Unfiltered beauty, mixed with a little colonial charm, a whole lotta spirit, and surprises for even the most experienced traveler. Do all the research you want, but come ready to discover things you never imagined!
I couldn’t believe the 85-minute flight from The Maldives to Colombo included such a nice hot breakfast. Sure, I was in business class, but in the US, the same flight would’ve earned you a coffee and a croissant, if you’re lucky.
I was excited about Sri Lanka. This past year I’d spent a lot of time in countries I wasn’t too excited about: Cameroon, Niger and a healthy handful of other African nations that I just needed to check off the list. But Sri Lanka was a place I truly looked forward to seeing.
The flight attendants on the Sri Lankan Airways flight wore backless turquoise dresses; quite a change from the female service workers covered up from head to toe in the Muslim-majority nation of The Maldives. And a couple of these flight attendants were stunners; with their caramel-colored skin, jet black hair, smatterings of gold jewelry and impressive makeup. They could probably make a ton of money running bottle services and VIP rooms in Vegas, or manning the Clinique counter back home. This was the kind of flight you wish was longer: besides the nice breakfast and the sky-hotties (I just created that term, you’re welcome), the seats were lay-flat beds, rare for such a short flight. Could you imagine such luxury for an 85-minute flight back home in the US?
Getting through immigration was quick and how could I miss the giant sign that read, “Possession of illegal drugs is punishable by death?” I immediately thought of the TV show Locked Up Abroad and how awful those foreign prisons are. I made a mental note to thoroughly check my bag before leaving the country to make sure no one had slipped in a special “package” for me to take home.
I was soon in a taxi, speeding towards the city. The roads from the airport were wide, clean and clear and I made it into the city in no time. However, once I was in town, we’d come to a stop, inching towards the hotel at a snail’s pace for what seemed like hours. Traffic was brutal.
I usually try and book SPG/Marriott hotels wherever I go, to collect points (that I use for flights) and enjoy the amenities of being a Platinum member, but there were no Marriott properties in Colombo, so I used my second favorite go-to: booking.com. You can do all the research in the world on a hotel, but pictures can often be deceiving. You really don’t know what you’re going to get until you arrive, and I’m pleased to say the Marino Beach Hotel surpassed all my expectations. This was a first-class joint at a third-class price. A newer hotel; the lobby was giant, with tall ceilings and wall-to-wall marble floors and gold accents. I was given a welcome juice and met with smiles from the staff as they checked me in to my 5th floor room. The room was sexy as well, with a big balcony to enjoy the views of the ocean and the trains that would fly along the water’s edge. I would’ve liked to enjoy the hotel a bit more—including the roof-top infinity pool, but I wasted no time, and was out the door and in a tuk-tuk to explore my first day in the capital.
Tours by Locals
Irfan was parked out front of the hotel and he’d be my driver-slash-tour guide for the afternoon. For the next four hours we zigged and zagged up and down the streets of Colombo, in a trip that felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I held on for dear life, as Irfan weaved in and out between a sea of other tuk-tuks, cars, buses and trucks. The bench seat top was loose and kept lurching forward every time Irfan would hit the breaks and I’d have to shove it back into place. I was afraid the seat was going to slide all way forward and I’d fall into the engine, but I managed to keep it together. The views from the tuk-tuk were cool: one of my favorite things to observe and enjoy is city life. The only really uncomfortable part was when we’d pull up next to a big bus or truck, with its exhaust pipe shooting directly into the open tuk-tuk and into my nose and mouth. I felt like I was eating a big fat slice of carbon pie and soon learned to be a little more observant so I could time my breaths, taking big gulps of air before approaching the spewing exhaust pipes, holding it in, then exhaling once we’d passed the smoke. I imagine the tuk-tuk drivers themselves probably have some pretty nasty, black lungs.
Sights, Stops, Sips
First stop was a local travel office, where I needed to pick up the next day’s physical train tickets in person (I’d ordered the tickets online months ago.) Then, it was on to a collection of sights chosen by Irfan, including some gorgeous monuments, statues and temples.
On the way to one of the temples, we passed by an elephant that was on display in a vacant lot/parking lot. For the very first few seconds I was excited to see her, but then soon saw the chain around her leg and then realized the reality of her surroundings: a dirt parking lot. I immediately got sad and declined to take a picture with the poor animal. I was supposed to tip the guy, so I did; but a very small amount to which he looked at me with disgust. Oh well. I don’t use this blog to scream and shout politics and values, but I don’t mind sharing that I hate seeing animals abused. Whether this is considered abuse or not, I don’t know; but I think elephants need to be able to roam in their natural habitat, not stuck and chained up in a parking lot in the middle of the city.
