I remember planning to visit Sri Lanka back in 2013 when I came across some cheap airfares to Colombo, but I wasn’t too keen to buy the tickets then because the fares to Malaysia and Indonesia were more enticing and way cheaper. To cut the story short, I ended up visiting Penang, Jakarta, and Yogyakarta. Fast forward to 2014 and as you might have already read in my previous posts, my sister and I spent a few days in the Maldives in May. We originally planned a 5-day, 4-night trip but due to circumstances common among low-cost carriers and some personal matters as well, we were left with no other option but to shorten it to a 3-day trip. I thought it would be a total waste of money to fly to the Maldives with that set up. But knowing that Sri Lanka and India were just a stone’s throw away, I started looking for cheap flights from Male. That’s when I found Sri Lankan Airlines’ 100-dollar flight to Colombo and booked tickets right away. I guess the bunch of circumstances were blessings in disguise for me to be able to fly to Sri Lanka.
Aside from its popular former name, Ceylon, Sri Lanka, which literally means ‘resplendent island’, is also known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean because of its natural beauty and precious landscapes, culture, and history, making it a standout among its neighbors in South Asia.
I learned that Sri Lanka requires a paid visa for visiting Filipinos (and citizens who are not residents of SAARC member countries), except in cases when the passengers are just transiting for 48 hours or less, in which a transit visa is issued for free. I thought that the transit visa was just perfect for us because we would be staying in the country for a little less than 48 hours. We applied for an electronic travel authorization in advance via the Sri Lanka Electronic Travel Authorization System website.
DAY 1 – 1100 HRS Air travel from Male City to Colombo took just a little over an hour. We arrived at the airport before lunchtime. Something interesting happened when we arrived at Bandaranaike Airport in Colombo. As we understood it, we could get out of the airport and spend 2 days at most with our transit travel authorization. However, the immigration officer who reviewed our documents refused to let us out of the airport without applying for a paid visa explaining that we went to Sri Lanka for tourism purposes. I argued that indeed, we were tourists, but we had onward tickets with us and even showed them to him to assure him that we would be leaving Sri Lanka in less than 48 hours. But my explanation got me nowhere; the immigration officer was firm with his decision. Eventually, a female immigration officer approached him and he began discussing to her in their native tongue what I thought was something about our situation. The immigration officer then went inside an office and when he got out another immigration officer was already accompanying him. They approached us and this immigration officer who was with him asked us a few questions about our trip. If I am right, he was a supervisor. With a smile on his face, he talked to the immigration officers, again, in their own language. Finally, when he got back to us, he told us that we would be granted a free transit visa and apologized for the inconvenience the situation has caused us. My sister and I speculated that the immigration officer was either new in the job or has never experienced processing transit visas in the past. Just outside the arrivals area of the airport is an organized lobby composed of taxi operator kiosks, tourist information center, foreign exchange counters, and telecoms booths. We bought a 3G sim card with 6GB worth of data for US$13.50, which I thought was really affordable. A man then approached us and offered us a taxi ride to the city proper (not exactly the city proper, as we were headed to Nugegoda) for US$25. Based on my research this price was reasonable so we accepted the offer. Before we left the airport, the taxi operator, who apparently runs a travel agency, presented to us several quick tour offers we might be interested in, after having learned that we didn’t have concrete plans yet for the rest of our brief stay in Sri Lanka. My sister just gave her Viber number to him as we were still undecided on how we’ll spend the next day in the country.
DAY 1, 1500 HRS The rest of the day was spent walking around Colombo and appreciating the relaxed vibe of the city. We went shopping for tea (which I thought would be the perfect gift for friends and loved ones back home) and lounged for some afternoon tea at Heladiv Tea Club at the refurbished Old Dutch Hospital Complex. Afterwards, we headed to the popular Galle Face Green for a view of the sunset and to get a glimpse of the local life. The park was packed with tons of locals and a number of tourists as well. Most of the people were just hanging out and chatting with family and friends; some were feasting on a variety of street food bought from a long line of food stalls; some were flying kites; and just like us, some were waiting for the view of the sunset.
DAY 1, 1800 HRS As the sun went down, we continued strolling along the financial district and ended our day with a McDonald’s dinner, Sri Lankan style. If you may ask, my younger sister is always curious about the local offerings in each country where there is a McDonald’s. Unable to join me and my sister in most of our trips abroad, I usually dine at least once at McDonald’s, if there is one, to sample a meal that is unique in a particular country, take a picture of it, and share to my sister my dining experience. I’m such a sweet brother. Hahahaha.
