Good day one and all and welcome to my latest little project which is not actually so little. The header image is a bit of a spoiler I suppose as you have probably guessed that this series is all about my first trip to Sri Lanka which lasted a full three months, the longest visa I could get without taking up residency. It lasted from 08/01/2014 – 08/04/2014 and was my introduction to a country I have come to know a little and love a lot. Since then I have had two more three-month trips there and would have been in Greater Colombo now (January 2021) if not for this virus nonsense.
Regular readers will know that my last project was a very short trip to Madrid in late November 2013 and that took me ages to write up so this is likely to take as long to write up as it did to travel. They will also know that I was debating between several long trips in Canada, UK and Europe that I wished to include here so why this particular one?
Read on and all will be revealed.
Writing blog posts from scratch is extremely time consuming but fortunately I managed to save a lot of the content I wrote contemporaneously for the Virtual Tourist website. This will have the advantage of speeding the writing process and also being accurate and not relying on my increasingly failing memory, it is seven years ago after all.
I shall tidy these entries up and check the information to ensure it is current. As well as being a memory I wish to commit this to the technological equivalent of paper for my own benefit and hopefully that of the readers, I would like it to serve as some sort of travel resource. I shall also indicate where I am relying on this primary source material in the interest of accuracy.
This desire to impart what little travel knowledge I had was mainly the reason I got into travel writing what seems like half a lifetime ago now, although it is only about 23 or 24 years. Only, he says!
I started off on the Lonely Planet, Boots ‘n’ All and Travellerspoint websites, giving travel advice on places I had visited and specifically on London, which I know pretty well having lived here for 33 years now. I then heard about a site called Virtual Tourist and moved there which was literally to prove life-changing. VT was, and still is, a huge part of my life and a part of my decision to go to Sri Lanka in the first place.
I am in the habit, especially since retirement in 2009 of being something of a migratory bird and flying South for the Winter. I actually did it when I was still in eployment by working hard all over our summer when the married guys wanted time off and then taking a month off (the maximum I was allowed) in the Northern hemisphere Winter for a bit of Asian sun. It worked nicely for everyone.
By the time of this trip I had been to Thailand, Burma / Myanmar, Lao, Cambodia, India, Nepal (not particularly sunny!) and Malaysia and whilst I would have happily re-visited any of them I fancied something new. I am always looking for fresh places to explore. I had a particular friend on VT called Treshi, whi is Sri Lankan.
Like in my Madrid series (which you can read here if you like – plug!) where I gave my friend Siobhan that “nom de guerre” or more properly “nom de voyages” I suppose, my Sri Lankan friend is called Treshi. This is not her real name, although it is close, and she does not mind being identified but Treshi was her nickname on VT and it is what I call her both online and when I now go to stay with her.
During one of our many online conversations when I was debating where my next Asian port of call might be she suggested her home country and made a very good pitch of it. The Sri Lankan Tourist Board should put her on commission. It seemed as good a plan as any and so that was decided. Colombo, here I come.
Before I went I knew next to nothing about what they call “the teardrop of the Indian Ocean” and if you don’t know why just look at a map. I can assure you that I have shed no tears in the nine months or so of my life I have spent there. I have had “homes” I spent less time in.
I knew that Sri Lanka was formerly called Ceylon, had been part of the British Empire, grew very good tea and had a pretty useful cricket team and that was about it. I know a whole lot more now.
I deliberately did not do any research before travelling as I prefer to discover a country without preconceptions. This is coincidentally a discussion I had no more than a week ago with another dear VT friend called Sarah who is much more widely travelled than me, takes much better photos and writes beautifully. Plug #2 here, if you want to see how a travel blog should look then check out Sarah’s, which is here.
Sarah is terribly organised and researches her destination in detail whereas I just like to wing it. As I mentioned in my Madrid series I have been known to turn up at an airport with my kitbag and not a clue where I am staying that night or even how to get into town. This brings me to one of my many travel mantras which is that there is no right way to travel nor no wrong way, there is only the way that suits you.
Regular readers know that I am fond of quotations so if I may paraphrase a Levellers lyric here, “There’s only one way of travel (original lyric life) and that’s your own”, great song and equally wonderful sentiment. Whilst Sarah likes the enjoyment of anticipating what she is going to experience I usually just book a flight and go. I have been known to book a flight to Bangkok on a Friday afternoon and be sitting on the ‘plane on Monday morning.
Getting a flight and just going was not an option for Sri Lanka, there was paperwork to do. In common with so many former parts of the British Empire, bureaucracy is King. We have only ourselves to blame! It is much easier now, with everything done online, but in December 2013 it was a matter of physically going to the High Commission in Lancaster Gate in London. This was easily done on the Tube, just a few stops on the Central Line. Fill in a dozen forms, pay in cash as they bizarrely did not take cards, leave your passport and pick it up a couple of days later with a nice new Sri Lankan visa in it. One more for the collection.
