Colombo - Abbey Travel, Ireland



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Welcome to Colombo


A pretty metropolis sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it is a description that fits Colombo, Sri Lanka's largest city, a beehive of commotion with more than a million inhabitants.

Frenetic traffic fills the main Galle Road that runs through the city from the district of Fort, parallel with the coast, connecting all the suburban enclaves down to the town of Galle in the south. Fort is the historic centre of the city that has become the main business district, filled with shops, office blocks and government buildings. It is here that most of the gracious old buildings from the Dutch, Portuguese and British colonial eras are to be seen. East of Fort is the exciting Pettah bazaar district, where the streets are crammed with shops and stalls selling all manner of goods from vegetables to gemstones. Further south the city's seafront is known as Galle Face Green, where locals enjoy games of cricket, fly kites or take evening strolls watching the sunset. Beyond this lies Colombo's smart neighbourhood, Cinammon Gardens, boasting elegant mansions, tree-lined streets and the lovely Viharamaha Devi Park. The closest beach resort to the city is Mount Lavinia, about six miles (10km) from the city.

Main tourist attractions include museums, historic buildings and churches, and beautiful parks. What is especially enjoyable is the variety of cuisine that can be sampled at any one of the city's plentiful bars, restaurants, sidewalk cafes and kiosks.

Information & Facts


Colombo's weather stays evenly hot and humid throughout the year, with no distinct seasons apart from two rainy seasons. Heavy monsoon rains occur between May and August, and again between October and January.

Getting Around

Catching a bus in Colombo is an experience in itself and is perhaps recommended only for hardened travellers. Buses become incredibly crowded and are erratic, with no obvious schedule. A far safer way to negotiate the city is via taxi. Prices should be agreed on before hand as very few have meters, though they are usually cheap and easy to hail. Driving in the city is as much of an adventure as taking a bus and normal traffic rules do not seem to apply. It would be well worth rather hiring a car with a driver. Three-wheeled auto rickshaws are also available, and although usually somewhat cheaper than taxis, are not exactly a comfortable ride.

Most people speak Sinhala, which is the national and official language. Tamil is also spoken, and English is spoken at most tourist establishments.

The unit of currency is the Sri Lanka Rupee (LKR), which is divided into 100 cents. Major credit cards are widely accepted, and travellers cheques in US Dollars are recommended. ATMs are becoming more common, but outside the main cities they are unlikely to accept international cards. Credit cards should be used with caution due to the potential for fraud. Foreign currency can be exchanged at bureaux de change, banks and hotels, but exchanging cash is more expensive than exchanging travellers cheques. Banks are closed on Sundays.

Local time is GMT +5.30.

The legendary mountain peak towering 7,297ft (2,224m) over the island of Sri Lanka is known as Sri Pada or Adam's Peak, and has been venerated as a place of pilgrimage and worship for all major faiths for many generations. The holy mountain bears the imprint of a foot on a rock on its summit. Depending on their faith pilgrims believe the print was left there by Buddha, the God Shiva, St Thomas, or Adam after he was expelled from Eden. Whether you believe the footprint to be holy or not the climb to view it, protected in an enclosure at the pinnacle of the peak, is well worth it for the panoramic views of tropical forest afforded from the top. The stairway up the mountainside is believed to be the longest in the world and climbers are entitled to ring the bell sited at the top once they have made the journey.

The remains of the ancient sacred city of Anuradhapura are sited about 130 miles (205km) north of Colombo, standing majestically in the jungle that for generations hid away the palaces, monasteries and monuments, which have been there since the third century BC. The ancient city was capital of the island for more than 10 centuries, until an invasion in 993, having initially been founded around a fig tree grown from a cutting of Buddha's 'tree of enlightenment'. The remains visible today consist of several magnificent dagobas (domes built to enshrine sacred relics), sculptures, carvings, ruined palaces and monasteries, bathing ponds and irrigation tanks. Tourist facilities and hotels are available in the nearby 'new town' of Anuradhapura. A recommended way to view the many scattered archaeological treasures is to hire a bicycle, or travel between sights on a 'Tuk-tuk'.

Whether you stay in them or not, Colombo has some grand old hotels with plenty of legends and history attached that are well worth visiting, even for a sundowner on the veranda. The Grand Oriental Hotel faces the once-bustling passenger harbour terminal and in the age of elegance played host to the rich and famous travelling on the famed Cunard and P&O passenger liners. The Galle Face Hotel faces the Green with a haughty, beautiful façade. It oozes with charm and is believed to be the oldest hotel east of the Suez Canal. The Mount Lavinia Hotel at the city's beach resort was originally the residence of the British Governor.

The relaxed and peaceful atmosphere of the town of Kandy in the heart of Sri Lanka's hill country, about 75 miles (120km) from Colombo, is probably the result of being beautifully situated around a tranquil lake in a bowl of hills. The town is also the bastion of the island's pervasive Buddhist faith, and plays host to the country's most venerated religious relic, the sacred tooth of Buddha. The octagonal Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, attracts hundreds of pilgrims to daily ceremonies honouring the relic, and each year in July and August the tooth is carried in procession on an elephant during the ancient Esala Perahera parade. According to legend, the tooth was taken from Buddha as he lay on his funeral pyre and was smuggled to Sri Lanka hidden in the hair of a princess in the 4th century. Visitors can't actually see the tooth as it's in a casket, but the temple is an interesting place all the same. The ancient city also sports a good museum, the lovely Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, a bird sanctuary and an auditorium where folk dances are performed and local crafts are on display.

Sri Lanka's oldest museum was established in 1877 and today boasts a massive collection of antiques and objects d'art, encompassing the cultural heritage of the island. Exhibits include artefacts from archaeological sites all over Sri Lanka, and more than 4,000 ancient palm leaf manuscripts. Among the exhibits is displayed the regalia of the Kandyan Kings dating back to the 17th century. Alongside the archaeological museum in Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha is the Natural History Museum, which features the island's fauna and flora in dioramas. The dual museums are a good introduction for visitors interested in discovering the culture and 2,500-year history of the island.

Colombo's bazaar district, the Pettah, presents a real treat for shopaholics who can wander through the hustle and bustle of whole streets dedicated to selling a particular type of merchandise, from local handcrafts to brand name clothing. The area was once an exclusive residential area filled with stately homes and large gardens in gas-lit streets. A relic of the colonial era, the Dutch House Museum, is open to the public on Prince Street. The mansion house dates from the 17th century and was the residence of Count August Carl Van Ranzow. It has now been restored and stands among the traders and boutiques as a museum displaying the life and times of the Dutch occupation, its exhibits including furniture, ceramics, coins and all the trappings of daily life at the time.

Among the green hills of Kegalle, about 50 miles (85km) from Colombo on the road to Kandy in the hill country, a herd of about 60 elephants roam free in the Pinnewela Elephant Orphanage. This popular attraction, established as a sanctuary covering 25 acres of lush forest by the Sri Lankan Government in 1975, is unique. Its purpose is to feed, nurse and house young elephants lost or abandoned by their mothers. Recently the sanctuary has also started a breeding programme. Visitors are invited to observe and assist the baby elephants as they are fed from giant feeding bottles, before the pachyderms are lead down to the river for their daily baths at 10am and 2pm.

Sigiriya is an important Buddhist site in central Sri Lanka, about 100 miles (161km) northeast of Colombo. The remains of an ancient royal fortress and city dating from 477 AD stand on a vast rock, which rises 600ft (180m) above the surrounding plain. King Kasyapa built it to safeguard against attack from his brother, Mogallana from whom he had stolen the throne after having killed their father. The only way into the city is through the massive carved jaws of a lion - the name Sigiriya is taken from 'giriya', meaning 'jaws and throat' and 'sinha' meaning 'lion'. The site is one of the best-preserved first-millennium city centres in Asia and is also renowned for its 5th-century rock paintings and its magnificent, symmetrical water gardens.

The ancient port of Trincomalee on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka has a perfect natural harbour, which has made the town a prize to be fought over by foreign powers for generations. The Danes first took the trophy in 1617 on behalf of the Dutch, but the Portuguese put up a fort and staked their claim a few years later. By the mid-17th century the port was Dutch again, until the British and French both had a turn at occupation in the late 18th century. During the Second World War the harbour was a strategic British naval base, and now is home to the Sri Lankan Navy. The beaches in the area, especially those north of Trincomalee at Nilaveli and Uppuveli, are broad, soft and white, lapped by warm gentle waters. Among the sights to visit is Fort Frederick, built by the Portuguese, and Wellington House, once home to the Duke of Wellington. The Tirukoneswaram Temple is an important modern Hindu shrine at Swami Rock.

Colombo's zoo has a fine collection of animals, birds, reptiles and fish from all over the world, but in particular showcases the fauna of the island. The complex includes an aquarium, which is the only one of its kind in Asia displaying more than 500 varieties of aquatic life. There is also a walk-through aviary, reptile enclosure and butterfly park. One of the most popular attractions at the zoo is the daily elephant show, which takes place at 5.15pm.

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