“Already notable to intrepid travellers for its mix of religions and cultures, its timeless temples, its rich and accessible wildlife, its growing surf scene and its people who defy all odds by their welcome and friendliness after decades of civil conflict, this is a country revived.” That’s how Lonely Planet describes Sri Lanka in their list proclaiming it the top destination for 2019. While that’s not what prompted me to go to Sri Lanka, I did have that hype in the back of my mind when I visited. And I gotta say, I was not impressed.
The neverending hassle of traveling in Sri Lanka
For being such a small island, Sri Lanka is a massive pain in the ass to travel around. Don’t get me wrong. It is very beautiful, and it has some truly wonderful sights that I’ve never seen anywhere else. The one resounding positive thing I can say about the country is that it’s gorgeous. Nothing can take that away from it.
The problem is that no matter your budget, you have to spend a lot of time en route from one place to another to get to see all that beauty. You could be traveling on the most posh private transport of all time, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to spend 3 or 4 hours traversing a bunch of small towns that all look the same in the worst traffic, with tuk tuks jerking in and out of the oncoming lanes, and giant colorful buses running other cars off the road. It’s not only annoying and tiring, it’s also stressful. If you’re driving through the mountains, you’re zigzagging around getting whiplash from the movement. That’s what you can expect every time you have to go from one city to another. If you go the even cheaper route and take one of those public buses, you can expect to spend double the time on your way on a bus with no AC.
I’m sure if I had stayed for one week on some picturesque semi-private beach at a resort, I would have had a fantastic time in Sri Lanka. But then I would have felt like I really didn’t see any of the awesome things the country has to offer. So you end up having to pick between having a nice vacation and actually visiting Sri Lanka. It’s not one of those places where you can comfortably spend all your time in one or two cities because the most interesting things to see are scattered all over the place. And the worst part is that once you’ve seen the one or two things in each region, you pretty much have nothing else to do except walk around generic, busy streets and shop for housewares I guess. Or stay in your hotel and lounge by the pool.
The overhyped “most beautiful train in the world”
A symptom of the growing tourism in Sri Lanka (and also a testament to how full of shit travel bloggers are) is the train from Kandy to Ella, frequently dubbed the most scenic train ride in the world. I don’t know how anyone can consider this worthwhile when you have a 10-20% chance of actually enjoying the scenic views. Otherwise you’re trapped in the aisle of a train with 15 other people and their luggage, and there’s no scene to enjoy except dirty windows and sweaty backpackers.
This is one of those things where the pictures of some influencer hanging out the open train door are way more interesting than the train ride itself, which is crowded, long, and unpleasant. We actually got seats and still thought it was overrated. I’ve been on a lot of trains in Peru, Switzerland, the U.K., Germany. I’ve seen a lot of mountains and trees from a moving train, and they’ve all been pretty. This train ride is nothing special, except in the fact that it’s the first time I’ve had someone’s swamp ass up against my arm so some dumb bitch could squeeze her ass onto my armrest.
I’m fairly certain I could dangle my legs out of a metal cargo train back home, and I’m also fairly certain I have no interest in doing so. This train ride that a lot of people consider an attraction in and of itself is definitely just another obnoxious way to get around that takes an hour longer than it’s supposed to. People rave about it because they’ve been told they should. It may have been beautiful once. Now it’s just a tin can full of tourists, with a good view only for part of the ride, and only if you have a seat on the right side of the train. There’s not a whole lot to rave about.
Sri Lanka requires an inordinate amount of planning
Before the trip, we had no idea what cities to visit. We cobbled together an itinerary based on information we found online and based on the sights we wanted to see. Our only goal was to avoid being there without a place to stay. But we had to spend the entire the trip researching the best way to get from one place to the other, weighing different options and booking transfers at least one day in advance.
Though Uber and Pick Me make it pretty simple to go in or out of Colombo, you’re basically on your own in other parts of the country. For example, if you take the train from Kandy to the tea plantations around Nuwara Eliya. If we hadn’t booked a car to take us back to Kandy in advance, we would have been stranded for the night three hours away from our hotel.
To further add to the hassle of being in constant contact with random taxi companies that you hope won’t scam you or drive you off the edge of a cliff, you end up making the same small talk with every single driver you have. They all offer to take you to the same places, even though you’re clearly just transporting yourself and your luggage to a hotel in another city. You can’t be rude because at the end of the day, it’s not their fault that you had the same conversation with 16 other drivers giving you the same spiel.
After a few days of that, I was definitely done. No. I have absolutely no interest in stopping to visit another fucking spice garden, the biggest ubiquitous tourist trap in Sri Lanka, or to see captive elephants at whatever orphanage is on the way. (Because FYI that “rich and accessible wildlife” is definitely getting exploited as hell by locals and tourists.) I just want to get to the place I’m paying you to take me.
The little annoyances about visiting Sri Lanka
Anytime you travel, there are going to be things you don’t like that you have to get used to. Dirty subways, pushy people, shower heads with no water pressure. Every place has its bad things. One of the things that makes Sri Lanka overrated is that those annoying little things are so pervasive all over the entire country. Like the fact that when I sit down to relax and have a meal, I don’t want to almost choke on a chicken bone that was chopped up and thrown into kottu.
If I order a fruit juice or a milkshake, I would strongly prefer it not be warm when it’s a thousand degrees out. Or the will it or won’t it work game you have to play every time you need to use an ATM. Walking around for 45 minutes in nasty, muggy weather looking for an ATM that will take my card is not my idea of sightseeing.
I didn’t have a single relaxing experience at a pool or at the beach that wasn’t accompanied by the sound of construction somewhere nearby and crows squawking in packs overhead. I think it’s nice that the country’s flora and fauna are well-preserved and thriving, but a murder of crows flocking all over the beach isn’t my idea of a tropical paradise. I definitely rather be somewhere with less noise, where the sunsets aren’t grayed out by the all the smog.
I don’t regret visiting, but I definitely couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of Sri Lanka. This Instagram darling is totally overrated.