Colombo, Sri Lanka: a guide to places not to be missed

Colombo and its sights

Arriving in Colombo on the penultimate day of the old year, our group of 15 people stayed at the Sanmali Beach Hotel in the town of Maravila to the north. After getting acquainted with the warm Indian Ocean, we explored the surroundings of our hotel, welcomed the New Year and before the big “circumnavigation” of Sri Lanka, we decided to see the sights of Colombo.

The company we would be traveling with on the island offered us this tour ($110 per group).

We thought Colombo was about 60 km from the capital, but taking into account the morning traffic, we drove two hours there. And we got half way there on the highway. In fact, the capital is a little-known town with the difficult-spelling name Sri Jayawardenepura-Kotte, located on the outskirts of Colombo. It is where the parliament and other government offices of the country are located.

Colombo itself is also relatively small – a population of about 600 thousand people. But with its suburbs, it will be more than 5 million. The city has a long history dating back to the first century of our era. And that history was connected with the constant attempts of so many neighbors, near and far, to have their influence here. The Arabs, the Dutch, the Portuguese and the English have all made their mark on the island. And each of them has left its mark in the history, architecture and legislation of Sri Lanka…

Gangaram Temple

First on our tour of the capital was the Buddhist Gangaram Temple. It is located on the shore of a small lake in the center of town (Sri Jinaratana Rd Slave Island, Colombo 2).

Unlike most other revered and more ancient shrines built on the ground or cut into the rocks, this temple is relatively young – it is just over 120 years old. However, its exterior decoration and rich collections of works of art and applied art and its crucial role in education, testify to the fact that Gangaram temple has no equal on the island.

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Entrance to the temple is free, but clerks discreetly point to a place to leave a donation. And, at least 300 rupees (about $2). One must, of course, also take off one’s shoes and leave them at the entrance. There seems to be someone guarding it. There were no remarks about our clothes (in the sense of unnecessary nudity) and we were allowed in freely.

The temple consists of several buildings characterized by a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism. Everywhere is quiet, clean and the floors are lined with mats.

You can wander around the temple as much as you want. Inside are interesting altars of Shakyamuni, frescoes depicting the life of the Buddha and the deities of the Indian pantheon, as well as numerous rooms-museums.

There is a “garden” of Buddhas on one of the roofs, with about a hundred stone statues of the “enlightened one.

Since its very first day, the Gangaram Temple has been a center of learning for Buddhist monks. There is a huge collection of religious literature, which anyone can enter to become acquainted with. On one of the tiers we saw a group (students, pilgrims?) listening attentively to their mentor.

The temple hosts not only religious but also a variety of cultural and educational events and lectures. If you wish, you can immerse yourself in Orientalism, history, philosophy, and even do some modern or ancient crafts. And it’s free! These classes are held by life-wise professionals.

The great number of “museum” collections of Buddha statuettes, gifts and offerings brought by pilgrims and travelers from all over the world makes one dizzy.

If you want, you can ask a temple attendant to accompany you and he will be glad to show you all the hidden places and tie a red string on your wrist as a goodbye. For “good luck.

Well, of course, there is a Bodhi tree inside the temple. However, during this time, it is sort of grown into the wall of the building and it is almost not visible. On the upper platform, it was not accessible.

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In Buddhism, this tree is considered legendary. By meditating under it, Prince Gautama reached enlightenment and became a Buddha.

Another pleasant nuance – on the territory of the temple modern, equipped with all necessary, clean and free toilets.

Colombo National Museum

The next point of interest to us was the National Museum. It is located in a sleek white building built in the Italian style at the southern end of Viharamahadevi Park. There is a fee of Rs. 600 to enter the museum. There is a statue of Buddha and a Bodhi tree in front of the front of the building.

The museum is very informative and allows, starting from ancient times, the most complete picture of the history and culture of the country. All the exhibits are placed in 17 rooms on two floors of the building and are thematically divided.

This museum is almost 140 years old (it was opened in 1877) and its opening was promoted by the English governor William Henry Gregory. The museum exhibits a huge number of artifacts of various kinds found during excavations of the island – household items, handicrafts, collections of masks, sculptures, characterizing the Sri Lankan culture.

In addition to these, the museum also displays objects of the colonial past (sabers, cannons, statues, paintings), as well as rare books.

Of noteworthy objects were the throne of the last king of Lanka, dated 1693, and the palace toilet culture. Already in those early days there were such “stools” and a functioning sewage system…

Next door in another building is the Museum of Natural History. Its theme is devoted to the animal world of Sri Lanka. The exhibition includes well-made stuffed animals and birds.

Independence Memorial Hall

From these museums we went to the Independence Memorial Hall, located in the square of the same name in Cinnamon Gardens. It was created in honor of Sri Lanka’s independence on February 4, 1948.

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In front of the building stands a statue of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister, Stephen Don Senanayake. For its historical and cultural significance, this Hall is considered one of the city’s major landmarks.

It combines beautifully with skillful stone carvings and beautiful paintings, as well as rows of stone lions, as if guarding the room. Above each pillar is placed some historical scene from the life of the Lankans.

Each year, accompanied by a pictorial ceremony, this square is the site of an Independence Day celebration.


For lunch, we were taken to a tourist restaurant “for whites,” where a quick, all-inclusive buffet-style lunch cost 3,800 rupees for two ($26).

Sima Malak Temple

The temple was founded over 120 years ago and stands directly on Beira Lake. The prototype of this temple, its architect Geoffrey Bawa took the design of ancient Balinese religious structures as his inspiration. They seem to be light, but at the same time – very resistant. Admission to the Sima Malaka Temple costs 300 rupees. You have to pay extra for photos.

On the bridge leading to the temple, we see a statue of a reclining Buddha. After walking around it, we come to the temple grounds flanked by many Enlightened Ones in a sitting meditation posture (address: Sir James Pieris Mawatha, Colombo).

They say the temple is especially beautiful in the evening after sunset when they turn on the illumination. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for that as we had to return to our hotel in Maravil in the evening.

Clock Tower (Old Lighthouse)

Another interesting site was the Clock Tower, built in 1856. You can climb to the top of it by a tight staircase and our two girls did it, but the view was poor because of the netting and slanted wooden shutters on the windows. It was once a working lighthouse, but because of the sprawl of the city, the tower ended up in the middle of the city streets…

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Fort and Lighthouse.

The most historical and business district of Colombo is located in the Fort, a fortress built by the Portuguese in 1554. Other buildings such as administrative and residential buildings, churches and warehouses were located within the Fort. Most of the inhabitants were Europeans.

The seven shrouded cannons at the base of the lighthouse give a celebratory salute on Independence Day, which is celebrated on February 4.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the British destroyed the fort walls and in their place, expanding the central part of the city, built new buildings. Today almost nothing remains of the former Fort except for a few old colonial-era buildings, including the famous Clock Tower (or Old Lighthouse).

Approaching the Fort, we saw an interesting structure – Sambodhi Chaitiya Stupa, standing on an arch. It turns out that it was standing on the same place and during the design of the road, it was decided not to move it somewhere or just to destroy it, but to lift it up by building an arch over the road.

There are stairs to the top of the stupa. Inside, there are many images on the walls showing different periods of Buddha’s life.

Galle Face Promenade

The Galle Face promenade is about 1.3 km long and sits along the Indian Ocean coast. It offers no unique architectural delights – a large field for picnics and festivities and a modest stone-paved promenade with sparse stairways leading down to the ocean. People go down them to the ocean and wander-walk along the surf. No one swims.

This is where the people of the town like to entertain and spend their leisure time. Guests and tourists tend not to stay here for long. In the middle of the 19th century there was a hippodrome on this field, and today it is a favorite meeting place for young people.

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Somehow, absolutely no recreational infrastructure is visible here – no benches or benches are visible. People sit down right on the stones or trampled grass and have picnics and dances.

Others do sports like running or flying kites. You won’t get hungry and you won’t die of thirst here – there are a lot of vans with food and drinks along the beach, there are fast food outlets, and of course, souvenir vendors.

And while walking you can meet beautiful and cheerful Lankan women…

The day was coming to an end and storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. That was the end of our tour of Colombo and we hurried home to our comfortable oceanfront hotel. Tomorrow we have an early departure for the Sri Lankan “circumnavigation” – a two-week journey clockwise around Sri Lanka.

We’ll learn about the rich and ancient culture of this island country, see the ocean coast in different parts of the island and try our hand at various activities – board surfing and rafting on the Kelani River. Well, and then just rest for a week before flying into our winter on the ocean coast in the beautiful town of Hikkaduwa …

P.S. And although we had a guide and a bus with us, for the convenience of orientation I used the program for iPad with a downloaded map of Sri Lanka. This program allows you to navigate well without the internet. And it has all the city landmarks and all sorts of other services – gas stations, restaurants and stores.

You can also use the pre-loaded in the hotel program Google Map, which also allows good navigation in an unfamiliar city.

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