The Big Fat Sri Lanka Planner

After quite a few queries from friends on how to plan their holidays to Sri Lanka, I figured that a better (and lazier, in the long run – hah, foresight) solution was to write a post on everything I could possibly tell a friend in terms of general recommendations, tips and advice. So here it is, my biiiiig Sri Lanka planner.

So, why Sri Lanka?

Off the top of my head:

  • Beautiful, sunny beaches
  • Majestic animals in lush national parks
  • Cycling around ruins of ancient cities
  • Bustling heritage towns
  • Plucking your own tea leaves at a pristine hill abode surrounded by mist
  • Mountain treks and ocean dives
  • Friendly locals who smile easily
  • Feeding, bathing and generally sighing over elephants
  • Immersing yourself in the sights and sounds of a rich culture
  • A distinctive coastal cuisine, peppered with fragrant spices
  • Everywhere you look, a gorgeous Buddha face, benign and smiling.

… Any of this sound good?

Sri Lanka planner1

A little bit of everything {First image © geotours.us}

If it does, read on. Sri Lanka makes for an excellent vacation spot because it offers all of these:

  • Diverse experiences: Everything listed above, and more!
  • Economy of travel: 1 USD roughly equals 130 LKR (Sri Lankan rupee) as of July 2014
  • Ease of travel: It’s a small country, only about 432 km from its northern tip to southernmost point, and 224 km across. This makes it possible to travel throughout Sri Lanka in a car (except for the fact that travelling by road can sometimes take twice as long as you’d planned for!)

Perfect for a short stay, or long!

When do I visit?

Sri Lanka has two distinct monsoon (rainy) seasons. During the Yala monsoon (May to August), the southern & western regions receive heavy rains, and the Maha monsoon (October to January) brings rains to the northern & eastern coasts. This makes the task of planning an itinerary easier by sticking to the dry spots on the map… unless you don’t mind showers that soak you wet but keep the crowds away (win-win for some).

IMG_3810

Rain snuffs out the prayer lamps, and keeps other tourists away

How do I start planning the itinerary?

Depending on how you much time you plan to spend there, pick from some very diverse experiences. It’s a small country so you can ‘cover’ it from coast to coast, if that’s what you want. But travelling on road or through trains/buses is only about as pleasant as surface transport can be, so make sure that getting from one place to another isn’t taking too much of your time.

To budget your time on the side of caution, take 40 kmph as the average speed on roads – lower in hilly areas!

  • For pure wholesome nature

Tea Country for you! Think Nuwara Eliya and Ella. Take the scenic trains from Kandy to Nanu Oya and then onwards to Ella, with some sigh-worthy landscape on the way. Then, pick a National Park that catches your fancy or fits your itinerary, and go down the safari road. Throw in a couple of days at one of the quieter beaches (think Nilaveli on the east or Tangalle down south) and you’ll come back as close to zen-level inner peace as a holiday can get you to.

Nuwara Eliya (Image courtesy: Sri Lanka Capital Tours)

Nilaveli Beach (Image © Thomas Hansen)

Happiness

Happiness is…

  • For a rich dose of culture

Explore the Cultural Triangle at leisure. That’s quite a few UNESCO heritage sites packed within a handful of days. Begin at Kandy with the Sacred Tooth Temple and some Kandyan dance performances. Then, visit the Dambulla Caves from over 22 centuries back in time to see some remarkable Buddha statues. Climb up to the Rock Fortress at Sigiriya for a whole lot of mesmerising frescoes. Rent a bicycle and roam around the ancient city of Polonnaruwa or Anuradhapura to see meticulously restored ruins bring history back to life. Stroll around the colonial Dutch town of Galle and visit its narrow by-lanes for a refreshing home-made mango ice cream.

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A traditional Kandyan dance

Flower offerings at The Sacred Tooth Temple, Kandy

Flower offerings at The Sacred Tooth Temple, Kandy

An unusual Standing Buddha

An unusual Standing Buddha

  • For the love of animals

Lots on your plate! {No, not following this up with meat jokes} Pick a National Park – Minneriya and Yala would probably win the polls on this one – and safari your way through lush jungles, keeping your eyes peeled for animal life. Don’t miss the magnificent elephants at Millennium Elephant Foundation (MEF) or Pinnawala elephant orphanage, both very close to Kandy. MEF is smaller (only about 6-7 elephants) and hence you can spend more time personally with these gentle giants; Pinnawala on the other hand is way more commercial and touristy, but has lots of unbelievably cute baby elephants. Spend a day watching whales at Mirissa or dolphins at Kalpitiya {likely has to be one of the two, since they’re far apart} and to round it off, go scuba diving with the marine life.

Jumbo love <3

Jumbo love <3

Minneriya National Park {Image courtesy ImagineIndia.co.uk}

  • For adventure seekers

Trek in the Knuckles Range (near Kandy), climb up to Adam’s Peak for some gorgeous sunrise views (advised only during pilgrimage season when the route is well-lit), go scuba diving at Hikkaduwa beach or indulge in water-sports at Bentota. And then bum the fatigue out on a sunny beach.

www.yearful-of-sundays.com

Early morning view from Adam’s Peak after a midnight trek

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Hah, fooled ya - that's no dreaded sea monster! That's only a litchi-like rambutan (and very delicious, I may add).

Hah, fooled ya – that’s no dreaded sea monster! That’s only a litchi-like rambutan (and very delicious, I may add).

My all-important opinion! Ahem. Sri Lanka’s rich cultural heritage demands at least a brief visit to the Cultural Triangle: at least 2 days spent between Dambulla / Sigiriya / Polonnaruwa / Anuradhapura. Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are both ruins of ancient cities, but Anuradhapura would be out of the way unless you’re heading up north. Polonnaruwa is easily experienced in a day, is better restored, and has a fabulous museum. If you’re pressed for time and must skip something, give Colombo city a miss!

Where do I stay?

Accommodation options abound – from rooms at $40 a night in super-budget hotels and B&Bs, to ultra luxurious wallet-busters.

If, as per your budget, your choices are between a small hotel and a similarly priced homestay or B&B — go for the latter. A hotel room at that tariff may leave you a little unsatisfied, but the homestay is likely to exceed your expectations of a warm family space to share for a night or two, given the popularity and general standard of the home-hospitality industry in Sri Lanka (of course, always check for reviews online before booking). One of my most pleasant stays, along with lip-smacking homemade meals, was at a B&B called Avon on the Hikkaduwa beach.

Apart from the usual accommodation-hunt options (Booking.com, Agoda, AirBnB, Hostelworld), the Sri Lanka Tourism website has a long list of hotels and verified B&Bs. Unfortunately, the mode of contact they provide – email – is too slow in eliciting a response, in most cases.

If you’re in touch with a local car rental company or travel agent, ask if they can get you deals on the hotel rates listed online. They would probably be able to work it.

Any tips?

  • Visa: Short-term visitors are advised to obtain an ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization) on payment of the visa fee, before they fly out to Sri Lanka. The process is entirely electronic, quick and simple, and requires no document scans. At the time of immigration, produce a copy of the ETA along with your passport (and “proof of funds”, as officially required, although it’s hardly demanded) for obtaining a 30-day visit visa. You can also land up in Sri Lanka without the ETA, but that way you’ll have to stand in a longer queue and pay a slightly higher fee for getting the visit visa. As always, when applying for the ETA, make sure it’s the legit Sri Lankan Government site (here) and not third-party agents that charge much higher fees for the same effortless job.
  • Phone: Get a local voice+data SIM at the arrival lounge of the airport, after exiting customs. International call rates are very similar, if not identical, across service providers. For an estimate, Etisalat’s data plan (as of Dec’13) gives you 1 GB data @ 300 LKR which, topped up with talktime, is a great buy.
  • Currency: It’s pointless trying to arrange for LKR before you leave for Sri Lanka. Just carry USD, GBP or Euros (or any other major currency) and get it exchanged at the airport money exchange. For best rates, however, look for money changers outside in the city, or just enter any bank. Many places don’t accept credit cards so carrying enough cash (or ATM cards) is essential. Fellow Indians, you can’t exchange Indian currency at any official exchange! For that, you’ll have to look for local jewellery shops, small or big, many of which offer unofficial currency exchange services.
  • Transport:
    • Private cars: Hiring a car with a driver (who also doubles up as your guide) is a popular way of getting around. Driver-cars can be arranged either through your hotel or – a cheaper alternative – by getting in touch with drivers (look for genuine recommendations on TripAdvisor) directly through email and seeking quotes on your itinerary. Charges for a round trip start from USD 70 per day or USD 0.35 per km (including fuel, parking, taxes, driver’s meals & services, etc.) and depend on your route, requirements and negotiating skills.
    • Trains: You can’t book train tickets online in advance, except for the privately-operated Rajdhani Express and ExpoRail. If you must, contact your hotel or a travel agent. Else, just wait till you get there – unless it’s the most popular train routes in peak tourist season, tickets are readily available at train stations. And remember, not all overnight trains are sleeper trains! I found this out the hard way.
    • Buses: There’s fairly regular bus service between important cities and towns, but always check with locals or your hotel people before depending on a bus. If you’re loaded with luggage, the bus driver can charge you for two seats (one for the luggage) since many buses don’t have a separate storage space.
    • Avoid: Private taxis for short distances in tourist places are REALLY expensive – a completely avoidable cost, with some adequate planning.
  • Entrance tickets: Entrance charges at all tourist places are quite high, so budget accordingly. Most places have a separate half-rate for SAARC nationals, so it’s worthwhile asking about it if you don’t see that on the board.
  • Tipping: All service providers of all forms seem to expect some tip, and some may get quite insistent.
  • Local customs: Keep knees and shoulders covered in religious places. Shoes off before entering any religious area.
  • General tips: Treks such as Adam’s Peak and Sigiriya should ideally be kept for the last leg of the journey. It’s probably common sense, but I went up to Adam’s Peak on my second day in the country, underestimating the rigour of the climb, and was hobbling around for days afterwards. There’s a lot to walk around and see in every place of interest in Sri Lanka, and being tired to the bone just makes things so difficult!

Any other questions?

Or do you have anything from your own experiences to share?

Feel free to squat in the comments section! 

Local 'Chanel'!

Local ‘Chanel’!

Spot the cat!

Spot the cat!

Morning dew in Sigiriya

Morning dew in Sigiriya

Kandy

Kandy, a UNESCO Heritage City

A happy loner baby

A happy loner baby

Trains run right next to the sea in Colombo, with not even a fence to separate the tracks from the main road!

Trains run right next to the sea in Colombo, along side the main promenade road. With not even a fence to separate the rail tracks from the main road!

5 thoughts on “The Big Fat Sri Lanka Planner

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