We decided to take a vacation at Sri Lanka during the summer of 2018. We had heard good reviews about holidaying in Lanka from a friend who visited SL in 2016.
Pre departure arrangement
Checked holiday packages available with leading tour operators such as Thomas Cook, SOTC and few other companies. Most of the packages listed online were for groups and they did not provide information about any private tour packages on their websites. Contacted Thomas Cook over phone and requested for a private tour package to SL. They promised to get back with a personalised tour package in 48 hours, sent an acknowledgement SMS and never got back.
I inquired with a few Sri Lankan tour operators. One of them, Visit Sri Lanka Tours, responded immediately and provided us with a few options for an 7N-8D visit. The package included 7N stay in 2 to 3 star hotels in a triple room. Accommodation included breakfast for all days. The package included private transport by an air-conditioned car with an English speaking driver who doubled as the guide.
Checked ticket availability in flights from Chennai to Colombo. Chose Indigo Airlines for two reasons
- They had the cheapest airfare for the dates we booked.
- Their flight timings gave us maximum time in SL such that we got to spend the first and the last day in entirety in SL.
Visa and ETAs: Registered online at https://eta.gov.lk/etaslvisa/etaNavServ – the official Lankan Government site for getting ETAs. It costs USD 20 for Asian travelers aged 12 and above. For children up to 12 years there is no ETA fee. The process is super simple and super quick. All you need is your passport handy to enter details of travelers. I submitted the application for ETA at 2000 hours on a Sunday evening and was surprised to get the ETA when I checked my mail first on Monday morning.
If your country is in the list of countries from where travelers can get visa on arrival you could choose that too. The fee is USD 25 if you choose to get visa on arrival instead of choosing the ETA route.
We converted INR to USD by booking online at Thomas Cook (TC). They offer one of the best rates. Paid for it in INR online and collected USD at a nearby TC office. Do not convert INR directly to LKR. The quote offered by TC for direct INR to LKR would have resulted in us paying 20% more than what we paid by using USD as an intermediary currency.
Day 1 @ Negombo
The flight from Chennai left a few minutes ahead of schedule and reached Colombo about 10 minutes before the scheduled arrival time. If you are travelling by Indigo, reach the airport D – 150 minutes. Check-in at Indigo is quite slow and inefficient. It does take quite a while. At Chennai, Indigo did not have self check-in option for international travelers. Post check-in, emigration was super quick and security check was also real quick. With all formalities over, we had about 45 minutes to kill before the boarding call. We gleefully used the time to watch IPL highlights of previous night’s CSK – MI match which we missed. The icing on the cake was CSK won the match.
With good weather, the flight was uneventful. Filled application form for immigration clearance for all 4 of us as soon as we landed. The queue was quite less as they had about 8 counters to clear 150 passengers. And at that time, thankfully ours was the only international flight that arrived at Colombo. Finished the formalities in about 15 minutes. Skipped duty free shopping on arrival and reached Thomas Cook at the arrival lounge to exchange dollars for Sri Lankan Rupees. There were at least another 3 SL banks that offer exchange service and all of them quoted the same rate. The rates quoted at the airport lounge was the most competitive. You will be better off exchanging at the airport instead of looking for money changers elsewhere.
I had done some research and found that Dialog – the largest mobile service provider in SL offered a good tourist sim plan. Dialog and 3 other mobile service providers have outlets at the arrival lounge. Dialog issued a tourist sim after inspecting my passport. We got a good 30-day plan for LKR 1300. We found during our travel that Dialog had good connectivity and the net was quite fast. The process of buying the sim and getting it activated took all of 4 minutes.
The new mobile connection came in handy and we connected with our driver-guide (DG) Mr. Roshan Fernandez. We were provided with a spacious Toyota Hi Ace – an 8 seater. As we were only 4 of us, we sat one to each row (less quibbling). The Colombo airport is closer to Negombo than to Colombo. A 20 to 25 minute drive and we reached downtown Negombo. As we were famished by then, we asked Roshan to take us to a restaurant before going to the hotel. He took us to a down-to-earth place. Our love affair with string hoppers and stew started there at Negombo and continued to our last day at Sri Lanka.
After brunch, we visited one of the largest churches in Negombo – St Mary’s church – built in 1874. A beautiful well-maintained church, true to the architecture of its time. From there, we proceeded to St. Stephen’s church. Roshan claimed that the church was built by the Dutch in 1678. Turns out that it is an Anglican church built in 1880 within the erstwhile Dutch fort. We saw the yesteryear dock only from the outside because as Lonely Planet puts it – As the fort grounds are now occupied by the town’s prison, the only way you’ll get a peek inside is by committing a serious crime. You’d need to be very interested in old Dutch architecture to go to such lengths..
For some strange reason, I decided to visit the central fish market. Being a vegetarian, this was the first time I stepped into any fish market. I was accompanied by my long-suffering wife. My kids wisely declined the offer. We then drove to our hotel – Hotel Paradise Beach. The check-in took less than 2 minutes.
The hotel is on the beachfront. The room was an average one with access to clean toilet and hot and cold running water. The room had a big balcony at the back overlooking the swimming pool. The hotel was located on a road that had at least 25 hotels of all hue and color. So, everything around the hotel had a tourist price. Avoid buying even basic needs on this road. We bought a Colgate toothbrush from one of the shops paying the equivalent of INR 110 – what would otherwise cost INR 25. Roshan later advised that we buy at Cargill’s Food City or Keell’s, the two most popular super markets, if we did not want to get ripped off.
In the evening we took a boat ride in the old Dutch canal. We started from a point close to the hotel and went to the Negombo lagoon. Though it was a bit boring when we started, it turned out to be a fun experience once we reached the mangroves. We stopped at an island – what the locals call monkey island – jumped into knee high waters and fed biscuits to monkeys. Then went to another island – what the locals call Jesus Island – a weird place with a rather crunchy walk over shells. Bird watchers will have a good time spotting pelicans, herons, and painted storks in the mangroves. The boatman spotted a jelly fish and held it in his hand before releasing it into the water (our daughter almost threw up at the sight). We also spotted our first water monitor lizard. After the boat ride, a tuk-tuk took us back to the hotel.
We went to the beach and had a good time. We had dinner at Blue Ginger, Negombo – an Indian restaurant. We had egg Veechu Parotta (you should definitely try it. It’s great!), egg fried rice, veg noodles and veg Manchurian. They serve fried rice and noodles in two portion sizes – regular and large. Both portion sizes were very generous and we had difficulty doing justice. The food was tasty and definitely a place to visit if you are looking for Indian cuisine in Negombo.
Retired early as Roshan warned us of a long day ahead the next day. Woke up on day 2 to a decent buffet breakfast at the hotel. In all, Paradise Beach is a decent hotel to stay overnight.