Sri Lanka

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When it came to the time, we just had to stop in Galle…

We had heard many negative reports from other boats visiting Sri Lanka; problems with officials, damage to yachts dockside and with the Tamil civil war still raging, much as we wanted to, it seemed prudent to not go there.
When we cleared out from the Andamans, it had been to go direct to the Maldives.
However, our route westward took us tantalisingly close to the south coast of Sri Lanka and as we happened to be sailing around it in daylight; the temptation to stop overcame our misgivings, we called in to the port of Galle.
We stopped there for 10 days, the place did not live up to its bad reputation, it was a good decision.

The passage from the Andamans had been a slow, but pleasant one compaired with that to Port Blair, over 6 days and more than 800 nautical miles, we had scarcely a splash of water on deck.
Our route across the Bay of Bengal had us running directly downwind in light northeasterlies, we had almost continuous current assistance and there was just enough breeze to always keep sailing, albeit slowly. For almost the whole distance we were either wing on wing with the genoa poled out or flying the spinnaker. It was one of those rare times when we could ‘set it and forget it’ -for days on end! 

We approached Galle around midday, viewed from the sea, the development along the south coast beaches was exciting; the harbour entry pretty with the Mosque, fort and lighthouse on the point and the colourful modern buildings along the foreshore.


Galle had none of the drabness that we had been led to expect, although we later found that this smart new development was rebuilding after the devastation of the 2004 Tsunami and that there was still a lot more to be done.

Security is, not surprisingly, strict in Galle. Since a terrorist attack some years ago, the harbour is kept closed at night and periodically depth charges are released to further deter any would-be frogmen carrying limpet mines…
As expected, we were asked by the Port Authority to anchor out and await the navy to escort us in. There was some delay as we had to wait for a broken down off-shore fishing boat to be towed in, the port boom opened and then closed behind it.
We were then boarded from a naval speed-boat, forms were signed and the friendly crew escorted us through a tiny gap in the boom to a ‘Med-mooring’ off a floating pontoon inside the harbour.
There was no drama.

It took some time for our clearance formalities to be completed however, although our agent visited later in the afternoon, the customs and immigration officers did not eventuate as he promised they would. In the meantime, he arranged a boarding party of 3 men to provide us with security passes for the gate. They were cheerful and chatted amiably for some time although with strong hints that beers all around would go down nicely… Unfortunately we had few and none cold to offer them. Nevertheless, they left cheerfully, but visibly disappointed!

There was a bulk carrier ship unloading gypsum at the dock upwind of us, we were getting covered in fine dust…and as the surrounding walkways were deep in the same, we became impatient for our clearance to be completed, keen to avoid going ashore from there through all that dirt and hoping to move elsewhere!

The following morning after we made a terse radio call the agent reappeared apologetically, unable to explain the non-appearance of the officials. He undertook to do the Immigration clearance himself, taking our passports and documents off on his bicycle; the customs men were there within a few minutes of his leaving.
Our customs clearance late as it might have been, was one of the quicker ones as we took firm control, firstly insisting the men removed their very dusty shoes before boarding. The officers in Galle are known to demand ‘gifts’ -cigarettes or whisky, -whichever they consider that you have a surplus of, and we were no exception! Our 2 bottles of whisky were well hidden but we left plenty of gin in sight. They indicated that would do as a gratuity but were given a sure message that gifts were only given by grateful people and we were not!
They left soon after, their briefcase still empty and we moved away from the pontoon.


Our new position was with bow anchor and the stern tied to a mooring buoy, away from the  dirt and rats of the dock. After washing the salt, gypsum and flying fish debris off the decks, we were much happier and began to enjoy our visit…
First was lunch, we found it along at a waterfront restaurant, it was a fitting introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine, -hot curry!

As in Port Blair, at any time, there was a cluster of willing ‘tuk-tuk’ rickshaws and drivers outside the port gate, ready for your every need. We selected one who had been recommended to us, ‘Dee Dee’ he proved to be an excellent choice, reliable, personable and well aware of a yachtie’s requirements. He won our hearts when he chose that first lunch spot and we used him for everything thereafter!

