Ayubowan Sri Lanka: Basics, Travel Essentials and Tips

Sri Lanka is a country that has been in my checklist for such a long time. I finally visited Sri Lanka with D in March 2015. Beautiful country, beautiful people. I left Sri Lanka missing the smiles of the many Sri Lankans we met during the journey.

The smiles of the many Sri Lankans we met (Photographer: Pravich Vutthisombut)

 Despite wanting to visit the country so much, I am embarrased to admit that I was clueless about the country. It was only through this trip that I was enlightened about the country’s political hardship, thanks to the local people I met. Also, I flew in thinking that there are many similarities between Sri Lanka and India. D and I even assumed that ‘Namaste‘ was also the hello greetings in Sri Lankan language. How ignorant. Travel really opens up our eyes to a lot of things and broadens our horizon.

As usual, we do our homework and read up on the most common travel scams in Sri Lanka. From what we gathered, it sounds a lot like the travel scams in India. This dialed-up to our preconceptions that there are a lot of similarities between these two countries.

So really, we flew in expecting the worst, fearing constant ‘harassment’ on the street. We were silently praying “please not this be another Delhi.” When were in India in 2010, a big part of it was learning to recognize scammers, be firm and say no without getting our moods spoilt. It does takes a lot of patience back then in India.

Our trip spanner 9-day, from 23-31 March 2015. I think we could have covered a lot more places, but we decided to take it slow. It was really, really slow with a lot of rest time in between. Perhaps age is catching up, and we are no longer as fit as we used to be. But I would also attribute our tiredness to the scorching hot weather.

This post will cover only the basic travel info and essentials.


Visa – also known as ETA (Electronic Travel Authorization)

One word. EFFICIENT!

If you have applied for Australia’s ETA before, it is more or less the same. Electronic, baby. Super-impressed, with two thumbs up, and two feet up as well!

You may also apply for Visa on Arrival at Colombo International Airport, but the fee is jacked up by USD5. I also read about scam on Visa on Arrival, so it’s better to apply before arrival if time permits.

There are many fake / third party websites, i.e. more expensive, please make sure you use this link: http://www.eta.gov.lk/slvisa/

Fee:
Tourist Visa with double entry for 30 days: USD 15 (for SAARC countries) / USD 30 (for other countries*)
* Nationals of Singapore, Maldives and Seychelles are exempted from ETA, for stay up to 30 days.

Children under 12 years old, all nationalities: FREE

Transit visa with single entry for 2 days: FREE (for all countries)

Processing time:

Mine was approved in just 3 minutes time … I was gloating about it, since D’s approval took longer than mine, but still within 24 hours time. But still, there must be valid reasons … perhaps being well-behaved, aesthetically pleasant, smart, adorable, etc, etc has got a lot to do with swift approval, you reckon? Joke aside, we applied the necessary one week before our travel date, just to be on the safe side.

Acknowledgement email
Approval email

 You can apply both Tourist ETA and Transit ETA online. Do sort out your flight tickets first, as you’ll need to fill in your flight details in the e-application form.

 The Sri Lanka ETA is linked electronically to your passport number, so you will not need paper confirmation. We both printed the approval email, but mine was not referred to  at Sri Lanka immigration. D was in another queue, and the officer took his copy. See what I was talking about. Sri Lanka welcomed me with open arms, man.


Money

We wanted to buy Sri Lankan rupees in Bangkok. We checked at both Superrich 1965 and Suvarnabhumi International Airport, and we were told that they do not carry Sri Lanka rupees.

So, D and I  travelled with USD, Thai bath and Malaysia Ringgit. Upon arrival at Colombia International Airport, we changed about USD 100 to Sri Lankan rupees. We discovered that it is possible to exchange Malaysia Ringgit to Sri Lanka rupee there.

Some banks charged commission for currency exchange service. We found that jewellery shops have the best rates.

Getting There
We have two options from Bangkok: SriLankan Airlines or AirAsia X. Fare-wise, AirAsia X is cheaper, but it is not a direct flight. Longer journey as it stops at Kuala Lumpur first. Therefore, we opted for SriLankan Airlines.

 

Our maiden SriLankan Airlines flight

A very important tip: board early if you want to stow your hand-carry in the overhead baggage compartment. Srilankans travel with LOTS of baggage. I kid you not. We were onboard early, and managed to stow the necessary in the baggage compartment. The latecomers had to sit with luggage at their feet.

A heated discussion …where are we going to stow our bags?

We were seated next to a Thai passenger who travels weekly to Colombo for work. He told us that this scenario happens everytime. We assumed things are cheaper in Bangkok, so perhaps it is for resale/business in Sri Lanka.

SriLankan Airlines has a 30kg checked baggage allowance, and a 7kg hand baggage allowance for Economy Class. I am pretty sure that those bags on board were more than 7kg!

See the amount of baggages at the baggage claim area at Colombo International airport.

 

… and a lot more!

 Getting Around

Friends know that I am a firm believer in traveling like a local. Glad that we managed to use different types of transportation, and saved a bit of moolah with local bus, train and tuk-tuk.

From the Airport: Colombo to Dambulla
We flew in to Colombo International Airport, and straight away head to Dambulla as our first base.

As D travelled with his camera gear, we opted for taxi for the 140km travel distance. I arranged for a pick-up with Destination Sri Lanka at USD 87 one-way, thinking that I got a great deal after comparing airport taxi’s fare online. Mistake. We checked at the airport taxi counter at Colombo International Airport, and were quoted lesser. We were even toying with going with the airport taxi, but couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. D was nonchalant about it, and told me not to worry about the fare difference. Thanks, D.

You may check the airport taxi rates here: http://www.airport.lk/getting-arround/taxi-rates.php

Local bus

Cheap. Live with the fact that foreigners always pay more than local, but still cheap. But overhead compartment inside the bus is too small for big backpack, especially for inter-city travel.

Taxi

I used the most taxis in this trip. Super-cute mini taxi with meter used in Dambulla, and also was impressed with hybrid taxi in Colombo.

Tuk-tuk

Super fun cheap ride.

Train

Love the slow train ride. D slept throughout from Kandy to Colombo! Blame it on the super early morning journey.

  

Electricity

Sri Lanka uses a weird round, three-pin socket. Our travel adapter can’t fit into it. Luckily, all the places that we stayed (including homestay) provide travel adapters in the room. Our swanky Drift BnB’s room in Colombo was even fitted with international socket. Makes perfect sense to me, since they cater to foreigners.

Eating and Drinking

We tried many local dishes, which I’ll cover in the respective legs. Four things worth mentioning: You’ve not traveled to Sri Lanka if you have never tried kottu and Sri Lankan curry.

 

Kottu
Sri Lankan curry and hopper meal

 The weirdest thing I tried would be the local wood apple. Super yukes!

 

Local wood apple

 D tried all the variants of beer in the Lion family. Stout is D’s favorite.

Say ayubowan to the Lion family

Our itinerary

Dambulla 23-26 March

(Daytrip to Sigiriya Lion Rock and Polonnaruwa)

Kandy 26-28 March

Colombo 28-30 March

Negombo 30-31 March

More to follow. Stay tuned.

Writer

Travel opens up a whole new world, which is cliche but true. I am a strong advocate for independent and solo travel. I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia but now live in Bangkok, Thailand, resulted from a chance encounter in 2009 with my why-are-you-Thai bf. I am now split between two countries. One country for my bf, another for the family, for the occasional weekend together.