There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Colombo, National Day and a Full Moon: Part 15 of Sril Lanka, Isle of Serendip


We reached Colombo from Galle in mid-afternoon, checked into our hotel and went out to orientate ourselves and scout for likely restaurants.

Our hotel, the boutique branch of one Colombo's best hotels, was very modern and comfortable, occupying the seventh floor and upwards of a tower block. Our walk quickly revealed that it was in Colombo’s jewellery quarter where finding sapphires and rubies was easy, but not so rice and curry.

Colombo from our hotel window
Towards the top left are the cylindrical Bank of Ceylon Tower and the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, (see later)
and that is not an inappropriate attempt at humour, that is really what they are called.
We shared the lift back up with two large, athletic east European young men and their tennis rackets. Their body language was grumpy and they muttered unintelligible swear words when the lift refused to move after they swiped their room key. We used ours and headed upwards together. We had, we learned in the lobby, hit Colombo at the same time as the ITF Futures Tournament, the third level of professional tennis where wannabe superstars travel the world in search of ranking points to get themselves into the Challenger Tournaments. Clearly we had shared the lift with a couple of the day’s losers.

Colombo - the nation's capital is on Sri Lanka's west coast towards the south

Resorting to Google we found that had we walked the other way, just round the corner next to the Iranian Embassy we would have found an Indian restaurant called the Mango Tree.

It seemed eccentric going to an Indian restaurant in Sri Lanka, but it was good if a little expensive and we were reminded how different the Indian approach to spicing is. After poppadums and chutneys (more English Indian restaurant style than Indian Indian) I had mutton with chillies in a tomato gravy while Lynne chose a vegetarian dish of cashews and peas. We shared one nan, though it was big enough for a family.

Masked Dancers, Parade rehearsal, Colombo 
The following day, our last in Sri Lanka, would be poya – the day of the new moon. Poya is a holiday and also Sri Lanka’s monthly day of abstinence when no alcohol is sold. The day after would be National Day, another holiday, and there would be a big parade but as we were flying out we would miss it. Leaving the restaurant we observed that a dress rehearsal was in progress just down the road. Lynne was tired and retreated to the hotel to watch from a distance while I went for a closer look.

Dancers, Parade rehearsal, Colombo
Groups of dancers, each with their own musicians and drummers,.....
Drummers, Parade rehearsal, Colombo
alternated with richly caparisoned elephants. I took many photographs, but in the dark with a hand held camera so not all shots were usable.

Elephant, Parade rehearsal, Colombo
Each elephant was attended by a man with a shovel - no doubt the roses of Colombo will look beautiful this year.

The man with a shovel, Parade rehearsal, Colombo

Lynne's view of the parade rehearsal, Colombo

In the morning Lynne had fried eggs and a banana while I went for the fusion option, scrambled eggs, herby potatoes and a coconut roti, followed by curd and treacle.

Poya not only meant that we had drunk our last Lion lager, but that our tour of Colombo would be curtailed as nothing much would be open.

Temples, though, are always open and we started at the nearby Gangaramaya Temple down the road to the right of the elephant in the picture above. A Buddhist religious and intellectual centre, the 19th century temple has an eclectic mixture of architectural styles and includes a shrine designed by Geoffrey Bawa (see the Heritance Hotel, Polonnaruwa), but its cramped position on a city street means the architecture was hard to appreciate. Somewhat strangely we entered past a collection of vintage motor vehicles.

Vintage cars, Gangaramaya temple, Colombo
A stupa dominates the main courtyard…

Stupa, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
 … while near it is a bhodi tree grown from a shoot from the venerable tree in Anuradhapura. Many visitors were making clockwise circuits of the tree, reverently touching the large horizontal bough on each circuit,…..
Bhodi Tree, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
….while some placed offerings of oil, incense, fruit or flowers at its base.
Offerings by the Bhodi tree, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

I liked the row of dwarves holding up one of the buildings around the central courtyard.
Dwarves, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
There was also an image house, where several of the decorative elephant covers had been rather thrown down after the parade rehearsal.

Upstairs was a gallery of posters depicting the fates that await sinners. I will never covet anyone else's wife now I know what will happen.

Warning poster, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

Beyond there is much building and restoration work so we retreated to the entrance and a museum of sorts; a random collection of artefacts - Buddha images, Egyptian gods, oil lamps, old watches, china, wood carvings - resembling a large junk shop.
Collection of stuff, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo

Outside, an impressive series of panels describes the early life of the Buddha. I particularly liked the one of the Buddha fasting. His road to enlightenment had many twists and turns, and a prolonged fast was one of those twists; moderation in all things is the Buddhist way, avoiding over-eating (yes, I know!) and over-aggressive fasting.

The Buddha after fasting, Gangaramaya Temple, Colombo
A park containing the small Beira Lake (there is a much larger lake of the same name – they are linked by canals – a little to the north) is the other side the parade road.

Beside it I saw the advertisement below. There are some foods that do not cross national boundaries. Tibetan tsampa (which I have tried) and Swedish Surströmming (which I have not) are two examples and until I saw this sign I thought Marmite was a third. Marmite fan as I might be, I find it difficult to believe it has anything to offer a chicken curry.

Marmite advertisement, Beira Lake, Colombo
We walked through the park and over the bridge to a small island. Pedalos in the shape of geese made their stately way round and round. We had seen boating lakes all over Sri Lanka, they all have pedalos, but apparently the goose is the only design available.

Another goose pedalo, Beira Lake, Colombo
A little to the north is Galle Face Green a five hectare space between the city and the Indian Ocean. Perhaps we did not realise the significance of Colombo's most important open space, but it looked like a large patch of worn grass and we did not even stop the car for a photograph.

The Fort is a promontory beside the docks where the Portuguese, Sri Lanka's first European visitors, built their fort, though nothing remains of it except the name.

We entered the area past the old parliament building, now the President’s Office. Behind it are the circular Bank of Ceylon tower and a pair of twin towers known as the World Trade Centre, smaller than, though still eerily reminiscent of their New York namesake (see photo at start of post). They were built as part of a new modern city centre but the area has never fully recovered from the massive bomb left outside the bank tower by the Tamil Tigers in 1996.
President's Office (the old parliament building), Colombo

At the centre of the fort is a clock tower lighthouse. The clock tower was constructed in 1857 allegedly because the governor’s wife was exasperated by oriental time keeping. The light was added ten years later and signalled to approaching shipping for a century until the surrounding buildings grew too high and a new lighthouse was built in a more appropriate location.

Clock tower-Lighthouse, Colombo Fort
Behind the lighthouse - and a blanket of security - is the Presidential Palace.

Nearby is Cargill's department store. In 1844 William Miller and David Sime Cargill started a general warehouse and import business. Cargills became a public limited company in 1946 but owned little beyond the moribund department store until an aggressive expansion in the 1980s. Cargill's Food City shops, Sri Lanka’s largest or perhaps only supermarket chain, are ubiquitous but they are only the tip of the commercial iceberg. The old department store is now the company headquarters.
Cargills, Colombo Fort

We were able to have a look at the docks…

Colombo Dock
… as we moved on to Pettah, Colombo’s most culturally mixed and colourful district. The street market is worth visit – at least when it is open, which it was not today. Authorities always feel a need to ‘clean up’ districts like Pettah and the floating market, a collection of twee craft stalls on a pontoon in a section of Beira Lake, was opened in 2014. Ravi was determined we should have a look at it – probably because it is purpose built tourist attraction and we were tourists.

Pettah Floating Market, Colombo
We are resistant to such attractions but it did provide us with a pleasant coffee stop. Most of the stalls were closed, but even open I would have found them less interesting than the pelican paddling around on the lake.
Pelican, Pettah Floating Market, Colombo

Across the road from the floating market is an area where railways lines converge as they approach Colombo’s main station. Driving along empty and rather desolate roads between high fences is a strange approach to the delightful Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil. It is reputedly Colombo’s oldest Hindu temple, but no source says how old it is, nor explains why it is known in English as the Captain's Garden Temple.

There is a large gopura, at least by Sri Lankan standards, though it is not particularly brightly painted.

Gopura, Captain's Garden Temple (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo
By contrast the main hall is full of colour….

Main hall, Captains' Garden Temple (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo

….and has a pleasing version of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, one of our favourite Hindu (a collection of interpretations of this myth make up a 2017 post) myths and a story that has been following us around since we first encountered it carved on the wall of Angkor Wat.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Captain's Garden Temple (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo

The Temple, dedicated to Shiva, has many smaller chapels….

Chapel, Captain's Garden Temple (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo
…. and coconuts and flowers were on sale for those wishing to do Puja. Our attention was drawn to a father and his young son who were introducing the son’s new born sibling to the temple. The baby looked to be only days old and its mother sat on the floor nearby looking understandably exhausted.

Coconuts for Puja, Captain's Garden Temple, (Sri Kailasanthar Swami Devashthanam Kovil), Colombo

We progressed via a Dutch Church….

Dutch Church, Colombo
 … the Independence Memorial with its statute of Don Stephen Senanayake, the first prime minister of an independent Sri Lanka, then still called Ceylon.
Independence Memorial, Colombo
There is an independence museum here, and Colombo also has a fine national museum, but both were closed and Ravi was running out of things to do. We made a short detour to Victoria Park  - it was renamed Viharamhadevi Park on independence but the old name has clung on - a large open green space much in favour with those who wish to play cricket, picnic or canoodle. We took a stroll to fill in some time.
Don Stephen Senanayake, Independent Sri Lanka's first Prime Minister, Independence Memorial, Colombo
We moved on, passing the town hall, to have lunch at the Colombo City Hotel, a rather old fashioned and fusty hotel with a rooftop restaurant, though at midday it seemed wiser to stay in the covered air-conditioned section. We knew there would be no beer, but the lack of lime soda was less predictable; at least there is always ginger beer. I chose Nasi Goreng as the Indonesian staple -  Chicken, prawns and chillies in rice with Satay sauce - had been on so many menus and I had previously ignored it. It was very good as was Lynne’s fried cuttlefish with rice and vegetables.

Colombo City Hall
After lunch we drove around a bit more, but Ravi had run out of ideas and we soon returned to our hotel. At its best I think it is fair to say that Colombo is not the world’s most interesting city, but with everything closed for the holiday it was far from its best. We had enjoyed a wonderful Tour of Sri Lanka, but it was now petering towards an anti-climax.

In the evening, with nowhere much available or open and only requiring something small, we visited the hotel’s snack bar. We were not impressed by the menu, and our final dinner in Sri Lanka consisted of chicken burgers washed down with ginger beer…. not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Next morning Ravi took us to the airport, and that brings us to the end of these 15 posts about our Sri Lankan adventure.

Sri Lanka, The Isle of Serendip

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