Welcome again and good day to one and all once again. Perhaps I should say добър ден, 良い一日, хороший день or even o zi buna and I have not just picked those at random from my online translator. People who speak all these languages have read this latest series of mine and I have to say I am amazed at the reception it has had so thanks once again.
I suppose I should learn how to say sorry in about 20 languages as I need to apologise for my constantly repeated advice to new readers to go to this page if they want to read the whole piece from the start.
Right that’s that done so let’s get back to where we left off last time.
20th January, 2014.
I had spent most of Sunday exhausting myself so it was almost inevitable I would do very little on the Monday as I only took a couple of images in the late morning which you can see above and then nothing until about 2130 when I ventured out for some food. I have a feeling I was catching up on my travel writing and as always I am going to utilise what I wrote that day (and subsequently) to explain the situation with ‘phones in Sri Lanka.
I realise that this is a big deal as nearly everybody has a mobile nowadays. I resisted for a long time until my late Mother became ill and I needed to be easily contactable. I had bought the beauty you see in the image for the princely sum of £4:99 when I bought a £20 pre-paid card which I thought was an absolute bargain even back then.
This little Samsung was brilliant as it sent and received texts and calls and that is all I required of it. Smart ‘phones are fine if you are also smart enough to use them and I am not. I neither need nor want a computer in my ‘phone. I have tried numerous times to disable the function and it still keeps telling me I am using data and charging me a fortune. I don’t want a camera on my ‘phone as I never leave home without my compact camera. I just want a damned ‘phone, is that too much to ask for?
Apparently it is too much to ask for because when I stupidly lost this brilliant piece of kit years later I was told they didn’t make them any more and I had to get a “smart” ‘phone which I loathe and cannot use but enough of my woes. Here is the original piece about the situation in Sri Lanka.
“Whilst clearing Immigration / Passport control at Colombo airport the officer had welcomed me very politely to the country and handed me a nice little folded tourist map which I thought was a nice touch. Rather oddly, in the packaging of the map was a free mobile telephone SIM card for the Dialog network which seems to be the largest operator in the country.
When I got to my hotel I had taken the SIM card out and it was unlike any I had ever seen. People will know that I am a complete technophobe and useless with things like mobile ‘phones. The SIM looked to be the right size for my ancient telphonic device but it had a central piece that pushed out, presumably for a different type of handset.
When I tried to insert the SIM, ever so carefully the central bit popped out and, try as I might, I could not get it to insert properly. That was no problem as the slightly paranoid part of me was thinking that the Government probably had a list of all the numbers they had issued to foreigners and this was to prove pretty prescient.
Part of the instructions for the “gift” SIM mentioned that if you stayed in the country more than 30 days (I am staying for 90) you had to register it which I found a bit odd as in the UK you have pay as you go SIMS. I believe criminals are fond of using them as they buy a SIM, effectively a clean number, use it for a few days and then simply throw it away to prevent being eavesdropped on by the authorities. No chance of that happening here.
When I went to one of the many mobile shops on the Galle Road to buy a SIM, I had to produce my passport which was photocopied and I had to sign the copies. I had answer questions about where I was staying, when I would return home etc. and more forms were filled in before I was allowed to purchase the card. Perhaps it is not quite “Big Brother is watching you” but he certainly has the ability to listen to you if he wants.
I should also mention that calls and texts here really are cheap. I loaded the card with 1,000LKR which is about £5 sterling. I have made a few calls and sent a few texts and the last time I looked I still have over 990SLR left so I have effectively used five pence so far. I suspect my card will not need to be topped up.
Update March 2016.
Readers of my pages will know that I like to keep them as up to date as I can and so I am writing this to report that at time of writing the same regulations seem to be in force as before. Do remember to bring your passport if the need a local sim card. Also, the free maps / sim cards at the ariport seem to have been discontinued as well”.
I do not know what the situation is presently but I know the Sri Lankan government are, how shall I put this, careful about security so I will be surprised if the regulations have been relaxed any”.
As mentoned, I didn’t go out for a meal until quite late and, whilst I had sussed out some excellent places I always like to try something different and I thought I’d try the Hotel Orchid Inn. I had previously noticed it situated up a little side street off the Galle Road and you really do have to know where it is to find it. It is not even visible from the main thoroughfare and had I not seen it on one of my totally unscripted back-street rambles I would never have known it was there.
The problem with the Orchid Inn was that apparently nobody else knew it was there either because the whole time I was in there I saw two members of staff (receptionist and waiter) and not a single other soul. Presumably there was also a cook tucked away in the back somewhere but it was like the Marie Celeste. I had actually asked the receptionist if the restaurant was open and he assured me it was so in I went.
The smart and very friendly waiter was over like a flash, I suspect he was bored off his head and glad of something to do. I was presented with an English menu and opted for a fairly simple curry with roti which was very pleasant if not spectacular.
I know I will appear to be contradicting myself a little here as I have already reported on the concept of “rice and curry” and enjoying it greatly but normally I do not eat rice with my Southern Asian meals as I just find it bloats me. I adore all sorts of Asian breads, rotis, chapatis, naan, paratha etc. and usually use them for the carbo with my curries. I even do that at home and although I can make rotis (I don’t have a tandoor to make naan obviously) I cheat as I always have a packet of pre-made rotis in my cupboard. Lazy Fergy.
What happened next is yet another of those things I have no rational explanation for. I was perfectly satisfied with my meal and not at all hungry so what did I do? I went to a lete night bakery and bought a cake. Not a couple of buns to have with my coffee in my room but a whole big cake and when I got it back I had a slight problem.
As I had not intended to be cooking I had not packed my KFS (Forces speak for knife, fork and spoon) so I could not cut a nice delicate slice of the cake and so I resorted to the motto of the Round Table organisation which is “Adopt, adapt improve”.
I adopted the teaspoon from the coffee tray, adapted it as a means of eating cake and improved on the potential experience of eating it with my hands. Well, it was either that or slicing it with a credit card! Somehow or another I got through about half of it and the rest was seen off the next evening, it was gorgeous. I hope I have not offended the delicate sensibilities of any of my readers but I suspect that anyone who has read this nonsense thus far will know the sort of things I get up to and are probably not too delicate.
And so to bed to quote a man much more adept at journalistic writing that I, namely Samuel Pepy’s the great British diarist who witnessed the Great Fire of London and many other momentous occasions. I often wonder what he would have made of the current age of instantaneous communications. Would he have been called an “internet influencer”, a phrase I detest as it indicates the “influencer” has no other talent other than self-promotion.
21st January, 2014.
I shall pass on straight to Tuesday as I know Monday was not much of a read for you and, I shall be honest as always, this is not much more exciting but I do at least have another trip into Colombo proper and in the next post I actually get out of Colombo (no spoiler intended).
Again, it was a late start to the day and this is one of the things I find most difficult in Asia. Certainly, things are changing and there is phenomenal nightlife in many parts of my favourite continent but, in many other parts of it, people live by the sun as our long-distant forefathers did. They get up with the sun, and go to sleep not long after it sets. A perfectly sensible way to live but my propensity to rise in the afternoon is a bit of a square peg in a round hole.
I had arisen late (again) and very probably had some more of my lovely cake on a teaspoon with my morning coffee before eventually heading out. I had decided to venture into central Colombo again, not for any particular reason but because it was something to do.
I chose the bus, even though I knew it would be a bit of a trek albeit the majority of traffic would be coming the other way i.e. out of the centre at the end of the working day. What appears above may seem at first sight as a fairly random selection of fairly uninspiring images but I have included every one for a reason.
My elbow, hardly a thing of beauty and will never appear in a painting by a noted artist but it is here to show how appallingly white I still was after nearly a fortnight in warm tropical weather. I was as brown as a nut by the time I got home. It also shows that I was adopting the local practice of hanging my elbow out the window. I have no idea how old the local buses in Colombo are but there is no A/C. and the windows are always open, they need to be in that heat. I was definitely “going native” as the Victorians used to say.
