Noisy streets and old buses spewing thick fumes welcome me from the airport to Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city. Like in other big cities in developing countries, modest houses and buildings line the wayside, tarnished by the sun’s heat and pollution. Drivers of vehicles at all sizes navigate the busy streets with high agility, driving maniacally as they go. However, to my surprise, Sri Lankan drivers highly appreciate pedestrians. No matter how crazy they drive, every time a pedestrian crosses the street at a designated crossing, they would stop the car and let the pedestrian cross safely. It’s definitely something that I haven’t seen much of in my past travels to other developing countries.
Fifteen minutes before the plane landed at the airport, two flight attendants sprayed disinfectant throughout the cabin, and from that moment on I knew that Sri Lanka was going to be a completely different experience. Staying at Mount Lavinia (or Galkise in Sinhalese) – a beach town just south of Colombo – I had to take a bus to get to the city center, a one-hour ride in a hot and humid metal box crammed with other passengers.
Colombo itself boasts some remarkably beautiful British colonial buildings, including the neo-baroque Presidential Secretariat building in the Fort district. Unfortunately photography is not allowed and military personnel constantly watch over all passersby – a reminder of the long civil war which ended only three years ago with the defeat of the rebel forces. Some other elegant buildings from colonial times sit nearby, making this part of the city the most European-looking of any district.
With only one full day to explore Colombo before continuing my journey to the interior of this teardrop-shaped island, I pay a visit to the beautiful National Museum near Cinnamon Gardens. Hosting some of the country’s most precious historical artifacts, this museum is the place to go to get a better understanding of Sri Lanka’s history before venturing deeper into the ancient sites.
As a city where magnificent old buildings adorn many quarters and lively street vendors flock to other corners, Colombo is surprisingly a thriving place for many kinds of animals – contrary to what happens in most cities in developing countries. Chirping birds and squeaking squirrels are some of the most common sounds amid the car horns.
Colombo – albeit not my favorite place in Sri Lanka – offers a lot to experience: from the bright red British buildings in the old district, to the strong aromas of Sri Lankan curry; the amusing squeaks of playful squirrels, and the calming sound of waves washing up on the beach. This is a city that is not immediately captivating at first glance. But you need to open your senses and let everything else around you tickle them.