Our Trip to Sri Lanka

by Tony Stubbin
tony.stubbin@nt.gov.au
 

Our trip to Sri Lanka 
A Map of Sri Lanka 
Getting to/from Sri Lanka 
Getting around Sri Lanka 
Eating in Sri Lanka 
Places to Stay 
Shopping in Sri Lanka 
Banks 
Telephones 
Sri Lanka Slideshow 

Weekend Trips 
Kandy 
Unawatuna 
Hikkaduwa 
Mount Lavinia 

Adoption Day 

Sri Lankan Travel Internet Sources 
Sri Lankan Travel Information
Sri Lankan Travelogues 
Other Resources 

A Map of Sri Lanka

A Map of Sri LankaClick for a larger map (32k)

Our trip to Sri Lanka

This travel guide/travelogue describes a trip that I made to Sri Lanka in January 1996 with my wife Helen and our five year old son Pria.

This was our second visit to Sri Lanka and like the first time we were not normal tourists, we were in Sri Lanka to adopt our second son from Sri Lanka, a four month old boy, Krishan. It had taken 3½ years to be allocated Krishan and we were required by Sri Lankan law to spend at least 21 days in Sri Lanka, although in practice this usually means 4 to 5 weeks.

Monday to Friday saw us going about our adoption business:

On the weekends, however, we were free to explore Sri Lanka and relax. In view of the limited time available (usually Friday lunch until Sunday evening) we did not venture very far on our weekends away. In any case the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka meant that we were essentially confined to the south-west of Sri Lanka.

The following sections present a variety of observations about Sri Lanka in general and Colombo in particular. This is followed by a discussion of our weekend destinations.

Getting to/from Sri Lanka

We from Darwin by to Singapore and onto Colombo with Emirates. We returned again via Singapore with Emirates and Qantas.

Both flights with Qantas were at night and were better than we experienced in 1991, particularly the overnight flight home where our two boys slept most of the way and the Qantas service was very good.

The Emirates flights were also good, although I was not as impressed with the level of attention provided on this trip as we enjoyed in 1991. It would appear that Emirates service was slipped back towards the rest of the field somewhat. A personal gripe that I had was that although every seat in every class has its own video screen, mine did not work - just my luck.

Getting around Sri Lanka

Around Colombo we generally travelled around by three wheeler. We had a regular driver called Gamini. When we didn't use Gamini or his friends we generally found that as long as we knew the approximate price and we were firm (walking away or laughing usually worked) negotiating a fair price was not too difficult.

Three wheelers are plentiful almost everywhere in Colombo (and elsewhere) and drivers are usually prepared to wait for you if you want to return to your accommodation after a few hours or if you want to visit a number of places. In some places (such as the Fountain Café) the three wheelers are charged for parking which you will be expected to pay, however, the charge is usually something like Rp 2.

Eating in Sri Lanka

In Colombo we frequented a small number of restaurants that offered a reasonable quality of cleanliness, a pleasant place to sit and the all important toilet.

One of the best places we enjoyed was Fountain Café, a sit down restaurant with uniformed aiters providing good table service. There is also an adjoining take-away section and a good supermarket next door. The restaurant is run by Colombo Cold Stores, Sri Lanka's leading indigenous manufacturer of ice cream and soft drink which are widely marketed under the Elephant House brand. Locals may not know the restaurant by the name Fountain Café but as the Elephant Restaurant. The Fountain Café serves a range of eastern and western meals. a very good (but some times too hot!) rice and curry and excellent and reasonably priced ice cream!

The only place we ate in Fort was the famous Pagoda restaurant, a large and very popular restaurant in Chatham Street. Service is either from the cafeteria style servery or table service by barefooted waiters. Good simple rice and curry is available along with sandwiches (vegetable sandwich conjured up images of potato and broccoli between two pieces of bread but turned out to be a delicious salad sandwich) and a very good range of mild or spicy short eats. Also available is a good range of cakes sold at the front of the restaurant.

has a large restaurant in Union Place, Colombo 2 which was a particularly good place for Pria to play on the great play equipment. We are big fans of Pizza Hut in Darwin and enjoyed the quality of food in the Union Place outlet.

Liberty Plaza has very few places to eat. There is a take-away Pizza Hut - but nowhere to sit! There are two coffee shops called something like Seven to Seven, part of a chain with another outlet at Majestic City. They sell good short eats and cakes as well as delicious donuts. The shop closest to the Ananda Kumaraswarmy Mawatha entrance is the best with a television and newspapers to read, the other shop is less intimate and has only stools and benches.

One place to avoid nearby is Burger World, we had the misfortune of visiting this restaurant on a public holiday (Thai Pusam) when most things were closed down. Burger World is a poor take-off of the US Burger King/ Australian Hungry Jacks chain. Food was very small in servings and expensive.

When we visited Majestic City in 1991 it had only just opened and the only place to eat was a cake/short eat shop. Majestic City now has a basement food court with a great range of food. Here you can eat Sri Lankan, Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Pizza, Chicken, and Short Eats. This was one of our favourite places to eat in Colombo.

At Borella Junction we enjoyed an authentic rice and curry at the new Victory Cabin and there was a branch of the Pagoda aligned Green Cabin in the YMBA shopping complex which serves very tasty short eats..

Sri Lanka is famous for its rice and curry. However, I was often annoyed to arrive at a restaurant to learn that rice and curry is only available in the evening, on certain days or at certain times of the day. A trap I fell into a few times was to agree to a curry to be made on the spot, invariably the curries would be very unsatisfying. I learnt to order something else when confronted with an offer to make a curry.

Finding food without chilli was sometimes difficult, especially in Colombo away from tourist places. I recall asking a vendor whether some short eats were hot and he replayed that even a child could eat them. As it turned out neither Helen or Pria could cope and even I had trouble with the heat.

Places to Stay

While in Colombo we stayed in two places. Our first few nights were at Wayfarer's Inn at 77 Rosmead Place, Colombo 7. The rest of our stay in Colombo (about 21 nights) was at a private house in Punchi Borella, near All Saints Church.

Wayfarer's Inn is an old rambling house on a large block of land in one of Colombo's better neighbourhoods. The house next to Wayfarer's is the private residence of the President of Sri Lanka, Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. We arrived at Wayfarer's at about 1:00am and had been warned that because of the security situation the street was blocked off nearby and that vehicular access was available from one direction only. We were surprised, however, to find a sandbag gun placement and metal barricades next to the front gate of Wayfarer's, protecting the adjacent President's house. The sight of soldiers holding machine guns was certainly a shock for all of us!

In the light of day the soldiers turned out to be friendly and we were able to walk through the vehicle barricade across Rosmead Place.

Our room was very comfortable with old style furniture. We chose a fan cooled room as we were leaving Darwin's hot/wet season for Colombo's cool/dry season. The room was US$13 +10% per night for two adults and a child sharing a double bed. Breakfast was included in the tariff and includes eggs/omelette, cereal (Nestum - a local lentil based porridge) and oven baked toast (rock hard but tasty - very popular with our son). Soft drinks and beer are available for purchase at reasonable prices. Evening meals need to be ordered earlier in the day from a selection of set meals. We enjoyed some good Sri Lankan meals at Wayfarer's although when we ordered a meal which included curry and egg hoppers we were taken aback by the dozen eggs presented to us.

The staff at Wayfarer's are very friendly and helpful. The girls in the kitchen who prepare your meals speak little or no English and are very shy, but a lot of fun. In the back yard of Wayfarer's there is a menagerie of animals including deer, swans and other birds.

A private pool nearby is available for use by Wayfarer's guests, although we did not feel the need for a swim.

Shopping in Sri Lanka

If you are looking for Western style shops the best bets are Liberty Plaza at Kollupitiya (Colombo 3) and Majestic City at Bambalapitiya. (Colombo 4). These modern shopping centres are packed with a large number of generally very small shops which sell only a limited range of goods. Often the goods sold by one shop will be available at a similar shop a short distance away.

A good range of saris is available in Maradana Road, Maradana with tailors available to make blouses and under dresses.

If you're looking for souvenirs in Colombo you can't go past the Government run Laksala in Fort or the smaller, more professional, privately run Lakmadura in Colombo 7. Both of these shops have an excellent rage of souvenirs and prices are fixed. Souvenirs are also available in a number of shops and stalls along Chatham Street, Fort on the opposite side to the Pagoda. Bargaining skills are essential.

If you are looking for baby goods the best place that we found after extensive searching was Sharaz, Galle Road Bambalapitiya, about one kilometre south of Majestic City on the ocean side. We found many baby shops throughout Colombo but they generally had only a very limited range of goods. Sharaz had almost everything you could ask for and also had a very good range of toys.

Keels at Liberty Plaza and Cargills at Majestic City both have a very good range of food and other useful things. Elephant House in Colombo 2 and Cargills and Saravodya in Fort also have a good range. The Cargills Fort store is an old fashioned department store and keeps a range of useful items including books, household hoods, pharmaceuticals and gift cards. Food items are also available from innumerable small stores and street-side markets all over the place.

A good range of books is available at the Lake House Book Shop on Sir C.A. Gardiner Mawatha, Colombo 2.

Banks

We took Thomas Cook Australian Dollar travellers cheques and they were accepted everywhere we went. The simple lesson that I learnt in changing travellers cheques was that foreign banks are much more efficient and pleasant to deal with. In particular I changed a number of cheques at the Hong Kong Bank in Ward Place, Borella and ANZ Grindlays in Fort. Local banks were generally very slow in completing the fairly simple task of cashing a travellers cheque. My greatest fear was hearing those dreaded words, "take a seat", this meant very, very slow service. The worst offenders were Government owned local banks. The service provided by the Sampath Bank at Majestic City, Bambalapitiya was one local bank that provided a good service.

I took a Commonwealth Bank of Australia Mastercard which was linked to a savings account and also had credit. Despite the fact that I could both get cash advances and withdraw from my account from ATMs while in Singapore on the way to Sri Lanka I could not get any ATMs in Colombo to cough up any money on one of those too common public holidays. I could use my Mastercard, however, to get cash advances from the Hong Kong Bank during business hours.

An early set back during our stay in Sri Lanka was when Helen had her purse and address book stolen as we were boarding the very crowded train from Fort to Kandy on a Friday Poya day. Helen had only a small amount of Australian cash in her purse but she lost her Visa card and this was of concern as it was in credit.

We had considerable trouble reporting the Visa card as stolen, primarily because we had not researched how to deal with a lost card before leaving Australia. In Kandy the People's Bank offered to look out for the card if it was presented at that branch - not very helpful. ANZ Grindlays tried to help but as it was a Saturday they were not on-line to the main Fort Branch where help could be provided. We had to wait until Monday, back in Fort at ANZ Grindlays, to report the card and one staff member, Ravi was very helpful. He faxed and telexed the Commonwealth Bank in Australia reporting the card as stolen, even though Helen did not know her account number. Unfortunately the Commonwealth Bank did not respond to Ravi confirming receipt of the message/s and forwarding a replacement card as requested. It was not until a month later when we returned to Australia that Helen was able to confirm that the stolen card had been cancelled and a replacement card arranged - not very good service from our bank - Which Bank!

Telephones

A pleasant change since our 1991 visit to Sri Lanka was the appearance, almost everywhere, of modern IDD public telephones. The most extensive network is operated by Lanka Pay Phones with yellow phone booths. Credit cards which make an attractive souvenir are usually available at near-by shops, although larger denomination cards, which are essential for IDD calls, can be difficulty to purchase. Metro Phones operate a less extensive network of orange coloured public telephones.

Weekend Trips

Kandy

We travelled to Kandy on a Poya day which fell on a Friday. This meant a long weekend for Sri Lankans and hence the trains were crowded.  The trip on the train was a little uncomfortable because of the crowd. The train passed the oil tanks on the north east outskirts of Colombo which in November 1995 had been blown up by Tamil Tiger terrorists. The explosion and the ensuing inferno resulted in the huge tanks taking on the appearance of enormous deflated children's swimming pools.

We arrived at lunch time and walked to the Devon Restaurant. The Restaurant was very busy and because it was after 2:00pm rice and curry was not available so we had short eats. Service was a little slow despite the allocation of one waiter for every two tables.

We then walked to the Devon Rest hotel on Sangaraja Mawatha by the lake opposite the Temple of the Tooth. We took one of the few rooms available, on the lake side for Rp770 per night. The room was very clean and quite modern. It had a double bed, a single bed and a modern bathroom.

On the Friday night we went to the Kandyan Dancing at the Red Cross Hall. Helen and I had seen the dancing before but thoroughly enjoyed our second visit. For Pria it was his first time and he was enthralled by the dancing. Helen particularly enjoyed the drummers and we all enjoyed the fire eating.

We decided not to visit the Temple of the Tooth. Helen and I had been there in 1991 and because of Poya day, there were long queues, stretching the full length of the park in front of the Temple. Because of the security situation everyone in the queue was being searched in separate male and female tents.

On Saturday after trying to report Helen's stolen Visa card at a few banks we hired a car with a driver. We spent the afternoon visiting the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, which Pria enjoyed greatly and then the Peradiniya Botanic Gardens which Helen who has a Certificate in Tropical Horticulture enjoyed immensely. The car cost Rp1,100 to hire.

We spent Sunday strolling around the beautiful man-made lake and unsuccessfully attempting to report the stolen Visa card to the Kandy police. After lunch we caught the train back to Colombo. This time the train was not crowded. On the train a Sri Lankan family seamed to be looking at us more than was polite. This was not too unusual because as a family of two Caucasian adults with a Sri Lankan boy we were a little unusual. It turned out that the married couple in the family had returned to Sri Lanka from Abu Dhabi to adopt a Sri Lankan baby from the Good Shepherd Convent where Krishan was staying - what a coincidence.

On return to Colombo we attempted to report the Visa card to the Tourist Police at Fort but were advised that the Tourist Police had just gone out and we should return another day. A third unsuccessful attempt the next day convinced us that the Police in Sri Lanka were not interested in helping us and we abandoned the idea of reporting the theft to the Police.

Unawatuna

Our second weekend away was to the famous beach in the south, Unawatuna. We again caught a train from Fort and the trip to Galle took about three hours. We enjoyed the interesting scenery as the train travels along the edge of the ocean for most of the way. On arrival it was a short three wheeler to Unawatuna. We checked out a few places near the intersection of Yaddehimulla Road and Devala Road before settling on The Strand, an old home a few hundred metres back from the beach. The cost was Rp 750 per night for a very large room with nice old furniture, an attached bathroom and toilet, and our own private verandah.

The Strand has a turtle hatchery on site and you can watch and touch the young turtles before they are released. The people at The Strand are friendly and I was able to watch some of an Australia versus Sri Lanka one day international cricket match on television live from Australia.

That evening we ate at a small beachside restaurant. My rice and curry was disappointing but Helen and Pria enjoyed delicious fish. Outside the restaurant we were amused to see cows sitting and standing on the road, appearing to be waiting for their owners.

The next day we spent at the beach. We hired snorkelling gear and had a great time exploring the reefs close to shore. The water was clean and clear and we greatly enjoyed ourself. We expected the beach to be dominated by western tourists but were surprised by the large number of Sri Lankan families enjoying themselves at the beach. Groups of teenage Sri Lankan boys and some girls were drinking arrack and singing and dancing with a great deal of energy. This was described to us by a local as "arrack dancing".

That evening we ate at a different restaurant and I enjoyed the local fish.

The next day we did more swimming and lazing at the beach. We enjoyed the sight of an adult and baby monkey eating ice creams as we ate our lunch at a beach side restaurant run by a British couple before catching the train back to Colombo.

Hikkaduwa

We stayed at the Lion Paradise hotel on the beach side of the road in Wewala. Our room was upstairs offering good views of the ocean. It cost Rp 600 for a room with two beds, mosquito nets and a private bathroom/toilet. The beach at Wewala is popular with surfers but narrow and eroded in places. Further south (about 500 metres) at Narigama, the beach is wider and very good for swimming.

Hikkaduwa has many souvenir shops along the busy main road. With some firm bargaining good deals are available. There are also many restaurants offering good seafood although good rice and curry is hard to find.

Mount Lavinia

A change of routine this weekend, Sri Lankan friends from Darwin had asked us to attend the wedding of their son who was marrying a girl from Galle. The wedding was held at the famous Mount Lavinia Hotel. It was a Buddhist ceremony although the bride and groom wore western clothes.

After the wedding we went to the Palm Hotel which was very close by. The afternoon was taken up with a very enjoyable swim in the large pool followed by a wander around the streets of Mount Lavinia, rekindling memories of our visit five years earlier. The most significant change that we noticed was the arrival of a Keels Super supermarket on Galle Road, not far north of the main Mount Lavinia shops. In addition to the impressive array of goods available at the Keels supermarket at Liberty Plaza, the Mount Lavinia Keels Super has an eat-in or take-away fast food outlet at the front of the shop. It sells western/Sri Lankan short eats as well as ice creams and soft drinks.

We spent Saturday morning visiting Prem Nivasa in Moratuwa. This Sisters of Charity home was where we had adopted our son Pria from in 1991. In the afternoon we visited Pria's birth family in a village to the east of Colombo.

Adoption Day

Monday 29 January was the most important day of our trip - Court Day. We had to travel to Wattala to collect Krishan and then head to Court in Hultsdorf. On the way to Wattala I realised that I had forgotten our passports so we had to return via Borella to collect them. We arrived on time at 9:00am to wait our turn. And wait is what we did. After a few hours we were advised to come back at 1:00pm as the Judge had left some papers at home and was delayed.

At about 1:30pm we entered the Judges Chamber and the proceeding began. The Judge was very thorough but very friendly and compassionate, especially to Pria who was bored by the lengthy legal proceedings. After about half an hour we left the chambers the proud parents of our new son Krishan.

Over the next six days we organised Krishan's Sri Lankan passport and Australian visa. Unfortunately on Wednesday 31 January a bomb was exploded in the Sri Lankan Central Bank building in Fort. About 100 people were killed. Colombo was very tense after the bomb and our movements restricted.

In our last days we enjoyed getting to know Krishan better. Pria particularly enjoyed giving Krishan a bath. We left Sri Lanka on Sunday 3 February.

Sri Lankan Travel Internet Resources

Sri Lankan Travel Information

Sri Lankan Travelogues

Other Resources

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