It was a last minute decision. After a 3 weeks break in Hong Kong, I need to get out. Given time limitation and visa restriction, there’s not many places I can go in such short notice. Sri Lanka came to mind because it’s a country I’ve never been and highly rated. Flights was a bit tricky because direct flight from Hong Kong to Colombo is relatively expensive (cheapest about US$1,000 return), so I found a flight via Singapore with SQ which is cheaper, and actually a better service airline!
Starting from this trip, I will try to be more organised in my entry, with more useful information upfront on logistics in each post. I will also start utilising the excellent travel planning trip from the guys at Pebblar, which provide a simple link to share the complete itinerary. I think it’s an excellent platform to record trip you’ve done is as much details as you want, and the ease to share them with others. Imagine a database of free itineraries that every traveler can use for ideas to plan their trip, it would save tons of times, and what’s better than validation of places to go or things to do or restaurants to eat in from your friends or other like-minded people who has absolutely no incentive not to provide honest opinions and recommendations.
See my detail itinerary courtesy of Pebblar here.
See a short timelapse video, my very first one, from various places in the country.
- Visa — Sri Lanka provides e-visa, application is done online here, with response in 24 hours and costs US$35, though I submitted mine on a Sunday night and got an approval in 20 minutes. There’s also visa on arrival.
- Flight — HKG to Colombo – indirect flight via Kuala Lumpur (with AirAsia) or via Singapore (with SQ) are generally cheaper than direct flight with CX
- Cash — there are 3 ATMs at the arrival hall of the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo with extensive network (Visa, Master, Cirrus, Maestro, UnionPay and a bunch others I can’t remember) so should cover most cards. However, my HSBC and Standard Chartered card only works with Commercial Bank ATMs
- Taxi — doesn’t seem like there’s taxi line outside the airport, so you have to arrange before you get out. Fares seem to be standard having questioned a couple of providers, for instance all quoted Rs1,500 (US$10) from airport to Negombo, though I walked out and luckily got a Tata Nano cab which is considered cheap cab (different fare from normal cab) and only cost Rs1,000 to Negombo, on meter. In general, it’s very easy to call budget cab and in Colombo you can use Uber which is cheaper and has slightly better fleet.
- Getting Around — Renting a car, either self-drive, or with driver (see below) give you more flexibility. Bus and train are other options available. I rented a car from Malkey, which has wide range of fleet, good condition and very professional and fair, that they even refunded me excess fuel upon return. Other option, which I think also make sense is to get an agent to arrange for you. I noticed that their pricing really competitive, and you get to stay in nicer hotels, because they got very good pricing from hotels. Check out Red Dot Tour or Heritage Expediciones for itinerary ideas and price comparisons.
- Internet — I am a data junkie and usually used a lot for travel research, google maps and photo upload. Always check the latest from the guys at Wikia which is generally accurate. There are counters with all major provider though they may not always have what you want, which is bizarre since what’s the point of having an official counter if you don’t have all the products??? I got a prepaid from Dialog, with Rs699 for 1.5GB + 25mins local + 25 mins IDD and immediately topped up with Rs1,000 for additional 15GB of data, all valid for 30 days.
Sri Lankan are very friendly people. They like to say hello, or stop you for a chat. I was a bit cautious at first but then realized it’s normal. That’s their way of life. They’re not even trying to sell me anything. I never feel unsafe, and apparently crime rate is extremely low. People tend to follow rules quite well, such as crossing the street at the right place, not littering, not trying to scam tourists (except some tuk-tuk drivers). The government also did good job with development, Colombo is fairly clean, and the road conditions are very good, there’s rarely potholes and the lanes is comfortably wide for at least 2 cars. Driving in Sri Lanka, while not as dangerous as Indonesia or Sumatra, requires constant overtaking, with big buses everywhere (Lanka Ashok Leyland buses!). The official speed limit is 70km/h which is very slow, and cops are everywhere, but then with the traffic and buses and the winding roads, you rarely can go faster, in any case, apparently speeding ticket is only Rs1,200 (US$8) compared to say US$150 in Australia or New Zealand!
NEGOMBO – 22-24 MARCH 2016
A small fishing village north of the Colombo International Airport. I chose this place for my first night because it’s closer to airport than Colombo. There’s really not much to see, the beaches are ordinary, fish market no different than other wet market except for it’s beachside location. Spent the first day here walking around, getting a massage, meals and arranging my itinerary for the rest of the trip. Negombo is the best place to sample the freshest seafood in all of Sri Lanka. I had a dinner at Scandic where food is fresh, deliciously cooked, and cost about half compared to Colombo or the beach regions. Also, this is where you can get massive size crabs or lobsters.
I thought it was a good idea not to have to think about the itinerary and driving so I hired a car and a driver for 15 days for US$800. Pretty good deal. But again, while everyone is different, it’s all depend on how you get along with the driver. Mine was a nice 53-year old guy, but I can’t stand him for his whining about me wanting to check out multiple accommodations before deciding, or asking me to stay in his recommended hotel because that hotel gives him free accommodation. Beware if you’re ever using multi-day driver/guide service in Sri Lanka. I’ve read about this in the book, and have confirmed arrangements, but still, in practice the driver just doesn’t cooperate. So make sure to clarify this with the trip organizer AND the driver before you set off, that the payment you make include car rental, driver/guide fee, driver/guide accommodations and (optionally) meal, and stress that you want to go anywhere you like, stay anywhere you prefer, and not to have to deal with these bullshits half way. I was lucky that we were only in Anuradhapura and on day 2. He really pissed me off so I cut short the service and finish on day 3 instead of the whole 15 days. Cost me more, but I’m happier.
ANURADHAPURA – 25 MARCH 2016
Anuradhapura is one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, famous for its well-preserved ruins and one of six UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites in Sri Lanka. It’s about 4 hours drive from Negombo. Mainly for the ancient ruins, and some of the man-made water-holding lake which is nice for sunset photos. There is not much in the city itsel.
SIGIRIYA – 26 MARCH 2016
Famous for the Lion’s Rock, Sigiriya is another UNESCO World Heritage cultural site. It is a big towering rock in the middle of ruins, a much smaller version of Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia. There’s a climb to the top but didn’t do it, too hot, and too many people on the stairs. Other than that, one of the most interesting things to do here is actually to do the elephant tours, with Minneriya National Park only about an hour away. I didn’t go, which I regretted. Minneriya is famous for the Elephant gathering, where during the dry season from July-October with the peak in August, hundreds of elephants from all over Sri Lanka hang out here for the water.
POLONNARUWA AND DAMBULLA – 27 MARCH 2016
I think Polonnaruwa is a lot more interesting than Anuradhapura. Another UNESCO World Heritage cultural site, it is the second oldest ancient capital in Sri Lanka, with a number of temples within a complex. It is of course famous for the Gal Vihara, the central feature of the temple is four rock relief statues of the Buddha, which have been carved into the face of a large granite rock. But there’s more than that, with a couple more interesting temples which is actually quite well preserved. You can explored the are on a bike that you can rent just outside the temple complex for Rs900.
On the way from Polonnaruwa back to Colombo, we stopped by Dambulla, another UNESCO World Heritage cultural site, famous for the cave temple complex located in the hill. It’s very impressive inside, with mural paintings covering the entire cave temple and about 157 Buddha statues.
COLOMBO – 27 MARCH 2016
After Polonnaruwa, I had to make my way back to Colombo and rent a car while getting a driving license endorsement. Spent a couple of days. Colombo is similar to any big capital. Hustling and bustling. Lots of people. Traffic jam. It’s clean, with parks, and lots of temples, churches and mosque. The Galle Face is an big park by the sea where lots of people gather around sunset and just, live. The food is also very good, was fortunate to try excellent crab at Sea Fish, the Fat Crab and Ministry of Crab. Had the curry crab at Sea Fish, Negombo devilled crab at the Fat Crab and Singapore-style chilli crab at Ministry of Crab. Without doubt, the Fat Crab was the best. Might not be the biggest crab, but definitely the best taste. Also fortunate enough to had a seafood dinner at the the Lagoon at Cinnamon Grand hotel, which has impressive spread of seafood, bit pricey but good food.
KANDY – 28 MARCH 2016
The trip continues to the highlands in central Sri Lanka, starting in Kandy, which is the second largest city after Colombo. The main attraction here are the Kandyan dance and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.
NUWARA ELIYA – 29 MARCH 2016
The drive from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya is picturesque. There’s endless stretch of tea plantation from here to Ella and beyond. There’s also some really impressive waterfalls along the way. Played a round of golf at the Nuwara Eliya golf course, but really I would recommend going to the Victoria Golf Club in Kandy instead. Stayed a night at the Misty Mountain Villa, supposedly the highest hotel in Sri Lanka located on a hill near Nuwara Eliya at 1,900masl. Not bad for US$50/night. This is the base for which I plan to explore the Horton Plains.
HAPUTALE – 30 MARCH 2016
Started early in the morning around 430am to catch the sunrise at Horton Plains, a national park between Nuwara Eliya and Haputale about an hour drive from Nuwara Eliya. Entrance is about US$25 per person.. It was quite a nice walk around 10km, during which you’ll see the Great World’s End, a cliff edge that plunges 1km down. Unfortunately it gets cloudy often. I got there at 930am and it’s already cloudy that you can’t see into the valley. There’s also the impressive Baker’s Falls. The back road drive from Horton Plains to Haputale actually gives a better view of the valley below the Great World’s End.
Haputale was one of the key highlights of the trip. It’s literally in the middle of some of the largest tea plantations and factory in the world. The main attraction has to be the Lipton’s Seat, the spot where the Sir Thomas Lipton (of Lipton Tea) used to look out over his tea empire. Amazing view from the top of the hills. I think it’s even better than Horton Plains / The World’s End and this one for free. I went for sunrise so left Haputale at about 5am to reach the top at just before 6am but it was misty and cloudy so nothing to see until the sun rises and skies clear up at about 645am. It was worth the wait, as the view from both north and south side of the hill is quite amazing. If you have to choose one, come here rather than The World’s End.
ELLA – 30 MARCH – 1 APRIL 2016
Ella is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Sri Lanka, similar to Haputale, being in the middle of numerous tea plantations. Attractions include the Little Adam’s Peak, Nine Arches Bridge and Ella Rock. I didn’t go to Ella Rock because it’s a long hike, while Little Adam’s Peak is a relatively easy hike about 45mins up for a nice sunrise. I stayed 2 nights here, one at the Spice Lodge via AirBNB and the second night at the higher-end 98acres, both highly recommended.
I went for a tea plantation tour with the Newburgh factory, an exclusive green tea producer. The tea tour for Rs500 was pretty bad and bland. Also went to try check out the Demodara train station, which is famous for it’s wonderful architectural design on the rail track that basically go down around the hill but unfortunately couldn’t find the right vantage point to see the whole thing.
YALA NATIONAL PARK – 2-3 APRIL 2016
The next couple of days were spent at the Ruhunu Safari Camp in the Yala national park, which is said to have the highest concentration of leopard. It was expensive. Stayed for 2 nights for a total of US$600. Good experience at the camp, not as luxurious as those in South Africa I’ve stayed in but acceptable, though feels expensive for the quality. Unfortunately there’s not many animals to see. Over 3 days, we saw 1 leopard, a couple of elephants and then some birds. Doesn’t feel like worth it.
MIRISSA – 4 APRIL 2016
A trip to Mirissa was mainly for the blue whale sightseeing. Have to try, it is the largest mammals in the world! I was quite disappointed with the beaches, but Mirissa is actually not bad. Went for the whale tour with Whale Watching Mirissa. Costs about US$30. Always buy from agent, which is much cheaper. I was excited to see the blue whale, largest mammal in the world. We saw one, but only a quick glance every time it comes up for a breath. I would say, only go in the peak season when you can see multiple of them, around December.
GALLE – 5 APRIL 2016
Galle is famous for the relatively well-preserved Dutch fort. It is popular, so hotels and restaurants are at the more expensive end. It is a nice walk around the fort, beautiful sunset at the end of the day, and a nice dinner to cap the night.
COLOMBO – 6-7 APRIL 2016
The trip concludes in Colombo, with a round of golf at the Royal Colombo Golf Club, dinners at the Fat Crab and the famous Ministry of Crab. Ministry of Crab is one of the best restaurant in Asia and highly recommended for the crab. Usually very busy so reservation is a must. Had a 1kg crab Singaporean chilli style but wasn’t as good as expected. 1kg crab cost about Rs8,000 (US$60). I think the Fat Crab is the better one, with the best Negombo devilled style crab that taste like a combination of Singaporean chilli crab and black pepper crab. I had a 700gr crab and it was wonderful.