Note: The following text combines some essential travel practicalities with my own romantic views and observations. If you are just looking for practical information, skip the highlighted text. Or if you’d like more light and shade to your reading experience, put ten minutes aside to read the whole thing for a more personal insight into this country of contrasts.
Sri Lanka; Ceylon; The Teardrop of India. This is a country I’ve dreamed of visiting for years.
If, like me, your first port of call when planning your next travel adventure is Lonely Planet, then you’ll be familiar with the warning box. That alarming rectangle of text which features atop far too many destination pages, urging you to consider the presence of guerrilla activity; kidnapping; civil war; political instability. In 2009, after 27 years of civil war, the box vanished and Sri Lanka was given the green light for safe tourism.
I had been feeling incredibly jaded after a very hard year, and I was beginning to question whether I’d actually left the office from the night before, as days turned into weeks of life-sapping hard graft and endless bloody rain. It was definitely time for an adventure – there was an almost physical ache for newness. I just needed to be amazed by something.
If you are considering a trip to Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan Airlines are the only operator to fly direct from the UK (at the time of writing). Their fares are very reasonable, and the flight times are a not-too-horrendous ten and a half hours. You will need to purchase a tourist visa as well, which you can obtain cheaply and easily online HERE. I received confirmation back within 24 hours, and it cost around £10 for a thirty day visa. You can get your visa at the airport, but it costs more and you have to queue.
I had next to no expectations of Sri Lanka. I had no idea what to expect from the place, the food, the people. What would it smell like? What would I have for breakfast? What does their music sound like? It was all a beautiful mystery to me. And having no expectations meant I couldn’t be disappointed. I did my research, planning various itineraries, with little or no idea of the size of the country or what the transport is like. I oohed and ahhed over images of mountains and jungles and beaches. I sniggered at my own inadequate ability to pronounce a single place name, other than Colombo and Kandy.
The flight felt proper – I was reminded of a Singapore Airlines experience flying with Sri Lankan Airlines. The plane was nice and new, with a decent in-flight entertainment provision, the flight attendants were immaculate and exotically glamorous, the food was good and we were entrusted with real cutlery. It would appear Sri Lankan Airlines’ clientele are able to resist stabbing each other with a pudding spoon better than most.
There are an abundance of taxis outside the airport, but for the best price, you should book your taxi through the official stand within the airport. If you venture outside without a booking, you will be jumped on by taxi drivers who are all too happy to take advantage of the jet-lagged and bewildered.
We’re all familiar with that wall of humidity you walk through, like the stargate, when you are lucky enough to disembark a plane directly onto the runway, but nothing could prepare me for the soup like air that rehydrated my lungs within seconds of emerging, bleary eyed and confused, from Bandaranaike International Airport. The guidebook does warn of hassle from touts and taxi drivers, so I had my battle stance on. In the end, the unanimous decision was “let’s just get there”. We did over pay, and knowingly so, but at that point, we jut wanted to get to the hotel and have a shower and a cold beer.
A fantastic travel tool that I can’t recommend enough is a site called Rome2Rio. You can type in any two destinations, anywhere in the world, and this spiffy little widget will advise you on every available mode of transport, as well as the travel time, and more importantly: the price. I used this frequently during the latter half of my journey and it’s surprisingly accurate. I wish I had known about it at the start of my trip, but more about that later.
The first port of call was Colombo and the only hotel I’d pre-booked: The Ocean Front.
Colombo is a patchwork city of old and new; Hindu and Buddhist; construction and destruction. Like Bangkok, Colombo doesn’t have a centre as such, but that’s where the similarity ends. There’s a huge amount of building work going on, as money floods into the country from foreign investment – primarily from Japan, who I’m told see Sri Lanka as a strategic military location. There’s even a road near to the Sri Lankan parliament buildings named Sri Lanka and Japan Friendship Road.