Port Galle:

On account of its long history of European occupation, Galle (said ‘Gallay’ by locals) is declared a World Heritage site, (along with Penang, Melaka and others). It was an important trading port and known to the Europeans as early as the 6th century. The Portugese conquered and took it over in 1505, followed by the Dutch in 1640, and finally the British. There are many old fine buildings and fortifications still existing, either restored or in original condition.


The walls surround the old town as in the old European walled cities; they are still sufficiently intact to walk right around. Prominent is the old clock tower above and hidden beneath, the dungeon like prisons.

Nearby, are the old ceremonial gates, on one side it is Dutch,


and on the other English, each has a different date of completion! 


Within the walls are the narrow streets of the old town



and old colonial buildings.


Here over the door to the Dutch administrator’s residence the original lintel piece associates the town name with its symbolic origin, -gallus, the cockerel…


Adjacent to another original building, the Dutch Governor’s Headquarters, but now the New Oriental, (the best hotel in town), there’s a fine Dutch Reformed Church


within which are stained glass and flooring flagstones with carved inscriptions of ancient tombs beneath, just as in any old European church.

At the seaward end of the old town are the relatively recent mosque and lighthouse, (seen in the title, above) landmarks of Galle Harbour


In the adjacent street, old wagons and English cars lie as reminders of the past. (Sri Lanka, like  New Zealand, must be a repository of old British cars kept running and in active service, -we found them all over!)


  Nearby on a particularly high point of rock, and a part of the town walls, there are daring young men who will, for the price of a donation of Rupees, make Acapulco style dives


into the pool beneath. (It’s always the white faces asked for the money, but there are plenty of others, cameras at the ready, waiting for someone else to pay!)


Outside the walled city is the commercial part of town. Although it too has English and Dutch sectors, its old streets and buildings


(with some exceptions!) are less decorative and more functional.


There’s a central market with fabulous fruit and in the stacks of clay pots, -a speciality of Sri Lanka, -freshly made buffalo curd…like a gelatinous natural yoghurt. It’s especially good, served with ‘palm honey’ made from the sweet extract of palm flowers.

Along the waterfront are the wet fish markets


selling fish freshly caught from the colourful craft drawn up along the shore. Unlike much of Asia, however, these fish really are fresh, and a good size. Usually there are enormous tuna being butchered into deep red, dinner-plate-sized steaks…


On a high point on the other side of the harbour, as if in opposition to the mosque on the west side, is the modern, Japanese Peace Pagoda, a Buddhist Edifice


The contrast is striking in its simple modernity, but it appears little used for ceremony and visited only by the occasional intrepid tourists…


Travel Inland…

Val, a friend from another yacht, and I, through Dee Dee, arranged an inland ‘tour’, hiring a van, guide and driver to take us for 4 days, 3 nights, to do the best we could, in the time available, of seeing Sri Lanka’s inland attractions, -we crammed a lot in!


Along the south coast from Galle are the busy tourist beaches, this, Unawatuna is said to be the best in the island. Like many others, it was badly damaged in the Tsunami, but is now largely recovered and visited by many overseas tourists seeking a cheap, beachside holiday.




A little further along are the ‘stilt’ fishermen, known for their precarious (and surely butt-breaking) perches above the water between the sandy beach and the reef, patiently line fishing for small herrings…


Matara is another town built and fortified by the Dutch and this small ‘Star’ fort of the VOC or Dutch East India Company is a small outpost of the main fortifications.


Named for its shape, it is a small, strongly built enclosure to keep raiders out,


but within its courtyard aquifers is a real, live and grumpy croc!


It’s questionable security, -locked behind walls keeping the bad people out, but keeping the croc in???


The fort now is used for more peaceful purposes, it’s  a place for the restoration of old Sri Lankan artworks

The roads here have in general, been well formed, -sometime, -but have now fallen into disrepair with loose seal, potholes and many areas of makeshift repairs. Although the traffic is light, driving is not often fast.
We were impressed by how few the private cars were, but there were many tuk-tuks, trucks and most notably, the local buses.
These are kings of the road, but it must be a hair-raising ride, as they overtake on blind corners, at road works and each other in the narrowest of places. We saw many near misses!


