Thursday 14 September 2017

Sri Lanka for Dummies

Sri Lanka is a beautiful island country with less hassles of travelling in a third world country. Clean cities and villages, less population and good roads. Here are a few pointers to ponder before travelling to Sri Lanka.

Visa: Indians get a visa-on-arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo. Fee is $25 per person. You can obtain this visa in advance by applying online - and pay $20; provided you have an international credit/debit card to make the payment. The airline staff at Jet Airways insisted that we should have this visa before issuing the boarding pass but we could talk to the supervisor and got confirmed that, if we have a return ticket and confirmed accommodation immigration officer will let you board the flight. On arrival at Sri Lanka, you will need to fill up the address of your first day's accommodation.

Flights: There are frequent flights from Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai. If you opt weekdays the price is going a lot different. We paid INR 10,200 for round trip for one person.

Currency: Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR) is approximately 2.25 times against INR. So INR100 = 225LKR or INR 44=100LKR. It is a dollar friendly country, so it makes sense to carry currency in USD from India. 1USD = 151LKR approx. There are many counters at the exit gates of airport to change the currency and all the counters offer the same rate at a given time. These counters work 24hrs. In case you don't change at the airport, there are many shops and banks throughout the country to change the currency. INR can't be changed at the airport and there are limited options - Colombo city and Jaffna are two places we found authorized money changers for INR. In a nutshell, carry enough USD- change at the airport and on the way back home change LKR to USD.

Expenses: Sri Lanka is not a dirt cheap country to do a backpacking trip like India. Accommodation generally boasts a minimum standard and the prices start at LKR1500 without air-con, with attached bathrooms. Mosquito nets and tissue rolls are provided at most of the guest houses. More expensive options with creature comforts are easily available at LKR3500 onwards.

A good meal (rice and curry)at a normal restaurant will cost you LKR300. Plain Tea is LKR20. Fresh fruit juice is LKR100. A cream bun will cost LKR50.

Ancient Cities and temples have a hefty entry fee for the foreigners, Dambulla cave temple entry fee LKR1500 as an example. Calculate these expenses under a separate head on your daily budget. 

Transport: Mass transport is generally very cheap in Sri Lanka- buses and trains are not crowded, thanks to low population. You can get a reserved ticket on a long distance train as early as 10days in advance. We booked our tickets mostly 2 days in advance. The tourist rail between Colombo-Kandy-Nuwara Eliya-Ella can be full, so please plan ahead.

A 3hr bus ride costs LKR200, well maintained Ashok Leyland buses are comfortable and trouble-free.There is no advance booking for buses. All the buses sport a board in English and a route number. State run buses are red in color and bears an emblem of SLTB. Private buses are painted white. Both have the same prices and they stick to a regular timetable, enforced by punching stations en-route. Air-con Toyota Coaster buses are more costly and faster, as they don't stop anywhere other than the big towns.

Tuk-tuk and taxi cars are easily available and generally more expensive. A taxi from Colombo Fort Rly Station to the airport will cost a minimum of LKR1500 whereas bus fare is LKR100, for a comparison. While hiring a tuk-tuk, it is a good idea to fix the fare. Expect to pay a minimum of LKR100.

Guest houses offer bicycles on rent, expect to pay LKR300-500 for a day. There are many other options to rent the bicycles at Ancient Cities, in case the bicycles from the guest house are not good enough.

Roads are excellent across the country and divided as A for highways and B for smaller roads and so on. Most of the highways are two-lane.

Language: You are going to have a tough time unless you are on a package tour with guide. You don't find many people speaking English when you want to ask for directions or vegetarian food. Sinhala is the main language and Tamil is spoken in the Hill Country(Kandy and further up). Jaffna Tamil is totally a different language and knowing Tamil helps here. Official boards are in Sinhala, Tamil and English.

Food: Mostly non-vegetarian food and many don't understand the concept of vegetarian food. Buddhism doesn’t mean vegetarianism. Don't be surprised if you find tiny chicken pieces in your vegetarian kothu rotti. Rice and curry is the staple diet where curry can be dal fry, vegetables, egg, fish, chicken, pork etc. Fruits are really good and cheap. You will find a lot of sugar and salt in food, so asking for less sugar in fruit juice will save you from high glycemic index. Bakeries open at 6am and locals flock there for a breakfast on the way to work or school. String hoppers (idiyappam) is a common breakfast menu and is served with dal fry and coconut chutney.

Weather: Sri Lanka has tropical climate, making it a hot and humid place, except the hill country - though precipitation is pretty high.The sun is up early and it is bright daylight by 5.30A.M. South and west get rain between May-September, North and East during Oct-Jan. Carry sunscreen, hat, umbrella or rain poncho.

Civic sense: People are well behaved, not throwing waste on the road, diligently following traffic rules, stopping for pedestrians to cross and everyone wears a helmet including the pillion. Garbage is well managed. Waste is segregated at source, then collected and processed. You don't see people multitasking with their mobile while on wheels.

Civil war and related stuff: If you are flying to Colombo and stick to the tourist circuit, you will never come across anything related to the past war. So there is nothing to worry about the security across the country. Military presence in the country is very less and we were never asked to show ID proof. Yes, you can travel to Jaffna and further to the islands -Delft, Nainativu. No special permit required.

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