Travel Tales: Sri Lanka Family Tour, December 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

I can count on one hand the number of family vacations I’ve been on. For most of my formative years, my family’s financial circumstances and the sixteen hour days, 362 days of the year that my parents worked in the takeaway shop meant that they couldn’t justify taking the time or money to go on holiday.

We took precisely two family holidays between 1991 when we arrived in Australia and 2004 when I turned 18. Once in 1998 when I finished primary school and my parents decided to go back to Hong Kong and Cixi to see our family. And once in 2004 when I finished high school and my parents decided to do the same thing again.

That was the last time I travelled with my whole immediate family.

Since my mother passed away, my father has been travelling more to see our family overseas – partly I think, to escape an empty house. What it does mean is that he’s become more comfortable with the idea of taking time off to travel and see different parts of the world.

Travel is of particular appeal to my father when he can do it with his loved ones. So not just myself, my husband and my brother but our extended family – my aunts, uncles, cousins. And so, before long, our planned family trip to Sri Lanka for my cousin’s wedding turned into a larger and longer family tour around the island in a big tour bus.

Our tour group numbered 23 people in all and included two sets of aunts and uncles, cousins, cousin’s partners, family friends, and our new Sri Lankan relatives. The logistics of travel with a group of that size will always be difficult as you try to cater to everyone’s preferences – which naturally, are very diverse. The difficulties are then amplified when you’re travelling in a country like Sri Lanka where everything runs on ‘island time’ and the travel industry is still very much in its infancy. Add in the fact that the tour guide will try to bend to everyone’s wishes to be polite rather than ruling the tour group with an iron fist as is usually warranted with a group of that size – and it’s a real perfect storm.

It would be fair to say that the first few days were not without their hiccups. Veteran travellers in the group wanted to have more street food and more authentic non-tour-group experiences. Trying to take everyone on that authentic journey is near-impossible when you’re eating at small un-airconditioned stalls that can’t cater adequately for a tour group of our size. On the flip side, the older members of our group really struggled with the oppressive heat and humidity of Sri Lanka, and found it difficult to stay out of air-conditioning for much more than an hour. You can’t see much of the country from air-conditioned hotel rooms and tour buses. Finding that balance between the two opposing dichotomies was an interesting experience.

While the logistical aspects of a big family group tour had its challenges, there were definite highlights to the trip as well. My own personal highlight was a twilight safari tour we did in Kaudulla National Park where we saw herds of elephants by the water, birds in flight, and even a fox feeding on a carcass. Interestingly, one of the herds of elephants was moving around and mingling with a herd of cows that had once been domesticated but had escaped into the national park years ago.

I also enjoyed the time spent on a train to Nuwara Eliya (motion sickness not withstanding) – an old blue train winding its way through lush green forests and jungles, past distant waterfalls and into tea plantation country with curved waves of tea plants lining the hills as far as the eye can see. The time in Nuwara Eliya itself with its beautiful Colonial-era architecture was particularly pleasant with the higher and cooler climate proving to be a nice respite from the humidity elsewhere in Sri Lanka.

I’m a big nerd for cultural and historical facts as well – so I enjoyed visiting temples and the ruins of ancient Sinhalese cities. I would have preferred more of that style of historical tour to be honest, but that kind of learning-based tour wasn’t to everyone’s taste so we cut short visits to some places where I would have liked to spend more time. There’s always next time!

One final highlight – visiting and climbing Sigiriya, the site of a former palace of a dictator Sinhalese king, Kashyapa I of Anuradhapura. It is breathtaking in sheer physical size and you feel a real sense of achievement when you manage to climb all the way to the top of the rock. What I enjoyed though was the history that you could see in every part of the grounds – from the foundations of the ancient water gardens and palaces to the crude wall paintings hidden halfway up the rock. Hearing the details of the story of this dictator king was a real highlight, and helped to bring some of Sri Lanka’s history to life.

Food-wise, after a few missteps with attempting to feed 23 people at streetside stalls, we ended up eating primarily at air-conditioned, hygienic and overpriced restaurants that could cater for large tour groups. While sometimes that meant Sri Lankan curries (some of my go-to favourite options were the stir-fried kang kong and an eggplant dish called Brinjal Moju), other times it meant having a slightly bastardised Western-style meal. Not ideal, but practical…and if I’m being honest, even in those tame tour-friendly restaurants, I found it hard to have a bad meal!

At the end of the day, whatever challenges we faced along the way are the same challenges that you might face with your family under any circumstances – no matter if it’s on holiday or at home. Finding that balance between generational and personal preferences is what family relationships are all about.

I wouldn’t give up the trip for anything. Looking back now, or in five, ten or twenty years time I know that there will be only one thing that comes to my mind – the quality time I got to spend with my extended family. As K and I start to look towards the next stage of our lives and the possibilities of starting our own family, opportunities for being with extended family will begin to fade away. I’m grateful for the time that I had with them – heaven knows I didn’t get to spend enough quality holiday time with my mother before she passed away.

Family Wedding in Galle, Sri Lanka

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this entry.

I thought I had an elaborate year of getting married in 2015, what with our wedding banquet in China, the actual wedding ceremony and a reception. Then my cousin comes along with a registry ceremony, a later ceremony, a reception, and then a full wedding banquet in Galle, Sri Lanka, where his wife is from. Check and mate! 

The wedding banquet is why we went to Sri Lanka in the first place. Myself, K, my father, my brother, two sets of aunts and uncles, my cousin and his wife, another cousin and her boyfriend, an older cousin and his wife, an aunt-in-law, another family friend…I think I’m losing track of everyone! Suffice it to say that we were a large group of Chinese people in Sri Lanka. Ten years ago that would have been a strange sight, but as more and more Chinese tour groups visit Sri Lanka, we were just one of many such groups.

