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Travel
March 17, 2012

The Changing Face Of Colombo

Text by Milika Hariani.

Milika Hariani returns to the place where she was born and discovers that Sri Lanka is close to being a ‘Wonder of Asia’ again

I was decidedly grumpy and rather groggy when I landed at Colombo’s International Airport a few days before Christmas last year, after a sleepless night on Sri Lankan Airways’ red eye special from Mumbai. Usually, joy and a sense of déjà vu bubbles up in me as the plane starts its descent and I see the vivid greens of Colombo from the air, but this time the landscape was cloaked in darkness and I was exhausted.

My spirits lifted when I stumbled into the squeaky clean arrival lounge to be met by peppy Christmas music and glossy Christmas decorations. Several flights had come in at once and everyone in the long queue for immigration was cheerful, in vacation mode. Many were Sri Lankans returning home for the holidays but there were lots of tourists speaking in dozens of foreign tongues. With the war over, Sri Lanka is back on the map and Colombo is the entry point for the entire island and its plentiful attractions.

The drive to the city from the airport is an interesting one for me as it passes familiar landmarks in spite of the changes wrought by the expansion of the city. This time the road appeared much wider. Mainly as this is going to be linked to the historic Southern Expressway, the Colombo Galle (an ancient port and the most important city on the south coast) highway, the country’s first toll one that opened at the end of November. So you can reach Galle in less than an hour instead of three.

There were no blockades, no security check points as we drove into the Fort, the commercial and business centre. That was a pleasant change. The stringent security measures had reduced considerably on my last visit 18 months ago but now they have vanished. The gun toting military police that had the authority to stop and question people no longer glare menacingly at you. There are spot checks to catch drunken drivers but there are no more barricades so the city looks more open and attractive than it has in years. Places that were out of bounds for decades have become accessible once more. One such historic building is St Peter’s Church, in the heart of Fort, next to the two-star heritage Grand Oriental Hotel, close to the harbour and Colombo port. The only remaining Dutch building there, it still caters to the spiritual needs of seafarers but is tucked away in a high security zone. I visit it each time I am in the city but this was the first time in years that I didn’t have to show my passport to go there. The police woman manning the post merely checked my bags cursorily and waved me in. This is another change for the better because this area, with its cluster of important Colonial edifices including the President’s House (formerly known as Queen’s House), the lighthouse and the clock tower is on the tourist map.

The main artery, the Galle Road, that skirts the shoreline, is no longer blocked off as a security measure but it has been made one way to facilitate the flow of traffic. In fact many such traffic diversions are in place all over the city. They have reduced traffic snarls but now motorists have to travel greater distances to reach their destinations, as in many cities in India. There is a new road parallel to Galle Road called the Marine Drive that hugs the coastline and the railway track for a short distance. The road network throughout the island has improved considerably. It is their names that cause confusion.  Most have two – an old simple one like say Ascot Street and a new one that’s much longer and complicated. Taxi drivers seldom know either so finding homes of one’s pals hidden behind swanky new buildings that weren’t there on a previous visit tests one’s ingenuity.

The Taj Samudra where I stay when I visit Colombo faces a seafront ground called Galle Face Green. Now it is browner than green but plays the role of Mumbai’s Chowpatty or Marine Drive, a place to enjoy the fresh sea breeze, watch the spectacular sunsets, take a walk or just relax contemplating the shimmering blueness and the white capped waves of the Indian Ocean. A platform erected there for the 60th Independence Day celebrations is the only recent addition to the enduring landmark.

Across the road from the Taj stands a stately Colonial edifice, the oldest hotel east of Suez, founded in 1864 known as the Galle Face Hotel. Both are packed to full capacity as are all the hotels in the capital and are elegantly decorated for Christmas both within and without.

Most of the buildings in its vicinity date back to the early 19th century so when the multi-storeyed sprawling Taj Samudra opened in 1983 my parents’ generation complained bitterly that the skyline was ruined for ever. Now several other skyscrapers dot this and other residential parts of the city and the skyline has indeed changed beyond recognition and will change still more in the next few years as old bungalows give way to apartment blocks because of soaring land prices and the building boom. Fortunately, Sri Lankan architects have mastered the art of restoring crumbling old buildings and giving them a new lease of life as up-market stores, restaurants and boutique hotels so not all of them succumb to the wrecker’s ball. The old and the new do blend gracefully here still. The leafy fashionable neighbourhoods are looking wonderful because the government is making an all out effort to beautify the city, encouraging residents to do up their properties. The newer residential suburbs in the eastern part of the city that were muddy grounds and neglected fields just a few years ago are beautifully landscaped, stagnant waterways have become idyllic lakes  giving the residents of high-rise apartment blocks that have mushroomed there, stunning views. One can even spot the 2243-metre-high sacred hill, Adam’s Peak, miles away in the centre of the island from the higher towers on clear days. Such sightings were unthinkable before the advent of skyscrapers.

