Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Hidden Tropical Hub for Digital Nomads

While Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo isn’t the best representative of the tropical paradise most people envision the tear-shaped island to be, a growing number of interesting attractions and the city’s convenient location provide a great hub for travellers and fellow digital nomads. In this post I’ll share my perspectives on Colombo for travellers, nomads, and entrepreneurs considering a trip there. You’ll find travel tips and resources at the bottom of the post including information on transport, accommodation, and mobile data 🙂

I relocated to Colombo in 2013 for two years, using the city as a hub while I did short stints in various cities including Delhi, Singapore, Tbilisi, and Manila. With the cheapest pre-paid 4G data in the world, I didn’t have to worry about poor or no wifi at the restaurants and cafes I used as my ‘offices’. Rs. 2000 would get me 28GB of pre-paid and high-speed data with my preferred local service provider Mobitel for 30 days. Safety, metered tuk-tuks (local taxis) whose drivers can’t rip one off, and the purchasing power of the dollar fuel Colombo’s appeal to location independent entrepreneurs and digital nomads.

Digital Nomad Colombo Sri Lanka

Events like the arts festival ‘Cinnamon Colomboscope‘ and weekly happenings such as the vibrant ‘Good Market‘ are growing in frequency and scope, challenging the idea that there isn’t much to do in Colombo. And it’s geographically perfect for mini-adventures: weekend trips down south to Galle or Mirissa, three-hour train rides to Sri Lanka’s mountains and tea country, or East Coast escapades where pristine white sands, beautiful turquoise water, and arid land give you stark contrast to the lush, tropical green of the West Coast.

Eating Out

Sri Lankan food is best enjoyed at home, but Colombo’s offerings are diverse and delicious. Yamu.lk provides the best coverage of the city’s eateries from street-food to haute cuisine, but here are three places I’ve selected for specific reasons:

Whight & Co Cafe: My Office

Whight & Co Brunch Colombo

Founded by a lovely Aussie couple, the Whights, Whight & Co’s triple threat make it my favourite place to work from:

a) Amazing cold-drip coffee. Each bottle lovingly brewed over 12 hours, the rich dark coffee uses home-roasted beans which the Whights grow on a plantation in the heart of Sri Lanka, where tea reigns supreme.

b) Consistently delicious eggs benedict. Contents: the best hollandaise sauce in town, a home-made hash brown, tomato relish and home-grown arugula to accompany two softly poached eggs on thick fluffy toast. Unmatched by any other venue on the island.

c) The view. Colombo’s shores lay about 25 metres away from your table no matter where one sits. I see new shades of ocean blue every time I visit.

Nuga Gama: Village Life in the City

Nuga Gama Cinnamon Grand Sri Lankan Restaurant Colombo

This is one of my favourite places to take friends from abroad on their first or last evenings in town. Nuga Gama transports you from the hustle and bustle of central Colombo to a traditional, remote Sri Lankan village hugged by huge Banyan or ’Nuga’ trees. All the food at the traditional Sri Lankan buffet is cooked and served in clay pots. Tables are outdoors under the banyan trees which absorb the sounds of Galle Road and the city.

Urban Kitchen: Fresh “Anything and Everything” Food

I default to Urban Kitchen in Colombo 2 when I can’t decide what to eat and don’t want street-food, fast-food, or fancy-food. They’ve got a diverse menu that includes Sri Lankan ‘Chicken Kotthu’, pretty good and fresh salads by Sri Lankan standards, Middle Eastern, Italian, Thai, and even Japanese cuisine. And though they’re not masters of any one particular dish, unlike most South Asian restaurants that have a menu that covers the entire planet, their food is tasty, affordable, and fresh.

Other places I’ve enjoyed:
Noodles – fantastic selection of South-East Asian noodle dishes in Cinnamon Grand ($$)
Gallery Cafe – fine dining in renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa’s former office ($$$)
Upali’s – often rated as the best Sri Lankan restaurant in town ($$)
Barefoot Cafe – tropical-chic outdoor cafe in Colombo 3 ($$)
Coco Veranda – small cafe on Ward Place, Colombo 7, with a fantastic Chicken Satay and decent coffee. I work from here often ($$)
Ginger – chocolate and peanut butter parfait. Perfection. ($$)

There are many other places that have great food, value, and ambience, but the above list are the places that struck a chord with me.

Exploring Colombo

24 to 48 hours provides the ideal time to create an adventure in Colombo. Here’s what I’d do with those hours:

Walk:

Castle Hotel Colombo Sri Lanka
Though it can get extremely hot and humid, walking is my preferred mode of transport here. My favourite places to walk through, particularly in the early evening, are Viharamahedevi Park in central Colombo, Slave Island, and down Galle Road near Colombo 3 (Colpetty) and 4 (Bambalapitiya).

Beach, burgers, and drinks at the private beach at Mt. Lavinia Hotel:

Friends in Mt Lavinia Sri Lanka
Happy faces following food and drinks at Mt. Lavinia
The beautiful Mt. Lavinia Hotel is about 40 minutes south of Colombo. Pay around Rs. 1000 to enjoy their private beach, a burger, and a drink. Don’t forget your SPF and swimming gear.

Find Local Goodies at the Good Market:

Photo Credit: Priyanka Natural Foods
Discover local and organic food, home-made beauty products, and more at Colombo’s Good Market on Saturdays. They’ve got a permanent store opposite the Race Course as well if you can’t make it to the markets.

Enjoy Sunset at Galle Face Green:

Galle Face Sunset Colombo
The best sunset view in Colombo can be enjoyed for free in this massive public space. There’s street food, a promenade that can easily provide a 20-minute stroll, and kites – lots of kites! For a more colonial ambience to enjoy your sunset head next door to Sri Lanka’s first hotel, the Galle Face Hotel, where you can enjoy a Pineapple Juice or Lion Lager with a cinematic sunset.

Discover Geoffrey Bawa Architecture around Colombo:

Geoffrey Bawa Gallery Cafe Colombo Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s most famous architect and the father of ‘tropical modernism’ left his mark in many beautifully designed private and public buildings throughout Colombo. The Gallery Cafe which serves a fantastic jaggery crème brûlée, used to be his office. Don’t know who Bawa is? Check out this Slideshare which gives a great overview to Bawa’s work and principles.

These are just a few of my favourite things to do around Colombo, and they’re nearly all achievable within a 24 to 48 hour layover. If I had to sell this city in 10 seconds or less I’d say, “Colombo for digital nomads makes sense. There are affordable and good places to work, eat, and drink out of. It’s a hub that connects you to a tropical paradise. It’s got the cheapest 4G data in the world.” Sold.


I hope this post has inspired you to consider a trip to Sri Lanka with a stopover in Colombo, or to step outside of your home or hotel if you’re already in Colombo, and I’m eager to hear what you think of my suggestions. And if you’re a digital entrepreneur or nomad, I’d love to find out what you loved about Colombo – share in comments below 🙂

Follow me on Instagram (@udhara) for daily pics of my travels around the world.

Travel tips

Visa:

Most tourists can purchase a 30-day visa online for $35 here. Want to stay for more than 30 days? Here’s what the Sri Lankan Immigration Department instructs you do:

“A visitor wishing to stay more than 30 days in Sri Lanka, may apply for an extension. The Short Visit visa may be extended up to 90 days from the date of arrival at the first instance and further 90 days at the second instance.

Application for an extension should be submitted to the Visa Section of the Department of Immigration (head office) by visiting the Department or through an Authorized Agent.”

Local transport:

Metered tuk-tuk: always ask if the driver has a meter as this will provide you with a standard rate and double-check before the vehicle starts moving to avoid getting ripped off.
Taxis: Kangaroo Cabs offer sedans and much cheaper budget cars.
Bus: ultra-cheap public transport with drivers who truly believe they’re invincible. Check out the official Colombo bus schedules here (a hot mess, I know). Schedules have been beautifully presented by Colombo Design Studio here.

Trains: Want to get in or out of Colombo cheaply and conveniently. Sri Lankan trains offer a range of comfort levels and are surprisingly comfortable. Check out schedules here.

Where to Stay:

These are places either I or friends have stayed at. They’re comfortable, and allow you to work from the comfort of your room should you choose to stay in.

Disclosure: Please note that the hotel links below are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a booking. Please understand that I have experience with all of these hotels, and I recommend them because of their service, comfort, and convenience, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to stay there.

$ Rosmid Inn in Colombo 7 – a hidden gem in the heart of Colombo 7, affordable double rooms during non-peak season, usually May to October, and clean rooms. See photos, read reviews, and book here.

$$ Clock Inn in Colombo 3 – clean, comfortable, and again easy to get around the city from. See photos, read reviews, and book here.

$$$ Zylan on Rosmead Place, Colombo 7 – with a zen-like ambience and fantastic location, this boutique-hotel provides great value-for-money. I slept like a baby during my three night stay here the softest pillows and linen, and the Japanese restaurant on the rooftop serves some delicious food, included a fabulous sushi salad. See photos, read reviews, and book here.

