JETSETTER

Colombo’s Very Quiet Charm

For the jaded tourist, Sri Lanka’s largest city is filled with history and novel experiences

Like immigration queues and flight delays, one constant for air travellers at any airport is the duty free shopping with its usual array of candy, cosmetics and alcohol.

But at Colombo airport, it’s duty free with a twist – there are washing machines, refrigerators and flatscreen TVs for sale. A lot of them. Plus ovens and vacuum cleaners. Even a sewing machine.

Welcome to Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport, where Mustafa meets passport control.

Don’t leave your mouth open for too long though. Due to a spending limit on arriving tourists, only certain returning Sri Lankans are allowed to choose from the extensive range of electrical appliances and electronics.

But one thing foreigners like Singaporeans are entitled to is the excellent currency exchange rate.

Change your Sing dollar for the Sri Lankan rupee at Colombo airport instead of at home and you could save up to 7%. Just remember to keep the receipt for verification when changing back on the way home.

Old world charm
The best way to get around Colombo is to hire a car and driver, who can pick you up from the airport upon arrival.

The 45-minute car ride on the expressway to Colombo town passes mostly green, open spaces with nary a building in sight.

Then you arrive in Colombo city and suddenly, it looks like 1970s Malaysia but with mobile phone shops on every corner.

For older Singaporeans, it may be a nostalgic sight but it is also a reminder that Sri Lanka is home to an ancient civilisation, with a written history that dates back to the 3rd century.

During that time, India’s teardrop – named for the island’s shape and position relative to the subcontinent – was colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, in that order.

Under the rule of that last power (1815-1948), it was called Ceylon. But that colonial name was dropped for Sri Lanka in 1972 when it became a republic.

Today, the only vestiges Sri Lanka appears to share with former British colonies like Singapore and Malaysia are driving on the same side of the road and the use of the English language.

One of the factors that stymied development was the civil war waged by the Tamil Tigers, who were seeking independence from the Sinhalese majority.

That conflict only ended in 2009 and since then, Colombo is slowly changing. The evidence? Sidewalks being built where there was once gravel, and trendy restaurants and cafes sprouting up everywhere.

It bodes well for a city with a reputation for being fairly safe, where the crime rate is low and the people gentle and mild-mannered.

Although that last bit cannot be said apparently of some tuk tuk drivers, even if their three-wheelers now have meters. Calling for a taxi or Uber is a more reliable option.

City sights  
The odd Hindu temple and Christian church will be sighted in Colombo but Sri Lanka is an overwhelmingly Buddhist society, with statues of Buddha in all sizes and poses all over.

Then again, there seems to be statues of almost everyone everywhere in Colombo. The non-religious figures include those of former prime ministers, politicians and British governors.

There are also striking buildings, like the imposing Independence Memorial Hall that commemorates the country’s independence from Britain.

Its elevated position at one end of the serene Independence Avenue is not only a great place to catch a cool breeze but also couples posing for wedding photos.

Then there is the Colombo Racecourse, with its grandstand neatly incorporated into the beautifully designed 120-year-old three-storey building.

Originally a venue for horse racing, it was converted into an airstrip during World War II and is a shopping complex today.

And if you’re a fan of meaty Sri Lankan crabs and happen to visit the Ministry of Crab restaurant, stop gnawing a giant claw long enough to admire the elegant building it is in.

The Dutch built this long, low structure with its twin courtyards as a hospital more than 300 years ago. It has since become part of a shopping precinct.

Architectural wonder 
The colonial powers may have left their mark on Colombo’s buildings but it was Geoffrey Bawa who is most closely associated with Sri Lankan architecture.

From the late 1950s onwards, he embodied Tropical Modernism. If you think that means a modern building designed for the tropics, you’re not completely wrong. Because if you visit Bawa’s home and office in Colombo, you will find them well-ventilated with open doorways and courtyards.

But the word “modern’’ is subjective, especially in the case of Bawa’s residence.

Called Number 11 for its address, the edifice sits unpretentiously at the end of a cul de sac in an upmarket district. A guided tour is available, as are two hotel rooms.

The “house’’ actually consists of four small bungalows, which Bawa slowly amalgamated over the years – including the little lane which ran alongside them – into one big unit with numerous small and somewhat haphazardly placed rooms, plus the rebuilt four-storey tower facade.

The eclectic furniture, personal items and the stories behind them are more intriguing though.

Bawa’s former office nearby is not as personal and slightly less dated, if only because it has been turned into a big restaurant.

Called the Gallery Cafe, it features a gift shop, an expansive seating area and two inviting courtyards.

Unfortunately, the ambience is better than the menu, which has local and western dishes.

And oh, as a stark reminder that this was built a really long time ago, there are only two toilets – one for each gender.

The 4 H’s
Apart from the slow pace of life, Colombo may also thrill first-time visitors with some of its quirks. These can be conveniently called the four H’s.

Honking 
Travelling on Colombo roads may be a deafening experience because of all that honking. But this is less noise pollution than high-level automotive communication.

For example, if someone horns you from behind, there are two possible reasons.

One could be a sign of impatience because your driver is going too slowly, especially if the honking is sustained.

But if it is just a short burst, it could be polite notice of an impending overtaking manoeuvre.

And if the honking emanates from an oncoming car, it is usually a greeting. Unless your driver has dozed off and the frantic honking is a warning that he’s drifting into the other guy’s lane.

Hotels
It may be a blatantly empty boast or the manifestation of a secret fantasy but for some strange reason, a few Sri Lankan eateries call themselves hotels. So you could see a food shop with a sign above the door that reads “Manoj Hotel & Bakery’’.

There may well be a Manoj standing behind the counter, and there will definitely be some bread on the shelves but there are no rooms at the inn because this place is no inn.

Rather, cooked food is sold, with the dishes on display at the front of the shop, and tables and chairs at the back. In other words, a Sri Lankan kopitiam.

Hoppers
If you like dosai, you will love hoppers. But there are two distinct differences.

Both are thin pancakes but dosai is made from gram or bean flour, while hoppers use rice batter.

And while a dosai is flat, a hopper is bowl shaped, with crisper sides and a softer, thicker centre.

The name hopper is actually an anglicised version of appam and it is an alternative to boiled rice, eaten with vegetable and/or meat curry, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

For variety, there are plain hoppers, milk hoppers, egg hoppers (with a steamed egg in the centre) and string hoppers.

Ordering one will not make your server hop to it though.

Holidays
Not happy with the measly number of public holidays in your country? Then move to Sri Lanka, where at least one is guaranteed every month on full moon day – in addition to the other festive and national holidays.

In Buddhist Sri Lanka, this part of the lunar phase is most auspicious and is called Full Moon Poya Day.

But there’s a catch – there are no parties or werewolves during full moon, and because of Poya’s religious significance, no alcohol either.

Shops can’t sell booze and restaurants won’t serve it, although some hotels may quietly oblige.

In fact, many shops and markets are closed on this day.

For a wino at least, it’s no holiday.

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