Sunday, January 24, 2016

Backpacking In Sri Lanka - Tips!

Planning - 

You may want to book the flight tickets at least 2 months in advance to get a good deal. If you have a lot of time, I think you do not need much of planning. However, if you are backpacking in a limited time then you need to at least have a rough travel route and be aware of places you need to skip. I think 22-25 days would be perfect for covering the entire country but if you have fewer days in hand then you need to know what places you can skip based on your interest. Lonely planet book suggests several places and everything may not be necessarily of your interest. For me, I had a Lonely planet book in hand and had seen pictures of all attractions on internet. I skipped the east coast and national parks with safaris. But if you like surfing, then east coast might interest you and if you like wildlife then the national parks and the safaris might interest you. I also skipped the dolphin and blue whale viewing tours in Mirrisa. My lonely planet book, a map of Sri Lanka and my flight tickets is all I had in hand when I started my trip. 

Accommodation - 

I did not book any accommodation before arriving. In most of the towns there is no shortage of guest houses. Lonely planet guide gives you a starting point but if you enquire with locals then you are bound to find out places that might be cheaper than the ones suggested in the book. A descent room is not very expensive. It can vary from Lrs 1500 to Lrs 3000 depending on the town. Hostels are not very common in small towns. You must try Clock inn at Kandy or Colombo and Colombo has another option called Cityrest inn. There are also a few in the south western coast near Galle. Most of them are homestay run by locals and will have limited rooms. You could use websites to book if you are someone who does not want room hunting to be adventurous. If you choose to stay in Ohiya to visit Horton Plains, then there are not much options. I highly recommend booking Hill Safari eco lodge which is located at a wonderful location. You may want to book in advance here. A major tip is that it always helps to share the room with co-travellers, so make friends during your journey. Some suggestions - 

Anuradhapura - French Garden or London Palace. (Lrs 2000 to 3000)
Jaffna - Theressa inn or Saras. (Lrs 2500 to 3000)
Dambulla - Lots of them near Golden temple. (Lrs 2000)
Kandy - Clock Inn Hostel. (Los 1700 for dorm)
Ohiya - Hill Safari Eco Lodge. (Lrs 5000)
Ella - Lal’s un-named guest house (Contact# -> +94 766013778) or Sita’s heaven. (Lrs 3000)
Galle - If you do not find hotels inside the fort then there are a few in the town near KFC. (Lrs 2000)
Colombo - Cityrest Inn Hostel. (Lrs 2800 for dorm with breakfast)

First thing to do after landing - 

Money exchange -  Only Dollars or Euros are exchanged here. For sure not Indian rupees. So please carry some Dollars. But really, if your ATM card works then you do not even need Dollars but for safety. It is also advisable to carry amount needed for two or three days at a time as there are enough ATM’s everywhere except in Ohiya and Horton Plains.

SIM card - Dialogue is the network you are looking for that has the best coverage in SL. You could buy tourist plans that is available at the Airport which was priced Lrs 1000 but I chose to buy outside the airport, in the town. For Lrs 300 I got a SIM, Data and Currency. For international calls you could always use the wifi from the place you are staying at or use WhatsApp call through Dialogue data. 

Traveling in Sri Lanka - 

Buses are the best mode of transport in SL. The towns are well connected by road. Buses are fast too. There are two types of buses - Red buses run by the Government and the white coloured, striped buses which are private. The bus stations for these types are usually common or adjacent to one another. Though the price is the same in both, the red buses are faster and more reliable. Private buses wait a lot for customers to fill in and also some of the conductors cheat you or misguide you by telling that there is no direct bus to the destination you want and you must drive to their destination to get some connecting buses. 

Trains are good for long journeys. I particularly enjoyed my journey from Anuradhapura to Jaffna and the one from Ella to Ohiya. It also gives you access to the remote regions in hill country. 

Tuk-Tuk’s are the best rides around a town or city. Colombo alone has meter system but at other places you must negotiate the price before booking. 

In places like Jaffna, Ella or the South, you can hire a scooter and ride by yourselves. It saves a lot of time. The scooter rent start from somewhere around Lrs 1000 to 1500 per day. If you plan to go on long rides around the place where you are staying then that is the best option. 

In places like Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa you could also hire a bicycle for a day Lrs 200-400. It is the best way to see these historic places that are scattered across the town.

