Just four years ago in Sri Lanka, visitors were greeted by soldiers and police, Kalashnikovs prominently held, at the airport and around Colombo, and several checkpoints dotted the island. Making it doubtful for people to the beauty of Sri Lanka travel.
It is a place where problems were, until 2010, constantly imminent and could surprise and ambush the innocent.
This is an area, like the majority of the countries in this part of the world – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, UAE, Oman – which has a very troubled past.
However, in Sri Lanka at least, this time seems long gone.
The Beauty of Sri Lanka – Colombo
In Colombo, the Galle Face Hotel, “oldest hotel east of Suez”, as they like to claim, stands south of Galle Face, a park facing the Indian Ocean. Luxury and history coexist has tourists and locals rub shoulders at the bar, guards dressed in uniforms from another era and majestic ballrooms surround a terrace by the sea; later in the park outside the hotel, young athletes playing cricket on the beach; Indian and Arab tourists take a walk and eat ice cream; poorer people from the surrounding countryside try to attract tourists with domesticated chimpanzees and snakes to the beauty of Sri Lanka.
Again – this is a recurring theme in this column – people who are in the working class neighborhoods give the true pulse of the city. In an area near the port, in a small bar in the middle of the afternoon, a few men are seated with a beer and watch the screen of a TV which is about twelve inches in size. A subtitled Bollywood movie is on and the bartender, sitting behind an iron cage, shows a huge smile when we order two large beers.
This enthusiasm seems contagious when we find, located at the end of a small alley, a restaurant where people – all men here too – eat rice with various curries, samosas with potato and cassava and small rice pancakes with an egg cooked in the middle. All are happy to see us, ask us to take pictures with them and say they hope to meet us again soon.
In a poorer area of the city, in an alley, people work in open air butcher shops without refrigeration. They urge us to come talk with them, meet them. “We are not Hindus, we have beef for sale”, proudly tells me one of them.
The Beauty of Sri Lanka – Galle
If Colombo is a metropolis in every sense of the word, Galle is a small town that attracts tourists from around the world to the beauty of Sri Lanka.
From Colombo, the most pleasant way to get there is by train.
Colombo Station was built by the former colonial power, England, in 1917, and seems to have not been renovated since. Despite its obsolescence, it is absolutely charming.
The railway runs along the coast of the island and ocean views are breathtaking. The constant sea breeze beats the heat and the train is old yet surprisingly comfortable.
Once in Galle, a complete segregation between tourists and locals can be seen: outside the fort to the north, “real life”; inside the fort, tourists. It’s similar to Kochi, India: in the fort, cafes sell questionable Western food at astronomical prices alongside guest houses, beautiful ancestral buildings and stores of “craftwork” made in China. And as soon as we leave the fort, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the humble but functional every-day Galle life. The comparison with Kochi does not stop there: in the 1600s and 1700s, both forts were controlled by Holland, another former colonial power.
And again, once we exit the enclave reserved for Whites, we find ourselves attacked from all sides by a wonderfully intoxicating enthusiasm. The children rush to greet us and try to speak English; the market offers fruits and vegetables that are totally unknown to us; fishermen offer their catch of the day close to their boats moored on the beach; on the coast outside the city, the landscapes overlooking the ocean are breathtaking.
If Sri Lanka is struggling to break free of this bad reputation of a troubled country, it is only because the traditional media still refuses to emphasize its new found beauty. The media should address more of progressive news to promote the beauty of Sri Lanka travel.