ultramarinus – beyond the sea

Posts tagged “Colombo

MINISTRY OF CRAB, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.16

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.

IMG_9247The 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.

IMG_9242Now 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.

IMG_9243In the era of commercialism, Christmas is celebrated in Metropolitan Colombo despite the nation’s Buddhist background.

IMG_9250Just 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.

IMG_9252In 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+).

IMG_9255We left our luggage at the reception and sat down at our reserved table.

IMG_9265There were foreign visitors and expats as well as local business people in the restaurant.

IMG_9257The restaurant is causal and pleasant, and decorated with the orange theme colour.

IMG_9260From floral arrangement to dining utensil, everything in the restaurant was cheerful.

IMG_9264Prawns of different sizes were on display.

IMG_9266We started the meal with giant prawns.

IMG_9270As well as king prawn bisque.

IMG_9275Then 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.

IMG_9284After 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.


RAILWAY BY THE SEA, Galle to Colombo, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.16

Day 12 (2 of 3).

Our last train journey in Sri Lanka is one of the most popular railway routes for tourists: the Coastal Line from Galle to Colombo.  In a little less than two hours, our train moved from seaside resort towns near Galle to the old fort and metropolitan area of Colombo. Constructed in late 19th century, the Coastal Line is the second oldest railway line in Sri Lanka.  For much of the journey the train was winding along the southwest coastline of island.  The coastal scenery reminded us of the train scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which the protagonist Chihiro Ogino boards on a train that runs across water on submerged tracks.  The moving reflections in the water, the tranquil scenery at the far horizon, the evolving lights from late afternoon to early evening, and the melancholy yet romantic train cabin come together to become one of the most remarkable animation scenes ever made.  The train journey to Colombo might not be as romantic as Miyazaki’s scene, and the train was fully packed with standing tourists and locals and could get a bit noisy sometimes, but the late afternoon scenery of the Indian Ocean would live long in our memories.

IMG_8831Galle Station was first established in 1894, and has undergone an upgrade in the 20th century with a modernist concrete building.

IMG_8985The wooden timetable at Galle Station should be an antique that has been around for decades.

IMG_8829The Coastal Line runs between Matara and Colombo Fort via Galle.

IMG_8994Taking a train in Sri Lanka is always a delightful activity and a great way to interact with the friendly locals.

IMG_9006Leaving Galle signified our Sri Lankan journey was coming to an end.  After dinner in Colombo, we would go immediately to the airport near Negombo for our midnight flight.

IMG_9013For the entire journey I was sitting at the opened door between two passenger train cars.

IMG_9017As the snack vendor left the train, it was time for departure.

IMG_9028For the first half of the journey, the train ran along a waterfront road.

IMG_9055Sitting or standing by the doorway on a Sri Lankan train is a pleasant way to enjoy the scenery.  Despite the low speed of the train, certain level of caution should be taken when standing at the opened door.

IMG_9047After the halfway point, the train ran right along the coastline.

IMG_9053Our train passed by a number of coastal resort towns.

IMG_9128These seaside resort towns serve mainly the city dwellers from distant Colombo.

IMG_9114We also passed by a number of impoverished communities by the sea.

IMG_9119The train passed right in front of the houses of the seaside communities.

IMG_9122The southwestern coast of Sri Lanka was badly hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.  Many lives were lost and some communities have never fully recovered.

IMG_9215The Coastal Line was severely hit by the 2004 tsunami.  Known as the 2004 Sri Lanka tsunami-rail disaster, a Matara Express train was running from Colombo to Galle before getting hit by the tsunami at the village of Peraliya.  After two rounds of waves, the village of Peraliya was completely destroyed, and about 2000 people died (including passengers of 8 train cars and villagers who climbed onto the train top to escape the waves).  Out of about 1700 train passengers, only 150 people survived.  The incident is the single worst rail disaster with the largest death toll the world has ever seen.

IMG_9154The Indian Ocean offered us the perfect setting to view the sunset.

IMG_9211We were getting closer to Colombo as the sun was about to set below the Indian Ocean.

