Colombo, Necombo to Kandy Mon 23 - Mon 30 Aug 2010
It feels a bit of a different approach to travel without the car we have to pay for our accommodation for one thing! Thus we were somewhat alarmed to find when looking in our SL Lonely Planet (we splashed out on a new copy - a real first for us we're usually years out of date!) that Colombo SL's capital city seemed to be very very pricey accommodation -wise. There was nothing under $20 Aus a night -taking us well into what would be midrange in India- and even some of the budget places gave their prices in USD or Euros ..very scary! So instead after a bit of internet research we decided to miss staying at the capital and base ourselves at Negombo, a small seaside town which is actually at 12km from the airport far closer than Colombo itself.
We landed safely and had been intending to get the airport bus to the local bus stop but by the time we faffed around inside getting some tourist information and organizing a new SL sim card for the phone we'd missed it so -encumbered by the surf board as we were - we caught an auto rickshaw for 800 LKR or $8 Aus. First impressions of SL were definitely favourable -the whole airport set up was really good very clean and it was sooooo easy to get a sim card organized -it's a major full on palaver in India and then half the time the bloody thing doesn't work (see our last Indian entry) ……whinge whinge!
SL was way cooler than Chennai and much less humid -a very comfortable temperature actually- and had a real "island" feel to it -we were already starting to relax after India!
We headed to the Beach Villa Guest House - one of the more modest guest houses -but very much on the beach with the sand at the front door. Once we made it clear that we hadn't been brought there by the rickshaw driver i.e.) he'd just driven at our request not recommended the place so he wasn't owed commission - we were able to negotiate down to 770 LKR at night -or $7.70 Aus (very easy conversions to work with this one- $1 Aus = 100LKR or near as dammit!) really pretty good.
It was a great little spot and the owner was very friendly and welcoming. It wasn't good for a swim -an ominous looking drain into the ocean was pretty close -but it was a great place to watch the kids while away their school holidays with endless games of cricket, or the fisher families drying out the day's catch. It was also great spot to sip a local beer -lion - or maybe 4 or 5 like the guy in our picture!
Negombo has had an involved history being controlled successively by the Portuguese the Dutch and then the British which has left it with some interesting historical buildings. We had a fairly lazy time here - just relaxing and planning the trip and getting the website on India updated - a MAJOR effort!
The Dutch left the legacy of a huge network of canals in this area running all the way to Colombo - and the Portuguese left Roman Catholicism! In a predominantly Buddhist country this area is a Catholic stronghold - I have to say like in Goa when the Portuguese went about conversion they were thorough in their approach and it certainly "stuck" so much so that the town is still known as "little Rome" and ornate churches can be seen anywhere. The fact they persecuted and murdered anyone Muslim or Buddhist who didn't want to convert no doubt boosted the conversion rates too! Luckily we did see Buddhist & Hindu temples and the odd Mosque as well so the wipe out wasn't quite complete!
We had a look at the central St Mary's church which was very ornate and seemed to be hosting even more ornate weddings -lots of flouncy white clothes, big hair and spangles (and that's just the men!) every time we passed by.
We hadn't even realized until we arrived in Negombo but we had arrived in SL slap bang in the middle of the huge Esala Perahera festival a major procession with elephants, dancers -the works - which takes place in Kandy every year to honour the sacred tooth relic held at the temple there. We were tempted to go straight there and catch the end of the festivities but in the end we gave it a miss to avoid both the huge crowds and the hugely inflated room rates. Instead we went to a smaller full moon festival at the nearby Angurukaramulla Temple. The friendly owner of the guest house took us along with him and actually introduced us to the eminent guest speaker a high up monk who has spent the last 20 years in Los Angeles.
As we knew from India the full moon is a hugely auspicious time for Buddhists and the temple and stupa were all decked out with flowers, and oil lamps. Everyone was all in white (symbolic of purity) and the kids were particular stars -really cute carrying their flowers up to be blessed by the monks.
The moon didn't really do its stuff sadly as it clouded over but the candlelight the huge piles of fresh flowers and the chanting and singing made for a really special atmosphere. Obviously we couldn't understand a word of the speech but it was a beautiful atmosphere and we felt very privileged to have been invited.
One thing that was good being back on the coast was eating plenty of fresh fish again. We found a great little café called Ammehula which we enjoyed going to and we found we weren't the only Aussies who'd done so. They had got a former diner -one Ricky Ponting -to sign the graffiti wall. In these cricket mad parts you can't get better recommendation than that!!!
We also enjoyed having a poke around the markets which sold anything and everything and stocked up on loads of beautiful fresh fruit -far more variety here than in much of India -the parts we've travelled in recently anyway.
We interspersed our lazy days in Negombo with a few more full on days in Colombo. As mentioned before as Colombo was a lot more pricey for accommodation than Negombo and only 90 minutes away by public bus, we decided to stay in the latter and travel up to the former. We were to travel up and down several times partly to do the sightseeing thing, but also to sort out a couple of self-created messes.
1) Our visa - the good news is you get a free 30 day visa on arrival in SL. The bad news is we had stupidly booked our ticket on a calendar month basis i.e.) we fly in on the 23rd August and out on the 23rd September. As the days in and out are counted this meant our visa was 32 days. This in turn meant we had to go to Colombo's Department of Immigration and Emigration and pay the full fee of $33 Aus for just 2 more days- the same price another 2 months would be- bugger! Our visa for India ends on the 18th of October so we (and the car) have to be out by then so no chance of extending further, as we still face a bit of a drive in India and want to explore more of the NE region. It costs more to change the flights which had been amazingly cheap to start with and the fine for overstaying was even higher so not much we can do really but pay it - very annoying!
