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So You Want to Visit Sri Lanka?

By Katya Kruglak

February 8, 2010

I headed for Sri Lanka on little more than a whim. The civil war had only officially been over for about six months and I had no idea if should expect a war scorched country of a land of idyllic beaches. However, I've always been told that I should visit Sri Lanka if I ever get the chance, and it seemed silly to be so close (I had been traveling around India for a month and half) and not go there.

From armed soldiers on almost every corner in parts of Colombo, to police check points, and posted warnings to be on the lookout for bombs, there are still many reminders of the recent war. However for the most part it doesn’t feel like a country that just underwent a civil war. Daily routine appears to be uninterrupted in many places; the public buses, which were once a target of bombings, are jammed full of people on their way to work.

The tourism industry is still very much in recovery mode and I soon found that there were many things I wished that I had know before arriving.

Ten Things to Know Before Heading Off to Sri Lanka

1) Finding people to travel with once you arrive in Sri Lanka may prove harder than you imagined. Government warnings still scare away many potential tourists. After the bussle and chaos of Colombo having an entire park or beach to yourself may come as a welcome relief. If you are traveling on your own and expecting to find people to travel and trek with be forewarned that this might prove a bit of a challenge. Unlike India, where I found it easy to meet backpackers on trains and buses, it seems that many travelers in Sri Lanka opt to hire a private car and guide to take them around, making it even harder to meet the few other foreigners in Sri Lanka. As much as I was tempted to pretend otherwise, it really isn't safe to head off trekking on your own. I found the best way to meet up with people for trekking was to find group treks run out of guesthouses or tourist offices; however it may take several days for them to find enough people for a trek so be prepared to wait.

2) If you need information about what to do in Sri Lanka or how to navigate the railways the tourist office at the international airport and the foreign desk at the Fort Station in Colombo are both very helpful and staffed by people who speak fluent English.

3) Research relevant monsoon cycles and pilgrimage seasons before heading off. The last thing you want to do is show up to the beach mid monsoon season. Likewise, certain sites like Adam's Peak have a pilgrimage season. Although it is possible to visit off-season, it is easier to reach places during their pilgrimage season, and in the case of Adam's Peak a lot safer since it is only lit up during pilgrimage season and often desolate during the off-season.

4) Leave plenty of buffer time if you are going somewhere by train. The train ride from Colombo to Kandy was supposed to last several hours, but the train stopped a few hours into the trip and remained stopped for about two hours as dusk approached and the mosquito situation went from bad to out of control. I later read that trains in Sri Lanka are often a half-day or even a full day late, and I can definitely believe that after my train experience.

5) Buses will get you just about anywhere you want and are often faster than the trains. There are several different classes of buses, so figure out if you want the local bus (cheapest, stops frequently), or the intercity/luxury bus (air-conditioned, slightly softer seats). One other word of warning, even the luxery buses don't have under bus storage for large packs, so be prepared to keep any luggage with you.

6) Sri Lanka has two tiers of pricing: one for locals and one for foreigners. These tiers extend past the standard tourist mark-up at monuments and temples and even guesthouses and restaurants will attempt to drastically up-charge tourists. I found that given how few tourists are currently visiting a little bargaining on your part will go a long way and many guesthouses are willing to reduce their prices if you ask.

7) The guidebook warned me that traveling alone as woman in Sri Lanka I should expect to be hassled a lot, and they certainly weren't exaggerating the situation. I didn’t feel physically threatened at any point in Sri Lanka, but the relentless stares and comments served as a constant reminder that there are elements there that are determined to make sure that women don’t feel safe walking around alone. I should mention that my guide book has several other warnings for women traveling on their own about not taking trains, being very careful after dark and on buses, and not trekking alone. I chose to ignore warnings about trains, buses, and night for the most part, but it's something you should at least be aware of so you can make your own decisions.

8) If you are looking to stay out late Sri Lanka probably isn't the place for you. Outside of Colombo, most of Sri Lanka shuts down early. In parts of Sri Lanka few people even eat out for dinner, choosing to eat at home or in their guesthouse.

9) Internet access varies drastically depending on where you are. In most towns you can at least find a slow internet connection (although again don't expect to find anything open late at night on holidays). If you have a laptop the Cinnamon Gardens area in Colombo has several cafes equipped with wifi and many upscale hotels have wifi as well. The international airport also has wifi.

10) Be careful talking photos. Although it is often easy to forget that Sri Lanka is just coming off a civil war, the situation remains tense especially in Colombo. I found myself being reproached by heavily armed soldiers for attempting take photos of what appeared to be historical sites. I would suggest asking first if you aren't sure if you can take a photo; after all you really don't want to anger the person holding a M-16.

Author's blog: http://blog.newsok.com/dustyglobe/

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