Sri Lanka pt 3: Galle
The next stop on our Sri Lankan adventure was Galle, which is actually pronounced Gawl. It was only after several puzzled looks from locals that we learnt we'd been saying it wrong for a day and a half. We had heard Galle was like a 'whimsical medieval European town' and one of the most popular tourist destinations. We couldn't wait to explore!
The first step was getting from Colombo to Galle. Since we'd already been travelling like locals on the bus, we thought maybe it was time to give the train a go. When googling train timetables we came across an amazing piece of advice that we want to share with anyone thinking of making this trip. All train timetables say to board from the Colombo Fort train station, when actually your best bet is to board the train at Maradana train station. It is a smaller station just outside the city centre and is actually the first stop the train makes. This means you have a fighting chance of getting a seat. If you are boarding from Colombo Fort you won't have a chance in hell of getting a seat and will be standing the entire 3-hour journey. Also when we say fighting chance, we literally mean fighting. When boarding a train the otherwise generous, lovely and polite Sri Lankan people become like a pack of wild animals, literally pushing anyone aside for that highly desired seat. Once on board, without even blinking an eye, everyone reverts back to their most pleasant selves again. The train to Galle along the coast is one of the most scenic and beautiful train trips we've ever taken. We highly recommend it.
What To Do In Galle
The fort walls
The most amazing part of the town has to be the fort and the magical 'old world' vibe of the restaurants and shops within its walls. The best advice we can give is to just discover the fort at your own pace. You don't need a checklist of things to see, the beautiful and the bizarre will just unfold before you. It can be really nice to take a stroll around the fort walls that surround the city around dusk, when the heat isn't as intense. The whole trip around will take approximately an hour (depending on how often you stop). However, if you are the type of person that does like a list of must-sees here are a few points of interest:
- There are two museums: The national and the maritime museum. They are everything you would expect from a museum and we learnt some interesting facts, however we were museumed-out by the end.
-The historical mansion: This is a private collection of colonial artifacts (many of which are for sale) that fill the walls of this Old Dutch house. What is one man's junk is possibly another man's treasure in here.
-The Old Dutch Hospital: This has now been converted into a collection of funky shops and restaurants. You can almost picture what it would have looked like when it was a functional hospital.
Where to Stay in Galle
Two places we can highly recommend are:
The Owl and the Pussy Cat is a luxury hotel right on the beach that was inspired by the poem of the same name written by Edward Lear. The beauty of this place is in the detail. The theme has been carried beautifully throughout the entire hotel without ever appearing cheesy. It has a beautiful, relaxing and almost romantic feel about it. All 17 suites have an overwhelming sense of space and luxury, with all the comforts as if you were in your own apartment. We treated ourselves to a beachside massage, while relaxing to the sounds of the waves crashing. We also managed to spend an afternoon lazing by the ocean-edge pool, while the friendly staff bought us pre-dinner cocktails.
This resort is aptly named as it is built like a fortress, with breathtakingly grand double doors that protect it from the outside world. As you enter the doors you are met with a pretty unforgettable view of the beach that is reflected beautifully by the infinity pool just in front. The rooms are modern and comfortable, and given that there are 53 of them, the resort never once felt crowded.
The fortress had two key highlights for us:
The buffet dining for breakfast and dinner
We are both big foodies and would happily eat our way around the world. Sri Lankan food has now snuck its way into the top position of our favourite food list, which we weren't expecting. The buffet experience at The Fortress is one of the best we've had and not just because of the overwhelming quantity but because of the quality too. There were individually manned stations where several of the dishes were made fresh to order. Our advice would be to wear loose fitting clothing and don't have any activities planned for at least two hours after eating – trust us, you won’t be able to move. Our dinner experience also began with a cultural show which was the perfect pre-dinner appetiser.
The Turtle Hatchery
There are five varieties of sea turtles that lay their eggs along the Sri Lankan beach, all of which face the risk of extinction due to the cruel activities of humans. It's a rare delicacy to eat turtle eggs and people will pay big dollars for the opportunity to indulge. You can imagine then how easy it would be to take the eggs from a defenceless turtle and turn over a huge profit. This is a constant battle that conservationists are facing with trying to save and increase the turtle population, especially in a third-world country like Sri Lanka where people are struggling to make ends meet. The Fortress is doing its part to help increase turtle numbers by having its very own hatchery. When the turtles come in to lay their eggs, the good people at The Fortress then carefully dig up the eggs and rebury them in the hatchery to protect them from thieves and predators, re-releasing the turtles back into the ocean after they have hatched. We were lucky enough to have arrived on the day they were released.