Food - 

For those who like fish this is a heaven. There is also all kinds of meat. Being a vegetarian myself, I concentrated more on the Veg options. There are no pure veg restaurants except in Jaffna. But most of the restaurants have Vegetarian options. Iddiyapam (Spring Hoppers), Aapam (hoppers), Pancakes, Bread and dal for breakfast; A rice with few veg curries for breakfast, Lunch and dinner. All tourist places have oriental and occidental food as well. There are several bakeries too where you could pack some buns or puffs while traveling. Tea is available everywhere. They are normally made very sweet so if you do not like sugar in your tea then you may want to specify that while ordering. Don’t miss the Meekiri, a delicacy specially seen being sold near Matara. 

Communication - 

Dialogue network is very good and fast. I had no issues anywhere in the country except at Hill resort Eco lodge which is situated midst the mountains and I am glad I had no network there. Wifi is available in almost every descent homestay or guest house you are in. 

Culture and People - 

Sri Lankan people are extremely polite and kind; specially to the tourists. Upon knowing that I am an Indian, they would always welcome me to their country and share with me, a brotherly feeling. They have great regard for Indians. Even otherwise, they are very kind to the tourists as many heavily rely on tourism. Some tuk-tuk driver or people acting as guide may offer help but upon refusing they leave. In general, the locals are very well mannered. They are religious and they follow the traffic rules diligently. I would walk deserted streets of Galle or Jaffna very late in the night and I found it to be extremely safe. I would say it is a safe place for solo travellers and perhaps also for women travellers. In the temples, it is advisable to wear White clothes as a sign of respect. It is required to cover the knees while entering a Buddhist temple. 

What to buy - 

Ceylon tea, Ceylon tea and more of them. As much as you can. They are great! There  is a variety of them. Visit a Tea factory at Ella or Nuwara Elliya to learn the differences. That would help you with the purchases.  If you are interested in artefacts then you must checkout some of the painted masks at Amabalangoda. Oh yes and cinnamon! If you don’t mind spending then gem stones are popular in Kandy or other big towns or cities. For inexpensive but truly impressive rock cut Buddha idols, I would recommend Anuradhapura. Bring home some souvenirs as they shall remain as a memory for a long time!

Entry Fee - 

Almost every Buddhist temple, Historical monuments have an entry fee for foreigners.  Horton plains and other natural heritage sites have huge fee for non-citizens. Places like Anuradhapura and Poluawanrur have passes available for Lrs 3500 available at the museums. Indians get 50% discount on entry fee upon showing the passport for representing SAARC country. Even though the amount may add up not to a huge, it is sometimes frustrating to pay every now and then. Some travellers on tight budget skip a lot of places because of heavy fee.

Expense  - 

Here is how I spent - Indian Rs 20,000 on Flight and Indian Rs 54,000 was my total expense in SL for 17 days. It was distributed thus - 

My Route - 

BIA Airport -> Negombo ->Kalpitiya -> Anuradhapura -> Mihintale -> Aukuna -> Anuradhapura -> Jaffna -> Nagadip Island -> Keeramalai-> Point Pedro -> Jaffna -> Mannar -> Talaimannar-> Anuradhapura -> Dambulla -> Sigiriya -> Polonnaruwa -> Dambulla -> Kandy -> Adam's Peak -> Ella -> Budurugala -> Ella -> Ohiya -> Horton Plains -> Ohiya -> Galle -> Amablangoda -> Brief Gardens -> Galle -> Colombo -> BIA Airport.

Read About My Backpacking  Experiences  -  All posts with Label Sri Lanka  


Day -17  - 3-Jan-2016 (I continue From Here  

This looks like just another morning in this travel but it is not, it is my last day in the country. I reach Viharamahadevi park by bus at around 8 AM It is peaceful here. People are taking a morning walk, some are bicycling and it reminds me of Lalbagh botanical garden back at home except that there are much less people here.

I am here to mainly see the Sunday morning exhibits from local artists on one of the streets hugging the park. When I reach here, some artists are already setting up their works. I talk to them and learn that what looks like oil paintings are actually all acrylic on canvas. They are very kind and humble like so many other Sri Lankans I have met so far. While talking to one of the artists, he tells me that oil paint is expensive and they cannot to afford to buy the paint. But I am so glad that it has not stopped them from being creative. My faith in art is always uplifted by such stories and experiences.

On my way back, I meet this old lady, who asks me to click her pictures. We converse in languages unknown to one another and we do just fine. I capture some of the best portraits and expressions thanks to this volunteer. 

I pick a nice spot in the park and sit there to pen down my journal and reflect upon what I have experienced. The mid morning breeze is soothing. I click a few pictures when an army man from far away politely signals me not to. I am surprised to see them guard a park. Earlier, I saw them guard historical monuments. Army or military is I think, one profession that people would not mind being redundant. That would mean that we are constructing a better united world without fear of one another and at last man has found some mutual respect and tolerance. 

