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Going south: three ways

Kanishkaa Balachandran
From Colombo you can take the brand new expressway to Galle, or the more scenic coastal road or train

A visit to Sri Lanka is not complete without a trip down south to Galle, the seaside town full of anachronistic old-world charm, and areas nearby such as the pleasant beach locale of Unawatuna.

The Galle International Cricket Stadium, one of the more picturesque international venues, lies in the heart of town, between the central market area and the ramparts of the fort. The ramparts house several boutique hotels, many of which are a hop, skip and jump away from the stadium. As the sun sets, several impromptu cricket matches spring up on the Esplanade, the vast expanse of green fronting the Indian Ocean.

The allure of Galle isn't restricted to the town; getting there has its own appeal. The scenic coastal route from Colombo, by road or train, is recommended for those who can spare three hours. The temptation to stop at every vantage point to take pictures when driving down is strong, but it could add another half hour to your journey.

The third way is the quick route, down the swanky new Southern Expressway, which cuts about two hours off the journey via the old Galle Road. Take this road and you could be in Galle in an hour, perhaps even sooner if you've got the right wheels. The expressway makes it possible for cricket fans and journalists to stay in Colombo and travel to the ground in Galle every day for a Test match.

Inaugurated in November 2011 by the president, Mahinda Rajapakse, the expressway begins in Kottawa, a Colombo suburb, and ends in Pinnaduwa, north east of Galle town centre. Work is underway to stretch the road to Matara and the upcoming international airport in Mattala, near Hambantota. Often the quality of roads and highways is regarded as an indicator of a country's development, and the Southern Expressway has given Sri Lanka good reason to brag.

Heading to Hambantota for two T20s, via Galle, I decided to take the expressway, shelling out the Rs 400 toll, to see what the fuss was all about. Contrary to expectations, the road doesn't run by the coast; the sea surfaces only at the end. Having used the traditional, narrower, inter-city highways - including on a backbreaking pothole-ridden trip from Habarana to Trincomalee years ago - the new road was unlike anything I had experienced in Sri Lanka.

It cuts through patches of trees, rock faces, and plantation estates. Signs of life are notably absent. Villages and settlements are few. You rarely even see vehicles parked by the side with tired travellers having a stretch. Civilisation appears at the six exits - Kahatuduwa, Gelanigama, Dodangoda, Welipanna, Kurundugahahetekma and Baddegama. There are no motels yet, though I was told that a restaurant was coming up near the Welipanna interchange. Only parts of the road have streetlamps, and there are no u-turns.

Having taken the old road several times, it felt a little surreal to find myself in Galle in an hour. I may have made such good time because I started out in the wee hours of the morning, before the school traffic kicked in. The one bottleneck on the way out comes at the start, when heading out of Colombo to Kottawa. Once you get past there, it's a breeze.

You can hire cabs to take you to Galle using the expressway, including the compact new Nano cabs, which will cost in the region of Rs 5400 for a one-way trip. A cheaper option would be the luxury bus, which departs from Maharagama (a Colombo suburb). If you're looking to stop at seaside towns such as Hikkaduwa and Bentota, though, you'd be advised to take the old road.

That coastal road remains toll-free. It begins at Galle Face in Colombo, cuts through the bustling business district of the city, and passes the sea-facing suburbs of Mount Lavinia and Moratuwa. For a good chunk of the journey it runs along the coast, with the waves kissing the tar, and the rail tracks running alongside.

The journey is punctuated by beachside resorts of varying degrees of luxury, beach-front houses, souvenir shops by the road, fishing villages, small towns and railway intersections. Kalutara, the hometown of Tillakaratne Dilshan, is a tourist attraction not just for its beaches but for the giant Kalutara Vihara, the world's only hollow Buddhist shrine.

A third option, if you don't mind roughing it a bit, is the train. The Queen of the Sea, as it is popularly known, runs by the coastal road for a stretch, and is one of the busier rail routes in Sri Lanka, ferrying thousands who make the daily trip, many of them office-goers who rise at the crack of dawn for the three-hour commute.

The day after the Galle Test against Pakistan in 2012, a fellow journalist and I decided to take the train to Colombo. To say it costs a fraction of what it would to hire a cab would be an understatement: it's just Rs 180 (for a second-class ticket) one way. On the downside, the seating is basic, and you need to watch your step if you plan to walk between compartments - the vestibules, which make a racket when the train gathers pace, can test your balance. Also, there is no reserved seating. You stand at the platform, shove yourself into the nearest compartment when the train pulls in, and hope for an empty seat.

The station is just across the road from the cricket stadium in Galle. The train winds its way through dense vegetation, with the sea making fleeting appearances. As you approach Colombo, the sea seems almost within touching distance in certain stretches. This is partly captivating and partly intimidating, especially when the tide is high: it brings back memories of horrifying images of the tsunami of December 2004, which wrecked the train, killing nearly all passengers on board, when it was thrown off the tracks on the coast of Peraliya. The train still exposes itself to the vagaries of the sea, but that doesn't deter thousands of frequent commuters, or first-timers like me.

Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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