GETTING TO SRI LANKA
There are a few budget airlines which flies to Sri Lanka (from Singapore), most with a stopover at Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia. I opted to go with AirAsia. It took an hour to fly from Singapore to Kuala Lumpar with a stopover of about two hours. The flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka took about three and a half to four hours. The return flight cost me 290 SGD although there was a promotional offer earlier on which I missed. It had the flight at 230 SGD. The stopover at Kuala Lumpur was very comfortable and welcomed. They have a pretty slick food center with some fast food restaurants and it was good to have something to eat before boarding my flight to Sri Lanka.
You will have to get a cab from Bandaranaike International Airport (also Colombo’s International Airport) to get to either Kandy or Colombo as they are both quite a distance away and in the opposite directions. I chose to go to Colombo for a day and then take the train to Kandy the next morning.
Tip: Don’t scrimp and get a SIM card with a data plan at the airport. It cost me 1000 LKR (1000 LKR is about 10 SGD and about 7USD) for 5GB worth of data. It was invaluable in helping me finding my way around and sourcing for reviews on accommodation.
I decided to check in to Cityrest Fort Hostel as it had good reviews. However, it was quite expensive for a hostel and cost 2484 LKR for one night’s stay. However, it turned out to be worth the price as it was conveniently located 10 minutes away from the train station. Another reason I chose it was that there were no other hostels nearby and the hotels charged much higher prices (think 50 USD and above). I didn’t manage to get a good photo of the rooms but the place is clean and comfortable. Rooms are air-conditioned and the one I stayed in came with two bunk beds.
After settling down, I headed to the train station in order to find out what time the train left for Kandy. The train station was not easy to locate but I used the time to explore my surroundings. Eventually I found it and managed to locate a “Railway Tourist Information Center” which made things very easy for me. I decided to catch the first train which was at 7am in order to have more time in Kandy. The tickets were cheap, with three different classes. I would suggest making a reservation with the ticket office, it is not expensive and would put you at ease. They have an office specially for reservations just ahead of the Tourist Information Center.
Tip: Ask locals for help and directions if you need to. Tuktuk drivers will always stop and offer to take you there, but I caution against them especially in the big cities (Read my overview for Tips on Transport!).
I set off again to explore whilst making a plan for the next day. A friendly (or so I thought) local who was wearing a uniform of a nearby hotel was walking by and started chatting with me. I didn’t suspect anything was amiss (after reading all the stories of how friendly Sri Lankans were) and happily had a conversation with him. He then told me that there was a annual festival going on at the nearby Gangaramaya Temple.
Gangramaya Temple was the home to many learned Buddhist scholars. It is now not only a temple but also a museum, library and is a place of learning as well as religion. You will have enter the temple barefooted and pay about 200 LKR to an attendant who will look after your shoes for you.
He hailed a tuktuk and explained that we had to hurry before we missed the very ‘special’ festival all the while telling me stories and the history of Sri Lanka. The temple’s insides were fairly large. There were many statues and figurines depicting different times of Buddha’s life. Many locals were there offering respects, praying or were listening to one of the religious leaders giving a sermon. I didn’t take many photos as I feel that it is not polite to do so. Most impressive was a room full of (supposedly) gold and diamond encrusted figurines as well as many other (again supposedly) precious gems. I later was told that you could buy these precious stones at ‘a specially discounted price’ as it was ‘tax-free’ here at the temple. At this point I was a little suspicious but did not say anything.
The tuktuk had been waiting for us and drove us back to where we hailed him from. He quoted 2500 LKR which I immediately refused. The tuktuk driver which brought me from my starting point in Colombo to about a 15 minutes drive cost me 300 LKR. This whole event took about 30 minutes and only 5 minutes of that was driving. In fact, I wasn’t even the one who asked him to stay and wait and at that moment, the ‘friendly local’ was just standing there pretending nothing was happening. To cut a long story short, I refused to pay the 2500 LKR and managed to cut it down to 1200 LKR. It left a very bad taste in my mouth as it wasn’t so much about the money, but I felt very betrayed. I even asked him how was it that we just had a lesson in Buddhism and now this is happening? I chalked it up as another experience to learn from.
Overall: Colombo is the busiest city in Sri Lanka and to be honest, not a very nice place to visit. It gave off bad vibes, is expensive and does not have much to offer in terms of attractions. Every other traveller that I met and who had been to Colombo had the same opinion, some of them getting ripped off quite a bit more than me. Of course, Colombo does not reflect Sri Lanka’s culture as a whole. My suggestion would be that if you have limited time in Sri Lanka, there are better places to be at and you could go to Kandy straight from the airport.
