Ron Slee of Flinders University & Adelaide, …… with highlighting imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi and some End Notes added
My interest in visiting Sri Lanka has been building for decades, generated by my friendship with two Sri Lankan nationals with whom I play tennis, Michael Roberts and Justin La Brooy. Justin had written me a very helpful short history of the country and added his recommendations of where to see wildlife and scenic beauty and Michael had sent hundreds of photos and personal stories that helped me plan my visit.
Unexpectedly this year, I was able to spend 11 memorable days in their country of origin, including two days visiting Galle Fort where Michael had grown up in the 1940s and 50s.
Not only was I keen to see where he’d lived and grown up, but Galle Fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We hired a driver to take us the 120 kms from Colombo (15k rupees for the 2 hrs 15 min drive seemed reasonable) to see what is called the best-preserved colonial town in Sri Lanka. Its history as a fortress dates from 1589 when the Portuguese invaded and built a fort overlooking the harbour. When they were chased out in 1640 by the Dutch, major fortifications including ramparts and surrounding walls were constructed during a 156=year occupation to enclose and protect the peninsula from enemy cannonballs. When the British took over, these walls were retained and did a sterling job keeping the 2004 tsunami at bay (puns intended!).
the area in front of the Galle fort in the 1880s or thereabouts
The Fort is now home to boutique shops and hotels created from historic Dutch and British villas, churches and mansions. Indeed, its history has been well preserved and although it was humid meandering through the narrow colonial streets. I recommend scheduling walks for early morning and evening, making use of your hotel pool to cope with the middle of the day. We stayed at the Galle Fort Hotel, enjoying its colonial grace and charm for considerably less cost than the fashionably genteel Amangalla Hotel a little further along Church Street. Of course, we popped into the Amangalla to compare its atmosphere and to confirm that Leonard Woolf had, indeed, left the building!
Amangalla Hotel previously known as the “New Oriental hotel
The beach at the Girls’ Bathing Place, 2020
Ambling along the hot and shade-less ramparts was a test of our fitness, but the Fort’s entire perimeter is only 3 kms so we were never far from a refreshing lager on a hotel verandah – and from where we could sit and contemplate in which house in Middle Street Michael Roberts had lived, at what age he started drinking tea, tasting cinnamon. We located the Library and the Barefoot Bookshop (unfortunately both were closed) but we wondered at which school he had learnt to read and write. We kept thinking of a young boy diving and swimming at Flag Rock, running laps of the ramparts, playing cricket on one of the ovals. I didn’t see a tennis court, but felt sure we were near where he practised with his first racquet.
The fascinating history of the Fort is on every corner of every street – Church, Lighthouse, Leyn Baan, Hospital, Pedlar, Middle, Queen’s, Rampart, Custom Road [names of streets]. Open to visitors was the oldest Protestant place of worship in Sri Lanka, the Dutch Reformed Church (now Methodist) with its garden of tombstones. Also, the All Saints Anglican Church and the Mosque.
We spent so many hours in the Maritime Museum we left insufficient time for the National Museum and the Historical Mansion Museum.
Our visit to Galle Fort occupied the middle weekend of my wife’s short work contract in Sri Lanka. The rest of the time we spent in Colombo, based at the Galle Face Hotel.
The Galle Face Hotel dates from 1864, “before Lincoln, Pasteur and Marx” (the plaque at its pool eccentrically noted, adding that it’s older than many other famous hotels including the Raffles in Singapore, and that it opened “before the USA purchased Alaska from Russia”).
The hotel proudly promotes itself as a resort, the pool being a conspicuous element. I took advantage of this, indulging almost every day. My routine became a leisurely 3-course buffet breakfast (local fruits – usually papaya and pineapple – followed by a hopper (pancake made of rice-flour, coconut and yeast topped with dahl, seeni sambal – a spicy sweet onion sauce – and a fried egg), followed by crusty bread with ham and cheese (my nod to the Dutch influence) – all washed down with mango juice, coffee and finally a cup of tea. This morning daily banquet was more than enough to tide me over until dinner.
Typically, after breakfast, I would return to our room, collect my bathers and book and repair to the pool which attracted a mix of beached whales, strutters and those of us somewhere along that continuum.*** I would read poolside with an occasional lap between chapters making sure I was back in the room for a rest before dinner!
I varied this daily routine with tuk-tuk excursions or a browse through the Hotel Museum or watching the 5th Ashes Test, conveniently televised live from 3.30pm local time.
I took 3 separate tuk-tuk tours to various sites in Pettah, the old market area of Colombo, each lasting between 3 and 4 hours. The drivers were experienced guides and showed me through the Buddhist Gangaramaya Temple, the oldest and largest Hindu Temple (Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovi), the Red Mosque, shrines (including St Anthony’s Catholic Church where a suicide bomber’s blast killed 93 people on Easter Sunday in 2019), tea stores, spice shops, produce markets and museums including the Independence Commemoration Hall housing their history of political struggles against colonial rule. The National Museum had less focus on political history, more on anthropology, religion, agriculture, migration, and the development of art and crafts, especially fabrics. It was poorly lit in some rooms, but its imposing Victorian exterior is well worth seeing as are its collections of Buddhist statues, kitchen utensils and antique puppets.
I learnt so much from my drivers as we rode and walked around listening to them talk about historic religious, economic and political conflicts, as well as current dilemmas faced by Sri Lanka as it suffers an exodus to other countries of many of its young people and as it becomes over-dependent on foreign investment and loans to save the country from bankruptcy. We got helpful advice from an Australian diplomat about how much we should expect to pay tuk-tuk drivers – for me, this advice came too late, after I’d already been on two quite expensive tours. 10k rupees an hour was too much, I was firmly told!
The Galle Face Museum within the hotel is fascinating, mostly pictures of and autographed messages from famous guests, old newspaper stories about the hotel as well as some odd artefacts. Famous guests included Ernesto Che Guevara who stayed there in 1959 just 6 years before being killed in Bolivia, Jawaharlal Nehru (’51), Indira Gandhi, Richard Nixon, Clement Attlee (‘40s), Pope John Paul 11 (’95), Yuri Gagarin (in 1961, the year he flew to outer space), Anton Chekhov (1890), Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Don Bradman (’48), Garfield Sobers (’80), Vivien Leigh, Ursula Andress, Scarlett Johansson and Sting. Plus, many tennis players (mostly Australian) and other cricketers.
My offer to add a signed endorsement of our stay in the hotel was politely declined.
A Museum centrepiece is the first car owned by Prince Phillip of Greece (as he was when he went to Colombo to work with Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1940). A 1935 Standard Nine for which he paid 12 Pounds, it’s so tiny I don’t know how he squeezed into it.
This nod to British colonialism was more than matched by the daily presence during breakfast of a staff member dressed in light-tan knee-length shorts and jacket, a peaked cap and carrying a slingshot. His job was to stop beach gulls flying into the open-air dining veranda to steal food. Each morning he patrolled the lawn between us and the beach while his colleague swept the lawn clean of any stray leaf from nearby palms. Inside, the food staff wore braces over starched white shirts to hold up sharply creased black trousers while the manager in the lobby dressed as if he was going to Royal Ascot. Of course, there is one ubiquitous reminder that some things have changed – they all carry a mobile phone, even the slingshot man!
Evening meals at the hotel were delicious, especially the local, Indian and Cuban cuisines. The local staple (fish curry and rice) became my preferred dish and after I made an early discovery that a Guinness stout costs half as much as a Corona beer, my preferred beverage became Tiger Beer with Guinness chasers. Taxes make such a difference to the cost of booze.
An important piece of local knowledge I failed to identify early was that every full moon (Poya) is marked with a public holiday and throughout that day no alcohol can be purchased. Except, we discovered, with room service – one way around the obstacle.
We ventured onto the adjacent Galle Face Green to walk amongst the dozens of kite hawkers and food trucks that gather there each evening. The cool night breeze coming off the sea was so refreshing. We spent a memorable evening with Guttila (‘Jay’) Jayatilaka (formerly of the University of Adelaide, Monash University and the University of Sydney) who took us to dinner at the Cinnamon Grand, a short walk from our hotel. Their smorgasbord offered a magnificent range of delicious local cuisines – it was impossible to not overindulge!
Most nights, however, we ate at one of our hotel’s beach-side cafes dressed in summer attire watching the sun set and contemplating our good fortune to be avoiding a cold Adelaide winter.
Sadly, due to work commitments in Colombo we were not able to see Justin La Brooy’s recommendations for wildlife and scenic beauty in the cooler inland parts of the island. As Justin told me before I left “a trip of less than 2 weeks will inevitably leave you short-changed”. I hope to return and rectify that.
I’ll finish this little story of my first visit to Sri Lanka by recommending two books I read while lazing next to the Galle Face Hotel pool.
I took Victoria Glendinning’s biography of Leonard Woolf with me because after graduating from Cambridge, Woolf spent seven years employed by the Colonial Service in Ceylon (1904-11) and returned in 1960 for a brief visit when he was 80 years old. I didn’t get to visit the areas where he worked (Kandy and Hambantota Districts) and that’s one reason I’d like to go back to Sri Lanka – another is to see the state-run elephant orphanage at Pinnawela. My interest in Woolf is partly because my tennis comrade Michael Roberts had interviewed Leonard in 1965 about his time in Sri Lanka and given me the transcript.
The second book, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is a novel set in India in the mid-1970s. It’s been on my list since it won the 1996 Commonwealth Writers Prize (and was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker) and while visiting South Asia seemed a good time and place to read it.
END NOTES added by Michael Roberts
 Courtesy of his partner Joanna’s work assignments in Sri Lanka,
 No one dived off Flag Rock then. But we certainly enjoyed the waters and the reef at what was known as the “Girls Bathing Place” about 100 yards away on the western wall where steps enable easy access.
 There were three ‘groups’ of tennis courts as one entered the Fort through its central gate: one ‘set’ of three belonging to the Galle Gymkhana Club immediately on the left; another two further to the left and two courts belonging to the Public Services on the immediate right. The Galle Gymkhana Club also had a well-appointed bar with space for two billiard tables and card playing tables, etc, etc. The decline of this club and disappearance of any traces of its imposing presence calls for an essay recording the tale and pondering over the socio-political implications of this set of events.
 Readers who wish to access the Leonard Woolf Interview on tape from the ROHP Collection can reach it via (A) the Barr Smith Library Adelaide University … or …. (B) The National Library Services Board off Torrington Road, Colombo 7. Both locations contain the whole stock of recorded interviews gathered by Michael Roberts in the period 1965 to 1969 in England and Ceylon when he was a Lecturer at Peradeniya University (with financial aid provided by the Asia Foundation and the wholesome encouragement of Professor KW Goonewardena and JFK Labrooy of the History Department at Peradeniya Campus.
…. in Sri Lanka inquiries should be addressed to Mr Welimuni Sunil ……………. email@example.com