Sri Lanka blog: The 5 things we wish we’d known
We are currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand, enjoying relative luxury in our hotel with WiFi and complimentary toiletries and hot water and a swimming pool (for £12.50 a night, what a win!). We even have enough beds, albeit one actual bed, one camp bed and a mattress on the floor (that’s a bed, right?). We spent the last 2 months in Sri Lanka (see all our Sri Lanka blog posts here) and recently published this post on the things that Sri Lanka does the best, what we think it beats every other country at.
Today’s post is hopefully going to be helpful for first-time travellers to Sri Lanka, as it’s what I wish we had known before we flew to the island. We had a blast and would/ will definitely return but it proved a challenge to travel on a budget with young kids in several ways, and it would have been great to read a Sri Lanka blog about the challenges so that we could have prepared ourselves better.
Without further ado, here are the 5 biggest things in Sri Lanka that take some getting used to:
Oh, my life. If you haven’t been to India (or, obviously, Sri Lanka) you probably can’t imagine what the driving is like. If there are rules to the driving system, it doesn’t seem like most people obey them or are even aware of them. Every driver we spoke to while we were there had a horror story about a RTA or a relative who’d been killed on the roads, it was pretty intense. The most popular method of transport by a long shot is tuk-tuk, which looks like this:
You see where those cardboard boxes are inside? That’s where the people go. Or the boxes, bundles of sticks or live chickens, going by what we saw while on the island. Most of the ones in Sri Lanka have sides thankfully, to reduce the risk of falling out and meeting death in a squishy mess on the road, which is reassuring. A bit.
If you want to know what driving in a tuk-tuk feels like, go to your local scrapyard and pull out the most rusty bike you can find. Then grab one of those probably-illegal petrol motors that kids in London parks attach to their RC cars and attach it to the bike. Then get something like a Diet Coke can big enough to fit six people in (in Sri Lankan driving terms that’s really big enough for two actual people, you can ‘just budge up’), gaffa tape it to your construction et voila- you have a tuk tuk. Kind of. Amazingly, these things work like little tanks and frequently dragged all six of us (plus driver) up steep hills, and once up half a mountain in Ella. They’re also our kids’ favourite methods of transport in the world! We heard tourists talking about how they’d never go back in a tuk-tuk after one trip; we went in them every day for 60 days so it depends on your own experience.
Things we found particularly challenging in Sri Lanka was the tendency to overtake on the wrong side of the road with oncoming traffic, overtaking on blind bends, driving with no lights and drug/ drink-driving (we had two drivers who tried to do this). You’ll probably find mentions of the traffic in every Sri Lanka blog worth its salt; it’s unavoidable. Aside from the danger aspect, there seems to be fairly little training with the tour drivers about how to drive properly in terms of smoothness. We had one absolutely hellish three-hour ride where the guy sped up and slammed on the brakes every 5-10 seconds, for three hours. Two of the kids and I puked. It was so bad.
Don’t let this put you off driving, just make sure that if you’re driving long distances you have already gone for a ride with the driver and that they don’t drive horrifically.
Ok so I still don’t really get this. In Britain we’re pretty self-deprecating as a nation and I’ll be the first to admit if I’ve screwed up (it happens frequently, I’m used to it). In Sri Lanka there is a cultural tendency to say whatever it necessary to please someone, whether it is true or not. This extends to saying that hotels have vacancies (and letting you book) when they don’t (this happened to us twice), or saying that a driver is on their way / will be there in 5 minutes when they have no intention of coming, or saying that a certain item in a shop will be in stock ‘tomorrow’ when actually it will never be in stock. It’s kind of sweet and polite but it gets frustrating- particularly when your hotel owner only finally admits that they don’t have rooms for your family, on Christmas Eve, when you are on your way from Thailand to Sri Lanka (read about that here).
Advice from this Sri Lanka blog? Expect the unexpected and be aware that no matter what people say they will do, you may need to make alternative arrangements.
The water issue
As far as I can tell, the government supplies water to normal houses (so if you are renting from a local this will affect you; hotels not so much) at certain times each day, for a couple of hours in the morning in our case. We had to turn a pump on each morning and evening to fill up our water tank, *but*- and here’s the kicker- the government water supply was shared between the neighbouring houses too so if they’d used it, we didn’t get any. We had barely any water from the taps or shower for 3 weeks in Unawatuna. It’s not fun. In other places we stayed there was very often no hot water and sometimes randomly the water would just go off. Just a word of caution to those traveling to Sri Lanka with little kids- if you are going to struggle without running water, pay more and get a hotel. We used bottled water for a bit of washing up and showered at the beach because we are classy like that.
The power issue
I literally lost count of how many power cuts we had while travelling. These lasted from 1 hour to whole days. If you don’t desperately need power it’s not an issue, but remember that without a charged phone you can’t Google anything (maps, in our case) and it makes travel a heck of a lot harder. Because I work online I really felt the effects of the power cuts and it was pretty stressful. Often whole streets/ towns would go out of power so going down to the local cafe to use theirs wasn’t an option. Yay!
The Wifi issue
I’m not gonna lie, writing this post is actually making me feel a bit sick with the memory of how stressful parts of Sri Lanka were; every Sri Lanka blog I’ve read talks about the wonderful parts but I think it’s helpful to talk about every aspect of reality! Losing WiFi sounds like nothing but when you start with the worst journey ever and then you arrive and you’ve got no water, no power and then terribly slow or non-existent Wifi connection, and you have work deadlines and kids asking to message friends or wanting to play on their iPads or even just to book a taxi using an app or check the weather forecast, you do start questioning the sanity of what you’ve signed up for. It’s all terribly privileged problems but having no WiFi if you’re working remotely sucks. Our saving grace much of the time was a Wifi hotspot that an amazing friend lent us before we left the UK, and when we had power (ha), we used a local SIM loaded with mobile data and found this much better and faster than local guesthouse connections.
So that’s it folks- we loved so much of Sri Lanka, from the incredible wildlife (see our posts on seeing Blue Whales, swimming with turtles and going on safari) to the epic nature and the gorgeous people. I hope this post gives people travelling to Sri Lanka with kids an idea of what they need to prepare for- don’t forget to look at the best of Sri Lanka blog post to remind you why you need to go!!