In Them Streets
I don’t think Irfan was expecting me to be this excited about a common street, but when we pulled up to take a photo of the Jami Ul-Afar (“Red”) Mosque, it quickly came apparent that I was more interested in the actual busy street that it was on, than the historic building itself. And this is true: Though I can appreciate historic temples, mosques, monasteries, etc., it’s the actual, common “street life” of other countries that really gets me excited. I could sense Irfan’s confusion and maybe even mild frustration, as he watched me light up brighter than I had all day, marveling at this common road with everyday people and things. He’d shown me ancient temples filled with invaluable artifacts and historic landmarks and monuments that represented the history and foundation of the country, and here I was, geeking out over an everyday street. Hey, we all travel for different reasons, right?
Main Street was the busiest road in town. With not a tourist in sight, this is where the locals get business done. I soaked in all the noise, chaos and energy. Men on distorted microphones called out their shops’ specials while just as many people crammed the sidewalks as cars and tuk-tuks filled the road. Main Street was brimming with excitement and energy and I could feel it pulsating through my body. We had more stuff to see, so I promised myself I’d return and spend more time alone there. Thanks to modern technology, you too can stroll Main Street and see all of its colorful shops and people via Google “street view” HERE.
Scammers Gon’ Scam
I don’t know if I’d go as far as calling Irfan a scammer, because his ploy is common among almost every driver and tour guide in regions like these—and innocent enough—but nonetheless, there is always a hint of shade when drivers excitedly tell you how lucky you are to be able to see the special “exhibition” that is open “today only.” Translation: they are taking you to a store—open every day—where the driver receives commission on anything you buy, and sometimes money just for taking you there.
I once got suckered into a very elaborate scheme like this, two years ago in Thailand. The operation there even included a separate actor—a sweet old man—planted inside a temple to corroborate the driver’s claims of this coincidental and serendipitous “one day only suit factory open to the public!” The scheme was so elaborate and well put together!
These claims are so silly. Why would these stores be open to the public “one day only?” What kind of business does that anyway? But these drivers insist that today is your lucky day, and at no other time of the year, can a foreigner like you even enter these special “exhibitions.” Today’s farce was supposed to be a special “gem stone exhibition,” but sure enough, we rolled right up to a regular store front—not a hotel or conference center—where I was ushered in and shown jewelry and stones. There were definitely some beautiful rocks inside the shop: stunning loose rubies, topazes, aquamarines and amethysts. But I know nothing about stones and certainly don’t need any. I politely looked and listened for a few minutes and then I was outta there.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Never be guilted into buying anything you don’t want. I was raised to always be a kind person, so when I was younger, I often succumbed to the pressure of intense sales people. Over the years I’ve learned how to be firm and assertive when saying no, while at the same time being polite. No matter how nice you are, don’t let salespeople take advantage of your kindness by buying stuff you don’t want. Just say no!
I tipped Irfan generously, because I did like his service, even though he pulled the “one day only” opportunity on me. He was a fun guy who genuinely seemed like he cared about me seeing and learning some of the most important parts of Colombo. I also didn’t die in his tuk-tuk, so I appreciated his driving skills and the fact that I didn’t sustain any injuries. I ran into Irfan once again, leaving the hotel for dinner. He ran me up the street to a Thai joint called Nara, where I had a fancy beef plate, then strolled back to the hotel to call it a night. #OldManAlert. I’d been up since 4AM and was exhausted. I needed a full night’s sleep to fully enjoy the big day that lay ahead for me.
C’Mon Ride the Train
In the morning I enjoyed a fantastic breakfast buffet while overlooking the ocean. The service really was spectacular at the Marino Beach Hotel. There was even a man stationed at the glass doors leading to the veranda whose sole purpose was to open the door for guests coming in and out with their plates full of food. And at the omelet station, instead of waiting for your eggs, the waiter insisted I take a seat and he’d bring me my plate. I rarely tip at buffets, but I did here. The entire staff was so kind and welcoming, the location was great, and the room was perfect.
I’d visit the town of Kandy today, where I’d spend the night before returning to Colombo the next day. I arrived at the railway station, Fort Colombo, with plenty of time to take a few pictures before my train arrived. I’ve always loved trains and was semi-obsessed with foreign trains, especially the old rickety-ones in countries like Sri Lanka. I’d watched my share of YouTube videos on Sri Lankan train travel and knew this would be one of the highlights of the trip.
