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Trip Report Of People & Places: Robbie's 18 day Ramble thru Sri Lanka PART II: Yala, Galle, Bentota, Colombo

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Our Yala Safari
The drive to Yala (although long, seven plus hours with stops) was an especially pretty one. On the first leg of our journey through many “upcountry” tea estates, we passed several beautiful waterfalls and stopped at the last one, across the road from St. Claire’s Teas. St. Claire's had an extensive collection and selection of teas, attractively displayed behind a counter that resembled an upscale bar. There was no opportunity to taste the teas but I took a chance and bought some. I also took advantage of their spotless bathroom.

After about an hour and a half on twisty, one lane roads we began driving to higher elevations. The air became cooler and crisper and the vegetation featured tall palm trees interspersed with tea bushes.

Perhaps we missed something by not making a stop at the hill station of Nuwara Eliya but we drove on through it. This was the favored retreat from the heat and humidity (elevation about 6200 ft) for the well heeled and well connected British lowlanders living in Sri Lanka in the first half of the twentieth century. We could see that the town was overflowing with Sri Lankan families on holiday. There were many colonial era hotels, golf courses and sporting venues. Pony rides were clearly the most popular activity for the under six set.

After Nuwara Eliya the growing of tea begins to give way to the growing of vegetables and flowers. As we drove further southeast we saw more and more beautifully laid out fields. We stopped for lunch at the Grand Ella Motel (formerly the Ella Rest House). Midday the temperature was about 75 degrees, just perfect for touring. The property’s location takes full advantage of the vast views of the surrounding area. You can look straight ahead throughElla Gap, and see the plains 3000 feet below. The hot buffet had just been put out so I felt safe eating it. The food was indifferent but fast and we wanted to push on to Yala.

As we continued our descent the temperature became noticeably warmer and the vegetation tropical. By the time we were an hour from Yala it was quite hot and humid. During the last hour or two Noel Rodrigo (owner of Leopard Safaris) called a couple of times to see how far along we were. He planned to meet up with us, transfer luggage to his jeep and take us to his campsite, then an afternoon game drive. This all well very smoothly. We met on a side road outside the town of Yala. Chandra would have two days to relax and we would have a safari experience.

I liked Noel immediately. He was engaging and pleased to show us his favorite park (he also does mobile tent camping in other parks when is off season for Yala). We drove on a dirt tract to the gated entrance to his camp. The set up was similar to deluxe mobile camping in Zambia or Tanzania. Sturdy tents with tented showers and toilets a few steps from the sleeping tent. We quickly stowed our bags in our tent, grabbed binoculars and mosquito repellant and piled in to Noel’s custom Land Cruiser for an afternoon game drive.

Security is indeed tight in and around the park. There’s a police station at the first park entrance gate. Noel hops out and shows the officials our passports. We drive another quarter of a mile and Noel hops out to go to another check-in point. He returns with official papers and a spotter in tow. At the third check point, Noel hands a man some papers, another gate opens and we are in Yala Block 1. There are five blocks (divisions) in this park and Block 1 (aka Yala West) is the only block open to tourists. Our sightings included mongoose, wild boar, sambar, spotted deer, families of elephant cows and calves. Water buffalo wallowed in the water up to their nostrils and stood still as statues. No leopards.

Yala has the highest concentration of leopards in Asia owing in part to the fact that they are the highest predators around. There are no lions in Sri Lanka, despite the lion’s image on the national flag. There are no tigers in Sri Lanka, despite this animal’s adoption as the mascot of the Tamil Tigers. So leopards rule and do not lose their young to other predators. I had high hopes of seeing one or more of these magnificent creatures during our stay.

All visitors must be out of the park by 6 pm, so after two hours we headed out of the park, going through all the same checkpoints. Fred and I cleaned up and were invited to the table for dinner. We were the only guests in camp that night and maximum capacity is ten guests. The food preparation and staging areas are well hidden so that food comes out of the bushes as if from a fine restaurant. And fine food it was. It is quite a feat to bring in fresh food and make sure of reliable refrigeration. The various Sri Lankan dishes were well prepared and presented. The wines were probably as good as gettable and from Chile.

Noel is a wonderful host, making sure our needs are met and overseeing every aspect of this class operation. The camp staff are friendly and well trained. At dinner Noel told us about his fascination with leopards as a young boy growing up in Colombo. His abiding interest in leopards and in depth knowledge of and respect for them gave impetus to Leopard Safaris. His company is only three years old and has already been vetted by Sri Lanka in Style.

After dinner we sat in our lounge chairs star gazing. The southern sky was dazzling and Fred pointed out some of the constellations to Noel. Then Noel had an intense look on his face; he heard deer barking and knew a leopard was close by. We all went outside the camp gate so Noel could look for tracks. Yes, there were recent tracks. We waited with baited breath. We waited longer. No leopard.
We went to bed.

