“No menu,” the waiter says, beaming at us. Neighbouring tables eye us inquisitively while we attempt to order a drink. As the only woman and one of just two Westerners in the room, it seems natural that we’d attract a few stares.
To reach Slave Island’s Castle Hotel bar we’ve traversed dark streets lit only by the mauve sky and populated solely by soldiers standing sentinel outside the Sri Lankan Army Headquarters. We’ve ambled over train tracks and past construction sites, while the muezzin calls the devout to prayer.
Colombo’s dive bar scene is an antidote to the glitzy hotel bars of Galle Face Green — where tourists and expats gather over tiled monochrome floors to be served cocktails on coasters by waiters in bow ties. And in the city’s gritty belly, Castle Hotel is an atmospheric, 200-year-old bastion of this hidden realm. The ground-floor dive bar is one of the few watering holes where you can rub shoulders with locals.
Peeling back the curtain that hangs in the doorway reveals a stark room crammed with merry punters. Bare bulbs line the off-white walls; plates of devilled pork and chilli-dusted fries litter tables cloaked in tatty chequered cloths; moggies prowl in search of scraps; fans turn languorously overhead; and plumes of cigarette smoke drift into the air.
There’s a low hum of chatter as pairs of old gents pore over the day’s events, while intoxicated young patrons bang their fists on the table in time to hearty renditions of their favourite Baila songs.
It’s easy to fill an evening scampering from one unassuming dive bar to the next, so long as you know where to look. A quick rickshaw ride along Colombo’s backbone, Galle Road, lands us at the Vespa Sports Club. On the quiet backstreet of Sea View Avenue, the bar is just a few strides from the swell of the Indian Ocean.
A crumbling cottage with plastic tables that spill into the dusty car park, Vespa is alive with punters come sundown. Rickshaws sporadically putter into the entranceway, bursting with eager, male drinkers. The patchwork terracotta and corrugated iron roof shields the colonnaded porch from monsoon rains, and tables are loaded with steins of Lion beer and bottles of local firewater, arrack. At 100 rupees (50p) for a short glass, it’s one of the cheapest spots in town for a taste of the honey-hued nectar, which offers a fiery yet soothing lick to the throat.
Colombo’s colonial Fort area provides the backdrop for our final pit stop, the Ex-Servicemen’s Institute. Here, the needs of thirsty locals are tended to by 60-something local character JSS, a former military man.
“To eat? To eat?” he asks wide-eyed, the edges of his toothless smile seemingly stretching to his ears. He pulls out a wad of papers secured with a bulldog clip to scribble down our order. In the glare of the bar’s strip lighting JSS pootles back with two beers and a ready smile.
“To eat? To eat?” he enquires again, tickled by our presence. I’m still the only woman in the room, and one of just two Westerners, but despite the curious stares I’m rather thrilled we’ve got the bar, and JSS, all to ourselves.