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Sunday, May 4, 2003
Travel

Spectacular and scintillating, thatís Sri Lanka
M.S. Dhillon

Dancers in the Poya Day parade at Gangaram temple
Dancers in the Poya Day parade at Gangaram temple

THE moment that you land in Colombo, the first thing that strikes you is the strict security that exists at the Negombo airport perimeter, which incidentally is also an air force base. Fortunately, with the recent easing of hostilities between the LTTE and the government forces, due mainly to the peace-keeping efforts by Norwegian diplomats, this is perhaps the last glimpse you get of the armed forces as a tourist.

After three months of living here, I felt that it is safer to live here than in most major cities of India. The drive to Colombo is about 45 minutes at midnight, the time when most flights from India land, and is very similar to the terrain seen in the coastal regions of Goa. Colombo is a pleasant surprise, coming forth as a bustling metropolis, but with a very laid- back attitude. Familiar Asiatic people, similar vehicles and autorickshaws (who will always pleasantly haggle with you, no matter what the distance), but a marked contrast where cleanliness is concerned. The streets are narrower and more winding than Delhi, with not so many high-rise buildings. It is the quaint little houses, usually not more than two-stories high, that catch your eye at first glance.

A view of the Gangaram temple
A view of the Gangaram temple

Colombo, which is no longer the capital city, but has a population of about 6.5 lakh, is a diverse ethnic mix, with a predominantly Sinhalese-speaking population; what surprises many is the very visible international population, consisting of tourists and the employees of the multinational companies of various hues who have suddenly discovered Sri Lanka to be an attractive, offshore business destination. Located as an urban sprawl along the western coast of Sri Lanka, the city unfortunately has a rocky coastline, and the only decent sea face is Galle Face Green, a 2 km stretch of passable beach, more famous for the wide boulevard and the grassy walkways along it's entire stretch. Located bang opposite the Downtown area with all it's high-rise hotels, this is a pleasant evening walk with the sea breeze blowing in your face; however this is more reminiscent of the crowded sea faces of Mumbai and other Indian cities, with hawkers and food stalls. The tall twin towers of the local World Trade Center make a pleasant backdrop to the multiple kites being flown by frenzied children, and I noticed, a few adults.

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 Colonial buildings, presently used as commercial establishments in downtown area
Colonial buildings, presently used as commercial establishments in downtown area

If you love clothes, this is the place to come to shop; the Indian rupee actually doubles and the clothes are dirt cheap. Most major international brands have their manufacturing base here, and it is amazing how cheap the Ralph Laurens and the Dockers can be in the local market. In addition to the Galle Road, which is the local version of Sunset Boulevard, or for the Chandigarhians, Sector 17, there are Duplication road, Havelock road and many such small streets which have quaint little boutiques along with multilevel shopping malls, with interspersed specialty restaurants, that serve local fare ranging from devilled fish to hoppers and kottu roti.

For the more international palate, we have the German restaurant with excellent sausage and genuine draft beer, Clancy's for Irish fare (and the engrossing Wednesday Quiz), and the smart little cricket club caf`E9, with mementoes of all players present and past. There are numerous night clubs, and a few casinos to boot! Suffice it to say that if you want to shop and eat, this is where you come to! And then there is pettah! Where the locals will warn you not to venture because of the pickpockets and street urchins, but where anything from anywhere in the world can be obtained; but after much haggling.

 An idol in the March Poya day parade
An idol in the March Poya day parade

A hidden delight for the working class is the many holidays that Sri Lanka has; every full moon day is a holiday, and one such day eight of us piled into a Toyota van (which is surprisingly cheap too) and headed for the nearest beach south of Colombo, called Mount Lavania beach. This is 20 km south of downtown, and the turnoff is not well advertised, and so we missed it the first time around; a quick U turn and a lot of acrimony with the driver who could not understand English, and soon we were at the beach. This stretch of white sand is about 800 metres long, clean and not so choppy. The famous Mount Lavania hotel divides the northern public beach from the private southern beach which is reserved for hotel guests; we wrangled our way into the hotel at the pretext of eating at the famous Sea Cove restaurant, where the sea food is out of this world!

Galle Face beach front
Galle Face beach front.

The sand was white, and the tourists were a sprinkling from all countries, with a significant predominance of Koreans. We were told to wait for the sunset as this is a Mount Lavania specialty. After an hour of wading in the water, followed by a surprisingly excellent cup of local tea, we were treated to one of the prettiest sunsets that I have had the pleasure of witnessing. Mount Lavania Hotel has sea on three sides and as we relaxed on the hotel pool, the vibrant colours of the setting sun were something out of this world. The hotel itself has a lot of old world charm, as it is the former house of the Governor-General, and has antique furniture with huge rooms. The ambience maybe Old world, but the service is definitely ultramodern, with a huge buffet, if you do not want to eat at the sea food restaurant.

On most weekends here, the locals and tourists have an air of heightened expectation, as almost everyone travels! The trick here is to reach the beaches or the resort that you have booked at around early, so that you have enough time for the water sports; the midday sun is a strong deterrent, but mornings and evenings are really pleasant. Bentota beach is 65 km south of Colombo, but the crowded Galle road makes this a 90-minute-journey, through quaint countryside, and at many times the drive is next to the sea.

Galle face green with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background
Galle face green with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the background

The feature that catches ones eye is the number of resorts and pubs, and the host of so called "antique" shops. I have never seen such a wide collection of "old" doors, or cabinets, and in one shop we even noticed some cannon on wheels! The more south you travel, the more signs in German you encounter, laying emphasis on the huge numbers of tourists from Germany and Switzerland that annually visit the area. There are beer houses galore, and schnitzel and sausage is more advertised than curry and hoppers!

The beaches of south-western Sri Lanka are not only picturesque but boast of wide swathes of sand that are white, clean and eye-catching.

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