Arriving in Sri Lanka
The main airport in Sri Lanka is Bandaranaike International Airport and it's based just outside the capitol city of Colombo. However, most people just refer to it as Colombo International and it takes about 10 and three-quarter hours to fly to direct from Heathrow. Our flight was easy and trouble free but we were nonetheless very ready to land. We exited the plane to our first taste of Sri Lankan culture: lots of ayubowans (goodbyes) which we practiced in return. The exit steps took us down onto the concourse. Standing in the 30º heat we waited for the shuttle bus, sticky and tired from the flight.
The interim for the shuttle wasn't long and we were quickly whisked away, chatting to people on the bus. We were surprised to see many Sri Lankans wearing their feather stuffed puffa jackets, even in this heat as if it were normal to dress for winter in the tropics. They were making me feel very hot.
Coming into departures, passport control was straight forward and the queue moved quickly. A quick toilet stop (Em was hugely relieved to find flushing toilets and toilet roll after being prepped about the toilets in Asia) including a freshen up and change of clothes. Then we were off - released into the unknown!
• Welcome to Sri Lanka •
The first thing we all noticed about the airport was the ridiculous amount of home appliances for sale. Every shop was stacked with washing machines, fridge-freezers, vacuum cleaners and tvs. Also, a great deal of musical instruments... completely baffling to not only us, but others around as I could hear an equal amount of amusement tittering about.
There must be some cracking deals to be had - answers in the comments please! If you know, please share...
The walk is short one anyway; we found our suitcase and backpacks straight away at baggage claim and it within moments we came to a large exit hall with three bank tellers waiting for our custom.
• Getting our Money •
The Sri Lankan rupee is a floating currency and cannot be obtained in any practical amount outside of the country. This means it has to be purchased on arrival or throughout your stay via ATMs. There are tons of forums of people trying to find out the best deal and how to go about it and here are my findings and advice:
The bank tellers all have the same rate and it is considered a good and fair rate, unlike the UK airport bureau de changes.
They will only exchange cash. Euros, pounds and US dollars are all easy transactions. You will only need to use rupees throughout your stay unless you are taking part in tourist activities which are sometimes priced in dollars. They don't expect you to pay in dollars and always convert it to LKR (make sure you both agree the rate of conversion at the time!) so there is no need to carry USD at all.
There are three ATM tellers to the left of the banks. These are offered by different companies and in turn offer different rates and allowances. I bank with HSBC in the UK and was given the option of withdrawing 20,000 rupees with a 400 rupee charge (I don't recall with which provider). The man in front of me managed to withdraw 50,000 as I overheard him discussing it with his friend, who was offered 40,000. To help you out: 20,000 rupees equated to around £92 at the time.
If I'd been a little more savvy, I would have contacted HSBC beforehand and asked to have my ATM limit increased. This is an easy request and means less two-ing and fro-ing looking for cashpoints as well as fewer charges when withdrawing money. I will definitely do this next time I go abroad.
The kids had been given £20 each from their lovely gant (our family name for great-aunt) and they couldn't wait to get their hands on their cold hard cash. They did well, with just over 4,200 rupees a piece. Of course, none of had any reference point at this stage as to what that actually meant. Even with research, it's very difficult to judge how much things are as people chose to shop and spend in different places and value things in different ways. We were just going to have to work it out for ourselves...
• New Arrivals •
As I went off to get the cash from the ATM, Mr B and the kids propped themselves up against some railing to take in the room. There was a big banner up high saying "Welcome Barmy Army' and for those not in the know, this applies to the English cricket team's fan base: the Barmy Army. Bonkers that a fan club is as well known as the team itself and warrants it's own welcome at the airport, but there you go. Me and my family have no interest in sport, which can be a little socially debilitating at times, but I've made it through my 40 years so far with little worry so I suppose I'll just keep muddling on. Anyway, we had arrived at the beginning of the England Cricket team's tour of Sri Lanka and if you know anything about anything, it's that Sri Lankans are cricket mad. This little bit of news is relevant in so much as it was a great conversation maker we had with pretty much everyone we met - there was always the cricket to talk about.
During my absence, a pleasant gentleman came up to Mr B and the kids and I found them all chatting together when I returned. Now, I am not a typically cynical person, but I am a little street savvy and I couldn't help be suspicious of a stranger talking to us: we were tired, vulnerable as brand new tourists and not to mention I was aware that everyone else was aware that we had a good amount of cash on us.
