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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo World Trade Centre Twin Towers
Travel Dates 1st-3rd and 11th-12th March 2015.
Click on any picture to see a larger version.  

I arrived at Colombo Airport refreshed after a good night’s sleep between flights at Kuala Lumpur KLIA2. The Tune hotel was a vast improvement on its cramped and basic predecessor at the old LCCT terminal. The price is a little higher but there is no longer a requirement to pay extra for basic necessities such as towels and soap. Layout was similar to a standard Ibis hotel but there was one significant omission for an airport hotel: no telephone in the room meant no wake-up call service. I could not rely on the faint alarm on the cheap watch I bought in a Laos market after I left my phone in Luang Prabang. I improvised by leaving the netbook plugged in with an alarm set to be sure I would wake on time for my morning flight.

At the time an Australian dollar equalled 103 Sri Lankan Rupees. I used 100:1 as a rough rule of thumb for price comparisons; thus 1000LKR = AU$10.
The contrast with communist Laos was startling on arrival. The immigration officer hardly looked at my US$35 pre-paid e-visa, then swiftly stamped my passport and cheerfully welcomed me to his country as he handed me a promotional brochure for the Dialog tourist sim card.  

There is a cheap bus from the airport to the centre but it was humid and hot outside so I decided not to try the public transit system this time. I paid 3000 rupees to the taxi arranger in the arrivals area. The car was a clean modern hybrid. 

As we left the driver held his hand out and yelled “300 rupees”. I cannot speak Sinhalese and that seemed to be the extent of his English. As I had paid for the trip in advance I could not see why I should pay more. He repeated the request several times without success then, obviously upset, drove past the on-ramp to the motorway and headed to the coast road. It was one of those serendipity occasions. If he had spoken English I would have asked him to take the back roads and scenic route. Later I discovered the motorway toll was 300 rupees. I enjoyed the interesting ride through the residential suburbs with much of the journey beside the canal. 

The One-Day-International Cricket World Cup was on in Australia at the time, with Sri Lanka a major contender.  Kids playing cricket on improvised pitches was a sight I saw often during the trip.

I discovered that hybrids may be wonderful cars for fuel economy but in Colombo’s heat and humidity his air-conditioner could not cope when we were stopped at intersections. Possibly he had it set that way, because the hybrid cab I took back to the airport two weeks later did not have the same problem.

Finding the City Beds Regent Hotel was difficult and stopping in front of it impossible. The driver spent a lot of time on his phone after I provided the hotel’s number, eventually dropping me around the corner where I was met by the hotel receptionist. I decided quickly I would find a different hotel when I returned before my departure from Sri Lanka. My review is on Booking.com dated March 6th: Comfortable bed, cramped room, typical Sri Lankan en-suite. Ten days later, after experiencing four more Sri Lankan hotels I would probably have been a bit kinder.

Despite the standard of the hotel the location was perfect for my purpose: near the station and close to the centre of town. I spent most of the next two days walking around the district getting a feel for the place. I was between two worlds. Wealth to the west, comparative poverty to the east. 

To the West were Colombo’s own twin towers World Trade Centre, old government buildings and five star hotels. 

On Sunday, when I arrived, the district was uncluttered, quiet and almost empty. It became busier on Monday, populated by business people, politicians and government employees. I started exploring by wandering down to the Old Dutch Hospital shops and restaurants, opposite the World Trade Centre, for a late lunch. 

As I passed the Colombo Hotel en-route I was diverted by an enticing sign to their balcony restaurant for a simple lunch of soup and beer. 

The views were interesting and the breeze six floors up was pleasant. 

This was the Hilton taken from the Colombo Hotel terrace.

A few minutes later I tested the 20x zoom on my Fuji EXR770. Once again I was reminded of the relaxed attitudes to working at heights in Asia. This man was cleaning windows high up on the Hilton, using a safety rope attached to something inside the window.

These people appeared to be making a commercial. I encountered them a couple of times while wandering near the Dutch Hospital.


When I walked East I wandered through the railway station, the markets and the bustling crowded life of the real city.

On Sunday evening I walked down to the Colombo Fort railway station to find out which platform my pre-booked train to Ella would be leaving from the following day. 

Beside the main station entrance was a room prominently displaying a "Tourist Information" sign. I presumed that would be an official rail information desk, similar to those we have at major stations back home. Be warned, if you intend travelling from Colombo Fort. The correct sign should be "Tour Agent".

