Once we knew we were going to be heading slightly off course and going to the Maldives, and after hearing many positive things, we decided to add Sri Lanka to our itinerary and spend a whole month discovering this island nation.
For this month we had a few places we definitely wanted to visit or activities we wanted to do, but otherwise we were doing very little planning or pre-booking accommodation to try to stay more flexible. This was something quite different for our family and not really what we had been doing previously during our travels.
After a short flight from the Maldives, we arrived into Negombo at around 1am and we were well and truly ready to get to our accommodation, but first transport. By now we are well adverse to bartering with tuk tuk drivers but we weren’t quite ready for the Sri Lankan drivers. After a few conversations we only got down to 1,200 LKR/$11 NZD for our 10km trip, but we were in need of sleep so had to suck it up.
Our hosts at Aradhana Lake View Residence (see our review here) were kindly waiting for us to check in and by 2am we were fast asleep. After breakfast the next morning we were ready to start our Sri Lankan adventures.
Negombo to Bentota
We were planning to mostly bus and train around Sri Lanka to keep costs low and our first travel day combined the two. Our hosts ordered us a tuk tuk to take us to the local bus station and we found there were many buses, of various levels of comfort, leaving continuously to Colombo and other parts of the country.
It wasn’t long before we were on the highway to Colombo in a local bus for a grand total of 600 LKR/$5.63 NZD, which included some added fees for our larger bags. The trip was pretty uneventful but once we hit the outskirts of the capital the traffic came to a crawl and in the end it took us about an hour for the 35km journey. We ended at the bus station near some markets and after ridiculously high quotes for a tuk tuk trip to the railway station, just over a 1km away, we decided to walk.We purchased 2nd class tickets (360 LKR/$3.38 NZD for adults and half fare for the boys) on the next train heading through Bentota and sat back to watch the crazy comings and goings of the Colombo Fort Station.
It wasn’t too much longer before we had a very shocking introduction to Sri Lankan train travel. As the train rolled up to the platform people started jumping onto the train and pushing into the carriages. With the kids and the larger bags we waited for the train to stop completely before getting on but we were clearly being too polite and numerous people pushed in front of the boys as they tried to get on, so we quickly had to join the crowds and shove our way into a carriage. The train was beyond crowded, all the seats were taken and people were standing in every possible space with pushing and shoving seemingly being the norm. While we all got on the train safely and with all our bags but we were very overwhelmed. Braxton got upset and thankfully a kind gentleman gave up his seat and so Braxton sat on my knee (& promptly fell asleep), while Logan and Lincoln found a little space between the carriages and had to stand for the whole 80 minute journey. We were very happy when we pulled up at the Bentota platform and could finally get ourselves out of the sardine carriages. We later learned that we should have purchased 2nd class ‘reserved’ tickets (if any had been available) as these are carriages with allocated seating, an attendant checking tickets and passengers aren’t allowed to stand. Another travel lesson learnt and definitely an experience and trip that will not be forgotten for a very, very long time.
We spent four nights in Bentota (at Bentota Homes – here is our review) and at this time of year it could well be passed by. It was the low season and the beach was very rough and not very inviting.
We thought we had planned a day trip down the coast to Galle (60km away) with our host but somehow there was a miscommunication and he “thought” we wanted to visit sites around Bentota. He took us to a local turtle hatchery but it was a sad states of affairs and we instantly regretted it. No doubt it was a friend of his and he would have got something out of it so that put a bit of a damper on our day but we regrouped and found a couple of activities,although this wasn’t the greatest start to Sri Lanka for our family.
The next day we hired a tuk tuk driver/boat safari guide to take us out on the lagoon and through the mangroves. Sasindu had told us we could possibly see crocodiles and as the boat wasn’t that big we weren’t entirely sure if we really wanted to see them up close or not. We had a really nice two hours out on the water and while we saw some interesting animals we only saw three small baby crocs, but that was enough for us. Our two hours on the boat, plus tuk tuk transfers to and from our accommodation, cost us just 2,500 LKR/$23.45 NZD. Very reasonable we thought, although this could have been due to it being Bentota’s low season.We also took a 10km trip from Bentota to Brief Garden, this is the extensive landscaped gardens and previously home of one of the most renowned landscape architects in Sri Lanka, Bevis Bawa. Sculptures were Bevis’s passion and there are many dotted around the house & garden but I particular liked the painting done straight onto an inside concrete wall which depicted the “Island of Lanka”.So with that, our time in Bentota was done and since our Galle day trip was a wash out we decided to head down that way for a few days.
