Candles in the sun in Colombo

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Asia » Sri Lanka » Western Province » Colombo
March 24th 2017
Published: December 21st 2017
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Today we were travelling north-west from Mirissa to Colombo.

We woke early at 5:30am and caught up on our travel writing before heading down to breakfast. The food was good – the hotel staff must have noted our absence at meals. I had an egg roti, freshly cooked omelette, freshly squeezed juice and tea. After breakfast we organised our packs, checked out of Hotel Silan Mo, jumped into the minibus and hit the express highway for Colombo.

We entered the outer suburbs (or “outer skirts” as our guide suggested) of Colombo about 11:30pm, and after spending 30 minutes in heavily congested traffic we arrived at the Independence Memorial Hall. We loved the calm atmosphere of this open air monument to Sri Lanka’s independence the first time we visited Colombo two weeks ago, and the feeling remained the same on our second visit. We drove around Cinnamon Gardens, passing the Australian High Commission, Kala Pola Art Market, Old Town Hall, Viharamahadevi Park and Sri Lanka Cricket (SSC).

Our time was limited and the traffic was heavy, so we headed to the Dutch Burgher Union for lunch. We sat at a long table in the members area and picked our way through an ordinary lamprais rice, which is basically a ‘packet’ of rice, chicken, seeni sambol (caramalised onion relish), blachan (fried shrimp and onions), brinjal moju (fried eggplant pickle) and Sri Lankan cutlets (spicy fish croquettes), all of which is wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf. The dish was lukewarm, dry and not very appetising. We finished the meal with chocolate biscuit pudding, which was also dry and unappetising.

We finished our disappointing Burgher meal, jumped into a minibus and negotiated the heavy afternoon traffic on our way to ZMAX Fairway, our hotel for the next two nights. The hotel was centrally located in Colombo’s old Fort area, and the rooms were fantastic. We checked in, dropped our packs and headed out on a whirlwind tour of the Pettah Bazaar. Pettah’s streets were narrow and heaving – jam-packed with cars, motor bikes, three-wheelers (motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin, also called tri-shaws or tuk-tuks) and hundreds of people. There were times I thought my feet were going to be crushed under the wheels of a car, and on more than one occasion I had to push myself against a wall to avoid a passing truck. Each street was themed with a particular range of products (e.g. electrical items, stationery, building materials etc.), and it was madness trying to make our way through the Friday afternoon mayhem.

We finished our whirlwind Pettah tour and headed back to the hotel. We had an early booking at the Ministry of Crab, so we need to freshen up. This high profile eatery is owned by two former captains of Sri Lanka’s cricket team, and it is ranked in Asia’s top 50 restaurants. A number of people had suggested this as an essential place to eat in Colombo, so were looking forward to it. Such is the restaurant’s popularity, we could only manage a 5-7pm sitting on a Friday night, because we had only booked a week in advance.

We settled at our table, donned our small black bibs and shared an extra-large (1kg) pepper crab. It is a meticulous business to break open a large crab, and we slowly made our way through the claws, legs and body. The crab was sensational, as was the pepper stock it was cooked in, which we soaked up with the restaurant’s popular kade (traditional village bakery) bread. We also shared a clay pot prawn curry, and by the end of the meal we were completely full. Well, almost… Ren can never say no to dessert, so we shared a chocolate biscuit pudding and a coffee jelly. Both were exceptional.

We staggered out of the restaurant, walked a short distance (just beyond our hotel) and chanced upon The Steuart, a Scottish-themed hotel with happy hour cocktails and beers. We settled on comfy lounges in the lobby and relaxed into the evening, bidding farewell to a number of companions we’d been travelling with over the past two weeks. As the night wore on, we decided to make our way back to the hotel, stopping at Champs Bar and Grill (our hotel’s bar) for a number of drinks on the way. We eventually made it back to our room around 1am. It had been a fantastic night, and a fantastic end to our food tour of Sri Lanka. We’d shared the trip with great friends, and it was sad to say goodbye. We were also happy to be back in Colombo – we’d become familiar with this city under construction, and the longer we spent here, the more we loved the place. A street dance party was raging outside our window, and the ‘doof doof’ music was set to continue for a while. However, it mattered little. We crashed at 1:30am, and despite the hotel’s foundations shaking with the bass-driven music, we were asleep within minutes.

