Like the Griswalds, the MyDubaiOnline household like to have an Easter vacation. Last year was Hong Kong, which despite the construction work, the appalling weather and the roller coaster flights, was fab and one of the high points of 2012. This year we thought we’d try something a bit closer to home. Keeping with our theme of preferring to visit places either pre or post internal conflict (Egypt and Bahrain to name but two), we opted for formally war-torn Sri Lanka.
As Sri Lanka is still on the UK Foreign Office travel advisory list we decided to take some back-up in the form of our good mates the Gillanjons, who; 1). live in war-torn Bahrain, and 2). come from war-torn Newcastle. This means they are ‘dead ard’ and can help out if things get nasty.
As it turns out, the place didn’t seem that war-torn after all, the greatest threat to life comes in a different form, and one we’re used to in the Middle East. No it’s not the prospect of an Iranian invasion, it’s driving. Or being a passenger. Or even being near a road.
That’s because something happens when a friendly, mild mannered Sri Lankan gets behind the wheel of a car or tuc-tuc. He suddenly becomes a human weapon of mass destruction, a destroyer of nations, a lethal weapon that even Mel Gibson in his wild-eyed heyday would be proud of.
Yes, my friend, I can confirm that the roads in Sri Lanka are officially the worlds craziest. And I say with some authority as a man who has driven (ok, been driven) in Riyadh, Cairo, Bombay and Kingston. By comparison, Dubai seems positively pedestrian.
Our destination in Sri Lanka was a place called Benthota, which is about 80k or three hours (yes, three hours to cover 80k!) south of Colombo, on the west coast of the island. The place we stayed was a privately owned holiday home called Sri Villas, which consists of three beach side properties with communal gardens and pool.
Needless to say it was an improvement on the accommodation I’d sourced in Hong Kong, the complete polar opposite in fact. Well appointed, tranquil and not a jack-hammer to be seen. Or heard.
The other unique thing about Sri Villas that makes for a complete chillax-fest, is the house boys and chef that are on site. They shop, cook, clean and generally take care of you from dawn to dusk. All you have to do is roll out of bed for breakfast or slide out of the pool for lunch. It’s the height of decadence, but what the hell, you’re on holiday. And let’s be honest, you deserve it after surviving the drive from the airport and knowing you’ve still got to do it again.
We had great intentions to do lots of trips out. The elephant orphanage was discussed at length, blue whale watching was seriously contemplated. However, confronted with a four hour drive to do either, we decided to increase our life expectancy and mainly chill by the pool.
We did however visit Galle, which is a historic Portuguese, then Dutch, then British port and defensive site. Whether the Portuguese, Dutch or Brits were gearing up ready for an invasion by orphaned elephants or blue whales is not too clear, but they were well prepared either way.
The unique thing about the town is it’s walled, a feature which has survived largely intact for the last 400 years or so. The town within the walls is quaint and fantastically preserved, with lots of museums, shops and restaurants. A miracle in some ways, as the town outside of the walls was largely destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, the city walls, built so many years earlier by the Portuguese, finally coming to the rescue of the fortunate townsfolk behind them.
My general level of ignorance meant that I hadn’t realised that the west coast of Sri-Lanka was severely battered by the tsunami. I always thought it was only the East coast. As it turns out, just 10k south of Sri Villas, one of the worst individual losses took place, as the train from Colombo to Galle was slammed by two walls of water, with the loss of two thousand lives.
The Sri Lankans in the area seem deeply affected by the event and talk frequently about it, though in a dignified, matter of fact way. The destroyed houses and gravestones long the road from Benthota to Galle tell their own sobering story.
On the way back from Galle, the kids got word that we might be able to get to one of the local turtle sanctuaries before the 6.30 cut off, but only if we drove like maniacs and ignored all traffic lights. As they say “When in Rome”. Sri Lanka has its fair a share of green turtles, so sanctuaries, (which offer the locals lads more cash for the eggs than the restaurants do), have sprung up all over the place, funded by donations from tourists. Practical eco-tourism in action, I guess.
The sanctuary was well organised, with labelled mounds of eggs, pools for turtles at various stages of development, and separate tanks for those with injuries meaning their sea faring days are behind them. As luck would have it, or perhaps helped by a quick phone call and a bucket and spade, some turtles were ready to come out of the sand at the precise moment we arrived. What luck! Who cares, the kids and adults alike were delighted to dig out the cute baby turtles and put them in a water tank. Doubtless the same tank they were in five minutes earlier, but let’s not get picky about the details.
As it had gone dark we were able to release a number of turtles into the sea. After making asmall contribution of course – but no complaints, these guys are doing good work and it was a great experience. That said, those crazy turtles just kept running the wrong way and it took a lot of shooing and redirection to get them past the breakwater. My idea to skim them out to sea like pebbles didn’t get a lot of support, so the process was rather inefficient and took ages.
Diving and Questionable Employment Policies
Number 1 son and I went scuba diving at the Poseidon dive centre, in the wonderfully named village of Hikkaduwa, completing two dives, one wreck and one reef. Swimming through the cabin of the submerged ship wreck 20m below was quite an experience, though coming face to face with a 2m moray eel was the highlight for me.
The two dives and all equipment for me and Number 1 son came to about £50 all in. Bargain! It did cross my mind I’d been undercharged, so being a man of great integrity, I hightailed it out of there pronto.
The namby-pamby non-divers (i.e. everyone else), went to visit a couple of tourist honey-traps, the mask museum and the moon stone mine. The latter is a working mine, or rather hole in the ground, at the bottom of which is a couple of scrawny kids digging in the mud for the grey semi-precious rocks. The guys were assured that this wasn’t child exploitation, the kids actually enjoy spending all day wet and doubled up at the bottom of a 20ft hole. Also, if they worked hard, and kept out of trouble, they could progress to becoming a stone polisher.
With a career path established and a clear conscience restored, Mrs Gillanjon bought some of the aforementioned stones, but not before extracting a promise from the mine owners that they would at invest in some wellington boots for the boys.
Final Day Wash-out
Our final day was pretty much washed out, thunderstorms, tea and cards were the order of the day, as well as getting packed psyched for the drive to the airport the next morning.
The Gillanjons had told us about a new super-duper highway that their driver took from the airport, so we thought we’d give that a go on the way back. Turns out this fantastic 6 lane highway, which runs from Colombo to Galle is hardly used because the locals object to the toll and the slight detour they need to make to use it. Or so we’re led to believe. I personally think it’s because it doesn’t give them the same adrenaline rush as the coast road, but I’ve got no way to prove that. Our driver initially said he’d rather take the coast road, but one stern look from Mrs H quickly persuaded him to comply with our request.
Good news – the highway is fab, so if you ever visit Sri Lanka and are heading south, do insist on using it. The bad news – we arrived at the airport in half the allotted time and had to hang around the slightly limited airport for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours……