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Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Perfect Cup

I've mentioned it before. At ICTA we get a cup of tea twice daily at 9:00 and 3:00. Its the Sri Lankan way, and I suspect it happens in every office here. The tea we get here is brewed and delivered daily by our office butler, Sampath. Sampath has the secret of how to make the perfect cup of tea. No offense mom or anyone else, but this is the best chai I've ever had. Sampath's daily tea might be what I miss most about Sri Lanka when I leave.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Getting Cultured at the Last Minute

My last week in Sri Lanka began on Sunday just as my first day did, with a stroll up along Galle Face Green. It was hot as nuts outside, probably the hottest day I've experienced in Sri Lanka. I didn't have much purpose on Sunday, just really to wander around town one last time. Renuka and I went up to see the Colombo lighthouse but its at a Navy base that's heavily guarded so I couldn't get a picture.

In the evening since I had nothing else to do I went to the Barefoot Gallery with Ren to catch a jazz concert featuring Glen Terry, who from what I gather is a locally-loved jazz musician who plays at Barefoot often. The concert was fun and lively though the music wasn't so original, mostly covers. The crowd at Barefoot is definitley upscale with lots of internationals and expats. I met Errol and Jackie, two of the most "in" people in Colombo who Renuka met the night before when hanging out with Arati and Roy.

The next day the three musketeers caught a production at the Loinel Wendt theater, Colombo's main performance stage. The show was called "Uh-Merr-Aka" or something like that. It was basically a satire on the history of the United States. Of course it was an opportunity to take cheap shots at the US, which everyone loves to do, but keeping that in mind the show was laugh-out-loud funny and definitely entertaining. Sorry no pics of the theatre outing.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Last Sunday night Renuka and I went over to Arati & Roy's house in Colombo. Arati is Renuka's former manager's sister-in-law who Renuka got in touch with when she got to Colombo. I've been over to their place once before when they invited us for dinner, which was fantastic by the way, and this time we were having a "potluck" which really meant Renuka and Arati cooking. Arati and Roy are awesome, really nice couple from Bangalore who are in Sri Lanka partially work and partially because they wanted to get away for a bit. They have a cute, well decorated house - both studied art/graphic design in Bangalore so its not surprising. Their place is basically like a lounge, and I enjoy simply hanging out somewhere besides a bar or the hotel, and talking to other people. I lucked out to meet them and hopefully someday they can come over to the US and hang out at my place. Dinner was fabulous and we had a good time just shootin the breeze, playing with their temporary pet kitten who loves clawing my shirt, and looking at wedding pictures.

Tonight (Thursday) we're meeting up with them again to hit up Han Gook Gwan, a local Korean restaurant that was recommended to Roy. Its been a while since I've had Korean so I'm looking forward to it. Also, the USA is playing Ghana and trying to sneak into the round of 16 of the world cup, which would eclipse the last world cup's ultimate backdoor play.

Update: Korean food at Haesong was quite good. The Kimchi was ridiculously spicy, but otherwise it was great. Unfortunately, the U.S. couldn't outmatch the Ghanans so their run is done in this year's World Cup. I'll be pulling for the Socceroos from here on out.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Bizarre Night

Last Friday night was wierd. It started innocently at the Gall Face Inn hotel bar, where Renuka and I went to catch the Netherlands-Cote D'Ivoire match on their big screen. It was around 10:30pm when we were hanging out at the bar drinking coffee and watching Ruud Van Nistelrooy put the Dutch ahead 2-0. At halftime I got a text from Rajitha saying that she just got an email from Accenture Global Asset Protection ordering us to move out of our hotel, Global Towers, immediately and move into the Holiday Inn Colombo or the Taj Samudra. The reason for the sudden move was that GAP had received reports (from where I'm not sure) that Global Towers may have some sort of connection to the LTTE. Rajitha called Shri, out friendly travel agent at GT, to let him know the situation and that we'd be out by the next day. GAP did mention in their email that they were being overly cautious about the whole thing, and though it was just one report they received they didn't want to take chances with us.

