Category Archives: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka hints and tips

When I came back from my trip to Sri Lanka earlier in the year, I noted down a handful of hints and tips about travelling there but I never published them.

So here they are now…better late than never!
In no particular order except for #1 being my Number One tip:

#1. Buy a Sri Lankan SIM card upon arrival. I got mine at Colombo airport. SIM cards are very cheap (Rs 1,300) and packages come with lots of data (3GB!) – you will make great use of it.

#2. Switch the GPS on. On your smartphone. Now that you are online 24/7 at superlow cost (see #1 above) you can track your route. So useful when trying to find out where you should get off the long distance bus, if you are not heading to a central bus station and no one is giving you the right directions! Ditto when you get a bit lost wandering around mazes of streets (Negombo my best example).

#3. Fresh coconuts. Drinking coconut water is very refreshing and you will enjoy it when spending hours in the sun. I am totally addicted to it. Fresh coconuts cost Rs 50-60. At Galle Fort I got asked Rs 100 so I told them that in Colombo I had paid Rs 60 and the price instantly dropped!

Fresh coconut!
Fresh coconut!

#4. “No, thank you”. Make sure you are comfortable with saying that. “No, thank you” is the statement I have used the most in Sri Lanka. No, I am not interested in your services/tuk tuk/taxi/goods/shop/etc. Statement usually followed by one of the following white lies: “I am leaving tomorrow”/”I am on my way to meet some friends”/”No, I am not alone, my husband is back at the guesthouse” (not realising, though, that my thumb ring can hardly be mistaken for a wedding ring). I have used all the above excuses to get rid of unwanted attention or pushy tuk tuk drivers. Who usually turned their attention elsewhere quickly. I never felt harassed when travelling Sri Lanka, though, unlike what I experienced in India for example.

#5. Scams. Plenty. You will probably fall for one of them at some point. No matter how street-wise and/or experienced traveller you are. There is plenty of info on the internet but the ones I encountered the most are related to not-to-be-missed Buddhist ceremonies (where of course only your prospective “guide” can take you to, and not for free), cancelled buses on certain routes (so you’ll have to take a tuk tuk instead – I was always very firm on this one, skill picked up in years of Asia travels), and sob stories about family dramas/poverty/etc (while I am all for charity, it is often hard to tell which stories are true, and I had to quickly grow a thick skin on these).

#6. Don’t buy souvenirs at the airport. Rather, support the local communities and artists, and shop at the local craft shops where you can find original pieces at very reasonable prices. Galle and Kandy are great for this. As for me, I came back from my trip with a little elephant made of brass (made for me by the artist), ankle bracelets, painted fabric coasters, and a couple of kids’ books…SriLankaPhotogallery_220

Transport in Sri Lanka

In my two weeks in Sri Lanka my approach to the means of transport available in the country was a bit of mix’n’match, partly because I wanted to try different options (in general choosing the cheapest available) partly because on certain routes you have no choice!

So let me share here my experience and comments on all options I tried:

#Plane. Only to get into the country and back out again. The Bandaranaike airport is 35Km north of Colombo and can be reached by public transport. 2-bandaranaike-international-airportThere is an airport bus that leaves from a small car park on the left as you exit the airport – if you ask the airport staff they will point you in the right direction.
Rs 200 is what I paid for a single trip to Colombo but the fare seems to vary, depending on your bargaining skills. Alternatively you can catch a taxi and pay extortionate prices.

#City buses. I like them so I used them most times, even when carrying my suitcase. Buses are very crowded and never stop for more than a couple of seconds so you often have to jump on/off when the bus is still moving. Not many Westerners semed to travel like this but I think that everyone should try. And the locals were always helpful (I was offered seats, given directions, etc). Bus fares are ultracheap, for example I paid Rs 15 for each few Km ride within Colombo. You buy the tickets on board and the ticket guy never has much change so make sure you have small notes and coins on you.

#Long distance buses. The “standard” ones look like city buses and have no a/c. They get very crowded and very hot. My journey from Colombo to Palavi – just under 4hrs – wasn’t overly pleasant in the tropical heat of a late morning/lunchtime but it only cost Rs 150 (less than £1!!!). I wouldn’t do it everyday but it’s an interesting experience. Just bring lots of water and don’t expect toilets on board or toilet breaks. Minivans with a/c are available on most routes and are a much more comfortable option, at only slightly higher fare (Rs 180 for Anuradhapura-Dambulla, Rs 200 for Dambulla-Kandy).

#Trains. I travelled 1st class between Kandy and Colombo, and 2nd class between Colombo and Galle (and back). 1st class had a/c and seat reservation, very comfortable although not comparable to a Western-style 1st class. I bought the ticket at the station two days before travelling and had no issues whatsoever.

The 2nd class train had no a/c and the seats were grubby but ok. No seat reservation (you buy the ticket on the day) so get on the train quick and sit by the window to get some breeze! Trains can get very crowded too, though, and while my journey from Colombo to Galle was fine, the return was a bit cattle class. Yet I cannot complain: I sat the whole time (ok ok, it was on the floor next to the toilet!), I had fresh air coming from the open door and made friends with some backpackers who were sharing the floor space with me. Much luckier than those people standing in the middle of the aisle!

#Tuk tuks. Also called “three-wheeler taxis”, they are good for short-to-medium distances, cheaper than standard taxis and the favourite choice of many locals and tourists. As for me, I used them only when there were no buses available. In Colombo tuk tuks have meters, everywhere else you’ll have to agree a price before starting your journey. My advice is: have an idea of what distance you are going to travel and haggle accordingly. In Colombo I shared a tuk tuk with a fellow traveller for Rs 50/Km, the standard rate. In the countryside I negotiated Rs 1,200 for a 17-Km ride.

#Private car with driver. Not something I would usually go for, as too expensive when you travel on your own and also it lacks the character of catching public transport. But I used it once as I joined a couple who was travelling in the same direction as me. The 2-hr journey from the Kalpitiya area to Anuradhapura cost us Rs 12,000 in total, superpricey compared to my travel standards, but in 36C heat it was a welcome change!

Overall I found it easy to travel around Sri Lanka by public transport but be prepared for slow journeys and not the maximum of comfort. If you are in a hurry or cannot do without comfort, choose the private car option. I will meet you at destination when I arrive by bus :-).

Negombo – the last stop

Negombo is strategically located close to the Bandaranaike international airport and is an almost mandatory stopover for most tourists arriving to/leaving Sri Lanka.
For me Negombo became the last stop of my Sri Lanka trip, after swapping Colombo (where I had originally booked for the night) for this smaller town 30Km north of the capital.
And on my last morning I set out to explore the town, braving the sun and the excruciating heat – I wanted to see the Dutch Canal, the beach and the main fish market.

The Dutch Canal stretches from Negombo all the way to Colombo and some sections are relatively pictoresque because of the moored boats. But don’t expect anything reminiscent of Amsterdam: think more of canals in Vietnam or Thailand! Also there is a lot of garbage dumped along the banks, as well as piles of fishing nets everywhere, so walking along the path is at times not possible (and if your presence upsets the local dogs, you may have to retrace your steps and find an alternative route for different reasons!).

My favourite sight in Negombo was, though, the main fish market.
Spread over a very large area and stretching to the beach, it was very lively. It was chaotic. It was smelly and dirty. But it was authentic. It had all I was looking for!
I walked around for almost two hours, splitting my time between the market itself and the beach, taking photos of fish drying on the sand, men and women emptying the nets and folding them away, and a few more fishermen keeping busy with some line fishing. In the distance, several traditional Sri Lankan boats would enter the sea from the lagoon.

I was totally fascinated, this is the Sri Lanka I wanted to experience and I wish I could have stayed there all day!

On the way back to my guesthouse I walked past the lagoon, full of boats on their way to the open sea.

Then I stopped for my last fresh coconut, bought from one of the many roadside stalls. I sat there chatting with the coconut man for at least half an hour, while sipping coconut water and then eating the refreshing coconut flesh – savouring my last few moments in Sri Lanka.

Selfie with a local kid
Selfie with a local kid

Sri Lanka, a country so beautiful and with so much to see and do that I hope I will be able to visit again soon for more!

