Greetings to one and all and I do hope you are enjoying may latest series of entries about my first trip to Sri Lanka in the early part of 2014 which is the optimum time of year to visit that wonderful country. It supposedly does not rain much then although I have seen some heroic thunderstorms in January and February but, shall we say, it rains less than in June or July which are just usually completely washed out.
A quick word here, as always. This post will make more sense if you read from the start which you can do here.
13th January, 2014.
I awoke on a Monday morning, the 13th which I hoped was not going to be unlucky for me, to another slightly overcast but dry and warm day. Of course, I only knew this when I went outside as my sealed and air-conditioned room cushioned me from the outside world fairly effectively as the windows were sealed.
I have discussed in previous posts my reasons for not going sightseeing and doing the tourist thing in central Colombo so I shall not go into that again but I had decided that, at the start of a new week, I should go and see something and so I girded my loins for the journey into central Colombo. That is another great archaic saying like “sallying forth” which I used in my last episode and I must apologise again for the awful folk song lyrics I inflicted upon the poor reader, you really did not deserve that.
The train was certainly an option which was how I had travelled to Wellawatta in the first place and the bus along the Galle Road was another, probably better, option but I chose to walk. I like walking, you see a lot more and I had the whole day to do exactly as I pleased and so I went out of the hotel, turned right (North) on Marine Drive and stepped out.
As always I had no fear of getting lost. In case of doubt, find the sea and walk South and sooner or later I would be home or, better still, grab a metered tuk-tuk who would take me there cheaply in minutes and therein lies another tip for the traveller, always get rickshaw with a meter and make sure the driver uses it.
Most cabs in Colombo were metered the last time I was there (2017) and most drivers will use the meter but you still get the very occasional cowboy trying to rip off the traveller. They are few and far between and I do not wish to put the potential visitor off using a very useful mode of transport but just be careful. I just wish cabs in London were as cheap!
I decided that a day’s walking, which is what I had planned in the loosest possible terms, required a bit of fuel and so I popped into the Yaal restaurant for a bite of breakfast albeit that it was about lunchtime for hard-working Sri Lankans.
Yaal Jaffna restaurant.
The Yaal is a Tamil restaurant which means that it is run by Muslim people from the North of the country and this might be an appropriate time to make some mention of a subject thst I really wish I didn’t have to speak of but I feel I would be failing in my duty of fair reporting, which I always seek to do, if I did not.
I was brought up in Northern Ireland in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s before I had the good sense to get out and therefore I know all about religious / ethnic / political hatred and the hideous consequences thereof. Almost in tandem with that was the appalling civil war in Sri Lanka from 1983 – 2009 which produced atrocities on both sides that would make you weep. I am not at all ashamed to say that it has made me weep. This was only five years before I was there but I must say I never felt threatened in any way the whole time I was in Sri Lanka, or on subsequent visits there.
To give you the whole thing in a nutshell, and I could write complete theses about it, the predominantly Muslim Tamils, who originally came from Southern India (Province of Tamil Nadu, hence the name Tamil) had settled in the North and East of Sri Lanka. They wanted a seperate state, away from the Sinhalese and predominantly Buddhist population who lived mostly in the South and West.
There was a civil war and far too many tears shed. Eventually the Sinhalese Government defeated the LTTE aka Tamil Tigers, who were prosecuting the said war allegedly on behalf of their people That is the potted history although it is a fascinating subject and one the reader may wish to explore for themselves.
I must stress yet again that the reader should have no fear at all about visiting this most serendipitous of countries, and there is a reason I use that word, assuming of course that we are ever able to travel overseas again. At present it looks unlikely in my lifetime.
I was met with extreme hospitality in both Sinhalese and Tamil places and I think the absolute clincher is that, when I was visiting them, I did not know which was which. I was treated with the utmost courtesy everywhere.
I had no thought of civil war, death and destruction as I sat in the Yaal and ordered a “breakfast” (at lunchtime) snack. Tamil? Sinhalese? I neither knew nor cared although I did find out much later that there is a fairly sizeable Tamil community in Colombo 6, which is where I was.
Any budget backpackers reading this will wince slightly at the sight of the dhal as it is a staple of the extreme budget traveller due to being extremely cheap and nutritionally filling. It was fine for me as I had not had any for years and this was as good an offering as I have had anywhere in Asia. Great job and I was to return to the Yaal for a further meal which I shall tell you about several episodes hence, if you have not lost the will to live by then due to reading this drivel and probably being unable to travel.
I was going to say I walked down the road into Colombo but that would be a lie and I hope you know by now that I attempt to be as truthful as possible in my posts here. I walked down the railway. Stupid? Undoubtedly. Wonderful? Beyond anything you can imagine. I do not recommend walking train lines, people get killed that way although everyone in Southern Asia seems to do it, but it was just so marvellous it was like all my birthdays had come at once.
There is something completely wonderful about walking along a rail track but I kept looking and listening and I knew that any driver approaching me would sound the horn very loudly, just before slamming the brakes on, cursing volubly and probably calling the police. This did not happen but something strange did as you can see above.
I know that “Western” football (soccer) is huge in Asia. Manchester United have several very expensive restaurants on that continent and in the popularity stakes and I know that continental teams like Barcelona and Inter Milan also have a following but I certainly did not expect to see the graffiti shown above. Dynamo Dresden? They are a team in the Bundesliga (football / soccer top flight in Germany) and I really did not expect to see this. They were an average team then but a quick look on the internet shows they are top o the Bundesliga at time of writing (January 2021). Go Dresden, as the Americans might say and I never would. Oops, I just did.
It was only two or three miles into town along the tracks / road when a train was coming, which wasn’t often, and I had dined on roti and dhal as I have told you so there was no reason for me to feel hungry but I did. These were the days before my duodenal ulcer was insidiously eating away at me utterly unnoticed and the curing of which you can read all about here if you are vaguely interested.
Back in early 2014 in Sri Lanka I had the appetite of a horse who has had a hard day in the fields. I have spoken often on my blog posts about how much I love Southern Asian cuisine which passes itself off in the UK as “Indian” restaurants even if the vast majority of them are Bangladeshi owned and staffed. Certainly there are some Pakistani run places, moreso in the Midlands and North of England, but that is not the point here.
Sunhill Chinese restaurant.
The point is that I wandered into a “Chinese” restaurant where I did not see anyone that appeared to be from the country of origin of the food. Certainly, there may have been a Fujianese cook (the largest group of mainland Chimes emigrés but I did not see him or her. Why did I do this?
We are back to my earlier comments about travelling. I went into a “Chinese” restaurant because I felt like doing it and that is the great delight of travelling as I do. I go where I want, when I want. I eat what I want to eat where and when I choose to. I go out sightseeing if I feel like it or lie in bed if I don’t, it really is a great philosophy. I still pity those poor souls who sign up for a cruise or coach trip but we are back to another of my many travel soapboxes, there is no right or wrong way to travel. If a cruise or coach trip suits you then go for it both barrels and I wish you happy trails.
In the Sunhill “Chinese” restaurant I had another snack meal which I ineplicably did not take an image of but the images above show that the restaurant was empty.
Had I been a weaker minded man I would have been getting a touch paranoid by now as everywhere I went seemed to be totally empty. Thankfully I am not given to such delusions and consoled myself with the fact that it was a Monday afternoon and so restaurants were unlikely to be full.
In the event, it did not matter a jot whether the place was full or empty, I got a great lunch for what I would decribe in British terms as “half nothing” and continued on along the coast road which had now metamorphosed from Marine Drive into Colombo Plan Road. It was the same South of my hotel and I wondered then, as I still do, what the plan was. Perhaps I just think too much.
Shortly thereafter following another spot of rail walking and, again I must stress, don’t do this in Europe or you will probably die. Trust me, I have seen what trains do to people and it is not pretty, never mind the electrified rails.
Approaching the Southern outskirts of Colombo proper, I came upon the monument you see above. It is out of the way, will probably never be visited by any organised tour of Colombo and yet it speaks volumes about the post-British history of this lovely country if you take the time to learn it. I would never have discovered this had I not decided to go for a walk.
The monument, fairly hidden away, commemorates the death in 1966 of Dhambarave Rathanasara Thero at this spot. I am sadly brought back to something that I mentioned in my last post which was that hiding your head in the sand doesn’t make bad things go away. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, there is nothing online about Dhambarave Rathanasara Thero or his demise in 1966, he is just another airbrush in history. “Uncle Joe” Stalin, mass murderer that he was, would have been proud.
This unassuming monument is interesting because it speaks of the Prejudice of the Official Languages Act and blames the “then” Government for the slaying of the venerable Thero. That is telling in itself. The current oligarchy of the Rajapaksa family (rendered here as Rajapakse), firmly under the control of the Chinese as discussed in the last episode, were using every means possible to distance themselves from former regimes.
The current head of the oligarchy is Mahinda Rajapaksa, so called because he does not like his first given name of Percy. He has been either Prime Minister of President since 2004, he flips between roles. At time of writing he is Prime Minister and is also the Minister of Finance when he gets a moment.
