Sri Lanka tour diary
Old and new Colombo meet on the street.

A tour of Sri Lanka is detailed in Frank Molloy's travel diary.


DAYS 1 - 2

Colombo. I was ready to move on after two days in the fairly frenetic port city of Colombo, Sri Lanka's most recent of three capital cities. You can get good views of the harbour from the restaurant of the Grand Oriental Hotel and of Galle Face Green, an ocean-side esplanade, from the Continental Hotel's tenth-floor restaurant.

Related: SRI LANKA BACK ON TOURISTS' MAP

There is a famous old hotel called the Galle Face at one end of the green, with an equally impressive and often-photographed commissionaire called Kaptan who told me he was 91 and had not missed a day's work in 61 years.

His walrus moustache still bristles and his eyes glint as he tells me that he is vegetarian and walks to work each day.

Famous guests he has welcomed include royalty, actors, writers, and former columnist for The West Australian, Athol Thomas.

Anton Chekov and Arthur C. Clarke are among the famous writers who were guests.

After visiting the hotel I next headed to the National Museum to learn about the country's history. There is a small and sublime bronze and gilt sculpture there of an Avalokitesvara - one of the island's greatest art treasures. It is a saint-like Buddha of compassion, but not the historical Buddha.

I was entranced by this piece which draws strongly on Indian and possibly Greek influences in the fluidity of movement and sensual posture. Some jewels are missing from his piled dreadlocks.

What a coup it would be for the WA Art Gallery if this piece could make a visit!

On my second day in Colombo I visited the mostly Muslim market quarter of Pettah. Spend a morning there and you quickly realize why Perth has attracted the label Dullsville.

But would I want to change places? No.

I saw some of the hardest physical graft imaginable taking place on the streets there under broiling heat.

The phrase 'to bend your back' has its origins in the kind of work conducted in the Pettah market every day, and for a paltry few rupees.

After the confusion, choking fumes from tuk-tuks, honking traffic and crush of the crowd I escaped across town to the parallel universe of Paradise Road for a passable coffee in tranquil and extremely tasteful surrounds.

This sophisticated setting for a restaurant includes a forecourt with fishpond and Zen-like garden arrangement. Large and small Chinese pots are a design feature of the restaurant where waiters were at full-throttle even in mid-afternoon.

On the way back to my hotel I ordered gin and tonic at the Veranda Bar of the Galle Face Hotel where preparations were under way for New Year's Eve.

'Gordon's or Bombay, sir?'

'Bombay, please.'

'Single or double?'

I will always regret ordering single.


DAYS 3-4

The South I thought Galle (pronounced Gawl) would entrap me based on what I had read about it in Lonely Planet:

'...a town of colour, texture and sensation totally unlike anywhere else in Sri Lanka. It is at once endlessly exotic, bursting with the scent of spices and salty winds, and yet also, with its wonderful collection of slowly decaying Dutch-colonial buildings, vaguely familiar, like a whimsical medieval European town unexpectedly deposited in the tropics.'

This Dutch-built fort was hit hard by the 2004 tsunami but the walls protected the old town. It is an arts and cultural centre with a variety of interesting buildings to enthral history buffs.

The Galle Literary Festival is held each January and there is an international film festival as well.

There are two top-end boutique hotels in superbly renovated buildings: the Galle Fort Hotel and the chic, expensive Amangalla.

My travel company was unable to arrange accommodation so I stayed at a beach guest house, the Shanthi, 15 minutes away by tuk-tuk. This arrangement worked perfectly as I felt a half a day was enough to see Galle and I had one full day at a magnificent beach called Unawatuna.

The Shanti has seen better days but has one great asset -- its location. I rejected the first room offered and took the second because the view north along the beach was tropical-island perfect: blue sea, white sand and coconut palms, though the room was as basic as they come.

In the morning I could see why it gets an official Tourism Authority recommendation (and to be fair, the better rooms were already booked). Breakfast is served in front of rocky Dalawella beach where I was mesmerized watching turbaned fishermen on stilts in the reef artfully flicking their simple rods and lines to eke out a living.

Their buttocks must get numb with pain but the catch of mostly small silvery anchovy-like fish makes it worthwhile. A photo of them is on the cover of Lonely Planet.

I had one full and excellent day at Unawatuna beach which I walked from end to end. Although I took mask and snorkel along there was only a rocky area at the far end where I saw a school of fish. Glass-bottom boats are available but I was unimpressed by the offer and declined.

Hidekawa beach, which you reach before Galle, is said to be the place for coral and diving or snorkelling.

I discovered one pearl on this trip and here it is: If you like a long sandy beach and an international crowd then Unawatuna is for you. There are plenty of places to stay and eat; many built abutting the beach since the tsunami destroyed their predecessors.

