Sri Lanka For Travelers-The Tear Drop Island
Our Home for Four Amazing Years and a Traveler’s Paradise
I think it’s a fairly common fantasy of travelers to spend a week at a sunny destination such as exotic and mysterious Sri Lanka and imagine yourself living there. It’s quite another to actually know when you arrive that you’ll be a resident for two years, possibly four.
When we were informed that Sri Lanka would be our next posting, I must admit, I knew very little about it, apart from the tsunami disaster of 2004. We landed in 2009, when the 25 year civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamil inhabitants was just coming to an end. This transition, together with it being a bruised and battered third world country, sparked much apprehension in what would lie ahead for my family.
When people ask “Where is Sri Lanka?”, I always describe it as the tear drop island underneath India on the map. Sri Lanka is actually very different from India and also unlike many third world countries you may find yourself travelling in. It’s exotic, tropical, mysterious, and at times, trying. Until you’ve been, you won’t truly understand.
Due to the decades of conflict, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry was paused. There were no large brand-name hotels offering all-inclusive get-aways, some of the most amazing beaches, and remote areas waiting to be explored, literally left untouched in every sense of the word. What we did find however, were options beyond what you would expect a third world country to offer.
Luxury, Leopards and So Much More
Exotic and Mysterious Sri Lanka has it all
It is even difficult to describe looking back nearly two years later, as this Island has something to please everyone. The English-style hotels and matching climate of Nuwara Eliya, National Parks where wild elephants and leopards can be found, incredible beaches, historical and religious sites, and so much more. The sheer volume of hidden and unbelievably phenomenal boutique hotels is mind-boggling. Visitors have the ability to be pampered in the most incredible style at 5+ hotels for the cost of a North American, standard hotel room. By the time we left in 2013, infrastructure, accessibility to imported products, and growth in tourism had improved greatly. It is now quite possibly, the perfect time to visit.
Food, Culture, People- The Country’s Greatest Riches
If I took anything away from Sri Lanka, it would be that these three words are its essence. The country is rich in history, religion and culture, which is evident everywhere. There are full moon (poya) holidays, temples, mosques, churches, ancient ruins, parades, and celebrations. It is all centered around tantalizing aromas, distinctively Sri Lankan spices and the love of spicy foods shared with family and friends. The fruits are amazing! The tiny bananas, mangosteen, rambutans, pineapple and so many others will win you over with their mysterious shapes and incredible taste.
Ayurveda – Life in Balance
There is a widespread practice of Ayurveda. It is complicated and complex, but it was explained to me as a belief that the universe consists of five elements: earth, fire, water, ether, and air. All these things are represented within the body and must remain in balance.
There are retreats that house Ayurveda doctors whose practice consists of finding what is causing imbalance within you, and then subscribing Ayurvedic therapies to correct it. This is done through herbal treatments, massage, and diet.
Tip: Sri Lanka is dotted with many claiming to be true ayurvedic retreats with trained doctors. Do your research, check with concierge, and ask questions before booking in to ensure you have the one that is right for you.
Accessibility and Transportation- Planes, Tri-Shaws and Other Modes
At this point, Sri Lanka is only accessible by plane. Even though it is relatively close to India, there is no ferry system at the moment, that I am aware of. To my knowledge, there was a ferry system in operation but the sailings appear to have been suspended. Many airlines service the country, including it’s own airline, Sri Lankan Airlines. All visitors require a visa to enter.
There is no sugar coating the intense heat or traffic in Sri Lanka. Whether you are in the capital city of Colombo or travelling to parts surrounding it, the traffic is hair raising. In fact, I spent a good few months with my eyes shut tightly in the back seat. There are very few division of lane markers painted on the roads (not that anyone adheres to them anyway) and few traffic lights. This, together with a whole lot of vehicles in a big rush honking their horns constantly, spells chaos. I think it all boils down to the person in front of you has access to any and all parts of the road until you squeeze by. Unless of course you are a bus, in which case, you can do anything you want. The underdogs in all this madness are the tri-shaws (also know as tuk tuks) that come out of no where and are able to squeeze into the tightest of spots to vie for the lead. Tri-shaws are a great and inexpensive way to get around Colombo, but I would never have set foot in one that was taking me out on a highway. Colombo has a few decent taxi services now that have meters, so it’s always your safest bet.
Roads leading out of the City are nothing like North American highways, and in fact, Sri Lanka only recently opened its first expressway in 2011 spanning about 100 km. Further expressways have opened since then, and more are planned, but much of the travel outside the capital city is still done largely on single-lane, treacherous roads. Not treacherous because of their condition, but because of the motorists’ driving habits.
Tip: Tri-shaw drivers are very astute and recognize a tourist a mile away. I would suggest asking concierge how much it should cost you to get where you are going and ensure the fare before you get into the tri-shaw. Also, they often cannot make change for large bills, so it’s important to have 100 Rs notes on hand.
Sri Lanka’s Currency-The SLR
Sri Lanka has it’s own currency which is the Sri Lankan Rupee (SLR). Rates fluctuate of course, but 100 Rs equates to just over $1 Canadian in 2015. ATM machines are found in Colombo and will give you local currency. I would not recommend using a credit card anywhere but a large hotel. Best to take out money at the ATM and use cash. Judging by my own experience, other currencies were not widely accepted. There are a few money exchange counters scattered around Colombo, but they certainly are not that easy to find. Not all North American banks carry the SLR bills as it is of course, the only country that uses this currency, so you may want to call ahead well before your trip and ascertain as to whether some can be ordered in for you.
Bugs, Creepy Crawlies, & Vaccinations
At the time of this blog, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention had no health notices for Sri Lanka. Malaria is not prevalent in most parts, but Dengue Fever is still a constant battle for this country. Take all precautions to avoid getting bitten by mosquitos. We even purchased bug nets for the hotels we stayed in without air conditioning or where we just weren’t sure of how vigilant the hotel was. It seems a bit extreme to carry bug nets, but we did have many friends ill with dengue fever in our time there, and we didn’t feel it was worth taking a chance. Chikungunya is another mosquito borne illness that is found here.
Sri Lanka is considered a reptile hotspot and has five of the world’s venomous snakes. To name a few: viper, krait, and cobra. It is also home to large monitor lizards. For the most part, you likely will not come across a snake in your tourist travels, but be aware in the dry areas for example, Anuradhapura.
Monkeys of many types are found all over Sri Lanka, especially the Macaque. They can be a nuisance and will follow you for food, so best to be cautious.
Tip: Ensure you stop into a Travel Clinic well before your plane departs so that you receive the latest recommended vaccinations for this country.
How to Dress in Sri Lanka – Conservative is Key
I would strongly recommend a more conservative approach when selecting your warm weather clothing. Perhaps capri pants rather than short, shorts and sleeveless tops rather than tank tops. It’s also a good idea to bring a wrap or shawl as the air conditioning in restaurants can be extreme. This also allows you to have one on hand if you pass by an interesting temple you’d like to visit. Shoulders and legs above the knee must be covered, and in some cases, shoes will asked to be removed.
Places to Stay and Things to Do
With so many amazing things to do on this beautiful Island, it’s difficult to narrow it down to a select few. Maybe you would like to watch a herd of elephants bathing, climb an ancient rock fortress, or listen to the waves of the Indian Ocean as you relax by the pool of your luxury hotel.
Our family had so many great experiences that I’d love to share, but we had the luxury of time on our side. As a traveler, you likely will not have that kind of time. With that in mind, the follow up segments in this series will highlight my suggestions for those sites that should not be missed, together with amazing places to stay nearby.