Hello Sri Lanka!

Lifeguards at Galle Face Green on a Saturday afternoon in Colombo.

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.

Locals enjoying the afternoon in the face of fast approaching rain clouds.
Strolling the promenade and enjoying snacks. A great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Achcharu – fruit pickled in spices.

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!

Isso Vade. Prawn topped lentil fritters. When you buy one it gets topped with a spicy sambal.

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.

The Galle Green promenade before the rain moved in on our first evening in Colombo.
90% of construction projects in Sri Lanka have come to a standstill due to “shortage of cement, iron and other raw material and its high prices in the economic crisis”.

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.

Chicken Kottu. Kottu translates from Sinhalese as chopped, and this popular Sri Lankan street food consists of chopped up roti (a type of flatbread), stir-fried with chicken, vegetables and egg. Delicious.
Sunday morning iced coffee on our way to a museum. Living the normal tourist life.
Ah, shady sidewalks. Yes, it’s hot and humid in Colombo, but the walking is good.
The National Museum. A good destination on a hot sunny day.
More amazing big trees at the museum. The shade is so welcome.

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.

To me a train ride means loads of uninterrupted reading time.

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.

Dutch church in the fort under sunny skies.
Anglican Church. Right down the street.
Locals outside the courthouse in the shade of a banyan tree.
Some older buildings still being fixed up.
The street signs are in Sinhala, English, and Tamil. I love the colors of this wall.

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.

A lot of visitors spend only one night in Galle, but with three nights we had time to figure out our favorite walking route to the Fort, through the entrance by the fish market.
Our pre-sunset walk into the Fort went by a cricket match in what had been a parking lot by day, near the court.
Sunset light and the Galle lighthouse behind us.
Jungle Beach, a short auto rickshaw ride away from Galle. Made a teeny bit longer by a driver who didn’t believe we had no interest in visiting the shop of a relative. Never a bad idea to follow along on your route with google maps

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.

Fresh juice at the lovely trail side cafe of an entrepreneurial local. He and his family were selling juice, cinnamon, and aloe vera for the sunburned folks coming from Jungle Beach.
On our way to Unawatuna the skies opened up with rain.
So we ducked into a restaurant for lunch- an amazing lunch. Rich had curry rice, a Sri Lankan staple, with four different vegetable curries.
Mine was avocado curry with herbed rice. Absolutely delicious. Wasantha’s Sri Lanka Cuisine. She also offers cooking lessons.
And it was time to leave our fantastic Brixia guest house and Jinendra, our wonderful host.
Walking to the train station- yes, I’m carrying my backpack again. Six weeks post surgery and although I enjoyed having Rich carry my bag, it was time to shoulder my own pack again.
The Galle station. This time we’ll be riding in unreserved 2nd class carriages. Open windows!
Ah. The view out the door of the train. It’s quite nice with the breeze blowing through as the train winds along the coast.
The happy travel planner. Sitting in the open train door.
Traffic at a level crossing.
After a great train ride and short auto rickshaw ride we arrive at our beach stay at Unakuruwa beach at the Aga Surf View hotel. Please note that the king coconuts are cut to look like cute mice.

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.

Bright hibiscus and bright houses. Makes walking fun.
One of the small beach cafes at Silent Beach. And a couple of the ubiquitous beach dogs.
Lunch in the shade at silent beach. The Sri Lankens are very good at decorating to give you that casual beach vibe.
Plenty of shade gets approval from me.
Another small family restaurant a short walk from our hotel.
Plenty of fishing along this coast.
Fisherman’s break hut?
The beaches here are quite clean. Rich doing his part to help keep them that way.
Roadside fish stands to sell the catch.

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.

The happy, if hot and sweaty, travelers.

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21 years car free, 11 years serving on transit boards helping SF and Caltrain move forward, and now, traveling the world. Happy doesn’t begin to describe how I feel when traveling with my hubby TravelRich.

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