But if a secluded cove is more your taste, with reef-protected water as well as good-size waves at one end where I saw board riders, then Dalawella is for you. Sri Gemunu Beach Resort there was one in a group that looked impressive.

You could spend a marvellous week at Dalawella in stylish accommodation taking short day trips into Galle, back to Hidekawa and on to the also scintillating Mirissa beach which I only drove past but put in my memory bank.


DAY 5

Yala National Park and Tissa I would not recommend Yala until the access road is improved. It was severely pot-holed and almost impassable.

Ditto the gravel roads inside the park. Seeing a leopard in a tree through binoculars several hundred metres away almost made the safari worthwhile.

The leopard-in-the-distance created an enormous buzz of interest in the park and within minutes I counted 20 off-road vehicles jammed in trying to give passengers a look. I found myself thinking of the scene from the leopard's point of view. Such power in the flick of its tail...

I also saw wild boar, deer, monkeys, elephants, a pair of black and white toucans, wading birds and a green bee-eater.

The closest town to the park is called Tissamaharana (Tissa for short) where I stayed in the new Hibiscus Garden Hotel. It was a short distance from the town centre and a half-hour drive from the park - a bone-jarring drive in a 35-year-old Land Rover with just my safari guide for company. He was not short on tales of woe.

The safari was an optional extra so the price was not included in the tour. I was glad when it was over.

In contrast to the road to Yala, the approach to Tissa was serene, along a causeway under lilac trees and next to a huge artificial reservoir. There is a very old dagoba or stupa in the town.

Dagobas are found all over Sri Lanka, come in three basic shapes, and are sacred. They are a testimony to Sri Lankan architectural achievement early in its civilization.


DAY 6

Tea country This was a six-hour drive to the hill country where the climate changes from what we think of as tropical - hot, mostly sunny and humid - to a cooler, cloudier mix because of the mountains - perfect for growing tea.

There is rafting in the Kalani River near where I stayed the night at the two-storey Hotel Breeta's Garden, Ranjurawa. It was built in the British colonial era and had a huge bedroom and balcony made for cigar smoking in the still air.


DAY 7

Pilgrimage to Sri Pada I first saw the sacred mountain rearing into the clouds as we approached - and gulped. This was going to be no easy walk.

Only one new guest house out of the town of Dalhousie - Slightly Chilled -- seemed to have good quality accommodation and food. I was booked into the serviceable but run-down Punsisi Rest where I ate fried rice for lunch with misgivings and a prayer in the decidedly-dingy maroon-curtained restaurant.

There was a wake-up call at 1.30 a.m. by which time I was almost ready to start walking. I was the only person on the path at first - but it was a case of 'the last shall be first and the first last'.

I was overtaken by many fitter and younger pilgrims but it pays not to reach the summit too early as it gets very cold before dawn.

Several Sri Lankans were descending gingerly while I climbed. I had read that the way down - though 'easier' - was hard on the knees.

I would recommend this climb for any school group or sporting team wanting to build esprit de corps - if the logistics can be arranged. It has left me with a feeling of achievement quite distinct from anything else in my life.

I was accompanied by a young monk on the last leg of my descent. Then we invited a visiting Burmese monk to join us. They exchanged email addresses in Dalhousie before the first monk caught a bus and I prepared to join my driver, Denzil, for the rest of our trip.

I refused to look phased by the experienced and jogged the last 200 metres towards Denzil who was waiting by our car. In fact my legs quickly stiffened and my t-shirt, shirt, cotton pullover and zipped jacket which I had worn to beat the cold were all sweat-soaked. I had carried and drunk two bottles of water.

My Kashmir travel rug had again been priceless as a final layer and I was glad to have taken Denzil's advice to wear a cotton cap that I pulled over my ears. I had bought it in the market but did not need gloves which are also sold. Most Sri Lankan pilgrims wore gloves.

I need to report that the first young monk pointed out an elderly man in shorts climbing Sri Pada in the morning. He introduced me to this fit-looking climber near a bridge. He was the postman and makes the climb every day. I asked the monk to tell him he should donate his body to science.


DAY 8

To Kandy We drove through the somewhat quaint Nurya Ella where British colonists built houses and tried to establish a town like an English village. It gave the impression of a run-down theme park and I was pleased not to have spent the night there.

Instead we drove through tea plantation country to Kandy, the former capital, cultural treasure-house, and last outpost of resistance to British colonization.

I stayed at one of the hillside guest houses above the city. It was entirely unremarkable apart from a smell - presumably the result of dampness, near but not in the dining area. The service was again faultless and the food predictable.

Kandy has a central jail, built by the British and similar to Fremantle's limestone lockup, now tourist attraction. This one also begs to be turned into something with commercial possibility. Prisoners and guards could hope that a more humane environment might replace it.

