September 07, 2011

9D/8N Trip to SriLanka

Prelude:
After our recent trips to Andamans and all along the West Coast of Karnataka(India), I personally wanted to visit some ruins and also check out some new country in a week's span. Since there was a timelimit and also a budget in place, I had to prefer any of the neighbouring countries, as I did not want to spend much time in the flight/commute and also not take the burden of VISA processing. SriLanka has a Visa On Arrival(VoA) for Indians and this was a welcome one; and also was a much cheaper place. After doing some initial checks on the Internet we booked the tickets and started doing our preliminary research. The research efforts soon waned off as we were busy with the day to day work. During the due course, SriLanka announced removal of VoA and this caused some jitters in the plan; but a few calls to the consulate affirmed that nothing was going to change till end of August(a sigh of relief). A wakeup call just a week before we took off put us into motion, but even that wasnt much useful. We decided that we would not book hotels or any tour guides and do the trip pretty much on our own. The die had been cast and we were set.

Itinerary:
Day 1 - Aug 27 (Saturday) : Chennai - Colombo - Dambulla

The flight from Chennai to Colombo is a little over an hour. The uneventful journey flies away quickly; the view of the Gulf of Mannar(near Rameshwaram) is beautiful. The land getting tapered off and the outlines of the Ram Sethu bridge are beautiful to look at from the skies. The Bandaranayake Airport at Colombo is neat and swanky. Its not very big, but the layout is neat and compact; there is a small lounge for every flight departure, unlike one single big lounge in other airports(though there is also a big lounge lined up with duty free shops). There is a shuttle from the Airport which drops you off at the nearest bus stand(called Katunayake) , which is around 500m away, from where you get buses to Colombo Fort(reaches in 45mins). I was impressed with the first glimpses of the road, as they were neat and well laid; but had my questions as most roads near airport are generally nice.

Reached the Fort Bus stand
and enquired around and then caught a bus to Dambulla. The bus was a normal one, without air conditioning, and the seats would not recline. We reached Dambulla at around 7:30pm. As we did not have reservations made for the stay we had to lookup a few hotels in the LP guide, and called up Healy, as they seem to be the least expensive of all. LP guide that we had was of 2005, and the rates have almost doubled since then. A small shopkeeper by the road helped us by giving his phone to call up Healy and we then took a tuk-tuk(to be ripped off) to Healy which was near the Post Office.

I did not like the room at Healy and would definitely NOT recommend it, but it was pretty late for us and I was in no mood to check around. We retired early after having dinner at an adjoining hotel.

Day 2 - Aug 28 (Sunday) : Sigriya - Dambulla - Pollonurawa
We woke up early and walked all the way(1.5kms?) to the bus stand to catch a bus to Sigriya. The ride is for 30-40mins. We had a heavy breakfast at the Ceylon Hotel Corp's Sigiriya Rest House hotel there and then started the climb at around 8:45am. Sigirya is famous for its monolithic structure; and also the various frescoes and paintings that adorn some of its caves. 
Sigriya Rock

This was supposed to be a palace, but recent findings connote that this would as well have been the meditating place for the monks. The paintings are beautiful; and most of them are that of the goddess Tara Devi(tantrik/buddhist). 

Paintings inside the caves of Sigirya

The sun was bright and we had very minimal supply of water. I had anticipated it to be a tough climb, but we were at the top in 45mins with ease. The view from the top was very nice; it was quiet windy. A rain could have played spoilt sport, but it all went fine. Descent was quick, and then we caught a tuk-tuk back to Dambulla. (Plan to start the climb as early as possible, before the Sun gets too active).

We then checked out of Healy and went to the Dambulla cave temples, which was just a 10 minute walk. I missed buying the ticket at the entrance and was informed after reaching the top that the Cultural triangle ticket is not valid here. I had no plans of walking back and climbing again and let this pass. It was very sunny a
nd we were getting baked. We then came down and checked out a museum by the side of the Golden Temple.
Golden Temple at Dambulla

After having a heavy lunch in the hotel(forgot its name) opposite to the bus stand, got a bus to Pollonurawa. Pollonurawa happened to be a much smaller town than I had expected. It had just one main road and many small houses and shops around. Got a room at Darshini hotel which was near the Junction and just a stone's throw away from the bus stand. The room was no better, and there was hardly anyone else except for us in the hotel which seemed to have around 10odd rooms. At 700LKR it was a good deal, for its proximity to the ruins and the bus stand. There are no great places to eat in Pollonoruwa(atleast not something that you can boast about). Most of the them are located on the Main road and serve the usual rice+curry.

After a good nap, we went for a walk in the evening and also stumbled on Suchira Communications(a cycber cafe on the Main road) which rents out bikes for exploring the ruins. We struck a deal at 200LKR per bike/cycle for the next day and after a test ride on the roads retired for the day.
Day 3 - Aug 29 (Monday) : Pollonurawa - Anuradhapura
We started our day at around 6:30am and then reached the entrance to the ruins. The morning was beautiful, with mild breeze and clear skies. I hoped for the best. We cycled around the ruins, stopping at various important sites marked in the LP map. 

Ruins at Pollanoruwa

Biking along the ruins
Also, the place has numerous placards for the important sites. The clear blue skies greeted us everywhere and the dagobas with their spires and the blue background was just apt.

Dagoba

Humidity was perfect. Saw some really huge dagobas and some ruins. A note about ruins here is that instead of structures i.e, with walls etc, most ruins just have the basic foundation which is not very interesting to watch. Though,the dagobas and the sacred quadrangle are nice.(I still vote Hampi high). We biked till 10:30am visiting Gal Vihara(the last in the ruins) and then the lake(Samudra) and then the archeological museum.


Gal Vihara
 Gave back the bike and after an early lunch(rice+curry) we caught a bus to Kekirawa. The bus was pretty crowded but we managed to find a seat after standing for sometime. Caught another crowded bus from Kekirawa to Anuradhapura and reached Anuradhapura by around 3pm. The bus dropped us near the railway station and we enquired there for a possible room. After asking around with the Station Master we got a spacious room for 700LKR. The room was huge and well ventilated. This proved to be a good decision as we had to catch a train to Kandy in the morning at 5am. 

Since we were tired, we preferred to hire an autorickshaw(tuk-tuk) to go around Anuradhapura; also, the sites in A'pura are quite spread out and I dont think biking for few hours without asking around was a good option. Also,1000LKR for around 3.5 hours of sight seeing was a good bet to spend the evening. We finished almost all the important sights in A'pura namely:
Ruvanelisaya Dagoba
Sri Maha Bodhi
Lankarama
Thuparama Dagoba
Isurumuniya Vihara
Mirisavitaya Dagoba
Jetvanarama Dagoba
Kuttam Pokuna(Twin Ponds)
Ratnaprasada
Abhayagiri dagoba (the museum was closed).
Abhayagiri
Luckily found a small hotel serving rice+curry and appam near the railway station. A heavy dinner it was! And a nice sleep ensued.
 
Day 4 - Aug 30 (Tuesday) : Anuradhapura - Kurunegala - Rambukana - Pinnawala - Kandy 
We did not do the much hyped Kandy-Nuwara Elaya route, but instead thought of spending some time in Kandy and then deciding the course of action from there. Enroute to Kandy we also wanted to visit the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala. We caught the early morning train to Colombo and got down at Kurunagela. Another option was to go to Polgahwela and then catch a connecting train to Kandy from there(but due to the Pinnawala factor we dropped this); also, Kurunagela has better bus options than Polgahwela. We bought 2nd class tickets to Kudunagela and were surprised to see that almost all seats were full by the time we boarded the train. We settled for a seat in 3rd class.

There are many buses from Kurunagela to Pinnawala via Rambukana. So from Kurunagela you have to go to the Rambukana bus stand and catch another bus to Pinnawala.  The ride to Rambukana to Pinnawala is hardly around 10minutes and the bus drops you right in front of the orphanage. The Elephant Orphanage boasts of sheltering around 55-60 elephants and taking care of them
.


For 500LKR (for SAARC countries only; other countries 1000LKR) you get a ticket to watch the bathing and feeding of the elephants. I guess, they have 3 cycles in a day wherein the elephants are taken from the Orphanage to the river closeby(called Oya) and then after an hour or so taken back and then fed. There is a separate ticket(more dough) to be bought if you want to feed the elephants personally(and take pictures during the act). If you want a picture taken next to the elephants, then pay a few hundreds to the mahouts.


