Come sunset, Colombo is a mesmeric beast—and it’s no bore during the day. If this is your first time in the Sri Lankan port city, chances are the morning has passed in grabbing egg hoppers or sticky-sweet pani pols from street vendors, walking around a pantheon of Dutch and Portuguese architecture. You’d have encountered the neoclassical gravitas of the Old Parliament Building, the keeper of Sri Lankan politics since 1930. And the almost monastery-like facade of the New Sri Lankan Parliament, its colonnaded pavilions and copper roofs dreamt up by star architect Geoffrey Bawa on a landscaped lake island. You might have stopped at the Gangaramaya Temple, its guardian Bodhi tree, frescoed ceilings and solemn Buddha statues bringing balance to the shrine’s architectural mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, Chinese and Indian heritage. Perhaps you’ve hitched a ride on one of those cherry-red government buses, so reminiscent of Bombay’s BEST, to make your way to the 400-year-old Dutch Hospital, now a refurbished recreational hub. There, you’d have heard ship horns wrinkle up the harbour air, fainter and fainter with each swig of Lion’s beer, and your wallet willing, some Ministry-approved lagoon crabs at chef Darshana Munidasa’s famed restaurant. And only when you have snaked through Pettah bazaar’s screaming fabric—past the clock tower built two years before the Big Ben, around the Jami Ul-Alfar mosque’s hypnotic red and white patterns, across falooda shops and the terror-surviving St. Anthony’s shrine—will you notice that the sun has cast a mauve marquee on the ocean city.
At sundown, when the light dissolves, follow the buzz to Galle Face Green. At this hour, salted breeze rollerblades between the gorgeous buildings and the ancient caramels of Galle Face Hotel, Colombo’s oldest, gleaming under neon light that falls as benevolently on the area’s plum restaurants and casinos. Walk on road-sized pavements towards the sea face, crossing grocery shops stacked with Elephant Ginger Beer, grape-flavoured Portello soda and fat, green bananas. Keep walking until you not just hear but see the breakers, a patch of green dividing the curling black Indian Ocean from the promenade. You will smell fish and fire, for the corniche is dotted with food carts peddling grilled king crabs, masala mullets, jhinga (barbequed and devilled), and even gosht lathered in angry orange paste. Take a minute to notice how the sputter of meat in hot oil is underscored by skillets scrapping to a beat. Throw in Sinhala film numbers, wafting out of stove-side radio sets, and your Colombo mixtape is complete. If you sit down at one of these open shacks, expect stray sand to fly into your isso vadai. But you wouldn’t mind, for the popular snack of prawns deep-fried on the disc-like lentil vadai, accompanied by lime juice, chopped onions and a badass chutney, demands the street cred.
Mask museum (top left) in Ambalangoda; Gorging on Sri Lankan street food (top right); Sri Lankan railway stations with colonial architecture and old-fashioned announcement boards (bottom left); surfing haunts (bottom right) in Bentota are all visits and experiences that cannot be missed. Photos By: Sohini Das Gupta (mask); Ruben M Ramos/Shutterstock (food); Jakob Polacsek/Moment Unreleased/Getty images (notice board); ValeriiaES/Shutterstock (turtle), Andy Dane Photography/Moment Open/Getty images (man)
Moving towards the pier, where fluttering tail ends of kites hung for sale appear stitched into the night sky, you might grab a friendly local to pick up a lone word of Sinhala. Now you know, those are sarungals in the sky. On your way back, take a tuk-tuk and head to the last-awake kottu haunt at Hotel De Pilawoos. Kottu, an unpredictable jumble of shredded godhambara roti tossed in scraps of just about anything—greens, egg, prawn, chicken and beef—is a filling treat if you’re looking for one at this hour. At Pilawoos, menu boards hang like run-on text on the walls, all across the room. The late night sloth of patrons locking eyes with platefuls is broken only by the sound of jaws, or dull metal clangs at the cash counter. If salvation for your taste buds and damnation for your arteries is your idea of snacking too, call for the Chicken Cheese Kottu, and pair it with Ice Milo, a recurring presence in Lankan joints.
Colombo’s preoccupation with the legacy of Geoffrey Bawa carries south to Bentota, 1.5 hours down the coast. But nuzzled by coral-rich waters, the languid resort town is nothing like Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. A surfing hotspot and hatchery haunt for olive ridley, leatherback, loggerhead and other sea turtles, it also houses the Lunuganga Estate (lunu: salt, ganga: river). Bawa’s country house, a passion project started in 1949 and developed until the architect’s death in 2003, resembles a bewitched Renaissance garden. Set on the shores of the Dedduwa Lake, the expanse of rolling greens, emphasised by moody, fantastical architectural pieces, is a Bentota must. Start at the gates, where gigantic stone plant-holders in the shape of the human face set the tone for the property’s erratic delights. Not too far inside stands Bawa’s house of whimsy, its Garden Room packed with Asian and European artefacts. Scan its visible nooks for a colonial Burgermeister chair, a gorgeous Samanea Saman-wood table carved out of a single log, and on it, a woman’s statue, trapped forever in this curious mix. Just when you’re sucked into the trance of the floor, patterned with black-and-white diamonds, brass wind chimes in an open garden will draw you out for the next leg. Back in the day, each gong denoted different summons for Bawa’s help, but you can follow their ting-a-ling to play Alice in his part-landscaped, part-overrun wonderland. Paths flecked with cinnamon, rubber and kaduru trees—wood from the last one used to make Sri Lankan dance masks—would lead you to ponds of wild lotuses, pavilions with Roman-style columns, or the odd black stone statue craning its neck between a setting sun and tangerine ripples. On Bawa’s side of the lake you’ll find a rather life-like stone leopard, looking out at a stone ball across it. The feline sentry was designed to dissuade intruders, trigger a trick of the eye, like so many of Bawa’s sculptures. The island across the waters too belonged to Bawa, taken into possession so nobody could block his generous vista. Expected, of the artist who spent half a decade developing an estate that looks like it could hold wishing wells, trap doors and faerie nests.
