--- Brief summary ---
Sri Lanka, ah! Island of peaceful Buddha and gentle elephants, emerald beaches and rocky shores, bustling UNESCO heritage towns and ancient cities in ruins, spectacular sunrises and heart-melting sunsets, and some really friendly smiley people. The time I spent there was clearly too little, and I know I will go back very soon.
--- Highlights of the trip ---
• Catching a gorgeous sunrise from Adam’s Peak
• Spending time with elephants at Millennium Elephant Foundation
• Exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa
• Water sports and scuba diving in Hikkaduwa
• Extremely friendly local people who smile easily, and loved to ask: “From India? From where – Bombay?”
• Clean, well preserved and meticulously restored places of tourist interest
• Our helpful, thoughtful and ever smiling driver Kapila and having interesting conversations with him throughout the journey
--- Some tips ---
• There are counters of at least four cell phone companies (Dialog, Etisalat, Mobitel, Airtel) at the airport’s arrival waiting lounge. Airtel was offering free SIM cards but since I’d heard doubtful reviews on its network coverage, I chose Etisalat’s data plan. Got 1GB data @ 300 LKR which, combined with a top up of 200 LKR talktime, was more than enough for my one week trip. Rates for calling to other countries seemed to be very similar if not identical across all these companies.
• At the same arrival lounge, there are many currency conversion counters, all of which offered the same rates as far as I could see. (For fellow Indians – Indian currency cannot be exchanged at the airport so it’s advisable to carry enough dollars or rely on your credit/travel card. You can get Indian rupees exchanged at jewellery shops in major cities, but it’s often a hassle finding one. )
• Those interested in climbing Adam’s Peak should keep that activity for the last leg of their journey. Perhaps it is common sensere but we did not realize that the climb would be so rigorous that we would be hobbling around for days afterwards, to the extent that I had to miss going up to the Sigiriya Rock Fortress two days later since my legs felt in no condition to climb another 2000 steps! My biggest regret, but another reason for me to visit Sri Lanka again soon.
• Knees and shoulders are to be kept covered in religious places.
• Not all overnight trains are sleeper trains! Found this out the hard way when we boarded our overnight train from Polonnaruwa to Colombo Fort and found straight-backed chairs instead of the sleeper berths we were expecting. This, after having read somewhere online about this particular train being a sleeper train. The other train journey from Colombo to Galle, although via Rajdhani Express First Class, was strangely not much better for although it had a great view and comfortable chairs, the train shook an awful LOT for some unfathomable reason! And by a lot of shaking, I mean tea-jumping-out-of-teacups level of shaking.
• Entrance fees at all tourist places are quite high, so budget accordingly. Most places have a separate half-rate for SAARC nationals, so it’s worthwhile asking about it if you don’t see that on the board.
• Perhaps we should have bargained (we all suck at it, unfortunately) but we found private taxis for short distances in tourist places like Polonnaruwa REALLY expensive, to the tune of charging 100-125 LKR per km in a round trip if you do the math. An avoidable cost if you can plan other alternatives in advance.
• All service providers of all forms seem to expect some tip, and some may get quite insistent.
• For those wishing to buy souvenirs from Colombo like clothes or handmade stuffed toys, paying a visit to Ko Lanka (right next door to Barefoot) before the famous Barefoot Gallery may save you some $$$. Barefoot has a lot more variety, of course.
• Public toilets are not too good – avoid if you can! A good option is to enter any hotel or restaurant and use their washroom.
--- Day-by-day detailed trip report for those with patience and a will to plough through dense masses of text ---
I visited Sri Lanka for one week from the 17th of December to the 24th, for one week was all I could manage around that time of the year. Initially, it was supposed to be only my mother and myself, this being a b’day gift for her 60th earlier this year. Later on, my grandparents found the idea of Sri Lanka too good to resist and we became a four-strong band of travellers intent upon not letting our collective age of 255 years interfere with some hardcore travelling.
Our itinerary was a bit rushed since we wanted to sample a little bit of everything. Had to drop Nuwara Eliya at the planning stage since there was no way we could’ve fit that in, given our priority order.
Day 1 – Millennium Elephant Foundation and drive to Delhousie; overnight in Delhousie (Punsisi Rest)
Day 2 – Adam’s Peak, then Kandy; Overnight in Kandy (Nature Walk Resort)
Day 3 – More Kandy, then Dambulla Caves; Overnight in Sigiriya (Melrose Villa)
Day 4 – Explore Polonnaruwa; Take overnight train to Colombo Fort to change for a morning train to Galle
Day 5 – Spend the day in Hikkaduwa including scuba diving; Overnight in Hikkaduwa (Avon Guest House)
Day 6 – Spend the day in Galle; Overnight in Hikkaduwa (Avon Guest House)
Day 7 – Morning train to Colombo; full day in Colombo; leave for airport at night
> Day 1
After clearing our immigration formalities in a matter of minutes, we got ourselves a local SIM card (Etisalat) from one of the four telecom counters at the arrival waiting lounge. Our driver Kapila was waiting there for us with a name card and big smile that we would come to associate with him over the next few days of our journey together. We had breakfast at Hotel Elephant Bay from where we could watch the first few elephants from Pinnawala come to the river for their bath, then headed to Millennium Elephant Foundation. Bathed Laxmi the elephant (some enthusiastic scrubbing with a coconut shell) and when the mahout asked if I was “up to” the challenge of climbing on to Laxmi’s back, I shrieked yes. Sitting on that gentle giant, and getting the bath favour returned (with Laxmi squirting trunkfuls of her own bath water back at me), and then riding her bare-backed with no seat or saddle, was something I’ll remember for a long time. After spending some time there, we headed to Punsisi Rest in Delhousie (base camp for climbing Adam’s Peak) and got an evening of sleep before waking up for the climb. We found the Punsisi Rest adequately clean and comfortable and the staff very helpful, although not very organised (completely forgot our meal/tea order). The Sri Lankan lunch had huge portions and was yummy, while the breakfast was quite meagre.
