Welcome as always one and all to the second part of my day out in Colombo on Monday, 13th January 2014 which I decided to break halfway as it was getting a but cumbersome due to my apparently incurable verbosity. As you can see this is already the sixth post in a series which has only thus far covered five days of a three month trip to Sri Lanka.
I think that writing this up is going to be a bit of a lengthy process but at present, like so many others around the world, I have absolutely nothing else to do. I am under the strictest house arrest conditions yet imposed in an apparently vain attempt to halt the pandemic that has now mutated in the UK and is wreaking absolute havoc. I am quite glad to have something to keep me occupied.
There are a couple of options for the reader if they have just arrived at this page other than reading through the earlier entries. If you want to read the whole trip from the beginning then it begins here, or if you just want to read about today you can do so on this page.
You will remember that at the end of the last instalment I was wandering towards the port and I was teasing you as to what my next move was going to be, joking that regular readers would easily guess. Yes, it was beer o’clock again so I was glad to see the Tap Bar advertised. Working on the Oscar Wilde philosophy that “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”, in I went and here is what I thought of it in my contemporaneous notes.
“I had been mooching about the Fort area and had indeed walked all the way in from Wellewatta which is a fair old hike and I fancied a beer so no surprise there. I saw a sign indicating the Tap Bar and that was the decision made. It was down steps, like many of the “dive bars” I have frequented in various places and which usually form the lower end of the bar scale. I have been in some right rough ones and generally loved them!
Entering the bar it was apparent that this was not your usual dive bar but a clean, orderly and quite upscale establishment. I ordered my beer from the very well turned out barman and had a look round. It was not overly busy with a few guys sitting round one table and that was it. OK, it was only about three in the afternoon and presumably most honest folk were at work. My local in London can be like that on a midweek afternoon.
I had a bit of a conversation with the barman who spoke good English and watched as a chef scurried in and out of what was obviously his huge pantry adjacent to the bar area. It looked spotless as did he. When the bill came, it was not hugely expensive and so it was with some surprise that I later found out that this place was actually part of the Grand Oriental Hotel which you see above and which is a very historic and well-regarded establishment in Colombo.
I am not sure if they would have let a scruff like me into one of the main bars in the place but I seemed to be acceptable in the Tap. To be honest, if I was in this area now, wth the knowledge I have subsequently gained, I would go fifty yards round the corner to the Flying Angel Club (see below) but this is certainly a decent place for a drink or two. The Tap Bar certainly seems to have a good selection of drinks including plenty of imported spirits if that is your thing. As always, I stuck to beer.
The toilets were spotless as you would expect in a an expensive hotel like this. Regrettably, due to it’s downstairs location this place will not be wheelchair accessible if that is a concern for the reader.
Apologies for the poor quality of the indoor image but I do not like firing off flash indoors when people are trying to relax”.
Coming out of the Tap Bar I could not go any further in the direction I was going as this is the Port area and security was extremely tight even though the Civil War had finished five years before. I shall again allow my original notes to explain what happened next.
“I have mentioned already that whilst there is a drinking culture in Sri Lanka, they certainly don’t make it overly easy for the traveller and you have to really seek out watering holes. I had read in my guidebook about the Mission to Seafarers aka the Flying Angel Club and decided to seek it out. I am really glad I did as it turned out to be a remarkable place and one of my favourite haunts in Colombo.
OK, I know what you are thinking. Sailors club, it is going to be dog rough, there are going to be fights, ladies of “negotiable affection” (to borrow a phrase from the wonderful late Sir Terry Pratchett), drunks lying about everywhere, filthy toilets etc. etc. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is a wonderfully run place, spotless, friendly, inexpensive with great facilities and ne’er a lady of the night to be seen. Generally, there weren’t too many of anybody to be seen and I often had the place to myself.
Firstly, to the logistics. The place is a little intimidating to get to as it lies beside the police station in the sealed off dock area (there were many bombings in this part of the city during the war between the Tamils and Sinhalese relatively recently) and there are always plenty of police and security men around. If you ask for the Grand Oriental Hotel, any tuk-tuk will take you there.
As you face the main door, walk down to the right past the security guards and mangy if friendly dog, past the Church (see separate tip) and you will see the sign as shown here. Walk up the steps to the left (also shown). If you go straight ahead you will come to the office. At the top of the stairs walk, straight on, through the glass doors and you are there.
Chances are that you will be greeted by Peter the manager who is simply a top bloke, he really could not have been nicer. You will have to sign in the visitors book which I believe is some sort of legal requirement and the columns you have to fill are name, country, position and vessel. I wasn’t going to lie to the guy and told him I was not from a vessel but just a “landlubber” traveller and filled in my flight number. That was no problem at all. I think the book is merely to keep the locals out.
Peter told me that “traveller” was a perfectly acceptable thing to enter for position or rnk or whatever it was and I must admit it gave me an inordinate amount of pleasure to write it. For some years now since my retirement I have considered myself to be a traveller and musician in no particular order but to actually put it in an official document and have it so graciously accepted as a valid entity really pleased me. It just felt like I had been accepted into some sort of club or something. Stupid I know but little things like that just make me happy.
It put me in mind of a time on the East Coast of Australia back in 1991 when I had been told that the RSL (Returned Services League) was the place to go for a meal on a Sunday evening as most restaurants were shut. There was a man on the door and you had to be a member or live over 25 kilometres (or was it miles?) from the venue to be admitted. I produced my passport, gave my London address and showed the London issued visa and that was deemed to be well in excess of the required distance. About half a world to be precise!
Peter and I had been talking one evening about the ridiculously large number of bracelets I have on my right wrist and what each signified (I don’t just buy them, they are all gifts and all mean something very special to me) and a couple of nights later when I popped in for a drink he announced he had a present for me. He had only gone and bought me a typical Sri Lankan little thread bracelet which has a religious significance, something to do with Buddhism and I insisted he tie on me and I am proudly wearing as I type this. I digress, as usual!
(Update April 2016).
Regular readers know that like to keep my tips up to date and I am now back in Sri Lanka and still very proudly wearing the bracelet!)
As I mentioned, the place is usually pretty quiet and you can indulge in a chat with Peter, who speaks excellent English, or perhaps watch a programme on the large screen TV. They are quite happy to change channels depending on the clientele at the time. There is an excellent free wi-fi connection here and I saw sailors using Skype or similar to have conversations with people at home. Well, I think that is what they were doing but being sailors they may well have been fixing up a date in the next port of call.
If you don’t have your own laptop, netbook, tablet or whatever the heck people are using these days (it is no secret I am a technophobe) there are a few internet booths available for use. I did not enquire what the charge was, if any.
There is even a half decent guitar (pictured) which I tuned and picked out bit of a tune on. Peter did ask me to come back and play some night but for one reason or another it did not seem to happen.
Should you want to eat there is a fairly small menu but Peter told me he makes it all himself and seems to be very proud of his food. Again, for one reason or another I never actually got round to eating here nor did I see anyone else do so and therefore cannot comment on the food. It claims to be open 1000 – 2100 every day but be aware that they close early on a Friday night at 2000 so the staff can go out and enjoy themselves. Well deserved too.
I do suggest that if you are in the Fort area of Colombo and fancy a drink or internet use or whatever that you seek this place out, it is a complete gem and you too can get to write “traveller” in the book. How good would that make you feel? Incidentally, Peter has got my business card which has the same image as my profile page so tell him I sent you”!
I know you are absolutely dying to know this so I can tell you that in 2021 over eight years after receiving it, still have the bracelet on!
I mention frequently in my blogs that ineteresting situations seem to find me even if I do not go looking for them and what hppened next is a perfect example of that so back to more original notes for an explanation.
“I bumped into this guy in the Mission to Seaman aka the Flying Angel down by the port which is frequented, as the name suggests, by visiting mariners and the odd traveller like myself although I only have the manager’s word for that as I reckon everyone else I saw in there was a seafarer.
The chap in the image approached me and asked, in perfect English, if he could join me. Sure, no problem, I know Sri Lankans are very hospitable and love a chat as do I. He started to telling me that he was the Harbour Master which I found a little odd. Why would the Harbour Master be drinking in the Seafarers Club? It seemed a little implausible although his English was excellent even to the point of having a fairly cultured accent.
After the usual chitchat he was telling me that he could send 2 kilogrammes of tea to my home address in London free as he had access to so much of it in the warehouses. Alarm bells really started to ring now.
I should add that during the course of this whole conversation we had been joined by a lovely Australian guy, a long-term expat who happened to be deaf although he was not mute. By the very clever expedient of typing a draft document on his ‘phone and showing me it he warned me not to give my “new best friend” any money that he was a scammer. What happened next was a bit surreal and just another example of the strange sort of things that seem to happen to me on the road.
We had already established that the Aussie guy could lip read me OK which was an interesting thing to learn. Those people reading this that know me know that I have a fairly thick Belfast accent that is fairly impenetrable at the best of times but it appears that it does not translate to my lips. I had never even thought about a thing like that until that point and it was just another lesson learned. Obviously, I was “speaking” slowly and trying to form all my sounds very clearly even exaggerating my mouth positions slightly. The reason I have put the word speaking in inverted commas is that I wasn’t actually making a sound.
If we were talking about general things he would answer me vocally but on the couple of occasions he wanted to refer to the scammer he would say something like, “Oh, here is a photo from when I was in Indonesia” or some such. The way we were positioned at table meant that the scammer could not see the draft text he was actually showing me. It really was quite amusing one way and another.
I was still conducting my conversation in the normal manner with the alleged Harbour Master and frankly leading him on a bit, pretending to be really interested, telling him how much I loved tea, regaling him with a (true) story of drinking tea on a plantation in Darjeeling in India and so on. He must have thought he had found a right mark and I should confess that I was laying it on a bit thick.
Eventually, he hit me with the sting. The tea would be free obviously, as he had promised but the post and packing was going to cost 400Rs. To put this in context, that is just less than £2 Sterling or about $3US so it is hardly on a par with a Nigerian scam.
The thick accent I mentioned earlier got ramped up about 15% as did the speed of delivery, and I merely said to him whilst still smiling, “Do you think I came down the Lagan in a bloody bubble, you muppet”? For those of you not aware, this is a Belfast expression used to say to someone, “Do you think I’m stupid / naive / green or whatever”. I doubt even my English friends could have deciphered it and it was pretty priceless.
When it was obvious he was not getting any money and had been rumbled he made his excuses and left as the expression is. Anyway, you have the image of him now so beware. I don’t know where else he might frequent but just look out for him. I don’t know if the 400Rs. scam might have led onto another bigger one if I had been gullible enough to bite. Who knows? I am not suggesting you play games with him as I did although it might amuse you if you are sure of yourself but I suspect a polite refusal of his company at the outset would suffice”.
The whole incident related above took place on the verandah where I had retired for smoke and because it was a lovely warm day and it gave me superb view of the Port building you can see in the image above which I would love to have had a closer look at but the security situation just would not allow that.
Whilst researching this piece and, contrary to appearances I do a bit of research, I could find out precious little about the building save that it was opened in 1928 as the passenger terminal for Colombo Port and it must have been a very grand place to catch your ship from. You could even walk the 100 yards or so from the Grand Oriental Hotel for departure.
What I did find online was an absolute raft (nautical pun intended) of articles relating to the new port facility I mentioned in the last entry and more generally the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which I knew a bit about but had no idea of it’s scale in Colombo.
The area of reclaimed land currently under development with £1.07bn. of borrowed Chinese money will roughly double the size of central Colombo and include hotels, offices and even a theme park. Just about every major news resource has written about this which gives an indication of the global importance of the subject. I have selected a couple of the better articles here, one from the (London) Guardian and one from the New York Times, they really are worth a look.
After that it was just a matter of relaxing with a few beers before heading back to Wellawatta, this time under propulsion from the internal combustion engine rather than leg power.
I realise this has been a bit of a long day and believe me it was a long day doing it never mind writing about it. I the next instalment things relax a bit so we shall probably get a few days in one post. If you want to find out all about it then stay tuned and spread the word.