From Pinnawala, you can go to Kegalle and catch a bus to Kandy; but someone advised us to get down at the Colombo-Kandy junction and then catch a bus from there. This was a wise decision as we saved sometime by not going to Kegalle. The ride is beautiful and it meanders via some lush green foliage and many 'hotels' which seem to offer elephant rides. We reached Kandy around 4:30pm and then again went to the Railway Station for a possible room. The Station Master acknowledged and we got another cheap room in a good location for a very good rate(again 700LKR!). After a quick shower, we decided to go around. It was a long walk around the Kandy lake and the weather was just beautiful. The heat from the ruins had waned and it was mildly chill at Kandy.
Kandy Lake

Visited the Tooth relic temple and then an insipid dinner at the Pizza Hut. Also, bought some cakes and fruits for the next morning's breakfast. Since it was Eid's eve, most shops had closed early.
Tooth Temple, Kandy

Day 5 - Aug 31 (Wednesday) : Galle - Unawatuna
We had the early morning(5am) direct train to Galle from Kandy. Having already witnessed the rush in the trains here, we decided to travel in 3rd class. 3rd class is a variant of the 2nd class wherein the seats are just a tad wider (i,e 2 seats are clubbed into one single seat). The rates in 3rd class are half of that in 2nd class. I was very much excited about this train journey. The train started bang on time, and as expected it got full very soon. It was nice to watch the paddy fields and the dagobas which were spewed across. Uneventful ride to Galle culminated at 11:20am after passing via Colombo.
Ticket Counter at Railway Station
 

As we decided to stay at Unawatuna, we did not enquire about rooms in the railway station. We were surprised to find that there was a cricket match under progress in the famous Cricket stadium at Galle. We found out that Australia was playing a test match against SriLanka; we found many Australians on the road replenishing their stock(water!) to watch the match.

After lunch(a heavy rice+curry+noodles) we caught a bus to Unwatauna. The sun was bright and it was getting a little hot. We roamed around the streets of Unawatuna for possible places to stay. I had budgeted for a 3 to 4star accomodation, but most of them were full, or were not value for money. As I was standing next to a small shop, a lady inside told me of a room available. We went and checked this Amma's Guest House; I liked the room and for 900LKR per night, this was a steal. The room had a big lounge/balcony outside it from where we could view the ocean.
View from the room; sunny and rainy days

After a quick nap, we spent some time along the beach. The water was clear turquoise blue, but the shoreline was threatening, as it formed a gradient and also the waves were a tad tough. We wanted to scuba dive, and checked with some diving schools there; none of them gave us clear indications of visibility and the depth till which we would dive. Also, it had been raining for the past few days in this region, so I was a little skeptical about the visibility. I did not want to waste the dough, and hence we cancelled the dive for the time being and instead roamed around the streets.


Day 6 - Sept 1 (Thursday) : Unawatauna - eve Galle
A good night's sleep and I was all charged up. We went to Galle for lunch and then watched the Cricket Match from the top of the Fort. Though it was sunny, the view was amazing. We then roamed around the Fort for sometime. It started to rain and we decided to retreat; the match was called off for the day with the covers put on the pitch.



While coming back, I saw Sanath Jayasuriya coming out of the stadium and I was all excited. I asked the guard whether we could go in and get some autographs from the players and were welcomed without any questions or checks(!!). We waited for sometime, and then saw the Australian cricket team coming out. We did not know the team compositions in both the quarters, and were at loss of names even when we spotted some - for eg. though I could recognize Michel Clarke and Hussey, I just couldnt place their names. Nevertheless, we saw Mitchell Johnson, Ricky Ponting and Shane Watson; got autographs from the former 2 and clicked pictures with many. Then the Sri Lankan team came out; and we spotted Sangakara, Mahela , Mendis, Atapattu etc. 

It was funny to see that the security for the SriLankan team was more than that of the Australians. Also, the ease with which we could get in made me ask questions about the security in place - for it was due to security concerns that Australia did not visit SL earlier. Anyhow, it was a nice evening and for the first time I was 'actually' standing next to some cricketers and getting photos clicked ;)

Day 7 - Sept 2 (Friday) : Koggala, Habaraduwa, Galle
After a nice sleep and sweet tea prepared by Peiamma(owner of Amma's), we left for Koggala to visit the Turtle Farms. Apparently, Koggala does not have any hatcheries but was THE place for clicking the Stilt fishermen. The stilts are passed on from father to son for generations and is very valuable. The fishermen supposedly sit on these and catch the fish when there is the right tide.


