Sri Lanka has always been one of the many countries on my list to visit. I’ve heard so much about this island country — its people, its food, and of course, its inland and coastal beauty. Just imagine… this small speck of land in the vast Indian Ocean has not one, but eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Says a lot, doesn’t it?
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Colombo is the capital and the largest city in Sri Lanka. The city, located on the west coast of the island is a vibrant and colorful place — lively market streets and brightly painted colonial buildings mixed together with swanky hotels and stylish cafes. It’s a fusion of the old and new; an old city dotted by modern high-rises.
Most people who visit Sri Lanka skip Colombo to head to the more popular and historical places like Kandy and Galle — but do stop by the capital city for a day or two. Weave through the crazy traffic on a tuk tuk ride, mingle with locals on a walk through the busy marketplace, admire the landmark colonial architecture, and spend the evening watching the sun go down at the park, by the sea, or on a rooftop bar.
I arrived in Colombo the night before after spending a couple of sun-filled days surfing in the southern coastal town of Weligama (read about it here). It was dark by then, so I just checked into my hotel and retired for the night. The next day, I woke up all energized and ready to explore the city! My first stop was right into the heart of the old Colombo — into the bustling madness that is Pettah.
Pettah and Pettah Market
Pettah is a famous district in Colombo, located east of the city’s main Fort area. It is famous for its marketplace, its open-aired bazaars, and the many religious buildings scattered around the area. I arrived in the early morning when the weather was not too humid yet, so it was a pleasant walk around the Pettah Market area — passing by the many stalls, shops, stores and small restaurants. To me, most of the tiny lanes and streets I came across looked almost the same — just as busy, just as many people, just as cramped and chaotic. It was indeed an experience, and a glimpse into the commercial part of the city.
Jami Ul-Affar Mosque
While walking around Pettah Market, I also came across the religious landmarks dotted around the area. The most significant one near the market area is the Jami Ul-Affar Mosque — it is one of the oldest mosques in the city, and hard to miss because of its red and white candy striped exterior. It wasn’t opened yet when I visited early in the morning, so I didn’t get to see the interior of this gorgeous mosque. While in Pettah Market, I also passed by the Khan Clock Tower at the entrance; and walked all the way to the Kayman’s Gate Bell Tower (which is hard to notice because it is so small and hidden among the shops).
Churches and Shrines
From there, I decided to take a tuk tuk (I got lazy and the sun was coming up) to the Wolvendaal Church, the oldest Protestant Church in the country, completed in 1757 in the Dutch colonial style. It wasn’t open on a Monday, so I only got to admire the simple exterior. About a 10-15 minutes walk from the church stands the city’s most famous shrine — the St. Anthony’s Shrine. This all-white Roman Catholic church is always filled with devotees, and is home to a statue of St. Anthony that contains a piece of his tongue. There is also a museum within the church that exhibits religious relics and tells the story of the church and its patron saint. There are also several other Hindu temples and mosques within the vicinity.
By noon, the sun was merciless and the weather was too humid to walk around in. So I hopped on a tuk tuk again (use the Grab app, its more reliable and cheaper) to Colombo’s central business district — Colombo Fort. The entire district is filled with buildings and major heritage landmarks from the many bygone eras of the city. It was built by the Portuguese (with almost nothing remaining, including the fortress walls that the place is named after), developed by the Dutch (with a few buildings scattered around), and taken over by the British (most buildings here were erected during that period in the late 18th century and early 19th century).
Old Colombo Dutch Hospital
I decided to stop at the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital, one of the oldest buildings in the Fort area (late 1700’s), and one of the only few remaining remnants of the Dutch. Even though the building is still known as the Old Dutch Hospital, it has nothing left that is reminiscent of a hospital — it’s been recently converted into a shopping and dining precinct. While there, I did some souvenir shopping — I bought tea from the T-Lounge by Dilmah, and local handicrafts from Barefoot; before settling down for a late lunch at the Colombo Fort Cafe.
Sunset at Galle Face Green
Yet another quick tuk tuk ride and I arrived at the Galle Face Green – a sprawling 12-acre urban park that stretches about half a kilometer along the coast. This seaside promenade is popular among the locals, who (during weekends) congregate in the area for a family picnic, an ocean-front stroll, to let the kids run free while flying kites and blowing bubbles, or even go on a sunset date. While I was there, I saw children in uniforms on a school trip, and teenagers playing a game of cricket. With this picture in mind, it’s hard to imagine this place ever being a space cleared by the Dutch to provide a clear line of fire for their cannons.
I enjoyed walking along the promenade, enjoying the ocean breeze and watching the sky change colors as the sun sets. I picked up some shrimp fritters (isso wade) at one of the many snack stalls that line the path, and then decided to stop by the famous Nana’s (there were so many with the same name, so I just randomly chose one) for a plate of Kottu. Kottu is a famous Sri Lankan street food made up of a mix of roti (a type of local bread), vegetables, egg, meat and spices.
Dinner at The Fat Crab
It was my first dinner in Colombo, and I wanted to have seafood! A local friend suggested one of her favorite restaurants in town (for crabs) — The Fat Crab, so that was where I was headed. The restaurant is set in an open-air space on the second floor of a building facing the ocean, and has a relaxed and informal atmosphere. They specialize in crabs (of course), and offers a variety of styles — steam crab, Singapore-style Chilli crab, black pepper crab, garlic butter crab, spicy Negombo devilled crab, and the Lankan Murunga leaf crab curry. I went with the last two because it was all about the spice! The suggested serving was 500 grams of crab per person — so for a meal for two, we ordered two large crabs at 500 grams for approximately Rs3600~US$20 each. The meal came with delicious baker’s bread, dhal, pol sambal (coconut chilly relish), stir-fried morning glory, and steamed rice. It was absolutely delicious… what a way to end my first day in the city!
On day two, I decided to laze in bed and enjoy the comforts of my hotel before heading out into the city to brave the hot sun! I planned to visit the attractions on the south-eastern part of the city center of Colombo — the famous temples around Beira Lake, and the Cinnamon Gardens and its tree-lined boulevard and mansions.
Hotel Nippon Colombo
During my visit to Colombo, I stayed at the Hotel Nippon Colombo — located in a suburb of the city called Slave Island, directly south of the Fort. It was called Slave Island during the British times — due to the fact that slaves were held here during the Portuguese rule. The building that houses the hotel is almost 130 years old — first built as an apartment for the British, and then converted into a luxury hotel. The wars and civil unrest that followed throughout the years left it in a dormant state; and it was only restored again in 2009. I loved that I got to stay in a colonial hotel with so much history — its even retained much of its classic atmosphere that stepping into the hotel felt like stepping into the glorious past.
Lunch at VOC Cafe Dutch Burgher Union
When I finally decided to leave the hotel, it was almost noon and time for lunch. One of the dishes I wanted to try while in Colombo was the Lamprais — a Dutch Burgher dish, introduced to the country during the Dutch rule of Sri Lanka. Lamprais is baked rice wrapped in banana leaves with two kind of curries (one meat with chicken, beef and pork; and one vegetable), sambal and belacan (chilly spices) and minced meatballs. I heard the best place to try a packet of Laprais in Colombo is at the VOC Cafe at the Dutch Burgher Union. A meal of Lamprais here costs Rs550~US$3 (it really is a simple dish); but make sure you don’t forget to order the homemade ginger beer for Rs165~US$1 per glass. It was so good, I ordered another!
After lunch, it was time to do more exploring of Colombo. It was a day of temples so I took extra care to cover up (shoulders and knees) and wore sandals (most religious places require visitors to take their shoes off). I took a tuk tuk ride over to one of the most important and well-known Buddhist temples in the country — the Gangaramaya Temple.
Despite the modest exterior, I have to say the Gangaramaya Temple is one of the most impressive temples I have ever seen. After walking pass the worship hall and its huge colorful murals, the assembly hall of the monks, as well as the sacred Bodhitree; I entered the relic chamber that showcases a piece of Buddha’s hair. The chamber is also filled with so many ancient artifacts and priceless valuables — Buddha statues and religious figures made out of jade, gold, ivory, gems… and the list goes on. It even had an adjoining museum with many other rare antiquities. This really must be the richest temple in the world! I was so amazed with its treasures that I spent almost 2 hours walking around and admiring them. Entry costs Rs300~US$1.6.
Seema Malaka Temple
Just next to the Gangaramaya Temple, lies the much smaller Seema Malaka Temple. Located in the middle of the Beira Lake, this temple is part of the larger temple and used mainly for meditation purposes. Constructed in the late 19th century, this Buddhist temple is surrounded by golden Buddha statues seated around its meditation platform. There are smaller shrines on the adjoining platform dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha and Kataragama Deviyo; as well as a statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Guanyin.
While at Beira Lake, I also took the opportunity to walk across the metal bridge that connects the bank of the lake to a small island park in the middle. From there, I could admire the skyline of Colombo and the Lotus Tower (the city’s tallest building), as well as watch the locals boating around the lake (on their swan boats).
It was evening by the time I finished my tour around the temples and Beira Lake. I was to head to Cinnamon Gardens next but there wasn’t enough time to do so. One of the few things I wanted to do there was to visit the National Museum of Colombo and the Viharamahadevi Park — but I had to be contented with just a tuk tuk ride around the area, before heading back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner.
Dinner at Ministry of Crab
Last meal in Colombo — and yes, yet another meal of delicious local seafood, and crabs! I just couldn’t miss the chance to dine at one of the most famous restaurants in town, the Ministy of Crab. It is essential to make a dinner reservation here as it gets pretty packed up at night (I did mine via email a few days before) — and for good reason too. I have to say, my meal here was the best I had in Sri Lanka. For two people, I ordered the 1kg XL-sized Crab (for Rs13,400~US$73) cooked in the popular Garlic Chilli style; and the Claypot Prawn Curry (for Rs4,600~US$25). Everything was so amazingly delicious that we slurped up every drop of those two dishes (and all that crab oil too)! The meal was expensive, definitely, but I think it was justified. Delicious food, wonderful ambiance, great attention to detail, strategically located in the Old Colombo Dutch Hospital, and excellent service. Yes, totally worth it.
And that was how I spent my time in Colombo. My late night flight back to Kuala Lumpur gave me exactly two full days to see the city at a more leisurely pace. It was unfortunate that I was only in Sri Lanka for a week, with most of my time spent in Weligama — so no UNESCO sites this trip. I guess I’ll just have to save all that for the next time I visit the country again!