Fun things to do in Colombo

  • Awaiting Sunset at Galle Face
    Awaiting Sunset at Galle Face
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Most Viewed Things to Do in Colombo

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    I can only speak as I find.

    by planxty Written Feb 7, 2014

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    I have had occasion to use the Railway Tourist Information Centre several times and have found them to be unfailingly courteous and the suppliers of accurate information regarding local train times, which ticket office to go to, platform etc.

    Whilst researching this tip, however, I have unearthed many negative reports about the office or more specifically one man by the name of Sampath who is offering very overpriced and sub-standard tours with non-English speaking drivers, rip-off meal options etc. etc. All you usual things you would expect from a dodgy "tour operator". Whether I look to old (I am), I don't have much money (I don't) or I might get a little bit angry (I very well might) I cannot say but no-one has so much as offered me a package tour. I should also say that these online comments all seem to have been from a few months ago so maybe the authorities have got wise to Mr. Sampath and sent him on his way.

    I had very good results here but just be careful.

    Should you want to find the office it is on the right hand site of Fort station as you look at it and well signed. It is on one level and so should be accessible.

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    Quite plain but interesting.

    by planxty Written Feb 2, 2014

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    You really have to seek out St. Peter's Church in the |Fort area of Colombo as it is quite difficult to find. It is, understandably in Church Street sandwiched between the Grand Oriental Hotel and the Flying Angel Club / Mission to Seamen and serves as the seafarers church. It has the Police Headquarters behind it and the heavily guarded secure zone round the port to the front. It does not even look much like a Church which is not surprising as it was initially a part of the Dutch Governor's residence.

    When the British took over the island they turned it into the garrison Anglican Church. Obviously the garrison is long gone but the Church remains as a place of worship. Although it was first used for divine worship in 1804 it was not officially consecrated until 1821 although it's sacred nature may extend much further back than that as it is thought that the Dutch built here on the previous foundation of a Portuguese chapel.

    Should the traveller wish to worship, Holy Communion is celebrated at 1030 on Sunday and 1230 on Wednesday although I am told attendances are very small. This is because for the 30 years of the war the building was virtually sealed off due to the position it occupies which I mentioned earlier and the congregation drifted off to other churches to avoid the time consuming checks required to enter. The sign outside says it is open daily for private prayer / visiting from 0700 - 1700 daily although I saw it locked up a couple of times during these hours.

    When you enter, it is initially not very grand nor well-appointed although it is pleasant and airy enough with a high ceiling and a cooling breeze blowing through it. For me the major interest was the many memorials on the wall. Readers of my other tips will know that I have an interest in military history, graves and memorials and St. Peter's has many interesting if poignant reminders of the cost through war or far more fequently disease of maintaining the Empire. There are tablets commemorating the dead of many of the regiments garrisoned here and I shall be contacting the relevant Regimental Museums of the successor Regiments when I return to UK.

    There is no admission fee nor indeed anyone to take such but obviously donations are welcome, the box is just by the door.

    Although it is difficult to seek out, it is definitely worth it and I recommend the traveller does just that.

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    You could easily miss this.

    by planxty Updated Feb 1, 2014

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    I was walking along Bodhiraja Mawatha, Colombo and was watching my footing which is always necessary here as well as trying to dodge the traffic on the frequent occasions that obstructions forced me into the road and so it was that I nearly missed this place.

    The slightly forlorn bell tower you can see is on the site of what was once a much more important place, namely the Kayman (Caiman) Gate which was one of the gates the Dutch had to protect the city from attack. The name derives from the Indo - American word for crocodile although why they chose a word from the other side of the world escapes me. The reason for the name is that the Dutch had a habit of keeping such creatures on the nearby lake as a means of keeping the slaves on Slave's Island, which isn't even an island at all. Confused? You will be!

    The bell tower is now dwarfed by the tall buildings in what is one of the busiest areas of central Colombo and was traditionally populated by Muslim and South Indian people. I have no idea what the gate looked like but this modern edifice is surely a pale imitation. Incidentally, this was also the site for public executions.

    If you want to know what happened the gate, well look no further than my countrymen who tore it down when they assumed control of Ceylon. I have no idea why. The bell itself was once the church bell of the 16th century Portuguese Church of St. Anthony in Kotte, which was sacked by the Protestant Dutch when they assumed control. I have never understood the desecration of places of worship.

    If you are interested, and it is hard to see, the inscription on the bell itself apparently reads, "AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM BENEDICTA TU IN MULIERIBUS" but I am afraid my schoolboy Latin has deserted me here so I am not quite sure what that means.

    OK, it is not much to look at and is not worthy of a specific visit (you cannot even get up to it as it is fenced off) but if you are passing it must be worth at least a photo or two.

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    Memorial to a remarkable man.

    by planxty Updated Jan 30, 2014

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    Standing proudly outside the Fort Railway station and on a road that bears his name is a rather fine gold painted statue in memory of quite a remarkable man, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott (1832 b- 1907). So who was this man and why does he merit such a prominent memorial in the heart of the Sri Lankan capital?

    Olcott was born into a Presbyterian family in New Jersey, USA, the eldest of six children. Academically gifted, he eventually went to Columbia University but had to withdraw on the failure of his father's business. He began working as a journalist for various publications.

    During the Civil War he served in the Army and subsequently rose to the rank of Colonel. He was well-respected and assisted into the investigation of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After leaving military service he became a lawyer.

    In 1874 he became interested in the Spiritualist movement that was popular at the time and met Helena Blavatsky who was to have a profound influence on him. They founded the Theosophical Society and in 1880 both publicly converted to Buddhism, the first Americans and Europeans so to do. The moved to India in 1879 to establish the Headquarters of the Society there and in 1880 travelled on to Sri Lanka. As well as promoting Buddhism in the country, the Society also did more prosaic work, establishing four schools in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Kurunegala. Olcott returned to India where he died in 1907.

    The last image shows the current headquarters building of the Theosophical Society which still flourishes in Sri Lanka.

    Truly a remarkable life story and this is a fitting tribute to him.

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    A wonderful find, seek it out.

    by planxty Updated Jan 28, 2014

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    I have mentioned already that whilst there is a drinking culture in Sri Lanka, they certainly don't make it overly easy for the traveller and you have to really seek out watering holes. I had read in my guidebook about the Mission to Seafarers aka the Flying Angel Club and decided to seek it out. I am really glad I did as it turned out to be a remarkable place and one of my favourite haunts in Colombo. OK, I know what you are thinking. Sailors club, it is going to be dog rough, there are going to be fights, ladies of "negotiable affection" (to borrow a phrase from the wonderful Terry Pratchett), drunks lying about everywhere, filthy toilets etc. etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully run place, spotless, friendly, inexpensive with great facilities and ne'er a lady of the night to be seen. Generally, there weren't too many of anybody to be seen and I often had the place to myself.

    Firstly, to the logistics. The place is a little intimidating to get to as it lies beside the police station in the sealed off dock area (there were many bombings in this part during the war with the Tamils recently) and there are always plenty of police and security men around. If you ask for the Grand Oriental Hotel, any tuk-tuk will take you there. As you face the main door, walk down to the right past the security guards and mangy if friendly dog, past the Church (see separate tip) and you will see the sign as shown here. Walk up the steps to the right (also shown). If you go straight ahead you will come to the office. At the top of the stairs walk, straight on, through the glass doors and you are there. Chances are that you will be greeted by Peter the manager who is simply a top bloke, he really could not have been nicer. You will have to sign in the visitors book which I believe is some sort of legal requirement and the three columns you have to fill are name, country and vessel. I wasn't going to lie to the guy and told him I was not from a vessel but just a "landlubber" traveller. That was no problem at all. I think the book is merely to keep the locals out. He told me that "traveller" was a perfectly acceptable thing to write and I must admit it gave me an inordinate amount of pleasure to write it. For some years now since my retirement I have considered myself to be a traveller and musician in no particular order but to actually write it in an official document and have it so graciously accepted as a valid entity really pleased me. It just felt like I had been accepted into some sort of club or something. Stupid I know but little things like that just make me happy.

    It put me in mind of a time on the East Coast of Australia back in 1991 when I had been told that the RSL (Returned Services League) was the place to go for a meal. There was a man on the door and you had to be a member or live over 25 kilometres (or was it miles?) from the venue to be admitted. I PRoduced my passport, gave my London address and showed the London issued visa and was deemed to be well in excess of the required distance. About half a world to be precise!

    Peter and I had been talking one evening about the ridiculously large number of bracelets I have on my right wrist and what each signified (I don't just buy them, they all mean something) and a couple of nights later when I popped in for a drink he announced he had a present for me. He had only gone and bought me a typical Sri Lankan little thread bracelet which I insisted he tie on me and I am proudly wearing as I type this. I digress, as usual!

    As I mentioned, the place is usually pretty quiet and you can indulge in a chat with Peter, who speaks excellent English, or perhaps watch a programme on the large screen TV. They are quite happy to change channels depending on the clientele at the time. There is an excellent free wifi connection here and I saw sailors using Skype or similar to have conversations with people at home. Well, I think that is what the were doing. Being sailors they may well have been fixing up a date in the next port of call. If you don't have your own laptop, netbook, tablet or whatever the heck people are using these days (it is no secret I am a tEchnophobe) there are a few internet booths available for use. I did not enquire what the charge was, if any.

    There is even a half decent guitar (pictured) which I tuned and picked out bit of a tune on. Peter did ask me to come back and play some night but for one reason or another it did not seem to happen.

    Should you want to eat there is a fairly small menu but Peter told me he makes it all himself and seems to be very proud of his food. Again, for one reason or another I never actually got round to eating here nor did I see anyone else do so and therefore cannot comment on the food. It claims to be open 1000 - 2200 every day but be aware that they close early on a Friday night at 2000 so the staff can go out and enjoy themselves. Well deserved too.

    I do apologise for the slightly narrative style of this tip but I am trying to maintain my travel blog and my VT tips simultaneously and sometimes my methods of writing become a little blurred between one and the other. With my VT hat firmly on now, I do suggest that if you are in the Fort area of Colombo and fancy a drink or internet use or whatever that you seek this place out, it is a complete gem and you too can get to write "traveller" in the book. How good would that make you feel? Incidentally, Peter has got my business card which has the same image as my profile page so tell him I sent you!

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    I didn't know it was posh!

    by planxty Written Jan 28, 2014

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    I had been mooching about the Fort area and had indeed walked all the way in from Wellewatta which is a fair old hike and I fancied a beer. No surprise there. I saw a sign indicating Tap Bar and that was the decision made. It was down steps, like some of the "dive bars" I have frequented in various places and which usually form the lower end of the bar scale. I have been in some right rough ones and generally loved them!

    Entering the bar it was apparent that this was not your usual dive bar but a clean, orderly and quite upscale establishment. I ordered my beer from the very well turned out barman and had a look round. It was not overly busy with a few guys sitting round one table and that was it. OK, it was only about three in the afternoon and presumably most honest folks were at work. My local in London can be like that on a midweek afternoon.

    I had a bit of a conversation with the barman who spoke good English and watched as a chef scurried in and out of what was obviously his huge pantry adjacent to the bar area. It looked spotless as did he. When the bill came, it was not hugely expensive and so it was with some surprise that I later found out that this place was actually part of the Grand Oriental Hotel which is a very historic and well-regarded establishment in Colombo.

    I am not sure if they would have let a scruff like me into one of the main bars in the place but I seemed to be acceptable in here. To be honest, if I was in this area now, wth the knowledge I have subsequently gained, I would go fifty yards round the corner to the Flying Angel Club (see separate tip) but this is certainly a decent place for a drink or two. The Tap Bar certainly seems to have a good selection of drinks including plenty of imported spirits if that is your thing.

    The toilets were spotless as you would expect in a an expensive hotel like this.

    Regrettably, due to it's downstairs location this place will not be wheelchair accessible.

    Apologies for the poor quality of the third image but I do not like firing off flash indoors when people are trying to relax.

    Travellers should note that this place is closed on Poya days (see separate tip).

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    Shine a light, what time is it?

    by planxty Written Jan 28, 2014

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    The structure you see in the image here is an unusual and a very long-standing structure right in the middle of the Fort area of Colombo which has long been the heart of the capital. If you look closely you can probably tell that is performs, or more correctly performed, two functions.

    Look at the top and you will see that it is a lighthouse which was built initially as a clocktower, would you believe? The reason for this, it is said, is that the wife of the then British Governor Sir Henry Ward, was so annoyed at what she perceived as tardy Oriental timekeeping that she ordered it's construction. Sir Henry must have been a very active Governor as it was he who also laid out the Colpitty Racecourse, part of which now forms the popular Galle Face Green (see separate tip). The clocktower was built in 1860 and the clock mechanism was made by the same manufacturers that made what is popularly known as Big Ben in London, although that is an incorrect term as Big Ben refers to the hour bell, but that is another story.

    Five years later, the light was added to the top to replace an earlier beacon dating from 1820. As Colombo grew and the buildings got taller they eventually eclipsed the light and so a new one had to be built nearer the coast. I cannot imagine who would have given planning permission to build a structure that obscured a lighthouse but there you go, I am not a town planner. It was finally decommissioned in 1952.

    The reader should note that the roads leading to the clocktower on three sides are closed as it is part of the security zone around the port which is still very much in evidence despite the end of the war in the country. I took this image from a distance from Bank of Ceylon Mawatha (the very nice policeman gave me permission) but you can get closer to it on Chatham Road. You cannot get into the building so an outside look is all you will get but it is pleasing to see a very well-preserved reminder of times gone by in the middle of a very bustling city centre.