Given this news, Renuka and I took off in a tuk-tuk and headed off to Global Towers to pack up. On the way down Galle Road, we were stopped by a police officer at a checkpoint. Since the bus bombing earlier in the week security has been beefed up all around Colombo so such a stop wasn't out of the ordinary. The officer asked for ID as usual, but when I produced my Virginia driver's license (like I usually do - photo ID) the officer began hassling me about not having my passport. I told him calmly that if he wanted to see my passport we could go to the hotel. He said I need a visa to be in Sri Lanka. I responded by saying that was checked at the airport upon arrival. We sorta sat there for 10 minutes as the officer, in broken English, tried to threaten to arrest us. At one point he said something like "You arrest me no visa." That would've been sweet if I actually did arrest him. Anyway, the tuk-tuk driver did help out and told him we're just tourists from the USA and eventually he let us go, bitter about not receiving a bribe I'm sure.

The whole sequence was bizarre given the fact that we just got orders to move out, and this was the first time anyone hassled me for my passport. Henceforth though I'll be carrying a copy of my passport and visa around Sri Lanka.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Eating in Sri Lanka

Okay so I'm sure I've complained about the Sri Lankan cuisine, or at least the lack of diversity in day-to-day meals (read: Rice & Curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner). But I don't want to shortchange Sri Lanka completely, there are in fact some good places to eat here in Colombo. Some of my favorites have been:

The Cricket Club Cafe - This is my favorite place in Colombo to grab a pint and a bite to eat. Located not far from Global towers - off Duplication and Queen's road - the Cricket Club Cafe is a cozy, down to earth English pub themed with an abundance of cricket memoribilia. The food is quite good too, I recommend the Border Burger. The pot pies look quite tasty, I haven't had one yet but I plan to do so before leaving. CCC is a must visit in Colombo.

Mango Tree - Rajitha's aunty was kind enough to take the three of out to Mango Tree, a trendy restaurant/lounge/bar in the heart of Colpetty in Colombo. Mango tree is a TRUE Indian restaurant that actually has a balance of flavor and spice in its food, something difficult to find in Sri Lanka. There are a number of decent south Indian restaurants here such as Shanmagus and Shanti Vihar, but Mango Tree offers a wide array of Indian dishes from all over the country including tandoor items, biryanis, vegetable curries and south Indian fare. We ordered a selection including bindi saag (okra curry), tandoor chicken, jasmine rice, raitha (yogurt), bengan bharta (eggplant), and assorted naan (flat bread). The food was absolutely fabulous - better than Minerva or any other Indian restaurant in the US. I even had an authentic rose lassi to go along with the meal. To top it off, the prices are extremely reasonable, around 300 ($3) for a HUGE portion. We were thoroughly stuffed after the meal with plenty to take home, and an experience guaranteed to bring us back.
UPDATE: Renuka and I headed back to Mango Tree for lunch on Friday. This time I tried one of their specials - a mutton sizzler (sizzling hot goat curry). Ridiculous. I don't eat much mutton but Renuka confirmed that it was the best she has ever had, and she's had plenty of helpings in the past. It was actually our lunch at the Palmiryah that prompted me to order the mutton again here, and I was glad I did. Since mutton isn't quite so previlant in the States, its a treat to try it in a place where they know how to prepare it.

Paradise Road Cafe - Rajitha, Renuka and I skipped over to Paradise Road Cafe a couple weeks ago during lunch. Like Barefoot, Paradise Road is an upscale houseware/handicraft shop that has a cafe to boot. Its a nice place to grab a sandwich and hang out in the breeze on the rooftop patio.

Bay Leaf - We went to bay leaf way back in April. It's located on Gregory Lane where the old La Palace recstaurant used to be - in an old palace. That part of town, Cinnamon Gardens (a.k.a Colombo 7) has the best neighbrohood in Colombo with several nice places to eat and shop. I had an impressive mushroom ravioli at Bay Leaf, and though we didn't have time to hit the bar it looked like a decent place. Harpo, the owner, was warm and welcoming, and I'd like to go back to Bay Leaf before leaving Sri Lanka. Also, the prices are vewy reasonable.

