A common reaction, when people learnt our first stop was Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo, was ‘why are you bothering?’: concrete jungle, traffic-choked, nothing to see…it’s not the real Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka you’re coming to see. Well, of course, it is real, and much like Auckland was once the city you flew into and then quickly moved on, because you had to, you get the sense that Colombo is undergoing an equally, if not more, profound transformation.
Yes, it is choked by traffic, tick; yes, its urban form is dotted (blotted, perhaps) with a dizzying degree of dusty construction activity, tick. But, we still found much charm; you just have to dig a little beyond its sometimes bewildering facades.
For three nights, we stayed at the Grand Oriental Hotel in the old Fort district. It’s Colombo’s oldest hotel (1835) and it was a treat to start the trip; not a treat in terms of quality, more in terms of cost; it’s not on the backpacker budget list. It’s a real colonial gem, but a faded one at that. Lonely Planet recommended staying there before someone pours in the money it needs and turns it into something 5-star.
This will no doubt happen, and it will no doubt be lovely, but it will undoubtedly result in its losing some of its charm: rooms that are over-generously large; a dark almost gloomy lobby still with original travel, exchange and business counters; lifts whose wooden panelling look like doors into parallel colonial universes; strange wood-panelled meeting rooms used for who knows what and that just don’t quite seem of this time. I loved it.
Walking through original passages with small unsympathetic updates, you get a real sense of history, of all of its history and layers, rising and falling with changing time and taste.
Of the city itself, three days was enough for our generous time constraints, or lack thereof, although we left much unexplored. Once checked in from the airport, we ventured out and quickly canvassed the Fort area and its historic buildings. It became our neighbourhood, more familiar with each day, and we’d doff a good morning to the old Cargill’s building, for example, the old Dutch hospital complex, the secretariat and old town hall, as we’d pass by.
Also quickly found was the rather lovely – and refreshingly breezy – Galle Face Green, the local waterfront well utilised by locals. Waterfront promenades are the same the world over it feels, a reflection of humans’ irresistible connection to the borders between land and water, and are always lovely; great for people watching. I could have spent many an hour wandering up and down, round and round, just enjoying the being in space.
The initial bursts of sensory stimulation, from flying in to the end of day one, rushed forward feelings of the familiar. Much – the luscious greens and hazy sky, the birds, traffic, beeping, smells, people, buildings and other urban features – recalls the south of India. But if it did, there was also something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something a little queer (in the old sense of the word).
We came to think that this might be because we arrived on a Saturday, and Fort and where we wandered south, Kollupitiya, appear to more alive on weekdays (as we’d find out two days later). So, although it was familiar, it lacked just a little of that unique urban energy of its always-frenetic neighbour.
If day one was just a little ‘odd’, then day two we really hit our stride. This time we wandered east, into Pettah district, and suddenly all the smashing and clashing of people, commerce and motorised transport, came rushing right back.
Pettah is the old heart of local commerce, so of course it makes sense: no bazaar-like energy was ever the daily in colonially-controlled quarters! So we strolled around its streets and markets for a couple of hours, crashing around through its sonicly-clattering, hue-heavy landscape, before heading south to the quite diametrically-opposed affluent suburbs around and just south of Slave Island; not an actual island, but yes, where the Dutch did house slaves.
In doing so, we passed by the magnificent although still-to-be-completed Lotus Tower, a green and purple marvel rising up out of the landscape and visible from all over central Colombo, again like a friendly presence, and a few inland lakes and waterways (Beira, Gangarama, which snakes its way all the way up to and behind Galle Face Green, and a repurposed old industrial canal at Pettah). Such monuments and urban waterways always provide nice backdrops for leisurely ambles.
Ambling is a good word for our kind of tourism. Although, of course, every place we visit has a reason, and is generally accompanied by a tick-list of things you want to see or experience, and sometimes, for me anyway, food you want to try, everything in between is largely about ambling.
We join the dots by hitting the pavement, a million times saying no to offers of tuk-tuks, and leaving it up to pure luck and moments of serendipity to fill our days. (Sometimes, too, we’ll make a decision to go somewhere completely different, not previously considered, and if we have to negotiate public transport to get there, always an experience in itself, then even better!)
Random ambling helps us to, I think anyway, get a better feel for a place, its people and rhythms. It helped us to be better able to contextualise Pettah and Slave Island and surrounds, for example; to see how neighbourhoods look, feel, and are peopled differently, and therefore make more sense of a city’s human and urban landscapes and how they change over time. Moreover, and where we recognise our immense privilege, the ‘go slow’ approach allows for repetition over days, which amplifies the experience: the first time you see; the second time you feel.
Another way to, usually, get a good feel for a place, is through museums and art galleries. I say usually because, if there is one thing that museum-ing your head off teaches you, it’s that there really is a special set of skills required in curation (so, sidenote, stop using the verb ‘-to curate’ to talk about your social media posting; you’re posting, not curating. If you want to curate, go learn to be a curator!).
We visited the ‘National Museum’ on our third day, which is in the same vicinity as the lovely Viharamahadevi Park (it’s funny how parks are always located in the nicer neighbourhoods, we mused), and the old town hall and Colombo hospital, both from Victorian-era glamour squads. The museum was, well, certainly unique. Built in 1877, by the British governor of the time, the building is pretty impressive.
The same can’t quite be said for its fifteen (and counting) galleries, which suffer from being exhibitions from a very different age of curatorial practice (i.e. old school object-with-(not-always)-informative-accompanying-text style, all discombobulated and detached). Nonetheless, it does provide visitors with a thorough overview of the pearl isle’s history, people, and cultures + a decent level of oddity (for obvious reasons, I especially liked the ritual masks used in musical performances, and lord I love me a diorama, whatever its quality; there are a few choice ones here).
The Museum of Natural History, which comes with the combo ticket you’re upsold (an extra 200lkr; chump change), is where we started to lose the will to live though, especially as the ever so helpful staff made sure they pointed us to all the galleries so we didn’t miss anything. Thanks happy helper people! Despite this, even it contained enough ‘what the…?’ moments, as well as skeletons of an elephant and blue whale, to make it worth a quick amble through.
Dumb luck of timing had us in Colombo for New Year’s Eve (of the Western, Judeo-Christian kind), and although I’m not much of a New Year’s person, celebrating the passing of totally abstract moments in time, really?, I do enjoy seeing how other places and people do. For this, Galle Face Green was the place to be. It was the site for a free New Year’s concert, and families, groups of young people, and couples were out in great numbers.
There’s nothing quite like attending a concert where you can’t understand the language and have no idea who the hugely popular acts are. Watching throngs of people derive great joy from pop music that is completely unknown to you is an interesting position to be in.
You can appreciate the music – and indeed it was super cool; Sinhalese pop sounds like a good radio show for 2019 – but you cannot, will never, quite understand its cultural context. It’s not yours; not your pop culture. So, it was another interesting New Year’s to add to the list, and a nice way to spend our final eve; Colombo was out to wish us well.
There are other places of interest too, places we didn’t get to though, so I can’t vouch for them. But reading about them gives me holiday envy. These include Pettah’s temples, as well as other temples and churches dotted about, and the historic neighbourhoods north-east of Pettah, and south of Cinnamon Gardens. The point being that, if more rapid point-to-point travel is your style, one gets the sense that there’s plenty enough to occupy a three-night stay.
And that’s to say nothing of the Dubai-scale ‘Port City’ that is literally emerging from the sea just north of Galle Face Green, something that is bound to attract tourists of the future keen to marvel at either its stunning success, or possibly its colossal failure!
Yes, it certainly does feel like Colombo is a city on the move. In a decade, one feels, it is, one way or another, going to be a quite different place to experience!