A Travellerspoint blog

Sri Lanka

Colombo - Galle Face Green

sunny 32 °C

The Galle Face Hotel is probably Colombo's most famous hotel. It was originally just a house built by the Dutch, but four Brits opened it as a hotel in 1864 - the year the railway line behind it opened for business, and 20 years before Raffles opened in Singapore. By the end of the 19th century it was apparently the best hotel East of Suez. There's a long tradition of broadcasting the New Year's Eve dance here over the radio. Arthur C Clarke wrote some of his last novel here. With this sort of heritage, I seriously wanted to stay and, at $US125 a night, it is surprisingly affordable, Plus, staying there would make it the second hotel I'd shared (in a sense) with Mark Twain. Sadly, when I was looking to book, they had a five night minimum stay - longer than my visit to Colombo. Ah well, at least I could go have a drink in its bar I thought.

From the Colombo Fort area, it is a short walk down the coast, along an area known as Galle Face Green: basically an area of lawn the street side of the sea wall. It has long been an area for perambulation, and has cute wee green shops, colourful balls, canoodling couples and so on. It was actually established by the Dutch so they had somewhere from where they could fire cannonballs at the Portuguese.

The hotel extends right to the beach and, in fact, cuts off access along the beach to those not staying at it except at lowish tide. It is indeed a pretty grand looking place. The first photo is theirs; the second is one I took as I approached.

My first port of call was Trader's Bar - the inside area is wood panelled but was empty, so I went out onto the verandah and had a gin-based cocktail they had devised. From there, I could see another bar by the pool and what looked like a restaurant.

Sure enough, it was a restaurant, serving a buffet lunch at a price I was willing to pay. The problem with a plate piled high with random food is that it is not very photogenic, so I have none to share. Most of the food was good but some had been sitting a bit longer than optimal.

Post lunch, I planned on a walk down a bit to Kollupitiya, where I'd read there's a bit of a buzz and a market to check out. I was stopped by a well-dressed gent asking for a light who struck up a conversation,saying he was posted to the US Embassy, although originally from Malaysia. Yes, I know: nothing good has ever come from random people accosting me in the street. When he found out where I was going he was all "You MUST visit the Gangaramaya Temple" - something I knew from talking to someone in the hostel. I wasn't all that alarmed when he summoned a tuktuk to take us there, he did pay my entrance and gave me a rushed tour of the place (meaning I am now unable to explain anything I saw - when I go at my own pace, I take notes). Its a pretty big deal for Sri Lankan Buddhists, although it was only established in the 19th century.

In accordance with tradition, there's a bodhi tree - although obviously not possible, my guide claimed it to be the one under which the Buddha was born: even I know that the bodhi is where he gained enlightenment, and it wasn't this one!

When I took that last picture, I was reminded of all my students lined up as I lecture! About this time, my mate's stories started to unravel - his phone calls were explained as being from his "company" (i.e. not the US Embassy) and when he said the next stop was a gem store, I worked out what he was up to and went along. In my very first trip out of New Zealand, I got caught up in one of these gem scams, so knew not to actually buy anything. No harm done. Yeah right. This adventure had a sting in the tail: we took the tuktuk to Beira Lake. Here, my "mate" abandoned me, seeming surprised that I might think he'd pay for the tuktuk since the whole thing was his idea. Ah well, I thought, I'd been let off cheaply if all I had to pay for was the tuktuk - until I heard what I was being charged - 6400 rupees, or around $64!

Posted by NZBarry 23:29 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)


sunny 32 °C

I spent my first night in Sri Lanka in a hotel near the airport, near an air force base which had a string of tin sentry boxes up on stilts along the road. As I came out of the hotel in the morning, the obviously armed soldier opposite caught my eye and gave me a smile and a wave, which I found kind of comforting. My hotel shuttle took me to the airport, where I caught a bus to Colombo: the first bit along the new expressway went well as there was hardly any traffic - the toll took about half the takings the driver had obtained from us passengers. Once off the expressway, we were in a mess of traffic on narrow streets, and had to make our way right to the other edge of the city. I had plenty of time to examine the buildings and shops we passed - none really made me think "I must come back for a walk". This is Main Street, Colombo, as seen from the front seat of the bus.

Once off the bus, it finally occurred to me that I had worked out how to get to my hostel from the railway station, but I was at the bus station and had no idea where it was. All I could see was a busy road with a market running down each side.The only directions I could get were pretty vague, so I had to just hope for the best, and luckily the railway station did indeed soon come into sight. This did not mean that my hostel was easy to find - essentially, at one point I went a block further than I should have, so it put all of my carefully written instructions out of wack. No-one had a clue what I meant when I asked about the Star Anise hostel, and it wasn't until I'd stopped for an ice cream and retraced my steps that I finally found it - actually very easy when you know how! It was a great place to stay - very new, very clean (and constantly kept clean by the staff) and right in the centre of what I called the colonial district (actually called Colombo Fort, although the fort is long gone) - the old Dutch hospital was a couple of blocks away and many of the buildings were British banks. The President's Palace was just down the street.
Presidential Palace

Presidential Palace


The old Dutch hospital has been converted to a collection of posh restaurants, bars and boutique shopping. My first dinner was here - a couple of the local beers (Lion) and some sort of spicy chicken dish. I was having a last drink when the couple at the next table invited me to join them. They were Brits, caught out by the changes at the airport so needing to fill in time until their very delayed plane left. She was from Halifax, in Yorkshire, they both worked in journalism and had lots to say about their trip around Sri Lanka so it was a great way to spend my first proper night in Sri Lanka.

In my previous post, there are some photos of the fancy Dilmah tea shop. There's another tea place near where I stayed which was stubbornly closed all weekend, then I was off in another part of Colombo, so I ended up only getting to the Pagoda Tea Rooms once. Its very old school - quite formal waiters bringing tea, with rather nice cakes and cookies. This is the kind of place I look forward to finding, given all the tea there is in Sri Lanka.

Walking down the street which runs past the Presidential Palace towards the sea, I came across the rather good looking Kingsbury Hotel. Opposite it is a building I just could not identify - it has some signs, but they're all written in Sinhalese. I've now been able to identify it as the Presidential Secretariat Office, which had been the Parliament building. The Presidential Secretary is essentially the Secretary of State - the senior civil servant, and is the modern version of the former secretary to the Governor-General.

Posted by NZBarry 19:25 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

To Sri Lanka

sunny 32 °C

I spent three weeks in Sri Lanka, going from Galle in the south to Jaffna in the north, with side trips to the hill country and to an east coast beach. To get there from Chiang Mai, I had to transit back through KL and on to Colombo. I had a good plan. I would fly back to KL in the late afternoon, leave early-ish in the morning for Colombo and be there in time for check in at a hotel.

This made staying at a transit hotel in KLIA2 a sensible idea but unfortunately my plan was thwarted by the powers that be deciding to close Colombo airport during the day for a few months so they could upgrade the runways. This work commenced just a day before my arrival, and caused Air Asia to cancel all day time flights and aggregate all passengers on a single flight arriving fairly late at night. I now had a bit over 24 hours to kill in KL, with the airport hotel booked for 10 hours. I hung around in the airport until about 10:00 o'clock before checking in. The hotel I picked was essentially an airport lounge with some attached tiny rooms: I had unlimited free food (not particularly nice) and beer, and while the room was tiny, it was clean and comfortable so it was not a bad place to stay at all. It had the added bonus of being in the shopping mall next to the airport, so I really thought I could occupy myself there all day - it has two food courts and lots of other cafes and places to eat.
By late morning I was on a bus to Klang, about an hour away, just for something to do: it turns out that Klang is not a nice place to visit - it is an old port town, quite run down, very hot when I was there. It has a couple of pretty much abandoned malls, a nice mosque and a few parades of shops - sadly, no decent coffee to be found. The reason the malls had been abandoned was a shiny new one about 5 km away (where the bus from the airport had actually dropped me), so I went back there, where I could find coffee and a wonderful branch of the Popular Book Shop.

