It has an international conference centre without conferences, an international airport where no planes land, a port without ships and an international stadium without games. It is the Sri Lankan town called Hambantota. Some call it the Miracle of Asia!
We returned to Tissa after the morning game drive at Yala. The jeep driver who was excellent and pointed out many birds we would not have seen without him was rewarded with a handsome tip. We had a cup of tea, collected our bags from the Lakeside Hotel and drove to Hambantota.
Hambantota used to be a sleepy little town known only for buffalo curd, a Sri Lankan sweetmeat called Kaludodol and ancient salt pans. Birders like the salt pans as they attract waders and shore birds and it is easy to spot greater flamingos, spot-billed pelicans, plovers and sandpipers. If you are not a birder, there is no earthly reason for you to stop at Hambantota on your dash to Kataragama or Yala.
We came to Hambantota to see the controversial new port and to have lunch, the latter more important than the former.
The newly built International Conference Centre sits by the highway devoid of traffic, big, beautiful and very empty. Gates were shut and even the security guards seemed to have gone home.
The Rest House has a magnificent location on a hillock overlooking the fisheries harbour. Rest Houses used to be the only decent accommodation available in many parts of Sri Lanka before the advent of mass tourism. They were clean and comfortable, reasonably priced and served excellent local food. Today, they are managed by the Ceylon Hotels Co-operation or private businessmen and standards have dropped and prices have gone through the roof.
Lunch at the Rest House was a rice & curry buffet of reasonable quality but the fruit salad came in miniature bowls which could just about hold two pieces of pineapple and a slice of banana. Adding ice-cream on top was out of the question.
At the new port we had to wait at the gate until the official guide returned from lunch at 2.30 in the afternoon. In the meantime, an old woman pleaded with us to buy six packs of Hambantota salt for Rs.100, about 50 pence in English money.
From an elevated view point, the guide showed us the empty port and the off-shore island destined to become an upmarket tourist resort. I asked him why an island in the sea at enormous expense is needed when there is so much empty land around the port and what would tourists do here anyway.
“Small cruise ships have docked here once in three or four months and we have taken the tourists in tuk-tuks to Hambantota town and back for Rs. 5000 each” he said.
I told him that a port here would perhaps be more useful as a bunkering stop for maritime traffic through the Palk Straight rather than a tourist resort. He didn’t like me or my questions!
Some say the new port, the highways, international airport, stadium and conference centre are fantastic development projects. Others think it is a colossal waste and a gigantic monument to one man’s vanity. As we left Hambantota, it reminded me of Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar, created in the middle of the jungle in 2005.
We drove through Matara, had a cup of tea at the old rest house by the sea and took the Southern Expressway to Colombo.
Matara is a delightful town with many fascinating old buildings such as the Poruguese fortifications of 1595, the 1763 Dutch Star Fort, the British/Dutch Old Nupe Market and many others. (see “Hidden Gems of Matara” – http://wp.me/pVybW-h4 )