Looking back, I'm not really sure what inspired my partner Lynne, and I, to pick Sri Lanka for this year's holiday destination. I suspect it was down to what was initially looked like a good value holiday to somewhere just that little bit different (Thailand seems to be the default choice, although after refining our hotel choices, it ended up being fairly pricey. Anyway, lets get on with the report:
Not sure if this is the correct place to post this but I just thought some might be interested in how my partner and I found Sri Lanka on a recent 2-week trip there.
We booked as usual through our preferred travel agent, Escape Worldwide. We have booked our last four long-haul holidays with them and they have provided absolutely first-class service - not easy with a picky pair like us :) This trip was booked in-turn with Kuoni who we have also travelled with before.
Our flight in wasn't a good one - I travel a lot for business and, flying from Glasgow, I usually use BA or KLM for most destinations unless heading to the US when I'll use either US or United. During a previous trip from the Maldives, we travelled back to the UK with Sri Lankan (changing to BA flight in LHR) and I wasn't particularly impressed. So this time, we decided to use Emirates as we'd heard some positive reviews. I assume those reviews were based on either a different class (i.e. not economy) or a different aircraft (e.g. the A380) as our 777 was cramped as hell thanks to Emirate's decision to squeeze in an extra line of seats. That, coupled with delays on take-off from Glasgow and landing into Dubai, plus terrible service (e.g. left two seats getting a snack with some coffee, right side just getting coffee, asking for sugar and not receiving it, they ran out of most meal options way too quickly etc) left me with a pretty poor impression of the airline. When we eventually landed at Dubai and took the 25min bus ride from the plane to the gate, our 2hr layover was now a 25min run to the next flight in a different area. We made it but, as expected, our luggage didn't so after spending a while at the baggage-claim desk, we walked out to meet the Kuoni rep. After a short hand-off to our driver Weera, we were on our way.
Needless to say, I'll probably (budget-permitting) stick to BA/KLM (and their respective One World/Skyteam partners) in future.
#1 - Habarana (Cinnamon Lodge) - 3 nights
Our driver, Weera was quite funny little chap - he reminded me of Mr Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movies - short, round, bald and a little grey chin beard - he even sounded similar with a little cackle when he found something funny. I really liked him. His driving, like everyone else in Sri Lanka, was pretty much a case of overtake at all costs and if something is coming, beep the horn like crazy and pray. It was amusing at first (for me at least, Lynne hates my driving, never mind this kind of driving) but after a while it can become a bit tiring. We spent the first hour or so chatting with Weera (or at least listening as he brought up interesting facts about Sri Lanka and the various fields, towns, buildings etc on the way) and after that, both Lynne and I nodded off.
We arrived into Cinnamon Lodge at around 2pm and after the usual wet cloth and fruit drink, we headed to our lodge. We had upgraded to a premium lodge and it was quite nice - rustic and reasonably well equipped. The grounds are great for a stroll and we were able to see grey langurs, toque macaques, bee eaters, kingfishers, and various waders in the lake. Unfortunately the wildlife also extended to the interior where the bathroom was home to a constant line of ants from one corner of the room to the other.
Food at the lodge was a bit hit and miss - the bar snacks were a bit below par, and the buffet was just (although good value). We did have dinner in the a-la-carte restaurant one evening and that was very good, so I would definitely recommend that for at least one night, when staying here. Annoyingly, every time we went for a meal or a drink, the staff kept putting the menu for the 'special' dinner for two on us, but I didn't fancy sitting out by the lake covered in insects (and it looked fairly pricey to me) so we didn't bother.
During the first full day, we decided to take two trips - the first was a kind of nature walk but was actually a young girl (who was new to this) who took us on a walk to a boat (resembling two canoes with wooden planks strapped across them) where we were taken out on the lake by an older weather-beaten chap. We slowly worked our way across the lake watching the birds, and through a small channel to a rather precarious-looking jetty. Then we went to a village where some villagers cut open some king coconuts for us to drink from, then walked around some dried up fields (the crops were all dead due to the dry season) and then were taken by buffalo & cart to another village where we had a traditional Sri Lankan meal in a mud hut. The last part was actually very nice - the food was probably one of the better local dishes I've had anywhere and we ate it clumsily with our hands out of the lotus leaf.
The second trip of that day was a Jeep Safari through Minneriya National Park. I'm sorry to say it didn't really do much for me - we saw lots of elephants, some scrawny buffalo and a pair of peacocks. Not sure what I was expecting but I think our previous Safaris through the Amboseli and Masai Mara parks in Kenya set a bar that nowhere in Sri Lanka can match for the larger wildlife (although I've heard Yala may be a lot better than the others)
Next day, we went out to Sigiriya. It looks fairly impressive from a distance and it's an interesting walk to the top, but I think it's a bit of a victim of it's own hype. The place was packed and, from the entrance up to the spiral staircases, it's lined with 'guides' who will help you to the top for $20 (several times the average daily income) who don't always seem to take no for an answer. Anyway, the views from the top are nice as were the cave paintings. I'd say it's something that most people should probably do, time permitting, but I wouldn't necessarily advise people to go out of their way to do so.
Ritigala was about as impressive as magnolia paint. Supposedly the ruins of an ancient monastery, there isn't really a lot to see. Okay, the forest setting is a little Indiana Jones and it;s a fairly pleasant forest walk, but really, having visited Pompeii and the Acropolis in recent years, I didn't find these particular ruins worth the time it took to get out there.
So that was the Habarana area. I'm sure there's other stuff to see and do here but I thought the Miineyeria and Ritigala trips would be a lot better than they were so we probably could have used that time to visit other, more interesting places.
#2 - Kandy (Earl's Regency) - 2 nights
If I were doing this trip all over again, I'd skip Kandy entirely. Don't get me wrong - seems like a nice enough city with the big man-made lake in the centre and the large temple area, but it's a little bereft of interesting things to do.
That said, on the way there from Habarana, we stopped off at the Dambulla Cave Temple which I really liked. The steps up were not excessive (only half as many as Sigiriya) and I was a little put off by the numerous stray dogs (some suffering from mange) but the caves filled with paintings and statues were quite interesting and Weera gave us a good description of some of the highlights. The spice garden we stopped at was also (surprisingly) interesting and we had a pretty good curry lunch there too.
Our hotel in Kandy was a bit outside of the city, so getting anywhere was a bit of a trial as the traffic, as seems normal here, was nuts. For a country that has so many people practising buddhism / hinduism, these people have no patience when it comes to driving.
That said, I quite liked the location for the hotel, nestled beside a river with views over a valley. It's a bit of a strange layout though - there are two main buildings - one housing the reception, shop, restaurants, bar etc and the other, accessed via a long bridge, housing the guest rooms. Our (again, upgraded) room was on the 4th floor which involved entering reception in the first building, taking an elevator to the 2nd floor, then walking along to the other building where we took another elevator (from what is now the 1st floor) to the 4th. The room was quite well appointed with a kind of colonial charm. Food here was generally quite good - the buffet breakfast and dinner being of a much higher standard than the Cinnamon Lodge. The a-la-carte Indian restaurant however, was a let-down. The food was lukewarm and not particularly tasty -plus as there was no music or ambience of any kind, it felt like we were eating in a mausoleum.
As for activities, we did three - the first being a 'cultural' show which was actually quite good (especially for 500Rs pp), but as we had not booked, we had a seat near the back which wasn't great for viewing. After that we went to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
Now, I've read a lot about this temple and the 'tooth relic' and we arrived just before the ceremony where the doors are opened and you can queue to get a glimpse of the casket that supposedly holds the relic. I was quite impressed by the shrine that holds the casket (seems to be a lot older than the surrounding temple) but the rest of it was a bit kitsch in my opinion.. seemed like a lot of shuffling around with other visitors to see random bits of buddhism history, some of which were interesting to see (e.g. ancient tomes) but a lot of it was a bit cheesy - and if you are not a fan of crowds, you'll hate it. I;d probably recommend visiting this place when it's quieter (i.e. not around ceremony times).
