After three straight days at sea, we docked at Colombo, Sri Lanka. Colombo is the main port and largest city in Sri Lanka. We had breakfast on our terrace overlooking the cranes of the busy harbor. We tour the city today and head to Galle to the south tomorrow. The ship will remain in port overnight.
Sri Lanka (Ceylon during the British occupation) is an island once part of the Indian subcontinent. About 75% of the population is Sinhalese, primarily Buddhist, concentrated in the central, western, and southern parts of the island. The largest minority group is the Tamils who occupy the north and eastern coast. The Tamils are primarily Hindu. A civil war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils lasted almost 30 years and did not end until 2009 when the government defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after the death of their popular leader who promoted terrorism both at home and in India.
The island was part of the British Empire from 1796 until independence in 1948. Known as Ceylon for decades, the nation resorted its name of Sri Lanka in 1972. It adopted its current flag that year with the lion on a field of red with smaller orange and green bands along the side of the flag. The red represents the Sinhalese, the orange the Tamils, and the green the Muslim minority.
The port is right in the heart of things in Colombo, a city of two million. Heavy security and multiple checkpoints meant it took a while to get out of the port. We went past the area of the Dutch fort and into Pettah, the bazaar area of the city and one of the oldest districts in Colombo considered to be “the most ethnically mixed place in the country.” We saw churches, mosques, temples, and shrines. People were in every form of dress. The street signs-actually most signs for that matter-are written in three languages (Sinhalese on top, Tamil beneath that, and English on the Bottom).
In Pettah, we first passed the Old City Hall built in 1865 during the British era; it is now mostly abandoned. Pettah was crowded with shoppers; the main bus terminal and train station are found in this area. Both public and private buses provide bus service. The trishaws, called tok-toks by the locals, were out in full force and like the street signs, offered their services in three languages. As it rains often in Sri Lanka, the local tok-tok is enclosed.
Our guide commented that the crowd was very light and many of the shops were not open, as the country had just celebrated its new year last week. He compared the level of celebration to that of Christmas. We did see some parade facilities being dismantled. We passed the Manning Market with stall after stall of fruits and vegetables and the Federation of Self Employees Market, which offers mostly household goods.
We left Pettah and passed through an area of beautifully manicured streets and large buildings, colonial and new. In route to Independence Hall at Vihara Mahadevi Park, we passed two of the newest buildings we saw all day-the Lotus Theater Complex and the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, both “outright gifts” from the Chinese Government. The conference hall’s sign was in four languages, with Chinese on the bottom. (I was reminded about Hugh Neighbour’s comments regarding the Chinese’s interest in maintaining a stronghold all along the spice route.)
I enjoyed the post carvings and the stone lions at the open-air Independence Hall. The popular park nearby is undergoing extensive renovations. The guide told us that for 30-year period of the civil war, government funds were used to support military operations. Now those resources are being redirected into infrastructure improvements.
Our next stop was the National Museum that was founded in 1877 by British Governor Sir William Henry Gregory. The complex of buildings houses many artifacts and is a lovely setting with expansive lawns and beautiful, old trees. If you need the toilet, you’ll only find squatters unless you head around the corner to the area sign-posted “ Toilets-Foreign Guests” with western-style bathroom facilities. A statute of Queen Victoria commemorating her Diamond Jubilee is in the car park (parking lot).
If you were smart you skipped the museum bathrooms, as next we went to a refreshment stop at the Taj Sumauda Hotel, the loveliest hotel along the Oceanside promenade, Galle Face Green. We had sandwiches and cakes in the 19th century- built Colombo Club at the hotel. Our British friend Angela was disappointed in the English fare, not the taste, but the missed opportunity to sample local delicacies. I had to agree.
Galle Face Green, the park area and promenade along the Indian Ocean, is popular with the locals. Food and souvenir vendors have small structures that look bathing huts along some portions of the beach. Military exercises were taking place as we passed the Green and our guide used this opportunity to give us his spin on the Tamil Tigers and the civil war. They are justly proud of their preserved peace.
Our last stop was the Buddhist Gangarmaya Temple. In addition to the areas of worship, the temple complex also has a library and museum that displays an “eclectic array of bejeweled and gilded gifts presented by devotees.” The three-story buddhas in the room we first entered were colorful and impressive. The only thing to mar our visit was the poor young male elephant chained on two-legs and housed in the temple yard. He could only sway side to side and his captivity seemed in stark contrast to the Buddhist principle of no cruelty to animals.
The Gangarmaya Temple is the site of the Navam Perahera on the February poya (full moon) day each year. It is a large celebration of colorful costumes and a parade of elephants. The full moon occurs twelve times a year and we will be in port tomorrow during poya. We’ll see how this monthly holiday affects our touring. There were a couple of other photo opts along the streets by the temple. An old tramcar sat right across the street and restoration work along one side of the temple had required tall scaffolding constructed primarily from bamboo.
Headed back to the pier, we passed through the Old Dutch fort area. The Portuguese were the first foreign traders to arrive in the early 1500s, remaining in control of the coastal areas until the Dutch took over in the 17th century. The Portuguese left like mark on Sri Lanka. In contrast, the Dutch influence is still seen in Colombo with the canals scattered throughout the city and the many buildings remaining near the port area.
Back on board, there was a beautiful outdoor buffet with linen-covered tables scattered around the pool and the upper sun deck. Our evening’s entertainment was a performance by a local dance troupe with accompaniment by a wide variety of drums, shells, and brass instruments. The dances were unique, physical, and performed in beautiful colorful costumes. It was a lovely end to day one in Sri Lanka.