West and South Coast – Hikkaduwa, Galle & Ambalangoda
Squalid train travel, wailing blind beggars, the baby milk scam and lolling on the beach. We finally make it to the chill out surf zone of Sri Lanka.
Exchange rate: (ï¿½1 = Rs150)
When we first landed in Colombo after a sixteen hour flight, we headed for
the fairly central YWCA International Guest House in Union Place (Col 2).
For the uninitiated, Colombo is divided into fifteen postal code areas,
hence Colombo 2 is the Slave Island suburb. From stepping off the plane,
everyone we met had the same story to tell – don’t bother going to Colombo.
For once, they were right but we ignored them, gritted our teeth and
longed for crisp, clean sheets to rest our weary bodies on.
We’ve stayed at YWCAs before and generally the standard is good, i.e. a
clean room for a reasonable price. However, I can categorically state that
this YWCA has one of the worst rooms I have ever stayed in whilst
backpacking. At first glance, the accommodation appeared promising. A
crumbling colonial mansion set in rambling grounds with a wood panelled
reception area. The smile left my face when we were shown a hideously
dirty room with attached bath suffering from loud traffic noise. I don’t
know how it happened, but we were so spaced out from jet lag and our common
sense disappeared in an instant. We accepted the hovel without even a
whimper and coughed up a whopping Rs1340 for the privilege. What were we
thinking? I must have been barking mad!
The crusty old lady who I presumed was the head of the family, took an
inordinately long time to write out a receipt, find change and order her
minions to clean the room. The only signs of any attempt at cleaning were
emptying the rubbish bin and hanging two decrepit towels I wouldn’t touch
with a barge pole in the bathroom. I gingerly rested on my bed, realising a
few slats were missing and watched as a procession of ants marched past
over the sheet. Excellent, I had friends to sleep with.
Exhausted, I thought I’d have a shower to revive me. It took just a few
seconds before I emitted the scream of a banshee and came charging out,
running round the room like something possessed. Tom told me to “shut
up” because the crusty old lady would hear me. I couldn’t have cared if
the whole guest house had heard me – there was a winged creature attached
to my leg and it was crawling towards my waist band. I’m ashamed to think
that after four months in Africa, I could be such a wimp. After Tom investigated, he broke the news to me that I hadn’t discovered a new breed of insect, just gigantic flying ants.
The icing on the cake was afternoon
torrential rain. It swept across the city and the roof above our room
couldn’t cope with the volume of water, leading to drops raining down
directly onto my bed. No wonder I hardly slept a wink during the night.
After tossing and turning for an eternity, I glanced at my watch thinking
we had overslept and missed breakfast. Disorientated, I struggled out from
under my mozzie net, got dressed and opened the door. I was dismayed to
find it was pitch black outside. My watch was reading 9:30pm, not 9:30am.
Jet lag plays strange tricks on the mind. I had been asleep for two hours
and not fourteen hours.
The next morning, a tiny breakfast of a miniscule banana, soft bread and tea
awaited us in the timbered hall. I’d never tasted Sri Lankan tea before,
so I presumed the foul tasting liquid was just the standard local brew.
Having digested the tea, it clearly didn’t agree with me as I promptly ran
to the bathroom to be violently sick. We had to get out of there, so we
caught the first train out of Colombo to the beach resort of Hikkaduwa
before the hostel owners had a chance to poison me again.
Train travel falls into two categories: intercity expresses that allow
reservations in first and second class carriages, or expresses and ordinary
trains that only run second and third class carriages without reservations. We
learnt early on to make a reservation for an intercity express wherever
possible. The trouble is there is only one early morning intercity per day
on the three main routes and these trains are often fully booked.
If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up on an express standing in the humid heat
for hours, squashed into the carriage like a sardine. Second class, in my
experience, was just as packed as third class, the only difference being
the two ceiling fans per carriage, but it’s difficult to position yourself
directly under one, so the benefit is minimal.
So there we were, sweating like pigs in second class, had nowhere to stow
our backpacks and couldn’t move an inch as bodies were pressed against us
on all sides. One pudgy Sinhalese guy really got on my nerves, he embarked
on a determined campaign to move into my tiny space by treading on my feet.
I retaliated with a deft elbow in the kidneys, although he probably
couldn’t feel it through his rubbery flesh. I spent most of the tiresome
two and a half hours concentrating my efforts on wedging my elbow further
into his flesh. I didn’t see why I should give an inch – I had just as
much right to be on the train as he did.
Lying in wait at the Colombo Fort station were the usual suspects, touts
trying to use their arts of persuasion and convince us not to stay in
Hikkaduwa. There were a whole array of plausible reasons: the beach was
crowded, the main road too busy, for too many German tourists and hawkers
who hassled you on the beach every ten seconds. Instead, we should take a
room in Ambalangoda in their uncle’s guesthouse on a pristine sweep of sand
in the middle of nowhere. At this point, the tout would flip open a photo
album of crumby shots and try and clinch the deal. He even had a book of
testimonials from other travellers to flick through. I didn’t want to be
stuck somewhere where the only eating option was taking meals in the same
guesthouse every night. We were going to Hikkaduwa and that was final.
Just when I thought I’d achieved a vaguely comfortable position in the
aisles, a vendor would edge his way down the carriage, advertising his
wares by shouting at the top of his voice, shoving the basket or metal
container in your face and clinking the change in his hand. As the vendors
squeezed past, they would leave a nice, dirty track mark on your clothes.
Anything is sold from chewing gum, popcorn and apples to sambol and
battered prawns. Then the beggars joined in: a man with a disfigured arm
who waved his floppy hand in your face, a procession of blind men and an
ingenious cripple who somehow shuffled along the floor touching
passengers’s legs to get their attention. The blind men were a persistent
bunch, one had a tambourine to beat and another wailed a tune inconsolably.
I would have gladly paid him a couple of rupees to shut up – the noise
set my teeth on edge, rather like someone scratching their fingernails down
Finally, we reached the beach haven of Hikkaduwa and fell in love with the
place. Of course it’s just sea, sand and surf but it has a relaxed vibe,
inviting us to kick off our Tevas and plunge in. There were excellent
beachside restaurants offering seafood to die for, a few bars to bop the
night away in, one video bar showing recent films and countless stalls
selling cheap sarongs and t-shirts. There was little hassle on the beach
from hawkers; a polite “no thank you” sufficed.
We chose to stay on the Narigama stretch of sand in Hotel New Harmony. As
it was high season, I expected hoardes of western faces, but they never
materialised. The war on terror and subsequent bombs on soft tourist
targets has taken its toll on worldwide travel. Tourists whom have
ventured to Sri Lanka are predominately middle-aged Germans. Due to this,
Hikkaduwa struck the right balance: uncrowded but still has all the
The Hotel New Harmony treated their guests like royalty. Rooms were
cleaned very day and the beds decorated with arrangements of exotic
tropical flowers. After three nights, we moved down the road to Sahra
Guesthouse. The rooms had sparkling bathrooms and the food was superb; we
gradually worked our way through their menu. The best value breakfast in
town was at Sunny’s on the beach. Two eggs, four slices of toast, jam,
three bananas and a pot of tea cost Rs110.
Tom is a restless soul and gets bored far too easily from sitting on the
beach, so we took a side trip to Galle, 17km south-east of Hikkaduwa. We
caught one of the frequent buses for Rs10 each.
Galle is famous for its Dutch fort, built in 1663, occupying most of the
south-facing promontory. The fort is a World Heritage Site backed by a
bustling, polluted town which we avoided. Inside the fort are ancient
narrow streets to wander down, although a guy who claimed he worked for the
Archaeological Office tried to latch onto us. Earlier, another man who
said he worked for the railways told us the Fort was closed. Absolute
rubbish! Take any information offered with a large pinch of salt. Our
archaeological imposter followed us down the lanes, advising us to buy
citronella oil from a chemist he could direct us to and shadowing our every
move when we enquired in restaurants about breakfast. In the end, we
stopped at the side of the road, buried our heads in our guide book and
ignored him. Thankfully, he disappeared after a few minutes in search of
more gullible quarry.
We strolled along part of the historic ramparts, admiring the view of the
ocean crashing onto the rocks before venturing into the Historic Mansion
Museum. This restored Dutch house bills itself as a ‘World Heritage Site’
but is really a front for an extensive gem shop. It’s also a dumping
ground for a bizarre collection of dust covered artefacts that seem to bear
no relation to each other. The exhibits ranged from broken pieces of
china, pocket watches, furniture and gramophones to hospital implements,
spectacles and weapons. The funniest thing about the Historic Mansion was
the accompanying information leaflet. All the old tat displayed in the
museum was apparently “meticulously collected over a period of 35 years.”
I could pick up similar old junk back home from visiting boot/garage sales.
Also, the leaflet boasts, “The opinion of many notable foreigners and
archaeologists is that the Museum is ‘par excellence’” – I’d interpret that
as ‘a scam for selling jewellery’.