Ticket to Ride
I booked my first class seats ahead of time, as I was told they sell out quick. First class train tickets in Sri Lanka do not mean TV screens, fancy drinks and hot meals. It simply means a guaranteed seat in an air-conditioned (albeit still dirty) train car. Second and third class tickets don’t guarantee a place to sit and I imagine it’s quite hot, even with the windows open. I did see a poster of a very fancy looking cabin while I was at the train station, but that certainly wasn’t part of my train. My seat was broken and I was horrified at how dirty the tray table was. But this is all part of traveling, and certainly part of being in Sri Lanka.
It was safe to say that there were only tourists inside my car. Mostly white Europeans (I heard German and Italian spoken) and a couple Chinese. The ride was slow and a little bumpy, but provided great views as the city faded off behind us and soon we were rolling through lush green landscapes, switching back and forth from jungle to farmland as we ascended towards Kandy.
The last quarter of the trip moved painstakingly slow, as the train crept along at a snail’s pace, stopping every few miles to let passengers off at half a dozen small train stations. Three and a half hours later we pulled into Kandy and I couldn’t wait to get off that train. I hadn’t even stood up to stretch once, so my booty was killing me and I needed to move.
Just Like Kandy
Though busy and bustling, I immediately got the small town vibe from Kandy, which was tiny compared to Colombo. I bypassed the barrage of tuk-tuks and their drivers hawking rides and instead opted to foot the half-mile to my hotel. Higher in elevation, Kandy was cooler than Colombo, but still hot when the sun was beating down on you. There were tons of buses, traffic and people on the streets, as I passed snack vendors and fruit stands on my way into the center of town. I almost got my eye jabbed out from an umbrella, as I waded through the masses of people, many with umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. I descended down into an underground pedestrian walkway that passed under a busy street, before surfacing and heading into my hotel.
Bed and Biscuits
Another good hotel recommendation for when you head to Kandy: I chose a small joint called the Café Aroma Inn. The rooms were nothing special, but the location was right in the center of town, and the hotel was connected to a nice restaurant, featuring tasty baked goods and delicious smoothies. The Wi-Fi was from the stone ages, but everything else was great. I dropped my bags in my room and headed to explore the sights of Kandy.
If you enjoy temples, you’ll love Kandy. As I mentioned before, call me uncultured, but I’m not a huge temple/church/historical site kinda guy; but if this is your thing, you’re in for a treat. I began with a walk around the beautiful Lake Kandy. The water looked like something out of a fairy tale, nestled in the valley between the green hills and lots of trees. I was excited to pass a dozen monkeys as I rounded the west end of the lake.
Rice Rice Baby
A half hour later I reached the top of Lake Kandy, where I’d have lunch at The Garden Café. It would be my first taste of real Sri Lankan food, since I’d ate Thai food the night before and an international breakfast at the hotel this morning. I ordered a dish called Chicken Biriyani, which included seasoned rice, a chicken drumstick, a hard boiled egg, small salad, chutney and this weird stuff called maldive fish sambol. I wasn’t crazy about the meal, but you really can’t mess up chicken and rice I guess. I passed on the maldive fish sambol. Coudn’t do it. Look it up if you are curious.
After lunch, I finished walking around the lake. The wildlife in Kandy, just near the lake, was incredible, at least to me. Besides the monkeys, I saw lots of big fish, beautiful birds, ducks and geese, a giant water monitor and even a tree full of giant bats. To see all these animals, in the wild, not locked up in cages, was so cool. Every turn was a new surprise, with new animal friends to meet.
Avoid the Noid
On the way back into the center I stopped by The Temple of the Sacred Tooth. I didn’t go inside, but I did enjoy the surrounding property. I’d spent hours walking around the lake and exploring the town and it was now getting dark, so I headed back to the hotel to rest my weary bones and enjoy some quality dial-up internet.
I wasn’t starving but knew I’d sleep better with a full stomach, so before bed I ventured out for a snack. I’m ready to be lambasted when I admit that I had dinner at Domino’s Pizza. Hey, it was close, convenient, and to be honest, just sounded great! But the pizza choices in Sri Lanka were nothing like at home, and even at Domino’s I had a tough time deciphering the menu. There were no pepperoni or “supreme” options, just weird stuff. I finally conceded to the “Garden Pizza,” which ran the gamete of veggies, including corn. It was a little different, but still cheesy and delicious. Lights out.
The Kandy Man Can
I made the most of that next half-day in Kandy, bopping around town before venturing into the hills to find the big Buddha that towers over the city. But my climb was in vain. Miles later I’d become lost in the winding roads above Kandy and finally flagged down a tuk-tuk to get me to Big Buddha. I was wiped out. At least I’d worked off that pizza.
This Old House
Back down into town I marveled at what seemed to be the tallest (and most beautiful) commercial structure in town: The Kandy Postal Authority. One of the things I find most fascinating about many countries, is their old colonial architecture. In Sri Lanka’s case, the Brits had set up shop here back in the 1800s and many of their buildings still stand. I’ve recently discovered that 99% of the time I can actually enter and explore these old buildings, if I simply ask. And so I did. What a treat!