Next morning we took a game drive around 8 am, after some wake-up coffee.
So far the temperature has been 75-78 during the day and maybe 68 at night. Same fifteen minuts security routine to get in to the park as yesterday. In the park we saw several peacocks dancing to attract the peahens; they were unimpressed and the cocks eventually ended their display. We followed a group of elephants for a while. Since leopards favor rocky outcrops with water holes and Noel knows one mother with cubs to headquarter at a particular rock terrace, we returned several times to this locale in hopes of seeing the elusive cat.

Several times Noel opened the car door to more closely examine the leopard tracks he spotted. Yes, she was just here and went that way he indicated. Heart thumping we drove slowly around the area. Apparently the monsoons were strong earlier this year and there is plenty of water at Yala. This makes for beautiful woodland terrain with large watering holes but it means the leopards needn't go far into the open for water. We saw many of the same animals as yesterday and some striking kingfishers and beaters. By ten thirty we were back at camp for a delicious breakfast. Besides eggs and pancakes, there were curries and very tasty fried leaves. I forgot to write down what they were called.

We sat under the front extension of our tent and enjoyed the landscape. Soon a police car drove into camp. Two men in uniform got out and went to talk to Noel. My imagination spun several stories while I waited for reality to present itself. After twenty minutes Noel and the cops came over to our tent. Noel introduced us to the Police Commissioner for Yala. He had stopped by to say hello to Noel. It appeared they had a warm, friendly relationship and I thought this was surely an important alliance to have in these parts. We chatted with the Chief as best we could without a common language and then he took his leave.

Just before lunch new guests arrived. They were a family we met when we had lunch at Norwood, with the spunky splash and squeal in the pool kids. At camp the children were more subdued and quite charming. After a satisfying lunch Fred and I retreated to our beach chairs and read. I’ve finished reading Woolf in Ceylon and thoroughly enjoyed it. In it Ondaatje wrote about Woolf’s travels to Yala and comments that in this youth in Sri Lanka Yala was Ondaatje’s very favorite place.

I'm now reading The Sweet and Simple Kind by Yasmine Gooneratne, a thoughtful gift from Tania at Kandy House. It's a well crafted story about two cousins growing up in households that represent contrasting views and values about what it means to be Sri Lankan.

Mid afternoon we gathered for a cold drink before our game drive and Noel introduced us to the man who owns the farm adjacent to Noel's camp concession. We complimented him on the flavorful vegetables we'd been enjoying from his farm. After the farmer left, Noel shared his history with this man. The farmer used to be a poacher. Noel spent months to years  gradually educating this man about the vicious cycle of poaching and the healthy cycle of producing food. Noel's conviction and sincerity would be hard to resist and fortunately the reformed poacher is now making more money growing vegetable than he did killing wildlife.

I'd read in one of the many leopard books around camp that going on five game drives gives the tourist a 90% probability of seeing a leopard. So we decided to get up early next morning so we could get in a fourth game drive before leaving Yala.

This afternoon's game drive was another adventure on bumpy track. We drove to one section of Block 1 that was maybe half a mile from the ocean. The aqua blue sea was a wonderful backdrop for game viewing.  In this same area, close to the water, we stopped at what looked like an abandoned government building. Turns out that Noel has undertaken a project in which he’s invested his own money and raised capitol as well. The structure is not abandoned, its newly constructed and not quite completed. It will be a tourist rest stop in a few months. At present there are no toilet facilities in Yala and visitors are not allowed out of their vehicle. So the bathroom facilities will be a welcomed addition. Noel plans to make it available to all Yala visitors, not just his guests.

We revisited all the leopard haunts that Noel knew. He was trying his best to get us a leopard sighting and I really appreciated his efforts. Leopards are not in the park for tourist exhibitions so I figured calling “here kitty, kitty, kitty” would be of little help.

Of course, I'm disappointed not to have seen a leopard. Whether sleeping in a tree, hunting, dragging a kill in to a tree, playing with cubs or just walking along a path they are magnificient creatures. Still, I'm glad that I visited Yala and had a delightful safari experience. Lucky for me,I have experienced the thrill of seeing leopards in several places in Zambia, Kenya and Botswana.

After breakfast and a fond farewell to Noel and staff,a Leopard Safari staffer drove us to where the dirt track to camp intersected the main Yala road (a dirt track) and we met up with Chandra. We took the main (only)road that follows the coast from the southeast corner of Sri Lanka toward the southwest corner.

