Just a short hop over the Palk Strait, Sri Lanka feels both familiar and different
If you’re going to get mythological about it, then Sri Lanka is likely the Lanka from the Ramayana – though some scholars do speculate that Ravana’s kingdom was actually somewhere near the Maldives.
Which of these speculations will turn out to be true, no one knows now. But what I can tell you is that Sri Lanka is a beautiful place with extremely friendly locals and I have every intention of visiting the island again.
That home town feeling
Our first time there was with our daughter Kiara during her vacations. Since it’s so close to India, we decided to hop across the Palk Strait and meet our neighbours.
The little nation feels so much like home that at times my husband, Rohit, slipped into Hindi while chatting with the locals – and quite a number of them understood it too!
Colombo is much like Mumbai, specifically south Mumbai with its old, British-built buildings. Its architecture is Dutch colonial, and wandering the streets, you can’t help but imagine how beautiful it must have been, say, a hundred years ago.
Colombo reminds one of a gentler, slower-paced Mumbai, except there are no bhelpuri or bhutta stalls
It’s a coastal city and the promenade reminded me of Marine Drive as it must have been when it first came up in a gentler, slower-paced Mumbai – except for one glaring difference. There are no bhelpuri and bhutta vendors. But there is lots and lots of delicious seafood.
In fact the movie Midnight’s Children (2012) was shot here rather than in India where the story is set, not only to avoid protests from religious groups, but also because India has changed radically in the last 50 years, while Sri Lanka, because of its 30-year-long civil war, was caught in a time warp. Industrialisation is not very visible in the city, and the broad avenues and boulevards are framed by more old bungalows than new high-rises.
Colombo was also all about good food! When a small city boasts of two restaurants that rank amongst the top 50 in Asia, you know it takes its food seriously. Since we take our food seriously too, off we went to explore the Ministry of Crab for its delicious crabs and other seafood, and Nihonbashi for its Japanese food. Verdict: yummy and a must visit if you are in Colombo.
We also had a very good meal at Nuga Gama (Banyan Village) restaurant at our hotel, Cinnamon Grand. They served authentic Sri Lankan cuisine in a lovely village setting, and those freshly-made hoppers with eggs were delicious. We ate hoppers every day!
We also tried an extremely popular Sri Lankan street food dish called kottu or kottu roti, composed of shredded pieces of Sri Lankan godamba roti (sort of like a giant paratha), stir-fried with an assortment of spices and a choice of meaty (or vegetarian) ingredients. It is usually served with a separate bowl of curry, used to moisten and add extra flavour to the stir-fried flatbread.
In terms of shopping though, Colombo is a bit disappointing. There’s not much aside from the local spices, teas and Spa Ceylon products. However, a visit to the Noritake showroom for its fine bone china crockery is a must.
City of olde
After two days of feasting in Colombo, we drove to Galle, about two hours away. Galle is on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, known for its Fort, the fortified old city founded by Portuguese colonists in the 16th century. Stone sea walls, expanded by the Dutch, encircle car-free streets, with architecture reflecting Portuguese, Dutch and British rule. Notable buildings include the 18th century Dutch Reform Church. Galle lighthouse stands on the fort’s southeast tip.
Galle Fort is charming; full of little shops and restaurants. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s also a must do. We stayed in a colonial-styled bungalow called Villa Saldana bang on the Habraduwa Beach. Galle reminded me of Goa about 20 years ago… small hotels and restaurants with little shops selling ‘beachy stuff’. We had a lovely meal at a restaurant on the beach and another at the Galle Fort Hotel. Our villa came with a chef who cooked us excellent local fare – super crab curry and shrimps.
It was a small break, but a good one. Next time I visit Sri Lanka, I intend to visit a tea plantation and some Buddhist temples.
The author is a model, host, theatre and television actor who has appeared on various popular TV shows like Kkusum and Nach Baliye
From HT Brunch, December 24, 2017