It takes three hours and 15 minutes to get to Colombo from Singapore with Emirates, and the flight arrives at 2am. After walking off the plane and towards immigration, one of the first things you see is a little kiosk selling sugary nescafe for a dollar – just the pick-up one needs before hitting the city at such an ungodly hour. Immigration was painless as we’d already obtained our ETAs online for $35 a couple of days prior. Out of baggage claim we were met with the sight of a load of money exchange kiosks, all offering exactly the same exchange rates. I changed US$600 into Sri Lankan rupees. Step one complete. Step 2 was to get a taxi. On the right are a line of taxi kiosks. Again, all prices are the same – 3,000 rupees to the Colombo Fort area (which is where our hotel was), or 3,300 for the same destination by highway (which included the highway toll). We went by highway.
“We lay down quietly, listened to the crashing of the waves, and drifted away”
It took around 30-40 minutes to get to the hotel. There wasn’t a lot to see on the way, just dull flashes of life every now and then often bathed in yellow light. We headed down Galle Face Green and saw the hotel – a magnificent and well-preserved colonial relic sitting right on the sea front. We were too tired to notice the smartly dressed bell-boys, the extravagant chandeliers, the artwork hung on the walls of the elegant lobby as we checked in. It was 4am now. We were far too early. They were able to offer us a room, if we paid for a whole extra night. We could have checked in at 6am, but we would have had to pay 50% of the full price of the room. We weren’t going to do that. After weakly protesting, we slipped away and into the al-fresco dining and bar area of the hotel. Here,we found some very inviting sofas, and we lay down quietly, listened to the crashing of the waves just in front, and drifted away. It was quite pleasant until around 6am, when the sun started to rise, the waiters began preparing for the buffet breakfast, and it really started heating up.
“We walked down the deep red-carpeted, dark wood-panelled corridors echoing with nostalgia and refinery of a wonderful bygone era…..”
We slowly came around, brushed our teeth, washed our faces, and started to get things in order for the day. We’d been told we couldn’t check in until 2pm, and we were getting ready to head out and make a day of it. Somebody must have felt sorry for us at the reception of the Galle Face. We were approached by someone who told us that now we could check in. We were even upgraded to room 4048 in the Traditonal Wing. People like Che Guevara, Scarlett Johansson, Steven Spielberg, Roger Moore have stayed here, definitely in the traditonal wing, possibly in the same room. We walked down the deep-red-carpeted, dark wood-panelled corridors echoing with nostalgia and the elegance and refinery of a wonderful bygone era and into our room. The room was lovely, tastefully furnished in traditional colonial style – long patterned rug under the bed, wooden tables, wicker chairs. A huge room. I love rooms like this. I wondered what Roger Moore would have made of the single-glazed windows and the buses rattling past, the tuk-tuks clucking away, the beeping of horns outside below. Still, I wasn’t here to sleep. We went straight down to breakfast overlooking the sea. A wonderful buffet spread. The views were the beautiful bright green lawn of the hotel, and the sea beyond that. Occasionally, a man dressed all in brown and carrying a catapult strolled across the line of vision. He is employed by the hotel to shoot the pesky crows that terrorise diners every day. He certainly made an effort to scare them away, taking aim with his wooden catapult – but I never saw him hit anything.
“We went out to get a tuk-tuk for a self-guided tour of the city.”
We stuffed ourselves silly and then went out to get a tuk-tuk for a self-guided tour of the city. It was 9am – a nice early start. We arranged an itinerary with the old driver, who looked comical with a hitler-style moustache – completely white in his leathery face – and strands of unruly wispy white hair as unruly as his eyebrows. He wore all white too. We arranged to go to the Gangurumaya Buddhist temple, Viharamadhaderi Park, Independence Square, Sri Ponnumbuluum Vanesar Kovil hindu temple, for 3,000 rupees. It took just over three hours, including stops at a few other small temples and buddhist statues, and we also squeezed in a coffee at London Coffee House in the upmarket High Commission district.
“….Gangurumaya Buddhist temple….is striking inside…”
Our old driver drove like an old driver. Slowly, carefully, erratically at times, but never suicidally like some of the tuk-tuk drivers we saw. He was happy to wait while we explored each place – he was happy to get such a decent fare so early in the day. The first stop, the 120 year-old Gangurumaya Buddhist temple, looks nothing special from the outside, but is striking inside – a mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese design influences. The grounds are full of interesting little shrines, statues, carvings, and there’s a little museum too with signed pictures by a young Princess Elizabeth. It’s like going back in time, or as though time has stood still in this place. A monk sat reading a paper and sipping tea. He looked like he’d been there for a century. Just around the corner from here was a temple over a lake that offered some nice views of Colombo’s ever-increasing number of high-rise buildings. From here we went to Viharamadhaderi Park (which used to be commonly known as Victoria Park) – the oldest and largest in Colombo. It’s in front of a large government building called the White House, which looks pretty much identical to its namesake. A beautiful golden buddha statue sits at the entrance to the park, and, today, a snake-charmer sat in front of him, a cobra hovering around in front of him from a basket and occasionally striking to no avail – the venom sacs and fangs had been removed. The charmer also had a python and another snake I forget the name of, and he of course wanted 1,000 rupees for the privilege of a few photos. I gave him Rs 500, which he accepted reluctantly.
