'Come, Come’ to Sri Lanka
Tropical delights of many kinds await those willing to make the long journey
Damaged beach hotels and restaurants are renovated and ready for tourists
Shantha Pandige watches silently from his brother’s home as his new house goes up next door. To get to this part of Morampitigoda, a village near the southern city of Galle in Sri Lanka, you have to cross a makeshift bridge of narrow wooden planks from the dirt road that gets you only so far. It’s been three months since the tsunami of December 26 hit Sri Lanka, and Pandige and his family are lucky. They’ve survived and at least have a temporary home built near their old one. Fatefully, their house was destroyed while his brother’s somehow remained intact.
Pandige and other surviving villagers will point out, almost with a giddy pride of sorts, just how high the waters came that day. The most striking characteristics of the village, though, are the lack of self-pity and the abundance of welcome. While many thousands nationwide are still living in tents, this community, already poor by Western standards, seems happy to be moving forward.
Before we leave Morampitigoda, someone cuts open the large, smooth-skinned orange coconuts grown here, as a bon voyage beverage. You don’t just toss out the shells, though. “Long Live the Coconut Tree” is a phrase you cannot escape in Sri Lanka—the fruit and the husks will be used for other purposes. In a poor country, nothing is wasted.
Time, on the other hand, is treated quite casually. If you’ve made the two-day journey to Sri Lanka, you undoubtedly want to relax, but Sri Lankans tend to operate more slowly than you probably like. The 2:15 car that is arranged to meet you might arrive at 3 p.m. instead. Your waiter will disappear indefinitely. The harried New Yorker will either appreciate the lowering of the blood pressure, or burst.
Sri Lanka, probably not looming large in the consciousness of too many Americans until the tsunami, has typically been overshadowed by its large neighbor, India. Most articles and books about Sri Lanka label it “a tropical paradise” and that’s no exaggeration. Birds you’ve never heard serenade you awake even amidst the choking pollution of Colombo, the capital city. Outside the cities, things get even more lush, and you can cover a lot of ground in two weeks. The island offers stunning palaces and giant Buddhas, natural wonders galore and wildlife parks. Hiring a driver is not all that expensive, and can easily be arranged by travel agents and hotels. Many of the drivers and other guides have taken courses in Sri Lankan history and culture and can answer any question you might have. They offer a lot of information spontaneously also, saying, “Come, come,” as they show you something new.
Beyond the travel professionals who are friendly for hire, there is a population, of all classes, that seems proud of their country and eager to share an insight or a suggestion. If you’ve every traveled places where the locals are indifferent or even downright taciturn, you will appreciate the smiling countenance of the average Sri Lankan. The people truly are this country’s most compelling resource.
That’s a welcome attitude to find after a journey halfway around the world.
Sri Lanka offers a variety of cuisines, including its own specialties, along with wonderful fresh fruits, like papaya and a pineapple edible all the way to the core. Some of the highlights:
Hop to It: One specialty is the hopper, a crepe of sorts that is served at any meal, usually topped with eggs, honey or whatever’s being served. Caterers have cooks specializing in making hoppers. A distinctive banging noise accompanies the dislodging of the hopper from the pan.
Pinnawala’s Elephant Orphanage, also accessible within a day-trip of the capital, draws many tourists, and cares for pachyderms of all sizes.
Taking Your Lumps: The Dutch brought the Indonesian-inspired dish of lump rice to Sri Lanka, where it was adopted and perfected. Accompanying the rice are a fish croquette, a hard boiled egg, some chicken and spices, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. A similar “packet lunch” is offered by street vendors but sometimes in plastic wrap.
Putting Your Finger On It: It is not uncommon in some Sri Lankan homes to see people following tradition and eating off their plates hand-to-mouth—right hand only, please.
