Okay, so I found Galle to be immensely boring. In my eyes, the UNESCO Heritage Site fortified city’s sterile environment lacked a certain gritty Sri Lankan charm and its much-photographed lanes resembled a high-end shopping area. No amount of walking around its lanes could get me excited about Galle and the sunset from the Dutch Fort was forgettable. The cafes and restaurants of Galle seemed to have been made to cater solely to the foreign tourists and I missed rubbing shoulders with the friendly common people of Sri Lanka. The people of Sri Lanka are its real highlight and when you take that factor away, you somehow kill the soul of a destination on this island nation. Needless to say, I was extremely bored and it was one place in Sri Lanka that I felt desperate to leave.
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The touristy town of Galle
However, the Galle Fort Hostel where I stayed was one of the cheapest places I had during the entire trip and I did not mind saving up some money there. So I stayed in Galle for nearly five days and for the first two days, I did all the touristy things that are there to be done in Galle. After that, to compensate for the blandness of the destination, I started taking tuk-tuk rides further and further away from the touristy city and discovered some interesting activities to do around Galle. My first discovery was the moonstone mine in the neighbouring town of Ambalangoda. Just an hour’s drive from Galle, Ambalangoda had a host of activities to offer and most of these would attract a curious, offbeat traveler.
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The lure of gemstones in Sri Lanka
My first discovery was the moonstone mine at Ambalangoda and I happened to go there by chance. Now, despite my gypsy-like existence, I have a huge appetite for finer things in life and exquisite jewellery and handmade textiles are some of my pet passions. I have a huge treasure box of fine jewellery and gemstones that are partly inherited and partly collected from many different places around the world. Sri Lanka is a gemstone lovers’ destination and for many years, I have been lusting after a genuine moonstone necklace. That is why when by chance I came to know about the moonstone mines in Ambalangoda, I simply decided to visit the site myself.
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Moonstone mining near Galle
Sri Lanka produces the maximum amount of blue moonstones in the world and most of them are in and around Ambalangoda. In fact, that area sits right atop the fattest pegmatite vein of moonstone and gem mining has been done here since the 18th century. The term moonstone was coined by the ancient Greeks to describe this lovely feldspar gemstone that seems to glow with the ethereal light of the moon in solid form. Moonstones are the most valuable of the feldspars and the genuine Sri Lankan blue moonstones can cost a good amount of money. The mining conditions, however, belies the value of this stone and the first sight of a moonstone mine can be quite a shock. At the mining site, there no signs of any equipment, guiding signboards, or safety measures that mark the 21st century. Only a pair of muddy rabbit holes work as twin shafts and an old grizzled man washes baskets of unpolished moonstones in the sun. A motor trundles nearby pumping out the groundwater from one of the shafts, while in the other a miner works in medieval conditions at a depth of more than 10-20m in the underbelly of the earth. The process of moonstone mining is very fascinating and the on-site shop sells excellent certified jewellery. Though, I am not sure of how much of the sale proceed goes to the miner working in the most rudimentary conditions to procure the gem, visiting the moonstone mine in Ambalangoda was a fascinating experience.
The mask-making center near Galle
My next Galle day trip also took me to Ambalangoda and this time I went by train. My aim was to see Sri Lanka’s famous devil dancing with my own eyes and perhaps visit a mask-making factory or two. Sri Lanka has inherited the traditions of mask making and devil dancing from the Malabar coast cities of Kerala in India and genuine devil dances meant for exorcising spirits causing illness, still occur irregularly in the villages around Ambalangoda. These dances along with some of Sri Lanka’s most popular folk dances require masks and these are produced by a few families residing in Ambalangoda, Wathugedara, and Benthara. This art has been practiced by these families since the 1800’ and the skill has been handed down through generations. Incidentally, the trees producing a particularly light and durable needed for making these vibrant masks grow abundantly around Ambalangoda and this nondescript town even has a museum dedicated to these traditional masks. Since I had a limited time on my hands, I missed out on the devil dancing that is mostly held at night and the rainy season had temporarily ceased the mask production units. The double bummer, however, did not disappoint me and I spent a wonderful day at the Mask Museum in Ambalangoda.
Galle is great for slow travelling
Apart from these two trips, I did not wander around Galle much and spent the rest of the days visiting the morning fish market, the 300 years old Dutch market, and the nearby beaches. Those were pleasant enough days with ample sunshine, occasional visits by the endemic purple-faced langur, and seeing newly married couples undergoing photoshoots near the Galle Lighthouse. As I mentioned before, Galle was a cheap travel break during my month-long Sri Lanka visit and even though, I enjoyed the stay, it is one city in Sri Lanka that did not allure me much.
Galle Offbeat Things to Do
- Moonstone mining/shopping near Ambalangoda – Meetiyagoda is just a couple of kilometers from the Sri Lankan coast, midway between Ambalangoda and Hikkaduwa. It is an hour’s drive from Galle. The ten mines in Meetiyagoda produce the maximum amount of the world’s blue moonstones. A visit to this village is an eye-opening experience into the murky world of gem mining. See the primitive waterlogged pits that belch out these valuable gemstones and the entire process of washing, cutting, and polishing moonstones into desirable tear-drop or egg shapes. You can shop at the on-site store and buy only certified jewellery.
- Gem Museum in Galle – If Ambalangoda is out of your bound, then drop in at the gemstone museum inside Galle fort. The entrance is free and you can explore the world of Sri Lankan gems here. Be aware of the hard-sell tactics of the museum shop.
- Galle Fish Market – Every morning fishermen line up near Galle to sell their fresh catch. They make amazing photos; posied with their catch for sale, their boats pulled up on the shore. You can also buy directly from them or at the fish market. Be prepared to bargain.
- The Mask Museum in Ambalangoda – A privately owned museum, it is located along the Colombo – Galle main coastal road on the seaside. Run by a well-known local family, this museum is dedicated to Sri Lankan masks and include a mask museum, a mask-making workshop, and a mask showroom. The exhibits are quite extensive and come with brief descriptions. For information on Sri Lankan masks, check out this website.
- Devil Dancing – For an authentic experience of devil dancing, stay in Ambalangoda for a few days and ask the locals for updates of any programme that might be held soon. Please note that this is not a show and is held upon individual request for exorcising evil spirits. Sometimes the devil dancing is staged as performances and one can catch a show at Elphinstone Theatre and the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, The Lionel Wendt Art Centre, and the Nelung Arts Centre.
Follow the rest of Sri Lanka series:
- WHAT I LOVED ABOUT SRI LANKA
- COLOMBO VIBES
- KOLLUPITIYA MARKET IN COLOMBO PHOTO WALK
- COLOMBO TRAVEL GUIDE
NOTE: In view of the security situation in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of terror attacks on 21 April 2019, the updated travel advisory states that the security situation in Sri Lanka is gradually returning to normal with the lifting of curfew & restrictions on social media and the opening of schools. Foreign nationals travelling to Sri Lanka are advised to be careful and vigilant.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE