Back to the future...Jennifer Cox in Sri Lanka
Compass editor Jennifer Cox travels to Sri Lanka and discovers some exciting changes.
“You must try the pepper crab. It’s the best in the whole country. I must warn you to go easy with the sambal though, it’s pretty fiery.”
In the stylish restaurant, music, conversation and chinking glasses create a soundtrack of conviviality, as waiters slip between crowded wooden tables, bearing platters of fresh crabs the size of small helicopters. This is Ministry of Crab, an extremely popular new restaurant in the heart of one of today’s most exciting Asian cities. Not South Korea’s Seoul, not China’s Chengdu, not even Tokyo, with its everevolving appeal. No, the city currently attracting the attention of foodies, fashionistas and – most importantly – investors, is Colombo in Sri Lanka.
Until recently, Colombo had a reputation for traffic and chaos at best; a city that tourists sped through on the way from the airport to the beaches in the south-west, or east to Kandy and the Cultural Triangle beyond. It seemed there was little reason to stay in Sri Lanka’s tense, run-down capital. But these days Colombo is in the grip of a profound renaissance, as a wealth of restaurants, artisan shops, galleries and festivals – not to mention luxurious 5-star hotels and characterful boutique properties – spring up across the city.
One of the primary reasons behind the investment is tourism: a million tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2012, double the number that had visited since the civil war ended in 2009. The hope is that visitor numbers will exceed 2.5 million by 2016 and this looks achievable. And not just because of the improved infrastructure: in March this year, after a 15-year hiatus, British Airways reinstated its direct service from London Gatwick to Colombo; international luxury hotel brands such Starwood and Shangri- La are developing large upscale and imaginative small eco-boutique properties across the country.
Crucially the government’s scheme does not just focus on development but also restoration and regeneration, with many of Sri Lanka’s magnificent colonial-era buildings being sensitively restored. Ministry of Crab is a good example. The chic seafood restaurant, launched in 2011 by Sri Lankan cricketing legends Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, is set inside the iconic Dutch Hospital, a magnificent landmark property in Colombo’s Fort financial district. Dating back to 1681, the Dutch Hospital was originally built as a treatment centre for staff serving under the Dutch East India Company, but during recent years had fallen into disrepair and was taken over by the military.
“Two years ago this was a high security zone, you couldn’t even come in here,” concert promoter Tasha Marikkar tells me over a glass of deliciously cold white wine at the Ministry of Crab bar. “Now beautiful old buildings like this have come back to life. This is such an exciting time for us, the transformation is amazing.”
The Crab’s airy New York loft-colonial fusion interior opens on to the Dutch Hospital’s restored central courtyard, a beautifully tranquil space onto which fat monsoonal raindrops drum a lazy beat. The courtyard also houses a number of other small businesses: interesting galleries, an upscale tea shop and clothing boutiques, including Bare Foot, the modern Sri Lankan textile design-chain. The Dutch Hospital’s artisan arcade is one of a number of creative hubs forming across the capital, as native artists, musicians and designers return to the city.
There is a wider sense of life returning to Colombo, and another factor contributing to the city’s new-found vitality is the regeneration of public spaces. Colombo’s abandoned public parks have been reclaimed and landscaped: now convivial communal areas, many feature a network of new walking and cycling trails, that have proven extremely popular. Colombo resident Kalpana Wijesinghe is full of praise for the new green public spaces: “Independence Square, for example, used to be a place that everyone knew about but no one had reason to visit. Since it was pedestrianised though, suddenly it’s become the place we all go: Muslims, Tamils, Singhalese, foreign visitors ... everyone meets there to walk and talk. Gyms in the area have lost business because we’re all outside walking.”
For all Sri Lanka’s modernising though, leave the city and you will quickly discover a country that is the very picture of a lush tropical paradise, filled with natural wonders and a history stretching back more than 2000 years. And of course it’s all become quicker and easier to discover via Sri Lanka’s network of vastly improved roads.
Travelling through Sri Lanka is like turning the pages of a richly illustrated history book. Its landscape is filled with images and sites that tell the story of the country’s ancient origins (early Muslim scholars taught that Adam and Eve were offered sanctuary here after being expelled from the Garden of Eden) through to the modern day. A four-hour drive east takes you up into the Hill Country to the sacred city of Kandy. Valleys of glinting stork-staked rice paddies morph into hillsides richly dressed with fruit plantations of fig, banana (92 different varieties), papaya, coconut, mango and pineapple (each carefully checked, as cobras love to stick their fangs into the sweet juicy flesh). The landscape exudes a kind of primordial fecundity: deep, dense, verdant, vibrant, you can almost hear the plants straining against the soil in their impatience to grow. These crops are at the heart of Sri Lanka’s economy: as you rise ever higher, fruit trees give way to cashew, almond, cinnamon and nutmeg, before the highest altitudes open out into Sri Lanka’s famed tea plantations. It’s a truly glorious drive, and that’s before you’ve even reached Kandy, with its spectacular Temple of the Sacred Tooth (where Lord Buddha’s tooth is said to reside within seven golden caskets) and the library with its precious collection of books owned by Marco Polo. All this lies along a brand new road, which follows the original built by the colonising British when they forced the Dutch out in 1815.
A more recent event in Sri Lanka’s history is found driving south along the new US $1b Southern Expressway from Colombo to Galle: a journey that used to take a frustrating six hours and now whizzes by in one and a half.
Galle was first colonised by the Portuguese in the early 1500s. Eager to gain control of its deep water port, they built a beautiful fortified city fusing traditional Portuguese and local architectural styles. It was the Dutch East India Company who, in 1640, forced out the Portuguese, and upgraded the fortifications to walls of solid granite complete with three, canon-proof bastions (the Sun, Moon and Star). This sturdy 450-year-old bulwark was to save Galle’s historic world heritage-listed heart, when the tsunami crashed ashore in 2004, killing thousands and destroying much of the city beyond the walls. Nearly a decade on and Galle has made an extraordinary recovery, to the extent that as you walk along the pretty lanes of historic white-washed buildings, you’d be hard pressed to know its more recent history (a visit to the sensitively curated Maritime Archaeological Museum, which opened in 2011, will give you the necessary insight). Galle is a wonderfully friendly and vibrant place: elegant mansions, historic churches, quirky coffee shops and gorgeous boutiques lead down to a beautiful sandy beach where local families gather to play cricket and splash around in the surf.
Galle is often dubbed the Goa of Sri Lanka. In fact, many describe Sri Lanka as India-lite, a country that shares much of the history, culture and natural attractions of India without the vast distances or sensory assault. But visit Sri Lanka and you’ll quickly discover a country with a unique and wonderful identity of its own: one drawing upon its history as wholeheartedly as it embraces its future.