Colombo: Waking Up to a Fresh Start

THERE ARE TWO COLOMBOS. There’s one city that clings to its heritage past, a reminder of what it and its residents have gone through. There’s the other for the future, a signal to starting fresh almost a decade after emerging from a lengthy civil war that gripped an entire country.

Returning to Colombo via train after a few days in the Hill Country and the southern coast, C and I find ourselves in a city that has become more than a stopover and made travelers stay longer than planned in the past few years. New hotels, restaurants, and other stylish enterprises have sprung up, turning Colombo into a more cosmopolitan city that’s ready to welcome even more visitors to Sri Lanka.

Our last morning in the city – and the country, actually – takes us first to the Fort District, Colombo’s financial district, where modern buildings stand side by side magnificent ones from the colonial era. Our hotel is conveniently located close to the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, a structure that dates back to the 17th century, but has been lavishly restored and is now home to some of the fanciest shops and restaurants in Sri Lanka. The night before, the open-air patio in the center of the complex hosted a music session attended by a crowd large by Colombo nightlife standards. Right now, with the sun still barely up, the doors and windows are all shuttered up, and the streets are mostly empty. 

A new day arrives at Colombo’s port area.
The Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct is said to be the oldest building in Colombo’s Fort District. The building was built in 1681 the Dutch. It served various purposes over the years before being turned into a dining and shopping district in modern times.

C and I continue our early morning walk north, past more landmarks. There’s the Lighthouse Clock Tower, which was a functioning lighthouse years ago. Then there’s the Cargills Main Store, with its attention-grabbing red walls and vintage architecture. It’s home to a KFC branch and a grocery store, but the structure still mostly evokes a strong sense of a bygone era.

Finally, we reach the port a few minutes later, just in time for the sunrise and a rainbow behind the outmoded Grand Oriental Hotel. We then head back to our hotel for the breakfast buffet.

Various colonial buildings line Chatham Street in the Fort District. The area is Colombo’s financial district. The Lighthouse Clock Tower can be seen at the intersection in the distance.
The heritage building of the Grand Oriental Hotel used to be the residence of the Dutch Governor.
A sense of the British colonial era comes alive along the cavernous hallways of the Cargills and Millers building.

We continue with our city tour shortly after by heading east to the Pettah district. The area is filled with numerous shops displaying all sorts of merchandise, and crowds all going about in a dizzying fashion. It turns out to be an exhausting affair to navigate, as the sun is starting to scorch, and the city has completely awakened; trishaws careening through the maze of streets and people carrying heavy loads threaten to hit unsuspecting tourists.

C and I weave our way through the alleys until we reach the Colombo Dutch Museum, which is supposed to contain several memorabilia from the Dutch colonial period. The building is under renovation, however, so we proceed to the nearby Masjid Jami Ul-Alfar. The mosque’s distinctive red and white stripes make it stand out from the rest of the area’s buildings.

Eventually, exploring Pettah turns out to be very overwhelming that we feel the urge to head back to the hotel a full hour earlier than we initially planned.

Colombo’s Pettah district is famous for its markets, the city’s busiest venues.
The Colombo Dutch Museum in the center of Pettah district is currently closed for renovation.
The Masjid Jami Ul-Alfar, also known as the Red Mosque, stands out from its neighboring buildings with its red-and-white striped facade.
The Old Town Hall in Pettah serves as a reminder of Colombo’s past.

Shortly before noon, we leave the Fort and Pettah for the southern part of the city, where the other side of Colombo reveals itself. Here, the grand colonial buildings are replaced with barely finished skyscrapers overlooking the beach. Galle Face Green, a spacious open area along the shore, plays host all day to locals doing various activities – from flying kites to playing crickets to strolling along the beach to just sitting on one of the benches and enjoying the Indian Ocean breeze. At night, numerous food stalls set up and sell cheap street food.

Further south and heading east, we arrive at the Cinnamon Gardens district, so named because it used to be a vast plantation of the precious spice. Nowadays, its an elegant area that houses a number of posh subdivisions, as well as some key sights, including the Colombo National Museum and the Viharamahadevi Park across it.

Colombo’s skyline is slowly transforming as skyscrapers are being built in an area facing the Galle Face Green.
The Colombo National Museum in the Cinnamon Gardens district is Sri Lanka’s largest museum. The museum contains a number of key artifacts provides glimpses of the country’s history.
The Viharamahadevi Park across the Colombo National Museum is a sprawling space of trees and grass in the city. It is Colombo’s largest and oldest park.
Numerous street vendors in Colombo sell cheap packed lunch, including rice with curries, and samosas.

Later in the afternoon, a few hours before heading to the airport, C and I go further south to Barefoot. It’s a quaint shop selling locally designed and produced clothes, as well as other items such as scarves, souvenirs, and books. After browsing the shop, we sit at the cafe and order some refreshments. Jazz music plays from the sound system, while the electric fan blows air as a silent buzz fills the air.

Minutes later, exhausted and feeling humid, we return to the highway, hail a bus, and ride all the way to the hotel to freshen up and prepare for the ride to the airport.

(Postscript: One of the SD cards that I used for the trip was corrupted, so I can’t retrieve some of the pictures I took from Galle and Colombo. That’s the equivalent of about half a day of shots, which include more photos of the Galle Lighthouse and the Flag Rock, as well as photos from the train ride going back to Colombo, and night scenes at the Galle Face Green.)

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