Welcome to Colombo!
As a traveller who loves to explore new places, I believe that the true essence of a place lies in enjoying the local flavour, which includes its food, music, stay and culture. Since I was staying with my sister and her husband, it was easier to start living like a local than as a tourist who only gets to experience the fancy stuff reserved for foreigners. Soon after landing at the Bandaranaike International Airport, I got a local SIM card which only cost me around 1200 LKR and made travelling in Colombo a lot more comfortable. I was staying at Dehiwala and had to travel a bit to go to the other side of the city. To make things easier, I had downloaded an app called PickMe, which is similar to an Uber, and the autos, also known as Tuk-Tuks, became my everyday means of transport.
Great food, music, and dance: The Colombo Street Food Festival
Riding in a Tuk-tuk on a long stretch of road that is right next to the sea is certainly one of the most underrated pleasures of travelling in Colombo. Taking the local train is another viable option for tourists. First up, I visited the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct that has shops and restaurants, such as the famous Ministry Of Crab. At the Dutch Square, one can see people reading books, working on their laptops, all whilst enjoying the breezy weather. On Saturdays, there are several gigs performed here and is thronged by people across all age groups. If there is one thing that one must learn from Sri Lankans, it is how to let your hair down, every once in a while! I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Colombo Street Food Festival, which is held once every month at the Dutch Square. From dancing to the tunes of the traditional Baila music to snacking on the delicious Egg and Cheese Kottu, the street food festival is a fun-filled night and a paradise for all the foodies out there.
Of architectural beauties and lush greenery
I had decided early on during my trip that instead of going to the landmark ‘places to visit for tourists’, I would cover only those places that seemed interesting to me and explore these extensively, even if I ended up missing out on a few places here and there. My next stop was the Colombo Museum, where I spent at least three to four hours visiting all the fourteen galleries spanned across four floors in one building. From having remains of the early Sri Lankan civilisation to the artefacts from ancient kingdoms ruled by various dynasties and the steady spread of Buddhism across the island nation, the Museum is a must visit for anyone who wants to get an insight into the early cultural and historical development of Sri Lanka. After my visit to the Museum, I walked to the Viharamahadevi Park, which is a beautiful park along with a stunning golden statue of Lord Buddha at its entrance. Now, here is a funny incident that happened to me. As I was taking several photos of the statue, a crow landed on my head and was perched there for a good five minutes, while I was running around panicking and seeking help from the gardeners at the park. After taking some time to calm down, I was taken on a tour of the Park by one of the gardeners who had been working there for the past 20 years. We saw the Ironwood tree, the Palm trees of Madagascar, and I even got to taste the bark of the cinnamon tree. Right opposite the Park is the Colombo Municipal Council, which is a magnificent white building influenced in architectural style by the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. For all the architecture enthusiasts, a simple stroll along the streets of Colombo, such as the Chatham Street which has the Clocktower, or the De Mel Building are fascinating sights. I even managed to have lunch at one of Colombo’s popular restaurants, Upali’s. The hoppers, along with the Pol Sambol and Kiribath, were delicious and a must for anyone who wants to try the local cuisine.
On Sunday mornings, I used to visit the Good Market in Delhiwala where one can buy all the grocery items required for the coming week. Being totally enamoured by the exotic tropical fruits such as Mangosteen, Passionfruit and Soursop, there was no way I was going to settle for apples and oranges during my stay here. For all the party animals, there are places that allow you to experience the nightlife that the city has to offer. From the Bavarian to the Kingsbury Hotel and the Dutch Square, there seems to be no dearth of good food, drinks and really good music, all within a reasonable budget. One can even spend some leisure time at the Independence Square and the Arcade. You will be able to spot kids playing and people spending time with their loved ones at these places. For all the shopaholics, watch out for any sales at Cotton Collection, Uptown Liberty Plaza or ODEL and trust me, their collections will not disappoint you. While you are at it, try some of their famous bubble teas, such as the Aqua Mint Fruit Fiesta by Bubbluscious and the Passionfruit ice cream by Il Gelato.
Kandy- The home of the Temple of the Tooth Relic
During my last week in Sri Lanka, we took a train from the Colombo Fort Railway Station to Kandy, which took us only three hours of travel. We stayed at a luxurious guest house on top of the hills with a scenic view to die for. Since it was a two-day trip, we walked around the Bogambara Lake, despite the heavy rains and visited the Sri Dalada Maligawa, also known as The Temple of the Tooth Relic. This temple is one of the most sacred places for Buddhists as it houses the tooth of Lord Buddha himself. The temple has been subjected to great destruction in the past, owing to the 1998 bomb blast. The interiors of the temple are breathtakingly beautiful and there is a peaceful atmosphere surrounding the temple. The next day, we visited the Botanical Gardens that house some incredibly beautiful orchids and trees planted by the Presidents & Prime Ministers of various countries. The map given at the ticket counter helps you explore the garden, though visiting every section of the garden would seem to be an uphill task. Note that some of these places have entry fees, so make sure you’re carrying some cash with you. Before heading back to Colombo, we roamed the streets of Kandy, bought a traditional Sarong, and shopped for a while at the flea markets as well.
Some tips for the newbie tourist visiting Sri Lanka for the first time:
- Language should not be a problem, as everyone here knows how to speak in English. However, just to be on the safer side, use Google Maps to travel anywhere in order to avoid confusion.
- Be careful of being overcharged for anything that you buy. Convert LKR into USD/INR and bargain accordingly, if possible.
- Try the local cuisine, food and drinks included, as often as possible. Their local drinks such as the Ginger Beer and Necto were some of my favourites. I was on a staple Sri Lankan diet of brown rice and veg curry for the entire duration of my stay. And do not miss out on the tea and coffee. The local brands give you a wide variety of flavours such as black currant flavoured black tea and vanilla and caramel coffee.
- Carry only cotton clothes/summery dresses/skirts and shorts for your trip to Sri Lanka. The weather here, which is pretty much humid all through the year, makes wearing jeans uncomfortable, at times.
- Feel free to engage in conversations with the locals at pubs and restaurants. Apart from the easygoing nature and friendliness of Sri Lankans, it gives you an added advantage to know more places to explore as a tourist.
- Try and look for events on Facebook that you can attend. There are spoken word events and yoga sessions that you can be a part of. I watched a rugby match and participated in a 5K marathon when I was there and trust me, doing so takes your entire travel experience a notch higher.
- For avid readers like myself, visit as many bookstores as possible. My favourite was Deen The Bookman at Galle Main Road. One can spend hours going through the vast collection of books available at such places.
- Keep cash handy, at all times. Even though there are ATMs, there may not be one at the nook and corner of every street.
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