When we toured Sri Lanka a few years ago, we flew into Colombo the biggest city, but were surprised that we spent very little time there. We suspected that it did not have much to offer tourists and loved the countryside with its elephants and tea plantations. Because the only tours we could find today would take us back to those very same places, we decided to see what the big city was all about. Through the sharing website Cruise Critic, we found a private tour for eight, always better than a big bus tour. These private tours can be a bit nerve racking because you don’t know if the other people or the guide will show up, but they did.
The weather in Colombo was as oppressively hot and humid as we remembered. We were glad that we had a chance to refresh in the van’s A/C between every stop and weren’t riding in tuk tuks as the locals do.. Our first stop was a Buddhist temple a few miles out of town. It is clear that religion is still vitally important in this country and visiting temples is a regular and frequent part of every day life. Vendors out front sold flowers and herbal oils that worshippers could take inside and donate to the Buddha. When people appeared to be finished with active prayer, they just hung around, sitting on the ground or steps and watching the world go by. School kids came on field trips and our white faces got a lot of looks. We looked right back at their freshly pressed uniforms and infectious grins.
We couldn’t believe our ears when our guide said that this temple had been here over 2,000 years. All the interior surfaces were painted with illustrations of the life of Buddha and important local activities and were in remarkably good condition in this humid climate. One panel had been dismissed as a fantasy; it showed buildings and temples being swept away by the ocean. In 2004 this fantasy became a nightmare as Sri Lanka was decimated by the tsunami. The highest point in Colombo is less than ten feet above the sea.
The lively nature of this temple was a sharp contrast to the Church of Wolvendaal, so named by the Dutch because they thought they had seen wolves here. They suffered from an overactive imagination. Workers were trying to repair things, but they had much too much yet to do. Back in the day all commerce between Europe and Asia sailed past Sri Lanka and it suffered from all the attention from various European countries. When the Dutch were here their church was on that highest spot of land, looming over everything else and its steeple was used as an unofficial light house. The locals built a stupa nearer the shore so that the first thing new arrivals would see was a Buddhist symbol not a Christian one.
Until 1948 Sir Lanka was known as Ceylon and after their independence they built a huge commemorative building that looked more like another temple than a governmental building. Wooden carved panels inside illustrated the history of the country. Our guide said we were lucky not to have been here yesterday when the funeral service of an important monk was held here and he was cremated on the spot. We could still see the ashes.
We visited another temple that had been on this spot so long the plants and trees had wrapped themselves around and into it. This building felt more like a museum than a temple. When people want a favor from the Buddha or want to thank him for a favor rendered, they donate something valuable and this place was where a lot of the booty was housed. We saw the usual Buddha statues made out of jade or gold as well as cases full of ordinary wrist watches and a section of donated cars, some dating back to the 1930’s. It all seemed strange and weird to my western eyes, but I suspect that the Buddhists would find going to church to drink Christ’s body and blood to be pretty weird as well.
It appears that Colombo is trying to follow the prosperous example of Singapore. They are madly reclaiming land at the sea shore and building some high rise buildings. The lotus shaped TV tower is due to be finished in 2020. The newest buildings did not have the flare and imagination we saw in Singapore, but the Sri Lankans are just getting the hang of things after their 25 year civil war. When the British were here they imported Tamils from India to pick the tea leaves on their plantations. These Hindu folks wanted to have a designated section of the island to call their own and the Singhalese said no way. Generations were born and died while this conflict raged. Today things seem peaceful at last and the only obvious reminders to us were the street signs that are in three languages: English, Singhalese and Tamil.
The Sri Lankans are about to celebrate their new year which is a holiday that involves a lot of gift giving and the local markets were buzzing. The fruit and vegetable section was a heady mixture of smells and sounds as the vendors shouted about the merits of their products at the top of their lungs. Nearby small shops sold anything you might find at a Walmart and tiny speakers blasted conflicting musical hits. As we emerged from this cacophony we were smothered with bubbles from a vendor selling this popular toy. Between the heat and the sun and the noise and the smells, we felt delirious. That’s Sir Lanka.