We have a new standard for judging ease of entry into a country. It’s not just how straightforward and easy the visa is, e-visa or otherwise, but also how easy and quick it is to get a local SIM card. Taiwan set the bar high back in January, but Sri Lanka is a very close second. That quick SIM transaction at the airport, and the joy of being able to get a hassle free taxi to our hotel had us nodding to each other – I think we’re going to like this country.
It’s easy to assume proximity means similarity, we assumed that with the UK and Ireland and were very wrong. We had heard while traveling in India that Sri Lanka was “India lite”, so again we assumed it would feel familiar and similar to India. Wrong again!
We’ve been reading about the troubles Sri Lanka has faced since 2019, and the economic crisis which is on going, and we were warned by a few Indians not to come here. So, we expected some issues. The first things we noticed were the things that made our arrival so easy. E-visa. SIM card. Taxi. All straight forward and easy. The drive to our hotel was much quieter than we had become accustomed to in India – here, honking is just not as common. It makes the streets feel so much calmer.
If you knew nothing of the financial crisis Sri Lanka is facing you could be forgiven for thinking all is well. The unfinished high rises under construction in Colombo, the executive and judicial capital of Sri Lanka (Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, a Colombo suburb, is the legislative capital.), are the first sign we saw that all is not well. There is less car traffic on the streets, based on our reading, due to the high cost of gasoline and diesel. Trains and buses are more crowded than previously. But these are things that as a first time visitor you wouldn’t know.
After only one night in Colombo we headed out by train to Galle, about a 2 hour train ride south. Our first Sri Lankin train! On the easy reservation site Rich booked us two seats in the air conditioned reserved seat (AFC) carriage.
Galle is best known for the 16th century walled fort built by the Portuguese, added on to by the Dutch, and finally occupied by the British. The Fort, as it’s referred to by the locals, has plenty of hotels and guest houses, lovely streets with few cars and scooters, and tourist friendly restaurants for the mostly Russian and French tourists we shared the streets with. We stayed in the new town, at the Brixia Cafe and Guesthouse, which was perfect for us. We could walk to the Fort and enjoy seeing what the new town was like.
You won’t be in Sri Lanka for very long before you notice how friendly people are. And helpful. Smiles and greetings, quick chats to ask where we’re from and how long we’ll be in Sri Lanka. With the troubles they’ve had you would expect folks to be a bit sour on life, but they aren’t. Our guesthouse host spoke openly about the challenges he faced during Covid, separated from his Italian wife for a year and half, and how he’d been lucky to get his building completed before inflation made it impossible, but he had the same positive attitude and warmth we continue to encounter.
It can feel awkward visiting a country going through struggles like Sri Lanka, but we know that tourism was an important part of the economy, visits peaked in 2018 at 2.5 million visitors. By contrast only 400k arrived in 2022. The upsides are fewer crowds, obviously, and an easier time booking accommodations. The downside is an ever present awareness of those missing tourists and their money. Again, you wouldn’t really know how different it is from the locals attitudes towards you. Or, maybe we benefit from the ‘wow, we do miss tourists’ realization. We try to share the love, going to little beach side restaurants and buying juices, beers, and meals and tipping generously.
Our beach stay was three nights, at a lovely beach side hotel where we could have a morning swim before breakfast, and walk out our door to the restaurant for meals and cocktails, and we can walk along the narrow streets and pathways to more family run restaurants. We can see that in the time of 2.5m tourists per year this was a much busier area, with a lot of guesthouses sitting empty right now. Thank goodness for the tourists who are here, from Russia, France, Germany, a few British and even fewer Americans.
We’re headed out to the safari part of our Sri Lanka stay, hopefully the next post will feature elephants. So far we are very happy with our Sri Lanka stay, and we hope for easier times and more stability for the people here. And we hope for our fellow tourists to keep visiting and keep spending.