Where to start? There were many things that just were not to my liking in Sri Lanka, it is far from the quaint ex-colonial paradise that it is made out to be. It’s horrifically busy, disorganised, and it feels that you are just a walking cheque book to the locals.
We decided to self drive as we have driven in many different countries, and you get more of a feel for a place than when you just get bussed from one tourist trap to the next.
It is a hair raising experience driving yourself around Sri Lanka, road signs are ignored and the general rule of the road is ‘biggest vehicle wins’. Death defying double overtakes on blind mountain bends are a common occurrence, and if you don’t overtake the vehicle in front of you, whoever behind is instantly leaning on their horn.
Pedestrians take their lives in their hands to get across, although there have been some half hearted measures to provide crossing points. As with many thing we experienced in Sri Lanka, the idea is good but the execution is poor.
There are painted pedestrian crossings everywhere in the towns, however they are universally ignored by all, both motorists and the pedestrians. The police will wait on these crossings to stop motorists, but they ignore the fact that even when people are on the crossing vehicles will sound their horn to make them get out of the way, lest they have to slow down a fraction. A good idea, but the lack of enforcement makes it worse than useless.
Like many independent travellers, the Lonely Planet guide books are my first port of call when planning a trip, and used to help determine where to go, where to stay etc.
Our edition was published in January 2015, so not old, but I am dubious as to whether it has been actually updated in years as some of their descriptions are a little misleading, to say the least.
Let us take their description of the town of Ella, in the hill country;
“Welcome to everyone’s favourite hill-country village and the place to ease off the travel accelerator with a few leisurely days resting in your choice of some of the country’s best guesthouses.”
The reality is that Ella is a single, badly maintained road through a proliferation of poorly constructed and often unfinished buildings. Yes, some of the views are nice, but it’s hard to appreciate them when breathing is difficult owing to the fumes pumped out by the constant procession of construction traffic and buses.
A further example, the town of Nuwara Eliya;
“Nuwara Eliya is often referred to by the Sri Lankan tourist industry as ‘Little England’. While most British visitors struggle to recognise modern England in Nuwara Eliya, the toy-town ambience does have a rose-tinted English country village feel to it, though it comes with a disorienting surrealist edge….. The dusty and bustling centre of town is a thoroughly Sri Lankan tangle, but scratch the surface a little to reveal colonial bungalows, well-tended hedgerows and pretty rose gardens.”
The entire town is dusty, busy, and filled with people who just stare at foreign tourists. One would have thought that by now western faces were not such a rarity, but having walked through town and felt like an alien I cannot help but feel unwanted. Where are the friendly Sri Lankans everybody raves about?
The hotels we visited in Nuwara Eliya were some of the worst in our short time in Sri Lanka. We visited several and viewed the rooms as we wanted to find somewhere clean and comfortable.
Teabush hotel – nice looking, reasonably hot water, but no alcohol because “It’s the law”. Really? I didn’t realise Sri Lanka had become abstinent, given their love of Lion lager.
Hotel Glendower – needing somewhere for lunch, and a quick peruse of the internet to find some accommodation, we popped in here.
Me: “May I have the WIFI code please”
Staff: “Of course, here you go”
Me: “Excuse me, this doesn’t seem to work”
Staff: “No, not working today”
So why even bother giving me the code?
The ultimate turnoff with the Glendower was the appearance of shark-fin soup on the menu. I refuse to eat in a place that encourages the destruction of an apex predator just to meet the whims of a certain subset of diners.
Grosvenor hotel –
Me: “Excuse me, there is no hot water”
Staff: “Run for 5 minutes”
(5 mins later)
Me: “Erm, it’s still cold”
Staff: “Run for 20 minutes”
Me: “No thanks, we won’t be staying”
Staff: “Please, we give you the suite”
Me: “No thanks”
Staff: “Please, we give you 25% discount”
Me: “No thanks, bye”
Ceybank rest – we finally elected to stay here as we were tired, and hungry, and fed up of looking elsewhere. Big mistake.
The place is filthy and mouldy owing to being permanently damp. The sheets were stained, the shower was caked in grime. The shower curtain was mouldy and help up with a piece of string. The curtain in the bathroom was going black with mould. Upon waking in the morning the condensation was running down the inside of the windows.
We went into the bar and I was concerned we would end up with Legionella it was so damp in there.
The food was just as bad, and unfortunately followed the pattern of your typical lazy small hotel – a buffet, half of which was cold.
None of the above are budget backpacker type places, they are described a mid-range. Is it too much to expect clean sheets, hot water and decent food?
The food was hit and miss. It was always tasty, but requests for ‘spicy please’ always went unanswered. Even when staying for a few nights, they would not up the heat level despite repeated requests.
Speaking of heat, oftentimes meals would come out barely warm, on one occasion (in a not so cheap hotel) it was stone cold.
Where were the street food vendors?
Where were the roti shops?
I adore curry and love street food, yet found very little other than restaurants who shared the same menus with all of their neighbours.
It seems that everybody in Sri Lanka is doing their best to extract as much money as possible from tourists. It’s understandable in a way, as to a typical Sri Lankan we must seem like millionaires given we fly half way around the world just to go on holiday.
It’s a little unpalatable however when I am charged 75 times (yes, seventy five times) what a local is charged to go into a national park.
Being made to feel tight by only tipping someone what is, in effect, half a day’s wages just for carrying a bag 100m, only to have them asking for more.
Having someone at a high end hotel grab my bags, carry them to reception, then demand money.
It all gets a little tiring after a bit, and just compounded our general bad feeling about the place.
Other than Nuwara Eliya, and especially the decrepit state of the Ceybank Rest hotel, there was not really any major problems or disasters that made us cut short the trip, instead it was just a multitude of smaller aggravations and annoyances.
We have travelled extensively and never have we considered cutting short a trip, even when caught in a week of solid rain in Vietnam.
Our plan after Nuwara Eliya was to head into the cultural triangle, and then further North into Jaffna. Knowing that the cultural triangle would be another tourist trap, complete with excessive entry fees to the sites did not fill us with hope. Neither did the thought of heading to a region that is basically new, having been extensively rebuilt following civil war.
Because of this, we just did not feel like continuing. There was no point in us trying to force ourselves to enjoy a trip that had so far provided more downsides than good bits, so flights were rearranged and we flew home after just 11 days of a planned 28 day trip.
Our lasting memory of Sri Lanka will be one of constant construction sites, and I’ll cover that in more detail in Part 3.