Friday, April 22, 2016

The Exhausting Journey to Dambulla, Sri Lanka

There are no direct flights to Sri Lanka from Manila. I flew from MNL to KUL via Cebu Pacific (Php 3,109.50 with 15kg baggage, one way) then flew from KUL to CMB via Air Asia (Php 7,678.26 with 15kg baggage, round trip).

The flight was delayed from MNL to KUL. Not a surprise. NAIA is getting terribly congested. I just had enough time to get my bearings upon landing in KLIA. I almost made it all the way to immigration before I realized I haven't checked-in my backpack yet. It was still two hours before my flight to CMB but they were already announcing the last call for my flight - two hours before departure time! I found the "last call counter" just in time. 

International Departure gates, KLIA

Just before landing in Sri Lanka, I pulled out a wide-band ring and slipped it on my left ring finger - my fake wedding ring for the next 7 days. 

After landing in Bandaranaike International Airport and getting my baggage, I headed to the arrivals hall and was greeted by five different banks all waving at the passengers. I checked and all the banks had the same forex rate. I chose the one with the shortest line. 

Conversion rate: $100 = LRK 143.50 (LKR = Sri Lanka Rupees). No commission fees. 

I kept the receipt just in case. I read that when you exchange your LRK back to USD, they ask for the receipt (they didn't, in my case).

To get to my hostel, I went with the cushy option and requested the hostel to arrange a private taxi to pick me up at the airport ($26). It was midnight and I was in a country where I knew solo female travelers were not completely safe. Found my driver after I got my LKRs and asked him to wait for a bit while I bought a local simcard. There are kiosks selling simcards just after the banks, not difficult to find. I went with Dialog because I read they had a solid signal. They had a pretty good deal for LKR 1,300, you get LKR 350 worth of call & text and 5GB worth of data.

You just had to fill-out a short form. The guys of Dialog inserted the sim card themselves in your phone then fiddled with the settings to activate the sim (something like that). Then you test if your simcard works. I had a dual-sim phone so that worked pretty well for me. I was glad I got my simcard before a flock of tourists flooded the Dialog booth to get their simcards. I guess Dialog is a popular choice. 

Kiosk of Dialog 

So I was finally in the car. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the ride but I just had this feeling of general unease. Part of that is because I read too much about the state of safety of solo females travelling in Sri Lanka. The other part, just because. I will call those feelings "female intuition". The driver asked me the usual conversation questions. Where did I come from? How long is my trip in Sri Lanka? Why was I travelling alone? Was I married?

In other countries, I would've answered all the questions truthfully and try to be friendly. But this was Sri Lanka, and I read that I had to take some precautions because there are just a lot of male predators out there. 

Some lies I told:
I was married and my husband was in a business trip in India for a month. I wanted to explore Sri Lanka while he was in India. My husband was a businessman (variations: he was a software engineer, visiting professor or medical doctor, depending on what came out of my mouth first. Lies are hard to remember anyway). No kids. I was meeting friends in Dambulla who will pick me up from Colombo. The taxi driver spoke pretty good conversational English. When I felt that he was asking me a lot of questions I didn't want to answer or explain further, I just shrugged and I sorta said I didn't understand English very much. 

I made the decision taking the expressway because he said it was fasted. I had to pay an additional LKR 300 for the toll fee. Fine fine fine. I was still paranoid when the taxi driver did not know where my dorm was. Seriously? Apparently, the taxis just get the call to pick-up the passenger and bring him to the hostel, but that doesn't mean that they know where the hostel is. We called the hostel using my sim.

Finally, I exhaled my relief when I saw the sign of my hostel: Drift BnB Colombo. I tipped the driver LKR 100 anyway. Tipping is Sri Lanka is expected. I paid the taxi fee to the hostel when I checked-out ($26). 

I was the first person in a 6-bed female dormitory. I had high hopes to have the room all to myself for the entire night. That hope was crushed after 30 minutes. A group of girls occupied the 5 remaining vacant beds. I'm glad I was done with the shower. They primped and prettified because they were going out to a bar to party. Oh well. It was 1AM, the party was just starting I guess. 

I was so tired from those two flights and being uptight & on guard upon landing in Sri Lanka. I had a restful sleep. I had the breakfast set at the hostel then asked for advice what to see around the city. I was looking for some souvenirs to buy but they recommended the pricey ones. Read through the hostel's safety guidelines. 

So I just went around in search for an ATM. I exchanged USDs the night before but I figured I should get some contingent funds and I was not sure about the money changers in the provinces in Sri Lanka. My ATM card (BPI) was not accepted in 5 local banks, even though they had Cirrus logos in their machines. I finally had success when I withdrew via HSBC. 

