Robert and I spent our last week in Sri Lanka at three beaches: Mirissa, Unawatuna and Bentota.
Mirissa was a nice beach, but we had a very strange hotel – it looked a bit like a hovel from the outside and the second floor was still under construction. That said, the guys that ran the place (and no doubt lived there) were beyond friendly and the beach was pretty and we had the most amazing grilled mallard fish one night. (No, we have no idea what mallard fish is, other than tasty).
In Unawatuna, we had what at first glance looked like a really nice hotel with a pool and we thought of parking ourselves there for a while. Except the wi-fi almost never worked. And the pillows stunk. And instead of a cover sheet or blanket we were given two sleep sacks. And the power went out on our last day. But, there was a friendly yellow lab to play with and we found a beach bar with wine included in the happy hour (an exceedingly rare event here in Sri Lanka). Unawatuna was also just a few minutes bus ride from the town of Galle, so we took a trip there to wander around the old Dutch fort.
And Bentota, well, that wasn’t at all what we were expecting. The hotel was really nice with a good pool (albeit, as noted below, bugs). But the beach was empty. No bars, no restaurants, no coffee shops. Just one big huge hotel after another. And it rained. A lot. Not the best way to spend our last few days in the country. But we made the best of it by catching up with friends and the like.
In other words, nothing much happened to justify a blog post. But, we did work up our final thoughts on Sri Lanka. Here goes.
Sri Lanka absolutely overwhelmed me at first. There are so many places to go and so many things to see that we really didn’t know how to choose. And, I was really worried about traveling here independently because we read in so many places that it is best to book a tour. Me being me, I got all worked up over nothing and turned into a not very nice person for a day or two. Silly me. Turns out there was no need to get all stressed out.
In spite of nearly everything we read when planning our trip, you most definitely do not need a car and driver. While a car and driver certainly would have been nice at times, and would have allowed us to make stops on the way from point A to point B, you can take the public buses. They are dirt cheap, they run frequently, and they go pretty much everywhere. Just be prepared for crazy driving (including games of chicken between the bus and oncoming traffic) and very crowded conditions.
You will never be lost in Sri Lanka. Every time we set foot in a bus station, locals asked us where we were going and directed us to the appropriate bus. And the bus conductors always made sure we got off at the right stop. (Just know that you have to be careful with the guys who want to sell you a tuk-tuk ride).
And, you will hear the best music on the bus. Mostly Sri Lankan techno and reggae. It was a blast!
Sri Lankans have to be the most friendly people we have met so far (and that is saying something). Little kids would say hello to us, teenagers would say “welcome to Sri Lanka” as we walked by, and numerous adults would stop to chat and ask us where we were from and whether we were enjoying Sri Lanka. But if anyone says “don’t worry, I don’t want money, I’m just walking home from work,” or “don’t worry, I have my tourist license,” run! They want to sell you something. I guarantee it. I wish it was easier to tell the people who truly just want to chat from the people who want to sell you something…And I really wish the tuk-tuk drivers understood the concept of going out for an evening walk — I know many tourists don’t like to walk, but we do.
We were told that the Sri Lankan government provides free English lessons to everyone – they think it will better the country and it is also the common language between the two primary ethnic groups. The upshot is nearly everyone can speak some English.
Many of the restaurants do not have any prepared food or even mis en place. In fact, at several restaurants, we spotted the staff headed to the market for supplies after we placed our order. It makes for a long wait for dinner sometimes, but ensures fresh food. Other restaurants required one to place an order the day before, although we did not eat in any of those restaurants. (Admittedly, we were visiting in low season and this might not happen in high season).
The restaurants also understand the concept of courses here and generally brought both entrees at once. It was a nice change given most of the places we have been to so far simply bring each dish as it is done – which oftentimes meant one of us was done eating before the other one of us had even gotten any food. Or that we got our entrees before our appetizers.
Sri Lankans typically don’t use utensils when eating and just scoop up food with their right hand. I am so glad that every restaurant gave us utensils – even the local ones.
Eat at the “bake shops.” They typically have samosas and the like as well as rice and curry. The food was amazing and dirt cheap. The tourist restaurants, on the other hand, tended to be expensive with bland food. Neither rule is universally true, but we far preferred the local places to the tourist places. (Except when I wanted pizza….).
They love their onions here. Robert had one dish with three types of onions and nearly everything we ordered was swimming in onions. I spent a lot of time picking out onions…Thankfully, they also love their garlic. At one place, they had a side order of fried garlic. At another, we were brought out coconut rotties with garlic in olive oil. Yum.
Very few Americans travel here. We were routinely asked if we were German (with English being a close second). In fact, Americans are so rare that some people never did figure out where we were from, in spite of us trying to tell them in every possible way. (As an aside, nobody understands “the United States.” We had to say “America” and not “the United States of America.”). But those that did understand us were thrilled to see Americans. And they liked Obama (who apparently is the only American president ever to visit Sri Lanka).
Sri Lankas apparently like to side sit at restaurants. We do not.
Sri Lanka really needs to rethink the whole concept of charging locals and foreigners a different price for the attractions. For example, at Sigiriya, foreigners are charged approximately 3900 rupees a person. Locals are charged 50 rupees. I get that the tourists have more money and I wouldn’t have minded it so much if we got something for that inflated price, but we didn’t even get a map and the signs explaining things at the site were so old and worn that we couldn’t even read them. And the locals we spoke to said the excess tourist admission fees don’t even benefit the local community.
I don’t think I would want to travel here solo. The men stare and stare hard, even though I was dressed just like half the female population here. And the presence of Robert wasn’t enough to dissuade them. At times, it was quite uncomfortable. And the man-spreading! Never sit next to a man on the bus because you will only get one third of the seat. I get that it is hot and sweaty here, but close your legs. Please. (And, by the way men of Sri Lanka, would it really hurt you to get up so an elderly woman can take a seat? Apparently, it would. Robert let an elderly woman have his seat one day and she nearly died from the shock).
The little girls also stared and stared hard. Not sure why. At least it wasn’t in a creepy way and they all smiled whenever they caught my eye.
I’m sure there is some reason for this, but it struck us how nearly all the little girls have very short hair and yet nearly all of the teenagers and women have very long hair.
Our moms would have been scandalized at what we had to do to use the outlets here. Each outlet has three holes, but the plugs for our adapter only have two prongs. At first, we thought we needed a different adapter. Fear not! According to our first hotel, just stick a pen in the third hole while plugging in the adapter. It worked every time and we only got shocked once… (and that was when unplugging something).
There are so many bugs in this country. Most of our hotel rooms were crawling with them. Ants and flies and mosquitoes and roaches and millipedes and fireflies and things with pincers that we did not recognize. And the price of our hotel didn’t seem to have any bearing on the bugs – our last and most expensive hotel had huge roaches climbing up the bathroom drain (the tile on top of the drain was not much of a deterrent) and one of our cheapest hotels was the only one that was virtually bug free. I never want to see another bug again.
There are also so many stray dogs in this country. It is beyond sad. The dogs are sweet and friendly and just want a bit of affection (not at all scary like some of the stray dogs we have seen elsewhere). But some of them are so skinny. And about ¼ of them are nursing injured legs (I’m guessing from being hit by cars).
It took us awhile to get used to the rounding of currency. Bus fare may cost 73 rupees, but nobody ever has 3 or 7 rupees so the bus will likely round to 70 rupees and call it a day.
The hygiene here is a bit different than back home. Sitting on the beach one night, we saw the restaurant staff start to bring the fish out to display in front of the restaurant. They grabbed buckets of sea water from the beach and rinsed the fish in that. Don’t think that would fly in the U.S. On the other hand, we didn’t get sick and the fish had recently come out of the same water so no harm, no foul.
We would both like to come back here some day. But with a higher budget. The hotels in our price range leave much to be desired. (My favorite was the water heater cord that had to be plugged in outside the bathroom — meaning the bathroom door could never be shut). And the attractions are expensive. But it is an absolutely beautiful country.