Rahul Bose’s first real holiday in Sri Lanka
Pleasant, but not particularly memorable? Ha! Sri Lanka can be enchanting, if you know how to see itUpdated: Jul 29, 2017 23:57 IST
If there was an award for the Most Popular Wedding Photograph Spot in the World, Galle Fort would win hands down. As we drove into the precinct on a rainy, blustery Friday morning, there were brides everywhere. Some dressed in beige, others in red, resplendent in elaborate make-up, posing in front of gorgeous cars for professional photographers. Reflectors, lights, tripods, light meters, you would think a movie was being shot.
But I get ahead of myself. I found myself in Galle Fort on my first holiday to Sri Lanka despite having been there on and off for the last 18 years. My fondest memory of Sri Lanka is scoring my first try for India (touchdown/goal in more familiar sports) in Colombo in an international rugby sevens game versus the home country. That was 1999. I have made two more trips to the island: once to play another tournament and the second, a long stint in 2010, to act in Deepa Mehta’s cinematic adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Over time I’ve thought Sri Lankans to be polite, reserved, efficient, clean and astonished at how a narrow strip of sea formed the Sri Lankan temper to be so different from ours. Not the smelly chaos of India, nor the emotional excitability. Sadly missing was also the warmth that envelopes you anywhere else in the subcontinent. I remember a Lankan saying to me after a few drinks during the shoot that the country is slowly, but not completely, forgetting India’s ‘blustering Big Brother Neighbour’ ways over the past 40 years.
Dotted with brides and grooms posing in style, Galle Fort could win the award for the most popular wedding photography spot in the world
But I have never travelled to Sri Lanka on a holiday. Yes, when the Indian rugby team toured the Emerald Isles we were shown around, but ask any international player on tour and he/she will tell you that before a tournament, nobody has the slightest interest in seeing the sights and sounds of the host country. Perhaps if we had toured the island after the tournament we would have absorbed and appreciated more. (Although that’s debatable considering we were massively hungover.) I remember seeing Colombo, Dambulla, Nuwara Eliya and while enjoying them, not being blown away. So it was with these memories that I decided to finally holiday in Sri Lanka, prepared for a pleasant but not particularly memorable or unique experience.
A truism of travel is that your impression of a country is largely decided by your experience of the hotel you are staying at. In our case, it was the historic and much feted Amangalla at Galle Fort, so well begun, half done. Set inside the Galle Fort, the Aman is part of the history of the Fort. Naturally canopied corridors, sunlit balconies, colonial magnificence, this 400-year-old building is a Kerala-meets-colonial-Calcutta kind of property with the Aman trademark: intuitive but not intrusive staff with a knowledge of the culture and geography where the property is located, looking to create bespoke experiences for the well-travelled. The first evening, escorted by Krishanth, one of the senior staff and a local himself, we toured the Galle Fort.
The Galle Fort area is a tiny gem. Think Pondicherry’s French Quarter meets Goa’s churches meets an Indian army cantonment. A combination of English and Dutch colonial architecture, it’s one of the most charming places I’ve been to. Equally memorable was the Galle outside the Fort. For one, there is the historic Galle Cricket Stadium, though only 19 years old in its international avatar, it has come to occupy a special place in the hearts of cricket lovers across the world ever since it was destroyed by the 2004 tsunami.
For me there were two reasons to visit: one, it’s where the great Muralitharan took his 800th wicket and two, having spent two-and-a-half years in the Andamans on post-tsunami relief efforts, I had been following the devastation in Sri Lanka and promised myself one day I’d visit the stadium at Galle. In what is now cricketing folklore, Muralitharan, along with his Sinhalese teammates, raised money to rebuild the venue. His historic spinning rival, Shane Warne, pitched in $20,000 from his foundation.
I walked in on a sleepy afternoon, where the only cricket being played was alongside the main ground by a group of teens. I stood on the grass and tried to imagine for a moment how it must have been when the sea flooded the stadium up to the first floor. Today was warm and breezy with brilliant blue skies, the ocean a benign, almost sage presence.
Our next stop was the Peace Pagoda. Built by the Japanese Nipponzan Myohoji monks 15 years ago, it affords great views of the Galle sea face and the Fort. A more minimalist take on the other pagodas this order has built, it has a cyclical sweep that ascends like Yeats’ gyres into space.
Let loose the lions
Back at the Aman, I ventured to ask a Sri Lankan staff member whether there has ever been a perception amongst tourists that while Sri Lankans are unfailingly polite, patient, cultured and organised, they lack warmth, spontaneity, even a little madness. She laughed and said, ‘Nothing like that, Sir! You will see!’ Fair enough, onward ho.
We didn’t have to wait long. Through all the numerous exertions we put our personal butler Charith to, he was thoughtful and generous with an easy warmth that money can’t buy. When I thanked him for his recommendation of string hoppers with fish curry for breakfast, he laughed and said that was what he loved to eat too. When he set up the bespoke candlelit ‘Roti’ meal for us, he had a young violinist play classic Lankan melodies before we dined.
Our next destination was Hambantota, close to the southernmost tip of the country. An ancient centre of Buddhism, it was devastated during the tsunami, but today has superb roads flanked by irrigated fields and waterways. Driving around the immense Shangri-La, I was struck by how sophisticated tourism has become in this country. Every single family indulgence had been thought of − from trapeze lessons taught by a Brazilian expert to the biggest games room for kids I have ever seen.
Sri Lanka is a place of gentle friendships, natural beauty, genuine respect for the environment, and yes, easy, fluid warmth
We arrived in the afternoon, and Iain McKenzie, the general manager, suggested a bird safari up the Walawe river to the estuary where it joined the Indian Ocean. Getting into our boat an hour before sunset, we rowed down a waterway, past the jungle (think ‘Apocalypse Now’ meets the Kerala backwaters) till the river met the ocean. It was unexpectedly dramatic. High monsoon waves of the Indian Ocean (the rains had already hit the coast) crashing into the placid waters of a river at the end of its journey in a swirling mass of colour, confusion and tumult.
Birding as we sailed back, we hit the jackpot. Five species of eagles − Brahminy Kite, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Hawk Eagle, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle. And every colour possible. Purple Heron, Grey Heron, Green Parrot, Black headed Ibis. A perfect day was capped by a night of tales nourished with Lion beers and fresh South Asian food under the stars at the hotel with Iain and his wonderful wife, Anna.
- Ice cream junkies can try crunchy cashew and passionfruit flavours at Dairy King, which is known for it’s cakes too. (Source: Lonely Planet)
- To enjoy the nightlife, head to Taphouse by RnR and Luna Terrace. (Source: TripAdvisor)
- Elephant Walk is an ideal place to shop for saris, silk and a whole lot of goodies. (Source: Conde Nast Traveller)
Lying in a deck chair at the end of the night, nursing my umpteenth Lion, (in another context, that would be a line so weird I don’t even want to think about it) and contemplating the stars above in a planetarium sky, I realised that this was Sri Lanka, circa 2017. A place of gentle friendships, natural beauty, genuine respect for the environment, and yes, easy, fluid warmth. I thought back to that first morning in windy, rainy Galle Fort and smiled remembering our guide explaining it is such a favourite with newly-weds because you can’t get a view like that for hundreds of miles. I dozed off thinking another visit to Galle might not be a bad idea at all. Who knows, I might catch a bouquet thrown into the crowd.
The author is a critically-acclaimed actor and filmmaker. He is also a social activist and has turned producer with the film Poorna
From HT Brunch, July 30, 2017
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First Published: Jul 29, 2017 22:41 IST