If you are going to Sri Lanka, rent a car. Repeat, rent a car. Cannot say this enough, RENT A CAR. More about the transportation issues in Sri Lanka as my posts progress.
I won’t lie, leaving India was a major bummer. I’ve traveled to 20+ countries in my life and India ranks second only to China in terms of amazing cultural sights–and I suspect that it would rank #1 had I been to China this decade as opposed to back in 2000 when Western tourism was almost non-existent outside the major cities.
Nevertheless, Sri Lanka is an amazing place with wicked friendly people, second only to the Nepalese on that front. I landed in the airport closest to Colombo late at night as is the norm–for some reason most of the flights in and out of the country tend to be between 10 pm and 3 am. So you may want to plan ahead in terms of arranging for transport to your hotel or just stay in the airport town for a night so that you can just take a cheaper bus in the morning (the airport city is an hour away from Colombo by car).
Based on a recommendation from Kieran (Drago trip dude) who had just been to Sri Lanka, I stayed in Mount Lavina, 40 minutes south of Colombo. It’s essentially a suburb of Colombo and a nice way to stay in a beach setting that is still close to the big city. Some pictures of the railway right by the beach, and the beach proper:
My first full meal in Sri Lanka was an amazing crab curry at a beach side restaurant called La Voile. It was a killer meal, but unfortunately it was the best I had in my month in Sri Lanka– it set some high expectations that were never met. Unfortunately, the food in Sri Lanka, with certain exceptions is generally a bit on the salty side and just a shitty version of Indian food. However, I did love the “sambal” which you see in a small dish on the upper left corner. It is a mix of dried coconut, onions, green chilies, lime juice and salt that goes well with EVERYTHING. I would sprinkle that liberally on my eggs every morning while I was in the country:
The following morning, I decided to take the train into Colombo. Which brings me to part one of the serious transportation issues of Sri Lanka. The trains are beautiful and the tracks are on picturesque routes, but trains are generally a joke as a serious mode of transportation. The reasons for this are two-fold. One, the trains were originally built to transport tea so most of the routes go primarily to and from tea country and since the train infrastructure hasn’t been updated in a century, the routes are horrendously inefficient (seriously, Ella to Kandy by bus takes 3 hours, 8 hours by train). Two, they essentially just keep selling tickets irrespective of the seats on a train. In theory you can get a first class ticket (for a pittance) but in my experience they were sold out days if not weeks in advance because a whole train will only have one first class car. And getting a first class ticket isn’t about being a snob, when you’re going to be on a train for 8 hours you just want to make sure you have a seat which is NOT a given absent a reservation. Lonely Planet claims you can reserve seats on second class cars, but as far as I can tell that is a lie, I tried multiple times and it is impossible. Do not trust Lonely Planet on that front, and to be frank do not trust Lonely Planet on any transportation advice in Sri Lanka, their advice was always horrendously wrong in that area.
Which brings me to my train ride to Colombo. How did I get that shot from outside the train you wonder? Well, not only was the train 20 minutes late (I thought it was impossible to run a train system with late trains!!) but it was so full that I literally had to hang off the side of the train for the 40 minute ride in. I’ll admit that it was fun for the first 5 minutes, until the train signals started coming within 30 centimetres of my head at 80 kmph. Passing by trains stations was even worse because my feet were within 10 centimetres of the subway platform which would have hit my ankle but for the slightest movement. But I took my cues from locals who were also hanging from the train and were unconcerned. I’ll say this at least, it was cheap. The 40 minute train ride set me back all of 20 cents. But as you would imagine, in my future trips into the city, I opted for buses which added a good 20 minutes to the journey but were a lot safer.
A bridge near the train station:
Colonial architecture in downtown Colombo:
This area really reminded me of the architecture in the lower east side of Vancouver, near Gastown. Probably because the buildings are from the same era:
The unfortunate thing about Colombo is that much of its seaside is off-limits to civilians be they tourists or locals. Since the town is an active port and has a navy base, a HUGE chunk of the west side by the sea is blocked off–so much so that there is literally only one access route into that lovely part of the city.
The Old Galle Buck Lighthouse built in 1954:
The Sambodhi Chaitya, a 20th century multi-faith pagoda. It has really good views over the port:
I loved taking street buses in Colombo. There is essentially one main road heading north/south in Colombo, the Colombo-Galle road. The city is huge so you do need to take transit to head down. For about 10 cents I made it 10 km down the city to my next stop.
My destination was the Gallery Cafe which was formerly the office of the famed Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa. Below is a photo of a nearby church that had really cool lights:
The Gallery Cafe:
The place was absolutely gorgeous and worth a visit, but just have a beer and skip the food and cocktails. Everything I had there was incredibly pedestrian. They all sounded great in writing, but the food and drinks delivered no surprises, just a bland palette.
The next morning, I ventured into Colombo again (by bus). This time I started by walking north, starting my day at the splendid Red Mosque. What I loved was that the attendants there were super welcoming, but that really is the typical experience that I’ve had visiting mosques:
Some of the streets in the northern chunk of Colombo:
One of the unique bits of Sri Lankan cuisine is the deviled food. It really is quite delicious. This chicken had a slight sourness as would be expected from deviled meats, with a lovely crunchy fried crust. An amazing meal for very little money ($5 CDN for the food you see displayed including a drink).
More street shots:
The Christian Reformed Church. I’ve learned that Dutch churches have messed up entry-ways, can’t ever find them.
How is that not the most artistic gas station ever?
Pictures from Slave Island. As the name would suggest, this is where slaves were housed in colonial days:
I’ll leave you with pictures of Galle Face beach: