Sri Lanka – a tear-shaped island in the heart of the Indian Ocean, offers everything for tourists to enjoy with its sandy beaches and sunshine but also culture in spades. World famous for cricket, its ancient ruins, elephants, tea and wildlife – it is also its warm, friendly and fun-loving people which makes this one of the best countries on earth to visit.
The name Colombo, first introduced by the Portuguese in 1505, is derived from the Sinhalese name Kolon thota, meaning port on the river Kelani. It has a long history as a port on ancient east-west trade routes, ruled successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. That heritage is reflected in its spicy cuisine as well as its architecture, mixing colonial buildings with high-rises and shopping malls.
Up until 2009 Sri Lanka had endured 30 years of civil war. It opened to the world just over a decade ago. Just before Covid-19, tourism had peaked to 150,000 visitors. Determined not to be isolated again, Sri Lanka is opening its doors to many more tourists who are starting to discover the charms of this beautiful island nation.
I was fortunate to visit in 2010, just a year after the civil war had ended. During the short flight with national carrier Sri Lankan Airways from Male’ in the Maldives to this tear shaped island just off the coast of India, I spent most of the journey chatting to a friendly ‘English language’ teacher, who was returning home for the weekend. Before I knew it, I had arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport.
After spending four weeks in Male’ – capital of the Maldives where I was employed to work as a travel journalist a few weeks earlier, I was required to visit Sri Lanka for a visa run just a month later and I planned to make the most of my short time there.
I had 24 hours to discover Colombo – the capital of the island nation. For me that adventure began as soon as I touched down, as Bandaranaike is one of the busiest airports in South Asia so it was great to observe the hustle and bustle of the passengers and as Buddhism is the predominant national religion of this country I was greeted by a giant Buddha statue at the airport like a smiling friend.
It was a welcome contrast to the stern stares, hushed tones and domed mosques of the secular capital of the country I had left behind, although the resorts are something quite different. As a result, I was really looking forward to exploring this rainbow nation and its diverse culture. Already almost 30 days without alcohol in a dry Muslim country, I headed straight to the duty-free shop for a bottle of vodka.
As the airport is in a suburb of Colombo called Negombo some 22 miles (35 km) north of the city, transportation is required. Already dark, I flagged down a taxi and soon we were speeding down the highway towards the tropical capital.
Since that first visit of 2010, the journey to Colombo has been vastly improved by a 26-kilometre state of the art airport expressway built ahead of the Heads of Commonwealth meeting in 2013, with a little help from China.
Despite its small size – just 37.31 km², the city offers a varying selection of experiences ranging from taking a tuk tuk ride, a visit to Pettah market, eating Kottu and playing a round of golf and having high tea at one of the colonial style hotels overlooking the Indian Ocean such as the grand Galle Face Hotel.
Colombo itself is a bustling city and a hopping-off point for beaches in the island nation’s south, but there wasn’t time for that on this visit, I just had about time to explore the city, but if you have more time there is plenty to discover in this bejewelled country.
Choosing a hotel – the journey begins
Upon arrival, I selected the Kingsbury hotel right next to the Hilton on recommendation of the taxi driver. I checked in around 1am and slept like a log. The next day I rose early and headed up to the rooftop to enjoy a full English breakfast. From this vantage point I was able to survey my surroundings.
From this rooftop I was able to peruse the English-speaking papers and take in the wonderful views of the beach and sea front of Galle Road.
Located on the Galle Face Road, that lead to the famous Galle Face Hotel, which we will speak about later, this district is a popular tourism spot.
From this vantage point the first thing I saw was the national flag of Sri Lanka flying high over the rooftops. For those not familiar with it, the flag depicts a lion holding a sword in its right forepaw, representing the Sinhalese people and first King. Festooned on a dark maroon background to represent Buddhism, there are four golden leaves – one in each corner represent the Four Noble Truths. The flag is framed by a yellow border that represents Buddhist monk’s community. On the right two vertical stripes in green and saffron represent the Moors and Tamil communities. The Sri Lankan national flag was adopted in 1950. However, there were also several Union Jacks to show the countries long time support of Colonial Britain and the strong friendship that Sri Lankans have with the British today.
After my breakfast I stepped outside and was greeted by sleeping dogs. Now, street dogs are a part of Sri Lankan culture, and the country is home to millions of roaming dogs. Since the war ended in 2009, animal overpopulation was one of the many scars of the conflict period as the country’s money was put into fighting the war, neglecting the upkeep of roads and animal welfare and rehoming. Many are traumatized from the war and tend to keep away from people. Being a dog-lover, I took the opportunity to pet these animals.
Tuk Tuks are the backbone of Sri Lankan transport, and so I commandeered the first tuk-tuk I saw. The driver Josef was happy to provide a whistle stop tour of the city and suburbs of Sri Lanka’s Capital for 3,000 Sri Lankan Rupees – just £14. Josef spoke excellent English and quickly mapped out a half-day itinerary that took in the best that this port city with its rich colonial heritage had to offer.
Since the Western coast is made up of a potpourri of races, religions and cultures, the first places he planned to show me were an Indian temple, a Buddhist place of worship and a church.
