Day 14, Monday 17 March
The changes to my flight schedule to an overnight flight later instead of an afternoon flight tomorrow means an awkward journey today but there’s no real need to leave Mirissa Breeze until midday. The breakfast is a bit different today consisting of noodles and a curry sauce but it’s only the toast and coffee that I really look forward to. Well midday should be fine for departure but Katoon is eager to get going. She would rather spend longer at the airport than hang around here. Should I blame her but actually despite Mirissa having a nice beach, I’ve spent just 10 minutes in sight of it. Given the way we raced around the beaches of Phuket on the earlier tour, I guess that’s par for the course. Well that’s all history now as we walk for 10 minutes up to the main road with our suitcases as I wonder whether the remaining rupees will last the day. They will if I use only public transport. The alternative by car is expensive as I’ve already realised.
Mirissa to Galle……..
The journey from Mirissa to Galle is a repeat of the journey we took yesterday but then we didn’t have luggage. The high axle busses they use are just not convenient for heavy luggage and on these shorter journeys they put speed before comfort and convenience. I guess that’s the reason they’re cheap. Well, on the main road at least there is a frequent service but manhandling luggage onto a crowded bus is not at all easy. These old Leyland hybrid busses are the backbone of the transport system and this particular bus has a driver who is hell bent on breaking records with the distinct possibility of bones as well as he hurls the bus through busy streets finding any small gap to force the vehicle through. Scary is one way of putting it. Nevertheless, we arrive in Galle in one peace.
Galle to Colombo……..
One of the reasons for the recce’ into Galle yesterday was to determine what transport was available to reach Colombo. Here there was better news. An air-conditioned private minibus service operates on this route. It should be much more comfortable with vehicles departing as soon as they are full. Aboard this service there is no space to store luggage so therefore this is piled up on seats; a seat occupied with luggage attracting a full seat price. However, considering the journey takes 3.5 hours, it still isn’t bad at 1000 rupees (230 rupees=1 UK pound). At least another stress-point has passed and we can sit back and enjoy the ocean views for much of the time. Well, we finally arrive in Colombo. At least we know where the Fort bus station is now from our first arrival in the city.
Colombo to Katunayake……..
Arriving at the terminal, we are dropped off on the main road outside. Inevitably there are tuk tuk drivers touting for business, one of them giving us some disturbing news. Apparently the airport will be shut down at 8pm. Surely this can’t be right! They can’t do this at short notice just leaving people stranded. We choose to ignore the warning figuring that the tuk tuk driver is taking advantage.
Our homework has revealed that we need to take a bus 187 to the airport. There should be an air-conditioned bus for this journey. Arriving inside the Fort bus station, we find the stand for the 187 which does note the stop for air-conditioned busses but there’s only the government bus parked there. It’s still only mid afternoon, far too early to get to the airport. Instead we take a comfort break and buy some food avoiding the need to pay inflated prices at the airport. There is supposed to be another bus arriving in 40 minutes so we will hop on that one. Well it’s a long 40 minutes and we here a repeat of the warning that the airport is closing. Obvious it’s quite a stressful situation but well done to Katoon; she stays calm and gets better results than me. I realise by now that if you ask three different people the same question, you will get three different answers but here in Sri Lanka you have to do better that that. Katoon finally finds someone who knows about the service; nobody connected with the bus station, I note. He directs us across the main road to a separate parking area where the private air-conditioned airport busses depart from. Now it begins to make sense. Unlike in Galle, private busses are segregated from the rest but as with Galle, the minibuses depart more or less when there are enough passengers onboard. All this procrastination could be avoided if more information was available to travelers. It’s now after 5pm before we get underway. With the private bus taking the toll way, it should be only around 45 minutes to the airport but before we arrive, there yet another issue to worry about. Heavy clouds appear indicating that we’re in for a mother of a tropical storm. The rain starts when we’re not far from the airport. We’re going to get soaked. It all depends where we’re dropped off. Well, the final drop is not actually at the airport. It’s at the nearby train station. There is a covered area outside the station be we still have to paddle through the river of water in the mean time. Obviously the plan here is to run a shuttle bus from the train station to the airport terminal. Well, that service does work and is free.