The continuing saga of the unwanted male attention hit its peak in Galle. To re-cap, so far I had received continuous stares (which I can handle), I was even chased around a museum by a large group of school boys (which I can also handle). What I can't handle is being touched. After getting off the train in Galle, Lawson went to use the toilet so I stayed with the bags. Quite soon after being left alone, I was approached by three boys that wanted to take my photo. Before having time to respond they were putting their arms around me and posing for the camera. As I smiled for the photo, I felt something odd. I looked down to find one of the boys was putting his hands all over my boobs. I had finally been pushed too far. I screamed, "Do not touch me" with a few swear words added, as loud as I could as I watched them run away down the platform. As Lawson casually strolled out of the toilets, he had no idea of what had just gone down, so was confused as to whom I had just been talking to. I realised I was more vulnerable by myself and so was even more grateful to have Lawson as my protector when he was around. Sorry Lawson, no more toilet breaks for you. I was given some advice that I will now live by. I had been chatting to a European girl that had been living in Sri Lanka for over a year. I was asking her if the increased attention bothered her or how she dealt with it. She said for the most part she has gotten used to it but if anyone attempts to cross the line you should take off your shoe and raise it like you are about to hit them with it. It's considered dirty and brings great shame so they will very quickly leave you alone. When you think about where your shoes have been, I can see why. All the squatter toilets in public places aren't exactly spotless, so just the thought of what’s on the sole of my shoe would be enough to freak me out too. This experience changed the trip for me in the sense I needed to be more aware of what I was wearing. I'd hate to think I was bringing this on myself by not dressing culturally appropriately. Despite the heat, it was now my mission to cover up. I even had to raid Lawson's luggage for a button up shirt. The downside was I was hot and uncomfortable and I'm not going to lie, I even became a little bit grumpy at times. Thanks for putting up with me Lawson. There was one point in Galle when the heat actually became unbearable. I was becoming so hot in the synthetic button up shirt that I could feel myself becoming lightheaded, nauseated and overwhelmingly anxious. I just couldn't bear it anymore, plus I was still getting stared at anyway, so decided I may as well dress comfortably if was not going to change anything. I had no other option but to buy a new outfit then and there. The shops within the fort walls are a bit touristy and too pricey for what I was after. We had a tuk tuk take us to some markets on the outside of the fort walls. The clothing wasn't exactly high fashion but when you are this uncomfortable a plain black single top was a sight for sore eyes.
The day spent walking the walls of Galle fort was a highlight. There was just so much to see and take in. I really did feel like I had been transported back to a medieval world and it was cool to imagine what this place would have looked like back in the day. As we made our way around the walls, amazing sights just unfolded. We came across a snake charmer and a cliff diver, but for me the most fascinating sight was a local beach where huge groups of families had come to bath their children. It was great to get a snap shot into the lives of how other people live.
The fortress resort also provided another highlight that we were lucky enough to see given the timing of our stay. They run a turtle conservation project and we got to see the cutest baby turtles being released back into the ocean, which happens only once a month. We were given special treatment by being taken to the back of the resort, where the eggs were safely buried waiting to hatch. There was also a large tank full of the newly-hatched turtles waiting for release. I'm more the admire-from-afar type of girl and just loved to look at them swim. The thought of getting in with them and being covered in turtle poo wasn't as appealing to me as it was for Lawson. I was happy to play cameraman and juggled the many devices we had to capture the magical moment, while Lawson got to experience it. Releasing these little guys later that night brought an overwhelming sense of happiness. I held the little guy in my hand and took one last photo before I set him free. To my horror a large wave washed him further up the beach just as I let him go. I ran after him then bought him back to the water, which meant I got to set him free for a second time.
Galle was by far the highlight of my entire trip in Sri Lanka. It started with our first train ride through Sri Lanka from Colombo to Galle, which ran all the way along the coast. While we waited at the station I figured out which way the train was going to be heading, as I wanted to make sure we were sitting on the side of the train that looked out over the ocean to give us the best unobstructed view of the coast. As mentioned above, we got on the train at the Maradana station which meant we knew we had a better chance at getting a seat. We had heard about how manic it can get while the train is being boarded and wanted to give ourselves the best opportunity to get a seat, I really did not want to be standing for three hours. Arriving early at the train station gave us time to set a plan of attack. I was going to hang back with our luggage while Cat would rush to get us a seat on the ocean-view side. This was really our only option as although I would have been able to use more strength and be a bit rougher in getting a seat, Cat would not have been able to lift both our heavy bags onto the train. I really wish we had a GoPro for this trip (we do now) so that we could have captured the madness that ensued. I imagined how my Dad would have felt watching me play rugby when I first began, completely powerless to do anything himself but being enthusiastic and pushing me to do better. I stood back and watched as Sri Lankan people came flooding in from both sides pushing Cat back. Even though the train door stopped right where Cat was standing which was only about half a metre from the train, I think she was probably about the 40th person to enter the train. When I think back on it now I laugh at how small and insignificant she looked as the crowds pushed her around as she called out “Hey” and “Watch it.” Once everyone had boarded I finally hopped onto the train thinking it was going to be a long three-hour ride standing but to my excitement my little trooper Cat had secured us two ocean-side seats second from the front. To say I was proud was an understatement. The only problem we faced now was that our window view was being blocked by the partition between windows but not to worry, I had a plan. To find out what my plan was check out our train to Galle video above.
