Jul 29, 2011

Sri Lanka--That's A Wrap

Uppuveli Beach
Set in the Indian Ocean, south of India and a few degrees north of the equator, Sri Lanka was once a darling in tourism’s eyes.  Although relatively compact, the island offers a vast diversity in landscapes—from beautiful beaches fringed with coral, to national parks filled with such wildlife as elephants, leopards, crocodiles and bears,  to cool hill stations producing most of the world’s best known teas (Ceylon tea), to important religious sites pertaining to the Buddhist and Hindu religions.   But in the early 1980’s, Sri Lanka fell from grace when the conflict between the ‘Tamil Tigers’, who were fighting for their own independent state, and the Sri Lankan military began and turned into Asia’s longest-lasting war, only finally ending nearly 30yrs later. 
Although ‘Tamil country’ was mostly in the northern half of the island as well as along most of the East coast, rebel attacks were not unheard of in other parts of the island and many tourists stopped coming altogether; those that still came were met with endless military checkpoints and delays.  The ‘Boxing Day Tsunami’ of 2004 further tainted Sri Lanka’s good name and gave it an international misnomer as a ‘disaster area’.

In May 2009, a ceasefire was declared between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan military.  Slowly, the military checkpoints have eased although their presence is still quite evident.  The Tamils who had left the country during the war for safety overseas, began to return to their homeland.  And now having a reason to do so, former tourism areas particularly in the northern East coast, have started to rebuild after the devastation of the tsunami.   Sri Lanka will definitely be a favourite among tourists again in the very near future.  

As for us, here’s our list of The Good, The Bad, and the So-So impressions:
Military Patrols Along Main St, Arugum Bay

The Good
v  The People:  The culture of Sri Lanka is actually comprised of 3 distinct peoples, all of whom are represented nearly in equal proportions:  The Tamil people, originally from South India, The Sinhalese (Sri Lankan), and the Muslim.  To further complicate things, there are predominately 3 religions that are practiced with Christianity also gaining followers.  Tamils tend to be either Hindu or Muslim, and the Muslim can be Tamils or Sinhalese, but most Sinhalese tend to be Buddhist although some have also converted to Catholicism and other Christian denominations. Tamils are not allowed to join the military though we’re told. Together, religion and ethnicity define ‘who you are’ to some extent, although everyone seems to respect one another.  

  Practically everyone we met was super-friendly, helpful, kind and very open to discussing their past and present.  We had very insightful conversations with a Tamil (Runi in Kalkudah), some Sinhalese of the Hindu faith (Sunil and Banda in Uppuveli), Catholic Sinhalese, and Muslims (Sam in Arugum Bay).  They did not make disparaging remarks about any of the other Sri Lankan cultures, although support for the Tamil Tigers’ cause surprisingly was mixed.  

  They did not look upon tourists as ‘full of money’ and treated us with respect (of course, except for the ‘three-wheel men’ aka the tuk tuk drivers), despite the fact that unskilled workers such as those who worked in guest houses, restaurant staff, security guards, tea pickers, even dive shop managers, making between $3.00 to $5.50 USD (Rs 300-550) per day, and they usually worked long days too.  Tourists spend at least that much each for a main meal in touristy restaurants.  We’re told that construction crew make between $5.50-9.00 USD per day, depending on their level of skill.  Most people we talked to (unskilled workers) seemed just happy to have a steady job, although they did realise that they weren’t making a lot of money.  

The kind train driver
v  Inexpensive transport.  Overland travel was ridiculously cheap.  The trip by 3rd class train from Trinco to Colombo took 8hrs, although only 7hrs actually travelling and covering a distance of 275km if the trip were made by road and only cost us $2.00 USD (Rs 205) each, half price for the kids!  

   Buses tended to be hot and crowded and of the Indian ‘Tata’ variety.  5hr trips would cost us no more than $1.50 USD (Rs 150) each. Air con mini vans were only found on routes around the west coast and in and out of Kandy and tended to be double the price although not necessarily more roomy. 

  3-Wheelers (tuk tuks) were relatively expensive though, given the cost (foreigner pricing) versus the distance.  

One of our buses--we stood for 1.5hrs.

A vendor on our train

v  The food. When prepared correctly, Sri Lankan food was very delicious—even the kids ate it up.  However, getting the point across of ‘absolutely no chilli please’ was only rarely successful.  

  A typical meal of rice, coconut-based curry chicken/fish, dahl (lentils), vegetable curry and pappadams was delicious, filling and inexpensive providing you are eating at a ‘local’ establishment.  Ditto for egg rotti and the Sri Lankan specialty of Kottu Rotti, which chopped up rotti fried with chicken, or fish or whatever—usually only available in the evenings though, but very delicious.  

  But relative to the local wages, eating out was surprisingly expensive—a main in a ‘local’ establishment would be $1.50-$3.50 USD (Rs 150-350) depending on what you ordered, but the portions were very large. We especially loved the abundance of cheap coconuts available--0.30cents each!

Egg 'Hopper'
The Bad:
v  ‘Foreigner’ Pricing on Admissions and Attractions.  Although many developing countries tend to have a 2-tier system of pricing for admissions to their local attractions, the disparity isn’t usually too significant (except for the Taj Mahal).  

   In Sri Lanka, the disparity can be 1000x, even 3000x that of what the locals pay.  In Kandy, at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the locals pay $1 USD (Rs100) while foreigners pay $15 USD (Rs1500).  At another sacred site, Sigiriya, the locals pay $1 USD (Rs 100) while foreigners pay $30 USD (Rs3000).  Pigeon Island, off the coast of Nilaveli, is touted as a beautiful stretch of beach and is a National Park; admission for locals is $1.50 (Rs150) which they find expensive and many don’t go, but for foreigners, its $20 USD (Rs2000).  

  Most of the foreigners we spoke to we surprised and dismayed at the high costs, and surprisingly many of the locals we spoke to felt the same way.  On one hand, the government/tourism operators understandably are clawing back some of the lost revenue during the ‘war years’, yet face driving the tourists away by doing so.  

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in background, which we didn't visit.

The So-So:
v Accommodation.  In terms of ‘budget accommodation’, we found Sri Lanka to be generally on the high side in terms of cost, and on the low side in terms of quality and value for money.  

  In most places, a double room, with fan only and attached bathroom, would cost at least $20 USD (Rs2,000) per night, and did not include a tv or internet.  We did get lucky in Kalkudah Beach and only paid $10 USD/nt, $13 USD in Nuwara Eliya and $15USD in Ella.  

   An air conditioned room was usually very expensive—a basic double room in a ‘budget’ establishment would be $50USD when a fan room in the same place would be $25 USD (this was in Arugum Bay and in Tissa).  With a little luck and a lot of persistence, we did get an a/c room in Negombo for $25 USD and in Uppuveli for $35 USD.  

  The cleaniless of most rooms could be improved, mostly with the use of a mop (never saw anyone using one) and lots of bug spray. 

  On the flip side, often hoteliers were very accommodating in putting in an extra bed for us at no charge as no way were the kids sleeping on the floors here!   
One of our better vlaue rooms (Ella)
v Internet/WiFi Availability. In most of the budget places that we staying in, internet and certainly WiFi were not avaible on the premise and when it was, the speed was incredibly slow.  

  At mid-range hotels, they usually offered WiFi we noticed.  Restaurants also did not offer WiFi to its patrons.  

  WiFi availability seemed to be hard to come by on the whole although internet cafes could usually be found for low hourly usage rates ranging from .60 cents USD to $1.00 USD per hour (Rs60-100).  

Rare WiFi access in Uppuveli Beach

v Poor access to media.  Aside from when we were in Kandy and Colombo, we felt very ‘shut out from the rest of the world’ in terms of news coverage.  If the locals had televisions, usually they weren’t turned on unless they were watching a particular program, usually at the end of the day.  None of the rooms that we staying in, with the exception of in Colombo, had televisions.  

  The Sri Lankans also didn’t have radios playing, except for CD players on the bus or in the tuk tuk, when it tended to be very loud!  

  And we didn’t see any newspapers outside of Kandy or Colombo either.  Coupled with poor internet availability, we felt really out of touch with what was happening in the rest of the world.  On one rare occasion when I went to an internet cafe, I noticed that my sister had sent an email (3 days old) notifying of a tsunami warning in Asia.  By the time I read the email, the warning had already been lifted—it was certainly old news!

v Overland travel by bus.  While travelling by bus, be it long distance or locally, is very inexpensive, it is extremely frustrating and time consuming too. 

  No two people will give you the same information regarding departure times or even which bus to take.  In Tissa, we even spoke to the station manager and he even did not give us the correct information that we were seeking—the man working at the restaurant where we ate dinner the night before eventually did.  And that’s the thing, you don’t know who is right.  Everyone is trying to be helpful, but sometimes in doing so, they omit certain information such as a departure time of a certain bus because they personally feel that it is not a good route to go, but they don’t mention that fact!  We have wasted so many hours standing waiting at the bus stop for buses that we find out later, leave at a different time than we were initially told.  

  The fact that the bus system is run with both government as well as private buses-- the latter which except for their colour (white), ply the exact same routes and charge the exact same fares, might contribute to this problem.  It’s really hit-and-miss but with 2 kids in tow, waiting an extra hour for the bus to arrive on top of the usually 4-6hr journey, is less than ideal yet seemingly unavoidable (by us anyway) in Sri Lanka.  

  Local buses within cities (Kandy, Colombo) are very frequent but finding out their routes and then where to board can also be hit-or-miss, but when you get it right, the 0.10 cents USD/RS10 per person that it costs is well worth it.  

  Trains at least seem to have a more fixed timetable, for departures anyway, but  the opening times of the ticket windows, especially for advanced bookings, seemed frustratingly inconsistent though.  

Scene at the bus station in Tissamahara

Where's the train??!!

The Nitty Gritty:

   So how did our budget fare in Sri Lanka?  We were surprised by the somewhat high cost of living especially relative to the low local wages. 

  Accommodation and food were particularly high, although the extremely low cost of overland travel (excluding tuk tuks, for foreigners at least) helped keep the budget in check.   

   Interestingly, we spent a total of $55 USD for ALL of our long distance bus and train travel through Sri Lanka, yet we also spent an additional $88 USD on 3-wheeler fares and local buses (ie within a city).   

  The high 'foreigner pricing' on attractions meant that we didn't take in a lot of the 'touristy' things, including temples, which was a shame.  We did splash out on a visit to Yala National park ($100 USD) as well as a diving trip ($100 USD), and a bit of shopping ($50 USD).  Including all of that, our average daily expenditure was $62.00 USD for our 27 nights in Sri Lanka. 

We really enjoyed our month travelling through some of the country.  We have never visited a country that is as rapidly changing as Sri Lanka.  In fact, our ‘Lonely Planet—Sri Lanka’, is the most recent edition and printed in 2009, yet it was almost completely outdated and contained a lot of misinformation, especially about prices and the local conditions in the Eastern Province.  Nevertheless we managed to have a little taste of what Sri Lanka had to offer:  Kandy, Ella and Nuwara Eliya in the Hill Country; the Eastern Province and its beaches; Yala National Park in the south; took a couple of Hindu festivals (Kartagama Esala, Colombo); and of course, spent a few days in the big city, Colombo.  Although we have a couple of gripes, none too major, on the whole thanks largely to the people that we met, we have great memories and a much greater empathy towards what the people here have endured and in many ways, are still enduring.
School Children at Victoria Park, Nurawa Eliya


  1. Great post. Really appreciated the history section and the detail on the pricing. AL this mixed together with a fun, family journey.

    I'm flying into Sri Lanka tomorrow for a month.


    1. Thanks James--hope you enjoy your time there and meet some nice people!

  2. Planning a trip to Sri Lanka with our two children, thank you so much for very useful info. Exactly the type that you rarely find (costs and so on) together with nice stories.
    Thanks and happy travels!

    Caroline (Sweden)

    1. Thanks for your comment Caroline--and I'm glad you found us!! Hope you have a great trip. xo

  3. We are flying next Friday to Sri Lanka with our 2 kids for 2 weeks. Really helpful detailed info & tips. Thank you very mucj!!

  4. Thank you so much for an interesting webpage.
    We are a Danish family travelling to Sri Lanka in April 2014 for 3 weeks with our 2 girls aged 3 and 4. Looking for nice hotels in Bentota and Marissa to start out with. Preferably not too touristed and with a pool. Any suggestions?
    And which things/places/hotel would you recommend (and not recommend)
    Thank you
    Best regards, Rikke

    1. Hi Rikke
      Unfortunately we never traveled to either of those places, but this family did: http://worldtravelfamily.com/sri-lanka-family-travel/

      Have a great trip and thanks for visiting us!

      p.s. one of my best friends is Danish too :)