“What Mumbai is to India, Colombo is to Sri Lanka,” a Sri Lanka Tourism Board (SLTB) official told us at the Bandaranaike International Airport. Few Indian honeymooners would make an unplanned trip to Sri Lanka. Ours wasn’t completely unplanned. Having gone through hotels recommended by the Lonely Planet at a bookstore in Male, we pondered over stopping for a day in Colombo before heading back to Mumbai. Once we got through the immigration counters with a day’s visa, we headed to Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.
Booking a hotel: We asked a Colombo Hotels Corporation official for help regarding information about hotels in Colombo. We’d booked our rooms for $50 a night at Hotel Goodwood near the airport but he suggested we board one in downtown Colombo as it would make travel easier. Our final pick: Hotel Grand Oriental at York Street in Fort, Colombo for SL Rs 4,500 (Around INR 2,000) a night.
Call a cab: The airport is 32 km from Colombo so you have to either hire a taxi or take the airport bus. At that odd hour, keeping security concerns in mind we opted for a taxi that would cost us SL Rs 2,200 (it costs SL Rs 2,800 for a hotel pick-up).
Whogunnit!: Barely had we gone a few kilometres south towards Colombo, our car was flagged down and asked to stop. A soldier tapped on the window and asked us to open the door. He pointed a gun at us and asked for our identity cards. The taxi driver flashed his card and said we’re Indians. The soldier let us pass after checking our passports. Colombo is literally policed by the army. We were checked five times that day.
Fort precinct: We stayed at the very imperial Grand Oriental Hotel opposite the Port Trust. The hotel resembles the Great Western Building in Mumbai. The Fort area of Colombo is a lot like the Fort in Mumbai. York Street is the main business district. The twin towers of the World Trade Centre stand right in the centre of this area. The President’s House is nearby as is the Tourist Police Office. There is Laksala where tourists go to buy Sri Lankan leather and cane handicrafts, Ceylon tea and masks (For cheaper souvenirs we opted for the roadside stalls in Pettah market). As this is a high-security zone movement into and out of this area is restricted, especially at night.
Attractions: The hotel staff suggested to us that we visit the famed Gangaramaya Temple. We marvelled at the giant tusker in the temple compound munching on bananas and ‘posing’ for pictures for tourists. We gaped at the 10-ft-tall brass statues of Buddha inside the temple that reverberated with Buddhist chants. Besides places of religious worship, the other tourist spots are the Town Hall (a carbon copy of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata), the Vihara Mahadevi Park that has a spice garden and the Art Gallery nearby, which displayed works of some of the finest Sri Lankan Artists since the 1930s.
While the National Museum sees its throng of with foreign tourists, the Dutch Museum in the heart of Pettah (equivalent to the Crawford Market in Mumbai) sees few visitors but is quite informative about the trade between the Dutch and the Sinhalese Kings of Kandy. As travel in Colombo is very expensive, we bargained with an autorickshaw driver outside the hotel to take us around for sightseeing for SL Rs 500. After the regular spots, he took us to a small gem workshop where we were shown a model of how sapphire is traditionally mined in the Ratnapura region (about 100 km south of Colombo). Sapphire from Sri Lanka occurs in a wide range of hues from orange-yellow to cornflower-blue, green, orange, pink, purple, yellow and white.
Food: For authentic Sri Lankan food, the Taj Restaurant at York Street is a fine bet. It resembles the Irani cafes of Mumbai. But there is a difference. The water in the glasses on the table was not for drinking but for washing our hands. Much to our surprise, some diners even washed their plates before the meal. As for the food, while there were the usual fried chicken masala and fish curry items on the chart, we decided to go for the Kothu Roti (chopped roti mixed with spicy chicken) and Buriyani (the Sri Lankan version of Biryani). The Kothu Roti was worth the money (SL Rs 200) but we didn’t enjoy the coconut-flavoured Buriyani as we are accustomed to Hyderabadi Biryani.
For a more luxurious setting for an evening meal, we went to the much-recommended Raja Bhojun Restaurant at the Galle Face Road (the ‘Marine Drive’ of Colombo). We tucked into shrimp cocktail and spicy cuttlefish as we watched the sun set into the Indian Ocean.