A flight from Penang to KL and another from KL to Colombo brought us to Sri Lanka, known as the pearl in the Indian Ocean. We were greeted at the airport with garlands of Orchids and introduced to our new driver/guide Odi, who will be with us for the whole of our three weeks in Sri Lanka, Odi transported us to our hotel, the Kingsbury down on the waterfront in the centre of the city and arranged to meet us in reception at 10.00 the next morning. After a day travelling, and a two-and-a-half-hour time difference we decided to have dinner in our room, watch a film and get a good night sleep.
Our arrival in Sri Lanka coincided with Independence Day, an important event in a proud country that has only recently emerged from a long period of civil war. We were woken on Saturday morning by the sounds of a military parade, we opened our curtains and looked along the sea front to Galle Face Green, the large open space at the heart of Colombo. The green was filled with armed forces personnel, cavalry and artillery, along one side a grandstand provided shelter for lots of dignitaries including the president to oversee proceedings, the road along the seafront was full of people waiting for the parade; from our position on the third floor of the hotel we could see soldiers posted on the roof tops of all the tall buildings in the area. By the time we had had breakfast and met Odi the parade was leaving the green in a procession along the seafront, Odi explained that the independence Day celebration rotates around the cities in Sri Lanka so we were lucky that it was in Colombo for our visit, he was pleased because he had never seen it himself. We found a spot on the pavement and watched as the parade went passed; of shore there was a flotilla of naval vessels, there was a fly past of lots of different air force planes; and a long procession of soldiers, tanks and artillery carriages along the road. The procession included flatbed lorries with tableaux on board representing bomb disposal, chemical and nuclear warfare teams, dog handlers, drone operators and it/signal officers, finally there were parachutists gliding over the city to land on the green. It was quite a display for our first morning in Sri Lanka.
After the parade we walked in to Colombo through an area of government offices housed in grand colonial buildings. We stopped to buy a King Coconut, they are sold all over Sri Lanka as refreshing drinks, the stall holder cut of the top with a machete and gave it to us with two straws, once we had drunk the delicious coconut water he cut the shell in half so we could eat the soft flesh inside. Fully refreshed we followed Odi through the large market area known as Pettah Market where each street has a different specialism, electronics, textiles, jewellery, dried fish and fresh fruit and veg. Although it was about mid-day the market was just getting going after people had been to watch the celebrations, the streets were very quiet which made it much easier to explore the market. A wide loop through the market brought us back to the hotel where we collected Odi’s car and drove to some of the more interesting places further out of town, we saw parks and a cricket ground, a wealthy neighbourhood where the well to do live in grand gated mansions and stopped at a beautiful ceremonial meeting hall built to mark Independence. Carved panels around the ceiling told the story of Sri Lankan history including the arrival of Buddha’s tooth, a sacred relic – more of that later, and the various waves of European colonial rule ending with independence.