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Galle Fort – Our Final Stop in Sri Lanka

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Guest Houses in Galle Fort

After two and a half whirlwind months touring Sri Lanka, we pulled into Galle with exhausted bodies and tired minds. This would be the last extended stop of our 91 days in the country.

Lighthouse-Galle
Yes, that’s lightning behind the lighthouse. Nature and man, working together!

We were actually spending our nights in Fort, not Galle. That might sound like an unnecessary distinction, but the peaceful neighborhood demarcated by the old stone walls of the colonial fort feels a world away from the noise and hubbub of modern Galle. It’s so disconnected, that we’ve come to think of Fort as an entirely different city.

Fort occupies an area roughly 130 acres in size, and about a kilometer from north to south. Apart from a smattering of tuk-tuks, tourist buses and old-timers, traffic is very limited on the neighborhood’s few streets, which provides Fort with a tranquility I had reckoned impossible in Sri Lanka. We were instantly charmed — after so much time in congested cities, Fort would be an excellent place to relax in our final weeks.

There’s a heavy expat presence here, mostly British, whose influence is unmistakable. Upscale restaurants occupy nicely restored colonial buildings. A variety of shops and boutiques offer selection (and high prices) not seen elsewhere on the island. The sight of an older British gentleman puttering down the street on his moped is commonplace, here. I did a double-take on our first afternoon, when a white guy at the Peddlar’s Inn asked his friend if she was going to play cricket with the gang, later. “Say what? That’s not what tourists… ah, yeah. You live here.”

Fort has a sleepy, comfortable rhythm that threatens to make us lazy. Dangerous, given the abundance of things to do and see around Galle. But you know? A chilled banana coffee does sound good. Who cares if it’s pricey? We can afford it, and we can afford to relax for another hour. Or two.

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April 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm Comments (4)

Fort Frederick and Swami Rock

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A mighty promontory jutting out into the Indian Ocean, Swami Rock divides Trincomalee’s Back Bay from the Dutch Bay. It’s an impressive natural landmark and has always played an important role in the city’s affairs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Swami Rock was home to the world-famous Temple of the Thousand Pillars. Currently, it’s occupied by the massive Fort Frederick.

Fort-Frederick-Trincomalee-Sri-Lanka

The Portuguese were the first colonial power to exert control over Sri Lanka, and the island couldn’t have found a more callous master. They razed temples and kovils wherever they could, erecting Catholic churches in their stead. Tragically, the Temple of the Thousand Pillars (Koneswaram Temple) was among the destroyed. This amazing building, which had led early explorers to pronounce Trinco the “Rome of the Orient”, was literally pushed off the rock and into the ocean below. Thanks, Portugal.

In 1628, the fort was erected. Control soon passed into Dutch, who expanded the construction and provided it with its current name. The French won it from the Dutch, and the British from them. Fort Frederick remained a British garrison until 1948, when Sri Lanka gained independence. It’s still militarily active today, although open to tourists (and deer).

A visit to the fort was the first thing we did in Trinco, and we really enjoyed it. The Koneswaram Temple has been rebuilt, though the new construction is nowhere near as grand as the original. Luckily, the outstanding views over Trinco from the top of Swami Rock were something that not even the Portuguese could destroy. One tree, clinging to the cliff face, is burdened underneath flags and a huge number of light baskets tied onto the branches by couples hoping to get pregnant.

Even if you’re just in Trinco for the beaches, a visit to the Fort should definitely make its way onto your itinerary. We walked, but you can also hire a tuk-tuk to take you to the top.

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April 2, 2012 at 6:17 am Comments (0)

The Besieged Fort of Jaffna

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In 1618, the Portuguese built an enormous fort in Jaffna, to help protect their hard-won property. Colonial-era forts are fairly common across the world, but Jaffna’s must be one of the very few which continued to see action until the late 20th century. Recently re-opened to visitors, it was one of the first things we checked out in Jaffna.

Jaffna Fort

The Portuguese ruled Jaffna until 1658, when the Dutch sailed into town and took over. De Nederlanders expanded the fort and, after a century and half of dominance in northern Sri Lanka, ceded control to the British in 1795. Years after the tumultuous colonial years, the fort was the scene of major battles during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The LTTE controlled it until 1995, when a 50-day siege by the army finally uprooted them. Walking around the fort today, it’s immediately obvious how incredible the fight must have been. Almost everything is in ruins.

We were far from alone during our visit to the fort, which has apparently become a popular spot for a Saturday stroll. I’m unsure, though, whether the people visiting were from Jaffna or further afield. Now that the war is over, the peninsula has become a hot tourist zone for Sri Lankans, who hadn’t been able to visit the northern section of their country for decades. Perhaps even more than the fort itself, Jürgen and I were big attractions among the visiting families, asked to pose for picture after picture. It was a surreal, humorous touch to what had been a rather sobering day out.

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March 27, 2012 at 1:34 pm Comments (2)

The Summit of Sigiriya

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We had reached the large terrace which marks the half-way point on the ascent to the summit of Sigiriya Rock. Before continuing, we took a break and surveyed the remaining path in dread and awe. The next flight of stairs was framed by an enormous pair of stone paws. Because of its profile, Sigiriya had long been referred to as the “Lion Rock”, but King Kassapa decided to make the nickname somewhat more literal.

