by Joey Ayoub
Thousands of bats flapping their mammalian wings over and all around us gave us a first preview of what to expect of Sri Lanka’s beauty. It was the 19th of January 2013, and we have just arrived to our hotel in Colombo’s largest suburb: Borella.
It was already sunset and despite our tired bodies, we couldn’t wait to start the journey that will take us from Colombo to Polonnaruwa passing by Dambulla, Sigiriya, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Horton’s National Park, Yala National Park, Tissamaharama, Mirissa and Anuradhapura.
January 20th, 2013.
We woke up early the next day and took the bus to Pettah. A Sunday, the day meant that most relevant attractions were closed. We were off to a slow start. We caught a Tuk-Tuk, a three-wheeler, and asked the driver to take us to Gangaramaya temple, one of Colombo’s most important Buddhist temples.
Upon arrival, we were told to take out our shoes and make a small donation before entering the temple.
Gangaramaya could claim to have been inspired by Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan and Thai architectures which can all be clearly seen even to untrained eyes.
We walked around Elephant tusks and ancient Buddhist statues, most of which were adorned with offerings by the faithful.
The site of a miserable young elephant chained up in a corner made the presence of tusks everywhere odd and creepy. As a former Buddhist, I expected better from supposedly compassionate followers of the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the best from monks. ‘Do no harm’ is a basic principle of Buddhism and some of its higher-raking local followers were ignoring it.
A Buddhist monk noticed me standing there and asked me if I wanted to take a picture with the miserable creature. I refused. Never did I think that one day I’d want to punch a monk.
I lowered my camera, made sure that the monk understood my disapproval with the treatment of the elephant – which, coincidentally, is described as ‘sad-looking’ and in need of a prayer in Lonely Planet’s Sri Lanka edition –, turned my back and climbed the stairs towards the group of children.
[Note: If you go there, take a stand by refusing to photograph the elephant]
Around a hundred children were divided into five groups of twenty-ish each. Two to three teachers were reading from a book and asking the children questions. Smiling faces lightened up the overly calm atmosphere of the temple but the sight of two strangers couldn’t have been a daily occurrence as most children were distracted by our presence, much to the annoyance of the teachers. We might as well have been two giant clowns, the effect would have been the same.
We left Gangaramaya and walked towards Beira Lake located on Slave Island in the heart of Colombo. This large lake once occupied 165 hectares but was still impressive with its remaining 65; monitor lizards (which look like reduced Komodo Dragons), storks, and pelicans were found in all corners of the lake and distract one from noticing the dozens of businesses around.
Two small islands were located in the lake. The first, called Seema Malakaya, featured Thai bronze Buddhas, a Boddhi tree and four Brahmanist images (Hindu Gods) – a man explained to me that some Sri Lankans worship Hindu gods as well as the Buddha – and the second, which we nicknamed “The Lovers’ corner”, gathered about a dozen couples wishing to isolate themselves from Colombo’s busy life.
But the best place to hang out by the beach in Colombo was without a doubt Galle Face Green.
This popular rendez-vous spot gathered hundreds of people at sunset and at night but barely a few dozen during the day. We stayed there for a few hours until sunset and were entertained with snake charmers, kitefliers , food vendors and many local men and women selling toys along the long stretch of lawn that is Galle Face Green.
The beach was narrow so we sat on a rock and fed countless crows who were relentlessly asking for more and more and more.
[Note: don’t waste most of your snacks on crows, you’ll feel stupid]
We left soon after sunset and walked back to the hotel.
That was all for Day 2.
January 21st, 2013.
The next morning, we woke up early and walked to the stunning Viharamahadevi Park, which was already by far my favorite place in Colombo. Dozens of children playing, couples loving and thousands of bats hanging down from their branches, sleeping until the sun released them. Among them were crows, below them squirrels and above them pelicans and birds of prey.
We had already grown used to people proposing their services, often without asking, and then demanding payment in the end so we weren’t particularly surprised when one of the park’s local gardeners asked us to follow him. He knew the name of every tree – coconut, rubber, cinnamon, rubber, orange etc. – and showed deep knowledge of how to care for them – not that I paid attention; I was too focused on the bats above me.
What followed the park was a disorganized but still interesting visit of the National Museum, from the 9th century Buddha at the entry to colonial paintings and ancient statues, carvings and other pieces of art. Its Natural History Museum was poor in quality but a good start for all those interested in Sri Lanka’s natural heritage – which is significant.
[Note: Lunch at the museum’s canteen was both delicious and cheap]
We took a tuk-tuk to the Pettah market, expecting to see what was described as the place where Colombo’s cultures can be best seen. Instead, we were lost in its chaos and among the people who were sometimes rude (got called Osama Bin Laden by a Hindu man), and sometimes nice (got advice on how to avoid rip-offs by a random stranger.)
We didn’t stay long.
We then grabbed another tuk-tuk back to Viharamahadevi park and stayed there until sunset, 150 minutes of trying to photograph bats, I succeeded in capturing just one of them.
[Note: when photographing bats, keep camera on and keep your eyes on the lens. Bats are really fast and they tend to wake up after sunset, when lighting is bad. Some of them wake up earlier, that’s when you’re given a short interval to capture these incredible creatures]
After that, we stayed at Lavazza Coffee not far from our hotel, I wrote this down, had dinner and a couple of laughs with the kind waiters and left.
That was all for Day 3.