“Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places one can visit close to India”
How many of us would think of choosing Sri Lanka as a holiday destination? Not many I am sure, frankly neither was I too keen on the place when somebody had suggested it a couple of years ago. In my defense, I expected it to be much like India and when you plan to travel to another country, you rather not feel at home. It does not make much of a vacation, especially when you want to get away from the routine city life.
However, I was going to be proved completely wrong. Few of my patients hail form Sri Lanka and they have been raving about the place but that was not the reason why I preferred it over the other famous South East Asian destinations. I was looking for adventure, last year it was para gliding and this year it was time for Scuba Diving. There are few PADI certified Scuba training institutes in India but the turn off is the less than clean water on our coastline. Thus Sri Lanka it was.
After landing in Colombo, the capital city, one is immediately surprised to notice how clean the Sri Lanka is. A special police force known as environmental Police ensures that perpetrators responsible for littering and dirtying the city area are put to task. Economy is weaker than India and 1 INR (Indian Rupee) is about 2.4 SLR (Sri Lankan Rupee) with denominations including notes of the value of Rs. 2000/- and Rs. 5000/-. Be aware that Indian currency is strictly banned in the country and you will not be able to exchange Indian Rupee at any official money exchanger, its best to carry American Dollar. However, I had no clue about this until I reached, luckily I got it done at a jewellery store, unofficially of course.
The Sri Lankan automobile market is dominated by the Japanese with certain areas giving a feel that you may be in Japan itself. It’s all Toyota, Mazda, Honda, Nissan and Mitsubishi with the Germans having an insignificant market share. Automobiles are really expensive in Sri Lanka, the Government imposes 300 percent duty on imported cars, with no local production happening, it’s easy money for the Government. The duty structure for Hybrid cars is much less and I did see lots of Toyota Prius and Honda Insight cars on the road. The Tata Nano costs almost INR 5.5 lakhs, which is way too expensive but people do have a taste for cars especially in big cities like Colombo.
Most of the cars are directly imported from Japan and vans are most popular of the lot. I had planned to rent a self driven car and drive around myself, it would give me much more freedom of movement and I would not have to depend on a cab. There are various car rental agencies in Colombo which give you an option of a self drive rented car. You are spoilt for choice as far as the vehicle is concerned, besides the Japanese menu, there are other options such as Germans luxury cars but they come at a price. I decided to go Indian and nothing better than taking India’s best selling car, the Maruti Suzuki Alto.
I had the option of three Alto variants, the original Japanese Alto (old model), the Alto LXi and the Alto K10. I chose the K10 as i wanted a little more power under the hood. I was given a white color, well maintained Alto K10, which had done 23,000 kms on the odometer. You can either apply for an International driving license in India or you have an option of applying for a Foreigner’s Driving License in Sri Lanka itself. Though I wanted to get an International license made from India, my work schedule left me no time to get it done.
I had a word with the car rental company and they agreed to help me get one in Colombo at SLR 2500 (official fees SLR 1000 + unofficial SLR 1500) and so it was done. Most car rental companies have agents in the RTO who ensure you get your license in a jiffy, but at a nominal price. It took barely an hour, they took a copy of my passport, my Indian driving license and there I was, all ready to go.
Since it was only two of us in the car, the luggage fit comfortably in the boot and on the rear seat. I fueled it up to the brim and set off. Petrol is much cheaper than it is in India. A litre of petrol costs SLR 149 while a liter of diesel costs SLR 120, which is equivalent to INR 62 and INR 50 for a liter of petrol and diesel respectively. My plan was to visit Galle, which happens to be about 125 kms from Colombo. There are two ways to get there, one is an expressway and the other is a coastal road which runs along the sea. I took the coastal road on the way to Galle and the view was certainly breathtaking. You will barely find any dividers on the road, instead painted on the road is a white line, double white line and dotted line.
Traffic rules are strict and offenders are not let off easily. You can’t even put a wheel on the double white line. Take a turn on this line and you will be caught, the single line allows you to turn and take a u-turn while overtaking, which is allowed on the dotted line only. In case you are caught for breaching the law, your license will be confiscated. You have to go to the nearest post office and pay the penalty and come back to the police station with the receipt to claim your license. Lengthy procedure for sure but it ensures that not many are found on the wrong side of the law. Cop cars do rounds to ensure law and order is maintained.
The drive to Galle was scenic and you cross Bentota on the way which is a hub for water sports in the country. There are loads of activities to be done in Sri Lanka besides water sports. Inspite of having beaches all around the island country, there are national forest reverses, hill stations such as Kandy, you name it and this small country has everything. Activities range from whale watching, visiting turtle hatcheries, treks, night wildlife safari, not to miss a visit to Pinewella elephant sanctuary.
The Dutch had established themselves in Galle and the Dutch influence is still present. The old Dutch Fort and the Lighthouse are few places to visit and they have a rich historical background. The Galle fort has a museum which has loads of interesting bits to see. Ceylon, as it was then called was ruled by the British. Later and when India got Independence, the British decided to pack up from Sri Lanka as well. There was no freedom struggle at all and the natives thank India as the reason for them getting Independence.
I was staying a little further down Galle in a place called Unawatuna. The hotel was right at the beach with a breathtaking view of the sea. The Sri Lankan Government encourages foreigners to buy property and start business to boost the economy, hence you will find tons of Europeans who have settled down and started restaurants.
Most areas around Galle have a typical European feel to it as most of the restaurants are owned by them. The food is pretty authentic with a wide variety to choose from. To keep the flavor alive, they even use clay baked ovens to make Pizzas and the taste is simply lip smacking.
Besides relaxing by the sea, we took to Scuba diving. The PADI certified institutes ensure they give you a proper and safe experience. It sounds scary at first but once you are there the excitement only grows. After a brief video session, they train you on the equipment, about an hour later once you know the basics, they take you to the water. The key is to breathe continuously, if you hold your breath, your lungs can actually explode due to the pressure. It takes a bit of practice before you can confidently go to the next step. After practicing at the shore, you go into the sea only for half a kilometer from the shore and believe me, its like watching Discovery HD live in front of you. The aquatic life is so colorful and vibrant. If you pass this step, they take you to the sea for a dive upto 12 – 18 meters. You should avoid flying for atleast 18 hours after the dive to prevent decompression sickness.
The entire week passed like lightening and it was time to head back to the grind. The Alto K10 did 500 kms and returned a mileage of 15.56 km/l over the entire 5 days, which is pretty impressive. The built quality was average and I did hear a few rattles and creeks occasionally. The fan sounds like an ATR taking off on full song but despite these few flaws, the Alto K10 was a reliable companion. I hit the expressway on the way back, smooth well surfaced tarmac and a speed limit of 100 km/hr ensured that I reached Colombo in just less than one and a half hour. What I take back from this experience is that a small country, which has been at war for all but the last three years has managed to do so well in most departments. Yes, there is corruption there too, but some how it has achieved so much more than what we have as a larger country.