We woke late, pottered in our room for an hour or so and eventually headed out to breakfast at 9:30am. We found a small cafe (Heladiv Tea Club) over the road in the Old Dutch Hospital courtyard. I ordered fresh passionfruit juice, toast and jam and tea, while Ren had fresh watermelon juice, eggs benedict and tea. It was a great breakfast in a great setting, although the power was continually going off in the cafe, and the waiter was struggling to know what to do.

We walked to Cargills Main Store to pick up some snacks, and this beautiful old building seemed to be terribly under-utilised. It is a shame to see heritage buildings crumbling under the weight of new construction. We wandered around Colombo’s old Fort area, passing the Clock Tower, Central Point (where we photographed the tallest chandelier in Asia) and the President’s House. We slipped in and out of Laksala (a large and slightly stuffy government-run souvenir chain with shops scattered across the country), picked up a few bracelets at Barefoot (an alluring and very colourful designer store) and continually found ourselves drawn back to the Old Dutch Hospital, which was directly opposite our hotel.

We walked into t-Lounge for lunch, and this was a real find – a modern Sri Lankan take on cafe food. We started with a complimentary iced green tea and orange juice, which was fantastic. I ordered the Sri Lankan classic taco (tuna ambul thial, fiery pol sambol, local brinjal pickle with raita and lime). It was fantastic! Ren had the spicy chicken crepe (spiced rubbed strips of chicken breast infused with Dilmah camomile tea, served with spinach leaves and pol sambol in a crepe). It was OK, but my Sri Lankan tacos won hands down. The main attraction of the t-Lounge was the pulled tea they offered – we’d been looking for this everywhere since arriving in the country, and finally we’d found it. We selected a strong breakfast blend, and it was fantastic.

After lunch we wandered back to the hotel and relaxed in our room. Ren caught up on some sleep while I caught up on my writing. As the evening descended we headed down to the hotel’s lobby to meet up with a few travel companions for pre-dinner drinks. The ‘Colombo Street Food Festival’ was in full swing on the street outside our hotel (Hospital Street), with a vast array of food stalls, clowns and live music on offer – we couldn’t believe our luck! We picked up some drinks from the local wine store and headed to a friend’s room, as he had a largish balcony which overlooked the festival. We sat back and enjoyed the sound and smell of kottu roti (roti chopped up and stir fried with eggs and vegetables), hoppers (thin crispy rice flour and coconut crepes cooked in a mini-wok) and grilled meats wafting through the air. As the night wore on the music got louder, to the point where we could barely hear ourselves speak. We took turns venturing down into the street to pick up boxes of freshly cooked egg hoppers, returning to the balcony to eat them in the company of friends. A bottle of rum appeared when the beer ran out, which we mixed with sweet ginger beer. The live band became progressively louder throughout the evening, and their swan song was Guns n Roses’ Sweet Child of Mine – the crowd (a 50/50 split of locals and tourists) loved it!

The highlight of the night was when a fire broke out in one of the food stalls directly below us. Black smoke billowed from underneath a hotplate as stallholders ran for their life. However, tourists and locals simply watched on, refusing to give up their highly prized tables. As the smoke thickened, the electricity failed and the street party blacked out. On the bright side, the band cut out halfway through a song. Despite the apparent danger, tourists and locals still refused to give up their seats. A fire extinguisher appeared out of nowhere, the flames were extinguished and power was restored. In normal circumstances, risks would have been assessed and mitigation measures implemented after a fire in a public space. However, as soon as the power was restored, the band started up in full swing and people continued on as if as if nothing had happened…

As the hours passed we said goodbye to friends who were leaving on late flights or preparing for early morning departures. The rum kicked in around 11pm, so we headed to our room and crashed. It had been a relaxing day in Colombo, and we were travelling to Negombo the following day to start the next chapter of our Sri Lankan journey.

I woke at 4:30am and very annoyingly couldn't get back to sleep, so by 5am I decided to catch up on my travel notes. As I sat in bed and wrote, it was lovely watching the dawn sky gradually change colours over Mirissa beach. This was our last day of the Real Food Adventure trip and we would be saying goodbye to the group and our group leader Thila, driver Anil and bus assistant Hemantha when we reached Colombo later in the day.

When we walked down to breakfast, I hadn’t thought I was hungry until I saw the bithara godamba roti (egg roti – a thin flaky roti with an egg filling) and thosai (thin lacy crepes made of lightly fermented black lentils and rice / called dosa in India) with green and red coconut chutneys (thick mixture of ground coconut, tamarind and chilli). Thankfully the breakfast at Silan Mo Hotel was miles better than their dreadful dinner two nights prior. After eating far more than I should have, we left Mirissa around 9am and travelled towards Colombo.

