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Sri Lanka - Kuoni's Ceylon Tour.

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Trip in February 2011. All "facts" are how things seemed to me at the time.

As I'd experienced problems before in countries with unexpected political or climate upheaval, it seemed a good idea to book an organised tour for Sri Lanka, so I chose the 5 day "Ceylon Tour" with a 3 day beach extension, from Kuoni. This turned out to be a good idea.

day1: Mount Lavinia.

I discovered within a short while of getting off the plane that everyone in Sri Lanka expects a tip, regardless of the quality or effort of the service or even if you wanted it or not. The first tip was for the bag boy moving our cases about 4 meters to get them into the transfer coach from the airport trolley. As I didn't have any Sri Lanka notes at this time, I gave him a one pound coin. This was to be the beginning of a tipping extravaganza the like of which I'd not even seen in the USA, another tip-happy country.

It was a fairly long drive across Colombo to get to the Mount Lavinia hotel, however since Sri Lanka was all new to me, it was interesting to look at. My first thoughts were "Oh, it's just like Thailand". But it isn't. It's actually much less developed than Thailand, but it took a few days of being there to realise this. Along the way are sights such as the chain of meat shops called just "Meat Shop", and hundreds of used car parts dealers selling the fronts halves and back halves of various imported Japanese minivans. There's also quite a lot of mess and chaos, and a lot of traffic.

Mount Lavinia Hotel is an old colonial place, and quite charming. Several of the staff are in period colonial clothes, white uniform, shorts with a safari helmet. There are precious few restaurants near the hotel, though there is a KFC about 25 mins walk away, and some supermarkets also. The restaurants own beach-seafood restaurant is OK however, it was nice to eat on the beach. This turned out to be the most expensive meal of the entire trip, about 33 for two people inc drinks. The beach here is quite good, but better was to come.

Towards the end of the evening, despite being the dry season, it began to rain. I didn't think much of it at the time.

day2: Towards Habarana

The next day we met the tour guide for the next few days, Jayantha "you can call me Jay". Jay turned out to be a human encyclopaedia on all things Sri Lanka, and over the duration of the tour gave out more information that I could possibly remember. The tour was certainly educational, and he could answer questions on a wide variety of subjects from flora, fauna and local elections to the negative health effects of chewing Betel leaves.

As we made our way to the first stop on the tour, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, the rain started to increase. Not a great thing for a first "proper" day's sightseeing. It was at this point we discovered that the entry fees to everything were included in the tour price paid in the UK at the time of booking, not something it'd been possible to understand from the tour company info pack. This was certainly a good discovery. The elephant orphanage visit has two parts, the first of which was standing in the rain watching the elephants (30 or so) come down the river and then back up onto the road. This you could do whether you entry the orphanage or not, it's public land. The second part was to enter the orphanage and stand in the rain looking at the same elephants even closer up, with acres of green wet land behind them. Having your photo taken with the elephant involves a tip, seemingly to whichever staff member is standing nearest at the time. After this was a all-you-can-eat curry buffet at a nearby restaurant.

The tour coach then continues its long drive towards the next hotel in Habarana. I formed a theory about Sri Lankan roads along the way, categorising them into three types: crowded, terrible, or crowded and terrible. The driving standard is matched to the quality of the roads, terrible. Fortunately our tour bus driver turned out to be possibly the only steady, careful and risk-free driver in the country. It rained the entire length of the journey and continued to rain when we arrive at the Chaaya Village hotel in Habarana. This hotel is very nice, set in very large grounds with a lake nearby. An all-you-can-eat curry buffet followed.

day3: Sigiriya.

I woke at 3am because of jet lag, and heard the rain on the roof. I woke again at 6am and it was raining. At 7:00am we went to get breakfast (English; curry optional) and watched the rain from the restaurant. Our guide arrived and explained that we'd visit Sigiriya in the morning, as the weather was expected to worsen. This was a good call. Sigiriya is a very large rock in the middle of a lot of flat land and used by past rulers as a fortress. After driving through quite a lot of water we arrived to see Sigiriya in the mist, and waited in a nearby cafe for the rain to "subside". After the rain changed from torrential to just raining, we set off by foot to go up Sigiriya. On the way to the base of the rock we passed through the water gardens. Aptly named because they'd flooded. We picked our way around the water by walking on the tops of the garden walls (not high) but this was in vain as we got closer it was inevitable we'd have to get our feet, shoes, trousers wet. Some of the gardens were impassable without moving through water. The water from the top of Sigiriya is thoughtfully drained to the ground by way of the steps so to get partway up the rock, we were effectively climbing a waterfall. But after wading to the steps, it was a minor point, how more wet could we get? Fortunately the tour bus was at least equipped with a set of umbrellas. After a further climb up a rickety spiral staircase, you can see the rock -side paintings from long ago in history. They and therefore us were shielded from the rain by an overhang. It's possible to continue up and up all the way to the top of the rock however I gave up partway as it because apparent that the view was not only going to be wet, but misty. Sri Lanka's beautiful lush countryside was obscured from view by a lot of low-lying mist.

