The $500 day trip

DSC_5256Experiencing some of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities was one of our goals during a month-long stay. Two of the outstanding examples are within day-trip distance of Trincomalee: the 9th century city of Polonnuwara, and the 1500+ year old fortress of Sigiriya. If you’re a product of the 80s (*cough*), you know these ancient sites- trust me! If your memory needs a jog, watch the Duran Duran video for “Save a Prayer.”

Climbing to our view of Sigiriya

So while we waited to embark on more extended touring, we organized a jaunt to the sites with two other boats, looking for good company…and, looking to mitigate one of the few really unpleasant things about Sri Lanka: how surprisingly expensive many things are, and the huge markup for foreign visitors. To fit both sites into one day we departed Trinco before sunrise; the silver lining was beautiful views as the dawn mist lifted over rice paddies (Ken & Christine from Code Zero, above).

We split to separate climbs at Sigiriya: Niall climbed the 660’ rock column to the ancient fortress, while Jamie and the girls and I did a hike, then boulder scramble, up the hill behind a nearby monastery for a stunning view back to the mountaintop citadel. Absolutely breathtaking.

The royal palace of a 5th century king, many details are lost to history. But among the stories that remain are fantastic tales: the playboy prince who walled his father up alive in order to assume the throne. A pleasure palace on the mountaintop, accessorized with swimming pools and highly sensual frescoes (a few restored on the walls). A dramatic ride into glorious death on his battle-elephant.

There’s a palace on the top of that rock! 660′, straight up…our view from another rock nearby.

Lunch afterwards was rice and curry in the home of a family that lets rooms out to visitors. There aren’t a lot of options for eating out in Sri Lanka: caught somewhere between a lack of income and a lack of restaurant culture. Rice and curry is a national dish, but we saw only minor variations on the same handful of curries during our month of travel here. Rumor has it that if you can eat in a family home, the food is divine. And so it was! This was unquestionably the best meal we had in Sri Lanka.

Our afternoon destination, Polonnuwara, is spread out over several kilometers. We wanted to get back to Trinco at a reasonable hour (and as our driver said, navigating the single-lane country roads between the two: these roads are dangerous after dark, when wild elephants wander across. Lo and behold, Jamie spotted an elephant in a pasture, not far from the road! The rest of us settled for peacocks, which quickly went from exotic to prosaic). But getting out of the countryside before dark meant we only had about three hours to explore the ruins.

To get the most of our experience and shortcut to the best of the sites, we hired a guide. Wiki was some of the best money we spent all day. I have to wonder if his nickname has stemmed from his encyclopedic knowledge of his country and this ancient city, for he truly brought the ruins to life for us. He could educate us on not just the facts, but the cultural nuances, and answered any question we put to him.

Wiki decodes another piece of Polonnuwara for our group

Lost to the jungle for hundreds of years, it’s slowly being excavated. In the land nearby it’s not difficult to spot stone colums, and the green line of a grassy ridge hiding more walls and ruins beneath, too straight to be part of the jungle’s natural chaos.

Departing later, our drived pulled over as we drove out past one of the grand reservoirs, engineering feats built by ancient kings to provide fresh water in uncertain times. There in the weeds of the waters edge, a lone elephant swished grasses to clean them and captured us all: it was the perfect cap to a day that brought our hearts closer to Sri Lanka.

Because one of the unpleasant surprises in Sri Lanka is that for a country with a low per capita GDP and GNI, it’s shockingly expensive as a foreigner. I call this the (almost) $500 day trip. In theory, it plays out like this:

  • van and driver: about $110
  • breakfast + lunch + snacks for our family: $60
  • tickets x 5 at historic site #1: $145 (kids over 11 get to pay adult rates, yay!)
  • tickets x 5 at historic site #2: $112.50 (dang kids. Too bad we can’t pass em off as littles)
  • local guide at each site: at your discretion, but excellent value- $60

That quickly approaches $500. That’s more than we spend in groceries for a month- our single biggest expense- for just one day! And yes, you could take public transportation- but that would be a three or four day trip from Trinco, not a one-day turnaround- not really any savings, with accommodation and meals.

Relaxing at the guest house after being stuffed full of amazing curries

Our lunch was actually a massive splurge, about $45, although we didn’t expect that at the time (lesson: get prices first! But then we’d have missed this unforgettable meal, which I don’t regret).

It’s the park tickets that really got us. Entry tickets are $30/adult for Sigiriya (and similar fees at Polonnuwara), and with 2 of our 3 kids aged at “adult” (12 and over) ticket prices. By contrast, local tickets cost pennies. Given average income in Sri Lanka, that’s understandable. And yes, the markup for tourists seems a little extreme! But you suck it up and do what makes sense for you. For us, that meant our intense history buff, Niall, climbed Sigiriya with our companions, while Jamie, the girls and I did a hike, then boulder scramble, up the hill behind a nearby monastery (cost: small donation to monks) for a stunning view back to the mountaintop citadel. Breathtaking! While I’d love to have climbed Sigiriya too, I don’t feel cheated.

With fixed costs for the transportation and a guide shared with our companions, that our day cost came down considerably. Dividing between the parks helped too. Ultimately, we spent a little less than half the $500.

Readers who know a good rice and curry when they taste it also know we love it when you read this on the Sailfeed website.