The coast road is beautiful, with avenues of great trees before it opens into marshlands and shallow fresh-water lakes,


where, even just near the side of the road



there are many exotic birds feeding, egrets, pelicans, great flamingos…and herds of water buffalo.



We stopped briefly at an ‘Agri-research’ centre, -not because we were interested in its work, but because of its striking and innovative entrance, cleverly built using bricks and other clay artwork…

We took a turn inland from the coast ascending a hill range to Ella Gap and our first night’s accommodation. The hills are jungle covered, in a rain belt, so there is a copious fresh water and sizeable roadside waterfalls.


People stop, look and buy food, -so there are also opportunist monkeys…






Ella Gap at over 1000 metres altitude is the beginning of the tea-growing area.


Like the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, at that height the air is clear and cool, there is a high rainfall, so as well as tea, it is vegetable growing country and the flower gardens have the temperate species we know.


It is a place for people from Colombo to come and escape the lowland heat, but it was far from busy, we stayed in a small hotel, maybe we were the only guests. We ate alone at a small nearby restaurant.


The following morning we had an early start at the Ella Gap railway station


The railway is a line from the past, it winds around the high hills of the tea growing areas joining them with Colombo and Kandy; the sort of engineering feat that the British would have done when the country was Ceylon; a colony and to be truly British, it must have a rail system!
It has probably changed little over the years since and seems to provide passenger services only; even those, not frequently!


It was a public holiday. Sri Lanka’s independence day, so the train was comparatively busy, although still far from crowded.



The trip was a flashback, a replica of what British rail must have been in the 50s…It could have only been made more complete if it had a steam locomotive! -but I suspect they have been gone for some time, steam would not handle these grades and altitude well.
The carriages were airy, the windows down and doors open, there was plenty of room to move around and open places for the best views with no worry about losing the seat in your absence.
But there were 2 real dangers; firstly in photo opportunities, of falling out an open door, or secondly, perhaps more real, -of a terrorist bomb!
On this auspicious Independence day the security guard took it very seriously when Val questioned whose bag was on the seat beside her, it was unaccompanied… Everyone went quiet, the guard inspected it, listened to it, then gingerly removed it to a safer place, between carriages. Of course it proved harmless, it was later under the arm of a woman moving down the carriage.

The train climbed up and up during the course of the morning passing picturesque towns, market gardens,


and tea plantations,


along ridges with grand views,


to a ferny, jungle clad summit at almost 2000 metres. It was decidedly cold at that altitude in open carriages!  Enterprising locals moved through selling woollen ‘beanies’, but by then I had far more than just a cold head.


From the summit there was a short run down past panoramic views of more tea plantations and market gardens to the town of Nanu Oya, where we alighted to rejoin our driver, guide and van.
It had been a great train ride! -especially for 2 secret train-lovers.

Nuwara Eliya is a bigger, busier town; a centre for the tea growing industry and with many leftovers from the days of the British planters.



It’s amid immaculate tea plantations; and on the road down the hill out of town,


are many vegetable stalls with fine produce from market gardens, -no bugs and grubs up here!


The air is still and clear; the sun burning hot at about 1800 metres altitiude, but there’s a striking inversion layer down over where Kandy must be…is that all pollution??


We thought about it as we enjoyed a nice cup of tea and cake.



Just out of Kandy in a loop of the Mahaweli Ganga river are the Royal Botanical Gardens.


First laid out around 1750, they are the largest in Sri Lanka. Even there, the altitude is still about 500 metres, so the degree of coolness and rainfall enables many varieties to be grown that would not survive on the lowlands.


There’s a lake, colourful flower gardens, an interesting spice section,


and many excellent orchids, but the place is best known for the aboretum of 50 acres with about 10,000 trees! There are many magnificent old specimens, formal and less formal…




One of the most notable is the old Java Fig in the middle of the lawn


amazing, but it is just one tree!


But watch your step under those trees, there are many, many fruit-bats and they’re unusually active, even in bright sunlight!


The town of Kandy is an old capital and also at about 500 metres altitude so has a pleasantly cooler and less humid climate than the lowlands.
It’s busy



with problematic traffic congestion and in the still air, the polluted inversion layer we saw is readily explained!


The town is centred on a lake, man-made by ancient rulers hundreds of years ago.



On the side of the lake is the the town’s most important attraction, the ‘Temple of the Tooth’, the most sacred place to Buddhists in the whole of Sri Lanka.


The existing temple was built in the 1600s to house the sacred relic, purportedly a tooth of the Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka 1600 years ago. There’s a long and involved story explaining how the tooth came to Kandy, but in short, it arrived and the temple was built to house it.


Of course the remarkable molar cannot be seen by ordinary eyes, it is well secured behind these elephant tusks, locked doors and elaborate curtains. They are opened annually to allow long queues of visitors to file past and peep, not at the tooth, but at the pagoda-form silver casket in which it is held.


At all times devotees flock to the temple complex to make prayers


and give offerings of fragrant white flowers, or the symbol of the nation, the blue water lily


As it was still Independence Day when we visited, it was a busy place and security was tight. We were searched thoroughly before entering and we were somewhat nervous as we toured!
Independence Day is also the anniversary of a bombing right there in the ’90s, it was a major coup to the unbelieving Tamils to damage the Buddhist’s most holy edifice,  -although arguably the small amount of damage made their victory more symbolic than real.



Fortunately the blast was outside the main entrance and the most important parts inside the temple were not damaged, the shrines and this ancient wood work are still in original condition


but the frieze here in the portico was and needed restoration.
It would be tragic to the whole nation, not only the Buddhists, if the temple had been really harmed.

Following our ‘temple tour’ we were taken to a cultural dance show; an event which now I have to admit, having seen many in different countries, generally less than excites me. There is a same-sameness… masked men, men with drums, women in pretty frocks, whirling, twirling and gracefully weaving their arms above their heads, heavily made up faces and elaborate hats…but this was different!


The men were there with drums and masks; the pretty women too; and there wasn’t a harmony to be heard, but this was not just dancing, -it was choreography, acrobatics -and athletics -at its best…




-an amazing display of physical fitness, balance and control! Although the venue was unpromising, the show was amazing.

After a night in Kandy, we went north out of town. The route is through an area of spice plantations, many are open to tourists.
We stopped at one and it was interesting to see the origin of some of those exotic spices, grown in the most unlikely way on the most unlikely looking of plants…






and this red, inedible pineapple, used as an ingredient for an Ayervedic medication.
This plantation also specialises in the production of Ayervedic herbs, so following our short garden tour we were taken to an open shelter and given head and upper body treatments by students of the Ayervedic method, -it was pleasurable, and ‘complimentary’ of course, -until being asked to make a donation to the students for their time and being made beholden to buy expensive products from the plantation shop… 


However, our spirits cleansed and our minds rejuvenated after a good Ayurvedic head rub, we visited the cave temple at Dambulla


 This is a temple built in a series of caves high up on a hillside above the modern Buddhist 
Dagoba on the roadside.

There are a lot of steps up and it’s hot, but at the halfway point, (where you are only then, also informed that you need be suitably attired, so must hire a Sari to cover the legs!) there are hawkers with stalls selling tee shirts, carved wooden elephants and wooden boxes which look like books and can only be opened by a secret method…(but it’s easy when you know how).
Most excitingly however…


is a real snake charmer


with real hooded cobra’s in his basket. They dance to his tune… and hiss menacingly when his head is turned…Probably the bark is worse than the bite and probably they are de-venomised, -but close enough is close enough! (For a few hundred rupees only, he offered, I could play with his pet python…it was in another basket. I declined, -been and done all I need of that…


The temple is on a rock face with a series of cave openings from an external colonnade.


There are many effigies in each cavern, the first however, is almost fully occuppied by the largest, the reclining Buddha




too big to take him all in at once, but arguably maybe, the most exciting view is from the soles of his feet!


There are numerous statues of Him in various forms in all the other caves,


and painted images on the walls.