For a while we zigzagged on small back roads that ran alongside small villages, rural farm plots and paddy fields being harvested of their first of two crops for the year. We then drove through low elevation tea plantations and skinny tall rubber plantations dappled in light. We eventually got onto the expressway and passed larger farms and fields, including a large cinnamon plantation. There were a few industrial buildings scattered along the way, but it was odd not to see any houses. All the roads we’d been on in Sri Lanka to-date had always had houses and small shops lining the road, regardless of how remote we’d been.

We finally arrived at Kotte on the outskirts of Colombo where the Parliament sits on an island in a small lake. It’s an eye catching setting, with an avenue of Ceylon ironwood trees lining the street that leads to the complex, some in beautiful bloom with their delicate white and yellow flowers. The Parliament Complex was designed by Geoffery Bawa in his signature tropical modernism style. I quite liked the colonnaded symmetrical collection of buildings which were accessed by a causeway with a drawbridge. The security in the area was predictably high, although I thought the camouflaged army personnel virtually hiding in the bushes was a bit over the top!

We entered the suburbs of Colombo through heavy and noisy Friday afternoon traffic. We drove to the Independence Memorial Hall, which we’d already visited during our last time in Colombo… but given it was one of my favourite spaces in Colombo, I was excited to walk through it again.

After a bit of a pointless trip around the other monuments in the area (and a concentrated effort to drive past the Australian Embassy for reasons I just couldn’t fathom), we eventually got to our lunch stop at the Dutch Burgher Union. We were here for a speciality lamprais rice meal that evolved over time during the Dutch colonisation period. It’s basically a ‘packet’ of rice and curry wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. The packet typically contains rice cooked in meat stock, a meat curry, brinjal moju (fried eggplant pickle), Sri Lankan cutlets (spicy fish croquettes), blachan (a spicy shrimp paste), seeni sambol (caramalised onion relish) and fried ash plantain. I’d only tasted it once and it had been delicious, so I had been looking forward to trying lamprais in Sri Lanka.

However, after a very long wait in the member’s dining room at the Dutch Burgher Union restaurant, the lukewarm packets that arrived weren’t fresh. It tasted like frozen food that had been microwaved, and the dry insipid rice and accompaniments were a bitter disappointment. The chocolate biscuit pudding dessert (a layering of Marie biscuits with what tasted like a chocolate butter icing) looked nice – but it tasted sickly sweet. I left half the pudding untouched… I NEVER leave desserts uneaten.

After such a disappointing lunch, we drove up Galle Road into the Fort district – the historic centre of the city. Our hotel Zmax Fairway was on Hospital Lane, directly behind the Old Dutch Hospital – right in the heart of Fort. We don't normally like big hotels, but this was a very nice and comfortable place with the loveliest sheets and towels. It was a fabulous place to regroup and ready ourselves for the next phase of our travels in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

After we checked in, Thila took some of us on a quick walk around the Pettah district – Colombo’s colourful but chaotic bazaar. The first street we walked down specialised in electrical and electronic goods and carried a bizarrely wide range of stuff from small calculators to large household items. To say the streets were total madness would be an understatement! The pavements were full of wares, so we had to walk on the road while dodging cars, delivery trucks, three-wheelers (motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin, also called tri-shaws or tuk-tuks) and workers carting heavy goods – we also had to navigate the stream of pedestrians coming towards us. We turned into the clothing street which was sadly full of cheap Chinese goods and the occasional blingy saree and fabric shop. The printing and paper street was thankfully a little more sedate.

It was hard to keep up with the hectic, fast paced, hustle and bustle of the streets. The constantly changing smells, sounds and sights were overwhelming to say the least. However, the worst offender was the noise. I just couldn’t get over how loud it was! I kept thinking of the long term effects of working amid the constant din of mechanical noise and bellowing humans, every single day.

We walked to the Dutch Museum set in a classical looking building on a small street, then on to the Jamiul Alfar Red Mosque, which is a revered place for Colombo’s Muslim community. It was Friday prayer time, and there was a steady stream of capped men walking into the mosque. The tall red and white candy striped building was eye-catching and imposing, especially contrasted against the rest of the grey and dusty ramshackled buildings in the little street.