Next day, we went to the Royal Botanical gardens. It was okay.. perhaps somewhere that doesn't receive as many foreigners as the other places around Kandy, as we were stared at a lot and one Sri Lankan family rushed up to us asking to have their photo taken with both of us in various poses. There's some cool trees, a few colourful birds and a crapload of fruit bats.. I kid you not, there's hundreds of the things and they make a hell of a racket. However, the cactus house was locked and the lake was dry - in comparison to the only other botanical garden I've been too, Singapore Botanical Gardens, it wasn't nearly as impressive - the bats are cool though.
So that's Kandy.
#3 - Ella (98 Acres) - 2 nights
Probably my favourite accommodation of the tour, 98 Acres was amazing. The road to get there from Kandy nearly made me hurl (and I don't get car sick) but it was worth it. The town below, Ella, looked awful - cheap accommodation for backpackers and budget-conscious travellers - and it looked like some kind of rural tourist trap. However, once we escaped that and arrived at 98 Acres, it was like being in a different world.
There's no pool, no air conditioning, dodgy wifi and electricity and lots of bugs - but I loved it. Firstly, there's only 12 rooms here so it's crowd free. Visit the restaurant/bar and there might be another couple of guests there. There's no noise - no cars, no screaming/shouting from a pool, no music, just the sound of nature. The views over to Ella Rock and Little Adam's Peak were amazing and I don't think I've had such a stunning view whist eating breakfast.
The food here was average - perhaps it's only weak spot, but it was plentiful and good value (for tourist prices at least). Everything is a-la-carte and the breakfasts were huge. One the first morning, I had the Sri Lankan option and had half an hour to eat it as we were scheduled to leave at 8am - just as well I'm a quick eater as the table was full of dishes!
The close proximity to Little Adam's peak was also a bonus and we walked to the top twice - the first time we descended rather quickly as a thunder storm started overhead but the second time, we took our time. We also smuggled some breakfast out to one of the little dogs that follows people up the mountain.
During out stay here, we only really took one trip out - a long drive to the top of Lipton's Seat. We set off at 8am and arrived at the top by around 9:40am - unfortunately, just a bit too late for the morning cloud/mist that envelops the summit. Still, at just under 2000m, it's impressively high and the 'small eats' with tea that we had at the top were really good. It was Weera's first time up here and also his last - the drive up the narrow roads with tight switchback corners were harrowing enough but when something was coming in the opposite direction, I'm sure had Weera not been bald, he'd have been losing his hair on that drive. He said he'd recommend a tuk tuk to his clients next time :D
#4 Bentota (Saman Villas) - 7 nights
Saman Villas is the #1 accommodation in Bentota according to TripAdvisor and they market themselves well. I found, over our 7 night stay, that's it not quite perfect, but it's still probably the only place I'd want to stay at if I visited Bentota again.
Firstly, as it's one of the smaller hotels, that instantly put it high on my list as (you know by now) I dislike crowds and a packed hotel with hundreds of rooms and a load of people crammed around a pool/shuffling around a buffet area or lining the beach as far as the eye can see, is my idea of hell. Not the case here. The beaches were empty, the restaurants were usually quite quiet and we had our own pool (as we booked a suite with private pool) and the rooms are really well equipped.
I guess some of the negative points in my view are based on what many would consider plus points - e.g.
The staff are very attentive - perhaps over-attentive - when they arrive to clean your room/pool/garden, they turn up in a group of 3 or 4 and even then, it seems to take over an hour for them to complete it. Then there's the great Yamaha sound system installed in all the rooms... awesome, unless your neighbour (or their neighbour) has his on when you're trying to relax and all you can hear is the thumping bass of whatever they are listening too (the bass is fairly pronounced by default so even if they are listening to the relaxation CD that is in the room, you can hear the lows vibrating).
We took a few trips from here - all but one being short trips as we figured that if you're going to pay extra for a suite with a private pool, you may as well make use of it. We took a short trip into Bentota for some shopping via tuk tuk (as usual, the driver suggested many stops along the way even if it was only a 10-min ride), a trip down to Mirissa to go out whale watching with Raja And The Whales, a visit to a local turtle conservation project, and a river safari. We also took a morning walk around the local area taking in some of the local temples.
