Spending time in Colombo was not my intention, at least not right now. I had only got the bus to Colombo from Negombo at the last minute as I apparently couldn’t go direct to Jaffna, the 60 rupee (30p) 1.5 hour bus journey causing me actual bodily pain every time the driver slammed on the brakes to accelerate at lightning speed and then brake suddenly once again; my head based the metal pole of the seat in front a number of times, and the constant beeping of the horn made it difficult to really relax. But I definitely felt as though I was in Asia with the manic traffic and the heat.
Anyway, we arrived at the bus station in Colombo just before midday and I started to make my way to the train station, for some reason thinking the night train would be my best bet but later discovering the night bus is apparently far better. Fort train station is probably only a 15 or so minute walk from the bus station but I was baking hot and I couldn’t find my bearings so I paid 100 rupees (50p) to take a Tuk Tuk there, eventually locating the counter for trains to Jaffna to find out the train for that night was fully booked; the clerk advised me to come back at 2:30pm when there might be cancellations I could nab. So I paid 60 rupees (30p) to store my main bag in the train station cloak room and left the station to try to see some of Colombo.
I made my way west towards the Fort district and into Pagoda Tea Rooms, as recommended by Rough Guides, as I hadn’t eaten yet and was running low on energy. I went for a white coffee (average at best but a caffeine fix anyway) and a Chicken Lamprai; a surprisingly tasty dish of rice, spices, onions and chicken wrapped inside a banana leaf for 400 rupees (£2).
I had an hour to kill before needing to be back at the train station so I decided to wander towards the Clocktower-Lighthouse and then towards the south, where I crossed paths with a Sri Lankan called Rashan on his way to Gangaramya temple, and this is where my day changed completely.
Apparently it was a special day at Gangaramya – I couldn’t quite understand why, but it seemed to be to do with blessings – so he wanted to make a visit before it got really busy at around 2pm. Sensing my interest he suggested I join him before going back to the train station in time for booking my ticket. So we hopped into a Tuk Tuk and made our way to Gangaramya, Rashan covering the 500 rupees for us to get in and me being handed a white skirt to put over my bare legs (you need to be appropriately dressed, especially for Buddhist temples, so taking off shoes/headwear and covering your shoulders and legs is important).
We then made our way round the temple, Rashan explaining the different gods he was praying to and why as we made our way inside. In front of the gold plated Buddha – the Buddha of enlightenment – he prayed for luck on my travels and for me to be safe. Gangaramya is a temple comprising of a group of buildings clustered around a courtyard with a 300 year old Bo Tree draped in prayer flags taking centre stage; apparently touching the tree with your hand brings you good luck.
On our way we around we placed the heads of flowers near statues as an offering, and just before we left we received our own offering from a monk; tying string to my wrist, signifying good luck, and placing a gold ornamental hat on my head as I bowed, I received a blessing and prayers for safe travels. It was a beautiful temple full of colour and energy.
Back in the Tuk Tuk we zipped to the train station where I managed to get a second class ticket for the 8:30pm sleeper train to Jaffna for 700 rupees (£3.50) before looping back around the edge of Slave Island (a serene body of water adorned with temples, trees and cafes) to reach Captain’s Garden Hindu Temple, apparently the oldest temple. It was locked when we arrived but Rashan knew the guy who had the keys, who, lived in one of the houses surrounding the temple. Walking down a narrow alley with flat, terrace houses in a block-like structure, all painted in a slightly different colour but incredibly worn, I was struck by the local lifestyle of the more derelict areas.
Rashan knocked on the door and a man wearing a sheet on his lower half only (quite common in Sri Lanka) answered, eventually coming out to unlock the temple for us. After throwing on my Hareem pants (Hindu temples aren’t always as strict as Buddhist temples but I was only wearing shorts and a vest) and putting both white and red powder into a small circle on my forehead (presumably like a Bindi) we wandered around this empty, run-down temple, kept alive but the ridiculously colourful ceilings as streams of light burst through. I paid the 500 rupees this time and then back into the Tuk Tuk we went.
We then stopped outside the White House – home of the former Prime Minister – for some pictures, both of the White House itself but also of me posing in the Tuk Tuk drivers seat (how I would love to try driving one myself – that might be my ultimate travelling goal).
Driving on we passed two cricket venues and the flat, peaceful Viharamahadevi Park before making it to the Independence Commemoration Hall in honour of Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948, when Sri Lanka still went by its former name of Ceylon. Locals were inside the hall decorating parallel planks of wood with red and white tissue paper, apparently something taken from Kandy and used for processions.
Rashan needed to go back to the Fort district at around 4pm as he had left his car at work and I was happy to be dropped off there, stopping at an ATM so I could get more cash on the way. It was as I was walking back to the Tuk Tuk that I suddenly had this feeling of being scammed or used by Rashan, something that for some reason hadn’t crossed my mind before then, which seems stupid to me now. I tried to insist walking to the Dutch Hospital – a courtyard area of coffee shops, restaurants and bars – from here but, ushering me inside the Tuk Tuk, Rashan insisted I be dropped off as he would walk from there. How convenient. Then it came to telling me about payment for the Tuk Tuk – 8,000 rupees please, and he didn’t have any cash on him plus he had paid for a couple of water bottles and one temple entrance (which, incidentally, wouldn’t have even come to 800 rupees let alone 8,000.
Now, I always manage to come up with great responses or arguments a few hours later when sat by myself and, had I been able to reach those conclusions in the moment, I would have expressed outrage at such a high cost (£40 for 2 hours in a Tuk Tuk is ridiculous) and politely pointed out it wasn’t exactly fair for me to cover the whole cost, but I had been cornered inside the Tuk Tuk, with the driver in front of me and Rashan blocking the doorway out, and I couldn’t see anyone around me. Plus I didn’t really have time to do the calculations in my head. So I paid. I stupidly, annoyingly, regretfully paid. But maybe for my own safety, who knows. He left, I was driven to Dutch Hospital, and there I sat thinking about what had just happened – how annoyed I was at myself for getting into the position but how angry and sad I was to have been treated in that way. It can make you wary of engaging with locals – which I don’t want to be as that is such a huge part of the travelling and cultural experience for me – and counters some of the otherwise lovely interactions. It didn’t get to me as much as something like this would have done during my first time backpacking – maybe I am getting better at letting things go – but it is such a shame and I want to learn from it whilst not shutting off from locals.
Around 6pm I decided to wander down Main Street, through The Pettah district, where the sun was beginning to set and the colourful lights of the shops lining bustling Main Street were lighting up the way; the image of Tuk tuks, motorbikes and locals carrying goods all weaving through the road was my favourite of the day, culminating in the spectacular red and white Jamil Ul-Aftar mosque. The energy was electric and I loved my amble down this street, dodging both mocking vehicles and people.
I weaved past Kayman’s Gate, up Sea Street and eventually into St Anthony’s MW to get to Sri Ponnambula Vanesvara Kovil, but now I wish I hadn’t bothered. The further I went the more leers and comments I received from local men, literally looking me up and down in a suggestive manner and making me feel hugely on display. It was stifling hot but as the sun went down and it got darker, the roads narrow and filled to the brim with locals, my shorts suddenly felt like a very bad idea indeed. It was on my walk back – having made it to the entrance of Kovil but not being able to get in – that a Tuk Tuk slowed beside me and the driver told me I was pretty and he liked me. I kept walking but he carried on driving alongside me before stopping to repeat that he liked me and asking if I like him too; I replied “no, sorry” and kept walking. He then caught up with me and slowed alongside me, saying “do you want me to show you my thing?” and starting to unbutton his trousers with one hand whilst keeping the other on the steering wheel. I firmly said “no!” and he replied with “you don’t want to see it?”, so I answered with “absolutely not!” followed with “and that’s not how you should speak to women!” But I think that last bit was somewhat lost on him.
I was a bit shaken but fortunately it was busy so I didn’t feel in imminent danger, just a bit vulnerable and mistreated. I ducked into the first female-run shop I could find and asked if I could stand behind their counter to change into trousers – they were so warm and friendly (I wonder if they sensed why I might suddenly want to change) and asked me where I was from as a distraction. Back on the streets I walked down to the road facing the train station and ducked into the first restaurant I saw, attempting to order food to the amusement of both the staff and local diners; I seemed to be a bit of a spectacle to them, a sweaty white woman trying to decipher what each dish was and even trying to ask how to eat it once it arrived in front of me. I order devilled fish curry (this one being a coconut based curry) which I ate using a plain hopper (I liked this so much more than I bought I would, enjoying the thick, slightly gooey centre with the more pancake like edges) and an egg rotti, which I found to be tougher and less tasty than a plain hopper. It all came to 155 rupees but as they had been so accommodating to me I left 200 rupees (£1); its standard to tip in Sri Lanka anyway, I believe, but I think 30% might be unusual.
I made it to the bus station at 7:45pm, collecting my backpack from the cloak room and heading to platform 6 just before 8pm. Here I had about 3 different local Sri Lankan’s talk to me at separate points, wanting to know where I was from and where I was heading to. Even though tourism has been open since 2012 I don’t see half as many Backpackers as I did in South East Asia and I still think it’s unusual for them to see a solo white female. These conversations I didn’t mind, though – you usually get a sense quite quickly of the sort of inter st they are showing you and if it feels appropriate or not.
The train arrived at around 8:20pm when everyone suddenly rushed onboard (standard second class seats aren’t numbered so they rush to get a good seat) but as I had a second class sleeper with designated seat I made my way slowly, leaving my main backpack on the luggage rack by the doors and settling into my seat with ceiling fan and windows wide open. The seats didn’t recline very far and were pretty uncomfortable for sleeping so I only managed to doze intermittently – the bus would have been a wiser choice – and we arrived into Jaffna just before 6am despite online telling me it would be 5:10, but I had a pick-up from my hostel planned so it wasn’t all bad…