Arrival at Sri Lanka. A Diary of a Travelling Ukrainian
Riding an Elephant in Sri Lanka
My Video Report of Sri Lanka - Watch This Clip First
Great Trip at a Bargain Price
We travelled to Sri Lanka in March, 2014 when complicated and dangerous political quarrels hit our country, Ukraine. It led to serious devaluation of the national currency. To tell you the truth, I and Natasha initially planned to go to Dominicana and looked for options with Ukrainian airlines and booking a hotel in Punta Kana via global booking system. Yet, it came out as an expensive tour. The flight itself cost 1400 USD, and accommodation in a decent hotel cost about 800 USD per person. Thus, it would be about 4500-5000 USD for two of us.
That is why a trip to Sri Lanka that cost around 900 USD was a great alternative.
I did not believe it was possible at all. I imagined that a flight alone could cost this much but not the whole trip with shuttle service, 5-star accommodation and breakfasts.
How We Chose Our Hotel in Sri Lanka
We approached Kiev company Shturman. Natasha found it via the Internet. When you seek a company to entrust your valuable couple of weeks of vacation, it is a good idea to base your choice on a friend’s recommendation or trust your intuition and heed some nuances of how manager talks by phone, the speed of reaction to your requests, some information about your company from the Internet.
We did not have any friends who was a client of this company, and that is why we had to rely on Internet. Our guess was a successful one. The company was creditable and caring. Of course, they sell not their own tourist program but a tour from a larger tour operator. Their sole role is to tell about the trip, with all the details, and to prepare the documents, as well as to take the payment.
But this is not little, and whoever does this in a qualified manner, succeeds.
To pay in hryvnas was an additional factor of risk as at first the exchange rate was 9,15, and the next day – 9,35. Still, after a couple days it was stunning 10 hryvnas for one dollar. Ukrainian revolution made an ominous impact on money. Even if you had dollars, you could not sell them with this rate. It is a silly, controversial situation.
We were lucky enough to have a rate of a little higher than 9 hryvnas, and reservation confirmation came in a matter of hours, so we did not have to pay anything more.
We decided to pay for a visa in advance to get it at once, instead of waiting in a line at the Colombo airport on arrival. It cost 35 USD.
We selected the Palms Beach Hotel in Kalutaru, it is a five-star hotel on the coast, about one hour and a half from the Colombo airport to the south. The trip included breakfasts only.
There were other options in the southern Sri Lanka but it would take from 3 to 5 hours travel by bus, so we chose a hotel closer to the airport.
You Can Pray to Allah on Air Arabia
Air Arabia was a transportation company who took care of the flight.
I think that people who travel to different countries on a monthly basis are well-versed with the level of service of different companies, and this determines their choice. I do not fly more than two or three locations a year, and it is interesting to note how this service and food on board differ from company to company. I was surprised, for example, that there was no complimentary meals during a flight. Yet, you could buy whatever you need, even a bottle of water.
Of course, it has its own advantages, and you order what you want at the moment, from a list. The assortment is quite poor, though.
In the reality it looks somewhat strange as stewards and stewardesses had to perform different duties of a waiter, of a cashier, of a promoter in addition to their main ones of service and taking care about security rules.
It is interesting to note that there are about a dozen monitors in the plane where you have the ability to watch a prayer to Allah before the takeoff. If you do not know Arab language, you can follow along the prayer with English subtitles or just watch this beautiful imagery with waterfalls and picturesque rivers. I do not remember all the prayer but it consists of the following or similar text: “There is a Creator behind all the wonders of Nature, and let us pray to Him so that our trip will be a safe one. “ We had four flights, and we saw this every time at the takeoff. Thus, we made four prayers to Allah.
We left Kyiv in the afternoon, at about 1 PM, and arrived to Sharja after four hours. In the air we observed pinnacles of mountains, bare, without snowy tips. Before the landing we admired shapely intertwining of streets, magnificence and opulence of the city. Yet, Sharja airport was more prominent with bustle than with greatness. We usually do not see this kind of vanity in the West, even in the airports. It was difficult to find out where the gate is, no tables, no information boards. You have to find out yourself or by approaching a member of airport’s staff. We got the directions, went through the control point and sat across the Duty Free shop.
People were not what I am used to see: aboriginal women in paranja, slim men in turbans and robes, with sandals on their bare feet. There is a special room, near the toilet, where you can wash your feet, and then there is a room where you can pray to Allah, covered with a carpet adorned with Arabic patterns. The walls are furnished with shelves that have Korans for everybody who needs them.
I was going to buy a cappuccino for Natasha in a local café. They accept both dollars and dinars, the prices are in dinars, and the salesman calculates the exchange rate in his mind without any logic. I asked some guys from Ukraine who drank coffee about the exchange rate, and they told me that they had paid 15 dollars as an equivalent to 50 dinars.
