W1702 – Colonial Colombo

In my last post, W1702 – On safari, I described my visit to a National Park on a birdwatching safari from our first port of call in Sri Lanka, Hambantota.

Overnight we sailed around the coast to our second and final port in Sri Lanka, the capital Colombo. I went up on deck early to watch us sail in, and it was soon clear that this was a very busy and vibrant port, unlike small and sleepy Hambantota the day before:


As so often seems the case, there were plenty of modern tower blocks under construction, although this ‘leaning’ example was rather disconcerting:


As we approached our quay a huge stupa or Buddhist shrine, called Sambodhi Chaithya, dominated the skyline:


Two local residents were unimpressed by our arrival:


The shore tour I had booked in Colombo was a walking tour around the historic and interesting parts of the city, especially the old colonial buildings. Our guide, Mark Forbes, was local but with Scottish and Dutch ancestry, and he was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the city and it’s colonial architecture. He told us that his main profession was as a photographer, and that after photographing the old colonial buildings he started to research their history, and then friends suggested he passed on that knowledge and passion to others by doing the guided walks.

There were around thirty of us on the guided walk, which made for quite a large group to negotiate the narrow and busy streets. Mark was accompanied by a couple of his relatives who helped to shepherd us around and added additional information at times.

We were taken by coach to the Pettah district of the city, where we alighted to begin our guided walk. This district is full of markets and bazaars, with different streets trading different commodities. We began at the food market, full of fruit and vegetables:


Outside the colourful lorries reminded me of nearby India:


Walking up a nearby street there were pastas, spices and dried fish for sale:


Everywhere was very busy and chaotic and you needed eyes in the back of your head, for there were lorries and people everywhere, and heavy trolleys piled high with produce were being pulled by hand through the narrow streets:


Turning a corner we came to the striking Jami-Ul-Alfar Mosque, built in 1909. It was difficult to photograph the whole of this huge and dramatic building:


Nearby was the Sammangodu Sri Kathiravelayutha Swami Temple, a stunning Hindu temple that was even harder to photograph properly:


Passing the clothing market, we came to some shops trading in second-hand luggage. Our guide Mark explained that many locals go to work on the Middle East for a while, and buy luggage here to use, and then sell it back on their return to Colombo. Outside one of the shops was someone selling coconut drinks, which some of our group enjoyed:


We then walked to the location for our mid-walk refreshment stop, the historic Grand Oriental Hotel, passing a couple of reminders of colonial times on the way:


Inside the hotel lobby Mark told us about the history of the hotel, including how it’s opulence was funded by a government grant:


Our refreshments were served on an upper floor, whose balcony provided good views of the harbour including our ship, and of a sculpture of former times in the square below:


Suitably refreshed, we continued our walk past a number of colonial buildings in the area of the city known as Fort, the site of a former Dutch fort. Our guide, Mark, explained that the businesses on this area became badly affected by the frequent suicide bombs during the troubles, and that the military had taken it over and used the buildings for barracks and headquarters. In more recent peaceful times, the Government have instructed the military to restore the buildings, giving the military personnel a chance to learn useful trades for when they leave service, making it a double win situation.


One of the buildings was divided into two banks, and it was very apparent how much or little care each bank took of the outside appearance of their half of the building:


Mark then took us inside a former department store, and showed us the fixtures and fittings still present, such as the wooden flooring, cashier’s desk, lifts, and the vacuum tube system for transferring money. He said there had been negotiations for some time with the Raffles Hotel in Singapore to buy the building and convert it into a hotel – he welcomed that idea as he thought the new owners would do a sympathetic restoration preserving these old features:


Parked nearby was a lovely old car:


We were then shown one of the old buildings yet to be restored, it was still being used as a barracks:


At the end of this road was a former bank, with lovely carved elephant’s heads on the sides of the building:


Across the road was the Presidential Palace:


We were then led past the Old Colombo Lighthouse, which stands in the middle of a roundabout. This was first built as a clock tower in 1857, and the 29m high tower was the tallest structure in Colombo at that time. The light added a few years later in 1867, but was deactivated in 1952 when the light became obscured by nearby buildings:


Next we went into the Economic Museum, where we saw various banknotes and coins on display, including some of the latter in the shape of fish hooks. The building was one of those that was occupied by the military, and Mark told us that under the traditional military rules ‘if it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t, paint it’ the inside was then completely covered in paint. Following a complete restoration by the military personnel, the original marble and wooden features can once more be enjoyed. The building also features the tallest chandelier in Asia


Our guide Mark then led us to our final stop, the former Dutch hospital, which has now been converted into bars, restaurants and shops as a tourist destination. Here we were given half an hour’s free time to buy ourselves a drink, or shop as we liked. I went walkabout in the area around and about for a while, and found this lovely old building on one side, and these huge reminders of plain modern architecture in the other:


We then had a short walk to our coach, and as I crossed a busy road I grabbed this picture showing the big contrast to be seen in Colombo – the old tuk-tuks and Lighthouse against the modern cars and tower blocks:


I returned to the ship hot and tired, but very content after such an interesting tour from such a knowledgeable and interesting local guide. We remained in port until 11pm that night, but I remained on board in it’s cool air-conditioning during this time.

Postscript: The late departure from Colombo meant that the evening show could once again be a show put on by local musicians and dancers. Some very loud drummers and dramatic male dancers alternated with more graceful dancers of both genders. One dance in particular both Carol and I absolutely loved, in which the dancers cleverly imitated peacocks with both their costumes and their movements:


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