Having only been in the country for 24 hours I have discovered a few things about Sri Lanka that I really wasn’t expecting. Being on a year-long backpacking trip around the world with two teenagers requires you to do some planning and research. Not something I find easy. In fact, if I’m honest I find it tedious so tend to force our family to run by the seat of our pants. But this attitude can backfire on you sometimes and throw you a bit of a curveball. Just to keep things interesting.
There are lots of things I didn’t expect from Sri Lanka. Things that I couldn’t have ever found in a guidebook and that nobody told me about. Which is fantastic. I love surprises. Especially nice ones.
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Things That Took me by Surprise in Sri Lanka. Starting With Colombo Airport.
We arrived at Colombo airport at 2 am. Not that you would ever have known it. I have seen Heathrow airport at midday quieter than Colombo was in the early hours of the morning, it was a hive of activity. The air is heavy and damp and laden with the smells of curry leaves and cinnamon mingled with the smoke from burning leaves rising from the ever-present small fires, each scent competing for airspace.
Surprise #1: Even in the wee hours of the morning Colombo airport operates at full speed. Don’t assume that because you are arriving in the middle of the night you will be left waiting for things to open.
The first thing we did was to buy a sim card and some data. This was super cheap and easy to do. When you come out into the arrivals at Colombo, there are kiosks selling mobile phone top-up data sim cards etc. Go to the one on the far left. It has the best deals. I think it was about $12 for 5Gigs of daytime data and 5Gigs of nighttime data with 120 minutes of calls. I’m glad we did, it proved extremely useful and paid for itself within the first half an hour.
I had spent the entire flight over from NYC worrying about the fact that we didn’t have a Sri Lankan rupee to our name, just New Zealand and American dollars. Again, I imagined that we would be stranded. (I like to look on the bright side). As it turned out (as was the norm) I was worrying about nothing. The airport was littered with money exchange booths and they were all open – even in the middle of the night. The exchange kiosks will take any form of currency and give you Rupees in exchange. All that worrying that I put myself through for nothing.
Surprise #2: Don’t panic that you haven’t got any Sri Lankan Rupees. As long as you have some foreign currency or a visa card you’ll be able to get cash on arrival in Colombo.
So, with a pocket full of cash and a hot sticky data package clinging to the phone we stepped out of the airport doors and into the moisture-laden air. I was both wary and excited. But mostly wary. This trip is the first time to Asia and with two teenagers, one who is 13, blonde and beautiful and attracts the attention of any man in a sarong. The other who is 16 and doesn’t look where he is going when he crosses the road as he’s too busy waving his phone in the air looking for a mobile signal.
The hotel that we had booked through Wotif was a 20km taxi ride away.
Surprise #3: Uber is available in Colombo but just make sure that if you want to go somewhere in advance, book it. We found that it was quite sporadic. Using the Uber app is a good way to give you an idea of what the price should be.
We tried to book an Uber, but there was a 30-minute wait. Probably because it was 3am. So, we decided to take a couple of tuk-tuks instead. With four of us – plus our rucksacks, we needed two.
Surprise #4: Without bags, you can squeeze four people into one tuk-tuk but once you take rucksacks with you – allow for two.
Leaving Colombo Airport and Stepping Out into Sri Lanka
I won’t lie. I was slightly scared. I imagined that we would step out of the airport and be immediately bombarded and hustled by tuk-tuk drivers and hotel touts all trying to scam me and rob me of my worldly belongings. Which, at that moment, consisted of my miniature coco mademoiselle perfume (that I think has gone off anyway,) my iPhone and the knickers that I got for Christmas. The ones I’m saving for best.
We already had an idea of a fair price because we had seen what Uber would have charged us. Remember though, although a three-wheeler is going to be a bit more pricey it’s much more fun. For a 20km ride, the cost was 1000 Sri Lankan rupees which is about $7.
Sitting in the back of the tuk-tuk, oohing and ahhing at the stray dogs and the tooting of the many bikes we were naive and oblivious to the what lay ahead of us.
Surprise #5: When booking your accommodation in Sri Lanka look for guest houses or villas. Avoid anything with ‘resort’ in the title unless you are paying top prices at an all-inclusive, in which case you have probably used a travel agent. This was a handy tip from a local. A bit late now mate…
When we turned up at the hotel, it was a boarded-up wreck of a place located down a dodgy looking alleyway.The only resident appeared to be a scowling , manky looking cat with no tail and massive balls dangling to the floor. Not good. We had to think quickly and book a room. Thank god for the sim card. Thank god that there was wifi. Thank god for booking.com.
The kids were starting to panic, and there was lots of muttering from the two tuk-tuk drivers. They were probably discussing the audacity of a hotel who advertises on the internet, and then takes the money and proceeds to close up shop leaving the mother in law to board the place up.
Either that or they were discussing whether or not to have fish or chicken curry for their breakfast.
Within five minutes we had booked a hotel nearby. I used Agoda, they are super user-friendly. They are our go-to site for when we travel in Asia. At 4 am in the morning I could have kissed their little computer feet when they found me this fabulous guest house at such late notice. There I was, sat in the back of a tuk-tuk in the middle of Colombo, sweating, trying to keep calm and refrain from screaming at the kids to stop asking me “So where are we going to sleep?”.
We booked this fabulous guest house and were immediately sent a confirmation email with the telephone number of the owner. If you need somewhere to stay when you first arrive in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this place is just the ticket. Clean, friendly and cheap. Take a look at it here.
