I owe myself an apology for not visiting Sri Lanka sooner. It is an amazingly fascinating place with deep, rich layers of history. Plus, Sri Lanka has all the travel keywords that I love: colonial buildings, fabulous food, a sweltering tropical climate, and a civil war that was both bloody and recent. Why did it take us so long to get here?
On our first morning the three of us headed to the old colonial Colombo Fort Train Station. The British did love constricting a good railway, and the Queen left the colony of Ceylon (aka Sri Lanka) an invaluable legacy of 937 miles of rail, which is still in use today. The Colombo Fort Train Station did have a healthy amount of third-worldness, but we all agreed that it wasn’t 1/10th as distressing as our experience at Victoria Terminus in Mumbai. There was even a special ‘foreigners toilet’ that I was able to obtain a key for. This doesn’t instill confidence about the general admission toilet, but I’ll flash my American privilege card where I can….
Across the street from Colombo Fort Station is a shopping area called Pettah Market. Since it was a Saturday, the shops were absolutely teeming. Again, it wasn’t as outrageously crowded as India, but it was a sight. We spent a few hours pushing our way through the crowds of Arab gem traders, Sinhalese housewives, and jostling tuk-tuk drivers.
We visited a Dutch colonial house near the market that housed a fairly lame museum, and saw lots of fabulous British colonial buildings. By far my favorite building, though, was the Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, colloquially called the ‘Red Mosque’. Built in 1909 by members of the Colombo’s large Muslim community, this is a visually unique mosque nestled right in the middle of the busy Pettah shopping area. We lingered hopefully at the entrance for a while, but unfortunately it didn’t seem like an option to go inside.
To end our day, we made our way to Mt. Lavinia Beach for the sunset. The sunset was lovely, but the company was a bit unsavory. For reasons I don’t understand lots of Sri Lankan’s have dreads, and a dreaded youngster in a Bob Marley T-shirt tried to sell us some pot. Dude, be a little less obvious, okay? And maybe don’t pick the three weeniest white people on the beach. Well, I guess we were the only white people on the beach but still, we’re not really great client prospects. We shooed him away and of course, 2 seconds later the cops showed up. I could just see our episode of ‘Locked-up Abroad’ unfolding. Cops, angry over failed set-up, take three American tourists into custody. I decided right then to sacrifice Matt if I had to… sorry Matt. Eventually the cops lost interest in sniffing around us and meandered away. That’s why you never do anything illegal abroad, kids.
After getting our feet wet in Colombo, we took a 3-hour train ride down the coast to Galle Fort. The train ride was phenomenal – Jeff and I agree it’s the most scenic train ride we’ve ever done.
Galle was the site of Sri Lanka’s first Portuguese settlement in 1588, but the site’s history as a major trading port for cinnamon and other spices is ancient. Some scholars believe that Galle is referenced in the Bible as ‘Tarshish’, but the earliest confirmed reference to Galle appears on Ptolomy’s world map from 150 AD. It is obvious that Galle has had millennia of cultural cross-pollination, and to this day the town is a melting pot of Sinhalese, Tamil, Malay, Persian, and Arabs (knowns as the Sri Lankan Moors).
Galle Fort is one of the most atmospheric places I’ve been and is a strong contender for my favorite place on the trip thus far. Sunset is the best part of day – the the evening call to prayer resonates, hundreds of birds soar over the old city, and the sun dips into the Indian Ocean. The windy old streets are fabulous and a colorful mixture of Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial era architectures. The strong Muslim influence means the city is packed with mosques, Persian gem traders, and my favorite hallmark of Muslim cities – cats!!!! So yeah, it’s pretty freaking magical and we all loved it.
After falling in love with Galle, we took the train further south to Mirissa beach. Get ready for another Asian festival…