Sigiriya

During Kassapa’s reign in the 5th century AD, a massive, 60-foot lion was chiseled out of the rock. The steps which continued up to the royal palace started at the lion’s feet, wrapped around his body and eventually entered his mouth. Today, all that remain are the paws, but they give a good idea of the statue’s scale. It’s hard to appreciate how impressive it must have been 1500 years ago. It would be impressive now.

The final flight of stairs, hugging tightly to the stone wall, is not for those who suffer from vertigo. My mind kept flitting back into the past. If I, on these stable steps of modern steel, was so close to vomiting, how terrifying must they have been during the time of Kassapa? Notches in the wall indicated where the ancient brick steps would have been placed, and the thought of climbing them, with the wind whipping about me, and likely burdened under another load of bricks for the usurper king’s palace, three words kept repeating in my mind: “Oh, hell no!”

Sigiriya Fort

My mantra changed, though, once we gained the summit. Suddenly, the ascent made perfect sense, as I imagined myself in Kassapa’s shoes, surveying the grounds for my new home. “Oh, hell yes!” The view is unobstructed for miles around. From the top of Sigiriya, you truly feel at the top of the world. Unassailable. It is the perfect place for a paranoid pretender.

Over the course of the centuries, the palace has been reduced to mere rubble, but it must have been an amazing building. We wandered about the foundations for awhile and eventually found a set of caves facing the south, originally used as protective cells for soldiers on the look-out, where we hid from the wind and enjoyed the view.

You’ll want to spend a long time at the summit of Sigiriya. The sense of history is palpable, and the panoramas over the jungle and gardens below couldn’t be better. Besides, you just spent an hour getting there, and the descent promises to be no less dizzying.

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March 22, 2012 at 10:57 am Comments (3)

Sigiriya Rock – The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World

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Nature’s awesome beauty and the ingenuity of mankind come together majestically at Sigiriya Rock. A massive 320-meter granite stone set incomprehensibly in the jungle, the “Lion Rock” was attracting admiration long before King Kassapa built his castle on top of it, and continues dropping jaws today.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is probably the top touristic sight in all Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There is an incredible amount to see here, the history is fascinating, the ascent to the summit is an attraction in itself, and from the top, among the ruins of an ancient palace, the view over the surrounding jungle is unimpeded and breathtaking. A visit to Sigiriya is truly unforgettable.

Entrance-Sigiriya

And Sri Lanka knows it. The government charges $30 a head to enter the site. Unless, of course you’re Sri Lankan, in which case you’ll pay $0.40. We almost balked at the price. I understand charging locals less than tourists, but the scale of the difference is outrageous. Yes, foreigners might have more disposable income than Sri Lankans, but 75 times the price? The biggest slap in the face comes when you learn that Sigiriya is mostly funded by UNESCO and other foreign entities. So guess what? Foreigners are already paying for the maintenance and running of the site, and then they’re charged 75 times the normal entry fee. It’s insulting.

But Sri Lanka has a monopoly on the world’s supply of “Sigiriya Rocks”, so we swallowed our pride and bought tickets. I’m glad we did. Once we got done grumbling about the unfairness of it all, we had an incredible day.

Garden of Sigiriya

After crossing the moat to enter the grounds, you’re greeted by the marvelously restored 5th century pleasure gardens of King Kassapa. First, a Water Garden with an expansive and complicated set of pools and ponds, and further ahead the King’s Boulder Garden. Here, we saw the Cobra-Hooded Cave and talked with an archaeologist at work on a dig. His team was unearthing a cave temple, and he was more than happy to take a break to chat. Long before Kassapa’s arrival, Buddhist monks had considered Sigiriya a sacred place, and built temples around the base of the rock. Kassapa relocated the monks to nearby Pidurungala Rock, where they remain to this day.

We started our ascent up the Lion Rock at 7am in the morning, well before the sun was at full strength. This was a wise decision; we avoided both heat stroke and the eventual onslaught of tourists. We were able to climb unhurried and took our time admiring the scenery. By noon, bus after bus had pulled up to the gate. Already on our way back down, we watched a never-ending single-file line of sweaty, sun-beaten tourists with amazement and despondency. To be caught in the middle of that would have been a nightmare! I estimated about 200 people ascending the stairs at one time. I have no idea how many people visit Sigiriya daily but the government must be raking it in. So a word to the wise: go as early as you can. The gates open at 7, and you’ll have the rock largely to yourself.

Swalps-Sigiriya

Midway up, we encountered the Mirror Wall and the Hall of Maidens. The rock at the Mirror Wall had been polished smooth and flat and coated with a shiny plaster, so that the King could admire his reflection during his ascent. Facing the west, the wall must have shone brilliantly during sunset, and was perhaps meant as a sort of beacon, announcing the palace and the eminence of its king. Today, though, the luster is gone and it looks basically like a stone wall. Maybe a little flatter than normal. Much more impressive is the fresco gallery, found just above the Mirror Wall. The Damsels of Sigiriya are some of the most famous ancient paintings in the world, in a miraculous state of conservation.

After the Mirror Wall and damsel gallery, we emerged at a large terrace. We were exhausted and stunned to see that we had only completed about half our journey. Before us, two immense lion paws carved out of the rock indicated the beginning of the ascent’s second half. Under the pretense of admiring the lion, we took take a break before climbing up to the summit.

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March 21, 2012 at 5:06 am Comments (7)
Galle Fort - Our Final Stop in Sri Lanka After two and a half whirlwind months touring Sri Lanka, we pulled into Galle with exhausted bodies and tired minds. This would be the last extended stop of our 91 days in the country.
For 91 Days