Last Piece of Kandy…
I headed for my train after noon, taking in as much as I could on the way to the station; exploring the streets, alleys, shops and markets of Kandy. The town, though small, bustled like a big city and boy were those bus horns loud!
Kandy Train Station
In addition to arriving at the train station early, my train was late; giving me ample time to absorb every detail of the Kandy Train Station. And while the train I was traveling on was semi-modern, I liked looking at and photographing the older trains much more. I was even able to hop on one–parked–for a few photos, and managed to do so without getting yelled at. People were chill here.
My train finally arrived and it was back to the capital we went. This time we moved faster and got there quicker, but it was a much bumpier ride. At times it felt like the cars weren’t coupled right, as they seemed to slam together now and then, causing me to let out the occasional curse word as I was caught off-guard by the jolting surprise. I tried my darndest not to judge the other foreign travelers in my car, but couldn’t help but shake my head at the Italian backpacking couple who thought it was appropriate (and sanitary) to rest their bare feet on the bulkhead. Ya dirty hippies! (Said with love.)
Last Night in Colombo
It was almost evening by the time my train pulled back into Colombo Fort. I had just enough time to check in to my guesthouse (which was really nice, but I wished I’d booked my second night in Colombo back at Marino Beach) and rest a little, before going out for walk. I walked the main strip along the sea, stopped for a lime juice with mint at a fast food joint and then watched the commuter trains pass by as the sun set.
King of the Mambo
For my last night in Colombo, I opted for something extremely non-Sri Lankan: a Cuban inspired restaurant called King of the Mambo. It was a great choice!
I’ve always been infatuated with all things from the 40s and 50s…especially fashion, music, cars and especially all things Latin! It’s why I enjoyed Cuba so much, and why I love hip-hop music that samples classic Mambo beats. So when I passed a billboard reading “King of the Mambo,” I had to investigate! A quick Google search told me that King of the Mambo is a restaurant in town and that certainly settled tonight’s dinner plans.
You Can Check in Anytime You Like…
I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. King of the Mambo was located at the historic Galle Face Hotel. And while I loved the Marino Beach Hotel, the Galle Face is where I will probably stay next time, strictly because of its history. Built in 1864 by (you guessed it) the Brits, it’s featured in the “1000 Places to See Before You Die” book and for good reason. It’s absolutely iconic. As soon as I arrived and walked down those checkered-tile halls, I knew I’d missed out by not staying there, but at least I was physically there now. This place was just amazing–the kind of surreal surroundings that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention. I can only imagine the stories that have unfolded here, with guests like Gandhi and Rockefeller in the books.
Papa Loves Mambo
I discovered there were actually multiple nice restaurants at the Galle Face, before finally finding my way out to King of the Mambo, an inside-outside establishment that featured tables both sheltered by a roof and outside by the sea and under the stars. The music was already bumping (a live Mambo band playing on a small stage) and there were signs of Cuba everywhere! A special guest host had a microphone and hosted free cocktail-creating courses for those interested. I was invited, but I was more focused on the menu. So let’s taco-bout it…
First the drinks. I’m not afraid to admit I like (okay, love) those fruity, sugary, girlie-drinks, including non-alcoholic ones. So which “mocktail” on the menu did I try? How about all of them!
Then it was time to eat, and I enjoyed a smattering of appetizer choices, including the tacos, octopus salad and the prawn cocktail. The menu just had too much good stuff; it was so hard to choose. So I chose almost everything! I almost cried when I saw the bill, but it was worth it. When was the next time I’d be able to experience a Mambo-themed restaurant in Asia anyway?
The food was good, the drinks were amazing, the service was outstanding and the ambiance was just incredible. Mambo…in Sri Lanka…who woulda thought? And I doubt anyone else there was enjoying it even half as much as I was. I was elated the entire time. I was only disappointed I didn’t pack my guayabera…I have quite an impressive collection of vintage and colorful Yucatán shirts back home that would’ve fit right in. I would’ve brought the hat too. But who knew???
So Long, Sri Lanka
My final thoughts on Sri Lanka, which was country #122 for me: Unfiltered beauty, mixed with a little colonial charm, a whole lotta spirit, and surprises for even the most experienced traveler. The hospitality and people were just amazing and there are so many things to discover…whether you’re into temples and museums, wildlife, city life, food, train travel…even Mambo! Not only did Sri Lanka not disappoint, but it pleasantly surprised me in so many ways. Do all the research you want, but come ready to discover things you never imagined!
And Now…the REST of the InstaStory: