Sri Lanka – The Land of Smiles

This articles was first published in Travel & Aviation magazine here: http://travel-aviation.com/index.php/category/country-piece1/

Sri Lanka –the land of smiles – is one of the most underrated destinations in my humble opinion. That may be primarily down to the fact that the country was dogged with internal security issues till about 4 years back during which time competing destinations marketed and established themselves much more. But if you ask me it ranks right up there in terms of experience and beauty and hospitality. Especially for those of us looking for an economic get away and something that isn’t a burden on the wallet. The tagline ‘the land of smiles’ also fits really well as the people are really welcoming, hospitable and great. They always seem to be smiling and happy and there is actually no language barrier to be faced here.

For Pakistanis another plus point is the VISA. It used to be easier than it is now as it was on arrival till 2014. However new rules require travellers to apply online. This isn’t a cumbersome process at all and quite easy. I got my visa within 24 hours and it was all online. No passport submission anywhere. No documents. Nothing. Easy.

Easy Visa process + easy on the wallet makes this for a great destination. And it has a lot more to offer from a tourism point of view. There are scenic views, cultural and spiritual experiences, natural beauty, and interaction with wild life and beach resorts as well. Colombo offers some amount of an urban metropolis with the required shopping as well. Not as expansive as most other destinations but good nonetheless.

For the Pakistani Wallet

As mentioned earlier this is one of the more economic destinations for Pakistanis not looking to splurge. And with all other travel guides we like to encourage the smart traveller in you to plan ahead and make life easier for yourself. Book in advance and use the miracle of the internet to book online. Sites like booking.com are great in this regard and you never when you might come across a ‘steal’ of a deal for a 5 star accommodation.

To give you an idea here is the breakdown. Travel to Sri Lanka can be done via Sri Lankan Airlines from Karachi at fares which will hover around PKR 45-55k depending on how early you book. These are the fares for economy seats. For other places people can either journey to Karachi and onwards or take other airlines which won’t be direct like Emirates or Etihad. So for non-karachi travellers I would say the flight estimate would be around PKR 65-80k depending on airline, flight and date of booking. Keep in mind the peak season for Sri Lanka is between July to September so fares will go up if you book during this period.

VISA costs are 99$ per person. You can pay online using a credit card while applying for the VISA if you are managing this all on your own. Otherwise your travel agent can take care of it and add it in his overall bill. This is a spike as up till last year the VISA cost was 20$ for applied VISAs and 30$ for on arrival VISAs.

Expenses within Sri Lanka on food, shopping and tours etc are more or less in line with the kind of costs and expenses you might expect to find in Pakistan. Once you do the conversion its more or less the same. And the conversion goes in our currency’s favour which is just that slight bit stronger than the Sri Lankan rupee (roughly around 1 PKR to 1.3 Sri Lankan Rupee*). Average meal cost would be something like PKR 1,200 per person in normal restaurants. And for fast foods and on the go foods it would be something like PKR 700 per person. And there are plenty of Halal options so that is also a load off. Not to mention the vegetable variety on offer.

 Accommodation for an 8 day tour would come to around PKR 90k for a double room or twin share stay throughout, which is again great and can be slightly less also depending on what kind of hotels you book and how smart you are online in getting good deals. An example – when I recently went I got a 5 star property in Bentota (beach resort area near Colombo) for around PKR 25,000/- for two nights inclusive of breakfast and dinner! The hotel was Cinnamon Bey and I got this amazing deal through booking.com. Just goes to show how well you can manage your accommodation expenditure if you are smart about it.

Transportation is not something that needs to be explored. You can easily hire a guide and driver for the duration of the stay. The guy stays with you for all the days and is your transport for throughout Sri Lanka. There are no public transport hassles. All travel in Sri Lanka is customized to your own time table and not to mention the convenience and ease of having a guide / driver combo throughout. A good one can come in around 55$ per day inclusive of fuel, car rent, services of the guide, his food and accommodation. Now please tell me that is not a steal?

All in all the total cost per head should come to around PKR 140k for an eight day stay including travel, stay, tickets, tourist activities, food and guide. And mind you stay is in 4-5 star hotels. This does not include shopping and any other luxurious activities like spas and massages. However even if you add the latter for a couple of times it would come to around not more than 150K per head which is fantastic for an eight day tour. Honestly great destination and you can probably get away with a lower budget as well.

The Top Places in Sri Lanka

It is all basically a drive around the country once you land in Sri Lanka. The perfect planning would have you land in Sri Lanka and stay overnight in Negombo (city close to Colombo and on the beach). From there you drive away to Kandy and Nuwara Eliya and then back down south towards Bentota and Colombo.

Kandy

By far the most activity filled city with tourist attractions aplenty and very scenic hilly views as well. The weather the city has to offer is excellent between July to September which is overall the ideal time to go to Sri Lanka. There will be showers out of nowhere but then the sun will come back up out of nowhere to. Kandy is the second largest city of Sri Lanka after Colombo. It has temples, market areas, natural man made attractions and cultural shows. You can visit the Elephant Orphanage in Pinnawala and the Spice Gardens on your way to Kandy and not far from the main city (maybe about a 1 hour journey). The orphanage is great where you can get up close and personal with gentle giants of the Ceylon valley and feed and ride them for an enhanced experience. Then there are the botanical gardens which are beautifully made and have some of the tallest and oldest trees around which are nothing but beautiful. Very well maintained and made the botanical gardens are a must see. The one in Kandy is high on plants and trees as compared to flowers. And if you are lucky you might get a peek of monkeys as well! Additionally you may also visit the Temple of the Tooth for some cultural input and attend a local dance and culture show in city to cap of the stay here. A 2 day stay in Kandy is sufficiently comfortable but you can do all of this in one hectic day as well. On your way out from Kandy be sure to visit a local wood carving factory for some great souvenirs and take home stuff.

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Places to stay in Kandy would definitely be either Amaya Hills or Earl’s Regent. Both are excellent hotels with comfortable rooms and excellent hilly views. The Ayurvedic massage treatment at Amaya Hills is especially excellent.

Nuwara Eliya

The hill station of Sri Lanka that is absolutely gorgeous. Expect weather to be on the chillier side here with temperatures during the day time during July-September also touching around 13-14 degrees. It gets cold in the night so be sure to pack something slightly warm for here. Nuwara Eliya is on the hill so the journey to and from the city is a windy road. For those who have travel issues on such routes I would definitely advise taking a motion sickness tablet before hand to help during the journey as it can be a bit much. The result is worth it though. The view from Nuwara Eliya and on the way is gorgeous. The higher you drive closer to the city your view is filled with beautiful tea gardens all across the hills. You can stop at one of the tea factories for a quick visit and lesson in how tea is made and how many different kinds of tea are there. You will also be served a complimentary cup of tea made from the fresh produce. Another on the way sighting is the Ramboda Waterfalls. This makes for a great view and a nice lunch stop. Once in Nuwara Eliya to be honest there are just a couple of things to do. More so for the nature geeks in us who like treks and lakes and horse rides. Gregory lake makes up the main attraction in the city with boating, horse riding and a typical hill station weather time coffee. Maximum you just need a day in the city and then you can move on. If you like relaxing in such environments you can extend your stay.

Recommended hotels for the city are Qantara and Araliya Green Hills. Qantara is a fairly new hotel but very well made is almost at the top belt of the city so the view from here of the whole city all the way to the lake is breathtaking. Stay at both hotels is comfortable and food is also good.

Bentota

The perennial beach resort. Bentota is something of a properly developed sandspit or hawksbay that Pakistanis and Karachiites in particular might be able to relate to. The hotels are resort type hotels here and it is basically the stop for a relaxing, tanning and spoil of yourself resting type of stay. The beach is somewhat pebbly so be sure to be prepared in footwear accordingly. There are some good water sport options that can be done here including jet skiing, tube riding, motor boat riding, snorkelling and fishing to name a few. There is also a wild life attraction in the Turtle Hatchery in Bentota which you can skip or do depending on your interest.

The hotel to stay in here is Cinnamon Bey. It is a 5 star luxury property with a great beach, excellent restaurants and fantastic amenities overall. A 5 star resort in the true sense of it.

Colombo

Colombo is the only metropolis experience that you will get in Sri Lanka. This is the place for fulfilling the retail, shopping, big city cravings in you. There are some places you can see as a tourist like the Independence square but really Colombo is really for concrete jungle feel for rounding off the Sri Lankan holiday. There are some very nice shopping outlets and retail malls here where you can get good stuff. Odel, Paradise Road, Glitz and Barefoot are a couple of places that you should definitely visit. Shopping is also like almost all other things not that expensive in Sri Lanka and in some cases you can actually get some pretty good deals. For fine dining experience be sure to try out either Beach Wadia (for sea food lovers) or Gallery Cafe which is a great combination of an art gallery, a retail store and very fine dining.

There are plenty of good hotel options in Colombo. Cinnamon Grand, Hilton, Cinnamon Red and Mirage a few of the good ones you can choose from.

