Never a dry spell

Shanaka Amarasinghe
Nothing like a beer or a dozen to unwind after a hard day's labour watching the cricket. Colombo has plenty of options for the thirsty traveller

About five years ago I was involved in challenging a piece of legislation in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. It regarded the constitutionality of new alcohol and tobacco regulations. Many stakeholders attempted to give their side of the story, highlighting the good and bad of the two vices. One such argument from the anti-alcohol lobby quoted a WHO report that said that Sri Lanka had the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world after Moldova, the leaders. Despite Buddhist leanings towards teetotal Sri Lanka packs away its alcohol with as much gusto as Sanath Jayasuriya would tear into Manoj Prabhakar circa 1996. Monsoons permitting, this is certainly not a "dry" culture.

Sri Lanka has had five executive presidents since the position was created in 1978. The two most successful among them have put up cricket stadiums. Sooriyawewa is Mahinda Rajapaksa's baby, while the Premadasa is named after the charismatic leader who made his humble beginnings in the poorer part of Colombo where the stadium is situated.

Given its immediate surroundings, RPS is not walking distance to the nearest pub for a pre-game beer or a post-game sorrow drowning. Closer scrutiny will unearth the odd "tavern", but these are more likely to be dingy, unwelcoming alcoves, with hardbacked wooden chairs, no food and less service. They are by the locals for the locals, stocked with local arrack of varying degrees of strength. They are, however, the spine of Sri Lankan drinking, and with the right attitude you may find yourself tasting some fine arrack in all its exciting diversity at one of these places.

Venturing further afield to the Fort and Maradana areas is advisable. These suburbs have plenty of "wine stores". However, touring fans must be advised that the Sri Lankan drinking culture is somewhat different from the British or antipodean. Though their inhabitants can knock it back with the best of them, Sri Lanka taverns, bar a few, are not loud, boisterous, social places. And women are never seen in them.

For a less alienating, more inclusive environment it might be wiser to look for the bars and pubs of the bigger hotels located in the Fort area, about a 15 minute tuk-tuk ride from the stadium.

7° North located at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel is an upmarket lounge bar overlooking the serenity of the Beira Lake. The open-air wooden deck makes the ambience relaxed and breezy. While it can sometimes be a bit stiff, the World Cup will definitely see a relaxing of the no-shorts-or-flip-flops rule. Definitely worth at least a quick stopover. The food is mainly tapas and fusion.

The Cheers Pub at the Cinnamon Grand is a larger indoor pub, which draws its inspiration from the 80s American sitcom of the same name. It is as authentic a pub as this part of the world will allow. It can easily accommodate larger groups and has a very decent pub-grub menu. Popular with Colombo's expat community, and probably the closest to home an Aussie or a Pom will find. The wide screens will definitely show all the cricket, and a raucous crowd is the rule rather than the exception. It does tend to get pretty crowded, though, and the service staff can be slightly overwhelmed.

The Grand Oriental Hotel's Harbour Room boasts one of the most spectacular views of Colombo: overlooking the port and offering a glimpse of the Premadasa's columns of light in the distance. GOH was one of Colombo's poshest hotels before the area it is located in was declared a high-security zone, denting that reputation. It still serves a fabulous Sri Lankan buffet, and the Tap Bar is well stocked. The hotel's colonial architecture is a treat and it is located in a historic part of town, which also now bustles with commercial activity.

Up the road, the Colombo City Hotel has an interesting rooftop, and its view of Colombo's twin towers is unrivalled. Very pretty at night. The menu is not extensive, but you'll get a taste of Sri Lankan "bites", which is the term used to describe snacky food that accompanies alcohol.

A two-minute walk from there is the Colombo Hilton, home to the Echelon Pub, a small but credible drinking hole with a traditional bar and three booths that each accommodate groups of around six in some privacy. Beer is on tap and the menu, though limited, is high on quality. The chilli pork on garlic toast is recommended, as is the nasi goreng. They also do a mean steak and kidney pie. Beware the small portions, though. And the somewhat large prices.

The Hilton also runs a good bar by its pool. It was a cornucopia of booze and food during the football World Cup and so you can expect a bigger spread as it cheers the host during the World Twenty20.

A stone's throw from the Hilton is the Galadari, and a little further beyond, the Ceylon Continental Hotel. Both have decent, if not top-of-the-line, bars. The ambience is eclectic and the food a healthy mix of eastern and western grub.

Across the resplendent Galle Face Green is the stately Galle Face Hotel. Its patio overlooks the surf of the Indian Ocean, and at sunset it is easily one of the most serene places in Colombo. If the cacophony of cricket gets to be too much, this is an ideal place to relax. The food is excellent, although the service sometimes does not mirror it. Its proximity to the ocean and the background of the grand old hotel makes for an evening that transcends the minor annoyances of everyday life.

Across the hotel is the less serene Inn on the Green, a typically olde English pub, with barrel tables a long(ish) bar and booths. The food again is an interesting mix, although the liver and bacon with mashed potatoes is to be recommended. As is the beef and Guinness pie. A live band plays at Inn on the Green most nights and the atmosphere is lively, to say the least. New smoking regulations (see first paragraph) means that one half of the pub is sealed off from the other, but that's a minor inconvenience.

A quick hop across the road takes you to the Bavarian German Restaurant, which dishes up some of the best steak and schnitzel available in Colombo. The bar is well stocked, although the restaurant is intimate and would probably not welcome the intrusion of a horde of marauding fans. A wonderful place to escape for a good meal, though.

The Oasis Bar at the Ramada is new and markets itself as a sports bar. It is spacious and will be a great place to gather for a "medium-sized" as opposed to "large" night out.

A little further inland is the Union Bar and Grill on Staple Street, a large pub-cum-restaurant with a brilliant lunch buffet and a great grill in the evenings. There is a salad bar down the hall for weight-watchers, but it is unlikely many of those will have read so far. The place can accommodate fairly large, staggering crowds, has live bands playing most evenings, and is a favourite hangout for after-work drinks. The prices are not cheap but not unreasonable.

In the same area is the fine bar of the Colombo Rowing Club. With alcohol served almost at cost, it is a place to be recommended for some serious boozing. Unfortunately for touring cricket fans, the Club is somewhat exclusive, but if you befriend a member at the cricket, the experience must not be missed. They do insist on long trousers and shoes, but this is a small price to pay for the staggering atmosphere provided by the upstairs bar, the sloping lawn with the Beira Lake lapping the fringes, and the chilli prawn "bites". It is one of Colombo's oldest clubs and the colonial heritage will smack you between the eyes as you walk in. Sipping an arrack cocktail here, with nothing but the wind in your face, can be an exhilarating experience.

Further away from the Colombo Fort, which is virtually littered with these diverse watering holes, is the oasis of Maitland Crescent. This part of town will be familiar to those who have visited Sri Lanka before: it houses Sri Lanka Cricket as well as Colombo's most famous ground, the SSC. While SSC will host no matches during the World Twenty20, its bar will most certainly host several nights of unbridled hedonism. There are several sports clubs in the vicinity of the ground, among them the NCC, CH&FC and CR&FC. The latter two are rugby clubs and host nights of revelry and irreverence on a regular basis. Both also have nightclubs on the premises if dancing is an option - and the lack of sobriety generally rules that it is. The prices of drinks are also very much lower than at the venues above, and there is plenty of open air and grass, which guarantees a soft landing. The only hitch is, you need to be the guest of a member, but most clubs will open their doors to revellers come the tournament, so the hiccup is a minor one.