While trying to find an ATM, I was greeted by a man who walked alongside me. He looked and seemed decent and trustworthy. But I was cautious. He introduced himself as working in the hotel industry and said he could take me around Colombo if I wanted. he was working in the hospitality industry for 15 years. He offered out his hand, I didn't take it. I just gave a tight smile and said I have to cross the street right then. I felt rude =( But I wasn't sure if I could trust him completely. I chose to be rude rather than expose myself to possible risks. =(

There was not a lot to do in Colombo. Drift Bnb lists down the total charges in USD then converts them to LRK, then rounds them down because they don't have enough change. This was common in Sri Lanka. Frequently, they just don't give exact change. I knew beforehand to expect this but it was still annoying when it happened. But not in Drift BnB's case though. I kinda got a discount, I guess.

They erased the exact conversion and rounded down the amount.

At lunch time, I hailed a tuktuk to take me to the bus station that had buses going to Dambulla. The hostel advised me to get tuktuks with a "metered taxi" sign. I hailed one to take me to the bus station of the buses going to Dambulla.  

My driver was pretty nice, he pointed out landmarks along the way. I asked him about the buses going to Dambulla and he mentioned a lot of options. The buses didn't have a definite schedule, they just leave when the bus have passengers. I asked him to bring me to the cheapest option: a non-airconditioned bus. I was hesitant to ride an airconditioned bus because of the possible scent of that. And I was expecting the bus ride to last for at the very least, 4 hours.

When we got to the bus station, the meter read LKR 262.50. I handed out LKR 300 because I had no change. He didn't give me any change. He just took my money and pointed the bus going to Dambulla. Okay. Fine. He assumed his change is his tip. This is okay, fine. I guess it is just annoying that they assume immediately - much like the taxis in Metro Manila not giving any change.

Me at the back of the tuktuk

I chose to take the bus because a one-way car hire from Colombo to Dambulla was $103. Too much. I just hopped on a non-airconditioned bus and paid LKR 180 ($1.xx). The ticket says it costs LKR 174 but the conductor didn't give me any change >_< The bus conductor seated me in front and my bag was placed right under my seat. 

Before the bus leaves, make sure you've gone to the toilet and you have food. I bought a 1L bottled water from a vendor at the bus station for LKR 80 (good thing I had change, I paid the exact amount) and I had an emergency food stash. The bus did not stop for toilet or food breaks. Based on my research, the bus ride lasts a little over four hours. In reality, it lasted for a hellish 5.5 hours. Sri Lankan music was blasting throughout the bus and I had to focus on the music generated by my Ipod. Even with the air blowing in my hair, I felt humid. Traffic started after 4 hours because of road construction. I started sweating.

The bus ride was an adventure... a very scary adventure that I'd rather not repeat. I think I started to pray everytime to driver sped up to overtake another bus, on a blind side! My foot hits an invisible brake when I wanted the driver to slow down a bit. It was crazy. They drive like that all the time. I was also paranoid every time a man sat down beside me - I read horror stories of girls being groped in bus rides. I made sure my fake wedding ring was visible to my male seatmate. Thankfully, I did not experience any untoward incident.

If you can easily flush $103 for a bus ride, go hire a car. I was glad I got to experience that bus ride but I do not want to do that again!

FINALLY, the bus stopped in Dambulla. You have to pay attention because the bus just stopped in the road, not in a station, not in a waiting shed. I perched my tired, weary and sweaty self and heavy backpack in front of a closed loaning shop and called the guesthouse via my Sri Lanka simcard. He offered a free pick-up from the bus stop. After 20 minutes, my driver appeared. Hallelujah. 

Dambulla stop

The one who picked me up was Bandare, a father who owned the guesthouse, which is really his house and they were renting out a room. He was nice, friendly but not creepy. He owns Oasis Tourist Guest House. He brought be to the guesthouse to sign the log-book and rest a bit. I met a nice couple from UK who had worse fate than me: took them 10 hours to get to Dambulla from Colombo because they rode the wrong train then they had to take a mix of buses and tuktuk to get there. :(

I booked three nights with Oasis. Bandare said that he will place me in a different, newer guesthouse during my first night then transfer me to my real room for the next two nights. The problem here is that the new guesthouse was 500 meters away and did not have any dining facilities and the meals are still served in his house. He offered to pick-me up using his motorcyle. Oh well. I didn't want to complain, it was already a long day. Anyway, I think I got a deal because the other room was more new and quite big.

Bandare also offered the services of his cousin, who drove a tuktuk. I arranged for the tuktuk ride for my tour in Polonnaruwa the next day.

My room in the new gueshouse

I took a long nice cold shower to wash the grime of that bus ride away. Rested and settled a bit. Slathered on some mosquito repellent because the mosquitoes wanted my blood for dinner.  Bandare picked me up and drove me to his home and I got this:

I took a bite before I took a photo

A full dinner set for LKR 667.
I was glad to end the day with a full tummy

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