We also stumbled across a couple of small Hindu temples on side lanes. The Pettah area is scattered with temples and mosques, as the traders in the area are predominantly Hindu and Muslim. However, we couldn’t linger… due to a gross mismanagement of time by Thila, we found ourselves in the less than ideal situation of having to seriously rush to get back to the hotel and get ready for dinner that evening.

Debbie and Phil had been kind enough to take on the role of booking a dinner at Ministry of Crab for the group’s last dinner. Considered one of the best restaurants in Sri Lanka and listed in Asia's top 50 restaurants, it gets booked out quickly. We had booked late so had to take the least popular 5-7pm sitting. The restaurant is owned by two prominent Sri Lankan cricketers and led by Chef Dharshan Munidasa who does a brilliant job of showcasing Sri Lanka’s prized lagoon crabs. There was a time when the crabs were so sought after overseas (mainly in Singapore for their chilli crab dish) that it was impossible to access them in Sri Lanka – I’m so glad that’s changed! The meal was amazingly good. Andrew and I shared an XL crab in black pepper sauce, and we also shared a prawn clay pot with Damien. I had a ‘small’ island iced tea, while Andrew had Lion beers. We also shared chocolate biscuit pudding and a coffee jelly. The chocolate biscuit pudding was miles ahead of the one we’d had for lunch, and the coffee jelly with cream was a revelation. I think I will be trying this recipe out at home next summer.

Afterwards we walked around the corner for drinks at Steuarts Bar where Andrew and I shared two-for-one arrack mojitos. They were pleasant enough, but didn't have the same kick as the other arrack cocktails we’d sampled since being in Sri Lanka. We then moved on to Champs Bar attached to our hotel building and had a Ceylon Sailor with arrack and a couple of Mai Tais. Lisa and Steve left early as they had an early flight to the Maldives. So in the end it was just Damien, Debbie, Phil, Jacquie and us. Needless to say it was a very big happy night, even though we were all tucked up in bed by 1:30am (after we ‘walked’ Damien to his room). 😊

There was a Barcadi Street Party in the Old Dutch Hospital courtyard right across the road from our room, and it was loud and thumpy. However, despite thinking that it would keep us up, Andrew reckons I was asleep seconds after my head hit the pillow. When I woke up at 4am to rehydrate, it was all over.

For the first time on the trip we slept until well after 7am, and didn't actually get going until after 9am. We had a full free day in Colombo before we left for Negombo the following day to start our next trip. However, we deliberately hadn’t made any plans, as we wanted to have some quiet down time and just do some walks to get to know the Fort area.

It was Saturday morning and not many places where open, so we settled on the Heladiv Tea Club in the Old Dutch Hospital for breakfast. I ordered the eggs benedict and Andrew had toast with butter and jam. The meals came with passionfruit and watermelon juice and a very welcome pot of English breakfast tea. This was only my second western breakfast of the trip so far…

After that relaxed breakfast we started our explorations at the Old Dutch Hospital complex, seeing as we were already there. Considered the oldest building in the Colombo fort area, it is now a renovated upmarket complex, and hosts a few nice shops, a spa, bars and upmarket restaurants (like the Ministry of Crab). We then meandered around the streets of Fort, particularly Chatham Street and York Street.

We checked out the Central Point building’s multi-storey chandelier (apparently the tallest in Asia) and the Fort Clock Tower, which was once also a lighthouse (it used to sit on one of the fort’s original bastions, but was decommissioned as a lighthouse when the city encroached into the fort and it got swamped by tall city buildings). We also enjoyed walking through old colonial buildings such as the Lloyd’s Buildings, Cargills Main Store building and the Grand Oriental Hotel… which were in varying states of renovation. The day got very hot very quickly, but our hotel was so central that we could keep doubling back for some aircon cool down before heading out again.

We walked around the corner to the Dilmah t-Lounge for lunch. It’s an inviting modern cafe with an experimental tea and fusion menu. The complimentary fruity iced green tea drinks set the bar high. Andrew ordered a Sri Lankan classic taco which was a curious but delectable combination of hard shell taco, tuna ambul thial (hot and sour clay pot curry), pol sambol (shredded coconut with onions, chilli and lime) and brinjal moju (fried eggplant pickle) – many of Andrew’s favourite Sri Lankan flavours in one dish. I couldn’t go past the spicy chicken crepe with camomile tea infused chicken and pol sambol and spinach leaves. I loved this meal. I also loved the t-Lounge’s deliciously frothy pulled tea.

