Although the majestic beauty of world heritage sites in Sri Lanka made my trip here worth it, the choice in tour service almost cancelled out its allure due to an antagonizing and unprofessional car hire. After shopping around for a driver at the B&B, the beach, and even by way of a tuk tuk driver, my guy and I decided to go with a man named Niron to complete the second half of vacationing in Sri Lanka. I primarily based this decision on finances, which later proved to be a disadvantage. The driver seemed reluctant to show us some sites, which I suspect was due to his self-assigned low wage. To close in on the bidding war between him and other contenders, he insisted on matching the price of the lowest price given including “all the entrance fees, room and board, and all meals.” The day we were picked up at the hotel, he wanted to kick off the 4 days and 5 nights at 7am. I compromised and said 8am, which ended up being more around 9am after paying and starting off down the road. What I didn’t know, however, was that a lack of paved roads in Sri Lanka makes it difficult and time consuming to travel around the island. Although a recently constructed highway cuts the driving time from Colombo airport to the beach in half by two hours, going back North for Sri Lanka’s heritage sites takes a lot longer due to the only route being by way of unpaved roads.
Looking back at the 8 days spent in Sri Lanka (4 on the beach and 4 on the road), I recommend starting the trip with the Northern part and making your way down to the beach afterward. Also, after much research, I wish somebody had mentioned on their review of Sri Lanka how long tour trips should take. Before booking 5 days and 4 nights with the driver, I loosely planned seeing the elephant farm on the way to Kandy, Sigiriya (staying two nights in Dambulla), and the heritage sites in Polonnaruwa, but I soon realized Niron had other plans. On the second day after skipping the tooth temple in Kandy, driving instead to an herb garden, which was not what I expected, then straight to the hotel in Dambulla, Niron asked if we could be dropped off a day early in Colombo. This was after the money for the tour had been paid ahead of time and the itinerary left in his hands. Not only did his demeanor make me very uncomfortable, but it also dampened the mood for the duration of the tour. What I think occurred is after realizing that he had to pay the temple and site entrances to each location, at $30 each, the cost of the trip was becoming more a burden than a profitable business for Niron. He also insisted on speeding the entire time and sure enough, was pulled over and issued a speeding ticket at one point. Further, he stopped planning the day and left the responsibility of seeking the sites to us, being very uncooperative about telling us the “must-do’s” of the area, and letting us figure it out for ourselves. What I learned from this experience is to ALWAYS plan ahead, and do research if working with limited time and resources, especially in a very undeveloped area, that hasn’t been tapped yet by the tour powers that be. What should have occurred in a more professional exchange is to gather a rather basic idea of the sites in mind, outline and plan those on a day-to-day basis with a chosen driver, and then approach people asking for quotes. Besides the terrible situation with the driver, what sights I did see in Sri Lanka drove the magnificence and beauty of ancient Sri Lanka home. The itinerary completed on these 5 days, can easily be done in 3 days and 2 nights and should ideally be planned and prepped with the tour provider up front in order to maximize the benefit of private car hire in that time. My travel itinerary is as follows and amended to fit a smaller time frame:
Day 1: Elephant orphanage in Pinnawala; Tooth temple in Kandy; Some notable architecture in Kandy with Portuguese influences in the downtown area; Drive to Dambulla for accommodation.
Day 2: Rock temple in Dambulla, Golden Buddha temple (same location), Sigiriya (a huge ancient rock structure that can be scaled to the top).
Other things to note are that all these sites include a lot of walking and hiking. It’s a nice place to travel for young couples, or energetic friends, but with children not big enough to hike for hours at a time, it may be more difficult to manage Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. Keeping this is mind, make sure to always plan ahead with any tour operators to clearly outline plans. If you have limited time, a 2 day tour can give you my personal must-do’s: Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa.