The Isle of Spice, Sri Lanka, is slowly rebuilding its tourism industry after its decades old war with the Tamil Tigers winds down. For those that want to see unspoiled nature and culture, before the ravages of mass tourism corrupt all that is pure and beautiful, now would be the time to make that journey.
I had an interesting yet chilling visit to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city. For those that aren’t familiar with the geography, Sri Lanka is a large island nation off the coast of India. It’s population is primarily Buddhist and it has a very rich history, both in terms of its early cultural development, as well as its colonial history with the various Arab and European traders/settlers of the day. Because of this, Sri Lanka really is one of those rare places left on the planet where you can become immersed in its ancient history and at times feel like you have time traveled back to the colonial days.
Anyway, while I was there, I had the strangest experience. The first part of my stay was at a guest house in Mount Lavinia (an old beach resort to the south of downtown Colombo). The guest house was a large old mansion that had once belonged to a very rich Sri Lankan lady. However, after she passed away, her children turned the large estate into a guest house. I spent the first night in a front room where I had a noisy air-conditioner and traffic noise. Fortunately, for the second night, the master bedroom had become vacant, so I switched rooms.
On the second night, I awoke suddenly, with the feeling that there was someone in the room, watching me. Sure enough, I could see the shape of someone standing in front of the window… it was the shape of a long haired woman and I could see enough detail that it even looked like she was wearing a sari and she was standing by the window, right beside my bed and looking down at me.
I was convinced that she had broken into my room and was intending to rob me. I therefore very (extremely) slowly and quietly slid along my (king size) bed to the opposite end from where the lady was standing, until I eventually reached the light switch. When I flicked the switch the shape in front of the window just disappeared! There was no sign of her. I looked under the bed, around the furniture, in the bathroom. I then looked out the window to see if there were any trees or buildings that could have created a shape… nothing.
To this day, I have no rational explanation for what I saw that night. I didn’t believe in ghosts… and still refuse to. However, after the event, I told some of my friends and we had a look at some of the photos of the original owner of the house… and, yeah she did fit the profile that I had seen, and I was sleeping in her bed that night… very creepy!
Needless to say, I then made arrangements to change hotels, moving to downtown Sri Lanka. I stayed in a real classic piece of colonial history known as the Galle Face Hotel. It’s right on the beach and if you stay in the old wing (stay in the old wing… I recommend it), you get a room with old world creaky timber floors, hand made colonial furniture (including wardrobes, writing desks etc) and charming old lamps and chandeliers. Fortunately, it does come with some modern day conveniences such as airconditioning and free wifi. The hotel is also right on the beach. As one does when staying at a beach-side hotel, I decided to dine along the beach that night… and became salt-encrusted (I was wondering why the outdoor dining area was fairly empty)… the waves crash quite violently against the shore and the off-shore breeze ensures that diners become brine covered. Don’t wear anything that will rust (like the buttons on my jeans).
For attractions in Colombo… there isn’t a whole lot to see really. The shopping is nothing to write home about (so I won’t), and most of the city consists of low rise cramped shop-houses and streets congested with insane drivers on three wheel motorcycle taxis and utility trucks (pick-ups). Near the Galle Face and inland near the lagoon there seems to be a bit of development and there are a bunch of recently constructed high-rise buildings, but these seem quite at odds with the rest of Colombo.
However, if you head slightly inland from the Galle Face towards the old Governers’ Mansion, this is where the best tourist attractions are located. First off, what I class as the one tourist attraction worth seeing in Colombo (other than the colonial architecture scattered about everywhere) is the National Museum. This is housed in the old Governors’ Mansion building, and the building itself appears to be largely unchanged, other than the fact that it now houses museum exhibits. The exhibits are very well presented, and I learned a lot about Sri Lankan history. My favourite was in the paintings section… check out the thousand year old ancient pornographic paintings.
Behind the main museum is the Natural History Museum (I have always had a thing for Natural History Museums). This one was a bit dusty and had very few visitors. Most of the exhibits felt like they had been there since the 1960s to 1970s, but that in itself made the visit worthwhile, as I felt almost like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, and I half expected to be chased by Nazi treasure hunters.
Finally, next door to the Natural History Museum is Viharamadevi Park (this was originally known as “Victoria Park” during the English colonial rule and was where all the colonials would take their strolls in the evening). One guidebook claims this is Colombo’s version of New York’s Central Park, but in reality it is probably more akin to a smaller version of Bangkok’s Lumphini Park. There is a tiny lake (or perhaps pond is the proper term) where paddle boats can be rented. There are also a few religious statues and features. The thing that had me stumped is the old railway tracks that have been retained, travelling through part of the park… where’s the rest of the railway? For those that love Indiana Jones movies, the park has plenty of large bats hanging upside down off the larger trees… and for some reason keeps reminding me of the Temple of Doom.
Sadly, I took a heap of photos and cannot locate where I have saved them. Therefore for the time being, this article will be photo free (other than the stock photo I added at the start). If I do find my photos, I will update this article accordingly.
To sum up, Colombo was an interesting place to visit. Notwithstanding that it is the main tourist dropping off point in Sri Lanka, there aren’t a lot of touristy things to do in Colombo itself. This does make sense to me, given the real charm of Sri Lanka lies in the tropical beaches and the ancient temple ruins that are all located away from the capital. However, the two great things that the capital does offer is its lack of mass tourism and its retention of colonial buildings/history/timelessness. I highly recommend this place.