March 16, 2018
Peacetime Transforms Colombo
KENDALL HILL explores …
During the civil war it was impossible to explore Colombo in detail. The Sri Lankan capital was so heavily militarised that half of it was a no-go zone.
So this is the first time since 1992 that I’ve been able to venture into the historic heart of the city. And my guide, fortunately, is the best in the business.
Mark Forbes runs Colombo City Walks, a series of entertaining rambles through the capital that focus on food, or dive bars (held monthly, highly recommended) or, in our case, history, architecture and culture. His four-hour tour is one of the most informative and engaging I’ve done in a decades-long career delineated by guides – some great, many middling, others best forgotten.
Forbes meets us in the central Fort district at the Old Dutch Hospital, which until recently housed a courthouse and police barracks. Now, following a year-long restoration of its stoic 17th century buildings, it is a trendy food and shopping precinct anchored by the country’s most acclaimed restaurant, Ministry of Crab.
Before we set-off down roads that were closed for two decades, and where trespassers were shot on sight by rooftop snipers, Forbes has a small but important announcement. “This is what I want you to understand,” he says. “Peace is incredible.”
It’s been eight years since the Tamil Tigers laid down arms in the separatist war they started back in 1983, but Forbes still sounds surprised – and a bit incredulous – as we wander freely down Chatham Street to admire its clocktower, the kilometre zero mark for all Sri Lanka. Its mechanism was manufactured by the same firm, Dent of London, that made Big Ben, and Chatham Street was the backdrop for Duran Duran’s 1982 music video Hungry Like The Wolf. Forbes is a font of fun trivia.
He leads us inside the old AMP building which, just a few years ago, was a wreck with banyan trees sprouting from its cracked façade. Now home to the financial crimes police, the 1914 high-rise has been gloriously restored so its pillars and chandeliers shine anew.
Forbes is an architectural photographer by day, which means he has privileged access to, and knowledge of, Colombo’s remarkable architectural heritage. It also means he can give visitors expert tips on how and what to shoot (if they wish).
Inside the red and white Renaissance exterior of Cargills department store, once the Harrods of Sri Lanka, he points out the pneumatic brass pipes once used to whisk cash from the shop floor up to accounts, and a 1684 statue of Minerva salvaged from the original Dutch building that stood on this corner. Raffles Hotels & Resorts are tipped to take over this neglected building and turn it into a grand hotel, Forbes says.
There’s a similar transformation afoot at the Grand Oriental Hotel, where we stop mid-tour for a G&T at the top floor Harbour Bar, with its Dickensian views across the warehouses and stevedoring cranes of Colombo’s port. In its heyday, the Grand Oriental was famous for its strict door policy (guests had to send their credentials to the manager for approval). Today it has jaded, faded beauty, though Canada’s Fairmont group is said to have designs on the site.
Little by little, peace is transforming Colombo. On my next visit, I expect Forbes will have a slew of new curiosities to show me. “In five years this place is going to boom,” he predicts.
Journalist Kendall Hill is senior writer for Gourmet Traveller and a regular contributor to publications including Qantas magazine, The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. Follow him on Instagram @misterkendallhill
He has travelled to Sri Lanka with Remarkable East. This article first appeared in The Unbound Way – an independent travel magazine by Remarkable East and India Unbound.
Colombo and Mark Forbes’ walking tour feature in our upcoming small group tour to Sri Lanka – Splendour in Sri Lanka. Limited to 12 passengers, this genuinely small group tour of Sri Lanka runs June 7-20, 2018 and features a 3-night stay at the incredible Tea Trails as its centrepiece. Read the full trip itinerary here. For more on the luxury tea plantation resort Tea Trails in Sri Lanka, read our recent blog here.