I’ll admit, it took me a little while to settle back in to life as a backpacker. It seemed as though I’d become a little too accustomed to city life in Melbourne, where latte’s are always on hand and things run at a somewhat orderly pace.
Asia has a unique way of reminding you where you are. The searing heat, the pressing humidity, weird smells, crowds and the terrifying sound of oncoming traffic. They combine in to a wall of noise and activity that keeps you on your toes. But after two days travelling from Melbourne via Brunei and Kuala Lumpur, I wanted nothing less than to be on my toes. The lead up to our trip had been frantic. We left our jobs, moved house and cooked christmas dinner for 12 friends. It didn’t leave much time to plan, so in comparison to our normal levels of preparation, we were going in blind.
We launched ourselves in to the cauldron of Colombo and quickly discovered that we were a little rough around the edges. We weren’t quite prepared for what Colombo had to offer, somehow we just didn’t see it coming.
Our first mistake was actually staying in Colombo. The coastal town of Negombo is actually much closer to the airport and is set up with heaps of little guesthouses to accommodate arriving tourists. But we made the painstakingly slow trip from the airport into Colombo and arrived at our hostel pretty exhausted.
But with limited time in the city we decided to make the most of it. We dumped our bags, grabbed some water and headed out to explore. We set out walking towards the fort area of the city in the hope of seeing some great colonial architecture. However it became immediately apparent that walking was a bad idea. We were much further from the centre than we thought and the heat was incredible. Instead we managed to flag down a metered Tuk-Tuk and headed towards the centrally located Fort Station. The metered vehicle was handy as we hadn’t really figured out how much things should cost yet. Our driver was friendly and charismatic, he showed a lot of interest in where we were from and was delighted to have picked us up.
The station, as we expected, was bustling. Little food carts surrounded the entrance offering small doughy treats for your journey. Hoards of people scrambled in every direction and we were immediately hounded by friendly, but very insistent drivers who all wanted to take us somewhere. After politely declining numerous offers, we managed to fight our way through to one of the many ticket booths. We attempted to buy some reserved seat tickets to Matara for the next morning but were unsurprised to find out that we couldn’t. For this train line tickets could only be bought on the day of the journey, we would have to run the gauntlet in the morning. But it wasn’t a wasted trip, we were now a little more familiar with the station which, hopefully, would make catching the train in the morning a whole lot easier.
From the station we wandered along a busy road towards the fort. We crossed an old bridge over a black river which stunk to high heaven. There were small market stalls on either side and we both mused how people could live and work in such appalling conditions. It was unbearably hot and as we approached the fort the crowds, mixed with the heat, created a claustrophobic concoction. To our dismay we found no quaint, colonial streets. The architecture was shrouded by scaffolding and where we expected to see grand buildings we found only building sites and banks. The rate the city appeared to be expanding was incredible. It seemed that to prepare for the future, Colombo had decided to sacrifice the now.
Frustrated by our disappointment we instead turned to food for our fix of culture. We jumped back in to a Tuk-Tuk and headed to Pilawoos a local eatery that we’d read about in Lonely Planet. Along the ride we attempted to ask our friendly driver how to say ‘thank you’ in Sinhalese. He misunderstood, and in his urge to impress us he proceeded to say repeat “thank you” in his best John Cleese accent, as if we were testing his English.
Pilawoos blended perfectly in to the facade of the street and we would easily have missed it, had we not been looking for it. But once inside we found the perfect introduction to our Sri Lankan trip. The owner greeted us warmly and sat us on own own table away from the hoards of locals on their lunch break. There was a vibrant atmosphere inside, like we’d walked into a British country pub. But instead of that familiar stale beer smell we were greeted by a waft of strong spices and frying garlic.
We washed our hands in the old sink at the back before tucking in to Pilawoos speciality Kottu dish. Shredded vegetables are fried in coconut oil with an array of spices. Eggs, cheese and stale rotti bread are then added and chopped aggressively. From our table we could here the distinctive sound of the metal plates clanking and scraping viciously as our meal was prepared. We drizzled the dish with a spicy dressing and ate with our hands.
As we tucked in to our delicious dish we noticed the room getting busier. Eventually we were joined at our table by a young and friendly local who was eager eat and chat. He asked inquisitively about our lives and told us enthusiastically about what we were eating. It was a real treat to share lunch with him, it reinvigorated our day and was our first real taste of the famous Sri Lankan hospitality.
Re-energised from our feed we decided to give Colombo another go and so jumped back into a Tuk-Tuk and headed towards Pettah market. Our young driver clearly had no idea where he was going, but wherever he was taking us, he was keen to get us there fast. His boy racer Tuk-Tuk razzed erratically through the city, weaving precariously in and out of traffic. We clung on and sat back, letting the breeze blow away our cobwebs while he figured it out.
He eventually deposited us near something that resembled a market. It may not have been Pettah, I’m still not sure. But either way we disembarked and headed off in to the sweaty streets. Using our Lonely Planet book as a guide we wandered through a maze of tightly packed alleys dodging all manor of human, animal and vehicle as we trudged slowly towards no where in particular. The air was think with smoke and heat. As the streets grew narrower, our eyes darted from one side to the other as we marvelled at the chaos unfolding around us. Everywhere we looked, people were busy, it was a hub of industry. Barrels of colourful fruit, potent smelling fish and exotic looking spices lined the streets. Men carted enormous trailers, piled high with onions and garlic, through the impossibly crowded streets. They travelled at an agonisingly slow pace, their sinewy bodies struggling to manoeuvre the heavy load through the wall of oncoming people. Yet in the midst of all this madness, everyone found time to stop and give us a smile and a wave. Eventually we emerged on to a wider road at the centre of the market streets. Here, huge trucks clogged up the crossroads, honking impatiently but going nowhere. We both took a moment to breath as if we’d just emerged form a storm. It took a moment to regain our senses after the onslaught but we both smiled and savoured the authentic experience.
In many ways we struggled with Colombo, It was chaotic with no reward. We searched for a hidden gem but Colombo never revealed one. It wasn’t pretty and we saw nothing of note, yet we did glimpse real life there. For a fleeting moment in that mystery market we felt first hand the pace and the heat that greets these locals every morning. It’s a place to experience rather than see. You won’t be impressed but it will leave a lasting impression, you’ll know you’ve been there. You’ll remember the chaos, you’ll remember the smells and despite your constant frustration, you’ll remember the smiles.
For now, it isn’t a place to linger, although someday soon it might be. But if like me, you need the cobwebs blown from your backpack to remind you where you are, then Colombo might just be the very place to start.