More about the actual Sri Lanka tour in the next blog entry!

We started our stay in Sri Lanka in Galle with a free morning and afternoon to explore Galle Fort – photos of which you can see below. Galle is an absolutely stunning old town and you can see both the Portuguese and Dutch influences in the main buildings of the fort. My cousin’s wife’s surname holds these same Portuguese influences, deriving from the Portuguese surname Alves, or river bed. The history of Galle Fort is etched on every stone and it’s been surprisingly well-preserved – no doubt thanks to the conservation efforts that began not long after the 2004 tsunami which devastated the area.

Outside of the fort, the town is both frenetic and relaxed at the same time – frenetic in the rush of activity around central areas like the bus station where people tried to convince me to step onto buses going to faraway destinations I had no intention of visiting, and relaxed in more residential areas where you can look out of the window and see an overgrown jungle and monkeys in the trees. It’s a strange dichotomy, and one that makes Galle such an interesting place to visit.

The wedding reception was held at the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel, one of the most luxurious hotels in Galle with a fantastic view of ocean from the bar and restaurant. The hotel was designed by the legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and the eye-catching winding staircase sculpture depicts an epic battle between the Portuguese and the Sinhalese. Architecturally, the hotel is a stunner – I just wish we’d had the foresight to book a room at the hotel as it would have been a fantastic place to stay.

The reception wasn’t what I had stereotypically imagined – it certainly wasn’t the three-day long celebrations of colour, music, and dancing that I had expected. There wasn’t a Poruva ceremony as per a traditional Sinhalese wedding, and I was told this was because my cousin and his wife had been officially married in Australia and so they wouldn’t (or couldn’t) perform the ceremony in Galle. What they did do instead was the Homecoming ceremony, with candle-lighting, cake-cutting, Sinhalese folk dancers and musicians and most importantly – food. Lots and lots of food!

We had a great time meeting our new extended family who we can now bewilderingly introduce to people as ‘my cousin’s wife’s cousin’s sister-in-law’s brother”, taking lots of photos, eating lots of food, and then tearing it up on the dance floor. I’m only disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to experience the full Sri Lankan wedding ceremonies and festivities…anyone Sinhalese planning on getting married soon and want to send me an invitation?

Review: Elita Restaurant, Galle, Sri Lanka

On the very first full day of our time in Sri Lanka, it became clear that the humidity was going to be the downfall for many of the members in our family party. While K, my brother, my father and I were able to persevere in the humidity, thanks in large part to our initial stay in Singapore, many of my aunts and uncles wilted in the humidity.

After just an hour of exploring Galle Fort’s walls and the town, many of my aunts and uncles decided to head into the air-conditioned comfort of a restaurant for lunch before heading back to the hotel. My group of four people persevered for a few more hours walking along the fort walls before heading into Elita Restaurant for an early lunch.  

While it’s still located within the fort, Elita is slightly off the beaten track and isn’t on one of the main streets with the other restaurants and cafes. Instead, it’s located in a more residential area. As I mentioned, we were early for lunch, and were in fact the first group to arrive in the restaurant – clearly, midday is too early for lunch in Sri Lanka!

This did mean that we got good service though, as the waiter was able to concentrate on the needs of our table. In ordering freshly-caught fish off the hand-written whiteboard menu, I wasn’t able to decide what type of fish we wanted. Naturally, the waiter brought out both fish – snapper and garupa – out to the table for us to inspect and choose from!

Fresh Steamed Full Fish (Garupa) in Curry Sauce with Garlic Butter Rice, Market Rates (about 1300 LKR)

We ended up choosing the garupa, Fresh Steamed Full Fish in Curry Sauce for the ridiculously low price of about $11 AUD. With those prices, why not eat fresh fish every day?! This curry sauce was quite light and aromatic, which complemented the delicious garupa. The fresh chopped chillies, herbs and spring onion really finished off the fish perfectly. 

Fresh Octopus Salad with Mango Dressing Salad, 2250 LKR

We ordered a Fresh Octopus Salad with Mango Dressing – deliciously marinated octopus served with freshly diced tomato and Spanish onion which gave it that extra lift. The sweet and fruity mango dressing was a winner as well. Is this dish for everyone? No – not everyone is a fan of the texture of octopus. But even my brother who is quite a picky eater was very happy to eat this dish, so I think that says something about how tender the octopus was, and how well the dressing went with it!

Fresh Tuna Steak with Lime Cream Sauce, Fries and Salad, 1750 LKR

The last main we ordered was the Fresh Tuna Steak with Lime Cream Sauce, fries and salad on the side. This wasn’t anything special – not when compared to the garupa. In fact, the tuna was actually a little bit dry, so the lime cream sauce was much needed to make it a bit more palatable. This is definitely not a winning dish, and we would have done better to order another garupa cooked in another sauce. Lesson learned – freshly caught local fish is a better choice!

The steamed fish (first dish) came with Garlic Butter Rice, and they put some Stir-fried Kangkong on top for us as well. The rich buttery rice helped to fill the corners of our stomachs and I was able to kid myself into thinking that it was vaguely healthy because of the greens on top…wishful thinking!

Elita Restaurant was a great find in the seaside town of Galle in Sri Lanka. It’s just far enough from the touristy centre that only those truly dedicated to great food will make the effort to find it, but close enough that it’s not a hassle to get there.

The food is cooked well and while definitely Sri Lankan in nature, has a slight East Asian or European touch which may come from the years spent training in Europe by the head chef. A great place to visit for those who find street food challenging, but don’t want to eat at tourist traps either. Fresh seafood at a reasonable price (just skip the tuna) – you can’t beat it.

Elita Restaurant is located at 34 Middle Street in Galle, Sri Lanka.