Colombo – beauty or beast?

The major harbour of the Indian Ocean – Colombo is Sri Lanka’s economic and judicial hub. The port city was developed by many, including the Dutch and British. With the significant influence of multiple cultures and ethnicities, you either fall in love with Colombo or are overwhelmed with its buzz.

While planning our Sri Lanka trip, we went through many travel blogs. The opinions on Colombo varied from “the city isn’t clean, and I didn’t like” to “Amazing place to let yourself into Sri Lankan culture as a first timer in Sri Lanka.” This kind of mixed opinion is common for a nation’s capital cities. Some say great vibe; others say chaotic. Skip it, they say, go strolling on the streets, other say.

Nevertheless, the cheap shopping arcades for clothes, genuine Gemstone shops, impressive Boulevards with city views and lots of Geoffrey Bawa’s buildings around did interest us. So with an open mind, we listed down things and prioritised a day before coming to Colombo from Dambulla. 

Read ahead to know how was our experience at Colombo in a day.

What was planned

We knew how bad Colombo traffic was and kept it simple in the radius of 5km and not too much for the day.

  • See Seema Malakaya temple at Beira lake ( design by Bawa again) and chill by the lakeside 
  • Stroll in Pettah market and visit Red Mosque
  • Explore fort area
  • Visit Geoffrey Bawa’s house.
  • Do some people watch by the ocean side at Galle Face Green and do some streetfood hogging watching the sunset.

What was Executed?

Seema Malakaya Temple

Perhaps, this is the only temple in the world that remains peaceful though it is located next to the city’s central main road. Within 10 minutes of walking distance from Ganga Ramaya temple, a floating temple on the lake Biera. 

The old temple sunk underwater in 1970, was replaced by this new temple designed by Ar Geoffrey Bawa, which is true bliss in the city’s heart. There are different platforms and one walkway to the central platform that gets interlinked to the other two platforms. The sloped roof with intricately carved struts and parapet walls with brass coloured Buddha’s statue reflect in the water, creating a soothing ambience. Plus, the towering skyscrapers in the background is a true reflection of developing modern Sri Lanka.

The temple is at a lower level from the main road, and a series of Trees screen it. So the walkway beside the temple is a favourite spot for locals for their evening walks. I wish we had spent more time here than visiting the Gangaramaya temple. Though the plan was to be at the Galle Face Green for sunset, the temple captivated us, and we chose to remain here instead of getting stuck in Colombo’s crazy traffic.

Pettah and The red mosque.

Wherever you take us, we love strolling in the old part of the city. Somehow, we find the true essence of a place in the old market areas or the oldest residential area. I always talk about how chaotic a place is, but I love the chaos of old marketplaces. Pettah is the busiest neighbourhood and Sri Lankan’s favourite marketplace to find the cheapest deals on almost everything – Fruits/vegetables/clothes/meat/seafood/ electronics/footwear – You name it, you get it here for a super low price. Trust me, you either love it or hate it completely. It was all love for us, except an hour on the road to get to Pettah market, which was just 4km away from Gangaramaya temple.

What intrigued me more about Pettah is a map created by Ruwangi Amarasinghe (artist and illustrator. The day I saw it, I knew I wanted to be there. So we went – to the heart of Colombo making our way through the grooming vehicles.

It is sure to be intimidating at the beginning. And you may even lose yourself walking in the alleys. But once you are adjusted to the vibrance of the place, you will see how actual local life goes on in Colombo. It is similar to markets in Delhi and Bangalore but much more cleaner. The Google maps may/may not help you because there are zillions of twists and turns on every street. 

Other than the people and vibrance, the red mosque is the highlight of the Petta market for us. We haven’t been to Moscow, but this place reminded us of Kremlin and the church at Moscow’s red square. Reaching this place is a task without a local’s helo, but its towering minarets are visible from most streets. Because Pettah chose to remain lower to ground than getting replaced with skyscrapers like other areas of Colombo ( Well, urban development is a necessary evil). The uniqueness of the mosque with its red+white swirling/ alternating patterns are sure to amuse you.

It is crazy to see how a mosque was built in 1908 by Indian Muslim businessmen; here stands still without losing its authentic charm amidst the modern concrete buildings cladded with ACP.

Gangaramaya Temple

The temple is one of the oldest in Colombo was established by a scholarly monk in the 19th century near Beira lake. It might have been a temple by the surreal lakeside then, but now in the city’s centre next to a famous mall. The religiously significant Gangaramaya temple’s highlight is their museum treasure and thousands of Buddha’s statues from different parts of the world. They have a collection of Buddha statues in their museum, including the smallest Buddha statue in the world, which you got to see with a magnifier lens kept. 

Local and foreign tourists come here to pray and perform the rituals. We recommend the Kandy Tooth Temple of Dambulla cave temples over Ganagaramaya temple to experience Buddhist holiness and spirituality. Because it is nested in the city’s heart, the Buddhist chants are accompanied by traffic noise. The architecture here is okay but not comparable to Dambulla or Kandy. As regular travellers, we found this place less tranquil than any other Buddhist temple we have ever visited. 

What went wrong?

Most of the capital cities are always buzzing busily. But, Colombo’s chaos was at another level on that particular day (Or is it always like that?). That day was more than what we had experienced in either Bangkok, Bangalore, or Cairo. The taxi driver from Kandalama had hinted to us in the morning itself, “Do not expect your day to go as per the plan”. We realised his words right before entering Colombo after exiting Outer Toll ring road. After three long hour journey from Dambulla, we were at the outskirts of Colombo on a toll road. That is Colombo-Katunayake toll road, WHERE THE VEHICLE TRAFFIC STAGNANT FOR AN HOUR! The traffic was moving at a snail pace as if there was a blockage on the road. When asked the driver, he replied saying “This is how it works in Colombo. Nothing is blocking the way”. So we scrapped our checklist, which we had made and sat in the car hoping to see at least a bit of Colombo beyond the traffic Jam and flyovers.

After taking two long hours to reach the city centre, our driver suggested we leave the Old Fort area and stick to the Beira lake area so that we no need to waste time in traffic anymore. So that grand plan of having lunch at a Cafe in Dutch Hospital or Curry leaf had to be scrapped. So who comes in handy to grab a quick meal? Mc. Donalds at City Centre mall opposite Beira lake! The mall is famous among locals, but it isn’t fun for tourists to be in a mall munching fries – Blame the fate.

So we ended up experiencing Colombo as a chaotic traffic city more than the vibrant harbour capital. We could see Gangaramaya and Seema Malaka temple and strolled on the streets of Pettah. Though we wanted to continue wandering in Pettah, the taxi driver gave us a call saying it may take 3 hours to reach Colombo airport 30km away. So we had to cut short our favourite thing to do, “wandering” to sit back in the car and pray to reach the airport on time.

Our thoughts on visiting Colombo.

I neither loved Colombo nor hated it completely. We hardly spent 4 or 5 hours in the city ( We had a whole day, and now you know who swallowed the time). Pettah and Seema Malaka temple were great, but the traffic was terrible. The streets weren’t dirty as others bloggers mentioned, but there was a lot of pollution. Shopping for cheap rates is excellent if only traffic favours you. Munching on local delicacies is fun if only traffic favours you if only you stay in Colombo for at least two days. So I wish we stayed back in Dambulla or Ella more than keeping just a day for Colombo.

So we suggest –

  • Do not expect your day plan to happen ideally in Colombo
  • Stay at least two days in Colombo if you want to see Colombo beyond the jam-packed roads. Anything less than two days is a waste of your time on Colombo roads. 
  • Do not hire a car or bike. Tuk-tuks and public buses run everywhere. Finding a parking spot could be tricky.
  • Do not plan to visit a particular restaurant for lunch unless it is near your visit spot – You may die of hunger, or your glucose level will drop down to 40 by the time you reach the restaurant of your dream from Point A to B on Colombo roads.
  • There are too many tourist traps- The tour organisers add all of it in your day. Be wise and choose your interests carefully.
  • Dress appropriately while visiting temples- covering knees and shoulders.

We feel it is never a good idea to miss the capital city for whatever reason. Capital cities show you the essence of the old and new of their nation. But for part-time travellers like us, a day wasted waiting in traffic is a mental impairment.

So what are your thoughts on Colombo?

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