I knew we would have a smashin’ time in Colombo the moment we shuffled into the Airport Arrival Hall at 1am and spotted a tall, brown Santa in sunglasses holding a cane and groovin’ to hip hop. And, as we sped through the streets in a 12-seater Nissan (our chunky but reliable transport for the next 16 nights), the twinkling fairy lights and unintentionally terrifying Santa dolls that greeted us from atop buildings and trees.
Oh, did I mention a majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhists?
“They just want to have fun,” says our city guide, Harold, when asked him what was up the very next day.
Oh, but this was more than just wanting to have fun. I’ve never seen another group of people more committed to Christmas – it’s like the Sri Lankans just found out an asteroid is going to obliterate the earth in the next few days and they were intent on partying like they’ve never done before, with fake cotton snow, flying reindeers and all.
To his credit (and my disappointment), Harold was a lot more sedate than his compadres. Our walk was centered around the Pettah, one of the liveliest, most chaotic districts in Colombo, where a gaggle of people and the most colorful vehicles you’ve ever seen jockeyed for space in narrow, gridlocked streets.
Our walk was cut short when Ari tripped while skipping indoors – he was ecstatic there was air-conditioning – and split his upper lip open. He was bleeding profusely so we had to send him to the nearest doctor, which turned out 90-year-old with a bad eyesight who was evidently very popular among the locals judging from the long lines of patients in his clinic. We managed to skip the queue, and the doctor took one look at Ari’s swollen, bleeding mouth and…
…asked, “Ear infection?”
I was too distressed to laugh, but that was a good sign for us to get the hell out immediately, but not before seizing an ice pack (which Ari vehemently rejected) and paying the hefty tourist bill (this would be a prelude of things to come as tourists are heavily taxed all over the country). Thank goodness it was just a minor injury to his lip and nothing more.
Ari was fine by the time we bid goodbye to our guide and had lunch at The Gallery Cafe, which according to guidebooks is a hip (translation: utterly pretentious) restaurant housed in the former offices of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s legendary architect who’s behind some truly fine buildings in the country.
Infinitely wiser after our brave little jaunt across the city (which by the way if you hadn’t realized by now isn’t recommended with two young children), we took a tuk-tuk to Galle Face Green, which is really more of brown-and-grey strip of sand and pavement and balding patches of grass. It was built by the Dutch to create a strategic line of fire against the invading Portuguese.
The iconic Gall Face Hotel stands at its southern end, staring proudly towards the sea. It’s hard not to feel a little lightheaded walking in its hallowed hallways: the hotel have hosted political and entertainment luminaries since it was opened in 1864, including Che Guevara, Noel Coward, Harrison Ford, Mark Twain and Mahatma Gandhi, and has a little museum (free for outsiders) dedicated to its most famous guests.
In 1948, Laurence Olivier famously caught Vivien Leigh in the middle of a red hot affair with her co-star Peter Finch when they were staying at the hotel during the filming of Elephant Walk. She was eventually replaced by Elizabeth Taylor.
Further along, techno blasted from the loudspeakers of a funfair held annually – I’m guessing – in conjunction with Christmas, while an industrious elderly man made money from local weight-watchers who wanted a chance to hop onto his digital scale.
We went for dinner at the Ministry of Crab, one of the city’s culinary institutions. It was one of the few restaurants and boutiques lining the inner sanctum of the Old Dutch Hospital, an elegant building built in the 17th century that’s now completely given over to conspicuous consumption.
Even though it’s only 5pm, the restaurant was buzzing with tourists who don’t see a problem in forking out more money for a single meal than an average Sri Lankan earns in a year. Me? I was curious.
Outside, a Chinese tourist was posing with a poor, frightened crab bigger than his knobby head because it was probably fished out from some radioactive swamp somewhere – this was MOC’s famous colossal crab which cost up to SGD111 a pop and I imagined it escaping and inflicting some serious damage on Mr. Knobby Head Loudmouth.
We were led to a long communal table – reserved after some fierce last-minute haggling – and it turned out that this was the same table that Malaysian PM Najib and his entourage sat only two weeks ago. The crabs were graded by size, and prices rise accordingly. We ordered an XL crab because anything larger than that should be displayed in a museum, and requested for it to be cooked in the simplest way possible – since the restaurant isn’t exactly known for its sauces.
It was so good we ordered another one. You’d think we were starving the children judging from the way they ate crab, voraciously, like a pair of savages. The rest of the food was just alright, and the bill came up to about SGD300 (and we didn’t order any drinks). Ouch.
We were glad to return to our little oasis in the middle of the city, Taru Villas – Lake Lodge. We stayed in a suite, with a huge private verandah which would’ve been lovely if not for the pesky mozzies.
We woke up to an amazing Sri Lankan breakfast – the first of many to come – and I swear, I’d take hoppers and curry over bacon and eggs any day.
We had to visit the Gangarayama Temple since it was so close. The temple wasn’t so much a place of worship as a dusty ol’ Museum of Odd Bits and Bobs. Basically, you walk through a collection of traditional buildings decked out with Buddhas galore.
A massive taxidermi-ed body of a once beloved elephant stood outside the main prayer hall, where garland-bearing locals and tourists visit to get blessings from monks.
When the sun began its slow descent and Colombo’s pavements began cooling down, we cruised the upmarket suburb of Cinnamon Gardens, with its wide leafy streets and old mansions. We’ve read about a playground at Viharamahadevi Park, but nothing prepared us for it.
We were all exhausted however. Not of Colombo per se, but of a city blighted with Chinese-funded construction sites. Sri Lanka is in the middle of a revival: the 26-year-long civil war ended in 2009, and it seems like the capital city is trying to make up for lost time. Modern eyesores are going up at the speed of light, and cranes and trucks are busy toiling the 56 acres of reclaimed land between the Colombo harbor and the Green, designated for the ambitious and controversial Colombo Port City project.
And you know the Chinese. The work never stops, even for Christmas.
Taru Villas Lake Lodge Attentive service compared to Colombo’s bigger seaside hotel chains. Regular rooms seem quite small and spartan, but the suite has its own private courtyard and is lovingly fitted with all the mod-cons for a comfortable stay. A copious amount of good quality breakfast provides a great start to the day. It’s also located in the heart of city yet quiet and a short tuk-tuk ride to most attractions. $$
Anugaa in the City Perfect for families, this quiet boutique property sits at the end of a scruffy road 10 minutes away from Viharamahadevi Park and has big, well-furnished rooms for a fraction of the cost. It has all the conveniences for a short-term stay, including takeout menus if you feel like staying in. $
- Most tourists skip Colombo altogether, but I’d recommend staying one or two nights to enjoy the bustling food scene and vibrant city life. Bring plenty of insect repellent however – though the city has been declared malaria-free recently, dengue was at epidemic levels in 2017.
- Walking can be a tedious affair given the heat, traffic and pollution in the city and is only recommended with a guide. Hire a tuk-tuk (negotiate on the price beforehand) or, even better, an air-conditioned car to take you around. It will save you plenty of hassle and headaches, especially if you have children.
- Bring light scarfs to cover your shoulders and knees during temple visits.
- Young children are not just tolerated but warmly welcomed in most, if not all, places in Sri Lanka, including Colombo. Just how much? Our son accidentally broke a glass in a restaurant and was rewarded with a pat on the head.