We spent 24 hours in Colombo which was just enough to soak up the chaos, attend a cultural event and explore the city in style.
Sri Lanka was never on my immediate ‘must visit’ list. After spending nearly 6 months in India, I felt like I already had a good taste of the culture in that neck of the woods. It would be “just like India” I thought. However, once I started reading about the extraordinary history of Sri Lanka and finding out more about the country, I was itching to go. It would be “just like India” I thought. Just like India? Boy, was I wrong.
Marco and I set off on our first long haul flight together with Etihad Airways, my first trip with Etihad. The flight was pleasant and the food OK but Emirates still takes top place as my favourite airline. What’s yours? I think I was the only person on our Airbus A380 that managed to spill an entire glass of red wine over myself and the cream seat beneath me. Marco placed his head in his hands.
Upon setting off, we had just heard of Covid-19 in China and if I’m totally honest, I didn’t think it was a big deal. We joked that I would be sat next to a Chinese person on the plane and sure enough, I was
Outside Colombo Airport wasn’t at all how I expected it. Other Asian cities I’ve flown in to have been manic with street sellers and taxi drivers all competing for your attention. Some people find that stressful but I love all that craziness. Here, there were no street sellers and taxi drivers formed an orderly queue. At the press of a button on our mobile, an Uber arrived to take us to our hotel in the city. Isn’t it amazing how travel has changed?
Metro Port City Hotel was located in Colombo (district) 11, which many refer to as the “dodgy” area of town but in my eyes, this is the local, more interesting part of town. The hotel was good, nothing fancy but we didn’t need it to be. After being up over 24 hours I was desperate for sleep but equally keen to explore my new surroundings. As we walked through the busy streets our senses were filled with all kinds of smells and lights. I couldn’t help comparing it to India but with less rubbish, less poverty and no street chai!
It was 36c and the sun would soon be setting. Marco was in the mood for a cold beer (as always). Amidst the chaos, he spotted a sign for a bar. It was in English, like all business names are in Sri Lanka, despite only a quarter of the population speaking the language. This was one of many bizarre things that I noticed about Sri Lanka. Marco asked the man if he had a roof terrace and sure enough, he said “yes”. Up the stairs, we went.
I wouldn’t really call it a roof terrace, merely a roof with some upturned beer crates for seats and an old cooking pot as a table! We certainly hit the jackpot with this one – we had a roof to ourselves overlooking the hustle and bustle of the city at dusk. Chicken curry and fish curry were the only things on the menu, neither of which we fancied, so Marco went down into the street to see what he could find. He came back with an incredibly spicy roti roll and fried coconut, bean and pea ball – delicious! These Sri Lankan street snacks are known as ‘short eats’.
As we walked from Colombo 11 to Colombo 13 it was clear that this is a mishmash city which has a little bit of everything. Religion is a huge part of life in Sri Lanka and many streets have a church, mosque, Hindu temple and Buddhist temple, some next door to each other. As we visited the Shrine of St. Anthony Church we learnt of the Easter Day bombings in 2019. One of the bombs was detonated here less than a year ago. There were high-security measures in place, not just in this church but the whole of Sri Lanka.
After dark, the number of people out in the streets doubled. We headed to the main Hindu temple in Colombo 11 called Shri Ponnambalawaneswaram Kovil (what a name!) as there was a very special celebration taking place. I had celebrated Maha Shivaratri (the great night of Lord Shiva) in Nepal in 2017 where I smoked pot and saw naked men with locks hanging off their bits (click the link above to see it!). It was an unforgettable event which I wanted Marco to experience.
There were thousands of people in and around the temple complex when we arrived. We were the only foreigners in the entire complex and stuck out like a sore thumb. We were told to take our shoes off before entering the temple which we did, but we didn’t want to leave our only shoes for the trip in the pile of tens of thousands of flipflops left by locals. There would be no chance that we would see them again. With our shoes strapped to our bags we entered and wandered around, amazed at everything we saw.
A man offered us extremely hot sugary tea which took me 10 minutes to drink, unlike the locals who knocked theirs back in one. Marco had to take his shirt off to enter the main temple, which he did, and we were lucky enough to be part of an incredible ceremony inside. On our way out we passed some stables with the temple’s holy cows in. One headbutted Marco, they must have known he had sneaked his shoes in.