Gallery Cafe
- Gallery Cafe is one of Colombo's best restaurants - innovatively set in Geoffrey Bawa's old office that's now an art gallery. The menu offers a nice blend of local and western food, and the atmosphere is one that will attract you to stick around for hours while dining. Actually, the more I think about it the more I want to go there tomorrow for dinner. Its located right across from the Cricket Club Cafe on Queen's Road. The food is quite good, though when Renuka and I went there I felt hurried for some reason so I don't remember taking the time to truly enjoy the experience. I do remember I had a very good grilled chicken breast dish. I'll go back this week though.

Barefoot Cafe - Barefoot might be the most well-known store and cafe in Colombo. Right on Galle Road, Barefoot is a store filled with colorful hand-crafted goods and fabrics. Its tough to explain, but Barefoot just has an artsy, earthy, natural vibe to it. On Sundays they host live jazz all afternoon in the cafe, so Ren and I made the trip one Sunday afternoon in May. We got there a bit early and missed out on the lunch special menu (they must have still been chalking it up) so I just had a decent sandwich, however I had a ridiculously good milkshake along with it. The rest of the clientele seemed to be visitors, foreign expats, and Colombo's bourgiouse. It was a relaxed yet lively atmosphere and we were able to easily pass a couple hours there hanging out, enjoying the food, music and weather. Rumor has it that Barefoot offers free WiFi on weekdays as well. I have been back to Barefoot to do some shopping - anyone in Sri Lanka MUST go there at least once - and I'd like to have one more meal before taking off. Maybe I'll get a chance to order the special this time.

Palmiryah @ Hotel Renuka - Hotel Renuka, there was never a question of if we'd have a meal here. As it turns out, the Palmiryah restaurant at Hotel Renuka serves some of the best Sri Lankan food around. Rajitha's mom treated us to Sunday lunch here, and we had a fantastic meal. We had pittu (steamed rice flour cakes), vasai (minced prawns and coconut) and mutton ?? ?(curried mutton). Most of our dishes were actually from the Jaffna region, which is known for its tasty cuisine. I also learned about the Palmiryah tree, similar to the palm though the minor differences make it unique to Sri Lanka. We had a great time hearing from Rajitha's mother about some of the 'good old days' when Rajitha was younger, and enoyed a great meal as well. Hotel Renuka and the Palmiryah are right on Galle road near Colpetty.

German Restaurant - Renuka and I hit up German Restaurant on Galle, right across from the Inn at the Green, for a quick Friday night meal. We were curious to find out what's inside this seemingly out of place restaurant. The interior is well decorated in a traditional German theme (not sure what it's called but there's that feel of wooden houses and german guys dancing around in funny hats and knickers). The beer menu is extensive - I got me a Caffrey's Irish Draugh, something I haven't had in years. For dinner we split a plate of, you guessed it, bratwurst. Frankly the brat was only decent, though the sauerkraut was good. I may try to go back to GR to try a scnhitzel but German food is so heavy and filling that I'll have to be in the right mmod for it.

Beach Wadiya - not much to say here except the best seafood restaurant in Colombo, and possibly one of the best in the world. Its a beach hut - nearly wiped away by the tsunami in 2004 - that simply serves great seafood. I wrote about Wadiya in an earlier blog. Its located in Wellawatte right across from Global Towers, and everyone in Colombo knows it. I've been there 3 times and it never fails to dissapoint. If you are in Colombo for one night, this is the place to go hands down. Get the baked crab. Ask for Banda, his gleeful charm enhances the experience infinitely.

The Inn on the Green - This place is more a bar, but the half roast chicken might be my favorite go-to dish in Colombo. Somehow this English pub hits a homer - or a sixer - on the roast chicken. Tetley's, Carlsberg, and Lion are all on tap as well, so a pint of freshly poured beer compliments this dish quite well. Since we're now staying across the street from the Inn on the Green I should have a chance to head back to sample something else, perhaps the Bangers and Mash or Chip Butty. Bonus at Inn on the Green: Darts and WiFi.

Some other places that are worth a mention
  • Shanmugas - nice, solid Indian Vegetarian
  • Wafflers Belgian Waffle Cafe - best waffles in Sri Lanka
  • World Trade Center Deli Market - a Marche-type place with lots of selections for a nice lunch
  • Barista Coffee - India's version of Starbuck's available in Colombo

Saturday, June 10, 2006

World Cup!

I've been counting down the days here in Colombo until the beginning of the World Cup. Friday was a tough day at work due to the anticipation, but finally the tournament kicked off at 9:30pm local time. Me and my roommates went to the Cheers Pub to catch the Germany-Costa Rica opening match.

Something strange about pubs in Sri Lanka is that they take reservations for all tables, including the little barstool tables in the bar. It was a bit of a debacle because we got to Cheers a good 2 hours before the match, and there were plenty of open tables, but the bar manager said they were all reserved. Before long there was an overwhelming amount of people in the bar and I think they had to abandon their reservation policy, which was good for us since we were already parked at a table.

If you didn't see the opening match you missed an entertaining one. The bar was generally rooting for the underdogs - though there were a good number of Germans at Cheers. I happened to have my Costa Rica jersey with me here in Sri Lanka, and I think I truly could have been the only person in the entire country sporting that replica last night.

We have plans for tonight's England game and the upcoming USA-Czech match on Monday. The next month is gonna be sweet...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Beach Bummin' on the West Coast

Still a couple weeks behind on the blog, work has been really busy, but bear with me. We went down to Galle 2 weekends ago for some fun in the sun. Galle is one of the larger cities in Sri Lanka, and the largest southern coastal city. It is known primarily for the Dutch Fort as the main landmark, along with the nearby beach towns and watersports that go along. Rajitha, Renuka and I decided to be adventureous and take the train down to Galle from Colombo on Saturday morning, find a guesthouse to stay for a night, and head back on Sunday afternoon.
Our orignial plan was to take the 9:00am train from Colombo-Fort station to Galle. However, the night before Renuka and I met Anand and Anjali from New Delhi, fellow guests at Global Towers, who told us when they planned to take the 9:00 Saturday train from Fort it actually departed early(!), at 8:30. So we texted Rajitha and told her to meet us early at Fort on Saturday morning. As it turned out, the train left on schedule, but being the beginning of school holidays and government employees receiving 2nd class train vouchers, we ended up on a packed train for the 3 hour ride down to Galle. Bad news as we had to stand, by the bathroom no less, the entire way. But really, outside the fact we had to stand, the train ride wasn't too bad. It basically stopped in each town along the way, but it ran on time and we got to Galle before noon as expected. We also lucked out by ending up next to a guy who worked in the Galle tourist information center, so during the ride we chatted it up with him and when we got to Galle he helped us with a map and suggested things to see in Galle, and set us up with a tuk-tuk.

