I went on a whirlwind trip of Sri Lanka towards the middle of April ’13 with my friends. Since vacation leaves in the Indian IT sector are rarer than a blue moon, we didn’t have the luxury of cozily soaking in the beauty and warmth of the pearl of the Indian Ocean. We had just four days, but thanks to Sri Lanka’s size, that proved to be enough to cover a beach, a national park, and a hill station. Majority of tourists to Sri Lanka are westerners; however, tourism from India is on the rise. While researching the trip I had plenty of questions, but not many answers. I started writing this soon after returning from my vacation. However, I ended up dragging my feet way more than anticipated. Anyways, here’s a Sri Lanka tourism guide from an Indian tourist’s perspective.
Sri Lanka also doesn’t have indigenous start-ups like Cleartrip for flight and hotel booking, or Red Bus for booking bus. Even official websites such as railway.gov.lk (Sri Lankan Railway) don’t offer online booking. So, as far as travelling within the country is concerned, you will have to take care of that after landing in Sri Lanka. However, general information about Sri Lanka is available in abundance on the web. Here are some of the resources that came in really handy:
i) Destinations and Activities: The best resource to identify places to visit in Sri Lanka is TripAdvisor. It’s both comprehensive and accurate with plenty of reviews to let you know what to expect.
ii) General Information: Loanly Planet’s Thorn Tree forum is the best place for finding candid first hand information as well as resolving your doubts.
iii) Hotel Booking: Agoda seems to be the best option for this. A couple of my hotel owners informed me that hotels in Sri Lanka are often a lot cheaper through Agoda than when booked directly, as hotel owners keep a few rooms exclusively for Agoda, which provides a steady stream of tourists.
iv) Flight booking: For flight booking you chose any of the travel websites. However, keep in mind that unless there is a special discount offer, booking directly from the airline can save you the convenience fee levied by services like Cleartrip and MakeMyTrip.
v) Visa: Visa is available to Indian citizens on arrival. However, it is both cheaper and more convenient to apply for a Visa online and get the ETA form from eta.gov.lk.
vi) Currency: I would recommend bringing in dollars, and getting them exchanged in Colombo. One of my friends also got a Centrum travel card, which was cheaper than using international debit/credit cards to withdraw money or make payments. Before going ask your bank about the fees for using debit and credit cards internationally. I would recommend keeping them as a last option, since all banks seem to have hefty international usage fee.
vii) SIM: You can easily purchase a pre-paid local SIM card at the Colombo airport. I would recommend getting an Etisalat SIM along with sufficient data to last your trip. Google Maps can come in really handy at times.
viii) Transportation: Frankly, we didn’t quite figure out what’s the best way to get around in Sri Lanka during our short stay. Cabs over there seem to be on the expensive side. However, since we were pressed for time, we booked a cab for the entire duration. This saved us the trouble of haggling with cabbies at other places, and also saved time and allowed us to see more and do more. Our cab driver – M. O. G. Silva’s phone number is +94-0778015511. Sri Lankan Railways doesn’t allow online booking, but you can see train timings from railway.gov.lk. There are also regular buses between popular destinations. You can download bus time tables from here.
We landed in Colombo at about 3 am in the morning. We had opted for a late night Spicejet flight as it was the cheapest option. Completing the formalities was quick and hassle free. We didn’t carry any INR into Sri Lanka, since Indian and Pakistani currencies are banned in the country. However, no one actually frisked us after we landed. All of us had some USD with us, and one of my friends had a Centrum traveler card. The airport had four money exchange service providers, from whom we converted just enough money to last us at least a day. We didn’t convert the full amount, since private money exchange providers offer better rates. We converted the rest of the dollars at Colombo in the morning, and got a significantly better deal (we actually converted USD to LKR at higher than the actual conversion rate). Hotels and cab drivers also accept USD, so you it’s not essential to convert your currency immediately. We also got a new SIM at the airport. Getting a local SIM in Sri Lanka is very quick and easy. I opted for Etisalat, since I had read that it had the best coverage across the country. This actually turned out to be true, since I got 3G connectivity pretty much everywhere I went. The SIM costed 200 LKR, while 2 gigs of data was priced at 500 LKR. I also got 300 minutes of talk time. Local calls were charged at 1 LKR per minute for in-network calls, and 2 LKR per minute for out of network calls. Calls to India were charged at 5 LKR per minute.
We had booked a room at Green View Hotel Katunayaka, which is far from the city, but near the airport. Reaching the hotel turned out to be more challenging and expensive that we had anticipated. Taxi is outrageously expensive in Sri Lanka, and taxi drivers seem to have the idea that all foreigners are rich and can be easily ripped off. Be careful about the cab expenses, otherwise your trip’s budget can easily go haywire. The cheapest cabbie that we could find charged us 600 LKR for a 5 km drive.
