When planning on the trip to Sri Lanka, Colombo was one of the places giving the most headache. We would be arriving to the Colombo international airport close to midnight and departing early afternoon one and a half weeks later. Should we stop in Colombo at all or should we just continue straight down south? Should we play it safe and arrive a day before departure? Would we need a full day there? Maybe two? Colombo really was a tricky one and putting the itinerary together was like playing a big puzzle.
I had read so many different opinions about Colombo in advance. Some said it was an interesting city worth spending a few days, others recommended to simply skip the whole city. I was puzzled. There seemed to be several different lists naming tens of interesting sights worth seeing in the city but somehow they all seemed pretty lame. Eventually we ended up in a ”safe” solution and staying in Colombo for two nights, one upon arrival and one before departure. Both times, we would be arriving late at night and departing after noon, giving us a few hours around the city twice while making the travels more pleasant without excess stress. Was it worth it?
Sure, this way we avoided having to take an expensive taxi to the coast from the airport and could take a train the next day. We also did not have to worry if the trains would run on time or not when departing as we’d be spending the night in Colombo. Of course when looking the other way, we had to unpack and pack twice and move around more, which often makes things feel more restless. But then again, I’ve also always thought it is never a bad idea to get to know the capital when you are in the country if that is possible.
But most importantly, I learned a lesson.
Colombo was very different from the rest of the country, it was clearly richer, cleaner and more modern than the rest of the places we visited. But honestly, the sights in the city were not that impressive. On the first day, the city seemed awfully quiet. We set off early in the morning, wandered around, passed many places I had read about on those countless top10-attractions lists. But the city seemed so vague. There were barely no restaurants or cafes open, no shops, and only a handful of people. The sky was grey and the general feeling of the city was pretty bland. All we saw was a handful of beautiful buildings around the fort area and otherwise a rather quiet city – not like I had imagined a Sri Lankan capital to be. We soon learned that it was a national holiday and therefore the whole city was almost dead. As you can probably guess, I did not fall for the city and was happy to continue our journey towards the south coast in the afternoon.
When coming back to Colombo after touring around the country we gave the city a second chance. And what we saw was something completely different. In the evening we had dinner in a lively environment where live bands were playing, the restaurants and bars were packed and the atmosphere was compelling. This was just like a completely different city we saw this time. In the morning we took off to the streets to experience more, and could only say that again, the city looked a lot different than what it had seemed like on the first day. On the first day we had seen pretty much all around the fort and Galle face green, but this time we took off to the Gangarama-tempel and afterwards I really was happy we did not just stay on the hotel. Something I had given a serious consideration based on the first day’s experiences – I was not originally convinced I’d really need to see more of the city. But I’m lucky we did. The temple sure was great, but nothing special after all those countless of marvelous temples we had seen in Myanmar. But everything we saw on the way to and from the temple really made it worth the trip. We saw life on the streets, we could really feel the city. What a different experience it was!
And that was the lesson I learned. What I remember Colombo of is not the temples, the people, the silence on the first day nor the lively streets on the last day. Not the aggressive rickshaw drivers nor the beautiful buildings in the fort area. No, what I will remember Colombo of is that every visit, every experience is different. If I had been to colombo only on the first day, I would have said it was a boring city not worth visiting, and if I had visited it only on the last day, I probably would have been sad we did not stay longer to see more of the city.
Now I saw the city twice and learned the lesson. And that is something worth keeping in mind – every experience is different. If you read something from a blog or a paper, describing a place, it really does not guarantee that is how you’ll be experiencing it. What the place is like can only be found out by visiting the place yourself.