Arugam Bay, Mirissa, Galle, Payagala, Colombo to Negombo Sat 11 - Thurs 23 September, 2010
Finally we'd arrived in Arugam Bay - the reason we'd been dragging 7 feet of surf board around the country on public transport - not that I'm complaining right Andrew!! We had been a bit concerned about getting cheap accommodation as we'd rung all 4 of the budget choices in the LP -all a bit pricey by our standards anyway- and been told no rooms were available. The only place we'd reached on the phone which had a room was at $30 Aus a night way beyond our price range. However we needn't have worried once we arrived and got a tuk tuk for the last part of the journey the driver took us straight to the Tharaka Guest House run by the imposing Mrs. Manel Hewawedige.
Here we arranged accommodation in a very simple but perfectly ok room for $880 or $8.80 Aus a night -on the basis that we stay at least a week. This obviously would have included her "introduction fee" to the tuk tuk guy -so if you go in alone you would get an even better deal. This place was "surfers' central" being minutes away from the best surf break and there were surfers from all around the world staying here as well as a few local holiday makers. It was not without a few moments of excitement too as (don't tell anyone) the lady of the house had a presumably profitable sideline in dealing in Arrack -a lethal coconut based alcohol. Thus we had a couple of police raids whilst we were there -but it was soon business as usual -no doubt a case of paying off the right people!
Arugam Bay was a simple little fishing village with a growing sideline in tourism. It had really taken a pounding during the tsunami so it was nice that things were starting to build up here after this and the war. It was surf high season when we were there and pretty busy. If anything it was a bit too busy as allegedly out in the waves there was overcrowding and the resulting "dropping in 'problems and a bit of wave rage!
When we arrived it was the end of Ramadan the Muslim fasting period and the beginning of the Eid celebrations and the whole place was full of families celebrating, playing cricket on the beach flying kites and (very Muslim!) bathing fully dressed. Lovely people.
Arugam Bay was a nice spot to relax for a while and chill after the rigours of the SL public transport system. Andrew surfed so hard he ended up with a few nasty infected coral cuts - but (he assured me) it was all worth it. He really enjoyed being back in the waves and no doubt the board enjoyed a work out after being under the truck for most of the last 3 years!
Whilst here we met some really nice people - Nick and Georgie- from Margaret River WA and we arranged to go on a wildlife safari with them. One of the main National Parks here is Yala further to the south but we were starting to realize that we would be really pushing it to have time to see this so we fitted in this little trip to the nearby East Yala NP instead. We had heard of and at one time intended to see the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage near Kandy. However after further research we'd gone off the idea. Born Free Foundation the UK charity in support of animal rights have expressed concern at the way the centre is run i.e.) more for the benefit of the (paying) public than the animals, as well as the fact they are breeding when there are already too many elephants for a shrinking habitat. See their website for more details www.bornfree.org.uk. We're sure that there are animals far worse off than these elephants but all in all we decided to leave it (and we've done the up close thing with elephants a few times anyway) and just try and see some elephants in their natural habitat.
We got our first wildlife sighting before we even boarded the jeep when we spotted a turtle in a pond as we walked through the village! It was actually a fairly grubby looking pond but he looked happy enough!
The guys from Arugam Bay Surf and Wildlife Safaris had just invested in their jeep and they certainly deserve to do well they were very enthusiastic and tried very hard to ensure we had a good day. The park still has an army presence and they help prevent poaching which is a good thing.
We saw a variety of bird life (toucans, kingfishers peacocks) and finally -across the lake some elephants. A large group with quite a few babies it was lovely to see them -albeit from a distance - playing in the water. As the heat of the sun dropped the group grew and grew until there were 20 odd of them. We went and followed downwind of them (a bit scary for me -I remembered that time in Tamil Nadu when an elephant also with a baby suddenly turned on us -and out on the plains there was nowhere to hide!) but I'm sure the guide knew what he was doing. It did worry me when he said at a given signal from him we should run though, as I looked around and worked out I'd be the slowest!
