Colombo Unplugged

If you’re travelling to Sri Lanka, here’s some advice you might encounter: avoid Colombo. Just another South Asian city, lacking an identity and making up for it with concrete and glass and pretty pavements. Can’t hold a candle to winding hillsides and coconut-lined beaches found elsewhere on the island. Not a monument as grand as the temples of Polonnaruwa or the rock fortress of Sigiriya. So really, why bother?

Because those guidebooks and travel advisories you’re reading aren’t written by locals. They are limited to a visitor experience instead of offering insider insight. My Colombo, with its simultaneous chaos and quiet charm has often been misunderstood this way. To really know Colombo, you must know her like a native: encounter her head-on, immerse in her hidden dives and dance to her stubborn tune.

Yes, Colombo lacks a singular identity, but in this city, personality disorder is an asset. She is a metropolis of many people and promises to reveal many faces to those who seek her out. Colombo has been knocked down more times than we care to talk about, but she is always smiling. A happy, buoyant smile that welcomes vagabonds, weirdos and fine wines with equal delight. Anyone can come and find common ground in at least one of the many veiled delights found scattered across her 15 uneven zonal divisions.

On first glance, you might miss it all. Peel back the obvious layers of chaos and go in search of what lies beneath. Corporate buildings sit comfortably next to age-old Kovils, brand-new bridges play home to second-hand bookshops and boutique hotels work side-by-side with bunk-style accommodation. Colombo is a smorgasbord of underbellies and upper-crusts, rubbing shoulders and scraping skies. Unplug from the obvious and these worlds will emerge.

When you look at Colombo, look beyond the Porches to find hidden pathways. Get off the tour bus and take to the streets. Step out of the malls and head to the markets. Ride tuk-tuks and hop trains, kick up dust on the pavements and go down dark alleys. Walk out of the conditioned air and witness a wetland city. Ignore tonight’s 5-star steak and step into a Saiver shop. Forget the racist narrative and look deeper to find an inter-faith, multi-ethnic city that lives in harmony. And if you are a woman travelling alone, don’t be afraid to do it in Colombo.

The city belongs to everyone – from construction workers to cool cats, to street artists and gallery-goers, from nightclubbers to night riders. We are a bustling metropolis and village hamlet, both boring and brilliant. It all depends on you really. Do you choose to be visitor or witness when you come by?

The city is changing at a rapid pace, but in many ways, we also stay very much the same. We are a city that lacks a single identity – and we are proud of it. We are a Colombo of too many types of people and our collective identity is one of a kind.

Welcome to our unplugged Colombo.

Originally published in the February 2019 issue of The Fowler:

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