I will never forget flying into Sri Lanka. I had a late-night flight and arrived around 10-11pm. As we were landing I looked out the window and I was in awe with what I saw. Darkness with twinkling lights that looked like stars in the vast night sky. It took me a minute to understand what I was seeing. Because Sri Lanka’s topography is composed of lots of greenery, the lights of the cities were peaking through the trees creating this magical effect which made the country look like it was sparkling.
There are 23 airports in Sri Lanka but most people fly into CMB which is just north of Colombo. I chose to have a taxi organized with my hostel, and I’m glad I did because it was quite far. There are 15 neighbourhoods in Colombo that are all very unique and offer both tourists and locals something different from the next. I managed to get a good look at a few of them, so let’s go!
Colombo 1 – Fort
Sri Lanka only gained independence in 1948 and even then, it was part of the British Commonwealth. It became “Sri Lanka” in the 70s!! As a result, there are so many pristine Dutch and British colonial buildings that you can gaze at in the Fort area. My favourite building was the old, red Cargills building and the luxurious Economic History Museum of Sri Lanka. It is very easy to find a tuk-tuk driver that will drive you around the city to the many sites. As we were exploring the Fort area, we were approached many times by guides in yellow shirts. We chose the friendliest one and he showed us around the Fort, Pettah, Maradana, and Slave Island.
Colombo 11 – Pettah
Pettah is one of the really interesting neighbourhoods in Colombo and I wish I had ventured around this district more on foot. It is well known as the shopping area with a large marketplace. It is also the home of the beautiful Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque. Our guide told us that it was inspired by the colour and shape of a pomegranate. I’m not sure if that is true or not but I love pomegranates and I am obsessed with this Mosque. It was so elegant and could be seen blocks away, peeking out above the bazaars that lined the streets.
Colombo 10 – Maradana
Maradana has a lot of local colleges and a large railway station. It also has the oldest Hindu temple in Colombo called Sri Kailawasanathan. When I saw it, I could not get over the colours and the detail work of the exterior. Something I really enjoyed about Colombo was seeing all the different religious structures. You could walk around and see Mosques, Buddhist temples, Hindu Temples, Churches for many different religious sects, and I believe they also have a synagogue. I’m not personally a very religious person yet I can appreciate that they have places for many different people to worship as Sri Lanka itself is a very diverse country.
Colombo 2 – Slave Island
Ok first, I can’t lie, that name makes me feel very uncomfortable. This area is now populated by large hotels and shopping centres. The gentrification is evident as they are constantly taking down the historical Victorian-style buildings and replacing them with larger, more modern complexes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the skyline changes completely in the next couple of years.
Beira Lake is included in this area, which is also the place of the quiet Seema Malaka temple. I really enjoyed this spot because of how relaxing it was. You have to pay about 300 lkr to enter but it is a joint ticket for this temple and the most popular, Gangaramaya Temple.
Gangaramaya – where to start. This temple features a bunch of buildings that come together to create this place of worship as well as a museum-esque area. The first building you are directed to is very similar to other Buddhist temples that you see all over Asia, however, I was impressed by the vibrant colours everywhere. It was overwhelming and so beautiful that I was really excited to see the rest of the temple. As you delve deeper into the structure, you find yourself surrounded by a collection of relics from the past. I was really enamoured with all these large, gold repoussé pieces. The craftsmanship was absolutely stunning and I found myself taking photos of every single piece I walked by. What I did not like was the collection of ivory pieces, as well as two stuffed elephant skins that were on display. I can forgive things that have happened in the past, however, upon doing some more research I have found something quite disturbing.
There is a sweet little elephant by the name of Ganga, who is being held there. She is the temple elephant which means that she is captive and used for different ceremonies and festivals. When I was there, I hadn’t seen her. To be honest, after seeing the large stuffed elephant near the end, I felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave. I wasn’t on the lookout for Ganga who is chained at the feet.
All in all, the temple itself was stunning. Some of the artifacts were very interesting to see, however, I think they have a cooler historical museum in Galle. I wish I had done a bit more research about it before I went because I can not bring myself to understand the animal cruelty. If you want more information about how you can help elephants like Ganga, Heart of Ganesh (https://heartofganesh.org/) is a great organization really trying to make things happen and protect these animals.
Colombo 3 – Kollupitiya
Wow! That was not supposed to turn into an animal activist rant, let’s keep going. This is the last area I have much knowledge about. It has a lot of residential and commercial buildings, and (in case you need to know) the Canadian Embassy.
I stayed at a great hostel here called My Little Island Hostel. The staff were amazing and so genuinely friendly; readily available to help whenever I needed something. Kollupitiya was a great location to stay it because of how immersed with the locals you could get. Just around the corner were restaurants where you could get so affordable and delicious local curry and kottu.
Speaking of food, if I was in the mood to splurge I headed to the Barefoot Garden Cafe. They have a storefront filled with many Sri Lankan goods and then a sweet little cafe in the back. It serves moderately priced western food with attentive staff and a chill vibe. I admit I came back a few times because I really enjoyed the atmosphere here.
Another popular spot to hit in this area, especially before heading home, is the Sri Lanka Tea Board. Sri Lanka is a large exporter of tea. We are going to go to “Tea Country” later on, but you don’t want to be carrying a bunch of tea in your bag while travelling. This is a great last spot where you can pick up some souvenirs for all your tea-loving friends.
This city has more to offer than I had originally thought. It’s not as interesting as ancient Anuradhapura or as breathtaking as Ella, or even as laid back as Weligama. But with the many distinctive neighbourhoods in Colombo, it is a great place to meet a bunch of new travel buddies and find your stepping before embarking on your adventures.