Once-in-a-century pandemic has brought international travel to a complete halt. With the pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, it is unrealistic to plan for new travel anytime soon. As a result, we will take this opportunity to share some of our past travel experiences that predate this blog. The pandemic compels us to cherish our travel memories more than ever, and acknowledge that we should never take things for granted especially in turbulent times. The first travel memory we are going to write about is a 40-day journey through the Middle East from Turkey to Egypt via Syria and Jordan. In the recent decade, the Middle East has gone through drastic changes after the Arab Spring movement in early 2010’s and the rise of Isis, particularly for Syria where the ongoing civil war has displaced over 10 million and killed about half a million of Syrians in the past 9 years. Places visited and people encountered may no longer exist, but they live long in our memories.
In spring 2006, I and five other friends embarked on the 40-day journey from Toronto, Canada. We first flew to Athens via Zurich, and then landed in Istanbul on 29th of April. We spent 11 days in Turkey, visiting the splendid architecture of Istanbul and Edirne, archaeological sites of Bergama and Ephesus, and natural wonders of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, before crossing the border at Antakya into Syria. We spent a week traveling from Aleppo to Damascus, visiting Crusader castles and archaeological sites near Hama, Palmyra, Bosra and Maalula along the way. From Damascus, we hired a taxi to Amman in Jordan, where we stayed for 8 days. While Petra was our main focus in Jordan, we did manage to visit classical ruins and medieval castles, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum Desert, and Aqaba diving resort. Then on 25th of May, we hopped on a ferry to cross the Gulf of Aqaba for Sinai Peninsula. In Egypt, we spent the remaining week to visit the diving town of Dahab, hike the sacred Mount Sinai, admire the pyramids in Saqqara, Dahshur and Giza, and the mosques and Coptic churches in Cairo, and finally ventured out into the far western end near the Libyan border for Siwa Oasis and the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert.
Back then, I didn’t have a DSLR or smart phone, but traveled with a Nikon FM2 and 50+ rolls of films, including some Fuji Velvia (slide positives) and Ilford Delta (B&W negatives). Number of shots were limited and low light photography was restricted by the film ISO and the availability of a flat surface to place the camera. Yet, the photos’ film grains and occasional blurry effects due to hand movements somehow provoke a unique mood and vaguely remind me each distinct moment when I released the shutter. Each shot has no second take or immediate image editing. Compared to the multi gigabytes stored in memory cards, the slides and negatives of the Middle East trip are much more tangible as if one-of-a-kind souvenir from the trip. Scanning the films afterwards made me to spend a whole lot more time on each photo, and sometimes led me to rediscover bits and pieces of forgotten travel memories.
The 40-day Middle East trip in 2006 remains as one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
The first time seeing the great architecture of ancient Constantinople was like a dream come true to me.
It was hard to perceive that all the ancient architecture in Turkey were maintained by generations after generations of craftsmen throughout the centuries.
The old Ottoman houses of Istanbul provoke a sense of melancholy that can only be found in the works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.
With the otherworldly landscape, hiking in Cappadocia was fun and felt like walking on another planet.
In the past decade, reading the news about how Syrians have suffered and learning about so many cultural heritage, including the Aleppo Citadel, have been destroyed or badly damaged was really upsetting.
Archaeological sites in Syria like Palmyra and Apamea (pictures above) has become venues for frequent looting and destruction under the Isis.
10 million people have been displaced by the Syrian Civil War. Cities like Hama, the city famous for its ancient norias, has been standing in the forefront between the rebels and the government force.
I have encountered so many innocent Syrian children, including these school kids in Damascus, back in 2006. No one would have foreseen the brutal civil war coming in a few years’ time.
Compared to the Syrians, the Jordanian children that I’ve met in Amman have been much more fortunate.
Every time meandering through the Siq, the narrow gorge that leads into the ancient Nabatean city of Petra, and approaching the Treasury was like going into an Indiana Jones movie.
Riding a camel in Wadi Rum Desert offered every visitors a chance to feel like being Lawrence of Arabia.
I would never forget hiking the pilgrim route up Mount Sinai at 2am in complete darkness, standing at the summit in bone-chilling wind, and watching one of the most anticipated sunrises in my life.
Getting lost in the chaotic Islamic Cairo would be so much fun if not the scorching heat.
Venturing out to the remote Siwa Oasis on my own was one of the most adventurous event in my travels.
