Every year around Christmas time, we take an extended vacation to close off the year. In 2016, it was to several cities in Myanmar (pictures and content are in the works for that trip and will be posted soon); in 2017 it was Luang Prabang in Laos and Chiang Mai in Thailand; for this year, we decided to visit Sri Lanka for the first time. We did a lot of research and watched all the usual information presenters on YouTube, including a very timely series from the excellent Vagabrothers.
Our itinerary, after lots and lots of research online, landed on the following:
- Colombo: 2 nights
- Galle: 2 nights
- Matara: 1 night
- Ella to Nuwara Eliya Train: 4 hours
- Nuwara Eliya: 3 nights
- Kandalama Lake, Dambulla: 3 nights
- Negombo: 2 nights
I’ll split these posts by city to make it more manageable to read and follow. Our goals for this trip were to enjoy Sri Lanka’s scenery, get to understand its people better, and visit some of the big tourist spots. We also wanted to engage in the mixed architecture that Sri Lanka is famous for, including Sri Lankan, Portuguese, Dutch, and of course, British architecture.
One of our biggest targets for architecture was to stay at Geoffrey Bawa’s Kandalama Lake hotel. We had heard from friends how beautiful it is, and we love hotels that mix indoors and outdoors in a seamless way. I bring this up because people typically travel Sri Lanka’s west in a clockwise direction, but we went counter-clockwise in order to ensure we secured a reservation at the Heritance Kandalama Lake hotel.
If you’ve already done all your research on Sri Lanka and are ready to travel, I encourage you to skip this part and go straight to the section where I share some things we learned during the trip, which we wish we knew prior to arriving in Sri Lanka. Unlike India, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia, which we visited during 2018, we found some unique things in Sri Lanka that made our travels a bit more challenging that we expected.
The journey begins with a speed bump
We started our journey with a car pickup service from the airport. I’ve mentioned in the past that this is one of our guilty pleasures; having to find a local taxi in an unfamiliar airport, amongst what feels like chaos, with luggage and backpacks full of camera and computer gear in tow, is not what we consider a fun way to start a trip. Unfortunately, even with the car pre-arrangement, this was not the smooth start we had hoped for. We had booked a Mercedes for USD$55 from a pretty famous Sri Lankan hotel brand; we later found out that they contract this out to a secondary company.
Prior to leaving home, I had emailed the secondary company to confirm the Mercedes and pick up time; the car that arrived at the airport was a Toyota Prius. The driver was the nicest man and we laughed a lot and appreciated his humour as he joked about how “in Sri Lanka, even a Toyota can become a Mercedes”. To this day, I’m still emailing back and forth with the secondary company to find a resolution; the money is a non-issue, it’s the principle that matters. For your own trip planning, you can get an air conditioned car (ironically, a Toyota Prius) from the airport counter for a few thousand rupees, which depending on the current exchange rate, translates to roughly USD$15-20.
As you’ll see throughout this trip, the car pickup misunderstanding was one of many that left us shortchanged and/or feeling let down by the experience. I should note that the people of Sri Lanka are wonderful and the people we met on the streets, in restaurants, or at hotels, were always kind, warm and genuine. The negative aspects we experienced appear to be confined to a very small subset of people who are looking to get rich quick from the mad rush of tourism the country is now experiencing.
The beautiful commercial capital
With that out of the way, let’s get onto Colombo, the beautiful waterfront commercial capital of Sri Lanka. Upon arriving at the airport, we were greeted with exceedingly long immigration queues; depending on the timing of your flight arrival, be prepared to wait 1-2hrs to clear immigration.
Colombo is anywhere from 40 minutes to over an hour away from the airport by car, depending on the traffic conditions. We arrived after midnight so it only took 40 minutes or so to arrive at the hotel. The hotel we chose, The Cinnamon Grand, looked great from the outside and was conveniently located. Prices in December are much higher in Sri Lanka than other months so keep that in mind when you’re planning your travels.
Colombo has a population of roughly six million people and is the commercial hub of the country. It’s located on the west coast of the country and is strategically located for shipping goods not only to neighbouring countries, but also as a key stop on China’s Belt and Road initiative. I won’t go into the details here, but it’s worth some time reading up on the new Port City under construction with USD$15 Billion of Chinese capital; it’s an incredible and ambitious project that will re-shape Sri Lanka’s future.
