We arrived in Sri Lanka Feb 14 after a short flight from Trivandrum India, were met by Roy, our driver/guide for the tour and went right away to the Galle Face Hotel in downtown Colombo. It's a nice colonial era hotel and we were put in a heritage room with lots of character. There is a nice shopping mall nearby where we had lunch in a food court, kind of interesting with all the asian cuisines, and then got some supplies for the road in the grocery store. There was a fantastic thunderstorm with lighting for most of the afternoon and night. Being Valentines Day we decided to eat at the special dinner the hotel put on and it was very good. We have been somewhat surprised but pleased to find that in Sri Lanka, unlike India you can find beef and pork at most restaurants.
For our tour of 13 days we used Elephant Island of the UK which in turn uses Journeyscapes based in Sri Lanka. For the most part the service was satisfactory and the prices seemed reasonable. At one point a hotel did not have our reservation but Journeyscapes quickly resolved this and apparently it was the hotels fault. Perhaps they should have reconfirmed the reservation. I some cases we ended up with not the best of room choice but here again was likely the hotels fault, however I question if the tour company should be proactive to ensure a good room allocation ?
After 3 1/2 weeks in India we tended to compare it to Sri Lanka which is often called India Light ! There is some truth to this as they are close neighbours but it is probably not fair to always do the comparisons. Sri Lanka is much smaller with only about 20 million people but it seems crowded everywhere and the traffic is brutal. Colombo is not very attractive or of particular interest so the next day we were off to Dambulla stopping at an elephant orphanage and the Golden Cave on the way. The temperature and humidity were very high so it was tough to climb the 400 steps to the cave with the buddhas inside. The hotel, the Kandalama Hotel was pretty remote, situated in a park and on the way we saw a cobra and huge monitor lizard, one of many we were to see. The hotel seemed to screw up our reservation so we had to wait while they sorted it out but then showed us to 2 rooms both of which I refused due to plumbing/mildew problems. This left us with a bad feeling even though the rest of the experience including great food at the resto and a good spa was good.
The next day was very full with an elephant ride where the mahouts try to squeeze a few more rupees out of you even though they are already paid. They offer to take photos and give bananas for the elephants but we were feeling cheap since we had already done that but I think the elephant got pissed off because it was looking with it's trunk for the bananas. Probably not a good idea to piss off an elephant so when we saw it was taking the trail to the water we asked to return thinking it would probably spray us or worse ! Then a visit to the ancient kingdom of Polonnaruwa, mostly in ruins now but slowly being excavated, then finally a climb up about 400 metres to the top of Sigirya rock fortress. This is a huge monolithic rock which had a fortress built on the top, complete with water reservoirs, housing etc. Most travel brochures for Sri Lanka feature this site and from the air it looks like a small farming village perched up in the sky. The view from the top over the country side is amazing.
Next day a drive to Kandy, only about 100 km. but 3 hours as roads are very bad and slow. This is the start of the hill country and our hotel had a commanding view perched high on a hill overlooking the town. The hotel was the Amaya Hills and we were upgraded to junior suite which was nice. The resto food was average at best, there is a nice pool. Here a main attraction is the the Temple of the Buddha's tooth - yes tooth, and it is extremely popular with Sri Lankans especially for mothers to bring their babies. This being a long weekend it was packed and inside the temple we were moved along in a sea of humanity as people tried to get close to the monks performing the ceremonies. We were not really sure what was going on but it was fascinating !
Later we boarded the train for a 6 hour climb up into the highlands where most tea is grown. The scenery was very nice and the temp. went from 30 down to 19. The train was pretty rough so although enjoyable it was good to get off ! Here in the Hill Country our hotel was the Melheim Resort, a small boutique style with a commanding view over the mountains. The room was large and the resto good, I recommend this place.
On to Yala Park for 2 days of safari outings. We were lucky and saw a leopard one day and a sloth bear the next. The roads in the park are brutal and our first outing was in an ancient landrover with no roof or sides. By the end of the day we were covered in dust and sore all over, but a swim in the pool and a Lion beer provided some relief. Again, being a long weekend it was busy and the local people like to come to the area by the busload and picnic and camp by the lakes and canals. In the heat of the day they would bathe and swim in the water, often with clothes on, with street vendors selling fried lakefish, breads and rice. Everybody was having a pretty good time and they would talk to us and invite us in for a swim ! Here our hotel was The Safari, a mid size low rise, recently redone and reopened it is right on the lake, with a nice pool, the rooms are nice but only a few have balconies. The resto was decent.
Another 3 hour drive and we arrived at Galle, where we stayed in the old fort area in a heritage hotel , The Fort Printers Hotel, which was converted from a printing factory. It is quite unique, the rooms rustic with no TV or fridge but large and comfortable. The resto is good and the coffee great ! Pretty interesting area with a lot of boutiques and restaurants. This is on the coast and fresh tuna is plentiful and cheap. We ate it for the next 4 days! From here it was a short drive to Unawatuna Beach for 3 nights and days of relaxing, swimming, walking, ayurveda massages, and seafood. Our hotel was the Thaproban Beach House, right on the beach but it is OK, not great, not all rooms equal and we could not get a room with a good view. It is not really as advertised although the resto is good and reasonable. The beach is OK but a bit narrow as much was destroyed in the Tsunami of 2004. The water is quite clear and warm but there are very limited beach chairs or shady areas to sit for a while. There are a number of beaches in the area and some looked nicer than ours.
Finally a 3 hour drive to Negombo for one last night in Sri Lanka before a 4:00 AM drive to the airport. The last night was at a homestay , called Villa Extra, owned by a German man and his Sri Lankan wife who runs a cooking school and graciously offered to make us dinner. It was delicious and welcome because we had not had that much authentic Sri Lankan food. We were somewhat disappointed however that nothing was offered to us at our early departure for a flight, no coffee, nothing even though our rate included breakfast. It is in a nice neighborhood near the beach and close to the airport, the rooms are simple but large and clean .
Sri Lanka is now enjoying a boom in tourism which is straining their capacity for hotels and other tourist services. Overbooking occurs and one of our hotels claimed they did not have our reservation, a problem that caused us much concern but was soon resolved, still we did not always end up with great rooms. Our driver\guide lamented how everyone exposed to foreign tourists is expecting big tips and business. The country suffered through a guerilla war for 20 years which was only resolved 3 years ago when the government forces mounted an all out offensive to defeat the Tamil Tigers. Now there are still soldiers all over the place with little to do as the war is over so the country will have to find a way to reduce their numbers, just part of the many government inefficiencies there. So many tourists like us felt it is now OK to visit, and it is, but the infrastucture is noticeably lacking. Still it has a lot of appeal as a place to visit and we probably would have enjoyed it more had we been fresher but after 35 days of busy travelling in India and Myanmar we were tired and grumpy.
We needed a rest and our next stop was at Khao Lak beach Thailand for the perfect cure. One of our favourite beach places, great for relaxing, doing as little as possible for 2 weeks, reading and sleeping on the beach chairs, swim, massage, happy hour, dinner of Thai food then repeat next day !
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