Colombo: What a Difference 40 Years Make

Day 115 – In the Andaman Sea – Find Insignia on CruiseMapper

Louis was last in Colombo, Sri Lanka, about 40 years ago on a story for CBC. The experience did not leave him tingling with anticipation to revisit the city on our world cruise. Rundown, dirty and forgettable summed up his faint memory of the capital city of 600,000 people.

The Colombo of Memory

The Colombo of Louis’s memory still exists. On our fabulous three-hour walkabout with a Lankan named Harold, we walked down a ramshackle market street Louis found reminiscent of his first visit.

We saw men far past their prime bowed under loads that, in another place, would be rolled on dollies or some other less man-crushing apparatus.

There were still fine old colonial buildings in disrepair.

But the Colombo of 40 years ago is fast vanishing, and that made for a far different visit.

The Colombo of Today

Today’s Colombo is, like so many other cities we have visited, a city of skyscrapers.

It is a city where the waterfront is being filled to expand buildable space (making us wonder whether the news about rising sea levels has somehow missed Sri Lanka). Harold took us to the rooftop terrace of a hotel to show us the latest clawing of land from the sea. A pretty blank canvas now, he said the expanse would look like a mini-Dubai within five years. Based on everything else going on in Colombo, we believe it.

It is a city where the Chinese are the new colonials. In Harold’s words. “We were colonized first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British and now by the Chinese.”

The landfill envisioned as mini-Dubai? A Chinese project. Innumerable landmark buildings in need of restoration? Bought by Chinese. The 1100-foot-tall Lotus Tower visible from every viewpoint in the city? Chinese.

Landmark Colombo

Mixed with the new, landmark buildings and monuments are where the best of old Colombo shines, giving the city charm and character that transcended the steam-bath heat of Asia’s hottest spring ever.

The grand Galle Face Hotel, where kings, presidents, movie stars and countless other luminaries have slept over the years, still anchors the waterfront.

Extravagantly decorated Hindu temples rise randomly on back streets throughout the city like multicolor flights of fancy.

Turn a corner and look back, and there is an eye-popping mosque.

A golden Buddha reigns over Viharamahadevi Park at the city’s center, especially at sunset on a holy Buddhist day when the city is filled with illuminated lanterns.

Independence Square, celebrating 75 years of independence from the colonists who pre-dated the Chinese is impressive in its simplicity.

Meanwhile, the original 1857 lighthouse – the only lighthouse in the world with a clock in it – still stands, its clock still keeping time, albeit with its light extinguished by the buildings that grew up around it.

With nearly 150 countries under his belt in a half-century of travel, it takes some doing to surprise Louis on the road. Colombo pulled it off.

Another Question Answered

Carole (aka “DILU”) asked a loooong time ago, “What is the one thing you should never cruise without?”

We have stalled on answering this question because it takes some of us time to identify our biggest mistakes, but we now have a strong contender: Lots and lots and LOTS of $5, $10 and $20 bills. US dollars are accepted by anyone involved with tourists virtually everywhere. Like all savvy travelers, we brought a large stash of $1s for small tips and incidentals like bottles of drinking water.

What we did not anticipate was our constant need for other small-denomination greenbacks to pay guides, taxis, buy souvenirs, etc. Hunting down ATMs to withdraw local currency turns out to be impractical on day trips, especially the ones organized by the ship where you don’t have the freedom to just nip into a bank.

The problem is … good old USD in small-enough denominations to use for all those expenses are all but impossible to come by on the road in foreign countries with their own currency. The ship’s ATM spits out only $100s, and the ship hoards its own supply of small bills as if they were gold. We’ve figured out a few workarounds for the shortage along the way, but hardly a day goes by when we don’t wish we had a fat envelope of smaller bills.  

Where’s Snowy?

Besides hiding in an alleyway in new-old Colombo.

Coming Soon!

4 Months Down, 2 to Go (!?!)

Fellow Travelers

4 thoughts on “Colombo: What a Difference 40 Years Make

  1. Ok I am now sufficiently jealous, envious and furious I didn’t go with you two! Unbelievable. Bi have dibs on one of your first acceptance of an invitation to sit and be with on your return.


  2. We, too did a cruise stop in Columbo just as Covid was starting in the east. In fact, we had been in China for New Years just as it was spreading out of Wuhan. Anyhow we weren’t overly impressed but did have tea at the hotel. But we were there about 4 weeks ago; too bad we couldn’t have meet up with you there! We had visited Todd and family in Riyadh where they are now teaching. Then, for their March break, we went to Sri Lanka for a beach location. We were down the coast in Weiligame, a surfing beach,. We did not surf (Todd did) but had a fabulous time. As we were leaving though, I said to Bob that I am a little disappointed. 2 times in Columbo and we hardly saw the country. I am not sure that I will ever get back but the countryside and other tourist areas are supposed to be wonderful. We are thoroughly enjoying your blog!!


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