Green View hotel is located in the middle of nowhere, but the room was good, and the hotel staff were courteous. Not only were we late, but we were also greater in number than expected. Thanks to a confused soul in our party, who confirmed his availability at the very last minute, we had booked only a double bed room pretty much everywhere, hedging that we can save money by paying a little bit extra for an extra bed and accommodating the four of us in a single room. The boy who checked us in didn’t seem to mind the extra person, and readily arranged an extra bed for just $10. The room itself was spacious, cozy, and clean with a dining, kitchen and a bathroom. Everything in the hotel seemed brand spanking new. The next morning, the hotel arranged for a cab to take us around Colombo after having breakfast. The rates were more reasonable this time around. We paid 3800 LKR for about 50 km of travel in a Suzuki Swift that was technically air conditioned, but the AC was no where near powerful enough for the summer heat. The breakfast at the hotel was decent and filling, but nothing extraordinary. Every hotel in Sri Lanka seems to offer Western Breakfast; however, don’t expect muffins, bacon, or hashbrowns. All you are likely to get in a lavish Western breakfast in Sri Lanka is toasted bread with butter or jam, along with some fruits or juice.
The two tourist destinations we checked out in Colombo are Isipathanaramaya Buddhist Temple and Gangaramaya (Vihara) Buddhist Temple. The former wowed us with its enchanting idols, paintings, and sculptures, while the latter captured our attention with its interesting museum. If I was asked to rate, I would rate Isipathanaramaya as more impressive, but both are definitely worth a visit.
Isipathanaramaya Temple Photos
Gangaramaya (Vihara) Temple Photos
From here we drove to Fort Colombo, the financial district of the capital. We had our lunch at Colombo Fort Cafe, which offered a great sampling of true continental cuisine. Service was bad, and the waiters were not only inattentive but also genuinely hapless. Thankfully, the food made up for the poor service. The thought of the beef burger and Chicken Wellington still tantalises my taste buds.
Colombo World Trade Centre
Since we were on a whirlwind trip, we decided to book us a cab for four days. Danny, our current cab driver, who was both extremely friendly and helpful, arranged for a cabbie who would stay with us for the entire duration of the journey. After lunch we met our new driver M.O.G. Silva, who would take us around Sri Lanka, covering over 600 km over four days. The 38,000 LKR (about $300) he charged us might be steep by Indian standards, but didn’t seem like a bad deal after having a tryst with typical Lankan drivers. Silva was an old man with his own peculiarities. He couldn’t speak English as well as Danny, but understood the language well enough for language to not be an issue. He could even understand bits and pieces of Hindi. Initially he seemed distant and slightly arrogant, but through the trip, he became more friendly and understanding.
We started for Hikkaduwa — our next destination — well before sunset. On the way, Silva took us to a Buddhist temple. This one wasn’t as mesmerizing as the ones we saw in Colombo; however, here we were allowed to enter the heart of the temple, including the praying hall. I don’t recall the name of the temple, but here’s a picture of it. Let me know if you know which temple it is.
Unknown Buddhist Temple Between Colombo and Hikkaduwa
We reached Hikkaduwa at about 8:30. The hotel we had booked — Di Sicuro Inn — once again turned out to be excellent. It wasn’t overlooking the beach, but it was located right at the heart of the town, with the beach being just a five minutes walk away. For Hikkaduwa, we had managed to get a triple occupancy room, and the owner didn’t complain about an extra person putting up. However, we paid $10 extra the next day, since we also wanted to checkout late by a few hours.
After a quick bath we headed out to find a place to eat. I had read a lot about No: 1 Roti Shop, and wanted to try its exotic varieties of rotis. Unfortunately, the shop was closed as April is supposed to be off-season. Since we didn’t have any other specific destination in mind, we decided to hit the beach and find a shack overlooking the waters to have dinner. We settled on Refresh, since the place was abuzz with tourists and had reasonable reviews on TripAdvisor. This turned out to be a big mistake, and possibly our biggest regret in Sri Lanka. Almost everything we ordered tasted horrible and was overpriced. The sea food platter was no where near the quality of the platter I had in Britto’s in Goa. The deviled crab tasted funny and was almost inedible, and the toasted sandwich wasn’t actually toasted. The only saving grace was the alcohol. We discovered Lion Strong Beer (8.8% alcohol), a local Sri Lankan brand that lived up to its name, and helped us generously in coming to terms with the massive waste of money that Refresh turned out to be. After spending a few hours in the beach, we resolved to be careful about where we ate henceforth, and called it a day.