On the return from Sigiriya to the hotel the flood we had driven through had worsened, and our driver stopped to survey the situation for a while. We watched many cars and vans pass through this torrent, and saw the locals guiding the drivers as to the conditions and location of the potholes that were not visible due to the water. It is quite amazing how even the crappy 2-stroke engined Tuk-Tuk can tackle such a depth, but they did. No-one got stuck so our driver carefully went for it, and earned a round of applause from the group as we came out the other side. It was not the only flood on the way back to the hotel, but it was the worst. The rain continued. I added a 4th category of road: Flooded.

The optional tour to Polonuwara in the afternoon was not available due to flooding in Polonuwara and all its tourist attractions. We sent the afternoon in the hotel doing nothing at all until it was time to go and eat more curry buffet. However the afternoon was useful at least to use use the hotel hairdryer on my trainers. The socks just went in the bin.

day4: To Kandy.

Morning broke to the sound of rain. From the restaurant at the Chaaya village I could see their lake had joined with the flooded gardens, the flooded tennis courts and the flooded car park to make one giant brown lake. Fortunatley the hotel itself was on slightly higher ground, but the flood was not too far away. I noticed with some amusement a sign surrounded by water that read "Car park (parking at owners risk)". For the first few miles after leaving the hotel there was quite a lot of flooding in the town of Habarana, and from the safety of our tour bus we looked in on flooded shops that were still open, and busineses and homes that were shut. I'm sure the waves caused by our bus were not helping the situation. I'd already seen on the BBC 24 hour news channel that the flooding on the eastern side of the country was far worse than this and it does bring into perspective that a rainy holiday is nowhere near as bad as a destroyed livlihood.

We arrived later at Dambulla where there are caves containing a large number of standing, sitting and reclining Buddhas. All quite old and fortunately, indoors. In order to enter all these caves and the surrounding grounds you are required to deposit your shoes outside in a safe area. Retrieving them later involves a tip, no surprise there. Also nearish to the caves is another stop on the tour, a large modern temple with a very large gold colouured Buddha, all donated with funds from Korea. It's both awesome and kitsch at the same time.

Next stop is a Spice Garden. The rain had abated somewhat so being outside was tolerable again. The Spice garden begins with a guy talking about the various spices and plants behind him as you move around the garden. Peppercorns, cardamom, turmeric, nutmeg, curry leaves and such like. Almost imperceptibly part way around this tour is becomes clear that the trees behind the guide are no longer relevant to the item he is talking about, such as sandalwood oil and spiced tea. After having travelling in Asia so much, It was with a sense of inevitability I knew this tour would end in a shop, and so it did. All of the items on the tour are available to buy in a fairly low-pressure sales opportunity and this explains why the spice garden tour is extended to include things that were not actually growing there. At least it's all fairly educational, and there's also the chance to get a low-cost massage as well.

Much further along on the way to Kandy we passed through was an awesome Hindu temple in a different town that the guide stopped us at, making for some great photos. Alas it began to rain and also there were a large number of children coming up to us, begging. This was the first begging we'd encountered in Sri Lanka, it's certainly nothing like as prevalent as in India. But it was enough to make us go back to the tour bus and hide from the poverty.

The Chaaya Citadel hotel in Kandy is located next to a large river which was brown due to the rain. It's near to nothing else useful within walking distance so the only options here are to eat in the hotel. I didn't mind another curry-buffet. There are European food options also, more than I recall in the earlier hotels. The town of Kandy itself is fairly upmarket in the "suburbs" but chaotic in the centre.

day5: Kandy.

After breakfast we visited the Kandy Botanical garden for the morning. The rain held off. Amongst a lot of orchids and other stuff was the biggest bamboo I'd ever seen and some very bent over trees. As ever the guide was a fount of information on everything we saw. The Botanical garden was a very good part of the trip, partly enhacned by the first few hours without rain since getting off the plane.

