Sri Lanka: Coastal cruisin’

We were so spoiled by our stay in Galle that when the time came to pack up and explore the surrounding beaches and countryside, we were bummed.

Surrounded by a sprawling cinnamon plantation and soaring coconut palms, our next accommodation, Villa Ronnaduwa, is owned by a pair of sisters-slash-disco-enthusiasts of German-Sri Lankan heritage who inherited the building from their late grandparents (and to think the only thing I inherited from my granddad is his love for swearing). Now its permanent residents include an in-house chef, Raja, and two friendly pooches, much to the boys’ delight.

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As wonderfully preserved as this turn-of-the-century villa is, I’m sure the psychedelic swimming pool – with strobe lights that flashes all through the night – wasn’t there when nana and pops were still alive. Obviously the owners have never heard of photosensitive epilepsy.

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Ten minutes away, the scruffy Western coastline, dotted by empty swathes of golden beach, extends as far as the eye can see. And no pool – not even one that pulsates to Indian techno on weekends – can compete with its savage beauty.

Remnants of the havoc wrecked by the 2004 tsunami could still be seen: empty shells and piles of rubble stood where shops and homes once were. The waves were so powerful that even the Samudra Devi train, a hulking metal beast carrying at least 1,700 passengers en route to Matara, was swept away in the world’s worst railway disaster. Visible from miles around, the Tsunami Honganji Vihara, a towering white Buddha gazing calmly out to sea, is built by the Japanese as a moving tribute to those who perished in this tragedy.

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The hippy hangout of Hikkaduwa was where we spent most of our time, rolling in the sand and getting pummeled by the most violent waves I have ever encountered.

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Foolishly unafraid, the kids insisted we linger on until the sun sank into the distant horizon, before dragging our achy muscles into one of the many barefoot restaurants that line the beach. A few of these restaurants served more than just food, judging from the trippy, colorful murals on their wall as well as the occasional dreadlocked surfer who would totter in in search of a fix.

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Apart from hashish, seafood platters are obviously a big draw here, and we devoured lobsters, shrimp and a variety of fish and shellfish for the next two nights. Our kids however were no doubt starving as any attempts to order food for them went like this:

 

Me: I need a plate of fried noodles for the children. No spices. No pepper. Make sure it isn’t even a little spicy ok? It’s for the kids.

Waiter does a head waggle and returns approximately an hour later with a plate of noodles drowning in hot sauce: Here you go, m’am. No spicy.

(Kids start howling after a bite. Tears stream down their faces, and they start fanning their tongues. All hell is unleashed.)

This problem was not unique to Hikkaduwa. It happened everywhere. Every fucking where, even our hotel, where chef Raja doled fiery hot kottu to our unsuspecting children who thought he loved them.

Apart from this little hitch, we had a grand ol’ time. There were several turtle hatcheries strung along the coast, but we headed straight for the Victor Hasselbad Sea Turtle Research & Conservation Centre in Kosgoda because it’s supposedly the only legit one out there.

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Named after the Swedish inventor and photographer that founded it in 1978, Sri Lanka’s first ever turtle hatchery isn’t just aimed at replenishing the numbers of these animals in the sea but also providing a refuge for sick, lame and injured turtles. Yes, apparently turtles are afflicted by polio, cancer, skin diseases and depression too. The centre is also home to a few gorgeous albino turtles – they are considered freaks of nature, and are therefore shunned or even attacked by their own kin.

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I was surprised that guests were allowed, and even encouraged, to pick up two-day-old babies from the tank – a German visitor beside me was taking her own sweet time posing for selfies with a sweet but increasingly panicky baby turtle. It was only when a baby turtle started wriggling to escape my clutches that I realized how wrong it was. I later learn that some of these babies will not survive due to stress, and felt like an asshole for the next month.

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In the ramshackle town of Ambalangoda, there is the Ariyapala Mask Museum, where a disinterested guide gave us a brief (and extremely dull) run-down of the country’s traditional devil masks, which many believe could ward the evil eye. The shop, while pricy, was a lot more interesting, because it contained many extraordinary masks not found elsewhere in the country.

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The museum also had a little workshop, where you could see these masks being made. The craftsman who made them were more than keen on putting on a show for the camera in return for tips from charitable tourists.

