After arriving at Colombo-Katunayake (CMB) Airport, which is closer to Negombo than Colombo, I had to figure out how to get from the airport to Negombo. The cheapest and easiest way is to take the free shuttle bus from the airport terminal to the Katunayake bus stop. The airport’s shuttle bus stop can be found by exiting arrivals, taking a left, and walking to the end of the terminal building.
Once at Katunayake’s bus stop, I negotiated for a tuk-tuk which I had heard would be around 400-500 LKR ($1 CAD = 110 Sri Lanken Rupees in Nov/Dec 2011 when I was there). After being quoted 800-1000 LKR I began to walk towards town with my luggage until I was finally able to negotiate a ride for 600 LKR. Yes, I will be that cheap, even after a long-haul flight, because if people pay extortionate rates the drivers will continue to charge them. Don’t encourage people to rip-off tourists by knowingly overpaying for things!
Upon arrival in Negombo, I found my pre-booked accommodation, the Ocean View Tourist Guest House. I like booking my rooms in advance for my first night of travel as I’m usually too exhausted after the flight to deal with carrying around my luggage and negotiating for a decent room. I was also meeting my Canadian friend Liz (AKA Lizaster) the next day and figured it would be easier to have a pre-planned meeting spot.
The room was around $35/night, which is expensive for Sri Lanka, but the room was clean, had a TV and A/C, a bit of a beach view, and a nice owner. I’m sure you could find a place for $10 if you just searched upon arrival and negotiated a last minute price but I usually find it’s worth the extra money to just check-in and relax on arrival.
Negombo gave me the impression of a very resorty and transient city. It definitely seemed like the type of place where you’d only stay a night or two before heading on to a better location. There were quite a few resorts in the area, but it seemed like low season when I was there and there were not many tourists around.
The first thing I did was walk down to the beach to see the ocean, but I quickly determined it was not great beach weather on the West coast and the sand was not as nice as I’d hoped. In the end, I decided to play lazy tourist and just hang out, read, eat, drink beer, and walk the main road which was full of shops selling knick-knacks for tourists. I’m not one for purchasing souvenirs, but there were some beautiful leather bags for sale in Negombo and I regret not purchasing one when I was there. I expected to see similar leather bags elsewhere in Sri Lanka closer to the end of my trip but sadly did not.
Lizaster arrived in Negombo the next day and after some catching up and a solid meal, we came up with a plan for our Sri Lanka trip. Liz was ready for the beach as she had just arrived from Nepal, but I convinced her that we should check out Kandy and the inland mountainous areas before heading to the coast for some R&R. In the end, we decided on a route that touched on Kandy, Sigiriya, Nuwara Eliya, Ella, Tangalle, and Unawatuna.
Getting from Negombo to Kandy was a nightmare for us. From our research, it seemed buses, trains, and planes all go through Colombo, meaning that you have to transfer through Colombo unless you’re willing to splurge on a mini-bus or taxi. Having read about the hassles of this process, I suggested we just pay the 6,000 LKR for a shuttle to Kandy. In hindsight, we probably should have transferred via Colombo to save some money and experience the big city, but the shuttle was convenient.
I should also mention that Liz was joining me in the middle of her 6 month trip around the world adventure and was looking to save money wherever possible. Liz had quit her job in Canada and taken her savings to pay for a trip that would last as long as she could afford. Thus, the 6k LKR ride was a nasty hit to her pocket book and taking the local bus may have afforded her an extra day on the road. That said, Liz also had a huge duffelbag of clothes and souvenirs from her time in Nepal so it would have been tough to travel on the cramped local buses. Small backpacks are king on the road!
After arriving in Kandy, we had our driver help us find a guest house, but it took a while for us to find a place at a reasonable rate. Kandy is obviously one of the more popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka and therefore most accommodation we looked at was quite expensive. We eventually found a small room attached to a local couple’s house for 1500 LKR / night. Our room was just up the road from Hotel Suisse which is in a great location on Kandy’s main lake. If you’re willing to spend more money on accommodation in Kandy, I’d certainly consider Hotel Suisse as a good option.
After settling into the room, we spent a few hours exploring the hectic streets of Kandy and got a feel for Sri Lanka’s second largest city before going to bed for the night. The next morning we awoke to crows making insane amounts of noise outside. The crows in Sri Lanka are huge, loud and incredibly obnoxious.
Given our early start, we had plenty of time to walk around the lake by our guest house and see monkeys, lizards, turtles, and many more eerily large crows.
We continued walking until we found our way up to a Buddha look-out, called the Bahirawakanda Temple, which provides amazing views of Kandy for a donation of only 200 LKR. We weren’t sure if our clothes were acceptable for entrance into the temple so Liz brought along a scarf to cover her shoulders and I bought a sarong to cover my legs (1200 LKR) and a white collared shirt (500 LKR) for over my singlet. I would recommend the walk to the Buddha if you have the time and are willing to get some exercise.
Kandy is interesting because it was the last independent kingdom in Sri Lanka after the Portuguese conquered the coastal areas. Kandy fought invasions by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries before finally being taken over by the British in 1815. Perhaps its because of this independence that Kandy remains recognized as the ‘cultural capital’ of Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The next tourist site on our hit-list was The Temple of the Tooth which is said to house a tooth relic of the Lord Buddha. The cost for foreigners to enter the temple is 1000 LKR, and since you can’t even see the tooth, we decided to just walk around the free area and enjoy the views of the Temple itself. We then came across a place aptly named ‘The Pub’ and decided it was time for a beer on the veranda overlooking the streets below. While there, we were able to borrow an older couple’s Lonely Planet and come up with a plan for our next few days of our Sri Lankan adventure.
After considering the expense of taking a taxi, we decided to try taking our first local bus to get to Sigiriya. We were told that we could take a bus for 150 LKR, but that we would have to transfer on the side of the road somewhere around Dambulla. Not really knowing what we were in for or where we were supposed to change buses, we climbed aboard and hoped for the best. The process actually went very well and I began to love the chaotic nature of the cheap Sri Lankan buses. They are old, packed to the rafters with locals, decorated with religious and/or soccer ornaments, and definitely not subjected to routine maintenance. The gears grind, the brakes squeal, and the suspension creaks, but it makes the journey an exhilarating thrill ride. Where else would you see a massive diesel bus over-take a small truck on a blind corner on a 2-lane road into oncoming traffic? Even the movies don’t cut their action scenes this close. I’m sure I saw my life flash before my eyes at least once, but luckily a local Sri Lankan girl struck up a conversation with Liz and we were distracted from the insanity on the highway just outside our windows. Sri Lankans still receive one-hour of English training each day in school and many like to practice with foreigners when they see them. The girl speaking to Liz had some of the most brilliant green eyes I have ever seen and they’re burned into my mind like that famous 1983 National Geographic cover photo of the Afghani girl with the brilliant eyes. I wish I had taken a photo of this girl, but instead I just sat enjoying here sparkling eyes and the conversation. After the first bus let us out on the side of the road, we only had to wait 10 minutes until another bus rolled up, stopped so we could get on (it only stops for foreigners and the elderly – locals jump on while it’s still moving), and successfully completed our local bus ride to Sigiriya.
Where else would you see a massive diesel bus over-take a small truck on a blind corner on a 2-lane road into oncoming traffic? Even the movies don’t cut their action scenes this close.
After a short walk and the 3,330 LKR entrance fee (many backpackers now skip Sigiriya because of the cost, but the site is still worth it in my opinion) we entered the ruin site, only to see the same older couple that had lent us their Lonely Planet book the night before at The Pub. After quickly thanking them again for helping us plan our last minute Sigiriya adventure, we checked out what the Sigiriya ruins have to offer. Sigiriya is a large site which dates back to the 5th century B.C., when it was used as a monastery, with caves prepared by devotees of the Buddhist Sangha. The complex was then built by King Kashyapa in 477-495 CE and was once again used as a Buddhist monastery after his death, until the 14th century.
While walking around, you can easily see the old building ruins, cave shelters, frescoes, and the ruins of the Lion’s mouth. That is, if you can survive the heat! Liz and I both probably lost 10 pounds in sweat as the sun and humidity made it a chore to be climbing the many stairs. Once we made it to the top of the main rock, a group of monks asked if I would take their picture. I have never taken a photo of a monk before out of pure respect, but given they asked, I was more than happy to snap a photo of them all. I didn’t expect monks to even carry digital cameras to be honest as I thought electronics were against their cultural beliefs, but I guess each monk has their own values. After they had several group shots, they asked if I would like to have my photo taken with them. Even though I didn’t think my yellow Tiger Beer shirt quite fit in with their wardrobe, I quickly accepted their offer. I think that wearing a sarong got me a lot of attention and locals were more willing to interact with me so I would highly recommend men try wearing one. The sarong was very comfortable in the heat as well; nothing beats getting a breeze up your skirt on a hot summer’s day gents!
As the photos show, Sigiriya was wonderful and well worth the effort to visit After enjoying a popsicle while waiting for the bus back to Kandy via Dambulla, Liz and I were ready to eat. Walking around all day had really taken a lot out of us and we were both thirsty, hungry, and tired. We decided on dinner at Queen’s Hotel and it was an amazing deal. We both had the local curry, tea, and dessert for 660 LKR! That means$6 for an amazing meal for two. While we were inside dining it started absolutely pouring rain and we had no idea how we were going to get home. Luckily, a police officer saw us, quickly realized the crazy foreigners were not properly prepared for the rain, blew his whistle and waived down a tuk-tuk for us. Before we knew it we were being whisked back to our place in a tuk-tuk, staying dry thanks to a tarp the driver had installed over the doors. I can’t believe we only paid $6 for a dinner for two, complete with a valet pick-up service. If only it were that cheap to take a girl out for a fancy dinner back home…
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