Back at the airport, I was surprised and pleased to find Popeye's Louisiana Chicken - superior to KFC - so I pigged out before going to find my plane. At the other end, I was out of Colombo airport at around 10:30 and decided to walk to my hotel, about a km away. I'm afraid that I lost my temper with the cluster of tuktuk drivers who pestered me as I left the airport who simply would not accept I wanted to walk.

I can't say that Sri Lanka is the best place I have ever been, or that I expect to be back unless there's a good reason to return. There were good things about the place, and my next posts will deal with them - this one is more about the background niggles that made it less than optimal. I'll start with the tuktuk drivers, as they were my first experience. Of course, many passed me by without being a nuisance and many others accepted a "no thanks" when they asked if I wanted a taxi. Too many did not, however, and had a variety of responses - this is the full monty - a couple went through the whole thing, others had a shortened version:

"Taxi, sir?"
- "No thanks".
"Where you going?"
"How can I help you?"
"City tour, sir? Cheap. See everything, 2 hours, 2000 rupees."
"Where you staying? I'll come collect you, you can hire me for the whole day."

It didn't seem to matter what I was doing or how unlikely it would be that I'd be wanting a tuktuk - they'd still ask. Most problematic is when I'd be trying to cross the street, spot a small gap in the traffic, be about to leap into it, only to find that a blasted tuktuk had stopped to find out what I wanted to do and how they could help me.

Most of my travels were by train. The rail network was set up by the British and hasn't really had a lot of investment since then. In addition, Sri Lanka has had decades of civil war and a tsunami to contend with - meaning most of the trains are really old, not that comfortable or clean and very slow. I had reserved seats for most trips but some times I couldn't - the unreserved carriages were crowded: I don't like to be in close proximity to people at the best of times, so spending three hours or more standing with no room to move is not that appealing. On the other hand, I had three bus trips and was quite pleased with them.

I particularly enjoyed the Sri Lanka take on chicken curry, but it isn't their way to just serve a bowl of it with some rice. Instead, they'd have rice and curry - a plate of rice, a very small amount of the particular curry I'd ordered and then between four and ten other random curries. Pretty much everywhere had a version of this dish. Some of these were very good, some curried were inedible (one nearly killed me, when some long stringy green vege got stuck half way down my throat) and others were just too odd looking for me to want to try. In the cheaper places, they'd just pile everything together but in the posher places they'd separate them.

The one dish I had heard about before getting to Sri Lanka was kottu, and I expected to see it everywhere but it was more than a week before I came across it. It is a bit like fried rice, but without the rice - instead, they use a finely chopped roti - it is chopped right on the grill and so making it creates quite a distinctive racket.

I found these two dishes to be a bit samey after a while, but a lot of the restaurants went for western style dishes, which is not really why I came here. I did find some good Thai food and only resorted to KFC once, just to see what it was like - not much different from home. Most of the places I stayed supplied breakfast - and I had specially chosen to order breakfast when I booked my first hotel, interested in seeing what a Sri Lankan breakfast is. Turns out an omelette with toast and marmalade, some fruit and a Liptons tea bag is pretty standard. Indeed, given that Sri Lanka produces so much tea, it was actually quite hard to get a good cup of tea - even tea shops would supply a tea bag and milk made from powder. There were exceptions, like the Dilmah shop in Colombo.

Coffee was just not a thing in most places. Although beer was readily available, and most places had several beers listed in their menus, the reality was that Lion lager was often all that was available. Its alright, but having a change is nice. I did try the locally brewed Tiger the one time I found it - awful! I did enjoy the locally brewed ginger beer - not as sweet as Schweppes and with quite a kick. It is made by Elephant, who recognise the power of a TLA, and call it EGB.

My own planning let me down a little. I found that the hill area was really nice, and as I traveled, I picked up ideas as to where I could have gone to explore it more. I'd had to book the train up there and back about four weeks before I left home, and was under the impression that people went up there mainly for the spectacular train ride. This led me to book to go up one day and, sadly, back the next. Luckily, as I moved north, it became easier to get trains without booking well in advance, so my travels could be somewhat more impromptu.

Posted by NZBarry 20:49 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 3 of 3) Page [1]