I never thought much about Sri Lanka before this trip. It’s one of those countries that is usually off the radar – small, very far from anywhere I’ve lived, and rarely appearing in international news. When visitors come to this part of the world, they tend to be more drawn to Sri Lanka’s tourism famous neighbours. Nepal for the Himalayas, India for… India, and Maldives for paradise. Even I admit that had we not had the time and the intention of thoroughly traveling through Asia, we likely would have skipped Sri Lanka entirely. That, as we started discovering, would have been a real shame.
Kochi to Colombo via Chennai
Kochi was the last city we explored in India, thinking we would make our way south to Sri Lanka from there. With only a few more days left on our Indian visa, we looked into options for getting from southern India to Sri Lanka. Apparently there used to be a ferry service, and Google even shows a possible driving route partially via ferry (parts of northern Sri Lanka are surprisingly close to the southeastern tip of India). However, nowadays the only feasible means of entering Sri Lanka is via flights (such is a nature of going to most island countries).
Chennai turned out to be the biggest hub in India for cheap flights to Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. We had no original plans to go to east India, but we were flexible with the bonus of visiting Chennai, yet another different side to India. Of course, plans shifted entirely when we actually sat down to book tickets: catching last-minute tatkal night train tickets from Kochi to Colombo, then a last-minute flight from Chennai to Colombo. By this point I’m not even surprised by these sudden whiplashes in travel plans.
The most memorable part of leaving India was the flight out itself. A family with two young children sat in the row in front of us; the two children literally went the entire flight without buckling their seatbelts. During landing, a bunch of people were using their mobile devices. The flight attendant went frantic alternately asking the children to sit down and buckle up, while also insisting electronics to be turned off, both to no avail. It was chaotic, bordering on comedic. Just as it seemed everyone was finally following protocol, a loud ping from another incoming text message went off, and the kid in front of us stood up again. The foreigners that had been watching this whole time, including us, burst out in resigned laughter. As we touched down in Sri Lanka, we were reminded once again that sometimes in India, you just had to laugh your way through.
E-Visa and Entering Sri Lanka
For visits to Sri Lanka of less than two days, no visa is required. This is likely popular with tourists using Colombo as a transit point to the Maldives. However, an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) is required for visitors to Sri Lanka from most countries for more than two days. The online application was really straightforward. One page form and payment ($30 for 30 days) was made online by credit card. It took all of a few minutes. Then we immediately received confirmation emails. After the giant pain in the butt that was getting an Indian visa, this was an absolute gift. Thank you, Sri Lanka.
Getting through the rest of the airport was even less of a hassle. Online it said to have onwards tickets and proof of sufficient funds, but we weren’t asked for anything. Our ETAs were already in the system, and I have never been through immigration so quickly, not even going back home to Canada. I’m loving Sri Lanka already. Luggage claim was organized and spacious, and while we waited, free airport wifi allowed us to message our families that we had arrived safely. ATMs and multiple phone provider booths were set up in the arrivals hall. A nice lady at the information desk was happy to tell us exactly how to catch the local bus to Colombo.
After more than a month of struggling at every turn, this was too good to be true. It was like having all of our ducks lined up perfectly in a row to be shot down in rapid-fire succession. To top everything off with a bow, our first steps outside of the airport in Sri Lanka were greeted by a garden. Surely this path along lush plants cannot be part of an airport? By this point we were giddy and delirious with everything going so well. What a welcome. Sri Lanka was going to be the salvation we so desperately needed after India.
First Impressions of Sri Lanka
- I had always assumed Sri Lanka would be a smaller version of nearby India, with heavy historical Indian influence due to geographical proximity. I was completely wrong. Sri Lanka was much more laid-back and easygoing than the chaotic mess of India. An island nation filled with long stretches of coastal beaches with not so many people, why wouldn’t it be laid-back?
- The atmosphere may be laid-back, but Sri Lanka was modern and developed. Especially in Colombo, everything in general looked well put-together and of good quality. We’ve been on the road long enough now that I can already get a sense of how a place is and what standards it has, so to speak. There are never any big signals, but rather a combination of little marks here and there. It’s the difference between seeing something put together the way it was meant to be versus something haphazardly thrown together with minimal effort. You can just tell. Sri Lanka looked more put together than what we’ve seen in a while.
- People were very friendly. After the endless touting and lies in India, we’ve learned to trust no one. Sri Lanka will undoubtedly slowly rectify that situation. Being able to look someone in the eye, smile at them, and trust what they’re saying to a certain degree will already be a huge burden off my shoulders. I never knew until India how much effort it took and how much negativity is generated when I was constantly on guard, in doubt, suspicious, angry, arguing, only to have to anticipate a repeat.
- Sri Lanka was green and lush. Everywhere. Even in the midst of a man-made area, nature seemed to only be a few steps away. Being used to concrete cities and snowy weather, it was really noticeable that there were so many natural living things, always within reach. It really adds to the peaceful and laid-back atmosphere, not to mention the beauty and overall scenery.
- Everything in Sri Lanka also seemed more colourful and vibrant, as if someone increased the saturation levels just a little. It probably helped that the environment was mostly clean, instead of under a layer of dust or behind a cloud of smoke. People dressed in bright colours, bills were printed in rich hues (the purple 500 rupees was our favourite), colourful Buddhist flags flew everywhere. As we traveled through the country, the sights and wildlife only further substantiated this observation.
I have a feeling that Sri Lanka might just be that seemingly small treasure that turned out to be a goldmine.