Sri Lanka, the island nation in South Asia so close to India, is a little less than an hour away from Cochin. I was on my way back to India from the Middle East and so I decided I will make a short fly by to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan Airlines had a very good deal on the ticket fares too. With an opportunity like this, the Land of Serendipity was within my reach; and boy was it worthwhile! I now wish I had stayed a little more in Sri Lanka.
So where is Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka or Ceylon, what it used to be known as in the past, is an island country in South Asia. According to Hindu mythology, in the past, there existed a land bridge that joined Sri Lanka to south-east India. So there has been a constant transfer of people, culture and religion through this route from antiquity.
As an Indian citizen, I needed to apply for an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) for travel to Sri Lanka. You will find more details at the Sri Lanka ETA website where you can apply for your travel authorization online. Once approved, you just carry a print out of your email when you arrive at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo. The ETA is valid for 6 months.
The tourist visa costs $20 for SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Nationals and $35 for other nationals. If you do not apply online you will then have to wait at the long queues at the airport and pay $5 more i.e., $25 for SAARC nationals and $40 for other nationals. You can also apply for the visa at the Sri Lankan Overseas Mission in your country.
As I was on a tight budget and wasn’t really prepared for long travel, I decided to stay only for two nights. One night in the mountain town called Kandy and another in the capital city, Colombo.
Here’s an 8 day Sri Lanka Travel Itinerary that you could use if you have more days to spare.
Local SIM Card
Buying a local SIM card was the easiest. After you exit the baggage carousel area at the airport just before stepping out, you will arrive at a large lobby where you will find kiosks for money exchange and telecom operators. There are five cell phone operators you can choose from Dialog, Mobitel, Etisalat, Hutch and Airtel. All of them offer 3G and few provide 4G services as well. There are prepaid tourist plans you can opt for and they give you multiple options to choose from with calls and data. Go through all their lists and pick the best.
I opted for Etisalat and for about LKR 400 ($3) I got some data and some free minutes which was perfect for my two-day visit to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka has three official languages Sinhala, English and Tamil. In Urban areas, most people speak English fluently and very rarely will you come across someone who does not speak English (even the TukTuk drivers). If you have some difficulty in a rural area you can always find a helpful someone to guide you.
From the airport to the city, I used Uber which is quite popular in Sri Lanka now. There is also a Sri Lankan taxi app called PickMe which works just like Uber. PickMe was more economical compared to Uber as they had TukTuk rides under them as well. So it was win-win for me.
Colombo Fort Railway Station
As soon as I got to the city, I dropped my big luggage at a friend’s place and rushed to the Colombo Fort Railway Station, the main railway station in Colombo city connecting to a lot of destinations around Sri Lanka. I got a TukTuk from the PickMe app and was on my way to explore. As the TukTuk whizzed past the streets I noticed the sea beside me and its thunderous waves hitting along the Galle Face. Sri Lanka felt like home already. The people, landscape and the climate in Colombo reminded me so much of India; more appropriately South India.
At the station, I purchased a third class unreserved train ticket from Colombo to Kandy which cost me just LKR 180 ($1.1).
It is always better to cross-check train timings with the railway officials at the station.
There are different classes of wagons on the train which you can book for, provided you reserve your ticket in advance from the station and ticket can go up to LKR 1400 ($9.2).
Colombo to Kandy
I boarded a Chinese-made train from the station but all the seats were quickly filled as soon as it arrived and I had to stand for the rest of the journey. Sitting can get boring too after a while. The train journey reminded me of India. The green paddy fields and its surrounding hillocks were so similar and so it didn’t even feel like I was outside India. Not a stranger to foot board traveling in India, I decided to sit next to one of the exits and enjoyed watching the scenery as the train passed by. As the train picked up its pace it climbed up in elevation, the air became noticeably cooler compared to the humid coasts of Colombo city. The journey to Kandy took about 3-4 hours.
Seat Sixty-One has a whole load of info on the railway system in Sri Lanka and its worth a look before you decide to travel by rail in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Railways website also has details on the local train timings.
Located 115 km from Colombo in the central province is the cultural capital of the country, Kandy. It is also the second largest city in Sri Lanka. The ancient city has a lot of history behind it and was the last capital of the Sinhala monarchy before the British took over. It has now been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is very sacred to Buddhists.
Here are some of the places I visited in Kandy in the few hours I got to spend there.
Bang in the center of the town is a 200-year-old manmade lake built by the last Sinhalese King. They call it the Kiri Muhuda or the Sea of Milk. If you like bird watching and enjoy watching a wonderful sunset, this is the place to be. There is a visible island in the middle of the lake and they say it is connected to the royal palace through some underwater tunnels. Whatever the mysteries, this is a good place to start your visit to the sacred city. The Temple of the Tooth lies at the north side of the lake.
Temple of the Tooth
Strange as it sounds, this is probably the most sacred religious site in the whole of Sri Lanka. According to the legends, the temple now contains a tooth of the much venerated Buddha, retrieved after his death in India. Although the tooth is not on display and is now hidden from view inside a golden casket. The temple is called Sri Dalada Maligawa in Sinhalese and is located in the royal palace complex of the former Kandyan Kingdom and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is advisable to dress appropriately to respect the religious sanctity of the place or you will be forced to buy a sarong, both for men and women. Locals and foreigners from far and wide come to visit this temple every day.
The royal complex also houses the royal palace, a golden canopy, an audience hall, national museum and an International Buddhist museum.
Entry to the royal complex is free but the main temple will require an entry fee of LKR 1000 ($6.6) for SAARC nationals and LKR 1500 ($9.9) for other nationals.
Kandyan Dance Show
At the temple, I met a kind old man who said he used to work for the tourism office in Kandy. He advised me that I shouldn’t miss the cultural Kandyan Dance Show that the city is also famous for. It is held at the Kandy Lake Club every day at 5 pm. The dance features an hour-long medley of Kandyan dance forms native to the area. Tickets are LKR 1000 ($6.6) per head.
Other places of interest around Kandy
Time was too short for my stay in Kandy and so I wasn’t really able to visit some of the other places of interests. Some worth mentioning are the Peradeniya Botanical Garden, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and the Kandy View Point.
I managed to walk around the city a lot and here are some photos from Kandy.
The next day I roamed the streets of Kandy and savoured some delicious Sri Lankan food at some local joints. I boarded the 3 pm train back to Colombo and reached late in the evening.
Arcade Independence Square
There wasn’t much I could go and see late in the night in Colombo. I met my friend who lives in the city and we hung out at the impressive Arcade Independence Square. A historic icon of Sri Lankan freedom from their troubled past now a trendy shopping and entertainment arcade.
In Kandy, I stayed at the Kandy View Garden Hotel, a small guesthouse in Anewatte. Located in the hills above the town it has great views from the top. I got a double room for about LKR 3500 ($23) which I feel was totally worth it with the view and since it is far away from the hustle of the city. The stay included a hearty breakfast too.
In Colombo, I stayed at the Norfolk Airport Villa, a converted beautiful colonial home in Katunayaka very close to the Airport. A double room cost me LKR 4000 ($26).
Obviously, there are a lot more things to see and do in Sri Lanka. My two days won’t even scratch the surface of what Sri Lanka can really offer you. My only regret now is that I wish I had stayed more days. On the plus side, Sri Lanka felt like a home away from my home and I would definitely find a way to go back there and explore more of this land of Serendipity.
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