Sri Lanka pt 2: Colombo
If Negombo was our introduction to Sri Lankan culture, then Colombo was certainly our introduction to Sri Lankan public transport. We decided to travel like the locals to gain what we could only describe as a true cultural experience. This may not be for everyone but it's something that should be tried at least once.
We boarded a bus at the Negombo Bus Station, which was described as ‘an example of how a bus shelter should be built’ and ‘so advanced, with everything from restaurants, cafes and shops.’ This may have been an accurate description at the time it was built, but not so much when we were there. We were struggling to see what all the hype was about. It was definitely a transport hub but it wasn't anything fancy. We boarded a near-empty bus and were excited to hit the road. The music blaring over the loud speaker was such a novelty - in the beginning. Unfortunately, our excitement didn't last the entire 90-minute journey. The bus quickly became over-crowded and we were even stranded on the side of the road at one point after the bus broke down. Colombo was definitely a sight for sore eyes once we arrived.
Colombo is the commercial capital and Sri Lanka's largest city. The hustle and bustle of this city can be off-putting to some, but still worth experiencing. Emerging restaurants, designer shops and other attractions blend well with the legacies of old colonial Colombo. You can easily spend days exploring this hectic city but, given our afternoon spent in a Sri Lankan police station, we were only left with one. Yes, unfortunately experiencing the local bus lead to experiencing the local police station after Cat had her wallet stolen somewhere in transit (Read Cat's side for the full story).
What To Do In Colombo
The ninth century stone building itself is worth a visit. It sits in the middle of a massive garden that was home to one of the largest trees we've seen. This may not sound interesting, but it’s actually breathtaking when you see it in person. Inside is room after room of art, carvings, swords, guns and other paraphernalia you would expect from the colonial period.
This temple has existed for 120 years and is a mix of modern architecture and cultural significance. It was established by one of the most famous scholar monks, Venerable Hikkaduwa Sri Sumanagala Nayaka Thera. It’s now also a university, with a library, museum and an eclectic array of bejeweled and gilded gifts presented by well-wishers and devotees. It’s still an active place of Buddhist worship, with an overwhelming sense of peace and spirituality from the moment you enter.
Pettah Markets is where to go for all your bargain shopping needs, with row after row of stalls as far as the eye can see. The crowds in Pettah can become overwhelming during the morning and afternoon rush hours, so maybe avoid these times. Also, some of the salesmen can be extremely pushy. It's fascinating to watch the vendors as they hurry about with carts piled with everything you can imagine. You can find everything from fresh vegetables, meat and seafood to jewellery, clothes, toys and electronic goods. There seems to be some wiggle room with price, but the haggling is not as intense as in some other Asian countries.
Fort Colonial Buildings
The fort area is the centre of the city and has been revitalised with the restoration of the old colonial buildings. A must-see is the Grand Oriental Hotel, which overlooks the busy harbour. It was the perfect spot for a red wine while watching the sun set from the top floor restaurant.
Where to Stay In Colombo
We stayed at Ceilao Villas, which is located near the suburb of Cinnamon Gardens. Cinnamon Gardens is Colombo's swankiest district, where the National Museum, old colonial mansions and trendy shops are located.
The team at Ceilao Villas really made us feel like members of the family. It is an intimate hotel, converted by the owner from the home in which his mother grew up to the amazing hotel it is today. It's the small details that made us feel special; for example, there are no set meal times and the team will work around what best suits you.
Ceilao Villas was comfortable, modern and homey, with hidden nooks where we could chill out and read, an outdoor dining area that felt like our own private courtyard and two different pool areas.
It is an oasis of tranquillity hidden in the mayhem of Colombo.
Unfortunately for me, Colombo was marred by a negative memory. The excitement I was feeling after our epic bus journey quickly turned to panic when checking into Ceilao Villas. I was required to fill out the usual paper work, but when I went to get my wallet from my handbag I was hit by that heart-sinking feeling as I realised it wasn't there. I tried to convince myself that I must have put it somewhere else. It was only after pulling literally everything out of all my bags in the foyer of the villa that I finally accepted the fact that it had been stolen.
Instead of telling you about it, I thought I would show you. Here is a little video of my experience.
I have to give so much credit to the staff at Ceilao Villas. Not only were they amazing at consoling a frantic woman, they also were incredibly helpful. Given that all my money had been taken, they even gave me the money I needed to take a tuk tuk to the police station to file a report.
Even though Colombo was beautiful, and I had an amazing time visiting the sights we talked about above, my time here also included some other negative moments. It was here in Colombo that I first started to realise the impact that the men in Sri Lanka had on me. I was getting used to all the staring from my time in Negombo, but staring stepped up to a whole new level here. While visiting the National Museum there was several school groups checking out all the cool old stuff. It actually got to the point where I was being chased around the museum by large groups of boys. There were several occasions when either the museum staff or Lawson had to step in and act as a human shield to stop them. It can be tough being a female foreigner in Sri Lanka. The unwanted male attention can become overwhelming. I was thankful to be travelling with my partner. I can't even imagine what travelling alone, or with a group of girls, may have been like. The unwanted male attention went too far during our time in Galle. Subscribe to our blog to make sure you don’t miss part 3 of our Sri Lankan adventure and the full story.
We stepped off the bus in Colombo right in the middle of the Pettah Markets, both of us dragging heavy suitcases across dirt paths through hoards of people pulling us every which way to look at their stalls and produce. We wanted to find a place to drop our bags so we could explore Colombo before heading to Ceilao Villas. At one point we were even going to rent a cheap room just so that we could lock our bags away. I am so glad we didn't end up going through with it and decided to just take an Uber to the villas, because if we had discovered that Cat's wallet had been stolen while we were in the heart of Colombo things would have gone very differently. Sri Lankan people love to help but sometimes that can become overwhelming, especially when so many people are bombarding you in broken English. It doesn’t give you a chance to think, or even communicate with each other. Combine that with the heat, traffic and a stolen purse and things would have escalated a whole lot more than they did, and I would have had no chance of consoling Cat.
I have to take my hat off to Cat. The start of this holiday had not been the greatest for her but she did not let it ruin her trip. She was determined to have a good time and I was really proud of how she handled herself. Of course, she had just lost everything, including her sim card, so broke down when it happened, but once she had calmed down she remained so positive. Everything Cat lost was replaceable and to hear her find the positives in such a shit situation made me love her more. She was right though. When put into perspective, yes, it was going to be a pain to replace all the cards, sim card, money and fill out the insurance forms, but we were both safe and healthy in a brand new country that needed to be explored. By comparison, a lot of people in Sri Lanka have very little so Cat made it clear that we were still blessed to have the ability to travel to these countries and experience life.
Our first day was spent in the police station, so we had to pack Colombo and everything we wanted to see into one fully loaded day. We jammed in everything, as well as visiting a magic shop I found online that we would have never been able to find without our tuk tuk driver, who still had to call and get directions when we struggled to locate the place.
Colombo is a very busy city filled with plenty to do. If you are going to explore the city keep in mind that Colombo is the only place where tuk tuk’s have meters. Always look for one of the metered taxis for two reasons, the first is it will save you time on not having to barter for a price to go somewhere and secondly, you will save money on the amount of your fair. Just make sure you have a map or the GPS on your phone with you to keep the driver from going the long way to try and get a bigger fare.