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Galle bladder

storm 25 °C
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Galle, Sri Lanka
Sunday, 3 February 2019

Four days after I arrived in Sri Lanka culture shock, or something like it, has finally set in. It's not like the sudden traumatic shock that I had soon after arriving in South Korea or Brussels, but a more gradual build-up of a thousand little frustrations, chief among which would have to be the hordes of touts, con artists and tuk-tuk drivers all contriving to part me with my hard-earned money.

To take an extreme example from last night. I was leaving Galle Face Green after sunset intending to return to my hotel via a one-station train ride from Kompannavidiya station. At the busy intersection opposite the Galle Face Hotel a friendly man about my age approached me. He showed me what he claimed to be an official employee ID card from the Galle Face Hotel. We made innocent small talk until he told me about this temple festival that I just had to see! It was the biggest Buddhist festival of the year! Hundreds of thousands of people will be in attendance!

"Oh wow, I didn't know about this festival thingie, where is it?" I asked.

He gave the name of some temple I hadn't heard of.

"I might be able to walk there, so show me where it is," I said as I opened Google Maps on my iPhone.

"No! You can't walk there! You must take a tuk-tuk!" And what do you know, a tuk-tuk driven by somebody who by pure chance happened to be this man's best friend appeared out of nowhere.

"But I don't want a tuk-tuk! I would rather walk or take a bus. So please tell me where it is."

"It's in Colombo 7," the so-called hotel employee said as the tuk-tuk driver revved his engine to tell me to get a move on.

"Cinnamon Gardens? That's not far, so please point to me on this map where it is."

"It's there!" he exclaimed as he pointed to a location in Slave Island in Colombo 2.

"Hang on, you said it was Colombo 7, but you're pointing at Colombo 2. So where is it? Please zoom in to where this festival is."

He zoomed into some random location in a whole other postal district where there was certainly no temple, not one visible on Google Maps in any case.

"Listen, I had other plans, I'll go to this festival some other time."

"No! You cannot miss this festival. There is a giant Buddha with a giant necklace made of blue sapphires. This festival is only one night of the year and it goes for one hour, starts at 6:35, it is now 6:30. Do you know what sapphires are?"

I made some sarcastic remark about how Australia has a functional education system and that I was therefore familiar with the major gemstones of the world.

"So you cannot miss this festival. It is the biggest Buddhist festival of the year. You cannot miss it! The festival costs forty-eight million dollars!"

My bullshit detector, already going haywire, melted down after short-circuiting. Even the Sydney New Year's Eve fireworks on the harbour costs less than six million Australian dollars.

"I'm sorry, I had better go now, I will miss my train."

"No. You must not go. You cannot walk away. You must go to this festival!" that scumbag shouted at me as he and the tuk-tuk stalked me from close behind. I quickened my pace and ended up in a district of expensive business hotels with dozens of soldiers standing guard outside protecting the VIPs therein. The sight of so many soldiers and policemen with high-powered rifles standing in stern martial poses must have scared them off because they stopped following me.

Not all the dozens of touts and hawkers and scam artists who approach me every single day are quite so noxious, but it's bad enough and extraordinarily tiresome when it happens so often every day. Needless to say I missed that train and took some other tuk-tuk back to where I was staying in Kollupitiya.

These ratbags are turning me into a terrible person. A cynical, distrustful, anxious, unfriendly person. The day before I was trying to navigate through Lipton Circus on foot, a dizzying complex of two roundabouts and roads radiating in every direction. I was looking at the map in my Lonely Planet trying to make sense of this nonsensical junction. A random stranger came up to me and offered to help.

"No, thank you," I said sharply.

"I'm terribly sorry, sir. You looked lost so I was just trying to help. Please have a nice day."

I instantly felt gut-wrenching remorse. But truth be told, it's hard to tell in this country who is honest and genuine and who just wants to stick a vaccuum cleaner in my wallet.

I got back to my hotel, was pleased that my shitbox Samsung Galaxy tablet was now fully charged - saints be praised! - finished a few more blog entries, and had a satisfying sleep before the alarm woke me promptly at seven in the morning. In my ordinary life I am a terrible insomniac and it takes me an hour to drag myself out of bed after the alarm goes off at half past seven. Why can't I be such a morning person all the time?

I packed my bags and checked out of the City Holiday Bungalow, a hotel I can certainly recommend. It's close to buses and trains and food, had wi-fi, air conditioning, was clean and secure and the management was reasonably diligent, and my room only cost about fifty Australian dollars a night. What more could you ask for?

I caught the inbound 8:30 commuter train from Kollupitiya to Colombo Fort, grabbed some roti, dhal curry, coffee and an apple for breakfast from a café on the station forecourt, stocked up on water for the train trip ahead, and went to buy my ticket to Galle. I looked at the big sign telling me which counter to go to to buy a ticket for the line to Galle and Matara. I went to the Slave Island to Matara counter at Counter 13 and waited, and when I was finally served I was told that this counter only sells third-class tickets, and if I wanted second-class tickets I would have to go to the All Railway Stations counter at Counter 4. Sigh.

I had a wait of about an hour for my train. Platform 5 was a mixture of locals and a large number of foreign tourists with enormous suitcases and bulging backpacks on their way to southern Sri Lanka's famous coastal resort towns. A lady smiled at me and we struck up a conversation. Her name was Natalie and she was from the Greater New York City area, an intelligent and engaging young woman who owns a gourmet cheese wholesale business back home and spends several months a year travelling the world. We talked about our travel plans, where we had been before, our observations about Sri Lanka, shared hints and tips. One of the things I love most about travelling is about meeting all the kindred spirits along the way, my fellow oddballs for whom the curiosity to see as much of this world as we can before we die burns just as brightly in their chest as it does in mine.