One other point - the beach immediately to the south and north of Saman were kind of clean but go more than a few hundred yards away and it's filthy.. plastic bottles, lots of polystyrene (wtf?) and all kinds of junk were strewn across the beaches. Is this typical of Sri Lankan beaches?
Summary & General Observations
The Sri Lankans I spoke to seem very keen on tourists promoting their country to friends and I read somewhere that Sri Lanka are aiming to have as many tourists as Bali per year. Our driver asked us if we would be back to which I replied "yes, of course!". In truth, I suspect we probably won't be back.
It's not that I didn't enjoy our stay and reading above, it might seem that way, but there's nothing that particularly stands out about Sri Lanka to me. In the past few years, we've stayed in the Maldives which is my benchmark for beach holidays, we've been on Safari in Kenya which set a bar for larger wildlife, and Costa Rica which did he same for life in the rainforests.
The tipping culture is also a bit off-putting. I know that this is the norm in many countries, including the US, but in Sri Lanka it's almost at the point where you feel you should be dropping someone Rs for smiling. It seems like the whole country is geared up to getting as much money as they can from tourists with inflated prices on everything - go into a local store and buy a bottle of coke for 100Rs or get a smaller bottle from a hotel/tourist restaurant for 350 - stop off at a local village restaurant and get an absolutely great (and large) meal for about 400Rs or get the same in a hotel for about 1600Rs.
However, despite all this, I liked the Sri Lankan people. Thailand is often called Land of Smiles but I found that the same could be said of Sri Lanka, and I'm not just talking about the staff in the hotels and tourist attractions. People in general seem quite happy to meet you. I also liked the food.. regardless of whether it was fine dining in a hotel restaurant or a modest meal prepared by a villager using traditional methods - i never ha a truly bad meal here and, unlike our visits to Cuba and Kenya, I wasn't sick once :)
A couple of other things I noticed during our visit:
* Fruit juices - in most places, they seem watered down - particularly the orange and pineapple. Note sure why this is but it put me off drinking either.
* WiFi - I found that the internet connection in pretty much every hotel we stayed at was slow and inconsistent. In most cases the WiFi signal itself was fine so the issue was the wireless signal to the router but more likely to be the connectivity into the hotel from the service provider.
* Cats and dogs - there are dogs everywhere - the majority of them seem to be in reasonably good condition, not skinny/mangy etc but we did see plenty that did look too underfed and others with mange. In addition, there are far too many dogs on the roads.. it's pretty sad that dogs with missing legs or bad limps are an all-to-common sight in Sri Lanka and as a dog lover, it's something that would definitely influence my decision to return. Part of the issue is there doesn't seem to be any kind of neutering programme - we saw countless numbers of dogs and cats with enlarged teats and it goes some way to explaining the large cat/dog population here.
* Traffic - I would never consider driving here. The constant insane overtaking, the huge numbers of tuk tuks and people on the roads and the general lack of lane discipline (especially in the towns where you just drive where you see a gap) made me really appreciate our driver. During our drive from Ella to Bentota, we witness an accident involving one tourist couple on a motorbike - they were at a stop in front of us in Haputale and when the traffic moved, the bike veered sharply to avoid a woman crossing, and the bike crashed over onto one side.. unfortunately onto the passenger's leg - she was helped to the side of the road but it didn't look like she'd be able to walk for a while.
* Food - Sri Lankans seem to eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dunner. I quite liked the curry but even when I asked for it to be hot, i found it fairly mild - it's as if they just don't believe that a foreigner can handle it. Maybe I wouldn't, but I'd like to at least try it as the Sri Lankans do!
* The people - apart from the beggars and the annoying 'guides' at Sigiriya, I really liked the Sri Lankan people. They were always full of smiles and said hello - even away from the hotels and tourist attractions, when we managed to get away and walk through some villages and shops/restaurants not geared for tourists, we were greeted with smiles. By far, Sri Lanka's greatest asset, is the people.