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crellston Mar 4th, 2011 10:53 PM

Sri Lanka - Tea, floods, cricket and curry
We thought long and hard before deciding upon a visit to Sri Lanka and considered India, Nepal and a return to South America. I suppose what tipped the balance in favour of Sri Lanka was my family history. My grandparents were tea planters there in colonial days and I can recall as a child being fascinated by the old photographs of his life in the tea country, the collection of mounted butterflies which were dotted all around his house. Unfortunately there was no way of finding out exactly where they lived but we thought we would take a look around the country anyway.

We normally travel completely independently and generally make things up as we go along but as this trip was planned at virtually the last minute, we engaged the services of a tour operator, in this case Reddot Tours (more of which later). We asked Reddot to fix our accommodation for our first 3 nights in Columbo plus a car, driver and accommodation for a couple of weeks around the Cultural Triangle and the Hill Country before dropping us off at Tanagalla when we would spend the last 10 days or so working our way the beaches of the south coast to Galle.

We flew from the UK with Emirates via Dubai – OK but Economy seemed cramped compared with other airlines but online booking facilities were excellent (we booked direct on their website and got a pretty good fare). Unfortunately the outbound flight was delayed by 3 hours and we only just made our connection.

We arrived in Columbo airport and were met by a driver from Reddot and taken directly to our guesthouse in Columbo, the Lake View Lodge – the drive from the airport took around a hour (plus a further 30mins as our driver had not a clue as to the location of the guesthouse. Eventually we found it and were checked in by the manager who clearly found us to be a bit of a disruption to his working day!

Anyway the guesthouse seemed very nice if a little minimalist. Lots of polished concrete, very trendy but there was really too much. The walls, floors, bed, dressing table, bedside tables were all concrete after three days we felt a little like prisoners in Cell Block H. After a little siesta to get over the jet lag we head out to explore the local area. A bit far from the centre of town, 20-30 mins walk and not many restaurants nearby but not a bad location in a quiet residential area.

We arrive on a public holiday (independence day) so every where seems really quiet and the banks are closed so we try to change some cash with the manager reception desk. He is very happy to assist but offer us a rate 25% BELOW the actual rate. He says that it is a bank holiday so what do we expect? We wander around for a while in search of an ATM and find ourselves on the sea front at Galle Face Green. We have a look at the food stalls along the seafront and, although great fans of street food, decide that the pre-cooked prawns and crabs sweltering in the heat on the street stalls probably are not the best idea for our first day!

We head back to the hotel for an early dinner of the ubiquitous “rice & curry”. This basically consists of a large plate of rice and small curry of meat or fish and anywhere between 5 and 15 vegetable curries and sambals, papadums etc. Ours arrived with a couple of side dishes only. A quick look at the menu description and a word with the waiter and, realizing their oversight, the rest arrive after a bit of a wait. Not a bad meal although the curries lack any real spice so we note to ask for spicy food the next time.
Back to the room for a nice hot shower – no hot water! OK we will watch TV instead. Despite a nice LCD TV and satellite box, no TV reception. I go to reception and try to get thing fixed. They do not seem particularly interested but say that they will fix both. Unfortunately during our 3 days at this place it would prove impossible to fix either! The manager blamed the rain for the lack of TV and the lack of sunshine for the hot water??? Another guest was at reception at the same time and pointed out to the manager that he had been a regular guest every month for the last year and during the at time the TV had not worked once. Needless to say, I would not recommend a stay at this establishment

thursdaysd Mar 5th, 2011 01:56 AM

"lack of sunshine for the hot water" - that may well be true. A lot of places use solar water heaters. Fine when the sun shines, but otherwise... Sometimes it pays to shower in the evening, although I much prefer to shower in the morning. BTW, the place I stayed in Negombo also went in for concrete everything - must be some kind of Sri Lankan fad.

Looking forward to the rest of this!

LeighTravelClub Mar 5th, 2011 12:22 PM

Good to hear about your trip. Three Fodorites doing quite different trips in the same country, at the same time. We're looking for tips and inspiration for our next visit to Sri Lanka.

Solar powered hot water, we have come across before!! Most notably in Spain.'s a pain!!

Bland curry.....very much our experience too, but asking for spicey, did the trick for us.

Looking forward to hearing more about your experirnces.

Kathie Mar 5th, 2011 04:48 PM

I'm looking forward to reading all about your trip!