The beaches in Hikkaduwa are pretty, but not stunning. The biggest draw of Hikkaduwa is its strong waves, which are well suited for surfing. The next morning, after having a quick Western Breakfast, which was consisted of poached egg, toasted bread with butter and jam, and fruit juice, we headed out to find a scuba diving center. Once again, due to the fact that we were travelling during off-season, we found that most places were closed. We settled on Barracuda diving center. Three of us were complete noobs, while one of my friends had prior diving experience in Andamans. We paid 8000 LKR each for training and beginner’s diving experience, while the aforementioned friend was charged 4000 LKR. Scuba diving was fun, adventurous. However, the water wasn’t well suited for diving. We were promised visibility of 10-12m, while in reality the visibility was probably just 2m. We did manage to spot plenty of shoals of fish, but most of the corals were bleached. Also, strangely for a PADI certified institute, we weren’t allocated one companion per person. Instead there were three instructors taking care of four of us. Moreover, one of the instructors was a giant pain in behind. The older man was rude, unfriendly, and behaved more like a strict school headmaster than a friendly diving instructor. Fortunately, the other instructors were much better, and tried to compensate for the old man’s petulance. Still, if you want to go scuba diving in Hikkaduwa, you might be better off not picking Barracuda. My friends also attempted to learn surfing. They paid 3000 LKR for a two and a half hour course; however, due to want of time, couldn’t finish the entire course.
We checked out from the hotel before 3 pm and headed towards Galle, which is a short drive from Hikkaduwa. In Galle, we stopped at Indian Hut for lunch. Food at Indian Hut was a polar opposite of Relish. It was affordable and delicious. The Chikken Tikka Massala in Indian Hut could have given any Indian restaurant a run for its money. We headed towards the Dutch Reformed Church in Galle, which is situated in a quiet little part of the town known for its Dutch architecture. The Church was built in 1750s and is still used as a place of worship. I loved walking around Church Street, which was charmingly beautiful and hauntingly peaceful. One our way back, we also stopped by for a quick look at the Galle Fort.
Pictures of Dutch Town
Picture of Galle Fort
From Galle, we drove to Tissamaharama, passing through the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa. Our hotel at Tissa was Serene Park Hotel, which is located next to the gorgeous Tissa Lake. Serene Park is situated right in the midst of a paddy field. The surrounding appeared barren and scarred in April, but will undoubtedly be more pleasing before the harvest. The rooms were once again of very good quality, considering the price. Jagath, the owner of Serene park wanted an extra $15 to accommodate the extra two members in our group, to which we happily agreed. Unlike in other places, he didn’t just fit in an extra mattress. He upgraded us to a room with two double beds. The purpose of visiting Tissamaharama was of course visiting the Yala National Park. Unfortunately for us, it was the middle of the festive season in Sri Lanka, and safari guides were seemingly all unavailable or booked. The fact that we reached Tissa well after nine in the evening made getting a guide even tougher. Jagath made a few calls, and managed to get us someone who was willing to show up the very next morning and take us to Yala. However, we had to pay 7000 LKR for the trip to Yala. We were told by Jagath that the standard rate is about 5000 LKR.
Room at Serene Park
Pictures of Tissa Lake
The Safari jeep that Jagath had booked was actually a custom-made vehicle with soft cushioned seats. If you go to Yala, make sure that you book this kind of vehicle as the roads are practically non-existant inside the national park, and travelling in an ordinary jeep will definitely not be a pleasant experience. We entered Yala at about 6 am and spent over 200 minutes inside the park in search of the elusive leopard. We weren’t lucky enough to spot a leopard, but we did get to see lots of beautiful birds, elephants, deers, crocodiles, and monkeys. Even though we missed the star attraction, I would still recommend the safari pure because of the variety of animals on display.
Animals in Yala National Park
Our Jeep for Yala National Park Safari
Serene Park offers complimentary breakfast. However, Jagath had graciously agreed to switch that for a complimentary lunch, since we had to leave for Yala at dawn. The lunch I had at Serene Park was undoubtedly my favourite meal in Sri Lanka. The main course was Milk Rice and Fish Sambol, while for dessert we had several varieties of homemade traditional sweets prepared for the New Year. Among all the hotels we put up at, the experience at Serene Park was the best. Jagath went above and beyond what you would expect from the owner of a small bed-and-breakfast joint.
Lunch Served at Serene Park
After having lunch, we left for Nuwara Eliya. We started early since he didn’t want to be travelling in the hilly roads at night. But, the mountain god had other plans. With still about 100 kms left for our destination, a landslide stopped us in our tracks. With no way forward, we had to turn around as I figured out a detour with the help of Google Maps. Thankfully, Etisalat had good 3G signal even in the sparsely populated hills. The detour ensured that it was already past seven when we entered the gorgeous town of Nuwara Eliya. The entire city was lit up and partying. Temporary food stalls had sprung up next to the Gregory Lake and the youth of Sri Lanka was ushering in the New Year by rocking to the beats in an open air disco. We decided to stop by and have our dinner at the food stalls, since it was unlikely that we would be able to return to the city later that night. It was here that I discovered that Maggi in Sri Lanka tastes way better than Maggi in India!
By the time we reached The View at Glenloch, our hotel, it was ten in the night. We had made a mistake in booking the hotel, as it turned out to be a good three hours drive away from Nuara Eliya. In fact, as we would discover later, our hotel was nearer to Kandy than to Horton Plains National Park, which we intended to visit the next day. Don’t book Glenloch, if you want to spend time in and around Nuara Eliya or the Horton Plains. However, it wasn’t the only mistake we made. Prosper, a US return nurse who was the owner of The View was incensed to see so many of us. Convinced that we were there to swindle him, he made oblique threats to throw us out, and went on a tortuously long rant about the Terms and Services of Agoda. Our offers to pay for an extra mattress fell on deaf ears. Finally, after about twenty minutes of ranting, when he seemed to regain control over his emotions, he offered to add an extra mattress to our room. Alas, he changed his mind even before we could let out a sigh of relief. He now offered two of us a separate room, as it hazardous to accommodate four people in a single room. The catch was that this room wasn’t actually a hotel room. It was a shabby room distinct from the main premise, and seemed to be the servant quarters. Out of option, two of us (me and my friend) agreed to spend the night at this room. While Prosper was well within his rights to do what he did (in fact he had full authority to throw us out), he was undoubtedly the least friendly and welcoming hotel owner we encountered in Sri Lanka.
The View at Glenloch
Nuwara Eliya Lake
The plan for the final day was to go trekking at Horton Plains National Park. The World’s End trail is a reasonably gentle walk of about 8 km that features three attractions – Little World’s End (a 274m cliff), World’s End (a 884m cliff), and Baker’s Falls (20m waterfall). We had been warned in advance that it’s best to reach the park as early as possibly, since the clouds descend after 10 am obscuring the view. Unfortunately, we slept through the sun rise, and reached the park a good three hours later than we had originally intended to. We missed out on the view from both of the World’s End, yet we felt that the trek was very much worth the 1800 LKR entry fee. You mileage might vary depending on where you are coming from. The Lord of the Rings like rolling meadows are present in very few places in India, and was something none of us had experienced before. However, if you are coming from Europe or Ocenia, Horton might have little new to offer you. The two and a half hours walk through the loop was the highlight of the tour for us. Here are a few of the many pictures we snapped at Horton Plains.
After Horton Plains, it was time to head towards Colombo for our midnight flight out of Sri Lanka. On the way, we wanted to have a quick look at Kandy, which has been declared as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Given that we had only a few hours to spend in Kandy, we decided to hit the biggest attraction – the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa). This temple is said to house the relic of the tooth of Buddha, and is considered to be among the holiest Buddhist shrines in the world. Just outside the temple is the Kandy Lake, which is fairly big, and seemed well maintained. A walk round the lake might have been a serene experience, had it not been for the damn crows. The trees surrounding the lake seemed to shelter hundreds (if not thousands) of birds, and as the sun slipped beneath the horizon, the crows decided to let it rip. For the entire duration we were there, it was literally raining shit! Kandy Lake offered a truly extraordinary experience alright, but not one you would cherish.
The Temple of the Tooth charges foreigners a 1000 LKR entry fee; however, there visitors from SAARC countries have to pay half the price. We seemed to have arrived in time for the evening prayers, and the temple was stuffed with devotees. The crowd made is almost impossible to stand at a place and peacefully observe the magnificent 16th century architecture or the wall paintings on display. If you do visit the temple, try to pick a time when it will be less crowded. We didn’t spend enough time in Kandy to judge the town, but it’s main attraction felt over commercialized and failed to have the impact that the less popular temples in Colombo had on us. We wrapped up our stay in Kandy with dinner at the Kandy Muslim Hotel, which was both cheap and delicious, and headed towards Colombo in our cab. We reached the airport about an hour before mid-night, bid adieu to Silva, and checked in for our journey back home.