Technically you first arrive in Sri Lanka when you enter its airspace so lets start from there.
There have been two recent changes that are of importance to you. Firstly the Sri Lankan Immigration Department ( SLID ) has broken from the international pack and now ask you to fill out an abbreviated landing card. You are not asked to fill out those annoying questions any more like .. date passport was issued, when it expires, where it was issued ..etc .
All you really need to know is your name and the passport number. This can cause some people difficulty especially if they have partaken in one too many of the free in flight beers.
In the past, reaching far down into the front of your pants and fumbling with a money belt zipper trying to get at your passport has caused many female passengers some extreme emotional distress so I guess this is a good idea. Since most passports are now embedded with microchips holding all your personal information, the days of the landing card are nearly over.
Second important thing and that is the Sri Lankan health department has decided to copy the Australian idea of spraying pesticides in the plane just before it lands. This has always alarmed me as I don’t like the idea of being in an enclosed space and being forced to breath in bug killer.
They will tell you that it is 100% safe and harmless but the bugs I am sure would have something different to say ( assuming you can find one that can speak and is still alive ).
It is not like you can just step outside so I advise you to bring a face mask if you have allergies to this type of thing. It is a good to have one with you anyway just in case you get stuck beside a cougher or sneezer for your 5 hour plane ride.
These cheap washable cotton masks also come in handy for long bus trips when your fellow passengers have forgotten to put on deodorant or wash their armpits for the last 5 years or decide to pass gas. Sadly this is all too common when you take local transportation in Sri Lanka and extremely likely if you end up sitting beside me especially if I have just come off an 18 hour plane trip.
You will most likely arrive at the airport really late at night or some real ungodly early hour in the morning. The main International Airport in Colombo has just been rebuilt and is about 20 miles North of Colombo City and within a short but expensive taxi ride to the beach resort town of Negombo
I have been coming here for years and still have not mastered the prounouncation of the airports name so I get by on just “ Bandara @%#@^#@# “ International Airport. Since at present it is the only international airport in Colombo you are not likely to get lost. Just mutter the first piece of the name and cough at the same time and you should get by.
This Airport has been extensivally rebuilt in the last couple of years mostly thanks to everyone’s tsunami donations and as of June 2009 it is still a work in progress, it’s certainly impressive considering most other airports in the region.
Just after you get off your flight you have one last option to buy some duty free. The duty free shop sells the usual alcohol and cigarettes but also a great selection of Australian made Cadburys chocolate. Most Sri Lankans have a sweet tooth and if you have people to visit then a packet of chocolates is a very welcome gift. Keep in mind that once outside the airport they will start to melt rapidly and since its extremely impolite to give someone a gift that is damaged you are best to start consuming the chocolates immediately after purchase and just tell your friends that the presents that you had for them were mislaid by the airline. Wipe your mouth first before you tell this lie.
While the Foreigners are busy buying food and drink items the smarter Sri Lankans are stocking up on flat screen televisions and fridges. Its quite funny to see them wheeling these huge boxes towards Customs in the misguided hope that they will not stop them and hit them up for some money.
Just around the corner is always friendly Sri Lankan Immigration. You are greeted with a smile and treated with the respect all tourists should be given when they visit a country to spend money. If you have ever had the misfortune to visit the USA and had to experience what they put you through there then you will see what I mean. You are not made feel like a criminal and not subjected to rude questions from some goon who is standing 3 feet above you to intimidate you. Most tourists get a 1 month on arrival but its best to check with your local Sri Lankan Embassy first before you fly.
Next its time to go through Customs and these guys are all dressed in white. The good guys in movies usually wear white but then its too hot in the Tropics to wear black.
No matter what you have in your bags you always feel guilty walking through customs anywhere in the world. You try not to make eye contact with them and then you change tactics and then make eye contact with them because people who don’t make eye contact are usually guilty of something.
Your leg is still asleep from the long plane trip so you are still walking with a slight awkward limp and fearing that the Customs will think that this is because you have a kilo of something up your …. I mean in your rectal cavity.
Customs is divided into 3 sections now at the airport in Colombo. To miss quote George Orwell “ all passangers are guilty but some are more guilty and easier to fine than others “.
You have the standard Red Channel that only insane, drunk or colour blind people would wander through. If they don’t find anything in your bags then you should at the very least be fined for stupidity.
Next option is interesting and unique to Colombo Airport. The Green channel is divided into 2 lanes. There is the Sri Lankan passport holders lane and then the Foreign passport holders lane.
The Sri Lankan passport holders lane is where all the action is. Most of the Customs staff are buzzing around there as its easy pickings to get some sort of fine out of the locals. They have 3 drive-thru industrial sized x-ray machines there all sporting the Made in China logo on them. These things are huge and look way out of place here in Sri Lanka and they quite possibly were destined for the Airport in Bogata Colombia and ended up in Colombo instead.
Who knows but if you have gonads then you should try to cover them as you pass by.
The Foreigner passport holders lane was not staffed when I went through this time possibly because some local guy just came from Duty Free wheeling a fridge, a stove , washing machine and quite possibly a kitchen sink so all the Staff were positioned elsewhere waiting for the kill.
Word of warning : Sri Lanka carries the death penalty for drug smuggling. Some may find this a tad harsh but, well lets be honest here, I would prefer to be hung than have to spend 20 years eating rice and curry 3 times a day in prison.
If you are coming from India then be sure to check all your pockets just in case you might have forgotten something.
Upon leaving the Customs and Immigration area you will be greeted by the sound of screaming men all hanging out of their small box like Banks and wanting to change your money. The rates are all about the same for Cash and Travellers Checks. Just change what you need to get you where you have to go as the rate sucks. About 100 USD should get you by for a few days.
Make sure you get some small notes as some people will not be able to give you change for the big notes. There is now a 2000 Rupee note but its best to avoid it as many shops will not be able to give you change for it and if they do it will be a bundle of the nastiest dirtiest money you have ever seen or smelt. . Keep your currency exchange certificate as you will require it if you want to chance your money back when you leave.
The Arrivals area like the rest of Colombo Airport has been rebuilt and its now a more organized place to get your thoughts together before venturing out of the Airport. There is a new Tourist Information booth with seats, brochures and maps, a far cry from what they had before. The guy working there seems helpful enough and I didn’t catch him sleeping on the job yet so if you do, send me a photo and I will stick it on here. When you depart Colombo Airport you will find most people in the shops there asleep or resting their eyes. It must be the easiest place in the world to shoplift. Sleeping on the job is a national pastime in this country and quite socially acceptable.
My Twisted Competition 2010
I will willingly post any photos you send me of the Tourist Information guy in the airport sleeping, people in the shops at the airport sleeping or any bus driver sleeping while actually driving the bus. In fact, I will have a competition and the person who sends me the most “ Sleeping on the job in the Airport “ fotos will win something, I don’t know yet. Perhaps something wooden if you are from Australia or if you are from Europe, some fresh flowers or fresh fruit. I will think of something.
I know this Airport well so do not try and cheat me by sending me fotos of some airport in Africa or Mexico. DO NOT take any fotos of the Security Areas, checkpoints, soldiers or police unless you want your holiday extended by 10 years, just the run of the mill regular sales staff.
These Sri Lankan Koalas are easier to spot than the native Australian variety because they make it so obvious and sadly for them there are no eucalyptus trees growing in the Airport for them to climb up into and hide. I also need a foto of the arrivals hall when the mob of taxi drivers, van drivers and guides start to descend on you as you leave the sanctity of the money changing area. Its like a dusty heard of wilderbeast all rushing towards you with their business cards at the ready.
If you are desperate for information about anything you are better off asking a local who is also arriving. As in the rest of Asia, asking the same question to multiple people will always get you a different answer. Avoid asking questions where the answer would be a Yes or No.