Airbnb’s options in Colombo provide accommodation for almost any budget. If you’re looking for central locations look for places in Colombo 2, 3, 4, and 7. Never used Airbnb? Sign up here to get $20 which you can easily use to cover an extra night’s accommodation in Colombo.

Mobile Data:

I prefer Mobitel’s 4G data speeds, coverage, and ultra-low pricing – Buy a Tourist SIM Pack first which comes with 2GB of data and then top up your pre-paid account to suit your data needs. As I mentioned earlier, as of September 2015, Rs. 2000 will get you a whopping 28 GB of 4G data.

Important: do this at the airport which takes 10 to 15 minutes, compared to the 45 minutes to 1 hour it takes at a store in the city.

Cost of Living:

Check out Numbeo’s cost of living details for Colombo which include rent, internet, tuk tuk, and meal prices.

Other Resources:

Yamu.lk – Highly curated food, drink, shopping guide to Colombo.
Lonely Planet’s guide to Colombo.

Exploring Hampi: The Indian Mega-City of the 13th Century

 The ancient city of Hampi in Karnataka, South India, is home to hundreds of ruins of palaces, temples, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites and belonged to the mighty Vijayanagara Empire (13th to 15th centuries). Geographically it is one of the most interesting places I’ve explored, with giant boulders scattered throughout the city that make it look like a giant had a temper tantrum and threw fistfuls of boulders all over the land. The empire that ruled almost all of South India was cosmopolitan, technologically advanced, and it’s key city, Hampi, was one of the richest cities in the world. When doing a bit of pre-travel research, this stood out on Wikipedia:

 

In around 1500 AD Hampi had about 500,000 inhabitants (supporting 0.1% of the global population during 1440-1540), making it the second largest city in the world after Peking-Beijing and almost thrice the size of Paris.

When a friend invited me to join her on a weekend trip last month when I was based in Pune, I had to find out what a mega-city like this looked like, and what it would have been like to be one of its citizens.

 

Old Map of Hampi
No Google Map can capture the charm of this old map of Hampi.

Getting there: the 11-hour sleeper bus from Pune to Hospet

We paid about 1100 Indian rupees each way on a super comfy sleeper bus. Our bus left two hours late from Pune at around 12.30 a.m. I was blown away by how comfortable and clean the bunks were, and it wasn’t until I woke up around 4 a.m. bursting to pee and asked the driver to stop from a quick break that I saw how perilously he was driving. At one point as we overtook a couple of trunks on a one-lane road, we were driving head-on towards a massive truck about 250 metres away driving on the other side of the road. After that I slept very, very lightly.

The wrong side of the river turned out just right.

We got off at Hospet at 11 a.m. and took a INR 200 rickshaw to Hampi, and then got into a small boat that took us to the other side of the river where to our accommodation, with fewer tourists and fewer ruins. Since it was already 1pm we decided to hang out on this side of the river, renting a scooter to enjoy the beautiful scenery, near perfect weather,  and stop at places that caught our eye. Highlights included:

– Hanuman Temple – supposedly the birthplace of the monkey God Hanuman. Crazy ass climb up but worth the views of all those boulders and Hampi.

 

– Bus and home-sized boulders – trying to find the royal stables of one of the enclosures, my friend and I got a bit lost on our scooter, and subsequently distracted by a bunch of massive boulders which we decided to climb up. This was so much fun, as we were off the beaten path, discovered an crumbling, abandoned Hindu temple complete with dead giant centipedes, and enjoyed amazing views with zero tourists anywhere in sight.

 

– Hampi Reservoir – We ended the afternoon trying to watch sunset at here but instead watched an old boat driver operate his bucket of a boat ferry passengers from one corner of the reservoir to another corner about 10 meters away, painfully slowly and inefficiently. At around 6.20pm we got pelted by intense raindrops during a sudden 10 minute monsoon shower.

 

My inner Indiana Jones/Lara Croft had a wonderful time.

Food: it all tastes the same?