Stilt Fishing, Koggala
For tourists, if you pay these fishermen some money, you can make them sit on the stilts and take photographs(not my cuppa tea!). We just took photographs of the empty stilts instead ;) . Asked around only to be told for sure that Koggala does not have any turtle farms and we had to Habbaraduwa(which was around 3kms away - towards Unawatuna). The bus dropped us some 1.5km away from the hatchery; we decided to have lunch in one hotel which was along the road. Lunch was good with the usual Rice+Curry but this time, we had some hot parottas(Parottas are cousins of Indian Roti). The walk to hatchery was much needed, as I was totally stuffed.

The hatchery charges around 400LKR(!!) for seeing the different stages of breeding the turtles. We werent very keen and instead preferred to watch the match at Galle. Caught a bus to Galle and this time we preferred to watch the match from inside the stadium. The tickets were priced at just 30LKR ; the weather was beautiful and it was a nice experience to watch the match.





We decided to walk around the Fort and checked out the Dutch Church and also the Maritime museum. Preferred to come back to Unawatuna and retire early.  
Amangalla
Dinner was at Jina's which claims to serve good vegetarian food , but I did not find it any interesting. The humus and the tomoto soup we ordered were below par; though the home-made multigrain bread was good.

Day 8 - Sept 3 (Saturday): Colombo
Our tour was almost coming to an end and today was the today to go back to Colombo. Caught a bus from Unawatuna to Galle and then after breakfast at one of the hotels, boarded a bus to Colombo. What was to be a 3hr ride ended up being a 4.5 hour tiring ride with some heavy rains in the middle. By the time we reached Colombo Fort station the rains had stopped (thats the best thing about SriLanka - it does not rain incessantly!).

Colombo does not have many budget hotels; most of that which exist are 5stars which are spewed next to the beach. Finding a hotel was a toughie; we roamed around the Fort station for sometime, but to no avail. Later we enquired at the Tourist Information Office outside the Fort Station to be informed of YMCA. The YMCA building is around 150 years old and the rooms are not so great. Most of them are high ceiling ones and smell dampness. Since, we were out of options and also this was a cheap one, we preferred to stay, and also the stay was only for a night. After a quick nap, we again roamed around the markets of Pettah. Bought some more Rambutans :)


Day 9 - Sept 4 (Sunday) Colombo - Chennai
Night was dreadful - I hardly got any sleep as was disturbed by the noise from traffic and also the mosquitos(the place does not have nets). 

View from the loo at YMCA, Colombo Skyline

Checked out pretty early from YMCA(better to sleep in airport!) and after a quick breakfast in one of the hotels near the Fort bus stand boarded a bus to Airport. Thanks to the driver who drove meticulously slow inspite of the low traffic, we reached Katunayake junction in 1.5hours(sigh!). The next few hours were spent in window shopping at the Airport. The Bandarnayake Airport at Colombo feels very compact, but is very clean and lots of shops. A surprise was a small super market(Cargill's Food City) in the airport which sells stuffs at marked price(I wish all airports had this, instead of the outlets which sell at exorbitant prices!). Also, I happened to stumble on the outlet setup by the Postal department -- bought a few nice stamps after very long time for my collection. Boarded the flight and reached chennai by 2:30pm.

Summary:
Accomodation:
.
.The rooms in Railway/Train stations are nice. They are huge and pretty much clean, and are an excellant value for money. If you are on a budget, then definitely prefer them.
. Avoid Colombo. Prefer to stay in Galle/Unwatana or other options like Chillaw or Hikkudawa or Bentota which are just a few hours away from Colombo.
.Use LP guide for reference alone, and do checkout other hotels. Some of them are cheaper than those listed in LP. 

Commute:
. Train journey is a MUST(probably i am biased as i love trains).
. Buses are plenty and you dont have to worry about them at all. But, try to avoid travelling in the evening, the place shuts down pretty early and you do not want to be roaming around empty streets in search of a room in the night.
. Buses in some less frequented routes like pollonurawa-anuradhapura are less; but still you can break your journey and go along.
. Do not travel for more than 3-4 hours in a bus. The seats do not recline and you dont want to freeze your knees.
. The airconditioned buses should be comfortable to tackle the heat, but i did not travel in them, as i saw the leg space to be very less.
. We hardly took any tuk-tuks. Bulk of it was in Dambulla wherein we had to move from Post Office to Bus Stand and one instance wherein we took tuk-tuk for sigh seeing in Anuradhapura.

Food:
. This was a definite let down for me; i expected much spicy and tasty food , but i did not find many. The usual for a vegan like me is Rice with Curry. I guess, the non-vegetarians have a much better spread.
. SriLanka has some nice fruits: Rambutan was a definite good find for me. We both loved it. There are also avocados and some other native fruits. (I wish we had rambutans in India!)
. Tiara cakes are nice and good for breakfasts. If you have an early train or bus to catch, buy one of these and it will keep your stomach full. For less than 200LKR, a cake usually serves 2 with ease.
. Tea - the local shops serve tea loaded with sugar - so let the person know to put minimal or no sugar based on your consumption pattern. Also, most of them use milkpowder instead of milk.
. A meal would cost between 600-1500 LKR per person if you are having in a good restaurant. Otherwise, a rice+veg.curry would cost somewhere around 130-150LKR and fills the stomach.

Shopping:
. Clothes are plenty and cotton is good. The prices are very much like those in India; and if you can bargain well, you might sometimes end up getting some good deals in the shops.
. Souveneirs - At Unawatuna, there are lots of wood carving shops selling masks and other works. Bargain hard. A recommended shop from where we bought some stuff is the one just outside Amma's Guest house and the owner is VERY nice and gentle person.
. Avoid buying at the airport; the prices are exorbitant. The only value buy in the airport is the Postal department which sells cheap stamps.

Overall:
. If you are visiting SriLanka for the beaches, then I would recommend Andamans instead of it. The beaches at Andamans are much-much-much beautiful and virgin, and they have some great sunrise and sunsets. Also, the sand is much more whiter and waves are much less daunting.
. A very cheap country; Excellant roads and amazing bus connectivity to almost all places.
. Biking in the ruins of Pollonoruwa is a MUST.
. Kandy is a nice city to stroll around; especially around the lake. It resembles very much like Nainital at Uttarakhand. Try to spend a day or two. Avoid Colombo.
. The cricket stadium at Galle is just too darn beautiful. The view from the Fort is awesome; plan your travel suitably so that can watch a match here.

Expenses:
Entry Tickets (for one in LKR)
  • Cultural Triangle : 2750
  • Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage : 500
  • Tooth Temple at Kandy : 500
  • Galle Cricket Stadium : 30
Sundries(all in LKR):
  • Bike/Cycle rentals at Pollonurawa(for one): 200
  • Anuradhapura Sight seeing in tuk-tuk : 1000
  • Shopping : 1700
Stays/Accomodation(double bed; all in LKR):
  • 1N @ Healy Guest House, Dambulla : 1300
  • 1N @ Darshini Guest House, Pollonurawa : 700
  • 1N @ Room in Anuradhapura Train station: 700
  • 1N @ Room in Kandy Train station: 700
  • 3N @ Room in Amma's Guest House at Unawatuna: 900*3 = 2700

Commute Expenses (For one person):
Chennai - Colombo - Chennai (Spicejet) (Air) - 5250 INR
      @SriLanka (All in LKR)
  • Katunayake Junction to Fort (Bus) : 41
  • Fort to Dambulla (Bus) : 150
  • Dambulla to Sigriya (Bus) : 35
  • Sigriya to Dambulla (Auto) : 200
  • Dambulla to Pollonurawa (Bus) : 76
  • Pollonurawa to Kekirawa (Bus) : 78
  • Kekirawa to Anuradhapura (Bus): 55
  • Anuradhapura to Kurunagela (Train) : 180
  • Kurunagela to Rambukanna (Bus) : 78
  • Rambukanna to Pinnawala (Bus) : 10
  • Pinnawala to Colombo-Kandy road junction (Bus) : 13
  • Colombo-Kandy road junction to Kandy (Bus) : 75
  • Kandy to Galle (Train) : 175
  • Galle to Unawatuna (Bus) : 16
  • Unawatuna to Koggala (Bus) : 10
  • Habaraduwa to Galle (Bus) : 20
  • Galle to Colombo (Bus) : 115

All inclusive total expenses for two: 24,000 INR (approx 57,600 LKR or 533 USD)
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