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    I just didn't like it.

    by planxty Written Jan 28, 2014

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    This tip concerns a very popular bar / restaurant in the centre of Colombo which I visited one afternoon. I am generally a little wary of foreign themed bars as I always find them a bit false and would much rather drink in some dive of a locals place anyway. That is more my scene and I tend to have far better experiences there. It is for that reason that I avoid like the plague the Irish bars that are ubiquitous worldwide.

    The bar in question is the Bavarian at the start of Galle Road and it features in guidebooks and online. As the name implies it is a German themed establishment and so in I wandered for a look round. I sat at the bar and noticed that there was draught beer which is somewhat of a rarity in Sri Lanka with bottles and cans being the preferred options. I ordered my then usual Lion lager (now changed to Three Coin which I had not discovered then and prefer) and had a bit of a look round. It was certainly busy enough with well-heeled Sri Lankan business people in for lunch. Presumably they can afford the fairly steep prices (by local standards) here.

    Although German themed the menu seemed fairly pan European / international with the daily specials including bruschetta and a roast turkey pasta of all things. I didn't bother to eat there. Whilst I like the occasional bit of "home cooking", if I am in Sri Lanka I prefer a bit of rice and curry or a devilled dish. I can eat bruschetta in a hundred Italian restaurants in London, or better still in Italy.

    The bar is well-stocked with a good selection of imported spirits and a wine list which looked a bit pricey. I know nothing about wine so I will not venture an opinion on it's quality.

    The appalling German pop music playing didn't assist matters either and sounded like it had been recorded circa 1986.

    It would be unfair to put this tip as a tourist trap because it is not. It is obviously a well-established and well-patronised place, it is just not my kind of place. Indeed, my Colombo "contact" told me that she loves it there which must say something. Please visit by all means and decide if it is to your liking.

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    A very fine bar.

    by planxty Written Jan 24, 2014

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    I have mentioned elsewhere in my Colombo and Sri Lankan tips about the difficulty of finding a decent bar to have a beer in as they just do not seem to exist, at least not as we know them in the West. I have yet to see what I would term a bar or pub anywhere and the best you can hope for is a hotel bar. I was fortunate to find an excellent example of the type in the Topaz Bar which is attached to the Sapphire Hotel on Galle Road in Wellewatta and this was happily a short walk from where I was staying.

    There is not really very much to say about the place. It is clean and tidy with spotless toilets. The staff are super-friendly especially when it became apparent that I enjoyed watching cricket and all Sri Lankans are cricket mad as far as I can tell. I bspent a couple of wonderful afternoons here watching a Test match between Sri Lanka and Pakistan albeit that the mood was slightly dampened when Pakistan pulled off a fairly improbable run chase to clinch victory on the fifth day.

    The locals are very friendly as well and I had some very interesting conversations with them where I learned quite a bit about the country. Apart from the very obvious attractions of a cold beer on a hot and humid day I have always found bars to be great places to get a feel for any particular place.

    As seems the norm here I only once saw a woman in the place, an Australian lady who was staying with her husband in my hotel and had similarly stumbled upon the Topaz. They were the only white people I saw in quite a few visits here.

    The only thing of particular note here is that they have a smoking room (pictured) which is the only one I have seen thus far on my trip here. I think it is a good idea as everyone is catered for that way although oddly you are not allowed to take your drink in there.

    There is very good food available and I shall deal with that in a separate tip or alternatively you can pop upstairs to the "posh" restaurant which will form the basis for yet another tip. Oh dear, I am giving myself rather a lot of work here.

    The whole rather splendid establishment is run under the watchful eye of Thilak who is every bit as friendly as his staff, speaks excellent English and is great company. He has my business card now so if you do drop in there, and you should, tell him Fergy sent you!

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    An OK Bar, nothing more.

    by planxty Written Jan 23, 2014

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    I have written elsewhere on my Colombo and Sri Lankan pages about the serious lack of places to drink despite the supposed drinking culture of the Sri Lankan people. Bars bare hard to come by and it is often a case of any port in a storm!

    I had been out exploring the Wellewatta and Bambalapitaya areas of Colombo one day when I happened upon this place on the Galle Road and thought I would check it out. It is a pretty typical Colombo hotel bar, pretty dark, clean enough with several men sitting drinking alone at various tables and watching the TV which was the only source of entertainment.

    Like most hotel bars there is food available here but bI didn't sample it.

