Welcome to Colombo: Our final Sri Lankan ‘Hurrah!’

Welcome to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s hustling and bustling, busy capital city – our final hurrah, and last new destination to explore in Sri Lanka.

Colombo city appears to be a mix of old and new, of poverty and riches; it’s filled with Dutch architecture, temples, shops selling anything and everything, traffic that never stops flowing, and people – everywhere. The bustling market places brim with bananas and colourful produce, the rhythmic honking of horns blast all day and late into the night, hindu temples are set peacefully amongst 5 star hotels and manic bus stations, traffic is hectic – at the best of times – and of course, the smiling sarong-wearing men and sari-clad women move like clockwork in organised chaos.

By now, we are well adjusted, and have grown accustomed to the lifestyle and unique ways of operating and existing here. We’re used to the hectic, unpredictable and often dangerous traffic, and jumping on to still-moving buses – holding on for precious life and smiling at the many pairs of eyes that stare back at us every time we board. We’re used to the food vendors screaming, the tuk tuk drivers touting, the scammers who attempt to trick us, and the spontaneous tambourine performances that happen on the most interesting of bus rides. We eat with our hands (after sanitizing and sterilizing them, of course), we know what foods are good, we know what prices should roughly be (not that they always are that) and I have become the batering queen.
We now know how to lose those persistent, clingy “guides” who try to “help us”, ensuring us that they “don’t want money” (and then later ask for money and pens…).
We comfortably cross the roads, walking out into traffic we wouldn’t dare confront back home, and we’ve accepted that people stare at us. A lot. Like, all the time.
We’re used to the pollution and dirt that sticks to our sun-screen smeared skin, the heat that bears down on us relentlessly, and the constant outstretched hands of those who ask for money…

Throughout our travels in Sri Lanka, we were frequently told “Colombo is not worth visiting; there’s nothing to see…” However, we disregarded the advice; we wanted to see for ourselves what this bustling metropolis was like – we couldn’t go to Sri Lanka and not go to it’s capital city!

We stayed out of the city in Mt. Lavinina, which meant we had a 30 – 40 minute bus ride into Colombo each day. Rather than being a burden, the trip was really enjoyable each time – passing through the different areas of the city, past markets and shops and people and the always hectic, hectic traffic. Night time was the best time for people watching: it’s fascinating to see how alive this city is at night; the sights and sounds and smells and colours are beautiful and messy, and the people seem to intertwine and enjoy their city together. Every sense is heightened as you try to take in the surroundings.

We spent most of our time in Colombo simply walking around, looking, taking it in and enjoying it.
We shared Kotthu Roti (Sri Lanka’s national dish) at a little hole-in-the wall eatery with a couch surfing host, explored the produce markets and bazaars, ate rice and curry with our hands, drank tea, and at last found a place to appease my shopping urges (although I was very suitably restrained!). We had planned to visit a few temples, but after one distressing visit to the highly regarded Gangaramaya Buddhist temple tourist trap, which was keeping an elephant in a most cruel manner, we left feeling despondent and didn’t bother again.
Our highlight was the small Sunday morning Arts Market, in which several local painters were selling their incredibly beautiful paintings at unbelievably low prices. Had we been travelling back to Australia sooner, we would’ve no doubt bought a piece of unique art work – if you get the opportunity to visit Colombo on a Sunday, a visit to the Arts Market is a fantastic experience.

Two nights might have been enough in Colombo, but there is so much to see there if you really look. As we boarded a bus headed for Negombo, and said goodbye to Colombo – we realized that tomorrow, we’ll be in India…

India.

Shit just got real.

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Sri Lanka: Big Smiles, Honking Horns and Curry!

My first impressions of Sri Lanka?
I’d have to say the big, big smiles.

Big smiles with red-stained teeth, covering the faces of the gorgeous people here. The women in bright, bold patterned outfits, and the men in their traditional skirts. Bicycles – lots of bicycles: sharing the road with trishaws and cars, buses and tractors, chickens, cows, dogs, goats, cats, people, motorbikes and more. The roads are filled with the obligatory Asian hectic traffic, which I seem to be able to best describe as “organised chaos.”
It’s busy here. And it’s hot: really hot – humid and sticky and wonderful.

We flew in to Colombo, Sri Lanka in the early morning, and headed to our accommodation in the beach city of Negombo. Holding on to the handles as our trishaw turned and darted and weaved through the traffic, we had to smile. We’re here – we are finally in Sri Lanka!

A quiet street in Negombo

A quiet street in Negombo

We spent our first day in Negombo, where we walked into the town, through the bustling and lively (and fish smelling) fish market to the city centre. It was exciting, but intimidating. We didn’t see one other tourist, and people everywhere around us were openly staring and laughing at these two very white foreigners. People were leaning out of their passing trishaws to get a better look at us, and the eyes following us were something we are not used to.

Negombo Fish Market

Negombo Fish Market

The hectic sprawl of Negombo city was bustling with life – so much colour and noise, people and traffic!
We spent a while wondering around Negombo looking for a bank that would accept our foreign cards – it took us 8 or 9 different banks before we found one that worked. Relief.
One thing is for sure – we now know that Sri Lanka has a large range of banks, should you wish to open an account.

We spent our first night in a little restaurant near our accommodation, enjoying Sri Lanka’s Lion Beer and traditional rice and curry. Sri Lankan curries are great fun – they come with all these little dishes in separate bowls, making for a real experience as you taste each one, trying to work out what it is.

Lion Beer and Vegetarian Curry

Lion Beer and Curry

On our second day, after sharing a traditional Sri Lankan breakfast with another Melbournian couple (Em was adventurous and ordered banana pancakes) we prepared for a day of travel, as we made our way inland from Negombo to Anuradhapura, an ancient city with sprawling ruins that was once Sri Lanka’s capital.

The bus rides there (two two-and-a-half hour rides) were a very new and, well, let’s say ‘different’ experience.
The first leg of the journey, Negombo to Kurunegala, was pretty standard – a dodgy looking bus that sped over the pot holes and unsealed roads at staggering speeds, dodging whatever was in it’s path. We took over the back seat of the bus so our big packs would fit – luggage storage doesn’t exist here on busses, apparently – and bounced our way into Kurunegala.

Kurunegala bus station is something else – something I can’t even put into words, although, I’ll try my best.
It is a station packed full of, surprise surprise, busses. But not just a few busses – lots, and lots, and then some more – all fighting for space and room to reverse and turn and move in. Horns honk constantly, as people mull everywhere. The smell of petrol fumes was overpowering, but the sights before us were just oh so wonderfully hectic! Finding a bathroom, first off, was an experience, as every person stared us up and down as we walked through the halls. Local touters and restaurant owners tried waving us down, “come lady, sir! Come madame, sit, sit, here, you come!”

To find our bus to Anuradhapura, a little man was kind enough to show us where to go. We waved his hand for us to follow, then marched us right on through and into the centre of the station, in front of and behind moving busses, through small gaps between vehicles, through groups of people and petrol fumes…
Then, when we managed to board the bus alive and take our seats on bus 57 to Anuradhapura, another little  man was kind enough to inform us “no A C.” (air conditioning)… Oh yes, the ride was about to get very interesting – and hot.

Before the bus started rolling, the “music of the station” as I decided to name it, began to ‘play’. As the bus engine hummed and shook, passenger after passenger kept boarding our bus. The humming engine and the footsteps of people provided the hum and pulse of the song. Constant honking of horns around us provided a beat. And the melody came from the many vendors who boarded our already jam packed bus, yelling out their sales pitches in the exact same tones over and over. Pop corn vendors, snack vendors, cold drink vendors, hot food vendors, fried food and short eat vendors… and then the picture book vendor and the gold jewelry vendor moved about, squishing through the bodies and touting their goods. What a sight and sound – we had to smile and laugh.

The following two and a half hours was a bum-numbingly, uncomfortably good time (We’re keeping things positive).
As we bumped and bounced and swayed in our tiny seats, every seat and space in the aisle of the bus was jam packed with passengers – I felt so sorry for the ticket fee collector who had to squeeze and shove his way through the crowd. Jam packed does not even begin to describe it: we were packed in so tightly, at times I wondered how any more people could actually fit in! People were leaning over me, on me, and around me. There is no such thing as personal space when it comes to travelling on a public bus, it would seem. If I didn’t have someone’s crotch rubbing on my shoulder, I had a stomach pressing against me, or someone standing on my feet, or staring at me from a few centimeters away, or breathing heavily on me… But still, it was all an experience – an uncomfortable at times but positive one – and we laughed and smiled our way through it; it was really a lot of fun.

And as the monsoon rain arrived and night closed in, and the bus driver continued to honk his horn and dodge and dive and weave, we looked forward to what we’d find in the ancient city we were about to arrive in: we could not be happier to be here in Sri Lanka.