Colombo is a hard city to love. Dusty, dirty, chaotic, ill-maintained. I got cheated for USD55 on the first day there and that soured my mood badly. And oh, the honking!

But the city facing the full might of the Indian Ocean is colorful and lively. There is a chaotic order imposed from the ground-up. There are surprises around the corner if you are willing to brave the sun and walk down the roads.

Colombo shows how a city is like without malls. There are malls in the Sri Lankan capital of course but they are nothing like in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore. If you arrived here from a relatively prosperous Asian city, you will be unimpressed with Colombo malls.

Given the relatively lack of large malls, this means shops open at the street level, making the road busy with people on workdays even under the hot tropical sun. Such busy streets full of pedestrians are not unique to Colombo of course — you can see such street scenes in other Asian cities too — but there is something charming about it in this city. The narrow opened-air streets make it all the more liberating.

(By the way, whose idea was it to have that ugly green roof over Kuala Lumpur’s Petaling Street and Masjid India? Mr unelected Mayor, tear down that roof).

Street scene in Pettah, Colombo

And the signs! The signs are everywhere, almost Chinatown-like.

I have always felt street level shops make a city more human. It creates things to see in the open air.

In contrast, dull big structures are all a stranger to a pedestrians and kill off foot traffic. Just move along. Just move along until you get to the entrance and disappear in the monstrous controlled malls. Such malls have its functions but they are just not a place for an adventure.

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