The weather here in Sri Lanka has been dismal for the past week. As a result we have been forced to stray from our planned course and slow our pace a little. We intend to backtrack and return to the central highlands once the weather lifts a bit. I thought that rather than write about our incomplete travels through the hill country, I would blog instead about traveling through Sri Lanka in general. Hopefully some will find the following information useful.
We've been here for over three weeks now and still have at least a couple more to go. That means that we will be staying longer than our originally allotted 30 days. If you have similar plans to travel longer than 30 days in Sri Lanka, it makes good sense to apply for a visa extension as soon as you arrive as they can only be obtained at the main immigration office in Colombo. The process is straightforward enough and if you get to the office before 10 a.m., then you should have your extension in about two hours. Be prepared to pay at least twice the amount as your original e-visa though.
Sri Lanka is a cheap country to travel in by Western standards, but when you compare it to other countries in Southeast Asia, you will find that your dollars just won't last you nearly as long. There are however a few ways to get the most out of your precious rupees.
Many people hire a private car and driver when they visit Sri Lanka. If you only have a week or 10 days and want to see as much as you can within that tight timeframe, then this option is the sensible choice. But we are backpackers and we have more time than money. Since we arrived we have taken nothing but public transportation. This tends to scare some people but rest assured… it's not that bad. In fact, with the right attitude it's a lot of fun, and, the best part is, it's incredibly cheap. A 100-kilometer bus trip will cost you less than $2. Buses are frequent and if you're traveling along the coast it's easy just to flag down a bus heading in the direction you want to go. If one is too crowded for your liking, wave it through, and another will come in a few minutes. There is usually space in the front of the bus next to the driver where you can store your backpacks. Some bus attendants at some stations ask to store your bags in the boot. If you are uncomfortable with this and would rather keep an eye on your impedimenta, then you can offer to purchase an extra seat for it (for a dollar or two why not right?). Even though it's Sri Lanka, and it's hot out there, air conditioned buses are not a necessity. Even non-airconditioned buses keep cool enough as there is always a refreshing draft coming through the doors and windows thus keeping the temperature down. The seats directly behind the driver are reserved for members of the clergy. If no one is sitting in these seats then by all means use them, but keep in mind that if a monk should happen to come aboard, then you will be obligated to give up your seat for him. Men are permitted to sit next to a monk on a bus, but it is prohibited for a woman to do the same. There are a couple downsides to traveling by bus though. Sri Lankan bus drivers are apart of the gas-brake, gas-brake league of masochistic drivers and often possess the mind frame that their speedometer is in some way related to their rate of pay. Be prepared for some serious testing of the nerves. As a passenger on a public bus, you are also at the mercy of your driver's musical preferences. It is wise to try and secure a seat as far away from the speakers as you can. It's for these reasons that many travelers prefer to take the train whenever possible.
The trains in Sri Lanka are an absolute pleasure and are an integral part of the Sri Lankan experience. They are calm, convenient, and pass through some seriously scenic landscapes. If you are not in a huge rush, and providing that the train goes to the same destination as the bus, I would recommend the train. You will no doubt have some memorable interactions with locals on the train. You are able to book seats in advance, but we haven't done that yet and have had no problems getting a seat. Tourists will always be sold a second class seat unless you specifically specify something else. Second class is a good choice though as you have a greater chance of getting a window seat to enjoy the views as well there is room to store your luggage in the overhead racks. Trains and buses are nearly identical in price.
For short distances you will inevitably hire a few “three-wheelers” (tuk-tuks). These guys will always try to separate you from as much of your money as possible. Try and know how far it is to your destination and ask a local how much the ride should cost. You may never get the same price as a local, but at least you can try to get it as close to that figure as possible. Tuk-tuk rates differ greatly from one region of the country to another though so it can be a little difficult trying to negotiate a mutually fair rate.
Sri Lanka can be a tricky destination to eat on the cheap. There are well-defined traveler enclaves throughout Sri Lanka and these are where the majority of tourists will go. When in these places, you are forced to eat in tourist restaurants and pay tourist prices. Sometimes there is no choice as you are so far removed from local neighborhoods. But it does pay-off to walk the distance, get out of your tourist zone, and eat in truly local restaurants. Try to find one where business is buzzing and you should be alright. It's also a good way to find out what an authentic rice and curry tastes like too. For all you booze hounds out there- an average price for a bottle of Lion is about 300 rupees (about $2.50) which isn't all that cheap and can seriously add up if you have a problem. Well there is a way around that too. In almost every town you will find what's called a “Wine Store” (not in the tourist zones though)- look for the big green sign over a shop front and bars over the front window. There you will pay about 150 rupees for the same beer and about 20 rupees more if you get one from the cooler. I just saved you about $200 a week!
Accommodation in Sri Lanka is a mixed bag and prices fluctuate drastically from one town to another. We've paid as low as 1000 rupees on a few occasions and as much as $35 at other times. Quality and cleanliness is also a hit-and-miss affair. Using websites such as Agoda, HostelWorld, and Trip Advisor are a good way to find out which are clean and of reasonable quality, but often you can get cheaper rates at the hotels themselves. Even accommodation in Sri Lanka is negotiable.
The people of Sri Lanka are extremely friendly and are generally very trustworthy. They enjoy striking-up sincere conversations with you and are always willing to help. It is a very beautiful, easy, and safe place to travel in. We're looking forward to what the next two weeks have in store for us.