Bentota to Galle
We decided to give the trains another go and hope it wasn’t as bad as our first trip. Heading down the coast to Galle the total cost was 300 LKR/$2.81 NZD and thankfully the train wasn’t as crowded. There was one free seat that the boys could share while Logan and I stood for most of the 55 minute trip. For the last 10-15 minutes we could all sit together on our own seats and we got our train travel mojo back.
From the Galle Station we got a reasonably priced tuk tuk to our accommodation and we were greeted kindly by our host, Anusha (from Anusha Apartment 15 – our review is here). She gave us a small map of the area and information about how to use the local buses to and from the apartment.
Having such a short travel day we headed straight out to get some lunch and have a good look around the vast Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We started at the bus station and headed around past the international cricket ground, through some of the walls and gates and then out along the coast to finish up at Galle Lighthouse. It was a Sunday and there were lots of young couples out and families enjoying picnics and swimming in the ocean. We consumed numerous bottles of cold water along the way and a few ice blocks too. A very nice introduction to the area.When we planned to do the day trip to Galle from Bentota we had wanted to include a stop at Telwatta on the way back to visit the Tsunami Museum. As this didn’t happen, but Braxton was still keen to visit the museum, he and I decided to make the trip while Logan and Lincoln headed to Sahana Beach to undertake some surfing lessons.
Braxton and I hopped on a bus heading north towards Colombo along the coastal highway and quickly discovered we had a driver with a death wish as we were flung around the corners and gripped onto the seats for dear life. The local buses happily let people cram on and we were lucky to get seats, however Braxton was soon on my knee to make space for another passenger to sit down. The buses throughout Sri Lanka have a driver and an attendant, the attendant is most often recognised as the person with an electronic ticket machine attached to their wrist (although in some smaller areas they may have to handwrite a small ticket) and a handful of cash. We found the bus attendants around Sri Lanka to mostly be very helpful and made sure we knew when to get off if we weren’t taking the bus to its terminal location.
We survived the 30 minute trip and hopped off the bus to not very much around us. The villages in this area were hit hard by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and it was also the location of a train disaster. I’ve read many different numbers, but around 1,500 people were on a train, that was stopped at this area, when the huge waves hit and only a few people survived.
We entered the “museum” which was a small four room building where the first room had information about what tsunamis are, how they can occur and some statistics about this particular tsunami and the 14 countries that were effected. The remaining rooms were mostly photographs of the train disaster as well as the damage done to the village and the aftermath of this incredible natural disaster. The wall with the more disturbing photos of some of the fatalities was covered because they had seen Braxton enter and these weren’t appropriate for a five year old. Such a tragedy, and with a lack of education, information and warning systems the fatalities were many more than there possibly could have been. The museum continues to spread information and warning systems are now in place.After the museum we visited the nearby memorial and then the railway platform where the train had been when it was hit. We had lots of “hellos” and smiles from the kids at the neighbouring school and after a roadside coconut we haled the next bus back to Galle. This time we managed to get a driver who was slightly more safety conscious so we enjoyed this trip much more; watching the coast and roadside Sri Lanakan life roll past us through the open bus windows.While we were away, Lincoln and Logan’s surfing lessons went well and Lincoln stood up on the board after about his third attempt. Logan took a little longer but they both had an enjoyable couple of hours at the beach.Our last day in Galle we all visited the beach, Lincoln rented a surfboard to continue his new-found surfing skills and we enjoyed the nicer beach. The waves were a good size but definitely not rough like up in Bentota.
We really had a great few days in Galle and were pleased we ended up there for longer than our previously intended day trip. From Galle we were heading towards Yala National Park and hoping to seek out the elusive leopards that reside there.
Average Daily Spend for 4 weeks in Sri Lanka – $118.30 NZD ($54.20 under budget per day)