Woke at 9am feeling absolutely exhausted, but managed to get down to breakfast. The dining area commands an impressive view of the Fort area; the Hilton Hotel and World Trade Centre in particular. I ordered an American breakfast to play it safe – toast and butter, omelette, mixed fruit juice and a pot of tea – which was passable.
After breakfast, I took a a shower, and felt a bit fresher. I packed a small bag with a book, my travel diary, and the Lonely Planet, and set out for a walk with absolutely no idea where to go.
As I headed through the security checkpoints, a man began following me, explaining all about the temples and the sites I was passing. He’d latched on, and was following me around, hoping for a tip for his brilliant insight. I shrugged him off quickly, and proceeded down the busy, chaotic streets.
Tuk-tuks clucked past, jammed up against each other between trucks, coaches and cars. It was hot, the sun beating down mercilessly to add to the colourful, chaotic Colombo city scene. Eventually, a tuk-tuk driver named Darvini started chatting to me. He seemed nice and non-aggressive, and he knew his stuff. I agreed to a fare of 700 Rs after bargaining down from 1000 Rs for a 3 hour tour of the city. I hopped into the back of the tuk-tuk and we were off, hopping through the maddening streets. He took me to the Gangaram temple, in the Drividian style. The oldest temple in Colombo, it was an impressive structure, though I wasn’t impressed when my left foot slid through a cow pat, cunningly baked at the top to resemble a rough stone.
After this we went to Karutera temple, the most famous Buddhist temple in Colombo. It was impressive, lots of fantastic golden Buddhas. The museum here was great, and features an eclectic array of bejeweled gifts, Buddhas, and even a portrait of Queen Victoria. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had also visited the place. After this we went to the largest park in Colombo, known locally as Victoria Park. I sat there and relaxed, taking in the views. The park sits opposite the town hall, which is like a small replica of the White House. A large golden Buddha statue sits facing the town hall. The park is a lovely, peaceful place. The park is a haven for young Sri Lankan lovers. Under every tree nestles a young couple in love, stroking each others’ hair. In such a chaotic city with its traditional values, this place is a welcome refuge for them. I did a lap of the park, and washed the remains of the cow pat off my sandal in one of the water fountains, then met Darvini again. He was eager to bring me to another place – a massage parlour. He brought me first to a lovely Aruyudivic place, all scented candles and lush piped sounds. I baulked at the prices, so instead he took me to ‘Shana’. ‘Shana’ is at the Liberty Plaza Shopping Complex, on the 8th floor, and had an altogether less welcoming atmosphere. I knew it was a mistake as soon as we reached the 4th floor and I saw a bouncer waiting outside a door. It was a minging Sri Lankan brothel. The type of massage offered here obviously included extras – possibly a venereal disease for free. I politely declined what was on offer, and left the aging local ladies to another day of drinking and misery in their miserable confinement.
Not altogether pleased with my driver, I told him to take me to the Galle Face Hotel. I needed a bit of colonial splendor to take my mind off what I had just seen. The hotel is a wonderful relic of the proud Colonial era, full of sophisticated colonial charm, dripping with nostalgia. An old man Sri Lankan man with a grey moustache in full white uniform stood welcoming guests, and it was no tacky gimmick. This had been happening for a long, long time. I walked through to the terrace, where one could enjoy High Tea. I ordered a cheese and tomato sandwich, and a lemonade, and sat basking in the colonial charm and elegance, sipping my lemonade and feeling rather British.
I strolled along Galle Face Green afterwards, brushing off a few touts tried to get me to go with them to the ‘Baby Elephant Show’, which must be a new scam as every tout mentioned it. I walked all the way back to my hotel in the baking heat, although I didn’t call in immediately. Instead, I strolled up the other end of the road, towards Pettah Market and Fort Train station. Security was really heavy here, and made walking around very inconvenient. I spotted a sign that said KFC, and thought I’d hit the jackpot, dreaming of a cold coke with ice on this blazing hot day. It turned out to be a dingy, badly-lit supermarket instead, so I had to opt for a lukewarm mango juice when I got there, after skilfully avoiding the beggar outside, whose face was covered in soot. He was probably like every kid once….had dreams and ambitions. I often wonder what happened to make them give up on life, or why life gave up on them.
Still parched, I got through more security checks and into the World Trade Centre. I expected some kind of shopping centre, but was disappointed. It took ages to get in with all the checks. On the 4th floor, I spotted a coffee shop called Baristas, and headed in for a hazelnut frappe, which was also strangely lukewarm. Is nothing in this city cold?! I finished it quickly and headed back to my hotel. A cleaner was just finishing tidying my room, and I rushed in to grab a cold coke to pour into my dusty mouth. Aaaah! Much better. I had a quick shower, got changed and headed out again to meet Andy and his wife (friends of Ed and Emily at the British Council, who very nicely put me in touch with them). It was nice to have a Sri Lankan contact. Through email, we had arranged to meet on the terrace at Galle Face Hotel for some sun-downers.
I arrived bang on time after catching a tuk-tuk for 100 Rs. People were still on the teas, some had switched to wine or gin and tonics, and the place had a softer feel to it than earlier. It was a lovely, cultured scene. I sat at the bar and ordered a glass of non-alcoholic becks, and had a chat with the barman.
At around 5:30, Andy and his wife came in. We recognised each other, even though we’d never seen one another before. We sat down at a table on the terrace, with a view of the lawn and the sea, and had a good long chinwag about British colonial rule (pros and cons of), the British Council, Burma, Bogota, and travel in Sri Lanka. Andy works at the BC in Colombo, his wife for the UN. Such a job means they are limited to war-torn, troubled countries when they relocate, so Burma was the next one. They are a pleasant, chatty, and amiable couple, and we seemed to get on really well. Soon I was invited to join them for dinner in Cheers bar at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel just down the road. By now we were on our third pint of Three Coins lager, a local brew slipping down well, and it felt right to continue. They went off to buy some alcohol, as the next day was a full moon day, so sale of alcohol is prohibited. I strolled along Galle Road to the Cinnamon Grand, which is grand indeed, and downstairs to Cheers! bar.
We all tucked in to fish and chips, hardly a sampling of the local cuisine, but essential at the time, and we drank some more Three Coins. Conversation ebbed and flowed, and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. After dinner, they headed home. I went to the lobby of the hotel and ordered a white mocha. As I sat enjoying the band, I noticed a couple of ladies being served elaboratively prepared Irish coffees, the type of preparation I hadn’t seen since the one I had in Pattaya. I wanted one of those! It cost 500 Rs, expensive, but quite possibly worth it. I hopped into a tuk-tuk, and went back to the hotel exhausted. A great day.