Another pleasant interlude inbetween riding the surf, sunbathing and
sampling the seafood, is a day trip to Ambalangoda, 7km north of Hikkaduwa.
This small town can be reached by bus with the minimum of fuss for a few
rupees. Apart from having empty stretches of beach, Ambalangoda is the
birthplace of the Lankan mask used in dances, festivals and processions.
About five hundred metres north of the bustling main road is the first
traditional mask shop. No one minds if you venture inside to watch the
talented craftsmen carve and paint the masks. The intricate process
involves stripping the bark back from the lightweight timber of the Kaduru
tree, cutting the wood to size and drying it out for a week. The mask is
carved into pieces that eventually slot together to produce the finished
article, making them easy to pack down into a parcel. Lacquer paint gives
the mask a brash, shiny appearance. Wood based paint highlights the
artist’s work more but increases the price of the mask.
Masks are classified into three groups: Raksha, Kolam and Sanni. Raksha
are often seen in processions and festivals, Kolam in comic plays and
ancient stories and Sanni in devil dancing ceremonies to cure illnesses.
We visited two ‘factory style’ workshops with attached museums. The
Ariyapala museums supply the history and display a whole range of the three
different types of mask with accompanying stories. If you take a taxi or
hire a three-wheeler to Ambalangoda, expect your ‘guide’ to pick up a
sizeable commission from the museum shops if you buy a mask. We chose to
haggle for a mask at one of the independent workshops.
We set our hearts on a Gurulu Raksha (mask of the bird) and Maha Kola
Sanniya (medicine mask), neither of which were lacquered. The former is
one of the twenty-four varieties of Raksha mask and is meant to bring good
luck. The Gurulu is a hawk who preys on snakes, cobras in particular. The
medicine mask is comprised of eighteen different types of Sanni (demons),
who are linked to a particular illness. The figure in the middle of the
mask is Prince Maha Kola. Legend has it that his father, King Sankapala,
killed his mother leading the prince to seek a gory revenge. The mask
depicts a human maid in the prince’s mouth, human sacrifices he consumed in
his stomach and the dead bodies of the King’s followers in his hands.
Under his feet is the demon Gara Yaka, reputed to be a scavenger. The
prince’s crown is adorned with serpents from which he extracted a deadly
poison spreading a virulent disease taking eighteen different forms, hence
the eighteen demons. Thankfully, Buddha saved the day by using his
miraculous powers of healing to wipe out the disease. I always knew there
would be a happy ending.
For lunch, we headed to a place frequented by the locals, the Chinese Hotel
Restaurant. At first glance, you’d never in your right mind set foot in
the place – it would have been condemned by environmental health inspectors
in the blink of an eye. A precarious, rickety wooden staircase (the wood
was rotting away in places) led to a filthy, fly-infested room. The
plastic tables were covered in dirt stained tablecloths – I could hardly
bring myself to touch them. Yet the food was brilliant and the place
packed. The curry was so hot it made my eyes water.
On our way to the restaurant, we picked up another so called ‘friend’ who
quickly latched onto the fact that we had purchased two masks and would
need to post them home. He spun a web of lies, convinced us the post
office had a rule requiring masks to be sent in a wooden box and tried to
entice us into his father’s spice shop. The spice shop set alarm bells
ringing and we thought we had cleverly evaded his clutches by slipping into
the restaurant for lunch.
I sighed deeply when our discarded ‘friend’ popped up at our table halfway
through our meal, ordered himself a coke (on our bill, of course) and
presented us with pieces of wood taken from an apple crate. Even though we
had never requested his services, he had taken it upon himself to dismantle
the crate and deliver the wood to us, completely ruining our meal. Not
knowing how we could get rid of him, we gulped down the rest of our food
and headed for the bus station.
At last, he got round to the gist of his scam – if only we would buy some
powdered baby milk, he could feed his seven month old baby. This is a
popular scam in India, involving the poor tourist in buying powdered milk
at a grossly inflated price. Afterwards, the trickster returns the milk to
the shop and pockets the difference.
Tom, believing the lightweight wood would come in useful (and it did
later on), gave him Rs100 to cover the cost of the wood and his time, but
refused to buy the Rs250 packet of milk. If it had been my choice, I
wouldn’t have given him a penny. I can’t bear these guys who string you
along, shadowing you for ages, inviting themselves to lunch, just to weave
a web of lies. It hardly promotes their country or tourism, just lines
their pockets. Some you win and some you lose.