I waited a while for the man at the desk to become free, as he was finalising some trip details with other customers. He introduced himself as Mr Sampath, answered my question about platforms quickly but then asked if I had a ticket and what my plans were.
Mr Sampath, Colombo Fort Tourist Information Centre

To cut a long story short he eventually sold me a tour. My intentions had been to take trains between Colombo, Ella, Kandy, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and back to Colombo. I had done the research and knew the fares and accommodation prices. But after my Indian experiences I also knew how useful it could be to have a car and English-speaking driver. When he offered accommodation for seven nights (Ella x 2, Kandy, Sigiriya x 2, Anuradhapura x 2), the train back to Colombo plus car and driver for five days for the Ella to Anuradhapura section, negotiated down to LKR98000 I decided to accept. It was a couple of hundred dollars over my budget but simplified the trip a lot. I felt a bit rushed after that when he requested cash in advance; not via credit card. I told him my ATM limit was below that so we settled on half deposit and final payment in Sigiriya. At that point he rushed me into a tuk-tuk which took me to the nearest ATM and back again at breakneck speed.

The reports following this will show that it was not a bad decision, but there were some problems. The first occurred when I returned to the hotel and decided to do some checking. In hindsight I should have spent a bit more time checking the papers I was given and asking more questions about hotel locations. None of the phone numbers on the poorly filled out document I had been given worked. I was a bit stressed about that until I was able to contact his representative late the next day for to be reassured I was not the victim of a scam. I was not a happy camper until then.
In the evening I strolled to a restaurant near the Dutch Hospital and encountered the first of many shrines with very loud amplified recorded prayers and music. 

On Monday I discovered an excellent breakfast restaurant in the foyer of the World Trade Centre Building, almost deserted at that early hour. I needed help to work out the ordering system but eventually enjoyed eggs and some items similar to samosas and good coffee.

After wandering the Dutch Hospital District on Sunday and the railway environs Monday morning I took a tuk tuk to the south to look around away from the tourist centre. 

Later, after my trip to the interior of Sri Lanka, I spent two nights relaxing further south in Mt Lavinia, oddly named for a beach suburb. There is a romantic story behind the name. 

The suburb is named after the Mt Lavinia Hotel, situated on a bluff over the ocean. The hotel was originally built as the Governor's mansion for Sir Thomas Maitland, the British Governor from 1805 until 1811. Among the many greetings for the new Governor when he arrived on the island was a performance by dancing girls. He fell in love with one of the troupe named Lovina, but the differences in their station forced their love to be secret. He built a mansion south of Colombo near her village of Galkissa; close enough to have a 300m long secret tunnel from her home to the wine cellar of the mansion.

Mt Lavinia Hotel Forecourt
Eventually he was recalled from Ceylon to become Governor of Malta. The romantic story claimed his beloved threw herself off a cliff after his departure;  the records show him in a better light as she received a substantial pension from him sufficient to build her own house and live well for the rest of her life.

The Terrace Pool, Mt Lavinia Hotel
The building had a chequered history after that, including being the centre of planning for the conquest of the central Kandy kingdom by the British in 1815; falling into decay for years when London decided not to fund maintenance; a period as an insane asylum; then revival as a luxury hotel for visiting British after the rail line to Colombo passed by the door in 1877. At some stage the building became known as Mount Lavinia, after the governor's lover, and the nearby area became the suburb of that name. In WWII the building was again occupied by the British as a supply base and military hospital. Now, it is again a luxury hotel.

View from the Terrace Bar, Mt Lavinia Hotel
Unfortunately the tariff was above my budget so I stayed nearby in the Sunhill. Instead I enjoyed an over-priced beer on the Terrace for the experience. 

The following were pictures taken while wandering aorund the Mt Lavinia region on foot.

For the night before departure I moved to the Airport City Hub Hotel, near the airport. It was a good choice, inexpensive, pleasant and comfortable.

I flew out via Kuala Lumpur to home next morning uneventfully. I enjoyed the luxury of my Premium flatbed on AirAsia, purchased much earlier at a discount, for the final 8-hour flight.

I had a stroke of luck when I arrived home. I missed the first bus for the connection at Tweed Heads to Pottsville and decided to spend the 40-minute waiting time in the shopping centre. I dropped in at the Optus store and discovered I was due for a free new phone provided I renewed a 2-year contract for their service. My old HTC, left in a Luang Prabang restaurant, became a brand new Samsung S4. A nice end to the trip with no need to contact the travel insurers.

Cheers, Alan

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