Femi Mar 5th, 2011 04:53 PM

Great start. Love the different points of view from those of us there at the same time. I also noticed polished concrete to be very popular. Easy to care for I guess.

crellston Mar 6th, 2011 12:57 AM

Thanks guys - I fully intended to post on the road but being a realtively new BlackBerry user i didn't appreciate how difficult it is to type anything more than a few lines at a time (particualrly as I seem to suffer from "fat finger syndrome"!)
Leigh and femi. I have been reading your posts with interest. as you say it is great to get different perceptions on a country.

Our first full day in the capital and we retrace our steps to the Galle Road up to Galle Face Green and pop into the Galle Face Hotel, apparently one of the oldest hotels in Asia, it is a very elegant, colonial hotel overlooking the green. They have a list of VIP guests engraved on a large granite slab in the lounge. The list is both long and impressive including such famous figures as Churchill, Wilde, Coward and the Marahreshi Yogi. The sun is shining so we take a walk along the green to explore the central area of the city.
A lot of the centre of Columbo is under heavy guard as this is where the president’s palace is situated and the area around the place in the Fort region is completely blocked off so we head off to the World trade centre and the Dialog phone shop to buy a Sim card for our BlackBerry. Dialog is apparently the only operator in SL who provides Data and Phone cards which will allow us mobile web access. It costs us 200 Rps for the card and we load up the min of 2000Rps (which, as both local and international calls are really cheap proves to be twice as much as we will need for our month here!).
As we wander around the city the first thing we notice is the extraordinary number of touts on the streets in the first hour we are offered tuk tuks, tours, gem shops etc. literally every minute. We start off by declining offers politely but after a while become a little more “direct”. Ignoring the touts had little effect but relying in Spanish really seemed to put them off their game. It is an approach which was to prove very effective over the next month (I knew those lessons we had in Argentina would come in useful eventually!).
There are some beautiful old colonial buildings in the city, sadly few are in a good state of repair and the emphasis seems to be now on building new glass/steel buildings. We stumble across the Cargill’s department store near the harbor a bit of an institution in the city; internally and externally it hasn’t really changed since the 1930s. Searching for somewhere to eat lunch we choose Harbour 365 a rice & curry place on the harbor. A large buffet type restaurant, basic, but clean. A waiter explains the dishes on offer at the buffet – a fish curry, a mutton curry and loads of different veggie curries, sambals, papadums and pickles. We help our self to rice and then are served a small portion of fish/mutton curry and are then told to help ourselves to the rest. We find a table and then realize we have no cutlery. Looking around at our fellow diners we see everyone is eating with their hands. Oh well, when in Rome… Excellent tasty and filling food and at last some spice – all for 375 Rps for two (1$ = 110Rps).

After lunch we decide to head off to The Pettah, the very large Tamil market area of the city. We love visiting markets and have spent many a happy hours visiting markets all around the world. Almost invariably they provide a good insight into the culture and food of a country as well as some of the best food. The Pettah, being the wholesale area for the entire country, is by far the most manic market area we have ever visited. It sells not only food, but seems to offer also every product/raw material imaginable from brightly coloured sari materials to, cheap plastic goods from Taiwan to heaps of exotic spices. We are particularly interested in the spices as we are both keen cooks and are keen to take copious supplies back home – they are amazingly cheap here but as this is just the beginning of our trip so our purchases will have to wait for now. The Pettah is very colourful, a bit smelly and extremely busy. A great place to spend an hour or two but you really do have to keep your wits about you when walking around as the locals make no concessions as they whizz around transporting goods by tuk tuk, car, and lorry and, in one case bullock cart, through the very narrow streets and alleys.

We leave the market areas and head to the Fort Railway station with the idea of buying tickets for tomorrow for a train ride out along the Kelani Valley into the rural outskirts of Columbo. Unfortunately we arrive in the rush hour and the station is heaving with commuters so we just buy some fruit and head back to our hotel.

Along the way we stop off at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel, one of Sri Lanka’s 5* places. We order some drinks from the coffee shop and whilst enjoying these we notice the “Short Eats” on display. The ubiquitous lunchtime snack of Sri Lanka, short eats comprise a variety of small pies, spring rolls, roti, samosas and bread rolls all stuffed with a wide variety of curry, vegetables, eggs and spices. Here they are all labeled but elsewhere on the streets it really is pot luck. We decide to buy a selection for dinner that evening – absolutely delicious and these become our lunchtime snack of choice. The hotel itself is much like any other 5* star hotel but its restaurants are apparently some of the best in Sri Lanka. The world cricket championships are about to start in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan team are here in residence and appear to treated as rock stars. Unfortunately, although I am English the attractions and intricacies of cricket are a mystery to me and I find the game only slightly less tedious than baseball but I suppose I had better start to take an interest as every Sri Lankan we meet wants to discuss the subject.