DAY 1, 2000 HRS My sister was able to close the deal with the travel agency owner, Mr. Kumar, for the next day’s tour in the World Heritage City of Kandy for US$95. The cost was mainly just for the rental of the car, from pick up from the guesthouse to transfer to the airport. Kandy is quite far from Colombo and we didn’t want to waste so much time taking public transportation, so we thought the price was just right. Our problem then was that we didn’t have 95 dollars with us. We only had a few dollars left and the travel agent told us that he does not accept credit cards as payment at that time. Good thing there were lots of ATMs around Colombo. But the bad thing was, our cards were all rejected. We almost came to the point where we wanted to cancel the car rental and just stay in Colombo while waiting for our flight to Singapore, but then we hoped for a miracle the next day.
DAY 2, 1000 HRS Fortunately, my sister was able to get some cash the following day and off we traveled away from Colombo. We were told by our driver-cum-tour guide, Sajive (who by the way I believe is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my travels) that we were headed for the World Heritage City of Kandy. Kandy is 3-4 hours away from Colombo so we had to stop along the way for a quick lunch.
DAY 2, 1300 HRS As a side trip, Sajive brought us to our first destination, the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage which is located in the town of Kegalle. There we watched the elephants being fed and bathed. I had no idea about the orphanage prior to the trip. It was later when I have read that it is one of the several animal attractions that are a subject of protests of animal rights advocates because of some animal safety concerns. One the other hand, I have also read that the management sees to it that the elephants they take in are treated ethically. If ever you are planning to visit this place when you go to Sri Lanka, take time to read a few things about it to help you decide if it would feel alright to visit the place or not. Entrance to the orphanage starts at 2000 LKR (or around 15 USD) for foreigners.
DAY 2, 1500 HRS After a brief stop at Pinnawala, we then proceeded to the City of Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a former capital of Sri Lanka. It is regarded as a sacred city as it houses the Temple of the Tooth Relic (the sacred tooth of Buddha). Sajive first brought us to the University of Peradeniya, the second oldest university in Sri Lanka, which is a few kilometers away from Kandy. The campus is large and forested and houses several old yet interesting buildings. It reminded me of my former school’s environment. After hanging out in the university grounds for a short while, we then headed to the city proper where we were briefly toured around by Sajive. The City of Kandy is a bustling one, yet maintains that ancient vibe making it a must-visit among travelers. The city proper is packed with locals and tourists alike. Right in the middle of the city proper is the Kandy Lake, an artificial lake built in the 1800’s by the king of Sri Lanka. The lake is surrounded by several structures, including the Temple of the Tooth.
DAY 2, 1600 HRS Later in the afternoon, Sajive brought us to the cultural center to watch a Kandyan dance performance. I am not really an avid fan of cultural performances, but it is quite interesting to watch one once in a while. The traditional dance follows a story I no longer recall, with each segment or performance representing a chapter within the story. The performance lasted a little under an hour and costs 500 LKR (approx. 4 USD) per person. Arrive early to get a good seat.
DAY 2, 1730 HRS It was almost evening when the show ended and we decided to walk along the vicinity of the Temple of the Tooth. We didn’t go inside since we were running out of time. Besides, we didn’t have enough cash to pay for the entrance ticket. Instead, we went to Odel, a famous department store chain in Sri Lanka to buy some souvenirs. We then proceeded to White House, a posh bakeshop and restaurant serving Sri Lankan, Indian, Chinese, and Western dishes, to have our early dinner before heading back to the airport. It’s a good thing to note that credit and debit cards are accepted by quite a lot of shops in Sri Lanka.
DAY 2, 2230 HRS We arrived at the airport at half past 10, just in time to check in for our 1:20AM flight to Singapore. We bid Sajive goodbye and handed him a simple present for the kindness and generosity he had shown to us. In our brief visit to Sri Lanka, I must say that I found the locals warm and friendly, based on the people we have crossed paths with. They speak English quite well, too. Just be warned about touts who would persuade you into buying some “precious” stuff. There’s quite a few of them in downtown Colombo. Just politely decline and walk away. Thirty-eight hours is a good length of time to get introduced to the beautiful island nation of Sri Lanka, but definitely not enough to experience everything that it offers. It is one country that I would like to visit again some time in the future.