Holiday blog - Day 1 - Colombo
… came the e-mail header confirming our hotel reservation.
And now here we are in Colombo, at the start of our first long vacation in over a year. The next three weeks will see us heading from Sri Lanka, through the Middle East, to finally arrive in Istanbul. Needless to say, in this short period we’ll only scratch the surface of what these exotic and historical regions have to offer, but the key purpose of the trip actually wasn’t just where we’d visit but how we’d get there – in our case, via the cargo ship CMA CGM LILAC.
But that’s next week. For now, we’ve got a week to spend in Sri Lanka before we board the ship at the port of Colombo. It’s Philippe’s and my first time in Sri Lanka, and even only after a day in Colombo, we’re pretty sure there will be more trips here to come.
Most guide books are quick to dismiss Colombo as little more than a necessary transit point to the real gems of Sri Lanka – the beautiful and expansive coast, the exotic hillside temples, the glamorous colonial fort, the serene, mist-covered tea estates.
I can see where they’re coming from. The city is dusty, hot and chaotic. There are few sights to see if you’re even remotely familiar with the hallmarks of British colonialism – parliament buildings, the old railway station… in fact the whole city looks uncannily like Penang, it just smells of a different blend of spices.
Highlights from Day 1, see what you think:
- Our visit to Odel’s, Colombo’s leading discount designer retailer and apparently a must-stop on the tourist circuit, lasted a full 20 minutes. It would’ve actually been much shorter if it wasn’t for the air-conditioning. Sure, you can find decent designer togs at a fraction of the price, but are you really going to buy Hugo Boss suits and Armani ties on vacation (and when it’s 30 degrees outside)?
- Likewise, while the highly lauded Paradise Road Studio housed shelves of chic tableware and the like, we just weren’t prepared to lug entire china dinner sets around with us the rest of our trip. Plus risk the possibility of seeing the exact same set on a future trip to Bangkok or Bali (elephants, elephants, and more elephants).
- (Alert: Food blog starts now!) The Paradise Road Café, however, was a lovely little lunch haven in the same décor and cuisine vein as Singapore’s Blood Café. Here’s lunch – Philippe’s Mexican beef pita pocket (my spinach and ricotta ravioli tasted good but wasn’t terribly photogenic), followed by our dessert of passion fruit meringue pie. Very local I know, but, hey, we’ll be journeying to the Sri Lanka heartlands tomorrow and I’m sure we’ll have plenty of opportunities, by choice or circumstance, to sample local cuisine. Right now, it’s just too hot to even contemplate curry.
- Our first attempt of the trip to play historical tourist led us via a white knuckle tuk-tuk ride to the old lighthouse at the north end of Galle Face Green, overlooking the Indian Ocean. According to our driver, the area used to be a popular al fresco seafood dinner destination until the Presidential Secretariat was established here. While the southern end of the Green is still bustling with strolling young couples, gossiping old-timers and kite-flying children, the north end is starkly desolate, even hostile. Our only companions during that 20 minute stroll were rifle carrying soldiers and hundreds of gigantic black crows, fighting over stubs of stale bread, circling silently overhead, or simply lined up in statue-like stillness on the seaside walls, staring out at the ocean like a scene out of a Vertigo comic book. Not quite Tourist Promotion Board material.
- Next, we tried exploring the pettah. In a word, this place is madness, quite worthy of the warning in our Luxe Guide to avoid at all costs. Narrow streets crammed with stalls selling everything from cheap shoes to outdated electronics to gems of dubious origins branch out in every direction from the main arterial street. Not that you could actually enter the shops even if you wanted to – the pavements are packed with parked tuk-tuks and mobile food stalls. Shoppers are thus left to jostle for passageway with cars, trucks, carts, motorcycles and tuk-tuks on the street itself, with each form of transportation gloriously issuing its own unique combination of exhaust fumes, horn blaring and reckless overtaking technique. Add to this the blazing sun overhead, and you soon realize that the best the pettah has to offer is its numerous bake shops.
- I guess as a result of its various colonial influences (Dutch, Portugese and British), Sri Lankans really love their bread, and it’s hard to find a street that doesn’t house at least a bake shop or two. We sat down at an empty table near the kitchen door, and watched an endless stream of fresh baked bread emerge, the variety of which was worthy of any European bakery.
- Through this afternoon, we constantly wondered where the other tourists were. We finally found them all by the pool of our hotel, the charming colonial Galle Face Hotel, engaged in an amusing game of musical deckchairs – Caucasians chasing the sun, Asians running away from it.
- Dinner was at Number 18 (food blog time again!), Colombo’s latest haven for the young and beautiful dining crowd. Helmed expertly by an Australian chef, it offers excellent modern Italian/Australian cuisine in a stylish courtyard setting, and is the perfect place to get the grime and chaos of daytime Colombo off your mind. My starter was squid and tomato petals with papardelle tossed in lemon oil and parsley, main was grilled rack of lamb with a caponata and mint jus, and dessert was passionfruit pavlova with butterscotch ice cream. Add to that a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc and chilled lounge music, and you’ve got a happy end to a long day.