Our trip to Galle

I mentioned once before in a previous post that we had made a trip to Galle, soon after our arrival in Sri Lanka. It is high time that I got around to writing about that trip, especially since it bears on our Christmas trip to Dambulla, from which we just returned. I’ve just posted pictures from the trip on my Picasa website.

We arrived in Sri Lanka on October 10th, 2008. The US-Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission scheduled our orientation for October 16-17, 2008. We arrived a bit early to recover from travel and get organized. There were some difficulties, but we were as prepared for the orientation as we were going to be a few days in advance. So we decided to explore the country a bit.

We only had two days, so we limited our objectives. We decided to see the southwestern coastline on an overnight trip to Galle. We stopped at a travel agent and booked a package tour that included a car and driver and a night at a hotel. The travel agent recommended the hotel and, by doing so, unintentionally reminded us that we wanted to check out the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa (Bawa pronounced three quarters of the way between Bawa and Bava). Bawa is famous in Sri Lanka for defining post-colonial Sri Lankan architecture. Among Bawa’s best known buildings are several hotels in Sri Lanka. The one in Galle (really just north of Galle proper) is called the Lighthouse Hotel.  So it came to be that we were booked into the Lighthouse Hotel for the night of October 14th, 2008.

Our driver picked us up at our guesthouse and headed for the A2 road down the coast to Galle. The road naming system is taken from British usage. A designation of “A” means that the road is of the best quality available, while one designated “B” not so high quality. The “2” just indicates which of the A roads it is (sort of like the designation “I-5” in the US) with A2 being the road from Colombo through Galle around the south coast almost to Yala National Park and then cutting inland, north to its end at Welawaya.

The A2 is four lane through Colombo and its southern suburbs and then turns into a two lane road. The distance from Colombo to Galle is 116 km (72 miles). This turns out to be a three hour drive. The road is used by: pedestrians, ox carts, bicycles, tuk tuks, motorcycles, trucks, buses, and cars (in approximate order of average velocity). So 116 km (72 miles) in three hours means that the average speed of a car on the best quality road in the country is 40 km/hr (24 mph).

This is quite a driving experience, as you can imagine. Slow moving vehicles cannot use the shoulder as there isn’t one. You might have some dirt providing a smooth road edge, but more often the asphalt just ends leaving a tire grabbing four inch drop to the surrounding landscape. The only way one can pass slow moving vehicles is to use the lane that you would think should be reserved for traffic coming from the opposite direction. Since everyone thinks they should be able to proceed at the speed they choose, one can get situations in which a car is trying to pass a bus, which is passing a tuk tuk, which is passing a bicycle. Needless to say, this gets pretty crowded on a two lane road and that isn’t even counting the traffic coming in the other direction! And, of course, there is traffic coming in the other direction. This is when things get very exciting. I suspect a car traveling the stated 116 km from Colombo to Galle actually travels 232 km when its zig-zag path is included.

In addition to the other traffic on the road, man and Nature put other obstacles in ones path. Many times a vehicle can be found on the (conventionally designated) “wrong” side of the road, simply to avoid potholes. Every so often, the authorities will put up a barrier that blocks the lanes going in one direction followed by a barrier that blocks the lanes going in the other direction. This forces traffic to take turns going past the barriers and this slows traffic sufficiently that the police or the military can observe the vehicles. Buses stop to take on or discharge passengers anywhere and thus suddenly change from being a part of co-moving traffic to being a fixed, wide obstacle.

So perhaps it is not surprising that there is a spectacular and very rich Buddhist temple on the A2 as you approach the town of Kalutura from the north. Praying and making an offering at the temple is said to protect one on ones travels. So pretty much everyone does! Cars, trucks, and buses come to a halt at the temple, people get out, pray to the temple god, and leave a donation. In an illustration of how the different religions in Sri Lanka respect each others customs, our driver went through this ritual, even though he was not Buddhist. A few people in a hurry simply toss money out of their car, truck, or bus windows on the way past, trusting honest people to deposit their offerings in the supplied donation boxes and presumably feeling that the god knows what is in their hearts.

Eventually we arrive at the Lighthouse Hotel. Wow! The place is gorgeous. It is right on the Indian Ocean beach. It is a fantastic design. Bawa has made the hotel a seamless part of the landscape. The rooms look out onto the ocean, each room with a patio (see photos). The dining room overlooks some picturesque rocks. On the outer side of the rocks, the Indian Ocean crashes in, sending sprays of water into the air. On the inner side, the rocks protect tide pools where local children are playing. There are two swimming pools. One is merely beautiful. The second is large, set in the grass just off the sandy beach. The pool is designed in such a way that it does not have a visible edge at its boundary. That is, when you are immersed in the pool, your eye travels over the surface of the pool and out over the Indian Ocean without break, as if the pool were a part of the ocean. Just amazing. Bawa instantly becomes my second favorite architect of all time.

