Pre-Vacation: Sri Lanka

We’ve maintained near blog silence over the last month or so because we’ve been doing other things–traveling to and around Sri Lanka, to start with.

If you don’t know, Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is an island off the southeastern coast of India, near Goa. It was once a Dutch colony, and then was taken over by the British, who returned it to its people in 1948, the same time period the ailing Empire released many of its colonies from its grip.

Now the island of Sri Lanka was perhaps best known to me as the place where most of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was filmed. I loved that movie as a kid, and despite its inherent silliness, I still enjoy it today. Scenes involving giant fruit bats, elephants, and huge ravines are etched into my memory. The idea of visiting that place appealed to me ever since I found out that traveling there is inexpensive from the UAE. The opportunity finally presented itself after school ended and we had a little time to kill before departing for the USA. So, along with a fellow teacher and her family, we planned a trip and made our way abroad. We traveled via FlyDubai, a low-coster operating out of Dubai, and tickets were $540 for the three of us (of course the little one flies well nigh free for now). So getting there isn’t any more expensive than it is to fly within the States from Georgia to Maine–and right now much less. Lodging wasn’t looking too expensive, either, at about $60 a night for a nice looking B&B in Kandy, and many other places for the other leg of our trip looking affordable, too.

Now, when we arrived, our thoughts and opinions of the place were sometimes similar, and sometimes remarkably different. So we’re going to split writing duty on this blog post. My thoughts follow my initial (S = Shon) and the wifey’s follow hers (J = Jenia).

J: To begin with, I was not thrilled with the idea of this trip from the start. Normally, I’ll jump on any opportunity to travel, no matter the destination. This time, however, I had too many concerns: money, time, diseases, the safety of taking our infant to a 3rd world country… I have done virtually no homework (unheard of!!) before this trip. I was pretty much just dragging along. “Sri Lanka?” – shrug – “I guess it will be okay.”

S: I’d never even toyed with the idea of going to SL before we moved to the UAE. It was so far off my radar that it wasn’t even a blip in the distance. But after discovering that it was a cheap place to visit, I was all about it. Exotic places (at least safe ones) appeal to me. I found my wife strangely uninvolved with the planning process, but I spent time exploring places to visit and things to do on TripAdvisor and other websites, and even spoke with a travel agent who tried to up sell us like crazy. Finally, with the helps of our friends, I felt like we had a pretty good itinerary.

J: In my defense, I was planning another trip at the time… and was dog-tired!

So, our experience in Dubai airport was pretty nice: there is nothing like a crying baby to move you through the lines quickly! The flight was nothing special apart from sitting next to a friendly Iraqi woman. After about 4.5 hours in the air, we landed in Colombo and the adventures began.

The very first adventure was the ride from the airport. Our “air-conditioned vehicle” was, indeed, well-ventilated… with the help of open windows. There was no carseat for Little Turtle, so Shon and I held him in our lap during the 2-hour drive. Our driver chose to take a less popular=less developed road, and the first 30 or so minutes of the ride I hardly noticed my surroundings. I was freaking terrified! It’s quite surprising that in my horror I did not crash my baby’s bones, pressing him close to my chest… Imagine this: one-lane road (not one lane in each direction, one lane, period), traffic going in both directions, everyone honking, everyone trying to pass everybody else; our 7-passenger van competing for road space with both trucks and tuk-tuks… In short, I am not ashamed to admit I cried out at least twice.

S: Arrival in SL was painless, as was the flight there, other than getting too little sleep. The B&B owners had arranged a driver for us to get to Kandy, and he was there and waiting for us when we got through customs and all that junk. We waited outside the airport for a couple minutes as he got the van to the curb, and we beheld the most beautiful palm trees–lovely in their difference from date palms–and our eyes feasted on deep, dark shades of green in the surrounding vegetation. At 6:30 in the morning it was already warm and humid. The ride was exciting. At first I tensed up a bit as vehicles seemed headed straight for us, and when Jenia cried out in terror at one point, everyone laughed and the driver explained, “This is how it is.” Our friends, Fadi and Susanne and their pre-teen boy, adapted quickly to the seeming chaos on the roads. In fact, their son fell asleep in no time. As my gaze wandered out the open window, riveted to every new detail, distracted only by my wife’s nervousness, I was startled at how truly third-world the place seemed. Outside of the airport grounds, the roads quickly narrowed and tuk-tuks vied with cars for space. Homes looked crummy, the people clearly flat-broke, and everything looked run-down.