The man took El by the hand as he was talking, offering up lots of advice about where to get a SIM from (don't get it at the airport as the value is very poor - go downtown and get one there) and it got to that slightly uncomfortable time when the hand-holding is no longer required and you don't want to seem rude by pulling away. Poor El! I could see him trying to work out the best tactic for removal which was quite amusing and in the end I kind of rescued him from the social discomfort. It turned out the man was just really nice, having a chat and didn't try to sell us a trip around the country or a lift in his cousin's taxi or any other wild tricks and tales that I've encountered when arriving into Asia. We thanked him for his advice, said goodbye and ventured out into the big wide world.
• Leaving Colombo Airport •
We were heading to Galle, a small Danish colonial town on the south coast. It is pronounced Gorl not Gallay as I kept saying for quite some time. Gorl. GORL. Get it in your head now before you look like the tourist that can't say Galle. The itinerary was to go as follows:
13:30 bus from the airport to the train station
14:19 train to Galle
take a tuk-tuk to the hotel.
If I could share the love, I use a fab app called Tripit which stores all my itinerary and I find it very useful and easy (which is all you ever want, really).
Ok. So far so good.
I'd researched this next bit of the journey as noted above (actually, I'd researched in minute detail pretty much every bit of the holiday) and found out that there is a bus that travels from the airport to Bastian Mawatha Bus Terminal which is down-town Colombo. It is then a short walk to Colombo Fort train station which offers a pleasant journey down to Galle. I also found out that the bus goes from pretty much across the road from the airport exit.
Now, there is across the road and there is across the road. It's pretty hard to know how big that road may be, how busy and whether the road that cars pull into to pick people up right outside the airport door counts or if we are talking about the road when you actually leave the airport grounds.
In this case, it really is...across the road (or maybe two) but the whole place is tiny so believe me, you can't miss it. We crossed the road and were immediately greeted by taxi drivers. They wanted to know where we were heading. "Gallay" I said, trying desperately not to look like this was the first time in Sri Lanka and we didn't have a Scooby. "What? Gallay? Huh? Where is that?" "Is it Gorlay? How do you say it - the town on the coast?" (cringing at my totally bad pronunciation) "Gorl! You're going to Galle! Yes I can take you - $50 no problem!"
Before we'd come out to Sri Lanka,, Mr. B and I had had a discussion regarding this leg of the trip. Would we want to just get in a nice air conditioned taxi and go straight to our hotel after our long flight or would we take the trouble of a bus, then a train then a tuk-tuk? The second option would take twice as long and would not only be so much less expensive but also a richer experience in our opinion. Hands down, this was the choice we'd settled on.
We were all tired and getting a bit hungry. The taxi drivers went on and on about all sorts of reasons for us to go with them and not take the bus as we'd said we wanted to do: it was a Sunday so the trains weren't running; it was a Sunday so it would be very crowded on the train. We wouldn't make the train if we left now; we had missed the train already. It would take six hours to get there on the train but only 2 and a half by car. On and on they went - you can't blame them for trying. I was getting fed up and started to look around for some information regarding the bus. Unbelievably, to my left, there was a big blue bus. I cannot understand why I didn't notice it in the first place; it must have been there all along but I was blind to it.
I ambled over. There were two men to the rear, near the hold and I asked if this was the bus to Colombo Fort. "Yes, yes" was the slightly impatient response. Thrilled at my find, I quickly called the others over "Hey, I've found it - the bus to the train station!" Mr B thanked the disgruntled taxi drivers for their relentless sales patter and I purchased four tickets from the men. These were little paper stubs. The suitcase was put into the hold and we were told to put the backpacks on the front luggage rack on the way in passed the driver. Woohoo - we were on the bus! A nice air-conditioned bus! The tickets for the four of us came to the grand total of 700 rupees. The taxi wanted $20 (3,500 rupees) for the same journey.
• The Journey to Bastian Mawatha Bus Terminal •
We all felt relieved to have found comfy seats at the back fo the bus and each settled down to sorting out our bits and bobs.
We distributed the money out to the children which gave them great delight as they showed off their 'readies' and how loaded they now were with their thousands of rupees. Look after it kiddos! Although the bus was near enough empty when we boarded, it soon filled up and we acquired fellow travellers all around. The lady who sat next to us was very welcoming and in fluent English told us all about her trip to India with her friend and how she was going on to meet him on the east coast of Sri Lanka in a few days time. We talked about school holidays and her own children and she was easy to chat to.