Temples and culture
The first stop was the ancient Hindu Temple of Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil. This is the oldest and largest Hindu temple in Colombo, and it is dedicated to the Gods Shiva and Ganesh.
Josef parked up just outside the temple, in a busy district in the heart of the city and I had to step back to appreciate its colossal size. It really was a feast for the eyes with all its colourful monumental towers and elaborate figures of the gods and ornaments. I was so mesmerised as I admired the beauty of this temple that I almost got ran over by a speeding tuk tuk – a very visceral divine intervention.
The next stop was the Gangarama Vihara – one of the most respected Buddhist temples in the country. In keeping with the county’s diversity- the temple’s architecture demonstrates an eclectic blend of Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese influences It is first and foremost a place for Buddhist learning, worship and culture.
This Buddhist temple includes several buildings housing a Pagada, an assembly hall for monks, a residential hall, a three storeyed Pirivena and an alms hall on the premises. Some of the buildings are decorated with wonderful brass work, stone carvings and it is also a place of learning, it houses an educational hall, museum and a library.
The relic room has an eclectic array of Buddhist art including a collection of bejewelled and guilded gifts presented by devotees over the years, including a terracotta army. It even has its own temple elephant called Ganga.
It also effectively takes part in social welfare work including old peoples’ homes, a vocational school and an orphanage. It was built first in the 19th century and started by the famous scholar-monk Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayaka Thera. The temple’s main event takes place in February during the full-moon day of Navam Poya. The annual procession is a show of culture and tradition displayed in colour and pageantry with bejewelled elephants and dancers parading the streets of Colombo.
We stopped for lunch at Beach Wadiya owned by Olwyn Weerasekera and the seafood is so good that it has won international acclaim in newspapers. Located by the railway tracks and off a virgin beach along Galle Face. The restaurant has seen guests from all walks of life -even Royalty. Princess Anne was once a guest along with several members of the Nepalese Royal family. I enjoyed a prawn curry, deviled crabs, crispy cuttlefish, veg and rice. Josef as my guest ate with me and even had leftovers to take home to his family.
After such a busy day zipping around, Josef took me to a the quiet space of Viharamahadevi Park to appreciate some of the beauty of nature. A giant golden statue of Buddha greets guests, sat in a giant water fountain at the northern entrance facing the colonial style Colombo City Hall. This Buddha replaced the statue of Queen Victoria which originally stood there. The park includes a mini zoo, a children’s play and an artificial lake where Muscovy ducks swim. It is said that elephants used for ceremonies sometimes spend the night in the park, chomping on palm branches. You will occasionally see a snake charmer too. The park also has a war memorial, public library and an open air stadium venue for concerts. There used to be a first-class cricket ground in the park. Superb flowering trees bloom with lotus flowers in March, April and early May. Lotus flowers are the national flower of Sri Lanka and Josef opened one out to me to show me its unique beauty.
About the city
Colombo is a city of contrasts with mansions, lush gardens, fine dining options, shopping malls packed with expensive designer brands standing next to urban slums; diesel fumed congested roads and street markets. All of this is still supervised by armed military personnel, a constant reminder that the war is was just 11 years ago and still very much in living memory.
The Galle Face Hotel
We finished off the day with a high tea at the most famous hotel in Sri Lanka -The Galle Face Hotel. Founded in 1864, it is one of the oldest hotels east of Suez. Listed as one of the “1000 Places to See Before You Die” in the book of the same name, it received the “Best Heritage Hotel” title three years running at the Presidential Awards for Travel and Tourism.
There are endless shopping opportunities in Colombo –sleek department stores and cool shopping malls are filled with designer clothing, shoes and handbags, plus handicrafts, home furnishings and more. There are also precious gem stores selling lovely stones of every hue. The markets are excellent, with plenty to choose from and stallholders selling fresh coconuts with staws by the roadside, reminding you that this is a tropical country.
Colombo has a buzzing night life scene, with chill-out bars, casinos if you want to try your hand at roulette or baccarat, or cool clubs where you can party until dawn. There are many English pubs since there is a very pro-British feel. Sri Lankan people are fun loving and there are many house parties and beach gatherings to enjoy with your fellow expatriate buddies and fellow travellers. The White Horse is a great place to hang out with friends before a night out dancing. There are also plenty of rooftop bars to chill rise above it all and chill in the stylish rooftop cocktail lounges and enjoy the ever-growing Colombo skyline.
All clubs have a cover charge of about Rs 500 to 600 (which usually includes one drink). Women usually get in free. The dress code is fashion-conscious but casual; entry is usually restricted to mixed couples and single women. Things get going at about 11pm and continue through to 6am. One of the famous clubs is Tramps.
With my time in Colombo up I hopped back into a taxi to the airport where my journey began and headed back to Male’.
However, if you have more than 24 hours, check out the following cities and their attractions, easily accessible by Sri Lanka’s very sophisticated train network.
Dambulla – cave network of ancient civilisation
A vast network of temples and caves known as the Dambulla cave temple complex is the newest archaeological site of significant historical importance and prove the existence of native civilisations long before the arrival of India on the island. The city has a huge rose quartz mining heritage and is home to the Rangiri Dambulla global Stadium, that was built in just 167 days.
Hikkaduwa – coral reef, surf and sandy beaches
Known as a party resort for Western tourists, visiting Maldivians and Sri Lankans, Hikkaduwa is a little town on the south coast – about 20 km north-west of Galle and reached by the well-known Galle road. It is well-known for its beach and corals with options to surf, snorkel and enjoy the sun.
Despite its natural beauty the western peninsular area of Kalpitiya in the Puttalam area is still relatively unknown to tourists. But for those fortunate enough to visit, there is plenty to see and do.
This close-knit fishing community gives a real taste into working life away from the city. After watching the night fishing boats return in the morning, a visit to one of the fish markets offers the opportunity to buy freshly caught fish. The Dutch Fort and St Peter’s Kerk church in the town itself are stunning examples of Sri Lanka’s rich history and colonial past. Leisurely boat rides up the lagoon and canoe trips down the river are a pleasing way of exploring the coastline, whilst jeep rides along the isolated sand dunes between the ocean and the lagoon offer a unique way of watching the colourful evening sunsets.
Nestled in a hilly region in the centre of the country Kandy is famed for its tea. It is the capital of the central area and Kandy District and its Sinhalese name is Maha Nuvara Senkadagalapura. The Kandy Valley and Kandy is one of the majority scenic cities in Sri Lanka and is sacred. It is the capital of the central area and also of the administrative district of Kandy.
This is the second oldest of Sri Lanka’s kingdoms, Polonnaruwa was first stated the capital city by King Vijayabahu I, who beaten the Chola invaders in 1070 CE to unify the country under a local leader.
Sigiriya – or Lion’s rock is an ancient rock stronghold and castle ruin located in the central Matale District of Sri Lanka. It is enclosed by a network of ancient gardens, reservoirs, cave frescos and other structures. The Sigiriya was built during the control of King Kassapa I from AD 477 – 495, and it is one of the seven World Heritage Sites of Sri Lanka.
Wilpattu National Park
A unique feature of this park is its 60 plus natural lakes, (willu), sand-rimmed water basins or depressions that fill with rainwater. Situated in the northwest coast plain of Sri Lanka which is dry, the park is around 180 km north of Colombo. At its highest peak Wilpattu is 152 meters above sea level and the park spans 131, 693 hectares. The park is world famous for its Leopard population.
Anuradhapura is well-known for its well-preserved ruins of ancient Lankan people. From the 4th century BC, it was the capital of Sri Lanka until the start of the 11th century AD. During this period, it remained one of the most steady and durable centres of political power and city life in South Asia. This olden city, considered blessed to the Buddhist world, is today surrounded by monasteries covering an area of 40 km². Anuradhapura is also significant in Hindu legend as the fabled capital of the Asura King Ravana in the Ramayana.
Arugam Bay lies 320 km due east of Colombo. It is a well-liked surfing and tourism attraction for low budget tourists although much has yet to be done for the local community.
This coastal city is well-known for golden beaches and can be found in the Galle District of the Southern Province. The town is popular among foreign tourists. The name comes from a mythological story about a demon called Bem who ruled the river bank.. Bentota is a centre for Ayurveda healing and is famous for its making in Toddy – an alcoholic drink of fermented coconut milk.
Beruwela is a small resort town in the south western coastal girdle of Sri Lanka. It marks the spot for the first Arab traders who settled in the island around 8th century AD. Msjid-ul-Abrar, a landmark of Beruwela and Sri Lanka’s oldest mosque, was built on a gravel peninsula overlooking the town.
Bundala National Park
Situated about fifteen km east of Hambantota Bundala National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s leading destinations for birdwatchers. It is a coastal marshland well-known for its plentiful sea and birdlife. The park is also home to large populations of elephants, marshland, estuarine crocodiles and turtles. It is also the home of the leopard. Stretching along the coast east of Hambantota, During a four hour jeep ride you can see elephants, crocs, giant squirrels and flamingos. Afternoon safaris from December to May provide visitors with the best possibility of seeing wildlife.
Mount Lavinia is one of Colombo’s more laidback suburbs, filled with great seafood restaurants on the golden beach and is named after the gypsy dancing girl who had a secret romance with one of Sri Lanka’s governors. A visit to Sri Lanka is not complete without eating some Kothu Rotti. The quintessential Sri Lankan snack consists of sliced-up bits of rotti, expertly blended with your choice of chicken, beef, egg, onions, tomatoes and green chillies.
How to get there
UK to Sri Lanka: 13 h 35 min flight.
Male to Sri Lanka: 30 mins
Emirates, Sri Lankan Airlines, British Airways, Qatar Airways.
Mihin Lanka operates to various destinations in the Indian Sub-continent, Middle East and South East Asia.
Donna Richardson is an international travel, aviation, and business journalist and public relations consultant. Donna lived and worked in the Maldives and her insightful work in profiling the unique culture of the islands, its resorts and independent travel network has appeared in Wanderlust, MSN travel as well as Travel Mag and Go Nomad.
Donna can be contacted on [email protected]