I don’t want to get into Sri Lankan politics as they are just as dirty, immoral and self-seeking as politics anywhere else in the world and so we shall walk on.
As you walk along the Galle Road (A2 if you want to use your maps) the buildings just get taller. Two or three stories in Wellawatta, four or five by about Bambalapitaya and full blown skyscrapers in Colombo 1. I thought as I was coming into the centre I had probably better get off the rails just in case and so I cast “inland” where I came upon the Bavarian Bar and here is what I wrote abour it at the time, complete with the title which really tells you everything.
I just didn’t like it.
“This tip concerns a very popular bar / restaurant in the centre of Colombo which I visited one afternoon. I am generally a little wary of foreign themed bars as I always find them a bit false and would much rather drink in some dive of a locals place anyway. That is more my scene and I tend to have far better experiences there. It is for that reason that I avoid like the plague the Irish bars that are ubiquitous worldwide.
The bar in question is the Bavarian at the start of Galle Road and it features heavily in guidebooks and online. As the name implies it is a German themed establishment and so in I wandered for a look round. I sat at the bar and noticed that there was draught beer which is somewhat of a rarity in Sri Lanka with bottles and cans being the preferred options. I ordered my then usual Lion lager (now changed to Three Coins which I had not discovered then and prefer) and had a bit of a look round.
The Bavarian was certainly busy enough with well-heeled Sri Lankan business people in for lunch. Presumably they can afford the fairly steep prices (by local standards) here.
Although German themed the menu seemed fairly pan European / international with the daily specials including bruschetta and a roast turkey pasta of all things. I hope it wasn’t still Xmas leftovers although it didn’y worry me as I didn’t bother to eat there. Whilst I like the occasional bit of “home cooking”, if I am in Sri Lanka I prefer a bit of rice and curry or a devilled dish. I can eat bruschetta and pasta in a hundred Italian restaurants in London, or better still in Italy.
The bar is well-stocked with a good selection of imported spirits and a wine list which looked a bit pricey. I know nothing about wine so I will not venture an opinion on the quality of the cellar. The appalling German pop music playing didn’t assist matters and sounded like it had been recorded circa 1986.
It would be unfair to label the Bavarian a tourist trap because it is not. It is obviously a well-established and well-patronised place, it is just not my kind of place. Indeed, my Colombo contact told me that she loves it there which must say something. Please visit by all means and decide if it is to your liking”.
For the reasons stated I restricted myself to the one beer and took to exploring again and I did not have far to go because just opposite the bar is the imposing structure you can see above which is the Galle Face Hotel.
Galle Face Hotel.
The word iconic is perhaps overused and I know I am guilty of such writing but it really is applicable to this hotel which has even featured on a Sri Lankan postage stamp. The Galle Face was originally converted to it’s present use by four British entrepreneurs in 1864 which gives the name “1864” to the fine dining restaurant, one of three you can choose from. It had previously been a Dutch mansion called Galle Face House. It was massively extended in 1894.
The guest book reads like a who’s who and includes the author Arthur C. Clarke, who finished one of his books here, Prince Philip, whose first ever car is preserved in the Hotel Museum, Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, Prime Minister Gandhi of India, Yuri Gagarin, Lord Mountbatten and Noël Coward.
The Galle Face is far too rich for my blood but I have had high tea there which is superb and which I will tell you about when it comes round in the history of my several trips to Sri Lanka.
Galle Face Green.
I headed back towards the sea for a walk along Galle Face Green which the Hotel naturally faces and here is what I wrote about the Green contemporaneously.
“One of the major things to do in Colombo mentioned in my guidebook and on any travel website you care to read is a visit to Galle Face Green, so I did. Now it is great to have a green space in the middle of any major city, and doubly so if it is beside the ocean but I really don’t see what all the fuss is about nor why it is so popular.
Certainly it is a pleasant enough place and even on a midweek afternoon there were a fair number of people about but it didn’t seem all that special to me. I believe it gets much busier at the weekend and presumably all the vendor stalls will be open then which they weren’t when I visited.
Naturally, I took a few photos, paused to watch a few hardy souls having a paddle but decided that was not the thing for me. Far too close to the centre of a major city for that kind of thing although it was a hot day andit may have been refreshing on the feet.
So what is Galle Face Green all about and why is it so revered by Sri Lankans that even the railway which runs arrow straight along the coast all the way to Matara even deviates to avoid it?
It all started in 1859 when the British Governor of Ceylon, as it then was, laid out an open space called Colpitty Racecourse. It was much larger than the current Green as I doubt a decent thoroughbred could even get up to speed here now. As the name suggests it was a horse racing course and not only that but it also boasted a golf course so it must have indeed been sizeable.