Sri Lanka: south-west beaches

The south-west coast of Sri Lanka has been for some time the most popular with tourists. Beautiful sandy beaches lined with palm trees, blue water and amazing sunsets attracts tourists in flocks. Fancy staying in boutique hotels and get pampered all day? Head to Bentota. Are you a fan of backpacker hangouts and just want to surf and party? Try Hikkaduwa or Ahangama.

I did it differently and based myself in Unawatuna because of its closeness to Galle, then split my beach time between Rumassala and Mirissa.

Rumassala beach, in Unawatuna, is nothing to write home about in terms of sand and sea. Yet if you enjoy experiencing local life, you will end up stuck for hours watching the fishermen pulling their nets in at the end of the day. Like I did. For over 1.5 hours I watched at least 15 men pulling their long nets up the beach, singing and encouraging each other, their muscles all tensed in the huge effort required. It was fascinating! The sun setting on the horizon gave a very atmospheric touch to the scene.
It was almost dark when the last bit of the net made it to the beach. Fishermen, locals and tourists all gathered around the disappointingly small catch, hoping in better luck for the next time.

Mirissa beach will not disappoint your expectations of a typical tropical beach. Located about 1-hour bus ride away from Unawatuna (Rs 60), Mirissa beach is a long strip of golden sand with beautiful clear blue waters, strong winds and powerful waves.  A rocky outcrop on the eastern end of the beach can be easily reached at low tide and you will see tourists walking up to its top to enjoy the view from above.
On my only full day as beach bum, I did a good job at lying in the sun to top up my still poor tan, cooling down at various beach restaurants/cafes sipping coconut water from a fresh coconut, and dipping in and out of the ocean at the western end of the beach, the quieter one.

Later in the afternoon I hopped on a bus to Koggala and headed to the beach there, where I caught the most beautiful sunset of my entire two weeks in Sri Lanka! The sun fired up the sky with amazing red and orange colours and I watched in awe until darkness started settling in.

I rushed to the bus stop to catch a bus back to Rumassala before full darkness, while breathing in my last night in southern Sri Lanka.

Exploring Galle Fort

I had been looking forward to visiting the Galle area since the start of my trip to Sri Lanka. It seemed the most exotic destination on my list, with a mix of beaches, local culture, and colonial heritage.
And I wasn’t disappointed!

Galle is a fascinating and very atmospheric town, mainly characterised by its Fort (built by the Dutch in 1663 and now a recognised UNESCO World Heritage Site). This is the best preserved colonial town in Sri Lanka and beautiful colonial buildings will surprise you at every corner, as they mix with Islamic buildings and Buddhist temples built in more recent years. While the tsunami of 26 December 2004 destroyed large parts of Galle – killing thousands of people – the fortified walls of the Fort protected this area, which managed to survive the devastation.

Nowadays the Fort is mainly crammed with boutique shops, cafes and hotels, but this is also part of its appeal. The magistrates’ court is located within the Fort too, and you won’t be able to miss the queues outside its offices. The windows to the court rooms were open when I walked past (and stopped for a few seconds) but I was quickly told off by the local police and asked to move away!

I spent a whole day wandering around the Fort area, exploring its narrow streets, its buildings, its shops (the latter mainly for relief from the excruciating heat, I must admit!).
I checked out the old Dutch Hospital, beautiful building now turned into shops and restaurants.
I followed with curiosity a never ending game of cricket played on a green patch of grass just below the Fort walls (by the way, the Galle International Cricket Stadium – a couple of minutes away from the Fort – is considered to be one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world!).
I swam in the ocean at Lighthouse Beach, a lovely place for a break and a refreshing dip in the water.
I watched monks in their orange robes leading groups of school kids around the walls.
I walked the whole length of the walls and watched the sunset from one of the bastions.
I had dinner in one of the swanky hotels, enjoying a catch up with a couple of friends who happened to be in Galle at the same time as me.

And when you are tired of Galle, a handful of miles away lies the town of Unawatuna, which can be easily reached by bus and is a good base for exploring the area. Do not miss the Japanese pagoda on the top of Rumassala hill!
As for the Unawatuna beaches, oh well, I will leave that for the next post ;-).