Another image shows the two guys sitting in the seat in front of me. Obviously the skullcap the gentleman on the left is wearing denotes him as a Moslem and this could lead me onto a huge dissertation about religion in Sri Lanka and, indeed, the rest of the world, but you will be glad to know it won’t. If you are interested, look it up yourselves.
I can only speak as I find and I have already mentioned that Colombo 6, where I was staying, had a sizeable Tamil / Moslem community, hence the Yaal restaurant which I have already told you about. By way of another spoiler, we shall be visiting again later in this post.
I can honestly say that I have never seen any evidence of social / religious intolerance in Sri Lanka although it obviously exists. As an outsider I was probably not tuned in enough to get the nuances. On a subsequent trip I actually lived through a national state of emergency due to unrest in the Kandy area and I have to say it did not impact me in the slightest.
Apart from a few more soldiers and police on the streets I was not hindered in any way. I even managed to visit the excellent Air Force Museum, which is in the main SLAF base for the country at Ratmalana during this “state of emergency”. I know I have mentioned it before but I really do see so many parallels between Sri Lanka and the country of my birth, Northern Ireland. Perhaps that is why I love it so much.
I have to warn the potential traveller here that urban bus travel is not quick although the long-distance coaches are better when they get on the main roads. Looking at my images, this journey took me about an hor and a half to cover about ten miles, the traffic in Colombo is mad. I think my “record” for central Colombo to Kottawa, a mere ten miles or so, is almost three hours, you could walk quicker!
Another image here shows an ultra-modern bus stop (down by Galle Face by the look of it) which contrasts so dramatically with the diesel fume belching rust-buckets of buses that pull up there and which provides a great example of modern Sri Lanka with the new, mostly unaffordable infrastructure sitting literally side by side with the old which could much more use the money.
I got into central Clombo and the amazing Pettah bus station near the Fort Railway Station. I have told you that I am an avid people watcher and I could honestly sit here all day and never get bored. It is the bus transport hub for the whole country / island and I am never sure which term to use. I suppose it does not matter much as both are accurate.
Walking from the bus station I walked past the fromt of the railway station and I saw the sign you see in the image above which I took to be some sort of Governmental travel advice centre but is not. It was only later, talking to other travellers and doing a bit of research that I found out a bit about it and here is what I wrote later.
“I have had occasion to use the Railway Tourist Information Centre several times and have found them to be unfailingly courteous and the suppliers of accurate information regarding local train times, which ticket office to go to, platform etc.
Whilst researching this tip, however, I have unearthed many negative reports about the office or more specifically one man by the name of Sampath who is offering very overpriced and sub-standard tours with non-English speaking drivers, rip-off meal options etc. etc. All you usual things you would expect from a dodgy tour operator. Whether I look like I am too old and scruffy (I am), I don’t have much money (I don’t) or I might get a little bit angry (I very well might) I cannot say but no-one has so much as offered me a package tour.
I should also say that these online comments all seem to have been from a few months ago so maybe the authorities have got wise to Mr. Sampath and sent him on his way. I had very good results here but just be careful.
Should you want to find the office it is on the right hand site of Fort station as you look at it and well signed. It is on one level and so should be accessible”.
Well, there you go. At least I have hopefully managed to put something of potential value into what was an otherwise fairly uneventful post and I am going to follow it with another piece of hopefully useful information to the traveller.
“It is a very strange thing that generally speaking I hate shopping and yet I love markets, specifically those in Asia. My Virtual Tourist pages ((in those happy days)) are full of tips on them. I am not sure if it is the sights, smells (particularly delightful on this continent), sounds or just the general hubbub and sense of life about them but I never pass up the chance to visit.
Actually, when I got the bus in from the airport on my arrival I was deposited right in the middle of the Pettah as the area is called. I believe Pettah simply means market in Sinhala (the local language and one of three official languages in Sri Lanka). After 26 hours without sleep and a long journey, it was something of an assault on the senses but I thoroughly enjoyed it especially when the hawkers were shouting out friendly greetings to me.
The Pettah is about half traditional stalls and half small shop premises and is split up into areas. One area will sell fish, another jewellery, another fancy goods and so on. I suspect you can buy just about anything here if you know where to look.
