At the moment (end of 2015) Sri Lanka is in the grip of a construction boom. Everywhere you look there are new guest houses and hotels being thrown up. I do mean thrown up, the construction looks downright unsafe and working practices are lethal – sledgehammer vs flip-flop is going to end badly.
What is the reason for this sudden rush of new buildings? Tourism – and every man and his dog jumping on the band wagon. Someone builds a guest house, and rents out rooms. Next door neighbour sees this, so decides to the same. Then his neighbour sees they are both making money and decides to do rooms as well. Eventually the whole street is doing the same thing, but nobody is making any money as there are not enough tourists to go around, so buildings sit half constructed, the area starts to look a bit worse for wear, and the tourists stop coming altogether.
On speaking with many Sri Lankans, and a few ex-pats, this seems to be a common theme. The ideas are good, but the execution is poor, and the maintenance and upkeep is non-existent.
Take for instance the Hotel Glendower in Nuwara Eliya. This small hotel was surrounded on 3 sides by different construction sites, 2 of which involved major works with piling rigs. Given the small handful of tourists we saw in Nuwara Eliya, I struggle to see what demand they are trying to fill.
Of course, this rampant construction needs plenty of materials moving, which means there are hundreds of massive dumper trucks crawling along on the steep, twisty mountain roads, belching out vast quantities of fumes. Couple this with the multitude of buses also spewing fumes out, and the fresh hill country air is anything but! We could not drive with the windows down as the pollution was incessant.
We found some of the beautiful Sri Lanka we had imagined, it was on the road from Nuwara Eliya back to Colombo, but as ever there was nowhere to stop and enjoy the view, owing to having the buses try to bully you out of the way, and any available space filled with construction traffic.
I so wanted to enjoy Sri Lanka, but after 10 days I had had enough of the pollution, traffic, construction and general state of the place. It’s a shame, but it seems the rush to make money is having a detrimental effect on what was previously a stunning place to visit.
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.
I wanted to like Sri Lanka, in fact, I wanted to love Sri Lanka. The country has always conjured up images of great food, amazing beaches, stunning scenery and friendly people. So why did I leave after just 11 days of a month long trip, totally dejected and feeling let down by everything I saw?
Read on for the first of a 3 part trip report to see what was good, and what wasn’t.
The wildlife in Sri Lanka, particularly the bird life, was fantastic. We were fortunate enough to see everything from blue whales and Asian elephants, to the small stuff such as green pigeon and more peafowl than you could shake a stick at.
Our first port of call was Mirissa, a small town that has become much busier in recent years because of whale watching. There is now a plethora of boats to choose from, we opted for one of the original operators to head out into the blue and search for one of the largest animals ever to have lived – the blue whale.
Our chosen operator, Raja and the whales, was a slick, well run operation with a good boat and helpful crew. Within an hour of leaving the harbour we found a pair of blue whales which we followed at a comfortable (for the whales) distance. They would surface for 2-3 minutes then dive for anywhere up to 10 minutes.
One unfortunate consequence of going with the best operator is that many of the others simply wait until they see Raja’s boat slow down then head over to see what we had found. Fortunately as we went out very early (6am) we had the whales to ourselves for the first half an hour after finding them. When we left, there were a half dozen other boats all jostling for position.
Accommodation in Mirissa was in the Bon Accord guest house – highly recommended. Keith and Prasad run a nice, very homely little place to stay. It was the most comfortable place we stayed in Sri Lanka. As ever in the tropics, there were plenty of additional visitors, such as this nice little lizard.
Leaving Mirissa we headed along the busy roads to Tissamaharama (Tissa) which is where most people looking to visit Yala National Park tend to stay.
Our first park was actually Bundala National Park, which is famed for its bird life. The scenery was very nice, large wetlands, lakes and coastline, and the wildlife was prolific.
The following day we made the 5am start for Yala National Park, in the hopes of finding a leopard. Torrential rain meant our chances of spotting a leopard were slim to none, so it was no surprise we didn’t see one. We were fortunate enough to see a bear, although it was head down and bum up as it tore apart an ants nest.
There were plenty of other animals to make up for it, and the scenery was again very nice.
Tissa itself has several dagobas and stupas, plus an enormous number of fruit bats who take flight over the lake every evening.
From Tissa, a short drive North brought us to Udawalawe, where we would be heading for the national park of the same name.
The town itself is not a place to linger, but the park was great. Whilst we didn’t see any herds of elephants we did see several individuals, as well a large number of eagles, and the nicest scenery out of all the places we visited on this trip.
We stayed at LeGreen Udawalawe, a comfortable little guest house, where we had the best curry and rice of our entire trip. The food was proper home cooked and there were piles of it.
Leaving Udawalawe to head North into the hill country was the beginning of the end for this trip, it brought to a head many of the issues and annoyances we had encountered so far, as such that will be in part 2 of the trip report.