Despite having been considerably downsized, it seems to retain a special place in Colombo life and long may it remain so. Have a look at the images and decide what you think yourself but no visit to Colombo would be complete without at least one stroll along the promenade here, it is free after all”.
As well as my piece about the Green I also mentioned the Lifesaving Station I came upon.
“I saw the sign in the image above on Galle Face Green in central Colombo and, to be honest, it is a fairly necessary warning anywhere on the island from what I have read and been told.
Whilst Sri Lanka boasts some truly stunning beaches, indeed that is a major attraction, there are all sorts of unpredictable rips and the like which can catch out even the strongest swimmer. I saw a few people paddling but nobody was actually swimming although presumably people do as there was a Sri Lankan Coastguard Life Saving Station there. I have seen them elsewhere as well.
It appears and there have been a number of drownings in this area. The most recent figures I can find, which are admittedly a little old, are that no less than 16 people lost their lives to drowning in Colombo in 2012 which is a fairly horrendous figure.
Personally, I would not have considered even paddling here as you are right in the middle of a major city which perhaps does not have the most advanced sewage treatment system in the world and a swim would not have been to my taste. I am not trying to put a damper on anyone’s fun, this is just a gentle reminder to always seek local advice about where and when you swim and obviously obey all signs and / or Coastguard instructions. They do these things for a reason”.
I mentioned in my last episode the amount of building that was going on in Colombo at the time and the image above is an indication of that. It was a huge parcel of cleared land which had formerly been the old Army HQ and I thought the opening date of 2015 advertised on the hoardings was a bit ambitious and so it proved to be as the hotel was not opened until November 2017.
Sadly the hotel was one of the targets of the appalling Easter Sunday 2019 Islamic suicide bombings which left a total of 267 dead. The fatalities here included a famous celebrity chef and her daughter and three of the four children of a Danish billionaire. I shall make no further comment about my feelings towards suicide bombers.
Old Parliament Building.
The rather fine structure you see in the image above is the Old Parliament Building (neo – Baroque style if you are interested) which was originally constructed in 1930 at a cost of 450,000 rupees.
It was built to house the Legislative Council of Ceylon but that only lasted for a year when it was taken over by the State Council for Ceylon (don’t worry about the difference, there isn’t much). On gaining independence in 1947 it became home to the House of Representatives and then the National State Assembly until the entire Governmental apparatus moved to a purpose built complex elsewhere. It currently houses the Presidential Secretariat.
I have included the second image so you can see how far back it extends and also the other Government buildings behind it. The next one along is the Treasury. Another short walk and another “tip” for you as per VT.
“The structure you see in the image here is an unusual and a very long-standing landmark right in the middle of the Fort area of Colombo which has long been the heart of the capital. If you look closely you can probably tell that is performs, or more correctly performed, two functions.
Look at the top and you will see that it is a lighthouse which was built initially as a clocktower, would you believe? It is said that the reason for this is that the wife of the then British Governor Sir Henry Ward, was so annoyed at what she perceived as tardy Oriental timekeeping that she ordered it’s construction.
Sir Henry must have been a very active Governor as it was he who also laid out the Colpitty Racecourse, part of which now forms the popular Galle Face Green (see above). The clocktower was built in 1860 and the clock mechanism was made by the same manufacturers that made what is popularly known as Big Ben in London, although that is an incorrect term as Big Ben refers to the hour bell, but that is another story.
Five years later, the light was added to the top to replace an earlier beacon dating from 1820. As Colombo grew and the buildings got taller they eventually eclipsed the light and so a new one had to be built nearer the coast. I cannot imagine who would have given planning permission to build a structure that obscured a lighthouse but there you go, I am not a town planner. It was finally decommissioned in 1952.
The reader should note that the roads leading to the clocktower on three sides are closed as it is part of the security zone around the port which is still very much in evidence despite the end of the war in the country. I took this image from a distance from Bank of Ceylon Mawatha (the very nice policeman gave me permission) but you can get closer to it on Chatham Road. You cannot get into the building so an outside look is all you will get but it is pleasing to see a very well-preserved reminder of times gone by in the middle of a very bustling city centre”.
Onward, ever onward, there is still plenty to see and by now it was gone 1530 and my next move was fairly predictable so I shall leave you to guess what it might be although it will not take much working out for regular readers. I am going to break here before this post becomes unmanageably long, if it is not already.
If you want to fond out what the rest of the day held, and I promise you I had a couple of interesting experiences, then stay tuned and spread the word.