Traveling in Sri Lanka

14 Mar

Negombo, Sri Lanka

I think that most of the pleasure being in this island stems from its people. The people are so nice here in Sri Lanka.  I wrote this piece several days in my trip but I decided to wait till the end and post it, but nothing changed my opinion in the time I spent here.
Everybody beams a smile at you, first shy but when you salute them the smile is all over their faces.  No matter how much English they know they always ask you where you are coming from and try to engage you somehow.  In spite of the obvious relative poverty people look happy and content in a way that you encounter only in Asia, as I could tell.  Even that tourism came to the island a while ago, before the war with the Tamil Tigers, the people of this island were not perverted by it. I am not talking about politicians, whose cause I will never sustain in any country, but the general individual you encounter on the streets. You have the same level of happiness that is displayed in Burma, the place that I considered till now to have the nicest inhabitants. People need money and always want to do something to be paid by the tourists, and sometimes is a little annoying, but they do it gracefully and with no rancor if the deal did not go through even if they went out of their way to help. How a people so close to India, and probably under its economical influence, can be so different? Is the difference in attitude coming from religion, the gaudy Hindu religion of India vs the tranquil Buddhism of the Island?  I really don’t know but I noticed this tranquility in everybody I met and got help from in this trip and I want to gracefully thank them for this.
Most of the people speak English, an inheritance in learning the language maybe from the colonial times. But like in many other isolated places, the language was preserved with original expressions and you see signs that use words that are long out of use, like “footboard” for the train steps, subway for the underground passage, etc. People address you deferentially keeping a pleasant distance and giving you the space to breathe.
When you travel and never know the exact situation of the ground and especially coming from the world of set prices, you may occasionally get annoyed if you feel that the price was higher than is supposed to. And not a few times, you enter the game and start haggling for something that in the end it can be just few cents. I read once a piece of Sebastian Junger that talks exactly about this, based on his own experience and I knew how real and, in hindsight, how stupid it is. Everybody I met here Sri Lanka let me feel that they try to help, make you feel good and make your stay enjoyable. They do expect to be paid, for sure, but they really try hard and you feel that they care.
This world of Sri Lanka is very relaxed and a minimum income is what they are looking for. One told me that if you make lots of money you will do bad things and ruins friendships and yourself. And how real this thing is. Even in Kandy, that is the second largest city, everybody is so courteous and salutes you and even the rare encounters with aggressive touts is not as bad as in many other places in the world. I had an exchange in Kandy only with one street guy, the type of tout that was trying a regular scheme and when I hushed him away he tried to protest but left.

Transportation is great and readily available. Trains are running often enough and tickets can be either reserved, for a higher fee, or bought from the station right before the ride for very low price. A train ride of about 4 hours can cost around $2. And the train rides are gorgeous in a country that is so green. The country is covered by its lush vegetation in spite of the fact that the development encroached into it and the statistics show that only 29% of the country is covered by jungle.
Buses are also an excellent way to move around. Small AC buses, larger long distance shinny ones, or the local dark red rattlers, all move swiftly and they take you anywhere for a extremely low cost. You just have to show up on a road and a bus will be there, no matter where you go in less than 10 minutes. They may be crowded but in any case not Indian style…
Because of this affluence, efficiency and low cost public transportation, travelers move by either train or bus so you make lots of friends. Everybody salute each other and stop for a little chat. Since I traveled in Burma I did not find a place that is so friendly with locals and foreigners alike. It was hard to spend one evening without having a new friend and chatting with him about lots of issues. Of course the travel was the main topic of conversation and, as is usually the case, you get lots of tips and change on the go your schedule based on the info you were able to dig out. So I want to thank to all the new friends I met here for their tips and graceful chats.

Self driving car rental is available and, as long as you can drive comfortable on the “wrong” side of the road, the roads are good and the traffic is manageable. I did not see the aggressive attitude that you see on the Indian road, where the smaller traffic partners must fled for their life the approaching larger ones, no matter that even in Sri Lanka sometimes the traffic can be crazy. Like Sri Lankans in general, even the drivers’ attitude is permeated by the relaxed atmosphere of the country or maybe is the Buddhism….
As I understood to rent a car is somewhere around $25/day and the cost of the gas is not a lot because over all the country is small.
Most people rent scooters for about 1000Rs/day with helmets but these are mainly to travel inside the cities not on longer hauls.
The car or tuk-tuk with driver is a different story as I described before. An agency in the airport was advertising $50/day but this proved to be bogus when you start adding and the real cost is probably somewhere a little less than $100/day. For a 4 day tour a friend paid $450 with accommodations included but the price go down dramatically for longer time rentals.
For a long day drive around in the Cultural Triangle I rented a van from a local for 8000Rs that came with driver and the guy who made the arrangement that was fluent in English. See the post about Pollonaruwa for details.
And on the geeky side what bad things can you tell about a country where EVERYWHERE you go you get free wi-fi. Every guesthouse or hotel offers free wi-fi and most of the restaurants. The quality is very good that you can make free international calls with no problem, way better than in the USA….The main result is that you see most of the foreigners on their gizmos connected with friends in the entire world.

Overall I consider Sri Lanka one of the best destination from a traveler perspective. Culturally diverse, with great hikes in the mountains and gorgeous beaches, inexpensive, with great accommodations, safe and good food and CLEAN. It is at a par with any place in SE Asia no matter that is South Asia and so close to India….

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Posted by on March 14, 2013 in Blog, Sri Lanka


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