Contact us

Sri Lanka 1

Last week was the official post-Ramadan “Eid-al-Fitr” holiday, and I had 3 days off. A couple of days before the end of Ramadan the King (God bless him) announced a further two days holiday for all, so I was able to take a full week off. Having already booked my flights to Sri Lanka, I looked at what options there were for extending, and found that the additional days actually gave me a slightly cheaper deal! On the way out I flew with Emirates via Dubai, and they kindly gave me a free upgrade to Business class when boarding the second leg from DXB to Colombo. How nice.

Entry into the country was straightforward. I’d had to apply on-line in advance for an electronic visa and this had been issued without fuss. On the ground a landing card was required and then the visa was issued. Many airports now allow access through to Customs via the duty free shops, and Colombo is one of these. But here I saw something I’d never seen on sale before at duty free outlets – washing machines. Why? Surely you can’t buy one and take it on board a plane and stuff it into the overhead locker. So presumably they are for arriving people to buy, and so must be cheaper than local stores. But how bizarre.


Duty free shop at Colombo Airport 

I extracted some money from an ATM (not to buy large domestic appliances) and my rule of thumb about telling the state of the country by its currency looked promising. The notes were interesting and reasonably clean. There are about 175 SL Rupees to the pound, and the notes are tri-lingual in Sinhalese, Tamil and English. Outside the airport taxis and tuk-tuk drivers jostled for my custom, but I had done my homework and headed for the express airport bus. At 120 rupees (70p) this was a bargain and saved 90% of the price of a taxi.

Prior to travelling I had looked at hotel booking sites and found one in central Colombo that got a good “Trip Advisor” rating but looked too cheap to be credible. So I went there first to inspect it, and found it to be basic but comfortable and clean. As I wasn’t there for sunshine and swimming pools (we have them in Saudi) all I was looking for was a base for exploring as much of the country as possible. So I checked in.

Colombo was a historic port city and is the current capital but it wasn’t anything special. Galle Face Green is a very nice park area facing the sea, and this is mostly grassland. It reminded me of a Scottish links such as Portobello (Edinburgh) or Low Green (Ayr), however there were no gowfers or dog-walkers in evidence. A pleasant walk, but not great at midday or early afternoon when the weather is quite humid. The city has an eclectic mix of architecture, interspersed with Hindu, Bhuddist, Christian and Muslim holy buildings. There are a lot of cricket grounds in SL, and there were quite often ad-hoc games of street cricket on the go too. The modern capital administrative area is five miles or so inland in the Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte district and has some nice modern buildings with the Parliament in a pretty lakeside setting. This is probably the cleanest and most orderly area of the island.

There is hardly any high rise building so Colombo is a sprawling urban area with horrendous traffic during the peaks. Unlike KSA the traffic is mostly law abiding, just dense and noisy. There is one very tall tower building under construction, the Lotus Tower, and it looks to be one of those vanity projects that will provide a viewing gallery and not much else. A much smaller tower in the Fort area is the combined (former) lighthouse / town clock, and it bears a plaque proclaiming it to be the only lighthouse-clock in the world, although the light function was discontinued in 1952.

 wp_20170630_16_06_12_pro.jpg The lighthouse / clock

Colombo has a deep natural harbour, and over the centuries has been an important centre of Asian sea trading. The island has been colonised by Europeans including the Portuguese, the Dutch and finally the British. It was part of our empire in 1948, and known as Ceylon, retaining that name until 1972.

I used Colombo as a base for five nights and spent two in Kandy (more anon). From Colombo I did some day tours by train. SL has a rail system that connects all the main cities and most corners of the island. The track is Indian broad gauge and the operating practise is British 1880s, with mostly single track and crossing loops regulated by the issuance of tablets from Tyers electric token machines. Stations have lower quadrant semaphores, although colour light signalling is spreading out from Colombo on some routes. The rolling stock is of varied composition, and first, second and third class carriages are offered. Most longer distance trains are loco hauled, and diesels imported from 3 continents (and some as venerable as 1950s build) are in daily service. Ticket computerisation is in its infancy and Edmunson type cardboard tickets are standard. Track quality is variable and there were a couple of stretches where the cyclic top was very pronounced. All very interesting. If anyone wants further details on the railways please let me know.

I had a day out to Jaffna, the city at the north of the island. This is in the Tamil controlled part of the island, and until as recently as 2009 was out of bounds as the Hindu “Tamil Tigers” were engaged in civil war against the majority Bhuddist Sinhalese who dominate the centre and south of the island. The railway to here has only recently reopened and is in effect a new-build on the previous alignment north of Anuradhapura. A bit like the reopened Borders Railway in Scotland really. Jaffna is being reconstructed after the civil war and to be honest there isn’t much to recommend to it. The city centre citadel – the Dutch Fort – is worth a look but it isn’t anything unique. I had a lunch in a seaside restaurant in Kankesanturai called the “North Sea Restaurant” - as someone brought up in the east of Scotland the name seemed a little misplaced, and certainly it was warmer than Monifieth or St Andrews. Jaffna city is very flat and only a few feet above sea level so I would guess that it is now in as much danger from sea levels rising as it is from ethnic tensions re-emerging. A bit south and west from Jaffna at Talaimannar was the site of the former land connection to India across the string of islands known as “Adam’s Bridge”. It was apparently destroyed by storms in the 1400s. Archaeologists and religious leaders are in dispute whether this had been a man-made 30km causeway or a series of coral reefs and sand bars deposited by sea currents.


The North Sea Restaurant

Another day out, and a far more satisfying one was to Galle, on the south coast of SL. Part of the journey the railway forms the sea wall, in a Craigendoran or Dawlish style construction and there are very pleasant views to be had. Galle is an ancient fortified town with a well preserved city harbour area which is quite touristy. But some nice cafes and good to wander about in. There is a strip of international hotels nearby and all the hawkers and tour-sellers one would expect to find along with them. Sinhalese – the native Ceylon language – is spoken in the south of the island and fortunately most tourist-facing traders and food providers speak English too. A couple that I spoke to said that there is more affinity to English than Tamil or the Indian dialects which are found in the north.


Galle Fort from the public park

There do not appear to be pubs as we would know them in SL, but hotels and restaurants have bars. Some tried to sell international beers (Slimeiken, Crapsberg etc) and I found the local Lion beer - a lager type - to be most satisfactory. As a matter of principle I always try the local brew, as the locals have usually worked out how to make the most of the combinations of their water and other ingredients, and it normally complements the cuisine and lifestyle.

To be continued…

Contacting us is straightforward

* Email:

* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212