Ayubowan: Tales from Sri Lanka

Back in January I spent 10 days in Sri Lanka on a family holiday, seeing the sights in a very touristy way. I took my notepad with me and tried to jot down what I got up to on a daily basis and of course there are the photos and some videos. Here goes… (Beware! It’s a long one!)

Heading in to Colombo

We headed in to Colombo on Sri Lankan Airlines, from Heathrow airport, with one stop off at Male in the Maldives. My first impressions of Sri Lankan Airlines weren’t brilliant. So-so food, service was a joke at times and the stewards just weren’t all that friendly. I think I had an elbow in my face from one steward as she lent over to try to reach something in her cart. Still, the upside was that the plane was half empty and I had 4 seats all to myself. I made the most of that.

Arrived in Colombo on a Friday afternoon. Breezed through the airport fairly quickly and found the Kuoni representative who took us to our driver who was taking us to the Airport Garden Hotel, where we’d be staying for one night. This wasn’t a planned stay as such. Our first destination was actually Kandy, which is in the middle of Sri Lanka, however it’s a long drive there so Kuoni planned in one night’s stay in Colombo so that we could get a fresh start the next day.

The Airport Garden Hotel’s very close to the airport, about a 15 minute drive away. I was instantly hit with how tight security is. Driving into the hotel there’s a mini checkpoint where security checks the vehicle you’re in, including underneath. After all that’s happened there, it’s reassuring to see they’re still working hard at keeping Sri Lanka safe for everyone.

Nothing but forestThe hotel itself is really quite nice. We had top floor rooms so had a nice sea view and just miles of coconut trees as far as the eye could see. The room was lovely – clean, all the mod-cons and a nice bathroom. I measure hotels by their bathrooms and this one measured up well!

Sadly, didn’t have time to hang around. My dad has a friend who lives in Sri Lanka and had offered to take us out into Colombo for the evening. The first place he stops at? A roadside stall selling king coconut. It’s a yellow coconut that they grow in Sri Lanka specifically for drinking. They’re like the green coconuts but with a lot more water inside and much sweeter. It did fill me up and I didn’t think I could handle any food for dinner.

Driving through Colombo was interesting. It wasn’t as insane as, say, Mumbai in India, but there was a certain amount of craziness involved. We were even luckier to be driving at one of the busiest times for Colombo – Friday night after work rush hour. Lovely! Driving in Colombo seems to be a combination of honking your horn when overtaking, not using your mirrors, making your own road lanes as you drive and ignoring the pedestrians.

The best way to get around [Day 21/365]I was surprised as to how clean Colombo was. I was preparing myself for India style streets in the city, but it was much better. A lot fewer beggars and better roads.

As we drove into Colombo I took in as much of the city as I could in the dark. On every other street corner there’d be a large glass box holding some kind of religious figure. Mostly either a Christian or Buddhist figure. There were a few Hindu statues, but Buddhism and Christianity were definitely the majority.

Motorbikes and cyclists were everywhere, weaving in and out of traffic. In the beginning I feared for their lives, but after a while it just felt normal!

For the evening we got taken to a restaurant off Galle Road, which is one of the ‘nicer’ areas of Colombo. Lots of big hotels and casinos along the road. The food was good. It was meant to be traditional Sri Lankan food, so lots of curries and seafood. One thing that struck me about the food is the sheer number of spices they use. In Indian food we use a lot of garlic and ginger to flavour the food. Sri Lankans seem to mostly use a massive combination of spices which overpowered some food a little bit!

After the food we faced the long-ish drive back to our hotel. Despite only being about 30km away, with the roads in Colombo being what they are, it took about 1 hour to get back. Combine that with some jet lag and exhaustion kicked in and I was ready for bed.

The Holiday Begins

The next day we had an early start. We opted for private transfers between hotels and I have to say it was well worth it. Even with the 8am start the day after landing in the country.