In the afternoon we visited the Temple of the Tooth, apparently containing within several layers of locked boxes one of the Buddha's teeth. Clearly this is impossible to verify because of the layers of boxes. Shoes off/tip here also. The temple is OK, but I've seen better Buddhist temples in other countries. Nearby the temple and looking very out of place is a Christian church built in the English style.

After the temple we visited a wood carving studio with the inevitable shop at the end of the demonstration. This is one of the better "shopportunites" on the tour; the demonstration is interesting, the sales low-pressure, the goods attractive. But it would have been nice to know in advance that we could haggle over the price. Since everything in the downstairs shops was marked with a price, I forgot entirely that haggling over the price is standard anywhere in Asia. Masks and carved wooden elephants are on sale amongst other things. These same items were to be encountered again later on the trip albeit with a lower price and lower quality. I don't recall when on the trip the worst "shopportunity" was, but it was a Gem shop. Sri Lanka produces quite a lot of Rubies, Sapphires, etc and there are many shops selling them. Beautiful as they are, they're not cheap and the result was a slightly uncomfortable tour group standing in the shop waiting for the time to leave and trying to avoid too much attention from the shop staff. After the main expensive shop we hoped to leave, there's actually another slightly less expensive shop they take you to upstairs, so we hung around up there too waiting to leave, mercifully for a shorter time. Somewhere else on the tour was also a silk shop too.

There is a show included as part of the tour in the evening, Kandyan dancing. It lasts for about an hour and feels like about 5 minutes, being loud and beautiful. Afterwards some guys come and walk on hot coals and hand around the exit with a tip box.

day6: to Nuwara Eliya.

We detoured on the way to Nuwara Eliya due to mud slips on the main road. The detour proved that our bus and driver could not only cope with floods but also mud and loose gravel roads.

Nuwara Eliya and the surrounding highlands is where the tea growing is done. It's at a much higher elevation than the rest of the country and the palm trees and banana plants are far behind/below by the time we got there. Founded by a British guy who found the climate more like home (ie. cold and raining) Nuwara Eliya is the centre of tea country. It's also quite a grubby polluted little town with no restaurants and the most 3rd world market I've ever seen with the fruit being sold directly from the floor of a large noisy tarmaced area from which all the locals were departing with bulging bags of jackfruit, pumpkin, brinjal and such. There was a disused cinema called "Empire" and a still-in-use supermarket called Cargills, the latter of which occupies a well kept colonial style building with Victorian ironwork above the door. The guide of course knew even when it was built. I also managed to get some photos of one of the many 1979 Mitsubishi Lancers' that are prevalant in Sri Lanka, and one of the zebra crossing signs featuring the guy that looks like he's got at best a bad back and at worst crapped himself. Not a good illustration!

On the way to Nuwara Eliya there's a stop at a tea factory, although as it was a Sunday it was quite empty. We got demonstrations of the machinery in use rather than it being in use due to people actually being at work. There is a shop at the end (surprise) and as we discovered later, this probably isn't either the cheapest or best place to buy tea. Another later stop had cheaper tea of the same quality and what's more - sold in those sliding lid traditional wooden boxes, which were not present here.

There was light rain all day in Nuwara Eliya. The Hotel "St Andrews" has that kind of charming faded glory that many ex-empire colonial buildings have. The evening meal was not from a buffet, but fixed. Quite good, as was the breakfast, but not the best on the trip. That was to come.

day7: to Bentota.

I worked out that in the UK, this kind of distance would have taken about 3-5 hours at the very most. However the drive to Bentota from Nuwara Eliya takes about 10 hours in Sri Lanka, if the going is good. Part of the problem was that at this point we waved goodbye to our driver and bus boy (tipping them well for what was a job well done) and were transferred to the other bus, which formed the "superior" Kuoni tour. The superior tour involved a larger full size air conditioned Volvo coach (as opposed to our 20 seater Toyota Coaster mini-coach) and they'd been experiencing what were listed as higher star hotels as well.

It became obvious soon on that the "superior" coach was entirely unsuitable for the winding narrow roads of Nuwara Eliya, nor the potholed main roads of the rest of Sri Lanka. I'm sure this trip would have taken less time in the smaller coach. We also missed our driver as the new guy took more chances with overtaking. Sri Lankan drivers in general seem to have a fascination with the other side of the road, no matter which side they're actually on, or supposed to be on.

Along the way we stopped to take photos of the first women we'd seen picking tea so far. I think they'd stayed out of the rain before. The scene was reminiscent from the front of a box of PG Tips. I did sample some of the local brew, and I'm sure it was good, but not good enough convert me from thinking that tea is the second worst drink in the world, after coffee.

Interestingly along this trip as with other parts of the tour, the locals will smile and wave at the tour bus even when there's nothing to be gained. Especially the school children do this.

This was the most tedious day, pretty much a 10 hour coach journey that for reasons I will go into shortly, ended up as a 12 hour coach journey. However along the way the coach stops for an hour for lunch at a place called Kithulgala, although it seemed to me that Kithulgala was only comprised of one restaurant and a lot of trees. It was nice to be back down in palm tree and banana plant country. Kithulgala is also where the film "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was filmed though I didn't see the actual spot where the bridge was, only the river. The food was Ok, the usual combination of Fish curry, Dhal, rice etc. Unusually for a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, there was a small free car museum on the restaurant grounds, containing about 6 Rolls-Royce, a Bentley, a Porsche 924 and the only car I took photos of, an immaculate right hand drive Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.

There was however some spectacular scenery during this day, giant canopy making trees from South America, waterfalls, forests, rubber plantations. Sadly some of this was obscured by the mist and drizzle, but I still got some great photos. The other rest stop on this trip was at a place called Tea Castle St Clair, a mock castle with a tea shop for drinking and a tea shop for buying. This is the best place to buy tea on the tour.

About 5 miles the from Bentota Beach hotel all the traffic on the Galle road came to a halt. This is the only route to the hotel, and so we were forced to wait. Jay went off to find out what the problem was to keep us informed. It seems some protesters had blocked the road with wood and later, themselves, protesting about land use near the beach, and their small buildings being destroyed by government decree for being less than the 150m tsunami buffer zone between land and sea. It's a complicated issue and as ever, involves money as much as it involves safety. That the protesters might have a point is well covered in the book "The shock doctrine" by Naomi Klein. After we'd gone no-where for about an hour the police came walking past with riot gear and weapons and about half an hour after that, we were on our way again.

day8-end: Bentota Beach Hotel.

The Bentota Beach Hotel was by far the best hotel of the tour, with a welcoming smell of cinnamon oil in the reception area. The pool, grounds, room and restaurant are perfectly kept and the beach beyond the hotel grounds has clean sea, very fine golden sand and endless palm trees along the shore. It contrasts all the more with the impoverished looking nearby towns of Bentota and Alutgama, both of which are within 10 mins walk of the hotel.

The weather for the remaining days was almost entirely hot and sunny with clear blue skies. A quick briefing by the Kuoni rep gave us a lot of useful local information, much of it aimed at not getting ripped off. There was a higher than average number of Tuk-Tuk/Gem shop/anything you want touts outside the hotel, and tellingly, the hotel has a security team and some high gates. Not that I think they were preventing trouble, more like they were preventing a nuisance. It's hard to know what to think. On the one hand these people have to make some sort of living, on the other hand they're just annoying the crap out of anyone that leaves the hotel grounds. There were similar people on the beach entrance at the back of the hotel grounds (the beach is public) selling tours for river cruise, turtle sanctuary etc. Many of the other tourists I spoke with complained about this annoyance. I did walk into Alutgama several times, shaking off these people as I went. There's always more to pick up later on, as I wearily noticed again and again another local whose walking trajectory was heading with depressing certainty to intersect with mine at some point not far down the road with a "hello?" or "tuk-tuk?". It can be quite tiring keeping your defences up against this all of the time. I do at least have one shield, speaking to them in a lesser known Eastern Euuropean language they almost certainly won't know. I know enough of this to tell them that I don't speak English and reply to anything else with a negative or a long string of random words. They would take a guess as to what I was speaking (Are you Russian? - nope and I'm not speaking it either!) and then give up and walk away. I gained some small satisfaction from being the one to start with the bullshit. There were some occasions where the locals did seem to want to engage in a non-sales conversation, but by this time I and others were being fairly short with them so we are left with the impression that everyone's a salesman and they're left with the impression that foreigners are surly and uncommunicative, and it's sad that this ends up this way but sales-paranoia is the only defence. Sadly the tout situation can only get worse as the number of tourists increases.

We took a train from Alutgama to another town called Ambalangoda, about 30 minutes south of Alutgama. The trains are both bouncy, noisy and very cheap. They also feel a little unsafe for reasons it's hard to put a finger on. On a later journey my wife did witness some small children get on at one short-stop station, rip a gold necklace from one of the tourist passengers and then run away off the train. I guess it pays to not wear jewellery here. Ambalangoda looks very much like every other town in Sri Lanka, but about 20 minutes from it by Tuk-Tuk (1000 Rupees return) in the middle of a large cinnamon plantation is Sailataralama temple containing one of the largest reclining (i.e lying-down) Buddha statues in Asia, only beaten in size by the one in Bangkok's grand Palace complex. This one is not gold but painted, and both the Buddha and surrounding temple is in a state of repair, with some parts needing a lot of work and others 100% complete. There were no other tourists there at this point, peaceful. We returned to Bentota halfway by bus and halfway by Tuk-Tuk. The bus is brightly coloured both inside and out, with a big picture of Krishna inside and piped Indian music.

The following day we'd bought the optional Kuoni half-day inland boat tour and turtle hatchery. At 17 per person this is very good value. The boat tour began about 30 mins coach ride from the hotel, and takes about 8 tourists by small boat inland over a large lake / inlet which I could not decide if it contained sea or fresh water. The possible presence of crocodiles meant I didn't put in my hand to find out, but since one of the other things to see along the way were jellyfish, I'd went with sea. Amongst the other wildlife to see were monitor lizards, kingfishers, giant squirrels (about the size of a cat), cormorants, bee eaters and locals on makeshift rafts diving down to bring up and steal-sell bucketloads of sand from the bottom. Part way into the trip the boat pulls up at a small island and there's a demonstration of all things cinnamon, rope making, coconut tree leaf platting and mat making by one of the women that live on the island. There's the chance to buy (of course) but given the prices are low and the poverty of the island people is high, it's not a bad feeling like in some of the other situations. We did get to see the womans house, which was about 4m x 4m square with walls made from dried mud blocks. It seemed disrespectful to take a picture of such poverty. On the way back to the boat mooring we passed many other similar such boats as ours, all bearing the names of Irish towns painted down the side, such as Chuckies Cork IRL, Vevay (Bray) and Blanchardstown - a question about which I feel even our guide would not have been able to answer had he been there. Our boat had no name. As with everything else, the driver is expecting a tip, as is the boy holding open the coach door on return On the way back to the hotel is the stop at the turtle hatchery, with hundreds of day-old turtles to be seen plus several adult ones of note, either albinos or ones injured by motorboat or tsunami. Quite by chance we also saw some turtles crawling out of their eggs through the sand in the hatching area. I was not surprised to see a shop at the end of the hatchery tour.

The final full day I spent sunbathing and swimming at the hotel, with a strong head cold I'd picked up in all the rain before.

The return pickup to Columbo airport was at 4:15am and the driver was a nutcase. I don't know whether the empty roads went to his head or what, but his driving was erratic, and seem to involve more than it's fair share of swerving and hard braking. This only got worse as we got into Colombo and the early morning beginnings of rush hour. It was nice that he thought to point out some of Colombo's tourist attractions as we went along but I wasn't alone on the minivan in thinking that his concentration was better spent on the road, especially as after a 4:15am start, no one was in any great mood to be looking at tourist attractions. I disappeared from the vicinity of the driver soon after arriving at the airport, but he later sought me out looking for a tip. I refused though had I spoke fluent Singalese I might have said "Here's a tip: Don't drive like a prat". He got no tips from anyone that journey, and he did look genuinely like he didn't know why. I accept that tipping in Sri Lanka is expected even for mediocre service, but this was some way below that. A couple of airport staff whisked all the bags onto a trolley and pushed them inside the airport, a journey of no more than about 25 meters, for which they also expected a tip. I ought to get my bags chained to my arm.

I'm glad I went to Sri Lanka, though I'm sorry it rained so much for the first half of the holiday. Even with a 100% guarantee of no rain in the future (and I thought I'd got that going in the "dry" season"), I'd still not go back there again however. If I wanted another holiday of this type, I know that apart from the tea, Thailand has everything that Sri Lanka has, and a whole lot more too, for around the same price. Although I am sure the Sri Lankans themselves are friendlier, more honest and less prone to sudden violence than Thais that tourists generally encounter.

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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2011

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