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Our son insisted on trying his hand at painting a mask: one lady was kind enough to let him do it, and I was sweating buckets the entire time, hoping he doesn’t destroy it.

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We also stumbled upon a bustling fishing port, which I believe was where most of our seafood came from. A large sea vessel has just hauled in the day’s freshest catch and the smell of unwashed bum permeated the air. The men worked in unison, sorting the rotting carcasses out and dumping them in dirt-caked, barely iced boxes. My appetite for the west coast’s famous seafood platters vanished on that hot, muggy day.

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Further south was Sri Lanka’s most evocative sight: the stilt fishermen of Weligama – or at least that’s who I thought they were – balanced serenely like yogic masters atop thin wooden poles that sprouted like peashoots out of the ocean.

 

“Be careful, they’re not really fishermen,” my guide warned.

“Huh? Then who are they?” I asked.

“Conmen, looking to make some money,” he said. “1,000 rupees per tourist, more if you take longer than five minutes.”

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A most expensive picture.

This did not stop the husband, who sprang out of the car in a rare #facepalm moment and began taking pictures of this group of enterprising young thugs – he’s always been impressed with industrious men like himself and these boys were no exception. Amused, I traversed the creaky, crab-infested bridge to join him in the quest of burning rupees, and to drag him back into the car in case the leader of the fishing pack thought of extorting more money from us.

On the southern tip of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s most famous wildlife reserve, the Yala National Park, and its many leopards lie in wait. We stayed at Cinnamon Wild Yala, one of the four hotels – out of dozens – that was located on the park’s outer zones. The setting was absolutely stunning: wedged in the arid bush where elephants roam, between a croc-infested lake and the roaring Indian Ocean.

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Wildlife encounters are not uncommon here, so we were reminded to exercise a full level of caution whenever we stepped out of our chalet. Armed guards were stationed around the hotel to assist guests just in case a passing leopard decided they looked yummy. The real threats, however, came from the steaming piles of dung scattered within resort premises, left by elephants or buffaloes who wanted fawning tourists to know what really they thought of them.

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As it was New Year’s Eve and the park was heaving with tourists, we didn’t bother doing a jeep safari. The resort was where we lived out our David Livingstone fantasies, spotting a troupe of wild hogs one day, and a giant praying mantis the next. Our chalet had an underutilized balcony on which I cavorted with several species of animals behind safety railings.

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We did a guided nature walk too, and saw imposing termite mounds, a giant squirrel lazing on a tree and more hogs. We ended our stroll by the beach, where tattered huts once belonging to sea gypsies stood abandoned and flapping in the wind.

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Swimming is strictly prohibited here as the undercurrents were hazardous. We were contented just sitting there however, watching the waves do its thing.

That evening, over an indulgent buffet dinner, a little miracle happened. The kids had some kottu, freshly whipped up by the resort’s smiling chef. And it wasn’t the least bit spicy.

HOTELS

Villa Ronnaduwa Off-the-beaten-path and out in the Sri Lankan countryside, this family-run establishment has a homely, laidback vibe and two lovely resident dogs. Food choices are limited because of its secluded nature, but it’s perfect for those who want to relax and get away from it all. A car is recommended. $

Cinnamon Wild Yala One of the more affordable accommodations sharing the border of Yala National Park. Its convenient location means guests do not need to venture far to spot animals. Its chalet-style accommodation are beautiful though a little worn around the edges, but they all come with a big balcony that is perfect for relaxing in between game drives. A tour desk is available, but prices are inflated. $$

TIPS

  • There are many resort towns along the coast. We chose Hikkaduwa because of its proximity to Galle, but you might want to check out other towns like Weligama, Unawatuna or Mirissa. Many of these places have retained their hippy vibe despite some ugly developments in recent years, but for more privacy, you can’t do better than the underdeveloped coast of Tangalle.
  • Sri Lankan beaches are beautiful but dangerous. Be very careful that you do not venture out too far as there are no lifeguards, and keep your young children within an arm’s length!
  • Yala National Park has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world but is extremely popular (and unbearable) during peak months. It is usually closed for a month and a half in September. Choose your hotels wisely: there are plenty of accommodations around Yala from luxury campsites to rustic guesthouses but some can be located much further away from the park than expected, resulting in a (very) hot, bumpy and dusty drive to the main entrance.

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