2) Andrew left his international driving license behind in the car in India. We're not sure what our exact plans are, but we want to have the option of hiring a motorbike if wrestling with the public bus system gets to be all too much. Whilst this would have been extremely straightforward just to renew as we'd left the original behind it turned out to be a somewhat complex affair involving various bus trips before it was sorted out. Anyway these 2 simple sounding chores involved spending many happy hours going back and forth on various Colombo buses!
The bus trips from Negombo to Colombo were to be the first of many close encounters with the SL public transport system in the next few weeks. Firstly, it has to be said in its favour that public transport here is incredibly cheap. If you're lucky you get a seat but it's still often a bit of a rough ride and what with the crazy driving and pot holes we seemed to spend most of the time air borne! Never mind -on the plus side you never get bored -like public transport in most Asian countries the bus doubles as a moving shop with people selling snacks/drinks other hawkers and buskers getting on and off constantly. Sometimes it's hard enough to stand in the huge crush whilst being thrown about so the fact they manage to play musical instruments -pretty well a good percentage of them - is pretty impressive. Interesting music here - lots of drums and a real "island" feel quite different to the music of India.
So - we did the return trip to Colombo 3 times in total that week -slotting in a bit of sightseeing in between sorting out our visa/driving license issues. Colombo was a lively city - there were signs of the war which had not long ended everywhere - bunkers and sandbags piled in various places and many soldiers with guns. Wandering around the city centre we had to pass through full on check points where we and our bag were searched several times.
We had to buy a couple of things and tracked down a shopping centre -very posh and everyone seemed to be buying up big so despite the traumas of the last few years this feels a very affluent city. They even make marmite here so it was available at reasonable prices - first time for 11 years for me - so I stocked up! More exclusively they sell many beautiful gems - particularly the trademark blue sapphires which are incredibly gorgeous and we had a look at a few show rooms - though we resisted the hard sell! SL is full of gems - precious and semi precious. Back in Negombo we had seen a very hopeful lady sieving in one of the somewhat grimy canals presumably in search of buried treasure.
In Colombo like in any Asian city you do get a bit of the usual hassle - overzealous tuk tuk drivers who try and charge you a hugely inflated fare and touts trying to drag you into tourist shops - but after other countries we've visited -India, Indonesia- they're pretty much a pushover! We were caught once -charged a too high amount for a distance we really could have walked as we were told it was too far - so after this we generally coped with the heat and walked everywhere.
We visited the National Museum which was really clean and well set out compared with our recent experience in Chennai. Much of the good stuff had been nicked by the British or other colonial rulers -though thankfully some - a very impressive 17th century throne -had been returned albeit with the odd gem stone missing! The Hindu bronzes were particularly impressive, as were the ornate Buddha's footprints.
On the seafront of Colombo lies the impressive Galle Face Green facing out to sea with a few old cannons still on display as well as more modern reinforcements and a few armed soldiers keeping a low profile. We didn't dare photograph the latter!
Originally cleared by the Dutch as a defense area, the Brits used it to promenade and ride their horses on and it was later gifted to the women and children of Colombo as a recreation area. It's still very much in use and in the evening is full of cricket games, families picnicking & kites flying - a really nice atmosphere.
This is the area where most of Colombo's pricey hotels lie and we visited one for a "sundowner" the historical Galle Face Hotel. Andrew's mum and gran stayed here in the 1940s and 50s and it has played host to numerous stars and heads of state. We were doing an inspection to see that standards had been maintained! It really is a beautiful historical old building with a prime location gazing out to sea and snappily dressed doormen to greet you. Parts of it have been renovated but we thought that the parts with a more faded decadence were more atmospheric.
We enjoyed a margarita on the verandah bar -very nice. It's obviously very popular with wedding parties -perhaps a bit annoying if you've paid top dollar to stay here -they're EVERYWHERE 4 or 5 on the go simultaneously when we visited!
The guy in the picture was the groom wearing the traditional wedding attire from the hill region Kandy which we were to visit next. Way too pricey for us but definitely the place to stay in town if you fancy a splurge!
On another occasion we visited another big name from the old days the Grand Oriental Hotel and had a drink in their lounge with a stunning view over the port - sadly no pictures for security reasons. It was apparently THE hotel to stay in 100 years ago -but the modern renovations had taken away some of the atmosphere. The statue of the rickshaw wallah outside showed that (presumably!) Colombo had once had the hand pulled rickshaws which now only exist in Kolkata.
Finally we finished all our "must dos" in Colombo by which time we'd had a gut full of the return bus ride for a while! On Monday 30 August we left Negombo and boarded -groan -yet another bus! The driving here doesn't seem to be quite as crazy as in India but maybe that's because we're now in the big bus running everyone else off the road rather than being on the receiving end of it! We paid 333 rupees or $3.33 Aus for our tickets i.e.) 111 each for me Andrew …and the surf board which was occupying its own seat! As ever we were kept well entertained for the 3 hour journey by the usual parade of salesmen food vendors and musicians getting on and off the bus. Finally by mid morning we arrived - in the pouring rain- at the historical hill country capital city of Kandy.