If you need to buy a SIM card then there are 2 companies offering them in the arrivals hall. Dialog GSM will get you set up for 1300 Rupees ( 11 USD ) and they will include a 1000 Rupee credit. The other company is Mobitel but I didn’t get a price from them though it must be similar.
There is also a company offering van rentals and drivers. I am sure that they are not cheap as there are rarely any transportation bargains anywhere near an airport.
A smart thing to do at this stage is remove the airline baggage tags from you luggage because you do not want to look like you just arrived when you get into the city. Well that’s unless you like to pay 200% more for everything.
It is common for people to book accommodation in advance in Negombo and then on arrival take a Taxi there. In the middle of the night it is hard to find an honest Taxi driver who will be willing to take you there for less than an arm and a leg and whatever other body part he can get. Some of the hotels will pick you up by prior arrangement. There is an Airport hotel close by.
Before you leave the Colombo International Airport take one last deep breath and savour the cool air-conditioning as it’s the last time you will have that luxury for a while. Gather your belongings, double check that every zipper is zipped and that you remembered to take your passport back from the currency exchange booth and be prepared to be bombarded with offers for taxies or minibus tours to wherever you want.
According to the taxi drivers at Colombo Airport the city is closed, snowed under or Godzilla has just run amok there .These guys are known for their tall tales and will do anything to persuade you to stay at their brothers Guest House up the road or even try and drive you directly to Mirissa taking a short cut via every village on the island.
Taxi drivers in Colombo are NO different than taxi drivers at any International Airport in the world . BEWARE of these guys and just use your common sense at to wheather to believe them or not
If you are budget conscious, jet lagged or creeped out by the guy in flip flops and a skirt who wants to drive you into a strange city at 2am and you just want to hit the beach with the minimum of hassle, then the following is an easiest and fastest way to get to Mirissa Beach or in fact anywhere on the South Coast of Sri Lanka.
Walk out the front door of the Airport Arrivals building and take a left. Parked in the shadows about 100 meters down the platform is a beat up red coloured bus with the wording CTB on the side. This is the local Government run bus and it will take you the 2km up to the next junction where there is a bus station. This is a FREE shuttle bus and it’s the only free thing you will get anywhere in the country. These buses seem to run 24 hours a day or when they have enough passengers.
The ride takes about 10 minutes and I would not suggest going up to the bus station before dawn if you are a single female traveler or someone who has not been to Asia before. The bus station is a little on the scary side as its dimly lit and usually there is no one about except for a few people just hanging around. Since the Airport is in a high security zone you are pretty safe but its easy for first timers to get spooked. There are a few tea shops that were open at 1am when I passed through and the people there were all military guys.
Your first impression of this bus station is that you have been dropped in a scrap yard but you are wrong there, welcome to privately and publicly run transportation in Sri Lanka.
It is here that you will get the # 187 Bus that will take you into the heart of Colombo city and to the Pettah Bus Station. The Fort Train Station is just up the road from the Pettah Bus Station.
The infamous # 187 bus looks like it was a gift from the Koreans, the North Koreans that is. It can just about be classified as a vehicle and in most cases it has 4 wheels and if you are lucky glass in the windows. A shitbox would be the best and most polite way to describe it.
The trip into Colombo City takes just under an hour and as I said the bus will stop at the Pettah Bus Terminal / Stand. The price was just under 100 rupees but if you have baggage they will charge you for another seat as they have no place to put it. It is better this way because at least you can keep an eye on it.
If you are traveling with a surfboard then you need to do some serious haggling.
Before getting off the bus ask the driver where the Bus halt to Matara is or where is the Fort Train Station. The Matara bus stand is up the top of the Station on your left. Just say Matara to anyone and they will point out where the bus is.
Mirissa Beach is about 30 minutes before Matara town. The Train Station is just another 150 meters past the bus stop.
Welcome to crazy Colombo. You will not hear the sweet sounds of the ocean just yet, just horns blaring , people shouting , the smell of diesel and signs with strange squiggly writing . With a little bit of patience you should be either on a bus or train shortly and then in a few hours you will be exposing your pale body parts to the sun.
If you are in Colombo before 3 am try and hang out there a bit because most Guest Houses in Mirissa Beach will not open till after 7 am and its about a 4 hour ride away.
Plonk yourself down in one of the many small food shops on the right of the station and start trying some real Sri Lankan food. A nice hot cup of tea will also refresh you.
Do not attempt to get within 100 meters of the toilets in this bus station. You are better to risk serious internal injury from a burst bladder than have to endure this nightmare. In fact pissing yourself is the best choice as no one would really notice the smell anyway. I say again, to avoid permanent emotional trauma and possibly lung damage and nasal bleeding, DO NOT venture anywhere near the toilets in Pettah bus station. It has been 87 years since they were last cleaned and water was disconnected to them over 65 years ago. The concentrated piss on the floors will eat its way through your shoes and attach its self to your clothing leaving you no option but to burn everything.
You will have a few choices with what type of bus you can get, the BIG buses are slow and cheap and will stop every few hundred feet to let people on and off. The small mini-buses with the Japanese or Korean writing on them are air-conditioned and extremely fast .Both have limited space for luggage and the mini buses will charge you for a second seat if you want your luggage beside you . The larger buses are never full until 3 people are sharing the seat with the driver and the hot humid air inside the bus gets pretty rank as the day heats up.
If you end up taking the Intercity A/C Minibuses then sit in the aisle seat and put the bags beside the window, firstly because it gets hot there and secondly because it is safer. It is not unknown for these buses to crash. The drivers on this Southern road are maniacs but you will never forget the experience.
The price for the bus is sometimes posted in the window , if you are not sure ask before you board and again the ticket should show the correct price . Watch and see what the others are paying . Even though you will be getting off in Mirissa you will have to pay the fare to Matara . As ofJune 2009 the price was 300 Rupees to Mirissa from Colombo. Prices go up a lot these days in line with the cost of diesel.
Do not get a bus to Galle as you will have to change there and that in itself is a nightmare. The buses leave Colombo every 15 minutes or when full. If you are being offered a shitty seat like the back seat or the middle fold down seat, just wait for the next bus behind to pull up.
The trip is slightly under 4 hours , you might be able to grab some sleep as you are curled up in the fetal position listening to the horns blowing and the Ticket guy hanging out the door screaming “ Marraaaaa Marraaaa “ or something like that .
Here is a clip of Russell Peters on You Tube taking the piss out of how fast the Sri Lankans speak. I never realized it until I saw this clip. It is hilarious because he hits the nail right on the head.
Watch it and get back here afterwards, you can see the rest of him later
Tell the driver and Ticket guy you want to get off in Mirissa ( Mear-issa ) otherwise you will find yourself in Matara . There are 2 places the bus stops in Mirissa, the first is the area close to the fishing port and the second is where all the guest houses and the beach are.
There is nowhere to stay close to the fishing port so tell them that you want to get off at Udupila ( Ou-Doo-Pee-La ) Junction. This is a small intersection with some shops across the road from the Ocean Moon Guest House.
Mirissa appears quickly after the town of Welligama ( also the closest Train Station ) . Its 5 minutes away if the Driver is doing 85 mph. You do not see the beach until you are passing it. Keep your eyes open and if either the Driver or the Ticket guy are asleep, prod them with a stick and make sure they know where you want to get off.
Don’t forget your change : When you pay for your ticket with a larger note the ticket guy rarely has the correct change to give you back so he will write the amount he owes you on the back of your ticket. When you are leaving hand him the ticket and get your money. In your jetlagged haze its real easy to forget and they do not go out of their way to remind you especially if you look as if you are just off the plane.
See, by telling you to remove your airline baggage labels before you leave the airport I already possibly have saved you money.
If you manage to find yourself at the Bus Station just up from the Airport at around 04.00 am you hopefully should see the Matara Airport Express. It leaves anywhere from 04.30 – 05.00 and it goes directly to Mirissa stopping only briefly in Colombo. No need to change buses. This bus will also take you to Galle, Unawatuna and Hikkidua. It’s a large non A/C bus but it has the additional benefit of having luggage space underneath it if you have a surfboard.
This same bus leaves Matara Bus Station at about 1.45 pm and goes to the Airport.
Only get this bus if you can get it from Matara Bus Station because it will be full by the time it reaches Mirissa.
Contact telephone for the company is : 060-241-8430 and 077-307-8256 , not sure if anyone can speak English though so have a local call for you and find out if the bus is still running before you make the trip to the junction or Matara.
If you get your timing right then this a great option.
The Train to Welligama ( pronounced Velly-gamma )
Welligama is the closest train station to Mirissa Beach. Its about a 12 minute Tuk Tuk ride away. You can also catch a bus from there as well. All buses heading to Matara go through Mirissa.
The Fort Train Station is just up the road from the Pettah Bus Station . Departure times vary but there are some trains leaving early morning .The advantages to the train are that you have a lot more room than on a minibus and that you can at least move about . It is much slower, if fact dramatically slower than taking the bus it is far safer.
You will find that first class is always full so you will be stuck in second classes with the masses. You should be early enough arriving at the Station to at least get a seat and space for your luggage. It is cheaper to travel by train because you will only have to buy one ticket.
Buy the ticket to Matara and get off the train at Welligama which is the closest Station to Mirissa or if you miss the stop then take the train Matara which is the last stop and then travel back by bus for 30 minutes to Mirissa Beach. The difference in the fair is minimal but its handy to have the ticket to Matara just in case.
In Matara. the bus tends to be extremely crowded and the bus station is about a 15 minute walk from the Train Station.
Come out of the Railway Station and walk down to the end of the road past Commercial Bank on your left to the main street. You need to grab a bus going right as that is the direction of Mirissa. Even I have to walk to the actual Bus Station because I still cannot fathom out what bus goes where as I cannot read squiggley.
The trip in general down the coast by both Train and Bus gives you a chance to preview the beautiful beaches and tempting blue / green ocean which, in an a few hours or so you should be swimming in.
Sometimes a local train will stop at Mirissa Train Station but you are much better off going to Matara or Welligama as the local train station is a few miles from the beach and not serviced by any tuk tuks.
How big is your ass ?
Sri Lankans are smallish people and are not in possession of large Western sized asses ( yet ). This will change soon as the kids there are becoming fast food junkies. The Sri Lankans also are not as tall as the average Northern European. The majority of the buses here are donated or bought second, third, fourth hand from Korea and Japan and those countries as well are not noted for big assed tall people.
Point I am trying to make is, if you are 400Lbs / 200 kg , very tall or have kids , then take the train as it is a lot more comfortable. Legroom is a luxury in Sri Lanka unless you are prepared to pay for 2 seats.
However, if you are still in denial about being overweight ( like me ) , you can buy two bus tickets and plonk yourself in the middle of both seats. This works well on the small a/c intercity buses but if you are on a regular bus you are guaranteed that some 94 year old Grandma who is standing will be giving you a lost puppy dog look and eventually you will give in and let her sit beside you or on your knee.
While I am on the subject of knees and seat sharing, be prepared to get handed a child to look after if the bus is full and you have a little extra room. Small kids always get passed down the bus and then dumped on the knee of some unsuspecting tourist who becomes a babysitter for a few miles. These kids never cry or piss on you and are quite happy to sit on your lap. I cant promise you the same about Grandma though.
If you are travelling by bus then you will need to find and take the # 187 bus from Pettah Bus Station. It is usually parked at the back of the station, the opposite end to where the Train Station is and it is close to the markets and fruit shops. This bus has a sign saying AC in the front window, don’t get all excited and assume that this means Air Conditioning when it fact the AC is an abbreviation for “Absolute Crap” and it a reference to the interior of the bus. Mildew decorates the ceiling and to create a tropical ambience there is always some water dripping on you from somewhere.