J: Once I got used to the driving, and was able to look around, I was both impressed and saddened by what I saw. On one hand, I was in a real, honest-to-God jungle. Enter wild monkeys and parrots. After nearly a year in the yellow and brown UAE, the abundance of green seemed opulent. It was very clear that nature ruled here. On the other hand, like Shon said, it was very much 3rd-world. None of it was dirty, though: it was clear that people took care of their property and tried to keep it presentable. Yet, with poverty and wet weather like theirs, nothing looks good for long. And no matter how much you try, your very run-down shack will probably look dirty to somebody coming from a first-world country.

S: The Kandyan Manor is a bit outside Kandy. To get to the place, the driver had to take roads so narrow I wasn’t sure he could make the final turn, the driveway was so close to a rock wall. But he did, and the vehicle motored through a beautiful virtual tunnel, with vines and trees growing forming a roof over the pavement. I was blown away by the lushness of the Manor’s property. It sits atop a hill, jack trees with their huge cruel-looking fruit hanging off, and mist rolling through, blocking the view of hills beyond. One of the owners, Suzy, greeted us. She was warm and friendly. When we stepped into the neat looking house, I was taken aback by the mildewy smell.

J: Now, I have absolutely nothing bad to say about our stay at Kandyan Manor or about our fantastic hosts Suzy and Bhatiya. And yet, it’s not for everyone. Like Shon said, the first impression of our room was not too favorable: there was the mildewy smell, the room was very basic, the sheets felt a tad damp from all the moisture in the air. I was freaking out just a little bit. We got used to it quickly, though. The delicious food cooked by Suzy, the lush jungle just outside our door, and the friendliness of our hosts made up for whatever I thought the room might have been lacking.


The Kandyan Manor.

Pineapple curry with saffron rice, lentils, eggplant.

Pineapple curry with saffron rice, lentils, eggplant.

S: We spent three days in Kandy, and rather than recount exactly what happened each day, I’m going to mention a few highlights from these days. First off, flora and fauna are both astounding. A visit to the botanical gardens helped make this concrete, for there we saw monkeys, a huge lizard (“Iguana, water iguana, or just ‘water lizard,'” said Bhatiya, “They can be deadly. Their tail is sharp, yes, and they hit you with it.” A little post-trip research reveals this to be not an iguana, but a monitor), giant fruit bats (just like in Indiana Jones!). Second, dining on inexpensive and interesting new foods both in-town and at the B&B was great. Oh, and how could I forget evenings relaxing on the porch with Suzanne and her family, who are interesting, fun people and excellent traveling companions?

J: Those were so very nice! Remember that time the lights went out because of a particularly bad rain, and we had tea by candlelight? As for food, if you ever go to Kandy, I strongly suggest getting kotta at Muslim Hotel and tea cookies at Bake House. Yum!


A couple enjoys the beauty of the botanical gardens.

A couple enjoys the beauty of the botanical gardens.



IMG_0275IMG_0245S: For the next leg of our trip, taking a taxi to the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee would cost about the same as hiring a driver for a few days, so we opted for the car and driver route. We stopped at Dambulla Cave Temple on the way, which was a fairly short hike up a steep hill, and this was beautiful–but cheapened by the vendors who perch along the trail, hawking post cards and other trinkets. Monkeys were everywhere. This was great until one of the little bastards stole my granola bar as I paused to open it on the way back down. He growled at me.

J: They were so cute! There were several baby monkeys, too, and Shon had to drag me away from them. I wanted pictures!

S: I momentarily wanted to shoot one.  And not with a camera.  Anyway, I expected Trinco to be more like a typical coastal resort town in the US (or anywhere I’ve been, come to think of it), but found it totally different. The place is run-down. It’s dirty. It has a rambling, sprawling, cluttered and even small-town kind of vibe. Really, it feels almost the same as anywhere else on the island–but drier than Kandy, thankfully. Despite this, as we drove out of the town, past a Hindu temple, and out of the city limits, I still somehow expected our lodgings at Seaway Hotel to be at least decent. It wasn’t. It does sit close to the water, which is great, but a huge spot of mildew on one of the walls and a toilet that has to be shut off because it won’t stop running through are just a couple of the lowlights. If the place is bad, I thought, at least the beach will be good. But then we got out to the beach, and it hadn’t been cleaned in ages. There were cigarette butts and empty cans and various other bits of trash strewn about, including a plastic bag half-buried in the sand against the hotel’s gate. And then there were the folks trying to make a buck off the white tourists. Jenia got sick of contending with that, and was quite rude to a youngish man, telling him, “We are here to relax,” but he still wouldn’t go away until he’d talked to me for a few minutes, showed me his Dubai driver’s license, and somehow, not attempted to sell me anything. Finally, he left, and a slightly nervous cow joined us for a fleeting moment.


Stairway to Dambulla.


IMG_3013IMG_2972J: It was so strange… We both knew that Trinco area was only beginning to draw tourists, but we still expected some tourist attractions. And there were none! On one hand, it was great not to see the strip with McDonald’s on it, on another hand, we were ready for something other than fried rice (which is not fried, by the way) – the only vegetarian dish the town could offer.

S: Before going to bed, I made use of the hotel’s wifi (which worked really well) to use my app and get us a better hotel. Our driver was most excited when he found out we’d switched hotels. “They have driver’s quarters,” he said. “Very nice.” The Pigeon Island Beach Resort definitely was nicer. It had actual decorations in the room, never mind a TV and nice bathroom, a good pool, and a strip of beautiful, pristine beach (raked every morning).

J: Usually, I am the stingy one, choosing not to spend money when we can make do. This time, though, I was so glad we paid extra and got a better hotel. It was nice, and clean, and pretty. Finally, I felt I could relax.

IMG_3005IMG_3012S: Me, too. The relaxation factor made the extra money well worth it. The hotel offered affordable food (albeit not cheap by Sri Lankan standards) and it was delicious, with a wide range of options suitable for us. But anyway, on to more adventurous things: I got sunburned while snorkeling. But it was well-worth it to swim among jellyfish and see a different world just beneath the surface of the Indian ocean.

J: I could not go because of Ari 😦 We had a good time by ourselves, though. Both of us enjoyed the pool quite a bit.

S: We got to the airport hours early. The baby’s diaper leaked. We sat and waited. We paid a whopping $8 or so for a meal for two, including tea. Man, eating was cheap there. Speaking of that, “I’ve enjoyed the food here,” I told Jenia, “But I’m so ready to bite into something and not have my mouth suddenly light on fire. I can’t wait for some western cuisine.”

J: Overall, I liked the experience, but it was not relaxing for me except for the last 2 days. It’s hard for me to properly relax in a third-world country, I guess. There is always the question of space, and cleanliness, and safety, and getting around… And Sri Lanka was much more third-world than I imagined. I guess I expected a nice and clean little downtown and then the run-down stuff around it, but it was run-down more or less all over.

S: Indeed, it was nothing like the pristine post-card images online suggested, except in a couple locations: the resort kept its grounds looking great, and the botanical gardens did too. By and large there wasn’t the structured upkeep I’m accustomed to.

One other note about the place has to do with the people–while there are guys that approached us and tried to sell us stuff (usually their services as guide, when we didn’t need any help finding things), even these guys are usually pretty authentically friendly. While they might hope to get something from your wallet, they’re also actually interested in you and will enjoy simply talking to you. The trick is knowing how to gracefully exit such a conversation and avoid providing handouts, and that’s more easily said than done much of the time.

Jenia mentioned another trip that she was preoccupied with when I started planning our Sri Lanka pre-vacation–stay tuned for more about that.