So, back in November last year, as my birthday arrived and I found myself at 35 years of age (physically, if not mentally) I started to do a bit of introspection. One of the first things that popped into my head was that, of all my travels, which have taken me around much of Europe and a fair few places in the northern part of Africa, none have ever taken me into Asia proper. Sure I’d been to Anatolia in Turkey, but it’s a distinctly European nation, particularly until you go into the more Kurdish areas in the east, which I’ve yet to see. And, with my love of the spicy cuisines of much of south Asia, it seemed pretty silly and like something I should correct as soon as possible.
The result of this was sitting at 4pm, inside a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 at Heathrow’s terminal 4, waiting for the off. My journey – as it was the cheapest route – was an afternoon flight to Doha, a quick overnight in a hotel there and then a lunch time flight the following day, in to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. After the usual Heathrow delay of about 40 minutes, we were off. The flight was remarkably calm and I’d been told to expect a lot of Qatar airways’ service and they didn’t disappoint. Even back in the terminal, they’d had porters to do the job of taking my rucksack to oversize baggage, so that I didn’t have to carry it myself. The food on the flight was excellent and the selection of film and TV was above par.
Landing at Qatar’s relatively new Hamad International was quite the sight. The runway juts out into the water, with it’s amazingly clean lines of glass and steel everywhere making it into a hugely aesthetically pleasing place. The service culture was in evidence again as, almost every 10 steps you took, there was a Qatar Airways staff member waiting to help you, should you get lost or need help. I went through security, quickly got my transit visa and jumped in a cab to the centre, where my hotel was. My cab driver was from Kathmandu, Nepal and spoke quite openly. First he mentioned the recent earthquake, in which he had luckily not lost any family members and then he went on to speak about life in Qatar. He pointed out that, as a migrant worker, he doesn’t have the same rights as Qataris in the country, but that he still feels his life is much improved relative to how it was in Nepal, and also that he has a sense that the current mood, amongst Qatari people as much as the millions of migrant workers in the country, is one with an appetite to change that and to make life better for them. I hope he’s right. Arriving at my hotel at just after 1am, I found my room and went straight to sleep.
I woke up with a spring in my step, partly because of the excellent sleep I’d had and partly because I knew I had an Arabic breakfast waiting for me downstairs. Sure enough, it was an excellent combination of flat bread, poultry sausages, omelettes, fried vegetables and a really terrific bean stew. There was also a few olives and a bit of white cheese. If it doesn’t sound like breakfast, then you really need to change your breakfast priorities. It’s terrific.
After breakfast, I decided to take a bit of a wander around my neighbourhood to see what was around. I also needed to get some Qatari rials for the reutn taxi ride in to the airport.Walking outside the air conditioned solace of my hotel, I soon realised that it was indeed 44 degrees centigrade at 9:20am. Ouch. So my walking around involved looking at some things outside, then finding anything I could that was inside to make use of the air con and alternating between the two. Sadly, as it was the height of Ramadan, it was all rather quiet and there wasn’t much to see.
So with my money changed, it was back in one of the beautifully bright, air conditioned cabs to the airport. The road out of the city, which I hadn’t noticed the night before, runs right alongside the coast, and planes landing at Hamad International fly remarkably closely overhead.
Once checked in, there was just time to see this dinosaur and then to board another 777 for another 4 hours in the sky.
Service continued as it left off and, for airline food, my meal was once again quite excellent.
So, at something after 10pm, local time, we landed in Colombo. Immediately everything was different. The tranquillity of Doha and the flight in was gone, the smells in the air were different and the sales models were questionable.
Also unusual was that duty free was crammed with white goods. Sure, there was a stand full of whiskeys and the like, but the majority of travellers were flocking to duty free fridges and washing machines. A new one for me. Passport control clearance was mercifully rapid though and, within a few minutes, I was outside and immediately bombarded by taxi drivers, tuktuk drivers, people selling tat and general crowds of people moving all over the place. My book – The Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka 2015 – had told me previously that buses to the city centre ran throughout the night. A good thing I’d checked as every taxi driver to whom I said I was taking a bus tried to tell me there were no buses at that time of night. Finally happening upon a military policeman, after several minutes of aimless wandering, I was shown to a bus – with air con, no less – which would take me to the city centre for less than 200 rupees – 1/6th of what the rather unscrupulous taxi drivers were asking for. I said goodbye to the airport’s statue of the Buddha and jumped on board.
The 32km between the airport and central Colombo is completely consumed by urban sprawl from the capital. So the journey took a full hour and thirty minutes, stopping every 500m or so to let people on and off the bus. In the meantime we were treated to a video of a Sri Lankan stadium rock band, who played a mixture of their own songs and those of 80s rock bands like Queen, Europe and others. It was a surreal experience, but refreshingly other worldly, so I just sat back and took it in. It certainly made the time pass more quickly. Jumping out of the bus, I negotiated simultaneously with about 6 taxi drivers until one of them offered to drive me to Narahenpita and my hostel for less than 500 rupees. Once there I was, once again, dying for my bed and so just got my head down after brushing my teeth.
I’d managed to arrange with a really nice local lady to show me around the city. She would drive me around and give me the benefit of her local knowledge and I’d buy the food and drinks. It seemed like a good deal. So I ate my breakfast of toast and surprisingly decent coffee at my hostel and then went outside to meet her opposite the cricket ground. Within a couple minutes I was in her car and delighted that she had basically perfect English and already had places in mind to take me. The first stop was Independence Square, a monument created after Sri Lanka gained freedom from the British Empire. It’s an impressive monument, even if it does need some renovation and it is situated in a quite lovely park, which is remarkably calm, in spite of its city centre location.
Behind the monument is an old colonial building. Originally built by the original British governor and later extended and converted, it’s since been turned into a luxury shopping and dining facility with high quality designer clothing and hi-fi stores, Sri Lankan and Indian restaurants and… Burger King. But it really has been kitted out very nicely with antiques and simple decor.
After this small glimpse of modernity and colonial history in one hit, it was time to see something spiritual. Not Burger King, but the Gangaramaya Temple. It was a very short drive and, within a few minutes we were parked up outside and leaving our shoes with a shoe monitoring person, for a small fee. Here there’s no charge for locals and that for tourists is pretty small and it’s really worth a look around. My guide told me that the head monk collects any old stuff he can find to display there and it’s not hard to believe, looking at some of the display cases. Nonetheless, the complex is a fascinating place, with some beautiful stupas and a wall of seated Buddhas at the rear, mostly donated by Thai benefactors, I’m told. It’s an open, airy space, which you can walk around in freely, and likewise, birds and insects too fly around freely inside. There are also countless monks working on the upkeep of the temple and adding new fixtures, new effigies and so on and one we saw had a working elephant with him, carrying some logs.
With the temple covered, I was starting to get hungry, so we decided to head across to the fort for a snack. Near the fort and the financial centre is an old Dutch Hospital which has been renovated into restaurants, cafés and the like. One such place was a tea room with a difference, offering sublime cakes and fruit juice and tea mixes that sounded really intriguing. I didn’t take much persuading. Parking up in the car park of the Kingsbury hotel where, strictly, we were not guests, we put on our best “posh folk” faces and walked through the foyer and up along to the old lighthouse and further to the hospital complex. I ordered a black tea and soursop soda. I didn’t even know what soursop was. I also ordered a red velvet cupcake, while my tour guide ordered a slice of death by chocolate and an ice tea with some interesting fruit elements. It was a little pricey by Sri Lankan standards, but my god it was good. The setting was also just about perfect, with big, comfy blue leather sofas, low tables and huge flat screen TVs showing – what else? – cricket.
From here, it was a walk down the historic streets towards the fort train station. We passed the financial district, with it’s huge, cylindrical towers of the Bank of Ceylon and others, various huge British era warehouses, converted into hotels and restaurants and, just on the edge of the Islamic quarter, the place we’d decided on for lunch – The Pagoda Tea Room, the place where Duran Duran recorded the video for Hungry Like the Wolf, back when I was a fresh faced young lad. The place has hardly changed, but I resisted the temptation to flip the tables on to the floor, unlike Simon LeBon, and I was grateful for the lack of snake charmers. We asked what was left of lunch, as it was getting a bit late, and were offered vegetarian curry or chicken lamprais. The lamprais was recommended to me and so I plumped for it. It arrived and was a huge portion of diced chicken, some vegetables and rice, wrapped in a banana leaf. It smelled fantastic. I asked if the small portions of red, onion rich paste dotted around were spicy, as I put a little into my mouth and discovered that yes, seeni sambal is indeed very spicy. It was an excellent meal and I was staggered to be charged only about five euros for both dishes, along with soft drinks and cups of tea afterwards.
With tea gone, we strolled down the old shopping street, stopping off at the famous Cargill’s food mart to buy some essentials for my trip – toothpaste and the like. The buildings are wonderfully preserved and there are some hilarious placards with messages that are entirely other worldly on them.
With the toothpaste bought and the early sunset – 6:30pm, as it’s so close to the equator in Colombo – we decided that all that was left to do was to walk back along to the Kingsbury and get a seat and a cocktail in the sky bar and to watch the sun go down over the famous Galle Face. Which is exactly what we did, before I hurried back home, to be ready for the morning train to Kandy.
Throughout my stay in Sri Lanka, I leaned heavily on my Lonely Planet Travel Guide. You can get hold of your copy, here: