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kovsie Jun 26th, 2014 06:10 AM

Sri Lanka - advice needed
My DD and I are planning to go to Sri Lanka in August this year. Yes, I know it is quite late. What can I say.
We would like to divide our time between a stay in a rain forest, the hill country and (perhaps) a beach area. We can stay for +- 16 days - depending on budget.
I am not really interested in the temples and religious sites.
I am longing for beautiful walks and just being in nature. I prefer staying a bit longer in one place, rather than moving on every 2nd day.
I have read the TRs on this site by ccc, Kathie and Esme. They all leave me drooling!

My questions:
The recommended way to getting around seems to be to hire a driver with a car (even if it turns out to be a 'crappy toyota' ;) I would so prefer not having to deal with the personality of a stranger - although I do acknowledge that it can work out really well if you get the right guy. I would perhaps prefer not to take that chance, but I am willing to change my mind. According the Man in Seat 61, train travel can be OK and even beautiful. Would it make sense to travel by train (1st class) and rent a car / taxi in each place as needed? Or would that complicate things?
What I read about Colombo does not sound enticing. Would I miss much if I just book a room there for the 1st and last evenings?
At the moment I have only one guide book (Bradt). The info looks solid and comprehensive enough. Any other books that you can recommend?
We are not into a 'cocktails, sun and sand' type of holiday. Are there pretty and unspoilt beaches where DD can do some snorkelling and I can watch the tide go out?
Can you recommend specific nice, safe, beautiful places for us to stay?

Thanks in advance, dear wise Fodorites!

Kathie Jun 26th, 2014 06:24 AM

No reason to book any nights in Colombo. If you want to stay near the airport, Negombo is closer.

While you can certainly take a train, train travel in lieu of a car and driver really doesn't work in Sri Lanka. The rail network is not that extensive. And when you mention renting a car - you really don't want to drive yourself there. It sounds like you have never hired a car and driver for a trip. In many places in the world, this is the way to see the country. A driver you hire wants to make your trip as enjoyable as possible. As you know, I always recommend that people hire the car and driver through a travel agency. That way if the car or the driver doesn't work out, the agency will take care of it. I highly recommend Boutique Sri Lanka. (And no, you won't get a "crappy Toyota")

Since our interests are different from yours, I don't have specific beach locations to recommend, for instance. I'd suggest you take a good look at the BSL website. They have extensive info on hotels (some of it you might have to register to access) info on drive times, etc. There was a place in the rainforest I looked into - The Boulders - but we just couldn't fit it in.

I found the Lonely Plant guide to be very useful.

kovsie Jun 26th, 2014 06:35 AM

O yes, about my budget: I may spend +- US$ 100 per night on accommodation. I may be able to splurge for a night or two, but this is the figure I am mostly aiming for.

kovsie Jun 26th, 2014 06:42 AM

Thanks Kathie - a response within 10 minutes! You are right - this is my first venture into Asia and I realise it is a completely different type of travel. Any and all recommendations highly appreciated.

Craig Jun 26th, 2014 06:52 AM

A car and driver is definitely the way to go in Sri Lanka. We went a few months after Kathie and I posted a trip report as well. We did neither the rain forest nor did we stay on any beaches where the waters would be calm enough for snorkeling. You may be able to find a couple of protected reefs in the Tangalle area but I think it would be best to head where the waters are calmest at the time of year that you are going.

We skipped Colombo as well and stayed at Negombo the night before we left. Lonely Planet is the only guide that I know of and it served us well...

kovsie Jun 26th, 2014 08:23 AM

Thanks Craig, I am devouring your TR. The snorkelling is no big deal, just an idea ...

thursdaysd Jun 26th, 2014 05:14 PM

I, too, used Lonely Planet, although I think their guidebooks have fallen off a bit lately and I would take a look at Rough Guides and Bradt as well.

If you want a less frequented beach you may need to look at the east rather than the south coast. But if you are not interested in ruins, temples and religious sites I am a little puzzled that you would have chosen SL as your first Asian destination.

I used Boutique Sri Lanka, and although I generally travel by public transport I was glad to have a car and driver on SL.

kovsie Jun 26th, 2014 06:09 PM

Thanks Thursday. Why SL? I saw a series of photos of the natural beauty and was kind of hooked. Then I read about the spice gardens and it sounded interesting. Then I started reading TRs ...
It is also a relatively inexpensive flight from Dubai where I live.
Given my idiosyncratic taste - would you recommend a different country for a first Asian venture? I am feeling my way here, so am wide open to suggestions. (But I really should make up my mind this weekend.)

Kathie Jun 26th, 2014 06:34 PM

Thailand is a better beach destination and is generally cheaper than Sri Lanka, Likewise, Bali/Lombok. Both are excellent (and easy) introductions to SE Asia.

I loved Sri Lanka and plan to return, but we love the temples, ruins and Buddhist culture. Frankly, the spice gardens are rather a disappointment - many of the places do a hard sell on their creams and ointments which are quite expensive.

thursdaysd Jun 26th, 2014 06:48 PM

I usually agree with Kathie, but I don't know that I would head to Thailand or Bali for "pretty and unspoilt beaches". The Gilis off Lombok would have met that description, but I was there 12 years ago and have read that they have since been "discovered". The Perhentians off the east coast of Malaysia may still be a possibility, or perhaps the coast of Cambodia. But if you want stunning scenery I would head for the Himalayas.

Have you checked the weather forecasts? I don't usually go to Asia at this time of year.

kovsie Jun 26th, 2014 07:20 PM

This is where I found info on the weather:

It made August seem an OK time to travel in most parts of Sri Lanka. Have I missed something?

kovsie Jun 26th, 2014 07:26 PM

Just to clarify - if I had to prioritise my wish list at this stage, it would be something like:
1 the rain forest
2 the hill country
3 if possible, a nice beach.

The first two are more important.

Thanks for your input!!

kovsie Jun 26th, 2014 08:09 PM

Thursday and Kathie -- thanks for making me think again.
Based on your suggestions, I have done a few searches and came up with the following:
Thailand had a military coup in May, things look somewhat unstable.
Bali / Malaysia / Lombok -- more than double the flight time, more than double the price for flight tickets.
Himalayas -- tempting. Very tempting!! But not this time I think.

I think I am back to Sri Lanka. I will now stop posting on my own thread and wait for wise and wonderful council from you all.

NoFlyZone Jun 27th, 2014 04:19 AM

I always tell people who cannot decide where to go to simply pick one! Doesn't really matter where (especially not in this case as all the suggestions are winners) because if you like that one chances are close to 100% you would go back in a year or two, and after that, and after that. Eventually you'll know the entire area. Start with the less expensive places and, as your income grows over the years, you will be able to afford the others.

(I was in Bangkok earlier in the month and there are no problems for tourists whatsoever.)

Kathie Jun 27th, 2014 07:55 AM

If the rainforest is your top priority, take a look at Sabah (Malaysian Borneo). However, the best places to go there are very expensive.

Sri Lanka is lovely, and while you can find a place to stay in a rainforest, it's a tiny drop of rainforest.

Yes, Thailand had a military coup, but it would in no way affect you as a visitor. In fact, friends there were relieved to have the coup, because it stopped the fighting in the streets. The coup has stabilized things in Thailand. I wouldn't hesitate to go there.

Given your priorities, I wouldn't choose Sri Lanka.

thursdaysd Jun 27th, 2014 09:40 AM

I spent two weeks in SL, and I don't think I was even aware there WAS any rain forest. And I agree with Kathie that the spice plantations are a waste of time - much better in Goa.

CounterClifton Jul 6th, 2014 07:38 PM

We were just recently in Sri Lanka and saw a number of areas. I do agree that train travel can be enjoyable and you should include a bit of it. A person would really be missing out to not see a bit of Sri Lanka by rail. But overall, it might be kind of difficult to see a lot this way.

I think it might be possible, given the time... but it's not fast and instead of dealing with one stranger, you have one everywhere you stop. Good if the one driver ends up being a pain... but potential for being problematic too, strangers picking you up in tuktuks for longish drives out to sights. Or rain forest drives, etc. Plus the trains themselves are slowish and not always dependable.

I was pretty dead set against having one driver for the same reason. Worried about being stuck in the car with a problem for a week or two. But we did it, after finding research was conflicting with our aims and eventually giving up our usual independent ways. We actually enjoyed our driver, but going through our travel agency in Sri Lanka was painful and they screwed things up (despite everything looking good on paper before we arrived). So if you go and if you book, listen to someone above who DID have an overall positive experience.

That said, as nice as Sri Lanka was... and it was a lovely trip... it wasn't our favourite (maybe because of the running agency battles). The temples were stunning, the mountains lovely, our game drive fun and "our" beach (Talalla) was stunning and peaceful. But it was a trip we felt wasn't entirely our own.

If I were sending an independent minded friend off for a first time in South/SE Asia... I'd probably pick Indonesia or Thailand.

kovsie Jul 7th, 2014 12:40 AM

CounterClifton: thanks so much for your well-considered response. You have put into words exactly what my concerns are. When reading Trip Reports on Sri Lanka, I am struck by the frequent references to the drivers (some positive, some negative but really pervasive). Living in Dubai, I know how a good personable taxi driver can be balm to the soul, while somebody who grates on you can leave you feeling tense and frustrated. I just do not feel comfortable taking the chance to share a precious holiday with somebody whom I did not choose. This is why I thought the trains may be an option. However, I can see that this will not be a solution for the whole trip. Oh my...

I will start reading on Thailand.

But I am sorry!

kovsie Jul 7th, 2014 01:11 AM

Well - it seems to be very very wet in Thailand in August:

"Expect to see street flooding in Bangkok in August — especially after torrential downfalls — we've waded down waist deep sois in Bangkok in August ..."


'Expect rain almost every day and not just a light sprinkle — when we say rain, we mean rain. Not surprisingly, landslides can be a problem.'

Not Thailand for this time then.

annhig Jul 7th, 2014 09:12 AM


We had a pretty good experience with our driver, though coming from the UK, having our own dedicated driver was a bit of a new experience for us and it took some getting used to. i think that we were probably not assertive enough at the beginning though I think we got better at it.

We organised our entire trip, apart from the flights, through Boutique Sri Lanka, including the driver. when we went, they wouldn't just organise a driver, though I think that they have now changed that policy. They phoned us at lunch-time on our first whole day to see if everything was ok with the driver and vehicle; fortunately it was, but I don't know what they'd have done if it wasn't! At least they asked.

i strongly suggest looking at the BSL website to get an idea of what you can do.

they have sample itineraries or you can work out your own. for tropical forest, you would probably need to look at the east - it was pretty tropical in the Hills where we were at Kandy and Nuwara Eliya but there doesn't seem to be much actual forest left, possibly due to the tea plantations. even if you aren't much into monuments and temples, you really shouldn't miss Sigiriya and the Hill country is lovely. But it is the overall experience of the country that stays with us and makes us talk about going back.

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