Kandy's focal points are its 204-year-old artificial lake and Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic on one shore. The tooth refers to one belonging to the Buddha and is believed now to be kept as a relic inside the temple. It has become legend that a woman snatched the tooth from the Buddha's cremation pyre.

The city is in a valley and was built before air pollution was a consideration. It seemed on my brief visit to be significant.

The lake is scenic, the temple particularly sacred. Both have violent histories. The ruler who caused the lake to be built was a tyrant. He impaled the bodies of some local chiefs who protested.

The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once, most recently after a Tamil Tiger bomb in 1998 severely damaged the front wall.

There is an annual festival and a daily ceremony with music to worship the tooth. I enjoyed my visit to the temple - especially the museum and other halls - but did not have time to see the gold casket containing the tooth as the line was too long.

The Buddha visited Sri Lanka from India after his Enlightenment - something I did not know before. It helps to explain the significance of his teaching throughout the country.

After Kandy, Denzil drove me to the five caves of the Rock Temple at Dambulla (entrance $18).

There is a modern and seemingly garish temple with a large car park below the caves. It is a steep climb up stairs cut into a rock face and past watchful monkeys to get to the caves.

This was World Heritage site number two for the day, after Kandy, and the splendour of it caught me by surprise. The surrounding view across forest and towards volcanic-shaped mountains was primordial.

A cloud hovered above a perfect conical mountain in the distance. In the other direction lay Sigiriya, World Heritage site number three for the day.

Each cave contains statues of Buddha standing, seated or reclining.

The walls of each cave are covered in frescoes clearly painted as acts of profound devotion.

To add impact, a boddhi tree bedecked with flags and ribbons grows in front of the caves entrance area. It was under a boddhi tree that the Buddha is said to have achieved Nirvana, or Enlightenment. This and other boddhi trees at Buddhist temples around Asia have been struck from the original and so all are considered sacred.

After Dambulla we drove to the hotel with tight-fitting doors and a pink mosquito net. I had Sri Lankan curry for lunch. Denzil decided it would be better for me to see Sigiriya that afternoon, leaving all of the final day for an unhurried drive to the airport which is 30 km from Colombo.

What should have been the closing highlight did not turn out so - at least for me.

Sigiriya means Lion Rock and there are ancient sphinx-like paws - all that remains of a lion statue - about half way up the edifice.

Not long after turning off the main road we hit the pot-holed stretch that lasted all the rest of the way. The bad state of the road didn't make sense as were driving to a tourist destination as significant as Uluru in Australia - with an entry fee of $28.

Weather seemed to be closing in, humidity was high and there were low, dark clouds. This tourist icon seemed to be pervaded with a brooding, malevolent spirit for my visit as the last tourist bus for the day - Russians - made their way in and I tagged behind.

The approach is along a straight gravel path between symmetrical garden squares laid out with time-blackened sunken rock walls.

With every step, the brown stone edifice looms larger and you are confronted by the enormity of the mountain with the task ahead: to climb it in order to see the reputed beauty of the frescoes of semi-naked goddesses in a cave high up on the cliff face.

And if you are up to it and have considered the warnings, to climb to the very top to see what may have been the site of a building, a meditation hall or a palace.

My legs were still recovering from climbing Sri Pada and I was walking like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz - badly in need of a squirt of oil.

With great care on the slippery rocks I made it past the touts who offered to guide me, up a steel-enclosed spiral staircase attached to the rock wall to see the frescoes so that I might get a photograph. I took one, rather quickly, and only glanced at the other drawings that stretched a long way into the distance.

I had to descend the spiral staircase before pressing on to the lion paws where I could at least see what lay ahead: A further steep climb up another enclosed staircase attached to the rock face.

I discreetly asked for directions down and did not get to see the view from the top which must be breathtaking.

I was glad when I rejoined Denzil and we were heading back along the cratered road. (Eighteen people drowned in floods in eastern Sri Lanka a few days later.)


DAY 9

Return to the coast This was a long drive through coconut groves, spice gardens and mostly small towns - as well as areas of rainforest where wild elephants roam - to reach the heat of the coast again at Negombo, a down-at-heel beach district conveniently close to the airport.

We arrived at the beach as a helicopter was lifting off with newly-weds on board. The rich seemed to be rubbing it in the faces of those on the ground.

Denzil joined me for a stand-out final lunch at the best restaurant we could find, called Lord's. Even here, only the coffee failed to make the mark.

Denzil took a call from his boss on his mobile. He had another client to take on tour the next day.

Frank Molloy is a former journalist at The West Australian and now teaches in the Intensive English Centre at Cyril Jackson Senior Campus in Bassendean.

The West Australian

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