We asked Chandra to drive us to Amanwella for lunch; it
was time for a refined atmosphere and food after two days tenting it. Amanwella delivered. It is a sleek, sparkling, minimalist property with the fine service and high staff to guest ratio that distinguishes the Aman hotel group. We ate outside facing the
glistening white sands of a secluded bay. The sun became so hot we had to keep shifting our position at table to stay in some shade. If shade had eluded again, we would have moved indoors. We had some delicious seafood and good wine. I took a gander around the public areas, they seemed deserted. I understand the rooms are top of the line, each villa having a pool and full view of the Indian Ocean. But, unless the interior materials and decor create a feeling of being in Sri Lankan, this stylist resort could have been sited in any tropical locale in the world.

About half way between Tangalla and Galle (around Koggala) Chandra pointed out stilt fishermen not too far off shore. It was so bright and there was so much glare (and my polarizing filter was not handy) I skipped the photo op thinking a silhouette later
in the afternoon would make a nicer shot. I didn't think to ask if this fishing technique was common along the south coast. Its not, only in this one area of Matara District.

Along the coast road Chandra pointed out places that were hard hit by the 2004 tsunami. Lots of billboards about international aid, little evidence. I had hoped we would have time to meet with someone I’d corresponded with from the Helping Hands Foundation to learn more about their social service work with the tea workers. But by the time we left Amanwella we knew squeezing in this visit would be rushing things and just too much. They were gracious and understanding.

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    Robbie, I'd been looking forward to this chapter. Yala sounds like a great place - we are sorry we missed it. We stopped at the Amanwella as well (it was close to where we stayed on the coast) and couldn't agree with you more - modern, minimalist but not very Sri Lankan. Looking forward to the finale.

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    In planning our routing I had thought that after two nights of tent camping, two night at a boutique hotel inside Galle Fort would make for a welcomed contrast. As we drove through Galle’s new town and then through the thick main gate into the walled city, I felt disheartened. This was not the Dutch colonial fortified city of my imagination. But I came to appreciate that Galle, like a shy girl, doesn't reveal her charms at first glance.

    We spent two wonderful days and nights at the Galle Fort Hotel. Karl Steinberg and Christopher Ong have created a remarkable oasis of relaxed sophistication in the heart of Galle Fort, a UNESCO World heritage Site. On their first visit to Sri Lanka, they fell in love with Galle and bought a crumbling gem merchant’s mansion. Karl, an Australian with a distinguished artistic background and Chris, an amazing Malay chef, have done a brilliant and respectful restoration. Having myself done a major restoration and addition on an old home, I know the research and effort that goes in to every choice and I greatly admire the results they have achieved. It was awarded one of the Best New Hotels in 2005 by Conde Naste Traveler, among other hotel and culinary accolades. We stayed in the Library Suite, a few step up from the main outdoor dining terrace. Our room was large and appointed with carefully chosen antiques and accessories. I'm so glad Fodorites wrote about it.

    The walled city is quite small and can be seen in a quick walkabout in a few hours. But to really absorb this enclave requires a slow pace, especially in the afternoon when the temperature and humidity make slow the only way to go. We walked up along the stone ramparts that protected the city from sea invasions in the 17th century. We admired the distinctive wood carvings on the lentils above the doors of the old Dutch houses and public buildings.

    Fred headed back to the room for a nap and I headed for the shops rather than the sheets. Merchants were either fawningly eager to help me (especially in jewelry shops) or shop girls were so occupied with their techno toy they hardly noticed my arrival.
    As I left one jewelry shop I realized I was being followed. The man from the shop wanted to direct me to another jewelry shop he knew of. I said I wanted to walk around by my self, on my own, solo, get it? He persisted. When I reached the jewelry shop I was seeking, my shadow followed me in. Was he surprised when I greeted the salesman and immediately told him the man was bothering me and that I sought out this shop on my own. The salesman unceremoniously dispatched my shadow to the street and apologized for this species of mosquito.

    The sun had now set and I headed back to our room to relax and then get ready for the New Year’s eve gala at the hotel. By evening, the “house” had been all dressed up for the party. Lights were strung from the colonnades and trees surrounding the pool. Apparently our hotel was the “in” place to celebrate. Nonresident tourists and expats joined the dinner festivities. Tables filled the deep terrace above the colonnaded pool and small tables lined the exterior upstairs walkways. The dinner was a set menu of outstanding Asian fusion cuisine. We rung in the new year with champagne all around and a good fireworks sequence.

    Not being much of a cook myself, I don’t tend to remember the details of preparation of every dish at a meal, as some of you are able to do. But I do know when I’m enjoyed exquisite food. The first dinner at Galle Fort Hotel was so fine, novelty was insufficient reason to eat elsewhere during our stay. Breakfast the next morning was really memorable. Fred ordered the buffalo curd pancakes;my fare was less exotic. I thought he was being brave, actually he was prescient. After one scrumptious bite, I cheerfully accepted Fred’s offer to share two more pancakes. Of course, I ordered them myself the next morning.

