It’s been a couple of months since I got back from Sri Lanka now, so I thought I should put down a few notes about the trip while it is still fresh enough in my mind, for the use of anyone else who is thinking of travelling there, either to watch cricket or to sightsee, or both.
Firstly, it’s a great place to travel. It’s exciting, there’s loads to see and do, most people you meet will be friendly and will speak English, and it’s a small and well-connected enough island for you to really get a feel for the place in just a shortish holiday. From the number of tourist families and small children we saw when we were there, it looks like it would be a great place to take children for their first taste of South Asia.
On the downside, the flight to get there from Europe is fairly long and expensive – otherwise I’d be back there much sooner.
For reference, our trip was intended to be “budget but not shoestring”, so that’s the yardstick that I’ll base my comments on. If you’re happy to pay a tour company to organise everything for you, it would be much more relaxing and you could probably see more of the sights, but you would miss out on getting inside the culture. To be honest, I think we missed out on that a bit in some places – the places where we spent extra to ensure we had plans in place in advance. But it’s a trade-off between reducing stress and being immersed in the country. There were definitley some times during the trip when the pressure of organising things, making sure we had food and somewhere to stay and enought money to pay for it, reduce how much I enjoyed it, so maybe it’s worth paying the extra for peace of mind. It’s up to you (and your budget) to decide where you fall on that spectrum.
The trains are great. Whenever you can, get trains. They are not always easy (or possible) to book in advance – turning up at the ticket office and asking seems to be the best shot. We got two tips from someone at the hostel we stayed in the first night, which proved to be good:
- If you’re getting a train from Colombo to Galle, you’re more likely to get a seat if you get on at Colombo Maradana station, where most of the trains start, rather than Colombo Fort (the main station). 2nd class carriages are at the back of the train, so wait at that end of the platform, furthest from the station entrance.
- Download the SL Railways app (only available for iPhone at the moment).
For any other information on trains, The Man in Seat 61 is your best friend.
Where you can’t get trains, local buses are super super cheap and seem to go almost everywhere. If you’re making a long or unusual journey, you might need to change buses. Ask people for help! Usually, the people where you’re staying can tell you which bus to get, where to change and so on. In order to find the bus stop, or the right bus in a bus station, again ask people! There is a good chance they will direct you to the slightly more expensive AC bus rather than the cheapest one, but in all cases the fare is a matter of a couple of pounds at most so it’s really not worth worrying about. Once you’re on the bus, relax and don’t think too much about the driving – the driver has done this safely many times before. Somehow. Buses are crowded and you may have to stand, but it’s nothing a London commuter doesn’t experience every day. You pay for your journey with cash to the conductor on the bus, who will come along and ask for the fare and can usually provide change (although might not offer it unless asked). However, they’re not very good at telling you when to get off, so having a working mobile phone with a map app is invaluable. (I’m with 3, and they allow me free use of my phone, including internet, in Sri Lanka – this was a god-send, because although WiFi is widely available, you can’t catch Pokemon with just WiFi.) Just yell when you’re ready to disembark – they’ll generally stop wherever, not just at bus stops. In general, you need patience on the buses – they don’t seem to have a very strict timetable, so you might be waiting for one for a while, or once on it it might wait around to get a bit fuller before it leaves. If you’re waiting at a bus stop you might be approached by tuktuk drivers telling you the bus isn’t for another hour – there’s a good chance this is nonsense, so only take up their offer of a lift if you really don’t want to wait.
For shorter journeys, tuktuks are the standard way to get around. In Colombo they mostly have meters, which are great because then you don’t need to haggle over the fare. We paid more everywhere else because, as tourists, we’re less good at haggling and basically a soft touch. But again, it’s a pound or two so don’t worry about it too much. It was good to have got an idea of the meter prices in Colombo, so we knew when we were being really badly ripped off later – have an idea in your head of what you’re willing to pay, and be ready to try several different drivers if the first refuses to go down to what you know is a reasonable price. We also took a tuktuk from Udawalawe to Ella, which is a good few hours’ drive. We were planning to get the bus, but our tuktuk driver from the hotel to the bus stop had a friend who was going up to Ella empty and was keen for a fare for that journey, so we got a really good price. It was still about double the bus fare, but much quicker and more relaxing. I would consider using tuktuks for long-distance journeys in future – it’s more expensive than buses, but cheaper than getting a private car.
Lots of places offer private car hire with a driver. It tends to be expensive, but is a good option if you want to get somewhere quickly or want to book it in advance. There’s a good chance your hotel can arrange this for you. We used them twice: once to get from Mirissa to Udawalawe, and once to get to the airport from Sigiriya.
If you want to walk anywhere, you’ll get funny looks and plenty of tuktuks stopping to ask if you want a ride. It can get annoying. But in the backwaters, for example around Sigiriya, there are some lovely walks along quiet lanes which are worth the effort. On the other hand, walking along busy, dirty roads (for example from the Dambulla temples to the bus terminal) is unpleasant and probably not worth it.
Accommodation and general observations
These are the places we stayed:
- Clock Inn Colombo: private ensuite room with AC in a hostel. It has the friendly feel of a hostel, and the cheap price to match. The location was right opposite Barefoot too, which is (I am assured by a Sri Lanka friend) the best shop in Sri Lanka – I bought a few Sri Lankan books here, which I enjoyed reading during the rest of the trip. I would stay here again if I was in Colombo on a budget. The AC was very welcome.
We barely saw Colombo at all, so I’d like to go back one day to explore properly. The one useful tip I have is to change your money (£, $ or €) in one of the small exchange places in town (example: Prasanna Money Exchange on Galle Main Road) because you get a fantastic exchange rate – better than the current xe.com rate. However, I budgeted really badly and had to get cash out at machines several times. It’s not the end of the world, and depending on what type of card you have can be fairly economical. Never EVER change money in airports.
- Leynbaan Villa, Galle: private room, no AC. This was a disaster. We had booked it through our travel agents, STA*, but the booking had never gone through to the host and they were fully booked. We ended up sleeping in the manager’s own room, which was fortunately ensuite and AC, while he went to stay with his brother for a few days. The “hotel” was actually a number of rooms in a building behind and above a jewellery shop. It was nice enough, but in a town as gorgeous as Galle Fort it seems a bit of a shame not to have splashed out and found somewhere nicer. The AC was a god-send, though, and the location (right opposite Sangakkara’s Galle house) was fantastic. (*In STA’s defence, everything else they booked for us was fine, and when we had a problem with this one they were there to try and fix it, which wouldn’t have been the case if we had booked everything independently.)
Galle is just gorgeous and I’d recommend everyone visit and stay in the Fort, not the town or in nearby Unawatuna. Walk around the walls at sunset and listen to the church bells and the call to prayer from the mosque, but drench yourself in fly repellent! Then wander around and find one of the many delicious restaurants to eat in, but make sure you leave some money to spend in the great selection of shops (my favourite is Embark, which raises money for a street-dog charity). It is not a cheap place to stay, but it’s really easy and enjoyable. The cricket ground, as no doubt you know, is just outside the Fort walls, and so easily walkable, or else you can watch the game for free by climbing onto the walls – you get a great view (in some places blocked by trees or the sightscreen) but beware of sitting in the direct sun all day.
- Hotel Vacanza, Mirissa: private ensuite room with AC. A bit anonymous but a nice, big, clean room in a good position near the main road and beach in Mirissa. Very cheap.
It is ridiculously hard to get on to Mirissa beach from the road. Unless you use the stream/path just opposite Hotel Vacanza, you have to walk for miles (literally) between entrances, and then sneak through a hotel or restaurant. Once there, it’s just a beach. White sand, blue sea, palm trees, probably good for surfing and Instagram, but very little shade and can get a bit boring quite quickly. However, the whale watching from nearby Mirissa Harbour is amazing. You’ll find lots of much cheaper offers, but go with a reputable high-welfare tour company like Raja and the Whales, because whale watching is a privilege that should be paid for by you, not by the whales. You have to get up very early, and there is a risk of seasickness (take all the tablets and ginger biscuits they offer you!) but it will be worth it when you see the huge tail of a blue whale just metres from your boat. Raja and the Whales provided a pick-up from our hotel and breakfast onboard, although most people were too busy watching the whales to appreciate it. They also had an onboard photographer who got some stunning pictures which were emailed to us, so it doesn’t matter if yours don’t turn out too well – just appreciate the view.
- Athgira River Camping, Udawalawe: private ensuite tent. This was the most touristy place we stayed, and it felt very cut off from the real Sri Lanka. The swimming pool was lovely (floating on your back at dusk, watching the huge fruit bats flap languidly overhead), but there was nowhere to get any lunch and it was miles from the town. Breakfast and dinner were good though, although very limited vegetarian options.
We booked a safari in Udawalawe National Park through our hotel, and that was great. Safaris are always an expensive venture, but most of the money is going to keeping the park running so I don’t begrudge it. We also stopped off to see the baby elephants being fed at the Elephant Transit Home on the way home. I would recommend going to the morning or midday feeding rather than the evening one, because it got dark very quickly so we couldn’t see the baby elephants very well; it also meant the information centre was closed. You don’t get very close to the elephants, but by all accounts there is a much higher level of welfare here than at other elephant rehab centres or orphanages.
- Little Folly, Ella: private ensuite room in a chalet. I chose this hotel because of its highly recommended vegetarian cafe, which turned out to be closed and being rebuild while we were there, so there was a building site just in front of our chalet. However, this place more than made up for that by having very friendly cats and a litter of puppies for us to play with, as well as a lovely host who hand-drew us a wonderful map, showing some of the best short hikes in the area. Breakfasts were great (lots of fruit, coffee, and omlettes). There was no AC but we really didn’t need it in Ella.
From descriptions, I was expecting Ella to be prettier, but once you get away from the centre of the town into the hills, its setting is beautiful. It’s one of the easiest places to wander around, and there are several lovely walks nearby – we went to Little Adam’s Peak and to the Nine Arch Bridge (this one is easy to miss the way to – get a local to point you in the right direction, and if you found yourself in their front garden by accident and they showed you the way from there, maybe give them a little tip). The food and drink options are generally a bit touristy, but nice and varied. We did a cooking class with Matey Hut, which was a great way to spend an afternoon and resulted in some delicious food.
- Clock Inn Kandy: private ensuite room with AC. This was a room in a the same hostel chain as in Kandy. Unfortunately, the Clock its name refers to is not the one by the train station as I’d thought, so we had to get a tuktuk from the train. The hostel was nice inside (although even the double glazing couldn’t keep out the sound of the morning rush-hour) and did a great, free breakfast.
I was disappointed by Kandy. After Ella, it felt big, busy and dirty. We had trouble finding good places to eat, although we always managed, and the cricket stadium is an annoyingly long way out of town. The best way to get there is by bus or tuktuk. The highlight of the city was the Temple of the Tooth – we accepted a guide who helped us to get the right tickets and then showed us around. I’m not sure he told us much more than the guide book, but he knew where we had to queue and where we could just skip to the front because people were queueing for something different, so I think he probably saved us a lot of time there. It was also interesting to hear about his childhood growing up in Kandy soon after independence. We only had a few hours to explore Kandy, and I feel like if we’d had another day or two we would have found some really nice parts – the one place I regret missing is Kandy’s Botanic Gardens.