If you are coming into the Centre on a bus just ask the conductor to let you off at the Pettah as everything goes past it. If you arrive at Fort Station by train, just cross the road outside and dive down any of the side streets. Don’t worry about getting disorientated as it is big enough to be interesting but not that large you will become totally lost. If you do, just ask anyone for Olcott and they will direct you back to the main road where you can re-orientate yourself.
No visit to an Asian city is complete for me without a market trip and this one is a beauty”.
With my marketing complete it was almost inevitably beer o’clock again and I headed for the Colonial Hotel which I had encountered on my first arrival in Sri Lanka and which regular readers will remember. It was still afternoon closing time downstairs (a situation I still do not understand) and so it was upstairs and at least I thankfully knew about this option. A couple of beers and I was ready to go again.
I was feeling lazy and so decided to get a tuk-tuk home as it was not going to cost me a fortune and again I exhort readers to only use meter taxis and make sure they use the meter. I know that it is only a miniscule proportion of guys that will try to rip you off here but they do exist.
If you are on the meter, you are OK and I have never met the problem which I have encountered elsewhere whereby the driver rearranges a little lead in the back of the meter so itruns much quicker for foreigners and slower for locals.
Again I have included the images above for a reason, primarily showing you what the Galle Road / A2 is like in rush hour, it makes London look like a Sunday drive! In another image, I was trying to take a shot of another tuk-tuk for my then website and I shall choose to think that the driver was trying to give me a friendly Winston Churchill V-sign rather than the one he gave me, palm inwards, which is quite rude where I come from.
On the way, we passed the rather nice stretch of water you can see in one of the images. Colombo, apart from the obvious seafront which initially brought it prosperity, also has a number of other bodies of water, all of which seem well looked after and very much a recreational facility.
I was feeling a bit peckish by this time and so I directed my driver to the Yaal restaurant which we have met before. I must say that I was slightly surprised as I had to do the directing because many of the tuk-tuk drivers I encountered did not seem to know anything further than about two miles from Fort Station but I suppose that was what they did all day.
If you are feeling particularly brave you may wish to have a look at a couple of reasonably long film clips I took on the journey but they are not to be watched if you are of nervous disposition. I grabbed a tuk-tuk and faced potential death several times. Honestly, you cannot believe the traffic in Colombo. If you feel up to the task you can find the clips here and here.
Back to the Yaal restaurant and it was fairly empty. The poor waitress in one of the images indicates that she had little to do. By the look of it I had ordered a biryani which came with dhal and, again, this is unusual for me as I am not a huge fan of rice as previously stated. I also noted another point of interest when I visited the “facilities”.
As you can see in the image there was a shower, a very nice modern one, in the gents. My best guess about this is that some of the staff live on the premises and this is their bathroom, doubling as a toilet for customers. In the UK this would have caused me to look in wonder but I had by now got my “Asian head” on and so it was a quick metaphorical shrug of the shoulders and an internal memo to self: things are different here.
I need to digress in very general terms here for people that intend to visit Asia from “Western” countries, it is so different from anything you know and it is daunting initially. I remember well my first trip to Asia, a three day layover in Bangkok in ’91 where I thought I had gone to another planet. Thankfully my dear friend Ross (may he rest easy), who had been brought up in BKK and Hong Kong had briefed me and so I was vaguely expecting “culture shock”.
Airports are airports anywhere but as soon as I walked out the door looking for the station (Ross had told me about a cheap train into the centre) it was another world and, yes, it is sensory overload. For me it is the smells, I love the smells of Asia. If it is your first time, do not be put off. Even if you are staying in a posh hotel on a package trip, use your days “at leisure” to just go for a walk. I promise you that you will not regret it.
Enough of my digression and that was the end of my day, apart from killing off the remainder of that lovely cake with a teaspoon and I needed an reasonably early night as I was finally checking out of the lovely Sai Sea City Hotel (a week later than expected) the next morning and going on the road.
If you wish to see if I actually made it back on the road and where I was going you know what to do.
Stay tuned and spread the word.