We were super excited to come to Sri Lanka as it was a bit of a last minute destination change for us. There was also a bit of trepidation too – would it be as ‘hard’ to travel around as India? We have been moving around quickly lately and are starting to get a bit of travel fatigue, so would this just be a step too far for the kids?
Well we are pleased to report we absolutely love it here, and are so happy that we came. It is actually very different to India and is a really easy place to travel around with kids. I know we say this everywhere but the people are so friendly and kind, and it is for the most part hassle free. We are really enjoying the food and haven’t had any issues with finding the kids things to eat. And we are blown away by the diversity and beauty of the landscape – we really didn’t expect it to be this stunning.
We arrived on a late flight from KL to Colombo, which is the capital city of Sri Lanka. A really random thing we noticed was the duty free section of the airport doesn’t have your usual chocolates, booze and perfume, but a very comprehensive white wear section as well. You can pick up a washing machine, blender or vacuum cleaner on your way in, how convenient…..
We had pre-arranged our visas so it was pretty straight forward in the immigration section and because it was so late we had pre-arranged a transfer from the airport. The first sight coming out into the arrivals area was a massive group of men gathered around a small TV watching a T-20 world cup cricket match. Happy days 🙂
Our home for the first two nights in Sri Lanka was the coastal city of Negombo. It’s closer to the airport than Colombo and a good place to base yourself when you first get to Sri Lanka if you don’t want to be in the hectic city.
As we only had one day, we hired a tuktuk to take us around and show us the sights of the town. It was super hot, probably the warmest we have been so far, and the kids were struggling a bit with the heat and the late night flight before. So it was a fleeting visit! Here’s what we saw:
Negombo Fish Market and the Old Dutch Fort
First off we visited the fish market which was really interesting. There was lots of fresh fish on sale along with prawns, crabs and calamari.
It’s also the area where they dry fish, so you can imagine the smell!
The catch comes in early morning and again at 4pm. Our dinner that night was fish straight from the 4pm boat!
We had a quick look at ruins of the Old Dutch Fort dating back to 1640. It’s also where the modern prison is, so it’s a bit of a strange experience wandering through the ruins walking past everyone who is lining up for visiting hour to the prison!
St Stephen’s Church
Negombo is nicknamed ‘Little Rome’ as there are nearly 50 Catholic churches and shrines in the greater area, and the population is 90% Catholic (as opposed to the rest of Sri Lanka which is mostly Buddhist). It’s an odd sight walking into a church just like at home, apart from it being as hot as an oven!
This Buddhist temple has an amazing 6 metre high Buddha at the entrance, and you walk into it via a dragon’s mouth which is there to ward off evil spirits. Inside are a series of beautiful painted murals and 3D models that depict the life of Buddha and the path to enlightenment, along with some of the history of Sri Lanka.
It was certainly worth seeing, but you are hassled quite a bit at the end for a ‘donation’. That’s fine, but the guy was really annoyed with me when I accidentally wrote down 2000 rupees or the equivalent of $20 New Zealand dollars, then crossed it out to make it 200 rupees or $2 New Zealand dollars.
We figured out later by reading Trip Advisor that they have a little scam going where they often add a few zeros onto the end of the donation book, so it looks like people are donating $20 instead of $2. My innocent alteration stuffed up their scam for that page, so no wonder he was hacked off!
Learning about Ayerverda
We stopped into a herbal garden, where a guy took about 40 minutes to explain all about how ayurverda therapies work and natural medicine. It was quite interesting and we got a nice head and shoulder massage out of it. I ended up buying some sandalwood face cream which is guaranteed to keep me wrinkle and pimple free for years to come, so watch this space! It was so hot by now and the kids were at melting point literally so didn’t stop to take any photos unfortunately.
Where we stayed in Negombo
In Negombo we stayed at the fantastic Fire Dragon Guest House in a family room. It was simple but with a clean modern bathroom and a double bed and bunks. It also had good air-conditioning, an essential!
We ate breakfast twice here and got them to cook us curry and rice, which is the traditional Sri Lankan dish. It was fantastic and we’d highly recommend it.
They were also really helpful in sorting out a driver to take us from Negombo to our next destination Nuwara Eliya.
The kids also had some quality pussy cat time 🙂
Driving to the Hill Country via Kandy
The next day the driver that we had hired through our guest house arrived and we jumped in the car to head to Nuwara Eliya which is in the middle of Sri Lanka and up in the Hill Country.
We were blown away at how beautiful the scenery was. It was a lovely drive through coconut groves and rice paddy fields, along with patches of jungle. It was about a 6 hour drive to Nuwara Eliya, so we decided to break the journey up by stopping off at a couple of places in Kandy.
Millenium Elephant Foundation
Our guest house and driver both suggested going to the Pinewalla Elephant Orphanage, which sounds great – see the orphan elephants! Feed the baby elephants with a bottle! Ride an elephant! but we had read some really bad things about the place. Apparently the elephants are mistreated there, and we’re pretty determined NOT to ride an elephant while we’re in Asia – you can read more about why not here – http://www.earsasia.org/#!tourism/c1y0y
So after a bit of research we came across the Millennium Elephant Foundation near Kandy, which is a sanctuary for elephants that have been cruelly treated in the logging and tourist industries. They have 6 elephants there, and you can observe them at the sanctuary, watch them having a bath or buy a fruit basket to feed them and the profits go into funding medicines and sponsorship of the elephants. It all sounded good.
We left wondering if we had done the right thing to be honest. While they’re undoubtedly doing good work in freeing these animals from a miserable existance, and we saw some volunteers who were clearly making a difference, it still felt a little bit like a zoo. The most upsetting thing we saw is that they were doing elephant rides, but bareback without a howdah which they claimed didn’t harm the animals and it was ok because it was only for a short distance. Apparently they are trying to “phase them out” and replacing them with elephant walk experiences, but at 3000 rupees ($30 NZD) per ride the cynic in us thought it’s still certainly very lucrative for them.
As we watched the elephants trudge backwards and forwards lugging 3 or 4 people on their backs it just didn’t feel right and they looked downright bored and miserable. We also saw a couple of elephants chained up – because they were in musht so it was for their and our safety, but we saw one of them struggling to reach his water in trough. We also got asked for a tip by one of the guides after he pressured us to take a photo with one of the elephants, despite their website saying they don’t encourage tipping as they want the money to go towards the elephants. We politely declined.
The positives of the place were that the kids really enjoyed feeding the elephants, and hopefully the money did go towards improving conditions for them! And it’s provoked some good discussions with them about animal cruelty. Maybe we’re being unfair and just visited on an off day, but the great stuff on their website certainly didn’t tally with our experience, and we came away feeling a bit uneasy about it all.
The Royal Botanical Gardens
I have a bit of a soft spot for Botanic Gardens as I’ve had a little bit to do with the fantastic Auckland one and some of my friends work there. So I was very keen to have a look at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya, which is just outside of Kandy. This stunning park used to be exclusively for the Royal Family, but now it’s open to the public (for a small fee).
We only had limited time here, so headed straight to the orchadium and wandered amongst the beautiful orchids. We came across quite a few that we hadn’t seen before, they were just gorgeous.
We then walked down to the grand palm tree avenue, where Sophie’s photo posing antics got us quiet a few stares!
It would have been great to spend a bit longer here, but time was getting on and the kids were tired. So we jumped back into the car for the final leg of our journey to Nuwara Eliya. 71km, no problem we thought, we’ll be there soon. Little did we know.
The road is honestly the windiest one we have ever been on, as it snakes up into the hill country. We had to stop at least 5 times for poor Sophie, who gets car sick, but the little trooper made it without incident. We were very happy when we finally made it to over 6,000 feet high and the town of Nuwara Eliya two and a quarter hours later!
Coming next: The stunning Hill Country of Nuwara Eliya and Ella – taking a trip back in time to a colonial past, learning about tea, one of the best train journeys in the world, breathtaking hikes and waterfalls!
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