On the Saturday we were off to Kandy to stay two nights at the Earl’s Regency Hotel. Kandy’s in, approximately, the middle of the island. From what I read, it used to be the capital of the country. From Colombo to Kandy there’s a Colombo-Kandy road, which unsurprisingly, we’d be taking. Unfortunately, the roads being what they were (busy, very windy in the mountains and sometimes a bit of both) the drive to Kandy was due to take us between 2 and 3 hours.

Our drive took us a bit longer due to a couple of detours we took on the way to Kandy. We decided to visit the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawela, which is just off the Colombo-Kandy road, followed by lunch and then a visit to a spice garden.

Having a ball! [Day22/365]I was really impressed with the Elephant Orphanage. I didn’t actually see the whole place, due to the elephants being out and about. Which was lucky for us as they were in the river for one of their twice daily baths. What I was impressed with was the mahouts and how few of them there were, yet how expertly they were to control such a large herd of huge mammals.

There was a mixture of ages of elephants – from the very mature to the newly born. This young elephant was struggling to swim in the waters and was getting a boost from a couple of the matriarchs of the group!

During the elephant watching was the usual people selling things to tourists. Our driver had warned us of them. Told us not to buy any fruits from those people. They sell fruits to tourists so that they can feed the elephants. But feeding the elephants is prohibited, so sadly it’s just another way of getting money from innocent tourists. Not very good if you get sucked in. They’re easy enough to avoid – just ignore.

I could have sat all day and watched the elephants. But it was time to move on and off we went. Our driver took us to a local restaurant for some food for lunch. Traditional Sri Lankan food catered for tourists I think. It was nice enough and soon after we were off back on the road heading to Kandy. With just one more stop over.

We were taken to a ‘spice garden’. I use the inverted commas because they’re everywhere. Spice gardens that is. They’re not so much spice gardens as little areas of planted land with a few random spice plants grown. Things like sandalwood, pepper, cinnamon and other spices grown around Sri Lanka. The little tour of the garden ends in minutes with you at the shop where there’s plenty of spice related things to be bought.

You don’t have to pay to enter, but there’s a tipping culture in Sri Lanka. However I think my parents bought enough goods from the shop to warrant not having to tip the guide who took us around the garden. I’m also sure that our driver gets some kind of ‘cut’ from showing us to that spice garden. I wouldn’t recommend doing a spice garden tour. They’re not really a tour and you almost feel obliged to buy something at the end of it.

After this stop off we were ready to go to the hotel. Still slightly jet lagged and longing for a nice shower and a bit of relaxation!

We finally got to the Earl’s Regency Hotel at around 2pm. Check-in was painless enough and we were impressed with the look of the hotel. However, what we weren’t impressed with was the smell. All around the hotel are various water features and mini water-falls. However it smells like the water’s never really been cleaned! It’s the recurring theme of things in Sri Lanka. Once upon a time things were all nice and great, but maintenance has been neglected and things aren’t as shiny as they once were.

After a nice relaxing afternoon we headed for the restaurant for an early dinner. What a disappointment. You will never guess what food we got in the restaurant. Mexican. Yes, Mexican. Not joking there whatsoever. We go all the way to Sri Lanka and the food we get isn’t Sri Lankan. In amongst the buffet food available we did find a small corner which had traditional Sri Lankan food, which was far better than the Mexican showcase. Another ongoing frustration while holidaying in Sri Lanka – lack of Sri Lankan food in hotel restaurants! Quality food makes a difference to me on holiday. Wherever in the world I am. So this definitely put a sour taste to the start of our stay in Kandy.

An Introduction to Kandy

The following day we decided to not do too much and try to enjoy the relaxing part of our holiday. We did have a couple of places in mind to visit – The Temple of the Tooth and the Royal Botanical Gardens. After that we were happy to just head back to the hotel and do some quality loafing around the pool.

The long walkThe Temple of the Tooth is one of the most sacred places in Sri Lanka for Buddhists – it houses a portion of Buddha’s tooth. I was really interested in going to the temple. Having visited some Buddhist temples in Thailand and being struck silent by the atmosphere and what I saw, I was hoping for something similar. Sadly, it didn’t turn out like that.

While the temple itself is rather a beautiful set of buildings the atmosphere is somewhat lacking. We got a bitter taste in our mouth from the outset. While locals don’t have to pay to enter the temple, tourists do. Then there are two different tier of tourists. We faked being from Indian so we paid slightly less than European/American tourists. I remember not having to pay for the temples in Thailand, you don’t have to pay to see temples in this country so why there? A bit of frustration there.

Once in the temple the crowds were immense. We initially didn’t have plans to see the relic, as there was a queue longer than I ever expected to see in a temple. However, our driver talked us into seeing it. That was an experience. I was shoved from the back, side and front by locals wanting to pay their respects to the relic. By the time I got a chance to see through the small opening at the relic my interest in seeing it disappeared. We were ushered/shoved so quickly past I didn’t see anything.

I wish I could say I was impressed and in awe of what I saw and experienced. Maybe my expectations were a tad too high. I was happy enough to just say I’d seen the temple.

Giant PalmsOur next stop was the Botanical Gardens. Another recommended place to see in Kandy and as a family, we’ve all got fairly green fingers, so it’s something that would interest all of us.

Buying tickets for the gardens was a similar experience to buying tickets for the temple – various different types of tickets depending on where you’re from. Sadly saying we were from India didn’t get us a discount here – we were still labelled as foreigners.

The gardens are quite expansive so with a map of them to hand we planned a route. Firstly we headed to the spice orchard, then orchid house followed by a slow meander through the garden seeing things of interest.

Sadly the disappointment from the visit to the temple stayed with us. The gardens were a nice place but they were more equivalent to say, Regent’s or Hyde Park in London. A place where people go with picnics or go for walks with their family and friends. The spice orchard mostly consisted of nutmeg trees while the orchid house housed a few orchids which weren’t completely unique.

To save ourselves from any more disappointment we decided that that was our last stop of the day and we headed back to the hotel after this visit. Kandy’s a hectic city and is buzzing with life. I’m not regretting visiting any of the places or seeing Kandy – I’m glad I’ve seen the city. Just won’t be rushing back there any time soon.

After a nice relaxing afternoon with some added pool lounging we had a slightly better experience at dinner with less Mexican food and more Sri Lankan. We had to pack things in early though, the next day we would be heading off to Bentota which is on the coast of Sri Lanka. Located approximately 5-6 hours away from Kandy!

An executive decision was made to not make any stops and just head straight down to our next destination. We did however make one stop – a king coconut stop. We can’t resist!

Hello Beruwela

Middle of the afternoon and we’ve arrived at the Eden Resort & Spa. The lobby of the hotel is beautiful and we were greeted at the reception quite nicely. However check-in didn’t go as well as it did at the previous hotels. We very nearly didn’t get the room and board we had paid for, for all three of us. There was an issue as to whether the room and board booking we had was for just one room or both. Thankfully we got our way and headed to the rooms.

The rooms were definitely the highlight of this hotel. They were spacious, nicely decorated, great views of the sea and the most amazing ‘mini’ bar I had ever seen. I began to feel like I was actually on holiday.

My mum and I decided to try to get acquainted with the hotel and went exploring. We found the hotel restaurants, bars and cafe. Took a stroll down the beach and felt the lovely warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Sadly we were faced with a recurring theme on the beach – getting mobbed by various Sri Lankans trying to earn a living off of the tourists by selling trinkets or boat rides. The trick was to just say no. A trick I was good with. Sadly, my parents failed slightly. They’re too good-natured!

Dinner at the Eden Resort & Spa was a slight improvement on the Earl’s Regency, but the theme of doing themes was ongoing and as usual, disappointing.