At the train station there is a security check. The police presence all over Sri Lanka is noteworthy. It‘s as if they are trying to protect something or somebody valuable. I don’t think the presence of Thai police is that intrusive and they’ve generally been civil with me. Here they are a grumpy old bunch as if they are insistent on stamping their authority. Quite how automatic weapons are going to keep the coronovirus at bay I really don’t know. As in Turkey there is a security check at the entrance to the airport building and police and army presence everywhere but the important thing is that the airport is open. It will be some time before the time comes to check in with some 7 hours left until our early morning flight.
Time passes slowly but there is quite a bit of footfall with some clambering for flight tickets out of Sri Lanka when they realise their flights have been cancelled. Bit by bit I link together what I overhear but I’ve had no official information at the airport to confirm that they are closing the airport. That is until I go online and see that Sri Lanka is on the list of countries with planned closure of their borders. Soon after I realise it is true but only for flight arrivals. It's common sense to allow out those returning home to leave by any means they can.
Sometime around 10pm a notice comes up on the board that we can check-in. As we proceed through another security check there is a problem and we’re hauled to one side. The flight details we have consist of the old schedule showing a tomorrow afternoon flight. We explain that the flight has been changed but they want proof. I don’t have an internet connection so have to tether to Katoon’s phone. Thank God she bought an internet roaming package as a backstop in case of poor wifi connections. With this confirmation they still don’t seem happy and ask us to take the exit. ‘For what’, I exclaim'. ‘You’re too early’, is the reply. At this, I point to the board which, against our flight number, shows ‘CHECK IN’. Without apology they say, ‘it’s up to you if you want a long wait’. The irony is that the check in process is so slow that there won’t be much waiting time anyway. The check in staff is really pedantic, wanting to see my ticket for my eventual flight back to London. Well, I show then that booking but not the cancelation. Now they seem happy, now I’ve given false information. Finally we’re let go to use the toilets and a sorely needed charging point and use the duty free. Finally, there is another bag check before entering the gate. So, one checkpoint is enough, two is unusual but three is overkill. It’s no wonder the country as a whole is in a mess.
Departure for Bangkok……..
Finally we reach the gate and are soon able to board. The wait is over. Onboard the aircraft, it’s practically full but once airborne, the staff gets to work serving food and drink with almost military precision. It looks efficient but every minute saved is added time for the cabin crew to have a natter at the back of the plane.
No Hassel Now……..
The plane lands early, after not much more than three hours flying. After touchdown, there is an efficient digital scanning process that you hardly notice then onto immigration. Here things I’ve read suggest there could be a choke point here, but no. I know its early morning around 6pm local time but there very few passengers and virtually no queues at the booths. Three minutes and I’m back in Thailand, back in the real world once more. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve learnt to hope for the best but fear the worst. Now in Bangkok there’s no need for that. Here there is a well drilled routine. There’s no need to fear the worst. The best is almost always deliverable in Thailand. The luggage doesn’t take long to arrive and we pass customs and out into arrivals area. Katoon makes a purchase at 7eleven which we’ve sorely missed, then up to the departures area on the fourth level where there are always taxis arriving for drop offs. They’re only too pleased to have a fee paying customer for their return. Things are almost perfect but occasionally there are older drivers who remember the old days of haggle. It’s amusing to see that working in Thailand these days although as we’ve just experienced, it’s quite normal in Sri Lanka. The old boy in a beat up taxi gets his ear bent insisting on a fixed price. We simple walk to the nice new taxi behind with a driver who is happy to use his metre.
Within an hour and a half of landing we’re back at the residence. I’m perfectly happy to put the recent tour at the back of my mind and get some rest but of course I will soon have to face another big challenge to decide how and when I should make it back to London.