Most people use Colombo as an entry point to the country and either move on to their next destination right away or spend a maximum of one night in the city; several people told us that we could skip Colombo altogether. I would have to say that I disagree with this view and that spending two nights in Colombo was well worth it, especially if you love colonial architecture.
I’d highly recommend visiting the Galle Fort Green area at sunset to see all the food hawkers and all the families hanging around at that time. There’s also the beautiful Dutch Hospital that has been converted into a shopping arcade, with a fantastic restaurant called Ministry of Crab. The Gallery Cafe was also very good for dinner.
The small streets near the Fort Railway station in Colombo 11 are intense and fun to see where locals engage in retail commerce. Finally, the National Museum is a beautiful building to walk around outside and inside. Because of the day we were in Colombo, the famous Red Masjid was closed for prayer, so we only had the opportunity to see it from the outside; it must be incredible inside if the outside is anything to go by.
Things we learned along the way
Rather than make you wait for the end of the series, which will take some time to put together, I thought I’d share some of the things we learned along the way that may help your trip planning:
- Sri Lanka is incredibly beautiful; the variety of nature available in the areas of the country we visited is astounding. You can enjoy the ocean and beach temperatures on the coast, or enjoy the misty and cold mornings of the highlands as you head inland, and everything in between.
- The Sri Lankan people are kind, genuine, and very laid back. The conversations we had with the locals were always enlightening and interesting. Don’t be surprised if a stranger invites you to their house for dinner.
- You must take a train in the highlands between Ella and Nuwara Eliya or Nuwara Eliya to Kandy. It is a magical ride and one of the highlights of the trip, and it costs 160 rupees or <USD$1. Be sure to engage with local Sri Lankans in conversation on the train; it makes the journey even more meaningful.
- If you can stomach the cost of the short haul flight at around USD$300 per person, taking a Cinnamon Air domestic flight is the closest most of us will get to having our own private plane. The whole experience from the small departures lounge to arriving right at arrivals, to the stunning scenery along the route, is an enchanting experience you won’t soon forget.
- You must try Sri Lankan hoppers, kottu roti, and stuffed roti while you’re in Sri Lanka. Ask for “Sri Lankan spicy” rather than “tourist spicy” to get the full effect.
- The major tourist sites have dual pricing policies; be prepared for sticker shock when you see the entry price for foreigners; for example, Sigiriya Lion Rock, one of the most famous tourist sites in Sri Lanka, charges USD$30 for each foreigner, while locals pay 50 rupees or US$0.27. That’s right, foreigners pay 111x the price of a local entry fee. You’ll experience this across Sri Lanka and makes for some very expensive entry fees, especially for families.
- Tripadvisor has been a trusted source of information for our other journeys, perhaps with the exception of local restaurant recommendations (why is it that most destinations around the world have an Italian restaurant as #1?). For Sri Lanka however, our experience was that Tripadvisor was unreliable. The platform for Sri Lanka is either flooded with fake reviews, or the reviewers have different expectations than other countries.
- We came across several 4.5+ rated restaurants, sites, and hotels that would not achieve a rating of two in the other countries we’ve visited. Upon careful inspection, we noted that most of the reviews on Tripadvisor (and Google for that matter) for Sri Lanka are from people with only one review to their account and they generally gave a 5-star review. I suggest filtering for the 3-star or below reviews to get the real truth of the venue you’re considering visiting.
- Tips are expected everywhere, including when a service charge has already been added to the bill. Perhaps it was because it was peak tourist season in December, but we found the tipping expectations to be a bit of a nuisance, albeit an inexpensive one. Don’t be surprised if you have 3-4 porters bring your luggage to your room, each expecting a 100 rupee tip.
- Even with careful planning and prior verification of our arrangements, we often experienced a gap between what our online booking had confirmed and what the hotel provided. A king bed in the booking turned into two twin beds on arrival; superior rooms with sea views became deluxe rooms with garden views, and one time, our basic room turned into a junior suite (so it goes both ways!). The good news is that, with persistence and some patience, we ended up getting the rooms we had paid for.
I hope you’ve found this useful thus far. Please visit the second in the series where we go to the beautiful fort city of Galle.