Stunning for its red and white brickwork, the Jami Ul-Alfar mosque (left) in Pettah adds art and aura to Colombo’s great bazaar; The country house (right) of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s star architect, in Bentota, is a visual treat. Photos By: Imagebook/Theekshana Kumara/Stockbyte/Getty images (mosque); Kim Walker/robertharding/Dinodia photo library (interior)
About an hour by road from Bentota towards Galle lies the mask carving town of Ambalangoda, unique for its repository of ancient Sanni Yakuma (devil dance) masks, and other flamboyant specimens used in the folk-drama dance of kolam. Head to the small but exciting space of the Ariyapala Mask Museum, where statues of fishermen and demons stand stunned beside those of Sri Lankan rajas. Skip the resident guide’s somewhat dry commentary and read about Amabalangoda’s rich tradition of masks on literature plastered all across the gallery. How else would you be warned that Kalu Yaku, the positively fuzzy-looking bearded creature, is accused of nothing less than arousing erotic feelings in women? His companion devils, not as ambitious, stop at inflicting the humble phlegm or stomach ache. When you’ve had your first fill of Lankan lores, go meet the mask artists in the adjacent workshop. A local guide would come in handy here, for the men, many of who have inherited the craft, are not all conversant in English. If you can work around the language though, you might learn that the over five-generations-old institution has remained in the illustrious Wijesuriya family, whose ancestor Ariyapala Wijesuriya Gurunnanse was a pioneer craftsman. Later, make your way to the associated wood souvenir shop and mask library, the latter a one-of-its-kind anthropological gold mine on the dying Lankan art.
In the walled town of Galle, songs of the sea wash over Portuguese, Dutch and British ruins. While its warehouses grab attention as upcycled boutiques and bars, it is the fantasy of lighthouses and clock towers, forts and ramparts, that defines Galle. The ancient port town, a rare Venn diagram of the past and present, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within its cobbled lanes, European and South Asian architectural styles align at ease. Following an unfamiliar road here might take you to the old Meeran mosque or the Dutch Reformed Church, to vendors selling spicy shrimp-chickpea or vans of wood apple ice cream—who knows? Walk, walk and walk some more in this town. Walk your way to the Galle Fort, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and later fortified by the Dutch. Standing at the stony lookout, spot the senior boulders, sunbathing for centuries. On the right day, you might meet the mangosteen aunties, selling heaps of the lychee-like tropical fruit dear to Sri Lanka, or a lone snake handler, carrying a glistening viper around to trade photo ops for quick bucks. Walking past the lighthouse and a tiny prison cell, reach the sheer drop from where you can see the part of the bay preferred by waders and swimmers. Don’t mind tourists milling about. In Galle, the expansiveness of the bay can only be amplified by the laughter of a Chinese backpacker who has just tasted her first rambutan.
Elephant safari (top left) in Udawalawe; Turtle hatcheries (top right); Statues (bottom left) and sculptures at the Gangaramaya Temple superimpose Sri Lankan, Thai, Indian, and Chinese architecture onto Colombo’s urban landscape; Train ride (bottom right) in Sri Lanka promise a whirring mixer of sounds and sights. Photos By: Andy Dane Photography/Moment Open/Getty images (elephants); Valeriiaes/Shutterstock (turtle); Tarzan9280/E+/Getty images (statues), Tarzan9280/iStock Unreleased/Getty images (train)
If baby animals are your jam, then the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe, adjacent to the eponymous national park, should be your next stop. A three-hour drive from Galle, it was established by the Department of Wildlife Conservation in 1995, and has released over 119 baby elephants to the wild after successful rehabilitation. Presently housing over 60 elephants, the outer grounds of the transit home offers quite a spectacle. Watch the adolescents gnash on grass, halting only to trumpet the bejesus out of you, as the younger lot suckle on milk channeled through funnels. For bumbling babies who can barely tread a straight line, there are feeders armed with big bottles of Lactogen. Whether it’s Ruby, tiny, and faltering after her feeder, or the restless Namal, who even at seven cannot be released into the wild due to injuries, the transit home fosters the sense of community essential to these animals. The orphaned and the injured, the lost and the bereft, all in here to heal.
Once healed, home awaits in the Udawalawe National Park. Often overlooked for the more popular Yala to its east, the national park, spread over 308 square kilometres, is a safe haven for wild elephants. Hemmed by highlands on its northern border, it is well-suited for safari enthusiasts who revel not just in the thrill of a sighting, but the wonder of sharing abundant natural moments with wildlife. For here it is easy to forget that traffic usually does not mean elephant snarls, herds and herds of the lovely beast secure enough to relax around open jeeps. No need to crane your neck, there will be a new family at every roll of the wheel, some flinging mud, some jousting with rivals. On your way around the landscape that turns rather dramatic with gnarly, bare trees and lakes manned by still-as-stars crocodiles, you might also run into water buffaloes, golden jackals, eagles, and land or water monitors. Aim for the magic hours of sunrise and sunset. Let the warm scents of the forest, and lemony wildflowers dancing with peacocks, imprint on your memories of Sri Lanka.
To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller India and National Geographic Magazine, head here.
Sohini Das Gupta
travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.
Hey there! Like what you see (or not)? Tell us what you think at email@example.com.