TL;DR: Worthwhile broadening experience, use Triposo App and you can avoid using local guides that just talk to you anyways, budget $1000 for a comfortable time, be prepared to negotiate everything.
Over Labor Day weekend some friends and I decided to take a 4-day vacation to some place in this part of the world. After all, how often would we fly all the way from the states? Usually when you fly from the states to a similar part of the world you would rather go to Thailand or Moldives. Sri Lanka is a small island located southeast off the tip of India. The capital is Colombo and the airport is about 45 minutes north of the city by highway. It costs around $33 or 4550 Sri Lankan Rupees (SRL) one way.
Before our arrival, we pre-arranged for a rental car from Sixt. Since I wasn’t involved with the selection of the rental car, on arrival we found out that they sent a driver to pick us up from the airport to bring us to their company which is located in downtown Colombo. This might be an important detail for someone planning to use a rental car. There are some rental car and SIM card booths outside of customs at the airport if anyone needed to do last minute planning. It’s also important to note that in Sri Lanka everyone drives on the left side of the road and the driver sits in the right side of the vehicle. My buddy who never drove in this part of the world before picked it up pretty quickly.
In fact we made it a point system for him to “level up” since he compared driving to a game of frogger where you are the car instead of a frog. We rented a Hyundai Sante Fe from Sixt for $250 [you can find my review on Tripadvisor] with a $750 security deposit. From there we drove straight out to Dambulla, stopping by the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage along the way. The elephants were being herded around by handlers wielding pikes with sharpened tips.
You can see my Tripadvisor review for details. The orphanage takes about 1 hour to experience, has feeding opportunities and a souvenir shop for the cost of 2500 SRL. Parking across the street actually costs 100 SRL despite no signs stating that. Being a skeptic of South Asian countries and the difficulty discerning between scammers and legitimate business practices I’m not sure you have to pay if you don’t want to. Fighting the payment would only be a matter of principle since 100 SRL is less than $1. The drive from Colombo to Dambulla totaled about 5 hours because of traffic and the two lane road the entire drive. At the end of our destination was the Heritance Kandalama, a hotel/resort set into the side of a mountain. We were told it was off-season and paid about $116 for the night. The hotel came with free amenities such as an infiniti pool but also has a spa, breakfast and dinner buffet.
After settling in for the night, the next morning we checked out and drove out to nearby Sigiriya to climb Lion Rock fortress. I definitely recommend an early arrival time to avoid the long wait times and the heat. We got there a little later around 9am and it was already nut to butt climbing up the mountain. I also recommend wearing comfortable shoes because although the path is straightforward, be prepared to stand on your feet for a long time. Do not get a “guide” they don’t do anything for you unless you absolutely want another companion.
Climbing Lion Rock was an amazing experience, especially since it was declared a World Heritage site. It also has an amazing backstory. After completing the climb, we rolled back to Dambulla to visit The Golden Temple. This was probably the only attraction in the entire town as everything else we passed by in the town was shack stores with fruits and electronics. Entrance to the Golden Temple costs 1,500 SRL and requires a lengthy climb to the top, half the length of Lion’s Rock though. Meanwhile, on the way up you have to negotiate peddlers, stray dogs and monkeys. At the top, you must take off your shoes and you are given the option of paying 25 SRL or putting your shoes in your backpack. There are five caves to explore and I recommend reading about them beforehand so you know what you are looking at and can appreciate the experience.
After we left the temple we commenced the long drive back to Colombo. Along the way, there are plenty of side shops for snacks and breaks. We checked into the Cinnamon Red hotel in downtown district 03 for $106 a night. The hotel included a roof top bar, breakfast/dinner buffet, gym and another “infinity pool”. The feel of the hotel is incredibly modern and it was also rated the best HISCA 2015 Best Hotel for the Mid Market Segment.
If it is your first time visiting Sri Lanka, I highly recommend this hotel as a starting point for your stay. At night, we checked out Bally’s Casino – it’s a free taxi ride from the hotel to the casino for obvious reasons. Not too impressed with the place, no bonus for sign-up, one room casino with a stage for entertainment and terrible table service. We stayed there for 6 hours and only got 3 drinks and a hookah. The hookah was initially denied by a server (told me it was broken) until I chatted with the manager puffing on one and she finally gave me one. Blackjack was a 500SRL/$3 buy-in minimum though. The next morning we “attempted” to scuba dive but weren’t able to wake up in time so just grabbed breakfast and a cab down to Mount Lavian beach front for 1,600 SRL. Cab took us to the Mount Lavian hotel since it was the most recognizable land mark and we walked the beach from there. We went up the north end and it had small chinese and local restaurants. The restaurant we ate at was non-descript but definitely had great food. Waves were about 2-5m high because of monsoon season which was awesome but there was trash floating around the water. Getting to the beach and back to the mainroad for transportation requires crossing a two-way railroad track that has actively running trains. On the way off the beach, locals will try to talk to you acting as a “guide” then demand money at the end of the conversation. We had one talk to us but we left him on the side of the street after he grabbed us tuktuks.
From Mount Lavian we went to Majestic City mall. The local mall had your assortment of fake everything like electronics, shoes, bags and jewelry but there was one unique one in there called Run Ruwan that sold sandblasted paintings, local stone jewelry and trinkets for reasonable prices. It’s located on the 2nd or 3rd floor. Maybe it was because it’s a Sunday or the selection of fake stuff was overwhelming but we were done with the mall in 1 hour. The only other things there were a movie theater that played both local and American movies on the top floor and a small child amusement park on the bottom floor. Going back to the Cinnamon Red cost 200 SRL and was a mix between negotiation and pressure from a police officer to move. Trick is to set your price, realize when you might be a little low but keep moving through the drivers. Some business is better than no business.
That night we went to eat at Park Side Mews, just north of the park near the hotel. You could either take a taxi car for 625 SRL like we did or walk 10 minutes through the park and out the north entrance onto Park street. Park St is pretty hip with classy restaurants and lounges. Prices are reasonable and still cheaper than a US equivalent.
That pretty much concluded our stay, the next morning we checked out after having breakfast and grabbed the hotel taxi back to the airport. Sri Lanka was a great place to visit for 4-days and especially a great way to temporarily increase your purchasing power (refer to The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris).