York Street, Colombo
Written by Eshantha Peiris Illustration by Marion Vitus
If there’s one thing that can ease the frustration of driving in Colombo during rush hour, it would be the sight of policemen on horseback directing traffic at the intersection of York Street and Chatham Street.
From its British-inspired name to its imperialist-era architecture, York Street radiates colonial personality. The street itself forms the heart of the part of Colombo known as Fort, formerly a 17th-century Portuguese (and later Dutch-fortified) fortress, which was subsequently demolished and reconstructed by the British into its present-day form as the country’s economic hub.
The spirit of this bygone age is best experienced by visiting the Grand Oriental Hotel (formerly known as the Taprobane) at the north
end of the street. Strategically overlooking Colombo's harbour, GOH was once the residence of
a Dutch governor, before being converted into a hotel in 1875 to accommodate travellers arriving in Sri Lanka (then named Ceylon) by ship. The hotel retains traces of the old-school atmosphere that made
it an acknowledged luxury stay
in its day. Going up to the Harbour Room is worth the trip just for its breathtaking view of the harbour and the sunset over the Indian Ocean horizon; the reasonably priced menu of continental and local fare is an added bonus. The GOH’s ground floor also features a specialised Sri Lankan Restaurant.
Walking south, it’s hard to miss the Victorian red-brick faзade of the old Cargills building on the right. One of the country’s first department stores (est. 1844), Cargills now boasts the largest chain of supermarkets in the island. Farther down the street, the state-run souvenir shop Laksala is a must-visit for any tourist. Featuring a multiplicity of local handicrafts ranging from wood carvings, brassware, traditional
Sri Lankan drums and demon masks, to batik-dyed clothes/wall hangings and a good selection of packeted Ceylon tea, the store has the additional benefit of competitive prices and a policy of promoting traditional cottage industries.
A right-turn onto Chatham Street takes you into a high-security zone (owing to the nearby military headquarters) and any cameras
will need to be stowed away (in spite of the nearby 1857 clock tower – which was originally a light-house – that begs for a picture). This area was completely off-limits to civilians toward the latter stages of the separatist civil war which ended last year, but fortunately the handful of curiosity shops there have managed to survive the period of isolation. Images a hole-in-the-wall shop on the north side of the street, hoards an assortment of antique knick-knacks, including everything from colonial medallions to pipes, pens, clocks, and antique jewellery. For old Ceylon-era stamps, coins, as well as china and brassware, Noor Hameems may offer a better selection. Chatham Street is also home to an age-old tradition of money-changers approaching you with the best exchange rate (from their perspective) for your hard cash foreign currency.
Looming on the southern skyline (just as York Street swerves to the left) are the twin towers of the decade-old World Trade Centre (WTC), standing in stark contrast to the historic street below it, and symbolising independent Sri Lanka’s embracing of the post-modern capitalist aesthetic. Accessible from the Bank of Ceylon Road side of Echelon Square (itself home to a host of 5-star hotels that sprang up in the 1970s), the 4th and 5th floors of the WTC’s West Block house the Gem & Jewellery Exchange, an assortment of shops specialising in dazzling arrays of Sri Lankan precious stones; you can even get your purchases authenticated by the National Gem & Jewellery Authority.
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Freelance musician Eshantha Peiris thinks of York Street as a long-lost friend: “As a kid, I used to visit the little shops in its by-lanes to hunt for old coins and stamps for my collection. Sadly, these visits had to be curtailed when the barricades went up during the war years. Yet returning more than a decade later, it seems that nothing much has changed: the quaint colonial charm still lives on in the atmosphere.”