Overall

Overall Sri Lanka is a great holiday experience which gets ignored thanks to the Thailands and Malaysias on offer. Head to head it is probably not as high in experience but definitely has a lot to offer and is something which will be economical for Pakistanis. Excellent destination for couples and honeymooners!

travel essentials

Travelling can be a lot of things- inspiring, rejuvenating, relaxing, an escape, an experience, an adventure etc. It can be a lot of good things. But of course it comes with its own set of baggage and hassles. Crowded airport terminals, long flights, noisy flight neighbours, changes in temperature on flight and in terminal, dealing with natives from a country who seemingly don’t communicate in English or choose not to etc. So as with everything else travel has its pros and cons. What you can do to ensure that the tilt is heavily on the positives as your take away from your holiday or vacation is plan ahead for these hassles and problems and try to minimize them as much as possible. Obviously you can’t eliminate them entirely but mitigation can do wonders. Here is a list of things which can help in various phases of travel or well at least makes my list anyway.

Travel Wallet / Card Holders

A travel wallet can be one of the most essential, time saving and hassle free items on your list. Avoid digging through your bag to search for the frequent flyer card, passport, boarding ticket and any other xyz item. Pick up a special cardholder to hold all the essential cards or documents you will need at the airport (frequent flier card, credit card, ID). Yes you might come off as a little bit of an organization nut or a control freak but you’ll be a lot less likely to misplace an important card in the rush to make your flight.

Smartphones

Not because they are funky. Not because everyone else has them. Not because they are the status quo. Not for anything else but the pure fact that smart phones have evolved into being an essential part of our overly technologically oriented lives. Love them or hate them you will feel more and more that they are way too useful to simply ignore. Especially if you belong to the working members of the society. And just as one would expect these little devils can be life savers for travelling. Music gaming or reading to kill the time on a long flight or a long transit at an airport. Alarms and reminders to store all important events, flight/tour/show times etc. Many apps that can help you on your travel journey with essential things – covered separately ahead.

Translation Apps

You can research and download whichever translation app you prefer but this is a miracle worker and a life saver. That’s right it is both those. Imagine going to a place like Beijing, China. If you didn’t have an idea of exactly how bad the communication barrier is like I did’t then trust me you would want to avoid the culture shock. People simply do not speak any English. It is very difficult and rare to find someone who would speak in somewhat English let alone fluently. In such a conundrum translation apps are essential. In the old days you could probably see from TV shows and movies etc people carrying around a language to language dictionary in their hands and frantically searching for the required word or phrase. Well this is essentially that only without the searching and franticness. All you have to do is type or speak into the app and viola translation will be done. Google Translate is in my humble opinion the best one out there. Covers a vast array of languages and has an easy to use interface. The translation can be played via audio as well making the entire experience more convenient.

Map Apps

I believe in exploring cities on foot. Whenever and wherever possible I would love to just walk around, take the local tube or taxi and just feel the city on my own. Embrace all that it has to offer from market places to malls to restaurants to activity places. I remember doing that through the various places and markets in London and also in Singapore. Really good experience. What you need to make this all the more better is a map. Download a map app for your phone which is updated and clearly has all the main places marked on it. Your location is clearly visible on it and will make it easier for you to chalk out directions on where you want to go. Again Google would top this list for maps as well. Some places have city specific map apps which also come with transport updates and guides on how to get to where (listing what transport you can take with timings and updates on whether a road might be closed and diversions etc).

Four Square

This app would be really helpful in cities or countries where people are high on technology and the social media. You want to go exploring on your own but don’t know which places are good and what to have at a particular restaurant? Well four square is the collective answer to that. It is a social media platform which guides you to the places around you giving complete ratings along with user reviews. The reviews can be really helpful. They cover almost everything that can be seen on the map from dining places to cinemas to book stores to malls to stations etc. Reviews and helpful tips can be found posted by other users which can definitely be helpful at any time. And you can return the favour by leaving reviews and tips of your own for other lost souls such as yourself.

Ear Plugs

No – they aren’t just for the ear pain you feel when landing and taking off in the aircraft. And they aren’t just for swimming or your beach visits because you can’t stand water in your ears. They are also amazing to get you through those troubled times when there may be a case of cranky toddlers, infants and small children who are wailing or crying or basically going hyper. Help yourself stay sane with these, just plug them in and block out the unnecessary noise.

