6 things about travelling (in Sri Lanka)

How does a girl who drinks coffee and doesn’t like cricket end up Sri Lanka? Even with caffeine withdrawal and some uncomfortable sports conversations, Sri Lanka was up there on my list of favourite international destinations. Here’s a few observations from my recent trip with Lovely Cathy.

Zeroes matter
I’m a currency tragic. I need to use a currency converter app ALL the time, but I found myself getting embarrassed about using it in shops with a sales assistant breathing down my neck and put it away. It led to great confusion. There was the traditional wallhanging I thought was $75 but was actually closer to $750, otherwise known as #batikgate (I apologised profusely). Then there was the cash withdrawal that I thought would be about $100 but was closer to $900; two nights before we flew out. Your Honour, in my defence, on the second mishap I was tipsy. Which leads to my next point.

Don’t use an automatic teller when you’ve been drinking
Seriously. Don’t. And on the subject of automatic tellers, don’t panic but take care. I withdrew money on two occasions in Sri Lanka. On the first occasion, the first machine I visited didn’t work but the second machine did. Who knows why. The same thing happened the second time around. On reflection, it was probably because the first machine didn’t contain enough cash for my withdrawal :-//. If you have an ATM fail, check your numbers with your currency converter app.

The smiley-orchid guy
The Sri Lankan people were overwhelmingly friendly. While there were scams, we didn’t come across a lot of them. There were a couple of exceptions. We took a stroll around the Royal Botanical Gardens at Peradeniya and found a very helpful gardener tending a tree of orchids, welcoming us to smell the flowers. He then happily produced his international currency collection and asked us for Australian dollars to help with his hobby. Recounting this story now, it seems so obvious that it was a ruse, but at the time I thought he was so lovely and the flowers so beautiful that I wanted to help and immediately got out my wallet to find him some of our plastic dosh. I didn’t notice the Lovely Cathy’s eye-rolling buy had fortunately left my Australian dollars back at the hotel.

I ‘vant’ to be alone
We found a couple of hangers-on who we kept running in to. It’s uncomfortable and weird. It meant we made a few diversions to get away from our stalkers. It’s better to be safe than sorry. With Poya day and Sinhalese New Year pending we got a lot of advice on what would and wouldn’t be open, directing us to various places immediately. Take advice like this with a grain of salt. Check with your hotel or a third party and only go places you really want to go. It reminded me of trying to get into a temple in Bangkok. I lost count of how many people told us it was closed when it wasn’t just so we’d take their tour or tuk tuk or visit their brother’s shop etc. It literally took half a day to get past the countless touts that kept blocking our path into the temple. Which leads me to my next point. If you don’t feel comfortable don’t do it.

Gems and airport transfers
We almost missed our flight. On a half day tour of Colombo our driver asked us when we were leaving. We had had a lot of conversations about when our flight left previously but it wasn’t until this conversation when we all realised that the 01.10am on the itinerary was only hours away and not the following day which we’d somehow dreamt up was the case. The driver took the credit and asked for a tip. We thought he was joking. But at the end of the tour he suddenly said he had to make an unscheduled stop and asked us to help pick his New Year’s present at a gem shop. We’d already been taken unexpectedly to a gem shop on the tour and dealt with the high-pressure salesmen. On a subliminal level we realised something was not right and both had the same reaction, we’re not leaving the car. It didn’t take long for him to realise we wouldn’t budge so he reversed out and sped away.

We did agree to his proposal that he take us to the airport later than evening but we weren’t to mention it to the hotel so he could pocket their usual commission. It was one of those awkward situations. We needed a ride and anyway, how do you say no given the circumstances? Back at the hotel we debriefed about the gem shop situation and agreed that he’d intended that we buy his New Year present. We also agreed that the most important thing was that we got to the airport safely and on time. We decided to book a hotel car a half hour earlier. This way there would be a record of the trip and payment made before we left. I’ve come across a number of airport transport rorts in my time. They’re hard to avoid. Our driver tried on the old extra cash for the tollway trick. We didn’t buy into it and didn’t pay either. It goes to show that you have to have your wits about you at all times. And finally..

Don’t be too cynical
It’s a fine balance between vigilant and paranoid when you’re travelling. It’s best to initially reserve judgement even if you’re going through the potential scamming-scenarios in your head. A man approached us at night in Kandy and asked about our trip, where we’d been, where we were going next and when we were leaving Kandy. I was hedging away figuring he was up to no good. Just as the lights changed he told us he was the porter that had taken our bags to our rooms the day before, he had a few days off and wouldn’t see us before we left and to enjoy our time in Sri Lanka. Ouch!

What are your travel tips?

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