The train arrived, a lengthy rake of ancient-looking red carriages with tiny rectangular windows hauled by a sooty M4 class diesel locomotive that looked like it would be eligible for the age pension by now. Both Natalie and I had bought second-class tickets, all the carriages along the part of the platform where we were waiting were third-class so we ran with our backpacks down the platform towards the front of the train where we had seen second-class carriages passing us as the train arrived. As we got to the second-class carriages, every door was a jumble of suitcases and backpacks and people. The doors and vestibules and aisles were so narrow nobody could get on board. Natalie was in front of me on the top step and I was right behind on the step below with my backpack and body hanging out of the train. There was no way in which I could move forward. I have ridden on enough Sri Lankan trains by now that I know that trains start moving with little warning. I had a disturbing premonition of my early death caused by my backpack striking a signal post as the train passed it at speed.

Thankfully, a short time before the train moved off, enough space opened up in the vestibule for me to lunge forward. Natalie and I squirmed our way into the saloon. Every seat was taken, as was nearly every standing spot. We managed to carve out enough space for us to stand in the crowded, airless cabin. Electric fans ineffectually swivelled on the ceiling above us. The train was so crowded that very little airflow came in through the open doors and windows. It was made so much worse by the fact that every couple of minutes, hawkers made their way up and down the carriage. Every time one of these hollering salesmen passed with buckets of soft drinks or fruit or peanuts balanced on their heads, everyone had to bend over the seats to make way for them.

Natalie and I continued talking as we made our way down the coast, the Indian Ocean lapping at the rocky seawall to our west, scattered suburbs and villages and farms to our east. Occasionally the train would slow to a crawl as it passed along a truss bridge over wide, smelly estuaries. At other times the train would get up to 95 kilometres an hour. That's faster than some Australian trains. The track quality was mostly very good. I suspect that the Coast Line was comprehensively rebuilt after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. A crowded train along this very track was washed away by the tidal wave. At least 1,700 people died on that train, the deadliest railway accident in history.

Natalie's destination was Hikkaduwa, well before my destination of Galle. We said our goodbyes, promised to keep in touch, hoped that our paths would cross again.

I eventually got a seat as more people got off as the train increased its distance from Colombo. Some two and a half hours after leaving Fort, the train arrived at Galle. Galle station is on a terminus stub, trains continuing on to Matara have to reverse direction, so I took pleny of video footage of the shunting procedures.

It was a short walk through yet another swarm of tuk-tuk touts who wouldn't take no for an answer before I arrived at the Main Gate of the Galle Fort. The fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (my first in Sri Lanka), was built by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. It is located on a small rocky peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus.

I walked through the Main Gate and found myself in the most charming little place. Imagine your typical small Dutch town with straight, narrow, cobblestone streets. Throw in a few buildings with curved Dutch gables and long floor-to-ceiling windows just to increase that amount of Dutchiness. Now transpose all of this to a tropical location with whitewashed walls, terracotta roof tiles, verandahs, luxurious green vegetation with gardens full of orchids and vines and epiphytes, the aroma of tropical fruits. Tropical Holland - that's Galle.

Another thing that is typically Dutch is that in this historic town centre, entry to motor vehicles is heavily restricted. Except for tuk-tuks and privately owned motor scooters and a very small number of cars, the streets belong to pedestrians. After the madness of Colombo which would have to be one of the most hostile places for a pedestrian to walk I have ever seen, this place is just paradise.

I checked into the Old Dutch House guesthouse on Lighthouse Street. My room was already prepared with the key in the door. The friendly owner showed me around and gave me a complimentary bottle of Coke Zero. The Old Dutch House has a large courtyard that reminds me of many of the backyards of houses I lived in in Brisbane - a verdant riot of orchids and aloes and pawpaws and palms and hanging pot-plants. Lizards dart to and fro through the foliage as hundreds of invisible birds sing their quiet songs.

Four days in Colombo and the train journey had left me a nervous wreck. I sat out in the courtyard for a few hours, just listening to the birds tweeting in the cool garden. This place is a refreshing balm and I feel better already.

After two hours I felt I had recovered enough to start exploring the Galle Fort. But I could hear thunder in the distance. I went to open my phone's Australian weather app to check the radar until I realised it wouldn't work here. I tried searching for a Sri Lankan weather radar online to no avail. I could only find Japanese satellite imagery which only shows upper-level mass cloud movements across continents which give little indication of ground conditions in a particular location.

There is so much we take for granted in the West. Public transport maps and timetables available online in PDF format. Universal map literacy due to geography classes in every primary school. Safe, clean tap water that is as pure as anything from a bottle. Weather radars that allow the common citizen to see an approaching thunderstorm and gauge its severity, what time it will arrive and how long it will last, so they can plan their day accordingly. How did we Westerners ever survive without these things? It wasn't so long ago. I don't think I ever saw an online weather radar until about 1999.

Sri Lanka is a country that is going places. I have never seen so many cranes and construction sites as I did in Colombo. But there is still such a long way to go. I have no doubt that Sri Lanka will get there eventually and will take its rightful place in the world's list of developed countries. But not just yet.

I patiently waited for the heavens to break. And boy, did they break. A torrent of water fell from the grey heavens. Without a weather radar I had no idea when it would stop. The storm eventually stopped about half an hour before sunset, too late for me to go for a walk on the Fort's ramparts. Exploring Galle would just have to wait.


Posted by urbanreverie 21:37 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains fort sri_lanka colombo railways galle Comments (0)

The lotus position

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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Saturday, 2 February 2019

The day began surprisingly with no evidence of a hangover. This is a good sign. Lion is a crisp, pure, refreshing drop, truly the nectar of the gods, and I won't have a bad word said about it.

I had brunch at Britannia Fried Chicken - a giant mound of egg fried rice - and found another tuk-tuk that took me to Bambalapitiya, the next suburb south of Kollupitiya along the coast. My destination was the Geoffrey Bawa House, a house designed by Sri Lanka's most famous modern architect as his residence in 1960.

The tuk-tuk dropped me off in a cul-de-sac in a wealthy neighbourhood full of mansions surrlunded by luxuriant gardens shielded from the outside world by tall whitewashed walls. A resident who was walking down the street saw a white tourist looking perplexed outside some random house and waved down the tuk-tuk driver and waved for me to come. The resident explained that the driver had delivered me to the wrong street! These bloody tuk-tuk drivers are absolutely bloody hopeless!

I got back into the tuk-tuk and this time he took me to the right cul-de-sac. I went up to the Geoffrey Bawa House, a striking white house full of sharp angles and protruding decks. It also looked very closed. I checked my Lonely Planet - yes, there are definitely tours at 10am, noon, 2pm and 3:30pm Monday to Saturday and it was now 11:50am. I searched for a doorbell, I found one in a recess. There was a sign beneath it saying that there were tours at 10am, 2pm and 3:30pm Monday to Saturday.

Damn! It was at that moment that the electric garage door opened. A polite elderly man emerged, he had seen me scratching my head on the CCTV camera. He explained that the Lonely Planet was wrong, I was more than welcome to come back at 2pm, he was so sorry, but in the meantime I might care to explore another of Bawa's works nearby? The nice old man gave me directions to the Paradise Road Gallery a few streets away.

I thanked him and took his advice. The Paradise Road Gallery is a modest, neat little building with archways and cool, shaded courtyards with fishponds and bark roof tiles. The gallery specialises in some seriously good graphic art, typically ink on board, with price tags to match - expect to pay around Rs. 100,000 for a typical work.

Out the back in a shaded yard was a restaurant, bar and café. It was well patronised, exclusively by wealthy Western tourists. I ordered something called a "chocolate nemesis", a warm chocolate pudding covered in whipped cream and drizzled with peach coulis, accompanied with a most welcome iced coffee. It was quite lovely and a nice place to escape the heat but at Rs. 1,951 was probably just as expensive as what I would pay for something similar in Sydney.

I then went suddenly from posh to pleb. I made my way to Galle Road and caught the 101 bus to Fort Station for Rs. 40. If I could only say one thing about that bus trip, it would be this - the driver should be in jail for a very, very long time. For the forty-minute journey he tailgated other motorists, barreled towards red lights only to slam on the brakes at the very last second, blasted his horn at the slightest provocation, and swerved from one side of the road to the other without so much as a single blink of the indicator.

"This f×÷#in' maniac is gonna get the whole f×#$in' lot of us killed," I exclaimed more times than I care to count. The other passengers didn't even blink. The defence mechanism of derealisation that made my tuk-tuk journeys more bearable failed to kick in on this bus ride. The conductor made his way up and down the bus without even holding on, stopping his fare collection frequently to lean out of the open doors to shout something that sounded like "olla olla olla olla olla olla olla olla olla!" at people on the footpath.

It was with considerable relief that I alighted at Fort Station. I am leaving Colombo tomorrow and I wanted to book a reserved seat to my next destination. This is how you are supposed to buy tickets at Fort. There are large signs at the entrance telling you which counter to go to to buy a ticket for a particular line or a particular group of destinations. You find the counter which matches your intended destination, wait in line forever even if the counter is attended (which it usually isn't), and when you are finally served you will be told be some rude, surly bastard that this is the wrong counter and would you please go to some other counter in some distant nook of the station if you wouldn't mind?

Which is precisely what happened to me. I was told to go to this counter for intercity reservations - actually, an airless, cramped, stuffy room with several counters, one for the northern lines, one for the eastern lines, and so forth.

There were lengthy queues for each counter but there wasn't enough space to keep the queues separate so all the queues kind of spiralled around each other. There was a pillar in the middle of the room which didn't help things. I thought I had found the queue for my intended line, but it actually went to a different counter. I waited forever in another queue only to be told that the only train to my destination with reserved seating departs at 6:55am and that for all other trains I could only buy tickets on the day of travel.

Disappointed but not surprised - I am slowly getting used to Sri Lanka and its ruthless inefficiency - I left Fort Station and crossed the road into Pettah. Pettah is one of the oldest suburbs of Colombo and is basically one huge street market. It is also one of the most multi-ethnic suburbs of Colombo being home to vibrant Tamil, Hindu, Moor, Malay and Christian communities.

I stumbled through the narrow, pulsating streets. Market stalls spilled out onto the streets. Emaciated, impoverished labourers, many of them quite elderly, would carry four twenty-kilogram sacks of grain on their shoulders or push handcarts with at least a tonne of merchandise thereon. I was in awe. These labourers had ribcages sticking out of their naked chests and thighs with the circumference of cricket stumps. I do not know how they possess the strength to perform such Herculean tasks.

In the end I couldn't wait to leave Pettah, though it kept drawing me in to its spiderweb of alleys and stalls and pyramids of fruit and vegetables. If you are in the market for genuine imitation Levi's or licenced knock-off Dora the Explorer schoolbags, boy, do I have a deal for you!

Pettah isn't just markets though. It is also an intensely religious place. There is a street with a row of three Hindu temples like giant rainbow croquembouches set on the table at a Parisian dinner party. There are sparkling mosques, a Jesus grotto, and the Wolvendaal Dutch Reformed Church with its curved gables that wouldn't look out of place in some market town in Holland. I finished my tour of Pettah by walking the full length of the covered Federation of Self Employees Market with its staggering variety of fruits and vegetables, most of which I never knew existed and couldn't name for the life of me.

I grabbed another tuk-tuk to see the Lotus Tower. Most Colombo tuk-tuks have meters, but a large proportion still don't. For these tuk-tuks you need your bargaining skills. I am an Australian and I have never bargained in my life. In my culture bargaining is often seen as crass and demeaning. The price you see is the price you pay.

The tuk-tuk driver wanted Rs. 500. Ha! I know how far away it is, I knew it wouldn't be more than Rs. 150. I offered Rs. 200 and he refused it. In the end a metered tuk-tuk appeared and it only cost me about Rs. 130.

The Lotus Tower is the newest addition to Colombo's skyline. In many respects it is your typical communications tower like Berlin's Fernsehturm or Sydney Tower, but it is unique for having a turret styled as a lotus blossom that has yet toopen with bright purple petals and dark green bracts. The petals are also illumknated in bright purple lights at night too.

I got out of the tuk-tuk and took some photographs of the Lotus Tower soaring some three hundred metres above me. There were plenty of other tourists doing likewise. However, none of us could go up to the observation deck. The Lotus Tower isn't due to open until March 2019. I was shattered. I love towers and I love collecting tower models, but I do have a very strict rule - I only collect models for towers I have climbed. Waaaaah!

Another tuk-tuk with yet another episode of derealisation took me to Galle Face Green, "Colombo's front yard". Galle Face Green is a vast treeless expanse of dirt and dead brown grass along the coast south of Fort. There were dozens of army trucks and mobile missile launchers and tanks in preparation for the National Day celebrations on Monday. The Green is a fairly dismal place watched over by an impossibly tall flagpole flying the national flag but it is a popular place to stroll or play frisbee or fly kites or watch the sunset. I did precisely the last of these things. Watching an ocean sunset is something people who live on Australia's east coast rarely do, for obvious reasons, and indeed I had not seen an ocean sunset since 1992 when I visited Western Australia in my teens. It truly was a magical sight, watching the sun get redder and dimmer as it descended towards the horizon before finally being extinguished. I said my own private farewell to the day and my own private farewell to Colombo, a city that for all its faults has worked its enchanting magic on me.

Posted by urbanreverie 22:53 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged buses sri_lanka colombo tuk-tuks pettah bambalapitiya Comments (0)

How I learned to stop worrying and love the tuk-tuk

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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Friday, 1 February 2019

On previous overseas holidays, I have rushed around from place to place like a madman. On this holiday I intend to slow the pace a few notches on my locomotive throttle. So I spent much of the morning in my hotel room updating my blog and searching for accommodation a few destinations hence.

Whenever I travel I pack a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.3 that I bought in 2014 before my trip to Malaysia, Taiwan and Korea. To call this tablet a buggy, glitchy, crashy, laggy unadulterated piece of crap would be a charitable statement. Programs crash constantly, both web browsers freeze, the tablet refuses to charge when I plug it into the wall or my power brick, whenever I switch between apps it forgets everything I did in the first app so browser fields are cleared or unsaved edits are deleted, and the only reason why I bought this Samsung tablet was because it has an SD card slot that makes it easier to upload photos. But now that my camera screen is busted and I am just using my iPhone to take photos and videos, I don't even need the SD card slot anymore.

I had fallen behind on my blog and I was tired after yesterday's massive public transport adventure so I decided just to chill out and update my blog and book some hotels. But the Samsung Galaxy Tab refused to cooperate. I do believe the whole of Kollupitiya may have heard me scream sundry obscenities at the blasted thing. This stupid piece of dog poo is so bad that I am considering just using a pen and a notebook to record my adventures which I will type up when I get home.

In the end I gave up and went to search for brunch. As much as I love spice, I am still a Westerner and therefore my gastro-intestinal tract does need a break from time to time. There is a Burger King close at hand on the other side of Galle Road, a roaring, shadeless four-lane one-way traffic sewer where the stream of buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and tuk-tuks is ceaseless. Galle Road has even less charm than Parramatta Road in Sydney, and that is saying something.

I eventually managed to cross the road by finding a clump of people also desiring to participate in the simple act of getting to the other side, and I crossed with them at a time when the traffic was thinner and consisted mostly of tuk-tuks that can go around everyone. I went into the Burger King and ordered my Whopper with cheese value meal with Pepsi for the drink.

"I'm sorry, we don't have Pepsi, only 7-Up and Mirinda," the girl at the counter said.

"But I see Pepsi on the post-mix machine there."

"Sorry, but we don't have it. Only 7-Up and Mirinda."

"OK then, I'll just have a Mirinda then."

"OK." And just as she was dispensing my cup of Mirinda, the customer at the cash register next to me ordered a Pepsi, and his server went to the post-mix machine and poured forth a gushing brown stream of delicious, caffeinated Pepsi into the other customer's cup. This kind of thing happens a lot in Sri Lanka. It feels as though nobody in this country is capable of giving a direct, honest answer or accurate advice about anything. Nothing, NOTHING, makes sense here.

After eating my brunch without the caffeine hit I so desperately needed, I took the plunge and did something I had promised myself I wouldn't do. I hailed a tuk-tuk. These things are basically motorbikes with two rear wheels and a boxy shell-like cover covering the driver and the passenger who sits on the rear seat. There are no seat belts and there are no railings to keep you inside the shell in the event of an accident. The tuk-tuk drivers are also absolutely fearless and reckless. These buzzing little fart machines swarm everywhere like mosquitoes with wheels, and any white person who walks along a road will soon encounter a tuk-tuk stopping every thirty seconds with the driver beckoning you to get on board.

The reason why I chose to take a tuk-tuk was because I was going to the National Museum, about half an hour's walk away. I am not averse to walking, but Colombo is hot and very, very humid. It isn't much worse than Sydney this time of year, if anything it is a litle bit more bearable here because the sunlight isn't so oppressively harsh, but it is still unplessant and sweaty to walk around in Colombo even in flat terrain. Also, finding maps and timetables for the bus system is impossible and I have no idea which buses will get me to the museum. So I hailed a tuk-tuk.

Oh my goodness, what a scary adventure. The tuk-tuk driver darted down the narrow interstices between moving buses, weaved at speed through throngs of pedestrians crossing the road both ways, and a thousand other things that in Australia would see his driver's license suspended for decades. I found that the world took on an ethereal dream-like quality, like I was watching a movie or imagining something that another person was talking to me about. Psychiatrists have a word for this experience - "derealisation", and it is apparently a common defence mechanism the brain produces when in traumatic life-threatening situations.

The tuk-tuk cost about Rs. 60 - about fifty Australian cents - and I disembarked only to find that the tuk-tuk driver had delivered me to the street behind the museum, not in front of it. It was still a good half a kilometre via a circuitous detour to get to the front of the National Museum.

At least there was plenty to look at. All along the road running behind the museum, Green Path, dozens of local artists had set up stalls selling their paintings. Some of it was talented stuff and I would have bought one or two of the paintings if it weren't for the practical troubles of how to get them home to Australia.

The National Museum is an imposing alabaster-white palace in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo's most elite suburb full of spacious parks and embassies and important cultural institutions. I paid my Rs. 1,000 admittance and went into the cool, dark exhibition halls. The National Museum is concerned chiefly with Sri Lankan archaeology and the halls are full of statues, figurines, bas-reliefs, agricultural implements and shards of broken earthenware accompanied by dense, dry, earnest interpretative texts intelligible only to those few people who have written PhD theses in Oriental Studies. I found the texts incomprehensible being so unfortunate as to only have an Honours degree in surveying and mapping so I got rather bored.

There were some highlights though. Pride of place is taken by the Royal Throne of the Kingdom of Kandy, Sri Lanka's last indigenous kingdom. The Portuguese had only colonised the coastal areas, and when the Dutch kicked the Portuguese out they didn't expand too much into the interior, leaving the Kingdom of Kandy in the hilly inland regions largely intact. It was only after the Dutch were kicked out by the British during the Napoleonic Wars in 1796 that the Kingdom of Kandy was finally conquered by the Redcoats in 1815, subjugating the whole of Sri Lanka to European colonial rule for the first time.

The golden throne along with the Kandian crown and royal sceptre is reverently displayed in a glass cube. The throne was donated to the Kingdom of Kandy in the seventeenth century by the Dutch United East Indian Company in a spectacular act of diplomatic brown-nosing. It is still a wonderful sight.

I also enjoyed the working models of the irrigation systems developed by the Anuradhapura Kingdom in the first millennium AD. The Sri Lankans were world pioneers in irrigation, even today the countryside is dotted with dams called "tanks" built in the Anuradhapura period. Palaces, temples, cohesive bureaucracies, giant irrigation networks spanning the entire island - the Sri Lankans had an advanced civilisation at a time when my Britannic ancestors were presumably chewing on wooly mammoth bones in a freezing cave while communicating with each other using monosyllabic grunts.

After two hours at the National Museum I ambled past the modern Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa zThestre, an imposing entertainment venue shaped like a scalloped flying saucer, and then through Viharamahadevi Park, a large dusty park with patches of welcome shade under sprawling fig trees. There is a golden Buddha statue in the park opposite Colombo City Hall, a large white domed palace built in 1927 that could easily be relocsted tl Washington D.C. and not look out of place.

Another tuk-tuk ride with another episode of derealisation brought me to Fort, the historic commercial centre of Colombo that dates to the Portuguese era. There are many stately Edwardian buildings dating from the British era in the early twentieth century; department stores, shipping offices and the faded grandeur of the Grand Oriental Hotel. This place must have been amazing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when Ceylon, with its commanding position off the southern tip of India, was the linchpin of the British Empire. All shipping routes and submarine telegraph cables connecting Britain with its Pacific and Far Eastern possessions passed through Colombo. Generations of immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia passed through Colombo.

The southern portion of Fort has less historic buildings and more modern architecture such as the striking Bank of Ceylon tower, a soaring white cylinder. I headed west to the Galle Buck Lighthouse which at a distance looks like an ancient stone beacon but in reality is a cement aggregate tower built in 1950. I climbed the small knoll up to the base of the lighthouse which is soon going to be pretty useless as it is now stranded inland by a gargantuan land reclamation project currently underway. When it is finished, Colombo will be extended several kilometres seaward.

All that walking made me a little exhausted and sweaty. I went to the Dutch Hospital, built as a healthcare facility for Dutch colonists in the seventeenth century but now a restaurant and entertainment complex oriented towards tourists. Its courtyards and colonnades were full of Western tourists enjoying themselves and I joined them. I grabbed a pizza and a few Lion beers at a sports bar with satisfyingly frigid air conditioning. The icy air was delivered through small vents in the floor that looked like bath drains. I pulled up a seat at the bar, strategically placed the seat adjacent to one of the vents so that the cold blast went right up my shirt, and enjoed a few restorative brews while watching Qatar cream Japan in the Asian Cup football final. Beer snobs might look down on pale light lagers - I should know, I am a beer snob much to the disgust of my late father - but let me tell you that such lagers like Lion are made hand-in-glove for countries with humid tropical climates and spicy food.

A few hours later and I tumbled out into the stifling evening air and into the warm embrace of a waiting tuk-tuk.

Posted by urbanreverie 08:04 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged parks architecture beer fort museum sri_lanka colombo tuk-tuks Comments (0)

Holding the Fort

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Colombo and Avissawella, Sri Lanka
Thursday, 31 January 2019

I awoke at midday after a surprisingly short nine hours' sleep and almost instantly got dressed and started exploring. First, I needed to attend to the practical matter of obtaining a local SIM card and getting something to eat. There is a shopping centre a short distance from my hotel, Liberty Plaza. Dialog, one of the three main mobile phone operators in Sri Lanka, has a store there. I obtained a local prepaid SIM card with hopefully enough data for all the train photos and videos I intend to take and upload.

I then went downstairs to the shopping centre's subterranean food court. I bought my first meal in Sri Lanka, the national dish, "rice and curry". Rice and curry consists of an enormous mound of rice surrounded by small dollops of different curries and a small piece of the meat or egg of your choice. What a spendid symphony of tastes and textures! One curry will be spicy, another will be salty, another will be sweet, another will be tangy, and if your taste buds need a short break from all the powerful flavours you can simply take a spoonful of the milder rice. No conductor could ever get such a perfect balance between all the sections of the most talented orchestra.

Most people when they arrive in a new country will hit the beaches, go to a museum, drink enormous amounts of alcohol at some sports bar full of other tourists. But I am not "most people". I am an incorrigible train buff and I don't care if people think I am weird. My guest house is only about a hundred metres from Kollupitiya station on the Coast Line that leads south from Colombo to Galle and Matara.

First, to get to the station I had to cross the busy Galle Road, a roaring four-lane artery where it seems the traffic never ceases, not even for red lights. I tarried a while and watched how the locals cross the road. This is how you do it. You wait at the side of the road next to someone else who is also waiting. Soon enough there will be a critical mass - typically four or five people - who will then be in such noticeable numbers that nobody will dare hit you. Then, and only then, do you cross in one determined tight-knit group. The courts might forgive some psychotic maniac bus driver if he kills one person, but five? That might actually make the front pages of the morning papers.

I soon arrived at Kollupitiya station, suburban station three stops south of Fort station, the country's main rail hub. I set up shop with my iPhone in video mode along a wall outside the station to record video footage of the passing trains. Soon enoigh a friendly guy named Fernando struck up conversation with me. He kept trying to convince me to go to some temple nearby and would often not be dissuaded from talking about the manifold wonders to be found therein.

When he wasn't banging on about this temple, Fernando was a good bloke to talk to. Fernando is a chef at the nearby Mövenpick Hotel and had some time off work to come and talk to random people on the street like me. He asked me what I was doing at the station and I said I was a railfan and that I wanted to take videos of the trains. I told him about my plans to travel to Avissawella that afternoon on the Kelani Valley Line.

"No, you can't get to Avissawella from here," he said.

"Yes I can, I just have to change trains at Fort."

"No, you can't get to Fort from Kollupitiya. They don't sell tickets here, only monthly passes."

"So how are people supposed to get to Fort from here, then?"

"Everyone here has monthly passes!"

"So all those people waiting on the platform there" - I pointed to them - "they all have monthly passes?"

"Yes, they all have monthly passes."

"OK, then I will just board without a ticket."

"No! You can't do that!"

"So how am I supposed to get to Fort then?"

"You can't get to Fort from here!"

The conversation was going nowhere so I said my farewell and went into the station. I went to the ticket counter and asked for a one-way ticket to Avissawella.

"No! No train to Avissawella from here. You can only buy a ticket to Fort, then you buy another ticket to Avissawella at Fort." The ticket seller sold me a third-class one-way ticket to Fort for Rs. 10 (eight Australian cents), certainly not a monthly pass, so Fernando was just full of crap. They still use Edmondson tickets here, thick little pre-printed cardboard stubs where the ticket seller pulls a lever and the date is embossed onto the ticket. They used Edmondson tickets on the New South Wales state railways until about 1990 when they were replaced with magnetic-stripe tickets made of much thinner cardboard.

It does seem, however, that in Sri Lanka you can only buy tickets for direct journeys. Train journeys that require a change of trains mean you have to buy separate tickets for each leg at each station where you board a train.

Soon enough a red Class S11 diesel multiple unit arrived. I boarded the train, took my seat, and was instantly overcome with nostalgia as I was transported back to the days when I rode to school on Red Rattlers in Sydney in the early 1990s. Sliding louvred shutters on the windows, schoolboys in white uniforms hanging out the doors of the moving train - just like in my youth!

After about ten minutes I arrived at the Colombo Fort station, a busy facility with trains and people constantly moving back and forth. Though there are footbridges, there is also a pedestrian level crossing at one end of the platforms where moving trains would blast their horns to warn the crossing pedestrians of their impending doom.

I went to the booking hall at the front of the station. There were a number of counters, one for each group of destinations. I couldn't see Avissawella on any of them so I went to the All Other Stations counter.

"No, not here! Go to Counter 10! That way, on the corner!"

So I had to go outside the station and walk down to the far end of the station building. There was a long queue at Counter 10 but the counter was closed. After an eternity the window finally opened and soon I bought my little date-stamped cardboard ticket to Avissawella for Rs. 80.

The train to Avissawella was waiting for me on platform 10. All the seats were already taken but there was plenty of room to stand. The Class S8 push-pull diesel multiple unit looked much older than the class's 1991 introduction. Many of the external panels were rusted to buggery. The interior was blackened with soot and mould. The diesel engines poured forth acrid black smoke.

I travelled in the rear car. The lead car and end car were half-locomotive, half-passenger accommodation. There is no through way between the carriages; the ends of the carriages are solid walls without doors or windows, greatly restricting air flow. Passenger comfort on the S8 units is basic; just a row of hard plastic orange seats along each side of the carriage.

The train I caught travelled on the Kelani Valley Line, a 61 kilometre railway that travels through Colombo's southeastern suburbs then climbs off the coastal plain into the hilly terrain and terminates at the hill town of Avissawella. The line is for commuter traffic only and sees only several trains a day; westbound in the mornings and eastbound in the evenings. I caught the first outbound train of the afternoon at 16:10.

The train left Colombo Fort on time at 16:10 reasonably lightly loaded, my car had about five standing passangers. Then more got on at Maradana. Then more at Baseline Road. Then even more at the next station.

When the train arrived at Narahenpita there was a huge crowd waiting at the station, mostly young male technical college students. The train became unbearably crowded. Trains in Sydney usually leave the city crowded and get less crowded as the train travels through the suburbs. The reverse was true with this train. Even at Homagama people were still getting on. There was a period when I couldn't even reach a handrail but it didn't matter. The heaving, sticky, smelly sweaty mass of people hemming me in on every side of the body was more than enough to keep me upright on the train that jolted and swayed over every single poorly-connected joint in the track.

Eventually the train emerged from the sprawling suburbs and started climbing into the hills as it passed forlorn little commuter towns and dusty level crossings where feral dogs copulated on the road. The houses were mostly weathered little stucco cottages with terracotta tiles and backyards full of banana trees and palms with coconuts the size of watermelons. Soon there were misty hills clad in thick jungle greenery with little farms in the valleys with cow paddocks and rice paddies.

I finally got a seat somewhere around Padukka and the train slowly emptied as it pulled up to half-forgotten little stations with no platforms, just a name board and a little station master's hut. The sun set and the train pulled into the terminus at Avissawella a few minutes after its scheduled arrival time of 18:30.

It was a walk of about one kilometre along the A4 highway to Avissawella's bus station. As the Kelani Valley Line operates inbound in the mornings and outbound in the evenings, I had a catch a bus back to Colombo. I am so grateful to whatever deity may exist that I survived the walk from the railway station to the bus station. The A4 was a narrow, congested, busy road with no street lighting and no footpaths. The pedestrian had no choice but to walk on the road with all the buses and trucks and cars and tuk-tuks.

I soon reached the centre of Avissawella, a gritty, featureless town with shopkeeper's merchandise spilling out directly onto the narrow highway, and made my way to the bus station. I tried asking a few people which buses went back to Colombo and only got inaccurate, conflicting information. Does anybody in this country know how to give a straight, honest answer?

After ambling around the dismal, soul-crushing bus station - is there a bus station anywhere in the world that is anything but? - I found a bus parked at a stop signed "122 COLOMBO". I asked an adjacent shopkeeper and he said the bus was parked there for the night and wouldn't leave until tomorrow morning. He pointed me to another bus a few stands away and said that would go to Colombo.

I boarded the other bus and asked the passengers, they said the bus was going to Maharagama in Colombo's outer southeastern suburbs. That was close enough for me. I boarded this bus and as it departed, a man got on board and started playing a tambourine and singing some Sinhala song. After he finished he travelled down the bus as passengers threw coins and small banknotes into the tambourine. I guess he was a busker.

Then someone else got on board as the bus pulled out of the station. He was reciting Sinhala poetry, or perhaps it was a prayer, or simply some stump speech or beggar's sob story. I asked the passenger sitting next to me but he was so softly spoken (as many Sri Lankans are) that I couldn't hear his explanation over the throbbing engine and rattling windows. After he had stopped his incantations, he walked down the bus and the passengers showered him with Rs. 100 and Rs. 500 notes. Your guess is as good as mine.

The bus squealed, shuddered, roared, swerved and thundered its way down the hills and bends of the A4. I now know why Sri Lankans take religion so seriously. You'd be religious too if you had to deal with Sri Lankan driving standards. I may have said a little prayer myself and expressed regret that I hadn't drafted a will before I left Australia.

After about ninety minutes of repeatedly coming close to rectal incontinence, I arrived at Maharagama where I promptly boarded the connecting 138. This bus was operated by a private company. On board there were dazzling laser disco lights darting around the interior and loud Sinhalese dance music pulsating from subwoofers above the passenger seats. A pity that nobody was dancing!

I wanted to go to the nearest stop to my hotel, Colombo Public Library. I tried to explain to the conductor where I wanted to go. He didn't understand me so I got out my iPhone and showed him where it was on Google Maps. He just stared at the screen with blank incomprehension. It was then that I realised that he did not know how to read a map. Coming from Australia where every schollchild is taught map reading skills, it is an every day task we take for granted back home, even if some people have to spin a map around so the top of the map is the way the map user is facing. But I guess if an education system doesn't teach this skill, or if you never went to school in the first place, that it is something you wouldn't know how to do.

The passenger sitting next to me helped me translate my destination. The fare was Rs. 40. The smallest note I had was Rs. 1,000. The only other cash I had was a Rs. 20 note and a Rs. 1 coin. The conductor snatched the Rs 1,000 note grumpily and didn't give me change. My fellow seat-mate told me this was usual, the conductor would give me my chsnge when more passengers paid their fares. After about half an hour I got my Rs. 960 change. I don't blame the conductor for his surliness. I guess it would be the equivalent of paying for a $4 Australian bus fare with a $100 note. I guess this underlies the importance of maintaining a healthy stock of small change to pay for bus rides, a habit I have lost now that Sydneysiders use Opal cards to pay for fares.

It was a leisurely walk back to Kollupitiya from the Public Library. I had a late night meal at Britannia Fried Chicken, chicken kottu, a dish consisting of fried strips of roti flatbread hashed with chicken, vegetables, scrambled eggs and a truckload of chilli. Please pray for my digestive system.

Posted by urbanreverie 06:28 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged trains buses sri_lanka colombo railways avissawella kelani_valley fort_station Comments (0)


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Colombo, Sri Lanka
Thursday, 31 September 2019

Singapore Airlines Flight SQ 468 pushed off on time from Gate 50 at Changi Terminal 2. The Airbus A330 was much less comfortable and much more cramped than the A380 I took from Sydney. By pure serendipity, the man I sat next to on SQ 222 was the same man I sat next to on SQ 468. What are the odds? He was a Sri Lankan man who had lived in Sydney for thirty years, lives on the Lower North Shore and consequently sees former Prime Minister John Howard doing his morning walks frequently, and was returning to Sri Lanka to attend to a family emergency.

The flight from Singapore to Colombo was only four hours. By the time we left Changi, it was after 1am Sydney time and I was tired, I couldn't concentrate on much except playing solitaire on the Krisworld in-flight entertainment system over and over again and failing.

I promised myself that I would stop playing solitaire after I had won three games, and by the time I had achieved my goal we were descending over the sprawling northern suburbs of Colombo. The city seemed to keep going on and on. The plane went out over the Indian Ocean and banked sharply to the right to get onto the approach path to Bandaranaike International Airport.

We arrived on time, I offered my fellow traveller my best wishes, and deplaned reasonably quickly. All the better to get to the slowest immigration queue I have ever seen. There was a heaving mass of people, perhaps a thousand of them if not more, congregating before the immigration counters. It was so disorganised, I couldn't quite tell where the tail of the queue was. I just picked a random spot and hoped for the best.

Like in airports everywhere, there were those queue barriers made of elastic seat-belt things strung between portable stainless steel poles. But they were laid out in such an appalling manner with chokepoints barely wide enough for one person giving way to huge enclosures where a hundred people might have stood. Behind me were a group of Mainland Chinese people constantly pushing up against me. Every time the person in front of me moved a single centimetre, the Chinese people would tap me on the shoulder telling me to move forward. I felt like turning around and shouting "listen, you people! In Australia, we respect people's personal space! So get lost!"

There was also a large Polish family pushing past everyone, and more Chinese people jumping the queue. Most people who jump queues tend to do it in a sly, furtive manner so as not to draw attention to their nefarious deeds. These people, however, had not one ounce of shame. It was blatant, it was brazen, and they didn't even turn a hair when I muttered "cao ni ma!" at them.

I had plenty of time to study the immigration officials. I earnestly came to the conclusion that they were all doped up on Valium. I have never seen people work so slowly. I swear some were actually comatose. Some would argue with the prospective visitor who would then get exasperated and wave their documentation around, which would make the officer go even slower as he fumbled through his desk looking for the right stamp.

When I got to the head of the queue the space between the elastic belt barriers was about five people wide. The immigration officers in turn would motion to one of the people at the head of the queue to indicate that it is their turn to be processed. I waited and waited as everyone else was beckoned except me. In the end, I went up to the counter even though the official had beckoned the person next to me. I was there first.

I passed at least a dozen duty free shops specialising in washing machines - not perfume, not jewellery, not alcohol, but laundry equipment - and went to baggage claim where I only had to wait thirty seconds. The immigration queue was so slow that my backpack had probably been happily riding on the carousel for the best part of an hour. I passed customs and changed my Australian money into Sri Lankan rupees. Here's another Urban Reverie's Hot Travel Tip: never, ever, EVER change your money in Australia. It's a rip-off. The bureau de change at Kingsford Smith Airport was selling Sri Lankan rupees at 85 to the Australian dollar. The spot price on financial markets was 129 LKR to the AUD. At Bandaranaike, I bought LKR at 123.36 to the AUD.

It was time to find a taxi. There is an airport bus to Colombo but it was 1am and I just wanted to get to my hotel and sleep. I knew that there were official taxi counters inside the arrivals hall where you could pre-pay for taxis from reputable operators but I couldn't see them. A man approached me and asked "good evening, sir. Do you need a taxi?"

"Yes, I do," I replied hesitantly. I had read that illegal taxi touts operate at Bandaranaike who impersonate legal operators.

"It's OK, I'm an authorised taxi representative," he said as he proffered an ID card. I panicked and said I needed to get a bottle of water, so I did, as I quickly consulted my Lonely Planet.

None the wiser, I decided to go back to the man and trust him, it was very late. It was OK, he was legit. He took me to his counter in the corner of the airport and gave me a quote of Rs. 3300 (note: to convert from rupees to Australian dollars, knock off two zeroes and subtract twenty percent). I accepted, paid the money, and he escorted me out the front of the terminal where a taxi van quickly arrived.

As the taxi left the airport I quickly realised that the only road rule in Sri Lanka is that there are no road rules. Cars going down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, zebra crossings ignored by drivers, horns blasting, high beams flashing. Soon enough we were on the E03 expressway to Colombo which was eerily empty. A magnificent building soon appeared in the distance, a giant white temple topped with a gold roof. I asked the driver what the building was. A temple? A palace?

"It's a cement factory!" And as it drew nearer I could see that so it was. We both laughed. What can I say, I was very tired.

The expressway ended just short of the city centre and the van plunged down a labyrinth of back streets and alleys to get to my guesthouse in the southern coastal suburb of Kollupitiya, the City Holiday Bungalow. I gave the driver a small tip and he departed. I rang the night bell and an elderly man came down the stairs to check me in with plenty of paperwork and signatures and receipts. As I was about to be shown my room the taxi van reappeared. I had left my daypack beneath the front passenger seat! My backpack consists of the main pack (which I check in) and a smaller detachable daypack (which is cabin baggage). The daypack had my Samsung tablet, cables and chargers and adaptors, Lonely Planet, travel documents, medication, asthma puffer and rain jacket. It would have been a disaster if I had lost it. I thanked the driver profusely. Yes, that airport taxi is not dodgy at all and if you come to Colombo I recommend that you use JNW Lanka Tours for your airport taxi needs.

The old gentleman showed me into my room. It is large, clean, has a bed, a desk, a wardrobe, a bathroom, wifi, and is in a great location near a train line and handy to all the major attractions. What more could one ask for? The only bad thing was an enormous dragonfly the size of a remote control model aircraft buzzing around noisily crashing into things. I spent the best part of half an hour trying to coax it outside but nothing worked. Suddenly, by pure chance rather than by any dexterity on my part, I caught the dragonfly mid-flight by the tip of its wing between my thumb and forefinger. I took the insect to the door, and said "free at last, little fellow", as I watched it fly away into the sultry night at 2:30am.

Posted by urbanreverie 18:02 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged taxi hotel aeroplane sri_lanka colombo Comments (0)

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