The Dynamic, Changing Face of Colombo

The Dynamic, Changing Face of Colombo - with Mark Forbes 

Approaching Colombo port in the early morning sunshine, there’s a long low breakwater jutting out into the Arabian Sea. What appears to be a row of giraffes standing sentinel beyond the breakwater turns out to be tall red cranes. This is the new container port, recently gifted to the previous Sri Lanka Government by China. It is just the tip of an iceberg of deep changes that I recognise since my last visit two years ago. 

A passionate young Sri Lankan, Mark Forbes, meets us at the gangway and bundles us out of the heat into an air-conditioned vehicle before alighting ‘midst trucks and carts and frenetic activity of the busy Pettah Markets. 

Colour, vegetables fresh from the fields, bare torsos, red betel-nut smiles of welcome (that become even warmer as the workers realise we are Australians, and Australia won the Cricket World Cup only yesterday. ‘Aussie Cricket Captain Michael Clark, No 1”. 

Catching our breath in the heat, we jump into tuk-tuks in our sweat-soaked shirts and weave through the traffic over to one of the grand dames of hotels East of Suez, the Grand Oriental situated just inside the old Fort at the exit from the port . . . for tea. Here we listen to Mark Mark as he breathes new life into the Colombo of the Portuguese and Dutch from 16th and 17th century, and the glory days of British Colombo from early 19th century, the centre of which was constructed right here on the site of the old Portuguese Fort. 

Refreshed, we continue, shaded under colonnades of beautiful colonial buildings and through streets that have recently been restored to display their real heritage significance and along to the sprawling white Presidential Palace. Never have I ventured down here and into the 17th century Dutch Hospital, recently renovated as a project by Army personnel, and considered the oldest building in the Colombo Fort area. Time to enjoy a cold Lion beer now.

Frangipani, bauhinias and bougainvillea colour the streets, cleaner than I have ever seen them. For all the contention surrounding the previous Rajapaksa government, someone in there took responsibility for the appearance of Colombo very seriously. The change is quite dramatic in just two years. Thirty years of Civil War has held this country back, but it would appear that a renaissance is under way.

Our first choice for lunch was to eat on The Verandah’ restaurant of another grand dame of a hotel, The Galle Face, right on the ocean. It’s under renovation and we choose to dine at one of architect Geoffrey Bawa’s buildings in a residential area of town. The Gallery CafĂ©, Kollupitiya, Colombo 03 is a find, not only for the best food of the trip so far, but for inviting us experience the simplicity of this wonderful architect’s work. His whole mantra was natural light, ventilation, sound of water, and always a fragrant frangipani tree.

Where will all this ‘progress’ lead the Sri Lankans? The new government, respecting values of the majority Buddhist people, has cancelled the contract for Crown Casinos to build gambling ‘resorts’ on the main waterfront., However, rocks and landfill are being poured into the sea in front of the imposing sandstone old Parliament Building on Marine Drive as part of a development that will see apartment buildings growing like a little Singapore or Dubai, out into the sea. I don’t like the notion!

Fellow-traveller,, Ray has declared Colombo the hghlight port of the cruise thus far. I have to agree, and would really like to return under the gudance of Mark Mark Forbes and go further afield into the north and east of the country, in search for leopards, and do the 'cultural circle' that I have missed previously. - with Mark Forbes 


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