When: 23-30 September 2017
Who: Jerome and I
“That’s ridiculous!” I thought to myself, initially convinced that the idea of going to Sri Lanka for a week was simply silly. A thirteen hours journey one way from the UK seemed like overkill to spend only seven nights on the island. Two weeks are usually a minimum for Asian destinations, in my mind! But the idea of going to a cheap and exotic country was, I’ll admit, quite alluring. In fact, it was so alluring that temptation eventually won over common sense, and we ended up booking flights only two weeks before we were due to travel. Sri Lanka it is!
I purposely didn’t read anything about the island’s “must see” places as, with limited time, it was given that we wouldn’t be able to visit everything. What the eye does not see… I figured that it will be much easier to give up on something that I don’t know about, and since I suffer from FOMO, I decided it would be best to know as little as possible. Nevertheless, without any particular effort, I managed to hear about the full of history ancient temples, tea infused Hill Country and spectacular sandy beaches. So even though I was getting ready for a trip composed of compromises, these few things I wasn’t willing to compromise on. Was it ambitious to tick them off in one week? Without beating around the bush, the answer is: yes! The reality confirmed all of the warnings that, even though the distances on the island are not large, travelling around is slow. Eventually, we managed to do everything that we had (initially) wanted to, but as to whether it was a relaxing holiday, now that’s a different story. So here, I’d like to share a simple advice: if you’re thinking about going to Sri Lanka for a week, think again. And again. Are you sure, you still want to go? Ehh, there is no hope for you. Keep reading…
Sri Lanka is cheap. 400 LKR (£2) for a meal served on the pavement, 230 LKR (£1.15) for a 4 h train journey, bargain! But that is when you have the time to travel. In our case, time was very much a luxury that we didn’t have. The lack of time and the desire to see rather a bit more than we should have took its toll. And I’m not talking only about the finances which, indeed, increased significantly and could have been easily avoided, had we had an additional spare week to travel (just to be clear: even when spending more than necessary, Sri Lanka is still cheaper than Europe). I’m also talking about the cost in terms of relaxation, slowdown and contemplation. Our ambitious sightseeing plan verified that these qualities were almost non-existent. But that was entirely our fault. We could have stayed in one place, maybe two, and enjoyed the moment. It’s just when you cross half of the world to get to your destination (and the likelihood that you will come back soon is close to none because there are so many other beautiful places!), you want to do as much as possible. Or at least I do. With this in mind, our travel plan was being formed – on a daily, and very much last minute, basis. How we did it, what transport we used, where we stayed and how much is costed – it’s all below.
4×4 – self drive
I had the same reaction to the idea of hiring a 4×4 and self driving around the island as I had to the original idea. In my mind, it was basically a suicidal mission. Horns used as the main indicator on the road, lanes that don’t mean anything, tuk tuks appearing out of nowhere… it is an environment for drivers with nerves of steel. I am not one of them. On the other hand, having the freedom to drive wherever we wanted and anytime we wanted, in a pretty fun mode of transport, was very attractive. And maybe it wouldn’t have even been so scary driving one of the biggest vehicle on the road. I was eventually convinced. Through http://www.lankaholidays.com we got in touch with a guy who was supposed to deliver the car to our hotel in Colombo. Sadly, our 4×4 turned out to be broken and wasn’t ready until 2 days before we left the island – very useful (not). To be honest, having seen the Sri Lankan traffic first hand, I’m not sure if I was really disappointed that we hadn’t got the 4×4…
With a limited time on the island, travelling by train is not the most efficient choice when it comes to getting around Sri Lanka; nevertheless we decided to use this mode of transport three times. In fact, travelling on the train is the slowest way to get from A to B but hey, it’s all about the journey, right? Personally I think there is no better way to explore Sri Lanka than on the train. This is where we got a chance to hang out of the open doors and watch the landscape passing by through a window that opened by sliding from the BOTTOM(!) to the top (as well as from the top to the bottom which is normal and not that exciting). It was on the train where we got to experience the Hill Country, its very picturesque hills covered with tea plantations and blanketed with a mixture of clouds and fog. The train trip between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya climbed to the top of my favourite Sri Lankan attractions. I definitely wouldn’t skip it, although I heard later on that the section between Nuwara Eliya and Ella (3 h) is even prettier.