Unawatuna "Sri Lanka" Japanese Peace Pagoda
Japanese Peace Pagoda, Unawatuna

On the train from Kandy to Galle

There is no direct train from Kandy to Galle. The quickest route is via Colombo, where you change train.  Both legs of the journey are very scenic, although different: the first one through mountains while the second one follows the coastline.
I took the Intercity train from Kandy to Colombo at 6:15am and was pleasantly surprised to realise that my 1st class ticket (Rs 800, bought two days in advance) entitled me to a seat in the observation car, the one at the rear of the train, with a large window looking back along the tracks.
The train travelled at snail pace, rolling and rattling through the mountains, with amazing views of the tropical forest wrapped in the morning mist. Every now and then, short tunnels interrupted the view. School kids and workers would sometime appear out of nowhere and cross the tracks as soon as the train was gone.
The mist gave an almost magical touch to the landscape and I watched the scenery in awe.

We arrived at Colombo Fort railway station just before 9am, after almost three hours.
Colombo Fort was bustling with energy and was as chaotic as ever. I bought a 2nd class ticket to Galle (Rs 180) and waited for my train to arrive.

At 10:45am the slightly grubby train started its journey south, following the coastline so closely that for the first hour I could almost touch the ocean. I had managed to get a window seat and could really enjoy the amazing sea view: miles of blue waters, sand and palm trees. Villages and towns were dotted along the railway line, and villagers seemed to enjoy watching the trains go past.

We made it to Galle in just over two hours. The whole journey from Kandy to Colombo took almost 7 hours but I really enjoyed it!

Around Kandy

When I booked my few nights’ stay in Kandy, I was planning to use this city as a base to explore central Sri Lanka and especially the “postcard-ready” tea plantations. You can imagine my disappointment when I realised that the distances involved were a little too much for this poor plan…
Still keen on making the most of my time there, I visited the local tourist office to see what the nearby area had to offer.

The following morning at 7:30am I got picked up at my guesthouse, having arranged a half day tuk tuk tour (Rs 3,000) aimed at covering some of the main tourist destinations (or should I call them “tourist traps”?) located within easy reach from Kandy.
So this is where I went:

#Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage
I was given a choice between this orphanage, about 40Km from Kandy, and the Elephant Millenium Foundation located nearby. I chose the former for no particular reason. But while this was once an orphanage, I gather that nowadays all new elephants are born on site. The whole thing seems to have become mainly an expensive tourist attraction (Rs 2,500 the entrance fee for foreigners).
The bottle feeding of the baby elephants is similar to what you see in zoos, feeding fruits to the adult elephants cost you extra money. The walk to the river and the opportunity to watch the elephants bathing were more interesting, though. And on the way back to the car park I stopped in one of the shops and learnt how elephant dung can be turned into paper (of course they then tried and sell me souvenirs made of “elephant paper”…).

#Geragama Tea Factory and Plantations
As a surrogate for a visit to the main tea plantations of Sri Lanka, which I didn’t have time to reach, I went to see this tea factory and annexed plantations. The tour of the factory showed us the various machines involved in the process of turning tea leaves into the little bits that end up in our tea cups. I was surprised to learn about the differences between the various types/grades of Ceylon black tea. Golden tips and silver tips being the best ones, apparently. The tour finished with a free cup of tea and the opportunity to buy some freshly packaged tea, something that my tuk tuk driver didn’t miss out on.

#Spice Garden
There are dozens of these dotted along the road between Kandy and Pinnawala. Guides will show you around the garden, give you some information on the health benefits of various plants and herbs (“this is like natural insulin”, “this plant is good for headaches when you work on a computer all day” and so on), then sit you down and start their sales pitch. It all ends in the shop where you can buy some of the products derived from plants. While it’s certainly interesting, I found the whole thing once again mainly a tourist trap. But I bought some chilli powder as souvenir.

Despite my general comment on the sights above being a bit of tourist traps, it was still good to get out of Kandy and see more of the country!

The old capital: Kandy

Kandy is the second largest city in Sri Lanka and the last capital of the ancient King’s era. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, this is where the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – one of the most sacred places in the Buddhist world – is. With a large lake in the centre of the city, and surrounded by beautiful hills with lush vegetation, Kandy is also quite different from the rest of Sri Lanka I visited.

"Sri Lanka" Kandy

With a lot of time on my hands, I decided to explore the city at slow pace and savour what it had to offer. Starting from the central market. I am totally fascinated by markets and their energy, and spend hours just watching people selling food of any sorts. The market in Kandy was colourful, full of life and chaotic, as you would expect. I loved it.

Next was the lake, which is artificial and was created in 1807. I walked its whole perimeter, stopping every now and then to take photos. The nicest view is from its northern end, and one late afternoon I sat there for a long time waiting for sunset and hoping in an amazing one. It wasn’t amazing but the view over the lake was stunning anyway.

But the main draw in Kandy is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, or Sri Dalada Maligawa, which houses the relic tooth of the Buddha. Built in the 17th and 18th century, and partially reconstructed after the bombings in 1998, the entire temple complex includes the main temple and several other shrines, covering a large area – I spent over 2.5 hours exploring it all.

As you leave the temple area, do not miss the opportunity to discover more of this city: at the Kandy Cultural Centre you will have the opportunity to see artists in action, while walking the side streets in the city centre is an opportunity to see some nice local shops and observe street life!

A visit to Kandy is not complete without watching an evening performance of Kandyan Dance, characterised by elaborate costumes, amazing dance moves and show-stopping stunts. There are three venues for this, and I chose the Kandy Lake Club as it was supposed to have the best costumes. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed! Check the photos out.

The Lion Rock of Sigiriya

Half an hour away from Dambulla (easy bus ride) lies another UNESCO World Heritage Site: Sigiriya.
This site of historical and archaeological significance built in the 5th century consists of a complex of gardens and buildings, with the most impressive part – the ruins of the fortress – located at the top of a granite peak about 200m high. The name ‘Lion Rock’ comes from the gateway built in the shape of a lion, on a small plateau halfway up the rock.

A visit requires you to walk to the summit via over 1,000 steps – staircases attached to the sheer walls of the rock. Given the forecast for another sunny and very hot day, I decided to make an early start and I began my ascent at 8:30am. Clearly everyone else had had the same idea as we quickly got stuck in a queue!

The climb itself wasn’t hard (mind you, I recently completed the BT Tower Climb in London – 842 steps – in 8 minutes, so I may not be a good reference point!). The excruciating heat in the final part made it challenging, though. Paramedics patrolled the area and I saw someone being taken away on a stretcher after passing out in the heat.

Once you reach the top, in addition to the ruins of the fortress you will enjoy amazing views over the surrounding landscape. Pidurangala rock is at a stone’s throw away too.

Back to ground level, do not miss walking around the gardens, another key feature of Sigiriya, and visiting the museum, with a lot of information about this amazing site.

Dambulla: Cave Temple and markets

Dambulla, in central Sri Lanka, has the largest and best preserved cave temple complex of the whole country. Known as the Dambulla Cave Temple or the Golden Temple of Dambulla, it is made of around 80 caves, although only 5 of them are open to the public. Built at the base of a 160m-high rock, these caves have been converted into shrine rooms and contain statues and paintings related to Buddha and his life. There are a few statues of reclining Buddhas, up to 15m-long, as well as statues of standing and seating Buddhas. The whole complex is quite impressive and in 1991 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But there is more to discover in Dambulla than the world-renowned cave temple! This town also hosts the largest wholesale produce market of Sri Lanka, something that wouldn’t usually appear on a tourist wishlist but is actually a great place to see and photograph people. I spent over an hour there, going from feeling quite shy at the start (hundreds of men were staring at me as I walked around huge vegetable bags and trucks and started taking photos) to being pulled here and there as some workers really wanted to feature in my pictures! I ended up having really good laughs with some of them.

So allocate some time to Dambulla in your Sri Lanka trip, either as a stopover or as a daytrip from Sigiriya, and you won’t be disappointed!