As a kid I was taught that learning comes from interacting with people, places and objects. Any type of interaction with anything is a learning – be it a book, your laptop, your dog, any new person or place. Visiting new places, meeting up new with people sharpens your wit, boosts confidence, feeds variety to your brain and is a great way to explore the world around us.
A few of us visited Sri Lanka this time.
This blog will detail our journey on the big island country. It will tell you what to do and what not in Sri Lanka. There will be tips and tricks for the ones planning to visit Sri Lanka. Finally, it will also have my personal opinions and comparisons, but you are free to ignore them.
Planning the visit to Sri Lanka
Well, there are two essential things you need to have – your plane ticket and your ETA for Visa.
As far as the plane tickets price go it is cheap if your’re travelling from India and if you book the tickets well in advance. We booked about 1.5 months prior to the date of journey and it costed less than 6.5k INR per person, round trip. That’s cheap!
You can apply for the ETA for Visa at http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/ . This is also cheap. It costed like 15 USD per person.
Once this is done I would suggest you pick up a copy of Lonely Planet Guide to Srilanka. We did not buy any such book but I would strongly recommend such a guide so that you don’t have to frequent google and travel forums to know where to go and what to do in Sri Lanka. Once you have identified a few places and few activities according to the number of days your going to be there it’s time to pack the bags.
Note that I am against leaving the entire trip planning with a travel agent. Why? Well, I can come up with a couple of reasons – they charge a lot, it’s no fun following their strict schedule – what if you want to take a detour and change your plan about visiting a place there, what if you want to take that ‘no one goes there’ trek route. C’mon, be an explorer, not a tourist!
We had identified the following places – Colombo, Kandy, Dambulla, Sigriya, Nuwara Illiya, Hikkaduwa, Galle, Bentota. Activities – google out activities for each place you intend to visit, read on tripadvisor.com.
We were Sri Lanka for about 8 days and here is the day by day account of what we did and where we went.
We reached Colombo from Chennai on a very small SpiceJet plane early morning.
Our plan was to reach Hikkaduwa (place with awesome beaches!). We took a cab from the airport for Hikkaduwa. We were 8 guys so we took an 8 seater. Now please remember that Sri Lanka, just like India, is a place where you have to bargain a lot. The price they tell you for anything – be it a cab or anything you buy from the market, will be atleast 40% more than the market price they can offer you. I will detail this with more examples later but just to get started, the cab guy told us he would charge us 10k for the ride. We settled at 8k.
The ride from Colombo to Hikkaduwa is excellent. The highway journey is so very scenic. It was early morning. I was very tired. I had every reason to fall asleep but that did not happen. I was in awe of the greenery and beauty of the country. The road was like some United States high speed highway and seeing some of the houses in that undulated green paradise I wondered whether these people realized they were living in heaven. I am sorry I did not click any photograph there.
Upon reaching Hikkaduwa it did not feel we were Sri Lanka anymore. There were more tourists than natives to be seen. We took a temporary (and expensive!) accomodation at Kuku’s Nest. Hikkaduwa is all about that one long road parallel to the beach. You will find everything there – road side restaurants, hotels, bikes and scooters for rent, trainers for Scooba diving and Snorkelling, et al. It is immensely pleasing to sit in a sea facing restaurant and take the meal. Well, that’s what we did just about for every meal we took in Hikkaduwa. The place we took for the first day was a bit expensive – 4k for one double bed room (the room was not good!). Later we took a cheaper and better accomodation at Hotel Blue Fox with 3k for one big size room with three beds, nice bathroom and air conditioning.
I should mention here that the Hikkaduwa beaches are the best beaches I had seen in Sri Lanka. I am not saying that there could not be better beaches there but Hikkaduwa beaches are just so awesome!
Having slept well, I went for a walk with two of my friends. Now, I would not be wrong in saying that this 13 km walk starting early evening was the most enriching things that I did it Srilanka. You remember I said that one should be an explorer rather than a tourist. Well, here’s the explorer part. And it was worth it.
We took a little detour from the main road and went a bit ‘inside’ opposite to the direction of the beach. Take any of the roads going away from the beach and perpendicular to the main road, you will find yourself walking in the villages of Sri Lanka! And by God, it was some experience. Houses among the Palm trees, the Bamboo trees, rice paddies in lush green forest like environment – that was the place for appreciating life and its beauty. The place was extremely clean. We were interacting with natives there. This place is not frequented by tourists taking a walk. Foreigners who do explore this place are always on a bike or scooter. Probably it was one of the rarer times when those people saw non Sri Lankans taking a walk in their villages. They were extremely welcoming and friendly people. Everybody looked at us gave a smile. The kids said ‘hello’. People from the houses waved their hands welcoming us. It was so good! There was no noise of any automobiles to be heard – there was only the chirping of birds. This was the real Sri Lanka. Nothing artificially beautified or made for the tourists.
We also went inside a school and interacted with one of the teachers there.
Having walked considerably, we again started walking towards the main road, crossed over to the beach and then we walked about 5-6 kms more on the beach till we reached our place. The sunset on the beach was very beautiful!
Well, don’t your legs need any comfort after so much walking on Day 1? Hell, they do! And that is why we went for an Ayurvedic massage. Please do not end up going to a shady place – that’s the only advice I have.
We had our dinner at a pizza place called Wood Fire. Slept like a baby.
This was the Galle day. Now, you can take a cab from Hikkaduwa to Galle but then is that any fun? Take a regular bus, sit with the regular people, merge in the environment you are in.
We took the bus. Got down at the Galle bus stand and walked to the Galle fort. Well, there is not much to be seen in the fort. If you’ve ever been to Rajasthan in India then don’t bother yourself with the fort itself. Walk towards the Indian Ocean side of the fort and the view of the ocean is superb. We walked on the fort walls parallel to the ocean, found a spot to take a dip in the water and stayed there for about an hour or so.
Galle also houses an international Cricket stadium.
From here, we planned to make a visit to the Unavatuna beach. We ended up planning our trip with a tuk tuk driver. Now, let’s take a step back here and know this thing. Tuk tuk drivers sometimes will be helpful and will be able to plan outings for your day. We talked to this guy and for a fair price (remember bargaining!) he agreed to take us to a local restaurant for lunch and then to the beach. Now, hold on. There’s something to learn here. One, never ask a tuk tuk driver to take you to a local restaurant. Chances are that these guys mostly won’t have the same quality standards as you have so you might get dissapointed. Two, it’s all about business (well, mostly) and the chances are really high that the tuk tuk driver might have some understanding with the restaurant he’s taking you to. For example, he could have a commission on the number of people he brings, etc. In such cases, you’ll end up paying more because such restaurants won’t have menu cards!
We reached Unavatuna beach and it was as expected – clean. You can do snorkelling and scooba diving here as well as in Hikkaduwa. It is recommended that you try out these activities at morning time since the sea is calmer at that time. We had got a bit late so went for a glass floor boat ride into the ocean. We stopped at 2-3 kms away from the beach and wearing a jacket, we threw ourselves into the ocean. The waves were a bit high and it was a very good experience to just lie there and look at the unending ocean around you.
There’s a noteworthy tip here. The Unavatuna beach was very crowded by natives when we went there. Why? It was a Sunday. The local crowd had simply chased the foreigners away. So, what do you not do on a Sunday? Visit a place. What do you do on a Sunday? Shopping! This is the lesson we learned.
Day 3 was very interesting and we did quite a few things.
We hired two tuktuks and went to a Moonstone mining factory near Hikkaduwa. Please do visit one of these. It will be a very good experience. We visited one of the factories that had the full workflow for mining the stones, cleaning/cutting/refining them and then finally it also had a jewellery shop setup where you could buy the polished stuff. The same factory also had a Cinnamon farm setup and they make also make Cinnamon oil, powder, etc. We saw the Blue Stone that is mined in Sri Lanka and (as they told us) is not found in India. I bought some of the raw stones to add to my stone collection. Again, please remember that if you buy anything from these places, do bargain a lot!
Next we visited the ‘lagoon’. Well, just tell the tuktuk driver that you want to visit the lagoon and he’ll take you there. Lagoon is basically backwaters near Hikkaduwa but comprises of a number of things – jelly fishes, fishing, trees that produce poisonous fruits, snakes and crocs (I hope you don’t encounter one!), Temple Island, foot massage by fishes, et al.
I just loved this boat ride. All those places where the trees form cave like surroundings, you just hope nothing drops on your head. I saw the blue jelly fish for the first time. I’ve heard they are extremely poisonous. The foot massage by the small orange fishes was very ‘ticklish’. The guy there also had a small crocodile baby with him. We also went to the Cinnamon island. The thing that I liked the most though was the Temple Island. Some buddist monks stay here. As soon as we entered the place, I picked up a cat and she remained with me till I was there. I saw a 600 year old written book on Palm leaves with Pali script. I don’t know. The ‘connect’ with the monks and the place was much more. I felt very good there. The head monk also tied a white thread on our right wrists.
From there we went to a tutle hatchery. This hatchery was destroyed in Tsunami but was rebuilt with the help of local people and donations from tourists. No help from the government they mentioned. We saw 1-2 day old turtles and turtles as old as 60 years. Nice!
The last stop for the day was at a Spice Garden. It was already dark by the time we reached this place so we could not see the actual plants. We just took a tour of the shop that had the Ayurvedic medicines, soaps, shampoo, creams derived from these plants. I would suggest not to buy anything from here. The guy just quoted the price multiplied by a factor of 10.
This day was all about water sports at Bentota. You should catch the train from Hikkaduwa to Bentota but due to our leasurely breakfast we missed the train and had to take an extremely crowded bus. This made me feel right at home. We convered the whole distance standing! We searched for a few water sports places and settled on one. Again, remember to bargain. He was asking 3k per person for the package but when we started moving out, he immediately settled at 2k per person. Three of us also tried water skiing but only one was able to do it successfuly. The water sports – banana tube, cube tube, jet ski; was all very good. The best part was one in which he took such turns that the tube overturned throwing us all in the water!
The package also came with a boat ride to the backwaters. This was similar to the one we had at Lagoon near Hikkaduwa but this one was a bit lacklustre – but hey, another guy with another crocodile baby.
We returned to Hikkaduwa early since Day 5 we have to leave for Kandy and the train was at 5:30 am!
The day had an early start. Got up at 4 at catch the train at 5:30 am to Colombo. We will have to catch another train from Colombo to Kandy. We bought the 2nd class compartment tickets. The ocean view from the train is simply awesome. You would be amazed to see how close the track is to the waves. During tsunami 1700 people were killed in a similar train on these tracks when a wave had consumed the train and had swayed it to a considerable distance. The officials took four hours to find the whereabouts of the train!
The Sri Lankan people are very friendly. It is not uncommon to see people looking at you and giving a smile. I cannot avoid feeling a sort of attachment to them.
We got down at Colombo, had some breakfast and bought second class compartment tickets for the train to Kandy at 9:45 am. Big mistake! Do not buy 2nd class compartment tickets to Kandy otherwise you’ll end up standing all the way to Kandy! That’s what happened to us. The train arrived and got filled thrice it’s capacity in just 2 minutes. And we found ourselves standing. In fact, unable to move. The same happened with a Swiss couple who were travelling with us. We got aquainted with them during the journey. Later in the day, we would end up staying at the same guest house they were staying in.
There is no online booking for trains available in Srilanka, as of now. Please go the respective stations and reserve your first class compartments tickets as early as possible.
Kandy is a little hill station city in Srilanka. This is also one of the major cities in Srilanka and also has an international cricket stadium. The people here are much more trendy. I cannot keep myself from mentioning that Srilankan girls/ladies in this part of the country seem more liberal and fashionable. They are much prettier, taller and fairer as well. Kandy seems like a mix of Nainital and Delhi’s Connaught Place – with Nainital like environment and lakes and CP like architecture and crowd.
If you plan to stay in Kandy then book your accomodation somewhere near the lake. If you do so, then everything is at stone’s throw. We ended up booking three good rooms at a guest house called Traller’s Nest. It’s a bit uphill near the Swiss Hotel. The caretaker, her son and the manager were very good people. Extremely well spoken and very helping in every way. It was Christmas and they offered us cake. The place had hot water, free wifi and was very clean and affordable too!
Later in the evening I went for a walk with a few friends. The caretaker of the house had got us tickets for what’s known as traditional Kandy Dance that happens every evening. The dance was very good and the fire arts that followed were, well, astonishing. We ate at KFC (I needed my proteins!) and slept early. Just too tired to make any plans for the next day.
Here I should mention that the lake in Kandy is very beautiful. It gives life to many monitor lizards, ducks and many species of birds.
Still had some muscle pain when I got up. Need more chicken! After a repeat trip to KFC and a few Zingers later I was good to go to Dumbolla.
So we walked up to the bus stand and boarded a bus to Anuradhapura. This bus will take us to Dumbolla as well, which is on the way to Anuradhapura. Please note that you only want to board a red colored bus, which is the government bus. Do not board a private bus. They will take a lot more time and will stop at many more locations on the way to get their seats filled. Sitting next to me in the bus was a French group of friends – two of them were studying in Mumbai and one of them was working in Chennai as a Facebook app developer. He told me that his team had made the fb app for the movie Dhoom 3. So, tip time. Foreigners coming to India, Sri Lanka and other neighboring countries should remember that they have to keep a few things in mind when speaking to someone. This is for your own safety. For instance, the guy who was talking to me was giving away too many details even when I did not ask for it. He told where he works in Chennai, for how much time is he there in Sri Lanka, where he stays – everything! Please do not reveal your addresses, your next day plans, your evening plans, your travel schedules to strangers!
Anyhow, we got down at Dumbolla and decided to visit Sigriya only of we had enough time left at the end of the day. This was a good decision since going to Sigriya would have meant more journey before actually seeing/doing anything.
At Dumbolla, we bought tickets for the Rock Cave Temple. Basically, it’s a 30 minute uphill walk to five caves that have huge Buddha statues. I am not much of a temples fan (I mean c’mon, India is full of temples right!) but the uphill/downhill walk filled with scenic beauty. We clicked a few snaps. There were many monkeys all along the way. Here I’d like to mention that I realized that cats too were very commonplace in Srilanka. I mean you can see cats everywhere.
After seeing the rock cave temple, we went to see the Buddha museum. This was again very good. It evoked a lot of thoughts as I went through the life stages of Buddha in a series of paintings. The museum had many 10th, 11th and 12th century Buddha statues as well.
We came back to Kandy, had some Chinese for dinner, went to a pub and tasted the local liquor – Arack.
We were on a 8 day trip. On the 7th, we decided to stay in Kandy, visit the Tooth Relic temple (not be missed!) and do some general shopping.
We bought quite a few Lacoste and Tommy Hilfiger t-shirts from a shop called ‘Ranjana’ on the first floor of the Central Market. Why? Because these same t-shirts cost about 4 times more back in India. They are manufactured here and hence, are cheap. Please remember the bargaining. Initially, he quoted 1200 per t-shirt but we ended up negotiating at 800! We had to buy a bag also to keep the t-shirts and we did. They quoted 1600 but we got it for 1000.
Later that day, we visited the Tooth Relic temple. Well, if you don’t already know then I should tell you that Srilanka is a Buddhist country and the Temple of the Tooth Relic is a major attraction and a place of high significance to buddhists all around the world. Why? It contains the ‘tooth’ of Buddha! Yup!
We did not get to see the actual tooth but only the golden container that holds it. The temple is quite big and you need about 2 hours to walk around the place. I was especially pleased to see the big Buddha statue that India gifted Sri Lanka. I should mention here that if you’re Indian or belong to any of the SAARC countries then look for discounts on the ticket prices. The ticket price for tooth relic was 1000 but was 500 for SAARC countries and was free for Srilankans.
We had our lunch at a south Indian restaurant called ‘Balaji’. Guys, more red chillie does not mean spicy food! Thick dosas does not mean good dosas. Same goes for the Sambhar! The only thing that I liked there was the tea! Actually it was a mistake to go to an Indian restaurant – I can have a lot of Indian food back in India right!
Day 8 we were to catch a flight to India from Colombo. To reach Colombo we had to catch a train early morning at 5:30 from Kandy. This means sleeping early.
Well, the last day would be spent at Colombo and the trip is coming to an end. I wish we had taken the air taxi from Kandy to Colombo, visited Sigriya and did trecking there, visited Anuradhapura and did white water river rafting at Kitugala. But then, we only had so much time and I am not complaining! It was a very good, fun filled trip and I think we struck a good balance between resting and touring.
I should mention that the train ride from Kandy to Colombo was something. The journey was filled with scenic views. The first class compartment seats that we had reserved in advance were very comfortable.
Upon reaching Colombo, we kept our luggage at the Cloak room at the train station and set about to see Colombo. We watched a movie – The Hobbit. Boring! And did some shopping – we went to the Majestic and Liberty malls and got ourselves many flavours of the popular Srilankan tea and also bought some authentic ‘Batik’ clothing.
Time to leave for India.