The cinnamon gate to Europe.

Before arriving to Colombo we had travelled to a few places in Sri Lanka already, but the capital ended up being much more complicated than other cities. Along with escalated hotel prices there was the impossibility of scooter rental and endless, seemingly unreasonable, taxes on goods. Due to our inexperience in South Asia understanding between us and locals was, at times, challenging.

View of the skyline over Beira Lake.


Among all the cities of Sri Lanka, Colombo is considered the most modern due to its business centres and districts, such as the Fort of Colombo and buildings constructed during the periods of Dutch and British occupation.

Colombo city council building.

Thanks to its large harbour and a strategic location along the trade routes between the East and West, Colombo was prized, at different times, by the Indians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese. When Sri Lanka became part of the British Empire in 1815, Colombo became the capital of the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka’s name under British rule), and remains the capital today.

A typical scene of Sri Lankans hanging out of a train.

Colonised first by Portugal, then by the Netherlands and finally by Britain, Colombo (and the rest of Sri Lanka) had no real chance of developing its own style of architecture. After independence, Colombo took over from where the British had left it architecturally, linguistically and fashion-wise.

Colombo has a developed infrastructure and is much cleaner compared to most other well-known cities in South Asia. In fact comparing things at a country-level, Sri Lanka is cleaner, generally, than any other South Asian country.

A woman sweeping leaves around her house near the Wanathamulla slum.

Architecturally Colombo has a diverse set of buildings, similar to London’s in some ways, but what Colombo lacks, compared to London, is parks. Colombo is chaotic and unbearably hot throughout the year and finding a park is near impossible.

A muscovy duck and a soldier in Viharamahadevi Park.

Social wealth.

Compared to its neighbours the wealth divide in Colombo is not too drastic and poverty has been decreasing over the last decade. There has also been a rapid reduction in the number of slum areas and a increase in the number of middle-class citizens. Proven perhaps by the abundance of cars on the roads and the increasing number of leisure spots.

One of those spots is Galle Face Green, a popular meeting place due to its wide expanses and seaside embankment. Most of the day, the sky is covered with kites, bubbles, children playing, families picnicking and couples on dates.

The two towers World Trade Centre is a recognised landmark of the city, just like the WTC was for NY.
People come out in large groups to bathe knee-deep in the sea as the waves here are too wild for swimming for eight months of the year.

Wanathamulla slum. As I mentioned, the number of slums in Colombo had shrunk, especially compared to Jakarta which I visited a few months ago. Even when asking where the slum areas were, many people couldn’t point out their locations. An auto-rickshaw driver we hired took us to one of the few slums in Colombo — Wanathamulla.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how slums can co-exist with the houses we live in and with the eateries we eat in. These areas are not difficult to spot, but due to our self-preservational nature they are easy to ignore, and we quite often do. How many times passing by, do we feel pity for the people who live there, and grateful for our comfortable houses? All the time?

Dehiwala slum. Less than 20 minutes by train from Colombo is a completely different world with narrow streets, dirty sewers and tiny houses that lean askew. Driving by in a car the slums are barely noticeable, tucked away from the roads and running along the railway connecting Colombo and Galle.

Man in traditional lungi on the beach by Dehiwala slum.

The people here dwell along the railway line on land that belongs to the government. A kind of “No one’s land”. Local authorities do not do much with the land and therefore its been taken over by the people living here. If they wanted to develop the land they would need to go through a long, complicated procedure of evictions. The people who live here spend their lives in fairly unsanitary conditions: a lack of toilets, drains, water, waste dumps etc.


For me food was a daily surprise and a pain to figure out. Due to multiculturalism the food in restaurants or as Muslims here call them, Hotels, is served at specific times. It was important to keep in mind that Tamils, Muslims and Buddhists have their own cuisines, so if you are late for the common time meal you are late for the day and instead of a rice and curry meal you will only get what’s left or some short eats (snacks).

Diaspora and natives.

The Muslim Moors began to settle in Colombo in the 8th century AD, when they arrived to the main port of the Sinhalese kingdom. When Portugal gained full control over the coastline, in exchange for a promise to protect it from any invaders, they soon built a trading post in Colombo and expelled all Muslims.

Residential block near Colombo train station.

Today, the Muslim descendants of Sri Lankan Moors are involved in business and trading in communities in central parts of Colombo, near ports and railway stations. They are subject to intimidation due to rising Buddhist nationalism and also from the Tamils during the civil war, they live in densely populated housing with multiple families often occupying one single house.

Colomban auto rickshaw driver.
Red striped extension near a Hindu temple.

The Tamils are descendants of the Kingdom of Jaffna and have been on the island since 2nd century BCE. They are mostly Hindus and are distinguished by their unique Eelam tamil language and culture. They were the most affected by the civil war both by the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers separatist group. During the British colonial period and civil war around one-third of Sri Lankan Tamils migrated off the island. In Colombo Tamils are mainly businessmen from Northern Sri Lanka and Southern India who settled here in the last two generations. They are still in touch with their Indian roots and often have family in India.

Christians in Sri Lanka make up the smallest number of the major religions. In regard to identity, Christianity primarily applies to ethnic Sri Lankans and not Europeans who have been coming to Sri Lanka for 500 years. Successful religious adoption can be noticed not only in Colombo but also especially in Negombo.

Sleeping truck driver.
Sinhalese man reading paper in bookmaker's.

Buddhism is the main religion of the island and followed by the majority of the Sinhalese. In Colombo stupas dot the horizon, the muscles of Buddhist nationalism that help to keep the religious minorities down.

Although life in Sri Lanka has been shaped by spirituality, and centuries of coexistence, this small island with 13% of Hindus, 10% of Muslims and about 7% of Christians and its blurred spiritual lines, is today formed by one Buddhist faith and one Sinhalese language.

Temple decorated with wooden carvings and marble statues.