- Sigiri Lion Lodge, Sigiriya: private ensuite room with AC. This was lovely – very helpful hosts, a nice breakfast served at whatever time we liked on the terrace, and a nice clean room (at least until we got our sandy shoes inside it). The position was good too – just off the main road, but a short walk from Sigiriya village to the east, where we could get all our meals, and from the entrance to the Sigiriya site to the west. It was pretty dark walking back along the road after dinner each evening, but it’s not far and our phone torches helped.
Sigiriya Rock is one of the most amazing sights in Sri Lanka. Definitely go. However, it’s an arduous if not dangerous climb, there will be lots of other tourists everywhere getting in the way, it gets very hot very early, and sometimes it’s closed because of killer bees. Useful things to know: you can refill your water bottle with drinking water near the lions’ paws (we were thirsty enough to risk it and we didn’t get ill, so I believe the claims that it’s filtered). Once you get to the top, all the hordes of tourists you had to climb up with get swallowed up in the vast area, so it’s really quite tranquil and interesting to explore. And my top tip: on your way down, just after the lions’ paws, follow the signs to the right and clamber round behind the rocks – you’ll find a small abandonned area of ruins that, when we were there, was absolutely covered in butterflies. I’ve never seen clouds anything like that before. We spent ages admiring and photographing them, and just as we had had our fill, a huge land monitor lizard lumbered out into the sun to sunbathe, and a troupe of monkeys swung past in the trees. You would never believe you’re only 50m from hordes of sweating tourists. The rock gardens and water gardens around the base of the rock are also well worth exploring – you could happily spend a whole day here and take a picnic, although we only spent half a day.
From Sigiriya, we had day trips to Dambulla Rock Caves, Polonnaruwa and Pidurangala Rock. In the first two cases we took buses, which ran smoothly (if a little quickly for my liking). We got a tuktuk from Dambulla bus station to the cave ticket point, which was well worth doing – we should probably have done the same on the way back rather than trying to walk along the main road, which was fine but unpleasant. The caves are very impressive, but the golden temple at the foot of the hill is the ugliest thing I have ever seen.
Polonnaruwa was one of my favourite days out – a huge site covered with ruins, some of which are truely stunning. Everyone will desperately try to convince you that you need a bike or a tuktuk to get around the site, but it’s all lies, it’s a nice gentle stroll. It’s worth looking around the museum first to get a feel for the site, then just throw yourself in and explore – the signage is generally good. I would recommend taking a picnic if you can, because food options there are pretty limited. It’s also really difficult to catch a tuktuk at the northern end to take you back to the bus stop by the museum – maybe it would be a good option to get a tuktuk first and start at the northern end? But in either case, don’t miss the huge carved Buddhas at the northern end of the site. And take a waterproof, because the rain can strike at any time and although there are enough trees for shade, there’s not much cover from heavy rain.
Pidurangala Rock is an outcrop just north of Sigiriya, about the same size but with fewer ruins, and which give an amazing view of the plain and Sigiriya itself. It was about a half-hour walk there from our guest house, skirting the edge of the Sigiriya enclosure. The climb starts by going through a temple compound – take your shoes off for this bit – and then is a lot of stairs followed by some serious scrambling over and between rocks to get to the top. For some reason, a lot of Sri Lankans seem to enjoy taking their small children and elderly relatives up here, so there are some major traffic jams at the top where one slow climber blocks the route in both directions. But once you’re at the summit it spreads out and there is lots of space to enjoy the view. The whole trip took 2-3h, which was a nice way to spend our final morning before setting off for the airport. It might also be good to combine this with Sigiriya, and I’ve been told the views are gorgeous at sunset, but be careful to do at least the first bit of the descent before the light fades!
I’m sure there were loads of amazing places in Sri Lanka that we entirely missed, and I’d love to go back again one day. Combining a cricket tour and a holiday worked really well for us in some ways, but I felt like I missed out to some degree on both the cricket and the country. However, there’s only so much you can do in just under three weeks and with a limited budget. I think we did fairly well, and we certainly enjoyed ourselves.