I wish this country will overcome its differences. During my conversations with some Sinhalese, I noticed that they referred to the LTTE as terrorists who were defeated by the Army. That pride and arrogance is dangerous too when you know that a significant chunk of the citizens think otherwise. Some Sinhalese would ask me particularly why I chose to go to Jaffna first which was a surprising question for me. I also see the Tamils less connected to their own country which is again a threat to national integrity. Plantation Tamils, on the other hand are still fearing to voice their opinion. Every country has its own problems, India too has several such issues that it has been constantly fighting and I feel that educating a society towards an universal acceptance is very important so that we do not carry the hatred of the past to the future. 

This country may not be as rich as several other countries in the world but that has not stopped these people from being Polite, well cultured, modest and creative. I will always wish that this country will maintain this culture as it develops. 

I return back to my hostel and chat with the traveler from Finland who is flying out today as well. At noon, I checkout; leave my bag at the store and walk out. I feel a need to pamper myself in this very impressive and expensive looking tea shop called "T" which is popular for the variety of teas it offers. I enjoy an italian tea that has almond flavour to it along with a cheese cake. 

Funny, I walk to the next door local restaurant and grab my much less expensive lunch. Here the server greets me with a familiar smile and serves me the usual. Another server speaks to me learning that I am an Indian. He asks me to show him an Indian currency. I pull out Rs 10 note and he holds it before saying - "It is so thick and stiff unlike our currencies." He asks me if he could keep it. I agree.

The bus station is at a walkable distance from the hostel. I board a bus to the airport and reach there within an hour. Many tourists are returning back to their home. I shop more tea and souvenirs at the airport. 

At the gate, while waiting to board, I watch a proper sunset behind a Srilankan air aeroplane. It is also the best time to pen down my last journal entry in the country. 

I am filled with mixed emotions. This has been an incredible journey. I have learnt a lot through these experiences. I think of all my friends. Tadashi must be in Bangkok now settling down with a beer; Roc and Lidia must be in a bus to Colombo; Arathy and Kavan perhaps are back to their regular life in Colombo; Sunny and Gamini attending more tourists; Zaharan probably walking by the beach, J from Jaffna probably ending his another tiring day at work; Lal, my favourite homestay owner I hope is demonstrating his generous hospitality upon another guest. With this sunset, I see everything retiring to a state of reflection; into a moment to summarise everything and find random connections between events; a time to package neatly and arrange everything beautiful that has been experienced in the cabinets of memory that can be opened when wished. And as time flies, they shall enrich themselves further like the packs of Ceylon tea I am carrying. The black tea, Green tea, White tea, the peckoes and the BOPs, all those flavours waiting to be released on an evening full of memories and nostalgia.

Route - > Colombo -> Bangalore

Saturday, January 23, 2016


Day -16  - 2-Jan-2016 (I continue From Here  

I leave Galle at around 7:30 AM and head towards the capital in an AC bus. Luckily I did not board a highway bus, so the journey is by the coast. I reach the fort area in Colombo and look for the hostel suggested by Khairul - Cityrest inn. Its a descent hostel but a little expensive and not as good as Clock inn. However, It is located at a perfect place around the best part of the town. It is situated behind the Dutch hospital. I am told that the check in is at 12:30, so  I leave my bag and go out for lunch. At a restaurant around the corner a Tamil speaking server is happy to greet this indian. He hands me a vegetarian rice and curry. He speaks to me about India and my travels. After lunch, I walk around the Dutch hospital and the shops it houses. I walk into the world trade centre across the street but it resembles so much like a mall in Bangalore that I step out. 

I am pleasantly surprised to see that even in the relatively crowded capital people follow traffic rules, yield to pedestrians. There are a few locals who come and speak to you requesting to guide you to some place but then if you refuse they go away. Tuk-tuk drivers charge you per meter. I like this small city. Colombo has a mix of old and new architecture. It is impressive. 

I return to the hostel for check in. Coincidence - I meet Tadashi again here. He is leaving to Bangkok that same evening and has checked out already. A traveller from Finland is also checking in at the same time. I get ready and leave. As I had not tasted Meekiri, I want to look for a place in Colombo that serves it. There is only one such place called Hondahitha Meekiri. I take  a tuk-tuk and reach there. Here I meet a boy called Sasi who has worked in the Gulf and has had lot of Indian friends. He spoke good Hindi too like many others who have worked in the Gulf. He helps me identify the sweets they had. I taste some Meekiri finally. He explains to me that the curd is made from buffalo milk. The treackle tasted more like jaggery syrup. I buy some other sweets as well. I thank him and leave.