DSLR

You might not be into photography. You might have a smart phone with a real nice camera in it. But believe me especially given the ease of use and competitive prices you simply must not travel without a DSLR. Photography is one of the best ways of grabbing the memories and experiences you have on travel outside of your own mind. Over clicking can be a problem but that is something you can control. But having a DSLR means you can capture that perfect sunset on the beach in Langkawi or the big 5 on safari at the Kruger National Park in Johannesburg with brilliance. The picture quality will be fantastic and you can use them to make copies and frame them later on as well to cap off your memorable times from your trips. All you need really is a basic lens or two and you are all set. The DSLR will help you do the rest. A picture is worth a thousand words after all.

Multi-Plug Adapter

Ever reached your destination only to find out that the hotel you are staying at doesn’t have a matching adapter or electrical socket for your phone charger, laptop, shaver or pretty much any other device that you carry with you for your travels? The answer to that long question is probably yes. It happened with me in Sri Lanka. Beautiful hotel in Negombo the day I landed. Turned out the entire country was on a 3 pin socket system and my phone charger, laptop charger and camera charger all had different plugs. Would have been less hassle free if I had known in advance and had just packed a multi-plug adapter from home!

An Epiphany

An epiphany can be described as an obscure moment of absolute clarity regarding a problem or dilemma that is being faced. It is may be obscure because it can come in any shape or form, at any time and at any place. The weirdest of places as well. Some epiphanies occur after creating the required setting for one to come. Others take course themselves.

As I flew back from my holiday – I felt an epiphany had struck me. This holiday has probably been one of the better decisions in my recent history. The whole two weeks of it (Bahrain & Sri Lanka both). Just underlines the importance of two things. One that everyone should and needs to take some time off. It does them a world of good. And if possible then also take some time to yourself, to gather yourself, talk to yourself and rediscover who you really are underneath all the layers of everyday routine and hard realities of life. The other thing is of course – family. Nice to just slow down everything else and take time to be with your family. Trust me you can never get enough of family. Regardless of whether your entire family is living together or spread out over geography, you simply cannot. In your own way of course – every family being different to each other. Point taken I assume.

Coming back to the epiphany. I feel some parts of me have changed. I definitely do feel fresher. Rejuvenated even (a word that has been the source of much amusement for some people I know over the past few days). I feel like a different person at work – thou the work place seems different from last when I left it but that’s a whole different story and perhaps a blog post some time in the future. And most of all I can feel myself smile. I know that might sound weird but I don’t think I have smiled on the inside in a long time. Longer then I can remember really. I have had a cautious smile perhaps but not this free kind all the way inside my soul, my spirit.

It wasn’t that Bahrain had anything magical about it or Sri Lanka. Both place offered their own positives. Bahrain a nice relaxing time with family and Sri Lanka a peaceful, beautiful solo escape to be by myself. I think the combination did the trick really. And of course our Lord and Creator, Allah. I genuinely think given all that has happened Allah has done something even if it is temporary to sort of balance of my emotional equation. I am very thankful to that and genuinely feel that is one of the major reasons for me to smile. My epiphany. That life is and forever going to move. It will not stop for anything. That it will take from us but also at the same time give us opportunities of greatness. That we must take it by the horns to truly live it. To truly understand it. That there are things that are not worth worrying over and there are those things which require that emotional investment as they are worth it, they are worth the risk. That everything that happens does happen for a reason and that there is indeed a connectivity to everything. Every single moment in life has been preparing me to be at this current moment. There was a connection between all. They all had to be lived to be where I am today. Wherever that may be. I am thankful for where I am today because I know there are those with much more difficult struggles then mine. Mine maybe emotional , for some it is survival. So yes I am very thankful to Allah for everything. I am thankful that He has always given me strength when faced with a loss. And the ability to move on. To move forward. And at the same time for showing new paths, new bridges, new connections that will take me more forward. I feel one such thing from this holiday. Maybe it is true, maybe it isn’t – but at least it has helped me smile.

While most of the things I said above just now may seem cliché , I humbly believe unless you actually come to a point where you feel all of the above one cannot truly understand it. Till then they will remain clichés.

It is in moments like these that one understands that there are more powerful forms of communication and connection out there then just mere words and letters. There is a language beyond the one governed by alphabet alone. It exists in signs, in gestures, in those little things that happen to us in life, those little things that we see happening to others in life, the right moment for a particular song or set of musical notes, the perfect view, the sound of nature, the silence of peace. An absent voice that forms in your head using imagination while talking to someone via text/online. 

One simply cannot underestimate the power of an epiphany. An illuminating realization, a discovery resulting in feelings of elation, awe and wonder.

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