Colombo is broken up into districts, each with their own unique character and flavour and through it all runs the Galle Road, with four lanes made into eight by the ever skilful and opportunistic Sri Lankan drivers. In Sri Lanka, tuktuks are called three-wheelers, and they are the preferred mode of transport for most commutable distances. A fair price for pretty much any journey seems to be 200 LKR (about 92p).
My first encounter upon venturing out into the streets of Colombo, was with an elderly gentleman, smartly dressed in a pressed white shirt and slacks. He said he was a teacher and we engaged in a pleasant conversation about the best places to go in Sri Lanka, and about the time he spent studying in London. This was en route to an ATM, and upon arriving, he procured a clipboard from his bag detailing the school for orphans he was collecting for. This is a common scam in SL, and although I told him I didn’t have any cash, he waited outside the ATM for me to come out. Even if I had wanted to give him money, I certainly wasn’t going to give him the high denominations from the cashpoint, so I had to be quite firm and walk away at a brisker pace than he could match.
A little note on being ‘hassled’: if you’re not interested, just thank the person offering their services, but say no straight away – not “maybe later”, and definitely don’t feign interest out of politeness. I found a simple “I have a booking already” was more than sufficient. Being English, our first instinct is always not to seem rude, but by not being very clear (in a polite fashion, of course) that you aren’t going to accept their offer of a tour/three-wheeler ride/hotel, you are just wasting the time of someone who is simply trying to do their job.
If you’re using a Money Card by Master Card for your currency, I recommend using the Commercial Bank ATMs as they always work, are easy to follow and they always give you a useful print out with your remaining balance after a withdrawal – essential for budgeting. Get your high denomination notes changed as quickly as you can. 100 and 500 Rupee notes are the most useful, and most people won’t have change for anything higher.
There’s not very much street food to be found in Colombo, however the really cheap looking restaurants that are crammed with people (although they may at first appear to be intimidating, noisy and unsavoury) are your best bet at sampling some really delicious, fresh and CHEAP food. There’s lots of variation, but for those (like me) who are a bit inept at eating with their fingers, I’d recommend short eats, which are a bit like wraps or samosas, filled with potato curry, fish curry, or vegetable curry. The short eats with breadcrumbs on tend to be fish.
Also recommended are the stalls selling king coconut (the big, yellow kind), which they’ll slash the top off for you with a machete and then furnish you with a straw. After you have finished the coconut water, ask them to cut the coconut in half, and they’ll make you a little spoon with a piece of the shell, ideal for scooping out the nutritious flesh. 50 Rupees (approximately 23p).
The first morning upon rising saw us feasting on a rice and curry M bought from a hole in the wall eatery which cost 100 Rupees (about 46p). The different rice and sauces were cheerfully chucked directly into a plastic bag, which he brought back to the hotel and we all tucked in using our fingers. There is something that feels deliciously naughty about eating curry for breakfast, and this combined with the eating method and the searing heat of the chili saw us all giggling away between mouthfuls.
There are an abundance of temples to see in Colombo. Out of respect, you should ensure that your shoulders and legs are covered. Men should wear long shorts or trousers and women should avoid anything too skimpy. I’d advise carrying a wrap or sarong with you at all times as it’s lightweight and you never know when you might stumble across a fascinating temple in SL. They spring up in the most unlikely of places. You should remove anything covering your head.
Fort is a contradictory place. The area around the railway station is exciting and vibrant, packed with market stalls, touts, shops, and clashing sounds and colours. The area near Galle Face Green is super mellow and spacious – an ideal location to watch the spectacular sunsets this part of Sri Lanka is famous for.
That night, as I watched the blood red sun sink into the Indian Ocean, I was delighted to see hundreds of locals taking half an hour out of their commute home to sit on the rocks that run parallel to the coastal railway track and watch the sun set. Most were alone, still wearing their business attire, and I envied them this break from the daily grind where time seems to stand still and the whole of Colombo seems to go quiet.