First things first. Sri Lanka is a hot country. The weather is hot; the food keeps up with the heat. The political scenario – well, if you ask the locals, they will say that after the recent elections, it’s been like jumping from the frying pan to the fire. You get the picture. But still, Sri Lanka is one place everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. Because of the people. The cabbies chat up with you, the waiter suggests which local delicacy will suit your palette, the housekeeping guy discusses serious cricket with you. It’s a country where all that heat generates warmth and you feel welcome to be a part of it.
The first time we went to Sri Lanka was 10 years ago. It was for our honeymoon. A couple of days with a friend in Colombo, we drove down the southern coast to Bentotta, Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. We did our first diving, we had our first arrack, we tasted the Sri Lankan cuisine for the first time. I have been a fan of string hoppers ever since. We have even managed to hunt down a Sri Lankan restaurant, here in Kuala Lumpur to get our occasional fix of Sri Lankan curry. We had also driven up north – to Kandy. And visited the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. But that was all that we could afford in those 14 days. We promised to come back someday and travel more. Come back we did – 10 years later. However, we didn’t really go around the country as promised. We had only 5 days this time – and Galle – along with Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna again, was all we could afford.
A friend stays in Colombo. And her fiancée, who is a Sri Lankan. What better way to see a foreign land, when you know a local. You get to visit the most authentic joints for your lunch and dinner. You get discounts at plush properties because you book at local rates. You get a local perspective of the past and present of the country. And you get someone to drive you around. It helps if your hosts are absolutely wonderful people – which, ours were. K and M just made sure we keep returning to Sri Lanka again and again.
We reached early on a Thursday morning. The Air Asia flight took off from KL at some ungodly hour and we tried desperately to catch up on some sleep in the flight. A, who can sleep like a baby even in a burning train, took advantage of the 3.5 hours flying time. Me, I kept on drifting in and out of dreamland – trying to recollect our visit 10 years ago.
The airport looked different from what I remembered. It was bigger, better and with less gun trotting commandos. The streets looked different – more congested, more pot holes and fewer commandos. Damn. I didn’t remember a thing from my previous visit after all – all the visions I had been carrying in my head about Colombo were just that – visions only. Or maybe, things have changed so much in the last 10 years that it was time to try and take in everything afresh, instead of holding on to the past.
K’s residence was easy to find – or our taxi driver was honest and did not take us for a ride. I was in a good mind to take a power nap before the action began – but once we got down to chatting over a cuppa with our hostess whom we had met for the first time, we got to talking…about food. The bonding happened instantly and we knew that we were in good hands. Off went the sleep. And for the next 5 days that we were there – all we talked about was food.
Lunch was at Summer Garden. Now if you want to taste authentic Sri Lankan cuisine the way a Sri Lankan would, you have to go to this place on Green Path, close to the National Gallery and not far from Townhall, at the other side of Victoria Park. An old open air restaurant, where people come from work to have lunch and young couples hang out between college breaks. No foreigners around and very little English spoken, too. A spicy vegetable curry, a liver curry masala and a pork curry masala with steamed rice was our order. What can I say! You know that ‘mmmm’ that comes out involuntarily from within when you experience absolute bliss – well, we did a chorus of that with every spoonful.
Dinner, which happened at 2 in the morning, was Egg Kothu Rotis at Pilawoos on Galle Road. Another street joint – where you stop your car and have your food after a wild night of partying. Don’t worry about cleanliness, because if you do, then you miss out on all the fun. As you adjust your backside gingerly on plastic chairs set on the pavement, out comes paper thin, soft rotis, wrapped in half boiled gooey eggs. Or was it the other way round? Whichever way it was, it was divine. I could have had 5 at a go…maybe more. Over the next few days that we were in Sri Lanka, Egg Rotis became our staple dinner. We would be out looking for Egg Roti shops in Hikkaduwa, Galle and Unawatuna at wee hours in the morning – leaving no stones unturned.
Of course, between lunch and dinner, some shopping happened. A quick dash to Odel for some T Shirts and tea. A leisurely browse through a hole-in-the-wall DVD shop, where the movie collection leaves you dumb founded. We picked up Jafar Panahi, Fellini, Kieślowski, Kim Ki-duk – all for $1 a piece.
The next day – when we did manage to get up – our journey started for Galle. 116km away from Colombo, Galle is this little town by the sea, still retaining its old world charm. There’s nothing much to do there, except to laze by the sea and gorge on sea food.
There’s an old town centre, with a fort and a light house, if you want to justify your visit – but more or less, in Galle, your agenda should be to eat, drink and sleep. And splash around in the pool, if you are not feeling too tired. En route is Hikkaduwa, where we stopped for lunch at another local joint called Francis. The food, needless to say, lived up to our expectations.
The place to stay in Galle is Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel. A charming property overlooking the sea, with everything that you can possibly ask for. And their housekeeping boys know their cricket. So anytime you feel like discussing Tendulkar’s paddle sweep or Ajantha Mendis' carrom ball, dial room service.
The weekend was spent shuttling between Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna, tasting the local cuisine. The key is to hunt down the places where the locals eat and hey presto! you will have the best meals ever. The more low-key the place is, better is the food. That is a universal law – true to any country in the world.
Back in Colombo, I would have liked to visit the Gangaramaya Vihara, which is probably Colombo's most famous Buddhist temple, tucked away next to Beira Lake. Or the National Museum. Or maybe take a day trip to see the ancient ruins, temples and cave paintings at Dambulla and the fabulous mountain-top site at Sigiriya. Or tour round the hill country, enjoying the natural scenery at Horton Plains and the tea towns of Ella and Hatton. But we had just half a day in Colombo after the long Galle weekend and four exhausted souls from too much eating, drinking and talking, decided to postpone all that for a later trip.
This means I have to go back to Sri Lanka again. Hopefully, way before our 20th anniversary. This time to visit the ruins of Sigiriya and Dambula. To sip the finest tea at the plantations of Nuwara Eliya hill station. To track the elusive leopard at Yala National Park. To soak in Ravana Falls, which, by the way, still has the cave where Ravana hid Sita .
Which brings me to this interesting story I heard from M in Colombo. According to the Singhalese legend, Ravana, the great king, scholar and warrior, was Sita’s paramour. Sita eloped with him and came to Sri Lanka to be hidden in the Ravana Ella Cave, as it is known now and then Sita Kotuwa, which still exsists, and finally to Ashok Vatika - which is in the area of Sita Eliya, close to the city of Nuwara Eliya. There is a temple here dedicated to Sita and Ravan and young couples, who elope to get married, still visit this temple to seek blessings. Ram, obviously, could not take the insult and attacked Lanka. The rest is history. But Ravana is still revered in the Singhalese legend as a great warrior king and scholar, with Sita as his true love.
Maybe, the next time I am in Sri Lanka, I should do a Ramayana trail.
But most of all, I want to come back to Sri Lanka to enjoy the cordiality and the warmth of this beautiful country, which, though ravaged by a war for more than 25 years, has not forgotten its will to live.