The drink cost 18 dinars so I believed I had to pay 5 or 6 dollars. Nevertheless the vendor quotes a higher price, 7 dollars. I was amazed: “But why? What is the exchange rate?”
Arab contemplated for a moment, then he took his calculator and tapped a few times with his finger. Then, with a look of a man who generously made a discount, acquiesced: Ok, 6 dollars.
And that is the way these Arabs conduct business right in the International Sharja Airport! Like in a bazaar. Cheating and bargaining.
A couple at the next table were kind enough to present me with an Arabic dinar as a souvenir. I still keep it. It came out that we will be accommodated at the adjacent hotels, we spent a lot of time together. Thus, this meeting was not accidental.
From Sharjah to Colombo
As we flew from Sharja to Colombo, we had an unpleasant surprise. Three tourists, among them two women and one abhorrent man, his body covered with tattoos, spoke with a Moscow accent, and sat in the next row on the plane. This disgusting guy was cursing everybody around him with the most rude language, accused plane personnel, louted everybody and drank from a duty-free bottle that he kept for a trip. His main argument was like that:
I have a vacation, let me alone, I am the king.
He was causing trouble to all his neighbors.
We only hoped that they were not going to stay at the same hotel, and Allah presumably listened to our prayers. This miscarriage of a man fell down to sleep on a halfway to Colombo. He was too drunken and too exhausted to go on with his harangue.
When the lights of a big city Sharja (we also saw some skyscrapers) were behind, we reached Indian ocean, and flew over it for the major part of our trip. The screens were displaying information about the speed of our flight, about our height, our whereabouts, and how much time to Colombo is left.
This information helps to track the progress of our flight and to keep awake and aware. It is a kind of gamification. You are looking forward to your destination spot and are supported emotionally.
Despite some turbulence zones, we did not fear our safety. Maybe we were too blithe and carefree as a few days later a Malaysian flight will vanish in this area, Flight 370.
We were lucky to land in the Colombo International Airport well after a midnight, at about 3 AM local time. The time difference between Kyiv and Colombo is three and a half hours, and between Kyiv and Sharja is two hours.
In the International Colombo Airport
After arrival we were ushered though all the visa compartments as we had registered and paid for it beforehand. Many people had to stay in a line to obtain their visa. We showed our printed sheet of paper with a barcode to an airport official, and he let us through after stamping our passports.
Then we got our luggage and entered the arrival zone. There all the passengers are met by a tumultuous crowd of dark-skinned guides, each representing a different travel company.
We had a short and slim, brisk and smiling guy from the company Elegant Travel. He greeted us and asked to wait for the rest of tourists. He had a couple of dozen of them on his list.
There are about ten booths of various banks right in the main hall in the airport. They work mainly as currency exchange places. Their workers resemble bazaar vendors as they shout and beckon to you with their hand. If you look at their eyes, they will not let you go.
Whenever you travel to European or former Soviet countries, airport exchange offices offer most burglarious exchange rates that take about 10 percent of interest or more. Yet here the rate is surprisingly acceptable. It differs only 2 percent from the normal (as I found out later during my Kalutaru 8-day experience).
You get 127 rupees for 1 dollar (the best that I saw in Kalutaru was 130, and I paid 134 rupees for 1 dollar when I exchanged back those banknotes that were left at the time of departure). At the arrival we exchanged 200 dollars.
We also bought a SIM-card for one of our mobiles. For 10 dollars you get 7 or 8 dollars on your account balance, and we could talk to our Ukrainian relatives for about 30 minutes at their rates, nice!
A Busy Morning in Sri Lanka
The weather in Ukraine was around zero degrees Celcius. Thus, we were impressed by benignant humid warmth of local climate, by waves of fresh aromatic air, that was an environment that differed a lot from what we were used to.
Fortunately Natasha was precautious enough to have change of clothes on the plane, we took summer clothes in hand luggage. Thus, we were dressed as locals when we descended from the plane.
When a tourist spends a few days in Sri Lanka, he or she has a solid suntan, so you can tell newcomers from them. Otherwise we looked alike. When all of this Ukrainian-Russian crowd of about 30 finally gathered at the arrival gate, we were ushered into a decent looking modern bus (the driver asked everybody about his destination hotel and sorted luggage to different departments accordingly, further away or closer).
Then we took a trip along early morning avenues and streets of the capital of Sri Lanka. It was 5 hours in the morning.
When you are already there, on wheels inside the country, a new wave of impressions overwhelms you. You observe flora, evaluate landscapes, cityscapes, try to feel the pulse of the local life, what is it that people live with, breath with, their attitude and mood. I was ready for these kinds of pictures. I visited India twice, in 1995 and 1997. I was used to rikshas and chaos on the streets as well as early rising, lark lifestyle of locals.
And Sri Lanka resembles India a lot.
At the time before the sunrise when all the Western and Northern people sleep and watch their dreams, Indian and Sri Lankan people are widely awake and hasten to their jobs. When we passed through Colombo, at 5-30 to 6 AM (airport is to the north of the city, so we had to traverse the whole Colombo), we were in traffic jams, saw a congestion of all kinds of vehicles, public transportation of ramshackle buses and tricycle motorikshas that they call tuktuks (and their drivers are respectively called tuktukers, instead of rikshawallas). The city of Colombo made an impression of a busy anthill where people start their daily hustle and bustle long before the sunrise hurrying to their low-paid work and are content with bare necessities of life.
But when we went out of the city, via Waduwa to Kalutaru, cityscapes vanished and we saw a real beauty of villages, with their temples, Buddha statues, a lot of palm trees.
The left-hand traffic is what you notice at the first onset, especially as a seasoned driver like me. You instinctively try to get to the other side, to give way, to drive at the right side but no, do not do it, you have to learn again, to get accustomed new traffic rules. You have to be very cautious when you cross the road, the danger could come from any side. I came to this conclusion at once.
Accommodation at the Palms Beach Hotel in Kalutaru
When we came around one hotel after another, to debus individual tourists, I realized a stark difference between the vanity or fuss of local village life and heavenly imposing luxury of the tourist accommodation places.
You go along a street and see a pointer like Blue Water Resort, turn to a backstreet where two tuktuks are not able to cross. Then you pass a railway that is stretched along the coast. As all the hotels are located near a beach, the rumble of trains is heard from time to time even from the most expensive rooms. You never have a fully silent atmosphere. Some disgusting sound could hamper your sleep.
A driver beeps and security men open the gates to heaven. Our bus swims in the palm trees shadows and stops by a dazzling entrance where hotel staff, servants in a well-ironed new uniform, with the widest of smiles help you with your luggage.
Our hotel was the fourth or the fifth in the list. It took about one hour and a half to get there. The guide told us that he would come the next day at 6 PM to offer us some trips, sightseeing tours (to tell you the bitter truth, the next day in the evening I swam in a pool and did not notice that it was well after 6 PM, so we somehow betrayed him. I do not think we did a serious offence, though).
After arrival in the hotel we got our luggage (I was relieved to see it as many bags were out of bus on the way), and we saw a couple aborigines with their indispensable smiles.
With gestures they explained that it does not befit tourists to carry their bags themselves, they should be left outside, and specially trained people will bring them to the room. Well, I was on the look-out, there is nothing I can do with my suspiciousness. There is a famous Russian animation where sailor Lom during his travels with captain Vrungel was watching two Arabs who carried their luggage: “I’d better look after them so that they will not steal”.
We came to a reception desk where we were asked to pay additional 85 dollars for early check-in. It is a normal practice. I used to work in travel business and know these rules. Our guide warned us about the rate, too.
I was exhausted enough to strive for a comfort of a hotel room. So I paid with one-hundred dollars note. A receptionist took the bill and started to fill in some papers. Then he apologized that he had no dollars and would give the rest in rupees. When I got my money, there were only a little more than 10 dollars.
I asked about that, and got a lengthy explanation that the room rate is in rupees, and the exchange rate is such and such. So I realized that this a standard hotel trick, quite innocuous.
Then a smiling fatty offered to show us a room on the ground floor but Natasha was insisted on upper floors, as lower ones are incur insects and humidity. So we got the room on the first (in US it is the second) floor. This man recommended it as ‘very nice room, very, very nice’. Well, it was really not bad, with a balcony commanding a view on the swimming pool and an ocean that was a little away on the left. I presume that most rooms in this hotel sported a panoramic view like this. The room was huge, with a king-size bed (even larger), where you could do gymnastics exercises, nice bathroom with a bathing cabin for two, beautiful balcony, everything in one style, in ligneous dark colors.
This good-natured fat man then explained in details how to open and to close a safe, what to get in a minibar, and of course we had to thank him. But he did not want to take 100 rupees. Either he wanted to help us for free or this tip was too small for his status.
After a while I succeeded to give him 150 rupees, about one dollar. It was probably below his expectations of guests of a five-star hotel but yet he remained polite and friendly like all the other staff members of this hotel Palms Beach Hotel.
So we paid 85 dollars (actually 90 dollars) for the early check-in and enjoyed a beautiful breakfast, open buffet style, took a shower and enjoyed a few hours of rest before we went on to get acquainted with the hotel area.