The following day was a full day of doing nothing but reading, swimming in the pool or sea. Quite a nice way to spend the day. I had wanted to start off the day with a morning swim in the pool, but the pool didn’t ‘open’ until gone 10am. Which I found a bit bizarre. I think every other holiday needs a day like this one I had!

The one annoyance of the day was the meeting with our Kuoni representative. Which just didn’t happen. Despite him sending a message of a time and place. He didn’t turn up and then left a note saying sorry WE missed HIM. We had another meeting scheduled for the following day – we had a few questions on things we could do and see in Beruwela we had hoped he’d answer for us.

The following day was almost a template of the first day of nothing, just with some added rain and a tad more annoyance. Again due to the lack of an appearance by the Kuoni representative. This time however, despite him not turning up he sent someone else after a rather angry phone call to Kuoni. He clearly just didn’t want to face us! Finally got some details and booked a little trip for us for the following day to see a turtle hatchery and go on a boat ride. I wasn’t keen on going on the boat ride but I did really want to see the turtle hatchery!

Skipping along to Thursday – seeing the sights

Thursday morning was possibly the earliest start experienced on the holiday. We had to be ready for 7:45am! Though, with the weather what it is in Sri Lanka, 7:45am never really feels like 7:45am.

We got on a little bus which made its way around a couple of other hotels picking up some other tourists before heading to our first location by the river for our boat ride. Now I wasn’t really looking forward to this as I wasn’t expecting too much out of it.

A Way of LifeWe boarded a little motorised boat and headed into the waterways. Waterways that were a lot more expansive than I had ever imagined existed in that area of Sri Lanka. Throughout the large river were various islands of differing sizes. All of which have people living on them. Few of them have electricity. Only one had a bridge to the mainland, and that was only due to it being the biggest island in the waterways. Though the bridge was only big enough for one lane’s worth of rickshaw. So, pretty small then!

Our guide on the boat was a very jokey fella. Though all of his jokes seem to consist of husband/wife jokes. He must have read somewhere that that’s what British tourists like to hear on holiday.

There were a couple of British women on the boat with us and both of them often came out with the most ludicrous of comments. Their best one was about the families who live on the islands in the waterway. We just happened to come across a woman washing her clothes in the water and one of the women said that she would love to swap her life for the island folk. The second British woman agreed and noted how easy their lives were compared to their own in the UK. At that point I bit my tongue.

Working hard for a livingAfter a nice bit of meandering through the massive river we stopped off at an island to have somethings demonstrated to us by a local woman and man who live on one of the medium-sized islands. We were shown how cinnamon grows and how it becomes the cinnamon we know and love. The Sri Lankan woman and man who demonstrated some local crafts were very adept. However I had a bit of a bitter taste after the little demonstration – knowing that the 1000 rupees we paid for buying some cinnamon from the woman, less than half of that would probably actually go to her. Tourism has its pros and cons!

We then got back on our little boat and headed back to where we started. I can honestly say I enjoyed the river boat part of the ride. Seeing the waterways and the islands and some of the nature and wildlife was amazing. Though, having been to other tropical countries, the wildlife in Sri Lanka is either very well hidden or just not as present.

Following the boat ride we visited a turtle hatchery. There are a number of these long the Bentota coastline. At the hatchery we were informed that David Attenborough himself had been to that hatchery and put money towards rebuilding it after the tsunami that hit in 2004.

All that I have in my handsSri Lanka is the home of five out of the seven breeds of sea turtle in the world. There is a significant effort from the Sri Lankan government to protect these amazing creatures as they play such an important role in not only the ecosystem, but tourism.

At the turtle hatchery we visited a guide walked us through what they do there. What they do is gather turtle eggs that are laid on the shores and bring them to the hatchery. They also buy turtle eggs from locals in order to stop them from being eaten. Yes, Sri Lankans consider turtle eggs to be a delicacy. As a consequence they’re collected by the locals and sold in local markets. However as the locals are being educated, many of them collect in order to sell them on to the hatcheries.

The eggs are buried in sand, as they were on the beach where they were first laid. After they’re hatched they are kept in the sanctuary for a week before they are let loose back into the wild.

It’s so nice to see conservation in action and education being one of the top priorities in order to help save these animals from extinction.

After I stopped ‘aww-ing’ long enough at the 1 day old turtles it was time to head back to the hotel.

The beginning of the end… of the holiday

Friday marked the first day of the journey back home. Today we were heading to Mount Lavinia, which is just outside of Colombo, for one night’s stay before our long flight back home. The drive up there from Beruwela took just about one and a half hours in which we were able to get our last taste of the lovely king coconut. Yum.

At Mount Lavinia we were staying at Mount Lavinia Hotel. In the past it was a governor’s house and now converted into a rather grand looking hotel. perched on the cliff, with Colombo in the distance. However, looks can and were deceiving. I can not say this enough, but I do not recommend this hotel.

After an initial hour-long wait post check-in for our rooms, it turned out that the rooms we were given weren’t the ones we were paid for. The hotel manager had moved us due to our rooms, that we booked, were still occupied. Fair enough, but surely it would have been better to let us know this fact?

We were told they would let us know when our rooms would be ready to we headed off to explore the hotel and find something to eat. Unfortunately the rains came in hard while we were wondering and just as we got to the beach, where there were numerous huts/restaurants. We found one and happily sat down for a snack and cover from the rain.

Afternoon arrived and still we were room-less. We had arrived at the hotel at 11:30am and by 5pm we finally had a room. The reception staff weren’t helpful whatsoever. We were handed excuses after excuses as to why our rooms weren’t ready. We then tried to discuss the matter with a Kuoni representative. What we got was a repeat performance of what happened when we were in Beruwela. A representative who seemed to not exist. The most helpful person in the hotel was the lovely woman who looked after the business room where we were able to use the Internet for free. She was the only one who tried to help us.

This definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.

Thankfully our dinner that evening was good. It didn’t make up for the palava of the day, but it was tasty. At this point I was happy to be heading home!

Goodbye Sri Lanka

The next morning it was time to go. I was pretty happy to be leaving that hotel. And at this point, Sri Lanka. Sadly.

We had to make our way through the centre of Colombo, during rush hour. I have never seen so much haphazard traffic as there was that morning. Made all the worse by what looked like a Buddhist parade going on on some of the roads.

The flight back was fully booked. Sitting in between my parents I began to wish for the outgoing flight where I had four seats to myself!

So Sri Lanka…

I’m glad I went to Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, I won’t be planning a return trip in the near future. It was a nice little holiday but a few little niggles here and there made the trip felt less memorable.

The treatment of foreigners really left me feeling more than annoyed – the incidents in Kandy where foreigners are purposefully charged more to go to places which are sometimes free for locals? Questionable. I’ve been to other similar countries and not experienced that before.

The locals themselves seemed to be very nice and honest people. However within hotel complexes some of the locals who work there tend to take advantage of their position in order to get more money out of foreigners and tourists. There were times it sometimes felt like they were demanding tips from us for doing very little – there was always an ulterior motive. Or maybe that’s just the cynic in me, but it’s what it felt like!

I wouldn’t recommend Sri Lankan Airlines to fly to Sri Lanka. Yes, they do do direct flights. However the staff aren’t very good or helpful, the entertainment system is very below par and the food is really not all that great for a long haul airliner. Bite the bullet and use an airline which makes a stop somewhere.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with some amazing countryside, wildlife, nature and people. There are some sights and experiences I will never forget – holding baby turtles, seeing hundreds fruit bats hanging from trees, the waterways in Beruwela, the amazing Kandy-Colombo highway and of course king coconuts!

I feel slightly guilty for not liking it as much as I feel I ought to have. Maybe I just had slightly higher expectations for the holiday. Give me a decade, I might change my mind.

[See all the holiday snaps from Sri Lanka]