Sri Lanka – Colombo to Kandy

Getting to Colombo required two flights from us; Hat Yai to Kuala Lumpur and then Kuala Lumpur to Colombo. We chose this route as it was the cheapest and most convenient. But, there is a catch! The boarding passes. If you book a flight that already contains layovers then you will receive your boarding passes for all continuing flights when you first check in. If you book your flights separately you may have to take your first flight, go through immigration, check in for your second flight, get your next boarding pass, go through security and then immigration again. Well we hate doing this for the following reasons:

1) It’s a real time consuming headache.
2) Celeste had limited pages in her passport and these extra stamps would’ve sent her over her limit.

So, how do you get around this? Well, it’s pretty easy if you book through Air Asia.

Missed our previous Koh Lipe blog post? Read it here

First, try the self check-in kiosks and print all flights boarding passes from there. Don’t bother checking in at the counter. This also prevents your overweight backpack from being weighed.

If the self check-in kiosk won’t let you print your next flight(s) passes, do the following:

1) Log into your Air Asia account on your mobile phone
2) Check into your flight
3) Receive a bar code
4) Go back to kiosk and print your next boarding pass.

Presto! You’ve bypassed the system and you didn’t have to get extra unnecessary stamps in your passport.

Now, back to our trip to Colombo. The flight from KL was only 3 ½ hours, which was pretty smooth. When we arrived we bought a SIM card at the airport for around 1,600 rs / 10USD, took out enough cash at the ATM for our trip and waited for our hostel driver to pick us up. Colombo airport is actually near the city of Negombo so getting to Colombo takes around 1 hour by car. By the time we got to our hostel it was late so we went straight to bed.

We stayed at the Star Anise Boutique Capsules. The hotel was really clean, comfortable and served a nice Sri Lankan breakfast of coconut rice, sambal and tea.

Star Anise Boutique Capsules lobby

The next morning after breakfast we walked over to Colombo Fort train station and booked 1st class tickets to Kandy for 500rs / 3.15USD per person. While waiting for our train we encountered a “deaf” guy playing the nice, generous role. He showed us where to wait for our train, when it arrived he showed us to our seats. Then he pulled out his paper displaying his “deaf” school and a list of people who donated. Oy vey! Total scammer alert! But we were a bit cornered, feeling a bit awkward so Pete “donated” 1000rs/6USD to his “cause”. In retrospect we should have given his paper back and said “no thank you”. We will call this tourist tax #1.

🚈Tip: Trains depart for Kandy from Colombo Fort station frequently. However, the types of trains differ. You can reserve seats online through a UK based site that we’d prefer not to support as they are charging an exorbitant premium for the train tickets. Alternatively, you could ask your accommodation to book tickets for you before you arrive in Colombo. If you want to book tickets when in Sri Lanka, you can go to a train station and buy there or get a Mobitel simcard and dial 365. Try to get your tickets around 30 days before your travel date. That being said, we were lucky enough to get 1st class tickets from Kandy on the day but that was during low season. First class is by far the most comfortable with individual seats and A/C.

Colombo Fort train station
1st Class Reserved
Tropical views from the train

After 3 ½ hours on the train, we arrived in Kandy. Our homestay, The Green Willow, offered to pick us up at the train station which we, at the time, felt was a kind gesture. We arrived back at their homestay where they fixed us a pot of tea, which was a lovely welcome. We chatted with them for about 30 minutes and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon.

Our room at the Green Willow homestay

When evening came we told our homestay we would like to head to town so they organized their tuk-tuk guy to pick us up. They also promised us he had the ‘best’ and most ‘reasonable’ price. He charged 300rs / 2USD for his trips into town. Later I will explain how this is not exactly the most fair of prices.

Our first stop in Kandy was the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. Which is apparently one of the most famous Buddhist temples containing the canine tooth of Buddha. In the evenings they have a bit of a ceremony and it is quite pretty all lit up. But of course there is an entrance fee of 1500rs / 10USD. Well we didn’t bother paying this because we chose not to go inside. Rather, we walked around the outside, admired the architecture and listened to the drum precession.

Reflections on Bogambara lake, Kandy
Outer wall of the Temple of the Tooth
Lighting candles at night

Now the thing about the entrance fees in Sri Lanka is they are astronomical for foreigners! They expect foreigners to pay 10-30USD entrance fees while the locals only pay cents. If you are a vacationer, you may think this is not so bad. If you are a backpacker, you need to pick and choose which sites you really want to see. Which places are worth breaking your backpacker budget for. Unfortunately the temple did not make our list.

However, the botanical gardens did. We went there the following day and paid 1500rs / 10USD entrance per person. We like nature and animals and this is the largest botanical garden in Asia. It did not disappoint! Beautiful grounds, monkeys and tons of flying foxes! It is a great place to have a picnic and spend an afternoon. It will take you at least 2 hours to walk through it all.

That evening we discovered how we paid our 2nd tourist tax. We learned about a Sri Lankan tuk-tuk app similar to Uber. It is called ‘PickMe’.

🚕Tip: Get a Sri Lankan SIM card and download the PickMe app.
This app finds tuk tuk drivers for the correct rate! Tuk tuks should only cost 40rs per kilometer! Write that down!

So the ride from our homestay to town should only cost 160rs/ 1USD not 300rs! But there’s a catch, tuk tuk drivers DON’T want any foreigners to use this app. When foreigners do use it they pretend to take wrong turns to boost up the fare. So if you use this app, monitor your route while you’re going and make sure to speak up if the driver starts taking a different route. Don’t let him!

The next morning we left for the train station to take the scenic Kandy to Ella train ride. The day before we had our guesthouse book last minute tickets for us. Unfortunately only 3rd class was available. Which actually wasn’t bad at all and we ended up having the booth and table to ourselves.

Third class captives

Before we left, we settled up the bill with our homestay. Remember how I told you they offered us a generous ride when we arrived. Well on our final bill they actually put this as a charge. Not the most forthcoming and a bit sleazy in our opinion. This was our 3rd tourist tax.

At the end of our time in Kandy we learned a few things about Sri Lanka. Tuk Tuk drivers are dishonest and sleazy. And even the nice people here are probably making a profit off you. One should be weary of nice gestures, they usually come with a price tag. The positive things we learned:

  1. Kandy is gorgeous – the colonial style buildings really make you feel like you have stepped back in time.
  2. Sri Lankan curry is delicious.
  3. Tea reigns king.

Continue with us to Ella & Udawalawe

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