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Sri Lanka - Travel and visas
Entry into Sri Lanka has been streamlined for the cyber age. Whatever your nationality you can now get an Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) online that guarantees you an entry permit as a tourist for 30 days upon arrival. The details and the current cost (payable online by credit card) are available on the website www.eta.gov.lk. An ETA is required by every visitor, except those holding Singaporean or Maldivian passports, or those who are in transit. If you haven’t got an ETA (it’s a document you must download and print to show at the immigration counter) then you will have to join a tiresome queue at a special desk upon arrival to pay your fee and get one there. At the immigration desk, a sticker will be placed in your passport showing until what date you are allowed to remain in Sri Lanka.
If you intend to stay longer than 30 days it helps to have obtained a visa for the required period from a Sri Lankan consulate abroad before arriving. However, extensions up to 90 days from the date of arrival are possible upon application in Colombo. If you are visiting on business then a visa is required from the Sri Lanka mission in your home country.
Colombo airport (CMB) is served by various airlines from Europe, the Middle and Far East, and India. The major carriers are SriLankan (UL – the only one with non-stop flights from London), BA (via Maldives), Emirates (EK – with aircraft change in Dubai). Other airlines with scheduled flights include Aeroflot (SU), Air Arabia (G9), Air Asia (AK), Air India Express (IX), Air Italy (I9), Air Italy Polska (AEI), Air Sahara (S2), Austrian (OS), Cathay Pacific (CX), China Eastern Airlines (MU), Condor (DE), Eurocypria (ECA), Erofly (GJ), Etihad (EY), First Choice Air (TOM), Fly Dubai (FZ), Gulf Air (GF), Indian (IC), Iran Air (IR), Jet (9W), Jet Lite (S2), Kingfisher (IT), Kuwait (KU), LTU (LT), Malaysian (MH), Martin Air (MP), Mihin Lanka (MJ) (see below), Oman (WY), Qatar (QR), Royal Jordanian (RJ), Saudi Arabian (SV), Singapore (SQ), Spice Jet (SG), State Transport Co Russia (FV), Thai (TG) and Turkish (TK).
To Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (HRI) there are time flights by Fly Dubai (from Dubai) and SriLankan (from Riyadh, Bangkok & Male).
The national carrier is SriLankan Airlines, descended from Air Ceylon, which became Air Lanka in 1979. A new name was introduced in 1999 after the management was taken over by Emirates Airlines of Dubai on an agreement which expired in March 2008. Then it became wholly Sri Lankan managed. It has an all-Airbus fleet with direct services to London, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt and Moscow; Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Canton, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo; Kuwait, Damman, Riyadh, Jeddah, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Muscat and Dubai; Malé (Maldives), and a network linking Colombo with cities in India, including Bangalore, Chennai (Madras), Delhi, Kochi (Cochin), Trichy, Trivandrum, Mumbai (Bombay) and Karachi. The planes are comfortable with each seat having individual in-flight movie screens and controls, including a telephone. Business class (there is no first) has reclining seats in a 2x2x2 layout, which means it is more spacious than its former partner airline, Emirates, whose business class is 2x3x2. The cabin crew are all Sri Lankan and passengers are greeted on boarding with the traditional ayubowan (‘may you have long life’). If you have a chance to talk with the crew you will surely enjoy the flight since they are great ambassadors for their country.
Going to Sri Lanka by sea is almost impossible. There is no ferry service from India, and no regular sailings by passenger ships from anywhere. However, sometimes cruise liners of the Silverseas and Seabourn lines drop in for the day and it might be possible to cruise on them and disembark in Colombo. Disembarking at the Colombo port is a hassle; so many documents have to be supplied (by the ship’s agent to the authorities) and there is also a tiresome customs check (no green channels). Some cargo/passenger ships call in too. If you are determined to come by sea, a good way might be as a crew member on one of the few private sailing yachts that occasionally visit Galle.
The port itself has very few facilities for visiting cruise passengers although temporary stands displaying souvenirs, gems and tea will be set up for the arrival of a cruise ship. Passengers are obliged to take a taxi into town (no shuttle buses) and the taxi drivers, who are hoping for full-day tours, are reluctant to take passengers on short runs unless tipped outrageously. However, it is worthwhile hiring a taxi in the port for the day as it will have a permit to enable it (and you) to get back in again. If you walk to the port gates (often a long hike) you’ll have to walk back again from the gates after your journey as outside taxis aren’t allowed inside the port. There are no ATMs, post office, IDD telephones or dining facilities available in the port.
There is a school of thought which suggests that when you visit a Third-World country, you should travel the way the locals do. The idea is that you will then experience life in the raw, as the locals do. In Sri Lanka, forget it. You are there on holiday, so why subject yourself to the horrors of the cheapest local public transport?
You see, if you do try to travel the cheapest possible way, you might be depriving a Sri Lankan, who cannot afford any other method of travel, of a place on that bus, or a seat in that third-class carriage. The argument that travelling by public transport helps the economy is spurious. You would be contributing more, and more effectively, to the local economy by hiring a car with a driver for a private tour.
However, the main reason for hiring your own transport is convenience. You will be able to see all you want in the short time you have available, and you will be able to stop whenever you want. If you are on a bus and see a pretty spring bridge or a couple of copulating porcupines you want to photograph, you haven’t got a chance.
