Sri Lanka had not really crept onto my travel radar until after my partner mentioned he would like to stay there as an extended stopover on our way to Europe. After some initial research, it was quite clear that Sri Lanka has a lot to offer for such a small country. The main draw for us was the surf, the history and the animals (including one of my personal favourites: ELEPHANTS!).
Our ‘planned’ itinerary looked like this: Fly to Sri Lanka. Make our way to Arugam Bay at some point. Find elephants.
Though I did complete a fair amount of research and had a rough idea of how we would make our way around this tiny island, we did not book anything except for our first night after flying into the airport and it was such a nice way to travel. The reason I had not done this on previous trips is because all of my other overseas adventures were with groups of 4 or more which limits the freedom just a little. Having such large groups and needing to meet everyone’s holiday expectations meant I hadn’t yet had the opportunity to experience such an open way of traveling and it was so LIBERATING, albeit a little stressful at times. This time is was just my partner and I and we could do what we pleased, when we wanted. I enjoyed fully embracing the selfishness of the situation. I am a fairly organised person in life. I like plans, I like lists and I like direction so, to let go and trust my partner and myself to get where we needed to safely and quickly in a foreign country was quite the escapade and I loved every minute.
We chose to travel Sri Lanka even though it was technically the off season for the eastern side (the tourist area). This is the side of the island nation that was highlighted in my Google image and Pinterest searches displaying crystal blue water, snorkel and dive areas abundant with colourful fish, whales and dolphins frolicking everywhere and the iconic fisherman on sticks. It wasn’t going to be like this for us apparently.
For the western side though (where we hoped to surf), the season was at its best. This meant most of our accommodation along the eastern side was a lot cheaper and the tourist towns a lot less crowded. It was still beautiful and sunny most of the time, but the wind did creep up during the day and push over the occasional torrential downpour of rain. This often passed after about 10 minutes and then the sun would shine again as everyone crept back out from wherever they had been taking shelter to set up on the beach. We experienced a couple of cloudy days while we were there, but nothing that interrupted our plans significantly. In fact, I think the locals were more upset by the weather as their pride of country urged them to tell anyone who would listen that it was “not season and that it was not usually like this and you should come back in November”. Bless them!
In the end our journey looked like this: Negombo – Kandy – Arugam Bay – Ella – Udawalwe – Mirissa – Unawatuna – Negombo.
This list is where we booked accommodation (usually just outside of the bigger cities), and then we would travel either by tuk tuk or scooter to the other attractions, sights or villages in the area. It was nice to venture out to the crazy, bustling cities but return to stay in the less chaotic villages to sleep.
We flew into the Bandaranaike International Colombo airport which is 10 minutes from Negombo or 40 minutes from Colombo. We booked our first night’s accommodation in Negombo through Airbnb as it is much closer to the airport and we were flying in quite late at night. A bonus was that our Airbnb host was happy to collect us from the airport and save us the hassle of having to bargain with a driver or taxi straight after landing.
The airport is quite simple and foreigners are required to complete an entry card with a Sri Lankan address on it before you can go through customs so make sure you have one organised. We applied for our visas online before we flew out and paid around AU$50 each, but you can get a 30 day tourist visa on arrival, but it does cost a little more and you have to stand in line with all the other visa-less people, whereas we just waltzed right on through to customs. After customs, the most exciting things you will find are a range of money exchanges, tour operators and taxi companies vying for your money. A taxi from the airport to Negombo should cost between 1000-1500 rupees. But be careful, as there is a Negombo ‘city’ and Negombo ‘beach’ about 6kms apart and the beach area may incur an extra fee, so be clear about what you want before you leave (See Tangent Time below for details). We were in the city area first with our Airbnb booking which was fine, but there isn’t much to see/do or many touristy things. The beach area is where we traveled to for dinner one night and then chose to stay there instead before we flew out. To travel between the city and beach part of Negombo should cost approximately 200/300 rupees.
Tangent Time: After being denied access to our flight to Mumbai (more to come about this story in future posts), we were eventually pushed back out the airport doors with our luggage. We had no idea what to do, so we decided to head back to our accommodation in Negombo to figure it out and get some wifi access. We were going to hail a tuk tuk as it was a bit cheaper rather than get a taxi van. I was negotiating a deal with one tuk tuk driver while my partner was bargaining with a van man. In the end, my partner and the van man agreed on 1500 rupees to Negombo beach. Or so we thought. We piled our luggage into the van and hadn’t even maneuvered out of the airport pick up area when our driver started asking for more money (500 extra rupees) if we wanted to go to Negombo beach and not the city area. We told him that wasn’t the deal and that we had already shaken on it and we would not be giving anymore money. We asked him to pull over if he did not want to accept the agreed price. He then locked the doors of the van (so we couldn’t get out) and started asking for Australian money instead. He thought we had just arrived off a plane, cashed up and naive, when in reality, we had already bee n in Sri Lanka for 3 weeks, were quite knowledgeable about the prices and procedures and hadn’t been allowed to fly out. We tried to explain that this wasn’t our first taxi ride but he just kept driving and would not stop. By this point, we were all getting quite angry and as we had just spent 5 hours in the airport, our patience was running a little thin. After neither of us could get the other to understand, there was about 15 minutes of (fuming) silence before we arrived in Negombo beach. Our driver kept asking for directions from locals every 15 meters or so even though we were telling him where to go. He just simply would not listen. It was so bizarre and one of the worst transport experiences I had with a local. Once we arrived, Patrick (our beloved accommodation host) welcomed us back with open arms wondering what had happened as he had dropped us to the airport earlier that morning. Our van driver was still demanding the extra money. Though it wasn’t a lot of money, our tired, stubborn selves did not want to part with the extra 500 rupees on principle. We did end up giving in just to get rid of him. We gave him 1800 rupees all up. He was still not happy, and even tried to argue with Patrick who was having none of itand waved him on. The moral of the story? Always be EXTRA clear with the driver about the location and the price, especially if you have just arrived off a plane.
Negombo is a less crazy version of the bigger and busier Colombo. It is a fishing village with a thriving (and stinky) marketplace along the beach. The beach is not necessarily the prettiest (or cleanest) but it is ok for a quick swim to cool off and escape the heat. Alternatively, some of the larger resorts along the beach tourist strip have pools that you can use for a daily price ranging between 500-1000 rupees depending on the resort and facilities. You won’t need long in Negombo to see the sights but is a much easier place to navigate and a little more relaxing when flying in or out of Sri Lanka. If you have a day or two to fill in, you can explore the temples, see the Dutch canal and eat plenty of fresh seafood. Arpico is the local supermarket and we even spent quite bit of time discovering new snacks and enjoying the air-conditioned space. We had two days to explore before we headed off to Kandy next. The first day we spent in Negombo orientating ourselves, the second we decided to spend doing a day trip to Colombo after talking to our Airbnb host. We were going to originally spend a night or two in Colombo but our host advised us to just do day trip. So glad we listened.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the capital of Sri Lanka. With over 600,000 people in one city, I knew I was in for a bit of a shock. Our host pointed us in the direction of the bus stop in Negombo city and we found and boarded an air conditioned ‘express’ bus bound for Colombo. It was one of the more modern buses I travelled on while in Sri Lanka, only took 30-40 minutes (compared to 1 hour on the big, old non air-con buses that are everywhere) and was only a few rupees dearer (120 rupees per person, one way). I thought the air-conditioning was worth every rupee as I had just stepped off a plane from the Australian ‘winter’ and I was not dealing with the heat too well just yet. Our bus was very full (as they all are) with people standing in the aisle and cramming in. It seemed to consist mostly of business men going to work or women going shopping in the city, plus my partner and I (the only tourists). The large TV monitor at the front loudly blasted a variety of Sri Lankan pop music videos and was sufficient entertainment for the drive as we hurtled up the highway.
We were dropped off right in the middle of some local markets where vendors yelled out to us at every chance and even grabbed your t-shirt to try and get you into their shop. We tried a variety of street food (deep fried triangles filled with a curry mix and egg) and indulged in the sights and smells (not always pleasant) of Colombo. As we walked along, a local man came up and introduced himself. I had experienced a similar scam in Indonesia, but it didn’t really click until it was too late. This man wanted to show us around Colombo waving down a tuk tuk and driving us around. We tried to negotiate a price before hoping in, but he assured us this was a good tuk tuk who had a good price. Being fresh and naive, we jumped in without a thought and went on a whirlwind tour of the city. Our ‘guide’ was quite knowledgeable, but did keep trying to get us to go a diamond store. We promptly just kept telling him no and that we wouldn’t buy anything. We visited a variety of temples and landmarks, walked around a park and made it to the beach. Every time we got out of the tuk tuk, and tried to pay, our ‘guide’ told us not to worry and that he would wait for free, “no worries”. Silly foreigners we were. After 2 hours of touring, we explained that we needed to catch the bus home and asked how much we owed the tuk tuk driver. He promptly told us 8000 rupees. I collected my jaw off the floor and then proceeded to ask a lot of questions about why it was so expensive and could he please explain how much each trip was as I had calculated in my head about 1500 rupees as the maximum for the short distances we traveled even with ‘waiting time’. After much discussion that made nothing any clearer, we paid 5000 rupee, which was apparently a good price and left Colombo with a sour taste in our mouth. We realised later that they probably worked together and pulled this scam on a whole bunch of fresh faced, unsuspecting, trusting tourists like ourselves. Looking back on situations like this, it seems so clear that it was a tout, but at the time, when you are new in a unusual city, you want to be trusting of the locals and believe they genuinely want to help or show you around. I don’t want the ways of the world to harden me and the way I view humans. It might make me a fool sometimes or a little poorer, but like they say, follow your heart, but take your head with you.