Welcome to another exciting edition of Hello from… This week we join Denise Winston, who recently visited Sri Lanka for the first time.
1| So this is your first trip to Sri Lanka… What where you looking forward to the most when you set off on your trip? At first, I was planning on doing everything during this short, four-day trip- seeing elephants, going to a tea plantation, shopping, visiting temples and churches and going to the movies, too. I’d purchased a Lonely Planet book on Sri Lanka and the whole nine. But, as the holiday came nearer and nearer all I really wanted to do was chill in a luxurious atmosphere. In Ha’il, the city where I live in Saudi Arabia, there is a distinct lack of luxury. There are salons but they aren’t necessarily good ones and a full service spa is non-existent. Larger cities in Saudi have these amenities but not Ha’il. So, as un-Nat Geo Travel as this may sound, all I wanted to do was relax, see the beach, go to the spa several times, eat some good seafood and possibly shop and sightsee.
2| What was the first thing you did upon arrival? The first thing I did upon arrival in Colombo was exchange money. One of the coolest details about the trip was that I got to see US dollars! I know it seems like such a small thing but after not seeing my home currency for almost a year it was a treat. There was a layover in Dubai and I exchanged Saudi Riyals for USD there, which in turn gave a better rate when I exchanged the cash for Sri Lankan Rupees in Colombo. 1 US dollar was roughly 144 LKR at the rate of exchange during the trip so after exchanging my dollars for rupees I felt like the richest woman on earth!
3| Where did you stay and would you recommend it to others? Sri Lanka is a favorite travel destination from Saudi because the trip is very affordable. So, I’d heard a hotel suggestion from a few other teachers who really enjoyed their trip and my friend (who traveled with me) and I decided to take their advice. We stayed at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. It was a bit pricey but completely worth it. The Mount Lavinia is an old colonial style hotel with a rich history that has been there since 1806. The rooms, service, food and spa were all top notch. Other travelers at the hotel were also courteous. The pool was much smaller than the picture online but everything else was up to par. I would very much recommend that others stay at this hotel when visiting Colombo, particularly if they’re going to relax.
4| Did you try any of the Sri Lankan Cuisine? How did you like it? The hotel offered a variety of seafood, Indian, and English style cuisine. Sri Lanka is famous for fresh seafood. I tried to have as much seafood as possible during my stay. I had crab fritters that were spiced with an abundance of chilies, a practice Sri Lanka is also notorious for. Though they were delicious I had to eat them with some form of dairy so that my tongue wouldn’t fall out. The food was excellent, but if you visit and encounter an overly spicy dish remember that water is NOT your friend. Rather drink milk or eat plain yogurt to calm your palate. Also, another quick word of advice, unless you are actually from the place you are visiting I wouldn’t recommend eating from the various street vendors and corner shops. Though they offer local fare sure to give an authentic taste of the region, I would encourage you to dine at your hotel or other well-rated larger restaurants. Wicked digestive infections are easily contracted in these locales. The types of infections that make you crave a common stomach bug. Drink only bottled water that comes to you seal in tact and be adventurous in activities, not eating.
5| What was the most exciting thing you did during your trip? The most exciting thing I did during my trip was visit a Buddhist Temple. I’ve wanted to see one since my last trip to India, during which time I didn’t get the opportunity to go. I’ve included some pictures of the large temple we visited in the heart of Colombo. What intrigued me most about it was that though most devotees are poor there were plates and altars full of monetary offerings. This was something I noticed in the temple but also throughout the town, in businesses and even along the road. It seemed a common practice to give offerings. The temple had rooms full of gifts people had left to the temple or given throughout the years. These gifts ranged from trinkets to precious jewels to pricey antique electronics to cars and gold, silver and copper. There were even gifts from royalty. Our driver was a wonderful guide explaining the different practices and sections of the temple. I was also able to meet a super friendly monk.
6| Any funny travel stories to share about your trip? I wouldn’t call what I’m about to share funny, but it was quite interesting. First, my friend that traveled with me is Muslim so during the trip she wore her headscarf. On the plane from Dubai to Colombo in particular, it was evident that some other passengers (mostly from Eastern Europe- the whole plane was literally Eastern Europeans, my Muslim friend, and me) were a bit uncomfortable seeing her attire, even though she was half sleep and completely non-threatening. She is very well traveled and as such was immune to the stares, but I it was something I took note of. I also noted to her later in conversation that if I hadn’t had the experience of living in Saudi Arabia, especially in the conservative town of Ha’il, I would probably have looked at her funny too. I’m glad seeing someone in hijab doesn’t alarm me. Especially because statistically, most terroristic criminal acts have not been committed by someone who “looked the part.”
Second, outside of the locals there wasn’t much diversity among the other travelers to the island. While this has never been a problem for me in the past, or something I would even pay attention to, on this trip I found myself acutely aware of being in the minority, particularly after receiving some not so inviting looks and blatant why-the-hell-are-you-here-stare downs. This didn’t make me think less of my trip, but it was an experience worthy of a few lines, nonetheless.
7| What is your favorite thing about traveling? My favorite thing about traveling is getting to see places I’ve seen in movies. The first place I ever wanted to visit was India because I saw the movie City of Joy when I was in the 10th grade. I’ll see a place on television or in a movie and I’ll want to visit. One benefit of being in the Middle East is that travel to almost anywhere on the planet, with the exception of the US, is comparably cheap. So, while I’m here I want to see as much of the world as possible. When I finally do come back to the states I’ll still have a travel bucket list, it’ll just have a lot more destinations ticked off.
8| Least favorite? My least favorite thing about traveling is being seen as a retail target for being American. One of the great things about being in this part of the world is that if I don’t talk, no one knows where I’m actually from. If I speak then I’ll get the classic broken English question, “Where from?” In Saudi they love that I’m American and will welcome me and mention their favorite American celebrities. But in other spaces when my nationality is revealed I’m expected to buy out the store. So, when I’m anywhere outside of the Kingdom I say I’m from Saudi and I’m left in peace, for the most part. Sometimes people just spot me as a foreigner and stay in my face until I purchase something. This only needed to happen once before I learned to stand firm and only buy what I actually wanted in spite of the vehement supplications of the vendors.
9| Where do you plan to go for next trip? I am excited to report that I have an EPIC summer of travel planned. I’ll be going to Ireland, India, and South Africa! I’ve never had a break this long since before I started working and these are all destinations I’ve had the desire to visit, or in the case of India, visit again. I will be glad to share stories and pictures from all my adventures. Thanks for the opportunity to tell about Sri Lanka!
Looking forward to hearing about your upcoming trip, Denise!