    While Fred did some internet work, I walked around the fortified old city. Women were sweeping their door stoops, cats were examining the curbside garbage, and groups of Muslim men were walking to their mosque. It was heartening to see people of different creeds and faiths seeming to live harmoniously as neighbors. Churches, mosques, Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines were scattered throughout the old city and the new.

    In case we decided to leave early the next morning, I decided to visit the local market in the new city this morning. In accord with the slow pace in Sri Lanka, the outdoor fish and produce markets didn’t open at the crack of dawn. By 9:30 the vendors had decided to set up shop. The only thing I found remarkable in the new town was a giant sized gold colored buddha statue near the produce market.

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    As I walked along the coast road I saw a boat coming in to shore so went over to investigate. Men were off loading fish and taking them fifty feet to fish stands that lined the beach road. So I watched several boats unload and then watched some locals deciding on their fish purchases.

    If Bangalore is the high tech capitol in India, surely Galle is the scam artist mecca in Sri Lanka. There’s a con artist and scammer on every corner offering directions, secret shopping venues, and unbidden “guiding” services. One creative fellow, a history teacher he claimed, told me it was a good luck custom to exchange small gifts of money on New Year’s day. I know this to be true in some Asian countries but I divined that this man’s idea of exchange was I give money and he gives thanks.

    Late morning Fred and I walked around the old city, taking our time. The shops near the hotel on Church Street had inviting window displays and well appointed interior displays but nothing inside really appealed to me. So we returned to the hotel, lounged by the pool and immersed ourselves in our respective novels.

    Time for another inspirational meal. Karl sat with us at lunch and we chatted; he recommended his favorite spots in the environs of Galle for our afternoon sojourn. So Chandra drove us through lush countryside to the Handunugoda Tea Estate. They specialize in growing white tea that originally came from China. The tea pluckers must be unmarried women (technically they are supposed to be virgins but....)and are dressed in virginal attire, something like Candy Striper outfits based on photos.

    Feeling very laid back, neither Karl nor I registered that it was New Year’s day, and that the girls might take the day off. So we didn’t see them plucking. We listened to a tea estate official tell us the lore about the original white tea from China, picked only by Chinese virgins, the rarity and great expense of this tea and so forth. We skipped the rest of the tour and checked out the tea tasting bungalow.

    Our second stop was at the Buddhist temple Yata Gala. The temple was sited on a mound, some forty or fifty stone steps above the road and affording magnificient views of the countryside. In the temple courtyard, people lit candles and prayed, a huge standing golden Buddha stood guard. In one part of the courtyard a family was seated together on the ground; the father was leading his family in chanting. The walls inside the temple were beautifully painted, depicting scenes from Buddha’s life. Somehow this temple felt purer and more spiritual to me than the several other temples we had visited in SL thus far.

    As we drove home to Galle, Chandra told us that he needed to return home to Colombo after he dropped us off in Bentota tomorrow. Tourism is low and his rent is very high and a day late; we duly noted the explicit and embedded communication. We asked what the plan was for our transportation for our last few days. He said, unless we felt we needed a driver during our beach stay, one of the owners would take us to Colombo and drive us around while there there. We didn’t need driving services at the beach, so we agreed.

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    Back to Galle Fort for another exquisite dinner, where Chris’s subtle flavors and artistic presentation produced a sybaritic delight. We packed up and got ready to move on in the morn. That is, after another breakfast of thosse buffalo curd pancakes.

    So it was, we said goodbye to Karl and Chris and Chandra whisked us away to the west coast. As we drove north along the coast road, there were small villages and many pristine beaches and the endless Indian Ocean. We made a stop at Ambalangoda, famous for its traditional mask making. For an orientation, we visited the Ariyapala Mask Museum. Small and well designed, the displays showed various masks used in daily life and in traditional ceremonies. Ariyapala, the master mask maker, has two sons who each have a mask making workshop and studio in town.

    We went to the son’s shop right next door to the museum. The selection was ample and the workmanship was properly reflected in the price. I did a quick tour and then began to look in earnest; Fred describes my serious shopping approach as “going into predator mode”. I bought a well executed hand carved and painted medicine mask. Dimensions about 8 x 12, cost about $40. A sweet memento, not an art piece in my view for even their most costly mask left me underwhelmed. As if we have room for anything larger than a chess piece anyway.

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    Ahhh, good, I've been waiting for this. I'm SO pleased you enjoyed Karl and Chris's place. And them. Now you're about to arrive at Taru Villas, another of my favorite places. Somehow I don't think you'll have too much trouble there..

    I missed all the scam artistes of Galle - altho', when I stay at Galle Fort, I'm very much 'a friend of Mr. Karl' which protects me, I think. Both the boys are highly respected in town.

    But what's this about your driver heading off? Wha...? I hope you got a reduction in your fee. Let's wait and see...

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    As you know, Galle was a place we had to cut from our original itinerary as we just didn't have time for everything. So I really appreciate your report on Galle and this wonderful hotel.

