Colombo: the beginning of our Asia adventure

When we said goodbye to Sim’s family at the airport in Montreal we realised that, from this moment on, we were truly on our own undertaking a mammoth adventure. It was both an unnerving and exhilarating feeling; perhaps this is how one feels before leaping off a bungee jump platform?

24 hours later, and having waved to the UK as we flew over, we arrived in Colombo in the dead of the night. Getting through the airport was slow and tedious (approx. 2.5hrs), and by the time we were out the airport taxi we had pre-booked had given up hope. Ever the resourceful travellers, we sourced a second taxi and asked to be taken to Colombo 7. We were met with a big reassuring smile and commenced the journey. We soon realised the driver had no idea where to go. He resorted to what we’ve come to learn is the go to way for taxis to get to their end destination: calling the hotel for directions. As we didn’t have a Sri Lankan SIM card, we could not oblige. Instead, in our “seriously, we’re far too tired for this nonsense” state, we remembered the godsend that is Google maps! And so it came to pass that two Brits directed a Sri Lankan taxi driver all the way from the airport to their hostel. This was somewhat reminiscent of that scene from Clockwise where every time John Cleese is told to go right he turns left and so on. Nonetheless, we eventually arrived at Bunkyard. Rather comically, the driver then asked for a tip for all his hard work (!) and a selfie. Not amused!

After a well-earned rest and delicious breakfast care of the amazing Samanti, we discovered, much to our surprise, that Colombo has Uber. So, off we pootled to Colombo Fort train station to purchase tickets to Anuradhapura. Our driver was fascinating and told us about the ongoing protest in the capital in which doctors, nurses and students were demanding the closure of a private medical school that costs LKR 10 million in fees and churns out doctors in a mere two years. Allegedly there were some political connections and shenanigans that meant that the authorities looked the other way. According to our driver, in contrast with the state medical school (which is free to all Sri Lankans), the private school’s facilities are very poor and its teaching is not rigorous.

Political discussions over, we moved onto attempting to purchase train tickets. The first thing to note is that, very tediously, you cannot buy tickets online. Instead you must journey to a ‘major station’ – presumably the likes of Colombo, Kandy, Jaffna etc. – and navigate the incredibly complex web of ticket booths. Ignoring the tourist information tout (who we had read would sell you tickets at a vastly inflated price and/or a tour of Sri Lanka), we attempted to locate counter 17. This fabled booth is the only place you can buy first class tickets but, completely illogically, the ticket counters are not arranged in numerical order. That would be too easy! Booth located, we then had to wait in the 40C heat for the ticket teller to return from lunch and next to contend with Sri Lankan style queuing. For those of you who have not yet visited this island, Sri Lankans are incredibly reluctant to queue – though seem to form queues nonetheless – and impatiently wait, while completely lacking any concept of personal space. At one stage, Ali had a Sri Lankan women’s tummy in her back and hand resting on her shoulder, along with two men trying to skip the queue by sidling in from the side. Thankfully, Sim was there to act as security and we got two first class tickets for LKR 2200/- (approx. £11), with the all-important seat reservations.Fort StationChore completed, we headed to Pettah, the market locals frequent for every possible item one could need. We explored the approx. 10 streets that comprise this area, each of which is dedicated to a different genre of products including among others: fruit and veg, dried fish, knives of all shapes and sizes, Korean household electronics, jewellery and cloth. It’s super easy to navigate and has some interesting sites that are well worth a visit: the Old Town Hall, Jami ul-Aftar (not open to non-Muslims, but the exterior of the mosque is pretty impressive), and the temple on Sea Street. This street is also famous for sapphires (Sri Lanka’s national stone) – though we were not confident enough in our appraisal skills to indulge sadly – and has an array of eating options for its shoppers. We tried Chettinad, a restaurant with cheap and delicious South Indian and Sri Lankan dishes; try the devilled potatoes.

The next day we schlepped all the way to the Fort area where there is a fabulous amount of regeneration and building in progress, albeit most of it funded by Chinese investors (the Lotus is particularly striking). The district doesn’t have much to offer yet, but if all the construction is anything to go by then it will soon be a thriving and bustling part of town. We were there to see Sambodhi Chaithya, a ginormous dagoba (pagoda) on stilts – think alien invasion – built in 1956 to mark the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s death. One has to climb up a rather windy tower and cross over a narrow, floating bridge of questionable construction to get inside. However, it is totally worth it. The inside is adorned with beautiful paintings of Buddha’s life, as well as a small shrine. There was no one here when we visited, and we had the place to ourselves to contemplate, admire the views, and be at peace. It was a wonderful antidote to the bustling cacophony of the city below. Having descended, we popped into the maritime museum next door (free) to get a potted history of Sri Lanka’s colonisation by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British.

Site seen, we then began the farce that was trying to reach St Peter’s Church. Every time we almost reached said place of worship, we were turned away by policemen who would suddenly inform us that said street was closed to the public/for the Navy only. Each would then suggest an alternative route – even though we could see the church from where we were standing – only for us to follow their directions and once again be thwarted by another official. After 30 minutes of this debacle, we admitted defeat and headed for a cold drink at T by Dilmah, a famous tea house near the city’s clock tower.

On our way, we were befriended by a passer-by who told us his wife had worked in Exeter and wanted to hear all about London. After walking together for 10 minutes or so, he told us about a ceremony that was ongoing “for today only”. Intrigued – apparently, the ceremony had a procession, elephants, dances etc – we almost got in the tuk-tuk he had kindly hailed us to track down the procession, but at the last minute decided we really needed our caffeine hit and politely declined his offer. It turns out this was a wise decision as we’ve since read several warnings about scammers who do just that and take a cut from the endless tuk-tuk hunt that ensues for the non-existent ceremony! Visitors: you have been warned.

Caffeine drunk, we headed to Seema Malaka, a temple designed by Geoffrey Bawa that rises out of the lake and is used for the inauguration ceremonies of new monks. We also visited the nearby Gangaramaya temple, an odd building that houses an eclectic array of Buddhist artefacts including: numerous statues of Buddha (all from different countries and therefore in very diverse styles), taxidermy elephants, Chinese sculptures, and other odds and sods donated to the temple by various countries. The collection is bizarre and, thus, we nearly missed the intricate wooden carvings on the outside of the library that depict the life of Buddha.

Before heading home, we took a stroll along Nelum Pokuna Art Street, a lively roadside market where novice artists sell their wonderfully colourful paintings. Most are in the genre that would appeal to tourists (elephants, fishermen on stilts, Kandian dancers etc), but there are some interesting and unusual pieces to be found too.