I have been in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka for three days now, and am moving on to Kandy tomorrow afternoon. So far, I must say, so very, very good. I’m not sure that Colombo itself has a great deal to recommend it. Indeed, I received a message from a colleague who had arrived in the city a day ahead of us telling us it was, in her words ‘shite’. I don’t think I’d go that far. It feels like a third world city: very poor and clearly battered by 37 years of war. There is a huge army presence still, with every bridge, every building of note and most major junctions having heavily armed checkpoints – a minimum of six Kalashnikov-toting soldiers at each, and often a tripod mounted heavy machine gun or, in a few cases, a rocket launcher. It has a different feel from other cities with a heavy armed presence, Cairo for instance, in that the Sri Lankan soldiers don’t seem to view their guns as macho accoutrements, more uncomfortable but necessary tools. The armed soldiers are a lot more cheerful for a start – more than happy to wave and smile and call out greetings. This was a bit unnerving at first. But I got used to it.
Given that Colombo has little to recommend it, why then so far so very, very good? That is because of the hotel. I would go as far as to venture that Colombo would probably be worth giving a miss entirely were I not staying at the Galle Face Hotel. As it is, I will indubitably be back. The Galle Face Hotel is the oldest hotel in Asia. The oldest hotel, in fact, east of Suez. It was founded in 1864, 46 years before Singapore’s Raffles, 64 years before Hong Kong’s Peninsula and 23 years before Conrad Hilton was even born.
These days it is split into two sections – the Galle Face in the northern wing and the Regency (not sure why you would choose to call a Victorian Hotel the Regency, but there you go) in the southern wing. The Galle Face is the original part, slightly tired by all accounts, but charming. The Regency, where I am, has been renovated in line with what modern customers would expect from a hotel of this standing. The building is all one, though. And the building, along with the location, is what makes to hotel what it is. My hotel bedroom looks out over the courtyard which faces straight out westwards across the Indian Ocean.
This evening, I took high tea on the verandah and watched the sun set behind the palm trees.
On my first night I ate at the Sea Spray – the hotel’s fish restaurant, my table right beside the balustrade, three feet from the breaking waves. The hotel is impossibly, unutterably, astoundingly wonderful. I am currently reading a memoir by the journalist Paul Harris who stayed at the hotel for a year in the mid 90s. I am very jealous.
The rest of Colombo is…well to be honest, I have rarely left the hotel. I went up to the station to book my train to Kandy (£1.80 for the best seats in the first class observation carriage – I’ll let you know what it’s like anon). I also made a sortie out towards the National Museum this morning, but gave up before I got there.
The one thing that has kept me constantly amused is the scam artists, of which there are many. Try to walk anywhere from the hotel and within twenty yards a local will fall into step and engage you in conversation which will eventually work round to his recommendations of where to go. Most often this can be deflected with a smile and a firm ‘no thanks’ but the persistent ones are often worth listening to for their invention. The heart of all the scams is that they will try and charge you to go to a special, one-day only elephant festival at a nearby temple. The thing is that there is an elephant there every day and it is free. One particularly persistent chap earned full marks for inventiveness with his replies:
Him: it is a special one day festival!
Me: I’ve been.
Him: No! This is a Hindu festival. The one you went to was a Buddhist festival.
Me: I’m short of time (I had reached the cash point that I was heading for, 100 yards from the hotel)
Him: Don’t go to that cash point. I will show you a better one.
Me: Better how?
Him: That one gives you Indian money. No good, you can’t spend it. I will show you a Sri Lankan cashpoint.
Needless to say, the money was fine. Another favourite is them telling you that you can’t go a certain way because of security checkpoints. All lies! The only one that worked was a Tuk-tuk driver who told me I should visit a shop on the way to where I wanted to go. I asked him why and he told me that if I did the shop owner would give him a litre of petrol and he was very poor. More examples of honest Sri Lankan advertising:
I think that ‘bus stop’ might have been more succinct:
The final footnote to all this is the cost. I am very much an economic tourist and the strength of the Western and Dubaian economy (don’t believe everything in the news!) means I can afford holidays like this, and feel OK about spreading some of my relative wealth around poorer countries. The hotel is £50 a night. The fish restaurant (one of the most expensive in the city) was £9. High tea on the verandah, £4.