The effect of the paintings on the rock is as if they are hanging drapery…but they’re not! To produce that artwork on those so uneven, unforgiving, rocks, could not be the work of an unpractised amateur!


 From Dambulla, it is only about 20 km drive on a side road to Sigiriya
This is a large monolith in the middle of not much else and which was fortified as a temple/citadel by a rebel usurper of the throne of Anuradhapura in about the 5th century AD. He had visions of grandeur and rapidly built a series of temples and palaces at various stages up to and on the summit of the rock. His reign didn’t last long however, he was defeated and committed suicide; the place fell into ruin quite rapidly.
Probably because of its inaccessibility it remained largely untouched until its treasures were ‘rediscovered’ in the 19th century.


The man had a penchant for freshwater pools pools. Surrounding the whole complex is a defensive moat, then within it, around the base of the rock are a series of watergardens with large pools and fountains, cleverly designed to keep the water flowing using stone conduits and the natural contours.


Around the base too are small temples and lesser palaces, each utilising a rocky cavern as the basic shelter,with ‘drip’ channels carved out of the rock above to deflect water flow from the vertical rock away from the dwelling beneath and augmented by wooden roofed structures of which there is now little evidence, apart from carved holes in the rocks which were ‘footings’ for supporting pillars.


 Access to the summit temple is by one of 2 steep paths, between rocks and up many steps of stone and brick.


Midway up is ‘mirror wall’ and the cavern with the murals for which Sigiriya is so well known, -they say they really do date back to the 8th century, if not earlier…if true, their present condition is amazing!


 The final part of the ascent starts very dramatically from a small flat area on steps between the lion’s feet…


In the dark ages, these would have led to steps cut on the slippery rock alone,


but now, the climb up and down is assisted by steelwork…though there are still many who are made nervous,-or vertiginous -at the dizzy heights and sheer drop beneath…


Late afternoon on the summit, at what remains of the grand palace makes for magic lighting,


and the views around distant hills mystified by haze


The symmetrical layout of the watergardens beneath is also now plain to see.

To our delight we were joined by a group of saffron dressed monks… just perfect to complete the ‘ambience’ in this ancient Buddhist site!
But, would this be a sacred moment we could not share? -would we be able to use them in our photos without causing offence??? 
However, our fears were soon allayed, as on reaching the summit, like everyone else, their first thought was to capture the moment and out came the digital cameras!


Just like all other Asians on a holiday they posed for photos before the ancient monument.
We talked, we learned they had come from Myanmar, they were interested in us as much as us in them and some had good knowledge of English and the outside world 


They added great colour in the sunshine as they toured the several swimming pools on the summit of the rock


and descended with us -fearfully clinging on…clearly when it came to heights, Buddhist belief in the afterlife gave them no special serenity!

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage: 

After a night in a hotel near Sigiriya we had a long drive back to Galle the next day.


We timed the journey however to arrive at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage when the elephants returned from the river where they go to bathe.


It’s quite awesome when more than 50 elephants come upon you,


you don’t hesitate to stand aside in their dust…


…rows of elephant backsides lumbering by.
They call it an orphanage and originally it was, to look after those orphanned and maimed from the wild or from work camps. However, now they have lived together for years, never returned to the wild or their work places and family groups have developed




This prize old bull never seems to move far from his fence and there are others tethered in a shelter, a ‘hospital wing’ but apart from the twice daily trek over the road to the river, the majority of the animals are free to graze


 and get on with doing what elephants do…


We left them to it, a belated lunch followed for us, -in a small hotel, as usual, nice curries, dirt cheap and looked after by a very friendly family group…



We avoided Colombo, cutting across the by-roads to meet the coast.


At the town of Ambalangoda we made a short stop at the mask shop. The town has a nation-wide, near monopoly on ceremonial mask making and there were many fine specimens in this one of many shops but sadly, there’s no room on the boat now for those, we carried on, empty handed, to Galle.


After the days away, it was time to depart, the following day we shopped and marketed, re-stocking,  -it wasn’t hard, most of what we wanted was available.

We cleared to leave the following morning…

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