ones and orange in colour. They're grown only for their juice since they can produce so much of it and on a hot day, it's also really refreshing. My coconut was so big, I couldn't even finish all the milk in it. The government recently instructed all the coconut sellers to destroy the husks to prevent mosquitoes breeding in them when it rains, so there was no way I could save the coconut for later. Still have a look at my pictures to see just how big they are.

Tissa is home to Yala National Park where Lanka houses most of its' native elephants, leopards, and bird life. I was booked to go on safari at 5am the next morning so it was another early night in the Priyankara Guesthouse. The hotel was decorated really nicely and had modern furnishing. The shame of it was the staff who were the most depressing I'd ever seen in a hotel. It really ruined the atmosphere of the place.

So early next morning, my safari guide called 'Japan Kouro' (don't ask me why he is called that, he's not even Japaneese) came to pick me up at 5am in a rusty, dust wagon of a Jeep. It was really bumpy sitting in the front seat and incredibly hot with the heat from the engine filtering through. It was quite a cheap adventure since the jeep and entry to the park cost just 25 but at the time seemed really expensive. What I didn't understand was the staff at the park taking entrance payments didn't have any change for the notes I and all the other foreigners were using. As I learnt, a Rs.1000/- note is something a lot of retailers don't like handling as smaller notes are hard to come by. Yet these staff chose to make a fuss over just Rs.6/-, which is equivalent to just 3 pence!

The safari was fairly quiet and really annoying since most of the drivers chose to team up in convoys to spot animals. I think it was because a lot of their tips depended on how many animals they spotted for their groups! Japan Kouro was an expert at spotting birds and even carried a pair of binoculars for me to use. It was really nice because other safari groups were straining to see some of the wonderful bird life that migrates over Sri Lanka at this time of year. The best experience was seeing a medium sized Elephant come right up to the jeep and walk towards a watering hole for a drink. You could just hear the jaws dropping from all the foreigners who were lucky enough to see this sight.

Apart from the Elephants, I saw Fowl, Deer, Peacocks, Mongoose, Parrots, Painted Stacks, Black Headed Ibis, Grey Heron, Fox, Wild Boar, Crocodile, Indian Daters, Wild Buffalo, Black Headed Stack and Asian Openbills. Most of them were birds but it was like being David Attenborough watching the birds in the wild rather than on 'Wildlife on One'. Japan Kouro saw that I was noting down most of the things I saw which probably made him more cautious as he wanted a big tip!

In the afternoon, I had to sleep in the car driving to Bandarawela. I was only woken by the feeling of my ears popping as I started ascending in the car up steep, narrow and bumpy roads. The air turned cooler which was fine as the driver didn't want to keep the AC on during the climb as it reduced the engine power, very important when driving an automatic Toyota. More so, the country started turning greener with lush vegetation growing by the side of the road. On the hillsides, vast tea plantations could be seen all around. Lanka is famous for tea and it's quite possible if you had a cup of tea this morning that it came from Lanka. On the side of the roads, people sold fresh fruit and vegetables. Some of them were so determined to sell their produce, they would climb up the hillside paths to meet the same car climbing along a longer road. The driver even said he'd seen one kid selling flowers four times already!

Ayruveda Medicine
On the drivers recommendation, I stopped off an Aryruveda medicine centre. This ancient form of medicine uses herbs and spices from Sri Lanka to produce the basic medicines that are used to treat illnesses and for relaxation. It's something even the Lonely Planet guidebook said needed to be done so I had no choice but to fork out the Rs.2000/- for a 45 minute massage, steam bath and herbal sauna. The nurse who massaged me was really strong and give my arms and legs a good beating with the herbal oils she used. The steam bath was unbearably hot since it involved being stuck in a large wooden coffin with only my head pointing out the end of it and steam being pumped into the coffin. The nurses there had a really annoying habit of stroking my hair whilst this was happening but what could I do with my entire body stuck inside this thing?

The herbal sauna was nice since there was fresh nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices being roasted on the floor producing a very relaxing smell. I also met another British couple there from London who'd said their driver hadn't even warned them about going there and just dropped them off at the centre! At the end of it, I asked the main doctor if she had a cure for my feet which were now blistering. She gave me this really foul smelling, acrid solution to rub on the bites in the morning and night time. It smelt horrible and if it wasn't for the smelly oils on my body, would have stunk the whole car out. On the advice of the doctor, I had to leave the herbal oils on my body for 2 hours so at the hotel, of which I was the only guest, I had to force myself to watch dire TV, none of which was anything resembling English!

Fleeced by the driver
I feel I should mention a poor guy who was dropped off by his driver that evening at the hotel. He was from Singapore but after my driver spoke to his driver, it was easy to figure out that the driver lived in the local town and had just dumped this guy in the hotel so that he could spend some time with his family for free. Bandarawela, is not a place you would want to spend 4 days living because it's a really small town and cold in the night times because of the altitude. This made me really happy though that I could say that my driver wasn't going to do this to me as we'd already passed through his home town. He had been excellent so far, always giving me trivia about the various things we'd seen and facts about the local flora and fauna. I knew from here it was going to be a really interesting trip.
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