“It seemed only couples were allowed in this park, and ponies.”
We walked in the park. This place is full of young couples – each tree of bench is a like a magnet for them, and they sit canoodling with bottles of soda, discussing the future perhaps, in the shady spots of the park, the young men always in jeans, shirt and sandals, the girls in colourful saris. It seemed only couples were allowed in this park, and ponies. There was a sawdust ring in the centre of the park where kids could ride ponies. There were ice-cream vendors, old bicycles….a very pleasant way to spend an hour or so away from the building heat of the day.
“…life is played out on the streets in glorious technicolour”
From here we went to the scared hindu temple Sri Ponnumbuluum Vanesar Kovil – highly detailed outside and colourful, in the dravidian style. It was closed to worshippers, but foreigners could still gain access for Rs200. You had to leave your shoes outside with the ‘shoe-keeper’, but that price was not fixed, and as Vero and I were the only tourists around, we decided not to bother. Instead, we carried on up the street following the curious sound of reggaeton coming from a playground of some kind where a group of kids were partying as the parents looked on approvingly. This was just another random scene you get in places like this, where life is played out on the streets in glorious technicolour.
“High Tea in the Galle Face is very special indeed.”
From here, we got the tuk-tuk to Independence Square, then on to the Old Colombo Dutch hospital, supposedly the oldest building in Colombo dating back to the 1600s. It’s now a shopping and dining precinct, full of swanky bars and right across from the glistening World Trade Centre. We pottered about a bit, tired and beaten by only a couple of hours of sleep on a sofa and the heat, but then we’d had enough and needed to head back to the hotel to recharge. I tipped the tuk-tuk driver Rs500, I don’t know why, and we headed into the cools of the hotel. We had a very deserved siesta, waking at around 4 to go and enjoy High Tea. At a place dripping in Colonial charm, High Tea at the Galle Face is very special indeed. This was a delightful experience, with traditional music accompaniment and enough ceylon tea to keep me awake for days. We stuffed ourselves, almost finishing the three-tiered cake stand, as a storm rolled in from over the sea. The rain came down, cooling the air, and it was the perfect time to be here, eating delicious sandwiches and cakes and lashings of golden tea.
Night life in Colombo. Quiet.
That evening, as I planned a big Saturday night in Colombo, I felt excited. Time Out Sri Lanka lists all the bars in Colombo, and I’d picked a few for us around the Colombo 01 area. Descriptions of the bars made each one sound so fantastic, sexy, happening, cool. And so, we hit the first place, Blue Margarita – a ‘sexy spot with huge floor to ceiling windows showcasing stunning views of Galle Face bay.’ Kind of. It looked OK. No views to speak of, and, as with most places in this part of the world, full of local men. Still, the band were good, and they even played Everybody Wants to Rule the World, which you can’t help but sing along to. I had a big bottle of overpriced local beer – Three Coins, German style beer and very refreshing. Vero had a blue Margarita. I imagined later it could get pretty good on that dancefloor, but we left anyway, walking to the Hilton and the Echelon bar. Time Out’s description of this bar ‘a cosyBritish style pub with lovely atmosphere and sports on TV with great pub grub and beer selection’ was a bit wide of the mark. It was tiny, not cosy. There was nothing authentically British about it. It was a cold, sterile, typical hotel bar. Disappointed, we walked to Chestnam St and to Shamrock – ‘a hip and happening place full of the trendy socialites of Colombo.’ Not quite. One tiny room, a couple of leather sofas, a tiny bar, and full of Sri Lankan men with a sprinkling og generously-sized women who might have been their mum’s. Still, one chap was particularly friendly. He came over, confidently shook my hand, declared it was his son’s birthday, introduced me to his son, and then invited us to drink and eat on his tab for the whole night. He informed the waiter of his plan too, and the waiter shook hi head from side-t0-side in the manner of South Asians, and I knew then that this was no scam, that it was a genuine offer from a dad proud of his son and wanting to celebrate with everybody, friend or not.
We left after only one drink (the one I’d paid for), as we really weren’t keen on getting involved, and we found the Old Dutch Hospital, where we had a lovely meal of tapas, hummus, ceviche and wine, soaking up the atmosphere of this stylish little corner of Colombo.
From here we got a tuk-tuk back. We were quoted Rs450 – an absolute rip-off seeing as though we’d paid Rs100 to get here a few hours earlier. Eventually one guy took us for Rs200 – and the short ride back was basically one big sales pitch and attempt at getting more money. He wanted us to drive the tuk-tuk (for a price I’m sure!). He wanted to take us to some jewellery shops the next day (50% disount!). He wanted to drive us to Unawatuna. Three hours? In a tuk-tuk? No chance. We got back to the hotel, paid the Rs200, and I promised to call him, just to shake him off. Of course, I never did. We got to the room exhausted and ready for bed – it had been a seemingly endless first day in chaotic Colombo.