Travelling Sri Lanka was an absolute revelation. I have travelled a lot in SE Asia and while the masses continue to flock to Thailand, Japan and Indonesia, Sri Lanka is still on the backburner of many people’s travel bucket lists. I was lucky enough to spend 10 days in the country, hitting a new town or city each day and continuously moving.
I have collated all the informaiton I wish that I cad on had before I paid my first visit and I hope it comes in handy for you. If there’s anything I missed or you’d like more informaiton about – get in touch via the comments section.
The Language Barrier
English very well spoken in Sri Lanka. From 5 star hotels to street food traders and people in the market, you’ll have no trouble conversing, asking for tips and recommednations or even directions should you find yourself lost. If anything, you’ll find yourself in a tuk tuk with an overly enthusiastic driver who just won’t shut the hell up while you’re getting whizzed through town.
Mobile Phone Data
This is something I’m either scoping out on the lead up to the trip or when I touch down. Usually you can find some providers selling their sim cards in the airports (I know it happens at Heathrow – but most of the time it’s far from the best deal). The best deal was funnily enough found at the airport. For just
$10 you get 9GB of date to use within 30 days plus 350rp (£2.50) calls (which you tend not to use in Sri Lanka as it’s diffiult enough trying to find phone numbers for places. This is bloody amazing pricing no matter what country you’re in and there’s great coverage from the major citiies to the highest mountain peaks.
Shoul you miss out at the airport ask your hotel front desk to point you to the closest telecommunications office (that’s what they call phone shops) where I picked up a sim (should you need a nano, they have a cutting device to slice up larger sim cards down into nano size), 6GB + 100rp for just 700rp (£2.50). I was able to get through about 7-8 days with 6GB with very high usage (catch all my Instagram shots at #SharkyxSriLanka.
Some countries’ local population are fine with photographs and some are very adverse to it. Luckily in Sri Lanka everyone is fine with it. It also helps that everyone speaks english or knows when you point to your camera to ask for a photo.
When I say they’re fine with it – no one’s angry or pissed off should you take a sneaky snap if the shot presents itself. What I loved was that many of the market traders wanted to get photos of them and their worder friends and then wanted me to join them in photos that they would then take. This reciprocation (which I haven’t found in many other countries) just makes the experience that much more productive and everyone leaves with a smile on their face.
I only took a little cash wirth me on this trip, hoping to get by mostly with just withdrawing cash as and when I needed it. What I ended up finding was that many ATMs were not issuing money to foreign cards. I’m not sure if it was just my cards I had on me or was an issue for others. But while I was trying to withdraw money from ATMs in major towns like Kandy and Negombo with no luck, I had more success pulling over in tiny towns with just one ATM.
Be aware that hotels only changing money over form one currency to another or break large local notes down to smaller ones – there are no credit card withdrawls available.
From my travels around the country and speaking to a tourism rep, while the country has increaseed the number of backpacker accommodation places available there is still a wide gap between 5 star and basic accommodation. I do see this changing in the future further as there’s a huige middle ground that’s ripe for the taking (2-4 star accommodation that’s accually decent).
The Jetwing Hotel chain (which is still fmaily owned) is your best best if you want to travel around the country in style. There are 24 hotels in the mix throughout Sri Lanka and once you stay at one you know the style and service you’re going to get. What I loved was that they haven’t taken the cookie cutter approach (Best Western or Accor eat your hearts out). On Jetwing Beach you’ll find three of their hotels all very different from one another. In Jetwing Yala near the National Park you have the option of a flashpacker tent setup and as you get up into the hills, rooms are sitting right on the rice paddy fields.
Galle Face Market, Colombo
Every night without fail Galle Face Markets set up on the Galle Face Promenade in Colombo. Here you can eat to your hearts delight and find quite a diffeent array of street food that you can’t find in the bustling streets of Colombo.
Here familes, secret lovers and kids all gather to sit, eat and fly kites in the night sky. I suggest trekking down to the very last stall called Nana’s King. There are many imitators on this strip with a very similar name so you have to be savvy. Come for the chicken kothu and ask for it to be local spicy. It’s loud with the banging of the pans and you’ll get smacked arounsdwith the spices and chilli when they hit your nostrils. Notice it by the biggest set up and surrounded by locals – 20 min walk from Kingsbury Hotel.
Don’t get scared off by locals who come up to talk to you
Locals here aren’t likely to try to fleece you (at least not too much) They’re not here to do the massive scam on you. I found I just needed one “No thanks” and they will leave you alone.
What I did tend to find was what you will find a local ending up just walking beside you and trying to converse with you. In reality they have triangulated your position and will intercept you on your walk for a chat. It’s without fail always just a tuk tuk driver eventually wantitng to ask if you want a tour or take you to an event (that usually sounds impressive but not actually on). They are totally harmless. After a while you’ll spot them as they approach and you just need to change course and they’ll continue walking.
Ministry of Crab
You cannot afford to miss the Ministry of Crab in the Dutch Hospital area of Colombo. It made it onto #25 on Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants just this year. You need to ensure you have a booking as there were masses of people getting turned away the night I visited.
Tables tend to book out by midday the day before at the latest. To ensure you get your self a reservation, drop them an email or get your hotel to make a booking on your behalf.
Order the oyster shooters, large fresh water parwns, Hot clay prawn curry made with two type of local prawns (black tiger and freshwater) served with their amazing take on garlic bread. All their crabs come from Negambo and how could you not not order them from a restaurant called Ministry of Crab?!
