Hello again and warm greetings to one and all in this the latest edition of a series of posts about my first visit to Sri Lanka between January and April 2014 and much of which was originally written up on a now sadly shut down website called Virtual Tourist.
If you have been reading these pieces from the beginning you will know that some of the text comes from reviews aka tips which I had written there and managed to salvage before VT was destroyed. I shall indicate where this is the case. The rest is being written in January 2021 when it is illegal for me to leave my home except for some very specific reasons due the the virus pandemic currently devastating the world.
My blogging is in large part an attempt to retain my last vestiges of sanity under these circumstances and if you wish to read this particular series from the beginning, you can do so here.
If you read the last episode you will know that I shoehorned three days into one post as I had done very little on the principle that I felt like doing very little which is the way I travel.
I do not want to labour the point, which I have made several times in other posts on this blog but when I am on the road I do what I want when I want and don’t set out with the intention of seeing everything possible. Apart from generally being an unachievable ambition, it really does not strike me as being any fun.
Also, I was on a 90 day visa and I had taken my room for a further week on top of the week I had initially booked so time wasn’t exactly an issue. I most certainly was not following an “if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium” type of regime which would be my idea of a nightmare.
17th January 2014.
By the self-same principle, on Friday the 17th I woke up and decided I was going to be a complete tourist and have a good look round central Colombo. I warn you that I did actually manage to do quite a lot this day so you may wish to get yourself comfy, grab a drink of your choice and settle in for a bit of a saga.
Sightseeing or not, I do not do early mornings if I can avoid it and certainly not if I don’t have to check out of my hotel so it was just gone 1100 when I set off. This is pretty early for me and immediately I had a decision to make. How was I going to get into the centre of Colombo?
If you have read the earlier posts here you will know that I had walked along the railway track beside the sea a few days previously so I didn’t fancy doing that again and walking along the hectic Galle Road with the noise and appalling vehicle fumes was never going to be an option so it was down to train, bus or taxi.
The train is cheap, goes faster than the bus as it does not stop so often but apart from peak hours morning and evening the service is sketchy to say the least. Also, it was a bit of a walk to Wellawatta station.
I had a choice of three bus services which gave a very frequent service between them and which are as cheap as the train but so slow because of the appalling traffic in and around Colombo. For a taxi I could either hail a three wheeler or the hotel could call me a nice shiny air-con car but I didn’t fancy that as I can do it at home.
In the end I plumped for the train, mostly because I love everything to do with railways as you will find out shortly and partly because I had hustled through Wellawatta station fairly quickly, half-asleep with jetlag and a few beers in me on the morning I had arrived and so had completely failed to take any images which I wanted to have to write about it online.
It was another warm, sunny day with only the occasional cloud and it was a pleasure to wander along Marine Drive to the station. Thankfully there is a footbridge over Marine Drive as it is pretty busy although nothing to match Galle Road. The image taken from it shows what I mean and this was a reasonably quiet time of day, you should see it in rush hour.
The image on the right I thought long and hard about taking and again about publishing here but we are back to the “hiding your head in the sand” idea that I mentioned in previous posts in this collection. Sad as it is, there is poverty in Sri Lanka, often visible as here. Regrettably it it the same in many parts of he world.
Ordinarily I would ask any subject before taking an image but that clearly was not an option here as I wasn’t going to wake the poor man up just to ask him to take his photo. I decided I was justified in publishing it as the subject is clearly totally unidentifiable and it illustrates an important point. I suppose the footbridge was as good a place as any for him as he was shaded from the hot sun and sheltered from the rainstorms that can appear at any time in Sri Lanka.
These images are of Wellawatta Station which is really more of a halt, one of many all along this section, than a proper station. There is not much about the place and even less online regarding it’s history so it is only an educated guess that the rather forlorn section of wall you can see in the right hand image as I cannot imagine why else they would have built this slightly ornate façade.
What I can tell you is that Wellewatte is the fifth station South from Fort and is a distance of 7.2 km. although it did take a while to get there but I cannot complain as my ticket cost a mere 10LKR which was about five pence then. Yes, a whole five pence and they even issue a proper ticket for that sum, employ someone to issue it and someone to check it at the other end. Crazy.
Whilst I was waiting for the 8344 Colombo Commuter service to Maradana at 1148 hrs., and what about that for complete research, I rather let my imagination and my capabilities get mixed up and had a go at using the video function on my little compact camera. I had only tried this once or twice before and with varying degrees of success but when I saw a train thundering towards the station and obviously not stopping I thought I would have a go and took the short clip which you can see here. Do you like the pan at the end? Very Francis Ford Coppola.
When I eventually got to Fort I rather unusually had the beginnings of a plan which is unusual for me. Here is the plan and the execution of it from my contemporaneous notes which I published originally under the title “Slightly disappointing”.
National Railway Museum.
“It is no secret to anyone having read my other pages here that I love railways and take every opportunity to “ride the rails”. I suspect it may have something to do with my paternal grandfather having been a railwayman and my late Mother having been brought up living in Station houses.
As well as train travel, I love railway museums and have been lucky enough to have visited some great ones with York and Utrecht, Netherlands being particular favourites. I really cannot imagine why I have not created a tip about the one in York so that is another thing I need to do here. ((Something I need to do in this blog as well but it will take time)).
When I read in my guide book that there was a Railway Museum in Colombo it was a certainty that I was going to visit it sooner or later and it turned out to be later. I had planned for several days to go but something always cropped up and so I was really quite excited when I did eventually get there.
I knew that like so many parts of the British Empire Sri Lanka had a long history of train transport and indeed still does have a good network. I did read that they are even laying new track from Matara to Kataragama so they obviously see a future for the railway. I was sure that with all this rich railway history that the Museum would be really worth seeing.
The Museum is housed in the now disused Terminus Station building which you can see in the image. Fort station has taken over as the main hub in the city.
I went in and was greeted by a delightful young lady in a sari who spoke good English and I informed her that I would like to buy a ticket but she said it was free although my guidebook had mentioned a 500LKR entry fee. I was quite glad I didn’t have to part with money, which is only a small sum anyway, because the image shows you the Museum. That is it.
There are a few small displays, signed in English and I have constructed a travelogue ((some paragraphs below here on the blog)) to show you just about everything on offer. I had asked if photography was allowed about which the young lady seemed unsure and had to consult with the man in the office before permitting it.
I looked out the back and had seen a couple of pieces of rolling stock which looked like they were ongoing projects and asked if I could go and look at them. Certainly I could. It transpired that what you see here is nearly the complete display. To be perfectly frank, it looked more like a breakers yard than a Museum and it did sadden me a bit.
Having made the effort to get here I made sure I took my time but even dawdling a bit and taking lots of images, the whole visit only took me about 30 minutes and I could have seen everything in much less time than that.
One good thing is that it is all on one level which would make it wheelchair accessible.
I really hate to write negative pieces at any time and certainly not about a place I am enjoying so very much. I am sure there must be a huge amount of railway memorabilia still in the country and with a newly peaceful Sri Lanka trying hard to attract tourism, I really think someone in authority should have a look at creating a proper Museum concerning this important part of the nation’s history”.
That is what I wrote at the time so let’s show you the exhibits and they are nearly all here!
As you can see from these manufacturer’s plates, all the rolling stock appears to have been built in the UK and then transported here.
Here are a few old ‘phones of various dates that were used on the railway system.
Here we see a piece of rolling stock and the one which was probably the best preserved as you shall see later.
This is a coconut oil tanker which was used on the Udupussallawa line although the rather crude sign does not indicate when.
This piece was also fairly well preserved. It is a breakdown crane used in the Kelani Valley but again no date was supplied.
All I can tell you about this loco is that it is CPC No.2 as there is no signage whatsoever on it. The small images are the cab and isn’t it in an awful state? I know there are railway enthusiasts in the UK who would love to get their hands on this as a restoration project.
Here is another loco, again with no signage although the manufacturer’s plates indicate that it is a Y1 class, number 727 and was built locally in 1973. Heavens above, that means I was 14 when a Museum piece was made. How old does that make me feel?
This image shows some old signalling equipment but again I have no way of knowing anything about it.
I am guessing that this was the ticket office in what I know was once a functioning station. It was originally built in 1865 but with the building of the Coast Line (which I had come from Wellawatta on earlier) it was rendered useless as it was basically a long siding and it was closed in 1906 with operations moving to Maradana Station.
If you are looking for the Railway Museum, and it is a little tricky to find, then look for this rather impressive building (a technical college) and it is directly opposite it”.
When I was checking up on this Museum prior to publishing this post I discovered that less than a year later I visited Sri Lankan Railways opened a new Railway Museum in Kudagawanna in Kandy Province. I do hope they have raised their game.
I was rather taken with the unusual look of the Maradana College of Technology which was built as the Government Technical College in 1893. In 1906 it became the Ceylon Technical College. In 1921 it formed an association with the University of London, one of the many campuses of which (Queen Mary) is just up the road from me. You may remember what I wrote in the previous post about the value put upon British education in Sri Lanka and apparently it goes back some way.
Well that was that then. If my plan had been to see the Railway Museum I had done it and it was not even 1300 hrs. yet so plenty of time left. Having exhausted Plan B (the guidebook is always Plan B for me) I decided to return to my preferred Plan A, the aimless wander, and it was not long before it bore fruit.
I was now in the Maradana area where I had not been before as I had not ventured more than about half a mile from Fort station before and another original piece tells what happened next.
“I really wasn’t having a good day that day! Readers of my other pages ((i.e. above in this blog)) will know that two of my great loves are railways and canals. I had just left the rather disappointing National Railway Museum which had saddened me a little with the condition of the few exhibits there and was feeling a little deflated when I came on the scene you can see in the images which didn’t exactly lighten my mood. I hate to see disused canals.
To be honest I was a little surprised to see a canal at all but thinking about it later it makes perfect sense as both the Dutch and the British were colonial powers here and both are well-known for their ability to build a canal. I had just never associated canals with Sri Lanka somehow.
I have mentioned elsewhere on VT that I rarely research a destination too much as I like to go with an open mind but perhaps a little preparation might have been in order.
I did have a bit of a look about but there was no obvious way down to the canal other than through private property and the road layout did not suggest an obvious means of following the canal’s route so I contented myself with a couple of images of the rather forlorn locks and a brief conversation with a lovely Sinhalese man who stopped to pass the time and then I went on my way.
I have noticed a lot in my brief time in Sri Lanka that people are always up for a chat which is most refreshing as I live in a city where a stranger initiating a conversation may well be the prelude to a scam or a mugging attempt!
Today I have been researching as I am tip writing and I have actually learned a bit about this waterway. I know I keep saying it but I really do learn so much whilst researching tips, it is a great educational tool.
It appears that this is the San Sebastian Canal which originally ran from Grand Pass which is on the Kelani river and was itself an inland port, then through several districts before terminating at the Colombo waterfront. It was an important route and various cargoes from the interior were able to be transshipped at the waterfront onto vessels travelling all over the world. I have also learned that a portion of the canal upstream of here remains active.
I understand that parts of the canal system all over Sri Lanka have been refurbished primarily as a tourist attraction. I shall certainly be seeking out the canals once I return to Colombo. I do hope they decide to restore this canal as it would be great to see it returned to it’s former glory”.
I had no idea what I might find next but I was rather hoping it would not prove to be another disappointment as I would probably have worked on the “three strikes and you’re out” rule from baseball and retired to the nearest bar. Thankfully that didn’t happen and I didn’t have far to go.
The gentleman you see commemorated in this statue is Ranasinghe Premadasa, sometime Prime Minister and then President of Sri Lanka who was murdered by an LTTE (Tamil) suicide bomber in 1993.
Born in 1924 into a family involved in rickshaw transport he obviously had a social conscience from a young age as when he was only 15 he started a Children’s Society to look after the welfare of less fortunate youngsters in the shanty areas of Colombo. Interestingly, he was educated at both Buddhist and Christian schools.
He started his political career immediately after World War 2 and by 1950 had been elected Councillor for the area this statue stands in as a Labour Party representative. He was elected Deputy Mayor in 1955 and in 1956 switched allegiance to the United National Party. He was elected to Parliament in 1965 and held numerous posts until he became Prime Minister in 1978 a post he held until 1988.
The same year he successfully stood against Mrs. Bandaranaike (the world’s first female Prime Minister) for the position of President which he held until his death on Mayday 1993 when a suicide bomber on a bicycle killed him and 17 innocent bystanders. He could only be identified by his jewellery, a sad end.
I rather like his quote on the plinth, have a look.
On we go through an area that seemed to be predominantly Muslim and by now it was most definitely lunchtime although it did not look like I would get my usual liquid lunch anywhere round there so I decided to have some food instead. For no particular reason, other than it was there, I picked the Elite India restaurant at 19, Sea Street and the travel gods must have been looking after me again. Here are my contemporaneous notes again, complete with the original title.
Good, cheap Indian food.
“I was wandering around central Colombo one day and it got to about lunchtime so I started casting about for somewhere to grab a bite and I happened upon the Elite Indian restaurant which proved to be a very good choice.
I noticed that it was busy with local people which is always a good sign although some other Western travellers did come in later on. Although there were tables on the ground floor, I was directed upstairs to what I suppose was deemed the “posh” bit and although not fancy by Western standards it was spotless and comfortable enough with the air-con keeping the fierce heat at bay nicely.
On my way upstairs I walked past the open kitchen which looked immaculate as you can see. I always like an open kitchen anywhere in the world, it shows they have nothing to hide.
A very pleasant waiter brought me an English menu which I perused and saw that it was very extensive ((the above images are less than half of it)) with all the usual suspects including salads, sandwiches and subs if you fancy a break from the usual Sri Lankan fare.
I didn’t actually need to look at the menu as I had more or less made my mind up. If it was lunchtime it was going to be rice and curry which is a great staple here and becoming something of a favourite of mine. It is so much more than it sounds. Depending on where you are you will get a greater or lesser number of
accompanying dishes as well as the rice and curry centrepiece. I did ask for a side order of onion sambal which turned out to be basically an onion and tomato salad.
If you look at the image you will see that apart from the sambal all the rest of the dishes which comprised rice, curry, dhal and a gorgeous cold vegetable dish made from okra was included in the price that was literally a pittance.
I must confess I used the cutlery as my right-handed curry eating is still very much a work in progress. I am completely left-handed and food is ALWAYS eaten with the right hand so I need a bit more practice.
Everything was delicious and I managed to polish it off more or less even though the portions were large, as you see.
It appears that this restaurant has three branches, two in Colombo and one in Wattala. I can certainly recommend this one which is in Sea Street, excellent food and inexpensive.
Upstairs where I ate is not wheelchair accessible although downstairs would be. The restaurant is open 0600 – 2230 daily, no alcohol served and the food is halal if that is an issue”.
I had no more than about minute’s walk until I discovered something else to have a look at and once again the original notes and title will hopefully tell you all about it.
I’m sure I was ripped off.
I had read in my guidebook about the old Town Hall in Colombo and it stated that you could just go in and have a look round for nothing although it was nothing exciting. Well, they were certainly right about the second part as it really is underwhelming to say the least.
As for the matter of price, the guidebook had already proved to be inaccurate once that day in stating that the National Railway Museum charged a 500LKR entrance fee which it does not. It was published in late 2012 and I know things change all the time, a guidebook is out of date before it is even printed.
After the obligatory external photograph, I wandered towards the door and was immediately accosted by a pretty elderly Sinhalese man who apparently spoke no English but literally dragged me by the arm up the stairs of what is rather a fine old building. It was opened in 1873 following Colombo’s designation as a municipality in 1866. It is pleasant enough to look at externally and internally although it does look a bit tired.
By the time we had got to the top of the stairs I had attracted a retinue of four men and one woman who proceeded to take it in turns to hustle me through the extremely limited attractions of the “Museum”. Basically, the upstairs Council chamber has been turned into a tableau of a meeting there some years ago and it is pretty poor. The mannequins are battered about and the clothes have all seen better days, none of them in this place!
There are few old counting machines etc. and a couple of fading monochrome photos on the walls and that is about it.
Having been rushed through with almost indecent haste (not that there was much to see), I was directed to a fairly respectably dressed younger man who politely, in good English, asked me to sign the visitors book. I did that and then he demanded payment. As I say, I had no idea if this was legit or not but I suspect it wasn’t.
I handed him 200SLR (about £1 and more than it was worth) but was told that, no, it was 500. I questioned the sum of 500 even though that seems to be standard for Museums in Colombo and it was very politely explained to me that as I had five guides it was 100 for each one. I told him I had not asked for one guide let alone five.
I was convinced now it was a ripoff but I really could not be bothered arguing over £2:50 much as it rankles with me being taken for a ride. This was reinforced by the fact that in a country obsessed by bureaucracy (courtesy of my nation) there was neither receipt not ticket issued. I even get a ticket for a five pence train journey. It was just too much hassle to start a row.
You really do not need to go in, if you look at my photos you have seen the place. In the unlikely event that this is a legitimate charge then it is excessive and the place qualifies as a tourist trap. Better to take a photo outside and move on”.
If you’re interested I have since found out that the roundabout you can see just in front of the Old Town Hall goes by the charming name of Gas Works Junction, how quaint.
Once again I only had about another 100 yards to walk until I came upon my next point of interest which you can see in the images below and which, well you know the drill by now, I shall explain to you by means of original title and notes.
You could easily miss this.
I was walking along Bodhiraja Mawatha, Colombo and was watching my footing which is always necessary due to the appalling pavements (sidewalks)here as well as trying to dodge the traffic on the frequent occasions that obstructions forced me into the road and so it was that I nearly missed this place.
The slightly forlorn bell tower you can see is on the site of what was once a much more important place, namely the Kayman (Caiman) Gate which was one of the gates the Dutch had built to protect the city from attack.
The name derives from the Indo – American word for crocodile although why they chose a word from the other side of the world escapes me. The reason for the name is that the Dutch had a habit of keeping such creatures on the nearby lake as a means of keeping the slaves on Slave’s Island, which isn’t even an island at all. Confused? You will be!
The bell tower is now dwarfed by the tall buildings in what is one of the busiest areas of central Colombo which was traditionally populated by Muslim and Southern Indian people. I have no idea what the gate looked like but this modern edifice is surely a pale imitation. Incidentally, this was also the site for public executions.
If you want to know what happened the gate, well look no further than my countrymen who tore it down when they assumed control of Ceylon. I have no idea why.
The bell itself was once the church bell of the 16th century Portuguese Church of St. Anthony in Kotte, which was sacked by the Protestant Dutch when they assumed control. I have never understood the desecration of places of worship.
If you are interested, and it is hard to see, the inscription on the bell itself apparently reads, “AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM BENEDICTA TU IN MULIERIBUS” but I am afraid my schoolboy Latin has deserted me here so I am not quite sure what that means.
OK, it is not much to look at and is not worthy of a specific visit (you cannot even get up to it as it is fenced off) but if you are passing it must be worth at least a photo or two”.
I said at the start that I did make myself a bit busy on the tourist front this day and I had a suspicion this might happen as I am going to break here in order to keep these posts vaguely tidy. There is still a fair bit more to see on this day including a few more videos.
One of my Spielberg attempts involves a night-time rickshaw ride along the Galle Road which is quite an experience. If you have any interest in that or what other sights I see on the remainder of this day then stay tuned and spread the word.