During the planning stages of my recent trip (and by that I mean that I read an article or two) I read that Colombo is merely a city to be passed through on the way to Sri Lanka’s more attractive destinations: leopard safaris; elephant orphanages; turtle hatcheries; tea plantations; mountain hikes; temples; and sun-blasted beaches. After a list like that it really is no surprise that a congested city like Colombo holds less appeal for most people.
However, as my visit to Sri Lanka was prompted by a visa-run we had no choice but to bed down in Colombo for a couple of days and make the most of it. At least I’d get the chance to see for myself whether Colombo deserves the bad rap that it often gets.
As with any city that I find myself visiting, I always look at it with the question: could I live here in mind. Colombo is very different from other cities that I have lived in, but would it work for me?
I spent a total of 6 nights in Colombo, 4 of which were spent near the city centre, and 2 of which were spent at Lavinia Beach much further south in the city. During this time I had plenty of opportunity to get a feel for Colombo.
Firstly, let’s look at what I felt is positive about Colombo.
Easy to use public transport
We used the bus to get to and from our city centre hostel and found it to be really easy to navigate. The ticket collector was helpful and spoke good English. He came to tell us when it was our stop, and made sure that the driver didn’t pull off as we were alighting from the bus. It was cheap too!
Friendly, helpful and interested locals
Like the ticket collector on the bus, we found locals generally helpful and friendly. At Lavinia beach the rickshaw drivers were friendlier than their downtown counterparts—they even used the meter. We didn’t struggle to find out information simply by asking people in the train station or in shops.
Clean city beaches
Lavinia beach is an easy place to escape the city without actually escaping the city. In fact, its laid-back vibe will make you completely forget that you are still in Colombo. There are plenty of low-key guesthouses to chill with other travellers, and the beach has a few bars and restaurants. And if you want to get to a nice beach away from Colombo a taxi to Hikkaduwa takes around an hour. If you have more time you could take the train down the more picturesque coastal route.
We saw a lot of travellers and expats in Sri Lanka. More than we ever see around Mumbai. Of course, Colombo is nowhere near the colossal size of Mumbai so the scene is much more condensed; but it was great to hear languages from all around the world being spoken in groups where everybody is from a different country. After eating at some of the popular expat eateries, I decided that Colombo could easily make it to my list of cities I would like to live in. There are some wonderful international restaurants too.
Sounding good so far, but are there any negatives?
Eating out is expensive.
Colombo is not as cheap as I expected. I live in Mumbai—itself a phenomenally expensive city—but there I can eat at an upmarket international restaurant for significantly less than the international food I ate in Colombo. As an example, a steak at the charming Gallery restaurant in Colombo costs around $30 US, whereas the same in equally trendy Mumbai eatery Brewbot costs a mere $8. Although I liked the Sri Lankan food that I tried, it was not as spicy, varied or cheap as Indian food.
Metered taxis refuse to use the meter and can hassle you
Around the city centre it is almost impossible to get the driver to ride on the meter and the price asked will undoubtedly be twice or more what you should pay. Added to that, they don’t actually know many of the destinations that you are looking for so will expect you to state a landmark. Of course, when you try to direct them from the landmark to your end destination the agreed price will rapidly increase. On some rides the driver dropped us off long before our destination and we ended up walking the remainder of the journey.
If you do persuade a driver to use the meter they might take a few wrong turns to prolong the journey. We tracked our rides on GPS and quickly pointed out their errors. Our help was not well received.
Around the middle section of Galle road we encountered persistent rickshaw drivers who followed us despite our refusals, and at Colombo Fort Railway we almost started a fight when a snubbed taxi driver came and shouted at us for choosing another taxi driver over him and then yelled at the other taxi driver too.
However, if I lived in Colombo I’m pretty sure that these things would not be an issue.
All told, I think Colombo would be a good fit. It might not be the most dynamic city, or have the best attractions – but its friendly laid-back vibe really resonated with me. I could live there for a year or two.
Have you visited Colombo? Do you have any positives or negatives to share?