Tourists on organised coach tours suffer in a different way; they are stuck with the stops decreed by the guide. His motivation often depends on getting his passengers to purchase something (overpriced spices, suspect gems, vulgar batiks) so he can earn a commission. It may be a strain on your holiday budget, or against the grain of your thrifty outlook but – believe me! – hiring an air-conditioned car with driver/guide is a worthwhile investment for a few days’ touring.
The opening in 2013 of Sri Lanka’s second international airport at Mattala, in the deep south of the country, has brought with it scheduled domestic flights (although not every day) by SriLankan Airlines with seats available on the international flights that touch down at Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport.
For travelling independently by public transport, trains provide the most enjoyable means of getting around. Buying a ticket is simple. You turn up at the station at least ten minutes before the train is scheduled to depart (or earlier so you can secure a seat if you are boarding at its originating station), go to the counter for second- or third-class travel (there may be a short queue), pay your money and collect your ticket. Reserved accommodation, booked no more than ten days in advance, is available on some trains.
Although the departure and arrival times quoted in this guide are based on the current timetable, intending passengers should check with the departure station for changes owing to rescheduling. There is a railway tourist information service on 011 2421281, ext 336. There is also an efficient timetable enquiry service run, not by the railways, but by the government (see www.gov.lk), which gives train times and fares. However, it does not list trains that go through Colombo (such as the Vavuniya/Matara/Vavuniya service) so some stitching together of connections and/or departures is necessary.
There are fast, daily Intercity Express (ICE) trains serving Kandy, Anuradhapura and Galle from Colombo. Colombo’s main railway station is Colombo Fort; the other station is Maradana, which is also a terminus for trains on the Coast line. Except where stated all trains have second and third class.
The dedicated bus traveller has plenty of choice, although it is confusing. Basically there are two types of bus operation. The buses that look like buses, with an entry at one end and an exit at the other, rigid seats, and a high roof with room for passengers to stand, are run by a nationalised concern in different forms. They are still sometimes referred to as CTB (Ceylon Transport Board) buses and are generally a grubby aluminium and red or yellow in appearance. Where I mention these in the text, I refer to them as ‘local buses’ since they are more appropriate for short journeys from one village to the next than for long-distance trips.
The other kind are private buses, mostly of the coach type, built in Japan, with padded seats including some which flop down in the aisle, and rarely enough leg or head room. Some of these are air-conditioned intercity buses running between major towns, which do not (well, sometimes they do) stop to pick up passengers en route. Fares on these cost more than on stopping buses. (On all buses be sure to collect a ticket or receipt of some sort when you pay; there is a fine for ticket-less travel, even if you have paid.)
The road network is good and extensive and the main highways are generally well maintained, although country lanes are very bumpy. By 2013, upgrading to most main highways throughout the country had been completed, although work was still underway on the A7 linking Colombo with Nuwara Eliya and on the A9 to Jaffna at the time of going to print. The opening of the (toll fee payable) Southern Expressway from the southern Colombo suburb of Kottawa to Galle has reduced the travel time from over two hours to just one hour. The country’s second expressway, linking the international airport at Katunayake with the northern Colombo suburb of Kelani, opened late 2013.
Not all minibuses that take tourists have good springs, which adds to the agony of a long journey along country lanes. Traffic and other police wear brown uniforms and will suddenly step out into the road and blow a whistle to order a vehicle to stop, either because of speeding or some other perceived traffic violation. The driver is given a charge sheet detailing the fine payable for the offence he is deemed to have committed and must surrender his licence. The fine has to be paid to any post office, a receipt obtained, and the driver has to go back to the police station nearest to where he was stopped and collect his licence. Very tiresome if the driver is stopped far from home and has to make another trip back just to retrieve the licence. However, there was a proposal mooted in 2013 for a system of spot fines instead.
In Colombo there are radio taxis and the major hotels also have their own cars, with hotel logo, for hire by the hour or by the journey (hotel cars have fixed-price lists and the fee can be added to the room bill for paying by credit card). The rate for taxis in Colombo (but bound to increase) is from Rs68 per kilometre, with a 3km minimum charge.
For short journeys around Colombo, a new service has been introduced using Indian-made Nano cabs: small mini cars. They’re a bit cramped if you’re tall especially in the back seat, but cheap and cheerful and more comfortable than the ubiquitous three-wheeler taxis. They are metered so if the meter’s working you’ll have a journey priced at less than a hotel’s hired car. In the resorts, the usual form of transport will be by private minibus that can be hired through the hotel for touring. Arrangements can be made independently and the drivers will usually have a fixed-price list for standard tours.
Colombo and all towns and villages have clusters of three-wheelers. Called a ground-helicopter in Hikkaduwa, this is what is known as a tuk-tuk in Thailand, or an auto, short for auto-rickshaw in India, and also a trishaw. They have three wheels and are noisy; breezy too since they don’t have side panels.
They can be hailed whenever you see an empty one. It is wiser, though, to look for one that is parked so you can agree on the price before boarding, as not all have meters (or the meter might be ‘out of order’). The official minimum fare will be Rs50. You can bargain if you have the energy; don’t bother to tip though, as the driver will include a tip in the fare he quotes you. Some drivers will tell you to pay what you think is a fair fare. You’ll soon know if you haven’t paid enough.
Tuk-tuks with meters are more easily available in Colombo where the first kilometre incurs a charge of Rs50, with subsequent kilometres at Rs32. Regulations were being introduced in 2013 for all tuk-tuks to have meters.