Our final day in Sri Lanka and we are a bit concerned that we have not heard from Reddot tours regarding a pick up time for our drive up north tomorrow. I call the number provided several times but cannot get a reply. It is another public holiday so maybe they are on holiday.

Rather than waste anymore time we head off in the opposite direction down the Galle Road with the aim some window shopping along the way. It is very quiet and only a few places are open but we stop off at the famous Barefoot shop which has an excellent range of goods. Expensive by local standards, but reasonable by international standards and all very high quality. They stock a diverse range of goods from clothes and materials, to table ware and books.
We continue our walk to Bamballapitya and the South Indian Dosai restaurant, Saraswathe we have been told about. It is very much a local restaurant. No one speaks English and there are no tourists to be seen. We share a table with two young Sri Lankans and, not having a clue what to order, they offer assistance and we choose a “paper” Dosai – the specialty of the house, and a Dosai massalla. Both are delicious and are accompanied by a variety of vegetable curries and sambals. Of particular note are the brinjal (aubergine) and coconut sambals. Another excellent meal for less than 400rps.
The two guys at our table ask us we are travelling to so we outline our trip to them. They say that it is a good job we are not going to Anuradhapura as the place is severely flooded. But we are! That is where we are supposed to be headed tomorrow morning.

Back at the hotel we eventually get through to Reddot or at least someone who works for Reddot but it taking calls at home on her mobile. I ask about the arrangements for our tour commencing tomorrow. She promises to get back to me in 30 mins. An hour later and no call back. I call again. I express surprise that it is me that has to make contact and Dinali says that she would have made contact at some point (I later check and find a missed call on our home phone back in the UK!!). It turns out that Reddot sent two drivers to the airport. The one we met was a taxi driver sent by RD but did not work for them and the 2nd was our driver for the tour whom, we later discover waited for us for 3 hours at the airport! We arrange to be picked up at 09.00 in the morning but already warning bells are sounding re Reddot’s efficiency.
Later that evening, we get an email from Carolyn’s father asking us if we have been caught in the floods which have been on the BBC news back home...

LeighTravelClub Mar 6th, 2011 02:08 AM

We too became a little irritated by the touts and tuk tuk drivers in Colombo. It does become tiresome when it's so constant.
We stayed at The Galle Face Hotel, and wanted to walk up to the Barefoot store, mainly for some books.
Walking along that road is really hard work. I've never seen so many holes in the 'footpath' and constantly fighting off the touts, the walk was becoming a nightmare. We came across a bookshop called Makeen's, which had everything we needed, so we abandoned our plan for Barefoot. We turned off the main road and headed for the sea walking back to the hotel that way. It was much less harassment.

Femi Mar 6th, 2011 12:19 PM

I really wanted to visit Barefoot, and you've confirmed what I thought, probably my best option for souvenirs in Sri Lanka. Most of the shops I visited did not have the quality I was looking for. Unfortunately Colombo was too far out of the way for a stop on my schedule and I ended up shopping at the airport.

Kathie Mar 6th, 2011 05:11 PM

Useful info for our next trip to Sri Lanka. Thanks.

crellston Mar 7th, 2011 12:08 AM

Forgot to mention the restaurant at Barefoot. We were there on a sunday and they had live music and what looked like v. good food but it was absolutely paked so I guess one would need to book. Barefoot also have a small store in Galle but it only has a very small selection of goods.

Leigh. Totally agree with the state of the Galle Road! we to walked back along the sea road and saved ourselves a lot of hassle. We also stumbled across a Japanese restaurant, Sakura, just up one of the side roads. Already eaten by this time but the menui looked good.

Mohammed Mar 7th, 2011 01:23 AM

Great to read your writings, wow you like the spicy stuff - go for it and do stop for some hoppers and sambol on the road closer to sundown, the little boutiques along most rural roads is ,arked by some gren lights - driver should be able to show you some better places - while gerally clean enough and very tasty do beware if you have a weak stomach.

Fo good star quality Sri Lanka food in Colombo try Paymyrah, Raja Bojun or Curry Leaves at Hilton.

Pity about the touts - they bother me too even tough I am local, generally they are harmless just a nuisance, torism authorities should educat peple not to bother and harass tourists.

Barefoot is very nice, much more than books and lovely cafe too.

The Singapore Chille Crab (BTW most crab in Singapore is made from Sri Lankan Crab) available in most chinese restaurants in Colombo is to die.

Also recall you asking me about Lobsters ... try the Lucky Tuna restaurant on Unnawatuna Beach. Lovely beach setting with feet in the sand.

Mohammed Mar 7th, 2011 01:31 AM

Another n ice spicy dish you might like to try from the hopper stalls and other typical local roadside resturants is "chicken palandi", usually available at muslim run places. It is a spicy semi dry chicken tossed with a variety of spices onions and egg and is milder than the dynamite chicken masala. There is a good "muslim hotel" just past the junction at Chilaw town and also a couple of similar styled nice eating houses in Anuradhapura town.

Mohammed Mar 7th, 2011 01:32 AM

Chicken palandi goes very well with the egg rottis.

crellston Mar 8th, 2011 01:52 AM


Our driver is waiting for us in the courtyard of the guesthouse so we introduce our selves. Our first question is “Is it ok to travel to Anuradhapura given the flood that we have heard tell of? The driver assures us that all is ok and he hasn’t heard anything from Reddot so we set off. Seems like a nice chap although I am finding it a little difficult to understand his English. It is dull and overcast as we leave the city heading north back towards Negombo. Our driver asks if we would like to visit his home as it is on the way so we take a short diversion just north of Negombo.
We pull up at his home which is in a small village in the forest and are introduced to his extended family of father in law, wife, and mother in law, a cousin and his 1 year old son. We have a cup of tea and the father in law shows us around the gardens pointing out the various fruits and spices growing there – Pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon , papaya, red bananas – it has the lot. We are offered some fresh olives straight off the tree, something we have never tried before. They are delicious, a view shared by the one year old who is wolfing them down and cries like mad when Dad tries to take the dish away!

We have a long way to go so we head off to our final destination. By this time it has started to drizzle. As we move further north and closer to our destination the rain gets worse and worse until, when we are around 50kms away, it becomes a torrential downpour. It does not stop all the way to Anuradhapura. In fact it just gets worse. This is the dry season and this is known as the “arid region” but the main road we are travelling on is flood and the water extends as far as we can see. The sky is black and it seems dark although by now it is still only 5.00pm.

This is already one of the poorest areas of Sri Lanka and area dependent upon rice production and other agriculture and clearly, the crops have been devastated. The houses are all flooded out and the b people’s belonging are being move to the safety of any high ground they can find.

As we reach Anuradhapura and drive into the centre of the town we find it is completely flooded. The water is knee deep (yet people are still trying to get around in cars, on bicycles and motorbikes. Upon reaching the town centre we try 3 or 4 different routes out to our hotel all are flooded and are way too deep for the car. By this time it is dark which adds to the drivers problems but after asking many passersby, he eventually finds a route which looks passable so we head off down the road. A few hundred yards along the road we encounter a bridge, or at least we think it is. The parapets are visible but not the road as the river it crosses has long burst its banks. The water is flowing quite fast and our driver is reluctant to cross but I point out that a number of other similar cars are making it ok so he goes for it and we are across and on our final approach to the Palm Garden Village, apparently the best place in the area.
Unfortunately, the grounds of the hotel are flooded so after check in we have to paddle and walk along walls to our room. Naturally we are booked into the furthest room from reception so we ask for one closer to the main part of the hotel. Of course none are available. However, upon entry to the room we find, twin beds, a room full of mosquitoes, hot water that is not working and a distinct smell of damp (I would add that although the grounds are flooded, the rooms are not). I kick up a bit of a fuss and miraculously, another room becomes available, much closer to the main block, everything working and a king-size bed).

Despite our intentions to eat in mostly local restaurants, there is no way we are going out again. After a shower we head back to the restaurant for the buffet dinner and a couple of beers. They food is pretty good and a wide variety of western and Sri Lankan food, although again the Sri Lankan food lacks any chili whatsoever (we remedy this by requesting a bowl of chili paste – “But westerners do not like chili” the waiter advises us. Oh yes they do!
After dinner we head off back to the room. But where is the path to our room? Over dinner, the water level has risen from ankle deep to knee deep and the path (and the swimming pool) is now submerged. We paddle a bit and then walk along the top of the walls back to our room which, thankfully is above the level of the water. We settle in for the night wondering what we will find in the morning.

crellston Mar 8th, 2011 02:47 AM

We awake in our room, thankfully not surrounded by water! I open the curtains and am amazed to see sunshine – and NO water! I switch on the TV and the news channels and see that the floods here have made both the international and local news. Still amazed that my father in law in London found out about the situation before Reddot in Columbo? On the local news a government spokesman proudly announces, not a major relief effort, but an “initiative” to check all the sell by dates on drugs in pharmacies in the areas affected by the floods!! I wait for news of food relief etc. for the people affected but there is no mention of this. I can see why the Sri Lankans we have met are keen to point out the short-comings of their government. Then again, I suppose that is the same the world over.

