The West

Spending spree in Colombo
Outside Cargill's store

This is the last day of our week in Sri Lanka - our one big shopping day. It has been much thought about, long-discussed, and is to be a precise and paced exercise.



There's a frisson of both excitement and fear in the air. It's our last day (that puts the pressure on). Will we find what we are after? Will there be bargains?

I fully realise that I'm a junior partner in this. A tagalong. A bag-carrier. A stretcher-bearer. I fear that, if it gets rough and there are crowds, these modern-day shopping warriors may instruct me to throw myself on the barbed wire while they run in over me.

But I comprehend my rank and drop into step behind them, armed with patience and an interest in local fabrics. I collect (and we use at home) tablecloths of the world - a highly recommended "bring-home" as it's art that gets used every day, and occasionally smeared with Vegemite (which, I suppose, turns it into contemporary art and probably makes it more valuable).

Our shopping army has decided to split in two. A classic pincer movement, with two wings coming in to pillage the hapless vanquished. Recognised as one of the most effective manoeuvres in warfare, there is no reason to think that it won't work just as effectively today as it did when first deployed by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC.

Team A breaks off to stay in another hotel and attack from the Colombo 7 suburb of the city. They have set their sights on fabrics, tableware, and "stuff you just couldn't find anywhere else".

Team B (my two gals and me, their batman) are coming up from the south, initially by taxi, then taking to auto rickshaws - weaving through the traffic and confusing the enemy.

In our B team, shopper B1 is clearly set on napery and wants to graze through the men's shirts.

B2 claims to be most focused on a big hardback book about the work of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa (we have just stayed in one of his fine and interesting hotels).

But she has an "all's fair in war" glint in her eye and mentions she'd like to call in at that place where cricketer-cum-commentator Tony Greig always goes for a pedicure when he's in Colombo. (This seems to me way outside the shopping mission but, fearing charges of insubordination, I keep my own counsel.)

And then we are out of the taxi and in the thick of it, straight into a shop called Barefoot, apparently just for a reconnoitre. B1 and B2 explain that we need to size it up and then come back later for "a serious shop".

This is _Barefoot _ at 706 Galle Road, Colombo 3, though there's a small version at Dutch Hospital Shopping Centre, Fort, Colombo 1 (and one on the south coast in Galle). Cloth and clothes in brilliant colours and of high quality. Bags and books. Brilliant. (

We arrange to split up and meet back at the door in 30 minutes. There's a lovely cafe outside under the trees and I think I might get coffee there, but then get stuck into books by Sri Lankan authors (including several pages of The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje) and turn up late.

On to _Odel _ (, which also shows prices in Australian dollars). You name it - clothing, footwear and accessories for women, men and children. I am struck by the top quality as much as the prices, which are at least a third of those we might pay for comparable goods in Perth ("a quarter", B1 corrects). There are homewares from bed linen to cutlery.

I find a super-quality linen shirt ($13) and a Waterman pen for my son. B2 emerges with a slightly bulging carrier bag and unsheaves a pretty "shimmery, barbecue-y thing" that she wafts around seductively. "Nice buying," I encourage, getting into the swing of it.

But then B1 and B2 decide it is to our strategic advantage to take victuals often. Regroup and re-energise for the next assault. So, we set off to eat.

On the way, we stick our heads into the _Galle Face Hotel _ , in Galle Road, built in 1864 and the oldest hotel in Colombo. The foyer has busts of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin (seemingly with bad false teeth), and author Arthur C. Clarke, both of whom stayed here.

A carved granite noticeboard celebrates an odd collection of others who have stayed - Lord Mountbatten, Queen Ingrid of Denmark, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, John D. Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Gregory Peck, Cole Porter and one Athol Thomas of _The West Australian _, my predecessor who must have been here in the late 1970s or early 80s.

The hotel was built in 1864, and another granite board puts that into perspective - "before the first Australian cricket team visited England in 1882", which seems to me an odd landmark for Sri Lankans.

At the bottom of that piece of granite, the hotel announces that it is "dedicated to yesterday's charm", a commitment to which I can relate.

We wander further in and there's a wedding going on, with Kandyan drummers from Sri Lanka's cultural triangle and an interesting collection of guests. Another wedding party tumbles through the foyer, kaleidoscopic.

On the way back out I pass again the bust of Mr Clarke who, in fact, wrote the last chapters of 3001: The Final Odyssey here. It strikes me as appropriate, particularly as I notice actor Carrie "Princess Leia" Fisher's name up on the granite, as I actually feel I'm stepping out of the bar scene in Star Wars.

And then we taxi off the old _Cargill's _ store, at 40, York Street, Colombo 1.

David Sime Cargill and William Miller opened a general warehouse, import and wholesale business in this building in 1844, and it seems very little has changed.

Curving glass cabinets are mostly empty, except for somewhat bizarre displays, and a supermarket, liquor store and KFC have moved in. But there's still the old grilled cashier's stand - still the overpowering scent of the past.

Then the final stop with the taxi we have taken for the morning is to _Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct _. Built around 1681, the Dutch Hospital is one of the oldest buildings in the Colombo Fort area. It was converted last year into shops, eateries and a brewery but retaining the 17th century Dutch colonial architecture.

We know that A1 and A2 will be heading to _Ministry of Crab _ restaurant at some stage and try to cut them off at the pass, but it's still closed.

There, half a dozen tiger prawns are $5.60, a large crab to 900g is $9. All the crabs are wild, apparently. But then, with all that boiling water, this is understandable. (Team A later ranks Ministry of Crab among the best restaurants in Sri Lanka.)

We mosey along to the _Heladiv Tea Club _, for fine cups of one-estate tea (not a mix done by wholesalers) and a beautiful salmon baguette for $3.20.

In fact, B1 and B2 decide it's a good ploy to share the baguette - to not overfill and slow ourselves down; keep stopping for little top-ups to keep us going.

The waiter tells us Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct is a happening place at weekends, particularly with live music on Sundays, and Team A tells us it's buzzing when they get there in early evening.

And so, renewed for the fight, we tuk tuk on to _Paradise Road _ at 213 Dharmapala Mw, Colombo 7, for their "unique blend of home accessories, gifts, furniture and art". (

And finally it comes - the tablecloth I have been waiting for. It's a long rectangle in creamy, undyed cotton with characters from Sri Lanka's native Sinhala language, mother tongue of the 15 million Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka. The oldest Sinhala inscriptions have found on pottery of the 6th century BC.

I'm happy. It's useful. It's appropriate. I came, I saw, I consumed.

B1 and B2 seem happy enough, too, but they're not doing the celebratory war dance that I am.

"You're a good shopper," B1 says, in a moment of supreme recognition that I find quite emotional.

We are closing on the final assault but, in keeping with our policy of "a little and often", we head for "another little something" at _The Gallery Cafe _, at Paradise Road at 2 Alfred Road, Colombo 3. It was once the offices of architect Geoffrey Bawa (which reminds me, B2 hasn't got that book yet) and is a living monument to fine design.

The menu ranges from black pork curry at $7. to pumpkin gnocchi at $5.80 to club sandwich at $5.20. But here culinary paths diverge. B1 goes cake and coffee. B2 goes cocktail and something (I forget).

And I settle on savoury, and what turns out to be one of the "dishes of the trip".

Fried tofu in chilli for $7.90 washed down with a $6.80 Crossroads - rum, watermelon, lemon and passionfruit juice, topped with ginger beer. B2 leans across the table for a taster and has a fair old crack at it all.

The Gallery Cafe is an elegant, refined, interesting place.

There's a sense of culture and balance. But. (There's always a "but".) But we have one final shopping stop and set off back to _Barefoot _.

You may remember at the beginning of this story that I mentioned our recce at Barefoot. Well, having sized up everywhere else, B1 and B2 are ready for the kill.

"Would you like to take a tuk tuk back to the hotel?" B1 asks.

No, I say, I'm fine. I'll watch.

A little later B2 asks: "Are you sure you wouldn't like to take a tuk tuk back to the hotel?"

Why, is something ghastly going to happen? Will there be blood? Will it scar me for life?

No, I say, I'm fine, and happily fossick through the fabrics for a while.

B1 has her spoils of war. She approaches the counter with an item and a man asks if that will be all. "That's mine, too," she says, pointing to the pile of goods behind him.

But B2 has suddenly shown what truly great emporium warriors are made of. She has filled a basket to overflowing with cloth, tableware, place settings, goodness knows what. It has all been totted up and she is just about to pay when a look of horror comes over her face. She is aghast.

"What?" I say.

"The book. The Geoffrey Bawa book. I've forgotten it." And she runs off back into the bowels of the stores.

She looks fleetingly back. She looks happy.

  • fact file *

·WA-based Wildlife Safari have several itineraries in Sri Lanka, after flying five hours to Singapore and then just over three to Colombo.

·Their eight-day Cultural Sojourn includes time in Colombo, Kandalama - visiting Sigiriya - and Kandy. It is from $1495, including seven nights luxury accommodation twin share, private vehicle with chauffeur guide, breakfast daily, and entrance fees.

·Buddhas and Beaches is nine days, visiting Negombo, the cultural sights of Sigiriya and Kandy, and finishing with a beach stay at Bentota. It is from $1995 per person including seven nights luxury accommodation twin share, private vehicle with chauffeur guide, breakfast daily and entrance fees.

·Over 10 days, Wonders of Sri Lanka spends time in Colombo, Kandalama, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Yala and Negombo. It is from $1995 per person, including nine nights accommodation twin share, private car with chauffeur guide, jeep safari at Yala National Park, breakfast daily and entrance fees.

·Their 12-day Sri Lanka in Style includes visits to Negombo, Sigiriya, Kandy, the high tea country and Ulagalla Resort in Thirappane. It is from $3795 per person, including 10 nights luxury accommodation twin share, breakfast daily and all meals at Ceylon Tea Trails.

·1800 998 558, and travel agents.

The hotel announces it is "dedicated to yesterday's charm", a commitment to which I can relate.

The West Australian

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