What my friend and I discovered that night is that all the restaurants on our side of the river serve the same food from near-identical menus. The restaurant at our hotel, Gopi Guest House, had run out of the exact same items as our dinner venue, Laughing Buddha, as had the restaurant next door where we had our final lunch in Hampi before returning to Pune. In any case, the food we did order – typically Indian rice and curry dishes, pizzas, and pasta – were quite tasty and left our tummies in good shape 🙂

The other side of the river: ruins, temples, and bike tours

The next morning we took a boat to cross to the side of the river where most of the action takes place, and paid INR 400 each to rent a couple of bikes and join a few tourists on a bike tour of the major sites of Hampi. The whole trip too 4 hours and it was great to get insights on the history of the city and empire through the tour guide as well as through what we saw in front of us. My favourites included:

 

Royal Elephant stables, which when in operation centuries ago housed 11 royal elephants:


Lotus Mahal
, the highlight of the ‘Zanana Enclosure’ where the queens of the empire lived. I loved the Indo-Islamic architecture of this building:

Virupaksha Temple, the biggest temple in Hampi and the most striking attraction as you enter the city. Largely undisturbed and in use for more than 600 years:

A reminder of the ever-changing nature of life

Hampi struck a chord with me. It reminded me that everything changes. Nothing, no matter, how great, how “timeless”, how invincible, lasts forever. This majestic kingdom with insanely luxurious palaces, dwellings, and temples (palaces had roofs made of sandalwood which took THREE MONTHS to burn and destroy when the Deccan empire took over the land in the 15th century) was reduced to dust and a stone over 600 years. I imagine Hampi being a Singapore, a Dubai, maybe even a New York of its time. A melting pot of culture, wisdom, and luxury. I wonder what the mega-cities of today will be like in 600 years. And where the mega-cities of tomorrow will be located, what they’re people will be like, and what their leadership will give its people.

If you’re thinking of visiting South India, make sure you stop by at Hampi! Accommodation is extremely affordable, transport readily available, and you’ll learn so much about South India and its history walking through the ruins. You’ll get to hang out with a bunch of friendly locals and fellow travellers, and create an adventure no matter which side of the river you explore!

Did this post about Hampi inspire you to visit? Have you already been? I’d love to hear your thoughts about your travels and adventures to Hampi in comments below!

Also, follow me on Instagram (@udhara) for photos of my travels, shot almost entirely on iPhone 🙂

Travel Tips

Transport to Hampi: We took the 11-hour sleeper bus to Hospet, which is 30 minutes away from Hampi. Tickets with the best bus service, ‘VRL’ buses, can be booked ONLY with an Indian credit card online using redbus.in or makemytrip.com. One of our Indian friends in Pune was kind enough to use his card to book our tickets.

Accomodation: Gopi Guest House. Very basic accomodation with simple toilet. Friendly staff and affordable room rates (INR 800) for a double room.

Food: Laughing Buddha. Cheap, tasty, and clean food.

Scooters: rent a bike with 2 liters of petrol for INR 280. This should last a whole day. You can only rent scooters on the non-touristy side of the river.

Bicycles: on the touristy side of the river, you should be able to rent bikes for INR100 or less if you’d a good negotiator.

Additional Resources

How to meet yourself.

En route to Colombo from Badulla

En route to Colombo from Badulla

“Travel far enough, you meet yourself.” – David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

The first post I saw on my Facebook newsfeed this morning was the quote above, from one of my favourite books.  Mitchell’s quote means so much to me – if I hadn’t moved from Sydney to Vienna when I was 20 and London at  21, I would never have experienced true solitude, starting a chapter of my life from scratch with zero dollars to my name, no friends or home, or even a job. The three years I spent in Europe helped define my values, learn how to make use of incredibly limited resources, and become increasingly comfortable with being me.

“We are only what we know, and I wished to be so much more than I was, sorely.” ― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Travel broadens perspectives. It virtually guarantees an open mind (or open-er mind) as you meet people with opinions and viewpoints you never considered before, as you immerse yourself into food and culture you’d previously only vaguely heard about,  and as you find out your way of living might be totally bland or fantastical depending on who you talk to.

Yes, all of the above could happen in my hometown, but, for me travel made me all the more receptive to new experiences, just a little bit more confident in talking to strangers in cafes, and value what and who was around me all the more because I knew I wasn’t going to be there for too much longer. Yes, you could save a fortune and become more open minded from the comfort of your own home with a few books and good friends, but, to me the jolt to the senses brought during those first days and nights on the other side of the planet was necessary and priceless.

Travel makes me treasure what I already have – the work I do, where I live, the food I eat, and most importantly the people around me. When I moved back to Sydney for the first time two years after London, I moved back to my old home, meeting old friends, passing the same buildings on the bus. However, I now experienced what I had for five years in a totally new way. I re-discovered Sydney and my friends. I carried myself differently. I’d become a better version myself. Travel brought me full circle, back to ‘me’.  

If you could travel somewhere completely new and foreign, where would you go, and what would you do? Who would you allow yourself to be?

Think about that for a moment, and then go to kayak.com to make it happen 🙂