The bus left at bang on 2.30pm (an hour later that I'd hoped but it was all good - we could still make the later train from Colombo) and was soon charging down the highway away from the airport. On our right was the big blue ocean and to our left, masses of tall skinny palm trees which transfixed the children's attention. After around 30 minutes or so, we found ourselves all of a sudden in the city, horns honking as buses raced one another at hair-raising proximity. The buses are all colours and some are beautifully decorated inside and out. Throughout our time in Sri Lanka we came to speculate that the buses must be privately owned and the drivers freelance for the government. If you know of how this works, I'd love to know!
Our lady friend was not impressed by the bus race and informed us that the drivers don't care about the safety and welfare of their passengers, just how fast and close they can go. I checked with her if she could let me know when we need to get off for Colombo Fort Station and she said she was going to the station herself, so she's be happy to show us the way. The only thing, is it's a bit of a walk and would the children be ok? I drag those little beasts around with me all day long, so assured her they would be grand.
Bastian Mawatha Terminal is in the heart of a thriving market. Exiting the bus, our new friend quickly took off. I'm very pleased she was our guide but we had no time to take in the assault on our senses of the market and all it had to offer. The map says 7 minutes but it felt like much further and longer. Along the way, many people greeted us with 'hello' which we called back over our shoulders as we swept by. The kids kept up well, pulling their suitcase up and down the many curbs and over the uneven paving, while Mr B and I hoiked the big and little back-packs. We passed all sorts of weird and wonderful wares such as the stall selling large colour posters of babies (not even Sri Lankan babies, but clearly white babies) - very bazaar! Our friend brought us to a final stop in front of the train station. We gratefully thanked her and wished her well and goodbye. Thank you lovely lady!
• Colombo Fort Train Station •
When we arrived at the station, it was around 3.10pm on a Sunday afternoon. I asked an official looking attendant where to go for Galle and he directed me further along the front of the station to ticket office four. You can just about see how the ticket offices work here, in the photo above, with 7-9 on display. The station was full of people coming and going busily, but lucky for me, ticket office four was queue free. I reached the small window and peered through into a small dark room asking for two adults and two children to Galle please. I'd read somewhere that children under the age of 12 travel half price and so I was given two full purple stubs and two half purple stubs. The man behind the ticket counter spoke beautifully crisp English, telling me the train was leaving at quarter to four.
Next we were directed to the gateway onto the station. A man sitting on a chair at the way in, demanded to see every ticket. He took ours, and seemed to scrutinise them forever before waving us all through. "Which platform please?" we asked. "Five!" he jabbed hard in the direction across the tracks. We took the bridge up and over, then down to find ourselves on platform five.
Hurrah! So far we have cracked this without any real problems. How nice is this?! Finally, we could all just have a rest and look around while waiting for our train.
Colombo Fort isn't the world's most beautiful station, as is apparent from the pic above.. As we started to take note of our surroundings, the children picked up on the sensation that more than a few pairs of eyes seemed to be on them. They'd never experienced that kind of attention and Em was quick to liken it to being a celebrity, which she seemed to embrace with full effect. It's good to know she's got her reality in check.
Next, a man came pushing a cart along platform selling popcorn in pre-bagged portions. The kids were getting hungry; not haven eaten since breakfast on the plane around 6 hours ago. El had been so sick while travelling, he hadn't even touched his food, so was very ready for a snack at the least. I was so impressed how he asked the man how much and was told 50 rupees a bag. To translate: around 25p.
"Hey Em, shall I get you one, and you pay me back later?" I nearly recoiled at the the thoughtful generosity of El. Wow. What a sweetie - love him. This, as you may pick up on, is not normal behaviour. So, El bought Em a bag and they both munched away taking in the story so far.
Not long afterwards, a uniformed inspector came along the platform and asked to see our tickets. I watched him apprehensively as he very seriously studied the little purple stubs in his hand. I was worried he'd claim they were no good, and that we needed to pay for upgrades or the like. It's a bit sad not being able to trust anybody you meet as a tourist, but that's just the way it is - and not necessarily a bad way to be either. But, again, we had no need to worry. The inspector informed us that we had second class tickets and we were standing where the first class carriage stops. We needed to move further along the platform to be in line with the second class carriage when it comes in.
