Colombo's Unsolved Mystery

Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
Trip End Oct 22, 2004

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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Sunday, January 18, 2004

It was getting close to Christmas which meant we were due in another town. That town was no ordinary town, that town was a city, and that city was a capital, and that capital was Colombo, with it's capital letter being 'C' (I'm struggling here).


Our last three hours in the back of Lasantha's van would take us back west to the coast. The sea was calling back it's two little water babies from the rocky grip of the mountains (really going for the Whitbread Prize now).

And for the last time we'd sweep through Sri Lanka's excuses for towns. These towns weren't just blots, they were complete shit-holes on an otherwise beautiful landscape. I'd like to have been more poetic in my description but these were towns that didn't just look run down, they were mown down by a concrete-carrying 18 wheeler juggernaut which had then backed over it for good measure.

Stunning views, beautiful beaches, crap towns. Maybe their Department for Tourism could use my catchphrase for their next ad campaign?

The usual generic shops selling bananas*, hub-caps and inflatable Father Christmases (does he need more inflating?) lined the pavementless high streets, untrained road sweepers pushed dust from one place to another ignoring old curry containers feet away, unfinished ugly buildings appeared in the background, disconnected electricity pylons stood side by side like robotic skeletons (just give me the Whitbread prize now), locals stood in doorways staring at each passing vehicle as if they were spectators at Wimbledon honing their skills for the forthcoming Gawping World Championships series versus India (I fancy Sri Lanka for the title) and not forgetting each town's own version of Crufts where 'Mongrel' would sadly be the only category.

*It's illegal to call yourself a shop unless you sell at least one banana.
(Sri Lankan Trade Descriptions Act 1968, Para 14, Line 3)

'Welcome to Akurana, the Garden City' a sign would say on arrival.

Lovely sign, lousy town.

These were barely towns and I presumed the locals were unhappy, but they were probably content, they know no different. I mean, I'd expect a visiting Mayfair resident to turn their surgically reshaped noses up at my neighbourhood.

If I were the Sri Lankan Leader I'd sack all town planners the length and breadth of the country and then go head-hunting for Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen and Linda Barker, making them an offer even Carole Smillie couldn't match. They would then travel around as swags and tails mercenaries, sprucing up this town with a nice coat of lavender blue emulsion and that town with a swathe of chintz, with maybe the occasional ingeniously knocked-up coffee table made from a lump of rusty pylon. Perfect and all under the £500 budget for each town.

For a brighter future, vote Gary for President.

Anyway, I'll dismount from my high-horse and try to solve the unsolved mystery that is Colombo.

We arrived at The Galle Face Hotel at midday, and after having passed the swish modern hotels of The Hilton and The Galadari, we were pleasantly surprised. It was a true old colonial masterpiece right by the sea with more character in it's janitor's closet than all the other hotels put together.

We said farewell to Lasantha for the last time and were then greeted by a wizened old doorman with a foot long grey moustache. After checking in, we were shown to our sea-facing room. It had everything we needed and at a knockdown price of £35 per night. Outside there were two restaurants The Verandah and Sea Spray, with the famous chequerboard terrace where you could drink Sundowners and watch the . . . well, you can guess the rest. Further along was a retro swimming pool a few feet above the coastline.

The front of the hotel overlooked Galle Face Green, a mile long stretch of grass with an esplanade running the length. During the evenings this area would be swarming with half the Colombian...Colomboan...population of Colombo flirting with one another and flying kites.

The reception was very tastefully decorated for Christmas, thankfully Mr Llewellyn-Bowen hadn't got this gig, and a granite-chiseled notice listed all the famous people who had stayed there, most notably Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Arthur C. Clarke and most importantly, Bo Derek.

After a stroll along the esplanade, a topping-up of tans and a hearty meal it was time to count some zeds.


The day before Christmas and there was shopping to be done, so off we headed into the sprawl, and sprawl is the best adjective. Armed with a map listing all the classiest joints we soon realised a foot massage would be needed at the end of the day, so we opted for tuk-tuks as our mode of transport.

This city was for three and four wheeled beasts only. At pedestrian crossings there were no little green men to be seen, and I'm not talking aliens. Pedestrians were the aliens and the cars were the robots out to destroy them (here I go again).

Colombo was turning out to be a bit of a desert, with the odd oasis dotted here and there. There was no real shopping area, exactly a mile would separate all the nicest establishments, this city had obviously been designed by the taxi and tuk-tuk drivers themselves, very cunning.

Paradise Road was a really interesting shop to match anything in London where you could probably get all your Christmas shopping done, then came Odel Unlimited for cheap but very cheerful clothes and jewellry, Elephant Walk was hidden behind a perfect little courtyard and Barefoot was quirky and extremely colourful. But after these exceptions you were struggling.

Paradise Road had a sister restaurant called, you guessed it, Paradise Road Restaurant, so off we headed for a lime soda or four. Now if you go back to my previous report from Galle you may remember the hotel where the England Cricket Team were staying was designed by Geoffrey Bawa, but then again you've probably totally forgotten or had just plain given up on us by then.

Anyway, this was another of his creations and Soph's little eyes lit up at the sight of the décor, my even littler eyes lit up at the sight of the prices. There was no escaping it (although I did try), this would be where we'd have our Christmas lunch and we snuk in with a table for two by the skin of our yellow teeth.

Soph's Christmas gift was a nice blue necklace and I still had change from a fiver, talk about Scrooge, and as for me, there was nothing that took my fancy so Christmas this year would be cancelled for me. . . sniff.


7am and there was a knock at the door. I stumbled over to the door and opened it still half asleep and still half bare.

"Merry Christmas Sir" said the bellboy handing me a mini-Christmas cake. I stood there semi-conscious like the Ghost of Christmas Past, then eventually came round and thanked him. It certainly didn't feel like Christmas Day and I had certainly never been woken at 7am since I was four years old.

Christmas morning was spent catching rays by the pool in 90 degree heat sipping lime sodas, and at 1pm it was back to our room to get spruced up for lunch.

2pm and we arrived at Paradise Road. The restaurant was busy with well-heeled Sri Lankans and no-heeled holidaymakers. We started with lobster bisque and chicken liver pate followed by turkey and lamb shank, finishing with cinnamon ice cream, all washed down with a bottle of Wolff Blass Chardonnay.

After spending the rest of a very surreal Christmas Day by the pool, that evening we had our second Christmas dinner of the day in the hotel's SeaSpray restaurant.

There were no presents, no Top of the Pops, no games, no Queen's speech, no falling asleep in front of the TV. All of that was replaced by sunbathing, bliss.


We had checked out and our baggage was in storage so Boxing Day would be spent horizontally by the pool, interrupted only by a quick tuk-tuk ride into town to find a post office. The post office was a funny old affair with forms and security checks galore just for a small package containing T-Shirts and toys.

Three shifty looking men sat behind three even shiftier looking empty desks, one of them, obviously an ex-prison warder, piped up "You Barmy Army?" whereupon after Englands last Test thrashing I gave them my well rehearsed reply "cricket's boring, I like football" and immediately the conversation was dead.

At 10.30pm a taxi would take us to the airport for our early morning red-eye flight to Bangkok, a city I had been looking forward to visiting for some time . . . obviously for the temples that is.

Farewell from The Far Side.

Gazza Llewellyn-Bowen & Sophie Smillie

ps. Apologies to our mummies for some of our language.
pps. Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me...
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