After that it was online to look for a flight. I am a great fan of Emirates airlines and had used them with great results many times so they were definitely an option. However, I had been hearing good things about Qatar Airways both online and from personal recommendation from other travellers whose opinions I respect. As the prices were almost identical I opted for them, more out of curiosity than anything else. All set.
At this point I should give you an idea of how this series might work and note that I say might and not will! I don’t intend doing a separate post for every day as some days there will be very little to write about. Conversely, and far more probable given my tendency to volubility, there will be days that will take two or even three posts to get through. I did see and do quite a lot in Sri Lanka.
I have also abbreviated the name of the country in the titles to SL, which is what I refer to it as, or else the proper title would be XXXX – Sri Lanka, 2014 trip #XX or whatever and that would take up far too much room. I think that is all the logistics so let’s crack on.
8th January, 2014.
D (for Departure) Day was a cold, wet and fairly miserable Wednesday and I was not sorry to be getting out of it but to get out of it I had to overcome a constant problem of mine. I was flying form Heathrow and I always get there by Tube but I have to walk to the Tube station so what to wear?
There is no point in putting on a heavy jacket which you will then have to hump about for three months and never put on until you get home again. Ditto fleeces and anything warm as they will just take up room and give you more to carry. You can’t wear the lightweight kit you have for your trip or you’ll get pneumonia before you get to the airport, it is a conundrum.
I just put on several layers and a very lightweight rainjacket because I know what Asian monsoons are like. OK, a rain jacket is little use against such conditions but I carry one anyway for the lighter showers and even “light showers” in Asia are what we would call a downpour here.
TfL (the transport body in London) were for once being kind to me and I made LHR with no problems, was checked in quickly and efficiently, treated myself to a pint of cider as I guessed it was the last I would see for a while and then boarded. I was interested to see that the ‘plane was not in the predominantly purple Qatar livery that I was familiar with from many airports but rather a “one World” paint job with the Qatar logo only visible on the tailfin and a little Arabic writing above the much larger “One World” logo.
One World is an alliance (for which read multi-national cartel) of airlines including British Airways, American Airlines and Cathay Pacific. There are 13 airlines in the group, unlucky for some? Only the passengers.
Before boarding I even managed a smoke which is a bit unusual given the draconian restrictions on that particular pastime in the UK, stupid as the habit undoubtedly is. I do not know what the current situation is as I try to avoid LHR as much as possible but back then it depended what terminal you were departing from whether you got a last minute smoke or not. Thankfully T4 had an outside area so that was a bonus.
The flight to Doha, where I was connecting, was delayed on takeoff which worried me slightly as Qatar had given me a 55 minute transfer time which surprised me as I thought one hour minimum was industry standard but one of the cabin crew assured me there would be no problem and so it proved although it was a bit of a hustle through the airport which is why there are no images of it here.
I have to say that all the reports about Qatar were correct, they really are a class act. The “Arab” airlines all seem to be good and I suppose it is because they are effectively competing for the same market that they have to try hard to beat their local competition. I have nothing but good things to say about Emirates but, if forced into a choice, I think I would marginally favour Qatar but only by a whisker and notwithstanding what I am going to tell you about in the next post. All in good time. The grub was half decent, even in cattle class. Apparently what you can see was cumin beef and it must have been OK or I would have remembered.
Yes, it is a long flight which is never going to be fun but it was bearable. Qatar have a huge entertainment selection and I never fly without a good book. My biggest problem is that I am so tall I can rarely get comfortable on a flight. I think the best long haul flight I ever had was almost exactly 18 years to the day before this when I flew from Jakarta to Amsterdam with KLM. The flight was half empty and I managed to blag the entire centre section of a 3 / 4 / 3 configuration Jumbo where I slept like a baby.
I doubt I will ever be on a Jumbo again as most major airlines are mothballing / scrapping their fleets due to hugely decreased passenger number because of the virus. There is a ‘plane “graveyard” in the Nevada desert with dozens of perfectly serviceable Jumbos waiting to be broken up, it is sad.
I can, however, remember fondly my many trips on Jumbos. I know this particular is not a Jumbo but it got me half way to my destination where we arrived bang on time and there I was in Sri Lanka, Bandaranaike airport (CMB), to start my adventure in this new country. I think this is an appropriate place to break as I had a bit of an adventure before I had even left the building and it will keep until the next post..
If you want to find out all about that then you know what to do by now – stay tuned and spread the word.