> Day 2
My mom, our driver Kapila and I began our climb up the Sri Pada mountain at an unearthly 2:00 AM. Climbing the 5,200 steps that lead up to the peak is rigorous for sure, but taking regular breaks we slowly made our way to the top. The sunrise we witnessed from there is really, truly one of the most unforgettable sights I’ll ever get to see and made the trekking effort completely worthwhile. Perhaps we were also lucky, for the morning dawned clear (after a rainy evening) and that made for the most beautiful sunrise I’ve seen. There was a hushed silence at the peak when the first morning rays broke through the night sky, and then began the ceremonial drumming and chanting (it was the second day after Poya, the full moon that marks the beginning of the religious Adam’s Peak season), and the atmosphere was serene and yet charged at the same time. The climb down seemed even more painful than the ascent since our legs were close to giving up! We got back to our guest house, breakfasted, rested and then headed towards Kandy. First stop was the Botanical Garden which was huge and well maintained, but not really my thing so I passed my time there. In the evening, went for a Kandyan dance performance at the city hall. The idea of the one-hour long performance is great – to give visitors a glimpse of many different local dance forms within an hour – but some of the dancers left us a bit disappointed with their lack of coordination and forgetting their moves. Our hotel, Nature Walk Resort, was comfortable and well furnished but had a strictly ‘okay’ breakfast spread.
> Day 3
The atmosphere at the Sacred Tooth Temple and nearby devalayas was lovely. On our way to Dambulla, we stopped at a huge Hindu temple (quite unlike Hindu temples in south India in many ways, and hence interesting for us) as well as a Spice Garden. We found the Dambulla Caves, with their wall paintings and sculptures showing the beautifully serene Buddha, enchanting. Our stay at Melrose Villa was quiet and relaxing, and the owner was a friendly & understanding gentleman who bore our multiple changes-of mind about the dinner order with plenty of patience and a smile. Also, excellent breakfast.
> Day 4
We had to give Sigiriya Rock Fortress a miss – our one big regret of the trip – because our legs were WAY too sore from Adam’s Peak and couldn’t take 2,000 more steps of going up to the top! Hence, day 4 was entirely dedicated to Polonnaruwa – an excellent thing, in hindsight, for the ancient city is absolutely beautiful and has much to see, explore and discover. The sitting, standing and sleeping Buddha at Gal Vihara took away my breath. The museum was first class and rich in content display and information. We had lunch in between at Ariya Guest House: a superb spread of delicious home-made Sri Lankan food in the company of the extremely friendly & talkative young daughter of the owners. At night, we took the overnight train to Colombo Fort and were shocked to discover, on entering our coach, that it was a “seater” train (sit straight throughout the night!) and not the sleeper train we were expecting. Passed the night not very uncomfortably, perhaps being dead tired helped.
> Day 5
Morning spent in an abnormally shaky train (with great views of the sea, though) from Colombo Fort to Galle. Picked up by the owner of Avon Guest House in Hikkaduwa and a short ride to the homestay that later turned out to be our favourite stay in Sri Lanka – thanks to the lip smackingly delicious Lankan food, the very pleasant and sweet hosts and the fantastic location (one minute from the sea). A relaxing day in Hikkaduwa and I went scuba diving for the first time in my life, an experience I thoroughly enjoyed.
> Day 6
Visited the ins and outs of Galle and thoroughly enjoyed the quaint charm of the city. Had homemade ice-cream for a respite from the hot day in one of the bylanes near the lighthouse, with a chatty owner who declared that his ice cream had way too many fans among Delhi girls for some reason. On our way back to Hikkaduwa, visited a beautiful Buddhist temple ‘Gangarama Maha Vihara’ with fascinating wall artwork and sculptures showing incidents from Buddha’s life and his journey from being Siddhartha to the Enlightened One. The temple looked like it was not on most tourist maps (judging by the lone traveller we observed there, apart from us) which is surprising as it is a lovely little gem.
> Day 7
Morning train back to Colombo and spent some time around the city. Tuk tuk drivers were professional and charged by the meter which pleasantly surprised us – somehow we were dreading much worse. The National Museum is huge and very rich in content. Spent a part of the evening by the Marine Drive sitting right next to the railway track that lies between the road and the seashore, with the ground shuddering every time a train ran past me, and marvelled at how there was no fence separating the tracks from the road! We had rented an 2-BHK apartment from Palmyrah Residencies and although we couldn't use it much (since ours was only a day stop), it's recommended for big groups or families with children or long-term travellers since it comes with a furnished kitchen and is well located near the Marine Drive.
All in all, an absolutely magnificent and memorable holiday in one of the friendliest countries I’ve visited. Warm people, beautiful countryside, well preserved cultural sites, clean (mostly, but certainly not at Colombo) beaches. A big thanks to our driver Kapila for being such a great travel companion – polite, pleasant, punctual, good conversationalist, excellent driver, and most importantly, helpful with suggestions but never insistent. Coming from India, we were continually amazed at the consistently good-quality roads (even though the traffic doesn’t move that fast, often) and how there wasn’t much honking on the streets, even within cities! I’m definitely looking forward to my next visit and I hope that happens soon.