Sri Lanka 11th day - Colombo - Wed 18 Jan 2017

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January 18th 2017
Published: March 1st 2017
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The day started at 7:30 am with a 3+hour jeep ride around Colombo. The hotel had packed us a breakfast to eat somewhere along the way. Nishantha Abeysekara, the owner of 'Colombo by Jeep' collected us at the hotel with one of the earliest versions of the British jeep which was built in 1948. He was particularly proud of his Land Rover series 1, and his fleet contains other similar jeep vehicles. The jeep was “wired” (like the way car thieves steal cars) and started by way of the wire and a key and a starter button. There were no indicators and Nishantha relied on hand signals! Also the wing mirrors were unusable because the windscreen was lowered flat onto the bonnet. Jagath joined us in our jeep. A second jeep carried another family and we drove in convoy.

We started our journey at the new lighthouse in the harbour area. The lighthouse was built in 1952. It has four statues of lions at its base. It is looked after by the Port Authority. As we drove along the port we saw the naval base and the naval academy. I waved to the sailors who were standing guard looking very serious but even they couldn’t repress a grin at this aged jeep and this mad woman tourist waving at them.

We drove past the stupa of the Buddhist monastery. Before passenger flights resumed in Sri Lanka the only mode of transport from overseas was by sea. When ships pulled into the port the first thing that travellers saw was the minaret of the mosque. It seems that in recognition of the multiple religions of the country, it was desired that a Buddhist temple be amongst the first things seen and a monastery was built. So the stupa was erected at a high elevation nearby.

In between two buildings sits the old lighthouse and clock tower which was built in 1857. It was designed by Emily Elizabeth Ward and was then the tallest building in Colombo. The clock was manufactured by the same clockmakers, Dent, who made “Big Ben” in London. It was deactivated in 1952 because its light was obscured by tall buildings in front of it.

Driving round Colombo we were wowed by the old colonial style buildings and learned some more history. The British colonial style seems to have outlived its predecessors, the Portuguese and Dutch styles, but then the Dutch and the Portuguese had only conquered coastal lands. Great Britain occupied the coastal areas of the island (which they called Ceylon) with little difficulty in 1796 as there was a fear that the Dutch would cede the island to the French during the Napoleonic wars. Then in 1798, the king, Sri Rajadhi Rajasinha, died of a fever. He was succeeded by a nephew of Rajadhi Rajasinha, Kannasamy, who was 18 years old when he was crowned. The young king, now named Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, faced a British invasion in 1803 but successfully retaliated.

As a result of the Treaty of Amiens the entire coastal area was under the British East India Company. On 14 February 1815, Kandy was occupied by the British in the second Kandyan War, ending Ceylon's independence. Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, the last native monarch of Sri Lanka, was exiled to India. The Kandyan Convention formally ceded the entire country to the British Empire. Attempts by Sri Lankan noblemen to undermine British power in 1818 during the Uva Rebellion were thwarted by Governor Robert Brownrigg.

On 4 February 1948 the country gained its independence from the British but it was not until 1956 under the prime minister R R Bandaranaike that the island recognised Sinhala as the official language of the country. This was divisive and caused a problem with the Tamil politicians. Mr Bandaranaike was assassinated by an extremist Buddhist monk in 1959. His wife Mrs Bandaranaike was elected in 1960. Ceylon became a republic in 1971 under the name Sri Lanka. By 1983 there were ethnic problems with the Tamil Tigers and there followed 30 years of war. Peace was brokered by the Norwegians in 2002. Then in 2004 came the tsunami in which 46,000 people were killed. In 2008 war broke out again and finally in 2009 the Sri Lankan army took control.

The wars and the tsunami had a devastating effect on Sinhalese tourism as the tourists ignored the country. The tourists are gradually going back to the country. A great effort has been made by the government to be more inclusive of the Tamils.

We drove past a very heavily guarded building - the Central Bank. In 1999 the bank was bombed and 150 people were killed.

The colonial buildings include the original presidential house and the original Cargills and Millers building. In 1844 William Miller and David Sime Cargill commenced trading as a general warehouse, import and wholesale business. The building is painted red. The British wanted the buildings to be painted in red, white and blue colours to imitate the British flag as one looked down the road.

We had coffee in the Grand Oriental Hotel which was opened in 1875. It still had the wooden wonky floorboards which creaked underfoot. We had coffee overlooking the port. We met the people who were in the other jeep. They were from Pakistan and had flown into the airport arriving at midnight. The guy had then hired a car and driven to Kandy. He was travelling with his parents, wife and sister. He was only doing the jeep trip with his wife and sister.

Then we walked round to the Church of St Peter which was formerly the Dutch governor’s residence. The church had a Calvinist feel - it was unadorned and very plain inside.

Next we drove round to the Post Office building. The Sri Lankan postal service is having the same problems as postal services all round the world - people are sending fewer letters and more emails.

Then a drive along the coast where we saw the pelicans and Nishantha pointed out the new hotels which are being built by the Chinese. There is a Chinese radio station. A key reason that China is investing heavily in Sri Lanka infrastructure is because the island is situated at a key point in the shipping trade route between the west and the east.

We went down Galle Face Green and into Slave island. When the Portuguese invaded they didn’t want to do the mundane jobs and imported slaves from Africa. The slaves lived with their masters. One day a slave killed his master and so all of the slaves were moved into one area which became known as Slave Island. Now the Slave Island area is trendy.

A war memorial commemorates the Japanese attack on Colombo harbour in April 1942 because Ceylon was a British colony.

Then we drove past the modern public library which is a bit of a white elephant as it is rarely used.

Next on to Viharamahadevi Park formerly known as Victoria Park where there is a statue to Queen Victoria.

Our next stop was Independence Square. Before a parliament building was built, the Independence Commemoration Hall (1948) was used for formal public assemblies. Don and Caroline climbed the steps to walk around Independence Commemoration Hall and see the back side of the statue of D S Senanayake who was the first prime minister after independence. A pair of flags of Sri Lanka wave around his statue.

Then back in the jeep to drive past what used to be the mental hospital. This was renovated and now is an arcade of restaurants and boutiques and a night club called Asylum. (This just shows that P.C. is not everywhere.)

Then we drove into the grounds of the Anglican cathedral. There was white bunting around which indicated a funeral.

Then we took a trip to a dirt road and went through a gate past a fruit juice stall. We ordered our drinks and drove down a path along the river which got progressively narrower and overgrown. This is the Bellanwila Attidya Sanctuary - a bird and wildlife sanctuary. As we were driving along we came across a Water Monitor lizard which was quite large. We watched him until he disappeared into some bushes.

On the other bank of the river we watched a fisherman catching cuttle fish. Nishantha told us that people dumped large fish into the river. These fish were used by people with home aquaria to clean them but when they get too big the fish get dumped. I am not the best of passengers and as the water was on my side I was rather wary of being dumped into the water. They reassured me that there were only two crocodiles in the river.

Nishantha pointed out various birds: an Indian shag, an Asian open bill, the grey heron, and hiding under a tree, a purple heron. Chirping incessantly was the small beautiful green bee-eater. On the river was the white breasted water hen. Out of nowhere came the fish eagle swooping down to catch a fish.

The river was full of Japanese bind weed. During World War II the British laid down the bindweed and put candles on it. This diverted the Japanese who thought that they were bombing airstrips. It is a never ending job to rid the river of this obnoxious stuff. And whilst driving along the river bank we saw many men trying to weed the river!

After riding some distance, the path narrowed. At this point Nishantha offered to let a passenger drive each jeep. The man of the other group got into the driver's seat of his jeep. I nervously declined on behalf of our group, although Caroline would probably have enjoyed driving, but I wasn't having it, recalling Nishantha's remark about "only two crocodiles in the river."

Then it was a fifty-three point turn and back we went, back to the fruit juice stall where we had mango juice which was delicious. Then we went back to the hotel. At the conclusion of our 'Colombo by Jeep' tour, Nishantha presented us with a nicely assembled printed review of many of the key sights we had visited. Besides being an illustrated memento, it provided us with lots of the detail that he had spoken during the drive and at the interesting points. It was certainly a handy reference for writing up today's blog.

As we hadn’t opened our breakfast we thought that we would have it in the hotel, Far from being vegan it contained all sorts of things that we didn’t want to eat. So we complained to the management and they saw that they had given us the wrong bags. As a result we got a free lunch from the buffet in the dining room. The enormous buffet appeared to have been prepared as part of a wedding feast!

The afternoon was a lazy one. We sat around the pool and I even had a dip! Don swam a few lengths as did Caroline.

At supper time we decided to walk to a vegan hotel somewhere in the middle of town. It was a real adventure walking in the pitch black. We had to cross the main roads and so we crossed with locals who just walked! We walked through the flower market (it was closed) and suddenly we came across a vegan restaurant. We decided to try it. The people were really kind to us. They found us a table in a busy cafe, they helped us to chose the meal and delivered it to our table. The plates were covered with paper bags and the old man clearing tables made sure that our tin cups were clean. The meal was very good and incredibly cheap. Caroline had string hoppers, and Don and I had dhosas.

We walked back to the hotel and on the way encountered a public toilet entrance. Caroline posed by the sign for another picture in her "Loos of the World" series.

We ended our last evening together as a family with another game of Boggle. That daughter of ours was getting further ahead!

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