After two days of cruising the Indian Ocean, we arrived in Sri Lanka. We had never been here before, so we were looking forward to visiting a new area. We were in Colombo, which is the largest city in Sri Lanka (which is an island off the southeastern tip of India.) Colombo has a population of 2.2 million people made up of four major religions – Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. While it is not the political capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo is the commercial capital due to its large harbor and position along the East-West sea trade routes. The British captured Colombo in 1796 and held it until 1948 when Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) gained its independence. Much of the architecture today reflects that period of colonization. But it is a city of both colonial and modern influence as well as many religious icons. There is a vibrant diversity of cultures here.
We were docked at a cargo pier which was not very attractive. However, the ship had arranged for this grand creature to greet us – from a land of many elephants. The ship always makes sure that whenever live animals are used, they are from reputable owners who take good care of them. Local music and dancers performed as we arrived, so it was a very nice welcoming. It’s always fun to see the local instruments and costumes.
We were only here until 3 p.m. and we had a five hour tour which showed us the contrasts of Colombo. Because we were here on a Sunday, the normally congested streets were relatively empty – especially in the early morning hours. When we drove through the city, many of the shops had not yet opened. Throughout the day, we saw lots of policemen all around the city. And throughout the entire day almost everyone we saw on the streets waved to us – a very friendly people. Our guide explained that many shop owners light oil in a coconut shell before opening their shop to ward off the “evil eye.” That is what this man is doing.
Some of the sights we saw were this 100 year old clock tower and part of the Pettah Bazaar area. The latter is a maze of streets with big colorful markets where each street has its specialty. And in this area is Jami ul Alfar, one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. This red and white brick Pettah District mosque looks like a candy cane. You have to look on the right side of the street to see it – all nestled in with the other buildings.
In the more modern downtown area, the streets are cleaned every day. The mayor wants his city to really look attractive and good to attract tourism. And in comparison to some of the other parts of the city we saw, the main, wide avenues were very clean and neat.
This was one of the more unusual structures we saw. It is a Buddhist temple with little windows all around the bottom of it – each with a Buddha statue in it. This is across from the building with the golden Buddha statue. And around this building is a row of elephants, which are honored here.
We passed the old parliament building which had a sign on the front gate that said “High Security Zone – photography and video recording completely prohibited.” I’m not sure why, but it didn’t seem to be an issue taking the pictures from the bus.
In the middle of the city is a huge lake – Beira Lake. There were different kinds of water birds on and around it. As we drove on, we passed the Prime Minister’s house with very high security surrounding it. The American Embassy was across the street, but I was unable to get a picture of it. Actually, it was hard to get very good pictures from the bus because of the glare on the windows.
Volleyball is the national sport here. The Ironwood Tree is the national tree with these red “lip” flowers. If you look closely, they actually do look like lips. We passed this Buddha statue made of granite and stands on a lotus blossom and is 42 feet high. The hand is facing up which means “don’t’ be afraid.” And here is another very interesting and unique building. It is the Bandaranayake Memorial International Conference Hall and was an outright gift to Sri Lanka from the people of China. Our tour was aptly named because we have seen so many contrasts, especially in the architecture.
We finally made our first stop – the National Museum of Colombo. It was a beautiful white colonial building. Inside were many rooms with exhibits. Our guide was not very knowledgeable about what we were seeing, so mainly told us about the maps on the wall! However, we had about 40 minutes to explore and try to read the descriptions to understand what we were seeing. There were many beautiful statues, etc. but the one thing I found the most interesting were this. In a million years, I would have never guessed what it was – the most ornate urinal ever! As we were leaving I saw this statue of our favorite Hindu god – Ganeshe. This stone carving was done in the 12th century. You can even see the mouse he rode on in the front.
After the museum we went to the Gangarama Temple. It is hard to even begin to describe this temple. It is in complete contrast to the normally austere atmosphere of a Buddhist temple. It was like a museum/temple/school with everything in it (including the “kitchen sink.”) We had to take off our shoes to walk through this labyrinth of rooms. Here are just some samples of what we saw.
After this we went for a snack at the Galle Face Hotel which was built in 1864. It is a landmark, occupying a premium location in the heart of the city, overlooking the Indian Ocean. Its distinctly Asian architecture, swaying palms and soaring interior spaces remind you of the gracious elegance of the colonial era. We are in the back of the hotel in a huge grassy courtyard with the ocean in front of us. The huge white dining hall is where we had our snack of finger sandwiches (with the crust cut off!), and a fruitcake which was amazingly good. And of course it was served with Ceylon tea – the specialty of Sri Lanka.
After lunch before we boarded our bus, we saw a snake charmer across the street. You could have your picture taken with one if you want. You notice I don’t have a picture like that to share! In the background you can also see these little hut like stands. They go all along the beach and are “food cabins” which are like our street vendors. The city is very strict with these and make inspections at least once a day to make sure the food is fresh and cooked on location.
While we were waiting for everyone to get back on the bus, we saw this man selling kites – you will be able to see this kite again – in our house! We also saw a family of four put on bike helmets and get on a regular motorcycle – their mode of transportation. The majority of the people here are very poor and this is all they can afford.
As we drove back to the ship, I was struck by the contrasts I had seen today in this city – the rich and the poor, the elegant and shabby – the real contrasts that this tour was meant to show us. Here are a few summary pictures of this contrast.
the major department store
the store where the locals shop
one part of the city
the more common part of the city
We saw a great variety of things today. It was overwhelming to try to take it all in. It was a hard entry to write and describe because there was so much to see and compare.
Back on the pier, there were lots of little craft stalls which was good because we didn’t have time to shop. So, we picked up a few things that would remind us of Sri Lanka.
On the sail out, I watched us go through the channel markers to get us back out into the open ocean. I spotted this lighthouse from a distance. As we got closer and went right by it, I saw that the lighthouse keeper and his family live on this stone pier jutting out from the shore. And it is not like the lighthouse keepers’ houses I’ve seen on the USA coastlines. It was hard to believe that a family lived here and in such conditions.
We were both physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the day. We were only in Sri Lanka from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. but in some ways it felt like a lifetime.