Colombo: Is It A Value-For-Money Destination?

Since the last one year, I had toyed with the idea of touring Sri Lanka, having heard about its beauty.  I talked to four persons who had visited Sri Lanka: two of them told me that everything is cheap and affordable, but the other two told me to be wary as things are costly there.  I did not know whom to believe then.

The first person had taken advantage of the Air Lanka’s package tour, where the airlines, takes care of their guests? comforts, i.e. accommodation in a five star hotel, transportation, sightseeing, food, etc.  The second one is an airline employee, who is provided everything on the job.  These people saw the best of Sri Lanka and naturally carry positive impressions. 

I got an indication that Sri Lanka is a costly place for me, the moment I surfed the Internet for a hotel room.  However, as I had the air tickets, there was no looking back. Surprisingly, my flight from India to Sri Lanka was at dawn and not an ideal time to fly, because a traveller is deprived of much-needed sleep and being too dark outside, he cannot see land, sea, ships, boats or anything.  After landing, I went through Immigration and got out at 0430 hours – an unusual time for a first-time tourist to land in a foreign country (or venture in unfamiliar surroundings).

I am happiest when I travel alone, because I can talk to people and find out a wealth of much-needed information about the place.  Further, I can write notes on my pad, take photographs, and make the best use of Walker’s Express or the public transport system, rather than splurging money on auto-rickshaws (thuk-thuks), taxis and air-conditioned cars.  However, since my spouse was with me, I had to see to her comforts and, therefore, I just could not stick to a tight budget that I impose on myself when I am alone to extract the maximum and get the best value-for-money.  However, this visit to Sri Lanka was an educative experience.

I engaged an airport taxi by paying Sri Lankan Rs. 2,800/- to take us from the airport to the city, i.e. about. 45 minutes’ drive, which I felt was exorbitant. We stayed at the YMCA hostel and, contrary to their hostels in other countries, this hostel, established in 1882 was in a state of neglect, their services are deplorable and their cafeteria’s food and services were left much to be desired.  However, by Sri Lankan standards their accommodation was affordable and therefore, the tourists were left with no room to complain or demand better service.  Further, there were foreigners staying in the YMCA hostel and I was amazed to see some of them enjoying the local cuisine, which I found to be unappealing. I was amazed to see Sri Lankans having rice and fish, meat and vegetable curries for breakfast.  I survived on sandwiches and tea, except for one good meal I had at a decent restaurant serving Jaffna cuisine.

As you arrive at Sirimavo Bandernaike International Airport, one can see portrait of the country?s President.  On 18/11/2011, we hired a van and the driver, who spoke English, took us to many tourist places in Colombo.  This day was the birthday of the President of Sri Lanka and we could see banners everywhere.  In India, we become aware of our President’s or Prime Minister’s birthdays, only if we are alert to catch the news on the electronic or print media.

Our first visit was to the St. Anthony’s Shrine at Kochchikde, a 17th century church.  I met the Rev. Fr. Clement Rozairo and he told me that this church was built in 1835 and a miracle led to its construction.  I was told that where the church presently stands, there used to be sea then and the fishermen could not venture out to the sea to catch fish, because of inclement weather and the waves hitting the coast, resulting in serious and perennial soil erosion.  They approached a priest, who hailed from Cochin, and was known for his miraculous powers. The priest prayed for three days and the sea receded, got calm and the fishermen could go out to the sea to pursue their livelihood.  I was told by the priest that thereafter there have been many miracles in this church.

I visited the lord Shiva Temple, which was founded by Sriman Ponnambala Mudaliyar and Sir Ponnambalam Ramnathan. This temple and the statues were built about 150 years ago. This whole temple stands in two to three acres of land and built or carved out of one massive rock.  The entire temple occupies approx. one acre of land.

I also visited the Gangaram Buddhist Temple and met the Head Priest of the temple and saw a photograph where he is blessing the current President of the country.  I talked to this priest and found him to be an intelligent and well-informed person.  There are many interesting things to look at in this temple, especially an adult elephant (that is dead and embalmed) and kept in a standing pose and looks alive.  The taxidermists appear to have done a fantastic job of embalming the elephant.

We also visited the Baira Lake that lies between Kolpiti on one side and the Slave Island on the other. In between the lake, there is a narrow bridge that leads to a circular place, where one can sit and relax. This would be an ideal and excellent place for students to study and prepare for their exams.  However, I saw a couple of romantic hearts sitting out there and swans swimming out in the lake.  This is quite a beautiful and idyllic place.

To Sri Lankans, Independence Monument Hall near Cinnamon Garden is as significant as India Gate at Delhi is to Indians. However, I personally felt that India Gate is highly impressive, massive and sprawling, well kept and maintained, replete with history and the Independence Monument Hall is no comparison.

Now, I wish to impart information to those tourists who wish to travel to Sri Lanka and may find it useful.

On the plus side, I would say that Sri Lanka is one of the best places for buying quality precious stones at quite competitive prices.  In fact, it is one of the major producers of many types of precious and semi-precious stones.  Anyone interested in purchasing these stones, should visit Sri Lanka.  However, do not heed to the proddings of thuk-thuk drivers and touts, because they get cuts from the gem dealers.  Moreover, avoid upscale gem dealers, because they pay commission to their sales staff and cuts to the touts who bring business for them by bringing customers.  Naturally, you will end up buying precious and semi-precious stones at exorbitant prices. 

Indian Rupee is accepted in Colombo by shop keepers and money exchangers.  Sri Lankans in general are friendly and helpful people.  However, unlike Goans, very few speak English.  From my conversations with Sri Lankans, I realised they like Indians and are awe struck with the enormity of India and many of them want to visit places like Delhi and Bombay.  However, for us Indians we feel we are a small country when comparing ourselves with Russia, Canada, U.S.A., China, Brazil and Australia, though Canada and Australia are, for greater part, sparsely populated countries in the world and most of their territories are nothing but wilderness. 

I hardly saw beggars in Sri Lanka. 

Further, an Indian can travel to Sri Lanka and get 30 days’ visit visa free of cost. However, there is a probability of this changing from the New Year.

Public transportation system is quite cheap.  However, I am referring to Government and private buses and trains (and not to thuk-thuks and taxis).

One the minus side, a cup of tea in a small restaurant costs Rs. 30/-.  So one can imagine what would be the cost of a decent meal at a decent eatery.  The thuk-thuks do not run on meters and they demand anything from Rs. 100/- minimum to Rs. 1,500/- for taking a passenger from the Fort area (heart of Colombo) to the airport (45 minutes ride).  A Sri Lankan English Daily (Colombo edition) costs Rs. 20/- on week days and Rs. 50/- on Sundays.  These dailies are incomparable with the Times of India, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times or other reputed ones, in regard to their contents, news/advertisements, pages and other comparisons.  In a gift shop, I saw some artistic work done on a half coconut shell being priced Rs. 250/-.

I just wonder, how come the cost of living is exorbitant in a small country like Sri Lankan that gets its income by producing and selling tea, rubber, fishing, mining and polishing precious and semi-precious stones, etc?

I have just visited Colombo and, therefore, it is premature of me to speak about Sri Lanka as a whole.  However, the few beaches that I saw in Colombo, namely Galle Face and Mount Lavina, just cannot be compared with Goa’s beaches.  In fact, they are incomparable.  There may be better beaches in Colombo and other parts of the country.  Sadly, I did not have the time to see them. . 

Further, wherever you go in Goa, you see hordes of foreigners of different nationalities. However, that was not the case with Colombo at least during the time I was there.  There was just a sprinkling of foreigners to be seen.  Contrary to the Sri Lankans we come across in the Arabian Gulf, fewer Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka speak good or passable English.


Author: Nelson Lewis- Bahrain