Our Sri Lanka Airlines flight came with a whopping 30kg of checked baggage each, well more than we needed, which was good. We flew to Colombo from the Maldives where we were reunited with a lovely Swedish couple we had met on the speedboat earlier. We decided to share a taxi van (3,300 Sri Lankan Rupees, plus 300 for the road toll, split between the four of us) and we dropped them off at Cinnamon Red hotel in Colombo before continuing on to Mount Lavinia Beach, a short train ride south of the capital. Our hotel, NS Apartments (£35 per night), was more like a small block of flats and we had the top floor, with sea view, and a separate room for a kitchen and a large square sun deck. The WiFi may have been very iffy but the view from the terrace was terrific. We could see the sea as well as the Mount Lavinia Hotel and the tall buildings of Colombo. However, to get to our room we had to scramble up four flights of steep stairs, as there was no lift. We decided to get this room anyway, over the one available on the first floor as the view was worth it.
The next day we ate some snacks for breakfast on the roof terrace and wandered through the Sunday market to the junction, only a 2-minutes walk from the accommodation. There I bought some hairgrips and some sesame seed homemade sweets, one of their specialities. Later we headed to a nice restaurant called La Rambla, but they were no longer serving food until dinner at 6pm so we got juices and bought some WiFi credit (50 rupees each for 30-40 mins). Afterwards we decided to start sightseeing following the road to the famous Mount Lavinia Hotel, formerly the British Governor’s house. It was a lovely old place perched on a large rocky outcrop sticking into the sea. We wandered down the hotel beach and ordered some late lunch while we enjoyed watching the rough sea and orange sandy beach. Mark had fish and chips for 600 rupees and I had deviled cuttlefish and salad for 800, which was delicious! After eating, and watching a cute, stripey squirrel in the rafters above we checked out the glorious terrace with its commanding views and pool. We could see the main beach full of locals as it was a Sunday, and the sunset, which was magnificent. We then took a tuk-tuk to the beach below for the equivalent of £1. It couldn’t take us all the way because of the railway lines, which we were surprised to see had nothing to protect people from the speeding locomotives. We crossed and joined the beach, just by a lifeguard station. It was getting dark but still the beach was full of life. There were kids playing in the surf, teenagers playing cricket and soccer and even a film crew recording something happening on a small stage. After a nice walk along the beach we hailed a tuk-tuk to take us home.
The hotel owner Sisira, formerly of the Sri Lankan navy, was a friendly, Buddhist chap and helped arrange a metered tuk-tuk for our Colombo tour the next day and offered to take us to an opticians in the morning my replacement specs. We accepted his offer and climbed up to our penthouse suite for the night.
Next morning Sisira took us to the opticians where I got some new specs. He then treated us to a pastry on the way back. Afterwards we took the tuk-tuk Sisira arranged for us (33 rupees per km, plus a flag of 50 rupees). The driver was a 40-year old called Ranjit. We went to pick up some Sri Lankan sweets first and then went to the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara Buddhist Temple. It was a semi-rural site by a river and contained a brown stone temple with elephants carved on the walls and a reclining Buddha inside. Outside the enclosed square included a shrine surrounding a large banyan tree where we left incense sticks and a rack for candles. The other side of the central temple was a large white stupa with three small shrines in niches around the sides. What a lovely and serene place! Next stop was St. Anthony’s Catholic Church which was surrounded by papal flags, as the Pope was flying into Sri Lanka that evening for a papal visit. The church was a multi-faith building, with Buddhist and Hindu shrines inside and a lovely calm atmosphere. After that we drove to a Hindu temple called Sri Kailasanathar Swarmi Devashthanam (Captain’s Garden) on Kovil St. It was closed but that didn’t stop us marveling at the carved gateway tower at the front. It was made of hundreds of colourful statues of different deities, idols and holy animals protruding from the structure. Next to it, through the chain-link fence, we could see a wheeled ornamental float used for special occasions.
We got back in the tuk-tuk and were driven past the Lotus tower, which was under construction. Located on the bank of Beira lake, it was a wide circular structure with a tall column extending out the centre to form the ‘stem’ with the lotus ‘bud’ on top still to be completed. We soon arrived at the impressive Gangaramaya Temple (250 rupees entry). They took our shoes and gave me a shawl to cover my shoulders. We walked past a large banyan tree covered in Buddhist peace flags that acted as the centrepiece for the building complex. There was a large white stupa but we entered the main part of the temple to see the Buddha statues, murals and idols. We walked around the central tree to see their collection of vintage cars, mechanical printing presses, silver cutlery, glasses, antiques etc. A very interesting place. We left and Ranjit let us know that we could use our ticket for entry into the Seema Malaka temple in the middle of Beira lake. It was a modern well designed place consisting of three buildings connected by bridges from which we could enjoy the pelicans, ducks and other wildfowl as well as views of the city. What a beautiful sight!
Ranjit took us down the corner to a food place for lunch. We then went past Viharamahedvi park and the stark white City Hall to the Colombo National Museum. With its whitewashed walls and colonial architecture the place reminded us of the Victoria Memorial Museum in Calcutta. It was 200 rupees each but they let Ranjit in for free. He showed us the traditional costumes and weapons of the locals and the British and Dutch settlers. We saw Buddha statues, Chinese porcelain, waxworks of early farmers and many stone carvings and tablets.
Feeling a bit tired we then opted to go back. Once back at the hotel we decided to postpone our two-day trip and try to see the Pope the next day. Later that night Mark did his first cooking in 7 or 8 months when he boiled some green beans, bell pepper and cabbage, which was yummy.
Next day Sisira dropped us off at the cute Mount Lavinia train station and we caught the packed 11:30pm to Fort Station for a day of ‘Popespotting’. We then got a tuk-tuk to the Archbishop’s house (350 rupees). We knew we had arrived from the crowds already lining the streets. There was a small brass band dressed in green and many nuns and women in sarees. I got chatting to a lovely lady called Young from South Korea who had been living there for the last 18 years. Some minibuses arrived from the opposite direction and everyone scrambled to get a look but it was just full of cardinals and we were told by an organizer that the Pope wouldn’t be coming as he was tired and decided to remain in the Italian embassy where he was staying, which was a bit of a let down. Young suggested we go for lunch together and once her Korean friend arrived the four of us crammed into a tuk-tuk bound for the Indian Summer Restaurant, which was an Indian fusion place. It was a lovely modern building with brass plated walks, waterfalls and lotus shaped candle holders. Two of their friends were coming in as well and we split into two groups of three. The food was delicious. We decided to go back to Young’s flat to rest for a couple of hours. She showed us a video of the band playing and to our surprise the Pope came past very quickly in his Popemobile. So he was there before we arrived. Young explained that people said he would be coming back the other way to enter the building but he didn’t return. We went to the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) as according to his itinerary the Pope was due there at 18:10 after his meeting at the Presidential Palace at 5pm. The three of us too a tuk-tuk there and joined the crowd. We soon got our reward as Pope Francis passed in a silver car waving out the window. Young and I managed to speak to the army men and get through the gate for some photographs of the costumed band and welcoming committee, which was nice. We then said goodbye to Young and took a tuk-tuk to Slave Island station, a train to Mount Lavinia and then another tuk-tuk back to the hotel. It was a very special day.
The next morning we woke up early for our two day private trip to Sigiriya, Dambulla, Kandy and tea plantations (see Kandy page).
On our final day in Sri Lanka we checked out at 8am and took a taxi to the airport (£15 plus £1.50 road toll). We checked in our bags and then boarded our AirAsiaX flight to Kuala Lumpur.
Sri Lanka is a magnificent country with lots to see and do. I’ll definitely miss it.