Winning a prize for two return tickets to anywhere on the Qatar Airways network actually gives you a problem – albeit one I would welcome any time! With so much choice it’s difficult to decide where to go, purely on the basis that so much needs to be discounted…Japan, Australia, South Africa…even Kathmandu! In the end, we opted for Sri Lanka as an opportunity to experience a developing country and take in one of England’s group matches in the 2020 cricket against India. For the non-cricket fans, no interest. For the cricket fans, best forgotten. The less said about that, the better, so what about Sri Lanka?
It is as recently as 2009 that the Tamil Tigers were defeated and April 2010 when President Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections. For us, this gave the trip an edge and a chance to see a country emerging from years of conflict. What we experienced was an extraordinary mix of poverty, tradition, vibrancy and beauty, held together with people who are friendly, welcoming and thoroughly delighted to see you! On several occasions we were told “The troubles are over! Tell your friends! Spread the word for them to come to Sri Lanka!”.
The main tourist area is in the south and west of the country, with the beaches on the west coast being less sheltered than those on the south and east coasts. The main cities of Colombo and Galle are both on the coast and offer everything a visitor needs; hotels, restaurants, shops, markets. The south west coast is served by a train line that runs right along the sea and is remarkably cheap. We paid 110 rupees (50p) for a train ticket from Bentota to Colombo – a distance of 62 kilometres. Although train journeys are notoriously unreliable (our train was delayed for over an hour), the train is a fantastic way to explore the whole south west coastline. In fact, 100 rupees will buy you a lot of things in Sri Lanka. Not least a ride of up to a kilometre in a tuk tuk…by far the best way to get around quickly and cheaply. It’s easy to jump from shopping mall to restaurant to hotel to beach just by hailing a passing tuk tuk and jumping in. Be sure to negotiate a price first though, or you may end up paying a higher rate! In fact, Sri Lanka is somewhere you can barter for most things, so be prepared to pay over the odds if you don’t!
A few times, we hired a tuk tuk to take us round for the whole day and see as much as we could of the local attractions. Buddhist temples, markets, gem mines, plantations, sea turtle hatcheries, rain forest – all within easy reach. Again, negotiate a price, but we paid less than £20 for a full day (10am to 6pm) for the transport, petrol, guide, expedience and convenience that the tuk tuk provides. Plus you get a chance to get local insight, hear about things and see things you would never otherwise experience. We were taken to a local village festival, sandal maker, local restaurants and batik makers that we would never have known about, were it not for the tuk tuk driver. He easily saved us what he cost in what we would have paid out in “tourist prices” elsewhere.
Sri Lanka is continuing to improve its infrastructure. The new road from the airport to Kandy is currently under construction. In the meantime, be prepared for journeys to take longer than you might think…roads are often basic and rural. The driving style is very different too; in stark contrast to ours, the rule would seem to be “if in doubt, overtake!”
We benefited from researching what we wanted to do in advance. This gave us the basic knowledge and confidence to really maximise our time. There are the normal traveller caveats and you may also need to top up on inoculations for things like typhoid, tetanus and malaria (for the north of the country).
Sri Lanka is a wonderful place to visit – sometimes a real assault on the senses! Interesting, varied, different, cheap, with a host of attractions, locations and sights. It’s the kind of place that can accommodate most budgets. Our beach hotel in Bentota was £35 per night including breakfast and in Colombo we paid £120 per night for one of the most established top hotels in the city. A meal for 2 including drinks is easily obtainable for £10.
In summary, Sri Lanka is interesting, cheap, beautiful, natural, friendly and well worth a visit. You can tailor make your trip according to your preference, from more refined tastes to more basic. We loved the local restaurants and we received a warm welcome wherever we went.