All's Well that Ends Well in Sri LankaA Story of Vampires, Drunks and Racists
All’s Well that Ends Well in Sri Lanka:
A Story of Vampires, Drunks and Racists
I travelled Sri Lanka with travelaholic Uzbek Couchsurfer Liliya and we had a wonderful time. The scenery is beautiful, the weather is hot, the beaches are relaxing (except when the powerful waves literally roll you up the beach) and the locals are extremely friendly. With one exception: Nittambuwa. I don’t know what it is about this city, which is basically an outer suburb of Colombo, but everything that could go wrong did until the very end, when angels finally descended to restore our faith in the humanity of the Sri Lankan people.
We were travelling from Kandy to Galle, which should have been a straightforward bus journey, but things went wrong right from the start. Firstly, we hadn’t realised that it was Sri Lankan Independence Day (independence from us Brits, but no one held that against me) and it happened to be a Monday, so many locals had used the long weekend for a pilgrimage to see the relic of Buddha’s tooth at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. As they were desperate to get back to Colombo for work the next day, the crowds were intense. Our second mistake was to listen to the guy who owned our hostel in Kandy when he said to take the bus to Colombo and get off and change to the express bus to Galle at Nittambuwa. But I’ll come back to that later.
Arriving at Kandy Goods Shed bus station, we easily found the bus to Colombo, which, despite the crowds, had a very neatly managed queuing system. However, after joining the queue we were told that that bus didn’t go to Nittambuwa and we instead needed to take the bus to Negombo, which was less frequent and had no queuing system. When it arrived, people were literally using elbows and claws to shove each other out of the way in the mad rush for the doors. I took the front doors, which was absolutely hopeless (not to sound like a wimp, but I just couldn’t bring myself to elbow old ladies out of the way, and those old ladies were tough as nails!), while Liliya took the back doors. Not many people had paid attention to the back doors, so it was less crowded, but she was still not quick enough to get us a seat. Luckily, a nice tough-as-nails old lady saw us struggling and kept two seats beside her free for us (remember as you read on, the Sri Lankan people are generally lovely!).
The bus was absolutely crammed by the time it departed with people literally hanging out of the doors, front and back. The approximately 1.5 hour journey to Nittambuwa took 3.5 hours because of the holiday traffic, but we eventually crawled into our destination. After fighting our way through the crowded bus and throwing my backpack onto the street before jumping off myself, we arrived only to find that there was no bus to Galle. Everyone told us that we should have taken the Colombo bus (yes, the one with the nice queuing system!) and changed to the express bus at Kadawatha. It seems our friendly hostel owner had got his suburbs mixed up and sent us to the wrong place. On top of that, it was already 7pm and we didn’t have time to get to Kadawatha before the last express bus to Galle departed (even if we could somehow fight our way onto another overflowing bus to get there), but no worries, we’re flexible travellers, so we’d just find a nearby hotel and continue our journey in the morning. Easy peasy, or so we thought.
Looking at Maps.Me, I realised that we were definitely not in a touristy area and there were hardly any hotels. But no worries, the Hotel Camellia Rose, despite only having a 4.9/10 rating on Booking.com, was only a 500m walk, which was good given that it was dark and had begun to drizzle. When we arrived, it was like walking into the Addams Family mansion. We stepped into an old fashioned lobby with a marble floor, some decaying sofas from a previous century and another guest’s suitcases piled on the floor, despite there being no signs of life.
We rang the bell on the counter until a creepy old man, who looked something like a miniature version of Lurch, appeared and showed us a room. It was dark and creepy, with dog-eared twin beds that looked like they hadn’t been slept in for months, but it was shelter, so despite Liliya’s wide eyes, I duly bargained the price down to a good deal and we went back to the lobby to check in. Back at the reception, Lurch demanded our passports and said they would only be returned when we checked out, which is not normal practice in Sri Lanka. When I offered to prepay the room for the night instead, he repeated his demand and told us that if we didn’t like it we could leave. At this point it was all too much for Liliya. She practically dragged me out of the door and down the street. Once we got a little bit away, she said she’s pretty sure that Lurch is a vampire and had already cut the owner of the suitcases in the lobby into pieces and put him in a freezer in the basement, and probably we would be next if we stayed there…
Maps.Me showed another hotel about 1.5km further on, so we continued our walk, the unusually cold night air making us shiver slightly in our summer clothes. A bit further down the road, we came across a sign advertising rooms for rent above a doorway with a couple of people seated in a makeshift restaurant with plane concrete walls and floor. Entering, we explained to the owner that we were looking for a room and he got on the phone to make arrangements.
In the meantime, his companion, who from his slur and clumsy movements had been celebrating Independence Day with a bit too much sauce, fired a couple of questions at us and began leering at Liliya. I deflected the questions, but he sounded quite aggressive and continued to stand between us and the door while asking something else in a raised voice. We decided to bail, dodged around him, and made a hasty retreat back onto the street, while the surprised owner, still on the phone called out to us. We called back that we’d decided to leave and walked on, but after going about 20m saw the large drunk figure of his friend lurch onto the street after us. We continued to walk at a fast clip, but it took about 500m before we finally shook him off.
Eventually we arrived at the next hotel marked on the map, only to find a half-finished apartment building and no hotel. Now we were beginning to get a bit concerned. There were no other hotels on the map except for an eco hotel that was quite a way off and in a very rural local, with no reviews online, so I really wasn’t sure it would actually exist even if we went there. But luckily, or so we thought, a couple of friendly residents of the half-finished apartment block asked us what we were looking for and were able to recommend a place called The Green Palace hotel, about another kilometer further on, that they said would only cost about 2000 rupees (€10/$12) for the night.
When we reached the Green Palace, we’d already been searching for accommodation for almost two hours and the rain had become heavier, so we were relieved to see a modern-ish looking hotel. Going in and asking for a room, the receptionist had to make a phone call and then told us we could have one for 6000 rupees. A bit of bargaining and two more phone calls later, this had only come down to 5000, at which point I noticed an open notebook on the desk showing the prices other guests had paid for their rooms, which ranged from 1800 to 2300 rupees. I called the guy out on this and, with no sense of shame whatsoever, he told me, “Yes, but this is the price for locals. My manager says 5000 is the lowest I can do for foreigners”.
I have experienced indirect racism in the past, especially in the form of people charging a bit more to foreigners, but in all my travels nothing quite as blatant as this. I told the receptionist in no uncertain terms that his manager is a racist and there was no way I was paying 2.5 times as much just because I’m a foreigner. The guy looked a bit embarrassed, but two more phone calls later the price was still the same and we walked out. Now we were really screwed, standing in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the street in the rain.
We took another look at the ‘eco villa’ on Booking.com. Although I was sceptical, Liliya decided it was our best chance and went ahead and booked it online while I flagged down a tuk tuk to take us there. The driver had no idea where it was, which seemed ominous, but he was very friendly and agreed on 200 rupees (about €1/$1.10) for the 2.5 km distance. As we drove, the area became more and more rural and less and less like the kind of place that would have a hotel, even an eco one, but hey we were already on the road. About five minutes before the location shown on the map, the road became a dirt track impassable by tuk tuk, so we got out and walked. It wound between a couple of buildings and then, despite Google clearly showing it continuing on, came to an abrupt halt in a clearing with some cows grazing between trees. Great!
After spending twenty minutes looping back on ourselves and finding another road, we finally arrived at our destination and my worst fears were confirmed – a private house with a high concrete wall around it and security gate was all there was to see. We banged on the door anyway and, to our surprise, it was opened in a few seconds by a very friendly middle-aged Sri Lankan man. “Are you the people who just booked on Booking.com?”. We said that we were.
It turned out that the house was owned by a well-to-do Sri Lankan couple who were just starting out running an eco hotel after returning from working in the Middle East for many years. They were the best hosts we had the entire trip. The room was clean, comfortable and very reasonably priced, and when they realised we hadn’t had dinner yet, the lady went straight to the kitchen and made us an amazing spread. Breakfast the next morning was not disappointing either.
Before we left in the morning, the man took us to the rooftop to admire the jungle view and told us that they had just opened the hotel a few months ago, but had been waiting to get a license before taking guests. Their first guest had been an elderly gentleman from Hong Kong, who had been quite charismatic and a delight to host, but also prone to mishaps. He stayed with them for three weeks, because he wanted to experience the non-touristy side of Sri Lanka. The drama started the very first evening, when he opened his suitcase and realised that it was not his – he’d accidentally picked up someone else’s from the baggage carousel at the airport. Our host ended up driving him all the way back to the airport to return the suitcase and collect his own.
As the gentleman appeared quite old and frail, and had asthma, our host escorted him every time he went out for the first week, but eventually the old man told him that he wanted to go out on his own. Our host gave him his business card with his phone number so he could call him if he ever needed any help while he was out. Being a charismatic fellow, it wasn’t long before the old man knew all of their neighbors by name and had explored most of the surrounding area. Then, one night, our host received a panicked phone call from the owner of a local restaurant. The old man had collapsed on the floor of the restaurant and, luckily, the restaurant owner had found our host’s business card in his pocket and called him.
Our host rushed over to the restaurant and found the man lying on the floor struggling to breath, while the owner looked on helplessly. He found the old man’s inhaler in his pocket and administered it. The old man’s breathing gradually returned to normal and, eventually, our host was able to take him home, much to the relief of the restaurant owner. The next morning the old man thanked him cheerfully, and continued with his holiday as if nothing had happened. It seemed that he was determined not to let his health get in the way of his travels! This type of story is partly why I enjoy travelling so much. It’s an opportunity to meet all kinds of people and hear about their lives.
It was a pity that Nittambuwa was so far from the places we wanted to visit, otherwise we would have stayed longer. Later that morning our host drove us to the main road and we took the bus to Kadawatha, where we easily caught the express bus down to Galle.
This article may seem negative, but I’ve tried to tell the story in a light-hearted way, and I certainly don’t want it to put anyone off visiting Sri Lanka. Travel always has its ups and downs and oftentimes what may be a difficult situation at the time becomes a fond memory of defying the odds to overcome the obstacles life throws at us, and this was no exception. Sri Lanka is a wonderful country to visit, with friendly people, beautiful scenery, amazing nature (I saw wild mongeese!) and beautiful beaches. At no point did I ever feel that we were really danger (Liliya may disagree with this point!).
- Most bus services in Sri Lanka stop around 6-7pm, so try to travel before that time if possible.
- Do not travel on Sri Lankan Independence Day (4 Feb), it’s really not worth it. Stay in one place and enjoy the celebrations instead.
- Unless you’re following in the professional footsteps of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, avoid Nittambuwa – there’s nothing there (unless you’re a huge Addams Family fan). But if you do find yourself stuck there, look for Kinka Eco Villa, and definitely do not stay at the Hotel Camellia Rose or the Green Palace. Disclaimer: I am not associated with Kinka Eco Villa and did not receive a discount for writing this post.
- The express buses to Galle leave from Kadawatha until 8pm. With AC and no standing passengers, they are definitely the most comfortable way to reach Galle (and other southern coastal towns). They’re expensive by Sri Lankan standards, at 480 rupees (€2.40/$3) per person, compared to about half that for a train or normal bus, but they are much more comfortable and far quicker.