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    Thanks for your report. Galle in particular has been on my must visit list for some time, specifically because I have read such amazing things about the Galle Fort Hotel....

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    The trip from Galle to Bentota, including the stop in Ambalamgoda, took less time than predicted so we arrived in Bentota before noon. When we got to Taru Villas, we learned that Room 9 (recommended by Dogster) was promised to another couple, despite our having reserved it seven months ago. It seems there was poor communication between the management person on site at Taru Villas and the management in Colombo. We were shown one room in the main building, no sea view, no thank you. While the resident manager was on the phone discussing the situation with management in Colombo, I was on the cell phone seeking alternate lodging.

    My first impression was that Taru seemed a bit run down, gardens lackluster, no sense of anyone being at the helm. So I would have happily relocated. Every place I called was booked up, even the large hotels that cater to big tour groups. Finally, the manager tells me they have arranged for us to have Room 8, the best room of all, a face saving fiction to be sure. I said I just wanted the hotel to honor their commitment for Room 9. Room 9, impossible. They showed us 8. Decent enough, closer to the beach but no ocean view, small patio. Room 8 was directly below 9 and even from the outside I could see that 9 was the room with the sea view and lots of indoor and outdoor space. Now I was doubly glad that I’d shortened our stay at Taru some months ago to allow for an overnight in Colombo. We said goodbye to Chandra; he seemed pleased with his tip. Fred and I had to sort out who was responsible for which hassles so as not to disadvantage Chandra.

    With no other options, we settled in to Room 8. The room was indifferently decorated; the bathroom small with thin, scratchy towles and amenities and products worthy of a Holiday Inn. We went to enjoy a pleasant lunch on the hotel’s patio, overlooking their lovely small pool. After lunch we lounged around the pool, chatted with several friendly tourists and read.
    The food at Taru Villas was, for me, the best aspect of our stay there. Rewan creates excellent Sri Lankan dishes with the freshest of ingredients. The wait staff weren’t very knowledgeable about the menu but tried hard to be helpful. I was impressed with the quality of their wine menu; more sophisticated than several previous place and well priced for such good wines. They were glad to keep what we didn’t finish and serve it to us later.

    Next morning we did some exploring. We walked up our side road to the main coast highway and took a short tuk tuk ride to the Bentota train station. I thought it would be fun to watch and phhotograph the local train action. So we arrived in ample time for the 10 am train coming from Colombo. After half an hour the train showed up and we waved to all the kids leaning out the windows of this funky old train. It appears that Sri lankan train schedules follow the pervasive casualness about time here. This means all the departure and arrival times listed on the blackboard at the station are to be taken as best guesses as to when a train might appear, all things being equal.

    Near the Bentota station is the civic square. The size of a baseball field, the police station is housed in one building and the post office in an adjacent hut. We browsed at the indoor market stalls. Nothing to temp me. So we crossed the railroad tracks and checkd out one of the hotels I’d called yesterday, The Bentota Beach Hotel. Its large and has sea views. The public spaces were well decorated. The dining room looked like it could seat two hundred. I’m not a fair judge given my dislike of big hotels.

    When we returned to the hotel we mde our way to the outdoor dining room. They served a nice selection of curries. We visited with a very attractive Australian woman traveling solo (and being pursued by an American living in Germany). She was most enthusiastic about the river trip she’d taken, arranged by Taru Villas. After lunch we checked it out and booked for the following morning. In the afternoon I went to the beach; Fred stayed back at the ranch. Beautiful white sand beach. There are beach chairs and umbrellas but no service staff around. Was I delighted when I walked in to the ocean. Bathtub warm, clean and with waves perfect for ageing body surfers. I took a long walk along the water’s edge in a pretense of exercise.

    Late afternoon I took my camera and walked the 50 yards to the railroad tracks in front and just outside the property. I thought some train spotting would be fun. I sat down on the grass by the tracks and waited for train action. Behind me was the sound of ocean waves and the sight of a cow tending her newborn calf.

    Fred and I had lively banter at dinner and finished off the bottle of wine, we’d purchased the night before. We made the unlikely selection of a dry French rose and it was quite good.

    Rise and shine was early, we were to be picked up at 7:30 am. But Fred did and rise or shine. He’d had a poor night’s sleep and begged off on the river trip. A tuk tuk was my transport for the half hour journey to the river. En route we stopped at a turtle center in Kosgoda. Five species of sea turtles lay their egss in the sand on the beaches in this area. The workers at the hatcheries get the eggs, incubate them, give them acclimation time in tanks and then send them back to the sea. This conservation process greatly supports the turtle population which is endangered by birds, fish, and poachers. It also supports the proprietors some of whom make this a commercial operaton. They lifted from a tank a huge albino turtle and showed me several other handsome specimens.

