Weclome back one and all to the third instalment of my trip to Sri Lanka in early 2014 and my usual link to the first page of the series if you wish to start from the beginning.
If you haven’t read the previous pieces I should tell you that I had made it to Colombo but my luggage had not and so I only had the clothes I had travelled in which had been completely soaked in a downpour the previous evening and were currently spread out on the floor supposedly drying although that was going to take a while in an air-con room where the windows did not open.
If you want to know what happened next, please read on.
Friday, 10th January 2014.
I was awoken at some unearthly hour by the ‘phone ringing and it took me a moment to orientate myself as it always does in a strange hotel room. When I had gathered my thoughts I answered the ringing monster to receive the news that my missing luggage had arrived and could I please come down to reception to pick it up. No problem.
I pulled on my still soaking and by now fairly cold jeans and T-shirt and squelched my way barefoot down to the front desk where a delivery driver was standing with my bag, a clipboard and an envelope. I checked and signed for the bag and then he opened the envelope and counted out a large wad of Sri Lankan rupees which I also signed for.
I was still half asleep so did not do the conversion but when I did later the compensation was the equivalent of about £55 which, at Sri Lankan prices, would go quite a way. I thought later that I had probably come out ahead of the game as I was £55 up and had been spared the hassle of lugging a suitcase through central Colombo, on and off a train and then a walk to the hotel. Not bad.
I went back to my room and threw the soggy clothes I was wearing into the laundry bag for drying at the earliest opportunity. I rarely wear jeans in Asia unless I am trying to be “posh” and it is shorts all the way, at least during the day, so I would not miss the Wranglers too much. I had any amount of T-shirts so my Australian surf shirt could wait for the first laundry run. I went straight back to bed to sleep until a respectable hour.
The image above is the view from my hotel room. As I mentioned in the previous post I could have opted for a sea view at an additional 1,000 LKR (about £5) per night but if I wanted to look at the sea I would just go out for a walk along the front and even have the benefit of a breeze. I really don’t choose hotel rooms for the view as I am rarely in them long enough to appreciate said vista. At least I could see some palm trees!
I finally surfaced about 1100, had a shower and a change into some fresh clothes, which was welcome. I don’t know what it is about travelling as you don’t generally do anything to make you sweat or get you dirty and I had been on spotless aircraft, in pristine airports, ridden a clean bus etc. but long-haul moving always makes me feel slightly grubby. I got on one of my pairs of shorts and a T-shirt and felt like I was back in Asia. For me that is always a good feeling.
I don’t want the reader to think that I have gone all “hippy trippy” or anything but I honestly feel different when I go to Asia, anywhere in Asia. It is difficult to describe but it just seems as if I am meant to be there and probebly explains why I spend as much of my time there as I do. I have never actully worked it out but I suppose I must have spent about three years of my life on that wonderful continent which makes me a) very lucky to have had the opportunity to do it and b) very happy.
I have a friend who is into things that I only vaguely understand and only partially believe but she (and she reads this and knows who she is) reckons that in some previous incarnation I was Asian which would certainly explain a lot if it is true. For example, I know Africa is a wonderful continent with so much to see and do and yet it leaves me cold. I would no more consider travelling there than I would consider parachuting and with my fear of heights that will never happen. I appreciate it is a blinkered view but Asia just keeps drawing me back and Africa will have to do without me.
Enough of this philosophising and let’s go and see a bit of this Asia I have been prattling on about. As is my wont the plan was not to have a plan. My dear friend / travel companion Lynne has probably just cringed reading that as it drives her up the wall. She, like my friend Sarah who I mentioned in the last instalment, likes to plan and I am back to my “no right or wrong way to travel” soapbox again. Sorry.
I had scoped the seafront a little the previous evening so I thought I would head “inland” and see what that had to offer.
I was completely unworried about getting lost as I knew that all I had to do was find the sea (easily done, just keep going downhill and stop before you get wet) and then walk along the front until I got to the hotel. If all else failed it was just a matter of hailing a rickshaw which would take me home for a pound or two but that probably would not be necessary.
A few hundred yards brought me to the A2, much better known to everyone in Colombo is the Galle Road, which runs South out of central Colombo all the way to Galle, would you believe? I walked along it almost daily when I was in Colombo, I rode buses up and down it and caught the occasional late night rickshaw home from a night on the tiles in the Dutch Quarter and it is always busy.
I thought some of the roads in London were bad but this is utter lunacy, not helped by the fact that they seem to be digging up huge stretches of it at any given time. This was the situation on my two subsequent visits so I can only guess it is a fairly normal state of affairs for this major transport artery.
I have included the image above not because Boswell Place is of any great interest, it isn’t, it is a fairly nondescript street. I have included it to demonstrate the very diverse influences that have shaped modern day Sri Lanka. As you see, the sign is tri-lingual in Sinhalese, Tamil and English.
The Sinhalese are the majority group in Sri Lanka and are predominntly Buddhist. The Tamils were originally from the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and historically have populated the North of the island. They are almost exclusively Muslim.
Friction between the groups led to the appalling, bloody civil war which dragged on for 26 years from 1983 – 2009, left about 100,000 dead and the ramifications of which are still being felt today. Only yesterday (20/01/2021) the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, stated to a UN envoy that 20,000 people classified as “missing” after the conflict were in fact dead, thereby dashing the hopes of families who believed they were being held secretly by the security forces. The war may be over but the effects will be felt for generations. It is tragic as civil wars always are. Believe me, I know whereof I speak.
Of course the third language here is English and reflects the British rule over centuries here. Sri Lanka is noted as being a fine example of how to end colonial rule in a country. Basically the Sri Lankans approached the British Government and said, “we’d like to be independent please” and the British Government said, “OK”, an event which happened on 4th February, 1947 and which is commemorated annually on that day in huge National Day celebrations. If you hang around I’ll show you it in due course.
Who Boswell was I have no idea, and it annoys me that I cannot find out, but there is also a Boswell Road in Colombo, a hotel called Boswell Residencies and at least two Sri Lankan schools bearing his name. Whoever he was, he must have been important and the naming of the roads is interesting as English names sit side by side with the Sinhalese. For example, Clifford Place is next to Sagara Road and MacLeod Road is adjacent to Nandana Gardens. Colombo always has been a bit of a melting pot and remains so to this day.
Perhaps as interesting as the road signs is the advertising board underneath for Tokyo Super. The fairly generic logo does not give much of a clue as to the product being promoted but anyone in Sri Lanka could tell you. Would you believe cement?
I do not think I have ever seen cement advertised in Europe, it is just one of those things that you buy when you need it. I cannot imagine anyone seeing this and saying to themselves, “Oh, that’s a good idea, I think I’ll buy a bag of cement on the way home, just in case”, and yet Tokyo advertise anywhere and everywhere, I wish I had their advertising contract, I could afford a place in Colombo 3 (the posh part).
What the cement advertising does perhaps indicate is the vast amount of building that was going on in Colombo then and on subsquent visits in 2016 and 2017, it seems relentless. The centre of Colombo resembles one huge building site with skyscrapers, huge hotels and office blocks springing up everywhere. It appears that there was a lot of money sloshing about, or was there? Here are a couple of examples.
In early 2020 I read an excellent book entitled “The New Silk Roads” by Peter Frankopan who has a degree from Cambridge and a Ph.D from Oxford so he should know what he is talking about. Without going into it too deeply it deals with the re-emergence of the countries that were on those fabled routes (there were several “silk roads”) and specifically about the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (look it up) along with all the geopolitics involved.
The Chinese have been pumping money into Sri Lanka for years with the result they now control Colombo Port (the largest container facility in Southern Asia, pictured above) and have a 99 year lease on the failed vanity project Hambantota Port in the South in lieu of a defaulted debt by the Sri Lankan Government relating to it’s building with Chinese money. This gives them a deep water harbour in the Indian Ocean, a region they are vying with India for control of. I have already spoken of the Indians countering this by buying the moribund nearby airport. Interesting times indeed and you know what they say about interesting times.
All this thinking has made me hungry so let’s have lunch at least three pints of it but where to find it? There was nothing like a pub / bar so I chanced my luck at the Atlantic Hotel, hoping the were open to non-residents which they were. I suspect from the emptiness of the place they were glad of the custom. Here is what I wrote at the time.
“I had been out exploring the Wellewatta and Bambalapitaya areas of Colombo one day when I happened upon this place on the Galle Road and thought I would check it out.
It is a fairly typical Colombo hotel bar, pretty dark, clean enough and with several men sitting drinking alone at various tables, watching the TV which was the only source of entertainment.
Like most hotel bars there is food available here but I didn’t sample it. Service was quick enough, the prices about average at 250 Rs. for a big bottle of Lion lager and the toilets were OK if nothing special but I somehow found the whole place a bit soulless. I much prefer the Topaz bar in the Sapphire Hotel about half a mile away”.
That’s about it really and I promise you will get to see the Topaz Bar in due course.
Having had lunch I thought I had better have some food as well on the principle I don’t like to eat on an empty stomach! Here is what I wrote about what happened next.
“This really was a bit of an odd experience.
I was exploring along Galle Road in the Bambalapitiya area one evening and I fancied a bit to eat so when I saw the sign in the image I thought I would give it a try.
Authentic Pakistani cuisine, barbecue, biryani and roll (kebab roll presumably) all sounded good to me. The rather temporary looking notice on the door indicating chicken biryani or chicken fried rice at 200Rs. (approximately £1) was equally appealing. I took those to be the days specials.
I went upstairs and entered the clean but totally empty restaurant you can see in the image. The only person there was the chef, a pleasant enough chap with a reasonable grasp of English. I asked for a menu and he said there wasn’t one. The hand-written notice on the door was, in fact, the menu. Well, I had already decided I fancied a chicken biryani anyway so that was no problem.
Off he went and shortly produced the very tasty biryani you see which was served with a boiled egg, raw onion and a slice of fresh pineapple which I found a little odd but it was very fresh and went well with the meal.
We had a bit of a conversation during which it transpired that the restaurant was not in fact open despite the door being open. I am still not sure what that was all about. He also informed me rather ruefully that he was returning to Pakistan soon to be replaced by an Indian chef. What this will mean for the cuisine and the standards I really couldn’t say but it might be worth dropping in here just to see what happens next!”
I have checked online and it appears that things did not go well for this unusual place as the whole building is now a hotel.
After a quick wash and brush up at the hotel en route I decided another night in the beach bar might be the thing to do so that is what I did and again, remarkably, it was totally empty. I was literally the only customer there and there were at least three staff present, the boss, a young cook / barman and another guy who I think was staff as he was not eating or drinking but did not appear to do anything.
The boss sat with me and we had a great chat about everything and nothing as you do. I kept offering to go so he could close up but he would not hear of it and I do not know how he made a profit between wages, electricity and the like but apparently he does as the bar has been open for over 45 years now. I’ll tell you all about it in the next episode.
It is strange that I would not consider drinking lager when I am in the UK but when I travel I drink it and enjoy it greatly. I was already getting quite used to this Lion and was to get a lot more used to it. With nothing much else to do I started taking images and the young barman started larking about. I have always found the Sri Lankans to be a fun-loving people and they are usually up for a laugh. I hope I do not look too “tired and emotional” here.
With the chatting and the drinking it was gone 0100 when I wandered home, thankfully without getting soaked this time. Before I went I asked the boss what time he opened and he told me. I cannot remember exactly the hour stated but I knew I could visit during the day if I wanted, it was not just an evening place. Good to know.
In the next instalment I drink some more beer (obviously), examine some postboxes and go a bit Bollywood! I am sure you would not want to miss that so stay tuned and spread the word.