The next morning, I woke up bright and early to take the train to Kandy! It took 3 hours to get to Kandy. The train ride had a few picturesque sights along the way and I just plugged in my ear phones and enjoyed the ride.
Tip: The trains are notorious for always being late so do take that into account whilst you’re planning. The longest I had to wait for an hour and while it was annoying, it did not bother me that much as I did not have any schedule to keep
Once at Kandy, I decided not to get involved with any more tuktuk. Instead, I whipped out my phone and set my GPS to locate KandyCity Hostel which I had researched on the night before. I did not book any accommodation prior to arriving in Sri Lanka and just ‘winged’ it, usually researching on a place to stay the night before I arrived in my next destination.
I then walked all the way to the hostel and it took me about 1.5 hours. The sun was scorching but it proved to be a great idea as it allowed me to absorb all the different sights and sounds of Kandy. I walked past Kandy Market as well as along the edge of Kandy Lake which was full of life despite it being located in the middle of a city.
Tucked away on top of a steep hill, KandyCity hostel is not an easy find, however, it was one of the best accommodation I had in Sri Lanka. The hostel itself was basic but clean and comfortable. There were different rooms you could choose from: Double rooms, a 6-bedded room and an 8-bedded room. It cost 1750 LKR per night for the 8-bedded room. The rooms are not air-conditioned and come with one small fan atop each bed. Toilets are also shared. Esrina, a Canadian who was the hostel’s manager at the time was very patient and helped me out with some planning. The local bus to Kandy’s train station also stops by the entrance which made things very convenient. Also, at the bottom of the hill leading to the hostel, there is a small eatery called the “Garden Cafe“ which served really good and cheap authentic Sri Lankan food.
As I was unpacking my bag, two ladies, Cori and Becky (from Munich and England) invited me to join them to visit the Pinanawala Elephant Orphanage as it would be cheaper to share a tuktuk. After a bad start in Colombo, I thought why not? Carpe Diem! Esrine hired a tuktuk for us and it cost 3000 LKR (1000 LKR each) in total. The journey took around an hour and a half or so each way and while it was long, we spent the ride talking about our experiences and respective countries. We then grabbed some snacks and drinks at the entrance before heading in.
The Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is an orphanage, nursery and captive breeding ground for wild Asian Elephants and is known for having the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. The aim was to afford care and protection to many of the orphaned unweaned wild elephants of Sri Lanka. It is run by the Department of National Zoological Gardens Sri Lanka. While whether the elephants are treated well is a debatable topic, the elephants here are definitely better treated than other “Elephant attraction” businesses that are also available in Sri Lanka.
The entrance fee cost 2500 LKR and to me, an avid animal lover, it was worth every rupee (although I do hope that the elephants be returned to their natural habitat eventually). It was a very large place and seemed to be enough to accommodate all the elephants there. We spent our time taking photos, feeding elephants (a paid attraction), watching the bottle feeding. Mahouts (the elephant caretakers) will offer to take photos for you or “allow” you to get close to the elephants for tips. If you are uncomfortable, just politely decline and walk away as they can get quite persistent.
The best part of the visit was the Elephant Bath. The herd leaves for the nearby river at 2pm. It is a wondrous sight to behold as over forty elephants make their way past rows of shops and restaurants and into the river. The scenery also makes for a great photo taking opportunity. Although you are not allowed to go down to the river, you are still able to stand pretty close. At times, an elephant or two will lumber up to you (especially if you’re holding fruits!) and curiously check you out. The elephants were also very well-disciplined so you need not worry as long as you don’t provoke them. We spent half an hour snapping photos and just watching the elephants play in the water. It was all great fun and we headed back to our hostel after 2 hours at the orphanage.
Tip: Try to reach the orphanage by 1 pm in order to have ample time to walk around and then make it for the Elephant Bath. The Sri Lankan afternoon sun is unforgiving, so do remember to bring sunblock or a cap. Lastly, beware of elephant poop as it is all over the place!
Overall: I found Kandy much more welcoming and pleasant than Colombo. There were more to do and see. It was also easier to get around with the local bus. Also, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a must go if you love animals. I did not spend too much time exploring Kandy itself as I headed out to Sigiriya Rock the next day for a day trip. This will be covered in my next article.
Read more about Sri Lanka here!