Hello there and welcome back to the second instalment of my latest series which is about a three month trip I took to Sri Lanka in early 2014 and I shall start off with my usual advice if you have just arrived at this post other than having read what went before. The whole story starts here or alternatively just go to the bottom of the page and hit the previous button.
In the last episode I had only got as far as Bandaranaike aiport near Colombo and said that I had a slight adventure. If you want to hear all about it then please read on.
The following is an edited version of my contemporaneous notes so it should be fairly accurate and not reliant on my increasingly dodgy memory.
“Unless you are arriving in Sri Lanka by cargo vessel or in the fortunate position of sailing in on your own yacht, you will have to go through Bandaranaike International Airport. The ferry service that briefly plied between the island and India has been discontinued due to lack of passengers.
Like many international airports, although it is called Colombo, it is actually some distance out of town to the North near the town of Negombo. It was not the only international airport in the country and it appeared to serve both civil and military purposes.
A second airport at Hambantota in the South of Sri Lanka had been opened a few months before as a vanity project, became officially the quietest international airport in the world and is now effectively mothballed and no international carriers fly there any more.. It was bought in 2018 by the Indian government but as a strategic move to keep out China, their bitter rivals or control of the Indian Ocean region.
In the brief time I was standing outside, I saw three fighter planes flying overhead. There were plenty of SLAF personnel in uniform walking about and I think they provide security for the facility.
AS I mentioned in the last episode, we arrived pretty well on time in Colombo and the deplaning was relatively easy. They rather cleverly funnel you through an arrivals duty free area, at least 90% of which appeared to be electrical and even white goods. Who in Heavens name buys a washing machine in the airport? Somebody must although the place looked generally fairly quiet. Still, it was early in the morning.
I went to the appropriate baggage carousel and waited in the scrum, for such it was. Apparently, Sri Lankans don’t have any social taboo against elbowing you in the ribs, dropping suitcases on your feet and so on. Well, I am used to that kind of thing in Asia so it doesn’t bother me overly.
I waited and waited and then I waited some more. When I had finished doing that, I waited. The crowd began to thin a bit, although it did take an age for the baggage to arrive but it was not good. I got bored and went back upstairs to take a few photos of the scene and found myself engaged in conversation with a couple of young salesmen from the duty free shops who were obviously as bored as I was.
I had a wander around, looking for a bar or coffee place to pass the time but there did not appear to be any (the website confirmed that there were no refreshment facilities in arrivals then).
I watched the same few forlorn bags going round and round, evidently in totally the wrong airport and I knew instinctively what had happened. An overly-optimistic 55 minute connection in Doha had stranded my bag there.
After about 90 minutes or so, I was approached (along with the other half dozen or so bereft travellers) by a very personable young man with good English, outrageous winkle picker shoes and a totally improbable hairstyle who asked me a couple of questions and then directed me to the baggage handling desk which was run by Air Sri Lanka on behalf of all visiting airlines. A very pleasant young lady asked me some more questions, filled out a load of forms and checked her computer which singularly failed to locate the missing item. I thought these things were meant to be damn near infallible.
Yes, I was totally hacked off. I was tired, feeling slightly grubby as I always do after two long flights despite a brief feshen up on the plane, and I literally had the clothes I stood up in which were getting a bit ripe. I was going to let rip at the young lady but what was the point? It’s not her fault and she must have one of the worst jobs in the world listening to people like me screaming at her all day. Thankfully, I had all my important stuff in my carry-on and I knew I could buywhatever I needed locally if the worst happened. I was re-united with the baggage later that evening.
By now I needed a drink although that was not an option as there was nowhere to buy one in the airport. Not a very auspicious start but I wandered out to into glorious sunshine, which was in such stark contrast to what I had left behind, and my spirits immediately lifted. I sat down on a small rail for a long overdue smoke and spent the next ten minutes fending off the taxi drivers who seem to congregate round airports like vultures round carrion.
Looking round I saw a building (shown above) with Coke and Pepsi signs up a little entry and I reasoned that if they had soft drinks they might have beer as well. They didn’t but I managed a soft drink and a snack. This is obviously where the workers congregate as I was the only white person in there, I don’t think it is really designed for the international traveller but I was greeted in a vey friendly manner which was to become a hallmark of the trip even if I did get a few curious but not unfriendly looks. Time to get into Colombo and another edited piece.
I always try to avoid airport taxis as even the official ones always seem to be a rip-off. I suppose they work on the principle that they have a more or less captive audience. As there is no train connection I had decided to take the bus.
My guidebook (published late 2012) indicated that I would have to get a free shuttle bus to a nearby bus station and then a bus to Colombo. This is inevitably the problem with guidebooks, they are out of date before they even go to press. Such is the nature of travel writing. I know I have said elsewhere on this site that I rarely use guidebooks but I decided to carry one for such a long trip, just in case.
I found an information booth where a very helpful lady, resplendent in a sari, informed me that there was now a direct bus to Colombo and pointed out the relevant spot across the road where it departed.
After a short while the bus backed into the appointed spot and then the scrum began again as it had at the baggage carousel. For people who are otherwise so incredibly polite and friendly the concept of the queue seems to be totally alien and it was made all the more unbelievable by the fact that there were clearly not enough people there to half fill the bus. I stood well back and then got on and easily found a seat.
Compared to some of the old rust buckets that ply the Galle Road, this one was pretty modern with air blowers to keep you cool but it had the usual Asian problem of not being designed for a 6’5″ Briton. Still, not too bad and a fairly uneventful run along the newly opened expressway deposited me in one of the three bus stations in the Pettah which is a typically manic market area in the old part of town beside Fort Railway Station which is the hub of the Sri Lankan network.
The journey took slightly less than an hour and I do not remember the exact fare but it was very cheap as I remember thinking it was much less than £1 Sterling. This is definitely the option for those on a budget. When I returned in later years, the service was still running and still my preferred option. Getting off the bus, here are my first impressions, recorded at the time. I’ll throw in a few images free, gratis and for nothing to break up my rambling.
“Having negotiated the somewhat lunatic but typically Asian traffic chaos you will find yourself in “downtown” Colombo where your every sense will be assaulted in typically South Asian style.
From the gorgeous smells emanating from the myriad spice shops and stalls not to mention the restaurants and food stalls to the almost deafening cacophony of heavy trucks and blaring horns to the wonderfully bright colours everywhere it can be a bit overwhelming if it is your first time in the region but you’ll soon get used to it.
Colombo is the capital of Sri Lanka and boasts a population of about 4.5 million people although only about half a million live within the city proper. Actually, I am not being strictly accurate here as Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte is the technically the capital but it is merely a suburb of Colombo and people generally state that Colombo is the capital.
The city has a long history and was important even in ancient times for it’s excellent harbour which was a useful stopping off point on East – West sea routes. Even the Romans came here! It became capital when the British assumed control of the island in 1815 although the Dutch who had previously settled the island had seen it as an important centre also.
It was the Dutch who named the place in the early 16th century by using a corruption of the Sinhalese name Kolon thota meaning “port on the river Kelani” although other scholars claim it is from Kola-amba-thota meaning “Harbour with leafy mango trees”.. Who knows?
Before the Dutch ever got there, the city was known to the Portuguese who were colonising the island as indeed they did in much of adjacent Southern India, specifically Kerala.
Obviously, all these various European influences left their mark and when mixed with the indigenous culture provide the quite eclectic mix of a city that we see today. This is reflected in the people and there are three distinct groups of Sri Lankans here namely the Sinhalese, the Tamil and the Moors with the former being the predominant group and this did lead to certain problems during the relatively recent, long-running and bloody Civil War in the country.
Today, however, the city is safe for visitors and I did not feel intimidated at any point when I was there. This is undoubtedly due to the very noticeable police presence everywhere but this presence did not make me feel uncomfortable either as they appeared to be well turned out, professional and, on the odd occasion I had to speak to any of them (asking directions etc.), they were friendly and approachable. Whilst unfortunate things can obviously happen anywhere, I would suggest the visitor should have no worries as to personal security.
Despite the city officially being quite a sprawling affair stretching some miles in every direction, the centre (where most visitors will spend time) is relatively compact and easily walkable which is actually what I recommend. Just wander about at your own pace and look at the huge modern skyscrapers that sit cheek by jowl with delightful old colonial buildings, it really is a joy.
Should you have had your fill of walking, there are certainly no shortage of rickshaws to take you where you want to go. There is also a decent bus service to the suburbs once you can work it out as it is a bit confusing and even a taxi is relatively inexpensive.
Colombo is often overlooked by the increasing numbers of package tourists who are bussed straight from the airport to whatever beach resort they are staying at and this really is their loss. Whilst there is not too much in the way of “attractions” (museums, art galleries etc.) it is a fascinating place to visit if only for a day or two”.
There you go, dear reader, your Colombo primer all in one place. Probably time I got to the hotel, I could do with a bit of a wash and brush up and a dozette wouldn’t go amiss either.
if I had known then what I know now I would just have jumped in a tuk-tuk, auto taxi, taxi, rickshaw or whatever you want to call the vehicle you see in the image above and I have heard all these terms used. It would probably have cost me no more than about £3 but I had decided to go by train. I knew the station was close to my hotel and my regular readers will know that I love trains, especially Asian trains.
I could tell you all about Fort Station but I won’t and you can stop sighing with relief now, I am merely saving it for another post!
There aren’t too many commuter trains during the day as the service seems to be entirely geared towards commuters. There is a bit of a glut in the morning and again in the early evening but not much in between. You will never be stranded as the bus services are so frequent. I went in and checked the train times and I had a fair old wait on my hands so I had a look at the rather grand statue you can see above. Here is what I wrote about it.
“Standing proudly outside the Fort Railway station and on a road that bears his name is a rather fine gold painted statue in memory of quite a remarkable man, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott (1832 – 1907). So who was this man and why does he merit such a prominent memorial in the heart of the Sri Lankan capital?
Olcott was born into a Presbyterian family in New Jersey, USA, the eldest of six children. Academically gifted, he eventually went to Columbia University but had to withdraw on the failure of his father’s business. He then began working as a journalist for various publications.
During the Civil War he served in the Army and rose to the rank of Colonel. He was well-respected and assisted into the investigation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After leaving military service he became a lawyer.
In 1874 he became interested in the Spiritualist movement that was popular at the time and met Helena Blavatsky who was to have a profound influence on him. They founded the Theosophical Society and in 1880 both publicly converted to Buddhism, the first Americans / Europeans so to do. They moved to India in 1879 to establish the Headquarters of the Society there and in 1880 travelled on to Sri Lanka.
As well as promoting Buddhism in the country, the Society also did more prosaic work, establishing four schools in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Kurunegala. Olcott returned to India where he died in 1907.
The last image shows the current headquarters building of the Theosophical Society which still flourishes in Sri Lanka.
Truly a remarkable life story and this is a fitting tribute to the man”.
There was still plenty of time before the train so my “faithfuls” will already know what is going to happen now. You’re right, it was beer o’clock.
“Not far from the station and sandwiched between a couple of shops was a building I had seen from across the road and thought to be derelict as you can hopefully see if from the image. It went by the name of the Colonial Hotel and looked about as dated as the concept of colonialism itself.
There were, however, some Wild West style swing doors and a pristine sign bearing the two words that gladdened my heart almost beyond belief – “Bar Open”, oh happy day!
I went straight in and was greeted by a long, narrow and completely no-frills bar with a few locals sitting drinking beer. Strangely, everyone appeared to be drinking alone and a surreptitious glance or two indicated that Lion beer appeared to be the local brew of choice. I went to the bar (which I have since found out is a strange thing to do as everywhere has waiter service) and in the international language uttered the immortal phrase, “beer, please”.
I still wasn’t quite sure how much of my Mother tongue was generally spoken but he replied in good English, enquiring whether I wanted Lion or Carlsberg. I opted for the Lion although I have since found out that they are much of a muchness as the Carlsberg is made under licence in Sri Lanka and tastes just about the same. I paid for the beer in the British fashion which seemed to surprise him a little as Sri Lanka adopts the tab system along with most of the rest of the world. Another lesson learned.
I completed my somewhat odd ritual of taking a photograph of my first beer (see image) in any new country which elicited a slightly incredulous look from the waiter and had my first draught of Sri Lankan beer. Very good it was too.
A short time after a Sri Lankan man came and sat at the next table to me and ordered a beer. After a while we made eye contact and I nodded a greeting and spoke to him, as you do. This prompted a conversation and his English was excellent. My travellers sense was mumbling “watch out for scammers” in the back of my head but the conversation carried on nicely and I remembered that I had initiated it. A scammer would have wasted no time in approaching me with some cock and bull story.
We had a great chat and he even gave me his business card, telling me to call him if I ever needed any assistance with anything in Colombo. He also insisted I share his snack of the slightly spicy local sausage I was to become so fond of. Nice guy.
I had read that there was a huge drinking culture here and the strength of the beer would tend to confirm that, the Lion Strong is a hefty 8.8% abv as is the Lion Stout. My new friend was downing the Strong with apparent relish. Given this drinking culture what happened next took me a little by surprise. At 1400 hours, they closed the bar! This seems to be quite common here with many bars closing between 1400 and 1700 in the afternoon.
I have since found out that when they close the bar at 1400 you can go up the stairs to the right of the door and continue drinking all afternoon. Downstairs reopens at 1700 and is open until 2300.
On my subsequent two visits to Sri Lanka I followed the same procedure of getting the bus into Pettah from the airport and heading straight here for a beer before travelling onwards. It has become something of a ritual and absolutely nothing seems to change, it was as if I had walked out the day before. Still dark, still male only, still using the floor as the ashtray and still recommended”.
I recrossed the Olcott Mawatha via the footbridge as to attempt it at ground level would indicate a suicidal tendency I do not have, the traffic is manic. I was in good time and so I had a look round with a few images naturally. The train arrived more or less on time which is unusual in Sri Lanka and even at the right platform which is not always a “gimme”.