    Back on the road south we retraced our route coming from Galle. We turned east, down a small road, so small that a tuk tuk was the most likely way to navigate it. The tropical vegetation was lush and clusters of houses dotted the roadside. The main village in this area is Balapitiya. The River House seemed to magically emerge from the cocoanut grovess. Its a stylish boutique hotel with five luxurious private suites (2 master suites, two garden suites and a separate cottage); it appeared that they all had uninterrupted views of the Madhu Ganga (river). The hotel was our departure point for the trip. Taru Villas and River House are sister hotels so the arrangements for this trip were seamless.

    I was warmly greeted, offered a cold towel and esorted bu my guides to a small boat dock. We took off in a small motor boat. I was the only passenger; the boat could have accommodated four to five at most. So I had my own “captain” and “naturalist”. Actually, these young men were very friendly and made sure I saw all I could of life on the river. We visited two of the sixty some islands within the braod swath of this waterway. Our route took us through mango groves so thich and low we all bent nose to knees to keep our heads. The same drill applied to several very low bridges. The guys pointed out water monitors, crocodiles, beatiful birds and more.
    One boat approached us and the boatman had his pet monkey draped across his chest.

    We made an island stop at Koduwa Temple. Its a self sustaining small meditation temple housing a handful of resident monks. The young monks proudly walked me all around and through the buildings. In a small central courtyard was a serene image of a sitting Buddha. I was touched by the pride these pubescent monks showed in maintaining the shrines and public rooms. They appreciated my donation and I signed their guesst book. Two of the monks in training showed me the stacked cinnamon wood they had just broght over by boat from the cinnamon island.

    Back in the boat we cruised some of the coastline and rode slowly by several inhabited islands. Nearby was an area of beautiful pink water lillies, marked off by bamboo poles. I love being on the water and I was enchanted by the natural beauty all around me.
    In time we came to dock at Cinnamon Island, so named for its main product. I was told one family lives there in the hut I saw, sans electricity, running water and all the basics we take for granted.

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    The cinnamon man (owner) demonstrated how he strips the cinnamon to make jute, scrapes the bark from the branches to make cinnamon sticks. The cimmamon oil he makes is supposed to “be good for mosquitos”, I assumed that meant after they had their meal. After two hours on the water I was delivered baak to the dock at River House.

    I needed to use their bathroom which was adjacent to their dining pavillion. The staff were so attentive and the ambience in the dining area alluring. Even the bathroom showed style and attention to detail. River House sits on seven acres amidst the mangroves. Although both Taru Villas and River House are under the same banner, I learned that River House is now solely owned by its famous creator, designer Taru, and has broken off from the hotel group.

    The difference in attention to detail and service is immediately evident. In my view Taru Villas is over rated and poor value for the cost. River House is probably 25% more expensive than Taru and worth every rupee in my view. I wish I had not been so single minded about staying at the beach; the water views here were wonderful. My tuk tuk driver was waiting to take me back north to Bentota. This had been a thoroughly enjoyable morning. The cost was $60; it turns out that was the price for one to four people.

    By noon we were heading for Colombo. Originally, Fred and I had decided to avoid Colombo, besides security issues, nothing we read about made us want to visit. That changed when our Sri Lankan neighbors, S and P, offered to have her cousins, who live in Colombo invite us to their home and take us shopping. So we cut out one night at the beach to make room for an overnight in Colombo.

    I had heard the traffic can cause the trip of one hour to take three or more. We were lucky, we arrived in an hour and a half. Four days before our arrival there had been a bomb blast and another one two days after that. So security was very, very tight. Cars were stopped and checked every few blocks and heavily armed soldiers were only almost every corner.

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    I am going to start a separate thread on whether it is better to use a local agency to book hotels and/or transportation in developing countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar and Vietnam. Given the problems that you have had Robbie, booking transport through an agency and booking a hotel directly, I am looking forward to Fodorites' opinions.

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    Well, how very interesting. Looks like Taru Villas has had a management change. I had lunch with Miss Taru a while back - she wouldn't let ANYTHING slip. Shame - anyway, not TOO terrible by the sound of it. I'm surprised though.

    Do you think that, had room 9 been available and all things were smooth that you would have like it more? Or did that initial kerfuffle just spoil it for you?

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    I like your proposed thread Craig. Dogster, I think if I had a large room with ocean view (Room 9 as you recommended) my experience of Taru Villas would have been more favorable. But even the best room can't make up for weak management when its considered to be a top end resort. I went on TripAdvisor a few minutes ago and saw that Taru is rated #17 (and River House #3) of hotels in Bentota area.

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    We stayed at the Galle Face Hotel for a dose of the faded glory of a bygone age. In its day, any one who “mattered” stayed at Cyril Gardiner’s GFH; the thank yous inscribed on columns in the main lobby from dignitaries and celebrities around the world attest to its rarified place in the society of its day.

