Just off the Southern tip of India lie two of the most beautiful tropical paradises on the planet. Situated in the Indian Ocean, on one-side rests the magnificent Maldives islands and on the other Sri Lanka – an island that the great traveller Marco Polo described as ‘undoubtedly the finest of its size in the world’.
Despite being a tropical island of the coast of India, with the majority of people not Hindu but Buddhist, Sri Lanka is totally different from its neighbouring country. Once visited it is hard not to agree with Marco Polo – it’s a delightful mixtures of British colonial heritage, tropical landscapes, extremely friendly locals, delicious cuisine (especially the seafood!), amazing waves (head to Mirissa and Weligama if you’re chasing the swell) and fascinating historic sites (the ruins of Sigiriya, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are a trip within themselves – and let’s not forget the Dambulla Cave Temples). If beaches take your fancy, the coastal stretch south of Colombo offers palm-lined sandy havens as far as the eye can see – and lots of opportunities for spotting baby turtles hatching. Otherwise, escape to the hills where you’ll find gorgeous rolling hills usually coated with tea plantations. Ella is particularly a tourist favourite with its bohemian vibe and stunning waterfalls. The island is also home to a diversity of exotic bird life and animals, with safaris and tours to sight elephants and leopards particularly popular. Yala National Park, Udawalawe National Park, Kaudulla National Park and Horton Plains National Park particular highlights.
About 400 miles southwest of Sri Lanka are the Maldives, a large group of islands that have become a dream destination for many holidaymakers. The 1190 unique islands spread across the Indian Ocean and circle into 26 natural atolls. They boast beautiful white beaches and breathtaking underwater scenery. Travellers can stay on only 87, which have been developed as tourist resorts. The airport is on one of the islands, its capital city Male is on another. There’s a boat taxi called a ‘dhoni‘ that takes you between the two and costs about a dollar. International Tour Operators offer package holidays to the Maldives, many focusing on diving and tropical luxury.
Quite different to Sri Lanka, there are fewer independent travellers, but it is also one hundred percent Muslim and all other religious paraphernalia are confiscated at the airport. People pray up to five times a day and there is no alcohol except at the tourist resorts. Fish are still caught here by rod and line so as not to deplete stocks. Fishing used to be the country’s main source of industry but slowly it’s giving way to tourism.
The Maldives has gained a reputation for being one of the best diving destinations in the world. With hundreds of breathtaking dive sites and colorful fascinating underwater worlds, it has perfect conditions throughout the year and a visibility every photographer dreams of. It’s certainly not a place for low budget backpackers or amateur anthropologists.
The driest and best time to visit is from December to March on the west and south coast and from May to September on the East Coast. Out of season has its advantages; less crowds, cheaper airfares and accommodation. There is also very little rain.
The population in Sri Lanka has risen to 19 million in the last few years. About a third are under 15 years of age. Of course it is difficult not to notice the ethnic problems that overlook Sri Lanka at the moment. The Sinhalese and the Tamils have been fighting for over 2000 years. They claim to be ‘natural’ enemies; however there was little trouble between them during the colonial years and in the first years after independence. From appearances it is very difficult to tell who is Sinhalese or Tamil, Sri Lankan’s claim they can make the distinction. Language and religion are two important aspects in which the groups differ.
74% speak Sinhala, which is the official national language. Tamil is spoken by 18%. 8% other. English is spoken by about 10% of the population, especially in tourist resorts.
Currency is Sri Lankan rupee (LKR). Approximate conversions of 2002:
UK£1 = Rs 125.
Euro 1 = Rs 80.
US $1 = Rs 90.
Travellers’ cheques can be changed at most major banks. However, have some cash for times when you can’t get to a bank (there are plenty of money changers in Colombo and Hikkaduwa). US dollars are best. Cash machines are becoming a common sight, especially in major cities, but other than in Colombo and Kandy, they’re unlikely to accept international cards. Credit cards are widely accepted; Visa and MasterCard cash withdrawals are possible at major banks.
Sri Lanka is still a pleasantly economical country to travel around. Budget travelers can survive comfortably on less than US$20 a day by staying in basic share or double rooms, getting around by bus and not eating out at high-priced restaurants. Up the scale, add US$5 or $10 for kipping down in delightful rest houses, or plan on around US$100 a day if you want the full five star treatment.
A 10% service charge is added to nearly every accommodation or eating bill in the middle and top ranges, so there’s no need to tip, even though those serving you are unlikely to see much of it. Nor is there any need to top up taxi or three-wheeler fares. Hotel porters normally get Rs 10-20 per heavy bag. On the whole, prices are very negotiable in Sri Lanka, but bargaining shouldn’t be seen as a battle to the death. Find out what the approximate cost is and then come to a mutually acceptable compromise.
Daily Living Costs:
· Budget: US$0.50-3
· Mid-range: US$3-6
· Top-end:US$6 and upwards
· Budget: US$4-15
· Mid-range: US$15-30
· Top-end: US$30 and upwards
Travel lightly if you are going to spend all your time at the beach. There is plenty of Western-style beach ware available to buy if staying in Hikkaduwa or Colombo. If visiting a temple or other holy sites, remember to cover your legs and shoulders.
Most nationalities, including Australians, New Zealanders, British, French, German and Americans, receive a tourist visa upon arrival in SriLanka, which is valid for 30 days. If you want to apply for an extension, they can be made at the Department of Immigration, Station Road, Bambalapitiya.
The only domestic flights are between Jaffna and Colombo. Public transport is therefore a choice between buses and trains. Both are cheap. Try to avoid travelling around poya (full moon) holidays and their nearest weekends as transport gets very busy.
It is recommended you seek travel advice at least 6 weeks before you travel. Discuss your requirements with your doctor, but vaccinations you should consider include the following: Diphtheria and Tetanus, Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B (for those on long trips). Japanese B Encephalitis (if in a high-risk area), Polio, Rabies (particularly if handling animals). Tuberculosis (usually very low), Typhoid (if travelling for more than a couple of weeks in most parts of Asia, Africa, Central and South America). Yellow Fever (if coming from an effected area such as Central Africa and parts of South Africa). Travellers visiting isolated, high-risk areas may like to carry a treatment dose of malaria medication for use if symptoms occur.
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