We have mentioned in our previous Sri Lanka blogs the problem with Sri Lankan men staring at Cat and then being chased around the national museum by a bunch of school boys but it all came to a head at the Galle train station once we had arrived. I was busting to go to the toilet (using the train toilet once was enough – although side note, I did find it amusing that it literally was just a hole in the floor of the train and I could see the tracks below whizz by which made me giggle at the thought of just pooping straight onto the tracks) so I quickly went into the toilet at the station. While I was standing at the urinal, I swore I could hear Cat’s voice as she was speaking to someone, but a couple of minutes later as I walked out she was standing alone. By the time I had heard that some teenager had pretended to take a photo with her and then groped her, the culprit was on the other side of the tracks. By the time I got to where he was he had boarded a train and was gone. I felt such anger and rage in that moment, mainly because I couldn’t do anything about it, so I focused my energy on Cat and being there to support her. What really surprised me was the amount of men who came forward who had seen the incident and where supportive and so helping of Cat. I definitely wasn’t expecting this since up to this point we had been dealing with the blatantly obvious stares of men. It was encouraging to see this kind of response and help just to remind us both that it’s a select few and not all of the men in Sri Lanka. Our luck seemed to turn around from that point onwards, it was like the travel gods had decided we had copped enough and it was time for things to go our way. It was pretty smooth sailing from then on and we had nothing else to do but move on and make light of the situation so as to not ruin our trip.
By far the highlight of my entire trip would have to be what is now known as Turtle Day. Getting to release turtle hatchlings has long been something I have wanted to do. The crazy thing was that I had no idea that I would even get a chance to tick it off my bucket list while I was in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t until we rocked up at The Fortress that I saw a sign on an A frame board that said the turtles were being released on that day. I couldn’t believe our luck that (finally) the day we arrive was also the same day the turtles were being released. We headed down to the hatchery to check out the turtles where I was offered the opportunity to hop into the enclosure with the hatchlings. I jumped at the chance. Our host, Don, who was showing us around The Fortress was surprised to see that I had actually taken him up on his offer and says I was the first to do so. Dom had said I could get in with the turtles but if I did jump in that I would have to have a shower afterwards on account of all the turtle shit. I couldn’t believe that was the one stipulation for getting into the pool of overloaded cuteness. A shower? Really, that’s it? Imagine if I was telling this story but I had said I almost got in with baby turtles, the first question you would ask is, why almost? “Ah well, if I got in I had to have a shower afterwards and you know how we all hate those so much.” How was I the first to get in? That means people were turned off by a bit of shit and a shower. I can tell you right now, I didn’t even blink an eye, the turtle pool heaven was just too good of an opportunity to pass it up.
If you ever go to Sri Lanka make sure you visit Galle. There was something enchanting about exploring the fort walls and all the cobbled streets that were protected behind the enormous walls. Galle is a beautiful city that is rich in history and abundant with beautiful, breathtaking sights. We lost ourselves within the fort walls just walking up and down the streets finding so much to do. The fort is such an impressive infrastructure that has been around for more than 400 years… Imagine trying to build something as impressive as a fort over 400 years ago with none of the technological advances we have today and it still standing to this day. The fort is so strong that during the Boxing Day tsunami everything on the inside of the fort survived. I really did fall in love with Galle and will forever remember my time with Cat walking around the fort walls as the sun set.
A special mention of The Fortress – what an incredible hotel. I feel weird calling it a hotel because The Fortress is just that, a fortress. As you arrive you walk up to these giant wooden doors that look like something out of Game of Thrones. You walk through the doors and are greeted by a beautiful view of the ocean that is framed perfectly by the building itself. It really is hard to put into words. The Fortress should definitely be a place you stay if you ever visit Galle. You will not be disappointed.