Here is the scam with this bus. You might have the impression that I hate these guys, well you would be wrong. I really hate them as over the years they have pissed me off, cheated me and lied to me more times than I care to remember. But, it’s the only bus to the Airport so I will do my venting here.
The bus will depart on time ( !!!!! ) from the Station , will drive a few blocks and then stop across the road from the train station around where the footbridge is for 30 minutes while it fills up with passengers. If you are tight for time I suggest you get the bus here as you will have less of a wait. The fare last time I took it was 70 Rupees and this of course will go up so bank on it being just under 100.
They say the bus goes to the Airport but it in fact goes to the junction about 2km before the Airport. Get out there and walk about 100 meters across the road and there are FREE white coloured shuttle buses that will take you the rest of the way. This is a security checkpoint so its possible that your bags could be searched here before you are allowed closer to the Airport.
The new gleaming airport has just been finished but they have managed to keep the same old antique X-Ray machines at the security checkpoint when you first enter the Airport building. You will be required to present your Passport and Ticket before you enter the building. Anyway, the X-Ray mackines are huge and just slightly smaller than the new ones in the Arrivals hall and originally came from Germany around 1906. They are big enough to drive a mini cooper through ( slight exaggeration ) and the have the words “Film Safe” painted on them with whiteout / Tippex.
Keep your film well away from them, get it hand inspected and if you are planning to have a family in the future, cover your genitals as you pass by them.
It would not surprise me if the staff used them to heat up their rice and curry lunch when things got slow.
The new departure lounge now has its own CARGILLS where you can stock up on last minute goodies like Sri Lankan Tea , Sri Lankan Jam , Sri Lankan Chocolate , Sri Lankan Biscuits and the usual other things you will find in one of there shops .
Amazing to report that the prices are EXACTLY the same as they are outside the Airport. Some one really screwed up here and they will eventually cop on and double the price like any other Airport. Unless you can put the jams, liquids and whatever else could be a weapon in your check in bag, do not bother buying them as they will be taken off you by malnourished security officers whose only food for years now has been strawberry jam and the off banana and all washed down with a half consumed bottle of dangerous drinking water.
It’s a good place to finally get rid of those dirty, mouldy smelling old bank notes you have as you could not possibly give them to anyone back home as a gift.
Lots of New Coffee Shops , expensive snack restaurants and tacky souvineer shops selling the same crap you had no interest in buying when you were anywhere else in Sri Lanka . Difference is that the prices are double you would pay outside the Airport so buy before you fly.
The seats are new but the bad news is that they are in sets of 3 with fixed armrests so its impossible to lie down along them. The floor is a better and more comfortable option if you need to sleep. It is spotless and clean because there are ladies with large 2 meter wide mop dusters just pushing them around all night. These ladies work like Drones and walk back and forward and back and forward and back and forward . If you cant find any sheep to count, then just watch them for 10 minutes.
After Check-In and Immigration you enter the main part of the New Airport. Nothing exciting about this place but there are a few interesting shops that are quite good value. The clothes shop ODEL has an outlet in here and the large selection of T-Shirts are all about $ 8.00 and make great last minute gifts. There are of course the usual selection of shops selling TEA and shops selling electrical appliances if you have enough room in your carry on luggage for a fridge.
If you still have your “wake up the bus driver stick” with you and want to buy a lottery ticket to win a BMW , then give the lady in the booth a poke with it and wake her up.
The DUTY FREE carries the same stuff you would find in any Airport in the world . 200 Marlborogh were just over $ 12.00 . They also have a large selection of Cadburys Chocolate from Australia . In Sri Lanka, stay away from any Cadburys with a bar code starting with the numbers 95 as its Indian made and it has a chalky texture and tastes like ass.
We managed to haggle some sort of a discount off out goodie purchase because we had a large rat run over our feet. Again the stick comes in handy as a rat beating device.
Hey, don’t forget the competition, info is above in RED.