Now that the sun is shining we are hopeful of a good day visiting the apparently vast ruins of the city. We head off with our driver and the first stop is the Great Stupa ofRuwanweliseya, the highest (90m) and best known of the cities dagobas. An enormous white dome surrounded by a frieze of elephants which reminded me of a few places in Angkor Wat. We also visited the Sacred Bo tree which is apparently the oldest documented tree in the world and was grown from a sapling from the original Bodhi under which the Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment (or “enlargement” as our driver put it!).
Off then to the Brazen Palace (great name) which once has a bronze roof, nine floors and was home to 1,000 monks. Only around 1,600 pillars now remain. An interesting aspect of this place were the “squatting plates” which remain from the monks toilets all in a line facing out over the gardens. Still complete with the foot prints showing which way to squat! Whilst photographing these Carolyn nearly jumped out of her skin as she saw a very large snake swimming past in the flood water.
Our driver then takes us off to view some of the tanks (artificial lakes) around the city and then tells us that we have seen everything which is somewhat at odds with the guide books that tell us that you could easily spend a couple of days here. Are the other sights flooded? Maybe, but we are now seriously beginning to doubt the abilities of our driver, nice though he undoubtedly is.
A little disappointed with Anurahadpura but really not sure whether this is just the place or a real problem with our driver’s knowledge but we head off for a long drive to Sirgiya.

I forgot to add that overnight I had telephoned (after many attempts) the Reddot help desk to ask why they had not bothered to let us, or our driver, know about the flood situation in the region. I explained at some length the problems we had had and whilst they apologized profusely, I got the distinct impression that all of Reddot had been on an extended holiday weekend and no one was in charge. They promised to check the flood situation for our next destination of Sirigiya and get back to us. They didn’t and I then called again and was informed that they had been on to the hotel and all was fine. How wrong they were.

We arrived in Sigiriya and the first problem was that the driver did not have a clue where the hotel was. Nor did he have a telephone number to find out. After asking 4 or 5 different locals and getting 6 or 7 different answers we got totally lost. To add to our problems everytime we got close to the guesthouse the roads were either flooded or we got bogged down in mud (despite the previous assurance from RD). 3 hours of searching and after numerous calls to RD we eventually find our guest house, the appropriately named “Back of Beyond”. Set in the jungle near a temple, it is rustic but with only wire screens and no air-con it is very damp and more than a bit smelly. Even the bedding is damp. I phone RD have a few words about our problems getting here again and, not wishing to get stuck in a guesthouse and have to struggle out every day we insist they switch us for the following 3 nights to a different hotel.

No alcohol served here so we send out for a couple of beers and order our dinner of rice and curry (extra spicy). Dinner looks good but yet again no spice despite our specific request. I ask for some extra chili paste – no we don’t have any. I insist and they quickly find some.
One particular benefit of this hotel is that we can see the Lion Rock that we will climb tomorrow close by. Unfortunately, despite being close by, it still takes and our to get there but by this time we are not sure whether it is our drivers sense of direction or the flooding which is the problem – I suspect the former.

Femi Mar 8th, 2011 05:46 AM

Amazing that you thought the food was bland. I had all the spice I could handle and then some. Your tolerance for chili is enviable!

pattyroth Mar 8th, 2011 07:13 AM

Enjoying reading your report of a country I hadn't considered visiting until sitting next to a Sri Lankan woman on our flight from Yangon to Kuala Lumpur. She insisted I take her address and # and visit! I appreciate your colorful details.

crellston Mar 8th, 2011 08:56 AM

Femi - I lived for some time in Birmingham which is the curry capital of the UK where curry is almost the national dish. Over the years I must have acquired a high chili tolerance!

Mohamed - we did almost visit Unawatuna during our last days in Sri Lanka but staye longer than expected in Weligama (excellent fish and sea food), We found the lobster to be expensive, in fact higher than at home - maybe we were lookingin the wrong places?

Kathie Mar 8th, 2011 01:52 PM

Well, you are certainly having an adventure.

I'm appalled by Red Dot. I contacted them recently as we were thinking of returning to Sri Lanka this year and I never got a real reply from them - after a couple of tries they said they would get back to me in a few days - never happened.

We also like spicy (but probably not as spicy as you). When we asked for spicy, the waiters always looked duboius, but gave us what we wanted. Our driver told us the whole staff at the restaurant were watching when we were served our spicy food, as they expected we would say it was too spicy.

LeighTravelClub Mar 8th, 2011 02:17 PM

Our experience, in Sri Lanka, was that generally, the curries were bland......unless, you really pushed for spicey. I think we found that in The Maldives too.
Thai curries can be mega hot, don't know about India.
Personally.......I like mega hot!!!

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