Jul 27, 2011

The Many Faces of Colombo

Traditional 'Demon Mask'

We left the capital city of Colombo for our last stop.  We spent 8hrs travelling by train from Trinco and arrived on a Saturday afternoon, which in this case was a good thing as most of the locals seemed to have left the city for the weekend.  The streets were strangely quiet for a big city, but the multi-laned roads suggested that this was not the norm.  We even had difficulty finding restaurants that were open that night for dinner.  We took advantage of the quietness by walking around the city centre, acquainting ourselves with the bus network, and doing a bit of shopping at the designer surplus centre, House of Fashion.  By Monday morning, the city returned to ‘normal’ and we started to see and feel the ‘real’ Colombo.

For starters, immediately after we stepped out of our hotel at 8:30am to go for breakfast, we found ourselves amidst a Hindu festival just about to start.  Not long after 3 trucks pass by us, with men connected to overhanging poles by chains with hooks on the ends which pierced through their backs and legs.  Frenzied drummers and dancers led the procession and soon we saw 2 elephants wandering down the street, presumably to join in.  And this was Monday morning during peak traffic—quite the way to start our day.

Our hotel was located in ‘Colombo 2’ district (aka Slave Island as it was where the Dutch colonists actually held their slaves), which was about 1km from the city centre.  As such come Monday morning, the area came alive with white collar office workers.  The men were smartly dressed in crisp shirt, tie, and trousers.  Female workers were less conspicuous (and fewer in number??).  Yet among it all were the local traders, many dressed in traditional longgii or in Muslim white.

For a capital city, Colombo is surprisingly ‘tame’ but not very modern.  Its skyline is quite low, and most of the buildings in the areas closest to the historic central area of the Fort are non-descriptively old, although some of the grand mansions and architecture of the colonial years still are dotted around, especially within the Fort area itself.  We didn’t see any large shopping complexes, but a few small upscale ones could be found.  While traffic can be hectic, there are many marked pedestrian crossings and as cars actually stop for you once you are crossing, it’s not as life-threatening as in other cities in Asia.  We also found the footpaths to be wide and clean, so walking around with the kids was manageable.  Getting on and off the local buses were another story though—stressful is an understatement as the drivers don’t like to stop for long!
Historic Buildings within the Fort area

Galle Road
For things to do with young children in the city, we found 2 good sized and popular children’s playgrounds.  One was right down the street from us in Colombo 2; the other was located within the leafy Viharamahadevi Park (District 3).  There you could also take horse-and-carriage rides for 0.50cents USD (Rs 50) per child and $1.00 USD (Rs 100) per adult; horse rides could also be had for $2.00 USD (Rs 200).  Next door to the park, there was a children’s amusement park which was open nightly from 4pm, except for Mondays.  Entry was 0.60 cents USD per adult, 0.30 cents per child, and rides were 0.30 cents each for children—very affordable fun!  We found free indoor play areas in ‘Odel’ department store, which was around the corner from the park, as well as at McDonald’s on Galle Rd.  At South Beira Lake, you could hire the ‘swan paddle boats’ for a spin around the lake for $1.00 USD (Rs 100) per adult and $0.50 cents USD (Rs 50) per child for 30 minutes.  The National Museum is touted as a must-do, but our kids get bored too quickly to justify the $5.00 USD per adult and $3.00 USD per child admission charge.  We read that there’s also a zoo in town, but that the enclosures were quite small so we gave it a miss too. 

Viharamahadevi Park
South Beira Lake

Colombo is definitely noticeably different from the other area of Sri Lanka which we’ve visited, with more middle-class and white collar workers and more private cars on the roads.  But without any effort, you can still find the ‘real’ Sri Lanka easily among its eateries, walking around the neighbourhoods, riding the local buses and of course, when trying to negotiate a fare from the ‘3-wheeler man’!  As far as capital cities go, Colombo is a manageable one, especially with children in tow.  
Petah District, Colombo

Galle Face Green

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