The train to Kandy left at 3.35pm and I had to check out of the glorious Galle Face at midday. Cue a couple of tortuous hours spent sitting on the verandah reading a book. A wonderful way to spend my final hours in a wonderful hotel.
The train arrived about half an hour before the departure time, giving me plenty of time to settle in. At first, I thought we might have got it wrong – this was supposed, after all, to be the jewel in Sri Lankan Rail’s crown, the first class non-stop express between the island’s two main cities. It didn’t look like any jewel in any crown I have ever seen. The carriages were at least 50 years old, the promised air conditioning was four ceiling mounted fans that didn’t work. The toilet, well, I’ll leave that to your imagination. Can you imagine it? Actually, it was worse what you just imagined. This was first class. Second class seemed to consist of wooden benches in cattle-car conditions. Third class was basically clinging to the outside of the train.
My seat, however, were worth every rupee of the £1.80 it cost me. I was facing backwards, but with a big window from which to watch the receding tracks.
It mentioned in our guide book that the train could be “a little bit bumpy”. In the same way as Hitler might be said to be “a little bit naughty”. I have been on tamer roller coaster rides. There were stretches of track where I left my seat (vertically) twice every second. I feared I could feel my internal organs pureeing. I don’t like roller coasters. And I didn’t like this very much either.
But on the calm stretches of track, it was beautiful. Farm and paddy land gave way quite quickly to mountains. Looking backwards down the track, I noticed that there seemed to be a surprisingly large number of people appearing from the undergrowth in our wake. It turns out that the railway tracks are also kind of public footpaths – there aren’t that many ways through the mountains.
The journey took close to four hours. Dusk came about three hours in, bringing flocks of what looked like massive gliding birds, but turned out (in true Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom fashion) to be fruit bats. Huge, massive fruit bats. Fruit bats the size of small geese.
It was fully dark by the time we reached Kandy, and the collection I had requested from the hotel didn’t materialize, so I jumped into a cab/minibus and off I went. The Queen’s Hotel is owned by the same people who own the Galle Face, and though not quite as old (built in 1895), it is every bit as colonially charming.
At first it was a bit of a culture shock – after the Galle Face, it was, shall we say, unrestored. The room was spacious enough, with lots of dark wood and high ceilings, but there was little there – no bath (and the shower was…old), no room service, no booze in the minibar. Though there was a phone, there was no internal directory. The check-in clerk had reeled of a list of different numbers I might find useful, but there was no chance I was going to remember them.
I got used to the comparative lack of luxury fairly quickly though. To be honest, I had kind of fallen in love with the place after a couple of hours. Particularly the bar attached to the hotel, the Pub Royale which was resplendently Victorian and…just wonderful.
I ventured out into the dark and rain-slicked streets of Kandy to find that pretty much everything was shut. This was at about 7.30pm. Turns out it was Poya – the monthly full moon festival where they celebrate the full moon by shutting everything. I ended up eating at Pizza Hut.
Over the next few days, though, Kandy showed itself to be quite a lot livelier. Though it is Sri Lanka’s second city, it is tiny. It has three major streets, a lake and the temple of the sacred tooth (one of Buddha’s teeth is said to be contained therein). Tiny, but busy. I took a day tour of the region with the taxi driver who had picked me up at the station, including visits to the elephant orphanage (a field with lots of elephants in it), an elephant-poo paper factory where they make paper from elephant poo, a tea factory (my favouritest, favouritest place – it smelled utterly wonderful and I spent a small fortune on different kinds of tea) and the Kandy botanical gardens, which were beautiful and had some wildlife.
In total, I was in Kandy for three days, which felt about right. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to tour the ancient cities (another 2-3 day tour), but that’s a reason to go back next year, right? I got a cab from Kandy direct to the airport (faster than the train) and home I went. The duty free shopping in the departures section of Bandaranaike airport was a bit disappointing – the arrivals duty free sold guitars, cookers, fridge-freezers, you name it. I suppose it might be a bit difficult to get a duty free washing machine onto the plane though.
Overall, I loved Sri Lanka – the hotels, the history, the (seemingly) genuinely friendly people, and we will definitely be going back next year some time.