Was this why there were so few people where were standing?
There is quite a bit of advice on line with regards to getting the train from Colombo to Galle. Firstly, reserved seats cannot be bought - only tickets for various standards of carriage. It makes no difference whether these are bought on the day or in advance. These tickets are not limited in quantity. Secondly, the train can be very crowded as it's generally the most economical way to travel. There is a bus, but it is more expensive and can take almost as long and isn't as half as picturesque. The consequence of this, can be everyone waiting very nicely on the platform only to become every-man-for-himself when the train pulls in and seats are landed.
• Finally on the Train •
As the kids were relatively young, it was important that we sit together. I was getting slightly nervous about the potential smash and grab we'd have to endure. As it turned out, when the train finally rambled into the station and ground to a halt, we just walked on, without any pushing, shoving or madness.
Looking around however, there didn't seem to be any seats free. The doors to the carriages are left wide open and I'd seen videos of other people's journeys as they hung from these doors and it just looked so free and laid back. El was desperate to be that kid so we plonked our backpacks down to use as floor cushions and settled ready to watch the world go by.
Yep, it was as bad of an idea as it sounds. Another passenger came up to us and said kindly was that it was really dangerous to sit in the doorway. This was an express train and it goes too fast. We'd be better off finding seats. We thanked him for his advice while cringing at winning shitty parenting of the year. He gestured to where he had been sitting and offered up his seat to us. Honestly, what a kind thing to do. So far, we'd been bowled over by everyone's generosity and good nature.
Mr B loaded the backpacks onto the overhead racks with the suitcase and we kept our little bags with us; the children sitting on our laps, El disgruntled from being hauled to safety. We were all sticky and getting tired, having been on the go for well over 24 hours. Mr B and I hadn't eaten anything since early morning and the kids had only had some popcorn. We were all ready to get to the hotel and make camp..
As the train pulled out of the station on its way, a busker leapt aboard playing traditional folk music. We watched and listened, quiet, as the steady rocking of the train combined with the rhythmic drum beats we'd not heard before enveloped our senses. Suddenly, we were in the culture of Sri Lanka, sitting among the locals, sharing the same moments with them, whereas the day before we'd been driving along the M4.
The scenery along the tracks isn't something worth writing about but interesting to a tourist nonetheless. What was most welcome was the cooling breeze coming in through the open windows. The train itself was filthy but by this point we all were, so I just put it to the back of my mind and looked forward to washing off the journey at the hotel.
Soon the kids' eyelids drooped and closed and they both fell to sleep. The journey was scheduled to take around 2h10m but it seemed much longer than this! As we passed station after station, the carriage slowly emptied and we could each have our own seats. It began to get dark and rain quite heavily, the water splashing on our arms through the open windows. I was trying to follow the GPS on GoogleMaps but for some reason by phone was having problems with accuracy. I was kicking myself for forgetting the SIM I'd prepaid for, leaving it on my Aunt's kitchen worktop back in London. Never mind - I'll have to pick one up when we get to Galle.
As we approached our destination, our gentleman friend let us know that this was our stop. As we got ourselves together, we all noticed the rain becoming heavier outside - uh oh - we were going to get wet!
We thanked our aid and clambered out o the carriage, through the exit where the station guards took our tickets from us - human ticket barriers performed at the start and end of the journey. And just like that, we broke free from one environment and found ourselves out on the pavement, facing a curved road lined with taxi drivers and tuk-tuks.
• To the Galle Fort Hotel •
Little El and Em were beginning to enter the moan zone.
"Can't we just take a taxi, mum?"
"Nope, we're taking a tuk-tuk."
"What's a tuk-tuk?"
"Come on, I'll show you!"
Right - let's do this: our first Sri Lankan barter.
"Yes please - to the Galle Fort Hotel"
"Ok - get in!"
"How much please?" (always negotiate your rate before you travel!)
"OK - let's go!
El absolutely LOVED the tuk-tuk. We were all four crammed into the back, our backpacks and suitcase squashed in around us. El was on the outer side, hanging on to the chrome rails, beaming from ear to ear and the rain came down on him. We putted and whizzed around the roads in a distance that seemed much further than 250 rupees felt it should warrant. The Galle Fort Hotel is within Galle Fort, an old colonial citadel and the paved roads soon turned to laid stones. Our driver pulled up outside a beautiful white building, which looked oh-so-welcoming. We were home.
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