The government’s beautifying drive is also apparently responsible for the city looking so festive. At times I felt I was in Singapore because the decorations everywhere were so artistic and innovative. Even modest kiosks selling snacks had made an effort to decorate their premises. The shopping malls, restaurants, hotels and destination shops had unusually decorated Christmas trees. Pale blue fairy lights seemed to be the colour of choice but most establishments had lit up their facades. I was in Colombo for Christmas when the tsunami hit the island and I remember admiring the decorations put up by the hotels that year, before they were pulled down as a mark of sympathy but I can’t recall seeing it so decked up. Since it is a Buddhist country, the entire island glows with lanterns and pandals on Vesakh (the day that celebrates the birth, death and attainment of Nirvana of Lord Buddha) – a full moon day that falls in May, but such exuberance in December both surprised and pleased me. “It was like this last year as well. People just wanted to enjoy themselves after the war ended. Since Colombo is looking so good they have decorated their premises to make it look even better. It will be the same at other festivals. Everything was subdued for so long during the war,” explained my cousin who is a Buddhist.

Our first stop was the newly opened Dutch Hospital now a shopping and restaurant complex and a tourist attraction that is fresh, edgy and contemporary. The cluster of 17th century buildings have been sensitively modernised in an eclectic style. The food was good in the restaurant we ate in but the shopping was disappointing, all touristy. Next, we drove to the very popular department store styled Odel Unlimited, housed in an attractive heritage building. We had to queue for ages to get into the car park. The store too was bursting at the seams. Neither of us saw anything we liked there either. A lot of the merchandise looked Indian. As we were leaving, a friend suggested we check out one of the suburban branches of Odel as they carry different ranges. Instead, we went to a popular mall which was also buzzing with eager shoppers and had a festive air thanks to the piped music and the striking decorations. Our last stop was the iconic Barefoot, another popular destination store that specialises in Sri Lankan handlooms and stylish accessories but found the stock depleted except for their colourful hats. There was a time when I shopped a lot in Colombo but the scenario has improved so much in India that I rarely find anything that grabs my attention in the former. I bring back tea, spices, and my favourite Sri Lankan cakes, sweets and Dutch Burgher festive delicacies like Broede, foguete and Izer Koekes that a few outlets specialise in. Other holiday makers return laden with bone china, curios, gemstones and garments.

Colombo has long been thought of as a bargain hunter’s paradise by Indian tourists because of the favourable exchange rate. Its key appeal for the Indian tourist lies in the fact that it is an easily accessible and economical holiday. That hasn’t changed though the Indian shopping scene has improved dramatically over the years.

Colombo has been changing and adapting for centuries like other metropolitan cities everywhere. Yet some old traditions have endured, altered only slightly. Letters are still delivered by postmen riding bicycles. A man on a bicycle wielding a stick puts on the street lights every evening. Meat vendors have vanished but king coconut, fish and vegetable vendors still ply their wares down Colombo streets no longer in baskets hanging from either side of a pole borne on their shoulders but in push carts, motor bikes or small vans.

My friends who used to feel sorry for me because I lived in a flat in Mumbai are all investing in apartments for living in later. Some have already sold their ancestral homes and have moved into apartments. Not everyone can adjust to the restrictions that this entails and have moved back into independent units!

A characteristic of life in the old days was chatting with neighbours over the garden walls. Everyone did it, the domestic servants as well as the home owners. That has vanished because most homes hide behind towering walls. Catching up with my neighbours the old way is something I delight in doing when I visit my childhood home. I still have a low fence in front of my house and low brick wall on one side. My neighbours pop in when I call out for them and I am overcome with nostalgia.  For me, Colombo is not a place on a map. It is not even a geographical location. It exists unchanged, continually for me in my imagination wherever I may be!

While its attractions tend to be overshadowed by the island’s other delights it is unfair to dismiss Colombo as just another Asian city. It has always had a style and pulse that is entirely its own and for those willing to explore there are plenty of treasures worth unearthing.

For years it has been shadowed by the country’s protracted civil war but with the defeat of terrorism and the financing of hundreds of post tsunami reconstruction projects by foreign aid, Colombo and the entire island is looking forward to the future hopefully. Maybe it will really be a ‘Wonder of Asia’ again.

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