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For Guys

Guide to doing business in Colombo


André Hessenlink (50)
Managing Director at Travix and Cheaptickets.sg

1. How often do you travel to Colombo and who do you fly with?
Because of the nature of my job, I don’t have a fixed travel schedule but I’ve been three times so far this year.

The four airlines in Singapore that fly direct to Colombo are Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Sri Lankan Airlines and Singapore Airlines. Because the three and a half hour flight is too short to sleep on, I usually take the Sri Lankan Airlines flight that leaves at 4pm; the other three leave after 9pm. If you want the best service choose Singapore Airlines.

2. One thing everyone ought to know about Colombo:
It’s a beautiful country with everything from old cities and beaches to wild parks and tea highlands.

The 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka only ended three years ago. Although it was mostly fought in the North, it had a huge impact on Colombo and the rest of the country. The economy was unstable with little foreign investment and tourists stayed away. Now, the country and its economy is starting to blossom and the city is in development which means infrastructure is lacking.

3. The shortest time to get a visa?
All nationalities, besides Singaporeans and Maldivians, can get a visa on arrival but it’s best to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization online for US$20. The printout will be scanned at immigration and you’re in. It’s a fast process.

4. Fastest way to get into the city?
I would recommend taking a metered cab to Fort, the main business area in Colombo. Of course, there are cabs that pass off as “metered” cabs but tell you their meters are spoilt. You’ll need to decide on a fixed price before you set off or risk paying a premium. Another way is to call a radio cab company to send a cab to pick you up from the airport. The two reliable companies I use are Kangaroo Cabs and Ace Cabs.

After the 2004 tsunami, the government built a highway connecting the airport to the beach destinations in the south. Conveniently, the highway also connects to Colombo, which makes traffic in and out of the city very efficient.

5. When are the good and bad times to visit Colombo?
There are two types of monsoon in Sri Lanka – the north-eastern monsoon from October to January and the south-eastern monsoon from May to August. Colombo happens to sit right in the middle of those two areas so it experiences both monsoons and a short dry season in between. During monsoon season it can rain for an entire week and the streets will be flooded.

Colombo has many Hindu festivals but Deepavali, from 13 to 17 November, is great to join in. The citizens celebrate many smaller local activities too so it feels like there’s always something happening.

6. Any good hotels to recommend?
Because Colombo is a budding city, international hotel brands are starting to build hotels here – Sheraton and Hyatt are the latest two.

My favourite boutique hotel is Casa Colombo (+9411 452 0130). It’s a colonial building but the interior is a complete surprise. The style is a bizarre mix of modern and colonial. Service is excellent; there is one butler per room and modern amenities such as an iPod player. Another one I like, which has a more traditional colonial feel, is Tintagel (+94 460 2121) on Paradise Road.

7. What’s the dress code for meetings?
It’s definitely business casual. You don’t need a tie or a jacket.

8. Any cultural or business etiquette to be aware of?
I find Sri Lanka pretty similar to India, as they are both Hindu countries. Sri Lankans are always very nice and polite so they generally don’t tell you in a direct way if they disagree with you. When doing business with them, it’s OK to be more relaxed and casual. Western standards don’t apply there. If possible, don’t just visit them one time; build up a relationship over several visits to get to know and trust each other. Their greeting is similar to that of Thailand, with their palms pressed together at chin level and a slight nod of the head.

9. You are taking a client to lunch or dinner, where do you go?
Colombo doesn’t have extensive entertainment and dining facilities. As for food quality control, you can never be too sure so be cautious when choosing a place to eat. I like dining on Paradise Road. The Gallery Café is part café, part art gallery. The kitchen serves a fusion of food from Sri Lankan to Chinese. The crowd is usually 50 per cent local and 50 per cent expat.

10. Casual bars to go for a drink with clients where you won’t get hassled?
Most of the hotels, including the two boutique hotels I mentioned, have OK bars and restaurants but don’t expect anything special. My particular favourite is the Galle Face Hotel Bar (+9411 254 1010), which sits on the water’s edge and provides a great ocean view. The atmosphere and setting are great for an informal drink. As Sri Lanka is a fairly conservative city, there are hardly any bars where you will get hassled.

11. Any unsafe areas to avoid?
I’ve not experienced any unsafe areas where I wouldn’t go again. That said, of course you don’t go around walking at night carrying flashy and expensive things; that can be dangerous in any city you go to.

12. You’ve got some spare time, what’s the must-see?
If you have time, I definitely recommend going to see the tea estates. It’s a four-hour trip by car or by train. The tea factories are ingeniously designed to maintain a cool temperature and are a good place to learn more about how tea is produced instead of just looking at it in a teabag.

If you go a little south of Colombo, you’ll reach the city of Galle. It’s an old colonial town with a high fortress wall around it. There are little shops and restaurants there too. Since the opening of the highway, it’s only two hours from Colombo.

13. Gifts to take home for family and friends?
Colombo doesn’t have many sophisticated tourist souvenirs but they do have a vast variety of teas and spices. Their most famous tea is undoubtedly Ceylon black tea and it also comes in green and white tea varieties. I’ve noticed quite a number of antique shops popping up as well. I’m no antique connoisseur but it looks antique enough to me. They’re inexpensive; you’ll probably pay 10 to 20 times less than what you do in Singapore.

14. How long before your flight do you really need to be at Bandaranaike International Airport?
Usually, I aim to be there one hour before my flight. I always make sure I never arrive at the airport too early because that would be a waste of time. It’s a relatively small airport, similar in size to Changi’s budget terminal and therefore very easy to navigate.