I’m not going to go into any travel writer waffle here… Colombo isn’t ‘where East meets West’, it’s not an ‘beguiling mix of commerce and religion’ or any of those things. It’s just a bloody hot South Asian capital city. I don’t really like cities, I am not a particular fan now of either living or holidaying in them, this was simply the point where I arrived. Despite this though, I ended up rather fond of Colombo…
I arrived at Bandaranaike Airport around 1.30 in the morning. Bleary eyed doesn’t cut it. And contrary to my usual immense luck when it comes to retrieving baggage, it was a slow painful 45 minutes until my case finally creaked around on the tired conveyer. To be fair, it arrived at Qatar probably about 8 hours before any other bag on the flight so it must have been well buried.
I made my way into the relatively civilised but spartan arrivals hall and, acting on some good local advice, bought a SIM card from the Airtel stand…an extremely easy process as the guy even set it up for me in my dual SIM phone. 800LKR (Just under £4) for 5GB of data allowance. Bargain. I’d strongly recommend doing this. It pays dividends down the line.
I’d also strongly recommend completing the online visa approval system rather than ‘on arrival’. This worked flawlessly for me and saved any faffing after a somewhat epic flight. No queue, just go up to the nice man at the desk and your passport is scanned, no need for additional paperwork.
In terms of the SIM card, I instantly earned my £4 back by being able to fire up the Uber app and request a cab, rather than running the gauntlet of taxi sharks outside the terminal. A slight note of caution however… as soon as I got a ride the driver started messaging me to ask if I would pay in cash, despite him having already accepted the ride and it being impossible to change the default billing. The unwary could well have paid twice. I cancelled him and set up another ride… which he grabbed again. I ended up having to choose the slightly more expensive UberX (Rather than the Zip and Go categories) to escape this muppet.
Thankfully though my next driver was a really nice young guy who tried no such shenanigans and drove me swiftly to my waiting bed at the Star Anise boutique capsules on Mudalige Muwatha street, close to Colombo Fort station.
Capsule hotels aren’t a concept I have hitherto encountered outside Japan, however when you apply it to a hostel it works pretty well- in this case the ‘capsules’ are simply individual bunks, same as any other backpacker dive across the world, but with roller blinds to provide a degree of privacy. Actually this works really well. It’s certainly not the cheapest dorm in the world at £13 a night, but with crisp white linen, really comfy beds and strong air con I seriously rated this place. You can’t beat a good bit of kip.
After a few hours I was raring to go. First stop of the day, the venerable Colombo Fort station:
Colombo Fort opened in 1917 and remains the epicentre of Sri Lankan railways. I was slightly nonplussed as it’s not a grand building, but nonetheless one that serves a purpose. And my purpose was to secure reserved tickets for the express hill train to Kandy in two days time. This was unsuccessful, not entirely unexpectedly however I would now have to take my chances on Friday morning prior to travel.
I moved on, to the lake behind the station. This has been transformed into Pettah Floating Market, a really pleasant boardwalked shopping and eating area. Not a ‘tourists only’ ghetto, actually somewhere where loads of locals were eating, shopping and enjoying the day. I dived straight into the local fare and ordered some coffee and ‘short eats’ from the bakery (little pastries and the like). A good starter for 10!
So far Colombo really didn’t seem like a bad place. Sure, hot and noisy, with blaring horns a consistent background track, but hardly in the same league as my first 48hrs in Delhi, where I spent most of the time holed up in a grotty hotel room, gibbering and checking return flights to escape the madness. Here? It’s doable. There’s hassle, but only to the extent of Tuktuktaxisirwhereyougo?
At this point I was a bit light on afternoon plans. Mindful of the need NOT to go and walk 20 miles around the city and to take it easy and acclimatise, I decided to take a quick trip on the coastal railway.
I went to Counter 2 (I went to most of the 20 counters actually, but they were the wrong ones) and purchased my little cardboard ticket. Destination: Mount Lavinia. Cost: 20 rupees (8p). Bargain. On we toddle… Leaving the humidity of the city behind replaced with a cool sea waft was extremely welcome.
Everywhere you look in Sri Lanka there are vivid scars from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The country was little short of devastated by this natural disaster, and the railways didn’t escape by any means, with the Colombo-Galle line being completely destroyed, and a holiday train service on this line taking a direct hit, killing an estimated 1700 passengers on board. Tragically, 8 other trains were stopped as a result of a tsunami alert but the “Queen of the Sea” could not be reached.
I ‘got down’ at Mount Lavinia station (This Sri-english really gets to you…) and went for a wander. It’s one of the closest beach destinations to Colombo so ends up busy at weekends, but for now it was just me and the waves. A stroll down the tracks, onto the beach and then along the coast, seeking lunch. Which turned out to be a great choice- Fresh chilli crab overlooking the beach with a cool beer in hand. Does it get much better?
I wandered up the beach towards the next station and encountered two particularly persistent touts. There’s nothing threatening about it, but with this level of commitment to their trade it does wear somewhat quickly. The standard tactic remains to simply completely ignore people on initial approach. They’re not your friend, they don’t care where you come from, and once you’ve engaged with them it’s a darn sight harder to get rid and sometimes involves harsh words.
A memorable lunch later, and after a bit of light souvenir browsing in the excellent Barefoot craft shop it was back to the ‘hotel’ for a much needed catch up on sleep. After grabbing a few essentials at Cargills… virtually unchanged from when this country was called Ceylon.
Everywhere you look there are reminders of the British influence here. Good thing/bad thing? Probably the latter however ‘we did give them the railways’… Somewhat of a lazy getout for years of colonial oppression but they definitely are well used.
The next day I was up (not terribly) bright and (not terribly) early although early enough to catch an unexpectedly fantastic hostel breakfast. Today was a SIGHTSEEING day, and since it was my last day in Colombo I felt I ought to tick a few off. By way of a disclaimer, Colombo really isn’t a SIGHTS city so, in short order…
These two sights alone required an inordinate amount of walking in/around/all over since there are a number of Government and Navy blocks here which mean that those handy roads depicted on Google Maps… aren’t. So you end up backtracking miles. Particularly if, like me, you are intensely stubborn and refuse to engage with the three wheeled robber barons of the road. Somehow, you just know that their ‘1 hour city tour 200 rupees Sir’ will not be anything of the sort. Thieves, I tell you. Oh, and you can’t use proper cameras at Galle Lighthouse, military police tell you off. Phone cameras are fine though.
I recuperated from the many un-necessary miles of walking with a marvellous tea and cake at the Pagoda tea rooms. Harrumph harrumph, good British institution harrumph. Extremely cheap too.
Whilst here I couldn’t resist a look at the nearby Museum of Currency. I had every expectation of it being crap, but was pleasantly surprised. As I was going in, an excitable bearded English guy accosted me on the stairs “You have to see the cow statue, it’s amazing’. My interest was piqued.
As it happened, this was a diorama to explain the perils of the barter system. You can’t trade a cow for a fish!
This was brought up to date with a mocked up text message conversation between our two protagonists. As it happens, the museum was really interesting, and made all the better by ridiculously enthusiastic staff who showed me around. I do struggle a bit with this as I’ve never been good at showing enthusiasm, particularly if I have to think about it, however if you’re reading, it was great. Thanks.
Moving on… The other fact about Colombo that you need to be aware of is that it’s not compact, and you need to travel around a bit to see the highlights. So, I summoned an Uber in the direction of the National Museum. Another really nice guy, juggling Uber shifts with a full time job at Sri Lanka Telecom, and a good chat about the merits of Homeland.
Lunch: An amazing burger at The Commons coffee house close to the National Museum. Heartily recommended. As I walked towards the museum after lunch, I was again accosted by a tout. You can generally tell those of the “Guide” fraternity by a smart white shirt. Sure enough, same questions, ‘where you from?’ etc, and a bizarre attempt to prove his worth as a guide by ‘guiding’ me over an uneven bit of pavement which I was already avoiding.
Housed in a seriously impressive building with manicured grounds, the National Museum is well worth a visit, at 1500LKR (About £7.00). There’s also a Natural History Museum on site however this appears to be indefinitely closed. It definitely is a museum in the old style, but there are nonetheless some really interesting antiquities here.
I completed my stroll through the building, and headed out through the extensive and venerable grounds to the extensive and venerable park next door to the museum, Viharamadevi.
So much of the British influence remains in evidence now, the park is much like you’d expect to find in London, albeit in the intense heat and with some rather more interesting wildlife than pigeons (Which incidentally look the same EVERYWHERE, why is this?) I headed to a small cafe in the centre, exactly the kind of place you want to find, with a friendly husband and wife running it, as they probably have done for the last 20 years. No tourist prices here, a pot of ice-cream and a glass of juice for around 200LKR.
I tried a Wood Apple juice. A quick bit of Google-fu reveals that it’s fairly common over here, but not something I’d encountered before. An acquired, but not unpleasant taste. And indeed texture. Holidays are for trying weird stuff anyway.
I decided to conclude my day’s wandering at the nearby Gangaramaya Temple. One of the larger ones in Colombo, it’s definitely worth a visit, and the entry fee of a couple of hundred rupees. There is a temple elephant, which I definitely heard but did not see. Possibly reserved for special elephant-based occasions.
Crossing the road gets you to the sister temple on Lake Gangaramaya. Entrance is included within your main temple ticket. Here I spotted an enormous monitor lizard in the water… Quite alarming when you’re not expecting to see a waterborne dinosaur!
By this point I was starting to wane somewhat. I was doing my usual ridiculous thing in new cities when I attempt to walk their length and breadth. This is partially borne of the fact that I hate interacting with the robber barons of transport, namely Tuk Tuk drivers. It’s virtually impossible to get anything like a fair price from them, so on the whole I don’t bother now.
Since I now wasn’t far off, I headed over towards Galle Face Green for sunset. Described in Lonely Planet as being like the front lawn of the city.
Galle Face Green is actually fairly brown, however it’s more charitable to consider the park as being extremely well loved. Food stalls line the front and all of Colombo comes down to wander, chat and take in the air. I had a brief fly-by of the food stalls but with most of them involving sketchy-looking fish in keep warm cabinets I demurred.
Whilst taking this photo I noticed the alarmingly black sky behind me. Fearing a tropical deluge I started to make haste back towards the Fort area.
On my way back I again passed the presidential palace, and the magnificent angler above within its grounds. Sadly I also passed the signs closing half of Galle Face beach. Reclamation: Risk of death. Private property. Colombo Port City: Another ‘brave new world’ gentrification project, much to the profit of the Chinese investors but at the everlasting detriment to the city. More sterile, guarded public private space that doesn’t feel like home to anyone.
The price of ‘progress’ is a high one. I returned to the hostel for the evening in anticipation of my early start to take to the hills.