Hubert Burda Media

Travelling in a City of Contrasts

A city of rich heritage, Colombo, Sri Lanka is a curious mix of the past, present and future.

Sri Lanka is an island nation home to some 20 million people of different ethnic groups. Nine years ago, 19 May 2009, a historic event took place when the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the country was thus liberated from terrorism after 26 years of bloodshed, where an estimated 100,000 people lost their lives and hundred thousands more were displaced, all in the name of nationalism, politics and race. In a series of atrocities that shaped a generation, the ex-prime minister of India and ex-president of Sri Lanka were assassinated in separate suicide bombings, along with countless civilians who were caught in the crossfire as both Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tigers militants battled for control and supremacy.

A mix of old and new

These days, its largest city Colombo is in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom. The nation’s economy has grown around 6 percent annually since the civil war had ended. Financed by debt, the city of over five million people is undergoing rapid changes and increased infrastructure-building activities. However, traces of the recent past still linger.

As I stepped off the plane and into the arrival hall, I was greeted by rows of shops selling electrical appliances. Fridges and washing machines, duty-free, were arranged to the front to maximise exposure and manned by pushy salesmen. Never had I seen anything like it. But it’s easy to understand the reasoning behind it. On top of a 15 percent value added tax, the Sri Lankan government levies a 2 percent nation building tax and stamp duty on goods. So purchasing a washing machine in the Bandaranaike International Airport seems like a reasonable proposition for locals who return from overseas.

The Independence Square

Walking around Colombo is an exploratory experience that you can’t miss if you intend to feel the dynamics of a city growing to join the rest of the developing world. Buses are old, un-air-conditioned and more colourful than Priscilla, yet locals drive in automobiles that still have the shine of a newly applied coat of paint.

Sri Lankans seem to have mastered the language left by its British ex-rulers. They are chirpier than anyone you will ever meet, welcoming you with their friendliness, but when they get behind the wheel, the only effective form of communication is through an incessant press of the horn. Somehow when the pedestrian traffic light turns green, the hidden geniality emerges as cars and tuk-tuks come to a halt to let pedestrians cross safely. The chaotic nature of the city somewhat belies its progress. Pavements are laid with the visually impaired in mind. The streets are clean and shaded by large trees. A legacy of British colonisation, there are numerous parks and lake gardens in and around the city. Myriads of colonial buildings are well maintained or under renovation.

The Galle Face Hotel overlooks the Indian Ocean

In between soon-to-be-open Shangri-la and Grand Hyatt is the Galle Face Hotel. A splendid five-star hotel full of rustic charm, the building is over 150 years old. The suites are warm due to their wooden flooring and they open up to sizable terraces, providing you with the opportunity to sun bathe and admire the pounding waves of the Indian Ocean just feet away. Although you can step into the sea, it’s best to just paddle in the safety of a salt-water pool with sunset views. Or if you prefer to stay dry, hotel restaurants’ verandas are also a wonderful place for some heart-warming meals and to witness its tradition of Sri Lankan flag-lowering procession at sundown accompanying by a bagpipe player.

Patteh is best explored on foot

The Galle Face Green, an large urban park, is situated next to the hotel. The 500m-long lawn is popular among hotel guests and locals for some exercising and sampling of local delights at the many booths set up along the promenade. At the end lies the Fort, a locality where major finance and business activities take place in grand colonial buildings. Next to it is Patteh where shops are fitted with vibrant signage and shoppers and traders rub shoulders in a dense neighbourhood.

The country is famous for its tea, temples, beaches and big waves. But if you are here for a luxury retail pampering, you are out of luck. The scene is underdeveloped and the only high-end fashion brand to have a presence here is Hugo Boss, which was only opened last weekend. But with the way things are advancing, Colombo is certainly looking up.