    Our third floor room was the Cyril Gardiner suite, since all the suites were the same price ($170) I decided we'd take the biggest so we could really spread everything out and repack for our flight home. The living room was at least 800 sf so reorganizing all our stuff was quite easy; and we could look out at the ocean while doing it.  

    As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we called "the cousins" S & L, as they had requested. They invited us to have dinner with them and came to collect us at the hotel. We drove fifteen minutes to their home in Cinnamon Gardens, the most affluent neighborhood in Colombo. Their home was recently remodeled; it had originally belonged to S's grandfather. The architectural design was contemporary with contemporary furnishings. The beautiful art work on the walls and huge fresh floral arrangement softened any starkness.

    Soon their 18 year old son, who attends a prestigious American university and was home for winter break joined us. A few minutes after S served delicious traditional Sri Lankan fish balls and some savory hot cashews. After a while their 15 year old daughter emerged from her room to join us. Parents and kids were all clad in designer jeans; I didn’t even pack any, expecting it to be too hot for jeans. The couple, in their early 50s, were so gracious and easy to get to know.  

    When we had exhausted the very fine red wine from Australia and all appetizers, we caravanned to Curries in the Cinnamon Grand Hotel (formerly the Colombo Plaza and Oberoi) for dinner. S explained that they wanted us to enjoy typical Sri Lankan cuisine and that's not her forte. She usually has her cook prepare these dishes but cook was unavailable tonight.

    The family was warmly greeted by the restaurant’s owner and staff and apparently dines there regularly. L did all the ordering and then explained each dish as it arrived. We dined family style and shared some very fine flavors. One or two dishes were too spicy for me but I still had many good choices on the table. The adolescents became more talkative as the dinner progressed and we learned a lot about how this family lives and views what’s going on in their country. On the way back to our hotel they drove us by their temple and hoped that we would visit it before heading home. Their affiliation with and support of this temple was clearly important in their lives.

    The next morning we did just that. We visited Gangaramaya Temple. The shrine room was indeed beautiful and in the temple’s museum there were presentation cases with bejeweled gifts and Buddha images; those from Japan and Thailand I could easily recognize. We visited the temple’s library and courtyards where monks were milling about. When I post my pictures, you’ll see a photo of a monk reading the morning paper there. Facing the street, beside the main temple entrance is a large enclosure for what is reputed to be the biggest tusker in Sri Lanka. Yes, the temple has a resident elephant and it was bath time when we arrived at his quarters.

    Our driver took us on an overview tour of Colombo, giving us a sense of the historic areas and several districts of this sprawling metropolis. The going was slow due to city traffic and security checks. Every time I raised my camera to grab a shot, I saw a soldier and quickly lowered my camera. Surprisingly, I did not feel worried about my safety in the city. We drove through more of leafy Cinnamon Gardens and in the daylight we admired the beautiful mansions and could appreciate the rarified quarter in which our hosts of last night lived.

    We needed to be back at the hotel to meet David for lunch. David is a friend of Kencho, the owner of Snow White Treks and Tours in Bhutan and Kencho introduced us to her Sri Lankan colleague David via e-mail. In the customary way, David appeared half hour late and was running late. We repaired to the Verandah Bar at GFH, overlooking the Indian Ocean, for a friendly chat. He and the beautiful associate he brought with him were both smart, amiable and delightful. We enjoyed the time we spent with them.

    When our driver picked us up, we announced that we did not have lunch as planned and needed refueling. I had in hand a write up on the Gallery Cafe and it turned out to be a wonderful choice. This historic building was once the office of Jeffrey Bawa, the famous Sri Lankan architect.

    Its an oasis of calm surrounded by the hubbub of city life. The patio is partly outdoor and partly under cover, with an open kitchen. There’s a handsome bar and smart little gift shop. The food, I had Pad Thai, was first rate; my only western way to describe the service is s-l-o-w.

    We stopped at a couple of shops, just in case I missed something earlier in our trip. Lakpahana took no more than ten minutes. Paradise Road held my interest longer. I bought a doll and some toys for my 3 year old grand daughter and a set of small silver-plate spoons with carved elephant heads; these will be perfect for serving condiments. I had hoped to buy an antique wooden lentil that I could restore and use as wall or door decor but nowhere did I find the quality of carving I was seeking.

    Just before we headed back to the hotel I casually suggested a stop at Colombo Jewelry Shops (1 Alfred House Gardens). This is where my Sri Lankan neighbors make all their jewelry purchases. Quite impressive, two guards at the door and strong air conditioning and comfortable chairs. The owner was in Singapore but another elder salesmen knew our neighbors and waited on me. The larger loose sapphires he brought out in those pouches of shiny folded paper were the cleanest, clearest, most beautiful color blue I’ve ever seen in this stone. But I didn’t even tempt myself with serious looking; I did not go in to “predator mode”. The financial meltdown in the stock market, housing and credit markets has not eluded us. It just didn’t feel like the right time to make such a substantial purchase.

    That said, I felt no qualms about the dazzling eight carat cushion cut aqua marine I bought. I’ve been looking for an aqua marine ring for some time; the best stones are from South Africa, Brazil and Sri Lanka. The jeweler unpacked several envelopes of loose stone, nice but not compelling. He studied me as I studied the stones. He excused himself and came back with “my very bet stones”. Now we’re talking; my eyes went in to overdrive.

    I narrowed it down to three stones of fine, even color and then made my final pick. Even Fred, not a fan of aqua marines, gave the nod to this one. I trusted this venerated establishment and I knew I was getting quality at a good price. There’s nothing like a beautiful stone to cap off a Sri Lankan holiday. My plan is to take the stone with me to Bali in May ‘09 and have it set in a John Hardy/David Yurman type setting, we’ll see.

    On the way back to the hotel we requested a stop at a reputable florist shop. It was a busy shop that provided good service. The cold interior was a welcome respite from the stifling humidity outside. I discussed an arrangement with the florist and it will be delivered to S and L, our hosts last night, later today.

    Back at the hotel a wedding was in progress. This was the third wedding on site since we’d arrived yesterday. There was one yesterday afternoon, one last night and one today. Sri Lankan women (at least those invited to weddings at the Galle Face Hotel) wear striking silk saris and the men wear smart suits. Lots of cute flower girls in pretty dresses too.
    Traditionally dressed musicians, like the ones that performed in Kandy, lead the procession in moving celebrants from the ceremony venue to the dinner dance banquet room.

    So we relaxed in our immense room and then got ready for dinner. Since we had to leave for the airport around 10 at night, we decided to eat in the new part of the hotel, The Galle Face Regency. Their restaurant, 1864, is a visual treat. What makes the room, done in black and red, so striking is the contrasts: wood on the floors and ceiling, brick on some of the walls and big sea views between columns. Sleek Asian tables were set far apart to give a soothing feeling of spaciousness. I ate lightly as I usually do before a flight. The vegetarian appetizer was excellent.

    We left for the airport right on schedule. Including the security checkpoints it only took us fifty minutes from Colombo to the international airport. Best of all, the airport was nearly deserted. As our flight time drew nearer Sri Lankans, never ones to rush, showed up to check in.

    We returned to Los Angeles via Hong Kong and knew we faced a horrendous eleven hour layover. We’d been calling United for weeks and months trying without success to get the earlier flight out of HK. The helpful attendants at the Cathay Pacific BC Lounge were able to locate our luggage, get it transferred to the flight we wanted and then issue us boarding passes for the new flight. Apparently people book these seats as far in advance as they can and then cancel at the last minute. The business class section was about 1/3 full.

    I’m glad I could spend 18 days in Sri Lanka and despite some difficulties (which I’ve painfully elaborated), I bring home sweet memories of some wonderful people and places.

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    Thank you for your report, Robbie. I really enjoyed following along with you. Sri Lanka is a place I plan to return to, and it was great to read about places you visited that I didn't.

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    Thanks you Robbie. This was a teriffic report. Sri lanka was not high up on my "list" but since reading your report ( and Craig's too), it has moved up higher!

    And I appreciate the bad along with the good... It's rare when all goes as planned on my trips, so it's nice to hear someone as organized and well-researched as you have blips as well!

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    Thanks to all of you for your support and feedback concerning this report and to Kathie, Craig and Dogster for invaluable help in planning.

    I forgot to mention what I read on Sri Lanka in advance of our trip. Years ago I'd read Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family. From brother Christopher I read The Man-Eater of Punnani. Both novels are beautifully written personal memoirs. Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje is a novel in which my interest waxed and waned. It does give a feeling for the turbulence of life in Sri Lanka in the 1980's and some interesting LTTE history . Just before leaving I stuffed my brain with as much as I wanted of Paradise Poisoned by John Richardson, a respected academic. Its a 600 page scholarly tome that traces the development failures that coalesced to give rise to the conflict and terrorism from which Sri Lanka is, hopefully, emerging.
    I’ll let you know when my photos are up.

    And I, too., look forward to seeing you Bob, and Karen and many others at the LA GTG!

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    dogster /robbie - in fact 'Miss Taru', the creator/designer, original owner/manager of these boutique hotels is no longer involved with the company that now runs the 4 boutique hotel properties including taproabana and river house. You can confirm this by visiting the website

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    Wonderful trip report - thank you. I am starting to plan 10 weeks in India/Sri Lanka in early 2012 and this has given me so many ideas. On to Kathie's, Craig's and Dogbert's reports as well.

    I was so hoping there would be a link to photos at the end - do you have a link? Thanks!

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