I take a bus back. Get down near Gangaram temple. It is a very impressive temple filled with bronze idols of Buddha. I witness a photoshoot of a wedding couple here. The bride is dressed very elegantly in traditional Sri Lankan style saree and the bridesmaid too are dressed similarly. However, the groom is wearing a western blazer. 

I walk to the lake temple. Here the tourists are charged Lrs300 for entry. Some tourists got frustrated and refuse to enter for which the ticket collector says - "Poor country madam." I buy a ticket and walk in to capture some great pictures that always feature when you google Colombo. 

I take another auto to Pillawo’s restaurant suggested by Lonely Planet for its Kotthu. I don’t find the place then finally someone guides me to a restaurant that I still doubt is the original Pillawo’s. I normally do not like Kotthu back in India but want to try it here. It tastes the same. I don’t like the cheese Kotthu I have ordered. I try some book stores but fail to get any good book on Sri Lankan history. I walk to the beach and take the road by the coast. Its beautiful here. I watch the sunset again behind the clouds. Colours fade and I watch Colombo slowly step into darkness. 

I am unsure if I should be happy or sad. Should I be sad to leave this country tomorrow or should I be happy to have experienced all this? Just then I look at a rock by the beach and it says - "Be Happy" as if it was written just to answer the question that would occur in my mind at this moment.

I walk to a local food store and buy some tea. I take another bus back to the hostel.  

Route - Galle -> Colombo

Continued Here 

Galle, Ambalangoda, Brief Gardens, Mirrisa

Day -15  - 1-Jan-2016 (I continue From Here  

Khairul left to Colombo early in the morning. I freshen up and change my room to a smaller one. I head to the bus station and take a bus to Ambalangoda. Here, they make the famous Sri Lankan masks. The road passes by the shore. Every bus stand has a memory of Tsunami in it; details of a people who lost their lives are written on each bus stand. The beach looks fresh and beautiful. 

At Amabalngoda, I walk into a store selling artefacts. Here, I meet an artist named Palitha. He tells me that the masks are made in a village by the shore but since its new year, I might not find anyone working today. He gives me the brochures he has made on his works and tells me the meaning of some of the bird masks he has made. He has also traveled to India with his exhibits. They are very impressive. He uses natural colours to paint them. I share with him the pictures of some of my paintings. He asks me to exhibit them in India. I buy a few things and request him to pose for a picture. He does, with a mask. An artist with his creation.

Next, I take another bus to Aluthagama. Hire a tuk-tuk from here to Brief Gardens. Its a long drive and to make further long, the shorter route is under construction. I ask the tuk-tuk driver to wait for me and go in. It’s a private place that was owned by an artist named Bevis Bawa. The garden is brilliant. These pictures speak for themselves.

The main house is also very impressive and filled with sculptures and colorful walls. It is  a beautiful place to live in; a place that boosts creativity, I think.

When Bevis Bawa died, he left his estate for the workers and this garden to the head Gardner. The guide here however, stressed over the point to everyone that Bawa was gay. I found no reason of why he mentioned that to all the tourists in particular. There are three paintings on the hallway that has short descriptions and tells us how creative Mr Bawa was and how he dreamt of converting this piece of land not his kingdom but it also hinted towards he being homosexual and bad tempered; that I found unusual. 

I return back to Alluthagama and have my lunch at a local restaurant. Take another bus back to Galle. Walk by the fort.

At one point, a man comes to me and asks me if I am an Indian. When I reply positively he tells me - "Welcome, you are our brothers." and he walks away. I am glad to see that the feeling of brotherhood has not changed from villages to bigger city.

Next, I take another bus to Mirrisa hoping to spot some stilt fishermen. I learn from my lonely planet book that this fishing technique has long disappeared. Now, only locals pose for tourists in exchange for some money. I watch the cloudy sunset at Mirissa and then return to Galle. 

I decide to watch a Hindi film Dilwale that is playing at Queens theatre at Galle; a movie of Shahrukh khan, Srilanka’s favourite Bollywood actor. I enjoy the movie for it has my favourite actress as well. I also see how Sinhalese enjoy the Bollywood films. There isn’t a big crowd as its late in the night but there are a few families enjoying this comedy film.

Very late in the night, I walk the deserted streets of Galle. I feel like I am in my own city back home. That is how comfortable I feel here. That is how this country has made me feel, at home!

Route - Galle -> Ambalangoda -> Brief Gardens -> Galle -> Mirrisa

Continued Here