Once in Galle we first had lunch - string hoppers kindly prepared by Rajitha's family for our trip. We then headed off to visit the Dutch Fort, which was basically a regular old fort similar to the San Juan fort but not quite as impressive. Within the fort walls there's an Aman hotel, the Galle Fort Hotel. Aman hotels are among the most expensive in the world with prices here ranging from $450-$800 per night. We got a tour of the spa amenities, and though it was very nice, I don't see how anyone could justify spending that much to stay at that place. Anyhow, after the fort we headed down toward Unawatuna, a beach town that many people and books recommended as the best in the area. Along the way we stopped at the Carlsberger hotel for afternoon tea, which was quite pleaseant as it offered a nice secluded view of the harbor below. A lot of these fancy hotels in Sri Lanka are built in old colonial estates and mansions, which make for a nice level of ambience.
After tea we continued on towards Unawatuna. The southern coast of Sri Lanka is relatively unscathed, typically lined with the standard grocery stores and guesthouses. The road is close enough to the ocean to catch the salty sea whiff, and the roads - at least while we were there - are not congested. The sights that did jump out at me were the spots that mark remains of the tsunami's destruction. You'll see a row of houses/shacks interrupted with an open lot which only contains a floor still in the ground, but the house's walls and everything else was swept away. Basically you see a tile kitchen floor out in the open - somewhat unnerving. Its interesting, the locals talk quite openly about the tsunami and how certain buildings and landmarks were swallowed, just like that.
Along the way we stopped at a sea turtle hatchery, and later on to take pics of stilt fishermen. The hatchery was really cool, basically a group of people have started this conservatory to protect sea turtles. They seek out turtle egg poachers that are illegally taking sea turtle eggs, and buy the eggs off of them. At the hatchery, they bury the eggs and 65 days later a baby turtle emerges from the sand. They raise the turtles in little tanks for a few weeks before they take them out to release them into the sea. A couple facts about sea turtles include (1) the gender of a sea turtle depends on the tide and temperature of the water, and (2) sea turtles always come back to their place of birth to lay eggs. The hatchery also had a few older sea turtles including a guy over 60 years old! It was a neat experience to see these little creatures up close and personal.
The fishermen on stilts was a scam, they wanted us to pay them to get up on the stilts so we could take pics. Instead we kept on driving and found some fishermen actually fishing, so we got a couple pics. Nothing special.
When we got to Unawatuna we first stopped by Shanti Guest House as recommended by the tourism guy, and at 2200Rs a night for a triple it was good enough for us. We parked and recharged for a little while before heading to dinner. We went next door to a nicer guesthouse for dinner, which turned out to be a seafood feast. I was surprisingly impressed by my devilled prawns, and of course a Lion Lager to wash them down. Unfortunately I also got eaten alive by the mosquitos, but all in all it was a very satistfying dinner. After chowing down we didn't do much, just chat a bit before hitting the sack for the night.
I woke up fairly early on Sunday, and spent the morning down at the beach. We had some morning coffee at the guesthouse, though quickly left after we were taken over by an army of crows. We then headed over a bit to have some breakfast at a beach hut, after which Rajitha left Galle because she had plans in the afternoon with her family. Behind our guesthouse was a 'lagoon' type area where the water is calm and warm, basically there's a reef about 30 yards out where the waves break so the rough waters dont make it to shore. The water was very clear and clean, though I stepped on a shell which lodged a bit into my toe and hurt bad. We basically just chilled out all morning at the beach. Renuka and I just hung out at the beach for the rest of the morning. As we were leaving, I had a brilliant idea to climb on some beach boulders to get a nice view. The climbing part was fine, both Ren and I make it up, but my dumb ass tried to jump down and I ended up scraping up my shin pretty good, resulting in me racing over to the guesthouse for some antiseptic and band-aids. Disaster.
After my fall we decided it was time to leave, so we took a tuk-tuk back to Galle and planned to visit the tourist information center for info about getting on a train, but unfortunately they were out to lunch. Instead we walked over to the bus depot and managed to talk to some guy there who assured us we could get on the next bus to Colombo. The buses in Sri Lanka actually aren't too bad, thankfully they limit the number of passengers (most people had a seat) and types of passengers (humans only). So for 3 hours we were crusining along the coast of Sri Lanka, 'stopping' at every town along the way for people to jump off and on. At the end of the ride we were fortunate to get dropped off right back at Wellawatta rather than having to go up to Colombo Fort, capping off an adventerous and interesting Sri Lanka travel experince.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Last Day in Bangkok....