Americans may worry about visiting a tsunami-affected area and not having toilet paper, cable or high-speed Internet. Hotels in the east are still recovering, but Colombo, Galle and the coast in between the two cities are recovering remarkably. A no-frills hotel like the Indra Regent can be as low as $40 a night, but now, even the tonier Colombo Hilton can seem like a budget hotel at $85 a night. The 140-year-old colonial Galle Face Hotel, the only waterfront hotel in the capital, is quoting remarkably low rates on the Internet, from $65 to $85.
High-end beach bums might want to check out the Blue Water, 30 kilometer south of Colombo in Wadduwa.
Sri Lanka has enjoyed a period of peace for some time now, but the nation’s Buddhists and members of the Tamil ethnic group have had an ongoing civil war since 1983, mostly in the north and the east. In the event of any trouble, getting to those areas might be difficult or curtailed.
Even in Colombo, the Army has closed off streets and sometimes cars are randomly stopped. Do yourself a favor: let your driver do the talking.
Tsunami-related diseases thankfully were largely averted, but it’s a good idea to take prophylaxis medications and vaccinations for tropical maladies and water-borne diseases in advance. Visit mdtravelhealth.com/destinations/asia/sri_lanka.html for information on vaccinations.
Mosquitoes are plentiful, so make sure to bring insect repellent along with your sunscreen. Even locals are wary of tap water and ice, so bottled water is widely available.
Modern conveniences like ATM machines, credit card machines and very good cell phone reception are all available in the major cities, but outside of them cash and travelers’ checks are still good to have on hand.
You cannot get Sri Lankan rupees in advance of arriving in the country, and some ATMs limit you to $200 per transaction.
“Touts” will try to persuade you to go to their recommended hotel, store, or restaurant, and those places then pay them a commission. So maintain your will, or consider hiring a car during your stay if you’re going long distances and want unbiased recommendations.
Sri Lankan Airlines is a delightful airline, and often a cheap way to get to India via Europe.
Colombo-based Asian Adventures (at asianadventureslk.com) is a good agency for arranging internal travel and tours, and air travel to Sri Lanka. The Web site also provides current news on travel conditions around the country.
The post-tsunami Indian Ocean waters are inviting, but suss out the beaches before diving in. If you’re going to a beach resort, inquire ahead about water conditions Red flags indicate there is no lifeguard on duty and/or that hazardous conditions exist.
The Indian Ocean is always warm and blue, but the undertow can be quite strong.
The 1870s Mt. Lavinia Resort Hotel, on the Indian Ocean and just 12 kilometers south of Colombo, allows non-guests to use the changing room (though here are no lockers for valuables) and to use its wonderful pool, all for four dollars.
My best recommendation for a day-trip will cost you about $100. You can go from Colombo to Kandy and back, in 12 hours, visiting the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala, the Botanical Gardens, the Temple of the Tooth and a genuine spice garden. This price includes your transit plus all entrance fees, including the extra charges for foreign visitors and for cameras.
Sri Lanka produces sensational handmade goods, from painted elephants of all sizes to batik tablecloths to copper and brass candlesticks. These sorts of souvenirs, along with clothing, leather bags and laquer boxes can be found just just about everywhere, but if you’re in Colombo, you can find all of these things conveniently under one roof. Check out either Lanka Hands on Queens Road, just east of Duplication Road, or Barefoot, 704 Galle Road.
Sri Lanka is also a source of serious baubles, like gems and semiprecious stones, with dealers everywhere in Colombo. One notable merchant is the 160-year-old O.L.M. Macan Markar Ltd. at 26 Galle Face Court, Colombo 3. Check out LankaJewels.com for more information.
The majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhists and speak Singhalese. When at religious and other shrines, some common sense rules—courtesies, really—apply:
No shoes in the temples, but socks are okay, which is especially good to know if the pavement’s hot.
No bare legs or other inappropriate attire. Men and women can slip a sarong over shorts or short skirts to achieve the appropriate level of respect upon entering a shrine.
You can photograph the statues, but do not to pose with them.
Tipping the monks is not appropriate, but you can make a donation to the shrine or temple if you wish.