The Sri Lanka tour was ambitious. Two weeks in a country I've never visited before was always going to be challenging but having said that, I spent longer on a first trip to Turkey last year which went well for the most part. This tour however, progressed against the backdrop of ever-increasing concerns over the coronovirus pandemic. This outbreak was indirectly to compromise the tour from the very start.
After analysing any tour, I always rate success using various measures. The first is normally achievements against targets I set. After all these targets are a major factor in choosing a tour. Well, on balance the tour achieved all the primary targets, although two were compromised: the old city of Anuradhapura and the train journey to Ella. On the plus side, we managed to take in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa which was unscheduled. However, in general I felt more could have been achieved in the available two weeks.
Another tick box includes avoidance of incidents such as bad health which have affected some previous tours. Again, this box can be ticked. The pointers are all good so far but with regard to comfort, convenience and general conduct of this tour, sadly hardly a day went by without some source of irritation. This I need to expand on since as far as both Katoon and myself are concerned, we would never want to go through it again or even consider returning to Sri Lanka with the benefit of hindsight. A combination of three factors caused this tour to fail the 'WOW' test.
You always need a bit of luck on tour and there were so many times this has added significantly to the enjoyment of a tour. For the Sri Lanka tour, I've never known so many factors outside my control rise up and bite me. Things went badly from the very start when our flight to Colombo was rescheduled. Little did I know it but this would have a knock-on effect for most of the tour. It led to the employment of a driver with car for a good part of the tour. It was the choice of company and limitations that restricted us in many ways. The unfortunate situation at Nanu Oya train station was also down to bad luck. Perhaps the only piece of good luck I had was only thr arrival back in Thailand before heavy restrictions were imposed.
The most critical decision I had to make was the one to hire a car with driver. This would not likely have come about were it not for our late arrival at Colombo Airport. It appears with hindsight to have been a knee jerk reaction after it became impossible to reach our pre-booked accommodation. I became too dependent on advice which was hardly impartial. The tour plan looked good on paper and was designed to take in many of Sri Lanka's attractions but inflexibility and poor quality and location of accommodation proved that I had not chosen the tour company wisely. Later in the tour, despite more examples of the lack of judgement on my part, things did go more smoothly. That proved that independent travel was in fact possible and cost effective.
General conditions apply to basic needs when on tour. These include transport, food, accommodation, shopping and costs. Lifestyle and regulations also apply. These are covered separately.
Transport is an obvious requirement but can easily lead to problems such as accidents or delays.
i) Sri Lanka's rail network was introduced by the British colonial government in 1864. It was the backbone of the transport system until its heyday between 1955-70 but has since been in decline with development of road transport. However, these systems were never integrated and the rail service today is overcrowded and inefficient. Originally built for the transportation of tea, the lines crossing the highlands offer magnificent scenery and are the services most often used by tourists. The fares are surprisingly cheap source.
ii) The main means of local and distance travel in Sri Lanka is by bus. While modern versions are starting to appear, most the fleet, both public and private consist of robust but slow and uncomfortable vehicles; most of these either Tata or Ashok Leyland vehicles from India. However, they get you from A-B and stop almost anywhere. For tourists, as with the trains, they are incredibly cheap and popular with young and energetic travellers who are happy to heave back packs on and off these vehicles: Note that there are steps up to the passenger compartment meaning there is no access for wheelchairs and buggies and awkward for standard luggage.
iii) Tuk tuks are available everywhere in Sri Lanka. Typically, short journeys cost about 200 rupees, more than most intercity busses but still small change for most foreign tourists.
iv) Numerous private taxi companies exist in Sri Lanka both for shuttle services and for long distance, not forgetting the jeeps and all-terrain vehicles needed for visiting the national parks.
Minicab taxi rates start 100 rupees (LKR) for the first 2 kilometres and 45 rupees from the 3rd kilometre. There is a 5 rupee per minute waiting charge.
Normal cabs charge 300 rupees (LKR) for the first 5 kilometres and 60 rupees from the 6th kilometre. There is a 5 rupee per minute waiting charge.
Using an example of Colombo to Anuradhapura (203 kilometres), the cost would be around 14,000 rupees, significantly higher than the other forms of transport previously mentioned.
A cab and driver can also be hired on a daily basis to produce a tour but you will be charged for the day anyway if you are dropped off and don't return to the point of hire.
Finally, please note that these details apply to independent travel only in Sri Lanka and don't include the many package tours and excursions available.