The next day, we visit the Galle fort, the main attraction of Galle. As it turns out, this day is our first Poya Day in Sri Lanka. A Poya Day marks the full moon and each one is significant in the Buddhist calendar. Each is a national holiday and the twelve Poya Days each year help keep Sri Lanka at the forefront of the countries-with-the-most-national-holidays list. Unfortunately for us, the fact that it was a Poya Day meant that Galle was pretty much closed up tight. We did enjoy a lovely walk along the walls of the fort and through the portion of Galle that lies within the walls of the fort. Dutch influence is still much in evidence here.

On the way back from Galle to Colombo, we stopped in the home of Dudley Silva, a batik artist mentioned in the Lonely Planet Sri Lanka guidebook. His home and workshop in Ambalangoda is full of wonderful batik art and we bought a large, colorful piece depicting a fanciful jungle scene with many detailed plants and birds.

Near Kosgoda, we visited a turtle hatchery. This was hard to find. Rather, I should say, they were hard to find. Lonely Planet Sri Lanka lists three hatcheries in the Kosgoda area. When our driver questioned local residents, none were aware of any of the three. We finally found one when a resident remembered a place where foreigners visited, presumably volunteers at the hatchery. The hatchery was on the beach side of the A2, with a sign so small that we would never have found it on our own.

The hatchery was manned that day by a Sri Lankan woman who showed us around. The small, open air, fenced compound held several concrete tanks ranging in size from three feet by two feet to twelve feet by five feet.  Four of the tanks were filled with water and each contained one or two grown turtles. These were turtles that could not be returned to the sea. Instead, they served as zoo specimens to educate visitors about the different kinds of sea turtles that are hatched on the beaches of Sri Lanka. Two large tanks were filled with sand. The hatchery buys turtle eggs  from local residents at a price just higher than the residents would get from a restaurant. They then place the eggs in the sand and wait for them to hatch. Once hatched, the baby turtles are allowed to strengthen for a few days  in a water filled tank before being taken to a remote spot on the beach and released into the sea. We were allowed to handle the baby turtles and they were surprisingly hard to hold as they were driving their little legs as hard as they could go to try to make it to the sea.

Being the cheap photographer that I am, I take photographs of any baby creature as I can be pretty sure of getting a cute shot. That day I was foiled, however, when after returning to the car and setting back out on the road to Colombo, I discovered that I had forgotten to put a memory card in my camera that morning. My camera happily took picture after picture, each time warning me on the preview screen that there was no CF card installed. However, I am old-fashioned and shoot through the viewfinder and I turn off the preview screen to enhance battery life. Sigh…

So no cute photographs of the baby turtles.You will just have to visit Kosgoda to see them for yourself.




  1. Kris said,

    December 29, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Well, um–I would share my photos of the turtles even if they were taken with a less sophisticated camera; I only need to be asked and gently tutored in the ways of digital sharing. I would like to add to Tim’s description above– the dramatic staircase at the Lighthouse hotel, its namesake the old lighthouse that once stood on the site, and the small historic plaque noting the lighthouse’s role in safeguarding WWII aviation over dark seas. He may have mentioned elsewhere that this oasis of luxury and designed beauty was all the more wonderful because we arrived at our Colombo guesthouse at a bad time. There was no hot water, no water pressure, no soap, no creature comforts, but plenty of warm welcome and practical advice. In this heat and humidity, and in the big city air pollution of Colombo, having no shower was dismal, smelly, rash-inducing and embarrassing, especially after a long flight. Did I mention the guesthouse roof leak when it finally did rain? So the trip to Galle was a welcome restoration of simple comfort, clean skin, and delicious food with a view. It restored our sense of hope that we would learn to function in Sri Lanka and rise above small inconveniences. We could have demanded a transfer from the guest house to a hotel but we kept thinking each disaster would be the last. We didn’t have time for the modern town of Galle but perhaps we will visit again, on a non-poya day, and do both the old and the new towns justice. And it is likely that we could stay at the Lighthouse again, less expensively, as Sri Lanka hotels have lower rates for citizens and holders of resident visas…

  2. January 8, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    […] had chosen the Kandalama as it was designed by Geoffrey Bawa, the same architech we admired so much after our trip to Galle where we stayed at his Lighthouse Hotel. Our room at the Kandalama […]

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