A few of our group hadn’t yet left Colombo, so we met at reception at 6pm and gathered in Damien's first floor room which had a very cool terrace overlooking Hospital Lane. We'd seen the laneway being set up for a street food party through the day, and now we had a bird’s eye view of the crowd and stalls. As we were people-watching there was an alarming electrical fire at the ‘chips on a stick’ stand! It looked like the fryers had overloaded their circuit and the smell of burning plastic was strong. But it was sorted quickly enough (although not in the most work safe way)… and the fryers were used again straight away and the party continued on as if nothing happened!

The music was seriously loud, so we ended up yelling all night, but it was so lovely to have one last drinks catch-up with Debbie, Phil and Jacquie before Jacquie flew back to Australia, and Debbie and Phil started their week long beach break.

After watching all the food stalls from our vantage point, we targeted the Saffron Food hopper stall. For the very reasonable price of 150 rupees (roughly $1.50AUD), we got one egg hopper (thin crispy rice flour and coconut crepes cooked in a mini-wok, with an egg in the centre), two plain hoppers and a very hot katta sambol (salty chilli and lime paste). They were the best hoppers we’d had so far on the trip. Later in the night we ventured out again and tried another hopper stall which added a spicy chicken mix into the egg hopper, but it wasn’t as good as the hoppers from Saffron.

When we crawled into bed at 11:30pm, the live band and DJ were still going strong. I was sure the music and/or the metal thwacking of the kottu roti (roti chopped up and stir fried with eggs and vegetables) guy would keep me awake. However, like the night before, I was out like a light and woke to complete silence around 4:30am.

This had been our last night in Colombo for this stint, and our next visit to the city would signal the start of our journey back home. I’d taken a genuine liking to Colombo, and I can’t really understand why so many tourists detest it so much.

Next we head north to Negombo to start our next trip.


21st December 2017

Excellent article now im educated on a place I've never previously heard before.
21st December 2017

Re: wow
Thanks for your comment. Sri Lanka hasn’t been a popular travel destination until recently, but that’s changing very rapidly :)
21st December 2017

Fireworks for free
Nice entry, lucky you, being able to enjoy fireworks at the restaurant, a great pre-New-year´s party, I must say. Love your photos of food. Merry Christmas to both of you
22nd December 2017

Re: Fireworks for free
Thanks Frank! The food was a big highlight of the trip :) And Merry Christmas to you too xx
1st January 2018

Now thats what I call a fiery curry
Just love the story about the fire at the Street Food festival and no one wanting to give up there seat. If it was good food we wouldn't either, and in fact I think my backpack might be slightly heavier on the next trip as I will need to pack a fire extinguisher. The tuna tacos and egg hoppers look sensational.
2nd January 2018

Re: Now thats what I call a fiery curry
Happy New Year Shelley and Scott! The (non)reaction of the people to the fire baffled us...we were across the lane and I had mentally assessed our evacuation within seconds of the fire starting; and then I began to wonder if maybe we overact to things like fire?! Living in a bushfire prone area would do that to you I suppose :)
2nd January 2018

From tropical sun to winter snow
We are back from our big trip to India and Sri Lanka, and I must say we had the most marvellous time. I must make time to read the blogs I have missed. Our favourite place in Sri Lanka was Jaffna. We warmed to Colombo very much indeed, after a little rough start that wasn't the fault of anyone but ourselves.
3rd January 2018

Re: From tropical sun to winter snow
Thanks for your comment Simon. Jaffna was a highlight for us too. Will you writing about your trip? If you do, I would be interested in reading it :)
6th January 2018

Life is a journey Life is a festive
Love food and love festivals so combining them is great. Seems if the sweet smell of burning plastic cannot stop a a food festival. I would have kept my distance.
6th January 2018

Re: Life is a journey Life is a festive
I definitely wouldn't have valued keeping my seat at a food festival over running from a fire! :) Being at this festival was one of those lucky 'right place, right time' things... but we know people who travel for festivals, even despite the extra crowds
3rd December 2018

Great blog from Colombo.
Looks like you're having a ball. Looking forward to the next episode......and Travelblog still seems to be alive but in need of a bit of TLC! Best wishes from the grey haired nomads
4th December 2018

Re: Great blog from Colombo.
Thanks David! We really did enjoy our time in Colombo... despite the bad rap it gets from many tourists :)

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