After a yummy Day 1 dinner of fish and chips and Napolitana pasta, we finally fell asleep watching Dark Knight. We woke up bright and early and had a filling breakfast before heading off for our half day tour of Colombo. First stop was the beach. The coastline was gorgeous, an open sea, a beach dotted with kiosks selling snacks, couples enjoying the last of the New Year holiday and young boys playing cricket. Watching the open sea reminded me of Karachi but Karachi lacks the silence and serenity I found in Colombo.
Next stop was the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct which, as the name suggests, used to once be a hospital. A charming place, still under renovation, filled with tiny cafes, restaurants, a spa, the iconic ODEL and a requisite souvenir shop. We were in so early (punctuality is a habit that can’t be broken even by holidays) that most shops were closed but the souvenir store salesman was nice enough to spot us wandering around and open up early just for us. We entered a colourful little world filled with masks, elephants, magnets, bags, the whole barrage of souvenirs and we ended up getting some leather coin purses, magnets and cushion covers. We left the shopping and moved on with our whirlwind tour of the city. We passed a number of landmarks, glimpsing Independence Square, Town Hall, Art Museum, Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rakapaksa Theatre and the Fort Railway Station.
We were then ushered into an old Dutch-era church, Wolvendaal Church better known as the Dutch Reformed Church, where we were shown around. The thing that struck me most was not the elaborately carved tombstones, or the cute kitty who took a liking to sitting in my mum’s shadow, but rather the notable absence of any statues or figures of Prophet Isa or Mariam. We were told that, being built at the highest point of Colombo, the church used to be the first landmark that seafarers could sea when coming in to port. Later, a Buddhist majority government felt it only appropriate that a Buddhist temple be the first landmark seen and so commissioned the erection of a Buddhist temple, Sambodhi Chaithya Dagoba, farther ahead thereby blocking the view of the church. Close to the scene of all this political squabbling, a mosque sits quietly.
Our guide then led us to a Hindu temple, the Sri Kailasantheraswamy Devashthanam. A stunning pyramid-like structure layered in intricate statues, the temple was a riot of colours as far as the eye could see.
From one temple to another, we found ourselves at the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple. Shoes off, we trekked inside surrounded by large bo trees (desi people read peepal), watered by the worshippers. The museum section was closed so we headed to a relic room where there were all sorts of things ranging from china to spectacles, currency and infinite statues of Buddha in all shapes and sizes. It was quite overwhelming. On our way out, we passed the Buddha statues which were a gift from Thailand.
Done with our temple tours, we whisked past Petta, a clean version of Karachi’s Khadda market. Would this be what Karachi would look like should there be peace and a crackdown on public littering? Driving past Petta, we stopped at Bread Talk for much needed refreshments and then headed to ODEL. Fishes greet you at the entrance and inside is a colourful collection of clothes, souvenirs, snacks, shoes…in short- a 3 storey mini mall. ODEL is more of a getaway for Sri Lankans looking to experience something new than for tourists looking to experience something traditional. Nevertheless, we were grateful for the air conditioning and so picked up a couple of T-shirts, for what trip can truly be complete without an ” I love (fill in name of country)” T-shirt.
Drinks in hand, we headed to the Colombo National Museum, an imposing white colonial style building. Tickets were discounted (passport holders of SAARC countries can enjoy a wide variety of benefits in Sri Lanka) and we got ourselves a photo permit- my brother was the designated photographer. The upper floors of the museum were closed off that day so we contented ourselves with roaming the numerous galleries on the ground floor. Warning: The museum is not air conditioned. There are fans at regular intervals but the humidity was a real dampener so we couldn’t linger around as much as we would have liked. The museum was filled with all sorts of artefacts, statues both Hindu and Buddhist reflecting the country’s rich heritage, swords, ceramics, clothes… In other words, it carried all the things that make museums interesting.
Damp with sweat, we realized we had been smart in choosing the half-day tour and finally headed back to the hotel for a simple fish and chips and cheese and tomato sandwich lunch after which mum headed down for a pedicure and my brother headed off to the gym. Another night to go before we headed off to Dambulla having planned a stopover at the Elephant Orphanage.