Surprise #6: Always ring ahead to the guest house or hotel where you are staying in Sri Lanka. This seems to be the norm. That way you know they are expecting you and you won’t get any surprises once you turn up. The owners will more often than not come and collect you from wherever you are.
Ok. So, you get the picture of our first hour in Sri Lanka. Hot, sweaty, jet-lagged and slightly, ever so slightly, manic.
From there on in though I have been continuously surprised with the beautiful country that calls itself Sri Lanka. But rather than write an essay on every single thing that has delighted me, this is the list that I made.
You know how I love lists.
So, just to recap. We have just booked the last- minute guest house and are on our way there in two tuk-tuks.
And the kids are asking why couldn’t we have just stayed in America.
The Best Things That Surprised me Within the First 24 Hours of Being in Sri Lanka.
- I didn’t expect the owner of the guest house to (a) answer his phone at four o’clock in the morning and (b) say he would meet us at his gates in twenty minutes. He didn’t even sound tired. Do people not sleep in Sri Lanka?
- Or that two hours later I would hear the tinkling of the Beethovens tune Fur Elise floating through the air into my jet-lagged ears. Being broadcast from the back of the local bakery tuk-tuk who drives up and down the streets selling freshly baked goods. A soothing, familiar sound that is present from 6 am every morning throughout the country.
- I didn’t expect the wife of the guest house to make us a huge, delicious Sri Lankan breakfast for just $3 per person the next morning.
- That my two teenagers would eat dahl curry and rice for breakfast without once asking “is there anything else?’ Go figure.
- That the owner of the guest house would take my husband, Brian, on the back of his motorbike down to the local shops to buy a bottle of costly ($10)bottle of imported French wine to drink with our evening meal. Because after the ordeal of the night before we needed it.
- Had I known that wine is non-existent in the local restaurants and supermarkets throughout Sri Lanka, I would have savoured that bottle of wine a little more. Little did I know that this was to be the last drop of grape juice to pass my lips for the next three weeks.
- But then again, I didn’t expect to acquire a taste for beer so quickly.(I’m not fussy) The local brew is Lion beer, and it’s very smooth and tasty. After a long hot day on the beach, a large cold beer is just the ticket.
- I had visions of the local tuk-tuk drivers running after me and shouting for me to take a fare.I didn’t expect them just to drive away when I said no thank you to their enquiry of the ever-present question ‘where you going?” They are all very lovely and not at all hassely. After watching you lug your heavy packs along the dusty road to the train station, they are merely asking if you want to get into a nice cool tuk-tuk rather than sweat your knockers off for the sake of saving $1.50. Take the tuk-tuk.
- I didn’t expect it to be so easy to book the train journey from Colombo to Mirissa. Just queue up at window 7 and say four tickets to Mtara, please. Job done. Or…
- That the men on the station were not in fact conspiring to rob and ravish my daughter and me. They were, in fact, more interested in asking us why New Zealand is 2nd in cricket, whether or not my son plays for the All Blacks and why I think New Zealand is a “best place to live.’ Damn it. Maybe next time.
- I didn’t expect that even though we had booked and paid for 2nd class tickets when we got onto the train, there wasn’t a seat to be had anywhere. Just a heads up. Don’t go thinking that just because you paid for a 3rd class ticket, you have to stay in the said carriage. Nobody checks. You will probably be on the floor anyway. It’s a fantastic opportunity to people watch and meet local people who will be genuinely interested in finding out “where you from?’
- I didn’t expect the man on the train from Colombo to Matara to give up his doorway to us saying that “this is the best side, you can see the sea” What a gentleman.
- Or that you can buy a cold can of Coke, water or Fanta from the vendor who walks up and down the train. Perfect for the open doorway experience.
- I didn’t expect the air to be so warm and fragrant or for the swaying palm trees to be heavy with fruits.
- And lastly, I didn’t expect things to be so incredibly easy. The buses, the trains, the tuk-tuks, the accommodation. Everything.Really easy.
I have so much more to tell you about our time in Sri Lanka.
From the train journey, we went on to spend the night couch surfing with a local family. It was probably the best and the worst overnight experience for me – and certainly for my two teenagers – that we have ever encountered. I will write about that in my next post.
I will also tell you how we are living like kings for less than $25 per person per day and how you can too. How we are staying in a beautiful guest house backing onto jungle, with a couple, who insist on feeding us every thirty minutes. Sonny has met his perfect woman.
But for now, this is just a glimpse into our first 24 hours in Sri Lanka and the surprises that I didn’t expect.
I’m afraid I can’t stay and chat any longer. I have to head off down to the Indian Ocean for a swim. Before ordering a pot of green tea and sitting under palm trees watching Sonny and Tess body surf the waves.
As a side note, I bought these travel towels with us and it was the best thing ever. Another thing they don’t tell you about Sri Lanka is that many of the guest houses don’t provide towels. If you are heading this way be sure to pack a couple of these. They’ve been a lifesaver, both for the cold showers and the beach.
If you are anything like me and are about to take a trip to Sri Lanka for the first time, you may be slightly worried. Please don’t be. Just relax and enjoy being a Sri Lanka virgin.
There are three things you will hear said a lot in Sri Lanka.
Where you going?
What your name?
But my favourite? ‘This. This is not a problem’…. Oh, Sri Lanka.