We spent a month in Sri Lanka travelling to the coast and the mountains. Danny was only 3 and this was our first attempt at such an ‘ambitious’ trip.
We were travelling in August which was supposed to be the best time to visit the East coast and avoid the West but because of the driving time to the East coast we risked the wet season, which turned out not to be too wet, but which did make for really rough seas.
Like many who go to Sri Lanka we hired a driver to ferry us around, given the poor roads and the reasonable cost of this I think it was probably the best option. Finding a driver might be tricky if you are organising your own trip, we got the number for ours from a friend in the UAE, but if you don’t have a number there are certainly plenty of drivers around although it might take a day or two to track one down.
We had a six hour night flight from Abu Dhabi so the logic was that we would need a couple of days in Colombo to recover and acclimatize. I scoped out a hotel which looked close the airport but turned out to be more than an hour’s drive through probably the ugliest most rubbish strewn road in Sri Lanka. The moral of the tale, do some research! And next time go to Negombo if you want to stay somewhere near the airport.
Anyway our hotel was a weekend joint for Colombans and it left a lot to be desired in terms of decor. Still it had a ropy pool, it was cheap, the food was good and most important this was our first brush with Si Lankan hospitality.
The city itself busy and hot. We did find a nice park for the kids and we also bought a kite on the seafront, saw a poor cobra come out of a basket and went for a snack in the colonial Galle Face Hotel. In fact the stretch along the front by the hotel was probably the most interesting spot in Colombo, there are lots of families relaxing and you get the sense they have been doing it here for a long time.
We had a week or so in Kandy, in a cracking house in the hills outside the city. Like most Sri Lankan house rentals it was bigger on atmosphere than amenities, but despite the lack of big tellies and blasting power showers (and a decent sofa grrr) it was still a comfortable enough, was in a lovely spot and had a big back garden for getting into mischief…
Again straight off the bat the people made the trip, the first morning I took a walk into town with the boys while Lorena settled into the house. Danny was still in a pushchair and we were going down the path to the road when we were approached by a couple of lads around 18 or so, here we go, I thought, these boys are after something. And I was right, they were after helping me with the pushchair… after helping me push they asked us where we going, I said for a walk so they took us to a local park, played with the kids for half and hour and then said goodbye. I have to say though the boys did hassle us later in the holiday, this time for a game of cricket…
We also spent a lot of time hanging out with the family down the way, they had a little shop 100 metres down the track and we played cricket (again), went to the park (again), went to a Kandy dance and drum off and had a shindig at our house the last night.
We did manage a swim in Kandy at a small swimming pool in Helga’s Folly a frankly strange hotel near Kandy that was worth the trip for the cheeky monkeys more than the freezing pool.
Kandy town itself was pleasant enough, it had a nice botanical garden, a lake and the Temple of the Tooth, all of which we visited. It’s not a blow me over type destination, and there is plenty of traffic and smog, but you can spend a few afternoons tooling around in a tuk tuk seeing the sites and buying souvenirs. Also try and catch a dance and drumming performance at the Kandy Cultural Centre, where they throw in a bit of fire walking as well.
Also Kandy had the best temperature of anywhere in Sri Lanka, it was temperate the whole time with a few spots of rain.
After Kandy we went to the South West coast between Colombo and Galle, again with some mixed results. Our main base was just outside Hikkaduwa and I have to say the Lonely Plant description has got it pretty much spot on. Basically the town is along the length of the main road which is just back from the beach. The beaches themselves were dirty when we there (it was off season) and because there were few tourists we had our first taste of the Sri Lankan hard sell, from the glass bottomed boat brigade. And when we finally did relent the price and we paid represented poor value for money.
It’s also worth noting that things might have looked a lot better in season, and we could have had a go at taking some surf lessons.
Still, the house we stayed in was great and had a tiny pool, but as we had tiny kids that was perfect 🙂 we also had help from Chandra and a caretaker whose name escapes me, so we were able to leave the kids and escape for a little bit as well….
There are loads of beach bars and whatnot in town and we probably would have enjoyed it more if the kids had been a bit older. Still we were able to get them some Western food and eat the good stuff ourselves as prepared by Chandra for a couple of dollars a head per day.
Again we hooked up with a local tuk tuk driver who took us to his house “forest side”, this was probably the highlight of our time in Hikkaduwa, seeing how a normal family lived and going to check out a cinnamon “factory” just up the way.
He also recommended a trip to a temple on Hikkaduwa lake. We went along and paddled out on an old school catamaran type canoe and got caught in the rain, which only added to the novelty. When we got to the temple we were shown around by a friendly monk, who made an effort to connect with the boys.
We had the obligatory trip to a nearby Moonstone Mine, where I had the chance to get irritated with the hard sell, you visit the mines (which are rudimentary bordering on medieval), then it’s into the shop to be hassled into buying stuff. If you do decide to, don’t forget that you can haggle hard and that there are loads of places to buy moonstone all over the South Coast.
We also had some charming German neighbours and we rented a van one day with them for an excursion to nearby Unawatuna a beach bum town which I might have enjoyed in my 20’s. What amazed me about the beach was that it had all but disappeared because the tide came in so high.
But we managed a foot massage on the beach (a first), which was only one of the many things on offer there….
The only place on the coast that really did it for me was Galle which is great, at least for adults! the colonial old town was really atmospheric and we were able to travel by rattly old train to get there for a few cents. The boys were ale to wander around the walls of the city, and we enjoyed watching the psycho cliff divers. We also had some good Western eats for the kids in one of hippy cafes and did some souvenir shopping for jewelry if I remember.
Sri Lanka is primo elephant country, you can see them in national parks, at orphanges and retirement homes or just ambling along the side of the road.
If you have kids then some elephant contact is usually high on the list, we tried out two places and each had its own merits and drawbacks. Pinnawala Elephant orphanage has got some terrible reviews on Trip Advisor as does this article from Wanderlust . I didn’t personally see any major issues at the orphanage, which is probably due to the fact I know absolutely nothing about elephants… I also think there is an element of a culture gap between Western tourists and Sri Lankan mahouts, whose primary concern is probably feeding their families. The article in Wanderlust suggests tourists see the elephants in the wild, but to be honest 2.5-year-old Danny was not going to stand that kind of driving, so it’s really this kind of place or nothing, although some alternatives like this one look better on paper at least.
We also visited a smaller elephant ‘retirement’ home whose name eludes me. It seemed more rough and ready than Pinnawla and only had a few elephants. Still we had a chance to get up close and personal with them, with them, including a ride a bathing opportunity. Again I can’t speak for the welfare of the elephants, they looked fine to me but what would I know.
Tuk Tuks could be rented for the whole day for a reasonable price, or used for single journeys. Also if you have a pushchair you can get that in as well as the two adults and two kids!
The drivers are good sources of information and we ended up being invited back to one driver’s house for a memorable meal.
Mind you I would only use tuk tuks for moving around the local area, for longer trips we rented a car with a driver, this costs around $50 a day, but again the driver was also a guide and looked after us really well.
Note that the cars are often on the old side (especially for $50) in fact Mr Lee reckoned his Toyota had gone round the clock! One day, half way up a mountain smoke started pouring out the engine. Mr Lee told us to get out and go for a stroll, 20 minutes later he pulled up alongside us and the car was good as new…
The food in Sri Lanka is delicious, but can be tricky for the kids. We got round this by not eating out very much. Instead, every house we stayed in had a cleaning lady/cook/babysitter. So what we would choose food options and the lady would go out and buy the ingredients and cook them up at home while I watched on, beer in hand 🙂
Then we could make egg and chips for the boys and everybody was happy! When we did go out for the day there were usually Western options available, so we never starved, but I have to say the home cooked fare was the best.