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Colombo, Sri Lanka: Cricket, crowds and curry

My colleagues have written some rousing travel stories about Sri Lanka over the past couple of years, including a roundup of the country’s best boutique hotels, a description of the lush tea country of the Central Highlands, and an account of a family beach holiday to Galle and the south coast.

Each time I’ve read one of these articles, my desire to take a trip to the island nation off the southern tip of India has grown. Having said that – and, at the risk of being lynched when I’m next in the office – it wasn’t any of these articles that finally got me onto a plane. It was cricket. More specifically: the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011.

In March and April this year, Sri Lanka co-hosted the World Cup with India and Bangladesh. When I ran my eye down the fixture list before the event, I spied Australia versus Pakistan on a Saturday night in Colombo. It seemed the perfect getaway from Singapore for a cricket nut like me.

Thanks to the sporting theme of the trip, obtaining the leave pass was easy. “Do you want to come to Sri Lanka,” I asked my wife after plying her with a couple of decent wines one evening, “to watch a game of cricket?”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“Okay. So … I’ll go alone, then?”

“Looks like it.”

Do they even play cricket in Russia?

And that’s how I found myself sitting in a car in downtown Colombo at noon on a sultry day in March with a Sri Lankan nightclub owner called Thomas and two Russian girls who were employees at his club. (Let’s call them dancers.)

 

I’d been hanging around a mall called Liberty Plaza on game day, looking for a bus that would take me to the R. Premadasa International Stadium, when Thomas came up and asked if I wanted a lift.

The Russians spoke no English and seemed entirely unfamiliar with cricket, yet they were decked out in the team colours of Australia and Pakistan respectively, including painted faces and novelty wigs.

I generally don’t accept car rides from complete strangers in foreign countries, but if this was just a ruse to get money out of a tourist, Thomas and his female friends had gone to a great deal of effort.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Boy, oh, boy …

Crowds were streaming into the stadium when we got there, including a handful of Australian fans. The look on their faces suggested a quiet lack of confidence. Rightly so. Sure, the Aussies were on a 34-0 winning streak at World Cups before this game, but they’d recently shown signs of disarray.

 

And so it proved on this day. We made a dismal start: after just five overs (for the initiated, that’s about 30 minutes of playing time), the writing was on the wall. Being beaten by an Asian side in Asia has its advantages though. It means the very biased home crowd will go berserk, thereby upping the entertainment factor considerably. I’m guessing that 95 percent of the sell-out crowd consisted of exuberant Pakistanis or Sri Lankans supporting Pakistan; every time an Aussie wicket fell, there was non-stop dancing in the aisles for ten minutes.

I enjoyed reading some of the crowd’s homemade banners, too. One showed the Pakistan captain sitting astride a cannon, shooting a cannonball into a kangaroo. Another (continuing the marsupial-bashing theme) was painted with the words, “KANGRO CURRY FOR DINNER!”

Teetotally bad timing
Speaking of curries, Sri Lanka is justly famous for them. So I was disappointed that the only fare available at the stadium was international fast food. The closest I came to a local delicacy was a KFC “Buriyani Meal” and some marsala-flavoured Lays chips. Here’s a tip: bring a takeaway “lunch packet” from an outside restaurant.

And to wash it all down with? I’d love to say a succession of frosty Lion beers, but the Australia versus Pakistan match fell on a Poya Day – a Buddhist full-moon festival. Poya Days are dry days. No alcohol. What a different experience for this cricket-watcher: I’m used to seeing matches at the Gabba in Brisbane, where a new keg of beer gets tapped every seven seconds.

As respectful as the locals are on Poya Day, I did overhear a group of young Sri Lankan blokes discussing tactics for smuggling illicit alcohol into the ground, including the old standby of injecting vodka into watermelons. (A globally acknowledged stratagem, it would seem.)

Cricket-crazed Colombo

So, Australia lost. Easily. Well, not easily – there was a five-minute flutter in the middle where it looked like we might edge our way back. But it wasn’t to be.

