Practical tips for backpacking Sri Lanka, part 4: General information

After having covered three really important bases – eating, buses and trains – here, finally, are some final general tips and information for negotiating a wander about this most wonderful country. It covers visas, taxis, guesthouse pickups, ATM and money matters, tipping, supermarkets, using map apps, etiquette, and the biggie: accommodation bookings.

e-visas

Online here, and easy to do, so long as you input your details correctly. I didn’t – I’m a stickler for details, double, triple checking, so I have no idea how I got it wrong – but, fortunately, as it is all online and near instantaneous, I was able to get a new e-visa issued before the flight closed. Phew! For Kiwis, the visa is USD$35 for a 30-day stay. Theoretically, you can extend it once inside the country, although how you do that without already having a flight out booked before you arrive that complies with the original visa, is beyond me.

Airport taxis (Uber and Pick Me)

We took only one taxi, as clearly trains and buses were our primary mode of transport. This was when we first arrived, from the main international airport to Colombo, and we found the experience super easy. Once you get through customs and into the arrivals hall, to the left you have some ATMS, in the middle you have hubs of largely money exchange places, and to the right, taxis.

The official taxi stand is easy to identify (it’s the first one you come to), so we just went up there, told them where we wanted to go, they told us how much (2,800lkr to Fort area, in line with the price range we has read about), took our name, printed out a slip, and that was that.

Another staff member, who had quickly come and stood in that almost uncomfortably close way (and I had mistakenly assumed, as you do, that it was likely another operator touting), took the slip, showed us out, and found our taxi for us (it’s Uber like simplicity: the rego is printed on the slip, match slip with car and driver, and you’re on your way). Super easy; far easier than navigating Colombo’s infamous transport chaos!

Uber is in Sri Lanka, and we were also recommended an app called Pick Me, which is Uber for tuk-tuks. We helped a fellow traveler use it at our guesthouse in Galle, and it seems to work the same, except you pay the tuk-tuk driver in cash. (If you want to be mobile-active, it appears very easy to get a SIMand get connected in Sri Lanka, with data rates cheap as chips).

Tuk-tuks are like an extension of your driver’s personality and/or home; I like it.

Guesthouse pickups

We came across a few that did this, and for free, so perhaps may be worth enquiring if its a bit of a hike from your arrival point. One did this as part of its advertised service, but two others dropped us off at our next transport, free of charge, which is a nice personal touch. As a lot are family run, there may be a family vehicle that can easily meet you at your bus/train.  Plus, the guesthouse is undoubtedly a more personal experience (just like how I’d recommend eating in at guesthoues as well, as the food is usually mother’s spectacular cooking, and we all know how good Mum’s cooking always is!).

ATMs and money

We were using our Air New Zealand-linked Onesmart card, which operates under the Mastercard banner. We used only two ATMS: commercial bank, which charged us a 400lkr fee (about $4NZD), and then People’s Bank, which did not; obviously we stuck with that, since the barrons Onesmart are taking quite a handsome commission themselves, everytime we swipe!

Both ATMS – and it looked to be commonplace, judging by other ATM notices we saw at the airport – allowed a maximum of 50,000lkr withdrawals. In general we were given this in 9 x 5,000lkr notes, 4 x 1,000lkr notes, a 500lkr note, 4 x 100lkr and 2 x 50lkr notes, and we never ran into any issues breaking notes (but then we never tried to pay for a 70lkr bottle of water with a 5,000lkr note!).  

There are also coins, annoying, and also, quite rare, 200 and 2,000lkr notes. We were given a 2,000lkr note as change one night, and thought it was either toy money or a discontinued note someone was trying to offload onto unsuspecting dummies (it is also bigger than the most recent release of notes; making it even more odd). No, all legit, and we had no issues using it later on.

Obviously it is always worth travelling with some foreign exchange, in case of emergencies, and, love it or not, the USD is still your best bet. Here, there’s an added impetus for doing so. Many of the big ancient sites, and apparently some guesthouses too, will accept payment in USD (and read below about how this works in terms of accommodation bookings). This is a protectionary measure, apparently, in case of large sudden fluctuations in the local currency (such as happened at the end of 2018, with the country’s temporary political crisis). We paid for a couple of the big sites in this way, and it was actually helpful and convenient to be able to do so.

Look at all those zeros…we filthy!

Tipping

On money matters, altough tipping is theoretically not a thing here – so say the guides – I say: don’t be cheap! In any case, the guides will also tell you that, although a 10% service charge is added to hospo bills, this is unlikely to flow through to the people providing the most imediate service to you (i.e. wait staff and cooks). So, come on…we’re probably talking a dollar or two in your currency, on top of what is probably already crazily good value! Cough up and think ethically.

This goes for bargaining too: by all means, get in the spirit of it, the game of it, if you must, but think about the difference a dollar saved for you is worth vs. an extra 100lkr in a hard-working pocket! We had to, excruciatingly, overhear a fellow Kiwi bargain her tuk-tuk down by a whole $1NZD; I mean, c’mon…!

Mapping

The interweb can be a bit patchy across the country at-times (a bit, lol). This can make using Google maps a difficult enterprise, as the layers obviously require a lot of data. Thankfully, I had heard about an alternative map app – MAPS.ME – and oh what a glorious thing. Not only is it just as detailed as Google maps – although it doesn’t have the satellite layer; but I never found this a problem – you actually download it country by country, or state by state, so it’s available whether you have an internet connection or not. So, for example, for India, where we are now, I downloaded the first few states where we will be visiting, and will continue to download more as we move about. Genius! (and it’s saved my bacon on numerous occasions already)

Soap and supermarkets

We found supermarkets all over the place, even in the smaller towns: Keell’s, Arpico and, mostly, Cargill’s (the country’s oldest). Now, they’re obviously not supermarkets like you might be used to; they are not going to give you twenty choices of cinnamon and sugar-dusted breakfast cereal! Be realistic.