Heading out from Siwa into the Great Sand Sea gave me the perfect Sahara moments: doing rollercoaster Jeep rides up and down the dunes, watching sunset over the undulating desert horizon, and sleeping under the Milky Way in the open desert.
Day 12 (3 of 3).
On our last evening of the trip, we had a few hours to spare in Colombo before heading to the airport. From online research, we learnt about the widely acclaimed seafood restaurant Ministry of Crab, which is famous for their giant lagoon crabs caught in the mangrove lagoons of Sri Lanka, and prepared in a selection of Asian cooking methods such as Sri Lankan pepper, Indian curry, Japanese garlic chilli, Singaporean chilli, etc. For decades, Sri Lankan lagoon crabs have been prized for their size and tasty meat. Almost all of the decent sized lagoon crabs (500g – 2kg) have been exported to Singapore (90%) and other parts of Asia and Europe. Ministry of Crab is one of the few restaurants in the nation that offers giant lagoon crabs, and has been named Asia’s 50 best restaurants for several years in a row. In less than ten years, the restaurant has expanded to Shanghai, Manila, Mumbai, Maldives, and Bangkok. The Ministry of Crab in Colombo is located at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, a retail complex housed in the oldest building compound in Colombo Fort, dated to 1681 in the Dutch Era. The Ministry of Crab is a success story of Dharshan Munidasa, the celebrity owner of the restaurant.
The success of Dharshan Munidasa exemplifies how Sri Lanka may find its footing in today’s world by absorbing techniques and cultures from other countries, promoting themselves on mass media, making use of the local natural resources, and gaining global recognition by competing on the international stage. Born in Tokyo from a Sri Lankan father and a Japanese mother, and graduated in The Johns Hopkins University in the United States, Dharshan Munidasa returned to Sri Lanka in 1994. He came back with his Japanese cooking techniques and American way of thinking, and opened his Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi in 1995 and then Ministry of Crab in 2011, both have subsequently become the first Sri Lankan restaurants made to the list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Munidasa appeared on BBC Rick Stein’s program in 2009, then in 2010, Munidasa produced and hosted a culinary travel show called “Culinary Journey’s with Dharshan” on Sri Lanka’s ETV. He has also featured on Nippon Shokudo for TV Tokyo, and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown on CNN.
While the fascinating Buddhist moments in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa showcase the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka, and the colonial legacies in the Hill Country and South Coast reveal the nation’s difficult first encounter with the West, Munidasa’s Ministry of Crab on the other hand demonstrates how a contemporary Sri Lankan identity is taking shape and how a new culture can be confidently exported to the outside world. From Anuradhapura to the Ministry of Crab in Colombo, we felt that we had gone through a 2000-year chronicle of Sri Lanka in a matter of 12 days.
The old Colombo Lighthouse or Clock Tower was a lighthouse in Colombo and still serves as a clock tower today. It signifies the bygone era of colonial Ceylon.
Now converted into a popular shopping and dining venue in downtown Colombo, the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital is considered to be the oldest building in Colombo Fort.
In the era of commercialism, Christmas is celebrated in Metropolitan Colombo despite the nation’s Buddhist background.
Just two blocks west of the Dutch Hospital lies an enormous construction site: 269 hectares of reclaimed land in the Indian Ocean designated for Port City, an ambitious construction project targeted to establish a new central business district with glassy towers that resemble a small Singapore. The $1.4bn Chinese state-owned investment has been controversial: non transparent contract agreement between investors and the former Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa, environmental impact of the massive land reclamation including potential damage on the fishing industry and burden on the limited natural resources to sustain the new downtown, and the unclear operation plan in the future.
In the midst of bustling commercial activities of downtown Colombo lies the peaceful courtyards of the Dutch Hospital, where the Ministry of Crab is situated. At the restaurant entrance, a display menu shows visitors the size range of local lagoon crabs (500g – 2kg) and prawns (150g to 500g+).
We left our luggage at the reception and sat down at our reserved table.
There were foreign visitors and expats as well as local business people in the restaurant.
The restaurant is causal and pleasant, and decorated with the orange theme colour.
From floral arrangement to dining utensil, everything in the restaurant was cheerful.
Prawns of different sizes were on display.
We started the meal with giant prawns.
As well as king prawn bisque.
Then we finished the meal with two giant lagoon crabs, one made with Sri Lankan pepper sauce and the other garlic chilli. They were perhaps the most tasty crabs we had for a long long time.
After dinner at 21:15, we had trouble locating our online pre-booked cab at the Dutch Hospital. A restaurant staff helped us to talk on phone with the driver to resolve the issue. We ended up finding the right car behind the restaurant. At the departure concourse in the airport, we once again passed by the advertisement of Ministry of Crab, the same one that we saw 12 days ago. What a satisfying meal and a fruitful journey! This concludes our December 2019 journey to Sri Lanka.
Day 12 (1 of 3).
Known as Asia’s largest remaining colonial fortress and an UNESCO World Heritage site, Galle is a popular tourist destination in southwest Sri Lanka. Galle has long been an important trading port of the island since ancient times. Cinnamon was exported from Sri Lanka as early as 1400 BC, and Galle was likely the main port of export. Throughout history, Galle traded with the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, Arabs, Malays, and Indians. Sri Lanka’s colonial history began when the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century and built a fortified city in Galle. Galle continued to serve as the main port for spices export. In 1640, the Portuguese surrendered to the Dutch East India Company. After the takeover, the Dutch built the fort that we saw today with bastions and a solid granite wall. In 1796, Galle and Sri Lanka changed hands again when the island became a British Crown colony named Ceylon. The 400-year colonial rule came to an end in 1948 when independence was granted to establish Dominion of Ceylon in the Commonwealth. Then 28 years later in 1972, Sri Lanka finally became a republic. From four centuries as a colonial port of export for spices and coffee (then replaced by tea) to a tourist town based on commercialization of its colonial past, Galle’s fortune has always been tied with the outside world.
We dropped off our backpacks at the baggage storage in Galle Railway Station, then found our way into the old fortified city.
The first thing we saw inside the fortress was Galle Services Club (est. 1947) and the 1883 clock tower.
Located on the highest point in the fortress, the Dutch Reformed Church (Groote Kerk) was built by the Dutch in 1755. It was the third Dutch Reformed church in Galle and signified the rise of the Dutch after the Portuguese.
Further down the road from the Dutch Reformed Church stands All Saints’ Church, Galle’s first Anglican Church (consecrated in 1871) and a powerful statement by the British.
The former Dutch warehouse from the 17th century has become the National Maritime Archaeology Museum.
In 1796, the British relocated the emblem of the Dutch East India Company from the outer gate to the inner, and put up the British Royal Emblem at the outer gate.
The interior of the old gate is used for motorcycle parking.
First built by the Portuguese, then renamed to Zwart Fort (Black Fort) by the Dutch. We accessed the Black Fort via a police compound. At Zwart Fort, a staff came out to show us around and told us about the history of the place.
The Old Dutch Hospital was established by the Dutch to look after the staff of the Dutch East India Company. Then the British extended the building and converted it into a barracks. After independence, the building was used as the town hall. In 2014, the building was once again converted into a shopping and dining complex.
Meeran Jumma Masjid looks more like a church than a mosque, but this Islamic prayer hall has been around for 300 years already. More than half of the population inside the fort are Moor. They are believed to be descendants of the Arab traders who settled in Sri Lanka at around the 9th century.
Galle Fort is built on a rock peninsula and there are a few small beaches near the lighthouse.
The Galle Lighthouse is the oldest light station in the nation. The original was built by the British in 1848 but was destroyed by fire in 1936. The current 26.5m tall lighthouse was constructed in 1939.
Strolling or cycling aimlessly within Galle Fort is a nice way to explore the town.
In Galle Fort, Dairy King icecream has been recommended by a number of guidebooks and blogs.
Dairy King is a great place to take a short break during a visit to Galle Fort.
Many houses in Galle Fort have been converted into guesthouses, restaurants, or shops catered for tourists.
The ambience of the colonial times is the top selling point for the tourist industry in Galle.
Some old mansions are transformed into high end retail shops for fabrics, furniture, housewares, and other design items with a twist of Sri Lankan style.
Established in 1892, Al Bahajathul Ibraheemiyyah Arabic College is one of the oldest Islamic Arabic institutions in Sri Lanka.
On our way out of the fort, we passed by Sri Sudharmalaya Buddhist Temple, a Buddhist temple with a unique appearance. The temple dated back to 1889. The belfry of the building suggests that temple might be converted from an earlier church.
Day 11 (2 of 2).
Cinnamomum verum, or true cinnamon tree, is an evergreen tree native to Sri Lanka. Considered as the better tasting and has more health benefits than the other types of cinnamon cultivated elsewhere in Asia and Africa, the inner bark of Cinnamomum verum has been a precious commodity sought after by the West since colonial times. Sri Lanka nowadays exports roughly 85-90% of the world’s true cinnamon. Spice plantations can be found in many parts of the island, including the South Coast.
We stayed at Mirissa Hills, a working cinnamon plantation near Mirissa, for two nights. At the plantation, there are three buildings that offer guest accommodation. We stayed at a building called the “Museum”, a work-in-progress cinnamon museum. At Mirissa Hills, we got a chance to join a plantation tour to learn more about cinnamon production.
Our room was located at the “Museum” building, around halfway up the hill of the plantation estate.
Inside the “Museum”building, four guestrooms are allocated on both sides of the courtyard.
Despite the age of the building, our room was quite comfortable.
The main building, Mount Cinnamon, is located 5 minutes walk uphill from the Museum. Designed by architect C. Anjalendran, Mount Cinnamon is an hidden architectural gem in the midst of dense vegetation.
Served as an apprentice of architectural master Geoffrey Bawa, C. Anjalendran is a leading architect of today’s Sri Lanka. At Mount Cinnamon, C. Anjalendran arranges the guestrooms around the courtyard and swimming pool.
The common room in Mount Cinnamon is dominated by Laki Senanayake’s sculpture “Enchanted Forest”.
Laki Senanayake worked as an assistant to architect Geoffrey Bawa, and created a number of sculptures and murals for Bawa’s buildings.
Outside the common room, the covered veranda was where we had breakfast and dinner.
The two dogs of the estate often lingered around the veranda. One of the dogs is already 16 years old.
The pavilion in the backyard served as the dancing stage for peacocks to attract other peahens.
After breakfast, we walked over to a covered veranda serving as a gallery for sculpture and artwork.
Seeing such an interesting collection of artwork was a great surprise for us.
In the second afternoon just before most staff called it a day, we followed the manager for a cinnamon tour. The manager showed us cinnamon trees of different sizes and ages. The cinnamon trees were virtually everywhere in the estate: by the road, behind the buildings, on the hill slope, etc., just that we didn’t notice them until the tour.
At the factory, a staff showed us how to remove the bark of the cinnamon branch.
The bark rolls were then placed over our heads for drying.
From 1970 to now, international production of cinnamon has grown more than tenfold. It is hard to imagine that such popular spice could still be processed in such a simple and traditional manner. Such production method in Sri Lanka hasn’t changed much in the past few centuries.
In the morning of December 16th, Mirissa Hills arranged a car to drop us at Galle.
We passed by a series of beaches near Weligama. Occasionally we would see empty stilts near the shore. The traditional fishermen that Steve McCurry encountered in the mid 1990s were long gone. Today, the stilts are mainly for tourist to take selfies or locals to mimic their the bygone fishermen and let tourists to photograph them for a fee.
Most beaches were empty except occasional surfers. Half day in Galle and a dinner in Colombo would make up the last day of our Sri Lankan journey.
Day 11 (1 of 2).
Mirissa is known as the best location for whale watching in Sri Lanka. In recent years, it is also considered as one of the world’s best spot for blue whale sighting. Doing a whale watching tour was one of the main reasons for us to visit Mirissa. While marketed as a special place in the world to have a good chance to see the blue whales, there are also opportunity to see fin whales, sei whales, sperm whales, bryde’s whales, orcas, dolphins, flying fish, turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, etc. just several miles out from Mirissa. There is never a 100% guarantee of sighting, but it is the expectation of seeing these elusive marine mammals that drives the multi billion marine tourism industry to grow rapidly around the world, including at Mirissa.
Mirissa was our second ever whale watching cruise after our wonderful orca encounter in Hokkaido, Japan six months prior. This time, weather was much warmer in tropical Sri Lanka, but the water of Indian Ocean was significantly rougher, and we spent much longer in the sea. While we didn’t hit the jackpot and see the blue whale, we did saw a fin whale, several groups of dolphins and a sea turtle in the 7-hour journey out in the sea.
At 5:55, a tuk tuk came to our hotel Mirissa Hills to pick us up. We were dropped at the office of Raja and the Whales to pay for the tour, and then followed the group to the dock.
At the dock, tourist boats from different companies were getting ready for the sail at 6:30am.