And then I was out on a dark street corner, facing the disconcerting prospect of haggling with a tuk-tuk driver to get back to my hotel. One thing about cricket, though: the enthusiasm for it in Colombo is at such a fever pitch, so long as you can string together a sentence about the game, everyone is your friend – even a late-night tuk-tuk driver.

In fact, being a cricket fan in this city is like being a gambler in Macau. From the massive billboards that greet you at the baggage carousel at the airport, to the countless impromptu games played on dirt fields, cricket is omnipresent. All this is even more intense during the World Cup. I ran into famous cricketers at every turn: Tom Moody at the airport; Ian Chappell on the Galle Face Green; Pakistani pace bowler Shoaib Akhtar smoking cigarettes beside a hotel pool.

Things to do in Colombo when you lose

Colombo isn’t the most highly rated city in Asia; some travellers bypass it completely. I quite like the place – sure, it’s hot, but the weather gives it a kind of soporific charm. Here are some of the highlights for the day after the game (or the day of the game, if you choose to leave the stadium early because your team is being annihilated).

Gangaramaya Temple
Visiting temples can be a repetitious experience: remove shoes, wander cautiously inside, stare with faux reverence at the main statue for five minutes (forgetting, briefly, the religion being worshipped), shyly take a few photographs, leave. At the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple, I watched elephants chewing grass, listened to the chanting of hundreds of Sunday School children dressed in white, was given a free, impromptu tour of the relic chamber, and was quizzed about Singapore by a friendly gardener.

National Museum


A few dusty corners and some empty galleries suggest that this museum has lost a bit of its gloss; still, the collection of bronzes and other statues is eye-catching; I liked the old flags, too. If history bores you to sobs, the stately white building (1877) and the massive banyan tree in the grounds are impressive enough on their own.

Mount Lavinia


An afternoon spent on the private beach of the Mount Lavinia Hotel (S$6 for non-hotel-guests) is entirely pleasant, but it’s getting there that’s the most fun: namely, via a twenty-minute, ten-cent train ride from the old station at Fort. The railway line literally hugs the dunes the whole way there, and you can hang out the open doors and feel the sea breeze.

Action Lanka
This crew can hook you up with any adventure under the sun, including white-water rafting, scuba diving, kayaking and hiking. I’m not an extreme-sports kind of guy, so I chose the civilised option and went mountain-biking along the mellow coastal road north of Negombo, about an hour out of Colombo – all rustic fishing villages and lolling palm trees. My Action Lanka guide was a champ, and the bike was top notch. www.actionlanka.com

Stumped for Info?
Plan Ahead: Whether you’re going to Sri Lanka to watch cricket or do everything but, a great port of call before you go is Red Dot Tours: they can sort out your hotel bookings, arrange knowledgeable drivers, and make recommendations for everything under the sun. www.reddottours.com

Upcoming Cricket Action: Sri Lanka is hosting next year’s World Twenty20 (dates to be confirmed), including plenty of games in Colombo. Ticket prices, by the way, are extraordinarily cheap: my upper-tier seat cost $3! Australia and Sri Lanka play a Test Match at R. Premadasa Stadium from 16 to 20 September this year.

Getting There: Colombo is a direct three-and-a-half-hour flight from Changi.

Where to Stay:
Though not in downtown Colombo, The Wallawwa (www.thewallawwa.com), a 15-minute drive from the international airport, is a gem of a boutique hotel. You should at least consider bookending your Sri Lanka trip with a stay here; the rooms are plush, the grounds are green and serene, the place feels like it’s steeped in history, and the food is some of the best in the country. The aforementioned Red Dot Tours can help with bookings.

In the city, the Galle Face Hotel is the most famous accommodation. Fort has a cluster of international hotels. For the night of the cricket match, I stayed in a genial, newly renovated inn called Lake Lodge, the lake in question being Lake Beira, near Gangaramaya Temple.

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