Trip to Sri Lanka – 02 – What the guidebooks don’t tell you

During my trip to Sri Lanka I discovered things I hadn’t read in the guidebooks or online, that would have been helpful. I’d read Lonely Planet and Rough Guide.  Most people seemed to be using the former.

AIRPORT & VISA

Colombo airport is quite small. Which I like.  From the plane to immigration was only 100m – none of those miles of corridors at many airports.

All the web sites, including the Sri Lankan Government ones, say to get an electronic visa online.  I hate doing that. So I didn’t. I went to the visa on arrival counter, which was immediately ahead of me after coming out of the plane and turning left, and the counter had no customers, and took 2 minutes and $35 – and I got change in dollars. Much better than an electronic visa, although $5 more expensive. I cannot guarantee you wouldn’t have a queue, however.  Online I read that if you make the slightest mistake in the online form the visa officials will reject it and make you get and pay for another.  And to get a refund of your failed visa you have to go to an obscure out-of-the-way office in town.

At immigration there was no waiting so I was through very quickly. There were duty-free shops on way to customs – and prices were very high, and I didn’t need the extra weight.  So, if you want duty-free, buy it from you departure airport.

Then straight through customs.   All very easy.

And then – BAM – I got hit from behind by a careless guy with luggage trolley who wasn’t watching where he was going.  The design of the trolley is bad – and it hit my Achilles tendon.  It hurt to walk.  So much for my trip, which involves walking and a bit of hiking. I immediately sat, and stayed for a while, massaged it, and after a while it hurt less, but walking was still painful.  I didn’t want to catch the next flight back, after all that, so I hobbled on.  After a day I could walk painlessly in flip-flops, but wearing shoes hurt for the next week.  The point of the story, of course, is to be very careful you don’t get hit by stupid people’s trolleys.

There is a little counter on the right, I think just after you exit Customs, but I cannot exactly recall, which has tourist information. Get a free map. It’s sort of useful, and maybe the only map you will see for your entire stay.

Straight ahead as you exit Customs you will see four mobile companies where you can buy SIM’s- the Dialog kiosk, Mobitel, Hutch, and Elisalat.  Also on the left is Airtel. Before your trip you could compare deals online – it didn’t really help me, though.  However, you probably want an ATM first, so turn left, pass the Airtel kiosk, and the ATM’s are on the left (on the way to the toilets, if you are interested.) Deals for airtime and data all seemed similar to me, but the coverage of Dialog and Mobitel is supposed to be better than the rest, and they have 4G in some places.

I have found while travelling that I use less than 2GB per week when using data exclusively on the phone – if using on a tablet I use it much faster.  This  2 GB includes Google Maps, Skype, downloading podcasts, Facebook, email etc.  But where possible I use WiFi – but of course, on the bus, while walking – there is no WiFi. And sometimes WiFi only works in the hotel lobby, so in your room you use Mobile Internet instead.  And sometimes even in the lobby WiFi just isn’t good enough for Skype.

exiting the airport

exiting the airport

Exiting the  airport is like entering a park.  Soon, on the far left as you exit the terminal I found the (white) express bus to the city – Rs190. ($1.50) Possibly because it was Sunday the motorway was not busy and soon we were in the city – which was a bit congested. It took about 40 minutes.

express airport bus

express airport bus

The bus station is about 300m from (Colombo Fort) train station.  From the bus station you turn right and walk down the main road. It’s really easy to find.

Colombo Fort Station

Colombo Fort Station

BUS BACK TO THE AIRPORT

There is a bus stand for the airport bus at the Colombo Bus Station.  But when I wanted to catch it (Bus 187) about 8.30PM I was told to get the bus from the main road.  If you want to return to the airport by bus, then ask around to ensure you’re in the right place. I had to keep an eye out and flag it down.

TRIP PLANNING

There are so many factors to take into account when planning that I gave up and just went when I found it convenient. There are rainy and dry seasons at different times in different parts of the country, festivals, full moon celebrations when there is a full moon, school holidays etc.  You can try planning around them if you want.

I travel spontaneously, and change how long I stay somewhere and where I go depending on my feeling. Sometimes where I was going was crowded and it was difficult to show up and get a hotel room.

If you book everything in advance, hotels and any trains, then you will be able to do just as planned.

TRANSPORT

Car

The roads in the country were quite empty, and I only saw jams in Colombo and Kandy.  So if you want to use a car and driver, you should be comfortable. You could also just drive yourself, saving the cost of the driver’s pay, his food and accommodation. Other drivers are not so skilful or courteous, but not so bad, either. They drive better than Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, China – and better than the guidebooks implied.  Drivers even stopped for people on pedestrian crossings – albeit a bit reluctantly. This is unheard of in Malaysia, where a pedestrian crossing is just wasted paint on a road.

train

train

Train

You can see a rail map on the previous blog.  There are not so many rail routes, and not so many services, and a reasonably large demand from customers. I found standing on the train very tiring, and the Sri Lankans are very adept in quickly slipping into any seat that becomes vacant before you even notice. So you get to stand the whole way, perhaps. If you want to sit you most likely need to book in advance, and the guidebooks tell you about how to.  The trains are comfortable enough and have enough leg room if you are seated.

second class carriage

second class carriage

The hawkers who offer food and drink on the trains have nothing of interest, except perhaps water.  Take whatever you want on the train, yourself.  The stations’ shops and canteens were mostly closed, so buy in advance elsewhere. The restaurant car (on a seven hour trip) had only bread buns, water and soft drinks, so don’t get too excited if you see your train has one of them.   You can take your own food and sit down there to eat it if you wish.

Trains run more or less on time, give or take half an hour or so.

The luggage racks above the seats are reasonably spacious.  And people seemed honest enough so it wasn’t a problem leaving my luggage, as a sole traveller, and going to the toilet or for a walk through the carriages. Obviously, when the train is on the move, though.

Speaking of which, the only time I used the toilet was in a first class carriage, and the toilets were cleaner than any other I have used on trains in south-east Asia. I also travelled in Sri Lanka using second class and third class at different times.

As the guidebooks mention, second (and third) class windows open, but first class don’t, so you get better photos (but no air-con) from second class. First class windows are dirty, but so are those of other classes.

All public transport is extraordinarily cheap.  The first class train ticket from Jaffna to Colombo, a seven hour journey, cost Rs1,500 – about $12. From Galle to Colombo, a two-hour plus journey, cost $1 in third class, and $2 in second class.

In every city but Colombo I could walk to my accommodation from the station. I could, but didn’t necessarily. It was never that far.

long distance bus

long distance bus

Bus

Buses are great for spontaneity.  Just roll up to the bus station and catch the next bus to your destination.  A huge number of buses travel the country. I simply checked the timetable to my next destination when I arrived at the bus station.  Often they ran every half hour from 5AM.

I’d often catch the 6AM bus – it was cool, light, so safer, and I could see the scenery. And I’d arrive reasonably early in the day at my destination, so I could find accommodation and / or have a half day to do sightseeing.  You just need to ask anyone at the bus station any question you have. Then maybe ask one or two others if you are not convinced they are correct, and decide what the case is after that.

Although the guidebooks mention (more comfortable) private buses I never saw one – but I was travelling between towns, rather than to or from the capital.  And the private buses they mentioned on routes I wanted to take no one knew of.

If you want to sit down, then catch a bus from the bus station where it originates.  Then choose a seat where the window opens suitable to how you want it – do you want it open to keep cool or take photos? (If you want it open, open it the way you want when you board, so you have control of it.  Also, have sunglasses to keep the dust out of your eyes – the cool breeze is nice, and the dust isn’t bad. )  The windows are dirty, so photographing though the glass is less than optimal.

seating on bus

seating on bus

The bus will stop every two or three hours for a comfort stop.  If there are free seats you can leave the bus, but if not, you might lose your seat.  So I limited my liquid intake before and during the trip for this reason. I drank a lot in the evening instead, to make up.

The luggage racks are not very capacious.  Many foreign travellers kept their luggage near the driver, and had no problem with theft. But maybe some do, I don’t know. I kept mine on my lap.

Some buses have a two seat, very narrow aisle, three seat configuration – you shuffle sideways down the aisle.  Others have a two plus two, where the aisle is easily wide enough to walk down. But there is enough leg room between you and the next seat, so reasonably comfortable.

Again, take your own food or drink onto the bus as the hawkers offerings are very poor.

With all the buses I took the bus arrived about an hour earlier than the time they quoted.  And the drivers seemed to drive quite safely.  And there was not so much traffic.

And buses are also very cheap.  I think it cost about $2 from Kandy to Trincomalee, a four-hour journey.  You pay the conductor on the bus, and he gives you a tiny paper ticket – but he remembers who paid, anyway.

In every city but Colombo I could walk to my accommodation from the bus station, too. I could, but didn’t necessarily. It was never that far.

tuk tuk

tuk tuk

Tuk Tuk

I found Tuk Tuk drivers so dishonest that I rarely used them, unless they were from the hotel. Two examples. A normal price for a short trip seemed to be Rs150 (a little over $1). You negotiate the price with him, and when you have agreed, you repeat it a couple of times and get his affirmation. And when you arrive you intend to pay him this, plus a 10% or so tip – so Rs170.  When you arrive he demands Rs200. So you tell him you agreed to 150. He insists on 200. You’re wasting your time talking, so you give him 150 and no tip and alight – so he is worse off than if he were honest.  And then you basically avoid tuk tuks, thus costing the industry business.

A second example.  At the bus terminal in Colombo tuk tuk drivers were trying to get me to go with them to the airport, rather than catch the bus.  I wanted Bus 187, saw it approaching and flagged it down. One of the tuk tuk drivers told me it wasn’t the airport bus – a straight out lie. I simply asked the bus conductor and he confirmed it was the airport bus.  I can only imagine that the tuk tuk driver would say that there was now no bus for an hour and I had to go with him.

My luggage was light, and I didn’t have far to go, so I mostly just walked.

TOUTS

Try to ignore them. And don’t believe anything they say. Sometimes it’s hard to know if someone is a tout as they may just be being friendly, but if after a few minutes they are still with you, they are most likely a tout. A local will normally just ask two or three questions and then they’ll be off.

AND ANOTHER ANNOYANCE – INSECTS

In most of the country I visited, mosquitoes were a minor problem.  Staying in an air-con room, the room should be sealed, so you should be OK. But there may be a couple of mosquitos lurking that you need to eliminate.  Once done, you’re OK. But if you eat outside in the evening, then I’d wear trousers, shoes and socks.

Only in the north, in Jaffna and surrounds, did I find flies a problem.  When eating  outside they’d come and annoy you.

COMMUNICATION

There are a great many mobile masts all over the country, and most of the time I had a signal, and usually quite a reasonable one. Most hotels have Wi-Fi, but the quality of the connection from the hotel to the Internet varied greatly, including by the time of day.  And often you could only get the Wi-Fi connection in the lobby, and not in your room.  So sometimes I could use Skype over WiFi, and sometimes I had to switch to mobile Internet to use Skype.

As for communication with local people, I discovered that there were two local languages, so I didn’t bother learning anything at all.  Most people spoke at least some English, and many spoke it very well. It was very easy.  If you are unsure if you have arrived at your destination, just ask someone.  They’ll help.

Mostly people were polite and orderly when lining up, but if anyone were to push in it would be middle-aged women.

MAPS AND NAVIGATING

I didn’t track down any other maps but the one I picked up at the airport. It has a map of the country, and one of Colombo, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.  Thus having a local SIM with a few GB of data so you can use Google Maps is very useful. The navigating function of GM was not so accurate, but the maps themselves appeared OK.

stray dogs sleeping in bus station

stray dogs sleeping in bus station

DOGS

There are stray dogs everywhere, in towns and the countryside, but they are very docile.  Only twice were dogs acting viciously, both times in Trincomalee.  I just moved away from their territory and it was no problem. Some dogs, on the other hand, were very friendly. But most were just docile and got on with their lives.

GUIDEBOOK ACCOMMODATION AND RESTAURANT RECOMMENDATIONS

I didn’t find the Lonely Planet hotel recommendations particularly good. Their restaurant recommendations were better.

DRINKS

If you want to buy beer, wine or spirits, then you need  to find a so-called wine shop.  A 500ml can of Lion lager costs Rs160, from memory. They will also get it from a refrigerator if you ask. Otherwise it will be warm. There are not so many wine shops around. They close on public holidays.

PRICES

Public transport is incredibly cheap – some prices were given above.  The price of food in restaurants is fairly normal for Asia.  But in comparison to the price of food, drinks in restaurants are often very expensive and poor value.  The price of hotels is relatively high, and the quality not so good.

CREDIT CARDS / ATM’s

While on the subject of money, many people online commented that credit card fraud is rife in Sri Lanka.  Even if you keep the card in sight the whole time there are people who will copy the number and use it.  Also, don’t give the details of a credit card over the phone.  Thus I strictly used cash, as there are plenty of ATM’s, so you don’t need to carry so much cash.  So I have no personal experience with this kind of fraud. Friends have said that even getting an electronic visa for some countries using a credit card can expose you to fraud.

However, I used an ATM in the main street of Kandy to withdraw some cash, and the bank phoned my home and said they were going to put a stop on my ATM card unless I phoned them. I phoned the bank, and it turned out that it was nothing I had done, but rather this ATM had been used for fraud in the past. Now, before I had left I had told the bank that I would be in Sri Lanka during this period of time, but even so they would have put a stop to my card had I not received the message and phoned.  Outrageous that they didn’t mind possibly leaving me stranded. So, carry an ATM card for another bank as a backup. Which I had, but fortunately didn’t need.

on the train to Galle

on the train to Galle

LANDSCAPES

I didn’t visit the Hill Country past Kandy, but many of the landscapes I saw were not that special. The coast train to Galle often ran right on the coast, and that was nice, and to Kandy from Colombo was pleasant enough.  But if you have your heart set on seeing the country by rail, and have to see it by bus instead – or vice versa – you won’t be missing much.

Sri Lanka has many great things – which the guidebooks will tell you – so have a great trip!

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