It was an amazing experience to see them all walking off into the bush -much better than seeing them in captivity would have been. We also spotted quite a few crocodiles -different to the Darwin ones -they seemed to walk differently lifting themselves up as if they didn't want to get their feet dirty!
The real show stopper though was one I missed! Andrew & Nick spotted a leopard as we were driving back through the dark, but it very quickly vanished from sight when it saw our jeep -before I set eyes on it. Andrew said it looked like a huge very muscled cat (I guess it would really!) Apparently spotting a leopard is pretty rare so the guys were lucky. At least I know it was out there! The safari guys do overnight camps (presumably with some leopard protection measures in place!) as well as longer safaris -highly recommended and cheaper than the big ones at Yala (we paid 1500 or $15 Aus each) though obviously leopard sighting aren't guaranteed!
So finally on Saturday 18 September (just under a week left so time to get moving!) Andrew tore himself away from the surf and at the ungodly hour of 5.30am we boarded yet another bus which thankfully left from just outside our guest house for the next stage of the journey. We had to change buses twice on the long journey, but we were just thankful we had seats throughout not like some people who had to cling to the edges of the bus! The only change was going through a police checkpoint which necessitated us all getting off and our luggage being inspected. I accused (not to their faces thankfully!) them of taking my marmite but thankfully it turned up later! This was the first full on road block we'd experienced but we understand just a year or so back they were very frequent which must have made travelling even more drawn out and uncomfortable.
Finally after 8 hours or so we (and our huge pile of luggage - this somehow seems to be increasing in volume-must be the dirt!!) were set down in the sleepy little seaside village of Mirissa. It was hot and we were tired so we opted for the path of least resistance staying at the guest house directly in front of us -the Central Beach Inn.
It was actually a fantastic location right on the beach and very good value at 1000 rps or $10 Aus a night. Actually this was due to it being low season as apparently come December-January this price would more than double.
Mirissa was a lovely little place with a gorgeous beach- it has good surf too in the right season but at the moment whilst the waves were big they weren't of surfable quality according to the expert, though we did see a local surfer giving it a good go!
The weather here was a bit unpredictable and we had a few sudden downpours but that just helped cool things down and you soon dried off. We had a look at the local market always interesting, and then wandered down to the harbour.
This whole region took a real bashing during the Tsunami and there was still evidence of this -e.g.) a boat quite a long way inland now all over grown with jungle.
The harbour area was a real hive of activity -all the dried fish was being packaged up into trucks, and the fishermen were enjoying some down time mending their nets.
Mirissa is nice in that it remains quite "local" and whilst there are quite a few beachside restaurants and guest houses it's not as commercialized as many parts of this coast.
We bumped into a nice lady at the market who insisted on bringing us back to her family home to meet her friends and have a cuppa - we promised we'd put her picture on the web so here it is…thanks for the tea!
This stretch of coast is where the fishermen on sticks hang out - those guys we see everyday on the cover of our LP and very often in carvings in tourist shops so I was determined to see them. In short we tried very hard for 2 days running but failed miserably! Well we saw the sticks and the men (standing in blankets muttering "no way I'm going out there today" presumably) - just we never saw them together! Apparently the wind was too high - lightweights!!
Never mind we had some good walks up the beach and saw a couple of sunrises. Whilst walking up the beach we also ran into Adrian the French guy we'd met earlier and later over dinner we also re-met French Patrick -a we said a very small world travelling here!
For the last night of our short stay in Mirissa it was actually our anniversary 10 years since we met. Time flies when you're having fun eh Andrew??!! So we treated ourselves to a lovely meal at the hill top Palace Mirissa Resort.
It was a very blowy night but we were determined to enjoy the ocean view so we sat outside - making it right to dessert before the heavens opened and we just made it under cover before we were drenched. A bit more pricey here (60 Euros a night) but it'd be a great spot to stay -though the walk up the hill was a bit steep. Somehow we forgot to take a picture but we had a really nice seafood meal -and quaffed our bottle of duty free champagne which we'd been lugging around for the past couple of weeks -the bag should be a bit lighter now!
Next morning we were planning to take the bus on to Galle but a couple of buses we hailed refused to take us due to the surf board and all our stuff so we treated ourselves to a tuk tuk for 1000 or $10 Aus -much more comfortable! The other good thing with this was like when we're in our own car we could stop and take pictures of things we passed on the way. This stretch of coast is very developed and there are some very high end resorts. One particular one our tuk tuk drivers wanted to show us was actually on its own little island in Weligama. Once owned by a French Count it is apparently from $1500 USD a night to stay here. We could stay at one of our places for over 6 months or 1 night here! Crazy!!!
Once we hit Galle we headed straight to the Hotel Weltevreden - a small homestay run by a friendly old guy whose son now lives in Sydney. The old house was a heritage listed old Dutch building set around a lovely courtyard garden really nice and relaxing and just 1000 rps or $10 Aus a night. Galle was a lovely city; the modern new part was thankfully kept totally separate from the old part where we stayed which is still part of the fort.
The fort is still "living" having a community of over 400 houses as well as mosques temples and offices and it was absolutely fascinating. Originally founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century it really came into its own under the Dutch and it was SL's major port for 200 years before Colombo grew and overtook it. It was a beautiful little town just to wander down the alley ways and look in the shops. We stopped to have one of our favourite king coconuts from the little guy on the bike who passed by -we've got very fond of these!
Galle is a "must see" on the tourist circuit so maybe for this reason it has a lot of great shops and cafes and some incredible boutique hotels. One such is the Aussie owned Galle Fort Hotel -very swish but again way too pricey for us -great art work though and a nice looking central pool. We had a meander around and ended up in a gem shop. The owner a Muslim guy (they often are, like in India it's a Muslim trade) was very friendly and he showed us his prize jewel from the safe. He said he'd never show it to people seriously thinking of buying something (he'd obviously sussed us out!) as it made all the other gems look paltry by comparison. Not that I really know about it but it was beautiful a huge cornflower blue sapphire - and so it should have been for a cool $40,000 USD - for one stone!!
We had a look at the Maritime Museum -no photos - it was interesting but there was a lot to read and I was still pretty tired after an early start so there seemed a lot to take in!
Lots of wrecks to explore on this coast certainly. There were quite a few Christian churches around -all that European influence and one unusual Mosque very similar in style to the Portuguese churches we'd seen in Goa. We wondered up to the harbour front area past an army base where the guys were playing a very energetic looking tag type of game, which is called Kabadi we later found out.
The solid harbour front wall was nice -a great view over the harbour too and a scenic old lighthouse. That night we went to Mama's Galle Fort Roof Café for dinner and had another SL special of a variety of different dishes. We couldn't have a beer though as there had been a complaint from the local mosque who could see people drinking beer from their roof top (they had no beer licence) so we arrived in the middle of a police raid -like being in Arugam Bay again!
The next morning we had a last quick look around the old streets and went to see a lace making demo within a handicrafts shop. This was run by a woman's co-operative to help poor ladies earn a living.
When we went in initially they were a bit unfriendly and wouldn't let us take pictures of their nimble finger work. After we looked around and brought a couple of little things they were much friendlier and said we could take a picture. Apparently they get sick of busloads of tourists laden down with bags from the trendier shops in Galle -which are usually owned by either foreigners or Colombo residents- coming in watching the demo taking pictures looking around but never buying. I guess management is needed to make sure that money trickles down everywhere in tourism. The short term high end tourists are no doubt lucrative but they often live and eat only in top end resorts or where they're taken by guides so the money isn't spread far down the chain. They need our sort of travellers -using the buses staying in locals' home buying local food - just as much to help those that really need it. Hopefully they will see this in their tourism planning and won't go the way of Thailand trying to cut out the backpacker travellers -we're helpful too!
We also had a quick look at the new cricket stadium. Cricket is a religion here like in India and the old stadium was totally wrecked in the tsunami. It was rebuilt with Australian funds which we were pleased to hear -an initiative lead by Shane Warne. Good old Warney he may be (as they say in India) a "very naughty man" but he does have his redeeming features!
Galle was a really nice city and we'd like to have stayed longer -seem to have been thinking that a bit of late! In fact we nearly did end up staying -as it took us a while to get a bus which would take us on the next stage of our journey. This was a problem as there were no trains going to our next destination that day and so there was no other way to get there - other than a $30 Aus cab ride.
After 2 buses had told us to wait for the next one Andrew got fed up with it and just got on. I followed him and we barricaded our way on a seat and refused to move! This led to a big row between us and the bus boys and a big group gathering around us. They were trying to ask us to get another bus but there was no point - it still wouldn't have let us on. So there we sat -whilst the bus boy went and got the local traffic policeman. He really looked like he'd rather be elsewhere - and once he saw we weren't really doing anything illegal he left us to it. In the need they asked for 300 rp (negotiated down to 200)to take the board. Seems a bit unfair when this is more than the cost of another ticket and as Andrew held the board standing up next to him all the way so it didn't take up a seat. Particularly unfair when everyone else gets on with boxes of fish, veggies and GOK what else …hardly welcoming to tourists either!
Anyway with no due ceremony we were eventually dumped at the road side at our next destination South Payagala. The reason we'd come to this lesser known beach town was to catch up with some SL friends we'd met on our travels.
Chanilka and her extended family were our neighbours when we stayed at Arugam bay. They had very kindly invited us to stay with them on our way up this stretch of coast. Not a particularly touristy area itself, though in the middle of much tourism, this region was (again!) badly affected in the tsunami. Chanilka and her family had to run out of ther house to the temple when the water came. Thankfully they were all ok but their house was completely destroyed and had to be rebuilt from scratch. Quite a few charitable organizations do work in the area and Chanilka and her family are involved in hosting the volunteers who come to help out and teach English at a local orphanage. They made us very welcome and we were served a delicious local speciality -egg hoppers -really good.
That evening with Chanilka, her mum and a young cousin we went to the nearby town of Kosgoda to visit the Sea Turtle Project which had been on our "must do " list since we set off. One of several such projects in the area this small concern works hard to protect the 5 species of turtle which live on this stretch of coast. All these projects were destroyed in the tsunami and the turtles lost but they have now been at least partially rebuilt with the help of volunteers. The female turtles return to the beaches here (the same ones where they were born) to laid their eggs. Many of these eggs are stolen by poachers but of those that do survive the tiny baby turtles then have a perilous journey down to reach the ocean dodging birds and other predators on the way. They then have to dodge fishing nets so no wonder they are an endangered species! This project and those like it provide protection for the turtles having designated areas for egg laying and assisting the baby turtles into the water so that at least they have a fighting chance!
The centre is also a refuge for albino turtles and those that are sick/disabled as these turtles have no hope of survival in the wild. It was amazing to hold these little creatures in your hand - apparently they don't mind this. Later that evening they were to be released into the sea, which we would have liked to see but as there were a few birds of prey around it was being delayed until after dark. The centre works hard to help the turtles and to educate locals not to eat the eggs - a traditional delicacy. They also offer a volunteer program for a minimum of 2 weeks where you can come and live at the centre and learn to help care for the turtles. See their website for more details www.seaturtleszone.com
It was lovely to meet Chanilka and family and we really enjoyed their hospitality, but next morning it was off again very early to catch the train on to Colombo -just an hour or so away. We were for once very lucky with the trains as this was a Buddhist full moon holiday. We'd not realized but apparently the whole country gets a holiday for this one day a month -very civilized! This meant that the trains weren't too packed and we had a leisurely trip up the coast to Fort Railway Station in central Colombo. On the trip up the coast you could really see the havoc caused by the tsunami. Many of the people were still living in very temporary looking shacks. Apparently some people have been given new houses way inland-but as they are fishermen with no transport this isn't too helpful and many of them just build what they can at the sea's edge. Maybe the huge tourist potential of ocean front land is to blame for this.