...and we weren't about to let it go to waste. The highlight of the Bangkok trip had to be Sunday morning at the Baipai Cooking School. Thanks to Wikitravel I found the Baipai and we scheduled to join their Sunday morning class, which included a set menu of 4 traditional Thai dishes. The school was reviewed to be very fun and friendly, and was not as uppity and expensive as the traditional schools. They picked us up at 9:00am from the OBI (where we had breakfast and a good chat with Joey, the proprieters son who happened to study at Hopkins), and along the way we picked up a few classmates - a middle aged couple from Singapore and two guys visiting from Germany.

The Baipai is set in a nice residential area of Bangkok in an open-air 2 story house. The ground floor contains a shop and eating area, while the upper floor is where the classes take place. The class size it typically 8 people so there is space for each student to have his own cooking area. There's also a demonstration area where the teacher first explains and demonstrates the dish. Their teaching style works very well, there's a traditional Thai person who does the cooking while another person is there for explanation and answering questions. And just like Emeril, there's even an overhead mirror above the teacher's area to get a great birds-eye view of what's going on. I have tons of pictures from the cooking school and the rest of the Bangkok trip on my SmugMug site.

Our menu consisted of:
  • Lemongrass Tea (instructor made it)
  • Golden Treasures
  • Hot and Sour Soup
  • Panang Chicken Curry
  • Pork Fried Rice

I have the Thai names of the dishes in my take-home cookbook, which is with Nima in Singapore at the moment.

We got started with some basics, like cutting and carving with a knife. Our assignment was to carve a half lime into a flower-like decoration to be served with one of our dishes - no problem. We then moved on to the Golden Treasures, which is basically minced pork and some flavors like spring onions, fish sauce, and garlic, mixed together, wrapped in spring roll wrappers, and deep fried. The end product looks like little money bags - hence the name golden treasures. I don't use pork much and I don't deep fry much, so this particular appetizer was a new type of dish for me. The instructor was quite helpful here with letting us know what to buy at the grocery stores back home and what substitutions can be made (basically any meat or tofu can be substituted for this). Before long, my first Thai cooking school dish was complete.

Next up was the Tom Yam Goong - Hot and Sour Shrimp soup, a Thai favorite. Again, I don't do many soups so this was fairly new to me. I learned a couple things on this dish, like you don't have to pre-cook shrimp when tossing them in the soup, and that with lemongrass stalks you must crack the stalk first to get the flavor out. We also used a new ingredient - galang root - which is basically a very mild ginger-type root. I know I've tasted it before but never knew what it was until now.

After eating soup and chatting it up with the rest of the class (the two guys from Germany were a trip, one of them was actually American living in Germany, and both were quite fruity. They certainly made for good chatter while eating our delights. Guys at cooking school are....oh wait, nevermind.)

Next up was the Panang Chicken, something I was looking forward to since its a favorite dish of mine. Its actually surprisingly easy, basic ingredients are chicken, coconut milk, and red curry paste. The trick for this dish is to heat up the coconut milk in the wok but not too hot, just before boiling, and then add the curry flavoring and mix it up, while reducing the heat. I completely botched things because I let it get too hot, and when that happens the coconut oil separates from the milk and you get this pathetic looking mess of a curry. Still, I salvaged the dish and it did taste pretty good. Nima, on the other hand, made an absoutely perfect dish and I couldn't help but eat half of hers. She was even sweet enough to tell me mine was good :)

Last on the menu was the pork fried rice, which not surprisingly was pretty easy. Though here we used some more ingredients I normally don't use, and we had practice chopping and slicing. Two very important tricks I learned here about fried rice: (1) you want to chill your cooked rice in the fridge rather than use hot rice when you throw it into the wok. Chilled rice doesn't turn to mush. And (2), When frying an egg in the wok, push all the rice and veggies to one side, make room for the egg directly on the pan, fry it, push the rice on top, and flip everything. Not sure if it makes sense here, but it worked well when cooking.

We finished up around 1:00 with full stomachs and some newly acquired culinary skills. Our time was running out in BKK, so we stopped by MBK one last time to pick up some cheap DVDs, and then headed back to OBI to check out before making our way to the airport. All in all it was a wonderful long weekend in Bangkok and I highly recommend anyone considering visitng.