February 2010

When someone suggested Sri Lanka for Chinese New Year, we quickly said yes before we had the wisdom to say no.  Sri Lanka?  Didn’t they just finish up 25 years of a brutal war with the ‘Tamil Tigers’ in May?  Were they not the second hardest hit country after Indonesia by the Christmas 2004 Tsunami with over 68,000 dead or missing on the coast; at the very spot we were going?  Yup, same one.

But, after 11 visits to Bali we were aching for something new, someplace where the Australians DON’T parasail off of their bar stools at Kuta Beach with a beer in each hand.  We were assured it was safe, less Spring Break behavior and that great villas could be rented for bargain basement prices.

Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon under the British) has a messy colonial history.  First taken over by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British who seemed to walk in without a shot fired.  In fact, it seems everyone gave it up without much of a fight until the ‘Tamil Tigers’ began their war in the mid 80’s.  The Tamils were largely Indian slave labor brought over to work the tea and rubber plantations in the early 1900’s.  They, over time, had a novel idea that they should get equal representation even though they represented just 15% of the population.  

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Denied that by the majority Sinalese, they went for the guns and bombs option; for 25 years.  As the Tamils were pushed into the North, the Christmas 2004 Tsunami devastated the south.  At least three to four waves hit, the last a rare bounce back wave that was rumored to be 17 metres high.  Tsunami’s in the open ocean can travel at the speed of a jet plane and yet only be 50 cm’s high.  But, the wave isn’t a surface storm and can be as much as 4,000 metres deep; when it hits shallow water it slows and grows.

Galle Fort 

We were staying in Galle Fort on the South coast; a Portuguese, Dutch, British rampart that blocked most of the force of the waves but still flooded the enclosed town.  Three km’s outside the Fort was the infamous ‘Train of Death’ where 1,700 died trying to take refuge after the first wave. 

Due to a mix up in villa avails, our troupe spent their first week out in the jungle at another villa.  We took that opportunity to stay at another ‘Aman’ resort; our favorite hotelier in Asia.  Over its long history the ‘Amangalla’ was almost always a hotel.  

Built in the 1600’s by the Portuguese as officer’s barracks it became the ‘New Oriental Hotel’ for 100 years before Aman leased the building for 25 years in 1995 and completely rebuilt it.  In its later years as ‘The New Oriental’ it was overseen by a remarkable woman, Nesta Ephraums, who was born in the hotel, right in room 25.  Taking over from her Father in 1960, she hosted celebrities from the literary world like Paul Theroux, hosted weddings for as many as 1,000 guests with the bride and groom riding elephants to the front door.  She kept in close contact with the numerous ghosts who occupied rooms and walked the old halls with some frequency. 

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The ‘Amangalla’  had only been reopened a short time when the tsunami hit and it became the residence of dozens of NGO’s during the recovery period.  Thus, the half price deal that pulled us in was intended to bring tourists back to the country so badly ravaged by waves and war.   And, if you prefer your 7 star luxe on the beach, there is the ‘Amanwella’ about 45 minutes away.  There are about 20 Amans all over Asia and they usually go for $700-$1,000 a night.  Our special rate, $325.  

It is simply a gorgeous place. More restored than rebuilt, it has the wide plank floors, high ceilings and ubiquitous ceiling fans that capture the colonial feel perfectly.  The rooms have all of that plus wifi and Ipod docks.  The pool has lovely cabanas that serve cucumber sandwiches for afternoon tea and there is a bar on the top floor pretty much reserved for watching sunsets over the Indian Ocean.  Oh, and you get your own butler too.  He was particularly helpful when I ran into a 5 foot snake across the street from the hotel while taking a picture.  He reassured me with a “he no bite” and a little less so later with “maybe he bite”.  Then, when getting a towel at the pool, I interrupted a 4 foot monitor lizard coming out of the ladies change room.  I succeeded in chasing him into the towel armoire while trying to take his picture.  Once again, I had to find Chris the butler, lest I leave the critter there for the next unsuspecting guest.

Reptile experiences aside, it is a special place. Our unpronounceably named butler (call him Chris) and Olivia the GM catered to our every need and the food!  Amazing multi level towers of scones and carved fruit for tea by the pool, perfect fish and chips and a 14 course tasting menu Ellen powered through at dinner one night while I tucked in to a slab of gorgeous tuna.  And yes, there is a spa for afternoon massages, a teak paneled library that was the old owners suite just full of great stuff like two giant elephant leg bones that were found in a closet.

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After four perfect days at the Aman it was time to move to the second villa just two blocks away.  Called ‘The Ambassadors Residence’ as it was the Ambassador of Bangladesh’s home.  It was huge and easily slept the 10 of us for a total of $500 a night including all meals.  Yes, that is $50 a couple.  

Wyijaya Beach 

Every day after breakfast we would head out in a flotilla of three wheeled ‘Tuk Tuk’s’ for Wyijaya Beach.  A little stretch of sand comprised of just a beach bar on a big tidal pool protected by the reef.  A wood fired pizza oven, ice cold Aussie white wine, lounge chairs and/or feet up on the railing from the comfy chairs on the terrace was all you could possibly want.  And, you can buy a just caught octopus from the boys on the beach and have the staff clean it and throw it on the grill about 3 minutes after it was caught. 

Some in our party felt the spirit of adventure and headed north on a 7 hour un-air conditioned train trip to visit a sacred tree.  Having seen more trees than lovely stretches of sand in our life we were content to let the week wind down in a horizontal format on the beach or a semi reclining one watching sunsets that went on for hours.  We passed on the elephant sanctuary as well since I hugged and played with a baby elephant in Thailand and it just doesn’t get any better than that. Never mind the dreadful 6 hour drive back to the airport, they may have a highway finished by the time you read this.  Forget the difficult plane routing it takes to get you to Colombo, the capital and only major airport, as they are in the process of building one in the south.  

Don’t be frightened off by the thousands of roadside graves as they buried people where they found them, they have now installed a tsunami warning system.

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Finally, don’t even think about buying beachfront property cheap.  It’s all gone.  Sri Lanka has the potential to be the next big tourist destination;  English spoken, English rule of law and every developer in Asia on the case.  But do think about visiting Sri Lanka, Galle Fort and the ‘Amangalla’ hotel.  Worth every bit of the effort.

Update 2013:  It's a long story.  Two years after this trip we decided, with two friends, to buy land and build two villas on it.  They had done tons of research, picked likely properties and we went with the intent of buying something.  It didn't work.  Although we found the perfect cliff top property we couldn't clear title after six months and, eventually, we gave up in frustration.  Since then it has become apparent that, despite massive foreign investment, Sri Lanka has lingering problems as the current governments 'excesses' during the war with the Tamils are now being told and they are still horribly repressive in all things we in the West value.  Read "Still Counting the Dead" by Francis Harrison.  It is a beautiful island, lovely people and well worth a visit.  Just know what it really is all about before you go.