During the first half of the cruise we passed by a number of fishing boats.
The weather wasn’t perfect and the sea was rough at times.
Given the occasional rough conditions of the ocean, some fishing boats looked overly simple to us.
Apart from fishing vessels, we also saw large container ships in the distant horizon.
At about halfway of the journey, most tourists had their eyes closed to battle seasickness.
While we worried that the day might turn out fruitless, we finally had a brief encounter of a fin whale.
While it was difficult to determine the actual size of the animal, fin whale is in fact the second largest whale in the world, just after the blue whale.
Throughout the day, we had several encounters of dolphins.
For most of the times, we saw the dolphins in groups of about a dozen or more.
Most dolphins we saw were leaping in and out of the water in high speed.
My own photos were limited by the zoom extent of my camera lens.
After the journey, Raja sent us close up photos taken by a staff during the trip.
The staff even captured the twisting jump of a dolphin.
As well as a sea turtle swimming near the surface.
It was after noontime by the time we returned to the pier.
The day was getting hotter at the dock.
Walking back to the town, we passed by the office of Raja and the Whales again.
Day 10 (2 of 2).
In 1995, world renounced photographer Steve McCurry immortalized the South Coast of Sri Lanka with his iconic photograph Stilt Fishermen, capturing four local fishermen sitting on wooden stilts and fishing at the shore of Weligama. The mid-1990s also marked the beginning of tourism at the fishing town of Weligama and the adjacent Mirissa. Mirissa, historically known as the south’s largest fishing port for tuna, mullet, snapper and butterfish, was soon developed into a paradise-like holiday destination. Between Mirissa and Weligama, there are plenty of pristine beaches, decent seafood restaurants, accommodations of all sorts, good surfing spots, hidden coves for snorkeling with sea turtles, and the world famous whale watching waters. The Sri Lankan South Coast has all the essentials of a tropical holiday destination except the large partying crowds like Full Moon parties at Koh Phangan in Thailand. In fact, in Sri Lanka alcohol is prohibited during Uposatha, or the full moon days. Despite the lack of vibrant nightlife and the destructions and loss of lives caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, tourism in Mirissa and the South Coast continues to thrive solely because of the area’s natural beauty.
Many travelers prefer to stay in the South Coast for days if not weeks, especially if one is interested in surfing. We didn’t have such luxury in terms of time, but could only spare two days to chill out by the sea, including a 7-hour boat ride out in the rough waters to seek for marine mammals.
Beautiful, laid back, and has plenty of space to just sit down to enjoy a fresh coconut drink, Mirissa Beach should meet most people’s expectations.
The quality of both the sand and water at Mirissa Beach is top notch.
Just months after the terrorist attacks in Colombo and Negombo, the number of foreign visitors might not match the previous year. Nonetheless, the beach was filled with the laughter of local beachgoers.
The Parrot Rock Bridge, a rock island accessible by a short walk in shallow water, is an iconic feature in Mirissa Beach.
Climbing the Parrot Rock Bridge allowed us to have an overview of Mirissa Beach.
The Mirissa Beach is one of the many resort beaches in the South Coast of Sri Lanka. In fact, the entire South Coast of Sri Lanka has a series of fine beaches along the Indian Ocean.
Two bays east of Mirissa Beach, we arrived at Coconut Tree Hill, a small peninsula topped with a grove of coconut trees that was made famous in recent years by Instagram users and online bloggers who post selfies taken from the hill.
Despite the poor weather, the Coconut Tree Hill was nonetheless a lovely place for us to enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding beaches.
All tourists chose to stand at the centre of Coconut Tree Hill to take selfies with the sea as the background.
There is a local old man lingering around the Coconut Tree Hill. He loves to interact with tourists and showed them good spots for photo shooting.
In the evening, most tourists sat down at the outdoor restaurants along the beach, while the locals continued to have fun in the waves.
The last moment of sunlight created a dramatic moment at Mirissa Beach.
The locals refused to leave despite it was getting really dark.
A group of locals requested us to take a photo of them.
In the evening, most tourists would sit down at a beach restaurant for a seafood dinner.
We picked Zephyr Restaurant & Bar near Parrot Rock Bridge for dinner.
The staff at Zephyr brought out a plate of catches of the day for us to choose.
We sat down at a table on the beach.
One of us picked lobster as the main dish.
Another main dish we ordered was a grilled spangled emperor fish. Fresh and great ambience.