IMG_9226After 1 hour and 45 minutes, our train was finally approaching downtown Colombo.  We were ready for the final act in Sri Lanka before flying home.


TOUCH DOWN IN NEGOMBO, Sri Lanka, 2019.12.05

Day 1 (1 of 1).

Almost all foreign visitors coming to Sri Lanka would stop by Negombo, a seaside town less than 10km from Bandaranaike International Airport.  Since many incoming international flights arrive at night, staying the night in nearby Negombo before heading elsewhere is not uncommon.  That’s exactly what we have done, flying in just after midnight and staying the night at Icebear Guesthouse in Negombo.

Situated at the mouth of Negombo Lagoon, Negombo is an important commercial and fishing hub in the west coast of Sri Lanka.  In the 1500’s, Negombo became a Portuguese port for cinnamon trade.  Later came the Dutch who took over the town’s control, and then lastly the British arrived in the 19th century.  The majority of Negombo’s population had converted to Roman Catholic ever since the Portuguese era.  Today, two thirds of Negombo residents still consider themselves Roman Catholics.  With its high concentration of churches, Negombo is sometimes referred to as “Little Rome.”

Unfortunately, St. Sebastian Church in Negombo was under terrorist bombing during Easter service in 2019.  Innocent lives were lost and the town’s tourism was devastated. The negative impact on tourism and other related business could still be strongly felt when we visited in December.  The only souvenir vendor we met on Negombo beach expressed his discontent and anxiety when we politely rejected his offer.  Negombo’s deserted beach, vacant hotels and desperate souvenir vendor reminded me of Dahab in Sinai Peninsula back in 2006 when I visited the famous diving paradise two months after a terrorist bombing that killed 23 people.  Back then, rows after rows of empty beach chaise lounges lined up on the silky sand along the Gulf of Aqaba.  Desperate hotel and restaurant owners waited outside the bus station and approached any foreigner with dirt cheap deals.  Today, there are a whole lot of places around the world solely rely on tourism to generate jobs and sustain the local economy.  Any terrorist attack or natural disaster causing a sudden disruption to tourism would lead to terrible suffering for the locals.  This economic vulnerability may spell unpredictable trouble for any resort town, but can also cause a painful impact for any tourist city like Paris or New York.  Resilience, versatility, social unity and a persisted sense of hope would be vital for recovery and regeneration for any town or city after such mishap.  First came the 26-year civil war and then the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, and now the Easter Bombing of 2019, Negombo is once again on its path of gradual recovery.

01All foreign visitors coming to Sri Lanka have to fill out an arrival card upon landing.

02Our flight arrived at midnight.  The airport passenger concourse was surprisingly busy.  We went through customs, bought some Sri Lankan rupees, and purchased two local mobile SIM cards.

06We stayed our first night at the northern strip of Negombo where dozens of hotels and guesthouses dotted the shore of Laccadive Sea.

05Before breakfast at Icebear Guesthouse, we went for a short walk along the beach behind the guesthouse.

03On the wall of Icebear Guesthouse we could still see markings from the Boxing Day Tsunami 15 years ago.

04With the country’s largest concentration of Roman Catholic population, churches and Christian shrines can be seen all over Negombo .

07Looks like another new church is under construction by the beach.

08Not the most exotic beach in Sri Lanka, Negombo’s beach nonetheless provided us a place for a relaxing stroll before moving on to our Sri Lankan journey.

09The beach is popular with locals coming for morning exercises.

10Dogs also take the beach as their playground.

11After the Easter’s bombing, Negombo’s tourism has taken a heavy toll.  There were hardly any tourists on the beach except a few Western couples.

12A traditional fishing sailboat was the most eye-catching feature on the beach, though we had no idea how Tirol related to Sri Lanka.

13A local man stood by the boat waiting for any tourist interested to take a selfie on the boat by paying him a small tip.

14Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit Central Negombo and any of its churches, maybe next time.


SRI LANKA TRIP: 2019.12.05 – 17

0_map

Our most recent travels have been focused on short trips to Japan and South Asia.  These experiences offered us two distinct views of Asia.  In Japan, the minimalist beauty in fashion, food, and architecture, the strong sense of community and respect to local traditions in villages and urban centres, and the Shinto attitude on harmonic coexistence with the nature captivated our admiration.  On the other hand, the pungent spices, mystic incenses, vivid costumes, bizarre rituals, exquisite temples, majestic landscapes, and mythical folklore of Tibet, India and Myanmar offered us some of the last glimpses of truly unique and centuries-long traditions in our ever-changing world.  After an invigorating journey to Hokkaido in early summer, we turned our eyes to the exotic dimensions of South Asia once again.  We picked the “tear drop” in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka, as our destination for a 12-day trip.

2019 marked the 10th anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, a devastating conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the rebel force of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or simply known as the Tamil Tigers.  The conflict lasted for 26 years.  15 years have also passed since the horrific 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the natural catastrophe that has devastated the coastal area of Sri Lanka and claimed 35,000+ lives.  In the past 10 years, tourism has boomed exponentially along with the rapid growing economy.  2019 was on track to become another record breaking year for tourist numbers until Easter Day, when Isis terrorists attacked hotels, churches and residences in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, claiming 259 innocent lives.  The incident caused a disastrous blow to the country’s tourism.  The government immediately tightened national security, attempting to restore international confidence.  Despite of the attack, magazines and newspapers remained affirmative to endorse Sri Lanka as a top destination of 2019.  After learning about its diverse attractions, affordability, ease of travel and communication, pristine natural scenery and unique cultural experiences, we were not surprise at all to see why Lonely Planet selected Sri Lanka as their destination of 2019.

As a small country about half the size of England, Sri Lanka has a lot to offer.  We planned for a loop journey starting in Negombo on the western coast, then moved north to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya & Dambulla before heading up to the hill region.  In the hills, we stopped by the historical capital Kandy, took the “world’s most scenic train ride” to the tea plantations near Ella and Haputale.  Leaving behind the hills of Ceylon tea, we ventured into the wilderness of Udawalawa for wildlife safari, and arrived at the beaches of Mirissa and the colonial port of Galle to embrace the Indian Ocean.  Before leaving Sri Lanka, we stopped by Colombo for a delicious crab dinner.  This trip was filled with lovely moments: joining Buddhist pilgrims at the 2300-year-old Bodhi Tree, hiking through Sir Thomas Lipton’s tea terraces, facing eyes-in-eye with elephants and leopard on safari jeep, spotting whales and dolphins in the open ocean, candlelight dining on the Mirissa Beach, not to mention devouring delicious curry and seafood, meeting the friendly and curious local people, and taking in the laid back atmosphere that we could always smell in the air.

1_NegomboOur journey embarked from the beaches of Negombo.

2_Ancient 1At Anuradhapura, we circled the 2300-year sacred Bodhi tree,

2_Ancient 2and visited several ancient Buddhist dagobas (stupas) where pilgrims burned incenses and offered lotus flowers.

2_Ancient 3At Sigiriya, we climbed up a rock opposite to Sigiriya Rock to watch the best ever sunset.

2_Ancient 4Visiting the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy offered us a chance to see the century-old rituals that once symbolized the political and religious power of the nation.

3_Hill 1At Kandy, we stayed at the magnificent Villa Rosa Guesthouse overlooking the Mahaweli River,

3_Hill 2and visited the famous Royal Botanical Garden to check out the large flying foxes.

3_Hill 3“The world’s most scenic train ride” took us up to the hills of tea plantations.

3_Hill 4In Haputale, we followed Lipton’s footsteps for a half day hike.

3_Hill 5In Ella, we were rewarded with the peaceful and lush green scenery.

4_Beach 1Onwards to Udawalawa where we had close encounters with Asian elephants.

4_Beach 2Reaching the south coast at Mirissa signified the final leg of our journey.

4_Beach 3Mirissa offered us moments of relaxation right by the Indian Ocean.

4_Beach 4The seaside resort town is also renowned as one of the world’s top spot for whale and dolphin watching.

4_Beach 5We enjoyed every moments by the sea at Mirissa and Galle before heading north to Colombo.