A New Highway: a Modern-Day Ambalama

Depending on who you are, and where you’re going, transportation here in Paradise is often an adventure in itself.

Like almost everywhere else in earth, we’ve got cars and trucks and busses aplenty, motor bikes and push bikes too.  You’ll occasionally see an ox cart, even on busy Colombo streets, and out in the countryside, tractors and rotary hoes are routinely used as much for transportation as they are for work in the fields.  And yes, strangely, people still walk, too.

I’ve posted previously about our little sea plane that takes off from the Kaleniya River, just north of the city, but the quintessential mode of transport remains the tuk-tuk.

Tootling along, wind in my hair

I’ve spoken before about tuk-tuks at every corner, and you’ve tried to squeeze into a three-wheeler with Kumari and me and all the shopping, or imagined the serious base beat emanating from Wasantha’s boom box, so this will be no surprise.  What I haven’t expressed adequately, I don’t think, is the fun – and ease – of hopping a tuk-tuk.  Whether it’s a quick ride from place to place in Colombo, a long-haul trip up through the mountains to Kandy, or the seriously ‘I-think-I-can’ ride up the almost perpendicular rocky track to the meditation centre, it’s always fun to tootle along, wind in your hair, in a tuk-tuk.  Last year as a lark, and a fun way to raise money for charity, ‘foreign’ drivers were invited to participate in a round-island tuk tuk race.

But there’s a revolution afoot on the new Southern Expressway.  No tuk-tuks allowed.  No push carts, pedestrians, bikers, cyclists, tractors or bullock carts either.

Image courtesy BBC

Image courtesy BBC

Like everywhere else, only cars and trucks – and some busses – are permitted on this 96 kilometres of dual-carriageway from the southern edge of Colombo to the southern city of Galle.

Built at a cost of seven hundred million dollars, it’s our first modern highway, and it’s had some teething problems.  During a recent Monsoon storm it had to be closed for a day or so because of a mudslide – the raw red gash still visible on the hillside.  The speed limit has had to be lowered from 120 to 100 km per hour, and strangely, one is not permitted to stop and take pictures of the view.  Now, this is a great shame, because these 96 kilometres are a rare and wonderful trip through the beauty of rural Sri Lanka – pristine rivers, hillsides and forests, ghostly rubber estates, elegant coconut estates and tea plantations, fruit farms, cinnamon gardens and vibrant paddy fields.

There are no exceptional beauty spots.  What is exceptional, in this, one of the most densely populated countries on earth, is that the road cleaves through 96 kilometres of undisturbed countryside – replacing 5,000 plots of land to do so.  Except for the occasional farmhouse, temple, kovil or tiny hamlet, this is timeless rural Sri Lanka – a feast for the eyes that only days of wandering the narrow bumpy back roads would otherwise open out for us.

To go with our shining new expressway are two state of the art rest stops bracketing either side of the road, mid-point of the journey.  Aesthetically beautiful, they’re a far cry from the ugly utilitarian versions I remember from Australian highways, and what’s more, they’ve been designed to place two small size six footprints on this unspoiled environment.

They’d need to.  Built almost entirely of glass, the energy required to run 24-hour a day air-conditioning to make a stop at one of these crisp modern ambalamas bearable, would otherwise be astronomical.

Ailsa’s Transportation challenge this week set me rambling.

24 thoughts on “A New Highway: a Modern-Day Ambalama

  1. Very interesting. Those tuk-tuks look suspiciously to me like the ubiquitous beach buggies of Seychelles. Just as well you can’t stop on the Express Way. Imagine the pileups as Jemima says “Stop the car, I want a photo” every five minutes.

    • I can see the similarity to the mini-mokes, Viv. In fact I’d say the moke is a rip-off of the tuk-tuk, which is an evolutionary step from the old people and pedal powered rickshaws of old.

      Unfortunately, the pull-over lanes aren’t quite as wide as we are accustomed to in the west, so yes, I guess it would be a bit dangerous if I were allowed to stop every few minutes for a photo!

  2. fascinating! would love to see those buildings, not to mention the views of rural Sri Lanka … you are on the news over here tonight as Bob Carr tries to discourage the asylum seekers and their boats … how awful that people cannot find a life in their own country and want to come here … and we should welcome them … damn politics!

  3. I love Remy’s note 🙂
    So, can you at least get any good photos from those rest stops? I forget what you call them in Italy, along the auto strada, they had great little shops and cafes. That is probably coming next.

    • I was there the day after the President had been to open the facilities – probably a little prematurely, as things usually are. The cafe wasn’t quite ready to serve coffee yet – the espresso machine was there, just not hooked up, and there were still a few empty ‘shop’ spaces. Several sparkling clean lavatories were a boon, but the view from the back was like loading docks everywhere – no place for a decent photograph of the rubber plantation beyond the cyclone fence, except through its little squares!

    • They’ve been talking about building this road for almost 20 years Lynne. The old road, built by the Dutch hundreds of years ago, was so appallingly inadequate – rendering the 96 kilometres into a three hour trial – most people have seen it as a necessary step. Only problem is the tolls are quite high, for poor people, and only certain busses can use it, so it’s not turned out to be a great help in easing traffic on the old road – as yet, anyway.

  4. I know progress is inevitable, and the new ambalama’s are striking in appearance but as I was reading this I remembered your post on the traditional ambalama’s, and felt some nostalgia. I would like to see tuk-tuks in Sydney. There are 2 similar vehicles that run from Circular Quay but only around the CBD. I couldn’t for instance use one to get home even though I’m only about 5 kms from the CBD.

    • Oh yes, a great deal of nostalgia! I console myself that the new ambalamas are beautiful in their own right, and that their footprint is as small as modern technology can make them. And that the new expressway, by cutting the travelling time by 60% is making a positive impact on the environment as well – especially as 99% of that time vehicles will be running in their most efficient gear.

      I wonder what the argument is against tuk-tuks? I’d have thought they would be the perfect runaround for busy city streets with minimal parking.

  5. What? I just entered a comment here and it disappeared? it was related to another post that I cannot find : here I go again
    Dec. 19- Word Press does not open any more – or today – your post “what’s this flower?’ and a search does not either, but it is probably one of the many varieties of mangroves, many open for only one night and look like power puffs.
    Check this one: http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantab/barringrac.htm , this one called Powder Puff, but a google search yielded others very similar. Ss you know they grow all over Asia too. Maybe by now you have discovered just exactly what it is .

    • Vera, what a champion you are! Barringtona it certainly is – an Asian variety as you suggested, which grows in very similar situations.

      I’m so sorry you had problems accessing the post – i took it offline while I was editing it to add a Stop Press with a lovely etching and a little background information.

      • oh, I see… well I’m glad it was not a WP quirk.

        It is very difficult for me not to know the name of a plant or a flower… and that plant’s “lifestyle”. You are lucky to have seen so much beauty.

  6. It would be a shame to let Tuk tuks be relegated to history. We traveled on so many in Laos and Cambodia, and thought they were far faster and easier to navigate Bangkok’s choked streets. The new Ambalamas look very ‘high tech’. We better get to Serendip before it disappears completely 🙂

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