At the station we left all our luggage in the locker rooms -just 56 rupees - and headed out into the heat of the city. Unfortunately nearly everything was shut due to the holiday. Feeling a bit jaded we went into the Hilton to get a coffee. This looked a boring standard business hotel from the outside but inside there was a central garden and pond with turtles, and many wild birds and it was nice to just hang in the ac and watch this nature. The hotel had numerous restaurants a spa and was very luxurious. It looks a gorgeous place to stay but again a bit expensive for us.
We braved the heat and walked on up towards Galle Face Hotel along the sea front. Being in the big tourist area we got all the scammers - people telling us that the road was shut and we had to go by tuk tuk etc It just makes us laugh now -we've done a year in India no way we're getting taken in by any of this rubbish - so we say!!
As a last fling we had lunch at the Galle Face Hotel. Feeling a bit rash we asked to have a look at their wine list thinking of treating ourselves - but apparently no alcohol can be served on full moon days so that was the end of that idea! The buffet was delicious a mix of SL and ex-pat -spicy chicken curry and mutton shepherd's pie to name a couple of choices!
As the dining area where the food was laid out was all open plan there was a guy whose sole job was to stand on the lawn catapult in hand and fend off bird attacks! It worked too when he left his post for just two minutes there was a crow invasion that had to be warded off by several napkin flapping staff! Such a gorgeous hotel -we'll have to come and stay here one day!
For now though it was back on our final train and finally -coming full circle -we arrived back at Negombo and headed straight to Beach Villa Guest House - to spend our last night in SL where we had spent our first. A nice surprise we re-met our French friend Marie who was staying next door and so after seeing our last SL sunset over the beach we all went out for dinner. We can't believe how quickly the time has gone and certainly wouldn't mind a couple more weeks here. Next morning very early we got a tuk tuk held the surfboard on top for the last time and headed for the airport. It was just as well we were so early as we ran into problems when we hit customs.
As mentioned before there is a new annoying rule that at the end of an Indian visa you need a 2 month gap before getting another one. As we were on a double entry visa we were allowed one trip in and out of the country during the life of the visa which was what we were doing. Somewhat confusingly the standard stamp on our visa said that we needed a 2 month gap between visits as opposed to visas. Thus the authorities tried to say we had to remain another month in SL before returning to India.
As we pointed out this would make having a double entry visa a mockery. They told us the rule had changed so we were pretty stressed out that we wouldn't be allowed back in. Eventually after a very stressful 40 minutes they agreed to allow us onto the plane on the condition that we gave them a letter stating that in the event that we were deported back from India upon arrival we were to bear all the associated costs.
Thus after all this drama all our plans of having a leisurely meander through the duty free section and using up our SL phone credit with a few calls went out the window, particularly when for some reason the flight left 40 minutes early. The same ladies we'd had our visa "discussion " with came to find us and tell us this and we were escorted all the way to the plane. Not sure if this was a courtesy or if they were thinking we were suspicious characters and making sure we left the premises!
The journey was over very quickly by the time we'd eaten (no real need for this - why do they always feed you on such short flights??) we were descending. We had a good view over the Chennai turnpike which we were to drive over shortly. We were a bit nervy of what we'd find going through customs and sure enough we were pulled out of line. However -as we were on the double entry of our visa (I was right) the 2 months rule didn't apply so all we had to do was register that we'd made our 2nd entry.
Annoyingly we need to go and register at one of the FRRO (Foreigner Registration Offices) within 15 days but we can tie that in back in Kolkata so no real drama. There is a need for more education about this whole new Indian visa thing to the people who have to enforce it as the various authorities seem to all be singing a different song -making it a bit tricky for us on the receiving end! Interestingly the immigration lady told us that this new "2 months out" rule is imposed to stop people on tourist visas doing business. This at least makes more sense than what we were told before that it was to stop terrorism; we really couldn't see the sense in that one. Anyway finally all was well we were through customs and out we stepped into the greatly increased (from SL) heat and humidity of Chennai.