The carriages were pretty basic with hard plastic seats but it is not a long journey and was made much more bearable as the line hugs the coast South our of Colombo so not only was there a pleasant breeze to alleviate the stifling heat but the sea views were pleasant.
I made the hotel without difficulty as it is only a short walk and I checked in. The charming man on the reception seemed a bit bemused by the fact that I had no luggage but I explained the situation and asked him to call my room if it ever turned up, which he or one of his colleagues subsequently did. Here is my report, suitably edited.
“The Sai Sea City Hotel was the first hotel I stayed in on my trip to Sri Lanka and it was an excellent introduction to the accommodation options of the country. I had booked online for seven nights but I was so pleased with it and fascinated by the city itself that I decided to stay a further seven which must tell you something. This was despite the fact that it cost marginally more than I normally budget for accommodation at $40US per night.
Booking online I had searched a bit but could not find out too much about Sai Sea City. Fortunately, with the assistance of my friend Treshi, who had been so helpful, I found out that it was relatively new which explained the lack of reviews.
I was initially greeted by a very friendly member of staff and this was to set the tone for the whole visit. All my dealings with the various members of staff were very positive and I was always greeted with a smile and a friendly word. The chambermaids were equally delightful even if they did have a bit of a habit of knocking the door whilst I was still asleep. A “do not disturb” sign might have been in order.
The room is as you see in the images with air-con, tea and coffee making facilities, a large flatscreen TV with a good selection of English speaking channels as well as the local ones and, most importantly, the bed was very comfortable. Whilst it was comfortable it was only about 6’0″ long but it was wide and I had no problem sleeping diagonally. I am well used to this problem as I am rather tall.
The bathroom was a wetroom shower with hot water (not needed in this climate) and regularly re-stocked toiletries including razors and shaving foam as well as the more usual items.
My room was to the rear of the hotel although there are more expensive sea view rooms which come at a price that is more than monetary. The front of the hotel is on a main road that is busy most of the day although not too bad at night so road noise may be an issue for the traveller.
More significantly the main Coast Line railway runs just beyond the road and there are trains up and down it from early morning to late at night. Travellers to Asia will know that train drivers on that continent use their horns prodigiously and I could hear the noise a bit even at the rear of the hotel.
The hotel is situated in the Wellewatta district to the South of the centre which is administratively known as Colombo 6. I found it a pleasant enough area and safe with a good selection of eating places.
There are a few tables in the foyer and I did see guests taking breakfast occasionally but I do not know if a full menu is offered as I certainly didn’t see one. The location means that it is about 20 – 30 minutes in a tuk-tuk into the
centre or slightly longer on one of the buses that run regularly along the Galle Road. If you really want, you
can walk along to Wellewatta station and get the train (about 20 minutes) which I did just for the experience but the bus / tuk-tuk is a better bet. If you do not fancy these options, the hotel can call you a conventional taxi.
There is wi-fi throughout the premises and the connection is good although you are restricted to 1 Gb usage, not that I ever used that much. There is 24 hour security and a safe at reception for valuables although there are no individual room safes.
Apologies for my ugly features in the bathroom image as it was the only way I could get the shot
Altogether, I was very well-pleased with my choice and I would certainly recommend it”.
After a power nap, shower and return to the only clothes I possessed at that point, I decide to sally forth and see what joys Wellawatta had to offer. I checked at reception and still no sign of the missing kit. There was nothing I could do about it so there was no point in worrying. I could always buy some more T-shirts, flip flops and shorts easily enough and that is about my standard wardrobe for the tropics.
I was a little concerned that I had not seen a single bar on my walk from the station despite this being Marine Drive, on the seafront albeit the beach is nothing to write home about but I expected some sort of hostelry. I took off in the other direction (South) and eventually stumbled upon a little beach bar which I am not going to tell you too much about as I am saving that as well. There is a great story coming up about that place.
I did what I do best and took into the Lion Lager with a bit of a vengeance. I later found out that the beer was considerably more expensive than other places in town but it had a lovely location on the beach with a pleasant breeze coming off the sea. I had the place completely to myself but that was fine by me although the owner did pop by from time to time for chat and a very pleasant chap he was too.
My images tell me that it was the wee small hours when I set out for bed. I was ambling along happily and then the Heavens opened in one of those short and extremely sharp showers that happen all over Asia. I was soaked to the skin which wasn’t a major problem as it was warm. Still no sign of my kit at reception so I went to my room.
Let’s take stock. I am in a foreign country with only the clothes I had been standing up in until I laid them out on the floor, completely sodden. I had nowhere to dry them, the windows didn’t open because of the air-con but I was as happy as can be. I towelled myself off, watched a bit of TV (they had the Food Channel in English!) and eventually drifted off to sleep.
Well, that was a bit of a day and I haven’t really even done anything yet. If you want to see what I do get up to then stay tuned and spread the word.