    Service was quick enough, the prices about average at 250 Rs. for a big bottle of Lion lager and the toilets were OK if nothing special but I somehow found the whole place a bit soulless. I much prefer the Topaz bar in the Sapphire Hotel about half a mile away (see separate tip).

    I am sorry this is such a brief tip but there really isn't very much more to say about this place. In fact, I could really have just posted the title and left it at that as it says it all.

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    Don't let appearances fool you.

    by planxty Written Jan 23, 2014

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    On my first day in Colombo, I was killing time waiting for a train and fancied a beer. A cut and paste from my blog here will prevent duplication of effort.

    "Not far from the station and sandwiched beween a couple of shops was a building I had seen from across the road and thought to be derelict as you can hopefully see if from the image. It went by the name of the Colonial Hotel and looked about as dated as the concept of colonialism itself in this place. There were, however, some Wild West style swing doors and a pristine sign bearing the two words that gladdened my heart almost beyond belief - "Bar Open", oh happy day!

    I went straight in and was greeted by a long, narrow and completely no-frills bar with a few locals sitting drinking beer. Strangely, everyone appeared to be drinking alone and a surreptitious glance or two indicated that Lion beer appeared to be the local brew of choice. I went to the bar (which I have since found out is rare as everywhere has waiter service) and in the international language uttered the immortal phrase, "beer, please". I still wasn't quite sure how much English was generally spoken but he replied in good English, enquiring whether I wanted Lion or Carlsberg. I opted for the Lion although I have since found out that they are much of a muchness as the Carlsberg is made under licence in Sri Lanka and tastes just about the same. I paid for the beer in the British fashion which seemed to surprise him a little as Sri Lanka adopts the tab system along with most of the rest of the world.

    I completed my somewhat odd ritual of taking a photograph of my first beer (see image) in any new country which elicited a slightly incredulous look from the waiter and had my first draught of Sri Lankan beer. Very good it was too. A short time after a Sri Lankan man came and sat at the next table to me and ordered a beer. After a while we made eye contact and I nodded a greeting and spoke to him, as you do. This prompted a conversation and his English was excellent. My travellers sense was mumbling "watch out for scammers" in the back of my head but the conversation carried on nicely and I remembered that I had initiated it. A scammer would have wasted no time in approaching me with some cock and bull story.

    I had read that there was a huge drinking culture here and the strength of the beer would tend to confirm that but what happened next took me a little by surprise. At 1400 hours, they closed the bar! This seems to be quite common here with many bars closing between 1400 and 1700 in the afternoon."

    I have since found out that when they close the bar at 1400 you can go up the stairs to the right of the door and continue drinking all afternoon". Downstairs reopens at 1700 and is open until 2300. This is a great place for a beer and a bar snack if you are in the area.

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    Dutch House Museum

    by Ramonq Written May 29, 2012

    This was once the Dutch East India Company office and was built in the 17th century. It's right in the heart of the bazaar district which is very chaotic. The displays are mainly old furnitures from the Dutch period. The building itself is interesting although entrance to the place is pricey for what's actually on display inside.

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    A Cup of Tea - Mlesna Tea Fortress

    by anilpradhanshillong Updated Jan 21, 2012

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    The next morning, bright and early, found us on the road back to Colombo. Barely half an hour out of town, you will come across the Mlesna Tea Fortress to your left. This is an ultra modern shop selling one of the finest tea leaves of Sri Lanka. Set up in 1983, Mlesna sells top quality Sri Lanka lea leaves in specially designed packages. The shop itself is not very large but the range of products is exhaustive. Very fine porcelain and statues are also available. This is a fine place to pick up some exotic tea either for yourself or as a gift package. An added advantage is a free cup of fine tea. Next to this shop is a restaurant selling cakes, pastries and milk shakes. There is also another exclusive shop dealing with precious and semi-precious stones. The presence of a washroom upstairs is a bonus point.

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    read the english local newspaper

    by windpaard Written Mar 5, 2011

    there is about 3 newspapers 'the island''daily mirror' and 'daily news'
    I prefer the island,is very interesting to see there world view about the american empire and the old colonial european countries

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    Touring the City.

    by Emichelle Written Nov 21, 2007

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    If you wish to check what Colombo city is like, you can do a city tour, which will cover all the key places in the city as mentioned in my home page. You have the option of doing it with a car and driver from a tour company or on your own if you wish to compromise a bit on comfort. You will have a taste of the public transport and experience the trishaw rides in doing it by your self. It might be fun ! In a car you will be more secure and you may not waste to much of time it might just be more bit expensive than doing it on your own.

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