That night I woke many times thanks to the freezing cold aircon and an enormous tropical storm. I’ve never heard rain like it! Breakfast was eaten at the first local place we saw, full of men and not a tourist in sight. I love these dingy local places, so much better than a tourist café! We ordered egg roti which was the best egg roti we had the entire trip. The spicy dahl and fish curry that accompanied it certainly woke us up. It was so spicy my nose wouldn’t stop running! We ate it with our hands like locals. It cost us about £1.50 in total including two milky sugary teas. Bargain.
From Colombo 11 we walked to the Fort area and Galle Beach. Shops lined the streets, with each street selling one type of product; electrical street, homeware street and so on. I soon realised that this is a culture, more so than any I’ve experienced, which is solely based on buying and selling. Everyone in the streets were either buying or selling and almost everyone had a shop or sold something.
The Old Dutch Hospital, now a food and shopping complex, was pleasant but a lot smaller than the guidebooks made out. Our walk along Galle Face was interesting and much different to your usual beach walk. We saw very little tourists and it wasn’t exactly an idyllic looking beach as the construction of skyscrapers was taking place opposite. Colombo is certainly developing with big five-star hotel chains popping up all over the place. Whilst walking along the shore, I indulged in fresh pineapple and for Marco, a rather peculiar fried prawn street snack.
The heat was picking up so we wandered into Galle Face Hotel, a historic colonial-style 5-star seafront hotel built in 1864. It’s a beautiful grand hotel and the price of their beer reflected that. We drank our cold beers looking out to sea as we watched the military-dressed guards fend off the crows with old fashioned slingshots. It was like something out of an old fashioned movie.
Our lunch reservation was at restaurant Kaema Sutra in the 5 star Shangri-La Hotel. This location was also hit in the 2019 Easter Day bombings. It was fancy but we didn’t feel underdressed in our “backpacking” gear. Oh what a meal! It was certainly worth splashing out on. On our way back to the hotel Marco purchased a much-needed belt from a street stall and managed to haggle him down to £2 from £4. Result! I treated myself to a fresh coconut.
From the hotel, we tried to get an Uber TukTuk (Yes, there is a such a thing!) to the train station, but it never arrived. After a short wait, Marco bartered with the TukTuk drivers on our street. We made our way to the station early to ensure we would make our train. With plenty of time to spare, we went to a “Cool Spot” which is a local eatery where you can get a cool drink and a basic meal. Marco ordered a huge bottle of cold water – the heat and humidity were insane.
As we boarded the train, we found that our seats had taken by two locals. We tried to explain in English, a language they didn’t understand, that those seats were ours and ask them to move, which they did. One of them went to get a security guard. “Thank God” I thought. I just wanted to sit down and be on our way. The security guard arrived, and I explained the mix-up. We had tickets and these people were in our seats. “Those seats not yours. Your train gone” he replied. “Pardon?” I said. He repeated, “Your train gone”. My heart sank and I was embarrassed beyond belief.
I had forgotten about the email I received from the booking agent, which told us that the train we requested was fully booked and our booking was moved to the earlier train. I also forgot to check the time on the actual ticket. We were stuck in Colombo. Oops.
Luckily Marco and I are no strangers to these types of occurrences. We often miss flights, loose tickets or turn up on the wrong day so we handled the situation well. Our only option was to pay out for a taxi to Kandy. Marco was great in finding a reliable, safe, good value taxi service. We had to wait over an hour on the pavement outside the train station for our ride but in the end, it was totally worth it.
Our taxi driver spoke perfect English and he gave us a real insight into local life in Sri Lanka. He told us all about his religion (Islam), his family, the education system, the police force and anything else we wanted to know. It was 10:30pm by the time we rocked up in Kandy, with most restaurants closing for the night. Our taxi driver waited for us while we checked in and then drove us to a local eatery in town so we would reach it before it closed. What a lovely man! The streets were eerily quiet. Only the homeless, TukTuk drivers and stray dogs were about. For the first (and only) time during our entire trip we felt a bit on edge, so we decided to call it a night.