However, they carry quite a good range of supplies you might need to pick up: toiletries, diary products and bottled water, snacks, alcohol, fruit and vege, and oats. Although I am most a fan of local eating, I also love and crave the pleasant and calming consistency of a bowl of oats on the road, so we always carry a supply.

And on toiletries, a lot of guesthouses do not supply soap, for whatever reason, although they supply towels. Bring some from home. I must say, I quite enjoyed having the simple luxury of family soaps. Otherwise, Cargill’s got your back!

Food, in a market…I’m there!

Follow your nose!

And speaking of food, it’s worth stating that this is our general way of operating when it comes to food. Sure we’ll read TripAdvisor, maybe consult Lonely Planet (although this is particular we’ve found quite hit and miss), but some of our best food encounters – and most surprising – happen when we simply follow our nose. Conversely, some of our biggest food regrets come when we forget this simple principle. Walking around hungry, if something smells good then it usually means it will taste good too. (And the second part of our rule is to look for signs of locals. If it smells good and the place looks well loved by locals, then it’s fail-safe; at least that’s been our experience)

Etiquette

It’s pretty commonsense, really, but it never fails to amaze me how ignorant tourists can be, when it comes to respecting another culture’s norms and practices.

Here, it is sacred sites where you most need to be mindful. Have a sarong, trousers or shorts with trouser extensions with you when visiting these sites, so, if you need to, you can simply cover yourself up appropriately. Don’t wear a singlet, or anything that is offensive, or may cause offense. Take off your shoes at the right points, and don’t walk on walls or other things not meant for dirty feet (remember, feet are considered dirty here). In other words, follow the signs and/or do as the locals are doing.

A particular quirk here – or maybe it is in other Buddhist countries, I guess I’ll find out soon enough – is that you should never pose in front of Buddha statues (i.e. have your back to Buddha). Again, signs tell you not to do this in many places.

Also, on the issue of photography, just pause and think before shoving your camera in someone’s face, especially if they are going about something religious or spiritual, or just trying to go about their daily life. You may think – adopting a Valley Girl accent – that it’s like, so cool, so exotic, and are amazed that these people are so happy even though they have so little. It’s actually none of these things. These are people living 2019 lives, and they are no doubt incredibly complex societies and the very opposite of simple, so stop fetishing some idea of non-Western-ness. Please.

Don’t think I’m not watching you, gurrl!

Accommodation booking (and rating websites)

Finally: to booking.com, or not to trivago.

We’re wusses, I’ll admit it; we lack the ability to bargain our way to a saving of $5. Also, we’re keen on maximising our time, so cannot be bothered faffing about with arriving at a destination and walking around to look at places, compare prices, and make a decision. It’s not worth the hassle, the disagreements that’d no doubt erupt, the energy and the sweat. We were also travelling in high season, so felt it made sense of book accommodation before we arrived.

By and large we used booking.com; for now at least, it seems to be the most widespread. For example, I would look on other platforms – hotels.com, hostelworld.com, and so on – and my general experience was that there would be less options. I’m not too sure why this is, maybe booking.com has spent more time/money/resource getting into this market? Either way, it seemed the best option to easily be able to compare options and make judgements based on location, price and user rating. This is definitely not an ad for them, but it was the platform that worked for us, at this particular time: efficient, easy, reliable.

This extended to using ratings information, where my usual mode of operation for judging user experience is TripAdvisor first. For whatever reason, the site is currently still a little thin, in terms of Sri Lanka content, so therefore I relied on booking.com more than I usually would.  

Overall I find TripAdvisor to be more reliable (although I’m well aware that you can pay to move your place up the ranking). To qualify, by reliable I mean you can read user feedback but also see a little about who the person who wrote the review is: are they a regular poster, a one off fly-by-nighter, someone from Russia, or someone from Australia. For whatever reason, I find booking.com a little more anonymous and I’m not a particular fan of the number ratings they apply (they don’t always make complete sense).

I also place a bit more weight on the opinions of those who leave more thoughtful commentary, and have established a bank of reviews (yes, I know, this means they’re playing right into the business model of these platforms, giving away data for free…so sue me). To me, it means they’re somewhat engaged in the process of reviewing, and not just someone aggrieved or overfully fluffy about a vague experience. I find this easier to gauge on TripAdvisor than on booking.com.

Also, there is something to be said for social and cultural differences. I have often found myself nodding in agreement with the experiences recounted by fellow antipodeans (Australians and Kiwis), as opposed to what I see as sometimes unrealistic grumblings; sweating the small stuff you might say. This is not to suggest a universalism, not at all. Really, it just means that you can’t just take these ratings algorithms at face value; you do need to put in a little bit of effort and do you own analysis. Besides, like so much social media these days, I find that these platforms can be schizophrenic and bipolar; it’s often hard to get a singular narrative about any possible option.

Oh, and we never paid beforehand, apart from our first stop at an actual hotel. This is a cash economy. Usually, you’ll book in USD, and then it’s converted when you check out. When I was booking, though, it would tell me in NZD what the room-rate was, so you are computing across three different currencies. I give up!

As I’ve said elsewhere, I found the country and its people to be overwhelmingly honest and, either way, it all seemed to work out about right. Often you might add on charges anyway, like doing a load of laundry, or adding breakfasts and/or dinners you didn’t do at booking time (‘eating in’ is a thing in Sri Lanka, a good thing), so I was never quite sure what the precise amount was. All good, chill out!

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