I was able to have a chat to Dharshan Munidasa, the owner of Ministry of Crab, and he let me in on a little secret. Everyone deserves a break – especially those that spend most of their days locked in a kitchen. Chef’s Shack is the brainchild of the one and only celebrity chef and restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa. Known to always think out-of-the-box, he came up with this Bed & Breakfast rest stop for Chefs, Restaurateurs, Sommeliers, Wine Makers and anyone in the F&B industry.
Chef’s Shack is located at the Dharshan’s home with a very new state of the art Hacker kitchen done by Fine Furniture Pvt Ltd outfitted in Bosch home appliances. There are two bedrooms – one up and one downstairs – with 400 thread count bed sheets and duvets. Each room has a bathroom with amenities by Spa Ceylon.
“Chef Shack’s is a very simply concept. It’s a B&B for chefs. And making reservations here is not the same as you it’s normally done. You need to find a connection to me. For example Peter suggests this place to someone by email and they contact me etc. There is a booking fee – which is a bottle of champagne and an ingredient or two. Peter had brought in a few ingredients that are his own and these are things we expect from people, and hope this trend continues in other parts of the world as well. We are looking forward to welcoming more chefs here”
So if you’re somehow connected to the hositality industry and want to take advantage of some amazing accommodation for the price of a bottle of champers and a couple of local ingredients – you’d be made to not look into this. And as stated above – I’m your connection… More on Chef Shack
Tuk Tuk Travel
Tuk Tuks are the easiest way to get around no matter what city or town you find yourself in. All tuk tuks should be metered but there are a few that aren;’t or are willing it tryto cut a deal if you have a few places you want to check out.
Use your hotel knoweldge to find out prices so you don’t arrive back are realise you’ve just been stung. I suggest getting exact prices from where you want to travel Hotel to market, market to temple and temple back to hotel (for example) to ensure you don’t get ripped off, taken on the ‘scienic route.
But one you get the approximate prices from your hotel, your other option is to use an unmetred tuk tuk and agree the price quoted by hotel that you know is fair. This then ensures that the driver wants to dake you the most direct route without wasting any time or petrol on you..
Look up for Toddy Tappers
The coconut palm has been harvested for generations to make Toddy, a local alcoholic drink, coconut syrup and palm sugar. They are made by fermenting the sap of the coconut flower. Those engaged in the process have been traditionally described as toddy tappers.
The toddy tapper’s task is to climb the coconut tree and obtain the sap from the coconut flower. The drive from Colombo towards the South is likely to display signs of toddy tapping, the presence of which is signalled by ropes that can be seen tied between the tops of coconut trees.
Hopper pans, coconut spoons. If you want to purchase something – either get a friendly lcoal to go in and ask for the price so you know what to bargain down to – or just get them to make the purchase. They can sometimes not be keen to do this as theyre afraid of getting yelled at by stall holders for not being able to chrge you more if they see the hand off. Though it’s never much – possibly 10rp = 5p. Hotels/Western places are quadruple the price. Coconut spoons about 20p each, Hopper dishes around £2.
Shock horror – THERE’S A BEER SHORTAGE THROUGHOUT SRI LANKA!!! After the most severe floods hit Sri Lanka (especially the area where the breweries are found) the beer taks were inundated with flood water and all beer had to be flushed away. While Carlsberg Asia has stepped up the the plate and offered to brew the recipe fo them and articles from July saying that it takes 15 days to produce a batch all hotels and restaurants has rum completely dry of Lion beer. The only beer I was able to find were people’s personal stashes of Lion Strong which comes in at a heft 8.8% per 500ml.
If you’re really looking to pinch the pennies (as I did right at the end of the trip so I didn’t have to withdraw any other money). I found that if you’re in a straight line in Colombo or Negombo you should consider taking a bus. A 3km journey by tuk tuk = 500rp = £2.50 vs bus for 20rp = 10p. They come around every 20 minutes and all you need to do is spot a group of locals waiting and hang with them until it arrives.
A word to the wise is that a journey costs 20rp. I had a 20 note and a 50 note but wanted to get some change so gave the 50rp note on the way to the destination to which I didn’t get any change as the guy thought I was just a tourist. As 30rp is about 10 pence I wasn;t too bothered. But on the way back I just gave the guy 20rp and he relaised I kmnow the proper cosyt of a journey.
You sometimes get some very tiny coins or notes that are worth giving away (I didn’t use any of the coins I accumulated the whole time I was there. Think about giving them away to the beggars as they’re going to use the money for food and shelter. Saying that I only a sigle begger a day in just the larger cities.
Interesting fact – You can use any washrooms in any person house as it’s against the law for people to refuse you. And since they’re lovely people you’ll probably end up having dinner with them.
One of the first things I noticed on the drive from the airport to Colombo was the cleanliness of the city – which then extend into the whole country. They must have an army of cleaning crews that come out in the night. Even at the market stall traders would pick up scraps of food or rubbish that tourists would drop.
At no time in Sri Lanka did I ever feel unsafe. Walking by myself in the city during the day or night, down and around alleis in the small towns or in huge throngs of people I never felt I was being scoped out for a hit or that I might get robbed or pickpocketed. While I felt like I could leave my camera and laptop on a table in Burma for the day and when I got back there’d probably be someome watching over it for me, it’s not quite that level in Sri Lanka.
The Amazing People
The people make the country and Sri Lankans do it best. Want to make fast friends with everyone? Tell them youre from a cricketing country like Australia and suddenly everyone’s got an opinion and their friends are all joining in. Everyone smiles, all are open and willing to help and hardly anyone’s there to try and make a quick buck off you.