From my blog it is clear that we arranged a tour but into the second week we took busses and tuk tuks. Unfortunately, the tour we booked was really unnecessary and that a day by day plan using a combination of the options listed would have worked a lot better. It is really important for those travelling around the country to take your time. Don't be in a hurry. Decide on a travel plan but not the fine detail. Head for the cities and towns where you will find better accommodation and dining options as well as transport links to your planned destination.
Food: Sadly, the food in Sri Lanka was a huge disappointment for us contrary to what many people have written in reviews. I love Indian, Chinese, Thai food and of course, a good country roast but, Sri Lanka is not India, as Vietnam is not China and France is not England leaving me struggling to find anything, I would call delicious. Most of the meals which are repetitive and quite boring, consist and dals and sambals with no taste at all. Vegetarian options are really cheap. Added to that you find dried sea or river fish or 'cremated' chicken they call chicken devil. These put the price up considerably. Fried rice is also common. Better dining options are available in larger cities such as in Kandy where you will find reasonably priced fast food outlets and a welcome relief. All kinds of bread and pastries, rotis, chapatis, parathas etc. are very cheap. If all else fails, find a bakery where snacks are cheap and tasty. Many also prepare grilled chicken.
I found that in general, hotels and guesthouses in Sri Lanka have not been brought up to the standard of the 21st century. Too few modern facilities are available for tourists. For $25 you will not have the facilities comparable with most S.E. Asian countries. Few have fridges in the room, a kettle or even drinking glasses unless arranged. There is rarely any worktop space or even a comfortable chair to sit in. Furniture is likely to be vintage. Where necessary though, there will be air conditioning and a hot shower. Don't necessarily expect to get a Wi-Fi signal or if there is one, it may not strong enough for some devices. Against all this there is friendliness and resourcefulness from owners, managers and staff to attend to the needs of customers.
Shopping: With regard to souvenirs, Sri Lanka has a thriving gems trade, mainly sapphires in different colours. The handicrafts business is dominated by woodcarving. There are many traditional woodcarving centres or you can try your luck in the local market. Similarly, here you will find all kinds of herbs, spices and tea. If you employ a guide, he will be only too happy to take you to any of these outlets.
Sri Lanka is ranked 99th of 192 countries listed in the world poverty index of 2019. However, this is higher than I expected indicating a large variation between rich and poor. 40% of the population live on less than 6$ per day. For tourists travelling independently, they will be met by constant pleas for them to make purchases of goods and services. This doesn't only apply to the poor however. There is evidence that even higher paid officials invest in corruption. I'm sad to say that you cannot depend on anyone telling you the truth or their being economical with it. For example, at the Fort bus station we were told that the Colombo Airport was closing at 8pm, in an effort by a driver to get you there as soon as possible. What was not mentioned was the fact that closure as only for incoming flights. The busses were running as normal. Against this trend, however, I found hoteliers most polite and happy to serve.
Languages spoken in Sri Lanka are a mix of Singhalese and Indian Tamil with English widely spoken and taught in schools. This does not always lead to an advantage as a result of accents.
Costs: It has been mentioned that there is a fee to pay for both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa of $25 per person and applies to foreigners only. These are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are not the most expensive: At Angkor Wat the fee is higher. But the principal is that through recognition of its importance, it is up to foreigners to maintain and protect it which seems rather odd to me. While these fees were expected, fees at many other religious sites, museums etc. were not and I'm afraid we were deceived into believing otherwise. Addons in fact apply to foreigners throughout, right down to overcharging for toilets.
As I come to the end of my summing up, it's clear that it's been most difficult to write. In particular I've constantly battled with my conscience as a lot has been in contrast to many traveller's reviews who've absolutely loved their travels in Sri Lanka and obviously to those in the travel industry. However, I stand by my views because of situations that really happened. I also am allowing for comparisons with other counties I've visited. For the reader who may wish to travel to the country, I would not wish to put you off going, since many obstacles I faced could have been mitigated to a large extent and as mentioned the coronovirus pandemic did not help.
I finally have to rate this tour and have to give it a rather 6/10 which is generous given the circumstances. It should have been 7-8. Cost wise the tour worked out at £650 per person travelling out of Bangkok. On paper that does look cheap but that compares with £25 per person per day plus flights, for tours in S.E. Asia. Would I go back to Sri Lanka again? Katoon is a definite NO so the chances are really quite remote but there is part of me that is up for a challenge, even at my age. I know I could do a lot better. It is a pity that while some of my earlier tours that went well have almost been forgotten this tour will always be remembered and not for the right reasons.