Cruising in Colombo

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January 23rd 2016
Published: June 26th 2017
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Geo: 4.1742, 73.5109

We arrived in port very early. When we looked out from our balcony we were surrounded by cranes and container ships. This was not a cruise ship terminal but a working commercial port. We were told that due to taxi regulations no shuttle buses would run until 11am and it was a 20 minute walk to the gate. We had breakfast and then left the ship about 8-30am. There were some stalls set up on the dock and we stopped and each bought a shirt and a little Sri Lankan elephant to add to our collection. There were also some taxi drivers offering tours but when we enquired the charge was $40 for an hour. We then started walking. After about five minute we came across another group of taxis. A couple had negotiated a ride to the gates for $5 and we joined them.

Outside the gates we were immediately accosted by several tuk tuk drivers all offering their services at various prices. We eventually settled on one who offered us an hour for $5 each. He seemed nice enough and though eventually we found that this was just a sweetener we did not regret our choice. He told us he was Lieutenant Ferriera and was an army officer but on holidays he drives his tuk tuk. He promised to take us to all the recommended tourist spots. We then set off to drive in his 3 wheeled tiny tuk tuk which wove in and out of the insane traffic. I had to shut my eyes many times but we didn't hit anything!!

Our first stop was at a beautiful Hindu temple. From the outside it was impressive with tiers of statues. We had to take our shoes off. This was the first time I had been inside a Hindu temple during active worship. It was fascinating. The interior was dimly lit and there were many shrines to various gods all along the walls. Many people were praying before the statues of the gods and offerings of incense and fruit were given. There were the holy men conducting individual ceremonies at several shrines and the chanting filled the building. After about 20 minutes we set out for the second visit.

This was certainly a contrast as we went to the oldest Christian church in Colombo. This is the Dutch Reformed church of Wolvendaal. The interior is very sparse and has dark wood pews. An old man was pointing out the gravestones on the floor and the various symbols which adorn them. There were special pews for the Governor and the Town councillors. It certainly could do with some paint on the outside but it was built in 1749. Leaving there we drove into the city centre, passing by the Parliament building and the Lotus tower, still under construction. We also saw the Galle Face Hotel, the first 5 star hotel in Colombo, where Fletcher had stayed in 1991. We stopped by the sea at a large lighthouse standing sentinel on the shore which was being painted black and white.

From there we headed to yet another place of worship, this time the Gangamaraya Buddhist temple. This was very busy. Our driver told us that today was a festival day and that tonight there would be many celebrations. It was obviously an auspicious day as there were several bridal parties at the temple. The colourful outfits of both the bride and groom and attendants glittered in the sunshine. Again it was shoes off as we explored this large complex. The main "chapel" housed a very large gold-painted sitting Buddha. The walls were colourfully painted with scenes from Buddha's life and there were many other elaborate and highly coloured statues with flowers and fruits in abundance. This is a very wealthy temple. There are several rooms with donated gifts on display. These range from uncut diamonds, to silver and gold statues, various coins and notes and even two vintage cars, a Rolls Royce and a Mercedes. Buddha statues are everywhere. At the back is a bank of stupas and statues rising high above the temple. It was a very busy place with wedding parties, chanting, tourists and various other worshippers all thronging to partake of the lively atmosphere.

Our next stop was at Vihara Maha Devi Park. This was opposite the Large Town Hall building, all in white with a domed roof. We had driven past the beautiful Beira Lake, made by the Dutch, upon the shores of which was another, smaller Buddhist temple, also with wedding parties outside. The park was an oasis of green in the busy city being enjoyed by a flock of egrets on the lawns. The entrance had another golden Buddha, this time seated, and there was also a statue of Vihara Maha Devi. I wasn't quite sure from our guide's explanation whether she was mythical or real.

Then it was off to yet another temple complex, this time in an outer suburb, Kelanyi. Our driver was from this town and insisted that the best temple to see was this one and we would also see the elephants, ready for the evening celebrations. It was about a 30 minute drive to get there. That was an experience in itself as our tuk tuk wove between lanes of traffic, squeezing between buses and cars and narrowly missing motorbikes and pedestrians. The temple grounds were large and under the trees in the park surrounding the buildings were about 8 elephants. They had plenty of palm branches in reach and they were certainly well fed but I was rather concerned to see they were attached to a tree by a short chain around the back leg. I was assured they were well looked after. We went into the main temple area. Here we dutifully gave our shoes to an attendant and then made our way across the stone courtyard to the temple steps. The main discomfort here was that the stones and the surrounding sand were hot on the feet so I moved fairly rapidly.

Inside the main building, which was next to a very large white stupa, was a huge golden reclining Buddha. The walls were completely covered by colourful paintings of the Buddha's life as well as intricate patterns. It was quite dark inside but the beauty of the decoration was easily seen. There were also statues and wall friezes richly patterned. In one room some monks were painting the altar pillars with gold paint in preparation for the evening's festivities. Outside, we walked around the large stupa and marvelled at the tall statues in the courtyard. At the back of the temple building were stone friezes of elephants and an amusing one of small goblin like figures in various poses. One was standing on his head with his bare bum poking out. All around the temple were women sitting in the shade chanting mantras and discussing texts they had in their hands. At the base of one Buddha statue were several offerings of fruit and pots of milk. A blasphemous raven had tipped one over and was greedily drinking the white liquid. A small gazebo housed a statue of an emaciated Buddha which our guide told us represented a time when the Buddha had gone for 7 weeks without food or drink.

We collected our shoes and then returned to the city. The drive back was much longer as the traffic was heavy due to school just finishing at 1-30pm.We were in need of sustenance so we were driven to the Global Hotel where we ordered a local beer, the Sri Lankan specialty of Rice and Curry and used their free WiFi. The food was good. We had our own plate of rice and then the main chicken and prawn curry dishes arrived accompanied by several bowls of vegetables. We happily spent the next hour or so on line and consuming very nice food. Well sated we left there about 3-30 and headed back to the port. It had been a fascinating day. We were dropped off at Gate 3 and having negotiated a reasonable price for the 7 hours we had spent with our guide we walked through the gates and sought the shuttle bus. Not finding it we were told to stand at a certain spot. Fortunately a van with another couple from the ship stopped and picked us up. We didn't regret the $10 it cost us to be dropped back at the ship itself, about 3 kilometres from the gate.

Back on board we freshened up and then went up onto the top deck for a drink and to watch the Sail away. We stayed there for dinner watching the Big Bash semifinal on the large screen. Unfortunately the Strikers couldn't give us a perfect end to a great day.

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