It could have been due to low tourist season, but on all occasions there were no queues to the 1st and 2nd class ticket offices (unlike to the 3rd class). The trains run quite often, left on time, weren’t delayed, and were uncrowded with top-notch support from local vendors supplying travellers with cold and warm drinks, snacks, sandwiches, etc.
Colombo to Kandy: 4 hours, 190 LKR per person (£0.95)
Kandy to Nuwara Eliya: 4 hours, 230 LKR per person (£1.15)
Galle to Colombo: 2.5 hours, 180 LKR per person (£0.90)
Sri Lankan Railways website here
Now, that is an interesting mode of transport. Just being on the Sri Lankan bus is an unforgettable experience, not to mention the actual drive. 5 seats in one row plus unlimited standing places in the aisle can make the space extremely crowded. Add to that loudly played traditional music, a ‘hypnotizing’ video of the recorded song accompanied by dancing, colourful lights illuminating the bus ceiling and there is no need to search for a club. Yes, evening travels on the bus can be fun, but so can be the daytime ones. To diversify the journey during the day, sitting next to a bus driver is a must. I should stress here that this option is not for everyone. People with low blood pressure or sensation seekers are definitely more suitable than people with heart problems. As we chose our front seats unconsciously, we were ‘rewarded’ with an experience reminiscent of watching an action film, with this difference that this time we took part in it. As if pursued by the police, the bus driver seemed to be on a mission to drive as fast as possible, controlling the traffic by beeping the horn every 15 seconds. Its noise was so annoying that I even appreciated the driver being on the phone while driving, hoping that he wouldn’t be able to use the horn, as one of his hands was occupied by the device. Disappointingly, I found out that Sri Lankan drivers can multitask very effectively. With my blood pressure slightly increased, I was watching through the windscreen the scenes of pedestrians suddenly jumping in front of our bus and fast approaching vehicles on the opposite lane while we were processing with the overtaking manoeuvre. No other means of transport in Sri Lanka can provide so much ‘entertainment’.
Tickets can be purchased on the bus.
Hambantota to Ranna: 1h, 140 LKR per person (£0.70)
Tangalle to Galle: 1h 40 min, 372 LKR per person (£1.86)
A/C Bus from Colombo to Negombo: 1h, 300 LKR per person (£1.50)
A Taxi is, of course, the fastest and the most convenient way of travelling around the island. Unsurprisingly, it’s also the most expensive. I wasn’t too eager to use this mode of transport as it seemed like cheating on the REAL Sri Lanka. Cheating on slow travelling by public transport. I was wrong. Sri Lankan taxi drivers have slightly unusual approach to the profession which gives it its own authenticity. It’s not only about driving the passenger from one place to another. It’s about turning a simple car drive into a real cultural adventure. That is, if you’re lucky to find a keen driver. We were and so our trip was filled with many attractions. We were shown beautiful landscapes. We had time to look out for, spotted during the drive, elephants strolling in the distance. We were taken to, only locally known, places where we had a chance to try delicious hoppers or freshly made roti that we would never find ourselves. We even lost with our driver in the competition to drink thambili (Sri Lankan coconut) water! On the other hand, a journey with a driver who doesn’t aspire to be a guide can be pretty dull. We experienced that one too.
Taxi from the airport to Colombo 3600 LKR 1 h (£18)
Taxi to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa 13000 LKR (£65)
Taxi all day to Ella and Hambantota 15000 LKR 6 h (£75)
No stay in Sri Lanka (or neighbouring countries) can be counted in without at least one tuk tuk ride. Auto rickshaw can easily squeeze in between two buses, zip down a bumpy road and generally take you wherever you want to go. A very convenient mode of transport indeed. During our stay on the island this was the most utilized mode of transport and amongst many curiosities one thing in particular caught my attention. It was the condition of Sri Lankan tuk tuks. They all seemed new or at least kept in a really good state. It was definitely not what I remembered from Thailand.
Single rides were pretty cheap (200-500 LKR for a 10 min ride, £1-£2.5) but they quickly added up!
As per usual, we booked the accommodation only for the first night, hoping that rest would sort itself out. Luckily it did. With free internet and 3G almost everywhere (Three network definitely rules) we were able to browse the whole of booking.com during our travels. Within a week we ticked off almost all standards of accommodation, from a super cheap room with only cold water in the shower to a beautifully located beachfront hotel with a private pool. Sri Lanka offers options that suit every pocket.
There is really nothing more pleasant than clean sheets, a super comfy bed and an energising shower after a thirteen hour flight. Some places struggle with fulfilling these very much basic requirements but Hotel Mandarina definitely delivered. A rooftop swimming pool and the seaside view from out of the tiny balcony added a few stars to the overall rating. The location wasn’t particularly central but it gave an opportunity for a nice stroll to the Galle Face. I don’t know about the food as we decided to eat outside but the hotel itself is definitely worth recommendation.
£60 per 1 night for 2
Hotel Mandarina prices here
Without any objections I followed Jerome’s lead, who 15 years ago taught English in Sri Lanka and knew very well where we would stay in Kandy. Situated in the city centre, in front of the Garden of the sacred Temple of the Tooth, the Olde Empire Hotel welcomed us with a pot of delicious Ceylon tea and became our home for two days. Sitting on the balcony, surrounded by the old wooden furniture, ornamented balustrade and heavy columns supporting the roof, it was impossible to not feel the Colonial atmosphere of the building. Our room didn’t offer anything above the minimum: a bed, a mosquito net and a cold water in the shower and yet this budget hotel stood out amongst others. After all, a bit of a character and history are not the qualities that can be found everywhere.
6600 LKR (£33) per 2 night for 2
The Olde Empire Hotel prices here
Given that the weather in Nuwara Eliya didn’t spoil us, we decided to treat ourselves to something more luxurious than a cold shower. Charmed by the colonial style previously found in Kandy, we followed up with the colonial theme and chose centrally located bungalow with a soul. Hotel Trevene was a 150 year old building, now one of the ‘historical monuments’ of Sri Lanka. The pleasant wooden interior of our room helped us to forget about the cold and rainy day that didn’t seem to want to go away. The most friendly staff that I’ve ever met contributed even more to a very enjoyable stay.
7000 LKR (£35) per 1 night for 2
Hotel Trevene prices here
Ranna (Kahandamodara beach, Tangalle)
We arrived at Seven Turtles resort late in the evening, when it was already dark and hard to assess the surroundings. I’m glad it happened though, because it was an incredible feeling in the morning to realize that we woke up in paradise! Palm trees, a wide and sandy beach stretching almost infinitely to the left and to the right from the resort, a swimming pool with a seaside view… It was a truly beautiful place. An oasis of tranquillity that was only disrupted by the sound of the ocean waves. The remote location of the resort, despite all its advantages, had in our eyes, one drawback – we were far away from the local cuisine. Distant from any restaurants, we had to rely on the food served on the spot, which was prepared for tourists not too zealous to try new flavours.
27000 LKR (£135) per 2 nights for 2 (including drinks and dinner)
Seven Turtles resort prices here
After about an hour’s drive around Negombo and checking many different places we eventually ended up in the 3-star Camelot Beach Hotel. This seaside hotel had two swimming pools (that I perseveringly insisted on during our search), a bar and… that’s pretty much it. Our room could definitely do with a bit of cleaning if not general renewal. Compared to other places in Negombo, Hotel Camelot wasn’t the worst choice (after all I got my swimming pool) but I’m convinced that we could have found something slightly better within the same price range.
11500 LKR (£57.5) per 1 night for 2 (including few drinks in the bar)
Camelot Beach Hotel prices here
More soon 🙂